Thursday, 28 May 2015

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Unravelling Oliver by Liz Nugent opens with a man attacking his wife. Why phenomenally successful children’s author Oliver Ryan has suddenly beat his wife Alice into a coma after decades of apparently peaceful marriage is a mystery – but as Oliver and those around him gradually start to tell his story, it soon becomes clear that Oliver’s life has been cobbled together from lies and deceit almost from the day he was born.

Set primarily in Dublin, Unravelling Oliver is neatly structured and has a somewhat confessional tone that seems entirely appropriate for a novel in which most of the characters’ lives are affected one way or another by the strong influence of the Catholic Church. We hear from Oliver himself, from his old college friend Michael and Michael's sister Laura, with whom Oliver had a brief relationship. There’s Veronique, at whose vineyard in rural France Oliver was the witness to a terrible tragedy and Barney, a neighbour from whom Oliver managed to win Alice’s affections in the first place. In a particularly heartbreaking chapter, there’s even Eugene, Alice’s brother who has severe learning difficulties and whose company Oliver finds intolerable. Every character knows something of Oliver, but none of them know everything, and it’s only as the different threads of his story are disentangled that we finally see how the life Oliver has carefully constructed for himself was built up and then destroyed.

Handsome and superficially charming, Oliver is an adept deceiver; throughout the novel, it’s only the reader to whom Oliver tells the truth, and even then, he times his reveals carefully. However, while he certainly has many traits of a psychopath, what we learn of his childhood certainly brings up the nature versus nurture debate and forces our sympathies to shift significantly at certain points. It’s a clever strategy on the author's part, and one that makes Oliver a far more complex character than the pantomime villain he could have become in the hands of a lesser writer.

Each of the characters in Unravelling Oliver has their own distinctive voice, and even Alice, silenced by Oliver in the opening lines and noted by others to be somewhat passive and mousy, seems wholly three-dimensional. The chapters narrated by the supporting characters help us to build a picture of Oliver and offer up some interesting observations on Ireland’s social history, but they also mean that we don’t have to spend the whole book inside Oliver’s head – which, frankly, is a dark and unsettling place to be, and would become too intense and oppressive were his point-of-view chapters not interspersed with those of other people.

This is a short book, barely over 200 pages, and like Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, it's an extremely readable novel full of tension that also has a satisfying depth and thoughtfulness to it: if you were the type of person who makes a distinction between 'literary fiction' and 'thrillers' you could comfortably place this in the former category.  Apparently this is Liz Nugent’s first novel: I’m already looking forward to reading more from her.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Fat Chance by Nick Spalding

