Conversations with Friends- Sally Rooney

I’ll be honest, the first time I started reading Conversations with FriendsI gave up. I’m not usually one to leave a book halfway through, but I just couldn’t get into it.  But then I started seeing everyone talking about Rooney and how amazing this book was. At first, I was adamant that the hype was wrong – I’d tried reading it, and it wasn’t engaging.

After weeks of telling everyone not to believe the hype, I gave into it myself. How I was wrong the first time round. I literally couldn’t put the book down. The funny thing is that, I can’t quite put my finger on why I loved it so much in the same way I didn’t know what I wasn’t to keen on on my first attempt at reading.

Perhaps it’s that the narrative just seems so realistic. Not in a ‘these things happen to everyone everyday’ kind of way, but more of a ‘this just feels like real life’ kind of way. Rooney doesn’t decorate the narrative with elaborate descriptions and reporting clauses don’t encourage you to understand dialogue in a particular kind of way. Instead, the events are just laid unapologetically bare. I think that’s what makes it realistic – it strips the narrative of a narrator.

I don’t think the reader is positioned to view Frances in any particular way and I can’t even work out if I like her. I definitely wanted things to work out for her, but I didn’t agree with how she was behaving, or necessarily believe that she deserved everything to work out. In this way, I suppose she was the perfect construction of a late teen/ early twenties woman, yet her character seemed so candid and unconstructed (I’m not sure that’s quite the right word, but you get what I mean…).

In fact, I think the only character I really liked in the narrative was Frances’ mum. She actually barely features in a physical sense, but her presence is so comforting and necessary to bring a little sense into the narrative. In hindsight, this is probably a pretty accurate representation of real life.

Reviews of Conversations with Friends have praised Rooney for her attention to the “most delicate cruelties of human interaction” and I definitely agree. Whatever the event at any time in the narrative, it’s the communication between characters that make it what it is. This communication isn’t necessarily what it should be, in terms of social expectations and conventions, but it just further illustrates the each characters’ personality and, in turn, the nature of human kind.

As I said earlier, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what I ended up loving so much about this book, and what kept me turning the pages and fast as I could. All I know is that it certainly does live up to the hype, and you should certainly read it.

The Couple Next Door- Shari Lapena

The Couple Next Door had been on my reading list for ages. I had seen all over social media that it was one of the best books people had read, and I was desperate to give it a try. As ever, life got in the way and I only ended up reading it more than a year (nearly two?) after it was released. I anticipated that it would be worth the wait, but I was, unfortunately, wholly disappointed.

I was entirely on board with the concept behind the narrative, but I just wasn’t engaged by it. I think it had potential, but I just don’t think it was convincing enough and, if I’m honest, I found all characters irritating before anything else. This is mostly down to their lack of depth and the fact that everything felt very two-dimensional. Of course, I understand that in such a limited time frame it would be difficult to build character depth, but I don’t think any valuable insight came through in the characters’ behaviour or– as I would have expected– in their conversations with the police. This meant that I just wasn’t invested in how the story panned out for them, even though I wanted to be.

While I can’t pretend that I had guessed exactly how the narrative would unravel, I never believed any of the twists along the way, and not in the same what that one suspects a red herring. In fact, even when the reality was revealed, it still felt a little too decided and organised to be realistic. Now, I know that a story doesn’t have to be realistic to be noteworthy or enjoyable, but The Couple Next Door felt really mediocre at best.

I can’t quite put my finger on what made this book such a disappointment, but it just didn’t tick the boxes that I had hoped so badly it would. Just like The Girl On The TrainI can’t quite get on board with the hype surrounding this book. I am intrigued by a number of Lapena’s other titles, so here’s hoping they’re a little more satisfying.

Then She Was Gone- Lisa Jewell

I hadn’t heard much about Then She Was Gone before I started reading but, in desperate need of a new book to read, I scoured my sister’s bookshelf. I hadn’t read the blurb, but from the tagline ‘A missing girl; a buried secret’, it sounded like the type of book I would usually enjoy.

The prologue, as is its purpose, did a fantastic job at setting up the story and hooked my interest straight away. It was clear that whatever had happened to Ellie was going to shape the entire narrative, but I was completely clueless as to what had happened exactly.

Laurel is an incredibly likeable character and I’d say it’s this that gives the narrative its momentum. Whilst Ellie’s disappearance is, of course, the main event, it doesn’t overtake the plot which enhances its reality- families with missing children must continue.  The narrative swings between past and present in the perfect balance. In fact, the past is so subtle that it would be easy to miss it- I suppose this reflects how easy it is to miss the signs of something peculiar happening, until it’s too late.

