Thursday, 30 June 2016

"The Perfect Girl" Gilly MacMillan

The Perfect Girl
Zoe, child prodigy and extraordinary pianist, is giving the most important performance of her lifetime when a man appears in the audience accusing her lying to each and every person in the room - including her new step father and step brother.

Zoe recognises the man. She killed his daughter. And six hours later, her mother is dead too.

The opening is very gripping - I had so many questions and was intrigued by this seemingly perfect girl who insinuated a dark hidden past. Indeed, Zoe has been in a Secure Unit for 18 months after killing 3 teenagers in a drink drive accident when she was 14. I had to read on. I had to know how a teenager with an exceptional IQ, caring, nurturing parents and a normal upbringing had become a murderer......... But as Zoe says, "A high IQ doesn't mean you're clever enough to avoid being a massive teenage cliche."

The story then moves backwards and forwards; one strand following on directly from events after the concert and the subsequent 6 hours leading up to the death of Zoe's mother, Maria. Another strand filling us in with events leading up to the accident which led to Zoe's arrest and further flashbacks from inbetween the events. The chapters are very short and we hear from Zoe, Lucas - her step brother, Tessa - her aunt, and Sam - the lawyer involved in defending Zoe and then called upon once her mother's death is discovered. This use of multiple narrators is really effective in revealing crucial information, clues and insight, so that the reader is able to piece together a full understanding of events and the complexities of the relationships between all the characters, as well as the events leading up to the fatal accident and then the death of Maria. I found it impossible to put down.

My favourite voice was Tessa, Maria's sister and Zoe's aunt. In a way, she is more of a friend to the reader; chatty, inviting confidence, giving us a more truthful account of events and providing more reliable insight about the other characters and events. There is more to Tessa than meets the eye. Prejudged by others because of her childlessness and still being single, she harbours some resentment and bitterness but is candid and astute in her observations. Tessa listens to Chris (Maria's new husband) as he reflects on Maria's "extraordinary qualities of sweetness and poise". Tessa knows that this shows how little he knows about her and her past as he's only met "her version of her ....coshed by antidepressants and shock not frailty and composure."

Zoe is also a very well drawn character. MacMillan successfully evokes a very normal, authentic, believable voice of a teenager. I liked her use of capital letters for added emphasis - "Second Chance Family", "Second Chance Baby," "Miracle Baby", "A Gift To Us All." They cleverly hint at underlying tension and the fact that Maria and Zoe are basically living under a ticking time bomb until their past catches up with them. MacMillan also captures the tension between Zoe and her mother both before the accident and after the man's outburst at the concert. She captures Zoe's grief following her mother's death convincingly; her confusion, anger, fear and regret as the full story unravels in front of everyone, are very well handled and presented. Zoe is also very likeable, very down to earth and very normal. She is sharp; her asides and comments capturing the dry sarcasm of a teenager: "I didn't realise I wasn't supposed to speak to Jack Bell because no one had explained to me that by virtue of his parents money, boy band hair, low riding jeans, Jack was Social Gold Dust and as Music Scholar I was automatically granted status of Social Pond Life."

MacMillan has made this novel very prevalent by incorporating the sinister side of social media in the life of teenagers and how various apps which seek to unite teenagers actually divide and destroy them. The anonymous messages that haunt Zoe create tension and suspense.

Lucas is also a great character. He has his own dark secret to reveal. He choses to tell Zoe his story through a film script he has written. I loved this technique. It is amazingly effective. Firstly it creates a change in narrative style which alters the pace and tension, but also it provides another point of view. It also creates a little bit of space between the reader and the emotional events it is about to recount. I found these sections quite captivating as well as beautifully executed. These sections are poignant and affecting without becoming too harrowing as we are essentially "watching" them through a screen that is a kind of buffer between us and the text.

The first half of the novel concerns itself with the Zoe's involvement with the death of three teenagers. It is not until just over 50% of the way through that we are reminded that Maria is also now dead. The novel then switches to the dramatic events between the end of the concert and the discovery of Maria's body. MacMillan expertly pulls the reader along with drama, revelation, unexpected twists and plenty of extra threads of further complications and twists; all speeding towards an incredibly satisfying and suitable climactic conclusion.

A very engaging read. I enjoyed Zoe's characterisation - a highly gifted and beautiful child whose talent actually separates her from her peers and her intelligence being academic rather than the common sense necessary for navigating her way through school and the teenage years. I liked the tension created through Maria's determination that she can simply bury her past and reinvent herself and her daughter in a Second Chance Life and the consequences of what happens when it catches up with you. I also liked the fact that Maria and Zoe are not the only characters with dark and sinister pasts........

I would recommend this book for all lovers of psychological thrillers who enjoy fast paced stories with multiple narratives and plenty of well executed plot lines which all converge to a devasting conclusion.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.
For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts via email.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

"The Hummingbird's Cage" Tamara Dietrich

The Hummingbird's Cage
"Put a frog in a pot of boiling water and he will jump out at once. But put him in a pot of cold water and turn up the heat by degrees and he'll cook to death before he realises it." 

Joanna and her 7 year old daughter Laurel live in the small town of Wheeler, new Mexico with Joanna's husband (and Laurel's father) Jim, the town's Deputy Sheriff. The book opens with:

"My husband tells me I look washed up. Ill favoured, he says, like old bathwater circling the drain. If my clothes weren't there to hold me together, he says, I'd flush all away. He tells me these things as often as he can, til there are times I start to believe him and I can feel my mind start to dissolve into empty air."

Prepare yourself. The first 20% of this novel is a heart-rending account of a wife living with a monster. Although having served a short jail sentence and being on probation, Jim continues to physically abuse Jo frequently. The violence and psychological damage he has caused her is quite harrowing and the impact of his behaviour is destroying Jo. She recounts her attempts to leave, to report him, to escape and to challenge him but because of his outward show of being the most diligent and caring husband and with his respected role of Deputy Sheriff, it is impossible to condemn him. The consequences of her actions against him are also devastating.

Help comes from the most unexpected places. One day Bernadette, an ex girlfriend of Jim's, offers Jo a way out for both her and her daughter. Jo seizes it and leaves him.

Dietrich leaves us hanging in mid air as we watch Jo try to escape - an escape full of tension and real nail-biting moments. The next section of the book starts with Jo waking up in a strange house. She finds herself in the home of a kind farmer and wife, in the idyllic town of Morro which is set deep in the barren countryside of New Mexico; enclosed by a huge mountain. With their diligent care, gentle wisdom and insight- never probing, never judging - Jo and Laurel begin to heal.

At about 40% I had worked out the twist but was still intrigued and read on, keen to see how it would play out - and if I was right! The characters in Morro were so endearing and the magic of their "perfect pitch town where whims can come true" was quite spellbinding. I liked how the Native American folklore, myths and rituals shaped the beliefs of the towns' people and how they used them to guide Jo through her journey to rebuild herself, physically and mentally. The hummingbird metaphor was particularly effective.

The most obvious metaphor is probably the mountain that overshadows the town and reflects both Jo's real and spiritual "climb". There is a deep connection with the landscape throughout the novel. Dietrich creates vivid imagery and description to paint a detailed picture of the place, hinting that there is something fantastical about it. As one person tells Jo, "You are a welcome guest. But there's somewhere else you have to be. It's not a bad thing."

As well as themes of ritual, ancient spirituality, ceremony and faith, there is also Jo's realisation that she needs to take control of her life. Despite having been such a victim, Jo is very reflective and begins to make some very astute observations. She wants nothing more than "unremarkable days" and when asked to read her poetry at a public event she realises that her real fear was not standing up in front of everyone, not trying to find her own voice, but "whether she had anything worth listening to in the first place. And the only one who could determine that was me." She needs to learn of what she is really capable.

