Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

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The Girls: Emma Cline

★★★★

Following Gone Girl, I switched my attention to Emma Cline’s sun-drenched, twisted slice of 1960s Californian life, which is inspired by the case of the Manson Family (a story, I should stress, that I knew nothing about beforehand). Unfolding at the dreamy pace of a marijuana trip, it doesn’t match Gone Girl’s urgency, but it offers more relatability, in its tale of a fourteen-year-old girl who just doesn’t fit in, and the seductive gang of dreamers who capture her imagination. Few of us, thank God, will have gone as far as our protagonist Evie Boyd, but I suspect that many of us can remember the pain of teetering on that brink between childhood and adulthood, feeling eternally divorced from either place and, somehow, feeling so much older than all the adults around us. Cline manages to produce a book that’s compelling, compassionate and wise, as well as plumbing some of the darker places in the human soul.

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Gone Girl: Gillian Flynn

★★★★

Better late than never, hmm? As an intense period at work came to a close, I decided it was time to welcome the advent of summer with a couple of good, old-fashioned, white-knuckle thrillers. The first of those was a book I’ve managed to avoid having spoiled for me: quite an achievement, considering that it’s a publishing phenomenon, a film, and has been read by everyone else on the planet except my neighbour’s cat. Finally, it was my turn to meet Nick and Amy Dunne, the picture-perfect couple whose marriage begins to go sour when they lose their jobs in the recession, and move from Amy’s native New York to Nick’s native Missouri. When Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, leaving signs of a struggle and traces of blood on the kitchen floor, everyone thinks they know how this story ends. Only they don’t. Only one person has even an inkling of what’s about to happen… and Nick Dunne is in no position to protect himself.

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See What I Have Done: Sarah Schmidt

★★★

On 4 August 1892, a horrifying murder takes place in the little town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby are found hacked to death at home. Andrew’s eldest daughter Emma is away, staying with a friend; his younger daughter Lizzie, who finds his body, is unbalanced with shock. No one seems to have heard anything. As the blood seeps into the floors and fabrics of the Borden household, the questions begin; but there is more simmering beneath the surface of this strange family than anyone can hope to comprehend. In this unsettling, claustrophobic novel, Sarah Schmidt evokes the miasma of jealousy, resentment, loneliness and mental instability that result in the shocking events of that August afternoon.

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The Standing Chandelier: Lionel Shriver

★★★★

This is the first book I’ve read by Lionel Shriver (except, of course, for We Need To Talk About Kevin) and so I came to it without many preconceptions. More novella than novel, it impressed me a great deal with its incisive and unsentimental view of human nature. We may not like the picture that Shriver reflects back at us, but her characters all feel so very convincing. It’s a story that many of us can easily imagine, even if we don’t have direct experience of it, because it starts with a friendship: an old friendship, of twenty years’ standing, between a woman, Jillian Frisk, and a man, Weston Babansky, and how their easy dynamic is challenged by the arrival of Weston’s girlfriend Paige.

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Crippen: John Boyne

★★★★

A Novel of Murder

In July 1910, the SS Montrose sets sail from Antwerp on her regular crossing to Canada, and the first-class passengers begin the cautious task of getting to know one another. The pushy Mrs Antoinette Drake and her daughter Victoria are, evidently, going to be trouble; so is the half-feral Tom, nephew of the mysterious Matthieu Zela who has bespoken the Presidential Suite. But there are some amenable characters on board too. Martha Hayes is a quiet spinster hoping to make a new life for herself in Canada; and the self-effacing John Robinson and his seventeen-year-old son Edmund are also escaping to a new world. Meanwhile, back in London, a horrific crime is discovered. Cora Crippen has been murdered and buried in tiny pieces in the cellar of her house. Her husband, Dr Crippen, has absconded with his mistress. But where can they be? And will there be enough time for Inspector Dew of Scotland Yard to track them down?

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Rules of Civility: Amor Towles

★★★★½

I’ve just returned from a business trip to New York, during which I had the perfect reading material: Amor Towles’s chic but shrewd Rules of Civility. While it shares the ineffable style of Gentleman in Moscow, it has a different spirit: harder, wiser and more cynical. It conjures up Manhattan in the late 1930s: a city of walk-ups and steel fire-escapes; jazz quartets in smoky underground bars; and glittering parties in riverside mansions. And, at the book’s heart, are two young, scrappy and hungry heroines: Katey Kontent and Eve Ross. Both, in their own way, are self-fashioned and, as they wait on the brink of 1938, they can almost taste the potential in the air. Right now they might be eking out their last dollars in a downtown bar but, one day, New York is going to spill its gorgeous bounty right into their silken laps. It’s just a matter of finding the lever to get things moving. And, by happy chance, the catalyst is about to walk into both their lives…

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Blonde: Joyce Carol Oates

★★★★★

You may think I’m getting soft, seeing the second five-star rating in four days, but trust me on this. I’ve been reading this book since November and, at almost a thousand pages, it is a dazzling modern classic: a sprawling, daring, combative act of imagination. First published in 2000, it gains an even more fervent urgency when read in the light of last year’s snowballing Hollywood scandals. Hovering between fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of the most iconic woman of the 20th century – so recognisable that you only need a wisp of platinum-blonde hair and the feathered end of a dark eyebrow to put a name to the face on the cover. Yet this is not a biography but a creative reconstruction of the life and times of the girl who started life as Norma Jeane Baker and ended up crushed beneath the glittering celebrity of her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.

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The Roanoke Girls: Amy Engel

★★★★

It’s every girl’s dream. When Lane’s reclusive mother dies, she assumes she’ll be alone in the world, but to her astonishment her mother’s estranged parents seek her out. Moving back to her mother’s childhood home, Roanoke in Kansas, fifteen-year-old Lane is suddenly no longer an orphan but part of a wealthy, loving family presided over by her charismatic grandfather. She even has a new best friend in the form of her lively cousin Allegra. And so, as Lane adjusts to the life of a Roanoke girl – one of the golden few, the object of fascination, desire and envy for the rest of the folk in town – she begins to wonder what on earth drove her mother away. There’s just one strange coincidence that troubles her. As Allegra puts it herself, ‘Roanoke girls never last long around here. We either run or we die.’

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Saints for All Occasions: J. Courtney Sullivan

★★★★

When sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn make the journey to America in 1957, they are agog for a new world of opportunity. Nora, plain and sensible at twenty-one, dreams of finding something to excite her: an alternative to the planned marriage to the unexciting cousin who awaits her in Boston. For Theresa, in her late teens, life is full of sparkle and fun, crammed with new friends and boyfriends and a liberty she could never have known in their native Ireland. Fifty years later, in 2009, a family tragedy threatens to unearth a secret that has estranged the two sisters, and moulded both their lives into shapes they could never have imagined when arriving on the ship half a century before.

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