Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Bones Of You by Debbie Howells

The Bones Of You by Debbie Howells begins with the murder of a teenage girl, Rosie Anderson. Kate, a neighbour, befriends her grieving mother Joanna and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about Rosie's death. The story is told partly from the point of view of Kate, but partly also from the perspective of the deceased Rosie, who pieces together the Anderson family's troubled history as her ghostly presence drifts between present and past.

You may be thinking that this sounds an awful lot like Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely Bones. And yes, the basic premise is very much like that. Unfortunately, The Bones Of You is simply not as well-constructed and sensitively written as The Lovely Bones, although it's a reasonably diverting psychological thriller. It's not groundbreaking stuff, and I strongly suspect that I'll have completely forgotten about it in a few months' time, but equally I was keen to keep turning the pages even when I was rolling my eyes at various plot developments.

Although I found The Bones Of You reasonably entertaining, I have some pretty significant criticisms of it, most notably that I felt, from about the halfway point, that it was pretty obvious who murdered Rosie. Certain characters are flagged up so obviously as being the prime suspects from the beginning that we know they absolutely won't be guilty of the murder, and I think most readers would be able to see the 'twist' coming from a mile away. I still wanted to keep reading to find out more about the killer's motive and background, but a few more surprises would have been nice.

Moreover, there are many moments that simply don't ring true. Kate, for example, is a terrible judge of character: she fails to notice that Joanna is painfully thin and never eats anything at at any of their lunch dates, and continues to think that Rosie's father Neil must be perfectly charming even after his wife has turned up in tears on the doorstep as a result of his behaviour. 

Like a lot of the 'domestic noir' psychological thrillers that seem to be out there at the moment, the characters are almost universally smug, affluent and oh-so-middle-class. Please can someone start producing some thrillers in this genre in which the characters aren't all people who can afford to own horses and have children with names like Grace and Delphine, and where the men aren't all architects and broadcast journalists while the women do pleasant little 'hobby' jobs like schooling problem horses or garden design?

Where The Bones Of You does succeed is in its uncomfortably chilling, oppressive depiction of emotional (and at times physical) abuse: the portrait of a family keeping up appearances while constantly treading on eggshells is extremely effective - so much so that I found it genuinely disturbing at times. The story of Delphine, Rosie's surviving younger sister, almost edges into modern Gothic at times: a scared, silent girl alone and in peril in a huge house.

In summary, this book is ... well, OK. It has its effective moments, but it's nothing particularly memorable and offers nothing new. It's not terrible, but there are far better examples of the psychological thriller genre out there.

Monday, 24 August 2015

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

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Although Judy Blume has written previously for adults, anyone – certainly any girl – who grew up in the 70s or 80s will be familiar her novels for children and teenagers. Blume was one of a relatively small number of children’s writers prepared to address awkward topics in a way that was non-judgemental and empathetic but often also funny. Friendships, sibling rivalry, the mortifying anxieties of puberty, divorce, first love, racism and even the death are all part of Judy Blume’s fictional world, and yet her stories are full of warmth, wit and hope. I'm sure there are plenty of girls who can truthfully say that they only found what periods were from reading Judy Blume, but in fact, the most important thing I took away from books is that however embarrassing your adolescent mistakes, however different from your peers you think you are and however infuriating your family and friends, you will, eventually, Be All Right.

In The Unlikely Event is in fact not a children's or YA novel, although its main character is a teenager throughout much of the story and Blume's breezily straightforward prose style makes it an easy read that many young adult readers would also enjoy. Set in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1951 it’s a fictional account of an extraordinary year in the town’s real-life history: a year in which three separate passenger planes crashed in the town, entirely by coincidence, killing 118 people. Blume herself, as she explained at an ‘Audience With...’ event I attended at Manchester Central Library while she was promoting the book, was a teenager in Elizabeth at the time, and In The Unlikely Event draws strongly from her own memories of that year, and from local newspaper reports at the time.

Forming the backdrop to the three plane crashes is a fascinating chronicle of  various characters' lives, which combine to form a pin-sharp portrait of small town American life in the 1950s that at times reminded me of Grace Metalious' greatly underrated Peyton Place. Although the main character is 15-year-old Miri Ammerman , there are also numerous sections told from the points of view of many other characters – including, most poignantly, a number of crash victims – and beneath the bright, aspirational, wholesome exterior of 1950s America, almost everyone has something to hide.

