Tag Archives: Book Reviews

The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith/JK Rowling

Well, amateur psychologists would have a field day, wouldn’t they?

Noted Twitter rabble rouser, JK Rowling, also known for writing the Harry Potter novels, has realised a sixth Cormoran Strike novel The Ink Black Heart under her gender swap pseudonym Robert Galbraith, because it’s okay for her to cosplay a male army veteran. She’s making the rules around here and will set her flying Twitter monkeys on anyone who disagrees.

Anyway, JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s latest murder mystery focuses on the murder of Edie Ledwell, the co-creator of a popular internet cartoon who has been subject to doxxing by a fandom turned toxic after the cartoon sold rights to Netflix with a film in development. At the heart of the fandom is an anonymous user, Anomie, who openly admits to the murder within the game, but cannot be identified in the outside world. To complicate matters further, Anomie appears to be working with a misogynistic white-supremacist terrorist organisation, The Halvening, with the stated public aim of bringing down prominent left-wing women, and they now have Strike’s partner Robin Ellacot in their sights.

My views on the views of JK Rowling aside, the Strike books are generally entertaining reads, engaging murder mysteries with an engaging cast of characters, but they all suffer the same fundamental problem – a lack of red pen action from the editor. This is the longest novel in the series to date, and it was filled with subplots and incidents which I felt detracted from the main novel. I’m conscious that Strike’s sister Prudence, Isla’s pregnancy, Strike’s diet and, who knows, even Robin’s new pot plant, might be setting up plot lines for future novels but a lot of this felt like filler in an already long novel.

At the time of the novel’s release, I saw a lot of commentary complaining the book was “unreadable” because a decent proportion of the story is told through chatroom logs. I read these in eBook format and found them easy enough to follow side by side, though I then found that these had been repeated again sectioned chat by chat  out of chronological order which didn’t detract from the novel for me, definitely not to the extent that I would call it unreadable. If anything, I thought this was one of the stronger parts of The Ink Black Heart, with a feel of Janet Hallett’s The Appeal to the moderator chat logs.

I felt a bit jaded by the Strike/Robin dynamic in The Ink Black Heart, and particularly the character of Strike who seemed to have transitioned from gruff but quietly noble in previous novels to a bit of a sad old man in this novel. At the ripe old age of forty, he’s clueless about how YouTube and Twitter work and delegates handling research on these to Robin rather than get his head round it. He starts a relationship with a woman who looks a bit like Robin to distract him from his feelings for Robin – there was a particularly nihilistic quote along the lines of aren’t we all using each other where he’s mentally justifying this to the woman in question which I’ve forgotten to bookmark. The sections of the novel focusing on him planning his diet while Robin does the grunt research further amplify this, and the novel had a feel of Robin doing all the leg work while Strike gets all the credit.

It’ll be interesting to see how they adapt The Ink Black Heart for the BBC series Strike, which made quite a few changes to Troubled Blood, the last Strike novel in the series. The extensive chat logs in themselves could be tricky to adapt to screen. Some further thoughts on the book are below but contain spoilers for The Ink Black Heart…..




Spoilers for The Ink Black Heart

As I mentioned earlier, amateur psychologists will no doubt have had fun picking this novel apart. I’m not sure if it was intended as a witty riposte to the haters, but I found the description of the fandom and culture of communication around it quite ickily telling.

Within the toxicity of the Ink Black Heart fandom, there’s a “voice of reason” critic who blogs under the lofty pseudonym The Pen of Justice. The Pen is “wokeness” in the fandom, writing about issues of race, antisemitism, gender identity, ableism that appear within the cartoon (note these are all aspects of the Harry Potter series that have been critiqued widely on social media by fans). Naturally, JK Rowling decides to make the character highlighting these issues a paedophile, so yeah JK, let us know how you really feel about people saying the Gringotts goblins peddle in antisemitic tropes…

There’s been a lot of “the novel isn’t transphobic, but” commentary around The Ink Black Heart. It’s not my place to say what constitutes transphobia, but I don’t doubt JK Rowling was aware of the echoes of her transphobic dogwhistle when she wrote a male character who poses as a female character to catfish, control and ultimately murder a vulnerable “good” character.

