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Royals by Emma Forrest

Dazzling, inventive and layered, this novel is not what you expect from the title or blurb.  

July, 1981. London. Shy, working-class Steven finds solace in beauty. Eighteen years old, he dreams of being a fashion designer. He’s also gay, maybe – he hasn’t decided yet. There’s a lot Steven isn’t sure about, like whether he hates himself or thinks he’s amazing.

When he ends up in hospital after being brutally attacked by his father, he meets Jasmine, an heiress. Intoxicating, anarchic, fabulous Jasmine. Fuelled by their shared love of fashion, a friendship blossoms and soon, Steven finds himself swept into her hedonistic world, wholly beguiled. However, underneath the glitter and the frivolity, darkness lies. 

Devastating, dazzling, queer and radical, Royals is a love story between unlikely friends from completely different worlds. It’s about the power of art to transform lives and the power of families to destroy them. It’s about working out who you are and what you want. It’s a tale of giddy happiness, crushing lows and, ultimately, the fragility of lives lived too fast.

The book follows the meeting between Steven, aspiring teen fashion designer and a victim of parental domestic abuse,  and Jasmine, a high society ‘it’ girl. We experience the subsequent shockwaves they encounter in their young lives with the marriage of Charles and Diana as a framing device. Imagine Simon Doonan and Tara Palmer Tompkinson having an intense friendship….

Emma Forrest

It’s witty, poignant and incisive. Forrest is ingenious in evoking the early 1980’s, the story is peppered with cultural references, but not to the degree to take you out of the narrative. 

The writing and dialogue is clever without being showy and literary without sacrificing readability.

There are some unlikely vaguely operatic twists towards the end, but they are in keeping with the heightened period of Steven and Jasmine’s lives and you are swept along nonetheless.

The release date of October is the only puzzle as it’s the perfect summer read, perfect for hazy days in a city park with a glass of champagne in honour of Jasmine, and potted meat sandwiches for Steven.

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The Braid – Laetitia Colombani

A review from our Rogan’s Reviewer Claudia for a grown up novel.

The Braid follows the lives of three women separated by class, religion, profession and continent. While they are so different they do share a few things in common; independence, determination and a drive for a better future.

Smita, a low caste Dalit, seeks an education for her only daughter to pull her out of a life of poverty and service. Guila, a young Sicilian faced with misfortune and tragedy, and inspired by a surprising idea, fights convention and entrenched tradition. Sarah, with a successful career and children, is blindsided by a change of events, causing her to examine all she values in life. 

The book follows the life changing challenges the three women face, and how each of them overcomes very different but deeply entrenched societal views of women’s roles in society and the home. 
I found the story hard to read at times because I became very fond of the characters and their aspirations for themselves and their families. Despite the book being split into alternating chapters for each character, the flow of each story isn’t lost and it is easy to follow. I really enjoyed it!

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The Rapture – Claire McGlasson

This book is a meticulously researched and historically immersive novel. It follows Dilys an (initially) loyal member of a cult, led by the fanatical Octavia, self proclaimed Daughter of God. Their beliefs follow a century old legend that a prophet, Joanna Southcott sealed instructions in a wooden box to be opened when end times were upon us. The box could only be opened by 12 bishops Octavia’s cult of ladies believed it had to be opened by the bishops in the site of the Garden of Eden. (In Bedford, duh). The Panacea Society believed themselves to be guardians of the box and gatekeepers of the new Eden. Octavia’s increasingly eccentric habits, rules, and rituals lead to tension and excitements…..

The Panacea Society were already fascinating, with what some would consider to be nonsensical far-fetched beliefs, but this novel succeeds in weaving them into a narrative that not only makes sense but has a clear journey and end point. It also has bigger things to say about the interwar period. As a local to Bedford it really helps to be able to visualise the inside of the society, which perhaps led to me losing some focus in certain expositionary parts of the book.

The surprise for me, was the in depth exploration of mental health and sexuality through the main character. Dilys is real, compelling and easy to root for, and the sense of tension when she tries to assert a level of independence against authority is palpable. Your breath catches as she hides in an attic room or steals a moment with her lover in a sacred ceremonial space.

