Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2021 by [Naoise Dolan]

When reading a novel, I don’t have to like the main character, but it helps if they have a few redeeming qualities.  For me, Ava doesn’t.

I feel this novel is too clever for its own good.  There are many witty lines throughout, and the use of language is razor-sharp, but it’s all just a bit too pretentious for my liking.

You don’t have to be 22 anymore to remember what it was like.  I thought I would identify with the main protagonist somewhat as I too had been a TEFL teacher and had also worked abroad (not teaching TEFL.)  However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Ava is self-centered, totally lacking in real self-awareness – although from her stream of consciousness ramblings you would think she was as enlightened as the Buddha himself – and totally lacking in empathy or compassion for anyone.   She is also incredibly pretentious.

Ava is in Hong Kong working as a TEFL teacher when she meets a wealthy banker named Julian.  After a few dates, Ava moves in with him.  There appears to be no genuine feeling on either side.  Julian seems perfectly contented to let Ava stay in his apartment rent-free for as long as she wants.   I never understood why.   He could have had the sex without the added complications.

Ava then meets a wealthy Hong Kong Lawyer named Edith, and as their friendship develops you do at least see a modicum of genuine self-reflection on the part of Ava, as she realizes her feelings for Edith are a lot more complicated than she realised. 

I felt the sense of place in the novel was weak.  I didn’t feel the atmosphere of Hong Kong.  Streets and restaurants were named but could have been anywhere.

There were some incredibly witty lines throughout the novel, and I did find myself laughing out loud several times. 

Naoise Dolan, like her contemporary Sally Rooney, studied English at Trinity.  She clearly has an excellent grasp of the English language and uses it to superb effect.  What I feel she lacks is maturity with regard to portraying the complexity of real emotions.   In short, she needs to grow up, and I think as a writer she may produce some incredible work when she does.

Review of Jane’s Away by Clare Hawken

In the interests of transparency, Clare is a friend of mine and was my next-door neighbour when we lived in Zambia. I have known her since we were both kids!  

When I first met Clare she always – and I mean always – had her head in a book.  She was constantly reading, and I was fascinated by this, because I thought I read a lot until I met her!

I then discovered through her letters to me at boarding school – (yes, we both went to boarding school and yes, we did write to each other – no email in those days!) that she was quite the talented writer.  Her letters were always witty, eloquent, and never ever boring.

I am thrilled to see her first book on Amazon, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  I am always honest in my reviews whether the person is a friend or not, but I think if I had truly hated the book, I wouldn’t have reviewed it! These are the joys of having your own blog – you can do what you like!

Fortunately, I am delighted to say that I am far from hating it.   

The narrative is written in the third person, as we are introduced to Roger Kurmudge on his retirement day. It is evident from the start that Roger is interested in one person – himself. He is vaguely aware of others including his wife Jane, in so far as she is there like a comfortable pair of shoes that you don’t realize how much you love until you lose them.

Jane heads off to the hospital to have a day procedure – a mole removed.  Roger duly turns up after his retirement bash to pick her up and discovers that not only is she not at the hospital, but she is not at home, and he has no idea where she has gone.

This is the beginning of Roger’s awakening.  The novel sets out to show what happens when you have taken someone for granted your whole married life and suddenly, they are not there. The realization dawns on Roger that Jane looked after everything, and not only did she do it without complaint, but she loved him even though he didn’t deserve it.   He also discovers that she has a life of which he was totally unaware.  Quite the rude awakening!

The reader is left guessing as to where Jane has gone, why and will she ever return – all questions that Roger asks himself every day as his despair increases.

For me it is the characterization that makes this novel so strong.  Roger’s grandson Alfie is a wonderful character and adds much laughter and poignancy to the book.  He is immediately endearing by dint of calling his grandfather ‘Woger’ and making a beeline for the café whenever they go out – boy after my own heart! Alfie is the catalyst for much of Roger’s transformation and growth.

This heart-warming tale covers a lot of issues such as loneliness, parental angst, grief, and betrayal, but does so wrapped up in humour and a narrative that’s as comforting as a hot chocolate on a winter’s day.

For me, the test of a good novel is whether I care enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them after the story is over. ‘ Jane’s Away’ passed this test with aplomb and I am delighted there will be more to come from the Kurmudge family.

Highly recommend!

The Secret Place by Tana French

I was given this novel back in 2015 and have finally got around to reading it – Crazy, I know, but you haven’t seen all the books I have yet to read and if you did, I hope you’d sympathize!