It’s apparent that we’re supposed to be suspicious of Floyd from the beginning, but it’s not entirely clear why. There are red flags the entire way through, but they definitely didn’t lead to the resolution I had imagined- no matter how much I tried to anticipate how the narrative would conclude, I was proven wrong again and again. But the tension doesn’t stop after we learn how and why Ellie disappeared, and it’s this being kept on my toes until the very end that I loved so much.

Jewell’s characterisation was interesting in that I couldn’t quite put my finger on her techniques. I had such a vivid image in my head, but I don’t remember even being given a full description of each- obviously having learnt from the way other characters described them and their reactions and interactions. We’re never told that a character is inherently good or bad, but this is made clear through through subtle actions that may not seem important on their own, but add up to create the perfect character.

What I must admit is that, whilst I have praised the reality of Then She Was Gone and its mystery, I must question how feasible the ‘reality’ within the narrative is. Of course, the beauty of fiction is that it can dabble in the absurd and impossible, but I can’t help wonder if it could have felt even more real.

Without a doubt, my favourite part was the very last page of this book. I think that it ties up the narrative so perfectly, and in a way that I had never anticipated. It’s not a cliffhanger as such, and it certainly isn’t a happy ending, but it left my heart feeling ever so slightly warmer.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Then She Was Gone to anyone that enjoys a mystery- especially if you want an ending that’s practically impossible to foresee!

 

 

 

The Cows- Dawn O’Porter

I decided to read The Cows after listening to a podcast interview with Dawn O’Porter. It sounds bad, but I’d never even considered reading it before. This was out of pure ignorance- I had no idea what it was about and took no time to find out. However, when I listened to her podcast interview with Emma Gannon I was instantly intrigued.  I’m massively into how society portrays, treats and views women for a number of reasons, but namely a) because I am one and b) because I studied two incredible modules in my final year of university that dealt with this subject and I feel like I have a new level of understanding on it. When O’Porter mentioned that this was a huge part of the book, I knew I’d have to read it.

It became clear from the very start that my ignorance had meant I was missing out. The Cows is great. I won’t lie; it’s not the most poetically written book I’ve ever read, but that isn’t important. It deals with some pretty big issues, with a huge focus on a woman’s relationship with her body in the modern world and the judgement they face not just by people they know, or men, or strangers, but even themselves, about how they use and interact with their female bodies.

What I also liked is that O’Porter varies the perspective, shifting between the voices of three different woman in very different situations to show that there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to being a woman. Now, it’s important to remember that, even with this varied representation, O’Porter’s leading ladies are all privileged Western women, and that their experiences aren’t on the same level as other oppressed women in the world. But that’s not to say that her argument is any less valid: other people have far too much to say about how women choose to live their lives- even women.

I found my own opinion changing throughout the novel- so aware of the judgements I was making, and wondering why — as a pretty liberal-minded, I’d like to think, person– I held such opinions of other women- even fictional ones. However, the one thing that kept popping up was sympathy. I didn’t pity these women in a patronising way, but rather I felt so sorry for what they were experiencing- in the apologetic, I’m-so-sorry-society-is-like-this kind of way.

The message of The Cows isn’t hidden or subtle, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I love the way it gets straight to the point, and that the narrators don’t shy away from what they think or want to do. This book really made me think about things I already knew and, while I can’t say I’ve had experiences on the same level as these characters, I’ve certainly had smaller-scale experiences, and this book has totally opened my eyes as to how all it takes is strength and solidarity from women to overcome the pressures and prejudices of modern Western society.

Go read The Cows if you want to feel good about women and what we’re capable of. I can’t pretend it’s all positive and happiness, but the end result certainly left me feeling proud to be part of this amazing group of humans.

The Power of Now- Eckhart Tolle

This was a little different to my usual reads. Not only is The Power of Now non-fiction, its description as ‘A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment’ wouldn’t be might first choice. However, my Dad had recommended it, selling it as the perfect tool to remain grounded and centred in busy London, as I had been feeling a little overwhelmed.

 

When I started reading, I was a little skeptical. I’ve always believed in the power of words but, as a serial stress-head, I didn’t really believe that it could change my way of thinking. How I was wrong.

The most significant thing about The Power of Now is that Tolle’s advice is not pushy or overbearing. His ideas aren’t far-fetched and difficult to get your head around.  His guidance isn’t cringeworthy or over-the-top. Instead of all these negative adjectives I had associated with ‘spiritual enlightenment’ I found what Tolle was saying to be entirely authentic and reasonable.

