History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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It’s always great to see debut novelists on the Man Booker lists. It feels like we have been given a privileged opportunity to be there right from the beginning. The work a debut novelist has to do to see their book in print is often tremendous and all too often first novels vanish making barely a ripple. So I welcome American author Fridlund’s book onto the longlist.

We are in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, the home of fourteen year old main character Madeline, known as “Linda” but to some at school as “Freak”. She lives with her parents in the remains of a commune, without a great deal of parental intervention and with mainly the tethered dogs for company.

Two things change for Linda. A new teacher invites her to participate in a Schools Challenge for which she chooses the “history of wolves” and a family move opposite her across the lake with Paul, a young child for who Linda begins to babysit. These events provide Linda’s entry into an adult world as she becomes drawn towards both the teacher and the new family’s life. We learn very early on that this leads to the death of a child.

The tale meanders around different times in Linda’s life but it is the main thread of the teenager’s search for belonging and an end to her aching loneliness that is by far the most involving. The warped values of the world she inhabits also very much motivates the adult Linda. It is a very calm book, perhaps surprisingly with its distressing emotive themes but it lacks a little of the build I would look for in a book of this kind. I felt it petering out before the end. Linda’s existence is evocatively created, however, and a number of scenes will stick in my mind for some time but it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.

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History of Wolves was published by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson in February 2017

 

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Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today.  Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives.  Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.

I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation.  I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013).  In an interview following the story she says of this source material;

“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”

 I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go.  If you know it, you know it.  If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise.  It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.

Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley.  Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family.  Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned.  We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused.  She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy.  On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.

I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents.  This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media.  Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on.  The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary.  I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses.  Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.  Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was  reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority.  So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read.  The battle is on…………..

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Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017

 

 

Mama Tandoori – Ernest Van Der Kwast (Scribe 2017)

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Dutch author Ernest Van Der Kwast made his breakthrough with this 2010 Netherlands and Italian best-seller translated now into English by Laura Vroomen.  Publishers Scribe have done a great job in the recent past bringing Dutch authors to wider attention- their 2006 publication of Tommy Wieringa’s “Joe Speedboat” is the current Reviewsrevues Book of The Year and here is another strong title.

“Mama Tandoori” is a study of a family with Dutch and Indian parents.  An autobiographical novel which focuses on Ernest’s mother whose outrageous behaviour verges on the monstrous.  She is a woman determined to get her own way as cheaply as possible.  I was initially quite resilient to Van Der Kwast’s fictional account of his childhood whilst reading of a trip to Lourdes with his disabled brother but the novel really began to draw me in when other adult characters were added to the mix. I found myself fascinated by Uncle Sharma who came from a dirt-poor background and was transported by a visiting outdoor cinema into dreams of becoming a movie star, which came to be realised. From here things all fall into place and I seemed to appreciate more the wider family dynamics.  Mother herself became a more rounded character in my mind when running alongside her competing son on the athletics track and proving to be too nervous to pin on his race number.

There is no doubt that this character can be mean but this meanness does become more appealing in a tragi-comic way.  Her ploy to get a fitted kitchen out of her husband’s dying grandmother is shocking but you cannot help but admire the gall of this character.  The humour is ramped up by the contrast between the narrator’s unemotionally “wooden-hipped” Dutch relatives and the fiery passion and determination of the Indian women.  His mother will both shock you and win you over in laugh-out-loud moments.

Van Der Kwast writes in a likeable, easy style which makes the book feel highly visual and enjoyable.  It has certainly made me keen to read his take on the Italians in his Dolomites-set family saga “The Ice Cream Makers” also published as a Scribe paperback.

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Mama Tandoori is published on 10th August 2017  by Scribe.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

 

 

The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Picador 2017)

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A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change.  Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive.  It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.

Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers.  These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.

But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities.  Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.

The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel.  Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable.  It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.

I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense.  His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.

Robert Seethaler has written five novels.  His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.  This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.

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The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.