I bought this book because I wanted something light, easy and funny to read when my concentration was completely destroyed by a two-week bout of illness. It’s not a genre I often read, but I quite like John O’Farrell, Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding, who are good at writing warm but gently satirical domestic comedies, and that was the kind of thing I was looking for. Plus, Fat Chance is about a couple who enter a ‘Biggest Loser’ style weight loss competition, and trust me, I know all about gaining and losing large amounts of weight.
Unfortunately, this book fails for me on just about every level. For a start, the couple at its heart, Zoe
and Greg, do nothing at all to make me give a toss about them. All you really need to know about their relationship is that Zoe makes Greg take part in the competition by telling him he’ll never get another blow-job from her if he doesn’t; their marriage really is that much of a cliché. Zoe is the sort of woman who forms friendships over skinny lattes with women she appears to actively dislike and is rude to sales assistants. Greg is a childish buffoon whose biggest fear in life, constantly articulated in his weight loss diary, is appearing ‘effeminate’ or ‘looking like a poof’ in front of his awful rugby club friends – one of which, by the way, is a flash cockney Asian man called Ali who naturally only drinks Tiger beer because haha, Indian people, eh?
Other stereotypes include fellow Fat Chance competitors Lea and Pete, who are working class, and therefore in the world of this book are automatically thick and foul-mouthed, referred to constantly as ‘the chavs’ and have their potential criminality alluded to every time they appear. Zoe’s mother has OCD; naturally this is the subject of much hilarity even though it appears not to manifest itself in any actual symptoms at all. Shop assistants are stupid and sullen. Women who are into fitness are either scrawny, flat-chested and pop-eyed, or hot pneumatic blondes. These stereotypes are predictable and lazy - and most importantly, not funny.
Moreover, so much of this book is just so wildly unrealistic that it fails completely as observational humour. Of course I’m not expecting gritty realism from a comedy, but there does need to be a grain of truth at the heart of comedy that we can recognise if we're to find it funny. But there are endless ludicrous moments that are simply not recognisable as life as we know it. The Fat Chance competition is run by the radio station that Zoe works for, and the presenter is her best friend – yet she is still allowed to enter. There is an entire chapter when Greg becomes properly, full-on stoned by taking an extra dose of ibuprofen. Later, he takes to drinking more coffee than usual, which has such ridiculous, impossible and utterly unrecognisable effects on him (detailed over and over again in a chapter that seems interminably laboured and repetitive) that I was genuinely expecting there to be a punchline in which he’d somehow been eating food laced with speed.  Despite half the contestants regularly swearing or saying inappropriate things on live radio every time they attend their weigh-in, they are invited back time and time again. And we’re also expected to believe that taking part in a competition on local radio has people clamouring for your autograph.
Zoe and Greg, while clearly overweight, are not, frankly, anywhere near overweight enough for the endless fat-related humiliations they suffer to be particularly plausible. The book opens with size 18 Zoe getting stuck in a dress at M&S. I’ve been a size 18, and yes, certainly for a woman my height, that’s pretty overweight. But it’s not a size at which you can’t shop on the High Street or maintain a reasonable level of fitness. There are size 18 women who happily run marathons and swim 50 lengths. They don’t get stuck in clothes at M&S because a size 18 isn't even the biggest size that M&S stocks.
The overall message of the book is basically ‘being fit and slim is nice and you can fit into more clothes and not break garden chairs and be laughed at by your friends, for whom you weirdly seem to have zero affection anyway. But remember, everyone! Crash diets are bad for you and you just need to eat less and move more.’ This is fair enough, but hardly groundbreaking stuff, and in the later chapters of the book it’s hammered home in a clunky and patronising way. Moreover, despite the message, losing weight on appalling starvation diets does solve all Greg and Zoe’s problems – Greg gets picked for the first team at his rugby club, Zoe’s fertility problems melt away and her friendship with DJ Elise inexplicably survives despite the fact that Elise is clearly a spiteful cow and she and Zoe have devoted months of their lives to humiliating one another. There’s no real plot here. A couple want to lose weight. They do. Suddenly everything's fine. The end.
I honestly have no idea why I finished this book, as I'd generally give up on a book I hated this much before the end; that's why I give so few entirely negative reviews. I notice that it has a vast number of four and five star ratings on Amazon, too, so clearly Nick Spalding's work is appealing to thousands of people; who am I to say they're wrong? All I can say is that for me, personally, there was no enjoyment to be had from Fat Chance, and I slightly regret the time I spent finishing it.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

The inside cover of Clare Mackintosh's I Let You Go is full of endorsements from other writers of thrillers and women's fiction, praising it as a gripping and emotionally intense debut. At the beginning of the book, I feared it wouldn't live up to that level of praise, but the more I read, the more engaged I became with the plot and the characters.

The book opens with the death of a small child, Jacob, in a hit-and-run accident, after which the main character Jenna - traumatised to breaking point - tries to make a new, solitary life for herself in an isolated cottage on the coast of South Wales, taking with her nothing but a few clothes and a small box of items that remind her of her deceased son. Abandoning her former career as a relatively successful sculptor, she begins to sell photographs and greetings cards featuring images from the nearby Penfach beach.

With the help of Bethan, who runs the local campsite, and gruff farmer Iestyn, from whom she rents a tiny, dilapidated cottage, Jenna seems to be edging towards some sort of recovery, and is even on the verge of forming a relationship with the local vet. But one day, a knock at the door reveals that the worst moments of Jenna's past are about to catch up with her.

Interspersed with Jenna's story are some elements of police procedural crime fiction, as the local CID back in Bristol continue to investigate the hit-and-run case; we also learn something of the home life of DI Ray Stevens, who is juggling the investigation with domestic problems as his son struggles to settle at secondary school and his wife, a former police officer herself, becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his long absences from the family home.

It's fair to say that I found the police investigation a little less engaging than Jenna's story, but equally, I do think that Mackintosh was right to include it: the emotional intensity of Jenna's chapters, which are narrated in the first person, could have become a little overwrought without the brisk, pacey practicalities of the police station in between. Clare Mackintosh is, apparently, a former police officer herself, and the police sections feel authentic and natural as a result.

