An Authentic Voice

ColdKilling

‘Saturday. I agreed to come to the park with the wife and children.’ The first line of Cold Killing might seem innocuous – but read on. Before you get beyond the first page you know that this is no ordinary husband but a cold and ruthless killer. And, though you almost certainly won’t realise it until much later, you are being set up.

In the next chapter you are introduced to DI Sean Corrigan. As in many current crime novels, he has characteristics that separate him for the herd. Fortunately, in this case, he is not that somewhat clichéd maverick, a borderline psychotic whose wild, reckless actions would have him thrown out of even the most dodgy force. No. DI Sean Corrigan is different, in that the appalling abuse he suffered in childhood has given him an insight into the workings of dark minds. A darkness he recognises in himself, but which he has learnt to control, though it is a constant battle.

In Cold Killing he is pitched against a ruthless, intelligent and single minded killer. A killer who has detailed knowledge of forensics and who is obsessive in ensuring that he has no recognisable MO. Who deliberately chooses victims who are as disparate as they could possibly be. Despite this, Sean Corrigan is convinced that every murder was committed by the same hand. Before long he has identified the killer. And he sets out to nail him – by fair means or foul.

One of the most striking things about this book, and something that sets it apart from many other police procedurals, is the inside knowledge.

From the start, the narrative is shared between the killer and the cops, for the most part in the person of DI Corrigan. From the moment Corrigan identifies the killer, we too are put in the picture. From that point we are reading the killer’s narrative fully aware of who he is. There is some very clever stuff here, which I cannot reveal because of spoilers. Suffice to say there are twists and turns and several red herrings all aimed at making us look in the wrong direction.

One of the most striking things about this book, and something that sets it apart from many other police procedurals, is the inside knowledge. There’s a significant difference between research and knowledge. Here the author’s experience as a serving policeman leaps from the page. Often subtle, never in-your-face, these authentic touches are some of the best parts of the book.

There are some lovely touches too – a scene with magpies mourning a dead companion for example.

Hence we discover what a detective typically keeps in the boot of his car. What the offices in a police station are really like – cheap wooden furniture, uncomfortable chairs, computers that are far from state of the art and harsh lighting. We learn how he or she might feel when confronted by the body of someone who was killed violently. Add to this the conversation between the officers, which are ‘warts and all’. Perhaps best of all, these officers are by no means squeaky clean. The admission that evidence gets planted and that blind eyes get turned is refreshing.

Enjoyable as it is there are flaws in the writing. Not major ones and since this is a first novel they can be forgiven. In short there’s a tendency to show not tell. To take just one instance, in a conversation between the sidekick Donnelly and his wife the dialogue is very clunky. There are parts, especially in the beginning, where the adjectives are overworked. I also have a bit of a problem with the old clichés of the ‘learnt on the streets’, ‘working class lad who took up boxing to save from life of crime’ variety. Especially when linked to chunks of philosophising and ‘inner thoughts’ which ramble on and hold up the action. (In the latter case the author is in good (bad) company as Donna Tart spoils the end of The Goldfinch in a similar manner). In terms of plot, there are a few places where it is really OTT or implausible.

All it really needed was a bit of tightening up, a mite more editing and a wee bit less indulgence. That’s all.

Nevertheless, none of this detracted from my overall enjoyment. Luke Delaney can write and is perfectly capable of showing, rather than telling. Corrigan’s toughness and lack of fear is described by painting a picture of him driving through dangerous streets ‘with the window down and the doors unlocked.’

There are some lovely touches too – a scene with magpies mourning a dead companion for example. Someone wearing underwear ‘to make her feel less vulnerable.’ And excellent forensic and procedural details that are lightly drawn and that are, in consequence, all the more believable.

All it really needed was a bit of tightening up, a mite more editing and a wee bit less indulgence. That’s all. None of these minor faults take away from what is an exciting, page-turning read. I’m about to start the second book – The Keeper – and am looking forward to it eagerly.*

* You can see whether or not my eager anticipation was rewarded in my review of The Keeper, the second book. I posted it the wrong way round before I knew about scheduling.

Crying & Laughing: the annual Clown’s Memorial Service

The Tears of a Clown: the annual Clowns’ Memorial Service

Sad Clown

Towards the end of The Eighteenth of November, Alice, one of the main protagonists finds herself back in Joseph Grimaldi Park, the tiny North London park, where she had encountered Fabriel, some hours after the fire. As she stands distraught by the railings round Grimaldi’s grave she becomes aware of shadowy figures gathering round her. These are the ghosts of clowns long gone. But their comforting presence is soon replaced by something much more sinister.

This scene was inspired by research into the life of Joey Grimaldi and the discovery of the Clown’s Church and the annual memorial service that was held there and that continues to this day, though in a different place. On the first Sunday in February each year a colourful and motley crew assembles in East London. Clowns from all over Britain, and even further afield, gather in Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, East London. They come to remember and honour friends and colleagues lost but not forgotten. And also to renew friendships, remember, perform and laugh together.

The tradition began in 1946 at the original Clown’s Church, St James on Pentonville Road when the first service was held in memory of the legendary Joseph Grimaldi, the ‘clown of clowns’, who is buried in what was once St James’ Churchyard, but is now a park named after him – Joseph Grimaldi Park. The church suffered bomb damage in World War II and was decommissioned in 1959, when the service was moved to Holy Trinity in Dalston.

Grimaldi was born in Clerkenwell in 1778 and lived in and around Islington until his death in 1837, aged only 59. His father had performed in pantomime and Joseph made his own debut at the Sadler’s Wells theatre when aged barely three. He continued to delight audiences at the theatre, and in Drury Lane and many other London theatres. Despite his fame, his life was not an easy one, with more that its fair share of tragedy. Sadly, this is rather fitting for a clown.

Next year the service will once again be held at Holy Trinity Church, Beechwood Road, London E8 3DY. As always, on the first Sunday in February. If you are going, be sure to get there really early to get a seat. After the service there is a performance in a nearby church hall. Altogether an experience not to be missed.

A pathetic little man. A deadly killer.

The Keeper

In this, the second DC Corrigan novel, Corrigan is once more pitted against a dangerous killer. But, unlike the highly intelligent ‘cold killer’ of the first book, Thomas Keller is a pathetic little man. A sleazy, nasty little man, all the more dangerous for being inadequate. Not to mention utterly deranged. He is obsessed with a woman called ‘Sam’, someone he wants but cannot have. In an attempt to recreate her he stalks and abducts women who resemble her. At first he treats them with tenderness; this soon turns to viciousness when his captives don’t measure up to his unrealistic illusions.

On the cops’ side we have Detective Inspector Sean Corrigan, Detective Sergeant Sally Jones, Detective Sergeant Donnelly and others we met previously in ‘Cold Killing’. At the outset the case looks like a typical ‘missing persons’ incident and as such would not normally be within the remit of the murder team. However, due to Sean Corrigan’s uncanny ability to get a sense of a killer, he knows that sooner or later they will have a body on their hands. So it becomes a tense race against time.

