‘The Paper Palace’ – Miranda Cowley Heller

The Paper Palace is a book I’ve heard so much about, with so many positive reviews, and though there were parts of it that I enjoyed I would be hesitant to recommend this to people.

The book opens with us learning that Elle has just had sex with her childhood friend Jonas, though their respective families are inside the holiday home they have visited every summer. We don’t know how this came about or why, and I was expecting the story to focus on trying to explain how this even came to pass. It does, but it takes a very long and winding route to take us there.

With no context to this incident it is hard to feel sympathy for the characters. If they have been such close friends for so long I spent most of the book wondering why they’d never discussed their feelings beforehand. What we come to see – eventually – is that they were dealing with a lot of other things that certainly will have impacted on their behaviour.

Elle’s family background is complicated. While I do not want to bury my head in the sand, I found the focus on child abuse that features throughout the book concerning. We see instances of abuse happening in a number of families, yet nobody seems to recognise that is happening and those perpetuating it don’t ever seem to face any consequences for their repulsive behaviour. The detached way in which some of these instances was recounted felt quite authentic, a coping mechanism, but I really struggled to read about these children developing very unhealthy coping strategies.

The split narrative did not help me to feel engaged by the story. It felt elusive, and I found it hard to warm to any of the main characters. Jonas could have spoken up earlier, as could Elle, about their feelings and it is cruel to be toying with the lives/emotions of others – even if they are unaware of it – as they try to work out what to do. The closing stages of the book were, for me, infuriating. Apparently the author said it was clear who Elle chose…perhaps this is a cue for me to reread it again because I genuinely could not fathom out what was going on.

‘Summerwater’ – Sarah Moss

Our setting is a rather dated holiday park in Scotland set on the banks of a loch. A rural retreat, and the holiday destination of choice for a number of families. Beautiful in its own way, but limited in others.

Over the course of one rain-sodden day we are introduced to a number of characters. Each gets their own vignette, and they combine to tell a story that is unremarkable in many ways. From the retired doctor and his wife who’ve been bringing their family here for years, to the younger couple staying in a family lodge as preparation for their move to one of the Scottish islands, the guests are varied. They each share a desire to reflect on their experience and consider its significance.

Moss writes evocative natural description. Some of the inner thoughts of the characters offer more than others, but each develops our understanding of their environment. While this was interesting, it was the unexpected act on which we end that I feel will split readers. There were little clues as to what might happen, but the closing scene was deliberately ambiguous and while I liked this I can see there are others who won’t.

‘Death of a Bookseller’ – Alice Slater

Brogan Roach has been a bookseller since she was sixteen. She works in Spines, a rundown store in Walthamstow. Obsessed with true crime, Roach does not make friends easily. Awkward, prone to obsessive behaviours and not keen to change she is a hard character to like.

As part of a move to try and overhaul the fortune of an ailing store, a team of booksellers are drafted in. Amongst them is Laura Bunting, professional and full of positivity. She writes poetry and seems to have everyone wrapped around her little finger. But she does not like Roach.

The rejection sends Roach into a dangerously obsessive spiral. This is made worse when Roach learns that Laura’s mother was murdered by a serial killer. Determined to get closer to Laura, Roach takes increasingly dangerous steps to try and force a friendship.

Told in alternating viewpoints we see very different perspectives on the fascination with true crime. Neither character endears themselves to us, and there were a number of moments where I wondered quite where this would end up. It didn’t take quite the dark turn I feared it might, but there’s plenty to find unsettling. I liked the setting of the bookstore and some of the discussions around reading behaviours. The ending was interesting, and it certainly offered an unusual way for each to resolve their issues.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me opportunity to read and review this in exchange for offering my honest thoughts.