The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is one of six books due to be published in September to launch the PuHmm, this is probably a 2.5 rounded up to 3.
The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is one of six books due to be published in September to launch the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Piero Chiara was a prolific Italian author of novels, short stories and poetry, but most of his work has never been translated into English, and this is the first English version of I giovedì della signora Giulia, originally published in 1970. Having really enjoyed Vertigo earlier this month, I snapped up this as soon as it became available on Edelweiss (for those interested, this & some other Pushkin books are currently available for instant download, without any need to go through the request system).
The story is a fairly simple mystery, with a premise reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's short story 'No Motive'. A woman, the eponymous Giulia, disappears suddenly, and her husband, a lawyer, employs a private investigator named Sciancalepre to track her down. He digs into her background and, unsurprisingly, finds a few secrets, a possible affair, some mysterious letters. The plot unfolds over a number of years as Giulia stays missing and leads are frustratingly hard to come by - until someone is spotted creeping around the garden of her daughter's palazzo in the middle of the night. While the beginning was very intriguing, and I stayed interested - this is a short book with a brisk narrative - I couldn't shake the feeling that it was all far less captivating and exciting than such a story should be.
Then there were the mistakes and the many awkward, unrealistic moments. A glaring example of the former is the fact that Giulia's daughter is 'only just fifteen' when she goes missing, but at least 21 in the latter half of the book - despite it being repeatedly emphasised that three years have passed between Giulia's disappearance and that point in the story. Characters behave strangely and make odd exclamations throughout; generally, they lack depth, and don't feel real.
One of the few other reviews for this on Goodreads simply says nothing more than 'there is no ending' - which made me laugh because, while it might be blunt, it's very true. We don't find out whodunnit or if any of the suggested theories are correct. This wasn't the issue for me, though - ambiguous endings can be fantastic - the issue was that when I reached the last page, I didn't care anyway.
So yeah... I certainly wouldn't say I hated this, but it wasn't very good. Certainly not up to Vertigo standards, though I'm still interested in discovering further classic and lesser-known European mysteries through this imprint. ...more
Darkness at Noon is a dramatised version of real events, an obvious but unnamed simulacrum of Stalinist Russia, with Rubashov, formerly a senior membeDarkness at Noon is a dramatised version of real events, an obvious but unnamed simulacrum of Stalinist Russia, with Rubashov, formerly a senior member of the Party, suddenly arrested and imprisoned for invented crimes. Driven not by character or plot but by ideas, it depicts Rubashov's state of mind and thought process as his incarceration forces him to contemplate the part he has played in building a dictatorship, and his disillusionment with the political philosophy he has imposed on others. It's perhaps a weird thing to say about a book with such sombre themes, but it felt like such a relief to read something like this - it's such a powerful and intelligent novel, and it reminded me why 'classics' are worth reading.
I spent part of a sunny afternoon reading this in a cafe, and it was glorious. Think Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber as a comic book. The illustrI spent part of a sunny afternoon reading this in a cafe, and it was glorious. Think Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber as a comic book. The illustrations and colours are beautiful, the stories just the right level of creepy and ambiguous with the odd shock thrown in (THAT page in 'The Nesting Place').
There are five stories - bookended by an introduction and the bright, visually arresting Red Riding Hood-inspired 'In Conclusion' - and they each use slightly different storytelling methods and styles of illustration. 'Our Neighbour's House' has a traditional fairytale narrative and uses bold images in shades of black, white and red. 'A Lady's Hands are Cold' has a similar format, but adds more colour and gruesomeness to the illustrations. 'His Face All Red' is told in first person, and uses a natural, outdoorsy sort of colour palette, switching to darker colours and wordless panels for the scary moments. 'My Friend Janna' is first person again, but it tells a fuller story than the others, less a fairytale and more a novel in miniature. It mixes lots of different styles, colours, etc, pictures bleeding into one another, panels of Janna's notebook sketches and nonsensical poetry making up part of the story. Much of 'The Nesting Place', meanwhile, is told through dialogue. As indicated above, it also comes with a reveal that genuinely made me jump. It is, again, far more detailed and rounded than what has come before. The earlier, shorter stories are slightly weaker and more derivative; the last two are just brilliant, with all the power and magic of established classics.
Through the Woods was simply pure enjoyment, and so gorgeous. Highly recommended. (And for further reading, there are more comics on Carroll's website.)...more
I was so confused about the provenance of this edition of Vertigo at first. I had initially assumed it was a new translation, but it's actually (I thiI was so confused about the provenance of this edition of Vertigo at first. I had initially assumed it was a new translation, but it's actually (I think) a reissue to tie in with the launch of Pushkin's Vertigo imprint, dedicated to 'writers of the greatest thrillers and mysteries on earth from countries around the world'. (I really want to cut 'on earth' from that sentence) (and possibly 'countries') Adding to the confusion (which is perhaps very apt for this novel), I was half asleep when I read it. So I can't write anything much in the way of a review, but I did really enjoy this noirish mystery and tale of obsession; it's a quick read with a great ending. I'll certainly read more Boileau-Narcejac. ...more
Will I ever get tired of stories like this? I assume it'll happen one day, but... not yet. Wylding Hall is a very entertaining ghost story about a folWill I ever get tired of stories like this? I assume it'll happen one day, but... not yet. Wylding Hall is a very entertaining ghost story about a folk band who decamp to a crumbling, miles-from-anywhere country house (the only kind there is) to record their second album. The main action takes place in the 1970s, but the story is told by the (remaining) members of the band in the present day, each taking it in turns to relate mini-monologues as though they're being interviewed for a documentary or biography. Naturally, it turns out Wylding Hall is not quite what it seems, the locals have some odd customs and there's an ethereal, weirdly hypnotic girl hanging around. Everything here is well-trodden ground, but it works wonderfully and creates a totally absorbing effect. I loved the characters' voices and the uncanny details were pitch-perfect, just off-kilter enough to be believably unsettling - (view spoiler)['more than one row of teeth' gave me shivers! (hide spoiler)] It only took me a couple of hours to read and when I finished it I immediately wanted more of the same. Recommended to ghost story fans....more
An odd one, this. I went into it basically expecting chick-lit - albeit a slightly superior form of chick-lit, by virtue of it being translated from FAn odd one, this. I went into it basically expecting chick-lit - albeit a slightly superior form of chick-lit, by virtue of it being translated from French. However, it takes some rather grim turns, and the title - which I, at first, took as flippant and funny - ends up having a certain dark significance, especially if (as everything implies) the story is autobiographical.
It starts as the story of a female journalist, 'MS', becoming obsessed with a new colleague, 'XX', who she hires because of his looks and proceeds to pursue rather ruthlessly. The two have a fling, throughout which it's clear that XX's feelings for MS are far from equal to hers for him. Ultimately, he breaks it off, and MS is left in a distraught state, picking over the bones of their relationship by cataloguing 'evidence' such as emails, texts, letters, and photos of objects he left behind or mementoes of their dates (there are lots of lighters). This part of the book includes some very daft, implausible touches, such as MS writing letters to Facebook to determine whether XX can tell that she's constantly checking his profile.
But alongside this, the backstory of MS's family is told. At first comparatively dry, these chapters build to a disturbing revelation. This is surprising in the context of the light and silly earlier half of the novel, but it also makes some sense of MS's neediness and obsessive behaviour towards XX. However, the book is too slight to really examine it, and just comes to a stop soon after this point. The overall effect is an uneven work, with not one but two stories left feeling frustratingly unfinished. ...more
I've been a member of Goodreads since August 2007: almost seven years. Strangely, I still can't quite shake the sense of it being a relatively new addI've been a member of Goodreads since August 2007: almost seven years. Strangely, I still can't quite shake the sense of it being a relatively new addition to my internet life: it was, for me, pre-Twitter and Instagram, but post-LiveJournal and my large back catalogue of personal websites. It's also odd to look back on my early reviews, which now feel like they were written by a much more childlike version of myself, as if pulled from a teenage diary, even though I was already in my twenties when I joined the site. Anyway, during that time, I've written - according to the review count on my profile - 766 reviews. The number isn't quite accurate, as a significant portion of those are very brief notes; but even if half or two-thirds of them are a few sentences, that leaves hundreds of longer reviews.
I've recently started to feel that it's hard to write a truly original review, to avoid plagiarising myself or paraphrasing others. I've become more aware of phrases and words I use over and over again, and the more I use them, the more flimsy and insufficient they seem - but there are only so many synonyms available and only so many ways of rephrasing the same things. Some books jolt me out of this and make me say something different because they're so good (or so bad), but in among those are lots of books I enjoy in a generic, ordinary way, that I'm not really inclined to criticise but don't expect to stay with me after I turn the last page.
So Girl at War is another addition to a long list of books I really liked and yet don't have anything new to say about. It's good, and I think it might gain a kind of slow-burn popularity, might be nominated for a couple of awards and is the sort of thing that will be included in the Waterstones Book Club selections when it's published in paperback. But I doubt I will remember the story in detail.
