The Fox And The Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith: Book Review

Coralie Bickford-Smith|The Fox and the Star Coralie Bickford-Smith, the designer behind Penguin Classics’ clothbound reissues, is the author of debut children’s novel The Fox And The Star. The Fox And The Star has been making lots of noise in recent weeks due to its being named Waterstone’s Book of the Year 2015. In fact, this was the reason why I bought it (despite my being decidedly older than its target demographic of 3-5 years old), as I have yet to be disappointed by the winners of these awards since the accolade was first launched in 2011.

Like its Penguin Classics cousins, The Fox And The Star is beautifully presented and designed to be collectible. I can just imagine a young child receiving this as a gift, perhaps with a signed bookplate in it to treasure and keep forever. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, at once simplistic and at the same time ornate – reminiscient of the tiled artwork of the Penguin Classics. The blocky colour scheme also contrasts very nicely with the intricate patterns meaning that the pages are not too busy. Children will love discerning the rabbits hidden amidst the grass, hunting for Fox in the wood and following the words around the page. The writing itself is quite understated for such a gorgeously presented book, but it is a small complaint and I strongly suspect children will be more concerned with the pictures, story and messages than the writing style.

On that note, The Fox And The Star’s strengths lie in its universal message and timelessness. By hinging all of Fox’s happiness on the existence of Star, only for Star to then go out, the reader is able to interpret the meaning of this in a multitude of powerful ways. Perhaps Star represents a person, so a grieving Fox must learn how to continue on without them. Perhaps Star represents Fox’s happiness itself, so when Fox spirals into a pit of depression, he must learn how to regain confidence again. Or perhaps the Star represents innocence and the Fox must now learn to stand up on his own four feet. All of these are rather heavy concepts to present to a child, but it is executed in a subtle, uplifting manner, so as to arm the child for the inevitable disappointments, griefs and sadnesses that await them in later life. As an adult reader, I was also able to pick up some of the story’s darker implications, like Fox hiding underground so still as to appear dead, and then being approached by beetles hoping to feast upon his ‘dead’ body. The best kind of children’s books are the ones that you can go back and read at different stages of your life and discover, recognise or relate to something new every time.

A lovely, beautiful little book that looks great on my bookshelf, and just keeps giving every time I read it. An ideal gift for any child in the run-up to Christmas.

Verdict: 4/5 stars

S.E. Berrow


For more information on Coralie Bickford-Smith and The Fox And The Star, please visit her official website:


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton: Book Review

The Miniaturist coverThe Miniaturist is the much-hyped debut novel of the very talented Jessie Burton. Subject to a publishing bidding war before it was even released to near-universal acclaim in 2014, it eventually went on to be crowned Waterstone’s Book of the Year just in time for Christmas. As a result, the book was reprinted in a simply gorgeous cloth-bound cover with a pretty gold ribbon-bookmark. To be entirely honest, I didn’t think a story about a dollhouse set in 17th century Amsterdam sounded terribly exciting. I feared that the writing would be stuffy and dull. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for pretty collectible books, so I bought it anyway and just left it on my shelves until I ran out of other things to read.

I was right about one thing. A story about a dollhouse in 17th century Amsterdam probably wouldn’t have been terribly exciting. It’s therefore a very good thing that The Miniaturist is not really about a dollhouse. It’s not even about the elusive titular Miniaturist, whose tiny creations mirror the protagonist’s life in disconcertingly prophetic ways. It is about the dollhouse’s owner, eighteen-year-old Petranella Oortman who, after having grown up in the quiet countryside, must now adapt to vibrant city-living following her marriage to the wealthy, charismatic merchant, Johannes Brandt. Upon arriving in Amsterdam however, with no one but her pet parakeet Peeboo for company, Nella is greeted not by Brandt, but by his sharp-tongued deliberately cagey sister, Marin. It isn’t long before Nella deduces that the Brandts are keeping one or two very big, very dark, dangerous secrets from her. When Nella discovers precisely what those secrets are… well. Soon the canals of Amsterdam – a city as morally backward as it is commercially vibrant and progressive – begin to flow with blood instead of water.

