Saturday, 20 August 2016

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When Will There Be Good News?: (Jackson Brodie) by [Atkinson, Kate]Another instalment in Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series, this is, like its predecessors, a twist on the crime novel. Jackson Brodie is a private detective and Louise Monroe, who we met in the previous Brodie novel One Good Turn, is a police officer, and there is certainly plenty of crime involved, but in no way is this a traditional mystery. In fact, Jackson is only called upon to investigate a mystery until three-quarters of the way through the book, and Louise likewise. Moreover, neither of them really solves anything - if anything, most of the actual detective work is done by a resourceful but vulnerable orphaned teenage girl, Reggie.

Reggie, whose mother is dead and whose brother is a drug-dealing sociopath, is a part-time nanny for Dr Joanna Hunter, and in the meantime, studying independently for her A-levels with the help of a retired teacher. Joanna Hunter, as a child, escaped a horrific death when she fled from the killer of her mother, sister and baby brother - and now that killer is about to be released from prison. In the meantime, a terrible train crash just outside Edinburgh kills and injures many - among them Jackson Brodie. So why, when he wakes up in hospital, are people calling him Andrew Decker? At around the same time, Joanna Hunter disappears with her baby son. Is her killer after her? Is she after her killer? Or does her disappearance have something to do with her shifty husband?

Like Atkinson's other books, When Will There Be Good News? has a plot and characters tied together largely by coincidence, misunderstanding and error. I know some people find this infuriating and unbelievable, but these really aren't supposed to be conventional crime novels. Atkinson's characters - Jackson more than any of them - continue to make terrible decisions and lead lives that are hapless, messy and confusing, full of random turns of fortune, much like real people do. In reality, mysteries are not neatly solved and then put away in a box with all loose ends tied, and people often do get away with murder.

When Will There Be Good News? has moments of bleakness and moments of great humour - again, much like real life - and its characters are memorable and fascinating. There's only one more book in the series and it's already on my reading list.

The Lost and the Found by Cat Clarke

The Lost and the Found by [Clarke, Cat]The Lost and the Found by Cat Clarke is a YA psychological thriller. The narrator is Faith Logan, whose sister Laurel was abducted when Faith was four and Laurel was six. The mysterious disappearance of middle-class, photogenic blonde Laurel, with her educated, articulate parents, has become the subject of endless tabloid speculation, awareness campaigns and true-crime paperbacks over the past 13 years. Consequently, the police call to announce that Laurel appears to have been found alive, Faith not only gets her sister back, but also has to handle the constant attentions of the media and the public.

Faith isn't comfortable with appearing on day-time TV shows or the family's lucrative book deal, but Laurel seems to be thriving on the attention, and she quickly slots herself into Faith's small friendship group, too. Faith soon starts to find some of Laurel's behaviour a little odd ... has Laurel been damaged by her horrific ordeal at the hands of her abductor, or is there something else she's hiding? Or could it be that Faith is letting a deeply-buried resentment of Laurel's new status as the family's golden child affect her judgement?

Ever since reading Vivien Alcock's The Cuckoo Sister when I was around 10, I've been fascinated by stories of siblings who disappear and return. Cat Clarke handles the subject extremely convincingly and in Faith creates an honest, flawed and credible perspective from which to explore an emotionally complex situation.

Faith is a believable teenager, which means like that like most teenagers she can be unreasonable and inflexible (her assumption that any woman interested in clothes or makeup must be stupid and shallow is infuriating, as is her reluctance to cut her mother some slack now and again while viewing her father through rose-tinted spectacles). But at heart, she's a thoughtful, well-meaning and likeable narrator with whom it's easy to empathise, whether she's coming to terms with Laurel's return or just realising that her boyfriend Thomas might, in fact, be a tiny bit of a pillock. The supporting characters are also vividly portrayed; Cat Clarke is adept at building a clear picture through just a few well-chosen details.

I found The Lost and the Found gripping from start to finish, although interestingly, I also found the bare bones of the plot relatively predictable, so it was more a case of wanting to find out how things would be revealed and by whom, rather than what would happen next. I also found a couple of elements towards the very end of the book slightly anticlimactic, perhaps a tiny bit lazy - but equally, they also prevented the story from descending into melodrama, which it could easily have done but for Cat Clarke's skill at striking the right balance.

