The Book of You by Claire Kendal

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Clarissa is becoming more and more frightened of her colleague, Rafe. He won’t leave her alone, and he refuses to take no for an answer. He is always there. Being selected for jury service is a relief. The courtroom is a safe haven, a place where Rafe can’t be. But as a violent tale of kidnap and abuse unfolds, Clarissa begins to see parallels between her own situation and that of the young woman on the witness stand. Realizing that she bears the burden of proof, Clarissa unravels the twisted, macabre fairytale that Rafe has spun around them – and discovers that the ending he envisions is more terrifying than she could have imagined. But how do you protect yourself from an enemy no one else can see?

Why did I read this book?
The Book Of You seems to be everywhere lately – book blogs, newspaper book reviews, my goodreads feed, so I couldn’t fail to notice it. I enjoy psychological thrillers so although the plot didn’t sound terribly original (the court case part strand of it notwithstanding) The Book Of You quickly found its way onto my to-read and library reservations list.

Favourite thing about the book:
How gripping it was. You’ll see later that I had a few little gripes with the book but overall I enjoyed the experience of reading it and even recommended it to others when I was only part-way through.

Other positives:
+ Claire Kendal is skilled at creating atmosphere. Although I read The Book Of You in August it felt like winter when I was steeped in its pages, and the city of Bath came alive in my mind (I think I went there as a child, but don’t remember anything about it).
+ The character of Clarissa – more on that later.
+ The Book Of You was truly creepy and scary at times, and I always admire a book that is able to shape my emotions.
+ As Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner did where domestic abuse is concerned, The Book Of You shows that stalking can happen to anyone and that stalkers can be anyone (Rafe is a respected university professor). It also explains why people who are being stalked don’t always go to the police immediately/at all and through both Clarissa’s storyline and that of the court case she is a juror for we are shown how the services there to protect and help women can sometimes do the opposite.
+ I enjoyed the trial element of the novel which provided a “behind the scenes” look at what jury service in England can be like.
+ I enjoyed watching the developing relationships between Clarissa and Annie, and Clarissa and Robert, and felt these were well-written and portrayed.

Least favourite thing about the book:
The novel lost its pace a bit between the 70% and 90% mark.

Other negatives:
– The narrative switches between a diary style and a third person narrator which I found confusing initially and irksome through the book as a whole. I would have preferred one or the other all the way through (and preferably the diary).
– There are a couple of dream sequences, and you all know how much I hate those.

Favourite character:
Clarissa. I found her warm and easy to empathise with. I liked that she enjoyed reading and sewing and wasn’t a party animal, and that her experience with Rafe didn’t put her off having feelings for Robert or having some optimism for the future.

Least favourite:
Rafe, of course. Though I didn’t think much of Clarissa’s “friend” Rowena, either.

I recommend this book to:
~ People who enjoy psychological thrillers and being scared.
~ People wanting to understand more about stalking and how it can happen to anyone.
~ Anyone wanting to learn more about how English juries and courts work.
(I should also add, though it’s probably obvious, that this book contains graphic descriptions of stalking and domestic and sexual abuse, so if you are sensitive to reading about those things you might want to give it a miss.)

Quick Review: Started Early, Took My Dog (Jackson Brodie #4) by Kate Atkinson

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: A day like any other for security chief Tracy Waterhouse, until she makes a purchase she hadn’t bargained for. One moment of madness is all it takes for Tracy’s humdrum world to be turned upside down, the tedium of everyday life replaced by fear and danger at every turn. Witnesses to Tracy’s Faustian exchange in the Merrion Centre in Leeds are Tilly, an elderly actress teetering on the brink of her own disaster, and Jackson Brodie who has returned to his home county in search of someone else’s roots. All three characters learn that the past is never history and that no good deed goes unpunished.

Started Early, Took My Dog (surely one of the best titles ever?) is the fourth (and perhaps, but not definitely, final) novel in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series (the other books being: Case Histories, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News?). As a whole I have enjoyed the series which combines crime fiction with Kate Atkinson’s usual literary style and offbeat, analysed-in-depth, characters and although the first book remains my favourite this comes a close second, not least because of its dark and at times unsettling atmosphere.

