Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Book Review: Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth.

Product details:
Publisher: The Borough Press.
Hardcover, 400 pages.
Release date: February 20th 2020.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.

Jenny McLaine is an adult. Supposedly. At thirty-five she owns her own house, writes for a cool magazine and has hilarious friends just a message away.

But the thing is:

• She can’t actually afford her house since her criminally sexy ex-boyfriend Art left,
• her best friend Kelly is clearly trying to break up with her,
• she's so frazzled trying to keep up with everything you can practically hear her nerves jangling,

• she spends all day online-stalking women with beautiful lives as her career goes down the drain.

And now her mother has appeared on her doorstep, unbidden, to save the day…

Is Jenny ready to grow up and save herself this time?

Deliciously candid and gloriously heartfelt, ADULTS is the story of one woman learning how to fall back in love with her life. It will remind you that when the world throws you a curve ball (or nine), it may take friendship, gin & tonics or even your mother to bring you back…

Jenny McLaine is living the dream. At thirty-five, she is a property-owning, single-lady-about-town, with a pretty cool job as a writer for FOOF - an online feminist magazine. But that’s not the dream I’m talking about. No – Jenny is living the Instagram dream. Her real life, though it looks good on paper – and even better with the right Instagram filter – is something of a mess.  Jenny’s single lady status is due to a recent split with her live-in boyfriend of seven years, a photographer named Art, while her status as a property owner is on shaky ground due to the fact that she no longer has someone with which to split the bills.  Still, if you were to take a look at Jenny’s painstakingly crafted grid, you wouldn’t know any of this. It’s not like Jenny’s Instagram dream is problem free – the algorithm is a constant worry and her Instagram idol Suzy Brambles still hasn’t liked any of her posts– but Jenny can deal with that. As long as she doesn’t have to deal with her actual real life problems, Jenny can deal with almost anything.

First impressions count and I’m sorry to say that my first impression of Jenny McLaine was not a good one.  The opening chapter of Adults sees Jenny obsess over an Instagram post of a croissant – to hashtag or not to hashtag – to the point of tears. I mean, seriously, this thing with the croissant went on for a whole chapter and, in the end, Jenny didn’t even eat the croissant. She just got it for the 'gram. While this opening chapter serves to show that Jenny has much bigger problems than an unhealthy obsession with Instagram, I have to admit that I found it a chore to read. Even though I’m not all that much older than Jenny, I couldn’t relate to her at all. I rolled my eyes at her antics a number of times. I just found her entire existence to be so vacuous. Does anybody – who is not a professional ‘influencer’ – really invest this much time in social media? Have we seriously come to the point where people measure their self-worth in Instagram likes? I hope not.

While Jenny has problems, she’s not without a support network, including her mother, a vivacious, wonderfully drawn character, and her best friend Kelly, a single mother, who listens to Jenny’s problems, while never speaking of her own. That’s because Jenny doesn’t want to hear Kelly’s problems. She only ever wants to talk about herself. Her problems. But not her real problems. Just inane ‘problems’ like whether or not her croissant requires a hashtag. While it’s clear that Jenny’s Instagram obsession serves as a ‘real life’ avoidance tactic, this knowledge doesn’t make her any more likeable. Jenny also has an annoying habit whereby, instead of confronting an issue head on, or you know, solving a problem by talking face to face, she composes emails to those she takes issue with, many, many emails, which she never sends. Seriously, Jenny, you’re too old for this.

Underneath it all, there is an inkling of the actual, functioning person Jenny used to be before her life took a downward turn. Through flashbacks, we bear witness to incidents where Jenny stood up, spoke up, and did the right thing. We see that, once upon a time, Jenny used to care, not just about herself - about other people too. But that was before everything went wrong in her life. And I get it. I get that real life can be ugly and that the right Instagram filter can make everything seem better – if only temporarily. I get that. I also get that there is more to Jenny than her Instagram self. I get that she’s been knocked down and that she can’t quite find the strength to get back up. I get it. But still. I can’t say I ever warmed to Jenny. Or to this book.  Sorry, Jenny, I tried, but just can’t bring myself to give you a ‘like.’

Friday, 21 February 2020

Book Review: The Guest List by Lucy Foley.

Publisher: HarperCollins UK.
Hardcover, 384 pages.

