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Hot Stew

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Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley is the Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s second novel set in modern-day Soho. It goes without saying that the setting is a real contrast to the rural Yorkshire depicted in Elmet but social class remains a key theme in Mozley’s writing. Her latest novel sees a large cast of characters faced with the impact of gentrification in central London. Agatha Howard has inherited her gangster father’s wealth and extensive property portfolio and wants to evict the more undesirable tenants from a building she wants to redevelop into luxury flats. The residents all join forces to fight the development plans and include drug addicts nicknamed Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee who live in a squat in the basement, and middle-aged Tabitha and Precious who are sex workers by choice in a brothel upstairs from the French restaurant on the ground floor. The characters were always going to be caricatures to some extent – gentrification wouldn’t be gentrification if the developers were all community-minded and friendly rather than self-interested and cartoonishly evil – but Mozley explores the human consequences with compassion. Many thanks to John Murray Press for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
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This novel is proof that after the incredible success of the author’s debut novel, she is definitely not a one-hit wonder. Hot Stew is a fantastic patchwork of interweaving stories with an explosive conclusion. Focussing on a small area of Soho, it charts the long-standing businesses, occupants and their inevitable eviction with the onslaught of gentrification and redevelopment opportunities. From deep beneath the cellars to secret roof gardens above brothels, this multi-layered masterpiece features life and society in all her guises. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly accomplished.
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Ambitious, detailed and atmospheric, HOT STEW manages to stay firmly rooted in the cold dirt of realism whilst also deftly reaching for poetic meaning. Something of a love letter to Soho and that district's osmosis from past to present (and future), the novel deploys a large cast of varying characters to tell a story of value and values, relations and relationships, venality and vulnerability. As John Lanchester's CAPITAL takes a London street to focus a microscope on its residents, so HOT STEW takes a Soho building, from roof garden to cellar squat, to show us the lives, lusts and longings of its inhabitants and visitors. 

The story is very much about the battle between yesterday and tomorrow, with today as a kind of casualty of progression. The sex worker residents want to preserve their autonomy and safety; the ground floor traditional restaurant wants to survive; the addicts in the cellar to try to square their fantasy world with the real one around them. The novel is driven by its female characters: from Precious the politically instinctive sex worker to Agatha the ruthless heiress to a gangster's empire, via a drug-addled would-be magician's sidekick to a pub called the Aphra Behn, the women in this story try to confront their challenges while the men, for the most part, stick with the status quo. And everyone's future is rooted in their pasts, whatever they're aiming to build for themselves and whatever they're trying to leave behind them.

The writing is at its textured best when describing Soho: its history, practices, people, alleyways, squares, dirt, glamour, darkness and light. Occasionally, there are breathtaking passages, such as when one character takes an instinctive, poetic, fantastic step to self-betterment. Though the district serves as a microcosm, the story is firmly and gloriously rooted in the place.

Overall, a gripping and enlightening read, especially for anyone who knows and loves the glittering, abrasive, over- and undervalued crown that is Soho.
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Hot Stew is a hard book to review - it’s a mixed pot of characters and narratives that melt together as the story progresses towards its climax, but it’s not as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be. 
Based on the blurb I was expecting fierce women on all sides, fabulous and sassy, with a whole lot of personality that would hook me in. What Hot Stew actually delivers is a fair bit milder than that, with lots of characters thrown in to ‘add’ to the story; In essence it’s more like Love Actually than anything by Dickens although I can appreciate what the author was going for. For some of the characters I wasn’t really fussed what happened to them and as the stories of Bastian and Lorenzo don’t really go anywhere I feel like they’re just taking away time we could be spending with the others. On top of this Cheryl’s sideline is just plain confusing. Are we supposed to suspend our disbelief there? Is it symbolic in some way? I might have missed something but I just didn’t get that part. 
I think it would have been a better novel if it had just focused on Precious, Agatha & Robert, as for me they’re the most interesting of the bunch and I’d have liked to have seen more from each of their points of view. The characterisation is quite black and white in terms of who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’ which I quite liked but it also makes it all a little unbelievable again. Agatha is horrible but bland and we’re not really given any reason to empathise with her in any way which is unusual and perhaps an oversight. 

