The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

I find books exploring friendships between teenage girls fascinating to read. They shine a certain clarity on the trials and tribulations of my own teenage years, as well as bringing back memories both joyous and otherwise. Even if my own teenage friendships were less fraught than that of Julia and Cassie, the ‘Burning Girl’ of the title. 


Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school, sharing everything, including a love of Lady Gaga, and a volunteering job at a kennel. But there is a gulf between the two of them that will be more keenly felt over the years – whilst Julia was raised in a happy middle-class family, Cassie is from a single parent family, after the death of her father, and increasingly clashes with her mother. Over the years, in secondary school, the pair start to drift apart. But Cassie, increasingly affected by her mother’s new relationship, also begins to wonder how much of what her mother has told her is the truth. Julia can only hope for her old friend as she sets off in search of her ‘guardian angel’ she’s certain is still out there. 

Claire Messud brilliantly captures young friendships: the long-term plans, the bad behaviour you drag each other into, the secrets shared, but also the small hurts a friend can inflict, to the pain of drifting away from your closest friend, and the shock that you don’t know everything about them. She’s also very sharp on growing up as a young woman, and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of being female – I vividly remember a teacher recommending we get rape alarms, and swapping tips on how to walk home safely (‘hairspray doubles as pepper spray!’ ‘If you hold your keys between your knuckles…’). 

The Burning Girl took me right back to the growing pains of my schooldays – but don’t let that put you off! I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone – heartbreakingly sad, though often funny, and breathtakingly real. 

The Burning Girls by Claire Messud is out now, published by Fleet. 

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

A few years ago on holiday, I read Celeste Ng’s extraordinary literary thriller Everything I Never Told You, a powerful story centred around a Chinese-American family living in Ohio, whose teenage daughter goes missing. Beautifully, and subtly written, it was less of a whodunnit than the painfully affecting story of a family, and their unspoken secrets. Needless to say,  I was delighted to stumble across a proof copy of Little Fires Everywhere.


Little Fires Everywhere opens with the revelation that Isabelle, the youngest and most unstable of the Richardson family, has ‘finally gone around the bend’, and burned down the house. As the family watches the house burn, the story flicks back to the previous year, to the arrival of Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl, who rented a flat from Elena Richardson.

Mia is an artist, who flits around the country, staying just long enough to complete her latest photographic project, before leaving it all behind and settling elsewhere. But this is the last time, she has assured her daughter Pearl, who is desperate for stability. And when they arrive in Shaker Heights, Pearl is captivated by the Richardson family, and they equally by her and Mia. From Moody, the younger boy who falls in love with her, to the oldest daughter Lexie, whose simplistic and judgemental attitude could represent that of Shaker Heights, to Isabelle, the youngest, who finds long-sought after acceptance in Mia. But Elena, whose ‘guiding principal is following the rules,’ and who only rents ‘to people who she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life,’ feels a direct threat from Mia’s ambivalence to their neatly organised, and selectively philanthropic lives. Nonetheless, they muddle pleasantly along until a custody battle breaks out in the town over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby by a white couple. Mia and Elena find themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines, and in retaliation, Elena sets out to solve the mystery of her tenant’s past – a decision which will have shocking and unforseeable consequences.

Shaker Heights, where the author grew up, is brilliantly drawn – far more nuanced than your average literary symbol of conformity. It’s a bastion of liberal progression, where rules are laid out for everything, from the colours you are entitled to paint your house, to the right way to take out your rubbish. A complacently self-satisfied community, it’s almost Stepford-like, if Stepford had a really good state school system and was quite pleased with its ‘post-racial’ status. It’s a society that Pearl, with few other reference points, is happy to be a part of, whilst Mia is much more suspicious of it. An undercurrent of danger runs throughout – we’re never allowed to forget that the story will end in flames but it’s also hard to actively dislike even the most destructive of characters – and I don’t mean Izzy here – as they’re all so well-meaning.

Little Fires Everywhere is a nuanced, thought-provoking, and breathlessly readable story, exploring what makes a mother, and whether making mistakes is a privilege. However, it’s also, often, wildly funny, with genuine laugh out loud moments, which lifts this already clever, thoughtful novel into a wonderfully enjoyable read. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ing is published by Little, Brown on 14th September.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Funny story about All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. I first came across it on Twitter, when a blogger had tweeted out the jacket with their review, and I was particularly taken with the jacket quote on the front, from Hadley Freeman. It simply stated ‘I’ve read about being a single woman.’ It truly delighted me, even when I (eventually) realised that Twitter had cut off the top of the jacket and the quote actually read ‘One of the smartest and truest novels I’ve read about being a single woman.’ Oh well. Certainly a way to get a girl’s attention.


