I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped, partly because I was hoping it was more along the lines of speculative fiction (it certainly hinted at it!)...moreI didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped, partly because I was hoping it was more along the lines of speculative fiction (it certainly hinted at it!) and partly because I was reading a galley on my Kindle, and I struggle to interact with stories electronically. The other reason would be that I simply wasn't all that interested in the characters. Deenie is perhaps the central character, but her father, Tom - a teacher at her school - also gets his point-of-view chapters. His side story is his status as bachelor and a vague flirtation with the French teacher. Her older brother, Eli, gets some air time too. No one character was particularly well developed, and the shift between such different characters gave it a choppy, uneven feel.
The plot itself started strongly, and built great atmosphere, but fizzled all too soon. It became fairly predictable, or rather, the build-up at the start created high expectations that didn't hold. That said, I could have had a very different reading experience had I read this as an actual print book. The other issue is that, as a story about young adolescent girls and their complicated psychological make-up, I felt I'd read better, more thought-provoking stories. The Fever didn't add anything or teach me anything new. Overall, simply disappointing.
Read in February 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
Forty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nell...moreForty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nella and Rose. But appearances can be deceiving. At fifteen, Nella is at a difficult age and Jessica is finding it hard to keep the lines of communication open between them. And she's still trying to recover from learning that Bob had a one-night stand with a much younger woman while on a business trip in Europe a month ago.
On the day Jess's story starts, she meets a potential new client on his first appointment. Gwydion Morgan is a young and extremely handsome local actor, whose best known for his on-going role in a popular Welsh TV soap. His father is the renowned stage director, Evan Morgan, who is equally famous for his numerous affairs and dalliances with other women, while his wife, Arianrhod, once a beautiful actress, wastes away at the family home, a forbidding stone mansion on the rocky Welsh coast. Gwydion has no love for his father but is close to his mother, and no other siblings.
Gwydion comes to Jessica with a fairly typical button phobia, which is a concern now that he's been picked to star in a new costume-drama (the costume he'll have to wear will have numerous buttons). Then he opens up to her about a recurring nightmare he's been having, in which he's a terrified little boy trapped in a dark box. Each time he returns to her office, he recounts the dream as it progresses, and each time, Jessica is sure she thinks she knows where it is going.
As much as she tries, she can't quite keep her own, very human, sense of curiosity out of Gwydion's case. Her friend, an actress called Mari, once had an affair with Evan and imparts some random bits of gossip about the family. And when Jess agrees, against her own rules, to visit the Morgan home in person when Gwydion falls into a deep depression, she is taken on a tour of the cliff-top garden by Arianrhod. At the edge of the cliff, at the top of a steep flight of stairs cut into the rockface, she sees a plaque, written in Swedish, memorialising the death of a young, pretty Swedish backpacker who drowned there.
As the Morgan family's secrets come bubbling to the surface, Jess gets more and more deeply involved in uncovering the truth in the hope of helping Gwydion recover and move on. But all is not as it seems with the Morgans, and Jess is not as in-control of the case as she believes.
I'm a bit torn over this one. While it had many qualities of good writing: swift, smooth, consistent pacing, a well-developed protagonist, some atmosphere and enough details to keep me interested, it was a bit predictable and a bit thin, plot-wise.
The setting - the Welsh coast, in particular - was a good one, and lively for the imagination. There was some atmosphere, but not as much as I would have liked; not as much as would have added tension and real suspense to the story.
Jessica was an interesting character, intelligent and honourable but flawed in the sense that she's a bit over-confident in her own analytical abilities and her own sense of righteousness, and she makes mistakes. She can be a bit unlikeable at times, which actually made me like her more because it made her feel more human. She could be surprisingly slow on the uptake at times, despite being intelligent overall, and she came across as rather cold and unfriendly. The reasons why Bob had a brief affair are hinted at, and as much as it doesn't excuse it, Jess has something to do with it. Her analysis of her own marital difficulties is patchy, and no wonder: it's all very well to look deep into someone else's problems while they sit on your couch, and discreetly guide them to the answers buried in their own minds, but quite another thing to accurately and honestly reflect on yourself. It takes Jess quite a while to realise that, and in the meantime - I can hardly believe it - I actually felt slightly sorry for Bob. Sorry for him in that he's a bit of a pathetic figure (anytime a 50+ year old man shags a 20-something woman, it's a bit sad, really. Mid-life crisis and all that), but also sorry for him because he could use a therapist himself, no doubt.
I am always very fascinated by the descriptions of therapy. Never having attended any kind of therapy session myself, I feel like a real voyeur, peeping in on someone else's. And it speaks to our all-too-human curiosity as to what's going on in other people's lives, partly to see what we can learn about coping techniques for ourselves. I studied some Freud at uni, in a couple of English courses, and was not impressed, but while his ideas were a bit ludicrous at times, I can see the merit in the principals of psychotherapy for some people, at least in the way Jessica works with her clients. As in Liane Moriarty's excellent novel, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I love getting that intimate access to a therapist's room, and hearing about the processes behind it.
But the plot, oh dear the plot. It really was rather predictable, and Jessica's family drama with Nella was more interesting to me than the murder mystery. It just felt a bit too contrived, a bit too convenient, and a bit too flawed. The concept for the set-up - which I don't want to explain as it would spoil the story, and I don't like giving spoilers if I can help it - seemed flimsy to me, and too obvious. After all, Jessica's dealing with a whole family of actors here, which she notes in the beginning and then forgets, so dazzled is she by Gwydion's beautiful face. (Was it just me or was the flirtation between them just plain creepy?)
As far as a quick mystery read goes, this was certainly quick. As far as a satisfying, suspenseful thriller goes, it was decidedly lacking. I didn't wholly dislike it, for the reasons mentioned above, but by the time I got to the ending I had rather lost interest in the whole family-secret-murder-mystery plot, and just wanted to hear more about human nature and Jessica's internal analysis.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
Sarah Avery has returned home to Tasmania in secret, silent disgrace. She's broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job at a fish farm in Queensland...moreSarah Avery has returned home to Tasmania in secret, silent disgrace. She's broken up with her boyfriend and quit her job at a fish farm in Queensland, and is back in time for Christmas. Her family has a beach shack in the isolated Bay of Fires national park and head there every year for Christmas and New Year's. Her parents are there: Philippa, or "Flip" as she's known, a pharmacist; and Dr John Avery, a history professor at the university. Her younger sister Erica as well - a flight attendant, pretty and a bit vapid. The Bay of Fires village is a small one, consisting of a guest house made from a converted Nissen hut; three beach shacks and a shop; the Shelley's holiday house; and a campground. The Avery's own one shack; the one closer to the guest house belongs to Flip's best friend, Pam, and her husband Don; while the blue one farther away belongs to Roger Coker, a strange fisherman who lives there year-round with his cats.
On the day after Boxing Day, Roger discovers the body of a dead woman on the beach: topless, wearing a red polka-dot bikini, her body covered in gashes and partially eaten by sea creatures. Sarah, going to see, recognises the woman: a Swiss tourist called Anja who was staying at the guest house. It's clear to everyone in the community that Anja must have been murdered, probably by the same psycho who is behind the earlier disappearance of Chloe Crawford, a teenager who was holidaying with her family. Almost instantly many of the assorted holidayers and campers point their fingers at Roger, the oddball, the freak, as the guilty party. Personal, small-minded judgements against each other begin to fly as the community starts to turn on itself out of suspicion and fear.
The day after the discovery, a journalist from a local paper arrives for an extended stay. Hall Flynn is in his forties and single, a bad driver who can only sleep with a woman when he's drunk. He takes a shine to Sarah, who is the first woman he's slept with, drunk, in a long time who he'd like to spend more time with. Sarah becomes slightly obsessed with the mystery, and shares her theories with Hall, but she's prickly and hard to get to know.
Sarah has her own issues to contend with. There's the ugly truth of her breakup with Jake, her heavy drinking and her growing fear that she's a violent person. Her opinion of herself is sinking, especially after she wakes up on Boxing Day morning in the sand, lying in a pool of vomit with her fly undone and the last thing she can remember is picking up seventeen-year-old Sam Shelley and letting him have a drink. She doesn't know what happened but she fears the worst, and she fears the others in the bay finding out - especially his clingy mother, Simone, an American woman who runs a successful furniture business and has the only posh, new beach "shack" in the area.
There aren't many suspects in such a small area, but both Hall and Sarah contemplate them all while the community turns on itself, tensions run high and Roger is targeted. These are people Sarah's known all her life; what will she do with the truth when she learns it?
Mystery novels are not my usual fare - it's one of the few genres I don't generally read, with the exception of a few literary mysteries like this one, from time to time - so I can't really compare this to anything else. However, I absolutely love reading books set in my home state, and Poppy Gee hasn't written some bland generic novel here. Her debut is intelligent, literary, nuanced and deeply embedded in the local scenery. It touches on a range of issues, prominent among them the environment and environmental practices, fishing infringements, sensationalising media, scapegoating (especially of defenceless, vulnerable individuals who perhaps suffer from an intellectual disability of some kind), the appropriation of Aboriginal lands by white graziers, the ethics and morals around sound reporting, alcoholism, violence, marital woes, sexism, feminism and judgemental women. That might seem like a long list, but it all comes out through the narrative with natural ease.
I really enjoyed Sarah as a character. She was a woman in her thirties struggling with the decisions she'd made, struggling to understand what kind of person she was and whether she even liked herself. She was intelligent but moody, a bit of a hard-arse who really, secretly, wanted to be loved and cared for by a man she could respect and be an equal to, but she doesn't know how to open up. So used is she to working with - and being the boss of - all-male crews, and absorbing the sexism and crude opinions that come with them, that she's quite the opposite of girly-girl Erica. Sarah is athletic and very strong, and because she doesn't dress up or wear make-up or make her hair pretty, she's been mistaken as a lesbian more than once.
Hall seems an unlikely partner for Sarah, at first. He's no alpha-male, no macho Aussie bloke. He's a good reporter saddled with a bad editor, he's smart and not unattractive, but after his girlfriend of many years left him for his best friend, he's been unable to have meaningful relationships with any woman - and not interested in it either. He drinks, too, and smokes, and his driving made me cringe, but I really liked him. He seemed so down-to-earth, honest, not pretentious or posturing. Both Hall and Sarah are misfits in their small universes, suffering from insecurities and a lack of confidence, and I couldn't help think that they'd be great together - if they could give up their silly insecurities.
The mystery side of the story played out nicely, albeit slowly. This is a mystery narrative that revolves around the characters, getting to know them, learning and then unlearning them as new evidence comes to light. It's the kind of mystery that is designed to make you suspect almost all the characters at one point or other. The actual truth would have been anti-climactic but was made more interesting by the ethical and moral dilemma it threw up at Hall and Sarah.
Because I don't generally read mystery or crime or thriller novels, I can't really give you a sense for how successful it was as a mystery-suspense novel, only as a literary novel. I can say that there were a few scenes that were nicely creepy, some that were full of tension that would come out of nowhere and unsettle you nicely. While I did find that the plot was at times a little slow and uneventful, for a literary mystery-suspense story, it worked quite well and at a more intellectual level. Gee unwound the story of Sarah's Queensland disgrace slowly, letting readers balance the new information with a growing sense of Sarah as a person, which enables her to remain a sympathetic character.
