Tuesday, 26 January 2016

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle

It seems from other reviews, both by readers and professional critics, that most people have enjoyed Nicholas Searle's first novel, The Good Liar. That puts me in a minority: while I felt The Good Liar was a confident debut, I found much of the story rather flat and even dull. I'd be hard-pushed to find much wrong with Searle's actual prose - his sentences are well-crafted and his descriptive details well-observed and well-chosen - but I found it impossible to really immerse myself in this book right up until the last quarter of it, when the plot takes an abrupt and surprising turn. Frustratingly, that last quarter did give some real glimpses of how good the novel could have been. 

The book begins with Roy, an eighty-something man, meeting Betty, a woman perhaps five or so years younger but still full of zest for life, for a pub meal arranged through an internet dating site. We're told almost immediately that Roy is a con-man, and looking for a well-off widow whose money he can make off with, and after that there are alternating chunks of narrative dealing with the relationship between Roy and Betty after he has moved into her home, and flashbacks to incidents from Roy's past. Where the present-day sections become interesting is the point at which we start to realise that Betty might know more about Roy than he thinks. How does Betty know Roy is a serial fraudster, and which of the pair will win their battle of deception?

This strand of the plot is, for me, the most successful. Betty is a smart, wily woman, yet there is something insidiously manipulative and sinister about Roy that almost makes him seem like an elderly Tom Ripley at times.

Unfortunately, the flashbacks to Roy's earlier years are, for the most part, infinitely less engaging. Beginning with one of his most recent scams and working backwards to earlier and earlier snapshots of his criminal life, they simply didn't hold my interest. The detailed mechanics of how Roy cheated a bunch of other tedious middle-aged men in a shady investment scam were utterly dull, as were his brief relationship with a woman in the 1970s whose bank account he empties, the Soho sex shop he tries to open with a non-existent loan and even the incident in the 1960s in which he assumes another man's identity altogether. Clearly these episodes are intended to build a picture of the type of man Roy is - callous, misogynist, cunning, wholly selfish and disdainful of others - and in this regard they succeed, but we could have learned these things about Roy in half the time, and indeed could simply have guessed most of them. The fact that Roy is a manipulative psychopath is obvious very early on, but this alone is not enough to make him an interesting character, and frankly that's all there is to him for most of the book. Only when we get right back to Roy's early twenties and finally his teens in the 1940s do we learn anything genuinely revealing about him, and even then, we only learn what he was as a youth, rather than why.

Betty, whose past is also addressed in this final quarter of the book, is infinitely more fascinating than Roy, and it's a great pity her character plays second fiddle to his for most of the story. I was more gripped by Betty's part in the story than Roy's, more interested in what made her the woman she became. As I finally reached the last couple of chapters, I had high hopes for a confrontation to end all confrontations, but even after the one truly gripping section of the story, the actual ending left me with a distinct sense of anticlimax. 

I wanted so much to like this book, as the premise of it is fascinating and I enjoyed seeing two older characters leading a novel in this way - particularly Betty; there are frankly not enough heroines in their eighties. But while it did show some promise, I had to force myself to keep reading and was, overall, left dissatisfied. Not a book for me, sadly.

Do read some other reviews, though, as I'm far outnumbered by people who loved this book, and it's perfectly possible that you will too.

Many thanks to the publisher for providing me with advance copy of The Good Liar via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

Like Alex Marwood’s debut novel The Wicked Girls, The Darkest Secret has aspects of its plot readers may recognise from news coverage and public speculation about a well-known crime. In The Wicked Girls, two children are locked up for taking a toddler on a long walk and then killing her. In The Darkest Secret, a pretty blonde three-year-old disappears from a room of sleeping children who have been left unattended in a holiday villa while her parents are enjoying a meal with friends in a restaurant a short walk away.  The other children don’t wake when Coco is taken, and a professional publicist leads the campaign to find her. I’ll leave you to decide if you recognise that scenario. 
The Darkest Secret, Paperback BookThe strength of The Darkest Secret isn’t so much the mystery of what happened to Coco – I actually guessed this at around the halfway point, including the final twist – but the chilling portrait that Alex Marwood paints of Coco’s father, Sean Jackson, and the people around him. 

