Sunday, 2 June 2019

My Year in Books 2019: May

Another month of book reviews from me. I found a bit of time to read a selection of genres, though I seem to be quite fixed on female authors. Maybe I need to challenge myself to read more male authors? Something to think about, perhaps...

In case you're interested, here are the other posts from 2019 so far: January, February, March, April

And here are the books I read in May...

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2006)


I picked up The House at Riverton from the charity book sale shelf at my local supermarket – probably the last title I’ll get from there, as it’s pretty much depleted now. I don’t really know much about Kate Morton, and this is the first of her books I’ve read. The House at Riverton is a Gothic-inflected-but-not-quite-Gothic tale of a long-ago tragedy that still haunts its survivors (or, rather, survivor) in the present day. The narrator is Grace – now in her late nineties – who was once a housemaid at Riverton. She is approached by a filmmaker who is producing a film about the tragedy, and this encourages Grace to remember and reflect on what happened all those years ago. As a narrative conceit, I quite like this one. And I will admit that the book is engaging and entertaining (though a little overlong). However, its more interesting features are sadly thoroughly derivative, and Morton doesn’t quite do a good enough job of masking the direct influences. The most apparent, for me, was Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a book that I have to say I enjoyed far more. There are also shades of The Remains of the Day, Titanic and Upstairs, Downstairs, which occasionally made themselves too apparent. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad story, and I did enjoy it. I think I would have enjoyed reading Grace’s own story more – the two daughters (the Mitford… I mean Hartford sisters) of the eponymous house at which she works are just less interesting.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones (2008)


This next one was one of the books I picked up in Bakewell in April. I’ll admit I skim-read the blurb, and I assumed it would be kinda along the same lines as The House at Riverton – tragic secret tears a family apart, past comes back to haunt the present. However, The Outcast doesn’t quite go along those lines. The book begins in 1957, with a young man called Lewis Aldridge being released from prison. The story then jumps back to 1945 – and the return of Lewis’s father from the war – before moving through the decade between his father’s homecoming and his arrest. The book’s second half returns to 1957 and focuses on the weeks following Lewis’s return home. I have to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. The version of the 1950s here is a bit of cliché – no one talks about their emotions, everyone is repressed, and appearances are all that matters. The characters are, on the whole, pretty unpleasant, and the horribleness is unrelenting (until the incongruously upbeat ending, which comes out of nowhere). Part of the problem is that the story hops from school holiday to school holiday – we never see Lewis at school, or in prison for that matter – making it difficult to fully engage with him a character. Instead, he is simply an unlikable young man doing unlikeable things in a village full of unlikeable people. Dark storylines are fine by me, but this one lacks even a glimmer of warmth or wit.

One Click by Andrea Mara (2018)


I got an Amazon Prime free trial (needed one-day delivery on a gift), and thought I’d see what eBooks are available with the service. I didn’t think I’d find anything to my taste to be honest, but then I saw One Click and liked the cover design. (I know, don’t judge a book… etc. etc.) I guessed from the blurb that it was a domestic noir with a twist – and yes, I know I’ve sworn off those – but I was still interested. And I was right to be – I really enjoyed One Click. The story is about a psychologist called Lauren who runs a photography blog on the side. On holiday in Venice, Lauren takes a quick pic of a woman on the beach and posts it to Instagram with a cheeky hashtag. She doesn’t give it much thought until the picture starts to get traction, and the comments start rolling in. Amongst the comments is an anonymous message demanding to know who the woman is… and the poster is not letting it go. Things escalate to nastier trolling, and Lauren begins to wonder if someone is watching her. And if, somehow, it’s got something to do with the woman on the beach. Admittedly, the red herrings are a tad far-fetched and there’s a whopper of a coincidence to get over, but One Click is still really good. The social media aspect is well-handled and realistic (a rare thing). I read this in a single sitting and definitely recommend it.

The Sculptress by Minette Walters (1993)


Needed a comfort read, and since I read The Shape of Snakes last month, I decided to reread The Sculptress (okay… maybe it’s a bit odd to describe Minette Walters as a ‘comfort read’!). I loved The Sculptress when I first read it, but I was really surprised how quickly I went through it the second time. The eponymous sculptress is Olive Martin, a morbidly obese woman in prison for the brutal murders of her mother and sister. Author Rosalind Leigh is pressured by her publisher to interview Olive and write a book about the case. Roz is reluctant at first, but on meeting Olive she becomes intrigued by the case… but also by the woman herself. Olive pleaded guilty and offered no defence, but no one has ever been able to determine why she killed her mother and sister. Roz initially plans to discover the woman’s motive, but instead becomes fixated on the inconsistencies in the original investigation. This leads her to cross paths with Hal Hawksley, the arresting officer in the Olive Martin case, and to a subplot involving Hal’s failing restaurant. I didn’t quite enjoy The Sculptress as much the second time round, but I think that’s because it was just such a revelation when I first read it. I still rate it as a brilliant book with an amazing ending (but you need to hang right on to get it). The Sculptress isn’t a murder mystery as such, but it’s a wonderfully dark and unsettling thriller.

The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey (2012)


This isn’t the sort of book I normally read – I’m not a massive fan of pop history, especially not ‘dramatic’ tales of the aristocracy. However, we had a trip to Haddon Hall in April, and after a (rather silly) conversation with my other half, I was curious when I spotted The Secret Rooms in the gift shop at the hall. All around Haddon Hall are testaments to the wonderful life’s work of the ninth Duke of Rutland, who restored the hall after it had lain abandoned for nearly two centuries, and yet the gift shop was selling a book that promised to reveal the deep, dark secrets of that very duke. Although I read the book out of sheer curiosity, I thoroughly enjoyed it. While The Secret Rooms is indeed an exposé of the shameful secrets of the ninth Duke of Rutland, Bailey’s book is packed with detail and context that are just as interesting as its main line of research. This is an examination of the uses and abuses to which the aristocracy put their mind-numbing privilege and status. While Bailey keeps a balanced tone – even sympathetic, at times – the final reveal of the Duke of Rutland’s secret is presented with a disdain that I fully shared. I found The Secret Rooms utterly gripping, and Bailey does a good job of avoiding the melodramatic tone that could so easily have been adopted. All in all, this book was a big surprise, and I’m really glad I picked it up.

The Scold's Bridle by Minette Walters (1994)


Since I’ve read a couple of Minette Walters’s books this year and really enjoyed them, I thought I’d give The Scold’s Bridle a go. This one is much closer to a standard murder mystery: an older woman named Mathilda Gillespie is found dead in her bath, wearing a scold’s bridle (a historic torture device used to punish women for speaking) on her head. Although the police initially think her death was suicide, there are suggestions that someone else might have been involved. If it was a murder, the suspects seem to be Mathilda’s daughter and granddaughter (who didn’t like her very much), the local GP Sarah Blakeney (who did), and Sarah’s artist husband Jack (who probably did). For all its ‘classic’ set-up, The Scold’s Bridle goes to some pretty dark places, and there’s an unsettling story that lies beneath the (admittedly) larger-than-life characters and domestic unrest. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as The Sculptress or The Shape of Snakes (by far the best book I’ve read so far this year), but that’s mostly because the story unfolds like a particularly demented episode of Midsomer Murders. However, Walters’s characteristic rug-pulling isn’t completely absent. It was well worth sticking with all the back-and-forth of Sarah and Jack’s marriage problems to get to the truth about Mathilda Gillespie. As with the other two books by Walters I’ve read, I’m very glad I didn’t skip the last page. Walters is definitely the queen of unreliable narration – and that’s absolutely fine by me!

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