Review: One of us is Lying by Karen McManus

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Picture credit: http://www.netgalley.com

I’d heard about this book on social media and thought that it sounded like a pretty cool premise. Not only was the initial set up reminiscent of The Breakfast Club (a nerd, a princess, a jock and a rebel all find themselves in detention together) but it was promised to be a big hit. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others, but then I left school nearly 20 years ago (before the internet was really A Thing – can you imagine?) so I’m not really the target demographic. I thought some bits were good, other so-so.

Let me explain… 

Bronwyn, Nate, Addy, Cooper and Simon all go to the same school. Bronwyn is a stereotypical high achiever, Nate a part time drug dealer barely attending school, Addy the beautiful blonde whose boyfriend is the most important thing in the world and Cooper, whose life revolves around baseball. Seemingly with nothing in common, they all find themselves in detention together for having a mobile phone with them in class. The problem is, none of them know where the phones came from – they appear to have been planted on them to purposefully get them into trouble. But why?

Then there’s the fifth member of the group, Simon. Universally loathed and revered in equal measure, Simon is the owner of the About That app, where school rumours end up…except somehow Simon always manages to make sure that they’re true before publishing them. An incident during detention leaves all of the characters under suspicion and as the story unfolds it seems that they all have something to hide – just not what you were expecting.

See, it sounds like a good premise, right? I was definitely intrigued. However, the way that the book was written kind of spoilt the story for me. For a start, the chapters are short and broken up by character, where each in turn is the narrator. I found this quite confusing, especially when the two girls are quite similar in character – Addy is fairly bland for the most part of the book so it was easy to forget where her storyline was going when you had immersed yourself in the world of Nate. I found it quite jarring sometimes when I had to swap between them all.

The other problem was that it was quite easy to work out what had happened. For me, it was very obvious that certain people had nothing to do with the incident, so by process of elimination I had worked out the culprit before half way through. There was also Cooper’s big secret that I worked out way before it came out. Because of this, I found that the book dragged a bit. It seemed quite long for a YA novel, especially when not much goes on for chunks of pages (I didn’t really care about Addy’s hair or what films Bronwyn and Nate were watching). If the main characters were a little more secretive or had more to loose then it would have given them better motives and cast more doubt about them, which would have added to the intrigue.

In saying that, there was some fast paced bits and it had enough going on to keep me interested. I did enjoy reading One of us is Lying but the story could have been so much better if it were just a little less bland. As I previously mentioned though, I’m not the target demographic for this book and so if you’re into YA fiction then you might get more out of it.

Overall rating: 7/10   

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review: Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley

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Picture credit: http://www.netgalley.com

I really do love Alexandra Heminsley. I read her last book (Running Like a Girl) a few months ago and found it so completely inspirational that I started jogging a couple of times a week. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm for running faded pretty quickly (injury plus having an already dodgy leg) but the book was great and I think it really improved my technique. So, I was expecting great things from Leap In – the story of Heminsley’s journey from could-manage-a-few-laps-of-breaststroke to hard-core sea swimmer. I thought I would immediately be googling wetsuits and finding out where my nearest pool was. I thought I would be filled with confidence at the thought of wearing a swimming costume. I thought I would basically become a part time mermaid. Unfortunately, none of these things happened – which I suppose is good for my bank balance (and legs) but not so much my BMI. It’s a good book, but it just didn’t grab me in the same way that Running Like a Girl did.

Perhaps it’s the slightly less accessible subject matter. Anyone can shove a pair of trainers on and go for a run, but going swimming is a much more considered act. There’s the swimming costume, the hair removal, the finding out when the pool is open…you can’t just put this book down, grab a towel and head off to the baths. Added to this is the fact that  Heminsley is not a natural water baby. She gets claustrophobic in a wetsuit. She’s scared of standing in mud. She doesn’t understand goggles. I just didn’t feel that she utterly, thoroughly loved swimming in the same way that she loved running – and as someone who would happily become semi-aquatic I just didn’t engage with these minor concerns.

Luckily, Leap In is brilliantly written. It’s told in Heminsley’s  usual hilarious manner and includes some excellent descriptions of what it’s like to wear sportswear when you don’t have a “sporty” physique (not that there is such a thing – what I’m trying to say is – when you have boobs and a bum). Her description of the first time she had to wear a wetsuit is knicker-wettingly funny and the phrases “arse-shelf” and “arse cleavage” will stay with me for a long time. Mixed in with the humour are some very candid passages about being scared to walk out in a swimming costume, being intimidated by men training for triathlons and being paranoid about what is lurking beneath the waves. Heminsley is unfailingly, bravely honest about her own insecurities and foibles which make the story much more interesting and human.

