Showing posts with label Sophie Hannah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sophie Hannah. Show all posts

Saturday, 2 May 2020

My Year in Books 2020: April

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read. Like last month, I've really struggled to do much reading for pleasure. I read four novels in April, which was one more than last month, but I'm still definitely reading less than usual. I did have one really nice surprise this month, with a book that I got completely lost in (first time that's happened since the lockdown started).

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March

And here are my reviews of the books I read in April...

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (1998)

I picked up this one at a book sale to raise money for a local community group. I generally like Ruth Rendell’s stuff – though I tend to prefer the books she published as Barbara Vine – but this was one I hadn’t read before. It’s an unusual narrative: three characters are introduced who seem to have no connection at all to one another. We begin with the story of Teddy Grex, or rather we begin with an introduction to the two people who will become the parents of Teddy Grex. They’re a strange and not very likable couple, who produce a strange and not very likable son. Teddy grows up in squalor, but craving beauty, and his parents’ neglect leaves him utterly devoid of compassion or empathy. Alongside Teddy’s story is that of Francine, a young woman who witnessed her mother’s murder as a child. Francine lives under the shadow of her stepmother Julia, who is determined to ‘protect’ her. And then hovering around Teddy and Francine is Harriet, a woman who was once lover to a rockstar. Harriet was immortalized with her former beau in a famous painting, but now lives in a sort of self-obsessed loneliness with a deeply unlikable husband (spoiler alert: almost all the characters are unlikable!). The really satisfying bit of A Sight for Sore Eyes comes when these three disparate stories come together. It’s not quite a collision, more an inexorable convergence. I enjoyed this one, but it’s got a very dark and cynical heart.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

I genuinely don’t know where I got this book from – which seems almost fitting, given the plot. I was sorting out some boxes of books that I’d stored away in the attic a while ago, and it was just… there. I don’t remember buying it or being given it. Night Film just appeared in my house at some point. But I’m glad it did – I really enjoyed this one. Night Film is a thriller with supernatural undertones (overtones?). Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter (who clearly wants to be the hero in his very own film noir). McGrath had a brush in the past with illusive and enigmatic film director Stanislas Cordova, which left him with his career in tatters and a hefty legal bill. When Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in a run-down warehouse, McGrath thinks this might be his chance to pick up the story again. The trouble is, no one will admit to having ever met Cordova, the reclusive director of a series of controversial films, and few people are interested in helping the disgraced reporter. Two unlikely sidekicks emerge – Hopper, a charismatic but lost young man who McGrath meets at the site of Ashley’s death, and Nora, a coat-check girl who may have been one of the last people to see Ashley alive – and McGrath begins an investigation that will take him to some very weird places. Night Film is gripping, noir-ish fun, and the legends that surround Cordova are surprisingly believable as Hollywood mythology.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly (2017)

Another book that just randomly appeared in my house. I’ve seen mention of He Said/She Said a few times when I’ve been reading domestic noir, as Erin Kelly blurbed a number of the books I read last year. It’s also a title that pops up on lists of ‘mind-blowing twists’ and ‘unreliable narrators’. I didn’t know I actually had a copy until I was sorting out some boxes in the attic. I think I must have got this one at a charity shop at some point. Sadly, not everything out of the attic boxes has impressed as much as Night Film. He Said/She Said was a bit of a disappointment, and it contains no mind-blowing twists and an unsuccessful unreliable narrator. Laura and Kit met at university. Kit is obsessed with solar eclipses. When they’re at a festival in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse, they disturb the rape of a woman called Beth and are later called as witnesses at the trial. Afterwards, Beth appears to go mad, which makes Laura start to doubt her story. There’s no mystery, no surprise, and little doubt as to what happened in Cornwall. But, at the end (and there have been no earlier hints), Kit reveals he’s been lying all along and that he slept with Beth the night before the rape, and then made it look like she was mad by setting fire to their flat while Laura was asleep. And then, I don’t know, he went to see another eclipse.

Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah (2020)

I bought this one – newly published this year – for the same reasons as a lot of people. The premise is just irresistible. Beth (for reasons that will become clear later on) stops by the house of Lewis and Flora Braid, once her close friends. Beth hasn’t seen the Braids and their children for twelve years (again, that will become clearer later on). Imagine her surprise when she spies Flora getting out of the car with her children… but the children haven’t aged a single day! Thomas and Emily Braid look exactly like they did when Beth last saw them. How could I resist reading this one to find out the explanation? Sophie Hannah is a good writer, and I’ve found her other books readable and enjoyable (though not, admittedly, among my favourites). I also trusted that there wouldn’t be a supernatural ‘twist’ to this one, based on what I’ve read of her work. Sadly, though, Haven’t They Grown is a bit of a let-down. There’s a lot to enjoy – Beth’s relationship with her teen daughter Zannah is really well-done, for instance – but unfortunately I think Hannah wrote herself into a corner with that amazing premise. There really is no possible (sensible) explanation for why Thomas and Emily haven’t aged in twelve years, and so instead we get a rather silly and implausible one. I read it in a single sitting, but was left at the end with a whole host of ‘But hang on! If that’s… then what about…?’ questions.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

My Year in Books 2019: February

I've decided to carry this little blog series on for another month, keeping track of all the books I've read for pleasure in short 250-word reviews. I didn't get chance to read a huge amount this month - mostly because I had a lot of essays to mark, and a few books to read for work and radio projects. But still... here are my reviews for February...

(In case you're curious, here are the books I read this January.)

Perfect by Rachel Joyce (2013)

I picked this one up from a book sale shelf at the College of the Third Age when I was there to give a talk. Once again, it was an intriguing blurb that got me. I’m not familiar with Rachel Joyce’s other books, though I think I must have seen The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry advertised or reviewed, as the name rings a bell. Perfect tells the dual stories of Byron Hemmings, an eleven-year-old boy at private school in 1972, and Jim, an older man with OCD in the present day. Byron’s story begins with the boy’s concern at learning that two seconds are going to be added to ‘time’ (really, the atomic clock) in order to compensate for the leap year. Byron is so discomforted by the thought of the extra seconds, he accidentally sets in motion a chain of events. While the story unfolds slowly – and the events in the chain are pretty mundane on the whole – there is an ominous atmosphere that suggests we’re heading to a bad place. Byron and his best friend James come up with the idea of Operation Perfect, a plan to get things back on track and to save Byron’s troubled and fragile mother Diana from impending catastrophe. I enjoyed this one a lot, though I sometimes struggled to engage with the characters. The novel is peopled with ever-so-slightly larger-than-life creations, and some motivations and behaviours are a little arch. Overall, though, Perfect is a rather captivating – if somewhat sad – novel.

The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah (2016)

In my ongoing (frequently thwarted) quest to find the ultimate literary twist, I stumbled upon this blog post by Sophie Hannah, written as publicity for The Narrow Bed back in 2016. I very much like Hannah’s definition of a twist here, as it’s close to my own feelings about the difference between a ‘reveal’ and a ‘twist’. I’ve read nine of the books on the list already, and am planning to read the other six. But it seemed polite to begin with Hannah’s own book! The Narrow Bed is the tenth book in Hannah’s Spilling CID series – I read the second book in the series last month, but haven’t read any of the rest yet. The set-up of this one was very intriguing: a serial killer is targeting pairs of best friends, leaving little white books with the victims as a calling card. But when comedian Kim Tribbeck – a woman with no friends, let alone a BFF – gets one of the books, it looks like the police might be wrong about the pattern. Admittedly, this is a book with a ‘reveal’ and not a ‘twist’, but that’s not a problem for crime fiction. And I enjoyed everything about The Narrow Bed (especially the character of Kim)… except the reveal. There were plenty of clues, which I picked up on, but no way of working the mystery out, as the reveal is so incredibly complicated and far-fetched, the reader has no chance. Great writing – but a disappointing resolution to the mystery.

