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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All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker 

Chris Whitaker is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for at least a year now, partially to get Liz Barnsley (book influencer extraordinaire of Liz Loves Books fame) off my back, but partially because it sounds like he’s quite good. So when my colleague received a copy the other week, it seemed appropriate, nay, essential, to steal it.  


Summer Ryan is the shining light of Grace, Alabama. Unlike her troubled twin sister Raine (clever weather-related wordplay there), she’s a devout churchgoer, and a musical prodigy whose cello performances have moved the town to tears. But now she’s gone missing. Could she have run away? Or is she one of the so-called Briar Girls, teenaged-girls living in Briar County who have been abducted by the mysterious being known as the Bird?  

Unconvinced that the alcoholic police chief Black will succeed in bringing Summer home, or even that he believes she’s really in trouble, Raine enlists the deep-hearted teenage wannabe police officer Noah and his loyal friend Purv to help her investigate. Meanwhile, an angry black cloud hovers over the town, promising a storm, and exacerbating the already-heightened tensions. The whole town is teeming with secrets, and with everyone on high alert, they’re likely to rise to the surface. And between chapters, Summer tells us her own version of events that led to her disappearance. 

All The Wicked Girls is a gripping thriller, but also a deeply emotional story with a big heart and characters you’ll cry over. It’s a portrayal of a town left behind in an America which has apparently never been so prosperous, set in the late 80s’ but equally relevant to today. Although the town is meant to pull together as a community, an undercurrent of violence simmers constantly. And yet, we also have astonishing scenes of kindness and love, such Noah waiting in Purv’s back garden to await a sign that his friend has survived a beating from his father. It’s a thriller that explores the worst excesses of organised religion, but also the positives aspects of faith. I definitely sensed a Twin Peaks influence (but the bits from the first series I could get on board with rather than more recent episodes… “What’s going on? Are they miners?! WHAT’S GOING ON?!”) in the idea that not everything can be explained away, and sometimes things just happen. 

I’ll be stealing (more theft… Maybe Chris is a bad influence on me?) the copy of Tall Oaks I gave my father for Christmas, and look forward to reading whatever Chris Whitaker has to offer. Highly highly recommended! 

All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker is out now, published by Zaffre. 

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.

The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith

I love picking up debuts, and The Things We Thought We Knew had already been sitting on my bookshelf for too long. I loved the premise, had spotted Mahsuda Snaith in The Observer’s ‘Faces of Fiction’ earlier this year, and Emily Glenister (of Goldsboro Books/David Headley fame) had assured me that it was ‘brilliant.’ So on the train home from Hay Festival, I dived in. 


Ravine is bedbound by chronic pain syndrome, a condition I cannot begin to get my head around. She lies in bed, ignoring her mother’s spectacular efforts to get her out of the house, until she is presented with a jauntily-named ‘Pain Diary’. Instead of recording pain (for some reason), Ravine remembers Marianne, her best friend when she was eight, and who vanished ten years ago. And as Ravine writes down what she can remember, her endless pain begins to fade. 

This is a beautifully written, convincing and heartbreaking novel, about childhood friendships and about buried childhood memories, with a painful reveal guaranteed to bring tears. However, it’s also, often, hysterically funny. Ravine’s dry observations about her life and her mother are laugh-out-loud material: the book opens with Amma inviting the entire neighbourhood round for a birthday party, despite Ravine’s express desire for ‘no balloons, no cake, no party. But somehow Amma’s brain has churned my words into all the balloons she can blow up, the biggest cake she can bake and as many party items as she can fill the room with.’ 

The Things We Thought We Knew is a book filled with gloriously memorable characters, from the loveable and tragic Uncle Walter, to the grieving ‘Mr Eccentric’ but Amma is a standout. She’s a strong contender for ‘best literary mother’: pairing trainers with saris (in the name of common sense), naming her daughter after a headline she saw on the day she was born (‘Young man drowns in ravine’) and making sarky quips about Gordon Brown (the book takes place during the 2010 election). But she’s also caring and savvy, and determined to help her bedbound daughter live a normal life. Ravine ironically, is equally determined to stay put, even after her pain fades, infantilising herself, as her mother encourages her to grow up. 