The plot kept me guessing and remained central to the story without eclipsing explorations of the characters’ lives and motives; and whilst the tale become a little farcical at times it was more reigned in that in One Good Turn (which I found the least believable book of the series). Jackson Brodie himself began to annoy me in that installment, but by the end of this he had redeemed himself, and I liked the other main protagonists, Tilly (and especially) Tracy, a lot. Started Early… is unusual in that all three of the central characters are over 50, and as someone 20 years younger than that I did sometimes wish there was someone closer to my age to whom I could relate but it did show me that middle-aged people can still have interesting lives! (Just joking, I knew that already.)

Her by Harriet Lane

★★ (2 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Two different women; two different worlds. Nina is sophisticated, moneyed and damaged. Emma is a struggling young* mother who has put her life on hold. After Nina meets Emma by chance, she begins to draw Emma into her privileged world. But this isn’t the first time the women have crossed paths. Nina remembers Emma and she remembers what Emma did. But what did Emma do? How far will Nina go to punish her? And when will Emma realise that her new friend is a disturbing face from the past?
* Hardly – she says her second child is born just before her fortieth birthday. I’m not saying forty is ancient, but having your children in your late thirties hardly qualifies you to be called a “young mother”. The synopsis is as rubbish as the book.

Why did I read this book?
Good question, ha. It had a glowing review in that esteemed newspaper the Metro, as well as on a few book blogs. The plot sounded interesting enough, although after reading Cuckoo by Julia Crouch, Precious Thing by Colette McBeth and Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly this year perhaps I have had my fill of “toxic friendship” stories (though this was by far the worst of the bunch).

Favourite thing about the book:
Nothing. I suppose something about it did make me want to keep reading, but there wasn’t anything I liked about it. Whilst reading Her I thought Harriet Lane’s style on a sentence-to-sentence level was decent enough but I’ve cooled on that front, having subsequently read this goodreads review pointing out how over-adjective-d her prose is.

Other positives:
None.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Well, where to start? Perhaps with the fact almost nothing happens during the entire book, and that we have to sit through long descriptions of nothing happening not only once, but twice, as each vaguely “key” event is narrated first from Emma’s perspective and then from Nina’s. It can be (in fact, often is) interesting/enjoyable to read about multiple perspectives on the same events/people but this went into way too much detail.

Other negatives:
– It’s awful, open-ended ending. At last something happens but we never truly find out what.
– The characters are horribly middle class, in a don’t-appreciate-their-own-privilege sort of way. Emma moans all the time about how “skint” she is whilst living in an owned-with-a-mortgage three bedroom house in north London, going to posh restaurants for tea and hosting dinner parties. Try living on beans on toast for months and living in a tiny rented flat where you and your kids share a room. Or living on benefits, having to choose between heating and eating. Or being homeless. That’s what “skint” means.
– On a related note, Emma is incredibly whiny about what seems like a pretty decent life. Not just the material stuff, but the fact she has two healthy children, has her own health, has friends, had an interesting career which she plans to return to someday… This is especially true where her children are concerned – towards the end of the novel she tells Nina she is lucky to have them but she doesn’t seem to enjoy them at all. She never talks about sharing happy moments with them, instead it’s just moan, moan, whinge, whinge, I have to do housework, I have to feed the baby, I have to take the kids out somewhere. What did she think being a stay-at-home-parent would be like? I’m not saying there aren’t days when being a parent is hard work/stressful or that it’s all rainbows all the time, especially when you’re a stay-at-home-parent, but this was an extremely one-sided negative portrayal of it. I’m glad it’s fiction as I would hate for Emma’s children to grow up and read about how much their mother resented looking after them.
– The “ultimate reveal” telling us what Emma did and why Nina holds a grudge against her was ridiculous and unbelievable.
Her presents a stereotypical opinion of relationships between men and women and the male characters are nothing more than negative charactures. Emma’s husband Ben is lazy, makes a huge performance (and mess that he won’t clean up) whenever he cooks and just generally has “no idea” how hard her life is (because, you know, men are completely incapable of empathy or noticing that looking after young children can be wearing and quite hard work, or ever doing any sort of cleaning). The other male characters are distant and/or philanderers, and even Emma’s son Christopher is portrayed as nothing more than a muck-magnet, tantrum-thrower, loser-of-toys and all-round-work-generator.
– It’s a shallow point, but the cover is naff and completely uninspired.