The landscape itself was the strongest element to the whole book. The descriptions of the location where vivid and realistic, and peopled as it was with distinctly Australian characters, the world of Bay of Fires came vibrantly to life - which is what you want when your mystery novel depends on the interactions between the characters to maintain both the mystery and the suspense. While at times Gee's language was a little awkward and slowed me down, there were also some really beautiful lines as well, like "At the bar, a flannelette row of farm workers peered from beneath caps." [p.158] Gee's love for the real Bay of Fires Conservation Area (which does not, in reality, have a campground or guest house or shop as it does in the novel, only some shacks) comes across strongly, and the novel carries with it a real sense of place.
The mystery of the two missing women is loosely based (inspired, but not a recreation of) two real-life cases: the disappearance of German woman Nancy Grundwaldt in 1993 and the death of Italian Victoria Cafasso in 1995, tourists to the Bay of Fires whose cases were never solved - though in 2011 a retired police officer came out publicly with information on the Grundwaldt case. In a place like Tasmania, with its peaceful, beautiful scenery and small, half-a-million population, the two cases gripped everyone's imaginations and are yet to be forgotten. In this way, too, Poppy Gee's novel will resonate with Australian readers at a more personal level.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, which I read as a literary novel more than a mystery - the mystery propels the story forward but it is the stylistic writing and the incredibly well-captured characters that keep you reading. It's gritty and realistic, and any time you add sinister tensions to a scenic landscape, you're going to get a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. There aren't many stories set in Tasmania, and in general, Australian authors seem overly conscious of the "cultural cringe" and avoid that sense of familiarity with location that, conversely, American authors embrace so whole-heartedly. Personally, I love reading stories set in places I recognise, and have lived in. Gee incorporated plenty of local sites and landmarks and places, without a trace of the dreaded cultural cringe, and for that I thank her. I'm very interested in what Poppy Gee writes next, because she's a talent to watch out for.
On a side note, I was a bit put-off by something about this book: this is an Australian writer, the story is set here, my edition was published in the UK, and yet the spelling is American. It was very jarring to read "color", "harbor", "tire" and so on, when everything else was so distinctly Australian. A pet peeve of mine.(less)
Paris, 1929. Harris Stuyvesant, a big blonde American with a crooked nose and a messy history, has spent the last three years moving around Europe, doing odd jobs and working intermittently as a private investigator. Hired by the uncle and mother of a young American woman who's gone missing, he moves to Paris to begin the search.
Philippa - Pip - Crosby is twenty-two and hasn't been seen or heard from since March; it's now September. She went to France like many of her countrymen, to have a good time away from the family influence and the watchful eyes of her own society back home, and had slid into the Parisian art world as so many do. Working as a model and aspiring actress, Pip Crosby's name comes up in connection to some important and distinguished figures in Surrealist art - like photographer and painter, Man Ray (from America); little mole-like Hyacinthe "Didi" Moreau who makes display boxes of carefully-placed odds and ends, many of them disturbing; and Le Comte Dominic Charmentier, an aristocratic war hero who lost his entire family and now puts his energies into patronising Surrealist artists and managing the Theatre Grand-Guignol, which puts on intensely disturbing, graphic and violent plays with intervals of slapstick comedy in-between.
Stuyvesant finds a surprising ally in a French police inspector, Doucet, who is working on a much larger case of missing people from various countries - mostly women, but some men - who date back to the year before. The deeper Stuyvesant delves into the murky world of gory, shock art, the more the truth slowly seeps in: Pip hasn't flitted off to holiday on some rich guy's yacht. She's dead. With the certainty comes a growing suspicion, encouraged by the finding of some photographs that show women in a state of abject terror. But who took them, and what happened to the women after? The closer Stuyvesant comes to figuring it out, the more his own life is at risk - and those of people he cares deeply about.
I don't often read detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery-suspense novels - I'm never sure what to call them exactly, but all of the above. The generic kind (popular fiction) are too simplistic for me, and I get bored with them very quickly. Not enough character development, or the kind of description that aids in building atmosphere, tension and suspense. My in-laws read them constantly, so I'm always seeing books by writers like Harlan Corben, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, John Sandford, Tess Gerritsen, John Grisham, Vince Flynn, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and so on, lying around their house, but I've never been tempted to pick one up and start reading. I've read one Cornwell book and one Grisham book (for a course at uni, years ago), and wasn't impressed - they're just not for me. But The Bones of Paris is not cast of the same mould, not at all. This is historical fiction, for a start, and it is an atmospheric, highly detailed, very involved and intelligent mystery, one that connects with the repercussions of war, like post-traumatic stress disorder and amputations, and the therapeutic affects (or hypothesis of) shock art. This is brain food, not a by-the-numbers stock thriller or suspense story.
This was my first time reading anything by King, who is the author of the Mary Russell mysteries and many others. The first Harris Stuyvesant book is called Touchstone, set in London, and while The Bones of Paris makes connections with that earlier book - in particular Harris's lover, Sarah Grey, and her brother Captain Bennett Grey - it explains enough that their relationship in 1929 makes sense and continues to evolve, without giving everything away and spoiling the plot of Touchstone. Likewise with Harris himself: we learn a fair bit about him, and yet - in true mystery fashion - you know there's a great deal more that still lies hidden. His character comes through clearly: his pugnacity, or stubbornness, his sense of loyalty, even honour, his conscience and his somewhat clumsy empathetic skills. When we see him through the eyes of Le Comte, or Sarah Grey, or Bennett, we see a man you could dismiss as oafish: too big for slight, genteel Paris, too lumbering to be delicate or subtle, and yet Harris seems perfectly aware of his true state of being, and uses it to his advantage. He has that American quality - it comes through - of not caring what the locals think and just doing his thing regardless of how many feathers he ruffles in the process. He's reliable, determined, but knows when to back down and be a bit more flexible. He's an interesting character, not complex but not as obvious as he seems at first, either. Realistic, and human, and a convincing product of his time and personal history.
The setting is rich and tangible. Paris, fully recovered from World War I - or so it would seem: the scars and cracks of sanity are well hidden. The city is awash in foreigners, artists and writers and the rich making the most of the strong dollar to make the city their own. Stuyvesant predicts a market crash, and thinks Paris would be better off without all the ex-pats, who have altered the city in noticeable ways. Historical figures like Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Man Ray - they litter the narrative, giving the period it's set in solidity and presence, authenticity and that touch of glam. The period details are well researched, right down to Stuyvesant's throwaway thought regarding halitosis - a "condition" that was invented, so to speak, in the 1920s as a way of selling Listerine as something other than a liquid for sterilising surgical implements (prior to this highly successful marketing campaign, no one had any concept of good vs. bad breath - hard to imagine now, I know).
And of course there's Paris itself, a city built of limestone quarried from right underneath it, so that parts of it caved in in the 18th century, leading to an inventive solution. The city took the many bones from an overflowing cemetery that had already been closed (bodies would be thrown into pits and not covered over until full, when a new one would start, rotting freely in the open), and moved them to the mines, using them to make solid walls and foundations for the city. I've been to Paris once before but didn't even know about it; it would be quite the thing to see!
But this visual, of a city practically made of bones, of the beautiful bones of Paris and the empire of Death - it all resounds throughout the story, creating or adding to the growing tension and suspense, and making of the City of Light a city of darkness, of dark alleys and late nights falling down drunk, a city of murder and madness. A city with some complex truths hiding under its pretty surface façade. This idea complements, or is juxtaposed to, the women in Stuyvesant's life, the women who go missing and turn up dead. He spent five nights with Pip Crosby in Nice when she was passing through (he was working at a bar as a bouncer), and never thought to look beneath the surface of her pretty face and bright eyes. Same with Lulu, an amateur night walker with two little kids under the care of their grandmother, who he sleeps with when he first arrives in Paris and who later turns up dead. He never knew she had children, didn't know anything about her. Just saw her face and heard her laugh and thought, Why not? Such is the way the ex-pats treat Paris itself, like a sparkling lady who has much to give but goes no deeper than the stones under one's feet.
That's what I meant by calling this "brain food": a novel that engages and works with your many senses and your mind, and while it is quite a long novel and might be too rich in detail for some readers, it never felt bogged down or slow. It kept its pacing steady until the end, when it becomes nice and taut, and doesn't ever feel monotonous or tedious by the simple delight that there is so much to learn here. I felt like I'd just sat through the most fascinating art history lecture ever. What better way to learn about such things than in the hands of a skilled storyteller? None for my money.
The Book of Someday is much more than a simple coming-of-age story and it is more than a mystery: it is a story that gives voice to neglected, lonely...moreThe Book of Someday is much more than a simple coming-of-age story and it is more than a mystery: it is a story that gives voice to neglected, lonely children who carry the scars of a dismal childhood at the hands of selfish parents or guardians long into adulthood. It is a story of making mistakes and atoning for them, and of seeking forgiveness - or not. It is a sad but ultimately hopeful story about growing up and becoming a better version of your lonely, neglected childhood self.
In 2012, Livvi is finding a measure of happiness and peace with herself after the release of her first novel, at twenty-six, a book more autobiography than fiction - a fact she keeps to herself. It is a story about growing up with a silent, angry father and an abusive, domineering stepmother called Calista. It is an attempt to take charge of her life, several years after she severed all ties with her father, but she's still the product of her isolated upbringing: naïve and innocent, insecure with the certainty that she's unloveable, and inexperienced in the ways of relationships. When she meets Andrew, a successful PR man in his early forties, the heady heights of passion and love fill the void within her. He is her first in so many ways, so that when she discovers parts of his life that had been kept from her, she is torn between her instincts and her understanding that she can never come first for him, and her feelings that she will never find love again, that this is her only chance.
Meanwhile, also in 2012, beautiful, sexy photographer of worldwide renown, Micah Lesser, has just learned that she has advanced breast cancer. In the wake of this news and a hopeful plan for treatment, Micah has a more pressing question weighing on her conscience: given the grave mistakes of her past, does she deserve the right to fight this and live? Or should she pay for her past mistake with her own life? She begins to search out people she hasn't seen in decades, to find some kind of answer, some sign of forgiveness or redemption, or permission to live. Her journey takes her across the United States, into the murky shadows of her adolescence in which hide the monsters of her true self.
And in 1986, young wife and mother AnnaLee is anxious about keeping her family afloat: her husband, Jack, was a skilled surgeon but lacked the stomach for blood; now he's a lawyer but lacks the killer instinct, preferring to leave the office early and come home to read and play with his daughter, Bella. They live in the house AnnaLee's parents built, a beautiful house full of precious artwork and antiques, which she is being forced to slowly sell off in order to pay the bills. The summer is made more fraught by Jack agreeing to take in his teenaged niece for a few months, a rebellious, rude and wild girl whom everyone has washed their hands of. Only AnnaLee takes the time to slowly connect with her niece, to befriend her and show her that she too is worthy of love and affection - and trust.
These three women, and their lives, are bound by one terrible night, and one terrible vision: the woman in the shimmering dress and pearl-button shoes. AnnaLee has a painting of this woman hanging on her living room wall. Micah is haunted by another, similar portrait, and Livvi has had nightmares of this woman for most of her life. What is the connection, and what will they learn about themselves in unravelling the truth?