The Miniaturist
Jessie Burton

Simply put this book is absolutely gripping and beautifully executed, from its gorgeous clothbound cover to its sharp, concise and evocative writing. Jessie Burton does not fall into the trap of telling her story in an outdated, laboured fashion, as many other historical-fiction writers are prone to do. The descriptions of Amsterdam are stunning, inserted subtly into the most unexpected places to achieve great effect. For example, one of the book’s very first lines is, ‘Words flow like water in Amsterdam’, which not only conjures images of the canals but also cleverly foreshadows the spilling of secrets and the foreboding nature of water. The plot is tight and surprisingly violent, completely subverting my expectations; I was not able to guess at a single revelation. The times when I actually knew what was going to happen, I was filled with such dread that I willed myself to be wrong. Every single character, from the naïve newly-wed Nella to the quiet, anguished servant Otto, are crafted as meticulously and realistically as the Miniaturist’s dolls. Johannes Brandt’s sister Marin in particular – so stoic and fierce in her religious fervour and hypocrisy – was an absolute tour-de-force of a character, completely unpredictable, and I loved her.

Petranella Oortman's dollhouse
Petranella Oortman’s Cabinet House, on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

It’s interesting to note whilst we’re on the subject of characters that although Jessie Burton was inspired by the magnificent cabinet house owned by a real person called Petranella Oortman (who really was married to a merchant called Johannes Brandt in 17th century Amsterdam), everything she writes about their their lives – including their familial relations – is completely and utterly made-up. I found this very odd, and I’m not sure it was a very ethical thing to do (particularly where Johannes Brandt is concerned). I do not think the story would have suffered from a few simple name changes.

Any issues I had with this however, along with the ambiguous abilities of the Miniaturist, paled in comparison to everything else I enjoyed about this book. I didn’t want it to end, but at the same time couldn’t stop myself from reading, so emotionally invested was I in the fates of the characters. By the time I had turned the final page, I was at a complete loss, not only in terms of what I’d just read but also in terms of what on earth I was going to read next. The fact that this is a debut novel makes Jessie Burton’s achievement all the more impressive. I loved this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Verdict: 5/5

S.E. Berrow

For more information on Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist, please visit her official website:

Social Engineer by Ian Sutherland: Book Review

Ian Sutherland | Social EngineerEarlier this year I had the privilege of reading Ian Sutherland’s first novel in his Deep Web Thriller series, Invasion of Privacy; a slick modern thriller centred around ‘white-hat’ computer hacker, Brody Taylor, who finds himself caught up in a hunt for a serial killer. Crime is not exactly my go-to genre, but Invasion of Privacy was undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year. So to have then received an email inviting me to download a prequel 60-page novella, Social Engineer – for free nonetheless – I was only too happy to oblige, and excited to read more about Brody’s exploits. You can read my 5 star review of Invasion of Privacy on Goodreads here.

Ostensibly, Social Engineer has been written as an introduction to Brody’s character as well as his motivations, hacking techniques and day-to-day existence shrouded in a web of secrecy and lies, whilst trying to make a go of a relationship with an animal rights protester. The hope is that the reader will then go on to read the full-length novel, but those who have read the novel first, such as myself, Social Engineer is a nice little bonus story worth reading. Because the very nature of a novella dictates that Social Engineer cannot possibly be as informative or as in depth as Invasion of Privacy, it makes it all the more impressive that Ian Sutherland manages to cram so much in.

