Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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

I’d been hearing about the HBO series Big Little Lies for a while now, but not being much of a TV fan it kind of bypassed me. Imagine my excitement when I found Netgalley had the book the series was based on available for request! Yay! (Word of warning – this was a while ago now, I have no idea if it’s since been archived.)

The book is based around three women whose children are all starting at the same school. There’s Madeline, the down to earth, making-it-up-as-she-goes-along mum; Celeste, the beautiful, rich, slightly vacant mum; and Jane, the downtrodden young mum. The three women become friends, but an incident involving Jane’s son and another little girl creates escalating tension between all of the parents at the school. Everyone seems to have their own take on the matter, and as the parents form allegiances they’re forced to act in a way that protects their own secrets from becoming public knowledge. As the parents become more polarised, emotions are heightened until everything comes to a head at a fateful school fancy dress party – the scene of a terrible crime.

Big Little Lies is written partly in the format of a police investigation, so the reader instantly knows that the story is going to end in some kind of criminal incident. I really liked the way that the narrative was often juxtaposed with a witness statement from another parent which put a totally different spin on the situation – it was really cleverly done and showed how perceptions can be so distorted based on our own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

Despite the playground politics and petty bitchiness, there’s a central theme of strong female friendship and loyalty which was really refreshing to read about. I loved how different Madeline, Celeste and Jane were, yet they all found common ground and faced many of the same issues. I also loved how the different family types were shown – the single parent, the blended family and the traditional two parent setup, and the problems and pitfalls of each.

The book is very female-centric and there’s a fantastic portrayal of lots of different female relationships – as wives, friends, parents, enemies, grandparents, step parents, victims…the list goes on. All of the characters were totally unique and I loved watching their lives unfold based on the way that they reacted to each other.

I loved the ending to the book and the big plot twist that I didn’t see coming. I can’t believe the novel is 480 pages long – I tore through it as it was really fast paced and the characters were all really interesting and well developed.

I’m sure that Big Little Lies will get tarred with the “chick lit” brush but this isn’t some silly romance, it’s a really unique psychological thriller – that just happens to be based at the school gates. It reminded me a lot of Desperate Housewives (season one, before it went downhill) so any fans of that will definitely enjoy it, although I think there’s something in it for everyone. It’s a big thumbs up from me.

Rating: 4.5/5

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

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Review: All Day by Liza Jessie Peterson

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

Bugger me, America is messed up. I’m sure the UK has some pretty shocking practices when it comes to children awaiting trial for criminal offenses but as far as I’m aware we don’t lock them all up together and stick them on an island, like some kind of Lord of the Flies for black kids. However, that’s exactly what happens in this true-life account of incarcerated children – children! – who are awaiting trial for seemingly minor misdemeanors on Rikers Island, New York.

The book is the account of one teacher’s perspective on what it’s like to work with these kids. Locked up, far from their families, with just the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested, the full extent of what happens to these poor (in both senses) young men is portrayed with brutal honesty. From gang fights to mental health issues everything is recounted with no sugar coating. It’s a morbidly fascinating glimpse into a world very few of us (hopefully) will ever get to see first hand.

*At this point, I am going to have a little bit of a rant. This is tenuously linked to my review but only because of my involvement in the UK justice system. You have been warned*

As someone who spent a few years working in the UK police force at a time when they had just been branded “institutionally racist” I have a little bit of experience of the ways that we worked to change the organisational culture. We aimed to include diversity in everything we did, not just with training (a full two day session that was actually really fun) but by embedding it into everything we did, from appraisal and job interview questions to marketing and branding. We had area Diversity Action Groups with targeted action plans. We attended events like the Caribbean Carnival and Pride. We targeted recruitment adverts to specific interest publications to increase the number of female, LGBTQIA+, disabled and minority ethnic applicants. We had support groups for all the different diversity strands that reviewed all of our policies and procedures to ensure fairness and transparency. We monitored the ethnicity of anyone stopped and searched and published the figures on a monthly basis (if anyone is interested, they were always overwhelmingly white men). Of course there were still problems, but I witnessed myself the amount of work and the dedication of many, many officers and staff to really engage with the idea. And things changed. Slowly, teeny tiny bit by bit, things got slightly better. We recruited record numbers of females and minority ethnic staff. We had awareness days for religious and cultural celebrations where staff and officers brought in food and talked about what the day meant to them. It was really fun (and the free food was a huge, yummy bonus). Everyone seemed really positive about the changes that were being made. I believe (obviously I can’t prove this) that as a result, Drtection rates for hate crimes increased as more emphasis was put on outreach work within communities that were previously very hostile towards the police. I really felt like the actions that we took were having an effect on the community that the police force served.