In terms of the writing I adored the descriptive nature of some parts of the book and the first chapter is incredible. I loved following the snail in its escape and then hearing the history of Soho and how it came to be the little pocket of London we know and love today. However the rest of the novel didn’t carry that on, and one later scene in particular is so far removed from this it’s just odd. You’ll know it when you read it and it’s inclusion just baffles me, I really don’t know what it’s supposed to add.
Overall I did enjoy the story and was eager to know what would become of the Precious and her friends, however it all got a bit too far-fetched for me as it went on and there were too many fringe characters that I just didn’t care about. It could’ve been brilliant and while there’s some great writing in there to start with, sadly for me it missed the mark later on. Thank you to NetGalley and John Murray Press for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Hot Stew is filled with a ‘melting pot’ of characters from every possible walk of life. Here in the dank streets of Soho the most vibrant and also the most destitute of characters live. Elsewhere there are bit-part actors and property developers who benefit nefariously from the area.  The female characters are extremely well written and in particular Precious, Tabitha and Cheryl are complex, surprising and the most impacted by the area’s changes. Fiona Mozley cleverly evokes a shifting sense of place as the novel moves from garret rooms to hidden subterranean mansions, giving an uneasy feeling of impermanence in the city.
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This novel was not for me I’m afraid. From the description I felt it was going to be powerful, and energised, and fierce, but I found it to be a little meandering without any real impact.

I’ve seen it described as Dickensian but set it contemporary soho, and I can see where this comparison is drawn from. Fiona Mozley creates a bleak and dreary setting, with disillusioned characters that are the victims of those that are willing to take advantage.

What was missing for me, though, is the creation of empathy towards the characters. I felt that Mozley could have focussed in on one or two characters or plots, as this novel just felt so broad with too many characters and subplots to follow, I wasn’t sure who/what I should be giving my focus to. Every time I picked the novel up I had forgotten who was who, which is such a shame because I never really felt invested, and there were some characters that I felt had some real potential (Precious, and Robert particularly).

There are some wonderful messages trapped in this novel, with themes of prejudice, judgement, empowerment, identity, hope, duty and love in several of the character arcs. There are also some themes that I will include trigger warnings for, being drug and alcohol abuse, and prostitution.

Overall I think this novel just tried to take on too much, and could’ve easily broken into three separate novels, all of which could’ve been incredibly moving with some of the important themes and messaging given more of a platform with a little less background noise. 

I would like to thank Netgalley and John Murray press for kindly providing me with an eARC of this book.
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Love this book, it's a sprawling, inquisitive look at the history and gentrification of Soho. The author, follows certain characters the way she follows the snail that escapes the French restaurant in the opening scene. She follows where they lead, explores their back story and shows how they all interconnect, she also highlights the misogyny and hypocrisy when she sees it. The book is fun to read, I really enjoyed exploring the history through the earth, bricks and people who make up Soho. I appreciated the highlighting of hypocrisy and the way that sexual politics particularly for sex workers is explored. The book is much like Soho itself, lots of interesting, nooks and crannies to explore, historic next to modern, full of interesting characters, noisy, messy and fun. 

With thanks to the publisher and netgalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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One of the many striking effects of the year we've all just lived through has been the emptying out of busy city centres. Nowhere, I imagine (I haven't been able to go there to see) can this have been more startling than in Soho, the part of London most firmly associated in the popular imagination with bustling nightlife: with clubs, restaurants and bars, the gay scene, the film and music business, the sex trade.

Mozley's novel gives us a glimpse of this district, in all its contradictions, still active and vibrant yet threatened by gentrification, by the spread of bland investment properties and above all by a meta-ness that trades on the sleazy image while holding its nose and standing one pace back. Yet in pointing to these threats, Hot Stew isn't a sentimental book by any means. One of the central characters, sex worker Precious, reflects of the district that 'There are people here who would sell their own mothers, or eat you alive. If society fell apart... this is the last place she would want to be.'