Favourite character:
Emma’s children.

Least favourite:
Everyone else, particularly Nina (despite the fact she is an obvious baddie. Oh, and I have to mention how annoying it is that her “baddie” status is partly down to the fact she is intelligent, well-dressed, has a successful career and is materially well-off, because the author seems to believe that readers (especially female ones) are pre-programmed to be jealous of, and hate, any woman who ticks these boxes. We can’t be pleased for each other, can we?

I recommend this book to:
Absolutely no-one. To be honest two stars is generous for this book – if I gave half stars it would only get one and a half.

Two-View Book Review: Bodies Of Light by Sarah Moss

Today I am joined again by my friend Laura who reviewed Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt with me. She writes the book blog Little Book Fiend and can be found on Twitter @laurabookfiend.

whr bodies ★★★★★ (5 stars) from both of us.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Bodies of Light is a deeply poignant tale of a psychologically tumultuous nineteenth century upbringing set in the atmospheric world of Pre-Raphaelitism and the early suffrage movement. Ally (older sister of May in Night Waking), is intelligent, studious and engaged in an eternal – and losing – battle to gain her mother’s approval and affection. Her mother, Elizabeth, is a religious zealot, keener on feeding the poor and saving prostitutes than on embracing the challenges of motherhood. Even when Ally wins a scholarship and is accepted as one of the first female students to read medicine in London, it still doesn’t seem good enough.

Why did I read this book?
L: I really enjoyed Sarah Moss’s book “Cold Earth”, which I read earlier this year. I was keen to give another one of her books a go and the blurb of this one really captured my interest. After reading this book, I am definitely keen to read more of her writing, too!

H: Mostly because I loved the other Sarah Moss books I’ve read – Night Waking and Cold Earth (needless to say I was happy to discover that Bodies Of Light is the first in a two-part series) but also because I enjoy books set in Victorian Britain, especially those living in the more radical parts of society.

Favourite thing about the book:
L: I loved this book! It is so rich it’s hard for me to pick my favourite thing out so many good points. However, I think my favourite thing was the overall “radical” feel to the book. It captures in its pages a moment in history where the world is changing, where traditional ideas are being challenged, where women are starting to rise up and make their voices heard, to fight for the right to a proper education and professions. It is one of those novels that really connects you to history and not just lives of the characters in it, but to women throughout the whole of history, and the present day too.

H: Bodies Of Light is a very pro-women, feminist, book. It shows what women in the 19th Century had to cope with which echo issues that women still have to deal with now, especially where family and motherhood are concerned (it asks the eternal question of whether you can “have it all”, and one of the early sections has an excellent description of PND. In this way the novel follows on from Night Waking which addressed some of these concerns). Here are a couple of (sadly) timeless quotes about women from Bodies Of Light:
• “men dismiss women’s opinions because the woman expressing herself is pretty, or because she is plain, because she is young or old, single or married, because, in the end, all women’s speech is considered to be merely personal”
• “There are hosts of women, in the Bible as well as in sermons, who are condemned because their care more for their clothes than their salvation. One can also be condemned for the opposite offence”

Other positives:
L: + Sarah Moss’s writing style is stunningly beautiful and a joy to read. She creates a very powerful impression on the reader of places, situations and emotions, which made this book all the more absorbing.
+ In particular, I felt that Ally’s feelings of anxiety and panic were very realistically portrayed. Sarah Moss creates a strong claustrophobic feeling that conveys Ally’s distress in an uncomfortably real way.
+ Ally’s subtle strength. I love her development as a character, a woman and a doctor throughout this book, escaping her mother’s tyranny, to become someone who knows her own mind and follows her own path.

