Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Book Review | Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Louise, a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office, makes the mistake of kissing her charismatic new boss, David. In her defence, she doesn’t know he’s her new boss – not until the morning after the night before, when he walks into his new surgery with his glamorous wife, Adele, in tow. Louise bolts for the loos, trying to compose herself.

Against her better judgement, Louise (who has enough on her plate as a single mother of a six-year-old), falls for David’s charms again. He has the decency to act guilty about it – they both know he’s married – but she just can’t help herself. She’s characterised as bit of a frumpy, plain, do-gooder. I get that she’s supposed to be relatable, but it was all a bit depressing.

She gets herself into a very sticky wicket when she also becomes friends with his wife, Adele, who just so happens to bump into her after she’s done the school run. Behind her glam exterior, Adele seems timid and afraid of her husband. Over at Adele’s for lunch one weekday, Adele happens to mention the large cupboard of prescription meds David is making her take. And she also makes Louise swear she won’t tell David about their friendship. Louise is worried that David is abusive, but this is all undermined by the chapters in Adele’s perspective. There’s really no mystery here. Oh, and there’s the obligatory time travel passages that take us back a decade to Adele’s teenagerhood after her parents have died. All this does is interrupt the plot without adding anything else in terms of intrigue or character empathy.

I think this book was a bit of a case of the sunk cost fallacy. It was long (was it? Or did it just feel that way. I’m not sure) but I kept going with it, thinking that all might be redeemed by some hair-raising twist in the second half. And by the time I realised that probably wouldn’t be the case, it was too late to really stop – I’d invested too much.

I very rarely struggle to find positive things about a novel that I end up finishing (I rarely finish books I’m not enjoying. Very rarely indeed) but this winds up having a supernatural/paranormal element which could not be further from my thing. Not to say I’d completely rule out any genre, but this is pitched as a psychological thriller – and then it veers into territory I most certainly had not signed up for.

Perhaps if you go into it with that expectation, you’ll enjoy it a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Netflix adaptation.

A Thousand Splendid Suns - book review

Book Review | A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I don’t like to preach. But if there was ever an important time to read this book, that time is now.

I finished The Kite Runner a week before the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan in August. We all know what happened next: in a matter of hours the tyrranical Taliban had seized control of the entire country and things started looking very dark indeed.

I hadn’t been purposefully reading The Kite Runner at that time. The impending withdrawal of US and UK troops hadn’t seemed to have gathered too much fanfare on the front page. A news story that is devastating even if you know nothing about the country and its people kept me awake at night. The emotional impact felt magnified.

I knew that A Thousand Splendid Suns was not going to be light bedtime reading. Charting three decades of tumultuous Afghan history, the story begins with Mariam, a ‘harami’ – born to an unwed mother, the housemaid of her wealthy father. She grows up with the understanding that as women, our burden is to ‘endure all that falls upon us’ – something she comes to know all too well when she is married off to a middle-aged widower at 15.

Laila is born in the early 90s to a mild-mannered father and an emotionally unstable mother, who has never recovered from her two beloved sons leaving to fight the jihadi cause. When fighting between rival mujahedeen factions in Kabul becomes too much – rockets claiming lives and limbs on a daily basis – the family decide to flee for Pakistan. But they won’t make it past the gates of the city.

‘…For a moment, standing there in the sunlight, it was as though those years had never happened. Her parents’ deaths, her marriage to Rasheed, the killings, the rockets, the Taliban, the beatings, the hunger, even her children, all of it seemed like a dream, a bizarre detour, a mere interlude between that last afternoon together and this moment.’

The power of Hosseini’s writing is in its beauty and simplicity, in his ability to build a rich tapestry of a life and of a moment in history. The story is so enriched – as with The Kite Runner – with the details about Afghani life, from the Titanic craze that gripped the nation in the late 90s (you could even buy a Titanic burqa), to how the family would bury the TV, wrapped in tarpaulin, in the back garden and dig it up again when it was safer to do so. All of these details exist alongside what is for the most part a harrowing, gut-punch of a novel.