Sean is a millionaire property developer who, his daughters later suggest, appears to have sociopathic tendencies. By the time he dies (this is no spoiler – the death is in fact the catalyst for the present-day action, which alternates with flashbacks to Coco’s 2004 disappearance) he has been married four times and is estranged from most of his children. The only constant presence in his life, and indeed after his death, is the group of equally wealthy, equally amoral friends with whom he congregates for hedonistic weekends of excess – among them an ambitious Tory MP, a celebrity publicist and a doctor to the stars known for his ‘treatment’ of rock stars on tour. What begins as a series of sharp, satirical observations of a spoilt, shallow, self-serving gang of ageing rich kids gradually becomes something much more sinister, almost grotesque. There are several moments where their behaviour is so shocking that it teeters on the brink of unsettling heightened reality, but in a way that's appropriately nightmarish rather than the stuff of caricature. 

Fortunately, there are sympathetic characters - spending so much time in the company of Sean and his repulsive friends would be almost unbearable without any counterpoint at all.  Half the story is narrated by Camilla, Sean's daughter from his first marriage, who with her trust fund and her faux-boho Camden lifestyle could easily have been utterly dislikeable, but instead develops into an astute, protective older sister to Coco's twin Ruby and - obsessed as she is with personality disorders - a perceptive narrator with a surprisingly clear moral compass. The relationship between Camilla and Ruby is touching and convincing,  and their respective observations about their father and his marriages are often terribly sad. Amid the darkness and the tension (of which there's plenty; this was very much a book I wanted to stay up late to finish) there's a real pathos to some elements of this book.

Without giving too much away, The Darkest Secret is not a neatly-resolved crime thriller - there were a couple of hints I expected to be picked up upon which were ignored at the end, and doubtless some readers will finish this book frustrated at the position in which certain characters are left. Personally, I feel that Alex Marwood took some brave choices with the way this novel ends, and was right to do so.

My thanks to the publisher, who gave me a copy of The Darkest Secret via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore's latest novel Exposure is set in 1960, when Britain was in the grip of the Cold War and a few years after the defection of Burgess and Maclean. Simon Callington, a mid-ranking civil servant at the Admiralty who lives uneventfully with his wife and three children in suburban Muswell Hill, receives a late-night phone call from a colleague and former friend, Giles Holloway. Giles has had a serious accident and been taken to hospital, but there's something wants Simon to do: to go to his flat, collect a file that Giles had taken home from work, and return it to the office before morning.

This simple favour triggers a ripple effect that has devastating consequences for Giles, Simon, Simon's wife Lily and their three children, gradually exposing a web of deception that extends beyond secrets of state and into the backgrounds of everyone concerned.

This book isn't, as such, a spy thriller. It's something quieter and more reflective, more personal. The technicalities of spying and the nature of the material in the secret file are also of little importance, and the identity of those who colluding in handing secrets to the Soviets is revealed almost immediately. Instead, the book focuses on the personal implications of what becomes a high-profile scandal. Giles, Simon and Lily all have more to hide than their involvement in the espionage plot, and each of them is, to some degree, estranged from their own past, whilst still shaped and defined by it.

Helen Dunmore is not only a deeply perceptive writer with a remarkable gift for character - Lily, with her steely determination and innate loyalty to those she loves, is particularly well-drawn - but is also exceptionally skilled at evoking history and place. Every period detail is perfect; each mundane detail of suburban life and the social norms of the day is acutely well-chosen. It's impossible to read Exposure without feeling utterly immersed in the setting.

While it's often observed in the novel that 'real spies are dull as ditchwater' rather than 'cloak and dagger types', the characters are still in enough genuine jeopardy to punctuate their reflections with moments of grim tension. Giles, Simon and Lily are really mere pawns in a much bigger and more sinister game, and when one of the major players decides to pay them individual visits, things take a dark turn.

Exposure is a beautifully-crafted and deeply absorbing novel, and I'd really struggle to find any fault any fault with it.

Exposure is published in the UK on 28 January. My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid

The Mermaids Singing is my second foray into Val McDermid's work; my first was one of her standalone novels but The Mermaids Singing is the first in her Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, on which ITV's Wire In The Blood is based. I've never seen Wire In The Blood, so came to this book with no real preconceptions about what to expect.

The novel is a gritty thriller about a serial killer torturing and murdering men before dumping their bodies in the gay district of a northern town. Institutional homophobia and the incompetence of a senior officer delay the local police force's decision to treat the crimes as linked, at which point Jordan is assigned to lead the investigation and Hill, a Home Office psychological profiler, joins the team to provide potential insights into the killer's background and lifestyle that could help Jordan focus her search.

Jordan and Hill - particularly Hill, who has a multitude of psychological issues of his own - are interesting lead characters and easy to root for, and their professional and personal relationship provides what is clearly a solid basis not just for a single book but for a long series. The supporting characters aren't especially three-dimensional, although I didn't feel this really mattered; they're primarily there to help move the plot along while we focus on the two leads, and on the killer.

