Book Reviews

Lean Fall Stand by Jon McGregor

Jon McGregor’s latest novel is a fascinating and beautifully crafted read. The book comprises three parts as what starts out as an Antarctic thriller morphs into an amazing and engrossing mirroring of the remote and solitary existence of the Antarctic to that of a subsequent stroke patient – both facing huge challenges and struggling with loneliness, endurance, understanding, discipline. To the consequent trauma of family and friends and the paths towards recovery.  An entirely different but worthy successor to Reservoir 13 and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. Published by HarperCollins; £8.99 Review by Valerie Church June 2022 Get your copy here.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

From the bestselling author of Convenience Store Woman comes a mind-bending, thought-provoking and occasionally stomach-churning novel about the constraints of society and the power of individuality. Natsuki has always known she was different. As a child, she believed she was a magician, watched over by Piyyut, an alien from the Planet Popinpobopia disguised as her toy hedgehog. Abused by her teacher, she escapes into her protective kingdom and uses her magical powers to survive. As an adult, Natsuki starts to realise that she too is a Popinpobopian and must  break free from  the slavery of ‘the Factory’ that her family and the rest of the Earthlings are consumed by. Natsuki must escape the world and her childhood trauma, but how far will she go? Murata pushes boundaries in both her subject-matter and her delivery to create a profound, witty and disturbing study on what it takes to achieve freedom. By Katya, March 2022      Get your copy here

The Manningtree Witches by A.K Blakemore

The year is 1643. Rebecca West exists uneasily in a world of mundane work and discomfort as the Civil War rages on. She resides with a mother she finds intolerable, mends and delivers for the townsfolk, attends church, and is taught to read by a man with whom she has fallen in love. The drudgery of her life is called into question, however, when Matthew Hopkins comes to Manningtree. Slithering into their lives like a snake, he starts a game of witch hunting that tears at the feeble community’s fabric and exposes women who don’t quite toe the dictated line. Rebecca soon finds herself the subject of Hopkins’s scrutiny, and must learn what it means to survive. Blakemore writes with delicious lyricism, shrewd historical insight and intense pathos to depict a society on the edge – and what it takes to topple it. By Katya, January 2022 Get your copy here

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

What is our purpose?  Where is true happiness to be found?  These big questions are at the heart of this hugely enjoyable gothic fantasy from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Piranesi, shells in his hair, wanders the great halls of his world admiring the magnificent statues, gathering fish and seaweed from the waters of the lower halls and tending to the 13 known dead.  He has one living companion, “the Other”, an other-worldly individual who will grant him an occasional audience, if needs must provide him with a new pair of shoes, and then disappear to who knows where.  But Piranesi is content.  The Other is his friend, the Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.  But is he missing something?  What do the strange long-forgotten entries in his early diaries mean? Where does the Prophet appear from? And who, really, is the Other?   By Simon, December 2021 Get your copy here

Sisters by Daisy Johnson

Sisters July and September occupy an insular world of their own. With an intensity that scares even their own mother, they set themselves apart from the mean girls at school, dress up in floaty outfits and play games that sometimes take a darker turn. Nothing can separate them. Something happens at school, though, and we join them as they relocate to a crumbling house by a desolate sea, trying to shake off their past. The story is largely seen through the eyes of July, who is both entranced and disturbed by her powerful sister and starts to question the hold she has over her. The house creaks and shifts around them, and the boundaries between dreams, reality and nightmare collapse. Daisy Johnson is the master of creating creeping, unsettling realisations that send electric chills down your spine. A poetic, gothic tale, this one might just keep you up at night. By Katya, November 2021 Get your copy here

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

In Calla’s world, when a young woman first gets her period her life is decided. Entered into the Lottery, you are given a ticket: white grants you children; blue grants you freedom. A blue-ticket woman for around twenty years of her life, Calla realises that freedom which has been decided for you is no freedom at all. And there is something else stirring inside her: a desperate yearning for a child. In a society of paternalistic doctors and judgmental eyes, we follow Calla’s perilous journey to achieving her deepest desire through clinical towns, wooded wildernesses and sinister motels. Mackintosh writes with dark and beautiful intent in this feminist fable, which examines the concept of choice in a dystopian world that feels uncannily akin to our own. By Katya, November 2021 Get your copy here

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

David, a young fisherman, sits in his boat, strumming a guitar and singing in the sea off the Caribbean island of Black Conch. His songs attract the interest of a mermaid, expelled to the ocean for thousands of years. Their meeting sets off a chain of events which will change both of them and the island’s community more than they can imagine. Monique Roffey’s Costa Award-winning, lyrical tale looks at perceptions of difference, ideas of humanity and transformation, and the line between myth and reality. Writing in standard prose, diary entries and poetry, Roffey immerses us in the minds of both man and mermaid and asks: what lies beneath the surface?  By Katya, September 2021 Get your copy here