Release date: February 20th 2020.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Source: Received from publisher for review.

A wedding celebration turns dark and deadly in this deliciously wicked and atmospheric thriller reminiscent of Agatha Christie from the author of The Hunting Party.

The bride ‧ The plus one ‧ The best man ‧ The wedding planner ‧ The bridesmaid ‧ The body

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

A rugged, windswept island off the west coast of Ireland is the setting for The Guest List, Lucy Foley’s follow-up to her 2019 smash it, The Hunting Party. As suitable murder mystery settings go, it doesn’t get more fitting than Cormorant Island, which is boggy, barren, and steeped in folklore of the very spooky kind. On the other hand, as venues for destination weddings go, Cormorant Island may not be an obvious choice, but it has an undiscovered off-the-beaten-track charm to it that appeals to online magazine publisher, Jules, who dares to be different, and her fiancĂ©, handsome TV personality Will, who goes along with whatever Jules wants; the kind of guy who is guaranteed to adopt the cringeworthy mantra ‘Happy wife, happy life,’ once the rings have been exchanged.

 The Guest List opens on an ominous note as a storm rages on Cormorant Island causing the lights go out. It soon becomes clear that despite the best efforts of wedding planner Aoife, and the meticulous attention-to-detail of bridezilla Jules, that something has gone seriously awry. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks told via multiple narrators, including best man Johnno, an old school friend of Will’s, and bridesmaid Olivia, a broken, fragile girl, who is the younger sister of the bride. As with all good mysteries, nothing is what it first seems in The Guest List, and just about everybody in the wedding party is harbouring grudges and hiding more than a few dark secrets. As the alcohol flows, the secrets start to spill… 

 While The Guest List relies maybe a little too heavily on coincidence at times – the term ‘six degrees of separation’ springs to mind – it is nonetheless a highly entertaining mystery –featuring a whole host of ghastly characters - that kept me flipping the pages late into the night. Fans of The Hunting Party are sure to love this tale of madness, mayhem and the wedding from hell. One thing is for sure: Jules and Will will not be living happily ever after! 

 In short: A page-flipper of a mystery that will keep you entertained right till the end. If you liked The Hunting Party you will love The Guest List.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Book Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

Product details:
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hardcover, 320 pages.
Release date: January 7th 2020.
Rating: 3½ out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.

What happens when you do the right thing for the wrong reason? 

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right. 

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other. 

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

One of the most buzzed about debuts of 2020, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age introduces thirty-something mother-of-two Alix, a successful blogger, along with twenty-five year old Emira, who works as Alix’s childminder. The story begins when Alix, experiencing a late night disturbance at home, calls on Emira to remove her three-year-old daughter Briar from a potentially dangerous situation, by way of taking her on a late-night outing to a nearby upscale grocery store. Once there, Emira attracts unwanted attention from a security guard who, upon seeing a black woman out late at night with a white child, jumps to the conclusion that Emira has kidnapped Briar. A heated conversation ensues, the whole scene is filmed by a late-night shopper, and by the time Briar’s dad races to the store to rectify the situation, Emira just wants to go home and forget about the whole thing. But Alix. Alix can’t forget about what happened. She’s offended, no outraged, on Emira’s behalf. She’s mortified too that her actions put Emira in such a potentially dangerous situation. Alix resolves to make things right.

A book that focuses of themes of race, class and privilege could make for a pretty weighty read, but thanks Reid’s easy breezy style, Such a Fun Age is a page-turner that downplays its unsettling inciting incident to instead focus on the relationship between Alix and Emira, two very different women, with almost nothing in common, who just happen to spend most of their days together.  While Emira loves spending time with Briar, with whom she shares an unbreakable bond, this twenty-something woman who loves to party with her friends, and has recently hooked up with the late-night-shopper who filmed the ‘grocery store incident,’ has no real interest in getting to know Alix. Simply put, all Emira wants from her relationship with Alix is the paycheck Alix hands her at the end of the working week. Alix, on the other hand, wants to get to know Emira. And while Alix knows she must be careful so as not to overstep, she’s determined to help Emira out – to improve the younger woman’s lot in life. The problem is: Emira never asked for Alix’s help.

