Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

“Blood will have blood…”

😀 😀 😀 😀

Back in the last days of high school, Kit Owens became friendly with new girl, Diane Fleming. Beautiful, intelligent Diane encouraged Kit to rise above the modest ambitions she had for herself, and instead set her sights on gaining a scholarship to study biology at university. But Diane also told Kit a secret – something so shocking it ended their friendship and has haunted Kit ever since. Now Kit is working as a postdoc for Dr Severin, a scientist both girls had admired and been inspired by. All Dr Severin’s team are hoping for a coveted spot on a new study she’s beginning, into PMDD – Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder – an extreme form of PMT. But suddenly Dr Severin announces she’s taking on a new team member. Kit is appalled to discover that her old friend Diane is now to be her colleague and rival. Old secrets turn into new nightmares…

I always love the way Megan Abbott writes about the hormone-driven intensity of teenage girls and their friendships, but I’m also glad she’s beginning to take her girls into womanhood too in her last couple of books. This follows the almost ubiquitous pattern of current thriller writing of having sections set in past and present (with the past written in past tense and the present in present tense, which is at least slightly more appropriate than some uses of the annoying present tense). It also has a touch of “that day” syndrome (where the narrator keeps referring ominously to something that happened in the past), though in this case the reader is told what happened that day reasonably early on – before I got to full tooth-gnashing, Kindle-hurling mode, although it was close. Kit, of course, is an unreliable narrator. Surprisingly, despite all these stylistic clichés, I enjoyed the book, which is a tribute to Abbott’s writing.

There’s very little I can say about the plot without spoilers. I found the setting of a biology lab intriguing – it feels very well researched and believable, as Abbott shows the teamwork that is essential but also the rivalries for the limited number of grant-funded positions that offer the best opportunities for break-through research and professional triumph. PMDD is a syndrome I hadn’t heard of before, and is mostly peripheral to the plot. But Abbott employs it as a kind of vehicle for using female biology as a theme, with much – too much – concentration on blood. There’s a kind of feeling of throwback to the days of women being perceived as witchy and dangerous because of their dark sexuality. Personally I felt Abbott over-egged that aspect a bit – her adult women seemed to be as intense as her adolescents and, while she clearly wasn’t intending this, it felt to me almost as if she were suggesting that her professional women were all driven to the point of obsession, with an odd unstated link to their femaleness as the root cause. It didn’t ring wholly true to me, though it made for a nicely warped and scary story.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Did I find the plot credible? Well, no, not in the end. But the things that went over the line for me only happened very near the end, so didn’t spoil my enjoyment while reading. As usual, there were one or two twists too many, but that’s another of these laws of contemporary crime writing, sadly. The employment of all these current trends – the present tense, the unreliable first person narrator, the incredible twists, the past/present storyline – prevented me from loving this quite as much as some of her earlier books. But the quality of the writing, the excellent pacing, and the interesting plot and setting meant that as usual Abbott kept me reading well into the wee sma’ hours, so despite my criticisms I recommend it as a thoroughly enjoyable read!

PS I know I’m a tedious pedant but… the past and present sections are headed Then and Now. Fine – simple, clear and means the reader is never left confused. Plus, Now gives some excuse for present tense. Imagine my pedantic surprise then to discover that the final section of the book is headed Ten Years Later. Ten years later than now? You mean, in the future? Are we seeing it through a crystal ball in Divination class? Or do you mean Now is ten years ago – in which case it really can’t be Now, can it? Words matter. Don’t they?

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 163…

Episode 163…

Oh, for goodness sake! The TBR has reached a new all time high of 225 – up 2 since last week! But it’s not my fault! Can I help it if books keep arriving when I’m not ready for them??

Here’s a few more that should be ready for kick-off soon…

Fantasy

I read this not long after it was first published in 1973, in my teens, and loved it even though I wasn’t at all sure that I fully understood it. I’ve always been a bit reluctant to revisit it in case it doesn’t work so well for my more critical adult self, but in the intervening years it has come to be seen as a real classic. It’s been on my TBR for a re-read since 2014, so it’s time to bite the bullet…

The Blurb says: A disturbing exploration of the inevitability of life.

Under Orion’s stars, bluesilver visions torment Tom, Macey and Thomas as they struggle with age-old forces. Distanced from each other in time, and isolated from those they live among, they are yet inextricably bound together by the sacred power of the moon’s axe and each seek their own refuge at Mow Cop.

Can those they love so intensely keep them clinging to reality? Or is the future evermore destined to reflect the past?

