There are two strands to the plot in Bodies of Water. In the first, newly single Kirsten moves into Wakewater Apartments, a development housed in oneThere are two strands to the plot in Bodies of Water. In the first, newly single Kirsten moves into Wakewater Apartments, a development housed in one wing of a Victorian manor that was once a hospital. It turns out she's one of the first residents: her only neighbour is an academic named Manon who has an odd preoccupation with Wakewater's history and seems to think the place has a life of its own. In the second, set in 1871, a young woman named Evelyn is sent to Wakewater to receive hydropathic treatment for her 'hysteria'. She falls for another patient, Blanche, but is plagued by memories – and visions – of her former lover Milly.
I'd been craving a ghost story, and hoped this would fit the bill. It starts well: the first chapter is very engaging and the setting is instantly brought to life. There's a good strong mood to Wakewater, and I loved the scenes of Kirsten's first days there and her tentative exploration of the surrounding land (and the Thames). Everyone's obsession with water verges on silly, but on the whole, the is-it-or-isn't-it-real hauntings are effectively done.
The book is short, which means there isn't a lot of room for the characters or any of their relationships to be developed. A certain shift in Evelyn's personality happens too quickly to feel anything other than melodramatic, and I never got a sense of how Kirsten felt about her ex or how the breakup had affected her. Evelyn's work with prostitutes (or 'fallen women', as the narrative constantly has it) leads to a lot of moralising which I found rather tedious – one of those instances of modern attitudes being forced into a historical context. Finally, the ebook I read had a number of annoying typos and errors in it.
Good atmosphere, and I would be interested in checking out the author's short stories, but overall this was a bit of a disappointment.
The first Magnus Mills I've read, and a bit of a mind-bending experience for me – though everything I've heard suggests the low-key surrealism of TheThe first Magnus Mills I've read, and a bit of a mind-bending experience for me – though everything I've heard suggests the low-key surrealism of The Forensic Records Society is in line with the mood of the author's previous novels. It's about a small group of men, regulars at the Half Moon pub, who form the titular society. They meet once a week to listen to records. Listening is all they do: as founder James will reiterate with an increasing note of hysteria, 'comments and judgements are not allowed'. However, it's not long before some of the members lose patience with James's stringent rules, and splinter groups begin to form.
Much of the story is so mundane that it's practically soporific: it dwells on small details; very little changes as the plot progresses; some scenes and lines are repeated. It's difficult to tell the characters apart – no physical descriptions or ages are given, and the names seem interchangeable (Keith, Barry, Kevin, etc). The resulting impression is of life boiled down to a particular (masculine, British) essence: a pub, a pint, a record. But it is illuminated by sparks of humour and hints of fantasy. The characters' hyper-specific obsession with listening to music in a certain way is inherently funny because it's so finicky, but they are always too endearing to come off as parodies. The universe of the story is quietly intriguing, with the mysterious speeding-up of time whenever the society meets, the powerful effect of Alice's song, and the mass confessions in the town hall. It is down-to-earth and dreamlike all at once.
Is the ending, then, designed simply as a rebuke to the narrative's gentleness, a violent, jarring intrusion for its own sake? Does The Forensic Records Society set out to lull the reader into a pleasantly languid state, then jerk them out of it? (In one of those weird readalike coincidences, it has similarities to Hari Kunzru's White Tears in this respect, as well as the fact that both stories centre on music and contain elements of magical realism.) Beyond this possible interpretation, I must say that I didn't understand the last couple of paragraphs. But perhaps this peculiarity is typical of the author's work. I enjoyed The Forensic Records Society enough that I may well read more and find out for myself...
Whatever you write, you are in the domain of fiction.
This book totally astonished me. The blurb grabbed my attention immediately; my interest was furtWhatever you write, you are in the domain of fiction.
This book totally astonished me. The blurb grabbed my attention immediately; my interest was further spiked by a recommendation from an author whose novels I adore. And then I started reading it, and did so with growing delight and relish as I slowly realised it was absolutely perfect. Because this was my experience, I can't help but think that's the best way to approach it, and I don't want to give too much away. But that implies this is the sort of story that can be ruined by 'knowing the twist', which it isn't. It's up to you to decide whether there even is a twist.
