A terrific book - as readable and entertaining as it is intelligent, so basically exactly what I want in a piece of fiction. There's a scintillating film noir feel to everything that happens around our narrator, psychiatrist David Manne, in what is indubitably a very Paul Austeresque plot. The book opens with a few pages of pure dialogue, as Manne is informed his ex-wife, Broadway star Abby, has died. He's still preoccupied by this when he agrees to do a favour for a detective friend, and is drawn into a bizarre domestic scene in which - he believes - all is not as it seems; is the distraught woman in the next room really the patient's wife, or merely an actress hired to play the part? What of the man's insistence that his name is not Esterhazy, but Smith? Troubled by the incident, he decides to help the patient, a mistake that sends him plunging headlong into a deep - inescapable? - identity crisis and a conspiracy that may exist only in his mind. All of this takes place against the backdrop of 1940s New York, rendered as a maze-like, shifting contrivance - I couldn't help but see it in black and white (my imagined soundtrack to the book was Artie Shaw's 'Nightmare'), but Wilcken's Manhattan also reminded me of the Paris streets in that scene in Inception, bending and folding in on themselves.
The Reflection is cleverly written to ensure the reader is often just as discombobulated as the protagonist. The potentially off-putting opening, wherein there's an immediate challenge - to figure out who's speaking, why we should care and, in the absence of context, what any of it means - is just the first example. Memories and scenes recur in different situations and settings as Manne (if he is, in fact, Manne) loses his grip on reality - or is an increasingly hapless victim of some villainous scheme, depending on how you interpret the story's many twisty developments. His suspicions that people around him are actors turns out to be something of a motif; he continually describes his surroundings as false, comparing streets to movie sets, the things on them to 'stage trappings', and people he meets to 'actors from my past... continually coming back in different form'. Everything seems to overlap. Reading a book in which phrases and descriptions are repeated, often with very slight modifications, creates constant déjà vu. In this way, Wilcken employs language to create the same round-in-circles frustration Manne experiences. The reader leaps towards 'clues' just as Manne does, only to be thwarted again.
With its cinematic atmosphere and relentless intrigue, The Reflection is an incredibly enjoyable story - but it doesn't have to be just that; you can read it in many different ways. It's certainly a book that would bear, even benefit from, repeated reads. And of course, I now want to read everything else Wilcken's written....more
I've read Chris Priestley's 'Tales of Terror' series in a strange order which has meant I've come to this, the first one published, last. I also likedI've read Chris Priestley's 'Tales of Terror' series in a strange order which has meant I've come to this, the first one published, last. I also liked it the most. The formula used in the other volumes, with a central narrative tying all the other tales together, is at its best here. Naive young Edgar goes to visit his ancient Uncle Montague to listen to his macabre stories, each of which seems to be linked to an object in the room where they sit. Though he feigns bravado, Edgar grows increasingly frightened by his uncle's apparent conviction that all the tales are true, and then it's time for him to go home - if he can make it past the silent children lurking in the woods...
Priestley's stories are suitable for kids, but wonderfully readable for adults too. He has a real way with atmosphere and is fantastic at creating the kind of creepy, spooky, misty ambience essential for a classic ghost story to work. The stories aren't predictable, either: you never know whether their young heroes and heroines will escape evil or meet a grisly end. This was a great read to usher in autumn....more
I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There's no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.
When I was in the middle of reading Eileen, I wrote on Twitter that it was one of the realest portraits of self-loathing I've ever read, and I still think that's the best way to describe it in a nutshell. The paragraph above, taken from the first couple of pages, is a perfect summary of the dark, twisted ambience that pervades both the story and its narrator.
Said narrator is Eileen Dunlop. She looks into the past to tell her story, speaking from what's probably supposed to be the present day, but recalling a younger version of herself, and the action, such as it is, unfolds over the course of a week in 1964. Living in a town she calls 'X-ville' with her alcoholic, abusive father, Eileen constantly dreams of escape. Her job is as 'a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys', which she refers to, also pseudonymously, as Moorehead. It's here that she meets the glamorous Rebecca, and those fantasies of freedom start to seem more plausible. In her own words: 'In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.'
Eileen is saturated with self-loathing and self-obsession. Everything about her body, even her very existence, is excruciatingly embarrassing and disgusting to her, but at the same time she revels in it with a kind of mordant glee. She is fond of - even obsessed with - thinking and talking about her (and other people's) bodily functions. She has an aversion to washing (she tells Rebecca, 'I like to stew in my own filth sometimes. Like a little secret under my clothes'), and a laxative habit; she chews chocolates and spits them back into the wrappers. A virgin at 24, she's frequently preoccupied by sexual fantasies, most of them about a colleague - Randy - who she spends her weekends stalking.
I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer's.
Eileen epitomises what I couldn't help but think of as the messiness of being a woman, the ugly flipside of a societal preoccupation with female bodies and sexuality. She is all rage - pure, unruly emotion - and while she is repugnant in many ways, it's difficult to hate her. Her combination of torment and immaturity can be heartbreaking. She speaks frequently of her 'death mask', a blank face she uses to hide the uncontrollable hatred and confusion burning within, though she seems conflicted about whether she wants people to be fooled by it or see right through it (probably both), whether she wants the death mask to function as camouflage for her inner turmoil or a signal of it. Of a shop assistant, she says:
My death mask didn't seem to perturb her at all. It always peeved me when my flatness was met with good cheer, good manners. Didn't she know I was a monster, a creep, a crone? How dare she mock me with courtesy when I deserved to be greeted with disgust and dismay?
She feels differently about the boys at Moorehead. She sees them as her equivalents, treats them with a pity that comes off as self-indulgent when she tries to draw parallels between their suffering and hers. But through this, we also get a sense of how desperately she needs an outlet for her feelings:
I hoped they saw right through my death mask to my sad and fiery soul.
No surprise, then, that she's instantly drawn to Rebecca - Moorehead's incongruous new 'director of education' - like the proverbial moth to the flame. A figure straight out of a classic movie, she's all glamorous airs and insouciant smoking, wrapped in elegant coats and talking in femme fatale cliches, 'hair rippling behind her, eyes like daggers'. It's all an act - we see that when Eileen notices the literal cracks in her armour, her chapped lips and 'scraggly' hair - but Eileen is seduced because she wants to be, and because of her profound naivety.
The way she talked was so canned, so scripted, it inspired me to be just as canned. "Say." People didn't really talk like that. "A cocktail." If she seems insincere, she was. She was terribly pretentious, and later, in hindsight, I felt she'd insulted my intelligence by selling me her scripted bunk. "Darn it all." But at the time I felt I was being invited into an elite world of beautiful people.
Readers hoping for a plot-driven mystery may be disappointed, as the swathe of Goodreads reviews claiming that 'nothing happens' will attest. This novel is a character study (a superb one), and the whole point of Eileen is the character of Eileen. The other characters matter in the sense that her interpretations of them matter. It may have noir influences and thriller pretensions, but the denouement is the weakest part of the book, because it stops focusing solely on Eileen's interior life and jumps into dramatic events that don't quite work. Rebecca's actions and motivations feel hastily cobbled together; Eileen increasingly seems like the only real person among a cast of caricatures. Added to which, the stakes just aren't very high: due to frequent, if brief, references to her life after these events, we know all along that she did get out of X-ville and that, if she did do something terrible, it's likely she never got caught.
This could have been an instant favourite - and I get the feeling Moshfegh will write something I'll unequivocally adore in future - but its flaws are a bit too big and its omissions a bit too disappointing. (I'd love to have seen Eileen's obsession with Rebecca develop over a longer period of time, with the former interpreting everyday interactions as evidence of a meaningful bond between the two; I'd also like to have known more about what kind of life she went on to have.) It doesn't fully embrace its brilliance as a character study, and in trying to be more, it becomes less.
This review is already longer than I would like it to be, but I could write endlessly about this book and its narrator, could've included many more quotes. Eileen joins the ranks of unforgettable female characters who inspire both sympathy and repulsion - characters in whom we see our worst selves uncomfortably reflected. If you were fascinated by Barbara in Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal or Nora in The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Eileen - and Eileen - might be your perfect match....more
Set in 1970s New York, this much-talked-about, epic debut (it's 960 pages long and famously secured a $2m advance) centres on the shooting of a seventSet in 1970s New York, this much-talked-about, epic debut (it's 960 pages long and famously secured a $2m advance) centres on the shooting of a seventeen-year-old girl on New Year's Eve. At least, it starts off seeming like it does. It's so sprawling that it takes in the entire life story of most of its characters, who include Sam, the girl who's shot; her group of punk friends; Charlie, the boy who's infatuated with her; the mega-rich Hamilton-Sweeney family, notably siblings Billy and Regan; Billy's boyfriend Mercer and Regan's husband Keith; Larry Pulaski, the cop investigating the shooting; Richard Groskoph, journalist writing a book about Sam's father's fireworks business; and Jenny Nguyen, Richard's neighbour... There are lots of people in this story, but more than enough room to flesh them out. Almost all of them are rich and nuanced with unsurprisingly lengthy backstories and myriad vulnerabilities, with the sole exception, unfortunately, being Sam. Partly because she's stretched in directions that seem like opposites, partly because she just seems so empty in a way that none of the others do. But then I suppose she is a point on which the plot turns more than she is a person. If I had to pick favourites of the lot, I'd go with Mercer and Jenny, both of whom I felt fiercely attached to from their first appearances.
The themes the story ends up exploring aren't exactly original. The woes of an extremely wealthy family; a middle-aged man having an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter; drug addiction; a would-be author with writer's block and a relationship that's falling apart; and of course, the setting, New York City. But Hallberg's treatment of them is constantly engaging, if not exactly fresh. You believe in the characters and therefore believe/understand their situations as things that affect real people, however cliched they might seem in theory.
