‘When We Were Vikings’

Happy publication day to Andrew MacDonald with his debut novel ‘When We Were Vikings’!

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and Gallery Books for my Advance Reader Copy…

With a high-functioning young woman born on the fetal alcohol spectrum, planning to live life as if she’s a legendary Viking, I had an inkling this book would feel fresh and different. By the end it felt like ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ meets ‘Breaking Bad’, which you have to admit is kind of fascinating.

Zelda is learning how to gain independence, navigate romance and protect her tribe (which is particularly tricky as her older brother is getting increasingly involved in criminal dealings to keep them afloat). MacDonald presents a convincing sibling relationship and other characters feel well-drawn too: AK47, her brother’s on-off girlfriend who has taken Zelda lovingly under her wing; Dr Laird, in whom Zelda can confide; some of the people at the community center she attends, and Pearl, the mother of Zelda’s boyfriend, who is both delighted – if a little apprehensive – that her son has found young love.

When Zelda and her boyfriend Marxy, a developmentally disabled young man who attends the same Community Center, decide to become sexually active, the scene is written with an entertaining mix of humour and sensitivity. It’s one of the stand-out moments in the book and is likely to open up conversations about cognitively disabled adults gaining sexual intimacy – something that has sparked debate & concerns in many families over the years.

Don’t be fooled by the cover, this is an adult book. There are certainly dark and menacing moments for Zelda, which she fits into the narrative of a viking legend. This was quite different to other novels I’ve read. One to look out for at the end of January!

Book review

‘Queenie’ – Candice Carty-Williams

Ah Queenie, a character hitting self-destruct and making all the worst decisions for her mental (and physical) well being. I knew this was a voice I wanted to keep reading right from the gynaecology exam at the start.

Queenie is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman, struggling to hold it together. Cold-shouldered by her white boyfriend Tom, during their break, and with her self esteem at rock bottom, she spirals into a cycle of sexual encounters with increasingly terrible men.

All the while, Queenie tries to navigate her place at the newspaper culture supplement where she works. She’s frustrated at the apathetic reactions to her pitch to write about Black Lives Matter. (The bosses favour meaningless content). We meet her at a time she’s adrift in her job, and perhaps dangerously close to losing it, without the financial safety net some of her peers have.

Throughout the novel, I felt like a friend who’d been invited into Queenie’s world, as though I was one of ‘The Corgis’, an aptly titled WhatsApp group she sets up in order to connect with friends from different strands of her life.

The voice Candice Carty-Williams writes with is warm, fresh and conversational, like Queenie is gradually unpacking years of hurt that has led her to this point whilst taking us along on a rollercoaster ride. I love Queenie’s sharp humour and raw vulnerability.

Whilst the tone can be humorous, don’t be deceived by reviews that call this debut novel ‘breezy’. This is a writer who weaves in some pretty weighty subject matter with confidence, from race and gentrification to abuse and mental health.

At a local bookstore, I was lucky enough to listen to Candice Carty-Williams discuss her novel and attitudes towards counseling, particularly within the Jamaican community, with Nicola Yoon. She reinforced that more openness to discussing our mental health and seeking help is needed. One of my favorite, touching moments in the novel, is when Queenie’s Jamaican grandparents make their feelings on counseling clear, highlighting how tricky this openness can be.

Setting up ‘The Corgis’ was a useful way to illustrate how modern friends confide in and support one another when they aren’t there in person, allowing for instant reactions from friends with very distinct, convincing voices. I found her friendships especially relatable, so it was great to see their own connections forming during these entertaining 4-way conversations.

This was never going to be a romantic love story, in spite of numerous flings while pining for her ex. Perhaps it’s fair to say this more a story about self love and the power of friends and family when you’re trying to heal. I did find her decision-making almost relentlessly frustrating, but that’s really the point. She has to hit rock bottom and reasons for her behaviour patterns emerge.

For me, the book feels like a slice of home, but I still found the way the writer explores race a great eye-opener as a white British reader. This includes the casual racism of Queenie’s white boyfriend’s family, and some men’s attitudes to dating women of colour are highlighted. It was revealing to hear Carty-Williams discuss the difference in experience between her white and black female friends on dating sites. The exact same men sometimes used shockingly different voices (polite and gentlemanly vs crude and disrespectful) when talking to friends with different racial heritage – except the friends talked about these men and found out about it. This helped inform Queenie’s experiences with men in the book.

I’m so pleased to see the attention this writer is getting here, across the pond. In the crowded room in Brooklyn where I heard her talk, everyone found her to be graceful, honest and inspiring. It turns out even seeing the gorgeous cover in prominent positions in bookstores everywhere, has brought some people to tears. From conversations I’ve had, many women feel proud to see black female identity explored so honestly and embraced, not just in the UK, but certainly here in the US too. Representation matters!

Looking forward to discussing this one at my next book group. Grab a copy of ‘Queenie’ if you haven’t already and let me know what you think.