Smokin Books

On My Radar: Books of March

My desk looks like a literary metropolis. Spinesville. Current population: 31. These towering skyscrapers of proofs and paperbacks are evidence of my inherent inability to put anything away properly, but my current situation is also because last month I was lucky enough to attend a few publisher showcases and was given a selection of cracking new books to read and shout about.

I’m the kind of girl that can’t help but dip into the cooking sherry so I’ve already read ahead into some of June’s releases, but this little post is limited to the books I recommend you drum up a bit of enthusiasm for in March. If you don’t have the dollar for them this month, add them to that scrappy list you keep in the back of your diary or on your phone, that list of books you don’t want to forget about that’s usually expanded after a few pints, when everything seems appealing.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing (new in paperback, 2nd March, Canongate).
I’ve been itching to read this since the hardback made waves in March of last year. Exploring the relationship between loneliness in art and loneliness in real life, Laing’s meditation on being alone made several prominent Books of the Year 2016 lists including The Guardian, The Telegraph and New Statesman.

Nasty Women compiled by 404 Ink (8th March, 404 Ink).
What better way is there to celebrate International Women’s Day? Aren’t we all absolutely buzzing in our britches over this crowd-funded essay collection? From 404ink.com: “From working class experience to sexual assault, being an immigrant, divides in Trump’s America, Brexit, pregnancy, contraception, Repeal the 8th, identity, family, finding a voice, punk, role models, fetishisation, power – this timely book covers a vast range of being a woman today.”

Everyone is Watching by Megan Bradbury (new in paperback, 9th March, Picador).
This is a portrait of New York, peering over the shoulder of four key New Yorkers: Walt Whitman, Robert Moses, Robert Mapplethorpe and Edmund White. I am naturally drawn to anything that might involve Patti Smith and so of course I’m feeling like the anticipatory-wiggle-cat gif when I think about this book. You can read an extract here:

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (new in paperback, 9th March, Corsair).
On (well, the day after but it’s actually in stores already) International Women’s Day, why not put your money where your mouth is and pick up this absolutely stunning collection of stories that meditate on Blackness, immigration, asylum, political activism, grief, exhaustion, parenthood, writing, rebelling, fucking up and atonement? These stories cross space and time, from 1960s Brixton to present day Sri Lanka, stopping off in Kingston, New Orleans and Sydney in between. This is an essential collection to read in 2017.

The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest (new in paperback, 9th March, Bloomsbury).
I felt lukewarm about Let Them Eat Chaos, but the debut novel from spoken word poet Kate Tempest is on my radar as it’s been compared to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace (23rd March, Andrews McMeel).
From the same publisher as best-selling internet sensation Milk & Honey, Andrews McMeel are clearly going for a similar vibe with this one. Suits me as I’m down to try anything twice. I loved Milk & Honey – who didn’t? – and I’m constantly trying (and failing) to widen my poetry-reading net, so perhaps I’ll give this a spin.

What’s on your radar for March? What have I missed?

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Smokin Books

My Top Ten Books of 2016

I love numbers so here are some for you to enjoy: this year, I’ve read 60 books. Of those 60, 47 were written by women, 41 were released in 2016, 20 were thrillers, eight were YA, six were short story collections, four were non-fiction, four were poetry, three will be released in 2017, two were re-reads, one was a graphic novel. The list below only includes books released in 2016, and I’ve included one cheeky one that I read in 2015 that was released this year. If it were to be a top ten of all the books I’ve read, I would have to include Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, but what you do with that information is your own business.

1. The Lauras by Sara Taylor
This is both a road trip novel and a coming-of-age story about a non-binary teenager and their formidable mother. Over countless cups of coffee, plates of eggs and cigarettes in roadside diners, Ma – often begrudgingly – tells Alex about all the women and girls that shaped her life as they travel from state to state, repaying debts and paying dues. This book surprised me. It reminds me of Sarah by JT LeRoy, but with a massive slice of compassion and soul.

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2. Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman
With a small town backdrop of secluded woodlands and a remote lake, best friends Dex and Lacey take turns to tell their story. It’s a bloody story, a story of sex, death, rumours, Satanism and Kurt Cobain. Girls on Fire thrums with the hot, heavy rawness of early Nirvana and burns with the witchy intense passion of a teenage girl.

