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Elissa Soave – Ginger And Me

Book Cover of Elissa Soave's Ginger And Me

Elissa Soave set Ginger And Me in Uddingston, the town just outside Glasgow where she is from. She thought about the ordinary people there, including young mothers with their children in prams and thought of how they each have a story, and how the world of literature does not often have these women’s stories; when it does, they are not from the women’s points of view1. She wrote a first person narrative with that in mind.

In the book we meet Wendy, a nineteen-year-old bus driver who has recently lost her mother. She’s coping as much as she can but is inevitably struggling – she’s alone and although she tries to make friends, no one ever seems to like her. One day a young teen, Ginger, gets on the bus and the two begin a fledging friendship. Wendy’s also got Diane – a local writer whose Tweets she (Wendy) likes and replies to, which makes them friends. But we begin in prison where Wendy is being held after being found in Diane’s garden during a distressing event. Wendy just happened to be there and everyone misunderstands.

Ginger And Me is a superb novel of friendship, difference, and, as intimated, the working class. Soave’s story is extremely realistic, hard-hitting, and a reminder that we still have a long way to go in recognising, acknowledging, and understanding neuro-diversity, as well as factors that may or may not impact upon a person to make them the way they are. (‘May not’ because there are not always easy ‘reasons’ for things and, as Soave has said herself, she doesn’t want to use labels).

This is a character-driven novel in its entirety. Whilst the reader may be initially drawn in by the promise of a mystery to be solved (by them, because Wendy doesn’t understand it), you happily leave that behind you for a time as Wendy takes you back to the days (not long ago) when she worked on the buses in Uddingston. You meet her and her regular travellers, get a sense for her life lived quietly in her empty home, before Ginger comes on the scene, fifteen years old and a new passenger. We get a lot more description of Ginger than we do Wendy – she’s the character on the cover (in name and image) for a reason, and it’s evident straight away that she has a troubled home life and that Wendy hasn’t caught on to this. Ginger is a great character, easy to picture, easy to like and root for.

When Wendy goes to a writer’s group, which she informs her social worker about it (the social worker does very little but you can see why from the narrative Wendy gives her). In literary terms the group is great – Soave shows very well, through them, why people struggle with Wendy, and she also shows the cruelty of people, too. That last part is why they’re not so great in people terms.

As said, you don’t get labels here. You can come to your own conclusions about what’s ‘up’ with Wendy if you like, but the main point is to simply be more aware of difference and, due to the first person narrative, understand more by the end of it. Personally, I saw a few ‘options’, and I want to say this because this is a book that will definitely be defined by your own experience of life no matter who you are.

On that note I will bring in the look at how we treat people and how we could (and need to) do better. The social worker, Saanvi, is a great starting point – she could do better, but should we point the finger at her or is her lack of support not just another symptom of the lack of funding and resources given to social care in this country? Same for the police, and for the regular people. Some people don’t accept Wendy, some do.

There is also a similar case to be made for Ginger. Ginger’s not Wendy, but there are things in her life that happen during the pages that should’ve been picked up by people tasked to check on them. Instead, Ginger drops off the radar of society; she did so a while ago.

Aside from Ginger, Saanvi, and the writing group, we have Diane. Wendy sees her as a friend purely after Diane ‘Likes’ a few of her Tweets. Diane is understandably in a middle place – she’s kind at events and as kind as she can be when Wendy turns up at her house (as we know happens, just from the prologue) but she’s of course freaked out by having a fan arrive at her door. The mystery becomes a driving force towards the end and doesn’t disappoint.

Ginger And Me is really great. It can be compared to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – it’s not the same but there are similarities. It is excellent.

Publisher: HQ (HarperCollins)
Pages: 357
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-45841-6
First Published: 21st July 2022
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2023

Footnotes

1 See my interview with Elissa Soave, episode 80 of the podcast.

 
Eleanor Shearer – River Sing Me Home

Book Cover of Eleanor Shearer's River Sing Me Home

When Eleanor Shearer was in her mid teens, she went to an exhibition that looked at the stories of slavery and the impact on later generations of black people. It made its mark on her; when she finished her university Masters, in which her thesis was about the case for reparations for the Caribbean, she thought back to her initial idea for fiction and realised she already had a lot of the research done for a novel. River Sing Me Home was the excellent result.

