Three great holiday reads

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud


My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later, for reasons more of less identifiable; everyone loses a best friend at some point. Not in the ‘she moved to Tucson’ sense, but in the sense that ‘we grew apart’.

The Burning Girl tells the story of two girls, Julia and Cassie, who become best friends in nursery school and  stay so until they grow apart as teenagers. Cassie starts changing in seventh grade into someone Julia barely recognises. Having always been together at their small primary school and having played after school every day, the girls then go to high school and are ‘pushed apart by bureaucracy’ – Julia is cleverer than Cassie; they no longer have classes together, and a new girl swiftly becomes Cassie’s new best friend. The novel is written from Julia’s point of view, and one of the strengths of this well-written book is the emotional sensitivity with which Messud deals with Julia’s observations of Cassie, detailing the painful teenage angst Julia experiences; that sense of still loving your friend and aching inside for being left out. They grow apart, yet Julia always defends Cassie as her behaviour becomes increasingly rebellious. When Cassie disappears, it is Julia who understands her friend so deeply that she knows where to find her. Messud’s portrayal of this intense relationship is beautifully depicted.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng


Another novel about friendships, this time between two families who both live in the middle-class suburb of Shaker Heights (creepily like the Stepford Wives’ setting) in mid-west America. The Richardsons are a wealthy well-established nuclear family, while the Warrens are their poorer tenants; Mia Warren a nomadic artist and Pearl, her daughter, a teenager desperate to settle down. Ng is adept at portraying these characters; the Richardson teenagers insouciant in their wealth, who lounge about watching Jerry Springer shows, drive expensive cars and wear their clothes effortlessly. Their father is a corporate lawyer, their mother a reporter. Their youngest daughter, Izzy, is not as ‘perfect’ as her siblings, however, being a difficult, prickly individual prone to running away and causing trouble. Pearl is seduced by this family, becoming friends with the younger son, falling in love with the older one, the golden-boy; in awe of the oldest daughter;  becoming embarrassed of her poorly furnished small home and her eccentric mother. On the other hand, Izzy, is drawn to Mia’s creativity and eclectic artistic house, and her unjudgemental acceptance of Izzy. When Mrs Richardson, noting Izzy’s attraction to Mia and Pearl’s presence in the Richardson home, asks Mia to become their cleaner, the relationships start to shift. Another strand of the story arises, where both mothers take opposite stances in a controversial adoption within the Shaker community, while leads to an irretrievable shakeup. Ng portrays these fragile relationship exquisitely, particularly those of mothers and their children and the mistakes that happen, sometimes deliberately,  often almost inadvertently. The title refers to the opening scene in which the Richardson’s home is ablaze with fire,  started, according to the fire chief, by ‘little fires everywhere’; but at the same time reflects the minutiae of each relationship, in which little incidents stoke larger events with dire consequences.

Future Home of the Living Gods by Louise Erdich


It is a pity there is such a focus on the Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the moment, as some readers might accuse Erdich of imitating it, not knowing that Atwood wrote the novel over 30 years ago. Erdich’s outstanding book deserves to stand alone with its imaginative look at a near-dystopian society, in which time appears to be moving backwards; reverse evolution as it were. The main character is a young pregnant woman of Native American origins called Cedar Hawk Songmaker; adopted by a white couple. When Cedar goes to find her Obijwe birth mother, she quite delightfully discovers her real name is in fact just Mary Potts and that her birth family is not mystical in any way. This is one of the things I like about Erdich’s novels – they always have a slight wry humour to them. Cedar seeks out her birth family to find out their medical history and any genetic makeup that might affect her baby, in this society in which animals and insects are slowly reverting to their prehistoric forms. Many human babies are being born in a more humanoid form, while fewer ‘perfect’ ones exist. As a result of this, pregnant women are being rounded up and held prisoner in ‘homes’ in which women disappear after giving birth to babies who are confiscated. Cedar narrates the novel in the form of a diary to her unborn child, thus exposing the reader to her alternating excitement and terror. Erdich has created a novel which, beneath its fantastic plot, weaves themes of diversity, acceptance, familial bonds, racism and sexism in all forms. It was a fantastic read.


Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

I love William Boyd, I have done so since I read Brazzaville Beachmany, many years ago. So I was excited when I saw that he had a new novel out and looked forward to reading it. While reading Waiting for Sunrise, though, I kept feeling as though I was waiting to get lost in the pages and the plot like I have with others of his, yet it never happened.

English: Portrait of the author William Boyd
English: Portrait of the author William Boyd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that I didn’t enjoy it. It is a good story, a thriller, with all the right elements, set in Vienna and London during World War One. Lysander Rief (how’s that for a great name?) – a relatively successful actor –  goes to Vienna in search of a cure for his impotency through the new radical science called psychology. He’s sees a Freudian doctor, Dr Bensimon, and in his waiting room meets a strangely appealing woman called Hettie Ball.

Rather predictably, Lysander falls for Hettie and starts an affair with her (his impotency immediately cured). Yet one day he is arrested on the charge of rape. Hettie has fallen pregnant by him and, rather than confess to her husband about her affair, she accuses Lysander of raping him. He flees Vienna with the help of the British embassy, and returns to London.

Once there, he gets recruited by those who helped him escape Vienna, and becomes a British spy. He has to discover who is leaking information to the Germans from the British Intelligence section and, in doing so, becomes involved in intrigue, sex, lies, other spies. He does all this while still acting and falling back in love with this fiancée (she was the one who encountered his impotency).

My problem with the book is that I could not imagine Lysander being a spy. In fact, I could hardly imagine him being anything other than a good-looking actor. It seemed quite inconceivable to me that he could torture someone for information, or betray men on the battlefield. The characters were one-dimensional. Hettie never came alive in my mind – all I could ever see in my mind was someone with short legs (for some reason). Lysander’s mother seemed to be scarily attractive for a woman her age and, sadly for Lysander, becomes pivotal in the spying scandal.  The only character I really liked was his gay uncle.

Yet I don’t want to put anyone off reading it, because it is a good thriller, it is well-written and a page-turner. It just didn’t do it for me in the way that a William Boyd usually does. I think I had high expectations and, when they weren’t quite met, I was more disappointed than I would have been had an unknown author written it.

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

I have just spent half an hour writing a review of The Poison Tree and it has disappeared. I have no idea what I did wrong.

So, in short – great read, good psychological thriller. Reminiscent of Rebecca and A Secret History. Straight-laced student, Karen, meets glamorous decadent wanna-be actress and her life changes forever. She moves in with Biba and her brother for the long summer holiday and the book climaxes in a dreadful event.

It’s written from Karen’s point of view, weaves between the present and the past and kept me guessing throughout.

A great holiday read.

There – a very short review.