Normal People – Sally Rooney

Rating: 3 stars

Marianne lives in a small town in the west of Ireland; her family are obviously wealthy but she attends the same school as Connell, whose mother Lorraine cleans the “white mansion” where Marianne, her mother and brother Alan live. Alan is a mean bully, treating Marianne with a casual violent contempt, knowing she is a frightened loner. Against the odds, Marianne and Connell strike up a friendship, having a respect for each other’s intelligence and a love of facts and learning. In school they never speak to each other – she’s quiet, friendless, and he’s a popular member of the soccer team, adored by all.

Their friendship rapidly becomes an affair, secret from their families and his friends until the night of the fundraiser when he rescues her from older bullying and taunting gate-crashers, and she reveals that her late father used to hit her mother. At the point in her life when most of her school colleagues are out having fun, Marianne’s life is already dominated by a combination of love of learning, and of being a repeated victim of violence. She and Connell both apply to study at Trinity College, Dublin, but by the time their studies start their relationship has foundered.

normal people.jpgJust months later, at university, Connell and Marianne’s positions are reversed: she’s now the centre of a bright social set, well-to-do, attractive and vivacious; he’s struggling on the fringes, feeling socially out of his depth. It didn’t seem at all real to me that just months after their awkward break up, after which she abruptly leaves school, she is now the popular centre of attention among a group of rich and confident friends. The barriers which existed between her and and her school peer group had seemed far more to do with what she was inherently like, introverted and bookish, than with the wealth and social gap between her and them. I found it hard to credit that in the space of the summer vacation she’d suddenly changed into a confident party-goer.

Gradually they inch back into a relationship, but again it’s fated not to last. The pattern of their lives is set. They understand each other better than anyone else, they love each other, but they can never be together for long. Marianne’s doomed to have a series of difficult, often physically and verbally violent relationships; Connell is doomed to be with people who don’t share or understand his feelings for the world or for literature. They drift together and drift apart repeatedly, although, as time goes on, when they’re apart they constantly communicate, each telling the other of ideas, thoughts and feelings which no one else is told, not even their current partners.

I loved the opening section of Normal People, titled January 2011, with its descriptions of growing young relationships, and of what it is like for some educated and articulate people to be young in the 21st century, but, for me, the book faded away and lost my interest, despite its being under 270 pages in length, so that long before its final section, February 2015, I really wanted Marianne and Connell to have moved forward in their lives and become more interesting. Perhaps I’m too old and jaundiced, or perhaps I have read too many books! Clearly not only most reviewers but the Costa Book Awards panel disagreed with me, as this has been awarded the Costa novel of the year for 2018.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Three Wishes – Liane Moriarty

Rating: 5 stars

Most people by now will have heard of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, famously adapted into a television series starring Nicole Kidman. Alas, I’ve not managed to see the adaptation, but I loved the book on which it was based. And now I’ve loved Moriarty’s Three Wishes, originally published by Pan in 2004 and republished by Penguin in 2016. Three Wishes was written as part of Moriarty’s master’s degree at Macquarie University in Sydney and was her first novel.

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Ms Moriarty’s light touch is again an absolute winner, so we can empathise and sympathise with each of the three leading characters in turn. The opening pages are told through the voices of various onlookers, mostly fellow diners and staff at the restaurant where blonde-haired Lyn and Cat, and redhead Gemma are out celebrating their 34th birthdays. What starts out as a joyful and noisy celebration turns suddenly into a hideous fight, disturbing the peace of everyone in the busy Sydney seafood restaurant and ending with one of the blondes throwing a fondue fork at the redhead (who is pregnant), then fainting flat out on the hard floor. In most novels this would sound like sure-fire screen adaptation material; but there’s a catch.

One of them said it was fantastic being a triplet. She just loved it! The other one said it was terrible. It just made her feel like a mutant or something. And the third one said it was nothing, no big deal, no different from being any other family.

And here we see just what the problems will be in making a screen adaptation of this tale of a year in the life of identical blondes Lyn and Cat, and their non-identical triplet Gemma – apparently this is scheduled to start production in 2019, and we’d love to know who’s going to be cast in the three lead roles.

So many of the scenes made me laugh out loud, I had to stop reading this on crowded tube trains. The sisters have followed different paths in life: efficient and organised Lyn owns and runs the highly successful Gourmet Brekkie Bus, has taught aerobics, and is married to Michael, with a teenage step-daughter and a toddler; Cat is a marketing executive in a chocolates business, and, although they’ve been trying for a baby, she has recently learned that her husband Dan has had an affair; and Gemma is a bit of a drifter, constantly changing boyfriends and jobs, and regularly acting as a paid house-sitter rather than having her own home. While Cat and Dan’s marriage is struggling, Gemma is getting on very well with a new boyfriend, locksmith Charlie, and quite hoping that this time she and he will get past the six-month mark. The sisters’ lives entwine and get confused, and gradually their long-hidden secrets are revealed. Their long-divorced parents are bemused onlookers trying to help and offer advice and support, while at the same time rebuilding their own relationship.