I have heard great things about Tana French and she’s very highly respected in Ireland, so I picked up this large book and looked forward to some escapism.

The novel is written predominantly from the perspective of Stephen Moran, an ambitious detective who currently works cold cases, but would like to work in the murder squad.  Later the narrative switches to the perspective of three different female students at a prestigious all girls boarding school.

One of these students brings Detective Moran a note which was pinned to a noticeboard in the school called ‘The Secret Place,’ where the students can anonymously post notes to get things off their chest.   The note simply says, ‘I know who killed him.’

Cue Moran’s opportunity to work with Detective Conway on the unsolved murder of Chris Harper from the neighbouring private and also exclusive boys’ school.

Conway is a brash working-class female detective who has no time for niceties and Moran has to bite his tongue and swallow his pride more than once while trying to build a connection with Conway which proves an almost impossible task.  Watching the relationship between the two detectives develop was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the novel for me.   

The two pay a visit to the exclusive St Kilda’s school to find out who is behind the note. The murder took place a year previously and remains unsolved much to Conway’s frustration.

My issue with this book was that it could have done with a bit more editing.  The action takes place over the course of the day as the two detectives interview all the main players again and again.  Every detail is explained, every emotion described.   The plus side of this is it builds the atmosphere and the tension.  The negative was that I was exhausted by the time they were half way through the interviews.

The real power of this novel lies in the strong characterization of the two rival groups of teenage girls.  The angst, the loyalty and the sheer energy of their friendships are immediately recognizable to any of us who have lived through those teenage years.

The viciousness of the evil Joanne on the one hand is a marked contrast to the love and loyalty Holly’s group have for each other.  The feeling at that age that these are the only people who will ever understand you and you will never be able to live without them, is beautifully portrayed.  

Overall, I did enjoy the book and I would certainly consider reading another Tana French novel.  Maybe just a slightly shorter one next time.

Reviews of ‘Behind Her Eyes’ by Sarah Pinborough and ‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones

Behind Her Eyes

I came to this book as a result of the Netflix series.  I read the book and watched the series.

I talk about this book in a previous live on my Facebook page, so you can go and watch the video.  However I’ll go into a little more depth here.

The novel is told from two different perspectives.  That of the fragile Adele who is married to David and that of Louise – a single mother who lives in London.

Louise meets David in a bar one night, they hit it off and share a kiss outside before he runs off.  To Louise’s horror, the next day when she goes to work, she discovers that David is her boss.  He is a psychiatrist, and she is his secretary. 

When Adele then befriends Louise and Louise becomes further involved with David, the story takes a more sinister turn.

Adele is certainly not all that she seems.  This novel takes you on a rollercoaster ride of who is telling the truth and who is lying.   The tension does build exquisitely and it is definitely a page turner.

What I couldn’t’ decide with the crazy twist at the end was whether I loved it or hated it!  The ending is so mad that you really do go WHAT??!

This is clearly the author’s intention and to that end she did a magnificent job!

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

There’s something so juicy about reading someone else’s letters.  It’s like getting a private peek into their innermost thoughts.  Tayari Jones uses this device to great effect in this prize-winning novel.

Roy and Celestial are a recently married couple on the up.  Both of their careers are going well, and life is good.  That all changes one night when Roy is dragged out of his bed in a motel they are staying at together, and accused of a rape he didn’t commit.

Roy is found guilty and receives a twelve-year prison sentence.   The novel then changes from first person narrative to letters exchanged between the couple while Roy is in jail. 

Tayari Jones deals with the issues of marriage, race (Ray is African American) love and fidelity.  It is exquisitely written with the emotions of Ray and Celestial’s souls being laid wide open for the reader.    The letters are raw and heart breaking. 

Marriage can be a compromise at the best of times, but when put under this kind of pressure, individual tensions come raging to the surface.

Roy has to question everything he has ever known about his own identity, that of his wife and the fabric of his entire life.

This is a beautiful portrayal of what happens to people when everything they love is torn from them, when they have to question everything they thought they knew, and what it means to love.

I highly recommend this novel.  It is worthy of all the praise it has received.

Reviews of Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh and Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I read Fifty Fifty following the discussion on ‘Between The Covers,’ the BBC Radio Two book show that was on TV last year.   As soon as I heard the words ‘courtroom drama,’ I was in.  I love books, films or TV shows that revolve around court cases.

I was also interested as Steve Cavanagh is from Belfast like me.

The premise of the novel is that two sisters, Sofia and Alexandra are both accused of the same crime – murdering their father.   The question is -which one of them is guilty?

