Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was published in 1998 but although it's a very well-known and critically acclaimed novel, I'd never really thought to read it until a few weeks ago it was recommended by Marian Keyes on the Radio 4 books programme, A Good Read.

The Poisonwood Bible, Paperback The Poisonwood Bible is the story of five women, the wife and four daughters of a Nathan Price, an evangelical Southern Baptist minister from Georgia who in 1959 takes his family to what was then the Belgian Congo so he can carry out missionary work. As a family, they are hopelessly ill-prepared for the culture shock and hardships of life in a Congolese village, both physically and emotionally. The story begins with them packing 'all the wrong things' to take with them on their journey. Upon arrival, the painfully stubborn, dogmatic Nathan Price immediately sets about planting a vegetable garden which, thanks to his refusal to listen to their Congolese housekeeper's advice, fails. Their preconceived notions about race and religion are bigoted and patronising. And in the background, the Congolese struggle for independence, and all the accompanying interference from the West, rumbles on.

Told from the five points of view of each woman - Nathan's wife Orleanna, 16-year-old Rachel, 14-year-old twins Leah and Adah and five-year-old Ruth May - The Poisonwood Bible has a fairly epic scope, spanning around 30 years, and yet each woman's story is deeply personal. Each narrator has her own distinctive voice, values and vision. The unashamedly selfish Rachel peppers her speech with unintentional malapropisms; her language, like her views on race and politics, is carelessly skewed. Adah, academically gifted but physically disabled by a brain injury at birth and possibly affected by some form of autism, is prone to reading things backwards and obsessed by palindromes and linguistic patterns. Language in general is important in the story: inflections are misunderstood, concepts are untranslatable, and translation becomes symbolic of the vast differences between the Prices' way of life and that of their new Congolese neighbours. Everything the Prices bring from America somehow fails to 'translate' when it reaches Africa, whether it's the powdered cake mix ruined by equatorial humidity, Nathan Price's uncompromising sermons that leave his congregation alienated and confused, or the family's preconceived notions about the Congo and its people.

This is a long and sometimes rambling book, and the further the story progresses, the less deftly the (albeit fascinating) exploration of post-colonial African politics are woven into the narrative, and  the particular voices and states of mind of the characters make some chapters a little hard-going in comparison to others. Overall, though, this is a beautifully written and absorbing novel with fascinating characters and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

As a fan of Daphne du Maurier I read most of her books when I was much younger, but for some reason I never got round to My Cousin Rachel. I don't know why that is - along with Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, it's probably one of du Maurier's better-known novels.

The narrator is Philip Ashley, an orphan brought up on a large country estate in Cornwall under the care of his guardian, Ambrose, in the early 1800s. When Ambrose dies suddenly overseas, shortly after his unexpected marriage to a distant Anglo-Italian cousin, Philip, now in his early 20s, is convinced that Ambrose's widow Rachel is in some way responsible. Yet he, not Rachel, is the beneficiary of Ambrose's will and when he finally meets his cousin, Philip finds himself instantly charmed by her beauty, wit and sophistication. Can Philip's initial suspicion that Rachel poisoned Ambrose, gleaned from his guardian's confusing letters, be correct? Or did Ambrose indeed die, like other Ashleys before him, of a brain tumour? 

What is particularly clever about My Cousin Rachel, however, isn't just the ambiguity of Rachel herself, it's the unreliability of the narrator. The late Ambrose, whose presence hangs over the novel, has brought Philip up in a way that Philip believes faultless but which could also be seen as somewhat stifling, over-indulgent and inappropriate - the book opens with him taking Philip, then a child, to see the tarred corpse of an executed criminal hanging at a crossroads. Philip's adoration of Ambrose is also almost uncomfortable to read about in its obsessiveness; it seems more like an intense crush than a paternal or avuncular relationship. Moreover, Philip's entire world-view and character have been shaped by Ambrose, who has brought him up to be suspicious of foreigners and disdainful of women. It's very clear that Philip thinks of himself as a simple country squire and a jolly, affable nice guy, and indeed his behaviour towards his servants and tenants does often support this - yet he is also a spoilt, complacent misogynist, oddly inflexible and, when it comes to his relationships with not only Rachel but everyone else in his limited acquaintance, immature.