Narrator Ana is ten years old when war breaks out in Yugoslavia. Her family is Croatian, and as the fighting continues, her life and relationships with those around her are altered further and further, at the same time as war is assimilated into her daily life - Ana continues to ride around the city of Zagreb with her best friend Luka; they play war games on the structures used to make roadblocks. Things become more serious for Ana's family when her baby sister, Rahela, develops a mysterious illness and must be taken across the border into Slovenia to receive treatment. Told in four parts, the story flips between this setting and Ana ten years later - a student living in New York. At the beginning of this second narrative, she is preparing to give a speech at the UN about her experiences and eventual flight from Croatia. Naturally, this dredges up painful memories, and she is ultimately compelled to go back to the country of her birth to confront the ghosts of her past.
Here are some unoriginal things I could say about Girl at War: - Ana is a fairly likeable and interesting character, but the narrative never gets into her head enough for her story to be truly emotive, despite the all the hardships she faces. - An element of romance is used cleverly... or is a cop-out (it gives the book's audience a romantic subplot to get emotionally attached to but never really resolves it and therefore avoids any risk of the story being defined as a romantic one). (view spoiler)[I really didn't see the point of Ana's boyfriend in New York; his character couldn't have been any more two-dimensional. He clearly only existed so there could be some vague will-they-won't-they tension when Ana met Luka again. (hide spoiler)] - The settings are done well, and bring Zagreb in particular to life. One of the strongest aspects of the settings is the way Nović highlights how alien Ana's way of life is when compared with what the reader is likely to have experienced, while frequently reminding us that these conflicts are not some distant, ancient memory but actually took place very recently. - The author also does a good job of showing how, in a country at war, the dangers and horrors of war are often incorporated into everyday life with greater ease than those who have never experienced it might imagine, especially by children. The downside of this is that the stakes often don't feel as high as they should. - It's a fast and easy read and has that feeling of being light but not trashy. - There's very little about this I didn't enjoy, but I'll be surprised if I remember any of it in a few months' time.
I enjoyed this, but I can't quite get it up for it in the same way that other readers apparently could. My Goodreads and Feedly feeds have been full of ecstaticallyenthusiasticresponses since it was published, and I have to say that while I agree it's good, I didn't find it powerful. Still very much recommended, though, even if only because it seems statistically likely you'll have a better time with it than I did. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Was ever a book more suited to a grey and drizzly Bank Holiday weekend? (Which it was, when I read it.) Steeped in religious symbolism and quintessentially British bleakness, The Loney is an odd, dreary sort of horror story - the tale of two boys, our nameless narrator and his mute brother, Andrew, known as Hanny. The Loney is a place - a desolate stretch of northern coast, and one of a number of deliberately evocative place names in this story, along with the village of Coldbarrow and the houses Thessaly and Moorings.
Day after day, the rain swept in off the sea in huge, vaporous curtains that licked Coldbarrow from view and then moved inland to drench the cattle fields. The beach turned to brown sludge and the dunes ruptured and sometimes crumbled altogether, so that the sea and the marsh water united in vast lakes, undulating with the carcasses of uprooted trees and bright red carrageen ripped from the sea bed.
The boys travel to the Loney as part of a sort of pilgrimage. They are led by a newly arrived priest, Father Bernard, appointed after the death of the previous incumbent, Father Wilfred. With them are the boys' parents, who they call 'Mummer and Farther'; Father Wilfred's brother and his wife, Mr and Mrs Belderboss; and the church housekeeper, Miss Bunce, and her fiancé, David. The religious aspect of the group's gathering is more than mere exposition: Mummer believes it is here that Hanny will be 'cured' of his mutism and learning difficulties, and it's the perceived power of faith and ritual - ultimately, the insufficiency of faith - that informs the plot's development and the real horror at the Loney's heart.
Originally published independently - by Tartarus Press - last year and now picked up by Hodder & Stoughton imprint John Murray (the new hardback is out in August), The Loney is gathering a buzz in the media and, inevitably, on Twitter. A piece on 'the ghost story's renaissance' in the Telegraph had this to say: 'Modern classics in this genre are rare, and instant ones even rarer; The Loney, however, looks as though it may be both.' The Loney isn't really a ghost story, but it has plenty of the genre's classic traits - such as the framing narrative, in which the narrator is looking back on this period of his youth, and occasionally mentions talking about the Loney with his therapist. There's a pinch of black magic and an inexplicable transformation, but much of the story concentrates on building atmosphere; constructing a nuanced portrait of the boys' really rather grim lives; realising the feverish, desperate sense of hope surrounding the group's presence at Moorings.
I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The most disturbing details don't appear to have much to do with anything supernatural: what to make of the heavily pregnant girl the brothers meet - the narrator initially estimates her age as thirteen or fourteen, and later states 'she seemed even younger than I'd first thought' - who says airily of the impending birth, 'it's nothing. I've done this before. It gets easier the more you have' - and is never seen again? The Telegraph piece compares Hurley's work to that of Robert Aickman, and it's easy to see the resemblance in the sheer dread Hurley evokes here, as well as the depiction (indeed, personification) of nature as savage and cruel. Also Aickmanesque is the deeply ambiguous ending, concluding the story with either a stroke of genius or a frustrating cop-out, depending on your interpretation. (I have to say that personally, I was a little disappointed.)
It's apt that the central family has the surname Smith: The Loney is like a Morrissey song made novel ('Everyday is Like Sunday' with shades of 'Yes, I Am Blind' and maybe a bit of 'November Spawned a Monster') and, with a depiction of a poor Catholic childhood central to the story, I was reminded of the earlier parts of his autobiography more than once. The story is set in the 1970s, and it's perfectly redolent of a time not so long ago, but almost unthinkable now, before technology transformed the possibility of any place seeming entirely unknowable. Of course, the inability to 'call for help' is a mainstay of horror stories, and isn't limited to those set before everyone had a mobile phone - but here, it's used particularly effectively to help portray an era, a way of life, a system of belief in its death throes. The Loney is at once acutely bleak and strangely beautiful:
A train rushed past, leaving a skirl of litter and dust, and then the rails returned to their bright humming. In the scrubland beyond, the swifts were darting over the tufts of grass and the hard baked soil with its beetroot-coloured weeds. We watched them turning on their hairpins deftly as bats.
I can certainly understand why The Loney might be labelled an instant classic. It's a seriously impressive first novel, and so successful at creating a setting that it's sure to linger in the memory....more
Following two men working in a rural, near-deserted South African hospital, Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor is an ambiguous story, in which nothing happens, and everything happens; a book of thick and palpable atmosphere. Frank Eloff is the long-established deputy director of the hospital, perpetually waiting for a step upwards to the top spot, a move that has been repeatedly promised, but never quite happens. At the beginning of the story, a new junior doctor, Laurence Waters, arrives - having apparently insisted upon this location, despite the fact that there are so few patients, the existing team find themselves with hardly anything to do. Laurence is everything Frank is not: endlessly upbeat, hopeful and incredibly, perhaps even wilfully, naive. But he also has a sinister streak, and when the two doctors are forced to share a room, Frank finds himself more and more distrustful of Laurence.
The plot also weaves in small stories that build up a picture of the surrounding area and its people. Built to serve the capital of a now-defunct homeland, the hospital is located amongst arid wasteland and an entirely deserted town. It's a setting Galgut exploits to full effect, creating a vivid image of an eerie, empty backdrop perfectly suited to the lost individuals who inhabit it - 'a strange twilight place', as Frank calls it. Secondary characters come into their own as representations of this place's limitations and its chequered history. There's Maria, a local married woman with whom Frank has had a long-running, erratic and distinctly odd affair; Tehogo, a hospital orderly who exerts an inexplicable power over the other staff; and 'the Brigadier', the self-styled former dictator of the homeland, who may or may not still be alive and exists as a shadowy presence on the fringes of both the town and the story.
The book opens with Frank's first impression of Laurence: 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' Later: 'I wanted to say, you're very young. I wanted to tell him, you won't last.' Yet lonely Frank finds himself unable to reject Laurence entirely - the newcomer is 'like two people', one an unwanted, clingy shadow, the other a much-needed confidant. There is always something vaguely disturbing about Laurence's presence, and always some suggestion he is not quite telling the whole truth about his own past; at other points, there are hints of an always-formless sexual tension between him and Frank. These various suggestions remain, for the most part, suggestions, and The Good Doctor never reaches the simmering pitch of a thriller. Despite that, it's an engrossing story that had me completely captivated from the first page onwards.
Who is 'the good doctor' of the title? It could be either Laurence, with his puppy-dog optimism, or Frank, who is far more down-to-earth, realistic and practical. But the book keeps the answer from us, highlighting the characters' faults - Laurence's damaging and possibly deliberate guilelessness and Frank's jaded, unhelpful cynicism - too clearly for either to be truly worthy of the name. There again, The Good Doctor is also, arguably, an allegory, with the protagonists' attitudes illustrating different approaches to the 'new' South Africa and the flaws within them. Frank is stuck in his ways and resists change, unless it benefits him. Laurence, on the other hand, wants to enable change, but goes about it in all the wrong ways, blindly doing what he thinks is right or useful rather than what is actually necessary or helpful to the impoverished community. Both men struggle to relate to their non-white colleagues, and in the end this will play a pivotal part in their respective failures. Near the end, Frank's boss Dr Ngema confronts him about his innate racism, but he resists, and thereafter the two are simply 'carefully nice to each other' - he still hasn't learned.
