Review: One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus

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Five students go to detention. Only four leave alive.

Yale hopeful BRONWYN has never publicly broken a rule.

Sports star COOPER only knows what he’s doing in the baseball diamond.

Bad boy NATE is one misstep away from a life of crime.

Prom queen ADDY is holding together the cracks in her perfect life.

And outsider SIMON, creator of the notorious gossip app at Bayview High, won’t ever talk about any of them again. 

He dies 24 hours before he could post their deepest secrets online. Investigators conclude it’s no accident. All of them are suspects. 

Everyone has secrets, right?

What really matters is how far you’ll go to protect them.

One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus was described online as a mixture of Pretty Little Liars and The Breakfast Club, which convinced me to read it in about 3.4 seconds.

I finished the book very quickly, and when it was over I just wanted to read a little bit more. It had those classic high school tropes, with the added mystery of a murder case. And while I did eventually guess some aspects of the ending, it took some time for me to consider all the potential suspects and wonder about what could have happened, seemingly behind everyone’s noses, in detention.

Bronwyn, Cooper, Nate and Addy are each so different (and somewhat stereotypical at first), which I believe is definitely intentional, and also makes me think that most people should be able to relate to some or all of the characters in different ways.

I liked the character development as you learn the group’s secrets, and in turn learn more about their personalities. I think this was helped by the fact that the chapters were written from the perspectives of the four students suspected of the murder, because you get to learn how individual characters think and also how they feel about the others in the self-procclaimed “murder club.” I also liked the romance and friendship that developed between Bronwyn and Nate, Cooper’s bravery, and Addy finding her independence.

A quick stalk of @writerkmc on Twitter pulls up words like “page-turner,” “binge reading,” “mind blowing” and “captivating” – all pretty great stuff! I’d say Karen McManus’s writing is honest, suspensful, youthful.

Also, the COVER ART. I love it the Aus/UK edition. Simple, eye-catching, spot on.

One of Us is Lying was a light and fun read, so if you’re intrigued by this point I recommend you pick up a copy!

Blogging Anna Karenina – Parts 1, 2 & 3

Translated by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes


Coming from the guy who wrote War and Peace, a book so notorious for its length and inaccessibility, Leo Tolstoy’s 744-page Anna Karenina is one novel that may forever remain on your ‘One Day’ TBR. Perhaps you’ve already read it? If so, well done! For me, it’s one of those freakishly large books that I’m crazy enough to lug around in my handbag and hope to finish by, say, 2020? Hey, at least it’s paperback.

For the blog’s sake, rather than waiting until I’m finished to write a review, I plan to summarise for you what I’ve gleaned so far from Parts 1, 2 and 3 (of 8). This may not be a great idea if you hate spoilers (and in researching to jog my memory, I’ve already spoiled something MAJOR at the end – be careful out there, friends! It’s treacherous!), but if you want some of the story without all the time commitment, here it is!

Shall we start with some introductions? Sure. It’s a bit of a love triangle…rhombus. Let’s set the scene:

In Part I, we meet Stiva, who is quite the irritating loaf to tell you the truth. He’s been cheating on his wife, Dolly, the mother of his children, with the children’s French governess – but all he thinks when he wakes up on the couch in the morning is “Hm, where is my dressing gown and my footman, OH RIGHT. I’m in the dog house. Quite embarrassing.” Nothing can really get him down for too long though, not even his wife’s immense distress, and he’s soon smiling again.

Dolly, on the other hand, is distraught, and cannot see how she can go on, stuck in this marriage, until her husband’s sister Anna Karenina comes to visit to smooth things over.

Anna is Stiva’s sister. She is charming, enigmatic, and married, but the young officer Vronsky falls madly in love with her the moment he meets her at the train station.

Kitty is Dolly’s younger sister, and she is all lined up to marry Vronsky. There goes that idea. Aside: I got some serious Jane Austen vibes from the start of this book. I think it’s the courting, the assumption that women must marry, the propriety of society, the multitude of men…

Then we have poor, adorable Levin. He’s a rich farmer and rather in love with Kitty (or, rather, the “feminine side” of the entire Scherbatsky family). He’s sweet, but tell me though, is this the kind of guy you’d want to fall in love with you?

