When her husband Martin suddenly dies, Nóra is left alone, except for the young grandchild she is looking after, the son of her dead daughter. Young Michéal was a healthy child for the first couple of years of his life, but now there’s something seriously wrong with him – he can no longer walk or talk and needs constant attention. Nóra finds him a burden and is ashamed of him, trying to hide him from the sight of the other villagers. But there is already gossip about the child – some believe he is a changeling, left by the Good People (i.e. fairies) in the place of the real Michéal whom they have stolen. And Nóra is becoming more willing to believe this too.
Kent uses Martin’s wake to introduce us to this small, superstitious Irish community in the early 1800s. The villagers share their belief between the teachings of the Catholic church and the older, more pagan, traditions, and see no real contradiction between them. But the Catholic church doesn’t feel the same way, and the new priest is determined to stamp out the old practices. The villagers operate a simple policy of pretending to go along with this, while still carrying out the old rites behind the priest’s back. In the woods lives old Nance, the village midwife and wise woman, to whom the villagers secretly turn when they need the kind of help of which the priest wouldn’t approve. Nance knows the ways of the Good People, and uses a mix of magic and herb lore to heal and cure. And she’s had experience of changelings before…
Kent’s prose is just as skilled in this as in her earlier novel, Burial Rites, and again she creates her setting brilliantly and believably. Unfortunately, the story of this one isn’t nearly as interesting and is dragged out for far too long, becoming ever slower and more repetitive as it goes along. It’s entirely monotone – misery all the way, with no glimmer of light amidst all the darkness. It’s crystal clear from very early on how it’s all going to play out – arguably, the same could be said of Burial Rites, but in that one although the ending is never in doubt, the interest is in discovering the reason behind the crime. In this one, the reason is obvious and particularly unpleasant, as are the descriptions of how awful Nóra found it to deal with this child.
Nance’s story is a little more interesting, if just as depressing, as we discover how she learned her lore about the Good People. And another character is introduced, young Mary, whom Nóra hires to help her with the child. I initially hoped that she would bring a touch of lightness into the story, but sadly not – she too is soon dragged down to the general level of desperation prevailing in the village. It feels authentic to a degree – people in rural Ireland were undoubtedly dirt-poor and superstitious in that era, so I imagine happiness wasn’t overflowing. But I bet it wasn’t entirely non-existent either, and I always dislike these books that simply invite us to wallow voyeuristically in other people’s misery and show nothing to contrast with it. Not only did I not care about any of the characters, I actively disliked them all, especially Nóra.
Sadly, I found at about the halfway point that I couldn’t stand much more of it, so flicked through the second half, dipping in and out to see if the tone changed, or if the story veered from the predictable path. But neither did, and I came away from it admiring the prose and the research, but disappointed in both the monotone style and the repetitive and over-long story. I’m sure it will appeal more to people who have a greater tolerance for this kind of unrelieved misery novel than I do – a mismatch between book and reader on this occasion.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.
The ultimate adventure of space tourism is likely to become a reality within the next few decades, at least for the very, very rich. It’s not something I ever actually anticipate doing now – too old, too poor – but a girl can still dream! And I’ve dreamed of going into space all my life, having grown up during the great space race era of the ’60s and early ’70s. One of my most wonderful memories is of crowding round a small TV in a boarding house (we were on holiday at the time) watching the grainy pictures of the first moon landing. I anticipated that, by the time I was an adult, we’d be visiting the moon as easily as popping over to Europe.
In this book, Neil Comins sets out to describe the realities of what a space tourist might expect. He starts off with a clear, simple description of the objects in the solar system that we may one day soon be able to visit, from sub-orbital flights, to the International Space Station or commercial equivalents, to the Moon, comets, the moons of Mars, and possibly Mars itself! Inspiring, huh?
Well, no, unfortunately. Comins clearly is one of those travellers (I’ll revert to the correct British spelling of the word now) who is so busy thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong, he forgets to stop and look at the view. From sick-bags to radiation poisoning, no potential pitfall is left unexamined. It all starts OK, with him giving a realistic idea of the training a traveller would be expected to undergo, what they would wear, eat, etc. But then he starts a catalogue of woe. Where it might be sufficient to say that people on long flights would have to contend against boredom, Comins goes on to talk about the features and symptoms of boredom at great length (somewhat ironically, I felt). While it might be useful to point out that group dynamics have to be carefully controlled, he chunters on about all the various personality clashes that might make life intolerable. When talking about the type of food that will be available, he doesn’t neglect to point out the dangers of flatulence. From speeding particles piercing the optic nerve to the symptoms of PTSD, no misery is left unexplored.
He picks it up towards the end by talking about space photography and the joys of sex in microgravity, but sadly by that time I was exhibiting all the symptoms of anxiety, depression and boredom, so was incapable of anything other than a desire to get back to terra firma. So when he went on to explain that the effects of microgravity might make sex quite problematic for both men and women, I barely had enough strength left to be disappointed. I’m afraid I skim-read the last third or so.
Given my undying love for Star Trek and my belief that life on Mars has to be better than life on Earth (no Brexit, no Trump, no soccer – bliss!), it amazed me that Comins could actually make a wet weekend in Bognor sound exciting in comparison to space travel. Though I’m sure if he wrote a book about Bognor, he’d warn of flu germs, the drying effects of the salt in seawater, and lethal crabs lurking in the sand to nip unwary toes.
More seriously, the book is extraordinarily dull, with lengthy bullet point lists of symptoms of everything from anxiety to bipolar disorder, and even of things you should try to see from space, starting with
Gosh, that’s helpful! I’d never have thought of looking out for any of those things! He has taught me one invaluable thing should I ever be lucky enough to go into space – to check the passenger list to make sure Comins isn’t going on the same trip. I fear those group dynamics may well task the most conciliatory captain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going out to gaze at the stars and resume my dreaming…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Columbia University Press.
Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.
See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…
My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.
Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…
Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.
There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.
I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)
The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.
But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…
So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.
After fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.
When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.
Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.
At the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).
Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.
It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
Oliver Cromwell has set himself up as de facto monarch of England, living in Charles Stuart’s palace surrounded by luxury. Surrounded also by plots and plotters, he has a spy network to look after his safety and that of the Commonwealth. Amongst them is Seeker, aka The Seeker. When a man apparently loyal to Cromwell is killed, it falls to Seeker aka The Seeker to find out whodunit and why.
I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I didn’t have a clue what was going on for most of this book. Maybe if I knew the history of Cromwell’s England in depth, it might have worked for me, but all the factions left me baffled. As did passing mentions of various religious sects – Ranters, Levellers, Seekers (of whom, amazingly, Seeker aka The Seeker appeared to have once been one). The book is well written and MacLean’s research is clearly extremely thorough, but I never got to grips with it and never felt any connection to the myriad of characters who flittered mysteriously across the pages, some of them going by more than one name. One minute we’re in London investigating a murder, next we’re in Oxford foiling some Royalist plot or other, but not the Royalist plot presumably that we’re still trying to foil in London, assuming that is a Royalist plot and not something to do with the slave trade, or maybe opium!
