Review – Faithful, by Alice Hoffman

I read this book in one sitting. This is not something I say or write often – in fact, I can’t remember the time I genuinely sat down with a book and didn’t get up again until I had finished it.

This is testament to the quality of this book – although to be fair, I was on holiday at the time and had a whole day to spend by the pool. Even so, it takes a lot for book to hold me so firmly that I lose my sense of time and place; this book did that.

The storyline is not easy – in fact, the main character Shelby is so infuriatingly self-destructive that at times I wanted to slap her. Granted, she is almost fatally damaged by the seminal event at the start of the story (a car crash which left her best friend Helene in a permanent coma, but from which she escaped with only minor injuries) – the guilt and horror destroy many years of her life, leaving her broken and only gradually able to emerge from her protective burrow (her parents’ basement). The narrative describes her gradual process of re-engagement with the world and the friendships and relationships she forges (and destroys).

This is a study of guilt, mental health and recovery, love and friendship, but not of redemption – although Shelby does rescue a succession of ill and maltreated dogs, there is never any sense that she is trying to redeem herself. In fact, the sense is that redemption could only come if a miracle happens and Helene somehow rises from her bed in her parents’ house where she has lain for eight years. Against hope Shelby imagines this happening when she eventually visits Helene and holds her hand, in an echo of the healing miracles which Helene herself is alleged to perform.

In fact, the most powerful sections of the book deal with Shelby’s relationship with her mother Sue, who is tireless and fierce in her defence and care of her broken daughter. Hoffman writes this relationship from Shelby’s perception of it, and these were some of the points where I wanted to shake Shelby and point out her mother’s unflinching and clear-eyed love for her, even when she herself was doing her best to destroy it.

This book is not perfect – I have some issues with it, largely the overpowering Christian imagery and the unlikely coincidence whereby Shelby finally meets the ‘angel’ who has watched over her since the accident. Nevertheless it is a moving read, well written and infused with Hoffman’s absorbing and sometimes dreamlike prose style. Highly recommended.

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I am grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an ARC in return for an unbiased review. Faithful is published on 1 November 2016.

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Review – Killer on the Fens, by Joy Ellis

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley, in return for an honest review.

I requested this book from NG because I like a good police procedural (although mainly I veer towards Scandinavian detectives – Wallender, Beck, Hole, van Veeteren), and because it is set in my native(ish) East Anglia. I miss the huge skies of the fens, and the marshy wastelands of Lincolnshire provide a suitably atmospheric setting for this story.

In general the tale is well-told, although it became clear after I had started the book that it is the latest in a series (the fourth, it turns out) and the main characters all have a lot of backstory and history. This made the first third or so of the book quite hard going, and I’ll admit I almost gave up. (I generally avoid coming in partway through a series of books; it feels a bit like being the new girl in class because everyone already knows each other.)

However, the book is well enough written and the story rattles along fast enough that I was soon caught up in it. The main character, DI Nikki Galena, is a damaged copper in the best tradition, with family and professional issues galore. She and her team are drawn into investigating what looks like an accident on an abandoned WW2 air base on the Lincolnshire marshes, but which inevitably turns out to be the trigger for a much larger case involving local crime syndicates and a serial killer.

If I’m honest, the serial killer part of the storyline did stretch my credulity a little (it all got a little bit Dan Brown), and some of the pop psychology analysis towards the end was  unnecessary, but I was involved enough by that stage that these things didn’t detract too much from the book. I did clock the culprit fairly early on, but again, that didn’t matter – there enough twists and turns that meant I doubted my conclusions, and, Hardy-like,  the brooding misty fens and the mysterious and frankly creepy air base gave the narrative a sense of menace and oppression.

All things considered, this was a competent murder mystery – not a great deal of depth to it, but that’s fine. It was a diverting read, and I recommend it to fans of Ann Cleeves or Lynda la Plante.

Book review: The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth

I’m learning Danish. There, I’ve said it. I have no excuse, other than an obsession with Nordic Noir literature and television, stemming largely from The Killing but encompassing Steig Larsson, Jo Nesbø, The Bridge, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser and Borgen along the way – along with quite a large proportion of the rest of the UK, my last three or four years have been punctuated by immersions in Scandinavian culture, although to be fair this has mainly been the rather grubby underbelly of said culture (Kurt Wallander, Sarah Lund and Lisbeth Salander don’t exactly hang out with the Women’s Institute).

