Review: Snap by Belinda Bauer

51Yo-UQWXeL

I don’t read thrillers very often, but I’ve recently been on something of a crimefic roll after reading Alias by Cari Hunter  https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/review-alias-by-cari-hunter/

Snap, by Belinda Bauer, was on the Booker longlist – a major achievement for a work of genre fiction – and comes with enthusiastic endorsement from Val McDermid, who has described it as “the best crime novel I’ve read in a long time.”

What attracted me to the book, however, was its intriguing subject matter. Based on the unsolved murder of Marie Wilks, Snap focuses very much on the trauma suffered by a victim’s family in the wake of their a loss. Jack Bright’s mother is brutally killed when he is just eleven years old. She leaves her car at the side of the motorway to make an emergency call and never comes back, leaving Jack to fend for himself and his two young sisters, Joy and Merry.

Cut to three years later and the kids have slipped off social services’ radar. Supported by Jack’s talent for breaking and entry, they are living in hand to mouth squalour. When an opportunity to track his mother’s killer presents itself, Jack seizes it, endangering both himself and his siblings.

For me, the thing which really shone through the whole book was Bauer’s portrayal of Jack – quickwitted and resourceful, yet the psychological damage he has endured and his age make him incredibly vulnerable. The plot never stalls, and there are sufficient twists to turn this into both a real page turner and a story which pivots sympathetically around a young boy’s deep sense of loss.

What I wasn’t so convinced of, however, were Bauer’s portrayals of the ‘supporting cast’, who  emerge at times as mere thumbnail portraits, veering towards stereotype and caricature without true depth. This was particularly the case with the crew of police officers introduced later in the story, ranging from the hard bitten, unorthodox veteran detective, to his fey, vein assistant, both of whom came across more as cliche than rounded character.

A really entertaining read but not Booker material.

Advertisements

Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

41qPb6ELO-L._AC_US218_

Sally Rooney has been described as the “Salinger for the Snapchat generation” (Guardian): a writer who explores the loves and lives of Millenials, turning accusations of shallow self-absorption on their head. That’s simply not who her characters are. Her books may brim with references to lives lived online, to friends with benefits and clicktivism, but the young adults who populate her novels are politically tuned-in; emotionally astute; voracious readers and sparkling conversationalists.

To a large extent, anyway, this is what I took from Normal People: Rooney’s Booker long-listed novel about a pair of Sligo teenagers who fall in love – and then somehow seem to keep on almost wilfully missing each other. Both Marianne and Connell are attractive, frighteningly intelligent and both are, in their own ways, damaged – Marianne by her own family and Connell by the pressures of small town life and social class.

In this respect, Rooney plumbs deep psychological depths to establish why Marianne – so gifted and so beautiful – should experience such self-loathing. And why it takes a real tragedy before Connell is able to shake himself free of his own complexes and prejudices.

While Connell and Marianne came across as fully realised and recognisable individuals however, I felt this book could have been twice its length if Rooney had given more substance to the supporting characters. We only hear of Marianne’s mother through second-hand reports, for example, yet she is so pivotal in her daughter’s decline. And then there are the endless succession of boyfriends and girlfriends who never quite match up to the real thing: overprivileged, or intellectually challenged, a series of   emotional stooges contrasted with Marianne and Connell’s perfect pairing.

At its heart, Normal People is a love story – at times achingly painful, at others joyous, and there is obviously something timeless about that which goes beyond immediate concerns around technology and peer group prssures. I think, though, that I would have enjoyed a richer background texture to the book – a more in depth exploration of those forces which steer Marianne away from what she views as ‘normal’. And to which Connell sacrifices so much.

A fascinating read, but I’m not convinced it lives up to the hype.

Review – Alias by Cari Hunter

51oMVkv8y6L._SY346_

Thrillers really don’t come any better than Alias by Cari Hunter. The story begins with a fatal car crash high in the wintry wastes of Snowdonia, and a victim whose amnesia means that she’s lost track of her own past. And it ends in a bloody and terrifying finale which had me on the edge of my seat. This is a book which sucks you in from its mysterious start to its shocking conclusion, and Hunter succeeds in racking up the tension on every page.

Rebecca/Alis stumbles from the wreckage of a hired vehicle unable to remember who she is, let alone the identity of the dead woman beside her. With the help of Detective Bronwen Price of the Welsh police, Alis gradually pieces together a past in which she was almost certainly caught up in a criminal underworld. But whose side was she on? And can she trust the people who now claim to know her?