You can read The Book of Someday as a tightly woven mystery, a coming-of-age story with a delicious gothic atmosphere, or even as a romance of sorts. It is all of these things, and while the plot provides structure and momentum, it is ultimately a story about people and the relationships we form - or the ones thrust upon us, and the consequences of betraying the trust of a child. The thing that really got to me, as it always does (most especially since becoming a mother myself), is the character of the child who wants to be loved, to be hugged and spend time with their parents, to talk to them and be listened to and to learn from them, but who are denied for one reason or another. Both Livvi and Micah had failed childhoods. Livvi grew up believing her mother was a socialite who ran away, and her stepmother embellished this by telling young Olivia that she left because Livvi was such a horrible child. Micah's mother was a world-famous opera singer who travelled the world and had certain expectations of her daughter, none of which young Micah wanted to fulfil, while her father, his wife's manager, figured the best thing to do was to give his daughter space - without realising that what she really needed was parents who were present and there for her. My heart ached for both of them.
Contrasted to this is AnnaLee, a loving, caring, nurturing woman who showers love on her baby daughter and shares all she has with her niece when she comes to stay, riding the waves of the girl's anger and vitriol and being there for her. It makes what happens all the more heartbreaking, and gives a extra layer of sadness to Livvi's broken, loveless childhood and Micah's bitter, resentful, loveless adulthood. The strength of the novel lies in this juxtaposition of characters and emotion, in the contrast of "what is" with "what could have been".
The prose lends itself well to this emotional, atmospheric tale, though it did take me a while to get used to it. Dixon writes in present tense - the liberal use of which, these days, is a bit of a pet peeve of mine - but with her own writerly style. The occasional use of fragmented sentences - "A sound. Very faint. Is coming from outside. The crunch of tires on gravel. As if a car has pulled into the driveway. And stopped." [p.248] - lends itself well to the construction of heightened drama and tension, that feeling of time stopping or things becoming jarring. Dixon also uses more progressive verbs where usually you would expect simple present tense verbs - "Now her knees actually are buckling. One of them is banging against a cabinet door, and the door's wrought-iron handle is opening a gash on her kneecap." [p.73 - my emphasis] - which I did find a bit harder to read, as it doesn't give you a break from the sense of forward momentum. The use of present tense is also unusual in that the story is written completely from the third person. At first, reading it reminded me of when my toddler pushed some buttons on the remote control and the voice-over narration - like "He opens the fridge", "Some people are staring in the background"; that kind of thing - for the visually-impaired got turned on. But after a while you settle into it and it propels you along, guiding you through the twists and turns of the story.
While it begins with the sense of three completely unrelated stories and a great deal of mystery, it gives the reader an active role to play in piecing it all together - and I always much prefer to be an active reader than a passive, or excluded, one. You connect the dots at a slow pace because of how things are revealed, which enables you to focus on the story without being thoroughly distracted by the mystery side of things. The characters are never overshadowed by the plot, but are richly fleshed-out and realistic. I did find myself a little frustrated with Livvi - she has a lot to learn over the course of the novel and while she does find strength in herself, she reminded me a little too much of Christine Feehan's vapid innocent heroines (I would have been more sympathetic toward Livvi if I hadn't read a Feehan romance novel in my life, I'm sure), a contrast all the more acute because she's so drastically different from Micah, who is strong, selfish, successful, confident, arrogant, superior, greedy. I liked Micah more as a character, because she was less obvious, more complex, and the sympathy I felt for her was harder won, gradual and full of shades of grey.
As in Livvi's published novel, the ending of Dixon's The Book of Someday is rather ambiguous. I know which way I want it to end, but I have to give credit to Dixon for presenting Livvi with a legitimate dilemma. I just hate to think of her giving up true happiness only for the sake of giving a neglected child the love and attention she had lacked in her own childhood - I'm not a fan of martyrs, clearly. It's a powerful story that made me fight back tears, a compelling narrative of love, loss and grief as well as the need for redemption.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
Jac L’Etoile has returned to the States from France, leaving behind the love of her life, Griffin North, and facing an uncertain f...moreGiveaway on my blog!
Jac L’Etoile has returned to the States from France, leaving behind the love of her life, Griffin North, and facing an uncertain future in terms of lost motivation and a lack of direction. In Connecticut, her old therapist and mentor, Malachai, shows her the secret and ancient rock formations on his family's estate that appear to be Celtic; the revelation helps jolt Jac out of her fugue, but more so does the letter she discovers Malachai has been hiding from her, a letter from her friend Theo Gaspard whom she knew at the Blixer Rath clinic in Switzerland. Jac was at Blixer when she was fourteen, sent by her grandmother to see if Malachai and the other therapists could hep her with her hallucinations. Theo was two years older, and while they never fit in with the other teenagers at the clinic, they became close friends. But Malachai sees Theo as a danger to Jac, and warns her against him.
Theo lives on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, an island full of caves and ancient Celtic sites. In his letter, he asks Jac to join him in searching for evidence of the Druids, and Jac is all too eager to oblige. There are mysteries within mysteries in Jac's life: she and Theo have an unusual connection which neither of them really understand, and Theo has an ulterior motive in calling Jac - whom he hasn't seen since he abruptly left Blixer Rath well over a decade ago - to Jersey.
At Wells in Wood, the very old, rambling stone building the Gaspards have lived in for generations, Theo discovered a letter from the celebrated French author, poet and statesman Victor Hugo to his ancestor, Fantine Gaspard, in which Hugo mentions a journal hidden in a cave only the two of them know of, that will tell a story no one has heard before. A story about the Shadow of the Sepulcher... also known as Lucifer.
Since the loss of his wife, Theo has perhaps an unhealthy obsession with finding Hugo's journal and learning more, and amongst all these Celtic ruins and ancient ritual sites, Jac is easily drawn into the mystery. The layers of mystery only deepen, and the truth becomes more complicated, as the past threatens to overtake the present and obliterate the lives of Fantine's descendants.
I wasn't at all aware, when I agreed to review this, that Seduction was part of a series. Having read it, I can tell you that it doesn't make all that much difference. The previous book, The Book of Lost Fragrances, is also about Jac and this book does mention some details from her summer in Paris, the setting of the other book, but it made no real difference that I hadn't read it or any of the other books in the series, all of which feature different characters (as far as I can make out).
Reincarnation is a theme, and an integral part of the plot, but there are so many layers to this novel that it's hard to say what is the main theme. Victor Hugo plays a role, and a convincing one at that, as he recounts, in 1855, certain episodes from his time living in exile in Jersey, where he held over a hundred séances - at first to ease his grief after his eldest, Didine, drowns, but it becomes a kind of unhealthy obsession that worries at him, especially after they make contact with Lucifer - the Shadow of the Sepulcher - who offers him a deal: restore his reputation in poetry and he will bring Didine back to Victor. But as Hugo learns, the Shadow's methods are abhorrent: he lures young girls away from their beds at night and brings them to the brink of death, at which point Hugo finds them and the Shadow tries to get him to let the girls die so Didine's soul can take their place.
In the present, Jac's story of her time at Blixer Rath, her unusual friendship with Theo and what it means that she hallucinates things from Theo's life - and his previous lives, not that she believes in reincarnation - weaves in and out of the narrative, gradually adding blocks of knowledge to the foundation of mystery that this novel rests on. There is another side to the story too: a Celtic family in 56 BCE facing a horrific situation, the three players in the drama playing out their tragic roles down through the ages until, finally, it reaches the Gaspards and Jac, with her unique ability to see Theo's past life, learns the truth behind the strife between Theo and his younger brother, Ash, and Theo's wife, Naomi.
There are so many layers to this gothic-horror, mystery-suspense novel, it's a wonder that it works at all. If I untangle them slightly, there are two plot-lines: Victor Hugo's encounters with the Devil and the bargain he offers, and the search for the lost journal; and Jac's ongoing problems with hallucinations, her resistance to Malachai's belief in reincarnation, her visions from 56 BCE and Theo's past life. Somehow Rose weaves these together to make one solid story, but I'm not entirely convinced they fit together all that well.
I was engaged by Victor Hugo's story, which was full of spooky atmosphere and chilling details, and brings that wonderful sense of Victorian Gothic Horror to the story - which is nicely linked to the present through the rather oppressive and monstrous Gaspard mansion which is perched on the edge of the cliff, and even the Victorian house hidden away in the woods that Ash lives in. Jersey itself is a vivid setting, full of dark woods you can get lost in, precipitous cliffs, mist and even wolves. All the more apt for the spookiness of Jac's visions and the slightly menacing atmosphere between Theo and Ash, the Gaspard brothers. There's also their great-aunts, Minerva and Eva, who have their own secrets. This is certainly a book about airing the past and healing old wounds.
As interesting as the story was - and the multiple layers or dimensions to it did appeal to me - I struggled a bit, reading this. Rose's prose is perfectly competent but her style, her "voice", isn't one that really worked for me. It's hard to say why, it's just one of those things. We all have our own unique brain patterns, the rhythms of our mind and our own voice, even if we're not writers, and sometimes we find authors whose own voice, or style - their "way with words", how they construct sentences - aligns well with our own, or balances it or engages or stimulates or what have you. And other times an author's voice jars, or annoys, or bores us. Rose's voice just didn't quite engage mine, so that I too-often found my mind wandering. It's not an easy thing to explain, especially when I can't say that there's any particular reason why I didn't "click" better with this novel. It has so many elements that should have completely engaged me, but that didn't. Perhaps part of the problem was that there was so much going on here, and for a while I simply didn't know what story I was reading or where it was headed. It's not going to be that way for everyone, obviously, so I don't want it to detract from anyone's interest in reading this. But, this being my personal review, it's important to note it.
Seduction has many strengths, not least of which is the depth of Rose's research - into Victor Hugo, the Celts, the art of creating perfume and any number of other things. It's rather exhausting to think of it. Rose has created a deeply atmospheric, multi-layered novel of mystery, suspense and gothic horror, weaving the lives of centuries into one complex tale. There is a scene at the end that I found to be horrific and tragic and that still makes me want to cry just thinking about it, but that just made the revelations all that much stronger, and caring about a novel's characters makes the reading experience linger for a long time. I may have struggled to connect with the characters and the story in some ways, but it isn't a story I'll forget in a hurry; as for the characters, so will it echo and resonate over the years with me.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via France Book Tours. (less)
It's been six weeks since I read this and I'm struggling a bit to remember what it was about, so I'm just going to start writing and see what resurfac...moreIt's been six weeks since I read this and I'm struggling a bit to remember what it was about, so I'm just going to start writing and see what resurfaces. Deadlocked begins with a dodgy party at Eric Northman's house where he's entertaining the vampire king of the region, Felipe de Castro, and his entourage. Considering Eric, Sookie and their cohort were directly responsible for murdering Victor, Felipe's regent, in the previous book, Dead Reckoning. Things get messy at the party: Sookie is delayed by Mustapha, Eric's shifter guard, and when she does arrive she finds Eric drinking blood from a drugged girl - and it looks like sex isn't far behind. After Sookie's evicted the girl from the house, she turns up dead of a broken neck on Eric's front lawn, and the police are called.
Things are messy for Sookie at home, as well. Her great uncle Dermot, a fairy, and her cousin Claude are still living with her, having been left behind when Sookie's grandfather, a patriarch of the fae, closed the doorways between the two worlds. When her grandfather, Niall, turns up unexpectedly and Sookie confronts him about his treatment of his son, Dermot, certain things come to light and Niall begins his own investigation into his family, taking Claude with him back to faery.
