Category Archives: Little Brown Publishing

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks

When it comes to historical fiction I tend to stick to two particular periods willingly. These are the Victorian era and the Tudors, the latter which I actually read less than I would like because I am picky. Anything before then makes me nervous, bar the Greek and Roman times which I am well versed in (though less well read in) with my mother being a classicist. So, despite having loved Year of Wonders in my pre-blogging days, I was rather worried about reading Geraldine Brooks latest novel The Secret Chord with it being set in 1000BC, a period in history I know next to nothing about…

9781408704516

Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 302 pages, borrowed from the library

As The Secret Chord opens we are thrown into the world of Natan, prophet and scribe to King David, who has just been given the mission of going off to meet with the people who have journeyed with him or crossed his path in the lead to his rule. David, who we soon come to learn is quite vain, wants his life documented and as Natan only knows of it from a certain point (when David killed his father and was just about to dispatch Natan when he announces his first prophecy) he must go and find out other peoples truths and tales of the king. As he heads to find his rulers family and first wife, interestingly both distant and reticent, he starts to look back on his times with David, a king who seemed to rise from nowhere against all odds and conquer the land.

I have to say initially I wasn’t sure I was going to buy into The Secret Chord as the idea seemed a little forced/contrived (unless I missed something, this plot device also vanishes) and on page nine a line describing a murder as ‘It was as intimate as rape.’ made me quite cross, however I continued and was soon lost in the storytelling of the characters that Natan meets as well as Natan’s own stories, which of course are all Geraldine Brooks wonderful retellings. Natan of course being an intriguing character in himself as he, without control much to his frustration, can see some of the future coming before anyone else which often leads to the intriguing questions of what he should tell, what he should withhold and what he is missing?

For a seer, I was remarkably obtuse. I know this now; I did not know it then. Yoav and I had conspired to find some occupation that, while worthwhile in itself, would serve to distract a restless and unhappy king. Instead, he found a way to distract me, to get me out of his way. A man will silence the voice of his conscience when it suits him to commit sin. But if your “conscience” walks and breathes as a living man in your service, you might have to go to some additional lengths. I did not see this. I did not seen that proud and vital man who feared his manhood waning might take any reckless step to prove himself it wasn’t so. In the service of my gift, I had to forgo much that makes a man in full. I know now that this sacrifice has left me blind to certain things. I can see what others cannot see, but sometimes I miss what is apparent to the dumbest simpleton.

There was much that I admired about Brooks evocation of King David’s life and ruling. Firstly was her clear passion and enthusiasm to tell his tale, which is quite contagious. Through Natan she also creates a fully formed character, flaws and all. David is seen as a ‘great man’, he can often be a kind and impassioned king, he can also be an absolute bastard to both his enemies and those close to him. As Natan watches his relationship with Yonatan, King Shaul’s son and sibling of David’s first wife Mikhal, we see David at his most loving and vulnerable. This section may bring up some questions to historians or certain religious views but I found it fascinating and reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.  Yet by that very same stretch we see how cruel and heartless he can be with his relationship to Mikhal as the novel continues. Brooks doesn’t portray him as some amazing hero, he appears fully formed warts (well not quite) and all and I really liked this. Well apart from the rape and pillaging, this occasionally made me have to put the book down.

Throughout there is a dark, grittiness to Brooks’ writing which brings the atmosphere or the time fully to the fore. These were dark times, though some might say we are still in them now, as people fought for supremacy and power. David thinks nothing of being sent to collect 100 foreskins from the dead bodies of Shaul’s enemies (in fact he goes for double) to win Mikhal’s hand. As I mentioned, parts of the book may not be for some of the fainter of heart readers out there. When Brooks gets out on the battlefield with David and Natan, which happens quite a lot, things get pretty bloody and pretty gory. Here is a taste of one of the battle scenes from early on in the novel, see how you fair with it.

When I reached the ridge, the king was making an end of another fighter. He was up close, eye to eye. His sword had entered just above the man’s groin. He drew it upward, in a long, slow, arching slash. As he pulled the blade back – slick, dripping – long tubes of bowel came tumbling after. I could see the dying mans eyes, wide with horror, his hands griping his guts, trying to push them back into the gaping hole in his belly. The king’s own eyes were blank – all the warmth swallowed by the black stain of widening pupils. David reached out an arm and pushed the man hard in the chest. He fell backward off the narrow ledge and rolled down the slope, his entrails unfurling after him like a glossy ribband.

