Saturday, 26 August 2017

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin - Review

Not Thomas is the second book I've read in a row (the other one being Frances Maynard's excellent The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr) which deals at least in part with a damaging mother-child relationship.

Admittedly, the two situations are very different, and in some ways diametrically opposite. Elvira is a young woman; Tomos (the five-year-old narrator of Not Thomas) is a little boy. Elvira's Mother was forty-five when her child was born; Tomos's Mammy was just fourteen. Elvira's Mother was extremely controlling, Tomos's Mammy very neglectful. But there are similarities, too: both mothers fail to recognise or value their child's needs; both see them as a burden rather than a gift. Actually, I think Tomos and Elvira would get on really well together.

The story is told from Tomos's point of view, and as readers we can plainly see that his life is appalling. Even his basic physical care needs aren't met, let alone his emotional needs. Meals are a packet of crisps, if he's lucky. (He saves the pink packets for Mammy, though, because they're her favourite.) Tomos loves his Mammy, Rhiannon (Ree) and craves her attention, but it's never forthcoming. Half the time she's not even there, leaving Tomos to fend for himself. Thankfully there are some people looking out for Tomos. Kaylee's mammy walks him to and from school every day, and tries to keep an eye on things. His young teacher, "Miss", genuinely loves him and does everything she can to help him. Not everyone is so supportive, though - there are some people (I'm looking at you, Miss Pugh Year Two) who can't look beyond the dirty, smelly clothes and unsigned permission slips to see the child in need.

Tomos's life wasn't always like this. Until recently both he and Ree lived with foster parents, who Tomos called Nonna and Dat. They loved Tomos and looked after him, and it's perhaps this early stability which has helped Tomos to remain the lovely boy he is. (Because he really is.) But then something happened, and now it's just Tomos and Ree - and her boyfriend Brick. Tomos's vulnerability is both heartbreaking and terrifying.

Ree isn't evil or directly abusive, she's just inadequate, and incapable of seeing beyond her own needs for long enough to provide her son with any care or protection. She's able to pull things together just enough when needed to keep the social workers at bay, though. They know things aren't right, but there just isn't quite enough evidence to do anything about it. There are many missed opportunities for various people to see how things really are and help Tomos, which make painful reading.

Tomos's everyday life is bad enough, but things can still get worse, and they do. I was so worried about him by this stage that I could neither stop reading nor hardly bear to continue as the situation became unbearably tense.

I've read some criticism on the grounds that Tomos's narrative voice is unrealistic - far too sophisticated for a five-year-old. But what we're reading isn't Tomos writing or speaking (of course no five-year-old is that articulate); it's what he is thinking and experiencing. And a certain amount of licence is needed in order to allow the story to flow, and to convey information to the reader about which Tomos is not necessarily aware - usually via him conveniently overhearing conversations. Very occasionally, this can feel a little forced. But it's hard to see how else this information could be conveyed without stepping outside of Tomos's viewpoint.

This is a marvellous book, in which you become completely immersed in Tomos's world; I can't imagine anyone could read it without caring desperately what becomes of him. It's a vivid depiction of what life is like for a child in a chaotic environment where no adults are capable of taking responsibility. Highly recommended.

Sara Gethin is a pen name for children's author Wendy White. This is her first book for adults.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard - Review

Elvira Carr is twenty-seven years old, lives with her controlling Mother, loves animals and knows a very great deal about biscuits. Elvira likes life to be regular and predictable, but things become very unpredictable when Mother is hospitalised with a stroke. Suddenly Elvira's restricted life is opening up in unexpected ways, but it's hard to know how to act and how to cope with all these new situations. Some Rules are clearly needed to guide her...

Inevitable comparisons will be drawn with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I was also reminded of  Emily Barr's The One Memory of Flora Banks. All great books which feature protagonists who do not function in, as Elvira would put it, NormalTypical ways. 

Elvira knows only too well that she has some difficulties because of her Condition, but she is resourceful, determined and potentially more capable than she has ever been allowed to be. Life without Mother is different, often frightening, but also far more interesting and ultimately fulfilling. There are mysteries to be solved and challenges to be faced.

