Archive | March, 2012

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon: a powerful little book by a playwright known for packing a punch

26 Mar

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, review, book review, fiction, author, literacy, Penguin, playwright, BritishLike most Londoners, I’ve encountered my fair share of weirdos on the Tube. Vomiting drunks, end-of-the-world preaching psychos, the man who took time out of his life to tell me I have a Really Big Head (he wasn’t that weird actually, mostly just honest). But the day I finished The Colour of Milk, a new release written by playwright and novelist Nell Leyshon, I BECAME the weirdo. Because as I was standing there squished against someone’s armpit in the rush hour chaos, I hurled towards the ending and was so shocked that my jaw dropped open and I was stuck with a guppy-fish like facial expression for an amount of time that would have made my fellow passengers worry for my sanity (and their safety).

Because The Colour of Milk is a book where you KNOW something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make it any less shocking when it happens. Set in 1831, it’s told through the voice of 15-year-old Mary, an illiterate farm worker with hair ‘the colour of milk’. Living on a farm her family, Mary avoids beatings from her father by working tirelessly from dawn to dusk. It’s a grim existence, punctuated by violence, but what Mary lacks in physical strength she makes up for with a strong will and a sharp tongue. When her father sends her to work for the local vicar’s invalid wife, she starts a journey that will lead to both her freedom and her downfall.

i don’t like to tell you this. there are things i do not want to say. 

but i told my self i would tell you everything that happened. i said i would say it all and for this i must do it.

Written by Mary after she learns how to write, the narrative has a sense of urgency that becomes extremely compelling – maybe it’s the fact that Leyshon bashed out a draft in just 3 weeks, or maybe there’s a little more at work here. Occasionally, the grammar felt a little bit too perfect (although I just tried to sneak through it again and find some examples and I’m a bit stumped to be honest), but overall it’s hugely believable and even more so when Nell herself was reading it out in her native Somerset accent at the recent Penguin Bloggers Event (see below pic). Add a strong sense of foreboding to repeated references to ‘the colour of milk’ to add rhythm and structure, and you get a particularly polished little book of 172 unputdownable pages.

I had the pleasure of meeting Nell Leyshon herself at the Penguin event. A truly lovely lady with an enviable CV (she was the first woman to be asked to write a play for Shakespeare’s Globe since 1599- no typo!), she describes The Colour of Milk as a love letter to literacy, and to literature. But not in a lame-arsed, highfaluting, inaccessible kind of way. Instead, this is a book that explores how reading and writing sets us free, in the most basic and literal sense. But what’s also interesting is that what gives Mary the chance of a better future will also have an irreversible effect on her life.

Nell Leyshon reads The Colour of Milk at Penguin Bloggers Nighthumans and animals, he said, are quite different.

ain’t that different to me, i said. there’s things they both do that’s the same.

Are we meant to think that ignorance is bliss? Does Mary trade in her ignorance for her innocence? Maybe, but I don’t think that’s the message. Instead, I think the implication is that without the ability to write, to communicate, Mary’s suffering will have been in vain. But with her words and her experiences transformed into the physicality of pen and ink, her story can be told. Finally, she has something important to say – and unlike when she tries to speak back to her father or her employer- her voice will be heard.

and so i shall finish this very last sentence and i will blot my words where the ink gathers in the pools at the end of each letter. 

and then i shall be free. 

Read it now – I think the Tube could always do with a few more weirdos…


Paperback recommended read: The Godless Boys by Naomi Wood

26 Mar

the godless boys naomi wood

 In my never-ending quest to get through a million books a month (approx), sometimes my memory isn’t able to cope with the excessive influx of verbiage. I’ll admit it, I’ve been known to forget characters’ names, plot lines, and especially endings, of books  that I’ve read just a few months ago. But this isn’t the case when it comes to Naomi Wood’s The Godless Boys, which I read over a year ago. I can still remember the salty tang of the sea and the brutal tenderness that the book threw at me. With the paperback out in April, I really recommend you put it on your radar (it would make an especially good book club read). Here’s my mini review…

Whoever said religion and politics shouldn’t be discussed at dinner parties might need a rethink, as this tale of faith and power from a young British writer is bound to get tables talking. The Godless Boys envisions a 1950s England governed by the Church. Following a period of political unrest, all non-believers are exiled to the Island, where religion is illegal. We join the story in 1986 when a new generation is growing up on the Island. Nathaniel, a beautiful yet dangerous 16-year-old, is the leader of the Malades, a group of boys who patrol the island looking for believers, or ‘gots’, to punish. In their uniform of military jackets, tight jeans and shaved heads, the gang initiate a campaign of violence and harassment.

