reviews

REVIEW: The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

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Released May 18 with Transworld, available here.

I have only read one Paula Daly book before, Just What Kind Of Mother Are You?, and although I enjoyed it, I felt as though the writing was a little stilted and not particularly vivid. However, I thought The Trophy Child was fab and very much improved (which makes sense as it’s her fourth as opposed to her first novel). It’s an example of the grip lit/domestic noir genre, which is something I’ve delightedly fallen face first into and have been wallowing in for years now. (The phrase ‘like a pig in shit’ comes to mind but obviously I am far too elegant for that! Obviously! OBVIOUSLY!!) There is honestly no better feeling than sitting down with a great domestic noir book – and something that I really enjoyed about The Trophy Child is that it was also extended a little into police procedural (although I would add that it’s less procedural and more character-driven).

I really liked Joanne Aspinall. I found that she was an incredibly engaging and warm character to read. I enjoyed her presence in the other Daly book I read and came to like her even more in this one. I liked her dark humour – which is a theme of the whole book, actually, and something that I really welcomed because frankly grip lit can get a little exhausting and self obsessed if it isn’t shot through with at least a little humour. (This is also true of human beings in general.) I liked that she fucks up and is still professional – she’s competent and intelligent and imperfect, and the way that she was seen through Noel’s eyes gelled well with the way that she sees herself. I liked that she’d had a breast reduction – which sounds like a small thing to like about a character but I honestly don’t think it’s something I’ve ever read about before and it made her all the more human and interesting.

I thought that the plot itself was good. I saw – on goodreads, maybe? – that Daly was described as one of the more cosy grip lit writers and I can see that – maybe because of that extremely welcome humour. Despite occasionally having very dark themes, this book was very easy to enjoy. I sort of vaguely guessed that the end perpetrator (sort of) would have something to do with what went on but I didn’t at all guess how exactly it would work, so that was a nice surprise and also something that felt very satisfying and like the right ending – it was a very well-formed plot. I liked Noel and his family – although I wanted to know more about Karen. Why was she the way that she was? I am maybe too sensitive about Evil Cow Women in a way that I am not about Evil Bastard Men, but I felt as though she was a vicious villain who didn’t have enough backstory for me. Her father was unpleasant but not enough to make her into the person that she was – and Noel wanting to make his marriage work for his children didn’t feel like enough to excuse his staying with her for so long, especially as the children weren’t happy. In a way, I did not feel as though he was remotely good enough for Joanne – he felt weak (if funny and interesting) and overly passive. (Another random point: I liked the mentions of his vitiligo. It’s just nice to have things like that in books that the characters aren’t obsessed by and that don’t remotely impact on the crimes, but that add a little representation in there.)

Verity was a fab character and so was poor little Bronte. Although appalling, Karen was charismatic and entertaining and the sort of person who is ghastly but a very welcome character to read about because she was unpredictable and interesting. I felt as though the book was less about ‘tiger mom’ parenting as it was about Karen specifically – I would have maybe liked to see the way that the other kids at Bronte’s school were affected by their multiple tutors and lessons and so on so that the theme was spread out more widely in the book.

In all, this was a good and really solid book with a satisfying ending and engaging characters. I’m looking forward to reading Daly’s next book – hopefully about Joanne Aspinall again – and I’m definitely going to purchase her other two books as well.

reviews

REVIEW: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

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This evening I was in a no good very bad mood, so I knew I had to read something that was engrossing, not too challenging, and able to hold my interest – which meant that Ruth Ware’s new novel, The Lying Game, was the perfect choice. I ploughed through the entire thing and now I feel a lot better, which means this book was basically excellent and has done the exact thing that all books should do: to take the reader out of their skin and to put them back in it at the end feeling a lot more whole and happy.

