The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When the reclusive, elderly and utterly glamorous Hollywood screen idol of last century, Evelyn Hugo, invites an obscure journalist, Monique Grant, to write an exclusive story about her for a magazine, little does Grant – or her employer – know what she’s agreed to do. A fading star who captivated audiences and the public with her films and the gossipy stories of her many husbands, affairs, the terrible losses and magnificent successes she survived, Hugo is still an enigma to many. The chance to put the record straight once and for all is, for Monique, too good to be true.

Struggling with personal issues, Monique nonetheless is flattered and seizes the opportunity being given to her, only, as the days go by and Hugo’s incredible tale unfolds, she also wonders why, of all those who could have written this story, she has been chosen. What possible reason could this powerful, intelligent woman, with fox-cunning and an unapologetic knack of always getting what she wants, have for choosing her?

Taking Monique and thus the reader back to her childhood in Hell’s Kitchen in New York, Hugo’s story is breath-taking in its audacity, courage and chutzpah. Beautiful, mildly talented, but knowing how to use the gifts she’s been given to forge ahead, and not caring what others think, Hugo’s tale is as much about female subordination, patriarchy, the Hollywood star-system, sex, sexuality, beauty, ageing, power and its abuses, as it is about a woman learning to navigate a life for herself and those she loves through this.

Taking heed of Hugo’s story, Monique finds herself alternately touched and inspired, inspired to use the lessons Hugo’s imparting to improve her own life. But when she learns the truth behind the story, about why she was chosen to write it, it threatens to unravel not only what she thought she knew about the actress, but about herself as well.

This is an easy, terrific read that takes you back in time on one woman’s remarkable and not always easy to stomach journey. The hurdles and prejudices she overcomes, the way in which men particularly underestimate her and others, the choices she bravely makes, and the hard decisions she stands by are compelling reading. Not always easy to like, it is easy to fall in love with Evelyn Hugo – the hard, wise, and always compassionate woman – even when at her hardest and most selfish. Terrible things were written and thought about the beautiful starlet, but none were as bad, raw or honest as what she wants Monique to write now.

Question is, can Monique do the woman justice? Especially once the truth is revealed…

Great escapist read.

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Nevermoor: The Trails of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

It’s funny how readers are often contrary people. When a book is really hyped by various marketing forces and reviewers, we so often resist reading it. I sometimes wonder, why? Is because we don’t want to be told what we should enjoy and rave about? Or is that a small part of us fears we’ll be duped and have our high expectations dashed, resent the time and money spent, and bear witness to the poor author being made a bit of a commercial scapegoat? Maybe it’s a bit of both.

I think a little bit of me felt that way with this book, Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend, yet another part of me longed to read it and celebrate in this young woman’s success as her work is likened to Harry Potter and picked up by a major film company. But another part of me thought, what if they’re wrong? I don’t want to be one of those thinking, “yep, I shouldn’t have listened and trusted my cynical instincts…”

Well, now I’ve read it, I understand both the comparisons to Harry Potter (and other children’s classics) and the hype. This is a simply delightful tale that will capture both children’s and adults’ imaginations and succour those who’ve been clamouring for something creatively nourishing in a new Potter story’s absence (despite there being so many magnificent children’s works out there!).

Nevermoor tells the tale of eleven-year-old (and yes, savvy readers will point out the many similarities between the tropes and characters in Townsend’s book and other writers (Pullman, Rowling, Dahl; etc etc.) I have no problem with familiar metaphors and devices being used – after all, they’re staples of kids’ literature and have thrilled generations. It’s how they’re used that’s important and Townsend doesn’t disappoint) Morrigan Crow who, as a “cursed child” is doomed to die upon her next birthday.

The first few chapters give the reader insight into Morrigan’s life, why she’s “cursed” and how she’s very much an outcast, not only in the city in which she lives, but within her own remote family. Blamed for everything from weather events to illness and even deaths, Morrigan is avoided, treated with suspicion and contempt and the reality of her looming death discussed with an unhealthy enthusiasm by everyone around her.

When she’s whisked away by the magnificently bearded and named, Jupiter North to the chaotic and marvellous city of Nevermoor, it looks as though Morrigan’s fortunes have taken a turn for the better. Only, this state of joy is short-lived as in order to remain in the relative safety of Nevermoor, Morrigan has to undergo a series of dreadful trials so she, as an “illegal”, can be admitted to the Wundrous Society – a group that function like the family she’s never had and, deep down, always wanted.

But in order to have that membership she craves, Morrigan needs to demonstrate not only some important personal qualities, but a special talent and, as she well knows, she doesn’t possess one. Even so, there are those who will do everything in their power to stop talentless Morrigan not only succeeding, but even competing for they know something about Morrigan she is yet to learn and which can alter the fate of not just this young girl, but countries.