This book was not what I expected. It is tricky to define the genre of this book. Dietrich's novel fuses dreams and reality to create an unusual story. It's an interesting concept and one which readers will either embrace fully or find a little too fantastical. There is still plenty of tension and drama in the final section of the book which makes a good ending. The characters are quite memorable and I think there is plenty to discuss - as does Dietrich who at the end has helpfully added a few pages of thought provoking questions for Book Groups.

It's been quite a difficult book to review as I don't want to spoil anything or create any preconceptions. My advice would be to give a whirl - it's different and it's well written.

My thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy in return for a fair review. For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk) or sign up to receive future posts via email.

"Intrusion" Mary McCluskey

Intrusion

"A domestic drama with a chilling conclusion"

This is the story of Kat and Scott, mourning the death of their son, Christopher. Scott has thrown himself into work, Kat has become reclusive and listless; consumed by grief and loneliness.

Then a face from Kat's past in England turns up in their home town in California. A school friend who appears to have transformed herself into a wealthy and formidable business woman. Can she help Kat move on to a brighter future or is she harbouring a deep grudge and only interested in revenge?

I was drawn to this book after reading several reviews on Twitter and was pleased when I was able to claim it as my June 2016 Kindle First Read via Amazon.

Kat's grief at losing her only son is very well described. I thought the way people's sympathy for her made them "virtually inarticulate" and how they "murmured a welcome and then drifted off to easier company" captured the sense of isolation and loneliness that becomes two fold for Kat; not only has she lost a child but she is also excluded from society, her grief setting her apart and generating huge awkwardness for everyone. Kat can not contemplate returning to work and as Scott's hours become longer and longer, their marriage is threatened by the aftermath of the worse tragedy to befall parents.

When Sarah, Kat's school friend, suddenly appears at a business function, Kat is immediately wary of her. McCluskey sows seeds of suspense and tension with the implication that there is something more untoward about this beautiful, self confident woman and she is not as she seems. Kat herself observes that her voice is soft, "indicating gentleness and was dangerously deceptive." Maggie, Kat's protective sister, is much more vocal about her dislike and distrust of Sarah, using words like "deceptive", "vindictive" and "nasty." But Kat is vulnerable and desperate. Will she unwittingly play right into Sarah's hands?

Sarah is a great character - she is such a good villain. McCluskey keeps you guessing about her true motive and true character throughout the novel. We watch with horror as we begin to see through Sarah's behaviour and manipulation, trying to call out to Kat to see beyond her false hand of friendship. I loved her predatory nature and think she reminded me of several famous female villains.

So much of the story is revealed through suggestion and clues, the reader trying to piece together the reality as it hurtles along to a dramatic finale. The theme of revenge is so powerful and McCluskey shows how it is like a disease - slowing gnawing away at somebody until it consumes them. I always love it when the author gradually reveals the immense planning that has gone on by a character and you have that stomach-churning-penny-dropping moment as you realise the full threat they present to the protagonist - with whom you have emotionally bonded!

It is also a story about Kat and Scott, their marriage and their journey to finally accepting their loss and learning to confront their grief together. I found this really interesting and very sensitively handled. It could have become overwhelming or too melodramatic but it is gently handled to remain authentic, relatable and necessary to the plot.

This is a story with some strong characters, strong themes and it is well written. It basically has all the ingredients of a good thriller, with self absorbed characters bent on self destruction, raw emotion, harrowing pasts, secrets and complex plans to seek revenge. It is a straightforward, satisfying read. Perhaps a little predictable in places and with some slight cliches around the characters but all in all, very readable and enjoyable. A good thriller.

I received "Intrusion" as my June 2016 Kindle First Read.

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts via email.

"Dept of Speculation" Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

With cool precision, in language that shimmers with rage and wit and fierce longing, Jenny Offill has crafted an exquisitely suspenseful love story that has the velocity of a train hurtling through the night at top speed. Exceptionally lean and compact, Dept. of Speculation is a novel to be devoured in a single sitting, though its bracing emotional insights and piercing meditations on despair and love will linger long after the last page. (Goodreads blurb)

This actually really is a one sitting read. There are 177 pages but the text is spread out sparsely - almost like poetry, with lots of short paragraphs and chapters. It is a collection of thoughts and reflections about marriage and family life but it is amazing how much can be gleaned about the couple from the efficient choice of images and observations. The author is merely referred to as "the wife" and the narrative charts the roller coaster ride of the course of love; from the initial excitement of marriage, through to parenthood and beyond. 

I first came across this book via a quote in someone's blog (sorry, can't remember any more than that!):
"And that phrase - 'sleeping like a baby'. Some blond said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear." This comment really resonated with me and I immediately added the book to my TBR pile then later on, ordered a copy via Amazon. 

The novel opens by capturing the emotional state of the narrator:
"Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these only three involved misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving bak and forth between these three." 

The writing is so understated that it is beautiful:
"I remember the first time I said the word to a stranger. "It's for my daughter," I said. My heart was beating too fast, as if I might be arrested."

Offill's ability to create a relatable, interesting, captivating character through these short, candid statements is impressive. "The wife" is a wonderful character. Although the book is absent of  much dialogue and action it is not without events and emotion. The humour is also sophisticated:
"Three things no one has ever said about me: You make it look so easy. You are very mysterious. You need to take yourself more seriously." 
"In (my daughter's school reading book) alliteratively named animals go on extremely modest adventures and return with lessons learned. A child in a wheelchair is thoughtfully pencilled in in the background. My daughter yawns as I finish it. 'Tell me a better story,' she says." 
"My Very Educated Mother Just Serves Us Noodles is the mnemonic they give her to remember the order of the planets."

I agree with another reviewer on Goodreads who said they literally underlined every sentence in the book! I was without a pen but have (sacrilegiously) folded down the corners of pages with resonant, amusing, sad, pertinent observations -it is nearly every other page! The book is ruined! 

This is a really interesting, pensive, reflective read which despite its brevity, induces a huge range of emotions and responses. Some of the reviews on Goodreads are incredible so worth having a little scroll through to see the effect that this book has had on readers! 

I highly recommend it. It was different, short, exquisitely written and a complete change of scene from everything else I've read recently. I identified with the character and think the writer is highly skilled in creating pertinent images and moments through her concise use of language. It does leave you a little stunned and dazed at the end - but in a very good way!

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK)

Monday, 27 June 2016

BLOG TOUR: Christina Hopkinson "The Weekend Wives"


The Weekend Wives
Christina Hopkinson's witty novel is about the unlikely friendship between three women - all "weekend wives", all seemingly living the coveted dream of a stay-at-home-mum in a large house in the idyllic countryside. But as their friendship develops, they begin to face some hard realities of absent husbands, marriage, motherhood and village life. With the help of each other, they find themselves uncovering some difficult home truths and learning to confronting their problems.

"The Weekend Wives" publishes on Thursday June 30th 2016 and it is a great honour to host the first stop on the Blog Tour. In today's post, Christina talks to us exclusively about the love for her Jawbone. My review and link to buy the book follow. 

Welcome Christina and thank you so much for coming to visit me today! It's lovely to host your exclusive post!

Why do writers love fitness trackers?

For those who have so far remained blissfully ignorant of their existence, Fitbits and Jawbone Ups are electronic tracking devices that count steps, primarily, as well as calories burned and kilometres covered. Some prefer to leave their wrists free of the tell-tale rubberised bangles and just count steps using an app on their phone. They all do the same thing – announce when you’ve been good (10,000 steps or more) or chide you when you’ve been bad (once I think I stooped as low as 3,000, oh the shame).

Lots of people have them, but I’m not sure any profession has embraced them quite as enthusiastically as writers.

The American humourist David Sedaris wrote a brilliant piece in the New Yorker about his obsession (and it really was obsessive) with his Fitbit. It starts off with him aiming for 10,000 steps a day (around 7km or an hour and a half of walking), but gradually spirals into an extraordinary 60,000 steps a day. Even when his Fitbit dies, he only lasts five hours without ordering a new one – walking anywhere seemed pointless without the machine to mark it.