H: + I loved how drawn into the time period I was by this book. I learned a lot about Victorian life (how hard laundry was, for a start!), but also realised how alike our lives then and now are. It is definitely one of my favourite historical periods to read about, because, as the character Aubery says:
“I often think that if I could choose any time to be born, and any place in the world to live, I would probably choose to be here and now. Think of the opportunities, the ships and railways, the Empire opening up at our feet, the new inventions and discoveries.”
+ The description of Victorian style, especially where interior design (which May and Ally’s father specialises in) was concerned, really appealed to me – all the lavish wallpapers and little carved designs in the furniture.
+ As mentioned earlier, there is a truly great description of PND/baby blues that shows it’s a condition that’s (sadly) been with women forever, that the negative emotions of being overwhelmed by the baby’s needs, not getting enough sleep, feeling like a failure if you ask for help are, of course, timeless.
+ The novel’s characters are complex – no-one is wholly good or bad – just as in real life.
+ The cover!

Least favourite thing about the book:
L: I didn’t really feel the descriptions of the paintings at the beginning of each chapter added much to the book. I found them a bit tedious to be honest!

H: Bodies Of Light‘s style took me a while to get into as Sarah Moss emulates a Victorian style (which admittedly isn’t my favourite, hence me reading very, very few classic novels of my own volition) but once I got used to it it didn’t hamper my enjoyment and I can understand that it was necessary in order for the novel to have a convincing voice.

Other negatives:
L: Nothing other than that. This is a fabulous book, very hard to fault.

H: – I found it hard to understand why Alfred and Elizabeth married/initially attracted to each other, even with the inclusion of chapters describing their courtship/early married life.

Favourite character:
L: Mary. While Mary is not without her flaws (e.g. she allows her children to be beaten for misbehaviour), I liked her for the much-needed warmth with which she treats Ally. She is a kind, loving contrast to her sister, Lizzie. I also think she is a very important character in this book as she demonstrates that people can break free from oppressive, destructive upbringings, and is therefore a very positive influence for Ally to have around.

H: It’s hard to say. Not Alfred, because although I liked the sound of his art and he was a good dad to Ally at the start (though he still feels it should be his wife’s job to parent) he treats his daughters differently and favours May. I liked Aubrey but not the direction his relationship with May took. May seemed selfish at times and seemed not to realise how easy she had things compared to her sister, so maybe Aletha, though she wasn’t very dynamic.

Least favourite:
L: Elizabeth, Ally and May’s mother (and Mary’s sister). Lizzie is an almost impossible character to like, someone who does good work but is not a good person. Despite the apparent kindness she shows the poor women she works with, she is cruel and lacking in compassion, particularly toward Ally. Her heartbreaking, destructive mistreatment of her daughter is utterly reprehensible. I loved, however, the fact that the early sections of this book were narrated by Lizzie, so we could get an insight into her own experiences. Her attitude very much mirrors that of her mother, and likewise Lizzie’s relationship with her mother shows strong similarities to her relationship with Ally.

H: Elizabeth. So unforgiving and strict and tough on Ally especially (though she does so because she feels it is right, so can I really dislike her for it?)

I recommend this book to:
L: ~ Those who like historical fiction that explores social issues.
~ Anyone who has read and enjoyed any of Sarah Moss’s other books.

H: ~ Feminists.
~ Those interested in Victorian Britain.

Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: ‘Bright Young Things wanted for Big Project.’ They’re in the prime of their lives but our bright young things are all burnt out. Six sparky twenty-somethings just out of university and working dead-end jobs, they are all bored to tears with their lives and looking for a way out. When a mysterious job is advertised in the newspaper, they all apply. What they least expect is to find themselves prisoners on a deserted island. There’s food in the fridge and they have a bedroom each, but there’s no telephone, no television, and no way to escape.

