Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

First of all, in case you're wondering why it's been a while since I posted a review, it's because I've been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series, and it's incredibly long and time-consuming. I don't want to review all seven volumes separately, and I still have three left to read, so it's been slowing my progress with other novels. I'm now taking a break from George RR Martin, and have just finished Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld.

A few years ago I read Sittenfeld's excruciatingly well-observed, frustrating coming-of-age novel Prep, about a girl who begs her parents to send her to a New England boarding school only to realise that she can never fit in - or admit that she has made a terrible mistake.

Sisterland revisits some of these themes, and like Prep, it has a narrator painfully ill at ease with herself - so much so that she has even changed her name from Daisy to Kate to distance herself from her childhood and from Violet, her twin sister. Daisy and Violet are, to a degree, misfits purely by virtue of being twins, but to make matters worse they are also psychic, prone to 'senses' about people, places and future events.

Whereas Violet is apparently happy to play the role of eccentric oddball, Daisy only reveals her talent when it seems it can help her make friends with the popular set - and needless to say, this backfires on her. As an adult, having reinvented herself as a housewife and mother to two pre-school children, Kate is every bit as embarrassed by Violet as she ever was - yet equally, also as inextricably linked to her despite their frequent rows. When Violet goes on public record as having predicted a major earthquake in the twins' home city of St Louis, Kate's past becomes not just an awkward shame but a threat to her family life, friendships and marriage.

In Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld gave us a narrator who was frequently selfish, hard to like and frustratingly Sisterland. There are times when Kate's feelings towards her chaotic, free-spirited sister seem painfully judgemental, particularly with regards to her weight and sexuality, and yet there are also times when Violet is such an infuriatingly selfish and disruptive influence that we can easily see why Kate would want to distance herself from her. It's also hard to sympathise with Kate when she jeopardises her marriage in the most of foolish of ways, but she at least partially redeems herself when she deals with the fallout from this in a steadfastly determined and courageous way.
poor at making decisions - yet still somehow made the reader sympathise with her. She pulls off a similar feat in

While the twins' psychic abilities are central to Sisterland's plot, this isn't really a book about ESP. It's a domestic drama of families, relationships, guilt and coming to terms with the past. The relationship between Kate and Violet is fascinating - are they really such very different people, or have they consciously chosen to push different aspects of their personalities to the fore? Also interesting - so much so that I'd have liked to have seen more of it - is Kate's relationship with her emotionally inept father, who despite being the sort of parent who buys his daughters low-value Starbucks gift cards for Christmas, is still responsible for some low-key, off-hand revelations that suggest there is more to him than meets the eye, if only his daughters had looked beyond the surface.

This is more a novel of character than of plot; the latter, it has to be said, is not really the focal point of the book and is occasionally disappointing. Overall, though, the small-scale events of Sisterland set against the looming threat of a possible large-scale catastrophe make for a fascinating family drama.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Magus of Hay by Phil Rickman

The Magus of Hay is the twelfth mystery in Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series, which consists of supernaturally-tinged crime novels featuring an Anglican vicar and Deliverance (ie exorcism) consultant as their main character.

In case you're wondering, yes, the Church of England does have priests who are trained exorcists - and the sorts of situations in which Merrily is called in to help are generally fairly plausible; think people who feel there is an unsettling atmosphere in their house after a violent death, for example, rather than children with spinning heads.

I've read all eleven of the previous books in the series over the past fifteen or so years, which is an obvious indication of how much I've enjoyed them. They feature an ever-expanding cast of recurring characters, including Merrily daughter Jane, local musician Lol Robinson, West Mercia Police officer DI Francis Bliss, and many more. Rickman has a gift for cliffhanger chapter endings and also for capturing a strong sense of place - the books are as much about the psychogeography of the English-Welsh border country as anything else. The supernatural elements are cleverly woven into the crime plots, and are chilling without pulling the novels into actual horror or fantasy territory. All in all, a great series if you're looking for easy but involving page-turners with plenty of atmosphere. I often save the latest Merrily Watkins for my summer holiday - they're very much that kind of book for me.

Now I've said all that, I'm going to be honest and say that this latest instalment in the series disappointed me. Two of the major characters from the previous books are almost entirely absent, and although Merrily is obviously heavily featured, she doesn't play an awfully central role in the plot. She's part of the story, but rarely, if ever, the driver for it. Instead, that task falls to DI Bliss (who seems to have more pages to himself in each new book) and to Betty and Robin Thorogood, a pagan couple who also first came to our attention in A Crown of Lights.