Ableism is something that Rowling mentions a lot in the novel, and I couldn’t help but feel that the disabled characters were ranked on a scale of legitimate disability to illegitimate disability. So Strike with his amputation, manfully ploughing on with surveillance despite the damage he was doing to his body ranks high on her legitimate scale. Morehouse with cerebral palsy, off screen and shut away for the majority of the novel except when his murdered body was displayed, legitimate disability with the polished halo of being a child genius at the same time. Meanwhile characters with less visible disabilities like ME like Kea and Inigo are little more sophisticated than poison pen portraits of characters, and don’t get me started on of course the murderous would be rapist has a facial disfigurement….

I thought the inclusion of Drek’s Game was very interesting, a fan tribute to the cartoon which turns ugly when the creator says it wasn’t quite what she had in mind. I wonder how informed that was by Rowling’s experience of the Harry Potter fan culture that sprung up in the early days of the internet. I have vivid memories of playing a fan made sorting hat and subscribing to a fan run Daily Prophet as a young teenager… so long ago now.

Never Greener by Ruth Jones

The book Never Greener by Ruth Jones lying on a patch of green grass and daisies which echo the daisy on the book cover.

Whisper it, but sometimes the joy of reading is being able to rubber neck as characters make disastrous lifestyle choices and sit in judgement of the fallout. Never Greener by Ruth Jones was a book that allowed me to indulge these tendencies to the full. My friend passed the book on to me, and by page 11 I was already texting her to express my absolute contempt for the behaviour of the main characters. She got regular updates condemning them until I finished the book.

Written by that Ruth Jones (of Gavin and Stacey fame, aka the woman people did impressions of at me for like my first three years living in England), Never Greener tells the story of Kate Andrews, an actress who had a passionate affair with a married man, Callum, before finding success as an actress and trying to move on from the fallout. Seventeen years later, Kate and Callum meet again, and of course, faced with the choice of restart the affair or leave it well alone they make the bad choice with consequences for everyone around them.

You always see bookish people sneering at the concept of unlikable characters putting people off a book, but I know what people mean. If you don’t care about the characters, how can you be invested in the story? In Never Greener, Ruth Jones has been very clever with this because even though I was quick to text my friend that the main characters were an absolute bunch of b***ards, as a reader you become very invested in how things will play out because of the more likeable innocent bystander characters.

It’s easy to wonder whether Ruth Jones based the character of Kate Andrews, actress and raving narcissist on a real actress, but I wondered the same about the character of Callum MacGregor, as the rugby lad past his glory days who can’t keep it in his trousers is such a familiar town trope, if you will, in Wales that transposing the characters to Scotland doesn’t stop you feeling like it might be someone that you know. Ruth Jones’ storytelling chops are clearly on display as the unfair unfolds, and indeed unravels, it’s hard to put the book down.

Never Greener lives up to the title as something of a modern day fable, and is a great read for one of those nights when you feel the need to put the world to rights. The downside for me is that the male character, typically with these things, seems to come across better than the female even though in the early stages of their relationship at least the balance of power and responsibilities lay with him, but no book is perfect and I did like how this played out.

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

“When you find them, you’ll see that Twyford wrote in a particular way. A very simple way. She’s an unchallenging read on every level. No subtext. No depth. No hidden meanings.“

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Janice Hallett, author of The Appeal and Queen of the Unreliable Narrator is back with another mystery novel in which she does it again, and I would argue that The Twyford Code is even more enjoyable than The Appeal.

Steven Smith has just been released from prison a long prison sentence. He’s attempting to rejoin society and get his life back on track, but is haunted by the disappearance of his teacher Miss Isles forty years ago after she noticed a code in a children’s book he brought to school. Armed with a mobile phone his estranged son gave him, he records an audio diary of the investigation. What did happen on the day Miss Iles went missing? What are the other members of his remedial English class trying to hide from him? And is it possible that there really was a secret code hidden in the novels of prolific children’s author, Edith Twyford?

