Book review: Small Pleasures

Image of Small Pleasures - a book by Clare Chambers
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers – such a beautiful cover!

This book has been on my radar for some time, but when I listened to the author speaking on Francesca Steele’s podcast, I bumped it to the top of the TBR pile.

Small Pleasures is the story of Joan Swinney, a journalist investigating a claim of immaculate conception in 1950s London.

Joan’s existence consists of ‘small pleasures’ – she cares for her mother, tends her garden and writes tips for the local paper.

All that changes when she meets Gretchen Tilbury, who contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth.

As Jean investigates, she becomes entangled with the Tilbury family – Gretchen, her husband, Howard, and Margaret, the child at the centre of the controversy.

Small Pleasures is a slow burn – it’s beautifully written, tender and understated, with plenty of period detail and shrewd observations. It isn’t difficult to see why it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.

I was drawn to Jean’s character – she’s a pragmatic, down-to-earth type who perhaps finds it difficult to consider her own needs. The relationships in the novel are well drawn and moving, and whilst I saw the ending coming, it still packed a substantial emotional punch.

Lastly, I noticed that this book was featured amongst the “Most read of LGBT” on Goodreads. I’d struggle to describe it as a sapphic book – there are sapphic characters, but it’s not a big part of the plot.

Overall, a great read if you like a slow burn that examines the complexities of relationships and the possibility of a second chance at happiness.

Book review: In at the Deep End

In at the Deep End by Kate Davies

Julia has been celibate for three years and when the dry spell breaks, it isn’t anything to write home about, to put it mildly. And it isn’t just her sex life that’s lacking. No longer able to pursue her dream of dancing professionally, she’s stuck in a dead-end job. When she meets Sam, Julia is in at the deep end as a new lesbian – introduced to a world of gay bars, BDSM and polyamory.

I read somewhere that Kate Davies set out to write a version of ‘Girls’ for lesbians, and I think she’s realised her goal. Julia’s voice is unique, warm, hilarious and utterly relatable. Whilst the sex, drugs and parties are all plentiful and no holds barred, the voyage of self-discovery in this novel goes far beyond sex and sexuality. It’s a nuanced and at times heart-rending exploration of the intensity of first loves, coercion, guilt and jealousy.

The changes in Julia’s life touch every corner of it – from her relationships with her family to her job, her past and her ambitions for the future. We see a woman not only getting to grips with a new understanding of her sexuality, but settling into a life which is altogether changing shape to meet the person she is becoming.

This book is as frank, filthy and funny as billed and I read it in a couple of days flat. An abundance of laugh-out-loud moments, a rounded cast of characters and a tangled central relationship is a winning combination that kept me coming back for more.

Book review: That Green Eyed Girl

Book cover: That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan
That Green Eyed Girl by Julie Owen Moylan

It’s 1955 in New York and school teachers, Dovie and Gillian, live together in a small apartment on the Lower East Side. Out of necessity, their private life has always been a closely-guarded secret… until now.

Twenty years on, young Ava Winters lives in the same apartment, struggling to cope with her mother’s deteriorating mental health, without much help from her absent father.

One morning, Ava’s mother disappears and Ava receives a parcel. It contains, amongst other things, a photo of a woman with the word ‘LIAR’ scribbled across her face.

In a bid to escape from her own difficulties, Ava tries to track down the apartment’s former occupants in a bid to discover what happened.

This book was beautifully written, gripping and immersive – I think I devoured it in two or three sittings, which is no mean feat when you have small children.

I loved spending time in Gillian and Dovie’s world. The characters were immensely relatable across time and geography and the historical setting was well realised, from smoky jazz clubs of 50s New York to a quiet Parisian apartment.

At risk of spoilers, I feel obliged to point out that this book couldn’t be categorised as a romance. It had a Hardy-esque inevitability of tragedy, with a happier outcome close enough to touch, but constantly slipping from reach. The two women’s happiness at the beginning feels like a vignette with something heavy already creeping around the edges, and the book is taut with tension throughout.

It’s really exciting to see a f/f book in the mainstream, and as a major title for Michael Joseph this year. Long may this trend continue!

Book review: Tell Me Everything

Book: Tell Me Everything by Laura Kay

I’m a big fan of Laura Kay’s writing. I really enjoyed her first book, ‘The Split’ and liked this latest one even more.

 ‘Tell Me Everything’ is a sapphic story set in Brighton. I hesitate to call it a rom-com, because it treats so much more than the romance.

Natasha is a therapist – but despite how it may appear to her clients, she doesn’t have her life together. She’s still living with her ex, Georgia, and it’s beginning to get messy. Then she meets the free-spirited, capricious Margot, who makes her question where she’s going in life and what she’s looking for.

She is surrounded by family (her twin sister, Natalie and friend, Charlie are great cameos) but troubled by issues from her past that she’s never fully addressed. When Natasha’s friends take her on holiday to the States, she has the chance to heal old wounds and discover what’s important to her.

