‘Pretending’ – Holly Bourne

Holly Bourne’s latest takes some familiar themes in this but with our focus very much on adult characters some of the issues are a little more triggering.

Alice, our main character, is definitely a character you will come to understand – whatever you actually think about her. Her work for a support charity means she is regularly seeing the worst of people. She, herself, has been raped by an ex-boyfriend and it’s evident that her experience continues to impact upon her. Alice is fed up with boyfriends lasting a few dates and then dumping her because she doesn’t measure up to their expectations. She wants to be loved for herself, and so comes up with a plan.

Determined to make men pay for their privilege, Alice decides she is going to act in the way she believes men will find appealing. She becomes a different person – Gretel – a woman who knows what she wants and is not going to pretend to be something else in order token other people happy. It seems to be an act of disassociation and when Alice comes up with the idea I felt quite angry – not that she had to do it, but because she’s making the same assumptions she is criticising others for making.

Perhaps inevitably, she ends up meeting Joshua, and as their dates progress things seem positive – but he thinks he’s with a confident young woman called Gretel. How can things work out when they’ve started on such a strange footing?

I received an ARC of this from NetGalley and formatting issues definitely impacted on my enjoyment of this. There were random sections of text that appeared, empty pages and – on occasion – pages that didn’t seem connected to what I’d just read. They didn’t (I think) drastically affect my reading but it didn’t help my ability to engage with the character.

‘The Authenticity Project’ – Clare Pooley

Sometimes you just need a book to take you out of your daily routine, to offer a glimpse of something else, and The Authenticity Project definitely does that.

The book focuses on an unusual group of characters living in London, brought together by a rather interesting project. We have artist Julian, cafe owner Monica, addict Hazard, Australian traveller Riley, an Instagram influencer and a number of other characters. They are brought together by Julian’s attempts to be honest and reveal a little of himself to others.

Like a number of readers, the core group established at the start of the book are the ones we get more invested in. While the premise itself may be most unlikely, the sentiments explored are going to resonate with many. In such busy times it’s all too easy to lose sight of our connections with those around us, and the book shows what can happen if we take time to open ourselves to new experiences and take a risk.

As you might expect, things are not always quite what they seem. I was not entirely surprised by the twist regarding Julian, but I did feel a little sentimental by the closing scene.

A huge thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘The Guest List’ – Lydia Foley

Will Slater, TV star of a survival show, is due to marry Jules Keegan on a remote Irish island. The two look perfect together, and Jules is – with the help of her sister, best friend and the wedding planner – determined to make this day special.

We start by being introduced to the dramatic moment when a body is discovered on the night of the wedding. We’re not told who, and I assumed it would be a fairly straight-forward ‘whodunnit’.

Immediately after this dramatic announcement we are introduced to some of the key characters of the story. As we learn a little more about each character we realise that many of them are harbouring secrets, and we do realise that a number of characters have good reason to want Will dead.

As the story progresses it was fascinating to see the menace such an isolated setting could generate. The cast of characters were flawed in many ways, and yet it was not until quite late on that we actually got answers as to how certain stories and events linked.

While the story was told in a way that kept you guessing I can’t help but feel that the ending all got wrapped up just a little too quickly.

 

‘The Virgin Suicides’ – Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides was one of those reads that had me fully engaged throughout, though now I’ve finished it I feel none the wiser about what I’ve read.

My first impression stems from the fact that the narrator is very hard to fathom. At times one voice; at others, a voice speaking as representative of many. It’s evident that the narrator is a male, someone on the periphery of these events and watching in fascination as the story unfolds – even involved to a small degree – but never really coming to any awareness of the story they are watching.

Our narrator, like so many of those around him, is obsessed with the Lisbon family. We begin with the story of Cecilia, the youngest sister, who after a failed attempt to kill herself leaves a rather macabre party and throws herself onto their fence. We don’t know why, and we get very little sense of how this event impacts those left behind.

Following the narrator through their recollections of the neighbourhood memories of the family meant I always felt quite detached from the events described. The description of the decline in the family home and their personal appearance, as well as the behaviours exhibited, all indicate extreme reactions to a traumatic event. I felt saddened that a family in such turmoil were, effectively, abandoned as nobody knew how to break through the barriers they’d imposed on themselves.

It came as little surprise to see the gradual unfolding of the lives of the remaining family members. There was a grim resignation to this, but it all felt avoidable.
While this confused me and has left me rather uncomfortable, I am curious to read more by this author.

