Book Spines at a site for book reviews and reading ideas for adults
The Book Gnome
The Book Gnome, a site for book reviews and reading ideas for adults

Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

reviewed by Jude Hanlon

This book is a collection of essays on life and living life by comedian Sara Benincasa. She covers mental illness, career choices, animal adoption and more. There isn't a narrative thread through the essays, so it would be as enjoyable to dip as it would be to plough through from start to finish. Indeed, given the helpful advice and topics to mull over, it might be better to read an essay, then let the ideas "settle" a while before going on to the next one.

There is nothing truly profound, or ground-breaking in this collection. There are some ideas I will apply (no, I'm not saying which ones) and some I will respectfully leave where they are. No revolutions will be started as a result of reading this book, unless being excellent to yourself as well as to others is revolutionary. However, there are some strategies for improving life in general, and allowing your creative self to flourish (but not in the classic hippie-way that sentence makes it sound).

I found Sara's style very accessible, and the essays to be consistently enjoyable to read. She does not use a formulaic style that I was able to detect, which meant that I wasn't distracted by style over substance.

Some of the content is reasonably "adult" so it isn't really appropriate for younger readers, but I'd say this collection has something educational to say to over-18s of any gender.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri - January 2017

Brothers Subhash and Udayan are inseperable as children growing up in Calcutta. They are seperated for the first time when they go to university, and their relationship slowly unravels as they choose different paths.

Udayan, the popular outgoing brother, is drawn to politics because of the injustice he percieves in his society. He joins the Naxalite movement, fighting against the local government to eradicate inequity and poverty.

Udayan is prepared to risk all, and does, leaving a young pregnant wife. Subhash is alone, and chooses to leave, taking Udayan's wife with him, as his own, and intending to raise the child as his child.

The family of three cannot escape the past by moving to America. Superficially, they are both successful and happy, but behind closed doors, the past shapes their relationships and the choices they make. Even though he is long dead, Udayan is ever present in many ways.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - December 2016

The novel explores the impact on the civilians in eastern Nigeria when it seceded to become the state of Biafra, from its joyous birth to the bloody war that lead to death of starvation among its citizens, and its demise.

The novel follows Odenigbo, a radical maths lecturer at Nsukka University, Ugwu - the uneducated houseboy, Odenigbo's lover - Olanna - the London-educated daughter of a 'nouveau riche' Lagos businessman, Olanna's twin sister Kainene, and Kainene's English boyfriend, Richard.

It is a novel of stark contrasts. For example, the book opens with scenes of abundunt drink and rich food like pepper soup and spicy jollof rice, accompanied by intense intellectual debate on Sharpeville, Algeria and the struggle for US civil rights then descends into silence, privation and hunger as war takes effect.

Disturbing images like "vaguely familar clothes on headless bodies" capture the atrocities of war. It is an an unforgettable and moving book from an exceptionally skilled author.

The Woman who Walked in Sunshine by Alexander McCall Smith - November 2016

Mma Makutsi persuades Mma Ramotswe to take her first-ever holiday because business is slow at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Just as she is about to leave, a new client arrives and Mma Ramotswe almost cancels her trip.

Mma Makutsi is adamant that she and Charlie have the situation in hand, leaving Mma Ramotswe unable to resist being sent for a holiday. Nonetheless, she has difficulty letting go and pretending to go on holiday, she investigates secretly leading to complications and misunderstandings that make the plot as intriguing and engaging as in all the rest of the series.

It is another delightful book in the series. Alexander McCall Smith handles his characters with such affection and respect that the reader can only follow. In addition, his plots are intriguing with their honest, gentle wisdom that the conclusion is always very satisfying.

A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o - October 2016

A Grain of Wheat by Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩwa Thiong'o, weaves together several stories set during the state of emergency in Kenya's struggle for independence from 1952 to 1959.

When Kenyans rebelled openly against the British, they were defeated so had to choose to compromise their principles, or join the underground resistance "the Movement", known by the British as Mau Mau.