NARRATOR, DESCRIBING LEVIN: It was almost as if he felt that he had to fall in love with one of the sisters, but could not make out precisely with which it should be.

Anyway, he eventually decides that Kitty was The One all along (once the two elder girls are taken), and he quite nervously arrives in Moscow to propose. He and Stiva go out for a ridiculous feast before Levin hurriedly proposes to Kitty and she awkwardly declines, thinking she should wait for Vronsky.

Here, I think it’s appropriate to insert one of the most awkward conversations in literary history:

LEVIN: I’m at your house too early… *glancing around the room, sombrely*

KITTY: Oh, no…  It’s alright *also glancing*

LEVIN: But that is what I really wanted, to find you alone *not looking at Kitty*

KITTY, GETTING NERVOUS: MAMA WILL BE DOWN ANY MOMENT…UH…Yesterday she was very tired. Yesterday…Yesterday…

LEVIN: I told you I didn’t know if I would be here long… that this depends on you…

KITTY: 

LEVIN, STILL, EXPERIENCING WORD VOMIT: This depends on you. I wanted to say…I wanted to say…I came here because of this…to ask…to be my wife!*

*actual quote. Poor, poor Levin.

Kitty can only reply negatively, “That cannot be, forgive me,” because she thinks Vronsky has got dibs on her. Then there’s a dance, some more humiliation, and Kitty soon realises that Vronsky has fallen for Anna and was always a bit of a half-hearted, flirty jerk towards her. Ouch.

So then Anna gets a train back to Moscow and upon disembarking, remembers that her husband has the most horribly large ears. Yikes.

By Part 2, Kitty is veritably lovesick and bed-ridden by feelings of rejection. A doctor recommends travelling abroad to a spa in Germany, as all fine society does from time to time. She gets a girl-crush on the saintly Varenka who looks after everyone at the spa, and turns a little pious for a while.

At a party (Betty’s house), Anna and Vronsky spend time speaking together, lovey-dovey, and though it doesn’t bother Karenin, he notices that others in the room are bothered, so he decides to approach his wife about it.

Vronsky participates in a steeplechase and his horse Frou-Frou breaks her back. Frou-Frou! Anna gets all panicky and I think this is where things really hit home for her overly proud husband.

Part 3. Back at the farm, Levin muses on what’s important to him, what will make him happy. Farm, the grass, having kids, hard work. He also spends a full day cutting grass with a scythe in a huge paddock with the peasants and having The Best Time Ever. So he’s nice and sweaty and gritty by dawn when he sees his crush Kitty driving past in a carriage. TYPICAL.

Karenin refuses to separate from Anna, but threatens to take away their son, Seryozha, if she carries on her affair.

THOUGHTS:

  1. Why someone would name their child Seryozha? Sir-yos-ah? Serry-oosa? Let’s call him Steve.
  2. Still five parts to go. What narrative rollercoaster awaits?
  3. I don’t know if this post was a good idea. I’m sorry, all.

Podcast Review: S-Town

S-Town is from the producers of Serial and This American Life.

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Last week, I did something that was a little different for me. I decided, in the 6am silence while getting ready for work, to unlock my phone and download a podcast, pretty much at random. S-Town was right there, on the Featured page. I think I’d heard of Serial…somewhere, I don’t know – it was in the recesses of my brain…so I thought S-Town might be worth a shot.

Let me say this first: I loved it. Actually, I became obsessed with it. Whenever I got the chance – twice a day during my hour-long train ride, on the tram, in the elevator – there were headphones in my ears, and I was falling deeper and deeper into the story.