Much like Janice Hallet’s previous novel, The Twyford Code plays with the potential of technology as a story telling medium, and the novel opens with a letter from an Inspector Waliso to a Professor Mansfield, sending automatically generated transcripts of 200 deleted audio files which have been recovered from the phone of a missing person, asking for the Professor’s professional opinion of the content and hinting at a relationship between the Professor and the missing person.

These transcripts form the core narrative of the novel as Steven Smith records his attempted investigation, and they give us a chance to really get to know Steve’s character and life story as he covertly interviews his former classmates; reminisces about his childhood and how he fell in with the criminal gang that saw him sent to prison; reflects on how he discovered he had a child; and of course hunts down clues to help him solve the mystery of Miss Iles disappearance. The transcripts are at times farcical: as he wades in to a university to interview a university professor who is an expert in Edith Twyford for the book he’s writing at times poignant; as he remembers how he used to love walking home from the pub with his emotionally remote father because he’d sometimes hold his hand and pick him up…. But all the while it’s clear that Steve is right, something odd is going on, and as two men in black keep showing up, it begins to look as though someone is trying to stop him finding out the truth about Edith Twyford.

I’m going to keep what I say here brief for those who haven’t read The Twyford Code, with spoilers clearly marked for those who have, but I would definitely urge you to read it if you do like a mystery novel or if you enjoyed Janice Hallett’s earlier novel The Appeal.

Spoilers below….











Spoilers for The Twyford Code, you’ve been warned!

Aaaaah Janice Hallett does it again, completely wrongfoots you with an unreliable narrator. I was initially getting a bit annoyed about the shifting balance between the Twyford Code investigations and the memories of life with the Harrison gang and the heist, but then bam! Brilliantly done.

Once again Janice Hallett uses the unreliable narrator/one of these characters doesn’t really exist trick, this time instead of a character emailing an imaginary friend, it’s Steve playing the character of Lucy they sympathetic librarian who is the only character who seems truly kind to him in the novel and evokes a lot of pity except….

Except that’s clearly not the case is it? He’s still close enough with his friends from the remedial English class after forty years that they’re willing to help him build the whole cover story and frame the crooks who framed him. Unusual to stay so close after forty years, especially when one of the remedial English gang has actually joined a criminal gang and been imprisoned for murder during that time.

Speaking of murder, that’s a heck of a cheeky puff on the cover, “Time to solve the murder of the century”. I don’t think there was a murder to solve in the book as such. Miss Isles was fine, Colin confessed to killing his father who had in turn confessed to killing their mother, and Steve witnessed the murder of John Harrison, unless the murder was of Werner Richter the German spy, but again, less a murder to solve, more the execution of a spy during wartime and clearly known to those in the know… though I’m not sure what the Geneva convention has to say about that kind of thing. Maybe it’s Steve Smith’s figurative murder of his former self and his disappearance to a new life that’s the murder? I’m not complaining, I loved it.

In the world of the book, Edith Twyford is a real life character who existed (though clearly based on the prolific work of Enid Blyton during the same period, her works are similarly updated). Professor Max Mansfield, aka Steven Smith’s son says that he’s ordered some of her books to look for the cats and codes mentioned in the transcript but also confirms that the co-ordinates for the locations of the banks mentioned correspond to the information in the transcripts. The photographs exist with the visual clues that Steve apparently interprets in the transcripts, and Werner Richter was a real figure who was missing in action which is one hell of a coincidence if you’re writing a retrospective story to hide clues to treasure for your son.

Which is to say, although at the end Operation Goldfish is a secondary concern to Steve’s Heist and the Masquerade/Twyford code style treasure hunt that Steve Smith disguises in the transcripts to allow Max to collect clean untraceable gold, I think in the book it really happened. Especially in light of Miss Iles’ fancy house with the fish. Yes, it’s hinted that it’s a game that they made up in their literacy lessons but at the same time, “Take heed everyone. Trust what you find out. Right Doesn’t Come of deceit. Everything is spoken. Always love in vain. Each time of day answers you.” Thetwyfordcodeisalivetoday. She definitely found the gold from operation goldfish, didn’t she?