There is so much detail in this book – a no holds barred realism which sweeps the reader along as Alis tracks her pre-amnesic self from north Wales to the backstreets and suburbs of Manchester, risking her life in search of the truth. And the slow burn romance which develops between Alis and Price adds extra tension to this multi-layered narrative, as it could jeopardise their whole investigation.

I downloaded the Audible version of Alias – which I can’t recommend enough. Nicola Vincent captures all of the characters perfectly, bringing out the snarky, clever dialogue at one moment; Alis’s deep trauma and fear at others. What more can I say? Download it now!

Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

61YADLUXd-L._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_

I like kind of drifting into and across books. Sometimes finding a new author is like being involved in a massive paper chase, in which one good read leads to the next. The reason, for example, why I picked up (or rather downloaded) Daisy Johnson’s novel Everything Under was because it was recommended by Fiona Mosley, whose novel Elmet I greatly enjoyed. And I read Elmet due to a fascination with the concept of the Celtic/English hinterland of Elmet presented by Nicola Griffith in her work of historical fiction, Hild.

Indeed, there are a lot of points of comparison or overlap between Everything Under and Elmet. Both stories concern people who live on the peripheries of society. Both explore the relationship between gender and identity. And both use myths, history or legend as a base point for exploring contemporary British culture. Thus, the myth of Oedipus leaks into the lives of Johnson’s characters, steering them inexorably towards tragedy.

Gretel is a lexicographer, whose lonely existence is shored up by a fascination with language and semantics. She embarks on a journey in search of her mother, Sarah, who abandoned Gretel when she was just thirteen years old. But it now emerges that Sarah is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her fading grip on language means a loss of the past itself; her story delivered up in half-remembered fragments.

Through this confused web of time and memory, Gretel gradually pieces together the story of how the almost idyll of her childhood – spent amongst the ‘river people,’ drifting physically and metaphorically along the fringes of society – was splintered and destroyed by the arrival of a boy named Marcus. And of how Marcus may in fact have once been a girl – Margot.

There are so many strands to this complex and disturbing narrative that one reading doesn’t do the book justice. Johnson reveals the way in which we become trapped or ensnared by language or stories in so many different ways. Both Gretel and Sarah are haunted, for example, by the idea of the Bonak – a water creature hunting the river banks. Yet the border between genuine danger and self-imposed fear is a fluid one, and the Bonak turns out to be a term coined by Sarah herself, as she and Gretel share a private language.

In a sense, language in Everything Under takes on the role of fate in Oedipus Rex. It condemns people to relive the same, inescapable narratives; unable to veer course from self-imposed systems of semantics and association. “Again and again,” says Gretel, “I go back to the idea that our thoughts and actions are determined by the language that lives in our minds. That perhaps nothing could have happened except that which did.” Only with the disintegration of language, ultimately, can release from the past be found.

Everything Under has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a novel which reads like a river, meandering, free flowing, and at times sucking the reader into dangerous and disturbing depths. And ultimately, it reminds us of why myths like Oedipus still carry resonance in our fractured, fragmented times. Highly recommended.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

51yMdE9YmhL._SY346_

This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.

Review: Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

51mdSQTPHPL._SY346_

Ellen Kushner’s second-world fantasy Swordspoint is one of those books I wish I’d picked up a while back, and for some reason never did. It’s a novel which  bursts with the kind of elements I love in historical fantasy the most: courtly intrigue, superlative world building, queer characters and swords. Lots of swords. Don’t ask me why – there’s probably something very Freudian behind it which I’d rather not think about.

Anyway, set in an unnamed city which seems part restoration London, part Quattrocento Florence, disputes are settled at swords point; the nobility often hiring professional swordsmen to fight on their behalf in matters of honour. Enter Richard St Vier who is the best of them all – a man with a murky past who is skilled enough to be choosy when it comes to his patrons. And his lover, Alec – a man with an even murkier past, who tends to bring out the psychopath in Richard, egging him on to yet bloodier deeds.

Richard becomes embroiled in the machinations of the nobility who live on ‘the Hill’ – the smart side of town, and finds his own reputation and ultimately his life jeopardised as a result. And while I’ve read other reviews referring to this story as a ‘fantasy of manners’, with an emphasis on capturing atmosphere and character, I found myself gripped by the plot, as Richard becomes an unwitting pawn on an intricate playing board.