Moriarty creates many great characters in this book, beyond the triplets and their parents and partners. There’s Lyn’s 15-year-old difficult step-daughter Kara, and Kara’s annoying mother Georgina, constantly changing arrangements at the last minute; the girls’ grandmother Nana, a feisty, “annoyingly spry” widow; and marriage counsellor Annie.

Three Wishes isn’t a book with fairytale, all-wishes-granted endings for all the leading players: Cat breaks up with Dan but finds a new direction and purpose in her life; Lyn struggles to go against all her natural controlling instincts and also find a way to get on with Kara; and Gemma isn’t welcomed by Charlie’s family, with whom she’s clearly going to feel an outsider for a very long time, but does reveal a hidden talent for making money on the stock market, and tells the truth to her sisters about her former fiance Marcus, how he treated her, and what she actually felt when he died. Life isn’t going to be plain sailing for any of the three young women; relationships will always be difficult and volatile amongst them and with their friends and family. Perhaps a sequel set some years on would be welcome!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Jonathan Unleashed – Meg Rosoff

Rating: 5 stars

I love it when my hints work and I get given a book I’ve been longing to read. I heard parts of the Radio 4 Book at Bedtime serialisation of Jonathan Unleashed back in the early part of 2016, and it’s been on my wish list ever since.

My memories of the radio adaptation proved to be absolutely right and I loved this hilarious novel about Jonathan Trefoil, who’s living and working in central New York. His old friend Max has arranged for him to join him in working for Comrade, a marketing outfit for which Ed, the owner and boss, “in order to convince clients that Comrade [is] a highly creative organisation” has “purchased an entire communist-era Russian railway station at auction – from signal board to ticket office – and had it installed in the Tribeca loft”. This is Jonathan’s working environment; he’s in a rented flat and unsure if he’s really allowed to be living in it, and to complicate his life, while ensuring he gets plenty of exercise and company, his brother’s two dogs (Dante and Sissy) are living with him while his brother’s working abroad. And to make things more complicated still, his college girlfriend Julie announces she’s got a new job as a senior salesperson with Bridal 360 and will be moving in with him.

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Jonathan’s journey through the many complications in his life is complex and troubled and absolutely hilarious, particularly since Jonathan sees his life and the situations in which he finds himself in terms of comic strips and cartoons, to which he and Max have been addicted since they were children, even setting up their own business, MaxMan Enterprises. Jonathan’s imagination constantly lets rip and turns reality into a series of comic strips, which includes Dante and Sissy disapproving of his lifestyle. Things spiral completely out of control until finally the comic strip world becomes more real than the 3D version, while Jonathan pours out more and more drawings for a client – and at the final presentation to them has a complete meltdown.

This is the first book Meg Rosoff has published which is intended for an adult market, rather than for teenagers and young adults (such as How I Live Now and Picture me Gone, both of which I’d read and loved), and like her earlier works it tackles the tough subjects of the move from being a child to adulthood, and of how relationships work or don’t. She has the ability to control a large cast of characters, from Jonathan and his colleagues, to the vets, to the dogs, who play such a pivotal part in both the plot and our understanding of the people involved. The warmth Meg Rosoff feels towards her characters is genuine and we feel great sympathy for these young people trying to get to grips with being independent adults living in a hectic urban environment. I loved it, and I hope it’s the first of many more adult novels from her. In the meantime, I’ll be going back to read her earlier works again!

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Lavinia’s Book Pick, January 2018: First Love – Gwendoline Riley

This book was given to me by my good and dear and true friend Kay, and it turned out to be a good and dear and true gift.

First Love Riley.jpgFirst Love is a snapshot into Neve’s marriage via a flashback into her first love. It’s a simple concept, and the style itself is not wordy or flowery, and yet it communicates something real and complex. Riley has a talent for writing speech that reads as real, and for communicating relationships clearly but not explicitly.

First Love is one of the best novels I have ever read. I do not want to give too much away about it, but it was a true and painful and subtle and beautiful picture of a relationship that was told with a delicacy that it’s rare to see in literary fiction now.

Go out and read it immediately.

You’ll love this book if:
– You like literary fiction
– You are interested in what makes people tick

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You do not like books

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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The Good Guy – Susan Beale

Rating: 3.5 stars

good guy.jpgThe Good Guy is described on its back cover as a ‘slightly gossipy summer read’ and tells the story of a tyre salesman called Ted who, through absolutely no fault of his own, ends up cheating on his wife Abigail with an impressionable young woman named Penny who he – completely by accident – tells that he is a widower raising a young child alone.

