Tuesday, 2 April 2019

My Year in Books 2019: March

Another post in my ongoing book review series. I read quite a few novels this month, though I must admit I was a bit disappointed by some of them. I apologize in advance for the overuse of the word 'Sigh' in my reviews. Still, there were some that I enjoyed, so it wasn't all bad.

(For the curious, here are the links to my reviews from January and February.)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (2018)


Sigh. I feel like I’ve relapsed back into my old habit. Last month, I mentioned this blog post by Sophie Hannah, listing books with ‘twist endings’. I also said I’d be reading the six titles on the list that I’ve not already read. With one exception, these are all… domestic noir. And if you read my reviews from last year, you’ll know my feelings on this genre. The Woman in the Window is, sadly, not even a good example of domestic noir. Agoraphobic and alcoholic psychologist Anna Fox watches her neighbours from her window. One day, she believes she sees one neighbour (Jane Russell) being murdered… but Jane’s family insist that it hasn’t happened. Nobody believes Anna’s story, because she’s clearly an unreliable witness… but can she prove that she really saw what she thinks she saw? Blatantly derivative, the book blends plot elements from Hitchcock films (Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes being the most obvious) with ‘twists’ reminiscent of other domestic noir thrillers (especially The Girl on the Train and We Need to Talk About Kevin). I think one of my big problems with this genre is that I like unreliable narrators, but domestic noir thrives on narrators who are called unreliable, but actually are telling the absolute truth. Spoiler alert: what Anna thinks she saw is indeed exactly what happened. Sigh. The Woman in the Window is clichéd and poorly written (I can’t take another synonym for ‘drink’), and I don’t think the ‘twists’ were really twists.

The Wife Between Us by by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2018)


Right. That’s it. This is definitely the last one. I really can’t read any more domestic noir. Once again, I’ve fallen for the promise of MASSIVE TWISTS, and once again I am disappointed. The Wife Between Us is absolutely in the mould of The Girl on the Train. We’ve got an unreliable (possibly alcoholic) first-person female narrator, a horrible ex, and a new girlfriend that’s a source of… jealousy? But (and this obviously goes without saying) things are not what they seem. The first-person chapters are narrated by Vanessa, the ex-wife of a man named Richard, who appears to be obsessed with the man’s new fiancée. Interspersed with this are third-person chapters describing Nellie’s preparations for her upcoming marriage to Richard, and her concerns that someone is following her. The first twist comes at the end of Part 1, but I have to admit I saw it coming. Perhaps if the book’s blurb hadn’t been so insistent that, if you think Vanessa is a jealous ex obsessed with her replacement, ‘you will be wrong’, the ‘twist’ would have been more of a surprise. Following this, there are three (maybe four, depending on whether you’re surprised by the revelation that Richard isn’t very nice) additional twists, each more far-fetched than the last. The final reveal – in the book’s epilogue – is just silly. Sadly, this is not a recommendation from me, though I might be in a minority with this one. It feels like a paint-by-numbers domestic thriller, and it’s quite disappointing.

Innocent Blood by P.D. James (1980)


So, I decided to carry on with Sophie Hannah’s ‘twist list’. (I notice that some people on Goodreads have called it that, and that they’ve been just as completist as me – nice to know I’m not alone!) I couldn’t face any more of the domestic noir titles, so I went with the P.D. James novel on the list. Now, I read a few P.D. James novels last year, and I’m pretty sure I came to the conclusion that her books are not really my cup of tea. But I didn’t let that put me off. Reader, I should’ve let it put me off. Innocent Blood is not a pleasant read. It’s the story of a (unlikeable) young woman, Philippa Palfrey, who decides to trace her (unlikeable) birth parents, partly to spite her (unlikeable) adoptive parents. Philippa quickly locates her birth mother and decides to attempt a relationship with the woman… but are there secrets still to be discovered? In short: no, there aren’t. I think I know the reason the book was including on a list of ‘twists’, but the revelations in Innocent Blood are fairly obvious. I must’ve misread an earlier scene, as I thought the ‘big reveal’ had been described from the beginning. Added to this, the book has James’s usual judgemental tone that I find discomforting, and a shock revelation in the epilogue that just seems distasteful. Sadly, this month’s theme seems to be ‘books I didn’t enjoy very much’, which is a bit of a shame.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2008)


