‘The Charm Offensive’ Changed My Life In 10 Hours of Wholesomeness

Listen to this book review via the Coffee Time Reviews podcast:

Basically, this entire book is a big middle finger to a world built to only work for neurotypical people. And that’s why it means so much to me.

I don’t read romance for the romance.

Most of the romance novels I’ve read so far that actually mean something to me have reached that point not because they made me swoon for the main couple, but because of how their love came to be.

Things like Alex and Henry of Red, White and Royal Blue defeating a heteronormative system to pursue happiness together, or Evelyn and Celia of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo playing with the press to protect their relationship, or Chloe and Red of Get a Life, Chloe Brown coming together from a place of trauma and finally being accepted by someone exactly for who you are.

This is what I read romance for.

Sure, I like a bit of steaminess and I’m here for the absurd sweetness and the way everything works well in the end. But what makes a romance truly matter to me is the way the characters find each other and the way they treat each other.

And this is why Alison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive became the first book I’ve ever read once to then pick it up again immediately after.

What’s the Story?

Ever After is a reality TV show much like The Bachelor, where one guy dates 20 women for a few weeks and ends up proposing to the last one standing.

Dev is a producer on Ever After and a hopeless romantic. Charlie is this season’s prince. But once filming starts, the crew quickly realises their star isn’t at all like the others.

Charlie is scared of germs, physical touch and sometimes even of social interaction. He has OCD, severe anxiety and struggles with panic attacks. Dev is supposed to look after him and make him more comfortable with being on the show.

So they fall in love. Of course.

But Charlie is supposed to leave the show engaged to one of the women, not hand-in-hand with his producer. So our intrigue starts.

My Thoughts

The representation in this book is outstanding. But even more outstanding is the way it discusses mental health. Dev and Charlie are so good together because they both struggle with mental illness.

Growing up unable to explain his moodiness to his parents, and dropping out of countless therapy sessions, Dev believes his depression makes him a burden when he has an episode and is not ‘fun Dev’ anymore.

“He’s always happy, always smiling, always thinking about other people. He usually thrives on set, fluttering around to everyone, helping and chatting and feeding off the energy of it all. He’s the most charming person Charlie’s ever met. That’s not the description of a depressed person.”
Alison Cochrun, The Charm Offensive

Charlie’s family has never been supportive of him, despite his good looks and incredible intelligence. On top of that, his own best friend, with whom he co-founded a huge tech company, fired him because of his ‘little quirks’ (read panic attacks), so he believes love and understanding aren’t available for him.

This is where the two protagonists connect and start growing together: from a place of understanding and being able to offer the other one the love they’ve convinced themselves they aren’t worthy of.

“I don’t love you despite those things. I love you because of those things.”
Alison Cochrun, The Charm Offensive

Basically, the entire book is a big middle finger to a world built to only work for neurotypical people. And that’s why it means so much to me.

Why I Think It Changed My Life

I am neurodivergent. This is the first time I’ve ever written that down or admitted it anywhere other than in my mind and in my heart.

I have ADHD and I struggle with anxiety. And believe it or not, I had no idea about any of these things until I read books with characters dealing with or suffering from the same things.

Don’t get me wrong, I think my ADHD makes me brilliant in many ways. But I also know, now more than ever, how much I’ve had to work, suffer, struggle and be confused in a world that’s simply not made for people with brains like mine.

I’ve struggled all my life to be less clumsy, to stop running into things because my brain does this little blip and I forget the door or the corner of the bed is there, to stop rushing, to stop burning myself out for a day and then being lazy for a week after that.

All these perceived personality flaws are caused by my ADHD. And that’s fine, now that I know there’s nothing wrong with me for always failing to change them.

But beyond my own struggles, The Charm Offensive showed me how to support other people who are struggling.

Some of the most important people in my life struggle with depression and anxiety. And I’ve always felt powerless around them when it hits. I never know what to say or do to help. Sometimes I get annoyed because I feel useless.

“When it gets like this, how can I help?”
Charlie swallows. “No one has ever asked me that before.”
Alison Cochrun, The Charm Offensive

This moment right here, no matter how simple it sounds, has never happened to me during a bad mental health episode. Nor have I given this to those around me when they struggle.

The simple act of asking how you can help is one of the best things you can do. Because it shows you’re not dismissing the person who’s struggling, and that you’re there for them if they need you. 

So I started asking how I can help and I was actually told afterwards that they felt I was trying to do better and they felt like finally opening up to me. This is a person I’ve been trying to help for years.

“How can I help when it gets like this?”
Dev folds himself tighter against Charlie, all those lovely sharp points digging in. “You can just stay,” he says, at last. “No one ever stays.”
Alison Cochrun, The Charm Offensive

And this moment right here. What an eye-opening scene. This happened during one of Dev’s depression episodes in the book. And that got me thinking how often I feel like leaving people alone when they’re having a difficult time.

