Category Archives: Simon & Schuster

Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift

As it is Mother’s Day here in the UK my original plan was to try and squeeze in a reading of a new translation of The Iliad so I could surprise my mother by reading one of the great classics and making her proud. However, with work events on most evenings and my probation last week (which I passed, phew) it was not the time to read a tome. Instead I plumped for the latest offering from Graham Swift, who I had yet to try though my mother is a huge fan of, which had the apt title of Mothering Sunday. Well it turns out this isn’t about a mother on a Sunday at all, though might be nice to treat your mother to that she can read on a Sunday if she isn’t averse to some mild saucy shenanigans and possibly having a small emotional weep or two…

9781471155239

Scribner UK, hardback, 2016, fiction, 136 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It was March 1924. It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June. And it must have been a little after noon. A window was flung open, and he walked, unclad, across the sun-filled room as carelessly as any unclad animal. It was his room, wasn’t it? He could do what he liked in it. He clearly could. And she had never been in it before, and never would again.
And she was naked too.
March 30th 1924. Once upon a time.

Mothering Sunday throws us straight into the life of Jane Fairchild on a day that will have a lasting effect on her life forever. As we soon learn Jane, a young woman of 22, is a maid who is having a rather illicit affair with one of the heir’s to the Sheringham family mansion next door to her employers the Nivens. Not just an heir but a soon to be married one, very soon, as the impending nuptials are mere weeks away. Jane knows herself that this cannot last and something in the air tells her (whilst something in the prose tells us) that this relationship is about to come to an end.

Graham Swift cleverly gives us this tale from Jane’s narrative both at the time and then in her nineties able to look on it with hindsight whilst also still reliving the emotions of the time. This was one of the many wonderful things that I thought Swift did in this novella-cum-novel (I never know the rule that officially makes a work one or the other!) because it gives a certain fascinating duality and sense of perceptions to one story. On the one hand we have the older, seemingly wiser, Jane and then on the other we have a young maid, clearly smitten yet also thinking about love, sexuality, class, sense of self and much more.

She supposed that, most of the time, Mr Niven would ‘undo’ Mrs Niven, if she couldn’t undo herself. What a word – ‘undo!’ She supposed that Mrs Niven might now and then say, ‘Undo me, Godfrey,’ in a different way to how she might say it to her maid. Or that Mr Niven might sometimes say in a different way still, ‘Can I undo you, Clarrie?’
She supposed that Mr and Mrs Niven might still, now and then… even though some eight years ago they lost two ‘brave boys’. But she did not suppose. She occasionally saw the evidence. She changed the sheets.

I am quite a nosey person so as well as being enthralled (and also quite worried and nervous, with a sense of what might come) by the story of Jane and her lover Paul, I was also fascinated by the whole upstairs downstairs element of the book. After one encounter, Jane wanders an empty manor house and tries to see it through the eyes of the wealthy, rather than from the eyes of the worker which is an interesting concept.

Throughout Swift’s writing is wonderful, occasionally a single sentence could make me well up and a few made my jaw drop, as he conjures up the people, places and tiniest details through Jane’s eyes. Everything comes fully formed, vivid and intricate but without him having to spell everything out. His prose is sparse, yet it brims. One of my favourite lines being an observation of orchids, a rare decadent decoration. They had a stillness, an insistence, each little bloom was like a frozen butterfly. Speaking of prose and style, there is also an interesting repetitive and circular nature to the book which could possibly annoy/alienate some but I found gave the novel a real pace, an element of poetry to it as well as that nostalgic sense. There are also some wonderful nods to literature and the joys of storytelling.

Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do…

I found Mothering Sunday to be something of a modernistic fairytale, well as modern as you can get with a 1920’s setting. In fact in some ways it could be seen as a feminist version of Cinderella, we have a maid who goes from rags to riches, only it is less the handsome prince that saves her life and more changes it in ways you might not expect. It has a happy ending of sorts, but not the one that you might be expecting. I loved this element as I love a good fairy tale and the nods, sometimes subtle sometimes not so, to other tales outside Cinderella I really enjoyed. They give the tale a sense of nostalgic romanticism and also bring in some of those wonderful gothic elements that have come through storytelling for decades, and Swift is a wonderful storyteller. Can a mirror keep a print? Can you look into a mirror and see someone else? Can you step through a mirror and be someone else?

