Quick Review: Friendship by Emily Gould

★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Bev Tunney and Amy Schein have been best friends for years; now, at thirty, they’re at a crossroads. Bev is a Midwestern striver still mourning a years-old romantic catastrophe. Amy is an East Coast princess whose luck and charm have too long allowed her to cruise through life. Bev is stuck in circumstances that would have barely passed for bohemian in her mid-twenties: temping, living with roommates, drowning in student-loan debt. Amy is still riding the tailwinds of her early success, but her habit of burning bridges is finally catching up to her. And now Bev is pregnant. As Bev and Amy are dragged, kicking and screaming, into real adulthood, they have to face the possibility that growing up might mean growing apart.

Despite giving this book four stars it’s easier to say what I didn’t like about it than what I did. When I first started reading it I thought “first world problems!” because so many of the main characters’ dilemmas do seem to be that, at least initially – to employ the classic cliche they don’t appear aware of “how lucky they are”, especially as I read Friendship right after Carys Bray’s A Song For Issy Bradley which deals with the death of a child. However, as the plot moved forward and things grew more serious for both characters I felt much more sympathetic towards them. I also had a few issues with the narrative structure of the book – it is told in the third person although it jumps between the perspectives of Bev, Amy and their new friend Sally – and covers quite a long period of time (around a year, with flashbacks to memories of Bev and Amy earlier in their friendship) but in fairly short chapters so that I felt I was moving between snapshots of the women’s lives when I would rather have been more immersed in them.

That said, I enjoyed Emily Gould’s writing style, the novel was easy and pleasant to read and I wanted to pick it up, to keep reading and find out what happened. I liked reading about characters my age (although their single New York lives are a world away from my countryside SAHM one) and think that many of my friends who are young “urban professional” women would be able to relate to them even more than I did. Friendship captures well that late 20s/early 30s feeling of thinking you “should” have “made it”, or at least be stuck well into a set career path and success by now; as well as the reality that many of us are not, at 30, living the lives we imagined we would be by this point when we started university 12 years ago. Bev and Amy’s friendship was well-handled too: the build-up of their closeness to the point of comfortable daily contact followed by awkwardness when their lives began to diverge is something many of us will be able to relate to.

(This is my 200th blog post!)

A Song For Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

★★★★★ (5 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: The Bradleys see the world as a place where miracles are possible, and where nothing is more important than family. This is their story. It is the story of Ian Bradley — husband, father, math teacher, and Mormon bishop —and his unshakeable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife, Claire, her lonely wait for a sign from God, and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with tragedy. And it is the story of their children: sixteen-year-old Zippy, experiencing the throes of first love; cynical fourteen-year-old Al, who would rather play soccer than read the Book of Mormon; and seven-year-old Jacob, whose faith is bigger than a mustard seed — probably bigger than a toffee candy, he thinks — and which he’s planning to use to mend his broken family with a miracle.

Every once in a while you come across a book that truly gets under your skin and stays there for days, invading your thoughts even when you’re not reading it and affecting your emotions. A Song For Issy Bradley was one of those books for me.

Told in the third person but from the alternating perspectives of all five remaining family members we observe their emotions and reactions on the day, and in the aftermath of, youngest daughter’s Issy’s death from meningitis. I have to admit that reading about Issy’s passing was uncomfortable, and scary, at times (as a parent myself it was impossible not to imagine how I would feel was it a child of mine who fell ill), but I always say it’s a sign of a good book when it can affect your emotions and sometimes reading about awful events like this can help us as readers appreciate our own lives even more. Using multiple perspectives allowed the reader to see the characters through the eyes of each other as well as their own, and made me sympathetic towards every single one of them (even if, when reading about one through another’s perspective (especially when reading about Ian, who nonetheless remained my least favourite) you felt annoyed by their in/actions) as we were able to understand their motives. I enjoyed Alma and Zippy’s storylines the most – perhaps because as teenagers they were grappling with some major life changes as well as Issy’s passing – and found their experience and handling of the often-contradicting pressures of the outside world and their faith fascinating (especially as Alma leans more towards a secular life, whilst Zippy is sure she wants to continue to live, and marry, within the faith).

I was very interested in the religious angle of the story, despite not being of a particular faith myself, and kept telling my partner random facts about Mormonism that I had gleaned from the novel. The Bradleys are British, one of a small number of British Mormons (around 180,000 out of our 63 million people), none of whom I have ever met in person. I’m fascinated by what other people believe and had perceived the Mormon Church (officially known as the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as being quite secretive about the details of their religious faith and practices (although spending time as a missionary is an essential rite of passage for Mormon men none have ever come to my door), so didn’t know much about it until reading A Song For Issy Bradley. The novel truly gives an insider’s view as author Carys Bray was a member of the LDS Church from birth until her early thirties (and I don’t think it’s an accident that her and character Claire have the same initials – for an article about Carys’ experiences within the faith, click here). Amongst other things I learned that Mormons aren’t supposed to drink tea or coffee, that they are required to wear special underwear, that they believe the overall leader of their Church is a living prophet who can converse with God and that men and women have very strictly defined roles. I would make a terrible Mormon wife – I may be a SAHM but I am definitely not housewife of the year and though I enjoy spending time with my son a clean house is never as important to me as reading a book is. Zippy’s story showed the pressures on teenage girls to be “modest” and to be responsible not only for their own “sexual purity” but also for that of the males around them who they mustn’t “tempt”, a concept which irked me greatly.

