Sunday, 2 February 2020

My Year in Books 2020: January

I've decided to carry on with my monthly book review posts (can you believe this is the third year now!). I'm finding it a good way of keeping track of the books I read for pleasure - much more useful than using an external site - so you're kind of stuck with these posts for now!

First post of the year, so it's my short reviews for January! Here's what I read...

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, as I really like Robert Galbraith’s fiction. (Weirdly, I don’t like any J.K. Rowling books – a fact that baffles me.) Lethal White is the fourth book about private detective Cormoran Strike, and his secretary – then assistant – now partner – Robin Ellacott. The story opens with a prologue that follows on directly from Career of Evil, but then it jumps ahead to the following year. After the events of the earlier book, Strike’s detective agency has been thrust into the public eye (well, even more so, as the events of The Cuckoo’s Calling also brought it some notoriety). As well as juggling multiple cases, Strike is offered two intriguing puzzles to solve. Firstly, an apparently mentally ill man called Billy arrives at his office claiming to have witnessed a murder when he was a child. Secondly, an MP asks for Strike’s help, as he’s being blackmailed. Of course, it’s not long before there’s a hint that the two cases might be connected somehow. I will admit, I was dubious about the length of the book before I read it. The paperback is a bit of a doorstop, and way longer than is usual for the genre. However, as with the other Strike novels, it’s incredibly readable, and so it really didn’t feel overlong. Yes, perhaps, some of the sections about Strike and Robin’s relationships could have been cut down slightly, but there’s an excellent mystery (with well-placed clues) at the book’s heart.

Local Girl Missing by Claire Douglas (2016)

This next one is a book I picked up in a charity shop in Aberystwyth when we stayed there last November. I thought I’d read another book by the author, but I realized afterwards that I’d got confused about that. Still, the blurb was intriguing enough, even though I had a suspicion it might be a domestic noir-type thriller (and I’ve still got a strange relationship with that genre). Local Girl Missing is the story of Francesca (and it’s partly told from her perspective), who grew up in a small seaside town in the South-West. Twenty years ago, Francesca’s best friend Sophie fell off the old pier, in an incident that has haunted her ever since. Now Sophie’s brother has called Francesca to drop the bombshell that Sophie’s remains have finally been found, and he wants her to return to Oldcliffe to help him find out what happened. Francesca’s narration is interspersed with entries from Sophie’s diary in the run-up to her disappearance. As she and Daniel speak to Sophie’s old friends, Francesca feels increasingly (and almost tangibly) haunted by the past – is there something else going on here? I’ve got to admit, I did twig what was going on a bit before the end, but I still enjoyed Local Girl Missing. It’s a quick read, but it’s well-paced and Douglas builds the suspense effectively, plus I found some of the flashbacks to Francesca and Sophie’s relationship both nostalgic (as I’m roughly the same age as the characters) and convincing.

The Wych Elm by Tana French (2018)

I was looking forward to this next one, but ultimately it was a teeny bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, The Wych Elm is excellently written and has a compelling story. It’s just that I’m such a huge fan of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels that this one had a lot to live up to. The Wych Elm is a standalone –a mystery thriller rather than a detective novel. The central character is Toby, a privileged (and rather charming) man in his late twenties, looking forward to a happy future with his girlfriend Melissa. One night, everything changes, as Toby suffers a life-altering and traumatic assault. In recovery, he returns to his old family home (now his uncle’s), as his uncle has developed terminal cancer. Toby needs to heal, but he also needs to take care of his relative. However, a chance discovery in the garden upends Toby’s life even further – a skull is found in the eponymous wych elm tree. Perhaps Toby’s happy conception of his life – and his family – aren’t strictly accurate. As I say, the story is pretty compelling, but I found it didn’t grip me quite as much as the Dublin Murder Squad novels. Some of the revelations are a little far-fetched, though I did like the way in which Toby’s patchy memories become tangled and uncertain. The idea that a family history might be misremembered or experienced differently was definitely interesting, but there was something a little flat about this particular family.

The Guesthouse by Abbie Frost (2019)

I picked this one up (as usual) on a whim at the supermarket. The blurb looked like it might be a bit like And Then There Were None – seven guests check into a guesthouse, but it looks like they might not all survive. And… I was right. The Guesthouse begins like a millennial version of And Then There Were None. The central character, Hannah, is a twenty-five-year-old woman who is dealing with some stuff. She checks herself into the eponymous guesthouse for a week’s holiday to take her mind off things, and also to reconnect with her past. The guesthouse is in a remote location in Ireland, and the access is not as easy as the website promised. And there’s a storm coming too… I’m in two minds about this one. I loved the way Frost updated the central conceit of And Then There Were None for the twenty-first century, and the way the guests were brought to (and kept) in the guesthouse was definitely pretty cool. I also found Hannah – in the first half of the book – an engaging and relatable character. However, the plot isn’t quite as classy as Christie’s (and I shouldn’t keep comparing the two books, but it’s impossible not to). Rather than ramping up suspense and suspicion, The Guesthouse instead ramps up the backstory to the point of (almost) implausibility. I became less invested as the story went on, and the eventual reveal(s) really stretched my credulity. It’s a shame, because the book starts well.

The Family by Louise Jensen (2019)

I bought The Family in a charity shop in Truro at Christmas. I didn’t realize until part way through that I’d chosen to read a book with almost the exact same image on the cover as The Guesthouse – that was a complete coincidence. And, cover art aside, The Family is a bit different to The Guesthouse. Laura and her daughter Tilly are left grieving and in debt following the death of Gavan, Laura’s husband. A chance kindness from a woman called Saffron (someone Laura vaguely knows through her work) leads the women to a farm in Mid Wales that’s being run as a community/commune by a mysterious young man called Alex. As the book hints from its very first page, bad things are going to happen on the farm. And they do. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t really enjoy this one. I struggled to sympathize with the characters, mostly because they weren’t plausible for the ages they were meant to be – Laura doesn’t feel like a 34-year-old, and Alex isn’t believable as a 28-year-old. I also found I was drawn out of the story a lot by little anachronisms and inaccuracies, and by a timeframe that doesn’t quite make sense. No spoilers, but the ending was probably the best part of the plot, as it moved the story back into the realms of the believable. However, it was hard to get too enthused, as I really hadn’t engaged with the characters. Overall, this one probably needed much tighter editing.

She Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge (2019)

The next book I read this month was one I picked up at the supermarket because the blurb looked intriguing (I probably have to stop doing that!). She Lies in Wait is a cold-case detective novel. Teenager Aurora Jackson disappeared thirty years ago, after going camping with her older sister and her friends. When a body is discovered in the woods, it quickly becomes apparent that Aurora has finally been found. A murder investigation is launched by DCI Jonah Sheens, and Aurora’s sister Topaz and her friends are the prime suspects. She Lies in Wait is a fairly standard cold-case story, with a bit of Secret History-esque conflict between the rather privileged bunch of suspects (in fact, one of the characters actually draws attention to the similarity in an explicit reference to Donna Tartt’s novel). It’s a very readable story, and there are some interesting interactions between the police team, but I found the actual mystery at the heart of the book to be a little disappointing. The problem is that there are clues implicating all of the suspects, and nothing that points to any particular one of them. By the time the reveal came, I felt like it could have been any of them, and I felt a bit cheated as a reader, as I could only guess the answer, not solve it. Nevertheless, Lodge is a good writer, and I did enjoy the way the story unfolded. Not the best mystery, but definitely not the worst one either!

No comments:

Post a Comment