Update time – this was book nine of 2017. Currently, as well as reading novel number ten, I also have two non-fiction books on the go, so I’m well ahead of schedule for my goal of reading 40 books this year!
This book was another find from my weekly publishing magazine, and it received rave reviews.
Remarkably, the author is British but has created here a completely believable setting of 1960s Queens, New York. The evocation of place, character and dialogue were spot-on and some of the best things about this book.
On a hot summer’s day, two young children vanish from their locked bedroom and their murdered bodies are shortly discovered nearby. The police immediately focus their investigation on the children’s mother, Ruth, of whom they vehemently disapprove. Ruth is separated from the children’s father, ensures her hair and make-up are perfect before the police arrive, wears low cut tops and high heels, works as a cocktail waitress, has liquor bottles in her trash and letters from multiple boyfriends under her bed – so she must be guilty.
Meanwhile, a young reporter named Pete is covering the story for his paper and finds himself increasingly obsessed with Ruth and determined to present the police with an alternative suspect.
This plot is based on a true story. I also found myself imagining the events transplanted to modern-day Britain. Perhaps a single mother in a tower block, who drinks, uses recreational drugs, and smokes around her children. Would the public, and indeed the police, be more inclined to blame her if something ill befell her children? Initially I thought this was quite likely, even in this politically-correct era, but then I remembered Madeleine McCann, whose respectable middle class parents came in for huge public criticism and blame.
I did enjoy this book, but I felt the ending was weak. It felt rushed and forced, as if the author had an afterthought that perhaps she’d better let us know whodunit, and the culprit is not believable in my eyes. A disappointing end to a very promising book.
You might think that the subject matter of this novel – a woman who works in the admissions department of a school – is fairly unique. But this is the second novel I have read on the subject. The first was Admission by one of my all-time favourite authors, Jean Hanff Korelitz (roll on April and her latest novel!). That was set in the admissions department of Princeton University; this book is set in a New York private school. I was fascinated by the admissions world in the earlier book, so had high hopes for this one, which looked really fun.
Kate is recovering from a bad break-up, and after a year of letting herself go entirely, she gets a job in a school admissions office which she takes up with gusto. Told through a mixture of first and third person prose along with emails and handwritten materials, the novel follows Kate as she finally finds something she is good at, and a handful of hopeful applicants to the prestigious school.
The best bits of this book were, without doubt, the stories of the young applicants to Hudson Day School and, more specifically, their crazy parents. Who knew getting into private school was so competitive? We follow four students, only some of whom we root for, reading about their interviews and seeing their applicant essays, test scores and parents’ statements.
Where the book lost me a bit were the sub-plots involving Kate’s friends and her sister. By the end of the book I still didn’t understand the significance (if any; if not, then simply the point) of the italicised chapters told in the first person by Kate’s friend Chloe. This was the only use of the first person, yet Chloe didn’t seem to have that central a role nor a particularly important vantage point.
The rest of the novel is told in the third person from a variety of viewpoints, including some very minor characters, and I’m not sure this quite worked; it was sometimes difficult to orientate oneself to the correct vantage point. My other main problem with it was that I felt I didn’t really understand Kate’s character as well as I did her friends’ and her sister’s – and Kate was supposed to be the main character.
I’d have preferred this novel if it had focussed more on developing Kate’s character, less on her friends, and featured even more school applicants and their families. It certainly wasn’t as good as Korelitz’s Admission, which is an altogether more subtle, satisfying read.
This was a quick little read – quick because I found it very hard to put down.
Rosie Lewis is a foster carer, and she writes semi-fictionalised memoirs, each book focussing on a different foster child. This book is about Megan, born addicted to drugs from her mother’s drug use during pregnancy. Rosie fosters Megan from birth and decides that she wants to adopt her, but falls foul of the wheels of bureaucracy and suffers obstacle after obstacle.
Lewis captures perfectly the pain foster carers suffer when their foster children move on, and the difficulties of allowing oneself to become too attached. I defy anyone who has a child in their lives whom they love to read this book without getting a lump in the throat. When I wasn’t ironically ignoring my own child because I was so hooked on this novel, I was running to her for lots of extra cuddles and holding her extra tight.
Another aspect that Lewis writes well about is the inner workings of social services, and the processes of fostering and adoption. The details are vivid and interesting and really add to the story.
