20 Book of Summer is just around the corner!

I will be taking a little break from my usual Monday Books that Built the Blogger post as I’m starting to plan for my annual 20 Books of Summer!

Yes, it IS that time already.

Well nearly….

20 books

The weather here in Northern Ireland has been amazing for the last few weeks, blue skies, sun, no rain…yes, there has been no rain in Northern Ireland. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. So, as usual when there is a bit of sun in May and I’ve booked by summer holiday, I start planning my 20 Books.

For anyone who hasn’t taken part before, 20 Books of Summer is a reading challenge I do each year from 1 June to 3 September where I read 20 books from my TBR in three months. I just about managed to complete it last year as I read all 20 books, but didn’t manage to review them all, although I was hampered by a mid-summer change of jobs. Hopefully now that life is a bit more settled, I’ll be able to complete it in style!

I haven’t chosen my 20 books yet, but it will be the usual mix of novels, short story collections, memoirs and a couple of sneaky short ones to make my life a little bit easier! I’ll post my list in a few weeks and see who’s up for joining in this year.

As ever, there will be a 15 books and 10 books option and as previous years, a few Australians might take part and rename it the 20 books of winter! I’ll have a Master Post with a linky where you can share your reading lists and the #20booksofsummer hashtag will be buzzing again.

I do hope a few of you can join me, but if not, I’ll need all your encouragement to try and get another 20 books knocked off my never-ending pile of books!

Now, I just have to pick my 20…..

August in Review

August has been a very busy month here at 746 Books.

Well, not so much on the blog at 746 Books, but in the real life of 746 Books!

August was the final full month of 20 Books of Summer and I watched in envy as several participants tweeted details of their 20th review! What I’ve discovered this year about my summer challenge is, that the reading itself is not the problem. 20 books is a totally acceptable amount of books to read within that timescale.

So, it’s not the reading. It’s the reading and reviewing 20 books is the problem for me! Although I am just about to start book number 20 (with 3 days to go!!) my reviewing has stalled at 13. I will round up on the last 6 I have read here, but we are talking 2 or 3 line reviews rather than 2 or 3 paragraphs, which is disappointing to me as there are a few of these books that I would love to have looked at in a more in depth way.

Adobe Spark 14


I think I may have been able to dive in to this challenge better if I hadn’t started a new job in the middle of it. I am loving my new position as Arts Programmer at the new Seamus Heaney HomePlace Arts Centre, it’s challenging and exciting but it has also been all-consuming. The building opens to the public on 29 September and we are all working very hard to get everything ready for that. It has meant that after work, kids, dinner and anything else I have to do, I have had very little energy for posting on my blog. I am hoping that things settle down over the next few months and I will get back to my usual regular posting schedule, I mean it’s not as if I won’t be surrounded every day by amazing literary inspiration!

Quick plug – do check out the website for the HomePlace – if anyone is visiting, please do say hello!

I was also on holiday last week with the family to the beautiful Rathmullan in Donegal. We had a wonderful week, the kids made friends with a neighbouring cat and the weather was kind to us. No mobile coverage also meant it was a very relaxing week and I got a lot of reading done. Some of it outside at the picnic table no less – a phenomenon that is often unheard of in Donegal!

But today has an autumnal feel. The twins went back to school, starting in P2 and yet again there were tears. And yet again, they were mine and there is a distinct chill in the air here in Northern Ireland. I can’t deny that I’m an autumn kinda girl, so I’m looking forward to coats and tights and scarves and all things cosy!

And finally, I have just found out that 746 Books has made the finals of the Littlewoods Irish Blog Awards in the Books and Literature category. I am so delighted to have made the final 7, it’s such an honour and am currently frantically trying to source a babysitter so the hubbie and I can put on our glad rags and head down to Dublin for the ceremony on the 15 September! Thanks to all of you who voted for me, it was much appreciated.


So, back to books – here is a very quick run down of the last 6 of my 20 Books.

No 616 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

As expected, Wharton didn’t disappoint. I loved The Age of Innocence, not as much as The House of Mirth, but it was still wonderful. I found this one to be more biting and often more funny in its dissection of New York society than the other works have read and it has a final scene that is poignant and perfect. Now to watch the movie!

