The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

I find books exploring friendships between teenage girls fascinating to read. They shine a certain clarity on the trials and tribulations of my own teenage years, as well as bringing back memories both joyous and otherwise. Even if my own teenage friendships were less fraught than that of Julia and Cassie, the ‘Burning Girl’ of the title. 


Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school, sharing everything, including a love of Lady Gaga, and a volunteering job at a kennel. But there is a gulf between the two of them that will be more keenly felt over the years – whilst Julia was raised in a happy middle-class family, Cassie is from a single parent family, after the death of her father, and increasingly clashes with her mother. Over the years, in secondary school, the pair start to drift apart. But Cassie, increasingly affected by her mother’s new relationship, also begins to wonder how much of what her mother has told her is the truth. Julia can only hope for her old friend as she sets off in search of her ‘guardian angel’ she’s certain is still out there. 

Claire Messud brilliantly captures young friendships: the long-term plans, the bad behaviour you drag each other into, the secrets shared, but also the small hurts a friend can inflict, to the pain of drifting away from your closest friend, and the shock that you don’t know everything about them. She’s also very sharp on growing up as a young woman, and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of being female – I vividly remember a teacher recommending we get rape alarms, and swapping tips on how to walk home safely (‘hairspray doubles as pepper spray!’ ‘If you hold your keys between your knuckles…’). 

The Burning Girl took me right back to the growing pains of my schooldays – but don’t let that put you off! I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone – heartbreakingly sad, though often funny, and breathtakingly real. 

The Burning Girls by Claire Messud is out now, published by Fleet. 

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All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker 

Chris Whitaker is one of those authors I’ve been wanting to read for at least a year now, partially to get Liz Barnsley (book influencer extraordinaire of Liz Loves Books fame) off my back, but partially because it sounds like he’s quite good. So when my colleague received a copy the other week, it seemed appropriate, nay, essential, to steal it.  


Summer Ryan is the shining light of Grace, Alabama. Unlike her troubled twin sister Raine (clever weather-related wordplay there), she’s a devout churchgoer, and a musical prodigy whose cello performances have moved the town to tears. But now she’s gone missing. Could she have run away? Or is she one of the so-called Briar Girls, teenaged-girls living in Briar County who have been abducted by the mysterious being known as the Bird?  

Unconvinced that the alcoholic police chief Black will succeed in bringing Summer home, or even that he believes she’s really in trouble, Raine enlists the deep-hearted teenage wannabe police officer Noah and his loyal friend Purv to help her investigate. Meanwhile, an angry black cloud hovers over the town, promising a storm, and exacerbating the already-heightened tensions. The whole town is teeming with secrets, and with everyone on high alert, they’re likely to rise to the surface. And between chapters, Summer tells us her own version of events that led to her disappearance. 

All The Wicked Girls is a gripping thriller, but also a deeply emotional story with a big heart and characters you’ll cry over. It’s a portrayal of a town left behind in an America which has apparently never been so prosperous, set in the late 80s’ but equally relevant to today. Although the town is meant to pull together as a community, an undercurrent of violence simmers constantly. And yet, we also have astonishing scenes of kindness and love, such Noah waiting in Purv’s back garden to await a sign that his friend has survived a beating from his father. It’s a thriller that explores the worst excesses of organised religion, but also the positives aspects of faith. I definitely sensed a Twin Peaks influence (but the bits from the first series I could get on board with rather than more recent episodes… “What’s going on? Are they miners?! WHAT’S GOING ON?!”) in the idea that not everything can be explained away, and sometimes things just happen. 

I’ll be stealing (more theft… Maybe Chris is a bad influence on me?) the copy of Tall Oaks I gave my father for Christmas, and look forward to reading whatever Chris Whitaker has to offer. Highly highly recommended! 

All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker is out now, published by Zaffre. 

Ngaio Marsh blog tour: In Dark Places by Michael Bennett

I was asked to review In Dark Places as part of a blog tour for the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and, I won’t lie, true crime is not really my thing. Nevertheless, I agreed, and ploughed on. 


In 1992, Susan Burdett was raped and murdered in her own home. About a year later, a 17 year old car thief named Teina Pora confessed to the police, and was jailed for life. Over the years, his lawyer pointed out the various holes in the case but a jury couldn’t get past the fact that Teina confessed. Why would he confess, unless he did it? Even though there was, like, actually, NO EVIDENCE! Years later, Tim McKinnel, an ex-cop turned private investigator, decides to look into a case which never quite sat right with him. 