I really enjoyed Ruth Ware’s first two books, which I read in similar fashion last summer: while feeling rotten in the head and while being very sweaty in the middle of a heatwave. They did the same as The Lying Game in that they pulled me out of myself and took me away for a few blissful hours – except I think that The Lying Game is a much better written book than either of those two. It’s a very different sort of book too, I think – slower and knottier and more character driven. Ware is great at atmosphere and setting, but The Lying Game was the best of the three – the seaside town it’s set in is extremely real, as is the boarding school, as is Kate’s old rickety house, surrounded by an ever more encroaching moat. The setting contributed huge amounts to the story and to the atmosphere of it and was conveyed really successfully. I love that hazy dream world that some authors are able to conjure up that was popularised by the haziness of The Secret History. It’s like Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree, Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, Louise Candlish’s The Swimming Pool, of course The Virgin Suicides – there’s something dangerous and slightly malevolent about that slow, lazy, sticky heat, which I thought was conveyed really beautifully through the first part of this book. The way that Luc was described, for example – the gold and brown of him, it felt somewhat familiar but that didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. It all felt languorous and dangerous.

The story itself was great. I also love that tightly knit and almost hypnotic group of friends thing – it has been done before in fiction, again The Secret History and Tana French’s The Secret Place, also The Poison Tree, but it’s something that I personally love to read. That being suckered into a group and terrible things happening because of it thing is exactly My Kind Of Thing, that found family going terribly wrong vibe. The only thing was that I didn’t feel that the lying game went far enough, and I also didn’t know if I felt like it applied strongly enough to the actual plot. I wanted the internal story to be more connected to something that the protagonist, Isa, had done – it felt sometimes as though it was someone else’s story and she was just the person who was telling it, as though we were set up for something more terrible than what had actually happened. I felt as though I wanted the eventual conclusion to be more linked to their thoughtless lies, if that makes sense. But the conclusion that we got was still really excellent and there were some great and unforgettable images at the end, along with a twist that worked well. I liked all four women – Isa was a great protagonist even though I felt that her identity might have been tied too strongly to her role as a mother for me. Thea was fragile and less dangerous than she initially appeared, Kate was tough and vulnerable and full of secrets, and Fatima was probably my favourite – I loved the fact that she had her shit together but she was still under the spell of her old friends. I also liked the fact that she’s a Muslim and the way that her faith is described through the book – it’s the kind of thing that you don’t see much in fiction so I was really delighted to see it here.

I don’t know if I think this was great literature – it might not stick in my head forever and I don’t think it was the most original thing in the whole world. But it really, solidly did its job, it totally gripped me for the whole evening and made me want to read on and on. The descriptions of Freya were gorgeous, and I liked the way that each woman(/girl) was differentiated carefully from each other. There’s nothing I love to read about more than friendship between women, how fucked up it can be and how it can be the most important thing in the world when you’re younger and how the ties of it will stay with you forever, and how that sort of teenage loyalty can make you do really terrible things and keep its hold over you way into adulthood. This book was a great example of that and I think that was its main strength – the relationship between the four central characters was thoroughly believable to me. This book did exactly what it should have done – it made me forget the rest of my life for the evening and totally immersed me in its story. I’m definitely going to be buying Ruth Ware’s next book as soon as it comes out.

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REVIEW: The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

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FIRST OF ALL: Thank you so much to Stevie at Gollancz for sending this book to me! Sarah Pinborough is an awesome writer and I was really excited about reading this book. It’s YA and a kind of dystopian romance, following the story of Toby, who lives in the Death House, which is on an uninhabited island and is where children who’ve tested positive as Defectives are sent before they start to show symptoms of a mysterious disease and are sent to a sanatorium, never to be seen again.

First and foremost: I liked this book a lot. I thought that Toby’s voice was warm and well-written, and I liked all the other characters. The whole concept of the story was well introduced and I thought the flashbacks were great. I’ve seen reviews that were slightly critical about how much the reader’s told about the world that the characters are in, but I enjoyed that slight vagueness. One thing that a lot of dystopian novels get wrong is that the characters ruminate too much on their world and tell the readers more than they naturally would – these characters just lived in their world and took it for granted and I thought that worked well. I liked the small glimpses that we got of the outside world – the Black Suits and the lack of snow, for example. I would have liked to know more about it but at the same time it wasn’t necessary to the story and would possibly have felt clumsy if it had been shoehorned in. There are things that I wanted more of, though: why didn’t Toby try to explore the sanatorium? That could have been fantastic.