A Song For Issy Bradley is extremely well-written, both in terms of structure and pacing and on an individual sentence-to-sentence construction level. The dialogue is believable, the narrative descriptive enough to put you in the room with the characters but not enough to overpower the plot or ever begin to bore you. The only thing I would change about A Song For Issy Bradley is that I would have made it longer – I didn’t want to leave the characters, or their stories. I can only hope that Carys Bray will write a sequel, and I’ll definitely be reading her next novel, whatever the subject matter may be.

Off Key by Mark Robertson

★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Charlotte has supported Kyle’s precarious musical career for three years. Now it’s her turn. When Kyle doesn’t want to play the breadwinner, she looks to a future on the other side of the Atlantic. Saxophonist Kyle has no money, no career and has now lost the love of his live. Can an autistic twelve-year-old boy and an alcoholic ‘has been’ be his salvation?

Why did I read this book?
Mark Robertson emailed me and asked whether I would be interested in reviewing his novel. He pointed me in the direction of the free sample of the first two chapters on his website and as I liked what I read there (and Mark’s sense of humour in the emails we exchanged) gladly accepted a copy to review. The trouble with chatting with an author before you read their book is that you can then feel a bit mean when it comes to review time if you didn’t 100% love their work, but this blog has a tradition of being bluntly honest and I’m not about to change that now…

Favourite thing about the book:
That it made me laugh. There were many funny sentences, and amusing set-pieces like the band playing a gig that turns out to be a warm-up for an entirely different sort of act. I also liked the image of Kyle playing “Musical Tricia” in the morning – practising his improvisation based on the emotions of chat show guests.

Other positives:
+ Despite the issues I had with Off Key I was left with a warm-hearted feeling when I closed it for the last time. It is a feel-good book and sometimes that’s just what you need. (As an aside, I think the story would work very well – better, even – as a film than it does in novel-form, but that might be because I tend to use films for light entertainment and novels more as thought-inspiration (not that Off Key left me entirely without thought)).
+ As someone around the same age as Kyle, Charlotte and Dainty (who are in their early 30s) I thought the novel captured our life-stage, and the feeling that we really should have “made it” by now, well.
+ Off Key has a good balance of serious and funny – and in that way it reminded me of Nick Hornby’s work.
+ Many of the characters were well-developed, notably Kyle but also Dainty and Ethan who showed different sides to their personalities as time went by.
+ I’m not a musician but I enjoyed reading about the band’s gigs and practices – all the behind the scenes stuff I’d not otherwise see. Relatedly, I liked this comment on the music industry: “what was it that decreed that he, Kyle Johnson, was a failure whereas someone whose commitment to playing music stretched to one hyped up album, three autobiographies and a career designing pants and eating bugs in the jungle, was a success.”
+ Whilst the romantic comedy plot was predictable, I didn’t see the Harry-related final twist coming.

Least favourite thing about the book:
Off Key contains a lot of stereotyping and whilst I don’t think any harm was intended by it (or that it was intentional – this is a genuinely warm-hearted book at its core) I couldn’t help noticing it and being annoyed by it. The male characters are by and large obsessive, messy, lazy beer-drinkers whilst the female ones hold everything together, long for babies, love shopping and despair over how useless men are (there was also a strange scene where one woman gives a friend a spare tampon and they go into a long conversation about periods – I’m sure this is an example of a male author trying to write convincing dialogue about the female experience but never in my life has a request for a spare tampon resulted in any further conversation than “sure, here you go” or “no, sorry”). Meanwhile, the Black characters are excellent dancers and (if they’re female) have great bums. There are also some uses of language which I was a bit uncomfortable with – little things like the synopsis describing someone as “autistic” rather than a “having autism” (the person’s condition shouldn’t be their defining feature). I didn’t think Ludo was given short enough shrift for his treatment of women, either.

Other negatives:
– The novel could have done with a stronger/stricter edit. It had many of those mistakes you don’t notice when you’ve written something yourself and have read it through a hundred times but which are immediately detectable to a new reader – words capitalised in one place but not in another, question marks where there should be full stops and so forth.
– The plot seemed to lose its way a bit around the 40% – 75% mark and I have to admit I had to force myself to keep reading at times, though it did pick up by the end.
– The character of Craig got lost a bit and I would like to have known more about him. I was left feeling not too sure what the point of him was except to assist Kyle in making a mess which annoyed Charlotte and thus set other parts of the plot in motion.

Favourite character:
I liked almost everyone, but probably Kyle. He undergoes a transformation during the book that leaves him a better version of himself.

