The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey


Rating: 4/5

The Snow Child is a story that takes place in Alaska in the 1920s and focuses on Jack and Mabel, who have undertaken a fresh start in a remote area, after the death of their baby many years previously. When a mysterious young girl starts to appear on their land, they are wonderstruck and begin to let her in to their lives. But will the little girl let them into hers or will she disappear again?

The Snow Child is a book I have wanted to read for many years, yet somehow I have never gotten around to it. When the opportunity came to join a readalong on Bookstagram, I jumped at the chance. I am so glad I have finally read this wonderful story. The harsh Alaskan landscape is depicted through beautiful imagery that doesn’t detract from the brutal cold climate. Ivey has a remarkable way with words and portrays winter in such a wondrous manner that really entices me to visit and explore Alaska. I read this book in January, which was the perfect time of year for this novel. To my delight, snow even arrived while I was reading the book, which enhanced the atmosphere as well as providing some fantastic photo opportunities.

The Snow Child deals with many themes, including love, loss and family. The loss of Jack and Mabel’s baby threatens to fracture their relationship and their struggles to cope in the harsh Alaskan climate continues to have a negative effect, taking a financial toll on the couple. The arrival of the mysterious girl not long after they build a snow child has a positive influence on their lives as they begin to form a family unit. The girl’s appearance certainly has a magical quality and parallels the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka that Mable refers to in the story. Using this story implies the possibility of magic, yet hints at tragic undertones.

In the light of day, her dreams were drained of their nightmarish quality, and they seemed whimsical and strange, but the taste of loss remained in her mouth. It was difficult to focus on her tasks and she often drifted aimlessly through her own mind. A faint memory emerged again and again – her father, a leather-bound fairy tale book, a snow child alive in its pages. She couldn’t clearly recall the story or more than a few of the illustrations, and she began to worry over it, letting her thoughts touch it again and again. If there was such a book, could there be such a child? If an old man and woman conjured a little girl out of the snow and wilderness, what would she be to them? A daughter? A ghost?”

The third part of the novel veers in a surprisingly unexpected direction and I agree with other reviewers that it felt rather rushed. Yet I still adored this book, which gave me a sense of appreciation of life’s conveniences in today’s modern world. At the heart of the story is the love between family and how it can take shape in all forms.

While the book has a fairytale quality, it harks back to the more darker fairytales such as the Grimms fairytales, where its origins lie as apposed to today’s Disney retellings. This creates a sense of realism in the novel and the reader constantly has a sense of dread at what may lay ahead.

I would definitely recommend this beautiful story, especially to read during the winter months. While inspired by fairytales, it feels unique and memorable. I’m just surprised that it hasn’t been adapted into a movie version as the imagery created in the novel is stunning. Perhaps though it is best that it remains just as a novel, without any interference from Hollywood. Some fairytales don’t need to be retold…

 

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

Rating: 3/5

This month I had the pleasure of being featured in Sainsbury’s magazine as part of a book reviewing panel, which was quite exciting! The book I was given to review was Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. The novel revolves around World War II and focuses on three central characters and how their lives are affected as a result. The female protagonist Mary North decides to help the children that Britain would rather forget. Friends Tom Shaw and Alistair Heath take different paths to each other, with Alistair answering the call of duty, while Tom refuses to sign up for a cause that he doesn’t believe in.

“How good it would be to fall in love – how perfectly, anciently new.”

On the surface, the novel appears to be a romanticised version of the war, yet in fact it never fails to shy away from the harsh brutality of war and its aftermath. Some scenes are so sudden and unexpected that they are quite shocking, with some graphic descriptions of the ensuing violence and physical harm caused by the war. Many issues are also explored in this book, including PTSD, race and class. Themes of love, family and friendship are a recurring feature throughout the story. Mary’s friendship with her best friend Hilda is one example of how friendship is used as a device to serve as a point of character growth for Mary, as well as highlighting her foibles.

Despite the book’s serious subject matter, the author does create moments of much needed light humour throughout the story, which enhanced my enjoyment of the novel. While this wouldn’t be my favourite book regarding the war, I found it an enjoyable, easy and poignant read.

