What makes a good book?
That is a tough one and if I knew the answer I would write one immediately and retire somewhere warm on the proceeds.
So what follows are my thoughts on what I have read. You may not agree. Please feel free to challenge me in the comments. I love a good debate.
I’m no expert. I’m not even that discerning. But I do love to read and that is qualification enough for an opinion. Scores out of six stars but these will be awarded on how much I enjoyed the book and not on its literary merit (because I’m a reader not a critic.)
THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by LIANE MORIARTY
You know when you just want a book that you can fall into without any effort? A book that makes no demands of you except your time and delivers the perfect escape from what ever tedium your day has generated? This is that book.
I have recently discovered Liane Moriarty and am quietly working my way through her back catalogue. I read this one on a beach which was the perfect spot. As with all her books, it tells the stories of a number of women whose lives interconnect in a way that isn’t always obvious at first. This one has an obvious hook but really that wasn’t what drew me in. She paints a world that is familiar to me ( women, children, playgrounds, scandal ) but because the books are set in Australia there is that little edge of something new.
I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Big Little Lies ( my fave of hers so far) but if you like an interesting story well told but which is easy on the brain then this might be for you.
OVERALL: A lovely escape novel with some unexpected twists.
THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by JOHN BOYNE
It’s the story of Cyril Avery, a gay man growing up in Ireland in the second half of the 20th century. It is a poignantly drawn picture of the stranglehold that the Catholic church had on the sensibilities of the people of Ireland. The characters are fabulous and it has the best and wittiest dialogue that I have read for ages. This contrasts beautifully with the prejudices that Cyril faces and at times there are shocking levels of violence which made me want to shout out in frustration.
Boyne uses coincidence in a way that suggests that the universe has a plan for us all and the future is so delicately signposted that it really doesn’t matter if you seem to be two steps ahead of him. That said, there are some great twists and turns as well.
I got the to the end and immediately wanted to go right back to the beginning and that doesn’t happen very often. Highly recommended.
OVERALL: Beautifully written with moments that made me laugh out loud and others that had me weeping.
THE CHALK MAN by CJ TUDOR
Anyway, it’ll be worth making a note of the name and spending your Christmas money on it. It’s the story of things that happened to a gang of boys in 1996 and the repercussions thirty years later. Told from the point of view of one of the boys, the story flits between the two timelines with great ease and I found the narrative voice as engaging whether he was old or young. The reading of it seems effortless.
The story is intriguing and the characters pull you in. I found the narrator’s understanding of the situation interesting too as he clearly has a much better idea as an adult. It draws into sharp focus though, for those of us who might have forgotten, how frightening things that you don’t quite understand can be when you’re a child.
If I had one complaint it would be that I’m not sure I entirely understood the ending. I was reading very fast by that stage but I did have to go back and reread it. That could just have been that it didn’t go where I was expecting it to.
Finally, I”ve just found this cool trailer for the book too ( which is nothing to do with my review but I just liked!)
OVERALL: I’d look out for this one when it comes out. It’s got ‘Hit’ written all over it.
ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS by WILLIAM BOYD
Well this book has a bit of an identity crisis and doesn’t really know what it is but I liked it. Part thriller, part love story, part commentary on the digital world, part diatribe against modern drugs companies, part consideration of the various strata of society, part exploration of what it means to be an immigrant. And I could go on!
Basically, the protagonist stumbles across a murder, implicates himself and then has to get himself out of it. So far so genre-faithful. But then Boyd weaves all these other ideas into his story so that by the time I’d finished my head was spinning with it all. But that’s OK. I love a thought-provoking book and whilst the story didn’t move at the pace that you might expect for a thriller, there was still plenty of intrigue and excitement to keep me interested.
The characters did some daft things to make the plot work from time to tome and I did find myself a little irritated by their stupidity occasionally but basically I kept turning those pages and that is kind of the point. And the language is so lovely that I entirely forgive him his genre hopping.
OVERALL: Beautiful prose. Slightly unconvincing plot but who cares when the story is as rich as this?