Each part of the novel is bookmarked by an 'interlude'. They're physical evidence, almost, of these characters' lives (a clear reference to Billy's artworks), so they're presented as if they are real objects, like the original material has been scanned in. I guess they're supposed to feel 'authentic', but they're so hard to read. In fact I found the first one, the 'handwritten' letter, so unreadable I had to skip the whole thing, and I still have no idea whether it might have contained something crucially important. I did force myself through Sam's zine, which I think has to be one of the most unconvincing things I have ever read and simply served to underline the weakness of Sam as a character. One interlude is brilliant: Will's account of his dreams, the story taking in events post-1977, Billy's fate and 'Evidence II'. At a point when my interest was flagging, this chapter made me desperately want to power through the rest of the book. (view spoiler)[It was so well done, so illuminating, that I was really disappointed there were no further flash-forwards closer to the end. (hide spoiler)]
City on Fire uses many genre devices in its plot. It has both a whodunnit-style mystery and an implausibly wide-ranging conspiracy, for example. But it feels like more of a literary novel when you come to its ending... because even though it's so long and there's so much detail and the narrative flashes back and forth through time, absolutely nothing is resolved. The dramatic climax, encompassing the 1977 blackout and ensuing protests, loses all the human interest of the rest of the book as it turns into a series of action-packed scenes, a way to incorporate some tension, peril, and contrived ways to bring hitherto unconnected characters together. (view spoiler)[I'm relieved that Sam didn't get a schmaltzy miraculous ending, though. I bet the inevitable movie version will differ from the book in that particular respect. (hide spoiler)] If the novel's length is a problem, it's a problem in that even after near to a thousand pages it doesn't feel properly complete, not because there's too much description or explanation. (Some readers seem to have found the description offputting very early on, but Hallberg's insistence on painting a vivid picture no matter how small the scene - along with his creative vocabulary - remained one of my favourite things about it throughout.)
It's hard to talk about City on Fire because the things I enjoyed about it are so broad and general, and sound like cliches - the well-roundedness of (most of) the characters, the use of language and the description, the sense of the book creating a complete separate universe that I could enter at will - whereas the things I didn't like are very specific. I think it's a great achievement, a beautifully written epic novel, and I don't regret devoting my time to getting all the way through it. But as to whether I'd recommend it - I'm really not sure. I wish I'd felt more satisfied at the end of it. I find myself wondering what became of some of the characters immediately after what happened in this book and later in life, which is testament to a) the strength of the characters (I can't help but think about them like they're real) and b) the frustration of the story.
If you're interested in this book, I'd suggest reading a sample first - I was gripped straight away; I think it'll be easy for any reader to figure out whether Hallberg's meandering-yet-engrossing style is their bag. If it's not, I think a slimmed-down, tightened-up version of City on Fire is going to make a fantastic film.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Rawblood opens with the idiosyncratic voice of eleven-year-old Iris Villarca. She lives with her father in a lonely mansion, the titular Rawblood, on Dartmoor. There, he has convinced her of the legend of their family: the Villarcas suffer from a hereditary condition, given the evocative moniker 'horror autotoxicus', and Iris will die young if she neglects to follow his strict set of capital-R Rules. Essentially, the Rules say she must stay away from other people, with the sole exception of her father, and avoid strong feelings and excitement at all costs. It is when Iris starts conspiring to venture out after dark with her best friend, Tom, that she breaks the Rules and risks her father's wrath - but also comes to believe the condition is not merely her father's invention.
When Iris narrates, her voice is mesmerising, though it takes a while to get used to. She twists words in strange ways and relates dialogue in staccato fashion; sometimes she seems to talk in riddles, and once you've finished the book, it's easy to see how many of her enigmatic declarations might be considered a form of foreshadowing.
Loneliness is not what people think it is. It is not a song. It's a little bitter thing you keep close, like an egg under a hen. What happens when the shell cracks? What comes forth?
In chapter two, Rawblood switches to the diary of medical student Charles Danforth, 30 years before Iris's story. For a while it is a two-hander, with chapters alternating between these viewpoints. Then, for reasons I won't spoil, it moves on from them, and new voices are added to the mix.
The story of Rawblood is rooted in the landscape of Dartmoor - a place made up of clouds, bracken, cold streams, and the vast, lonely moor. The way Iris describes it, it's like countryside remembered from childhood. The Villarcas are always drawn back to this stark and beautiful place in the end (and it's exactly this that proves to be the key to the story), but they're often taken far away from it, and it's these diversions that produce some of the book's best moments. The Mary and Hephzibah chapter is incredible - a five-star short story in its own right. The conversation between Mary and Leopoldo, Iris's final journey through the house; these are stunning scenes, unlike anything I have come across in any book, never mind a ghost story, a genre typically riddled with cliches (cliches I love, but cliches nonetheless).
Rawblood's only failing is that it is slightly uneven, not always as brilliant as its own most brilliant moments. There are points when it seems like a mostly conventional piece of creepy historical fiction and is liable to drag slightly. Iris's voice dominates, and while Charles Danforth's narrative is obviously distinguished from hers, with some of the other narrators it is not so clear. Iris has such a distinctive way of describing things that when the same style bleeds into other characters' inner monologues, it's very noticeable. Similarly, Danforth's journal sometimes reads like a journal but often reads very much like part of a novel. But these are small flaws in an otherwise excellent book.
You may guess the tragic twist before the final chapters, but even if you do, Rawblood's climax is executed so perfectly that it barely matters. Rarely have I felt so thrilled by the climatic scenes of a book, not particularly because they're terribly scary, but because they're simply so good and complete, bringing everything together so neatly. The way it's all done is really quite awe-inspiring.
When I first sampled this book, I wrote that 'Rawblood appears to be quite unlike any other horror/ghost/gothic story I've read'. That turned out to be even truer than I suspected. It's a thing of melancholic beauty, an immediate addition to my list of personal favourites in the genre. Haunting, atmospheric, heartbreaking - a perfect winter read.
I received an advance review copy of Rawblood from the publisher through NetGalley....more
A solid - yet largely subdued - conclusion to the Cicero trilogy, Dictator is consistently interesting, but never really turns into the thrilling cresA solid - yet largely subdued - conclusion to the Cicero trilogy, Dictator is consistently interesting, but never really turns into the thrilling crescendo I was hoping for. There's just so much of Cicero's life and career to fit into this final volume, meaning the pace is fast, disconcertingly so at times, and there's less room for development of the characters - particularly Cicero's secretary, Tiro, who serves as narrator. But this is a book based on real people and real events in history, and that's the nature of it. I preferred the more political focus of the previous books, in which the majority of action took place in the Senate, particularly as Harris is so good at linking his characters' actions with those of modern politicians. For much of Dictator, there's a lot of waiting around while other people battle each other and/or the goings-on in Rome are heard about from a distance, as Cicero is first in exile, then sidelined during a period of civil war, then retired from public life. But it seems stupid to complain when that's hardly a decision Harris himself has made about the direction of the plot... There's naturally a bloody climax with (view spoiler)[the assassination of Caesar (hide spoiler)] (it's probably stupid to put that under a spoiler tag, but you never know), and the final third of the book moves quickly as a result.
It's been four years since I read Imperium and Lustrum, the first and second installments in the trilogy, and I've been waiting ever since for the final piece of the story. There's something reassuring and comfortable about being back with Cicero and Tiro, but four years is quite a long time (and a few hundred books); the anticipation I felt about Dictator then is something that's remained static in my memory while my reading habits and tastes have changed. I'm uncertain whether I would have been quite so keen to devour all of these books had I discovered them more recently. I can't fault Harris's style or the thoroughness of his research, but I wasn't as excited by this one as I remember feeling when I raced through the other two. I think that may well be down to me - the things that stimulate me as a reader just aren't the same as they were in 2011 - and shouldn't be taken as a judgement on the quality of the novel.
Really a 3.5, but I've bumped my rating up because of my affection for the trilogy as a whole.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The Ecliptic: I had a good feeling about this book. The first time I heard about it was, unsurprisingly, on Twitter, when those with early review copies began talking about it in reverent tones, implying it would be one of the best novels of the year. Naturally, this excited me, and naturally, it made me nervous. But the excitement won out enough that I squandered a whole Waterstones gift voucher on the hardback edition, thinking as I did so, this had better be worth it. Thankfully, it was.
In the first part of the book, Elspeth Conroy, a painter, is a resident at Portmantle, a refuge for artists housed on a sylvan island off the coast of Turkey. Presided over by the severe provost, it's a place for those who have lost touch with their muse, with a strict set of rules designed - in what might be seen as a contradictory fashion - to remove all barriers to creative freedom. This includes the creation of a new identity, so Elspeth is known as 'Knell', and her closest friends - MacKinney, Quickman and Pettifer, a playwright, author and architect respectively - are similarly pseudonymous. One joins Portmantle only by invitation, and must keep every detail of its nature, even its existence, secret. The opening scene depicts the arrival of a new member of the community, Fullerton, a teenage boy - just a child, a disruptive but very obviously fragile presence who Elspeth immediately feels maternal towards.
The second part spools back through Elspeth's history. From her childhood in Clydebank to an attic in London, the beginnings of success and fame, and a fateful boat journey to New York, her life is mapped out in scenes that flesh out her character so successfully she becomes painfully real. Being disconnected from Portmantle is initially upsetting - as a setting it has an irresistible pull, and I'd hoped the whole story would be set there. But I quickly realised our heroine's past would be just as absorbing and affecting as her present. This is particularly the case when it comes to Elspeth's relationship with her erstwhile mentor, Jim Culvers, with whom she falls in love. (Architects of unconvincing romances everywhere, take note - this is how you do a love story. It's absolutely heartbreaking.)
The third part takes us back to Portmantle.
And that's all I can say about the plot. Anything more is going to spoil major revelations that come in several bursts, upending each other, in the final quarter of the book, and while telling you what they are might not actually spoil your enjoyment - because it's all so beautifully written and beautifully crafted regardless, and this is a story that has twists rather than relying on them - I think it's better if you don't know.
