No Other Darkness ~ Sarah Hilary

9781472207722Last year I reviewed the first novel by Sarah Hilary, Someone Else’s Skin and said at the time that I would

look forward to the second in the series, especially if a growing awareness on the part of the reader of the characters and their history means that [their] back stories can take rather more of a back seat.

Well, now we have Hilary’s second novel concerning DI Marnie Rome and her Sergeant, Noah Jake, No Other Darkness and although my concerns have not been completely addressed at least in this instance the traumas that lie in Rome’s background have been more subtly associated with the central plot and as a result don’t seem to take over the narrative in quite such an intrusive manner.

No Other Darkness, like its predecessor, addresses a question that should be of greater social concern than it is.  In Someone Else’s Skin it was the issue of domestic violence, in this second novel it is the damage that can be done, not only to the sufferer but to the entire family, by post-partum psychosis, a more extreme version of post-natal depression which results in

hallucinations, paranoia, voices enticing [the sufferer] to murder, telling them that their baby is evil, or else it’s the new messiah and everyone around it wants to harm it. Sometimes they believe the baby has supernatural healing powers and can survive anything.

The bodies of two small boys have been found in a bunker beneath a garden on a new housing estate. Forensic evidence suggests that they have been there for four or five years and yet there is nothing in the records to tie them to any missing persons case.  Until DI Rome’s team can identify the bodies they are at a loss as to how to proceed.

To facilitate the investigation the family to whom the house belongs has been moved out into temporary accommodation.  They have understandably been unsettled by the discovery but it seems that they are more troubled by the change of residence than the situation warrants.  Their fourteen year old foster son, Clancy, has always been disturbed but now the whole family seem on edge and when the teenager disappears along with Carmen and Tommy, the two younger children, the police have to question whether or not history is about to repeat itself in more ways than one.  Have the children been abducted by the same person who was responsible for the earlier deaths or is Clancy, who is the same age as, and from a similar background to, the teenager who killed DI Rome’s parents, set on taking revenge against a world be feels has deserted him by murdering his foster siblings?

As in the first novel, the solution, when all is resolved, is unexpected and it would seem that it is because it doesn’t fit with the norms as perceived by society that Hilary has explored this subject.  She appears to be particularly interested in those damaged people who slip through society’s net because their profiles differ from what we have been taught to expect.  There is little enough support for those who are most easily spotted.  Those whose suffering goes unnoticed until they are pushed over the edge are the individuals this author is concerned about.  It is an approach that sets Hilary apart from other new crime writers and marks her out as someone to watch in the future.

The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

abLouise Penny has, for some time now, been one of my favourite crime writers.  I was, therefore, very pleased to be given the opportunity to read her most recent novel, The Long Way Home, in advance of publication in order to write a review of it for Shiny New Books.  You can read that review by following this link.

However, much as I enjoyed this book, it did give me pause for thought.  As you will see from the review, I found myself questioning whether Penny, like the central (though absent) character in this novel, Peter Morrow, shouldn’t be asking herself whether or not she wanted to continue as a crime writer.  The Long Way Home doesn’t need a murder to make the point that Penny is exploring: namely the impetus behind the creative process and what examining that impetus means for the people involved.  But, Penny is a crime writer.  Her readers expect a murder.  Or perhaps, more importantly, her publishers and their publicists demand a murder because they don’t have faith in her readers to follow a writer they love into something rather different.  As I say in the review

there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.

More pertinent perhaps, is the question would her publishers ever allow her to tell them.

What I didn’t go on to to say in that review is that in this novel Penny herself references some of the writers I think she has the skills to emulate.  When I read her more recent books with their insightful dissections of the ways in which people and communities respond in moments of crisis, the authors I think of are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo and perhaps especially, Elizabeth Strout.  I would love to turn any of these loose in Three Pines and see what they had to tell us about the social chemistry of the village, but I shouldn’t need to because Penny is more than capable of telling us herself.

This isn’t the only crime novel I’ve read recently where I’ve felt there was a rather different type of story fighting to get out.  Val McDermid’s most recent freestanding story, The Skeleton Road, which I reviewed here, is another where I thought the author was much more interested in the background story than in the crime that was the excuse for telling that story.  Would her publishers have been prepared to take the risk, however, on a novel that they couldn’t advertise as the latest McDermid murder hunt?