MAD by CHLOE ESPOSITA
I have to say that I don’t usually read this kind of book. I like to categorise my reading habits as either something to do with crime or discerning fiction aimed at women. However, I heard this woman interviewed and there seemed to be a bit of publishing hype around her new £2m trilogy so, in the interests of studying all publishing trends, I took one for the team and dived in.
It’s an interesting premise. Twins, one good one a bit rubbish, with very different lives have their paths cross again after several years of not really seeing each other. Add a bit of sex ( not much – this isn’t Christian Grey all over again) a lot of money and some unfriendly mafia types and you have the making of a great – if not a bit silly- book.
Sadly for me though this didn’t come off. The characters are all unpleasant. This doesn’t necessarily matter but I found myself not really caring if they got into peril. The plot is very silly which is fine for an escapism kind of read but also has quite a lot of unexplained holes and the writing is very unsophisticated. The author, an Oxbridge graduate with the Faber & Faber writing course under her belt, obviously decided to eschew what she knew to write very commercially and that’s fine but there are a lot of people out there doing it much more convincing.
OVERALL: Poorly conceived and executed and, in a time-poor world, not worth the investment.
CALM by TIM PARKS
I must be a very shallow person because I bought this book almost exclusively because I liked the cover. There was a whole display of these beautiful Penguin Vintage minis in my local bookshop and I was just drawn to them. I selected this one because, as a meditator myself, I was interested in reading about another’s experience of learning.
Tim Parks is an author who started to practise breathing techniques as a method of pain control and ended up at a Buddhist retreat learning to meditate. The book is like a fly on the wall documentary of his time at the retreat and is packed full of entertaining descriptions of the things that occupied his mind when he was supposed to be finding inner peace as well as some notes on his fellow meditators.
I do have to say that this treads a very similar path to Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love ( see below for review) and I preferred Gilbert’s humour. That said, at less that 100 pages it was very quick and easy to consume and did entertain me.
OVERALL: An interesting snapshot into one man’s experiences of learning to meditate. A little bit two dimensional for my liking.
A LITTLE LIFE by HANYA YANAGIHARA
I have to admit that its 720 pages ( or the 30 plus hours that I devoted to listening to it ) were daunting. I had picked the book up and put it down again several times before I finally bit the bullet but I’m so glad that I did. It’s the story of four young men in New York who meet at college and then stay very close friends. They go on to be implausibly successful ( or maybe life is just like that in New York!) but that didn’t matter because by the time I’d worked this out, I was far too deeply involved in their lives to care.
Without giving too much away, one of the characters has been deeply and irreparably damaged by the first 15 years of his life and it takes almost the whole novel to find out exactly what happened. Some questions still aren’t answered by the end which was a bit frustrating considering how many pages Yanagihara gives herself to tell us all about them.
Most of the time I loved it. It made me sob regularly which is rare for me and I really felt like I was in Jude and Willem’s friendship, so close did I feel to their lives. The author describes the pain of the main character with so much beauty that it was almost like I was sharing it with him.
I do have to say that it got a little repetitive towards the end and it could have been 250 pages shorter and not lost anything but as a study on the power of a real friendship it’s hard to beat.
OVERALL: A heart-breaking read but possibly a little overlong.
THE SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR MINDSET by JOANNA PENN
This book, one of several guides that she has written, is all about coping with the pitfalls of writing that are so very familiar to anyone that has ever tried it. Self doubt, fear of failure, the need for validation, comparisonitis, overwhelm. These are all issues that I, as a newly published writer face every day. So it’s a great comfort to me to know that six figure earning, New York Times best selling, industry-wide respected Joanna Penn faces exactly the same issues.
In this book, she outlines what the potential mindset issues are and then suggests a solution to them. To be honest thought, it’s not really a solution that I’m looking for – just the knowledge that feeling scared and lost and out on a limb is not exclusive to me and that most writers feel that way at some point too. That is very comforting.
Overall: more of a mantra than a book but packed full of tips to make me feel less bad about myself in the really scary moments!
I love a diary and wrote plenty of my own until I realised that my children might read them after I’d died at which point I stopped. So the title of this book drew me in. 148 diaries – no mean achievement and in a skip!