So in an idle moment just before Christmas I thought, I know, it’d be great to be able to watch a bit more Scandinavian TV – Arne Dahl, say, or The Legacy – and understand at least a little of the language. Probably Swedish would be a good place to start. I signed up to Duolingo years ago in an abortive attempt to revise my rusty school-level French before a continental holiday, so I fired up the app on my iPad. Lo – no Swedish course*, but there was Danish. And before you could say “Hej hej!” I was off, learning how to say “The man eats the sandwich” and “A boy drinks the bird’s water”**.

Inspired by this, I started casting around for other ways to learn about Scandinavian culture – because, you know, I didn’t really have that much of a clue about it, beyond some vague ideas about snow, blond people and Vikings. So I poked about vaguely on NetGalley and found The Almost Nearly Perfect People.

And … I learned a lot. The author, Michael Booth, is an English journalist who has lived in Denmark for a number of years, and who set out to provide a foreigner’s account of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland) to set against the almost entirely positive but largely content-free depiction of these nations in the British and American media. He took as a starting point the universally high happiness and quality of life ratings achieved by Scandinavian countries (even bankrupt Iceland), and set out to investigate what makes the Scandinavian countries such apparently great places to live.

He devotes a section of the book to each country, travelling there and interviewing public figures as well as casting an outsider’s eye over customs, traditions and stereotypes. Denmark is characterised by its high taxes and hyggelig, Iceland by its buccaneering banking practices and belief in elves, and Norway by its oil wealth and attachment to its national costume. Finland, Booth’s favourite of the five nations, is nevertheless characterised as alcoholic and obsessively macho, while Sweden is conformist and bound by social etiquette.

The tone throughout is humorous and light, but there is a wealth of information tucked away – some trivial facts, some historical, and some downright bizarre (did you know that in the 1970s the Swedish army bought hairnets for its long-haired soldiers? No, neither did I). Booth is clearly very fond of his new Scandinavian countrymen (he should be; he’s married to a Dane), and he uses journalistic licence to poke gentle fun but also raise some significant issues (failures of justice systems, opposition to immigration, poor ecological footprints). The exemplary Nordic education, social welfare and health systems are set against the crippling taxes needed to pay for them, and Sweden’s vaunted neutrality is contrasted with its collaboration with Nazi Germany and its ever-increasing arms export trade.

Overall this was an enjoyable read, although the schoolboy jokes occasionally grated. As an English person I find Bill Bryson’s ‘amusing’ accounts of funny little England rather embarrassing to read, and I suspect Booth’s book might have a similar effect on Scandinavians of all stripes – but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally holding a mirror up to national foibles, and overall the book left me with no less of a desire to watch the second season of Wallander or learn how to conjugate the definite article in Danish, and with rather more of an idea of some of the realities underlying our rose-tinted view of our Nordic neighbours.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth was published by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2014, and will be published in the US by MacMillan-Picador on 27 January 2015 (UK Amazon link here, other booksellers are available). My review copy came from NetGalley.

*Before anyone starts, I know that Duolingo does actually have a Swedish course, but it wasn’t available on my iPad app at that time, so there.

**Manden spiser sandwichen. En dreng drikker fuglens vand. In case you were wondering.

~100 word review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I read this because I enjoyed The Historian, Kostova’s first novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. A psychoanalyst becomes deeply involved in the life story of his patient, who is a world-renowned artist but also (evidently) a world-class fruitloop with an obsession reaching back into the history of Impressionism. The novel allows the analyst’s obsession with his patient to mirror the psychosis of the artist, with complex and occasionally uncomfortable results.

My only criticism would be that a number of endings within the main storylines were thrown away too cheaply in the final few chapters. However, this doesn’t detract from the clever writing and absorbing qualities of this long book. Recommended.

~100-word review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Oddly disappointed with this, influenced (I think) by reading Maya Angelou immediately before. The story of black domestics and their relationships with their white employers in 1960s Mississippi was well told, the characters beautifully differentiated and the events obviously drawn from affectionate and vivid experience, but in the aftermath of the emotions elicited by Angelou this one felt uncomfortably frothy. I wasn’t challenged by it, which was unexpected in a book dealing with emotional relationships in the context of such deep and vicious racial divides.

