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.

Mini-review: The Strangler Vine, by MJ Carter

Really enjoyed this – the level of research about India in the early 19thC was evident in the rich detail, and the precarious relationship between the main characters, although a little formulaic in the early sections of the book, developed nicely. The story itself is somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, with plenty of intrigue, jewels and flashing swords. Recommended.

(Review also posted on Goodreads and Litsy)

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.

Review – Lionheart by Stewart Binns

About a month ago on Twitter I picked up a call for guest reviewers, put out by the splendid Sharon from Shaz’s Book Blog. She was looking for folk to take some of her teetering TBR pile off her hands, and I thought – hell, I could do that.

So I stuck my hand up, Shaz posted me a book, I read it, and then I wrote about it. Here’s what I wrote (also posted here at Sharon’s place).

Lionheart, by Stewart Binns

Published by Penguin, November 2013

https://lmaskill.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/92e9e-lionheart.jpg

The blurb:

1176, England. King Henry II reigns over a vast empire that stretches the length of Britain and reaches the foothills of the Pyrenees. But he is aging, and his powerful and ambitious sons are restless. Henry’s third son, Richard of Aquitaine, is developing a fearsome reputation for being a ruthless warrior. Arrogant and conceited, he earns the name Richard the Lionheart for his bravery and brutality on the battlefield.

After the death of his brothers Richard’s impatience to take the throne, and gain the immense power that being King over a vast empire would bring him, leads him to form an alliance with France.

And so Richard begins his bloody quest to return the Holy Land to Christian rule.

The review:

I started this book with a great deal of anticipation – I love a good historical novel, and the twelfth century is a time about which I know very little. The book is the fourth in Binns’ Making of England quartet, dealing with the period from 1176 to 1199 and recounting the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, Christendom’s abortive attempt to recapture Jerusalem after its capture by Saladin.

The story is told from the point of view of the fictional Sir Ranulf, a relatively lowly English knight who becomes a military advisor to the King and travels with him across Europe and the Holy Land. The narrative is rich with detail, the story lurches from fights and betrothals to betrayal and captivity, and the historical events and battles were clearly meticulously researched.

So far so good. However, for me a historical novel needs more than an in-depth understanding of the period. It needs good characterisation, believable dialogue and emotion, and I felt all these aspects were lacking. Sir Ranulf was a wooden and one-dimensional mouthpiece for the historical events, with little emotional rise and fall in his narrative.

In order for him to be present at all the major events in Richard’s life the author needed poor Ranulf to make some very foolish decisions – I felt a bit sorry for him, to be honest, since at various points he lost almost everything (friends, lands, titles, two women he loved – oh, and a hand) pursuing Richard across the known world. The King himself, who by all accounts was a charismatic, forceful and brilliant man, came across as flat and rather nice-but-dim, an impression exacerbated by the frankly appalling dialogue. It was rigid and stilted, mixing modern idioms with older formulations in a rather slapdash fashion.

Overall, in its wealth of historical detail this book was informative and interesting; if it had been written and presented simply as an account of the Third Crusade I would have enjoyed it much more. However, as a novel I felt it didn’t really work. It lacked depth and emotion, and I ended up annoyed with it because the novelisation elements felt so clumsy. All in all, the effect was to turn the Third Crusade into something like Five Go Mad in Palestine, with lashings of historical detail but not much soul.

Edited to add:

The book is (or soon will be) available from the usual online outlets – here and here for starters – but if you want to read it, I have a copy you can have. No, really, I insist. You can have it. First person to send me their address via the contact form below gets it…

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This book is a long way from one that I would choose for myself. I read it for a book club, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up anything else by Kate Morton.

The central character is Laurel, a famous actress who witnessed a terrible event during an otherwise perfect bucolic childhood, and the author uses parallel timelines to reveal the characters involved and the reasons behind what happened. Laurel searches for answers as her mother lies dying, while we (the readers) are given a privileged view into long-past events through the eyes and thoughts of the people who lived them.

As such, the plot structure was frustrating, since there was very little revelation in Laurel’s story because we already knew more than she did. The plot took a long time to get going and only really accelerated in the final section, which was for me the most interesting and the best-written. I didn’t really like any of the characters – this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I have read many books in which I disliked characters, but I need to be interested in them, and I really wasn’t interested in any of the people in the book apart from two – Vivien, Laurel’s mother’s friend from the 1940s, and Gerry, Laurel’s brother who plays a bit-part role. The last section of the novel, which I liked the most, was told from Vivien’s point of view.

The end, when it came, felt rushed because of the need to spring all the final surprises in the last few pages, and while I did get a genuine “oh, riiight!” moment, it felt like a sudden slap in the face and I still felt that there was a lot more that could have been done throughout the rest of the novel to drip-feed hints and follow up details.

So – this is a decent story told in a workmanlike way, but for me it did not sparkle. The characters were mostly rather flat and did little that was unexpected, and any interesting things they did do were largely unexplained or sidelined. No more Kate Morton for me, but thanks anyway.

~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.