Elvira's voice is engaging and completely believable. It's a pleasure to share her unique way of viewing the world. In fact all the characters are easy to visualise (for some reason I envisaged Elvira's fearsome Mother as something like Neville's Gran from Harry Potter, only maybe without the vulture hat). Sylvia next door and her family, the staff at the nursing home and at the animal rescue centre are all vividly drawn. I especially loved Paul and his father, Charlie and of course Akira the dog.

Elvira's story is enthralling, often funny, sometimes sad, and ultimately uplifting. Highly recommended. I loved it.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay: Review

Zoe Morley is an artist and a mother - it's not always easy to combine the two, particularly when husband Ollie seems increasingly absent, more engaged with his work than with his family. She paints the moors where she lives, and cares for their two children: seven year old Evie who they adopted at birth - the child of a drug-using mother, born addicted - and little Ben, the surprise baby who came along five years later. But Zoe's world is completely upended when Evie begins receiving cards and gifts from someone claiming to be her birth father - a person whose identity they have never known. He wants her back - and he's coming to get her. But who is he and what is he really after?

Sanjida Kay deftly leads us - and Zoe - down various garden paths and moorland trails before the truth is finally revealed.

The Ilkley setting was well depicted and added an atmospheric further dimension (thankfully the little voice insistently singing "On Ilkley Moor Baht 'At" at the back of my mind did shut up after a while). It's good to read books with such a distinct sense of place, especially when that place is somewhere other than London.

Something I really loved about this book was how believable and realistic the characters felt. Evie herself was far from a generic child-in-danger but a complex character in her own right, with conflicting emotions and loyalties. Zoe, too, was a character whose actions and reactions, while not always sensible (who is?) always felt credible and human in the context of the situation. The police were neither idiots nor superheroes but professionals doing a difficult job to the best of their abilities. There was only one character, towards the end, whose actions and motivations I found harder to comprehend. 

There are a couple of maybe too convenient coincidences, but the plot is well crafted and kept me engrossed throughout, desperate to find out what had happened to Evie and who was responsible. Sanjida Kay doesn't gloss over the complexities of relationships, including the parent-child relationship - especially when complicated by adoption.

A superior psychological thriller and I will definitely seek out Sanjida's previous novel, Bone by Bone.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan - Review

I'd heard good things about this, but I wasn't really in a hurry to read it. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was the title; a bit too close to all those bookshop/teashop titles which seem so beloved by publishers right now (in the UK, anyway). You know - Afternoon Tea at the Little Bookshop on the Corner. Cream Buns at the Jane Austen Cafe. That sort of thing. Which is in no way intended as a criticism of the books themselves, many of which are very good indeed. 

Anyway, turns out I should have read it sooner, because I really loved it. It was a bit of a slow burner for me in the beginning, but once I was a couple of chapters in I was well and truly hooked. 

When a troubled young man, Joey, hangs himself in the Denver bookstore late one night, Lydia, his favourite bookseller, finds herself more involved in his life and death than she ever expected. Initially drawn in by an inexplicable photograph found on his body, and then by cryptic messages left for her by Joey through the medium of his beloved books, the secrets of both Joey's life and Lydia's own begin to gradually unspool, and unlooked-for connections to emerge. 

Lydia is an engaging character, intelligent and compassionate, a survivor of a horrifying event in her childhood which she has never really faced up to. She has found something of a sanctuary at the bookstore, among a diversity of colleagues, and the dispossessed regulars, like Joey, who haunt the aisles and corners of the store. All of these characters are wonderfully drawn. 

The story gathers pace as both Joey's and Lydia's stories emerge but despite a horrible past event and some painful subject matter, never seems to approach the category of "thriller" - it somehow feels more gentle than that, with a writing style that subtly draws you in. A beautiful and ultimately really rather heartbreaking read.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell: Review

Looking at it backwards it was obvious all along. But back then, when she knew nothing about anything, she had not seen it coming. She had walked straight into it with her eyes open.