The one thing that niggled was the representation of female characters who were, for the most part, scheming aristocrats a la Dangerous Liaisons, happy whores or eventually docile wives. I could have done with a woman whose role went beyond fairly obvious stereotypes. I also felt there were a few subplots that would have been worth a bit more development. Richard didn’t seem particularly haunted by one of the more shocking events from his past; and Alec’s foray into astronomy was little more than a passing allusion.  However, there was so much else going on here that it was hard to keep track of those lesser plot lines.

The novel is beautifully written in clear, precise prose and with an attention to detail that leaves you in no doubt, as a reader, of how Kushner wants you to feel – from the dangerous alleyways of Riverside, to the refined gardens and palaces of the Hill. It’s a book which very much serves as an antidote to fantasy conventions of good versus evil, or tradition versus modernity. Really worth a read.

Review: Beowulf for Cretins by Ann McMan

51qES-fZAfL._AC_US218_

Sometimes you find yourself yearning for the characters you encounter in books to be people you really know. They’re so artfully brought to life that you think, “I would give anything to be in on this conversation; to sit down with this lady and share a bottle of wine with her.”

At least, that was how I felt about Grace Warner – hapless heroine of Ann McMan’s novel Beowulf for Cretins. With her self-deprecating wit, her inner conflicts and her absolute devotion to the woman she loves, Grace is the kind of character you root for from beginning to glorious end.

Following a messy break-up, Grace finds herself indulging in an “over-night rental” – as she terms it – with a beautiful stranger at a party. Back at the liberal arts college where Grace works teaching freshman English, it turns out that her one-night stand just happens to be her new boss. And while Grace ends up falling hopelessly in love with Abbie – the new president of St Alban’s college – she knows that it’s a relationship which could spell disaster for both of them.

Both Abbie and Grace are the kind of leading ladies who really don’t get enough airtime in fiction: mature women who are warm, intelligent and flawed enough that you can fully relate to them. At the same time, the novel dishes up an eclectic “supporting cast” of characters ranging from CK – a punk physics genius who pulls no punches as Grace’s best friend – to Dean – Grace’s ‘Cro-Magnon’ of a brother, and of course Grendel – the misfit freak of a dog that Grace finds herself saddled with.

The dialogue fairly zings with wit, and beneath the comedy there’s always a hint of the insecurities and sensitivities which make Grace such a fascinating character – from her lapsed Catholic heritage to the jealousies and politics of campus life.

Just a perfect read which made me want to rush out and buy all of Ann McMan’s books right away.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

pobrane

I decided to read The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock after listening to an interview with the novel’s author, Imogen Hermes Gowar on the Guardian books podcast (which is, by the way, always worth a listen). You can find the interview here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2018/mar/13/man-booker-international-and-the-womens-prize-for-fiction-where-to-start-reading-books-podcast

What attracted me to the story was the way Hermes Gowar has isolated an aspect of late eighteenth century London society – its fascination for exotica and curios – and taken that as a reference point for exploring the city at large, in terms of its changing physical and cultural landscapes.

The story hinges on the moment when merchant Jonah Hancock discovers that his ship has been sold in exchange for what is claimed to be a mermaid. Devastated over the loss of his vessel, Hancock nevertheless endeavours to recoup his losses by putting the mermaid’s mummified remains on display.

In fact, public fascination with the mermaid gains Hancock access to social spheres which, as a ‘middling’ kind of merchant he has never previously enjoyed: from the luxury and sensuality of an upmarket King Street brothel to the newly moneyed circles of Mary-le-Bone and Blackheath. In the process, he meets renowned courtesan Angelica Neal who proves as alluring as the mermaid itself.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock emerges as a work of textual archaeology, revealing the hidden histories of those people who frequently serve as little more than ‘local colour’ in received versions of national history. In contemplating her future as Hancock’s wife, for example, Angelica realises the extent to which her own identity will ultimately be lost; concealed beneath a series of socially-prescribed roles:

These claims upon her will only multiply – she will be mother-in-law, grandmother, widow, dependant – and accordingly her own person will be divided and divided and divided, until there is nothing left. (p.372)

The novel also references characters who slip through the net of white-washed historical narrative such as Polly – a mixed race prostitute, displayed like the mermaid as a curiosity.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock throws the reader headfirst into the murky waters of a city on the brink of change: into its new role as a capitalist powerhouse. In this respect, London itself emerges as a protagonist in the novel, transformed by a burgeoning economic reality which sees social climbers like Mr Hancock encroaching on the terrain of the upper classes.