The story follows Rachel who, after the plantation owner announces slavery has been ended but then goes on to say how everyone has been mandated to work several more years (the British said newly freed people would need time to adjust to their freedom…), decides to make a run for it and succeeds in escaping. Now free, she is in a position to search for the five children who were taken from her and sold elsewhere. She has no idea how far she will have to go – she’s starting with Barbados where she lives – but she’ll move mountains if she has to.

River Sing Me Home is a novel of great strength, love, and motherhood, which looks at what it means to be free, exploring the question via some of the different options Caribbean slaves took.

Shearer’s development and general creation of the characters is very good. We of course focus most on Rachel who we come to understand early but are given more and more of as time goes on. We meet Nobody, a man who decides to stay travelling with Rachel and, through a couple of tailors, one of Rachel’s children who has a massive impact on the story.

Set in the Caribbean, the story moves through a couple of islands as well as the colony of British Guinea in South America. Whilst of course based on historical fact, and also Shearer’s familial knowledge, the focus on this area of the world allows for full use of the theme of water, which is explored by Shearer with aplomb.

To discuss the contents further risks spoiling the book – suffice to say it looks at different aspects and results of escape, staying and making do, and at the concept of passing. It also shines a light on the Native People who were forced out of their lands.

River Sing Me Home shows a part of history that isn’t much known in the west. Wonderfully told and both harrowing and heartening in equal measure, it’s an excellent and important publication that will hopefully be read by many readers to come.

Publisher: Headline Review (Hachette)
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-29136-3
First Published: 31st January 2023
Date Reviewed: 18th August 2023

 
Alex Hay – The Housekeepers

Book Cover of Alex Hay's The Housekeepers

Alex Hay was washing the dishes when the premise of his debut started to come to him – the glamorous early twentieth century and a cunning plot to empty a grand house of its contents. The result works so well that washing dishes should probably be added to the list of writer tips.

Mrs King has been fired from her post as housekeeper having been found in the men’s quarters where women are not supposed to be. She leaves without much of a fuss (though she does remind Mr Shepherd that she has a nice set of knives) and later heads to the home of Mrs Bone, a deft criminal with plenty of people in her employ and a hand in many pies. Mrs King, a relative of the family whose house she administered, has a plan up her sleeve – an elaborate heist wherein the entire contents, every single item, of the de Vries mansion, is taken and sold for the benefit of those working with her. Miss de Vries is holding a ball, an inappropriate event given the recent death of her father, but to Mrs King the timing is perfect.

The Housekeepers is a spectacularly good debut, meticulously planned and executed. Hay has delivered the timeline brilliantly via the use of multiple narratives that switch between the characters ever quicker; you get a ringside seat to all the goings on. The pacing is excellent – the book sports zero filler scenes, it jumps straight into the plotting, and the heist begins a long way away from the last page; it’s thrilling from start to finish.

The multiple narratives here really work. Hay has a glowing cast of characters, mostly women, the vast majority from the working class. It is a real below stairs novel and the one character above stairs, Miss de Vries, has been included incredibly well. She is not there for the fun of it – she’s not there for laughter or mockery – instead she has her own subplot and a firm reason for being in the narrative.

The characters are well written; you get to know several of them very well in the context of the plot, a few more fairly well, and then the rest are in the backgrounding adding to the comedy. The main cast includes Mrs Bone who, like Mrs King, has her own fish to fry with the de Vries; Winnie – housekeeper before Mrs King; Hephzibah – a former member of staff, now an actor who brings with her a whole troop of others to great comedic and mayhem-ic effect; and a couple of young women who may or may not both be called Jane.

