A(nother) Review: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus

Here it is, the final book in the Thumping Good Read shortlist – One of Us Is Lying by Karen M McManus.

 

I already mentioned last week that this is one of my favourites, and as I sat down to write this post, I found myself grinning as I remembered it.

 

One of Us Is Lying is a novel about five students who all find themselves in detention. Some of them regulars in the detention room, some of them there for the first time, all of them denying having done any wrong-doing.

 

When one of the students suffers an allergic reaction and dies, it is seen to be a tragic accident. At least, at first. Simon runs – ran – an app detailing all the gossip at their school and soon the other four students from detention are all in the frame for his murder – with all of them keeping secrets that Simon was about to reveal.

 

There’s not a lot more I can say about the plot without giving too much away, but for me, this is the epitome of a book you can’t put down. I had to read on to find out what each of their secrets were and to try and work out ‘whodunnit’.

 

McManus makes it easy for us to read as well, the focus shifting between the four suspects, never lingering too long, so if there’s a character you don’t like as much as the others, there’ll be one that you do along any minute.

 

I love this kind of split narrative. Mostly because typically, I like all the characters but there’s one character, one story that I want to read more of.

 

A lot of people I know that have read this have likened it to The Breakfast Club – I’d love to agree, but I’ve never seen TBC so both you and I will have to take their word for it. But if that means anything to you, then it sounds like a good recommendation, doesn’t it?

 

For me it reminded me of other Young Adult novels by David Levithan and John Green. This was very much in that vein, so perfect for fans of both of those authors.

 

And there’s the thing. It’s branded and promoted as a Young Adult read.

 

Having handed this book out to a few different people, a couple of them have responded saying they hadn’t realised it was Young Adult – for them it was just a really good read (Thumping Good, perhaps).

 

I always worry that YA branding will put some people off of reading it, but I’ve come to realise I don’t care. It’s their loss, and actually if it helps young people who might not normally read find an accessible way into books, then that’s just fantastic.

 

But, if the only reason you’re not picking up this book is because you don’t read Young Adult, then take your hang-ups, pop them in a drawer and settle down with one of my favourite books of this year.

 

(Even though, it first came out last year…)

 

More importantly, other than being a really great read, I have a happy memory of it. Seeing the cover, thinking about writing this review has put a smile on my face. There are other books I have enjoyed that give me different feelings when I remember them (melancholy, tension, despair), but this is one of the few that makes me smile fondly.

 

One of Us Is Lying is available now from Penguin and is half price in all WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 18thJuly.

 

The winner of Thumping Good Read will be announced on Thursday 19thJuly

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A(nother) Review: The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

We’re on our penultimate book of the Thumping Good Read Award shortlist and we’re onto one of my favourites (Yes, ok I’ve said that before, but to be fair, they wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t enjoy them!).

 

Before we get into The Other Woman – that didn’t come out quite the way I intended, but I’ll leave it there – I should let you know that there is only a day and a half left to vote for your favourite.

 

Head over to the WHSmith blog where you can find out more about the seven shortlisted titles – including the only one I’ve not featured yet One Of Us Is Lying (it’s another one of my favourites!). You have until the end of Friday 6thJuly to vote for your favourite and help decide who will win the £10,000 prize.

 

But back toThe Other Woman– what’s it about? It’s not about a mistress as you might initially think. Instead, it’s about a mother-in-law. Pammie.

 

Pammie.

 

You can just tell by that name that she’s going to be difficult, and boy does she cause trouble.

 

It’s been a couple of month since I read The Other Woman and I can still remember her name. I read a lot of books, all of them with a lot of characters and a lot of names. The plots stay with me – for better or for worse – but you can tell when a character is well-written, because they linger in your mind for ages.

 

The other way you can tell a character is well described is when you talk about the book with someone else, and you both say the character reminded you of the same person. In this instance @LucyHine and I both said Pammie was Bridget Jones’ mother.

