The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

I had planned to review The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan for St. Valentine’s Day, but live got on the way and it took me a few more days to read it than expected which was amazing. I wished there was more pages or maybe one more sitting for this one.


From Goodreads:

From the New York Times best-selling author of Commencement and Maine comes a gorgeous, sprawling novel about marriage—about those who marry in a white heat of passion, those who marry for partnership and comfort, and those who live together, love each other, and have absolutely no intention of ruining it all with a wedding.

I first heard of The Engagements thanks to Naomi from The Writes of Women – as usual, mind you – and I contacted the publishers asking for a review copies, but they had run out of them. However, they kindly promised to send me one when the paperback was released this past January. So, I would like to thank them for being so kind and remembering me.

Why was I interested in The Engagements? Well, I loved the idea of an engagement ring connecting people. In Europe it is not common at all to pass your engagement ring to your son so that he proposes and until recently, women did not wear diamond engagement rings. It was considered American and, therefore, foreign. But in recent years things have changed and maybe one day mothers will be giving their rings to their sons. Who knows?

So, basically, The Engagements tells the story of four women and their partners who stand up for four different times and views in marriage and that is where the richness of the book lies. I think there are as many opinions on marriage as people, but there has been trends and Sullivan seems to have nailed them. And the best part is that they are all fine, legitimate and tolerable. Because they are views and Sullivan allows her characters to form those views, struggle with them and come to terms with them or just ask themselves what they were thinking. Frances, Evelyn, James, Delphine and Kate are all related to engagement rings in very different and particular ways and they are so well-written that it is almost impossible not to sympathize with them.

I do not know if the title and the story may look interesting to people who are not interested in engagement rings per se. I hate the label “chick-lit”, but I think many will use it with this book which is a shame. I loved the anthropological study behind the story, how engagements and marriage mean something in our minds but turn out to be completely different. And also, how ideas can mess people or make them happy or just create a necessity for them that was not there two centuries ago. Human beings are complex, but more so are the relationships we built with each other and The Engagements is a book about one of the most intimate, complex and talked-about of those relationships. I wished I could have given it a 4,5 review over at Goodreads, because this makes an almost perfect reading.

The Body Farm (Scarpetta #5) by Patricia Cornwell

The Body Farm by Patricia Cornwell is the fifth on the Kay Scarpetta series, a series that I love and that help me to unplug, relax and always inspire me. I once read about things that always happen in crime fiction and one is that detectives/doctors do not get that much sleep. And when life resembles fiction, I like to find solace in Scarpetta’s tight schedule. Also, the series have a special meaning for me since it was Mr. B&R who first bought me one Cornwell’s books and ever since he has been in charge of buying me all the books in the series!


From Goodreads:

When an eleven-year-old girl is found murdered, Kay Scarpetta, Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia, gets another chance at stopping one of the most heartless and horrifying serial killers of her career: the demented Temple Gault.

I was a little bit afraid of The Body Farm because I thought the title referred, literally, to a kind of farm where people were kept as animals. It is not, obviously! It refers to the forensic experiments carried on corpses to see how they deteriorate. As surprising as it may sound, I prefer the true meaning of the phrase.

This Scarpetta novel is no different to the previous ones: Kay gets a mysterious case, she gets personally caught on it and her niece Lucy is somehow drawn into the plot. But, at the same time, this one was different: it is the best Scarpetta novel regarding rhythm that I remember. You do not get lost, you do not forget details and you never get bored. So, being a pop-corn crime novel, you can imagine how easy and addictive the reading becomes.

Regarding Kay, what can I say? I love her and find her work and her being a workaholic -as most detectives in crime fiction are – a total inspiration. It is not arbitrary that I usually read Scarpetta’s novels when I am really tired and need a break. I think Cornwell describes perfectly how a modern, single woman has to fight for her life and her right to be what she wants to. In Kay’s case, she is a workaholic and she loves her niece, Lucy, as if she were her own daughter, with the only, key different that she is not. Also, Cornwell pays special attention to Kay’s love life, because it could not be otherwise.

