The dazzling sun at the centre of this novel is Sophie Stark; a bold, flawed, compelling character unlike any I can remember encountering in fiction recently. But, tantalisingly, her bright light is only ever glimpsed through the prism of other characters’ perception.
Sophie is a critically-acclaimed film director and maker of brutal choices. She is charismatic, vulnerable and painfully flawed. Or at least she seems to be. Her story is told by 6 people who love her in one way or another; girlfriend, husband, brother etc, and all of her actions and mistakes are translated through their devotion to her.
Lots of press reviews are touting this as one of the ‘big books’ of 2016. And there are certainly things about it that I like: it is stylish and interesting, I enjoyed how we get to know each of the viewpoint characters - through their descriptions of Sophie they give away much more about themselves, and I was impressed by how quickly and easily I cared for them - and the character of Sophie herself is great. But, personally, I struggled to truly connect with the book as a whole.
One major flaw for me was that I didn’t find the descriptions of her films - her great talent - very convincing. They just didn’t sound interesting and it seemed odd for them to be so acclaimed - simply being told they were good somehow wasn’t enough. There are also reviews peppered through the text didn’t work for me at all. They didn’t read like authentic reviews, and while the reason for that is explained at the end, it didn’t stop it being jarring all the way through. Most importantly, I didn't find the ending emotionally satisfying - it was clever, and neat, and I was impressed by the idea, but I didn't feel affected by it in the way I would have hoped.
Like the character of Sophie Stark herself, the book is bold, stylish, interesting and occasionally loveable, but in the end deeply flawed.
I am shell-shocked by this book. It swept me up mercilessly and dropped me breathless and a little shaky: both with delayed relief and amazement that I survived my own teenage years, and with a gnawing fear for when my own two girls hit that age. It’s fresh and shocking - a whirlwind of rage, insecurity, hormones and gritty sexuality.
At it’s simplest it’s a high school tale; two girls whose intense friendship is kicked off by mutual hatred of the school’s queen bee. All of teenage life is there: embarrassing parents and dangerously dysfunctional families, fashion makeovers and the search for identity, blossoming sexuality and sexual assault. And the music. The story is soundtracked by grunge; Kurt Cobain is almost as much of a character as the protagonists themselves.
Dex and Lacey are the real main characters though, and the story is mainly narrated through their eyes. Tracking through events from their blinkered perspectives - drowned in hope and delusion and denial - you never quite know who to trust, and are kept guessing to the end. It is so clever and so layered, and there is simply so much in this book. A storyline that would be the main climax of any other tale is often just a bump in the road for Dex and Lacey. And even with a truly villainous villain there isn’t a single character you don’t feel for.
It was a pleasure to revisit the intensity of teenage emotions from a safe distance of years, but it also reminded me to be on guard and ready for when it hits again, this time with even less control. Perhaps all parents should read this book to steel themselves for the horrors that await - and remember how, all too easily, the good kids, the bad and all those in between, can tumble down the rabbit hole together.
Published: 5th May 2016, Little, Brown UK
This book may feature run-ins with tigers and chases through the streets of London, but it feels more like a quiet sit down with a cup of tea and the loving company of old friends.
It’s a sweet, sentimental and a delicate exploration of grief, memory and identity, shown through the eyes of 69 year-old Arthur Pepper.
A year on from the death of his beloved wife, Miriam, Arthur finds an old charm bracelet he had never seen in their 40 years of marriage. He sets out to find the meaning of the charms, and discovers a host of fascinating and surprising stories from her life before they met.
But it’s the subtle, emotional quest which accompanies Arthur’s actual one that is the warm, glowing heart of the story. He questions the simpleness of their life together, shown in the new context of her youthful adventures; and he questions his own nature and choices as he steps outside of his comfort zone and finds that he likes it there.
The most touching elements of the book are the small ones; like two grieving characters discussing the guilt they feel at breaking old, shared, habits, however trivial.
The journey of Arthur is supported by a charming crew of supporting characters, all interesting and nicely sketched, and all seemingly designed to question prejudices Arthur probably didn’t realise he had.
This is a gentle tale of self-discovery, neatly structured and delicately told. It celebrates normal life in all its mundanity, while managing to never be mundane.
Published: 7th April 2016, MIRA UK