 

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This might be all you need to know about her… but I’m going to tell you more. At least about the book.

 

Emily meets Adam and they instantly fall head over heels with each other. Things are going really well right up to the moment Adam takes her to meet his mother. This is where things start to take a turn.

 

Adam and Emily argue on the way to see Pammie, their first proper argument, but this is overshadowed by Pammie’s reaction to Emily. In public, she’s all smiles, but in private, she undermines Emily, starts playing games.

 

Emily starts to wonder if she’s imagining things, but it soon becomes clear that Pammie has taken a dislike to Emily, and is intent on doing anything to split her and Adam up. Not that Adam can see this.

 

The whole book is like a car crash, you can’t help but watch it, though you know how badly things are going to turn out.

 

The decline of Adam and Emily’s relationship is gradual, as an outsider, we can see it happening, in the same way that we sometimes look at our friends relationships and can see that it’s not working. But when you’re Emily, when you’re in the middle of the relationship, you just can’t see it.

 

The Other Woman is a compelling slice of relationship drama with an antagonist that is so vivid and ever-present that it’s hard to shake her months later. The only problem is that the character development of Pammie comes at the detriment to some of the other characters.

 

An example: Emily has a best friend whose sole function in this story is to be Emily’s friend, he has no life of his own, at least one that’s not explored – the few times we meet him, he’s a mouthpiece to Emily’s issues, we learn nothing about him – barring a few identifying clichés – and we skim over the conversation that’s not about Emily.

 

Generally, that’s ok, secondary characters are secondary for a reason, but the problem here is that because the story is told from Emily’s point of view, it colours her character and she comes across as self-centred and a little vacuous, which in turn hinders the amount of sympathy we’re being asked to direct to her.

 

But it’s a little gripe and is made up for entirely by a memorable villain and a brilliant, unexpected ending. This book ain’t going where you think it’s going.

 

The Other Woman is published by Pan and is available now as part of the Thumping Good Read award in WHSmith stores.

A(nother) Review: Guess Who by Chris McGeorge

There are so many different reasons why we pick up books – word of mouth, an exciting jacket or intriguing title, even a special offer, but sometimes the marketing does its job and the slug on the front of the book, explaining the concept manages to sell it in just ten words.

 

That was the case with Guess Who by Chris McGeorge for me:

 

One room.

Five suspects.

Three hours to find a killer…

 

That said it all for me, I wanted to read this book and I wanted to love it.

 

If you need more than that to whet your appetite, there’s not much I can say without ruining the plot too much, but I’ll try. TV personality Morgan Sheppard (think Jeremy Kyle but a detective version) wakes up in a hotel room, chained to a bed and slowly comes to realise that there are other people in the room with him, all starting to wake up as well.

 

He is the only one locked up and when the TV turns on with a message for them all, it seems to be directed straight at him. Their captor challenges him to solve a mystery within three hours, or they will all die.

 

Does it live up to its premise? Did I love it?

 

Well… not quite. It’s still very good, and McGeorge is a great writer, but the narrative jumps out of the hotel room into Sheppard’s past quite regularly and so doesn’t quite maintain its feeling of mystery and claustrophobia.

 

But, that’s a big challenge anyway. It’s difficult to wring tension and drama out of that situation and the exposition was necessary for the pay-off… I just wish the author had found a way to keep all the action in the room.

 

I wondered as I reached the end, whether the concept would work better as a play. Tense silences, suspicious glances and a restrained location can work wonders on the stage, but are very hard to convey in writing. Hard, but not impossible.

 

It’s still definitely worth a read, and I’d highly recommend for a summer read, but it doesn’t quite live up to its marketing.

 

Guess Who is published by Orion and is available now as part of WHSmith’s Thumping Good Read Award. It is half price in High Street stores until next Wednesday.

 

 

A(nother) Review: The Silent Companions

Here we go.

 

After a couple of weeks of reading books that are away from my usual fare, we’re back firmly inside my comfort zone with The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

 

This one has been around for a while and one of those I’ve been meaning to read for ages, so I was really pleased when it made it on the longlist for Thumping Good Read.