Although this is a YA book it's just as good a read for an adult; I'd say it's certainly aimed at the older end of the YA market as parts of the story are by necessity quite dark.

If you do like the sound of this book and happen to have a Kindle, it's on promotion on Amazon for just 99p at the time of posting.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

One Good Turn is the second book in Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series, and follows Case Histories.

One Good Turn, Paperback Like Case Histories, One Good Turn is an unconventional crime novel in the sense that Brodie, the detective, doesn't actually do very much in the way of solving crime. In this particular book, he happens to witness a road rage incident which happens to be linked in a complicated fashion to his accidental discovery of a drowned woman's body. All this takes place in Edinburgh, which he is only visiting at all because his girlfriend is appearing in a terrible play as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Coincidence, mistaken identity, being in the wrong place at the right time - these are often central to Kate Atkinson's work and this is no exception. There are recurring references in it to a set of Russian dolls, which are not only a clue to a character's past but also a metaphor for the manner in which every time a mystery is solved in this book, it simply reveals another one as links between previously unconnected characters start to become clear.

One Good Turn is a very, very British novel, not so much because of the misunderstandings on which the plot hinges but because they become significant primarily because people are too polite or embarrassed to correct them. One character, cosy crime writer Martin Canning, panics and throws a briefcase at someone he believes is going to kill another man in the same road rage incident witnessed by Brodie. Simply because he can't quite find the right time to correct the paramedics when they assume he knows the victim, he becomes embroiled in a traumatic sequence of events in which a number of people die.

Like all Atkinson's books, One Good Turn is full of flawed characters trapped in situations and relationships from which they can't, or won't, escape. Everyone is dissatisfied with their lot, whether it's Brodie himself struggling with boredom in his early semi-retirement, Gloria Hatter counting the days until her wealthy conman husband dies, or lonely, gentle Martin Canning, who longs for a family life so unattainable that in his head, it's set in the 1940s. I know some other readers find this element of Atkinson's books somewhat depressing, and I can understand that, but it's also the source of a great deal of dark, observant humour (I found it laugh-out-loud funny in a couple of places) and a matter-of-fact honesty about relationships that's almost startling at times.

I enjoyed One Good Turn a great deal. I didn't like it quite as much as Case Histories, simply because I found the mystery at its heart a little less engaging, but it's still a great read. I'll definitely be continuing with the series.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Haunting of Tabitha Grey by Vanessa Curtis

The Haunting of Tabitha Grey
This book is a ghost story for young adults, with a protagonist who is almost 15. Tabitha moves with her parents and four-year-old brother Ben to a flat within a Victorian mansion, where her father has been employed as curator. Tabitha's father is full of enthusiasm for his new role, while her mother is grappling with depression. Meanwhile, Tabitha is unnerved by Weston Manor's atmosphere. Why can she suddenly smell lavender in certain rooms? Whose voices can she hear? Why are the old servants' bells ringing at night, and who's that playing croquet on the lawn?

I really wanted to like this book, and haunted houses are usually a winner with me, but unfortunately I found The Haunting of Tabitha Grey a bit lacking. First of all, there just isn't much to Tabitha as a main character. She's a stereotypical teenage girl interested in makeup, clothes, romance novels, her handsome but unbelievably dull boyfriend Jake and her best friend Gemma, who is also very forgettable. Being 'sensitive' to ghostly presences is the only thing about Tabitha that I found particularly interesting, and that alone isn't really enough to carry the story.

The ghostly goings-on themselves are depicted with skill - there's nothing you haven't seen or read before, but ghosts don't have to be original to be creepy - and the manor house setting is also nicely described. But there a some elements of the plot that don't ring true. For example, I don't think any father, just weeks into a new job as curator of a stately home and hosting an important visit from local dignitaries, would ever suddenly ask his 14-year-old to give them their guided tour, particularly when she's just been off school sick with nosebleeds, fainting fits and apparent hysteria.

