“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins – review

Thrillers can be challenging books to review as it’s so difficult to talk about them without inadvertently giving away plot spoilers and ruining the suspense of the story.  Be assured though I’ll do my best to give you a meaningful blog post without revealing too much!

I’m one of the ever diminishing few who hasn’t read Paul Hawkins’ astonishingly successful debut novel “The Girl on the Train”, and in a way I’m quite glad about that as it meant I came at this novel with no expectations and could read it without making any comparisons to her previous work.  It’ll be interesting for me to hear, as more and more people read “Into the Water”, whether the prevailing opinion is that it’s a better or worse book than the first.  All I can say is that for the most part I found it a really enjoyable and memorable thriller, even if there were a few elements that didn’t quite convince me.

At the centre of the story is a patch of water known to locals as the Drowning Pool.  On summer days it’s a magnet for children to play and teenagers to congregate, at other times it’s a picturesque spot for solitude and contemplation; but despite its beauty it can never escape the negative associations that have developed over the centuries due to the number of women who have perished in its depths.  Some of the earliest victims were those suspected of witchcraft who were deliberately drowned, and they were followed in turn by other violent deaths – murders, suicides and some cases where the truth of events still remains a mystery.  The latest woman to come to an unfortunate end in the notorious pool is Nel Abbott, single mother to a teenage daughter Lena, and the estranged sister of Jules, who reluctantly returns to their childhood home to sort out Nel’s affairs.  The two haven’t spoken for years following a dramatic falling-out, and Jules’ initial reaction is to resent her sister’s suicide – for that’s what most people seem to believe it was – as a final, spiteful bid to attract attention and drag Jules back to a place she hoped to have left behind for good.  Before long though the question upon which so many mystery stories have hinged over the decades – did she jump or was she pushed? – rears its head and the investigation to uncover the truth begins.

The story hops between the aftermath of Nel’s death and the events that led up to it, and is told through a multitude of voices: members of Nel’s family, the investigating police officers and an extensive cast of local people who were connected to Nel in some way.  At first I wasn’t sure I liked having such a large number of narrators; it takes a while to feel a connection to the characters when their contributions are so fragmented.  As the novel progressed, however, I found the technique began to work really well.  Nel, it transpires, had created a bit of a stir among her tight-knit, somewhat insular rural community with her controversial project on the history of the Drowning Pool, and the short, sharp bursts of narration from the different voices perfectly reflects the frenzy of circulating gossip, speculation and suspicion that follows her death.  It also ensures that the book gallops along at a pretty brisk pace, and I found myself failing miserably to put it down, constantly thinking, “just ONE more chapter”!  I’ve abandoned a few psychological thrillers over the past year because although they were fast-moving and intricately plotted I simply didn’t care what happened to the main characters, but in this case I absolutely did.  That’s not to say they’re all likeable (in fact there are a few who I found hideous) but somehow I was still desperate to find out how their stories ended.

It was the tying up of all the different story strands that I felt let the book down slightly.  I would never have guessed the outcome of the mystery surrounding Nel’s death, and I was pleased to have been taken well and truly by surprise.  The story arc for a couple of the other characters though I didn’t buy.  [Small spoiler alert!]  Following a melodramatic and for me unbelievable event in the later stages of the book, one person suddenly undergoes what appears to be a complete personality transplant, which I felt was a jarring attempt to bring closure to a situation that was far too psychologically complex to ever have been resolved in that way.  I was also left with a few unanswered questions after the final page, although that could be down to my personal preference for neat endings and a deliberate decision by the author to leave some things ambiguous rather than any oversight on her part.  Whatever the novel’s minor flaws, Paula Hawkins certainly knows how to tell a gripping story, and for its compelling narrative, excitement and genuine mystery I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Spotted! My best bookshop finds…

I love walking into a bookshop and stumbling across something I didn’t expect to see.  Yes, you can always browse online from the comfort of your sofa, but bookshops have a knack of throwing up gems that you’d never discover any other way.  I’ve been out and about hunting down my next reads and thought I’d share some of them with you.  Tonight, we have this beauty – a stunningly presented collection of previously unpublished stories by voice of the jazz age, F Scott Fitzgerald.