That said, I don’t think I’ll read any of Lewis’ other books. I have a feeling that once you’ve read one, you might have read them all. But it was a very eye-opening and worthwhile read, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I subscribe to a weekly publishing magazine, and one of my favourite sections is the upcoming releases pages. Every four weeks this focuses on new hardback fiction, usually about three months ahead. So back in October I got the heads up about this book. Not only was the book reviewed in the aforementioned section, but there was a whole double page spread about it. Or, more specifically, about its ending.
‘Twist doesn’t even cover it’ said The Bookseller’s reviewer. ‘#WTFthatending’ said the publisher’s marketing machine on Twitter. ‘Whatever you do, don’t give away that ending…’ said the jacket blurb. So basically, I was desperate to read this book and get to the ending that everyone was going on about. This book went straight to the top of my to-read pile.
The story is told from the point of view of two women – Louise, who is having an affair with her married boss David, and David’s wife Adele. It is essentially a supernatural thriller, although the supernatural element takes a while to get going and it is very ‘light’ paranormal. It’s all treated very realistically and there are no vampires, ghosts or unicorns.
I didn’t exactly find this book un-put-down-able, and it was really only the promised ending that spurred me on. The writing style and characterisations reminded me of a marginally less nauseating The Girl on the Train, so there you go. Disappointing, on the whole. But surely that twist would make it all worth it?!
A good twist, as far as I am concerned, is one that makes you stop and immediately re-think the entire book in the light of the new information. Ideally, you should be able to retrospectively see clues that you had no context for on the first reading and go ‘ahhh, yes! That all makes sense now!’.
I’m sorry to say, I saw the first twist coming a mile off. And I thought it was rather poor. There is, however, a final sting in the tail which I DIDN’T see coming and which did make me pause and reconsider the book in a new light. Disappointingly, though, there was absolutely no warning, no clues, nothing that hinted at this final twist. And that’s important, because without it what you’ve got is essentially a paranormal deus ex machina parachuted into the last page. And that leaves me feeling cheated.
As it happens, there are some really good places where the author could have left a subtle clue or two that would really have enriched the book and improved the impact of the twist.
Get in touch if you finish this book – I’d love to hear your take on ‘that’ ending.
Finally! Book five of 2017, and I’ve found the best book of the year so far. The headline is: buy this book. Buy it now.
There is a problem, though, with saying that I ‘enjoyed’ this book. It reminds me of an incident when I was about seven, and my primary school took a trip to the Imperial War Museum, where amongst other things there was a holocaust exhibition. When we got back, our teacher asked us to write letters to the museum about our experience of the trip. I remember innocently writing the words: ‘I enjoyed the Blitz experience and the holocaust room’. My teacher, coming ‘round and reading over my shoulder, pursed her lips. ‘You enjoyed the holocaust room?’ she asked, doubtfully. She set my brain gears whirling. I knew then that there was something not quite right about my choice of word, but I couldn’t think of any other. I was only seven and not yet a walking thesaurus(!). I couldn’t articulate the feeling that my experience in the holocaust exhibition was poignant and moving, that it felt important, necessary.
The subject matter is, I hasten, to add, completely different. But, to a lesser extent, I feel the same way about this book.
Annie’s mother is a serial killer of young boys. She also sexually abuses Annie herself. But aged 15, Annie finally goes to the police and ‘tells’ on her mother. What follows is the story of Annie’s foster placement with the well-meaning Mike, his vacant wife Saskia and their bully of a teenage daughter, Phoebe, as they prepare Annie for her mother’s upcoming trial at which Annie will have to testify.
Obviously a teenager who has been through what Annie has since a young age is not going to be unaffected, and this book bravely explores the possibility that the victim may not necessarily be without blemish herself. As the title suggests, she can be good, but she can also be very, very bad. Is she a victim of her nature or her circumstances? Genetics or environment, or both?
This book is horrifically fascinating – I felt guilty as I found myself wanting to know more detail about Annie’s mother’s crimes. It is tightly plotted and well-paced, and I genuinely found it hard to put down. Did I enjoy it? Well – I found it difficult. After the first chapter, I wasn’t sure I could go on reading the book. It was too horrific, not only what Annie’s mother had done, but the chilling fact that Annie still loves and misses her in spite of everything. But I am so glad I persevered. Female sex offenders are one of society’s last taboos, and this is without doubt a superbly written, extremely readable and very worthwhile exploration of such as difficult topic.
Book four of 2017 was an impulse buy from Waterstones, because I was drawn to the picture of a Southern plantation house on its jacket. I’m a sucker for a beautiful old house, and when the inside jacket promised that this story was about a family mystery set in the pictured house, I was convinced.
