Summer Book Reviews

There’s no better time to indulge in some me-time-with-a-book-time. Summer in the UK may not have been (so far) all it should be in the weather department, but the books have made up for it. Read and enjoy. Here goes. Honest reviews and subjective opinions.

The Swimming Pool by Louise Candlish

This is certainly a book to plunge into (sorry). Seriously, it’s a good title and the cover and blurb also draw you in. Louise Candlish is great on characterisation and here she gives us an ‘ordinary’ married couple – who prove to be not ordinary at all – and a glamorous set who – surprise, surprise – are not what we think they are either. (Louise Candlish’s speciality). But the great thing is that these characters – not to forget the sulky teenagers, damaged and otherwise – are all as authentic as they come. We are in the viewpoint of Nat the narrator: flawed, self deprecating, often making the wrong decisions, and we are invited to get under her skin. It’s not always a comfortable place to be but we can’t wait to pick the book up and be there again. That’s the skill. I love this author. The plot has plenty of twists and turns and although in the proof I read there is a bit of a cheat in the beginning, I can easily forgive that because the rest of the book is so brilliant. The relationships are complex and the characters interesting. The tension never lets up and it was almost impossible to stop reading. For me, this is Louise Candlish’s most accomplished novel to date. I loved it.

Disclaimer by Renee Knight

Mmmm – more juicy domestic noir and how I love it! An original premis for this one: woman starts reading a book and discovers it’s about her. Whoah… What makes this more chilling is that it concerns her ‘darkest secret’ and so of course she fears the consequences of people finding out. This is another real page-turner and again, the writing is extremely good. This author is skilled at building atmosphere, menace and tension. This makes the novel so gripping that it’s almost unfair to criticise it, but since this is an honest review I will say that firstly I found Catherine’s husband’s reactions unbelievable and secondly I guessed (most of) the ending (however, this may be because I read so much of this genre…). Regarding my first criticism, I can see why this has to be the case – otherwise the truth will be revealed too soon. And actually Renee Knight did get away with it by the way she handled the relationship at the end of the book – I won’t say more than that otherwise it would be a spoiler. As with most of this genre, many of the characters are not particularly likeable. The male characters especially were all unredeemable but the main character Catherine does become nicer as the book progresses. However, it almost doesn’t matter. What I especially like about this book is that it includes some thought provoking (as well as dark) subject matter which is extremely well handled. And when we finally know everything, it all makes perfect sense. Finally, there is an extremely good twist right at the end which is nothing less than brilliant. Highly recommended.

Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

I read this one because I find the ‘what if..?’ premis interesting (think Sliding Doors) and because the book had good reviews. And I came to the conclusion that Laura Barnett is an excellent writer and that for me, this book didn’t quite work. The ‘what if…?’ premis is handled by giving the reader different versions of a story which starts and ends in the same place but which goes and gets there in different ways. So far, so clever. So Eva meets Jim and either does or doesn’t get involved with him at this moment, and then… Well, it’s complicated. While I can read three different stories at the same time, I found it impossible to believe in them simultaneously. I would start getting into one and then heigh ho be abruptly uprooted and dragged back to a different version. Also the versions are pretty fragmented so there isn’t much time to get fully involved before back you go. This may be a flaw in this reader. I know it’s fiction, obviously, but I do like to get involved. Other readers are, I’m sure, better with the whole ‘literary suspension of disbelief this is fiction don’t forget’ thing than I am. The result was that I almost stopped caring what happened. The book was still interesting, but a bit of a ‘so what’ exercise. I continued reading though because I loved Laura Barnett’s prose. I’d still recommend the book – but with the proviso that it will only suit certain readers. You have been warned!

The People We Were Before by Annabelle Thorpe

This book made me desperate to visit Croatia. The place is beautiful, clearly (there is some vivid description) and it has a fascinating history. Annabelle Thorpe has obviously done her research, but it never feels forced. It is just there. The book is written with integrity and authenticity. The characters are warm, flawed and believable. The relationships are complex and multi-layered. The story follows Miro’s journey from the age of eight which began with tragedy and sees him move fom Knin to the Dalmation Coast. Life is good, but there are dark times ahead for Yugoslavia and this is subtly foreshadowed in the text. War is destructive in more ways than one and Miro’s personal life falls apart as he becomes an international war photographer and survives experiences that change him forever. The story is well told, emotional and sweeping. It totally drew me into this world and I was sad when I had to leave it at the end of the book. Highly recommended. I will go there at the first opportunity. And very pleasant to get away from domestic noir and books with the word ‘girl’ in them for a change.

Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Yeah. So. Everyone’s talking about it, most people have read it; this novel has been the huge best-seller of the year. Why? For starters, it’s well-written – which always helps. It’s appealing to people who travel on a train – probably most of us from time to time. And it was published on the marketing back of another hugely popular novel and film in the same genre – Gone Girl (this ‘girl’ in the title thing has been such a marketing success). Finally, Hawkins collided with the genre of domestic noir at possibly the height of its popularity.