I liked Toby’s relationship with his dorm mates and I thought that Louis and Will’s friendship was extremely adorable. I also liked the way that Toby and Josh found a sort of tentative truce through the book – character development, what’s upppppp. I had a lot of affection for Tom and wanted better for him. I also liked the way that faith was brought into the book – in dire circumstances, people do find these things to hold onto. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the ambiguity of to what extent Matron was straight up murdering them all – were the pills making them worse? Was she meant to be evil? Did she actually kill The Nice Nurse? Who knows what the fuck was up but I liked that we didn’t have to know – it felt as though I as a reader was fully in this world, which meant that not everything was tied up neatly. I liked Will’s plot arc a lot – the way that he and Louis were written was really charming and lovely, and it definitely made me pretty emotional.

My only real problem was with the central romance, and I’m absolutely willing to accept that it’s because I’m a hundred years old and extremely cranky, as opposed to any defects in the book. I felt as though Clara wasn’t the best of characters – I could see why Toby would fall in love with her but she definitely seemed like a bit of a manic pixie dream girl. She sometimes felt like more of a character than a person, and in a novel full of well drawn people, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, it was sweet to watch the love story play out until – UNTIL!! – the end, which frustrated the crap out of me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Toby made the World’s Most Stupid Decision and it pissed me off hugely. I get that for teenagers Love Rules All but I am an adult woman and even looking at it through the lens of ‘ahh well, maybe it’s supposed to be clear to adult readers that he’s making a dumbass decision’, I was not okay with it. The deep infatuation that he finds with Clara (I’m not going to say ‘love’, because in a word: nah), was sweet but it was also supposed to be a healthy relationship until he made the Most Unhealthy Decision Of All Time. I liked what happened to Louis at the end, but God. GOD. FUCK. IT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH BETTER. And another plot decision could have been ten times more emotional and heartbreaking! It would have been like “Toby is strong and Clara is sacrificing the last minutes of their togetherness and Toby is striking out to make the world a better place” and instead it was just full of poor decisions and frustrating shit.

I MEAN! WHATEVER! I’M SURE THAT TONS OF PEOPLE LOVED THE ENDING! I’M NOT AT ALL EMBITTERED! But the story that came before this ending was wonderful and deserved so much more. I really enjoyed this book up until my irritation at the last page. The lives that these characters led were interesting and sad and the world felt very whole and well-created. I liked the mermaid imagery throughout the book, I liked the coldness and emptiness and the friendships that were formed between the characters. If the ending hadn’t left a sour taste in my mouth, this would be a solid four star book instead of three.

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REVIEW: The Last Piece Of My Heart by Paige Toon

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It is with a heavy heart that I must announce I have underestimated Paige Toon.

Before I went to an event at Waterstones Piccadilly a few weeks ago with her, Holly Bourne, Rachael Lucas and Tamsyn Murray, I’d – obviously! – heard of her books, but I hadn’t bought or read any of them. I got copies of books by all of those authors that day and this was the first out of the four that I picked up. And God, I loved it. I was expecting to like it but somehow I didn’t know that I would love it. I thought it would be a relatively generic romance (although I don’t know why I thought that!! Stupidity, I guess?), but it was a lot more than that. It was a sunshine-ray of a book, and completely charming.

There is something to be said about a book that is intensely enjoyable the whole way through. I thought it was an incredibly successful novel. Some of the time I barely noticed I was reading – the writing was simple and lovely, and it was paced absolutely perfectly. If anyone ever needs to pick apart a novel to somehow calculate an algorithm for how to pace a book exactly correctly, this would be a great choice. I was never bored, I always looked forward to picking up this book again when I wasn’t reading it, and there were points when I was reading it in public that I almost had to shove my fist in my mouth to stop myself shrieking loudly about the romantic tension between Charlie and Bridget (page 198 was the point at which I had to shove it back in my bag because it made my heart Actually Lurch and my face started to do strange things). It was just so delicious to read. The last few weeks have been a strange combination of really great and staggeringly shit for me and my mind has been totally full of crap most of the time, so this book was exactly what I needed to read.

