The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
The Family Upstairs is a stellar addition to Lisa Jewell’s collection that has been recently picked for the Richard and Judy Book Club – it’s clear to see why. This unique and explosive thriller plays on the idea of secret cults in an absorbing and quirky story.
This is an intriguing narrative, with chapters that show both the past and present. I loved this format as it gave an insight into the different characters from each timeline. I was desperate to know what had happened to Henry, the boy from the past, whose hidden storyline kept me hooked.
Henry himself was odd, with an obsessive and slightly dangerous nature about him. As becomes clear throughout the book, he suffered serious trauma. It is hinted, however, that he was different before this trauma so it is interesting to see how such events further his character development.
Moving to the present day, Libby is an adorable character. The reader is able to connect with her in many ways; from her attitude towards dating (who doesn’t want to find the perfect partner?) to her shock at acquiring inheritance. Libby’s journey is about discovering what happened to her birth parents, and it is here where the link between Libby and Henry becomes clearer.
If you think you can guess what happens in this book, think again. Each time I thought I’d figured something out, I was shocked. Yet Jewell doesn’t overdo the twists and turns – she gets it just right, with a gripping and fascinating plot that maintains the reader’s interest throughout. One thing I liked is that despite what appears to be a happy ending, Jewell doesn’t relent fully, and an element of chilling intrigue always remains…
How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? Essays on Modern Life by Pandora Sykes
Spoiler: we don’t.
In her first book, Pandora Sykes, half of the High Low duo, articulates the thoughts of the modern reader. By highlighting and underpinning problems we have all encountered in our lives, but never had the forethought or scope to collect together, Sykes’ writing is curious and diverting but not unique. I say this not as a critique but rather a reflection on the amount of times Sykes’ words made me pause and think ‘yes, that is exactly what I felt’. Uniqueness, in this case, is a rarity which Sykes rejects in order to prove that we are not alone in our uncertainty.
It is important to note that Sykes’ collection represents the struggles of the white, middle-class woman; a figure that she embodies and acknowledges early on. Whilst potentially unrelatable to some, these essays nonetheless expose the reality of a burgeoning British middle class. From wellness fads (hello, rose quartz) to the conflicting voices of modern feminism, a particular highlight was Relentless Pleasure, an essay probing our relationship with the endless supply of content available to be streamed 24/7. Since when did catching up on the latest boxset feel like homework?!
How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? is a wide reaching examination of womanhood in the 21st century, complete with truths we’d rather ignore and the realities of an era of chaos whereby our rapacious appetites are gorged by fast fashion (epitomised by ‘that’ Zara dress), Netflix and social media. Although clunky at times, Sykes’ collection is well thought through, relatable and will leave you feeling a little less alone.
Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape by Jini Reddy
Despite the much-needed recent action in the publishing industry to feature more BIPOC authors on our bookshelves, one genre is still conspicuously dominated by white, male voices: nature writing. Amongst well-known bestsellers by Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin, it is refreshing to see a new face in the genre’s bestseller charts: Jini Reddy.
Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape is Reddy’s hunt for wonder in Britain’s natural world. There is no right way to appreciate the history of the British countryside, especially as rural life is not always charming or even particularly pleasant. The inaccessible canon of nature writing gods such as Macfarlane and Deakin, as well as the ancient stories of Britain’s mythic past, can feel insurmountable, especially for non-white writers such as Reddy. She identifies with the Other in nature as she grapples with the Othering of her very presence in these rural and literary spaces. Reddy, like many readers, feels “too conventional for the hardcore wildlife tribe… not logical enough for the scientists, not ‘listy’ enough for the birder types, not enough of a ‘green thumb’ for the gardeners.” Reddy is thus an accessible, frank voice that divulges the sometimes uncomfortable, self-conscious realities of her journey.
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and the contributors of the Willowherb Review are other emerging voices that celebrate nature writers of colour, but it is brilliant to see Reddy doing well on the bestseller charts. Wanderland has even received a stamp of approval from Macfarlane himself. This book feels more crucial than ever in the context of lockdown, as we examine the things we have always taken for granted. Wanderland reminds us to look out of the window, to relish our own personal view as well as the one we gaze upon.