Why did I read this book?
Scarlett Thomas was one of the best authors I “discovered” last year (I’m late to the party, I know) – I greatly enjoyed PopCo and fell in love with Our Tragic Universe. Naturally I now want to read all of her work (although I might skip her very early crime novels) and thought I’d start with this and Going Out (both of which pre-date PopCo) before treating myself to The End Of Mr Y.

Favourite thing about the book:
Scarlett Thomas’ writing style. It’s snappy and intelligent without being draining to read.

Other positives:
+ Although published in 2001, Bright Young Things was written in the late 90s and it instantly transported me back to that time – when the best thing you could do with a mobile was to play Snake, Blur were still making music and the internet was something only geeks were very bothered about. The book is packed with pop culture and fashion references and I loved the nostalgia trip it gave me (I was around 15 when it was written).
+ I enjoyed the lengthy “Truth Or Dare” scene during which multiple revelations regarding pretty much all the characters come about. The spilling of juicy secrets was fun and the way the characters interacted was believably and skillfully written.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Its ending, or perhaps I should say “non-ending”. It felt very rushed and was so frustrating that it almost made me wish I hadn’t bothered reading the book.

Other negatives:
– The characters were not always distinct enough from each other, especially early on. I spent the first half struggling to remember who was who and double checking their initial back stories to remind myself.
Bright Young Things is really very thin on plot. Despite the premise being quite a “big idea” it felt very much like a device to enable conversations rather than something with a purpose and didn’t feel like the best tool for the job.

Favourite character:
Anne, with Paul a close second.

Least favourite:
Jamie, though I also found Emily and Bryn pretty hard to relate to.

I recommend this book to:
~ Anyone who wants to reminisce about the late 90s, or just wants to read all Scarlett Thomas’ back catalogue. If you like the idea of this book but don’t feel impressed by the way it’s carried out I suggest you check out Cold Earth by Sarah Moss.

Quick Review: When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie #3) by Kate Atkinson

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: On a hot summer day, Joanna Mason’s family slowly wanders home along a country lane. A moment later, Joanna’s life is changed forever. On a dark night thirty years later, ex-detective Jackson Brodie finds himself on a train that is both crowded and late. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly hears a shocking sound. At the end of a long day, 16-year-old Reggie is looking forward to watching a little TV. Then a terrifying noise shatters her peaceful evening. Luckily, Reggie makes it a point to be prepared for an emergency.

This is the third book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series, following on from Case Histories and One Good Turn (the first of which I loved, the second of which I found mildly disappointing) and, like its predecessor, set in Edinburgh (yay!). When Will There Be Good News? was, like all Kate Atkinson’s work, extremely well-written and able to draw you into the characters’ worlds smoothly and skillfully. Every location, every person, was just detailed enough to be believable without that description becoming tedious. I much preferred the characters of When Will There Be Good News? to those in One Good Turn (and even those that appeared in both, like Jackson and Louise, were somehow more sympathetic here) though mostly I just loved Reggie and Joanna, they were brilliant. I’ve held back from giving this five stars because it didn’t feel as tightly plotted as the previous books in the series: it was 85% build-up and the clues came too slowly to be shocking or to make me want to keep reading (the characters and writing were enough to do that, but I expect a more gripping story when reading crime). Still, as a whole, it’s a series I highly recommend.

Two-View Book Review: The Most Beautiful Rot by Ocean Capewell

My co-reviewer for this book ismy friend Ingrid, a zine-maker who you can find at www.mythologisingme.tumblr.com

I: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
H: ★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: The Most Beautiful Rot is a secret peek into the backyards and living rooms of young queer america. It’s a testament to the act of digging through the bleakness of everyday life to find something beautiful growing underneath, something that you weren’t expecting. This book is also about overflowing dumpsters, stupid men, catastrophic illness, hot queer makeouts, and a compost pile gone horribly wrong. It’s about solidarity, kale, girl love, and the families we make when our other families leave us behind. The story is narrated by four housemates. First we meet Tabitha, the youngest, newest housemate who’s super-excited to have discovered this new way of life, until she discovers something untoward in the compost pile. She tries to seek revenge, but even that goes awry. Next, the focus is turned over to Xandria, our reformed crusty who’s wrestling with some ghosts from her past that won’t stop haunting her. Jasmine takes over the narration next with her dreamy, poetic style that culminates in a shocking–and devastating–revelation. Lydia carries us towards the end with her sassy productivity, towards the change that threatens to tear their family apart.