It’s a biography and a mystery as the author attempts to work out who might have written the diaries and why. The story of the diarist and the author become entwined as we, the reader, are fed parts of each. I was intrigued by the ‘I’ of the diaries even though she didn’t come across as terribly likeable. But then again which of us would if our deepest, darkest secrets were laid bare?
I think it speaks volumes though that Goodreads tells me that it has taken me almost two months to finish it. I was curious about ‘I’ (who is identified in the end) but not quite curious enough to read her story at speed.
Note to self: destroy own diaries before death!
OVERALL: Interesting concept, gentle pace, things to think about. ★★★★☆☆
QUIET ( The Power of Introverts in a World that can’t stop talking) by SUSAN CAIN
I read this book and suddenly I feel better about myself. How very refreshing. Those that know me may recognise that I am much better on a one to one basis over coffee than at a noisy party, that I am quite adept at steering conversation away from me but that in a group of strangers I’m usually the loudest.
So now that I’ve read this book I can recognise that it’s not shyness that makes me want to sit in a corner at a party and watch. It’s introversion. I guess I knew that really but what I hadn’t thought about is how that impacts on a business world where things are set up to favour extroverts. Decisions are often made by the loudest and most confident because they speak up first, offices are open plan to help teams bond and brainstorming! Yuk!
This is all very interesting but, perhaps more importantly, this book made me think about my children’s experiences, particularly at school. There children work in groups, are made to put their hands up and can be accused of not being resilient if they don’t participate. None of this works very well for the half of the population that approaches life differently and could leave them lacking in self-confidence and feeling that they have to ape their more extraverted peers to get on. These are skills we all need to survive in a world that encourages extroversion but it’s good to know that there may be a different ( and possibly better ) way.
OVERALL : Fascinating insight into the cultural ramifications of character. A bit wordy in places but has definitely changed my world view. ★★★★★☆
EAT PRAY LOVE by ELIZABETH GILBERT
I’m very late coming to this book which was published around a decade ago and was then made into a film. I was aware of it but it just didn’t appeal. Things change and over the last year or so it has become more relevant to me and so I ‘found’ it.
I listened to the audiobook which gave it special resonance as it is narrated by the author. This means that you get her gentle humour, the accents of the people speaking and the natural emphasis on what is important and what not and consequently the experience feels more vivid to me.
Basically, writer Elizabeth Gilbert has a kind of breakdown and takes herself of for a year of self-indulgent travel – that’s not how she describes it but that’s a bit how it felt to me at the start. Who wouldn’t want to shrug off their responsibilities and be paid to take off and find yourself for a year? But her voice is so clear and her pain so evident that it’s hard not to put aside your scepticism and just enjoy the ride.
I love Italy and harbour a secret desire to live there one day so the first section was a joy. My recently acquired vedic meditation practice made the second section interesting and who wouldn’t like to fall in love in the Tropics?
Her writing is lovely. I wanted to be her friend, meet for capuccini or a glass of prosecco and I don’t mind that I’m so late to the party. The main thing is that I got there in the end!
OVERALL : Self-indulgent and unashamedly female but full of interesting insights and not pretending to be more than it is. Worth picking up.
THE GIRL BEFORE by JP DELANEY
You’re probably getting the measure of my reading habits now. I read (or in fact listen to) a fair bit of ‘Grip Lit’ as they are now calling it and this was just the latest in a long line of similar stuff. But sadly, I predict the end of this rich seam of books. It seems we can no longer be shocked or surprised and these psychological thrillers are becoming a bit like the literary equivalent of a pair of familiar and slightly shabby slippers.
Anyway, here we go. Two women. A dangerous man and a mystery. I think it fancied itself as a cross between 50 Shades and Gone Girl. It wasn’t. The most interesting character in the story was the bonkers house which is the link between them all. It was a bit like an Amazon Echo AI on speed. If you didn’t answer its surveys, it turned the water off until you did! Living there made you tidy and thin and lots of other madly controlling things. That was kind of the best thing about the whole book. The baddie didn’t do it. The one you thought was trustworthy wasn’t and the women worked so hard at being in control that it was a bit annoying.
I’m maybe being harsh. I enjoyed listening to it but it didn’t take me anywhere that I haven’t been plenty of times already over the last five years or so. Time for a new best-selling genre methinks.