As before, the book starts with the killer. This time we know his name from the outset. We also know he is a postman, so straight away we are ahead of the detectives. And continue to be so. Also, as before, the point of view alternates between Keller, Corrigan, Sally Jones and one of the victims, Louise Russell. This last point of view is a clever touch, which adds to the tension as the story unfolds. To say any more would be to risk a spoiler.

This linking of one book with the other is neat. However it’s only fair to warn you that the name of the killer in Cold Killing, the first book in the series, is revealed in the first chapter of The Keeper.

After we are introduced to the creepy Thomas Keller and his victim, the action moves swiftly to the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. Here the trial that is taking place is that of the villain of the first novel. The final verdict ‘unfit to plead’ sees the perpetrator ordered to be detained in a secure psychiatric unit. Thus robbing the police of the satisfaction of a trial and conviction. And inflicting further psychological damage on Sally Jones, in particular.

This linking of one book with the other is neat. However it’s only fair to warn you that the name of the killer in Cold Killing, the first book in the series, is revealed in the first chapter of The Keeper. So if you haven’t read the first book but intend to read it, don’t start with this one as it will ruin all the tension and twists and turns of Cold Killing. I think this should be pointed out to prospective readers by the publishers.

One of the things that set Luke Delaney apart from many other crime writers is the fact that he is an ex-Murder Squad detective. Consequently the settings are authentic, rather than researched. Throughout the book, fascinating insights take us into the real world of the police, warts and all. Among these, DI Corrigan’s views on the transfer of the Forensic Laboratory from the Home Office to the private sector. His dismissive attitude towards Anna, the criminal psychiatrist. The descriptions of the effects of lack of sleep and the overwhelming weariness that afflicts officers during a case. And the, sometimes fatal, effect this has on family life. There are many such realistic touches.

The descriptions of sexual violence and intimacy border on the pornographic. At times these descriptions are very well written, but they are dwelt on and repeated in a way that I find disturbing.

Two things in particular spoilt my enjoyment of what is essentially an original, fast paced thriller. While there are at times perceptive glimpses into the workings of the mind of the killer and the thought processes of the police and other characters, these are outweighed by the rambling and irritating repetitions of ‘inner thoughts’ and descriptions. The second bothersome element is the fact that the descriptions of sexual violence and intimacy border on the pornographic. At times these descriptions are very well written, but they are dwelt on and repeated in a way that I find disturbing.

All this became so wearisome that at one point I seriously considered abandoning the book. It really does need a thorough edit and has all the hallmarks of a second book rushed out to capitalise on the success of the first. I should point out, however, that I am reading both as a reader and a writer, so things that bother me while wearing my ‘writer hat’ may not bother another reader.

There are plenty of positives about this book, lots of good things. This is evidenced by the plethora of five stars. Indeed all reviews average out at 4.18, which is very high indeed and proves how popular Luke Delaney has become. I’d also like to add that I applaud him for experimenting both with points of view and in not sticking to the same type of criminal. I will be interested to know what he does next.

History as inspiration

AgnesBernauer

I always find it helpful to have a back-story for my characters. Even if none of it actually appears in the book, it informs me as a writer. It took me some time to figure out Fabriel’s status but, once I had done so, I needed to create a backstory for him. In his particular case it was essential to the plot, not just for his character. Who was he? Where did he come from? What had happened to ensure that he would be at King’s Cross on the exact day, at the exact hour that the fire broke out? Did it have something to do with the distant past?

When playing around with different ideas, it became obvious that a common link between his present and his past had to be fire and that led me to witches and witchcraft. Not surprisingly, the Internet is a good place for witches. There are many specialised sites dedicated to all things Wicker, as well as sites such as Wikipedia (no pun intended!) and more general sites.

What I was looking for was a specific story, a true story that I could use as the basis for the events in Fabriel’s past. I found some of it in the story of Agnes Bernauer, though I needed to adapt it quite drastically. The final story of Fabriel’s past is only very losely based on Agnes story, though I did borrow her name. For instance although the real Agnes was condemned for witchcraft, she was actually drowned – as common a death for witches as was hanging or death by fire. In the end her story served as inspiration rather than being mined for facts.

Agnes Bernauer was born around 1410, the daughter of the Augsberg barber-surgeon                 Kaspar Bernauer, although some accounts describe him as a baker and others say his existence has never been proven. After meeting her, it is supposed at a tournament in February 1428, Albert, Duke of Bavaria, took her off to Munich. There is a possible reference to her on the Munich tax roll of the same year. Within four years she had become an integral part of the court. There is no doubt she was Albert’s mistress and it’s possible she was married to him secretly.

Duke Ernest saw Agnes, a commoner, as a threat to the succession and, egged on by the Palatine Countess Beatrix, Albert’s sister, he took steps to get rid of her. On 12th October 1435, while Albert was away on a hunting expedition, Duke Ernest had Agnes arrested, accused of witchcraft and drowned in the Danube as a witch. When Albert returned and discovered what his father had done, he endowed a perpetual mass and an annual memorial celebration in the Straubing Carmelite Cloister in her memory. The following year Duke Ernest erected the Agnes Bernauer Chapel in the cemetery of St Peter Straubing. Probably to appease his son. Memorial masses are said to this day, though these are now an annual event, rather than a daily one. Agnes’ story not only helped provide a framework for Fabriel’s story. It has famously inspired many dramas, operas, poems and plays and is even celebrated in a unique cake - the Agnes Bernauer Torte.

A series too far?

 

The FlightWhen Flight 189 crashes into the Severn Estuary, it leaves a raft of unanswered questions. How could ten-year old Amy Patterson have survived apparently unharmed, only to die of hypothermia? Who was the man found alongside her, a yachtsman who had obviously not been on the plane? How could such a high-tech plane literally drop from the skies? Why were certain passengers switched to this flight at the last moment?

Coroner Jenny Cooper is drawn into the investigation, despite the fact that a distinguished judge is appointed to head an inquiry that would normally be within her jurisdiction. However, Jenny is never one to bow to authority and, under pressure from Amy’s high-powered mother, finds a way to keep herself involved.

The Flight is the fourth in the Jenny Cooper series. I read the first two but must have missed the third, The Redeemed. I enjoyed the earlier books more than this one and have been trying to figure out why that should be. Because The Flight gripped me almost as much as the others. I found it just as hard to put down at times. Nor was I put off by the rather lengthy descriptions of how airlines are organised and the technical side of flying. In fact I found the technical detail and explanations some of the best things in the book.

“I couldn’t really engage with Jenny’s character either, this time round. As I read on I began to rather dislike her. She seemed so obstinate and negative.

In general and on the plus side, it’s refreshing to have a protagonist who isn’t a detective. The insights into the workings of a coroner’s court are instructive and well written; this is true across all the books. Here too the plot is fast paced, at least in the beginning, but becomes more and more implausible and muddled. I never did discover what the helicopters had been doing at the scene.

