Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Unless you avoid the news to the extent that you have actually been walking around wearing ear-plugs and blinkers for the past two years, you are probably already aware that crime writer Robert Galbraith, whose debut novel The Cuckoo's Calling was published in 2013, is in fact JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym. If you've read the Harry Potter books you'll also know that they are as much mystery stories as they are fantasy novels, with neat, intricate plots scattered liberally with clever hints and clues, so it doesn't surprise me at all that Rowling was inclined to move into the detective genre.

Lots of people have already written reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling in which they look for similarities between the writing of JK Rowling and that of her alter-ego Galbraith, so I won't bother to do that here, and will try instead to review the novel just I would any other book.

The Cuckoo's Calling, rather than being a police procedural, has a private detective as its main character. Private detectives, the hallmark of the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction, are increasingly rare in mystery novels these days, and as such Cormoran Strike makes a pleasant change from the obligatory maverick Detective Inspector. With his embarrassing family history, immense bulk and prosthetic leg, Strike begins the novel broke and down on his luck, but as a former soldier - Strike was a Red Cap until the loss of his leg - he is tenacious, resourceful and stoical. 

The central mystery of The Cuckoo's Calling is the death of troubled mega-star supermodel Lula Landry, one of three adopted children in the rich Bristow family. The official verdict on Lula's fatal fall from her apartment's balcony is suicide, but her older brother John is convinced she was pushed and asks Strike, once a school friend of their brother Charlie, to investigate.

The investigation itself features numerous encounters with various super-rich celebrities, as well as the people who make a living out of being part of their entourage such as the often unnoticed drivers, make-up artists and concierges. Every single character is vivid and well-drawn, no matter how small a role they play in the story, and the crime plot is extremely well-executed and satisfying.

It's also an interesting take on the nature of celebrity and publicity, with Strike appropriately positioned as an observant outsider, sometimes appalled, sometimes fascinated and sometimes comically unimpressed. The novel counts an exclusive night-club, a fashion house and an ultra-expensive designer boutique among its settings, but also never shies away from the underlying tawdriness of modern fame as seen through Strike's eyes.

Interesting too is the character of Strike himself, whose intriguing back-story, awkward relationships and occasional vulnerabilities make him an immensely likeable protagonist. Likeable too is the ultra-capable Robin, the office temp Strike can't afford who arrives after a mix-up with her agency but who proves to be surprisingly well-suited to her role as Strike's assistant. The relationship between them is both endearing and amusing, and could certainly provide endless scope for sub-plots in future Cormoran Strike novels.

It could be argued that the events of The Cuckoo's Calling aren't always entirely plausible, but frankly, this really doesn't matter. Some suspension of disbelief is required when reading any detective novel that features a private detective - who hasn't wondered why people don't just tell Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe to piss right off with their rudely personal questions and total lack of any official authority? The Cuckoo's Calling, to my mind, seems very much a modern homage to those sorts of novels, despite its contemporary setting.

This is an extremely accomplished detective novel with characters I loved and a plot that kept me constantly guessing. I suspect I'll definitely be reading the second Robert Galbraith novel, The Silkworm, pretty soon. 

Friday, 27 February 2015

Birthday book haul

As I've mentioned before, I have a Kindle (although I now have a different model to the one I reviewed in that post). However, I do still buy physical books. If I want a book that's a really lovely edition or has a lot of illustrations or photographs I buy them new, and I often look in second-hand shops for paperback novels.

It was my birthday last week so I had the week off work and we did quite a bit of travelling around. My boyfriend's hobby took us to York and Newcastle and an incredibly cheap TravelZoo hotel deal meant we could just about afford a trip to Wales towards the end of the week. I did a bit of shopping for books in charity shops and independent second-hand bookshops, and I also got given some nice books for my birthday and spent some of the money I was given on books in Waterstones.

My Waterstones purchases were A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke and The Fabled Coast by Sophia Kingshill and Jennifer Westwood.

I've been wanting to read A Natural History of Ghosts for ages. Roger Clarke has been fascinated by ghosts for most of his life, although is quite open about the fact that he's never seen one (and I would probably be less keen to read his book if he claimed he had). I don't believe in ghosts but I love ghost stories and I do think it's very interesting that so many people are truly convinced that they have had ghostly experiences. This book is about different types of ghosts people believe in and also looks at the science, psychology and cultural history of ghosts and ghost stories. It's been very favourably reviewed and I'm looking forward to reading it.