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3. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock directed Patricia Highsmith’s Carol, and you’ll have a close approximation to the mood of this book. Eileen made some primal level of dread unfurl within me with just one sentence. It’s a book that covers some familiar themes – friendship, loneliness, womanhood – but it’s also quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year. I also feel the less you know about the plot, the better: Eileen, a desperately lonely young woman, works in a prison for young offenders where she meets a new friend, the glamorous Rebecca.

4. The Girls by Emma Cline
Do we need to talk about The Girls? One of 2016’s darlings, it’s set in 1969. Awkward teenager Evie meets bohemian free spirit Suzanne and, well, one thing leads to another until she finds herself to be a hanger on in a Charles Mansonesque cult. The writing style is almost breathless, dreamy and illusory, with vivid detail. This is the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly with a squeeze of The Beach by Alex Garland and I loved it very, very much.

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5. Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg
This is a book written in the strange language of children trapped in the microcosm of a cult. Much like Room by Emma Donoghue, it’s claustrophobic and intensely unnerving. Sisters Blue and Green remind me of Iris and Laura from The Blind Assassin.

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6. The Graces by Laure Eve
The Graces is a cocktail of everything I love in a good book: glamorous and angsty, it’s as thick as a tarot deck and absolutely riveting. New girl River thinks she’s fallen on her feet when she’s befriended by the beautiful, mysterious trio of siblings known as the Graces. Everyone thinks the Grace family, with their bohemian names and gothic clothes, are witches… and they’re not wrong.

7. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
A rare slice of non-fiction: I don’t know anyone who didn’t love this memoir. It’s about an alcoholic’s return to the choppy shores of Orkney, following her realisation that her life in London is a self-destructive mess.

8. Beside Myself by Ann Morgan
Simple premise with a complex and intelligent execution: a pair of chalk-and-cheese twins swap places for an afternoon and then one decides the grass is greener and refuses to swap back.I have to be brutally honest: at first, I thought the concept was fucking ridiculous – how could this possibly happen? – but Morgan is a smarter woman than I am and she absolutely outfoxed me. This is essential reading for fans of psychological thrillers with a bit of emotional depth, but also, if you have absolutely any interest in creative narrative structures, you have to read this book.

9. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
This is the book I wish I’d read as a teenager. Queens of both the beauty pageant and drag variety come together to the dulcet tones of Dolly Parton’s Jolene. Fat girls, friendship and country music. What more could your heart possibly desire? Well, nothing if you read it with cava and cake in bed.

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10. One by Sarah Crossan
This one is best served whole, in one giant gulp. Written in free verse, each chapter is structured like a poem, allowing a brevity to the prose that makes it such a quick and addictive read. One introduces conjoined twins Tippi and Grace as they make the change from home school to high school. It’s a thoughtful and emotional sucker punch.

I would love to know what you thought of any and all of the books on this list and what you intend to read from it. Hit me up on Twitter!

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May: Smokin’ Books

This edition of Smokin’ Books is fashionably late because I turned thirty over the weekend and I had to deal with that. I actually feel pretty chill about turning thirty. Let’s do our thirties now, etc. I’ve been balls deep in great books this month – a flight to Prague helped speed things along. I always travel with a book for each leg of a journey, one for whilst I’m there and a back up book just in case. The one time I didn’t follow this simple formula, I ran out of books by the flight home and it was a fucking disaster. I had to read The Alchemist.

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The Girls by Emma Cline.
California, 1969: a long, lonely summer of suburban ennui is shattered when fourteen year old Evie meets bohemian free spirit Suzanne. This is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets The Poison Tree with a squeeze of The Beach and I loved it very, very much. The writing style is almost breathless, dreamy and vivid, like the elaborate diary of a teenage girl. I feel like this is up there in “most anticipated books this summer” and if you can afford the hardback, I urge you to pick it up asap. (UK release: June 16th).

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Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey.
Elyria hitches rides with strangers, sleeps in barns, hangs out in roadside diners and gradually reveals why she opted to leave the rain and pain of New York to hitchhike around New Zealand on her own. This book reminds me of Ali Smith’s The Accidental – the run on sentences and the recklessness and the slippery protagonist – if the Accidental had just stuck with the irreverent Amber. Nobody is Ever Missing has a really distinctive voice that won’t be for everyone, but I have a soft spot for books about women like Elyria; women who are young and struggling to work out who they are versus who those around them want or expect them to be.