This is a book that has a supposedly stunning twist towards the end, but I saw it coming when I was just under halfway through the book and without the element of surprise there's definitely something missing at the end of the story. The idea is a good one, but it's not executed with much subtlety and it's easy to spot, particularly for regular readers of ghost stories.

I realise that I'm an adult and this a book for kids and teenagers, but I don't think I'm asking too much of it in terms of plot and character. Juno Dawson, for example, some of whose books I've reviewed when she was writing under her previous name of James, writes teen horror with characters who are much more convincingly developed and plots that often have a real sting in the tail. The Haunting of Tabitha Grey has some promising elements, as it's atmospheric and spooky and the family drama plot strand is also nicely done, but overall it all just felt a bit below-par.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Funny Girl by [Hornby, Nick]Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl is a warm, witty novel set in the 1960s. It begins with Barbara Parker deciding – minutes after being crowned – that she can’t stand to be Miss Blackpool for a moment longer and leaving Lancashire to pursue her dream of becoming a British Lucille Ball. Barbara Parker is soon reinvented as Sophie Straw, and what follows is a bittersweet journey through Sophie’s adventures in Swinging London as she carves herself a niche in comedy.

My enjoyment of this book was fuelled in part from my interest in the entertainment industry during this era, when writers like Johnny Speight and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were producing groundbreaking sitcoms, satire was booming and the arts in general were undergoing something of a revolution. Nick Hornby refers to numerous real television insiders throughout the book and writes very well on the process of writing and producing a BBC series during this time, and it’s hard not to share in Sophie’s sheer delight at spending time in a room with a group of such clever, creative people, for all their flaws and idiosyncrasies. The camaraderie of the team behind sitcom Barbara (and Jim) is beautifully portrayed, complete with bickering, clashing egos and occasional disruptions by bit-parters, cuckoos in the nest of the Barbara (and Jim) family.

Hornby doesn’t make the mistake of glossing over the negatives of Sophie’s new-found fame, however – the appalling sexism of the industry and of the period, the short shelf-life of shows and careers when audiences are constantly looking for something new, male expectations and the increasing lack of common ground between Sophie and her family back in Blackpool are all important factors in the story. Barbara (and Jim) might bring Sophie and her colleagues fame and kudos, but for the most part, their lives are unglamorous. They might be invited to industry parties, asked to sign autographs and commissioned to write for Anthony Newley, but their relationships are complicated and their success precarious at time when audiences are constantly looking for something new.

Sophie herself is a well-written and believable character. She's witty, bold, sometimes naive and sometimes tough, sometimes insecure and sometimes confident to the point of arrogance, and perfectly capable of being ruthless when necessary. She knows that men find her sexy, but her aim is never to be a 'dolly bird' - it's to make people laugh. Not all her choices are wise ones, but it's impossible not to like her. Writing team Tony and Bill and producer Dennis are also fascinating characters in their own right, and the dialogue between the three of them and with Sophie and her co-star Clive practically sparkles on the page. 

There's no intricate plot to Funny Girl, and no real twists or surprises, but it still kept me turning the pages just as quickly as the most gripping thriller. It's charming and funny, it's packed with perfectly chosen period detail and it's a fascinating social history of a decade full of change.

Disappearance At Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay

Horror is very subjective thing, and I know there will be things about this book that some horror fans won't like, but Paul Tremblay's Disappearance At Devil's Rock absolutely terrified me.

In New England, a teenage boy runs away from his two best friends during a night-time trip to the woods and fails to return. His distraught mother Elizabeth and his younger sister Kate try to piece together the events building up to his disappearance. Are Tommy's loyal friends, Josh and Luis, telling the police the whole story of what happened that night? Why were the boys so obsessed with Split Rock, known in local folklore as Devil's Rock? Are social media reports of a dark figure seen in local gardens at night just urban myths? Who, or what, is leaving pages from Tommy's increasingly disturbing diary in the Sandersons' home?