OVERALL: Easy read with a few twists for your buck but nothing to make you read faster.
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by JULIAN BARNES
Memory is a strange thing; the ‘truths’ we tell ourselves to make the rest of our story fit together, the bits of life we’re less proud of and so wilfully forget. This is a book about memory and how casting a new light on a familiar situation can alter your perception of others and yourself.
It’s only a short book and not a great deal happens but there is a lot of ruminating on how things were. Tony, the protagonist’s venturing into his memories of events forty years ago and his own part in them, is at once both fascinating and remarkable painful to read. He seems untroubled by his past but then he clings onto snippets of new information so desperately that it’s clear that he actually cares quite deeply. Towards the end of the book, his need for details turns him into a stalker and this obsessive behaviour makes you question what you thought you knew about his personality earlier in the story.
Interestingly, though when I first read the book, I found it difficult to engage with Tony, finding his aloofness frustrating. I didn’t feel sorry for him when it looked as if his actions had had unintended consequences. Then I saw the film and suddenly I’m far more sympathetic to Tony’s plight. The power of the big screen eh?
OVERALL: A poignant and thought-provoking read about growing old and still not really knowing who you are.
INTO THE WATER by PAULA HAWKINS
Grip Lit has been dominating the market since 2012 when Gone Girl stormed onto the scene but I think it must be nearing its end, not least because it’s hard to think of a twist that we readers won’t guess, trained as we now are to be suspicious of everyone. I loved The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins spectacularly successful novel so I’ve been waiting for the follow-up with great excitement but, not unsurprisingly, I was disappointed.
Into the Water is an ambitious book, as it needed to be given the level of anticipation. It has a plot with the requisite number of twists and turns that gathers pace as it careers towards the denouement and whilst there was no OMG shocks, it did keep me guessing.
Where I think it falls down is in the structure. There are 11 narrators. It’s a bit confusing to be leaping about so much and some of them sound quite alike so it was hard to distinguish whose head you were in. I wasn’t really sure that she needed them all and it felt a bit like lazy writing to tell us things by just adding yet another voice. Also, she does quite a lot of the suspense building by making it clear that the narrator knows more than the reader – ‘But of course, all that was to come . . . ‘ kind of approach which got a bit annoying towards the end. Of course the unreliable narrator is needed to make this kind of book work but I’m not sure I needed to be reminded quite so often.
I’m sure it’ll be a hit and she seems really lovely so I hope it is. I have read some good reviews as well but for me it just didn’t hit the spot.
OVERALL: Decent plot but really clunky structure.
BIG LITTLE LIES by LIANE MORIARTY
I loved this book. It’s a story about friendship, secrets and gossip so it’s unashamedly girly. Liane Moriarty peoples the pages with an array of women that just pop out of the page because so much about them is familiar. Their aspirations and fears, their determination and loyalty to their real friends reminded me of all the great women I know, even if none of them was a perfect match. This is clever chick lit told with humour and enough twists to keep it interesting ( although I did guess one of them quite early on.)
There’s quite a cross-section of male characters too who also rich and interesting although the fabulous women really do take centre stage.
Inspired, I started to watch the TV series but as is often the case, it wasn’t a patch on the book so I abandoned it before the end of the first episode. Somethings are better left to the imagination rather than the eye.
OVERALL: Perfect if you want a little bit of escapism near a beach in Australia, enjoy dry humour and can laugh at how horrid women can be to each other.
THE POWER by NAOMI ALDERMAN
These are all interesting questions posed by Naomi Alderman’s latest book. Teenager girls discover that instead of flourishing sexually at 15 or so, they have an electrical power that comes from their fingertips and that can cause pain to others. And suddenly the world looks very different.
Told from the point of view of four characters, this novel explores with a wry smile, what this brave new world might look like and the result is thought-provoking for men and women alike.The awakening in the women is beautifully done. Before they realise what they have, the women allow themselves to be subjected to testing for The Power which echoes darker parts of the 20th Century but this male approach quickly disintegrates as women across the world start taking control.