So, I highly recommend The Body Farm to anyone, especially if you loved the previous installments in the series. However, I am a little bit sad since a fellow crime-fiction reader told the series lose quality. I hope to keep finding solace and a break from them, though. What do you think? No spoilers, please!

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I first heard of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton through Anna from A Case for Books who had fallen in love with the novel before it won its deserved Man Booker Prize of the YEAR 2013. So, I asked Granta Press for a review copy and they kindly sent me the heaviest hardback I have ever laid my hands on.


From Goodreads:

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have men in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.

Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bus, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her midtwenties, and will confirm for critics and readers that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament

One of the first things that called my attention about The Luminaries was its size. It has 894 pages and in my usually Terrier-fashion I usually start to lose interest in page 400 and I will not find it again until I am done. For me, finishing Anna Karenina was verging on torture. But, since I like to challenge myself and Anna was so enthusiastic about the book, I asked for a review copy. Once it arrived, family and friends expressed their surprise at the book size while I thought: “It’d better be excellent”. Lucky me, it was.

The first text you encounter as you start reading The Luminaries is a character list, so Catton grabbed my attention from the very beginning. Then, there is an explanation about the heavens and astronomy so that we know from the beginning that the stars, the Moon and the Sun and their movements will play key roles in the characters’ dynamics. Now, do not let this scare you: I have no idea about astronomy, but it did not interfere in any way in my enjoying and understanding the book. Having said that, Catton is a genius in creating and simulating both astronomical and personal relationships.

The story starts when Walter Moody arrives to Hokitika in New Zealand in search for a better life and finds himself sitting on a hotel living room with 12 other men who stare suspiciously at him. When he finds out those 12 men are hosting a secret meeting, he finds his own place in the story – for everything is connected – and that is how the story really begins: by 12 men telling their side of a story. Being a fan of crime fiction and postmodern literature, I found Catton’s idea splendid: can we really trust what others – or even ourselves! – tell us? Catton puts it more beautifully in Moody’s words:

Mody paused a moment, thinking. “In a court of law”, he said at last, “a wtiness takes his oath to speak the truth: his own truth, that is. He agrees to two parameters. His testimony must be the whole truth, and his testimony must be nothing but the truth. Only the second of these parameters is a true limit. The first, of course, is largely a matter of discretion. When we say the whole truth we mean, more precisely, all the facts and impressions that are pertinent to the matter at hand. All that is impertinent is not only immaterial; it is, in many cases, deliberately misleading. […] “I contend that there are no whole truths, there are only pertinent truths – and pertinence, you must agree, is always a matter of perspective.

Since I do not wish the wonderful story The Luminaries is, I will not reveal anything more about the plot. But, certainly, Catton’s prose deserves a lot of attention. Throughout the 894 pages, I only felt my attention drift away a couple of times because there is always something relevant and attention-catching happening. Details and crucial in The Luminaries and Catton wants her readers to make the connections for themselves which is something to be thankful nowadays.

Regarding women’s representation, there are only 3 women with an active role and although none of them are the kind of characters that I would root for, I found myself enjoying their company and not finding fault with any of them. As a minority in a colonial environment, women had it more difficult to survive than men did and all of them did what it was needed to survive. So, no wonder I cheered for them (specially for one!).

So, after this review and after giving the book a 5 star review at Goodreads, I think it is obvious that this is a must-read for everyone willing to spend time and a lot of attention on their next read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

When I first heard that J.R Rowling had published The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective novel under a pseudonym and I checked it, I was not very keen on reading it. But then, why not? I focus on crime fiction and after the secret was revealed a lot of people who do not usually read crime fiction would read The Cuckoo’s Calling. So, I asked for a review copy and the publisher kindly sent me a gorgeous paperback edition.


From Goodreads:

After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Strike is down to one client, and creditors are calling. He has also just broken up with his longtime girlfriend and is living in his office.

Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, known to her friends as the Cuckoo, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike. You may think you know about the wealthy and famous, but you’ve never seen them under an investigation like this.

