The Casual Vacancy- J.K. Rowling

I remember there being a lot of hype about The Casual Vacancy when it was first published. Personally, I couldn’t believe how an author that had spent so much of her time creating such a detailed fantasy world could ever come out of that, and authentically write about something different. I made this judgement without even having read the blurb of this new venture, and I had no idea what the book was about. However, after having recently rejoined my local library and finding it on the ‘suggested reads’ shelf, I decided I had nothing to lose by giving it a try.

The first thing I have to say is wow. Why  did I not read this book sooner? My judgements about J.K. Rowling couldn’t have been more wrong, and I severely underestimated her. I have never read a fictional novel, set in a fictional place, that is so representative of the ‘real’ world and the people that live within it.

Even once I had began reading, I had no idea what the title actually referred to, and I am truly amazed by Rowling’s ability to display how, what is effectively a mundane event, can have such a huge impact on the lives of so many people. She also captured human nature wonderfully, and the fact that, in such a small geographic space, people can have such different attitudes. The narrative follows a series of different people, who are all affected in a different way by this ‘casual vacancy’. I must admit that some of the characters are more memorable than others, and some are definitely more likeable, but as I was reading I could envisage exactly what each looked like, without any real time being spent on their physical description.

My favourite aspect by far was that of the Weedon family. It wasn’t so much that they were likeable, but rather that, as a reader, I had an intense desperation for their situation to better. For them to somehow surmount their unfortunate situation, and prove other characters wrong.

At no point did I feel I knew where the novel was heading, but this made it such a pleasure to read. Though Rowling’s narrative destination wasn’t clear, the message she was trying to convey was, and it really made me reflect upon how I view other people without really knowing or understanding their situations.

The book was deeply upsetting at times, but I could not read it fast enough. Desperate to see how the narrative was going to unfold, and who was going to be proven wrong and right. It was written so beautiful, and it was clear how much thought and consideration had been put into every word chosen, and the structure of every sentence to achieve this magnificent end result. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I spoke to about how amazing it was, insisting they must read it.

The narrative resolution is abrupt and shocking, but I believe that, once again, this is simply a reflection of the path that life can take, and this was just another technique Rowling used to made The Casual Vacancy such a fantastic reflection of this.

Love & Gelato- Jenna Evans Welch

I chose Love & Gelato without even reading the description. The title was enough for me : summery and playful. I presumed this book would simply be about falling in love in Italy, without much else to the narrative, but I was pleasantly surprised. You needn’t be put off by what some might describe a ‘sickly sweet’ title (pardon the pun, given the gelato reference), as it’s not all about romantic love, there’s something a little deeper in there, too.

I like Lina, the main character, because she doesn’t fall into any stereotypical categories of teenage girl. Rather than being delighted to spend her summer in Tuscany, dreaming of catching a killer tan and finding herself a gorgeous Italian husband, Lina couldn’t be less fussed. It’s very clear that she’s only there because it was her late mother’s dying wish, but she’d really rather be at home.  During the narrative, she’s wary about everything that comes her way,  rather than jumping at the chance to go to the parties she is invited to, she considers her option. This whole attitude is quite refreshing and it makes her character seem more realistic, as she doesn’t fit into a cookie cutter category.

In fact, the author seems to have a gift for creating characters, as each with a major role in the narrative really did feel real and relatable, and I had no problems with creating mental images of them, or their voices. Her trick seemed to be not overloading, as each character serves a real purpose, and each get their own ‘screen time’, so to speak, However, I do feel that I would like to learn more about them, and spend more time with each character, so I definitely would be interested in a sequel.

Soon after arriving, a couple of things happen that, though she might not realise at the time, change her entire opinion on staying in Italy. The most important of which is her mother’s journal, which helps her on the quest to find her father- a journey which is not quite as smooth or romantic as one might hope or imagine. The journal is a great narrative technique that allows us to learn about Lina’s mother and hear her voice, without her having a real presence in the narrative. This makes it easier for the reader to make judgements later on in the book, where her honesty is questioned.