Read on: Book
Number Read: 131
Number Remaining: 615

No 615 Small Island by Andrea Levy

This was another winner for me, with the multiple viewpoints bringing a depth and insight into the story. Perfectly formed with a range of incredibly authentic voices, I enjoyed it very much.


Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 132
Number Remaining: 614

No 614 I Am No One You Know by Joyce Carol Oates

I adore Joyce Carol Oates short stories as she usually veers towards the darker side of humanity in her shorter works. This collection is no exception, featuring some stunning stories that explore those moments when we do something impulsive, or make a small decision, with no idea of the often devastating consequences that might follow.

Read on: Book
Number Read: 133
Number Remaining: 613

No 613 Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

‘You must have wished a million times to be normal.’
‘I’ve wished I had two heads. Or that I was invisible. I’ve wished for a fish’s tale instead of legs. I’ve wished to be more special.’
‘Not normal?’

I loved this book, which I have been meaning to read for a long time. Telling the tale of the Binewski family, circus ‘freaks’ featuring the megalomaniac Arturo the Aqua Boy, telekinetic Chick and sometime prostitute Siamese twins, this is a dark, funny tale is narrated by bald, albino hunchback Olympia which explores sibling rivalry, family loyalty and how society judges between the beautiful and the ugly, the weird and the normal. A must read.

Read on Book
Number Read: 134
Number Remaining: 612

No 612 The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

This is the one occasion where I wish I had time to write a full review, as The Republic of Love is my book of the year so far. A smart, sprawling, witty and heartwarming exploration of love in all its forms, the story follows Fay McLeod and Tom Avery as they stumble through failed relationships, muse on the impossibility of finding a partner, meet, fall in love at first sight and try to navigate the pitfalls that great romance can bring. If this makes it sound slight, it’s not at all. It is a wonderful musing on all aspects of love and is one of the most charming, humane and entertaining books Ihave read in a long time.

Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 135
Number Remaining: 611

No 611 Solace by Belinda McKeon


The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that Solace was not on my original 20 Books of Summer list. I should have read Moon Tiger, but it was on my iPad, which I hadn’t brought on holiday, so I turned to Solace instead. I’m glad I did. I adored Tender, Belinda McKeon’s second novel, which was my favourite book of the year last year. Solace is like Tender’s quieter little sister – not so showy or attention grabbing, but a book with real depth and beauty. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Solace starts slowly, exploring the relationship between Mark and Joanne as they deal with a pregnancy not long after they have started dating. It changes pace halfway through following an unforeseen tragedy and excels in exploring familial bonds and the relationship between fathers and sons against the backdrop of agricultural Ireland before the financial crash.

Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 136
Number Remaining: 610

So there we have it. 19 books of my 20 books of Summer read, with just Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon left to read and I am determined to finish it by Monday – although I doubt I will manage a review before then! Plus, I’m a little excited that I am only 10 books away from getting in to the 500s of the 746!

So, how are the rest of you doing with your challenge? Are you looking forward to Autumn or pining for the last few days of summer?

More Mini Summer Reviews!


The summer is slipping away from me and although I’m reading LOADS, my reviewing has stalled. I have been very busy in work trying to get everything in place for leaving my current job, and this has left me incapable of doing much in the evenings bar drinking some wine and watching some telly.


Adobe Spark

So, here I am again with a few mini-reviews to get be up to date with my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