Speaking of right doesn’t come of deceit…. Guilt tripping your son into thinking you’ve been murdered by a criminal gang to persuade him to read your emotive life story is a crash course in toxic parenting isn’t it? An incredibly clever father is on the one hand sending instructions to his incredibly clever son to help him find the assets he’s hidden for him to give him the chance to provide for him, but at the same time it’s more than a little forked up to create a heroic narrative through those transcript files to guilt him into not having met with the doting father who is so proud of his boy throughout the book….“It’s emotional truth that matters. Little Smithy couldn’t read, but he knew a good story when he heard one.” It might be emotional truth that matters, but what about the effects of that emotional truth on the person (in this case your child who has experience more than a little emotional disruption as a result of the parent’s actions….)

“You must understand that two people may have different memories of the same thing. And both are correct.” That’s a quote just begging an undergraduate exam paper of dissertation based around unreliable narrators and witness testimony in modern novels isn’t it.

I got the impression that the book was part inspired by the Masquerade book and associated hunt for the Golden Hare that The Twyford Code references. This book is also real in our world as well (I had to google, it was before my time!) and you can actually find it to buy today. I loved the idea of this kind of mass national treasure hunt, it would be amazing if an enterprising publisher would do the same today.

Run Rose Run by Dolly Parton

She could feel the crowd’s new attention. Her fingers flew over the strings, and by verse two she was belting out the song at the top of her lungs. She sang for joy, and she sang as if her life depended on it.

Because, she knew, it did.

Run Rose Run by Dolly Parton and James Patterson

I grew up on the music of Dolly Parton, my Dad would play her records as my bedtime lullabies back when vinyl was the norm, and my mother liked her songs so much that she called my sister Jolene. When my partner was sniffy about my niece having the Dolly Parton Little People Big Dreams book alongside the Stephen Hawking one as if her contribution to the world was somehow lesser, we got into quite a lengthy debate about it because Dolly Parton is a Queen for her songs alone, but throw in her charitable work with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and I’m perfectly happy to nominate her for a secular sainthood for the sheer positive impact she’s had on so many lives. Some dumb blonde.

Anyway, I’d heard a while back that Dolly Parton was writing a novel, but hadn’t thought too much about it until I was listening to Nihal Arthanayake (who I think is the best interviewer ever) interviewing a writer and a singer on Radio 5 about how to succeed recently, and after tuning in part way through the interview – that was Dolly Parton and she was talking about her new book, Run Rose Run with co-writer James Patterson. You can listen to Nihal Arthanyake’s interview with Dolly Parton and James Patterson for Radio 5 Live’s Headlines here.

I think one of the things that people love about Dolly Parton is that she doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously (famous for her one liners about not being offended by dumb blonde jokes “Because I know I’m not dumb, and I know I’m not blonde” and quipping, “It costs a lot to look this cheap.”) and in the interview she clearly isn’t precious about the book, having to ask for a reminder of the name of her male lead character at one point. Having read the book, I thought that this was really interesting because the book is so clearly a collaboration in the vein of the song writing collaborations in the book – yes, it’s kind of ghost written in the traditional sense, but James Patterson is co-credited as he might be on a song, and the heart and soul and experience of Nashville, the music industry and female country singers in the music industry is clearly coming from Dolly.

The novel follows the rise of AnnieLee Keyes from total obscurity, hitchhiking to Nashville to try for her big break she car-jacks an 18 wheeler when the driver sexually harasses her before begging a barman at the Cat’s Paw bar in Nashville to give her a chance performing her songs. While playing at the bar, AnnieLee Keyes is heard by Ethan Blake, a session guitarist for Country Music power player the reclusive superstar Ruthanna Ryder who has retired from performing in public but still records music for herself with a band in a private studio. Seeing AnnieLee’s talent as both a singer and a songwriter, Ethan introduces AnnieLee to Ruthanna, who helps orchestrate AnnieLee’s meteoric rise from nobody to superstar. But AnnieLee and Ethan have dark secrets in their past, and the closer AnnieLee comes to realising her dreams, the more determined her demons seem to drag her back to the hell she hoped she’d escaped.