The Ecliptic is first and foremost a book about the hard, exhausting, consuming work of creating art. It's a force that engulfs Elspeth's life, moulds her relationships, and manifests in occasional bursts of obsession and extreme fatigue that skew close to madness. Portmantle purports to offer a respite from all the distractions that might divert an artist from achieving their true purpose, but in the end it's those 'distractions' that make a life, and Elspeth and co's time there keeps them trapped in a loop of not creating. Rather than a shelter, it becomes a kind of stasis. Like addicts who can't leave rehab, Elspeth and her friends remain on the island for years - for so long they've lost track of the years - despite failing to complete any of their planned masterworks. The story in The Ecliptic is constantly provoking questions about how inspiration is lost and found, and what that means for the artist.
If I had to compare it to something? Station Eleven, and not just because a comic book plays a pivotal part. While reading both books I really savoured the style - yet again I want to use the words 'elegant' and 'restrained'; the characters are centre stage, their development the most important thing in the novel despite the often-dramatic, potentially complicated story in which they are placed; style-wise there is nothing over the top here, nothing that really plays with conventional language, but it's intelligent, powerful, and always has that odd little edge of implied strangeness that suggests there's something more to all of this than meets the eye - something just out of reach. (Though I should mention that The Ecliptic is definitely not dystopian or sci-fi or post-apocalyptic.)
The Ecliptic itself unfolds like the process of creating a painting, specifically one of Elspeth's works. Layers of paint are overlaid by a magic ingredient, the lustrous pigment she creates from an unusual species of mushrooms, with the end result being something that can only be properly appreciated and understood in certain conditions - from the correct angle, in the correct light, or lack of. In Wood's book, this moment comes in the fourth and final section, when the reader can finally step back and understand how everything not only fits together, but creates a glorious effect, a beautifully synchronised whole. ...more
Just as I'd hoped, a mostly feelgood read (the conspiracy revealed during the denouement is rather grim) with mystery, romance and, as an added bonus,Just as I'd hoped, a mostly feelgood read (the conspiracy revealed during the denouement is rather grim) with mystery, romance and, as an added bonus, a generous helping of spooky stuff. I didn't expect this to be a ghost story at all, so it was a nice surprise to find that it really is.
Amy works as a nanny for a glamorous Anglo-French family, the Laurents, and lives a charmed Parisian life with them until tragedy strikes, they lose their fortune and are forced to return to Julia Laurent's childhood home - a dreary cottage sitting on the banks of an English reservoir. As Julia sinks into depression, Amy digs into her family's history and finds Julia's older sister, Caroline, died at the cottage when she was seventeen years old. Things get creepier when the Laurents' daughter, Viviane, starts claiming Caroline is her new imaginary friend and begins to repeat details about the girl's life (and death) she can't possibly know. It's all splendidly ghostly and makes perfect winter reading, what with the mist-shrouded, ink-black lake, the small-town intrigue and various inexplicable happenings in and around the cottage. Gothic references abound - the setting has a distinctly du Maurier-esque flavour, and then there's that yellow wallpaper in Caroline's bedroom...
The relationship between Amy and Daniel wasn't really to my taste - it's not so much insta-love as auto-love; after one glimpse of him and a distinctly uninspiring conversation, she's already imagining them having a future together. It was a bit too sweet. The other problem I had with the proof I read was that the punctuation was all over the place and there were typos galore. But the first is a minor thing, easily overlooked, and the second has nothing to do with the final published version (at least I hope). After the blip of Your Beautiful Lies, Louise Douglas has now been reinstated as one of my favourite authors of enjoyable, engaging comfort reading....more
I've read a few of these Kindle shorts, usually designed to act as a cheaper introduction to an existing or forthcoming novel - eg The Rose of Fire (TI've read a few of these Kindle shorts, usually designed to act as a cheaper introduction to an existing or forthcoming novel - eg The Rose of Fire (The Prisoner of Heaven), Clara's Room (Reconstructing Amelia), Eve in Hollywood (Rules of Civility) - but I've usually found them far too slight, sometimes too short to even bother reviewing. This one actually has a bit of substance. It's a short story featuring the characters of Company of Liars, released to coincide with the publication of The Vanishing Witch. The story itself is an episode that could have been drawn from the pages of any one of Maitland's books - richly imagined medieval setting (with plenty of disgusting details), gruesome characters, peril and magic - and while it's not enormously memorable, it's as well-written and compelling in exactly the way I would expect from this author. Mostly I'm just in awe of how prolific she is - The Vanishing Witch came out this year, as did this story, and I already have an advance copy of her next book The Raven's Head, due out in March....more
At the beginning of Beastings, I enjoyed the narrative for all the reasons I expected to: its rawness, the sparse and visceral language, and a cold and bleak and painful evocation of the English landscape, portrayed with greater emphasis on its harshness and wildness than its beauty. For several chapters it's near-impossible to tell what time period the story is taking place in: could be medieval times, could be a post-apocalyptic future. Adding to the folkloric feel, the characters remain nameless.
'The girl', having taken 'the baby' from a family she was working for, is on the run. Fleeing across open ground with few provisions, she relies largely on the shelter and food provided by nature in order to survive - she receives help from a handful of strangers, but she is mute, and so unable (as well as unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone she meets. In pursuit of her are 'the Priest' and 'the Poacher'. The Priest is a corrupt man, without conscience or pity, determined to capture the girl for reasons far beyond her abduction of the child; the Poacher simply hired to help him, with little investment of his own in their mission.
The girl's history is revealed in fragments as she remembers scenes from her life before this escape; more shards of pain than real memories, with barely a scrap of happiness to provide relief. The Priest's story, and his motivation, is made clearer during his terse conversations with the Poacher. None of the characters are spared any discomfort; violence is never far away. There's little punctuation, and speech intermingles with the rest of the text, enhancing the unique presence of the landscape in the story and constantly shifting the reader's focus back to simple instincts and actions. The title, 'beastings', refers to the first milk drawn from a mother's breast, but the word 'beast' and its variations appear frequently throughout the book, and the way the story concentrates on its characters' animalistic behaviour - whether performed out of necessity or by choice - is impossible to ignore.
Is it awful to admit I didn't like this book as much as I could have because I could not have cared less what happened to the girl and the baby? It didn't matter to me whether they were caught by the Poacher and the Priest, or whether they died or what. The girl and the Poacher annoyed me, and that only left the almost comically evil Priest. Scenes ostensibly demonstrating the girl's ingenuity failed to make an impact on me because she never seemed like anything more than a symbol; a foil of purity and good intentions to offset the maliciousness of the Priest. As the story wore on, I found myself hoping the Priest would survive and succeed purely because his presence provided the only spark of real interest among the characters.
I don't intend to discuss certain events towards the end - (view spoiler)[the girl's rape and magical insta-pregnancy (?!) (hide spoiler)] - in any detail. I'll just say I felt they were unccessary and I didn't see what message the author was trying to convey here.
Beastings is well-crafted; admirable in its use of stripped-down language and sharp, minimal dialogue. In several ways it reminded me of Katherine Faw Morris's Young God. The story may be very different, but the narrative is equally bare and muscular, and here again is the tale of a young, abused girl trying to survive on her own. Unlike Young God, this novel has a tragic ending, but it's similarly shocking, abrupt, desolate. 'Like an American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England', says the blurb - and it's accurate: but Beastings joins the ranks of books I admired rather than liked.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
So much fun! I picked this out to read on a train because I was struggling to concentrate on anything 'heavier', and although I wasn't expecting muchSo much fun! I picked this out to read on a train because I was struggling to concentrate on anything 'heavier', and although I wasn't expecting much from it, I found it immensely enjoyable. I really liked the first couple of books in Quinn's Empress of Rome series, but found the third dull: this one reminded me what I enjoyed so much about those first two. It also confirmed my suspicion (also discussed in my review of Karen Maitland's The Vanishing Witch) that I'd rather read unashamedly trashy historical fiction than the type that tries to be serious and falls flat due to lack of research/authenticity. With a book like this, you don't really care if the characters (for example) use modern figures of speech, or if Italians in the 15th century use puns that only work in English, because it's just like watching a highly entertaining historical soap opera.
The Serpent and the Pearl follows a tried and tested formula: it's loosely based on real events (here the rise of the Borgias in 15th-century Italy), it uses a variety of narrative voices (Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia; Leonello, a dwarf who becomes her bodyguard; Carmelina, a cook in the Borgia household) and it is packed with twists and moments of suspense, usually at the end of a chapter. Quinn is great at writing strong, interesting female characters you can't help but like, but this perhaps isn't that unusual for a female author of this type of fiction. What she's also great at is writing men who should be completely detestable, but are somehow imbued with such charisma and magnetism that you are nevertheless drawn to them. She clearly knows something about the sexiness of power, and how to translate that to the page: her male characters may not be likeable, but they are always completely compelling. At the beginning I hated Giulia's relationship with Rodrigo, and couldn't see that changing: skip forward a few hundred pages, and I came to root for it so much that I was desperate for them to be reunited.
There are occasional flaws that do stand out, despite the enjoyability factor of the book. The characterisation can be heavy-handed at times - we know Carmelina's a cook, no need for endless references to food/recipes/Santa Marta (patron saint of cooks and servants) in every sentence. And unlike the Rome books - which were part of a series, but each worked fine as standalone novels - this is a very open-ended 'to be continued' sort of story, and you need to read the next one to find out what becomes of the characters. Which means I have to read the next one at some point... because dammit, I really want to know what happens. However, this also means the chapters become a bit repetitive towards the end as the author stretches out the story, building up to a cliffhanger ending.