When I first read the above paragraph the first thing I thought was “I am not interested in supermodels and multimillionaires.” Shame on me for – on that precise moment – not remembering Rowling’s other novel The Casual Vacancy. If there was something that really deserved to be said about that novel is the detailed, accurate description of human behaviour in relation to money and the heavy yet not totally overt criticism of the distribution of wealth in a community. The Cuckoo’s Calling is not an exception: Cormoran Strike represents a generation of soldiers sent to Afghanistan to fight for in war most of us have already forgotten and now they are back with health problems. And we do not seem to care. His life is a huge contrast with John and Lula’s who come from a well-known aristocratic family and have enjoyed a more comfortable life. Of course, social criticism is a constant in crime fiction since it portrays society’s worst fears and demons, but Rowling is an expert on this and she incorporates it into the novel, making it a powerful tale of social injustices.

If I had to describe Rowling’s style in just one word it would be fluid. Most books have ups and downs and that is OK, but hers do not. They always demand the readers’ attention and manage to really catch it. There more and less interesting parts, but the 440 pages that make the hardback edition are a masterpiece in rhythm. I have only read another writer who works this way and that is my beloved Kate Atkinson. The book is divided into parts and each part into chapters that have their own internal structure so that many of them end with a cliff hanger that makes you want to read “just another chapter more” until it is 2 a.m.

Another key element in crime fiction is characters. Cormoran Strike is a modern adaptation of the hard-boiled detective although I would add that his being English is also very important. He drinks, he smokes, he has health problems and basically he is a mess. But a very intelligent, witty and hard-working mess, even a strategic mess who knows who to ask and who to talk to (and how) in every situation to get what he wants. His secretary, Robin, whose narration actually opens the novel deserves some attention too. She is described as typically English, recently engaged and caught in the modern fight of what her family wants for her and what she really wants. If it were not for her, Strike could have never solved the case. Having said that, one has to ask: Why did not Rowling think of a female detective? Neither did Atkinson by the way, and I find it so interesting that such intelligent women could not imagine a female detective, that I am even a little angry at them. But then I pick one of their books and see that they make a quite accurate portrait of society with both men and women – good and bad – are present and I forgive them. However, regarding the mystery, I have to admit that I could not find an answer to a very important question – neither could other fellow bloggers – and that is why I gave the book four stars at GR instead of five.

So, would I recommend The Cuckoo’s Calling? Yes, definitely. To anyone, but specially to crime fiction fans. It is a page-turner, it makes easy reading, it contains some very interesting criticism about money, welfare and war (and how they are related) and above all, it is a good book. It does not matter if it’s Rowling’s or Galbraith’s. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great crime novel and it throws some light on soldiers returning from the war, an issue society clearly needs to be aware of. And, if you loved the style and the themes, please check Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. Another set of page-turner crime fiction sparkled with some constructive social criticism.

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

I heard of Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach on Twitter thanks to some Londoners who had skipped their bus stops because of how much they were enjoying reading the book. So I contacted Francesca Main and she kindly sent me a review copy.


From Goodreads:

When Leila discovers the Web site Red Pill, she feels she has finally found people who understand her. A sheltered young woman raised by her mother, Leila has often struggled to connect with the girls at school; but on Red Pill, a chat forum for ethical debate, Leila comes into her own, impressing the Web site’s founder, a brilliant and elusive man named Adrian. Leila is thrilled when Adrian asks to meet her, flattered when he invites her to be part of “Project Tess.” Tess is a woman Leila might never have met in real life. She is beautiful, urbane, witty, and damaged. As they e-mail, chat, and Skype, Leila becomes enveloped in the world of Tess, learning every single thing she can about this other woman—because soon, Leila will have to become her. An ingeniously plotted novel of stolen identity, Kiss Me First is brilliantly frightening about the lies we tell—to ourselves, to others, for good, and for ill.

The first thing I need to say is that I finished this book about a week ago but I decided to give myself time to think about it. Both Naomi from Writes of Woman and I agree that although this book is much-loved on the Twitsphere we were not so impressed by it. Also, we both agree it is a dark novel and it explores some of the issues of our technology era that had never been explored before.