One scene in particular I found almost too difficult to read and did question it’s taste, once you have read the book you will know which I mean, which leads me to a few quibbles about the book before I mention it’s greatest strength. I have to admit on the odd occasion I did get a little lost. Brooks doesn’t like to show off all the research she has clearly done in writing this book which I admired. However there are moments where her knowledge means she assumes she knows something, and I knew nothing which meant I got lost and on occasion a character, generally a man, would suddenly give reference the history of why people were at war in an aside that felt slightly like a reference book, these were rare moments and minor issues because I ended up reading this book in almost a single sitting and that was because of the women’s voices and tales in the novel – which in a slightly circular way leads back to the scene I almost found too hard to read.

One of the things I like the most about historical fiction is that it can give voice, if done well, to those people who were less documented and in the case of the time of 1000BC it is generally the women. Not so in The Secret Chord where Brooks brings them fully to life and ready to tell us all. In particular the voices of Nizever; David’s forgotten mother, Mikhal; David’s first wife who goes through the ringer, the wonderful Avigail; David’s third wife and the brains behind his early rise, Maacah; his fourth wife and mother of his only daughter Tamar, and Batsheva; his eighth and final wife, who all have quite the tales to tell, giving her-story to the history which I thought was poignant, upsetting, moving and fascinating. They are what make this novel standout, the forgotten voices unleashed.

“It is important that you know, I want you to set it down: ‘Mikhal was in love with David.’ Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.”
Her observation was quite true. Indeed, in most of our important histories, it’s rare enough for wives to be named, never mind the state of their affections noted. So I set it down as she had requested. I paused, and looked up at her.

All in all I thought The Secret Chord was a compelling and escapist read. It introduced me to a time I know absolutely nothing about and held me there for the five and-a-bit hours it took me to greedily devour it, only stopping for the occasional cup of tea or breather from the Second Iron Age shenanigans. If you are a fan of historical fiction then I would imagine this might be just your fare and if you aren’t it is great place to dip a tentative toe and see how you get on.

So there are my thoughts on The Secret Chord, I would love to hear yours if you have read it. It has certainly reminded me of how much history there is still out there to learn about. It has also made me reflect on how much I loved Brooks’ Year of Wonders (which I took to my heart so much as it tells the tale of Eyam, the only place outside London to get the Black Plague and sacrificed itself, which happens to be mere miles from my hometown) and how I should check out more of her novels, any you would recommend in particular that I should read next?

*I read this as part of the Baileys Bearded Book Club as Eric of LonesomeReader and I try and read all the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year, more details here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Geraldine Brooks, Little Brown Publishing

The Casual Vacancy – J. K. Rowling

Tonight sees the first part of the adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy being screened on BBC One here in the UK, admittedly I had no idea that it had been adapted till I saw the new edition of the book in the supermarket, so I thought it was about time I gave it a whirl. I am a fan of Rowling’s writing, I loved the Harry Potter books and indeed for the last three was one of the people who went and queued for a midnight release. Yet the hype and buzz around Rowling’s first ‘proper book for grown ups’ when it came out proved too much for me, even though it’s about a small British town which is a setting I love with all that curtain twitching. So I set it aside for when the time was right, which seemed like now as I needed to read it before I watched it on the telly, and so I started.

Little Brown, hardback, 2012, fiction, 503 pages, bought by myself for myself

As you would expect from a Rowling novel, The Casual Vacancy has a huge cast of characters and also a rather wide scope, even if only set in the small town of Pagford. As the novel opens Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving the casual vacancy of the title. If you are like me and not really up on government politics let alone local ones (which as I work for an offshoot of the council is ironic, I do get passionate around general election time so watch out this summer) then this will mean nothing to you either, yet it is indeed a true thing.

‘We’ve got a…?’ asked Maureen, frightened that she might have missed something crucial.
‘Casual vacancy,’ repeated Howard. ‘What you call it when a council seat becomes vacant through a death. Proper term,’ he said pedagogically.

Here too you might also think ‘oh no this sounds really, really dull and dreary why would I want to read about local politics?’ as I did, yet this is just really the background noise as at the centre stage are the lives of those who might stand to take up Barry Fairbrother’s place, as well as those he leaves behind on a personal level after his death. It is here behind closed doors, where people’s secrets lie, where the action and heart of the novel are. It is also where Rowling creates a wonderfully intricate and darkly funny series of plots and twists with the interlinking characters that live behind them.