What I loved most about this book? First, I didn’t know who was going to end up winning Natasha’s heart, and really enjoyed that unpredictability. And second, Natasha is an adorable character who doesn’t realise how lovable she is. Conveying that whilst maintaining a single viewpoint (Natasha’s) is no mean feat, and from a writerly perspective, I was taking notes!

This novel has Kay’s trademark blend of comedy, lump-in-throat moments and plenty of tension. There’s so much warmth in the writing. Kay is gifted at creating characters you just want to spend time with, and in writing f/f fiction that’s upbeat but not fluffy, moving but never maudlin. Bring on the next book!*

My thanks to Laura, Quercus and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

*Ooh… Wild Things by Laura Kay is out next year and you can preorder here.

Book review: So Happy For You

When I started this book, I thought we were in romance territory and that I knew exactly where it was heading. Wrong on both counts!

The exciting thing about So Happy For You is that it’s lesfic that gets to be something else – part thriller, part dystopia, perhaps. I’ve seen some apt comparisons to Black Mirror.

The book is set in a misogynistic near future in the US, where the government incentivises marriage and severely limits abortion. (So far, so real.) Women are ‘leftovers’ in their late 20s and ‘rotten’ by their 30s. Then there are the ‘wedding charms’, the weird hazing-esque rituals that brides undertake to ensure the success of their wedding, and future fertility.

Robin, the main character, doesn’t buy into any of this – in fact, she roundly rejects the institution of marriage and is happy with her partner, Aimee. But Ellie, Robin’s best friend since childhood, is getting married, and she wants Robin to be her maid of honour. Robin is torn between her principles and her loyalty to Ellie.

As the wedding approaches, Ellie’s behaviour becomes bizarre, to say the least. The book gets dark quickly, and the second half is a weird, wild rollercoaster that kept me hooked. I honestly didn’t know what was coming next.

I really liked Robin, though she’s probably a ‘Marmite’ character. She’s witty, with a dry sense of humour, and a vulnerability which manifests as cynicism. Her ‘coming out’ story is addressed in the novel, but it’s not central to the plot. I really warmed to her and found myself rooting for her throughout.

This was a rip-roaring book that manages to do humour, satire, gut-wrench and edge-of-the-seat thriller… sometimes all in the space of a few pages. It’s refreshing to see lesbian fiction that’s permitted to be outside-the-box and genre-bending. I’m definitely off in search of more Celia Laskey.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC in return for an honest review.

We grieve because we love: why the end is so much harder than ‘The End’

I’ve never actually typed ‘The End’ on a manuscript. Maybe it feels too much like tempting fate to me, especially on a troubled first draft. Like, the more pronounced my certainty and celebration, the more work there will be to do when the edits come back.

‘Finishing’ this time (oh God, I typed it) was harder than before. There was a brief sense of accomplishment, but it didn’t feel enough to justify the amount of work I’d put into the manuscript, and then a terrible sense of loss and dread swept in, and I can’t remember feeling to such an extent before.

I’ve been trying to work out why. What it might mean about my manuscript, or my writing.

It feels a lot like grief.

I’ve lost a world that grew around me and people I had come to love. And of course, I’ve surrendered that perfect vision of what it might have been, if only I were Julie Cohen or Maggie O’Farrell or Sarah Waters.

Not to mention I’ve spent too long in its company now, and as we all know from months of lockdown, that’s an uncomfortable feeling to have about a loved one.

We need a break, me and my manuscript, but that break is going to change us. It has to be read now, and all its faults exposed. (I’m so very aware of its many faults, I had to stop myself listing them point by point in a caveat to my agent.) It’s no longer my own, and that’s not only a letting go, but a letting in… It’s dangerous and scary and exposing.

But there’s more this time around. We’re all already grieving right now, aren’t we? So this is grief on top of grief. This time, when the world I’d written went ‘pop’, my escape hatch closed. I’ve lost the land at the top of the ladder I could climb when the news was all too much.

When you’re grieving, it’s tempting to try and seek out that intimacy in any way you can, knowing (but wanting to forget, each time grief strikes) that it will never be the same.

Starting a new project now is ill-advised. I’m tired. Burnt out. Other responsibilities are calling.

Besides, it won’t be the same. It mightn’t be less, but it won’t be those characters, that world. I dreamed of them. I breathed them. They fed me lines. In the shower, in the car, at the school gates. Anywhere I couldn’t easily write them down, the little bastards.

Now I’ll have to find new loves, write them wrong, dig my way out of one plothole and into the next. Rewrite, rehash, replot, rethink. Relive the frustration and then, with any luck, the limerence.

And then, when I’m finding my way with them, it’ll be time to revisit the old and I’ll rush back to that world I knew so well, with open arms and renewed energy.

Straighten the timeline, bend the arc, drop a hint.

Shift their table into the kitchen.

Make it rain.

Saying goodbye is hard. Starting again is harder. But I love it, all of it. And we grieve only because we love.