Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

Frying Plantain is a book of twelve interconnected stories about a girl growing up in Toronto, balancing her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage and dealing with the expectations of her mother and grandmother. The stories, told both as present narrative and flashback, follow Kara, the protagonist, from childhood to graduating and starting university, as she navigates identity, family, friendships, and dealing with different worlds and rules.

Though the book is a series of interconnected stories, it felt almost like an episodic novel, as you delved deep into Kara’s life and saw her relationships develop and change over time. The book looks particularly in the tensions in Kara’s life between different elements of her self, not Jamaican enough but also not like the white Canadians her mother warns her she can’t act the same as. There’s also a lot of focus on familial expectations, and how Kara seems at times to fight a losing battle to be what her family wants her to be. Overall, the depiction is sharp and memorable, with a lot of detail that draws you in to Kara’s world, and the book is a gripping look at growing up caught between expectations, rules, and identities.

Homes and Experiences by Liam Williams

Homes and Experiences is a bittersweet comic novel about travel, experiences, and what really matters. Mark works for Urb, a travel start up for booking stays in people’s homes and travel experiences (guess which company it is satirising), where he writes copy and lives a mundane London life. When he’s offered to spend the summer travelling across Europe visiting some of Urb’s offerings to write non-travel-expert copy, he sees it as a chance to finally do the travelling he never has, and invites his posher, more worldly cousin Paris to come along with him. A big argument puts a stopper in this plan, but as Mark travels, he emails Paris with the details of his trip: the highs and lows in his quest to balance Urb’s need for catchy copy with his desire to try and actually see something authentic.

Williams has created an email epistolary novel that uses the format to cleverly expose Mark’s feelings about his trip and incorporate a twist to change the perspective on what Mark does during his travels. The tone is charming, exposing Mark’s naive outlook on travel on one hand and his conflict around gentrification and the impact of Urb/Airbnb on local cities and communities. The novel does well to satirise millennial culture and guilt whilst also showing actual difficulties and emotion that go along with these (the travel issues that come along with not flying are a key example, though they are also reminiscent of the BBC travel show Race Across The World, in which the participants can’t fly either). Alongside the satire and humour is a real emotional side coming from the interpersonal relationships in the book, and particularly friendships: from Mark’s idolising friendship with his cousin Paris to others that develop throughout the book, there’s a real focus on the importance of these relationships not just romantic ones.

On the one hand, the novel appeals to me as a millennial who does like travelling to European cities (though, admittedly, I’ve never stayed in an Airbnb), and on the other hand, it’s a clever way of presenting some of the issues with this kind of start up tourism and gentrification, but through the lens of someone at a loss with what they’re doing with their life and trying to make the most of an unusual opportunity. It can be funny and relatable, but also bittersweet, and the format has a good payoff.

Boy Parts by Eliza Clark

Boy Parts is a darkly comic novel about a photographer on a downward spiral, a woman in her late twenties who takes explicit photos of random men she finds in Newcastle. Irina developed her photographic niche at art school in London, but now she’s back in her hometown, handing out her business card to random men who she’d like to take photos of. With a sabbatical from her bar job and the promise of a show at a London gallery, she throws herself headlong into photography, but also the drugs, alcohol, and self destruction which fuel it. But there’s also the new guy in the Tesco near her, and her obsessive best friend with a terrible boyfriend, to deal with, and a lot of broken glass.

The hype around Boy Parts made me want to read it, and it was definitely worth it: a book that pushes at the question of why the aesthetic creeps of literature often are men, and specifically men going after women. Irina is a gripping protagonist you’d never want to be friends with (especially not when you see how she treats the people she hangs around with), messed up and not always sure of reality, but doing it all with a care for how it looks, and what photos she could take of people. The way in which she gives her card out to random men to suggest she photographs them is such a great reversal of what is expected, with her barely remembering who these men are when they follow up, and with them often unsure why they said yes. 

The book can be shocking and graphic, but mostly focuses on Irina’s relationships with other people and her constant spirals and blackouts, integrating in texts and emails and the secret blog of Irina’s best friend (who hasn’t wanted to read about what someone is really thinking about them?) to great effect in showing how people react to her, and how she reads what they say. A lot of the tone and plot can be seen as darkly ridiculous, but there’s a lot of serious stuff lurking underneath (as you’d expect), including a lot about consent and the truth. At the same time, the whole edgy art school vibe (which is foregrounded and mocked and critiqued by Irina even as she falls into its traps) is wonderful, giving the book a real distinctiveness that makes it stand out from a lot of the books it could be compared to.

With a horrifically aesthetic antihero in Irina and a gratifyingly Northern setting, Boy Parts is the book for anyone who has ever liked trying to read the edgiest, most shocking books (e.g. my teenage reading obsession with reading things like American Psycho) and now wants that vibe combined with something that pokes fun at modern taboos and issues around gender, consent, sexuality, and control.