Brody’s character in the space of less than 100 pages succeeds in coming across as believable, consistent, intelligent and likeable, despite also being a self-confessed compulsive liar who walks a fine line between what is legal and what is not. The idea to pitch a much-needed, ground-breaking scientific discovery – in this case a cure for Alzheimer’s – against horrific but perhaps necessary animal testing (the latter of which was skilfully and subtly handled by the author) only helps to emphasise this blurring of black and white morality, which again I find impressive for a short story; to actually go so far as to include symbolism and social commentary with such a low page count. The writing is good, with no typos or formatting errors (important in a self-published work like this one). The story itself is tight with a solid beginning, middle and an open-ended, but very satisfying conclusion. The plot meanwhile is a little predictable, especially if you have read Invasion of Privacy first. Likewise, if you do read Invasion of Privacy after Social Engineer, expect to find yourself treading over old ground with the first Brody-centred chapter, the opening setting of which is very similar to this novella.

So, if you are looking for a (very) quick, pacey little Crime read with the potential to introduce you to something clever and more involved, and wish to support deserving, talented indie authors, I thoroughly recommend that you give Ian Sutherland’s Social Engineer a go. Hopefully you’ll pick up Invasion of Privacy afterwards too and enjoy it as much as I did.

Verdict: 4/5

S.E. Berrow

For more information on the Deep Web Thriller series and Ian Sutherland, please visit his official website:


The Whispers In The Walls by Sophie Cleverly: Book Review

Sophie Cleverly | The Whispers In The WallsThe Whispers in the Walls is the second instalment of Sophie Cleverly’s Scarlet & Ivy series, set in 1935 within the forbidding walls of Rookwood; a boarding school for girls. Clever but reserved Ivy Grey – protagonist of The Lost Twin – is back and I couldn’t be happier to read her voice again, but this time her more vociferous twin Scarlet is firmly in tow, with her own point of view chapters and distinctive presence on the page.

For those of you who have not read The Lost Twin and are in the mood for a tightly-written, good old fashioned boarding-school gothic mystery (I rated it 5 stars out of 5 on Goodreads), I highly recommend that you do so before you a) pick up The Whispers in the Walls and b) continue reading this review. The book is middle-grade reading-level and aimed at children aged 8-12.

The basic premise of The Whispers In The Walls is that in spite of events that occurred in The Lost Twin, Scarlet and Ivy Grey are forced by their gutless father and manipulative stepmother to return to Rookwood, only to discover that Miss Fox’s reign of terror is not yet over. Instead it is to continue – and worse – under the iron rod of Headmaster Bartholomew, whose eyes are fixed firmly on troublemaking Scarlet following a spate of thefts. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following her stint in the asylum and determined to regain Ivy’s trust, Scarlet sets out to prove her innocence, which leads to a startling and sinister discovery hidden deep within Rookwood’s walls.

The major development between the first book and this one is that the story is no longer narrated solely by Ivy. The twins alternate first-person point of view chapters with their names at the top of each one, which I must confess I didn’t like as much. Even via the diary entries in The Lost Twin, one got a sense of Scarlet’s domineering, obstinate nature. Now that she has been given free reign in The Whispers In The Walls, she rather overshadows Ivy. I thought that this was a shame, especially since Ivy coming into her own was such an important theme in The Lost Twin. Also, because the twins are often occupying the same space, talking with the same people and doing similar things, I sometimes got confused as to which twin’s point of view I was actually reading at the time, and often had to go back and check. I couldn’t help but wonder if the story could not have been told just as well, if not better, had the author just stuck with one twin’s point of view. That being said, Scarlet is a great character; her selfish bullheadedness, particularly where poor Ivy is concerned, is in equal parts endearing as it is frustrating. A part of me really does wish that we had learned more about what she endured at the asylum via some form of exposition scene with Ivy, but then I suppose Sophie Cleverly is limited to what she can include in a children’s book. In terms of other ‘new’ characters we are not introduced to many  (Vile Violet indirectly featured in The Lost Twin via Scarlet’s diary entries). I was very fond of the distractible librarian Catastrophe Jones however, and hope she crops up again in the next book.

Like The Lost Twin, mystery fogs the pages, and I found myself not being able to entirely predict for a moment what was going to happen next. Here I think is where Sophie Cleverly excels. She’s very good at throwing out red herrings and directing your suspicions elsewhere, and even if you do kind of half-guess the outcome, there’s always something else waiting in the wings to take you by surprise. The ending in particular was a bit of a curveball and promises further intrigue in the next book, however it was a bit of a shame that The Whispers In The Walls story felt unresolved as a result of this cliffhanger.

