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Saturday, April 24, 2021

'The Road Trip' by Beth O'Leary

 

From the BLURB: 

Addie and her sister are about to embark on an epic road trip to a friend's wedding in rural Scotland. The playlist is all planned and the snacks are packed.

But, not long after setting off, a car slams into the back of theirs. The driver is none other than Addie's ex, Dylan, who she's avoided since their traumatic break-up two years earlier.

Dylan and his best mate are heading to the wedding too, and they've totalled their car, so Addie has no choice but to offer them a ride. The car is soon jam-packed full of luggage and secrets, and with four hundred miles ahead of them, Dylan and Addie can't avoid confronting the very messy history of their relationship...


Will they make it to the wedding on time? And, more importantly... is this really the end of the road for Addie and Dylan?

'The Road Trip' is British author Beth O'Leary's latest women's fiction book. After the overnight success of her 2019 debut 'The Flatshare' (which I *loved*) and rising popularity with 2020 title 'The Switch,' her third book in three-years was hotly anticipated and eagerly devoured by her increasing fanbase.

And - look - I really enjoyed it.
did!

It's just ... in the last half of the book; I'm talking the sprint to the finish at 50-pages or so, I had this epiphany I now can't shake and it's kinda clouded my whole reading of it.

The story is told in alternating chapters by protagonists' Addie and Dylan, and jumps between 'Now' and 'Then'. In the 'Now' - Dylan and his friend Marcus are en route to a wedding when they've suddenly hit the car in front of them and had a right fender-bender. The car in front just so happens to have Rodney, Deb, and Deb's sister Addie - Dylan's ex-girlfriend he hasn't spoken to in two-years, and all of whom are also traipsing out to the same wedding. A détente is reached and it's agreed that they'll all squish into Deb's mini and make the 8-hour trek from Chichester to Scotland to make the wedding in the nick of time.

In 'Then' Addie and Deb are caretakers at a villa in Provence for a summer, where Dylan appears after his family cancelled on a cozy trip, and he's decided to traipse out to his friend's empty villa on his lonesome to get some poetry written. What he doesn't count on is the beautiful caretaker Addie, who takes his breath away and the two tumble into a summer romance that evolves into so much more ...

In the 'Now' Dylan and Addie have been separated after a cataclysmic break-up that's painstakingly alluded to and pieced together in the flashback chapters. What becomes clearer and clearer however, is that Dylan's best-friend Marcus is somehow deeply involved in their break and thus his presence in the mini makes everything all the more delicate for Dylan and Addie's already-awkward reunion.

And look, without giving too much away; here is the realisation I came to that kind of clouded my overall enjoyment of the book ... and this *might* be a Spoiler, so; 

While I read a little bit of 2014 TV series 'Lovesick' in here, (Dylan/Addie/Marcus kinda reminded me of Dylan/Evie/Luke - I can't believe the same name as Johnny Flynn's character is pure coincidence. And then I just could not shake the idea of Joshua McGuire's Angus as Rodney!) the bigger connection I found was 'Love Actually'.

I could not shake the connection that Marcus was maybe a head-nod to Andrew Lincoln's Mark character, and the love-triangle he's in with Chiwetel Ejiofor's Peter and Keira Knightley's ugly hat-wearing Juliet (remember the video scene?!)

That scene - of Juliet turning to Mark with bewilderment, after watching the wedding-video he filmed (all shots of her, turns out) and saying; "But, you never talk to me? You always talk to Peter. You don't like me!" those lines are basically where a good portion of 'The Road Trip' and Addie & Dylan's complicated, messy love affair lives. And that's ~fine~ but it maybe does more heavy-lifting for the anti-Love Actually backlash that's been steadily sprouting in the nearing 20-years since the film came out. You know what I mean; all that 'The case against Love Actually' stuff.

Because - truth be told - a book that largely hinges on toxic men being toxic to innocent women merely for ~existing~ and being beautiful is not a great place to be reading for some 401-pages? And for me it was a case of; once you connect it, you can't un-connect it - y'know? 


So yeah. I liked this. Not as much as 'The Flatshare', and Beth O'Leary isn't yet up there with the likes of Mhairi McFarlane for me. But she's a good, reliable read - and fab company on cold April nights. Reading this also made me want to go back and re-watch 'Lovesick', and also look up and see if O'Leary has a fourth book scheduled yet (she sadly, does not - but I'm sure her ongoing success means an announcement is imminent!)

It was just that last little sprint to the finish, and a hurdle in (maybe?) the inspirations that pulled me up short.

