Book review – Larry McMurtry – “The Desert Rose”

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I’m already on to my next series in my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project, having finished the Duane Moore series last month. Now I’m onto the two Harmony and Pepper novels. “The Desert Rose” was apparently the third McMurtry novel I read, from the library (presumably Lewisham Library) in March 1998; bizarrely, I don’t have a record of having read this copy, bought in January 2004, from Borders (presumably in London), I imagine with a birthday book token.

Larry McMurtry – “The Desert Rose”

(25 January 2004)

“That’s the nice thing about Las Vegas, though,” Harmony said. “I was never talented like you are, I was just pretty. Nobody would have known what to do with me anywhere else, but here I got to be a feathered beauty.” (p. 250)

It’s not clear why McMurtry has found himself writing a preface to this book only a year after its publication, but he talks about that process and then reveals that he wrote this novel in three weeks, while in the middle of writing “Lonesome Dove”! He was making glacial progress with the massive novel and was asked to write a treatment for a film about Las Vegas showgirls, which turned into this novel. But they’re not as disparate as you might think:

I have always been attracted to dying crafts – cowboying is one such. It became clear that the showgirls were the cowboys of Las Vegas; there were fewer and fewer jobs and they faced bleak futures, some with grace, and some without it. (p. 7)

Unlike my reservations about the Duane series, this novel is very firmly centred on the female experience, with care and respect and an understanding of the issues women face in relationships and the workplace. Much like in his other novel, none of the men in the book are much to write home about; even Harmony’s best friend and most stalwart support, Gary, is often snippy and critical, if good at making an apology.

Harmony works as a showgirl, standing on a disc and being lowered from the ceiling at one of the big Las Vegas shows. She’s done it thousands upon thousands of times; she’s no singer or dancer, so her job is to look beautiful and give of that beauty to the people in the audience, many of whom have carefully saved to get their week of glamour in Vegas. But she’s a dying breed: she’s coming up to 39 and is no longer the most beautiful woman in Vegas, doing photo opps with celebrities; her daughter Pepper, who is 17, is hot in pursuit, and she can dance.

Pepper is a bit of a one. Unlike the glacial Jacy from Thalia, she is off around, sleeping with boys and taking risks. Is she horrible to Harmony because she’s jealous, because she’s a teenager or because she’s just horrible? It’s hard to tell, though different people have different theories. On a weird assignation with her dopey boyfriend to have photos taken by some older guy, she finds a different way to live, expansive and expensive, high-end but muted, and forms a friendship with Mel (who I used to think was a lovely character but is actually quite creepy; also I am now older than him, which feels a bit weird).

So Harmony sits in her yard, feeding her peacocks and crying, but it’s not all misery. Completing the cast are the aforementioned Gary, dresser to the show, a gay man with a depressive side but very supportive; Jessie, the other showgirl-on-a-disc, lurching from crisis to crisis with her miniature poodle the most important man in her life; and Myrtle, who lives in the other half of Harmony and Pepper’s duplex and keeps goats (all the animals get through OK though one peacock is lost before the novel starts), a rackety older woman with a taste for yard sales and vodka who is also a repository of secrets. Pepper’s dad Ross is out of the picture, seemingly offering no escape from their precarious life and the poverty that comes knocking constantly, with failing cars, exploitative boyfriends and cancelled Visa cards.

When Harmony’s job is threatened while Pepper is offered marriage and a fancy job, will everything fall apart? This bittersweet, lovely novel, full of sunsets across the desert and the distant view of the Strip, offers a form of hope, though another precarious one. I loved it as much as I remember loving it before.

Are you doing the project with me? Are you planning to read this one?

Book review – Akwaeke Emezi – “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty”

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I’m really glad that I tried this book for myself and wasn’t put off by other reviews I read. With the impression that the opening scene was an offputting mix of sex and death and the central character a transgressive artist who worked in fairly grim media, I picked it up to check for myself before writing a quick note about why I hadn’t read it, and was instead drawn in by the rapid plot development, attractive characters and good writing.