Anyway! The plot. Everyone has a few plotlines that twang on their specific heartstrings, and I think this was the sort of plot that’s pretty much tailor made for me. (You know, we all have the tropes we love. For me: pretending to be dating and then actually falling in love! Suddenly having to take care of a kid! That sort of thing.) Anyway, dishy widower, travel writer, cute kid, falling into a family and finding your place in it (does that count as found family?) – God. Paige Toon knew what I, me, I specifically, wanted to read, and bless her, she wrote it. There was warmth and love and people treating each other well because they were decent kind human beings, and genuine pain at times that people worked their way through in a relatively healthy way, and no drama for the sake of drama. Bridget was recognisable as someone you would want to be friends with, or at least someone who all of us has met once upon a time. Nicole felt like a real person and the glimpses we got of her were great – she wasn’t the perfect angel dead wife, she was just human, and loved and missed. And I liked the way that April was written. Some children in fiction are obnoxious, but April was adorable. All the side characters were fab and well drawn too.

Was it formulaic? I mean, maybe. Kind of. It followed that incredibly reassuring plot structure that a lot of romance novels have – the slight frostiness to start with, the slow burn, the frisson, the crush, the sex, the spanner in the works, the happy ending. But no one reads a book like this for a plot twist – you read it because you want to feel happy. The key to a successful romance is falling in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other, and I absolutely did that here. Bridget was so bright and lively and engaging, and Charlie was such a great hero. A little broken but not completely, and vulnerable but strong, and also kind of sulky? Which I liked, because it made him more imperfect, yet it wasn’t the sort of personality trait that seems very red flag-ish, which has been the case with some heroes I’ve read about. Instead he disappeared into his head sometimes and Bridget was fine with it. These two characters treated each other well, and when they didn’t, they apologised for it. There’s something joyful about reading about two well-drawn characters with missing pieces who find what they needed in each other. It was sweet and lovely to read about how happy they made each other. I’m looking forward to buying and reading the rest of Paige Toon’s books.

reviews

REVIEW: He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly

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Released April 20th with Hodder and Stoughton, available here.

I’ve seen Erin Kelly speak at a couple of events – firstly at a Valentine’s Day killer women talk earlier this year and then again at one of Goldsboro Books’s Monday crime nights (speaking of: I went to another one on Monday night with Jane Casey, Chris Brookmyre, Michelle Adams and Mark Hill, and it was excellent but I was tired and a bit squashed so I was a big flop and did not take notes). My point here is that she’s fantastic and I have been looking forward to reading this book since February.

It follows the story of Kit and Laura. Kit is an eclipse chaser and has drawn his wife Laura into that life too. The book moves between their life together in the present day – Laura is pregnant with much longed for twins, while Kit is off chasing an eclipse – and their past, which starts in 1999 when they go to a festival in Cornwall to watch an eclipse and Laura interrupts a rape that’s taking place. The repercussions of that day affect pretty much their entire life together.

So, that’s the premise, and it’s so much better than I’ve made it sound. I think that what makes this book work so well for me was the sheer quality of Kelly’s writing. Since reading He Said/She Said on Sunday, I’ve also read her novel The Burning Air, which absolutely hooked me even though I would argue that the plot isn’t quite as fantastic as He Said/She Said. The reason for that is that her character creation is so great. There’s something really incredible about the way that she seems to let us fully inside her characters and keeps things hidden at the same time. Doing that with such ease is really skilful. Both these books had huge twists that genuinely stunned me and made me flip back through the book to reread the parts leading up to them.

Kelly is clearly an absolute master at writing a novel with a twist. I think twists can sometimes be overrated – they feel cheap or they’re not that interesting or you feel as though they’ve been shoved in there to make you gasp and tell everyone about the twist in your novel. But these ones made total, total sense in retrospect – and I think the novels could definitely be reread and seen through fresh eyes with this new perspective, especially as they were such page-turners that made me read extremely quickly and probably, tbh, miss a few clues.

