June 17, 2020

I don’t read much crime fiction, so I may be mistaken, but I don’t think this refreshing French award-winner follows the typical pattern.

Patience Portefeux is a 53 yr-old police translator tasked with deciphering the phone messages of north African drug gangs. But her elderly mum is in a home. It’s expensive. And she realises the information she gleans from the wire taps could help her set up her own lucrative drug trade.

I found The Godmother off-putting to start with, as the tone is a bit arrogant, brusque and pretentious, but as I got to know the main character I realised that she was the pretentious one, and the narrative was just wonderfully immersed in this unusual character. As soon as that clicked, the tone felt fresh and interesting, as did the main character’s moral outlook and the impact of her personal history.

A palate-cleansing read and a gripping crime narrative.

January 7, 2020

This utterly readable and fun book follows two characters, who, due to finances, find themselves sharing a flat without actually meeting. Leon gets to use the flat during the day, then goes to work nightshifts as a palliative care nurse. Tiffy has the flat, and solitary bed, overnight.

You have to suspend disbelief a bit to go along with the idea they would agree to this, but isn’t that the joy of fiction?

I found the way I pictured the characters before they met changed quite substantially when you got to see them properly from each others’ perspective for the first time. That was really interesting and a great commentary on our self-perception, even if it did take a bit of mental re-jigging.

After they’d met, the book lost a bit of momentum, for me, as their side stories were less compelling than the romance. Also, of the two narratives, I did prefer Leon’s story to Tiffy’s. But overall it was thoroughly enjoyable, with some great characters, particularly Gerty.

December 1, 2019

The Deathless Girls tells the origin story for the ‘Brides of Dracula’ from a more feminist perspective. 

As always, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing is breathtaking. She writes the most sumptuous, beautifully-crafted children’s books right now, so it’s a thrill to see her move into YA. Her lyrical style contrasts wonderfully with the brutality now allowed to her with an older audience.

17 year-old twins Lil and Kizzy are captured as slaves when their traveller community is attacked, and soon find they’re destined for the home of the mythical figure ‘the Dragon.’

Millwood Hargrave’s tale sweeps way beyond the legend, taking on themes of difference, sisterhood and an LGBT romance, but I still felt she was confined by the original story. As this was the story of the Brides of Dracula, we all know how it has to end, and I felt the ending was the book’s weakest point. 

I wished the story could have been allowed to go somewhere else, although I very much enjoyed the journey to get there.

July 18, 2019

There is a lot wrong with The Binding. For all the luscious language, not much happens in the first third. It’s mainly the painstaking building of a skillset that’s never used, which feels a tad wasteful. And it commits a book sin I normally find unforgivable — it teases. It feels like hundreds of pages of circling and nudging and side-stepping the truth before we finally get to it. 

Because the magical concept at the core of the novel is that people can tell their traumatic memories to a book binder and the stories are stored in the book, not their minds. Like a gothic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And it’s narrated from the point of view of Emmet, who, it gradually becomes clear, has some crucial missing memories too. So the secret staying hidden does make sense, while frustrating.

 But despite all its flaws, The Binding is a love story so pure that by the end I wanted to shout from the rooftops and share this book with whoever would read it. So, all is forgiven.

April 5, 2019

This is as uncomfortable a read as it is compelling; whether in the stifling heat of the Jamaican plantation or the damp, grimy cells of a Georgian London prison cell, the setting feels right for the people and deeds endured in Frannie Langton’s life.

A slave since birth, a teenaged Frannie is forced to become a lab assistant to her owner’s dark experiments as he tries to prove the origin of racial difference. He uses his slaves as non-consenting lab rats, and his investigations go more than skin deep. When he takes Frannie with him to England, she ends up in the home of another scientist, and his charming and sympathetic wife, Marguerite. Frannie’s fortunes seem improved, but the couple end up dead, and we meet Frannie when she is on trial for their murder. The book’s narrative takes us back through her history as she tries to remember what happened the night they died.

It’s psychologically complex and and beautifully peopled, but the suspense and horror are laid a little thick.

