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.

Dans le jardin de l’ogre- Leila Slimani

Having studied– and absolutely adored– Chanson Douce as part of my undergraduate degree, it only felt natural to see what else Slimani had to offer. I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed for two reasons: Chanson Douce is one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time, and Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes had recommended Dans le jardin de l’ogre on The High Low and I’d trust their advice on just about anything.

Of course, I could have read the english translation of the book, but I wanted to experience Slimani’s true writing style- I didn’t want anything to get lost in translation- literally or figuratively.

 

From the very first page, I was hooked. I can’t quite put my finger on how Slimani does it, but she just makes her characters so captivating. We’re never told how to feel about them, and all narration is pretty neutral, but it’s clear that we aren’t supposed to judge Adèle in the way that the rest of a conservate French society would. Yes, on the surface, her incessant need for sexual arouse is grotesque, but this narrative is about so much more than a promiscuous woman, but rather a woman that wants to feel needed and necessary.

Slimani picks apart the hypocrisies within patriarchal discourse through this protagonist. She apparently has it all: she’s middle class, is married to a successful man, is mother to Lucien and has a successful career. Yet, she still isn’t satisfied. However, rather than persecuting the character for this, Slimani presents the facts frankly. We don’t judge Adèle for her infidelity or for the fact she doesn’t love motherhood wholeheartedly, but we are encouraged to empathise with her desire to be desired- which takes over all other desires.

While others have criticised Slimani for the lack of depth to Adèle and the clichés that run throughout the narrative, I think these factors serve to emphasise the premise here. Adèle’s life fits the bill of society’s ‘ideal’ woman on paper, but this job spec doesn’t accommodate for real women with real needs- and that’s what’s so bizarre.

If you want to read something that allows you to understand a woman’s sexual desires and desire to be objectified without rendering her passive and powerful, read Dans le jardin de l’ogre. If you enjoy writing that makes you feel a little uncomfortable, conflicted and makes you question your prejudices, read Dans le jardin de l’ogre. Of course, I can’t say a lot for the english translation– it’s perfectly possible that Slimani’s intentions weren’t conveyed effectively– but, in my opinion, Dans le jardin de l’orgre is fantastic.

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 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.

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!

How I Lost You- Jenny Blackhurst

On first appearances, How I Lost You ticked all the right boxes: a gripping thriller with a twist.

For the first few pages, I did feel a little confused. I couldn’t quite comprehend who was narrating, and why there were different names floating about..but now I realise that this might have been intended, reflecting the confusion that Susan feels herself.

This confusion meant I didn’t quite understand whether or not I was supposed to identify with Susan, and I held her at quite a distance for the majority of the narrative. In fact, I felt quite ambivalent towards all of the characters in How I Lost You and I was never sure if all was exactly what it seemed, or if they all had ulterior motives. This is by no means a criticism. It was actually very interesting to be kept on tenterhooks as to who could be trusted and who could not.

I think Blackhurst’s use of the parallel narrative, focusing on certain events in the past, was really useful in adding extra depth to the plot in a much more sophisticated way than characters simply discussing the past. It was also quite satisfying in the way that it acted as a tool with which I could start to decode the book’s present and gauge how to react to and understand certain things that are referred to.

Though the main premise of the narrative is a constant theme, and the driving force behind everything that unfolds in the plot, there are also a number of other key themes, which I suppose reflects the real-life nature of the book. Or, at least as real-life as something like this can be….

My criticism would be that the resolution seems to unfold a little too conveniently, with everyone involved only too ready to help, and those who are guilty too easily let off. Having said this, the narrative does end on a semi-cliffhanger, and does leave a lot to be explained which, I suppose, does leave room for further problems to arrive, even if they aren’t addressed directly.

I certainly would recommend How I Lost You, particularly if you are looking for a book that doesn’t necessarily tell you how to feel from the start, and want to work things out for yourself!

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!

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.