The novel is narrated by three different characters as we follow each of their stories.  First up is Eddie Flynn, a criminal lawyer who is sharp and now working with recently retired Judge Harry Ford. He is representing Sofia. To be totally honest I can’t remember that much about Eddie Flynn in terms of character, so he didn’t stick in my mind. 

The second strand of the narrative comes from the defence attorney Kate Brooks who is representing Alexandra.  She’s a bit wet behind the ears, but a likeable character who goes on quite a journey throughout the book.

The third view point of the novel are the chapters entitled ‘She’ and they are told from the murderer’s perspective.  A very clever idea, as we get an insight into the murderer’s mind, but the author also manages to throw us a few red herrings!

What I enjoyed most about this novel is the pace, it’s fast – no waffle! It also keeps you guessing.  I think I changed my mind three times about who the murderer was, despite having it right first time!

A good escapist novel for those who like their crime fiction fast paced, a bit tongue in cheek at times and with plenty of bluffs and double bluffs!

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Rarely am I left not knowing whether I liked or hated a book – in fact, I believe this is a first, but I was genuinely left a bit perplexed by this book.  I couldn’t decide.  I thought bits of it were brilliant and other parts were so boring and left me scratching my head.

Toby Fleishman is a doctor who appears to be pretty self-obsessed, has something akin to an eating disorder and thinks about nothing more than when he’s next going to have sex.  I found him a total bore. 

He is currently going through divorce proceedings with his soon to be ex-wife Rachel.

One morning Rachel leaves their two kids with him (Hannah 11 – spoilt brat and Solly younger and much sweeter) and goes off to a yoga retreat but fails to return to collect them at the appointed time. 

She doesn’t come back, and Toby is unable to make contact.

I couldn’t quite figure out what this part of the story was meant to convey – that Rachel was a bitch? That Rachel was mad?

The narration I also found totally confusing.  The novel is narrated by Libby – an old friend of Toby’s. But this didn’t become clear to me for quite some time.  It seemed to start in the third person and then be narrated by an unknown voice.  Not sure where I missed the note!  Perhaps I just wasn’t concentrating.  This book requires concentration at times.

The second half of the novel was where I began to tune in and enjoy it.  The author turns marriage on its head, and everything we think we know turns out to be wrong.  There’s much more to Rachel than we were led to believe.  

Libby wakes up and sees Toby for what he is – narcissistic and needy.

I think the point the author is making is that we stereotype genders, professions and even people, when there’s usually a lot more going on than meets the eye.

There’s no doubt the author is full of razor-sharp wit, insightful asides, and interesting view points on many subjects.  It was all just a bit too confusing for me.

I think the nub of it was that I didn’t care two hoots about either Toby or Rachel, and if you don’t get invested in the characters there’s not much point really.

However, I do know I am in the minority regarding this book, as it seems to have many adoring fans.

Let me know what you think!

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I adore novels with a strong sense of place and ‘Small Pleasures’ certainly fit the bill. Set in 1957 in the suburbs of London, Jean Swinney works as a feature writer at local newspaper, ‘The North Kent Echo.’  She lives with her elderly ailing mother and from the start it’s clear that Jean’s life is one of domesticity, boredom, and responsibility.  She enjoys the ‘small pleasures’ of a sherry now and then, a few cigarettes while lying on the lawn, or a day trip away from the suffocating atmosphere in which she resides.

With the arrival of a new story to investigate, Jean’s life suddenly becomes a lot more interesting. A young Swiss woman called Gretchen Tilbury contacts the paper to say that her daughter Margaret is the result of a virgin birth.   When Jean investigates the story, she gets more than she bargained for.  She begins a friendship with Gretchen, Howard and Margaret that will lead to unusual and devastating consequences.

This novel had me hooked from the start.  Written in the third person, the narrative is perfectly paced, and after just a few pages I felt Jean was someone I would certainly go for a drink with. I sympathized immediately with the situation she was stuck in with her cantankerous mother.  Every aspect of Jean’s life is beautifully detailed, with the small details such as a dinner of ‘liver and onions, and tinned pears with evaporated milk for pudding’ creating a vivid picture of life in 1950s London.

Jean’s relationship with the Tilbury family develops slowly and yet I was immediately drawn in to the impact the small gestures of kindness shown to Jean by the family had on her.  The warmth between Gretchen and her daughter Margaret serves to highlight the lack of affection Jean has had in her own life, and makes you feel for her all the more.

I loved the character of Jean.  I thought despite her circumstances she was – as they probably would have said in those days – a plucky ol bird!  She may be somewhat naïve but paradoxically I think she is also switched on in many ways and knows there is something more to this story from the start.