This is a multi-layered jewel of a book, injecting London’s past with an immediacy which makes you question how far removed we are from such a reality. The fetishising of women’s bodies and the hunger for what we perceive to be exotic or grotesque are after all as characteristic of our contemporary media as they ever were for 18th century London society.

A beautifully written, startling and disturbing piece of fiction.

Review: Survival Instincts by May Dawney

616cYvOZt8L._SY346_

Given the fact that the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ are currently set at two and a half minutes to midnight; given the constant barrage of media reports on climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and rising geopolitical tensions, it’s perhaps not surprising that dystopian fiction keys into some of our deepest collective fears. How might we function in a world without technology – or an excess of it? Will we be able to resist the political extremes of totalitarianism or anarchy? What happens to us if, stripped of our humanity, we’re forced to fall back on our most primitive instincts, with the survival of one meaning the destruction of others?

This last question is what haunts May Dawney’s novel, Survival Instincts. War has ravaged the planet: humanity has all but obliterated itself. Only a few survivors eke out an existence either as ‘wilders’, relying on their own wits and skills to hunt and fend for themselves, or in defensive communities and homesteads.

Lynn Tanner is a wilder: a woman who has learned the hard  way that she can rely on no one but herself. She makes her way across the scarred landscape which was once New York State, scavenging and searching for hideouts, preying on wild animals for food and being preyed upon in turn by wolves, bears and other predators.

Lynn is forced to question her own values and instincts, however, when she is taken prisoner by a group of homesteaders and tasked with a quest which could well lead to her death. Accompanied by Dani, a hunter for the community, and her dog Skeever, Lynn finds herself suddenly forced into a position of trust, and experiences emotions which challenge her entire sense of who she is and whether there might be more to life than mere survival.

This is a gripping, beautifully written and uncompromising story which asks significant questions about how people might function when deprived of even the most basic comforts. Dani and Lynn’s unfolding relationship is perfectly paced, as the two women are beset by issues of trust and yet somehow start to believe that love might be more than just a luxury; it could imbue their lives with real meaning. It’s a story which confronts the daily grind of survival in a realistic way, and it does what all good speculative fiction should – it leaves you thinking long after you’ve read the final page about how we would function in such a future, and how distanced we really are from it.

Survival Instincts is simply an exceptional read, and a book which stays with you long after you’ve finished it. Highly recommended.

Review: Just Jorie by Robin Alexander

41NXCjQ5xSL

So before I review Just Jorie, I’d just like to say that this was a story which broke my audio book virginity, if you can forgive the expression. I haven’t listened to audio books before, simply because for whatever reason Amazon Audible wasn’t available in Poland until recently. And now I’ve tried one, I’m absolutely hooked – it means I can fit more books into my week without even trying!

But anyway, onto the book itself. Just Jorrie is the sweet and engaging tale of two women who find true love for the first time at forty (or thereabouts). It’s mostly set in New Orleans and focuses on Jorie (Marjorie Andolini) and Lena Vaughan, who find themselves thrown together by chance while waiting for a plane home. They decide to make the journey back by car together, and end up discovering out a lot more about each other than they’d bargained for.

Lena is forty, a high flying businesswoman who for some reason never seems able to meet the right guy. Jorie works for her family’s car parts company and is out and comfortable with her identity as a lesbian. Ostensibly worlds apart, they both begin to realise that each might be the other’s ‘one’: that certain somebody who’ll bring magic, love and security into their lives.

For Lena, this means a late-in-life examination of her own sexuality. For Jorie, it comes with plenty of concerns: is Lena just toying with her? Is it possible that someone with Lena’s background could fall for her? And that’s without taking into account the helpful ‘advice’ which comes their way and threatens to rock the boat, courtesy of various friends and family members.

The key note of the story is its humour. Avoid reading or listening to this book in public, because you will laugh. A lot. The dialogue is fast, sharp and witty and the characterisation is just perfect – especially when it comes to the Andolini household, and Jorie’s crazy Aunt and Gramps who never hold back. And I loved how easy it was to relate to all the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Put simply, Just Jorie is a beautifully written, upbeat romantic comedy. And I can definitely recommend the audio version, narrated by Lisa Cordileone, who brings all the characters to life.