The Serpent and the Pearl left me with the same indulgent feeling of satisfaction as eating a bag of donuts or binge-watching a whole TV series. I'd recommend it to anyone who's enjoyed Quinn's Rome books, and to fans of Karen Maitland, Kate Furnivall, Robert Harris's Cicero novels, etc. ...more
Way too young for me, but good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. Jackaby is a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American portWay too young for me, but good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. Jackaby is a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port where a runaway English girl, Abigail Rook, meets an eccentric investigator, R.F. Jackaby. The much-quoted claim that this is 'Doctor Who meets Sherlock' is actually pretty accurate, and the author's grasp of witty, quick-fire dialogue is excellent. The characters and their interaction are by far the most interesting bits; the paranormal stuff is a bit pedestrian, and my eyes glazed over during a few of the action scenes, but then, I am not the audience for this book. With a strong and funny heroine/narrator and a plot that focuses much more on friendship and adventure than romance (thankfully there is no romantic relationship between the two leads), I wouldn't hesitate to enthusiastically recommend this to younger readers....more
I really don't like having to give negative reviews. They can be quite fun to write, but that doesn't make up for the time wasted reading a disappointing book, especially if, like me, you have a constantly expanding to-read list of several hundred potentially better others. Unfortunately, The Taxidermist's Daughter turned out to be another addition to 2014's growing batch of much-anticipated, but ultimately mediocre, new novels. (Funnily enough, The Independent's review of this book compares it to three other books from this year which I would categorise in exactly the same way.)
Connie Gifford is the titular taxidermist's daughter, though it would be more accurate to say she is the taxidermist. Her father has long been an incapable drunk, and Connie, having learnt his trade, secretly keeps the family business going. Not that there's much call for it: in the early twentieth century, taxidermy has fallen out of fashion, and with her father's 'world famous' museum gone, Connie struggles to make ends meet. She also struggles with her own condition: an accident when she was twelve wiped her memory, and she is only now beginning to remember flashes of her 'vanished years'. There's also the mystery of a murdered woman, found in the river next to the Giffords' house, and the links this crime may have to Something Terrible a group of local men (including, possibly, Connie's father) did ten years ago.
Connie is okay, but she is never truly established as a character who actually has any real personality, beyond a passion for taxidermy and, vaguely, a caring nature. The male characters, meanwhile, are so numerous and so utterly indistinct from one another that I couldn't tell them apart at all. Mosse has set the story in the West Sussex village of Fishbourne, apparently a place of personal significance to her, and it is evoked well, full of a Daphne du Maurier-esque stormy darkness despite the fact that the story takes place in spring. The most atmospheric scenes are set in a rain-lashed cottage; these sections, though very effective, are frustratingly few.
The Taxidermist's Daughter is very like Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black: the gothic gloom (it's 1912, but everything feels very Victorian), the use of bird motifs, but most of all, the dull, turgid story lumbering towards a largely uninteresting conclusion. And, like Bellman & Black, I'm giving the book a medium rating because it was simply okay: by no means terrible, simply underwhelming and forgettable. While it all started promisingly, and did start to pick up again after I was halfway through, too much of it was simply tedious. I didn't care what the men of Fishbourne had done ten years earlier - partly because the characters were uninteresting, partly because I knew from the start it would be something deliberately 'shocking' but also unbelievable as something these people would really take part in. (Spoiler: it was.) Interviews with the author suggest the theme of taxidermy stems from a childhood fascination with the art, but it often feels as if it has been chosen simply because it's suitably gruesome and archaic.
I've read one book from Mosse's Languedoc trilogy (Sepulchre), found it average, and haven't bothered with any of the others in that series. However, I really enjoyed her ghost story The Winter Ghosts, and last year she published a collection, The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales, which, while forgettable in terms of content, created a number of wonderfully atmospheric, wintery settings I can still remember quite vividly. I'd quite like to read it again for that reason alone. With all its gothic trappings, I hoped The Taxidermist's Daughter might be more of an ethereal ghost story than drab historical fiction, but sadly not. Competently written, with some intriguing scenes, it never quite gets off the ground, and in the end it is no more than the sum of its parts. ...more
A strange book, this. It's similar to some of the other novellas in the Hammer series in that, while it does have ghosts, the truly frightening partsA strange book, this. It's similar to some of the other novellas in the Hammer series in that, while it does have ghosts, the truly frightening parts have more to do with the way people treat one another.
A married couple, Douglas and Rowena Crale, arrive in a small, seemingly idyllic village with their five children, ready to move into a pair of cottages previously owned by Douglas's elderly mother. One of their daughters, Evangeline, is eccentric and disturbed, described by the locals as 'touched', and takes to wandering the village and countryside, chattering to an imaginary friend and rarely seen by her parents. Another daughter, Jennifer, is uncommonly beautiful, admired - and coveted - by everyone who meets her. Meanwhile, Rowena is tempted into an affair with a dashing neighbour, an escape from the weird, disquieting atmosphere of the cottages, which seem to be resisting the family's attempts to modify them.
I didn't really feel as if there was any climatic moment in this story, but perhaps that's because my expectations were focused on the wrong thing. Certainly, there's something odd about the houses: there's even a sealed-up room in the attic and an inexplicable face-at-the-window moment. But Rowena and Gregory's relationship is the thing that engages the emotions the most (it made me want to get married just so I can have an affair), and the two actions that occur towards the end - (view spoiler)[Douglas having Rowena put into a mental institution, and the creepy Pollards' audacious kidnap of Jennifer (hide spoiler)] - are the real horrors. The inclusion of an epilogue of sorts dims the drama of these events somewhat, but I was relieved to learn that (view spoiler)[Rowena didn't get an entirely unhappy ending. The scene of Jennifer's discovery also, somehow, added an even more disturbing edge to the whole affair (hide spoiler)].
There is a lot of ambiguity here, and it can make the book feel quite frustrating: various plot points don't seem to go anywhere. There isn't even a conclusive answer as to whether the person doing the 'haunting' is actually dead, or what Eva was doing in that room when she claimed to be caring for her grandmother (especially curious given that it seems she is not actually mad). Ultimately, it's all a bit too vague to be a great read, but there are enough points of interest to make it intriguing and mildly scary.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Helen Oyeyemi just writes fucking beautifully, and never has this been more apparent than in Boy, Snow, Bird. A loose reworking of the Snow White fairHelen Oyeyemi just writes fucking beautifully, and never has this been more apparent than in Boy, Snow, Bird. A loose reworking of the Snow White fairytale, it is told in three parts, as the title infers. Boy Novak is the narrator of the first and third parts; her daughter, Bird, narrates the middle section. Boy's stepdaughter, Snow, has no voice of her own other than a handful of letters exchanged with Bird, but then again she is not quite as central to the story as you might imagine.
Boy, a girl with a latent obsession with mirrors and given to gazing at her own reflection, runs away from her abusive father and lands in Flax Hill, a microcosm of small-town America circa the 50s. Though her heart lies elsewhere, she marries Arturo Whitman - partly because of her desire to become a mother (of sorts) to Snow, a remarkably beautiful child adored by everyone she meets. It's with the birth of Boy and Arturo's own daughter, Bird, that the story sharply changes direction: Bird's dark skin reveals that the Whitmans are a black family passing for white. Encouraged by Arturo's mother to send Bird away, Boy does the opposite and banishes Snow, fulfilling her destiny as a 'wicked stepmother'. But after this, the fairytale basis of the plot falls away, and the tale of Boy, Snow and Bird takes on its own character, becoming a story about race, sisterhood and secrets of many different kinds.
Criticism of Boy, Snow, Bird largely seems to be focused on the fact that it wanders too far from the traditional boundaries of the Snow White story, and can't really be called a retelling or reinterpretation. That's true, I suppose, but I don't think it has to be a bad thing; and already having some familiarity with the author's work meant I wasn't expecting a faithful update of the existing tale anyway (this is, in fact, by far the most conventional book I have read by Oyeyemi). Her 'retelling', then, isn't so much that as a jumping-off point for a story that shape-shifts and reinvents its purpose as it goes along. Snow White is far from being the only fairytale or myth referenced here, and the narratives are continually concerned with duplicities, double identities (there's scarcely a character name that doesn't mean more than one thing), the unreliability of reflections (the expected hints of magic crop up when both Snow and Bird find their reflections do not always behave as they should, but there are also other, less literal, riffs on this theme).
Boy's opening narrative positively zips and fizzes along, full of irresistible energy. The pages skipped by without me even noticing, and if the book has a significant flaw, it's that nothing else in it recaptures the sheer magic of this first third. I mentioned above that Boy, Snow, Bird is the most conventional Oyeyemi book I've yet read, but it's also the most cohesive and whole, working beautifully both as a self-contained story and as a mish-mash of references and meanings. My advice is to try and keep Snow White out of your head as you read this - it's much more rewarding that way....more
After the lacklustre The Falcons of Fire and Ice, Maitland is back on great form with The Vanishing Witch. If you've read anything by the author beforAfter the lacklustre The Falcons of Fire and Ice, Maitland is back on great form with The Vanishing Witch. If you've read anything by the author before, nothing in this fifth novel will come as a big surprise: it's set in the Middle Ages, has lots of characters, there's murder, witchcraft, and something that initially seems like a romance but is actually much more twisted. This time we're back in England, Lincoln to be precise, after Falcons' sojourn to Portugal and Iceland. It's 1381, and wealthy merchant Robert Bassingham finds himself torn between his wife Edith, who is succumbing to an inexplicable illness, and an enigmatic, attractive widow named Catlin. Meanwhile, an impoverished boatman named Gunter is struggling to protect his family from rising taxes and rent. All of these characters (and their children) are haunted by the menacing presence of a man dressed as a friar: is he a ghost, or someone seeking revenge on an old enemy? And who is the all-knowing presence narrating the story? Historical context is provided by a backdrop that includes the Peasants' Revolt, with several of the characters finding themselves drawn into the rebellion.