Her friendship with Howard is extraordinarily moving and would bring a tear to a glass eye!

I loved the characterization, the sense of place and the gradual unfolding of the narrative – all exquisitely timed and oh so beautifully written.

There are only about 5 or 6 books that I own that I re-read for pleasure.  I will certainly be adding this one to the list.   A wonderful novel.    Delighted to see it getting all the coverage it deserves.

Supper Club by Lara Williams

If I start a book, I almost always finish it.  It’s a sort of stubbornness, but also, I always hope that it is going to redeem itself somewhere along the line.

Supper Club was a book I finished, but unfortunately I didn’t get along with at all.  It wasn’t for me.  I can see how, if recipes and talking about food are your bag, you might love it.

My fundamental problem was with the structure.  I like a book that I can put down and when I come back to it a couple of days later, I can pick up where I left off.   Not possible with Supper Club.

It jumped around so much, I didn’t know where I was from one reading to the next, and I read it every night to try and remedy this problem.

The book is written in the first-person narrative and centers around Roberta.  The story jumps between Roberta’s life at university where she struggles to fit in and make friends, and her current life, writing reviews for a fashion website where she meets the indomitable Stevie.

Stevie and Roberta set up the ‘Supper Club’ a club where women get together to eat, drink, and go wild. They source food from dumpsters (yes really) and leftover food from supermarkets.  Roberta is a great cook and rustles up all sorts of exotic dishes. Their behaviour during Supper Club is to behave as badly as possible.  Mash food everywhere, have food fights, eat and drink and take drugs till you are sick. Out of control.  They break in to places and demolish them.  Why?  It certainly doesn’t seem to make them feel any better about themselves, and I just didn’t see the point.

The idea that somehow this makes them feminists and is sticking it up to the patriarchy just seemed a ridiculous idea to me.  What are they trying to prove?  That they can eat until they are sick?  Way to go.

The redeeming aspects of the story are the descriptions of the food and the descriptions of Roberta’s loneliness. What I hated, were the recipes that were just dropped into the novel a propos of nothing.  They jarred with me as they spoilt the flow of the narrative.

Towards the end, I did enjoy the narrative regarding Roberta and Stevie’s friendship and some of the descriptive writing is exceptionally astute and beautiful, but overall, I am afraid this novel just frustrated me.   If you have read it and enjoyed it, perhaps you can enlighten me?!  I have such respect for writers, and there is no doubt that Lara Williams is an exceptionally gifted writer.  This novel just wasn’t for me.

supper club


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

The sales from this novel have left publishers astonished.  Not just because of its phenomenal success, but because of the duration of that success.  What has made this such an outlier in the publishing world?   Some may say the fascinating back story has something to do with it.

I’m not going to get into that here, but there’s plenty about it online if you are so inspired.

My interest in the book lay partly due to the author having spent time in Zambia, where I grew up.  There’s no doubt she has led a fascinating life – and I intend to read one of her other books called ‘The Eye of the Elephant.’

where the crawdads sing

The novel starts poignantly as four-year-old Kya watches her mother walk down the road with her suitcase, without looking back.  Kya doesn’t know it then, but her mother is never coming back.  Left with her siblings who are all much older than her, and are leaving home fast, Kya is soon abandoned and isolated.  Her father is a chronic alcoholic and she spends much of her time hiding from his temper.   Her mother had taken one beating too many – hence her departure.

Kya’s journey of survival begins at a very young age.  By the time she reaches her teens, she is completely alone and has been nicknamed ‘The marsh girl,’ by the residents of this small town in North Carolina.

Running parallel to Kya’s story is the story of the murder of a young man, Chase Andrews, the town’s rich kid and a former high school quarterback.

I believe the reason this book continues to be on the bestseller list is due to several factors.  The author’s evident passion for, and beautiful descriptions of the natural world.   The marsh is so vividly evoked, I could totally lose myself in the depictions, such as ‘the ballet of fireflies,’ mentions of egrets, slate coloured skies, cicadas and gulls.  Kya immerses herself wholly and completely into her surroundings.  It is her security and her sole comfort.

Its success is also because it is a gripping tale of survival in a very unusual setting.  We all love a story of someone fighting to survive against all the odds.  Every day is a battle for Kya.  She battles to feed herself, to fight off the nasty young men who are all secretly attracted to her, and to survive the loneliness that threatens to engulf her.  Small town gossip and racial tensions heighten the atmosphere.  In fact, Kya’s only two supporters are a coloured couple who are mainly ostracised from the community themselves.