No 620 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’ Farrell

my lover's lover - Copy
I wanted so much to love My Lover’s Lover as I’ve been so impressed with O’Farrell’s other books. Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. It starts well enough – Lily (a strangely vacant character) moves into a flat with the charismatic Marcus and the moody Aidan and begins a relationship with Marcus with almost ridiculous haste. Very soon, she is haunted by the ‘ghost’ of Marcus’ ex Sinead, whose room she has taken and whom Marcus refers to as ‘no longer with us. References to Hitchcock would suggest this is a tale of the dead taking retribution on the one who has taken their place, and the first half of the book is creepy and interesting. Things fall apart though as Lily, and the reader, discover that Sinead is in fact alive and well but devastated by the break-up of her relationship with Marcus. The novel then shifts focus to explore what happened between Sinead and Marcus before seemingly running out of steam by the end. My main problem with My Lover’s Lover is that the characters were so insubstantial. Lily doesn’t register much of anything, and Aidan remains on the periphery throughout. For a man that two obviously smart young women fall for without hesitation – Marcus is actually a bit of a shit, if you’ll pardon my language. Unpleasant, unpredictable and unfaithful, it’s amazing that he manages to hang on to one girl let alone too. Add to that, the supernatural aspects of the book, which I found most intriguing, are presented and then never explained. As an exploration of how our past relationships can affect our current emotions, the ghost is a potent symbol, but it is jettisoned halfway through this rather disappointing book.

Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 9/20
Number Read: 127
Number Remaining: 619

No 619 – The Keep by Jennifer Egan

the keep
Given that I expected so much from My Lover’s Lover and felt disappointed, it was great to follow it with a book about which I expected little, but enjoyed a great deal. The Keep is a clever, well-structured tale within a tale that confounds expectation at every turn. It opens with Danny, a feckless Wi-Fi addicted 30-something New Yorker, arriving at a European castle to work for his cousin Howie. Howie plans to turn the castle into a boutique hotel where people come to turn off their devices and turn on their imaginations. The castle contains a mythical keep, inhabited by an old woman who claims ownership and refuses to leave it. With incredible stylistic skill, Egan also introduces Ray to the story. Ray is in jail, attending a creative writing course and writing the story of Danny, Howie, the castle and its keep, to try and impress Holly, his teacher. Either one of these stories would have been interesting enough, but that Egan manages to interweave the two and have them mirror, blend and bounce off one another, is quite a skill. The reader is at all times reminded of the authorial voice, but is never jolted out of either story. This is a stunning piece of metafiction and through the imagery of trap doors, reflections, pools and caves, Egan reminds us that we can only come to know ourselves and heal ourselves through the power of our imagination. The Keep is clever and stylised and also immersive and moving. One of my favourites of the summer.

Read on: iBooks
20 Books of Summer: 10/20
Number Read: 128
Number Remaining: 618

No 618 – Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

apple tree - Copy
Apple Tree Yard is another case of me hearing the hype about the latest exciting thriller, feeling the need to buy it immediately and then never getting around to reading it. By the time you find out that a book is getting a BBC adaptation, you know you are coming a little too late to the party. Apple Tree Yard is an interesting courtroom drama, well-structured and well- paced, but something about it left me a little cold. Dr Yvonne Carmichael is a successful 52 year old woman, with a good career as a geneticist, a loving husband and two grown up children. One day, while giving evidence to a select committee in the Houses of Parliament, she meets a man, chats to him briefly and ends up having sex with him in a public place without knowing his name. We then find out that Yvonne and her mystery man are in the dock in the Old Bailey, accused of murder and Doughty examines, as you would a court case, the decisions and acts that brought a seemingly normal woman to this point. Yvonne narrates her story as a letter to her lover, looking back over their relationship, her relationship with her husband and the chain of events that led them to more destruction than they could have imagined. Apple Tree Yard is a novel about stories – the stories we tell ourselves to justify our behaviour, the stories we invent to make ourselves appear more successful or attractive and then ultimately, the story that is told to a jury – all open to interpretation. It is also about manipulation and the far reaching consequences that can have. As a courtroom drama, it’s very successful and it was refreshing to read a book about the sex life of a middle aged woman that was clear eyed and unpatronising. However, as with My Lover’s Lover, I couldn’t quite understand Yvonne’s attraction to her lover, who came across as shifty and dangerous from the start. However, this is a chilling novel that explores the lies we can tell ourselves to justify what we have done.