Bestselling You Before Me author Jojo Moyes wrote an equally great article for Red, but in contrast it was about how she’d fallen out of love with the bossiness of her fitness tracker. Novelist Katie Fforde, on the other hand, explained in the Daily Mail how striding around the living room in front of the TV shaking her Fitbit had transformed her body. I can sympathise - I do a dance in front of the TV in the evenings to get up to the magic 10k, which is highly irritating for anyone else in the room.

Why do authors love their trackers so much? I’ve been wearing rival band, the Jawbone Up, for two years and I feel naked without it. Even walking across a room feels worthless without the little bracelet counting for me.

The obvious reason is that writers lead very sedentary lives aka sitting on our butts making up stories. Before I had mine, it was easy for hours to pass where the most exercise I took was to turn the kettle on. Now I stride when I’m on the phone and look with horror when my Jawbone announces just how long I’ve been inactive.

But the reasons go deeper than the merely corporeal. I often describe the act of being alone all day locked in your own private world and then presenting all these interior thoughts for the world to critique, reject or ignore, as petri dish for paranoia. We don’t get to share an office with others or get told we’re doing well in a performance review. There’s no promotions or pay rises or grade progressions. We (or is it just me?) are prone to self-recrimination and feelings of worthlessness.

But lo, into our empty daily lives comes a little device that offers validation and self worth. Mine sends me little messages of congratulations, virtual pats on the back: ‘You did it!’, ‘Savor [sic] this moment.’, ‘go for it and stay focused.’

Aw shucks, I preen, pathetically grateful that somebody thinks I’m doing OK as I struggle with the middle rump of my novel.

We’re desperate for ways to make our lives count, figuratively and literally. It’s why we have word counts and set ourselves random numbers to reach before we can relax.

I’d love to write more on this subject, but I’ve just checked and I’m only on 4,531 and I’ve been inactive for over an hour. Why, thank you Jawbone for making my life worthwhile.

The Weekend Wives by Christina Hopkinson is available from Thursday in paperback http://amzn.to/28SGjni


MY REVIEW OF "THE WEEKEND WIVES"

I read "The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs" in 2011 when I was juggling a brand new baby and a sleepless toddler. I needed something light that I could read quickly in those desperately snatched moments between feeds and changing nappies. This was perfect! Not only did it "speak" to me- it made me laugh, giggle and even spit out my tepid tea (no child was harmed during the reading of this novel). I handed it on to my equally over tired friends but not before pointing out at length all the bits where Hopkinson had captured the very things we had complained about with our own husbands! So when I saw this new paperback arrive, I absolutely knew I had to read it!

Meet the "Weekend Wives"- a wife who's husband works away and only comes home at the weekend.  Or more accurately, a wife who misses her husband when he's gone, but wants him gone when he's home! This group of "Weekend Wives" live in an idyllic rural village. There is Sasha and Ned, whose success in America means he's absent for months on end. Their main method of communication is via Skype. Tamsin's husband John works away all week but ensures he keeps track of her every move by eerily getting her to text selfies throughout the day. Emily and Matt have recently moved in to the area and the harsh reality of living in the countryside is gradually dawning on Emily. And to make it worse, when Matt does return at the weekend, he is growing increasingly preoccupied and distant.

Three women, three marriages, three very different lives.

I truly enjoyed this book. From the opening pages I was snorting in agreement, recognition and pleasure as Hopkinson's observational wit leapt of the page. It is a perfect recipe for a summer read, a lazy Sunday read or just to give you a bit of a lift or gentle escapism. It covers all the basic elements essential for a chick lit read - it's full of melodrama and madness; it's charming and heartwarming, there are moments of shock, tears and laughter. The wry tone keeps it light and engaging. Hopkinson's insight into marriage, commuting and women's friendships are spot on and will have huge resonant and appeal to any reader's who can relate to this set up.

The novel is full of contemporary references, so even though the pressures on a marriage may not have changed that radically over 50 years, this novel feels like it is taking a fresh look at those issues and it is really easy to engage with it.

Each character is well constructed and realistic enough to find them authentic rather than cliched or over the top but with enough vitality and spark to create entertainment and drama. There is naive, young Tamsin who has always lived in the town and is slightly out of her depth amongst the new families that have now begun to set up home here -most people moved away, particularly if they wanted a job that was "new fangled" with the word "digital" in it. She is controlled by John who, even during sex, "gives commands with the precision of a powerpoint presentation." She has no sense of self worth and John's hold over her is unsettling and disturbing.

Then there's confident, wealthy, privileged Sasha who actually feels as if she is a doll "with a certain number of preprogrammed speeches that would vomit out at the touch of a button." Her primary school aged son explains to his babysitter that he needs to read aloud for 15 minutes everyday as it's "part of his success criteria.....to see if your learning is competent, accomplished or exceptional." But who is this strange woman who seems to be lurking at the bottom of the driveway and what is bothering her daughter?

My favourite character was Emily who having wanted greenery now "wants tarmac and pop up coffee shops." She finds the countryside like a beautiful man she knows to be gay - "appreciate its aesthetic splendour but knew she'd never really get it." She craved to be a stay at home mum with her non-Aga-Aga and persists in creating "as a family time" but her attempts are continuously disrupted by screens and she is beginning to feel bereft of the intellectual stimulation her career had offered. I loved that the first conversation they have when Matt returns at the weekend is who is more tired.....Oh yes, I've been there!!! And that word "work" which "shuts down any argument now that she could no longer use it as her excuse".

Emily brings the 3 women together to form the club "Weekend Wives". Little do any of them realise just how significant this friendship will become, how they will end up forming such strong bonds which will support them as they confront difficult pasts (as well as a tricky present) or rediscover themselves and their potential. Above all they will support each other as wives and mothers throughout a time of unease and change.

It is a comfortably predictable novel with a happy and satisfying resolution. The characters are endearing and although a little exaggerated, not unrealistic. The reader will feel empathy and friendship towards them. It is a witty novel and I smirked, giggled and rolled my eyes in agreement all the way through it. Sometimes it was a little close to home ("I've just got something to check on line said Matt standing in the middle of the room staring open mouthed into his phone....physically there but mentally absent.") and sometimes voicing thoughts I'm not brave enough to say aloud ("there's something comfortable about the hamster wheel of work, you don't have to worry about where you're going, just go round and round.") Hopkinson is insightful and although there are definitely some serious issues and moments, it is all well balanced in a tightly constructed plot. There is more to each of these women than just being a wife and they need to find this for themselves. Hopkinson clearly has a lot of affection for her characters and carries them through their emotional journeys as they work out just what kind of wife they are, and what kind of wife they want to be, with comedy and humour. I have to say, at this moment in time, it hit the spot and I really did enjoy it.

My huge thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an advanced copy of the paperback in return for a fair review and also for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour.

For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK)

Don't miss the rest of Christina's Blog Tour!

Sunday, 26 June 2016

"The Light of Paris" Eleanor Brown

The Light of Paris

This is a really pleasing read following the two lives of Margie and Madeleine, grandmother and grand-daughter, on their journeys of self discovery- decades apart, but full of similarities.

Margie's story is set in 1924. Unhappily confined by the expectations of her parents and society, she finds herself trying to reject the inevitable path of marriage and submissiveness that lies ahead. Taking the opportunity to travel to Paris as a companion to another debutant, Margie then finds herself inspired, awakened and empowered by the people and city. But can it last or will she eventually have to return to "real life" and all it's constraints?

Madeleine's story is set in 1999 (although it sometimes feels more like the 1950s!) and sees her returning to her mother's house to contemplate the unhappiness and the restrictions she feels marriage and society have imposed upon her; suffocating her real desire to paint and carve her own path out for herself.

Both stories are about self discovery and the role of women in society. When Madeleine stumbles across her grandmother's diary, she is fascinated to read of her time in Paris and all the artistic and interesting people she meets. What she is not prepared for is the secret that she unwittingly discovers as she learns more about her grandmother's time there. It helps her to consider her own position in life and within her marriage. Can it give her the confidence to make decisions and changes that were beyond her grandmother?