The story focuses on the quiet Mugo, who, unbeknown to his peers, secretly chose compromise. This dark secret rules his thoughts, as he participates in his home village's preparations for Kenyan independence.

Mugo, is not alone. The struggle for independence leaves many with secret scars that make returning to a normal life, difficult and complex. The characters are portrayed with understanding as they struggle with their demons. Visit for notes on the book.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

English civil servant George and his new french wife Sabine Harwood move to Trinidad from Harrow in England. George falls in love with his new home instantly. By contrast, Sabine spends much of her married life, looking forward to the day that her husband takes her back to Harrow.

Sabine feels isolated, hates the heat, dislikes the racial segregation on the island, and is anxious about the approach of independence. She takes comfort in an imagined conversation with Eric Williams, the charismatic leader of Trinidad's new national party,. She pours out her heart to him, both her hopes and fears in letters, that she never is confident enough to send but keeps instead.

After decades of marriage, George discovers the hidden letters. He is moved by his wife's unhappiness and resolves to prove his love for her, with far-reaching tragic consequences. It is an unforgettable novel that explores a troubled marriage on the beautiful island of Trinidad.

The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini

The book is set in the multi-cultural 80s and 90s, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, from the latter days of Rhodesia to the early years of Zimbabwe.

Lindiwe Bishop's neighbour, Mrs McKenzie, is burned alive in her house. Her stepson, Ian McKenzie, is convicted for the crime and imprisoned. Surprisingly, he is released after only two years.

When Ian returns home, Lindiwe Bishop, who is mixed-race, is entranced by her white neighbour, and they strike up a complex relationship that grows steadily with many challenges along the way.

Ian is brash and has a temper while Lindiwe is calm and gentle. The relationship is tested again and again by their different natures and the changes taking place in Zimbabwe.

The story is as much about a complicated relationship between two very different people, and the issues of the newly independent Zimbabwe including race, corruption, and violence still relevant to today.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

The novel starts by following the mischievious activities of ten-year-old Darling and her friends. The children steal guavas off the trees of the rich and play games of make-believe in which they live lives of luxury overseas.

Darling and her friends live in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. They have been forced out of their homes into tin shacks, and live in fear of the paramilitaries that represent a government determined to cling to power by any means. Violence and intimidation are a part of their lives.

Despite being a child, Darling is forced to deal with this complex world and the resulting social challenges such as trying to secure an abortion when her friend Chipo falls pregnant.

Darling escapes to her aunt in America, expecting a life of ease and wealth but her aunt's life, as an illegal immigrant, holding down two jobs, is hard. She has to adjust to the poor neighbourhood where she now lives, a new culture, and misconceptions about Africans, all the while keeping the illusion that money is abundant and life is easy in the US, alive for those back in Zimbabwe.

Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

The novel tells Matilda's story, a girl caught up in the brutal civil war on the Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville. While Matilda has the support of her strict mother and kind teacher, it is her relationship with Pip, the character from Great Expectations that maintains her desire to live.

When war breaks out, Mr Watts, married to Grace, a native of Bougainville, is the only white person who stays. With the school closed, he decides to teach the children, introducing them to the author Charles Dickens.

Dolores, Matilda's mother, determined not to let the white man pollute her daughter's mind, steals Watts' Great Expectations book. When soldiers find Pip's name carved into the sand, they are convinced that Pip is a rebel and without the book, Mr Watts cannot prove them wrong. The soldiers burn the village to the ground, kill Watts, and rape and kill Matilda's mother.

The novel blurs the boundary between fiction and reality. There is a lyrical quality to Jones' writing where people are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". It is an extraordinarily powerful book.

When I Lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant

In the spring of 1946, Evelyn Sert leaves the East End of London for Palestine by lying her way onto a ship. Recently orphaned and only 20 years old, she finds herself caught up with the idea of a jewish homeland.