Not because I don’t want to be there, but because I feel inadequate and useless. But maybe I don’t need to go out of my way to make them feel better. Maybe I can just be there, just stay, ask how I can help and let it pass.

I’m terrible at cheering people up. But then, of course, depression isn’t about cheering up. I am grateful not to suffer from depression, but when I have an anxiety episode, I don’t need people to try to snap me out of it. I know it will pass and only I can make myself feel better. 

But having someone patiently by my side knowing I’ll bounce right back and at the same time giving me the space to listen to my feelings, would be invaluable.

And this right here is why books are so important and so helpful. It’s not just a silly, sugary romance. Some of them make a real difference.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

A Love Letter to Books

I don’t know who said it, and Google has been little help. I don’t know, maybe I have the quote wrong, but it goes something like this in my memory:

“Reading allows us to be who we are not.” 

How incredibly powerful is that? 

It applies to me in a million different ways. I bet you can think of a few too? Share, please. 

Reason # 1

I’m shy. I have anxiety; I’m a classic introvert. Parties are pure torture, I find family get-togethers tiring, and I think I am a lousy conversationalist, as I spend most of my time thinking about what I will say next. 

I was a bartender in college. I took a girl home once, okay, if I’m honest, she picked me up. We went back to my apartment; she looked around and then left. I flunked seduction 101. 

Books allow me to be witty and sophisticated in a way that I am not in real life. 

I can be the life of the party in a book. 

Reason # 2

Moral certainty is rare, and there are certainly two sides to most things. 

When I read a book, I believe. There are good guys and bad guys, and it’s okay to hate the bad guys.

 I love The Lord of the Rings. It’s entirely okay for the reader to hate Mordor and imagine yourself fighting against the forces of doom. That’s what good people do. 

How about a current event ripped from the headlines? As I write this, Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine. That’s bad and evil, and we should hate the Russians, or maybe just Putin, as millions of people will die.


Press isn’t free in Russia, and I’ve read several stories now, stating the Russian people don’t clearly understand what’s happening, as the state runs the media. 

So, it’s a little more complicated than we first thought. 

By the way, I’d never be a hero. I like to imagine I would, but I know better. Instead, I’d probably be a fat shopkeeper in Gondor manning the walls, watching the heroes ride out to battle. 

I can be the good guy in a book. 

Reason # 3

I’m older and have lots of health issues. So, chances are I will never make it to Europe, never see the Scottish highlands, or play golf on a true link’s course. I won’t have a croissant and a coffee in a Paris cafe, travel to Rome or ski the Alps. 

But, I can do all of that in books. 

Reason # 4

I’m a husband and a father. My daughter is 13. I worry, I worry a lot about what the world will be like when she is my age. 

I remember when we didn’t have cell phones or computers.

I want to believe the future will be better and that global warming will no longer be an issue someday. 

I smile when I think of the Star Trek universe. Wouldn’t that be cool if it came to be?!? 

When I read, I imagine a better future. 

Reason # 5

A while back, I came across a post on Reddit. It posed a simple question to the men of the world. 

Who do you talk to about your problems and feelings? 

It was sad really because most of the men said they didn’t talk to anyone and added that nobody cared, anyway. 

When I read, I’m not alone. Of late, I’ve been into Marian Keyes, who has a brand new book coming out. 

At the moment, I’m reading Sushi for Beginners. 

I love this book! I really do, but here’s the thing, it doesn’t really have a plot. Instead, it’s about three women living in Dublin and the problems they face in their life. 

Yes, their life looks nothing like mine, but even so, no plot…. 

It’s nice, and it’s refreshing and reassuring to see that other people, even good-looking people with fabulous lifestyles, have the same issues you and I do. 

I read for the connections. 

Reason # 6 

I read for the same reason I buy an occasional lottery ticket. Buying that ticket allows me to dream for a couple of days about what I would do if I won. 

Reading a book allows me to imagine in the same way. 

If you liked this, please follow me. 

I’m a bit of a reject. I joined Medium 6 months ago and am about to be kicked out of the partner program, as I don’t yet have 100 followers. 

I appreciate it and promise to follow you back. 

My next post is going to be about death in the library. 

‘The Silence of the Girls’ Is the Feminist Iliad We Needed All Along

Listen to this book review via the Coffee Time Reviews Podcast.

I’ve never read the Iliad. Nor the Odyssey. Nor the Aeneid.

I know, major confession to make as a huge bookworm who spends more time than she probably has reading books, and thinking, talking, writing and editing content about books.

Don’t get me wrong, I have some meagre knowledge of what happens in these Greek poems but I’ve never actually read them back to back. Mythology has never interested me much unless it’s Egyptian. 

So I spent most of my life in near ignorance of Greek mythology. Until I discovered the modern retellings.

Mythology retellings have been sweeping the bookish world in recent years, and for good reason: to highlight the unsaid points of view and offer a more representative, more complete picture of the famous ancient texts and the events they depicted.