I loved the graceful voice and controlled tone of this spellbinding novel. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, it's lost none of its power and feels incredibly fresh. I can't fault it - undoubtedly the best book I've read this year so far....more
The Blue is Lucy Clarke's third novel, following The Sea Sisters (known by the more elegant title Swimming at Night in the US) and A Single Breath. The stories are not officially connected, but might be considered a loose trilogy: they each have the tone of a thriller, but with softer edges; a big focus on secrets (usually someone lying about their past); a bit of a love story somewhere in the background; but most prominently and memorably, they demonstrate a romantic attachment to the idea of wanderlust and to an impossibly picturesque ideal of travelling, with colourful, richly described locations featuring just as significantly in the story as the characters. Even A Single Breath, which wasn't explicitly about travelling per se, involved a journey to a far-flung place and a lot of scenic description.
While The Sea Sisters was about siblings and A Single Breath about a newly married couple, in The Blue, Clarke turns her attention to a friendship. The major relationship in this story is between Lana and her best (in fact, only) friend Kitty. They have known each other since the first year of high school, where Lana was the archetypal artistic misfit and Kitty her social lifeboat - the two of them bonded over the loss of their mothers at a young age. Flashbacks to various key points in this friendship are what anchor the story and give their characters some solidity.
Lana and Kitty - the former escaping from a murkily difficult relationship with her father, the latter from a failing acting career and nascent alcoholism - pool their savings, pick a location (the Philippines) at random, and set off travelling. This is more or less where the beginning of the story finds them: Lana falls in the street, a man stops to help, and then they meet his friends, the crew of a yacht named The Blue. The two women instantly fall in love with the group's romantic, semi-nomadic way of life - everyone pays what they can towards the upkeep of the yacht, and decisions are made democratically; their days are spent travelling around virtually undiscovered islands, swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing - and, in the quick and convenient way of events in books, they move into an empty cabin. But it's not long before it becomes evident that things aren't quite as idyllic as they seem aboard The Blue. With seven people living in close quarters on a cramped ship (and relationships between them ostensibly forbidden), tempers swiftly fray and cracks appear in Lana and Kitty's new 'perfect life'.
Naturally, all of this builds up to a death, which we know about from the flash-forward prologue: it depicts a body floating in the sea as a yacht (guess which one) is steered away, 'the truth... already drifting out of reach'. (Though as the ending proves, Lana and Kitty's falling-out, one's betrayal of the other, is treated as more significant, and is the real axis on which the story turns.) The travel element is more about observing the beauty of 'exotic' places, appreciating nature and being free from the shackles of ordinary life - dull jobs and emotional baggage - than it is about immersing oneself in a different culture or actually understanding another country, making it a perfect fit for the 'beach read' genre because, despite the glamour of the characters' adventure, it's really about tourism, not engagement. (As I said in a recent blog post, I wished I could teleport myself to a deserted beach to read it). And a romance inevitably develops, but it's handled well, doesn't happen instantly and is a believable progression for the characters involved - to the point that I even found myself feeling emotionally invested in the outcome of that particular subplot...
There's a handful of genre authors I regard as masters at what they do - F.G. Cottam for ghost stories; Erin Kelly for crime; Kate Morton for her particular (often emulated) brand of part-historical fiction/buried-secrets mystery. Lucy Clarke has now crept onto this list with her blend of travelogue, thriller and relationship drama. I don't expect to get any real surprises with her books - I know they will likely always be the same kind of thing, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable to me. Advance quotes about The Blue praise it as 'the ultimate holiday read', 'a perfect summer read', and they're exactly right - it's engrossing, the characters are interesting, the plot zips along, and its portrayal of an escape from the mundane, life at sea and island-hopping is vivid enough to serve as an armchair holiday, even if you don't have a deserted beach to accompany it. ...more
Maggie is in her fifties and lives alone, except for her dog, Buster. She's returning from a walking holiday when she catches the eye of a terrified girl in the airport toilets; the resulting sequence of events leads to her being lauded as a hero for rescuing the girl, Anja, from a trafficking ring. After she agrees to a meeting, Maggie finds Anja insinuating herself into her life and her home.
You might think you know where this is going: a lonely woman, starved of company; an unreliable first-person narrative; a charming, manipulative stranger who seems like the victim until it's too late. And in some ways, this story does bear the hallmarks of its antecedents - In My House is reminiscent of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal and Harriet Lane's books. However, it surprised me - and exceeded my expectations - by transforming into an elegant and thoughtful character study, with a subtle undercurrent of tension, going beyond a resurrection of character stereotypes already done perfectly in other books. In the end, I felt it more closely resembled Samantha Harvey's underrated Dear Thief.
Maggie is not one of those fictional women whose loneliness is fuel for jealousy and avarice, despite the impression that's knowingly created by the opening scenes of her holidaying alone and returning to an empty house. She's neither alone nor lonely - there's a tight-knit group of friends and, it turns out, a daughter. It's clear Maggie has something to hide, clear her budding relationship with Anja has some greater significance, but the natures of these things are evasive. Her reasons for buying every newspaper, scouring them for mentions of Anja's escape and her own involvement, are unclear at first - it's not immediately evident whether she is simply obsessed by her own small representation in the media or afraid that the attention may bring something else to light. Later, she's horrified by the idea of photographs of her being tagged on Facebook. One might be drawn back to her early statement that she was 'never one for photos'. Why would she not want to be spotted by a member of her own family, as seems to be the case when she journeys to Brighton with Anja? What sense can any of this make when she is content to socialise with her friends and holiday with groups of strangers? Maggie's relationship with her daughter is another mystery - it is clearly strained, but they are not estranged from one another; so surely (we think) nothing that bad can have happened? These details keep you glued to the book and yet seem to preclude any major revelations, which I found refreshing. In My House deals not with extravagant twists, but a slow drip-feed of information.
One of the triumphs of In My House is Maggie's narration: in every aspect, it reflects the character. Ordinary, but a cut above banal; restrained, but a little romantic; plain language with an edge. Here she is describing a walk in the park:
A group of uniformed children waited at the entrance, their cries like birds. Clouds rushed us, and the wind picked up a handful of crisped leaves and threw them at the dogs. The beginnings of autumn, though we were not there yet.
Recalling the response to a poem recital in her teenage years:
An eddy of applause and then a sharp throaty sound from a single spiteful girl. A silence began, a contagious sort of silence; a ripple of embarrassment that spread like blown sand, in shuffle and glare.
Remembering her mother:
Hands gripping her skirts, eyes on fire, transported. She was articulate in her fury; a glamour to her - her only glamour. Never more compelling than in the arms of a rage.
Her ablutions end with 'the bath blood cool, water sheeting off me'. Buses emit 'long queeny gasps'. Cautiously elegant, self-consciously refined, with something clipped, measured, and restrained about it - Maggie's voice elevates her above those around her, and yet occasionally shows her up as more judgemental than she'd like anyone to believe. Another strength of Hourston's style is the dialogue - 'And Jan? She. They got on?' 'Sorry. I've just got to. Sorry. You go' - with its halting, authentic rendering of speech.
There are no plainly disturbing moments here, more odd turns of phrase and small motifs that make themselves known by repetition. Maggie's references to Anja evoke the language of lovers as often as they do a mother-daughter sort of relationship. The two of them simultaneously saying the same thing 'turned my mind to lovers, and perhaps hers too'; after Anja sleeps at Maggie's house, they sense the aftermath of 'some sexless one-night stand'. But Maggie often wants to either protect Anja or tell her off, baffled at her hallmarks of youth - texting, revealing clothes, a bad tattoo. By placing Maggie's attitude towards Anja partway between motherly and covetous, Hourston makes their relationship all the more disconcerting. There's a scene in which Maggie brushes Anja's hair that was like nails down a blackboard for me, such was the pitch of its weird, familial/carnal vibe. Maggie refers continually to memories of her own mother in this scene, but it is also the culmination of any sexual charge in the book.
This was so nearly a 10/10 book. (When I got to the middle, I was so rapt that I really considered going back to the beginning and read it over again, more carefully - but in the end, my need to know what happened next won out instead.) I loved Maggie's character and the economical unfurling of the truth. My rating was dragged down slightly by a bit of unevenness and some details I didn't feel were resolved satisfactorily - (view spoiler)[Maggie still having Bella's birth certificate; no explanation of how on earth Maggie was ever able to afford to buy a house in central London (hide spoiler)] - and I would have preferred certain things about Maggie's background to be a little less predictable.
When Maggie says: 'it's hard, this business of being with others', she might be summing up the whole story. In My House is a book about the difficulties inherent in relating to other people, the conflict between different types of feelings and motivations, the instability of family relationships: alongside Maggie's story about getting to know Anja, there runs the tale of her own past, providing a mostly fascinating contrast to her present-day life. When a line from Anja near the end throws Maggie's whole account into question, it almost seems like an aside - Maggie's possible unreliability has become secondary to the specifics and the small observations of her story, her life. She's a character who will stay with me for a long time. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I don't normally read the whole of these publishers' samplers; I get them so I can pull out a list of titles, look them up, decide whether or not I'm interested. This one, though, being adult debut fiction coming soon from Penguin Random House, seemed like a better bet than most. As an experiment, I decided to do the opposite of my usual strategy, and read the extracts first, then look up the details of the books. Here are the results...
The Silver Swan by Elena Delbanco Skimmed over this. I guessed it was one of those books that contrasts a historical plotline with a modern-day one, possibly revolving around the same family or something, but it appears it's a contemporary novel with music as the main theme. Seems to have that kind of 'elegant' but completely pallid prose that has pretensions towards literary fiction without quite getting there, and just doesn't engage me at all. I'm probably being totally unfair; this just isn't something I would have looked at under any other circumstances.