The Fabled Coast is a very comprehensive encyclopaedia of folklore, myths, local legends and fairy tales from all over the UK. You can either just dip into it at will or you can look up specific places that you're visiting and get a little insight into the area's local mythology. It would also be a great book for writers; a lot of the stories would make good prompts for fiction.

Two of the books I got for my birthday were Soviet Space Dogs and Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffman to Hodgson, both of which my boyfriend bought for me. They're both lovely hardback editions and Soviet Space Dogs is beautifully illustrated with photographs, propaganda and images of souvenirs of the many dogs who were part of the Soviet space programme.

It is sad in parts - some of the dogs lost their lives - but also extremely interesting and many of the dogs were looked after as mascots by office and laboratory staff after their role in the space race was complete. What is really fascinating is the cultural significance that the dogs played in the Eastern Bloc - they were the subject of films, toys, children's picture books, stamps and all sorts of odd merchandise in their day. I love dogs and am fascinated by the art and popular culture of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years, so this was a great choice for me. My boyfriend bought it from Magma on Oldham Street, Manchester, which sells lovely, unusual books that are either about design or are just beautifully designed in their own right, as well as all sorts of other unusual things. If you're passing I recommend you go in and have a browse. There are two branches in London as well, I believe.

The Horror Stories book is an anthology of classic supernatural fiction from the 19th and early 20th century, a very influential period for horror fiction. It's edited by Darryl Jones and has some of my favourite stories in it as well as some I haven't read yet, and it's another well-chosen gift for me.

I also got a  beautiful book from my parents: My Year With Hares by Martin Hayward Smith. I love hares so much that I have a tattoo of two hares on my back.

This book is a photographic diary of a year spent observing and photographing hares in the Norfolk countryside, and the author even raised an orphaned leveret for a few months in his own home before releasing her into the wild. The photographs are stunning and give you a really strong sense of the passing of the English seasons and the year turning full circle, as well as capturing the combination of strength and fragility that makes hares so special.

And now, on to my second-hand purchases! All dirt cheap, priced from 75p to £2.50 each.

The Quarry by Iain Banks - I find Iain Banks' work quite variable in quality if I'm honest, but this was his last novel and was apparently written while he was dying. The story also deals with the last days of a dying man, but Banks is usually far from sentimental so I'd like to see what this much-missed novelist did with the novel and the character. Although I bought it second-hand the copy I got seems brand new, so a bargain at £2.50.

Harvest Home by Thomas Tyron - my sister asked me recently if I'd seen the old mini-series adaptation of this. I haven't seen it yet, but her recommendation meant that this copy of the novel caught my eye. It's quite obscure so it was quite a coincidence that I discovered a copy so soon after she mentioned it. It's a folk horror story set in America. It was only 75p as it's very tatty. It has also has a hilariously naff cover, as you can see from the picture.

Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Claire Morrall - I'd never heard of this, although it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a few years ago. I got this in Oxfam Books where they had cleverly wrapped a few books in plain brown paper and were selling them at extra-cheap prices in a sort of lucky dip with just a few hints written on the wrapping to tell you roughly what kind of book to expect. What a great idea! I'm really glad I took the chance as I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise and it sounds very good.

Deliver Us From Evil by Tom Holland - as soon as I saw this book I remembered that I bought a copy in around 1998, and that before I'd even had a chance to read it, my ex-boyfriend read it himself and then lent it to someone else without asking me. Anyway, I never got it back so I thought I'd have a second attempt at reading it 17 years later. It's a sort of gothic revenge tragedy set in the Restoration, apparently.

The Greenway by Jane Adams - I've never heard of the book (published in 1995) or the author before, but it's a psychological thriller that looks up my street.

Spider and Martha Peake by Patrick McGrath - I read McGrath's Asylum a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. I couldn't decide which of these two to get and as they were only £1.50 each I got both. You can never have too many books.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The Prophecy of Bees by RS Pateman

Having been obsessed with the folk horror genre ever since I was a child, I was quite excited to see that RS Pateman, author of The Second Life of Amy Archer, has written a novel about a girl and her mother moving to a Gloucestershire village full of insular, superstitious locals, unsettling rural traditions and grim local legends.

On the other hand, my folk horror nerdery is so extreme that it's also quite hard to please me with this sort of story: get it wrong, and I will burn you to death in a giant wicker man.

18804882It's fortunate, then, that Pateman gets it very much right with The Prophecy of Bees. The eerie atmosphere builds with just the right momentum, and the plot, which centres around rumours of a curse placed upon a Tudor manor house now occupied by teenager Izzy and her American mother Lindy, is satisfying. 

