the it girl by ruth ware - book review

Murder mystery in Oxford’s hallowed halls: The It Girl by Ruth Ware ★★★

I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of The It Girl. Ruth Ware is an auto-read author for me, and this one has dark academic vibes that I couldn’t wait to dive into.

It’s the late noughties and Hannah has just started at Oxford University. Bookish and shy, she initially feels out of place amidst her polished and wealthy classmates, but soon falls in love with Oxford and the allure of all that prestige and history. This is a place, she is sure, where she will be happy.

‘With the sun shining and puffs of white autumnal clouds in the sky, the view had an almost unreal beauty and Hannah had the strangest feeling that she had stepped inside he pages of one of the books in her suitcase – Brideshead Revisited, maybe. Gaudy Night. His Dark Materials. A storybook world.’

Her roommate, April, is dazzling: beautiful, rich, charming. She’s also smart – she’s earned her place at Oxford. And she’s vicious too, at times, with a dark sense of humour. But despite their differences, she and Hannah become firm and fast friends. And then – no spoiler, it’s in the blurb – April is murdered.

Ten years later, Hannah is married, pregnant, living in Edinburgh, working in a bookshop, and has tried to leave the trauma of her best friend’s murder in the past. Her evidence alone convicted the prime suspect – but a journalist has just come forward with intel that might lead to someone else – someone who was never investigated. The thought that Hannah might have convicted an innocent man – who has recently died in prison – torments her, and she sets about on a quest for the real truth of what happened that terrible night.

‘She is there too. Hannah. Not the Hannah of now, but the Hannah of then. The Hannah of before. Young, happy, full of hope and promise, and so unbearably, unutterably innocent of all the horror that life could hold.’

For the first half, I was hooked. We had Ruth Ware’s trademark evocative descriptions, the heady friendships of teenage girls, a sprinkling of 00s pop culture – all set within the beautiful, austere world of Oxford.

This thriller switches between past and present, although only for the first half of the book. And it was towards the second half that the story began to lose steam for me. The pace slows to a trickle and the suspense is totally lost as nothing much happens for quite a chunk of time. I also didn’t feel invested enough in the other characters to really interrogate who might have been the culprit. Had we spent more time with them in 2010 then I would have felt a greater sense of buy-in. The flashes we get of these characters do give a sense of who they are, but I was left wanting more.

The ending does pick up pace-wise as Hannah approaches the truth, and there are a few thrilling, cinematic moments, but by that point I wasn’t as interested in the idea as a whole and so I don’t feel that the narrative fully redeemed itself.

I wanted to love this, I really did! But it just didn’t end up being for me.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The It Girl will be published on July 12th 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press.

The other passenger - louise candlish - book review

Book review: Privilege, envy, twists & turns in ‘The Other Passenger’ by Louise Candlish ★★★½

If you were able to commute by riverboat, wouldn’t you? Gliding along the Thames with the wind whipping your hair, instead of crammed onto an airless tube hundreds of feet underground? It certainly sounds like the appealing option for Jamie, whose panic attack on the underground was a viral sensation, for want of a better word.

He’s not alone in his riverboat commute. Kit, a twentysomething who works in insurance, joins him on the regular. Along with two others, they form a little group calling themselves the water rats.

Jamie and Kit begin an unlikely friendship. Jamie is in his late forties and lives with his partner, Clare. He left the corporate rat race after he could no longer face the suffocating enclaves of the tube, and now works at a café. Clare, a successful estate agent, laments his lack of ambition but remains with him, the long-suffering girlfriend.

Kit’s girlfriend, Melia, has just begun working with Clare. She’s extremely attractive, a fact that Jamie, predictably, can’t help but notice. But Kit and Melia, once aspiring actors, are up to their eyebrows in debt, and are green with envy at Jamie and Clare’s beautiful Georgian house (owned, of course, by Clare’s parents).

‘We were accustomed to the house being an object of envy, even among our peers. Prospect Square, a five-minute walk from the Thames, is an intact Georgian conservation area sometimes used in the filming of period dramas… We were fortunate by anyone’s standards and every so often the realization would take possession of me: I’ve got it made here. I’m #Blessed.’

Despite Jamie being hashtag blessed, he can’t help but jeopardise everything for himself. He’s a pretty deficient in the charisma department right from the start – a compulsive liar who laments ‘woke’ culture and clearly doesn’t know a good thing when it’s staring him in the face. We have some sympathy for him – his claustrophobia is undoubtedly life-limiting and serious – but those reserves quickly run out when he gets himself in a very sticky situation indeed. Because the book begins with him disembarking the boat one December morning with two detectives waiting for him, wanting to question him over the disappearance of Kit. The last time they were seen together, they’d been fighting.