You begin to understand why, when J K Rowling wanted to break out in a new direction, she was so insistent on doing it under another name.  Maybe it wasn’t simply (or perhaps that should be even) that her original audience wasn’t prepared to try something new, but that, where their best selling authors are concerned, publishers will only accept more of the same.

But, a good writer is a good writer whatever the genre they choose to adopt and to tie someone to the same patterns repeatedly is to deny them the opportunity to develop and grow.  It also denies the reader the opportunity to develop as they follow their favourite authors into new fields.  It might be a vain hope, but it would be good to see the book world taking responsibility and helping both readers and writers stretch their creative wings and, like Peter Morrow, discover that they have more than one type of story to tell, that there is more than one type of story to read.

What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

whatilovedI’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read.  I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion.  If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.

How to even begin to tell you about this novel?  Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties.  It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend.  We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be.  Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.

More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters.  These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all.  For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here.  If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too.  Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.

In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on

the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again

and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.

As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.

The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first.  It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell.  It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.

I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing.  And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t.  It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.

Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story.  From believing that

Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig

he shifts his position because

[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth

until finally he is forced into the belief that

he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing.  He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that.  Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.

Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence?  As Leo says very early on in the novel

stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life

imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through.  I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more.  For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind.  The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.

I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea.  If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible.  You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.

The Secret Place ~ Tana French

The-Secret-Place-187x300The Secret Place is the fifth novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad sequence and by my reckoning, the best yet. Rather than featuring the same group of characters in every novel, French links each successive book through the reoccurrence of a relatively minor player from the previous episode in a more significant role in the next.  Enter centre stage Detective Stephen Moran, at present a member of the Cold Case Unit, but desperate to find a place in the elite Murder Squad.  The opportunity appears to have been presented to him on a plate when a sixteen year old school girl brings him evidence relating to a murder enquiry that stalled twelve months previously.  This is, however, no ordinary schoolgirl.  We last saw Holly Mackey giving evidence as an eleven year old in another case; giving that evidence to Stephen to whom she comes now because she can trust him not to treat her like a chicken.  Furthermore, we are well acquainted with Holly’s father, Frank Mackey, who is part of the undercover unit and who has featured in several of these novels as well as playing the central role in Faithful Place.  Nobody takes Frank Mackey for a ride and it seems that his daughter has inherited much of his calculating astuteness.

Both Stephen and the reader would do well to remember this as they delve further into the murder case that is now re-opened under the leadership of Antoinette Conway, a member of the Murder Squad but someone who finds it hard to work within the team.  As a junior investigator the previous year, when the body of Chris Harper was found in the grounds of St Kilda’s Girls school, Conway was frustrated by the silence maintained by the girls in respect of the dealings between themselves and the boys from St Colm’s, where Chris was a pupil.  Knowing that it is likely the powers that be will take the case from her, she and Stephen go into St Kilda’s quickly and hard and very soon narrow their focus to two quartets of fourth years, Holly and her friends Julia, Selina and Becca and their sworn foes, Joanne, Gemma, Orla and Alison.

The difference between these two groups is crucial to the motivation behind the murder.  Joanne is one of those sixteen year olds that I, certainly, would quite willingly swing for.  She sees herself as queen of all she surveys and manipulates the other three in her dorm to service her own needs.  If someone had murdered Joanne they could have legitimately pleaded public interest as a defence.  Holly, Julia, Selina and Becca are a different matter entirely.  They have that sort of intense friendship that can only come about during teenage years: a friendship where the needs of the group and of the other members of the group are automatically placed above your own.  And while Stephen recognise this and its importance to the case, he also envies them their closeness.  It is a type of relationship he has searched for and never found.