There’s an excellent chapter in All Grown Up, very early on, in which the narrator Andrea talks about ‘a book’, that everyone she knows is determined that she read. ‘It is’, she notes wryly, ‘a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married… I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know.’ It’s a very dry and brilliantly funny chapter – but also I think, a deliberately well-placed one, as I was this close to recommending All Grown Up to a family friend in her 40s who is single, and now, I think I’ll hold off, or at least try and think of a more subtle way of pushing it in front of her. I suspect – hope! – I am not alone in this.

But either way, this chapter in some ways sets us up brilliantly for All Grown Up – a clever, funny, compelling book about being single and childless on the verge of forty, whilst all your friends are settling down. But even as she’s advised from all sides to ‘find someone and settle down,’ not only do very few suitable partners present themselves, but not many of her happily married friends appear to be finding life particularly straightforward either.

All Grown Up is written in the form of vignettes, covering Andrea’s borderline stalking of an actress who lives in her block of flats; the parenting strife faced by her brother and his lovely wife; Andrea’s struggle to get rid of a chaise-longue that her father may have died in. All are told simply and compellingly – and incredibly relatably. I’ve read a few reviews which describe Andrea as ‘selfish’, but I didn’t feel that was quite right – she just felt human to me. Her mind wanders when her friends pour out their hearts to her, she sulks when her mother moves away to be closer to her brother, she is outraged when her friend, the implausibly-named Indigo, thrusts her equally implausibly-named baby Ephraim (‘we looked into his eyes when he was born and he seemed one thousand years old already’) into her arms. But I’ve met more self-absorbed people…

Do yourself a favour, and put this short, clever, relatable but equally heartfelt and honest book about life, choice and women on your summer reading list. And if your bag’s already full, buy a new one. Huge thanks to the marvellous Drew Jerrison for this one.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg is out now, published by Serpent’s Tail.

At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye

At First Light opens in 1993 with a murder in Key West. The victim is an elderly, wheelchair bound Klu Klux Klan official. The shooter, more surprisingly, is a 96 year old Cuban woman, Alicia Cortez, who will not say anything to the police except for ‘I did it. It was me.’ The answer lies in tragic events which took place over seventy years ago, just after the Great War, and there’s only one person that Alicia will share her story with.


The daughter of a Cuban father and an African mother, Alicia attracts plenty of attention when she arrives in Key West in 1919, fleeing scandal in Havana. Expecting employment in her cousin’s tea room, Alicia is horrified to learn that ‘Pearl’s Tea Room’ is in fact one of the nicer brothels in the area. Working with resentful prostitutes, and her mercenary cousin Beatriz, Alicia finds her place as best she can, until the Spanish influenza epidemic carries Beatriz away, and leaving her as the reluctant new madam of ‘Pearl’s Tea Room’. 

Another new arrival is John Morales, a war hero returned from France, haunted by he’s seen and done in battle. He lands to discover that whilst he was away, his father has died, and that there’s talk of Prohibition in Key West. Reckless and dangerous, John is determined not to get tied down with anyone, but as he and Alicia find themselves unwilling partners in the covert struggle against Prohibition, an attraction develops, soon turning into love. It’s scandalous behaviour, indeed illegal under Jim Crow laws, but doesn’t worry too many people, until the Klan come to Key West. John is determined to fight for Alicia, but maybe this once, he’s picked a fight he can’t win. 

Also present is young Dwayne Campbell, on the cusp of manhood, determined to prove himself to his Klansman father, but also to Alicia who he worships. Dwayne is desperate to please his father, but is torn by an unease about the Klan that he can’t shake. As the author explains in her note, At First Light is inspired by tragic events that were never resolved, yet the story wears its research lightly, giving an insight into how the Klan gained traction in the way that it did, and yet equally exposing its utter ridiculousness: “What in the world is a ‘klonklave’? And why did he call Pa a ‘Kludd’?” And yet despite this, their ideas are catching, and Dwayne makes a terrible mistake that will have repercussions for years to come. 

Having loved Vanessa Lafaye’s incredible debut Summertime, I was looking forward to reading her latest. Both joyous and tragic in equal measure, it’s a beautiful told and intensely readable account of a little known and shameful incident of Southern US history. The characterisation is utterly spot on; the tension is built carefully and effectively to a heartbreaking and explosive conclusion. On a happier note, fans will be delighted to read more about Dwayne Campbell’s childhood (with a possible answer given to the identity of Roy’s real father). But history – reality – rears its ugly head throughout: as in Summertime, the author has no qualms in killing off the characters you have grown to care about, as a reminder that sometimes stories don’t go the way you want them to.  

At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye is out now, published by Orion Books. 

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.