Verity by Colleen Hoover - book review

Book review: ‘Verity’ by Colleen Hoover – a sinister thriller exploring the twisted mind of a writer ★★★★

Verity is an accomplished writer – at least she was. Lowen is a struggling writer facing eviction – at least until the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself.

Verity is involved in a tragic accident that leaves her unable to complete her crime-thriller series, and her husband Jeremy believes that what Verity would have wanted is for another writer to take on the task. That writer happens to be Lowen. And the only practical solution – given the enormous stacks of notes Verity wrote before her accident – is for Lowen to come to the family home and wade through Verity’s office by hand.

While she’s there, she discovers another manuscript. One that paints the picture-perfect family that Verity and Jeremy have built in a rather different light. And the more Lowen reads, the more disturbed she becomes. She starts seeing things, like Verity – ostensibly non-communicative and unable to move independently – moving around the house, talking to her young son and locking doors that were previously open…

“Some families are lucky enough to never experience a single tragedy. But then there are those families that seem to have tragedies waiting on the back burner. What can go wrong, goes wrong. And then gets worse.”

It’s a unputdownable thriller – Colleen Hoover constructs a claustrophobic, menacing setting and a tightly-wound plot. Something is clearly very, very wrong in that house – but who is the villain, and what really happened to Verity’s two young daughters?

“This is the point when other authors would paint themselves in a better light, rather than throw themselves into an X-ray machine. But there is no light where we’re going. This is your final warning.”

I learnt that Colleen Hoover is best known for her romance writing, and she tries to put that to good use here – there were a lot of sex scenes and a central romance that develops throughout the narrative, but not really enough character development for it to be a plausible relationship. I think the novel would have been stronger if Hoover hadn’t been trying to work a romance into a thriller.

Genre-blending pitfalls aside, I really enjoyed Verity. It is propulsive and creepy, and very easy to devour in a few sittings. I like the alternation between passages from Verity’s manuscript and Lowen’s present-day reality, working in tandem to ramp up the tension until the final few scenes.

In a final twist, the real story is left up for grabs – it’s up to the reader to decide on the truth. In some stories it might be frustrating, but here it’s a clever and satisfying denoument.

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Book review: ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart – a devastating account of heartbreak and hope in 1980’s Glasgow ★★★★

I wanted to read this book not only because it won the Booker last year, but also because it portrays a world we rarely see in literary fiction. In this intricate, bleak, and at times relentless novel, Douglas Stuart transports us to the post-industrial wasteland of 1980s Glasgow; a city ravaged by Thatcherite policies that have caused mass unemployment, alcoholism and abject poverty.

Shuggie, the young son of Agnes and Shug (Hugh) Bain, is the lens through which we see this desolate world. Agnes is slowly drinking herself to an early grave, and Shuggie assumes the role of her protector and carer from a young age, making sure there’s a warm mug of Special Brew next to a strong cup of tea for when she comes round after a blackout, and hiding the razors when he leaves the house for school. Despite Agnes’s undeniable neglect of young Shuggie, and his elder half-siblings Catherine and Leek, he is devoted to her. Shuggie lives in a perpetual state of dread over his mother’s behaviour and potential fate, while never quite losing the hope that things will be okay in the end, even as degradation and misery swirls around him year after year.  

I suppose what does shine through – even as it serves to make the events of the novel even more painful – is Shuggie’s capacity for love and forgiveness of his mother. He recognises her shortcomings, but admires the unshakeable façade she puts on for the outside world, in her ‘matted mink coat [which] gave her an air of superiority, and her black strappy heels clacked out a slurred beat on the long marble hallway.’ It’s hard to watch, hard to feel empathy for a character so flawed and self-destructive.

‘She was no use at maths homework, and some days you could starve rather than get a hot meal from her, but Shuggie looked at her now and understood this was where she excelled. Everyday with the make-up on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high. When she had disgraced herself with drink, she got up the next day, put on her best coat, and faced the world. When her belly was empty and her weans were hungry, she did her hair and let the world think otherwise.’

Stuart’s Glasgow is one of ‘colourless daylight…[pouring] through net curtains’, a morning sun which ‘sets the slag hills on fire’, where the dust from the slag heaps is ‘like the inside of a burst Etch A Sketch, like the lead dust from a million shaved pencils.’ Where a drive through the city at night is ‘like a descent into the heart of the Victorian darkness.’ It’s relentlessly bleak but poetically rendered in its bleakness. After I finished the book I found this photography collection by Raymond Depardon and it really brought the reality home.

There’s so much cyclicality in this novel, so many sorry things happening again and again – sexual assault, bullying, violence, hunger, ostracization. Stuart vividly portrays the cycle of addiction and poverty, and how without a strong social fabric and structured, sustained assistance, it’s almost impossible to break free. This is where I struggled a bit with the narrative – the repetitiveness serves an important purpose in conveying the “message” of the novel, but I struggled to keep up the energy to continue reading under the weight of it all. It’s not an enjoyable read, but it is completely unforgettable. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

Wahala by Nikki May

Book review: ‘Wahala’ by Nikki May, where toxic friendship turns into a thriller that needs more thrills ★★★

Boo, Simi and Ronke are navigating life in their mid-thirties in London. Ronke, a dentist, is hoping that her latest boyfriend, Kayode, will be her Mr. Right. Simi is pursuing a high-flying career in fashion and struggling with the decision about having kids with her husband, Martin. And Boo is growing dissatsified with her domestic life as wife and mother and growing increasingly attracted to her boss.

An old Facebook photo is what pulls the enigmatic and disgustingly wealthy Isobel into their lives. Isobel grew up in Nigeria with Simi, but they had been out of touch for decades. Seeing a photo on Facebook from a mutual friend’s wedding, Isobel reaches out to Simi to reignite their friendship. Something is off about Isobel from the start – she’s profligate with her wealth, driven around by a driver-cum-bodyguard, and lavishly bestows gifts upon the trio. It’s hardly suprising, then, that she turns out to be a sinister character. Upon her arrival, everyone’s life starts to go pear-shaped.

What I liked: Nigerian culture is infused into the story, particularly through the authentic dishes (Ronke’s favourite restaurant in London is like ‘stepping into downtown Lagos’), and other cultural customs like the aso ebi worn for special occasions – where everyone on one side of the family gets their outfits made from the same fabric. There’s also a sharp contrast between the way that Simi and Ronke connect with Nigerian culture, having spent most of their childhood there, and the disconnect that Boo feels, having been raised by her white British mother in England. We also get an insight into the way these characters experience colourism and racism within their everyday lives – like when patients come into Ronke’s dental practice and assume her (Hispanic, male) dental nurse is the dentist, or when Kayode prevents a white guy from assaulting Ronke and the police turn up to arrest him. These details enriched a narrative that otherwise fell rather flat.

The problem lies in the fact that we know everything has to come to a head – Isobel’s arrival portends this – but it takes a really long time to get there. As such, most of the novel is a slow slide into things going wrong and the characters becoming increasingly unlikeable and frustrating. The ‘thriller’ aspect doesn’t rear its head until the last 20% of the book, and it all becomes a bit cartoonish and wrapped up too quickly. It didn’t really work for me, but I’m sure it will have a lot of fans – and I hear it’s being made into a TV series, so I’ll be interested to see how they approach that.

With thanks to Doubleday for the advanced copy. Wahala will be published on January 6th 2022.

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, a devastating testimony of lives marked by despair and hope under the Taliban ★★★★½

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 – an epic and imaginative premise that doesn’t quite reach its ambitions ★★★

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: Our modern millennial condition laid bare in ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney ★★★★½

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.