Unfortunately, this was no mystery, and the house was not central to the plot. It was more like a perfectly respectable romance, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, twenty-years later boy tries to win girl back, suffers set-back, you know the rest.
Now for the proper synopsis: Jim is a successful international hotel developer, whose boss has asked him to procure a Gone With The Wind style property for their next venture. As it happens, Jim once spent a summer in a lake house next to just such a plantation house, and even better, the house is now for sale. This brings Jim back into contact with Jennifer, with whom he had a brief fling that summer twenty-years ago.
The front jacket proclaims ‘a mystery to unravel’, but I am quite cross about this because it’s not a proper mystery in my book. The problem is that although a few things might be a mystery to the reader – such as why Jennifer abruptly ended her and Jim’s relationship at the end of the summer – these things are known to the characters, and drip fed to us through flashbacks. I find this really irritating and not deserving of the label ‘mystery’. And although there is a twist, of sorts, in which something unexpected is revealed to one of the characters, this comes out of the blue and doesn’t constitute an ‘unravelling’.
I did appreciate the details about the hotel-development business, especially where it indulged my hankering for descriptions of the grand old house, and I enjoyed a bizarre sub-plot involving a Caribbean gangster. The characters were reasonably well-drawn and believable, the writing easy to read and well paced.
All in all, a fairly inoffensive romance novel with a misleading jacket description – not exactly a ringing endorsement but not terrible.
After the disappointment of book number two (see my post on The Parrots by Alexandra Shulman), I had high hopes for book number three. And I wasn’t let down.
The story begins when the improbably named local attorney Autopsy Bliss places an ad in the local newspaper, cordially inviting the devil to town. Why? Well the clue’s in the name – ‘autopsy’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘to see for oneself’. Autopsy wants to see the devil for himself. This coincides not only with a deadly heatwave, but with the arrival in town of a young black boy who calls himself Sal and proclaims himself the devil responding to the invitation. But is he really the devil, or just a traumatised boy?
For the town of Breathed Ohio, smothered by the heatwave and looking for someone to blame for several local tragedies, the centre cannot hold. Meanwhile, cracks are appearing in the baked earth of the Bliss family and the events of the summer will change their lives forever.
This book is a slow-burner, the sentences drip like melted ice cream, the words slowly smoulder like barbeque charcoal. You can almost feel the heat of the summer – or is it hell? – rising off the page.
I loved the imagery and language, and lines such as ‘He had felt the connection of another man, and in the clay of loneliness, he shaped it into something he called love’ left me open mouthed. Despite being so evocative, the language always feels spare and never flowery.
Sal, who is full of anecdotes about heaven and hell, explains that God allows suffering because He wants to see for Himself what we’ll do, and downplays the devil’s role in creating misery. But this book forces the reader to look behind the Judeo-Christian façade and asks us to think about the real nature of evil.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me goes back to the character’s name that seemed so ridiculous when I saw it on the book jacket: you have to see for yourself. I hope you never come face to face with true evil, but I do urge you to read this wonderful book for yourself,
I try not to read the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads until after I’ve finished a book (when I find it incredibly interesting to compare my impressions with others’) because I find it can colour my views as I am reading. About a third of the way through this book, though, I was running to Amazon to find out if everybody else thought it was as awful as I.
This novel, by British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman centres on an upper-class London family, who run a high-end art gallery and associate with Russian oligarchs and the like. The arrival of a strange, co-dependent brother and sister from Italy sends their perfect world into a spin (etc. etc. etc.).
So what did the good denizens of Amazon make of this novel? I was surprised to discover that what several Amazon reviewers hated about this book were the parts I most enjoyed – namely the depiction of the elite lifestyle that the characters enjoy.
For me, the best bits were the descriptions of how Olga the oligarch’s wife plans to renovate her country estate, how the family celebrate an extravagant Christmas at their own country pile, and the schmoozy soirees at the Mayfair art gallery. Amazon, meanwhile, thinks that these parts are smug and irritating and make the characters unsympathetic.
The other reviews were overwhelmingly positive. But for me, the rest of the novel was stiflingly boring. A real shame, as I had eagerly looked forward to it – probably because I knew I would enjoy the bits mentioned above.
The ‘plot’ is pretty much non-existent, despite a teasing flash-forward prologue promising drama involving a medical evacuation helicopter. Said drama, however, does not in fact materialise until the very last pages, and has an abrupt, disconnected feel to it.