Finally, this book is a winner because the prose is evocative, engaging, lyrical and character driven.  I cared about what happened to Kya, I was rooting for her from her childhood onwards.  We love a story of the underdog winning in the end.  But does she?  You’ll have to read it to find out!

It’s brilliant.  Just read it! You are in for an absolute treat!

Reviews of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Paris Wife is based upon the true story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley.  They meet in the 1920s in Chicago and immediately form a strong bond.  After a whirlwind courtship they go to Paris where Ernest believes his writing career will flourish.

This is where the trouble begins as their glamourous life becomes more than a little complicated.

The story is narrated in the first person by Hadley which gives it a beautiful immediacy and poignancy.   The characters are well developed, and the descriptions of Paris made my yearn to visit the city I love so much.

This is a beautifully written love story about the devastation of betrayal and the importance of loyalty.  It is about friendship, love and jealousy and what happens when your boundaries are blown apart.    The writing is elegant and the prose hypnotic.  It transported me to a different world, and I found it fully engaging.   I recommend this book highly.  In one word it is stunning.

photo of The Paris Wife and Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I was completely blown away by this author’s book – ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ when I read it about five years ago.  So, I was eager to read Exit West.   Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Exit West, it didn’t captivate me as ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ had, but that’s not to say it’s not a great read.

Hamid has the gift of writing beautifully stark prose that captures a moment in time in technicolour.

Written in the third person, Exit West tells the story of Saeed and Nadia who both live in an unnamed city where war has broken out.  They meet at an evening class. Saeed is the son of a university professor and Nadia lives alone and wears a full black robe, despite it not being compulsory in their society.  She says it is a form of protection, so we understand women are not treated with anything close to the respect they deserve by the patriarchy. As Saeed and Nadia’s relationship develops, the fighting escalates, and they know they must escape or risk death.

Now, I must confess this is the bit of the story I couldn’t quite get my head around – they escape through these ‘doors’ and do not know where they will find themselves.  Of course, I understand it is a metaphor and the author employs the use of magical realism, but it didn’t quite work for me, and it did take away from the story somewhat.   The first place they find themselves in is Mykonos in Greece.  They stay there for a while before then going to London and then to Marin in San Francisco.

The author’s gift lies in portraying what life is like for refugees and the awful realities for those who are fleeing war torn countries.

What I loved most about this novel were the descriptions.  This one struck me as particularly prescient given the times we are currently in, when Saeed contemplates his grief:

‘and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us……and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow……Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.’

This is another poignant love story, thought-provoking and heart-breaking. Highly recommend.




Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Set in 1878 in London this novel is an atmospheric tour de force.  Telling the story of Bram Stoker’s life as a theatre manager in London where he meets the eccentric and fabulously talented actor and Chief of the Lyceum Theatre Henry Irving and his leading lady, the enigmatic and beautiful Ellen Terry.  Although a work of fiction, it is based on real events, making it (if it were possible) an even more fascinating read.

shadowplay image

Bram Stoker had been a theatre critic in Dublin which is where he came to the attention of Henry Irving.  Irving invites him to manage the Lyceum Theatre in London.    Bram has just married Florence Balcombe in haste, and both will repent at leisure.  She was the former flame of Oscar Wilde, who makes a brief appearance in the novel.  Stoker becomes bewitched by the beautiful Ellen Terry and his obsession with both her and his work at the theatre leaves Florence abandoned and desolate.

The novel is structured in Three Acts and the story includes a mix of letters, witness testimony and recollections.  The atmosphere is what makes this novel utterly captivating.  London in all its gothic undertones, as the Jack the Ripper murders cast a dark shadow and the haunted theatre seems destined to curses and misfortune.

The relationship between Bram Stoker and Henry Irving adds greatly to the story.  Although Irving treats Stoker with disdain and utter contempt, he needs Stoker more than Stoker needs him, and their co-dependent relationship becomes a true friendship by the end.  Or at least I like to believe it does!

Joseph O’Connor has such a talent for making a city come alive on the page and the atmosphere of London and the goings on in the theatre make this novel an absolute joy to read.  His writing is incandescent, and I would re-read this novel happily, knowing I would get something more from it every time.

It’s a fascinating look at the writer of one of the most enduring classics of our time – Dracula, and the demons he faced as a writer and a man.

I recommend this novel without hesitation.  One of my favourite reads in a long time.  I will now dash off to order ‘Ghost Light’ which I believe is also set in the theatre.