Monday, 24 October 2016

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

While holidaying with her parents in a small riverside village not far from Manchester, a 13-year-old girl, Becky, goes missing. She was last seen by her parents while they were all out walking together. Being a teenager, she was sulkily keeping half a dozen steps behind them, and as they picked up speed, so she slowed down slightly so that when they next turned around to call to her to catch up, she had completely disappeared. She was never seen again.

The police were called, a search was set up, the villagers all volunteered their services to help in the search, a re-enactment of her last days was put together and aired, reporters swamped the village, pleas for information were televised daily. What happened to Becky? Was she murdered? Did she fall? Did she run away? Was she kidnapped?

So begins a tale of how a village and its inhabitants, and the family of the missing girl, all cope as the days, weeks, months, years go by. Life goes on, seasons change, babies are born and grow up, new families move into the area, but still the missing girl is in the back of everyone's minds, and the wonder of whether the truth of what happened to her will ever surface.

I thought this was a remarkable book. The author goes into such detail of daily life, much of which is repeated many times as that is how life is, but the story never becomes boring. You don't mind hearing about the badgers and the foxes and the plants and the changing weather, and the river and the reservoirs - you're hoping that in amongst all this information is a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing girl. I found myself continually on tenterhooks with the expectation of a revelation of what happened. I found myself suspicious of all the villagers - everyone seemed to have something they wanted to hide, some little secret.

Jon McGregor is probably most well known for his award winning novel 'If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things'. I hope this will be enjoyed just as much.

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Girls by Emma Cline

Emma Cline the author always had the idea of writing a book about a commune, and then she started researching Charles Manson. He was an American criminal who led what became known as the Manson Family, a quasi-commune that arose in California in the late 1960s. In the summer of 1969, Manson's murderous “family” of 3 young women went on a rampage in Los Angeles that left nine people dead, one of them being Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of Roman Polanski. He ordered the killings, but was not present during them. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He is still alive in prison today, aged 82.

In 'The Girls' we are introduced to Evie Boyd, a middle-aged lady, recently unemployed, living in a friend's holiday home. One evening her friend's son comes to the house with his girlfriend, and recognises Evie's name as being part of a cult which carried out violent murders in the '60s. By alternating between the past and the present, we start to find out from Evie what happened.

Aged 14, she is living with her mother - her parents have divorced, her father having left her mother to live with his personal assistant. After an argument with her mother, Evie goes out on her bike, but the bike breaks. As she's struggling to repair it, a black bus pulls up and a girl gets out to offer help. Evie has met one of the girls on the bus before, and they invite her to a solstice party at the ranch where they're staying. Thus begins Evie's inclusion in the commune, which is headed up by Russell, who seems to have a hypnotic effect on all his followers. He preaches about all-encompassing free love, the lack of a need of money and material things. Evie is taken in by life on the ranch and especially Suzanne who she becomes close to. She spends most of her summer there, lying to her mother that she is staying at her friend Connie's house. It is only on her return to the ranch after a 2-week stay at home, that she notices a difference in the mood amongst the commune. She is soon to get herself included in part of a grisly history which she will always have nightmares about.

This was very readable, I quite liked the flashbacks from past to present, it didn't interrupt the storyline at all. Most of the story is about Evie, her close friendship with Suzanne, her crumbling relationship with her mother, her realisation of how she is attractive to men. But this is also the most disturbing part for me, being myself the mother of a 14-year-old girl. I found some of the storyline uncomfortable as I imagined someone the same age as my daughter going through the things Evie did. Russell is excellently portrayed as a very creepy, sinister character, even though all the girls on the ranch can't see this and would do anything he asked.

Well written, with an atmosphere of impending doom which will keep you hooked.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I haven't read a Zadie Smith novel since 'White Teeth', and that was years ago (1999) - so long in fact that I'd forgotten what it was about. I just looked up a prĂ©cis and was surprised to read similar threads in the storyline to this one. In fact it seems that in a few of her books, Zadie sticks to themes that she knows and is obviously comfortable with - multiculturalism, racism, the state of society, class wars.

These themes abound in 'Swing Time'. The story mainly follows the life of the narrator, whose name is never revealed to us. Her mother is Jamaican, her father an East Ender with a possible criminal past, but who is now past trouble and dotes on his family. They live in a council flat on the Willesden Road. During childhood she becomes friends with Tracey during a dance class, though it quickly becomes clear that Tracey is the more natural dancer out of the two. Tracey has a white British mother, and an absent Jamaican father, who is regularly in and out of prison. The narrator's mother is not overly keen with Tracey as she lives on the opposite council block which contains the type of one-parent families that she'd frown at, and she's also not keen on how Tracey acts and the language that comes out of her mouth. We follow this friendship through the next few years, and we see how their lives take separate paths, how the friendship breaks up, how they both try to follow their dreams - Tracey becoming an actress in musical theatre, the narrator becoming a personal assistant to a famous pop star. But what does the future hold for them both?