It’s hard to explain quite what makes this book so good. You’re devastated by Teina Pora’s life, who despite everything, is a sweet, if law-breaking, family-man teenager. As any evidence that was brought against the teenager is demolished, the fact that his confession might have been false is the one thing that a jury will struggle to accept. And whilst Michael Bennett convincingly, and heartbreakingly talks us through the horrific miscarriage of justice that convicted Teina, he never loses sight of the main victim, Susan herself. 

I defy readers to get through In Dark Places and not feel the need to go around telling everyone they meet about the shocking miscarriage of justice. Pity the poor Kiwi woman I met in my running group last week… (‘Wait, you don’t know about Teina Pora?! Well…’) And honestly, even if you don’t read true crime, read this true crime. It’s truly something special, and a story that needs to be told. 

In Dark Places: The Confessions of Teina Pora and an Ex-Cop’s Fight for Justice by Michael Bennett is out now, and is shortlisted for a Ngaio Marsh Award 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

A few years ago on holiday, I read Celeste Ng’s extraordinary literary thriller Everything I Never Told You, a powerful story centred around a Chinese-American family living in Ohio, whose teenage daughter goes missing. Beautifully, and subtly written, it was less of a whodunnit than the painfully affecting story of a family, and their unspoken secrets. Needless to say,  I was delighted to stumble across a proof copy of Little Fires Everywhere.


Little Fires Everywhere opens with the revelation that Isabelle, the youngest and most unstable of the Richardson family, has ‘finally gone around the bend’, and burned down the house. As the family watches the house burn, the story flicks back to the previous year, to the arrival of Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl, who rented a flat from Elena Richardson.

Mia is an artist, who flits around the country, staying just long enough to complete her latest photographic project, before leaving it all behind and settling elsewhere. But this is the last time, she has assured her daughter Pearl, who is desperate for stability. And when they arrive in Shaker Heights, Pearl is captivated by the Richardson family, and they equally by her and Mia. From Moody, the younger boy who falls in love with her, to the oldest daughter Lexie, whose simplistic and judgemental attitude could represent that of Shaker Heights, to Isabelle, the youngest, who finds long-sought after acceptance in Mia. But Elena, whose ‘guiding principal is following the rules,’ and who only rents ‘to people who she felt were deserving but who had, for one reason or another, not quite gotten a fair shot in life,’ feels a direct threat from Mia’s ambivalence to their neatly organised, and selectively philanthropic lives. Nonetheless, they muddle pleasantly along until a custody battle breaks out in the town over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby by a white couple. Mia and Elena find themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines, and in retaliation, Elena sets out to solve the mystery of her tenant’s past – a decision which will have shocking and unforseeable consequences.

Shaker Heights, where the author grew up, is brilliantly drawn – far more nuanced than your average literary symbol of conformity. It’s a bastion of liberal progression, where rules are laid out for everything, from the colours you are entitled to paint your house, to the right way to take out your rubbish. A complacently self-satisfied community, it’s almost Stepford-like, if Stepford had a really good state school system and was quite pleased with its ‘post-racial’ status. It’s a society that Pearl, with few other reference points, is happy to be a part of, whilst Mia is much more suspicious of it. An undercurrent of danger runs throughout – we’re never allowed to forget that the story will end in flames but it’s also hard to actively dislike even the most destructive of characters – and I don’t mean Izzy here – as they’re all so well-meaning.

Little Fires Everywhere is a nuanced, thought-provoking, and breathlessly readable story, exploring what makes a mother, and whether making mistakes is a privilege. However, it’s also, often, wildly funny, with genuine laugh out loud moments, which lifts this already clever, thoughtful novel into a wonderfully enjoyable read. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ing is published by Little, Brown on 14th September.

Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear

In 1998, Catrina was on holiday in Mulderrin, Ireland with her family, when the beautiful 17 year old Maryanne Doyle vanished. Catrina had seen the effect Maryanne had on the boys and the men in the area, including her own father. But then after she went missing, her father told a lie to the police about whether or not he knew her. To eight-year-old Catrina, this could only mean one thing, and her perception of her brilliant, funny, generous father who she idolised changes permanently. 


Years later, Cat is now a Detective Constable in the Metropolitan police, determined to escape the shadow of her petty-criminal father, and still convinced that he was responsible for the disappearance of Maryanne Doyle. Then one night, in the run-up to Christmas, the body of a woman is found near her dad’s pub in Spitalfields, and Cat fears the worst. Whilst she passionately wants justice for the dead women, she’s equally desperate to avoid her father being brought in, and having her family exposed. If this sounds straightforward, I assure you it isn’t. What follows is a killer crime debut – an already gripping premise that turns into an even more thrilling tale, packed with twists and turns, which you won’t be able to put down. Every time you think you’re on solid ground, another revelation is thrown into the mix, building up to a clever and devastating climax I wouldn’t have ever imagined. 