There’s something else that I really like about these books and I’m not completely sure how to phrase it without being spoilery and awful. Basically, in both of these novels, for a while things go in the direction of Women Being Awful Because They’re Crazy. And that is a plotline that is obviously more than a little tired and that has been done a thousand times before – and I’m really glad that it was steered away from in both of these books. I felt as though they were written in a really clear-eyed and intelligent way, and none of the humanity of the characters was sacrificed for the sake of the plot. Both of the endings of these books were incredibly satisfying, particularly He Said/She Said. Sometimes books have fantastic premises but as you read through them, part of you is saying ‘No. No, that isn’t how this should be done. No. Oh God’, but with these books it felt as though the story was formed and the endings were the only way they could have been resolved – despite me not guessing at all what was going to happen.

Back to the point of this review/ramble, which is He Said/She Said: I think it may be my favourite thriller that I’ve read so far this year, and I don’t know how it’s going to be topped. I loved that the characters were shits but recognisably human, I loved how deeply satisfying it was, I loved the relationship between Kit and Laura and of course the relationship between Beth and the pair of them. I love that Erin Kelly writes in shades of grey in which women are allowed to be unapologetically human. I’m looking forward to reading all her books – The Poison Tree is next, and frankly I can’t wait.

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REVIEW: The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins

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Released May 4th, with Quercus Books.

The Night Visitor is one of this month’s hottest new releases, and with good reason. Lucy Atkins is already a pretty well known author thanks to her previous novels The Missing One and The Other Child but it looks like The Night Visitor is the one that’s really going to add her name to the ranks of today’s must-read thriller writers. I’ve been seeing buzz about it on Twitter for months – I think I remember seeing Clare Mackintosh mentioning how good it was ages ago – and I’ve been super excited to read it ever since then. And hooray – thanks to Hannah at Quercus I’ve got my grubby little paws on a copy.

First and foremost: this is a Good Book. It is a very high quality piece of writing and I think that the incredible characterisation of the two central characters is what makes it stand out from other similarly themed titles. I suppose this is part of the ‘grip lit’ genre but im-not-so-ho this book stands head and shoulders above a lot of the others. It’s firmly literary as well as thrilling – very solidly written. I felt thoroughly as though the action was driven by the realistic wants of the characters instead of the needs of a thriller plot – which is, of course, the best sort of thriller.

Vivian in particular was a triumph of a character. She was creepy and insidious and alarmingly believable. I understood that she could exist in the world at her current level of Odd. Sometimes in books like this, the villain (is Vivian a villain or just extremely damaged?) is a bit of a cardboard cut out and it’s hard to see why they are the way they are, but Vivian made a lot of sense and seemed as though she could be a person who manages to function in the world while seeming a bit off. In some other books it can be hard to understand why no one’s pointed out that the villain is a psychopathic monster before. I also thought that Olivia was a great character – again, she felt extremely real, as did all of her friends and family members. This may sound ridiculous but all the characters were well-drawn in just a few words – it was easy to tell them all apart (this sounds like damning praise but it’s not! Sometimes background characters are hard to distinguish but it felt as though all these characters were distinct people with their own lives).

The settings were great and extremely evocative. I enjoyed the way the book moved between them – Vivian’s inability to deal with the heat in the south of France, the tower that the children slept in, the woods in the countryside in Sussex, the old house – I felt very much as though I was there. I liked how green and leafy and wet-smelling the woods were – does that make sense? They were described really excellently and were incredibly familiar and atmospheric. I also thought that the pacing of the novel was fantastic – the action unfolded perfectly in a way that meant I didn’t particularly notice the plotting – which is a compliment. I didn’t notice any dragging, I wasn’t bored for a single paragraph, I wasn’t confused and I didn’t feel that any of it was rushed. I was carried along on the story very comfortably – it felt effortless to read and to get lost in.