I started my retelling reading spree with The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller which, I admit not unproudly, destroyed me and tore my heart in a million pieces. 

Following from such a heart-breaking and at the same time heart-warming love story between two of Ancient Greece’s most famous leaders and fighters, I picked up Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. At first, I wanted to read it because I knew it was narrated mostly by Briseis, whose character I absolutely loved in Miller’s retelling.

Not only did this book deliver, in the sense that we see a lot of Briseis’s character, but it over-delivers, in coming to complete the story of the Trojan War from a female perspective.

Male vs Female Perspectives: A Comparison

In The Song of Achilles, we spend lots of time with Patroclus and Achilles, but, crucially, we get a very partial, one-sided view of both. Narrated in Patroclus’s voice, the book follows the two men’s story from the first time they meet as young boys until the gruesome days of the Trojan War and their role in it.

Whoever has some common European knowledge will have heard of Achilles and his insane fighting skills, accentuated by the legend that he was practically untouchable except for his heel.

So to see Achilles since childhood and through the eyes of someone who is first his closest friend, then his lover and closest comrade paints an entirely different picture that barely touches upon this man’s cruelty.

Because of course, to Patroclus, he wasn’t cruel.

Now, in The Song of Achilles, we do get glimpses of his, frankly annoying, thirst for glory and his distant attitude towards the gruesomeness of his actions in the war. But still, because of Patroclus’s voice, you can’t help but root a little for him, for them both.

Enter The Silence of the Girls. And if I was all hopeful and melty inside reading Achilles and Patroclus’s story, boy was I angry and frustrated when I saw it through Briseis’s eyes.

Throughout the book, although we follow mainly Briseis, we get important glimpses into the different directions women’s lives took during the Trojan War, especially as citizens of the losing side of the conflict.

We begin with Achilles’s monstrous conquest of Lyrnessus, where Briseis lived with her husband of royal descent. While all the men in the city are killed with harrowing cruelty by the Greek army and especially by Achilles, the women end up in much worse situations. 

Captured, assaulted, their children murdered in front of them, or brought to a point of ending their own life, we get to see what it meant to be a woman on the losing side of a war in ancient times.

As a daughter and wife of nobility, Briseis ends up enslaved and given to Achilles as his prize for taking the city. 

If you Google Briseis you find out about her key role in history: “Her role as a status symbol is at the heart of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon that initiates the plot of Homer’s epic.”

When king Agamemnon is forced to give up his “prize” of war, a young girl he was obsessed with, in order to save his camp from a plague, he claims Achilles’s “prize” — Briseis — which renders Achilles to withdraw his troops and his involvement in the war, leading to one of the most well-known military crises in history.

Yet history makes it sound as if Briseis herself was the root of the dispute, not the pride and spitefulness of two powerful men who couldn’t get over losing their female slaves as if they were mere candies they took from each other.

We get to witness her life alongside countless other women, all in various stages of captivity, and her strength, resilience and pure rage at the horrors brought about simply by men’s pride.

Briseis’s story is, in a way, a smaller version of Helen’s — also blamed for being the cause of the Trojan War, although of course, it had always been about the male anger and ego, and their utter inability to take responsibility for their actions.

The title of the book starts to make sense towards the end of the story when a single Trojan saying summarises women’s fates: silence becomes a woman

“We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.”
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

The story centres on what, if anything, women had to say in the conflict, and the various and ingenious ways in which they used their inability to have a say at all, clutching at straws to save some crumb of life or hope they had left.

And because of that, and because of many more important reasons, this is a book everyone should read.

Why ‘Truly Devious’ Was a Huge Disappointment

When everyone’s raving, I’m usually raving with them but not this time.

God was this book a drag.

Widely acclaimed dark academia mystery Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson just didn’t do it for me. It’s a well-written book with an intriguing premise. And that’s about where the praise stops on my part.

I listened to it on Scribd and I think that’s what ruined some of it for me. I didn’t like the narrator and that’s a key part of enjoying an audiobook, in my opinion. If I can’t connect to the narrator, the story has to be INSANELY good for me to keep listening.

So why didn’t I stop listening?

As an old Romanian saying wisely puts it, because I didn’t want to “die dumb”, meaning I really wanted to see what the rave was all about. Literally, all my favourite creators from the books community had something good to say about Truly Devious.

I can appreciate a well-written story when I see (hear) it. And as far as Maureen Johnson’s writing skills go, yes, the book is good. Objectively good. I don’t want you to believe I’m trashing the author here. It’s the story itself that just…fell flat, in my opinion. 

That’s what you get for having expectations, I guess.

From The Publisher

“Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

In 1936, shortly after the school opened, Ellingham’s wife and daughter, Iris and Alice, were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great crimes of American history. Something like that could never happen again, of course. . . .