So I was horrified to read that almost every single inhabitant at Rikers Island was black or Latino – and that it was just accepted that if they had been white they would have been let off with a slap on the wrist. I literally can’t believe how blatantly racist the system is -and that no-one is doing anything about it.

*Ok, rant over. Back to the book review…*

It was really interesting to see how working in such a place was incredibly difficult for the staff – something that often gets neglected in such stories. Peterson is understandably frightened at being left in charge of a class of potential criminals who are disinterested in learning – what’s the point when your life will forever be tarnished with a criminal record? The way that she engages with the kids, enlightens them about their options and inspires their creativity is really impressive. However, the anxiety that she has about taking the job, the sheer effort of designing interesting ways to teach the curriculum and the massively long hours (not to mention the incredibly low pay) all take their toll and I really felt for her when she had to make tough decisions about continuing in the role.

It’s a shame that, as a reader, you don’t get to understand more of the back story about the inhabitants of Rikers Island. Understandably, Peterson has to maintain a professional distance but it would have been fascinating to understand what the young men had been through in order to end up where they were. There are certain issues that get alluded to (violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse etc.) but you never get to find out a full back story.

Despite the fascinating subject matter, I also found the storytelling a little clunky. There were parts that went into massive detail and parts which were skimmed over. I thought that with better editing the book could have been really great, but as it was I gave it…

Rating: 3/5
Could have been more engaging with emphasis on the background of the inhabitants and needed editing – but worth a read for a glimpse into the murky world of reform for minors.

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 #19 Read a book in which a character of colour goes on a spiritual journey and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #32 Read a book about an interesting woman.

Review: The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman

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

Oooh, 1970’s New York. That’ll be crime and corruption, disco, rap and punk, the emerging gay scene, social unrest, racism and violence and drugs and gangs and prostitution. What a rich tapestry to pull some threads from, I thought to myself. You could write a brilliant novel in that setting. So I was pretty disappointed when Rowan Coleman chose to pretty much ignore all of those things and instead wrote a fairly bland story about time travel between then and the present day, where the characters mostly hang out in someone’s house.

The story begins with Luna and Pia, two sisters who go back to Brooklyn after the death of their mother to tie up the loose ends of her estate. They find that their mum has posted them a box of films of herself from years ago, telling them the secret which has haunted her for her whole marriage. But – and this is where it gets weird – Luna discovers that she can time travel. At first she thinks she’s having some kind of hallucination but then decides that it’s happening for a reason – and that reason is to stop the events that lead to her mother’s depression. The story then bounces about between the present day and the 1970’s, where Luna gets to know her mum as a young woman and starts to work out who was involved and how to stop it all from happening.

I found this premise pretty ridiculous. Everything else in the book is set completely in the real world so the whole time travel thing came out of nowhere and didn’t really fit into the story well. For example, Luna tells Pia about her newly acquired skill and with very little persuasion and no evidence Pia accepts it. Surely any normal person would be convinced that their sister was ill?

There’s also a love story between Luna and Michael (who she meets in 1970’s Brooklyn). I thought their relationship was very sweet but nothing much happened between them, so I felt the whole thing fell a little flat. I also thought it was a bit far fetched for a couple to fall completely in love with each other when they’d only met a few times.

There’s a further additional side story where we find out that Pia is a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Because this was mostly glossed over I wasn’t sure why it was mentioned within the narrative – I thought that the author could have done a lot more with it (or not mention it at all).

However, the one thing that stood out for me was the character of Luna’ s mother, Riss. I loved how she was depicted as a young girl, full of sass and excitement. It’s just a shame that the other characters weren’t written as vividly as she was.

Overall, I felt that by adding in storylines which the entire novel could have been based on, the narrative became a little confused. To me, it felt like five or six different stories all mashed into the same book, with no room for any of the ideas to be properly explored. I would have loved for the characters to get out more, with better descriptions of Brooklyn in both time periods. I really struggled with the time travelling idea and thought that the situation was dealt with in quite a clumsy manner. However, as the novel progressed the main storyline picked up pace and I was genuinely interested to see how things turned out. It’s just a shame that I had to get two thirds of the way through the book before it really grabbed my attention.