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Interestingly, a number of these stories weren’t accepted for publication because they strayed too far from the style that editors had come to expect from Fitzgerald, so it will be fascinating to see how they differ from the stories we know so well today.  There are also stories that were intended to be published in magazines and even some that were written in the hope they would be turned into films, although none of them ever were.  The cover is pure 20s elegance, the perfect packaging for a collection such as this, and I couldn’t resist.

More of my best bookshop spots will be popping up on the blog soon so keep an eye out!

Bookish disappointments

“Disappointment” has got to be one of the saddest words in the English language.  If you want to upset me, just tell me you’re disappointed by something; it goes beyond mere sadness as there’s the implication of the delighted anticipation that preceded the blow, which renders the ensuing despondency so much worse.  To feel let down by a book is a particularly hideous experience since more often than not you will have had a pretty long wait for it.  The absolute worst scenario of all though is when an author you’ve previously loved comes up with a book that, well, you just don’t.

I’m currently reading “4321” by Paul Auster and although I’d deliberately avoided any reviews before I started it I’d already heard a number of people say they weren’t particularly keen on it.  As it happens, I’m completely hooked and think it’s the best novel he’s written in ages, but prior to this, he was one of the authors who’d started to disappoint me.  I devoured his early books with the fervour of someone who’s discovered a new religion, but as the years went by and I caught up with his writing so I was reading in tandem with his new releases I found I was increasingly disenchanted, feeling that somehow he was producing Auster-by-numbers, novels lacking the spark and sharpness of their predecessors.  I’m terrible, however, for giving even the least deserving people in my life second (and third and fourth) chances, and I couldn’t bring myself to give up on him entirely, a decision that I’m relieved to say is so far proving to be justified.

So which other authors have disappointed me?  Well, one of the big ones recently was Donna Tartt; “The Secret History” is one of my favourite books of all time and “The Little Friend” was a more than worthy successor, but “The Goldfinch”?  Fragmented, verging on tedious in places and WAY too long, it was for me one of the most crushing literary let-downs ever.  It wouldn’t have been such a soul-destroying experience of course had she not been so outstanding before, but I can only imagine the pressure such a lauded novelist like that must be under, especially when their books have close to a decade between them.  Iain Pears’ “The Dream of Scipio” was another case of the curse of having to follow a masterpiece (in this case “An Instance of the Fingerpost”) although, like the back in favour Mr Auster, he redeemed himself in my eyes with the mind-bending “Stone’s Fall”.  Then there’s Muriel Barbery, whose remarkable novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” made an impression on me intellectually and emotionally that I never expected, but whose later novel “The Lives of Elves” proved to be a bemusing and ultimately for me unfinishable quasi-fairytale that bore almost no resemblance to its predecessor.  Hats off to her for doing something totally different, but it wasn’t for me.

The more I look at my bookshelves the more I see little disappointments, most of them not on the level of Goldfinch-gate, but let-downs nonetheless.  So I’m going to call time on this blog post before it descends into a simmering cauldron of negativity – and let’s not forget that, as experience shows, one less than enjoyable book doesn’t condemn an author for ever! – but I’d love to hear what your biggest bookish disappointments were.  Are there any that still sting years later?  Or do you disagree with me and think “The Goldfinch” is Donna Tarrt’s most enjoyable novel?  Either way I’d love to hear your thoughts so do share!

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“Fireside Gothic” by Andrew Taylor – review

Before I’d even opened this book I’d fallen in love with the title: it’s just so evocative of dark winter evenings curled up under a blanket with a creepy book, and I couldn’t wait to grab a cup of hot chocolate and get stuck in.  I wasn’t disappointed – you’d be hard pushed to find a better January read.