There are some contrivances in the plot that felt a little clichéd – young lovers’ first ever night of passion results in a pregnancy, an escape plan is fatalistically foiled – but the novel is less about actions that propel the plot and more about the rich interior lives of the two female protagonists, whose characters grow into their own as the story progresses. Despite innumerable hardships – poverty, violence, persecution – these are women with rich emotional lives, who find strength in each other and in never failing to let go of the small glimmer of hope that things will change for the better.

‘The years had not been kind to Mariam. But perhaps, she thought, there were kinder years waiting still.’

What hit particularly hard was a conversation that takes place shortly after 9/11 when the country is invaded. The Taliban are ousted, but there’s a long way to go until peace and prosperity.  ‘Maybe there will be hope at the other end of this war,’ one of the characters says to another, ‘maybe for the first time in a long time…’ Hosseini wasn’t to know, writing this in the first half of the 2000s, what would happen 15 years later – that perhaps for some, hope has never felt further away.

“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on.

Six Degrees of Separation: Shirley Jackson to Lisa Taddeo

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us. Links can be anything that comes to your mind and need not have rhyme or reason…

The starting book for this month is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I’d never heard of this short, frightening story – which caused an absolute uproar when published the 1940s in the New Yorker. So of course I had to see what all the fuss was about – and it’s a terrifying little tale which much to say about mob mentality, tradition and conformity in insular communities. You can read the whole story at this link – it won’t take you very long – and is perfectly timed for Halloween…

I don’t often seek out scary books, but I kept seeing Mona Awad’s Bunny everywhere last year and decided to give it a go. It’s set at an exclusive MFA program in New England, where a group of girls start doing some very strange sh*t and the boundary between the real and the imaginary totally collapses in a bizarre, genre-bending way. It wasn’t for me, but to each their own…

I just re-read this one for book club, so it’s at the front of my mind – hello to another very well-known literary milieu, the prestigious Vermont liberal arts college where the characters of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History find themselves – an elite group of students studying ancient Greek who get similarly wrapped up in their claustrophobic, perverse world…

Tartt is the recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Medal (as well as the Pulitzer – show off…) just as is Colson Whitehead for his 2017 book The Underground Railroad, an unflinching story set on a slave plantation in Georgia as the protagonists search for freedom via the underground railroad, in this imagining a very real network of train tracks to help enslaved people escape hell.

More than a century on, the protagonists of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage are a modern-day married couple also living in Georgia and also dealing with the pernicious effects of institutional racism as the husband, Roy, is wrongfully imprisoned.

And for modern-day relationships put under the microscope, no-one has done it better in recent years than Lisa Taddeo with Three Women, a journalistic tour-de-force charting the sex and love lives of three real American women in all their realness.

Thanks for reading my October Six Degrees! Have you read any of these? If you participate in the tag, where did your links take you?

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Book Review - Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr book review

Book Review | Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

When I tell you that this book contains multitudes, I’m not exaggerating. It spans time and space and galaxies, taking us from the 15th century siege of Constantinople to a spaceship of humans fleeing a dying plant to 20th-21st century suburban Idaho. You’d be forgiven for abdicating then and there and thinking, no thanks.

‘Day after day, year after year, time wipes the old books from the world.’

In our 15th century timeline, Omeir is a young village boy who is conscripted into the invading Ottoman army. In the same timeline, Anna lives within the walls of Constantinople, an orphan who is fed and clothed in return for embroidering religious garments for holy men. With no access to education, a chance encounter with written language sparks an insatiable curiosity.

‘Almost overnight, the streets glow with meaning. She reads inscriptions on coins, on cornerstones and tombstones, on lead seals and buttress piers and marble plaques… each twisting lane of the city a great battered manuscript in its own right.’

Access to knowledge is central, too, to Konstance’s story. Effectively imprisoned on a ‘windowless disk hurtling through interstellar space’ a hundred or so years from our present day, the spaceship is governed by an AI called Sybil, containing the ‘collective wisdom of our species’. Within the on-board VR library, Konstance is able to explore earth – through a three-dimensional Google Earth type of technology – and begin to piece together the central mysteries about her existence.

In modern-day Idaho, Zeno is a former Korean war veteran with a passion for ancient Greek who works at the Lakeport public library. Seymour is a vulnerable teenage boy who enters the library on a cold February day in 2020 to detonate a bomb.