When an English girl appears on the Island looking for her missing mother, Nathaniel is shocked to find himself falling for her. But then his best friend Jake discovers his secret and the consequences will change their lives forever.

An exploration of gang terror with whispers of A Clockwork Orange (although a lot less violent) and a nod to the rivalry in Lord of the Flies, the novel also has shades of 2006’s This Is England.

But it’s the surprising tenderness and cliché-free sentimentality that sets this story apart. Woods’ degenerates care for their mothers, idolise their fathers and secretly long for love, but feel increasingly trapped by the stark isolation and loneliness of island life. A sub-plot of unrequited love and redemption is particularly poignant. The language meanwhile is vibrant and evocative, with frequent and unusual references to the sea giving a tangible bitterness to this sharp story about lives saved, and doomed, by faith.

Peter Rabbit: the ultimate British icon gets a 2012 make-over

21 Mar

Peter Rabbit Special Edition Cool Britannia

LOVE this – quintessentially British bunny and general mischief-hunter Peter Rabbit has gone all edgy on us this month, as Frederick Warne publishes a special edition Cool Britannia hardback to commemorate Peter’s 110th birthday.

With the world’s love of all things British at the moment, and Easter just around the corner (I can TASTE the Mini Eggs already), it’s a perfect time to give our fave Easter bunny a make-over. And isn’t he looking fab for a 110 year old?! I wonder if he’s had his teeth done…

Psst – Frederick Warne have also published 22 other special edition Beatrix Potter numbers. Click here to see them in all their colourful glory. But you’ll need to snap them up pronto– they’re only around for 18 months…

BOOK WARS: Land of Decoration vs Wonder

14 Mar







In this week’s Stylist magazine  I go up against Entertainment Editor Debbie McQuoid as we pitch this week’s must reads. In the blue corner, we have crossover weepy Wonder by RJ Palacio. In the red corner, quirky tale of religious fervour and one of my favourite books of the year so far, The Land of Decoration. Who will be victorious? Click here to find out. DING DING.

Ones to watch: 2012’s hottest debuts

13 Mar

If it’s not already obvious from this blog, I LOVE debut novels. There’s something extra special about discovering a first-time writer that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the fact they’ve finally ‘made it’, or the way debuts often go to town on the innovation front… either way, I really enjoy discovering new voices and if your debut captures my imagination then by golly I will go on about it til the End Of Time (be warned, you may have seen some of these books on my blog before!). One of the best things about my job as a freelance reviewer is that I get to hear about some of the most exciting books around before they make it to the shelves. So without further ado, here are 9 titles that have caught my eye already, as seen on the website. Enjoy.


Justin Torres’ punch-packing debut wrestled its way into the US bestseller chart last year, earning him a string of accolades from critics and authors alike. Out in the UK now, the semi-autobiographical We The Animals tells the story of three brothers growing up in a poor family with a white mother and a Puerto Rican father. Told from the perspective of the youngest brother, it’s a coming of age tale played out against a backdrop of a turbulent marriage, poverty and violence. Dubbed a young Jeffrey Eugenides, Torres crafts a narrative voice that’s exciting and unique and his powerful, lyrical prose gives even the darkest of scenes a sheen of brilliance.


Tigers in Red Weather by Lisa KlaussmannHopes are high for the forthcoming Tigers in Red Weather, out in August. A dark, sparkling tale of a glamorous East Coast family plagued by secrets, it sweeps across ’40s, ’50s and ’60s America and is already being compared to classic novels like Tender is the Night and Revolutionary Road. Think passion and betrayal masquerading behind a backdrop of jazz, cocktails and hazy sunshine. The subject of a huge bidding war amongst publishers – and already generating interest from LA film studios – it’s proof that our love affair with everything retro is long to continue.


The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleenFirst-time author McCleen draws on her experience of growing up in a fundamental religion to create this unforgettable novel narrated by ten-year-old Judith. Bullied at school for her Father’s religious beliefs, Judith retreats to the Land of Decoration, a replica of The Promised Land made from discarded rubbish. But when God gives her the power to create miracles, the consequences threaten to bring tragedy. Chosen by The Sunday Times as one of 2012’s must-reads, it’s surprisingly dark in places and tackles big issues like faith and bereavement. The perfect read for fans of Room and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.


Tea at the Grand Tazi by Alexandra SingerWriting a book is no mean feat for anyone, but Alexandra Singer’s debut is even more impressive given that four years ago she had completely forgotten starting it. The legal student was struck down with nerve condition cerebal lupus in the middle of writing Tea at the Grand Tazi, leaving her with long-term memory loss and unable to walk or write. After her brother found the manuscript in her flat, Singer set herself a daily writing target to complete the book. Finally released in March, her debut is an intensely colourful tale of a young ex-pat in Morocco who gets swept up in the seedy underworld of Marrakech.