I can see why it is a bestseller, but I was expecting something deeper and I didn’t find it. A beach read, rather than a piece of social commentary.

Book Review: Zombie by JR Angelella

When I started reading it, I was not sure where to place this book. The title suggests horror and zombies (that word alone is currently a sure-fire way of selling books or movies, if ever there was one), but the narrative is much more closely aligned with a classic coming-of-age story, interspersed with movie-geek observations about zombies.

Now, movies are not really my thing – I fall asleep in them, despite my best efforts, and I also fall asleep in discussions about them. In view of this, I did wonder whether I would be able to get into Zombie at all, given that the world view of the main protagonist is largely laid out according to the zombie movie genre. However, as the story went on it did engage me and keep me awake, and it also made me laugh (and cringe) more than once.

The main character, Jeremy Barker, is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives his life according to the Zombie Survival Code, a set of rules for surviving zombie infestations which he has distilled from genre movies and adapted to fit his life. Boiled down, the code advises one to avoid eye contact, keep quiet, forget the past, lock and load and fight to survive – a social survival kit which serves Jeremy reasonably well in his unusual domestic situation.

His family is profoundly dysfunctional. His mother Corinne is absent, a drug-user who has taken off with her boyfriend Zeke and left her two sons Jackson and Jeremy with their tie-obsessed, Vietnam vet, realtor father Ballentine, a man who has a Purple Heart and a talent for disappearing. Jackson has also left home in favour of in a flat where he lives in squalor and staggers from one sexual fling to the next, leaving Jeremy alone with his father.

Jeremy is a misfit in his first year at Byron Hall Catholic school for boys, and the author’s depiction of the casual and daily cruelties of school life is highly effective. Jeremy is reflective about his experiences, and perceptive about his own motives and those of others, but he is annoyingly unable to act on his perceptions and make himself less of a target. He befriends oddballs and echoes his father in his rather prissy lectures about the relative merits of different tie knots, but his skilfully written internal monologue elicits both tension and sympathy.

The book is slow to pick up – for the first third of the story very little seems to happen. We learn about Jeremy’s life and family, and we wonder how far and where his preparation for the zombie apocalypse will take him. The sinister mutilated figure of Mr Rembrandt, a teacher at Byron Hall, stalks through Jeremy’s and his father’s lives, creating a real sense of unease that is exacerbated by the disturbing video footage which Jeremy finds in his Dad’s ‘Box of War’.

However, we also learn that Jeremy is hyperexciteable and his parents have him on Ritalin, but he stops taking it which sends him into a spiral of accelerated perceptions and emotions. The narrative drive of the book increases in intensity significantly towards the end, with Jeremy’s hyperactivity reflected in his actions and in his first-person internal monologue.

The author warned me to buckle up for the last thirty pages or so, and I know what he meant; without his controlling drugs Jeremy’s life accelerates rapidly, and at the story’s climax there is genuine horror and fear, culminating in a stomach-churning scene of violence that leaves both Jeremy and his father broken in their different ways.

One criticism of the book is that it has no real sense of conclusion – the bad things happen but the bad people aren’t caught, and after some fallout Jeremy’s life apparently moves forward smoothly, albeit with a new and rather more sinister reputation at Byron Hall. The neat-and-tidy-storyteller in me wanted more resolution – what was going on in that house at the end of the book? Why? The philosophical treatise delivered by the villain as justification for his acts of appalling violence is compelling, but there is little sense that Jeremy challenges it – or even understands it, in a meaningful sense.

In the final analysis, however, the book left me with the overriding notion that weird stuff goes on in people’s lives all the time, but it is rarely correctly interpreted or dealt with by society. We all have unexplained, unexplainable events in our lives, and our privileged view into Jeremy Barker’s head gives us his (biased, hyperactive, teenaged, obsessive) story. The view of others, and of society, regarding the same events will necessarily be different – and maybe all the more horrifying because of that. The book was a compelling read, although it may not appear to be so during the first sections; stick with it, because the end delivers intensity and uncertainty in roughly equal measure.

Zombie is published by Soho Press, and is available in paperback and electronic versions through all the usual outlets.