She joins a kibbutz but finds the life so hard that she leaves for the city of Tel Aviv with a young jewish man Johnny, who becomes her boyfriend.

In Tel Aviv, she finds herself a flat and learns that she is seen as more English than Israeli which is a problem, as the English are the enemy. She builds a fake persona, the english hairdresser Priscilla Jones, with an absent policeman husband. She struggles with the new language, the heat, the food, and the new way of life.

Evelyn is drawn into a world of uncertain identities, lies and secrets by her new life especially her enigmatic Zionist boyfriend Johnny. She never seems sure which side about who she is, and where she belongs.

Linda Grant writes with purpose of a herione wrestling with the complexity of a nation struggling to be born.

Rotten Row by Petina Gappah

Rotten Row is Gappah's third book, and her second short story collection. In 2009, her first collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Award to much critical acclaim.

Most of the stories are set in contemporary Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah's homeland, and depict a society of opposites, troubled but hopeful, confused but normal. Petina Gappah wrestles with a wide range of topics like class, race, crime, and gender, in modern Zimbabwe, a country like many of the characters, in great difficulty and pain. The tragedy and complications of the country are reflected in the stories,

Petina Gappah writes with compassion and humour, about her homeland exposing the hypocrisy and indifference of the country's leaders and the suffering of the ordinary man. Gappah directs her satire without selection whether black or white, male or female, charity volunteer or villian. No one escapes.

Read a full review of Rotten Row by Petina Gappah, as beautifully written as An Elegy for Easterly.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

It's 1982, and two brown girls are taking dance lessons, Tracey and the unamed narrator. Tracey is a talented dancer while the narrator is not. However, she has talents of her own being a person of big ideas from rhythm to freedom. They are drawn together into a complicated and turbulent friendship that continues into their early twenties.

The two girls grow up on neighbouring council estates in equally disfunctional households, but are separated by subtle class and racial differences. Tracey's black father is absent and her overweight, white mother's biggest aspiration is to qualify for disability benefits. By contrast, the narrator lives with her unhappy, ambitious Jamaican mother and brow-beaten father.

The novel follows the narrator from child to adult, as she distances herself from her parents, envies Tracey's life, and lets work take over her life. It takes her from North West London to West Africa and back to London again, as she negotiates the complexities of race, identity, friendship, and betrayal. Swing Time is about how we are faced with these things, and how we survive them.

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out

reviewed by Gene Lopez

Coming soon.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

Turkish author Asli Erdogan's detention 'breaches convention on human rights'

The novelist's pre-trial imprisonment on terror charges has been condemned by lawyers and academics, who say there are no grounds for this extreme measure.


'They had issues': Sally Wainwright and Tracy Chevalier discuss the Brontës

Sally Wainwright's new drama To Walk Invisible offers a radical new take on the Brontës. She talks to novelist Tracy Chevalier about the siblings' extraordinary lives.


Sexism in publishing: 'My novel wasn't the problem, it was me, Catherine'

Author reveals that submitting her manuscript to agents under a male pseudonym brought more than eight times the number of responses.


The 10 Best Books of 2016

The year's best books, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. 1 December 2016.


Leonard Cohen: Canadian singer dead aged 82

Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen's death was announced on his Facebook page.


Charlotte Brontë, the filthy bitch

Enough of the Brontë industry's veneration of coffins, bonnets and TB. It is time to exhume the real Charlotte - filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit, and friend.


Beryl Bainbridge was nice as well as naughty - and a brilliant novelist

The fictions of Beryl Bainbridge's life were as important to her as the facts. As a novelist, she knew the dramatic exigencies of telling a tale.


Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë for A level English Literature essays and coursework.


Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald for A level English Literature essays and coursework.


Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote for A level English Literature essays and coursework.


Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams for A level English Literature essays and coursework.

Thank you for visiting The Book Gnome. Visit us on Facebook or send your thoughts and comments to The Book Gnome, especially book recommendations and reviews.