The Sleeper by Gillian White

the sleeperWhen the snow lay round about…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Christmas at Southdown Farm is always an uncomfortable time for Clover Moon, since her disapproving mother-in-law Violet comes visiting. But this year’s even worse than usual. Firstly, Clover has realised she’s deeply unhappy with her life and is in a permanent state of rage. And secondly, someone appears to be trying to hurt her, perhaps even kill her. Clover is sure that Violet has finally lost her senses and become dangerous. Meantime Miss Bates, a resident of the nearby Happy Haven home for the elderly, has disappeared. As the worst snow for decades continues to fall, the farm is cut off without phone or electricity and fears for Miss Bates’ safety grow…

Each Gillian White book seems to be stylistically different to the others. There are some things that do link them – the excellent quality of the writing, the creation of rather quirky characters, good if sometimes far-fetched plotting and an undercurrent of humour, though that shows up more in some than in others. This book has all of those things. White’s description of the isolated snowbound farm is chilling in more ways than one, as we see Clover’s husband battle the elements to look after his herd of cows while trying to prevent the house from being flooded by the overflowing river, not to mention dealing with the dead body that’s floated into the cellar along with the floodwater. The humour is quite muted, but comes through blackly at points, and the plotting is fairly complex, though to be honest I’d more or less guessed both what had happened and what the outcome would be by about the halfway point.

Gillian White (Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)
Gillian White
(Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)

The characterisation is White’s real strength and she’s assembled a strong cast here. We learn through flashbacks of Violet’s unhappy early life when her widowed father married the archetypal wicked stepmother. Clover is shown as an unstable drama-queen, quite unsuited to be a farmer’s wife, as Violet pointed out well before the wedding. We see Fergus, tied to the land by his family’s expectations, trying to please everyone and failing. The manager of Happy Havens is a middle-aged woman, fearing that she will have to give up her freedom to look after her aging and not-terribly-lovable old father. And the one likeable character is Miss Kessel, the worried friend and roommate of the missing Miss Bates.

While I found this a clever and well put together tale, the unlikeablity of most of the characters prevented me from feeling really engaged with the story. White has also used the ‘omniscient narrator’ device, never a favourite trick of mine; and this particular narrator has a technique of interjecting sly little asides that I found rather annoying. The earlier timeline of Violet’s childhood was much more interesting to me than the gathering of rather unpleasant and self-obsessed people in the present-day farm. But all of these points are a matter of personal taste rather than a real criticism of the writing. Overall, I found this another well written and quirky tale – not quite White’s best, but still enjoyable and worth reading.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.

The Beggar Bride by Gillian White

Rich bride, poor bride, beggar bride, thief…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the beggar brideAnge Harper loves her husband and young son but she doesn’t love living in poverty. And since Billy can’t get work, Ange hatches a plan to make their fortunes. She will use her beauty to catch a rich man and find a way to divert some of his money to her own family. Cue entry of Sir Fabian Ormerod, born to money and busy making more. Sir Fabian is a sucker for unsuitable women as his previous two marriages have shown – and he is flattered and fooled by the attentions of this young, beautiful woman. So much so, he doesn’t enquire much into her background. But once Ange has caught her rich man, things start to get more complicated…

White’s strength is in building characters who are fun to spend time with despite their flaws and in this book she again succeeds in that. Ange’s scheming and deception of Sir Fabian is mitigated by her love for her son and her desire to give him a better start in life than she had. Sir Fabian is outwardly cold and snobbish, but at heart all he wants is a son to carry on his family name and business. There is a huge cast of quirky support characters and White gives each a distinct personality. The book takes a fairly light-hearted look at the class and wealth divides in Britain in the 1990s and pokes fun at the question of bloodlines and male primogeniture.

