Thursday 19 October 2023

Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya - a review


by Lydia Chukovskaya

Translated by Aline Werth

Preface by Dr Helen Tilly

Persephone Books

 From the blurb:

"One of the few surviving contemporaneous accounts of the Great Purge, Sofia Petrovna is an intense, brave, brief piece of writing composed secretly in a school notebook in lilac ink during the winter of 1939-40."

"...the genius of the book is the subtle way Sofia Petrovna, and the reader, sees the horror of Stalin's Purges unfolding against a background of complete and utter ordinariness."

The endpaper for Persephone Books' new edition of Sofia Petrovna is taken from a cotton print called 'Construction Site', a cotton print dating from between 1920-1930, probably designed by O Bogoslovskaya

My review:

Sofia Petrovna is a bleak yet totally absorbing novel which lays bare the stark truths of life in 1930s Stalinist Russia. It tells the chilling story of Sofia, a doctor’s widow working as a typist in Leningrad, who is a devoted mother to her engineer son, Kolya. When she loses him to the horror of the Stalinist state she spirals into madness. The prose is lean; it is a story told simply and truthfully, and its power rests in its limited scale and relentless mundanity. There is a certain fluidity to the characters, a blurring at the edges, and as a result the reader understands that they could be any man or any woman – the specific becomes universal.

The novel portrays a system where patriots are arrested on a whim, where those who dare to think for themselves or fall victim to misplaced rumours are destroyed, jailed, or lose what little sanity they have and are driven to suicide. There is a systematic withholding of information – any information – and mothers, sisters, husbands and brothers, queue for days, weeks and moths to try to find out what has happened to their sons, fathers, daughters and wives.

Sofia Petrovna reveals a world where self-deception is necessary to survive – where citizens believe the Party would never misinform them and the state doesn’t arrest those who are innocent. It examines the perils of blind trust, the dangers of denial and the power of government lies. Chukovskaya herself said: ‘[Sofia is] a personification of those who seriously believed that what took place was rational and just. “We don’t imprison people for no reason” Lose that faith and you’re lost; nothing’s left but to hang yourself’. Sadly, her novel is as relevant now as it was when it was first written.

(Published 19th October 2023 by Persephone Books -

Friday 25 August 2023

NATIONAL DISH by Anya Von Bremzen – A Review



The acclaimed international food writer and award-winning author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking explores the history and future of six of the world's most fascinating and iconic food cultures – France, Italy, Japan, Spain, Mexico, and Turkey.

We all have an idea in our heads about what French food is – or Italian, or Japanese, or Mexican, or . . . But where did those ideas come from? Who decides what makes a national cuisine? Anya von Bremzen, award-winning international food writer, has written definitive cookbooks for Russian, Spanish and Latin American cuisine, and delved into the world's great food traditions as a three-time James-Beard-award-winning food journalist. Now, in National Dish, she embarks on a fascinating journey to the heart of six of the world's most storied food traditions, going high and low, from world-famous chefs to people on the street, in search of how cuisine became connected to place.

Paris is where the whole idea of a country's food as its national heritage was first invented, and so it is where Anya must begin. With an inquisitive eye and unmistakable wit, she ponders the invention of the restaurant, the codification of French food, and the tension between the cosmopolitan and locavore tendencies of the modern eater. From France, she moves quarters to Naples, where she comes face to face with the myth and reality of the pizza in the city where it all began, and takes on the Italian-ness of pasta in the bargain. Next is Tokyo, where Anya and her partner Barry explore the mystique of ramen, rice, and the distance between Japan's future and its past. From there they move to Seville, to search for the essence of Spain's tapas culture and sense of community, and then Oaxaca, where culture wars over the pretty dream and the complex reality of postcolonial cultural integration find expression in the form of maize, mole, and mezcal. In Istanbul, a traditional Ottoman potluck with friends becomes a lens on how a great multi-cultural empire defined its food heritage. Finally, they land back in their beloved home in the melting pot of Jackson Heights, Queens, for a Ukrainian dinner centred around borscht, a meal which has never felt more loaded, or more precious.

A book of astonishing range and connoisseurship, National Dish peels back the layers of myth, commercialisation, and fetishisation around these great world cuisines. In so doing, it brings us to a deep appreciation of how the country makes the food, and the food the country.


