Category Archives: Holiday read

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!

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.

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesMaybe it was the fact that it was a retelling of the Iliad, but I wasn’t expecting this book to be quite so trashy. I don’t mean in a bad way. It has been described as Homeric fan fiction, which is probably a bit unfair, but the exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’s burgeoning attraction and love has a distinct whiff of YA about it. Historic romance, is probably the best way to describe it, and if you’re on board with that then you’ll not be disappointed by The Song of Achilles.

The premise of the novel, which took Miller 10 years to write, came from her fascination at Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death. While I think the upshot of the scholarship about the Iliad is that you’ll never know whether Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship as we would understand it today – given the various homoerotic practices in Greek armies of the day, and also the tradition of married men indulging in boys with no apparent censure – Miller gives their love full rein in her version of events.

Her writing of the infatuation is beautiful and lyrical, if bordering on the teenage poetry: ‘He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.’ But against the backdrop of one of the most legendary wars of all time, the romance starts to wear a little thin. I started to find the moments that Patroclus has to himself, learning to tend to the wounded, or his relationship with Briseis (although you can see that coming a mile off – I guess the downside of reworking a classic legend is that its plot twists aren’t exactly unexpected) a relief from the constant tortured adoration of Achilles. Take this example of when Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon as part of a defence of his wounded pride:

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is as hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew.

Patroclus’s fury was a welcome relief from the adoration, but it is also an example of the very teenage passions that course through the novel’s veins – and it’s still all about Achilles.

And this was the major downside for me in this book: Miller has committed to a retelling of the relationship, not the war, through Patroclus’s eyes, and so things that you would expect to be part of a fully fleshed out character’s story –the fighting, his relationship with the other men, his feelings about the politics – all this is sidelined if not downright neglected; everything is refracted through the lens of his love for Achilles. Maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic, but I don’t believe that’s actually how relationships work – even epic ones – and it’s that that gives it its slightly angsty, YA feel. That said, it is an eminently devourable read, and I definitely wasn’t above shedding a tear at the end – it is definitely good angsty YA.

It did make me question whether the book would have won the Orange Prize for a similar telling of a modern-day relationship, and I suspect it wouldn’t. Once you remove the glamour of the ‘untellable story, retold’ angle, it becomes just another tortured romance (see The Forgotten Waltz for another shortlisted romance that was much more interestingly written, but without the benefit of famous characters). But as the ‘original’ tortured romance, it manages to sidestep accusations of unoriginality and instead becomes a ‘modern retelling of a classic’. Nifty.

Rating: 

In a tweet: Beautiful men, feeling beautiful feelings, in beautiful bronze. Also a war happens.

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

A synopsis seems hardly necessary given the hype that this novel’s enjoyed over the last year. Kathryn Stockett’s look at life in 60s Mississippi hasn’t just hopped on a nostalgia bandwagon, it’s taken up all the seats and is now trying out its ringtones and sticking gum to the seats. Mad Men, Pan Am, Marilyn, chintz, tea parties and small-town gossip are all very in, and The Help has a lot to thank them for.

Skeeter is a 22-year-old girl back from college in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, aspiring to greatness as a writer, but struggling to find something in her life to write about. And however great her writing, in the eyes of the town (and her mother) she won’t have achieved anything until she’s found a husband. Her beloved childhood maid, Constantine, has disappeared without a word, and any enquiries are met with a stony silence. Curiosity about the black community in this town is an improper pastime for a young white lady, but when an editor suggests this is just the kind of thing that Skeeter ought to be writing about, she takes the plunge and starts delving a little deeper.

Aibileen, the maid  working for Skeeter’s best friend, would be the perfect subject if only Skeeter could get her to talk. Raising her 17th child but never quite getting over the loss of her own, she is responsible for white women’s children but not trusted not to steal the silver. Her relationship with the too-cute Mae Mobley is so highly-charged and important to her that it’s bound to end in disaster. Meanwhile, her hot-tempered friend Minnie has just made an enemy of the local DAR behemoth Hilly Holbrook, and is only able to find a job with a newcomer from out of town who doesn’t seem to understand the rules about what the help can and can’t know about their employers.

I’ve read a lot of scathing reviews on Goodreads, and a lot of gushing ones. Personally, I couldn’t work myself up to either of those extremes, although I definitely enjoyed it. Criticism, where is is levelled, seems to be largely thanks to the point made deftly by this poster:

White People Solve Racism

via TheShiznit.co.uk

If you have a white writer with a white female protagonist providing the vehicle for black women’s voices, this is always going to be problematic – particularly when the plot’s ‘happy ending’ can be said really only to happen to Skeeter as a result. Sharing the narration between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minnie attempts to alleviate this, but then it runs risk of being accused of ventriloquising black women’s voices – something that Kathryn Stockett herself defends against in her epilogue.

I didn’t have a problem with the voices, necessarily – I think however fraught such an enterprise is, empathy and engagement with stories and experiences outside of your own is to be encouraged – although I did think it sounded in some parts like a bit of a Toni Morrison pastiche. Now, Toni Morrison’s great, so I guess even that’s not such a terrible thing in and of itself. But I guess it sums up the trouble with this book (if trouble it is), which is that it isn’t meant to be a ground-breaking, earth-shattering, world-turning kind of a novel. It is a feel-good movie of a novel. That’s why you have the Cruella deVille style Hillie as a real baddie, so that you can get your kicks as she has various comedy comeuppances inflicted upon her, while not worrying too much about the more insidious forms of racism. Like the woman who makes her maid cover her hair and always counts the silver when she’s done for the day, but who the maid recounts with a fond smile because she wrote a note saying ‘Thank you’.