Years later, true-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester. But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy. The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.

Truly Devious is the first novel in a murder- mystery trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Maureen Johnson.”

 — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

My Thoughts

Let’s make this snappy and sweet:

Good things about this book: great characters with very well defined personalities, great story idea, amazing beginning (which unfortunately made me expect the whole book to be so gripping), loved the alternating timeframes, amazing use of language in places.

That being said, Truly Devious was a huge disappointment because: as it is a murder mystery series, you have to wait until you go through the entire trilogy to get some sort of an answer. Every murder mystery series I’ve read so far either has one mystery per book or gives you some kind of satisfaction as you go along, before the final reveal of the killer.

Truly Devious failed to do that, in my opinion. For most of this book, nothing happens. I can’t stress this enough. Nothing. You have the first chapter, a couple of chapters that explain the Ellingham kidnappings, and one huge plot twist about 80% in. Otherwise, nothing. Just teenagers at school and a couple of minor dodgy occurrences.

The number of times I found myself drifting off as I was listening is truly shocking for a murder mystery. But then again, that might be my fault, for listening on audio.

Do I recommend it?

If you like dark academia and aren’t that fussed about the murder side of it, sure, give it a try. But if you have huge expectations and want the satisfaction of a who-done-it story, maybe look somewhere else.

Had I approached this without any prior knowledge and without expecting a mystery, but maybe dark fiction, I would have probably enjoyed it more.

I gave it 3/5 stars because of the writing.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’: The Responsibility to Make Grief Worth it

Listen to this review via the Coffee Time Reviews Podcast:

Not Your Standard Shop

We have all lost people in our time. Whether through death or rejection, we have all felt that chasm in our chest where someone else used to reside. Many of us have been promised a greater step in our lives only for that promise to shatter in front of us. 

Oftentimes, it is near impossible to find an appropriate place to put our grief, disappointment, or resentment towards the things that we have been denied. Luckily, there are plenty of works of literature that give us a solution to this age-old dilemma. 

Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a novella in which disenchanted street-dwellers of Tokyo make their way into a seemingly inconspicuous café. However, the main talisman of the café is the ability to travel in time to meet the ghosts of your past. 

In one short-lived saga, we witness a widower who was minutes away from saving their wife from a violent end. In another, we see a heartwarming reconciliation between a biological and adoptive father on their daughter’s wedding day. Kawaguchi paints a myriad of family portraits that have been dashed by car crashes, cancer, and the struggle of the starving artist. 

Sadly, you can’t just travel back in time in this café. You can only meet people who have actually visited the café in the past; you have one opportunity in the day to travel back in time; you physically cannot do or say anything that will change the present. Just when you start to think it’s not worth the hassle, the most important rule is that you have to end your retrospective session before your cup of coffee grows cold.

It would be a mistake to assume that this book only contains a string of disconnected short stories where people kiss and make up for their past wrongdoings. Yes, there are a whole lot of ‘saying what was never said’ and tearful reunions. 

But the unifying element of the book is the staff with their own intricate backstory. The notably reserved barista, Kazu, holds every interaction with other characters at arm’s length and doesn’t display any emotion. But the plot is no match for Kazu and her hard exterior must crack. 

If You Could Go Back…

Upon reading this book, I found myself yearning for second chances, to go back to people who I have lost. Would I express the love I was too young to articulate? 

Would I unleash the anger that didn’t arise until later? What would I even say? The best thing about this book is that it questions the necessity of its own plot. By the end of the book, my mentality had shifted in tandem with Kawaguchi and stopped to ask myself: why would I do any of that? 

The most harrowing story was simultaneously the most enlightening. A woman who suffered a miscarriage confides in a colleague who turns her whole outlook upside-down: 

“… if you try to find happiness after this, then this child will have put those seventy days towards making you happy […] You are the one who is able to create meaning for why that child was granted life. Therefore you absolutely must try to be happy. The one person who would want that for you the most is that child.”

This is not the only time this sentiment comes up. A man grieving his wife speaks to a woman who lost her sister where grief imposes the responsibility to live well: 

“If I had led a sad life as a result of my sister’s death, then it would have been as if her death had caused it. […] My joy would be the legacy of my sister’s life.”

Kawaguchi does not insist on a Victorian stiff-upper-lip approach to our grief. Cloistering ourselves in black and wandering morosely through the rest of our lives in the name of those we have lost does nothing for anyone. By the same token, neither does pushing down our grief as if it isn’t there. 

The best thing we can do, according to Kawaguchi, is to take the grief and make sure that it amounts to something positive. We’ve all heard that ‘the best revenge is living well’, but Before the Coffee Gets Cold encourages us to think of grief in this way too. 

What I respect the most is that it isn’t a dismissive way to cope with loss. We must strive to live the happiest life we can, not in spite of our grief but because of it. The futility of life and death is too much to carry on one pair of shoulders and most of us have found that out the hard way. 