I was drawn to National Dish because I love food and I love travel memoirs and – with the exception of Mexico – I have spent time in all the countries Anya Von Bremzen writes about here – including Russia.

I was particularly interested in the Tokyo section – I’m an ardent Japanophile and a huge fan of udon and soba noodles – and the joys of konbini stores! – so I found much I could relate to in that chapter.

The whole book was fascinating, and although I already knew a little of the history of some of the dishes discussed and the myths surrounding them, I still found plenty to interest me. The personal travel aspect was equally immersive, and I found much to relate to there as well – reliving time spent in Tokyo and Istanbul in particular.

National Dish is a treat for foodies and those interested in food history, but it’s also much more. The writing is smart and often funny, and effortlessly combines personal experiences with cultural observations. We get to meet so many great characters throughout the book as well.

I have read some negative reviews from those who feel their country has been misrepresented in some way, or that there are too many obvious clichés running through the narrative. The latter may be true in places, but I cannot comment on the former as I simply don’t have enough knowledge of the issues raised. It isn’t a perfect book, but it answers a lot of interesting questions – and I enjoyed it.


(National Dish will be published in September 2023 by Pushkin Press. Thanks to Pushkin for the ARC.)

Monday 24 July 2023

Review - As Rich as the King - Abigail Assor



"Sarah is poor, but at least she's French, which allows her to attend Casablanca's elite high school for expats and wealthy locals. It's there that she first lays eyes on Driss. He's older, quiet and not particularly good looking-apart from his eyes . . ."


As Rich as the King is a heady concoction - a dizzy journey through 90s Casablanca, a tale of both sides of the tracks, a city laid bare. Assor’s writing is deliciously sensual, poetic and provocative, and loaded with biting truth.

This is a bittersweet love letter to Casablanca, and the city hums with vivid life – the sounds, sights, tastes and smells are paraded before our eyes on every immersive page.

Sarah’s life has been shaped by cruelty and poverty, and her ambition is to attain a place at the very top of city society – with Driss, who is rumoured to be as rich as the king. She falls for his money, but also for his beautiful eyes, which are the green of thyme simmering in a tagine.

Suffice to say, the ride isn’t smooth, and some barriers can’t be torn down for love in a world ruled by the power of money.

Sarah is an unforgettable character, and although she sometimes makes questionable choices, her relationships with Driss and Casablanca pulled me in and didn’t let me go.

Published by Pushkin Press on 3rd August.

Monday 3 July 2023

My Men by Victoria Kielland


From the blurb: 

Seventeen-year-old Brynhild is in a fever - she can't quiet the screaming world inside her. When an intense affair ends brutally, she flees Norway for America at the end of the nineteenth century in search of a new life. Changing her name first to Bella, later to Belle, she is driven from any potential refuge by an unbearable tension that won’t let her keep still. As Belle seeks release in a series of men, her yearning for an all-consuming love erupts into violence.

In this breathtaking novel, Victoria Kielland imagines her way into the tumultuous inner life of the Norwegian woman who became Belle Gunness - America's first known female serial killer. Written in prose of wild, visceral beauty, My Men is a radically empathetic and disquieting portrait of a woman capable of ecstatic love and gruesome cruelty.

My Review:

My Men is definitely not a run of the mill crime novel. It is written in a dense literary prose style and is darkly poetic, occasionally chaotic, and at times almost takes the form of a stream of consciousness. The unfocused style suits the depiction of a confused protagonist sliding into madness, but I would imaging it’s a very polarising read. I’m
glad I stuck with it to the end, but I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Some readers may find the style too monotonous despite the beauty of the prose, and the tale too unremittingly bleak. 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for another unusual and interesing read. My Men is out July 6th. 


Wednesday 7 June 2023

Harper's Bazaar


I was sworn to secrecy until the magazine came out, but I can now reveal that I am one of two runners-up in this year's Harper's Bazaar Short Story competition – my story appears in the July/August edition! 
To quote the magazine:
"Harper’s Bazaar has a long history of publishing original fiction, by writers from Henry James and Virginia Woolf to Ali Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In keeping with this legacy, we are pleased to announce our annual short-story competition, previous winners of which have included Kaliane Bradley, Daisy Johnson and Fatima Bhutto."

