February Book Reviews

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell*

Holy shit, I have been waiting for this book for years. And, let me tell you, it did not disappoint. If you were around on a certain part of the Internet circa 2011/12 then you’re probably familiar with Cat Marnell; if not, then you should go and read some of her xoJane pieces from around that time and then you’ll get what all of the fuss is about. She was the beauty editor who wrote about how to disguise your night-before-drug-binge on the way to work; she specialised in beauty advice with an edge, which went (and still goes) against so much about what the beauty industry stands for. She’s also a phenomenal writer. Soon after she announced that she was writing a book, she mostly disappeared off the Internet, leaving us all (me) on a cliffhanger until now… 

This is an honest, raw, emotional and hilarious memoir, and I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. Cat charts her life through drug addiction with a candidacy that will make you cringe and cry, and occasionally cackle with laughter. She’s certainly not lost the skills that kept her on top at xoJane, despite her destructive drug problems, and this book is peppered with witty lines that I kind of want to steal for my own. From troubled teenager at boarding school with her Dad writing her prescriptions for ADHD medication, to beauty editor at large barely holding on by a thread, I could barely put this book down.

Her descent to rock bottom is a glamorous one, peppered by celebrity name-dropping, stints at high-flying magazines, and is therefore probably not a great portrayal of the ‘realism’ of addiction for many, less privileged people. At times, it is frustrating how Cat managed to sustain something that ‘a million girls would kill for’ whilst self-destructing at such a magnitude, but she is equally candid about her emotional distress, loneliness and even about just how self-absorbed and boring drug addiction can be. If you’re interested in the world of beauty, journalism or blogging then I think you’ll probably be hooked on this book; Cat Marnell was a pioneer of the ‘blog-style’ articles in journalism that are now a mainstay of the industry and her writing will feel familiar to so many who have grown up online. For me, it’s a five star read, for sure. 

Bridget Jones’s Baby by Helen Fielding 

I’ll admit, I think a lot of my love for this book was pure nostalgia; I’ve been a fan of Bridget Jones for over ten years so reading the latest instalment felt so much like coming home and hanging out with old friends. However, I think that Bridget’s time may be coming to a close for me – I will always love her but this book definitely felt less substantial than the others. Maybe I’ve changed, maybe the world has changed, but the problem is that Bridget hasn’t really changed, which feels a little unrealistic given the timeframe. I feel like portrayals of women have moved on since Bridget; at the time she was the quintessential twenty-something girl struggling to find love and get her shit together… but now she’s a thirty-something and she’s still slacking at work, unable to talk to her friends, family and lovers, making poor life decisions and rather incompetent at looking after herself. That’s not to say that women don’t exist who are all of those things – and Bridget is also lots of other things, like a caring friend and daughter – but I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t have had any personal growth in the intervening years. This book is still funny, heart-warming and cringe-inducing in the way that Bridget Jones always has been, and there’s no doubt that I’ll continue picking up Bridget Jones books as long as they come out (unless this is the last?) but it is purely because of that nostalgia, and because I can’t resist the perfect Mark Darcy (perhaps the most unrealistic of all…). What can I say, I’m a sucker for a happy ending. 

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye 

Oh my god, this book. If you’re a fan of Jane Eyre and you consider yourself a feminist then a) let’s be best friends and b) you must read this book. It’s glorious. Like the heroine of her favourite novel, Jane Steele has suffered the cruelty of her aunt and schoolmaster. Unlike Jane Eyre, however, she doesn’t take it lying down, leaving behind the corpses of her tormentors as she moves to London to start her new life. After years of living in the underbelly of the big city, she spots an advertisement for a governess at her old home, the place she believes herself to be the heiress to. Intrigued, she finds herself employed, and eventually enmeshed in the strange household of Mr Thornfield, who has a few secrets of his own… 

Jane Steele is a feminist vigilante serial killer, which is basically who I want as the heroine of all books I read from now on, if publishers could be so kind. Where she views herself as wicked for having murdered, the reader can see clearly her sense of justice and, at times, you’ll probably revel in the deaths of her victims – from attempted rapists to sanctimonious religious hypocrites who threaten the lives of her friends. As she goes from her aunt’s house to boarding school, and on to London, there is plenty of blood and excitement to keep you on your toes. 

The second half is probably more ‘traditional’ in feeling, and slows a little in pace but as she begins to fall in love with Mr Thornfield, and with his extended household, I was equally as captivated as in the first part. It almost feels like a separate book, as Jane works to find out if she is the true heiress to Highgate, and what happened to the mysterious trunk of treasures that Mr Thornfield is so adamant has been lost in another time and place. The references to Sikh and Punjabi culture were fascinating, and not at all what I was expecting from a ‘retelling’ of Jane Eyre, whilst Mr Thornfield was a much preferable romantic hero to dear Rochester. 

The nods to Jane Eyre are clear throughout, and will be a delight to anyone who’s a fan of the original book, but this novel certainly stands alone as a work of triumph. I never wanted it to end. 

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry*

At the age of thirteen, Julie is kidnapped at knifepoint and taken from her home never to be seen again – her younger sister, Jane, the only witness to the crime, hidden in the closet and unable to comprehend what’s going on. Eight years later, she reappears on the doorstep of her childhood home, the victim of imprisonment at the hands of a shady drug cartel leader, and the family look to start rebuilding their life. But her mother, Anna, has doubts – is the young woman upstairs really her daughter? Doubts she wants to ignore, until a former detective turns private investigator gets in contact with some information that might just lead to the truth behind Julie’s disappearance… 

I’ve avoided thriller novels for a while; so many of them seem to hinge on a common thread of violence towards woman – the more brutal, shocking and, in many cases, sexual, the ‘better’. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s important that we discuss the realities of violence against women – there are too many who seek to belittle and ignore it, and it’s unfortunately an experience that too many go through. That said, I think that there are a lot of suspense novels that are gratuitous about it, using it as a trope to shock the reader without any real exploration of the topic more widely. I was hoping that this novel, recommended by one of my favourite bookish podcasts – All the Books – and with a not-so-subtle nod in the title to ‘Gone Girl‘, which is one of the best in the genre, would be a little different. I think you can probably tell from my prelude that it was not, at least for me. 

At first, I was captured by the mystery; who on earth was this woman claiming to be Julie, and what was her motive for doing so? Safety? Money? Something more nefarious? As you’re taken back in time through the case and through the many lives of ‘Julie’, the plot becomes more intriguing, and slightly more obvious. I’m not that great at guessing twists and endings, but by halfway I was pretty sure I had this one nailed (and I was right). There were a few parts that I couldn’t (and would not have been able to guess) when it came to the actual revelation, so it wasn’t a total loss and I did read through to the end but I found myself a little disappointed that, once again, gratuitous violence against women (and in particular young girls) was at the crux of it without much context or depth. I’m left wondering, once again, whether I should just ditch thrillers for good – but when they’re good, they’re so, so good and I’m going to keep hoping for one that surprises me and goes against those tropes. 

DISCLAIMER: THIS POST CONTAINS AFFILIATE LINKS, WHICH MEANS THAT IF YOU CLICK ON ONE OF THE PRODUCT LINKS AND BUY SOMETHING, I MAY RECEIVE A SMALL COMMISSION. BOOKS MARKED WITH A * WERE PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW. 

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