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!

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

Rating: 5/5

A Thousand Splendid Suns was chosen at my book club recently and although I was excited at such a good pick,  I came to the novel with a sense of trepidation as I adored Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner. I wondered if it would live up to my high expectations.

Well, I needn’t have worried.

A Thousand Splendid Suns has been on my reading list for quite some time now, before I had ever read The Kite Runner. I have fond memories of the book as a friend was reading it a few years ago when a few of us went travelling around Thailand and Cambodia together. I can still remember how gripped she was by the story and how emotional she became during the course of the novel. I just knew I had to read this book. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to finally get around to actually reading it.

“Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the word harami.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women in Afghanistan who have grown up in opposing circumstances. Mariam is an illegitimate child – a harami – a word we discover in the opening sentence and a word that will continue to be significant throughout the course of the novel.

“She understood then what Nana meant, that a harami was an unwanted thing; that she, Mariam, was an illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance.”

Mariam grows up in a simple home and at fifteen she is forced to marry Rasheed, a significantly older man. It is nearly two decades later when her path crosses with Laila, a local teenager who has previously grown up in a more privileged lifestyle. Laila’s circumstances have led to her becoming Rasheed’s second wife, a source of consternation from Mariam.

Slowly the two female characters grow to forge a relationship that becomes as strong as mother and daughter. As they face the brutality unleashed by Rasheed, their lives are also left in fear when the Taliban take over.

This book proved a popular choice at book club and the general consensus was that although it was a harrowing read, the story was beautifully written and taught us all more than we could ever have known about such a world so far removed from our own free society. As I’ve discussed in my previous book review on The Year I Met You, a book that can teach us something is a joy to read.

The beauty of reading is that it can open us up to worlds that are outside of our realm and sometimes it can be the only way to raise awareness of issues, hence why many books have been banned in the past. Fear can be quite an instigator or motivator and perhaps it is the fear of an uprising in the past that led to certain books being banned from the public domain. This only serves to highlight the power of words and the impact they can make.

Hosseini wrote this novel as a reaction to the injustices towards women in Afghanistan. He himself was born in 1965 in Kabul before he and his family received political asylum in the United States in 1980. He is now a US goodwill envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency. His passion for human rights is reflected in the novel, which highlights the oppression of women in Afghanistan and the horrors they are forced to experience. Some of the scenes in the book are horrific but necessary to the story. Having only a mild knowledge of Afghanistan from various media outlets, it was surprising to see how varied the culture could be in one country. Kabul was a world full of female doctors and teachers, a huge contrast to rural Afghanistan where women played a much more subservient role.

The book was first published in 2007, yet it echoes resoundly in today’s current climate with the Syrian refugee crisis and the brutal force of I.S. It is a stark reminder not to ignore the plight of people who are suffering. It might be easy to bury our heads in the sand, but how can change be possible if nothing is done? Even the events in the book are still parallel today with many parts of Afghanistan as well as other parts of the world.

However, the book is not completely despondent. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there is a hint of hope at the end of the novel. While there is great sadness in the story, it is impossible not to be moved by the two female characters, particularly Mariam, a true heroine. The actions she and Laila take are motivated by love and emphasise the strength of the human spirit.

I could go on forever about how much I love this book. It explores so many themes, including love and loss, and deals with important issues. I strongly recommend you read this novel and also explore Hosseini’s other novels.

Is there a book that moved you? Have you read A Thousand Splendid Suns? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and if there’s any books you’d recommend. Get in touch!

The Year I Met You – Cecelia Ahern

Rating: 3/5

So my first book review is The Year I Met You by Cecelia Ahern. I should begin by saying that Cecelia Ahern is my favourite author and I’m not just saying that because she’s a fellow Irishwoman! Honestly though, I won’t be biased…much ha!

The Year I Met You revolves around Jasmine Butler, who has recently been fired. If only if were that simple. Jasmine has been placed on gardening leave for a year, which means she can’t work for anyone else for a whole year. Jasmine has built her entire life around her career and so her change in circumstances comes as quite a shock to the system. The only other focus in her life is her sister Heather and now Jasmine is forced to step outside of her comfort zone and open herself up to new possibilities. Her world soon begins to revolve around her house and garden, which has been sadly neglected, and her neighbours that begin to come in to her life.

Now while the idea of gardening leave might not be so appealing, the prospect didn’t sound that bad to me. If I was getting paid not to work for a whole year, I think I could live with that. I’m sure it would be frustrating not being able to work and being tied to a company, but at least you could take the time to really think about where your future lies. Or am I being too optimistic?

I hate to admit it, but this wouldn’t be one of my favourite Cecelia Ahern novels. I adored P.S. I Love You and her other books, but I’ve always preferred her stories that have a certain magical element to them. Her books based in worlds that are a little out of the ordinary are exactly the kind of stories that I like to read. Unfortunately, I found this book a little slow. Ahern herself describes the book as a gentler story that is quiet and reflective. I can appreciate where she is going with this and I liked the way the story unfolds over a year and the way the seasons are used to reflect the changes in Jasmine’s life. I also enjoyed the way her garden was used to parallel how Jasmine grows as a person.

At times Jasmine is a frustrating character who can be selfish, but ultimately Ahern creates a real and grounded character. We all have flaws and who wants to read about a perfect heroine who can do no wrong? I’d rather get to know a character who makes mistakes but is able to learn from them.

What I also enjoyed about the novel is that it’s not entirely predictable. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just say that the introduction of another main character may suggest the direction that the story is taking, but it actually leads us somewhere completely unexpected.

In all, I enjoyed The Year I Met You and the issues it explores. While sometimes the writing can seem preachy, it serves as educational, particularly with regards to Down’s Syndrome and I always appreciate a book that teaches me something. I could also relate to the character of Jasmine, having been unemployed myself in the past. I willed Jasmine to turn her life around, which ultimately is the aim of the writer. If you can’t invest in the characters that you’re reading about, then how can you expect to carry on with the story?

I’m now looking forward to Ahern’s latest paperback release of The Marble Collector. Have you read it? Are you a Cecelia Ahern fan? Did you enjoy The Year I Met You? I’d love to hear your thoughts and views!