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. l loved the other ECR Lorac book currently in the BL’s Crime Classics series, Bats in the Belfry, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life. On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character, and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion. When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

* * * * *

Classic Scottish Fiction

This one isn’t on my Classics Club challenge because I hadn’t heard of it when I prepared my list, but I think I might swap it in. Is this another example of how Scottish culture has become invisible in the shade of the dominant member of the United Kingdom, England? Apparently Ferrier outsold her contemporary Jane Austen at the time their books were published. Since then, Austen has taken over the world, while Ferrier has been all but forgotten. Time to see for myself if that’s to do with the quality of the books…

The Blurb says: Understanding that the purpose of marriage is to further her family, Lady Juliana nevertheless rejects the ageing and unattractive – though appropriately wealthy – suitor of her father’s choice. She elopes, instead, with a handsome, penniless soldier and goes to Scotland to live at Glenfarn Castle, his paternal home. But Lady Juliana finds life in the Scottish highlands dreary and bleak, hastily repenting of following her heart.

After giving birth to twin daughters, Lady Juliana leaves Mary to the care of her sister-in-law, while she returns to England with Adelaide. Sixteen years later, Mary is thoughtful, wise and kind, in comparison to her foolish mother and vain sister.

Following two generations of women, Marriage, first published in 1818, is a shrewdly observant and humorous novel by one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

* * * * *

Thriller

Courtesy of Picador. Just to prove I do still read some new releases! I love Megan Abbott’s dark and twisted stories about the hormone-laden angstiness of being a teenage girl, so I’m looking forward to this one, which seems to start there and then visit the characters again as adults…

The Blurb says: Kit Owens harbored only modest ambitions for herself when the mysterious Diane Fleming appeared in her high school chemistry class. But Diane’s academic brilliance lit a fire in Kit, and the two developed an unlikely friendship. Until Diane shared a secret that changed everything between them.

More than a decade later, Kit thinks she’s put Diane behind her forever and she’s begun to fulfill the scientific dreams Diane awakened in her. But the past comes roaring back when she discovers that Diane is her competition for a position both women covet, taking part in groundbreaking new research led by their idol. Soon enough, the two former friends find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to destroy them both.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *

FictionFan Awards 2017 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

A round of applause, please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2017.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2016 and October 2017 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction/Thriller

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2017

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

* * * * * * * * *

So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in…

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

By modern, in this context, I mean published fairly recently rather than being about contemporary subjects necessarily. I’m still reading far less modern crime than usual as the march of the first-person misery-fest novel continues its relentless rampage – we’ve done Girls, Wives, Twins, even Husbands, but sadly we’ve still got Aunts, Mothers-in-Law and Second Cousins, Twice Removed to go. Happily, though, there have still been some great books that rely on excellent writing, good characterisation and a strong story rather than on the dubious merit of having more twists than an entire ’60s disco…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Dry by Jane Harper

Kiewarra has been suffering from drought for a couple of years now with no sign of rain coming soon. The farmers are worried, many having to kill their livestock for lack of water, and the knock-on effects are being felt through the town. As tensions rise, a tragedy occurs – Luke Hadler shoots his wife and young son, and then kills himself. Or so it seems, but Luke’s parents can’t accept that their son would have done this awful thing. So when Luke’s childhood friend Aaron Falk turns up for the funeral, they ask him to look into it. Falk is now a police detective working in the financial crimes section in Melbourne. It’s twenty years since he was last in Kiewarra, when he and his father left the town under a cloud of suspicion after another death. Many of the townsfolk are unhappy to see him back…

Aaron Falk is an excellent character and the plot is strong and well executed. Add in great writing and one of the best and most original thriller endings I’ve read in a long time, and it’s hard to find anything to criticise in this first-class début.

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

A hot-air balloon is drifting over Northumberland, carrying the pilot and twelve sightseers. Jessica and her sister, Bella, now better known as Sister Maria Magdalena of Wynding Priory, are two of the party – a treat for Bella’s birthday. As they silently pass over an isolated farmhouse, Jessica sees a man killing a young woman – and then the man looks up and spots Jessica. By this time everyone in the balloon is watching the man. He only has one option – to kill them all…

Sharon Bolton appears so regularly in the FF Awards that she really deserves a category all to herself. No-one writes more entertaining thrillers than she when she’s on top form – and yet again, she’s on top form with this standalone. The secret is in the writing. Once you reach the end and look back, it’s so much fun to see how cleverly Bolton has misled and misdirected all the way through – never cheating though! She never once says anything that is inconsistent with the solution – she just says it in such a way that you don’t spot it at the time. Delicious!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Yet again, Abbott takes us to the murky heart of teenage girls, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being. Here, though, the main focus is on Devon’s mother Katie and on the pressure young athletes are under from well-meaning parents and ambitious coaches alike. A dark plot wonderfully executed, that kept me reading into the wee sma’ hours…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes. This Booker-nominated novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half gives us Roderick’s own account of what led to the murders, while the second half lets us read reports from experts and then takes us into the courtroom for the trial.