Such intense relationships can breed problems however and the reader has a type if access to what such problems might be that is denied to the two detectives.  French maintains a strict structure in this novel.  The actual investigation takes place over a matter of hours but the chapters that tell that part of the story are interlaced with others that chart the journey of the friendship and the pressures to which both it and the individual four girls are subjected.  French knows the teenage psyche only too well and the narrative she relates detailing the passage of the last months of Chris Harper’s life is only too believable to anyone who has worked extensively with young people of this age group.  In fact, this leads me to my only criticism of this book.  If you have worked with teenagers you know very early on who the murderer is and why the crime was committed.  You also know what the damage is likely to be to those who are left.  Once I realised where this was going I found it very hard to continue to the end.

Indeed, when I think back on her earlier novels I realise that French specialises in charting the harm that crime does to those who are neither the immediate perpetrator nor the most obvious victim and I find myself wondering, therefore, why I look forward to her books with such pleasurable anticipation.  Part of it is because she writes so well.  Take, for example, the closing lines of this conversation between Holly and her friends, which capture precisely a type of moment we all know but which we would be hard put to define even to ourselves.

In a while Holly says, “Hey, you know where Cliona is? She’s in the library, looking for a sonnet to copy that Smythe won’t know.”

“She’s gonna get caught,” Becca says.

“That’s so typical,” Selena says. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just write the sonnet?”

“Well, totally,” Holly says. “This always happens. She ends up working harder to get out of doing the thing than she would just doing the thing.”

They leave space for Julia to say something. When she doesn’t, the space gets bigger. The conversation falls into it and vanishes.

As long as French continues to tell me stories not only so exquisitely written but also so perfectly observed I am going to be waiting eagerly for whatever comes next.

All Day and A Night ~ Alafair Burke

Screen-Shot-2014-09-17-at-2.42.32-pmHave you had your flu’ jab yet this winter?  Those of you who know about these things will be aware that it is a different concoction every winter and apparently I am not alone in finding this year’s mix more potent than usual.  It is taking quite a lot of people out for a couple of days.  Consequently, I am very glad to be able to tell you that Issue 3 of Shiny New Books is out and to be able to do just a short post to point you in the direction of my review there of Alafair Burke’s latest Ellie Hatcher novel, All Day and a Night.

I reviewed the first in this series, Dead Connection, some time ago and made the point then that Burke’s work is hardly great literature, but even that book was a rattling good read and this, the NYPD detective’s fifth outing, is considerably better.  Like all good crime fiction, the novel is concerned with a specific situation that is indicative of a current societal issue, in this case, the question of the mistrust between the police and the public they serve, and Burke offers no easy answers to a problem that is as relevant on this side of the Atlantic as it is in America.

If you haven’t yet discovered Burke’s New York novels then you have many happy hours of reading in front of you.  She has certainly gone onto my list of authors whose new books I am looking to read the moment that they become available.

Station Eleven ~ Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2Every now and again you come across a novel which is so compelling that the moment you finish it you simply want to turn back to the beginning and start reading it all over again.  That such a book should exist is remarkable enough but that it should be a book you would never normally have given a second thought to had it not been for a chance discussion overheard on the radio makes the occurrence extraordinary.  Emily St John Mandel’s novel, Station Eleven, is a post-apocalyptic tale.  If asked to read this I would have said that I had had enough of the apocalypse to last me a life time, thank you, and passed.  That would have been a mistake.

Mandel’s premise is that one of the several influenza variants finally causes a pandemic.  While the catastrophe starts in the Republic of Georgia, the incubation period is so short that people fall ill while they are in transit between continents and in a matter of weeks the world as we know it has gone.

Arthur Leander is ‘lucky’.  He is struck down on stage by a heart attack in the middle of a performance of King Lear just as the contagion reaches Toronto.  In many ways Lear is a metaphor for what is to come.  Kingdoms will fall apart.  Life as those who are left have known it will come to an end.  Many will not be alive to continue but those that are will discover the truth of the play’s closing lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young,
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Moving with ease between the period before the pandemic and the lives of the survivors twenty years on, Mandel explores what it has meant for those who have had to go on to find themselves walking out of one world and into another.  Principally, we follow the fortunes of The Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who tour from settlement to settlement performing concerts and Shakespeare’s plays wherever they find an audience.  Shakespeare’s works have been chosen not simply because of their value as literature but because the playwright also came from a time that was defined by plague and his stories speak to a people who likewise know what it means to live each day in the shadow of death.