I stuck it out to 80% and then threw in the towel, realising that I couldn’t care less who did what to whom or why, and positively couldn’t spend any more of my ever-shrinking remaining life-span reading the rest. Part of my problem was that Seeker aka The Seeker (who, if you remember, used to be a Seeker) actually seemed to be the equivalent of the head of the Gestapo, quite happy to take anyone who threatened Cromwell to the Tower for a quick bit of torturing and then a disembowelment or perhaps a dismemberment. I found it hard to see him as a hero – not sure why! The fact that his love interest was the sister of a man, Elias aka The Sparrow, who was possibly a Leveller and maybe a Royalist, or perhaps a disaffected Roundhead who objected to Cromwell behaving like a King (it might have helped if I knew what Levellers were. I’m pretty sure they weren’t Seekers, though.)… *takes a deep breath* Where was I? Oh yes, so Elias is not a fan of Cromwell but while he languishes in the Tower, where Seeker aka The Seeker put him, awaiting almost certain horrible death, his sister manages to fall in love with S aka T.S. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
Meantime, there are Dutchmen and invisible Welshmen, and Scotsmen, including one called Zander Seaton, though whether or how he was connected to Alexander Seaton, the hero of MacLean’s other series (the one I understood and liked), I have frankly no idea. Or was he just there as a kind of self-referential in-joke? I don’t know. I simply don’t know!
So I gave up and flicked ahead, and discovered that even when I knew whodunit, I still didn’t care.
Having said all that, it paints a good picture of plots, secrecy and the murky goings-on in Cromwell’s London. And I’m quite sure it would work much better for someone familiar with that period of history, or perhaps someone with more ability/willingness than I to follow nineteen different strands simultaneously while admiring Seeker aka The Seeker. But sadly, not for me.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
Regency London 1810: Bow Street detective Stephen Lavender and his colleague Constable Ned Woods are called to a derelict building about to be demolished. A neighbour insists there’s a woman in the building, but when Lavender’s men search it, they find no one. The demolition proceeds and when the wall falls down, the corpse of a beautiful young woman is revealed beneath the floorboards. It’s not long until she is recognised as one of the actresses at the Sans Pareil theatre…
This is a light-hearted romp, as much a romance novel as a crime novel really. In the beginning it looks as though April Divine has been murdered during a botched attempt to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, but gradually the plot widens out to take in aspects of the ongoing Napoleonic Wars with spy rings and secret documents a-plenty. The plotting is undoubtedly the best bit of the book, though it’s not a mystery as such – the reader learns and understands what’s going on at the same time as the detectives.
I look for a couple of things in historical crime fiction. Firstly, the detection element must be in line with the time it’s set in – no amazing foresight to 20th century science, for instance. Secondly, the time period must feel right – the characters should either fit in to the contemporary rules of society or they should be obviously misfits and seen as such by the other characters. Sadly this book fails fairly spectacularly on both of these requirements. I stuck it out for about 70% and then couldn’t take any more, so skipped ahead to the end… I was interested enough in the plot to want to know who the baddies were, hence my generous 1½-star rating.
The whole thing around the Bow Street runners felt completely inauthentic somehow. It’s not something I know anything much about, especially in this period, but I couldn’t believe in Lavender’s character. He is highly intelligent and well educated, mixing with the aristocracy on terms of near equality, and yet working as a policeman in 1810? And also mixing socially with the constables who are clearly way down the social ladder? Even the use of the word “detective” feels all wrong for that period. Dickens was still hesitant enough to be using quotation marks around the word decades later than this period, long after Bow Street had given way to Scotland Yard. The Oxford Dictionary dates it to mid-19th century. That piece of in-depth research took me roughly 30 seconds.
The female lead is Dona Magdalena, a Spanish lady who has fled the war and is living in near-penury in a run-down part of London. Despite her aristocratic background, she is the love interest for Lavender. This is just so wrong for the class-ridden British society of the time. She too mixes with both nobs and the hoi-polloi – I’m guessing the book must have been set in a parallel universe, because it simply couldn’t have happened in this one.
The book is stuffed full of anachronisms in manner, behaviour and speech. The aristocratic women are all feisty, independent types out there in the world earning their own living. The amount of public kissing and canoodling that goes on would have shocked Ms Austen’s heroines into fits of the vapours, and I get the impression that more than kissing went on during the bit I skipped. My question is – why set something in a time period and then have the characters all be 21st century people? Surely the point of historical settings is to show us how different society was, not to pretend it’s the same but have them in horse-drawn cabs rather than cars? People talking about feeling “challenged” by their jobs, aristocrats offering to help out the hoi-polloi in the kitchen – ugh!
And, you know, if you’re going to talk dirty, at least get it anatomically correct. Propositioning Constable Woods, a good-hearted prostitute offers him a special deal for quantity…
“Martha and I can do you the beast with the two backs for an extra shillin’”
Er… three backs. And I hasten to add the only research I did for that one was to learn arithmetic.
Enough already. Not my kind of thing, and I fear I can’t recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction to feel well researched and authentic. But it’s probably fine as a light-hearted romance in Regency frocks.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Thomas and Mercer.
The book starts with Lyon being intrigued by the proliferation of the Green Man and other obviously pagan carvings on early churches. Making the point that early Christianity needed to incorporate some aspects of existing spiritual beliefs in order to attract adherents, she then goes on to speculate that worshipping, or at least respecting, the natural world and assuming it has some kind of power is at least as rational as contemporary conventional religion. So she decides to start a sex cult.
There is a vein of humour running through the book, which sometimes works but more often makes it difficult to know exactly how seriously Lyon expects the reader to take her arguments, such as they are. She’s clearly superficially knowledgeable of both nature myths and philosophy, and in the early chapters she uses this knowledge quite effectively. She’s humorous about being unable to find willing participants for her sex cult, but is incredibly dismissive of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. At first, I admired the writing and intelligence, though I felt from a very early stage that she hadn’t really thought through what, if anything, she was trying to say.
As the book progresses, she takes superficial looks at various aspects of things that she seems to associate with paganism or nature cults; for example, witchcraft, shamanism, Alesteir Crowley’s beliefs, etc. Half the time I wasn’t even convinced of their relevance to the argument she seems to be attempting to make – namely, that conventional religion is on its way out and we need to revert to some kind of paganism, a belief in a single consciousness, from which some kind of mystical power does (or perhaps doesn’t) derive. It’s possible that I’m over-simplifying – I did lose the will to live fairly early on – but I don’t think so. It all has a hippy, undergraduate feel – drugs and drink seem to feature quite heavily at the points of her ‘insights’. She cherry-picks the bits of philosophy that she thinks give some intellectual grounding to her rather unstructured rambling, but they really don’t. The whole thing is too sloppy and unfocused to shed much light on anything. And, being honest, I never felt she was convinced of her own arguments.
I wondered, fleetingly, at the fact that the two people I have known reasonably well who have been diagnosed with psychotic disorders were, variously, raised by academic metaphysicians or philosophy students at the time of diagnosis. Perhaps overthinking makes you mad. Perhaps mad people are merely thinkers.
Ignoring the clumsiness of the sentence structure, this is her reasoning for why people with psychotic illnesses should seek treatment from shamans rather than conventional resources. One wonders if she considered the possibility that, since she’s spent her life in and around academia, she probably meets a disproportionately high number of academic types, perhaps just possibly skewing the results of her in-depth survey.