Read on: Kindle
20 Books of Summer: 11/20
Number Read: 129
Number Remaining: 617

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

hunger modern girl - Copy
This last year has felt like a bit of a golden age for the female rock autobiography. From Patti Smith’s M Train to Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, there is no shortage of musical memoirs at the moment, with Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde and Brix Smith Start all releasing books. Carrie Brownstein in the founder member of Sleater-Kinney one of the break out Riot Grrrl bands to come out of that 1990s scene. Now a respected actor and screenwriter (Portlandia, Transparent), Brownstein documents her life growing up in the suburbs of Seattle through the early days of Sleater-Kinney to the ultimate breakup of the band while on tour in Europe. Brownstein had a troubled childhood, her mother had anorexia and left, while her father came out as gay while she was in her teens. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl captures perfectly how performance came to be both an escape and an identity for a young woman trying to make sense of a confusing world a create an identity of her own. Brownstein writes in a clean, downbeat manner, always willing to share her own embarrassments as much as her successes. She explores her relationship with band mate Corin Tucker with insight and clarity and her feminist voice demands to be heard. Fans of her later work in television may be disappointed but Brownstein is clever to end the book when the band ends, self-imploding just as things were going well. This could have been a frothy, girls on the road melodrama of a book, but by avoiding the high drama, Brownstein insightfully explores a life lived the only way it could be.

Read On: Book borrowed from my very accommodating husband
20 Books of Summer: 12/20

So, I’m back on track – 8 books to go in 6 more weeks, which I really hope I can manage. I may do a swap as I have now tried to start Moon Tiger on several occasions and it is not grabbing me at all, but I may give it one more go.

How is everyone else getting along? Can you believe there are only 6 weeks of summer left?


No 621 This Is How by MJ Hyland

Adobe Spark (8)


MJ Hyland’s third novel, This Is How, opens as the narrator, 23-year-old Patrick Oxtoby, arrives at the seaside boarding house he has just moved to, shortly after his fiancée has broken off their engagement.

I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either

This examination of everything that he does is a central feature of Patrick’s fascinating character and drives the rest of this stunning, visceral novel, which follows Patrick from jilted boyfriend to convicted prisoner in jail, charged with the worst of crimes.


As the novel begins, Patrick is hoping to start a new life, in a new place. He has taken a room in a boarding house and has a new job lined up as a car mechanic. His fiancée Sarah has left him because he can’t express his emotions but according to Patrick, ‘the thing is, I didn’t have that many’. His internal reaction to the ending of the relationship subsumes those emotions into imagined violence,

“I wanted,” thinks Patrick, replaying the scene in his mind, “to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words… I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘you broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine’. It was something I’d never say… I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.”

It’s an ominous thought and many more like it surface in Patrick’s head as he tries to leave his past behind. He takes seaside walks, starts a new job and tries to find himself a new girlfriend, but through his dispassionate internal monologue, his dependency on alcohol and his obsessive checking of his tool kit, it becomes apparent that the end of his relationship is only one of many problems.

According to Patrick’s father, he was born without ‘that knack for happiness’. Only feeling able to express his wish to be a mechanic to his beloved grandmother, he responds to her death by digging a hole in the ground and screaming in to it. His coping mechanisms don’t improve as he gets older and he has a complete inability to know what to say or do in any given situation. His need for precision and his painful self-awareness seem like a way for him to control a world that appears unstable and confusing.

I want this and I don’t want this, and there’s a feeling in me like I’m sorry for the way I’ve been to her and there’s a feeling that I’ve no notion what I’ll do next. Today, tomorrow or the next day. I don’t know where I’ll go, or what I want to do, a feeling like there’s nothing I’ve got to look forward to.

He is unable to participate in daily small talk, always questioning the motives of those around him. He has a precarious relationship with his landlady Bridget and struggles to communicate with his fellow lodgers Welkin and Findall.

Where Patrick thinks he has little emotion, he is actually being overwhelmed by it. His body expresses the pain he cannot through excruciating head and neck pain, vomiting to expunge tension and uncontrollable sobbing. He speaks without hearing his own voice and questions what he has said and what he has heard. The slightest things cause him great frustration, and an unexpected visit from his mother elicits an emotional reaction that he once again erupts in violence.

I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my tool kit. I put the pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard.”