“I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime, courage is cheap and clemency out of season.”

Cleave wrote this novel as a tribute to his grandparents. The character of Mary was inspired by his paternal grandmother, Margaret Slater, who drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz, and his maternal grandmother, Mary West, a teacher who ran her own school and kindergarten. Mary and her fiancé David were separated for three years during the war when David served overseas in Malta.

Cleave’s family still have all the correspondence that David sent to Mary and provides excerpts of these at the end of the novel. Unfortunately, they have none of Mary’s, which travelled on a different ship from David’s and were sunk by a U-boat. This was the era of letter writing when people poured their heart and soul onto paper. A letter could take weeks or months to arrive and would mean everything to its sender and recipient. For every letter that David sent, Mary recorded in an exercise book the date it had been posted and arrived, which is featured in the additional excerpts in the novel. Mary also summarised the contents of the letters and her feelings in a separate diary. To see how much Mary cherished her letters demonstrates how important letter writing was during this time period and it is lamentable that letter writing appears to be a dying art form in this age of emails, instant messaging and video chat. The sense of instant gratification has no comparison to a long awaited love letter. Cleave describes his intentions regarding the love letters and those within the novel by saying that ‘I wanted to make that love glow in the letters between my two separated lovers, Mary and Alistair. I wanted those letters to be the bright centrepiece of the novel because it is so terribly brave to fall in love when the world is falling apart’.

Have you read Everyone Brave Is Forgiven? Do you enjoy historical fiction and do you still like to write letters? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

LA LA LAND

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Rating: 3/5

I’m back with my first post of the year! I’ve been sadly neglecting my poor blog recently, but I hope to rectify this with more posts this year, including some film ones at last. Films are my other passion and my aim this year is to review every film I go to see. Hopefully I will be able to review the latest new releases as much as possible, but I also might review a few golden oldies that I come across too.

So my first film review for this blog is the recent Golden Globe winner La La Land. After its astonishing success winning seven awards at the Golden Globes, it looks like a dead cert to pick up a slew of Oscar nominations when the nominees are announced on Tuesday January 24th.

La La Land is directed by Damien Chazelle, whose film Whiplash achieved much success at last year’s Academy Award ceremony. La La Land reunites Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, after previous pairings in Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Here, the couple star as Mia, an aspiring actress, and jazz pianist Sebastian. Initially, the characters take an instant dislike to each other, but it isn’t long before they inevitably fall for each other. The story then focuses on whether they can achieve their dreams, a feat that may test their fledging relationship.

Being a huge fan of musicals, I was eagerly awaiting La La Land. I thought the trailer looked fantastic and I was certain that I was going to adore this movie. Yet somehow, I feel slightly underwhelmed and disappointed with it. In fact, I still can’t quite make up my mind about this film. Perhaps I need a second viewing before I really decide. It’s not often, but sometimes, it can take me a couple of viewings to truly appreciate a film.

There are many elements of La La Land that I loved and I certainly don’t want to detract from the beauty within this movie. It is visually stunning and its dazzling imagery depicts Los Angeles in a positive light, a city that is often accused of being soulless and seedy. The costumes are gorgeous, especially Mia’s wide range of dresses. I had serious wardrobe envy throughout the film!

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling certainly have a sparkling chemistry, although I preferred their pairing in Crazy Stupid Love. Who could forget their recreation of the Dirty Dancing lift?!

“That’s LA. They worship everything and they value nothing.”

Despite the glowing positives, I fear the negatives may outweigh my previous thoughts. While I loved the homage to old Hollywood films, in particular Singin’ in the Rain, this doesn’t quite live up to those classics. I couldn’t help compare it to the most recent musical adaptation of Les Miserables. In that film, the live singing was a brave choice, which resulted in more powerful performances. Here, the lip synching detracts from any emotional impact the characters were trying to convey. While Stone and Gosling give it their all, their vocal abilities seemed limited, highlighted as soon as the talented John Legend performed in the film. Perhaps this was the intention of the filmmakers in order to make the two central protagonists more relatable, but I couldn’t help wondering what more seasoned musical performers could have brought to the roles.

