“The Favour” by Laura Vaughan

I was lucky enough to be given the chance to listen to the advance copy of the audiobook narrated by Helen Keeley, and I have to admit that I absolutely adored this story.

“This is not my place, these are not my people”. 

Quite a catchy mantra to illustrate the core of this beautiful book: how far would you go to fit in?

Ada is obsessed. Adopted as a baby by the great writer Anthony Howell, she is desperate to belong to his world, to be “one of them”. After his death when she was 13, she’d had to endure the disappointing ordinary life her mother wanted for her. 

However, a chance to reclaim her rightful destiny presents itself when her godmother offers to pay for her to embark on a trip throughout Italy: “The Dilettantes’ Discoveries”. 8 weeks amongst the elite society following a tradition established since the 17th century, to “delight” in arts and intellectual discovery and enjoy “la Bella Vita”. 

Ada has one goal: to become essential to those entitled and privileged people that are part of the voyage, to be part of their inner circle and appear indispensable. When tragedy strikes, the perfect opportunity to enmesh becomes reality, but at what cost?

Laura Vaughan’s writing is brilliant. I adored her exquisite depiction of Italy, its art and monuments, its streets and treasures. It made me travel right there and then to those places I have been to before and where I desperately long to go back to. She successfully made me feel the air and the heat on my skin, smell the scents, taste the food, bask in the beauty of this country. 

The characters are so full, complex and deep, you are compelled to try and enter their thoughts, only to be proven wrong about what you thought you knew.

Such a gripping mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end with exciting twists and turns. This book is a true delight. An successful immersion experience that I highly recommend. 

Thank you NetGalley and W.F.Howes Ltd for giving me the opportunity to listen to the audiobook in advance

Out 4 March 2021

Synopsis:

‘Absorbing, intelligent and atmospheric… Genius’ Elizabeth Haynes
_________________________

Fortune favours the fraud…


When she was thirteen years old, Ada Howell lost not just her father, but the life she felt she was destined to lead. Now, at eighteen, Ada is given a second chance when her wealthy godmother gifts her with an extravagant art history trip to Italy.

In the palazzos of Venice, the cathedrals of Florence and the villas of Rome, she finally finds herself among the kind of people she aspires to be: sophisticated, cultured, privileged. Ada does everything in her power to prove she is one of them. And when a member of the group dies in suspicious circumstances, she seizes the opportunity to permanently bind herself to this gilded set.

But everything hidden must eventually surface, and when it does, Ada discovers she’s been keeping a far darker secret than she could ever have imagined…

‘Intelligent, elegant and immersive’ Claire Kendal

‘A compulsive story, written with steely intelligence and wicked prose’ Elizabeth Buchan

ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE by Mike Gayle

“Apparently, loneliness is a bigger killer than cancer, can you imagine that?”

What an incredible and uplifting book. Mike Gayle’s writing is flawless and made me fall in love with all the characters. I could not get enough of it and did not want it to end. I cried, I laughed, I loved, I was so surprised by the unexpected twists and turns: this is the recipe for a 5 stars book. I don’t tend to give star rating as I don’t always consider it fair but there is no question from me here.

Meet Hubert Bird. 84 years old living in Bromley, speaking to his daughter Rose every week on the phone, living an uneventful quiet life, even though he pretends the opposite to Rose. When she announces she will be visiting for the first time in years from Australia, Hubert is caught up by the lies and the friends he invented: he only has a few months to build real life friendships to redeem himself. Since Joyce, the love of his life died 13 years ago, Hubert has slowly closed himself off from the world. But this is a wake-up call.

When his new neighbours Ashleigh and Layla force themselves into his life, Hubert cannot escape the glum realisation the he is deeply lonely. “People, it seemed, were either too busy, too closed off, too suspicious, or too deaf to make friends.”

Cleverly taking us back and forth from the late 50s when Hubert arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation all the way to his quest for friends today, Mike Gayle opens a window onto what it was like to be West Indian from Kingston in England. Racism, abuse, hardship, were unfortunately the lot of Hubert and his friends. Thankfully things have changed today but clearly not enough.