The book creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. Burnet shows the various authorities who held sway over the crofters and how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The book also gives a thoroughly researched and fascinating look at how questions of criminality versus insanity were viewed at the time. And Burnet does an excellent job of showing us Roderick’s crimes from all angles and then leaving us to decide for ourselves his level of culpability. Excellent writing, well researched, interesting story, fascinating characterisation – it could so easily have won…

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2017

for

BEST MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

William Watt wants to clear his name. His wife, sister-in-law and daughter have been brutally murdered in their home, and Watt is the chief suspect. But convicted rapist and burglar, Peter Manuel, recently released from prison, claims he knows who did the murders and can lead Watt to the murder weapon, a gun which has passed from hand to hand through the criminal underworld of Glasgow. So one December evening in 1957 the two men meet and spend a long night together drinking and trying to come to some kind of deal – a night during which the truth of the killings will be revealed.

This book is based on the true story of Peter Manuel, one of the last men to be hanged in Scotland, in the late 1950s. Mina has largely stuck to the truth, but has taken a few fictional liberties that give it an element of suspense even for people who may remember the real story. The writing is fantastic, conjuring up an utterly authentic feel for the city and its people at that time period, from the buildings still soot-blackened from the furnaces of the industrial revolution, to the hard-drinking, masculine society where violence is an ever-present threat, to the children playing in the streets. Its clear-sighted truthfulness reminded me of William McIlvanney’s portrait of the city in Laidlaw, so I was delighted when it won the McIlvanney Prize for best Scottish Crime book of the year for 2017. A worthy winner then for the even more prestigious FF Award for Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller of the year!

Click to see the full review

* * * * * * * * *

Next week: Best Literary Fiction
and
Book of the Year 2017

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

When pushy is an understatement…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Devon Knox has spent all her young life becoming a gymnast, her eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate prize of reaching the elite levels in her sport, perhaps even the Olympics. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have supported her every step of the way, making huge sacrifices of time and money to get her the best training, and organising the family’s lives around her needs. She’s worked with Coach T for years and has total confidence in him. Now she’s a couple of months away from competing to reach Senior Elite level. But a hit-and-run accident that kills a young man connected to the gym disrupts her training schedule, and when there begins to be suspicion that Ryan’s death might not have been accidental after all, the repercussions ripple out to threaten the stability of her family and of the whole community of budding gymnasts and parents attached to the gym.

Oh, how I love the way Megan Abbott writes about teenage girls! She takes us to the dark heart of them, where hormones play their twisted games, where innocence and sexuality crash head on, where everything is so intense it can feel like euphoria and despair are the only two possible states of being.

The utterly delightful Olga Korbut who, aged 17, set the world alight in 1972
and started the drive towards the tiny frame required for female gymnasts.

In her last few books, Abbott has told her stories through the eyes of her girls, but in this one it is Katie, the mother, whose perspective we share, though the story is told in the third person. Katie and Eric have convinced themselves they are not like the other parents, driving their children to achieve their own dreams for them. They believe it is Devon, has always been Devon, who is utterly dedicated to her sport, and that they have simply supported her. But the reader is not so sure – pressure comes in different forms, and Devon surely knows how proud her parents are to have a child they repeatedly refer to as ‘exceptional’. Young Drew, Devon’s little brother, certainly knows that his needs always take a back-seat, but that’s how it’s always been and mostly he accepts it philosophically.

In Dare Me, Abbott showed the extreme lengths to which girls would go to get on the cheerleading team. Here she does the same with gymnastics, revealing the physical and psychological costs of reaching the elite levels. Not just building strength and muscle mass, to succeed these girls must remain small and undeveloped – boyish – which in many cases requires delayed puberty. Although it doesn’t play a major role in the book, Abbott hints at the methods to which some unscrupulous parents and coaches will go to achieve this. But she also tacitly suggests that the physical training itself might have this effect for the ‘lucky’ ones. And she takes us into the cruelty of the adolescent world, where other girls are blossoming with femininity, and where Devon’s tiny, muscly body and obsessive commitment is derided as freakish. (I suspect Abbott may be overegging the pudding a little, but it’s all chillingly credible, and I must admit I’ve had concerns myself over the years about these young children who compete at the highest levels, ending up often with their careers over before they’re barely adults but with a lifetime of pain and surgeries still to come.)

Abbott also shows the parents who form the community around the gym, dedicated to the point of obsession with having their child succeed. We see the support they give each other, but also the jealousies and spite over whose child is going to do best. And when things begin to go wrong, we see how quickly loyalty breaks down in the mad scramble to ensure that their own child’s prospects don’t suffer, whatever may be happening to the others in the group.

The amazing Nadia Comaneci, aged just 14, who
in the 1976 Montreal Olympics scored the first perfect ten.