The dance sequences were enjoyable and I couldn’t stop tapping my feet, wishing I could join the characters onscreen. Yet at the same time, the two actors didn’t convey any sense of naturalness in these scenes. These moments in the film felt very much a performance and slightly contrived. In fact, the whole film felt a little too self-aware and self-referential to portray any sense of realism. Surprisingly for a musical, the songs weren’t even that memorable, with only a couple of numbers in particular being a standout for me.

At 128 minutes long, La La Land is quite a lengthy feature and unfortunately it began to drag in the final act. I expected to come out of the screening with a huge smile on my face, but to be honest I was just relieved it was finally over. That might be more to do with me feeling sleepy at that point, though!

I do feel I am being too harsh on this film and I am surprising myself with how negative this review has become. I honestly expected La La Land to become one of my new favourites, but somehow it seemed to be lacking a certain something for me. This feels like such a shame, so I think I will definitely have to revisit it again some time. By then, I might end up falling completely in love with it. Who knows?!

Have you seen La La Land yet? Do you completely disagree with everything I’ve just said? Feel free to comment and tell me why I’m wrong!

The Longest Ride – Nicholas Sparks

Rating: 2/5

The Longest Ride was chosen at my book club recently by a brave new member. To say this isn’t our usual read is an understatement! While I am happy to read anything, some people in the group have quite high standards regarding our reading material, so it was always going to be an interesting book club session. Needless to say, the book didn’t go down very well, although almost everyone was relatively restrained when demonstrating their opinions on the book, for fear of scaring our new member off. However, it didn’t stop one member, who gave one of the most scathing reviews we have ever heard at book club. The poor young chap hasn’t been back since, but hopefully it’s just a coincidence!

Now admittedly, I wouldn’t exactly be rushing to read one of Sparks’ books. There may have been a time when my younger self would have, but after reading The Notebook, I felt deflated. I couldn’t help thinking how much I preferred the film to the book. It’s not often that I prefer the movie to the book, but in this case, the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams really brought the characters to life.

The Longest Ride focuses on two couples – Ira and Ruth and Sophia and Luke. The novel opens with the elderly Ira finding himself trapped in his car after careening off the road. It is there that he starts to see his deceased wife Ruth and their story is then told mainly in flashbacks as they reminisce about how they got together and how their relationship evolves through the years.

In the present day, we are also introduced to Sophia and Luke, who meet some previous few months before Ira’s car crash. Sophia is studying art history at Black Mountain College in North Carolina and Luke is a bullfighter struggling to help keep his family’s farm afloat. The two quickly form a relationship, but Luke is keeping a secret that could threaten everything.

The Longest Ride is typical Sparks fodder. I expected the novel to be cheesy and it was a huge helping of Stilton with a portion of Brie on top! I enjoy the Chick Lit genre, but at least those novels are more realistic and humorous. Perhaps it’s because they are predominantly written by women. Sparks feels like a writer trying to write for women. His characters are just too perfect and the love stories too unrealistic and idealistic. Sparks’ style of writing is romance that is verging into Mills & Boon territory.

However, Sparks does provide obstacles for his characters, which provides some dramatic tension and the book wasn’t entirely predictable. I enjoyed trying to figure out how the two stories related to each other and I liked the setting of the story.  However, I found the Ira/ Ruth story too contrived in the way that they relayed their stories of when they were together. These chapters would have worked much better as proper flashbacks. Instead, Sparks has the two characters telling rather than showing, a style that is usually avoided in writing.

The whole story felt formulaic, but Sparks clearly has a formula that appears to be working, judging by the successful amount of books and movie deals that he has sold. I haven’t seen this current movie adaptation and I won’t be rushing to watch this one, especially after a friend said it was the cheesiest film she’d ever seen. I would imagine that Sparks has probably reached a stage in his career where he knows what works for him and that he could probably produce anything now and it’ll still be a hit with an accompanying movie to follow.

Perhaps I am merely being cynical? What do you think? Are you a Nicholas Sparks fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Revenant – Michael Punke

“Hugh Glass isn’t afraid to die. He’s done it once already.”