First are the Mollinsons. Howard Mollinson is already on the council and, along with his wife Shirley, desperately want their son Miles to take over as the new councillor. This adding to Howard’s plan to make sure The Fields, a council estate that houses a drug clinic, fall under the council of the nearby city of Yarvil and becomes their responsibility – a major part of the book, more on soon. The only person who doesn’t seem keen in Miles’ wonderfully awful, miserable and bitter wife Samantha, who would rather just concentrate on making her lingerie shop more of a success before coming home and getting drunk.

Second up is Dr. Parminder Jarwanda, who was Barry’s right hand woman, and is seen as one of the most respectable prospects both with her job and her picture perfect family, of course the perfect picture often has cracks within it. Third up is Colin “Cubby” Wall a local Deputy Head Teacher who some would say was rather obsessed with Barry Fairbrother; he is also obsessed with not doing something else. Fourthly and finally is the rather left field option that is Simon Price, a man who thinks he is of the people, yet we soon learn is a horrendous tyrant and bully to his family.

All these people want to go for a respected role and yet, as you will have guessed, they all hide secrets, secrets which soon start to appear on the Pagford community website written by “The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother” but who is this ghost and why are they spreading such poisonous messages exposing the flaws in the candidates. Could there be some undercover vigilante’s in the midst of the town and what are their motives?

As I mentioned the novel also deals with those who Barry left behind. There is his wife Mary, his best friend Gavin (who doesn’t quite realise it till he has died) and also teenager Krystal Weedon. Krystal may initially be a surprise link, yet she lives on The Fields, where we discover Barry came from hence his passion for it, and who he took under his wing. Krystal is a girl living with a hard life trying to look after her little brother when her mother falls off the wagon and either gets drunk or finds the funds, or prostitutes herself, for a fix of heroin. Krystal is also the link of sorts between all the other characters, she plays on a team (which Barry coached) with Sukhvinder Jawanda and is dating Colin Walls son, Fats. Are you still with me? Good. She is really Rowling’s heroine of the piece, yet I also found that she was the character that Rowling lets down the most in the end…

Before I get onto that, I want to share with you what I loved about The Casual Vacancy, as there is a lot to love. Most importantly, I really, really love Rowling’s writing. I love the way she creates Pagford so completely in your head. You see the streets that these people walk down, you watch the curtains twitch and you go and have coffee and gossip with them in the shops. Her characters are also wonderfully drawn; vivid and fully formed they inhabit your head as they inhabit the town. I also loved the way that Rowling uses a wicked sense of humour to create them and depict their physicality and situations, often in a quite upfront and giggle inducing way. No we are not in the land of Harry Potter anymore…

Though Pagford’s delicatessen would not open until nine thirty, Howard Mollison had arrived early. He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of a stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people instantly thought of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.

It was for all these reasons that I raced through the first two thirds of the book. Then I started to struggle. It is not that the book is too long, I just felt it and Rowling lose their way and get too caught up in the social mores and trying to piss Daily Mail readers off. You see whilst all the secrets and themes of the novel (the self harm, the depression, the domestic violence, racism, homophobia, assumptions about class) initially are the fire in the belly of The Casual Vacancy they also start to weigh it down too much.

There is the fact that to be honest there are no redeeming features in any of the characters, apart from Barry’s widow Mary, each one is really a bit of a shit in one way or another. Whilst this may be true of some villages and towns in the country a novel needs some form of redemption somewhere. Even the younger generation in the novel, who I should say Rowling writes the best, are actually little sods in some ways with the exception of Sukhvinder. Yes, even Krystal, the girl who Rowling uses to depict the working class and poor that she came from, soon gets motives of survival that I found quite insulting to that class.

Then Rowling did two things, one which I saw coming and didn’t think she would do as it seemed to obvious and one which I didn’t see coming and was enraged by, which for me both let all those people down she clearly wanted to highlight and make us feel for AND made the book so utterly bleak, grim and depressing I threw the paperback I anally bought so not to dent my hardback in my work bag on the commute across the room in anger and frustration – but not in the way I think Rowling wanted me too. There was just no need and no redemption, and this is from someone who likes books that are dark. I sulked, epically. I went from cackling to cursing.