While we're always aware that Philip's view of Rachel is colouring our own, that's not to say that we can be confident that everything Philip thinks about Rachel is wrong - not least because what Philip thinks about Rachel is constantly shifting and conflicting. Du Maurier is a consummate expert at this kind of writing, wrong-footing us repeatedly and imbuing the novel with a feeling of uncertainty and latent, simmering danger.

My Cousin Rachel is more of a psychological novel than a plot-driven one, and isn't necessarily going to please everyone who likes clear answers and neatly tied-up loose ends. It's also not particularly fast-paced; it's character-driven rather than action-packed and the story unfolds slowly and descriptively, with the feel of a Gothic novel from an earlier period. It is, however, full of atmosphere, and despite the pace it still feels tense thanks to its pervasive sense of unease.

Monday, 28 March 2016

One by Sarah Crossan

Image result for one by sarah crossanI hesitate to describe One by Sarah Crossan as a novel, exactly, because although it has a novel's page count it's not written in continuous prose. Instead, the whole story is told in free verse, in short 'chapters' that are more like free verse poems. Set in Hoboken, New Jersey, it's aimed at a YA readership and it's about a pair of conjoined twins - or more accurately, a conjoined twin, as it's narrated in the first person by only one of them. Grace is joined at the hip to her sister Tippi, and each twin has a head, a torso and a pair of arms. That means each girl has her own lungs, heart and kidneys, but the lower body merges and they share one pair of functioning legs. It's not so bad, really, Grace explains:

It's how it's always been.
It's all we know.
And actually,
    we're usually
    quite happy

Initially I wasn't convinced by the free verse structure - I didn't find it difficult or jarring to read, but for the first few chapters I simply couldn't really see the point of it. However, as the book progressed I did begin to feel that it added something. It makes the book a short, intense read (it took me about 90 minutes) which works well for the story, and the free verse helps to give a sense of otherness and reminds us that there is something different about this narrator, something that lends a slight awkwardness to the way others perceive her. 

The story opens with Grace and Tippi going to school for the first time at 16, having been homeschooled up to this point - their father has lost his job as a college lecturer and their mother works in a bank so money is tight. State funding for their education is minimal, but will pay for their attendance at a school chosen solely because, despite Grace and Tippi being two individuals, it's willing to treat them as a single entity for the purposes of fees.

This is a thread that runs throughout the book. Quite rightly, there's a constant battle to have them treated as two, and yet, as Grace herself is forced to admit, there are times when they are one, and the unique bond between them goes far beyond the physical.

While Grace and Tippi are naturally the main focus of the story, Sarah Crossan doesn't neglect the other characters, who are all three-dimensional and interesting in their own right. I particularly liked Dragon, their younger sister, and Grammie, their grandmother, who lives with the family and who seems to be the most matter-of-fact and accepting when it comes to the twins' condition. A documentary producer could easily have been portrayed as an exploitative media vulture, but instead confounds even the twins' own expectations.

Much of the story deals with the every day difficulties of teenage life - crushes, fitting in, friendships, sneaking out to drink cider. There are also family problems to contend with: Tippi and Grace's father is struggling with a growing drink problem and their sister, who has a talent for ballet, is teetering on the verge of an eating disorder. It's sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet - so essentially, what you'd hope for from YA contemporary realism, but coloured, if not actually shaped, by the unique circumstances of the narrator. There are also interesting digressions on the practicalities of being conjoined - for example, while one twin has counselling, the other has to listen to loud music through headphones in order for the session to take place 'in private'. 

All this is fascinating, insightful and perceptive, but it's really the last third of the story that sets this book apart. It's utterly heartbreaking and beautifully written, perfectly paced and sensitive. The sparse nature of the free verse is ideal here when it comes to conveying emotional pitch. I suspect One is a book I will remember for a long time. 

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Tastes Like Fear, out on 7 April, is the third novel in Sarah Hilary's DI Marnie Rome series. I reviewed the previous two, Someone Else's Skin and No Other Darkness, here and here.

Tastes Like Fear, Hardback Like its predecessors, Tastes Like Fear is a dark, London-set police procedural in which Marnie Rome and her team are pitted against a deeply disturbed, sinister antagonist (this isn't a spoiler; we see Rome's quarry in action right from the start, although we're obviously unaware of their identity or motive).

