The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel. 


Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother. 

Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted. 

The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner. 

With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet. 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

I’ll be honest. I’m more of a cat person than a dog person. But either way, I am a pet person, and I have lost a pet to an ‘octopus.’ From the magical realism concept, and the opening line, I was pretty sure that this would be a book for me. 

‘It’s Thursday the first time I see it. I know that it’s Thursday because Thursday nights are the nights my dog, Lily, and I set aside to talk about boys we think are cute.’ 


The unnamed narrator of Lily and the Octopus is horrified to see that his beloved dog Lily has a tumour, or as he calls it, an octopus on her head. As the life of his best friend is threatened, he begins to unravel, veering between pretending that nothing’s wrong, and collapsing. And in this book, Lily and he have full conversations, play Monopoly, make plans, with only the very occasional suggestion that it may all be in his head. 

Anyone who has lost a pet knows that it can feel like a family member has died, and the stages of grief the narrator goes through are perfectly familiar. The character of Lily is adorable, filled with simple canine wisdom, and small misunderstandings that a dog might make. Though apparently gifted with the power of human communication, she is still definitely dog-like. When overexcited, she half barks in a way that any dog lover will be familiar with: ‘WHAT! IS! THIS! COSY! BOX! IT! WOULD! MAKE! A! GREAT! BED! FOR! ME!’ 

Whilst I got a little confused by a octopus-hunting sequence, this is an incredibly moving, masterfully written and yet very funny novel, which I defy anyone to read without crying at least twice. 

Lily and the Octopus is out now, published by Simon & Schuster. 

The Martian by Andy Weir

The story of The Martian was published is a dream for any self-published author. After being rejected by a number of mainstream publishers, Andy Weir self-published his novel on his website chapter by chapter, eventually releasing a Kindle edition, which rocketed to the top of the Amazon charts and attracted the attention of a publisher. It was then made into an Academy-nominated film starring Matt Damon. I have been lucky enough this year to work with Blake Crouch, author of the extraordinary Dark Matter, who whilst putting together a ‘Top Five Books’ list for me, chose The Martian. I then went on to spot it in the library and decided to give it a go. 


It is 2035 and Mark Watney, a NASA botanist and mechanical engineer, has been accidentally stranded on Mars after a terrible dust storm forced his crew mates to abandon their mission. In the storm, Watney was impaled by an antenna, and believed dead. However, his injuries turn out to be relatively minor, and he recovers consciousness to find that he’s alone on Mars, luckily with all the abandoned equipment, and must rely on his own resourcefulness to survive until the next planned Mars mission in four years time. Eventually, back on Earth, NASA realises that he is alive and well, and rescue attempts begin.

Given then success of The Martian, I expected a thrilling, exciting and futuristic read, but what I did not expect was for it to be so extraordinarily funny. Mark is an engaging hero, whose deadpan acceptance of his situation (other than the fact that the only music he has available to him is disco) and endless recourse to humour make you root for him. Best quotes include:

Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.” 

I can’t wait till I have grandchildren. When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!

If ruining the only religious icon I have leaves me vulnerable to Martian vampires, I’ll have to risk it.

The science seems wholly convincing, unsurprisingly, given Weir’s scientific background, and I felt as though I was reading about the moon landings. Periodically, I actually forgot that man has yet to land on Mars. Though a fair amount of the science went over my head, that really didn’t matter. 

Finally, The Martian is also a deeply touching and emotionally compelling story. In one of his less flippant monologues, Mark reflects on the human instinct to rescue or help others – which is borne out in the story by the number of people who come together to help Mark. From the astrodynamicist who helps design a rescue route, to the Chinese-US deal, it’s an uplifting sentiment that gives the story emotional heart. 

I can’t recommend The Martian highly enough. Just the right mix of accessible and geeky, with plenty of laugh out loud humour, it’ll definitely be one of my favourite books this year. 

The Martian by Andy Weir is out now, published by Del Rey. 

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I’ve had Anne Tyler on my list to read for years. One of the American greats, I’ve heard her praised for her spare, yet warm and funny portrayals of family life, of secrets and stories and shared history. If this is what I’ve been missing, it seems I have a backlist to explore. 


A Spool of Blue Thread follows the Whitshank family through four generations, from Junior and Linnie Mae Whitshank, who moved to Baltimore in the 1920s, their children Merrick and Red, Red and his wife Abby, their own four children and their various grandchildren. Much of it takes place in the beautiful Baltimore house that Junior painstakingly built for another family, and then bided his time until he was able to move in – one of the two main family stories that is passed down. The second one, delivered immediately afterwards, of Merrick’s marriage, casts a slightly darker light on Junior’s quest for perfection.

Abby and Red are now in their seventies, and the familiar question of caring for them has arisen. A decision is made, to Red and Abby’s sorrow, and which puts the prodigal son Denny’s nose out of joint. Denny is the wayward one, the son who ate up all of Red and Abby’s attention as a child, much to his siblings’ enduring resentment, and yet for whom nothing ever seemed quite enough.

It’s quite hard to review A Spool of Blue Thread. A quietly gripping family saga, its strengths lie in its graceful writing, and its perceptive yet comforting exploration of family life. It’s enthralling without being obviously so. Anne Tyler is prone to authorial comment, which brings the Whitshank family out beyond the pages – in the second chapter, she describes them as being ‘like most families, they believed they were special.’ It’s a comment which converts warmth, wit as well as fondness for her characters, as well as giving the reader a nudge, as though to warn us against judging the characters too harshly. Although they can exasperate, it’s hard not to empathise with them, even in Denny’s most irritating moments. The mixed joy of spending time with relatives is extremely well-captured, from the gentle domesticity in which everyone finds their well-trod place at family gatherings, but also the claustrophobia, the feeling of regressing to childhood, and the need to get away from them. 

But it’s not an uneventful book – it’s just that the twists are delivered so calmly, that you almost feel you knew all along that one of the Whitshank children was adopted in slightly shady circumstances, that the love story the book hinges on was not all it seemed. Though Junior’s patience in waiting for his turn to move into the dream house he built comes across as ‘the Whitshank way’, it is gradually exposed as part of his desire to leave his roots behind, and reveals a deeply controlling side to him. 

I finished A Spool of Blue Thread feeling that it slightly disproves Tolstoy’s well-known maxim that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Whitshanks aren’t unhappy. They’re nice, normal, funny, tragic, silly people doing their best by each other – not always succeeding, but trying. Some are more sympathetic than others, but the writing effortlessly sucks you in, and you care as much for this nice normal family as you would for anyone facing various degrees of unhappiness. 

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is out now, published by Vintage.