Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Review: The Worst Girlfriend in the World by Sarra Manning

It takes a talented writer to get into the mind of the modern teenage girl, but Sarra Manning never seems to have a problem succeeding.

Her latest, The Worst Girlfriend in the World, is a tale of friendship, fighting and figuring out who you are. And boys.

Franny Barker, known as Franny B, is off to college to pursue her dream of being a fashion designer. Yes, her mum is depressed, no one at college likes her, and she has to retake her maths and English GCSEs, but as long as she's got best friend Alice, she'll be okay. Only Alice, feeling like she's being left behind, sets her sight on Louis, the boy Franny B has had a crush on for two years.

Manning knows the recipe for a good book, and taking the elements of growing up and putting them in a mixer, she's able to tell a readable, thoroughly enjoyable story. I loved both female protagonists, even though most of the time Alice was breaking friendship rules left, right and centre, and being a right cow. Still, she's a teenage girl and when you're in the midst of feeling insecure and hurt, you think anything goes.

Franny B's home life was interesting as well, with Manning tackling depression in a forthright way. I thought Franny's mum was sensitively handled, while at the same time Franny B's interactions with her were realistic - it was great to see that Franny B was conflicted by her mum's illness, unsure of how to help her, unable to understand how her mum was feeling and why, as that added depth.

The cast of supporting characters in Worst Girlfriend really made the book. I thought Franny B's fashion student peers and tutor were a varied bunch - Manning took the stereoptypes of goth girl, ornery old teacher and so on and gave them a fresh twist. And I loved Louis and his band Thee Desperadoes, they provided a lot of laughs. And of course, Francis, Louis' friend and feel Thee Deperado, was a sweetheart.

It's easy to assume that Worst Girlfriend is going to be a story about boys, and while the central conflict between Franny B and Alice manifests itself in a fight over a boy and there is some romance, this is really a book about friendship and family - the kind you're born with and the kind you make. If you approach the book realising that, you won't be disappointed. I adore Manning's work anyway, and Worst Girlfriend made me laugh, and get annoyed at times, and all the angst made tears well up in my eyes (not good for a train journey), and overall made me wish I was still a teenager and simultaneously thankful that I'm not.

How I got this book: From the room of spare books at work.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

Imagine Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep mixed with a pinch of Sherlock, a dash of Midsomer Murders and a subtle hint of The Craft, and you have something approaching Tana French's utterly compelling and slightly chilling The Secret Place.

A year after teenager Chris Harper is found murdered close to a private girls' school in Dublin, student Holly Mackey goes to see Detective Stephen Moran and hands him a picture she has found of Chris, tacked on a school noticeboard called the Secret Place. Under the picture of Chris are glued, like a ransom note, the words "I know who killed him". And so begins the most intense day of Stephen's life, as he and a fellow detective head to Holly's school to try to find a murderer.

The Secret Place is split into two, with chapters alternating between the present day and the past, the latter starting roughly nine months before Chris was murdered and taking us to just after his killing. While we know Chris will die - French makes sure to tell us the exact number of months, weeks and days to his death in each chapter set in the past - what we don't know is how and who is involved, so there's a sense of doom that pervades the past narrative. And in the present, we know that Stephen is drawing ever closer to finding a murderer, so the tension is clear in every chapter.

French's characters are well-formed, and fascinating. Stephen is a clever, determined guy, who knows that helping to solve this murder could get him out of the cold cases squad and into the department he really wants to be in. That's slightly calculating, but his ambition makes him more likeable (for me at least), and his ability to mould his personality and mannerisms to suit the person he is talking to is interesting to watch. He's a people person, and his intuition and ability to read others makes him key to solving this case.