The story begins with a car accident caused by a half-dressed teenage girl staggering out into the road - and apparently wandering off immediately afterwards. Could she be May Beswick, a 16-year-old recently missing from her apparently stable home? Or could she be one of any number of other errant teens who drift to the capital when there's nowhere else to go? Either way, we soon learn that someone, known only as Harm, is offering street kids somewhere 'safe' to stay - but at what price?

Tastes Like Fear is perhaps the grittiest of the three Marnie Rome novels in terms of setting - this is a perfectly portrayed world of decaying tower blocks, hostels and underpasses where rough sleepers congregate, a world populated by homeless ex-soldiers, troubled teenagers and feral children. And yet somehow, the quiet, ordered environment provided by Harm is infinitely more terrifying - Hilary is adept at evoking the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere of a closed world that constantly teeters on the knife-edge of one person's terrifyingly fragile sanity. There isn't a great deal of overt violence in this novel, and yet the horror is absolutely genuine.

As before, Marnie is still tortured by the presence of Stephen Keele, the foster brother who murdered her parents some years previously, and continues, from his young offenders' institute, to take a keen interest in her career. Although we learnt a little about Stephen's background in the previous book, I do think more will have to be revealed about him soon: although he and his unsettling obsession with Marnie remain fascinating, I don't think Stephen can remain a mystery forever if this element of the books is to continue to hold my interest.

It does feel as if there's less of Marnie herself in this instalment in the series, although this isn't a criticism at all. She's still a strong and perceptive presence and, aided by her team, is the driving force for the ultimate resolution of the plot; plus, a lot of her back-story is now already known to us and doesn't need to be heavily reiterated.

There really is very little to find fault with in Tastes Like Fear; if you enjoy horror-tinged crime novels full of surprising twists, in which killers' motives are primarily psychological, the Marnie Rome novels are probably something you'd enjoy, and like Sarah Hilary's previous books, this one is a masterclass in pace and plot.

Thank you to Sarah Hilary's publisher for providing me with a copy of Tastes Like Fear to review via NetGalley.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Pretty is, Paperback Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell is told from the alternating points of view of two women who, as 12-year-olds, were abducted and held captive for two months in an isolated forest cabin. Their kidnapping, unsurprisingly, has had a lasting effect on each of them - but not necessarily for the reasons you might imagine. Lois is now a college professor and has written a novel, under a pseudonym, based on her experiences; Carly May has become Chloe, an actress whose career is already starting to fade at 30, and who auditions for a leading role in a film based on Lois' book. It's been almost twenty years since the women last met, and each of them has, to some degree, a new identity. Will meeting again help them to make more sense of the weeks they spent trapped by their mysterious abductor? And why is Sean, a strange, awkward student of Lois's, so obsessed with them both?

Pretty Is seems to be billed primarily as a psychological thriller, but I think readers who are looking for a more straightforward page-turner might be disappointed: there are no neat resolutions here and many questions are left unanswered. The cover suggests it's 'perfect for fans of The Ice Twins' but it really is nothing like it. Interestingly, Chloe describes Lois's own novel as "marketed [...] as a sort of chick-lit/thriller hybrid of the more literary variety", the sort with a cover that depicts "a scenario that doesn't appear in the novel" and which is "more interested in what goes on in the characters' minds"; this would be a pretty fair description of Pretty Is, too. It's a perceptive, well-written novel, but there is no neat resolution with regards to certain characters' motives, and while I enjoy ambiguity in fiction, this was a little frustrating.

Both Chloe and Lois are well-drawn, credible characters - as children, they were pigeon-holed as the pretty girl and the clever girl respectively, but it's clear that they are both far more than this, something their kidnapper appeared to recognise. Each of them is also realistically flawed - Chloe almost certainly has a drink problem, while Lois ignores all warnings and takes foolish risks in her dealings with Sean in order under the pretext of inspiration for her second novel. Most importantly, each of them appears to be struggling to acknowledge the most uncomfortable truth of all about their time in the woods with kidnapper Zed - a time we only really see through the filter of Lois' fictional account of it, some of which Chloe disputes. How reliable are their points of view? How well did they really understand their mysterious captor? 

