This Is How It Always Is – Laurie Frankel

10/10. Gorgeous cover – spot on use of imagery and colour.

Claude is five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess. When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl. Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes. This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.”

When a proof copy of This Is How It Always Is popped through my doorbox, I was intrigued by its gorgeous, minimalist production values (cream cover with gold foil; bare blurb). I opened it up and read the first few pages – and soon I had put aside all of my plans for that evening and just kept on reading.

Laurie Frankel’s book is a gorgeous, life-affirming novel about a set of parents, Rosie and Penn, with a large family (Orion and Regel, Claude, Roo and Ben) and an ever-evolving array of methods to bring them up with. As with all siblings (and people), each son has their own distinctive and different set of personality traits, quirks, and flaws. Claude is a little more different. He is three when he announces that he wants to be a girl: five when he decides that he’s going to be called Poppy and start dressing like a girl.

Accepting, tolerant, patient and loving parents, Rosie and Penn, still aren’t quite sure when them batting away the inevitable childish questions (why is the sky blue? what do turtles eat? when I grow up and become a girl, will I start over?) and quirks became Claude/Poppy’s new way of life. All they know is that they want to accept and nurture Claude’s flourishing personality. It’s a mixed blessing for Rosie, who desperately yearned for her fifth child to be a girl – and a great source of confusion for Claude’s siblings, until, with trademark childlike equanimity, they accept his new identity without any qualms. But when a couple of occurrences make it apparent to Rosie and Penn that where they currently live in Wisconsin isn’t the best place to encourage a gender-dysphoric child’s growth, they decide to relocate to Seattle, a much more welcoming environment for their rambunctious family – despite the family fractures that they are unknowingly causing in the process.

Though their new neighbourhood is much more welcoming, they decide to keep Poppy’s ‘true’ gender a secret, and thus the biggest secret that the Walsh-Adams will ever have to keep is born – and carried, throughout the years, as the children grow, develop, make friends, start to date, and, eventually, fall in love. As Poppy struggles to accept the black-and-white gender-role obsessed society that, for her, raises more questions than it answers, Penn’s bedtime stories, featuring Grumwald and Princess Stephanie, shows art imitating life as he uses his stories to help guide his children – mostly Poppy – through the rocky terrain of child- and kidulthood.

But then Poppy’s secret is revealed, and everything the family has built together starts to collapse. Old fractures come to the surface; new ones start to develop. As the Walsh-Adams family struggle to deal with the fallout, Poppy – who is now Claude again – experiences a total identity crisis. Will she find courage to accept the identity she’s been sure of since she was three years old, or will the struggle she now faces leave her confused and alone? Rather than try and answer all of the difficult questions that the book raises, Frankel leaves the ending in an open-ended but optimistic manner, letting readers draw their own interpretations and conclusions.

Simply put, This Is How It Always Is is a stunning novel, and one that our ever-evolving society desperately needs. Laurie Frankel shows razor-sharp insight with her depiction of Rosie and Penn’s parenting skills, Poppy’s struggles and how they all fit into the wider context of modern society. This is not only an essential book for anyone who wants to understand more about the transgender experience, but also for anyone who enjoys a heart-warming and thought-provoking read.

Frankel’s relatable, likeable writing style delivers the novel’s key messages in a subtle yet poignant way, showing how no-one – least of all parents – is completely infallible, and right all the time. It also reinforces how, more importantly, a lot of us are muddling through life, following our hearts and trying to forge a path through an often uncertain world according to our hopes, dreams and desires – something that the novel’s message encourages us to do, rather than conforming to life’s ideals and standards. An intelligently written, evocative, important read – I cannot praise this book highly enough.

Many thanks to Headline for the review copy.

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Seven Steps to Happiness – Stella Newman

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9/10. Great use of colour, and I love the illustration.

“Is there a formula for happiness? If it’s Netflix, two-for-one Malbec and the perfect toasted-cheese sandwich, Lenny has it covered. But when her friend Juliet finds herself at rock bottom, Lenny realises it’s going to take more than that to fix her. Luckily help is at hand in the form of HappyGuru: a plan which promises happiness in seven easy steps. So when Lenny is asked to research it, she puts scepticism aside and persuades Juliet they should give it a go. The friends quickly find themselves immersed in mindfulness, juice cleanses and death-defying circus stunts. Yet as Juliet becomes increasingly buoyant, things only get more complicated for Lenny. Can it be that happiness is only seven steps away?”

Here on the KCARAB blog I’m very open about how much of a Stella Newman fan I am. From Pear Shaped to Leftovers The Dish, as soon as I saw that she was publishing a new novel (I’m not ashamed to admit that I sporadically search her publisher’s page to check) it was my next purchase.

