Book review: The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan

The book:

The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
Originally published in 1995
Pages: 362

The blurb:

Set in 1978, the political drama and familial tensions of the 1960s form a backdrop for the world of Phoebe O’Connor, age eighteen. Phoebe is obsessed with the memory and death of her sister Faith, a beautiful idealistic hippie who died in Italy in 1970. In order to find out the truth about Faith’s life and death, Phoebe retraces her steps from San Francisco across Europe, a quest which yields both complex and disturbing revelations about family, love, and Faith’s lost generation.

My thoughts…

Although I am aware of this author, this was the first novel by her that I had read. I enjoyed the beginning of the novel a lot and I liked the tense relationship between Phoebe and her mother. Phoebe is still devastated following the death of both her sister and her father, and she struggles to fill the void they have left. She is detached from others and also struggles to get on with her mother and brother, who have more successfully moved on in different ways.

I thought this opening part of the book worked really well as we get a sense of Phoebe’s grief and her detachment from her family. I really felt for her, and found myself sympathising with her a great deal and could relate to her desire to be reconnected with her sister in some way. Eventually, she decides that the best way to do this is to follow in the footsteps Faith had travelled, when she went around Europe in the months leading up to her death. Using the postcards that Faith had sent her while on her travels, Phoebe starts her journey. 

It was at this point that, sadly, the book lost its way for me. There just wasn’t really enough here to keep me interested, and while I had some interest in what happened to Phoebe, I didn’t feel so invested in Faith’s story. I don’t think this was helped when Phoebe got rid of Faith’s postcards – these had been interspersed throughout the start of Phoebe’s travels and I found this other voice refreshing and was disappointed when this stopped quite abruptly.

By the end of the novel I must admit I was struggling to stay interested, and found Phoebe’s journey became tedious and the novel fell flat. However I did like earlier parts of the novel and the overall writing style, so I would look out for more of Egan’s books. But sadly, this one didn’t really do it for me.

My rating: 5 out of 10

This Week In Books – 3 May 2017

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This meme was set up by Lipsyy Lost and Found.

Here is what I am reading now, then and next!

Now…
If you spotted my teaser yesterday, you will know I’m reading The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt – an intriguing book about a young girl and a German solider, set during World War II. Click here to read the blurb and my teaser

Then…

I’ve recently finished The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan and two young adult novels – A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard and Hate List by Jennifer Brown. I must admit I didn’t really love any of these books – reviews will be appearing here over the course of the next week or so.

I also started The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver, but I didn’t make it very far at all! I know Shriver loves to use 50 words when just five or six will do, but I usually put up with this as I generally enjoy her books. But this one had the added horror of a south-London snooker player, and his awful, unconvincing dialogue made me cringe so much that I simply couldn’t continue – the book is now charity shop bound! 

Next…

I’ve recently picked up a few books that have been on my wishlist for a while: Ruby by Cynthia Bond, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien and My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by the hilarious Fredrik Backman – all discovered in the library. These are all books I might read next – but knowing me I’ll probably get sidetracked by something else in the meantime!

I would love to hear all about what you’ve been reading, so please link to your WWW posts here!

Teaser Tuesday – 2 May 2017

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme hosted by the Should Be Reading blog.

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If you fancy joining in, here’s how…
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two teaser sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS!
• Share the title and author so other TT participants can add the book to their TBR lists if they like your teasers!

I’m only 20 pages in to my latest book – The Dynamite Room by Jason Hewitt – which was picked up completely on a whim from a charity shop. Here’s the blurb…

July 1940. Eleven-year-old Lydia walks through a village in rural Suffolk on a baking hot day. She is wearing a gas mask. The shops and houses are empty, windows boarded up and sandbags green with mildew, the village seemingly deserted. Leaving it behind, she strikes off down a country lane through the salt marshes to a large Edwardian house – the house she grew up in. Lydia finds it empty too, the windows covered in black-out blinds. Her family is gone.

Late that night he comes, a soldier, gun in hand and heralding a full-blown German invasion. There are, he explains to her, certain rules she must now abide by. He won’t hurt Lydia, but she cannot leave the house.

Is he telling the truth? What is he looking for? Why is he so familiar? And how does he already know Lydia’s name?