Emezi has published two works of more literary style fiction before this and warns their readers that this is a “romance”; however, it ponders a lot of deep things and although it is at heart a novel about millennials finding their place in the world, it’s thoughtful and considered.

Akwaeke Emezi – “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty”

(11 March 2022, NetGalley)

There was a reason she’d fled from the garden that night, and a certainty that going on an early morning hike alone with this man was terrible idea. And, because Feyi was Feyi and she was alive, there was no way she could say no. ‘Four thirty,’ she replied, with a damned smile and a traitorous chill burning through her veins.

We meet Feyi having an anonymous hook-up at a party in New York, and she does at one point think of the car crash that killed her husband five years ago, but it’s not some kind of “Crash” mash-up of sex and death or anything. It is fairly explicit, and you might wonder why I’m OK with that in this book and not the last read; I can only say that the scenes are shorter here and seem to fit better with the urban and grittier vibe of the book (I’m not using “urban” as code for Black here, please note; the book is set partly among young artists and party-goers in New York rather than nice dog ladies in the South of France and the context does make a difference). She soon moves away from the friends-with-benefits gig with this guy and on to another person from his friendship group. Then her life changes when she’s offered an opportunity to exhibit her art in a big show in the Caribbean, goes there with Second Guy, determined to be her friend and not rush her, and meets his dad. Oops.

So yes, Feyi does sort of hop from man to man but she’s given morals and decentness and panic about falling for someone’s dad when she’s already messed around. The book is full of this angst and it is a bit millennial in that respect, but there’s also a lot of aspirational architecture and food, which is completely fair enough; who doesn’t want to read occasionally about high-end interior decor and amazing birds? The landscape is described beautifully and the supporting cast of characters from the art world are nicely and richly done.

The book is also diverse both in terms of the orientations of the characters (the two main characters could be described as bisexual but don’t describe themselves in any particular terms, there are a couple of lesbians and a gallery attendant who happens to be gay with no fuss made about it) and in terms of the different kinds of love portrayed. Although Feyi has had a sexual encounter with best friend Joy at one point, they’re loving friends now, sharing an apartment and all the details of their lives; Joy is a great conscience and counterpoint to Feyi and their video chats are hilarious, but their friendship is highly important. It’s made very, very clear that Feyi doesn’t need a particular man (or by implication woman) in her life; she has, and is, enough:

It didn’t matter how this went – it couldn’t matter how this went. She had a life in New York. She had Joy, and her work, and it had been enough before this, so it would be enough afterward.

Feyi is ambitious about her art, owns it and takes commissions on her own terms and the thing she really sticks up for when things get tough is her art, not her relationship; I loved this about the book. Her art is big and raw and about grief and hurt; it’s installation art rather than paintings and it uses unconventional media. It’s refreshing to have her discuss her art with a female curator and a female collector, both also with diverse Caribbean heritages, as well.

A good read, one step towards the literary from the straight romance genre still but nicely done by the author, and I would certainly read another of their novels, realising they’re quite different to this one. I’ve added my social justice – race tag to this to remind myself it’s an all-Black cast but there are obviously points made about societal racism, not wanting one’s art to go to an old White male collector, etc.

Thank you to Faber and Faber for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty” is published on 26 May 2022.

Book review – Lorraine Wilson – “Daisy’s French Farmhouse”

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I’m doing well with my light NetGalley reads while I work through the large tome of “Snow Widows” and here’s the next one I’ve finished. I will admit to giving up finally on “The Love Songs of WEB DuBois” – while it’s an essential work to have been published and explains both the effects of slavery as it happened and its legacy, it was a brutal and distressing read (I know I have privilege in being able to look away; I also need to look after myself to an extent). Also, “Why We Read Non-Fiction” wasn’t really about why we read NON-fiction at all, and without any introductory text or author bios, it was fragmented and not a smooth read, so I abandoned it. Onwards and upwards: I’m enjoying “You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty” more than I thought I would, given reviews out so far!