100 Essential Books – All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2107)

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Chris Whitaker’s debut “Tall Oaks” was highly enjoyable and received considerable critical acclaim.  It also gained him an interview on reviewsrevues.com on my Author Strikes Back thread.  His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet worked well due to Whitaker’s skilful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds.  Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst.  There’s more of this in his latest novel set in the small town of Grace, Alabama in 1995.  This is the novel Chris referred to as “The Summer Cloud” in our interview.  Now, with a title change, I was looking forward to reading it.

People in Grace are dominated by their back stories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface.  The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself.  The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads.

I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel “The Church Of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns which I loved and which should be due for a re-read yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation.   Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine who take the search into their hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy.  There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders.  Also damaged and addictive is Police Chief Black who shows the author is great at adult characters too.  The plot is darker than “Tall Oaks” and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play.  I marvel at how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.

“Tall Oaks” showed the potential but this is the real deal…………………….”

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All The Wicked Girls is published by Zaffre on the 24th August 2017.  Make a note of the title for a perfect late summer read.  Many thanks to nudge and the publishers for the advance review copy.

Queer City – Peter Ackroyd (2017) – A Real Life Review

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With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.

So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.

Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.

Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”

What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”

He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.

For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.

After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”

So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.

This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,

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Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.

Don’t Wake Up- Liz Lawler (Twenty Seven 2017)- A Murder They Wrote Review

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Liz Lawler was obviously paying full attention when told that a debut novel needs to grab readers right from the start as the opening chapters of this novel certainly pack a punch. As an ex-nurse Lawler is totally convincing at setting the scene in her thriller set largely in a Bristol hospital.

Twenty-eight year old Doctor Alex Taylor is good at her job and well respected by colleagues. She has a handsome vet as her boyfriend but her life changes the moment she wakes up on an operating theatre table. Why she is there and what will happen to her provides those opening chills.

I think Lawler has made a brave move in opting to write a “nobody believes me” novel because these are often on a fine line. It’s easy to stretch plausibility and readers can lose sympathy with the character not being taken seriously as their actions, which often lead them down deeper holes and further suspicion can be perceived as them being stupid. Liz Lawler does largely avoid this although at times Alex is frustrating and not always likeable, but then she is in some predicament. It certainly kept me reading but personally I wasn’t completely won over. The author puts her main character through scenes of torture which made me feel a little grubby after reading them. I wasn’t totally convinced by her male characters in particular Detective Inspector Greg Turner who is assigned to Dr Taylor’s case. After such a tremendous beginning I did not feel that the novel always flowed smoothly.

I don’t often read this kind of commercial misery-thriller and I would admit that it would have to be fairly extraordinary to blow me away so perhaps it wasn’t the greatest match for me but if I haven’t put you off with this and you like being chilled right from the start this debut is well worth seeking out.

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Available now in a Kindle edition. “Don’t Wake Up” will be published as a paperback in October 2017. Many thanks to Twenty Seven and Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read a review copy.

The Brazilian – Rosie Millard (Legend Press 2017) – A Chick-Lit From A Male Point Of View Review

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In a Victoria Wood tribute I watched recently I saw for the umpteenth time “The Shoe Shop Sketch” and I laughed at every single line, as always, feeling almost overwhelmed by laughter at the end.  Such a clever writer.  It got me wondering what would have happened if Victoria had followed the lead of chums Celia Imrie and Julie Walters and written a novel.  Would she have gone for comedy and would it even have worked?  Would it have been possible to sustain her brand of humour (which I find very funny) over the entire length of a novel.  To do this is notoriously difficult……

 

Legend Press invited me to read Rosie Millard’s second comic novel “The Brazilian”.  Rosie is a journalist and as BBC Arts correspondent has been on the TV herself a fair few times so eases herself into that group of women novelists that includes Dawn French,  Fern Britton, Celia Imrie,  Meera Syal and Helen Lederer who we feel we know something about already due to a public persona and “celebrity status”.  So long as they are written by the person named on the cover (not Katie Price then), I’m really quite interested in reading them.  In fact, it was a celebrity moment, a television appearance on the fairly ghastly sounding “Celebrity Five Go To Lanzarotte” in which Rosie took part which provided the inspiration for this novel.