Why did I read this book?
I: I’ve been an avid reader of Ocean’s zine series ‘High on burning photographs’ for several years now. She has the ability to write about raw topics in a really beautiful way. I bought this through her crowdfunding campaign because I wanted to read it but also to support her writing.

H: I’m also familiar with Ocean’s zines, and though I haven’t read any in a while I remember enjoying them and thinking Ocean was/is an excellent writer. I was drawn to the novel’s unusual premise and the promise of characters unlike those I usually find in novels (and I wasn’t disappointed).

Favourite thing about the book:
I: It’s beautifully written, and I like how there are several different characters you get to meet. I think having Tabitha be brand new to the group made you sympathise with them and feel like you could be them in the scenario of the world Ocean has created.

H: That it shows us a world rarely seen in fiction, with characters living lives “outside the norm”; characters who I could often relate to and who were all interesting.

Other positives:
I: + The cover is gorgeous! I didn’t want to put this as my favourite thing as you know, it’s a cliché that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. However it’s adorable and delicate and makes people want to ask what you’re reading.
+ I also felt like the length was suitable, my curiosity was sated by the end of the book, without feeling like things were too neat and tidy. I finished it feeling satisfied.

H: + I agree with Ingrid, the cover is lovely!
+ Ocean is a brilliant writer, and saying that is a vast understatement. I can’t stress enough how much I love her style, and how well she communicates the thoughts of her characters and enables the reader to visualize their world.
+ I liked the multiple narrator device and felt like each individual voice was strong and distinct from the others. It was interesting to see how different people viewed the same situation and people around them/each other.
+ Ocean leaves things open enough to encourage readers to make up their own minds about events and characters’ motivations. The Most Beautiful Rot would work well as a book group choice for this (and other) reasons.
+ The sex scenes weren’t cringeworthy! It’s hard to write these well, but Ocean managed it.

Least favourite thing about the book:
I: There really isn’t one. I thought it was the perfect patchwork of experiences and characters and life experiences.

H: I’ve held back from giving The Most Beautiful Rot five stars because I felt it could have been just a little a bit longer, gone just a little bit deeper into each character’s story (though overall I was satisfied by it).

Other negatives:
I: – I think the world created in the book is one which might be a little specific to US culture, so as a reader from the UK it can at times be a bit hard to relate to. Though I know communal living does exist here, it’s just less common, or maybe the people involved are less vocal in the zine community here. However that’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable, I wanted to get thoroughly lost in the world of this book.

H: – None!

Favourite character:
I: I love them all but maybe Lydia, because I loved the writing style in her chapters and she’s ultra femme and she’s got a kickass job and a mindset I can relate to and I think I would have fallen in love with her if I was Tabitha!

H: I liked all the characters, but I think Jasmine was my favourite. Obviously (to anyone who’s read the book) she’s not in the best place during this story but I loved her “voice” and attitude and she was the character I most wanted to get to know better.

Least favourite:
I: I think Xandria was hard to pin down at first, she’s obviously got some serious demons and is less happy to open up so as a reader I wasn’t sure how to relate, but as I got further into her backstory this was totally justified, I feel. I liked that she reached out to Tabitha from the start though, really I don’t have a least favourite at all!

H: I found Xandria the hardest to relate to, though I didn’t dislike her. I felt that both her and Lydia could be a tad bitchy and sometimes acted in a way towards people that was incongruous with their true feelings, but I suppose we all do that sometimes.

I recommend this book to:
I: ~ Anyone who wants to read a novel about survival and female friendship, but I know that zine writers and feminists would particularly enjoy it.

H: ~ What Ingrid said! I think anyone who has had a crappy job, lived communally or felt their friends were their family will find a lot to like here.