Small Great Things- Jodi Picoult

I’m forever hearing people talk about how Picoult is such a talented writer, but I’d never read any of her work myself. Of course, I was highly aware of the hype surrounding My Sister’s Keeper, but I had never got round to reading one of Picoult’s titles myself. I’d been meaning to read Small Great Things for ages, having heard Dolly and Pandora discuss the novel on The High Lowpraising Picoult for her work, and I finally got around to it this week.

I was astounded by how much this book made me feel. With race at the heart of this narrative, Picoult forces the reader to consider how racial prejudice is interwoven into and perpetuated by everyday life – as much as we wish it wasn’t. Picoult invites the reader to consider the ways in which we discriminate, even subconsciously, through the character of Kennedy. She’s someone who wants to help, but has to come to terms with her own ignorance before she is able to do so. Representing Kennedy alongside such explicit a representation of prejudice demonstrates the sheer scale at which white privilege operates. The contrast shows that you don’t necessarily have to believe in such prejudice to play a role in its perpetuation.

When I first began reading the book, I didn’t believe that it could be set in the 21st Century – characters’ attitudes were so antiquated. Subtle time indicators (Frozen being the most memorable) revealed that these ludicrous, old-fashioned beliefs still existed, despite having, supposedly, come so far. These indicators, along with the fact that Picoult had painstakingly researched everything to which she made reference- from medical terms to legal terms and everything in between- it was clear that she was aware of the gravity of what she was attempting as an author.

I felt furious pity for Rose and everyone she represents at all points of the narrative, embarrassed that this story has been, and still is, so many people’s reality. Her insistence on testifying, on having her voice heard, even if it means doing herself an injustice demonstrates the helplessness of those that don’t fit into the narrative of what is ‘right’ in a conservative, white, Western culture. Kennedy’s discouragement of her doing so is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to representing the contradiction in which those in a position to make a change live.

Throughout the narrative, it’s never clear how the trial will end. Even when it does conclude, it’s not satisfying, for the principle reason that, even though this battle is over for Rose, the longer-term war is still ongoing. Picoult doesn’t pretend to have found a solution to these thousands of years of prejudice, which did leave me feeling a little uneasy, but the reality of the matter is that, heartbreakingly, there is not yet a solution.

I understand that I read the book, and am writing this, from an position of immense privilege, but I believe that texts such as Small Great Things play a vital role in opening up discussion about discrimination- be that racial, sexual or otherwise. While one could criticise Picoult for broaching such an issue from her position of privilege, I don’t believe that she was doing it to make any kind of point or to present herself as ‘woke’, rather I believe that Small Great Things was written to add another voice and more noise in the discussion that the society in which we live is really not as forward thinking as we all like to believe.

I would recommend Small Great Things to anyone. Not only does it encourage conversation about issues that are too often overlooked and brushed aside – in both literature and daily life –it is so brilliantly written. While a more conclusive ending would have been more satisfying, I believe it would have undermined everything that Picoult had attempted to do to that point: demonstrate the hypocrisy and injustice that is prejudice.

 

The Woman in the Window- A.J. Finn

As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good thriller and I hadn’t read one in a while. The Woman in the Window has been out for a while now, and I’d seen lots of people rave about how good it is, so I decided to give it a go.

I have to say that first impressions weren’t great. I thought the narrative seemed a little basic and unimaginative and I was completely ambivalent towards the narrator- also the protagonist. I don’t mean ambivalent in a ‘it kept me on my toes’ kind of way; I mean ambivalent in that I didn’t care either way what happened to Anna.

That being said, the narrative did call a couple of important topics into question: how society perceives, and treats those suffering from mental health conditions, and the role the internet plays in modern life- both for better and worse.

However, it wasn’t until the final part of the book that I became hooked and actually cared about how the narrative would unfold. I definitely didn’t see the twist coming and, while it wasn’t necessarily the most believable ending to the story, it certainly upped the pace and injected some action into the otherwise slow story.

There’s no denying that this book is an easy read and, in fairness, I never considered abandoning it. However, it definitely isn’t groundbreaking and I found the narrative a little confusing at times, which made it hard to get behind. While The Woman in the Window wasn’t necessarily the worst book I’ve read, I’ve definitely read better thrillers and would recommend books such as Perfect Remains and The Good Samaritan- John Marrs 100 times before this title.

I will end this review on a positive note, however, by saying that I think the title is clever. While it could apply to Anna, trapped inside by her agoraphobia, it could also apply to the crime she believes takes place- I guess it’s up to you to decide in which scenario the window is most significant.

 

Don’t Trust Me- Joss Stirling

I’d been getting frustrated at how little time I had to read recently. I was always walking, and never seemed to have any time to sit down and actually read a book. I decided to give audio books a try- something I vowed I’d never do, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Don’t Trust Me  was the first book I downloaded. It was the description that caught my eye: ‘A stunning psychological debut with a shocking twist’. If there’s one thing I love more than a psychological thriller, it’s one with a good twist.

I was hooked from the second I started listening. I genuinely had no idea where the narrative was going, and I loved that. As a massive overthinker, I always imagine eventualities of books and often end up ruining it for myself- but that wasn’t possible. I think it’s because the situation was so far from something I’d imagine happening- no outcome seemed natural. The title is another spanner in the works, as I was constantly asking myself who it was I shouldn’t trust.  There were moments at which I was convinced I had it figured out, only to be proved wrong soon after.