Now I have had some time away from The Casual Vacancy I still feel very conflicted about it and I think I probably will remain so. On the one hand it is a tale about the lengths people will go for power. It is also a darkly funny novel about a fantastic, if unlikeable (which doesn’t put me off a book to clarify) bunch of characters and what they try to hide from each other. It is also about the responsibility of those privileged enough to get the power, especially in acting for those who may never get their voices heard let alone the power to make decisions in society. The thing is for me in the last sixty pages Rowling goes from vocalising those voices to inevitably letting them down, well in the opinion of this reader anyway.

I don’t think I am alone in this having mentioned the book on twitter a few times and indeed seeing that the people behind the BBC’s adaption have apparently changed the ending as they felt it was too grim. I still love Rowling’s writing, I am still going to read the Robert Galbraith crime novels, I just wish she had carried on highlighting the plight of a part of society without the extremity which then backfired, I thought. I will stop now or I will get cross again. Who else has read The Casual Vacancy and what did you make of it? Who else is going to be tuning into the mini-series?

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Filed under J.K. Rowling, Little Brown Publishing, Review

Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic – Kate Colquhoun

With a title like that and a well-known obsession with all things Victorian, there was little doubt that I was going to miss out on reading Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic (which from now on we will just call Did She Kill Him? to save my poor fingers) was there? My only slight worry before I embarked on Kate Colquhoun’s latest book was that I haven’t got the best track record with non-fiction, however I needn’t have worried. Truth be told if more non-fiction was written like this, or I discovered more non-fiction with this kind of narrative, I think I would be a huge fan of it.

Little Brown, hardback, 2014, non-fiction, 432 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Being non-fiction the true story behind Did You Kill Him? is not difficult to look up. However I am going to assume that you know very little, or absolutely nothing like myself, of the case of Florence Maybrick. This means I don’t want to spoil it for any of you, as wondering the outcome of this book was one of its many wonders to read. I think it is enough to say that during 1889 Florence Maybrick became a household name all over the country, not just in the city of Liverpool where she (and now I) lived at the time, after she was arrested under the suspicion of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. The question on everyone’s lips was ‘Did She Kill Him?’ and Kate Colquhoun looks at the weeks leading up to James Maybrick’s death and just what was happening behind the façade of the Maybrick’s well suited marriage and happy household.

Sitting in the Battlecrease parlour that Saturday morning, 16 March 1889, Florence felt suffocated. It was too quiet. The nursemaid, Alice Yapp, has the children. James was in the city fussing over his deals. Mrs Humphreys, the cook, was preparing lunch. The young maids – Bessie Brierley and Mary Cadwallader – were tucking, polishing and tidying, putting to rights the nursery, straightening the upstairs rooms, quietly moving down corridors as they completed their chores.

It makes for fascinating reading. Again without giving anything away we learn of their marriage and how Florence left her American home, as many women did at the time, being a woman of new money looking for a title and old money in the UK – the husbands also looking for new money and fine young wives making it mutually agreeable. We learn how this initially was a marvellous thing for the Maybrick’s and then discover that for both parties it was not quite what they had pictured. Soon, we discover, arsenic addiction, infidelity and isolation were all part of the Maybrick household. All of this becoming more clear later on when the case goes to trial, when James falls suddenly ill and starts to deteriorate and suspicions over fly papers, bottles of medicine, mental states etc. all come to light, yet we as the reader know this already.

This is part of what makes Did She Kill Him? so wonderful to read. We learn about all the before and then see it through the various witnesses eyes at the time again when it goes to court. If you are like me the very idea of a court case in a book (all those docks and all that lawyer speak) makes you instantly think ‘boring’, think again. You are fascinated to hear the evidence from the witnesses and how different, untrue, cunning, misunderstood it all is (Alice Yapp and one of James’ brothers are such marvellous characters that you just couldn’t make up). Colquhoun also makes it incredibly fast paced and, to use an overused (I am so sorry) cliché, this book reads like a thriller – as will another court based fiction book I will discuss later this week. I digress…

There are some books I read that I call ‘google’ books, though really I should call them ‘run along to the reference section in the library’ books, where you just find out so much fascinating stuff you long to find out even more. Things like the 1857 divorce act and the 1870/1882 married women’s property acts, fascinating. I never thought I would want to know all about the history of arsenic as a substance and how it was used in its raw forms and in day to day life, well I can reveal exclusively here that I was gripped. Who knew?!? Yet Colquhoun makes it fascinating both in how it relates to the case but also Victorian society at large and without ever seeming to show off (some authors do, we’ve all read those books) and condenses pages and pages of what she must have read into marvellous factual titbits.