Without Claude managing the other strange fae in the area, they begin to get restless and Sookie isn't sure how long it'll be before they make a mistake and eat something - or someone - they shouldn't. The police are watching Sookie; her best friend Tara is about to have twins; her friend Sam's new girlfriend, a werewolf called Jannalynn, has taken exception to Sookie's existence; there's a robbery at the antique store selling some of her grandparents' old furniture; and it dawns on Sookie that others might be aware that she has a cluviel dor in her possession: a powerful magical artefact that her grandmother's faery lover Fintan had given her, which had been stowed away in a secret compartment in her grandmother's desk, which Sookie found.
I can't remember all the thoughts I had while reading this and directly afterward, but here are the lingering impressions (which are perhaps the ones that really count).
Like many Sookie Stackhouse novels, Deadlocked is busy and full of small details - which is just how I like my Sookie books (I've adjusted to the lots-of-little-plots over one-big-cohesive-plot that you get in this series, so now I just go with it and try to keep up). So far this is the only Urban Fantasy series I really enjoy, and the only one I've actually stuck with. Sookie is no detective, she just happens to have the tools - her telepathy and all the people she knows - to be in the right place at the right time and the smarts to figure things out. She's a waitress with only year 12 education, and no ambition, but she's comfortable with that and she's such a well-developed, enjoyable character that she carries the story well. There's just something about Sookie that I have always liked, even though if she were a real person and I met her, we wouldn't have anything in common and wouldn't be friends. I enjoy reading about her life, the mundane details as much as the exciting ones. The only trouble I have with her is that, lately, she seems a bit unemotional.
Perhaps there's just so much going on in her world, and she's had to face the loss of loved ones, a load of violence, torture and betrayal, that she's a bit numb now. It's just that, she says she loves Eric (and he says he loves her) but I just don't believe it. The book where Eric was bewitched and forgot who he was and charmed Sookie by being a sweetheart was probably my favourite in the whole series, but the chemistry between the two of them has vanished in the last couple of books. It's also been dulled by the clear fact that there's no future for these two. Sookie has no interest in becoming a vampire. And she seems to be sacrificing a great deal of her own morals, or principals, merely to remain in the vampires' social circles, and that does seem to be affecting her, even if she hasn't realised it. So the way this one ended was both a pleasant surprise and a bit of an "a-ha!" moment, though I rather hope that things aren't going to be that obvious.
There are a couple of different strands to the plot of Deadlocked, and they both come to fruition at the end - only they didn't quite make sense to me. I had a great many interruptions while reading this, having started it in Canada while surrounded by movers, and finishing it here in Australia days later. I did enjoy it, it was much stronger than the previous book or two which were rather boring, but my increasing sense of despair for Sookie's personal life spoiled it somewhat.
Still, things have been put into place to make the next book (the last one I think?) a solid finale. I hope. I'm looking forward to reading it, because having got to know Sookie as a fictional character, I so want to see her happy - and safe - because I don't know that I really understand her anymore. She's not the person she was in the beginning, which is understandable, and I don't think she likes herself as much anymore. You can actually feel the mild depression coming off the narration (I have to wonder how much of that is Harris being tired of Sookie and her story, too). She was often grumpy, upsettingly small-minded, begrudging, angry, and so on. She doesn't seem to have anyone to really talk to, and Eric has become a pretty useless boyfriend. The last book has a lot of work to do, is all I can say.(less)
When the Shalom Foundation, run by billionaire American Jew Philip Weinraub, approaches Dr Annie Kendall with a proposition she can't refuse, little d...moreWhen the Shalom Foundation, run by billionaire American Jew Philip Weinraub, approaches Dr Annie Kendall with a proposition she can't refuse, little does she realise just what the three-month research project she's signed up for will entail. The proposition is quite simple: go to London and research the so-called Jew of Holborn, a Jew who lived in hiding during the Cromwell years (1535 in particular), who found a treasury of ancient Jewish artefacts and later distributed them to synagogues across Europe. Her task is to corroborate this theory and even locate the source of the treasure, "but simply proving that such things found their way to England will be a remarkable coup," as Weinraub puts it.
To smooth the way, Annie, an architectural historian, is allowed to use a flat, No.8 Bristol House on Southampton Row, paid for by Weinraub whose secretary is the niece of the owner, Mrs Bea Walton. The flat is much bigger than Annie has need for, and comes with a couple of interesting features: a huge black-and-white mural depicting miniature scenes of London that covers one wall in the room she'll use as her bedroom; and the ghost of a Carthusian monk from the same period she's here to research: the Tudor period.
Several things give Annie the sense that the monk is here to help, not harm her. As a recovering alcoholic who lost custody of her son when he was just three years old, she has the unique perspective of someone who believes in AA; as she thinks of it, AA and the process of dealing with her addiction has left her hollowed out and open to manifestations - as well as the kind of revelations that many would deem strange or plain crazy.
Then she meets well-known British television personality and investigative journalist, Geoffrey Harris, and is shocked to find that he is the spitting image of her Carthusian ghost, minus the tonsure. Confiding in Geoff leads to a close friendship and growing intimacy between the two, but it also puts Annie in contact with people Geoff knows whose experience and knowledge sheds further light on the mysteries that she begins to uncover. It's quickly apparent that the task the Shalom Foundation set her on is little more than a smokescreen, though there is something they - or rather, Weinraub - is keen to have her find. But what is really going on here? What is Weinraub's interest in the mural in her bedroom, what is the monk trying to tell her, and what is the Speckled Egg?
Figuring all of these mysteries out will lead Annie on a fascinating path into Jewish mysticism, ancient Catholic politics, code-breaking and the complicated underground tunnels that lie beneath London. Danger is closing in on her, and the closer she gets to the truth, the more desperate her enemies become.
Having absolutely loved Swerling's novel, City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan, which I read over ten years ago, I was very eager to read her latest book, Bristol House. I knew what the basic plot was about, having read the publisher's summary, but I still wasn't sure what kind of book this was going to be, nor where it was going to take me. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, not what I was expecting and yet so much more. Reading this finely-crafted novel was hugely enjoyable, for many reasons, and had the added bonus of making me think pretty much every chapter: "Ah, the plot thickens."
(It would do Bristol House an extreme disservice to compare or liken it to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and yet - not being a reader of these kinds of mysteries, typically, but I have read that one (a REALLY long time ago) - it was the book that came to mind when the story began to delve into ancient religious politics and conflicts, religious secrets and artefacts and a conspiracy that ties it all together. But that's really the only thing the two have in common, and aside from that loose connection they're very dissimilar. If anything, this is the novel for people who didn't like Brown's, as much as it is for people who did: it's still a mystery, a suspense story, loaded with historical and religious exploration and discovery. The things that annoyed so many people about The Da Vinci Code are absent from this, while it retains all the excitement and adds some new elements to the structure.)
I do enjoy a book containing mystery and suspense that takes me down a path unknown. Combining the story of Dom Justin, the Carthusian monk, and Giacomo the Lombard, otherwise known as the Jew of Holborn, from 1535 with a present-day mystery and religious conspiracy sounds a little bizarre when I put it like that, but actually it gives the story a depth and uniqueness that would otherwise be absent. Both Dom Justin and Giacomo tell their stories from "the Waiting Place", purgatory - Dom Justin in particular understands that he needs to atone for his sins by helping "the woman", Annie. I'm a little unsure over whether Giacomo did anything to help Annie or not, but his perspective on Justin's tale really fleshes it out. The parts of the story set in 1535 instantly transport you to Tudor England (and, later, Europe); in fact it was at times jarring, first to be whipped away from Annie's story, then to be torn away from Justin's.
This near-constant tug-of-war between the two narratives is not a negative; it actually makes the story both stronger and more insistent, or imperative - the sense of urgency is greater for having Justin's insight. Besides which, 1535 sounds like a scary time to live, with Cromwell breathing down your neck and Henry VIII beginning to round up and burn anyone who disagreed with his decision to make himself the head of the Church of England - thus breaking ties with the Catholic church. The historical portions of the story are vividly rendered, right down to the food and the underwear and the pestilence. With Annie uncovering clues about the period in the present, the two layers of narrative work together to present a sense of true danger and uncertainty, in both periods.
I confess I wasn't able to really grasp all the revelations, not because they weren't well explained (from different angles, too), but because I just don't have any prior knowledge of things like Kabbalah numerology etc. and I still don't really understand the part about the A's - I do and I don't. I need to be able to see it I think. And have some understanding of Hebrew. And French. Honestly the depth and breadth of Swerling's knowledge and research is astounding.
At first I was a bit wary of Annie having this horrible past: her parents die in a car accident when she's quite young; then her aunt packs her twin brother Aaron (who she calls Ari) off to another aunt and he ends up committing suicide; she becomes an alcoholic, gets married while still a uni student and has a baby, Ari, who was removed from her home when he was three because of neglect and unhygenic living conditions. It was just piling up on Annie's head and seemed like way too much, except that the more you get to know her, the more it all just ... works. Certainly it's all inter-connected and the important point, the part relevant to the mystery narrative, is how AA has helped reshape her. I really don't know much about AA, clearly; I got a new and very insightful look into the inner lives of (recovering) alcoholics and the kind of tensile strength they needs must possess.
As a mystery story, Annie's character isn't the focus of the book, but it does come through in the narrative, both distinct and subtle. Swerling uses small details and a keen eye for flaws to depict Annie. In contrast, Geoff Harris was a little too perfect and convenient: he's attractive, he's wealthy, he's extremely well-connected and has loads of sources and contacts and inside people, plus he was already sniffing around Weinraub because of something else. And yes, all of those reasons (except his appearance) were why he sought out Annie after their initial introduction, and the idea of, if you like, 'fated coincidence' is a running theme throughout the book. I wasn't too bothered because I liked Geoff a lot, and he seemed so, well, normal to me - a man removed from the stereotypes upheld by popular media, especially TV commercials. He was quite finely balanced, as a human being, and definitely the kind of man you'd want someone like Annie, who's been through so much already, to be with.
Of course, one of the other major characters in the book is Bristol House itself, and I do love a book where a building becomes a character in its own right. It's a bit of an eery place, though I'm sure that's just the ghost - and the mural; going by the description, it sounds pretty overwhelming and even a bit oppressive. Amazing no one had painted over it already (it dates from early-ish 20th century). The way No.8 Bristol House plays into the mystery side of the narrative, going beyond a haunted back room to becoming integral to deciphering what's going on, is deftly handled. Again, it's Annie's state of mind that enables her to arrive at many of her intuitive conclusions, though for the reader, it's her conversations with some very interesting Rabbis that help it sound reasonable (though I don't have any trouble going along with magical realism wherever it pops up, in fact I love it and without that element I wouldn't have enjoyed this half as much as I did).
I did get the impression that Swerling was writing with an American audience in mind, as the characters conveniently translated British English (expressions and vocab) for Annie. It was smoothly incorporated but while once or twice would have seemed natural enough, that both Annie and Geoff were doing it every time seemed one convenience too many. And seriously, is there anyone who doesn't know what porridge or a mobile is, in the English-speaking world? Surely American readers know those at least! That kind of thing will probably stick out to non-North American readers, but at the very least Swerling's dialogue is quite natural and effortless, and such things as this became light teasing that was quite fun.