There’s no doubt, Townsend has an engaging and warm style and it’s easy to not only enter the world she creates, but thoroughly enjoy the lighter and darker aspects of it. I was reminded of Enid Blyton’s books, Mary Poppins, Philip Pullman’s works, as well as the Harry Potter series, for her ability to draw us in and create scenes you could see, smell, touch and taste. Conjuring wonderful images of magic and mayhem, the city of Nevermoor, and those who people it, are indeed, “wundrous” as are the many inventive trials, modes of transport, the organic, sentient buildings and celebrations the citizens enjoy.

From giant cats to zombies, witches, umbrella-transport systems, the “gossamer line”, and vampire dwarves, Nevermoor and Morrigan’s time there is never dull. Viewing this strange world through her eyes, we too come to embrace this charming place and all the strange beings with their stringent rules who inhabit it. While some of the villains are drawn diametrically to the heroes, this is not a bad thing in a series designed for kids (or adults for that matter), and there are still those who confound expectations.

In this case, the book certainly lived up to my initially hesitant expectations and I am already thinking of some young people who would be as enchanted as I was by this really wundrous tale – I cannot wait to introduce them to Nevermoor.

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Close to the Bone: Logan McRae #8 by Stuart Macbride

imgres-4Another cracker of a read from Stuart MacBride featuring DS (now Acting DI) Logan McRae and the cast of regulars that readers of the series have grown to love: the inappropriate (“we are not home to Mr Fuck-Up”) but somehow loveable DCI Steele, prone to stuff-ups, Rennie, “Dildo”, Wee Hamish, Finnie etc.

This time, a feature film based on a successful supernatural book, Witchfire, is being shot in and around Aberdeen. Former DI Insch is involved in the production and the cops and population are bewitched. When a gruesome murder that has clearly been based on those described in the book occurs, the cast and crew come under scrutiny. When the body count starts to grow and even one of McRae’s own disappears, the stakes become high; but this is an elusive and clever criminal McRae’s seeks, one who is above all convinced they are righteous and that makes them doubly dangerous.

Apart from the occasional bursts of humour amidst quite dire circumstances, the interpersonal relationships between the police and the great dialogue, what makes these books so compulsive is Logan himself. A man with a head and heart, he is simultaneously vulnerable, heroic, resilient and kind. Whenever I finish one of the books, I promise myself I’ll read something else for a while, but I find myself returning to the series, needing and wanting to know how his tale pans out. Highly recommended.


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Book Review: Headhunters by Jo Nesbo

I adore the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo and, from the first books I read in translation have been struck by his slick prose, tight plotting and wonderful characterization, characterization that is so skilled it allows the reader to both experience and understand the hero’s strengths and weaknesses and thus forgive and support his actions. Headhunters, a one-off book set in corporate Oslo, did not impress nor captivate me nearly as much.

While theHeadhunters first person narrative contains the usual Nesbo flair for thrilling plots populated by ghastly villains and miscellaneous others who exit and enter, the characters in Headhunters failed to leave an impression. Part of the reason for this, I think, is because from the outset, they are quite superficial. The lead character and POV of the novel, headhunter and part-time art thief, Roger Brown, is a narcissistic prat (and unattractive  – in the psychological and emotional sense – anti-hero) who boasts about not only the way he can read people, but practically every other element of his life: his outstanding reputation in his main gig as a corporate headhunter, his grasp of FBI interrogation techniques and perfection of them, his beautiful art-gallery owner wife, his hair, his manner of dress etc. etc. While he tries to suggest he is comfortable with his relatively short stature, there is also a sense in which he does protest too much and the reader cannot help but think that Roger works hard to overcompensate. This is something that, in many ways, holds true when he meets the more than capable former executive and soldier Clas Greve, and decides he might be a suitable candidate for a top job. But when Roger learns that this man also owns an original Rubens, the cocky Roger decides to risk another job on the side; only, he ends up risking more than he ever bargained for and a deadly cat and mouse game, a head-hunting of a different and very final kind, ensues.

As mentioned above, I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. While I wondered if this was social commentary on Nesbo’s part, a sort of satire about how shallow and egotistic we’ve become, and the reader wasn’t meant to like anyone, I am now, on reflection, not so sure. After all, in Nesbo’s later books – the Hole ones – one of the great strengths is the marvellous shades of grey in which characters are painted, revealing the rich canvas of what passes for morality and how even ethics have a context. In Headhunters, no such complexity exists and rather than a three-dimensional picture of human foibles and choices, we are given a very superficial portrayal indeed.

Furthermore, the plot was clichéd in parts, too far-fetched in others (the scene in the outdoor toilet was just silly) and above all, predictable. Mind you, that didn’t mean I wanted to stop reading, Nesbo is a very good storyteller after all. It just meant I didn’t really care. I didn’t care who lived, who died or what the outcome was. I didn’t invest. That made me feel a little sad.

Reading that Hollywood is making a film out of this book surprised me. It’s not that original – I would have thought the Hole stories would have offered much more complex fare – maybe that’s the rub. Still, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination and made for a quick summer read. It’s just not the Nesbo I have come to admire and look forward to so much.


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