The Good Guy is an interesting read, and I spent the whole book trying to understand why I was (unsuccessfully) being apparently strongarmed into seeing Ted as a decent person when from start to finish he lies to both women and berates his wife for not cleaning the house when she is the sole carer for their young child. He seems to feel entitled to his affair, and again and again the narration seems to be pushing us towards seeing him as a genuine “good guy”. Ted was an interesting character, a portrait of inadequate American masculinity, the crushing pressure of expectation, the ability of ordinary people to commit heinous acts of deception, but what he was not ever was a “good guy”. And yeah it’s set in the 1960s in the suburbs, but that doesn’t make much of a difference.

Then I read the author’s note at the back, and it became clear to me that this book was something of a passion project and deeply personal. I certainly felt a little uneasy about my own readiness to judge this story harshly – it felt, as I read it, like a story I had heard a thousand times before. Perhaps because I read this right after Because I was Lonely, another disheartening story in which men are presented as biologically incapable of fidelity.

I can see what Beale has done here. She has written with compassion for all her characters and created a world in which she genuinely sees everyone as well-intentioned but easily misled. What this book did well was portraying the focus on social appearance vs reality, and the way in which people were trapped by these pressures in the sixties.

My reservations with this book were just that I found it impossible to like Ted, and I didn’t feel like the title was meant to be as ironic as it should have been. But this was an interesting read, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a vintage aesthetic. And who knows, perhaps many of you won’t judge Ted as harshly as I did. After all, for many people being a “good guy” is in the eye of the beholder.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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House of Orphans – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

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Early this June, when Helen Dunmore died at the age of just 64, I was reading her novel House of Orphans, published originally in 2006; it’s only now, nearly nine weeks later, I feel able to put into writing my thoughts on the book.

House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1901, at a time of political unrest and ferment, as the Finnish people struggled to resist the power of the Russian Empire and the ever-tightening grip of the Tsarist Finn leader Bobrikov. Eeva is the young daughter of a revolutionary and after being orphaned  she has been sent far from her home city of Helsinki to an orphanage to be trained for suitable domestic work. Local doctor, Thomas, a widower living alone, offers her work as his housekeeper. He is drawn to her unusual and thoughtful presence, and understands that she is no simple uneducated girl, but is intelligent, well-read and an independent thinker.

Thomas is a kind and unusual doctor, prepared to use both modern methods of medicine and old-fashioned remedies. His generosity leads him to help Eeva to leave his home and go back to Helsinki to return to her childhood friend, Lauri, and seek a different way of life, far away from the orphanage and domestic servitude. What she finds is love and constancy from Lauri, and from a new friend Magda, and bitter betrayal from Lauri’s new “comrade” in the political struggle, Sasha.

The harshness of Finnish winters is vividly described, along with the grim realities of young people living under a harsh regime and struggling to make ends meet. The kindness of Thomas shines through the pages, as we see him helping all his regular patients, as well as the orphans, living in their own strict regime, and Eeva. But Helen Dunmore has created a three-dimensional character here and we understand that he is not without fault, and that his own daughter feels betrayed by him. Eeva is a complex young woman, and I felt immense sympathy for her long struggles and relieved that she’d found the loyal support of Thomas, Lauri and Magda.

I felt that Dunmore had shown us a glimpse through a crack into lighted rooms in which they were all living and breathing. In some ways I wanted to know what happened next to the leading characters, so real had they become to me by the end of the book. But mostly I felt I’d been privileged to witness these scenes. That was enough, like looking at a famous painting and wondering about the real life of its subject.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Mothers – Brit Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

the mothers.jpgIf you read one book this year (assuming you still have enough time – it is nearly Christmas), make it Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. The Mothers tells the story of a close-knit African-American Christian community, and centres around the lives of two women within it, Nadia and Aubrey. It relates Nadia’s teenage romance with the local pastor’s son Luke, and the pregnancy, abortion and cover-up that result from it.

It’s a contemporary novel, dealing with a number of difficult issues, but it has a lightness of touch, a complexity and a sensitivity that mean that the story and characters dominate, and it doesn’t feel moralising (perhaps because it’s not).

The Mothers is a story centred on women and their place in a small community, and though it focuses on two relationships with men – Nadia and Aubrey’s with Luke, and Nadia’s with her father – these relationships don’t dominate, and what emerges as the most significant and enduring relationship is that between Nadia and Aubrey.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone. Although women are the main players, and a lot of it focuses on female experience, it’s a book that ranges widely and touches all areas of society. It’s also pacy and engaging. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t already read it, read it right now. I promise you won’t regret it.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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