Saturday, 26 November 2016

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Middle-class single mum Louise works as a secretary at a private psychiatry practice, where she is horrified to discover that her new boss, the handsome, charismatic David, is the very man she drunkenly snogged in a bar the previous night. Despite finding it impossible to suppress her feelings for him, when she (literally) bumps into his wife, Adele, the two women quickly become friends - and when Louise discovers that David is prescribing strong drugs for Adele, controlling her finances and checking up on her by phone at regular intervals, she starts to wonder whether the charming doctor she's fallen for is all that he seems. And what about beautiful, fragile Adele, who seems to know things about Louise and David that she couldn't possibly have witnessed? Who is telling the truth, and who is lying? And can Louise possibly sustain an affair with David and a friendship with Adele without either of them finding out that she knows the other?

As you can probably guess from that description, Behind Her Eyes is primarily a psychological thriller, with all the hallmarks of that genre - flawed characters, a somewhat troubled female protagonist, unreliable narrators, sharp plot twists and intense relationships. However, there is also a plot strand that takes it beyond this. Louise suffers from night terrors, which leads her to practise 'lucid dreaming', a method by which nightmare sufferers learn to retain just enough consciousness to control their dreams and steer them in a less distressing direction. It soon becomes apparent that what she's doing is far more than that, weaving a mildly supernatural element into the story.

Unfortunately, I don't think this quite works. The 'lucid dreaming' part of the story is essential to the plot, yet also somehow feels very minor and develops very slowly. I don't mind books that subvert or combine genres, but when I'd finished the book I felt dissatisfied with the way the paranormal part of the book felt like a cursory add-on for most of hte story, rather than being deftly woven into the action. I think people who are expecting a straightforward psychological thriller grounded in realism might be irritated with the lucid dreaming part of the storyline (which incidentally, I actually found quite dull for the most part) and people who enjoy supernatural fiction will probably feel that the scant treatment that part of the story gets doesn't really do it justice. I would have liked to see more commitment to the mix of genres and more equal time allocated to them. This doesn't feel like a combination of psychological and supernatural fiction - instead it feels like a psychological thriller with a jarring addition. Sarah Pinborough is best known as an author who writes fiction with a supernatural slant and I think Behind Her Eyes would be more satisfying if her expertise in this area was put to better use.

Aside from this, I think it's fair to say that the characters are not groundbreaking - they're all very much recognisable types, including the supporting players - but they;re certainly not unrealistic and do come to life on the page. It's possible to root for Louise even when she's making extremely questionable decisions, of which there are many. The author also succeeds in making the reader hate Adele and/or David one moment and then feel sorry for them the next, which is very effective. This is very much a book in which you feel that you can't quite trust your own judgement.

The promotional hype in advance of Behind Her Eyes being released has already put a strong emphasis on it having a shocking twist at the end, so I feel that I can mention this in the review without revealing anything that won't already have been talked about. I do agree that it's a belter of an ending, and although I was thinking in the vaguely the right direction, I didn't fully see it coming. I also think it was quite a brave choice by the author - it's impossible to say why without giving away spoilers, but all I will say is that it will leave a lot of readers feeling very uncomfortable.

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me, via NetGalley, a free copy of Behind Her Eyes for me to review. The book is due to be released in January 2017.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Pretty Iconic by Sali Hughes

One of the few times I made an exception to my rule of only reviewing fiction on my blog was when I reviewed Sali Hughes' Pretty Honest - and I've decided to make another exception for Sali's second book because Pretty Iconic is such a very special (and I think unique) book that I want to tell people about it.

Image result for pretty iconicSali Hughes is a journalist who writes about a whole range of subjects including politics, film and women's issues and is also well-known for her beauty column in the Guardian and her own website, www.salihughesbeauty.comPretty Iconic is a pleasingly solid and chunky book of short essays about iconic beauty products.

Now, this would be a truly lovely read if it were entirely about the obvious candidates - Chanel No5, Crème de la Mer, Touche Éclat and so on - and indeed, all these products do make an appearance. They are written about with warmth, wit and insight and it's a joy to read about them. But where the real genius of this book lies is in the decision to include alongside them many, many more offbeat and less glamorous choices. Rimmel Hide The Blemish, Carmen heated rollers, Immac, Head & Shoulders and even the monstrous scrunchie ... they all turn up here, and they're all written about with every bit as much affection as Mac Ruby Woo lipstick and Eve Lom Hot Cloth Cleanser.

