Monday, 9 March 2020

My Year in Books 2020: February

I'm a little bit late posting this one, as we're coming into the second week in March. Oops. But I'm trying to catch up with stuff as best I can! So, it's finally time for my round-up of the books I read for pleasure last month.

In case you're interested, here are my reviews of the books I read last month: January

And here are my reviews for February...

The Neighbour by Fiona Cummins (2019)

The first book I read this month was an impulse buy at the supermarket (which I seem to keep doing). Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment. I really struggled with this one. The blurb promised a story about a family that buy a new house, only to discover that there’s a serial killer on the loose in the neighbourhood, and everyone’s got a secret to hide. That isn’t quite how the book pans out, although there is a family (the Lockwoods), who buy a house, and there is a serial killer (the Dollmaker), who operates almost exclusively in the neighbourhood around the new house. The main problem I had with The Neighbour (aside from the utter implausibility of a family deciding to buy a house on a street at the centre of a multiple murder investigation, with the intention of ‘bouncing’ it as quickly as possible) was that I found it really difficult to engage with any of the character. The chapters alternate between a bewildering array of viewpoints (one minute we’re following the family, the next a police officer involved in the investigation, the next a first-person narrator), and it’s not always clear who the narrator is or why we’re following their perspective. The story is really fragmented as a result, and I didn’t feel particularly immersed in it. Weirdly, I also guessed who the murderer was about two thirds of the way, which meant I was just frustrated for the final sections. Not a recommendation, unfortunately.

What You Did by Claire McGowan (2019)

The next book was included with an Amazon Prime membership, and I thought I’d give it a go. The book begins with a group of six university friends meeting up again after twenty years (although they have seen each other in various combinations since they graduated). Ali and her husband Mike are hosting the reunion party at their well-to-do house, and the guests include Karen (Ali’s long-time best friend), Callum and Jodi (who got together at uni) and the somewhat enigmatic Bill. Alongside the grown-ups are Mike and Ali’s kids Cassie and Benji, and Karen’s son Jake. The reunion begins with the expected snobbery and passive aggression – these are a group of social-climbing friends who met at Oxford, after all – but it turns into something much more horrible when Karen stumbles into the kitchen, visibly injured, claiming that Ali’s husband has raped her. The accusation sends shockwaves through the group, and also tears at Ali’s loyalties. It leads to further revelations as well, including some long-buried secrets. What You Did is a readable and engaging thriller. I found it to be a bit of page-turner. All of the characters are a bit unlikeable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’ve seen some reviews that say Ali’s behaviour is unconvincing, but I think McGowan does a good job of negotiating the character’s competing motivations. I wouldn’t say this is the best book I’ve read this year, but it’s a decent story that kept me entertained. What more can you ask?

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama (2012)

I feel like I don’t read many books by men, so I should probably vary things a bit. Six Four is Hideo Yokoyama’s sixth novel, but the first that was translated into English. It’s a police procedural, but one that offers an unconventional perspective on a cold case. The eponymous ‘Six Four’ case is an unsolved kidnapping and murder, which took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, at the end of the Showa period (which lasted until its sixty-fourth year). Yoshinobu Mikami has been transferred to Media Relations, and is tasked with orchestrating press coverage of a visit from the commissioner general. The police’s relationship with the press has broken down, the father of the victim has refused to take part, and Mikami begins to believe the commissioner’s visit might have a hidden agenda. As he starts to ask (mundane, at first) questions, he uncovers things about ‘Six Four’ that unsettle him – things that haven’t been spoken about in fourteen years. Six Four is a slow-burning, brooding book, with a lot of the focus being on Mikami’s response to the secrets he reveals. It also explores the complex machinations of Japanese police politics and the relationship with the press, which can feel rather alien to the non-Japanese reader. However, I didn’t feel lost at any point, as Yokoyama’s writing carries the reader through and keeps us fully engaged with the somewhat troubled protagonist. The plot is labyrinthine, but the denouement is a satisfying one. I enjoyed this one.

The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman (2002)

Next up, it’s another charity shop find. I picked up this one when we were in Truro before Christmas. The endorsements on the back cover promised something a bit ‘Gothic’, and also a meeting of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Both of those assessments are totally fair. We begin the story with Jane Hudson, a Latin teacher at Heart Lake School for Girls. Jane is an ‘old girl’: she was a pupil herself at Heart Lake. When three of Jane’s students (who are known by classical nicknames assigned by their teacher) begin acting strangely, ghosts from the past are conjured up. The second part of the book takes us back to that past – specifically, events that occurred between Jane and her two roommates during her time as a student. History is certainly repeating itself, but does that repetition have a supernatural cause? or is there a more human hand behind it. I liked this one – it’s slow-paced, and I occasionally wanted to give Jane a good shake, but the characters were far more endearing than those in The Secret History. Some of the revelations (including the ‘biggie’) I saw coming, but that’s not a bad thing, as The Lake of Dead Languages is more a character study than a straightforward mystery. The pleasure of this one lies in how immersed you become in Jane’s world, and how much Goodman’s writing leads you to seeing things through Jane’s eyes. I definitely enjoyed this one.

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James (2018)

I’ve had this one on my to-read pile for a while, as my alter ego interviewed the author for Hannah’s Bookshelf back in 2018. It’s a bit of a genre-bending one, and I’m not sure I can explain it in a short review, but here goes… Ezra Maas was the avant-garde darling of the art world, building a legion of devotees and creating a ‘Foundation’ that ruthlessly guards his legacy. He disappeared a number of years ago, prompting all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Now Daniel James – something of an enfant terrible of the journalism world – has been commissioned to write a biography of the enigmatic artist, without the consent of the Ezra Maas Foundation. Or has he? Is that what’s happening here? Who is Ezra Maas? For that matter, who is Daniel James? Stitched together from fragments of partially destroyed manuscripts, interview transcripts and copious footnotes, there are shades of House of Leaves here, but this is blended with plenty of (sometimes heavily lamp-shaded) neo-noir stylings and compelling characterization. I was expecting the book to be cerebral, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how downright gripping it is. As a fan of unreliable narrators (and unreliable narration), I enjoyed the fragmentary and convoluted storytelling, and the meta-fictional quality that permeates throughout. But it has to be said, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas is a bit of a page-turner too, and I found that I didn’t want it to end. Which is lucky, really, because it doesn’t.