Book Reviews, Contemporary

The Neighbours – Nicola Gill Review

The Neighbours: Amazon.co.uk: Gill, Nicola: 9780008355395: Books

Rating: ★★★

Ginny and Cassie are neighbours, and although they have never met, and seem wildly different on the outside, they actually have a lot in common. Although Cassie is a 55 year old once-famous actress and Ginny is a 34 year old in PR, they both seem to have lost everything – Cassie’s behaviour on a reality show has made her public enemy number one, and Cassie has just found her boyfriend in bed with her boss, and now finds herself with no boyfriend and no job. They both also have what the other needs – Cassie needs a publicist, Ginny needs a job. Will the pair of them together be able to pull each other up from rock bottom?

There were aspects of this novel that I really liked. I could relate to Ginny’s worries about not being where she feels that she should be in life, not having achieved what she should have, and generally not having her life sorted out. She is worried that she has let her dreams pass her by, that she won’t be able to settle down and have children, and that she’ll regret the choices that she has made. I enjoyed her journey to accepting the things that she cannot change, fixing the decisions that she regrets, and trying to revive her long-forgotten dreams.

I also enjoyed the friendship between Ginny and Cassie, which is a real tale of being there for each other through thick and thin. They, like any friendship, have their ups and downs, but they also encourage and motivate each other through tough moments, are brutally honest with each other, and are always there to help each other. I liked how Gill explores Cassie’s mental health problems, by not adding any frills to it or romanticising it in any way, or providing a ‘cure’ in the form of a good friend. Ginny is there for Cassie, but there is no simple solution to the problem.

However, the plot fo the story sometimes felt too slow for me and there were large aspects of the book that I simply didn’t care about. Cassie’s romantic subplots felt like an afterthought and often I would start a chapter to discover that her situation had changed radically without it being explored – in one chapter, you would be introduced to a love i interest and in the next they would be deeply in love with absolutely no build up. On the other hand, Ginny’s romantic storylines were slow and often repetitive. I struggled with her habit of dithering and being indecisive, not because a character cannot have these flaws but because it meant that half of the book was her wondering about whether she had done the right thing and not doing anything about it. This means that her problems often didn’t feel like proper problems to me, but simply things that could have been fixed if she just spoke up. The storylines about her work were also difficult to enjoy, because they felt completely separate to the rest of the story and had little impact on the rest of the book.

Overall, whilst I enjoyed the relationship between Cassie and Ginny, this book lacked a strong plot in my opinion. Most Cassie and Ginny’s lives evolve without any input from or impact on the other character, and therefore their plots feel irrelevant to the central point of the book, which is their friendship.

Book Reviews, Historical

Things In Jars – Jess Kidd Review

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Rating: ★★★★

In Things in Jars, Bridie Devine, a female detective in Victorian London, is hired to investigate the kidnapping of a wealthy gentleman’s secret daughter, who may or may not have mysterious, magical and murderous powers. This story takes us through the dinginess of Victorian England, to the depths of mystical thinking of the day and the cruelty of its freak shows and circus acts.

The best thing about this novel is Bridie Devine, who as a female detective in Victorian London was what drew me to the book. I love Victorian crime fiction, and to have one led by such a unique, incredible character as Bridie was a treat. She has a thrilling backstory which is shared to us over the course of the book and which includes a start as an orphan, time spent as a resurrection man’s apprentice, an anatomist’s assistant and finally as a detective. The characters around her are all equally extraordinary, from Bridie’s seven foot tall maid Cora who was rescued by Bridie from a freak show, to the ghost of a former boxer who follows Bridie around in what might be the friendliest example of a haunting in all of fiction, and of course, Christabel, the missing child who you could describe as a murderous mermaid.

The characters in this book are what makes it, more so than the tale itself in my opinion. They are entertaining and I have never seen characters like them, let alone all together in one book. They add to the tone and atmosphere of the book, which is one of darkness and danger, of secrets and hidden oddities lurking in the shadows. The story itself is one that is full of twists and turns, with mysteries popping up all the way through. This book has an intricate plot which you need to focus on, but Kidd’s writing, which is descriptive but brings things to life in your imagination, and her fabulous characters make it enjoyable to read.

Overall, Jess Kidd’s Things In Jars is a completely unique story unlike anything else I have ever read. Kidd’s writing style is original and brings her characters and settings to life in a way which matches the originality and imagination with which she has crafted her story. This means that although the story is altogether out of this world, it never feels silly or messy. Although I suspect that there were elements of the complicated story which my sometimes distracted brain might not have captured, the book was enjoyable from start to finish.

