07 July 2022

My Five Favourite Books of May and June 2022

It's time for the latest installment of my bimonthly series where I pick my favourite five books from among those I've read over the past two months. My tally for May and June was slightly down (mainly because there were a couple in there that — were I less of a completionist — may well have been DNFs), but I still read 17 books. I'm up to 59 at this mid-year point, which means I'm comfortably on track to meeting my goal of reading 100 books by the end of the year.

Heading off on holiday soon? Perhaps you'll find inspiration in some of my picks, although I must confess that they aren't all that summery! There's also an honourable mention in the form of Chris 'The Flight Attendant' Bohjalian's Old Hollywood meets East African safari thriller, The Lioness. It's been massively talked up on #bookstagram and as I made my first visit to East Africa this year, I was really looking forward to reading it. I loved the depictions of the Tanzanian landscapes and the period, as well as some of the characterisation. But I struggled to get into it — perhaps because of the structure and pacing, and the number of characters, some of whom weren't that interesting. Overall, it was a like but not a love.

1. Cover Story by Susan Rigetti. My four-word summary of Susan Rigetti's hugely entertaining novel is: The Devil Wears Pravda. Struggling college student and aspiring writer Lora gets a coveted internship at ELLE magazine. She starts on the beauty desk and then gets an opportunity to support the charismatic and contributing editor Cat Wolff on her investigative work. Lora is slowly drawn into Cat's glamorous, opulent lifestyle. But we know all is not as it seems as alongside Lora's diary entries, we are party to various emails, Slack messages and other correspondence from others, including the FBI, who have sent an agent to go undercover at ELLE. Cover Story is fun and fast-paced, delivering plenty of twists along the way — as well as insights into the life of fashion magazine internships. I wasn't massively surprised by the ending, but it was very well executed. I have now earmarked to read Rigetti's memoir (under her maiden name Fowler), Whistleblower, all about her shocking experiences as a female software engineer working at Uber.

2. Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr. There's a young female would-be journalist at the heart of Lisa Barr's novel too, and Woman on Fire also skips across glamorous locations across the art world. Recent graduate Jules Roth talks her way into a job working for a renowned investigative journalist but soon finds out that she's working on a personal project for him, rather than for his publication. She is tasked with tracking down a legendary painting — the titular Woman on Fire — stolen by the Nazis, and return it to its rightful owner, a famous shoe designer. But he's not the only one who wants to find the painting and Jules must go up against the glamorous but ruthless gallerist Margaux de Laurent. The stakes are high and Jules soon begins to wonder what she's got herself into. However, her urge to pursue the truth is immense — and falling in love along the way provides even further motivation. I'm not ashamed to admit that I used to devour Jilly Cooper novels in my teenage years, and Barr's novel did remind me of a much better written Pandora. Say what you will about Cooper, but she does know how to spin a good yarn, and the same is true of Barr: I was gripped all the way to Woman on Fire's dramatic conclusion.

3. Magpie by Elizabeth Day. It's hard to say too much about Elizabeth Day's novel without spoiling it — there's a huge reveal part-way through — but suffice to say it's a dark, twisty and compelling domestic thriller that packs a real emotional punch. As the novel opens, Marisa moves in to a new home with Jake. She hasn't known him that long and she has had plenty of troubles in past relationships, but this feels right and before long she falls pregnant. Everything changes when a lodger moves in. Kate just seems so familiar with everything — leaving her shoes in the hallway and using Marisa and Jake's bathroom — and so comfortable with Jake himself. Jake dismisses her concerns but Marisa begins to investigate Kate and the more she discovers, the more she begins to worry. Day has a knack both for writing hugely uncomfortable scenes and for conveying what makes characters tick. The plot is really quite bonkers, but I found the ride extremely satisfying.

4. It Ends at Midnight by Harriet Tyce. Speaking of bonkers, Harriet Tyce's latest novel is really out there. I wasn't a huge fan of the denouement but the story gripped me enough that I stayed up way too late to finish it in a single sitting. I've enjoyed Tyce's previous novels, especially Blood Orange, and like the way she puts women working in the legal profession in the middle of domestic drama. The lawyer in question in It Ends at Midnight is Sylvie, an ambitious barrister who is hoping to become a judge. Her solitude — she isn't close to her family and doesn't have many friends — is broken up when she meets and falls for a chef who is working at a legal conference. And then she gets some bad news from her oldest friend Tess, who has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition. With this in mind, Tess thinks it's time to put right some of the wrongs of her younger years — wrongs that also involve Sylvie — and she needs Sylvie's help. But the further Sylvie digs, the more trouble she may be implicating herself in, putting her career, and maybe more, in jeopardy. Tyce effectively conveys the panic and asks a lot of what-would-you-do questions as the situation rapidly spirals out of control. My biggest issue with It Ends at Midnight is that most of the characters are very unlikeable. The twists and turns of the story were enough to propel me on, but I think that's why I felt so meh about the ending.

5. The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths. Time seems to have been a theme for my past two months of reading (Wrong Time, Wrong Place and The Long Weekend nearly made the shortlist). I'm a big fan of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Gallagher series, but I enjoy her standalone novels too, including this 'cosy crime thriller' (what a great genre concept!). Set in Brighton in the 1960s, The Midnight Hour is filled with brilliant ahead-of-their-time women, especially young police detective Meg and private detectives Emma and Sam. They are all trying to get to the bottom of the death of nonagenerian actor Bert Billington. The post mortem reveals he was poisoned and it doesn't take long for our leading ladies to unearth a whole host of suspects with reasons to bump off Bert, some closer to home than others. The 'cosy crime' genre could have been created especially for Griffiths: she has this special way of conveying cosiness in her writing even when the crimes she is writing about are really quite horrific. A lot of it comes down to her ability to create unique characters who exude warmth and likeability.

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