Foremost amongst the troupe is Kirsten.  Only a child when she appeared in that final production of Lear, she has brought the memory of the great actor with her, along with his last gift, two comics which tell the story of Dr Eleven, also a survivor after a disaster which has wiped out his planet and left him and a small group of followers striving to make a new life on a station cobbled together from what remains after their disaster.  Art and life are intricately woven together, because as the members of The Travelling Symphony know, Survival is Insufficient.  It isn’t enough simply to live.  It is also necessary to try and make something greater out of the disaster.  The fact that the quote comes from Star Trek: Voyager simply emphasises the fact that art travels with diverse person and in diverse places.

While there is no pretence that life is not both difficult and dangerous for those who have survived the pandemic, this is not the horror fiction that so many post-apocolyptic works are.  Yes, there are occasions when those who only want to live out a peaceful existence are forced to defend themselves to the death, but there is no gratuitous violence and far more prevalent are instances of real empathy and affection and acts of pure kindness and gentility.  This is supported by Mandel’s writing, which has a calmness and grace about it that encourages the reader to see the situation as one that has real grounds for hope built into it.  Civilisation as it was known may have collapsed, but communities are surviving and slowly but surely a new way of life is being forged out of the wreckage.  So much of this type of fiction seems to have been written by those who think little of humanity.  Mandel clearly believes that for the most part we are pretty decent individuals.  Perhaps I like this book so much because I happen to agree with her.

I haven’t read Mandel’s other three novels, simply because until a week ago I had never heard of her.  I understand that this is something of a departure for her.  Perhaps, with Station Eleven she has found her niche.  Nevertheless, I will now go back and explore those earlier works because this one has convinced me that she is a writer who has something really quite profound to say about the nature of humankind, our relationship to each other and to the world in which we live.  Station Eleven was a surprising and remarkable discovery.

The Winter Foundlings ~ Kate Rhodes

the-winter-foundlingsI was lucky enough to stumble across Kate Rhodes’ work just after the first Alice Quentin novel, Crossbones Yard, was published.  Two things struck me immediately about that book, the quality of Rhodes writing and her knowledge of London.  Rhodes, who is a Londoner by birth, is also a published poet and both these factors are clearly influential in her series of crime novels about a psychologist who reluctantly finds herself working with the police to apprehend criminals who are also seriously disturbed individuals.

The Winter Foundlings is no exception to the established pattern.  Alice has taken a six month research placement at Northwood, a high security hospital where she is hoping that she will have time to recover from her last assignment with the Metropolitan Police Force.  However, a series of child abductions which has so far resulted in three murders, proves to have links to one of the Northwood inmates, Louis Kinsella, and although it is impossible that he can have been physically involved it is clear that in someway he is inspiring the current kidnappings.  Reluctantly, Alice agrees to try and interview him in order to seek information that might lead to the arrest of whoever is responsible and the rescue of the latest victim, Ella.

Northwood proves to be a place where many of the employees are damaged individuals themselves, which forces both Alice and the reader to ask questions about the nature of those who choose to work in such an environment and the harm that such employment can do to people who take it up.  It also, of course, provides Rhodes with a plethora of suspects.  It very soon becomes apparent that there is a connection between the crimes and the Foundling Museum which commemorates the Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739 where mothers who could no longer care for their children could leave them to be raised.  Kinsella, who at the time of his arrest was headmaster of a school, had always taken a particular interest in children from troubled backgrounds and the theory that emerges is that he has influenced at least one of these damaged minds to the extent that in adulthood they have followed him into a life of crime.  But which one?  It was only twenty pages from the end when I felt confident that I could predict the villain of the piece and even then the way in which the final scenes would play out was unclear.