No more sentimental is Agatha, whose viewpoint we follow for a fair chunk of the novel. Agatha has inherited a property empire built by her father based on violence and other forms of lawlessness. He went "legit", up to a point, and now she is trying to go more legit, tidying away the sex workers and immigrants from her properties - "blank slating" them as she describes it - so that after modernisation or replacement, new tenants can be moved in. Agatha is an absolutely appalling example of somebody who sees life in transactional terms, as she shows over and again, treating her relationship with a dog, even a horse, a young employee in just just the same way, taking what she wants, turning her regard off and on as it suits here, paying no attention to the others' nature or needs. 

Yet Mozley does show us how this attitude may at least partly be rooted in Agatha's insecurity and fear of losing what she has. She has studied history ('The fragility of law and order is never far from Agatha's thoughts') and she keeps a yacht ('named Versailles') ready on the river in case things go bad quickly. She remembers how badly, as the daughter of a Russian immigrant, she was treated by the posh girls at the school her mother slaved to put her through.

There is a contrast between Agatha and the sex workers whose future is (as much as anything is) at the heart of Hot Stew. Precious and campaigns against the redevelopment of her home ands workplace, one of Agatha's assets, becoming a real thorn in Agatha's flesh, and that of the police and city authorities. Mozley paints Precious's working setup as something of an ideal, a relatively safe space where she has control and agency, acknowledging that other women find themselves in much worse, more exploitative circumstances, even in captivity. This is a controversial issue and Hot Stew, while pointing to the risks of well-meaning interventions, doesn't draw conclusions but instead highlights the complexity of real life.

The book also explores other denizens of Soho: Robert, a retired hard man, sits drinking with insecure young actor Lorenzo in the afternoon in a bar that is also under threat of modernisation. Roster is Agatha's fixer and enforcer, a tool from the old days that she can't, quite do without. (He's also her dog walker - Robert, remembering him from another life, sees him as a ghost walking a dog)  There is a young corporate lawyer, Bastian, whose relationship with his alpha girlfriend is under pressure. An ambitious police officer on the make. And, most strikingly of all, a group of homeless people whose existence roaming the streets and dossing in a cellar makes them a kind of chorus in this book: it's they who, literally, feel the tremors as a massive engineering project takes place under Soho, as oligarchs burrow down and down under their houses to create lavish suites where who knows what may go on, as construction trucks and delivery vans shake the streets.

Indeed, the homeless group gives this story an almost timeless sense, blending the present with the post, with more than a hint of fantasy. Is their leader, the "archbishop" really some ancient figure who remembers when Soho was fields and woods? Or is he just another man trying to cling on? We are given differing stories. Where do the couple referred to as "Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee" (they do a really bad magic act in the pubs and bars) really come from - what lives have they lived before and who are they connected to? One of them will, in this story, almost step out of their world to experience something quite different, causing consternation for those left behind.

Mozley weaves together all these elements and many more, creating a real sense of bustle and sprawling activity, of intersecting lives, most of them tinged by regret: Lorenzo at getting typecast based on his brown(ish) skin, Agatha beset by the half-siblings whose inheritance she enjoys, another young woman hovering on the edge of homelessness, only able to find a place to stay that's not-quite-above-board. Of all these figures, Precious perhaps regrets least. She's the one for whom Soho is both most permanent  (she has a decent flat, a steady income) and most temporary (eviction is threatened, but even without that she's here for a purpose, and will move on when it's done). But she is also one of the more vulnerable.  

Hot Stew creates a powerful sense of movement, with the characters who are going somewhere and others who are just going, who can't rest or settle. It jumps backwards and forwards to show what these people are to each other and what they have been, creating little "aha" moments when the reader spots events or people through new eyes, underlining the degree to which all perspectives are partial. It's a very human book: even with her flaws, there is sympathy for Agatha.  Another character, Rebecca, who came across to me as rather unpleasant, is really stupid rather than bad ('Rebecca was emphatically apolitical, which meant she liked things the way they were.') Robert regrets his violent past and refuses to be drawn back into it. Lorenzo breaks with Robert on learning a dark secret about him, but hates himself for doing that.