It’s a collection of short stories, a literary form of which I have to confess I’m not always a fan, but these are all long enough to be immensely satisfying; in fact, they’re almost long enough to be novellas rather than short stories.  It’d be misleading as well to refer to them simply as ghost stories since they’re much more complicated than that.  There are elements that could feasibly be supernatural but there’s a psychological aspect to all of them as well.  All three feature central characters who are at an emotionally tumultuous time in their lives and who find themselves in an environment that lends itself to paranoia, fear or a sense of isolation.

The first, “Broken Voices”, takes place in the early twentieth century and has the most conventionally “gothic” setting of the three: the house of an old schoolmaster that stands in the shadow of an imposing, eerie cathedral.  The schoolmaster is tasked with looking after two lonely boys from the cathedral boarding school who have no home or family to go to during the Christmas holiday; at first, none of the three are particularly keen on the arrangement, but after an evening of ghost stories by the fire the boys’ interest in their previously uninviting surroundings is piqued.  What is the truth about the demise of the unfortunate Mr. Goldsworthy, Master of Music at the cathedral, who fell to his death from the tower nearly two hundred years before -was it really an accident or was there a more sinister explanation?  And is there a connection between his tragic end and the shadowy figure and untraceable music that can be seen and heard within the cathedral walls?

I loved the traditional feel of this first story; it fulfils every obligation of a good ghost story, and there’s an element of comfort in revisiting the familiar ground of what you would consider the epitome of the spooky story to be.  Reading it was akin to putting on a pair of fluffy slippers and I was completely delighted by it.  You get the feeling that the author really relished following in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other such writers, and I would put money on the fact that Andrew Taylor has a genuine love for those writers who paved the way for this kind of story.

With the second tale, however, he changes tack completely.  We’re now back in the modern day and in the company of a man whose car has broken down as he drives home from his sister’s funeral.  He’s lost, alone and with no means of calling for help – but as luck would have it, he stumbles across an old cottage.  The enigmatic woman who answers the door directs him to a large, comfortable and welcoming house just a few minutes away, but try as he might he can’t get the woman out of his mind.  When he returns in the morning, however, he gets the shock of his life, and what follows throws everything we thought we knew completely out of the window.  It’s almost impossible to talk any more about the story itself without giving away a whole load of spoilers, so I’m not going to.  What I can say, though, is that I loved the way this tale suddenly spun off into head-messing territory.  Are we in the presence of some serious supernatural shenanigans or are we witnessing a grief-stricken man in the grip of psychological distress?  I got to the end and my mind was still reeling, but that’s exactly the way it should be.  If the first story was cosily creepy, this one was the total opposite: complex and quite unsettling.

The third and final story, “The Scratch”, was a very different one again.  Gerald and Clare live in the idyllic Forest of Dean, a comfortable life in a beautiful house.  Then Gerald’s nephew Jack comes into their life and everything begins to change.  Jack is ex-military and is suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of a horrifying experience he endured while on active service in the Middle East.  He has a curiously intense fear of the couple’s cat but also and unhealthy obsession with the idea that a giant, wild, cat-like creature is on the prowl in the forest.  And he has something else too: a bizarre scratch that never heals.  As it turns out, Jack isn’t the only one with an obsession.  Clare finds, to her horror, that she’s becoming increasingly attracted to the young man, and from this moment on things go from bad to worse for the family.  It seems that post-traumatic stress isn’t all that Jack has brought back with him; as events unfold it starts to look suspiciously like some kind of curse.

But, the author challenges us, do we really believe in things like that?  Is it possible that something otherworldly can exact revenge upon us for our transgressions or is it the burden of our own feelings of guilt that make us believe that the past is somehow haunting us?  I thought this story was very clever as it manages to create an unsettling mood without any of the usual ghost story tropes.  There are no gothic cathedrals and no dark, stormy nights, just warm spring days in the Forest of Dean, but it’s incredibly effective storytelling nonetheless.

