Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

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So having read Gone Girl, I thought I might have stumbled onto a whole new love of popular crime fiction. Brilliant, I cried to myself from the rainy little caravan I’ve been holed up in all week. I finally get Holiday Reading! I can finally finish an episode of Miss Marple! And buoyed up with all this enthusiasm, I dived into Before I Go to Sleep, whose cover with the creepy eye has been staring at me from every WH Smith kiosk for the last year, promising me an intelligent, deeply disturbing thriller. Plus now every other thriller writer is being touted as the new SJ Watson, so there must be something in it, I thought.

Nu-uh. Friends, you might pretend to agree with him, but the Emperor is parading around with no clothes on, and he’s reading one shitty novel.

Christine awakes every morning with no memory of the last 20 years, the house she wakes up in, or her husband Ben. All she has is her journal as a link through her days. But it seems as through Ben might be lying to her and her secretive doctor is also shaky on the facts. So who can she believe?

Great, right? Clever! Read the ‘Book Group Questions’ at the back and you think ‘Yes! This is a book with some THEMES!’ Memory: check. Identity: check. Sexual power and control: check. Writing our experiences: check.

But spectacularly, it doesn’t actually deliver any of these. The idea that you could have the very experiences that make you You taken away from you, manipulated and moulded, is a highly disturbing one. For the reader to have to trace the ‘real’ narrative through her diary each day is an exciting possibility. But this bloody woman (and it turns out she wanted to be a writer, conveniently, why does nobody ever run a successful plumbing business or work in data entry?) is writing her own personal journal – the lifeline to her identity – as though it were some kind of novel already. It doesn’t read like a journal in even the most basic way. There is no immediacy to the narration of her days. And for a crime novel, which hinges on the detail, there was a lot left unsolved or unattended to.

At the time of writing, I have no way of checking whether the ebook I downloaded was inadvertently an early draft that somebody uploaded by mistake. She remembers a party where she sees some guy called Keith whom she one kissed. When she comes to, she can still taste his saliva. A. Gross, that saliva is 27 years old. B. you weren’t even kissing him. A half decent copyedit would surely have picked that up? Many of the sentences are flabby and stupid for a novelist never mind a women trying to cram as much urgent information onto the page as possible before she loses it. How much of the following sentence was really necessary?

Instead, as if fearing that any movement at all might result in my limbs betraying me, I stood perfectly still in front of the mirror, every muscle in my body tensed.

If you answered ZERO, well done, I guess nobody stumbles across your secret amnesiac journal!

There are sealed envelopes and hidden photographs galore, which would be fine except so much she discovers is put down to some ill-defined impulse. Memories and flashbacks come to her fully formed, exactly like a flashback in a TV drama but nothing like memory is actually experienced.

A memory flashed through me, tearing me suddenly back into the past. Everything was slightly out of focus and had a haze around it, and the images were so bright I almost wanted to look away. I saw myself, walking through these same corridors…

AAARGH! You haven’t described a memory, you’ve described a flashback from a straight to TV memory trauma movie! In fact the only part that rings true is the diary her old doctor shows her from her most severe period of amnesia,where she could only retain a memory of a few seconds and repeatedly writes ‘I am awake for the first time’. Sadly, this is directly lifted from the real life case of Clive Wearing, and I saw that documentary where they read from his diary too.

It is this total disregard for how memory actually operates, despite being a book that hinges on it, that so deeply disappointed me in this novel. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, for example. The end is predictable after a point, but you still want to get to it (NOTE: I slightly changed my assessment of this when i got to the end and found it was the worst and most unbelievable bit of this terrible improbable dirge of a thriller). But being a good idea poorly executed in some ways makes it worse. And it almost put me off me whole crime genre. For a book this mediocre to have had so many prizes thrown at it – how shit do the rest of them have to be?

One other thing. Why does she never, not once, SPOILER ALERT try not to fall asleep?

Rating:
In a tweet: You’ll wish YOU had terrible anterograde amnesia!

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Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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When everybody else is raving about a book I do love to prove them wrong, but sometimes that’s just not possible. This was a genuinely enjoyable, thoughtful thriller that kept you guessing right up to the end and was highly original in its execution.