There were also a couple of moments in here that stretched the realms of believability beyond what I was prepared to accept – such as a teacher beating a student enough to break her arm without incurring some form of formal investigation, or students wandering around the school in the middle of the night amidst a draconian crackdown without bumping into a single patrol. The fact that Headmaster Bartholomew was also able to continue Miss Fox’s deception successfully – that Scarlet never left Rookwood – was a bit much. Miss Fox’s deception was contained between only herself and Ivy, whilst Headmaster Bartholomew’s deception relies not only upon several members of staff but also several of the students to play along. I feel like everyone went along with this a little too quietly, especially Scarlet and Ivy themselves, who did not even have the motivation to remain at Rookwood. There were a few incidents like this throughout the book that took me out of the story a little bit, meaning that I did not immerse myself in it quite as much as I would have liked to.

All in all, as is probably evident by my constant comparisons, I did not enjoy The Whispers In The Walls anywhere near as much as I did The Lost Twin. I suspect this might be because nothing much has really changed aside from the introduction of Scarlet’s narrative voice, which, as I mentioned above, I’m not sure really worked. I don’t think anything new was tried here, and some of the things that I really love about the Scarlet & Ivy series – such as the resourceful, intelligent characters, playground politics, the ballet studio, untrustworthy and inept adults and the nostalgic boarding-school atmosphere – were executed better in the The Lost Twin than they were here. However, I am still very much looking forward to the release of the third book in the series, The Dance In The Dark, and I still like Scarlet, Ivy and Sophie Cleverly’s crisp, pacy writing style very much indeed.

Verdict: 2/5

S.E. Berrow

For more information about Sophie Cleverly and the Scarlet & Ivy series, please visit her official website here:

Sophie also runs a music blog centred around my favourite genre, Symphonic Metal:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Book Review

Ernest Cline | Ready Player OneIn his USA Today article published 21 August 2011, Don Oldenburg praised Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One as ‘Willy Wonka meets The Matrix‘. As strange and mismatched a comparison this first sounds, I actually think Oldenburg got it pretty bang on, with one glaring exception: if you’ve ever read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash the following will sound rather familiar to you…

Eighteen-year-old Wade Watts is your typical modern-day antisocial genius teenager. Having become painfully aware of the injustices of living in a modern world ruled by corporations where people live in slum-like compounds known as ‘the stacks’, Wade shuns reality in favour of a fully rendered virtual utopia known as the OASIS – kind of like a cross between the internet and an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game).

Now here’s where things get interesting. The creator of the OASIS, one 1980s-obsessed James Halliday, hid an Easter Egg inside the game’s programming. Upon his death, he announces that whomever finds said Egg will inherit not only the OASIS, but also Halliday’s multi-billion dollar fortune (that’s the Willy Wonka part). Wade, like many other Egg hunters (or gunters as they are known in the novel) has completely devoted his miserable existence to immersing himself in the OASIS and the life and loves of James Halliday. Still, years go by with no success, and it becomes increasingly likely that Halliday may have taken the secret to his grave after all…

And then Wade stumbles upon the first clue.

Pacman Level 256As someone who grew up in the 90s rather than the 80s, I was a little bit apprehensive going into this book, thinking perhaps I wouldn’t get any of the in-jokes or understand all the references. I soon discovered however that these fears were completely unfounded, as the 1980s were actually a pretty pervasive era, and I actually know far more about them than I first thought. It helps that Ernest Cline doesn’t just stick to the 1980s, but also incorporates other milestones and phenomena of ‘geek’ culture – The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Matrix, World of Warcraft, Playstation, Xbox, blogging, vlogging, YouTube gaming etc. – to make the book feel more current. On top of that, Wade (i.e. Cline) was always there to hold my hand and explain some of the more obscure background details, or at the very least point me in the right direction of an appropriate internet search (I had particular fun looking up the intricacies of level 256 on Pacman – see right).