This was a smartly-written and plotted thriller – Louise Candlish’s voice is sharp and distinctive – a pleasure to get lost in. I had some ideas about where the plot was going, but the twists and turns still kept me hooked. I enjoy a dollop of social commentary with my thrillers, and Louise Candlish delivered, as she interrogates the generational divide and how privilege and financial freedom – or otherwise – shape our lives. I’ve knocked off some stars for the pacing – a solid start and punchy end were hampered by a dragging plot in the middle when we don’t know what’s happened to Kit and things meander slightly. But it’s still a deliciously absorbing read.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Other books by Louise Candlish…

Book review: Pacy, page-turning and emotional thriller ‘Then She Was Gone’ by Lisa Jewell ★★★½

Ellie is about to sit her GCSE exams. Smart and kind and bubbly, she has her whole life ahead of her. So when she vanishes without a trace, it’s hard to agree with the police assessment – that she probably ran away from home.

Her family – Mum, Dad, and two siblings – are forced to move on, but her mother Laurel doesn’t really give up hope that her golden girl will come home to them. The public interest in the case fades and they slide back into their ordinary lives.

Ten years later, and now divorced, Laurel walks into a cafe and locks eyes with a handsome author, Lloyd. A relationship quickly develops, and Laurel meets his precocious daughter Poppy – who has an eerie resemblance to Ellie.

There’s a palpable tension that builds as we approach the truth of what really happened to Ellie. There’s a poignant part of the story told in her third-person narration in the time leading up to her disappearance, and as we get to know her character, it makes the inevitable even more harrowing. The switching of narrative – a textbook thriller device – is a successful way of making her more than a(nother) faceless missing/dead girl.

It’s pretty sad, and pretty dark. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as the beach-read sort – although it’s an addictive read you can whip through it in a few sittings, it’s also emotional and raw and shows the devastating impact of not knowing the fate of a loved one, and the endless bounds of maternal love.

There’s some suspension of disbelief – as there always is with domestic noirs like these – but it doesn’t detract from it being an engrossing, twisty and character-driven thriller.

‘So, in retrospect, she could have blamed her sister’s friend with the loud laugh for her being there at that precise moment, but she really didn’t want to do that. The blame game could be exhausting sometimes. The blame game could make you lose your mind … all the infinitesimal outcomes, each path breaking up into a million other paths every time you heedlessly chose one, taking you on a journey that you’d never find your way back from.’

For anyone who has read this book, did you know that Lisa Jewell envisioned an entirely different ending in her first draft to her editors? Here’s a fascinating post where she talks about it. Obviously, spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read it!!

More psychological thriller reviews below…

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Book review: ‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean – a transfixing story of rebuilding a life after horror ★★★★½

I almost stopped reading this book a few pages in. But I’m glad I didn’t.

I was worried, at the start, that this would be a ‘trauma-porn’ kind of read – a litany of horrors, a will-they won’t-they escape their captors. And whilst the horror is there – spoken and unspoken – this book is so much more about how to rebuild a life after enduring such cruelty and suffering, and about the myriad and complex ways it affects each of the Gracie siblings who made it out alive from the ‘house of horrors.’

Lex, the titular ‘Girl A’ who manages to escape the house at fifteen years old, is our first-person narrator. Abigail Dean resists giving her ‘plucky heroine’ status, or making her broken beyond repair. Instead, she’s a complex, empathetic and unreliable narrator. Her siblings were all split up and adopted by different families, and 15 years on are varying degrees of well-adjusted. The sibling dynamics were portrayed in a fascinating way: rather than necessarily being bonded by such a uniquely horrifying trauma, there is guilt, fear, incomprehension.

‘When I looked at my siblings, frailer around the table, it seemed as though they’d taken a little flesh from each of us and made something new.’

This isn’t a fast-paced read – we’re constantly drawn back, the present-day narration never gathering too much momentum until we’re pulled back to a slowly unravelling past. We learn how the children slid from a relatively normal existence – if moderately poor and unloving – to a hellscape of being chained to their beds, deprived of food to almost starvation and routinely abused by their maniacal father, supposedly compelled by the word of God. Thankfully, Dean spares us most of the graphic details, but the oppressive atmosphere of dread is unbearable – and hard to look away from.

‘The poverty crept into our lives like ivy on a window, slow enough that you don’t notice it moving, and then, in no time, so dense that we couldn’t see outside.’

We know that the horrors end – which is what makes reading these flashbacks slightly more bearable; these children escaped, grew older, began life on their own terms. Except the fate that awaits each of the children is complicated.