Fifteen year old Ellie Mack: a golden girl with a glowing future, excelling at school, madly in love with her first boyfriend, cherished youngest child of loving parents. Ellie has everything to live for. But Ellie is gone. She simply disappeared one day in 2005, never to be seen again. She was last seen checking her reflection in a car window, on her way to the library. And then she was gone. No clues, no sightings, nothing. The police eventually conclude she has run away, but mum Laurel never believed it. Ellie had no reason to leave home, and every reason to stay.

Ten years later, Laurel hasn't slept properly since 2005. She's lived alone for seven years, waiting for news that never came. Finally, some news does arrive, but far more questions than answers remain.... especially when a new man, Floyd, comes into Laurel's life. Laurel's determination to uncover the truth at all costs, interspersed with snippets from the past and from the points of view of other characters, makes for a seriously enthralling read.

I really don't want to say anything more about the plot; I began this book knowing very little about it, and it was a real voyage of discovery. Knowing more than a very little would spoil it, I think. Missing-child thrillers are ten a penny at the moment, of course, and I approach them with a degree of trepidation (it's a subject which can and sometimes does go badly wrong) but this is something special.

Then She Was Gone is an incredibly compelling, addictive read. The story drew me in right from the start and didn't let go till I emerged out the other end, feeling broken, emotionally wrung out, my head full of the characters and story. (Then I had to go to work, and attempt to function normally!)

There are some great characters here - including one utterly monstrous human being - and all are convincingly drawn. I was especially able to relate to the character of Laurel, who is far from perfect but profoundly driven to learn the truth about what happened to her daughter - as I think any mother would be.

Make no mistake: parts of this book are unremittingly dark - heartbreakingly so. Certain scenes and themes were very upsetting, and packed a massive emotional punch. Honestly, much as I enjoyed the book, I don't know if I could bear to read it again for this reason. I finished it this morning and I  still felt tearful now.

(Lisa's acknowledgements at the end describe her fear, having written the book, that it was simply too bizarre, and her editor's radical and brilliant suggestion to balance out the bizarreness. I'd love to know what that suggestion was!)

We expect nothing less than an excellent read from Lisa Jewell, but she's surpassed herself this time. I think this story will stay with me for a long while.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase: Review

There's a patter of small footsteps. A swing of a plait. A flick of yellow ribbon. Something pulls at the edges, a darkness that no one dare name.

In 1959, the four Wilde sisters - beautiful Flora, forthright Pam, Margot (the narrator) and little Dot - have been sent by their flighty but loving mother to spend the summer at Applecote Manor with Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry while their mother Bunny is, as Perry puts it "hopping around the clubs of Cairo" (actually Marrakech). They used to spend holidays there, but haven't been for five years - not since Cousin Audrey mysteriously disappeared one day, aged twelve. "Simply vanished, the poor darling," as Ma told them, disclosing little further detail, and Margot - not really wanting to believe it to be true - didn't enquire further. But now she is back at Applecote, the matter suddenly seems more pressing, and over a long hot summer, secrets begin to emerge. 

In the present day, Jessie has moved to Applecote Manor with newish, frequently absent husband Will, little daughter Romy, and reluctant stepdaughter Bella. She's hoping for a new start - especially for the troubled Bella, grieving for her dead mother and violently rejecting Jessie's right to even exist - but things aren't working out quite as she had hoped. As the past begins to seep into and perhaps even parallel the present, Jessie wonders if she has made a terrible mistake. 

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written with a delicate touch. The characters - the four Wilde sisters, tragic Sybil, angry Bella and the rest - are so vividly drawn and there is a compelling sense of place.

I think ultimately this is a story about the bonds between sisters and the complicated grief of a mother for a daughter and a daughter for a mother. An enthralling read with a very satisfying and even uplifting ending. I loved it.

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah - Review

I'm a big fan of Sophie Hannah - it's probably true to say I've read everything she's published, including the earlier novels which nobody seems to mention anymore (they're awesome, by the way). So I was very much looking forward to Did You See Melody?

It's a stand-alone novel, i.e. not part of her Culver Valley series (well, I suppose it would be difficult to plonk Culver Valley Police down in a luxury holiday resort in the middle of Arizona, which is where this book takes place). Still, I kind of missed Charlie, Simon, Proust and the rest. Especially Proust, for some reason. I'm not sure what that says about me.