Least favourite:
Ludo.

I recommend this book to: ~ Nick Hornby fans.
~ Musicians.
(Though I do so cautiously due to the novel’s stereotyping.)

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of this book by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. All views are my own and I have not received any payment for this post.

Two-View Book Review: The Amber Fury (also known as The Furies) by Natalie Haynes

whr amber fury

Hayley: ★★★ (3 stars)

Hannah: ★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: When Alex Morris loses her fiancé in dreadful circumstances, she moves from London to Edinburgh to make a break with the past. Alex takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit, which accepts the students excluded from other schools in the city. These are troubled, difficult kids and Alex is terrified of what she’s taken on. There is one class – a group of five teenagers – who intimidate Alex and every other teacher on The Unit. But with the help of the Greek tragedies she teaches, Alex gradually develops a rapport with them. Finding them enthralled by tales of cruel fate and bloody revenge, she even begins to worry that they are taking her lessons to heart, and that a whole new tragedy is being performed, right in front of her…

Why did I read this book?
Hayley: I’d seen it recommended online so when I found it in a bookshop whilst on holiday I decided to pick up a copy.

Hannah: When I heard The Amber Fury was set in Edinburgh and about teenagers with “issues” I knew I had to read it. The glowing reviews I saw all over the place added to my excitement – and apparently that of many other people in Angus, as I had to wait months for my turn with the library’s copy!

Favourite thing about the book:
Hayley: I read it during a reading slump and it managed to keep me engaged enough to finish it quite quickly and I remained gripped during a long train journey.

Hannah: How gripping it was – I read it in a day. You know something bad will happen but you don’t know what or when, and the tension builds perfectly.

Other positives:
Hayley: + I liked how the focus on teaching troubled teens didn’t end in an inspirational movie way, that element was part of the book that felt quite realistic.

Hannah: + Declare me a philistine if you want but I’ve never been bothered about classical literature and although I’m not about to rush out and buy a book on Greek myths or plays this did show them to be more interesting than I’d previously assumed.
+ I liked the character of Mel and analysing her ambivalent motives.
+ The book asks good questions about professional boundaries and whether certain jobs are appropriate for certain people at certain times of their lives.
+ The bereavement aspect of the plot was well-handled – it reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone (which is one of my favourite books), especially as it too is set in Edinburgh and London.
+ Its Edinburgh setting (although it is very much a “tourist’s Edinburgh” that we see).

Least favourite thing about the book:
Hayley: Despite getting the job via her friend I didn’t find it very believable that Alex was given the job considering that a) she has no teaching qualification and b) is drowning under grief and quite unstable and vulnerable as a result.

Hannah: I’m not entirely convinced that the kids would be as interested in Alex’s lessons as they appear to me – it was one of those wonder-teacher kind of stories that i’m always dubious of (like that movie Dangerous Minds), though obviously she didn’t work complete miracles (slight understatement?).

Other negatives:
Hayley: – I found that plot quite predictable and as I neared the conclusion I really found myself hoping for a big twist and when there wasn’t one I felt quite deflated.
– I detected an element of a class divide/class snobbery between Alex and the pupils and Alex and the woman implicated in her partner’s death.
– I agree with Hannah that it seems unlikely the pupils would be so interested in the greek tragedies and this seemed more like a way of indulging Alex’s interests and expertise than anything else. I’d also like to think there would be more of a formal structure in place for her lessons to adhere to?
– Alex isn’t very distinctive as a character so I found her and the other character’s difficult to empathise with.

Hannah: – Rather like Catherine in Elizabeth Haynes’ Into The Darkest Corner which I read a few months ago protagonist Alex was cast at an unrealistically young age. By the age of twenty five she has achieved far more in both her directing (and, as the novel progresses, teaching) careers than anyone I’ve ever met (especially those who want to work in the arts). If she had been five or even three years older it would have been a tad more credible.
– I would have liked to have read more from Mel’s perspective (I did enjoy the alternating narration but 50% of each would have been preferable to the balance that was struck in favour of Alex).
– Relatedly, I didn’t think Alex and Mel’s voices were sufficiently distinct from each other. The main difference seemed to be that Mel swore more.
– Alex was a bit of a non-character and not someone I could relate to, though maybe that was partly because she was grieving and therefore understandably preoccupied.

Favourite character:
Hayley: Robert was most likeable but I would have liked to see him developed more.

Hannah: Robert (and his partner Jeff).

Least favourite:
Hayley: Everyone else.

Hannah: Alex’s mum.

I recommend this book to:
Hayley: I’m not sure I would really recommend this book but it would definitely suffice as a book to read whilst travelling as it’s gripping enough but not vastly memorable.

Hannah: ~ People who want to read something absorbing and well-paced, with some interesting teenage characters and a story that’s not run of the mill.
~ Anyone interested in learning a little about ancient Greek plays.

Thank you to Hayley (Twitter: here; blog: here) in joining me for this review! ♥

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.