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Rosie Millard

Rosie has cleverly incorporated the characters from her first novel about North London neighbours in “The Square” (2015) into a holiday setting, rather in the way that comedy classic “Are You Being Served?” did when it was expanded into a movie, but here with much better results.  I read and reviewed “The Square” and enjoyed it as a North London comedy of (bad) manners which evolved from the location so I initially felt that uprooting some of these upmarket existences felt like a bit of a risk.  I said of the first novel; “Most of the women are ghastly and the men not worthy of any of the female lustful attentions” but that certainly doesn’t diminish its comic potential and by opening it all out into a relaxed holiday setting the women can become more ghastly and the men less worthy.  Over the years much situation comedy has indeed focused on ghastly women and inept men.

The location for all this is Ibiza.  A couple of The Square residents have been chosen to take part in a daytime reality show “Ibiza (Or Bust)”; there’s a holiday for Jayne, Patrick and their son where a babysitter is needed and with boyfriends and wives making their way over to the island it takes about eight characters out of “The Square”.  I’m sorry that recently rich lottery winner Tracey has only a bit part to play here.  Central character this time round is Jayne who during her family holiday becomes more monstrous, self-centred and devious than in the previous novel.

The title refers to both a character from the Reality Show and a certain waxing Jayne has in preparation for her holiday.  The TV show aspect gives it more structure and ensures it builds towards a climax rather than lose momentum (which I feel “The Square” was a little guilty of).  There’s some new characters to spice things up.  I must admit I like my humour a little warmer than what is on display here but the prickly comic situations are enjoyable enough although I didn’t laugh out loud.

The cover compares Rosie Millard to Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen and Arnold Bennett but that’s more fitting of the socially mannered “The Square”.  If we’re looking for a classic comic comparison I’d be more likely to go with E F Benson and his monstrous characters Mapp and Lucia who gave him enough comic potential and staying power to last six novels.  I think there’s still potential for the author to go further with these characters.  Taking them back to “The Square” with their Ibiza experience behind them could pay dividends.  All in all, although I preferred the set-up of the first novel I think that “The Brazilian” is better structured, the humour is more sustained and therefore a more satisfying sequel.

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The Brazilian is published on 14th June 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

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I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

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Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Ginny Moon – Benjamin Ludwig (HQ 2017)

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I tend to steer clear of child neglect and abuse in my fiction choices yet there was something about this American author’s debut that had me interested right from the blurb.  It begins four years after the neglect of autistic teenager Ginny who has now settled with a “Forever” family .  With adopted mum having her first baby and Ginny discovering the whereabouts of her birth mother the uneasy balance topples.

Narrated by Ginny over nearly four months with exact timings (an obsession with time being part of her condition) this is certainly a novel of an outsider attempting to make sense of a world where people are unreliable and use expressions which confuse and bewilder.  Ginny, very much the life-breath of Ludwig’s tale, finds herself having to misbehave, adapt the truth and steal in order to put what she believes to be wrong, right. It’s a tale which is both heartwarming and alienating, funny and sad.  Ludwig whose motivation was his own adopted autistic teenager clearly shows how the best intentions can be wrongly interpreted with potentially tragic results.

I was captivated by Ginny and her tale, but that does not mean that the reader will not experience frustration nor not be shocked by her challenging behaviour.  She does make a superb, flawed narrator.  I’m not sure how Harper Collins would want to market this.  A Young adult/teen market seems plausible yet like Mark Haddon’s crossover “Curious Incident Of The Dog..” it could work better with our adult experience looking back at what for us all are the bewildering adolescent years, let alone for someone with Ginny’s challenges.  This is a strong debut.

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Ginny Moon is published in May 2017 by HQ.  Many thanks to Real Readers and the publishers for the advance review copy.