Based on a True Story is an enigma: described as a novel, it reads exactly like a memoir. The narrator is a writer named Delphine, disorientated by the success of her most recent novel, which many assume to be based on her own family – to essentially be thinly veiled autobiography. This book is not given a name, but every description of it corresponds exactly to de Vigan's Nothing Holds Back the Night. This holds true throughout the book – anything that's provably accurate about de Vigan is also true of Delphine-the-character.
Delphine is grappling with her new-found fame and preparing to begin work on her next novel when she meets L. at a friend's party. L. is a glamorous woman, the chic, groomed, put-together type Delphine has always admired and envied. She's also confident, verging on forceful, and extremely opinionated, especially about Delphine's writing. She scorns Delphine's idea of writing a novel about a reality TV star, instead urging her to go even further in using her own life as inspiration. Bit by bit, L. becomes a fixture in Delphine's life, acting as confidant, helper and shoulder to cry on; the sister, therapist and personal assistant Delphine didn't know she needed. And Delphine learns L.'s tragic backstory, including the death of her mother and husband. At the same time, Delphine receives a series of hateful letters, purporting to be from a family member and admonishing her for exploiting her relatives' experiences in what they see as a craven quest for fame.
Sometimes Based on a True Story becomes a philosophical two-hander between Delphine and L. as they debate the nature of truth and fiction, where one ends and the other begins, and how much of oneself a writer can (and should) reveal in their work. But it's also something more sinister, as the narrative crawls slowly but inexorably towards the conclusion of L.'s strengthening stranglehold on Delphine's existence. The nature of this is no secret: Delphine tells us at the beginning that L. is the sole reason for my powerlessness [a long period of writer's block so severe that she couldn't even write something as simple as a shopping list] ... the two years that we were friends almost made me stop writing for ever. Tellingly, the epigraphs for each part of the book are taken from Stephen King's Misery.
If I expected anything from Based on a True Story, it was a nuanced study of the psychological effects of insidious harassment, something a little like James Lasdun's Give Me Everything You Have, but exploring a more subtle and outwardly benign form of 'stalking'. And in some ways, that's what I got. If you have ever experienced anything like this, plenty of scenes will have you nodding along and/or grimly hooked (the scene with the guestless 'dinner party' is horror-film creepy). But this novel is like a brilliant hologram, an image that shifts completely with the slightest change of perspective. It is elegantly written – thoroughly Parisian; the prose itself could be described as chic – so it's easy to initially mistake it for a straightforward tale of suspense rather than the fascinating maze of fiction, fact and perception it finally reveals itself to be.
(I was thrilled to find out Based on a True Story is currently being adapted into a film, directed by Roman Polanski and co-written by Olivier Assayas, starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Eva Green. 'I can't wait' is a severe understatement.)
I know I talk about books in terms of 'halves' or 'thirds' or 'quarters' a lot. It's something I've been telling myself to do less of. But sometimes iI know I talk about books in terms of 'halves' or 'thirds' or 'quarters' a lot. It's something I've been telling myself to do less of. But sometimes it's absolutely necessary, and White Tears is one such case: it's very much a book of two halves.
Seth is an awkward, lonely college student who's obsessed with sound, and traverses New York making recordings of everyday background noise: Carter, who becomes his best friend and business partner, is the black-sheep scion of an obscenely rich family, and very into music – specifically, and exclusively, black music. During one of Seth's recording sessions, he catches an ageing chess player singing a snatch of an old blues tune. He remembers it as a single, throwaway line, remembers turning away after that to watch a pretty girl skateboard past, but when he listens back to the recording, it's a whole melancholy, beautiful song. The two friends develop an unhealthy fixation with it. Then they find a completely separate recording, of someone playing a guitar tune, that fits perfectly with the song. Carter uploads the resulting track to a torrent, pretending it's by a made-up pre-war musician named Charlie Shaw – and then an elderly collector turns up with a story about a friend, back in the 1950s, whose life was consumed by an obsession with a rare record: 'Graveyard Blues' by Charlie Shaw.
The first half of the book, which deals with all of the above, is flat-out brilliant. The narrative moves forward with a compelling, irresistible force; the plot is absolutely thrilling; Seth's voice, note-perfect. This part of the book is also incredibly subtle and clever in the way it undermines its characters – mainly Carter and his rich kid's obnoxious nonchalance, but Seth isn't let off the hook – and is critical of them without condemning them.