 

Little secret: As part of the team that chose the shortlist, I’m not supposed to have favourites, but if I were to have one, this MIGHT be it.

 

If you don’t know – this is a story about Elsie, a widow who travels from London to her late husband’s country estate The Bridge. There she deals with her grief and her growing pregnancy, but there are some mysterious goings on – all centered around life-size paintings on wooden boards. Think a ye-olde-cardboard cut-out.

 

Nowadays, these things would be sold in hipster cafes that also sell vinyl, or in a motorway service station, but back in the nineteenth century, these things are extremely creepy – especially when they seem to move on their own accord.

 

It’s a brilliant, atmospheric gothic horror with a plot that constantly evolves and develops. As a reader, I wasn’t sure where it was going to end up – I, like Elise, assumed there had to be a practical explanation, but I just couldn’t think what it might be so I started to believe that maybe – in this world at least – ghosts were real.

 

As I alluded to before, this MIGHT be my favourite from the Thumping Good Read list – but my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s your job to vote for the favourite (by clicking on this link right here).

 

The Silent Companions is available now from Raven Books and is half price in WHSmith High Street stores until Wednesday 20th June

 

A(nother) Review: The House of Hopes and Dreams by Trisha Ashley

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, this might at first appear to be a bit of a left-field choice for me to read, but I like to keep my reading tastes broad and try all genres from time to time.

 

The House of Hopes and Dreams is about a glass architect named Angel who suddenly finds herself bereaved – and simultaneously out of a job. She moves in with her best friend – TV host Carey who has just unexpectedly inherited a large country estate. Mossby is an old house in desperate need of some love and attention, and the two broken-hearted friends set about fixing it and uncovering the house’s many secrets.

 

I was really surprised about this book, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. Initially, I thought it was going to be largely a love story, and while there are elements of this in there, it ended up – as the title suggests – being more about the house itself.

 

It becomes a character in its own right throughout the story, and as a reader, you start to feel satisfaction with each step they take in restoring it to it former glory.

 

The two main characters Angel and Carey are engaging and you really start to root for them, even if perhaps Angel does move on from the death of her partner perhaps a little too quickly. That may be my biggest criticism of this book, but it is indicated early on that since his stroke eighteen months previously, Julian wasn’t really himself, and that in reality she had been grieving for him since then.

 

It was a bit of a stretch for me, but if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and see past the small things, you can enjoy the story for what it’s meant to be.

 

This is a story about moving on, about love and friendship. And about a house.

 

Some of the books I would say are my favourites (A Little Life, Tin Man)are those thay have made me cry, dug into the emotion inside and opened the well.

 

This isn’t that sort of book, but it taps into a different kind of emotion. It makes you feel good, positive. It digs into you in a different way and still worth a read.

 

The House of Hopes and Dreams is available now from Bantam Press

A(nother) Review: The Lido by Libby Page

Community.

 

It can be a bit of a dirty word.

 

It is often a word viewed as a bit hippy-ish. WI groups, PTA’s, the Christian groups that go litter-picking on a weekend. It’s all very wholesome.

 

I know as I sit at my desk looking out of my window that the community I live in is not exactly one I want to be part of. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not me. I like my community with a little bit more bite, more GIFs

 

But it is one I’m part of, if only passively. If I wanted to be an active part of it, I could. It’s my choice.

 

Fortunately, I belong to many communities, not just the one I live in. There’s my work community, my friends, and my online communities.

 

One of my communities – the book-loving community, which if you’re reading this, you’re a part of! – has been going crazy for a particular book over the last few months. If you’re bright (it says it up at the top of the blog there ^) , you’ll have worked out I’m talking about The Lido by Libby Page.

 

The Lido is the story of what happens when a young journalist – Kate – is sent to cover the potential closure of Brockwell Lido, and while there she meets Rosemary – an eighty-something stalwart of Brixton.

