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: ‘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!

Review: ‘Prophecy’ by S.J.Parris

(This was a preview copy sent by Waterstones for reviewing, and is available for further reviews and purchasing here:


Despite the Elizabethan era being a time of rapid change and religious upheaval, Parris subjugates all of this to find a hero, and fails to live up to the excitement of the age.
The plotline is compelling enough, and provides a satisfying current to the novel, although by following Bruno, we follow one too many red herrings, and are only aware of the full truth within a matter of pages, leaving to a hurried resolution. However, the secrecy and duplicity is fascinating at points, as living a lie forces desperate and ingenious decisions to be made, albeit ones that lead to false conclusions up until the big reveal. It’s bothersome having to just assume people are right, with Bruno jumping to conclusions that are not proven constantly, instead of teasing us before revealing all.
Stylistically, I really didn’t enjoy the novel’s attempt to merge the contemporary with the past: the language seems more fitting to a Dan Brown novel than one supposedly set in the 16th century. The language was a bit too clunky: one moment, the intricacies of the Protestant-Catholic divide are being divulged, and the next readers are being directly addressed as if to solicit an opinion, when actually what is needed is guidance down the author’s intended path.
However, I did read through to the end, and wasn’t displeased that I did so, but this is mainly because I forgot I was reading an historical novel quite early on, instead reading it to see the plot through to the end. The biggest disappointment was the evident lack of thought towards the magic plot, which was explored in detail in the Earl of Arundel’s home and then left when it was of no more use, without a fitting conclusion asides from Fowler’s confession, where magic was seen as a ruse, a theme which could have been put to better use.
I see this novel as full of half-starts: we could see Bruno as human, but his fallibility is prevented when he resists all human desires and acts only on behalf of others; magic could be seen as psychologically real, but it is just a means to sorting out Henry Howard’s involvement; the invasion plot could be justifiable, but is left with an inadequate excuse…and so on.
I think as someone who enjoys intricacies and being caught off-guard by a storyline, this book was not for me.

Review: ‘Mini Shopaholic’ by Sophie Kinsella

Becky's back: better or bust?

I’m an avid Sophie Kinsella fan, although the problem here is too much of a good thing: ‘Shopaholic’ was an addictive series, and despite Becky Brandon (nee Bloomwood) and her various failures, I always used to come out feeling like she deserved to be where the final chapters placed her, whether it was married or expecting a baby or shopped out (although I don’t think that one’s possible!). This book didn’t leave me feeling like that: I finished with a sense that I’d been led down too many paths with barely any resolutions.

Let’s start with the premise: it’s been two years, and Becky has a clone in the form of her daughter, Minnie. The idea of the Brandon’s as a family unit fell flat on its face: Luke was barely around, he and Becky were constantly on guard from keeping a million implausible secrets, Minnie was a half-hearted story (apart from in the company of Elinor, when she became a viable part of a storyline), and together they failed to represent a family that was succeeding by the end. Instead, a quick chat with Nanny Sue resolved Luke’s issues and he suddenly became the perfect husband and father, Becky magically resolved her shopaholic tendencies somewhere between the mannequin incident with Minnie and the party, and Minnie went from out of control to angel in six seconds flat. None of the family-oriented stories seemed to have any real substance and seemed to be resolved with no real credibility.

However, one storyline resolved this: Elinor’s. Kinsella wrote Elinor’s sections beautifully, and holding back from revealing Elinor as the party’s benefactor was perfect, as it admitted that not everything can end happily ever after, and any reunion would have compromised Elinor’s sorrowful and truly heartbreaking situation. I think this also brought out the best parts of Becky, which were sorely missed from the rest of the book: she can be utterly brilliant, respectful and act in the best interests of everyone, despite her extravagancies and often ridiculous plans. Elinor Sherman showed that it’s never too late to repent, and that sometimes love is knowing when to allow someone to live without you – and while we know that Elinor deserves no sympathy for the past, she certainly redeems herself here.

