Friday, 30 August 2013

Review: All The Summer Girls, Meg Donohue

All The Summer Girls

Meg Donohue

William Morrow, 2013

In Philadelphia, good girl Kate is dumped by her fiance the day she learns she is pregnant with his child. In New York City, beautiful stay-at-home mom Vanessa is obsessively searching the Internet for news of an old flame. And in San Francisco, Dani, the aspiring writer who can't seem to put down a book--or a cocktail--long enough to open her laptop, has just been fired... again.

In an effort to regroup, Kate, Vanessa, and Dani retreat to the New Jersey beach town where they once spent their summers. Emboldened by the seductive cadences of the shore, the women being to realize how much their lives, and friendships, have been shaped by the choices they made one fateful night on the beach eight years earlier--and the secrets that only now threaten to surface.

All The Summer Girls reunites three female friends, now in their late-20s, for a summer weekend in Avalon, New Jersey, the site of numerous summers from their teenage and college days. All three women are at a point of near-crisis: Kate is pregnant and has just broken up with her fiance; Vanessa is a stay-at-home mum with a rich husband who has just admitted an infidelity; and Dani is living in San Francisco, broke and failing to finish her first novel.

What I enjoyed most about All The Summer Girls was the focus on the friendships between the three women, particularly the nuances of a three-way friendship and the ways in which certain situations cause different 2/1 'splits'. More generally, Donohue writes well on women-as-friends, balancing the minor, petty squabbles with bigger injustices, while recognising the bond that continues to exist between Kate, Vanessa and Dani. Although each conforms to a certain 'type', they didn't feel like caricatures on the page, and each character got their own perspective, which probably helped.

Underlying their trip to Avalon is a classic submerged tragedy, something that happened a few summers before, the last time they were all on the island together. Each of the women thinks they are responsible; each has let it eat away at her in the intervening years. This part of the plot didn't actually interest me as much as the contemporary problems they were facing, and I felt like the book was stronger when dealing with the individual dilemmas and problems of the three main characters, rather than harking back to this particular event in the past. It became clear quite early on that all of them (and, in a way, none of them) could take the blame for what happened, and the flashbacks, which revealed the truth gradually, were less interesting to me.

All The Summer Girls meanders to a conclusion before I realised I was so far through - the pace is gentle, and I feel like it could have been meatier - again, probably by focusing more on the current issues facing each of the women. Dani is adrift and wondering what to do with her life, Kate is facing single motherhood, and Vanessa is wondering whether she can ever trust her husband again (and whether she wants to). All the solutions to these problems seemed quite benign in the end - I was waiting for Dani to make some kind of radical plan, or for Vanessa to take charge of her own life, or even for Kate to agonise over whether she wanted to keep the baby or not, but none of these things really transpired. There seemed to be a lot of reaction to things, rather than action, which was disappointing when faced with three smart, capable women on the page.

Although there was a little something lacking for me, All The Summer Girls is a good summer read, and an enjoyable look at how friendships change and endure over time. Just don't expect any surprises.

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Received as a gift from my brother.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review: Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld


Curtis Sittenfeld 

Doubleday, 2013

For identical twins, Kate and Violet are about as unlike as two peas from the same pod can be. Except in one respect - they share a hidden gift they call 'the Senses', a special kind of intuition that can allow them to see things that are yet to come. After Kate inadvertently reveals their secret when they are thirteen years old, they are set on diverging paths into their adult lives.

Twenty years later Kate is a suburban housewife who suppresses her premonitions in the hope of leading a normal family life, while Violet lives alone and works as a psychic medium. Then one day Violet ignites a media storm by predicting a major earthquake in the St Louis area where they live.

As the day Violet has announced for the earthquake draws nearer, the sisters must grapple with the legacy of the past, the confusion of the present, and the unsettling glimpses they both have of the future.

Sittenfeld is one of my favourite authors; an author whose books are immediately placed on my TBR list, whatever the subject, whose books I am constantly recommending to other people, who is guaranteed to restore my faith in reading within an opening page. Sisterland focuses on a pair of twins, Violet and Kate (formerly Daisy), who as children had some sort of psychic awareness - what they refer to as 'senses'.