Hyland brings us right inside Patrick’s head. The story is told with great detail, but few descriptive pointers. Like Patrick, we are unsure of what his employer or his landlady think of him. Are Welkin and Findall bullying him or is their behaviour just an attempt at banter? The book is set in the 1960s, but even that takes time to establish. The reader experiences the world through Patrick’s inner thoughts and we are groping for signposts and indicators just as he is. This shared dissociation means that we may not like Patrick, but we can certainly understand how he feels.

Like when you lose something really important, leave it on a bus seat or something stupid like that. You know? That fear and shame that goes through you like poison…Well, I get that feeling of shame after doing something stupid, I get it hundreds of times a day.

The tension builds to an inexplicable and ruinous act of violence that Patrick can neither accept nor defend. This is How focuses on how lives can be changed in an instant, how one decision, one emotional reaction, can change the course of lives. The second half of the novel follows Patrick as he is tried and sentenced for his crime and adapts to life in prison.


Image: Shutterstock


Hyland depicts the trial with precision and immediacy, rendering the self-denial, fear and dull bureaucratic detail with a keen eye. In prison, forced into the close human contact that he has so far avoided for most of his life, Patrick adapts to this world that has the manageable rules he could never find in the outside. He finds himself able to form relationships, with his cell-mate and a psychiatrist and in a heart-breaking admission he admits;

I’m sometimes happier in here…life’s shrinking to a size that suits me.

As his world shrinks to the size of a prison cell, Patrick comes to understand himself better than he ever could before and if his self-awareness has limits, it is we, the readers who come to fully understand him. It is to Hyland’s credit that Patrick remains an empathetic character throughout and as he grows in to himself in prison, we are presented with a haunting and tragic reminder of the man he might have otherwise become.

This is How is an absorbing and complex novel. It is a portrait not of a monster, but of someone who has made monstrous choices, that even he cannot understand. Hyland does not judge Patrick, rather she presents him as fully human and her novel is shot through with the hints of what this man might have been, which gives the story real force and emotional impact. The novel is beyond characterisation – it is not a crime novel and not a thriller yet it is one of the most thrilling books I have read in a long time. Its brilliance lies in the compassion and humanity in the depiction of what could happen to any of us if the wrong choice is made.

Read on: iReader

20 Books of Summer: 8/20

Number Read: 126

Number Remaining: 620




Round Up Reviews – No 624 – 622

I said I wouldn’t do this, but I am going to have to.

Adobe Spark (7)

Circumstances have dictated that I’m going to have to do a few round up reviews, just to clear the back log! Life has been very busy these last few weeks and I have started to feel stressed about falling behind on my blogging and the fact that I am not keeping up with all your posts. I really wanted to do full review for all 20 books this summer, but I have to remind myself that I blog for FUN and my posts should be a release rather than a worry, so I’m cutting myself a bit of slack and doing a few mini-reviews just to get things up to date.

I do plan to do full reviews of a couple of recent books – This is How and Apple Tree Yard – both of which I think deserve full reviews for very different reasons, but in the meantime, here are some of the books I’ve managed to get through in these past few weeks.

No 624 A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

spell of winter - Copy

I am a big fan of Helen Dunmore’s writing and A Spell of Winter doesn’t disappoint. Catherine and her brother Rob live with their grandfather in an isolated crumbling mansion in the years before World War 1. Their mother has abandoned them and their father has gone mad, so the siblings find comfort in the memories and half-truths of their home, and eventually their relationship turns incestuous. Reminiscent of a Brontë novel, it is to Dunmore’s credit that this tale does not veer into the ludicrous featuring as it does incest, abortion, madness, war and eventually murder. This is down to the beautiful prose and the sensitive characterisation – she evokes sympathy for her characters even when they are doing terrible things and as the novel ends, a glimmer of hope enters to thaw the snow.