There’s a lot of technical information about such things as  techniques for front crawl (seemingly the best stroke for long distance/open water swimming) as well as Heminsley’s own experiences with a range of kit. This might sound a bit dull but she weaves it into her personal narrative so well that it’s easy to get sucked in. At one point I actually found myself acting out front crawl arms as I was reading and quickly had to stop myself from looking like a lunatic. Luckily I was on my own at the time – thank God I wasn’t on public transport!

As a novel, Leap In Is split into two parts – the first being Hemingsley’s own story about learning to swim and the second regarding advice and support for everything from finding out about adult swimming lessons to kit, events and practical advice on everyday swimming issues. This section is really comprehensive and provides a plethora of information. Even if you have no interest in going swimming it’s written in a jovial, friendly tone and is still worth a read (how else will you find out how to conceal a spare tampon if you’re only wearing a wetsuit?)

Leap In really is a snapshot of Heminsley’s life during the time that she learns to swim. She includes some very personal passages about her struggles to conceive, her attempts at IVF and the impact that this has on her body. Far from being just a book about swimming, this is a really touching and intimate portrayal of life as a 30 something woman who just happens to have taken up a new sport. Not as inspirational as Running Like a Girl, but still a great book to read. And if you take it on holiday, who knows – maybe you will just grab a towel and head for the pool.

Rating: 8/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review: The Devil’s Prayer by Luke Gracias

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So, dear readers, here comes my very negative review of The Devil’s Prayer, as promised in my last post. I’ve tried to find some positives within the story, but honestly, its been a struggle.

The book is written out of sequence, beginning with the present day; initially it’s about the story of a silent nun breaking into a concealed room hidden deep within a monastry whilst some weird creepy ritual goes on outside. This first part (alas – it only lasts a few chapters) reads a bit like a Dan Brown novel and immediately had me gripped. Unfortunately, it went downhill from there.

The next part of the book was written as a letter being read by the nun’s daughter, which alternated between the present day (when the daughter was reading it) and the past (when the letter was obviously set). The letter explained the events that led up to the nun abandoning her family, joining a convent and trying to track down some centuries old religious documents. Unlike a Dan Brown book, there was no attempt at plausibility when the reason for this was revealed. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. I won’t say too much in case you’re some kind of masochist who actually still wants to read this book, but it really is a stupid premise.

Anyway, the book then goes on to explain that the quest was never completed and in order to save the world, the daughter must pick up where her mother left off. Which she does. Without question.

Cue an awful lot of pointless travel around Europe while the daughter continues to read what her mother had been up to. She’s being chased by some evil monks (all wearing bright red robes, luckily. I mean, surely they would have disguised themselves? Anyway…) so she literally arrives in one place, reads a bit of the letter, a monk turns up, she gets on a train, they follow, she goes somewhere else…pointless.

The story ends completely arbitrarily after literally nothing is resolved and it looks like the whole thing was a waste of time. I couldn’t believe that the story just stopped in the way it did. I mean, I was thankful that it was over, but it made no sense. Is there a sequel? (please God don’t let there be a sequel).  

Apart from the storyline, there were many, many other things that I disliked about the Devil’s Prayer. It’s incredibly simplistically written and the grammer is terrible; really clunky and awkward. I think that the book has either been edited by a child or the author simply bypassed this stage altogether. It looks like it hasn’t been proof read either – at one point something is described as spartan but it’s written ‘Spartan’ (noun) like the inhabitants of Sparta.

The characters are either completely, unequivicably good or downright evil. There are no shades of grey. Everything is completely black and white. If someone is jealous, they say ‘I always hated you, with your perfect life’. If they’re rich (female) they buy designer clothes and handbags. If they are rich (male) they have a bright red sports car. If they’re good, they fail to notice these glaringly obvious, stereotypical signals of wealth and struggle on to pay the medical bills, never once questioning whether anyone could help them out. At one point, the devil appears and just in case you were in any doubt, utters the phrase ‘Hello? I am the devil’. Aaaargh! Quite why he is talking like a California Valley girl is anyone’s guess.