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Black River by Nilanjana Roy - Blog Tour Review


Black River by Nilanjana Roy

The Blurb:


The Indian village of Teetarpur is a quiet, unremarkable place, until one of its children is found dead, hanging from the branch of a Jamun tree.

In the largely Hindu community, suspicion quickly falls on an itinerant Muslim man, Mansoor.

It’s up to local policeman Sub-Inspector Ombir Singh to uncover the truth. 

With only one assistant officer, and a single working revolver between them, can he bring justice to a grieving father and an angry village―or will the people of Teetarpur demand vengeance instead?


My review:

Black River is a compelling blend of crime noir, psychological thriller, state of the nation novel and literary fiction. Roy’s writing is tender, immersive, lyrical and elegant, yet also acutely observational, raw and honest.

The novel perfectly captures the textured layers of this complex nation, a country which has always fascinated me and which I have visited numerous times, yet can't even pretend to understand or truly know. 

Roy explores love, fatherhood, enduring friendships and kindness, but the colour, beauty and light of the sub-continent is darkened by everyday brutality, religious intolerance, divided communities, the corruption of power and violence against women; those “layers of insecurities, prejudices and fears that have come to define India” (Tribune India)

Black River is not a page-turner in the conventional sense, the novel is slower-paced and perhaps more contemplative than a traditional crime novel, but is all the better for that. The characters are vividly drawn and linger in the mind, and there is hope as well as despair. Despite the fact that Munia loses her life in the opening pages of the book, she is so skilfully drawn in those few paragraphs that we already feel we know her well. Her death lies at the heart of the story, yet the other characters’ lives are equally compelling, and the threads of the story are pulled together by the ever-present Yamuna River. The river and the city are characters in themselves, and this immersive sense of place is one of the novel’s great strengths.

A tightly written and engrossing novel which tugs at the heart.

(Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy of Black River and for inviting me to take part in the Blog Tour. Black River is out NOW!)



You can follow the Blog Tour on Twitter:




Wednesday 17 May 2023

Review - Henry VIII: The Heart of the Crown by Alison Weir

Review - Henry VIII: The Heart of the Crown by Alison Weir

I rarely read historical fiction set as far back as the Tudor period, but I was curious to read this novel precisely because it was written from Henry VIII’s perspective. I’m not familiar with Alison Weir’s writing, but her reputation precedes her, so I knew the novel would be well-researched and well-written.  

The story is well-traversed, but Weir’s gift for characterisation and her interesting interpretation of events make for an enthralling read. I have always thought of Henry VIII as a manipulative misogynist surrounded by a scheming and dangerous court – which served to make him suspicious, paranoid, and increasingly heavy-handed. This opinion hasn’t altered, but I now feel as though I know him better – a complex man who was an intelligent, articulate scholar, an art lover, a musician, and so much more. 

An engaging read, rich in detail – highly recommended for historical fiction fans.

And I've just seen it's made the Sunday Times Top Ten - well-deserved!

(Thanks to Caitlin Raynor@bookywookydooda at Headline for the review copy)

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Two more advance reviews!


Two more advance reviews for  

talk to me about when we were perfect

Thanks to Sarah Linley and Tracy Fells for their kind words. It makes it all worthwhile when readers really 'get' your writing – especially when they are talented authors like these two!

Tracy's Review:

"Talk to me about when we were perfect is a collection of poetry from the multi-talented Amanda Huggins, who seems equally skilled in writing prose, poetry and non-fiction and any new work from this author is something to get excited about. 


I relished every single poem in this new collection, looking forward to my daily immersion into Huggins memories and flashbacks to youth. At times these perfect snapshots felt like personal Polaroids, capturing specific moods and moments of adolescence from the author’s life, but also reflect how we all feel when searching to recapture the ache and ecstasy of what it really felt to be young. Her prose is sharp and bittersweet, vivid and visual, often capturing images with a breathless beauty that instantly transports to you a specific place and time that chimes with an experience you share. That’s why her poems are so accessible, they recreate emotions we’ve all known, the good the bad and the shameful. What it feels like to ‘have a crush’ on the older lads hanging round the fairground or outside the chippie. Foolish flirting and falling for the flash talk of strangers. Each is unique, charting the travels of the human heart from first crush to undying devotion and ultimately the pain of separation and ending. Just like the meandering complexity of memories they skip between childhood and becoming an adult, balancing the highs and lows, the joy and pain, of growing up and what it means to leave parts of us behind. I particularly love how Huggins weaves nature into these poems, reminding us that we share this beautiful world with so much more than each other.