One of the structural features of this novel is a narrative split between the main aspects of the story as they feature Alice and the events as they are seen from the point-of-view of ten year old Ella, the most recent victim.  Normally, I find this method of story-telling very difficult to deal with.  It often seems to have been adopted only as an excuse for introducing gratuitous violence and I tend to agree with the Ancient Greek playwrights that such actions are better kept off stage and reported to the audience via a convenient messenger.  Here, however, the second narrative is a vital part of both the story and the psychological phenomenon that Rhodes is exploring.  Ella may be a child, but she is mentally very mature for her age and capable of thinking clearly and understanding the situation she is in.  Her captor, on the other hand, though physically adult, is still, in many respects, the damaged youngster who fell under the influence of Kinsella before he was caught and committed.  What I found interesting was that while such individuals might most commonly be thought of as still being a child, when you observe them in the company of an astute child like Ella you can see that that isn’t an accurate description at all.  The damage that has been done to them may have in some way retarded their emotional and psychological development but they are nothing like a child and I wonder how much more damage society inflicts by not realising the difference.  Perhaps this is something of which professionals who work in places like Northwood are well aware, but this book certainly made me stop and think about my own perceptions.

Kate Rhodes is fast becoming one of my favourite crime writers and certainly one I can recommend to you if you haven’t already encountered her work.  I’m very grateful to Mulholland Books for sending me a copy of this latest novel for review.

The Rosie Effect ~ Graeme Simsion

9781922182104This time last year I posted about my astonishment at discovering that Graeme Simsion’s first book featuring Aspergers’ sufferer, Don Tillman, The Rosie Project, was not only very funny but also very moving.  As I said then, being low level on the Aspergers’ continuum myself, I could readily identify with the struggles that Don had to engage at any real level of understanding with the world around him and was cheering from the rafters when he met and married Rosie, someone not without her own problems but capable of seeing and accommodating the truly generous and loving person Don had the potential to be.  Now, in The Rosie Effect, we follow Don and Rosie as they set up home (in the beer cellar of an ageing rock star – but what else would you expect!) and begin to build a life for themselves in New York.

Like most of us with Aspergers, Don doesn’t ‘do’ surprises, which means that when Rosie tells him she is pregnant for a moment his world spins the wrong way on its axis.  Learning to live with one person has stretched Don’s tolerance to the extent that, as he informs us, he

sometimes spent longer in the bathroom than was strictly necessary.

Learning to live with two, and one of those a small person whose immediate needs and emotions Don knows he is going to have great difficulty comprehending, is a frightening prospect indeed.  And so begins Don’s attempt to understand what a being a long-term father might entail and most immediately what might be expected of him as a father-to-be.

Recognising that he has no awareness whatsoever of the ways in which small children behave, he takes the advice of a friend and sets off to the nearest playground to get in some intensive observation.  He is somewhat concerned when the adults accompanying the toddlers move off to a different part of the play area, but undeterred follows along so that he can continue to monitor the behaviour of the child he has chosen to study.  You don’t need me to tell you who turns up on the scene ten minutes later.

Fortunately for Don, one of the members of the NYPD with whom he subsequently finds himself engaging has family experience of Aspergers, but even so he is sent for assessment to social services and thus begins a six month attempt to keep this situation from Rosie in order to save her any unnecessary stress, something Don’s intensive research on pregnancy has convinced him is to be avoided at all cost.

However, because the novel is told in the first person, from Don’s point of view, one of the things that the reader may well not immediately realise is that Rosie’s background is giving her problems of her own, most especially in terms of the expectations she has of the way in which a father should relate to his child.  And this is an important element within the book because while Don may stumble in his attempts to understand what she requires of him, Rosie herself has difficulty divorcing her own childhood experiences from her current situation.  As a result, while the novel is frequently funny on the surface, there is an ever-growing, underlying, level of distress as we realise that the past damage that has been done to these two highly engaging people may be more than they can get over in this particular situation.

In fact the tone of the book in general strikes me as more serious than was the case with The Rosie Project.  There is a moment when Lydia, the social worker, accuses Don of having no feelings at all and I wanted to cheer as he finally snapped, stopped being an apologist, and went in to bat for himself.

I was suddenly angry. I wanted to shake not just Lydia but the whole world of people who do not understand the difference between control of emotion and lack of it, and who make a totally illogical connection between inability to read others’ emotions and inability to experience their own.  It was ridiculous to think that the pilot who landed the plane safely on the Hudson River loved his wife any less than the passenger who panicked.