So what didn’t work? I think it boils down to the fact that this series is being a bit overworked. The Flight is book four and there are at least three more, one to be published in 2016. It’s all becoming too formulaic. Always Jenny battling against authority. Always some secret government agenda or other form of authority opposing her. A game of cat and mouse to see who will win.

I couldn’t really engage with Jenny’s character either, this time round. As I read on I began to rather dislike her. She seemed so obstinate and negative. I found her stubbornness irritating and her depressive attitude wearisome. The bickering and carping that goes on between her and Alison Trent, her sidekick, is also more annoying than instructive. I began to feel that the author couldn’t like her much either, to have created such a dreary person.

Always Jenny battling against authority. Always some secret government agenda or other form of authority opposing her. A game of cat and mouse to see who will win.

I really hope that, in the later books, M.R. Hall gets back on track. In the first book, the fact that Jenny is mentally fragile, and addicted to popping pills, made her plausible, vulnerable and rather likeable. In the second book the author skilfully charted her mental progress, both triumphs and setbacks. These insights added an extra and welcome dimension. In fact so well observed were they that I was convinced that M.R. Hall was a woman. (And I’m not sure what that says about me). However in this third book, I get the impression that the author sees women as whiney or needy or combative – or all three.

Reading the descriptions of the later books, on Amazon, it looks a bit more hopeful. At any rate in terms of plot. We may not be in for more of the same after all. The stories are intriguing – a link between a suicide and a child’s death from meningitis, the aftermath of a tragic house fire and the death of a young soldier in Helmand. They promise new angles and another direction. I look forward to reading them while hoping that Jenny gets a grip! A reader can only take so much whining before giving up.

Sunshine and Shops – researching the recent past

 

Marchmont St

Marchmont Street, where Alice remembered

I am drawn to books that set fictional worlds in real places, real streets, real neighbourhoods. Ruth Rendell, for instance, places the main action of The Keys to the Street in and around Regent’s Park. Writing as Barbara Vine, she set The House of Stairs in Notting Hill and King Solomon’s Carpet in West Hampstead. Charles Dickens uses London as the background to his books.

These and many other writers have had a great influence on me, so perhaps this has played no small part in my own writing. Thus in The Eighteenth of November, the events and the places are real although the characters are fictional. I find it very important to get the settings, as well as the events, exactly right. I was going to say that that’s relatively easy with places, but not necessarily. It depends on how much detail you want and when the action takes place. I have discovered, for instance, that the recent past can sometimes be more difficult to research than the historical past. What shops, for instance, were on the King’s Cross Road or in Marchmont Street in 1987?

Shops are difficult. There will be records somewhere but finding them would take more digging that was warranted. I only needed a typical café so it was more appropriate to create a fictional one albeit based on the many greasy spoon caffs to be found in London. The same went for the shops on Marchmont Street, though I kept the eclectic mix of shops that exist today. I imagine the street was not so trendy in 1987, though the eighties were pretty trendy so maybe it was. Of course the once rather seedy Brunswick Centre, at the Russell Square end, has changed beyond all recognition. Not entirely for the better.

It also required quite a lot of searching to establish the weather on the day of the fire and the days that followed. It may be a tiny detail but I didn’t want to describe something as taking place on a bright sunny day when it was in fact raining. The further in time I got from the fire the harder it was to establish the conditions; in those cases I just didn’t mention it or made the date nebulous, so that it didn’t matter.

The scene in Russell Square was more critical as I needed to describe it as it was in November 1987, scarcely a month after the Great Storm that had downed so many trees in London. As I thought, the trees in Russell Square had been cleared and chopped up but not yet removed, just as they appear in the book. However, many places remained relatively unchanged, Postman’s Park for instance and Parliament Hill. Neither has altered a great deal and remain much as they would have been when Fabriel and Alice searched across London, each on a desperate quest for answers.

The photograph of Marchmont Street comes with the kind help and permission of Silver Tiger. A great site to visit for diverse and delightful photos of London and useful advice, a bit of  philosphy and much else too.

 

Clever and creepy

UntitledIn order to do this book justice, I have to confess that the way I read it almost certainly detracted from the impact it had on me. I read it in snatches, on my iPhone, on the bus. With sometimes a week or even weeks between each reading. Inevitably my experience was disjointed. I believe that had I read it as a paperback, or even on my iPad, with more continuity, my initial experience might have been different. Indeed re-reading it, or rather re-skimming it, I am seeing things I didn’t give myself the leisure to notice before.

All that said, Kiss Me First is well worth reading. It’s really good on detail, both as to place and character. I know London, and I also know Spain, and the descriptions bring both places alive. The plot is original and well constructed and there are some startling twists. As to the characters, these are revealed slowly. Both of these factors make reviewing the book more difficult. You don’t want to spoil it for the reader by revealing too much information, yet need to give some detail to illustrate your comments.

I didn’t pick upon many of the clues about Leila; the fault is mine. I now realise that, at the very beginning, I unconsciously created an image for her. I saw her character as somewhat akin to the endearing Juno, in the film of the same name. About a quarter of a way in my feelings changed and I began to feel very ambivalent towards her, then began to dislike her. It was only towards the end of the middle of the book that I began to see it differently. By then the clues had become less subtle but a more careful reading has revealed that they were there from the beginning.

Maybe I’m too cynical or world-weary but I had my doubts about the set up from the start. This too is down to the writer’s skill although it meant that for me there was no great surprise in that respect. However, the introduction of a police enquiry very early on, and well placed snippets of information keep the plot moving forward. Especially the way Connor, a new character, is dropped into the mix in a way that indicates how important he is, but without telling you much else for some time. That too kept me reading at a point where I had begun to lose interest. I will never know for sure how much this was due to my disjointed reading pattern, but I did feel the book sagged in the middle. I know that for me it picked right up when Connor was introduced.

I felt I owed it to the author to at least skim the book again before writing this review. Having started to skim I discovered so much wealth that I had not fully appreciated first time round. However, I’m still uncertain about it, but there’s no doubt it is different and well worth reading properly, giving it the attention it deserves, and not butterflying around the way I did.

A wonderful book – character driven and full of insights

I absolutely hate ‘family sagas’, so while I have heard this novel so described, I have to say that I never even thought of it in those terms. Yes, it’s about a family, but it isn’t a saga, it’s an intricate, insightful story. Indeed ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ epitomises my feelings about character. No matter what other flaws a book may have, if the characters come alive on the page, if you care what happens to them, for good or evil, you’re more than half way there.

Not that I can find many flaws in this book. It’s well constructed and beautifully written and there’s enough tension to keep you turning the pages. I couldn’t put it down. True, the tensions and incidents are small or fairly common ones – involving siblings, cats, babies, emotions, second marriages and more. That said there is also the unexpected –- such as Aoife’s illiteracy. Treated here with sensitivity and woven skilfully into her personal story.

Indeed for me the joy of this book was the Riordan family. Lovable, exasperating, irritating, dysfunctional – all of this and more. Perhaps it’s because I was brought up by Irish parents in an Irish community that I can relate so well. This is not to take anything from the superb writing – the individual family members leap off the page – but for me they are also familiar. Though thank God my mother was a million miles away from being a Gretta. Nevertheless, I have come across many Grettas in my time. And always wanted to smack them.