The story itself, apart from being utterly unbelievable, is terribly written. It’s obvious what has basically happened from the beginning (you’re literally given this information as a recollection) and the only vaguely intriguing part is trying to work out which of the poorly outlined characters were responsible for which bit. You know they’re all in it together and you know why, so this held little interest for me. This endless interrogation of each character took the vast majority of the book, and was extremely tedious.

There were also huge, gaping, obvious holes in the story as it emerged. The main character massively implicates herself in various crime scenes; her car is found by the police, she has visible marks on her body like she’s been in a fight, a woman matching her description is seen, the scenes involve all of her friends – but the police just keep confirming that it can’t be her because she’s a bed bound quadraplegic. Plausible, you might think – until the next day when she makes a miraculous recovery and starts walking around as though nothing has happened and the police still don’t think to question her (or, you know, arrest her immediately).      

There are other, appalling incidents in the book that are frankly ridiculous – the main character appears to have been chosen by the devil for no discernible reason, she has consensual sex the day after she is brutally raped, she decides that someone she has known forever is the love of her life just because she sees some good in him. Nonsense.

So, just in case you think I’ve been overly harsh, I’d like to finish with my favourite quote from the book, which I think encapsulates all of my criticisms quite nicely:

“Standing next to the turtles on the beach…was a green dragon, which looked a lot like a T-Rex.”

I thank you.

Overall rating: 4/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review – How to be Happy by David Burton

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Don’t be fooled by the title – this is not a ‘How To…’ guide, nor is it the story of someone who figured out the secret to living a fabulous, meaningful life. It’s the story of a young man coming to terms with his own insecurities, sexual confusion, depression and general angst that I’m sure anyone thinking back to their teenage years can relate to on some level. The story Burton tells is interesting, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with periods of pretty severe depression and suicidal thoughts thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the bit about it being a memoir of sex is also misleading – rarely have I read an autobiography where the author is so truthful about how they found pulling someone completely, painfully difficult.

A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of the way that some of my friends seem to be constantly searching for some external thing that will make them happy – whether that’s a hobby, a partner, a successful career etc. when really what they’re doing is projecting their own insecurities. At some points I just wanted to hug David Burton and tell him that it was ok to be sad and confused, and that it would get better. Luckily, Burton comes to this conclusion on his own and How to be Happy has plenty of great examples of how building a support network is soooooo important for anyone who is suffering from depression/anxiety/low self esteem.

Burton is also very honest about his experiences and initial negativity towards therapy. I think it’s incredibly important to discuss this issue because I know that a lot of people still feel that they’re admitting defeat by seeking professional help for their problems. Happily, Burton finds a therapist that he’s comfortable with and the book shows how perseverance with counselling can have life changing results – but only if you’re prepared to really work at it.

The other thing that I really liked about this book was the way that Burton experienced confusion about his sexuality (to the point where he came out as gay to his parents) but then ended up having to rethink this. I’ve never seen this mentioned in a book before and it was really refreshing to see someone being so open about their changing feelings. This is clearly a very emotive topic and I applaud Burton for his honesty in saying ‘this is what happened to me and how I felt at the time’. I guess some people will see it as fuel for the ‘you’re too young to know how you feel…this is just a phase’ argument but I saw it as an example of how nuanced sexuality and sexual attraction can be and how completely confusing and difficult to understand it often is.

I did, however, find How to be Happy a little tedious in places. As a memoir of a fairly ordinary (albeit depressed) teenager/young adult there aren’t any explosions, zombies or natural disasters and the book is set in Australia, not in a post apocalyptic future.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and applaud Burton’s honesty in portraying a very difficult period of his life. I think that anyone suffering from depression could benefit from reading it as it is ultimately an uplifting tale of triumph over
personal demons.

Rating: 7/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #15 Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  

Review: Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

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I’ve just finished Hagseed and my feelings are mixed to say the least. One the one hand, I really enjoyed Atwood’s writing and the characters that she creates. On the other, I felt like I wasn’t quite clever enough to be able to follow the various narrative threads and layers of metaphors woven throughout the book.

Thanks Margaret Atwood for making me feel thick.

This book (well, audio book) took me a while to get into as I didn’t understand at first if it was a straight retelling of the Tempest, or a story about doing the Tempest as a production. In the end, it sort of turned out to be both – but I wish I had been more familiar with the original Shakesperean text in order to see how Atwood had used it to inform her characters and the way that the plot developed. I haven’t read The Tempest since school so although I vaguely remembered what it was about (mostly fairies and a shipwreck) I felt like I needed a refresh. At the very end of Hagseed there is a summary of The Tempest and I wish that I had read (heard) this first as it would have helped me to understand the plot far better.