As adults, Violet has embraced her psychic abilities, and lives a somewhat unconventional life, particularly next to Kate. Kate is married with two young children, a stay at home mother living an ordinary existence in a nice St. Louis suburb. At the same time that Violet is predicting a natural disaster in the city, garnering nationwide attention, Kate is concerned with the more mundane aspects of her everyday life: cooking dinner, getting the kids to bed, organising play dates at the park. While Violet works with her 'senses', Kate has suppressed hers to the point that they are almost completely dormant.

Violet's prediction causes derision and panic, depending on who you ask, and it doesn't help that Kate's husband is a scientist, and therefore privately and publicly sceptical of Violet's suggestions of an impending earthquake. Kate is embarrassed by her sister, and yet can't bring herself to dimiss Violet or her claims. The tension that builds as the prediction date comes nearer envelopes Kate's relationship with Violet, her relationship with her husband and children, and her memories of her own childhood and adolescence, memories that are interspersed throughout the narrative.

Sittenfeld's writing is first class - from the first page I was happy to be swept up in the story and see where it took me. The characters are always nuanced and believable: I was struck by how, even when people did strange things, they weren't unexpected things as far as the character went. Sittenfeld also avoids a good twin / bad twin binary, even though Kate herself seems to believe in this distinction. As the conventional twin, the presumed 'good' twin and the book's protagonist (everything is filtered through Kate), she is not always entirely likable. Her judgmental behaviour towards her sister, regarding her profession, her relationships, her sexuality, and her whole way of living, was never far from the surface, yet this was balanced by her desire for normality and her insecurity in the face of her husband's successful female colleagues - it was easy to be annoyed at Kate in one moment, and then sympathetic in another (and later, frustrated by some of her actions!). An excellent novel, and further proof of Sittenfeld's immense talent as a writer and storyteller.

Overall rating: 9.5/10 

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Showcase Sunday #31

Just a quick round-up this week, as I didn't make it to the library, and I have been good (better!) at resisting those pesky little Kindle deals...

I did pick up One Step Too Far, by Tina Seskis (which is still 99p on Kindle), which I am almost halfway through and enjoying a lot.

An apparently happy marriage. A beautiful son. A lovely home. So what makes identical twin Emily Coleman get up one morning and walk right out of her life? How will she survive? And what is the date that looms, threatening to force her to confront her past? No-one has ever guessed her secret. Will you? (from the blurb)

I'm not sure where it's all going yet, which I am glad about, but I'm trying not to expect too much from the twist ending and just go along for the ride.

Recent reviews
I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman - Nora Ephron (10/10)
Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn (6.5/10)
The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie (7/10)

Happy reading!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Review: I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron

I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman 

Nora Ephron

Black Swan, 2008 (2006)


*Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from

*If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit

*When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you

*Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five

*The empty nest is underrated
*If only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you're ahead of the game. 

About a quarter of the way into this, I commented on Goodreads that it made me want to read everything Ephron had ever written, and I stand by that assessment. This book is a collection of essays on a range of topics, from the title essay (musing on women's appearance as they get older) to other essays covering having children, finding the right handbag, being faithful to a cookery book and falling irrationally in love with the place you live.

All of these essays are wry, funny and wonderfully honest. There is also a wonderful short essay on the joys of reading, and the excitement of finding that elusive book that is not only good, or great, but the kind of book you don't want to let go. For me, this was one of those books - the kind of book you want to devour and savour all at the same time.

“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

It's a short book, and it became my 'commute book' for the week I was reading it. Opening it up on the train to work each morning was like spending fifteen minutes with your smartest, funniest, most truthful friend, and it will forever be one of those books I now give as a gift to any of my real-life smart, funny friends who didn't already get it for Christmas.

Overall rating: 10/10 

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Review: Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn

Phoenix, 2007 (2006)

Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker’s troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille’s first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls.

Since she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.

As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.

Camille works for a minor Chicago newspaper, determined to make it as a reporter. Her editor, sensing a story down in forgotten Wind Gap, Missouri, sends Camille to investigate, plunging Camille back into the oppressive small town world she grew up in. Sent to find out more about the murder of two young girls, Camille must also deal with her beguiling teenage sister, her manipulative mother, and the memory of her dead sister Marian.