As well as keeping me on my toes with the plot, I think Stirling does a fantastic job at character creation. He fools you  into thinking you  know everything you need to about each, only to throw surprises at you later on.  Unsurprisingly, Jessica is the most interesting character. I found myself flitting between sympathising with her and finding her incredibly frustrating. This made for a unique reading experience- I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen.

I think it’s fair to say that the actual events of the narrative are a little unrealistic, but they were a useful lens through which Stirling was able to explore an important topic: how society treats people with mental health problems- without letting this become the focal point of the book.

I wonder if

The Good Samaritan- John Marrs

It’s fair to say that this book’s description does not do it justice. I imagined that it would be dark, and with that I imagined tension. However, I hadn’t quite imagined how dark or tense The Good Samaritan would be, and I was pleasantly surprised- if anything can be pleasant about such a dark subject…

For the first few pages it is difficult to imagine the action that might follow later in the plot, and it seems that Laura might actually be a good samaritan. But it doesn’t take long to realise that this isn’t true, and her worryingly sadistic tendencies become more and more apparent the more you read on. Even when you begin to learn possible explanations for Laura’s difficult-to-understand pleasures, it is hard to feel sorry for her because she is so relentless. It is not just that she doesn’t see what she is doing is wrong, she truly believes it is acceptable and justified. This is frustrating, but it is also great to read a book in which you are supposed to detest the protagonist, and that I did.

When I say that Laura is relentless, I mean it wholeheartedly. Nothing and no one will get in the way of her quest to help, or rather encourage, people to die. I certainly thought that she would meet her maker at numerous points in the narrative, but it seems that when someone has so little to lose, they have no fear. For the entirety of the narrative I was sure I had figured out what was going to happen, reformulating the possibilities and getting it wrong every time. In fact, even at the end of the book, it isn’t entirely certain that she face the consequences of what she has done.

The further I read, the more The Good Samaritan held my attention, as I truly feared what might happen next. It becomes clear that Laura isn’t simply obsessed with the idea of people dying, but of being in control and having the upper hand. It seems that she has no mercy, and is even prepared to utilise her children as a tool to assert her power. This intense desperation still didn’t make me pity her, I just hated her more. The book is filled with injustice, which makes for a frustrating narrative and also pushed me to keep reading out of desperation to see justice served.

I liked that Marrs made the dual narratives intertwine as it helped to highlight the differences in how a sane person interprets the situation, and how Laura understands what is happening. However, it did this in a clever way that didn’t always simply tell two identical scenes from different perspectives, but rather added reflections and comments into each narrative to acknowledge the event.

The Good Samaritan made me question how genuine everyone working at helplines, such as the fictional End of the Line might be. Though you’d like to think that someone as dangerous as Laura would not slip through the net, it definitely made me consider that people might not work for such charities for the right reason: something I had never thought about before.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that enjoys drama and tension. While there aren’t any mysteries to be discovered, I became so invested in the need for justice that I could barely put the book down. The Good Samaritan is one of the best books I have read in a while, and I will be sure to check out some of Marrs other works!

The Text- Claire Douglas

It’s been a while. I think it’s fair to say that I had underestimated the intensity of final year, only made worse by the fact that I had a year abroad, which entailed very little studying. I got a bit swept up, and was not prioritising reading for pleasure. Now that I have had reading week, and a chance to catch up with myself a little, I am determined for this to change.  Let’s see…

I downloaded The Text from the Kindle store a while ago, thinking I could fit in time to read a 40 page short story. Apparently not. However, I am glad that last night I finally forced myself to. Don’t get me wrong, I love my degree, but there’s only so much french feminist writing, or medieval french romances that I can bring myself to read.

The first page was gripping, which is pretty vital for a short story and, though the plot wasn’t the most complex or the most convincing, it did keep my attention. I like how the narrative begins in media res– Douglas wastes no time in introducing her characters, allowing her readers to get to know them as the story progresses. I could identify with Emily straight away: desperate to vent to a friend, too involved with what I want to say to check what I’m actually saying….The Text really does show you that a typo can be fatal, and proof reading (even a text) can save lives…

(Half) Joking aside, Douglas does touch on some serious issues considering the mere 40 pages that the narrative is spread across, including abusive relationships and affairs, and how these can impact those involved and others around them. It was also impressive that the author managed to squeeze a plot twist into the story in such a short space, and I didn’t even see it coming.

Though Emily does resolve some of the problems in her life by the end, the narrative does still leave a lot to be desired. I would say the short story feels more like a chapter from a book (albeit a busy one), and there would definitely be room for a sequel. The cliffhanger isn’t the worst thing in the world, though the conclusion does feel like it creates a double meaning for the book’s title.

I would say that The Text is worth a read, if not for the fact that I don’t tend to read many short stories, and it is interesting to see how narrative technique and character building varies to that in a novel. It is evident that Douglas is an incredibly competent author, and I would definitely read one of her novels to see how she writing style changes. Perhaps not the most breathtaking book I have ever read, it certainly did not feel like a waste of time.

 

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.

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.

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!