Through all those beautiful, complex and deep characters, Mike’s message is one of hope. Proof that if you are lucky enough to meet true love everything is possible. It is so important to be surrounded by people you love to get through tough times. When people get together behind a cause, it can truly make a profound difference and instigate change.

I am yet to read more books from Mike Gayle but he has definitely made it to my auto-order list with this beauty. It was love at first word, and I can only recommend you pick up a copy if you haven’t already read it.

With love,
AGJ

Paperback published in 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton

“DREAMLAND” by Rosa Rankin – Gee

In a dystopian “near” future, the inequalities are reaching their paroxysm. 

Paid to “relocate” to a desolated version of Margate, Chance and her family settle there as best as they could. 

Amid a life of drugs, abuse and theft, Chance finally meets a girl her own age from London: Francesca aka Franky. Falling under her spell, Chance even introduces her to Davey, her best friend, and Blue, the sweet little boy that is the ray of sunshine of her family. 

As their relationship evolves the world around them unravels, with rumors of extremism seeping through the government politics getting increasingly potent. 

Climate change is bringing dangerous tides and waves that could well be sinking the coastal towns, and so called humanitarians start interfering in the community’s affairs; 

A poignant, cleverly written book where Rosa Rankin-Gee is sounding the alarm. An eye-opening story showing us what could be the future if we do not act against inequalities, extremism and climate change. This book also makes you appreciate what you have in life and that you can easily take for granted. 

Thank you Net Galley and Simon & Schuster for granting my request to read the advance e-copy. 

Available to pre-order – publication date 15 April 2021 (by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd)

CW: drug use, sex, violence, death. 

Synopsis:

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Dreamland/Rosa-Rankin-Gee/9781471193811

“WE ARE ALL BIRDS OF UGANDA” by Hafsa Zayyan

“We were trying to exterminate them for a while [but] you can’t exactly stop birds from flying, can you? […] In a way, I suppose we are all birds of Uganda.” What a beautiful metaphor used by Hafsa Zayyan in her truly accomplished debut novel broaching the subject of migration and its consequences.

In today’ society where so many of us travel to and live in different countries to the one we were born in (including myself!), you would really hope that racism would be eradicated. Through a very well crafted love story, Hafsa Zayyan (winner of the Merky Books New Writer’s Prize) shows us that it is unfortunately not the case.

Cleverly switching from the contemporary story of Sameer, 26 year old London city lawyer born in Leicester, to the life of his grandfather Hasan in Uganda in the 20th century, Hafsa is offering us a very astute parallel between two worlds, both being quite different but paradoxically so similar, filled with complex characters mirroring each other.

Working relentlessly day and night at the law firm, Sameer is selected to go to Singapore and help set up a new office there. He shies away from breaking the news to his parents. He knows that they will refuse to understand this, as they expect him to take over the family business and marry a girl from the local mosque according to family tradition and culture. Trying to convince himself this move is a great opportunity, something still nags at him but he cannot figure out what. In the weeks preceding his departure, tragedy strikes one of his best friends back in Leicester, forcing him to feel the devastation and face the wrath of his parents. When an old family friend who knew and lived with his grandfather in Uganda comes and visits, Sameer suddenly feels the need to go and discover this amazing country, and maybe find the answer to what is troubling him deep down.

As for Hasan, the reader gets to discover him through the love letters he wrote to his departed wife Amira. With him, we are transported to Uganda in the 20th century (between 1945 and 1981), witnessing Sameer’s origins alongside the major events of this time there: independence from Britain, the rise of nationalism and racial tensions, political coup and pure hatred of non African, the expulsion of Asians out of Uganda, before being allowed back in after the end of the dictatorship.