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato This extract has catapulted The Ghost Network, which was already vaguely on my radar, into my top five most anticipated books of the year. I stayed up late just to finish it, even though I knew I wouldn't be able to read the rest of the book. Written as if it's non-fiction (with the author describing herself as a mere 'editor' of an existing manuscript) in a faux-academic style, it's the story of two missing women: an internationally famous pop star, and a superfan who tried to find out what happened to her. Just a few pages is all it takes to be hooked. If you loved Marisha Pessl's Night Film as much as I did (though that may not actually be possible), you'll want to get this on your wishlist STAT.
House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy Immediately had the feel of a horror novel. An intriguing prologue, with the main character making a gory discovery amongst some ruins near his new home. Some clichéd (but nevertheless very fun) elements typical of horror - the big old ramshackle house with a creepy history, the middle-of-nowhere location, and very obviously portentous imagery - are dragged down by irritating stock characters (the author self-insert protagonist, the impossibly perfect wife, the annoying kid) who I now see are described in the blurb as 'achingly sympathetic'. Haha... no. By the end of the extract I'd been thoroughly put off any notion of seeking this out.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum Skipped this because I already have the book and I don't want to spoil any of the story before I start it properly. Watch this space!
Muse by Jonathan Galassi Now this I think will definitely be categorised as literary fiction. It's set in a publishing house in New York, with a somewhat bland (at least in this opening chapter) protagonist, and has a slightly disconcerting and quickly exhausting, though not entirely unlikeable, style with endless diversions into little stories about various characters. And there are lots of them: this short extract alone introduces a seemingly endless parade of bit players in a society drama with a literary theme. Now I've looked into the book, I know that the author is a poet, which fits with the tricksy style. The plot sounds intriguing, but I think the quirky humour might get a bit wearing.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins Definitely a fantasy. Very... fantasy-ish... fantasy. Reminded me a little of Lev Grossman's Magicians books with its juxtaposition of contemporary language, humour and recognisable motifs with situations straight out of a high fantasy epic. 100% definitely not for me, although according to Karen's review it does get better, so perhaps the first few chapters aren't the best part to pull out as a sample.
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson Family saga? Set in Barbados. Quite a short extract anyway compared to some of the others, but while I didn't particularly dislike it, nothing about this engaged me.
Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman Another book already on my radar and tentatively on my wishlist. It's a campus novel about tangled friendships, an ill-advised affair and, ultimately, a murder, although it opens ten years after that murder, with one of the students who was involved - now a mother with a terminally ill husband - being visited by a journalist looking to find out more about the old case. While I'm not wild about the way it's written (it's a bit pedestrian), and it didn't get me madly excited about the book like the Ghost Network extract did, there's enough here to make Bradstreet Gate an intriguing prospect and one I'll be keeping an eye out for when it's published.
Freedom's Child by Jax Miller The first line is 'My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter', so it's safe to assume this is a thriller. The book's blurb is full of praise from the likes of Lee Child and Karin Slaughter, which gives you an idea of the target audience. However, despite the gung-ho super-American style and a heroine who's the embodiment of a 'tough female character' brainstorm, I found enough about the extract compelling that I could probably quite happily read the whole of this.
Girl at War by Sara Nović A novel of recent history, seemingly set in the early 1990s, dealing with the Yugoslavian civil war as seen from the viewpoint of a young girl in Croatia. The first few chapters see protagonist Ana and her friend Luka negotiating the new political landscape, trying to understand the new system of relations through the actions of their parents, neighbours and teachers. The publisher's description says the book goes on to look at Ana's life ten years later, when she's a student in New York. I have to admit, I've previously been offered a review copy of this and hadn't even considered it (the fact that it has a really boring cover doesn't help), and while I'm not going to be scrambling to read it as soon as possible, the elegant and emotionally engaging content here is enough for me to give it another look.
Re Jane by Patricia Park Another book that appears to be set in the 90s (circa the 'dotcom bubble'), focusing on a group of Korean-American characters in an outer borough of New York. Zingy and overtly humorous, this opening was a bit too farcical for my tastes. I assume it gets a bit more serious later on, though, as it's apparently a modern retelling of Jane Eyre - which makes sense of the book's name: I thought it was 'Re: Jane', like the title of an email.
The Valley by John Renehan Blah blah blah soldiers, war, the military. I couldn't even concentrate hard enough on this to make out any of what was going on. Profoundly dull.
Little Bastards in Springtime by Katja Rudolph Opens in 1941 with a girl on the run; in a slightly surreal and fast-moving scene, she is quickly drawn into the machinations of a rebel political group. Coincidentally, this seems to be another book about war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the main character is a boy who I presume must be a descendant of the woman portrayed in this extract. However, the style of this didn't captivate me anywhere near as much as the excerpt from Girl at War.
Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver This seems to be the only extract that doesn't begin at the very beginning... although it's very difficult to tell, because for some reason the formatting is really messed up and a lot of lines are cut off mid-sentence, only to reappear in truncated form in a completely different place. Consequently, I couldn't have read it properly if I'd wanted to. From what I can make out, it's one of those coming-of-age stories about rich graduates in New York that will probably get compared to Girls. Seems very name-droppy and chick-lit-like and not that interesting.
The Ambassador's Wife by Jennifer Steil Terrible title: I assumed straight away that it was going to be a sugary historical romance. In actual fact it seems to be a political/war thriller, albeit one focused on the eponymous wife. Based on this extract, I'm not keen on the tone, took an instant dislike to the main character, and I'm worried it might actually be kind of racist. Not for me at all....more
I read Rebecca Makkai's second novel, The Hundred Year House, last year and was really impressed. This collection of short stories has only confirmed my faith in her talent: although it's slightly patchy, some of them are spectacular.
I'll start with 'The November Story', because I thought it was absolutely perfect. It's about a woman who's working on the production team of a reality TV show, something a bit like Big Brother except all the contestants are artists. (It's called Starving Artist.) She's instructed to fabricate a relationship between two of the participants, with the aim of manipulating them into actually, really, falling in love; at the same time she's floundering in her own relationship with her girlfriend, a maddeningly lazy and indecisive presence who's 'making a list of the pros and cons of our relationship', and with whom she can no longer find anything to talk about except her work. Almost every sentence of this story is brilliant, and everything in it works wonderfully. Christine's work on the show, her relationships with her colleagues, the little snippets of her career history; the tiny vignettes of her home life with Beth, their stilted conversations, talking at cross purposes, deciding to ignore each other or feeling like they are. I've read it a couple of times since I finished the book and have a feeling I will keep returning to it forever. 'The November Story' is everything a short story should be.
In 'Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart', the titular character is a handsome, brilliant actor who one day 'freezes' on stage and instantaneously loses all his acting ability, confidence and belief in himself. The narrator is a friend who sees Peter as his first love: 'I never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there's another kind of first love.' He invites Peter to read at an event he's holding, to celebrate a project in which writers have created short works to complement paintings and sculptures in a local museum. It's hardly difficult to predict that this won't end well, given the title of the story, but there are still so many surprises in it, so many unexpected details. This is perhaps the greatest strength of Makkai's stories and the thing that binds them together, since the plots and styles of each are so different from one another. 'Cross' - a cellist finds her driveway marred by a plastic cross, which grows to become a plastic shrine, commemorating the death of a teenage girl in a road accident; she battles to get it removed, while trying to balance her disgust about it with the grief of the girl's family; meanwhile she starts a new relationship with an old friend, and forms a quartet with him and two young musicians - also benefits from this perfect use of detail. Another couple of favourites were 'Good Saint Anthony Come Around' (too much going on to describe quickly, but it's basically about the relationship between two artists) and 'The Museum of the Dearly Departed' (a woman finds out her fiancé was having an affair with his ex-wife, a person she'd never known about, when the two of them are killed in a gas leak at the latter's apartment building).
As the above shows, it's incredibly difficult to summarise any of the stories in Music for Wartime in a single sentence, since there's always more than one thing going on. They cross into so many genres that the collection is constantly surprising and fresh. 'The Miracle Years of Little Fork' is full of scenes straight out of a quirky historical novel: a travelling circus becomes stuck in a Arkansas town after one of their elephants dies there; the town is then besieged by drought, flood and wind in turn, while a young reverend tries to hold his 'flock' together. 'The Briefcase' is one of those Kafkaesque political allegories, with a nameless political prisoner escaping and assuming the identity of a professor whose briefcase and clothes he steals. 'Couple of Lovers on a Red Background' - perhaps the most-talked-about story from this collection, at least from what I've seen so far, no doubt because its premise is so ridiculous in isolation - is a comic fantasy about a woman who finds Johann Sebastian Bach living in her piano, and goes on to start a sexual relationship with him because she wants to be pregnant with the child of a genius.
The weakest link for me was Makkai's use of what seem to be personal anecdotes to bridge the gaps between the stories proper. 'Other Brands of Poison', 'Acolyte', and 'A Bird in the House' all fit into this category. They are presented as true stories that have gained the status of legends within Makkai's family (indeed, each is subtitled as a Legend), and read like notes from the author - a device that interrupts the flow of the longer stories and rather disturbs the magic. I'm sure they'd be great as part of an autobiographical collection, but here they just feel like they don't belong.
