Saturday, 5 June 2021

My Year in Books 2021: May

Time for my monthly mini-reviews round-up post, and I'm afraid it's another short one. This month has flown by, and I just don't seem to have had much time for reading (outside the books that I read for review and research, but I never include those in these posts). Interestingly, there is a little bit of a theme (certainly with the last two books on this list). I found myself using the same words ('muted', 'melancholy') to describe books published over the past year by writers whose previous work wouldn't usually be described in that way. I'm wondering whether that's an indication of a 'lockdown effect' on their writing, or a 'lockdown effect' on the way I'm responding as a reader. Or maybe it's just a coincidence!

In case you're interested, here are the posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April. And here are my reviews for May...

Maggie's Grave by David Sodergren (2020)

Still trying to catch up with the towering pile I’ve got from my Abominable Books subscription! I can’t remember which month I got Maggie’s Grave, but it seemed like high time I read it. This one was very much a game of two halves for me: one aspect I loved, and another not so much. So… the bit I loved… Maggie’s Grave is set in Auchenmullan, a small Scottish town that’s well-nigh deserted since the last employers closed up shop and people started moving out. The town is cursed, partly by the circumstances of the post-industrial modern world and partly by something else (which I’ll come to shortly). I really enjoyed the way Sodergren evokes the dying town of Auchenmullan. There’s something beautifully unsettling about the empty streets with just a single occupied house, and the beleaguered bowling alley that’s the town’s last remaining business. However, while I would happily have read a slow-burn weird-fiction horror set in Auchenmullan, that’s not what Maggie’s Grave is. It’s a much more in-your-face gory tale about a witch who was executed in the town and comes back periodically to take revenge. The death of Maggie Wall is described in detail in the opening chapter, so there’s no mystery here, and the rest of the story is mostly a series of cinematic bloody set-pieces as the (somewhat underdeveloped) main characters try to evade the supernatural enemy (and some human ones as well). Maggie’s Grave has its appeal, but it’s not quite to my tastes.

The Night Gate by Peter May (2021)

This next book was a bit of surprise – and by that I mean I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to be written. If you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ll know that Peter May’s Enzo Macleod books are my comfort-reading series. I’ve read all them several times, and I reread the whole series (again) during lockdown. In my previous blogs, I’ve talked about Cast Iron as the finale to the series – because I believed it was. And I was right… until this year. Plot twist: May wrote and published another (final?) Enzo novel during lockdown, which brings Enzo’s story up to the present day. We rejoin Enzo years after the dramatic conclusion of Cast Iron. Not only is he older, he’s remarried, retired and living in Cahors during a pandemic. And yet he still manages to get drawn into a cold case involving the discovery of the remains of a German WWII airman in a small French village. It’s not long before the case gets a bit warmer, though, as a present-day murder occurs shortly afterwards. There’s a more melancholy tone to The Night Gate than the previous books in the series – and not just because of the COVID backdrop. Growing old doesn’t really suit Enzo, and growing up hasn’t been easy for his daughters and sons-in-law either. Overall, it’s a far more muted end to the series than Cast Iron was. At times, the story of the (well-crafted) WWII-era mystery dominates a bit as well, so this isn’t solely Enzo’s story.

If It Bleeds by Stephen King (2020)

Next, I went back to catching up my Abominable Books pile. This one was my mystery second-hand book last month, so it came wrapped in brown paper, string and a wax seal. Very exciting! This is a collection of four novellas from King that was published last year. The title novella is a story in King’s crime series (which began with Mr Mercedes) and a sequel to The Outsider. It’s the first story to feature Holly Gibney, a minor character in previous books, as the protagonist. As it really is a sequel, I found it a little hard to follow at times as I haven’t read The Outsider. In fact, I haven’t read any of King’s crime novels, so I was occasionally confused by mentions of other characters and plots. I did enjoy the central premise though, so maybe it’s on me for reading out of sequence. The other stories here were good solid King fare – though perhaps a little muted compared to some of his other work. Mr Harrigan’s Phone is a typically Stephen King take on the idea of someone being buried with their mobile phone; Rat treads familiar ground with its story about a writer locking himself away to finish his work and… not doing so well. My favourite of the four was definitely The Life of Chuck, a three-part story told in reverse. It’s a more melancholic and beautiful take on humanity than you might be expecting, and it’s certainly the most thought-provoking of the four.