Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Many by Wyl Menmuir

The Many: Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2016 by [Menmuir, Wyl]The Many by Wyl Menmuir is a short novel set in a decaying Cornish fishing village. Very few boats work there, and those that do catch nothing in the mysteriously polluted bay, and are forbidden to venture beyond the rotting container ships, inhabited by Hitchcockian colonies of seabirds, that lurk on the horizon. When outsider Timothy buys a long-empty house that once belonged to local boy Perran, the village and its people fill him with a powerful unease - but his fascination for the place (and for Perran, who seems to have acquired an odd, quasi-mythical status in the minds of the fishermen) seems to prevent him from leaving and is every bit as oppressive as his fear.

The Many is around 160 pages long, hovering on the border between novel and novella, and I'm glad it's so short because it's such a strongly unsettling book that anything longer would simply be too much.  This isn't a plot-driven book at all, so while there are shades of folk horror here, don't expect the story to resolve itself with Wicker Man style twists and don't expect this to be a realistic description of a Cornish village either - it's not realistic because it's not meant to be. Menmuir's writing is evocative and richly descriptive, but never overblown. There are no explanations and endless scope for interpretation; the whole thing has the feel of a frightening dream - not an adrenaline-filled nightmare that would wake you in a cold sweat, but one of those languidly unnerving, anxious dreams in which ordinary things and people acquire a subtle air of hostility, in which logic collapses and an ominous but non-specific feeling of doom gathers throughout.

Timothy's is not the only point of view from which we see the events of The Many. Some chapters unfold through the eyes of Ethan, who after a long spell of fruitless fishing expeditions begins to land unexpected catches when Timothy arrives in the village. The fish Ethan hauls in from the contaminated waters in his boat, the ironically-named Great Hope, are sickly, deformed and inedible, but a mysterious woman dressed in grey and assumed to be from the fisheries ministry insists on buying every last one of them.

Ethan is also constantly, painfully burdened by his grief for the late Perran - and towards the end of the novel, in flashback sequences, we start to understand why Timothy feels haunted by Perran too. Are Ethan and Timothy two incarnations of the same man? Is the village in which Timothy is trapped a real place at all, or is it symbolic of something quite different? It certainly seems significant that his wife, Lauren, never joins him there and that he becomes increasingly unable to contact her by phone as he desperately continues with his futile attempt to make Perran's cottage into a place in which they could find peace together.

There are so many levels on which The Many can be read, but one of the most striking things about it is the profound sense of loss it quietly conveys. It's a novel of  mourning - for people, for relationships, for a way of life, for the state of the natural environment. It's an intense and unforgettable read, and its place on the Booker longlist is well-deserved.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

The Woods by Harlan Coben

I don't read much American detective fiction for some reason, but I know Harlan Coben is a popular and prolific thriller writer and I downloaded The Woods as an audiobook for a discounted price. A lot of Coben's novels are part of a series but this is a standalone novel.

The Woods by [Coben, Harlan]
The main character is Paul 'Cope' Copeland, a county prosecutor in New Jersey whose sister Camille disappeared from summer camp many years ago along - apparently murdered by a fellow camper who is later convicted of killing a number of other teenagers (although not, in fact, of Camille's murder, as her body has never been found). Also never found was the body of her friend Gil Perez. At the start of the book, Paul is called upon in the course of his job as a prosecutor to view the body of Manolo Santiago, who has been found murdered. Except Manolo, Paul immediately realises, is actually Gil. So where has been Gil been all these years that he was assumed dead? Why do the Perez family refuse to accept that Manolo and Gil are one and the same? And does this mean that the mystery of Camille's disappearance might be solved too?

Meanwhile, Lucy Gold, the daughter of the owner of the summer camp who was sued for negligence after the murders all those years ago and a teenage sweetheart of Paul's, is now a college lecturer - and she's horrified to realise that an anonymous creative writing journal submitted by a student is quite clearly an account of what happened between her and Paul on the night Camille and the others disappeared. Who knows their secret, and what do they want from her?

If this all sounds a bit unlikely, then yes, it is: while moderately gritty in parts, this is one of those thrillers in which reality is slightly heightened and most of the characters, from Paul's sinister Russian 'uncle' Sasha to his investigator Loren Muse and Lucy's elderly stoner father Ira, are somewhat larger than life. Paul himself is a relatively likeable protagonist although there does come a point where you start to wonder how much more tragedy one man can take - his sister was murdered, his mother abandoned him, his father has just died a broken man and he is bringing up his little girl alone after his wife's death from cancer. He's also embroiled in prosecuting a rape case in which the accused are spoilt rich white frat boys and the victim is an African American teenage stripper, despite threats from the boys' powerful parents, which is admirably worthy stuff. It would have been easy for Paul to seem a little too saintly to be interesting, but fortunately Coben does give him something of an edge as the story progresses.

There really isn't a great deal more I can say about this book. It's an enjoyable mystery with various twists and it was certainly interesting enough to keep me engaged until the end, although it doesn't feel especially plausible. I particularly liked what we discovered about Paul's Russian parents and their departure from the Soviet Union, which was an interesting sub-plot to the primary mystery. The writing is fairly pacey although there were times when it felt that Paul's digressions into his family life and views on various topics were rather unnecessary and more about padding the word count than building his character and moving the plot along.

All in all, it's rather like watching an extended episode of a well-made American crime series - it's entertaining, but you probably won't remember much about it a week later. I wouldn't necessarily rush to read another Harlan Coben novel, but equally I'd happily read one if there happened to be one lying around, if you see what I mean.


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.