Rating: 2.5/5
Fairly indifferent to the book, the annoying/far fetched elements were balanced out by a decent ending and a well written prominent character.

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 Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #6 Read a book with a season in the title.

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Loveitt by Chelsea Sedoti

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

Wow, so, like, this is like a totally annoying way to write, right? So, like, you probably wouldn’t have the main character of a book, like, totally talk like this, right? Well, not if you’re Chelsea Sedoti.

In fairness, this weird Valley Girl vernacular drops off pretty quickly, but after reading the first few pages of The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Loveitt I really wasn’t sure if I could keep going. I did, and it did get better, but unfortunately there was plenty of other things to get annoyed about.

The book itself is about a girl called Hawthorne, who gets completely hung up on the disappearance of Lizzie Loveitt, a girl she vaguely knows from school. I didn’t understand exactly why Hawthorne got so involved in the case (we’re told she has an active imagination – more on that later – and Lizzie does sound like a very engaging individual) but I don’t get why she got so wrapped up in events. Was it a girl crush? Was it just the excitement of the disappearance? I’m still not sure.

Through Hawthorne’s own investigations, she meets Lizzie’s boyfriend and begins a kind of relationship with him. That might sound all sweet and adorkable but frankly, it was just a bit odd. Normally I’m firmly in the corner of the weirdo’s but as a character, Hawthorne was just too random, even for me. She had the most bizzare ideas about what had happened to Lizzie and seemed to want to convince herself and everyone around her that she had figured things out, even when her solutions were ridiculous and she knew that everyone would laugh at her. I found Hawthorne to be so lacking in rationality that it was impossible to follow her train of thought, which got on my nerves.

Lots of the other characters in the book weren’t really fleshed out properly so it was hard for me to engage with them. Lizzie’s boyfriend, Enzo, was a stereotypical tortured artist type, Hawthorne’s best friend was a stereotypical nerd, her mum was a stereotypical hippie. They all had side stories that didn’t really go anywhere and their relationships with Hawthorne seemed quite flimsy. A chunk of the story was dedicated to some gypsies turning up and camping on Hawthorne’s lawn, but nothing really happened except a couple of conversations where Lizzie was given advice.

Yawn.

As the title of the book suggests, I thought that Hawthorne and Enzo would uncover some exciting/horrifying/salacious information about Lizzie that would add intrigue to the storyline – but – SPOILER ALERT – instead they just discovered that Lizzie had changed a lot since high school and lived a very minimal life. Quite a lot was made of this (Lizzie was empty inside, always changing herself to fit in with others etc.) but really, who hasn’t changed from their high school self? And so what if she had a minimal apartment? I felt a bit cheated by this.

The ending of the book was pretty anti-climatic and after that I thought that the story dragged. Luckily, it ended pretty soon after.

All in all, I didn’t totally hate the book but I couldn’t really engage with the characters or the storyline. The only thing that kept me reading was the certainty that at some point, something would happen…but it kind of didn’t. Perhaps if you’re more of a fan of YA you might get more from the storyline or relate to the characters better, but it just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 2/5

Bland, unremarkable fiction, vaguely annoying characters, no real storyline. Not truly terrible, but not a book I enjoyed or would recommend. 

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 Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #17 Read a book that’s published in 2017.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine…until you scratch the surface of her life and realise that she isn’t. At all.

You see, Eleanor lives a life of pared down efficiency. Her meals are one pot, one plate. Her shoes are smart but comfortable, with Velcro for quick fastening (none of those inefficient shoe laces). Her role as a finance administrator requires analysis and ordering of numbers, which can be broken down into repetitive tasks and scheduled accordingly. All of this means that Eleanor creates minimal fuss and requires minimal interactions with other people. All perfectly FINE, thank you. Until you realise that Eleanor treats vodka like an essential basic grocery and thinks of a pot plant as her one and only friend.

Eleanor struggles with people, and as the book progresses, you start to guess at what might have happened in her childhood to make her so ill equipped to deal with social situations. Apart from having burn scars across her face and body, Eleanor has a very troubling relationship with her mother (Mummy) who she only contacts via telephone for 15 minutes on a Wednesday (and thank God, because this woman is a BITCH). As the book progresses, Eleanor makes some woeful (often hilarious) attempts to make herself more attractive to her crush and through a freak event is forced to spend time with Raymond, who she knows from work. Through this very off-kilter friendship Eleanor begins to accept herself and explore ways in which she can, ultimately, be fine (no capitals).