Rather than pushing readers to try new, out-there mind management techniques, Tolle simply reminds readers of what they already know about their mind, but might not have taken time to notice. And it is this theme of observance that runs throughout the entirety of The Power of Nowas well as acceptance of what you observe.

I suppose my skepticism lied in my expectation of reading techniques to block negative emotions and prevent them from manifesting. In reality, this book argues the importance of recognising the inevitability of these feelings, but changing how we react to them, which is a much more manageable task.

As I was reading, I found myself folding over pages for later reference- something I would never usually do. However, what I was most surprising to me was that, without even really realising, I found following Tolle’s advice in my everyday life. It was only at the end of a long day that I realised the way I had been reacting to things that would usually upset me, I had developed a new way of dealing with situations.

I’m usually eager to lend my favourite books to friends, but I feel incredibly protective over this one. I want to keep hold of it for when I might need it next. It might not be a page-turner, but it doesn’t need to be. You could open this book at any point and still take something useful from the words on the page.

Everyone should read The Power of Now– even if you’re in doubt over the effectiveness of self-help books. Whilst I might not be converted to believing in spirituality, Tolle has reminded me of the sheer power of the human mind and that we can take control of it, if we approach it in the right way.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diary of a Junior Doctor – Adam Kay

I had been waiting to read This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diary of a Junior Doctor  for a long time. Pretty much every blogger and Instagrammer has been singing its praises since it came out. I’ve always been fascinated by the experiences of NHS doctors and nurses, and have watched One Born Every Minute and 24 Hours in A&E for as long as I can remember. I intended to continue my habit on reading real paper books with this title, but no shop I went into had it- I’m unsure whether this was because I was frantically checking every supermarket around me, or if everyone in South East London was as desperate to get their hands on the diary as I was. Anyway, I gave in and bought the Kindle book, deciding that reading on a kindle would be worth it.

I was so right. Except I wish I could’ve added post-it notes and bookmarks on my favourite pages- the Kindle highlights and bookmarks just aren’t the same. Kay’s voice was just brilliant. I wonder if his frank, matter-of-fact expression was a necessity for dealing with the traumas of junior doctor life, rather than a purposeful writing style. Of course, you hear anecdotes about the problem patients that NHS staff members encounter, but some of Adam’s stories were something else.

His story (not this book, but his experiences) had me cringing, for both Adam and his patients, and laughing out loud in equal measures. In fact, I think London commuters weren’t used to having someone quite so happy on their journey into work on a Monday morning. I couldn’t wait to share my favourite parts of the story with my friends, urging them to buy a copy for themselves. It was really that good.

Of course, the humour doesn’t overshadow the invasive nature of this experience as a junior doctor, working ungodly hours for pathetic pay and having life plans completely turned upside down. Invasive to the point that a Saturday night out with friends doesn’t necessarily mean a night off work; that the end of a twelve-hour shift doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going home. In fact, the final diary entry encapsulated the intensity of junior doctor life and, if you weren’t thinking it before and during you were reading the book, brought the intensity of junior doctor life to the forefront, and hammers home the message that we must be grateful for all that NHS staff do.

The diary format of This is Going to Hurt made it incredibly easy to read, and I even found myself reading it as I was walking along. I knew there wasn’t necessarily going to be a resolution or a narrative arc, but I just couldn’t get enough of the way Kay told his story.

I’ve told just about everyone who would listen (and even those who didn’t care) about This is Going to Hurt and how they absolutely must read it – and I’m urging you to do the same. Even if you aren’t into books or reading, this is just a perfect picture of how hard NHS staff work to keep us ticking over. It makes you realise that, while A&E waiting times might be increasing and you might have to wait longer for your doctors appointment, this is almost never the your doctor’s fault. They’re moving from patient to patient and trauma to trauma without a moment’s hesitation. You should read this book because it will make you feel grateful, humbled and respectful.

The Break- Marian Keyes

I’m all aboard the I-hate-kindles train and truly believe you can’t be a proper physical book, but there’s no denying their convenience. Especially when you read as fast as I do and you’re going on holiday- packing seven books in hand luggage just isn’t really doable. But I wasn’t going on holiday this week. In fact, last weekend I didn’t go anywhere, so I decided I would give into my craving of a proper book- with actual pages!