I'm sure not everybody feels the same way as I do about this stuff. I know not everyone is quite as nerdy as me about things you could buy in Boots in 1990, the nail polish Uma Thurman wore in Pulp Fiction or the specific Max Factor face powder worn by Hollywood icons of the 1950s*. But this book honestly moved me to tears. White Musk perfume and Morello Cherry Lip Balm took me instantly back to being 14 and spending my saved-up pocket money at The Body Shop with my friends during London shopping trips. My mum wore Rive Gauche in the 80s and I wear it myself now (and so should you; it will never not be good). I practically squeaked with excitement at the memory of Natrel Plus deodorant, which I made my dad buy me as part of the weekly shop from Tesco in my teens because the colour schemes of the different fragrances matched my bedroom. I wept at the observation that bath cubes have essentially died out with a generation of nans and if you don't cry at Sali's chapter on Old Spice and the memories of her grandad its scent still carries for her, or when she talks about the Revlon lipstick shade worn by her late friend Carey Lander, you probably aren't human. That said, there are plenty of chapters that made me laugh a lot too (Shaders & Toners and Girl's World spring to mind).

I saw yesterday that Nigel Slater, my favourite food writer of all time, was praising Pretty Iconic on Twitter. If you like the way Nigel Slater writes about food (and agree with him that food, whether it's an eye-wateringly expensive lobster or children's penny sweets, means so much more than something to eat) you will also like the way Sali Hughes writes about beauty. It's a very personal take on the subject and a very evocative one.

I should also add that the book is beautifully designed with a lovely font that reminds me of the most stylish, classic glossy magazines and fantastic photography that correctly treats Mr Matey bubble bath with as much reverence as Sisley Black Rose Mask. If there is anyone in your life who is fascinated by beauty and grooming - men's or women's - then buy it for them now, or put it under the tree on Christmas morning.

*Creme Puff, obviously

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Nomad by Alan Partridge (Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Steve Coogan)

I listened to Nomad as an audiobook, and you probably should too. Like its predecessor I, Partridge there's just so much more to it when you can hear Partridge's voice.

Image result for nomad alanNomad is brilliantly well-written, and I don't think there's a single sentence without a joke in it. It's brilliantly well-observed and the monstrous creation that is Alan Partridge never breaks character from the first word to the last.

In terms of plot, it's fair to say there's very little to it - Alan decides to embark on a walk from Norwich to Dungeness to retrace a mysterious journey made by his father when Alan was a child, hoping to get a TV deal out of it and entirely unsurprisingly it goes horribly wrong - but of course, the plot is hardly the point. It's character-driven comedy and very much, as you would expect, All About Alan.

There isn't really much point in a detailed review of this book. Essentially, if you find Alan Partridge funny, you will love this. If you don't, you won't. If you're in the former camp, I recommend buying the audiobook for a long car journey or to listen to during a long and tiresome task and I guarantee you'll feel like the time passes in a flash.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

11.22.63 is a novel about a man going back in time to try to prevent the assassination of a president, in the hope that it will alter the future of America (and the world) for the better. I finished reading it the day Donald Trump was elected, which put a rather different slant on the whole thing. I can't help wondering if in 50 years' time someone will be writing a similar book in which the protagonist tries to cause, rather than prevent, a president's murder.

Image result for 11.22.63 bookAnyway. 11.22.63 is Stephen King's story of Jake Epping, who is shown a portal from the present day into 1958 by Al, the owner of his local diner. Al has discovered that he can stay in the past for as long as he likes, but that only two minutes will have passed in the present when returns - and that each he does return, the past 'resets' itself and his previous actions are undone. Al, now terminally ill with lung cancer, has devoted years of his life to studying the assassination of John F Kennedy and the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, in the desperate hope that he might be able to prevent it. When he realises he's close to death, he passes his secret to Jake and asks him to make one last attempt to keep JFK alive.