If you read and enjoyed The Rosie Project then there is no way that you are not going to enjoy this second instalment.  I can imagine, however, that there might be readers who feel let down because the humour is so clearly unlaid by a sense of possible impending doom.  Please don’t be.  The book is still laugh aloud funny and ultimately full of feel-good factor but, for me, at least, it takes a more realistic view of the difficulties people like Don face as they try to make sense of the world around them and offers a starker view of the loneliness that can come about as a result of no fault of their own.

With thanks to Penguin Books for providing a review copy.

The Paying Guests ~ Sarah Waters

the-paying-guestsI should say, right from the outset, that in the past I have not been a Sarah Waters fan.  To be honest, her first three books bored me; I actually gave up on Fingersmith half way through because I couldn’t bear to wade my way through the same events for a second time, even though they were going to be seen from a different perspective – one of my favourite narrative devices.  I preface this review in this manner as a warning to all devoted Waters fans, so that when I say that I really enjoyed her latest novel, The Paying Guests, they might be alerted to the fact that this isn’t, in my view at least, typical of her work.  I would call it Sarah Waters Lite.

Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking why I persist in attempting to read Waters’ novels when I have such difficulty with them.  Well, she is one of those authors about whom I have the sneaking feeling that the fault must lie in me rather than in her writing.  Couple that with the fact that this time round I was offered a free preview copy and you have the answer to my continued perseverance.  Remember what you were always told at school.  Eventually, perseverance pays off.

The Paying Guests is set four years after the First World War, a time when the reality of that conflict’s aftermath is becoming more and more apparent. Frances Wray and her mother are desperately trying to maintain their London home after the deaths of both the sons of the family and of the financially inept Mr Wray.  The house is crumbling around them and its daily maintenance is far more than Frances can manage herself.  The only answer is to take in paying guests – lodgers to you and me.  Enter Lilian and Leonard Barber, representatives of the clerking class, a rising breed as alien to Mrs Wray and Frances as any exotic bird might have been.

With no intention but to be model tenants, the Barbers manage to completely disrupt the household.  Mrs Wray is disturbed simply by their presence, the more so when Lilian’s exuberant, but wonderful, family come to visit.  Frances, on the other hand, is disturbed in more visceral ways. She has had to give up a previous affair in order to maintain relationships with her family, now she finds herself living in the same house as a woman who moves her to passionate love.

As we gradually discover, the Barbers’ marriage is deeply flawed and Lilian responds to Frances’ overtures.  Inevitably, when Leonard discovers this, tempers fly and an act is committed from which there can be no going back.  The rest of the novel is then concerned with how the two women deal with the consequences of what has happened and what it does not only to their relationship but also to each of them as individuals as they are forced to face what they discover about themselves in the light of their subsequent behaviour.  As Frances eventually recognises decency, loyalty, courage…all shrivel away when one [is] frightened.

So, why did I enjoy this book that much more than Waters’ other work?  Perhaps it attracted me more than the first three at least because it was about a time I felt I could more easily relate to.  No, I’m not Methuselah, I wasn’t around just after the First World War, but both my parents were and I have their recollections of what life was like trying to rebuild in a world that had changed forever both in respect of the material and the societal.  My maternal grandmother, like Mrs Wray, had lost all the men in her family and she was left to cope with three daughters only the eldest of whom was old enough to really be of any assistance.  Mind you, Mary Ellen, was made of very different stuff to Mrs Wray and would have demolished Frances’ mother with one lash of her extremely harsh tongue.  Nevertheless, the situation in which the Wrays find themselves is one that I can understand and also is extremely well drawn by Waters.  Her depiction of both the material deprivations of the post war years and the physical and emotional exhaustion against which everyone was still doing battle is excellent.  While there were times when I wanted to shake Mrs Wray for her complete inability to face the reality of what the world, her world, had become, I could still understand her confusion as everything she had been brought up to believe was inviolate simply crumbled around her.

Waters is also excellent in her portrayal of the various stages through which Frances and Lilian’s relationship goes as their individual situations become more and more precarious.  As Frances herself recognises, the two women really know very little about each other and this, coupled with the corroding fear of what might happen to them if the truth should come out, drives a wedge between them which may or may not remain forever as a barrier to a closer relationship.