The killer, for me, was actually something of a disappointment, relying quite heavily on some well-worn stereotypes - this book was first published 20 years ago and I think it's a little dated in this regard. Fairly substantial chunks of the novel are told from the killer's point of view, including some very lengthy, excited descriptions of his sadistic and gruesome torture of his victims. I'm not squeamish, so I didn't find this particularly shocking or scary - but I did find it frankly rather dull and repetitive, and largely gratuitous. My primary complaint about this book was that despite the focus on psychological profiling, the psychological elements of the story were actually quite simplistic and obvious, and secondary to what's essentially torture porn for much of the narrative.

All that said, the plot trots along at a decent pace and builds to a tense, race-against-time climax. McDermid's writing is sharp, punchy and unpretentious in a pleasing way that even brings to mind a couple of old-school, classic American crime writers. Also interesting is McDermid's apparent willingness to address police negligence and prejudice.

So, although I could find a few things wrong with this novel, I'd certainly be happy to read another in the same series and I look forward to meeting Tony Hill and Carol Jordan again at some stage.

*NB I mostly read this book myself, but I also got through a few chunks of it by listening to the audiobook -  I would give the audiobook a miss because it's very badly narrated indeed with terrible regional accents throughout. The killer sounds like a character from Wallace & Gromit, a Geordie character seems to have drifted via Cardiff and there is a Scottish character by whom I was slightly confused because he occasionally started to sound Italian. Avoid.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Shtum by Jem Lester

Shtum by Jem Lester is the story of a father whose ten-year-old son is autistic and has profound learning and behavioural difficulties. At the beginning of the book, Ben and Emma Jewell are about to embark on a legal battle with their local authority to get Jonah to a residential secondary school that will cater to his specific and considerable needs, rather than a local special school where they know full well he'll be miserable. Lawyer Emma insists will stand a greater chance of winning their appeal if they temporarily separate, so Ben and Jonah move in with Ben's elderly father Georg, thus putting Ben in the position of a single father with double caring responsibilities.

This is very much a book about fathers and sons, and most notably, the hopelessly inept communication between them. Jonah's autism means he can't speak at all; Ben and Georg are more than capable of talking to one another, but rarely about anything that matters. While it's clear that Ben loves Jonah, it's the bond between Jonah and Georg that I found the most touching in the book. Where Georg is irascible towards Ben, he's patient with Jonah; while he's refused to tell Ben a thing about his family history, the stories he tells to a largely uninterested Jonah reveal things - and people - of whose existence Ben has never known.

Jem Lester has taken care to give a warts-and-all-portrayal of his characters; he's relatively unflinching when it comes to Ben's many faults and failures. This is admirably realistic, but at the same time, therein lies the problem for me: while this doubtless makes Ben a more complex and believable character, it also makes me like him less. It's not his struggles to cope with the competing demands of Jonah and the family business that I find irksome; it's not his resentment of his father or even his anger at his now-absent wife. It's more that despite the problems he already has, he seems intent on creating more for himself. Procrastination, denial and self-destructiveness are absolutely faults that many of us have, and while it's certainly possible to forgive Ben for them, I didn't feel they made him a character with whom I necessarily wanted to spend a few hundred pages.

Because this is a book about male relationships, the women characters are few and far between. This in itself is fine; I greatly enjoyed the focus on the three generations of male Jewells. But it would have been nice if those female characters that there were had been a little more three-dimensional. As it is, Ben's wife Emma is presented for most of the book as cold-hearted and selfish, despite a degree of redemption at a much later point; a brief mention of his estranged mother depicts a grotesque wheedling drunk. There's nothing about Ben that makes me believe Jonah's young teacher would immediately want to flirt with him, or why a dinner party guest introduced to him by match-making friends would find his borderline negging anything other than rude.

I would also have had more sympathy over the breakdown of Ben and Emma's marriage if I could have understood what they had seen each other in the first place. The only detailed flashbacks to their relationship pre-Jonah don't give us many clues: we mainly see a self-absorbed alcoholic and a woman who simply wants a baby at all costs. I'm aware that depicting them as saintly martyrs whose love was shattered by Jonah's arrival would have been infuriating, but I'd have liked to understand their early relationship a little better.

There is still much to like about Shtum. It manages to be incredibly moving without ever feeling sentimental, and despite the often tough subject matter it's frequently very funny. Its sub-plot involving Georg and his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied Hungary is every bit as affecting as the main storyline and Jonah, despite his inability to engage or communicate on any ordinary level, is somehow one of the strongest characters in the story. On the subject of autism, Jem Lester writes brilliantly well; his depiction of bereavement and displacement is also very skilful. Finally, this is a book that ends on a note of hope and new beginnings, and as such it has a life-affirming note to it that I enjoyed a great deal.