Though Lina’s such a likeable character, and I really did want the best for her for the entirety of the book, the ‘bumps in the road’ did make for a better read. I was unsure of how the story would resolve itself, and was pleased to see it perhaps wasn’t what I might have imagined from the beginning.

Love & Gelato kept me interested from start to finish. Perhaps not because it was the most complicated story, but instead because the characters all seemed so genuine, and I cared about what was in store for them. The great thing about this book is that it explores love on multiple levels, and ends with an important lesson about what love can mean (on more than a romantic level). I don’t have any criticisms of Love & Gelato, it was just the sort of heartwarming book I love.

La femme gelée- Annie Ernaux

I had read one of Ernaux’s other works, La Place, in the first year of uni, and I remember it being the one text that made that module bearable. Her writing style just feels so right, and her feminist sentiments seeps into her every word, without being overbearing, so I knew that I would like La Femme gelée.

What I liked most about La femme gelée is that, unlike other feminist texts, where the writer seeks to escape the oppression of their childhood, Ernaux realises that her childhood situation was actually the exception to the rule. Instead of urging her to start a family and settle down, Ernaux’s family encourage to be career driven and successful. It is then later in her life that she has to learn that it might not always be so easy, and that one can’t necessarily escape the patriarchy forever.

The non-linear narrative is interesting, and I suppose might reflect the struggle against the patriarchy as changing and inconstant. But I also think it could reflect Ernaux’s own inner struggle and confusion at how what she knew as normal from her child can be so different to the reality of her adult life.

In spite of the fact that La femme gelée is very much an account of a real woman’s life, the writer manages to distance the narrative from herself just enough that it could easily be about any woman, meaning it could represent the life and struggles of so many, but with enough detail to keep it real and relatable.

The heartbreaking thing about this work is that it is true life, and that a woman as driven and intelligent as Ernaux could not, through no fault of her own, have all that she wanted and deserved. More than anything, this book affirms the truth that women, men, all genders, should decide their own place in society, and should not have roles predetermined for them. Read this book for a different perspective of how restrictive the patriarchy can be.

 

The Husband’s Secret- Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret  was recommended to me by a friend, and she told me I wouldn’t want to put it down. I couldn’t wait to read it, as I was in need of a real page-turner. I have to say, my friend wasn’t wrong. I loved this book, and my only regret is that I couldn’t read it sooner because life got in the way!

One of the things I liked about the book, oddly, was that it was set in Australia. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with this as the main setting, and it was enjoyable to read something a little different. For the most part, of course, I wouldn’t have noticed that it wasn’t set in the UK or America, but somehow knowing made the world of difference. I also liked the multi-narrative aspect of the book, as it meant I could appreciate the narrative from different points of view. Though I must admit, I probably would have liked for there to have been some parts from the men’s points of view, as it was very much a female oriented narrative.

The book’s title makes it obvious that there is a bombshell to be announced at some point, though it is not clear until further into the narrative who it is that has this secret. I thought the way Moriarty broke it to the reader was very smooth, and potentially realistic, likewise was his wife’s reaction ( I don’t want to mention names, because it really does give everything away!). Until the very end of the narrative, it is unclear as to how the couple are going to recover from the discovery, and it certainly didn’t end the way I imagined it would.

My favourite part of the entire book, however, was actually the epilogue. This surprised me as I’m not usually a big fan of these; I usually find epilogues a bit of a pointless addition. However, because the actual narrative ended in media res , the epilogue was a great way of tying the whole story together and its characters together- it’s not completely clear how all of them are connected until the epilogue. It certainly added more depth to the characters, and intensified the sense of tragedy surrounding events in the narrative.

I would definitely recommend The Husband’s Secret to anyone looking for a new page turner! It would make the perfect holiday book, as you just want to keep on reading. I think the book perfectly portrayed how the desire to keep up appearances can affect an individual and their family life. A great read!

