Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a damaged child, trapped in a bad place. Well, technically, she’s not a child: she’s twenty four. But she’s undernourished, and stunted physically and mentally, trapped in a loveless home with an alcoholic, needy father. Who is abusive, in an emotionally battering sense. Oh, and it’s Christmas. The setting is a snowy New England town, only identified as X-ville. We are listening to the voice of Eileen as an old woman, looking back at the few weeks of her life in 1964 when she knew Rebecca Saint John. Rebecca turns up at the boys’ prison at which Eileen works as a secretary, brought in to plan an education programme for the inmates. A glamorous and beautiful oddity in the griminess of X-ville, she befriends Eileen,...

Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller

Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller

Two things will keep this a relatively short review. One: Christmas (because no, I still haven’t even made a list. Of anything). Two: because actually what I want to do is have a proper, in-depth, book-club-style conversation with other people who have read this. So think of the review as a taster. Put Swimming Lessons on your Christmas list (even though I’m sure you’ve had yours ready for months), anticipate its arrival in the dog-days of January, immerse yourself in every page and then get back to me. Tell me what you think, listen to what I think. We can have coffee. It’ll be great! Twelve years ago, Ingrid Coleman disappeared. Now her younger daughter, Flora, hears from her sister that their father, Gil, is claiming to have seen her....

The Penny Heart, by Martine Bailey

The Penny Heart, by Martine Bailey

I was going to start this by mentioning that this was the first Monday in August but, of course, it isn’t. It’s just that I’ve been picking blackberries (and yes, they get earlier every year) and also sloes (and it seems freakishly early for them…). Why is that relevant? Well, Martine Bailey writes culinary gothic, with eighteenth century mystery and dark practice mixed up with (and often directly affected by) what is going on in stately home kitchens. In her first novel, An Appetite for Violets, novice cook Biddy learns from a wise, if incoherent, woman about how food can influence the events of the world around her. The Penny Heart, out this month in paperback, takes this further, with the powerful side of baking unleashed at the hands...

Everything Love Is, by Claire King

Everything Love Is, by Claire King

Everything Love Is begins on a train, a delayed train on its way from Spain to Toulouse. A young woman, almost beyond the reach of speech, gives birth in the overwhelming heat of a packed carriage. The baby is born and the mother dies, without name or history. A lifetime later, and Baptiste is living on a boat, Candice, on the outskirts of Toulouse. He is a counsellor of sorts, helping clients to find happiness. There is a network of fellow boat-dwellers nearby, and a bar where he spends his evenings, chatting to Sophie behind the bar. He is tranquil, content. In the nearby countryside, his parents live their equally tranquil life. Baptiste’s beginnings, that anonymous birth on the train between Barcelona and Toulouse, are significant but not overwhelmingly...

The Farm at the Edge of the World, by Sarah Vaughan

The Farm at the Edge of the World, by Sarah Vaughan

I’m really enjoying second books at the moment. It’s usually the debuts that get all the fuss: debut novel awards, the puff on Twitter and Facebook, the feeling that this is the moment that counts. And us writers often talk about second novels as a challenge. Can we do it again? What if the first one was a fluke? What if we can’t even finish writing the second one?! But it turns out that everything is ok. I’ve read a number of seconds lately that have taken the position set by the debut and built on it quite beautifully. And The Farm at the Edge of the World is definitely one of them. Will Cooke has been evacuated from war-torn London to a remote Cornish farmhouse, nicknamed Skylark Farm, along with his younger sister Alice. He knows that...

The Museum of You, by Carys Bray

The Museum of You, by Carys Bray

I’m absolutely delighted to be welcoming Carys Bray today, on the publication day of her new novel, The Museum of You. Carys’ first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, was one of the books of 2014, winning, or being shortlisted for, a string of prizes over 2015. Hard act to follow, right? She’s done it, though: The Museum of You is captivating. Clover Quinn has just turned twelve, a significant birthday because, ‘in turning twelve she has crossed an unaccountable boundary.’ She has her own key, and is allowed to stay at home by herself in the summer holidays instead of going next door to be looked after by Mrs Mackerel. She has certain tasks to do, such as cycling to the allotment to pick the day’s harvest, but there’s still...

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks

I’m not usually drawn to books like this. Epic tale. Sweeping Biblical history. Prophets. Cataclysmically misjudged sexual encounters. Ok, that last crops up in my reading pile fairly regularly. One of the pleasures of reading through a longlist like the Baileys Prize is that you do try books you’d never have picked up in a million years. Some of them remain a trial, even with your best endeavours. This one, though… King David. The one with the slingshot facing up to Goliath. With the pretty woman in the bath. And the Leonard Cohen song. (That was a real bonus, fortunately, because it started looping round my head every time I picked my Kindle up: I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord. And so on). Him....