While I find Frannie Bliss an engaging lead, there is something lacking for me in Robin and Betty - particularly Robin, an American artist best known for designing fantasy book covers who has decided to rebuild his life with Betty by opening a pagan bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. I don't find him to be a sufficiently well-rounded character to carry a novel to this extent, and his combination of outward brash bluster and inward anxious angst quickly becomes tiresome.

I enjoyed Hay-on-Wye, a town I know relatively well, being the primary setting for the action, and as always, Rickman captures every location perfectly. The book even comes complete with 'off-camera' appearances by Richard Booth, the self-styled King of Hay who played a major role in reinventing the town as a haven for book-lovers and an isolated hub of independence from corporate developers and chain stores. The uniqueness of Hay and the question of whether or not it can continue to sustain itself is discussed intelligently throughout, and plays an important part in the story.

However, the actual nuts and bolts of the main plot didn't seem particularly fulfilling to me. I didn't get the usual chilling fascination from the supernatural or occult elements in Rickman's other works, and nor did the progress of the investigation really gel. I found the lengthy conversations about the particular type of occultism that features in this book a little dull, if anything - this is a reaction I've never experienced when reading the previous Merrily Watkins books.

It's certainly fair to say that my expectations were high, so I may be judging it more harshly than some would, but this was the only Merrily Watkins book I had to remind myself to keep reading so that I could finish it. There were great elements to it, and I still got plenty of enjoyment from it, but there just seemed to be a lot missing.

There is a minor sub-plot involving a prim headmistress apparently haunted by the ghost of her partner, and the gay vicar who covers Merrily's parish responsibilities during her week's holiday: I actually found this far more interesting than the main mystery, and would happily have read a whole novel devoted to it.

I got the feeling from The Magus of Hay and its predecessor The Secrets of Pain that Phil Rickman might be trying to change the direction of the series to make it less Merrily-centric and focus less on her and her relationships. I may have this completely wrong, of course - I hope I do, because it's not just Merrily but also the people around her (including Jane and Lol) who form the glue that holds these books together.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

What I read on my holidays 7: God's Dog by Diego Marani

I've seen a great deal of praise for one of Diego Marani's previous novels, New Finnish Grammar, although I haven't yet got round to reading it and decided to start with God's Dog instead because I was so interested in the basic premise.

God's Dog is set in a future in which the Catholic Church rules an unspecified chunk of the world as a sinister, Orwellian theocracy, able to pass laws, impose taxes (including an extra penalty for atheists) and operate a force of ordained police officers. Domingo Salazar is one such police officer and is called from the relative freedom of Amsterdam, where he is devoted to bringing down secularism in a number of ways, back to Rome, where he is assigned the task of tracking down a group of secular 'terrorists' who secretly arrange euthanasia for terminally ill hospital patients. The Church, of course, is particularly opposed to euthanasia - not just because it considers it a sin to 'play God' and end a patient's life, but because they believe suffering is an essential part of God's plan. Not only does the Church object to euthanasia, but it also insists that hospitals limit terminal patients' morphine doses. Treatment is only state-provided if patients' relatives attend regular prayer sessions. As the plot thickens, Salazar is caught up in a more far-reaching terrorist plot, and at the same time, his own zealous but controversial views on the best way to end secularism once and for all and his relationship with a Muslim scientist back in Amsterdam attract the attention of the religious authorities.

The latter happens mainly because Salazar has conveniently written all his views and a record of his activities down in a diary, and this is one of the many things I have a problem with in God's Dog. Salazar is effectively a member of a secret police force, a theocratic Stasi, and yet inexplicably documents his potentially heretical ideas on paper in great detail. I did wonder whether this is actually a joke on Marani's part in what is, after all, a satire - but even if it is, while the contents of his diary are an opportunity for various theories on the nature of religion and humanity that are clearly important to Marani's overall themes, they are long-winded, repetitive and structurally disruptive.

My other primary quibble with God's Dog is the writing itself. I know nothing of Italian and couldn't say whether it's Marani's writing I dislike or that of his translator, but I found much of the prose plodding and clunky, so much so that even a last minute dash to prevent a major terrorist attack in a huge crowd is rendered tedious. The writing in God's Dog is very much lacking in subtlety - and the same can be said of the satire, which is diverting but incredibly heavy-handed. 

I wanted so much to like God's Dog, but was ultimately left disappointed, and I would think twice about returning to Marani again.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

What I read on my holidays 6: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is set during one of my favourite periods for fiction, the early 20th century. Beginning with the birth of its protagonist, Ursula Todd, in 1910, it follows the fortunes of Ursula and her large, frequently eccentric family through two world wars. However, what makes Life After Life different is that we don't just see one version of Ursula's life, but many.