It's hard to review this book in a great deal of detail simply because there is, at around the halfway point, a hell of a twist. I have an irritating tendency to guess twists (although I never actively try to do so) but I didn't see this one coming. It's a mark of the author's skill that she has structured the novel in such a way that makes it almost impossible to work out in advance what the mid-point revelation will be.

The subject matter of this book will make it tough to read for some people - the death of a child is not the only painful experience relived by Jenna, and there are some chapters from the point of view of another individual which a form a character portrait so perceptive, and uncomfortably realistic, that they are almost sickening. However, this is not a criticism on my part; it's obvious that Mackintosh has a very astute understanding of the psychology at play in certain types of people, and she uses this to chilling effect.

In terms of style, the author's prose flows well throughout. Characters are vivid without being over-described, and the landscape and atmosphere of Penfach are rendered beautifully. I sometimes find that this genre - which currently seems to be more popular than ever - can suffer from clichéd phrases and lazy characterisation, but there is none of that here.

If you're keen on engrossing, compelling psychological thrillers in which ordinary domestic situations become fraught with tension and danger, this is definitely a book for you. Just make sure you start reading it when you have plenty of time on your hands, because you won't want to put it down.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill

Straight after finishing one dystopian novel I moved on to another, Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours. Aimed at a young adult audience (although judging from the content I would assume the older end of that market) it’s a nightmarish futuristic satire on society’s obsession with women’s looks and roles – think a sinister hybrid of The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale and Mean Girls with a touch of The Stepford Wives.

16-year-old narrator Freida and her friends have spent most of their lives in a repressive boarding school, where they’re taught every day not to show undue emotion (denounced as female hysteria), not to challenge men and, above all, to be beautiful. Hours are spent selecting outfits, applying makeup and working out in the gym. Meals are chosen from buffets full of low-carb, zero calorie options – with the tastier foods only appearing at the taboo ‘Fatgirl’ table. Outside lessons the ‘eves’, as they are known, are isolated from one other physically but allowed to communicate through censored internet access and social networking apps. Perhaps worst of all, they are groomed to compete – to judge themselves against one another, to critique each other’s looks, and achieve official rankings according to their appearance.

Only the highest-ranked eves will be chosen as ‘companions’ for elite young men and to bear them sons. The rest will become ‘concubines’ in state-owned brothels, or ‘chastities’ – shaven-headed celibates who will guide future eves through their education, reminding them constantly of their inherent inferiority to men in a society so patriarchal that its leader really is known as The Father. I've given the girls' names upper case letters here, purely for ease of reading, but in the book women aren't even given that privilege - only the men are considered worthy of capital letters. Often, the eves aren't named at all - merely numbered.

Some of the details - Zones instead of countries, an oppressive Big Brother style dictator, weird genetically engineered foods, and so on –  did sometimes give the world of Only Ever Yours something of a dystopia-by-numbers feel. Much of the plot, in which Freida finds herself betraying her former best friend Isabel in order to forge a dangerous alliance with queen bitch Megan, is also relatively formulaic and a long-standing teen fiction set-up. Moreover, I felt we didn't really see enough of Freida and Isabel as friends to get much sense of Isabel as a character in her own right or of the intensity of their relationship.

However, the satire is bitingly sharp throughout and there are many moments of genuine horror. Many of the most powerful moments actually come from small details and casual asides – what begins as a mortifying anecdote about an eve prescribed too many weight-control laxatives who continues to run on the gym’s treadmill even as she soils herself is suddenly rendered bleakly horrific when it transpires the girl was six years old. O’Neill is also excellent when it comes to highlighting the inherent racism of modern beauty standards, and the intense, crippling insecurity that grips Freida every day is evoked with painful clarity. 

Despite the exaggerated setting, there is much in Only Ever Yours which rings true even today – the use of social media to bully and scrutinise, the constant sharing and critiquing of images and the endless obsessing over youth and fertility and the insistence on categorising women as wives, whores or spinsters are all too familiar. The ‘Inheritants’ – boys from the social elite who are allowed to choose themselves an eve as their companion – are a boorish bunch with an arrogant sense of entitlement, privileged young men with attitudes that are all too familiar. It's the uncanny plausibility of the world Louise O'Neill has created that it makes it so chilling.