It’s a rare talent that can create lines such as: “The morning is still holding its breath when I step out across the hotel lawn, and a breakfast party of startled crows complain, all tut and flap and mutter.” ('the man in room seven'), giving us poems that instantly paint a scene and can easily be enjoyed by everyone, and are truly delicious to read aloud.


I’ve read a number of collections recently which start with promise but soon feel repetitive and stuck in their themes, but each poem in ‘Talk to me about when we were perfect’ was distinct and memorable, I couldn’t wait to read another, then another. And I can’t wait to read it again. For me this is a collection to keep and cherish.


If you enjoy these poems then I highly recommend you check out Huggins’ novellas and story collections too. Her ability to capture mood, setting and emotion shines throughout everything she writes. "


Tracy Fells, author of Hairy on the Inside





Monday 20 February 2023

Review of Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes


I absolutely loved Forbidden Notebook. I read somewhere that this ‘rediscovered’ classic was the ‘female Stoner’, which immediately piqued my interest, as Stoner is a wonderful book too. Forbidden Notebook has also been highly praised by writers such as Annie Ernaux, Jhumpa Lahiri – who wrote the foreword and who quite rightly says that the novel “blazes with significance” – and Elena Ferrante.

I have also enjoyed finding out more about the author herself. Alba de Céspedes was the granddaughter of the first President of Cuba, married at fifteen, was a mother at sixteen, and started writing after her divorce at the age of twenty. She was also jailed twice for her anti-fascist activities in the 1930s.

Forbidden Notebook was originally published in Italian as a magazine serial in 1950, and this edition is a new – and captivating – translation by Ann Goldstein.

The novel is set in post-war Rome, and the narrative is written in the form of a series of secret journal entries from the point of view of Valeria. It gives the reader a piercing insight into women’s changing roles and expectations in the post-war years, as well as exploring class distinctions, mother-daughter/mother-son relationships, and offering a compelling dissection of a 1940s marriage. This intimate novel of domestic discontent is beautifully and elegantly written, haunting, complex, evocative of time and place, and totally engaging. I read it in two sittings, anxious to find out how and if Valeria dares to make fundamental changes to her life. I am still thinking about her…


(Thanks to Pushkin Press for the advance review copy. Forbidden Notebook is out on March 2nd)

Monday 23 January 2023

Talk to Me Reviews - Part Two


I have a few more advance reviews to share for talk to me about when we were perfect, and they're all great! I'm so happy that everyone is really 'getting' this collection, as I feel my poetry is more personal than my fiction and so it feels really important to me that readers enjoy it!

It's launching in March and will be available to pre-order NOW from Victorina Press.


 “It’s magical.” Ralph Dartford, author of Hidden Music


"The writers I love the most really capture how it feels to be human; Huggins is one of them. This poetry collection expresses our melancholy, longings, griefs, and joys; it absorbs us in summer romances, lost loves, coming-of-age tales, what-might-have-beens, our struggles to navigate relationships in all of life’s seasons, and does it in a fresh and accessible way.

I have a sensation of familiarity with Huggins’s poetry, not because it’s the same as others I’ve read but because I’m so close to the emotions she conveys. The poems feel as though they have a warm amber tint, drawing you into their nostalgia, a glimpse into something private and personal. 

Each poem is evocative and reaches far beyond the page. ‘no doubt’ is my favourite, no doubt about that; it’s a poem I wish I’d written! I was also particularly moved by ‘sparrow footprints’, ‘all those years, we were dancing’, ‘the sound of a heart breaking’, ‘the ending’, ‘a ribbon of red’, and ‘listing’. 

I wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘poetry person’; sometimes it feels (rightly or wrongly) that the meaning is deliberately obscured, but that’s far from true with talk to me about when we were perfect. If you think poetry isn’t for you, try reading this collection. Read slowly; read aloud to feel the words. Huggins proves that she is a writer with great emotional understanding and the technique to express it; her work is deep, beautiful and truthful, free from pretension. 

