Saturday, 2 May 2020

My Year in Books 2020: April

Time for my monthly round-up of the books I've read. Like last month, I've really struggled to do much reading for pleasure. I read four novels in April, which was one more than last month, but I'm still definitely reading less than usual. I did have one really nice surprise this month, with a book that I got completely lost in (first time that's happened since the lockdown started).

In case you're interested, here are my reviews for the rest of the year so far: January, February, March

And here are my reviews of the books I read in April...

A Sight for Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell (1998)

I picked up this one at a book sale to raise money for a local community group. I generally like Ruth Rendell’s stuff – though I tend to prefer the books she published as Barbara Vine – but this was one I hadn’t read before. It’s an unusual narrative: three characters are introduced who seem to have no connection at all to one another. We begin with the story of Teddy Grex, or rather we begin with an introduction to the two people who will become the parents of Teddy Grex. They’re a strange and not very likable couple, who produce a strange and not very likable son. Teddy grows up in squalor, but craving beauty, and his parents’ neglect leaves him utterly devoid of compassion or empathy. Alongside Teddy’s story is that of Francine, a young woman who witnessed her mother’s murder as a child. Francine lives under the shadow of her stepmother Julia, who is determined to ‘protect’ her. And then hovering around Teddy and Francine is Harriet, a woman who was once lover to a rockstar. Harriet was immortalized with her former beau in a famous painting, but now lives in a sort of self-obsessed loneliness with a deeply unlikable husband (spoiler alert: almost all the characters are unlikable!). The really satisfying bit of A Sight for Sore Eyes comes when these three disparate stories come together. It’s not quite a collision, more an inexorable convergence. I enjoyed this one, but it’s got a very dark and cynical heart.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (2013)

I genuinely don’t know where I got this book from – which seems almost fitting, given the plot. I was sorting out some boxes of books that I’d stored away in the attic a while ago, and it was just… there. I don’t remember buying it or being given it. Night Film just appeared in my house at some point. But I’m glad it did – I really enjoyed this one. Night Film is a thriller with supernatural undertones (overtones?). Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter (who clearly wants to be the hero in his very own film noir). McGrath had a brush in the past with illusive and enigmatic film director Stanislas Cordova, which left him with his career in tatters and a hefty legal bill. When Cordova’s daughter Ashley is found dead in a run-down warehouse, McGrath thinks this might be his chance to pick up the story again. The trouble is, no one will admit to having ever met Cordova, the reclusive director of a series of controversial films, and few people are interested in helping the disgraced reporter. Two unlikely sidekicks emerge – Hopper, a charismatic but lost young man who McGrath meets at the site of Ashley’s death, and Nora, a coat-check girl who may have been one of the last people to see Ashley alive – and McGrath begins an investigation that will take him to some very weird places. Night Film is gripping, noir-ish fun, and the legends that surround Cordova are surprisingly believable as Hollywood mythology.

He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly (2017)

Another book that just randomly appeared in my house. I’ve seen mention of He Said/She Said a few times when I’ve been reading domestic noir, as Erin Kelly blurbed a number of the books I read last year. It’s also a title that pops up on lists of ‘mind-blowing twists’ and ‘unreliable narrators’. I didn’t know I actually had a copy until I was sorting out some boxes in the attic. I think I must have got this one at a charity shop at some point. Sadly, not everything out of the attic boxes has impressed as much as Night Film. He Said/She Said was a bit of a disappointment, and it contains no mind-blowing twists and an unsuccessful unreliable narrator. Laura and Kit met at university. Kit is obsessed with solar eclipses. When they’re at a festival in Cornwall to witness the 1999 eclipse, they disturb the rape of a woman called Beth and are later called as witnesses at the trial. Afterwards, Beth appears to go mad, which makes Laura start to doubt her story. There’s no mystery, no surprise, and little doubt as to what happened in Cornwall. But, at the end (and there have been no earlier hints), Kit reveals he’s been lying all along and that he slept with Beth the night before the rape, and then made it look like she was mad by setting fire to their flat while Laura was asleep. And then, I don’t know, he went to see another eclipse.

Haven't They Grown by Sophie Hannah (2020)

I bought this one – newly published this year – for the same reasons as a lot of people. The premise is just irresistible. Beth (for reasons that will become clear later on) stops by the house of Lewis and Flora Braid, once her close friends. Beth hasn’t seen the Braids and their children for twelve years (again, that will become clearer later on). Imagine her surprise when she spies Flora getting out of the car with her children… but the children haven’t aged a single day! Thomas and Emily Braid look exactly like they did when Beth last saw them. How could I resist reading this one to find out the explanation? Sophie Hannah is a good writer, and I’ve found her other books readable and enjoyable (though not, admittedly, among my favourites). I also trusted that there wouldn’t be a supernatural ‘twist’ to this one, based on what I’ve read of her work. Sadly, though, Haven’t They Grown is a bit of a let-down. There’s a lot to enjoy – Beth’s relationship with her teen daughter Zannah is really well-done, for instance – but unfortunately I think Hannah wrote herself into a corner with that amazing premise. There really is no possible (sensible) explanation for why Thomas and Emily haven’t aged in twelve years, and so instead we get a rather silly and implausible one. I read it in a single sitting, but was left at the end with a whole host of ‘But hang on! If that’s… then what about…?’ questions.