I was given a free review copy of Shtum by the kind publisher, via NetGalley. I believe it's due for release in April, and I strongly suspect it will be a great success.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

I bought Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song over a year ago, where it’s been on my Kindle in my long list of unread books ever since. A couple of weeks ago, it was named Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy awards (a first for a  young adult novel) and this reminded me that I really should get round to reading it.

Image result for cuckoo song coverI’m so glad I did, as it really is a magical novel in every sense. It’s full of atmosphere and intrigue, the characters are a complete delight and the storyline is not only crammed with adventure but also a touching tale of family relationships. It reminds me a little of the best work of Diana Wynne-Jones – particularly books like Hexwood, Fire & Hemlock and The Ogre Downstairs in which magic creeps slowly into real-life, suburban settings – and that is not a comparison I could ever make lightly.

Set in the 1920s, it begins with Triss, the 11-year-old daughter of well-off, upper-middle-class family, awaking in bed after an accident in which she apparently fell into the Grimmer, a mysterious pond, and emerged concussed and feverish. Triss can’t remember anything about the accident, and although she seems to be recovering physically, she’s troubled by a number of things. Her feisty little sister Pen refuses to speak to her. She’s unnaturally, insatiably hungry. And most chillingly of all, her favourite doll has started to talk – and it’s terrified of her.

What happened to Triss during her accident? Is she going mad? Or is there something even more strange going on?

Cuckoo Song soon develops into a gripping, often eerie fantasy adventure that draws heavily on British folklore – the notion that someone can literally be ‘away with the fairies’, for instance – but manages to weave magic seamlessly into the burgeoning modernity of the Jazz Age. Early cinema, trams and Art Deco architecture all become enchantingly involved in the fantasy elements of the story, and the Great War still casts a ghostly shadow.  

The book is full of vivid and memorable characters. Some are immensely loveable, some considerably less so and some are outright terrifying, but each and every one of them is wholly convincing when it comes to their motives and flaws, right down to the most villainous among them.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel – I can’t remember the last time I read a book that conjured up such a vivid picture of its characters and setting – but the plot is never compromised by the evocative prose and there’s no shortage of pace and adventure. Cuckoo Song reminds me of the very best books of my childhood without ever feeling derivative. This one is an absolute winner with me.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Monsters by Emerald Fennell

The narrator of Monsters by Emerald Fennell is an unnamed 12-year-old girl, orphaned a few years previously but not remotely saddened by this. She now lives with her grandmother, who appears to be a wholly inadequate guardian, and spends her summers at a slightly down-at-heel hotel in Fowey, Cornwall owned by her aunt and uncle, who openly find her a burden. It's fascinatingly unclear whether people dislike her because of her undeniably unpleasant behaviour, or whether her behaviour has been shaped since birth by the constant emotional neglect and dysfunction of the adults around her.

Either way, she is now on the cusp of adolescence, utterly disdainful of everyone she meets and prone to small but significant acts of malice. Unsurprisingly, she is also friendless - until one day a boy her own age arrives in Fowey for a holiday with his creepily overbearing mother. United by a shared obsession with serial killers and a distinct lack of moral compass, the narrator and Miles are naturally delighted when the body of a young woman is dragged from the sea, and the murder becomes the focus of their increasingly sinister games.

The plot of Monsters could certainly have become the stuff of a dark psychological thriller, and yet Emerald Fennell has chosen to imbue the story with a coal-black thread of comedy and a strange sense of heightened reality that turns it into something quite different - Fowey is like a seaside town reimagined by The League of Gentlemen and none of the cast would be out of place in a Roald Dahl novel; moreover the plot becomes increasingly bizarre towards the end as the mystery is resolved. Yet underneath the witty observations and the often grotesque cast of larger-than-life characters there is a strong undercurrent of genuine horror and flashes of sadness that often come from what the narrator doesn't tell us, rather than what she does.

There were many things in Monsters that I found very funny, but equally there were many moments that I found uncomfortably disturbing. Such is Fennell's skill that there are also moments where it's impossible not to feel sympathy for the narrator, despite her many nastier traits - this is an author who knows when to crank up the horror and when to plant intriguing seeds of ambiguity. 

This is an extremely cleverly-written novel, chilling, grimly funny at times and frankly not quite like any other book I've ever read. I think it's fair to say that it absolutely will not be for everyone (the appalled reaction of some Goodreads reviewers should be noted) and I'm not entirely sure who its intended audience is, but I found it an original and entertaining read. One of my favourite books of the year.