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Okay. Please put Lafferton and Bevham in the list of places I don’t want to visit because of their high body count. Midsomer, Stockholm, Lafferton. 

Poor Lafferton. I think this, the fifth book in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series, has the third serial killer in the Cathedral city since the first book. I don’t think Serrailer needs his high profile SIFT work: Lafferton is awash with killers! I know it’s an easy complaint to make of detective fiction series, but there are other crimes than serial killing!

This time round, we witness an underbelly of Lafferton which we haven’t seen before: prostitution. Sympathetically portrayed local prostitutes Abi Righton and Hayley and Marie with their own dreams and problems. For a series which has felt – to me at least – uncomfortably middle class and complacent, this more inclusive tone was a pleasant change. These girls felt real and authentic, balancing the need to put money on the table with family commitments and health problems and the temptation to escape it in cider or cannabis.

Besides them, Hill juxtaposes the new Cathedral Dean, Stephen Webber and his wife Ruth and the canon residentiary Miles Hurley who had arrived with the Webbers. The politics of their changes to Cathedral hymns and services and committees were cloistered and less engaging … but turned out to be vital.

Beyond these changes, not much has altered in Lafferton since the end of the previous book: Simon Serrailler remains canonised at work but retains an inability to form any meaningful with women – and finally someone does the right thing and thumps him for descending on Taransay and hooking up with someone else’s fiancee. I don’t know why no one’s done it before! – and his relationship with his new  step-mother Judith improves . Almost to the point when I was anticipating them  having an affair! Cat continues to be the saintly caring voice in the novels. 

And prostitutes start disappearing and being found dead.

And then other women start to be preyed on.

It is a series which struggles with gender, thinking back. Brides. Sisters. Mothers. Prostitutes. Victims of Serrailler’s womanising. Women get hit hard by Hill. Even those who survive are haunted.

This novel – with a fresh DS – was perhaps the most successful in the series so far. It is still more of a soap opera than police procedural: it is through no dint of police work that the killer is caught – but Hill does like to play with genre conventions. Pure luck rather than Serrailler’s genius solved the case.

They are very comfortable and familiar now. The reading equivalent of a warm woollen jumper and cup of tea. And there’s nothing wrong with that!

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We all know that old bloke on the corner who glowers at us, the one with a face like a bulldog sucking lemons, the one who barks at us for dropping litter or parking in the wrong place. The one who we suspect goes around the house grumbling about the radiators being on.

Hell, I fear I am becoming that man. Becoming Ove.

We first meet Ove as an irascible and archetypally grumpy old man seeking simply to drill a hook into his ceiling when he in interrupted by new neighbours reversing a trailer into his fence and post box. The neighbours, Parvaneh and Patrick and their daughters slowly inveigle their way into Ove’s life bit-by-bit as the novel progresses – interrupted by a series of flashbacks to Ove’s childhood and young adulthood, and his courtship with his wife, Sonja. And there is real tragedy within the story: dead fathers, burned homes, babies lost, cancer.

The trials and tribulations of the neighbourhood in which Ove was a stalwart member and founder of the Residents’ Association, however, was heartwarming and touching. The threat to remove Rune, a neighbour and one-time friend, long-time rival of Ove’s, to a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s, which finally motivates Ove to stand up to the anonymous men in white shirts. Jimmy, the overweight neighbour whose mum Ove and Sonja had helped to stand up to an abusive boyfriend and who styed behind in his mum’s house. Mirsad, struggling to come out as gay to his paprents. And, of course, Parvaneh who manages to be supportive without being a doormat.

I believe the novel started life as a blog and it does have that episodic feel to it, especially in the first half as it bounces between past and present but there is a coherent narrative running through the novel: six months before we meet Ove, his wife had died and he has started methodically and doggedly planning to commit suicide in order to meet her again in Heaven. And this is where the novel jarred a little for me: attempted suicide, interrupted by the mundane demands of life, are not really the stuff of humour and it felt like Backman was playing it for humour. His attempt to hang himself fails because the rope breaks, for example; his attempt to gas himself in the car fails because Patrick fell from a ladder. These section felt off to me. Uncomfortable.