I got very heavily invested in the main character, Felix; a producer of plays who, after suffering the death of his wife and child is forced to retire from his job. He clearly suffers some mental health issues which makes for an unreliable narrator and means you’re never quite sure about the whole madnesss/genius thing. He’s clearly very talented but deeply disturbed by the death of his daughter, so you never know how much of what’s going on is fantasy or reality – much like in The Tempest (not too thick to see the parallels there, Atwood). Felix then goes on to get a job in a prison teaching English and Drama to a group of convicts. Far from resenting the scheme, the prisoners flourish under the tutelage of Felix and he casts them in a number of Shakesperean plays with great success. However, his greatest triumph is his production of The Tempest; the play which originally pushed his previous company to retire him early. Through some cosmic synchronicity and by taking advantage of some of the prisoners ‘skills’, Felix is able to use the play to not only get his revenge but also as a release from the mental prison he has created for himself. Again, this is one of the parts where the book gets very meta – Atwood makes it clear the The Tempest has a number of metaphorical prisons in it, Felix is producing the play in an actual prison, he is living in a mental prison and holding his own daughter prisoner within it… aargh! Sometimes I felt that there were three (or more) narrative threads which were all interwoven and I struggled to grasp all of the concepts. See, told you I was thick.   

You can see Atwood’s love for Shakespeare shining through in many parts of the book. She discusses a range of devices that are used to teach the play to the group of prisoners in order to engage them with the text, such as asking them to spot all of the prisons in the play, asking them only to swear using Shakesperian curses – it made me wish that I’d been taught like that. Did Atwood use to be a teacher? *checks wikepedia* yes, she did! What a guess.

As I said before, I’m not familiar enough with The Tempest to spot all the allegories that I’m sure Atwood has woven throughout Hagseed and as such I felt like there’s a whole level that I  missed – like watching the Simpsons as a child and not seeing all the adult jokes/political bits. My advice would be to familiarise yourself with the original Tempest story before reading this, or just to read the last chapter first. Trust me, you’ll get a lot more from the book if you do. However, despite feeling like I was missing something, I still enjoyed the book. There was a thread of tension throughout – you knew that Felix was planning his revenge but Atwood kept me guessing as to how exactly it would all play out (hahaha, now I’m getting all meta). Once I got into it I did find the story compelling and because I really cared about the main character I kept listening to find out how everything was resolved.

At the end of the book, Felix asks his students to present their ideas on what happens to the characters in The Tempest after the play ends. I felt like Atwood was trying to allude to something here (were the main characters in the Tempest directly represented in Hagseed? I was never quite sure if Felix was meant to be Prospero) but I feel like I missed it. If anyone has read this book and has an opinion please let me know!

Overall, I think that any Shakespeare fan would love Hagseed and I’m sure they would get far more from it than I did. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and so I enjoyed the book, but I did feel a little lost in places. I think this would be a great book club text because a lot of questions are raised which could provoke some lively discussions. Its just a shame that I have no-one to talk to about it!

Rating: 7/10

  

Review: After You by JoJo Moyes

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I approached this book with some trepidation. I’d read Me Before You and loved it (despite it absolutely Not Being The Kind Of Thing I’d Usually Go For) and I, like a whole legion of other fans, was curious to see what happened to Lou and the Traynor family next. I’d seen a few reviews saying that After You was nowhere near as good and had actually ruined the experience of the first book so I prepared myself for the worst. I’m pleased to report that nothing particularly drastic happened once I had read After You, but only because I don’t have ANY strong emotions about the novel. The best I can come up with is ‘meh’.

I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the thing I enjoyed most in the first book was the dynamic between Lou and Will (the two main characters) and that this was obviously missing in the second installment. The relationship that Lou has with everyone else in her life is in no way as meaningful or powerful as the bond that she had with Will and I felt that this made After You nowhere near as engaging or interesting. The story picks up after Lou has got through her initial grieving and finds herself living in a small flat in London on her own, working in a bar. A major accident, a chance encounter and a very-much-not-by-chance encounter lead Lou to reconnect with her past, face some demons and finally start to live her life again. However, the plot meanders between a variety of other characters (so many that I lost track of who was who) and a number of other scenarios which don’t seem to have much impact – pretty much all the things that happen are once-in-a-lifetime events and could have been fleshed out into entire stories on their own, but Moyes just keeps adding one thing after another with the overall effect of watering down their impact.