Gillian White (Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)
Gillian White
(Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)

Some of the characters are a bit caricatured, especially the rich ones, and the plot requires the reader to suspend a lot of disbelief, especially over the major issue of Sir Fabian’s acceptance into his family of this mysterious woman with no apparent background. I also found that the ending stretched credulity to near breaking point, relying far too heavily on the thriller writer’s friend, coincidence, while some strands were left dangling. Originally published in 1997, I feel White wasn’t yet quite showing the level of sure-footedness she achieved in her later novel Copycat but nonetheless this is an enjoyable read, well written and with a good deal of humour. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Copycat by Gillian White

“What a tangled web we weave…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

CopycatJennie and Martha. Martha and Jennie. Two women tied together by an obsessive infatuation…until death. We know from page one that the end result is that one murders the other, but we don’t know which is the victim, which the murderess.

This is a clever, twisted and blackly funny tale of obsession, told by a mistress of the art of the tangled web. Jennie and Martha take it in turns to tell us the story of their parallel lives. When laid-back extrovert Martha takes her uptight, friendless neighbour Jennie under her wing, she unwittingly starts a chain of events that will shape both their lives forever. Jennie’s admiration for Martha soon turns to obsession and jealousy. Martha is the centre of the social life of The Close – a small group of middle-class houses set so near to a sink estate that their house values have fallen meaning that none of them can afford to move away. In this claustrophobic atmosphere, Jennie does everything she can to try to keep Martha’s attention all for herself and as time goes on her methods become more and more extreme until she’s prepared to sacrifice anything – or anyone – to stop Martha from ending their friendship.

Gillian White(Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)
Gillian White
(Source: fantasticfiction.co.uk)

So given that Jennie is clearly a fruitcake, it’s obvious who did the murder…isn’t it? Except that there’s another side to this story. Martha, the confident and out-going one, has problems of her own and they’re growing. And perhaps, though she doesn’t know it, she needs Jennie as much as Jennie needs her. Perhaps the obsession isn’t such a one-way street after all…

This is only the second book of Gillian White’s that I’ve read, the other being Unhallowed Ground. In that one, I admired her story-telling skills, her characterisation and the tension that she managed to build, though I thought the ending let it down a little. This later one, first published in 2002, shows those same skills in abundance; but now she’s added some deliciously sly humour into the mix and I found the ending completely satisfying. It’s almost like a traditional mystery in reverse – the answer seems obvious from the beginning but becomes progressively less so as the story is revealed. As I reached the last couple of chapters, I still had no idea who was going to do the wicked deed and felt that White had achieved the near perfection of either answer being entirely consistent with what had gone before. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road, via Netgalley in advance of publication of a Kindle edition on 19th March 2013.

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Amazon US Link

Unhallowed Ground by Gillian White

Unhallowed GroundGuilt and fear… 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Georgie needs to get away from London to escape the publicity around the killing of a child while she was the social worker responsible for little Angie’s case. So when she unexpectedly inherits a cottage in a tiny hamlet on Dartmoor it seems an ideal place to escape to for a few months – until she meets the strange and mostly unfriendly neighbours, that is.

White handles prose with originality and control, and in Georgie she creates a completely believable character, flawed, yes, but with an underlying strength of character that is crumbling under the guilt of the child’s death. For the first half of the book, White cuts between the present and the past, letting us see the events that have brought Georgie to this place and this state of mind. Once Georgie gets to Dartmoor, the tension starts to ratchet up, while the reader is left to wonder whether the scary events are really happening or are all part of Georgie’s guilt-ridden mind. As winter comes and the snow starts to fall, Georgie is trapped in the cottage and alone…

For the most part, I thought this was a first-rate slow-burn psychological thriller that kept me hooked and on edge. Unfortunately I thought the ending let the book down – without any spoilers, I felt the climax didn’t quite live up to the sense of anticipation and tension that the author had so carefully built throughout. However, on the basis of this book, I am certainly looking forward to reading more of White’s work. Recommended.

Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R17ZB8MXAFR1LW/

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.