The plot itself is dark indeed, and so well done that, although there are only a few possibilities, I still hadn’t decided exactly where it was heading before we got there. Although so much of the book is about extremes, it still feels entirely credible because Abbott develops the psychology of the characters so brilliantly. As things get ever murkier, Katie is forced to reassess how she has behaved as a parent, to both her children, and to find her way through a maze of morally ambiguous choices.

Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

Anyone who has loved Abbot’s Dare Me or The End of Everything will almost certainly enjoy this one too. But this is written in an ‘adult’ voice, so if you have been put off in the past by her teen voices, then this one may work better for you. For me, I think this may be her best yet, and since I loved both those earlier ones, that’s high praise indeed. It kept me on the edge of my seat, reading well past midnight and on towards dawn, and the ending left me fully satisfied. One that will certainly appear in my crime book of the year shortlist…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 128…

Episode 128…

Woohoo! Down two this week, to 194! The dreaded 200 is receding into the distance! However, I have to confess to having a couple of NetGalley requests outstanding so it could go back up any time. But I’ll celebrate while I can…

The first three of this week’s choices are from my 20 Books of Summer list. Which I must admit is all going horribly wrong. I’ve abandoned three and have only read seven so far, and have only reviewed one. There’s still plenty of time though. Isn’t there?

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Megan Abbott’s last three books, all of which were told from the perspective of young girls. This one seems to be from the perspective of a mother of a teenage girl, so I’m intrigued to see whether this voice works just as well for me…

The Blurb says: Katie and Eric Knox have dedicated their lives to their fifteen-year-old daughter Devon, a gymnastics prodigy and Olympic hopeful. But when a violent death rocks their close-knit gymnastics community just weeks before an all-important competition, everything the Knoxes have worked so hard for feels suddenly at risk. As rumors swirl among the other parents, revealing hidden plots and allegiances, Katie tries frantically to hold her family together while also finding herself drawn, irresistibly, to the crime itself, and the dark corners it threatens to illuminate. From a writer with “exceptional gifts for making nerves jangle and skin crawl,” (Janet Maslin) You Will Know Me is a breathless rollercoaster of a novel about the desperate limits of desire, jealousy, and ambition.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley, this one is actually making its second appearance on my TBR. It was a People’s Choice pollwinner a long time ago, and then I went off the idea after reading several reviews that suggest it’s pretty harrowing. However, it turned up again on NetGalley recently, so I thought I should at least try it…

The Blurb says: One man is dead.

But thousands are his victims.

Can a single murder avenge that of many?

When Christopher Drayton’s body is found at the foot of the Scarborough Bluffs, Detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are called to investigate his death. But as the secrets of his role in the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre surface, the harrowing significance of the case makes it difficult to remain objective. In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with far more deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?

In this striking debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan has written a compelling and provocative mystery exploring the complexities of identity, loss, and redemption.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. This one has been lingering unread on my Kindle for the best part of a year and I don’t know why, since I really like the sound of it. I also have the audiobook, read by Aidan Kelly, so am intending to do a joint read/listen…

The Blurb says: After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, go on to fight in the Indian wars and, ultimately, the Civil War.

Having fled terrible hardships they find these days to be vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Their lives are further enriched and imperilled when a young Indian girl crosses their path, and the possibility of lasting happiness emerges, if only they can survive.

Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten.

* * * * *

Fiction on Audio

One of my Classics Club re-reads, so I decided to try the audiobook, narrated by Sissy Spacek, this time. However, I have the paper copy on stand-by just in case…

The Blurb says: Beautifully narrated by actress Sissy Spacek, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning literary masterpiece is unforgettable. Capturing an ephemeral moment in Southern history, it explores uncomfortable truths about justice and the human condition.

‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the ’30s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice. But the weight of history will tolerate only so much.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age story, an antiracist novel, a historical drama of the Great Depression and a sublime example of the Southern writing tradition.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads, NetGalley or Audible.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

* * * * *

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. [Father] Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.’

* * * * * * * * *

….At grey of night, when the sun was gone, and no red in the west remained, neither were stars forthcoming, suddenly a wailing voice rose along the valleys, and a sound in the air, as of people running. It mattered not whether you stood on the moor, or crouched behind rocks away from it, or down among reedy places; all as one the sound would come, now from the heart of the earth beneath, now overhead bearing down on you. And then there was rushing of something by, and melancholy laughter, and the hair of a man would stand on end before he could reason properly.
….God, in His mercy, knows that I am stupid enough for any man, and very slow of impression, nor ever could bring myself to believe that our Father would let the evil one get the upper hand of us. But when I had heard that sound three times, in the lonely gloom of the evening fog, and the cold that followed the lines of air, I was loath to go abroad by night, even so far as the stables, and loved the light of a candle more, and the glow of a fire with company.