I won’t pretend that Run Rose Run is some lofty work of great literature, but it doesn’t need to be. Three chords and the truth, like a great country song, Run Rose Run half relies on a predictable structure, giving the reader highs and lows before delivering an ending that they want. It’s a coffee drenched, dive bar love song to Nashville warts and all just as much as it’s the story of AnnieLee Keyes and her twisted path to the top.

Something that usually irks me about books which focus on songs and song lyrics is that unless they’re real songs, then the reader is usually left reading some fairly shonky poetry, but the lyrics in this book work well, and like Laura Barnett’s Greatest Hits, this book has an actual musical album (Run Rose Run, available to listen free on Spotify) recorded to breathe life into the imaginary songs. Except, in the case of this book, the songs are all sung by Dolly Parton, patron saint of country, with a few pretty notable male guest artists, like Ben Haggard, son of Merle Haggard who is name checked throughout the book.

I genuinely enjoyed this book for a bit of Nashville flavoured Americana, I had fun trying to spot aspects of the characters that linked back to Dolly herself, like Ruthanna’s work with the book charity, or AnnieLee’s refusal to give up her song rights as part of the deal apparently Elvis Presley wanted to record I Will Always Love You, but Dolly wouldn’t give him half the songwriting credit, a shrewd move since retaining those rights has apparently made her millions…. I think Run Rose Run would make a great summer holiday or beach read for fans of Dolly.

A Single Thread of Moonlight by Laura Wood

I’m beginning to think I could probably stick to reading fairy tales with a twist for the next three years, and never get bored, as long as they were all as good as Laura Wood’s A Single Thread of Moonlight.

Iris Grey is a modiste with skills that see the most fashionable ladies in society flocking to her employer’s shop, but she hides away in the backroom of the shop keeping a low profile and living under a pseudonym, having run away from her life among the landed gentry after her father’s suspicious death made her think that she would be the next victim in her wicked stepmother’s sights. Having lived by her wits in London, supporting herself with the needle skills she learned from her mother, seven years have now passed and she has weeks left to decide whether to return, reveal her identity and claim her birth right or be declared legally dead allowing her stepmother to claim her inheritance. Of course, at this very moment she catches the eye of the cold, calculating and far too handsome Nicholas Wynter, who like a fairy godmother offers Iris a chance to romance a handsome prince, while avenging her father’s death and learning the truth about her wicked stepmother and stepsisters.

Though this is shelved in bookshops as teenage fiction, A Single Thread of Moonlight is a novel with great crossover appeal. Beneath the glittering façade of romance, fabulous dresses, stately homes and masked balls; it touches on some pretty serious issues the emotional abuse of a child by their carer, coercive control in relationships, and the scales falling from your eyes as you realise that your hero might not be who you though they were. At the same time, it does this lightly within the context of a rollicking story – the novel layers romance and mystery, crafting a story based on the basic plot of Cinderella, but with an energetic and intelligent heroine who needs neither a fairy godmother or a handsome prince to save her.

A Single Thread of Moonlight is a fun, plot driven novel which frankly saved my sanity while sitting up all night with a toddler with a wild fever from covid who was not going to sleep thank you very much, it’s definitely made me want to check out Laura Wood’s other novels and would be a great tide me over between series of Bridgerton.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Inspired by Donna Tartt’s time at Bennington College, touted by Esquire as the 1980’s most decadent college, and thinly fictionalised in the book as Hampden college in the book, The Secret History follows a group of Classics students under the tutelage of the Miss Jean Brodie-esque Julian Morrow – a Classics professor who hand pick his own cohort of five students on the basis of their youth, wealth and beauty. The narrator Richard has studied classics at another school, but is rejected from the Hampden Classics class until he overhears members of the group struggling with an esoteric point off Ancient Greek grammar in their translation, and is spoken for by the clique leader, a Rochester style brooding hero, Henry. At Richard’s next meeting with Julian, he turns up wearing designer tweeds and gold cufflinks, aping the privilege of the current Classics cohort, and is soon inducted into their world.