Sharp Objects oozes that kind of sticky, hot, dusty air that conjured up a very specific image of Wind Gap for me. Flynn really nails the feeling of a small town mourning the loss of two young children - the tragedy tinged with gossip and suspicion - and it was easy to understand how Camille slowly unravelled in the middle of it all.

At the same time as trying to drag a story out of the citizens of her former home and stay on the good side of the local police, Camille must deal with her family, who are (for want of a more eloquent term) slightly mad and definitely unsettling. Camille's mother Adora is a cloying, wheedling woman, powerful and needy all at the same time. Amma, Camille's half sister, seems to be playing all sorts of roles, and Camille (like the reader) is never entirely sure whether she's on Amma's good side, or bad side, or neither. Mix in a selection of Camille's old high school friends, grieving parents, and a perpetually ineffectual stepfather, and Camille is on particularly shaky ground.

Sharp Objects balances 'normal' and 'creepy' well, and Flynn builds the tension gradually, until turning the page was a little bit like peering round the corner in a horror film. This is primarily an exploration of psychological states, rather than a straight crime thriller, and though it wasn't immaculate, it was still very well done.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Review: The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie

The Body in the Library

Agatha Christie

Harper Collins, 2002 (1942)

When the Bantrys wake to find the body of a beautiful, young stranger in their library, Dolly Bantry knows there's only one person to call: her old friend Miss Marple.

Who was the young girl? What was she doing in the library? And is there a connection with another dead girl, whose charred remains are discovered in an abandoned quarry?

Miss Marple must solve the mystery, before tongues start to wag, and the murderer strikes again.

I think I may have finally jumped on the Miss Marple bandwagon. It's taken a couple of books, but I am starting to appreciate her way of unravelling mysteries based purely on her observations of human nature. For a rather prim elderly lady (or, given the parlance of these books, spinster alert), Miss Marple has no illusions about the depths people will sink to out of desperation, greed, lust, or jealousy. Equally, her more kind-hearted way of pinpointing the personalities of her closest friends is always amusing, much more so for the traits she identifies with a sly twinkle of the eye are so often recognisable now.

The Body in the Library has plenty of twists and a fair few suspects, although not as many red herrings as some of Christie's books. Again, I figured out one element of the crime quite early on, only to find that even with that suspicion floating around my mind, I still didn't put the pieces together. (See every other review I've ever done of a Christie book, ever. I figured out X! But that's okay, says Christie, because you'll never guess Y. Or Z, which is where the real clue to the mystery lies...)

Overall rating: 7/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Showcase Sunday #30

I finally cracked. After eight months of using my Kindle to read free classics and eARCs and articles and a fair amount of (free, again) Sherlock Holmes tales, I ventured into the Kindle sale and came out doing a happy little dance at the surprise bargains I'd managed to track down.

The Stepford Wives - Ira Levin
The Boys From Brazil - Ira Levin
A Kiss Before Dying - Ira Levin
Rosemary's Baby - Ira Levin

I've read The Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby before, a few years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed both (particularly The Stepford Wives). Levin writes chilling, unsettling stuff, and these are all 99p at the moment - too good to pass up!

Big Brother - Lionel Shriver

I've read a few of Shriver's books now - starting with We Need To Talk About Kevin, but I haven't picked up the last two or three that she's written. This one is about a woman whose older brother comes to live with her and her husband, and how she's forced to choose between the two of them.

Diary of a Nobody - George Grossmith

This is my mum's favourite book. I've never read it, but it's free to download at the moment - about a man who, despite not being notable, decides to publish his diary.

I also picked up three books from the library:
The Inspector and Silence - Håkan Nesser
Another Inspector Van Veeteren mystery, this time focusing on a religious sect and the murder of a young girl.

Midwinter Sacrifice - Mons Kallentoft
The first book featuring detective Malin Fors - ambitious, unpredictable, and chasing a small town killer.

Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death - Gyles Brandreth
I've been intrigued by these books for a while - a mystery series featuring Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle as the investigators - so thought I'd give this a go.