Disappearance At Devil's Rock is one of those books that, like Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, offers a number of potential explanations for the events within it, some of which are supernatural, some of which aren't, and some of which are combination of the two - and yet ensures that every possibility is equally frightening. Some of the story is told in flashback from the points of view of Tommy's friends, and some is told through scraps of Tommy's diary. In combination with the small town, forest setting and the sinister folklore that surrounds the local area, this gives the book something of a Blair Witch Project feel, as if we are viewing found footage that documents a gradual descent into a slowly intensifying danger (this is echoed in Elizabeth's use of a motion-sensor security camera to see what might be happening in her house at night as Tommy's diary pages mysteriously begin to appear). We can see from the outset so many potential horrors to which Tommy is unwittingly going to expose himself, yet we - like his mother and sister as they read his diary - are powerless to step in and stop him, which creates an anxious, ominous atmosphere of gathering danger.

Disappearance At Devil's Rock is a horror novel, and a very frightening one at that, but it's also a heartbreaking portrait of a family's torment upon the disappearance of a child. Elizabeth Sanderson's grief, whether we choose to view Tommy's fate in a supernatural context or not. The confusion and loneliness of Kate, the child left behind, is also poignant as her discovery of Tommy's diaries reveals that he was more distant and yet also simultaneously more close to her than she has ever realised.

This is a book about family secrets, about grief, about friendship, and about the mysterious ability that some people seem to have to cast a spell - literally or figuratively - over others, as well as the influence of local legends on the collective psyche of a community. It's also about the unbearable fear that comes from knowing one's own fate when it's too late to change it. The manifestation of this fear might be real or it might be imagined, but either way it becomes a powerful and terrifying element of the story.

Disappearance At Devil's Rock is the best and most subtly unnerving American horror novel I've read since Josh Malerman's Bird Box, and I recommend it if you're a fan of horror novels that don't stick to an obvious formula or rely on set-piece shocks. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Dolly by Susan Hill

Dolly is one of Susan Hill's supernatural novellas. My copy is a nice little hardcover edition; I have matching editions of The Small Hand and Printer's Devil Court, also by Hill, and they're very nicely designed.

Image result for dolly susan hillDolly is the story of two cousins who are invited to spend the summer with their aunt in her isolated ancestral home. Edward and Leonora are the children of Dora and Violet, Aunt Kestrel's much younger, feuding sisters. Dora is now dead, leaving Edward an orphan, and international socialite Violet has been drifting from country to country for years, living in hotels with Leonora in tow, her lifestyle financed mainly by a succession of boyfriends. Part of the story takes place in the present, with Edward and Leonora returning to Iyot House after Aunt Kestrel's death, and the rest is set during their childhood stay there.

Susan Hill excels at building atmosphere and making places feel like characters in their own right. Iyot House, large and rambling with its isolated Fenland location, is every bit as damp and bleak as The Woman In Black's Eel Marsh House. The rain falls even throughout the summer and there's a general sense of decay about the place, with a flat, grey gloominess to the landscape.

Edward, from whose point of the view the story is told, is a polite, timid child and a polite, non-confrontational adult, constantly nervous but also stoical and innately kind. By contrast, Leonora is rude, spiteful, thoughtless and self-centred. Despite this, there are times when you will feel sorry for Leonora, spoilt but unloved by the mother she clearly idolises and resigned to a life of a succession of 'stepfathers'. Are Leonora's tantrums solely down to her upbringing, or is there someone or something at Iyot House that's driving her to worse and worse behaviour? Housekeeper Mrs Mullen seems to think so - does she have a point, or does she simply hate children?

I have some very minor issues with the sequence of events, as I think there is a slight flaw in the logic at one point early on in the story, but  Dolly is certainly a very creepy book indeed, and by and large it's beautifully constructed. Although its cover calls it a ghost story, it isn't really a ghost story in a literal sense. It's is a supernatural horror story, but the 'haunting' isn't the traditional sort and to me, Dolly reads like a cross between MR James and one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected.

It's short enough to read in one sitting (and I would recommend doing so), yet long enough to build the characters effectively and to lend it some extra nuance that might have been absent in a short story. It also leaves plenty of scope for the reader to decide why certain things might have been happened and who or what might be responsible; it doesn't spoonfeed the reader with clear explanations. This would make a great read for a rainy summer afternoon or a winter evening by the fire - and if the BBC don't adapt it as a ghost story for the Christmas schedules one day, they're really missing a trick.