Switched Amanda HockingShe is the 27-year-old self-published author who joined the Kindle Million Club last year, with her hugely popular collection of paranormal novels putting her in the same league as Stephenie Meyer and Stieg Larsson. This year, Amanda Hocking has teamed up with Macmillan (thanks to a whopping seven figure deal) to releaseSwitched, her first novel to be published in the traditional sense. The first of the Trylle trilogy, a paranormal romance as addictive asTwilight, all three books will be published before April. Is the hype deserved? There’s only one way to find out…


The Lifeboat Charlotte RoganDubbed ‘the most gripping debut of 2012’ by The Sunday Times, The Lifeboat is page-turning literary fiction at its best. Set in 1914, it introduces us to 22-year-old Grace Winter who is about to go on trial for her life. We know she survived a shipwreck and three weeks at sea on a lifeboat; we don’t know how. There follows a tale of survival told through an unreliable narrator who keeps you guessing throughout, making it fantastic fodder for book club debate. With fans including Emma Donoghue and Hilary Mantel, it’s the authors’ top choice for 2012.


Like a Virgin by Aarathi PrasadScience journalist Aarathi Prasad is a leading voice in the genetics field and is fast popping up all over the media – think of her as the female equivalent of Brian Cox making science accessible for the masses. Her first book, out in August, probes into the world of reproductive science to look at the evolution of a potentially sexless future. From the creation of artificial eggs to silicone wombs for men and egg-fertilizing computer chips, Prasad asks whether a future of virgin pregnancies could be just around the corner, and if so, where will that leave men? Entertaining and provocative, it promises to change the way you think about sex.


The Book of Summers by Emylia HallOne of only three authors to make this year’s Red List Hot 100, Hall’s debut novel is the story of Beth Lowe, a 30-year-old woman who is sent The Book of Summers, a scrapbook of holiday photos and mementos compiled by her long-estranged, and now deceased, mother. Over 7 summers spent in rural Hungary – with descriptions so vivid and beautiful that you will long to visit – Hall reveals the long-buried secret that changed everything the year Beth turned 16. Fantastically evocative and sun-drenched with a twist, it’s guaranteed a place on our summer holiday reading list.


The Snow Child by Eowyn IveyAlaskan author Ivey spends her time hunting moose and raising chickens, so it’s no surprise that her first novel is inspired by the stark landscapes of her hometown. Set in 1920s Alaska, it introduces us to Jack and Mabel, a grieving childless couple who build a child out of snow and awake the next morning to see a little girl running through the forest. What follows is an enchanting tale of love, spirit and survival. One of Waterstones’ top debuts of 2012 and already an international success, it is completely deserving of the hype. Devour it and pass it on to your friends.

So there you have it, 9 books to look out for. Any recommendations for the 10th spot? 

Sunday Inspiration: Harmony Manifesto

11 Mar

By Lesley and Pea, discovered at the magnificent Keep Calm Gallery. Go visit, but be warned: you’ll want to buy EVERYTHING.

The Orange Prize longlist: my top 5 contenders

7 Mar

The book world is psyched right now as the literary award season is finally rolling into town. First up on the glittering list of accolades is the Orange Prize, the UK’s prestigious award for fiction written by female authors. With the longlist released tomorrow I thought I’d give you my two-penny worth, so here are my top 5 reads that I believe to be well deserving of a place on the longlist:


The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, review, book review, author, Orange Prize

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Fin-de-siecle wizardry, inventive storytelling and one of the best love scenes you’ll ever read. Full (and extremely excitable) review here.




The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

McCleen spins her experience of childhood in a fundamental religion to create a quirky and surprisingly dark tale of ten-year-old Judith and her newfound miracle-making powers. My review for Stylist magazine is coming soon…



The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (out end of March)

I’m reading this right now and I am hooked. 22-year-old Grace is on trial for her life. We know she survived a shipwreck and 3 weeks at sea… but we don’t know how




The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Literary fiction at its absolute best. Ivey takes inspiration from a Russian fairytale to tell the story of Jack and Mabel, a childless couple in 1920s Alaska who make a little girl out of snow. Full review here.




22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

Hodgkinson’s post-war page-turner follows a Polish couple and their young son as they adjust to a new life in England. 8-year-old Aurek steals the show in this heartbreaking tale of wartime secrets and survival. Review here.



What would be your top 5? Let me know!