Lorraine Wilson – “Daisy’s French Farmhouse”

(6 May 2022, NetGalley)

First of all, I need to say that this is part of a series called “A French Escape” and because there are only two other couples in the book plus the one this one involves, you do get massive spoilers in the back history if you want to go back and read the others. So maybe read this fourth (two novels and a novella) to get the full story and enjoyment.

Daisy is having an unlucky time in England and asks to go to stay with her friend Poppy in France – she will help out in her guesthouse in return for board and lodging. The first chapter of the book is all her emails to Poppy, her unconventional gran, currently staying on an ashram, and her colleague at the hotel she settled for working at (this is the second book in a month where working at a hotel is something to escape from!). Off she goes, along with her special talent, which allows her to feel the emotions and previous owners of inanimate objects – an interesting addition to a romance-in-another-country genre book which gave it some more aspects.

Of course Daisy isn’t keen on getting into any more romantic situations and of course she immediately hits it off with a sexy widower, but she must play it slow and not upset him. Their relationship is portrayed nicely and his job as a document appraiser and hobby studying the history of the area – well-researched by the author – give opportunities for plot and more meatiness to the book.

Looking at other reviews, people seemed to take exception either to the number of dogs in the book or the very spicy and long sex scenes. The dogs were fine – sets of them belonged to different people, there were some excellent chihuahuas and nothing apart from some mild peril happened to them (there is some back story about rescue from abusive backgrounds that might be upsetting in the other books in the series). The sex scenes were a bit much for me, but obviously some people enjoy this aspect, and it was sex-positive with a confident woman with no hang-ups about her body or appearance, which was refreshing.

A nice summer read with some interesting added extra themes, but you would probably want to read the others in the series.

Thank you to Sara from One More Chapter for offering me this to read via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Daisy’s French Farmhouse” is published on 26 May 2022.

Book review – Emily Henry – “Book Lovers”

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Another fun NetGalley read and an appropriate title for my 200th NetGalley review (yes, I get a new badge; hope I’ve been able to upload it OK by the time you’re reading this). It’s even about editors, although more the developmental kind at a publisher than the line editing I do; still, it was lovely to read detail about the process as well as a sparky book that undermines the genre its in.

Emily Henry – “Book Lovers”

(14 April 2022, NetGalley)

But this man is mythic, the too-shiny lead in a rom-com that has you shouting, NO DAIRY FARMER HAS THOSE ABS. And he’s smiling at me. Is this how it happens? Pick a small town, take a walk, meet an impossibly good-looking stranger?

Nora is an editor in New York, the city she moved to with her mum and younger sister so her mum could get a chance to act, the city she loves like nowhere else – known as the Shark, since their mother’s death she’s concentrated on her career and her sister, acting like both parents to her and keeping a checklist any men she wants to date must conform to. Immersed in the world of books, she knows her tropes, especially the City Person Goes to the Country one – and she’s in fact been dumped four times now by city guys who’ve gone to a small town, helped save a struggling business and fallen in love with the owner’s daughter, etc. Let’s just stop to pause there and enjoy the fact this book cheerfully undermines those tropes, points them out and giggles at them – but kindly.

Charlie is a super-editor who can create a best-seller out of nothing. He escaped his small town in North Carolina for New York and hardened his heart when he knew he couldn’t live up to his family’s wishes for him. He’s a perfectionist with a heart of … gold, or not? Who knows if he’s got a heart. Nora certainly doesn’t think so.

When Nora’s heavily pregnant sister drags her to a small town in – oh, North Carolina – that’s the setting for her favourite novel (published by Nora’s client), Nora goes along with it but becomes suspicious at Libby’s motives for going out there for a month, especially when she overhears some fraught phone conversations with her husband. And then a certain editor appears. And then that same author starts to deliver her latest novel – all about a hard-edged literary agent in New York … and who is appointed as her editor?

Although the main couple are obviously leading towards each other, the way it happens is twisty and turny and there are surprises along the way. Charlie’s parents are a delight and the small-town world is caught beautifully. The absorption in the world of book publishing and editing is detailed and educative and the back-stories and motivations believable. I would definitely read more by this author.