It is hard to say more about this wonderful book for fear of spoiling it. I will say be prepared to be deeply moved by it for all sorts of reasons. I was quite spell bound by Mothering Sunday and Swift’s writing, so much so that after having read it in bursts all week I sat down and read it again in one gulp this morning and I am sure I will be reaching for it again in the future. A first it seems a simple tale of one day in one woman’s life, yet through its nuances and layers it is a story of storytelling and those moments, big and small, which define our lives and the people who we become. I am now very keen to read much more of Swift’s work, so do let me know where to head. And if you haven’t, do try and get your hands on a copy of this because it’s fantastic.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Graham Swift, Review, Scribner, Simon & Schuster

The Farm – Tom Rob Smith

Without making myself sound up my own bottom or like I am some connoisseur of the genre, but it does take a rather different crime to really make my deerstalking covered ears prick up and I settle down to devour a good crime novel (with my pipe and my smoking jacket) in one big gulp because I can’t get enough. This is exactly what happened when I read The Farm by Tom Rob Smith. He who wrote Child 44 which is one of my favourite crime novels of recent years. Oh, though in reality I don’t actually wear a Sherlock Holmes outfit when I read crime fiction, but it’s an idea.

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 2014, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by Riot Communications

Imagine one day you are on your way back from Tesco/Waitrose (or any other supermarket) and you get a call from your father out of the blue telling you that your mother is unwell, it isn’t something physical or something terminal, your mother has had a mental breakdown of some sort and she believes that something, which your father won’t divulge, dreadful has happened. This is the rather intense and intriguing way that Tom Rob Smith starts The Farm, yet this is only the beginning.

‘Dad?’ ‘Your mother… She’s not well.’ ‘Mum’s sick?’ ‘It’s so sad.’ ‘Sad because she’s sick? Sick how? How’s Mum sick?’ Dad was still crying. All I could do was dumbly wait until he said: ‘She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things.’

Things get even stranger, very quickly so I am not spoiling anything, as no sooner has Daniel spoken to his father and packed to head for Sweden (where his parents have moved to) he receives a call from the airport from his mother, Tilde. She has been released from the psychiatric ward she had been placed in by her husband and is about to get a flight to Daniel to tell him her story, a story he might not believe and might implicate his own father in having been part of something very dark and very wrong.

To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil what is a fantastically gripping account of a woman who goes back to her homeland, taking her husband with her, to live a life close to nature on a remote farm which at first seems idyllic and soon turns into a nightmare for her.

Looking out the window I was reminded of just how lonely this landscape was. In Sweden, outside the cities, the wilderness rules supreme. People tiptoe timidly around the edge, surrounded by skyscraping fir trees and lakes larger than entire nations. Remember, this is the landscape that inspired the mythology of trolls, stories I used to read to you about giant lumbering man-eating creatures with mushroom warts on their crooked noses and bellies like boulders. Their sinewy arms can rip a person in two, snapping human bones and using splinters to scrape the gristle out of their shrapnel teeth. Only in forests as vast as this could such monsters be hiding, yellow eyes stalking you.  

There are lots of things that are marvellous about The Farm. The main thing for me was the sense of unreliability throughout. Tom Rob Smith has Tilde recount what has happened to her, from her perspective, from start to finish providing items she feels prove her story. These are interjected with questions from Daniel as he tries to understand, as we readers try and figure it all out, and also interjections from his father, Chris, calling trying to find out what is going on and trying to tell Daniel his mother has had a breakdown and isn’t to be believed.

This adds a marvellous sense of tension to the book. Which parent should we believe? Has Chris been part of something horrendous? Has Tilde misread what she has seen with so much additional time on her hands in the remote wilderness, has she escaped to a place of trolls from her childhood, has she gone mad or could she be telling the truth? You are constantly second guessing all of the characters as you read on and just when you think you have taken a side, something happens to make you change your mind. It is a web intricately spun.

What adds to this is the fact The Farm is laced with secrets. As we read on we learn there are many secrets behind the façade of this family (as in real life). Why did Tilde and Chris really leave the UK and head to the middle of nowhere? What happened in Tilde’s childhood which led her to fleeing her home country and makes everyone question her all the more? What is really going on in the neighbouring farm of Håkan Greggson (a brilliantly constructed neighbourhood bully, who I loved to loathe) behind closed doors? What secret is Daniel himself keeping from his parents? Throw in the atmosphere of Sweden with is brooding landscape, mythology and remote nature and how can a read fail to be compelled?