In one particular anecdote that gave me chills, Lex has made it to university – several years older than her peers, on account of her catch-up schooling. They’re out one night at a Halloween party, and she sees a bunch of fellow students dressed up as nightmare-material IRL criminals – Ted Bundy, Myra Hindley, Ian Brady – and her very own parents. The sight of it is enough to make her almost lose consciousness in horror.

In the present day, Lex has been named executor of her mother’s will, her having died in prison. The Gracie children have inherited the house where they were imprisoned, and through the course of the novel Lex grapples with this inheritance and what to do with it. A physical manifestation of all they endured, its presence looms large within the story, the squalor and misery of those four walls terrifyingly vivid.

It’s a transfixing read, the characters so intricately rendered and the prose so expressive and gut-wrenching. Don’t go into this expecting an edge-of-your-seat thriller – but if you’ll sit with the characters a while, you’ll likely be just as drawn in as I was. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

Massive TW/CW for child abuse, substance use.

The Heights Louise Candlish Book Review

Book review: ‘The Heights’ by Louise Candlish, a slow-burn domestic noir about motherhood, retribution, and obsession ★★★★

How far would you go to protect your children? To what lengths would you pursue justice for anyone who did them harm? Ellen Saint is less than thrilled when her golden boy, Lucas, is matched as a ‘buddy’ at sixth form with Kieran, whose foster-home upbringing and non-standard English is worlds apart from Ellen’s carefully-cultivated suburban London home and Oxbridge aspirations for her son.

She sounds like a Karen, and yet she’s not an unsympathetic character. Kieran is rude, obnoxious, seemingly untalented in anything other than leading Lucas astray. Before Ellen knows it, they’re out most nights drinking and taking drugs, and Lucas’s university aspirations are rapidly fading. And then the unthinkable happens, and Ellen’s dislike of Kieran turns into a full-blown obsession, consuming her day and night. Unable to forgive or move on, she channels her energy into a campaign to destroy him.

‘Far from getting cold feet, I had begun to feel the fanaticism of someone whose mission is absolutely – almost divinely – right.’

In a clever structure, Ellen’s retelling of the course of events is framed as a writing project for female victims of crime, and is interspersed with extracts from a newspaper article, painting the story in another (more impartial?) light. When the perspective shifts halfway through, to that of Lucas’s father, Vic, we see things from yet another angle.

‘When you write your history, you find that you identify – and scatter – clues you couldn’t possibly have seen when you were living events in the present. Which means what’s blindingly obvious to you reading this now was unfathomable to me at the time.’

It’s funny how there are base instincts that compel even the most respectable amongst us to acts of lunacy. Ellen suffers from ‘l’appel du vide’ – the urge to jump when confronted with a steep drop, such as you might find on a bridge, the edge of a cliff, or the roof of a skyscraper.

I almost finished this in one sitting on a transatlantic flight (and it accompanied me through the jetlag of the following days). In Candlish’s fiction – as in life – there are rarely clear-cut heroes and villains, and her well-plotted domestic noirs don’t want for depth or nuance. The pace is measured rather than frantic, but gut-wrenching in its slow reveals, the truths and untruths that emerge as the story unfolds.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. The Heights will be published in March 2022.

Read if you enjoyed…

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.

You might also like…

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.

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. 🙂

Book blog - 2021 new releases

4 upcoming releases I’m excited for

It’s a funny old time. Not much is known for certain – I’m finding it hard to think much beyond the next 2 months! But in this great age of uncertainty, I find it comforting to know that there are new book releases on the horizon that I have to look forward to.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Expected publication: September 2021

The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we’re gone.

Why I’m excited: I loved All The Light We Cannot See, and while the plot of this one looks quite quirky, I will read anything Anthony Doerr writes. His writing is just phenomenal.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Expected publication: August 2021

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Why I’m excited: I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriler, and The Girl On The Train was one of the psych thrillers that really kickstarted a wave of new psych thrillers. So you can bet I’ll be reading this one come August.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Expected publication: September 2021

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

Why I’m excited: Sally Rooney really has been captapaulted into stratospheric heights, and although Normal People and Conversations with Friends were enjoyable but didn’t knock my socks off, I can’t resist getting on board a hype train once in a while.

Pub date is so far off there’s not even a final cover!

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Expected publication: January 2022

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.

Why I’m excited: Oddly, this structure sounds like Anthony Doerr’s – three timelines; long-ago past, near-present, and distant-future. That aside, it’s no secret that A Little Life is one of my favourite books of all time, and yes I have pre-ordered a signed copy even though I’ll have to wait all the way until January 2022!!


What are you looking forward to?

All images and descriptions taken from Goodreads.