And too easily solved: bleed a radiator here, adopt a cat there, all your suicidal ideations will be fixed. Offer a neighbour a box of saffron rice to save their lives. Pretend your kids are allergic to cats – cats who bizarrely trot happily around the neighbourhood and pop into cars and restaurants with their new owners, despite an apparent feral and stray life previously – and all will be well. Foist a gay teenager onto them and they will thrive!

The writing style does take a while to get used to – and listening to it as an audiobook may not have helped – as it is very much from Ove’s point-of-view and replete with his dismissive and judgmental observations. But it is convincing and well put together and the conclusion – whilst inevitable – did bring a tear to the eye and a lump to my throat on a drive to work. So Backman was obviously doing something right!

The book that seems to be most often linked to this one on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads is Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine by Gail Honeyman: two unconventional protagonists, both misunderstood, both dealing with a tragic and secret backstory. This is a shame because, whilst A Man Called Ove is an effective and moving and, yes, heartwarming read despite my discomfort in places, Eleanor Oliphant is, in my opinion, by far the superior book: more honest, more painful, more authentic and convincing.

But this is a strange book, a difficult book. And probably a book that will stay with me for some time.

Mental health is a difficult topic to write about. A dangerous topic. It would be very easy for it to trivialise – or even worse, to glamourise – mental illness or trauma. 

And there were times here where is was a little concerned that the novel may be going down that route – the love of a good man, a makeover and a haircut will cure mental illness – but it managed to avoid it, skewing off at the last moment. It is also a book full of humour and comedy which it balances with the trauma beautifully. So that, overall, this was a delightfully tender and uplifting novel. For example, when describing an incident from her limited social life, she recalls a party which 

had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unefifying spectacle: seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators….

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysan revels, of course, but… sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear.

And, on her own sense of loneliness, Eleanor remarks that

Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one church or another will call around to ask if I’ve welcomes Jesus into my life. They don’t tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, I’ve found, which is disappointing.

Eleanor Oliphant, our eponymous narrator, has been at the same job and followed the same routine, living in the same house, for nearly a decade. We quickly recognise touches of OCD and perhaps ASD in her behaviour, her routines, her wide vocabulary deployed without regard for context. Touches, perhaps of The Rosie Project. Before many pages, however, we realise that Eleanor is scarred both physically and emotionally and her background containing more trauma than any character deserves.

We pick her story up as two incidents affect her life: she develops a crush on a singer in a local band; secondly, a colleague, Raymond, drags her across the road to tend to a pensioner who has fallen over.  Sammy’s accident and Raymond’s quiet and patient insistence – or insistent patience? – disrupt the regime and introduce Eleanor to an increasingly widening circle of acquaintances.

As well as providing her with a range of opportunities to describe her backstory to other characters and, therefore, to us the reader.

The involvement in Sammy’s family was the least convincing part of the story for me: I’ve called ambulances for people in the past And never gone on to visit them or attend their or their family’s parties. Perhaps that says more about me and social adequacy than anything else! But it provides the narrative momentum.

Eleanor herself is immensely engaging without ever being terribly likeable, the reader empathises with her without really liking her for the main part. She is a difficult woman, a difficult character, but a deeply damaged one for whom the reader roots throughout. 

And the issue of mental health wasn’t trivialised and no quick fixes were offered: the revelations when they came generally formed part of a journey towards recovery and no simple answer was offered. Not even the truth. Perhaps especially not the truth.

This was not my usual reading fare but i did thoroughly enjoy it and – more – was moved deeply by it. 

A great read.

If you enjoyed the following, you may enjoy this:

 

Railhead-Philip-Reeve

This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride 

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.

This year, the list is:

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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bear nightingale

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

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The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

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We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.