The intensity of Freida's suppressed emotions, her powerlessness and the relentlessness pressures of her peculiarly artificial environment, make Only Ever Yours a tense and somewhat exhausting read, but one I'd highly recommend, particularly for any teenager who - like the girls in the book - thinks 'feminist' is a dirty word.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Girl With All The Gifts by MR Carey

I’ll be honest: I'm a bit over zombies. Zombie films, fiction and even TV programmes have enjoyed huge popularity in recent years, and although there have been plenty of interesting reinventions of the genre, I do feel like I’ve read and seen it all. That made me a little bit reluctant to pick up MR Carey’s critically acclaimed bestseller The Girl With All The Gifts, but as critics have rightly pointed out, there is more to this book than the walking dead.

The Girl With All The Gifts opens with Melanie, an exceptionally gifted 10-year-old, being taken for lessons with the rest of her class, all of whom live in bare cells with a single picture attached to the wall with mysteriously scarce Blu-Tack. When they’re taken to their classroom, they’re strapped into chairs at gunpoint by soldiers. And the few people allowed contact with them are doused in bitter chemicals that block their human scent.

Melanie and her classmates, then, are not like other children – but crucially, neither are they like the infected, cannibalistic zombies, or ‘hungries’ who have overrun the country. Somehow, Melanie has retained not only sentience but also a startling intellect, despite the infection, and this makes her immensely valuable to what little remains of the government.

This naturally raises all sorts of interesting questions and moral dilemmas, all of which are played out through the interactions of the the small band of characters forced together by an incident that occurs relatively early on in the story.

At the heart of the novel there is the intense and deeply touching bond between Melanie and her teacher, Miss Justineau, whose kindness and humanity stands out to such a degree that Melanie – with no other parental figure in her life – develops an unshakeable, charmingly uncomplicated love and admiration. But there’s also Sergeant Parks, an aggressive man hardened to the point of cruelty by horrific experiences and the immense burden of responsibility, and Caroline Caldwell, the research scientist whose one great goal is to find out exactly what’s going on in Melanie’s infected brain. Finally, there’s Private Gallagher, who doesn’t even remember life before ‘breakdown’, and is barely more than a boy himself.

I’ve seen others suggest that this ‘isn’t really a horror novel'. I would disagree; I think it absolutely is. Post-Breakdown Britain has all the hallmarks of a horror fiction post-apocalyptic dystopia, the primary plot is one of survival and there is plenty of high-octane zombie action; there are also many scenes which are extremely grisly. It’s more accurate to say that it isn’t only a horror novel, and the tenderness within it is beautifully well-executed and appealing.

The characters themselves are mostly very well-drawn, and develop convincingly, even when they take an unexpected turn - my favourite character by the end of the book was not the person I thought it would be at the start, and almost felt like an unexpected bonus bestowed upon us by the author.

 The only character I felt was a little two-dimensional was Dr Caldwell, who did tip over, Frankenstein-style, into the stereotype of the scientist driven mad by a desire for discovery and greatness. However, the moral question raised by her story arc is a complex one, and her presence in the novel would be valuable even for this alone. Miss Justineau is a delight, but despite Melanie’s hero-worship of her, remains fallible and realistic throughout. Melanie herself, who as a precocious ten-year-old could easily have been irritating company, has a determination and loyalty about her that is charming and uncomplicated. At the same time, despite her love of Miss Justineau becoming her driving force for most of the novel, Melanie also has a pragmatic rationalism that counterpoints her fundamentally sweet nature.

This is a book about a civilisation in its gruesome death throes, and in that regard, it does have a bleakness about it and there are times when the horror seems as if it will become relentless. There is also, however, a thread of hope and redemption that runs throughout the story, and an overall it’s a far more optimistic read than you’d expect, given the subject matter. It is, to use a cliché, an emotional rollercoaster, with moments of gentle melancholy, heart-pounding horror, intense sadness and humour borne of both darkness and innocence.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Disclaimer by Renee Knight

There's been an awful lot of social media hype about Disclaimer, a twist-laden thriller of bitterness and obsession - lots of comparisons to Gone Girl, The Girl On The Train and so on - and while it's a generally more straightforward novel than, say, Notes On A Scandal, it certainly delivers on tension. It's one of those books where we're constantly asked to question what we've assumed to be truths about the characters, and as such, it's far from easy to put down.

Catherine Ravenscroft is a successful documentary maker whose only child, Nicholas, has just flown the nest, apparently with some reluctance. A couple of weeks after Catherine and her husband Robert downsize to a smaller property, Catherine finds a book on her bedside table entitled The Perfect Stranger. And it's only when she idly begins to read that she realises with terror that the book is all about her - and could not only reveal her darkest secret, with a sinister, vindictive bias.