I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Eleanor was such a great character and although she is clearly odd and her life is terribly sad, the novel is written in such a way that you don’t ever feel that you’re laughing at her, or at least not in a malicious way. There’s so much darkness in the book and Eleanor is such a bullied, broken individual that you immediately want to defend her, but you don’t just like her out of pity, you want her to be your friend because she’s genuinely funny, interesting and kind. When she acts inappropriately you can see it’s because she doesn’t understand social norms and never because she aims to cause offense – but to outsiders I suppose she seems aloof or downright rude. It’s this constant formality and awkwardness that made me empathise so much with Eleanor – you can’t help but be completely on her side. 

The book is very cleverly written and is such a fantastic achievement for a debut author. The surname Oliphant means a monster or monstrous elephant and the full name of Eleanor Oliphant sounds like a play on the word Elephant. I suspect Gail Honeyman wanted us to think of the metaphor “the elephant in the room” which could often be applied to Eleanor – the strange, silent person that, with her pensioner style clothing and scarred face, is completely obvious but no-one wants to acknowledge.

The ending of the book has a fantastic twist that I half guessed at but the sadness of the whole situation really hit me. I loved how Eleanors past was hinted at throughout the novel and that by the end of the book everything had come to light. It certainly kept me guessing right to the end and I would love to know how Eleanor gets on (although I said this after Me Before You and look how After You panned out).

Overall, I loved the character of Eleanor and seeing how she stopped trying to just survive and started trying to live. I loved how what could have been fluffy chick lit was turned into something much more challenging and emotive by offsetting the lighter elements with something far darker. The book is very well written and is perfect reading for this time of year, when the days are still mild but there’s a bit of a nip in the air.

Rating: 8.5/10
Charming, funny and oh-so heartbreaking, a great debut novel from an author to look out for.

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

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: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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Oooh, this is a pretty book. Look at the oh-so-Instagrammable cover! The dust jacket alone was enough to make me want to read it. Luckily enough, the story was pretty good too. Bonus points for looking great on a bookshelf.

Rebel of the Sands is written like a western but set in alternative universe that feels like a magical version of the middle east. The desert setting, real life spirits and mercenary characters add to the Arabian Nights feel to make the premise of the novel totally unique. The story involves Amani, a young girl living in the backwater desert town of Dustwalk. Unaware of her father and with a mother who was killed by the authorities, Amani is a rebellious tomboy whose lightning fast reflexes make her handy with a gun. Her main aim in life is to leave her repressed existence behind by saving enough to get on the first train to the big city – and never look back. When she dresses up as a man to enter the town shooting competition she encounters a mysterious stranger and their unlikely friendship leads to a magical, terrifying and life changing adventure.

I really enjoyed the magical realism in this book. The desert is depicted as a mysterious place where spirits roam free and magic can be practiced by a lucky few. Sometimes I find that in certain books the ratio of magic to realism is too unbalanced and the storyline descends into the ridiculous but in Rebel of the Sands the magical elements were cohesive and weren’t used to simply get characters out of otherwise impossible situations (a pet hate of mine). These supernatural elements were seamlessly woven into the storyline and helped to create a truly evocative story. If you’re old enough to remember the Fry’s Turkish Delight advert then that’s exactly the kind of feel that is created (if you don’t know what I’m on about – Google it).

The storyline was very fast paced and had so many twists and turns that it was hard to guess what was going to happen next. The main character, Amani, had a number of difficult decisions to make, some of which were really heart wrenching. I loved her braveness and ability to beat the men at their own game and I really enjoyed her relationship with Jin, as there was just the right amount of will-they-won’t-they romance to add another interesting angle to the story. There was plenty of action, drama and suspense as Amani and Jim become embroiled in a political war and although it was sometimes hard to keep track of who was on which side their constant ability to evade the authorities kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

The book ended with very little resolved so I’m guessing it’s part of a wider storyline. However, it still had a clearly defined start, middle and end so it could be satisfactorily read as a stand alone – although I definitely want to find out what happens next!

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys suspenseful fantasy, particularly if they find the idea of a fantasy western an intriguing idea.

Overall rating: 7/10

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