Anyway, instead we have Cara Burrows, a British wife and mother who, amid a personal crisis, has scarpered, alone, to Swallowtail for some thinking time (spending a third of the family's savings in the process). The relaxing holiday she'd hoped for doesn't quite materialise, however, as she unwittingly walks into a mystery when a receptionist accidentally gives her the key for the wrong room in the middle of the night. Is it possible that the young girl she sees is really Melody Chapa, famously murdered by her parents seven years earlier? And is Cara herself now in danger as a result?

Sophie Hannah writes tightly plotted, intelligently written puzzle-box mysteries where intriguing, seemingly inexplicable things occur and have to be gradually unravelled. You need to keep your wits about you as the plots can turn out to be pretty complex. Often, there's deep psychological stuff going on too. Here, because Cara (not being an American) doesn't know about the Melody Chapa murder case, a fair bit of exposition is required, and this is largely done initially via Cara's online research. This works quite well though as I said, you do need to concentrate. Then again, I read most of this while squinting at my Kindle on a sun lounger on holiday, so my powers of concentration may have been impaired.

I loved the descriptions of the super-luxurious holiday resort. (My hotel, while nice enough, wasn't on quite that level. My sun lounger did not, sadly, have a button to summon a waiter with a drink. But a girl can dream.) And I loved, or in some cases loved to hate, some of the characters. Tarin in particular was a delight. As always with Sophie Hannah, there's humour here too, particularly with certain characters, and I laughed out loud at Cara's chlorophyll/chloroform confusion - mainly because it's so very much the sort of thing one might think and then feel a right idiot for doing so. The transcripts of YouTube clips from interviews on a popular "justice" show are appallingly compelling. It seems like where Melody is concerned, everyone has their own agenda.

Melody's character remains rather elusive throughout, with her voice rarely being heard. But maybe that's the point.

All in all another great read from the ever reliable Sophie Hannah.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Betrayals by Fiona Neill - Review

The question isn't whether our memories are false - it's how false are our memories?

The Betrayals is an intriguing story about a fractured family and the fallibility of memory.  When self-deluding Nick - an expert on memory formation, ironically - leaves his wife, cancer specialist Rosie, for her friend Lisa, the effect on daughter Daisy in particular is traumatic. Years later, a letter from Lisa triggers a relapse in Daisy's mental state. Brother Max, meanwhile, is haunted by guilt about his own hidden role in what happened.

The book does require careful reading to grasp what is going on, as everyone's accounts differ slightly (as Daisy quotes from Kazuo Ishiguro, acknowledging the unreliable nature of memory - "This was all a long time ago and I might have some of it wrong."). There were times when I was unsure I fully understood all the implications of what was happening. I'm still not sure I understand the point of one or two minor characters. However it all (mostly) comes together and delivers a genuinely surprising ending.

Where this book really shines though is in the portrayal of Daisy's OCD - a widely misunderstood and trivialised condition - and the catastrophic effect of this on her and those around her, particularly brother Max who becomes reluctantly embroiled in her rituals. This really does represent the complex, insidious and horribly destructive nature of the condition, and as someone who has a close family member with OCD - albeit not quite the same as Daisy's - I appreciated this very much.

Lisa's rejection of conventional treatment for her cancer in favour of the - to put it nicely - mumbo-jumbo purveyed by the appalling Gregorio is also depicted very well.

All in all an interesting and valuable read which does repay close attention. Recommended.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Friend Request by Laura Marshall: Review

"I am a decent person now. I pay my taxes and go to the dentist. I recycle. I care about my friends, and about the world in general. But how do I reconcile that with the things I did when I was sixteen? I'm that person too, aren't I?"

In the debut novel from Laura Marshall, Louise is shocked to receive a Facebook friend request from her old schoolmate Maria - because Maria has been missing, presumed dead, for over twenty-five years.

In the age of social media it feels inevitable that someone would, at some point, write a novel with this title and basic premise. It could've gone either way - good or bad - but I'm happy to report that Laura Marshall's story is most definitely the former. Actually, it's really great.