The novel opens with quite the hook – one of the group has been killed and the others have covered up their knowledge of the death – but the novel segues from there into an account of Richard’s strained relationship with his parents, the circumstances that lead to him gaining a place at Hampden college, and from there to the heart of it’s Classics department. I found this section of the novel quite slow – it’s weirdly timeless. We know that it’s set in the mid-1980s from the cultural references, all Grateful Dead and frosted perms, but the writing style and Richard’s narrative voice are weirdly timeless. They feel like they belong to another era, almost Fitzgerald like as Richard writes and rewrites his personal history to draw himself closer to the privilege and beauty that he, like Julian, so admires.

The characterisation in The Secret History is so extreme it should feel parodic – the academic encouraging the young minds in his care to experiment with drug binges and bacchanalia to fully immerse themselves in their studies of Ancient Greece; a clique of students keeping apart from their peers and dressing like they’re attending Oxbridge in the 1920s contrasted with the 1980s brats in sports cars snorting coke and popping any pill they can steal at a funeral. It should feel parodic but it works.  If anything, the wild characterisation is the glue that holds the vaguely surreal plot together through the bacchanalia, the winter freezing in an empty warehouse, the murder, the funeral, the rapid spiralling away from any veneer of control because somehow the improbable characters make the events somehow more possible.

It’s a funny novel, slowly gripping you with the fussy reserve of the great American novels from another era, before dragging your through the frantic disintegration at the end of the novel but it works. As a read, I enjoyed it a huge amount when the pace finally began to pick up.

One thing I did wonder, reading about the Bad Art Friend this week, was how those known to have influenced The Secret History felt about that at the time, or now. Seeing yourself as a caricature on page can’t be a comfortable experience.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

In a town full of secrets… Someone was murdered. Someone went to prison. And everyone’s a suspect. Can you uncover the truth?

In the small town of Lockwood, a couple recently returned from working with Medicine Sans Frontiers in Africa join a local amateur dramatics society and are cast in their production of All My Sons. At the same time, a two-year-old girl is diagnosed with a brain tumor, and her family launch an appeal to raise money for life-saving treatment from the United States. In the course of these events, a murder is committed. The suspect is in prison, but a QC who worked on the trial believes that the murderer is still at large and hiding in plain sight. He instructs two law students to review a portfolio of evidence to see if they too come to the same conclusion.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is a whodunnit with a difference, with an innovative structure that brings detective stories into the 21st century, the story is told through whatsapp messages, texts and emails, with the build up to the murder thus told by an array of unreliable narrators, in which the victim is voiceless, and the two law students serve to direct the reader’s focus, before acting as the Columbo-like detective figure spelling out what really happened on the night of the murder.

I really enjoyed this book, there’s something a little voyeuristic about picking through the emails, but it’s highly readable and as a format it really works. The characterisation is brilliantly conveyed through the emails the characters themselves write, and they manage to evoke some really strong reactions to various characters throughout the course of the novel. I was a bit of a drama kid growing up, and I’ve always found that local amateur dramatics groups can be a real cesspit of politics and factions, and I thought that Janice Hallet skewered these beautifully in The Appeal. Some of the characters were all too recognisable!

At the end of The Appeal, the reader is invited by the QC to answer 15 questions which will help reveal the killer. Even though I managed a few like which character was never there at all, I have to admit I flunked it, but in the most enjoyable way.

I thought that this was a really fun read, and it’s one of those books which will definitely become one of my go to Christmas and birthday presents for fans of Agatha Christie style crime novels.

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Picture of the cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Klara and the Sun, on a red cover, a window of blue shows a sliver of the sun which is echoed in the sprayed edges of the pages to give the impression of the sun setting around the book.

“I’d begun to understand also that this wasn’t a trait peculiar just to Josie; that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers-by – as they might in a store window – and that such a display needn’t be taken so seriously once the moment had passed.”

Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara, an Artificial Friend spends her early life observing passers by from her shop window, waiting for a child to come and choose her. With profound observational and interpretative abilities, she forms her understanding of the world from the events she sees outside her window until one day she is chosen by a teenager Josie, with who she forms a profound connection. But when she arrives at Josie’s home, she realises that the world outside the shop is more complex than she had ever realised.

Klara and the Sun is very much a novel for the pandemic. Isolated characters, struggling with loneliness, teenagers all homeschooled via tablets/oblongs and needing lessons in how to socialise with one another, wealthy parents buying AFs, or artificial friends, to help their offspring through the modern world. Seeing the world through the childlike eyes of Klara, who almost worships the sun as a benevolent deity and accepts all she sees as normal and right within the context of her limited life experience, we as the reader don’t initially realise how deeply twisted the initially recognisable world has become. It is only as the novel pans out that we realise why Josie is so unwell, what happened to her sister, and what is so disturbing about Josie’s her portrait sessions with Mr Capaldi.

Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s other books there’s so much to think about in this; what decisions do parents get to make on behalf of their kids; where do we draw the line with technology; to what extent is anyone truly an individual and unique? Could you copy the human heart and soul?

Spoilers for Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro – my thoughts

I find that Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters are designed to challenge the reader, while what drives them is relatable, and you can sometimes have sympathy with the emotion that drives them, fear, loneliness etc. the actions that these feeling push them to are often repulsive. Klara’s mother is a clear example of this, she wants the best for her daughters so she has them genetically modified to allow them to reach their peak potential. But this kills Josie’s older sister, and yet she does the same for Josie, knowing the risk to her children’s health – repulsive- but then we see the consequences for the children who aren’t “lifted” like Rick, they fall behind and become social pariahs because of their unlifted status. Assuming such technologies were developed and became the norm, what would you do? Would your child resent you that they were left behind if they weren’t lifted? Would they lose their health and life if they did?

The urge to create an AF of your dying child. Urgh. I can understand that the grief would be maddening but the scenes where Josie’s mother is almost experimenting to see if Klara could convince her, if she could trick herself into loving her like she loves Josie, gut wrenching.

Throughout the novel I found I had more sympathy for Josie. She’s an innocent, she’s young, she’s ill, as a reader I forgave many of her actions but the way that Klara, her artificial friend who she brought home with promises of a life of equality and being able to stay in her bedroom is first pushed out to the utility room to make way for Josie’s guests, then abandoned at a rubbish dump as her faculties begin to run down even though her mind still seems to be intact. Throughout the novel she’s seen as less than human by the human characters, but her sentience is more often than not acknowledged and respected, so this end for her felt a little heartbreaking for me.

If you’ve read the novel, what did you make of Josie’s miraculous recovery? I wondered whether Klara’s ability to see things that humans couldn’t, even though she can’t explain how she’s arrived at these understandings allowed her to draw parallels between Josie and the failing AF’s to realise that her illness required exposure to sunlight to fix it, and that the spectacular sunset that made this seem almost like a miraculous recovery was just a serendipitous occurrence.

They accept that your decisions, your recommendations, are sound and dependable, almost always correct. But they don’t like not knowing how you arrive at them. That’s where it comes from, this backlash, this prejudice.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

If that is what lead to Josie’s recovery, does that to some extent mean that the modifications performed on her as part of the lifting have in some ways reduced her humanity, that she is to some extent a cyborg now? Is that partly what Rick means when he refers to the Josie he once knew?

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

Book cover of Ace of Spades by by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, a black female and male face each other on a black background with a large white ace of spades, Ace of Spades is written in block capitals in a red which looks like graffiti or blood smears/spatters.

“Growing up, I realized quite quickly that people hate being called racist more than they hate racism itself.”

Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé

I finally got around to reading Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, and oh my gosh, I couldn’t put it down. Cue another late night reading until half one when I knew I’d be up before seven with the kids. Set in the rarefied world of Niveus Private Academy, Ace of Spades sees the lives of Devon, a scholarship kid from an impoverished single parent family, and Chiamaka, Head Prefect and Queen Bee, rapidly fall apart as an anonymous texter who calls themself Aces begins sending their darkest secrets – sex tapes, voyeuristic pictures, and crimes they thought were secret – to the campus population. As the cyberharrassment spills beyond the school gates, Devon and Chiamaka soon realise that Aces is intent on destroying more than just their reputations, and their only choice is to unmask them and fight back.