I thought this story was beautifully written. It was compelling and the alternating story lines were full of interesting similarities and overlaps despite their distance in time and location. It is a reflective book and very pensive in its style but both the main female protagonists are vivid and very easy to form a relationship with. They are both engaging and relatable.

Margie feels like a woman before her time. Her mother is obsessed with her marriage and Margie is very bored with being a constant disappointment or a doll that won't perform.

"Margie crossed her eyes. There was going to be no husband. She knew it, and she guessed her mother knew it, and only said things like that to keep the fiction alive, for whose benefit she wasn't sure."

It feels very Austen -like at times; it is the 1920s and yet Margie is totally defined by her marriageability and how she is regarded within their class of society. Her mother has nothing else to really do but negotiate a match. Indeed, Mr Chapman's proposal is similar to that of the dreadful Mr Collins in "Pride and Prejudice". He begins with "I'm sure you're aware of how closely your father and I work together," then continues with the very pragmatic "it is an alliance I wish to preserve at any cost." Margie's response - as it so often does - made me giggle: "Margie wished there were a nearby plate of potatoes she could put her face in." She knows little of what her father does, (interesting historical comment on how some men still persisted in refraining from involving women with business and finances) only that he has something to do with the Washington Senators - a basketball team - but she's never allowed to go to the games as " 'The obligations of someone of your class' apparently didn't include eating peanuts, or doing anything fun, for that matter." Mr Chapman then tells her that he'd "like to cement that relationship by marrying (her)". So romantic! Any reader is going to find it hard not to sympathise with her plight. Margie's dry, sarcastic reactions - whether only unspoken or not - bring a lot of gentle humour to the novel and make her a very appealing young woman. It reflects her intelligence and exaggerates the importance of her trying to escape such a restrictive future.

Madeleine too is insightful, resourceful, bright and talented. She is very creative and her link with art is an important part of her characterisation. She is very similar to Margie. For Madeleine there are times when it feels that despite the progress made in Women's Rights, things are still complicated for women. And Margie's voice often felt as contemporary as a woman speaking in the 1990s. Both are very authentic and I was as intrigued with each story line. The alternating order of the tales encourages the reader to keep turning the page. The final twist, although creating a great ending and a necessary part of the plot, wasn't the thing that really struck me or kept me wanting to read more; I just wanted to know what happened to them both. I was part of their emotional journey of self awareness.

The chapters are relatively short and the plot is well controlled. I liked the author's use of language and found the description effective and at times, beautiful. The setting of Paris is really captivating and I would recommend the book to people who are interested in this period in time or Paris as it is a big part of the novel.

Overall, this is a thoughtful and interesting story of two women in two different times as they learn about love, duty, ambition and fate. I would strongly recommend you take a look!

My thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review. For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts via email.


Saturday, 25 June 2016

"The Weekend Wives" Christina Hopkinson

The Weekend Wives
I read "The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs" in 2011 when I was juggling a brand new baby and a sleepless toddler. I needed something light that I could read quickly in those desperately snatched moments between feeds and changing nappies. This was perfect! Not only did it "speak" to me- it made me laugh, giggle and even spit out my tepid tea (no child was harmed during the reading of this novel). I handed it on to my equally over tired friends but not before pointing out at length all the bits where Hopkinson had captured the very things we had complained about with our own husbands! So when I saw this new paperback arrive, I absolutely knew I had to read it!

Meet the "Weekend Wives"- a wife who's husband works away and only comes home at the weekend.  Or more accurately, a wife who misses her husband when he's gone, but wants him gone when he's home! This group of "Weekend Wives" live in an idyllic rural village. There is Sasha and Ned, whose success in America means he's absent for months on end. Their main method of communication is via Skype. Tamsin's husband John works away all week but ensures he keeps track of her every move by eerily getting her to text selfies throughout the day. Emily and Matt have recently moved in to the area and the harsh reality of living in the countryside is gradually dawning on Emily. And to make it worse, when Matt does return at the weekend, he is growing increasingly preoccupied and distant.

Three women, three marriages, three very different lives.

I truly enjoyed this book. From the opening pages I was snorting in agreement, recognition and pleasure as Hopkinson's observational wit leapt of the page. It is a perfect recipe for a summer read, a lazy Sunday read or just to give you a bit of a lift or gentle escapism. It covers all the basic elements essential for a chick lit read - it's full of melodrama and madness; it's charming and heartwarming, there are moments of shock, tears and laughter. The wry tone keeps it light and engaging. Hopkinson's insight into marriage, commuting and women's friendships are spot on and will have huge resonant and appeal to any reader's who can relate to this set up.

The novel is full of contemporary references, so even though the pressures on a marriage may not have changed that radically over 50 years, this novel feels like it is taking a fresh look at those issues and it is really easy to engage with it.

Each character is well constructed and realistic enough to find them authentic rather than cliched or over the top but with enough vitality and spark to create entertainment and drama. There is naive, young Tamsin who has always lived in the town and is slightly out of her depth amongst the new families that have now begun to set up home here -most people moved away, particularly if they wanted a job that was "new fangled" with the word "digital" in it. She is controlled by John who, even during sex, "gives commands with the precision of a powerpoint presentation." She has no sense of self worth and John's hold over her is unsettling and disturbing.

Then there's confident, wealthy, privileged Sasha who actually feels as if she is a doll "with a certain number of preprogrammed speeches that would vomit out at the touch of a button." Her primary school aged son explains to his babysitter that he needs to read aloud for 15 minutes everyday as it's "part of his success criteria.....to see if your learning is competent, accomplished or exceptional." But who is this strange woman who seems to be lurking at the bottom of the driveway and what is bothering her daughter?

My favourite character was Emily who having wanted greenery now "wants tarmac and pop up coffee shops." She finds the countryside like a beautiful man she knows to be gay - "appreciate its aesthetic splendour but knew she'd never really get it." She craved to be a stay at home mum with her non-Aga-Aga and persists in creating "as a family time" but her attempts are continuously disrupted by screens and she is beginning to feel bereft of the intellectual stimulation her career had offered. I loved that the first conversation they have when Matt returns at the weekend is who is more tired.....Oh yes, I've been there!!! And that word "work" which "shuts down any argument now that she could no longer use it as her excuse".

Emily brings the 3 women together to form the club "Weekend Wives". Little do any of them realise just how significant this friendship will become, how they will end up forming such strong bonds which will support them as they confront difficult pasts (as well as a tricky present) or rediscover themselves and their potential. Above all they will support each other as wives and mothers throughout a time of unease and change.

It is a comfortably predictable novel with a happy and satisfying resolution. The characters are endearing and although a little exaggerated, not unrealistic. The reader will feel empathy and friendship towards them. It is a witty novel and I smirked, giggled and rolled my eyes in agreement all the way through it. Sometimes it was a little close to home ("I've just got something to check on line said Matt standing in the middle of the room staring open mouthed into his phone....physically there but mentally absent.") and sometimes voicing thoughts I'm not brave enough to say aloud ("there's something comfortable about the hamster wheel of work, you don't have to worry about where you're going, just go round and round.") Hopkinson is insightful and although there are definitely some serious issues and moments, it is all well balanced in a tightly constructed plot. There is more to each of these women than just being a wife and they need to find this for themselves. Hopkinson clearly has a lot of affection for her characters and carries them through their emotional journeys as they work out just what kind of wife they are, and what kind of wife they want to be, with comedy and humour. I have to say, at this moment in time, it hit the spot and I really did enjoy it.

My huge thanks to Hodder Books for a free copy in return for a fair and honest review. For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 or sign up to receive future posts by email.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

"Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner" Helen Cox

Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner(The Starlight Diner Series #1)
I have been following Helen Cox (@Helenography and @MilkshakesNYC) since I spotted her front cover on my twitter feed. It just looked like a really fun book and Helen has been releasing short free extracts about the background of the main characters via her twitter feed as a kind of tantalising treat while we all await the publication of the first full instalment of the story of the staff at the Starlight Diner.