* * * * * * * * *

From The Valley of Fear:

….And now, my long-suffering readers, I will ask you to come away with me for a time, far from the Sussex Manor House of Birlstone, and far also from the year of grace in which we made our eventful journey which ended with the strange story of the man who had been known as John Douglas. I wish you to journey back some twenty years in time, and westward some thousands of miles in space, that I may lay before you a singular and terrible narrative – so singular and so terrible that you may find it hard to believe that even as I tell it, even so did it occur.
….Do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished. As you read on you will find that this is not so. And when I have detailed those distant events and you have solved this mystery of the past, we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street, where this, like so many other wonderful happenings, will find its end.

* * * * * * * * *

….They were rich, they were ready, they were ravenous for bear. Nine days into their fourteen-day voyage on the Vanir, the most expensive cruise ship in the Arctic, the passengers’ initial excitement had turned to patience, then frustration, and now, a creeping sense of defeat. As sophisticated travellers they knew money didn’t guarantee polar bear sightings – but they still believed in the natural law that wealth meant entitlement. Ursus maritimus sightings very much included.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

….What did it mean, sitting in that motel parking lot, waiting to see? What did it mean to know she’d been there, maybe just minutes before, she’d been there, so close you could maybe still feel her, hear the squeak of her tennis shoes on the doormat, smell her baby-soft hair. They’d been there, been there behind one of those clotty red doors, and done such things…and now gone. And now gone.

(Click for full review.)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
APRIL

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it. I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite April reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

pureWhen I reviewed this, I only gave it 4 stars, but remarked that some of the images in it would stay with me for a long time. Indeed they have, and I’ve felt for some time that I did it an injustice and that it deserves the full 5 star status. Set in pre-Revolutionary France, it is the story of Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young man contracted to clear the overcrowded cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. The sense of time and place in the novel is truly remarkable, and the book allows us to see the build-up of Revolutionary ideas from the perspective of the ‘ordinary’ man. As Miller describes the malignant stench and rotting horrors of the cemetery, parallels can be drawn with the glimpses we get of the corrupt state and political system. My review does it no justice – this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade.

 

2012

 

dare meA dark journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood, this book tells of the jealousies and tensions amongst a group of high-school cheerleaders. Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story, and changed my condescending Brit view of cheerleading for ever. When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years, and will eventually lead both reader and characters to some very dark places. The body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood. Dark and wonderful.

 

2013

 

and the mountains echoedA beautiful and very moving book from the pen of a master storyteller, this tells the tale of various members of one extended family affected by war and poverty in Afghanistan. Though many of the events of the book take place in Europe or America following characters driven abroad in the diaspora, Afghanistan remains at the heart of the novel, because it remains in the hearts of the unforgettable people who populate the pages. In structure, this feels almost like a series of short stories, but Hosseini brings them all together in the end in one perfect circle. Truth is, I sobbed my heart out over this book, starting at page 5 and not stopping till about two weeks after I’d finished it. And even now, I only have to think about the first chapter to find myself reaching for the Kleenex again. But alongside the sorrow and sadness, there is love and joy here, and a deep sense of hope…

 

2014

 

the birdsSix short stories from the mistress of supenseful terror, this collection starts with the story on which Hitchcock based his famous film The Birds. While he made some changes to it, mainly so he could find a role for one of his famous blondes, all of the tension and atmosphere comes from du Maurier. The other stories may not be so well known but they stand up very well to the title story. One of my favourites is The Apple Tree – a tale of a man who becomes obsessed with the belief that the tree in his garden bears an uncanny resemblance to his late unlamented wife. The whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

 

2015

 

the martian chronicles Written as short stories for magazines in the late 1940s and pulled together with a series of linking pieces for publication in book form in 1951, the book is set around the turn of the millennium, when man is beginning to colonise Mars. It’s episodic in nature and the Martian world that Bradbury creates doesn’t have quite the coherence of some fantasy worlds. But like all the best sci-fi, this book is fundamentally about humanity and Bradbury uses his created world to muse on, amongst other things, loneliness, community and the mid-20th century obsession with the inevitability of nuclear self-destruction. Many of the stories, especially the later ones, are beautifully written fantasies that are both moving and profound. It certainly deserves its reputation as one of the great classics of the genre but, in my opinion, it goes beyond genre – it is as well written and thought-provoking as most ‘literary’ novels and shows a great deal more imagination than they usually do.