Unfortunately for Stephen, he's stuck working with Antoinette Conway, the lead detective in the Chris Harper case. She's a tough, no-nonsense detective (sort of like Keeley Hawes' Lindsay Denton in Line of Duty) who doesn't fit in with the rest of the murder squad, and who doesn't care that everyone hates her. She's professional, super clever, and frustrated that she hasn't yet found Chris's killer. Watching her develop and form a partnership with Stephen over the course of the novel is great - you just know this is a pairing that could go far if they just stopped underestimating each other.

But the most compelling characters are the teenage girls at the centre of the novel - Holly and her three friends Julia, Becca and Selena, and their rival gang Joanne, Gemma, Orla and Alison. The interactions between these girls - friends, enemies, frenemies - is a bit like reading an account someone has written of watching different species of monkeys living together in the same enclosure. French captures being a teenage girl perfectly - the bitchiness, the insecurity, the rivalries, the distinct yet same personalities. But most of all, French shows an exaggerated version of how teenage girls can feel invincible if they just have a group of friends surrounding them.

The Secret Place is a murder mystery, a psychological thriller and an examination of growing up all in one. It's pacy (even though it's more than 500 pages long), and it's a real page-turner. This is definitely the book that will break French out, and have everyone talking.

The Secret Place is released in the UK on August 28.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Review: Witch Finder by Ruth Warburton

I adore a strong female protagonist, and Witch Finder by Ruth Warburton provided just such a character. But it's not just a strong female that drives Witch Finder.

Luke Lexton's parents were killed by witches when he was a young boy. On his 18th birthday Luke is finally inducted into a guild of men sworn to kill all witches. There, he picks the name of Rosa Greenwood, and must kill her within a month, or else he himself will be killed.

Witch Finder's premise of good vs evil, non-witches vs witches, is not a new one, but the way Warburton handles it is unique, and also full of emotion. Luke and Rosa are both great characters who elicit our sympathy and who I really liked, and both were tough as well as kind, principled as well as headstrong. I love that Warburton created a realistic male character in a story with supernatural elements and romantic overtones, and that both Luke and Rosa developed into their roles as the "heroes" of the novel over the course of the book.

Where Witch Finder gets even better is with its baddies, who are really, really scary. Rosa's brother Alexis is a nasty piece of work - you just know that as a child he ripped the wings off helpless butterflies. And Sebastian, goodness, Sebastian is just evil all over, but knows how to wield his power to seduce people - even Rosa finds herself falling for his charms very occasionally.

This may be a story about witches, but it also deals with lots of very serious, very human issues. Family relationships are explored extensively, particularly through Rosa's family. Her cruel brother and mother raise the question of nature vs nurture, and it seems like Rosa is a product of both (although her now-dead kind father seems to have influenced her on the nurture side). And there are also mentions of domestic violence - Sebastian is violent and cruel towards Rosa in more than one way. And finally, Rosa herself is not entirely innocent - she does something to Luke which raises huge moral questions, but is of course doing it for the greater good - does that make it okay?

Witch Finder is a great book about the supernatural, but it also has many, many layers. I read it once, and then went straight back through to read various bits again, getting more out of them the second time and understanding the characters even better. Lucky for me the sequel, Witch Hunt, is out soon, so it's not too long before I get to immerse myself in the world of Rosa and Luke again.

How I got this book: From a friend

Monday, 12 May 2014

Review: Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little

The internet, social media and 24-hour news, all fascinating tools that mean we can access information pretty much instantly, and which also mean it's impossible for people to hide.

Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are just two IT girls whose nosediving careers have kept gossip magazines and Twitter occupied, and they were partly the inspiration behind Elizabeth Little's fabulous novel Dear Daughter.

Ten years ago Janie Jenkins was convicted of murdering her mother, a socialite and philanthropist. Now aged 27 and released on a technicality, a disguised Janie heads to small town America to find out the truth about what happened on the night her mother was killed.

If you crossed Gossip Girl with Gone Girl, and added a twist of the National Enquirer and Perez Hilton, the love child they'd create would be Dear Daughter. Only Dear Daughter is better. This is a sharp, witty novel that examines our obsession with celebrity in what is just a plain good story.