3.5/5

Monday, April 19, 2021

'Last Night' by Mhairi McFarlane


 

From the BLURB: 

Two best friends. 

One missed chance. 

And a night that changes everything. 

Eve, Justin, Susie and Ed have been friends since they were eighteen. Now in their 30s, the four are still as close as ever, Thursday pub quiz night is still sacred, and Eve is still secretly in love with Ed. Maybe Eve should have moved on by now, but she can’t stop thinking about what could have been. And she knows Ed sometimes thinks about it too. Then one night, in an instant, all their lives change forever. And, as Eve learns she didn’t know her friends as well as she thought, she also discovers she isn’t the only person keeping secrets…

'Last Night' is the seventh stand-alone contemporary women's fiction novel from beloved Scottish author, Mhairi McFarlane.

A new McFarlane book is always cause for joy; although I still haven't read her 2019 novel, 'If I Never Met You' - I think because my tastes were so mercurial throughout 2020. 'Last Night' (also called 'Just Last Night' outside of ANZ-territories) is more of what devout fans and readers have come to love in her books; something I like to call "Macbeth's Jonbar Hinge for 30-Something's". Allow me to explain...

I always think of her books in terms this 'Macbeth' quote I love; "I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o'er.” And 'Jonbar Hinge' is the fictional concept of a crucial point of divergence between two outcomes. These two concepts are where Mhairi McFarlane books meet, to me. They're usually about a woman in her late-20s to early-30s whose life is not going ~great~ but she's too scared to make a change, until a change is made for her in some alarming way that causes her to move or be moved, and take up the mantel of her self-determination once again.

In 'Last Night' our hero is 34-year-old Eve who is part of a foursome best-friend group also consisting of Justin, Susie, and Ed - who've been friends since school. The only downside to this foursome is that Eve has been in love with Ed for the longest time, even though he's been in a 16-year relationship with the God-awful Hester, who he is about to marry.

Something of this reminded me of the brilliant British TV series 'Lovesick' and the relationship up's and down's of besties Dylan & Evie. So this was right up my alley - unrequited love, and best-friends-to-lovers tropes are so *me*! And even though I raised eyebrows at the SIXTEEN-YEARS of pining, and Ed's poor from in the past ... I did love this friendship group, and I loved getting to know Eve straight out the gate in the context of a pub-quiz with her besties. This lot are *funny* and I legit guffawed for pages.

I particularly loved the character of Susie - Eve's longest best friend - who had some killed lines, like;

My infatuation was Jez the premier weed dealer, a bedraggled River Phoenix lookalike at a neighbouring college with whom I'd had my deeply unfulfilling loss of virginity months prior. ('River Phoenix?! Canal Phoenix more like,' I can still hear Susie saying. 'Canal Pigeon.')


The first few chapters of the book are all about Eve's pining for Ed and a bullet-dodged one-night-stand she's painfully living through ... and then the McFarlane twist comes in - in the form of Susie's sudden death in a car-accident.

This sends the book colliding off into a wholly different and deeper stratosphere as Eve, Ed and Justin band together to organise the funeral - since Susie's Mum is dead, her father has dementia and her older brother is estranged and living in New York. It falls to Eve - who grew up with Susie's brother Finlay as a vague presence throughout their childhood - to reach out to him, and bring him home.

But then the story takes on another layer, when Eve discovers a secret about Susie that fractures their friendship, somewhat - even in death. It also has complications for their friendship group, right when the brother Finlay returns and his taciturn and somewhat menacing presence keeps Eve off-kilter. Even more so when she has to help Finlay manage his and Susie's father ...

I loved 'Last Night' exactly because it both hits all the usual McFarlane notes (aforementioned "Macbeth's Jonbar Hinge for 30-Something's") but also seems to go a little deeper than her other books - which often spin around one-that-got-away, cheating partners, lost jobs etc. In this, she's really examining grief and the audacity of finality, mixed with the ways that we can still find hidden-depths and secrets to those we've lost, that maddeningly keeps a conversation going but never finished. And there's the added layers of pining for Ed, while the brooding Finlay comes on the scene - all very much in keeping with the McFarlane formula.

Female friendships are always an important, if secondary factor in a McFarlane novel. So I think the added feeling of depth here, comes from the gut-punch of a lost-love in the form of a best female friend. A very unique and acute pain - to lose the keeper of that secret side of us reserved for long-time friends who've grown and seen all sides of us (or so we think).

