‘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 Boneless Mercies’ – April Genevieve Tuchoike

A fantasy that has echoes of Beowulf and set in a world that seemed familiar, yet also unnatural.

We follow a group of four called The Boneless Mercies. Frey, our narrator, is their leader and as they travel we learn how the four (Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa) come together. We watch their journey across a strange and troubled land, bringing death to those who pay for it. It is a harsh and brutal living, but there is compassion in these women as they fulfil their service to those that live”
Frey is determined to end their way of life, and she dreams of doing something heroic. Hoping to follow in the footsteps of the heroes of the old stories, Frey leads her group on a journey to kill an unstoppable monster.

Along the way she is part of a plot to restart a witch war. She is tasked with killing a young witch queen. She thus learns of a secret that might prove useful and then, as we’d hope, gets her battle with the monster.

While the story is described in one way I felt this led to rather unfair expectations. The women are brave and do fight, but they are not fearless. They have compassion in spite of the death they bring. They deliver what they promised, but it has the slightly unreal feeling of being simply part of a bigger story that we are not yet ready to be told.

 

‘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.

 

‘House of Earth and Blood’ – Sarah J. Maas

CHAPTERS 1-5 ONLY (NetGalley Extract)

We’re introduced to Bryce and her world is, to put it bluntly, chaotic. A clear attempt to bring in an older audience, but the story will be what really makes it work. Hints of an intriguing world, though we’re not given a lot of detail here. What we do get, however, is a definite setting-up of a story to capture our interest…who is behind this attack? Why Bryce? Will she survive this?
Thanks to NetGalley for the sneak peek…thank goodness I don’t need to wait too long for the release of the book itself.

HAVING FINALLY MANAGED TO READ THE FULL NINETY-SOMETHING CHAPTERS…

I got a little caught up in the hype at this foray into adult literature. I started in earnest…and then I have to admit to struggling.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why this was so hard to get into, but I really felt like I might not finish it at certain points. And that feeling continued for over thirty chapters – which is just too long to expect a reader to stick with you in the expectation that it’s going to get better. I did…and put my trust in reading buddies who pretty much unanimously voiced the view that it was worth sticking with. To them, thanks, as left to my own devices I probably would have bottled this.
The character of Bryce (part-human child of the Autumn King) is flawed, but you root for her from the beginning, and the dynamics of her various relationships hint at some intriguing developments. There’s plenty of background info given and the world-building is established as we read. We get lots of suggestions about shifting power alliances and past events are clearly going to have bearing on what we see/will see. From the outset we are clear that a range of groups have a vested interest in the events depicted…and we are somewhat in the dark as we try to piece together quite how everything fits.
To cut a very long story short, this book focuses us on a hunt for a long-lost Fae relic. As the search takes place, we have a side-story of what exactly led to the deaths of Bryce’s friends at the start. There’s the drawn-out relationship problem, this time featuring Bryce and Hunt. For those familiar with Maas’s writing the relationship is a prickly one, with both parties damaged in some way; a lot of teasing and sexual tension; the usual ‘white noise’ of overblown sexualised moments that promise much but never quite deliver…and the very firm expectation that things will sort themselves out eventually. We also get a fair amount of complicated family relationships and action from other worlds that means we’re never quite certain where this is going. And then, once things get going, we have some great scenes.
I think this is one to mentally prepare yourself for. Perhaps you’ll love it from the start – in which case, once we hit that magic moment (it was part three onwards for me) you will be fair gushing in your praise for Maas and the feel good factor delivered by what comes later. For me, the latter stages really were emotional with plenty of action to engage us and hints of some fascinating developments to come. There was upset, love, fear, hope and a growing sense of a world showing its true potential. It helps that Bryce has her vulnerable moments, as when she really gets going she’s hard to ignore and that knowledge that she’s in it for the right reasons keeps us rooting for her.
Having taken weeks to get to part three, the latter stages got their claws in me and I raced through the last fifty-odd chapters in a couple of days. That doesn’t sit well with me, but it was most definitely worth it. And now I cannot wait to see how Maas continues the events set in motion.

 

‘Grace is Gone’ – Emily Elgar

While this begins slowly, it soon picks up pace and becomes a fascinating read. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read it prior to publication.

The story focuses on what happens when Meg, a much-loved local woman, is found murdered in her home. Her daughter, Grace, is missing and so begins a tense hunt to discover what happened to her and try to find her alive.

Watching this story unfold is a journalist called Jon who seems unhealthily interested in this story. As we follow him through his day, we learn why. This family is known to him. Things between them didn’t end amicably years earlier when Jon interviewed them and suggested Meg’s ex should not have been cut out of Grace’s life in the way he was. With Simon, Grace’s dad, the prime suspect for this kidnapping we guess it’s only a matter of time until we find the truth.

Simon is, eventually, found. He refuses to cooperate with the police, but asks to talk to Jon. Breaking with protocol, focused only on getting Grace back safely, this is allowed. And so begins a tale stranger than any you could invent.

Not knowing crucial information is essential to the success of the book. Whatever our views of the characters involved, it certainly raises interesting questions about criminality and human behaviour. The ending is ambiguous, and this definitely encourages us to reflect on the information we have been given and consider what we would do with it.

 

‘The Last One’ – Alexandra Oliva

When I first agreed to buddy read this a while ago it sounded like a novel idea, experimenting with the concept of post-apocalyptic events and tying it in with the excitement surrounding social media. The idea of a group of reality TV contestants taking part in a survival show, and being unaware of the fact that the outside world they left was no more, sounded so extreme that I was imagining a thrilling read. However, recent world events and the issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic lent this read an eerie sense of foreboding. At times I had to steel myself to continue, gripped but not in a way I was necessarily enjoying.

At the beginning there were clues that things were going to change in ways we were not imagining. While we got to see all the characters and their interactions everything was tempered somewhat by the filter of our main character, Zoo.
I got rather frustrated by the presentation of the characters on occasion. The attempt to pigeon-hole people and force their actions to fit a preconceived notion of how they would be seen by others meant I felt a lot of events were written about in order to present a particular slant.

Where the story really picked up was once we followed Zoo through her time following her surviving whatever she had experienced. She emerges from the woods in a dazed state. She can’t see. When she meets young Brennan she is convinced he is merely part of the crew. All her experiences in her mind form part of the test she has agreed to.

Yes, a little more background to the scenario would have been good. Understanding how this occurred might have been helpful, but the isolation Zoo has experienced does mean the detachment and lack of information makes sense. A bleak ending may have been appropriate, but I actually felt heartened by the potentially hopeful resolution to this story.

Now, as Boris Johnson has just announced a lockdown in Britain with immediate effect this seems like an apt time to find something a little cheerier to dip into…

 

‘Eight Perfect Murders’ – Peter Swanson

Malcolm Kershaw – bookstore worker, widow and suspect in a series of murders. At least that’s what we’re led to believe initially.

Malcolm narrates his story, and it’s clear we’re not being told everything. The question is, what’s being hidden and why? When an FBI agent asks to speak with Mal in connection to a series of murders we’re immediately intrigued. There seems to be a link between a number of deaths and a blog post written some years ago by Mal called Eight Perfect Murders. Someone appears to be using the list to carry out their own killing spree.

While the initial idea seems rather far-fetched, we slowly learn further details that indicates there is indeed a link. We also get told by Mal himself that he’s hiding things. The details he does give us mean we have developed a sense of trust and I certainly didn’t want to think badly of him.

As the story develops little details are revealed that start to affect the way we regard Mal. His actions become increasingly strange, and it’s evident that there’s twists coming…but it’s all about working out why and when this info is given.

It’s hard to say more without inadvertently revealing details that are crucial to the book’s success. While I’d not read all the books mentioned on the list, the literary link was appealing and Mal – though evidently not quite the good guy I had him pegged as initially – has a rather mercurial charm. By the notional end I felt rather disappointed that things were going to go that way.

A huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this in exchange for my thoughts.

 

‘Dandelion Wine’ – Ray Bradbury

Summer 1928 and young Douglas Spaulding is our main focus. For those who like a clear character arc, or well-defined events this will probably feel frustrating. The book seems to be made up of a series of vignettes, with some characters traced throughout but each capturing a moment or a significant experience.

While it’s not without its frustrations, there is much to love about this.
Douglas himself – and his brother, Tom – are certainly characters to be intrigued by. I suppose they are quite typical of the time/small-town mentality, but the joy they find in the simple things and the pleasure they take from their experiences was so positive. I loved the story of 95 year old Helen Loomis and the ice-cream, the happiness machine and the tarot witch. I don’t recall why I’ll have read it but the piece with Lavinia and the Lonely One (I recall a story called The Whole Town’s Sleeping) still sent shivers up my spine.

Not necessarily a story that will keep you gripped from the outset, rather a series of quite charming occurrences that each tell us something about ourselves and our common experience.

 

‘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 Murder at the Vicarage’ – Agatha Christie

I’ve read very few novels by Agatha Christie, but I have clear memories of Miss Marple being shown on tv when I was younger. First impressions do count…and I’d always had this vague recollection of her being a rather prim and interfering elderly woman.

My overwhelming response after reading this was that Miss Marple as she appears here was the germ of an idea, but she’s not fully formed. In fact, we see very little of her – just an appearance at key moments. She is presented as shrewd yet on the ‘busybody’ side – always hovering and overhearing/seeing things she perhaps doesn’t need to.

In this first of the Marple series we focus on the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the kind of man many could find reason to kill. He’s found shot in the Vicarage and we follow the vicar and various villagers around as they try to establish the truth.

There’s the usual red herrings thrown in, and what was proven here was that sometimes the obvious solutions are the truth. People are, at heart, quite predictable and observation counts for an awful lot.