Miri lives with her pretty, hardworking mother Rusty, her indomitable grandmother Irene and Uncle Henry, a kind, principled local journalist: Rusty has never had a husband but this is rarely spoken of within the family, let alone outside it. By contrast Miri’s friend Natalie appears to have the perfect 1950s nuclear family - affluent, well-dressed and charming. But Natalie herself is soon showing signs of serious emotional disturbance, and her charming father Dr Osner smashes plaster figurines in his office to let off steam. His receptionist Christina has a long-term secret boyfriend her family will never accept because he isn't Greek. Miri's orphaned boyfriend Mason is reveals some shocking facts about his troubled past, but has another secret he can't bring himself to reveal.

Options for the women of Elizabeth are terribly limited – a young woman who dreams of becoming an air stewardess notes that candidates must be ‘single, not married, divorced or separated’ and Miri's headmaster is openly disapproving of her mother's work in a New York department store.

As speculation starts to grow over how three planes could possibly crash over the same town in one year, we're reminded of the paranoia of 1950s McCarthyism and the Cold War - the pupils at Miri's high school constantly share their conspiracy theories, yet are forbidden from writing about the plane crashes in the school newspaper.

And yet, despite the repression and the secrets, the fear that hangs over the town of Elizabeth in the wake of the disasters and the terrible things the people have witnessed, the crashes seem to be a catalyst for change.  For some, adversity simply seems to bring out the best in them: Henry, for example, makes his name as a journalist with his perceptive, distinctive reports on the disasters. But for others, the simple realisation not only that life is short but that death can be random seems to spur them to make decisions that will change the course of their lives forever.

In The Unlikely Event is a beautifully evocative read – with cashmere sweaters and powder compacts, dancing to Nat King Cole with a boy who has a pack of Lucky Strikes in his shirt pocket and lingerie shops that specialise in girdles, Blume conjures up a perfect picture of 50s America. Each chapter is introduced by one of Henry’s newspaper articles, all of which are so pitch-perfect for the journalism of the time that it’s hard not to hear them being read in the voice of Ed Murrow. There are occasional appearances by real-life Jewish gangster Longy Zwillman, and Las Vegas is talked of as a soon-to-be-built land of opportunity for modern-day pioneers.

If you read Judy Blume’s books as a child and liked them, you’ll almost certainly like In The Unlikely Event too: Blume’s warmth and sympathy for her own characters really shines through, even as they make terrible mistakes, and her ability to see an adult world through Miri’s teenage eyes is second to none. But this isn’t just a book for Blume fans – it’s an excellent and extremely readable portrait of a community, its relationships and its secrets. The language throughout is straightforward and the plot is episodic rather than complex, but none of this matters, because what Blume is interested in is people: the worries they have, the mistakes they make, the lies they tell and the secrets they keep. The tone of In The Unlikely Event is always understanding, never judgemental, and its end note is very much one of life going on.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths

As I've written before in my reviews of Elly Griffiths' other books, I'm a big fan of the Ruth Galloway series  (all of which I've reviewed on this blog). Ruth herself, a forensic archaeologist, is tremendously likeable, and the series, in which The Ghost Fields is the seventh installment, also features a host of other recurring characters who are convincingly developed from story to story. If you've read any of the previous Ruth Galloway books and are already acquainted with these supporting characters, you'll feel like you're greeting old friends as they make their appearances here.

Image result for elly griffiths ghost fieldsThe Ghost Fields begins with the body of a Second World War fighter pilot unearthed in the buried wreckage of a plane - but Ruth, a local academic seconded to the police to provide expert advice, immediately sees that there's something wrong. The body is certainly that of a man who died in the 1940s, but the field in which he's found is certainly not where he died. More to the point, there's a bullet hole in his skull. Who is the mysterious lost pilot? How did he die? And who, exactly, had a motive for burying his body, not just once, but twice?

It soon becomes clear that the investigation will focus on the Blackstocks, an old, land-owning Norfolk family struggling to keep their increasingly dilapidated manor house standing. I greatly enjoyed meeting the Blackstocks, who are the sort of eccentric failing aristocrats that absolutely still exist in England, but who always seem hopelessly out of step with the 21st century and have sprung from a disturbingly small local gene pool. For all their oddness, I had no trouble believing that this family exists, and Griffiths' observations of them are full of the dry, astute humour that runs through all the books in the series.