Over the past year I have often complained about how soapy and contrived I think modern historical fiction has become. Characters with too-modern attitudes and speech, historical inaccuracies and a general feeling of 'trashiness' pervade so many of these novels, even those acclaimed as literary triumphs, that I struggle to stop myself from being so annoyed I can't enjoy the book at all. Not because I'm some great history expert who's offended by the lack of accuracy, I'm just fed up of encountering the exact same thing in book after book. I really enjoy Maitland's books not only in spite of these things, but actually, perhaps perversely, because of them. Even though I know what to expect from the author, it's still refreshing to read a historical novel that has fun with its premise and handles its characters lightly, rather than trying to be desperately serious and attempting to create an 'authentic voice'. Ironically, it's this lightness, combined with what seems like genuinely detailed knowledge of the time period (habits and customs at a local level, as well as bigger societal/political events), that makes the characters seem more believable.
The Vanishing Witch doesn't match the brilliance of The Gallows Curse, and perhaps isn't quite as original as The Owl Killers, but it's an enjoyable read that I found instantly engrossing and strangely comforting. It's immensely frustrating that one character in particular doesn't get their comeuppance ((view spoiler)[Leonia, obviously (knife emoji) - and I liked Catlin, I wanted her to get away with it! (hide spoiler)]) but there are enough fun twists - some you'll guess, and some you probably won't - and gleefully dark bits to almost make up for that. While some characters are obviously villains from the start, Maitland bravely avoids making the vast majority of them completely likeable, except for the minor servant characters Tenney and Beata. The reader's sympathies for Robert and Catlin, in particular, flip up and down with every new chapter. And, aside from the aforementioned character, everyone who does something awful gets a horrible, and satisfying, bit of karma.
Recommended to existing fans of the author and those who enjoy entertaining historical fiction. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
For me, The Quick was a book which suffered under the weight of expectation and hype. Every single review I've read of it - on Goodreads, on blogs, anFor me, The Quick was a book which suffered under the weight of expectation and hype. Every single review I've read of it - on Goodreads, on blogs, and in the press - has highlighted the fact that it has this amazing unexpected twist. And I suppose the fact that I knew it had this amazing unexpected twist led me to speculate on what it might be a lot more than I would have done otherwise, because although I had no clue about the nature of the twist, I guessed it really early, so it didn't surprise me at all. When it happened, my initial assumption was that this couldn't be the twist, it was too obvious, so I continued to think there must be something else that was yet to come. It turned out this was not the case. I'm not going to say what the twist was, in order to avoid spoiling it for anyone else, but if you've heard anything about the story, or read anything that seems like it might be a bit of a spoiler, or started reading the book and think you might have got to it already, then - to avoid further disappointment - you should know THAT twist is THE twist. There isn't anything else.
It's difficult to say much else without revealing the infamous twist, but this is basically a sprawling, gothic Victorian-era novel, spanning the whole lives of a brother and sister. James and Charlotte grow up on a country estate in Yorkshire; James goes on to Oxford, and then to London, where he becomes a poet. Then he becomes entangled with the members of a sinister, secretive club, and the ramifications will affect both James and his sister for years to come.
I enjoyed the beginning and was really interested to see where the story would go, how the characters would change, from there. I loved the relationship between (view spoiler)[James and Christopher (hide spoiler)]: if we're talking about plot twists, that was my favourite. The development was very well handled, and it was the only thing in the book I felt emotionally invested in. I was gutted for James when (view spoiler)[Christopher was attacked (hide spoiler)], but after that - especially once it became clear that there was no way back - my interest waned. I didn't care much about the plot or any of the new characters that were introduced later in the book.
The combination of literary prose, an authentic Victorian gothic style and some kind of fantastical aspect has been done before, and done much better, in books like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters and The Historian. Although The Quick is well-written, the plot doesn't have enough substance to sustain itself over more than 500 pages. I enjoyed the last few chapters, I liked the way everything was wrapped up at the end, but that was too little, too late; the middle section felt like a dull, neverending slog. I would love to have been truly shocked by the twist and really able to enjoy the story, but I wasn't, on both counts. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It's with a heavy heart I have decided I am not going to finish reading this properly. I did, in fact, read more than halfway through before skimmingIt's with a heavy heart I have decided I am not going to finish reading this properly. I did, in fact, read more than halfway through before skimming the whole of the rest, right to the end, so really I could claim it as 'read' and give it a rating, but I'm not going to. I was looking forward to reading it so much, and am so disappointed I didn't like it.
Waters' last book, The Little Stranger, is one of my favourite books of all time, although the general consensus is that it is quite different from the rest of her work, and many readers think it is her worst. I enjoyed Fingersmith, which was truly 'unputdownable' and very emotive, if also quite depressing. Affinity I found rather dreary (though not without its merits). Of these, I feel The Paying Guests has the most in common with Affinity. It is certainly dreary, and while beautifully written it is incredibly dull, so dull I would have given up much, much sooner had it been the work of an author I was unfamiliar with. The entirety of the first half was boring - mainly building up to a development that every reader will surely anticipate from the first page, so there is no suspense - but I slogged on through, only to be confronted with another twist/'incident' that was also dull and somewhat predictable.
I also didn't warm to Frances, the protagonist, at all. I found her a cold, hard character with few sympathetic qualities. At times, I felt I really disliked her, although I couldn't quite put my finger on why - she just seemed like quite an unpleasant person, to me. I found her pursuit of Lilian pushy and manipulative, and I couldn't stop thinking about how horrified I would have been by some of her actions and thoughts had she been a male character. With, for example, Faraday in The Little Stranger, this sort of thing didn't spoil the story because he isn't supposed to be likeable; you're supposed to think he's a creep, that's part of the plot. But I felt I was meant to like Frances, to want her to 'get her way', and I just didn't. I preferred Lilian and felt rather sorry for her, but she never seemed to be fleshed out properly and was only seen through Frances' eyes; Frances' mother was very peripheral; and Leonard was an obvious sleazeball. All in all, not a group of people whose fates I could bring myself to care about.
By the time I reached the halfway mark I had a resolute gut feeling that I wasn't going to like the book no matter what; it would have taken something miraculous to change my mind. It even made me question whether I would really like The Little Stranger that much if I re-read it now - maybe my tastes have changed so much I wouldn't? I have, after all, struggled to enjoy any historical fiction in recent times, and have frequently been disappointed with historical novels others have loved, such as the much-fêted debut The Miniaturist (which itself was compared to Waters).
I'm sorry, Karen. The ARC will be finding its way to someone who will appreciate it more than I did, I promise!...more
The first fantasy novel from Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki is a brilliantly entertaining retelling of Norse mythology. As the title suggests, it'sThe first fantasy novel from Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki is a brilliantly entertaining retelling of Norse mythology. As the title suggests, it's all seen through the eyes of the god of mischief, Loki, who relates his own version of events in a wonderfully unpredictable, unreliable and humorous voice. It's part 21st-century update - Loki's narration is very modern - and part faithful reconstruction - the book presents the world of these myths as it was originally told, and as a very real experience, or at least as real as Loki wants you to think it is.
First things first: I'm not going to pretend that my reasons for reading this book and my reasons for loving it have nothing to do with the Marvel Avengers films. Or that I wasn't reading the whole thing in Tom Hiddleston's voice. Yes, I am pretty enamoured with the character of Loki (I'm not quite of the obsessed Tumblr-fangirl variety yet, but I do own a Loki figurine... or two...) and that undoubtedly helped. Still, I'm sure the same will apply to a lot of the potential audience for this book, and this alone is not what makes it good, it's just an added bonus.
I only had the vaguest familiarity with these myths before I started the book, and it's a perfect introduction for the uninitiated. Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge of the source material means I can't assess how faithful it is to the original stories, but it feels fresh, interesting and even relatable while packing a lot of fantastical detail into the narrative. Loki's mischievous personality and sense of humour are useful tools for explaining away some of the more out-there elements of the plot... like the fact that he gives birth to an eight-legged horse. (Sometimes the stuff that happens in the Nine Worlds makes Adventure Time look like an episode of Springwatch.) (I bet that scene won't be featuring in Avengers 2.)
I'd never read anything by Joanne Harris before, I think because I had viewed her oeuvre as somewhat cosy and slightly twee. I'm now reassessing this opinion and have found that I was very wrong: I'm particularly interested in checking out her debut novel The Evil Seed, described as a reworking of the classic vampire myth, and the recent collection of short stories A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String. Apart from being original, funny and engaging, The Gospel of Loki is also brilliantly written. It must have been so hard to write about these complex fantasy worlds with such a light and accessible tone, but Harris pulls it off without the end result seeming in any way flimsy.
I would recommend this not just to habitual readers of fantasy and/or to those who have a surreptitious crush on movie-Loki, but to everyone. It's a delight to read, enormous fun, and even makes you feel like you've learned something. To be honest, I'm crossing my fingers for a sequel....more
What happened? Can this really be the work of the same author responsible for the hugely enjoyable The Secrets Between Us and In Her Shadow? I have been unwell over the past week and wanted something to read that wouldn't ask much of me, or take a great deal of concentration to understand. I considered and rejected several 'light' books before I came to this, which I'd been saving for a rainy day, or at least some day closer to its 14th August publication date. Unfortunately, it was disappointing, and lacked the qualities that made the aforementioned Louise Douglas books so fun to read.
Your Beautiful Lies is set in a South Yorkshire mining town in the 1980s. The story is about Annie Howarth, the young wife of the local Chief Superintendent, who at first glance seems reasonably happy: living in a grand, beautiful house named Everwell, she is a doting mother to seven-year-old Elizabeth and is one of the lucky few to enjoy a calm, safe existence in the midst of the miners' strike. But when her ex-boyfriend Tom is released from prison, after serving ten years for a manslaughter he still insists he was framed for, long-buried passions are stirred up. As Annie and Tom begin a risky relationship, a young woman with a striking resemblance to Annie is found murdered on the moors near to Everwell and it seems that Annie is playing an increasingly dangerous game.