If Gretta stands out as being the most annoying, the siblings are endearing, warts and all. You feel for each of them, their dilemmas, their baggage.

Such is Maggie O’Farrell’s skill that you ‘get’ Gretta from the very first page when she wakes before dawn and comes downstairs in the suffocating heat of that exceptional summer. She makes straight for the kitchen because – ‘Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.’ Why in God’s name is this woman baking bread in a heatwave? The answer is as complicated as she is – a mixture of tradition, stubbornness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, martyrdom and self-deception.

If Gretta stands out as being the most annoying, the siblings are endearing, warts and all. You feel for each of them, their dilemmas, their baggage – the result of having been brought up in a family where much remains hidden and unspoken. Where misunderstandings are rife and alliances are formed, giving rise to still more misunderstandings. I haven’t mentioned the father, Robert, who appears only briefly though he is present throughout. He too is the victim of his own culture and the era he was born in. His relationship to Gretta is complex and repressed, explained with a light touch and often obliquely, through the eyes of others.

The events in this book are not extraordinary but they are, undeniably, of fundamental importance to the lives of the characters. So I did care, I did hold my breath. I did want to shake some of them and hug others. I absolutely loved Aiofe and had enormous sympathy for the fragile Monica, the ‘good girl’, carrying the burden of being Gretta’s favourite. I thoroughly enjoyed this book – the story, the wonderful writing, the light touch, the depth. I read Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel a while ago. I’m now eager to read the others.

A subtle thriller with a beating heart

 

NorwegianCoverNorwegian by Night is subtle and complex while managing to be a very good read and a page-turner all at the same time. The compulsion to turn the page accelerates as the book progresses but in the meantime there’s all the richness of the prose and the story to keep you reading.

Set, incongruously but very satisfactorily, against the backdrop of the Korean war and the Serbian – Kosovan conflict in former Yugoslavia, this is the story of Sheldon, an elderly Jewish man uprooted from his New York home to settle, reluctantly, in a run down area of Oslo with his granddaughter and her Norwegian husband. From its initial introspective and domestic scenes, it soon becomes a thrilling chase when a woman’s brutal murder compels Sheldon to go on the run with her small son.

Nevertheless, Norwegian by Night is so much more than a well-written thriller. So much more. Picking out any one theme from this book would be to do it a disservice, as there are so many. Love, loss, regret, ethnicity, war and peace, family, adventure – all woven into a seamless tapestry that moves effortlessly from the Balkan warzones to Vietnam to the dense Norwegian forest. Backwards and forwards in time, threading present with past, memory with reality.

Sheldon comes alive to the extent that, reading the acknowledgements, I find myself wondering – was he in fact a real person?

While all the characters are well drawn and believable, even those who play minor roles, it is Sheldon who makes the book what it is. At this point I can’t prevent myself quoting from the author’s acknowledgements. “I am not sure how much of this book was written by me and how much was written by Sheldon himself. So I extend here my thanks to him for all his assistance. Which isn’t to say he was easy to work with.’ And this is what makes the book so special. Sheldon comes alive to the extent that, reading that acknowledgement, I find myself wondering – was he in fact a real person? Was he someone who collaborated with the author to create the story? I don’t think so, except in the sense that so often it’s characters make the decisions, not the authors.

A living, breathing mass of contradictions and emotions.So real you want to reach out and hug him.

So here you have this prickly old man, over eighty, with his regrets and his idiosyncrasies. His sharp edges and his, often well hidden, tenderness. Is he a reliable narrator or is he suffering from dementia? Did he serve in the army as a clerk, as he first told his wife, or was he a sniper as he later claimed, to her disbelief? Is this just a manifestation of his declining years? He speaks to his dead comrades. He mourns his son Saul and blames himself for his death. Yet he has the presence of mind to keep one step ahead of his enemies.

I was astonished to discover that this is a debut novel. The author’s background in policy and international relations and security serves him, and us, well in this nuanced and sophisticated book. A book moreover which pulls off the difficult feat of keeping the tension and interest going – and keeping us guessing – right to the very end. However, I believe his greatest achievement is Sheldon. A living, breathing mass of contradictions and emotions. So real you want to reach out and hug him. If he’d let you. Which he probably wouldn’t.

A Near Miss

 

NearThingCrazyCover

I was really looking forward to reading this book. I was attracted by the cover (so nice not to have yet another wishy-washy, pastel chick-lit type of cover) and by the title and the blurb on Amazon. I’d also read some splendid psychological thrillers recently, notably Gone Girl and was eager for more. I was to be disappointed.

Strangely though, this was almost a good read. That is, if you are thinking mostly in terms of the need to keep reading to find out what happens. On the other hand I found myself profoundly irritated, right from the start. The first and continuing source of my irritation was the editing, or rather the lack of it. If ever a book could have done with a good pruning, this was it. You make a point, or describe someone’s innermost thoughts, or describe a scene. Then you stop. There is no need to say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways.

A woman so transparent their brains must have been in their floral wellies not to have seen right through her.

I have just reviewed Norwegian by Night. A book that has many joys, of which the main one is the character of Sheldon. So endearing, prickly and flawed that you almost believe he is real. The characters in this book are the complete opposite.

Two-dimensional paper cut outs, straight out the pages of Country Life or Country Living. And shallow with it. And gullible. So-called friends willing to believe the worst on the say-so of a comparative stranger. A woman so transparent their brains must have been in their floral wellies not to have seen right through her.

This is such a pity, as the premise of the story is a good one. Gaslighting is a chilling form of mental abuse where false information is cunningly planted to cause the victim to doubt his or her own sanity. The fact that it happens in the real world should have lent credence to the book. And there were indeed a few occasions when I wasn’t sure who was the victim and who the perpetrator, as was the author’s intention. But in the end it wasn’t enough.

In view of all this, why would I give the book three stars on Goodreads? Simple. Because despite my many criticisms, this is a book that you have to keep on reading – no mean achievement for any writer. It’s a shame that the ending is rushed and implausible. Implausible or not there’s nevertheless a brilliant, subtle clue right at the very beginning. One which I missed though it’s hiding in plain sight. See if you can spot it.

Enchanting, erudite and very, very funny.

BookOfLostThings

The Book of Lost Things is magnificent; it pleases on so many levels. It’s an adventure, a quest, an examination of the psyche of childhood. It’s a labyrinthine journey through the worlds and the landscapes of fairy tale. With more twists than you’d find on a stick of barley sugar on the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel.

With a book so overflowing with riches, it ‘s difficult to know where to start. Maybe I’ll start at the end. No, there are no spoilers. I wouldn’t do that to anyone, especially not to someone who has yet to read it. I’m starting at the end because my reaction demonstrates the power of this book. I cried. Yes, I cried when I read the last chapter. It was sad, realistic, poignant and anything but sugar coated. A truly fitting ending for an extraordinary book.