Friday, 1 February 2019

My Year in Books 2019: January

In 2018, I kept a running blog series with short-form reviews of all the novels I read for pleasure (i.e. not ones I read for academic essays, reviews or my radio show - even though many of those are very pleasurable!). This was my 2018 New Year's Resolution, and I'm very pleased that I managed to stick to it for an entire year.

Not sure how this will go, but I really enjoyed doing the blog series and I'm going to try and continue it through 2019. I guess if it stops being fun then I'll stop doing it, but for now here's the first post of the year: the books I read in January.

Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell (2008)

Having overdosed a bit on crime fiction last month, I decided to start the new year with some horror. And I was in the mood for some Ramsey Campbell. I mentioned in a post last year that there are a few titles in Campbell’s back catalogue that I’ve not read, so I picked Thieving Fear (as I seem to keep saying in these posts, I found the blurb intriguing). I’m very glad I picked this one, as it was right up my street. The book centres around four cousins – Ellen, Charlotte, Hugh and Rory – and the consequences of a seemingly innocuous camping trip they had ten years earlier (spoiler alert: it turns out not to have been completely innocuous). And the beauty of Thieving Fear is that that’s all it’s about. It’s a slow-burning powerful study of horror, which I found truly visceral and discomforting. It’s not a book that conjures complex worlds, adversaries and mythologies – things that Campbell is certainly good at doing in his other works – but rather an unfolding series of horrors that are rooted in common and recognizable nightmares. There’s an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia in this one, and there’s a problem with communication that gradually escalates as things go on. The book’s strength lies in the way the claustrophobia and miscommunication are evoked so strongly that the reader feels as confined and haunted as the characters. Just what I want from a horror novel – and I swear I’ve been able to smell soil ever since.

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor (2018)

As I’m skipping between horror and crime, this next one seemed like it would be a good choice. I didn’t know much about The Chalk Man – I stumbled upon it in a charity shop in Aberystwyth in November – but one of the many (many) soundbites on the cover describes it as being halfway between horror and crime, so I thought I’d probably enjoy this one. Sadly, that was not the case. The premise is okay: bad/bizarre things happen to a group of kids in the 80s, then thirty years later the former friends come back together to face up to some unanswered questions. The book’s chapters switch between 1986 and 2016, though it focuses entirely on the experiences of first-person narrator Eddie. If this sounds a little bit familiar, several of those many (many) blurbs draw comparisons between Tudor’s novel and the work of Stephen King. The front cover even carries an endorsement from the master himself, stating that his fans will definitely enjoy The Chalk Man. Far be it from me to argue with Stephen King, but this book is simply a pale imitation of his work (and it’s definitely more imitation than ‘inspired by’), particularly IT, The Body and Pet Sematary. While the book has some intrigue and is reasonably readable – and it is, after all, substantially shorter than IT! – the plot is far-fetched and the characters clich├ęd. There are also a few anachronisms in the 1986 sections that grated on me. Overall, a bit of a disappointment.

Hurting Distance by Sophie Hannah (2007)

The next book was also one I found in a charity shop in Aberystwyth while we were there for Abertoir last November. I know a bit about Sophie Hannah’s writing and I’ve read some of her poetry, but I’d never read any of her novels until now. Hurting Distance is a crime thriller, and I found out afterwards that it’s the second in a detective series. Given that I didn’t notice it was the sequel to an earlier book as I was reading it, it’s clearly not a problem if you read them out of sequence! Hurting Distance is told through alternating first- and third-person narratives. The first-person narrator is Naomi Jenkins, a woman whose married lover Robert has vanished (she addresses her narration directly to Robert). The third-person narration is the police investigation that begins when Naomi reports Robert’s disappearance. There is, of course, much more to this, as detectives Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse discovered. Robert’s wife Juliet insists that he isn’t missing, and Naomi takes a strange – and criminal – course of action to force the detectives to reconsider. It’s a compelling and well-written tale, with a couple of really neat bits of plot and character development that I appreciated. It is a thriller, so some of the twists and turns are a bit larger-than-life (and I did see most of them coming), but I did very much enjoy it because, while the crimes may seem far-fetched, the victims were scarily plausible (and not all thrillers manage that).