The whole book was pitched just the right side of spooky for me.  It won’t give you sleepless nights (thank goodness!) but it will give you something much more rewarding: cleverly crafted, stylishly written tales that create a gently spine-tingling atmosphere and much to think about.

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My new obsession: S J Parris

It’s quite rare for me to read books from the same series in quick succession.  Even when a trilogy or longer series is complete and all the books are there ready should I so choose, I hardly ever read them back to back; that’s true even in cases where I’ve been blown away by the first one.  The reason is simply that I find taking a break makes me appreciate the follow-ups even more when I come back to them.  The old cliché that you can have too much of a good thing is definitely true when it comes to books; I find that overindulging in an author, character or even a genre can quickly extinguish any magic you felt at first.  I’m slightly surprised, then, to find myself well and truly ensnared by an obsession that has resulted not only in my reading a whole two books (!) by the same author one after the other, but buying the rest so they’re there the minute I’ve finished part two.  The thing that hasn’t surprised me is that this latest literary crush is historical fiction – if anything’s going to ignite my passion and maintain it, it’ll be that.  The author is S J Parris and the central character is Giordano Bruno, a former monk who ends up in England following his excommunication from the Church of Rome on charges of heresy.  In the first book he meets Sir Philip Sidney and Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and quickly becomes entangled in a gruesome murder investigation with many potential repercussions for church and state.

If you loved the Shardlake series by C J Sansom then I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy these.  The period is similar (Sansom’s books take place during the reign of Henry VIII, Parris’ books are set in Elizabethan times) and both central characters are intellectuals whose quick brains and lofty social connections lead them to turn detective, albeit with some reluctance.  Bruno is an extremely likeable protagonist, with enough self-doubt to prevent him from appearing arrogant or infallible, but not so much that he becomes a tortured hero whose melancholy introspection detracts from the mystery at hand.  And the mysteries themselves are cracking puzzles.  They take place, of course, in a time when Catholics and Protestants were almost literally at war, with heretics on both sides being hunted down, tortured and murdered all across Europe.  Double dealing and the concealment of religious identity were the order of the day; if we learn anything from Bruno’s struggles to unravel these often religiously motivated crimes, it’s that nobody can be trusted to hold the same beliefs that they choose to show to the world.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading the third instalment as it’s set in the part of England where I’ve lived for most of my life – I can’t wait to see how the author brings my familiar surroundings to life.  If you want to give the series a go then “Heresy” is book one; the stories stand alone for the most part so reading them in order isn’t essential, but to get the full impression of Bruno’s development as a character I think it’s best to start at the beginning of his story.  If you’re a fan of historical fiction I hope you’ll give them a try.  If you’re not then this may just be the series to convert you!

“Portrait of an Unknown Woman” by Vanora Bennett – review

If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I’m mad keen on historical fiction.  Any era will do, I’m not fussy; as long as it’s sometime pre-twentieth century and there’s a sumptuous dress on the cover I’m probably going to be happy.  A few years ago, however, I went through a phase of gravitating towards novels set in the Tudor period, to the extent that I ended up feeling I’d overindulged myself and consequently burned out my interest in that era.  “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” is the first time I’ve returned to the Tudors in quite a long while, and to my relief I felt completely refreshed, as if I was discovering my love of the period all over again.