Some of the shortest stories here are comparatively weak, too. 'Everything We Know About the Bomber', for example, feels like the product of an assignment you might be set in a creative writing class, and comes off as amateurish when compared to the superior pieces. (Actually it just really kept making me think about that notorious Amanda Palmer poem.) And 'Suspension: April 20, 1984' I found uncharacteristically hard to follow. But maybe these are more personal quibbles than actual problems: I've said before that I always struggle with really short stories, and most of what gets called flash fiction; I find it hard to get anything out of them, and maybe one day I will mature enough as a reader to start appreciating them, but this wasn't the book to change my mind.
If the 7 micro-stories had been trimmed from this collection, and it was just made up of the 10 longer stories, the fully formed and rounded ones, I'd probably have given it five stars. Honestly, I'm tempted to give it full marks simply because of how much I adored 'The November Story'. I gained so much inspiration from it; it would have been worth reading the whole book just for that. Needless to say, I'll be eagerly awaiting/scouring the internet for more of Makkai's short fiction in future....more
I've always enjoyed Ronson's style of writing, and this is a typically light-hearted, pacy investigation, focusing on the idea of 'public shaming' andI've always enjoyed Ronson's style of writing, and this is a typically light-hearted, pacy investigation, focusing on the idea of 'public shaming' and its latter-day resurrection in the forms of social media scandals, 'Twitterstorms' et al. I don't know why it's taken this long for it to occur to me that Ronson's books are like Louis Theroux TV shows in book form, but now that it has, this seems like a perfect example: each chapter features Ronson spending time with an individual whose 'life has been ruined' by one of these public shaming incidents, varying from a journalist whose work was exposed as a fraud (and the man who exposed him) to people who've posted ill-advised tweets and seen their careers destroyed as a result; the style is irreverent and often very funny.
There's something about the book as a whole, though, that doesn't quite hang together as a coherent thesis. Some of the conclusions seem shaky (the 'happy ending' for Lindsey Stone is neatly wrapped up, but it's easy enough to google her name and find that her indiscretion still massively dominates the search results, contrary to what's implied). Some of the topics would really have benefited from deeper exploration. I know that's not the point of a book like this, but I found myself thinking I would have preferred to read some of the chapters as separate articles or essays....more
We wouldn't mention how glamorous it felt to say we were bored, and how in the dark we got chill bumps up and down our arms at the idea that this was
We wouldn't mention how glamorous it felt to say we were bored, and how in the dark we got chill bumps up and down our arms at the idea that this was life, and life smelled like peach carpet spray and cinnamon chewing gum and cheap-flavored wine, all backwashed up.
The stories in Daddy's are like diamonds (tiny, rock-hard, but dazzling) or sparklers (bright, brief, dangerous if you get too close). They could be summed up by picking any line out at random, but the above - the concluding sentence of the stream-of-consciousness, first-person-plural 'Fifteen' - just says everything about the feel of Hunter's writing. It has a character all its own, one composed of junk food, sex, emptiness, disgust and the sort of things you think are glamorous and beautiful when you're a teenager and you've grown up dirt-poor and don't know any better. It's stupendous; it's disgusting. It feels a bit like it's set in an alternate version of our world, albeit a very similar one, only slightly closer to the apocalypse (and you'd be forgiven for thinking Circle K only exists in Hunter's universe). Hunter's description of her influences here - 'Cormac McCarthy, the Drive-by Truckers, the art of Wes Freed, murder TV shows' - makes perfect sense; she mentions Amelia Gray, too, whose Threats I was reminded of when reading Don't Kiss Me. The subtitle of Daddy's is '24 fictions by Lindsay Hunter', and 'fictions' does indeed seem like a more appropriate term for these fragments of lives that feel like small broken pieces of something much bigger....more
There are some truly brilliant stories in this collection, but really it's more about the details than the whole. That goes for the stories themselvesThere are some truly brilliant stories in this collection, but really it's more about the details than the whole. That goes for the stories themselves, as well as the style. The best - such as 'Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula', 'Plans' and 'Heart' - are short and broken-up snapshots of the lives of dysfunctional characters; weird, dirty and bleak, but really, really gorgeous anyway. The high-concept stories don't always work quite as well, partly because you're constantly being propelled back to the striking beauty and effectiveness of particular sentences rather than whatever they're skirting around. Occasionally, Hunter's depictions of everyday discomfort stray further into more explicit disgust and border on bizarro, for example 'After', which begins 'After the apocalypse...' and goes on to, mainly, list outlandishly grotesque sights.
The showpiece story, the longest, is 'Our Man', which - seriously - reminded me of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp, with its fragmentary and surreal narration, stray threads and recurring characters, its side-on, non-linear examination of an indistinct and possibly imagined crime. Like Antwerp, I wasn't sure whether it was nonsense or a work of genius, or, of course, both. A more general comparison for the whole collection is Amelia Gray's Threats - equally off-kilter and vaguely disturbing/disturbingly vague, with a similar overarching voice - although I enjoyed this more.
I probably did this book a disservice by hungrily reading most of the stories at once. Mostly bite-sized - there are 26 of them in this 193-page collection - Hunter's stories are so sharp and bright that they are best devoured individually, spread out between other reading. ...more
Mixing theology, political history, modern philosophy and contemporary literary criticism, this is a readable and entertaining treatise on the conceptMixing theology, political history, modern philosophy and contemporary literary criticism, this is a readable and entertaining treatise on the concept of evil. It's short - actually more like a long-form essay - and although its conclusions are arguably vague, it's very interesting, and you will come away with a long list of further reading....more
No Easy Answers is a true crime book about the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, notable because it's co-written by Brooks Brown, who was a clasNo Easy Answers is a true crime book about the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, notable because it's co-written by Brooks Brown, who was a classmate and alleged friend of the shooters. It's for this reason, I suppose, that I have come across various recommendations of this book over Dave Cullen's Columbine, though the latter is by all accounts more accomplished; for whatever reason, I've had an idea fixed in my head for some time that this was the definitive Columbine book. Watching the first season of American Horror Story, in which one character's crime is very clearly and specifically based on the Columbine shootings, brought it back into my mind. (I also had this sudden compulsion to read loads of true crime which inexplicably disappeared as soon as it inexplicably arrived, lasting about a day in total.)
I think this sort of thing - a famous crime or incident or whatever it might be, described from the viewpoint of someone who was close to it but not actually involved - usually reveals more about that person than it does about the crime or incident. No Easy Answers made me think of Dreams of a Life, the documentary film about Joyce Vincent, the young woman whose body lay unnoticed in her flat for two years. The object of Dreams of a Life was to unravel how such a thing could have happened, how Joyce, who was popular and appeared to lead a full, varied life, was not missed or searched for. But through its interviews with people who knew her, the film revealed much more about their personalities and attitudes than it did about Joyce; whether this was the filmmaker's intention or not, I felt it was a character study of them, not her. Similarly, No Easy Answers ends up saying a lot more about Brooks Brown than it does about the Columbine shooters.
The book steers all its arguments towards two targets - the culture of bullying at Columbine (the focus here being the teachers who allowed and encouraged bullying to happen rather than the students perpetrating it) and the incompetence of police. These factors are blamed for the shooting at the expense of any other possible influences. For example, the idea that more stringent gun laws would have helped prevent the massacre is (more than once) dismissed within a couple of sentences, with Brown vaguely arguing that people determined to get hold of weapons will manage to do it no matter what the laws are. Some of the revelations about the police's lack of interest in early signs of criminal potential from the shooters are, admittedly, shocking, if not exactly surprising. The bullying accusations are more problematic - while I remain convinced that bullying was a factor, even if only a minor one, the way the issue is discussed here doesn't really do anything to put forward a coherent case, partly because it's too heavily defined by personal experience.
Brown basically seems very much like someone who is still really struggling with having been bullied at school and is still very bitter and angry about it. That's understandable - it took me until adulthood to get over various experiences of bullying too, and I know some people my age who still haven't shaken that mindset off entirely, and of course it isn't surprising that if this was his own experience, he'd naturally be keen to emphasise its significance in influencing the mindsets of the shooters. But it also makes the author sound very immature and biased when discussing the reasons the attack happened. The repeated mentions of Brown's own musical tastes and how these made him 'different' are pretty cringey; he also comes off as someone who thinks he's a lot smarter than he actually is. Despite the anti-bullying agenda, there's often a sense that Brown is pushing a right-wing individualistic philosophy (the Ayn Rand quotes...) and there's also a strong and pretty nasty streak of sexism running throughout the book. His parents don't come out of it much better - in fact, if there was one thing this book highlighted for me that I hadn't thought much about before, it's exactly how privileged, spoilt and cosseted all these kids were. Added to that, going by the evidence in this book, the repeated claim that Brown was Dylan Klebold's 'best friend' seems shaky: it doesn't appear that the two were particularly close.