It's Always the Husband by Michele Campbell (2017)

Another charity-shop-in-Aberystwyth book… and I must admit I picked it up purely for the title. During my little foray into domestic noir last year, I was frequently found shouting ‘It’s always the husband!’ (amongst other criticisms), so I couldn’t resist this one. Sadly though, this isn’t a satire of the domestic noir’s tropes – it is a straightforward whodunit thriller. The title is a reference to the fact that when a wife dies, the husband is the most likely suspect, rather than a comment on domestic noir (in which, let’s be honest, it’s always the husband). So, taking Campbell’s book for what it is, and not for what I hoped it’d be… it’s the story of Kate, Jenny and Aubrey, who are roommates for Freshman year in college and ‘best friends’ (though they don’t seem to really like each other). The book switches between chapters set during their drink-and-drug-heavy university days (shades of Tartt’s Secret History) and the present day, when the three women end up back in their college town, 40 years old and married. The shadow of something bad that happened in the past hangs over them, and it’s not long before something bad happens in the present. But whodunit? I really didn’t engage much with this book – I didn’t like the characters or find them plausible – until the final chapter. I can’t say much without spoilers, but Campbell pulls something off I’ve only ever seen Agatha Christie do – and the ending totally redeemed the entire book for me.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home (2011)

This book was actually a Christmas present for my mum. She read it and then passed it on to me (as she sometimes does). I hadn’t heard of Douglas-Home’s series before, but I thought that Scottish crime fiction involving islands and the sea would be perfect for my mum. And I was right – she loved it. The Sea Detective introduces Cal McGill, an oceanographer whose PhD thesis involves developing modelling tools for tracking items that have washed ashore, and for finding ways to identify where these items went into the sea. Of course, as this is a crime novel, Cal’s skills are quickly required to help the police solve tricky cases (though not with the wholehearted support of the force). There are three mysteries to be solved in The Sea Detective: the discovery of three (apparently) severed feet on different bits of the Scottish coast; the fate of two young girls from India trafficked into the sex trade; and Cal’s own background and the death of his grandfather during WWII. This last story is by far the most compelling part of the novel, taking in the history of a (fictional) abandoned island and long-kept secrets. The other two plotlines are a bit patchier, and overall I felt that the writer tried to cram in too much story for a single novel. I also felt that Cal’s specialist skills were rather side-lined in favour of more traditional investigation techniques. I enjoyed the book, but I would’ve liked more sea, less police.

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (2009)

I love Stephen Frears’s 2013 film Philomena, the story of an Irish woman hooking up with a former political journalist to search for the son she lost in the 1950s. Philomena Lee (played by Judi Dench) fell pregnant out of wedlock and was sent to Sean Ross Abbey; she gave birth to a son, who was adopted at three years old by an American couple. Philomena never saw her son again. The film is a quirky road trip, featuring an ingenuous older woman and a curmudgeonly journalist who believes he’s ‘above’ human interest stories. ‘Martin Sixsmith’ is a character in the film (played by Steve Coogan), and the story is as much about his own personal development as it is about Philomena’s. I decided to read Sixsmith’s earlier book-length account – now retitled to match the film – to find out more about this intriguing story. I was sadly disappointed. Despite claims to the contrary, the book isn’t about Philomena or her search for her lost child. Sixsmith doesn’t interrogate his own role in the story, as happens so beautifully in the film. Instead, the book is a heavily fictionalized biography of Michael Hess (the son of Philomena Lee), chief legal counsel to the Republican National Committee. The book is uneven – it flits between (interesting) commentary on the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, and pruriently speculative anecdotes about the late Hess’s private life, relationships and sexuality. This is definitely a rare case of the film being way better than the book.