I will admit, however, that it didn’t seem like a classic Stella read upon starting – this novel has a new writing style, with the story split between two protagonists, Lenny and Julia, and the starting protagonist isn’t a talented cook/all-round foodie (see: Pear Shaped‘s Sophie, Leftovers‘ Susie and The Dish‘s Laura) – Seven Steps to Happiness immediately showed a new writing side of Newman. However, there was certainly enough mention of food to keep me happy – not to mention that Julia is a ghost recipe writer-turned-artisan bread maker.

However, Julia’s new bread empire doesn’t come easy – a married mother and talented chef, her world is turned upside down when she realises that her seemingly perfect husband, Matt, is a serial cheater. Her best friend, perpetual singleton and unfulfilled tech worker, Lenny, takes it upon herself to bring her back to life – with regular visits, emotional support, and the use of a new app she’s trialling – HappyGuru. Julia starts off at a happy level of four, but as she takes the advice that the app offers her – taking up exercise, new hobbies and challenging herself creatively, that level starts to creep up as she embraces life and sloughs off her broken relationship. Meanwhile, Lenny is going the wrong way – moving from having a stable job to being unemployed, wearing inside-out clothes and wasting time with Ellis, a man who has refused to commit to her for years and who can’t even carry out a simple instruction right.

Julia’s new endeavours start to help Lenny too, as her business starts to expand and she needs Lenny’s help to turn her business into a success story, rather than simply keeping her afloat. As the two pair up to take Julia’s company to the next level, navigating friendship bumps, love life issues and the mission to find the perfect toastie combination, they both find happiness – all without the use of the HappyGuru app.

As always, there’s a link to Stella’s other novels – something I’ve always loved about her books. Seven Steps to Happiness is a classic serving of literary comfort food, penned by the eternally talented Stella Newman – who always serves up the perfect blend of friendship, romance and cuisine. The only thing missing from this book was toastie recommendations – though that’s perhaps no bad thing, when I already learned how to make the Compost Cookies from her first novel and I’m trying to avoid having a classic ‘winter body’ this year…

The Dish – Stella Newman

24485926I’m a big Stella Newman fan. Pear Shaped is one of my favourite novels of all time and Leftovers is up there too. I’m a big fan for a number of reasons: Stella’s witty dialogue, her excellent characterisation (I will always root for a character who would prefer pasta to a salad) and her plotlines, to count but a few. But one of the things Stella truly excels at is giving her readers a fantastic insight into an industry or career that they wouldn’t generally otherwise have. Take her latest read – The Dish, which focuses on the life of Laura Parker, anonymous food critic and divorcee who’s been lying low in love since breaking up with her husband, Dave. Fans of Pear Shaped will remember her as Sophie’s best friend/side kick, and the feisty Miss Klein makes a number of welcome visits in this novel.

But this love story is all about Laura, and her blossoming relationship with Adam Bayley, the head chef at pretentious new restaurant LuxEris. Laura eats at the restaurant before they meet and hates everything – from the ridiculous menu and the high prices to the lurid, tacky décor. She writes a damning review for her publication – The Dish – but she starts to change her mind once she meets and starts dating Adam. He’s a brilliant chef and a master of flavours – surely he couldn’t have been cooking that night? Laura decides to go back and do a re-review, and sure enough the food, this time around, is exquisite. So she decides to change her review – before her first one gets out there and damages Adam’s reputation, and his position at the restaurant. But a snide colleague sabotages her, and suddenly everything starts to fall away – Laura’s beloved boss falls ill, she’s plagued by guilt over the death of her mother, and when Adam finds out who the face of The Dish is, he’s furious with Laura for keeping it a secret. But it’s not as big as the secret he’s keeping…

The Dish is classic Stella at her best: cracking wit, sparkling ripostes and, as always, a protagonist you always want to win. My only complaint is that she doesn’t write fast enough – more books please, Stella!

NB: For fans of Pear Shaped, why not try my version of Sophie Klein’s compost cookies?

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

“Jack and Mabel hope that a fresh start in ‘Alaska, our newest homeland’ will enable them to put the strain of their childless marriage behind them. But the northern wilderness proves as unforgiving as it is beautiful: Jack fears that he will collapse under the strain of creating a farm, and the lonely winter eats its way into Mabel’s soul. When the first snow falls, the couple find themselves building a small figure – a snow girl. The next morning, their creation has gone, and they see a child running through the spruce trees. Gradually this child – an elusive, untameable little girl who hunts with a fox and is more at ease in the savage landscape than in the homestead – comes into their lives. But as their love for the snow child and for the land she opens up to them grows, so too does their awareness that it, and she, may break their hearts.”

The blurb and book cover of The Snow Child promised a magical read – and Eowyn Ivey more than delivers on this promise. The story launches straight into the lives of Jack and Mabel, a childless couple who have moved to Alaska. Their existence is bare and simple; Mabel stays home in their sparse home whilst Jack works outside.