Partly, the problem is that she makes assumptions to suit her agenda with no corresponding evidence. For example, she makes a big point about how conventional religion has destroyed the traditional way in which early pagans actively joined in with ritual celebrations (though how she knows they did this is an unexplained mystery – time travel? Mystical messages from the great beyond? Perhaps a tree told her…), so that now they tend to be made up of performers and audience, rather than participants. She, of course, sees this as a loss, so much so that she assumes that’s unarguable.
But I reckon that even if, for the sake of argument, one accepts her assumptions about pagan rituals, lots of people would argue that sacrifices and orgies might not be such a loss, and perhaps our more reserved behaviour is a sign of civilisation – or in Scotland, perhaps just a response to it rarely being warm enough to encourage us to get our kit off outdoors. Also, she frequently repeats that she is an atheist which, therefore, would obviously make her feel like an onlooker at a Christian ceremony. (I’m trying so hard not to say “Duh!”) I’m an atheist, too, but I’m willing to bet that true believers probably feel like participants in their religious practices rather than audience members.
As the book wears on, Lyon rambles around England and bits of Europe in a totally unstructured way, going to visit tree-hugging shamans and attending festivals at Stonehenge and other such trite remnants of hippy culture, where she learns that apparently the best way to celebrate life is to get stoned out of your head. When she started nostalgically bleating on about how Ecstasy had been a brilliant thing in the ’90s for bringing young people together in shared experiences, I realised with a twinge of pity that she really didn’t have a clue it’s the youthfulness that achieves that, not the drugs.
In conclusion, good prose style, some averagely decent nature writing, occasional shafts of humour, but the bulk of it is basically twaddle. As she neared the end, Lyon admitted she’d kind of lost interest in her original aim of creating a new Green Man sex cult. She wasn’t alone.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Faber and Faber.
As WW2 is beginning, Grace receives a visit from Charles-Edouard, an aristocratic French friend of her fiancé, Hugh. Within a month, poor Hugh has been dumped, Charles-Edouard and Grace have married and C-E has gone off to war. Finding herself pregnant, Grace goes off to live in her father’s country house, and waits seven long years for C-E to return. When he does, he promptly whisks Grace and the child, Sigi, off to France, where he divides his time between his wife and his mistresses. Eventually Grace leaves him, and the big question is will they get back together? Sigi is enjoying having two parents vying to spoil him most, so he sets out to do everything he can to keep them apart…
Pretending to be a satire, it’s actually a nice little fluffy romance of the type where the man is a worthless, faithless leftover from a dying breed, and the woman is a bucolic, intellectually-challenged leftover from another dying breed. Hmm… I’m struggling to think of anything to say about it, really. Not my kind of thing, as it turns out. The “insights” into French society feel about as realistic as Wodehouse’s England, but unfortunately the book lacks either the humour or good-natured charm of his work. I think it’s supposed to be funny though…
I skipped the last 40 pages because, you know, who cares if they get back together?
She sits at the screen, fingers drumming lightly on the keyboard.
“Lo-li-ta,” she murmurs, checking if the tip of her tongue takes a trip of three steps down her palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. No – her tongue remains firmly behind her teeth at every step. Having mastered counting to ten in Russian at school, she tries it in a Russian accent. “Lo-LI-ta!” Hmm…better, but still not quite there. In the background, the News Channel is discussing whether the UK has managed to blow up anything useful in Syria. “Lo-li-ta!” She becomes aware of the ticking of the clock – a surprise, since all the various clocks in the room are digital. And each tells her that 30 minutes have passed since she opened the document that stares blankly and somewhat accusingly from the screen. Quickly she types:
Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.
Hmm… accurate, but perhaps a bit harsh? She shudders as she is assaulted by a sudden vision of hordes of angry Lolita fans waving placards. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, she mumbles “Lo-li-ta”, then presses delete. The News Channel reports that it’s raining today, will be raining tomorrow and that the medium term forecast is for rain. The damp cat drying its paws on her sweater confirms the report’s accuracy. She makes coffee.
Humbert Humbert falls in love with the twelve-year-old golden-tanned, lentigo-bespeckled daughter of his landlady – little Lo-li-ta…
She ponders, then deletes the hyphens. Then deletes the sentence.
This beautifully written – no, scratch that – This pretentious – no, no, definitely scratch that!
The News Channel is now discussing the ethics of gene-editing. She finds herself wondering if they could edit her genes to turn her into a natural red-head. Or perhaps they could give her a golden tan and lentigo.
Humbert Humbert is genetically programmed to be obsessed by nymphets, and little Lolita is genetically designed to be one…
She sighs, deletes and switches off the TV. The ticking of the clock sounds louder now. She reads a few blog posts, all of which depress her with the conviction that everyone else can always find plenty to say even about books that are basically pulp. Lolita is an acknowledged classic so she should be able to write something deeply insightful and possibly poetic about it, shouldn’t she? A small part of her brain knows exactly what the problem is – that what she wants to write is…
* * * * * * *
Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.
Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was what the book was fundamentally about, I had hoped that it might have some merits that would outweigh the unpleasantness of the subject matter. For example, I’ve read a million reviews saying how wonderfully written it is. At the point where I was dying of tedium around the 40% mark, praying that he would stop repeating himself and just for once say ‘freckles’ rather than consulting his thesaurus and coming up with ‘lentigo’ instead, I rechecked some of the reviews and noted the little rider that 90% of them add – I paraphrase: “the prose is wonderful, considering he wasn’t writing in his first language”. Aha! If only I’d paid more attention – ‘cos, in general, anytime anyone follows the word “wonderful” with the word “considering” that usually equates to “not really wonderful at all”. Certainly his love of words shines through, and I grant his mastery of English is considerably greater than many native speakers’. But the purpose of a wide vocabulary is surely to enable one to communicate more effectively – not to spend one’s time replacing perfectly functional commonplace words with others that are never used. Unless one is compiling a cryptic crossword…
Of course, had I been swept up in the masterful story-telling, I wouldn’t have had time to get picky about the pretentiousness of the language. But I fear I didn’t find the storytelling masterful at all. Surprising, since Nabokov tells us in his foreword (written tongue-in-cheek as if by a fictional character but still managing to sound rather nauseatingly self-complimentary) that Humbert has written a great work of art, and goes on to say…
“…how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”
Hmm! Well… anyway…
Perhaps at the time of writing the whole concept of grooming a child would have been shocking, but frankly it’s a story we hear time and again now, both in reality and in fiction, so its shock value is considerably lessened. Its unpleasantness, however, remains. I think the thing I liked least about it was the attempt to make the story humorous. While Nabokov does often remind us of the real cruelty at the heart of the story – for instance, when he mentions Lolita crying herself to sleep each night – I felt that he was painting Humbert in too sympathetic a light, though I wasn’t sure that this was his intention. And conversely, showing Lolita as too well able to cope with the abuse both as it happened and afterwards. In fact, Lolita’s strength is in a sense a get out of jail free card for Humbert (or Nabokov), because Nabokov would have found it much more difficult to put in his little “jokes”, surely, had Lolita been portrayed more truthfully. I spent much of my time debating whether the falseness of Lolita’s character was a deliberate effect of Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator, but actually I couldn’t convince myself that he is unreliable. I think we are supposed to accept that events happened as he describes them, which left me with real credibility problems.