The flat, bleak beauty of the North Norfolk coast is used to great effect in The Ghost Fields. Elly Griffiths is adept at creating atmosphere through landscape and a sense of place, and at making the history and geography of the area play a pivotal role in the plots of her novels, and she does this particularly well in this book.

As always, the investigation sees Ruth join forces with DCI Harry Nelson, who to complicate matters is the father of her young daughter Kate after an exceptionally brief affair five years previously, yet still happily married to beautiful Michelle. Generally speaking, I tend to be irritated by on-off, will-they-won't-they, love-hate pairings in fiction, yet somehow Griffiths manages to make the complicated relationship between Ruth and Nelson entirely sympathetic. Fundamentally, Ruth and Nelson are both decent people who try hard to do the right thing; moreover, Griffiths doesn't fall into the easy trap of making Nelson's wife Michelle a character we want to hate - Michelle may be a slim, attractive hairdresser, but she's far from the shallow stereotype she could so easily have become. Instead, she's an intelligent, capable, kind and forgiving woman: it's almost impossible not to like her, and we see a lot more in The Ghost Fields from Michelle's point of view than we have previously.

The crime plot of The Ghost Fields is a little crazy, but definitely in a good way - the investigation itself is one of my favourites in the series so far, and builds to an extremely gripping, fast-paced climax.

The Ghost Fields is an effortless read - I read it more or less one sitting while recovering from a rotten flu-ish cold, and it was the perfect page-turner for that. Despite an often sinister atmosphere, some horribly dark secrets and some genuinely gruesome goings-on, the recurring characters and the dry, observant humour of The Ghost Fields makes it, like the series overall, somehow comforting, not to mention highly immersive.

If you're interested in this series, I'd strongly recommend you read the books in the order of publication, as you'll get much more out of the characters, and understand Ruth and Nelson's relationship much better, if you do. The first in the series is The Crossing Places.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Child by Sebastian Fitzek

Originally published in 2008 as Das Kind, The Child by the hugely successful German author Sebastian Fitzek is now available in an English translation - it can already be downloaded for Kindle, and is out in paperback on 13 August. My copy was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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The Child begins when defence lawyer Robert Stern is introduced to Simon Sachs, a terminally-ill 10-year-old who is firmly convinced that he was a serial killer in a past life. This could easily be dismissed, were it not for the fact that Simon can tell Stern exactly where and how the bodies of his victims are buried - and when Stern investigates, Simon's claims proves to be uncannily accurate.

To complicate matters, when Stern becomes involved in Simon's case, he is immediately targeted by anonymous threats from an unidentifiable individual who claims he has information on Stern's own son, a baby boy who died soon after birth. What follows is a fast-paced, increasingly crazy high-concept thriller in which Stern, Simon, Simon's nurse Carina and Stern's ex-client Andy Borchert take part in a cat-and-mouse chase across Berlin.

It's fair to say that this chase takes us to some pretty dark places: an encounter with a group of paedophiles is particularly grim, and some of the details of the death of Stern's son Felix are also rather harrowing. For the most part, though, it's a high-octane affair featuring guns, sinister conspiracies, a race against time and a mystery criminal mastermind who wouldn't be out of place in a James Bond film. The plot is, frankly, quite daft: don't pick this one up looking for realism.

Although much of The Child is wildly implausible, it does have some interesting characters, including Stern himself and, most notably, Simon, whom Fitzek manages to portray as a remarkably good-natured, likeable child without quite tipping the portrayal over into sentimentality. Stern's irascible father is also fun, and Carina, an old flame of Stern's, is more than just a love interest.

With its frequent cliffhangers, high-concept premise and contrived plot, The Child reminded me somewhat of another translated thriller, After The Crash by French writer Michel Bussi. I did, however, feel that The Child had a little more heart to it, a little more warmth, despite its darker, grittier atmosphere. There are occasional moments of humour in The Child, and I think it perhaps also benefits from a better translation.

Overall, if you cast aside all misgivings of the 'Yeah, but that would NEVER happen...' kind and suspend your disbelief, The Child is a tense, action-packed read that would certainly keep you engrossed on the beach or a long journey.