 

They are at either end of their lives, but they have something in common. They’re both lonely – Kate, particularly – but their joined efforts to save the lido bring them – and many others together.

 

This is a really sweet book, and you get to know Kate and Rosemary both really well – but as well Page does a good job of making you care about the other members of the community, and the lido as well.

 

You really do feel part of the community and you begin to care. I started getting angry about the potential closure of the lido, reality started to blur with the fiction – which has to be the ultimate goal of any writer.

 

I enjoyed seeing the community build around Kate, lifting her from her depression. At the same time, the book raises some very pertinent concerns about the nature of public services, how often their value is higher than the money which they bring in.

 

The Lido is a feel-good novel, the kind that makes you feel better about the world we live in. It should be on everyone’s summer-reading list.

 

The Lido is available now, published by Orion

A(nother) Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Last week I was heading into London and found myself on a train with no book – EEK! So, I ran into WHSmith in the station and looked for something I hadn’t read yet.

 

It was a small one with only a handful of books – so there wasn’t much there I hadn’t read, but from the new Richard and Judy Book Club (my boss has asked me to add here that it said Book Club is indeed exclusive to WHSmith and is in fact Britain’s Biggest Book Club) – there was Little Fires Everywhere.

 

That’s not a grammatically incorrect description of the state of the store, but in fact the new book from Celeste Ng (whose twitter name is helpfully @pronounced_ing).

 

The story is set in the planned community of Shaker Heights where Mrs Elena Richardson wakes up to find her house on fire. Her husband and four kids are all out of the house and she escapes easily, but once outside, with the fire brigade in attendance, she learns that the fire was started deliberately.

 

There were in fact, little fires set everywhere through the house.

 

What follows takes us back to a year previously when the mysterious artist Mia and her daughter Pearl move to town, renting a home from the Richardsons.

 

Mia’s presence figuratively sets little fires going inside all of the Richardsons, her and Pearl’s influence on them bringing forward a maelstrom of different emotions amongst them all, particularly the kids, who much of the story focuses on.

 

What I loved about this was the way the story seamlessly shifted point of view across eight different characters. Some books I’ve read in the past have struggled with just three, or over ambitiously gone for ten or twelve, but Ng manages to make each of them engaging enough and for the right length of time that it’s not off-putting.

 

Even my least favourite character – Mrs Richardson – earns that accolade through being a busy-body, rather than through poor writing, or for outstaying her welcome.

 

The only thing I found slightly distracting? It took me a while to figure out exactly when the book was set. My automatic assumption with most books is they are in present day – so when I worked out that one of the teenage characters ought to be in their early thirties, I realised I had to go back and reassess.

 

Maybe I missed something – quite possible – or maybe it just wasn’t clear. Still, it was only a minor niggle for a book I really enjoyed. The next time you’re in a train station and needing a read… give this one a go!

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is available now from Abacus

 

 

A(nother) Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

I’m now into my fifth year of blogging my book reviews and while I always thought the biggest problem with it would be trying to avoid giving too many spoilers I have now discovered a new problem.

 

I’ve spent much of the last few years banging on about three different books all of which have been my go-to titles whenever anyone asks for a reading recommendation – A Little Life, Tin Man and Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter.

 

Since I first fell in love with A Place Called Winter back at the beginning of 2015 I’ve become a bit of a champion of Gale’s work, both his books and his recent television series (2017’s Man in an Orange Shirt). I even highlighted his new novel as one of my books to look out for in 2018.

 

So, when special advance copies of Take Nothing with You started to head out into the world, I crossed all my fingers and auctioned off my first-born (pity that devil who’ll never receive their purchase) hoping to get a copy.

 

And I received a copy, and it was beautiful and I was very, very excited.

 

Then I realised my problem.

 

Whenever anyone has a big success be it with a book, or film, or album there is a pressure on the artist to produce something equally as good, but not the same, the next time around.