Certainly we are not supposed to assume that the book has any meaning deeper than the story it tells – Nabokov himself makes this clear, in his afterword…
“There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
I agree – it is meaningless and it has no moral in tow. Sadly it did not provoke in me any feelings of bliss, aesthetic or otherwise – though it does have the distinction of being the only book I remember reading that both bored me and made me want to vomit simultaneously. Screeds of it are tediously repetitive – the pages and pages where he describes all the different kinds of hotels they stay in read like some kind of holiday brochure written by an aspiring poet doing a summer job, or perhaps more like the reviews on TripAdvisor, only with better spelling. I would have skipped through to the good bits only I couldn’t find out where they were. One more lingering description of Lolita’s golden tan would have provoked me to start campaigning for compulsory sunscreen. And just when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was forced to live through the most ridiculous climax (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstances) with some of the least convincing dialogue I have ever read.
“Ah, that hurts, sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.”
My feelings exactly. So, it’s very well written, considering English isn’t his first language. And that’s pretty much the best I can find to say about it.
* * * * * * *
…but she knows that would be an ill-tempered rant rather than a review. Exasperated, she presses delete and switches off the laptop. Maybe tomorrow…
Sebastian von Eschburg has a troubled childhood. Son of a mother who seems incapable of warmth and a father who is terminally depressed, he also has a condition, never quite confirmed to be synaesthesia, that means he sees colours oddly and has visual hallucinations. This condition has little relevance to anything that actually happens, but is there to give us a great big pointer that the book is ‘about’ the differences between truth, perception and reality. When he grows up, Sebastian becomes an artist who creates sleazy photographs – sorry, I mean wonderful art installations – based mainly on the sexual exploitation of naked women, which is described graphically and at length. He is unable to express emotion except through his ‘art’, but manages to form a relationship with Sofia, an admirer of his work.
The first half of the novella-length book is taken up with a tedious description of Sebastian’s early life. Despite the sometimes shocking events of his childhood, the writing style strips it of any emotion – it is full of short, staccato sentences, attempting to sound profound but failing, combined with some utterly unrealistic sounding dialogue…
“Did you know that the colours of your photographs, that sepia colour, is the ink of the squid? Many doctors prescribe it for depression, to cure loneliness and a sense of the void. They say it can heal a human being’s wounded dignity.”
I read most of this first section thinking that the book was set in either the ’30s or the ’50s, but it transpires that in fact the book is supposedly contemporary, meaning that Sebastian’s childhood must have been in the late ’80s at the earliest. This curious time displacement is not, I think, deliberate, but simply an effect of not terribly good writing. Admittedly some of the problem may rest with the translation, which is remarkably clunky considering it’s between two languages and cultures as similar as German and English. There are in fact some things which must surely be translation errors – for instance, at one point, the book mentions the “capital offences department” of the public prosecution team. As a lawyer, presumably von Schirach is aware that capital punishment was abolished in Germany decades ago, long before the period in which this book is set, but perhaps the translator is not. A case, maybe, of a literal translation of a word without paying enough attention to its cultural meaning in context.
After its lengthy and tedious preamble, the book takes a sudden turn in the second half, when Sebastian is arrested for murder, and the second half is about the trial. Difficult without spoilers, but this whole section is ridiculous – my credulity meter went off the scale within a few pages and never recovered. I simply don’t believe that any part of this can reflect the German legal system. As well as using a blunt instrument to bludgeon the reader with his point about reality and perception, we are also treated to an irrelevant rant about the morality or otherwise of torture being used on suspects during interrogation. Fair enough, except that von Schirach can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s trying to imply that torture is routine or exceptional. Either way, the torture scene as it’s written is so incredible it’s almost laughable, and I fear the same goes for the later court scenes too.
I enjoyed von Schirach’s The Collini Case very much, but I fear this one had all of its weaknesses and none of its strengths. I’m not sure that it ever had anything profound to say about art or perception but if it had it lost it somewhere between the tedium of the first half and the sheer unbelievability of the second. A disappointment.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown.
When she was a little girl, Nomi’s house was invaded by soldiers. They brutally killed her father and her mother fled with Nomi, looking for safety. But they became separated and Nomi was eventually taken in by an ashram run by a charismatic guru, where she spent her childhood years. Now, in the present, she is on her way to Jarmuli to make a documentary, and also to seek some answers about her past. On the same train are three elderly women, off on holiday together.
It is an unwritten law that the Booker longlist will always contain at least one book from or about India. Unfortunately that law doesn’t seem to specify that the book should be good. Which is a pity, since some of the best writing in the English language comes out of India, so one wonders why the Booker committee ends up picking ones like this.
This is a trite mish-mash of oh so liberal concerns piled together in yet another of the great tradition of Indian misery novels – the ones that suggest there is nothing good about India and no hope for change. We have child abuse, rape, dementia, the subordination of women and gays, violence – both domestic and war. Oh, and poverty, religious mania, animal cruelty and madness. And a dying dog, naturally.
The following is a genuine quote from the book, not a pastiche of it, I promise. A depressed drunk is swept out to sea on a current…
He would not move his arms. He would not move at all. The sea could have him. Out there somewhere his wife was drinking beer, eating sandwiches, making love with his friend, and that dog was dying.
Or how about Nomi, on a sunlit day, looking out at the sea…
She had seen – she counted – the Sargasso Sea, the Chilean Sea, the North Sea, the Bass Strait, the South China Sea. She’d even dipped a toe in the Baltic Sea – that was icy – and grey like slate. Whole shiploads of children drowned in the Baltic Sea during the Second World War. Think how they died. Frozen.
I am not for one moment suggesting that India doesn’t have deep problems of poverty, inequality and violence, but I am tired of reading books that simply describe these things without offering anything in the way of contrast or hope. It feels like a kind of voyeuristic wallowing, bathos in its purest form; especially in this one, where there’s no feeling of political anger driving it, as there is for example in Mistry’s equally miserable but much better written A Fine Balance. On the upside, this one is much shorter.
For the most part, the writing is average. It starts off quite strongly with the description of the attack on Nomi’s village, and then the introduction of the older women. But within a few chapters it sinks into being a list of one sad or violent or abusive incident after another until it eventually drowns itself in a morass of woe, while the pedestrian prose does nothing to buoy it up. I found the characters became increasingly unconvincing as the book dragged on – as I’ve remarked before about other Indian novels they are merely puppets to be tortured at the whim of the author for the supposed entertainment of the reader. This reader was left feeling unentertained, unenlightened, uninspired and unmoved.
And unbelieving that this book was longlisted when the profound and beautifully written The Way Things Were was not…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus Books.