There are elements of the plot here that do stretch my belief - I think Lois' identity would have been revealed in the media the moment her novel became a success, for example, and there is an incident involving two child film actors towards the end of the book which I simply don't think would have come close to happening on a film unit base - but overall, Pretty Is was a thought-provoking, character-driven read about obsession, identity and guilt.

My thanks to the publishers for sending me a copy of Pretty Is via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge was recently named 2015's Costa Book of the Year, making it the first children's book to win the prize since Philip Pullman won with The Amber Spyglass in 2001. Having loved Frances Hardinge's previous book Cuckoo Song, I was excited to get stuck into The Lie Tree and I wasn't disappointed.

Image result for the lie treeFaith, The Lie Tree's protagonist, is the teenage daughter of a Victorian clergyman and naturalist, Erasmus Sunderby, who has brought his family to a small island on which he intends to take part in a major fossil excavation project. But the people of the island are strangely hostile to the Sunderby family, and when a death occurs in mysterious circumstances, it's up to Faith to find out why. 

The Lie Tree is a captivating blend of historical fiction and fantasy which is also, in part, a feminist coming-of-age tale. Faith, as a girl, is constantly marginalised, ignored and patronised and her scientific interests discouraged. As the book unfolds she makes some fascinating discoveries about some of the other women in the book too, and realises she might have made some misjudgements of her own. All the characters are fascinatingly developed as the story unfolds - I particularly enjoyed the gradual revealing of the smart, protective shrewdness lurking within Myrtle, Faith's apparently vain, shallow mother.

The 'lie tree' itself, a strange plant that feeds on untruths, is a clever and sinister plot device and serves as a creepy metaphor for the destructive, invasive - yet strangely fragile - spread of rumour and deception. However, there are many equally strange elements to this book which are not fantasy at all - Victorian post-mortem photography and mourning conventions, for instance, account for some of the most memorable scenes. 

This is a gripping, fascinating and often very touching book, with a deeply sympathetic heroine and a strong sense of atmosphere that brings the setting and the characters beautifully to life. Thoroughly enjoyable. 

Sunday, 20 March 2016

A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel

A Fever of the Blood by Oscar de Muriel is a Victorian-set mystery adventure about two mismatched Edinburgh police detectives investigating a murder that takes place in a mental hospital. The likely culprit, an aristocrat committed to the asylum in secret some years previously, has escaped and is on the run, and it's up to Frey and McGray to track him down. What follows is a rollercoaster ride of an investigation that uncovers all sorts of sinister secrets and drops Frey and McGray into various life-threatening situations.

Frey and McGray are classic odd couple: Ian Frey is a fastidious, effete English gentleman with a scientific background while 'Nine-Nails' McGray is an eccentric, foul-tempered Scot obsessed with witchcraft and the supernatural. Neither man hides his dislike of the other, which fuels much of the comedy of the novel, but their particular interests are both essential to their solving of the mystery at the heart of A Fever of the Blood.

This is the second outing for Frey and McGray, and I haven't read the first, although I think I would have liked to have to done so before I read A Fever of the Blood. Frey and McGray are both somewhat over-the-top characters in their own way and while this adds to the comic effect of the partnership, a more gradual introduction to them might have helped in order for me to find them more plausible. That said, I did become quite fond of them both by the end of the book.

A Fever of the Blood is not a book to pick up if you're looking for gritty realism - it's a crazy Victorian adventure in which Frey and McGray are constantly plunged into desperate peril, and many of the characters, particularly the villains, are larger than life. The pace is fast and it's all very entertaining, plus it's very funny at times.

However, I felt the period atmosphere was somewhat lacking - the language in Frey's narration and in some of the dialogue sometimes seemed jarringly modern, and I didn't get a strong sense of place from either of the book's main settings. I think this, and the fact that I hadn't read the previous book in the series to get to know the characters, was why I didn't find it quite as absorbing as I'd have liked. It was a fun, easy read, and there are many elements to this book that I enjoyed, but somehow it seemed less than the sum of its parts.

My thanks to the publisher, who sent me a copy of this book to review via NetGalley.