Recent posts:

Don't forget to check out Jamie's A-Z Book Survey over at The Perpetual Page Turner - I posted my answers on Friday, and it was a lot of fun!

Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row by Damien Echols
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
Potter Redux: The Goblet of Fire

And, if you missed it, the #CatchUpClub completed its first mission - to read Cinder / Scarlet by Marissa Meyer. You can read my review of Scarlet here (and my earlier review of Cinder here), and see a round-up of all our thoughts over here on Emily's blog. Our current book is Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo - come join us!

Showcase Sunday is hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea.

Friday, 9 August 2013

A-Z Book Survey

So, Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner posted the A-Z Book Survey earlier today, and seeing as it's Friday and I got out of work early, I thought I'd spend ten minutes indulging my teenage self (who was always a sucker for a survey).

Author you’ve read the most books from:

According to Goodreads: Philip Roth and Agatha Christie.
I'd add Ann M. Martin to that list, as well Francine Pascal (or rather, her ghostwriters).

Best Sequel Ever:

Anastasia Again! by Lois Lowry.

Currently Reading:

The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women, by Jessica Valenti, and The Inspector and Silence by Håkan Nesser.

Drink of Choice While Reading:


E-reader or Physical Book?

Physical books, although I do have a Kindle and I do love it, particularly on long journeys. I also use my Kindle to read a lot of articles when I'm researching.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:

Probably Hutch from the Ruby Oliver books, or Owen from Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. (It's a solid type. I stand by it.)

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett - my introduction to the Discworld!

Hidden Gem Book:

Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil.

Important Moment in your Reading Life:

My first library cards. Joining the library is still the first thing I do whenever I move to a new city.

Just Finished:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:

I don't read a lot of science fiction, or romance (although 'won't' is a strong word!)

Longest Book You’ve Read:

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Major book hangover because of:

Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer and Naive. Super by Erlend Loe spring to mind.

Number of Bookcases You Own:

One. Most of my books are in my mum's attic - I move around too much to keep more than a shelf's worth with me!

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. The first book of my favourite series.

Preferred Place To Read:

In the bath - but I do a lot of reading on the train, on the sofa, in bed...

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

I don't know about all the feels, but some of the feels: “The only thing I can be sure of at any given time is what I am thinking myself. I have no idea what the others are thinking. Do they think space is big and dangerous? I do. What do they believe in? I think nobody ought to be alone. That one should be with someone. With friends. With the person one loves. I think it is important to love. I think it's the most important thing.” - Erlend Loe, Naive. Super

I reserve all the feels for anything Jim Henson ever said.

Reading Regret:

I'm not sure I have many - but I wish I'd have learned to DNF sooner.

Series You Started And Need To Finish (all books are out in series):

The Ruby Oliver series, by E. Lockhart. I have read (and loved) the first two books (The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book), but there are two more I am dying to read!

Three of your All-Time Favourite Books:

Into The Wild - Jon Krakauer
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Plot Against America - Philip Roth

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

Stephanie Perkins.

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:

The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin, and Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins.

Worst Bookish Habit:

I dog-ear pages, much to the horror of my mum (who works in a library).

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:

Pearl Jam Twenty.

Your latest book purchase:

I just bought 4 Ira Levin novels in the Kindle sale: Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, A Kiss Before Dying and The Boys From Brazil. I spent a total of £3.96.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

I Feel Bad About My Neck, and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Review: Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row, Damien Echols

Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row

Damien Echols

Blue Rider Press, 2012

I first found out about Damien Echols and the 'West Memphis Three' case a few years ago, after watching the film Paradise Lost for the first time. There is a lot of information about the case on the website,, but in the briefest possible terms: in 1993, Echols and two other teenage boys were arrested and charged with the murder of three young boys in the Arkansas town of West Memphis, despite incredibly flimsy (or fabricated) evidence against them, through which they were broadly labelled 'Satanists'. (This seems in part to be related to the long-black-hair-long-black-trenchcoat look adopted by Echols, which makes me despair for humanity if that's all it takes.)