The most remarkable theme is the inscription of technology and social media in the story and how they play a key role. I have heard many times that Romeo and Juliet would not be dead had they had mobile phones. So, Kiss Me First addresses directly how technology and social media have changed us and especially, the way we interact. Facebook, Skype and online forums become the means to a story that could not be possible ten years ago. As someone born in the late 80’s and who has experienced and benefited from the technological revolution of the past ten years, I can see the appeal of the story, but I do not know if older generations would. For the main character, her Facebook friends are a constant source of worry, an issue not even someone in the twenties like me can understand. For this reason, I saw Kiss Me First as a YA novel which is not one of my favourite genres partly because I feel like I cannot connect with the characters.

Regarding the story as a mystery or a thriller, I felt it could have been more twisted and definitely darker. Online impersonation and who hides behind their online personalities can be one of the creepiest themes in nowadays’ fiction. Can we really trust who we talk to? Also, the consequences of having an online personality as a kind of alter ego could have been explored with more psychological insight.

So, did I enjoy reading Kiss Me First? Yes, it is a very addictive book and also very easy to read. I can understand why commuters would skip their stops, but it was not as right up my alley as I thought.

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

I requested a review copy of The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell after Naomi from The Writes of Woman reviewed it and we had a very interesting conversation about feminism . A quick search reveled the Twittersphere was full of great reviews as well and being it a mystery with women as main characters, it took me a few minutes to make up my mind about it.

From Good Reads:

New York City, 1924: the height of Prohibition and the whole city swims in bathtub gin.

Rose Baker is an orphaned young woman working for her bread as a typist in a police precinct on the lower East Side. Every day Rose transcribes the confessions of the gangsters and murderers that pass through the precinct. While she may disapprove of the details, she prides herself on typing up the goriest of crimes without batting an eyelid.

But when the captivating Odalie begins work at the precinct Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell. As do her bosses, the buttoned up Lieutenant Detective and the fatherly Sergeant. As the two girls’ friendship blossoms and they flit between the sparkling underworld of speakeasies by night, and their work at the precinct by day, it is not long before Rose’s fascination for her new colleague turns to obsession.

But just who is the real Odalie, and how far will Rose go to find out?l

The Other Typist is the kind of book you would better not know anything about before you start reading. I avoided any reviews or even the praise from the jacket because I wanted to be caught by surprise by everything and luckily, it worked! So, this review will be SPOILER FREE.

I found Rose’s point of view extremely appealing, especially since I love postmodernist literature. For better or for worse, I try not to take my narrators very seriously because everyone has their own point of view and although it’s unique and highly valuable, it is also subjective. We cannot help to see events filtered through past events and emotions and it is very difficult – I’d say probably impossible – to gain distance from that point of view. So, if as Good Reads points out “Rose finds herself falling under the new typist’s spell”, how did it happen? And most importantly, why? As I want to avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it for you to hint the answers to these questions.

A remarkable thing about the book – one I didn’t realise well until the end – is that the typography. If you’d ever owned a typewriter you’ll be familiar with it. I personally attended some typing lessons (thanks, Dad!) before I was bought my first computer and I really connected with everything Rose describes: the continuous and rhythmical sound of the keys that give the machine its own heart, the smell of the ink, the slightly deformed paper after you take it out of the roll and most importantly, the almost impossibility to correct a mistake. I think nowadays we are so used to correct and re-elaborate a text while we write… But about typists back in the 1920’s? They were trained to avoid mistakes, to be precise, quick and do their jobs as quietly as possible. Somehow, they were another machine – an idea Rose points out a few times throughout the novel – trained to work on a typewriter. Read if for yourself:

When a woman fails at her profession  it is considered something rather different from when a man fails at his. (p.13)

We [typists]  are thought to be mere receptors, passive and wonderfully incapable of deviation. (p. 48)

So, The Other Typist is a mystery and psychological novel, clearly influenced by another great American novel (Can you guess which?)  that haunts some of the scenes and characters. But above all, The Other Typist provides the reader with a not so well-known point of view: working women in the 1920s. It is not very often that we get a look to the pre-1940’s world from a feminine point of view, yet, there were many women making a living for themselves at a time when the USA struggled to become a moral compass. I haven’t given too many thoughts to whether The Other Typist is a feminist novel – feminist in a Lady Macbeth way, like Naomi said – but I think it deals with an important part of feminine history. The Roaring 20s were more than rouge a levres, new haircuts, parties held from the bathroom and dancing on fountains for many women who struggled to make ends meet.