This is quite a complex story, and fascinating to read if you're interested in history - both religious and European - and ideas surrounding time and the supernatural. The ending is both climactic and, yes, a little cheesy, but I was so caught up in it that I couldn't have cared less. (And there are a few details in it that sent some serious chills going down my back!) I learnt a lot from reading this, which I don't often get to say. Full of atmosphere, believable characters and a genuine-feeling romance that nicely balances out the darker aspects, Beverly Swerling has achieved that thing that high school teachers the world over try to capture: a book that is both entertaining and educational.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book.(less)
The War has been raging for as long as anyone can remember. The secret, endless War between two opposing sides - one good, one evil. Neither side know...moreThe War has been raging for as long as anyone can remember. The secret, endless War between two opposing sides - one good, one evil. Neither side knows which one is which; it is kill or be killed in an illusory conflict in which assassination is the weapon of choice.
When she was seventeen, Maria was pulled into this secret War, and they killed her lover and stole her child. Now they are telling her to go home. To ignore what she knows is going on in the shadows all around her. They tell Maria to forget all she's lost. The trouble is, something simply can't be forgotten.
That is the publisher's blurb that instantly drew me into reading these books - first Children of Paranoia, which was intense, gripping and thought-provoking, and now the sequel, Children of the Underground. It's like that blurb was written just for me. It hit all my buttons, and I just HAD to read the books. And what a great impulsive decision that was!
The first book was Joe's story, the journal he kept to explain everything to Maria, whom he fell in love with. Joe is gone, taken from Maria in the tragic, violent climax of Children of Paranoia - and so is their child. According to the rules of the War, any child born to a parent who is underage (Maria was seventeen) is to be handed over to the other side to raise - to essentially become the enemy. They did what they could to escape this rule, this cruel fate, but They are everywhere, in all facets of society across the globe, and there is no hiding from Them.
Maria was not born into the War, and she never married Joe - she is still considered a civilian. Untouchable. And under-estimated. She is determined to get her baby, Christopher, back, to protect him from this senseless War that seeks to claim him as yet another victim who had no choice. Armed with very few clues from Joe's journal, Maria sets out to locate Michael, Joe's other friend and, like him, a skilled assassin (they call them Soldiers) in the War. Michael has dropped out of the War - as he puts it, he hasn't quit, he's just stopped taking orders. But out on the island off the Jersey shore where he always loved to spend downtime, the enemy keeps coming for him.
With Michael's help, Maria has an extra lead: the Underground, something she hadn't even known existed. There are others who've tried to escape the War, and the Underground helps set them up with new identities. But why should they help Maria? After all, Christopher is safe. Until he's eighteen, no one can touch him. And locating the information of where he is is hard enough, let alone the task of getting to it. But there is no one so determined as a mother out to protect her baby, and as Christopher's first birthday approaches - a milestone that would likely mean he'll forget the sound of his mother's voice - Maria is driven to do whatever is necessary to locate him, and save him.
First of all, let me say how much I enjoyed this. Children of the Underground follows seamlessly on from the first book and has all the power and intensity and suspense of its predecessor. New layers are added, and the world in which the War takes place - our world, but also the War itself - broadens and deepens as we learn more about it, much more than Joe ever knew. There is the Underground, who help people escape the War but have no interest in doing anything that will help end the War; and there are also the Rebels, who split from the Underground because they decided they couldn't sit by and watch everyone die without fighting to stop it.
We learn about the Rebels through some alternating chapters that break up Maria's narrative, a young woman called Addy and a civilian teenager called Evan. Evan got caught up in a raid by accident, but They have now made him into a terrorist - all because he and Addy were the only ones to have escaped. All the Rebel bases in California were raided, by SWAT teams no less, the victims disguised as terrorists in the media, and Addy has nowhere to turn but her old friends in the Underground - if they are still there, if they will welcome her.
What we don't learn for quite some time is when these scenes are taking place - past, present, future? I'll leave that for you to discover, as to reveal it now would be to give too much away. I'll just say that it sets up the third (and final?) book admirably.
Where I was slightly disappointed by Children of the Underground was with Maria herself. I really liked Maria in the first book, but I found that what made her a distinct character somewhat evaporated in her own narrative. Certainly, her circumstances have changed and she's not the person she once was. But actually I think it is a simple and unfortunate case of Shane writing her in much the same voice and style as Joe. Both are told as the characters write their journals - Joe for Maria, Maria for Christopher - and this is convincingly done. The writing doesn't get flowery, or too descriptive, though it's certainly better written than the majority of us would write a journal! It wasn't that, it was that Maria's own personality seemed to be missing.
I can make lots of justifications for the way this is written - she's in an extreme situation, she's changed a lot in order to survive, and so on. And it's true: the War makes everyone paranoid, and there's no room for laughter or nostalgia in that. I couldn't help but want to see glimpses of some other side of Maria, though, some evidence that a part of the old Maria had survived. A, dare I say it, more feminine side. But overall, I admired Shane's skill in depicting her, how she'd changed, how relentless and even ruthless she became - as seen in those scenes towards the end, which I can't describe because I don't want to give it away. I suppose what I was really feeling was sadness that the girl Joe first met, who made jokes and flirted and was full of life and vitality and promise, had been scraped away, replaced by a woman who is all hard edges and paranoia and determination. And that, in turn, made me nostalgic for the Maria I first met. (It's great to have the chance to talk myself through these readerly feelings to get to the nuggets of my reactions, and I hope you don't mind me not editing this to remove my thought processes.)
Her most distinctive character trait was the strength of her love and mothering instincts towards Christopher, and that side of her I could completely relate to - as the mother of a young toddler (not yet 2), the thought of someone taking my baby away to be raised by some other family and, after his eighteenth birthday, killed for no bloody reason, makes my gut clench and my blood boil. I felt ill thinking of it, which is great because the best books are ones that really make you feel, and it's something I always want from a book, no matter what the emotion is. When Maria's story began, I had no idea how she could possibly accomplish her aim of getting him back. The War is impenetrable, or so it seems, and ultra secretive, and she had no contacts. There's also the sense of a looming deadline, a sense of urgency, that propels the novel forward with gut-clenching suspense.
But considering Maria was writing her journal for her son, I would have expected - and wanted, myself - to learn more about Maria. If she was writing it partly in the expectation that she wouldn't ever get to tell him any of this herself, later, then wouldn't she have wanted to tell him his maternal history? I wanted to learn more about Maria, about her life before she met Joe, but also what's going through her mind. I've read books that get bogged down with repetitive self-reflection and introspection, to the point where I get completely fed up; then there are other stories that just don't have enough. This would be one of those. There was some, of course, but not enough to really help me connect with her. She still comes across as strong, intelligent, and caught in a life-changing (and totally horrific) situation as she becomes like the very people she is trying to save her son from.
Another part of Maria that seemed to get lost was her Canadian roots. As far as I remember from the first book, she's from Ontario and was going to university in Montreal when Joe met her. I liked this detail about her, but it seemed to have been discarded somewhere along the way. Also, a small side note, but when she mentions spending summers at her parents' cottage in Maine, I felt a bit incredulous. I've lived in Ontario for over 7 years now, and no one here has a cottage in Maine. Ontario IS cottage country! The Kawarthas, Muskoka, Georgian Bay, everywhere - a cottage is for weekend getaways as much as longer holidays, and everyone either has a place here, knows someone who does that they can use, or rents one. I found myself very sceptical on this point. (I had to look it up - Maine is east of Quebec, in a part of the U.S. that looks like it should be Canada. So not too far-fetched if her family lived near the border, but from Ontario...!?)
In the end, I had to put aside my yearning to really know Maria and read this as the suspenseful, violent thriller that it is. The characters are starting to unravel a bit - that's the sense I get - in their unwavering determination to believe in the War. It sustains them, and it gives their lives - and their deaths - hope and meaning. Without it, they're just senseless murderers. The mechanics behind it all are starting to show, too, and they're looking decidedly ugly and scarily inhumane.
When I read the first book, I read the War as an analogy for those conflicts across tenuous borders that occur all over the world. Reading the second book, I was thinking more of gangs. Especially as kids keep getting shot here in Toronto, and it is all just as senseless and stupid and useless as the War in this story. It makes your heart ache. I have no idea how Shane will conclude this, where he will take it, but I am absolutely along for the ride. This is an unforgettable series that takes you right down into the dark, cruel depths of the human heart juxtaposed against the unflinching determination behind a mother's love.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. (less)
After the death of her mother, Camille Werner is going through the condolence letters when she comes across a letter that is rather strange. First of...moreAfter the death of her mother, Camille Werner is going through the condolence letters when she comes across a letter that is rather strange. First of all, it's not addressed to her - the envelope is, but the contents aren't. There's no return address. And it doesn't read like a letter, but embarks on a story. The writer, Louis, tells of meeting and befriending Annie as a child in the village of N. in 1933. He was twelve, Annie was ten, and the world was changing.
Camille thinks at first that the letters have been addressed to her by mistake, that there must be someone else in Paris with the same name as her - but she can't find one. The letters keep arriving, the story keeps unfolding. Louis moves forward in time, to meeting Annie again in 1943, when she tells him what really happened with Madame and Monsieur M, a young bourgeois couple who move into a big house in the middle of the town.
Annie becomes a frequent visitor to Madame M, who encourages her passion for painting. But when Annie is fifteen she leaves for Paris with the couple; Madame's husband, Paul, a journalist, later joins the war effort and is sent to the front. Louis tells Annie's side of the story, and as it unfolds Camille becomes more invested in discovering who Louis is, and what it all has to do with her. Louis reveals one truth, and then another, the words of Madame M, but it is Camille herself who comes to understand the last, shattering, heart-breaking piece.
There is a lot to recommend French author Grémillon's debut novel, which is on the surface of things a simple, even predictable story of a family secret and the lives it affected. Touching on themes of motherhood, social pressure and identity, as well as the damage that lies, secrets and betrayals can inflict, this is a realistic, deeply human story taking place against the backdrop of Germany's invasion and occupation of France.
Divided into two parallel time frames, 1975 and the 30s and 40s, the focus is on the past, with the "present" scenes of Camille's life sketched out with telling details that flesh out her character and her life - she's fallen pregnant by a man who doesn't want children, and decides to keep it; she's lost both her parents and has only her brother, Pierre, left; and she works as an editor at a publishing house. Grémillon employs a "less is more" tactic with Camille's side of the story, ensuring that Louis' story takes centre stage and doesn't get overshadowed by anything from the "present"; in fact, I sometimes forgot all about Camille, which actually made it easy to switch between the two. The book also used the visual device of drastically different fonts - Camille's first-person sections were set in something like Arial, while Louis' letters were in your standard bookish font (much easier on the eyes, too).
The parallels between what Camille's going through in her own life, and the events that unfold in Louis' story, allow Camille - and the reader - to empathise with both Annie and Madame M (you won't be able to sympathise with Madame M until you hear her side of the story, but it will come). The theme of motherhood and the pressures not just of society but from our own selves, is a strong one throughout. As Camille says,
I used to think abortion was a good thing: progress, a woman's free will... Now I find myself struggling in a trap which, like every trap, once smelled sweetly, in this case of freedom. Progress for women, my arse! If I keep the child, I'm guilty vis-à-vis Nicolas, who doesn't want it. If I get rid of it, I am guilty vis-à-vis the baby. Abortion may claim to rescue women from the slavery of motherhood, but it imposes another form of slavery: guilt. More than ever, it is on our own that we handle or mishandle motherhood. [p.89]
Through this lens we watch Annie, at fifteen years old, offer to be a surrogate for the baby Madame M has spent years trying to have, having put herself through treatments both bizarre and extreme. For much of the book, I didn't find the outcome necessarily predictable, because it seemed, for quite some time, that the truth could go either way. Still, if you go into this expecting a clever mystery you will probably be disappointed - this isn't so much a puzzle to solve, even though that's the structure of it, as it is a tragic story of two women in isolation, wanting the same thing, ready to do something extreme to get it. It is this human story that really reaches deep and holds you fast to the book; in fact, it's a quick and riveting read, one you can easily read in a day if you have the time.