Rating: 5/5

Expert tracker Hugh Glass is viciously attacked by a bear and appears to be on death’s door. The two men ordered to stay with him steal his belongings and abandon him in the wilderness. Soon a revived Glass is on a quest for revenge and he will not stop until he succeeds…

The Revenant is the book that inspired the Oscar-winning movie and finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio his well deserved Oscar for his powerful portrayal of Hugh Glass. It is not difficult to see why Leo was drawn to such a role. The character of Glass is one of strength, courage and determination. His character carries most of the film, much of it in silence.

Visually, the film is stunning and has become my favourite movie this year. With this in mind, I did wonder if I would enjoy the book as much, particularly as my sister didn’t really enjoy the novel and gave up early on. Notably, she hadn’t seen the film, so perhaps she might have been more inclined to continue reading if she had.

Normally I prefer to read a book before its film adaptation, but this time it actually enhanced my reading. I was able to recall the beautiful backdrop setting and visualise the different places along Glass’ difficult journey. I’m usually drawn to books with more dialogue, but I remained completely enthralled in Punke’s vivid descriptions of the scenery as well as Glass’ encounters and experiences. Punke’s writing immersed me into the story and I became awed at Glass’ tenacity through such extreme weather conditions, considering the seriousness of his injuries. Punke succeeds in highlighting the horror of Glass’ attack through brutal imagery, which is just as gory as depicted in its film adaptation. It is difficult not to flinch when reading some of the passages in this novel and it is astonishing to read just how strong the human spirit can be when necessary.


The Revenant may be a work of fiction, but the character of Hugh Glass is certainly true. However, some legend has filtered through the history of what happened to Glass. The film has some notable differences that add more dramatic depth to the story, but the novel is still rich in its storytelling. Some of the events in Glass’ life are truly remarkable and the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” comes to mind.

“Revenant – n. one who has returned, as if from the dead.”

Glass is a resourceful and patient character who demonstrates just how much one can survive and endure when their life is at stake. I found myself thinking what I would do if I was in that situation and I’m sure I would give up! Not so Hugh Glass, who soldiers on in order to get his revenge. He proves that anything can be done when you put your mind to it and, when you are truly desperate, you will even resort to eating anything that you can get your hands on. Such sheer circumstances are a true test of what a human being can endure and Glass never gives up.

Although the book may be a harrowing tale, there are some light comedic moments, particularly the camaraderie between some of the characters. The book may be lacking in female characters, but it doesn’t detract from the novel and is simply a reflection of its period setting. The other memorable character is Fitzgerald, who abandons Glass after his attack. Fitzgerald is depicted by Tom Hardy in the film and the character in the novel is just as evil and appears to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He provides an excellent foil to Glass’ character and becomes the main motivation for Glass to keep on living, just to quench his thirst for revenge.

The history in the novel is enthralling and shows just how difficult life could be during such a simple period devoid of today’s comforts. The conflict with the Native Indians is not shied away from in the novel and some of the violence that occurs is horrifying. Despite the heavy source material, I found the novel to be an easy read and even though I may have known most of the story and its outcome, I was still gripped by Glass and his arduous journey of survival and revenge. Quite simply, The Revenant is a must read!

Have you read The Revenant? Have you seen the film? How do you feel they compare? Do you prefer to read the book first before a movie adaptation? Let me know what you think!

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Rating: 4/5

I’ve been extremely excited to read this debut novel by Lisa McInerney, having known her briefly through one of my best friends during our student days in Cork City many moons ago. It is fantastic to see someone from home doing so well and Lisa has received rave reviews for her novel, which has recently won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction 2016.

The Glorious Heresies is set in Cork City and revolves around a multitude of shady characters who interconnect through various dark circumstances. The opening of the novel sets the bleak tone of the story with the killing of a man by fifty nine year old Maureen, who arranges for her son Jimmy to sort out her unfortunate predicament. Being the most feared gangster in Cork City, Jimmy has no shortage of henchmen to do his dirty work for him. He quickly finds someone willing to clean up Maureen’s mess and this leads to a sequence of events that changes many of the characters’ lives forever.