Callie takes off her black-rimmed glasses, wipes her eyes. “If any white lady reads my story, that’s what I want them to know. Saying thank you, when you really mean it, when you remember what someone done for you … it’s so good.”

Great, let’s call that entrenched racism bygones then, eh? Once you start down this road of picking ideological holes in the book, it becomes a bit like the white housewives featured in Skeeter’s book who congratulate her on it – they don’t seem to recognise their own hypocrisy.

There is something uncomfortable in the way in which we all get a bit rosy-eyed for the good old 60s in it. But equally, I think you can cheer along with the triumphs of these people, and Stockett has created some loveable characters, as well as some great baddies, and it does great at this boo-hissing at racism. It just doesn’t quite complicate the issue beyond that – at least not on purpose. But what it does do is provide a ripping yarn and a vivid, if romanticised, picture of Mississippi in the 60s that is immersing, entertaining, but then relatively shelveable.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Big issues boiled down to bite-sized, popcorn fodder. (Some of my best friends have enjoyed The Help!)

The Dinosaur Feather by Sissel-Jo Gazan

The Dinosaur Feather

Great jacket, (only a) good book

I sat down to read this book wanting to love it. I liked it. But what could have been a completely absorbing debut fell just wide of the mark.

The premise is fascinating. Anna Bella Nor is a postgraduate student struggling to juggle the pressures of her impending PhD viva and caring for her young daughter, Lily, only to find these compounded when her supervisor is murdered and herself a suspect. The University of Copenhagen’s Biology department is likewise a great setting for a thriller, with oddball academics, underfunded projects and cut-throat internal politics providing a potentially explosive combination.

The narration is shared between three characters: Anna, Superintendent Søren Marhauge – the brilliant detective with a troubled past assigned to the case, and Clive Freeman – the murdered professor’s academic nemesis. Anna’s thesis, a scientific review on the evidence for and against the theory that dinosaurs have evolved from birds, puts her in direct competition with the increasingly unhinged Freeman, who holds fast to the increasingly discredited theory that dinosaurs evolved separately.

The novel is really more interested in the backstories of these 3 characters than in the resolution of the murder. This makes for a more gradual unravelling of the plot, and adds an extra dimension to your by-numbers whodunnit as you delve deeper and deeper into the stories that brought each of the characters to this point. You learn a lot about scientific method and review process, as well as dinosaurs, understandably given Gazan’s background in university biology.

There are some brilliant moments in the novel:

Søren was Denmark’s youngest police superintendent, he could identify a murderer from the mere twitching of a single, out-of-place eyebrow hair, he could knit backwards, and everyone he had ever loved had died and left him behind.

But there are also some terrifically stilted ones:

Anna knew perfectly well she hadn’t bumped into the World’s Most Irritating Detective in the supermarket by accident. […] She hated him! Since he had entered her life, less than a week ago, everything had started to unravel. How dare he buy a loaf of bread for Maggie, how dare he carry her daughter? She wanted him to leave her alone and she didn’t want to hear what he had come to say. […] Tears started rolling down her cheeks. The steamy mashed potatoes were in a bowl in the sink, and suddenly she slumped forward as if she had been stabbed.

This kind of frustrated outrage is characteristic of Anna’s tone, and while pop-psychologists might be able to explain it through some of her subsequent discoveries (I won’t spoil them here), I found a lot of her reactions were pretty unbelievable, and rang kind of hollow. Maybe this is partly down to issues of translation, but I get the sense it runs deeper than that.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel. The science is well done, the characters interesting, and the narrative propels you forward making this ultimately very entertaining. But that propulsion is brought about by promises that the book seems about to deliver, and then shies away from. For example, the novel opens with a dream sequence about the discovery of the first feathered dinosaur fossil. It sums up Anna’s ambition, it gives us a bit of background to what is at stake in this academic debate, but it’s the last time we ever see into somebody’s subconscious, and as we get dragged into the petty squabbles of a university department and the characters’ apparently unsurmountable past traumas, we totally lose sight of it.

Likewise, Freeman had the potential to be a phenomenal character, bringing out as he does the uncomfortable truth that the academic’s single-mindedness is often closer to mania. But this, and his fraught relationship with Jack, is never quite brought to the fore. We are supposed to believe that Anna must, must defend her thesis at all costs, rather than postponing it another month in light of a series of horrific murders (I have done my time as an academic, and can tell you that another month is never, never an unwelcome prospect – grizzly murders or no).

I wanted to start SecondShelfDown’s reviews with The Dinosaur Feather because it contains a lot that I love about good commercial fiction: it puts a unique spin on a time-honoured genre, and doesn’t shy away from the science either (incidentally, in this it reminds me a bit of The End of Mr. Y – I’ll do a piece on Scarlett Thomas in due course as she’s a very interesting hit and miss writer). It was well-packaged, well-conceived, and in parts, well-written. And that’s why it was so infuriating when it didn’t deliver. But it was – as I hope all the books on my second shelf will be – worth reading.