Parole de femme- Annie Leclerc

I have always been interested in feminist literature, and feminism as a theory in general. My favourite type of feminist literature is that from the personal point of view, but I don’t appreciate when authors become too righteous as, in my opinion, it detracts from the issue in hand  – I really enjoyed Simone de Beauvoir’s Mémoire d’une jeune fille rangée, for example- the perfect balance of a serious, important message mixed into personal life, with just the right balance of confidence.

I thought Leclerc’s Parole de femme was just as good, if not better than Beauvoir’s Mémoire, strangely because it wasn’t mostly based on in-depth information about her personal life. What I liked most was that I could tell her beliefs come from a deeply personal place, based on important experiences that she had had- and to which she alluded- but she didn’t make the argument entirely about her. Instead, it was about femme as a whole.

Studying French, I am also deeply interested in language and its connotations, and I find myself analysing author’s word choices almost subconsciously and as a matter of habit. But what I loved about this book is that it consciously brought the issue of language to the forefront…I suppose this is hardly surprising given the title…parole. But I loved how Leclerc tore into the meaning of certain words, and how this differed for men and women, but also for different types of women. She repeats this words both explicitly and implicitly- as if she is trying to rid them of meaning- proving that language isn’t really gendered, it is we who make them so.

I genuinely enjoyed the entirety of Parole de femme, and found it one of the most interesting non-fictions I have read, and I really couldn’t get enough of it. I was stuck in the dilemma of wanting to read faster in order to learn more and more, because I have never agreed with any text more, and not wanting to read too quickly so that it didn’t finish too soon.

One of my favourite arguments within the work ( it is not merely a book, its messages and arguments are too important), is that in order for women to be liberated, they must become liberators. I wholeheartedly agree. And not even necessarily just in terms of gender. I feel that, too often, people hold onto the things that hold them back, almost as if they thrive on this inability (as odd as it may sound). It is only when we work to free ourselves and believe ourselves free of limitations that we are able to succeed.

 

I would thoroughly recommend Parole de femme to everyone. Just because it is a feminist work, it hold important messages for men, too (yes- I know men can be feminists). Even though I would have considered myself a feminist before I started reading, it definitely opened my eyes even more, and changed my thinking even more….read it!

One Perfect Summer- Paige Toon

Paige Toon is a name I’ve heard about lots, and I knew that people tended to enjoy her work, but I’d never got round to reading anything of her’s myself. I chose My Perfect Summer in the same pattern that I usually choose my reads: a heavy, gritty thriller of some sort, followed by an easier-to-read ‘girlier’ book.

If one thing is certain it’s that One Perfect Summer is girly. It follows Alice’s life as she loves and loses- and loves again. I thought Toon captured the concept of a teenage, first-love, holiday romance perfectly, as a slightly over-the-top and tongue in cheek experience as Alice and Joe experience these feelings for the first time. At times this was a little irritating, but the promise that a twist was coming kept me reading.

Though I did know a twist was coming, I wasn’t actually expecting the severity of what was to come- and I certainly didn’t expect the narrative to extend as far into the future as it did. This longer time-frame meant that the emotions that originally seemed over-the-top could actually be played out, and the impact that Alice’s summer romance at 18 years old had on the rest of her life. In fact, this almost made me feel bad for initially writing off her feelings as exaggerated and  juvenile.

The second part of the narrative is set in Cambridge, where Alice attends university. As I was reading I matched settings to places I had visited in the city, which really helped to bring the book and its characters to life. Again, as the characters became more tangible, I was able to empathise with and believe their emotions.

Something I found a little strange, however, is the stark contrast between Alice at the beginning of the novel, and the Alice at the end. Of course, years have passed, and she would have inevitably grown up, but she also seems to have changed significantly- almost to the point that she’s a different character. I understand that the trauma and heartbreak she would have felt would impact her personality, but not in the way it seems in the novel.

 

I found One Perfect Summer a pleasant read, though I wouldn’t offer a more exciting adjective than that. There was nothing to particularly dislike about the novel, but there was nothing that impressive, either. It would be perfect for someone looking for a book that doesn’t require too much concentration and isn’t looking for a fast pace. Having said that, I would be interested in reading the e-book sequel One Perfect Christmas to see how the cliff-hanger ending plays out.