The Book of Lost Things introduces us to David who is 12. His mother is dying and David, helpless, does everything he can to keep her alive. In his description of David’s rituals of touching and counting, John Connolly offers a most sensitive and enlightening explanation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and its triggers. He gets inside the head of a small boy who thinks his mother died because he didn’t do enough to keep her alive.

“Something tore inside him every time he saw his father holding the new arrival.” Increasingly miserable and angry, David retreats into his own world.

Left alone, David and his father cope as best they can. At least they have each other. Then Rose comes along. Then the baby. David, trying to come to terms with the death of his mother, watches bewildered and hurt as his father transfers his attention to his new family. “Something tore inside him every time he saw his father holding the new arrival.” Increasingly miserable and angry, David retreats into his own world. A world where books talk among themselves. A world which has a parallel in which a missing boy ‘passed unseen through David’s world, unaware that he shared his bed each night with a stranger.’

As his fury and grief mount, David’s thinks constantly of his mother until a day comes when he hears her voice. Her voice calling to him, begging him to rescue her. Summoning him to the sunken garden. As her voice, becomes ever more insistent he is forced to overcome his fear of the place and to follow. What happens next is yet another demonstration of John Connolly’s skill as he welds reality to unreality. The seeds of the eventual denouement are sown; they are there, but as light as those on dandelion clock.

From now on we are in the world of the brothers Grimm and of myth, legend and fairy tale. A world of monsters and harpies, of trolls and dwarves. Of wicked stepmothers and weak kings. Of sleeping princesses and enchanted castles. Peopled with woodsmen and hunters and bears and monsters. Above all, it is the world of the crooked man. The crooked man who steals children who are never seen again. The crooked man who wants something David can give him. Who will stop at nothing until he gets it.

We also have trolls who suffer from severe acne. A prince who ‘ponces in like a big, perfumed tea cosy.’ A Snow White who is fat and a group of quarrelsome, Marxist dwarves.

As David battles to reach the king whom, he hopes, can help him he is aided along the way by a variety of characters. The woodsman, the dwarves – eventually – and Roland, of Childe Roland, among others. All tell him stories that would be familiar but that they have, at the author’s hands, undergone subtle and not so subtle transformations. To say much more would be to spoil the surprise, and the fun. Suffice to say that the way John Connolly re-imagines these tales is masterful. Both in the wealth of his imaginings but also in the way he relates them to the psyche of a twelve year old who has lost his mother and who is struggling with his feelings towards his father, stepfather and stepbrother.

There is tension aplenty in this book. It also brims over with wit and humour. David, for instance, loses patience with the woodsman who was ‘fine for decapitating wolves and giving unwanted advice’ but who was falling short at keeping up with developments in the kingdom. We also have trolls who suffer from severe acne. A prince who ‘ponces in like a big, perfumed tea cosy.’ A Snow White who is fat and a group of quarrelsome, Marxist dwarves. Though to quote David’s own words ‘for a group of homicidal, class obsessed small people, they were really rather fun.” Why Marxist dwarves? The explanation is ingenious and worth waiting for.

I cried when I read the last chapter. It was sad, realistic, poignant and anything but sugar coated. A truly fitting ending for an extraordinary book.

Beautiful language, intricate, colourful and disturbing imaginings. Wit, fun and learning. You’ll find them all between the covers of this book, but there’s more. When you’ve finished you’ll find an interview with the author, in which he gives a very personal and enlightening account of his approach to the book. There follows a commentary on each of the fairy tales, in the sequence in which they appear. Each one is linked to a relevant passage in the book and references modern films and books inspired by the tales. Finally we have one of the traditional versions of the story.

As I read them I was tempted to regret that I hadn’t read them first, to remind myself of some of the stories I had forgotten. On reflection, though, I’m glad I didn’t. The book is complete in itself. The additions are akin to a literary liqueur, something to linger with and enjoy with the coffee – afterwards.

 

Take your time: this is a book to savour

RiddleyW 

I read Riddley Walker a long time ago. It delighted me then as it delights me now. I felt, and still feel, that everyone who loves the English language should read it; I have recommended it over the years to many people. It wasn’t the first Russell Hoban book I read and, in the first instance, it was the titles that attracted me. The Mouse and his Child, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin- Boaz. I loved his quirky oddness and went on to read more.

Some memories remain with you, no matter how brief the event, or how much time has passed. They don’t’ necessarily have the significance of great life events, such as weddings and the first day at big school. Nevertheless, possibly because of their intensity, they stay in your mind. Thus I still vividly remember meeting Russell Hoban at the Hay on Wye Literature Festival. I don’t remember the year, that wasn’t important. I do remember the cottage in the field beneath the bridge where we stayed, a bunch of us who had all met on an Arvon Foundation course.Russell Hoban gave a talk and a reading. Then he stayed for a long time signing copies of his books, speaking with each person. Not hurrying anyone along. One young man staggered up holding a pile of books that he had to anchor with chin to stop them falling. They were not newly bought – which is rather the idea of a signing after all – but well worn, much read copies. Perhaps another author might have balked at this. Russell Hoban expressed his pleasure that someone had read so many of his books and patiently signed every one. I was just someone who came along to a reading by a favourite author but he made a lasting impression on me. I always remember him fondly as a kind man as well as a brilliant writer.

Back to Riddley Walker. It’s quite strange to re-read a special book, one that made an enormous impact on you years before. There’s always the danger that some of the magic will have gone because you are no longer the same person. I didn’t experience that with Riddley Walker, but certainly it was a different experience this time round. I won’t say a great deal about the plot, as there are some splendid and detailed reviews on Goodreads. Suffice to say that the book is set in the remote future, perhaps some 2000 years after our world has been wiped out in a nuclear holocaust. Set in Inland – England, one of the easier words to figure out – it is the story of 12 year old Riddley Walker living in a society that has regressed to the iron age, with only distorted remnants of knowledge of what went before the 1Big1.

It delighted me then as it delights me now. Everyone who loves the English language should read it

This is a book that it pays to read slowly. Indeed you really have to read it slowly to untangle the mishmash of phonetic and dimly remembered vocabulary, much of which bears no resemblance to the original. It can, at times, be extremely frustrating as you mouth some words over and over, putting the emphasis on different syllables, trying to work out what they mean, because you know you can figure it out. I got hung up on the Eusa story. If I’d looked at the Acknowledgements on the first page it was staring me in the face, so this is not a spoiler. Nevertheless I was sure I should know what it meant and had forgotten it was based on the story of St Eustace and his connection to Canterbury – Cambry. Defeated, I got up in the middle of the night and Googled it!

That’s the effect this book has on you. It’s like reading a puzzle. Endlessly intriguing, infuriating and joyful by turns. For me, though, it’s the language that pulls me in. I was going to say more than the story, but in fact the two are so intertwined it would be hard to say when one ends and the other begins. Every time you read it you find something different. I picked up the book just now to find some words to use as examples. And suddenly realised that ‘aulder trees’, which I had imagined to be ‘Alder’ trees are in fact ‘older trees’. Doh!