I suppose these questions stormcloud over our marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Nick Dunne awakes on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife has disappeared. He knows they haven’t been getting on. Her diary reveals that she was afraid of him. That he could be cruel. And Nick has secrets to hide. So what did happen to beautiful, amazing Amy?

The novel is beautifully paced and the voices of Nick and Amy are convincing and distinct. Extraneous details act as colour to their relationship and also excellent red herrings, and the narration chillingly paints a convincing picture of the very cruel, very legal things that two people in a relationship can do to one another (emotionally and psychologically, not in a 50 Shades way), before the mystery even occurs. But also, you end up rooting for some surprising people, for some surprising (and sometimes disturbing) reasons. Probably the best thing about it is the way we see two conflicting sides of the story, and knowing that we’re reading a crime novel, our efforts to figure out the twist, to see how or whether he did it, actually leaves us open to easy manipulation.

It’s impossible to discuss the book in too much detail without giving away the ending and the twists, which everybody bangs on so much you’d definitely feel short changed. However, I did feel that towards the end it got a bit too deus ex machina for my liking, especially when it had started off so insidious and domestic. But seasoned thriller readers are probably much happier with the old familiar improbable resolution, so I am willing to let that slide. And crucially, it didn’t get in the way of enjoying what was an excellent, chilling, intelligent read.

Rating:
In a tweet: Jonathan Franzen meets Donna Tartt. In a good way.

Review: Q by Evan Mandery

Q by Evan ManderyIf you could go back in time, would you save yourself from the greatest heartbreak of your life? This is the question that Q asks, in a whimsically postmodern fashion that mostly (mostly) manages to avoid quite straying into Zooey Deschanel territory.

I know I'm setting the movement back, but BAAAAARF.

Now, the first thing to remember is not to panic at the initial premise. Our unnamed narrator is a struggling writer (slightly worried this is thinly veiled metatext) whose own postmodern offering, Time’s Broken Arrow (UH OH) is moderately successful, and who has met the love of his life, the she-doesn’t-know-how-beautiful-she-is (ALERT! ALERT!), quixotically named (OH NO) Q (THIS IS NEXT TO “Z FOR ZOOEY” IN THE ALPHABET OF KOOK). However, it is definitely worth bearing with the fact that on paper this is a Pynchon-romcom mashup (in fact, it is one of those, but I can’t imagine that shifting many copies on the 3 for 2 table). Q is an organic gardener committed to the single organic farm that lives, almost magically protected, in the very centre of New York City. She is beautiful, kind, loving and generous – we seriously stop barely short of butterflies landing on her fingertips and birds singing along with her.

But just before their wedding, our narrator is visited by his future self, and told that they will suffer a terrible tragedy if he continues to marry Q. He believes him. And he commits an act of unforgivable sabotage on the most important relationship in his life. But then, one after the other, more future selves continue to visit him – marry someone else, divorce her, become a lawyer, get a dead-end job, etc. It becomes impossible to see how this could ever end well, but of course, you know our narrator will eventually be able to travel back in time, so perhaps it will never end at all…

Mandery has fun with the time travel stuff, but he also makes fun of its unscientificness – as a future self tries to illustrate the concept on a tablecloth, the waiter complains not about the state of the tablecloth, but his terrible grasp of the sequential fallacy. Because it’s not really about the mechanics of time travel at all. It’s not really even about Q, whose perfection and unflappable faith in her ridiculous rich-property-developer father (if you smell a PLOT DEVICE, you’re not wrong) makes her rather unbelievable. It’s about how you learn to live with your regrets, and the value that lends your moments of happiness.

But perhaps whether you’ll enjoy it boils down to whether you can grit your teeth and bear the following:

…in that apartment, where Q and I shared peanut brittle while watching Casablanca, and completed the Sunday crossword puzzle with jam-covered toothpicks, and made snow angels in a pile of sugar on the hardwood floor, and first made love…

That is your litmus test, right there. If you can cope with our narrator’s middle-class Brooklynite love affair with himself in New York city, then you will find yourself strangely moved by the things that follow.

Rating:
In a tweet: The Time Traveller’s Wife instagrammed.