I really liked the concept of making this more than a book and think it would lend itself to a huge franchise of all sorts of exciting avenues, including a film in which Anne Hathaway, Kristen Bell Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson would all ably capture the sarcastic, intelligent, vulnerable and very likeable main character Esther.

So what is it about? The Starlight Diner, a retro eatery in NYC, where 50's music, colourful uniforms and delicious milkshakes create an inviting atmosphere for customers and it's family of staff. As owner Bernie tells us in the prologue, "one thing you can never be sure of is just who is going to walk through the doorway but they all have one thing in common - they all have a story to tell."

Meet Esther, an English girl who has left a teaching career and London behind as she tries to run away from a hidden past. Meet Jack, a gruff, initially arrogant English actor, who wants to get to know more about this enigmatic waitress who can answer crossword clues without pausing for thought.

Esther harbours a deep, unhappy secret which is preventing her from moving forward in her life. "What good is a life if you were too afraid to live it?" She immediately feels a strong connection with Jack and they are clearly attracted to each other but something is holding them both back. Only when they confront their pasts and fully open up to each other, can they find their happy ending. But, will Jack still be interested in Esther when he finds out the truth about her?

Cox's style is very engaging and entertaining. Esther is sharp, witty, sarcastic, seemingly strong and in control. I really enjoyed the opening pages and connected with her personality very quickly. It was easy to visualise the busy life of the diner and the waitress's repartee with the customers. Quickly the reader realises that Esther is not a "typical" waitress and there must be a more sinister reason why she has chosen to rebuild her life here. She is intelligent, well read and frequently makes asides which infer knowledge and a literary background.

Mona, a fellow colleague, is full of gentle wisdom. She is a good tonic for Esther's cynicism, telling her that "actors are paid to be beautiful but they also need someone with whom they can share parts of themselves that aren't so pretty." Once she's finished admonishing her for the correct use of "whom", Esther is left to consider Jack more fairly. But while she wanders the dark, wet streets she continues to berate herself. She could never be warm, safe, loved. And once the truth begins to be uncovered she fears she'll have to flee again to somewhere where the "ghosts can't follow".

The mystery deepens. The novel takes a more serious turn. Boyce, the obnoxious journalist, is full of tricks and blackmail, stopping at nothing to get a headline story, sniffing out in the way only a ruthless journalist can, that there is more to Esther than simply an English woman who wanted to work in New York for a while.

Esther's story is an emotional journey; a journey of learning to forgive yourself, learning to love yourself, learning to trust others and overcome a traumatic past which is permeating all aspects of your new life. It is sad, it is serious. It is romantic and ultimately heartwarming. All the while, set against the bright backdrop of colour, light, music, fun, food and the friends of the 1950's style Starlight Diner. Cox's tone of voice always striking a perfect balance between wit, humour, entertainment, sensitivity, respect and understanding. The plot and the characters are well handled ensuring a plausible plot and appealing characters who you end up caring about and rooting for.

My only complaint - Cox beautifully resolves the different strands of the story to a satisfying and comforting conclusion then...disaster... She dares to end the story with the arrival of a new customer and the dreaded words "To Be Continued". Seriously? I mean, I just don't think I can wait......! I am sitting at the counter, about to tuck into my strawberry milkshake and help Walt with the crossword - I can't leave now!

There are some good reading group questions at the back which draw the reader's attention to some of the themes explored by Cox such as whether other people can change our lives or whether it is just up to us? And can you ever really outrun your shadow? Food for thought (excuse the pun).

So all in all, I enjoyed this book. I read it quickly, it was an easy read and probably best described as chick lit. I will be encouraging people to pack it in their holiday suitcase and really think it will do very well once published. I think it will have a wide and popular appeal and very much hope it gets picked up as a TV series or film.

Thanks so much to NetGalley and Avon publishers for approving an advanced copy in return for a fair review.

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"The Reader's of Broken Wheel Recommend" Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend
I ordered this from the library - a 60p reservation charge for a hardback edition is an absolute bargain! You don't need to ask why I was attracted to the book, obviously the words "recommend", "reader's" and the picture of books swung it for me!!

I'm so glad I got hold of this book. It is a lovely, gentle, heartwarming read about books, small town communities, friendship and love. Meet Sara Lindquist, a Swedish bookworm who unexpectedly loses her job in a bookshop where she has worked for 10 years. Although she believes reading books isn't a bad way to live your life, she yearns to do something different - to experience something "big".

Before Sara's Book Shop was closed down, she bought a novel through an online second hand website from Amy Harris, an elderly lady living in the small backwater of Broken Wheel, Iowa, America. Amy refused payment, so Sara returned the favour by sending another book. The two women then became pen pals, exchanging books and little snippets of news about their everyday lives. Now free of any responsibility, Sara makes the bold decision to take a trip to meet Amy as there was no chance "anyone who wrote on proper cream coloured paper would abandon a friend in a strange town and turn out to be a psychopathic serial killer". Having spent most of her life living vicariously through fiction ("many of her most rewarding relationships had been with people that didn't even exist"), there was noting odd or risky to her about travelling all this way to stay with a stranger; to finally see Broken Wheel and its characters for herself.

However, when she arrives in Iowa, she is greeted with the news that Amy is dead.

What follows next is Sara's journey to rebuild the aptly named town of Broken Wheel through the healing power of words and stories by setting up a book shop. What problem can't a good book fix? "As soon as the inhabitants of Broken Wheel start reading, they will get better." Sara's mantra is "a person for every book, a book for every person." And it's not just the other towns folk who need healing, Sara too needs to find a purpose. She needs to feel like she belongs somewhere and to do this she needs confidence, adventure and romance. Perhaps some "reality" rather than hiding between the safe pages of a novel "where people are always better, nicer, friendlier."

The chapters are separated with Amy's letters. Her notes are brief and just provide snapshots of the people in her life. It is a really interesting technique - she is one of the main characters but all we hear from her is through these short letters which reference her reading habits and various bits of information about her family which we can then piece together with Sara's experiences to join the dots. As she is to Sara, so is Amy also to the reader, a shadow; always there, always part of each event but passively offering wisdom and insight gently and reassuringly in the background. I liked this aspect of the novel's structure.

I also enjoyed the many literary references - particularly Amy's comment that Joyce Carol Oates had never won the Nobel Prize because her productivity overwhelmed the male critics sense of self- "she writes more quickly than they can critique her."

I also really enjoyed the headings Sara chose to label her shelves with in the new shop: "Sex, Violence & Weapons" for thrillers, "Small Town Life", "Warning Unhappy Endings" for some classics like John Steinbeck's novels, "Short but Sweet" for the short but sweet! I think this book would be shelved perfectly under "For Friday Nights and Lazy Sundays" and "Happy Endings For When You Need Them." I'm quite inspired to reorganise my shelves under these headings!

This book is a little predictable, it does follow the well worn path of a romantic chick lit tale of friendship and self discovery, but do you know, what's wrong with that? I spent the evening curled up, engrossed in this charming, well written book about a kindred spirit who wants to spread her love for books, heal people and find a true sense of "coming home". I enjoyed being part of Sara's journey and was pleased that by the end she realises "once upon a time she hadn't wanted to be anything other than a minor character - to be the protagonist was too much to ask...but now..."

Amy's kind and warm comments help Sara to see that people can be as treasured as books and can be worth as much. She helps her to understand that dreams can be followed in real life rather than only in books and sometimes, reality can be as rewarding, happy and fulfilling as fiction.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves to bury themselves books, identifies with fictional characters more often than real ones and who is looking for a book with a happy ending! If you liked "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society", "The Little Paris Bookshop", the "Big Stone Gap" series, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" or "The Rejected Writers' Book Club" you will almost certainly enjoy this book!