Jimmy’s childhood friend Tony, father of six children and an alcoholic, comes to Jimmy’s assistance, being in desperate need of the money. Tony’s teenage son is already dipping his toes into the gangland world. Of course, things don’t always go to plan, especially when Georgie, the girlfriend of the dead man, starts to question why her boyfriend has vanished.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about this book on my initial reading. The novel is so dark and depressing and portrays a side of Cork City that I’m relieved to say I have never witnessed. However, I soon became immersed in the gritty underworld of gangland Cork and was intrigued to see where the story would take these characters. There is an inevitable feeling that nothing bodes well for any of these characters and many of their actions lead them down a dark path.

This is not a book for the fainthearted. Drugs, murder, prostitution, violence, sex and coarse language feature predominantly throughout the novel. However, this serves to accurately portray the harsh realism of the criminal underworld. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, I became drawn to the people in the story and willed characters such as Ryan and Georgie to turn their lives around and move on from the sort of lifestyles that were dragging them down. The novel is realistic in the way it shows how difficult it is to break the cycle and escape from that sort of environment.

Despite the bleak tone of the novel, it has moments of witty humour and glimmers of hope for certain characters. It is certainly different from anything I’ve read before and I’m excited to see what Lisa McInerney does next. Long may her well deserved success continue.

Have you read The Glorious Heresies? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Muse – Jessie Burton

 

 

“A picture hides a thousand words…”

Rating: 5/5

I recently had the pleasure of attending a book event celebrating the release of Jessie Burton’s second novel The Muse. This was organised by the local book shop in my area that runs the book club that I attend every month. Having loved The Miniaturist, I was excited to get my hands on a copy of Burton’s new book, which has the most stunning cover. The best part of the event was getting to meet Jessie herself and having my copy signed.

Burton did not disappoint during her book talk. She was charming, witty, self-deprecating and an exquisitely articulate speaker. Her years spent as an actress shone through during her readings of excerpts from her novel and enhanced the characters that she brought to life. It was interesting to hear Burton admit that it was a struggle to fit in writing The Muse along with the gruelling book tour that she undertook worldwide to capitalise on the astonishing success of her debut novel. Sometimes it is easy to imagine successful people living a life of luxury when the reality is that they continue to work hard in order to remain a success.

Like its predecessor, The Muse is another period drama and takes place over two timelines – London, 1967 and rural Spain, 1936. London introduces us to Odelle Bastien, a Trinidad immigrant who is offered a job as a typist for the mysterious Marjorie Quick. In 1936, Olive Schloss harbours secret ambitions, and soon becomes drawn to artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa. The pair quickly incorporate themselves into the Schloss family, a move that has life-changing consequences. What connects these two storylines together may lie in the discovery of a lost masterpiece…

The Muse is an intriguing tale that explores themes of identity and aspiration in a world of creativity and art. I raced through the novel in order to unlock the mystery that connected the two storylines. I was somewhat on the right track, but I still didn’t really guess the surprises that unfolded. This book has some great twists that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.

The central female characters in each timeline mirror each other significantly. Odelle and Olive are both creative and ambitious yet hide their talents away, although there are hints of wishing for success that they both play down. Despite being decades apart storywise, the women are both of a time where female success was still a rarity and something that could still be oppressed. I could certainly relate to the character of Odelle in the way that she was afraid to put her writing out into the world. I can understand her fear of rejection all too well!

In contrast, the character of Marjorie Quick is a vibrant yet enigmatic figure. Creating a commanding presence as soon as she enters a room, Quick takes Odelle under her wing and encourages her to unleash her potential. Quick is a formidable character to be reckoned with and livens up Odelle’s world for the better.

The novel explores issues of race and politics in the different worlds of London and Spain. London is going through a period of change and becoming a more interracial, multicultural and progressive society yet hints of racism are scattered throughout the novel. Meanwhile, simmering tensions are played out to the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War as Olive becomes tangled up in Isaac’s ideologies and revolts. Burton creates a sensual atmosphere brought to life with surreal vivid imagery and colours through Olive’s paintings and the stunning Spanish scenery. The complicated Schloss family are full of mysteries and secrets and the reader can sense the explosion that is certain to be unleashed before the story ends.