However, I think this is a book with more concept than plot. I was fascinated by the ideas but the lack of a central story strand was a little bit unsatisfactory. I did engage with the characters though, particularly gangster Roxy with her cheeky humour and her feisty determination.There are clear religious overtones throughout too which I wasn’t sure worked as well as other aspects of the story but overall I found it totally gripping and I shall be urging people to read it, including my teenage children.
OVERALL : Fascinating context, cracking writing and characters but slightly lacking in plot.
A HISTORY OF BRITAIN IN 21 WOMEN by JENNI MURRAY
I love Jenni Murray. She’s the kind of woman that I would like as my best friend because she’s calm and measured and almost always right! I love this book too. She makes no bones about the fact that this is a very personal choice and if you were selecting the 21 women, you might do it differently. I hadn’t heard of all of her choices and I found a couple of them slightly surprising when I looked down the list but once I had read Jenni’s thought processes for including them, I could understand why she felt they should take their place in her book.
The book is interesting and informative with lots of biographical details for each of the amazing women that it contains. It made me feel ungrateful in places when I read about the hugely important leaps forward made by woman of whom I had never heard and how their legacy has improved life for me and my three daughters.
Surprisingly, the most moving part of the book for me was at the end of the Chapter on Margaret Thatcher who Murray includes because of the impact of Thatcherism on Britain. Apparently, when John Major took over at Number 10 Murray’s young son was confused because he had assumed that being Prime Minister was a ‘woman’s job’. . .
OVERALL: A real interesting romp through the struggles facing women both then and now, told with humour and lots of personality.
THE KEPT WOMAN by KARIN SLAUGHTER
I’d love to write crime novels. I read them, I listen to them, I watch them and I go to The Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate every year without fail but still I can’t do it though. My efforts had to be abandoned. It patently isn’t my genre no matter how much I might wish it were! But if you’re looking for someone who can write a twisty turny police procedural then look no further than Karin Slaughter and this one is no exception.
It’s the 8th in the series so perhaps not the best place to start but just like all the others, this one is cleverly plotted and peopled by characters who just leap out of the page at you.
The joy of a properly written series is that the reader learns the history of each of the characters as the plot requires it rather than having the facts dropped at their feet like a dog’s ball. Slaughter’s characters have no shortage of backstory. None of it is there for effect though. Each revelation lets the reader understand what motivates the characters a little more and the more you learn, the more the characters make sense.
The books aren’t for the faint-hearted though. They are gritty and violent and sometimes quite uncomfortable to read. Slaughter portrays the underbelly of Atlanta, Georgia with its heat, its underworld and a police force riddled with corruption, as a place that you might not want to venture. However, if you like your bodies very dead indeed then dive in and let her show you her world.
Overall: Great characters and clever plotting with a very dark streak of blood running through the middle.
THE ESSEX SERPENT by SARAH PERRY
They say never judge a book by its cover but that’s exactly what I did here. I couldn’t resist. It is beautiful. And so, as it turned out, is the book. I haven’t read any historical fiction for a while. It’s not my genre of choice. What I liked about this was, whilst it is clearly set in the 19th century, the emotions and the issues all felt very modern. The women don’t simper. ( Actually the men do a bit!) Cora ploughs her own furrow and doesn’t behave at all as one might expect a Victorian lady to carry on. On top of this, there are various unlikely romances and of course, the eponymous snake.
The themes are not dissimilar to Tracy Chevalier’s Beautiful Creatures and her protagonist ( a real person) gets a couple of mentions in Perry’s book but really this is about far more than working out where new-found fossils fit into the accepted norms of society. For me, it was about expectation of behaviour, doomed love affairs and the power of fear.
Overall: Beautifully written piece of literary fiction filled with fascinating characters and a slightly bonkers plot.
SWIMMING LESSONS by CLAIRE FULLER
This is one of those gentle books that you read without much effort but is interesting enough to see you through to the end. In between the covers you’ll find a love story, an odd dynamic between sisters and a mystery which you have to work out for yourself.
The romance between philandering professor and eager to please student covers well trodden ground but because the student is so feisty and the shifting timeline means that we see what becomes of the philanderer, it doesn’t seem to matter that the idea is so familiar. I enjoyed watching their relationship develop and how although Ingrid knows how deep the water that she is wandering into is pushes on regardless.
