“Western Fringes” by Amer Anwar – review

I’ve got something a bit different for you on the blog today!  If you’re a regular visitor to Girl, Reading you’ll know I don’t read an awful lot of crime thrillers but I was lucky enough to be sent a free reading copy by the author and hey, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something a bit different!  It sounds pathetic in the extreme, but one of the main reasons I’m wary of the crime genre is that I have a real aversion, almost hypersensitivity if you will, to any kind of violence or psychological cruelty whether it’s in books or TV and movies.  This novel does undoubtedly have its occasional brutal moments (and one particularly grim one) but in spite of this I was pleased to discover I quite enjoyed it, racing through at breakneck speed, anxious to find out if the characters I was rooting for would emerge from the action unscathed.

Zaq, the novel’s hero, isn’t exactly squeaky clean – he’s recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter – but you can’t help feeling from the off that he’s less of a thug and more a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyway, as it turns out someone who was squeaky clean wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the situation in which the unfortunate Zaq finds himself.  The owner of the builders’ yard where he works, Mr. Brar, calls him into the office out of the blue and demands that Zaq track down his daughter Rita, who’s gone missing.  If he fails, or even lets slip to anyone else that’s she’s disappeared, Mr. Brar will make sure Zaq’s back in prison before he knows it.  The Brars are a Sikh family, and Zaq assumes this is a case of wanting to protect the family honour, and in all likelihood the end result of the daughter’s liaison with someone of whom her father and brothers don’t approve.  His first instinct is to try and do the bare minimum to get Rita found, pass on her whereabouts to the family and wash his hands of the whole business as soon as possible, but the deeper he’s drawn into the case the more unexpected he finds its complexities and the realisation soon dawns that stepping away with a clear conscience isn’t going to be the option he assumed it would be.

In terms of the plot, I’m stopping right there as I have no intention of spoiling the mystery or suspense for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.  There is a genuine sense of tension throughout as the author isn’t afraid to ramp up the stakes for his characters; suffice to say not everyone will make it through to the final page.  If you like your bad guys unequivocally bad then you won’t be disappointed – there are no mitigating circumstances or tortured psychological explanations for the brutality, just out and out bare-knuckle thuggery.  It makes sense too that the protagonist, although essentially good-hearted, is no stranger to the world of street violence, shady dealing and macho intimidation, as his ability to navigate his way through the various perils becomes infinitely more credible that way.  It’s a world with which I am (very clearly) not familiar, having spent most of my formative years in a picture-postcard village a million miles away from Southall, where the novel is set, so I’m working on the assumption that the author knows his stuff and that this is indeed an accurate reflection of the capital’s criminal underbelly – but even if it isn’t it felt authentic enough that I totally believed it.  It was also interesting from a cultural perspective to read a story set in a section of society where honour violence, while not universally condoned by any means, is a familiar and predictable occurrence.  As a female reader I have to say I found it immensely satisfying to see female characters who took on the predominantly masculine world around them with barely a second thought.  Huge credit has to go to the author too for refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that Strong Female Characters have to be signposted to the reader by having men comment on their fortitude and gutsiness every five minutes.  For that reason alone I’d recommend it!

As I say, it was something quite different for me, and while I confess I do miss the corsets and bustles if I’m away from them for too long, it was interesting to undertake an excursion into unfamiliar territory and try something I wouldn’t normally read.  Am I going to develop a new obsession with dark, gritty thrillers?  Honestly no, but what “Western Fringes” goes to show is how much books can keep on surprising you even when you thought you had yourself pegged!

See you back on the blog soon…

“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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Trending right now…

I have never been a trend-setter.  Some I’ve attempted to follow, with varying degrees of success, and some I’ve left well alone; many’s the time I’ve wished I could be one of those people who always seem to be the first to cotton on to the next big thing that everyone’s going to be wearing/watching/talking about.  I wonder then, is it every author’s dream to see the title of their novel emblazoned across the cover of countless other publications, with the preceding words “the next” promising the perpetuation of a hot new trend?  I can’t think of any other creative industry that so overtly compares one work to another in the hope of attracting an audience, but it’s a device that’s used over and over again, more accurately on some occasions than others.  It’s fascinating to observe these literary trends take off, snowballing to epic proportions before the resultant behemoth eventually implodes under the weight of its own success, and the reading public lie prone and sated, waiting for the next idea to catch their imagination.

At the moment we’re all well and truly obsessed by what, for want of a better term, I’m going to call the female-orientated psychological thriller.  Started arguably by “Gone Girl” and cemented by the juggernaut that is “The Girl on the Train” it’s a trend that’s still in full flow, with “The Widow”, “What She Left” and “Disclaimer” to name but a few picking up the ball and running with it.  Delving a bit further back in time, remember the slew of conspiracy-theory-surrounding-ancient-artefact novels that followed Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”?  Suddenly you couldn’t move for ruined temples, mysterious relics and secret societies.  And who could forget the era of gleeful sexual abandon instigated by “Fifty Shades of Grey”, when we all cast our embarrassment aside and it was suddenly okay to be seen reading porn on the tube?

Are big, bold, strident trends such as these always win-win for the readers or are they more of a double-edged sword than we’d perhaps like to think?  Inevitably when comparisons are made between books in the way I’ve described there are always going to be instances when confidence that a new book really is “the next Girl on the Train” is slightly misplaced, and the readers (and author?) are left a bit disappointed.  And admittedly, walking into a bookshop and seeing a succession of books that merely seem to repeat what’s gone before can potentially become quite tiresome.  But for every novel that doesn’t quite live up to expectations there will be plenty that do and I believe that actually, the fact we so often see swathes of books of a very similar genre being released in a certain period of time is a perfect way of encouraging people to read even more than they may have done otherwise.  Loved “Gone Girl”?  Then brilliant – because there are now dozens of books right in front of you that you’re going to be drawn to and will probably enjoy.

All trends fizzle out eventually, and this one will be no exception.  The exciting question for me, and all the other bookworms out there, is: what will be next?