The writing itself is of particular note. (Okay, I know, I’ve technically been writing about the writing for four paragraphs now.) There is a uniqueness to it that’s difficult to define exactly but wonderful to witness. It’s in Hay’s characterisation and more so in his dialogue. It lends a certain Dickensian atmosphere to the novel that is nevertheless not at all belonging to Dickens and is in fact Hay’s own.

There is a very strong ‘why’ to The Housekeepers that is more than the literal relative reasons and which balances out the humour and brings a dose of reality to it. It’s dark and grounding – any more description will be too much information.

The ending is fab, everything you come to want from the book happens but Hay also leaves a poignant moment to think about which may or may not be considered an untied thread – it absolutely works.

The Housekeepers is being lauded, has been optioned for adaptation, and there’s every reason for it. This is an exceptional novel in every way and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing what Alex Hay produces next.

Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 391
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-035-40664-7
First Published: 4th July 2023
Date Reviewed: 13th June 2023

I received this book for the purposes of a podcast which has gone ahead and will be published in September.

 
Ronali Collings – Love & Other Dramas

Book Cover of Ronali Collings' Love and Other Dramas

Ronali Collings had a fascinating journey to publication. Her children getting older, she realised how much of herself she’d given to everyone else and started writing and taking courses (an MA with Bernadine Evaristo as her mentor) before dropping out of her PhD, stopping writing, and then starting again under the mentorship of her now agent. She kept going this second time and Love & Other Dramas was the phenomenal result.

The book follows Tania and Priya – both in their forties – as well as Helen, Tania’s 66-year-old mother. Tania is newly divorced and looking to find herself (she’s somewhat based on Collings), Priya did not receive a much hoped for promotion after giving her all to her long-standing employer, and Helen is discovering herself after years as an unhappy wife (unhappy is an understatement). The book covers their transitions to new milestones.

There is something incredibly special about Collings’ book and, dare I say, utterly unique. (The more I read, the more I find that there is something unique about the vast majority of authors, but it still deserves a mention, particularly here.) To speak personally, I got to the end of this book, blissfully happy about the film scenes I had had playing in my head and the characters whose faces and general looks I had created and seen in detail, but couldn’t work out what I thought of the writing itself. It took a few minutes of further thinking before I realised that the fact that Collings’ book raced by, as well as the fact it was so easy to visualise, easy to feel deeply about the characters and the connections between them, whether romantic or familial, themselves summed up the writing. Collings is a superb writer. So as not to reiterate what I’ve just listed as positives, the author’s use of character (and with it development) is bar none. This is very much a character-driven book, and highly relatable – they are very British, very multicultural, and just like any person you might meet on the street. The very fact of their everyday-ness is a winning factor and with everything that happens to them being completely believable, it is impossible not to feel a lot for them.

This doesn’t necessarily equate to actively liking them. Tania in particular keeps making the same mistake which is frustrating, if incredibly realistic. Priya could often do with a bit more self-awareness. (Helen gets a pass here as she’s been through hell.) But perhaps that is part of the point – these women and, often, the other people around them, are just so true to life that they make you question your own life decisions, which isn’t generally a comfortable thing to do.

As well as the theme of women coming into their own, the racial backgrounds add a constantly-running background question about how British people of colour, particularly, in this case, people of South Asian heritage, are treated. Priya’s done very well in her job but she’s not done as well as she could due to being a British Indian; she’s the wrong colour. Tania wanted to do ballet when she was younger, but her skin colour didn’t fit the look. She also wasn’t able to cook Sri Lankan food at home without wafting the smell away because her white husband didn’t like it. It’s the things that keep adding up and adding up.

A mention must be made of Helen’s newly found happiness – she starts blossoming from the beginning but once she discovers love her story becomes perhaps the best. She represents an age group in women that is generally forgotten and Collings brings not only her story to life but shines a light on older women as a whole. Helen’s burgeoning relationship with Oscar is a joy to read and she is the character that ends the tale with the most tied threads.

The ending is interesting, both sudden – you’re likely to expect it to continue for a bit longer – and absolutely perfect. You’ll want to read more about the women whilst at the same time recognising and appreciating why Collings leaves it where she does.