The story jumps about in time and we get Ingrid’s back story through a series of letters that she hides in Gil’s huge book collection on the basis that he may or may not find them and read them. Letters sometimes irritate me but this was nicely done and I found myself thinking about the books that the letters are slotted into, which are all named.
The daughters are a bit stereotypical – responsible and slightly patronising older one, chaotic and indulged younger one but I enjoyed seeing how they viewed the situation based on the facts as they knew them and drawing my own conclusions.
Overall : Gentle, easy read with some interesting observations on end of life moments.
THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US by MAGGIE O’FARRELL
Firstly, I have to say that as this was written in 2006, what O’Farrell was doing with her point of view was relatively uncommon. We forget, because we are now so used to leaping in and out of protagonists’ heads, that in days gone by we used to stay put a bit more. In this book, there are no chapters and sometimes we barely manage a page with one of the characters before we are whisked away to someone else. I’m not sure that this works as well as it might. I was just getting the measure of a character when they were gone again. As a result, the main characters of Jake and Stella remained a little bit two dimensional for me ( although some of the secondary characters did leap off the page.)
It is the story of two damaged people, trapped by the actions of others, who manage to stumble into one another and fall in love despite their best intentions. Muddled in and amongst the core story, we get the rest of their family history and why they have ended up as they are.
Ultimately, I did enjoy it the book because I like O’Farrell’s way with words and I wanted to discover all answers to the hidden mysteries that she is at pains to point out to us. I also loved the sections set in Hong Kong. But I’m not sure it is anywhere near her best work.
Overall: Lovely writing but too choppy.
BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM by KATE ATKINSON
Before I start, I have to confess to having a bit of a crush on Kate Atkinson! I’ve read everything. ..but some of it not for a while it seems. My copy of this book is dated 1.7.96 and is, bizarrely, signed to me by Kate herself. I have no recollection of this occurring.
Anyway, it definitely bears rereading. It was her debut but all the familiar Atkinson quirks that we have come to know and love over the years are in there: sharply drawn characters; prose that follows what is clearly a madly butterfly brain as she flits from idea to idea and such a dry sense of humour. I find some of her ideas laugh out loud funny although it isn’t a comic novel at all.
The book tells the story of Ruby Lennox from her unremarkable conception in a dinghy pub in Doncaster to adulthood, flitting backwards and forwards in time and in and out of the minds of various of her unusual relations some of whom wouldn’t look out of place in an Alan Bennett play. It draws an evocative picture of York, particularly in the 50s and 60s but also goes back to life in wartime which foreshadows Atkinson’s later work.
It won the Whitbread (now the Costa) prize, an accolade that was richly deserved in my opinion. I shall make a pledge to read it more regularly from now on!
Overall: I am biased but….Practically perfect in ever way!
ALL THE MISSING GIRLS by MEGAN MIRANDA
Another thriller. I try to not to read the same genre back to back but this one had to be read now because it landed in my Pigeonhole. The Pigeonhole is another kind of modern Book Group where you pick the book and then read it as it is delivered in chunks on your phone each day and chat to others reading along by way of comments dropped into the text. All The Missing Girls appealed to me because of its gimmick (of which more later) so I signed up. The upside of consuming books in this way is that it makes you read quickly. The downside of this particular book was that the chapters were only there for a day and then they disappeared. Usually, if you keep up with the pages this wouldn’t be an issue. But….
All The Missing Girls is told backwards. This is its gimmick. It starts with the set up but then it leaps forwards by 15 days and then goes backwards to the start. It took me a couple of days to work out what was going on. (I know. A bit thick!) Having known that it went backwards when I signed up, I promptly forgot and spent a very confused couple of days trying to piece it all together. Of course, with the chapters disappearing after I’d read them I couldn’t go back to check where I’d been. Tricky.
So did it work? Well I’m not sure that it did although looking at other reviews it seems to be a bit of a Marmite book. It wasn’t bad, the story was quite compelling and I didn’t work out who did it but I was totally distracted by the structure. I’m not sure that that is the mark of a successful book but it certainly kept me on my toes.
Overall: Interesting idea to tell the story backwards but not totally successful.