Kazuo Ishiguro said in his Nobel Lecture in 2017, ‘Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings… In the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?’ 

When it comes to Amanda Huggins’s poetry as well as her prose, my answer to these questions is always yes." Hannah Retallick, author and award-winning short story writer

"I love this collection and savoured every moment. Thank you for giving me the chance to enjoy it ahead of publication. talk to me about when we were perfect is a beautifully presented poetry collection by the wonderfully talented Amanda Huggins. The cover image, French flaps and illustrations underline the quality of this product. The poetry inside sparkles. I admire the careful ordering of poems, from the almost-baby in 'a ribbon of red' to 'egg' that follows. I love the reflective quality which captures young life and enabled me to re-experience the confusion or joy and spontaneity of youth. There are some absolute crackers including 'out chasing boys' which nails those heady days and 'dizzy with it' which captures the exuberance of the time. I highly recommend talk to me about when we were perfect. Treat yourself to a copy."
Gail Aldwin, author of This Much Huxley Knows and The String Games




Wednesday 28 December 2022

talk to me about when we were perfect

My new poetry collection will be out in March, and the first reviews are already in...

Thanks to Leo Boix and Bethany Rivers for their generous and in-depth appraisals.

Leo Boix, author of Ballad of a Happy Immigrant

"Amanda Huggins’ new collection, talk to me about when we were perfect, explores issues of female love and desire, intimacy, memory and loss with sheer clarity and devastating honesty. The narrative quality of many of these exciting poems, coupled with the highly lyrical voice of the poet, takes the reader on a surprising journey of self-discovery and wonder. In her collection, Huggins looks in detail at the miracle of everyday life, the complexities of human relationships and what it means to be in love. ‘If I ever question my love for you,/aware that the years have wearied its shine,/knowing we can’t outrun/the ravages of familiarity,/then I picture life without you.’ writes the poet in ‘no doubt’. 

The book scrutinises the often-overlooked interactions between us and the puzzling world surrounding us. Many of Huggins' poems have a sense of life passing and the light quality. Such is the case in ‘komorebi’. ‘My heart will keep hold of that Japanese word/for dappled sunshine spilling through trees,/the interplay between light and leaves,/and it will never forget the dizziness of love/like an unending intake of breath.’ 

This is a dazzling book of poems full of light and compassion that stay with the reader long after the last page is read."

(You can buy Leo's collection here via the Penguin website)

Bethany Rivers, author of Fountain of Creativity and the sea refuses no river

"Your senses will be delighted by this debut poetry collection by Amanda Huggins. She has a particular gift for highlighting the special moments in everyday life. Even in poems of longing and sadness, there is a tenderness there that will make you smile. Huggins skilfully handles moments of love, humour, grief, with a wonderfully light touch. There is a delicate interweaving of both the sorrows and the beauty of life, which feels like a celebration of what is.

These poems have a keen eye and ear turned towards those extraordinary moments within the domestic world. In ‘at the kitchen table’, we see a couple leaving an idyllic holiday cottage of ‘a dog-eared novel/ the weekend papers’ and ‘ice-melt from the trees / pattering on the bonnet’ back to the world that is ‘a little less bright / and a little less kind’ but still what the narrator remembers, and the reader is left with is the poignancy of ‘a newborn lamb’ with ‘his pink ears backlit by the sun’.

‘okaeri’ (a Japanese word for welcome) is simultaneously full of longing and welcome for our loved one, as we learn to ‘wait out winter / warm our love on a low flame / fashion its cloak from fallen feathers / anchor it with stones’.

In the middle of the collection, Huggins pays homage to that old favourite poem by Ezra Pound. Her language musically and succinctly plays and expands upon the illusory nature of life ‘everything gone and everything gathered’, as well as offering the reader the deep resonance of universal truth of ‘Each of us a single grain of rice, / each of us a petal on a rain-splashed bough.’

Throughout the collection, Amanda Huggins captures beautifully the central detail of people’s lives and how far reaching those ripples expand."

(Check out Bethany's collection here)


Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya - a review

SOFIA PETROVNA  by Lydia Chukovskaya Translated by Aline Werth Preface by Dr Helen Tilly Persephone Books  From the blurb: "One of the ...