My one criticism of this novel was that I didn’t love the ending. It was a little too open-ended for me – although I’m completely aware that’s a totally subjective feeling and a lot of people will probably respond very well to it. To me there were two open-ended bits at the end (let’s describe them as Olivia’s personal life and Olivia’s Vivian life…) and although they were both resolved to some extent, I think my slightly anally retentive brain would have enjoyed a little more certainty at the end. Having said that, it probably isn’t really a criticism because I don’t think it lessened the quality of the book at all – and it has certainly made me think about future possibilities for the characters more than the ending of most thrillers.

In conclusion, this is a clever, clever book. It kept me hooked, it was deliciously creepy, and it’s absolutely worth reading. Thank you again to  Hannah at Quercus for sending me a copy.

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REVIEW: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Released May 18th, with HarperCollins.

This book was spectacular. I read it in a day, even though I was at work for most of that day. Over my lunch break, and when I got home and then late into the night – too late, probably, but it was absolutely worth it. It was without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best debuts too. Although nothing’s going to topple The Hate U Give for me, this is probably my favourite non-YA debut I’ve read this year.

I saw a Goodreads reviewer say that this novel reminded them of Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, which I can understand. Both protagonists are prickly and difficult and faintly pathetic and sometimes disgusting, and the writers let us see them as the world sees them through clever throwaway lines. But Eleanor is much less revolting than Eileen, and considerably more sympathetic too. She feels more and more like a lost soul as the book moves on, even as she’s unpleasant and completely fails to understand the normal rules of interaction. What really impressed me about this book was the way that I as a reader was thoroughly taken on Eleanor’s journey with her. I wanted the best for her; every time her plans for her future with Johnny were mentioned I was anxious and desperately hoping that she wouldn’t humiliate herself too badly.

Another thing I really enjoyed about this novel was the way that Eleanor changed throughout it and how she developed. I thought that her arc was interesting and extremely satisfying – and the way that the details were revealed about her life was cleverly done. There was one twist that really sincerely surprised me, which I really enjoyed as I felt as though it would all turn itself out as I was expecting it to.

My only slight issue with this book – and it is slight – was that I felt as though the ending had something missing, as though it was all tied up too neatly or quickly. But perhaps that was just because I wanted more of Eleanor and of Raymond too, and of their relationship which was so much fun to read. Speaking of Raymond, he was such a brilliant character. I feel as though I have met him several times, and probably not paid enough attention to him. What I liked the most about him was his sheer ordinariness and the clever way that he was described and how the reader knows the truth about him and understands him far before Eleanor does. Writing a character who’s as un-self aware as Eleanor is and doing it so successfully is a really big triumph – not least because Eleanor was so likeable despite the way that she was.

This book was easy to read – in a great way – and compelling both in its plot and in the emotional arcs of the characters. I’m really excited about recommending it to everyone who comes into my branch of Waterstones. It’s a really great debut and, specifically, the sort of book that I absolutely love – the sort that proves that no matter what your plot is (although this plot was good), a novel is pretty much nothing without a great central character. I’m going to remember this book, and Eleanor, for a long time.

 

The proof of book was sent to me earlier in the year (thank you!). This is a completely honest review.

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REVIEW: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

First and foremost: I liked this book. When I heard about its subject matter I immediately knew that it’d be the first book that I’d be reading from the Baileys Prize shortlist (so far it’s also the only one, oops). I’ve always been fascinated by illness and medicine, because I am a creep like that – and I’ve also always been interested in old hospitals. I live near Princess Park, which was for a long time a mental asylum called alternatively Friern Hospital and the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. For a while it also held patients suffering from TB.  These days it’s a load of luxury flats which quite frankly I would rather die than live in (unless I got one of the ones that a member of One Direction lived in, in which case I will cut out little squares of the carpet to glue into my stalkers’ scrapbook). Otherwise I don’t think I could do it. The walls of a place like that would hold appalling memories. There’s something so terribly bleak about these places where people went to die. The image of Miriam and Valerie heaped in blankets on balconies in the fresh air is something that has really remained with me. The treatments that these characters – and that real people – were oppressive and terrible. Valerie propped up in bed alone after her operation is something that I have remembered a couple of times after this book was finished.