Read On: Book

20 Books of Summer: 5/20

Number Read: 123

Number Remaining: 623


No 623 Blue Nights by Joan Didion

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Didion’s iconic The Year of Magical Thinking, written about the sudden death of her husband John Dunne was a searing and moving meditation on loss and grief and was also a moving portrait of a man and a marriage. Blue Nights is a tragic companion piece to that book, dealing as it does with the death of Didion’s daughter Quintana only a year later. Like the twilight of its title, Blue Nights is a vague and somewhat insubstantial book. Quintana remains an elusive figure within the pages, which feature Didion musing on motherhood, parenting and old age. She fixates on other people she knows who have died young (including family friend Natasha Richardson) and worries about how she brought up her daughter. It is a fragile and tremulous piece of writing, repeating phrases like incantations that will ward off painful truths. Where The Year of Magical Thinking felt universal, Blue Nights feels almost too specific to have that same emotional depth and charge. However, when Didion writes about her own personal frailty and her fear of losing her cognitive abilities, then we see the strength and the courage that she possesses in even writing this admirable book. 

Read On: iBook

20 Books of Summer: 6/20

Number Read: 124

Number Remaining: 622


No 622 Sister by Rosamund Lupton


Rosamund Lupton’s charged and well-paced thriller focuses on the bond between two different, but close sisters. New York based designer Beatrice gets a call to say her younger sister, artist Tess, has gone missing, so she returns to London to discover what has happened to her beloved sister. What follows is a novel framed as a letter from Beatrice to Tess, which drip-feeds the details of Tess’s disappearance and subsequent death to the reader with precise plotting and a strong sense of pace. Details emerge of Tess’s pregnancy and a medical trial she was participating in before her death and these are mingled confidently with insights into the grief and guilt that arises from the violent death of a family member. While I enjoyed Sister and was buoyed along by the strong plot, I had a few issues with the characterisations of Beatrice and Tess, never really feeling I was getting a sense of who they were as people, rather than types. I also found the epistolary nature of the novel to be clunky at times and the ‘twist’ (there always has to be a twist!) at the end of the novel felt really unnecessary. I think I will be in the minority with this view, but I felt the book could have been just as successful, if not more so, without it.

Read on: iBooks

20 Books of Summer: 7/20

Number Read: 125

Number Remaining: 621


So, have you read any of these? What did you think?




20 Books of Summer- an apology (and an announcement!)

It’s hard to believe, but that is the first month of 20 Books of Summer nearly over!

So, how are we all doing?


I need to apologise to everyone taking part as I have been very slack the last few weeks and haven’t been managing to keep up with all the brilliant blogs and tweets. I haven’t even kept up with my own reviews. I’ve been doing great on the reading front though and I am way ahead of schedule.

I’ve read, but yet to review:

  • This Is How – MJ Hyland
  • Blue Nights – Joan Didion
  • A Spell of Winter – Helen Dunmore
  • Sister – Rosamund Lupton

I’m also half way through Apple Tree Yard and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so that is A LOT of reviewing to catch up on. It does mean though, that I’ve read about 9 books in the first month, so I must be able to do this, right?

I may have to do a round up post with mini-reviews instead, but that would be a shame, particularly as I LOVED the MJ Hyland and am looking forward to raving about it to anyone who’ll listen!


The main reason I haven’t been able to give 20 Books my full attention is that I have been preparing for a job interview, which I am happy to say I got! As of August, I am the Arts programmer for the brand new Seamus Heaney HomePlace Arts Centre which is opening in his hometown of Bellaghy in September 2016. I am so excited for this opportunity – it’s like the best bits of my current job, with added books! What could be better? If any of you are in Northern Ireland in the autumn, please come and visit!

Hopefully though, from here on, I’ll be able to devote a bit more time to keeping up with you all and getting my reviews up to date. I’ll get back to reading and commenting and sharing on all your great blogs, I promise!

So, how is everyone else doing? Are we swapping books? Keeping on target? Throwing in the towel?

Do let me know, even if I have been a bad challenge host so far 🙂

No 625 A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

In those days…I also loved the quickening smell of lighter fluid and charcoal on summer evenings, when every house became a campsite, the street became a river, and we ran through dark backyards to the sinuous burble of television sets.
Then my father left, and a few months after that Boyd Ellison was killed behind the Spring Hill Mall, and what happened in our neighborhood began to seem less and less like what happened in neighborhoods.