It's fair to say you will find just about every genre trope here: Izzy is warned about the curse by a group of villagers in the local pub, which meant I could picture the landlord as perennial Hammer innkeeper Michael Ripper, and someone actually does say 'you mark my words' at one point'. Ghostly scratchings, hidden bones, midsummer rituals, standing stones, coded manuscripts, things in sevens, creepy twins, weird sacrifices and bizarre superstitions can all be found here.

But this is absolutely not a bad thing. It is, in fact, exactly what you should want from a story like this and as such I enjoyed every page. This is a book that doesn't appear to pretend to be anything it's not, and it's all the better for it. I wasn't immensely surprised by the final revelation, but at the same time, there's enough ambiguity to leave the reader with plenty to think about at the story's conclusion. What, exactly, is real here? Are the villagers right to fear the curse apparently placed on Stagcote Manor, or is the curse the fear itself?

Izzy's role as narrator means we spend a great deal of time in her company, and fortunately she is convincingly written and well constructed as a character. Having read many a novel in which a male author makes a terrible of job of writing young women, I was pleased to see that RS Pateman did an excellent job here. Moreover, it would have been easy for Izzy to be terribly annoying: the daughter of titled multi-millionaires, she is a teenage rebel who smokes roll-ups, resents her mother, wears too much black eyeliner and falls for boys who live in squats and play in bands. And yet somehow she still comes across as flawed and genuinely troubled rather than merely brattish and spoilt, which is no mean feat on the author's part. 

Her mother Lindy, too, is far less irritating than she might have been, even seen through Izzy's critical eyes. Misguided and overbearing she may be, but she does ultimately have what she believes to be Izzy's best interests at heart. The relationship between mother and daughter makes an interesting counterpoint to the main plot. 

The Prophecy of Bees an excellent chiller that's part supernatural horror, part psychological thriller. It's appropriately paced, packed with memorable moments and remarkably sinister detail, and builds to a tense climax. Despite an obviously contemporary setting - mobile phones, social media, Latvian housekeepers - it also has something of the feel of the best British horror of the 1970s about it, which I mean in a way that's entirely complimentary. 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Set in 17th century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist begins with country girl Nella, barely eighteen, arriving at the home of the husband she hardly knows following their recently arranged marriage. Johannes isn't at home, and Nella is immediately drawn into the odd, secretive world of the Brandt household, full of hints, whispers and mysterious arguments over Johanne's business affairs. There's Marin, Johannes' domineering spinster sister who seems unwilling to relinquish her role as mistress of the household, and servants Cornelia and Otto - the latter a black footman ostensibly now free after being purchased by Brandt as a slave.

When Johannes does finally return home, his wedding gift to his bride is essentially a dolls' house: an expensively crafted cabinet* divided into rooms to replicate the Brandts' own house. Nella, bored and resentful and with Johannes' funds at her disposal, sets about ordering items for the cabinet from a mysterious 'miniaturist' - but more things arrive than she ever requests. Furthermore, each one reveals an uncanny knowledge, even a prescience, of the household which is, it seems, one with plenty of secrets, scandals and surprises.

The historical detail of The Miniaturist is rich and immersive and the characters are brilliantly vivid; I finished the book feeling almost like a part of the household myself. Nella herself is an extremely engaging protagonist, admirably resourceful and determined as well as possessing an appealing capacity for forgiveness that never tips over into weakness. Despite the obvious restrictions placed upon her not only as a woman but also as a resident of the strictly religious Calvinist society of Holland in the 1600s - at one point, the city's burgomasters ban gingerbread men lest their human form be interpreted as Catholic idolatry - Nella is spirited and defiant. It is, in fact, the female characters who ultimately take control in this novel.

How realistic this is might well be up for debate. Certainly some of the characters' attitudes and sensibilities, including Nella's, seem a great deal more modern than one might expect. This undoubtedly gives today's readers an easier ride when it comes to establishing an affinity with them, but it does stretch credibility at times.

My only other issue with this book is the miniaturist of the title. The miniaturist's knowledge of Nella's household and the strange ability of the tiny creations to mirror reality is the central mystery of the novel, an ongoing and gripping plot strand that is woven into the rest of the (not inconsiderable) action. And yet its resolution, while on some levels symbolic, is ultimately unsatisfactory - so much so that it almost feels as if the author set out to write one book, ended up writing another but couldn't quite bring herself to edit out all traces of the original.

That isn't to say that the  work of the miniaturist isn't fascinating, or that it adds nothing to the atmospheric quality of the novel - but it seems that this element of the story was simply unsustainable when it came to the need to bring it to an adequate conclusion. It's lucky that there was a great deal else going on in The Miniaturist, or I would have felt a lot more cheated than I did.