Thank you to Penguin for approving me to read this novel via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Book Lovers” was published on 3 May 2022.

Book review – Clare Pooley – “The People on Platform 5”

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I was away at the weekend and thought I’d have loads of time to read, but in fact apart from the two longish train journeys I was busy seeing family, volunteering at parkrun, running, wandering around Poole and Bournemouth, or falling asleep ridiculously early, so that didn’t quite work as I hoped and I was a bit disappointed. I did read this one on the way down and finished it in the hotel room, and have finished and reviewed “Thrown”, finished “Book Lovers” and half-read “Why We Read” so have to tell myself I’m not doing too badly with my NetGalley May titles.

I really enjoyed Clare Pooley’s community-based novel, “The Authenticity Project” which came out in May 2020, so leapt at this one when I received an invitation from the publishers to read it via NetGalley.

Clare Pooley – “The People on Platform 5”

(25 January 2022, NetGalley)

We meet a cast of characters who commute on a train from the Hampton Court area into London and gradually find out about them as they find out about each other and themselves. There’s love, heartbreak, loss, protection, support and life changes to come through the book, and several of the characters aren’t quite as they seem …

I really liked how Pooley introduced the characters one by one, and the way we triangulated them by their names for each other, Iona, the sort of linchpin of the group, with her bright clothes and uncompromising attitudes being Magic Handbag Woman to one, Rainbow Lady to another. The cast is diverse, of different sexualties and ethnicities without it seeming like a box-ticking exercise, and kindness is prized above all other qualities. Everyone has an Achilles heel or what they see as a weakness, and I found nurse Sanjay’s panic attacks particularly moving (content warning: there are some details about cancer in his part of the story and another theme on early-onset Alzheimer’s, although all the depictions are carefully done and nothing devastating happens to a character we get to know. Should I say the dog gets through OK in this parenthesis? Well, you know I worry about that sort of thing, too).

There are a few hard-hitting themes confronted here: sexist bullying at school, toxic masculinity, ageism and coercive control, but again they’re all woven into the plot in a natural way. The plots are resolved nicely, not everything fully finished off but enough positivity and hope to make it a relaxing and reassuring read.

Thank you to Random House / Transworld for offering me a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The People on Platform 5” is published on 26 May 2022.

Book review – Daphne du Maurier – “The Scapegoat”

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I was so pleased when my good friend Ali of the Heaven-Ali blog announced she was doing another Daphne du Maurier Reading Week and I was lucky enough to be able to borrow one of the remaining ones I had to read and fancied (I’ve previously read “Rebecca“, “Jamaica Inn” and “My Cousin Rachel” for her 2020 and 2021 Weeks). I had a choice of a few but came back with “The Scapegoat” and what can I say? Another cracking read!

Daphne du Maurier – “The Scapegoat”

(April 2022, borrowed from Ali)

He was my shadow or I was his, and we were bound to each other through eternity. (p. 210

It’s hard to review this one without giving away the plot. Basically, an English gent called John with no ties or family and a sort of job lecturing in French history on a part-time basis for a university is wandering around northern France on his way home from another summer’s trip when he encounters his double! Next thing he knows, he’s been duped, tricked and drugged and is faced with the temptation of taking on a different person’s life – someone with a full life, living in a chateau with a large extended family, but also someone who turns out to be Not Very Nice, having led an idle life of minor cruelties, complete with wife and two mistresses, not engaging in the family firm; a wastrel.

Of course John could go to the police but where would the book be then? When family retainer Gaston appears with a car, off he sweeps to the chateau and what is surely longer than a week trying to work out who he’s supposed to be. And here du Maurier is her usual expert self at both instilling alarm and suspense and also at the details. How will John/Jean work out where his room is? What exactly did Jean to do ruin his siblings’ lives? Who are these gifts for and why? What happened during the Second World War, now 15 years ago, to divide the family?