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

In this latest novel by American literary giant Anne Tyler, we follow a few days in the life of Micah, a middle aged janitor-cum-computer fixer who would barely merit a glance from a passing stranger, but whose outwardly mundane existence disguises a person, a life and a soul as unique and complex as any other.  With wit, style and pathos, Tyler’s simple prose brings Micah’s real depths, weaknesses and strengths to the surface as he encounters  challenges variously thrown up by his difficulty in reading girlfriends past and present (or their difficulty in reading him?), his crazy family, his neighbours’ plumbing, the customers of his modest tech business and a teenager claiming to be his long lost son…  Tyler’s novel mirrors its main protagonist – on the surface slim and modest, but dig deeper and you will find real treasure.
By Simon, August 2021 Get your copy here

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

Solace is a town in Northern Ontario, complete with a handful of houses, one open café and an ugly library. It is also the town Clara’s sister, Rose, has run away from. Clara waits at her window every day, willing her sister to return, whilst a strange new man moves into her friend Mrs Orchard’s house next door. Who is Liam, and how does he know Mrs Orchard? Will Clara still be able to feed her neighbour’s cat, Moses, as she always has done? And when will Rose and Mrs Orchard come back? Written from the perspectives of Clara, Liam and Mrs Orchard, A Town Called Solace examines the connections made between adults and children, and is a quietly haunting, tender story of longing and escape. By Katya, June 2021 Get your copy here

The Midnight Library By Matt Haig

Nora Seed  is in a dark place, and it’s getting darker by the hour.  Job, friends, family, pet, all slipping away.  And it could have been so different.  If only she’d pursued her talents – swimming, music, science.  If only she’d stuck with the band. If only she’d persisted with Dan. So much to regret, so little light, so… what’s the point in going on? With his customary wit,  Matt Haig’s wonderful new novel addresses the heaviest and deepest of issues with the lightest of touches and asks, is it really the choices we make and the twists and turns of fate that determine our happiness,  and how might it be if we respond to these highs and lows with greater acceptance and less attachment?  By Simon, May 2021 Get your copy here

Rest and be Thankful by Emma Glass

The events of the past year have brought into even sharper focus the huge sacrifices made by those working in the healthcare sector.  This, the second novel by Emma Glass (herself a pediatric nurse), which was written before the pandemic unfolded, but has just been released in paperback, reiterates in the starkest terms the abnormal burdens which our doctors and nurses can carry even under “normal” circumstances.  The brooding and compelling narrative follows a young nurse’s harrowing efforts to keep on going whilst an ominous figure in black waits in the wings for the shocking finale… By Simon, March 2021 Get your copy here

The Thursday Murder Club By Richard Osman

Richard Osman’s bestselling debut novel is an absolute joy to read from start to finish, and the ideal companion for the chilly days and nights still ahead of us. Set in a retirement village in Kent, we are introduced to Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Ron and Joyce – an unlikely group of friends who meet weekly to discuss and attempt to solve cold cases. Their meetings have remained purely in the hypothetical realm until a murder takes place in the village, and the friends spring into action to aid and often surpass the police in their enquiries. Osman’s customary wit soars through the novel, with his brilliant characterisation and compelling plot twists keeping the reader guessing until the very end. Hilarious, clever and often very touching, The Thursday Murder Club proves Osman to be a wonderful new voice in crime fiction. By Katya February 2021 Get your copy here

How Much of These Hills is Gold By C Pam Zhang

“What makes a home a home?” This question runs through the core of C Pam Zhang’s Booker-nominated novel, set on the sun-bleached plains of the American West following the Gold Rush. The answer is desperately sought by siblings Lucy and Sam, whose Chinese heritage makes them outcasts from the society into which they were born. They travel through the unforgiving wilderness of America with their recently-deceased father’s body on their backs, in the hope that burying him will find them roots in lands which have shunned them for so long. In devastating prose Zhang meditates upon ideas of identity and belonging, charting the journey of two children trying to find their place in a hostile world. This epic adventure tale asks whether home is something we find in ourselves, in others, or in the very earth which we inhabit. By Katya December 2020 Get your copy here

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

One of our very favourite authors here at Book Stop,  Booker Prize nominated author David Mitchell has this time served up something quite different to his usual mind-bending metaphysical romps across space and time, with a wonderfully nostalgic and bittersweet tale of 1960s rock and roll.  Utopia Avenue form in 1967 and ride the tide of  social and sexual revolution to be on the verge of global success by late 1968.  On the way they encounter pretty much everyone in the business from John Lennon to Janis Joplin, David Bowie to Joni Mitchell, and for die-hard fans of the more familiar Mitchell genre there is also an intriguing metaphysical sub-plot referencing his earlier work and, in particular, the wonderful The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  This book is a lot of fun, but also ultimately genuinely moving and, as always, Mitchell has much to say about life, the universe and everything. By Simon, October 2020 Get your copy here

