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.

No comments:

Post a comment