I thought The Farm was superb. Cliché alert, I couldn’t put it down. I read it in just two settings begrudgingly putting it down when I selfishly needed some sleep before waking up very early to get back into it. Tom Rob Smith creates a genuinely thrilling mystery where secrets brood along with the atmosphere. Whilst also being a gripping read it looks at the stories we tell our families and also, more importantly, what we leave out. It also takes an interesting look at mental health and asks some big questions surrounding that. All in all The Farm is a multi-layered compulsively readable thriller that puzzles and provokes. One of my books of the year so far.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Review, Riot Communications, Simon & Schuster, Tom Rob Smith

Witness the Night – Kishwar Desai

It will be interesting to see if 2013, being my year of whim reading, is the year that I read much more crime. Already, and we are only a few weeks in, I am finding myself drawn to it more than any other genre, especially if it is a book that is about much more than just a murder or two to solve. One such book that illustrates this sort of crime fiction is ‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai which won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award and a book that I picked up at whim. It is one of those books which has murder very much at its heart but is also one that uses crime to look at wider issues, in this case some of the social issues in India.

**** Simon & Schuster, paperback, 2010 (2012 edition), fiction, 243 pages, from my own personal TBR

Social services worker Simran Singh is called, by one of her ex-lovers, to look into the case of a fourteen year old girl who the police believe has just poisoned and stabbed thirteen members of her household before setting fire to it. Despite the fact that when found, Durga, is barely alive and has been beaten and abused there seems to be no question of her innocence, yet as Simran starts to investigate further she begins to doubt the police and indeed their motives.

It is very hard to say any more about the plot for fear of spoiling the story for anyone who has yet to read the book. I can say that in ‘Witness the Night’ Desai uses this family to highlight many of the awful things that are going on, in particular to women and girls, in Indian society today – most of all infanticide of small girls who families no longer want. There is also a look into India’s ‘asylums for women’, are these women mad or merely unwanted and locked away. What happens when a woman doesn’t meet the demanded dowry into the marriage, or when the husband’s family want more? It is really an eye opening and visceral account of how women in India are pretty much endangered from birth, something which we have seen highlighted in the press of late due to certain shocking events occurring on a public bus. It also looks at what happens to the deemed lucky ones who do survive all of this, but there are still rules to conform to.

“Everything about the Christian faith made us aware of our own heathen upbringing, fed as we were on a diet of Readers Digest and Women’s Weekly. Whilst we had to wear salwar kameez at home, we were allowed to wear skirts and shirts and even ties and blazers to school. Which meant we had to (secretly) shave our legs and make sure that our burgeoning breasts didn’t bounce too obviously in the tight white shirts. To even get razors in a Sikh household was a nightmare. It meant bribing the chowkidaar with extra sweets on every Guru’s martyrdom day (yes, we celebrated the hacking of necks and gouging of eyes with delicious kara parshaad – wheat cooked in syrupy ghee) in the hope he would keep our secrets if we kept him well-fed.”

This could of course be incredibly depressing read, and it is a very emotionally wrought and often shocking book, yet Desai does something very clever with her protagonist Simran, she makes her quite rebellious. Simran is not your stereotypical Indian woman, or what society around her expects of one. Firstly, shock horror, she is not married at forty-five. She smokes and drinks rather a lot. She is opinionated and independent, owner of a large inheritance but living frugally and avoiding the society it would be more proper for her to associate with, in fact she looks down on those who look down on her. She is incredibly blunt and with it incredibly warm, suspicious and funny. I loved her.

“I reach for a cigarette. The pleasures of not sharing a room are many. You can fart in bed, and you can smoke without asking, ‘May I?’ I look across the chintz printed bed sheets and imagine The Last Boyfriend sprawled there. Hairy, fat, rich. Better than bald, thin and poor. But unbearably attached to his ‘Mummyji’.”

To have such a character as Simran at the heart of the book, a woman who survived being born a girl and then rebelled, gives a very interesting opposing angle. The book could veer into being a little bit pious or sanctimonious maybe, yet it never does. With characters like Simran’s despairing mother, we see the women who are lucky and who aren’t the target of Simran (or indeed Kishwar’s) unease and concern, though we do see the ones that are. It feels rounded and also adds a voice to the generations before Simran’s, as well as Durga’s also, who have lived with this for years with no choice as to whether to approve or not. She also uses them to highlight the fact that these people have been living with social inequality, poverty vs. riches and indeed terrorism for years and it has become the norm.

“‘I think I’ll just have a quiet evening at home here. There has been another bomb explosion outside Delhi. Al Qaeda, I believe. Or the Huji. Or the Harkat something or the other. No one really knows. It could be a Bangladeshi group or Pakistani group or a Kashmiri group. No one wants to celebrate. These damn suicide bombers are a complete nuisance.’
My mother is the master of the understatement.”