Through a mixture of detective work, happenstance and having the truth shouted at him by various exasperated family members and employees, he works out what’s what and then starts to seek to change things – especially when a couple of events really shock him. Why does he do this? The chance to engage with a family, I think – he loves them, and he says he does. Only one activity of his goes wrong, when he thinks he’s being clever. When he acts out of a redemptive motivation, you begin to think his plans might work and improve matters.

Of course, all good things will come to an end. Where is Jean? Has he taken up John’s quiet life in London? Well, um …

The humour. and the justice, struck me at last. I had played about with human life; he had not. I had done my best to change his household; he had merely yawned and taken his ease. I had meddled; he had only spied. (p. 358)

I really could not work out what was going to happen. I wish the ending could have been different, but how could it have been, really (I see this is what I thought of “True Biz”, too, that very different novel: how interesting!). And who guessed John’s secret? Only those you would think might do. One weird thing I noticed was that the language read in a slightly stilted way I’ve noticed before with DdM which reminds me very much of the translation of Alain-Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaulnes” – more obvious here as it also treats ancient chateaux in the French countryside. An excellent read which I’m very glad was chosen for me!

What have you read for this Week? Have you read this one? Do link to your review in the comments if you did.

Book review – Sara Cox – “Thrown”

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A good start on my May NetGalley reads with this light, kindhearted novel from Sara Cox. I haven’t got round to reading her autobiography yet but I was drawn here by the pottery-making theme and the ensemble cast.

Sara Cox – “Thrown”

(31 March 2022 – NetGalley)

Sexual tension plus transporting breakable goods was a potentially disastrous combination. She carefully placed the finished pots on wooden boards ready to be displayed in the main room.

In a small northern town, we meet Becky, who runs the community centre on an estate of houses; she’s got a grant to run a pottery class and found a tutor, Sasha, who she’s worried will be floating and over-feminine: Becky has a lovely son she’s very close to and a no-good ex, currently in prison, who she’s frankly afraid of. All at sea having lost her mum so many years ago, she lacks confidence but loves the estate. Louise, Jameela and Sheila sign up for the course: Louise is stuck in a rut in her marriage and her job and wonders if her sketching hobby is enough to keep her in both; Jameela is mourning yet another failed round of IVF and Sheila has a depressed retired husband at home and a feeling she might not be as needed any more. Through the book – and the potter, Sasha, who is nothing like Becky feared, they each find their own strength and friendship.

The book is competently done, with the strands of plot hanging together well and the developing friendships believable. There’s a good vein of earthy humour where you can see Cox’s voice shine through: Jameela shouting about Le Creuset pans being a case in point. There is a lot of trauma behind the net curtains and I’d put out there a content warning for domestic violence and fertility struggles. Everyday life is realistic and entertaining, and I liked how most of the characters were a little older, giving a nice range to the book. There was one plot point I guessed immediately but was one you don’t necessarily find so much in popular culture now: I can’t say more without a spoiler but it was slightly odd.

But a decent feel-good read, I’d say a good holiday read, and a nice lot about making pots in it, too!

Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton / Coronet for making this book available to me in return for an honest review. “Thrown” is published on 12 May 2022.

Book review – Sara Novic – “True Biz”

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A really interesting novel from NetGalley here about the D/deaf community in the US – not an area I knew much about, either there or over here (I would LOVE some recommendations on books, fiction or non-fiction, on the D/deaf community in the UK as I’ve had trouble locating anything but expensive academic works but I know they must be out there). I did check with a friend who has experience with the D/deaf community in the UK and confirmed that many of the issues are similar to those in the US, the only difference being that the NHS provides cochlear implants and the relevant training and support, where basic US health insurance gives implants without support, from the book. We’re onto books I’ve finished in May now, although this was an extra one I picked up in March and published in April.

Sara Novic – “True Biz”

(25 March 2022 – NetGalley)

We meet February, the head teacher of a school for the deaf in a relatively run-down American city, the hearing child of deaf parents and bilingual in English and sign language, and Charlie, a teenager who’s transferred to the school after sinking at a mainstream school, de-languaged by the installation of a cochlear implant that’s never worked properly, without the accompanying high-intensity therapy that’s needed to navigate the world with one, while not having been allowed to learn sign language. Now she and her dad are learning ASL at night school community classes run at the school, while her mother still refuses to learn. Charlie and the other teenagers have the usual preoccupations with classes, lessons, friendships and relationships, all mediated through the various bits of tech that a person with a hearing disability need – from video phones to flashing alarm clocks to new apps.