Ursula lives and dies countless times throughout the novel, her fate - and often those of her friends and family - turning on the smallest of decisions and chance occurrences. At times, Ursula seems to be subconsciously aware of her multiple lives - she's referred to a psychiatrist as a child for her 'deja-vu' and her compulsion to intervene when has a strong feeling that things are about to go wrong. Are her lives entirely separate from one another, or is one set of experiences being layered on to her previous pasts, like an oil painting on a pre-used canvas? Certainly her psychiatrist suggests that life is 'a palimpsest', constantly wiped and overwritten. 

Much has been said about the intriguing structure of Life After Life, and of course, there is a degree to which it dominates the novel - a lot of the narrative tension comes, of course, from wondering how long Ursula will survive after each rebirth. However, the book is much more than a single concept. It's a powerful chronicle of the first half of the last century, encompassing the First and Second World Wars and the unsettled years in between. The Todd family, who have a large country house but apparently ever-decreasing funds, are in themselves a portrait of post-Edwardian social and economic developments that changed the face of Britain (in particular, gradual shifts in the class and gender divides) and brought to mind elements of Sadie Jones' The Uninvited Guests and AS Byatt's The Children's Book, both of which are also great favourites of mine.

Ursula's family are entertaining and infuriating by turns, and are shown in different lights in each of Ursula's lives - her mother Sylvie, for instance, comes across as a loveably eccentric maternal figure at certain times, but is cold and even spiteful at others. Flighty, scandalous Aunt Izzie - naturally the first of the family to cut her hair into a bob in the 1920s - is often capricious and selfish, but is also Ursula's saviour on more than one occasion. By the end of the book, I felt well acquainted with every one of them; Kate Atkinson is a master craftsperson when it comes to character.

The more I read of Life After Life, the more I found myself trying to decide which of Ursula's lives, if any, was the 'right' one. Her stints as an ARP warden during the Blitz are particularly harrowing, and so it seems fitting that in another life she has the chance to stop the war from happening at all - yet her final act is one of self-sacrifice, and it appears that this life isn't her 'last' one, either. Is there a reason for Ursula's constant reincarnation into the same body, or will she simply go on forever, living an infinite number of times?

Life After Life is often incredibly sad (I cried at least once) but Kate Atkinson remains an exceptionally witty writer who excels at sharp, observant humour, so much so that there are genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I can't say I didn't find this book slightly exhausting at times - its structure makes it something of a rollercoaster ride - but I'd certainly put it with the very best books I've read this year.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

What I read on my holidays 5: The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

I'm not going to write too much about this book, because regular readers of this blog (I'm joking of course; there are none) will already know that I have read all the other books in Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway series and have reviewed them here. If you're interested, they are The Crossing Places, The Janus Stone, The House at Sea's End, A Room Full of Bones and Dying Fall.

I'm not going to pretend that these books are gritty, realistic crime thrillers. The Outcast Dead, like the previous instalments in the series, has a somewhat crazy plot, and the familiar cast of characters we've been introduced to in previous novels - notably Ruth herself, who despite an ever-expanding group of friends acquired in the other books is still fundamentally a loner, and Harry Nelson, gruff policeman and father to Ruth's toddler daughter despite his happy marriage to Michelle.

The core of the plot of The Outcast Dead involves an archaeological mystery, this time the discovery of a skeleton that may or may not be that of a notorious Victorian 'baby-farmer' with a hook for a hand, but as usual, this becomes inextricably linked with a present-day crime, also involving small children. It's a great page-turner, as you would expect, and the historical plot absolutely fascinated me in its own right. Furthermore, there's a subplot involving the personal lives of some of the supporting characters which pleased me no end, as I was never happy with its lack of resolution in the previous book.

The Outcast Dead is really a case of 'more of the same' - but I absolutely don't mean that to be a bad thing. This is the sort of series where each book feels like time spent with old friends, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy them. Overall, this a fun, hard-to-put-down instalment in a great, light crime series full of well-rounded, memorable characters and Griffiths' entertaining brand of dry, observant humour. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

What I read on my holidays 4: Touched by Joanna Briscoe

Touched is another of Hammer's series of horror novellas by well-known authors, which also includes Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat (excellent), Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate (disappointing) and Sophie Hannah's The Orphan Choir (another excellent one). I find it hard to resist this series at the best of times, and when I read that Touched was partly inspired by Joanna Briscoe having spent her early years in the village that formed the setting for the brilliant film The Village of the Damned, which was in turn adapted from the novel The Midwich Cuckoos by my hero John Wyndham, I was never going to be able to last long without reading this one.