Book Reviews, Middle Grade, Young Adult

Clara Voyant – Rachelle Delaney Review

Clara Voyant by Rachelle Delaney

Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Clara Voyant is a fun, light hearted middle grade brook which I really enjoyed. It had an interesting, tightly written plot and fun characters which all brought something to the story.

Clara is new to her school, and as an aspiring journalist, she is keen to impress Wesley Ferris, the editor of the school newspaper. She joins the team, but is gutted to find that Wesley won’t assign her to any investigative pieces, instead relegating her to the horoscopes section. Clara is gutted, not least because she doesn’t believe in horoscopes. However, when Clara’s horoscopes begin to come true, she wonders whether she was wrong to dismiss them. When a crime is committed at her school, Clara decides to use her newfound mystical powers to solve the mystery and prove herself as a brilliant journalist.

The plot of this book keeps you interested from the beginning, with multiple storylines and mysteries unfolding at the same time. There is the mystery of the stolen school mascot, Clara’s potential new powers, her best friend Maeve’s audition for the school play, and many more smaller storylines unfolding in the background. It really was a perfect cosy crime novel.

Despite the book having a wide range of characters, it never felt convoluted or busy. Each character stood out and played a role, however small, and added something to the book and plot. Clara is clever and ambitious, her best friend Maeve is bold and driven and the pair’s friendship was very entertaining. I also enjoyed the adult characters in the book, such as Mrs Major, the school’s custodian, and Clara’s mother with all of her quirks.

Overall, this book was a really enjoyable read that would be perfect for children and young teenagers. I think that this book is a standalone, but Clara definitely has the potential to lead her own series and I would happily read along.

Book Reviews, Contemporary

Elizabeth Is Missing – Emma Healey Review

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Rating: ★★

Maud is losing her memory. There’s a lot that she isn’t sure about anymore, but there is one thing that is confident of – her friend, Elizabeth, is missing. She can feel in her bones that Elizabeth needs help, but nobody around her believes her. In her confusion, she remembers a second unsolved mystery – that of her missing sister Sukey. Maud sets out on a mission to solve these two mysteries, but needs to fight her fading memory to do so.

One thing that I really liked about this book was its portrayal of dementia. It felt very realistic and matched up with my experience of the illness in family and friends. Maud can remember things, but she loses her grasp on them and is left feeling lost and confused. This book felt very well-researched in terms of dementia and how it works, and this made for a very moving and emotional experience.

On the other hand, Healey’s dedication to this accurate portrayal of dementia meant that the book rapidly became repetitive and draining. At the beginning, it was touching and endearing but after a few chapters it became a bit – sorry if this sounds harsh – boring. I also struggled with the feeling that, from very early on, I had figured it out, but I had to sit through pages and pages of Maud piecing things together which she had already pieced together a few pages before. Finally, whilst I enjoy an unreliable narrator, that is different to a narrator that forgets what has just happened on every single page. Perhaps this could have been lightened if Maud’s dementia were in a slightly earlier stage, or simply if the mystery were a bit more mysterious!

There were some quite humorous parts. I particularly enjoyed a scene where Maud puts an advert in a newspaper for her missing friend, but the member of staff at the newspaper filling out her form for the advert thinks that she is putting an advert out for a missing cat! This scene made me chuckle quite a bit, as did some of Maud’s exchanges with her family members at several parts.

On another note, I listened to this book in audiobook format which I can definitely recommend. The actors really bring the story to life and particularly the actress who voices Maud, who really captures her emotions of fear and sadness perfectly.

Overall, I can appreciate what Emma Healey was trying to do with this book and I appreciate the representation of dementia so heavily in a book. However, I simply found that the unreliableness of the narrator went a bit too far and made the book repetitive and dull after a while, and this was trumped by the fact that the mystery was not too mysterious in the end.

Book Reviews, Classics

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen Review

Sense and Sensibility (Vintage Classics Austen Series) : Jane ...

Rating: Rating: ★★★★

Sense & Sensibility is my favourite of the Jane Austen adaptations – the Emma Thompson version, of course! I have wanted to read it for ages, and so decided that my first classic of 2020 would be this book. Unfortunately however, my favourite Jane Austen book it is not! At times, the plot felt a little too slow for my liking, especially as I have come to associate Austen with fun, light-hearted and quick storytelling. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed reading the book and was glad that I did so, as I love getting more insights into Jane Austen and her world.