A second film was made a few years later, which I also watched, and in 2011 the three men (now in their mid-thirties) were finally set free. When I saw that this book had been published, I put in an immediate request at the library.

The book doesn't focus on the case particularly, at least not the particulars, and I would recommend watching the film first if you want that background before you start. This book focuses on Echols' incredibly poor childhood, his fractious family relationships, and his difficult time at high school, leading up to the time that he was arrested for murder. Much of the book is centred on his time on Death Row, detailing the horrific conditions, the brutality of the prison guards, and Echols' attempts to overcome the threat of spiralling into insanity. He does this through a mixture of things: spirituality, reading, exercise, and developing his own rituals and timetable. I hasten to say 'religion', because it does seem much more like a spiritual journey, and one that he goes into quite a lot of detail about, but I wouldn't say it was preachy - in the circumstances it seems entirely understandable.

There are some snippets from Echols' journals (some typed, and a couple of photocopies of actual pages, as well as some photographs), and the last couple of chapters deal with the final appeal and the release of Echols, alongside the other two men who were convicted (but not put on Death Row), Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The core of this book is really the horrors of Death Row, and the trauma of spending eighteen years there for a crime he didn't commit. Echols is a decent writer, and there are some interesting and thoughtful passages on his conflicted feelings towards 'home', and how the South is a place he both can't go back to (and never quite fit in with), yet still has a powerful, nostalgic hold over him.

I have read a few reviews of this book on Goodreads, and the criticisms of this book seem to fall into four main categories:

1) Echols overuses the word 'magickal' and his discussion of such things. This is perhaps true, but at the same time one of the fundamental aspects of the book is his development of his spiritual thinking.

2) He's been misrepresented and judged unfairly, and yet in his book he is mean about other people. This seems like a strange criticism - I am actually surprised that he is not more angry, given what has happened to his life.

3) He doesn't talk much about the case, and there is no discussion of the boys who died or how Echols feels about this. Again, I find this an odd criticism - given that he had no involvement in the case, surely it would be stranger to talk about the murders and give his opinion on them? The connection between Echols and the murdered children is erroneous, and this book is meant to be able Echols' own experience.

4) Maybe if he hadn't worn those clothes and listened to that music and associated with those people, he would never have been suspected. At which point, I say: that is why this book is important.

Overall rating: 8/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Review: The Devotion of Suspect X, Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X (Detective Galileo #1)

Keigo Higashino

Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander

Abacus, 2012 (2005)

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered. 

When Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police tries to piece together the events of that day, he finds himself confronted by the most puzzling, mysterious circumstances he has ever investigated. Nothing quite makes sense, and it will take a genius to understand the genius behind this particular crime...

The Devotion of Suspect X is a crime novel with a bit of a difference, in that the reader isn't simply on the side of the criminal or the police, but somewhere in between, balancing their knowledge of both sides of the story. There are plenty of puzzles here, which is where 'Detective Galileo' comes into it. A friend of Detective Kusanagi, Galileo is in fact a genius physicist who has a knack for unravelling puzzles and looking at things from unexpected angles. His input proves to be invaluable to this case.

It's a difficult book to write about without giving things away or ruining the experience, but I would recommend it, particularly if you enjoy twisty crime thrillers. I found that I read it really fast, because I was desperate to get more pieces of the puzzle and see how it all turned out! The prose seemed a little bit stilted, or dry, at times - not a major problem, and I suspect the outcome of it being a translation. It didn't affect my enjoyment of the book too much, but occasionally it felt a little bit unnatural.

I enjoyed the Tokyo setting - as far as I'm aware, this is the first Japanese novel I have read, and it was nice to break out of the Europe/US mould for a change. I had to look a couple of things up, such as the 'hostessing', which I couldn't work out whether it was a euphemism for prostitution or not.

I wavered between 3 and 4 stars on Goodreads - the twist is satisfying, and it was a good, fast-paced thriller, but I thought the characters were a little bit flat at times (and the best character, 'Galileo', wasn't used as much as I would have liked), and the prose wasn't particularly sparkling. I'd be interested to read the next Detective Galileo book, which has also been translated into English, to see whether the character is more of a central feature further down the line.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

This book counts towards my 2013 Translation Challenge.