To think about the frivolity of your loss just leads to resentment and indignance. In its place, Kawaguchi allows us to take our grief into our own hands and give it our own meaning. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold is a wonderfully written book in and of itself. It’s written in a charmingly simple way, which is why I would recommend it to anyone in a reading slump. But personally, Kawaguchi has shared with me a valuable lesson that I will carry with me through the darkest parts of life. 

A Rant about Tropes 


Many of you know I work in a library. I love working in a library, it’s a dream job, and I suspect that many of you are secretly jealous. Well — You’ll be even more envious when I tell you that the head librarian expects me to read books, so I can better recommend them. 

How sweet is that? 

I Just Finished

A book by Jordan Sonnenblick. Drums, Girls + Dangerous Pie. It’s a fabulous book, by the way, and one I highly recommend. It’s well worth five stars and currently has a 4.25 rating with a whooping 27,312 people voting on Goodreads. 

It’s about a family whose youngest son gets cancer. There are two boys in the family, with the oldest in middle school. The book deals with all the carnage that results from a cancer diagnosis. 

I read the book during my lunch breaks at work, and it made me weep. I don’t know if I ever really cry, but I certainly weep, and this book made me weep. 

Go buy it! Right now! This blog post will wait. 

So, when this book ended, I wanted something cheery for my next read, something uplifting, something that made my smile, nothing too heavy. 

I picked up: 

Book # 1 

A book about a girl with no arms: it had potential, and in a different time and place, I very well might have read it. However, the author spends a plot killing amount of time telling us how the girl copes with life with no arms. We don’t see her coping; we are told how she manages, and then her coping skills are explained in detail. (Ballet flats are better than boots, as it’s easier to use your feet, and she uses her feet a lot.) 

Book # 2

A book about a girl in constant pain because of chronic illness. Yep, there is no cure. The pain is constant whenever she uses a joint, and there are loads of joints in the body. Walking is especially painful. 

Knowing that walking is painful, her dad makes her walk nine blocks to school each and every day. Her mother either never asks or just goes along with this. Her parents are otherwise perfectly lovely; her mom takes her to the Dr., her dad is a dentist. (The Dr. never asks about the walking.) 

I know we have a reputation here in the States, but for God’s sake, take a bus. Honestly!

So, of course, she stops going to school. The school calls, but she deletes the messages, and she lied about her dad’s name, and well, that was the point I stopped reading. 

The plot was a little too much for me to swallow. 

I know parents are clueless, but seriously. 

Book # 3

I had my doubts about this book right from the start. 

The girl’s mother runs away early in her life, leaving her with her dad and brother. Her dad dies in a mining accident. Her brother then dies, I think in a fire, I can’t lie, I was starting to skim by this point, and the book opens with her at her brother’s funeral with her new foster parent. 

I can only imagine the plot points that were coming after this opening. 

So, I put the book down. 

Here’s my point

I enjoy reading about quirky kids with spunk and imagination, kids who don’t give up in the face of formidable odds. That makes for an exciting read. 

But it’s just as interesting to write about the trials and tribulations of teenage life. (Note, I didn’t use the word normal anywhere in that last sentence.) 

There is a love triangle in the book I finished, the one I loved, the one you have now purchased. 

The older boy is crushing on the super popular, gorgeous (beyond the ability of words to describe how pretty she is) girl. (She has a boyfriend, by the way.) 

He’s also friends with the wildly intelligent, musically gifted girl, who clearly likes him, but of course, he’s clueless about her. (I’m guessing you already knew that.) 

I would bet everything I owned that every male on the face of God’s green earth has had a crush on someone unattainable. Heck, I can name names. We all can relate. 

It’s cool to write about overarching human emotions, but try to stay away from the tired tropes. 

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

The Most Anticipated Books of 2022

All the books featured in this article have been read in the form of advance review copies. Although recommendations are subjective by nature, the following titles have been hand-picked based on relatively objective standards.

1. ‘The Whale Tattoo’ by Jon Ransom

Publication date: 4th February (Muswell Press)

In THE WHALE TATTOO, death gains both a voice and a lapping body of its own. Hounded by its murmurs, Joe returns to the home he left two years ago, only to find that memories can scream themselves raw. But death’s grip continues to tighten, leaving Joe risking more than he can bear as he gives in to the power his lover Fysh has always had over him.

Much like the surface of the river that keeps mocking the protagonist, there’s an ominous tenor behind Ransom’s every word; a beauty that shocks. And, much like the elusive line between the bank of the river and land, time is a shifting entity within the parameters of the story. 

There’s no clear distinction between the past and the present, only a rush of sensation. The body of water it holds penetrates the protagonist’s psyche, floods reality in a way that is both hungry and foreboding.

What’s more, every character carries the water’s darkness deep within, every limb appears forged from something indistinct and shapeless. It’s the vagueness of their motives, the troubled honesty with which they navigate their subconscious, that transforms the novel into a breathless enigma.

