Recent Reads

I used to be adamant that I would never use a Kindle.  I love the feel, touch and smell of physical books so much, I couldn’t imagine a world where I would forsake them for the cold emptiness of electronic pages.  Then a combination of travelling more frequently, a back problem and the fact so many books can be purchased for just 99p (99p!) led me to a stunningly hypocritical U-turn, justifying the use of an e-reader because it was a gift and not something I had actually spent my own money on. (*Cough*). Unfortunately this means that I can now download novels with one simple click any time I feel the impulse, without even the walk to the cash desk to make me reconsider if I have enough books to read already.  (Spoiler alert: I do).  My last 2 reads have been purchased spontaneously and both were special in their own way, so I thought I would share with you a quick round up of my thoughts.

Imagine meeting a stranger on a train and in a drunken moment of solidarity agreeing to kill their husband.  Not only that, but they agree to kills yours too.  You are separated from said spouse, struggling financially with a small child and feeling exceptionally disheartened by the way your ex-husband is treating you, physically and emotionally.  This is the situation Hannah finds herself in at the opening of The Golden Rule by Amanda Craig, whilst travelling to Cornwall to say goodbye to her dying mother.  Killing in cold blood seems somewhat irrational in the stone-cold sober light of the next day, but the woman she met told tales of such abuse, right and wrong seem no longer such a dichotomy.  Set against the stunningly evocative backdrop of Cornwall in mid-summer, this novel tackles some really challenging topics, from murder to motherhood, from abuse to Brexit.  Hannah is a likeable and realistic heroine who finds herself drawn ever emotionally closer to the man she intended to kill – will she be able to see through what she promised?  I found myself able to overlook the minor continuity issues in the book, swept away as I was by Hannah’s ethical dilemma.  A great summer read.

In contrast, Temporary by Hilary Leichter both enthralled and confused me in equal measure.  Described best as a work of absurdist fiction, this novel tells the story of an unnamed temp, ricocheting from job to job in search of stability and her “forever” career.  From standing in as an assassin (her predecessor is in prison), to a brief stint as a human barnacle (due to mistaken identity) and working on a pirate ship, her experiences are both ridiculous and yet highly relatable for anyone who has ever worked within the gig economy.  This is ultimately the beauty of such surreal story-telling: as a scathingly satirical depiction of what it means to be temporary, it works as both simplistic fairy tale and a metaphorical warning of how ethereal life can become without the anchors of work or relationships to pin us down.  I remain torn between thinking this is absolute genius and feeling slightly overwhelmed by the whole thing and would love to hear what others think if you get the chance to read it.

I probably wouldn’t have read either of these texts had they not been on offer for Kindle, so I accept (begrudgingly) that having an e-reader is broadening my literary horizons.  That being said I still have 40-odd unread books on said device and really must rein myself in.  Now, I must leave you, I think I have another email from Amazon…

After Dark

It’s been several years since the scariest night of my life, but the memory still haunts me.  I had been in London with a friend and arrived back around midnight, jumping in my car at the station to complete the last 2 miles of my journey.  Approaching a 4 way junction my light was green, but a car zoomed out of nowhere and missed me by mere inches.  That alone was disconcerting, but what followed was much worse.  The car screeched around behind me in a high speed handbrake turn and raced up to my rear beeping and flashing wildly.  I could see it was full of young men gesticulating angrily and I was terrified.  As I accelerated away from them as fast as I could, various options flashed through my brain: I could drive to the police station, but that was on the other side of town and who knew what they would do before I got there; I could pull into the local supermarket car park for support but that would be empty in the early hours and could leave me in more danger.  In a split second decision I chose to drive home, thinking I could at least hit my horn and draw attention to my plight from those who I knew.  Fortunately in a matter of minutes the group of lads got bored and peeled away, but it left me deeply shaken.  If someone had suggested to me at that moment that men should be subjected to a nightly curfew, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. I can therefore honestly see why the concept behind After Dark by Jayne Cowie is so engagingly controversial.