Belladonna by Anbara Salam

Belladonna is a story of obsession, friendship, and desire set at an Academy that is connected to a convent in Northern Italy. In Connecticut in 1956, Bridget desperately wants to be Isabella’s friend, and to study at the Academy together. The Academy is where a small group of American girls learn Italian and art history, lodging in a convent with nuns who’ve taken a vow of silence, and Bridget sees this as her chance to be close to Isabella. The following year, they both start there, and they do grow close, but Bridget stays desperate for Isabella’s affection, as well as keeping up lies about her own family, and she’ll resort to anything to keep Isabella close.

This is a very vividly imagined novel, bringing to life the closed off world of the Academy, its petty dramas, and Bridget’s love for Isabella. It looks at the inability to see the wider picture, or to realise that you cannot only plan for the immediate moments, which works well with a group of fairly self obsessed teenagers. The retro setting is important for the general aesthetic and for the narrative (considering half of the girls are engaged), but it also has a sense of being outside of time because of them being in the Academy amongst the nuns. The vibe and setting (and the obsession theme) make it easy to compare to The Talented Mr Ripley, but this is more of a coming of age novel, as Bridget learns that just being obsessed with and manipulating circumstances to be with Isabella doesn’t convert into being able to be Isabella’s sole focus.

Some people will love the aesthetic and lingering feel of the novel, whilst others will perhaps find the characters too unlikeable or immature, but this is a look at female friendships and desire, and what it takes to be a particular person, that makes a good immersive read.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of the Stars is a novel set over three days during 1918 in an Irish maternity ward for flu patients, following the nurse there and the struggle with life and death. Nurse Julia Power finds herself leading the tiny three-bed ward for maternity patients with the flu, with only a new volunteer Bridie Sweeney for help, and a new doctor, Kathleen Lynn, who is on the run from the police. With Ireland under pressure from war and disease as well as divisions and inequality, the small ward sees a microcosm of the situation as birth and death go on, and Julia finds new connections with the newcomers.

It is impossible to read this book right now without thinking of the current situation, especially with all of the government warnings Julia sees and questions of who is wearing face masks and who is still going out to the cinema occurring in the background. What is impressive, however, is that it draws you into the world of the tiny ward and away from these comparisons, bringing the focus that Julia must have to care for these patients without thinking about the wider situation. There are a lot of issues raised in the novel, from the mental trauma of war to the treatment of unmarried mothers and unwanted children in Ireland, but the focus on a few characters, mostly female, gives it a human centre. The relationship between Julia and Bridie, developed over only a few days, is a highlight of the novel, showing that sparks of light can come out of dark situations, albeit briefly.

Due to the subject matter and detailed medical descriptions, some people will find this novel very difficult or not feel able to read it, but it is a gripping and touching look at a tiny example of fighting in a pandemic (and a war) from a single ward, and a wider look at Ireland in 1918. It isn’t a happy novel really, but it shows the hope and strength people have to find and use during difficult times, and also women proving their skills and expertise in these circumstances. It’s not the kind of novel I would’ve picked up if it wasn’t by Emma Donoghue, but it was definitely worth reading.

The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah

The Beauty of Your Face is a novel about a Palestinian American woman’s struggles with her family and living in America, told simultaneously in the present day of a school shooting and through her memories of her life up until that point. Afaf is the principal of Nurrideen School for Girls, a Muslim school in Chicago that one morning is attacked by a white male shooter. She was praying in the old confessional at the time, and as she listens to what is happening outside her hiding place, the novel tells her life story, from her parents’ troubled lives as Palestinian immigrants to the community she finds in Islam.

Most of the narrative is taken up with Afaf’s earlier life, with the shooter situation bookending sections as time jumps forward. This works well as a dual narrative, though much of the present narrative in these middle parts was unexpectedly focused on the shooter rather than Afaf’s perspective. Doing this shows how the online alt-right influenced him, but is perhaps a surprise jump when the narrative was just looking at Afaf’s memories and emotions. The story of Afaf’s family is told well, as complex characters look to survival and forgiveness, and displays how family doesn’t mean you necessarily see eye to eye, especially around religion and what brings solace. The novel looks deeply at America and how communities need to be forged and connected to allow for understanding, both within and across groups and divides.

A powerful novel that draws you into the lives of its characters, The Beauty of Your Face is about a school shooter, but also and perhaps more notably, it is about looking for belonging and understanding, within your own family and beyond. The exploration of Islamophobia in America is incisive and shows how it has changed over time, but always affects people’s lives in deep and terrible ways.

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

The Liar’s Dictionary is a novel about language, definitions, and the lives of two characters connected by the same dictionary. In 1899, Peter Winceworth is working on ‘S’ for Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, feeling ignored and intrigued by the possibility of inventing words to suit the experiences and feelings he wants to express. And in the present day, Mallory works as an intern and the only employee other than the owner of Swansby’s, where she fields anonymous threatening phone calls every day. When she’s tasked with hunting down all of the fictitious entries in the dictionary before its digital publication, her and her girlfriend end up drawn into the world of fake definitions, and the phone calls keep coming.