“It had a new form of surreality Olive had never executed before. For all its grounded colours on the fields – ochres and grasshopper-greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns – there was something other-worldly about the scene. The sky was a boon of promise. The fields were a cornucopia of cereal crops and apples, olives and oranges. The orchard was so lush you might call it a jungle, and the empty fountain had turned into a living spring, the satyr’s canton now gushing full of water. The finca rose up like a welcoming palace, her father’s house with many mansions, its windows huge and open to her gaze. The brush strokes were loose, and colour dominated technical accuracy.”

This book is so gloriously addictive that I almost felt sad that it had to end. I could easily go back and read it again. As I think about what kind of film this would make, Burton has just announced that The Miniaturist is being adapted for television by the BBC. I cannot wait! The Miniaturist was another beautiful and intriguing tale, which was chosen for our book club and succeeded in having the highest ever attendance that night, a testament to the success that Burton has achieved.

Burton has now come to the end of her two book deal, which she admitted at the book event has been quite a relief. She is now turning her hand to children’s books in conjunction with an illustrator. I look forward to seeing what she produces in this guise and I’m certain that she will be just as successful.

Have you read either of Jessie Burton’s books? Have you been lucky enough to meet her? Let me know!

 

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Rating: 3/5

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante was another recent book club read and was suggested by the owner of the bookshop that hosts our book club. Apparently, it had been well received at another book club. Unfortunately, our book group was not so kind, I’m afraid. The book generally did not go down very well at all!

One of the most interesting facts regarding this novel and its author is that Elena Ferrante is actually a pseudonym. The true author wishes to remain anonymous, despite rumours surrounding certain names that are believed to be the real novelist.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book of a four part series described as the Neapolitan Novels. The story originates in Naples, Italy and despite the owner’s anonymity, the series has been a worldwide success. I found this incredible, particularly when we consider society today and its social media obsessed culture.

The story revolves around the friendship between Elena and Lila, which is revealed to the reader through flashbacks from the narrative perspective of Elena. Book One introduces an elderly Elena, who receives a call from Lila’s son to say that she has disappeared. The story then returns to the past when the girls are six years old and continues until their teens.

This was an interesting one for me. While I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it particularly, I found myself intrigued by the girls’ friendship and I was compelled to keep reading. Although it was an easy read, it was clumsily translated, a point that brought about much discussion at book club. The bad translation often took me out of the story and so it became quite a distraction. Perhaps reading in its native language would have been a better experience. If only I knew more Italian and not just a few basic phrases!

The style of writing irritated many in my book group and the question came up regarding how the book managed to receive so much critical praise. Its success and critical acclaim surprised us all. Is there something that we are missing?

Another source of contention in the book group was the vast number of characters in the novel. The book even provides a directory at the beginning of the novel to inform the reader of all the various families and the nicknames used for certain characters, some of whom have two or three different names. In addition to this, some character names sounded so alike that it became confusing trying to remember who was who, for example, Antonio and Alfonso. Is this merely our ignorance of a different culture or is it simply a case of too many characters?

However, I did mention that I was drawn in by the central friendship, which was quite a toxic affair. Themes of jealousy, loyalty and education were demonstrated through the girls’ competitiveness. At times, it became frustrating the way that Elena was influenced by Lila, who had quite a nasty streak. Elena herself wasn’t exactly a likeable character either and this was evident in her resentment of Lila and her satisfaction whenever she was more successful than her supposed best friend. The way this carried on throughout the novel almost felt excessive and exaggerated at times and I constantly willed one of them to break the cycle. There were moments of independence which brought a welcome change to the pace of the narration, but ultimately the characters are drawn back to old habits.

The novel does raise many questions about friendship. Can you ever break free from your best friend if you really want to? Do you ever wonder why you are (or still are) friends with someone? Do you have a healthy relationship with your best friend?

The novel definitely brought back memories of primary and secondary school. One day you’re best friends with someone and then the next day they decide they want to be best friends with someone else and there’s no room for you anymore. Another scenario is when a new friend is brought into the mix, which often changes the friendship dynamic.