The author Claire McGlasson inside the real Panacea Society museum

The tension builds throughout until a cult enforced trial provides a thrilling event to frame the final descent into chaos for many of the characters. The ending will stay with you long after finishing too. I defy anyone who doesn’t already know the Panacea not to google the Society or have an urge to come to Bedford after reading it.

With interesting things to say about religion and its effects on people, the books strength is how mesmerising it is to seeing how any humans react to belief and power.

A very assured debut, and we look forward to the next one!

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This book follows our heroine, Queenie. She is a perfectly imperfect mix of confidence and crippling self doubt. In some ways she is strong, confronting elements of racism and sexism head on, but in others she displays impressive levels of self destruction.

Her career is stalling while she looks for ‘the big idea’ as a journalist, and the courage to pitch what she really feels. Her relationship is stalling for many reasons, but refuses to admit that ‘we are on a break’ can mean forever. Her friendships are stalling as she isn’t taking the time to properly listen to them.

Through all of this, including a detour into some self destructive aggressive sexual encounters, we feel for and experience with Queenie. You understand her internal voice and need for the things she so wrongly pursues, and root for her despite the recklessness of her choices in work, love and sex. She is not a role model or heroine. She does not provide a solid example for young black women, she is not always aspirational. But she does feel real.

Bridget Jones with a sense of realism? Americanah with a dose of British humour? Queenie is above all that, she’s just so, well, Queenie.

Excellent. Evocative writing with a lightness of touch that betrays the intricacy of the social issues the writing is dealing with.The structure of the story is an effortless, intuitive series of thematic flashbacks to past events, all relevant and all well drawn. A must read.

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SECOND OPINION – The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

We’ve seen this one on the site before, but Rogan’s Reviewer Claudia has sent us her thoughts!

The Dreamers is very different to anything I remember reading before. It is set in a small college town in America and tracks the lives of the inhabitants as they encounter a strange illness that sends them to sleep. 

It follows the stories of four characters/couples/families central throughout the epidemic that hits the town. You learn their very human stories of love, loss and hope – longing for past happiness, hope for the future, desire to fit in, to do the right thing and the need to protect their loved ones. 

There there isn’t a clear climax to the story. The chapters tick over while building the story without any great relevations. Yet, I was compelled to keep reading, eagerly wanting to know what would happen next in the plot and also to the characters who I grew fond of and empathised with.
I enjoyed this book, and although quite melancholic, I felt it ended well.

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The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton – Anstey Harris

This is a warm and uplifting book from Anstey Harris – the publisher blurb :

Grace Atherton has fallen out of love…and into life.

Between the simple melody of running her violin shop and the full-blown orchestra of her romantic interludes in Paris with David, her devoted partner of eight years, Grace Atherton has always set her life to music.

Her world revolves entirely around David, for Grace’s own secrets have kept everyone else at bay. Until, suddenly and shockingly, one act tips Grace’s life upside down, and the music seems to stop.

It takes a vivacious old man and a straight-talking teenager to kickstart a new chapter for Grace. In the process, she learns that she is not as alone in the world as she had once thought, that no mistake is insurmountable and that the quiet moments in life can be something to shout about…. 

And Christine, one of our Rogan’s Reviewers says:

A story of how one single event is changing  a few peoples lives for ever. A story of what love is not and what friendship is with love of music as a background. It is a book full of emotions and a good read – very enjoyable. Thank you for recommending I try this book.

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The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker

Well, this will be polarising. This book is nominally an epidemic / apocalyptic thriller charting the spread of a disease in a small Californian university town. It’s also an in depth lyrical piece about the nature of dreams and reality. 

We begin in a small town in the shadow of a mountain, next to a lake, and one by one local college students start to fall asleep. And they can’t be woken, with their brains are more active than waking or dreaming. 

The short chapters explore the lives of some of the students, two young girls who live with their survivalist father, a doctor visiting to understand the epidemic, two new parents and their tiny baby and many more. 

The prose is fascinating, lyrical and flows beautifully. The short chapters are evocative and give you a real sense of the people in the town, while still touching on the escalating crisis. 

I can imagine readers coming to this expecting thriller style ‘Outbreak’ shenanigans will be disappointed, but if you loved her previous work, The Age of Miracles (2012) you will enjoy this one. There is an explanation and resolution to the story, characters and the sickness itself, but it is mostly not needed or the point. 

