Monthly Archives: August 2008

One Good Turn – Kate Atkinson

Normally when you love a book you race through it, however with Kate Atkinson’s second novel featuring retired detective and private investigator Jackson Brodie ‘One Good Turn’ is one of those novels that you just have to savour and enjoy every second of. The tale starts quite a while on from ‘Case Histories’ its predecessor however you don’t need to have read another Brodie to enjoy this and indeed enjoy it you will.

It’s Edinburgh Festival and people are queuing to see a lunchtime show where most everyone becomes a witness to a serious act of road rage which almost becomes murder. Atkinson then takes us on a journey alongside some of the people that witness the event and whose lives change because of it.

Two of my favourites were Martin the writer of some crime novels featuring heroine Nina Riley which he writes under the pseudonym Alex Blake a character far more masculine and witty than Martin himself who people either see as being gay or a bit of an old woman in a mans body, but he has a much deeper story than originally meets the eye.. Gloria a middle aged lay who discover her husband is in a coma from an escapade with a dominatrix, we watch as she happily adjusts to being a widower before her husband is even dead.

Brodie also witnesses the event but thinks nothing of it as he is trying to have a blissful holiday while his girlfriend (who so sums up some real life frustrated actors I have met) is working in fringe theatre at the festival. However on a trip to an island he finds a body a body that then disappears and Brodie becomes a suspect of a ‘phantom’ murder. As a suspect he then reluctantly yet somewhat excitedly decides to find the real killer and this takes us on a journey that draws along the stories of the characters above plus a washed up comedian, and the investigator of the cases single mother Louise who has a strange chemistry with Brodie also. It gets complex but Atkinson makes it simple and also very funny.
So far this has been my favourite Atkinson novel; the subtitle ‘A Jolly Murder Mystery’ is spot on however shouldn’t dumb it down. Atkinson with this book has shown not only can she make the most amazing and believable flawed funny characters but she can make an amazing plot. This book is a must read and seriously competes for best book I have read this year so far, stop reading this and go and buy it now!

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Filed under Books of 2008, Kate Atkinson, Review, Transworld Publishing

In The Miso Soup – Ryu Murakami

After having read a few ‘ropey’ books that were not exactly my sort of book but also not really ones that I have particularly enjoyed ‘In The Miso Soup’ by Ryu Murakami. Bizarrely this wasn’t actually the book that I had originally wanted, I wanted ‘Piercing’ which is a shocking tale of a man who stands with an ice pick above his child’s crib every night. But you don’t want to hear about that story you want to hear about this one.

The story is told by Kenji, an unlicensed tour guide of Tokyo, however this isn’t the normal tourist traps, he is a guide of the darker back streets and red light district. He is a sex tourist guide. We first meet him as he first meets his latest client an American called Frank. However there is something odd about Frank, he has a slightly inhuman quality and he lies, not just ashamed business man lies, but lies that sink deeper. There has also been a murder or two in Tokyo of late and evidence seems to point to Frank, but is Kenji’s client a psychopath, and if so will Kenji survive three nights or be an accomplice to murder?

This book was fantastic. At only 180 pages it manages to pack a real punch. You have a meaty and clever story line that not only studies the minds of psychopaths but also looks at the sex industry in Tokyo in modern times. I found the character of Frank fascinating and incredibly creepy. While there are some seriously gruesome scenes this book is more creepy and sinister than all out gore, a dark and disturbing modern thriller all in all.

This is the book that Grotesque really wanted to be but in about 300 less pages and with much greater pace and intrigue. The more Chinese and Japanese writing I read the more I love it. So with that I am really looking forward to reading more of it, and will be ordering ‘Piercing’ as soon as possible. Though this may not be the sort of subject that you may want to read, try, its great writing and you’ll manage it in one sitting I promise, it also has an ending that seriously makes you think.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Review, Ryu Murakami

The Resurrectionist – James Bradley

So after the massive ‘Empire Falls’ that felt like the epic it was I was in the mood for something much more me and I have been waiting to read this Richard & Judy read for ages. I mean for a start its filled with things that I am fascinated in; the 1800’s, anatomy, grave diggers, gothic darkness. Why then would I have had this book last year (when I worked next door to TLS) and have swapped it? I think, despite the last cover being much more gothic, the blurb is better on this one and actually says what its about without being so cryptic, and of course being a R&J book its been much hyped and its story more profound.