‘Ambitious’ is certainly the right word for this epic, meticulous novel from Anthony Doerr. The problem is that Doerr doesn’t really know quite how to channel, or hone, his ambition. There’s a lot to love in this book – his trademark way of rendering people and place with precision and empathy, a highly imaginative retelling of worlds far removed from our own, a genre-blending of historical, fantasy, science fiction. But the ambition of the book overwhelms it more than once.

The thread that ties together these seemingly disparate narratives of Zeno, Omeir, Konstance, Anna and Seymour is an ancient Greek story by Antonius Diogenes, telling the comical and fantastical tale of a shepherd’s misadventures to a city in the sky. That story in itself isn’t that important – the point that Doerr seems to be making is that the survival of ancient, long-forgotten texts is a miracle in itself. Upon learning of the discovery of the ancient manuscript, centuries after its inception, Zeno’s voice fills with emotion.

‘Erasure is always stalking us, you know? So to hold in your hands something that has evaded it for so long—’

It’s a compelling premise – but I’m not sure that the central idea is compelling enough to bind this 600+ page novel together, and for the reader to see it through. The worlds are imaginatively crafted, the characters developed and distinct – but we don’t get enough time with any of them, leading to a disjointed reading experience – interrupted further by passages from the Diogenes text throughout, a story that didn’t really interest me much.

All The Light We Cannot See is one of the best books I’ve read in recent years (I mean, it won the Putlizer – that’s not an original thought) and I had so many aspirations for this book. I feel a twinge of sadness that it wasn’t all I was hoping it to be – but that doesn’t mean it won’t be that for other readers.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. Cloud Cuckoo Land will be published on the 28th September, 2021.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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Top 10 Tuesday | Books on my autumn 2021 TBR

I think by now I’ve come to accept that I don’t have the dedication to read all the books I optimistically put on a TBR. Shiny new books pop up on my radar and distract me; life gets in the way. But as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t resist a list, and it’s nice to have something to aspire to. If you’ve read and can recommend any of these, let me know!

An incandescent memoir from an astonishing new talent, Beautiful Country puts readers in the shoes of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world.
When it comes to revenge, even good people might be capable of terrible deeds. How far might any one of them go to find peace? How long can secrets smolder before they explode into flame?’

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love.

(Yes, this is back on the TBR again and I’m determined to tackle it before the year is out!)

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials and the young woman tasked with saving them all from themselves.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years – from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding – that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms.’

Jennifer Egan’s cool, transcendent prose meets Karen Thompson Walker’s speculative eye in this luminous literary debut following two patients in recovery after an experimental memory drug warps their lives.

An incisive and exhilarating debut novel of female friendship following three Anglo-Nigerian best friends and the lethally glamorous fourth woman who infiltrates their group—the most unforgettable girls since Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda.

‘Mia Eliot has travelled from London to LA for pilot season. This is her big chance to make it as an actor in Hollywood, and she is ready to do whatever it takes. At an audition she meets Emily, and what starts as a simple favour takes a dark turn when Emily goes missing and Mia is the last person to see her.’
‘Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.’

Days of Distraction
‘Equal parts tender and humorous, and told in spare but powerful prose, Days of Distraction is an offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale, a touching family story, and a razor-sharp appraisal of our times.’

(Another one back on the TBR, but I am still very interested in giving this a go).

An exciting blend of thriller, literary, memoir, and historical fiction – I feel good about this TBR pile! What’s coming up on your fall/autumn lists?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Book Review | Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I can’t even have the passing thought of the phrase ‘voice of a generation’ without wincing (thank you, Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s Girls.)

My distaste for the expression aside, I’m struck by the way Sally Rooney captures our millennial anxieties, quite unlike anyone else (and believe me, I love a good millennial angst novel). The protagonists of Normal People were coming of age just after the 2008 recession, and here we see that same generation turning thirty and in the quagmire of how to live a life – a good, meaningful life – in the face of oblivion. Selfishly, I hope she never stops being that voice as our generation grows up and old.

‘Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.’

So onto the plot: Alice is a successful writer who’s recovering from a breakdown. Felix is her tinder date with no interest in books. Eileen is Alice’s best friend and editor at a literary journal. And Simon is the boy Eileen has been sort of in love with since she was 15.