Marianne’s story was by far my favourite part of the book. Unlike Elinor and Edward’s relationship, I could feel the chemistry between her and Willoughy and I felt her heartbreak when the relationship ended. Am I the only person who thinks Willoughby is maybe the original f*ckboi of English literature?  I’m not sure if there is one out there already, but I hope someone out there is writing a modern retelling of this story!

On the other hand, Elinor’s story in particular disappointed me, which was a shame as I have always loved watching it on screen. Generally, I felt like Edward completely fell flat on the page, and came across as a spoiled and lazy man with absolutely no personality. I simply could not feel any chemistry between the two or why Elinor would find him appealing at all.

Despite this, however, I still enjoyed the book overall. I think that I maybe did not judge the book as a book in and of itself but compared it to the way that the actors in the film portrayed them – and book Edward is no Hugh Grant. In hindsight, however, I was pleased to see that Austen’s characters were far more realistic than you might assume. All of the characters have their flaws, from the main female characters to their love interests. They are not fake flaws, they are serious, deep flaws, and it is these flaws that drive the plot.

Book Reviews, Contemporary

My Sister, The Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite Review

My Sister, the Serial Killer: Amazon.co.uk: Oyinkan Braithwaite ...

Rating: ★★★★★

My Sister, The Serial Killer is an incredibly funny book about a horrifically dark subject.

Korede’s sister Ayoola is the more pretty and popular of the two. However, every man who catches her eye eventually dies at her hand. Korede, a loyal sister, helps her sister to cover her tracks, giving her sister the benefit of the doubt when she claims that she has acted in self-defence. However, surely three boyfriends dispatched in this way is simply too many to be a coincidence?

When Ayoola begins to date a doctor who Korede works with and has long been in love with, this is a step too far. Korede is not prepared to see the man she has loved from afar end up like the rest of Ayoola’s conquests, and she decides to act. However, Korede has always put family first, so will she be able to turn her back on Ayoola?

My Sister, The Serial Killer however perfectly toes the line of dark humour. This book is not only funny, this is one of the most hilarious books that I have ever read. It was entertaining from the very beginning to the very end. The two sisters are both well fleshed out as characters and they, and their relationship, seems plausible and works on the page. The back and forth dialogue between the two provided many laughs and I could read Oyinkan Braithwaite’s dialogue forever.

In terms of plot and pacing, the book moves quickly and the plot is constantly developing, which makes it a really exciting story. Braithwaite never lingers on something for too long, but always gives it just the amount of attention it deserves. In hindsight, I was surprised when I realised how short the book was, because I was able to fully give myself over to the story.

Finally, I listened to the audiobook version of this book and, whether you are an audiobook fan or not, I recommend that you try this one! This felt more like a radio show than an audiobook and if you are apprehensive about the format then give this a try. The narration and acting by the different actors was so much fun to engage with, and really brought the text to life. In addition, I am not sure whether the actors put these on, but I loved that an authentic Nigerian accent was used by all of the voice actors. It really brought the characters as well as the setting to life.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Sadie – Courtney Summers Review

Sadie: Amazon.co.uk: Summers, Courtney: Books

Rating: ★★★★★

When Sadie’s younger sister Mattie is found dead, Sadie’s world falls apart, and after the police fail to find her killer, Sadie takes matters into her own hands. She hits the road to try to find the killer, determined to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, West McCray, a radio presenter working on a piece about small, forgotten towns in America, overhears Sadie’s story and becomes obsessed with finding the missing girl, starting a podcast to record his investigation.

As a true crime obsessive, this book was right up my street. I loved how it was presented as such, with the format of a podcast replicating so many of the podcasts I have listened to. Courtney Summers wrote both the normal prose of Sadie’s chapters and the podcast chapters in a way that felt so authentic you almost forget it isn’t a true story. In addition, I listened to this in the audiobook format, which the book lends itself to extremely well. The actors are excellent and you really feel yourself getting swept away by the story.

I loved Sadie’s character and was in her corner cheering for her throughout the book. Sadie has a compelling background: she is born to a drug addicted mother, becomes an almost mother to her younger sister and is a school drop Her sister is the centre of her universe, and Summers’ writing really makes you feel how Sadie’s love for her sister and how it can be so strong to drive her to do everything that she does over the course of the book. You can feel every ounce of Sadie’s pain and grief.

The plot was fast-paced, and the podcast format was a great way of intertwining the plot with background events in a way that felt real and not like a boring info-dump. It was a really clever way of structuring the story, and means that you slowly piece the story together with the rest of the podcast’s audience.