My only one slight critique was with Durga. The book is very cleverly told from several perspectives. Each chapter starts with Durga’s narrative, though who she is talking to you are not initially sure, in highlights. We then switch to Simran as she investigates before then reading emails from Simran to Durga’s sister in law who survived, Binny. It actually very cleverly builds a picture of the family and what happened from all sides. However occasionally Durga’s narrative didn’t quite ring true for me, only occasionally mind, and she seemed much older than her fourteen years. I knew she had been through a lot and was more worldly wise because of it, but every so often her comments on her life and world were almost too astute. A small thing though all in all.

I think ‘Witness the Night’ is an incredible book, utterly driven by a passion to shed light on some of a country’s darker sides and tell a story too. It is one of those books that I love that manages to straddle (Simran would love me using that word I am sure) both crime and literary fiction. Desai gives you a mystery which as uncovered gives you a story and insight into Indian society and one that I was genuinely shocked still exists. It is a book that brims with a dark underlying atmosphere and has all those page turning qualities, though never at the expense of the prose or characters. I am very much looking forward to Desai’s next book, ‘Origins of Love’, which sees another case for Simran and I had to hold back from pulling straight off the shelves to start as soon as I had finished this one. A sure sign of a very good book!

Has anyone else read ‘Witness the Night’ and what did you think of it? I would, as always, love to know your thoughts. Are there any other crime novels that you can think of which merge a good mystery with a real insight into a society’s underbelly?

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Filed under Kishwar Desai, Review, Simon & Schuster

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

There are some books that you go on a journey with aren’t there? Now here I don’t mean the clichéd, if true, emotional journey that some books take you on (though this book had that), I mean the fact that you go on a journey where you like the book, love it, dislike it a bit, feel ambivalent about it, then like it before deciding you really, really liked and admired it. This is exactly what happened when I read, a first recommendation from a new friend (always potentially tricky), Stephen Chbosky’s debut novel ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ which is soon to be the first film where Emma Watson, of Hermione Granger fame, makes her first big movie break from the Harry Potter franchise. But let’s get back to the book which is what this post is all about.

****, Simon and Schuster, 2009, paperback, fiction, 232 pages, borrowed from the library

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is the experiences of Charlie as he goes through his first, rather turbulent, year at high school making friends, mainly step-siblings Patrick and Sam, that will help form the person he might become. Charlie is a little bit different and distant from everyone else at school and as I type that out I can almost instantly feel a familiarity to it, and the whole ‘coming-of-age’ novel, that would have led me to zone out on finding out or reading any more had I not been so highly recommended the book. As Chbosky does take what could be a story we have heard all too often before (can you tell I don’t tend to like coming of age novels on the whole) and make it seem new and quite different – rather like I felt Deborah Levy did with ‘Swimming Home’ and the ‘arrival of a stranger on a families holiday’ tale.

The way the novel is told is quite interesting as ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is written in the forms of letters from Charlie to a ‘Dear Friend’. We never really know who this dear friend is, though I tried and failed to be clever and work it out, and whilst the form of letter writing (rather like diary entries) is nothing amazingly new there is something confessional about it. Emotionally of course, and ever increasingly importantly as the letters progress, you do feel that to all intents and purposes Charlie is writing to you and, especially at the end without giving anything away, this is very moving. The fact you are being confided in and so very much in a characters head makes for rewarding, and sometimes uncomfortable, reading.

This is made all the more extreme in a way because Charlie is really a very insular young man. He is also somewhat detached which I have to admit started to irritate me a little bit along the way, he comes across very childlike one minute and then incredibly intelligent, philosophical and almost ‘gifted’ the next. I then pondered if it might be that he had some form of autism this may possibly be the case but by the end of the novel it makes complete sense, honest, and without giving too much away you do find yourself going ‘oh, that explains it all’. It’s a clever device though risky as it could put many readers off when it jars a little.

‘I walk around the school hallways and look at the people. I look at the teachers and wonder why they’re here. If they like their jobs. Or us. And I wonder how smart they were when they were fifteen. Not in a mean way. In a curious way. It’s like looking at all the students and wondering who’s had their heart broken that day, and how they were able to cope with having three quizzes and a book report on top of that. Or wondering who did the heart breaking. And wondering why. Especially since I know that if they went to another school, the person who had their heart broken would have had their heart broken by somebody else, so why does it have to be so personal?’

