The Lion Tamer Who Lost is set in two places: Zimbabwe in the present, where a traumatised Ben is working in a lion sanctuary bonding with an orphaned lion to enable her to be released once again into the wild; and England in the past, where Ben meets and falls in love with Andrew.
Beech sets up the love story quietly and convincingly, with Ben’s reluctance to tell his bigoted dad about his homosexuality. And then – bang – something astonishing and completely unexpected happens to Ben and Andrew. This is where the narrative really gathers pace. I had read patiently until that point then I raced my way to the end. The book digs deep emotionally, but is funny and feel-good too. I enjoyed it immensely – and what a treat, as I have the entire Beech back catalogue to work my way through now. Maria in the Moon – here I come.
Huge congratulations to everyone who has been longlisted in the Blue Pencil First Novel Award. What a huge privilege it is to have read your work – and I don’t just mean the work that has gone through to the next round. I have marvelled over inventive story ideas and underlined beautiful sentences; I have fallen in love with many of your characters. It was incredibly hard to choose just 25 entries for the longlist because the standard was so high.
One of my Twitter followers has asked me what it was that gave the 25 that X-Factor. The answer is a strong voice – that quality that makes writing great, that stamps it into your memory so that you think about the characters long after you finish reading the pages. I’ve come across voices that are likeable, unlikeable, funny, bubbly and cross. It doesn’t matter what shape or form the voice takes as long as it is arresting and makes the reader want to spend time with it.
Liking a voice is incredibly subjective, but I prefer voices that show much more than they tell, that don’t explain too much, that make me do some guess work. I adore a voice that dishes out surprises.
I can’t wait to re-read the longlist again as we decide on the shortlist, then yippee – we get to read much longer excerpts to figure out who the winner will be. Good luck everyone, and a big thank you for letting me read your wonderful work.
A massive thank you to Oneworld Publications who kindly sent an advance copy of How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee to me – it is published in hardback on 2 May 2019. Here is my review:
How We Disappeared is a shattering, tender and absorbing novel that centres around the unfathomable cruelty that women in Singapore endured when they were snatched by the Japanese Army and forced into sexual slavery during World War Two. It was harrowing to read of Wang Di’s incarceration as a ‘comfort woman’ – far too benign a description for the barbarism that many thousands of women endured across the occupied territories – yet what rings out from the book is human resilience and our capacity to love no matter how damaged we might be.
Not only do we hear from young Wang Di, age just 16 when she is ripped away from her family and locked into the tiny room of her prison, but elderly Wang Di has her own chapters too. Grieving her husband, affectionately known as the ‘Old One, it transpires that neither of them, though traumatised by their experiences during the occupation, have ever shared with one another what really happened to them both. For Wang Di, this is down to the shame that attached to women who had been forced into sexual slavery; their treatment, once released, included being shunned and called traitors. In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Wang Di sets out to discover what he went through during the war.
The third voice in the book belongs to the enchanting teenager Kevin. With his bottle-top glasses and his tape recorder, he starts to unearth a secret that his late grandmother had been keeping for decades. As Wang Di and Kevin set out on their individual quests to uncover the truth, the tension builds while we wait to find out whether their worlds will collide.
The final chapters are suffused with kindness, the power of talking, love. Indeed they are so moving that I read them through a blur of tears.
Meticulously researched, exquisitely written, with characters that will live and breathe in your hearts long after you finish the last page, How We Disappeared is a worthy testament to the women who were forced to become ‘comfort women.’ Not only does Jing-Jing Lee capture the horror of it all, but also the hope. I’m reeling from its power – what an absolute triumph.
A gripping read, The Necessary Marriage is tight with tension. When her next-door neighbour Marion disappears, Jane helps out by looking after her sons while their shady, flirtatious father Andrew is out at work. Prone to violence, Andrew is the complete antithesis to Jane’s husband, Leonard, who is twenty years her senior, strait-laced and fusty. An intense attraction between Jane and Andrew starts to simmer, and all the while, the ominous threat of impending devastation looms. Lodato’s writing is subtle, artful even, then all of a sudden she lands a killer phrase that knocks you sideways with its weight. And how gifted she is at writing sex scenes – there’s nothing of the cringe factor here. An atmospheric page-turner, Lodato’s work just gets better and better.
Gilda Meyer loves her son – it’s just she doesn’t know how to show him love. When Reuben marries Alice, who is the very antithesis of his mother, Gilda is consumed by jealousy, and her behaviour starts to unravel. It’s not easy to make a reader fall in love with a character who is as flawed as Gilda. She is difficult, snooty, and unhinged – and I absolutely adored her. She deserves to take her place beside character greats such as Olive Kitteridge and Eleanor Oliphant. The plot moves at a swift pace, interspersed with chapters from Gilda’s past, and the writing is fresh and original. The cast of supporting characters is a marvel, but I particularly loved wheezing, ‘lumbering’ and ever-kind Margo. Although this is an incredibly moving book – I sobbed my way through the final 30 pages – there are some wonderfully funny moments too. Bitter is completely cathartic, but has left me with one of the most severe book hangovers I’ve ever experienced. Frankly, it’s a masterpiece.
These Dividing Walls is a beguiling work that started off slowly and gradually grew momentum. I loved it and felt it a book that demanded longer periods of reading rather than just short bursts. The writing is beautiful, the many characters well drawn and the narrative cuts right to the heart of racism in France. If you like Elizabeth Strout, the chances are high that you’ll like this.
What a compelling book; I savoured every page. The beautiful, accomplished writing stoked my imagination so much that I felt as if I was right there at The Cliff House, sitting on the terrace, dipping my toes into the pool. Jennings is surely the queen of tension-building and as I read, my fear for the characters escalated. I was hoping hard for an uplifting ending, but Jennings defied my expectations, delivering something completely unexpected and clever. If you like your stories atmospheric and dark, this one’s for you. A summer must-read.
I’m on Twitter to find out about new, (and old) books, to shout about brilliant books and to connect with readers of my book (soon to be books, when The Swap is published in April 2019). I’ve made some great friends on Twitter, people I meet up with who can waffle on about books just as much as I do. And as someone who longs to work as part of a team again, Twitter has become the banter I miss out on while alone at my desk every day. It’s become my ‘fancy a cup of tea?’ my ‘did you see that thing on the tele the other night?’ My connection.
A couple of months ago, I went to an event by Matt Haig and he talked about how we sometimes scroll through social media as an avoidance tactic. And that’s just what I’ve been doing of late, giving a lot of attention to tweets instead of pouring words onto pages. I’ve reached for my phone rather than allowing my thoughts to gain momentum and start to bloom into new work.
Good work requires deep thought, not thought that’s constantly interrupted by reaching for a phone with a scratchy feeling in the veins – just one more hit then I’ll stop and concentrate.
So I’m switching off for a while. I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone for now. Let’s see how long I can last.
So here we are then, laptop screen – it’s just you and me and the tea. Make mine a strong one.
(Holding pic by David Travis, Unsplash)