Where the novel suffered a bit was in the writing; for a debut novel, it's good, and yet it's also a bit of a mess at times. I got the feeling the translator made an effort to stick to a literal translation as much as possible, rather than doing the extra twist of interpretation to make things work better in English. Take this paragraph, for instance, telling us the story of what happened to Annie's father while she was in Paris with Madame M:
On 3 June 1940, the guards had thrown them into the prison courtyard. The government didn't want them to fall into German hands. The Germans would have released them for sure. Ever since the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, the Communists had been in the Boches' good books. They were being moved to another prison, they had to walk quickly, the guards were hitting them, shouting at them. It was late morning, they were on their way through Paris, when a guard suddenly pushed him out of the group and told him to get the hell out of there and fast, opportunity never knocks twice at anyone's door. They had let him go, and he still could not fathom why, but he was free, that was all that mattered. [pp.102-3]
This made absolutely no sense to me when I was reading the book, and when Annie says to Louis in the retelling, "His story made no sense to me at all" I was relieved - only, she meant that she couldn't believe her parents had become separated; that was her sticking point. Even later, after finally understanding that he had been locked up because he'd once been a member of the Communist Party, the passage doesn't really make sense. It skips over his arrest, which is key to understanding the passage, since the last we saw of him he was living in his own home with his wife. It also skips over the fact that it was the French who'd arrested him, and why it was a crime. For the sake of context, these are small details that could easily have been included to prevent me from getting a headache.
Aside from some odd phrasing, and the kind of writing mistakes that are pretty basic but hard to say whom they belong to, author or translator, the prose was very readable and skips along at a merry pace. Sometimes things don't make sense at the time, because certain details have been left out which are revealed later on for a "A-HA!" moment, but when the narration is following a continuous, chronological story-telling pattern, it's smooth and riveting.
It was quite refreshing to have the war in the background rather than the foreground - it wasn't about the war at all, there just happened to be a war at the time these characters were living their lives. Yet it's not an incidental war: it impacts the characters, and adds a level of tension and atmosphere that gives events an extra layer of fear and uncertainty.
The ending was what really got to me, when reading this book. After reading the last few lines, I actually sat up straight, looked up and said something like "Oh wow." I'd become so caught up in the story of Annie and Madame M, that I hadn't been thinking of the present day, or the possibility that Louis was wrong about what happened to Annie. I love that feeling, when something comes out of nowhere and hits you on the head (not literally - I don't enjoy being hit on the head by anything!), giving you one of those "ahhhhh" moments of satisfaction at a story well ended.
Even before that, though, I enjoyed the murky greyness of Annie and Madame M's stories. Neither is a bad or a good woman. They are human, and they are mothers, and the moral murkiness of it all is both thought-provoking and entertaining (not in the sense that I enjoyed it at their expense, but in the sense that I enjoy having my conscience engaged as much as my intellect). I'd love to go into details, but I didn't want to give away any more of the plot than my edition's blurb did, lest I spoil the reading experience for anyone else.
For all its sometimes-confusing narration, The Confidant was a haunting and emotional - but not at all melodramatic - exploration into the hearts of women who yearn for a child, and the lengths they'll go to to have that child, love it and protect it, all told against the backdrop of a war that took the lives of millions of people, and the French government's public announcements that the people have a duty to have more children. (less)
Detective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and li...moreDetective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and lives alone. He's estranged from his two children - his son is in rehab for drug addiction, and his daughter, Eva Lind, only comes around to ask for more money for her own drugs. At work in Reykjavík, he sees the worst of humanity, but murders are rare, and generally clumsily done. The day he starts investigating a new, puzzling murder case turns out to be the same day Eva Lind decides to move in with him. The dead man, Holberg, was sixty-nine, never married and lived alone in a basement apartment. He was bashed in the head with a glass ashtray. But the perplexing thing is the mysterious note left on the body that says: I Am Him.
As Erlendur starts to dig into Holberg's past he discovers that the dead man was once accused of rape, a crime that the police officer who took the victim's statement completely dismissed and actually made the victim, Kolbrún, feel completely humiliated, so nothing ever came of it. But there is a link somewhere there, because Holberg had, hidden in his desk, a photo of a child's grave: his child, a girl called Audur, by Kolbrún, who died aged four. And Kolbrún killed herself just a few years later. So who killed Holberg, and why?
I really enjoyed this, and I don't say that lightly because I generally don't read crime fiction, murder mysteries, detective fiction, generic thrillers, all those. I don't mind the occasional literary one, though, like Stieg Larsson, and I loved The Boy in the Suitcase that I read a few months ago. I need a lot of character development and a sense of realism, or I get bored very easily. This story seemed deceptively simple, but it played out so well and became really interesting - and it was a very human story, toying with bigger issues much like The Boy in the Suitcase which touched on people trafficking and illegal refugees. I can't tell you what this one delved into without giving it away, but outside of the main mystery the story touches on social issues prevalent in Iceland, on the seedier side of a beautiful-looking place, not in a melodramatic way but a smooth blend of factual "this is how it is" combined with a kind of poignant humanism. The characters all felt very real, no matter how thinly they were described.
Set in 2001, a year in the future (it was first published in 2000), it tackles some key Icelandic issues that became prominent years later - paternity, genetics and the DNA database. I don't know much about it all, but Jar City provides a really good intro and understanding into what it's like in Iceland, where there's such a small population and very little immigration, so the gene pool is fairly small and dates back a long time. As well as that, it opens the secret vault on organ and body acquisition for medical and scientific research purposes - donations the families know nothing about. That's where the title "Jar City" comes from: hundreds and hundreds of organs floating in jars in big rooms. Now, with the genetic database, there is a new kind of Jar City, with just as big ethical problems.
Erlendur himself is the quiet type, a man who takes his time to contemplate things and tries to employ a filter, especially around his daughter, though no matter what he says, she'll react badly. I loved seeing their relationship change and develop, especially after Erlendur blows his top and says what's really on his mind. This particular case really throws into sharp relief his daughter's life and his fears for her.
"...Sorry if I've been nasty to you [Eva Lind]. I didn't intend to, but when I see the way you live, when I see your careless attitude and your lack of self-respect, when I see the destruction, everything you do to yourself and then I watch the little coffin coming up out of the ground, then I can't understand anything any more. I can't understand what's happening and I want to ..." Erlendur fell silent. "Beat the shit out of me," Eva Lind finished the sentence for him. Erlendur shrugged. "I don't know what I want to do. Maybe the best thing is to do nothing. Maybe it's best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business. Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in all this? All this filth. Talking to people like [convicted felon] Ellidi. Doing deals with shits like [drug dealer] Eddi. Seeing how people like Holberg get their kicks. Reading rape reports. Digging up the foundations of a house full of bugs and shit. Digging up little coffins." Erlendur stroked his chest even harder. "You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled." [pp.230-1]
That's the most eloquent he gets, and it's rather amazing to have him come out with all this, for throughout the third-person omniscient narration, you feel both very close to Erlendur and yet completely - not estranged, no, but he's a man who keeps his own counsel. You get to know him through how he interacts with other people, the decisions he makes, things like that. Not for being told anything much by the author, and I liked that. It meant that, this being the first Erlendur book I've read, I had to piece together the detective as much as the crime. Though to be sure, there isn't much more to Erlendur than you see - only these glimpses into a tortured soul, and his impressions of other people, which are very interesting and add that human dimension to the overall story that I appreciated so much.
In fact, this is a very human novel is so many ways. Perhaps that's true of all crime fiction, I couldn't say, but for all the prose was simple and straight-forward, and the story unfolded without pretension or extravagance, it was deeply nuanced, without being over-the-top. Never contrived, but seemingly effortlessly reflecting life in Iceland with stark, brutal honesty. Perhaps it doesn't paint a pretty picture of Iceland, but I suspect it paints an honest one, of a kind.
This is a story that's more sad and tragic than scary or thrilling. It doesn't have any car cashes or shoot-outs or grisly shock tactics. Again, that sense of realism at play, rather than cheap dramatic effects. But it did often give me chills, and effect me emotionally, and Indriđason likes to employ that trick of skipping over the graphic details, showing only people's reactions to hearing them, that make them so much worse - you can't be apathetic or desensitised to something when your imagination is being engaged in filling in the blanks.
There's a great sense of atmosphere here - it's constantly raining, and I pictured it as incredibly grey and overcast (rather like Tasmania in winter, minus all the mud and frost perhaps). Aside from the urban landscape that's given sparse detail yet comes across strongly, there's also the human landscape, the sense of Reykjavĺk and its surroundings (and there are some good maps at the beginning) as being small, confined, isolated, homogeneous and a bit stir-crazy. As Erlendur's colleague, Sigurdur Óli, sums up "your typical Icelandic murder" as "Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence" [p.8], you get a pretty clear idea of what crime is like in Iceland.
This was a fast read that I read in a day over the Christmas holidays, and a great book to snuggle up with, as unlikely as that sounds. I couldn't go to bed until I'd finished it! I don't know if I'll read more of the series - and it wasn't at all a problem, reading the third book as a standalone like this (according to Goodreads, the first two books haven't been translated into English, so for English-language purposes, this is the first book in the series) - but if I ever do feel in the mood for gritty crime fiction, I'll know who to turn to. (As a side note, this book has been made into a film.) (less)
Mara Dyer isn't her real name. In a letter at the beginning of the story, Mara explains that it's a pseudonym, and that without her, "no one would kno...moreMara Dyer isn't her real name. In a letter at the beginning of the story, Mara explains that it's a pseudonym, and that without her, "no one would know that a seventeen-year-old who likes Death Cab for Cutie was responsible for the murders. No one would know that somewhere out there is a B student with a body count. And it's important that you know, so you're not next." It all begins with her best friend, Rachel: at her birthday, Rachel's new friend Claire brings out the Ouija board, and one macabre question - "How does Rachel die?" - brings the answer: "Mara". Ominous? The girls just think the board wants Mara to ask a question, so they think nothing of it. But not long after, the three girls and Claire's brother Jude, who is also Mara's boyfriend of two months, sneak out in the middle of the night to do a tour of the abandoned mental asylum. A few days later, Mara wakes up in the hospital, her friends and boyfriend dead, and no memory of what happened.
To help her deal with the loss of Rachel, Mara and her family move from Rhode Island to Florida for a fresh start. Mara's mother enrols her and her older brother Daniel into a private school some distance away, and it's there that Mara meets Noah. Noah is the school's ultimate hottie and bad boy, with a reputation of sleeping around and breaking girls' hearts, and he seems to have fixated on Mara. But Mara isn't dealing so well: she's hallucinating, seeing her dead friends in mirrors and injuring herself when she imagines a force holding her arm in a scalding hot bath. Days later when she gets the bandages changed, the second-degree burns have vanished.