I really  wasn’t up for venturing any further from my house than the local park, so my book-purchasing locations were limited to my local Tesco.  I had actually gone with the intention of buying another book (you’ll read about that next week!) but they didn’t have it. Determined to go ahead with my plans of reading in the park, I decided the selection would have to do. I saw The Break, and remembered hearing about it on Dolly Alderton’s podcast Love Stories when she interviewed Marian herself.  Now, I trust pretty much anything Dolly likes, so I was more than happy to pick it up.

It was clear from the very start that Keyes just gets people. I instantly knew the characters and could hear their voices and see their faces from the moment I started reading.  This familiarity meant I immediately invested in them. I was instantly defensive of Amy, and the flashbacks to her former life only intensified my empathy. It was very apparent that she didn’t really have her life together, but she got by perfectly well, boosted by the strength she had gained along her journey through life. I liked this about her; she was relatable and imperfect, like all the best characters.

What Keyes does so well is portraying human nature, showing that feelings change and so do people- especially when their husbands announce that they’re leaving for six months. This meant that I wasn’t Amy’s biggest fan for the entirety of the narrative. Yes, I understood that she was doing the best with what she had given the circumstances– and there’s no denying the hardships she goes through with Neeve and Sofie– but, probably because I was rooting for her and Hugh to work, I got incredibly frustrated with her at times. Even when she was at her happiest- or so she thought.

I found myself willing the traffic to just be a little worse, or wishing my lunch break would last just a little bit longer, just so I could read a few more pages. I had a feeling everything would sort itself out, but I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to happen. And each time I thought I had figured out how it would unfold, another speed bump appeared and delayed my expectations.

For the most part, I found The Break highly amusing – the way Keyes captures how families interact is second to none, and actually reminded me a little of my own family. Amy’s father is a particularly funny character. However, I also had my fair share of tears- especially towards the end of the narrative, which certainly distracted from the sweltering conditions on the bus journey home. It was the first time in a while a book had made me feel that much, and I really loved it.

The ending, though not 100% conclusive, left me satisfied- which doesn’t happen often (do I just have really high standards?). I would absolutely recommend The Break to anyone who just wants a book they can get into; a narrative that they can invest in. Go read it!

 

 

 

Checking Out- Nick Spalding

I’ve reviewed a couple of Nick Spalding title before, and this review will be much the same. I didn’t actually know anything about this title before I started reading it- I hadn’t so much as read the blurb- but I knew how much I’d enjoyed Bricking It, and how interesting I found the ideas behind Mad Loveso I was happy to give it a go.  From the first few pages I was reminded of this author’s ability to make just about anything humorous.  I think it’s his frank, matter-of-fact way of phrasing that helps achieve this effect. Having sad this, it’s vital to point out that Spalding still manages to convey some incredibly important messages, in spite of- and perhaps thanks to- this comedy.

What’s really interesting about Checking Out is Spalding’s exploration of life under extreme circumstances, covering from self discovery to interpersonal relationships and just about everything inbetween. Nathan has just found out he’s going to die, which puts the entirety of his life into perspective and helps him to reconsider what’s important. He doesn’t know how long he has to live- it could happen at any moment- and this is what makes the narrative so great, especially because Nathan doesn’t necessarily take the most predictable route of completing everything he’s ever dreamed of. In fact, his extraordinary story is really quite ordinary- in some ways.

Not only does Nathan discover truths about himself, experiencing some of his most embarrassing moments in the period following his diagnosis, he also understands a little more about how others perceive him. What’s refreshing is that this is not simply a narrative about romantic love, and I’m not entirely sure Nathan’s relationship with Alison could necessarily be described as romantic, Spalding also covers Nathan’s relationship with his mother in light of his diagnosis, and it was these parts I found the most interesting and touching.

From embarrassing experiences with Donkey’s to an inability to stop saying potato, it’s fair to say that Nathan has some troubles throughout this narrative. However, what I think is most important is that he doesn’t allow his brain tumour to become the most troublesome, and uses it to help him live, rather than accepting his death.

Checking Out is fantastic for anyone looking for a book with the perfect balance of intelligent humour and important messages. This very same narrative could have easily been doom and gloom, but Spalding’s own personality and unique writing style saves it from this, which makes it accessible to just about anyone.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine- Gail Honeyman

I’d been wanting to read this book for a while, but university finals had made me feel guilty for reading anything that I wasn’t going to be examined on. In fact, I was so desperate for someone to read Honeyman’s debut novel that I bought it for a friend as a birthday gift- if I couldn’t read it, she would! I’d heard so much positive feedback about the book and I was certain I would love it.