Louise has got on with her life for over twenty-five years since Maria died - she's been married and divorced, built her own business, has an adored four-year-old son, Henry. But for all of that time she's been haunted by what happened to Maria and by her own role in that. Now it looks like Maria, or someone posing as her, is back. But why, and why now? 

The narrative follows both the present day and 1989, when the younger Louise fervently tried to win the favour of the popular Sophie (clearly, to adult eyes, a highly skilled manipulator of her friends). As another '80s schoolgirl, albeit a few years earlier, I was able to relate to the era. I should think "Sophies" exist in every time period, though, eternally bolstering their own egos and papering over their own insecurities at others' expense. How far will Louise go to keep in with the in crowd?

The teenage friendship dynamics are skilfully drawn and make the reader question whether they would, in similar circumstances, act in the way Louise did despite knowing it was wrong. I'd like to think I wouldn't. But then again I was basically a complete idiot when I was sixteen, so who knows? 

The plotting is tight and in true psychological thriller tradition, as the tension mounts, Laura Marshall manages to cast suspicion on pretty much everybody yet still keep the outcome a complete surprise. There's plenty of momentum throughout but this builds as we approach the final reckoning and near the end - as the truth was coming out - my emotions were really put through the wringer, even to the point of tears at certain revelations.

The characters, including the less pleasant ones, were all believable - sometimes disturbingly so - and some were even likeable. I was able to relate to the protagonist, Louise, in various ways. But ultimately, it's the innocents in this book who will stay with me.

Highly recommended.

Next up: The Other Woman by Laura Wilson.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse - Review

"Finn had promised her a life free of worry, a good life for her and their children.

Finn had lied."

Amanda Prowse has now written a number of family drama type novels - I've read two, I think, and enjoyed them both. The Art of Hiding is the most recent, published on 18 July this year. It has a rather lovely, striking cover and the synopsis sounded like it would be an enjoyable read. 

Our protagonist here is Nina - wife and mother, who we initially meet living a very affluent lifestyle courtesy of husband Finn. The Nina we meet at the beginning of the novel apparently doesn't have that much in her life to worry about (despite a lack of confidence and a general feeling that she doesn't fit in with the other parents at her sons' expensive school), as her main concerns are burning issues like whether or not to take snacks to her elder son's rugby match. Actually, Nina has plenty to worry about.... she just doesn't know it yet. 

When Finn is killed in an accident Nina quickly learns that her comfortable life is an illusion. Her husband's previously successful business is bankrupt and there are huge debts. Finn had promised always to take care of her, and after a difficult, insecure childhood Nina was happy to let him do just that, abandoning her aspiration to become a nurse and relinquishing any involvement in the business or their finances. Now, though, her life and that of her two sons, Connor and Declan, is crashing down around her. No longer cushioned by her husband's money, homeless and broke, Nina has to - somehow - rebuild her life without him. And just maybe rediscover some of the aspects of herself that were submerged and suppressed in her marriage. 

This is an emotional read, especially the first part of the book. It's easy to relate to Nina's desperation as the full extent of the crisis becomes clear, and there are some painful scenes of her pleading for help from various quarters which is not forthcoming. Indeked, it's hard not to feel angry at the utter lack of empathy shown by, for example, the headmaster of the school the boys have attended since they were three years old. Clearly when the money runs out, so does many people's humanity. 

We follow Nina's struggles as she moves, with her boys, back to the area where she grew up and hunts for a job, rapidly discovering that years of marriage and motherhood have not qualified her for very much at all, and see her beginning to question whether - despite her love for her husband - her marriage was quite as perfect as she had thought. 

While the basic plot has certainly been done before, Amanda Prowse is a natural storyteller who creates relatable characters and situations and knows how to engage the reader's emotions. If there's a criticism to be made, it's that some of the dialogue doesn't  always quite ring true. It's a minor quibble, though, and I enjoyed this a lot. (I was particularly pleased later in the book when it looked like the story was going to go in a certain, overly predictable direction which made my heart sink slightly. Amanda Prowse subverted my expectations, and I appreciated it!)