 

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If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for April, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…

And Kay has joined in too, over on kay’s reading life, but with a twist – she’s highlighting books from 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. Here’s the link…

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Hormone-soaked tale of teenage obsession…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

You spend a long time waiting for life to start – the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.

the feverIt all starts when Lise has a dramatic and terrifying seizure during class and ends up unconscious and possibly comatose in hospital. As if this wasn’t frightening enough, over the next few days other girls are exhibiting similar symptoms, and soon an atmosphere of panic is running through the town. No-one knows what has caused this outbreak. Could it be the vaccination the girls recently had? Or is it something to do with the poisoned lake at the edge of the town? No-one knows – but Deenie sees that whatever it is seems to be affecting all the girls closest to her, and she’s not the only one who begins to wonder if somehow she’s at the centre of it all…

Megan Abbott’s new thriller takes us again into the world of the older adolescent girl that she used to such great effect in her last novel, Dare Me. Although the plot is entirely different, there are many similarities in terms of her portrayal of this hormone-soaked, angsty world of the teenager, where friendships, jealousies and rivalries mix and overlap with an emotional intensity unique to that age-group.

Deenie and her friends have reached the age where boys and sex are the subjects of their daily obsession. But the girls are also still just young enough to be passionate about their relationships with each other – jealous of each other and jostling for position to keep their place as part of the in-crowd. In Deenie’s crowd, Gabby is the queen, the one everyone wants to be friends with, and until recently Deenie was sure that she was Gabby’s closest confidante. But now witchy Skye seems to have taken her place, and Gabby and Skye seem to have secrets they don’t share with the others. And Lise, always something of an ugly duckling, has suddenly blossomed into a beautiful swan, and her sudden and reciprocated popularity with the boys has brought new layers of tensions and jealousies into the crowd. These tangled relationships and emotions form the backdrop to the story.

Megan Abbott (© Philippe Matsas/Opale)
Megan Abbott
(© Philippe Matsas/Opale)

The book is written in the third-person past tense, mainly from Deenie’s perspective. But we also get to see through the eyes of her father Tom, a teacher at the school, and her older brother Eli, himself still a student there. I found both Deenie and Tom very convincing, but Eli a little less so. I thought Abbott showed well the dichotomy of the older brother who is at the age of viewing all girls through the prism of his raging hormones while feeling outraged when other boys look in the same way at his sister. But I felt that she made Eli seem a bit too involved with his sister and her friends at the expense of his own male friendships, and this didn’t ring true to the age-group for me. I also felt that the girls in this story were not quite as three-dimensional as Abbott has achieved in earlier books – the boy/sex obsession seemed to be not just central but total – the girls seemed to have no other interests in their lives. It works in terms of the plotting but made the girls less real to me than, say, Beth from Dare Me or Lizzie from The End of Everything. I also thought that Abbott’s originality of language felt a bit more stylised in this one – occasionally I found myself wishing for a noun to be left unadorned by an innovative adjective.

The problem with writing two really great books one after the other is that expectations are so high for the next. For me, The Fever is not quite as good as the earlier books, but that still leaves it head and shoulders above most of what’s out there. Without ever crossing the line into the supernatural, Abbott introduces an element of witchiness into the novel that, combined with the growing hysteria and finger-pointing, is reminiscent of The Crucible. As more and more girls are affected, Abbott achieves true tension and a growing atmosphere of dread. So, despite some small weaknesses, I would still highly recommend this to existing Abbott fans or newcomers alike.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown and Company.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 30…

Episode 30

 

The relative quietness of the blogosphere in these sultry summer days means the TBR has fallen to a respectable 96 97, despite the best efforts of some of the regular villains to tempt me from the straight and narrow. So this week, no additions – just a few that are already on the list…

* * * * *

Crime

 

the feverLoved Abbott’s previous two, The End of Everything and Dare Me, so I have very high hopes of this – courtesy of both Amazon Vine and NetGalley.

The Blurb saysThe Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

* * * * *

Factual

 

the zhivago affairGetting great reviews in the US but not out here in the UK on Kindle till 3rd July. I’m really, really hoping this doesn’t inspire me to read Dr Zhivago

The Blurb saysIn May 1956, an Italian publishing scout took a train to the Russian countryside to visit the country’s most beloved poet, Boris Pasternak. He left concealing the original manuscript of Pasternak’s much anticipated first novel, entrusted to him with these words from the author: “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.” Pasternak knew his novel would never be published in the Soviet Union, where the authorities regarded it as an assault on the 1917 Revolution, so he allowed it to be published in translation all over the world.  But in 1958, the CIA, which recognized that the Cold War was above all an ideological battle, published Doctor Zhivago in Russian and smuggled it into the Soviet Union where it was snapped up on the black market and passed surreptitiously from friend to friend. Pasternak, whose funeral in 1960 was attended by thousands of readers who stayed for hours in defiance of the watching KGB, launched the great Soviet tradition of the writer-dissident. With sole access to otherwise classified CIA files, the authors give us an irresistible portrait of the charming and passionate Pasternak and a twisty thriller that takes readers back to a fascinating period of the Cold War, to a time when literature had power to shape the world.