I never usually leave books without a rating, but I'm not sure where I would place this one: I'm less confident about rating it because it's not as if I've read a lot of true crime to compare it to. It was interesting to read this to get the perspective of someone who was close to the shooters and the subsequent investigation (Brown himself was implicated as a potential accomplice and went through a legal battle to establish his innocence). But the style and tone were offputting, and I don't feel I really learned anything new - there wasn't anything here that I haven't already read on the internet, although I realise it would have been far more revelatory when it was first published in 2002....more
Alison Wonderland is one of those books I'd had knocking around the back of my mind for quite a while, without knowing exactly where I had heard aboutAlison Wonderland is one of those books I'd had knocking around the back of my mind for quite a while, without knowing exactly where I had heard about it or even what I'd heard about it. I'd filed it away in a vague category entitled 'I read something good about this on a blog' - of course, I can't remember what the blog was or what the 'something good' was. Having first heard about it a couple of years ago, I'd assumed it was a relatively recent release, but once I started reading, it didn't take me long to start thinking it was such a quintessentially 90s British story that it had to have been written earlier. Sure enough, I soon found it was originally published in 1999 (although Amazon gives the publication date as 2011, which is presumably when it was reissued and enjoyed the small resurgence in popularity that allowed me to notice it).
Trying to establish the characteristics of this 90s-British-fiction quality, I came up with the following: - Plotless stories within a really quite fluffy book. I think I notice this because you don't really find it now: 'light' books are almost always plot-led genre fiction - thrillers, crime, romance, etc, or at least they are presented as fitting into one of those categories. This is definitely not a literary novel, but what is it? The mystery isn't really a mystery, and turns out to be a red herring, ultimately seeming kind of parodic. The romantic subplot, which initially appears to be a foregone conclusion, is left completely open with no satisfying resolution (or even anything resembling an ending) for either party. - Characters living in London while either unemployed or doing jobs that are hardly jobs at all, with no reference made to how they're affording it. - The 'randomness'. Taron is a dippy, flaky character who jumps between various faiths/beliefs, claims her mother is a witch and makes up outlandish stories about her past. Alison and Jeff's relationship revolves around a) him writing her quirky poems and b) each of them sending the other newspaper clippings of obscure and ridiculous stories. Even the postman is psychic. I know cute, whimsical stuff is still in vogue at the moment, but this randomness has a slightly harder, darker quality to it. Partly because of: - Loads of casual references to drugs - and talk of 'clubbing', which now seems like a generally outdated concept. (At one point Alison goes to a 'singles bar'.) - Mentions of music, TV shows and shops that date the story very specifically (okay, I'm sure this isn't specific to books from the 90s, but that sort of namedropping in this sort of fiction seems to have started in the 90s).
I've made the comparison before, but this really did remind me of early Scarlett Thomas. Like Thomas's Lily Pascale, Alison Temple is an investigator... of sorts, pursuing a mystery, of sorts, except she doesn't really know what it is, and the story ends up being more about her friend Taron's efforts to find an abandoned baby (not a specific one, just any abandoned baby. Don't ask). Maybe this isn't so much a 90s thing as something specific to a handful of books (and perhaps an indication of an underdeveloped style?), but another reaction I had to both this and the Lily Pascale books was that the stories feel like they're taking place in a self-contained, not-quite-real universe. Nothing really seems to have any consequences. When Alison and Taron actually do find an abandoned baby, the idea that it arrived 'by magic' isn't quite given enough credence to be taken seriously, but nor is there any question of establishing where the baby really came from. It's simply accepted into their lives (with no suggestion of any potential legal issues, or indeed financial ones).
I enjoyed this, but I have to steal the term David used in his review and say it's an oddity, one I'm hesitant to recommend. It was perfect as a quick, light, endearingly strange break in between reading bits of academic texts, but I'm not sure I would have liked it that much in another context. Although it did lead me to discover 'You'll Never Know' by Hi-Gloss, which I've been listening to lots ever since....more
Bradstreet Gate is about three Harvard students, Georgia, Charlie and Alice; a professor, Rufus Storrow; and a murdered girl, Julie Patel. It opens teBradstreet Gate is about three Harvard students, Georgia, Charlie and Alice; a professor, Rufus Storrow; and a murdered girl, Julie Patel. It opens ten years after Julie's death, with a journalist doorstepping Georgia and telling her there have been new developments in the (still unsolved) case. We then flash back to the beginning of all this, to the immediate aftermath of the murder, and chapters devoted to each character explore what led them to Harvard. About half the book dwells on what happened there, and the rest of it follows the three main characters through the next ten years, tracing the various ways their relationships with each other and their involvement with Storrow have affected the trajectories of their lives.
Bradstreet Gate reminded me very much of Rebecca Scherm's Unbecoming, another debut from this year, because of the cold, clinical way both books render their characters. Looking back on my review of Unbecoming, I can see many similarities in my reactions to the two - I found them both to have an empty, depressing feel, yet felt I needed to see the stories through to the end, and read them relatively quickly despite neither seeming, on the surface, especially compelling. While I found Bradstreet Gate better-crafted than Unbecoming - the characterisation is fairly consistent, at least - I felt both shared an elegant style that, while admirable in a way, would be much improved by the addition of some emotional messiness and some actual humanity to the characters. (I feel admirable is very much the right word for it; it's like something in a glass case; you might look at it and appreciate it, but it is held at a distance from you and lacks movement, excitement.) (view spoiler)[Even Alice's anorexia and associated mental health problems are related in such a detached manner that it's difficult to feel much for her, though she is certainly the most sympathetic of the three protagonists. (hide spoiler)]
Something that frustrated me about this book was the way it kept hinting at fascinating subplots/ideas which weren't explored any further. Some of these were: the issues of potential racism brought up by Storrow's style of teaching and the way the students reacted to this (I was interested in how similar this seemed to the attitudes now seen so often online, particularly over the past couple of years, and curious to know whether this was an accurate representation of the way things were going in a university like Harvard in the 1990s - is the Tumblr culture that constantly rips into the potential 'problematic' actually way behind the curve? Or is the author writing very up-to-date attitudes into scenes set 20 years ago?); the hints of sexual tension between Georgia and Alice; the substance of Georgia's affair with Storrow, which I never fully understood; (view spoiler)[the suggestion that both Georgia and Storrow might have been sexually abused, or at least exploited, in childhood, by members of their families; the question of whether Storrow's wife and children really existed; the murder itself, who killed Julie and why (hide spoiler)]. I constantly felt like the most interesting things were happening in some parallel story. (Meanwhile, some of the actual subplots - Charlie's internet security business, for example - made me want to fall asleep.)
This is on the Secret-History-esque shelf because it involves students at an elite university (one of whom is an 'outsider', from a relatively poor background), a charismatic professor, and a murder. In terms of style, however, it couldn't be more different from TSH, and from that starting point, the story has a broader scope. It isn't a coming-of-age/university story - instead, it strives for the feel of a saga, and in doing so it loses all the advantages of using a prestigious university as a (partial) setting in the first place. Not once did I get any sense of the atmosphere of Harvard. This style - I don't know what I would call it - sophisticated, emotionless - might be technically good, and some might find it brilliant, but it's a turn-off for me. This may well be a very accomplished debut; I just couldn't forge the sort of connection with the story that would be necessary to lift it above three stars. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
**spoiler alert** This is one of my problems with YA: in a lot of YA books, the characters behave like adults. They are more emotionally mature than m**spoiler alert** This is one of my problems with YA: in a lot of YA books, the characters behave like adults. They are more emotionally mature than most people in their late 20s, and often they are not only vastly intelligent, but also have a kind of world-weary wisdom and cynicism that only really develops with age. This usually really puts me off because I find it so unrealistic, and yet the books in which characters act like this seem to be the ones that become the most popular and garner the most praise. Belzhar is a book in which teenagers do the opposite - behave like teenagers and display the maturity and intelligence levels of teenagers - and that seems to have a lot to do with many readers' dislike of it.
One of the main criticisms I've seen levelled at this book is that the main character, Jam (this is short for Jamaica... yeah, I have no idea either) spends a year pining for a boy she had a very short relationship with; and also that when it is revealed that she was never in fact in a real relationship with him, this drains away the reader's sympathy for her and/or makes her 'trauma' pathetic in comparison to the other characters'. But honestly, I felt that the whole situation was if anything more realistic than the way teenagers are usually portrayed in contemporary YA. Jam is fifteen, and when I was around that age I spent much more than a year obsessed, and I mean obsessed, with a boy who had no interest in me; he'd spoken to me maybe a handful of times and when I say 'spoken', I mean saying hello, not conversations. I actually broke up with a boy who wanted to go out with me because of this crush; I completely believed myself to be in love with him. I would stay up all night crying, wailing; I cut myself numerous times. Now, beneath all this there were clearly other issues - the depression that would manifest properly when I was older, and the fact that I'd been bullied at school for years and hated it there - but much of my focus was on this boy, this boy I loved so much I thought I would die because he didn't care about me. So yes, I can believe in the sustained length of Jam's period of grief, and I can believe in the power of her feelings regardless of the nature of her relationship.
The other main issue is the portrayal of Jam's boyfriend, Reeve, who is allegedly British. I mean, you can tell this character is going to be ridiculous from the name alone - as if any British person would call their kid REEVE (well, I'm sure someone has once or twice and some British Reeve is going to pop up in the comments to discredit me like #NOTALLREEVES, but my point is that this is supposed to be an ~unusual, quintessentially British name and yet to any British person it sounds like a stereotypically American one). He also loves the Monty Python parrot sketch, has apparently never heard 'douchebag' as an insult/says Brits actually know that word for its literal meaning, talks about a football match being 'brill' (I don't think anyone in the UK or anywhere has said that since approx. 1994), claims 'tight' means drunk (OK THEN), and says things like 'it's in the OED - the Oxford English Dictionary'. Because he's just SO BRITISH, YOU SEE?! BRITISH!!!!