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Monday, 20 June 2016

"Truly Madly Guilty" Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty
I am quite a fan of Liane Moriarty, usually saving her books for a holiday or a weekend treat, so I was delighted to find out she had a new book on the loose.

As with all of Moriarty's books, this story focuses on a small cast of characters in a middle class suburb who have all been affected by one life changing event - an event they experience collectively but to which they each respond very differently. We meet Clementine, her husband Sam, their two small daughters; Clementine's childhood friend Erika, married to Oliver, neighbours Vid, Tiffany and their 10 year old daughter Dakota. Vid invites the two couples and children over for a barbecue one weekend. A very "ordinary" day, a very "ordinary" barbecue, very "ordinary" people. "A barbecue with Erika and her charming neighbours on a sunny winter's day would be fun. What could be nicer?" thinks Clementine. Indeed, just what could go wrong? But "sometimes it is the most innocent of moments that can do the greatest harm."

I settled into this novel very comfortably and very quickly. Moriarty's writing is easy to read and amusing. She uses key observational detail which makes characters relatable and recognisable, encouraging the reader to feel very at home with them as they are so familiar and probably remind us of people we know or even ourselves. The location, dynamics between the group and the themes (marriage, friendship and parenting) universal to most of her target readers. It is very easy to picture, Moriarty's writing is quite filmic and it feels like you are settling in to watch a box set of your favourite soap opera / dramatic mini series.

The cleverness of "Truly, Madly, Guilty" is in the chronology of the narrative.  The chapters contain a mix of narratives either so many days or hours "before the day of the barbecue", "the day of the barbecue" or pick up eight weeks after the barbecue. We see how each character has reacted to the barbecue -how relationships not only between the group and their community have changed, but also how relationships between the parents and children, the couples themselves and between the couples and their own parents, has been affected. The different sections and perspectives are not delivered in any particular order so the reader is constantly jumping backwards and forwards, collecting pieces of the jigsaw and storing them until they can finally complete the full picture. At times it was a little confusing but Moriarty shows great skill in managing the various different threads, weaving them together skilfully in to the dramatic denouement for which is her books are becoming famous. I loved the way so much was revealed without revealing anything. The reader has absolutely no idea what actually happened at the barbecue until the last third of the novel. In fact in some ways, it is not even the event that really matters but the way the characters respond and what this in turn forces them to admit, confront, accept and share.

Although don't be fooled - the dramatic climax packs a very powerful punch. You will be unable to tear your eyes away from the page and will be devouring the words as everything is finally revealed!

Moriarty's characterisation is great. I loved her similes - "her muscles tensed as if doing a pilates crunch". I like the a casual comment like one character's claim while putting out the recycling "That's my workout done for the day," followed swiftly with the aside, "It was't, she was going to the gym later." Moriarty can see through the polished, perfected image that is carefully presented to the world and enjoys revealing it for what it really is to the readers. The characters are flawed, sometimes damaged, never what they originally seem and always with a hidden secret. Their dysfunctional selves implied through wry observations like when Erika sits down to listen to Oliver, "indicating by her body she was ready to listen. She made eye contact... touched his forearm....she would use hand sanitiser once they had finished talking."

I loved the way we are kept in the dark for so long, puzzling away at what might have happened and who might be responsible. It means we do not judge just one character but all of them, in turn, whether they are 2 years old, 10 years old or 40 years old. In that sense this book is reminiscent of "An Inspector Calls". It also reminded me of "The Slap" a lot - although the characters are actually far more likeable and redeemable than in that novel and it is a much more comfortable and entertaining read.

Ultimately this is a great chick lit read - gripping, full of twists and secrets and a fascinating snapshot of the effects of one specific moment in time on a supposedly tight knit group of friends and their supposedly strong marriages. As the blurb says:

In "Truly Madly Guilty", Liane Moriarty takes on the foundations of our lives: marriage, sex, parenthood, and friendship. She shows how guilt can expose the fault lines in the most seemingly strong relationships, how what we don’t say can be more powerful than what we do, and how sometimes it is the most innocent of moments that can do the greatest harm.

The appeal of Moriarty's novels is the way she focuses on a microcosm of society, then keenly strips away the shiny veneer to reveal secrets, lies, betrayal and always an unexpected and powerful twist! For me, the best bit is the way she explores the "darker" side of these allegedly perfect family units. I recommend this book- I enjoyed it as a dramatic and gripping read but also it was a bit of a break from the darkness of the psychological thrillers I have recently finished.

I have read most of Moriarty's books and each one gets better and better. Her previous title "Big Little Lies" is possibly still my favourite - apparently the film rights have been bought by Nicole Kidman and Reece Witherspoon so look out for a big screen production in the near future! I would recommend you check it out. "My Husband's Secret" and "What Alice Forgot" are also very worthwhile getting hold of - I guarantee you'll enjoy them and race through them. Several friends have enjoyed her books and I know some of them have been used within Book Groups. "Truly Madly Guilty" would lend itself beautifully to a Book Group read!

Enjoy!

My thanks to NetGalley for an advanced copy of this novel in return for a fair review. It was a privilege and a real treat to be approved for this title.

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Sunday, 19 June 2016

"My Husband's Son" Deborah O'Connor

My Husband's Son

This book seems to have taken Twitter by storm and powered its way up the ebook chart in record breaking fashion. It has been highly recommended by the all best book bloggers in town, by authors I admire and O'Connor's publishers, Twenty7, are fast becoming a reliable "go to" for brand new talent. The only other books this year which for me, have created such a tsunami of excitement, are C L Taylor's "The Missing" and Claire MacDonald's yet to be published "I See You".  So I really could not wait any longer to read it, even though part of me was worried - what if I didn't like it as much as everyone else? I just didn't want to be disappointed.

Well I sure didn't need to worry! There is absolutely nothing disappointing about this confident, absorbing, thought provoking novel.

For those not familiar with the plot, "My Husband's Son" is about Heidi and Jason. They meet at a support group for parents whose children have disappeared, been abducted or murdered. Their shared loss and shared understanding of what is every parents worst nightmare, brings them together and they build a new life - although constantly still searching for Barney, Jason's son who disappeared 5 years ago. Then Heidi thinks she spots Barney. Jason is not convinced. Soon Heidi's determination to reunite Jason with this boy she believes to be his son threatens their fragile marriage and as she begins to uncover evidence that Jason has hidden from her, things become increasingly more tense and emotionally fraught.

From the outset, introducing two characters that have suffered such trauma, unhappiness and heartache creates an atmosphere of suspense and tension. There is a foreboding feeling which seeps out from between the opening pages, then lingers and hovers over the reader throughout the entire novel. O'Connor's writing is fluid and engaging. Her characters established quickly with ease and conviction. The reality of living with the infinite hope your child will be returned to you and then trying to cope with the disappointment when another recovered child is positively identified as not being yours is well evoked. Heidi is not a pitiful character but the reader definitely develops empathy for the fact that "what happened to my daughter now defines who I am." Every aspect of her life is haunted by her past. Losing her child is impossible to move on from even when she relocates, Heidi can not answer even the most simple of questions without having to tell her whole life story. I think this idea of being followed by a ghost and known only to people through what you have suffered very interesting and one O'Connor subtly explores within the story arc.

Apart from one true friend, Clara, Heidi has found it difficult to establish much of social circle; people are frightened they might put their own families at risk by association. Therefore the relationship with Jason is under more pressure.

Jason is also well constructed. A man not afraid to show his weakness, his distress, his lack of control. A man who can never ever give up the search for his son as that will be admitted he is dead. Heidi compares Jason's disappointment following yet another false sighting as like watching a lit fuse that sometimes might "burn slowly, so slowly that you were lulled into thinking it had fizzled out. But when you were least expecting it there'd be that nitrate flash." O'Connor's imagery and choice of simile is always simple but the references to fire and explosions infers danger and tension. O'Connor's description of places like the playground where a gaggle of teenagers are "packed into a dark space under the slide.....tips of cigarettes pinpricking the gloom..." are so sinister and fill the reader's subconscious with ideas of children being hidden, locked away, hurt; the traditional safety and innocence of a playground now tainted and forever ruined for both Jason and Heidi.