Excellent, let’s just hope the next novel from this author arrives sooner than 2026!

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The Plotters Un-Su Kim

This is a (very) grown up new book, released on Thursday 21 February. It’s from one of the biggest established voices in Korean Noir. Newly translated ready for the UK Market, it’s challenging and distinctively non Western in style and tone.

‘Kill Bill meets Murakami. Twisted and surreal, The Plotters is one of those rare books that will haunt you long after you’ve finished it. The writing is smooth, unhurried and often profound, even as it draws you deeper into the gruesome underworld of skilled contract killers. Chillingly, the violence is almost exquisite, a bloody art form’ D. B. John, author of Star of the North

Our Rogan’s Reviewer Erin writes:

“The Guardian billed this as the new Scandi noir; considering Jo Nesbo’s books have sold more than 36 million copies worldwide this is a bold claim, fortunately this bold claim is more than just talk. Reseng, our main character is an assassin in Seoul, and while yes he is an assassin, he has morals and isn’t a bad person, after all everybody needs a job. This is a job, in the world he was brought into as a baby and the only world he knows. This underpinning fact of Reseng’s life explains the business like manner of his character. The story reads like a third person memoir of an assassin a tone that I don’t think other authors could have achieved with the same level of mastery as Un-Su Kim. Concisely put, this story – because it’s so foreign to your own life experience – draws you in such a insidious manner that you will suddenly find yourself irrationally angry at perfectly ordinary parts of your day because they are taking away from your reading time. 

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The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

This is a novel that defied my expectations, in a surprising way. The plot follows William who has put aside his ambitions to become a writer after starting work in a Royal Mail lost letters depot. Here mail that cant be delivered comes for one final chance at finding a home. From damaged envelopes, incorrect addressees and illegible handwriting they have to do all they can, but the ones that have kept William intrigued are the ones he has termed the supernatural ones. These are the letters addressed to God, mythical figures, the deceased – the tooth fairy even. He’s fascinated, so much so that he is collating his favourites for a book that he wants to publish. Then one day he starts getting beautifully written letters from a mystery woman to her one true love.

So far, so generic fiction that you find in a multi buy in any supermarket – and to be fair this reviewer only picked this title up because of the idea of the lost letters department.

However, this book’s focus is primarily on the character and emotions of William and his relationship with his wife Clare. Chapters alternate between them, and the book provides a full picture of their relationship from meeting to where they are now, which is on the brink of separation. The dialogue both internal and between characters is well realised and believable, and the plot of him falling in love with the mystery letter writer is not the whimsical almost supernatural love story you would expect, but more of a framing device to allow William to understand, questions and test the bond he has with Clare.

Part of this book is set in Ireland, and you can definitely tell the author comes from there as it’s very effectively portrayed and the people there come alive very deftly.

Along the way there are small vignettes about the letters telling some interested and affecting stories of the writers, and taken as a whole this was an emotional, interesting debut, marking Helen Cullen as a talent to be followed for the future.

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Nobody Told Me – Hollie McNish

This is a new one for us on the reviews section, poetry and diary all mashed up in a wonderful collection. It’s a conversational, accessible warm collection of the experiences of a first time mother. Our reviewer, Claudia, had the following thoughts:

In this book – part diary, part poetry – Hollie has an amazing way of capturing so many of the thoughts and feelings I had when pregnant and with a young child. Her writing is so honest and down to earth and is easy to dip in and out of. I like to pick this up and read just a chapter at a time according to the time of year or my daughter’s age – like Behind the Scenes about the magic of Christmas and the work that goes on in secret to achieve it. And you can find her reading her poetry on YouTube too.

The Guardian review :

This differs from most motherhood memoirs in that it’s also part diary, part poetry collection, charting McNish’s relationship with her child from the moment she realised she was pregnant (at Glastonbury) across a period of three years. With appealing openness and immediacy, she discusses the shifts in her relationship with her body, her partner, her family, friends and colleagues. She is shocked how the world recategorises her, the way she becomes both more, and less, visible as a person. McNish does not shy away from discussing the pain, emotional and physical, the fraying of self that comes with sleep deprivation, the poo, snot, seepages and leakages, but she also captures the bliss and wonder. Her rhymes have a driving quality, urgent words pinning down fleeting feelings, and her prose is warm and conversational, like speaking to a friend.