Perhaps it's because I knew all this before I started the book, but I just found all these details about Reeve funny. Yes, they're completely ridiculous but they didn't make me mad. There's a part of me that thinks it's so unlikely that Wolitzer - an Ivy League-educated author of literary fiction - would write a British character so terribly, it must be deliberate; that perhaps all these stupid things Reeve says and does are just a part of Jam's fantasy of him, her juvenile, media-constructed idea of what a 'perfect British boyfriend' would be like. But Reeve does say and do some of these things in the 'real' memories too. So idk, maybe the author really does know nothing about British people, or maybe she just thought American teenage girls would think it was cute.
The whole premise is silly. Jam and the others are studying at a school for 'emotionally damaged' children or something, but this is obviously a flimsy setup to get all these 'troubled' characters together: they never get any counselling or therapy and nobody ever seems to do anything to address their problems. Jam gets accepted into an exclusive English class and studies Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, so that mentions of Plath and the book can be scattered throughout the narrative (the story itself doesn't really relate to The Bell Jar in any way and is more like a junior version of The Secret History. The most relevant Plath reference is from her poem 'Mad Girl's Love Song' and actually, it's so pertinent I could easily believe the whole premise for Belzhar came from that poem). The 'Special Topics in English' students (is this a Marisha Pessl reference?) write in journals given to them by their ~mysterious~ teacher, and find that the act of doing so results in short, intense visions or experiences, in which they seem to return to their life before whatever their trauma was.
The teenagers in the Special Topics class aren't the most wonderfully well-realised characters, but they are believable as teenagers. They're moody, uncooperative and awkward; their discussion of Plath is basic and shallow; but they're fucked-up 15-year-olds, not university students. I feel almost embarrassed admitting it, but I did feel something for Jam, and that developed even though I knew what the twist would be. In fact, I think her story is emotionally powerful precisely because Reeve doesn't exist. In a reversal of most readers' reactions, I felt more sorry and sad for her when I discovered her delusion than when I thought she had a dead boyfriend. (Side note: questionable whether it really is a delusion/psychotic episode or conscious lies, because she certainly seems to be aware she isn't being honest when she tells the others about Reeve's death. If she believes he loved her and is really dead, then why does she hold all of that back from everyone else, apart from passively agreeing with an assumption someone else makes on their own?) The truth, and the depth of her attachment to the lie, illustrates how lonely and desperate she must have been. That's what packed the emotional punch for me.
I think Belzhar has only been praised by critics in relatively 'highbrow' publications because Wolitzer has previously written literary fiction for adults. From a serious critical perspective, of course little of this book is of value, but I struggle to see how it is worse in that regard than most contemporary YA. Isn't it all emotionally manipulative? Isn't that practically its raison d'être? I may be able to remember how obsessive crushes made me feel when I was fifteen, but I can't recreate the mindset effectively enough to allow me to imagine how this book might have made me feel at that age; maybe I would have found it moving and meaningful or maybe I would have scoffed at it, but either way I can't imagine it would have been damaging in any way. (And it would probably have got me interested in reading Sylvia Plath, at least.)
The bottom line is that I couldn't stop wanting to read bits of this until I was done (I read a lot of it on my phone in between other things because I just had to know what happened) and for some reason, I felt a great deal of affection towards it. Maybe it was just that something about all this hit a chord with me specifically? Who knows.
TL;DR: This book is ridiculous, but I really enjoyed it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ...more
Wolf, Wolf is a lengthy, somewhat convoluted, but highly rewarding story. In simple terms it's about a South African man in his thirties - Mattheüs DuWolf, Wolf is a lengthy, somewhat convoluted, but highly rewarding story. In simple terms it's about a South African man in his thirties - Mattheüs Duiker - and his relationship with his dying father, Benjamin. But it's incredibly dense and frequently strays away from that. It's full of tension, which has no discernible source, and constantly seems to be moving towards a shock that never quite comes. This isn't to say it is in any way disappointing, but it can be an uncomfortable read in an unconventional way. I think the best way to address it is probably by looking at the themes that emerge from the various threads running through the story:
What it means to be a man. The blurb for Wolf, Wolf poses the question: 'how should a man be?' This is a particularly pertinent question for Mattheüs because of his sexuality - not just the fact that he is gay (and the fact that his father has never been able to truly accept this), but also (and, really, more importantly) his addiction to internet porn, which controls his life to such an extent that it frequently takes precedence over his real-life partner, Jack. Mattheüs' obsession is in fact so dominant that, while the porn he watches is explicitly detailed, his actual sex life with Jack is touched on so lightly that I was nearing the end of the book before I realised they actually did sleep together after all. He spends his nights searching for 'sex ever more bent and battered to conform to a closed circuit where only he and the screen in front of him exist', sometimes even seeing his father's needs as distractions from this preoccupation.
As the story progresses, Mattheüs is increasingly forced to confront the realities of manhood as opposed to boyhood - something he has long avoided, apparently spending his twenties doing nothing of note apart from travelling and ostensibly 'having fun', although he rarely seems to have actually been happy. Now back in the family home, he feels infantilised but is unwilling to leave, unable to conceive of a life elsewhere. His lifestyle has been enabled by his father's wealth -a privilege Mattheüs has taken advantage of yet never fully embraced, having rejected the opportunity to take up a role in the successful Duiker luxury car dealership, partly due to a conviction that he lacks an essential masculinity or is somehow just too 'other' to participate in the business, to step into Benjamin's shoes.
The relationship between a father and his son. Both Mattheüs and Benjamin spend the whole of the story on a journey towards accepting and understanding one another. This is not always easy, and nor is it necessarily ultimately successful. Mattheüs has selfish motivations in wanting to repair their relationship - he needs money to start a business, and dreams of an inheritance that will include the family home - and his unwillingness to share his father's care with neighbours or other family members often seems to owe more to this than to love or a sense of duty. Benjamin dotes on his son, but cannot properly embrace who he is, or hide the fact that he is disappointed by Mattheüs' inability to take over the family business or produce children who will carry on the Duiker name. Despite all this, Venter's depiction of the relationship between the two is heartfelt, touching, honest. There is a closeness between them that, while stilted, awkward and sometimes uncomfortable, highlights the real love underscoring their interactions. Mattheüs' protectiveness and devotion to his father's care is a way for him to win Benjamin's acceptance before it's too late.
Throughout the book, the main narrative is punctuated by monologues from Benjamin, messages he has recorded on a tape recorder for Mattheüs to listen to. In these he offers his ruminations on masculinity and is honest about his feelings towards Mattheüs in a way he cannot be face-to-face. Communication (or miscommunication) in general is a theme of its own. Unsure how to cope with Mattheüs' porn problem, Jack takes to Facebook to express his feelings, posting a passive-aggressive stream of photographs and pointed public questions. (In fact, 'facebook' - no capital F - is a verb in this novel; definitely the first time I've come across this in a book.) The couple rarely talk about anything of significance - at one point Jack is driven to ask 'am I in this room for you, Matt? Do you at least know that I'm here?' They don't even talk about Benjamin's reluctance to allow Jack into the Duiker home - this is instead addressed, somewhat surreally, by Jack donning a disguise consisting of a wolf's head mask. Both men know this isn't really stopping Benjamin (who, in any case, has been left blind by his illness) from realising that Jack is there; instead it becomes a game between them, which gives the book its title.
Dreams vs. ambitions; dreams vs. reality. In the first half of the novel, Mattheüs strives towards his dream of opening a takeaway serving healthy fast food. He is obsessed with the idea that his father might write him a cheque big enough to fund the business, but too crippled by uncertainty and shame to ask for it - or even intimate his need for it. Several times, he makes false starts towards obtaining the money elsewhere; when it seems he's on the verge of actually attaining it, he panics, sabotages his own chances, and flees. What becomes clear from all of this is that the takeaway is a dream, not an ambition. Like so many things in this story, it's a symbol. Nevertheless, it does eventually become real, and in naming it 'Duiker's', Mattheüs makes a step towards continuing the family name in his own way. The business represents a compromise between what Benjamin wants Mattheüs to achieve, and Mattheüs' desire to fulfil his father's hopes for him on his own terms.
(An aside: while this doesn't add anything to my review, I couldn't help noticing the parallels between this and The Curator by Jacques Strauss, also published this year. Both are set in South Africa, and focus on male protagonists whose sexuality is key to the plot. In both cases, the protagonist is caring for his ailing father; both books open with a scene demonstrating this. In both books, the son wants or needs a substantial amount of money from his father in order to start a business venture. Both even feature a secondary character who works as a teacher at a boys' school. They do, however, move in very different directions from there, with Strauss exploring the psyche of his character in great detail while Venter focuses more intensely on relationships and family.)