Whilst Ready Player One makes an attempt at high concept (like The Matrix) and social commentary (like Snow Crash), what it actually is is more of an excellent, rollicking soft sci-fi love letter to the history of video games, computer engineering and geek culture, with a dash of adventure, high stakes and romance thrown in for good measure. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there are no grey areas in between. The main protagonist, Wade Watts, is pretty much the best at everything he does (I sincerely doubt the plausibility of some his claims to have watched/played/read so many films/games/books x amount of times), and whilst his supreme knowledge can sometimes come across as over the top and arrogant, the reader knows he is merely acting as a mouthpiece for the author’s own loves and obsessions to guide us through the story. The plot may be predictable, but it still manages to be engaging and thrilling, and whilst the writing is quite dense, it is very visual and easy to follow.

Essentially what I’m trying to say here is that there is nothing new in Ready Player One. It’s all been done before, but that’s the point. The aim of the book is not to intellectually challenge, but to thoroughly entertain, and to resonate with every nostalgic bone in your body. In this, it succeeds brilliantly.

Verdict: 4/5

S.E. Berrow

For more information on Ernest Cline, please visit his official website:

Also, because I really do think the two books are very similar and because I absolutely love it, check out Neal Stephenson’s website and Snow Crash in the ‘Books’ section whilst you’re at it too:

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell: Book Review

Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell | From HellEvery now and then a piece of literature will come along that I, quite frankly, do not feel entirely qualified to review. Such is the case with Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell’s enormously dense tome of Ripperology: the ground-breaking graphic novel From Hell. Based on a conspiracy theory put forth by Stephen Knight in Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) that the gruesome Whitechapel murders committed against prostitutes between April 1888 and February 1891 were done so at the behest of the Royal family, From Hell was initially published as a serial work between 1989 and 1996 and collected into one single volume in 1999. The story presented here is not so much a whodunnit (the reader is aware of the culprit’s identity from the start) but whydunnit. In transcending itself as a commentary on Victorian society by also holding a mirror up to our own, From Hell has been frequently cited as the best graphic novel ever written. The sheer gargantuan effort it took to research and neatly tie together every thread, every street, every landmark, every building, every theory, every potential victim, every bloodstained item of clothing, every cut, every mutilation committed in the canon of the Jack the Ripper murders is startlingly apparent, even without the extensive commentary contained in this collection’s appendix highlighting the fact. Every single source is cited. No stone is left unturned. Despite its pictorial format, From Hell is undoubtedly a work of literary fiction. I imagine graphic novels as literature must have been a relatively new concept in the late 80s, though I cannot truly comment as I was only a child at the time of publication.
Thus, taking all this into account, when I say that I’m not really sure what to make of From Hell, I feel as though perhaps I didn’t ‘get it’. I’m not a Ripperologist. I know absolutely nothing about Freemasonry. I’m not even all that frequent a purveyor of graphic novels, though I have read other works by Alan Moore that I personally felt were superior to this one (V For Vendetta for example). What I can judge with some confidence however is the story, the characters, the writing style, the artwork as well as general themes and atmosphere. In regard to these, I felt that From Hell was extremely impressive and ambitious in its concept, but failed slightly in its execution.
The Rope and Bench
Luxury for Jack, the rope and bench – or the ‘Twopenny Hangover’ – for his first victim, Polly Nichols.

I thought the book started out great. I absolutely loved the stark contrast between the lives of the rich and poor, well represented by Eddie Campbell’s controversial artwork. The images have a decidedly scratchy, cluttered feel to them, the inky darkness from the fog and lack of street lighting perfectly conveyed, whereas the wealthier areas are drawn as crisp, clean, pretty and bright. Whilst we’re on the subject of the artwork, I thought the way in which Alan Moore wrote the dialogue and Eddie Campbell drew it so that you could determine the character’s accent without needing to be told – like the fact that Liz Stride was a Swede, or that Mary Kelly was Irish – was very well done.