Even as I write this I’m conscious of the things I’ve left out. Not least of which are the many cultural references and the philosophy.

“… the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. That’s how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongs the many.”

There is still one thing that puzzles me – the reference to Rizlas. It seems so out of keeping with the rest of the fragmentary, distorted language. Nevertheless, I’m sure a writer of the calibre of Russell Hoban meant it to be there. I only wish I could ask him. I’m sure he’d reply, were he still with us.

A subtle delight

LittleEgyptCoverI’ve never been disappointed in anything that Lesley Glaister has written and ‘Little Egypt’ is no exception. Rich, deep, deceptively simple, enthralling and horrific by turns, it is beautifully observed and written – a subtle delight. The two timescales – 1920s and circa 2000 – are handled in such a way as to be totally believable. Two different world’s experienced by one young girl become an old woman. I was going to say bag lady, but she’s not exactly that.

These days social services would almost certainly swoop on Little Egypt and the two youngsters but things were very different in the 1920s so that the situation is entirely credible. As are the plot’s various twists and turns. I was constantly surprised, for the book often appears to be taking you in one direction only to go somewhere else entirely. The writing is so skilful that, although the clues are there I, for one, didn’t see many of them coming, though the tension throughout had me in no doubt that something horrific was going to happen. It just wasn’t what I expected.

The book often appears to be taking you in one direction only to go somewhere else entirely.

This is another book where the characters are wonderfully drawn. I sympathised with poor Osi and, to some extent, Victor. However, my heart went out to the responsible and feisty Issy and also to loyal and put upon Mary. I’d have had the selfish, self absorbed parents in court – though their behaviour would not have been considered as reprehensible then as now – and yet their actions and behaviour is entirely in character.

As both readers and writers know, it’s extremely difficult for a writer to sustain tension right to the very end, to finish well and satisfactorily. Here again, by quietly and almost unnoticeably introducing some crucial facts early on – the lawyer, the trust fund, the greed of the corporation that owns the supermarket – Lesley Glaister gets over some possible, potential stumbling blocks. I particularly admire the fact that she has both the skill, and courage, to leave some loose ends, adding even more credibility to a wonderful story.

Intensely irritating but ultimately endearing

The Receptionist

You know how it is when you know someone who is intensely irritating. They drive you nuts. But just sometimes, unless they are real monsters, you find that inexplicably you get quite fond of them. Even though they still annoy the hell out of you.

Some books are like that.

I love The New Yorker. Or rather I love the idea of it. I haven’t read that many issues though I am familiar with the cartoons; it’s one of those magazines that are part of my childhood and growing up. Like Punch. So I was eager to read The Receptionist, to get the lowdown on what life was like in the creative and humorous hotbed that was The New Yorker in the late nineteen fifties and sixties. The era of Madison Avenue and Mad Men.

Founded in 1925, the magazine covers reportage, commentary, essays, fiction, satire, poetry and cartoons. While reviews and events focus on the cultural life of New York City, it is widely read throughout the world. I have to admit, to my shame, that many of the writers mentioned in The Receptionist are unknown to me. Others, though, are old friends and firm favourites. S.J. Perleman, Peter DeVries, Muriel Spark and James Thurber to mention just a handful. So it was with happy anticipation that I settled down to read

My excitement was short lived. The irritation set in from the very first page with what appeared to be an implausible story. A naïve new graduate from the University of Minnesota takes a temporary job with a film director, who immediately invites her to send in her resumė, which he promptly passes on to the famous New Yorker writer E.B. Wright who agrees to interview her. I’m not doubting it happened – things like that do happen. But the name-dropping and the smug self-satisfaction turned me off straight away.

I was eager to read The Receptionist, to get the lowdown on what life was like in the creative and humorous hotbed that was The New Yorker in the late nineteen fifties and sixties. The era of Madison Avenue and Mad Men.

The interview was ‘unprecedented’. Her attitude to the famous writer patronising – ‘I was overwhelmed with a desire to put the poor man at his ease.’ Her statement that ‘anything would be of more interest’ than the typing pool, is arrogant in the extreme. None of this endeared me to the author. However, I decided to battle on. And it was a battle. I read ‘The Receptionist’ on and off for several months; it felt like a very long six months.

There’s something self indulgent about this book, at least the first half of it. Something self-conscious. In many places all it amounts to is names, famous names, trotted out one after another. As I mentioned, most of the names meant nothing to me but that’s hardly the author’s fault. However, I’d have liked to know more about them, I thought that was what I’d get from reading the book. I didn’t in the main. There were some highlights. I had read most of Muriel’s Spark’s work when I was younger and loved it. So a whole chapter devoted to her had me sitting up and taking notice. I found myself thinking, goodness this bit is actually interesting.

If only she had kept it up.

The book’s covers and no less than four pages at the beginning contain glowing reviews from the likes of The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The New York Journal of Books, The Washington Post and more. At first my impression was that I had been reading a different book. I don’t understand how The New York Journal of Books, for instance, can refer to “verbal dexterity” when some passages are so muddled I had to read them over and over to make sense of them. And when other sections read like a mushy romantic novel and others are plain silly – “how could I ever go to bed with someone who not only misquoted Coward but could dis the song Ingrid was humming just before she said, “Play it, Sam.”? “ You could be forgiven for thinking that was meant to be either funny or ironic. It isn’t. It’s twee.

For the book’s real pleasure is indeed the self-examination. The dawning self-awareness and the not inconsiderable courage of the author in putting it out there for all to see. It is this honesty and self-knowledge that begin to throw light on the earlier chapters.

To get back to what I said in the beginning. About getting fond of people even though they continue to annoy the hell out of you. That applies to this author, because if ever a book was its author this one is. I’m going to quote two other reviews because they describe the element that endeared the author to me despite everything. The thing that kept me reading fairly consistently from about half way in. Oprah.com said, “Groth … isn’t a woman to give up and, by the end of the book, she finds her own delightful voice, which is the book’s real pleasure.” And The Boston Globe – “A literate, revelatory examination of self.”

I take issue with the ‘literate’ but apart from that those two quotes describe why I didn’t abandon the book half way through. For the book’s real pleasure is indeed the self-examination. The dawning self-awareness and the not inconsiderable courage of the author in putting it out there for all to see. It is this honesty and self-knowledge that begin to throw light on the earlier chapters. To reveal not so much a shallow, self important young girl revelling in her affairs with famous people, but a bright and talented young woman somewhat adrift and needing direction.

Janet Roth was young in an era where men were all powerful and women, on the whole, were wives, housewives, typists or merely decoration. The era brilliantly depicted in the TV series, Mad Men. There were of course a few highly paid and powerful women columnists at the New Yorker in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Writers such as Muriel Spark and Dorothy Parker were also regular contributors. But you can see how a young aspiring writer from the mid-West, with absolutely zero confidence yet abundant feminine charms, could end up spending eighteen years as the receptionist on the eighteenth floor. The writer’s floor. Yet never getting that longed for chance to join them.