Janie, who goes "undercover" as Rebecca after being released from prison, narrates the whole book with a voice that is bitchy and weary and shot through with a dark humour. Little has created a compelling narrator in Janie, one you feel sorry for and are awed by at the same time. Janie is, in essence, the kind of celebrity we just can't help wanting to hear about and from, only with more depth, since we really get to know her.

Dear Daughter has plenty of secondary characters, and even a love interest (or two), but it really stands out because it's a book about women - how women see each other, female friendship, mother-daughter relationships. It's refreshing that Little decides to shove the romantic entanglements slightly onto the back burner; it keeps the book moving and interesting and means the central core of Janie trying to find out who killed her mother is never abandoned.

And then there's the mystery of what happened to Janie's mother. I have to applaud Little for the way that she kept me guessing. Not only were there various twists and turns that Janie came across that she told the reader about, I was also never 100 per cent sure of whether Janie had done it or not right until the big reveal. Little writes a modern twist on the scene where a detective gathers all the suspects into a room and tells them who dunnit, and it's marvellous.

Dear Daughter is a novel of our time, particularly with the current fascination with the trial of Oscar Pistorius, but it's also just a great read. This is an indulgent summer read that will leave you feeling you've spent your time well.

•Dear Daughter is released on August 14, 2014.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Harvill Secker. This did not affect my review.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Review: That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay

I absolutely adore cookbooks, but I've not read much fiction centred around food, apart from Joanne Harris's Chocolat.

That Part Was True is a love story, but it's also a book about food and the role it plays in our lives - providing us with sanctuary and comfort, or being something we use in the process of celebrating or consoling. And of course, food brings us together.

From her home in England Eve Petworth writes to author Jackson Cooper in America to praise a scene in one of his books. The two strike up a friendship through their letters, desperately needed as they each try to navigate their own lives.

In That Part Was True, McKinlay weaves a gentle, absorbing love story nestled in amongst a family drama and a buddy story. Eve and Jack's stories are two separate, barely intertwining plots, apart from the letters between the two. I was expecting something pretty conventional, with McKinlay bringing the protagonists together fairly quickly, but instead she gives them room to grow on their own, aided by the letters they send to each other.

Eve is shy, the product of a lifetime living with a mother who was overbearing to the point that she brought up Eve's daughter Izzy. Now that her mother is dead, Eve finds herself negotiating motherhood in a way she hasn't before, as Izzy prepares to get married. Meanwhile Jack is a successful author who has just split up with his wife and is dating again at the behest of his best friend Dex, an actor. Eve and Jack couldn't be more different if they tried, but somehow McKinlay makes them seem like they belong together.

And that's partially through the food, which forms the main subject of their letters. That Part Was True is dotted with recipes which are full of love and care and which have played a significant role in Eve and Jack's lives.

Gentle though it may be, That Part Was True is also bittersweet. Eve and Jack's relationship isn't perfect, and there is much in each character's life which holds them back. It's a book that, despite being just over a couple of hundred pages long, manages to pack in a lot of depth, just like a good meal.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Orion. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I've had Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland for around a year, and was finally prompted to read it by its inclusion on the shortlist of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, and wow, am I glad I did.

Brothers Subhash and Udayan grow up in Calcutta in a loving and supportive family. As they get older Udayan finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion against the poverty and inequality some in India have to live within. Udayan's involvement will change his life, and Subhash's, as well as the lives of their family, for years to come.

The Lowland starts out as a family tale, showing us the relationship between Subhash and Udayan, two boys having fun and getting educated in the relatively newly formed India. Lahiri clearly sets out the stall for the rest of the novel in the first few chapters - this is a story about the love and bond between two brothers.

I enjoyed The Lowland from the beginning, but it went from being a good book to an outstanding book when something massive happened part of the way through. Suddenly, in one line, in two sentences, in seven words, the whole book changed and took on a new depth and seriousness. From then on, I just found myself addicted, wanting to know what would happen and what had happened. At the same time, I wanted to read The Lowland in the way I watch scary films - squinting, knowing that what was coming next would hurt.