Overall, I have to give this piece 5 stars. I could find absolutely no faults with it, and demand someone make this into a miniseries.

Book Reviews, Contemporary

To Lahore, With Love – Hina Belitz Review

To Lahore, With Love: 'Warm, delicious and so beautifully written ...

Rating:

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I really wanted to enjoy To Lahore With Love, but this book was so disappointing. I was looking forward to a fun, light-hearted and entertaining story set in an exciting location, but the story fell flat from the start, with a plot that ranged from slow to unbelievable and writing that felt bland.

Addy Mayford is a half Pakistani, half Irish woman, who loves cooking and her husband Gabe. Her life is a mostly idyllic dream, a haze of romance and sumptuous dishes, until her husband walks out on her. To help Addy heal, her grandmother, ‘Nana’, suggests a trip to Lahore. Nana and Addy’s best friend Jen join her on the trip, where Addy explores the city, meets family members and encounters a new man.

I struggled to relate to or like Addy at all, which made the book very difficult to read. I appreciated the attempt by Belitz to explore the identity issues that Addy faces, being of mixed heritage, however she simply did not explore it enough making it difficult to understand or believe, at the best of times. I couldn’t understand how Addy hid her Pakistani heritage from Gabe for the entire duration of their relationship until their engagement – which was made even more improbably by the fact that their first conversations all focused on aspects of her grandmother’s culture. This simply didn’t make sense to me, from a plot point of view. She also never addresses her husband’s ignorance of her culture, such as his greeting her Muslim grandmother with “Namaste”. This could have all been salvaged if it had been addressed in some way, if Addy’s trip to Lahore helped her to become more culturally aware, more in touch with her heritage and accepting of it. Instead, this storyline had no resolution and there was no sign by the end of the book that Addy had engaged with her heritage on a deeper level or that she felt like anything more than an Irish girl in Pakistan. Similarly, Belitz touched on the issue of infertility, but then abandoned the issue and never returned to it again.

Another issue that I had with this book was the pacing. Belitz spends the first chunk of the book taking us through Addy’s childhood, her youth, the beginnings of her relationship with Gabe. I think that the book would been better if these details were littered throughout the book, instead of having a significant chunk of the book dedicated to events that had no real impact on the main plot. Instead, this approach meant that the book started on the back foot, and the section of the book that is set in Lahore felt rushed and its events felt shallow.

It also meant that the characters felt two dimensional. I think that Belitz saw certain scenes as essential to introduce us to characters of the novel, but I think that she overestimated how much introduction a character needs; we do not need to read an entire chapter of Addy and Jen as schoolgirls to understand that they are close friends., and we do not need entire chapters dedicated to the beginnings of Addy and Gabe’s relationship to understand that she is in love with him. We could simply see these characters in action, and infer this from the text. Generally, Belitz tells, instead of shows us, everything in this book, which makes the writing fall flat and removes the need for imagination and connection with the book; there are whole chunks where we are walked through every feeling and thought that Addy has, instead of being made to feel what she is feeling.

One part of this book that showed potential for me was the recipes that feature in between each chapter. This sections had the light-hearted, whimsical tone that I think could have made the book more entertaining, instead of the more serious approach that was taken. They reminded me of the musical Waitress, and had hints of a romantic, other-worldly tone that could have really saved this book.

Overall, I really did not enjoy this book. I wish that I had, but the aspects of this book that could have made it stand out were just not explored properly. The plot, characters and writing were simply undercooked (pun intended).

 

Book Reviews, Contemporary, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Anna K: A Love Story – Jenny Lee Review

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Rating: ★★★

This modern retelling of Anna Karenina has everything: glamour, romance, drama, tragedy. The Gossip Girl vibes make for fun reading at times, but sometimes I felt that the devotion to the original made this longer than it needed to be.

Anna K. lives at the pinnacle of Manhattan and Greenwich society. She is beautiful, wealthy, and sensible, always making her Korean-American father proud. To top it all off, she has been with Alexander, her equally perfect boyfriend, for years. However, when she meets and falls head over heels in love with Alexia ‘the Count’ Vronsky, everything that she risks it all. Meanwhile, her brother Steven is trying to convince his girlfriend Lolly to trust him again after being caught sexting another girl, whilst Steven’s friend Dustin struggles with his unrequited love for Lolly’s younger sister, Kimmie. Throughout the book, we watch these storylines unfold in tandem against a backdrop of luxury and opulence in Manhattan.