I also love that this is a novel that runs the gamut of grief - including anger. There are times here when Eve is truly *furious* and has every right to be. At one point she says; I feel like Bette Davis, gene-spliced with a cobra. And - ummmm - that's my *JAM*, right there! That's my perfect woman. I love that McFarlane uses the characters of Ed and Finlay to have rather deep and meaningful's about The Nice Guy trap, and the toxicity of people who don't take responsibility for their actions. Here are the subtle ways that romance and women's fiction authors are advancing the genre, and having truly deeply important discussions with their readers - Mhairi McFarlane is doing God's work here, truly.

I will say; I thought the novel was a little top-heavy. The 'Last Night' of the title plays out over multiple chapters and a very funny, extended scene between Eve and a potential one-night-stand. And I totally get why - this is Mhairi McFarlane playing with the elasticity of time where grief is involved. Hyper-specifics that stretch a moment, and then the rush of grief like jet-lag that speeds things up. But I wished that we got balanced out in the book more, with a little extra at the end about Finlay and more scenes there. But that's always my wish in a McFarlane book; more time. More time with these characters I come to absolutely adore in just 403-pages. 'Last Night' is no different, and I already wish I was back to the beginning meeting them all again.

5/5

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

'Dr. Ruth Galloway Mystery' Series by Elly Griffiths


‘Dr. Ruth Galloway’ is a mystery-series by British author Elly Griffiths. It started in 2009 and is currently 13-books deep, with a 14th scheduled for release in February 2022 and according to a recent ‘Poisoned Pen’ podcast I listened to, Griffiths thinks it’ll be a few more books and then concluded in some fashion (although she also mentioned liking Ian Rankin’s style of setting aside his ‘Inspector Rebus’ series for a number of years, and returning to a much older and much-changed Rebus for a refreshed take). 

Dr. Ruth Galloway is the protagonist and she’s a forensic archaeologist at the (made-up) University of North Norfolk, with a specialty in bone excavation and examination. In the first book – ‘The Crossing Places’ – Ruth is drawn into an investigation by Norfolk’s own Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson, who thinks he’s found a body in the saltmarsh, but that turns out to be an Iron Age preserved corpse. Still, Ruth gets drawn into the larger picture which sees Nelson trying to find a missing child gone 10-years, and a more recent missing child likely connected to the first. 

This first case is already of vital importance to Nelson who has been haunted by it for these many years when he crosses paths with Dr. Ruth Galloway, whose particular way of seeing the past and digging up long-dead secrets seems to open up new leads and leeway’s in the case. 

Now, this is important because I want to drop a semi-big spoiler here when I say that by the end of that first book, Ruth is pregnant with Nelson’s child after a one-night-stand borne out in the heady aftermath of a crushing and gruelling discovery in the case. From here on in, Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson become the main players in this series – it’s told in omniscient third-person, and though we mostly stick with Ruth’s POV we also get a fair chunk of each book told through Nelson’s eyes and those of his closest police officers – namely Dave ‘Cloughie’ Clough and Judy Johnson, so we can see various cases unfold at a closer level. There’s also a local Norfolk Druid called Cathbad who befriends both Nelson and Ruth, and others on the team, and also becomes integral to the series and entwined in the lives of these characters.

And of course, the whole series is tightly woven around the increasingly complicated relationship of Ruth and Nelson – who share a child. 

Nelson is married to his wife of 20-years, Michelle, and they have two teenage daughters – Laura and Rebecca. Though Nelson forthrightly admits in interior dialogue that he’s had two previous ‘flings’ before cheating on Michelle with Ruth, he realises fairly quickly that there’s something different about this encounter, beyond the obvious conception of a child together. Nelson is a no-nonsense Blackpool original who is from a bygone era of policing. He doesn’t have a lot of time initially for Ruth’s world of academia and ‘Guardian-reading’ outlook on the world. Furthermore – and as he (annoyingly) mentions repeatedly throughout the series; Ruth is not his type. She’s 39 when they meet (Nelson is a few years older), stubbornly single living on the edge of the saltmarsh in a stone cottage; she’s overweight and ‘untidy’ (which I secretly suspect is fatphobic code for personally ‘slovenly’?), doesn’t wear make-up and doesn’t care what people – men especially – think of her, and least of all Nelson. All of which he finds oddly, confusingly, enticing. 