It’s doing extremely well on the charts. When you consider that the series, top of the podcast charts in several countries, has been out for less than five weeks (since March 28 this year), you start to get a sense of its cult popularity. S-Town is also the fastest podcast ever to reach 15 million downloads and streams on Apple Podcasts. Funnily enough though, I didn’t hear about S-Town from a friend, nor did I read a compelling article about its producer’s commitment and ingenuity. If you’d like to read some much better reviews than mine, just go to Brian Reed’s Twitter page, or do a quick Google search, and you’ll find interviews and articles about Brian and his team’s creation. But if you’re with me, read on:


S Town is narrated by Brian Reed, a senior producer at This American Life, and journalist living in New York. It takes form in seven chapters, each beautifully linked to the last and leaving the listener not wanting, but needing more.

The origins of the S-Town podcast came about when Reed was contacted by Alabama man John B. McLemore, who asked the reporter to investigate a rumour going around town that the teenage son of a wealthy family has been bragging about killing a guy and getting away with it. Woah. He says everyone in the town knows this rumour and they’re just okay with it being covered up. Some regular correspondence ensues, Reed gets hooked and decides to go down there, and so do you.

But the story turns into so much more than that. What starts as a murder mystery becomes a profile study of a man, completely disillusioned with his small town (he calls it Sh*ttown), and the complexities of his mind. It’s weird and arty and exciting. You hear recordings of local people living in Bibb County, people who knew John, stitched together with Reed’s insightful wonderings and detailed narration. I can’t tell you how stressed-out I feel trying to write about how much I loved the series, because it feels like such an impossible task.

I’m going to be honest here. For a long time while listening (actually, probably the whole time), I thought I was listening to a wonderful piece of fiction. I still have moments when I think about the telling and how well the story comes together and I think, “Man, are you sure this is real life?” But when I found out more about Serial and Brian himself, I realised that the nonfiction S-Town was just an incredibly well put-together project. It’s pretty amazing.

You will end up somewhere so much different than you thought you would at the end of the seventh chapter, and you might even come out of the listening experience feeling like a better writer, or a more curious humanS-Town is an investigation of a man’s life – his secrets, his quirks, and the people who thought they knew him.

I don’t want to spoil anything by giving too much detail.

All I will say is that listening to S-Town, and immediately after, season 1 of Serial, was one of those Good Life Decisions, that will stick with me and has changed the way I think about human stories.

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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I actually read Fahrenheit 451 in a few days in Cairns a month or so back, after my boyfriend let me steal it from his bookshelves. This book is one of those classics I’ve always wanted to read – it seemed inappropriate that I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

The concept of the book is pretty fascinating (if a little scary to book lovers!) – set in a future where televisions come three or four walls of your living room in size, and interact with you as if you’re family, there is no longer demand for books. In fact, they are outlawed due to their ‘dangerous’ content. Houses have long been fire-proofed too, so now the role of firefighters is to light fires, rather than to extinguish them. Specifically, they light fires with illegal books.

Guy Montag is a fireman and his job is to burn these forbidden books. He becomes fed up with his superficial society that has no appreciation for literature, knowledge, or the nature. This only intensifies when he makes the acquaintance of a new neighbour, seventeen-year-old Clarisse McClellan, who questions everything about Montag’s world.

Montag begins stowing books away and secretly starts to read them. Anyone could turn him in – his boss, his colleagues, his wife… The world that opens up to him might just be worth the risk.

If you’ve been getting a little too lost in your phone lately, or you can’t believe how quickly you got through TWO SEASONS OF SHERLOCK, pick up this book and remind yourself of how much you love reading!

 

Review: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

‘Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.’

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the invaluable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of Hitler Youth.

 In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.

 

It took me about three months and one up-til-midnight-cause-it’s-so-good-night to finish Anthony Doerr’s novel, All The Light We Cannot See, and I’ll tell you why. Caught up with starting a new job, travelling to Cairns, celebrating Christmas and an overnight stay in hospital, ATLWCS became a staple in my handbag and on my bedside table as I read through snippets at a time, picking up the text whenever I was hungry for words.

