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

49649443

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, 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, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Anna K: A Love Story – Jenny Lee Review

45043369

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, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

The Opposite of You – Lou Morgan Review

The Opposite of You by Lou Morgan

Rating: ★★

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

I love books about sisters and their relationships, and so I was intrigued in The Opposite of You from the start. However, this book simply did not go deep enough when exploring the characters, and the plot was too cliched for me.

Bex and Naomi are identical twins who used to be best friends. They used to know everything the other was thinking and feeling, they used to finish each other’s sentences and communicate without words. However, for the last few years they have drifted apart, and the connection that they used to have seems to be firmly closed. When Naomi goes missing, Bex must find a way to reopen that connection to find her sister.

Bex and Naomi are cookie cutter characters, with little dimension to them. Bex is the ‘good’ twin, and Naomi is the ‘bad’ twin. Bex is perfect, does well at school, is responsible and sensible with a group of close, equally sensible friends. Naomi, the bad twin, sneaks out at night, drinks, and generally disappoints her parents in every way. The pair’s relationship has essentially disintegrated so that Bex has no idea what her sister is up to. Despite their characters being a bit two dimensional, I did find the portrayal of their relationship interesting at times and simply wish it could have been explored more. I was particularly intrigued by the sisters’ desire to be individual and distinct from the other, and if their characters had been more fleshed out this could have been explored more.

In terms of plot, I think the book was lacking in depth and rushed to tick off the boxes of what the author felt should be addressed in a young adult mystery without actually devoting the time to develop any aspect of the book. The ‘mystery’ of where Naomi was was dampened by the fact that Naomi was a narrator, so although Bex has no idea where her sister is, we always do. I think it would have been much better if we stuck to Bex’s perspective, and perhaps only heard Naomi’s side of the story in the form of the flashbacks to when the sisters were younger. The use of dual narrators also felt repetitive and boring at times, as sometimes we were shown the same scene from the two perspectives. I also found the use of the twins’ mental connection to be a bit of a cop out, as it simply meant that Bex could solve everything by ‘connecting’ to her sister’s mind. I also didn’t like the ‘romance’ sub-plot, which felt out of place and unrealistic – I simply couldn’t relate at all to Bex going for coffee with a guy she has just met the day that her twin sister goes missing.

Overall, this book had potential and could have been really interesting. It reminded me a bit of Goodbye, Perfectly by Sara Barnard (see my review here), but it simply did not go far enough.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Truthwitch – Susan Dennard Review

21414439

Rating: ★★★★★

I love fast-paced fantasy, unique magical worlds, female-led stories and friendships, so it’s no surprise to me that I absolutely loved Truthwitch! I had been waiting for months to read this book, for two reasons. First of all, my huge hardback edition is far too large to carry to and from school everyday. Secondly, I wanted to give it all of my attention, and I have no regrets (except perhaps that I should have given my full attention to my exam next week but never mind that).

The novel follows Safiya and Iseult, two witches who are trying to make a life for themselves. Safi is a Truthwitch, meaning that she can tell when someone is telling the truth, a power for which she would be hunted, so she keeps it a secret from all but those closest to her. Iseult is a Threadwitch, meaning that she can see their emotions in coloured strands that stem from them, and who these threads ‘tie’ them. The pair are Threadsisters, and when a brewing war threatens all that they hold dear – each other – they have to fight for their bond.

Safi and Iseult are both fantastic protagonists that come to life on the page and their friendship is the fire that keeps them going and that makes the story so interesting. They are lifelike, detailed and complex characters, each with their own stories, backgrounds, personalities and struggles. I loved that each character had their individual plot points, diverting for parts of the book and then rejoining, because it meant that we got to see the characters as independent women as well as a team, and understand the strength of their bond, as well as their individual motivations. This friendship was at the core of why I loved this book so much, as their friendship was so unmovable and strong that it survives all sorts of threats and dangers. Safi and Iseult are willing to sacrifice themselves for each other, and they never give up on each other, which I loved.