Up next: Friend Request by Laura Marshall.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Good Sister by Jess Ryder - Review

Stories about sisters are definitely having a Moment in publishing right now. Good sisters, bad sisters, little sisters, big sisters, there are sisters all over the place; it's clearly a subject which strikes a chord with people, perhaps because the sisterly relationship is one so many women have experienced and can relate to, for good, for bad, or for complicated. (Not me, though. I haven't got a sister.) 

Neither does Josie at the start of this book, not as far as she knows. Josie is twenty-four, stable, sensible - she has a responsible job, an affluent background, two loving parents, a flat with boyfriend Arun. When her adored father Jerry, "The Viking", dies in an accident - losing control of his motorcycle on a country road in the middle of the night - Josie's world begins to unravel. She learns that her father had another family - another daughter, Valentina, of very similar age and appearance but very different in personality. Valentina is wild, unpredictable, a troubled troublemaker with a chaotic lifestyle. As the worlds of the two sisters collide, Josie's life too begins to spiral more and more out of control. 

I found The Good Sister a very compelling read. Chapters are narrated by both Josie and Valentina - contrary to convention the chapter heading doesn't tell you which, and while it's usually obvious, this enables the author to effectively mislead the reader on occasion. There are plenty of twists and turns here and the eventual denouement is a surprise, though I did guess the identity of one character shortly before it was revealed (the careful avoidance of certain pronouns is a sure sign of authorial trickery!). 

The late Jerry prided himself on his romanticised Viking heritage, regaling his daughters with stories, and snippets of Viking lore are woven through the narrative. This adds an unusual dimension, though ultimately I did sympathise with Valentina's final verdict on "all that Viking stuff". 

There are some great descriptions here. The characters jump off the page and Valentina's chaotic life and appalling living conditions are particularly well drawn. An account of a (disastrous) party is particularly vivid and memorable.

All in all a cleverly crafted and highly engaging read which I can thoroughly recommend. 

Many thanks to Bookuture and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review!

Up next: The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Yesterday by Felicia Yap - Review

Does love equal memory? Or does memory equal love?

Felicia Yap's impressive debut is a scintillating psychological thriller with a sci-fi twist. It's set in a world much like ours, with one huge difference: the key social division between people concerns their memory status. All adults are classified according to whether they can remember only yesterday (Monos) or both yesterday and the day before (Duos). Duos are accorded higher social status, better jobs, and generally more admiration and respect. Monos, by contrast, are often regarded as stupid and can only aspire to menial jobs. The prejudices are deeply culturally entrenched; "mixed marriages", while not illegal, are socially frowned upon and viewed as doomed to failure. After all, Monos and Duos are just too different to make it work.

Naturally, this very limited capacity for memory presents major challenges for day to day living and society has evolved to find ways of coping. Modern technology helps greatly - inventions by successful Duos like Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee enable people to record everything (in their iDiaries, of course) and learn from them key "facts" which they are then able to retain. (I admit I'm not entirely clear about how this works, though a brief explanation is given. However the author, Felicia Yap, unlike me has a background in biochemistry so presumably has some insight into how memory works.)The reason why memory is so limited is touched upon (it's something to do with a genetic switch) but never expanded on - its just the way people are, and as far as anyone knows, that's the way they have always been. 

Despite the high concept, this is ultimately more detective story than science fiction. The story cleverly weaves together several strands, arising from the discovery in the Cam of a woman's body, quickly identified as that of forty-three year old Sophia Alyssa Ayling. Successful novelist/aspiring politician Mark Henry Evans (a Duo, of course), his unhappy Mono wife Claire, ambitious DCI Hans Richardson who's hiding his own challenges, and the elusive Sophia herself all have their role to play. To say more would spoil it. But I will say: there are twists, turns, and the ending is a complete surprise. 

