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.
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.