Hopping between India and America, Lahiri manages to create a sense of both places. India is chaotic and hot, while America is ordered and cool. Yet as characters move between the two countries, they take with them pieces of each, just as each country becomes a piece of the characters we meet.

I was enamoured with the way Lahiri created characters with layers which had to be unpeeled away one at a time. Guilt could be seen hovering beneath the surface of numerous characters, but Lahiri's structure and storytelling prowess meant I was willing to wait to find out what caused that guilt.

I also loved the way Lahiri weaved in the history of India into The Lowland. I'd never heard of the Naxalite movement before, but reading The Lowland has made me want to go away and find out more. Not only that, it's a movement which is echoed in so many struggles going on around the world, from the Arab Spring to the current Ukraine/Russia situation (although that's just coincidence).

The Lowland is mainly such a good book because it's a book that hurts to read. I felt my heart crack numerous times throughout my reading of the novel, making me wish the story would continue until it got to a happy ending while simultaneously making me wish it would stop so I could stop being so sad. But far from being a book I wouldn't want to read, the fact that it created such feelings within me just made me love it more. Forget easy reads, read The Lowland, because it makes you feel.

How I got this book: From a friend.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Review: The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

I'll admit it, before I even read Sophie Hannah's The Telling Error I was already impressed by its clever title.

On her way to her son's school Nicki Clements gets stuck in traffic in Elmhirst Road. Looking ahead, she sees a police officer she's seen before, and doesn't want to encounter again. Doing a U-turn, Nicki heads away, only to find herself brought in for questioning the next day about the murder of controversial newspaper columnist Damon Blundy, who lived in Elmhirst Road. While she may not have murdered Blundy, Nicki's got secrets she needs to keep.

This is the first time I've read a book by Hannah, and it's most definitely not going to be the last. The Telling Error is a clever, tautly plotted crime thriller which explores so many issues pertinent to modern day life - the encroachment of the internet, the influence of newspaper columnists, the importance yet impossibility of complete anonymity, the public's relationship with the police. It's important to note, though, that Hannah has managed to build a story around these issues in a way that in 10 years time, this book will still feel fresh and relevant.

The Telling Error opens with the text of an advert placed on a personals site called Intimate Links (again with the clever name). Only this advert isn't from a man looking for a woman for romance or something else, it's from someone advertising themselves as a secret keeper, and asking for anyone who knows intimate details about the murder of Damon Blundy to come forward. It's a clever tool, thrusting the reader right into both the narrative and the mystery of the story. Hannah also intersperses the main prose with columns written by Blundy, who is the columnist you'd get if you merged Richard Littlejohn with Liz Jones with Katie Hopkins wth Jeremy Clarkson, as well as emails to and from Nicki.

Oh, Nicki. What a character. She simultaneously evoked pity and rage in me, the rage mostly coming from how frustrating I found some of her actions. A wife and mother, Nicki seems to have everything going for her - a lovely husband and two gorgeous children. But as the novel unfolds we learn that her best friend, her brother and her parents have been partially responsible for making Nicki the way she is (bit vague, but I don't want to spoil it), and that she's almost two people. Hannah's decision to keep Nicki as she is, right to the every end of the last time we see her, is absolute genius, and I found my mouth dropping open in both surprise and resignation when I read the last sentence from Nicki's point of view.

As I said earlier, this is the first book I've read by Hannah, but it's not the first book she's written featuring police officers Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, although I didn't know that when I first started reading. However, I soon guessed I'd missed something, but I didn't feel like that meant I couldn't understand or enjoy the book.

The Telling Error is a brilliant book, which I urge you to read. If you're anything like me, you'll devour it in just a few hours, so make sure you have no plans when you start reading.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. This did not affect my review.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...