Luckily I wasn't at all disappointed by Touched, which is a great little chiller of a book that brings together
multiple sinister threads into one increasingly unsettling narrative. In 1963 the Crale family - parents Rowena and Douglas, non-identical twins Rosemary and Jennifer, loner Evangeline, toddler Bobby and newborn Caroline - move into a cottage formerly occupied by Douglas's elderly mother in an idyllic village, and set about knocking down the wall between it and the house next door in order to make it into a family home. However, the house seems reluctant to cooperate. Damp patches appear; strange smells come and go, from cat pee to disinfectant and an old woman's perfume . Little Bobby talks of mysterious intruders, and Rowena is plagued by nagging sensations that there is a sixth child in the house.

If you're thinking this sounds like a standard haunted house narrative, it's really so much more than that. There's also Evangeline for a start, who talks of an imaginary friend, insists on dressing in her grandmother's old Victorian clothes, and forms an unlikely, disturbing friendship with Pollard, the local builder working on the house, and his childminder wife. There's Jennifer too: unlike her stolid, reliable twin Rosemary, Jennifer is stunningly beautiful, so much so that her looks are constantly commented upon even in her early teens. Yet when Jennifer is asked to play a one-line part in a film being made on location at the village, she seems strangely, eerily vacant on camera.

There's an enormous amount going on in Touched, and it's not always clear what might be supernatural and what might be a more earthly threat. If I did have any complaint about this book, it would be that there are perhaps too many plot strands for such a short novel - I could happily have seen it spun out for another 200 pages - but that's not exactly a damning criticism.

Touched is not only (very) creepy and unsettling like all the best ghost stories are, it's also beautifully evocative of its setting and period. This is a deeply worthy addition to the Hammer series.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

What I read on my holidays 3: The Neighbors by Ania Ahlborn

The blurb for The Neighbors describes it as "an insidiously entertaining tale of psychological suspense and mounting terror by the boldest new master of the form, at the intersection of Basic Instinct and Blue Velvet". It's the story of Andrew Morrison, who leaves home after a row with his alcoholic mother, moves into a rundown property with a deeply unpleasant housemate, and finds himself fascinated by Red and Harlow Ward, the strangely glamorous couple next door who seem keen to take him under their wing. To me, this all sounds quite promising.

Unfortunately, The Neighbors simply fails to deliver on pretty much every level.

First of all, Andrew - who is also irritatingly referred to as Drew and Andy throughout, despite the narrative being from a third person omniscient point of view - has little in the way of either depth or backbone. His departure from his mother's home is not especially convincing, and nor is his response to the strange reaction he gets from his new housemate Mickey (sometimes called Mick, which irked me as much as the Andrew/Drew/Andy business) when he arrives after agreeing to move in. He's perturbed by Mickey's incredible rudeness upon his arrival, but fails to confront him about it or even question it, despite Mickey being a old childhood friend. Moreover, his obsession with the Wards simply doesn't seem credible. Admittedly, Andrew might be looking for a mother figure or a family unit, given his background, but I still fail to see why he'd a) develop an erotic fixation with an obviously mad middle-aged woman solely because she's well-groomed and makes him some cookies or b) believe for one moment that a suburban couple could possibly need to pay him to work full-time simply on some low-skilled maintenance jobs around the house. Why does this not make him in any way suspicious?

Similarly, while we're constantly reminded that Harlow Ward is an attractive woman, there is no real explanation for her apparent magnetism or her ability to manipulate her husband into turning a blind eye to her blatant violent lunacy. It's simply not plausible in any way. I kept suspecting that there might be some sort of supernatural element to it, as this seemed the only possible explanation, but no, it's nowhere near as interesting as that.

Red Ward is largely devoid of character, as is Mickey. Harlow herself is essentially just a dangerous nutjob, and while some cursory effort is made to explain her psychological issues, it's a pretty poor one that's also tastelessly dismissive of the type of experience she's been through. And there is little suspense, either, simply because everything is so obvious and happens with such unlikely speed. There are no real surprises, and no attempt to build any kind of atmosphere.

Finally, the quality of the writing overall seems low to me. It's all telling and no showing, with clunky exposition and asides on the characters and their behaviour that take the place of character development through action and dialogue. Harlow Ward, supposedly the all-important, all-powerful lynch-pin of the novel, is reminiscent "of that Mad Men show - her hair, her clothes; they were profoundly retro". Is that kind of lazy catch-all, shorthand description really the best the author can do?

I honestly hate writing bad reviews, and I can usually find plenty to enjoy even in a book that didn't really work for me. Unfortunately, not this time.