Imagine a world where women are in power and all men are electronically tagged, making it illegal to be outside their homes after 7pm at night.  On the one hand females finally have the freedom to walk home without fear, to cross a car park at night without cat calls or wolf whistles; on the other, all males are being punished for the violence and aggression of those who came before them regardless of their own individual characters.  A man and woman cannot even move in together without counselling that approves their co-habitation, a law introduced as a deterrent to domestic violence. Then consider the unthinkable – a woman is murdered late at night and all evidence indicates a man was the perpetrator. No-one has ever managed to remove their tag before so how is this even possible? And why do the police want to cover it up and ensure it is blamed on a woman?

This story was compulsive reading from the very first chapter, with the author presenting a range of disparate stories which cleverly collide as the tale progresses. Sarah’s husband is in prison for breaching the curfew and her daughter Cass hates her for letting him be taken away.  Helen is besotted with her boyfriend Tom and desperately wants to have a baby with him despite warning signs that he may not be all he seems.  Pamela is the old-school Police Officer, close to retirement, determined to discover the truth.  Without doubt the best thing about this novel is the structure of the plot, with Cowie keeping the reader guessing not only the identity of the killer but also that of the victim – I found myself cycle through 3 or 4 different hypotheses before both were finally revealed (and I was wrong with them all).  But this story also raises some really important ethical questions about freedom, violence, gender expectations and the way people respond to being imprisoned.  As such I think this would make a brilliant Book Club pick – just be prepared for some very heated debate.

I am not usually a fan of thrillers but I loved this book, primarily because it brings together an intellectually-challenging concept with a fast-paced writing style that is both easy to read and compelling.  If you are looking for something unique, well-written and that you will want all of your friends to read so you can discuss it in detail, this is absolutely the novel for you.  This author is definitely one to watch.

After Dark will be published on 12th of May 2022.

The Green Indian Problem

When I moved house last year, I stumbled across one of my most treasured possessions. Resplendent in all its blue and yellow glory, my Blue Peter diary from when I was 10 was a truly exciting find and I couldn’t help but read every word between  that garishly gorgeous hardback cover. It was a touching reminder of both the innocence of youth and just how wise and observant young eyes can be. I share this with you not to brag, but because it helped me realise just how brilliantly authentic the 7 year old narrative voice of The Green Indian Problem by Jade Leaf Willetts truly is. This is a superbly crafted novel and one that is going to stay with me for a very long time.

Jade – nicknamed Green – is a young boy growing up in Wales and trying to figure out all of the mysteries that life throws at him. Why do adults like eating fish when it feels like devouring baby dinosaurs? Does Father Christmas really exist and, if so, why does he keep bringing the wrong presents? And, most important of all, why does everyone else seem to think he is a girl? Written as a series of diary-like entries charting the life of our hero, the story gives us access into the heart and mind of one very special individual.

For me the real power of this book comes from the contrast between style and content: the simplicity of the child’s language contrasting compellingly with some of the truly adult subject matters portrayed. Green’s mum has a boyfriend who is violent and abusive; his dad sometimes forgets to come and get him when it’s his turn to play parent; grief comes to call more than once as the story unfolds. But above all else I was touched beyond measure by the protagonist’s knowledge that he is in the wrong body and his hope that some adult will help him sort out the mystery of his gender. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the fact that children often know more than we do as adults – when our minds are muddied by social convention and expectation – and the author conveys this startling clarity in such a powerful way.

I really hope that this isn’t a stand alone novel and that we have another chance to meet Green on his journey into adulthood. This is a refreshingly honest, beautifully written and deceptively simple tale that utterly stole my heart. I cannot recommend it enough.

Belle Nash and the Bath Souffle

Bath is without doubt my favourite city in the whole wide world.  I accept that this grandiose statement does little to acknowledge the thousands of cities I have yet to visit (I remain committed to travel, despite bringing covid back as a souvenir from my latest adventure) but I have a feeling the metropolitan magnificence of Somerset’s crowning jewel will prove hard to beat wherever on this planet I may go.  I am not totally sure what makes it so special: maybe it’s the stunning architecture around every single corner;  the incredible bookshops I can lose myself in for hours at a time; or maybe it’s the ghost of Jane Austen calling me across the centuries to be her bosom buddy for all eternity. (I am dying to introduce her to Colin Firth and see what she thinks). So as you can imagine I jumped at the chance to review a novel set in this most beloved of all locations.  Belle Nash and the Bath Souffle did not disappoint.