There are certain elements of a retelling that I always enjoy, and that is seeing how details of the original are ‘upgraded’ for the retelling. In particular, I enjoyed the New York setting and the use of ‘New York’s elite’ instead of Russian royalty, which gave the entire tale a Gossip Girl vibe. Initially, I found the constant mention of characters’ expensive items and clothing to be funny, a form of satire showing how superficial some of them were. However, as the book went on and each character kept describing their designer purses and expensive coats, it began to feel a bit overdone and heavy on irrelevant details.

The book also included lots of examples of characters’ drug and alcohol use (and abuse). From what I understand of the original, this isn’t new, however, I felt like the book missed out on an opportunity to comment on this lifestyle. Instead, these things were simply a part of the story, never commented or criticised, with no characters engaging in any reflection of their bad habits. I feel like the book simply transposed the events of Anna Karenina into a modern setting, without transposing Tolstoy’s social commentary into a modern setting also.

This also meant that the characters felt two dimensional and bland, and eventually the book started to feel like it was just one event after another. Jenny Lee simply created modern versions of Tolstoy’s characters, but didn’t really explore their personalities on a deeper level. Anna K is nothing but beautiful and kind, Vronsky is a bad boy on the surface who is transformed by love into the dream boyfriend, Dustin is the tortured soul; they all felt like caricatures. I feel like a retelling requires more engagement with the text than just ‘modernising’ it for it to work, especially as parts of the book will not simply transpose as well into a modern setting. A prime example was the ‘instalove’ between Anna and Vronsky – this might work in an older piece of literature, but in a contemporary romance, it just isn’t going to fly.

Overall, Anna K was enjoyable but I felt like it was too superficial to really impress. The tone of the work was too basic, simply telling us events without engaging with anything under the surface, making it feel too long and drawn out. After reading Anna K, however, I would like to read the original text and see which parts have been left out, and see whether I enjoy the original more than the retelling.

Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult

Devil’s Ballast – Meg Caddy Review

Devil's Ballast by Meg Caddy

Rating: ★★★★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I had a serious pirate phase as a child. I remember searching and searching for a book featuring a female pirate, and failing. That’s why I was so excited to read Devil’s Caddy, and it delivered. This is exactly the book that my younger self wanted, as well as being a book that grown-up me could sit back and enjoy.

Anne Bonny is eighteen when she feels her abusive husband and runs away with Calico Jack, the famed pirate. She disguises herself as a boy and joins his crew aboard the Ranger, which wreaks havoc on the ships of the Caribbean. However, this is not a happy ending for Anne, and she is on the run from both her husband, James Bonny, who is determined to get her back, and the pirate-hunter Captain Barnet, whose personal goal is to bring as many pirates to justice as possible. When she is captured and separated from Calico Jack, she must fight to get him back, whilst struggling with the consequences of her relationship with the pirate.

Devil’s Caddy is a really enjoyable book to read and I got through it in a weekend thanks to the fast-paced and constantly moving plot. Meg Caddy has done a really great job at writing an exciting story, with a series of exciting individual adventures for the characters whilst also maintaining an overarching story that keeps you entertained for the duration of the book. Caddy manages to ramp up the tension and surprise you with plot twists the whole way through, whilst still keeping the book feeling fun.

I also really enjoyed the cast of characters in this book. Anne Bonny is a great historical character, and Meg Caddy manages to bring her to life in the form of a kick-ass heroine, without crossing over into cliche female protagonist territory. Anne Bonny is rebellious, feisty, and clever, but she’s can also be reckless, stubborn, and selfish. She’s also kind, loyal, and a great friend.  Overall, she is a brilliant character to follow, and I would definitely want to read more of her story.

I also really enjoyed Martin Read’s character, who, without spoiling any of the story, is also inspired by a historical pirate, and whose friendship with Anne was one of my favourite parts of the story. I was also surprised to have enjoyed the chapters which were narrated by Captain Barnet, as Meg Caddy managed to craft the villain of the story as a fully three-dimensional figure.

Devil’s Ballast, by virtue of being a pirate novel, features lots of different characters and locations: multiple ships, their crews, a well as a number of Caribbean cities. Nevertheless, it never felt too dense or convoluted and the characters all stood out as individuals and had a purpose in the story. I thought that this was especially impressive as the book wasn’t very long.

Overall, this was an easy 5 stars. This book is a page-turner kept me entertained the whole way through. I’m not sure if Meg Caddy has planned this to be a series, but I would definitely read more stories of Anne Bonny and her pirate friends.