I also loved Susan Dennard’s magic system and all of the different witcheries. This isn’t a book where you get bogged down by details and information, and lose track of the story while trying to get to grips with the world. She makes it easy and interesting to understand, and the information that she feeds you weaves into the story so you don’t get distracted. It is so expertly crafted that it never feels forced, but rather each witchery seems to make perfect sense. I loved how despite the witches having immense powers in their fields, whether it be manipulating blood or wind or fire, their powers still had clear limitations. For example, some witches can control the air that people breathe, while others can only control the air around them in the world. Some water healers can heal by manipulating the liquids in people’s body, whilst tidewitches control the waters in the sea. It was such a diverse and complex system, but beautifully designed and wonderful to delve into. I can’t wait to see what other witcheries come up in the rest of the series, and what other aspects of the Witchlands’s history and world Susan Dennard will expose us to.

I definitely give this book 5 stars and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. If you haven’t read it and you love fantasy novels, I could not recommend this to you more. Now excuse me, I need to order my copy of the sequel!

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard

35495848

Rating: ★★★★★

Eden and her best friend Bonnie are inseparable, and Eden knows that she can rely on Bonnie for anything. After all, Bonnie is pretty near perfect. However, when Bonnie runs away with a new mysterious boyfriend and it is revealed that this new boyfriend is no-one other than their music teacher, Mr Cohn, Eden has to face up to the fact that she didn’t know her friend as well as she did. Further, when a nationwide police search begins, Eden is forced to question her unfaltering loyalty to her friend.

Sara Barnard took on a really challenging topic in tackling the relationship between Bonnie and her teacher, Mr Cohn. It is a story that I have seen play out in the news multiple times, and it would have been easy for her to take a very sensationalist approach, or on the other hand, an approach that attempted to justify the relationship. Instead, she took another stance altogether and looked at the relationship through Eden’s eyes. Eden struggles throughout the book with the realisation that her friend kept a major secret from her, but also values loyalty more than anything and believes it is her duty to trust her friend when she tells her not to tell anyone where she is. Although I didn’t always like her actions, I understood Eden and her thought processes, and through reading Eden’s thoughts on Bonnie and Mr Cohn, we see her go through the different perspectives on the relationship, and come to her own conclusion by the end of the book.

I loved that female friendship took centre place in this book, and what happens when a friendship is challenged by the actions of one party. Through Eden’s difficulties in coming to terms with everything that is happening, we get to see so much of her character and personality. Her loyalty is a stand-out characteristic, and although it leads her to make not-great decisions (in my point of view), it is something that you can also admire. The journey that the friendship takes, as well as Eden’s relationships with her boyfriend, Connor, and her family, were all fascinating to read. They all had ups and downs, and every single character felt multifaceted and fleshed out to me.

Sara Barnard’s writing really helps to bring all of this to the forefront as well. It is deceptively simple, with little to no flowery language, but rather she lets the characters, their actions and thoughts speak for themselves. This book is easy to read, but not an ‘easy’ book. It challenges you with every page, and the storylines and the characters keep you hooked from start to finish.

Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

My Side of the Diamond – Sally Gardner Review

Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 16.58.52.png

Rating: ★★★

I went into this book completely blind, having been sent it a few months ago by the publisher. This isn’t a book I would typically pick up, but it did impress me. It also confused me a bit, as I couldn’t quite figure out the genre or the age of the intended audience. I wish it had been a little bit longer with some more exploration of some of the characters, but the short length was also part of its appeal.

The main narrator of the book is Jazmin, who has been shunned by everyone since the disappearance of her best friend Becky, who jumped off of a tall building, but never landed. Jazmin told people what happened, but nobody believed her, and now, she is telling her story again. Other narrators also tell their story, in separate but linked tales that eventually interweave in order to tell us what really happened to Becky when she jumped off that building. It’s a slow-burn drama, but mystery is enough to keep you hooked, and the narrators’ voices are strong and clear.

