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, 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, 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, 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, Contemporary, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

The Book of Unknown Americans – Cristina Henriquez Review

The Book of Unknown Americans: Amazon.co.uk: Cristina Henriquez ...

Rating: ★★★★★

This is a beautiful story of Latin American immigrants in America, learning to live in and love a country that doesn’t love them back. If you are looking for a new #ownvoices book to add to your TBR, add this one straight away!

After their daughter Maribel suffers a traumatic brain injury, the Riveras leave their native Mexico to move to America, where the offer of specialist education gives them hope that their daughter will one day be how she was before. In the same apartment block, Mayor, a Panamanian boy who struggles to live up to the high standards set by his older brother, the golden boy. Mayor is instantly taken with Maribel, and is one of the few people able to get through to her. However, when violence reaches the families and threatens everything they have fought so hard for, will Maribel and Mayor make it through? And will the Riveras’ move to America be worth it?

This book was so well written and some of the passages fully took my breath away and were so beautiful I had to re-read. I could relate to the stories in the book, which were so expertly crafted and realistic that they felt like true reflections of the stories of my family members and friends. You can really feel the benefit of an #ownvoices author in a book like this, that does not use immigration simply as a topic for discussion but understands the real lives behind the story.

Although Mayor and Mirabel are presented as main characters, I loved the whole cast. In particular, I really liked reading Maribel’s mum’s chapters, and her journey of struggling with motherhood, a new language, and grieving for the daughter she had before Mirabel’s injury. My favourite part of the book was the snapshots into the lives of the background characters, each of which was given a short chapter where you learn about where they’ve come from, why they left, and what they hoped to find in America. I couldn’t help but cry at some of the stories and it added a really moving and human touch to the book.

Overall, I could not recommend this book more. I am surprised that it has not received more attention, as it is honestly one of the most emotional books I’ve read.

Book Reviews, Contemporary

Such A Fun Age – Kiley Reid Review

Such a Fun Age: Reid, Kiley: 9780525541905: Amazon.com: Books

Rating: ★★★★

This was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, and so I jumped at the chance to read this for my book club. I nominated this book the moment it was released, and was so glad that I did! This book is a great read, with interesting characters and a really interesting plot.

Emira is a black babysitter working for Alix and Peter Chamberlain, a white family. She is looking after their toddler daughter one night when she is accused of having kidnapped the young child. She is furious and humiliated, but when a bystander films the incident and offers to post it online, she refuses. Instead, she returns to her job with the Chamberlain family, who are determined to make it right. Kelley – the bystander who filmed the incident – and Emira bump into each other and strike up a relationship. Although everything seems to have turned out for the better, it all begins to crumble.

The discussions about race were incredibly interesting. Alix prides herself on being “woke”. She is proud for having a group of racially diverse friends around her dinner table, and is determined to make Emira like her. Kelley wants Emira to go public with her ordeal, encouraging her to share the video, but can’t see why she simply wants to forget all about the incident. For much of the book, it seems like Emira is surrounded by people telling her how to be black or how to feel about the things that have happened to her and I loved seeing how she finds her own voice among all of these different voices.

Another element of the book that I really enjoyed was seeing Emira’s friendships. Emira’s group of friends are all embarking on successful, high paying careers. Meanwhlie, Emira is working multiple jobs, is about to lose her health insurance and shares a small apartment with others. She struggles with the conflict of feeling happy for her friends’ successes, whilst also feeling confused about her own life and lost as to where she wants to go. She loves babysitting the Chamberlain’s daughter, but is it really where she wants to spend the rest of her life. It was nice to see such a universal coming-of-age story line embedded so delicately into the story, and refreshing to see this in relation to a character in their 20s where it is usually the reserve of teen books. After all, there is no rule that says an adult must have their whole life sorted out!

There were so many elements of this book that I loved in addition to these. The writing was clear and flowed well and the characters were well crafted and felt like real people. The writing felt genuinely as if it was coming from the characters’ own mouths, and not as if Kiley Reid was putting words into their mouths to put across a particular opinion. I loved Alix’s complex character and trying to figure out whether or not she was untrustworthy or not. On the other hand, I felt like the plot sometimes got a little bit lost and I couldn’t always figure out where the book was going. Luckily, all of these other elements were strong enough to keep me entertained even where the plot felt lacking, so I have no complaints!

Book Reviews, Contemporary, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano Review

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
Rating: ★★★★

Dear Edward is a touching story about a young boy finding his world in a world that has fallen apart.

Edward is 12 years old when his family decide to move from New York to California. The family are ready for a new start, but their plane crashes and Edward is the sole survivor. Suddenly, his life has changed completely. He is living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey and he is broken in more ways than he can count. However, when he finds bags full of letters from the loved ones of the other 191 passengers who didn’t make it, these slowly stir him back into action and help him to find purpose.

Much of the book deals with very difficult and emotional topics such as Edward’s grief and his aunt and uncle’s relationship struggles. However, Ann Napolitano’s writing was really beautiful and meant that the passages were touching and not too heavy to bear. Similarly, much of the book deals with Edward getting used to his new daily routine – a new school, new friends. Napolitano manages to really explore what is going on in Edward’s brain in these moments without detracting from the story. This meant that the inward journey that Edward goes on is always balanced perfectly with the plot of the book, the two work alongside each other perfectly.

I really liked the cast of characters in this book. Edward’s friend Shay was fun and I felt like you saw her grow up from a precocious 12 year old into a bold and brash teenager. I felt personally invested in the relationship between Edward’s aunt and uncle, and I absolutely loved Edward’s school principal with his wisdom and love of plants. the characters all served a clear purpose, and were never overdone but simply felt like real people that you would want to know.