Maud and Tim are an unlikely couple – he gregarious and open, she lacking any kind of personality whatsoever, of any kind, and apparently unable to speak in sentences longer than four words, despite her intelligence. However, he falls in love with her and she… well, acquiesces is the word that springs to mind. They have a good deal of fairly passionless yet intimately described sex which, thankfully, results at last in a pregnancy. I say thankfully because the exhaustion brought on by the child stops them having more sex for a while. But after a few years of living together, during which Maud’s contribution to the household conversation gradually adds up to roughly twenty words, tragedy strikes! No, sadly not Maud. She survives – proving yet again that there is no justice in this world. Unable to express her emotions, assuming she has any, Maud takes off in her beloved boat where she can sail and sail and sail without having to speak to anyone at all. Fortunately she manages to have a last bout of sex just before weighing anchor, just in case any reader was missing it…
Oh dear! Sometimes a book and a reader just don’t gel and I fear that’s the case with this reader and this book. And yet I feel I’m probably being unfair. It reminded me in many ways of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, only much better written I hasten to add, and while I thought that book was pretty awful, 99% of the rest of the universe seemed to think it was wonderful. Basically it’s a coming to terms with grief story but with a central character with so little personality that I couldn’t feel any empathy for her. Perhaps we’re supposed to assume that inside she’s a seething cauldron of suppressed emotion, but if so it’s too well suppressed. Or perhaps she’s supposed to be autistic. I don’t know – but she behaves like a speech-free automaton for the whole book, forming no real relationships with any of the other characters, though of course all the men she meets are attracted to her, for no reason I could understand.
The first half is taken up with her one-sided relationship with Tim, who seems to think she’s vulnerable and that he needs to take care of her. But in fact, she’s so self-sufficient that the rest of the world doesn’t really impinge on her at all. When their child is born, Maud returns to work leaving Tim to be the child-carer. After a failed attempt to get the baby to enjoy sailing, Maud begins to leave Tim and the child at home at weekends while she goes off alone in her beloved boat.
The tragedy happens about halfway through and from there on the book tells us of Maud’s attempt to deal with her (presumed) grief by taking to the seas on a solo sailing trip. I hoped that might be more interesting but sadly Maud’s lack of emotion now becomes coupled with endless, tediously over-detailed descriptions of how to sail a boat, using a bunch of nautical terminology that meant most of it created no images in my mind…
She shackles the tack to the base of the spare stay then hanks on until she reaches the head. Every thirty seconds the sea sweeps over her legs. Water forces itself up the inside of her salopettes, forces itself under her jacket, down the back of her salopettes. She crawls to the mast, drops the remains of the mainsail, binds it with bungees, then bangs her shoulders against the mast while she finds a halyard for the storm jib. She uncleats the halyard, slithers back to the jib, undoes the halyard shackle with the marlinspike she once gave to Tim as a present but which later, somehow, became her marlinspike, attaches the head of the jib, frees the sheets from the furling jib, reties the bowlins through the clew of the storm jib, hoists the jib from the mast, regains the cockpit, sheets in the jib, cleats it, and sits on the grid of the cockpit sole, her chest heaving, her clothes soaked through.
Perhaps people who sail will find this kind of description riveting, but I’m afraid I found it about as thrilling as the instructions on a piece of Ikea do-it-yourself furniture, and even less comprehensible. By the two-thirds stage I was skimming pages, hoping desperately to get to the end.
And then the ending brings the same kind of semi-mystical mumbo-jumbo that nauseated me so much in Harold Fry. Miller avoids the sickly sweetness of that book, but unfortunately also avoids either credibility or emotional warmth. So, highly recommended to people who love Harold Fry, sailing terminology and silent automatons, but for everyone else… not so much.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton.
Andrew J Rush is a middlingly successful writer of traditional style crime novels. But he has an alter-ego – under the pen name of Jack of Spades he writes grubby and graphic noir shockers. No-one knows about this secret – not even his wife and children. But when an elderly woman accuses him of plagiarism, Rush feels his whole reputation is threatened and, as he finds his life spiralling out of control, Jack comes more to the surface, tempting Rush to do things his respectable side would be horrified by.
One has to wonder why, when Robert Louis Stevenson had already made such a great job of writing The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Ms Oates felt that it would be a good idea to re-hash the story rather poorly. I’ve said this before about other books and writers, but if an author sets herself up to invite comparison, she really needs to make sure that her skills are up to the task. This is nothing more than a short piece of pulp fiction – psychologically weak, poor characterisation, unbelievable hole-filled plot and none of the insights on morality and society that give depth to the original. The horror that comes through so well in Jekyll and Hyde is entirely absent from this, partly because Oates seems unable to decide if she is going for horror or humour. While Oates writes reasonably well overall, there are some horrendously clanging awfulnesses in my proof copy which I seriously hoped would be edited out before the final version was published. A sneak peek at the Kindle sample, however, suggests sadly not…
…as the ax-blade crashed and sank into the splintering desk beside my head, missing my head by inches; by which time I’d fallen heavily onto the floor…
(Hmm! One has to assume he’d left his head on the desk when he fell on the floor – detached, one wonders, or just an exceptionally long neck…?)
Andrew J Rush is a man with an outsize ego whose level of success hasn’t reached the heights he would like. On the outside, he’s a happily married man who fits well in to the suburban life that he lives. But on the inside he’s a self-centred egotist with a well developed streak of misogyny, and a history of using other people’s ideas to his own advantage. It’s clear from early on that he enjoys the freedom to express the less pleasant aspects of his personality through his Jack of Spades books. He aspires to be the next Stephen King, only sleazier, and his obsession with King provides much of the humour, along with some barbed observations on the world of crime writing and publishing.
But I’m afraid the humour wears thin pretty quickly, leaving very little else to admire. The Andrew/Jack personality split never feels real and the novella doesn’t achieve the level of darkness I think it’s aiming for. There’s more to writing dark stories, even black comedies, than just tossing in a bit of violence every now and again. Given how he has treated her over many years, Andrew’s wife would undoubtedly have left him – Oates fails totally to provide her with a characterisation that would have made it seem reasonable for her to have stayed with him. And that’s the problem with the whole thing really – nothing rings true. It feels as if the work hasn’t been put in to create enough of a coherent and credible base to carry the reader along when the plot necessarily stretches belief towards the end.
A disappointment, I’m afraid, that leaves me unenthusiastic about trying any of her other books.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.
When developers start to dig up a field prior to building houses on it, the work is brought to a sudden halt by the discovery of a buried WW2 plane, complete with partially mummified corpse. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is called in, and spots something the police have unaccountably missed – a bullet hole in the corpse’s forehead. Immediately knowing (psychically) that this wound was not caused during an airfight, she leaps to the conclusion that the man was the victim of murder.
When Elly Griffiths is on form, she’s one of my favourite writers, so it saddens me to say that she is most definitely not on form in this book. The fundamental problem with amateur detectives in contemporary novels is that it becomes increasingly difficult for authors to find ways to link them to crimes. Griffiths has got round that in this one by really pretty much ignoring the crime and detection element, and writing a rather tired middle-aged love triangle instead – actually a love star, to be more accurate, since there are a total of five middle-aged people all either getting up to hanky-panky or wishing they could, usually with people other than their partners. Fascinating if anyone still cares whether Ruth and Nelson will ever get together, but I lost interest in that strand about four books ago. Ruth really has to stop hankering over someone else’s husband and move on, and in the last book I thought she might actually be about to do so. Sadly not.