Absurdly generous vacation leaves, with pay, plus indulgent working hours also contributed to this extraordinary long and ultimately fruitless employment. However, these conditions also allowed her to take classes and travel widely and all credit to her for keeping up with her studies. She may not have had the confidence or push to get herself the job she wanted. She may have been star struck and wild and self-absorbed, to say the least. But she didn’t give up. She just came at writing a different way. She obtained her Ph.D. in English, became a Fulbright lecturer and Professor Emeritus in English at a New York State university, taught at various other universities and is the author of three books on the literary critic and prolific writer, Edmund Wilson.

So I have to confess I did grow quite fond of her in the end. I certainly admire her courage– her self-analysis is honest an insightful. As to the book itself – it still annoys the hell out of me.

A Good Read

Wanted-CoverThe description ‘page turners’ might have been coined for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers. I would say that they are the perfect time waster – like cats on the Internet – except that this would be to do them an injustice. Well written, exciting, with a charismatic hero and tension that builds from page to page, they truly are books that you cannot put down.

I’ve read maybe half a dozen, including this one. While I thoroughly enjoyed them all, A Wanted Man has more substance than most of the ones I have read in that the plot is intricate and ingenious. Many layered with convoluted twists and turns. The characters too are more rounded, the old county sheriff, for instance – Sheriff Goodman, who was indeed a good man.

The story begins. A man in a green winter coat goes into a concrete bunker, followed by two men in black suits. There is a short pause. The two men in the black suits come out again. They get into a red car and drive off. The man in the green winter coat doesn’t come out again. Then blood pools out from under the concrete bunkers door.

The scene having been thus set, we now shift to Jack Reacher. Hitchhiking, as is his habit. With very little luck, which is also typical. And then he gets picked up and his luck changes. For the worse.

It seems that this book follows Worth Dying For, which in turn follows 61 Days. I didn’t find this confusing. I did wonder how Reacher’s nose came to be broken. I also wondered why he was trying to get to Virginia. But these were passing thoughts because those events were not part of this story and, unlike some other books I’ve read recently, the author doesn’t attempt to try and cram those past books into this one. There’s no need. The action in A Wanted Man is absorbing enough on its own. No doubt knowing what went before would be interesting. But not knowing took away nothing from my enjoyment.

Lee Child’s simple and laconic prose might not suit every type of book, but it’s perfect for his Jack Reacher books. There’s room for every style of writing and I derive great pleasure simply from reading these beautifully crafted words. Not great literature maybe, but certainly good writing. And a master of tension and suspense. A good read, in every sense of the phrase.

Curate’s egg – good in parts

Certain books should carry the equivalent of a health warning. ‘Do not read this book unless you have read all the books in the series in sequence.’ Having said that, I don’t think it should be necessary. A book should either stand-alone or, if it Wednesdayreferences earlier works, the references need to be woven unobtrusively into the plot. It’s not what happens here. Great chunks of backstory are shoehorned in, getting in the way and adding to the confusion (of which there is a lot.) There seem to be several different plots, going off at tangents. And running through it a sort of ‘comic caper’ involving a Polish plumber and a bath.

I was looking forward to reading Waiting for Wednesday. I was thrilled to discover that there were at least three Nicci French books that I hadn’t read. I’d loved all her other books – The Memory Game, Until it’s Over, What to Do When Someone Dies to name just a few. I’d actually enjoyed the first Frieda Klein story Blue Monday. Maybe I wasn’t reading it critically or perhaps because it was the first in the series it didn’t suffer from the problems I encountered here.

Detail follows detail, adding to our knowledge of the family who live here, while we hold our breath, waiting for the inevitable

Before I talk about these, I want to highlight some of the great things in this book. The opening for a start. It’s brilliant. The first paragraphs describe an ‘ordinary terraced house’, offering numerous small details that subtly build a picture of the type of people who live there. Thus ‘the paved and gravelled garden’, a ‘single trainer with its laces still done up under the window’, ‘a bird table with a few seeds scattered on its flat surface’. This is more than an excellent description. This is crime fiction from a highly skilled and creative writer. So we know we are being set up.

We are. Next we meet the cat. We follow it through the cat flap and around the house. It takes its time (it’s a cat). The tension racks up (this is first class writing). Detail follows detail, adding to our knowledge of the family who live here, while we hold our breath, waiting for the inevitable. We’re not disappointed. I won’t go into any more detail, except to say that this book is actually worth reading for this first chapter alone. There’s more to be enjoyed too. Her portrayal of the teenagers is spot on. There are small, realistic and insightful touches such as Fearby, the old journalist who visits a bird sanctuary for comfort after having left the oppressive prison. His character is well drawn and believable, as is the victim’s sister, the rather obnoxious Louise.

In contrast the main player, Frieda, is not plausible. Maybe for a fairly stereotyped portrayal of a psychotherapist but not for someone who would be let within a mile of a police investigation. Not in a million years. She’s irrational. Dysfunctional. In fact altogether a bit of a mess. This would be OK if there was anything endearing about her. There isn’t. I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I began the book in that frame of mind. However I became so irritated by her that once or twice I nearly abandoned the book. And for me to abandon a Nicci French book is something I would have said was unthinkable.

The various plot seem to have nothing much to do with each other, the only common denominator being their overall implausibility and the exasperating Ms Klein.

I didn’t enjoy this book. I was too annoyed. The beautifully written passages and sparkling, lively descriptions are far outweighed by clunky sections referring to previous events. These are only partly successful as they still leave many questions unanswered. The various plots seem to have nothing much to do with each other, the only common denominator being their overall implausibility and the exasperating Ms Klein. The introduction of her lover/former lover/close friend/who knows in the form of a letter tacked on to the end of the first chapter is abrupt. The builders Josef and Stefan are comedy stereotypes, along with Reuben whom I initially thought was a builder too. He turned out to be a psychotherapist. The whole tangled skein of her hinted-at involvement with the detective Karlsson, the appearance of her stalker and her antagonistic relationship with Bradshaw, yet another psychotherapist, makes little sense without having read Tuesday’s Gone.

Altogether, a huge disappointment. I hate it when this happens. I don’t like giving writers less than glowing reviews. Especially a favourite crime novelist who’s given me so much pleasure in the past. This won’t stop me reading more Nicci French books but I think I’ll steer clear of Ms Klein and stick to the stand-alones in future.

A different moon

OceanThis is the first Neil Gaiman book I have read and I was looking forward to it immensely. Glancing through other reviews I could see that others felt it isn’t his best book. Though plenty didn’t agree. However, having nothing to compare it to I felt I was lucky as I couldn’t be disappointed. But I was. A little. At first. 

It was the title that drew me to this book. ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. Posssibly sparked by something I had misheard on the radio, my imagination conjoured up magical images. The lane was a short lane leading from a suburban street of unremarkable, respectable houses. And the ocean was a real ocean. Vast. Unexpected. Just a few steps from this rather boring road. So eager had I been to start the book that I missed the page just before the Prologue. So my imagined faery scene remained intact. 