This novel is markedly different in tone to the others I've read by Douglas. By a third of the way in I felt it was dragging me into a dreary, dispiriting world I didn't want to be a part of. Annie's life is so terribly repetitive it's boring to read about. She gets up, gets dressed, cares for her daughter and elderly mother-in-law, visits her parents, and cooks dinner, which is almost always described in minute detail. Perhaps all of this is intentional - to highlight how hard life was for the residents of a mining town at this point in history, to emphasise the dullness of Annie's life before the return of Tom - but either way, it was a hard slog to get through and made me feel trapped in a very limited world. I kept waiting for something to happen; I kept waiting until something would make me really care about Annie and Tom. I am certainly not opposed to reading stories about 'cheating', or more specifically about women being unfaithful - on the contrary, I often really enjoy reading such stories. And I did find Annie's mother's moralising about her behaviour very irritating. But I just couldn't summon up any sympathy for Annie - she knew what she was doing and that a child was involved from the beginning, and she was hardly discreet about her assignations. How can she have been surprised that anyone figured out what she was doing when she hardly bothered to cover it up?
Certain omissions annoyed me: why does Annie never ask Tom what was going on with Selina? Her jealousy just evaporates into thin air and is never mentioned again. The 'Yorkshire'-ness of the characters - everyone's eating parkin and saying 'mithered' and taking their whippets for a walk, probably while wearing a flat cap - feels belaboured. And I thought it was bizarre that the reader was expected to believe Annie and Tom had never slept together, not once in a six-year relationship, for no apparent reason other than fear of pregnancy. Tom was 22 when he went to prison, and Annie presumably a similar age since it's mentioned they 'grew up together'; this all took place in the mid-1970s and neither character is portrayed as particularly religious. Seriously, six years and nothing? I just cannot imagine a deeply-in-love couple in their late teens/early twenties having the self-restraint to manage this unless there was a specific reason for it, such as religious beliefs or one of them having a serious aversion to sex (and it is strongly implied that this was very much not the case). It's a minor point, I guess, but it struck me as very odd.
And then the ending!! Without giving away what happens, it is quite shocking, but more shocking than what actually happens is that the book just suddenly ends; there is no real conclusion, only a very perfunctory deus-ex-machina-ish explanation of the murder, and many questions remain unanswered. The nature of the ending also suggests that the characters are getting some kind of comeuppance for their behaviour and that there is no guarantee of further happiness. I really don't know whether to think this ending makes the book better or worse. On the one hand, to take something that readers will expect to be a light, even chick-lit-like, romantic mystery and make it into something dark and depressing with a shocking, pitch-black ending and no real resolution - that is a bold move. Looked at in that light, it almost seems like an experimental piece of work. I feel like the author deserves some respect for this when she surely could have easily written something more similar to her other books. But on the other hand, does doing this make it a good book? Sadly, I don't think so. The quality of the writing doesn't match the darkness of the story, and it doesn't make for a satisfying whole.
Louise Douglas has written some great light reads which I have truly relished reading, but I'm sorry to say this can't be counted among them. I give the author credit for deviating from her usual template, but for me, Your Beautiful Lies wasn't a success, and I'm not sure who I would recommend it to. ...more
Over the course of just three books, Essie Fox has established herself as an author I am keen to follow and can rely on to produce atmospheric, compelOver the course of just three books, Essie Fox has established herself as an author I am keen to follow and can rely on to produce atmospheric, compelling historical fiction. The Goddess and the Thief, which boasts a particularly gorgeous cover, follows a similar template to The Somnambulist and Elijah's Mermaid: inspired by Victorian gothic and aspiring to Sarah Waters levels of torment and unpredictability, it involves an orphan girl who is uprooted from her home and forced to live with an unwelcoming relative in London. Alice Willoughby, raised in India, resigns herself to a life aiding the parlour tricks of her aunt Mercy, a spiritualist medium, until a louche, scheming character by the name of Lucian Tilsbury enters their lives. Drawn back repeatedly to reminders of her upbringing in India - Hindu icons frequently feature in the narrative - Alice finds herself irrevocably bound to Tilsbury, and becomes part of a plot to steal the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Queen.
This novel started wonderfully: in the first few chapters, the narrative paints a picture of India that is vivid, evocative and hugely beguiling. I was engaged by the story, which has as many twists, turns and dead ends as you'd expect, but I have to admit that at times Alice really got on my nerves. I know it was meant to be part of her character, but she was often a bit too hysterical to be likeable, as well as unbelievably naive, and her fickle switching on and off affection for certain male characters was taken to extremes I found almost comical. There were occasions when I rather felt that I agreed with Mercy about her, instead of sympathising with Alice herself. Another problem was that I found the Queen Victoria scenes unrealistic - nobody seemed to behave with the reverence and decorum I would have expected, instead taking it all in their stride, which didn't ring true.
I enjoyed Elijah's Mermaid a lot more than The Somnambulist, and I hoped The Goddess and the Thief would be another improvement, but I'm afraid I found it all rather dreary and was getting bored towards the end. I was disappointed that Fox chose to set so much of the story in London rather than having Alice return to India, since the beginning, which focused on this location, was so strong. Fox is a talented historical novelist and her work touches on a great number of interesting themes: in this book, the relationship between the British Empire and India is explored in a manner that seems believable but is also sensitive to the racial and cultural issues involved. However, without a more sympathetic protagonist and/or more inspiring plot, I struggled to connect properly with the story. I'm still interested in Fox's writing, but this, sadly, wasn't her best....more
'Of course with ghost hunting anything can happen and mostly never does.'
I bought The Ghost Hunters impulsively in a supermarket at Halloween last yea'Of course with ghost hunting anything can happen and mostly never does.'
I bought The Ghost Hunters impulsively in a supermarket at Halloween last year. I found reading it a nostalgic experience, not because the book itself reminded me of something else, but because it brought back memories of a time when I chose what to read very differently - with no planning, no goals in mind, just buying whatever was cheap and looked vaguely interesting, usually from the paperback chart in a supermarket or WH Smith's half price book of the week, and then reading it on my lunch at work or while waiting somewhere in my car. Like most of the books I chose and read in that way, The Ghost Hunters was very readable, fun and entertaining, if not exactly exceptional.
The plot is based on a true story, that of Borley Rectory, the alleged 'most haunted house in England', and its investigation by paranormal researcher Harry Price. Complete with academic-style, apparently factual footnotes, it's obviously been painstakingly well-researched, to the point that most of it might read like non-fiction were the story not told from the viewpoint of a fictional character - Price's secretary and research assistant, Sarah Grey. Grey's account makes up the majority of the book, and it is framed by the tale of a psychologist who, in the 1970s, has discovered it in Price's decaying library of oddities.
The researchers' study of Borley takes up a great chunk of the narrative, and at more than 500 pages the book is substantial, but Sarah's narration zips along and I never felt bored. She's a likeable, sympathetic character who makes the long and complicated history of Borley a pleasure to read about. Her relationships with both Price and her mother are shaped well and become, after a while, quite emotionally powerful. There is a somewhat contrived twist at the end, but that's the sort of thing I like about books like this: I really didn't mind that it was contrived.
While The Ghost Hunters didn't take my breath away and is unlikely to stick in my memory for very long, it's been a while since I've read something that was so purely enjoyable - involving without feeling like it was making any demands on me. A good book to round off the year....more
A naive young doctor, James Richards, is offered an intriguing position as the head of a mental hospital in the Suffolk countryside. With no ties in London, and eager to impress his charismatic psychiatrist boss, he wastes no time in setting off for the isolated location of his new job. His duties include overseeing the 'sleep room', the site of a controversial and unusual form of therapy, in which six schizophrenic patients - all young women - are kept in a state of permanent sleep for months on end. At first, James is happy to be at Wyldehope Hall, particularly when he begins to develop a relationship with a beautiful nurse named Jane Turner. However, when inexplicable events begin to occur - mysterious sounds, shadowy figures, missing objects appearing where they shouldn't be, and a young trainee being so terrified of overseeing the sleep room that she takes to constantly clutching a prayer book - he is forced to conclude that there is something unnatural about the place. But do these incidents have a supernatural explanation, or is the truth something even more sinister?
I found The Sleep Room on NetGalley, where it was listed ahead of its US release on October the 1st. It wasn't until later that I discovered the book had already been published in the UK, back in July, and had passed me by - probably because the UK cover is absolutely bloody awful and I'd never have picked it up if I'd seen that first. This is an unusual case of the US cover being a much better design, and a much better fit for the book, than the UK version.
For the majority of this book, I found myself enjoying the story but thought there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about it, nothing I hadn't encountered before in other, similar historical ghost stories. For example, though I liked the characters of both James and Jane, I didn't really care about the details of their romance and spent a while wondering what this was supposed to be adding to the story. Then, however, it quite suddenly threw three surprises at me which changed my perception of it significantly. Firstly, there is a brilliantly executed, seriously effective scene which takes place during a power cut. It makes sense, which is quite a difficult thing to achieve when the characters involved are experiencing such confusion, but leaves the reader with a genuine sense of unease; after reading it, I found myself jumping at shadows more frequently than I'd like. (The fact that it was never properly explained just added to the creepiness!) Secondly, there is a moment of true, vivid horror which properly shocked me. And thirdly, the ending, which comes out of nowhere and is a complete, yet entirely plausible, surprise. I don't want to say anything about what happens, because to do so would spoil everything for any prospective readers... But I loved it.
Overall, this was a truly haunting ghost story topped off with a twist that exceeded my expectations, and I'm surprised, given my love of the genre, that I haven't heard of the author before. The earlier part of the book is fairly slow-moving, but stick with it and you will be rewarded. I will be keeping an eye out for other books by Tallis, even if the covers are terrible. ...more
Gretel and the Dark is a very hard book to review. Perhaps even impossible, because the entirety of the review I was going to write was wiped out whenGretel and the Dark is a very hard book to review. Perhaps even impossible, because the entirety of the review I was going to write was wiped out when I came to the ending, which turned most of what I thought this story was completely upside down. As a result, I can't write, for example, about some of the reservations I had about the characterisation, because those reservations are invalidated by the ending; but if I explain how then I will ruin the final twist, which is crucial to enjoying the book, and is difficult (again, maybe even impossible) to guess.