Ruth and Nelson do become a focal point for the series, and this will – I warn you – both frustrate and delight. Griffiths, in trying to capture Nelson’s gruff and non-PC generational masculinity often devolves to comparing Ruth and Michelle on these binaries of “hot” and “not” – he and Michelle may have been married for 20-years, but Michelle (who is a hairdresser, and I suspect there’s huge trope and cliché playing here too) isn’t at all interested in Nelson’s policing, her domain is domesticity and beauty … but in Ruth, Nelson increasingly finds a force to be reckoned with, a woman who he finds funny and intellectually stimulating – not least when they’re working a case together. But a lot of time in the book we’re subjected to Nelson being constantly ~BaFfLeD~ at the thought of a fat, non-blonde and beautiful woman being of interest to him because she has a personality and he likes talking to her. Shock. Horror.

From book 1 when Ruth and Nelson’s baby in conceived to current book #13 – the series spans a decade, to their child growing to be 10-years-old, and in the forthcoming 14th book the timeline of the series will bring us into the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world in 2020. Book 13 set in September 2019, even enticingly has Ruth at her University getting a lesson on “remote-learning” and the foreshadowing from a fellow lecturer warning that one day all classes could be conducted via Zoom-meetings. I actually love this aspect of the series, that the timeline is very closely packed and often-times one book’s ending will be the beginning of the next. And very occasionally we’ll get a leap-ahead by 2-years to mostly speed up relationship complications, or to age Ruth’s child. 

I do love this series for that too – for Elly Griffiths writing a most unconventional of female ‘detective’ hero in Ruth Galloway. Not just because she’s older, fat and otherwise living a spinster life (these characters abound, especially in UK-crime; just think ‘Vera’) but because she actively dismisses the thought of living with a man (even when she begins pining for Nelson and something more with him), she’s a woman repeatedly shown to have a healthy sexual appetite and who is not short of enthusiastic partners. All in all; she’s a refreshing read and savvy hero to get behind, even as her more celebratory aspects often cast an even more dubious light on her affection for Nelson (he who cannot fathom being attracted to a fat women he enjoys conversing with.) I also love that as she digs deeper into her role as single-mother, this too becomes an integral part of the sleuthing and crime-solving; juggling childcare and constantly worrying at putting herself in danger if she is the sole-provider and only parent for her child. 

I also like that Ruth presents a flip from the typical (and mostly American) convention of gruff older male heroes in crime-fiction, who inexplicably entice a bevvy of beautiful young women to their beds, despite being ‘slovenly’ and grumpy. Ruth is almost that archetype gender-flipped and it is surprisingly refreshing, even as it’s occasionally regressive too. Case in point is how she’s often pitted (in his mind at least) against Nelson’s beautiful, blonde wife Michelle – a woman who even her own daughter at one point remarks, has a tendency to brush hard topics aside and try to forget them, certainly not think about them. This is contrast to Ruth, who often remarks that it’s her job to excavate the past and constantly examine it – I much prefer to think of Ruth and Michelle in these world outlook binaries, rather than physical ones. 

I also think the series is incredibly clever for the way Elly Griffiths essentially takes one careless act – Harry and Ruth sleeping together during one night of shared misery, conceiving a child by happy accident – and then the rest of the series is essentially the repercussions and fissures of that moment constantly playing out and reverberating around Nelson and Ruth’s lives. This is crime – in a nutshell, is it not? One devastating act that has a ripple-effect on life in so many ways, and affects so many people. That is the basis of Griffith’s series, more so than Ruth’s forensic archaeology constantly being needed, is the fact that she will always be in Nelson’s life now, and he in hers. 

For this reason too, the series is frustrating. Because that fracture – in Nelson’s happy home-life, and Ruth’s seemingly determined singledom – resulting in a child they share together; that fracture existing and constantly teetering, is essentially what the series is built on. Fractures are arguably the basis of crime-fiction too; series in which we get to know and care for characters and want to see them safe and happy, that by definition would disarm the genre in which they exist and we love reading them in. I fear that Nelson and Ruth getting together in some amalgamation of a Happily Ever After might result in a Karin Slaughter ‘Grant County’-level rupture to trigger a restart. Because there are no happy-endings in crime, right? 

Well. I don’t know. Maybe Griffiths has built enough high-stakes that should Nelson and Ruth get together properly, Nelson’s world in particular would fragment and falter – he’d arguably lose a lot, to gain the love he’s seemingly craving more and more. I think it could be done, and I’ve certainly been taken in hook-line-and-sinker to this series to keep reading and hoping I’ll find it. February 2022 does indeed seem a long way away, and I miss Ruth and Nelson already after bingeing this series over one fortnight … I find myself desperate to get back to the lonely, liminal space of the saltmarshes in Norfolk, and Ruth’s cozy cottage by the sea. 

4/5