Here are a few sentences taken at random from p40…


“Early the next morning he went from room to room taking down the blackout frames and hauling up the sash windows in the hope of admitting the thinnest lines of sunlight from between the shutter slats. Even with the windows open the rooms remained hot and airless. He felt along every floorboard, shining the torchlight between the gaps and testing each board with the blade of his knife to see if it was loose. The wound in his shoulder was still painful, searing like a burn, and every time he lifted his arm it felt as if he were being cut anew.”

If you’ve published a teaser today, feel free to link to it here!

Book review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

The book:

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
Published in 2017 by Fig Tree
Pages: 304

The blurb:

Gil’s wife, Ingrid has been missing, presumed drowned, for twelve years.

A possible sighting brings their children, Nan and Flora, home. Together they begin to confront the mystery of their mother. Is Ingrid dead? Or did she leave? And do the letters hidden within Gil’s books hold the answer to the truth behind his marriage, a truth hidden from everyone including his own children?

My thoughts…

In 2015 I read and reviewed Our Endless Numbered Days, the debut novel by Claire Fuller. I enjoyed much about this book, but with some reservations, so was really keen to check out her latest book, Swimming Lessons. 

Chalk-and-cheese sisters Nan and Flora return to their childhood home when father Gil takes a tumble. Younger sister Flora is shocked to find the home, a former swimming pavilion which was always cluttered and crazy, literally full to the brim with old paperbacks. The reader has a little bit of insight into this, as we know that Gil has been searching the novels for letters left by his wife Ingrid who disappeared 12 years before. And it is these letters that make up about half of the novel, as we read their contents and find out more about Ingrid – and also much, much more about Gil himself…

Sometimes when books flit back and forth in time I get frustrated and find myself leaning towards one section of the book over the other. But this wasn’t the case at all here. The present day sections complemented Ingrid’s letters perfectly, and I liked the way it enabled us to build up a much rounder picture of the dysfunctional family – and find out many secrets the two sisters are not party to. Finding out about the past definitely helped not only to fill in some of the gaps, but also to alter the reader’s perceptions of the events taking place, and of one character in particular. 

In the present day, I enjoyed the relationships between the different characters and despite the seriousness of the letters, these sections were sometimes more light-hearted and worked as a good contrast to the heavier stuff – for example Flora’s little comments about Nan’s blossoming relationship with another woman, and a scene where two characters get “high” from an unlit joint. 

I thought this was an excellent book and it has the right mix of elements for me – mystery, sadness, humour – and an interesting island location thrown in for good measure. Now I’m looking forward to Fuller’s third novel! 

My rating: 9 out of 10

Blog tour and book review: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve Blog Tour.jpg

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve is published in the UK on 2nd May, and I was delighted to be asked to take part in a blog tour to celebrate the upcoming publication. And I’m even more delighted to say that I loved this book!
Read on to find out more and read my honest review.

The blurb:

1947. Fires are racing along the coast of Maine after a summer-long drought, ravaging thousands of acres, causing unprecedented confusion and fear.

Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her difficult and unpredictable husband Gene joins the volunteers fighting to bring the fire under control. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, the women watch in horror as their houses go up in flames, then walk into the ocean as a last resort. They spend the night frantically trying to save their children. When dawn comes, they have miraculously survived, but their lives are forever changed: homeless, penniless, and left to face an uncertain future.

As Grace awaits news of her husband’s fate, she is thrust into a new world in which she must make a life on her own, beginning with absolutely nothing; she must find work, a home, a way to provide for her children. In the midst of devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms – joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain – and her spirit soars. And then the unthinkable happens, and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.

My thoughts…

It has been several years since I’ve read an Anita Shreve novel, so I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read her brand new novel as part of the blog tour. And I was sucked in from the very start.

Grace is in a difficult marriage – her husband Gene is unresponsive, particularly since the death of his mother, and she struggles with two very young children and a third on the way. She seems very much resigned to her life yet at the start of the novel reminds herself that she is lucky to have what she has. 

But then disaster strikes. Fires are raging through Maine and husband Gene goes off to help, leaving Grace to protect the children. Following some very dramatic scenes, Grace finds herself living in the empty house of Gene’s dead mother – and this is when Grace’s strength and character starts to shine through. 

