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 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.

Enchanting, erudite and very, very funny.


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.


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.