Adobe Spark

A Crime in the Neighborhood is narrated by Marsha Eberhardt, now an adult, looking back on one eventful summer in Washington in 1972. Played out against the Watergate scandal and the deepening crisis in American society, this coming of age novel deftly explores a time in the Seventies when the idea of perfect family life was starting to disintegrate, alongside a fractured political world.

The ‘crime’ of the title seems to refer most directly to the murder of a local boy, Boyd Ellison, who is molested and dumped behind the local shopping mall. Marsha did not like Boyd and remembers him as a boy who was always taking more than he should and for a time, the murder elicits excitement within the local community rather than fear.

We were exhilarated. Nothing so enormous and glittering had ever happened to us before. We were jealous of Boyd Ellison not because he had been killed – of course not that, we had never felt so alive ourselves – but because he had encountered something legendary.

Berne is very good at juxtaposing these things – the horror of the murder and the sometimes incongruous response to it, and perfectly captures the reactions of a ten-year old to this kind of monumental event.

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It soon transpires that Boyd’s murder is not the main focus of the novel. That takes place in a more subtle, domestic domain, where smaller cruelties have just as devastating consequences. A month before the murder, Marsha’s father Larry has run off with his wife’s younger sister Ada leaving Marsha and her twin siblings with nothing more than a new wristwatch and the explanation that ‘it is what it is’. As Marsha’s mother tries to hold the family together and deal with her own betrayal, Marsha is left to her own devices in a neighborhood on high alert and her interest eventually turns to Mr Green, the only bachelor to live on her street and the person Marsha is convinced has killed Boyd Ellison.

Marsha is a wonderful creation – a quiet, watchful child, smart but still naïve enough to be unable to separate the implosion within her family with the crime that has shaken her neighborhood.

Although I couldn’t have explained it then, I believed that my father’s departure had deeply jarred the domestic order not just in our house, but in the neighborhood, and by extension in the country, since in those days my neighborhood was my country. My father left to find himself, and a child got lost. That’s how it struck me.

She is a fascinating yet unreliable narrator and as she collects newspaper clippings and takes notes in her Evidence book when she is ten, Berne suggests that as an adult, she is still collecting evidence, still trying to solve the mystery of why her father abandoned her and why she herself committed a crime of her own.

Sometimes things like this start small, but then they get out of control. That’s what happens. It doesn’t take long for a lousy mistake to turn into a crime

Marsha’s attempts to reconcile her love for her father with his actions are at the core of the book. Unlike her Noel Coward quoting cynical older twin siblings, Marsha feels his loss keenly and as suspicion and fear envelopes her local community, her need for a father and all that a father signifies – safety, comfort, stability – is more acutely felt. As she watches the men on her street each evening complete their neighborhood watch, her loss is palpable.

I fell in love with all of them. I dreamed of being carried by each man, pressed to each of their chests as they carried me to safety, passing me down a long line of fathers.

Ultimately though, A Crime in the Neighborhood is about judgment. How do we decide what constitutes a crime? Is it a murder? An abandonment? A false accusation? Or is it just being willing to live outside societies norms as Mr Green does?


Berne insightfully explores the consequences of our judgements and how we must ultimately judge ourselves and our own actions. As Marsha tries to bring some sense of normality to her fractured world, her mistaken belief that everything will be right if she unmasks Boyd’s killer turns out to have dire consequences.

Looking back, it seems to me that those gallant fathers intended, by sheer physical effort, to return our neighborhood to what it had never actually been

Marsha is doing the same, trying to return her family to what it had never actually been and never could be again, so much so that even years later she notes

There I was, ten years old all over again, and he had just left me, and the world was a wide place in the dark, and right then I understood as if for the very first time that nothing in my life would ever feel safe.

A Crime in the Neighborhood is a beautifully written, vividly evocative book that perfectly captures that romance of 1970s suburbia in the manner of say Jeffrey Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides. Unlike that book, Berne’s feels rooted in reality – believable, recognisable and universal.

Read On: Kindle

20 Books of Summer: 4/20

Number Read: 122

Number Remaining: 624