Set in the early 1830s, this is the story of a group of friends determined to seek justice when a failed souffle ruins their social soiree: a birthday party held for “confirmed bachelor” and councilman Mr Belle Nash by his best friend, Mrs Gaia Champion.  Each attendee commits to investigating just how such a travesty could have happened and the finger of blame soon points towards a morally questionable grocer based in the heart of the city.  As their criminal enquiries advance, the depth of corruption becomes clear and each of them becomes entangled with consequences they could not have predicted.  With more twists and turns than the back alleys of Bath, this is a surprisingly fast-paced and entertaining rollercoaster ride as the reader finds themselves rooting for the justice these people deserve.

There were so many things I loved about this novel that I don’t know where to start.  Firstly, Keeling’s use of humour is outstanding.  There are echoes of Dickens in both the hilarious naming and characterisation of certain individuals (Mrs Crust, the pie maker, literally embodies the baked goods she creates; Nash’s “second cousin” Gerhardt insists on wearing a wig that fundamentally takes on a life of its own and is worthy of a separate spin-off) and gentle fun is persistently poked at even the most likeable of personalities.  I also really enjoyed the vibrant historical backdrop that brings context to the main storyline, with 12 year old Princess Victoria visiting the city to open the very park that I love spending time in today. By weaving in the future Queen, Keeling powerfully enhances the feminist thrust that drives this narrative throughout, with women repeatedly proving themselves worthy of far greater recognition that the patriarchy allow.  In fact my only true disappointment is that this book wasn’t adorned “Gaia Champion and the Bath Souffle” – after all, to my mind she is the true heroine of this tale.

This I can forgive, however, as above all I adored the way that 19th century Bath was portrayed in so animated and lively a way by Keeling’s descriptions, fundamentally bringing the city to life as a character in its own right.  Having written my university dissertation on Topography and Location in the Work of Jane Austen, this has made me want to dust off the textbooks and analyse once more just how powerful the setting of a tale can be in driving the subtleties of subtext.  But instead of boring you with my amateur analysis (I do tend to go on a bit), I shall simply report my excitement that this is the first in a series entitled The Gay Street Chronicles and I will be awaiting part 2 with much anticipation.  I highly recommend immersing yourself in the world of Belle Nash and his associates forthwith. You won’t regret it.

Just Got Real

I was into online dating way before it was cool, Bookaholics. Like the hip and happening trend-setter that I am (stop laughing at the back there) it was the late 1990s when I started to cruise chat rooms looking for a boyfriend. And believe me, it was just as much of a menacing minefield back then as matchmaking sites are now. From the deeply deceptive dude who claimed to be 25 (he had to be at least 40) to the guy who stood me up twice (I’m a slow learner), I was lucky not to be screwed over completely given my naivety when it came to trusting strangers. So I absolutely jumped at the chance to read a pre-release copy of Jane Fallon’s latest novel, Just Got Real, which promised to bring the darker side of dating apps to life in an engaging and fast-paced novel. I was not disappointed – this is a brilliant book.

Recently divorced and living alone, Joni reluctantly joins a dating app, using her sister’s picture when she can’t find any of her own that she likes. When she connects with Ant – but can’t meet him because of her photographic deception – she contrives a way to meet him in real life instead. Soon romance is blossoming and everything seems to be perfect. Until one day, that is, when she realises he is still on the dating site, that he is actively talking to other women and even arranging to meet them behind her back. When she decides to warn Ant’s other connections what he is up to, Joni inadvertently prises the lid from an enormous can of worms. Is Ant simply a lust-driven lothario who cannot keep it in his pants?  Or is there something far more sinister going on?