The couple’s inability to show each other emotion and sadness, and their failure to procreate a child, is reflected by the bleak, freezing landscape that surrounds them. One day, during a blizzard, Mabel and Jack playfully create a snow child – a little girl, which they complete with clothes. However, the next day, the snow figurine has disappeared and soon the couple are visited by a little girl who navigates the treacherous woods expertly, accompanied only by a fox. She is invited in to the couple’s home from time to time, but rarely speaks and never stays.

As time goes on, the couple grow more attached to this magical girl called Faina who is now growing up and who forms a relationship with the son of the couple’s only friends. But when her free spirit is compromised by the responsibilities of a real relationship, the couple lose the closest thing they have to a child.

Words can’t express how exquisitely this book is written. Eowyn weaves incredible sadness and beauty through the story; the reader can actually feel the barrenness of Mabel and Jack’s new home, their desolation at not being able to have children and their longing to adopt this magical girl into their lives completely. The robust characters of Ethel and George offset the protagonists’ awkward and timid natures perfectly.

A book that is full of magic and yet contains relatable underlying themes, The Snow Child is moving and enchanting in equal measures. A must read that should be bought, if only for the beautiful cover.

Many thanks to Headline for a review copy of this title.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets – Eva Rice

“Set in the 1950s, in an England still recovering from the Second World War, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is the enchanting story of Penelope Wallace and her eccentric family at the start of the rock’n’roll era. Penelope longs to be grown-up and to fall in love; but various rather inconvenient things keep getting in her way. Like her mother, a stunning but petulant beauty widowed at a tragically early age, her younger brother Inigo, currently incapable of concentrating on anything that isn’t Elvis Presley, a vast but crumblng ancestral home, a severe shortage of cash, and her best friend Charlotte’s sardonic cousin Harry…”

You’ll get lost in the fun, frivolous world Eva Rice creates – I know I did. By the time I’d reached the first chapter and met protagonist Penelope, who lives with her mother Talitha and brother Inigo in Milton Magna House, and stranger-turned-friend Charlotte, I was immersed in the fifties. I wanted to have heavy blonde hair and spend shillings on stockings and lipstick.

A novel embellished with flippant and airy tales whilst hitting home with Penelope’s family’s debt, the death of her father during the war and relationships going woefully wrong, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a literary treat. Eva Rice keeps the reader hooked with fresh, witty dialogue and excellent characterisation. You can’t make people like Charlotte, Harry and Aunt Clare up – unless you’re Eva (it probably helps that she’s the daughter of lyricist Tim Rice).

I followed Penelope and Charlotte’s heady (and often alcohol-fuelled) jaunts with much pleasure. The surreal but fabulous events throughout kept me delighted until the end – which was tied up about with just the right amount of ambiguousness and happy-ever-after, despite the sad passing of legendary Aunt Clare, who leaves her fascinating memoirs as her legacy. Enjoy with something frightfully indulgent and lapsang souchong (served in bone china, naturally).

Destiny – Louise Bagshawe

“Orphan Kate Fox is determined to make her mark in the world, and with her gorgeous looks, what better way to secure her future than to marry money? When she attracts the attention of media mogul Marcus Broder – sophisticated, powerful and wealthy beyond measure – it seems as though all of Kate’s dreams have come true. But marriage to Marcus isn’t everything she imagined. Before long, Kate wants out of her marriage, a career of her own, and a chance at love. But Kate’s reputation as a gold-digger is sealed. Ruthlessly pursued by Marcus, who will stop at nothing to destroy her, Kate knows she has to defeat her past if she is to win the trust of the man she loves.”

I’ve always been a big fan of Louise Bagshawe – I’ve read everything she’s ever written – so I was thrilled when I got the chance to review Destiny. Louise revisits a tried and tested romance format – Kate marries for money, determined not to ever relive the impoverished life she lived with her mother before an accident left her orphaned. However, she realises it isn’t enough and decides she wants a life – and true love.

Louise weaves her usual magic in this latest offering. As is her wont, she makes multiple references to a killer labels-laden wardrobe, gorgeous jewellry and picturesque New York scenes. She also harks back to characters from her previous novels (we see Topaz Goldstein from Career Girls and House Massot jewellery from Sparkles. In recent books, Louise has diverted slightly from her usual style to bring more thriller-type nobels, but she returns true to form here. It’s not as clever as her previous reads, and some of the editing lead to a slightly jarred read for me, but she delivers a true-to-form novel with style and panache. Modern-day references –  to celebrity couple Matt Bellamy and Kate Hudson and MacBook Airs – update Louise’s writing perfectly for the 21st century.

Many thanks to Headline Review for the review copy.