Producing an easy read out of a heavy subject like racism is no easy feat. Mixing stereotypes and perception, past and present, history and fiction, love and betrayal, Hafsa wittily makes us face the reality of racism through many of its countless faces: from the unconscious daily bias, workplace discrimination, familial beliefs and expectations, social media slander, to the blatant hatred and violence towards people of a different colour. What is also brilliantly depicted is the irony of it all: even the victims of racism are guilty of perpetuating it in a different way; and everyone has its own “motivation”: tradition, culture, obligation, wealth redistribution, fear, love, hate etc.

How do you make things better? How do you consciously stop the bias, even an unconscious one? Have things really changed between Uganda in the 1970s and England today?

A truly thought provoking novel which makes you wonder and question yourself and the world long after putting it down. A real success. I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and cannot wait to read Hafsa’s next work.

Thank you very much to Net Galley and Merky Books for sharing this beautiful story with me even though I requested it after publication. Thank you Hafsa Zayyan for captivating us with your words.

Book published on 21 January 2021
An imprint of Merky Books

Disclaimer: opinions are my own.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

As challenging as 2020 has been for obvious reasons, it has had the benefit to force me to stop and reflect upon my life and my accomplishments. I suddenly realised with dread that having spent the last 15 years evolving in the world of law without stopping, I had somewhat managed to loose myself.

Where has disappeared the fierce actress, dancer, writer, scientist, historian, archaeologist, astronaut, craving to always learn more, never satisfied, never standing still? That child that I once was and who is somehow hiding away in the depth of my soul?

We spend too much time as adults taming away that inner child, we silence them too drastically and we loose track of what makes the essence of who we are.

Enough is enough. It is about time to bring back some sense of purpose to the spaceship I am flying through this world. David Bowie’s words keep on resonating deep in me “Ground Control to Major Tom: it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare”. There are too many other unknown worlds to explore.

So here I am, “stepping out the door” with a brand new perspective, ready to take the plunge and writing a new chapter – literally – by starting my very own blog. The aim is principally to share my views and reviews on books and literary gems from all genres.

However, if there is one thing I despise, it is being circumscribed to one thing. So I reserve the right to write about many other subjects such as gemology, travel, music and other life’s treasures which form part of who I am.

If you feel like embarking on this journey through outer space with me, please follow me on social media https://www.instagram.com/anne_galmiche_johnson/, https://www.facebook.com/anne.galmichejohnson/, https://twitter.com/anne_galmiche, and via my blog https://agjbooksandgems.com.

One thing is for sure, “the stars look very different today” and it feels amazing to free dive into the cloud(s).

With love,

Anne G-J

Anne.G.J

Credit italic: “Space Oddity” by David Bowie.

Picture of “The Big Splash” by Joe Webb.

“WE ARE BELLINGCAT – An intelligence agency for the People” by Eliot Higgins

Happy Publication Day !!

Synopsis: « We Are Bellingcat tells the story of how a school dropout created a whole new category of information-gathering and galvanised citizen journalists to solve some of the biggest stories of our time, using just their computer screens. It charts the tools that have developed for analysing data since the 1990s, from geo-location software that can pinpoint a precise place, to an app that can identify to the half hour the time of day when a photograph was taken. And it digs deep into some of Bellingcat’s most successful investigations – the truth about the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine, the sourcing of weapons in the Syrian Civil War, scoops into journalistic phone hacking – with the drama and detail of a crime novel. »

“Identify, Verify, Amplify” – and this is how Bellingcat’ story goes. 

From a “one-man band” gathering data and posting on message boards during the Arab Spring to a full independent enterprise capable of identifying Russian killers, Eliot Higgins has grown a great deal. Through these pages, you get to discover the fascinating “behind the scenes” of open-source investigation and how it all began.

You get to immerse yourself in Eliot’s journey from his blog relying on crowdfunding to the company employing many, that is Bellingcat today. The author takes us through a very detailed account of the techniques used by the Bellingcat “sleuths” during the biggest stories they have covered: war in Syria, Salisbury attack, downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight “MH1”. All of this ensuring that all data provided and shared can be verified by whoever accesses it. 