Fallon is an expert story teller and I found myself engaged in this tale from the very first pages. Whilst in principle it would be easy to feel unsympathetic towards 3 middle-aged, wealthy women who seem to have everything at their fingertips, Joni, Saffy and Mary are all incredibly empathetic characters who soon have you rooting for them despite their privilege. The burgeoning friendship and solidarity between them is this novel’s greatest attribute – let’s be honest, women supporting women will always win my heart above any other trope – and I would be hard pressed to choose which one of them I’d rather be friends with. There are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked without the story ever falling into cliché and the narrative is suffused with a gentle humour that had me smiling throughout. I didn’t want it to end.

If you pre-order one book for summer (this is out on 23rd June) it absolutely has to be this one: funny, engaging and heart-warming, Just Got Real is a must read. Just be warned, it may make you rethink Internet dating for good…

Hadley and Grace

Holidays and reading are synonymous for me – without a good book (or 7) I can’t help feeling like any trip is ruined. But having come away last week with over 30 unread books on my Kindle (my name is Bex and I am a BookBuyAHolic) I found myself struggling at the weekend to find one I really fancied. I wanted fiction (having just finished Lee Mack’s autobiography) and I wanted something that would grab me from the very first page, and nothing seemed to fit the bill. I landed by sheer chance on Hadley and Grace by Suzanne Redfearn and could not have made a better choice – fast paced, emotive and incredibly well-written, this is definitely a book I recommend.

Hadley is married to Tony, a controlling and abusive man who makes her life hell. Having reached breaking point, she plans to escape with her daughter and nephew to start a new life with money stolen from her husband. Grace works for Tony and, after a run in with the boss, decides she too deserves some of his secret stash of cash. When both protagonists attempt to break into his safe on the exact same night, it sets into motion a chain of events that no-one could have predicted: two women and 3 children on the run across America from the FBI.

This novel has real pace, with relatively short chapters told from the alternating perspectives of our heroines. But unlike many “on the run” type stories it is anything but predictable and is so skilfully written that the speed of the narrative never sacrifices character development. From Mark, the FBI agent who first attempts to capture them, to Miles, Grace’s baby boy, each individual on these pages has a personality and back story all of their own. I kept telling myself I would just read one more page and then still be sat there 30 minutes later, gripped by the next twist or turn in this truly original tale. I could never have predicted the ending and it had me literally on the edge of my seat.

Of course now my issue is I still have over 30 unread books on my Kindle and whatever I choose next has to live up to the standard of Hadley and Grace. Wish me luck, Bookaholics, I’m going back in…

Mental Self Care

It’s been a crazy week, Bookaholics, which means I just haven’t had the time to read properly.  There was a 4.5 hour car journey just to see my chiropractor (trust me, she is worth it), the talk I was asked to give on International Women’s Day (which, like the consummate professional I am, I did from home in fluffy slippers), and most excitingly my appearance on Men’s Radio talking about books and mental health (I can’t believe no-one has asked for my autograph yet).  I have been absolutely flat out.  Whilst all of these have been really positive experiences, I always find that a lack of time to escape into my latest tome has a really negative impact on my mental health.  Crazy as it sounds I know the warning signs: I start to feel jumpy, my heartbeat increases and my brain paradoxically slows down, unable to process the simplest of information.   This weekend will be very much about recalibrating my literary self and I thought I would share with you my top tips on utilising books to support positive mental health.

1) Much the same as with any time spent on self-care, try not to see reading as a luxury but as something you need to carve time out for to ensure a positive state of mind.  We all have a million responsibilities – work, family, social commitments, dare I say cleaning – but there is absolutely nothing wrong in holding an hour for yourself to pick up a book and immerse totally.  I always come back to the aeroplane analogy: when the oxygen fails, you have to put your own mask on first, otherwise you won’t be in a fit state to help others. For many of us reading is a necessity that builds our resilience in being there for those who need us, so never de-prioritise this time.

2) When you set aside this time, leave your phone, tablet and laptop in another room.  I am the queen of hypocrisy in saying this: I tend to read 3 pages, check Twitter, add a new book to my wish-list based on someone’s recommendation, read 3 pages, check Twitter… ad infinitum.  It doesn’t do either my self-care or the book I am absorbed in any justice.  The greatest experience for me is always when I fly (apart from the turbulence, when I think I’m going to die) because my phone is in airplane mode and I have hours of uninterrupted Kindle bliss.  We need to try and recreate that in our daily lives.