Towards the end of Wolf, Wolf, things become ever more horrible for the embattled Mattheüs, who sinks deeper into failure and despair. The book ends on a poignant note as he resolves to change his behaviour towards Jack, to make up for past mistakes, not knowing that his dreams are - once again - impossible. There are no safe, satisfying conclusions to be drawn from the stories of Mattheüs, Jack and Benjamin. Wolf, Wolf itself, though, is a satisfying novel, a potent depiction of one family that also acts as a broader portrait of contemporary manhood and post-apartheid South Africa....more
When I first heard about this book, it had very little in the way of a description: just a couple of lines referring to how it 'tells a story of fame,When I first heard about this book, it had very little in the way of a description: just a couple of lines referring to how it 'tells a story of fame, love, and legacy through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist', using a 'chorus of voices'. That was enough to pique my interest. But the character of Sophie Stark is a young film director, so it's less like Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World than I'd initially assumed.
That 'chorus of voices' is created by six narrators who take it in turn to talk about Sophie, each chapter introducing a new voice and describing a different period of her life or career. #1 opens strong, with an instantly captivating story from Allison, an actress discovered by Sophie who also becomes her lover. (I'd have preferred to read a whole book about Allison.) #2 is also excellent: it's told from the POV of Sophie's brother, Robbie, and charts her early development as a filmmaker while at university. In between the chapters are reviews of Sophie's films, all by the same critic. The voice of these doesn't really ring true, but I liked the occasional change to a different medium. It was around the middle of #3 (Jacob, a musician Sophie shoots a promo for) that I realised why the book wasn't quite working for me: the stories were all good in themselves, but they just weren't making me care about Sophie.
Because Sophie is rarely heard from (and even then it's just her words as remembered by others), she emerges as more of a conduit for other people's desires than a rounded character, a believable person. Twisted and broken up and reformed through the stories of those who knew her, she is not seen truthfully - naturally, of course, but this makes it a struggle to form any image of her beyond someone else's fantasy, or rather the multiple fantasies of multiple someone-elses. She emerges as a character who is complicated, but not necessarily believable or nuanced, in her contradictions, and her arc is ultimately more one-note than it should/could be. The ending seemed limp, and I felt as if there should be more - some wider appraisal of her life.
The blurb makes references to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette. I get the Goon Squad comparison, but more than the others mentioned, this reminded me of Sara Taylor's recently-published debut The Shore. Partly because it's essentially a set of short stories with a common theme - here it's a character, in The Shore it's a setting. But also because of my reaction: I enjoyed it, found it compulsive, read it very quickly and am confident in giving it a high-ish rating; yet I find it hard to actually identify many major positives in my overall assessment of it. There are some beautiful moments in this book, and I read it with great eagerness to know what would happen next, it's just that in the end it is quite a flimsy story, as a whole. For the deeper, more mature and intellectually engaging version, seek out The Blazing World....more
This felt really pointless to me. As several other reviewers have commented, it seems like a children's book, and the assumption that it is in fact inThis felt really pointless to me. As several other reviewers have commented, it seems like a children's book, and the assumption that it is in fact intended for kids is the only reason my rating isn't one star. A pleasantly sinister set-up about a boy being trapped in a labyrinth beneath a library soon descends into a daft, random story with no satisfying conclusion and no explanation. The illustrations are more artistic touches than images that actually illuminate the story - they look like the artist was given a list of keywords relating to the plot, since they only relate to, and don't actually illustrate, what happens. On the plus side, it's extremely short. ...more
The title pretty much says it all - Priestley continues his Tales of Terror series with seven stories set around Christmas. These are meant for childrThe title pretty much says it all - Priestley continues his Tales of Terror series with seven stories set around Christmas. These are meant for children, so they're unlikely to actually frighten you (and they aren't as scary as some of the previous installments in the series...) but the author's style is masterful, and there's always a ghoulish twist. Perfect as an easy winter read....more
Enormous fun - a faux-academic text/true crime account, replete with footnotes, about the disappearance of a fictional pop star, that takes numerous dEnormous fun - a faux-academic text/true crime account, replete with footnotes, about the disappearance of a fictional pop star, that takes numerous detours into various ideas, conspiracies, and subplots. It's ostensibly the story of Molly Metropolis (a very Lady Gaga-esque figure) going missing, closely followed by a fan who was looking for her, music journalist Caitlin Taer, but it spins off into an exploration of situationism, psychogeography, and Chicago's public transport system. Admittedly the examination of such concepts is all very surface-level, but it's still clear the book has aspirations towards something more complex than a conspiracy thriller. These diversions and the obvious riffs on real celebrities' images are themselves a demonstration of the oft-referenced situationist concept of détournement, while the titular ghost network is, unexpectedly, a map of every possible permutation of 'the L', Chicago's elevated railway - real, proposed, and imagined. The Ghost Network itself is supposed to be an existing book, written about the mysteries of Metropolis and Taer by an English professor named Cyrus Archer, found and edited by a fictionalised version of Catie Disabato after his disappearance. It's all very meta - this-within-this-within-this. It's also completely absorbing, addictive, funny and wonderfully energetic.
I'm not really sure the book will reach its perfect audience while being described as 'Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl for adults' - that's pretty wide of the mark; while it frequently talks about Tumblr fan culture, etc, readers who loved Fangirl won't necessarily want to read a book that goes on about a) Guy Debord and b) trains for pages at a time. Amy hit the nail on the head much more accurately with her comment on my rating - 'a little bit Scarlett Thomas, a little bit Marisha Pessl'. Like Pessl's Night Film, this is a clue-driven, conspiracy-laden adventure that revolves around an invented pop-culture figure. Like Thomas's fiction, it touches on a lot of big ideas while remaining entirely accessible, light in tone and fun to read.
I'd been eagerly awaiting this since reading an extract - the epilogue and first chapter - in Penguin Random House's Spring 2015 Debut Fiction Sampler. That sample was so good that I ended up buying The Ghost Network on the day it came out and reading the entire thing that same day. The rest of it maybe didn't quite live up to the opening - but that's mainly because I wished it had been (and think it easily could have been) twice the length - and it's not as good as Night Film, which has a similar-ish premise. But it's still by far the best new book I have read this year. ...more
I loved the first book of Louise Welsh's Plauge Times trilogy, A Lovely Way To Burn, so this sequel was an automatic shoo-in for my Most Anticipated oI loved the first book of Louise Welsh's Plauge Times trilogy, A Lovely Way To Burn, so this sequel was an automatic shoo-in for my Most Anticipated of 2015 list. I was mildly surprised, but still excited, to learn it would focus on a different character. A Lovely Way To Burn was all about gutsy TV presenter Stevie Flint; Death is a Welcome Guest is about a stand-up comedian, Magnus McFall.
This one doesn't start where the last one left off. Instead it opens as the spread of the virus known as the Sweats, which we already know will eventually engulf the country (assuming 'we' read the first book of the trilogy), is in its early stages. Magnus is en route to a gig, as warm-up act to the obnoxious Johnny Dongo; an afflicted boy collapses onto the railway before the show. After a spat with Johnny, Magnus gets arrested - there's a convoluted scene involving him rescuing a girl from an ostentatiously nefarious would-be rapist who turns out (a bit implausibly) to be an MP, then being caught in the act by a gang of men who assume he's the girl's attacker - and finds himself imprisoned in an overflowing prison where both inmates and staff are dropping like flies. He forms a precarious alliance with Jeb, a long-term prisoner whose crimes are, for most of the book, unknown. Magnus's aim is to get back to his hometown on Orkney, where he's convinced he will find his family safe and well, and so the two set off on a potentially treacherous trek across the country. Then they meet a gun-toting military priest who presides over a community at crumbling Tanqueray House, and it all goes a bit 28 Days Later.
Unlike A Lovely Way To Burn - which had me completely hooked from the outset - this story is really slow to get going. The prison riot is interminable, and totally lacking in suspense since, if Magnus and Jeb didn't escape, there'd be no story at all. At this point I was seriously worried I wasn't going to like the book; but once they're out of prison and on the road, it picks up.
I've spent ages trying to work out whether this is objectively a better book than A Lovely Way To Burn. I think it probably is. It's less melodramatic; sure, it has a dramatic climax, but not quite the crazed, almost horror-movie-esque scenes of its predecessor. It's more contemplative and spends a greater amount of time delving into its main character's state of mind, examining the psychological implications of the virus - and, to some extent, the political fallout. (I should also mention that it can certainly be read as a standalone novel, although it perhaps has something in common with the second part of many trilogies in that much of the content feels like filler.) The best moments come towards the end, when all the tension that's been building throughout the story combines with the strange undercurrents in Tanqueray village and creates a lurid, horrible climax. It's telling that these scenes are probably the least believable in the book and yet they are the most emotionally compelling.
While I loved Stevie, Magnus left me feeling indifferent. Because this story is less plot-driven, it sacrifices the great advantages of the first book's crime thriller structure - the brilliant tension, the need to know what would happen next, the clues and revelations leading the protagonist from one place, one person to the next. I had no real investment in Magnus's quest to get back to his family, because the narrative didn't want me to care about that. (view spoiler)[Sure enough, it ends up becoming a footnote - by the time Mangus reaches Orkney, both he and the reader know his family aren't going to be alive. (hide spoiler)] Jeb is a deliberately offputting character, the whole point being that he will end up a scapegoat and that the reader will be prompted to wonder what they'd do in Magnus's position, whether they'd bother to help him. But honestly, I didn't find this dilemma that interesting either.
Death is a Welcome Guest is a good, solid read that does a decent job of advancing the story arc of the Plague Times trilogy. But I think perhaps it's more scene-setting for the final part than anything else. I'll definitely be reading the last installment, with the hope that it returns to the irresistible excitement of the first.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...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