As annoying characters go I have to say that Alix is pretty high up on the scale: privileged, successful and presumptuous in the extreme, it never occurs to Alix that her behaviour – she checks Emira’s text messages on the regular as a means of gaining information and making conversation – is wholly inappropriate. However, when a piece of Alix’s illicitly gained information leads to Emira accepting an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, Alix gets more than she bargained for when a face from her past – one who knew Alex before she was Alix – shows up at her door. From that point on, Alix is more determined than ever to ‘Save Emira’ even when Emira makes it pretty clear that she doesn’t need saving. It also becomes pretty clear, as we learn more about Alix’s past - and her present - that Alix is not in a position to save anyone. Maybe, like most of us, she should just focus bettering herself. Problem is, Alix thinks she’s pretty much perfect. It’s everyone else that’s the problem.

A sharply observed, self-assured debut, Such a Fun Age is a compelling character study and social commentary that sparkles with wit, charm and a whole lot of sass.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Book Review: The Truants by Kate Weinberg.

Product details:
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Hardcover, 320 pages.
Release date: January 28th 2020.
Rating: 3½ out of 5.
Source: Received from publisher for review.

Seductive, unsettling, and beautifully written, The Truants is a debut novel of literary suspense perfect for lovers of Agatha Christie and The Secret History--a thrilling exploration of deceit, first love, and the depths to which obsession can drive us.

People disappear when they most want to be seen.

Jess Walker has come to a concrete campus under the flat grey skies of East Anglia for one reason: To be taught by the mesmerizing and rebellious Dr Lorna Clay, whose seminars soon transform Jess's thinking on life, love, and Agatha Christie. Swept up in Lorna's thrall, Jess falls in with a tightly-knit group of rule-breakers--Alec, a courageous South African journalist with a nihilistic streak; Georgie, a seductive, pill-popping aristocrat; and Nick, a handsome geologist with layers of his own.

But when tragedy strikes the group, Jess turns to Lorna. Together, the two seek refuge on a remote Italian island, where Jess tastes the life she's long dreamed of--and uncovers a shocking secret that will challenge everything she's learned.

Themes of love, lust, betrayal and grief populate Kate Weinberg’s accomplished debut, The Truants, an absorbing coming-of-age tale wrapped in a mystery that is as subtly sinister as it is entirely compelling. 

Jess Walker is finally free. Free from her boring small-town existence. Free from her domineering mother and hum-drum home life. Free to expand her horizons, broaden her mind and all that jazz. When that first taste of freedom lands on her lips like a long-awaited kiss, it takes her breath away. Jess feels like the world is her oyster: she can do anything, be anyone: Jess feels like life has finally begun. 

That’s thanks in part to the troupe of friends Jess meets in her first term at university - a hedonistic trio comprising pill-popping Georgia, journalist Alec, and nice-guy Nick – but even more so it’s down to one Dr. Lorna Clay: Agatha Christie scholar, celebrated author of The Truants – a book that captivates Jess like no other - and the number one reason Jess has chosen to enrol as a student at the University of East Anglia.

Of course, it’s not unusual that an eager undergraduate such as Jess should become intellectually enamoured of her professor. What is unusual, though, is that Lorna Clay, presented to us as brilliant, worldly, and glamourous through the eyes of eighteen-year-old Jess, invites, even encourages such behaviour in her students: she plays favourites, shares confidences, and is privy to details of the various romantic entanglements of her students. It’s no surprise then, that when Jess’s love life takes a turn for the complicated, and her friendship group is ripped apart by a betrayal that is quickly followed by a tragedy, it’s Lorna Clay that Jess turns to for advice. After all, her brilliant professor only has Jess’s best interests at heart, right?

Clever and nuanced, The Truants is something of a slow-burn mystery, one that is filled with subtle twists and hidden depths. It’s a tale that demands patience of its reader, a story that is sometimes frivolously distracted; one that sometimes meanders from its intended path – at least seemingly so. Don’t be fooled. In The Truants, the devil is in the details, all is not what it first seems, and in the end, like all the best university professors, it commands your full attention, leaving you inspired, impressed, and hungry for more.

In Short: A compelling coming-of-age tale wrapped in a clever mystery, The Truants will keep you guessing right to the end - and beyond. Top Tip: Pay attention to the little things!
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