3) Choose what you read based on your own interests and not those of others.  Who cares if everyone loved the latest blockbuster thriller?  It just might not be your thing. Does it matter if the novel you are obsessed with is one no-one else has ever heard of?  Of course not.  Literary immersion is such a personal thing and should be all about you.  Don’t cave into peer pressure. Be true to yourself.

4) Controversially (as I am very rarely known to give up on a book) it IS ok not to finish something.  If it doesn’t interest you or even triggers you in some way, walk away.  Maybe one day you will go back to it, maybe not.  We wouldn’t keep seeing a therapist who didn’t do anything to help us; nor would we stay in a relationship that didn’t meet our needs.  Be brave.  There is a world of books out there that will excite and delight you and it may take some trial and error to find what works for you.

I recognise the irony in taking time to bang out a blog when I could be catching up on my reading, but I needed the catharsis of sharing these wise words.  I would love to hear your thoughts on how literature supports you in terms of positive mental health, but be aware I may not respond immediately: I am about to bury my phone under a pile of clothes in another room…

Random Revelations

I had to “people” two days running this week, Bookaholics, and I am utterly exhausted.  On the one hand I had forgotten how much I love the buzz of meeting new folk (like the fellow Dreamgirls fan who was offering to be my backing singer within minutes of making my acquaintance); on the other the whole experience fried my brain completely, to the point where stringing sentences together in a coherent form has seemed nigh on impossible ever since.  Because of this brain fog, I asked my lovely Twitter followers what they would like to see me blog about this week, intending to pick the best one and pretend it was all my own work (and using the time I gained for invaluable napping).  Problem is, there was such a plethora of great ideas I couldn’t narrow it down, so have decided to take several of their genius concepts and merge them into one wild whistle-stop tour of my top 3 random blog ideas.  Brace yourself, folks, we are going in…

1) The concept of “book misadventures” was one of my favourite submissions, because let’s be honest, there is so much that can go wrong when you are reading.  I’ll never forget the time I lost my favourite bookmark when it blew off a 20th floor hotel balcony in Orlando (I was young enough to believe that Dumbo might fly in to save it but apparently he was busy elsewhere in the Magic Kingdom that day); the time I went away for a weekend and left my book at home by mistake (as a monogamous reader I was literally left with no option but to actually talk to people, which was deeply traumatic); or when I dropped a hardback novel on my head whilst reading in bed and gave myself a black eye.  (I only read Ken Follett in paperback now).  But by far the most scarring memory I have was when a friend returned a book they had borrowed literally in several pieces, because she had dropped it in the bath and the glue had come completely unstuck.  I can’t even type those words without shuddering in horror and I still have nightmares to this day. (No, you cannot borrow a book. Ever.)

2) I also loved the idea of “inappropriate World Book Day costumes”, a timely reminder it’s probably a good thing I am not a parent.  I wouldn’t think twice about sending my child off to school dressed as Katniss Everdeen, outfit fully ablaze in recognition of her “girl on fire” status.  (I don’t see the problem as long as the teacher has a fire extinguisher). Arguably you could say that any Harry Potter regalia is now a no-no, given the controversy surrounding JK Rowling in recent months but I will leave the “can you judge the art by the artist” debate for another time.  So I think the best (worst) inappropriate costume idea I have is definitely anything related to 50 Shades of Grey – not just because sending your child to school with handcuffs and a whip is exceedingly wrong, but also because there is no way anyone should be celebrating one of the worst books ever written. Just, no.