We are in 1826 and after the lessening of hangings (this isn’t explained I just know this) bodies of the dead are much harder to come by, gone are the days where you had endless amounts at your disposal, now has come a time of grave robbing. Gabriel Swift has come to London to be the apprentice of the well renowned anatomist Edwin Poll. He finds himself enemy of another member of the household and drawn to Polls nemesis Lucan one of the most famous of the resurrectionist’s. Swift is forced into a darker world when dismissed by Poll and at Lucan’s side takes a journey that will change him forever.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Well after page 150 to about 250 it is brilliant. The start of the book however is decidedly slow, there is a gruesome opening chapter looking at the aspects of anatomy and dead bodies but our protagonist doesn’t actually feature properly in the book until chapter three. What’s more two things are never explained with Swift. The first is how he ends up in London and with Poll exactly, yes his father dies (the blurb says his father had tragic failures, you don’t ever know what these are) and he gains a new guardian but somehow it didn’t make sense. Secondly why is Swifts decent into the darker more living hell (yes I know it makes a great story) so sudden and actually why does it happen? Yes he makes one enemy, but why does he not have the balls to let him take the rap and why do his friends not stick up for him?

His friends however are sort of colleagues, and there are so many of them with such similar names I completely got thrown and couldn’t remember who was who or how they knew him. There was no background to the story and that made me wonder if there was in the authors mind. There’s a particularly contrived love story between swift and an ‘actress’ who stereotypically also ends up being a ‘woman of the night’, I found myself thinking ‘if she can get money for sleeping with many men why is she bedding this cretin for free?’ That was the books biggest problem I didn’t like Swift, he had no real character, no real reason for being evil, and not in a sick ‘I love being evil just for being evil’ way. He was one dimensional. You could say that a grave robber can’t be a nice character, it was money, I am sure they had reasons.

With an ending in colonial Australia (I am not saying why) I think James Bradley had two books he wanted to write. One was the tale of gothic dark London, grave diggers and horror (this was gruesome but not scary) the other was society in Australia based on criminals or people with ‘history’ these should have been two separate stories and not forced into one that had no backdrop or back bone. I never felt I was in London with the characters, which was a huge problem that would have been brilliant. If this book was snatched and anatomised you sadly wouldn’t find a heart.

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Filed under Faber & Faber, James Bradley, Review, Richard and Judy

Empire Falls – Richard Russo

The latest Book Group Book ‘Empire Falls’ by Richard Russo has not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, it has also taken me ages to read but with book group books I have made myself read to the end (I have only not done this on two books London Fields and Suite Francaise both of which I loathed, the latter will shock people I am sure) in the hope that once I had managed it would be one of those books where you feel immensely rewarded and are thoroughly grateful that you persevered. Can I at this pint as its so near say I didnt have this cover and think they need to rethink it as this english cover is so boring looking.

In some ways I am but let’s start with the setting. Empire Falls is a sleepy and slowly failing town in Maine (but as we all know sleepy town have dark secrets) a town that is predominantly owned by the Whiting Estate, the head of whom is now Francine Whiting, sadly the story isn’t based on her as it should have been – more of her later. One of the many buildings and enterprises she owns is the Empire Grill, run buy our protagonist Miles Roby.

Miles is stuck in a rut, after coming home from his degree to look after his dying mother he has never left Empire Falls again. He is going through a divorce with the warped Janine, his daughter Tick is a typical teenager, he has an ongoing feud with an old school friend who is now the law, he’s doing up a church, his father is a money grabbing semi-alcoholic and is played like a puppet by Francine whose cat wants to kill him and crippled daughter wants to marry him. That’s quite a character isn’t it? Bizarrely Miles plays second fiddle to almost every other character in the book.