The plot is both thin and full of holes, and drags on for ever with Nelson doing absolutely nothing towards actually solving the mystery. It shouldn’t really be too hard either. Given that the victim was murdered during the war, then the killer must be either dead or in his late ’80s at the youngest – narrows the field of suspects somewhat, don’t you think? So since we know from the start by a quick arithmetical calculation that we can exclude almost every character from suspicion, there’s not much tension. Except perhaps the tension of wondering how long it will be before Nelson and Ruth suss out what’s staring the rest of us in the face. But their inability to work it out means that there’s time for another murder to be done, finally expanding the field of suspects and throwing open the possibility that Nelson could start interviews or look for clues or stake people out or… well, something! But no, he sends off for DNA tests and we all wait and wait for them to come back, while the characters fill in the time with some fairly passionless flirting.
Oh dear! I could mention that the reason the body is in the field is silly and contrived, or that to go along with the no detection there is also no archaeology to speak of. I could sigh over the fact that the book is written in the usual tedious present tense (third person) which really is not suited to a book that takes place over a period of months, and which feels even clumsier in this book than usual. Or I could mention that Ruth’s low self-esteem and constant self-criticism become increasingly tedious as the series wears on – another thing I thought she was beginning to get over in the last outing. Oh! It appears I just did mention them!
On the upside, Griffiths, as always, creates a good sense of place in this bleak Norfolk landscape, and her characterisation of Ruth is excellent, even if I find the character progressively more irritating. And while the bulk of the book is a drag with nothing much happening except love/lust affairs, the thrillerish ending is well written and enjoyable. But I’m afraid overall I think this is one for die-hard fans only – it’s getting hosts of 5-stars, so it must be working for some people. But I think this fan has stopped being die-hard – the standard in the series seems to oscillate wildly from brilliant to pretty poor, and in my opinion it’s time to draw it to a close and for Griffiths to move on to something different. Her last book, The Zig Zag Girl, not a Ruth Galloway one, was far superior to this in every way.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.
C. Auguste Dupin is credited with being the first fictional detective and was the influence for many later ones, not least my beloved Sherlock Holmes. So it seems only fair that he make an appearance in this week’s…
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
This is the third and last of Poe’s Dupin stories, and also the shortest. The first, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a gruesome, gory mystery with possibly the silliest murderer in detective fiction. The Mystery of Marie Rogêt was Poe’s attempt to provide a solution to a true crime – the first time this had been done in the form of fiction. While I appreciated both stories for their originality and influential status, I found Dupin an annoying creation and wasn’t particularly enamoured of Poe’s writing style in these stories. So I came to the third one with reasonably low expectations, which Poe met in full.
The plot concerns a letter, stolen from an unnamed lady, probably the Queen, the contents of which, if they were made public, would be damaging to the lady’s husband, probably the King. One evening, as Dupin and the narrator are sitting in Dupin’s library, they are interrupted by the arrival of the Prefect of the Parisian Police, known only as G (which brings me to my first annoyance – if telling a fictional story, why not give the man a fictional name and have done? If the intention is to make it seem as if it’s a true story, then by telling us his title Poe has already destroyed his anonymity). G tells Dupin that it is known who stole the letter, a government Minister, known only as D (sigh). D is now using the letter to blackmail the unnamed lady (let’s call her Q). G also says it is assumed that D must have the letter close at hand, so that he can make use of it or destroy it if need be. Dupin agrees with this assumption. G then describes the meticulous searches that have been carried out of D’s property, including taking furniture apart, lifting carpets and examining every inch of the place with microscopes – all while D is away from home and remarkably leaving no traces of the search for him to find. All to no avail. He asks for Dupin’s advice, and Dupin helpfully tells him to go back and search again. (At this point, had I been G, this would have turned into a murder mystery…)
A whole month later, G is back to say that the reward for the return of the letter has been doubled and that he, G, would cheerfully give 50,000 francs to anyone who could tell him how to find the letter. At this, Dupin tells him to write a cheque, and then hands over the letter. G rushes off happily to collect the reward and Dupin settles down to tell the narrator (N?) of his brilliant deductions.
This might all sound like a spoiler, but the story is actually about how Dupin came to his conclusion as to where the letter was hidden and the bulk of the story happens after he has handed it over to G. Dupin’s basic theory is that G, being fairly dim-witted, was assuming that D would hide the letter somewhere where G himself would have done so, rather than putting himself into D’s mind and considering what he would do. Dupin, being highly intelligent, is able to assess the intelligence of his adversary, thus enabling Dupin to work out where D would be most likely to hide it. It’s a lengthy explanation, with much talk of poets and mathematicians and how their minds work, and I fear I found it frankly dull. My second major annoyance, and I know this was typical of the time, is Poe’s dropping in of bits of Latin and French – even the last line is a quote in French, and I had to google the translation. Clearly Poe was only aiming his story at the highly educated of his time, since I can’t imagine your ‘ordinary’ reader having an in-depth knowledge of the works of Crébillon (who?).
The influence on Sherlock Holmes couldn’t be clearer, but Conan Doyle is a much better story-teller and, for all his faults, Holmes is a much more likeable character. Poe’s narrator has no personality to speak of, nor even a name, while Watson makes up for any warmth that Holmes might lack.
Again I admire the originality and am grateful for anything that inspired the Holmes stories, but this one failed to engage or entertain me. Worth reading, I grudgingly suppose, for its place in the history of detective fiction… here it is.
Time to leave the classics behind for a bit and see what’s new in horror. Stephen Leather was one of the early Kindle sensations and has a devoted following. He is notorious for having admitted to using ‘sock puppet’ accounts to go on all the social networking forums to talk up his own books, apparently even impersonating another author to do so. He writes thrillers and churns them out at a phenomenal rate, along with his supernatural books and stories. And this story is currently no. 2 on the Kindle best-seller list for horror short stories. So it seems ideal for this week’s…
Tracks by Stephen Leather
The two of them gaped through the windscreen in the direction of The Tracks as a thunderous roar overwhelmed their ears and a blinding light approached at frightening speed. No, not a light, a collection of lights, red, blue and green, flickering through the trees racing towards them as the noise grew to a deafening pitch and volume. And then it was gone.
The night was plunged into darkness once again, and simultaneously a heart-rending scream of agonized terror cut through the sudden silence.
An elderly man with dementia leaves his home in the middle of the night wearing only his pyjamas. His body is found the next day, 7 miles away, smashed and mangled on the tracks of a long-disused railway line. The police are baffled, so his daughter asks for help from private investigator Jack Nightingale.