Then the plot takes a sharp turn that either works for you or it doesn't. I'm in the latter camp, mostly. As the unreality of the narrative is heightened – temporal slips, shifts in identity, timelines splitting and histories repeating – the story of the song falls into the background and becomes unimportant. The tightly controlled plot is replaced by a loose and jagged series of moments, with Seth entering a broken mental state in which he may or may not have been possessed by the spirit of the original Charlie Shaw. It is, effectively, a horror story about the consequences of thoughtless appropriation. Whether the cause is supernatural ('Charlie' taking revenge on those who would take his voice, his music) or not (Seth's fragile mental health being exacerbated by his guilt and, at this point, exhaustion) remains deliberately obscure. What Kunzru is trying to do is clear, but the execution is disappointingly messy and heavy-handed. There is a very, very fine line between effective slipstream fiction and nonsense, and these parts of White Tears are too frequently on the wrong side of it.
(view spoiler)[(Besides which, surely a subtler approach would have had far greater impact? Pointing to the Wallace family as the 'bad guys' makes it all too easy for the reader to avoid examining their own privilege/inbuilt racism/white guilt: after all, it's unlikely said reader is a millionaire whose family fortune was built on the work of slaves. The few chapters where Charlie is given his own voice are moving and effective, much more so than all the jumbled stuff about Seth's arrest, and that's because they show something of who he was as a person rather than using him as a symbol. More of that would have been welcome.) (hide spoiler)]
I get the point. I get that the whole aim of White Tears is to make you think you're reading one sort of story, the sort of story you've loved before – to make you comfortable in a litfic-with-added-fantasy bubble – and then violently wrest you out of it, obliterate that cosiness, castigate you for failing to recognise the problems with these characters. But for it to really work, the first part would have to be weaker and less compelling than the second, and that's just not the case. Missing out on the alternate, complete version of that initial wonderful story made me feel mildly annoyed with the rest of it for trying to be a Novel with a Message.
Four stars might seem like a high rating given the above complaints, and really it's probably more of a 3.5, but I'm rounding up for the absolute compulsiveness and smooth-flowing brilliance of the first half, and for the book's ambition and ingenuity. Despite the problems, it's definitely worth reading.
I couldn't resist the premise and tagline of Friend Request.Maria wants to be friends [on Facebook]. But Maria is dead. Isn't she? I mean, doesn't thI couldn't resist the premise and tagline of Friend Request.Maria wants to be friends [on Facebook]. But Maria is dead. Isn't she? I mean, doesn't that just sound like the 21st-century Point Horror book you never knew you wanted? I thought it would be schlocky as hell, ridiculous and unintentionally funny. It turned out to be much, much better than that, but just as gripping and entertaining as I'd hoped.
The story is exactly what it sounds like. The protagonist, Louise, receives a Facebook friend request from a girl she knew at school. The thing is, Maria Weston has been missing, presumed dead, for 27 years; what's more, Louise has never recovered from the guilt she feels about her role in bullying Maria. The book alternates between Louise's present-day mounting paranoia about the friend request and the ensuing messages she receives from 'Maria', and her schooldays in 1989. We learn about Louise's friendship with the manipulative Sophie; how she was forced into tormenting Maria in order to keep hold of her own position in the 'popular' clique.
Laura Marshall is great at depicting precarious teenage relationships and the lasting effects of bullying. Despite becoming a mother and having a successful career as an interior designer, Louise has never really put those days behind her, and is still beset by the insecurity Sophie and her cronies instilled in her. She is far more nuanced a character than I expected to find in a story like this. Marshall is also utterly brilliant at red herrings. I haven't read a crime novel or thriller in recent memory that's done a better job of misdirection; I had about five theories and only one of them was half-right. The plot is tense and just-one-more-chapter compulsive: once I'd started I couldn't stop, and the further I got, the more I absolutely had to finish it.
A fantastic thriller that rattles along at a, well, thrilling pace, Friend Request is fun and totally addictive, but it's also thoughtful, well-written, and doesn't sacrifice the plausibility of characters' behaviour for the sake of outrageous twists. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I received an advance review copy of Friend Request from the publisher through NetGalley.