11.22.63 has a lot of features you might recognise from Stephen King's other work. The narrator, Jake Epping, is technically a schoolteacher but like many of King's characters is also a writer. Nostalgia and vintage Americana are a huge part of this novel, and King also continues to be fascinated with the particular character of places and their influence on their inhabitants. Derry, the former industrial town stalked by Pennywise the Clown in It, makes an appearance, along with a few of the characters from that novel, and Jodie, Texas, where Jake makes his home for part of his stay in the past, is the sort of perfect, archetypal American small town that no longer exists (Bill Bryson, in his book The Lost Continent, talks of his search for such a town, which he christens Amalgam, on his travels through the US). However, because the novel's plot requires Epping to prevent Kennedy's assassination, the real-life towns of Dallas and Fort Worth also make an appearance, neither of which, it has to be said, come out of the story particularly well. Dallas, King feels, is subject to the same dark undercurrent of evil as the fictional Derry, inhabited by inexplicably suspicious, unfriendly people and plagued by violent crime.

While 11.22.63 is a long way from being a horror novel, it is often dark, and there is an odd sense of menace that hangs over things, even when Jake is living in his beloved Jodie and has fallen in love with high school librarian Sadie Dunhill. When Jake meets the mysterious 'yellow card man', a vagrant who accosts him on each of his visits to the past, it's clear that there is some supernatural significance to his presence.

However, I think it's this element of the book that's the least successful. The mystery of the 'yellow card man' and the 'harmonising' of the past, which means Jake frequently experiences mirroring or coincidences throughout his time there, feels like an afterthought. I don't think it's necessary, and although it lends a sinister edge at times, it's resolved fairly hastily and anticlimactically towards the end of the book. The last few chapters of the book are quite predictable - at least, they are if you've read fair few time-travel stories before.

There's no denying that this is a very long novel at close to 750 pages. Does it really need to be that long? Probably not: I personally really enjoyed the lengthy digressions, the numerous subplots and the seemingly endless detail, as for me they made the setting and the era feel so real (King's evocation of America in the late 50s and early 60s is extremely skillful and one of the book's biggest pleasures) but I do think King could have told this story in a novel two-thirds this size. Bear in mind that when Jake enters the past, it's always in 1958. At this point Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't even living in the US, let alone Texas, so there's a whole lot of other material to get through before the actual assassination storyline really kicks in - most of the book, in fact, is not really about the Kennedy assassination at all. Even when Oswald does return from his sojourn in Russia Jake has to spend many months effectively stalking him to establish that the conspiracy theories aren't true and that Oswald really was/will be the one to shoot Kennedy on the fateful day. Again, I had no problem with any of this and enjoyed every page - but I know some people will, and not unreasonably.

If you like your thrillers short and snappy, then, this might not be for you, but it is a deeply immersive and impeccably-researched novel, with well-drawn characters (Oswald and his wife Marina, in fact, are among the most vividly portrayed).

A big thank you to my lovely mother-in-law who read this book before I did, correctly guessed I would like it, and bought it for me for my birthday back in February. Sorry it's taken me so long to find the right time to get stuck into it!

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Dead Lions by Mick Herron

Image result for dead lions mick herronDead Lions is the second book in Mick Herron’s series about the MI6 agents relegated to Slough House, a secret service outpost for losers and misfits overseen by slobbish, ill-mannered Jackson Lamb. I thoroughly enjoyed Slow Horses, the first Jackson Lamb book, and if anything I thought Dead Lions was even better.

While Slow Horses’ plot focused on the contemporary issue of terrorism and the rise of the far-right, Dead Lions is pleasingly rooted in the tradition of Cold War spy thrillers, featuring Russian oligarchs, sleeper cells and various throwbacks to the past of Jackson Lamb – and to ‘the OB’, grandfather of slow horse River Cartwright and a former secret service agent himself. Despite the modern setting and the topical references, there’s a slight sense of nostalgia about Dead Lions which feels like a nod to writers like John Le Carré.

The characters established in Slow Horses are developed in more detail: I particularly enjoyed learning more about computer hacker Roderick Ho, who might not be the most physically threatening of the team but could possibly the most dangerous. The characters are, for the most part, not conventionally likeable, yet it’s hard not to root for them, including Lamb himself, who is a man so obnoxious that he waves whisky under the nose of an alcoholic colleague and uses his own flatulence to win arguments. Together, the Slough House team form a fine ensemble cast.