This led me to question adult friendships. We change so much throughout our lifetime that the idea of remaining best friends with your childhood friend is almost a quaint notion these days, especially when people travel and move around so much now. I can actually consider myself really lucky to still be close friends with someone since we’ve been babies, which almost feels like quite a remarkable feat after over three decades! While we’ve often been separated by oceans, continents and time, our friendship has never faltered and we always pick up right where we left off as if we’ve never been a day apart. I can’t help thinking of other friendships that have been lost, not out of malice, but through a lack of contact or location and although it makes me sad, sometimes that’s just the way life happens.

I do look at certain friendships around me and I find myself wondering why some people are still friends when they make each other unhappy, but female friendship can be a complex affair. If only it could be as simple as a relationship breakup, which in itself isn’t even that simple. Can you really break up with your best friend? Perhaps the direct and honest approach used in our childhood could be adapted to our adult lives? Are we capable of moving on and letting go so easily?

These are just some of the questions that were raised for me when reading this novel. I was disappointed not to get more of a sense of place when reading the book, considering it was set in such a beautiful country as Italy. I did get a strong indication of the violence in Naples, though.

The novel certainly explores an interesting subject, although our book group was surprised to hear that the book was being sought out by men to study female friendships. It definitely isn’t the best example to be studying! There are much more positive and inspiring books to read on the relationships between women, such as The Help, for example.

There were also a couple of neat twists in the novel, which I won’t ruin. The annoying part is that it’s not a complete story and I’m not so sure that I would rush to read the other three books!

Have you read all of the Neopolitan Novels collection? Have you managed to get through My Brilliant Friend? I’d love to know if the rest of the series is worth reading, so please do get in touch.

Black-Eyed Susans – Julia Heaberlin

Rating: 4/5

Tessa is a survivor. Having being captured and left with three other girls in a grave surrounded by Black-eyed Susans, her testimony sends her captor to await death row.

Sixteen years later, he is awaiting execution and Tessa begins to wonder if maybe she sent an innocent man to jail. Someone is planting Black-eyed Susans outside her window and a lawyer insists that the wrong man has been convicted. Realising that the real killer could still be out there, Tessa is forced to confront her past to unlock the mystery of who really captured her all those years ago.

“I am the star of screaming headlines and campfire ghost stories.

I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans.

The lucky one.”

Black-Eyed Susans is a gripping thriller that I read in days. The novel unfolds in two parts – the present day Tessa and her teenage self Tessie just after surviving her attack. I don’t want to give anything away but it was interesting trying to piece the puzzle together and seeing how the two timelines connected. I kept looking for clues that may or may not have been there and I was sort of in the right direction when it came to guessing the mystery, but I still didn’t figure it all out. In fact, I purposefully tried not to think about it too much as sometimes I think it ruins the enjoyment of a story. As much as I loved Gone Girl, it was slightly disappointing to have guessed the twist so easily. Oh and not that anybody believes me, but five minutes into The Sixth Sense I saw the twist coming a mile away!

Black-Eyed Susans is the latest in a long line of thrillers that have dominated the charts, a trend that seems to have started with the aforementioned Gone Girl. A review on the blurb of the book describes it as Grip Lit, highlighting the genre’s current influence. The term almost seems dismissive though, in a way that is similar to how Chick Lit is used to describe commercial women’s fiction, almost like it’s a dirty word. I’m a fan of most genres and I hate snobbish attitudes towards books, which often happens once something is a success. Perhaps it’s a case of just plain old jealousy?

Black-Eyed Susans is an enjoyable original thriller and for once there’s no girl in the title! The novel makes quite a statement on race and the death penalty. It is disturbing the amount of innocent men who have been unlawfully convicted because of the colour of their skin. The novel didn’t shy away from these injustices and highlights the flaws in the American justice system. It’s hard to know where to stand on the issue. Is an eye for an eye acceptable or do two wrongs simply not make a right?

The novel also explores the advances of science and DNA. These progressive measures are crucial in ensuring the correct person is convicted of a crime and it was a revelation to discover just how much information can be gleaned from a body’s bones and teeth. Teeth enamel absorbs dust and the type of dust can indicate where the deceased grew up. Residue from gases can cling to soil and soak into bones. Specifically, rib bones can show a person’s residency for the last eight to ten years of life as ribs are constantly growing and absorbing the environment. Information like this is always exciting to learn and I always enjoy discovering something new, especially when it comes to crime investigations. Often a book can provide us with knowledge that we may never have discovered.