 

The anxiety that brings must be crippling, sending your book out into the world waiting for the reaction like a small dog patiently waiting for their owner to return home.

 

I had a taste – only a very small taste – of that, when I settled down to read Take Nothing With You. What if I didn’t like it? What if I was the one that had to kick the puppy?

 

With some trepidation, I opened the pages and started to read. After about ten pages, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was good. Not just good. It was as good as A Place Called Winter – if not better.

 

So now, I’m stuck with my original problem. How do I sell it to you all without spoiling it? How do I talk about all the things I want to talk about without ruining it for everyone? The answer is to keep it brief.

 

We meet Eustace at a particular point in his life, he’s in his fifties, he’s fallen in love with a man he’s never met and has just been diagnosed with cancer. Part of his treatment involves taking a particularly radioactive drug which mean he must spend time in solitary confinement, away from everyone.

 

He will be so radioactive that he must take nothing with him that he would want to keep.

 

So, he goes in with just a cheap music player and a playlist of cello music from his best friend Naomi. He lies down, begins to listen, and then remembers – taking the reader with him – his childhood, growing up in Weston-Super-Mare.

 

And here is where the magic happens.

 

Such beautiful writing transports us into the head of that twelve-year-old boy as he deals with his own burgeoning sexuality, the breakdown of his parent’s marriage and an exploration of an unexpected new passion – the cello.

 

I could sing for hours about the poetry of the writing or the subtlety of the plot but it is in the richness of the characters that Gale really excels himself. Each character, no matter how minor, is vivid leaving the reader wanting more.

 

In most books the main characters are obvious, their depth making them stand out from all others, a clue to the reader as to which characters you should care about, which ones you should watch, and which ones you don’t need to remember the name of.

 

That’s not the case here. In the moments they appear all the characters are important, all of them real. None of us can know as we’re living our lives who will be important and who won’t be, and so to Eustace at the time he encounters them they are all important. The things he notices, the people he sees, all of it helps us as a reader inhabit his world.

 

I’ve never read a book before where the minor characters have intrigued me quite so much.

 

A Little Life was about Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude St Francis; The Time Traveler’s Wife was about Henry DeTamble and his wife Clare; Tin Man is the story of Annie and Michael and Ellis. All of these names are imprinted on me in a way that I can reel them off without having to look them up.

 

This book takes its place amongst all of those titles (equal on my spreadsheet – OF COURSE I have a spreadsheet – to The Time Traveler’s Wife) in my list of favourite books, and while Eustace’s name will come to me as readily as all those others, I think the names of Vernon and Carla Gold and Turlough and Jez won’t be far behind him.

 

They all have their own tales to tell, but this is Eustace’s and the whole experience felt as cathartic to me as it did for Eustace himself. Perhaps because – as many other readers will probably experience – so many of the moments in his earlier life are similar to mine. I won’t share with you what they were – they’re for my own private lead-lined box – but I will tell you… I never played the cello.

 

Take Nothing With You will be published by Tinder Press on 21st August 2018

Clean by Juno Dawson

Let’s talk about genre for a bit.

 

On one hand, it’s very useful, particularly for those folk that like a very specific type of book and want to find more of the same. On the other hand, it can stop us from discovering something new, something amazing.

 

Readers can miss some brilliant books because they are pitched as crime or horror and ‘those books aren’t for me’.

 

No other genre suffers from this more than that of ‘Young Adult’. While the sort of books that get grouped in YA are not particularly new – the genre itself has only been a popular thing for the last ten years or so, since the arrival of Katniss Everdeen and Bella and Edward.

 

They are books about people in their later teenage years, discovering love, drugs, sex, essentially life for the first time. They are not necessarily written by young adults, but they are marketed at them.

 

The genre itself is split up into all sorts of other mini-genres – YA Dystopian, YA Romance, etc – so even though you might like YA, it doesn’t really say much about your reading type.

 

There isn’t an ‘Old Adult’ genre – books about old age pensioners that are put into a category specifically for them that says ‘Hey everyone else, don’t read these!’