Book Review: The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Ok, I’m going to come right out and say it – I don’t really like Iain Banks. This is based on a reasonable sampling of his work – I have read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, as well as The Crow Road and Espedair Street. I have also read The Wasp Factory before – many years ago, I suspect when I was trying to impress a fellow student with my edgy literary tastes.

Looking back at this list, for a writer I claim not to like much, I appear to have read quite a lot of his books – certainly more than for other writers I don’t like, where one book (sometimes less than that) is usually enough. This is a compliment to Banks as a writer – difficult and uncomfortable as I find his books, they’re almost impossible to leave in the middle if you allow them to get their claws into your psyche.

This is certainly the case for The Wasp Factory – which, by the way, I read for Book Club in June 2012. It was recommended by someone – I forget who, but certainly not me – and I was slightly resentful that not only was it by Iain Banks, but I’d already read it, and I didn’t really want to read it again. However, I reasoned, the whole point of Book Club is to read stuff that one wouldn’t otherwise, and to challenge one’s literary tastes, and for me Banks ticks both of those boxes, re-read or no.

The book is told from the point of view of Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen-year-old sociopath who suffered a terrible accident when he was young and who now lives with his father Angus on an island just off the coast of Scotland, somewhere near Inverness. Frank’s (never-named) island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and Frank and his father often visit the nearest town of Porteneil, a few miles away. The Cauldhames used to be rich and powerful in the local area – the pub in Porteneil is named for their family – but Frank and his father are now all that are left.

They live a strange isolated existence, visited once a week by the taciturn Mrs Clamp who does the house, and in the main they keep to their own activities – Angus locked in his mysterious laboratory, Frank in a highly organised defence of his island territory, involving explosives, ritual, totemic sacrifice poles and divination using the Wasp Factory of the title.

Through Frank’s highly logical and yet deeply disturbed narrative we learn that he has killed three times – all children, all younger than he, and all despatched with no passion or anger, simply a cold and brutal logic. We also learn about his feckless mother, who abandoned him during his early childhood, and his best friend Jamie, a dwarf who commonly sits on Frank’s shoulders in the local pub in order to see the band, resting his pint on Frank’s head and chatting up girls.

We also find out about Frank’s older brother Eric, who experienced something so traumatic while working as a medical intern that he lost his sanity and degenerated into a dog-torturing psychopath. We don’t learn about this until later, though – the horrific details emerge gradually as Frank waits for Eric’s inevitable return home after his escape from a secure institution. Frank is clearly terrified of his brother, but also loves him with a blind distraction. He oscillates between obsessive preparation and renewal of his defences and an almost parental concern for Eric’s welfare – is he eating? Where is he sleeping?

When Eric does turn up on the island the book’s climax is shocking, nightmarish and not for the faint of heart. It also triggers a world-changing revelation for Frank, which leaves the reader re-assessing everything they have read over the last two hundred or so pages and in many ways renders the details of the story even more shocking in retrospect.

I knew the ending, but that in no way detracted from the visceral, hand-over-mouth horror of the final few pages of the book. In Frank, Banks has created a deeply deranged and damaged anti-hero who nevertheless elicits a good deal of sympathy in the final analysis – a fine balance to achieve, but Banks has pulled it off with a clarity and power that leave the reader gasping.

This book is rightly a modern classic. Reading it is a bit like running a marathon – it’s hard, it hurts, it leaves you staggering and it shakes up your world-view. I think that’s one of the reasons I don’t go to Iain Banks very often; he challenges his readers, often repeatedly within the same passages, and that’s never relaxing or comfortable. However, this isn’t a reason for not liking his books – I loved The Passage by Justin Cronin, and that made me as uncomfortable as hell; ditto most of The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. In fact, my discomfort is a compliment to these authors, a testament to the fact that they are so good at creating a steady and shocking stream of horrors and unpleasantnesses while maintaining my engagement with the story.

I haven’t changed my opinion of Iain Banks’ books. I still wouldn’t choose to read any more of them, given a free choice, but I’m no longer quite sure why – I suspect they might be Boy Books, appealing more to a young male mind than to my own (which is neither of those things). Be that as it may, however, Banks is a writer’s writer – his prose is spare, powerful and eye-wateringly expert, with no word wasted. I don’t need to enjoy his stories to admire his writing and to be affected by the characters and narratives he creates.