Some, like Queen Victoria in the late 1870’s, were concerned enough to order suspect wallpapers to be removed from their homes. Newspapers like The Times condemned the government for its laissez-faire attitude, suggesting that MPs would rather allow the slow poisoning of our little ones than the economic repercussions of trying to eliminate arsenic from a wide range of products. Others remained sceptical: William Morris refused to avoid even the most pernicious pigments, believing the scare to be a mere folly. Yet with so much arsenic in the domestic air, it was little wonder that a rest by the seaside could be so beneficial to the middle-class invalid, nor the digestive disorders, redness of eye and odd cramps in the legs resumed as soon as they returned home.

The other thing that makes this book so wonderful is that, as the title suggests, people really could not work out if Florence had or hadn’t killed her husband. The case was debated fiercely in the papers, in the Houses of Parliament and even in the Queen’s chambers, well the palace at least. At some points the case gained more coverage than a certain killed in London called Jack, indeed it worried many people more because Jack the Ripper was clearly some mentally unwell psychopathic heathen, yet if women from good homes and of stature in society were seemingly killing their husbands then no one was safe. Women in particular seemed to have the biggest problem with it, society was moving forward for women and then some supposed ‘sister’ of the cause would go and do something like that. Again, society’s history and state at the time both adding pressure to the case and making for fascinating reading.

The greengrocer’s fruit may have arrived at her cell every day with a note of sympathy, but the women attending the coroner’s inquest hissed when the contents of her letter to Brierley became known. Apart from her mother, few among her own sex were generous to regard her as innocent until proven guilty. Women, it turned out, would be among her most entrenched and bitter critics; it seemed to be widely accepted that unnatural urges and scandalous sexuality went hand in hand with predatory murder.

Considering I read so little non-fiction, whilst true, it doesn’t really put any weight behind my saying that Did She Kill Him? is one of the best non-fiction books I have read. However if I say it is one of my stand out favourite books of the year I am hoping you will all want to give it a go. If you love the Victorian period and society then you will love this, especially as a city other than London takes centre stage – and people forget how important a city Liverpool was in the Victorian era. If you love a good crime novel then with its pace, gripping nature and sense of ‘did she do it?’ you will devour this. In fact if you just love a good read then this really is a book you need to get your mitts on. It is as addictive as the arsenic that features so much in it, maybe the publishers have sneakily filled the pages with it?

If you would like to hear more about the book you can listen to Kate having a chat with me in an old Victorian prison cell on this episode of You Wrote The Book!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Little Brown Publishing, Non Fiction, Review

The Retribution – Val McDermid

The more crime fiction I read the more I find I love the genre. It’s not because I have some secret desire to become a serial killer but probably because on of the jobs I thought I might end up doing was to become a criminal profiler. It didn’t happen, but since I have read more and more crime novels I think I have found a way of living the dream vicariously through fiction. In Val McDermid’s series featuring psychologist Tony Hill, I think I have found the perfect outlet and so I was really looking forward to reading ‘The Retribution’ even if it meant jumping from his first case to his latest, and therefore breaking my rule of reading every series in order.

Little Brown, hardback, 2011, fiction, 402 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘The Retribution’ is the seventh novel in what is becoming one of Val McDermid’s most popular series featuring psychologist Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan. Here the past comes back to haunt our two protagonists as Jacko Vance, a psychopath that Tony and Carol have dealt with before, escapes from prison with nothing but revenge on his mind.

That really is about as much of the plot as you can give away with this novel. It is fair to say that both Tony and Carol, along with his ex-wife Mickey, are high on the list of people who he wishes to seek vengeance. How he goes about his revenge isn’t the way you would think, he doesn’t want to kill his former foes, he wants to inflict as much hurt and devastation as he can on them. No one is safe and for once Tony Hill finds he can’t quite second guess this killer. If that wasn’t enough, there seems to be second serial killer on the loose too.