* * * * *

Fiction

 

birdsongI’ve never read any of Sebastian Faulks’ books except for his Wodehouse homage, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, which I loved. So time to give this classic a go – courtesy of NetGalley, since it’s being reissued by Random House Vintage.

The Blurb saysPublished to international critical and popular acclaim, this intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic novel spans three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the present. As the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford passes through a tempestuous love affair with Isabelle Azaire in France and enters the dark, surreal world beneath the trenches of No Man’s Land, Sebastian Faulks creates a world of fiction that is as tragic as A Farewell to Arms and as sensuous as The English Patient. Crafted from the ruins of war and the indestructibility of love, Birdsong is a novel that will be read and marveled at for years to come.

(Actually it sounds dire – what was I thinking? I suspect this may end up on the abandoned pile at some point – end of chapter 1 possibly – but we’ll see! Maybe it won’t be as nauseatingly sickly as the blurb makes it sound…)

* * * * *

Sci-fi

 

duneEver since I started my little sci-fi adventure, I’ve had a hankering to re-read Dune. When I first read it a million of your Earth years ago, I was a bit sniffy about it, ‘cos really it’s more fantasy than sci-fi. However, decades later, I still remember many of the images from the book and its follow-ups so they clearly made an impression.

The Blurb saysSet in the far future amidst a sprawling feudal interstellar empire where planetary dynasties are controlled by noble houses that owe an allegiance to the imperial House Corrino, Dune tells the story of young Paul Atreides (the heir apparent to Duke Leto Atreides and heir of House Atreides) as he and his family accept control of the desert planet Arrakis, the only source of the “spice” melange, the most important and valuable substance in the universe. The story explores the complex and multi-layered interactions of politics, religion, ecology, technology, and human emotion, as the forces of the empire confront each other for control of Arrakis and its “spice”. First published in 1965, It won the Hugo Award in 1966, and the inaugural Nebula Award for Best Novel. Dune is frequently cited as the world’s best-selling science fiction novel.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

* * * * *

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

 

TBR Thursday 3…

Episode 3

Great writers never die...
Great writers never die…

Since this is the first TBR Thursday for three weeks, you can only imagine how many reviews have tickled my fancy in that time – a stupendous total of 23 made it on to the longlist. Shortlisting has never been so hard, but with a TBR pile which remains stubbornly at 99 (despite my best endeavours), I have been ruthless. So with my usual thanks to all the bloggers who have entertained, intrigued and tempted me, here goes…

The Silver Medallists

With grateful thanks to the reviewers/recommenders, here are the runners-up in this week’s contest:

blessed are those who thirstRooms filled with blood begin another investigation for Hanne Wilhelmsen…

The Game’s Afoot says: “Blessed Are Those Who Thirst is an extremely rewarding reading. Despite being relatively short, the novel has a wide scope…: a police investigation, the trauma of a rape victim, the private investigation of the victim’s father, the twisted motives of the perpetrator and the further development of some of the characters that we have first met in The Blind Goddess. “

See the full review at The Game’s Afoot

*******

die a littleModern noir from the writer of the brilliant The End of Everything

Sparkcharms says Die a Little isn’t just a noir novel, but a commentary that reaches far deeper into our own psyches, whether we’re in LA or Mississippi. There is darkness in all of us, and it’s a beguiling thing, even to the most straight-laced of us. Some are encompassed, and when that happens, disentangling oneself from it becomes excruciatingly hard.”

See the full review at Sparkcharms

*******

the housekeeper and the professorA Japanese story about love, family, memory…and mathematics…

Need to Read Blog says It is a quick read, but will leave a definite mark on your mind. Although I couldn’t understand all of the mathematical formulas within it, it doesn’t matter so much. What is important however, is to understand the professor’s passion, which is so strong that it leaps off of the words on the pages, and right into the hearts of the readers.”

See the full review at Need to Read Blog

*******

the english spyThe Act of Union of 1707 and the spying of Daniel Defoe…

BooksPlease says “This is a story about spies and the struggle between various factions for power and once I had got the characters sorted in my mind I was swept along with the intrigue and dangers of the times, keen to see how the Union came about. The English Spy is a mix of fact and fiction but A Warning to the Reader at the beginning of the book clarifies that Daniel Defoe had indeed been sent to Scotland…’

See the full review at BooksPlease

******

And the Gold Medallist is…

 

we have always lived in the castle

Murder and madness with a magical edge…

LitBeetle says More than anything, I was charmed by their lunacy, and it’s not until later, as the mystery unfolded and with some space from finishing the book, that I realized how disturbing it all is. Make sure you wear a decent shawl while reading this, because–between Merricat’s quietly frightening mind and Jackson’s simple but eloquent writing–We Have Always Lived in the Castle will give you chills.”

Litbeetle’s reviews always inspire me with enthusiasm – time to put it to the test!