Flash- Tim Tigner

From the very first page of Flash  I was hooked. The situation the Troy and Emmy, the main characters, are in is just so unlike anything I have read before. They wake up in an abandoned car covered in blood next to a dead policeman, with no idea as to why. The mystery and bizarreness (is that even a word?!) had me wanting to read more. I wanted to find out why they had no idea who they why and why they were in that care.

However, this wasn’t the only type of discovery in the novel. Yes, Troy and Emmy were on a quest to discover who they were and what had happened to them, at the same time that the police were trying to discover who they were as their unfortunate situation frames them as criminals, and forces them to continue committing crimes in order to try to learn the truth about their memory loss. This idea that anything or anyone could be discovered at any moment meant that tension was high as the novel’s pace did not slow down.

What I liked about the characters is that they weren’t immediately superheroes, ready to accept their fate. Like ‘realistic’ people, they took time to adjust to their new lives, and to their relationship with one another. They don’t immediately get on- understandably given the circumstances in which they meet one another- but it is  this that adds to the suspense of the story: how will and why should their attitudes change?

Flash is very much a ‘just a few more pages’ type of book, which meant that I devoured it in a matter of hours, and I’m glad I had the ability to do so, as I would have otherwise feared that the narrative would have carried on without me and left me behind. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone in search of suspense and mystery without clichés

Diving In- Gretchen Galway

I’m currently away in Germany, and the weather has been amazing, so I have been spending most of my days laying in the park sunbathing. This warm, summery weather has meant that I’ve wanted to keep my reading light and easy to dip in and out of (no pun intended regarding the title of the book). To me this means a book that is based on a love story, with uncomplicated humour and easy-to-relate to characters.

 

This made Diving In  the perfect choice. Set in Hawaii, the location reflects my current summery mindset (though a little more tropical than eastern Germany, I have to admit) and revolving mostly (but not entirely) around accidentally falling in love, this light-hearted novel was exactly what I wanted in a book. However, the narrative isn’t quite as one-dimensional as this makes it sound, as the two main characters both have deeper reasons for being where they are other than chance or coincidence. Nicki, a school teacher with very little happening in her life, finds herself in Hawaii trying to make her life more exciting and trying to overcome some of her paralysing life-long fears. Ansel, a very lucky (yet incredibly generous), is there trying to make something of his life,  too, after threats from his father that he will be cut off from the family wealth out of fears that his easy life has made him complacent.

Both characters are 30, and have worries that they won’t actually amount to anything. But they also share something else, though Ansel doesn’t realise it quite as soon as Nicki, who hasn’t every been very lucky in love.

Not only is  Diving In great for learning how the Nicki and Ansel fall in love- after multiple bumps in the road and attempts at self-control; it is also a story of self discovery. Perhaps not drastic, ground-breaking self-discovery, but simply a matter of overcoming fears and breaking misconceptions the characters had about themselves. This means that when the narrative dénouement is reached, they are both in a good and settled place for the future of the novel to be possible.

Even though the narrative isn’t the most complex, Diving In  is different to a lot of other romance novels in the way that the aim of the narrative is more than just watching the characters change as they evolve into a couple. This narrative is about the characters evolving as their own people in order that they are able to become a couple.

My only criticism would of this book might be that some points of the narrative seemed to last longer than they needed to- so perhaps it could have been a little shorter- though I never really got bored.  However, this minor criticism would not stop me from recommending Diving In to anyone who wanted what I did before I read it: a feel-good summery read.

The Big Little Wedding In Carlton Square- Lilly Bartlett

I loved this book from the very start, there are no two ways about it. It may not have been the most complex or twist-filled novel that I have ever read, it was light and heartwarming. This was exactly what I needed on a five hour coach journey, where anything too serious would have been impossible to focus on. I also managed to read The Big Little Wedding In Carlton Square from start to finish in said coach journey- not because I was desperate to find out what happened next (that much was almost obvious), but because I genuinely cared about the characters and reading about them made my heart warm.