Francine is undoubtedly for me the star of the show and sadly doesn’t feature in the book as much as she should I wanted so much more of her back story. Her cat Timmy (who is a girl) certainly needed to be in it more as it made me laugh which was much needed fabulous light relief. Janine is a wonderful slightly bitter slightly reminiscent ex-wife who has just discovered sex again which led to her affair and shes not letting the object of her new sex life get away and wants to be heading straight down the aisle once more. The women characters were actually by far the best and I think had the novel been written from their aspects the whole way through I would have enjoyed it so much more. But then there wouldn’t have been quite so many twists in the end.

There is one big twist that though there are some seeds of thought dropped along the way was much more dramatic and in many ways darker than anything I could have come up with which has little to do with Miles Roby at all and did make me re-read the page. The other twists involve flashbacks of both the Whiting family and Miles himself and give the book an extra depth in a way. Sadly though despite a wonderful host of characters (Russo from reading reviews is a wonderful character author in general) and the invention of a clever town setting with its mysteries and shock endings the book is far too long and at points became a real effort to read, thank fully the cat would appear during some of these.

I guess the test with a book, and with a new author in particular (by new I mean one you’ve not read before) is if you would read them again. Would I read Richard Russo again, at the moment I would say probably not, however the more I think about the book the more I realise what a clever writer he is and how observant. So maybe he is someone to add to my TBR in 2009 pile, I guess time will tell.

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Filed under Book Group, Pulitzer Prize, Review, Richard Russo, Vintage Books

West Of The Wall – Marcia Preston

Note – this review has spoilers, I couldn’t write it without them, sorry.

The lovely people of New Books Magazine (http://www.newbooksmag.com/) had sent me the latest Marcia Preston ‘West of the Wall’ to read and review. I say this like I have a clue who Marcia Preston is and sadly I didn’t, it turns out that she is the writer of several books in fact so I am clearly not the fountain of all knowledge. This, her latest, is set in the time of The Berlin Wall and is all about the struggles of people on either side of it. I haven’t read anything around the Berlin Wall, and it has made me research that in depth, so full marks for an original subject. I was also really looking forward to reading a new author; you are hoping you find a new voice that you want to have the whole collection of.

The story follows Trudy; her husband has been helping people flee from East to West Berlin and has had to make the switch as his ‘secret’ work has meant he has endangered himself and his family. So he flees only once he cannot be caught Trudy herself falls under scrutiny and rumour and she too must escape. In doing so she leaves behind her mother in law and most heartbreakingly for her, her son. How can she get him to her side of the wall safely when she is destitute and has no contacts?

Oh throwing herself in front of the President’s car when he visits Berlin, being flown by a diplomat to America where he buys her a fabulous new wardrobe, makes her into some sort of celebrity before hitting her and blackmailing her, she flees and becomes Jackie Kennedy’s best friend. She comes back to Germany and you can guess the rest, or can you?

Until the American part of the book started I must admit that despite my first reservations of Marcia Preston’s novel she had hooked me in, I was really enjoying the novel until then. Also the final part back in Germany is very good too and she almost redeemed herself, but sadly not quite. Oh I haven’t mentioned my original reservations have I? From the cover and blurb I thought this was going to be a big granny romance, you know Mills & Boon but much, much longer and actually not as good. I was half write as it ended up like Pretty Woman with guns, regimes and some vicious American Politician. For some this will be the perfect read, sadly for me it was two thirds of a good novel, not a great one.

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Filed under Marcia Preston, Mira Books, Review

The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford

My first Nancy Mitford novel to read has had a lot of pressure upon it to be good. Everyone I have mentioned it to who has read it has commented on how fantastic it is and also I came away from the letters of the Mitford Sisters earlier this year with a real fondness for Nancy and her humour. Happily I can say that her humour and personality shine brightly through this novel. I was also pleased to see that though yes indeed if you know the Mitford’s and their family history then yes you can see it reflected in this work, but its also accessible for anyone who has no idea who the Mitford’s are at all and just want to read a great and extremely funny book.