The plight of the poverty-stricken prostitutes fending off gangs alongside sexist Masonic rhetoric was also very poignant. I loved the women in this novel. I thought that Mary Kelly, Liz Stride et al were all given the prominence and agency they deserve by Alan Moore, instead of being treated like the faceless victims they seem to have become. I also really liked Abberline, whose characterisation was just the right amount of gruff good intentions mixed with time-appropriate prejudices to evoke empathy in the reader. The political machinations of the Freemasons and their control over the police fitted perfectly with the cloak and dagger nature of the grisly murders… It was all positively gripping.

Sadly, by its end, From Hell descended into a deluge of tenuous links, rambling tangents, famous faces and alternate dimensions. Expect to meet just about every Victorian celebrity you can possibly think of within these pages: William Blake, Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), Buffalo Bill, Oscar Wilde, Alesteir Crowley, William Morris… they’re all here, in some form or another, and they’re all linked to the Jack the Ripper murders. Their appearances often result in jarring digressions away from the main narrative in which the reader becomes reliant on outside resources in order to fully understand what is going on. For example, following a random scene dedicated to the conception of Adolf Hitler, I had to a) translate the German in order to appreciate why the scene was there, and b) refer to Alan Moore’s appendix in order to identify the copulating couple in the first place. I also found it pretty hard-going that I had to constantly rely on Alan Moore’s commentary, which should have served as a fascinating companion to the text rather than a key to it.

There were also several overly long passages that dragged the story down to a snail’s pace. In Chapter 4 for example, the character of William Gull takes his coachman John Netley on a tour around pagan London, spouting Masonic history as justification for his impending actions. Whilst this passage serves as valuable insight into Gull’s psyche, it really did seem to go on forever. I also felt the ending was very confusing and didn’t truly understand what Gull was trying to achieve. It’s possible that the ambiguity of the ending was meant to reflect the murkiness and uncertainty of the real Jack the Ripper case, but for me personally the mysticism and time travel elements were a bit of a left turn.
The Best of All TailorsFinally, as a word of awkwardly acquired advice, From Hell is not public transport friendly, in every sense of the word. Not only is it truly massive – awkwardly so – and physically uncomfortable to read, it is also extremely sexually explicit and horrifically violent. The fate of Jack the Ripper’s final victim in particular is dragged out, quite literally, across no less than 31 pages, to the point that blood and guts are positively dripping from the panels. I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to this sort of stuff (I’m a big fan of Jhonen Vasquez‘s JtHM), so I say this purely from a storytelling perspective that I found this kind of hyper-violence rather gratuitous.
A fascinating read. I can absolutely understand why From Hell is lauded as such an influential and iconic work, but unfortunately it is by no means perfect.

Verdict: 2/5

S.E. Berrow

For more information on Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell and the Jack the Ripper case, visit the below links. Please note that there are some quite graphic photographs on the Casebook website:

I also highly recommend any of the Jack The Ripper walking tours around Whitechapel the next time you’re in London. I booked with Best Tours (read my review of the tour here), but I think they’re all much of a muchness really. I seriously cannot recommend it enough:

Also, a controversial museum dedicated to Jack the Ripper opened up in the East End recently. I’ve not been so I can’t comment but here’s the link to their website also if you are interested:

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi: Book Review

Taiye Selasi | Ghana Must GoThere was one particularly telling line in Taiye Selasi’s essay Bye-Bye, Barbar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?) – included within my copy of this book as a Waterstone’s exclusive – that I think sums up the themes and messages of Ghana Must Go quite succinctly:

“There is a brain drain back home. Most Afropolitans could serve Africa better in Africa than at the Medicine Bar on Thursdays… When will the scattered tribes return? When will the talent repatriate?”