Even if Ravine’s recovery from chronic pain syndrome feels a little sudden, that doesn’t take away from a compelling read, with a clever and original concept, and packed with terrific, well-drawn characters. A fresh and exciting first novel, and I look forward to reading more from the author. 

The Things We Thought We Knew by Mahsuda Snaith is out now. 

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

‘My mother was famous, though she never wanted to be. Hers wasn’t the kind of fame anyone would wish for. Jaycee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Elizabeth Smart – that kind of thing, though my mother was none of them…’ This is the enticing opening of The Marsh King’s Daughter, both an enthralling, eerie and gut-wrenching thriller, and a stunning, poetic homage to the great outdoors.

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Helena is the grown-up daughter of a woman who was kidnapped as a teenager, and kept captive. Similarly to that other great novel Room, she was ensnared by a man asking for help finding his dog, but rather than being kept in a purpose-built ‘room’ she was then taken to his isolated cabin in Michigan to be his ‘wife’, keep his home and bear him children, before she had even turned 16. The family lived as Ojibwe, a Native American tribe, even though, as Helena notes wryly, ‘imagine my surprise when I discovered the mother of the man I’d always thought of as Ojibwa was blonde and white.’

At the age of twelve, having had no contact with the outside world, Helena was eventually able to flee with her mother, and after a two year manhunt, her father was jailed for life. But now, he has escaped, and Helena knows that he’ll be coming for her. Now married with two children, having successfully kept her past hidden until now, she plans to capture him first. No one knows the great outdoors like Jacob Holbrook. No one will be best placed to evade capture, leaving misleading trails for the police. No one will be able to keep up with him – except possibly Helena. As she sets off after him, the story cuts back and forth between Helena tracking her father, and the story of her childhood, how she and her mother eventually escaped, and how she was thrust, painfully unprepared, into a totally unfamiliar new world.

As a child, Helena idolised her father, who taught her how to kill, how to survive and how to move around unseen and unheard. In many ways, the way Helena tells it, hers was an idyllic, outdoorsy upbringing for someone who knew no better. But even then, although she evidently idolised her father, darkness flashes through. His harsh discipline extends to smashing down on a bruised hand to teach her not to be so clumsy, and locking her in a well for days on end. Reflecting on the aftermath, Helena rationally knows that everything her father did was wrong, but reader is justifiably unconvinced that she’ll be able to go through with capturing him. On the kidnap and rape of her mother, she reasons, ‘He wanted a wife. No woman in her right mind would have joined him on that ridge. When you look at the situation from that point of view, what else was he supposed to do?

Denied even a name, her mother gets fairly short shrift in Helena’s tale. Helena sympathises with her mother, who died shortly before the book opened, having never been able get over her years of captivity, and often regrets not having been more understanding of her plight, but whilst her father features vividly in her story, her mother feels like a sad mouse of a character, unable to help her daughter, or defend herself from the horrifying situation in which she’s found herself. Helena often questions her mother’s version of events, asserting that she even was happy in spite of herself on occasion.

All suitably depressing stuff, but what lifts the story from a great thriller to an exceptional novel are the stunning details of the outdoors that Helena loves, from crunching through snow, to stalking deer, and even just watching crows blend in with the trees. The natural world is both uplifting, and terrifying, for although Helena loves it, and can use it her advantage, we know her father can too. Who will triumph in the inevitable reckoning?

A completely breathtaking thriller, both terrifyingly suspenseful, and beautifully atmospheric, which, oddly, really made me want to go camping… Many thanks the utterly fabulous Ella Bowman, for urgently pressing this memorable and original book into my hands!

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne is published 29th June by Sphere.

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.