I read the first few pages with happy anticipation. I somehow glossed over the fact that the setting was rural, not suburban. I think I too became seven again. “I walked into the farmyard. I went past the chicken coop, past the old barn and along the edge of the field …” I too picked a handful of green nuts and put them in my pocket. Then I turned the corner and found the pond.

Not an ocean. Not vast. Not unexpected. Just a pond in a farmyard. Not magical at all. A pond that a small girl had called an ocean. At that stage I felt that this was going to be a different book from the one I had expected. That was when I felt the twinge of disapppointment. Nevertheless, I was already appreciating the quality of the writing. Neil Gaiman’s ability to create a scene in just a few words. “I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny … I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.” So I read on.

Image piles on image. Weird images, scary images. The nightmare that isn’t. The terrifying, shudderingly icky worm – this is perhaps the thing that scared me most.

Then, “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” I was hooked. It’s fair to say that I gobbled this book up. I raced through it. I am now reading books with a pencil and notebook on the bed beside me, but I hadn’t started to do that at that point. So I am having to go back to it to remind myself of the details. And there’s so much detail. So many images. The birthday cake that has a book drawn on it and tells so much about this small boy. The tiny little yellow washbasin in the bedroom “at the top of the stairs”. The white mini stuck on the verge, the green toothbrush with toilet paper wrapped round the top.


Image piles on image. Weird images, scary images. The nightmare that isn’t. The terrifying, shudderingly icky worm – this is perhaps the thing that scared me most but I can’t say more without spoilng it. The everyday world where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted, not even your parents. I was no longer disappointed. I was and am enthralled. Nevertheless, I’m finding it hard to review this book. I don’t want to stick labels on it. There’s a real world. That pleases me. There’s a fantastical, other worldly world of monsters and orange skies and a sinister, shape shifting babysitter. That delights me. (Ursula Monkton. What a splendid perfect name, both normal and menacing). 

That enchanted place where there’s a different moon on the other side of the house, where the past can be snipped away with a pair of scissors

At least one reviewer has said that this book is childhood. It is. It’s that strange and wonderful world that only a child can imagine. A child or someone who is still a child in spirit. Someone who in some part of them has not really ever grown up. Who can journey back to that enchanted place where there’s a different moon on the other side of the house, where the past can be snipped away with a pair of scissors, where people live in the present and the past simultaneously. Where there are no limits to dreams and imaginings. Where children can ‘creep beneath the the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.” And in the spaces between the fences lies a world of horror where a dead man walks “in a frilly white shirt and a black bow tie”, where the hunger birds have sharp beaks and faceless flapping things loom menacingly. 

As I write I’m increasingly conscious of the fact that no review of mine can do justice to this bewitching, charming, spellbinding story. You just have to read it. “I love my ocean,” says Lettie Hemstock. And I love it too.

Thought provoking and powerful

Image

 

AppleTreeThere are books that leave you feeling a little bereaved when you have finished them. ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is one of those books.  There are books that, however good they are, leave you unsatisfied by the way they are concluded.  ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is not one of those books. It gripped me from the perfectly paced prologue to the very end.

When I say perfectly paced prologue I mean just that. The tension builds in the book just as it is doing in the courtroom. We follow the line of questioning without knowing what the protagonists are charged with.  Unlike the jury we are totally in the dark. We just know there are two accused – the female narrator and another. At that stage we don’t even know for sure whether it’s a male or female, unless we have read a bit about the book, as I had.

Unlike the jury we are totally in the dark. We just know there are two accused – the female narrator and another.

The courtroom is described by referring to small details and observations, as are the jury, judge and other players. This is skilful writing. I am familiar with courts and the judicial system and felt I was there.

The book is beautifully written by someone who has mastered the craft. We get show, not tell. We get small details and observations that paint pictures of places, people, emotions. The first violent twist in this story literally took my breath away. I felt as if I’d been punched. I can’t say more without spoiling the book for others; suffice to say that the hatred was palpable and the violence only too real. I didn’t see it coming just as I didn’t anticipate the other twists and turns.

Some reviewers find the characters unsympathetic and their actions incomprehensible, particularly the main character and narrator, Yvonne. Given her lifestyle and background I too found Yvonne’ actions hard to justify. And then I think I romanticised the whole thing so as to be able to justify it to myself. Only to be brought back to earth with a crashing jolt as the courtroom drama unfolded. But that’s another strength, for this is much more than a literary thriller. It’s a thoroughly engaging but disturbing book that forces you to think, to examine your own attitudes and prejudices. It also examines not just attitudes against women, especially older women, in mainstream society but also in the justice system.

Powerful.

A novel for our times

 

Feral2Not all books grab you from the start. Feral Youth does. And it does much more. Many authors, even famous and respected ones, cannot always achieve a satisfactory ending. It’s extremely difficult to keep up the momentum, not just throughout the book but right to the last chapter. So I am quite often left disappointed when a great read doesn’t quite make it to the end.

This wasn’t the case with Feral Youth. The tension is sustained throughout, and there were quite a few instances, especially from the middle onwards, where I found myself muttering ‘please, please don’t do that’ or ‘please Alesha, don’t go there.’ Indeed at times I almost held my breath fearing what the next twist would be. Like most readers, I had my own views on how I wanted it to end.

We really do get into Alesha’s head and see the world through her eyes.

Alesha’s attitude and life experience wasn’t the eye opener for me that it may have been for some readers because I worked as a social worker in a deprived borough many years ago. I know that the swagger and apparent indifference is a mask. Nevertheless it is a mask that is extremely hard to penetrate even, and maybe especially, for professionals. We are after all ‘the other side’, we’re ‘authority’, we don’t’ understand.

What Polly Courtney has done is penetrate that mask, allowing us to see both the vulnerable and the hardened person underneath the defiance. She has talked, worked alongside and mentored young people who are in a similar position to Alesha. She’s canvassed their views, learnt their language and this has more than paid off. It shows the way it should, not in a shouty or obvious way, but in the authenticity of the characters and in the atmosphere and tone.

What Polly Courtney has done is penetrate that mask, allowing us to see both the vulnerable and the hardened person underneath the defiance.

We see the world through Alesha’s eyes. Character descriptions are sparely written and all the more powerful as a result. Miss Merfield, the teacher, comes alive mostly through her actions, her attitudes and her dress – revealing someone ‘on the other side’ who is in turns caring, vulnerable, foolish and sensible. Other minor yet important characters are a perfect demonstration of how ‘less is more’. Mr Slick with his red socks, slicked hair and false smile. Blowsy Beth, bursting out of her red dress. The woman in the care home asking all the ‘right’ questions but with no insight at all. The journalist, Alison, way out of her depth despite her cool braids and piercings. I could go on and on. Spare writing, vivid portraits.

This short(ish) review cannot possibly do justice to the richness of this book. We really do get into Alesha’s head and see the world through her eyes – not comfortable but definitely enlightening. There are so many small scenes, snippets of dialogue, glancing references that take us into her world. What’s even more important this is a book that makes us stop and think. And continue to think after we have come to the end.