The book that ignited my love affair with historical novels was “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Philippa Gregory, and if you enjoyed her books I can pretty much guarantee you’ll love this.  Vanora Bennett has quite a similar writing style and way of approaching her subject, wearing her meticulous research lightly but still delving beyond familiar representations of the period to shed new light on characters about whom, if we know a bit of history, we have perhaps already made assumptions.  The novel centres on the family of Thomas More, civil servant and later Lord Chancellor at the court of Henry VIII, and Hans Holbein, the ambitious German artist hoping to advance his career by painting the rich and powerful of Tudor England.  Much of the story is told my Meg, a young woman taken in by More as a child following the death of her parents and raised as one of his own.  It starts as a love story, with Meg looking out across the Thames from the Mores’ Chelsea home, awaiting the arrival of John Clement, her one-time tutor and the man with whom she has fallen completely and utterly in love.  And in a sense a love story it remains – but not in the way I expected when the novel began.  This isn’t about spending three hundred pages wondering whether the would-be couple are finally going to get together; this is about what happens to our feelings when the first flush of a seemingly perfect romance turns out not to lead anywhere near the places we’d anticipated.  Almost everyone in this novel – the lovers included – has secrets, some kept out of pure motives, others concealed out of fear, jealousy or desire for control.  As more and more truths are gradually revealed the relationships between the characters become increasingly complex; just as we’ve decided where our sympathies lie, the rug is pulled out from under our feet.

Of course, all these relationships are played out during one of the most turbulent periods in English history: the lead up to the monarchy’s break with the Church of Rome.  The brutal religious politics of the day cannot help but exert their influence on the emotional lives of characters whose marriages, friendships and family ties are already under strain from the various grievances, resentments and suspicions that affect us all even in the most stable of times.  Sinister events – imprisonments, tortures, executions – that are merely hinted at in the novel’s early chapters become increasingly exposed as the book goes on.  At first Meg is unaware of the extent to which her father is involved in Henry’s reign of terror; we learn the truth along with her as she gradually uncovers the accumulating horrors being committed in the name of God.  It is Hans Holbein who is perhaps the novel’s one true sage.  He may not have the broad education of the precocious More children, but the author presents him as one of the only characters who has their eyes open to the truth from the start.  Holbein has seen enough of the Reformation in Europe to realise that religious extremes, whichever way they lean, cause nothing but cruelty and chaos.  When he paints the commissioned portrait of Sir Thomas More’s family he resolves not to produce the flattering representation that most patrons would expect, but rather to capture the veracity of each individual: their coldness, weariness or naivety.  You could say this is a novel about learning to live with the truth, and coping with life when neither the world nor the people in it are what we hoped they would be.

This is definitely going to join my list of favourite historical novels.  Just as the story throws up a succession of surprises for its characters, so the book surprised me somewhat right up until the end; even the conclusion is not as you might imagine.  It’s a perfectly balanced blend of romance, history and drama – one I’d recommend without a doubt.

My top 5 families in fiction

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family… an old adage that would ring true for many of the poor souls unfortunate enough to belong to one of my top five fictional families.  Happy families, much as we’d all like to have one ourselves, don’t necessarily make for the best stories.  The formidable mother, the distant father, the rebellious child; it’s characters such as these that are the staples of many an entertaining read.  Of course, some kind of family unit features in pretty much every novel; the ones I’ve picked out are from books in which family relationships are a driving force of the story.  There were so many to choose from I’m sure I will have omitted some of your favourites!  But I hope you enjoy my selection.