In short, I adored the characters that populated the world of The Miniaturist, and I loved the story itself, heartbreaking though it sometimes is. I was also completely drawn in by the exquisitely realised setting and period. If it weren't for the anticlimax towards the end of the novel, this would have been a five-star read.

*Apparently, the inspiration for Nella Oortman Brandt and her cabinet of miniatures came from this exhibit in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which once belonged to a real Petronella Oortman who married a merchant called Johannes Brandt. Everything else Jessie Burton tells us about Nella and Johannes is, I assume, entirely fictional. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

We Were Liars by E Lockhart

We Were Liars falls into the 'young adult' category, with a group of teenagers as the primary characters and 17-year-old Cadence as the narrator. It does, however, work well as a 'crossover' novel that will appeal to adult readers as well as its core teenage readership. I can't pretend that, at the age of 39, I didn't cringe slightly at the adolescent intensity of Cadence's feelings for her childhood friend Gat, but by and large, this book worked perfectly well for me as an adult reader.

Image result for we were liarsCadence is the eldest grandchild in the Sinclair family, an extremely rich New England dynasty headed by 'Granddad' Harris Sinclair. The Sinclairs are sufficiently well-off to own a private island off the New England coast, dotted with purpose-built homes of various size which are allotted to Harris and his three daughters and their children. Cadence, in theory, is the heir to the Sinclair fortune, but the estate is vast and easily carved up, and Granddad is becoming increasingly capricious and tyrannical as he begins to show signs of dementia and wordlessly mourns his late wife, Tipper. Every summer, the whole family assembles on the island, and the four eldest grandchildren - the 'Liars' - form an intense and unbreakable bond.

It is, on most levels, hard to feel sorry for the Sinclair children. They go to private schools, have everything they need, and have ridiculous rich-American-people names like Mirren and Taft. Even the supposed poor boy - a distant step-relative, distinct from the blonde, blue-eyed Sinclairs because he happens to have an Indian mother - is called 'Gatwick' and lives in relative affluence in central New York. They have the island to themselves, servants at their beck and call, access to a motor boat and a constant supply of delicious picnics, almost as if they were some sort of modern day American Famous Five.

However, all is not as it seems, and it's a solid endorsement of E Lockhart's skill that as the book progresses we become fully aware that money doesn't solve all problems - and can even create them, too. Cadence's distinctive voice gives us a narrative peppered with jarring, fractured moments, and with strange moments of inability to distinguish metaphor from reality. Because something terrible happens to Cadence during her fifteenth summer with the Liars, leaving her debilitated by severe migraines, reliant on strong medication and, most importantly, completely unable to remember anything about that summer at all.

We Were Liars is a compelling and at times unsettling psychological mystery, convincingly written in the voice of a bright, sharp teenager who gradually becomes painfully aware of her own shortcomings as well as her family's. Cadence is not always likeable and frequently spoilt, but it's impossible not to feel sorry for her even as the very worst of her character slowly reveals itself. Some may consider the eventual unveiling of the truth about Cadence's accident to be a little gimmicky, but it is beautifully handled and almost painfully heartbreaking, even for those who have little patience with teen angst and spoilt little rich girls.

Beyond the character of Cadence, I can't honestly say the other main players are particularly well-rounded. Cadence's cold, brittle mother and her two sisters battle for their father's affections like King Lear's daughters - or rather, like King Lear's daughters if Cordelia had never existed; in other words, they are barely distinct from one another. Cadence's cousins Johnny and Mirren and love interest Gat are charming enough but not tremendously distinctive. If anything, it's Granddad Harris who stands out, but his role is relatively small.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed We Were Liars, with its clear, uncluttered prose, insightful observations and its smart, unpatronising treatment of teenage angst and family strife. If you have a teenage daughter who hasn't read this yet, buy it for her pronto.


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Hold The Dark by William Giraldi

I've seen Hold The Dark billed as a 'literary thriller'. I don't think this is a particularly accurate description, however. It begins with the investigation of a death, but there's no mystery as such - at least, not the type of mystery that would characterise a thriller.

William Giraldi's short, sparse novel opens with three children being killed by wolves in the remote Alaskan village of Keelut. Medora Slone, the mother of the third child to be taken and now grieving alone while her soldier husband Vernon serves in the Middle East, contacts a nature writer and wolf expert Russell Core to track and kill the wolf thought to have carried off her young son, Bailey.