If the book has a weakness then for me it is in the way in which it deals with the moral dilemma the women face when it appears that someone else may be blamed for the action they have perpetrated and the aftermath of that false accusation.  I can understand why they behave as they do and I think the manner in which they try to push the possible outcome from their minds is completely believable, but at the book’s conclusion the fact that they have got away with it is fore-staged over the question of what the knowledge of their escape is going to do to them in later life.  Perhaps that has to be a whole other book, but I was left feeling that, whatever their motivation, wrong had won and that subsequent retribution needed to part of the story as well.

The Skeleton Road ~ Val McDermid

51FXygpW68LOne of the most horrific features of the war that raged across the lands previously know as Yugoslavia during the 1990s was the scant attention paid to it in the rest of Europe.  Yes, we were aware that something was going on, probably because our holidays to the region had had to be cancelled, but if challenged to say anything about the reasons behind the conflict or to distinguish between the warring parties most of us would have been silent.  I am still at a loss to understand quite why that was the case, but Val McDermid’s latest standalone novel, The Skeleton Road, does, perhaps, go someway towards explaining the West’s blinkered response.  As we get deeper into the back story of Dimitar Petrovic, an officer in the Croatian Army, and his partner, Professor Maggie Blake, it become clear that so much of what happened was the result of generations of bitter infighting and acts of sectarian revenge.  It brought to mind something that I once heard said about the Northern Ireland conflict: if you think you understand what is going on in Northern Ireland then you don’t understand what is going on in Northern Ireland.  I suspect the same is true of what was happening in Eastern Europe at that time.  You had to be part of it and to have the cultural memory of the region to have any hope of even following, let alone understanding, what was going on.

However, McDermid’s story doesn’t begin on the streets of Dubrovnik but on the roof of a derelict Edinburgh building where, tucked away out of sight, a skeleton is found: a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull.  The investigation falls to DCI Karen Pirie, head of a Cold Crimes Unit, along with well-meaning but rather less well intellectually endowed, DC Jason Murray, predictably known as the Mint. Their enquiries lead them to Oxford and to the College set of Professor Maggie Blake, a lecturer in Geopolitics, where they hear for the first time the story of General Petrovic, the lover that Maggie thought had left her eight years previously to return to his Balkan roots.

Gradually, both women piece together the story of what has happened to Petrovic and why; Karen because it is her job and Maggie because she is now faced with the knowledge that there are things in her partner’s past about which she has had little, if any, understanding. As it becomes clear that the reason for the murder must lie somewhere in the maelstrom of the earlier conflict, the two women journey to the small village that was Dimitar’s childhood home and come face to face with what it means to be caught up in the centuries of revenge killings that mock the very concept of civilisation.

I normally very much enjoy McDermid’s standalone novels and certainly this one begins with real promise.  However, the further in I got the more I started to feel as if what I was reading was a draft that still needed working on.  To begin with, there are simply too many strands to the narrative.  As well as those associated with Pirie and Blake there is also the Professor’s written account of her earlier time in Dubrovnik and a further story attached to two members of the war crimes tribunal who are tasked with finding out who is killing people about to be indicted before they can be brought to justice.  This fourth strand never really gets integrated into the rest of the story and just adds characters and plot lines that confuse rather than elucidate the main thrust of the tale.  It is redundant and what information it does contribute could have been included far more economically elsewhere.

This would then have given more narrative space to developing the main characters and their relationships, especially DCI Pirie.  Karen Pirie has potential.  She is a likeable character, her work is interesting and could easily have been developed into a series and the relationship between her and the Mint has the capacity to grow into one of fiction’s great investigative partnerships.  But we simply don’t get enough page time with her and in what we are allowed narrative threads are started which then come to nothing.  For example, the animosities between her and her immediate superior which ends one chapter on a very obvious cliffhanger is subsequently ignored.  Why is it there?

Ultimately, I was left with the feeling that Pirie was little more than a means of allowing McDermid to make a point about the capacity that all humans have within them to respond viscerally at times of crisis.  And it’s a fair point but in the end the way in which it is given voice left me unsatisfied and feeling that this is not one of McDermid’s best crafted novels and has perhaps been rushed out before it was really ready.