Rooney is a master at depicting modern human interaction and the subtleties of communication, from political sparring to comedic riffing to sex – everything is rendered with absolute precision. You can’t look away, even through the exquisite anguish of watching the characters trip up again and again.

There’s a humming anxiety, ever-present – both spoken and unspoken, knowable and unknowable. Is there anyone who doesn’t feel this undercurrent of fractious energy, particularly in our pandemic world? In an epistolary tradition, Alice and Eileen write each other long and winding emails and chew over the unsolvable problems of our contemporary existence –

‘I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? …We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.’

I partly felt let down by Conversations with Friends because it lacked something – I didn’t think it really knew what to say, and was full of half-formed ideas. I can’t fault Beautiful World, Where Are You on those grounds –  there is so much psychological insight, blended with political and social and environmental unease, explored in acute detail. Even if the ideas aren’t themselves new – and Rooney isn’t pretending they are – she presents them as raw and real and an inextricable part of our modern condition.

Maybe it’s an impossible task – to make sense of our present historical moment, to make sense of who we are and what we mean to each other. We don’t always like the characters – that feels like her trademark by this point – but we don’t have to always like them to be invested in and captivated by the way they navigate the world.

I think it’s her best work so far – intimate, expressive, unflinching. If you’re on the fence – I know hype to this degree can be offputting – I hope you give it a try.

‘And out the windows the sky was still dimming, darkening, the vast earth turning slowly on its axis.’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Top Ten Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday | Books with numbers in the title

Welcome back to another Top Ten Tuesday! I love these creative themes and they always get me remembering books I’ve not thought about in forever. This one is pretty self-explanatory, so here we go…

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Since I recently read and adored The Kite Runner, this has just been bumped up my TBR.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I so enjoyed this journalistic tour de force, a deep dive into the love and sex lives of three real women. Check out my full review here.

One Day by David Nicholls

One Day by David Nicholls

I know I’ve found a way to fit this into a top ten tuesday more than once, but I can’t help it. It’s so charming and moving and funny.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

Back at the start of the pandemic, I was on a pandemic-book-themed reading sprint, and this was a very good addition to that oeuvre. Full review here.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 – famously the temperature at which books burn (cannot confirm). Not a book that I loved like I’d hoped I would, but a worthwhile read none the less. Full review here.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books were the background to my mid-teen years, and while she doesn’t always get it right, she doesn’t shy away from heavy topics. And boy does that woman know how to write a page turner.

Slumdog Millionaire by Vikas Swarup

Is this pushing the boundaries of the theme? Quite possibly. But it’s close enough. I don’t remember all that much about this book, which I read over 10 years ago, but I enjoyed the film (if enjoy is the right word).

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

I’ve not read this nor do I really want to watch the TV adaptation, but I know it’s hugely popular and it fits the tag so here we are.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Rachel Cusk, and I think I would enjoy her writing, but I’ve not yet summoned up the strength to give it a go.

Thanks for reading!

Book Review | The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

There’s something just so delightful about Beth O’Leary. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but you know that it will be equal doses of funny and heartfelt; intensely readable with genuine characters and a solid storyline.

The Road Trip doesn’t disappoint. Addie and her sister Deb are on a road trip up to Scotland for their friend Cherry’s wedding. As luck would have it, not long into their journey someone rams into the back of their mini. That someone happens to be Addie’s ex, Dylan, and his insufferable friend, Marcus. Dylan and Marcus’s car is wrecked, and in a moment of madness, Addie and Deb take pity on them. They all bundle into their mini – along with Rodney, who’s a fellow wedding attendee and stranger to them all.

In the narrative that ensues, we witness the comical scenes of five grown adults packed into a mini with a not inconsiderable amount of tension, not enough aircon, and Rodney who keeps whipping out a tub of flapjacks, as if that will solve everything. Much amusement ensues with the arrival of Kevin the truck driver, and an unfortunate pit stop that ends in a missing persons search.

‘I have a feeling that if this journey had been any longer, it would have become progressively more Lord of the Flies, and Marcus probably would have eaten somebody.’