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Fell by Jenn Ashworth.
If books always had their own fragrance, Fell would smell like saltwater and mildew. Narrated by the ghosts of the Annette’s parents as they watch their adult daughter return to their dilapidated family home, Fell is a ghost story unlike any other. Fell isn’t trying to be frightening or overly melancholic, but it strikes a chord somewhere between a thriller and a nostalgic telling of a childhood lost. As I read Fell, I understood that Jenn Ashworth is a writer that I just implicitly trust to take me somewhere I want to be. (Although I also feel like I need to reread A Kind of Intimacy with my fat politics hat on so there’s that). (UK release: July 14th).

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
The Vegetarian is one of those books that crawled into my heart and died there. It’s so much darker than I imagined, with some beautiful and disturbing imagery that I’m sure I won’t forget for a very long time. There is a duality between beauty and ugliness in The Vegetarian: flowers painted on naked skin, nipples through a summer shirt. It’s a slim volume that cut deep, that really hurts, like a hangnail or a papercut.

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I Love Dick by Chris Kraus.
This is one of those marmite books: some readers say it’s one of the most important books they’ve ever read whilst others seem to hate it. Ever the contrarian, I feel the same way about I Love Dick as I do about marmite: yeah it’s alright. I like it as a crisp flavour but I wouldn’t have it on toast. It’s a book about obsession and the breaking down of socially constructed barriers. It’s also a book about intellectualism and fucking (is that a genre?). It reminded me of a more theory-drenched (dare I say less engaging?) Eat My Heart Out by Zoe Pilger. I love books about women going off-piste and breaking rules and hearts and records for wild behaviour though, so of course I lapped this up.

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April: Smokin’ Books

I’ve started to write little book reviews on Instagram (#smokinbooks via @smokintofu) and honestly, I’m having the time of my life. I’ve never felt more alive. Here’s April’s edition of Smokin’ Books:

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With a small town backdrop of secluded woodlands and a remote lake, best friends Dex and Lacey take turns to tell their story. It’s a bloody story, a story of sex, death, rumours, Satanism and Kurt Cobain. Girls on Fire thrums with the hot, heavy rawness of early Nirvana and burns with the witchy intense passion of a teenage girl. Read it if you like Megan Abbott’s The Fever, Rachel Klein’s The Moth Diaries, Jenn Ashworth’s Cold Light or Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge won the Costa Book of the Year 2016 – a banging accolade, but also because this makes Hardinge the first female YA author to win the overall prize (the first and only other Costa Children’s Book category winner to win the Book of the Year was Philip Pillman’s the Amber Spyglass in 2001. Make you think). It’s a slippery book about gender and death in the Victorian scientific community, but it’s also about family, loss, lies, ambition, social class and (most importantly) a fucking cracking ghost subplot. Faith is a riveting and fearless protagonist and I gulped through this book.

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If you haven’t come across Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube series Ask a Mortician, you’re in for a treat (if you can get past the wackiness – which I struggled with at first, but I overcame it due to the top notch content). Death according to Doughty is a complicated and taboo business – business in the literal, capitalist sense of the word. Doughty’s book is part memoir, part anthropological study and part history lesson. I love her voice because her use of humour juxtaposed with empathy reminds me of my father and the way he talked about his job as a surgeon: with wit and with passion, but ultimately with respect. This book won’t be for everyone (Doughty doesn’t believe in shying away from the nitty gritty and spares few details), but I urge you all to engage with the death-positive movement and give it a go.

Hanya Yanagihara-A Little Life



Everyone said it’s totally devastating. It is indeed totally devastating. A Little Life is a beautifully written, meticulously crafted novel that delivers the inevitable emotional sucker punch I was promised.

Although the blurb claims A Little Life is about four college graduates based in NYC, it’s really about Jude. It’s impossible to read A Little Life without falling in love with Jude, without obsessively worrying about Jude, without hoping that Jude gets some kind of respite from his traumatic past and painful present.

It’s a meandering, ponderous novel with the self-indulgence that only literary fiction can get away with. It’s also relentless: relentlessly grim, relentlessly harrowing, relentlessly hyerbolically traumatic. The detailed account of physical, emotional and sexual abuse is exhausting – but only because the characters are all so well formed, their pain and fears feel completely real. The thing is – and I feel like I must be the only person on the planet that felt this way – I’m not sure I particularly enjoyed the journey. By the time I reached the 700th page I just wanted the whole experience to be over.