The school is under threat and February’s relationship with her wife Mel deteriorates as she holds this knowledge to herself. Meanwhile, her mother, who is living with them at the start of the book, is becoming more overwhelmed with dementia: will a care home living with an old deaf friend of hers help? I loved that Feb just happens to be gay, just as Charlie’s roommate Kayla just happens to be Black – although their characteristics do throw up plot points through the book. I particularly appreciated learning about Black ASL and its origins and differences from ASL.

This was not the only learning point. The book is full of sign language lessons and exercises from presumably a textbook they are learning from themselves – although at one point, associated with a part of the story where Charlie is engaging in various risky drug and sex behaviours with her anarchopunk sometime high school boyfriend, we get an awful lot of interesting signs for various sexual activities (don’t look at these too closely while being a visual learner, as they will become engrained in your mind forever!). I liked the way Charlie’s experience of spoken and signed language is conveyed to us with dashes where she can’t understand a word, and signed communication is written in italics, spoken in plain type. The history of ASL is covered in boxes (I think this book would work better as a physical book than an e-book, actually, in layout terms) and current issues, like the apparent wish to eradicate D/deafness and its culture by implanting all babies or genetically engineering it out of them, and issues there around class and race, are explored through the characters’ lives and experiences.

I wanted this book to end on a more positive note, and was sure it would when a certain plot point happened. However, all is not light and positivity in the D/deaf community as regards culture and education, so this is more realistic. There were lovely points, for example when Charlie finally gets an interpreter in her implant appointments when she can understand enough ASL, and her dodgy high school boyfriend makes an effort to sign and be lip-read and is careful around consent. The different experiences of different kinds of people are explored with care and understanding. The author’s note thanks the Deaf community, of which she is part, and lists real schools that have already closed.

Thank you to Little, Brown for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “True Biz” was published on 21 April 2022.

Here’s a great review by Grab The Lapels, who has been immersed in ASL and Deaf culture for the past year and gives a view on the book from that valuable perspective.

Book review – Candice Carty-Williams – “People Person”

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I thoroughly enjoyed Candice Carty-Williams’ “Queenie“, which I’ve recommended and loaned to lots of people, and was eagerly awaiting what she produced next. I haven’t read her body-swap YA novel “Empress and Aniya” (yet) but this one popped up on NetGalley, her new novel for adults, and I was thrilled to win it and had even more fun reading it. We’re still reading about a Black woman in South London but this is definitely not just more of the same, but a fresh departure for Carty-Williams.

Candice Carty-Williams – “People Person”

(19 March 2022 – NetGalley)

Marley stared as his grandad, blinking his long lashes at him slowly while taking his face in. He reached his arms out to Cyril, who stepped back.

‘I don’t hug and dem tings dere!’ Cyril laughed nervously. ‘You teaching this boy to be soft, Danny?’

That ht Danny harder than any punch he’d ever felt.

‘Come on, Marley, let’s get you something to eat,’ he whispered to Marley, hugging his son tighter than he ever had.

‘Cyril.’ Tracy shook her head at the father of her son, disappointed. Not that she expected any more from him.

Cyril Pennington thinks of himself as a people person – he’s certainly a ladies’ man and he’s spread five (that he knows) children around a fairly small area of South London. Introducing them to each other when he feels they’re old enough to need warning off accidental incest, he then retreats to being very much the hands-off father, as his various exes are left raising the children.

Fast forward until Dimple, 30, the middle one, unable to control her leaking emotions, trying to be an influencer from her mum’s bedroom and taking all her self-worth from the men and audience she tries to attract, has a crisis on her hands in the form of an accident that’s happened to her boyfriend. She calls her oldest sister, Nikisha, the one who can cope with anything, and who is slightly scary with it, and Nikisha calls in (over-)chilled mixed-heritage Danny, uptight medical student Lizzie (almost Dimple’s exact contemporary and twitchy about that, too) and cheeky Prynce, Nikisha’s younger brother. Together they deal with the situation in their own ways, and the on-going chaos it releases.