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Tracking the experiences of 12 characters, spread over time and place but all linked together in some way, Evaristo defiantly unpacks and dissolves the idea of the ‘single story’ so often placed onto black people, women, those living on the poverty line and members of the LGBTQ+ community, amongst many others. Her characters are so startlingly real and complex that they each stand before the reader, refusing to become subsumed into any stereotype we might consciously or unconsciously hold. Evaristo masterfully covers topics of abuse, sexism, racism, homophobia and more, leaving the reader feeling both educated and frustrated by the way society has been constructed. Beautiful, powerful and endlessly insightful, Girl, Woman, Other is a fast-paced exploration of multiple stories, and is testament to how no person, culture or place can ever be reduced to a generalised narrative. By Katya, September 2020 Get your copy here

Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout

Whether you have read the forerunner of this exquisite novel (Olive Kitterage) or not, this story of the lives, tribulations, highs and lows of the inhabitants of small town Maine is an absolute treat.  In a series of vignettes, with the indomitable Olive Kitterage at its heart, Strout’s portrayal holds no bars in uncovering the hidden underbelly of what is, on the surface, a genteel New England community. She reminds us that wherever we come from we have the same capacity for pain, loss and love and ultimately the same fate.  At once sombre, funny, sad and uplifting, this is American literary fiction at its best. By Simon, March, 2020 Get your copy here

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

Set against a whodunit backdrop, this existential tale of morality is something much more than a traditional murder mystery. In attempting to find a killer within a remote Polish village, our protagonist, Mrs Duszejko, uncovers the hypocritical core of society, presenting to us the horrors of animal abuse, the mistreatment of the older generation and of people considered marginalised, and the madness of the modern world. Although the novel is angry, it is also tender, with Duszejko’s continual reference to the poetry of William Blake testament to the endurance of the finer parts of the human spirit. In 2019, Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and rightly so, for she encourages her reader to view their world afresh, with newfound vigour and purpose. By Katya, January, 2020 Get your copy here

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy

Levy’s Booker-Longlisted novel is both a meditation on time and a deeply sensitive and affecting tale of memory, ageing and lost love, which reflects upon both the freedom and entrapment of the past. The book follows protagonist Saul Adler in two different realities, both centered around car crashes on Abbey Road. The first part of the book traces Saul’s trip to East Germany in 1988, following his collision in London. There he writes, falls in love and attempts to bury his authoritarian father’s ashes. The second part takes place in 2016 where Saul lies in hospital, recovering from another crash and surrounded by the ghosts (or are they real?) of his father, brother, Stasi agents and lovers… By Katya, December, 2019 Get your copy here

Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade

1st October is the fourth anniversary of the loss of the cargo ship El Faro in the Bermuda Triangle following her fateful encounter with Hurricane Joaqin.  In this compelling account, Rachel Slade, with the aid of  transcripts recorded on the bridge and recovered from the ship’s black box data recorder, pieces together the last days and hours of El Faro and presents an intimate portrait of the 33 officers and crew, the hardships they faced and the perils of a life at sea.  Her timely account also highlights the increasing unpredictability of storm systems in the light of climate change, the need for better monitoring and the tragic irony of government cuts to the very institutions which seek to assist in maintaining the safety of those brave souls who help keep food on our tables. By Simon, October, 2019 Get your copy here

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Welcome to the weird and (occasionally) wonderful world of Keiko Furukura and her beloved Convenience Store. Marginalised by ordinary society, and following a confusing and at times problematic childhood, Keiko finds it difficult to find her place in the modern world, until she stumbles accross the Convenience Store.  In this delightful fable of contemporary human existence, Keiko, with the guidance of the bizarre and repulsive Shiraha,  must make a choice – between her place as a cog in the global corporate machine ( “my hourly pay covered the basic requirement to condition my body so it was fit to take to work”) and the perhaps equally oppressive social imperative created by others’ opinions and expectations. A marvellous Japanese novel which will get you thinking. By Simon, August 2019 Get your copy here

The Western Wind By Samantha Harvey

Samantha Harvey’s novel of a 15th-Century Somerset village and an unanticipated death is an absolute treat. Following the investigations of the local vicar, John Reve, into the untimely demise of his friend Thomas Newman, this brooding, sombre novel set over 4 days in the lead up to Lent 1491 provides real insight into pre-Reformation rural England. As Harvey expertly explores the narrative in reverse, beginning with the events of Shrove Tuesday and working back to “the reveal” on the previous Saturday she also offers, through the story of the tormented and torn John Reve’s efforts to protect his flock, a fascinating and moving meditation on where lines are drawn between faith and superstition, belief in God and the Church, the “right” path and the good path. By Simon, June 2019 Get your copy here

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Recently reprinted, this is modern science fiction at its best – and with a twist.
The Three Body Problem portrays three worlds: that of modern day China beginning with the excess and horrors of the Cultural Revolution; that of the alternative reality which can be experienced by players of the Three Body game;  that of Trisolaris, the distant planet which the game portrays.
Through its absorbing narrative this novel explores its themes of history, philosophy and hard science in an accessible and engaging way whilst Ken Liu’s expert translation helps maintain the novel’s distinctly Chinese voice.  A fascinating read and first part of an epic  trilogy. By Simon, April, 2019 Get your copy here

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