 

‘American Dirt’ – Jeanine Cummins

This is a book that you will have heard about – either because of it being talked about as a must-read of 2020, or because of the almighty stink kicked up because the author is white and writing about the experience of Mexican immigrants. So many reviews focus on the slating of the author and the publishers for allowing a woman of assumed privilege to make money from an experience she has no first-hand knowledge of. I’ve read numerous reviews commenting that money should be given to people of the appropriate ethnic background to tell their stories, and we should not be supporting this book. Like other situations, a first-hand narrative is often going to have a rawness to it that you cannot ever hope to emulate, but why on earth would we be so short-sighted as to proclaim that if this cannot happen the stories should not be told?

I don’t think this is a question that has an easy answer, so I read the book in spite of some misgivings.

The story focuses on the tale of Lydia and her young son, Luca. Lydia is a bookseller and her husband was a journalist. They lived a relatively comfortable life in Mexico, but the growing violence surrounding them is hard to ignore. Lydia’s husband writes a piece on a local leader of a cartel (the same man that Lydia has befriended as he is a regular visitor to her bookstore) growing in significance and reach. As a result, sixteen members of the family are massacred as they gather in their home. Our first meeting with Lydia is as she takes shelter with her terrified son in a shower stall, desperately hoping that the gunmen will not find them.

Now, I cannot ever begin to fathom how this experience would affect you. It is – I would hope – never going to be a situation I will find myself in. As such, I couldn’t begin to comment on how truthful this story is or how accurately the writer depicts the subsequent attempt of Lydia to journey thousands of miles with her son to try and escape the threat they are now under and attempt to get to the safety of America.

What I can say, without a doubt, is that the story we are given as we follow Lydia is told in a way that encourages you to consider the situation of not just Lydia but all the characters she encounters. There’s so much highlighted that is wrong with the current system, but in spite of this we see humanity at both its best and worst. We are never quite sure whether Lydia will be safe or not, and the risks she has to take as she tries to protect herself and her son are monumental. She has to make split second decisions that go against everything she has considered normal.

While I cannot hope to add anything to the debate surrounding the publication of this, I do feel it tells a story that will give a brief glimpse into a very unpleasant aspect of our world today. It might not be quite the story many would like, but if it opens the way to more such stories I cannot help but feel it’s a good thing.

 

‘One True Loves’ – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Having read two more recent books by Taylor Jenkins Reid, I was surprised at how different this was. A love story, but not quite what I expected.

Emma Blair always fought against the expectations for her: to manage her parents’ book shop and to stay in her home town. When she ends up dating Jesse, the young man she had a crush on for years, he brings out a side to her that encourages her to do things differently. They are happy together. They travel and enjoy planning for their future. Then, a day before their first anniversary, Jesse takes a flight and we learn his helicopter crashed. He is presumed dead.

We learn that Emma fell apart after this revelation. She, slowly, learned to accept that Jesse was gone and found ways to think of him fondly but also to make changes to her life. She ends up moving back to her hometown, where she starts running the book store and becomes closer to her sister. She is about to marry Sam, a childhood friend who we know has always loved her. Then comes the revelation that Jesse has been found.

I cannot even begin to imagine how this kind of thing would turn your world upside down. How do you come to terms with learning that the love of your life is not dead…and that you have fallen in love with someone else and it’s okay?
The situation is unbelievably tough to imagine. The characters each have things about them that are not particularly appealing, but it was interesting to see how each of them reconciles their past thoughts of each other with the present reality.

Definitely not one to read if you’re feeling remotely wobbly, but it was a great read.

 

‘City of the Lost’ – Kelley Armstrong

A highly entertaining, if somewhat unusual, read.

Casey made some poor choices when she was younger. She suffered a brutal attack when her boyfriend was threatened for selling drugs on someone else’s turf. Abandoned by her boyfriend Casey endures an awful assault. Eventually she gets her own back and kills a man.

The guilt over her actions never goes away, even though she trains as a detective. Her best friend, Diane, has been with her throughout and has her own problems…an abusive ex. When things get too uncomfortable, plans are made to escape to a place few know about. A place where people can start afresh. A place where everyone is hiding something. Rockton.

Casey is there as a new detective. She’s not sure why she’s needed and then learns there’s been a number of unexplained deaths. Body parts found, and signs that someone dangerous is causing problems. Having thought she was finding a safe place, Casey starts to think Rockton is a lot more serious.

The story started quickly and there’s plenty of action. We get lots of characters who we dig into and learn about. There’s a mysterious group in charge who definitely know more about some disreputable situations than they ought to. And there’s a romance, of sorts, as Casey grows closer to someone who’s got their own reasons for wanting Rockton kept safe.

 

‘Autoboyography’ – Christina Lauren

I knew very little about this book before picking it up, but I am so pleased that I did.
Our main character is Tanner, a young boy who identifies as bisexual. He is out to his parents, who are supportive and honest with him in such a way that felt like this book should be a call to all parents to read, regardless of their child’s sexuality. His father is Jewish and his mother has had a difficult time, cut off from her Mormon family for supporting her sister when she came out. That family background is crucial to know for this story, as it definitely plays a huge part in how they treat Tanner.
The family have moved to a small town, mostly Mormon, and Tanner has opted to keep quiet about his sexuality. His best friend, Autumn, doesn’t know this pretty important detail about him and he imagines things will tick along until the time he leaves for college…
Then he and Autumn sign up for an elective that involves writing a novel. There’s a student who took the course the previous year who is about to have his book published and who is going to act as a support teacher during the course. The young man concerned, Sebastian Brother, is the son of the local bishop. His life is pretty much set out for him…so, it’s an inevitable complication when Tanner falls for him.
What follows is a time-old story – two people trying to work out how they feel about each other – but the back-drop of the religious background of the characters and the link to the novel-writing process makes this a little more interesting.
I veered from laughing at the cuteness of Tanner and Sebastian as they find the courage to act on their feelings for each other to almost crying at the complications they faced. Throughout, I was struck by the maturity that these characters showed – can’t imagine anyone being so clued-up at that age. Yet there was an underlying bitter-sweet feeling as the shadow of Sebastian’s struggle with his religion never went away.
This was not a book I’d heard much about prior to reading and that feels such a shame as it had such a positive feel to it. It created such a range of emotions, and there was a real honesty to the characters/their experience that I couldn’t help but fall for.

 

‘Love and Other Words’ – Christina Lauren

I don’t know if I really believe in the kind of all-consuming romance that our main characters, Elliot and Macy have. From the time they first meet it seems pretty obvious that they are closer than your average boy/girl pairing. We don’t find out for a long time why they’re not together, but we get to see them re-acquainted eleven years in the future. Things are the same between them, but there’s clearly something big they need to get over.

Told in alternating timeframes we slowly get to see the significance of this relationship.

As a way of forging a new life once his partner dies, Macy’s dad decides to buy them a second home. When they go to look at the house, Macy is shocked to see the boy next door curled up in one of the rooms reading. Rather than being freaked out by this rather odd experience, Macy sees it as a signal to begin what she clearly regards as the most honest friendship she has.

Over time Macy and Elliot realise that their closeness is not just a sign of friendship. We see them take the tentative steps towards lovers…but still no closer in the present to knowing why things went so wrong.

In the present, Macy is living a rather soulless existence. She is engaged but when she sees Elliot in a local coffee shop it’s clear that this is not going to end as she expects. Within a very short space of time the fiancé is despatched and the lack of emotion surrounding this gave one explanation for him seeming such a cardboard character.

I was expecting this to be a story of their romance. It was, but it was also a story of the little details of their lives that led to them not speaking for eleven years.
Perhaps in the real world you’d move on from such an experience. Perhaps in the real world you’d recall this relationship fondly but I cannot see you willingly turning everything upside down on the off-chance that things might still be what they were. Thankfully, this is the book world where we’re not ruled by our heads…

 

‘Queenie’ – Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie was a book I’d heard a lot about, though nobody I know seems to have read it. It’s being touted as Bridget Jones meets Americanah. I disliked Bridget Jones intensely, and have never heard of Americanah so it was with some trepidation that I picked this up.

Initially I found it quite hard to warm to Queenie. She’s loud, brash at times, would be incredibly frustrating to work with and is definitely used to using sex to gloss over potential issues. I found myself virtually screaming at the page at her inability to seem to talk to her boyfriend or manage to present herself in a focused way at work. It was like watching an overgrown teenager wandering round, complaining that nobody understood them, putting themselves in stupid situations and then being surprised when someone took advantage of them.

Quite early on we learn that Queenie is dumped by her boyfriend. As she recounts some of her ‘fond’ memories of him I found myself thinking he came from a fairly prejudiced background, was spineless beyond belief and thinking that the pair of them should never have got together in the first place. Once she’s moved into shared accommodation Queenie seems to hit the rapid self-destruct button.

She lurches from one abusive sexual encounter to another. Most of her experiences – whether it’s the sex itself or the people who mop up afterwards – show what could best be described as a complicit attitude to the racism and prejudice that is referenced.

At a point quite early on I considered not reading on. Then we got some snippets of information about Queenie’s past experiences. We are given indicators that she is manipulated in certain situations. And we meet her grandparents…this was enough to make me stick with it.

As we see Queenie get to a pretty low point and then watch her start to confront some of her demons I came to almost like her. Intensely frustrating, very high-maintenance but disarmingly candid and very warm-hearted. Queenie’s past with her mother and Roy went some way to explaining some of her attitudes/behaviours. The exploration of her mental health and steps she takes to move forward were important. She’s not going to be a character many would admire from the outset, but her grit makes her quite unforgettable.