Apart from the slight irritation at the distance and narration of Charlie now and again I did get a little nonchalant, almost bored, in the middle section of the book. It is here that Patrick and Sam open Charlie’s eyes to the teenage/young adult world around them of sex, drugs and all that shebang. I did like the storyline of Patrick’s sexuality, obvious from the start but dealt with brilliantly, which adds another dimension to the book, his sister Sam is the obsession of Charlie’s thoughts however verged on cliché. So do some of the family set pieces, however there is a wonderful story of siblinghood between him and his only slightly older sister despite their rollercoaster of ups and downs.

I should mention too this is a very bookish book. Charlie has a rather special, not in a weird way, relationship with his English Literature teacher who helps Charlie a little through books (from To Kill A Mockingbird to The Fountainhead) he gives him along the way. I was quite envious I didn’t have a teacher like Bill, and it has made me want to try the books he recommends that I have not yet read. I always like that in a book don’t you?

‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is by no means a perfect book; it is a read that really pays off if you stick with it. There is a slightly stodgy middle phase yet it is one that having finished the book I can see why Chbosky did what he did, plus the end of the book with all its twists, turns and shocking revelations makes it utterly worthwhile reading.  I am very glad that I was recommended this book so highly as I would probably not have given it a whirl, or stopped reading halfway through, and I would have been missing out on a book that I will be thinking about for quite some time.

Who else has read this? I believe it has quite a cult following so it will be interesting to see what everyone makes of the film. Which books have you read that you have liked, not liked much in the middle, and then enjoyed very much by the end?

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Filed under Review, Simon & Schuster, Stephen Chbosky

The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker

With all those pesky rumours that the world might end on the 21st of December 2012, when the Mayan calendar ends (though one does have to ask where are those Mayans now?), there seems to be an abundance in novels about the end of the world. Either that or maybe it is just that I am noticing them more. Apocalypse fiction isn’t something that I tend to be that interested in as a rule however after a nice steady buzz, not quite hype, started to build around it, I became intrigued by ‘The Age of Miracles’ a debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker which looks at the apocalypse in a rather unusual way. It has become one of my books of the year so far, a little to my surprise.

*****, Simon & Schuster, 2012, hardback, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Normally with a novel that focuses on the end, or possible end, of the world there tends to be something massive that threatens civilisation from the start be it a meteor, disease, sudden infestation of zombies/vampires etc. With ‘The Age of Miracles’ Karen Thompson walker does something much subtler, and yet as she builds the novel it is equally terrifying, when the Earth’s rotation on its axis starts to slow. Initially the ‘slowing’ is just that a few unnoticeable minutes here and there but then it becomes hours and days start to last for seventy two hours or more.

‘We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin. We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode in the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Seconds beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.’

I have nothing against science fiction, it just isn’t the genre I normally read, yet I did wonder with this premise if ‘The Age of Miracles’ might become a little bit too scientific. Would we be following some scientists as they tried to prevent the slowing or try and create a space rocket to another ‘earth like’ planet.  Again here Karen Thompson Walker does something very clever and slightly understated in that our narrator is eleven year old Julia who hears the news on the TV, her mother going into utter panic and her father taking a much calmer view. To call this a slightly domestic setting for the possible end of the world would be unfair as what we get is the human aspect through the eyes of Julia and the pandemonium, or nonchalance, with which people in the suburbs of California initially treat it with and then you also get the scientific and political aspects through the news as Julia and her family watch it.

‘We were living under a new gravity, too subtle for our minds to register, but our bodies were already subject to its sway. In the weeks that followed, as the days continued to expand, I would find it harder and harder to kick a soccer ball across a field. Quarterbacks found that footballs didn’t fly as far as they used to. Home-run hitters slipped into slumps. Pilots would have to retrain themselves to fly. Every falling thing fell faster to the ground.’

I will admit I had a further worry that also proved to be completely unfounded and also the factor that made the book such a success with me. The child narrator in a novel can be a problem in a novel, they can come across as being annoyingly precocious or irritatingly innocent and sweet, it can make or break a book. Julia is neither of these things, she comes of the page as a fully formed young girl, though I thought as the novel went on that she was much older forgetting the book was written from her hindsight perspective, and through her eyes we see how the normal becomes abnormal and how it is not just the big issues that change but how people’s personalities, responses and relationships change. It gives the book a real human feel to it and you have a real emotive response to her.