Minor spoiler alert: the extra marital affairs which form most of the ‘plot’ are boring, clichéd and eye-rollingly predictable (hence why only a minor spoiler).
So if, unlike me, you read this review before purchasing the book, do yourself a favour – don’t bother. What a shame for book two of 2017.
This is the sixth book in Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise, it centres on a fictional division of the Metropolitan police which deals with supernatural crime (codenamed ‘Falcon’). In this instalment, PC Peter Grant investigates a case involving the daughter of a local river goddess caught up in the drug-related death of a wealthy teenager.
I love this series. It’s deadly funny, with strong crime-solving plots that carry you through at breakneck speed. However, there are a few elements of the supernatural world that I find slightly under-developed.
Aaronovitch blends the supernatural with the police procedural, hilariously mocking the parlance of modern policing (think risk assessments, cost-benefit analysis and stakeholder engagement) as PC Grant couches his supernatural encounters in terms that his superiors will understand.
The central character is one of the very best things about this series. PC Grant is funny, intelligent, irreverent and self-deprecating. The book is narrated in his unique voice, which is maintained exceptionally well and is totally believable (even if the frequent (intentional and realistic) grammatical errors set my teeth on edge).
The other characters are great, too. Not as well developed as Peter’s, but somehow perfectly painted in just the right (smallish) amount of detail. The hijab-wearing DC Sahra Guleed gamely throws herself into the unfamiliar world of supernatural operations, while DI Stephanopolous and DCI Seawoll, who would rather get on with more down-to-earth policing, thank you very much, react with resigned exasperation as they are forced to acknowledge yet another Falcon-related incident.
However, the book is far from perfect. Throughout the series I have been plagued by a slight uneasiness about the supernatural mythology that frames this fictional world. The practice of magic by humans is given a pseudo-scientific, vaguely steampunk, framework, with a legacy centred around Isaac Newton, Charles Babbage and the Enlightenment.
Spells are classified and categorised with Latin nomenclature. But the descriptions – the attempted explanations – of spell casting are less developed than in, say, Debora Geary’s A Modern Witch series. An explanation is attempted – something to do with sensing the formae created by another practitioner and then somehow copying them with one’s mind. With this sort of urban fantasy slash police procedural it is understandable that a ‘rational’ explanation should be attempted rather than asking the reader to completely suspend disbelief. But I don’t really buy into it.
Another aspect of the mythology that I don’t quite ‘get’ is that of the London river goddesses. I like the idea – Mama Thames is the Goddess of the River Thames between the estuary and Teddington Lock (from where Father Thames assumes jurisdiction). Her daughters are the goddesses of the tributaries, both buried and extant, that feed into the Thames within London. So we have Beverley Brook (girlfriend of our hero Peter), Lady Tyburn, Effra, Fleet, Brent and so on.
Interestingly, Mama Thames is Nigerian. It is explained that she was once mortal, a Nigerian nurse, who committed suicide in the 1950s by jumping into the Thames and was subsequently incarnated as the river’s goddess. Her court, a warehouse in Wapping, is hot and humid, with banana trees growing and the smell of plantain in the air. In other words, a mini-Nigeria. Her ‘daughter’ rivers are also of Nigerian heritage. No-one could call this set-up clichéd or predictable, but I’m not quite sure I ‘get’ the explanation. I wonder whether there was supposed to be a goddess of the Thames before the 1950s. Or whether the tributaries are her biological daughters or if they were similarly ‘made’ from mortals. And it is not clear what powers, perks and responsibilities come with being a river goddess. But maybe that’s just me.
Of course, I also must mention the typos that cropped up in this first hardback edition. They were distracting and annoying and I doubt the manuscript was proofread. It is rumoured that when an author gets to a certain stature that their books are guaranteed to sell (for example, a long-awaited sixth-in-the-series), publishing houses try to save money by cutting out one or more of the editing stages. Why bother making the product perfect when it is guaranteed to fly off the shelves no matter what? This is, of course, a crying shame and I wish I had thought to mark all the errors as I found them and send the book off to the publisher with one of my business cards, but I can’t be bothered now!
This won’t work as a standalone book – you need to read the whole series in order. And I would whole heartedly recommend you do just that.
Please feel free to chime in below with your opinions if you've read this book or others in the series!
This year I have set myself the challenge of reading 40 books. Pre-baby I'd have gone for the big 52, but that may be a tad too ambitious! I shall be posting a review of every book here on my blog, and welcome your comments and discussion.