It's clear from the start that Medora is at best unstable, while Core himself, his wife semi-comatose in a nursing home and his daughter estranged, is also suffering from obvious depression. Keelut itself is a bleak, isolated community which, as is pointed out to Core, has little in common with the Alaska of, say, Anchorage or Juneau. Keelut feels like a dangerous frontier settlement beyond the edge of civilisation, with all the lawlessness and insularity this entails. The further into the empty wilderness of the Arctic tundra the characters travel, the less humane - and the less human - they seem to become. There is a great deal of violence in this novel, and a great deal of strange otherness; shamanistic practices, psychogeography and ancient superstitions abound, interspersed with senseless brutality.

Giraldi counteracts the outright weirdness of the characters' behaviour with a terse, matter-of-fact prose style that has echoes of Cormac McCarthy. This is effective at times, but there is a problem for me in that no matter how odd and unsettling things are, we rarely see any kind of realistic reaction either from Core or from Donald Marium, the police detective whose role, like Core's, is be the outsider's point of view when it comes to Keelut and its people. Blunt, unadorned sentences describing shocking behaviour or bizarre remarks are one thing, but it's quite another for such behaviour or speech to go unchallenged, even unacknowledged, by other characters, and I began to find this frustrating and jarring as the novel progressed.

Hold The Dark is at times a fascinating and well-crafted novel. However, for me its strengths lie in the depiction of the Arctic landscape and its effect on the communities scratching a living within it, rather than in the individual characters or plot (there is, in fact, very little plot, and a revelation about Medora and Vernon that comes towards the end of the story is far from unexpected). Keelut's men are almost entirely forces of elemental anger and violence; its women are solely there to be mysterious, dangerous 'seers' with odd powers of prediction and manipulation. Core and Marium, incomers from a more comprehensible world, stray dangerously close to cliche.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl On The Train has been much praised as a gripping, twist-filled psychological thriller of the Gone Girl ilk, although personally I think it’s much more akin to the work of Sophie Hannah, Elizabeth Haynes or SJ Watson.

What it does share with Gone Girl is a set of characters who are largely unsympathetic.  From the needy, alcoholic divorcee Rachel, fantasising on her commute about a perfect couple she sees from the train, to the unstable. self-destructive Megan, whose disappearance drives the plot, and Anna, the triumphantly smug second wife of Rachel’s ex-husband, these are a difficult bunch of people to like. And before anyone levels accusations of misogyny, the men certainly don’t fare any better, although they are secondary characters in this compelling drama.

It’s a mark of the author's skill, therefore, that for all the substantial faults of these people, we can still care about them. There are moments when we're steered perilously close towards wondering if they might even deserve their respective misfortunes, but whenever this happens Paula Hawkins always throws a well-timed curve-ball to remind us that, for all their poor decisions and unattractive traits, it's never wise to judge these women before we know their full stories.

All of them take their turns as narrators, sometimes in the present and sometimes in flashback, although it's really Rachel, the 'girl on the train' of the title, who is the novel's protagonist. Staring out of the train window as she travels to and from London every day, she builds a fictional back story for 'Jess and Jason', an attractive, devoted young couple whose house backs on to the railway line - coincidentally just a few doors down from the house in which she previously lived with her husband, Tom. Tom is now married to Anna, and has chosen to move her into the home he once shared with Rachel: while Rachel rents a box room in the flat of a friend she barely even likes, Anna lives in apparent marital bliss, a self-satisfied cuckoo in what was once Rachel's nest. It's when Rachel, still obsessed with Tom, makes a trip to her old street one night that 'Jess' - whose real name is Megan while 'Jason' is actually Scott - goes missing. Rachel, after an alcohol-induced blackout and a drunken fall, remembers nothing of that evening. But what she is certain of is this: the last time her train passed Megan's house, it wasn't Scott that she was kissing in the back garden.

Rachel's determination to solve the mystery of Megan's disappearance is often misguided and frequently inept (I promise you will want to shake her on several occasions) but nonetheless, her refusal to give up is intriguing and the gradual unravelling of everything we believe to be a certainty makes for a tense, absorbing narrative.

I did, unfortunately, have a strong hunch what the big reveal was going to be by the time I was about two-thirds into the book, although it's hard to say whether this was due to a small element of predictability or simply a lucky guess on my part ... I'm by no means an accomplished detective, however, so I would probably give the benefit of the doubt and suggest it was the latter. 

Overall, The Girl On The Train is a remarkably assured, confident debut novel, and I'm certain we'll see a lot more of Paula Hawkins.