Using many different tools, ranging from the simplest to more advanced (such as geolocalisation via the analysis of the sun’ shadows, Google Maps / Earth, image reversing, analysing hours of footage, scouring social media accounts and so much more), Bellingcat has uncovered so much evidence regarding some of the worst acts of our time, sometimes even shaming the governments’ data gathering capabilities, and this only by analysing what was all along in front of our eyes and for all to see (if one knows where to look).

The only criticism that I can make is that we sometimes get lost in a vast amount of details and the transition from one case or one idea to the next, does not always makes sense. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, it isn’t an easy read for everyone – if you, like me, enjoy investigative reports or scientific journals, then you should definitely try and read it. 

What is truly incredible is that everyone could do it, if one is ready to spare some time. Behind the technicalities of it all, Eliot also demonstrates that we are stronger when working together. One person can start something wonderful but only with the help of others can it achieve its true potential, grow and strive. 

A truly informative book, and if you would like to investigate further, you can also check out their website: https://www.bellingcat.com.

Thank you NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for the advance e-copy. 

Book published on 4 February 2021 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Opinions are my own

THE PROPHETS, by Robert Jones, Jr.

I am in awe… in awe of this incredible and magnificent book by Robert Jones, Jr. His quill is pure poetry and, even though his prose is heartbreaking, it is also breathtaking. I could not put it down. I was transported right there and then, mesmerised by it all.

The story takes place in Mississippi, at the Halifax’s family cotton plantation, whereby you meet different, complex and multi faceted characters; from master and enslaver Paul Halifax, his wife Ruth and their son Tim, through James the overseer, to the enslaved Maggie, Sarah, Puah, Essie, Amos, Adam, Beulah, and their memory: the Ancestors. Each of them sharing with you their point of view regarding life (and lack of) on the plantation, but more importantly deep, private, and painful secrets, and opening up a window through which you get to discover “The Two of Them”.

Samuel and Isaiah.

Two slaves. Two children. Grown into men by force, surviving the hell that is slavery in this place referred to as “Empty”, by loving each other in the secret of the night and the stars.

Their relationship and “forbidden” love brings out mixed emotions in all the characters, from indifference, to anger, to love. Some see them as the best tool for toil, others as a threat to the community’s survival. Despite it all, they choose freedom. The freedom to decide who they love and how.

Through the Ancestors, the words reach out of the page and cradle your head with their strong but invisible hands and your eyes are forced wide open: you are compelled to bear witness to the atrocities of the past, and reflect upon it all. They share their memory and try and instill hope and will that it shall never happen again. They open your heart up to love.

Robert Jones, Jr. transports you with brio to the deep recesses of the protagonists’ souls, “The Prophets”, where he depicts so brilliantly the power of love, the power of freedom; you get engulfed, slapped and submerged with emotions; sharing the enslaved’s innate secrets, what makes them hold on to life, that piece that is theirs and theirs alone, that no one knows about and therefore cannot be stolen away from them, that secret power that fuels their desire to survive, amongst the horrors they all had to endure.

Robert Jones, Jr.’s writing is pure genius, it makes you feel like someone reached down your throat with their bare hand, grabbed your guts and twisted them. You feel it all. Everything in its entirety. The joys, the pains, the disgust, the horrors, the love… everything. This book swallows you whole and spits you out feeling oh so fragile, weak, torn apart but enriched.

Humanity is depicted at its purest and at its worst, recounting how fear makes some of us behave like monsters, trying to bend those who are different to us to fit our established beliefs and expectations of conformity.

Lyrical and powerful, this book is truly a masterpiece, approaching themes so relevant in today’s society, but which won’t prevent it standing the test of time and becoming a classic.

I can only humble myself and say: thank you Mr Jones, Jr. you have shaken me to my core.

Anne.G.J

Book published on 5th January 2021 by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Edition Limited, an Hachette UK Company.

Disclaimer: these opinions are my own – this books touches upon difficult subject and will get the reader faced with depiction of sex, rape, slavery, murder, death, torture.