The dialogue is smart and witty and the narrative is full of astute observations and a satisfying attention to descriptive detail. The plot is complex and gripping with plenty of twists and surprises, and Herron clearly enjoys subverting expectations and dangling red herrings in front of his readers’ noses. It gathers pace as it proceeds, building gradually at first and then racing to its conclusion.

I’ll be moving on to the third book in the series, Real Tigers, very soon, and eagerly looking forward to book four (due for publication early next year).

Alan Stoob: Nazi Hunter by Saul Wordsworth

Alan Stoob is a seventy-something man living in Bedfordshire who, inspired and mentored by Simon Wiesenthal, hunts down Nazi war criminals – you’d be amazed how many of them choose Bedfordshire (particularly the Dunstable area) as a hiding place. You can follow Alan on Twitter  and also visit his website to get a sense of what kind of man he is.

Alan Stoob: Nazi Hunter : A Comic Novel, Paperback Alan Stoob: Nazi Hunter takes the form of Alan’s diaries, detailing his Nazi-hunting escapades as well as his domestic life with his formidable, spirited wife Edame and his middle-aged son, who is suffering from a form of arrested development and consequently behaves not just like a young teenager, but a young teenager in the late 1980s.

Alan Stoob is an outstanding suburban comic creation on a par with John Shuttleworth or Adrian Mole, and it’s absolutely impossible not to like him. The absolute seriousness with which he takes his vocation is genuinely endearing as well as incredibly funny, and despite the absurdity of Alan as a character and of the plot of the novel, there is also something weirdly convincing about him. We might not know any former policemen who have devoted their retirement to catching elderly members of the SS in the Dunstable area, but we probably have met a man who is, fundamentally,just  a little bit like Alan. He's a creation in that great British tradition of unwittingly absurd men of a certain age taking themselves very seriously - think Charles Pooter or Captain Mainwaring. 

Every detail of Alan and his life is pitch-perfect and brilliantly well-observed, and it’s been a very long time since I read a book that made me laugh as much as this. It’s relentlessly funny, but it also has an affectionate warmth to it which I greatly enjoyed. I suspect this is a book I will read again and again - certainly whenever I want to be cheered up. I couldn't be more proud to have a signed copy.

Slade House by David Mitchell

Image result for slade house paperbackI’ve been told that Slade House is shorter and simpler than David Mitchell’s other work – a sort of Mitchell Lite companion volume to The Bone Clocks, and also full of references to characters in the rest of his books. However, Slade House is the only one of Mitchell’s books I’ve read, so I can only judge it as a standalone novel.

I would describe Slade House as a horror novel, albeit a relatively literary, thoughtful one, and not one that I personally found frightening.

Slade House itself is a mysterious residence which only seems to be accessible every nine years, when a featureless doorway appears in an alley way to particular individuals. What they find there differs from person to person, and seems to be tailored to their particular needs. A lonely boy who struggles to fit in with others finds a friend of his own age who doesn’t think he’s a weirdo, while his mother, a musician, is introduced to Yehudi Menuhin. A recently divorced policeman is seduced by a beautiful woman, and a shy student bullied about her weight seems about to begin a romance with the very boy she’s long admired from afar. What really lies behind the shifting façade of Slade House, and who are the mysterious brother and sister who appear in different incarnations each time the house appears?

Each character’s section of the narrative has echoes of the one before it, and each character seems to suffer a similar fate which means the plot is by its very nature episodic and somewhat repetitive. The characters themselves are engaging enough to keep things interesting, with each one being a believable victim. Some are likeable (the young boy at the start) and others less so (the wife-beating copper). Each is very much of a type and, as such, perhaps lacking in complexity, but the nature of the plot means we have to get the measure of them in a very short time so I think this actually works successfully.

Less successful, for me, are Norah and Jonah, the brother and sister behind the evils of Slade House, and their back story. Far too often Mitchell has them deliver exposition by telling one another things in great detail that they would already know, and while I suspect this is intended to be pastiche; I don’t think it works. Their history is largely explained in a single chunk towards the end of the story and is the least interesting thing in the book. When it comes to humour and horror, Slade House is best when it’s subtle rather than over-the-top.