3) Finally, I am a very big fan of the “pairing food with book choices” idea.  Now as any reading aficionado will tell you, books and food go together like day and night, like Ant and Dec, or indeed Putin and nuclear weapons. However I think there is always room to improve both the culinary and literary experience by truly embracing the planning stages and thinking through your choices. There are clearly the obvious selections – Chocolat by Joanne Harris definitely requires a box of truffles; you can’t read Hungry by Grace Dent without a cold can of baked beans to keep you company – but I think the best options are those that completely contradict expectations.  Whilst reading A Clockwork Orange, you could consume a banana.  I used to eat ice cream from the tub whilst watching The Biggest Loser, so I reckon weight loss books would be best paired with chips and cake.  The world is your oyster (a dish best consumed whilst reading Moby Dick).  I can’t wait to hear your ideas.

I would like to dedicate this blog to the #booktwitter community for the incredible inspiration – you guys are the best. I am off for a power nap, then look out world, I’ll be back at the top of my game.  Or at least able to write legitimate sentences that almost make sense.  Wishing you all a lovely weekend!  

Superkid Stories

Have you ever wished you had the ability to write a story for your children? Or maybe you have a budding author in your family? Then you definitely want to know more about SuperKid Stories, winner of a recent competition to appear on my blog…

1. Hi Jerome!  Welcome to the Bookaholic Bex blog.  First up, please introduce yourself and tell us briefly what Superkid Stories is all about…
Hi Bex, thanks so much – delighted to be here and extremely grateful for the opportunity to feature in your blog!
I’m Jerome Griffin, author and creative director of SuperKid Stories. At SuperKid Stories we have taken the art of the personalised children’s story book to a whole new level. And we have done this by coaching our clients into writing their own books! Our adult clients write stories about children in their lives, whether it’s their own kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces godchildren…whatever. We take them through the creative writing process from start to finish and then help them design their books with photos, images, graphics and other design tools.
For our kid clients it’s a little different – we coach them into writing stories featuring themselves!
At the end of the process each client is the proud author of a printed copy of their own book!

2. What inspired you to start the business?
The idea for SuperKid Stories came about as a challenge from my wife, Elaine, who had just finished beta reading one of my short stories. Bit of a confession here – as an author I tend to write transgressive, disturbing fiction. Elaine has a background in therapy and very often provides great insight for my work, particularly from a character development perspective. She enjoys that side of things and my writing style, but sometimes struggles with the content. After reviewing the story and providing the feedback she asked me why I never write anything nice and then challenged me to write a nice story for our boys.
Gauntlet thrown.
Challenge accepted.
Seed sown.
I decided to write a story for each of our sons, Dylan and Adam, inspired by their true characters.
Dylan‘s favourite toy at the time was a little plastic rhino that went everywhere with him. Dylan shared every possible experience with Ninyho, as he called him! From showing him the sights from a train window to taking him diving in the swimming pool on holiday, Dylan and Rhino were inseparable.
So, I wrote Dylan and Rhino’s Home Safari Adventure as a poem in which “together the boys cross jungles of toys” and share many other escapades.
As for Adam, he has been a climber since before he could walk. I know many other parents out there will know exactly what I’m talking about here – he could climb a straight, buttered wall! It was almost like he was trying to escape!
So, I wrote the story of Adam “Danger” Griffin in the voice of Stewie Griffin, our distant relative from Quahog.
Then it hit me that we had hundreds of photos of the boys engaged in their favourite activities, so I decided to design photobooks with the stories. I had so much fun writing these stories and putting them together with the photos. I also enjoyed a huge sense of achievement – in many ways a greater sense of achievement than anything else I have ever written! It was then that I thought that anyone with small children in their lives would also enjoy the experience as much as I did, have as much fun and gain the same sense of achievement. After all, we all want to leave a legacy for our children and give them something nobody else can give to their kids. At that point I knew that I just had to share the idea.
And so, SuperKid Stories was born!

3. What is your favourite thing about running Superkid Stories?
The most satisfying aspect of what we do is greeting people as clients and sending them on their way as authors.