2. ‘Young Mungo’ by Douglas Stuart

Publication date: 5th April (Grove Atlantic)

Stuart’s ability to erect a world of such ferocious brutality —  both raised and devastated by brittle longings —  and still maintain an air of vulnerability is truly uncanny. The story’s central violence, which stems from both poverty and Protestant-Catholic tensions, is almost jubilant. 

The young boys it conscripts repeatedly confuse pain and death with pleasure, and they see the suppression of emotion as the mark of a man. The writing is deeply evocative, marked by exceptional precision. Stuart’s depictions of Glasgow’s East End are never stifling, never once intrude on the novel’s other facets. 

As a result, you can smell the sour, alcohol-infused sponge of Mo-Maw’s breath as it hits Mungo’s cheek, you can feel the tickle of James’ hair as Mungo noses the crack between his asscheeks. 

The author manages to strike the perfect balance between the boy’s purity and the merciless space he occupies, using both his beauty and virtue as a magnifying glass for the troubles he has to both witness and endure. 

This also elevates his forbidden love for James to new levels. Ultimately, the story’s devotion to feeling makes for a painfully memorable, bodily reading experience.

Warning: The novel depicts rape, alcoholism, graphic violence, and paedophilia.

3. ‘Boys, Beasts & Men’ by Sam J. Miller

Publication date: 10th May (Tachyon Publications)

Miller’s short story collection is a blend of science fiction and magic realism. Every story is wildly imaginative, each one twists and bends its form to stun and titillate that much more. And aside from the wonderfully eclectic narratives, which burst and shatter but never disenchant, it’s emotion that dominates every page. 

Death, grief, rage, lust, longing, loss and desire breed various beasts and terrors, which are, in turn, nurtured by the intensity of human passion. Likewise, the monsters’ physicality is used to illustrate the depravity lurking within the human psyche.

Miller makes it a point to disengage the body from the soul, repeatedly referencing “the bodies we wear”, the fates dictated by our lack of choice when it comes to the fit and colour we’re assigned upon conception. 

This fracture is tangible in each one of his stories, and it blends eroticism with ghoulishness, sensuality with violence.

4. ‘Brother Alive’ by Zain Khalid

Publication date: 12th July (Grove Atlantic)

BROTHER ALIVE is an intellectual feast, an existential wail, the anguished contraction of feeling, a pyretic dream. Simply put, it’s a work like no other. Stitched from three unique parts, the novel tells the story of three brothers connected not by blood or race, but by the protective gaze of their adoptive father, Imam Salim.

But as the man begins to unravel, the mystery shrouding his relationship with the boys’ parents transforms into a physical, gouging weight; one that propels them back to Saudi Arabia, where they confront the horrors of their shared past.

Khalid’s decadent prose roils and subdues the pages of the book, swelling around the seam of its poetic tone, fudging the grainy feel of reality. And the deeper we delve into the story, the more ominous the enigma of Youssef’s mental affliction appears. 

The Brother’s shape acclimates to the fissures it leaves in the boy’s form, cementing their relationship as not only parasitic but oddly tender.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

Books by Memory: ‘Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories’ by Thomas Grant

As the third of my Books by Memory series this is a rather tangential book review that uses memory to approach a book, rather than focusing in a more analytical way. This time I am reminiscing on reading Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories.

As I sit here writing with a blanket over my shoulders for warmth, you might expect me to be thinking back to other books read in winter, perhaps by a roaring fire, or with a mug of cocoa, but instead, I feel drawn to books of summer.

There is little that can beat the pleasure of a sunny, slightly aimless, afternoon spent with a book outside. Now in winter, the same does not quite work, even if there is a rather sublime feeling to reading as the cold wind buffets and bare branches frame a leaden sky. So, memories have to be drawn on to provide a vicarious fix of sun-warmed tranquillity.

Of course, it is not really just the environment in which you read that matters, but the ritual. For sitting outside with a book might well add that certain feeling, but when you know you have time and so can pause, decide which book, consider if it’s really sunny enough for sunglasses, and then walk down to the garden, pausing again in the kitchen to make a cuppa, but so caught up are you in the joy of the sun that you go the student way, and milk it at the start and take it outside tea bag and all.

It is rather hard to pin down what should be read on such afternoons when draped in sun-warmed air you are separated from the worries of the next day, yet it would be foolish to think that the surrounding days do not leech into the atmosphere in which you read.

In this case, I feel that I was pushed towards picking up a piece of engaging prose non-fiction, for I was spending my week wading through Latin, both in finely wrought odes, and the dullest of self-congratulatory prose, so could not help but turn to something resoundingly fixed to the modern world, yet with the touch of glamour that a previous world can give. After all, it is far easier to fall in love with a narration when you are able to remove yourself from the details of it.