I really liked the narrative style of this. It is told in a second person narrative by various people who are being interviewed about their experiences. They tell the events of the story as they unfolded in their perspective. This means that you don’t have the same reading experience as you would in another novel, where you might feel like the events are happening to you. It isn’t really possible to disappear into the story, so to speak, because at no point does it stop feeling like you are just reading about it, rather than living it. If the book was longer, this might have ended up bothering me, but for its short length that meant I finished it in two days, I didn’t mind this.

Although it wasn’t completely clear from the blurb or even the first few chapters, this book is science fiction. Aliens are mentioned pretty early on, but for a big chunk of the book I couldn’t figure out if the characters were mad or not. This made reading it a bit strange. Also, the age range of this book wasn’t clear either. I was sure from the cover art and the simple style of the narrative that this was a children’s or young adult book, but the narrators are all adults, so I’m not so sure. If you prefer your genre fiction to have very strong elements of that genre, this might not be for you, but otherwise, I enjoyed the mystery and gentle unfolding of the truth.

Whilst the short length worked well in some respects, I think that the book failed to explore some elements of the story. For example, the characters themselves were not very well developed, and many of them simply felt like they were there to push the plot without their identities really being clear. This was especially confusing when they all resulted to be relatives or friends of each other in some way, because I couldn’t tell one apart from the other in order to remember their significance. The romantic storylines also felt forced and very shallow, as the characters seem to fall in love out of nowhere, with no real reasons for their attraction or development in their relationship. This was a major flaw for me as Gardner tried to make love a central theme of the book.

Overall, there were strong and weak points in My Side of the Diamond. I liked the style of narrating, especially the parts where the second-person perspective was clear, and I liked that the book was short. However, I would have preferred for there to have been more character exploration. There were sections of the story that, in my opinion, could have been sacrificed for more character development, or the book could have been a little bit longer to make room for that.

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff Review

513ViNVuIYL._SX299_BO1,204,203,200_

Rating: ★★★★★

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but sometimes there are books that I just have to read. This was one of them. I love shopping for books in the used books stores on Charing Cross Road, and when I discovered there was a book on the same subject, I was instantly in love. This book was even more enjoyable than I expected, I am happy to report, and a brilliant sweet, short read.

Helene Hanff was a struggling writer in New York who loved to buy second hand books. Wanting to get the best value for money, she wrote all the way to London’s Marks & Co bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road to have her books delivered to place her orders. Over the course of 20 years, she struck up a friendship with many of the shop’s staff, but mainly with Frank Doel, a bookseller who took personal responsibility for her orders, and even with his family. Although she never had the opportunity to meet Frank in person, or even to see the bookshop – Frank having died, and the shop having closed by the time she managed to visit London – this makes the letters between them even more moving to read, and especially in this day and age, it was really touching to see how such long lasting relationships could grow across oceans, through the medium of letters. My own copy was followed by the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury, Helene’s diaries from when she finally managed to visit London. Although I didn’t enjoy this section as much, her wit and unique voice is equally strong here.

The thing that really makes this book so great is Helene’s brilliant writing. Her character really came through in her writing, and her letters are so witty and teasing that you will find yourself chuckling away at them. You could really get a feel for all of the characters through the letters, from Helene’s cheery humour to Frank’s more stiff-upper-lip reserve, the gossiping receptionist and his caring wife. It was also lovely to see the passage of time through their letters, and see how the relationships evolved into genuinely caring friendships. Frank remembers requests that Helene made years before, Helene asks after his family and even talks to his wife in separate letters, and although they plan for years to meet each other in London, the evolution of this slow-burn friendship is cut tragically short by circumstance, the event that prompted Helene to publish her letters.

Being such a short book with such lively writing, this was a really enjoyable read. It is barely over 100 pages but in that short period you feel like you have gotten to know Helene and the staff at Marks & Co. I definitely recommend it for a lively, sweet book about book, friendships, and friendships about books!

SaveSave