The book is full of beautiful writing and characterisation. We are told that 'There's something about the night in this city that is brighter than the day'. Rebecca is 'a highly measured person. Bastian is frequently astonished by her levels of self-control'. Precious 'puts on a voice that is sweet and pliable, a voice she reserves for men'. While Agatha's senses 'only decipher the present', a dog uses its nose to 'deal with history'. After a betrayal says that she '"was an idiot for trusting [her]. But whatever. Damage done. lesson learned. I've moved on." Precious has not moved on.' The writing simply flows, making even most mundane episodes a joy to read, stuffed with insights and unexpected perspectives. Covering several months in its characters' lives, it isn't forced and doesn't round everything off neatly. Whatever the challenges and changes, the comings and goings, Soho will continue and its people will adapt.

I would really, really recommend Hot Stew.
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Loved the way Fiona Mozley weaves the lifes of her characters into this intricate web, I started thinking about the connections even when I wasn’t reading.
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Hot Stew is a wonderful tribute to London's Soho. I loved Fiona Mozley's exquisite prose, her detailed, sensitive descriptions of every single thing and every single person catching her characters' eyes (as well as their skin, tongue and ears). She writes with such empathy about people who are often more easily judged than considered as integral human beings, in particular the homeless and sex workers. Hot Stew is an evocative novel, full of magic and love, dealing with sociological themes in a very humane and visceral way.
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Stew as in old London slang for brothel. 🔥as in a really great read.
Mozley stirs together a sprawling cast of separately and intimately portrayed characters, from sex workers to property developers, to recreate the bubbling cauldron of London's Soho on the cusp of gentrification.
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Brilliant young British writer Fiona Mozley turns her keen eye from the gothic woods of Yorkshire to the streets and pubs and cafés of contemporary London in this much-anticipated follow-up to her debut novel, Elmet. In the middle of the bustle of Soho sits a building. It isn’t particularly assuming. But it’s a prime piece of real estate, and a young millionaire, Agatha Howard, wants to convert it into luxury condos as soon as she can kick out all the tenants. The problem is, the building in question houses a brothel, and Precious and Tabitha, two of the women who live and work there, are not going to go quietly. And another problem is, just where did Agatha’s fortune come from? The fight over this piece of property also draws in the men who visit, including Robert, a one-time member of a far-right group and enforcer for Agatha’s father; Jackie, a policewoman intent on making London a safer place for all women; Bastian, a rich and dissatisfied party boy who pines for an ex-girlfriend; and a collection of vagabonds and strays who occupy the basement. 

As these characters—with surprising hidden connections and shadowy pasts—converge, the fight over the property boils over into a hot stew. Entertaining, sharply funny, and dazzlingly accomplished, Hot Stew confronts questions about wealth and inheritance, gender and power, and the things women must do to survive in an unjust world. A witty and thoroughly entertaining story but one in which Mozley does not shy away from contemporary issues of gentrification, race, class, wealth and power, to name a few. She weaves together a rich tapestry of London life, particularly related to Soho, and populates it with multilayered, three-dimensional characters who come alive on the page; I became invested in them with consummate ease. Mozley is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to writing scintillating works of art. A captivating, absorbing and gripping story, Hot Stew keeps your attention throughout with an endlessly intelligent, sardonic and acutely perceptive narrative. Highly recommended.
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Hot Stew is a brilliant slice of Soho life. 

Wherever you fall on the social spectrum, from street homeless to a wealthy property developer, this book will let you see how the "other half" live.  All the characters were superbly drawn and their motivations, desires and interconnections drove the plot.  I found the gentrification and sex work themes compelling and the story was so evocative of the busy, dirty, complicated London which I'm familiar with.

A highly recommended read.

Thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for honest feedback.
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Hot Stew by Fiona Mozeley is set mostly in a Soho brothel, a "stew" which is under threat from the creeping gentrification of the area. 

The building is owned by Agatha, a rich businesswoman, who intends to convert the building into something more profitable, less salacious, and is increasing the rents to get the sex workers out.

The building also houses a restaurant and in the basement, homeless people shelter, among them the Archbishop, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. 