It can be by a temporal removal, or by stepping out into fiction: either way the impact is the same. Sunny afternoons are for such removal from the life you are living. For it is enjoyable to get that vicarious, almost voyeuristic, touch of a life not unlike your own when you are trundling to work or the like, but on an aimless afternoon, ideally outside of the working week, some form of escape is needed.  

And, it hardly needs saying that, such a book would be equally suited to an elongated summer evening with a glass of cider or draught pint to hand. Even if the cuppa provides a certain connection with the innocent afternoons of childhood in which books were a good in and of themselves, not a luxury to be snatched when and wherever possible.

I must admit I do not remember the writing in any detail so I cannot entice you to read the book with any descriptions of coruscating prose or the like, but I do remember the feeling and way the text drew me on and a vivid picture of the events. I suppose it was a little like the tea I was drinking. Lacking the engraved finials of Early grey, which impress at a first meeting but soon are understood to be a distraction, the text flowed like a good breakfast tea in that it had a solid backing, enlivened by complexly constructed flair that never veered from the overriding smooth texture.

Now I have spent a little too much time discussing the idea of a type of reading and tortured a few similes, but then sunny afternoons with books are meant to be slightly self-indulgent and lackadaisical. In this case, I was reading Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories. It might seem an odd choice for a chilled Sunday afternoon, being a recounting of various legal cases, but then I had started it the day before and it had that perfect balance of interest and engaging writing.

Perhaps it helped that I was reading it in just the right setting as it details the life of one who was incredibly privileged. For how many people are able to buy a house after being left a Monet by a friend? Oh, and his parents were part of the Bloomsbury group.

Yet such things feel a tad less impressive when reading in one of the oldest still existing residential streets in Europe, for that summer I spent two weeks in a house on Vicars’ Close in Wells (a city in Somerset, in the South West of England, and often considered the smallest city in England). I was there to improve my Latin skills by reading a range of Latin literature, but mainly remember the time spent otherwise. It is a rather relaxing, and handsomely built, city to amble through and the incongruity of imagining it as it was as a set for Hot Fuzz adds a certain element to enliven the most peaceful evening.

Of course, even a piece that is more focused on memory than accurate review must consider the book in question beyond the vibes given off. And then a book detailing old legal cases might not seem the most interesting, especially as by now most readers of this article will not have memory themselves of the cases in question. However, even if you were to view them as totally irrelevant cases, the way they are described and Hutchinson’s rhetorical brilliance is enough to create a series of enticing recollections.

Perhaps the rather performative nature of many of the defences, which at points would not seem out of place in an am-dram farce, makes one question the effectiveness of an adversary legal system in which trials can become to be seen as games to be won irrespective of the facts, but it would be impossible to come away from this book without acknowledging Hutchinson’s skill as an advocate.

(Also, I do love the detail that in one case someone was only convicted of theft of a picture frame, as the picture in question was returned after a period as a form of protest, but the frame wasn’t, and at that point for theft to be proved an intention to permanently deprive someone of something had to be established.)

It also has further interest for anyone interested in books for it details the obscenity case against the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, along with many other ‘morality’ trials in which the right to publish or perform was challenged on the basis of specific ideas of morality. Yet as I look via the lens of memory it is hard to remove the filter of other information from the clarity and detail of Mr Grant’s narration, and so it would be a disservice to ramble on now. 

So, I will leave it with the exhortation that these are trials that all who care for books, and the freedoms they both provide and rely upon, should know of and keenly keep in mind when faced with challenges to what can or should be published.

‘Afterparties’ Explores the Intersections of Class, Ethnicity, and Sexuality

Ever since I joined Bookstagram, I’ve noticed a trend. Popular books will pop up on my feed for weeks at a time, their aesthetically crafted photos alongside multi-paragraph reviews by various readers. 

Sometimes, these books are mediocre, at best. Other times, the Goodreads synopsis can’t even capture my attention for more than a few seconds. But every so often, there’s a book that truly does “live up to the hype” and deserves every staged photo and shoutout it gets. The late Anthony Veasna So’s Afterparties was one of them.

Let me preface this by chatting a bit about the author. As a gay Cambodian American man, he didn’t exactly fit the traditional expectations of his culture. He graduated from Stanford and completed an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse, before going on to fulfil various teaching positions. And of course, penning these wonderful short stories. 

Afterparties is a collection of So’s best work. Many of the stories take place in his hometown of Stockton, California or the San Francisco Bay Area, and tackle salient (and more subtle) aspects of his culture. 

The Cambodian genocide of the 1970s underscores the pain and intergenerational trauma many of his characters face, and he highlights the generational gap that occurs as a result of immigrant parents being at odds with their American-born children. 

So also criticizes the idea of the American dream, that all who flee violence and threats to their existence don’t necessarily find abundant promise in their newer, safer lands. 

As he says in one of the stories, most Cambodian Americans “… fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.” His stories carry this overarching concept of class consciousness. 