4. Tell us 3 random facts about the business that would surprise people.
(i) One of our authors, Charlotte Kimber, has taken her experience of the SuperKid Stories workshop to an entirely new level. She enjoyed the sessions so much she has gone on to create a series and has already written four more books around the adventures of her daughter, Hattie. And she has been approached by a theatre director about turning the first story into a stage production!
(ii) You would not believe how easy it is! I must confess, before I started SuperKid Stories I did wonder if every client could become an author. I had my reservations because a lot of people claim that they are not creative at all. And being an author myself, I know the road can be littered with obstacles and challenges. So, when I started devising the workshop, I decided to break it down into simple steps where I could give clients a leg up at each stage if necessary. And I am absolutely thrilled by the results. Each and every person who joined a workshop as a client has left as an author. And the vast majority never thought they would be able to achieve their goal.
(iii) Kids’ imaginations can be dark!

5. If you were a fictional character, who would you be?
I honestly couldn’t think of anyone, so I asked my wife, who provided these:
(i) Monica in Friends because I twitch when things are out of place.
(ii) Tigger because I get bouncy* with excitement and want to do everything now.

*Impatient.
I really can’t argue with either suggestion.


6. Finally – I have to ask – if you could recommend the #booktwitter community one book to read this year, what would it be?
Ooh, that’s a ludicrously tough question. Not fair at all! But if there can be only one, I’ll go with Chuck Palahniuk’s Adjustment Day. In Adjustment Day, Chuck does what Chuck does best – holds a mirror up to society and watches it squirm and wince at its ugliness.

Women and Love

Hangovers in your 40s are really not fun.  Gone are the days when I could enjoy a few drinks, go to bed after midnight and still function like a normal human-being the following day without having to worry about the consequences. Now if I am planning more than a single glass of wine, I have to clear my diary of all adult responsibilities for at least 2 days afterwards to ensure I have time to recover.  But even worse than this is the growing phenomenon of book hangovers, which also seem to be getting progressively worse as I hurtle into middle-age.  You know the thing I mean – that feeling when you come to the end of a particularly brilliant novel and just can’t shake the despondency that you will no longer be spending every waking minute in the company of characters you have grown to love, and the only cure is to throw yourself head-first into another book and just hope against hope that it will come to mean as much as your previous tome.  It is because of these hangovers that I have often shied away from short story collections, believing them not long enough to properly inspire my full attachment.  Turns out I was just reading the wrong short stories: every single tale within Women and Love by Miriam Burke had me utterly entranced.  This is an outstanding collection and one that deserves widespread appreciation.

You would be forgiven for thinking from its title that this is simply a celebration of female affection in all its forms and I admit I went in with certain expectations along those lines.  However, this compilation is actually a powerful tribute to the multiple ways humans suffer as a result of so-called love.  From the daughter temporarily abandoned by her parents when they return home to Poland to try and build a new life, to the mother struggling to come to terms with her husband’s transition to a woman, every story expertly evokes the heartache and pain that accompany emotional connection.  In one story we witness a doctor battling her own relationship loss whilst trying to help others who are suffering emotional distress; in another, 2 childhood friends burgle other people to in some way pass on their pain.  Time after time each story hammers home the point that suffering surrounds us constantly and we never know what other people are going through.

Yet despite this seemingly gloomy synopsis, there is something surprisingly life-affirming about this book.  Burke is adept at creating three-dimensional characters with such deceptive simplicity that within a page of starting each story I cared deeply about the fate of those I read about. There is also solidarity to be sought from these tales – after all, we all carry scars from the battlefield we call love – but my attachment to this book was far deeper than simply misery enjoying company: it reminded me that so much of the beauty in life comes from the glimmers of hope that break through the chinks of existential pain.  One of the characters states that “freedom is the price you pay for love” and this not only effectively sums up the thread that links each narrative together but also reminds us that ultimately we can choose freedom, even if at times it does not feel like a choice.

Women and Love touched me deeply and I devoured it within 24 hours of opening the first page.  It is beautifully written, powerfully structured and profoundly evocative in its representations of love as it really is, not the Valentine’s schmaltzy clichés that we are often encouraged to believe in.  I highly recommend this even if you don’t normally read short stories – it is an inspiring work of literature that deserves wide-spread recognition.  Just don’t blame me for the book hangover you experience afterwards because it won’t be pretty.

Women and Love is published on 23rd of February 2022.

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