London is one of those cities where homeless people sleep on the steps of multi million pound properties, and in this book Mozeley lays out that incongruity for us to see. 

I enjoyed the book, but there were some characters who didn't bring much to the book and it wouldn't have suffered for them not being there. What was more interesting was the battle of the sex workers to save their home, led by Precious, a politician in the making, but while this could have been the main prop of the book, it felt more like a subplot. I have read a few books where there is a multitude of lightly interwoven characters, and while this falls into that category I didn't really feel that any of the characters got given enough space to make me care about them enough.
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Fiona Mozley’s debut “Elmet” was my pick from the shortlist of the 2017 Booker Prize which I described as a “traditional, poetic, literary novel which packs a good punch”.  I found it haunting with a sense of timelessness about it all and that “plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull”.  It lost out to George Sanders’ “Lincoln In The Bardo” which in my opinion fell short of Mozley’s achievement.
Here comes her second novel and it is very different from the first showing an author with real versatility.  The rural lyricism is replaced with an episodic, very urban tale.  I was impressed enough by this prospect to make this book one of my potential highlights of 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  First things first, I did very much enjoy it.  It’s written in the present tense which is something I don’t always warm to but here it is very readable.  It’s been picking up very good reviews but I don’t think there’s anything within it which will remain with me in the way “Elmet” did.  I liked the feel of a harsher world in the debut which gave it, I felt, a 1970’s air, here, although the setting is also contemporary it has an 80’s feel as redevelopers threaten the traditional ways of life in Soho.  The echoes I felt here stirring in my subconscious was of Nell Dunn’s 1981 play “Steaming” where a group of women stand up against eviction.
Fiona Mozley introduces us to a range of characters, perhaps the central is Agatha, aiming to redevelop the investments of a father she never knew.  Of all of the characters she feels a little cartoony.  Pitched against the pretensions of big business is the oldest profession in town represented by sex workers Precious and Tabitha who lead the resistance against eviction.  A group of homeless people residing in a cellar under the brothel and regulars of a local pub add to this hot stew of characters.  Not all characters contribute much to the central plot and so exist as vignettes of their lives in and around Central London.  It’s all likeable and in a way I can appreciate those that are seeing this as modern day Dickens but it all feels a little unresolved which Dickens would not be.  I am certainly applauding an author prepared to go off in a very different direction for a second novel and her publishers who have supported her in this.
Hot Stew is published by John Murray in the UK on 18th March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
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I wasn’t sure if I would like this but I really enjoyed it.

Hot Stew is a book about London, and particularly a book about Soho, which operates as a character itself. There are dozens of characters we follow throughout the book and I love how their stories connect, with a thread of connections forming throughout.

All the characters are lost in different ways, tied together through a Soho brothel, the women who work there, the men who visit, the owner of the building who wants it tearing down to be made into flats.

Even the characters I wasn’t meant to like were likeable. Everyone was so well-formed and realistic.

I enjoyed this a lot. 4 stars
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This has been described as a comedic, Dickensian tale of life in contemporary Soho but I'm not sold on it all. Taking its title from the name for brothels in Tudor times, Hot Stew follows a host of disparate characters - from rich property developers to prostitutes - living in a rapidly gentrifying London where property is the ultimate commodity and what ties the characters together: the developers are trying to boot a group of prostitutes out of their brothel in Soho so they can re-vamp the building and make a ton of money.