I suppose it's pretty safe for me to explain what is covered in the blurb. Setting the tone for the rest of the narrative, the novel opens with a fairytale-like prologue in which two children run through a forest, dragging a 'Shadow' with them, escaping an unnamed monster, and telling each other stories. What seems to be the real story then begins, with Josef Breuer - a renowned psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud - encountering a very unusual patient: a young woman who the modern reader can instantly recognise as an escapee from a WWII concentration camp. However, this section of the book takes place in Vienna in 1899, and the girl, named Lilie by Breuer, claims she is not even human, but instead a machine. The chapters following the mystery of Lilie, as Josef and his servant Benjamin compete to establish her real identity, are punctuated by chapters set some years later. Here, a badly behaved little girl called Krysta moves to a new town with her widowed father, a doctor. While he works in what she thinks is a hospital, Krysta does her best to upset and reject all his staff and suitors, but she doesn't realise her actions are leading her towards a terrible fate, one exacerbated when she becomes friends with one of the 'animal-people' who live in the 'hospital', a boy called Daniel.
After that, it all becomes difficult to talk about without spoiling everything. Seriously, don't read anything beneath the spoiler cut unless you a) have already read the book or b) have no plans to read it ever.
(view spoiler)[I really thought this was going to be a time-travel story, that somehow Krysta would find a portal to the past. Instead, it turns out that the Lilie narrative is a story she tells Daniel as they flee from the camp, which is related repeatedly throughout their lives, as they marry after their escape. That sounds feeble written down, a bit too 'it was all a dream', but on the page, it works: it's a true surprise. It also meant that most of the issues I had with the characters and plot - for example, that I found Josef and Benjamin's obsessive desire for Lilie ridiculous and over-the-top; that none of the characters were likeable, and even Lilie, the 'victim', was immature and annoying (in fact, I sympathised with the bad-tempered, envious housekeeper the most!); that it was impossible to believe Lilie would be considered so beautiful when she was quite literally a starving refugee from a concentration camp - were instantly rendered invalid.
I guess if I still had a criticism to make after knowing the twist, it would be that Krysta's story is perhaps too intricate and odd to be plausible as a story told by a child. As a counter-argument to that, I'm guessing the version related here is supposed to be an embellished version from later in her life, especially given that the emotional and sexual aspects are very adult in nature. On a related note, I found it limiting that I never knew how old Krysta was supposed to be - I saw her and Daniel as little children, and couldn't reconcile this with the adult Lilie in the other story. I'm also unsure I believe Krysta and Daniel would keep telling this story rather than the true tale of how they met and escaped the camp, but as I enjoyed the book that's something I'm prepared to overlook. (hide spoiler)]
I really admired the complexity of the characterisation - this would be the easiest story in the world to fill with clear-cut Good and Bad characters, but even the 'good guys' here are very obviously imperfect and sometimes corrupt. Krysta is a far from flawless heroine - even after terrible things happen to her she still behaves horribly and petulantly towards others, for example (view spoiler)[reacting with jealousy and viciousness when Daniel makes a new friend in the camp; and it's telling that in her own story, she makes herself an impossibly beautiful woman yet still acts like a selfish child (hide spoiler)] - and, in the Lilie narrative, Josef is a self-obsessed, arrogant misogynist, while Benjamin is a bit of a bumbling fool. I often found the characters hard to like, but the realistic nature of these portrayals acted as a good foil for the fairytale-inspired, dreamlike elements of the story.
Gretel and the Dark is the most surprising and moving WWII novel since The Book Thief, and I think a lot of readers are going to love it - even if it is a bit of a mindfuck (in a good way). It's the perfect balance of heartbreaking humanity with elements of apparent fantasy and the power of the imagination. A unique and very memorable read.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I read Beasts in about two hours on a hot day and felt like it could have been a dream, or a hallucination. A short, hazy, spellbinding story, it quitI read Beasts in about two hours on a hot day and felt like it could have been a dream, or a hallucination. A short, hazy, spellbinding story, it quite breathlessly races through a short period of time in the life of its young protagonist, Gillian, an undergraduate at Catamount College, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1975. Gillian is in love with her professor, Andre Harrow, and fascinated by his sculptress wife, Dorcas. She is obsessed with becoming part of the Harrows' lives and, jealously following rumours that they choose 'special' students to assist with their art, is drawn into their strange and intimate rituals. This is a very brief and highly taut novella which feels like it is meant to be read quickly and then re-read - something I think I'd need to do in order to effect a more in-depth analysis of the plot. It's all about atmosphere, with the weird, hypnotic effect of the Harrows leaping off the page and making you feel part of the narrative even though Gillian remains a somewhat remote character....more
A follow-up to Amor Towles' debut novel Rules of Civility, Eve in Hollywood contains six short stories focusing on the character of Eve, the secondaryA follow-up to Amor Towles' debut novel Rules of Civility, Eve in Hollywood contains six short stories focusing on the character of Eve, the secondary protagonist from the first book. Starting in the midst of Eve's journey from New York to Hollywood, it offers some explanation of where the character went and what she got up to during her absence from the 'stage' in Rules. Each story is told from the point of view of a new character who meets or in some way encounters Eve, with the final chapter taking up Eve's own viewpoint. With the same calm, assured narration of the original, this collection is a good, if very slight, read. I enjoyed these stories, but with an extract from Rules of Civility taking up more than a quarter of the book, it doesn't really feel substantial enough to be a standalone volume. Given that Towles' debut has been out for a while, I expected more from this - it feels more like the sort of thing that would come out before the publication of a full novel, as a sampler of the author's style. At the very least, I think it should be priced lower than it is (it's only £1.99, which is obviously cheap anyway, but I don't think it's worth any more than 99p). Worth a look if you enjoyed Rules, but don't get your hopes up too high for a proper sequel....more
At some point within the past couple of years, I've lost the passion I used to have for historical fiction. Looking back on the historical novels I've enjoyed in recent times, I can see that they all have some element of another genre or type of book I haven't yet got sick of - the ghost story, the unreliable narrator tale, something with just a sprinkling of fantasy. There was a time when I used to specifically seek out historical novels by contemporary authors, and would automatically be drawn to them over other genres, but somewhere along the way I started developing a preference for contemporary fiction, and I've now all but abandoned its historical counterpart. While there were numerous things I liked about The Miniaturist, I feel like it's a good example of the reasons for this shift in my tastes.
This has to be one of the most hyped debut novels I've ever read. Like Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing, which I also read and reviewed recently, The Miniaturist first started gathering buzz at the London Book Fair over a year ago. 11 publishers fought it out to get the rights to the novel, resulting in a six-figure deal for Burton in the UK alone, and more than 30 international deals for translation rights. I feel like I've been hearing about it forever; I've been reading rapturous reviews of advance copies since the beginning of this year. The description of the book that's been bandied about online since it was first announced is very enticing: it's 'a feminist golden-age fiction'; ' a sensational feat of storytelling for fans of Sarah Waters and Donna Tartt'. Additionally, Jessie Burton has a really interesting website on which she shares the story of her journey to getting The Miniaturist published and edited, as well as a lot of her research and input into things like the cover design - it's obvious the book has been a real labour of love. But what about the actual story itself?
Set in the late 17th century, this is the tale of Nella Brandt, née Oortman, who at the age of 18 is married off to a rich businessman and arrives in Amsterdam, where she is to live with her new husband - a stranger to her. Her new life is not what she expected. Her husband, Johannes, is rarely at home and seems uninterested in spending time with her, much less visiting her bed. The Brandt household is effectively ruled by his cold and intimidating sister, Marin, who Nella clashes with. And while the Brandts are affluent, the family's business dealings are being dragged down by a complicated, expensive negotiation over a warehouse full of sugar. In the midst of Nella's loneliness, confusion and disappointment, she is presented with an unusual wedding gift: a large dolls' house which is a perfect recreation of the Brandt house. Casting around for something to do (and a way to spend Johannes' money, and spite Marin), she engages a 'miniaturist' to create some figurines for the house. When they arrive, they are beautifully detailed, uncannily accurate, and perfect. But then the miniaturist starts sending more figures, ones Nella hasn't asked for, and she first thinks they are meant as a cruel joke, before becoming afraid that they are predicting the future, and that the mysterious, elusive miniaturist knows more about the Brandts than Nella herself.
In many ways, Nella is a typical heroine for a historical novel like this. Young, naive and inexperienced, she enters into a city and a household bigger and more frightening than anything she has known before. She is confounded by the behaviour of a husband she barely knows, and by an austere older woman who has dominion over the house. Yet she is also independent, smart and liberally minded - implausibly so, really, but of course she must be in order for the 21st-century reader to relate. The characterisation is skilful, and the people in this story are certainly believable, but at the same time I still felt they were basically stock characters, drawn from a template; just fleshed out more effectively than they sometimes are in less accomplished books. The plot unfolds in typically dramatic fashion, with several unexpected twists, a shocking death, illicit relationships and so on. Despite the title, this is less an examination of the mystery of the miniaturist (which is genuinely very intriguing, with well-handled tension) than a family/romantic drama. It's predictable in its unpredictability, which is not the author's fault; I just feel, personally, like I've read this sort of thing many times before. As with Elizabeth is Missing, I was primed for something remarkable and had to settle for something that was merely good.
The Miniaturist reminded me a lot of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. While the latter book is extremely different in terms of theme and setting, I felt the same about both in that they are conventional tales with mass-market appeal dressed up in period costume, garlanded with literary flourishes and highbrow praise. In my review, I described Burial Rites as 'almost soapy', a description that could also be applied to this book. With both books, I found the speech, thoughts and sometimes the behaviour of the characters, and some parts of the narrative itself, to be too modern. For example, I found the reveal about Johannes far too obvious and graphic in the context of a story set in the 17th century, and I'm sure there's a more subtle and effective way this could have been done, particularly since it had already been heavily hinted at. Because something like this would never have been detailed in a story of this time, its presence (for me anyway) distorted the credibility of the whole piece.