There's definitely something strange going on in Mara's life, and that's just the beginning. When people start turning up dead after she's imagined their death, in the exact same manner of death that she had imagined, she starts to realise she's far from innocent. And as the memories of what happened in the asylum slowly resurface, she learns a scary truth. Only Noah can understand what's going on, and help her. But there's someone else out there, abducting children and teens and leaving their bodies for the alligators, and the culprit may be closer to home than Mara ever expected.
This is quite a confusing book, in some ways, and painfully simple and cliched in others. The plot is very busy, and for the first, say, half, I had it figured in my head that this was a horror novel. The mysterious deaths of her friends in an asylum, the hallucinations - that were really quite scary - and the general sense that Mara was going crazy. Also, unlike many readers, I always assumed, from the very beginning, that the murderer Mara refers to in her letter at the start is her ex-boyfriend Jude, not herself. We learn early on that they never recovered his body, and Mara keeps seeing things, seeing him. This attempt to be tricky and twisty with the plot just annoyed me, because it was a bit clumsy. The Death Cab for Cutie (a band) is something of a red herring, because practically everyone in the book seems to like the band. Anyway, we'll have to wait and see with the next book, The Evolution of Mara Dyer.
Anyway, so at some point it turns into a romance, and then into a kind of paranormal, urban fantasy-romance thing, throwing new shit at the page as if the story were slipping down a cliff and Hodkin was hoping something would help halt its fall. I was quite enjoying it at first, even though there are too many YA stories about girls with amnesia and some secret or traumatic past. And then she arrives at the new school. First of all, why is she lost? I mean, before you start a new school you do a tour, right? New kids at my schools always came through with their entire families days before they started. Mara and Daniel, though, just suddenly start, and Mara spends a great deal of time being lost, as do all YA heroines these days. But worse than that was this shining light into the American secondary school system, that I hope to God is not as indicative as it comes across, considering it's represented this way in all the books and TV shows and movies I've come across - this condensed scene from Mara's English class, taught by a Ms Leib:
"[...] I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you've read the Three Theban Plays at your previous school?"
"Yep," I said, fighting self-consciousness.
[...] Then she continued on with her lecture, most of which I'd heard before. [pp.58-9]
(I did say "condensed", yes?) Two things here leap out at me, as a high school English teacher (even if I'm not teaching these days): 1. it's implied - not just here - that all schools read the same books, throughout the country. Unlikely, and also somewhat disturbing. But that's just something that makes me frown. What really bothered me about this scene was the line: Then she continued on with her lecture, most of which I'd read before. First of all, all teachers ever seem to do in American high schools - and primary schools!! - is lecture. Really, really bad. I hope this isn't true-to-life. And secondly, the idea that the teachers all have the same lecture - as if one person wrote them all and handed them out to all the English teachers at the beginning of the year - is just so, so wrong. As if, there is only one interpretation of a book etc., only one answer to a question, only one way to think, and question, and analyse. Sorry to go off on a tangent - no, I'm not sorry, this really makes me mad, because even if these are just fictional characters, I still want to know that they're getting a good education, and being taught NOT the right answer to a question, but HOW TO ANALYSE AND QUESTION things! The one thing I've always stressed to students, the real genius of the subject of English, is that you can argue anything, as long as you can back it up. There is no right or wrong answer, only poorly articulated, weakly thought-out arguments lacking substantive evidence. The idea that these kids are expected to memorise one interpretation, that there's only one angle, one perspective, one interpretation - that's so awful I can't even comprehend it. I just had to get that off my chest.
Back to Mara. She comes afoul of the bitchy popular girl in school, Anna Greenly, and her giant gay sidekick, Aiden Davis. She makes friends with a boy called Jamie Roth who is, get this, black AND Jewish AND gay - no, bisexual. Because gay would be too straight-forward. These supporting characters are weakly fleshed out, pumped up with tired old stereotypes that keep them afloat, barely. Mara half-heartedly befriends Jamie - she isn't even all that friendly towards him, considering he's her only friend, but he's a good tutor - and he seems to function mostly as a mouthpiece for all the bad gossip about Noah.
Jamie crouched with me. "You're unraveling the very fabric of Croyden [High] society."
"What are you talking about?" I shoved my things into my messenger bag with unnecessary force.
"Noah drove you to school."
"Noah doesn't drive anyone to school."
"So what?" I asked, growing frustrated.
"He's acting like your boyfriend. Which makes the girls he treated like condoms a trifle jealous."
"Condoms?" I asked, confused.
"Used once and then discarded."
"He is." [p.255]
If Mara is a hard character to get to know, Noah is someone who filled me with ambivalence. On the one hand, he was quite clearly a mortal version of Edward Cullen, if Edward had an English accent (a completely unnecessary English accent, as is much about Noah). His family is filthy rich - again, why? - he's sexy and gorgeous, he's a "bad boy": wearing a dishevelled version of the private school uniform, with messy "bed hair", and a reputation as a slut - one all the girls chase and make eyes at. (It's a tough ask of readers, to establish a character this disreputable and then to turn around and say, But he's really very sweet and trustworthy!) I could handle all that, if I stopped thinking about it for long. I didn't find him "stalkerish" like a lot of other readers did, or overbearing. Actually, after their secrets are out in the open, I thought he was sort-of sweet. Certainly a lot less complicated than Mara. And it seemed that he had generated, or encouraged, the gossip that he sleeps around and breaks girls' hearts, but that it wasn't really true. That's what Noah seemed to say to Mara, though I notice he never actually refuted any of it, except Anna. So it was hard to know whether you could trust him.
And am I the only one who found the whole Joseph-kidnapping-midnight-rescue thing upsetting, disturbing, weird and creepy?
The novel is long, but a lot of its length is made up of dialogue, especially between Mara and Noah. It was sometimes fun, this dialogue, but other times it was just frustrating. This escalated in time with the changes in the plot, in general, so maybe it was all one and the same. There are a lot of unanswered questions in this first volume - a lot of answers too, but for every answer there seem to be two new questions. I kept expecting a twist (based on reviews I'd read last year, when it first came out - it took me nearly a year to decide to read this!) but never got one. I would have liked this a lot more if it had stuck with the horror genre, which says a lot considering I don't really read horror.
In many ways, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer plays it incredibly safe. The characters are ones you've read before, and most of them serve as plot devices (like to help with red herrings, or to propel Mara in a certain direction), while the plot is so busy being original and surprising that it may leave readers bewildered. By the end it had become The X-Men, and I love the X-Men, but this new theme started to sink almost immediately under the next new genre, murder mystery. It's amazing I didn't get dizzy and nauseous.
However, for a novel that tries too hard to be many things, including a by-the-numbers crowd-pleaser, it certainly is pretty readable. A hunger for answers will keep people reading, if nothing else. Or you could read it for the romance, since that takes up a good portion of the story - a very virginal romance, of course; as I said, this is a crowd-pleaser, and to sell well you need to please the Bible Belt mothers. (Murder is okay, as long as the heroine doesn't have pre-marital sex. Oh see how books like this bring out my snarky side?!) I liked it well enough, despite all my criticisms, but it's not one I want to spend too much time thinking about, lest I grow more and more annoyed with things that didn't bother me too much as I was reading it.(less)
On the surface, Alif is just a young man who lives with his Indian mother and their maid in the Old Quarter of the city; his Arab father spends his ti...moreOn the surface, Alif is just a young man who lives with his Indian mother and their maid in the Old Quarter of the city; his Arab father spends his time with his aristocratic first wife and their larger family. But his secret identity is as a computer hacker, working against the State to protect his clients, no matter who they might be or what their political or religious affiliations, from surveillance and censorship. In this unnamed emirate city on the Persian Gulf, lines are drawn deep and clearly in the sand and Alif is most definitely an enemy of the state. But he's good, and he's never been caught by the one the hackers call "the Hand of God", or "the Hand" for short.
And then there is Intisar, an aristocratic university student Alif is having a very secret and very illicit affair with. She breaks it off with Alif because her father has arranged for her to marry an important and powerful man: Abbas Al Shehab. Alif is so upset to be losing the woman he loves, that he decides to create a program that will ensure Intisar can never find his online presence, either accidentally or by seeking him out. Naming it "Tin Sari" after her, his creation should be impossible - or at least, it's never been achieved before: it is able to recognise Intisar's key strokes. But when his program falls into the hands of the Hand, state security is able to use it against Alif and his friends.
With his neighbour and childhood friend, Dina, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, Alif is now a fugitive in his own city. Security agents wait for him at his home and try to follow him through the streets, intent on arresting him - and, now, Dina. With one last parting gift from Intisar, the Thousand and One Days, the jinn's collection of stories to counter the more famous, Thousand and One Nights, Alif and Dina's options of eluding the government are so slim they decide to meet with an infamous figure called Vikram the Vampire, thinking that Alif can pay him to be his bodyguard.
But Vikram is no bodyguard, nor is he a vampire. He's an ancient jinn, definitely not human, and he takes a keen interest in Alif when he discovers that he has one of the original copies of Alf Yeom - The Thousand and One Days. With Vikram's help, they meet "the convert", a young American woman living in the City working on her PhD. thesis, who can help them confirm the book's origins. But with state security and the Hand closing in, and no plan to save their necks, Alif and his friends must make it up as they go along, even if that includes journeying into the hazards of jinn territory.
This is a tricky book to summarise, and the book jacket did a much better job than I've just done, but I wanted to give you some idea of how it all starts and how much magical realism is involved, because it's highly relevant. The thing is, this story isn't really about plot, but about the characters and, even more importantly, ideas.
Cleverly packaged into an adventure-mystery-fantasy novel, Alif the Unseen is brimming with good stuff, and I loved it. It's the kind of book where I could read it on many different levels: amused by Alif, who's a bit of a dag, intelligent and skilled but young and rather immature (at first), and his friends; curious about Dina, an Egyptian who's decided to go the whole niqab even though that's an aristocratic thing to do (the full covering minus gap for eyes); enchanted by the incredibly charismatic and funny Vikram; absorbed by the religious and ideological questions posed; fascinated by the jinn and their world; and on the edge of my seat with suspense. There's some gorgeous writing here too, unpretentious, laid-back almost, vibrant with just the right amount of detail to really draw you in without boring you. For a debut novel (though not Wilson's first published work), it's really very, very good.
At its heart it is a story of a young man growing up: Alif (which is his "handle", not his real name; it's the first letter of the Arabic alphabet), matures over the course of the novel, as more misadventures and hardships are thrown his way, and he has to come to the personal realisation that Intisar is just a rich girl who likes her comforts, while Dina, he realises, is so much closer to his heart. It's such an old storyline, but so true of us. As Alif wastes away, naked and starving, in the State's prison in the desert, locked up in complete and utter darkness, his mind drifts, remakes the past, and coalesces into a new future - if he can get out.
He thought of Dina in a summer robe, gray or green in contrast to her usual black, sandals slapping against her feet as she came through the courtyard laden with bags of fruit from the market.That would make it a Saturday. He was baffled to remember that there had been a time when such a scene would have filled him with existential dread, agony at the quiet female rhythms that encompassed him, prompting him to flee back to his computers, the cloud, the digital world populated by men.