‘What I understood so far about life was that there were the bullies and the bullied, the hunters and the hunted, the strong and the stronger and the weak, and so far I had never fallen into any group – I was one of the rest, a quiet girl with an average face, one in the harmless and unharmed crowd. But it seemed all at once that this balance had shifted.  With so many kids missing from the bus stop, all the hierarchies were changing. A mean thought passed through my mind: I didn’t belong in this position; it should have been one of the uglier girls, Diane or Teresa or Jill. Or Rachel. Where was Rachel? She was the nerdiest one among us. But she’d been kept home by her mother to prepare and prey – they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, convinced that this was the end of days.’

I thought that ‘The Age of Miracles’ was a truly marvellous novel, definitely one of the highlights of the year so far for me. Naturally because I loved it so much I am finding it very difficult to do the book justice as I feel I missed so much out. I was so lost in the book that I felt the people’s dread and I felt like I was with Julia along the way; I got very upset several times, and as the book went on worried all the more. I was hooked. It seems almost patronising to say ‘I was also really shocked this was a debut novel’ yet if I am honest I was. Karen Thompson Walkers prose is wonderful in the fact it captures the changing atmosphere of the people and the planet, and I should mention here the brilliant way she creates a divided society with people who keep ‘clock time’ and people who decide to live with the earth’s new unnaturally timed days, and also ever so slowly and skilfully builds up the tensions in relationships, fear and terror as the earth slows down and the book leads to its conclusion.

The best way to finish my book thoughts on this, as I could go on and on, is to summarise like this… If the end really is nigh I have read one of my favourite books in a long time during the final few months which is no bad thing. I highly, highly recommend you read this before the 21st of December, just in case, as you would be missing out.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Karen Thompson Walker, Review, Simon & Schuster

Tideline – Penny Hancock

They say that there is nothing new to write about under the sun, and they are probably right. So when I hear of any novel where people are claiming that it is ‘a truly original story’ or ‘quite unlike any other book of its genre’ I tend to look on sceptically. In the case of ‘Tideline’ by Penny Hancock I think those are actually two quotes that I would give the book myself. If you love a good thriller, as you probably know I do, and want something that stands out from the crowd in what is the biggest market in books then this is definitely a book you should be giving a whirl.

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 2012, fiction, 352 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

As clichéd as it may sound I was hooked from the very first page of ‘Tideline’ and found it very difficult to put down. In fact I am struggling to think of a thriller or crime novel that has thrown me into its story in such a gripping, and also rather disturbing way so instantly in quite some time. As this psychological thriller starts we are instantly drawn into the story as Sonia, a music teacher living in Greenwich, opens the door to a fifteen year old boy called Jez who she decides she won’t allow to leave… ever.

The speed with which Penny Hancock took me into the story and indeed Sonia’s thoughts was so swift and sudden that I found I had to stop reading and take stock of the situation before I could pick the book up again. This is not one of those books where the author builds up the suspense slowly and leads you on for 100 pages until something actually happens, this is a book that grabs you and simply won’t let you go and I was left pondering if Penny Hancock would keep the momentum at the pace the whole way through, indeed she does.

The speed in which Sonia makes the decision to hold Jez hostage makes us realise that this is no planned event, it also tells us that we have in Sonia a protagonist who is on the edge and has been for quite some time. This is in part what drives the story forward, Sonia’s past. Seeing Jez at her door brings backs thoughts and events either long forgotten or deeply buried (which we then get in flashbacks) and yet in a way these have been there subconsciously and may be why she is so obsessed about the house she lives in, one her father left her after he committed suicide.

Sonia’s obsession with The River House is really the only small insight that anyone, including her husband (who is often away on business, and believes is happily married) and daughter (who has recently moved out), could have that in front of there is someone who has been unhinged and rather unstable for quite some time and has been a silent ticking time bomb waiting to go bonkers. Jez’s arrival, to borrow a rare CD of her husbands, is the switch that even Sonia isn’t aware she has been waiting for. This in many ways makes it, and Sonia, all the more frightening.

The story could actually get too claustrophobic if we were in Sonia’s head all the time, there was a point, where after having got Jez so drunk he is practically unconscious that she puts him to bed and starts to stroke him, that I thought ‘I don’t think I can do this for a whole book’. I was feeling sufficiently creeped out and bordering on too uncomfortable to read on, Hancock was achieving her goal but I think she knew just Sonia would be too much, so in comes the narrative of Helen. Helen is Jez’s aunt and also an old friend of Sonia’s, though they haven’t seen each other much. After having had an affair her marriage is in tatters and she’s turned to drink, she has also become the number one suspect in her own nephew’s disappearance.