Oh, and every time Otto got called 'Toot' I cringed so much. I can appreciate that the continued use of the nickname was supposed to show how Otto was accepted as a member of the family, and maybe it's just because I really don't like that word, but I found it far more patronising than endearing. I guess that could be deliberate - this is the 17th century, these characters can't be that enlightened... - but as the reader was obviously supposed to feel affection towards Otto, that would make for a slightly confusing message. I'm tempted to nitpick at some other details (the figurines are described as very small - the sugar loaf Agnes holds is 'no longer than an ant' - but Nella can clearly see the Jack doll on the doorstep from her bedroom window?) but this review already sounds far too negative about a book I really quite enjoyed. I suppose I'm using it as a bit of a punching bag for my issues with modern historical fiction in general.
Despite the fact that The Miniaturist has clearly been researched thoroughly and is well-written, I found it altogether too light a confection to be a truly satisfying read. It doesn't have anything like the scope of any book by Waters or Tartt, so those comparisons seem misplaced. I feel like Burton is a hugely talented writer but that this book just wasn't right for me. I found the rich description to be a highlight - I can still see the book's version of Amsterdam perfectly in my mind's eye - and I'd like to read something by Burton with a contemporary setting, something that transfers her ability to evoke atmosphere and character to a less melodramatic story. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the author's future work, but this debut wasn't what I'd hoped....more
Marina is the last of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's existing books to be translated into English, following the first three books of the Barcelona quartet (for adult readers), and the Niebla trilogy (for teenagers). Published in Spanish in 1999 - two years before the worldwide bestseller The Shadow of the Wind - it is the final young adult novel written by the author, and its transitional nature is evident in the style. It reads as a lot more 'grown-up' than the Niebla books, but the protagonist is a teenage boy and in many ways this feels like a young adult fantasy story, albeit one written with the deliberate intent to appeal to a wider audience.
Set primarily in between 1979 and 1980 - although it feels as though it could be a lot earlier - Marina is written from the point of view of Oscar Drai, a fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil in Barcelona. Lonely and bored, Oscar wanders into the garden of what he assumes to be an abandoned house and meets the beautiful, ethereal Marina, a girl of his age who is home-schooled, and her artist father Germán. Oscar is quickly drawn into a friendship with this eccentric, fascinating family (as well as having a burgeoning crush on Marina), but the real intrigue begins when Marina takes him to a nearby graveyard, where the pair watch a veiled woman place a single rose on an unmarked grave. Pursuing the mystery of this act leads the two friends into an unimaginably complex and macabre adventure in Barcelona's underworld.
This is a classic Ruiz Zafón book in that it has so much going for it, so much to be fascinated by, yet never quite makes good on that promise, and - however much you might want it to be - just isn't as good as it should be with all the brilliant ingredients that have been thrown into it. More than any of his others, this particular book seems to highlight very clearly what is both good and bad about the author's writing.
The good: - Such rich, descriptive prose: often verging on over-the-top, flowery language, but incredibly enjoyable to lose yourself in, and lacking the awkwardness of much translated fiction. - A constant gothic undercurrent of madness, darkness and twisted imagination. - Atmospheric and incredibly evocative portrayal of Barcelona. - A magical, timeless quality which makes the story feel like it could be taking place in any time period.
The bad: - Poorly drawn, underdeveloped female characters who are all unrealistically flawless, fragile and virginal. - Confused action scenes that become incomprehensible in places. - The overall plot becomes so complicated and bogged down in different subplots and characters' stories that it's easy to lose track of what is actually supposed to be happening.
I did enjoy Marina - but, as usual, not as much as I wished I could. With its rich, ominous mixture of characters, places, dreadful misdeeds and weird stuff, it makes for a largely compelling read that doesn't feel compelling as a whole - I felt deflated when I reached the end, and cared little about any of the characters. It feels a bit churlish to complain about characters being two-dimensional in a novel that would be more suited to a reader half my age, but so much attention seems to have been paid to the descriptive details of the settings that the people it's all supposed to revolve around have been neglected. It's telling that the book is named for Marina yet, having read it, I have nothing whatsoever to say about that character. I wasn't sure about the fantasy element, either (again, this would probably be far more enjoyable and frightening to the hypothetical younger reader), and one thing that happened near the end was so ridiculously clichéd and terrible that I nearly lost my patience completely.
I was drawn to Marina by the same things that have made me read almost all of Ruiz Zafón's books, and I was disappointed by the exact same things that have disappointed me in the author's other work - a feeling that the whole thing is more about style than substance, and terrible female characters. It's bound to be a hit with die-hard fans of the author since it offers so many similarities with the rest of his books: admittedly, it's interesting to see many of the themes of his adult fiction emerging here, and it would probably make a good starting point for those unfamiliar with The Shadow of the Wind et al. I'm not wholly convinced that Marina lives up to the tagline on the cover which declares it to be 'a gothic tale for all ages', but it's a fun read, if a frustratingly imperfect one. ...more
What do you get if you mix Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw with a dash of Jane Eyre and a pinch of Dickens? The answer is This House is Haunted, a gWhat do you get if you mix Rebecca and The Turn of the Screw with a dash of Jane Eyre and a pinch of Dickens? The answer is This House is Haunted, a gloriously gothic confection revolving around - you'll never guess - a haunted house. This actually IS a haunted house too, not some metaphorical type of haunting, although there's also an element of humour to the proceedings, which serves to set this story apart from the many historical ghost stories it could be compared to.
In 1867, a young woman, Eliza Caine, is bereft after the death of her beloved father. With no other family, no friends to turn to and (she believes) no prospects of marriage, Eliza replies to an advertisement for a governess position at Gaudlin Hall, a grand country pile in Norfolk. When she arrives there, it quickly becomes apparent that something is very wrong: the locals are hostile, the children she's in charge of are left to fend for themselves, and nobody will tell her where their parents are. Worse still, a series of inexplicable incidents force her to the conclusion that there is a malevolent spirit present in the house. Unwilling to abandon the children, Eliza sets out to get to the bottom of the mystery and fear surrounding Gaudlin Hall, but to do so she must put her life at risk.
The book both pokes fun at and pays homage to the classics it references - I particularly liked the secrecy surrounding the Westerley family and how the village conspires to cover up the truth. At times the behaviour of the characters - Eliza's naivety in the face of extremely obvious indications that something supernatural is going on; the way everyone changes the subject whenever the topic of the children's parents comes up; Alfred Raisin's dismissal of the previous governesses' concerns, despite the fact that almost all of them ended up dead! - verges on parody, but not in a bad way. (I know this is a completely inappropriate comparison, but the village in this book reminded me a lot of the comedy film Hot Fuzz, a spoof of cop movies, which I watched recently. Sounds odd but there's the same sense that the story is joyfully sending up all the clichés habitually present in its source material in a very affectionate way.) Similarly, Eliza's character is both genuinely admirable (she constantly rails against the way women are sidelined by society) and parodic (her romantic daydreams about every attractive man she meets). It's obvious that the author's tongue was lodged firmly in his cheek when writing this book, and that sense of humour makes it all the more enjoyable to read.
The light touch to the narrative means that the predictable twists and silly bits - inevitable components of a ghost story - work well: if you know you're reading something that's not entirely serious, you're not likely to worry about how much you need to suspend your disbelief. At the same time, Eliza is likeable and believable enough that you do truly care what happens to her: the book is engaging, sometimes extremely creepy, and definitely has more substance to it than a mere pastiche. Speaking as a big fan of ghost stories, I really enjoyed This House is Haunted and if you share my passion for this type of book, you need to get it on your to-read list....more
Adèle Roux is a girl from a small French town who becomes captivated by a silent movie, starring the beautiful Terpsichore, and sets her heart on becoAdèle Roux is a girl from a small French town who becomes captivated by a silent movie, starring the beautiful Terpsichore, and sets her heart on becoming a star of the silver screen. It's 1913, and she sets off for Paris to make her name and her fortune: but things don't go quite to plan, and instead of succeeding at her first audition, she's packed off to work in the costume department. An escape is offered by handsome producer André Durand, but rather than making her a star (as Adèle hopes), he sets her up as his wife's personal assistant. Said wife turns out to be Terpsichore - real name Luce - and Adèle is soon installed in the Durands' sumptuous mansion, and unwittingly involved in their complicated relationship. Fifty years later, Adèle is telling her life story to a young journalist, Juliette, and it is obvious from the start that she did end up attaining some kind of notoriety, after all. As the two strands of the plot are brought together, the true consequences of Adèle's relationship with both Durands are made devastatingly clear.
From my holiday notebook: Incredibly entertaining and fast-moving tale set in the silent film industry in Paris, c. early 20th century. The narrative is split between past - a first-person story focused on budding movie star Adèle Roux - and 'present' - in 1967 Adèle tells a journalist about her entanglement with a glamorous couple, the Durands, and how this led to her involvement in a famous trial. I noticed a bit of repetition in the narrative (an odd amount of emphasis on thumbs - ?! - and a lot of 'mutinous looks') but this was probably just because I read it quickly. Great background to each part of the plot, it was all fleshed out just enough without getting bogged down in lots of characters' histories. The final twist was interesting but I honestly felt the story was good enough on its own that this wasn't needed. Also, my only real problem with the plot was that it was surely unrealistic that (view spoiler)[all that stuff about Paul and Camille would actually have been recorded (hide spoiler)]...? Don't know if I possibly missed something here but it struck me as odd.
Additional notes: Although I must confess this story hasn't lingered in my memory in much detail at all, I really enjoyed reading it. Fantastic characterisation and a lot of developments I didn't expect, and it evoked the setting and era brilliantly. I think I'd have to read it again to give the plot the detailed breakdown it probably deserves, but I remember enough to be certain I would recommend it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more