Is it wrong to say that I quite liked Jacko Vance as a psychopathic serial killer? I have a feeling it might be, and yet that is how I felt. I wouldn’t want to be his friend or anything, but I really liked reading him even when he was utterly evil. He really does the most awful things and yet I couldn’t help but admire his plotting and planning, which has been going on for years, and the way he utterly disregards emotion. He doesn’t really want to kill, yet he has to in order to inflict pain not on his victims but on those around them. It’s a very clever psychological twist and one that I found somewhat weirdly fascinating. Oh come on, don’t be shocked, people who read a lot of crime all think like that even if they don’t admit it.

I can’t really tell you how Tony and Carol’s relationship has changed in the series so far because I have to admit I have gone from the very first on, ‘The Mermaids Singing’, to this one, with a quick pit stop at a McDermid standalone in the form of ‘Trick of the Dark’, because I am interviewing Val in just over a week. I can say that should you have missed any of the other series, including Jacko Vance’s previous appearance as I had, you can still read this as a story all of its own. It actually made me want to turn straight to ‘Wire in the Blood’.  If I had one small criticism then it would be that the second serial killer did seem to play second fiddle to Jacko. I would have liked a little more of that storyline, I would have been happy to read another 50 or so pages to see it happen. It’s a small niggle though because that storyline does add something in its own right too.

I found ‘The Retribution’ a truly great crime novel. You have an utter psychopath in Jacko Vance, and one who doesn’t do the obvious and really keeps people on their toes and scared. You also have a great mind in the form of Tony Hill and there continues to be an interesting relationship between him and Carol Jordan (which gets really tested in this book). You had both the mixture of knowing one killer but never knowing who they would kill next and also a whodunit with the other serial killer which I liked a lot and didn’t guess at all. I think this shows what a great crime writer Val McDermid is, along with the fact that never in my life did I think I would be so on the edge of my seat as to who would feed a cat. You’ll have to read the book to know what I mean, so go on, go and grab a copy.

I am now very excited about interviewing Val McDermid again (as I have already for We Love This Book) when she comes with MJ McGrath to Bookmarked on Monday the 12th of September, if you can make it do I think its going to be a great night. I am now wondering if I can somehow fit ‘Wire in the Blood’ and another of her standalone’s in before then. What do you think?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Little Brown Publishing, Review, Val McDermid

Trick of the Dark – Val McDermid

After reading my first ever Val McDermid and reviewing it back in March I knew that I wanted to read a lot more and so rather than follow the first Tony Hill, ‘The Mermaid’s Singing’, with the next I thought I would go for the latest standalone novel ‘Trick of the Dark’. Isn’t it funny what you expect with a novel, I thought this was going to be another disturbing dark whodunit, and yet instead I was greeted by more of a ‘howdunit’ (yes, that’s a new term thank you) which I wasn’t expecting at all…

Sphere, paperback, 2011, fiction, 544 pages, sent by publisher

The premise of ‘Trick of the Dark’ is a hard one to summarise, especially without giving the plot away so I shall try my best without any spoilers. As the novel opens we meet ‘disgraced’ psychiatrist Dr Charlie Flint who has been suspended from her job and is considering on leaving her wife Maria, a dentist, for another woman – one she barely knows but the chemistry is too strong. Over breakfast she receives a mysterious parcel filled with press cuttings of a recent murder of a groom at his wedding. Initially Charlie things this is nothing to do with her, until she recognises the dead mans wife, Magda, who was the daughter of Charlie’s old tutor Corinna when she studied in Oxford. Are you still with me? Good.

 Charlie decides to investigate, she has the time and she wants to redeem herself for something we slowly learn about so I won’t spoil it, in doing so she goes back to her old life in Oxford to meet Corinna who believes her daughter is now having a lesbian affair with a murderer, Jay Macallan Stewart. Jay is now a multi-millionaire of the dot.com era, she is also the best seller of misery memoirs and, if Corinna is to be believed, she is also a serial killer from murdering a fellow student that got in her way back at school to Magda’s husband Philip and countless in-between. Sounds far fetched doesn’t it, Charlie certainly thinks so and yet she decides to investigate anyway opening secrets from the past that might be best left alone.

 

I admit, though it might be a poor explanation from me above, that the story does sound rather complicated and far fetched. Val McDermid makes this all sound highly believable, gripping and yet doesn’t loose the reader in the twists, turns and possible red herrings she plants along the way. I was worried I wouldn’t get far enough in to find out though and was actually feeling most despondent when it started. I thought I had found a new favourite author but I didn’t think this book would grab me. I didn’t instantly warm to Charlie, the fact she wanted to have an affair made me cross (oh the moral high ground) and I couldn’t like her or feel for her. Slowly she was someone I warmed to, I don’t think I ever really liked her, but I liked what Charlie was trying to do. 