Heidi's conviction that she has found Barney leads her down a path of deception and danger which threatens to not only jeopardises her personal safety but also her career, her friendship with Clara and her marriage. How can she remain so certain she has found her husband's son when Jason, the boy's father, is as convinced it's not him? Who is right? Who do we believe?

I spent most of the novel trying to work out how reliable Heidi was as a narrator. She is under pressure, confused, upset, desperate to reunite her husband and finally give him peace of mind or closure. She makes decisions which are at times questionable, where her motive is unclear. She doesn't look after herself. Her obsession with the shop keeper, Keith, and then his friend Tommy, feel irrational and unfounded. It's as if being made so brutally aware of the horror lurking behind every closed door, Heidi is now seeing things that aren't there. If you are forced to acknowledge what people can be capable of, how could you not end up jumping to impulsive conclusions after catching a glimpse of other people's lives? Almost like in "The Girl on the Train," has Heidi just transferred an entire fiction on to innocent people so desperate is she to believe she has found Barney.

Not only does she want to reunite Barney and Jason, she also needs a resolution over the loss of her daughter Lauren. She yearns for a new baby but this yearning is racked with guilt that she is somehow replacing a child. She is a complex bundle of extreme emotions and I couldn't help thinking her imagination and desires were affecting her grip on reality.

Heidi is very real. She is not a hero, she is not a fool. She is not normally a risk taker or a someone who can pull off negotiations with intimidating men. She's impulsive not forward thinking, inexperienced and clumsy. The scrapes she finds herself in are so vividly recounted that I could smell the dustbins she leapt behind while clambering about in the dark and feel the bruises on my bones as she fell, tripped and stumbled through her precarious escapes. Although some readers may find some of the basic premise requiring a little stretch of imagination, I think Heidi's behaviour is actually very easy to relate to and very authentic. For me, she was more convincing and real that some of the other female protagonists featuring in current "Grip Lit" titles. I liked her vulnerability, her culpability, her drive and the way her obsessive quest for their personal "Holy Grail" masked and confused the story line and the reader's interpretation of the other characters.

O'Connor masterfully adds more twists so you are then forced to question the reliability of each character. Nothing is as clear cut as it seems and almost the years of searching for one thing have masked what should have been spotted from the beginning. Secrets, lies and half truths eek out from the between the lines as the thriller heads towards its ingenious conclusion.

This is a thriller, it is pacy and compelling. I read it almost one sitting. But it feels more original than just another "psychological thriller". There are twists, you are left gasping and shell shocked but I think O'Connor has achieved more. Within this novel are questions of identity (including your own and how you are presenting or shaping it), family, secrets, honesty, memories and the reliability of these memories. The novel is littered with little details that are used by O'Connor to subtly question the strength of the couple's relationship, asking what it means when a marriage is founded on an extreme crisis - what happens to the couple if that crisis is resolved?

I was also intrigued by O'Connor's investigation of the assumption that there is a strong, everlasting bond between a parent and child. As the front cover asks, you'd always recognise your own child wouldn't you? And what does it mean if you don't? What sort of parent does that make you?

Bring on a Book Group discussion!

Yes, this is a good book. It did not let me down in any way at all. I can't wait to see what Deborah O'Connor does next as she can clearly write well. In my opinion, she will sit alongside writers like Elizabeth Haynes, Samantha Hayes, Linda Huber, C L Taylor, Claire MacIntosh, Louise Cavendish as an author that writes unputdownable gripping literature!

Thank you very much to NetGalley for an advanced copy of the novel in return for a fair review. I had the release date on my calendar as October 2016 - which is in fact the date of the paperback edition so apologies for the late posting of this review.

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"Nina is Not Okay" Shappi Khorsandi

Nina is Not OK
I was intrigued to read this book. I first saw Shappi Khorsandi a few years ago doing stand up in Harpenden Town Hall and it was a truly entertaining evening. She was witty, humorous and had a charismatic stage presence. Her observations and asides about Harpenden were sharp, accurate and met with lots of laughter and applause. I have also read her first book "A Beginner's Guide to Acting English" which is very amusing, fluent, well executed and once more, hugely entertaining. So I know she can write a non fiction memoir and I know she can make me laugh. I also know she's intelligent, quick witted and articulate. So can she write a novel? I had to find out!

Yes she can!

Meet Nina. Seventeen, sitting her A-Levels, looking forward to going to Warwick University, living with her mum, little sister of who is she incredibly fond and her step father. She has good friends, a good social life and does well at school without much effort. But.... her dad died when she was 9. Her boyfriend - her first love- has gone to Hong Kong for a gap year and met someone new almost instantly. Her mum is preoccupied with her new husband and her 5 year old sister Katie.

Nina enjoys a good party. So what if sometimes when she wakes up she can't remember every single moment of the night before - who doesn't? Her exploits are the top conversation in the college canteen and her friends love to hear her "entertaining" recounts of the latest mischief or adventure. But then one night that changes. She finds herself in a taxi on the way home with even more missing pieces of the jigsaw than usual. And as she tries to convince that nothing can really have happened, her life begins to spiral out of control. Increasingly isolated from her family, on a constant hunt for some "fun" and escape from her worries and "boring" life pressures, she begins to drink more and party harder. Until Nina is absolutely, definitely not okay.

Khorsandi is very at ease in her delivery of Nina's narrative and the voice of the 17 year old is generally well captured and authentic. I found some of it a little grating to begin with but once I had got used to Nina, I discovered her to actually be a more rounded and more complex character than I had credited- perhaps the mistake that everyone in Nina's life also makes. Her candid, unaffected comments like "I used to think quieter people were emotionally complex- it's really disappointing when you realise they're not," capture the damning arrogance only a teenager can get away with and although indicates to the reader that she is still young and naive, they also make the reader smile in agreement at her perception. Or her honest, unaffected remark that she made Jamie laugh until "snot came out of his nose." There were frequent remarks from Nina which made me smile - either in recognition of my 17 year old self or in her unwitting self awareness. She is a heavily flawed character who makes numerous mistakes and some terrible judgements but ultimately she is endearing, very likeable and, I imagine, very representative of numerous teenagers today.

There are moments when I cringed and almost wanted to turn to the next page but I had to remember this is a young girl navigating life with very little role modelling or guidance - which is really Khorsandi's message. This is reiterated by Nina herself towards the end of the story as she contemplates on importance of the people who step in to save you and guide you back along the right path. Equally cringing/ humiliating / hilarious is the behaviour of heartbroken Nina whose obsessive texting, emailing and stalking on Facebook is reminiscent to all of us I'm sure. A rite of passage in itself. As she says, "I actually typed that and pressed 'send'. I actually let him see it. Writing poetry when you've been dumped should be a very private affair." I couldn't agree more!

Khorsandi's comic voice pervades the narrative. As Nina descends further into a path of self destruction she keeps the tone light and engaging with comments like "someone has moved the kitchen wall. It's not in its usual place. I smack into it." We then watch hopelessly as Nina begins to drink to "shut her mind up"; her deceit and denial tricking herself more than those around her. And then, all too quickly, she is falling in a downward spiral. Her self esteem, angst and all the perennial teenage problems of relationships, fitting in, gaining independence start to get the better of her. All while sitting some of the most demanding exams of her school life.

I'm interested to know what inspired Khorsandi to write a novel about a 17 year old. It seems to me she is interested in looking at young people's attitudes to relationship, sex and alcohol. Things have changed so dramatically for young people in today's society. Relationships are much more fluid and formed unconventionally. Promiscuity and multiple relationships more common and seemingly more acceptable. Life moves at a faster pace; switching, changing and fusing in an unpredictable way. There are no jobs for life. There is no economic security. Families are made up of different generations, marriages, relationships - non biological relationships sometimes meaning more (or even replacing) biological bonds. Life is very public, "followed" by thousands of people you think you are "connected" with; open for "comment" from anyone who has access to google and WiFi.