Increasingly, I've noticed that it's become de rigueur for novels of this genre to alternate between different points of view, and Disclaimer follows this model - primarily, we read about the insidious influence of the book (which details a shameful incident in Catherine's past that she's long kept hidden from Robert) from Catherine herself and from its writer, whose life was irrevocably damaged by the incident in question and has only recently become aware of Catherine's role in it.

Catherine herself is a smart, capable woman, we're led to believe, while her tormentor Stephen Brigstocke is lonely, bitter and struggling to come to terms with bereavement. Both types are fairly familiar in this type of fiction, and most of my enjoyment of Disclaimer came very much from its well-constructed plot rather than directly from its characters. This isn't to say that the characters aren't believable - I just felt as if I'd read about them before.

It is, however, interesting to watch them both disintegrate as events unfold. I wasn't convinced, at first, by Nick, who at 25 seems more like a sullen teenager, but as the story progressed I eventually came to understand why his situation and behaviour were entirely credible.

Disclaimer is also a book about family relationships: between husbands and wives, and parents and children. The tension between what we think we know of our loved ones and what they've hidden from us - or what we've chosen not to see - is always a solid grounding for fiction, and works brilliantly here. Some of the revelations faced not just by Catherine and Stephen but by their respective families are startlingly painful, and the characters' reactions are convincingly handled. 

I have seen Disclaimer described (by the utterly delightful writer of women's fiction, Marian Keyes) as 'grippy' and she is absolutely right; this is one of those books that you'll want to tear through in as few sittings as possible. If you read this on a train journey and arrive at your destination before you've finished, you'll slightly wish you'd been delayed.

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Rene Denfeld's debut novel The Enchanted is set in a US prison. Awaiting execution for an unspecified crime, the narrator is unnamed until the very end of the book. During his many years of isolation and silence - he is apparently mute - he has come to accept both his environment and his likely fate. Years of living in an environment where a rare glimpse of the sky through a raised window in an interview room is something to be clung to as a tiny positive, combined with what appears to be some form of mental illness, has given the narrator a peculiar, magical-realist perspective on the prison: the building, its routines and its inmates and staff.

There's York, a prisoner whose case is currently under review by a Death Row investigator called The Lady; there's the Lady herself, and her efforts to find enough mitigating information on York to have his sentence reduced from death to life without parole. There's a priest who has recently left the Catholic church and is struggling with guilt of his own. There's the Warden, who oversees executions while his wife is dying at home, and Conroy, the corrupt officer. There's also the 'white-haired boy' - a 16-year-old serving two years for car theft, his story fast becomes every bit as harrowing as that of the prisoners on Death Row.

One of many oddities about the narration is that we are told in detail about things to which the narrator couldn't possibly know - not just things that happen in parts of the prison to which he doesn't go, but events outside too: the Lady's visits to York's aunt and doctor, for example, during which she uncovers the horrific details of his childhood. Are we to see the narrator as a fantasist who constructs his own truths and realities in his head - he also tells us of the 'flibber-gibbets' that crawl over the ashes of the dead in the prison crematorium, and of horses that gallop through the prison when an execution takes place - or has he become some sort of omniscient, almost legendary creature himself in the 'enchanted' underground warren of Death Row cells? 

Rene Denfeld is herself a Death Row investigator, and her novel does not shy away from the grim realities of the prisoners' backgrounds, which are almost inevitably deeply impoverished and full of appalling abuse and neglect. None of this is presented as an excuse for a prisoner's crime - the Lady's childhood was also shockingly traumatic, and yet she has clearly taken a very different path from the men whose executions she seeks to stop - but it would be absurd to suggest that it isn't a contributing factor, and it's hard to finish The Enchanted without a nagging sense of guilt that we live in a society in which a child could possibly lead such a life. The prison, too, is simply a microcosm of the outside, where abuses are ignored, corruption is rife and basic human needs - rudimentary nutrition, for example; the prisoners are fed primarily on food that is literally rotting - go unfulfilled.

The Enchanted is a remarkably insightful, astute and powerful depiction of the American penal system and of the strange plight of people who spend decades locked in tiny cells with little or nothing to occupy them but their own, inevitably troubled thoughts. Denfeld's writing is full of poetry and wisdom, and of small but powerful details that build an all-too-clear picture of the novel's setting and subject matter. It's an uncomfortable read, even sickening at times, yet there are also oddly life-affirming moments.