My top 5… families in fiction                                                                                                                                             

  1. The Bennets from “Pride and Prejudice” – they’re one of fiction’s most well-known families and the first that sprung to mind when I was thinking about this blog post. Between them the Bennet girls cover every point on the spectrum between rash irresponsibility and austere propriety, while the irrepressible Mrs. Bennet, who’s determined to get her girls married off come hell or high water, is one of the most memorable mothers ever to grace the pages of a book.
  2. The Riordans from “Instructions for a Heatwave” – this is one of my favourite novels of the last few years: an impeccably realised story of a fragmented family attempting to come back together. The novel’s atmosphere is stifling, as if from the weight of all the secrets that each one of the Riordan family carries while they try to keep them hidden from those they love.
  3. The Pooters from “The Diary of a Nobody” – the head of this hilarious literary family is the put-upon Charles Pooter, whose diary faithfully records all the banalities and petty troubles of a true Nobody. While “dear Carrie” presides over chintz chair covers and legs of mutton, and wilful son Lupin is preoccupied with an intermittent love affair, Mr. Pooter gamely soldiers on, doggedly trying to maintain a decent foothold in his tiny corner of society.
  4. The Cookes from “We are all completely beside ourselves” – if you want a classic case of parents messing up their children, this is it. I won’t spoil the novel’s unexpected revelation by telling you exactly how; I will only say that this unique family unit is the basis for a social experiment that goes horribly awry…
  5. The Willoughbys from “Family Roundabout” – this was a difficult choice since this sparkling novel is actually about two families, united by marriage and engaged in a subtle but carefully choreographed game of one-upmanship. I went for the Willoughby family purely because Mrs. Willoughby is one of the most formidable matriarchs I’ve ever come across anywhere in fiction – and she’s frighteningly believable.  If you’ve never read this and love a good family drama, then I’d thoroughly recommend it.

“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr – Review

I’ve been sitting here for a while now, pen in hand, and I’m finding my review of “All the Light We Cannot See” really hard to write.  During the last few days I’ve been utterly taken over but this novel: every spare minute I’ve had I’ve returned to it and when I haven’t been reading I’ve been thinking and talking about it.  After a few pages I was pretty sure I was reading something special; by the last page there was no doubt.  And now here I am, faced with the challenge of trying to convey the sheer brilliance of the book…. and all the superlatives I can think of seem somehow inadequate.

Then again, I guess by now everyone has some idea of exactly how good it is: it’s just won the Pulitzer Prize and has had glowing reviews by people far better than me at coming up with complimentary adjectives!  So instead of spending the next couple of hundred words trying to find synonyms for “fantastic” I’m just going to talk about the effect this book had on me and the ideas that resonated with me as I read.  In fact, I think my lasting memory of “All the Light We Cannot See” will be the almost unbearable intensity of emotion it evoked and the way words and images from it bubbled around in my head for some time afterwards.

Set primarily in Germany and occupied France during the Second World War, the novel’s two main characters are Marie-Laure, a blind girl driven out of Paris with her father when the Germans invade, and Werner, a German orphan whose talent for building and repairing radio equipment brings him to the attention of the Hitler Youth movement.  The idea of sound as a way of connecting with the world is a hugely important theme – for both children it is a lifeline when literally or figuratively deprived of sight.  Marie-Laure relies heavily on sound to navigate the world around her.  For Werner, the magical voices that reach him via his first homemade radio set promise the possibility of a life beyond his orphanage home and a bleak future working down the mines where his father perished.  Even Volkheimer, one of the most respected and feared members of the Hitler Youth, manages momentarily to escape the horrors of what he’s been forced to do and see through his love of classical music.  Reading the novel is an incredibly sensory experience.  When Marie-Laure explores the wonder of the seashore for the first time, we experience it as she does: through the delicate grooves of a shell, the smell of the salt and the cool softness of the sand.  As a radio operator much of Werner’s knowledge of conflict comes through the static of his headphones, and we are largely left to imagine the horrors as he hears first he Russian voices, then the gunshots, then the silence.  By the time the book drew to a close, I had not only an incredibly vivid visual image of the novel’s world in my mind, but really felt as if I had listened, smelled and touched my way through the story as well.  I think that’s why I found “All the Light We Cannot See” so profoundly moving – we’re so used to relying on sight to make connections with people around us, but instead this novel plays on the importance of those mysterious links that can exist between two people who have never even set eyes on one another.  A mere voice piercing the darkness in our most desperate times can give us hope and a reason to survive.

One of the most effective ways to recommend a book is to compare it to another, but I couldn’t think of any useful comparison for this particular novel.  If I had to sum it up I would say it’s literary while remaining accessible, moving without being bleak and a riveting insight into an important period of recent history without ever losing sight of the human stories that provide its heart.  I thought this book was exceptional – as the saying goes, miss it, miss out.