The short chapters mean this reads quickly, but also meant I felt little attachment to any of the characters given that in the structure Mozley employs we spend just a few pages with each character/plot line before the next chapter goes on to a different one. I also didn't mind the novel to be as satirical as promised. Not for me!
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Hot Stew is a lanquid, immersive wander through the streets of Soho. We follow different characters and their lives as they intersect and diverge. As someone who was missing London and Soho in particular in lockdown, this was a wonderfully escapist read. Mozley brings the beauty and horror of London into sharp relief and focuses on the small details - the uneven pub step, the littered back alleys, the tiny, secret rooftop garden. Her writing is straightforward, pared down but evocative. There's a simplicity to her writing style which is in contrast to the deeper, heavier themes of the novel - gentrification, property rights, sex work. The novel hovers on the edge of being a series of short vignettes about different characters but the themes unify the different characters and their experiences into a narrative whole. It makes sense, that to tell the story of Soho, Mozley uses a veritable chorus of characters and voices and lives. For me, the most interesting theme discussed in the novel was sex and sex work. There's Precious and Tabitha, sex workers at a brothel that's under threat; Cheryl/ Debbie McGee, the daughter of a sex worker and feared to be a victim of a sexual trafficking crime ; Bastion, whose relationship with the love of his life broke down when he found out she worked as a 'companion' to get through uni; Agatha, a millionaire property-owner whose mother found a rich, old man to enter into a relationship with; Rob who frequents brothels for 'husband and wife' sex; and Lorenzo, playing the role of a pimp unwillingly in a major TV show. The discussions around sex and sex work and what constitutes sex work and the complicated power dynamic of it all was a stand-out theme, in my opinion.

There are moments when the pace flags, when a coffee cup is described in a little too much detail etc, but overall, this sharply observant novel controls all the strands of its narrative and offers a measured, dreamy journey through, around, up and down Soho.
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Fiona Mozley's debut novel which I enjoyed, Elmet, was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, her latest shifts from the rural setting of Yorkshire to the bustling urban milieu of Soho in London. Whilst these are markedly different places, there are common themes of identity, community, class, wealth, power, gentrification, political activism and inheritance in the two books. Here, we are given the vibrant history of change and the distinct development of Soho, and the contemporary challenges it faces in retaining its diversity, soul and character against the relentlessly powerful, driving forces of capital, the developers and the profiteering that is shaping the London of today. Agatha has inherited a property portfolio from her gangster father, which includes a crumbling Soho house and its tenants. Her father's ex-driver, Roster, is her right hand man, and her ruthless agenda is to evict everyone, a process of displacing and replacing, and turning the house into luxury flats and up market restaurants.

There is a wide cast of disparate but interconnected characters, and we get to learn of their stories, including those wanting to be actors and more privileged graduates. There is a brothel, the sensitively portrayed Nigerian Precious and Tabitha are sex workers by choice, not facing the hazards and dangers of working on the streets. Unlike the desperate and exploitative world of sex trafficking and pimps, with clients like ex-enforcer Robert, they have power and income that they now stand to lose. They decide to fight and campaign against the development, drawing in others into the battle. In the basement cellar are those who exist on the margins of society, like drug addicts, who have lost their real names and are known as, for example, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. The narrative takes an unexpected direction into the fantastical, the underworld of the darkest fairytales, in stark contrast with the rest of the novel.

Mozley handles the intricacies and connections of the varied characters with skill, although perhaps there is a weakness in her creation of clearly defined heroes and villains rather than more nuanced individuals. This is a beautifully written book, fun and entertaining, dealing with the issues and challenges that affect our contemporary realities regarding urban development in our capital city, the tensions that simmer and arise with class, property, power and wealth, along with looking at the context of sex and the nature of sexual politics, although I was not a fan of some of the author's writings on sex. Many thanks to John Murray Press for an ARC.
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Hot Stew shows us the Soho that I love and miss, teeming with life and excitement. However, it also reveals the darker underbelly; the prostitutes, the vagrants, the illegal immigrant workers. This fast paced novel introduces a host of characters in the first few characters, mostly revolving around a brothel which is under threat from wealthy property developers.  Much of the fun is working out how the characters are interrelated as the story unfolds.  It reminded me of Jonathan Coe’s No.11, which is high praise indeed. 
The principal characters are Precious and Tabitha,a prostitute and her maid. They are fighting for survival as they watch the property developers circling.  Their principal foe is Agatha, heir to a large amount of property including the brothel, her moral compass is highly faulty, but is that all her fault? The supporting cast covers all strata of society, some not as well drawn as others but a truly fascinating  study regardless. 
I really enjoyed this very accomplished novel , my one suggestion is that the author could have lost some of the undeveloped characters, or alternatively a longer novel would have given some of these characters some time to breathe and develop.  
Thank  you #netgalley #johnmurrays for allowing me to review this ARC
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