I thought that the plot was pretty predictable (excluding some of the bizzare events that kept happening). It was easy to read (although I did notice a few random words like ‘wazzock’ appearing – I’ve not heard that since the 80’s) but I just felt that it was far too long and rambling. I thought that After You should either have been about the Traynor family and Will’s legacy/family, or Lou meeting someone and moving on. By trying to mash everything together I felt that the book lost its way and could have finished a lot sooner than it did. The ending in particular really dragged for me and I kept expecting it to finish, only for another thing to have happened.

I also thought that the relationship between Lou and love interest Ambulance Sam could have been a lot more complex but Lou’s feelings about Will don’t seem to get in the way at all. To be fair, there is an awful lot in the book about the different ways that people grieve but I felt that this was sometimes glossed over and occasionally felt like lazy stereotypes were employed to tie up loose ends – i.e. everyone releases a ballooon to say goodbye to their loved one to signify that they’ve moved on.

I didn’t think that the relationship between Lou and Sam was a patch on the relationship between Lou and Will. I expected a lot more soul searching and a lot more guilt from Lou but she seemed to fall in love again relatively easily. I cared SO MUCH about Will but I just didn’t engage with Sam in the same way. I felt that his character needed far more development which the excessive amounts of action in After You just didn’t leave space for.

I think that if Me Before You didn’t exist and hadn’t been so insanely perfect then I might have judged After You far less harshly – but I thought that it was a pretty disappointing sequel. Its not a bad book, but it seems to be a mish mash of two or three novels squashed into one, leaving events glossed over, relationships formed far too easily and characters underdeveloped. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rating: 5/10.

 

Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read Margaret Atwood before (I know) so this was my first experience of her work. WHY HAVE I IGNORED HER FOR SO LONG???? Seriously, this book (well, audio book) is amazing.

The book tells the story of Charmaine and Stan, a young couple living in a car and struggling to make ends meet since the economy collapsed. Living on Charmaine’s wages in her low paid, dead end job and spending their nights on the lookout for thugs smashing into cars and beating their inhabitants up, they hear about an amazing opportunity to volunteer for a new way of living. The town of Consilience promises full employment, housing, healthcare and a safe environment to live in – and it’s looking for residents. Seems too good to be true? It is – the catch is that you only spend one month at a time there as you have to ‘volunteer’ to spend the next month in prison. Stan and Charmaine have little choice but to sign up and at first they adapt well, but underneath the company endorsed plastic happiness their secret desires fester and manifest themselves in dangerous affairs.   

I found this book to be such an original concept that was amazingly well written and thoroughly engaging. There’s a very small cast of characters but the way that they all interacted and the impact that they had on each other was really fascinating. It’s amazing how Atwood got such a complicated story out of such a simple set up and still managed to tie it all together with a killer ending.

I loved how allegorical the title of the story was. Literally the heart goes last – it’s the final thing to stop working when someone dies (or is killed). In a figurative sense, even when Stan and Charmaine are interested in other people they still somehow love each other. Again, in Stan’s volatile relationship with his brother they always have each other’s backs. When Charmaine is asked to commit terrible acts she still does so with compassion. And at the end – I can’t say too much, but Atwood beautifully poses the question – can we really override our hearts with our heads? Or are our emotions too strong to break?

I also loved how there was a thrilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel. You know that Consilience is going to be a bad idea but the Stepford Wives style township seems to provide safety and security – two things that Stan and Charmaine are in desperate need of. You can tell that the sickly sweet packaging might look pretty now but will make you ill eventually – but what choice do the couple have? The truly terrifying part though is that in today’s political climate, are we really so far away from setting up social housing experiments along the same lines? And do we already have people living in such desperate need that they would willingly sign up? I hope Donald Trump doesn’t read this and get any ideas (no wonder people have protested against him dressed as Handmaids). 

I actually didn’t like any of the characters in the book, but I somehow ended up rooting for them anyway. As I was listening to the audiobook version I think I didn’t fully absorb all of the story because in places I found it a little hard to follow, so I’d like to read it properly. I also found the voices of the actors playing Stan and Charmaine quite annoying (Charmaine in particular was very nasal) but it was obviously intentional as her over-the-top cheeriness belied her underlying unhappiness and at times manic ability to keep putting on a brave face. By the end of the book, I found that this had actually added another dimension to the story (although twelve hours of listening to it is more than a little grating).   

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially fans of dystopian futures and intricate fantasy. I loved it.    

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #4 Listen to an Audiobook.