I actually received my copy of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  as a birthday gift, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into it. I was sure it would make my commute to and from work (I’m a real adult now!) just that little bit more bearable.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed. From the moment I opened the book, I found it difficult to put it down, urging the traffic jam to just last that little bit longer. Honeyman’s ability to craft characters struck me instantly and I was fully invested in who Eleanor Oliphant was and what she might become. In truth, it was definitely Honeyman’s character creation that kept me interested, as opposed to the narrative itself. I suppose you might argue that the two go hand in hand, but it was what might happen to the protagonist and how she was going to change that I was most interested in.

You might even say that Eleanor is the narrative. All the events, or lack thereof, are a part of her life, and create her life. There is an overwhelming sense of nothingness across the pages, which is really haunting, emphasised further through Eleanor’s lack of recognition that the way she lives her life is not normal. Because of this intense emptiness, it was impossible to guess where the book was going to end up. It was quite obvious that Eleanor was troubled, but I didn’t imagine that it would take such a dark turn.

However, what was most impressive was Honeyman’s ability to portray Eleanor’s experience this darkness with the same nonchalance and resignation as she did the rest of her life. At no point does Oliphant show a shadow of self pity,  which is what makes the novel so bittersweet. To see a character so accepting of what life throws at them is both beautiful and heart-wrenching.  The whole time I found myself wanting to grab her by the shoulders and tell her how amazing she is. At times she is bone-chillingly matter of fact, and apparently arrogant, but these qualities are entirely evened out when you have the insight of Eleanor’s internal dialogue and how she behaves and feels behind closed doors.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  is incredibly powerful, and made me think about all the Eleanors I’ve ever met in my life, though I didn’t really realise it until the end. So many people simply get through each day without really existing and, while it’s so easy to judge them, branding them eccentric or a little bit odd, it’s impossible to know how that person feels when they’re alone.  It all works out for Eleanor but, heartbreakingly, this isn’t the case for everyone in her situation.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  to anyone looking for a page-turner that makes you really care. If you’re looking for a book that makes you feel all the emotions, you’ll find it in this novel, and will probably be a more thoughtful person when you’re finished with it.

Extra tip: Read the interview with Honeyman at the end of the novel, it was incredibly interesting to see what inspired her to write this wonderful story.

 

 

 

Everything I Know About Love- Dolly Alderton

In the past three months or so I have really got into podcasts. I especially love to listen to them when I’m in the gym as I find they are more effective at distracting from the pain than music. One of my favourite podcasts has been The High Low by Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes. I almost feel like I’m part of their cool girl gang as I listen in on their chats. This meant that I was incredibly excited for the release of Dolly’s book, Everything I Know About Love as I knew she would be just as open, friendly and down to earth as she is on the podcast.

 

From the very first pages, I couldn’t get enough- though part of that might just be because I’m a bit nosy… But I just loved the instant warmth that Dolly offers to her readers, which is only heightened through the fact that she holds no detail of a story untold, no matter how embarrassing it may be. However, what I find most amazing about Everything I Know About Love  is how Dolly Alderton manages to be so honest and open, without being self-deprecating: she simply tells her story, as objectively as one might be able to tell their own story. She doesn’t rely on self-mockery to protect herself, but rather appears to accept everything that happens as part and parcel of growing up and becoming the woman she is today.

I loved the ongoing narrative of Dolly and her friend Farly, as I felt that it truly represented a relationship with a childhood friend- though they might not be directly involved with every event in your life, they are very much still there in the background. I loved the chapters-between-chapters in which she shares her favourite recipes and bullet points why one should/ not have a boyfriend because they really just felt like a friend opening up to you and sharing their been-there-done-that tips.

Everything I Know About Love is also incredibly positive in the way that it does not end with a fairytale resolution, but rather a very real situation that almost everyone could identify with, even if they have managed to find their fairytale. But again, what makes this great is that Dolly doesn’t seem bitter, or embarrassed or upset about this situation, she just tells it and accepts it, a more refreshing and hopeful outlook than we are so commonly faced with in the modern day media. This book tells us that it is perfectly healthy to still be growing and working on yourself, no matter your age, and that no one should settle for less than they are happy with.

I would wholeheartedly recommend Everything I Know About Love , whether or not you are already a fan of Dolly’s. The whole way through I felt that it was just a celebration of growing up and learning more about yourself as you go through life, which made the entire read a completely positive experience from start to finish- a possible explanation for the fact that I read it in just two days!