Actually, this book had a lot of images that stayed with me. The way people were described through each other’s eyes, particularly Miriam and Lenny. I thought they were great characters and brightened up what would otherwise have been a pretty dry at times novel – the physical descriptions of them were glorious, particularly of Miriam, her hair and curves and colours. As a London girl, I love any characters who are London as fuck, and that was exactly what I got with Miriam and Lenny. One thing that I loved about this book was how fully formed the characters felt – although some of them were peripheral and drifting in and out, I felt as though they had rich lives away from the information on these pages – or poor lives, but lives nonetheless. I also liked the fact that London felt like a character – crater-scarred, being rebuilt by people like Uncle Manny. There was a completely delicious contrast between that and the Gwendo. One character that I didn’t connect well with was Arthur Persky – I felt that he was more of an idea than a person, although maybe in hindsight that works perfectly because that was how the other people at the hospital saw him.

I will add that sometimes there were too many different POVs for me. Sometimes it was hard to connect to the character whose eyes we were seeing through simply because on occasion it was hard to remember who was who. However: I am perfectly willing to accept that that was user error and my appalling memory and attention span as opposed to any fault of the author’s. I liked the detail about the medical procedures, although sometimes there was a bit of a ‘Look how much research I’ve done’ vibe. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the class divide in the book and the subtle ways that it was drawn. It’s a truly fascinating time in history – as the NHS is brought in, meaning that the lives of people like Miriam and Lenny could be saved – and the contrast of the new NHS patients to the older private patients was really fascinating. I thought the minutiae of all the different stories was great, and would be interested to learn which ones were specifically inspired by the history of real TB patients.

The ending was something that I didn’t adore. It felt a little Return of the King-esque in that it had quite a few ending scenes, meaning that each of them was a little diluted. I think that one leap forward into the future would have been enough for me. I felt as though there could have been a bigger emotional punch, somehow, although part of me worries that I missed some of the subtleties and delicacies of the novel. I think that is probably my fault and not the author’s. The atmosphere was wonderful, and the characters as well – and of course the language was precisely evocative of the time that she wanted to convey. The small observations of humans and their odd behaviours were perfect, and there were huge swathes of this book that I really enjoyed. I felt as though there was a bigger point being dangled in front of me that I didn’t quite manage to grasp, but this book will stay with me, and has inspired me to look for more works on similar themes.

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REVIEW: The Upside Of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Here’s a confession: I spent the latter part of last year barely reading at all. I finished my MA in September, and between then and February this year, I read eight books. For me, that’s a ridiculously small amount. I don’t know why exactly it was, but I do know when I got my love of reading back: when I started Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It was charming. It was warm. I enjoyed reading it – it didn’t feel like work, it didn’t feel like something I was obligated to do. I loved it, this sweet, frank, open protagonist and the cast of mostly good-hearted characters surrounding him. And for the first time in months, I devoured a book in a day.

It was good timing, because her second novel, The Upside of Unrequited, was published April 11 with Penguin. I pre-ordered it right after I finished Simon, because I was excited about reading another book that I knew would make me feel warm and happy. There was something about Simon that made me trust the author. I felt as though she was a safe pair of hands and as though her warmth and gentleness would guide me through a second book carefully – and I was absolutely right.

Unrequited is every bit as gorgeous as Simon. It doesn’t have that same element of  ‘Who’s Blue?’ mystery, but the gentle unfurling of Molly’s character and the way she blossomed was every bit as compelling. I don’t think I’ve read any books that reminded me so acutely of the way I felt when I was a teenager. There are certain feelings that a lot of writers don’t talk about – that sick sense of jealousy, the sort of jealousy that doesn’t turn you into Iago but that infects your life and your mind and your relationships nonetheless. That yearning and that longing – they’re things that a lot of people dismiss but that Albertalli has described perfectly and carefully. I’ve felt that sick nauseous sensation of seeing people I love move on without me and it’s something that I haven’t seen a lot in fiction. Albertalli described that feeling perfectly, and without condemnation – with tenderness, in fact.