Through Helen and Sonia we also see behind the closed doors of the exclusive/middle class suburbs of London and in particular to two marriages that in differing ways aren’t working. Hancock also uses these two women to make the point that we never really know what is going on behind closed doors and what skeletons people might have in their closets. It also shows you how complex the book is at its heart, which is another thing I loved about it; I couldn’t second guess it – though of course I tried only to be proved wrong at every one of my assumptions and possible outcomes. Rather like S. J. Watson’s ‘Before I Go To Sleep’ Penny Hancock also makes the familiar suburban life seem a lot less comfortable and much darker around the edges.

Basically I thought this book was great, but I should mention a slight wobble I had with it. It was only one small thing but it was something I noticed. The speed with which the book starts and the momentum that Hancock keeps going to make you turn the page and read ‘just one more chapter’, I think, should have wound down at the end. Everything unfolds and reaches its peak all too quickly and actually a tiny bit more suspense at the end would have not only worked in dragging the ending out, in that torturous ‘oh goodness how on earth will all this end’ way, but it would have been less confusing. I had to read the penultimate chapter a few times to work out what had happened in the present and in the past because it all seemed to happen too quickly, but the epilogue was brilliant and it is a small criticism.

‘Tideline’ is the sort of thriller that I want to put in the path of anyone who doesn’t deem thrillers as literature. It’s got two incredibly interesting and gripping characters at the heart of it, multiple layers with all its back stories, looks at human behaviour (if in extremes) and its simply a cracking tale. Did I mention it’s a debut novel too? I feel it should be mentioned because it’s an incredibly accomplished one. If you love a good gripping tale with thrills and spills and one of the most morbidly fascinating (scary and disturbing) protagonists then ‘Tideline’ is a book you need to pick up pronto. Much recommended.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Penny Hancock, Review, Simon & Schuster

The Hunger Trace – Edward Hogan

Some books I think are destined to be read just at the right time, or you are meant to read certain books at the right time. You know what I mean. ‘The Hunger Trace’ by Edward Hogan is one such book and I should explain the background. The editor of the novel emailed me back in the summer knowing that I was a fan of Edward’s debut novel ‘Blackmoor’, she also knew I was from Derbyshire which was the setting once more of his second novel. I said yes I would love to read it but with a certain prize I wasn’t sure I would get to it anytime soon, sadly it languished. However I have to thank the author Evie Wyld who I heard on the BBC’s Open Book who described this novel as ‘a darker, funnier version of The Archers, the perfect book to curl up in front of a fire with’ instantly this was a book I had to read and so I elevated it straight to the top of the pile to read next. I am so glad that I did as ‘The Hunger Trace’ has now snuck in as a late entry as one of my books of the year.

Simon & Schuster, hardback, 2011, fiction, 357 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

From the very start of ‘The Hunger Trace’ I had an early inkling that this would be a book for me. It opens with two women, who clearly don’t like each other for reasons we don’t know as yet, having to capture a herd of ibex which have ended up in the local supermarket car park, using a van and a lot of shopping trolleys. There was a drama and humour in all this, along with a certain mystery, that instantly worked for me leaving me captivated, even better was this was a sense of feeling that Hogan managed to retain throughout the book.

‘The Hunger Trace’ has the unusual setting of a rambling wildlife park in the Derbyshire peaks high on a hillside with the village of Detton below. (This really called to me because in my home town of Matlock we have a castle on the hillside called Riber which was itself a zoo for many years, when it closed the owners moved next door to us with their eagle and other menagerie of creatures, which I was allowed to visit.)In this unusual setting we meet three people deeply affected by the death of the parks owner David Bryant; his second much younger wife Maggie, his son from the previous marriage Christopher and lifelong acquaintance Louisa who lives in one of the lodges on the site look after the birds of prey.

Each of these characters is coming to terms with the loss in their lives but also with how to relate to one another. Louisa, to put it mildly, doesn’t like Maggie for reasons that become apparent as the book goes on so I won’t spoil, I shall merely tempt you by saying that Louisa and David shared a secret in their youths. Maggie herself has to cope with taking on a venture like the wildlife park which she had never planned to be her role in life and also missing her husband and the emptiness in her life he has left in several ways. Christopher is working out not only how to cope with his step mother, especially now she is taking over all aspects of his life, he is also learning how to deal with the world as someone who is a bit different, I read him as being autistic though it’s never spelt out, and is often misunderstood or perceived as a threatening force. Things have been simmering a while and over the space of a few months and the arrival of Adam, a male escort (shocking, ha) and another character used to isolation and not quite fitting in with secrets abound, seems to start to bring things to a head.