My only issue with Dear Edward was the pacing. The blurb of the book really emphasises the role that the letters play in the story, but Edward doesn’t discover these letters until more than halfway through the book. It’s not that the book was boring until this point was reached, in fact I still loved reading the lead up to this moment, but I felt a bit misled and like I spent most of the book waiting for something that happened quite near to the end. Perhaps if the blurb were more honest or the book had better pacing, I would have been able to really give myself over to the book without expectations.

Book Reviews, Contemporary

A Song For Issy Bradley – Carys Bray Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I’m currently on a mission to get through the books I have acquired over the years and have not yet read, and A Song For Issy Bradley has been sitting on my shelf for over a year. I was not expecting much from it, not being a huge fan of contemporary fiction, but this book blew me away. I found it to be really moving, and couldn’t put it down.

Issy Bradley is the youngest daughter of Ian and Claire. The Bradley family also includes daughter Zipporah, or ‘Zippy’, and sons Alma and Jacob, and the family are devout Mormons. The book opens on Jacob’s birthday, and mother Claire is struggling to prepare for the birthday party she will throw for him as Ian is away on church business. She is so busy that she doesn’t have enough time to check on Issy, who has been feeling poorly, and by the time she does, she realises that Issy’s illness is far worse than the flu. Before she has time to process it, Issy is in intensive care with meningitis, and despite the family’s prayers, Issy passes away.

The rest of the book follows each member of the Bradley family as they grieve, or struggle to grieve, in their individual ways. Ian feels comforted by his faith, and his confidence that he will be reunited with his daughter in the afterlife helps him to continue with his normal life. Meanwhile, Claire cannot see a way to move on, and Zippy has to step into her mother’s shoes, cooking and cleaning while dealing with confusion over dating in a religious setting. Alma’s love of football is tainted by memories of playing with Issy, and Jacob is faithful that God will answer his prayers to bring Issy back. Each chapter follows a different family member in turn, and follows their individual storylines in conjunction with their grief for Issy.

I loved each character’s story, which I think is a rare feat in a multiple-POV narrative. I think this was assisted by the fact that each character had such a different tone. Jacob’s belief that he can resurrect Issy is a humorous break from Claire’s incredibly sorrowful chapters. Zippy and Alma are struggling with challenges outside of Issy’s death, but in fear of adding to their family’s problems, they try to deal with it themselves. Ian and Claire’s relationship is crumbling under the strain of the loss and the now evident differences in their faith. The novel is a really beautiful and moving look at how a family deals with loss, individually and as a family, coming together to put the pieces back together.

Carys Bray’s writing is simple but not basic, with the emotions that the characters feel being clear and moving. I think she was really good at giving each character a strong tone that stood out from the others. Alma is angry and resentful of the way his father’s religion has crushed his childhood dreams of being a footballer, Zippy is growing into a woman and Jacob is naive and sweet. This made it easy to deliver into the characters of the different narrators, their lives and their minds, and to really understand them.

I also found the insight into the Mormon faith and lifestyle fascinating, and the different perspectives, from those who were confident in their faith and found peace and comfort in the teachings, to those who struggled with it and those who altogether turned away from it. In my opinion, it was a delicate and subtle insight into religious life and the challenges that come with growing up and living in a religious community.

Overall, I really loved A Song for Issy Bradley and thought it was truly moving. Despite the heavy subject matter, it was not difficult to get through, and the different characters narrating the story did not confuse or distract from the story.

Book Reviews, Contemporary, Historical

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

Homegoing is a breathtaking look at the effects of slavery over centuries, spanning generations and continents. It is an epic family saga containing stories of love, trauma, loss, war, and friendship. it was a beautiful and moving read, and I was very impressed at how Yaa Gyasi covered so much in terms of scope, and yet managed to make each story feel personal.

The premise of this novel is that two half-sisters, unknown to each other and who live in different villages, in eighteenth-century Ghana are thrust into different lives by chance. Effia is married to an Englishman and lives her life in the Cape Coast Castle, ignoring the slaves that are being held beneath her, destined for another life. Esi however is captured and taken to America, where she lives the difficult life of a slave. Each chapter of the novel follows a different generation in the two strands of the family, focusing in on one individual, at a significant time in their life. Effia’s descendants experience warfare between tribes in Ghana, and the fight for freedom from British rule. Esi’s descendants are bought and sold as slaves, live through the Civil War, forced labour prisons, jazz and crime.

Homegoing is a look at the history of two nations through individuals’ lives, and this is what makes it so moving. It is easy to talk of the historical and social events covered in this novel from a detached perspective without truly understanding the human impact. The main thing that struck me while reading Homegoing was that it makes it clear, in a visceral and shocking way, through the memories of the characters, how recent the events that we consider ‘history’ actually are.

I really loved the format of this novel, with each chapter following a different person. We get a snapshot of life at a particular time, band I liked the experience of becoming invested in a character over the course of their chapter and to feel invested in their story, only to have them ripped away at the end. Each chapter felt like it ended too soon, but I didn’t resent it. Rather, it felt like this served a larger purpose of giving the stories and emotions inside of them more immediacy, and it gives the book constant momentum as you are always being thrust forward. It may take getting used to, but the chapters are each so brilliantly written that you won’t struggle to get into them. The writing is also so excellent, with fire and water imagery running through the novel, and I didn’t find it difficult to follow who was who, because usually the character is introduced, at least briefly, in the previous chapter.

Overall, I really loved reading Homegoing. I loved how Yaa Gyasi wrapped up the novel in a bittersweet bow at the end, neat and tidy, but not forced or difficult to believe. When I put it down, I was left wanting aching to return to the characters and learn more about them. It gives you a lot of food for thought, and indeed left me thinking about its contents for days afterward.

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