I enjoyed it – a lot. This book is a real page turner (just as Stephen King says) and it’s cleverly constructed in terms of time lines, reveals, plot twists and turns. The main character Rachel is not likeable – but that doesn’t matter too much in this genre, as I keep saying but not quite believing – but there is plenty of motivation given for her behaviour. Ultimately, we have sympathy for her. We can see how events happened as they did. Rachel may have made bad decisions, but she is a flawed and real character whom we believe in. All the narrators are interesting and there is strong characterisation from Hawkins all round – the reader has no idea who to trust! This is a dark and gritty read, but utterly compelling. And hurrah! I didn’t guess the ending.

My Map of You by Isabelle Broom

Isabelle Broome’s gorgeous debut novel is set in Greece, on the island of Zakynthos, a place the author knows well. And it shows – as does her love for the landscape, the people, the culture which are described in sensual detail. The narrative follows Holly who, we learn, has had a difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother who tragically, has now died. Even more of a tragedy perhaps is that Holly has repressed her good memories of the mother she loved and finds it difficult to be herself – even with her boyfriend Rupert. But what is the truth behind her mother’s sad story? This is what Holly sets out discover, with the help of a map drawn by her mother and her aunt when both were young and living on Zakynthos and with the more up close and personal help of the fascinating Aidan, neighbour and potential new love interest. This is an escapist novel and a perfect holiday read, but there are darker messages hidden behind the sparky and entertaining prose. This is a novel about loss as well as discovery, about family relationships and of course about love. Holly’s journey is about finding out the truth about herself as much as it is about discovering the secret that ripped her family apart on the Greek island they all think of as home. Highly recommended.

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris

What a gripping and unsettling read… When we first meet Jack and Grace in this psychological thriller we know there is something not quite right about them – everything is too perfect. And then there is the title. What really happens ‘behind closed doors’? The author gradually lets us know the history by using a clever timeline technique which is also quite simple: ‘past’ and ‘present’. We can see how the situation came about and the scene in which Grace and her sister Millie meet Jack is charmingly depicted, but… I have to admit some problems with the premis. I don’t want to give away too much, but surely it must have been possible to do something… There is a lot in this novel which I found over theatrical in hindsight, but at the time of reading, I just went along with it, so gripped was I! I found myself questioning some of Grace’s decisions though, especially where Millie was concerned; it seemed to me that she let things go too far. Despite this, the book had me totally absorbed. The author writes ‘chilling’ very well indeed and has used just the right amount of ‘fear factor’ (IMO – others may disagree as this is a disturbing storyline). The characters are well developed, the tension is sizzling and the ending is superb. One of the best of its kind.

The Girls by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell is a very talented writer. I am in awe. I discovered her through Ralph’s Party some years ago and feel that her writing has matured and is getting better and better – especially now that she is tackling domestic noir!

‘The Girls’ is set in a terrace of houses and flats in London which has become a community since the residents share a communal walled garden of many parts. This provides an illusion of safety for the children and teenagers who play there, but also provides freedom and has a claustrophobic feel about it too – it’s a place of secrets, both past and present. The story starts dramatically with Grace being found unconscious in the garden on her 13th birthday; Lisa Jewell then goes back in time to when Grace’s family came to live in the terrace and she proceeds to fill in all the gaps in that clever way she has. The relationships between the characters are beautifully tangled and complex; there are plenty of surprises along the way.

I just love Lisa Jewell’s style of writing. She draws you into the story with excellent characterisation and great subtlety. Pretty soon I was utterly gripped by the story. I have to say that I wasn’t bowled over by the ending – this was partly because I guessed it early on – but I still loved the book. Highly recommended.

While my Eyes were Closed by Linda Green

There is an excellent synchronicity of structure in this book which I admired and which lifted the story into ‘special’ for me. The title gives us the premis. It is the story of a family trying to deal with the fall-out following the abduction of their four year old daughter Ella. The reactions are believable and moving; the characterisation deep and strong. I felt for them all – from Chloe, who is nursing a secret hurt of her own to Lisa, Ella’s mother, who feels the burden of guilt.

Unlike many stories of this kind, we are told early on where Ella is and what has happened to her, through the viewpoint of the abductor. Rather than deflating the tension, this gives the author the opportunity to develop the story of Muriel and her family and make us see things from her authentic if rather twisted POV. Interesting…

It’s necessary to delve deep into the characters of this story because the plot is simple – and none the worse for it. I have three minor quibbles. The first is the over-use of dialect, especially ‘like’ at the end of sentences in dialogue, which I found irritating. The second is that I would have loved more sense of place. Third – would a mother take her eyes off her four year old daughter for so long when in a public place? However, these did not mar my enjoyment of a well written and excellent novel.

So lay back on that lounger when you have a spare minute and enjoy…

© Rosanna Ley
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