See the full review at litbeetle

Now all I have to do is find time to read it…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

dare meDark and fascinating…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another stunning journey into the mind of adolescent girlhood from the author of the wonderful The End of Everything.

When a new coach arrives to lead the cheerleading team, she will prove to be the catalyst for a dangerous reassessment and realignment of friendships that have lasted for years. The story is told in the first-person by Addy and we see her loyalties to her oldest friend Beth being tested by Addy’s new friendship with the young Coach. Manipulated by both Beth and Coach, Addy struggles to keep faith with both as their mutual antipathy and jealousy starts a chain of events that will take them all to some very dark places.

Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott

Abbott’s use of language is innovative, imaginative and often poetic. Throughout the book, she uses the physicality and danger of the cheer stunts to heighten the sense of tension and fear at the heart of the story. Not knowing much about cheerleading (being a Brit), I found watching some of the stunts on youtube gave me a real sense of the risks, commitment and reliance on the team that Abbott weaves through the book. She describes wonderfully what the girls are prepared to put themselves through for a coveted place on the team – the physical pain and endurance, the extreme dieting to stay light enough to ‘fly’. And the body is an important theme throughout – the punishment the girls put themselves through, the intimacy of their physical reliance on each other, the underlying sexuality and sensuality of these girls on the brink of womanhood.

“A pyramid is a body, it needs blood and beats and heat. ONE, TWO, THREE. What keeps it up, what keeps it alive is the bounding of your bodies, the rhythm you build together. With each count you are becoming one, you are creating life. FOUR, FIVE, SIX.”

And I feel Mindy beneath me, the sinew of her, we are moving as one person, we are bringing Beth up and she is part of us too, and her blood shooting through me, her heart pounding with mine. The same heart.”

As in The End of Everything, Abbott seems able to get to the very heart of what it is to be adolescent, with all the turmoil and confusion of dealing with a new phase of life. In this book the girls are a little older, about 17, and so have a better understanding of adult relationships, but are still young enough for their female friendships to be the most important aspects of their lives; and Abbott shows them as having a mix of toughness and vulnerability that rang very true to me. As Addy sees how Coach inspires the team, she at first feels a little hero-worship, but as she is willingly dragged deeper into Coach’s life, the balance between them subtly alters so that sometimes Addy seems like the stronger of the two. Beth, the admired and feared leader, the manipulator, is at the dark heart of the story and is one of those characters who will stay in the memory long after the book is finished.

An enthralling read, dark and fascinating. Highly recommended.

 
NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

the end of everythingUncomfortable but engrossing…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written in the first person, we see the story unfold through the eyes of 13-year-old Lizzie. Evie and Lizzie have been friends for ever in that close, intimate way that only happens in childhood where every secret and emotion is shared. Now, however, Evie has disappeared and Lizzie is trying to make sense of her feelings of loss, her suspicions that Evie may have been hiding something and her relationships with Evie’s family who have been her second family for so long.

Voices pitchy, giddy, raving, we are all chanting that deathly chant that twists, knifelike, in the ear of the appointed victim. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock, five o’clock… And it’s Evie, she’s it, lost at choosies, and now it will be her doom. But she’s a good hider, the best I’ve ever seen, and I predict wild surprises…

This book is an examination of that difficult time when childhood and adolescence meet. Lizzie is experiencing her first feelings of sexual desire and is trying to understand and deal with this. Being 13 is a long time ago for me now, but Lizzie took me back to that turmoil of emotions, that clash of innocence and knowingness, that combined sense of anticipation and apprehension of a new phase of life, and it seemed to me that the author had caught this incredibly accurately. Through Lizzie, she talks about the physical changes, the private fantasies, the struggle to understand the motivations of adults and to be accepted by them in a new way, the secrets and stresses within families.

Lizzie is telling her story retrospectively with the vocabulary of an adult but expressing the thoughts and feelings of a child. I know some people found this jarring, but I love Abbott’s use of language. It always strikes me as innovative and original, and in this book took me right inside Lizzie’s head as she tries to deal with these frightening events that are suddenly thrusting her into an adult world.

What did it mean, sitting in that motel parking lot, waiting to see? What did it mean to know she’d been there, maybe just minutes before, she’d been there, so close you could maybe still feel her, hear the squeak of her tennis shoes on the doormat, smell her baby-soft hair. They’d been there, been there behind one of those clotty red doors, and done such things…and now gone. And now gone.

Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott

The book is tautly written and relatively short at around 250 pages. I found it an uncomfortable but engrossing read, covering aspects of pubescent sexuality that we sometimes like to pretend don’t exist. Suspenseful to the end and with a pervading atmosphere of dread, I shared with Lizzie a need not just to know what had happened to Evie, but to understand. This is not a book I will soon forget – I highly recommend it to anyone who was once a 13-year-old girl, though I was glad to see that it has been well received by male reviewers too.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link