The whole time I was reading The Big Little Wedding In Carlton SquareI couldn’t help but think a lot about Me Before You – though the couple definitely don’t meet in the same way, their family backgrounds are more or less the same: a working class girl whose family are incredibly important to her, and a privileged man whose always hand things handed to him on a plate. I mean, that’s pretty much where the similarities end, but  Emma Liddell’s character – in her mannerisms and speech and values, very much reminds me of Jo Jo Moyes’ Lou Clark – which I liked!

I like how the author portrayed the two different families, without overdoing it in terms of stereotypes. I suppose that Daniel’s family are slightly over exaggerated, but not to the point that it’s embarrassing to read- but just perhaps how it may feel for a working class family to suddenly be around incredibly wealthy people. Perhaps if the narrative was told from Daniel’s point of view, we would see a similar sort of representation of the Liddells.

At the best of times, weddings are a source of dispute, let alone when the bride and groom come from completely different worlds. However, what I like is that Emma always manages to stay true to her roots, and doesn’t let the temptation of an extravagant wedding paid for by her in-laws override her loyalty to her family.

Ok, so the characters didn’t necessarily have the most complex stories behind them, but for a book like this it didn’t really matter. I would say that  the most important part of the characters in The Big Little Wedding In Carlton Square is seeing who they become after their experiences in the novel, rather than how their past experiences affect the narrative itself.

At times, there are worries that the wedding is going to be a disaster, as white lies are told and false promises are made between the two families. But its great to see the community spirit on Emma’s side (important to me, as I come from a close family with a wide network of friends who always want to help out) help to pull off a beautiful wedding that even impressive some of Chelsea’s most wealthy people, without them even realising.

If you are looking for a complex and shocking novel, then perhaps this isn’t the read for you. But if you simply want to read a book that makes you smile and feel good about people, then I definitely recommend The Big Little Wedding In Carlton Square

Perfect Remains- Helen Fields

When I first began reading Perfect Remains, I wasn’t fully convinced that it was going to reach my standards of a crime thriller. Yes, it was set in the UK; and yes, it featured a weird individual who manages to fool the police (at least for a while). But something just didn’t feel right.

I think I hadn’t full registered the novelty of what it was that this novel’s killer was doing differently to criminals in other books I had read: he wasn’t actually killing. Or rather, he wasn’t actually killing who everyone thought he was. The clever thing about King is just that: his crime is so intelligent; he pre-plans every piece of minutiae that the police may be interested in when exploring the disappearance, and murders, of people. This meant that there was always tension when the police believed they had discovered something about their criminal, but the reader already knows better.

I liked that Detective Inspector Callanch’s character has depth: his story is about more than what we read in Perfect Remains, and it’s great that Fields lets this seep into the narrative, as it gives an explanation to his reasons for making certain choices- whether he is aware of this or not. I must admit, however, the focus on his ability to speak french does seem a little forced at times. Obviously it is another level of his personality, but it did seem that the author allowed this to take up more of the narrative than really necessary.

I didn’t necessarily develop empathy for any character in particular, but I did come to feel very strongly about King by the end of the narrative. It was frustrating that someone who appeared so ordinary and harmless to the outside world could be so twisted behind closed doors. This meant that the anticipation of his capture was constant throughout the novel- he couldn’t have been discovered fast enough. Though, I must admit, his name did rather appear out of nowhere: apart from the initial false suspect, the police didn’t need to waste their time with anything else- I wonder how close to reality this is.

What I liked most about Perfect Remains was that the reader always knows everything. It creates a sense of power over the narrative, and means you can almost feel like you’re outsmarting the police (even though, in reality, you are simply being handed the information). In spite of its minor flaws (namely the heavy focus on Callanch’s bilingualism and the fact that the discovery of King as a suspect happened very conveniently), I would definitely recommend this book. It has the perfect amount of suspense, with the right balance of realism and gore. Have a read!