I think this book might be the perfect YA novel. It’s Gossip Girl meets Pretty Little Liars with a whacking bass line of social justice issues that lifts it from being a well written thriller to one of the best YA books I’ve ever seen. The Àbíké-Íyímídé has recently graduated from university, and the rawness of that teenage experience shows in her characters, the simultaneous cruelty and vulnerability of Chiamaka who is riding high on the wheel of fortune before she realises that hands other than hers are spinning it for her. The sheer desperation of Devon’s situation as he lives in survival mode relying on college or university to carry him and his family out of poverty, alienated from his peers by his sexuality in a homophobic community and seeing his hopes for a better, or at least more manageable future slip away with every card Aces deals him. Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé writes YA at its best, an uncompromising thriller but with bucket loads of heart in the characterisation.

As a white person, I know that it’s not really for me to write about race and experience of race, but I thought that this novel was incredibly powerful in its portrayal of the experience of young black characters lives as they live through systemic racism on steroids. For me, reading Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé was akin to the perspective shift you encounter reading Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, the empathy for the characters that the story fosters allowing you for a moment to have a glimpse of life through the characters eyes. It’s a great thriller novel, but a powerful one for this dimension and I’d really love to see it being bought by secondary schools librarians and recommended by teachers who want to help their students access more anti-racist literature.

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley

If you loved The Bedlam Stacks, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street or the Lost Future of Pepperharrow (and I know I did) then good news, Natasha Pulley has written another mind-bending-in-the-best-way novel, The Kingdoms, which plays with our perceptions of time, picking apart and reconstructing possible futures like one of Keita Mori’s clocks.

In Natasha Pulley’s The Kingdoms, Joe Tournier wakes up in Londres on a train from Scotland, wearing clothes he doesn’t recognise and with no knowledge of how he got there. Now he comes to think of it, he can’t remember anything. He’s totally lost his memory and is taken to a psychiatric hospital to help with his sudden case of amnesia. While he’s there, he has a brief memory of a woman Madeline, who he thinks must be his wife. But when an advert is posted in the paper and his family come to claim him, he learns that he is a slave, and while he does have a wife, her name isn’t Madeline, and she’s unhappy in her marriage to him as she’d planned to marry his brother Toby who died in the army. But beyond the memory loss, something doesn’t seem right, and when Joe receives a post card from a Scottish island which was sent to him 100 years ago and written in English (a criminal offense) asking him to come back if he remembers, signed by M. he knows he must do everything to get to Scotland in case this is the Madeline he had forgotten.

A slight departure from her previous books which are linked within the same part steampunk part magic realist world with an overlapping cast of characters, this book is set in an alternate timeline which sees the French win the Battle of Trafalgar before it’s even started, changing the course of the Napoleonic wars and ultimately rewriting history as we know it. A group of architects and engineers inadvertently sail through a gateway to the past on a steam powered ship and are captured by the French, which allows them to access futuristic technologies and knowledge of the military history of Trafalgar and get the jump on the British, leaving an alternate future in which England is a part of the French Republic, slavery is both legal and rife, and Scotland is, ironically enough, the last stronghold of English independence.

I personally love any story that explores what the good doctor referred to as the timey-wimey stuff, and I think that this is a great concept. It has the hallmarks of what I’ve come to expect from Natasha Pulley’s writing, sheer originality and inventiveness, a strong emotionally focused m/m relationship, a rich woman railing against the restrictions of her time, history with a twist, and incongruous animals quietly playing critical roles (this time four tortoises) written with a brilliant playfulness and poignancy. Without giving too much away, because this is definitely one to read, I really loved the ways that changes in the past drastically and specifically altered the identities and fates of characters in the future. A timely reminder that the past is a part of us all, and the roles that generational wealth and privilege have played in making us who we are today.