BEHIND HER EYES by SARAH PINBOROUGH
Goodness me! I have just finished this book and I am still reeling. Writing a review is impossible without spoilers that may ruin it for someone else and I really don’t want to give anything away.
So, what to do?
Well, it’s a psychological thriller written about three flawed characters. As in the way of all of this genre, it moves backwards and forwards in time, drip feeding the reader with the clues they need to piece it all together….but I defy you to do that.
When I finally worked out what was going on, I have to admit to feeling a little cheated but then the final chapter was a game changer.
I think we may be looking at the next big sensation along the lines of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. A future Book Group read I think so if you can wait, hold on until March before you read it.
Overall: A twisty, turns rollercoaster of a story that will keep you on the edge of the seat whether you go for the central premise or not.
DAYS WITHOUT END by SEBASTIAN BARRY
The day I finished this book, it won the Costa Prize and reading the reviews elsewhere I can see that it has received the highest critical acclaim. I’m not a huge literary fiction reader so I’m torn between reviewing the excellence that is clear or the degree of my enjoyment which is different.
It is a love story set in the American civil war. The pace is slow but the prose is beautiful. At times it is brutal and difficult to read. I felt the injustices done to the protagonist keenly but he is stoical in the face of all that befalls him which makes him such an engaging and beautifully drawn character.
And yet, whilst it is clearly a wonderful book and fully deserving of its accolades, its subject matter – the depravations of war – was not one that interested me. Whilst I was able to lose myself in the prose, it was not until the very end that I cared what happened to the characters and I was glad to have finished so I could get back to something more pacey. Call me a philistine but….
Overall: Beautifully written, poignant prose with a heartbreakingly tender love story but not my cup of tea and so it loses a star.
BLACK BOX THINKING by MATTHEW SYED
I don’t generally read non-fiction but after seeing the author speak at a conference, I was interested to read what he has to say. The book takes quite a lot of pages to make a handful of compelling points but they are great points and it is, in the main, an interesting and engaging read.
The essence of his theory is that success comes from learning from our failures. By way of example, he contrasts two industries, Healthcare and Aviation, suggesting that their approaches to failure are poles apart, resulting in very different success rates. You’re far more likely to die at the hands of a surgeon than in a plane, apparently.
Syed also makes some interesting points about marginal gains, attaching blame to errors and how we sometimes reinvent the past to fit in with our mistakes so that we don’t appear to have been wrong in the first place – topical in these days of ‘post truth politics’.
The book has made me think about how I might approach my own failures and how I can encourage a growth mindset in my children.
Overall: Interesting and thought provoking but could say much the same thing using far fewer words!
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by ELIZABETH STROUT
I was given this book for Christmas in a beautiful hardback edition. Paper is finding its way back onto my bookshelves after many years of reading only digitally. It’s ironic really because these days my eyes aren’t what they were and paper has its challenges for me in low lighting etc….
Anyway, this is a short book (less than 200 pages) in which very little actually happens. Lucy is ill. She is in hospital. Her estranged mother comes to see her and she thinks about her life quite a lot. That’s the plot in a nutshell.
But the plot isn’t the attraction here. No. This gorgeous little book is about making sense of life and the people around you with the benefit (or disadvantage) of hindsight. It gives us a thoughtful peak into the ordinary lives of ordinary women who are actually extraordinary…because aren’t we all extraordinary in one way or another?
Overall: gentle, thoughtful, delightfully observed. Like reading a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate.
THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR by SHARI LAPENA
Yes. I thought so too but there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from a real life story and turning it into fiction. What follows is a twisty, turny rollercoaster of a novel which I could happily have consumed at one sitting had time allowed. It’s not going to win any awards for literary fiction but its page turning qualities had me hooked.
I like a book with a mystery at its heart and a healthy dollop of emotional angst. There’s plenty of that here as each character, for differing reasons, is troubled by what they have done…or might have done. I enjoyed how the author revealed the story to us in real time by switching from character to character and therefore neatly controlled the pace at which the reader can work out what has happened.
It careers to a climax although I would have preferred a less abrupt ending. It felt a bit rushed if I’m honest but I will forgive it that for the fun that I had in getting to that point.
Overall : an easy read with a thought-provoking premise and lots of twists and turns.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