January 10, 2019

The stark, brooding beauty of Skye looms over The Story Keeper, setting the tone for an atmospheric and dark tale, where the line between reality and superstition is tantalisingly blurred.

In 1857 Audrey Hart arrives on the island; ostensibly to help collect the folk and fairy tales of the highland communities, but also to escape a story of her own and learn more about her mother, who died long ago on the island. But soon after she arrives, she discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach.

The pages keep on turning, as all the wonderful, historical detail is wrapped up in a clever and satisfying whodunnit. But my favourite aspect of the book was discovering, alongside Audrey, the tales and superstitions that form the background of so much of our culture. Mazzola references the real-life contemporaries to the fictional Audrey; the Brothers Grimm. The twisted tales uncovered in The Story Keeper are the dark roots of the fairy stories we still tell our children now. Fascinating...

May 28, 2018

Such a neat concept for this book: an alien invasion has never been so subtle and insidious!

Samantha’s scumbag boyfriend, Edward, is injured in a car crash and seems to die before making a miraculous recovery. It turns out a weird new virus has something to do with it, and lots of other men are coming back too, albeit changed.

The book twists quite a few notions on their heads, starting with the image of the girlfriend at a hospital bed guilty that she wished her boyfriend dead not too long ago. Then we see Sam knowing things aren’t right when Edward is way too nice. Still Life poses lots of interesting questions, and I especially enjoyed how the characters cling to what they’re familiar with, even when they know deep down the familiar is masking a creepy and disturbing threat.

There’s also a love triangle and plenty of surprises. It’s gripping and accessible with a subtly dry tone, and the author skillfully navigates dark concepts while never slowing the pace.

April 23, 2018

I went through quite a journey with this book. To start with, I was tempted to just stop reading it. I found the characters unbearably irritating and the situations they were in banal. It follows three women, Tara — a single mum, TV producer, Cam — a feminist lifestyle blogger, and Stella — processing the death of her mum and twin sister to cancer. Some people might love this, but I personally enjoy characters a bit further from everyday life.

Just as I was about to concede this wasn’t for me, I hit the incident that gets the plot rolling, and I was reluctantly hooked. I was swept up, but a little resentful about it. By the time I got to the end, however, I had to admit I was impressed. You have to wade through a lot of seemingly nice characters judging others for how judgemental they are, before their character arcs finally deliver them a bit of self-awareness; but in the end it's a cleverly done book with a lot of heart and empathy and some thoughtful reflection on modern feminism.

April 7, 2018

It’s always a good sign when you miss a book once it’s gone, and I wished I could have stayed inside this one a little longer. Never has the word ‘heartwarming’ been more appropriate.

Set during WW2, Emmeline Lake is disappointed to find her new journalistic job isn’t as a chipper reporter, working up to War Correspondent; but as an admin assistant to the women’s advice columnist, Henrietta Bird, who dismisses nearly every genuine problem as “unpleasantness.”

I found the homely style a little awkward at first — was everyone really so ‘jolly upbeat’ in WW2? Isn’t it a little patronising? But I soon realised that getting beneath the veneer of putting on a good show and whatnot is really the heart of the book, and it’s actually very sweetly done.

It’s a gentle and moving book that celebrates female friendship and good-heartedness, while reminding us to be grateful for the everyday.

March 9, 2018

There is a murder in Rainbirds, and it’s certainly mysterious; but beyond that, banish any thoughts of a ‘murder mystery’. This is a book with drift.

It opens with post-grad student Ren Ishida transporting the ashes of his murdered sister, and then he drifts, passively, into her old life. He moves into her apartment in a small Japanese town, takes over her teaching job, even lies down on the path where her body was found. Clues to what happened float like those ashes on the wind, and Ren seems to experience life through a filter, a gauze. Hazy. Indistinct.

It may sound frustrating, but the effect is actually pleasantly hypnotic. Ren’s dreams are recounted more than once, and that dreamlike atmosphere soaks through to the rest of the book. It is sensory and compelling, and, despite the drift, there is a certain taut rope that tugs you through the shifting currents to the end.

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