Hurry up to read the novel before the film adaptation comes out next year.

Cruel & Unusual (Scarpetta #4) by Patricia Cornwell

Cruel and Unusual is the fourth novel in the Kay Scarpetta series by Patricia Cornwell. For previous Cornwell/Scarpetta love in case you haven’t read how passionate I am about the series, click here.


From GoodReads:

When convicted killer Ronnie Joe Waddell is executed in Virginia’s electric chair, he becomes what should be a routine postmortem case for Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Kay Scarpetta. But after Waddell’s execution, the murders continue, as everyone connected to him begins to die — including a member of Scarpetta’s staff.

Then, when crucial records disappear from her files, Scarpetta comes under fire for incompetence. Caught in a web of political intrigue, betrayed by those she trusted, Scarpetta must fight to free herself from murderous insinuations– and threats to her own life.

To save her career, Scarpetta soon finds herself retracing Waddell’s bloody footprints, following a trail that might lead to long-hidden secrets deep within the state government. Either the truth will set her free — or unleash upon her a punishment both cruel and unusual.

Since last Christmas I have been using the Scarpetta series as escapism and relaxing readings meaning that the more stressed I am, the more I long for the hard-working, professional and clever Dr. Kay Scarpetta and this time was not different. After reading my dissertation on 1st July I felt I needed a prize and immediately knew I wanted a Scarpetta novel. But at the same I realized I couldn’t remember the last one I’d read: no plot came to mind! How could I have forgotten about three books read in 6 months so quickly? Probably because I’d read them when I was really stressed, probably because I devoured them which usually leaves me with holes about the book. But I thought it was OK as long as I enjoyed reading them and was willing to revisit them.

So, what can I say about Cruel and Unusual? It tackles some very interesting themes and social problems: death penalty, the still current issue with DNA and fingerprints to ID a subject and the huge volume of information some workers have access to and how they treat it. For example, almost everyone working on a hospital has access to our personal information, address yet we gladly provide them with all of that information expecting it to be treated as confidentially as they want us to believe. Sadly, sometimes it does not happen so and Cornwell explores the consequences of the system – in the form a worker – failing those who it is supposed to serve.

More importantly, “cruel and unusual” refers to death penalty, a theme that triggers the rest of the novel. Nowadays we rely on DNA to ID a criminal. But what happened when DNA was not so commonplace? I was born in the late 80s and grew up watching CSI so it is very hard for me to imagine how could the legal system ID and charge someone. Apparently, they relied on eyewitnesses who had been proved to be quite unreliable or waited for the criminal to make a mistake such as in the Son of Sam case. All this, I’ve learned from reading the Scarpetta series and they have made me curious about other famous cases, such as the Son of Sam. Yes, I’d heard about it. Yes, it is quite common for the Criminal Minds team to mention it, it is even key in some Castle episodes, but I had never done any research. Now, thanks to Scarpetta, I know a little bit about the case which is key for a crime fiction reader like me.

Would I recommend Cruel and Unusual? Yes, although I think the thing with series is that you either start from the first installment, you love it and you work your way up or you just don’t like it. It is necessary to get to know the characters, how they relate to each other and just see them challenged and coming out victorious. Having said that, I started the Jackson Brodie series on the third installment and loved them! But what makes the Scarpetta series so valuable and important for the genre is the portrait of one of the quickest and most remarkable developments in the history of science: from the discovery DNA to our present day need of DNA evidence to legitimately condemn a criminal.