However, I wasn't sure if Khorsandi was simply presenting us with a coming of age tale -a dramatic roller coaster of emotions as we join the protagonist on a huge journey, or whether there was any underlying motive to offer a warning to the younger generation. The writing isn't patronising or moralistic and I suspect Khorsandi has merely chosen a story line which gave her the opportunity to write something that would appeal to a contemporary audience, full of colourful scenarios and colourful characters, with humour and dry wit.

Not that it's all "laugh a minute". There is some very well navigated discussion about rape and consent. Again, with such a change in attitudes to relationships and sex, the boundaries become less clear and more complicated- even to those involved. But young women, and men, still need to be clear what is acceptable and what is morally responsible or right. There are still boundaries. There are still laws. People still need protecting. Just because someone drinks too much or chooses to enjoy a casual dalliance does not mean they can be exploited or treated disrespectfully. There is also probably a bigger void between parents and children as they negotiate their way through this transition, which in itself makes "guidance" difficult and fraught.

Probably a very good book for a Sixth Form Tutor Group discussion or a Reading Group. Several reviewers think it is a book that needs to be read by all teenagers, boys and girls alike, as the messages are important and well presented.

Khorsandi is clearly an expert "people watcher". Her characters are created with swift, deft strokes and her dialogue flows naturally. There are cliches and a certain degree of obviousness within these characters but that is also partly due to the topic and kind of "chick lit/ young adult" style of the novel. Despite the subject of the novel, this is actually an easy read and one that mimics the fast, interactive, almost dismissive nature of the contemporary young people who take centre stage within the drama. I enjoyed it. With lots of stories looking at the impact of social media on teenagers in more extreme sexual contexts, this book offers something perhaps more relevant or more relatable. I think it will be a hit.

My thanks to Netgalley for an advanced copy of this novel in return for a fair and honest review.

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts by email.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

*EXTRACT* "The Fire Child" S K Tremayne

EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT 

The Fire Child



‘A magnificently creepy thriller’ Spectator
‘Gripping, sad, and desperately poignant, this is a debut to die for’ Daily Mail 
‘Stunning’ Mail on Sunday

‘Unbearably gripping and suspenseful’ Sophie Hannah

‘Chilling and utterly compulsive ... builds to an incredibly tense and shiver-inducing conclusion’ Sunday Mirror 

'Very eerie' Marie Claire 

When Rachel marries dark, handsome David, everything seems to fall into place. Swept from single life in London to the beautiful Carnhallow House in Cornwall, she gains wealth, love, and an affectionate stepson, Jamie.
But then Jamie’s behaviour changes, and Rachel’s perfect life begins to unravel. He makes disturbing predictions, claiming to be haunted by the spectre of his late mother David’s previous wife. Is this Jamie’s way of punishing Rachel, or is he far more traumatized than she thought?
As Rachel starts digging into the past, she begins to grow suspicious of her husband. Why is he so reluctant to discuss Jamie’s outbursts? And what exactly happened to cause his ex-wife’s untimely death, less than two years ago? As summer slips away and December looms, Rachel begins to fear there might be truth in Jamie’s words:
‘You will be dead by Christmas.’


Here is an exclusive extract from the end of Chapter 1 to give you a bit of background about the legend of Carnhallow

‘Hello.’

A little startled, I turn. It’s Juliet Kerthen: David’s mother. She lives, alone and defiant, in her own self-contained apartment converted from a corner of the otherwise crumbling and unrestored West Wing. Juliet has the first signs of Alzheimer’s, but is, as David phrases it, ‘in a state of noble denial’.

‘Lovely day,’ she says.

‘Gorgeous, isn’t it? Yes.’

I’ve met Juliet a couple of times. I like her a lot: she has a vivid spirit. I do not know if she likes me. I have been too timid to go further, to really make friends, to knock on her front door with blackberry-and-apple pie. Because Juliet Kerthen may be old and fragile, but she is also daunting. The suitably blue-eyed, properly cheekboned daughter of Lord Carlyon. Another ancient Cornish family. She makes me feel every inch the working-class girl from Plumstead. She’d probably find my pie a bit vulgar.

Yet she is perfectly friendly. The fault is mine.

Juliet shields her eyes from the glare of the sun with a visoring hand. ‘David always says that life is a perfect English summer day. Beautiful, precisely because it is so rare and transient.’

‘Yes, that sounds like David.’

‘So how are you settling yourself in, dear?’

‘Fine. Really, really well!’

‘Yes?’ Her narrowed eyes examine me, but in a companionable way. I assess her in return. She is dressed like an elderly person, yet very neatly. A frock that must be thirty years old, a maroon and cashmere cardigan, then sensible, expensive shoes, probably hand-made for her in Truro forty years ago, and now, I guess, polished by Cassie, who looks in every day to make sure the old lady is alive.

‘You don’t find it too imposing?’

‘God no, well, yes, a bit but . . . ’

Juliet indulges me with a kind smile. ‘Don’t let it get to you. I remember when Richard first brought me home to Carnhallow. It was quite the ordeal. That last bit of the drive. Those ghastly little moorland roads from St Ives. I think Richard was rather proud of the remoteness. Added to the mythic quality. Would you like a cup of tea? I have excellent pu’er-cha. I get bored with drinking it alone. Or there is gin. I am in two minds.’

‘Yes. Tea would be brilliant. Thanks.’

I follow her around the West Wing, heading for the north side of the house. The sun is restless and silvery on the distant sea. The clifftop mines are coming into view. I am chattering away about the house, trying to reassure Juliet, and maybe myself, that I am entirely optimistic.

‘What amazes me is how hidden it is. Carnhallow, I mean. Tucked away in this sweet little valley, a total suntrap. But you’re only a couple of miles from the moors, from all that bleakness.’

She turns, and nods. ‘Indeed. Although the other side of the house is so completely different. It’s actually rather clever. Richard always said it proved that the legend was true.’

I frown. ‘Sorry?’

‘Because the other side of Carnhallow looks north, to the mines, on the cliffs.’

I shake my head, puzzled.

She asks, ‘David hasn’t told you the legend?’

‘No. I don’t think so. I mean, uhm, he told me lots of stories. The rowans. The evil Jago Kerthen . . .’ I don’t want to say: Maybe we got so drunk on champagne on the first date and then we had such dizzying sex, I forgot half of what he told me – which is totally possible.

Juliet turns towards the darkened shapes of the mines. ‘Well, this is the legend. The Kerthens, it is said, must have possessed a wicked gift, a sixth sense, or some kind of clairvoyance: because they kept hitting lodes of tin and copper, when other speculators went bust. There is a Cornish name for those with the gift: tus-tanyow. It means the people of fire, people with the light.’ She smiles, blithely. ‘You’ll hear locals telling the story in the Tinners – that’s a lovely pub, in Zennor. You must try it, but avoid the starry gazy pie. Anyway, Richard used to rather drone on about it, about the legend. Because the Kerthens built their house right here, on the bones of the old monastery, facing Morvellan, yet that was centuries before they discovered the tin at Morvellan. So if you are suggestible it rather implies that the legend is true. As if the Kerthens knew they were going to find tin. I know, let’s go and have some pu’er-cha and gin, perhaps they go together.’

She walks briskly around the north-west corner of Carnhallow. I follow, eager for the friendship, and the distraction. Because her story disquiets me in a way I can’t exactly explain.

It is, after all, just a silly little story about the historic family that made so much money, by sending those boys down those ancient mines. Where the tunnels run deep under the sea.

Huge thanks to Harper Collins for letting me be part of the Blog Tour and for providing me with both the extract - so generous!

For my review of "The Fire Child" see here:
http://bibliomaniacuk.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-fire-child-s-k-tremayne.html

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts via email.