Now the idea of such an afternoon seemed exquisite. He had let too many pass with too much indifference. In his mind he made himself get down off the ledge and go outside to help Dina with her bags, then see if there was anything his mother needed; he spoke to the maid in complete sentences, and remembered to clean the dust from his own shoes when he came back inside. Naked in the dark, with the memory of the Hand's reptilian eyes, he realized that the ritualized world he had dismissed as feminine was in fact civilization. [p.270]
It was interesting to find the sensory-deprivation torture and imprisonment method in this gaol, in this book, because it reminded me of another book: Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which begins with the history of this method. It began with a Canadian psychiatrist who believed that he could cure people suffering from things like bipolar, depression and schizophrenia etc., by wiping their minds and starting anew - to do this he experimented with extreme sensory deprivation: total darkness, silence, no human contact, the kind of environment designed to make you mad or at least a slobbering idiot, and then shock the brain to restart it. The method was picked up by the American military and adapted to the scale of whole countries, the goal being to reduce them to helplessness with this "shock therapy" and then to roll in with a rescue package which involved total privatisation and corporate control. Which was the plan with Iraq, and we all know how well that turned out. Anyway, it's just one of the many tangents my mind went on while reading this (meaning that it's thought-provoking in unexpected ways, not dull!).
Alif's time in the State Security Prison was vividly rendered and one of the most absorbing sections of the novel. His decline into a kind of madness occurred so organically, and the stripping away of all his dignity and notion of "self" so realistic, that it was one of the most tense parts of the story. I honestly couldn't tell how that ordeal would end; suffice it to say that you won't be able to predict it.
Almost all the characters in this book were "my favourite character", from Alif to Dina to Vikram to Sheikh Bilal to NewQuarter01 to the vast array of supporting cast. Sheikh Bilal, though, really stuck out for me, being one of those older-generation men, sheikh of Basheera mosque and as such a high-up religious leader, who nevertheless has a ready wit, a sharp eye and a certain degree of open-mindedness. In a way, he's the Arab equivalent of the kindly Father/vicar/priest, the oldish man at peace with himself, untroubled by spiritual questions or paralysis, and generally content. Quite likely a cliche character, a stereotype that we enjoy - not being religious myself, I couldn't say how true to life the character really is, but they're like a kindly uncle, a wise grandfather, a calm, reliable guide through the chaos of life. Sheikh Bilal certainly fulfilled that role for Alif, though he found a new calling along the way. He's not rigid in his beliefs, and comes to new understandings:
"I have had much experience with the unclean and the uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God." [p.294]
Sheikh Bilal's words capture the artistic side of religion - or of humanity, really, since we've never managed to successfully stifle the creative, poetic side of our natures (not that we should, but many people, many religions, have tried and continue to try). The passage sounded like a kind of poetry when I read it. Sheikh Bilal is everything that is good about religion, though as far as I'm concerned, figures like him don't make up for the negatives of organised religion. He reminded me of the quintessential, quaint old English parson. Religion is a key theme of the novel - not dogma, not moralising, but the nature of religion, and how people interact with it - the human condition as it relates to religion - and this I have always found interesting. A djinn who acts as their guide into the Empty Quarter, the home of the jinn that lies in another dimension, has a keen perspective on it:
"Belief," said the man. "It doesn't mean the same thing it used to, not for you. You have unlearned the hidden half of the world."
"But the world is crawling with religious fanatics. Surely belief is thriving."
"Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. To most of our people the jinn are paranoid fantasies who run around causing epilepsy and mental illness. Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You'll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent. And that, cousin, is why I can't help you." [p.303]
It's in this way that Alif the Unseen connects the contemporary human world, religion and the "unseen". I've said before that the Bible is, in a way, a fantasy novel, and that doesn't diminish anything it has to say. I've read other novels that, like this one, speak to the idea that religion and fantasy are one and the same, not enemies of each other, as opposed to the strict, dry interpretation of other denominations the world over which fears the unknown, the unseen, the questionable. One thing that you'll be sure to notice, is that while Islam is the religion of the characters, and the region, it's almost identical to Christianity. This novel does an excellent job at humanising Islam and Muslims - the repressive and oppressive State has little to do with religion - and since books about how much you should fear Islam are still being published, I figure we need more books like Alif the Unseen.
I wasn't able to follow the computer/technology side of the plot as easily as the mystical, though Alif himself doesn't understand what he's doing half the time. It's not confusing in such a way as to put you off; you can easily go along with it, letting it sidle into your brain in an unfocused way, but I do like to visualise things and it's hard for a non-computer-geek to visualise 1's and 0's. ;)
If it is about mysticism, it is also about storytelling, and human nature - especially human greed and lust for power. The Alf Yeom, or The Thousand and One Days, was narrated to a Persian man by a jinn, forced to tell jinn stories which, men believed, contain the secret to gaining immense power. The Hand has a plan for it, and Alif comes to the realisation of what the Hand was going to attempt - and also to the knowledge, through experience, of why it wouldn't work. Within Alif the Unseen are several short stories, or parables, that impart a message. They were very fun to read, with "The Vampire and King Vikram" being an immediate favourite.
Wilson has written a fantastic novel, a high-stakes adventure-mystery story that skilfully weaves in parables and timely questions on faith, censorship, integrity and freedom, while remaining at its heart an endearing love story. Having recently read her graphic novel, Cairo, I really enjoyed going back to the world of the jinn, where human rules and understanding do not apply, as well as exploring this ancient, dusty Arab city.
My thanks to McClelland & Stewart for a copy of this book. (less)
While their mother recovers from serious burns in a hospital bed in Arizona, thirteen year old Augie and her half-brother, P.J., are being looked afte...moreWhile their mother recovers from serious burns in a hospital bed in Arizona, thirteen year old Augie and her half-brother, P.J., are being looked after by their grandfather, Will, in small-town Broken Branch, Iowa. Their grandmother is with their mother, Holly; it's been decades since Holly has seen her parents, when she left home as a teenager, eager to escape the stifling small-town environment and her parents' cattle farm that she blamed for all her ills. It is the Friday before March break, and Augie and P.J. are looking forward to flying out to see their mother. But when an armed gunman with unknown motives enters their school, causing an immediate lockdown and general panic, everyone starts to wonder whether they'll see their loved ones again.
In Mrs Oliver's grade three classroom, where P.J. sits with fifteen other eight-year-olds, Evelyn Oliver has plenty of time for reflection: to regret wearing a horrendously decorated denim dress one of her students made for her on what could be the last day of her life, and to remember her past, including her first marriage and how she met her current husband, Cal, a tall man with wise words who keeps her grounded. She's been a teacher for several decades years, and in the face of many crises she's always stayed calm, but never before has she had a man with a gun walk into her classroom, threatening the lives of everyone in it.
Meg Barrett, a police officer in Broken Branch, can't help but feel relieved that she let her eight-year-old daughter, Maria, start her holiday a day early. Safely out of the way with her ex-husband, Tim, Meg is able to focus on the hostage situation at the school, and as various locals, many with children at the school, tell her their theories for who could be responsible, she checks them out. Pestered by phone calls and text messages from a former lover and dodgy journalist, Stuart, Meg reflects on how she came to live in this small town, and Stuart's betrayal.
In her hospital bed across the country, Holly Thwaite is kept in ignorance of what's happening at her children's new school. With her face, arms and hands badly burned from a kitchen fire, she has her mother's calm presence and her own thoughts for company. Meanwhile, her father Will Thwaite is just as anxious as everyone else about his grandchildren, and with little information at hand about what's actually going on inside the school, it's easy to imagine the worst. When some of the children manage to escape, Augie decides to remain behind, determined not to leave without her brother.
As the characters move along their separate trajectories towards a final deadly confrontation, the truth is far from what anyone expected.
Told from the perspectives of multiple characters (Holly, Augie, Will, Meg and Mrs Oliver), Gudenkauf is able to cover a lot of ground and share the contrasting, often conflicting, viewpoints of Inside vs. Outside. The chapters are short, giving it a fast, snappy pace, and go back and forth in time as the characters reflect on their own lives, filling in back-story. Augie and Holly tell theirs in first person present tense, while the other three perspectives are told in third person past tense. I tend to find this a little odd and a bit, well, gimmicky. I like consistency, and I didn't feel that there was any real need to have two characters tell their side of the story in present tense, or even first-person narration for that matter. Present tense is designed to add a sense of immediacy and unpredictability to a story, putting you in the here-and-now, but it's often mis-used and if you write it in the same way as you'd write in past tense, as too many writers do, it doesn't work at all. In contrast, ironically, past tense tends to have a stronger sense of immediacy - it all comes down to how you write in it. It's one thing to have multiple narrators, but when you start switching up the narrative style as well, things start to get needlessly messy.
I liked the story, but this wasn't a book that worked for me. It had too much of a telly-movie feel (that's "made for TV" in American-speak), an almost cheesy, Friday-night low-budget flick thing happening. It's partly the subject matter, the plotting, the style and also the format. I connect much better with books when I read them in their physical form, not on an e-reader. That's not Gudenkauf's fault, and I try hard not to let that affect how I read, but it does.
The other problem was expectations. The story opens with a very charged chapter from Holly's perspective, which is actually a chapter from towards the end of the book, repeated at the front to draw you in. It introduces us to a badly burned woman in a hospital, who receives a phone call from her daughter, Augie, who tells her there is a gunman in the school, he has P.J., she is locked in a closet, and then there is the sound of gunshots and Holly screaming. This leads you to expect a very tense, show-down kind of story, something with action and nail-biting chills even. (It also somehow put the idea into my head, perhaps because of the way Augie said the gunman had P.J., that this was a personal thing against Holly. A red herring or just me?) What the story actually is is a more gentle, gradual piecing-together of the lives of certain people in this town. The short chapters somehow clash with this reflective narration, making it hard at times for me to settle into the story. I never knew which way I was going to be pulled next.
But the characters were interesting, and their stories well fleshed-out. Really, the drama of the gunman is just an excuse to explore their lives and mend some bridges. On the mystery side, I guessed the gunman about two-thirds in, because the red herrings were too obvious, but I had no idea what the motive could be. It did seem a little far-fetched, but then people who take guns into schools and threaten small children are not going to be all that rational, are they.
The action takes place over just the one day, but because the characters spend so much time recalling the past, it feels like a much longer span of time. Every time we dipped into the past, it slowed the action in the present down, but to be honest, there wasn't much real action happening in the present anyway. Tension was a bit forced, by having the short chapters and revolving perspectives, and by switching point-of-view at the peak of action. This upset a more natural flow to the story and again made me feel like I was watching a movie on TV, and having to endure ad breaks.
I liked Will Thwaite, Augie's grandfather, a lot. He reminded me a bit of old farmers back home (I grew up on a Tasmanian sheep farm); in contrast, I didn't like Holly much at all. She was still so immature, after all these years, still thinking the same way she had when she left home as a teenager. I felt so, so sorry for P.J., who doesn't know who his father is (neither does Holly) and who just wants to be loved. It always breaks my heart a little when fictional children suffer because of poor adult decisions. The characters kept me reading, and I did want to know what would happen, because it certainly wasn't obvious. In a way, the lack of drama made it more realistic, but there was still a sense of cheap drama to it, perhaps in the way it was told. And perhaps I just don't care as much for these breezy-type books, that do a lot of telling and not so much showing.
Overall, an enjoyable book as long as you don't expect a different kind of story! Reading some reviews beforehand would probably help.
My thanks to Harlequin for a copy of this book.(less)