Character-wise, I missed Suze, and I think Kinsella’s presentation of Becky needed Suze to make her more realistice:  she tries to show our favourite shopaholic as independent, when she’s actually always needed those around her to grow and be shown as naive yet lovable for her efforts to us.  This is seen when Becky tells Suze she doesn’t need help with the party, and later has to crawl back – Suze allows Becky to be seen as an adult instead of a caricature.

Essentially, the plot took things a bit too far this time: yes, from previous experience we can believe that Becky would go crazy in a discount store and if she was banned from shopping, but Minnie having spent her pocket money until 2103 was insane, as was Becky’s suspension then sudden dramatically high promotion to the Board of Directors: reality mixed a bit too much with fantasy, and the movement of this borderline was a bit tedious at times, although the leaps into Becky’s far-fetched imagination are always entertaining, mainly because we’ve all had that moment when we’ve imagined something out of proportion to what is actually happening. And likewise, we’ve all had those penny-pinching moments where we’ve overspent in the cheaper shops because we thought we were saving money – oops!

I would have been interested to see how Becky coped at Nanny Sue’s academy, instead of jetting off to L.A. at the end: it seems like one extreme facing another, a land of restriction versus a shopper’s paradise, and we’ve already seen Becky in New York so the former would have been a refreshing change. While my read of ‘Mini Shopaholic’ wasn’t exactly a consumer joy, it was a nice break from a world of recession, and it hasn’t put me off reading the next one, let’s just hope Kinsella returns to her designer chic best!

Review: ‘About a Boy’ by Nick Hornby

Nicolas Hoult and Hugh Grant in the film adaptation.

Having finally read the book, I can safely say that the film version of ‘About a Boy’ got it spot on: it relates Nick Hornby’s tale of growing up perfectly.

The story is simple enough: Will is thirty-six, Marcus is twelve, and yet the latter is infinitely more adult than the former. Whilst simultaneously learning to grow-up and act their age, Will and Marcus explore issues that monopolise everyone’s lives: from learning that your parents are fallible to finding the special someone who likes you for you.

Hornby’s success comes in his language: he doesn’t try to explain everything – Fiona is depressed, we don’t know why; Will is aimless, yet there’s no reason for his lack of orientation. In fact, the only thing that truly makes sense, ironically, is Marcus: he is defined by the his surroundings – his mother and her eccentricities, his father walking away too quickly, his friends abandoning him to enjoy a bully-free existence…Despite how odd he appears, Marcus is the only character who can be fully explained. This lends legitimacy to Will and Fiona’s stories. They are able to come to their own realisations because Marcus needs them to react to him without him explicitly saying so. The shoes incident is a major example of this – Will can only realise that life isn’t as simple as wearing the right outfits by Marcus being vulnerable, and likewise Fiona can only realise Marcus’ needs when she feels like she’s losing him. It’s more what Marcus leaves unsaid than what he verbalises that enables the characters around him to finally step out of their own bubbles.

The sidestepping of the over-psychological analysis of everything feels like Hornby is stating that life isn’t always definable. By treating Fiona’s suicide as an unspoken threat, and Will’s relationship with Rachel as something that happened as opposed to over-analysing why it happened, Hornby is able to show his readers that life happens whether we like it or not, and that it is up to us to mould ourselves around these events. Telling the story from Will and Marcus’ viewpoints helps to achieve this – the two people who think least are forced to think, which creates intensity within the sometimes minimalistic information we are provided with. For instance, Fiona’s suicide is seen by Marcus as the culmination of Dead Duck Day, and by Will as an oddity occurring outside of his sphere of interest, therefore when it comes to it, both have to extend themselves to understand and cope with such events. Will’s later relationship also shows his inability to verbalise his comprehension of an alien subject – Hornby could undoubtedly talk too much about this, and fully explore the feelings and emotion of each character, but the reader is left with just enough information to think for themselves – after all, isn’t self-expansion the point of the story?

‘About a Boy’ started off, to me, as a simplistic read, but ended up being more intense than I imagined it could be: by using the two central characters with a limited view of life, Nick Hornby is able to expand both their and our horizons. One of the most poignant moments that spelled this out to me was when Rachel told us why she could never just give up on life: it would be awful to miss out.