Apparently Jack Nightingale has appeared in several books and stories before this one, but this works fine as a standalone. He appears to get his cases via a mysterious Mrs Steadman who contacts him on the astral plane. He is British but in this story is working in America. The mysterious death has happened in a town in Utah, bordering the Navajo Nation territories. So it’s not a huge surprise that the supernatural occurrences come courtesy of medicine men, cursed wampum, evil spirits, etc., (though perhaps a little surprising that a Native American spirit should be impersonating a train…)
When a second elderly man dies, Jack’s client tells him that he had been a close friend of her father, along with two other men. Unfortunately it doesn’t occur to anyone to ask the two survivors if there might be a reason for the deaths, and the super-efficient Chief of Police decides they don’t really need protection because they’re elderly and unlikely to leave their houses in the middle of the night. Uh? She clearly didn’t spot that the first two had done just that. So (after the third death) Jack sets up watch over victim 4, not to save him, you understand, just to find out what’s going on. A pity really, because if he’d asked any of his readers, I reckon we could all have told him…
The old man emptied his beer bottle in one long pull. “This is strong medicine, the strongest. A wampum to summon Otshee Monetoo, the evil spirit. The spirit of death. Take this from my house now.”
I’m afraid this is a bit of a pot-boiler – I’d reckon roughly zero effort went into it. The whole Native American bit reads like a Brit who knows nothing so just throws out a few clichés he’s picked up from old pulp fiction or cowboy films. The fear factor is non-existent, largely because there’s no attempt at creating atmosphere. The writing is workmanlike, though one can’t help but feel a quick read-through before pressing ‘Publish’ would have enabled him to eliminate the worst of the errors – such as describing the dress and hairstyle of a character twice, differently, in the same scene. It left me baffled as to how the medicine man’s two pigtails had turned into one ponytail – not to mention a complete change of clothing – and even more baffled as to why no-one had noticed this miraculous transformation happening! Truly spooky!
I wonder if people will still be reading this story in a hundred years’ time…
A dogwalker discovers the body of a young woman, strangled to death, in a park. Oddly, we are told this by Eve, the dead woman, herself – her ghostly narrative forming one of the voices in the book. The main focus of the book, however, is on Melody, a previous victim of the murderer, it is assumed. Melody lived, but has lost all but the vaguest memories of that night and so can’t identify her attacker. Six years on, she is still trying to get over the psychological effects of her experience, and this new attack brings all the original terror back to the surface for her. The third viewpoint is that of the detective in charge of both cases, DI Victoria Rutter, who starts out convinced that the man she put away for the first crime must be guilty of the second too. However, events soon cast doubt on that and both Melody and Victoria have to consider that the first verdict may have been wrong.
I hold my hands up – I abandoned this book not far past the halfway point, and flicked ahead to see whodunit. Not that I cared, except to feel a little sorry that he hadn’t managed to finish the job properly on Moaning Melody. But I seem to be in a tiny minority – the book is garnering 4 and 5 star reviews, so I wouldn’t let my reaction put you off.
It was always going to be a big ask for me to take a ghostly narrator seriously – it’s becoming another of these tediously clichéd bandwagons that crime fiction seems to create so often these days. But Eve revels in her tragedy, constantly telling us of how devastated her friends and family are – how broken and lost they are without her. OK, this would probably be a true reaction, but it really doesn’t sit well coming from the mouth of the dear departed. I fear I got the image in my head early on of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn attending their own funeral, and every time Eve told me gloatingly of how her mother was drowning in grief, it made me giggle. Not the intended reaction, I suspect.
Miserable Melody, on the other hand, plunged me into dismal depression every time she opened her mouth. In real life, I would hope to have a good deal of sympathy for a survivor of a dreadful attack, but in crime fiction I feel there ought to be a limit to how much time we are asked to devote to listening to a monotony of woe. At one point, she says she knows the people around her want her to move on and stop wallowing in the past, and I felt rather guilty since that was pretty much my own feeling. It seemed strange that the dead girl seemed so much cheerier about her lot than the live one. Melancholy Melody’s relationship with her soon-to-be husband seemed most odd too. Given that she was terminally depressed, more than a little obsessive, and absolutely no fun to spend time with – a thing acknowledged by both of them – I couldn’t help wondering why he wanted to marry her. That was more mysterious than the question of whodunit, actually.
I didn’t get any feel for DI Rutter’s character at all – perhaps she was developed more in the second half of the book. The writing is OK for the most part, but not special enough to make the pseudo-psychobabble bearable – for this reader anyway. Sometimes a book works for you, sometimes it doesn’t…
Our narrator, Jamie Morton, first meets Pastor Charles Jacobs when Jamie is a little boy. Jacobs has come to the quiet little town to be the new pastor, and his wife and young son soon follow. For a few years all is well, and Jamie gets to know him better through the youth club attached to the church, where Jacobs teaches the kids not just about God but about his other great passion, electricity. But when a horrific accident occurs, Jacobs loses his faith in God and leaves the parish. Many years later, when Jamie is an adult, they meet again – the first of several meetings throughout their lives. As time passes, Jacobs becomes a faith healer, using his knowledge of electricity to produce what seem like miraculous cures, and hiding this ability behind a fake veneer of religious fervour. But Jacobs has a secret ambition and he intends to involve Jamie in achieving it…
I give up on Stephen King – I really do. I absolutely don’t understand what people see in him. This book is astoundingly dull, meandering and derivative; and, even worse, it’s not the tiniest bit scary. The writing is fine – nothing special – but it’s a short-story plot buried alive under a ton-weight of irrelevant minutiae. We get hundreds of pages of Jamie’s whole life story – an unremarkable one. We get a blow by blow account of his entire childhood and adolescence with no detail omitted – first kiss, first sex, even first cigarette – good grief! He becomes a guitarist, so we get pages of stuff about what chords are used in rock’n’roll songs of the ’70s (let’s face it, we all know ’70s guitarists only knew three chords, even when they were sober). We get his up-and-down career, his heroin addiction, his affair with a younger woman (funny how all fictional men seem able to achieve that particular piece of wish fulfilment, isn’t it?), all in tedious and prolonged detail. I’ve managed to fit his dull life into around 100 words (including sarcastic asides) – why did King take 300 or more pages? And every 100 pages or so, Jacobs puts in a brief appearance, just to remind the reader that there’s supposed to be a story in there somewhere.
Finally, in the last quarter or so of the book, we get down to the point. Jacobs has by this time morphed into a sinister villain type. He has found the secret of an ancient power mentioned in the old books, such as Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (which is of course a fictional tome to which Lovecraft frequently referred in his own works) and intends to use the power for purposes he won’t reveal to Jamie until the time comes. He cons Jamie into participating and then…suddenly we’re in a Lovecraft-meets-Frankenstein pastiche with no originality to it at all. And no scariness. And no credibility. Even the name he gives to the secret he has found is laughably pedestrian. And then…
Climax over, does he finish? Oh no, King clearly thinks we’re not miserably depressed enough yet, so we go back to Jamie’s tedious life and ramble on for what seems like forever, with Jamie even more dismal than he was when he was a heroin addict. Every now and again we’d reach a point where I thought that must surely be it, but he’d always find yet another little bit of woe to tack on. I gave it every chance to thrill by listening late at night with the lights off – I haven’t had so many good nights’ sleep in years. I tried, Mr King, I really tried…
I listened to the Audible audiobook version of this, narrated by David Morse, who did his very best with the material available. But it’s true what they say about sows’ ears.
NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.