This is a charming novel with chapters named for words in alphabetic order and alternating between each narrative. It draws you into the lives of the two protagonists, both overwhelmed and a bit unsure with things in their lives, but brought together by the dictionary and by Peter’s fictitious entries, known as ‘mountweazels’. Language and definitions and how we use words are celebrated in the novel, but the style remains readable and unpretentious, thinking about the excitement and creativity of finding words for things or giving unnamed things names. Both characters’ narratives are satisfying and gripping, with neat flourishes and endearing moments, but also chances to define things in their lives and take control of their futures.

Book and word lovers will undoubtedly enjoy this novel, but so will people looking for endearing characters and quirky narratives. It is a fun reading experience that makes you care for the characters, but also plays around with language and definitions and the need for people to trust.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Axiom’s End is a novel about alien first contact happening in 2007, and what happens when one college dropout with a celebrity whistleblower father finds herself tied up in it. Cora Sabino’s life feels like it is going nowhere, even literally as her car breaks down, and she can’t even avoid hearing about her estranged father, who is headline news after leaking a government memo about aliens. It starts to become apparent that her family have been tied up in alien presence for decades, but then suddenly Cora must make a decision to attempt to save herself and her family: become and interpreter for an alien who recently came to Earth. As she uses her position to try and find out the truth, it becomes apparent that there’s a lot at stake, and that really understanding each other may not be possible for different species.

I don’t usually read sci-fi, but I’ve heard of Ellis from YouTube and the premise focusing on truth and cover-ups sounded interesting so I gave it a go, and found the story gripping and enjoyable. The connection between Cora and Ampersand, the alien she becomes interpreter for, has an interesting complexity, particularly the ways in which trauma affects them and how much they must accept that they don’t understand where each other is coming from. I didn’t quite engage with all the alien worldbuilding (why I don’t tend to read sci-fi in general), but I could still enjoy the plot even when I’d forgotten the meaning behind some of the extraterrestrial words and concepts. The 2000s setting felt quirky, and on reflection makes me wonder if in future books (as I think this is the first in a proposed series) the alternate history elements will become more foregrounded.

The story really drew me into this book about truth, interpretation, and the attempt to understand others. Maybe those who read a lot of sci-fi will find this more standard fare, but as someone who doesn’t, it was an enjoyably accessible novel, with unresolved elements that suggest towards sequels.

Summer by Ali Smith

Summer is the fourth and final novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, once again combining past and present and punning language to explore different episodes with current relevance. In this one, the climate crisis, COVID-19, internment camps, and Einstein are all important, along with the previous recurring themes of immigration and detention centres, and of family and divides. The modern day narrative starts with Sacha and her brother Robert live in Brighton, where Sacha wants to change the world and Robert seems to delight in upsetting it, and their parents have split up but live next door to each other. After this, the narrative jumps to the 1940s, and then continues to move around different character’s stories to bring things together.

The main question I had going into Summer was whether it would feature coronavirus, considering how up to date the other ones were, and it does, though doesn’t focus on it extensively. From reading other comments about it, it is apparent that there’s a lot of recurring things and characters from the previous three books, though the only one I noticed was the security firm that run the detention centres, as it’s a while since I’ve read the others. Overall, I found this one harder to get into than the others—I enjoyed the start in the present day, but as the narrative moved around, I couldn’t keep track of who people were or why they mattered. Possibly it would’ve been better to read immediately after rereading the other three, as then it would’ve likely felt like a kind of conclusion or coming together, so this might be one only for people who’ve read (and remember well) the other seasonal novels.

After reading all four, I think Spring was my favourite, and this one didn’t feel like it went anywhere. However, it did feature a lot of expected Ali Smith elements and it was nice to have a book that picked up on some of the political concerns of COVID-19 without being a ‘pandemic’ novel. The whole quartet might be something to go back and reread further away from the ‘modern day’ that they weave in with historical narratives, and to fully appreciate how they link together.

The Lamplighter by Jackie Kay

The Lamplighter is a play about slavery and the slave trade first written and produced in 2007 and now published with a new introduction by Kay. It reads like a multi-voiced poem with a chorus and individual stories, as a few characters relate their own and others’ experiences as slaves. Interweaved with this are, as Kay discusses in the introduction, details about British involvement in the slave trade and the way in which particular cities, including Glasgow, were deeply involved, and the book ends with a list of further reading to follow up on the stories and the events from the play.

This is a powerful way of both telling specific stories about slavery and getting across a sense of the wider realities of the slave trade, both in terms of human experience and the impact upon everyday things like food (particularly sugar) and cities. The repetition and use of the chorus is particularly effective in replicating voices and getting across scale, and you can almost hear it as you read, and hear parts read in different voices. The emotion really comes across and so does the important educational element, making points about what isn’t taught in school curriculums and how the slave trade can’t be separated from the growth of British cities and the industrial revolution. Even people who don’t typically read plays should pick this one up, as the format allows Kay to tell these different stories in an approachable, moving way.