 

Why am I getting on my soap-box about this?

 

Because I’ve just finished reading Clean by Juno Dawson. It’s a Young Adult novel about socialite Lexi Volkov who ends up in rehab following a near overdose.

 

Lexi has to deal with her feelings about her current enabling boyfriend, secrets from the past and new friendships with the other residents of the Clarity Centre, all of whom have their own different demons.

 

What makes this a Young Adult novel? Lexi is barely out of school, drinking illegally. The other characters are all a similar age – young people troubled with addiction.

 

It’s BETTER than a lot of other ‘Middle-Aged Adult’ fiction that deals with rehab, and frankly, though we’re told the ages of the character, they could be ANY age.

 

Dawson deals with the complexities of rehab with skill, making it seem very real and believable. In other hands Lexi Volkov (Heir to a Russian oligarch) could have been unlikable, but she’s humanised and brought into the real world, made relatable by her very ordinary and common problems.

 

This is a book aimed at Young Adults, and they will love it – but if you’re not young, if you’re an old-adult, then don’t think this is not for you. It’s for everyone.

 

Clean by Juno Dawson is available now from Quercus

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton

I write this review as I take a break from reading what can only be described as a ‘shitload’ of books in a very short of time (currently averaging one every four hours on a weekend) so the irony of what I’m about to write is not lost on me.

 

Sometimes, very rare times, I just don’t feel like reading – when that happens, it takes me a moment to recognise it and I start trying to read several books, giving each one up for petty reasons.

 

The print is too small.

I don’t like the way the paper feels in my hand.

That’s a stupid way to spell that name.

 

Often, when this happens, that’s it. The book is ruined for me, and I rarely go back to it. Hey, there are plenty of other books in the world to try out.

 

I want to use this post to remind myself – and to urge everyone else – that books deserve a second chance, if it’s my own bad mood that stopped me from reading them.

 

I recently asked someone for a reading recommendation and they told me to give The Perfect Girlfriend a try. It was sitting on my table, in my not-quite-discarded pile. It was the victim of a night in early January when I just couldn’t concentrate.

 

Looking at it now, I can’t work out what it was that put me off – likely the fact that it was a proof copy and the print wasn’t quite parallel to the bottom of the page. I gave it another go. And I’m glad I did.

 

We meet Juliette, an air hostess who has recently split up with her partner. She’s determined to get him back, so much so that she’s got a job for the airline he’s a pilot for, and is secretly letting herself into his flat while he’s away to leave him presents.

 

At first – I totally identified with her. I mean, who hasn’t had an errant thought about doing something completely stalker-y when finding themselves infatuated with someone else? Hollywood has conditioned us that romance happens all the time.

 

If we turn up at their workplace during the day with a single red rose, music will swell, and they’ll carry us off into the sunset. If we send them a present, their favourite bottle of wine, they’ll see we really do care about them and again, those strings will start up…

 

The trouble with Juliette is… she does it. And at first, I thought, yeah, fair enough, let’s see how it goes – Clue: not well – but then things progress to the point where even I – yes EVEN I – started to think “Juliette, really?”

 

Still, despite her increasingly desperate attempts to get Nate back into her life, it’s not hard to sympathise with her, even when things become more and more criminal.

 

That big pile of books I alluded to in my opening? A number of them have good guys as protagonists and they’re so… unlikeable.

 

Juliette, on the other hand is well-written, but definitely not the good guy. Still, I can’t help but root for her a little bit. Hopefully that’s a result of the excellent writing – rather than a particular peculiarity to do with my own psychology.

 

What’s the moral of this blog post?

 

Sometimes we should give things a second chance, because it might be our fault they didn’t work out… contrarily the moral of The Perfect Girlfriend is quite the opposite – sometimes things don’t work out because the other person is just mentally and emotionally not able.

 

The Perfect Girlfriend is available now in Hardback from Wildfire