High Court judge Fiona Maye’s comfortable life is rocked when her husband of many years announces that he would like her permission to have an affair. The poor man has his reasons – apparently he and Fiona haven’t had sex for seven weeks and one day so you can understand his desperation. (Am I sounding unsympathetic? Oh, I haven’t even begun…) This shattering event happens just before Fiona is to preside over a case where a hospital is seeking permission to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukaemia, over the religious objections of the boy himself, his parents and the elders of his church. In her emotional turmoil over her marriage, Fiona allows herself to become personally involved in the case, throwing her carefully nurtured professionalism to the winds. This is the story of what happens to Fiona’s marriage and to the boy…
His face had been tight as he shrugged and turned to leave the room. At the sight of his retreating back, she felt the same cold fear. She would have called after him but for the dread of being ignored. And what could she say? Hold me, kiss me, have the girl. She had listened to his footsteps down the hall, their bedroom door closing firmly, then silence settling over their flat, silence and the rain that hadn’t stopped in a month.
I have a strange relationship with Ian McEwan’s books. I find his writing style very compelling and occasionally he writes a brilliant book – Atonement, Enduring Love. At other times I find his subject matter banal or designed merely to shock. This one falls into the banal category. He has set out to have a go at religion or, as he likes to term it, supernatural belief, and has chosen a hackneyed plot to do so. The whole idea of whether the state should intervene when a child’s life is at risk because of a religious belief has been debated ad nauseam and McEwan has nothing new or even interesting to say on the subject. But that’s not his purpose anyway. He is really setting out to show how religion is an evil thing from which children require protection. He makes it crystal clear that he believes that children brought up in a faith are really victims of indoctrination and need to be saved – the suggestion hovers unspoken that it is tantamount to a form of child abuse. The central case concentrates on the Witnesses because, of course, they’re an easy target, but he manages to get in criticisms of Jews, Muslims and Catholics too. He openly suggests that the beliefs of Adam’s parents are superficial and that they will be glad if the court overrides them as that will get them off the hook and see them alright with God and their church – and he implies that that superficiality is common to all who profess religious beliefs. In fact, and I speak as an atheist here, his denigration of the sincerity of religious belief left me feeling furious and a little soiled. I find the attitude held by some atheists that theirs is the only possible right answer displays an arrogance greater than that of most religious people of whatever faith.
He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.
Of course, it’s quite possible to disagree vehemently with an author’s point and still find the book to be worthwhile. Certainly this one starts off well. The description of Fiona’s shock at her husband’s request is done well and the story of how their relationship develops from that point has much about it that feels convincing. But McEwan has obviously done a ton of research on how the courts work and on the life of a High Court judge, and he has determinedly shoe-horned it all in at the expense of any sense of forward momentum for large parts of the book. While his descriptions are written well for the most part, sometimes he gives far too much detail of stuff that is both trivial and irrelevant, leaving me impatiently turning pages in the hopes that we might return to the story sometime soon. And while I found the characters of Fiona and her husband believable, I found them both to be cold and rather detached, not just from each other but from life. McEwan suggests that Fiona is realising too late that perhaps she should have made time to have children – largely so she’d have someone to sympathise with her over her husband’s desertion, it would appear. Again I found this banal – wouldn’t it be interesting if just once an author didn’t suggest that a woman can only find fulfilment through breeding? Unsurprisingly the husband didn’t seem to feel the lack of children at all…
But from a literary point of view it’s the story of the boy, Adam, that’s the real problem. We are told several times that he is mature for his age but, despite having the vocabulary and speaking style of a middle-aged Oxford don, he acts more like a thirteen-year-old adolescent than someone on the cusp of manhood. His reaction to Fiona’s decision left me entirely unconvinced, while his personal reaction to this 59-year-old woman verges on the ludicrous, as does her behaviour towards him. Not only does she behave unprofessionally, which she at least recognises, but her behaviour is inhumane – or perhaps more accurately, unhuman. Adam’s behaviour is manipulated clumsily to make McEwan’s point about the evil effects of a religious upbringing, meaning that he at no point seems like anything more than a cipher. And the ending is so deeply coloured by McEwan’s clear hatred of religion that it has no ring of truth or compassion to it at all.
‘Of course they didn’t want me to die! They love me. Why didn’t they say that, instead of going on about the joys of heaven? That’s when I saw it as an ordinary human thing. Ordinary and good. It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.’
Overall, this is one I rather wish I hadn’t read. The quality of the prose is the only thing that raises it above 1-star status, but I feel I’ve had enough of McEwan now. I think he has finally removed himself from my must-read list…
When DI Lorraine Fisher goes for a visit to her sister, taking her younger daughter with her, it’s supposed to be a holiday. But this quiet little town in Warwickshire was the scene of a spate of teenage suicides a few years back and it looks like it’s all beginning again. And Lorraine’s nephew Freddy is showing all the signs of being one of the possible victims…
I really enjoyed Samantha Hayes’ Until You’re Mine, in which Lorraine first made her appearance. So it was a double disappointment to me to find that this one reads like a first draft. There are so many problems with it, it’s hard to know where to begin. Continuity issues – a girl removes her motorcycle helmet then slowly raises her hands to her head, finding it very painful to do so – one has to wonder what she removed her helmet with – her feet? Inaccuracies – a hospital doctor who keeps his patients’ notes on an unsecured home laptop? Hardly! Gaping holes – the teenager who hacks past a password control on a computer, with absolutely no indication of how he did it or where he might have acquired this skill. And the forensics people are clearly idiots – they fail to notice minor details like a supposed suicide victim having been given a kicking or that the handwriting on a note might not be that of the person who supposedly wrote it.
But all these flaws could have been dealt with by a proper edit. The real problem with the book lies in the much more serious matter of the characterisation. None of the characters rang true to me, with the possible exception of Lorraine. It was as if they were there purely to serve the plot and were only developed in so far as was necessary for that purpose. So for example, we never find out why the teenage bullying victim is being bullied or by whom – he just has to be bullied so that it is credible to think he might commit suicide. The local police are of course incompetent to allow Lorraine to have an excuse to butt in to the investigation. One character is made to appear so ridiculously over-the-top creepy it’s like watching the villain at a pantomime – I felt an urgent desire to shout ‘he’s behind you’ every time he appeared. And the obligatory autistic character, without whom no novel would be complete these days, is so badly written that he comes over as a cross between Boo Radley and Frankenstein’s monster (but without the charm). Again the problem with this character is that he is there to fit the plot rather than vice versa, so sometimes he has to be intelligent and sometimes he has to have the mind of a five-year-old; sometimes he has to be scary and bad, and other times he has to be loving and protective. It’s possible to have a character that contradictory, but only if it’s handled with a great deal of subtlety and sadly in this case it isn’t.
Add to these problems a plot that edges over the credulity line, and it’s hard to find much to recommend, I’m afraid. The whole thing reads as if it’s been rushed into print to capitalise on the success of Until You’re Mine, and as a result hasn’t had the polishing that could have turned this untidy and flawed book into something much, much better. The basic skills are all there, the detective is a likeable one, there’s some originality in the plotting, and because of these things I may read the author’s next book. But I will be sincerely hoping that a bit more time is taken, by author and publisher both, to ensure that it comes out in a more finished form.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.
PS A look at the covers suggests that either they’re really trying to duplicate Until You’re Mine or that they rushed so much they didn’t notice that they’d come up with effectively the same cover design.