Alongside the present-day journey to Scotland, we get alternating chapters in both Addie and Dylan’s point of view, charting the early beginnings – and eventual ending – of their relationship. This is where you need to be prepared for what is a messy, sad, complicated set of circumstances – where issues of class, privilege, education, parental pressure, alcoholism, sexual assault, etc. come to light. I can see why readers wanting a pure light and fluffy romance might find the inclusion of ‘grittier’ themes to be a disappointment, but I felt that O’Leary deftly explored these issues while also providing the reader with light relief. In another author’s hands it might have felt at best contrived and at worst totally distasteful and mismanaged, but here it worked perfectly in tandem.

‘I think he’s going to say it, and once he has, that’s it, like he’s putting a time stamp on our lives. Creating a before and after. I feel it coming like I’m speeding toward something, and for one panicked moment I think I ought to slam on the brakes.’

I wish that the author had cut Marcus less slack – he was truly insufferable and I didn’t entirely buy into his redemption arc – and there could have been more done to establish an emotional chemistry between Addie and Dylan in their early scenes to build a firmer foundation for a swept-off-your-feet romance. But these are small comments in a book that kept me up reading. This isn’t normally my genre of choice – but as long as it’s got Beth O’Leary’s name on it, I’ll be adding it to the TBR.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson Book Review

Book Review | Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

It was time for a gear shift around here, after the emotional upheaval of last week’s reading.

Peter Swanson’s latest addition to the genre starts off the way any good thriller starts off: a hasty marriage to someone you don’t know that well. Abigail is living paycheck-to-paycheck, working in publishing in New York, when handsome, kind, and obscenely wealthy Bruce sweeps her off her feet. Things might be moving a little too fast, but before she knows it she’s said yes to the proposal and is off on her California bachelorette party with her girlfriends.

With one too many drinks in her system, and nagging doubts about the wiseness of her decision, she’s ready prey for a handsome stranger who charms her one evening after her friends have gone to bed. One thing leads to another, and they have a one-night stand. Wracked with guilt, Abigail returns to New York, determined to keep her infidelity a secret from Bruce and reassuring herself it was nothing but a drunk mistake.

‘Deep down, she knew that Bruce was more in love with her than she was with him. But wasn’t that the case with every couple? There was always one person in each relationship who cared a little more than the other. And wasn’t it better to be the person who cared less?’

The one-night stand man, who she calls Scottie (they didn’t reveal their real names to each other), is, as it turns out, quite unhinged. He tracks Abigail down and begs her not to marry Bruce. He’s lurking in the shadows on their wedding day. And then he shows up on the exclusive, remote island off the coast of Maine, where Bruce has taken her for the honeymoon.

This seemingly idyllic island has an oppressive, menacing quality to it. Swanson builds up the suspense and tension in a masterful way, a slowly creeping sense of dread coming over Abigail. At first there’s the fact that there’s no phone reception (sold as an ‘off the grid’ experience), an uncomfortable ratio of staff to actual guests, and almost no women. Then there’s the aforementioned stalker who also appears. And Abigail realises nothing is quite as it seems.

‘That whole day she felt like a chasm had opened up in front of her, a big black hole she was powerless to escape.’

I sometimes find with thrillers that the best bit is just before you know what’s happening. When all the cards are still to play for, when the narrative might go in any number of directions. Swanson does a great job at building up the menace in a propulsive way, and then he doesn’t really know what to do with it once the big reveal has happened. The plot goes a little bit wild and becomes less psychological thriller and veers more into horror territory. It’s cinematic in its unravelling, but not quite believable and not entirely wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Without giving anything away, there’s a clever and compelling commentary on the dangers of toxic masculinity, incel culture and radicalisation – an ever-increasing concern, particularly given tragic events like those in the UK last week. Mix these hateful beliefs with almost unlimited access to money and resources, and you have a very dangerous cocktail indeed.

I enjoyed this one – more so than the previous two, All The Beautiful Lies and Eight Perfect Murders. Nothing has yet measured up to The Kind Worth Killing – but as a page-turning, unpredictable thriller, I’d recommend Every Vow You Break. Even if you now have the Police song stuck in your head on repeat. 🙂