One thing I sometimes find a bit difficult about police procedures is that often the ‘team’ scenes slow down the action. This was not an issue in Sweet Little Lies. The team of officers are well-drawn and enthralling in their own right – from DS Luigi Parnell, who Cat knowingly clings to as a surrogate father, to the fearsome DCI Steele, whose maternal instincts towards Cat are somewhat less appreciated. In fact, whenever we left the station, I found myself missing them. Cat too is a terrifically compelling character who I rooted for, gunning for her to do the right thing. She’s both manipulative and vulnerable, often told off for over-empathising with victims, and impossible not to sympathise with. 

I’d definitely recommend this complex, convincing and deeply satisfying thriller about family bonds, and how far we would go to protect the ones we love, in spite of everything. 

Huge thanks to the endlessly super Katherine Armstrong for pushing this into my greedy little hands.

Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear is published by Zaffre.

He Said She Said by Erin Kelly

He Said She Said opens in 2015 with Laura saying goodbye to her devoted husband Kit, as he sets off for the Faroe Islands. They are eclipse chasers, who travel great distances to witness the perfect moment of totality, but Laura, heavily pregnant, is staying home on this occasion. Both are fretful to be away from each other, but Kit eventually departs, leaving Laura to worry and reflect on the events of fifteen years ago.

In 1999, shortly after meeting, Kit and Laura travelled to Cornwall to see an eclipse, and in the hushed aftermath, witnessed a brutal sexual assault on a young woman. The pair of them called the police, and later presented evidence in court. Caught on the stand, Laura became flustered by the aggressive defence questioning, and found herself telling a little white lie. She knew what she saw, so she did the right thing, surely? But fifteen years later, they are in hiding, living in fear of Beth finding them… 

It’s hard to go much further, as the story builds to a shocking reveal that will make you completely question everything you think you know. It’s an astonishing thriller about the lengths a person will go to cover their tracks, the painful effects of guilt, which are almost anxiety-inducing to read about, as well as a heartrending and searing indictment of the way that rape victims are treated. 

Erin Kelly is a master storyteller, but this is by far her best book yet. It’s a magnificently complex, twisty and completely unputdownable thriller, which I cannot recommend enough. 

He Said She Said by Erin Kelly is out now, published by Hodder. 

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Funny story about All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. I first came across it on Twitter, when a blogger had tweeted out the jacket with their review, and I was particularly taken with the jacket quote on the front, from Hadley Freeman. It simply stated ‘I’ve read about being a single woman.’ It truly delighted me, even when I (eventually) realised that Twitter had cut off the top of the jacket and the quote actually read ‘One of the smartest and truest novels I’ve read about being a single woman.’ Oh well. Certainly a way to get a girl’s attention.


There’s an excellent chapter in All Grown Up, very early on, in which the narrator Andrea talks about ‘a book’, that everyone she knows is determined that she read. ‘It is’, she notes wryly, ‘a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married… I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know.’ It’s a very dry and brilliantly funny chapter – but also I think, a deliberately well-placed one, as I was this close to recommending All Grown Up to a family friend in her 40s who is single, and now, I think I’ll hold off, or at least try and think of a more subtle way of pushing it in front of her. I suspect – hope! – I am not alone in this.

But either way, this chapter in some ways sets us up brilliantly for All Grown Up – a clever, funny, compelling book about being single and childless on the verge of forty, whilst all your friends are settling down. But even as she’s advised from all sides to ‘find someone and settle down,’ not only do very few suitable partners present themselves, but not many of her happily married friends appear to be finding life particularly straightforward either.

All Grown Up is written in the form of vignettes, covering Andrea’s borderline stalking of an actress who lives in her block of flats; the parenting strife faced by her brother and his lovely wife; Andrea’s struggle to get rid of a chaise-longue that her father may have died in. All are told simply and compellingly – and incredibly relatably. I’ve read a few reviews which describe Andrea as ‘selfish’, but I didn’t feel that was quite right – she just felt human to me. Her mind wanders when her friends pour out their hearts to her, she sulks when her mother moves away to be closer to her brother, she is outraged when her friend, the implausibly-named Indigo, thrusts her equally implausibly-named baby Ephraim (‘we looked into his eyes when he was born and he seemed one thousand years old already’) into her arms. But I’ve met more self-absorbed people…

Do yourself a favour, and put this short, clever, relatable but equally heartfelt and honest book about life, choice and women on your summer reading list. And if your bag’s already full, buy a new one. Huge thanks to the marvellous Drew Jerrison for this one.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg is out now, published by Serpent’s Tail.