Doerr’s words are a feast for the mind, too. He loves to use surprising language, infrequently used words, like xenolith, entropy, spectral (there are so many great examples that I wish I’d underlined at the time of reading). The archived mollusks in the Natural History Museum, the changing leaves in the Jardin des Plantes, and the ancient ramparts in the coastal town of Saint-Malo all come to life by Doerr’s vivid descriptions – detailed and uniquely artful, as if they were written by a blind girl’s father to help her see the world more clearly. 

I loved both Marie-Laure and Werner’s fascination with science. Marie-Laure loves mollusks, shells, aquatic life, spurred by her childhood spent at the museum, and the Jules Verne novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which she reads in braille. Werner loves radios, light (‘Why doesn’t the wind move the light?’), the ocean (‘It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel’), questioning everything.

Their lives coincide but differ – Werner is and orphan from a mine-town in Germany, Marie-Laure is a blind girl who’s father is her life – and their stories are told concurrently, segmented through the years. They collide in Saint-Malo, only briefly, only for an instant really.

When I got to the final sections of the book (last night) I was desperate to finish. I even switched off my light with 50 pages left, only to switch it back on half an hour later to get to the end. The way the novel explores war and human goodness stuck with me, and also the people who get left behind after death or war. There’s an interesting passage in the final pages about souls, how maybe they buzz around in the air above us, travelling much like the transmissions of text messages and television programs, ‘faded but audible if you listen closely enough.’ I like to think this might be true.

 

Review: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is the original American campus novel. When Richard Papen joins an elite group of clever misfits at his New England college, it seems he can finally become the person he wants to be. But the moral boundaries he will cross with his new friends – and the deaths they are responsible for – will change all of their lives forever. The Secret History recounts the terrible price we pay for mistakes made on the dark journey to adulthood.

This. Book. Was. So. Good. I’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks because I was so intimidated by the genius mystery in the story. I just thought it was so good that a review written by me couldn’t do it justice. If you liked the TV series How To Get Away With Murder you’ll definitely enjoy this book. You’ll love it even more if you’ve been to university or had that “college” experience, even at a very academic high school, though I think any reader will appreciate Donna Tartt’s thriller.

I’d call this book sophisticated, on-the-verge YA because it centres around some pretty dark stuff done by characters in their college years – it’s probably ideal for readers 17-18+.  But if you’re younger, go for it!

The characters are so intriguing. With all but the narrator, Richard, you seem to get closer to the group but you never feel you know the whole truth. They are secretive, wise beyond their years (well, except for Bunny) and endlessly conspiratorial. The twins, Charles and Camilla, are charming and a little odd. There’s Francis, who is incredibly rich, Henry, who is a veritable genius especially when it comes to linguistics, and Bunny, who coasts off the others. Richard is smart but feels inadequate around his friends, and tends to fade into the background and be led by the stronger personalities in the group. Their Classics professor, Julian Morrow, is a curious character who has incredibly high standards for his Ancient Greek class of six and who’s actions are always a little bizarre.

“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell.”

There were moments when the book got reflective and seemed to drag, but I think these represented quite well the passing of time over winter break and the loneliness that Richard felt when his peers left campus.

Once the story of the original murder unravels, you will be hooked to keep reading. Interestingly, it’s not particularly gruesome (there are moments), as the story focuses more on the psychological aspect of being involved in a murder and the repercussions once the act is committed. Donna Tartt’s novel is about students who are too smart, to the point that they feel isolated and untouchableThe Secret History is a very intelligent book and a captivating read – you won’t be disappointed!

***

If you’ve read The Secret History, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Review: MEN by Marie Darrieuessecq

In a previous post I wrote about attending the Readings event to launch the English translation of Marie Darrieuessecq’s Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes, and now that I’ve finally finished it (a result of reading three books at once) I can tell you a bit more about the reading experience! The novel is renamed Men for the anglophiles and is subtitled A Novel of Cinema and Desire – quite the pertinent description for summarising what you’re going to get from this book. Continue reading

Reading and Empathy

I was recently a guest writer over at the World Literacy Foundation blog.

Literacy and eduction are both issues  very close to my heart, so it was a joy for me to contribute to this wonderful organisation. Read my article here, and while you’re there, check out the other posts and this amazing foundation!