Overall, I enjoyed Black-Eyed Susans. Tessa was a strong independent character, despite everything she had been through. I loved her relationship with her daughter Charlie and I enjoyed seeing what began to develop between Tessa and the lawyer Bill. I do find myself wondering if this will be the latest novel to be turned into a film. I guess time will tell.

Have you read Black-Eyed Susans? Did you enjoy it? Or is the crime genre too grim for you? Let me know what you think!

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

Rating: 3/5

It’s impossible to review Dark Places without mentioning Gillian Flynn’s astonishingly successful novel Gone Girl. Who hasn’t heard of Gone Girl by now? It’s spawned a run of thrillers with a twist and the movie tie in that followed was a critical and commercial success.

With this in mind, it was difficult to start Dark Places without hoping for another Gone Girl. In retrospect, it doesn’t disappoint yet it doesn’t quite live up to what was perhaps my too high expectations.

Dark Places is one of Flynn’s novels that was published before Gone Girl and has recently come into the public eye again with the inevitable release of an accompanying movie. The film feels to me like a rush release to cash in on the success of its predecessor and perhaps this is why it has failed to live up to the hype. Then again, was there even any hype? Being a keen film buff, I wasn’t even aware of the movie being made and was surprised to find out about its theatrical release. The film appeared to come out to little press or media attention. Poor reviews followed and it seemed to disappear quietly after even poorer box office takings, despite an impressive cast that included Charlize Theron and Christina Hendricks. I have yet to see the film and I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to watch it now after reading the novel.

Home is where the lies are…

The story revolves around Libby Day, who is just seven years old when her family is brutally murdered. Her testimony puts her fifteen year old brother Ben in jail. The novel opens in the present day when Libby is contacted by a group who believe that Ben is innocent. The group persuade Libby to reinvestigate Ben’s case and the events surrounding her family’s deaths.

The title Dark Places is apt. Everything about this story is dark – the setting, the visual imagery, the themes and the characters. In fact, it’s hard to describe this novel as an enjoyable read, particularly because of some of the more violent aspects of the book. It’s difficult to mention too much without giving anything away, but murder and Satanic rituals are central aspects to the story. I’m not normally squeamish and I watch plenty of gory television shows and films, but some of the more disturbing scenes were described so vividly that it almost turned my stomach. This makes me question just how graphic the film might be and so I’m not rushing to see it just yet.

The novel unfolds as a mystery as two timelines run parallel with each other – the present day and the fateful day of the murders. Sometimes flashbacks and conflicting timelines can be confusing in novels, but here the timelines are straightforward and didn’t take me out of the story. The novel also explores other characters’ perspectives which tells us more about the mysteries within the story. The contrasting timelines actually worked really well together and offer a glimpse of how different things could have been for the characters if they had made other decisions and also provides an insight into the woman Libby has become in the present day. This highlights the central premise of how one action can alter the course of someone’s life and how you live with those consequences.

There is an element of sadness in the story as the characters’ circumstances are so devastating. Poverty and debt are huge issues raised in the novel and lead to many desperate acts. Could the matriarchal figure Patty Day be described as a victim of circumstances or just plain weak? There is a certain amount of despair for the Day family and the novel raises questions about just how far one might go to protect or even betray family as well as exploring issues of forgiveness.

I wouldn’t describe any of the characters in the novel as particularly likeable, but that’s what makes a character so compelling. Nice can be overrated. One of the most fascinating characters ever created is Hannibal Lecter and Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar winning cinematic portrayal was well deserved, although the less said about the risible sequel, the better. The character of Diondra in the novel is a vicious vile person, but such a strong character provides much of the conflict in the story.

Overall, Dark Places is an interesting read. I enjoyed the quirky Kill Club and reading about farming amidst the Kansas setting. If you don’t mind gory violence and coarse language and you like a good mystery, then Dark Places is worth reading.

If you’ve read the book, let me know what you think. Have you seen the film and how does it compare to Gone Girl? Have you read any of Flynn’s other novels? I’d love to hear your opinion. Get in touch!