The first story, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts” was first published by The New Yorker. It features an overworked mother and her two daughters during their graveyard shifts at a family donut shop. 

A mysterious man begins coming to the shop for fritters after 12 A.M., but remains taciturn and unwilling to dig into his baked good, spawning the girls’ curiousity. The mother, muddled by a messy past including an unfaithful husband and unpaid debt, remains defensive. 

When the true intentions behind the man’s visits to the store manifest, the reader is hit with a gasp-inducing twist.  

One particular piece I liked was “Human Development”, in which the main character, Anthony, finds himself in an unlikely Grindr romance with a fellow Khmer man. 

As their intimate entanglements deepen, Anthony must face the dissonance he feels over his simultaneous commitment to and distaste towards his lover. This story underscores the convoluted feelings about what it means to be Southeast Asian in America. 

There was much to learn about Khmer culture in each story. So throws in Khmer words and provides insights into religious and traditional norms, which also help us understand where he is coming from. I liked that So took risks in terms of the ideas he shared, and also wasn’t afraid to throw in a little cringe factor here and there. 

He tackles deep situations and historical events without sugarcoating, but balances out the seriousness with ample humor. I found myself LOL-ing many times throughout. 

I also appreciated So’s writing style, which was succinct and conversational, easy to follow and eloquent. As I wrote in my last post, I’ve rekindled my appreciation of short stories, and this was an excellent read to continue that literary quest. 

There’s a lot to be explored within shorter forms of fiction, and I think it takes a skilled approach to create a meaningful story within a confined framework. Perhaps we will see more short story collections like these, which bring to the forefront struggles that marginalized groups in society face. 

Unfortunately, Anthony Veasna So passed away in December 2020, at the age of 28, due to an accidental drug overdose. His partner Alex Torres shares more about So and their relationship in this heartfelt Buzzfeed post. It’s sad that we won’t get to see So take off on his literary career — which would have been immensely lucrative, I’m sure — but he has left ripples of influence behind. 

Let’s continue the book chat! You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, or Goodreads

‘The Ends of the Earth’ Will Make You Wonder How Much You Would Do For Love

Disclaimer: Please note I received a copy of this book as part of a blog tour, in exchange for my honest review.

When I spotted The Ends of the Earth on Twitter, my first thought was “sweet, I could use a light romance”.

But then I read the premise and was even more intrigued. This is a story I, personally, have never encountered before. A romance where one partner is nowhere to be found but may still possibly return? Sign me up.

On the surface, this is a gripping tale of will he, won’t he, but on closer analysis, it’s here to make you question just how far you would go for love.

The trope isn’t necessarily new, as there is a lot of pop culture around that covered the disappeared lover prompt in one way or another. If you’ve ever watched the movie Cast Away, do you remember your feelings when Tom Hanks’s fiancee turned out to have married in the four years that he was stranded on the island?

I remember the conflict of ethics in my own mind: if she had married and had a child while he was disappeared or believed to be dead, had it meant that she lost hope after a mere one or two years?

Would I have lost hope so soon? Is one year even soon?

This is what The Ends of the Earth explores but over a much longer period of time, and that’s where it’s nothing like the other approaches to this trope. Mary, the protagonist, has been waiting for her partner Jim to return for seven years.

Now that’s dedication.

From the publisher

Mary O’Connor has been keeping a vigil for her first love for the past seven years.

Every evening without fail, Mary arrives at Ealing Broadway station and sets herself up among the commuters. In her hands, Mary holds a sign which bears the words: ‘Come Home Jim.’

Call her mad, call her a nuisance, call her a drain on society — Mary isn’t going anywhere.

That is, until an unexpected call turns her world on its head. In spite of all her efforts, Mary can no longer find the strength to hold herself together. She must finally face what happened all those years ago, and answer the question — where on earth is Jim?

My thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed this story and how heartwarming and at the same time tremendously heartbreaking it was. 

There are glimpses of the past throughout the book, detailing how Mary and Jim met, fell in love and their chemistry, which I thought was very well described and built.

I believe in the power of chemistry between two people and seeing how much the plot played on the strong and almost instantaneous connection between the two protagonists made me believe in Mary’s dedication all the more.

The characters are all flawlessly built, but especially Mary truly strikes you as the realistic, relatable and profound woman she is made out to be. Her faith, determination and courage to keep holding on to the hope that Jim will return showed a lot of strength.

On the surface, it may seem like Mary is weak for refusing to move on, but when you get into her reasoning and see how much she is ready to sacrifice just to get Jim back, it becomes obvious that she is a resilient character who hasn’t lost it all.

I would recommend this story with all my heart. It’s emotional, empathic, sweet and very romantic, an excellent twist on your usual fluffy love story.

The Ends of the Earth comes out tomorrow, 6th January, from Century, an imprint of Penguin. You can pre-order it here.

Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!