Ghana Must Go – the title referring to both the expulsion of Ghanaian immigrants from Nigeria in 1983 as a result of a boom and bust in the oil industry, and the distinctive white, red and blue travel bags they used to transport their belongings – tells the story of the Sai family; prime examples of the Afropolitans Taiye Selasi expounds in her essay. Surgeon Kweku and his florist wife Fola – having emigrated from Ghana and Nigeria respectively – live with their son Olu, twins Taiwo and Kehinde and daughter Sadie in Brookline, Boston. After years of hard work and dedication, Kweku and Fola are now wealthy, privileged and successful, their children intelligent, talented and going-places…. until Kweku is wrongfully dismissed and blows all his finances on an unsuccessful attempt to sue Beth Israel Hospital. Too ashamed to face his family, he abandons them and flees home to Ghana. From there, the tribe falls apart and scatters across the world, irreparably broken and unable to fit in anywhere. Only when the estranged Kweku suddenly dies are the Sais forced back together again. Will they be able to heal their various scars and reconcile their differences as they make their way back to Ghana?

I picked up Ghana Must Go purely because at the time I fancied something decidedly out of my comfort zone; generally speaking I avoid literary fiction if I can help it, especially the contemporary kind, and on top of that I was interested in reading about a culture that I am otherwise not familiar with. I thought it would be interesting to read about an immigrant family – and a successful one at that – during a time when immigration in England is being so hotly debated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘literary’ aspects of this book were the main things I disliked about it. Taiye Selasi’s writing style is at times incredibly beautiful and poetic, but more often than not felt extremely overwrought and irritatingly self-aware. On the opening page for example, it takes a whole paragraph and multiple, repetitive similes to describe how heavily a woman sleeps. One sentence– “She sleeps like a child” – would have served just as poetically well. This trend continues for the rest of the book. I did settle into the rhythm of the prose eventually, but it was hard work slogging my way through so much superfluous text.

Ghana Must Go bags
The distinctive pattern on the ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags has become a symbol of the Ghanaians’ exile from Nigeria. It has also been used by fashion houses in the designs of skirts, jackets and shoes.

Another thing I noticed as a non-US reader was that whilst the descriptions of Ghana, Nigeria and its inhabitants were sublime, the descriptions of America were extremely limited. It took me a long time and a perusal of Google Maps to work out that Brookline and Brooklyn were in fact two completely different locations, and that Brookline is about a 3-4 hours’ drive away from New York. Clearly Taiye Selasi is writing about Africa from an American author’s perspective, and it was confusing to me as a reader.

Despite these not-insignificant flaws, Ghana Must Go has many strengths that helped me to get past the laborious writing style. The deceptively simple story of a dysfunctional family overcoming everyday hardships is really quite gripping, told in a historical-present tense that enables Taiye Selasi to squeeze decades of family history into a mere few days: the time it takes for Kweku to die, for his family find out, and for them to fly out to Ghana in order to attend his funeral. The theme of social displacement, whilst being the kind that is wholly unique to immigrants and minorities, is not an entirely alien concept for any reader to relate to, and so it is very easy to empathise with the Sais’ plight. The characters are also very well-developed (the brave independent Fola and poor smothered Sadie being my particular favourites). Occasionally they make decisions that are not fully explained and consequently feel unrealistic (I’m still baffled as to exactly why Kweku gave up and abandoned his family completely, or why Fola sent the twins to Nigeria to live with a brother she knew nothing about), but then I suppose that is life. Sometimes we make horrendous decisions that we don’t think through properly. Sometimes we do things without meaning to that have an enormous entropic impact on the rest of our lives.

All in all, Ghana Must Go is a surprisingly dense family-centred drama with a lot to say and a lot going for it, but I myself did not personally find too enjoyable. Taiye Selasi’s writing style is a little like Marmite; you’ll either love it, or you’ll hate it. Now, having satisfied my curiosity with regard to literary fiction, I’m pleased to be moving on to something else.

Verdict: 3/5

S.E. Berrow

For more information on Taiye Selasi, Ghana Must Go and her other works, including essays and short stories, please visit her website: