Review: ‘The Woman He Loved Before’ by Dorothy Koomson

Ever since being battered in the heart by ‘Goodnight, Beautiful’, I’ve always taken the opportunity to pick up a Dorothy Koomson when I can. ‘The Woman He Loved Before’ is the story of Libby, Jack and Eve – no, not a typical love triangle, as Eve has passed away long before the novel picks up on Jack and Libby, and their separate struggles to get over Eve…

Koomson is an emotional investment; you know when you dive in that you’re going to be pulled all over the place figuring out who these characters are, how you feel about them, and understanding how they’ve become who they are. ‘The Woman’ is no different; it was never going to be just a simple story of learning to move on.

Because, for starters, we learn about the tragedy of Eve. Eve, victim of abuse, recession, more abuse, and when she finally finds love it’s swiftly followed by revelation and tragedy. Her diaries were, by far, my favourite bit of the book: particularly as someone who’s had a good and reasonably sheltered life, comprehending the choices Eve is almost forced to make is incredibly difficult but compellingly written about to help you understand her turmoil. You’re rooting for her the whole way, whilst secretly knowing there’s a dark cloud over every decision she makes; never is this more obvious than when she accepts ‘Caesar’s’ generous offer…

Libby aligns with a lot of Koomson’s female protagonist; she’s clear about who she is and doesn’t need anyone to help her figure that out. What she needs is help to figure out how to fit the woman she is around the people she encounters. Her pride, her horror, her fear – the strength of Libby’s character is tested in so many ways by the ferocity and weakness of others. She’s a character worthy of knowing and exploring, and in my mind a fitting finder for Eve’s diaries, providing a viewing glass similar to our own when going through the diaries.

Then there’s Jack: hmm. Here’s a man who should have known better, at least in his second marriage. His sweet naivety with Eve is heartbreaking to watch when you know what’s coming, and makes him all the more endearing. No, it’s his relationship with Libby that makes me raise an eyebrow at him. A man who’s afraid of honesty when he saw what dishonesty cost him before? A man who is afraid of his feelings after learning how short life can be? And, thus, a man not willing to battle for what he loves? I reiterate: Jack, it’s a big hmmm from me.

Perhaps it’s a male thing in this book, because Caesar (spoiler alert!) is also a problem for me. Not that I doubt men like that exist, at all; quite the opposite. But, the transition bothered me, between him and Hector. I know this is supposed to be part of the ‘wow’ of how intense his act has been, but still…there’s a realism missing, there’s nothing picked up on when we first meet Hector that he has this capacity for evil, so it almost comes across as farcical. And without spoiling too much, like another book I’ve read recently, his ending is…convenient. There’s nothing to say it couldn’t happen, but equally after the climax of Eve’s gripping diaries and Libby’s realisations…it just seems a little too simple.

However, on the whole this is a gripping book and one I would thoroughly recommend to see you through the lockdown bedtime reading – although, be warned, by the time I got to the final set of diary entries I didn’t stop reading until the book had finished, which left me somewhere near midnight!

Review: ‘The Brightest Star in the Sky’ by Marian Keyes

6539596._UY250_SS250_If I ever want an easy, enjoyable read I will invariably turn to Marian Keyes, and on the whole ‘The Brightest Star in the Sky’ didn’t disappoint. Much like her book ‘Rachel’s Holiday’, though, ‘Brightest Star’ at its heart deals with some heavy and uncomfortable issues in a sensitive and appropriate manner, making us sit a little straighter and look harder for the brightness in the dark.

The narrative ‘star’ is a cute idea, although for me the changing type fonts every now and then weren’t necessary, as the star is pretty easy to follow throughout. Following the lives of the residents of Star Street, it’s looking for a home and needs to find the right heartbeat to know where to roost.

The characters are interesting and, considering there’s so many of them, believably fleshed out. My favourites had to be Matt and Maeve, despite how utterly heartbreaking I found their real story (no spoilers) – they’re the rollercoaster of Star Street and will move you from laughter to tears in the blink of an eye.

It was a decent range of characters as well; just-turned-40 Katie, making-ends-meet Lydia, deeply unsatisfied Andrei, bizarre and kooky elderly psychic Jemima…The list alone keeps you on your toes, and allows for all those deliciously frustrating mini-cliffhangers throughout ‘Brightest Star’ that will keep you turning the page long after you thought you’d pop your book down and get some sleep.

There was one teeny, tiny, wee issue right at the very end for me: we learn through Maeve’s story that the world can be cruel and unjust, and that’s the sad reality we live in. No superheroes, no white knights, not always a happy ending. So Maeve’s ex-boyfriend Dave’s comeuppance rankled me. I hasten to add I definitely wanted him to be punished for his crimes, but we see the statistics and attitudes every day: the likelihood of this happening conventionally was sadly slim. So whilst satisfying in one sense to see him meet his supernatural justice, it also undermined the message from Maeve’s final chapters: that the system still struggles to identify victims and perpetrators, and that we still let people down when it comes to such atrocious crimes. It was too unreal for me, even despite the idea of the future lifeform being a narrator as the central concept of the book.

However, in true form ‘The Brightest Star’ is a Keyes masterpiece of humour, gritty reality and a rollercoaster of emotions – and one that I would recommend to keep you company until the long nights have drawn away.

Review: ‘The Beekeeper’s Promise’ by Fiona Valpy

Late to the party as always, I’ve just discovered Kindle Unlimited and went on a downloading spree before my holidays, which included ‘The Beekeeper’s Promise’ as a pleasing little treat.

51X4usLcxJLFlitting between France before and during World War Two and 2017, ‘The Beekeeper’s Promise’ is the tale of two women who have their lives tested in tormented ways, pushing them to the limits of human resilience and, in turn, showing who they really are through the war and bloodshed of their lives.

I enjoyed ‘Beekeeper’ thoroughly, especially the first two thirds where the story of Abi, our 2017 narrator, and her survival of domestic abuse was slowly unveiled. Abi’s story is heartbreaking and, without undermining the horror of such abuse, shows just how easily we can be manipulated and isolated so as to lose our very selves.

Setting this agains the backdrop of Eliane’s story in the war years was an interesting plot device and one that works well; Eliane’s story highlights large-scale war and the impact on the human soul, neatly highlighting the internal war we all face, whether on a small or large scale.

The only thing that disappointed me with the plot was how quickly Abi’s story seemed to be done with; we learn of how she came to be in France and to be a survivor, and then suddenly her background disappears. Maybe it’s a sign that she’d shook off the past and moved on, but it felt a bit abrupt considering the emotional investment in learning of the horrors she’d faced in her marriage.

The detail of wartime France and the emotive content of this was by far the book’s highlight, reaching out from so many perspectives to capture every aspect of the impact of war. From a young boy being conscripted to a small child separated from her mother and adults conspiring with and against the enemy, we gain an insight into every aspect of living through such terror, and our sympathies are stretched in ways we might not have expected – the fate of Stephanie, for one, tests what we think is acceptable in wartime conditions.

‘The Beekeeper’s Promise’ is an intriguing and captivating read, and much like Eliane’s bees with the acacia you won’t be able to resist the temptation to keep reading and discovering the world around our two leading ladies.

Review: ‘One Hundred Names’ by Cecelia Ahern

Regular readers will know I’m a massive Cecelia Ahern fan, I love how the everyday and ordinary becomes pure magic in her hands. ‘One Hundred Names’ has been sat gathering shameful amounts of dust on my shelf, so blowing away the cobwebs I picked it up ready to be thrilled.

‘One Hundred Names’ is the story of Kitty Logan, a journalist who’s made a mistake: a big one at that. While her friend and mentor lies dying, she’s entrusted with the story of her career to salvage her reputation and her writing soul – and thus begins a journey of finding what matters amongst the rubble we build our lives in.

I’ll be honest, Kitty is not my favourite female lead ever, but this is undoubtedly deliberate: her journalism destroys a life and she has to learn her lessons, including that she might not be the nice person she thought she was. So she’s true, if not always likeable, and she grows on you as the story develops and she realises vicious journalism isn’t who she is.

The stories of the hundred names is in intriguing: what connects one hundred seemingly obscure people together? I won’t spoil the link, but it’s a decent payoff for your wonderings – predictable in some ways, but that’s what makes it heartwarming. It’s a weird feeling: not meeting all one hundred seems both logical and mildly disappointing, but it would have been impractical to meet all one hundred without creating a Game of Thrones style saga!

And the trick is this: enough stories are picked to validate the links, pour the right amount of depth into each storyline, and allow your investment in the people making the headlines. My favourite had to be Birdie – an obvious choice but a good one nonetheless, a story against adversity that doesn’t go dramatically overboard, but shows how simple goals such as living life can be the most challenging of all.

A criticism? Some of the plots tied up a little too nicely, mostly where couples were concerned: useful that the lady our man Archie has been watching for a year returns his affections, that Kitty’s best friend Steve has a sudden revelation about their whole friendship just as she does, that Birdie’s carer and her grandson very (very very!) quickly hit it off…you have to overlook the convenient couplings for a little while, but this doesn’t overshadow the story as a whole which is key.

Kitty’s final triumph in the offices of etcetera magazine is a wonder: it’s like seeing a butterfly emerge from its cocoon (our lovely Ambrose from the one Hundred Names can surely identify), and we finally get to see what the cocoon was hiding all along in all its colourful glory. It’s lovely, melting tummy kind of reading, and that’s what Cecelia Ahern is all about.

So add your name to the hundreds on the list who have enjoyed the tale of Kitty, her redemption and in understanding that life is the story before all else – you won’t regret the read!

Reviews: Recommended and Steer Clear!

It’s been a long old time, not least because I’ve gone a bit blog-crazy and set up two new ones to incorporate my latest passions: running and crafting (the two don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, I know). However, I haven’t stopped reading (nor have I perfected the recipe for adding a few hours to the day, sadly); below are my must-reads and my to-avoids of 2019 so far – see if you agree…!

Must Reads:

9781784759438Tom Hanks: ‘Uncommon Type’

I adore Tom Hanks – he always comes across as humble, hilarious and witty, so when I saw he’d tapped out a book on one of his many typewriters I knew I’d have to give it a go. It’s a collection of short stories ranging from the everyday to the (literally) out of this world. They’re simple, they’re straightforward, they’re just darn lovely. What I loved about these stories was their easygoing nature; nothing took itself too seriously, it was a pleasant read at the end of the day to ease myself into rest for the night. Definitely a must-read if you want the calm and chilled story.

Deborah Rodriguez: ‘The Kabul Beauty School’

I love the ‘Coffee Shop’ books by Deborah Rodriguez, and ‘Kabul Beauty School’ has been sat on my shelf a shameful amount of time. It’s insightful, it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking, but what a wonderful way to get to know one of the perceived most dangerous areas in the world. I would never have associated Afghanistan with the need for manicures, but what Rodriguez shows you in sparkling style is how even the humble haircut can change a life for the better in the most troubled of times. She doesn’t deny the harsh realities of living in a war zone, but this is complemented with the rays of sunshine poking through the clouds. It’s a gem and an enlightening experience.

Ben Elton: ‘Blind Faith’71rxq3s2bccl

I LOVE Ben Elton; his writing is never overly-intellectualised or complicated, but it is so incredibly precise in aiming its satire right at you and making you reevaluate your entire life that it feels like I’ve been stripped and judged to my very soul. ‘Blind Faith’ is no exception: I genuinely can’t take the world seriously any more. I can’t see an ill-fitting outfit without thinking of the citizens in the book defending their right to flash everything. I can’t go on social media without reflecting on the absurdity of communitainment advice. And when the royal baby name came out? I couldn’t help but wonder if Archie Happymeal might be on the cards. Read this for a real examination of our cultural values, delivered so obviously yet subtly; it’s a masterclass in exposing people without them realising it, and Elton is certainly a magician in revealing what was there all along.

Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Eat, Pray, Love’

Another one sat on the shelf for longer than it should have been, this wasn’t overly complex but it was thoughtful and written so as to make you reassess your life without preaching at you, which is a dandy old combination for me! It’s a treasure trove of wonderful sayings, quotes and mantras designed to help enrich your life and put a smile on your face; I challenge anyone not to come away without some form of gentle resolve for their everyday existence.

9781782118640Matt Haig: ‘How to Stop Time’

Haig’s book follows what seems like an enviable character: he doesn’t age. But the downsides become a heartbreaking journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Yes, the climax seems a little odd after such a drift-along gentle plot on the whole, but it serves the purpose to fly our characters into love, happiness and acceptance; and perhaps its readers, too.

 

 

Steer Clear:

Aidan Chambers: ‘Postcards From No-Man’s Land’51w16tpa6wl._sx326_bo1204203200_

Granted, the target audience for this is probably a lot younger than man, but as a former teacher I’ve always taken a keen interest in what teen fiction is coming out now, and as a Carnegie Medal winner it piqued my interest. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was touching and beautifully written, but for me, particularly with my ex-teacher hat on, it tried to do too much too subtly. I’m not exactly daft and I struggled with why it was ‘postcards’ when it seemed more of a reflection/diary, and I’m so glad it was spelled out Ton was a boy early on as even when rereading I couldn’t pick up on those clues. There were just too many threads being pulled at: sexuality (big disappointment: potential homosexuality quickly overshadowed by heterosexuality, this felt like it undermined itself), war, identity, death…Each issue was so vast and weighty that none got their full worth recognised; it was clumsy and clunky to get through, and not an experience I’d repeat.

Mary Renault: ‘The King Must Die’

I read this because everyone kept comparing the wonderful Madeline Miller (a la ‘Circe’ and ‘The Song of Achilles’) to her predecessor; how could I resist? Boy, I wish I had: I don’t know how I got to the end of this but it’s incredibly literal style, paired with expecting you to know things have happened when you’ve not been told, completely lost me. I’ve got another Renault on my shelf, but I’m not sure I’ll manage another dose of cold, stark history lesson, so I might give it a miss!