Her train has left the station. And all I can do is try to catch the next one in the same direction. Or I don’t. And we grow apart.

Even now in my twenties, that’s something that I can identify with. It isn’t just about growing up – it’s a universal feeling that sucker punched me repeatedly over the course of reading this book. Being single when my friends are getting married and buying houses with their partners, being happy for them and yet feeling that sick rolling feeling of watching them move on without me. ‘Mr Frodo, don’t go where I can’t follow’, except with moving out of London or finding people they want to spend their lives with instead of getting sucked in by the dark powers of the one ring. I loved the way that Albertalli managed to find that perfect point between sincerely trying to be happy for your friends and also wanting to be happy yourself, without turning Molly into a huge sap.

I liked Molly a lot. I thought that she was a great and realistic character and I liked that she was fat, and the way that Albertalli described that as Molly made all the little adjustments that the other characters wouldn’t think of, like wearing leggings and cardigans, to feel a little more confident about herself. I liked Molly’s moms – although there were times where her dialogue with them didn’t quite ring true, tbh – and I loved her little brother. I thought her relationship with Cassie, in all its loving messiness, was gorgeously described. I felt as though all of the characters were very whole and like people with their own inner worlds who had just walked onto the page, instead of characters written into the story to better enable Molly’s story to be told. I think that’s probably partly because this is such a complete universe, taking in Simon too (and I LOVED the glimpses we got of him, and oh god, Abby, lovely delightful Abby, and the way her relationship with Nick is developing, screeching noises of love and joy). I’m excited about the Leah book coming out next, and I’m hoping that we get a little more of Molly and her family in it.

Right! Let us move on. Reid. Let’s talk about white sneakered Game Of Thrones Reid. What a love interest – a gentle geek (I’ve used the word ‘gentle’ about a hundred times in this review, but that’s because ‘gentle’ is exactly what this book is). The way that their relationship is described is very sweet. I felt as though it was a very mature love. We’ve all had crushes that feel as though they’re the most important thing in the world, but at the end of the day, real love is the thing that’s safe and comforting and that will hold you warm and tight and secure. Reid was that for Molly. I thought it was going to be a more traditional love triangle between Molly and Will and Reid and was glad that it wasn’t – not only has that story been done a million times but this felt more realistic. Having something real and not quite knowing whether or not you want to reach out and take it. Relatable even now in my twenties? Hell yes. And you know what else I love about this couple? They treat each other kindly. There are a few misunderstandings but that’s necessary for, you know, plot. But they’re good to each other. Molly’s a little embarrassed by him and nervous about what other people might think, but that’s okay – no character is perfect, nor should they be. Reid makes a couple of mistakes too but he’s never nasty or cruel or rakishly dashing in a way that a lot of writers think is charming but actually demonstrates that the character’s kind of messed up. He’s open about his feelings and devoted to Molly and he treats her well. The relationship between Cassie and Mina was equally touching and affectionately written. I particularly loved the way that Cassie wants to keep it to herself initially in a way that drives Molly nuts and that she later understands. Caitlin Moran once wrote something about all the wrong relationships that you analyse with your friends a million times over, and then when you find the right person, you know they’re the one because you don’t need to talk about them any more, because you’re certain. That was Reid and Molly and Cassie and Mina, and it was beautiful to read.

As has been pretty obvious through this whole piece, I thought this book was delightful. It was warm and sweet and filled with a golden glow of affection, along with a sort of deep truthfulness that appeals to me even now.

It’s butterflies and haziness and heart eyes, but underneath all that, there’s this bass line of I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this is me. I can’t quite articulate the sweetness of that feeling. It’s finding out the door you were banging on is finally unlocked. Maybe it was unlocked the whole time.

As Alan Bennett wrote in The History Boys, ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. This book reached out and took my hand with its very first line, and didn’t let go until the last page.