I also didn’t think I would gel very well with a ‘howdunit’. I mean if you think you know who killed the people from pretty much the start of the book where is the fun for the reader if you can’t guess who the culprit is? Well I was proved wrong here too, as rather weirdly I was hooked going into the mind of a possible psychopath and Jay Macallan Stewart is a fascinating character (in fact out of the whole book she is the one you want to read the most). But did she do it… you would have to read the book to find out.  

 

Where ‘Trick of the Dark’ also excels is in the fact that this is a crime novel dealing with a lot more than some cold case deaths and a possible psychopath. It’s very much a book that looks at how someone’s background can make them who they are, it also looks at the ‘misery memoir’ and how true or not they might be. It also deals with sexuality as most of the characters are lesbians, not in a racy way (though there is some of that shenanigans) to entice readers with something salacious, but looking at the serious themes of people who in recent decades, and even now, are scared to ‘come out’ and are even faced with homophobia in their own households. This added a further dimension to the book.

‘Trick of the Dark’ is one of those crime novels that treads both the path of the thriller and that of the social commentary of people today and merges the two together. It is a bit far fetched (I am thinking of the rock climbing scenario for those who have read it), but then what’s wrong with some escapism? It had me gripped for the first three-hundred pages, a little unsure for the next hundred, and then up late for the next hundred before surprising me greatly in the last twenty. It wasn’t what I was expecting and proved to be a pleasantly gripping surprise.

I am now going to have to buck my trend completely and go from having read the first in Val’s Tony Hill series ‘The Mermaid’s Singing’ to the latest, and seventh, ‘The Retribution’ as we are very lucky to have her at September’s ‘Bookmarked’, it will be an interesting reading test for me to see if it stands alone or if I feel I have missed anything. I am also very, very excited about meeting Val. Are there any more of her standalone books I should read beforehand if I can?

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Filed under Little Brown Publishing, Review, Sphere Books, Val McDermid

Eclipse – Stephenie Meyer

Hmmm, I am in quite the quandary as to how to go about writing about ‘Eclipse’ by Stephenie Meyer as know it’s the readers, on and off the blogs, book version of Marmite. Some people love it, some people hate it, and some even avoid it. However strangely as someone who after reading Twilight was left completely puzzled by the experience I didn’t think I would read on. Then the film changed all that and reading ‘New Moon’ before seeing the film which carried on making me want to read further. Naturally with the ‘Eclipse’ movie coming out in the UK and wanting to see it – I had to of course read the book first. Warning there are some spoilers if you haven’t read ‘New Moon’.

It almost seems pointless to mention the characters or plot of ‘Eclipse’ because due to its success I think even those people who haven’t read it, steer clear of it or don’t want to touch it with a barge pole probably know the in’s and out’s. However what is a review with out mentioning either of these things? I must and so I shall. ‘Eclipse’ is the third of the Twilight series in which Bella Swann has moved to Forks and fallen in love with Edward Cullen who happens to be a vampire. This then gets doubly complicated when she discovers her friend Jacob, who she might or might not have feelings for – teenage hormones are devious aren’t they, is a werewolf. She also has a team of the Volturi (a vampire coven) after her, as knowing Vampires exist is something no human should know as it threatens their existence. She also has another vampire, Victoria, trying to kill her after Edward killed Victoria’s partner who tried to kill Bella… have I lost you yet?

So that’s where we are when ‘Eclipse’ starts and strangely, and rather annoyingly, that’s where we stay until around page 350 and things start to move at long last. After all Bella’s graduation is looming and she has said she wants to become a vampire herself after that, Victoria has been spotted by the werewolves and Cullen’s locally, and a new threat arrives as the ‘Newborns’ (uncontrollable young vampires) start a killing spree in Seattle and start looking in the direction of Forks. I can’t tell you what happens as that would be taking spoilers too far.