This book is destined for huge success. Read it! I can't wait to see what Felicia Yap does next.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop by Annie Darling - Review

Full disclosure: I'm not really a big romance reader (well, not since I used to raid my nan's bookshelf as a teenager for the Mills & Boons she bought at 5p each from the market), and in the case of this book, the title, cover and even the author's name make it pretty clear that "gritty urban thriller" is probably off the table and romance is most definitely on it. (To be fair, I'm not that big on gritty urban thrillers either.) However, I *am* all for variety in my reading matter, and I'm certainly not such an old misery as to be entirely averse to a spot of romance if it's fun, interesting and well written.

Bookshops/teashops/a combination of both seem to be big news in publishing at the moment and titles featuring them abound. This is the sequel to a previous book, The Little Bookshop of Lonely Hearts (which I haven't read), featuring the same shop - the romance-themed Happy Ever After - but a different central character. In this case, it's the bookshop's admin manager Verity Love (*the* most perfect name for a romantic heroine), a twenty-seven year old self described spinster, Jane Austen addict - she has a quote for every situation - and owner of a difficult cat called Strumpet (excellent name also).

Verity's invented an imaginary boyfriend, perfect Peter Hardy (oceanographer), entirely in order to get her friends off her back, but of course this backfires when they inevitably seize an apparent opportunity to meet him and Verity has to throw herself on the mercy of a random handsome stranger. It's all a bit far fetched, but it would be curmudgeonly to complain. Handsome stranger Johnny, announcing upfront that his heart Belongs To Another, offers a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby he acts as Verity's real fake boyfriend, Peter Hardy (oceanographer) having been retired, at social occasions - hence getting both sets of friends off their backs. There follows a summer of weddings and parties as Verity and Johnny get to know each other better.

I did relate to Verity, an introvert who finds the modern world just a bit too overwhelming at times and needs her alone time to recover. She has friends, a job and a loud, eccentric family but just doesn't feel she has space for a boyfriend. Will she change her mind and can Johnny ever get over the thoroughly undeserving woman who currently holds his heart to ransom? Well, the answers to those questions will come as no great surprise, but it's fun getting there.

This is a light, cosy, humorous read which once I got into it, I thoroughly enjoyed. The ending was perhaps a bit too pat after a long build up and as I said, there are no big surprises, but the story was fun and I liked all the characters, with Verity's family being particularly good value.

Recommended for anyone who enjoys contemporary romance, or even those who think they don't but are prepared to give it a chance!

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware - Review

I enjoyed Ruth Ware's first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, but it was her second, The Woman in Cabin 10, which really established her on my Must-Read-Authors list. (It's not actually so much of a list, as a section of my brain designated for that purpose. But you get the general idea.) Anyway, The Lying Game consolidated that even further.

Having said that, it was a bit of a slow burner for me. I liked that part of the story is set in a boarding school (despite, or perhaps because of, never having been to one, I've been a sucker for boarding-school stories since my Enid Blyton reading days). However the school element is not actually that pronounced, as most of the novel takes place in the present day. The story is narrated by Isa (which she tells us rhymes with nicer, although I can't help rhyming it with Tizer) who attended Salten House, a girls' school in a remote and vividly drawn coastal location, seventeen years earlier, where she formed an intense friendship with Fatima, Thea and Kate. It's described by others as a clique, and it certainly is that, excluding and indeed alienating others, not least by their enjoyment of the "Lying Game" - inventing elaborate stories with which to deceive others. Mainly, harmless. Sometimes, not.

Out of school, the girls spend most of their time at the Tide Mill, the dilapidated nearby home of Kate, her artist father Ambrose, and stepbrother Luc, and it is here that most of the drama takes place, until everything shockingly falls apart.

Seventeen years on, Isa and the others are summoned back to Salten by a three word text from Kate - "I need you". The past is returning to haunt them. But are their memories of what happened real, or are they also lies?

Ruth Ware really shines on building the atmospheric location - the salt marsh, the Reach, the Tide Mill - and also on the experience of early motherhood - Isa's bond with her baby daughter, Freya, and the feelings generated by conflict with the needs and demands of others, especially as she becomes more enmeshed in her own lies, are beautifully drawn.

As I said, I found it something of a slow burner - while I liked the characters and the setting, and the book is very well written, it took time to get really engrossed in the plot. However from about half way through, momentum seemed to gather and it became genuinely gripping.

A recommended read!