Love & Other Dramas is simply wonderful. It’s a book with the power to hit you in a way you haven’t experienced in reading before and the amount is does within its limits of being a look at everyday characters and lives is incredible. Without a doubt, one of the best books of 2022.

Publisher: Embla (Bonnier)
Pages: 269
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-41308-7
First Published: 19th July 2022
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2023

 
Kristina McMorris – Sold On A Monday

Book Cover of Kristina McMorris' Sold On A Monday

Kristina McMorris’ 2018 novel, Sold On A Monday, just recently reached the 1 million mark of copies sold. It’s not difficult to see why, nor why it’s the author’s most rated book on GoodReads – inspired by a real photograph taken in 1948 of children sat on a porch, a sign saying ‘4 children for sale’ in front of them, it offers a rather unique premise.

McMorris sets her tale in 1931, and her fictional photograph sports two children rather than the four seen in real life. Ellis, a photographer and reporter in Philadelphia, originally sees two children ‘for sale’ on a non-work related trip out and, when his photograph of the scene is lost after having been shown to an appreciative boss, he goes back to the location and stages a new photograph, this time with different children. This may or may not lead to Ellis’ big break – he’s been wanting to be more than a society pages writer for ages – but it will definitely lead to the contents of this new, staged, photograph, becoming a reality. In tandem we have Lily, a single mother who is hoping to rise beyond her current station of secretary, to become a reporter. Lily is the person who introduced the boss to Ellis’ work.

McMorris’ decision to focus on Ellis and Lily’s experiences may be surprising (certainly I was expecting the story to focus on the children from the perspective of those children) but it is nevertheless a fascinating decision. Hailing from a media background herself, McMorris has steeped the book in the world of the newspaper and the historical details and storytelling in general mean it is rich in atmosphere and period dialogue. Interestingly, the book is pretty long, with lots of twists and turns as it moves towards its conclusion, but thanks to the overarching idea of the news, the busy nature of it all ensures the book never drags.

The main characters are well drawn, with both characters effectively sharing the theme of family; Lily’s has motherhood included. Ellis is driven in his career not just for his own benefit but to prove to his father his worth as a son. Lily is driven similarly, wanting to be a reporter for herself but also seeing the need to better her situation for her son; her parents own a business but this is the post-WWI 1930s and she wants her own career; she sees a role model in Nellie Bly, the (factual) journalist who emulated Phileas Fogg.

Another character in particular deserves a mention – Clayton. He is a star reporter at the Philadelphia paper and McMorris has done a splendid job in her portrayal of him. It’s not even a question of character development, just the way she’s written about him each time he is either in a scene or mentioned by others (generally Lily). Is he friend or foe? Is he the right choice or not? In the plot thread he is most included in, McMorris does a great job at really making you believe something is possible even when common sense and any experience in reading will tell you it’s not, and whether or not it does happen (I won’t spoil it) doesn’t, to that end, really matter. A brief mention should be given to co-worker ‘Dutch’, who also defies literary stereotypes, just to a much lesser extent than Clayton.

So to those twists and turns, as said, there are a lot of them but they work. After a chunk of time spent focusing on Ellis and Lily, McMorris moves on to the children, albeit still through Ellis and Lily’s eyes. It’s worth noting that McMorris has significantly improved the outcome of the major event when compared to the real life story – thankfully, it must be said; read the reality and McMorris’ tale is a welcome change. The twists and turns themselves keep coming to a degree but they always move the story on, and, perhaps, given what I’ve said about Clayton, one of McMorris’ overall aims is to show the grey in every story; you very often think you’ve spied a villain only to be given cause to wonder if that’s quite correct.

Sold On A Monday tells a difficult tale in a very good way. Its secondary focus on family and motherhood is rather wonderful and helps in the exploration of the primary idea, while never losing sight of the historical context. This is a fantastic book.

Publisher: Sourcebooks
Pages: 289
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-492-66399-7
First Published: 28th August 2018
Date Reviewed: 2nd May 2023

 

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