I absolutely loved this book and was completely mesmerised by Grace’s story and how she dealt with what life had thrown at her. She is incredibly strong yet very real, and I strongly sympathised with her, despite the quite simple writing style. The novel is written in a very factual and matter of fact way, which makes it quick and easy to read, but also worked very well as it lets the reader fill in the gaps. I thought the descriptions of the house in which Grace finds herself were amazing, and I thought it was very interesting of the author to show how something good had come out of something very bad – and in fact Grace’s life might be better for it.

But of course things are never simple and life never runs smoothly for Grace! I certainly don’t want to include any spoilers here but would strongly encourage readers to check this out for themselves. 

This is a novel for anyone who loves character-driven stories, with a real sense of time and place. I find it hard to fault the book as I absolutely loved it, and it has definitely encouraged me to revisit Shreve and read some of her previous novels.

My rating: 10 out of 10

Blog tour and book review: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings

We All Begin As Strangers was published in the UK last week, and is the debut novel by author Harriet Cummings. I was delighted to be asked by Orion Books to take part in the blog tour for the novel, and I thank them and the author for the opportunity.
Read on to find out more and read my honest review.

The blurb:

Inspired by true events – a beautiful debut about an English village pushed to the brink, and the secrets its residents are desperate to protect.  

It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary village of Heathcote.

A mysterious figure is sneaking into homes through backdoors and open windows. Dubbed ‘the Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.

When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes the Fox is responsible.

For the worried residents, finding Anna will be difficult – but stopping the Fox from exposing their darkest secrets might just be impossible…

My thoughts…

The first thing that really intrigued me about this novel was the fact it was based on real events in the village in which the author grew up in the 1980s. And the novel certainly transports the reader straight away to that period in time.

We soon get to know the residents of the small village which is the venue of strange and mysterious happenings, and there is an almost gossipy feel to some of the writing, as we find out about the different residents and their backgrounds. 

But the real mystery at the heart of the book is the strange and seemingly relatively harmless break-ins suffered by several of the villagers – which then escalates when one of the more popular villagers disappears completely. This event causes the villagers to question one another, and the tension amongst them grows…

For me it was definitely the setting of the book that made it an enjoyable read. The positives and negatives of living within such a tight knit community really came across well and there was a sense of the almost claustrophobic feel of living in close quarters and knowing – or wanting to know – everyone else’s business. The village setting and the characters gives the novel an almost old-fashioned feel, which I found quite comforting in a way.

The characters themselves are also well presented – they have interesting lives of their own which we slowly piece together as the novel progresses – and of course there is the mystery surrounding the disappearance of poor Anna…

This is a really lovely read, and despite the seriousness of the storyline, it is still easy to read. I also loved some of the nods towards the 80s, which really strengthened the book’s setting. Overall, I very enjoyable novel by a very promising new author.

My rating: 8 out of 10

Book review: The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

The book:

The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn
Published in 2016 by Orenda
Pages: 276

The blurb:

TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves her partner and her job to take voluntary exile in a remote house on an isolated fjord. But her new job as housekeeper and gardener is not all that it seems, and her silent, surly employer, 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, is not the old man she expected. As they await the return of his wife from her travels, their silent, uneasy encounters develop into a chilling, obsessive relationship, and it becomes clear that atonement for past sins may not be enough.

Haunting, consuming and powerful, The Bird Tribunal is a taut, exquisitely written psychological thriller that builds to a shocking, dramatic crescendo that will leave you breathless.

My thoughts…

I had been hearing a lot of good things about this book, but didn’t really know anything about it, so I went into it without any real knowledge or expectations. 

What is incredible about this novel is that the vast majority of it revolves around just two characters … and what is even more exceptional is that the author manages to pull this off. I felt that this worked because the two characters are so intriguing – Allis is mysteriously on the run from a scandalous past, while the man she goes to live with is surly and brusque – and seemingly has several secrets of his own. This makes it a real page turner as you try and fit the pieces together, and find out what happens to these two unusual characters. 

The isolated setting of the book also adds to the creepiness of the novel, and definitely cranks up the sense of mystery and foreboding. You can sense something bad is just around the corner…

I loved reading this short novel and trying to work out what was going on. The two main characters are both odd but this adds to the mystery and makes you want to read on. It is one of those books you want to spend a day curled up with, with no interruptions! (Although you could argue that describes any book…)

The only thing that bugged me – enough to make me knock off a star – was the lack of quotation marks, which at times made the book confusing and is one of my pet hates! But other than that minor gripe, I thought this was a really fantastic and creepy little thriller.

My rating: 9 out of 10