I’m not having much luck with this ‘twist list’, am I? But I’ve decided to press on with it… what’s the worst that can happen? Well, it turns out… not Before I Go to Sleep. This one was alright. I pretty much knew what I was getting into with this one. I like 50 First Dates. I like Memento. So I imagined I’d probably enjoy a mash-up of the two. Christine Lucas is a 47-year-old woman with a form of anterograde amnesia, meaning that she wakes up every morning with no memory of who she is or what has happened to her. Each morning when she wakes, her husband Ben eases her into the day and explains their life together and her condition (aww… sweet). The story begins on one such day, but after Ben leaves for work, Christine gets a message to meet a Dr Nash. He’s been treating her (secretly) for several weeks, and reveals that Christine has been keeping a journal each day to help with her recovery. When she opens the journal, she’s shocked to see the words ‘Remember Sammy Jankis’ ‘Don’t Trust Ben’ written on the front page. What is her loving husband hiding from her? And can she trust Dr Nash? Or herself? This was a very quick read (just a few hours), but an enjoyable one (albeit requiring some suspension of disbelief). I did guess the twist part way through. But do you know what? It was actually a twist this time. Finally!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (2016)


Last book on the ‘twist list’ – the completist in me rejoices. Sadly, I think I saved the worst for last though. Behind Closed Doors isn’t an enjoyable read. And it certainly doesn’t have a twist. It does exactly what it says on the tin (well, the blurb anyway). To outsiders, Jack and Grace have the perfect relationship. But ‘behind closed doors’, Jack is an abusive psychopath who keeps his wife imprisoned and punishes her for any transgressions. This was not a pleasant book to read. It’s pretty offensive to survivors of domestic abuse – or ‘battered wives’, as the book repeatedly calls them – and utterly unrealistic about the mechanisms of abuse or the patterns of coercive control that result in people staying with abusive spouses. It’s also very demeaning of people with Down’s Syndrome: Grace has a sister with Down’s Syndrome (Millie) who is slated to be Jack’s next victim, and the representation here is highly problematic. Jack threatens to throw Grace’s (almost adult) sister ‘into an asylum’ if she doesn’t comply with his bizarre abuse fantasy – and at no point is it noted that this… just isn’t a thing. The storyline doesn’t go any further than this, and there are certainly no twists. I know that domestic noir thrives on bad husbands, but at least there’s usually some semblance of confusion or doubt thrown in. There’s very little suspense or intrigue here, leaving this as simply a book that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sadly, one to avoid.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh (2016)


This next book is one I found on a charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket. I’d not heard of this one, but it promised a ‘Gothic mystery’ so I thought it was probably worth a go. And I’m happy to say this was the right decision. McHugh’s novel is a compelling Southern Gothic tale about a young woman haunted by the past. Arden Arrowood returns to her home town of Keokuk, after her father dies and she inherits the (crumbling) family home. Arden and her parents left Keokuk around sixteen years previously, after the mysterious disappearance of Arden’s twin sisters. Despite an extensive search, no trace was ever found of the two toddlers, and this past tragedy casts a long shadow over Arden (and her family). Returning to Arrowood, Arden is forced to confront this unsolved mystery, especially as a writer is determined to interview her for a book he’s writing about the case. Arrowood’s mystery isn’t particularly original, but I was definitely gripped by the way it developed. More than this though, I loved the descriptions of Keokuk and its various run-down historic houses. The town takes on a character all of its own, and I’d have been quite happy to defer the revelation of what happened to the twins in order to spend more time in this faded, jaded place. If you fancy a Southern Gothic mystery with some evocative descriptions, cleverly placed clues, and a compelling central puzzle, then this one is a definite recommendation.

The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths (2009)


Another one from the supermarket charity book sale. This one looked pretty cool: it’s a detective story where the central character is a forensic archaeologist. Ruth Galloway (the archaeologist investigator) is called in when bones are discovered at a construction site. A child’s body is found buried underneath an old house that’s being pulled down on the site. It’s quickly revealed that the house was once a Catholic children’s home, and that – several decades earlier – two children disappeared from the home. When the cause of death is revealed, Ruth is drawn into the murder investigation with DCI Harry Nelson (and some help from her Druid friend Cathbad and fellow archaeologist Max Grey). This was an okay read, but it didn’t completely grab me. It’s quite clear from the start that this is the second book in a series (I haven’t read the first one), and that the relationships between the characters were established in the first instalment. Normally, this doesn’t matter too much in crime series. However, I felt like these relationships dominated the story too much. The balance between the investigators’ private lives and the actual investigation wasn’t quite right – if you isolate the ‘case’, it’s really quite light on story and intrigue. And, sadly, the murder mystery itself is pretty obvious – I think I worked out every single one of the reveals. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters of Ruth, Harry and Cathbad, but I would’ve rather had a more intriguing puzzle to draw me in.

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