Hogan’s writing and storytelling is incredible, especially in the underlying and unsaid. He somehow manages to highlight the way people feel about each other in not only what they say and its delivery but even more impressively, and true to life, in what they don’t say. It’s those small actions, sideways looks, and delivery of tone which we have all witnessed in real life which Hogan manages to make come off the page, something that is incredibly hard to do. Normally in fictions it is either the spoken work or inner monologue, and while Hogan does this both of these things too, it is those smaller actions which he makes say so much.

Maggie knocked loudly on the door, but then entered without waiting for a reply and stepped quickly through the hall and into the kitchen. She smelled of the clean air outdoors, along with a faint cosmetic scent – the first in Louisa’s house for some time.
  ‘Louisa, thank God. I knew you’d be awake. I need your help,’ Maggie said.
  Louisa turned back to the sink. ‘I’m busy. What is it?’
  ‘We’ve had a breakout over at the park. Some of the ibex – the big goats –‘
  ‘I know what they are.’
  ‘They got loose somehow, and they’re on the road now.’ Maggie took a long breath. ‘If they get to the duel carriageway, we’ve got some serious trouble.’
  ‘You’ve got serious trouble. What am I supposed to do about it?’
  ‘Well, the Land Rover won’t start.’   
  Louisa took the keys to her van from her pocket, and threw them to Maggie. ‘Take mine.’ Maggie wiped the watery smears of blood from the keys with her sleeve and looked up with an apologetic smile. ‘I need you, as well,’ she said. ‘The trailer’s at my house and we’ll need to hook it up before we go.’  
  ‘Jesus,’ Louisa said under her breath. But she could not refuse. She dried her hands on her jeans and followed.

Atmosphere is one of the things that ‘The Hunger Trace’ is also filled with. Like with his previous novel ‘Blackmoor’ Derbyshire is a brooding and slightly menacing presence, the landscape always features in the novel as those brooding moors, the winding hilly roads you worry your about to drive off and the forests which always seem to hold so many secrets linger in the background (being from there myself his descriptions really hit home). Hogan interestingly propels all these feelings and features in all of his characters be it in the slightest of ways. Christopher is a prime example, he is often very funny with his binge drinking and utter bluntness and yet there is always a slightly threatening feeling of danger with him, you never know what he might say or do next, these feelings spread throughout the book and your always just on the edge of your seat, rather like standing on the precipice of a Derbyshire valley with the wind almost pushing you over the edge.

‘At that time of year, nature blended the boundaries. Leaves from the hilltop churchyard blew across the animal enclosures and onto Louisa’s land. Wasps crawled drunk from grounded apples in the acidic fizz of afternoon light.’

There is a real sense of humour in this novel, dark but often very funny, yet in many ways it is a moving tale of people and their sense of isolation or being an outsider often leading to events in their pasts be the recent or from years ago. These are events that leave a trace on you and which is described beautifully when Louisa discusses her prized bird Diamond who she saves and leads to the novels title. ‘When a falcon is undernourished, the feathers cannot grow properly. A fault line appears, even if the bird is fed again. The fault is called a hunger trace.’ It is this hunger trace that runs through the main character of this novel and their obsessions which keep the real world at bay be they Louisa’s birds, Christopher’s obsession with Robin Hood or Maggie’s need to succeed despite what anyone else says.

If you haven’t guessed already, I thought ‘The Hunger Trace’ was an utterly marvellous book. It is superbly written, its characters live and breathe from the page and you are always left wanting more of both the humour and the dark sense of impending menace and mystery. I simply cannot recommend it enough, easily one of my favourite books of the year. It is books like this which really make reading worthwhile and I hope that many more people discover this gem of a novel.

It’s interesting that two of my favourite books this year, and I am including Catherine Hall’s ‘The Proof of Love’ with Hogan’s latest, have been based in small villages in the countryside with darker undertones. This could be a setting which simply works for me, so I am wondering if you could recommend any more novels along these lines. I have also noticed that these two books, which are also some of the best writing I have come across this year, have been under the radar to many. I am wondering how I can seek out more of these slightly undiscovered gems? Your recommendations will be a start, so get cracking (and you could win a copy of this wonderful novel). I look forward to seeing what you suggest.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Edward Hogan, Review, Simon & Schuster