I feel rather like I did after reading ‘Twilight’ in terms of not being sure how I feel about ‘Eclipse’. I enjoyed it to a degree but I wasn’t bowled over and after ‘New Moon’ I expected quite a lot. I think if I look at it objectively it really did feel like a filler book in the series, we moved on a few people died, characters histories came to light (which was one of my favourite parts of the books as it had a mythical feel) and yet we weren’t really any further forward than I felt we could or should have been after 628 pages. I am well aware I am not the target audience for this book so that probably has something to do with it, but the teen angst that ‘Twilight’ was so full of and I got irked by seemed to have returned. If the book had been 200 pages shorter I would have been happier, I think for the true hard core fans it could happily have been another 200 pages.

All that said I will still be reading ‘Breaking Dawn’ how can I not when I have got three quarters of the way through the whole lot. I have also heard it is brilliantly over the top which I am more than happy for it to be, as long as it doesn’t dawdle over too much angst. Drama over angst anytime for me with this series which has been a rather bizarre and yet brilliant in parts reading rollercoaster for me.

A book you will: read because you have read the rest of the series.

What are your thoughts on the Twilight Saga? Love it or loathe it, or really not fussed at all? (By the way have seen the film and its brilliant escapism which of course made my dilemma all the more complex!)

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Filed under ATOM Books, Little Brown Publishing, Review, Stephenie Meyer

Homer & Langley – E.L. Doctorow

I have probably mentioned once, twice or maybe even more, that there are some authors that can intimidate you with just their name. I have no idea why but E.L. Doctorow is one such author. I think it might be because his name makes me think of the Russian greats and I find those most daunting too. When I saw his latest novel ‘Homer & Langley’ was about two reclusive siblings who shut themselves away from the world I instantly thought ‘ooh a male Grey Gardens’ and wanted to read it. It might be a bit of a strange reason to want to read a book for but there you have it and Grey Gardens is one of my favourite ever films.

‘Homer & Langley’ is a fictional take on the very real Collyer brothers. However if like me you had never heard of them before fear not as E.L. Doctorow manages to bring them and their lives vividly to life. The brothers were born into bourgeois New York in the 1880’s. Homer the eldest went blind in his late teens, his description of which opens the book both beautifully and sadly, his younger brother Langley went off to fight in the First World War and came back a changed man from the effects of mustard gas. During Langley’s time away his parents had sadly died from Spanish flu epidemic.

“To this day I don’t like to think about their deaths. It is true that with the onset of my blindness there had been a kind of retrenchment of whatever feelings they had for me, as if an investment they had made had not paid off and they were cutting their losses. Nevertheless, nevertheless, this was the final abandonment, a trip from which they were not to return, and I was shaken.”

From the perspective of Homer we are given an insight into how the brothers ended up withdrawing from the world little by little and from looking back at their past almost letting the reader see how two men could end up surrounded by endless hoarded items (one of the rooms actually housed a car) in particular Langley’s need to collect every single paper every single day in the hope of creating ‘Collyer’s One Edition For All Time’ (which made me think of a homepage on a news website way before its time). We also get to see how society and the world in general was changing as though the brothers became reclusive they knew of people, read about or collected things from this changing world.

It is in fact one of the many wonderful things about this book that in just over 200 pages we go through decades which included both World Wars as well as Korea and Vietnam and feel the impact of them. We see how the television and motor cars, the movements in science (such as the first man on the moon) and the politics affect America. We also get to see changes in society as the brothers have phases of opening their doors to all walks of life from tea room parties, immigrants (mostly staff), gangster’s and prostitutes and the hippy movement end up sharing their dilapidated space.

One of the rooms in the Collyer Brothers house.

Another master stroke from Doctorow was having Homer, who as I mentioned was blind, narrating the book as interestingly the description of everything is greater. We don’t just get the visual we get so much more as in order to describe everything that’s happening Homer uses memories of his sight along with all his other senses such as touch, taste and smell to build an even more vivid picture. I think in part it may also be because out of the two Homer is the brother we can empathise with, Langley comes across as a darker more mentally loose cannon and sometimes is quite dislikeable. We also get to witness how as the house deteriorates Homer becomes lost in his own familiar surroundings and how the worse things get the more he relies on a brother who can barely look after himself leading to an ending that is all the more shocking and heartbreaking because we know it was true. A modern masterpiece, I think this is a remarkable book. 9.5/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
I am struggling with this one today as I don’t think I have read a book quite like this before or any other E.L. Doctorow, can any of you tell me where to head book wise either with a book like this or another Doctorow?

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Filed under Books of 2010, E.L. Doctorow, Little Brown Publishing, Review