The Pursuit of Love tells of Linda and her pursuit of that exact thing, all told by her cousin Fanny. It starts of back in their childhood when Fanny came to live with them after her mother ‘Aunty Bolter’ has run off with yet another man (hence her nickname) and how she copes in a house run by the blunt and endlessly shouting Uncle Matthew. After that it’s a tale of ‘debuts’, dances, dalliances and doomed marriages as Linda tries to find ‘true love’ a thought she originally feels she could only have for the Prince of Wales.

What are wonderful in this book are the characters, and that fact that though there is one main story line with Linda there are also wonderful short stories of others interwoven. It’s also an interesting and funny insight into society and class in those times and also Nancy’s own way of looking at her childhood and family. Quite clearly Linda and her constant crying in childhood (which almost made me cry with laughter) and beauty and dizziness in adulthood is a mixture of Nancy and her sisters. Uncle Matthew who flies into rages, cries at Romeo & Juliet ‘why did they have to die, the silly fools’ and hates foreigners even though he’s only every been to France is easily their father. There are also some other wonderful characters like Lord Merlin who gives Rodin pictures, houses and cheques for £20,000 without a thought who reflect certain society members.

My only gripe with this book has been the cover, I just think its wrong for a few reasons, however I shalln’t open that can of worms right now. This must become a classic, I am shocked in a way that it hasn’t officially, instead it seems to be a cult classic with many authors naming either this or ‘Love In A Cold Climate’ as one of their favourite books. I really enjoyed it and on several occasions laughed out loud. A truly glamorous, witty collection of fantastic characters, and their colourful tales, if you haven’t read this you should!

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Filed under Nancy Mitford, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

In The Woods – Tana French

I have had this on my to read pile a while. I originally wanted the hardback (which is very rare for me as for some reason hardbacks make my hands ache) but it was one of those ones with the coloured edges of the pages and would just look wonderful on a bookshelf. However the ‘tight’ me refused to pay silly hardback prices. So finally after noticing that Sophie Hannah recommends it as a ‘near perfect read’ on the back and re-reading the blurb that sounded fascinating and gripping I went for it.

The story centres around Detective Rob Ryan who twenty years ago was Adam Ryan, a boy who went into the woods near their estate and Adam was the only one they found, with no memory backed against a tree with some else’s blood filling his shoes. Ryan after being sent away to England has changed his name and has come back and has worked his way up to the Murder Squad. His first big case, with best friend and co-worker Cassie Maddox, happens to be a girl who is found on the outskirts of the very wood that haunts him now, could the two cases be connected?

I can’t answer that because I don’t want to give anything away for those poor souls of you who do take this book on. I hate to slate a book, I honestly do but I haven’t felt this let down in a long time. Tana French starts ‘In The Woods’ wonderfully and for the first hundred pages of the book I was hooked. It then felt like someone else had taken over, what was an intriguing and mysterious book became stilted. The book centred on Cassie and Ryan’s relationship and how ‘everyone felt excluded by them’ including their partner, oh and including the reader. It was like it was trying to be a romance or some clever cliché which then gets broken and you’re supposed to care.

Not only that, but bar a very creepy scene where noises are heard in and around the woods, the woods are barely mentioned which defeats the whole idea behind the book – without giving anything away. It’s hard not to when the ending is so disappointing it’s untrue. It felt like it lost its momentum, mystery and soul. Also a small point that really bugged me, the use of people listening to the Scissors Sisters and other bands randomly dates the book even though it’s modern but also sort of detracts you from the story, I can’t explain it exactly so I hope you know what I mean.

Sadly I was let down by this book and a little by Sophie Hannah’s recommendation, but I wont hold that against her. I have seen some people loved it on Amazon and others hated it. Maybe it’s a bit like Murder Marmite. I think the cover (though this isnt the one on the copy I had) is absolutely brilliant though, very creep. Do they have book cover awards?

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Filed under Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Tana French