I love the way all the characters relate to each other and their mums, staying in character and on-brand but revealing different sides of them as they go. Lizzie just wants to protect her girlfriend from getting sucked into it all (and her career), Danny has a murky past down to pure loyalty, Nikisha is a bit of a mystery still and Prynce looks like he might be going to follow in their father’s footsteps but does look up to Danny. I would have liked a bit more of Danny and Nikisha but that’s a small note, as I so enjoyed following the chaotic events in the novel, brought back together by set pieces at parties and funerals, the set of unlikely siblings with their little similarities having each other’s backs all the way through.

We finish with a satisfying epilogue. Characters have learned, points from current events are woven in and reacted to, but lives are messy and not everything is a learning point. Carty-Williams is a strong and very able writer, and I will read everything she writes, even though this veers on being a thriller / caper at points. An excellent novel and well worth the hype!

Thank you to Orion for selecting me to read this novel in return for an honest review. “People Person” was published on 28 April 2022.

Book review – Bonnie Garmus – “Lessons in Chemistry”

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Another NetGalley book and one with a lot of hype, like Candice Carty-Williams’ “People Person” which I’ll be reviewing in a couple of days, and, like that novel, well worth the hype. I requested and downloaded it back in December last year but I think I’m doing well to review books in the month they’re published; I have seen a few reviews already that I’m going to go back to now I’ve collected my own thoughts.

Bonnie Garmus – “Lessons in Chemistry”

(15 December 2021)

And then there was the illogical art of female friendship itself, the way it seemed to demand an ability to both keep and reveal secrets using precise timing …

We open with someone called Elizabeth Zott popping handwritten notes into her daughter’s lunch box some time in the 1960s. But Elizabeth isn’t your run-of-the-mill 1960s housewife (and she’d contend there’s no such thing) and her daughter Mad has benefited from a scientific training which has left her a second-generation uncomfortable genius not fitting in well at school. Add in a kindly neighbour whose life they change and a dog called Six Thirty who has an extensive vocabulary but no way to express it (and is still there at the end, phew!), and you’ve got a lovely cast of characters to follow through the book.

Like “The Group”, in fact, this is a bit of a #MeToo book, even though obviously the movement hadn’t been coined when it was set. We follow Elizabeth from school through to university, where her perceived oddness, bluntness and scientific exactness mean she’s a fairly lone soul. She can see the sexism in academia but is powerless to change it (this is illustrated by a pretty shocking scene of assault: this is not a cutesy easy read by any means), and she also finds this when she starts to work in a research institute.

Not keen to have children, who she knows will mess up your career, Elizabeth ends up with Mad but without the love of her life, Calvin, the also probably neurodiverse scientist who sees her scientific but also romantic value. Resourceful to the last, I love that she builds a lab at home out of her kitchen, while pregnant, and then we get lots of details of how she uses that lab as a kitchen.

When she’s on the point of leaving the lab for a second time, driven down by her sexist boss, she’s weirdly headhunted by Walter, a TV producer who needs someone to fill an afternoon slot and thinks she’s just the person to teach the nation’s women how to cook. So she does – but she also teaches the nation’s women how to think, do chemistry and value themselves, while fighting against the expectations from the bosses on how she will comport herself.

Meanwhile, female solidarity builds between both Elizabeth and her former enemy, the HR executive from the research institute and Harriet, the motherly neighbour with a horrible husband. This was a lovely theme and really well done. We can add to these themes a mystery about Calvin’s origins which is unpicked and solved by his resourceful daughter – this novel is packed full of incident but there’s plenty of room for character and it’s a feel-good read (with some wincey bits) that I heartily recommend.

Thank you to Random House for picking me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Lessons in Chemistry” was published on 5 April 2022 and is already being made into a TV series!

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