The book is very long, and the narrator goes back and forth in time to give us snippets of her moments with Tracey when they were young, then back to the present, then back to when she got the job, then back again...At times, I wished the story was told in a straightforward timeline. There were places where I wasn't sure which job her mother had, where she was living, how old the narrator and Tracey was, etc. There's a huge part of the story that takes place in West Africa. The famous pop star that the narrator works for (imagine an Australian version of Madonna) has decided to use her millions to set up a new girls school there, so there is much travelling back and forth to the area to put things in place, make sure things run smoothly, etc. However, I found this part of the book rather laborious and boring, I kept looking at the page numbers on my e-reader and sighing to see how much I still had left to read. I was yearning to learn more about Tracey - the parts of the book that included her and the narrator were definitely the most exciting and interesting.

What I found interesting while reading this book was that I kept forgetting that the narrator was half Jamaican, so when characters make mention of her brown skin, I'm momentarily surprised. However, with Tracey, that's how I always pictured her - a dark skinned beauty with attitude, defiant, disrespectful, rude but ambitious.

The last part of the book took my interest again, but overall it was far too long and didn't hold my attention all the way through. I'm not sure I'll be reading another Zadie Smith book again.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

This book is currently on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016. In our shop we seem to be selling more of this and also 'His Bloody Project' by Graeme Macrae Burnet, than any of the other books on the shortlist. But the feelings of the public don't always match those of the Booker judges!

So what did I think about Eileen. Well there's a quote on the front cover from The Times describing it as 'A taught psychological thriller, rippled with comedy as black as a raven's wing'. That would definitely make me buy it immediately, but I would've been disappointed in the end. I think that makes it sound more of a thriller than it actually is. It's quite a short book, and about two thirds of it describes Eileen's character, home life and work life. It's only the last third where the story builds, once she meets her co-conspirator Rebecca. But even then, I was expecting something more.

The whole story - the characters and the setting - is quite depressing. The main story is set in 1964 when Eileen is 24, but it is narrated by Eileen 50 years on. It is set in a small town in Masachusetts, it is 5 days before Christmas, it's cold and it's constantly snowing. Eileen has not had a happy upbringing, and she continues to be unhappy. She was never loved by her parents, she was maltreated and poked fun of by them. Once when she was little and she hadn't tidied her room, her mother pushed her down the basement stairs and locked her in there in the dark as punishment. Her mother has since died of cancer, and her father turned to drink. He continues to be verbally abusive towards her, even though she is his main carer. They live in filth, the house doesn't get cleaned, and Eileen herself has no personal hygiene. She barely eats, (she lives on peanuts, bread and milk) but takes laxatives daily as she feels she is big and bloated. She is fed up with her existence but doesn't want to die. A common occurrence in the book is the mention of the icicles hanging precariously over her porch, and how they could easily fall and pierce through her or her father at any time. She dreams of running away to New York.

Eileen works as a secretary in a correctional facility for teenage boys. She doesn't like anybody at work, and they don't seem to like her - in fact, most of the staff don't seem to notice her existence. She fantasises about Randy, one of the guards, and most evenings she drives to his house and sits outside in the car and imagines what he'd be doing inside. Her sad and lonely existence changes with the sudden appearance of Rebecca at the facility. Rebecca seems to understand Eileen, she talks to her and appears to want to be her friend, but Eileen finds herself drawn into something a lot more sinister.

The character descriptions are excellent, the author does a great job of creating a sombre setting for Eileen (well, she couldn't make it any more depressing really!), but the finale wasn't as big I was expecting. I find that how you feel at the end of a book sums up your feeling about the whole book - so, disappointed really.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Having worked in the children's department at Waterstones for many years, Anthony Horowitz was more famous to me for the bestselling 'Alex Rider' series of spy books (recommended highly for ages 10+). However, in the adult world, he has also written two Sherlock Holmes novels ('The House of Silk' and 'Moriarty') and a James Bond novel ('Trigger Mortis'). He has written and created Foyle's War for television, and he writes newspaper columns.

Most interestingly for this book, he produced the first seven episodes of Midsomer Murders. I say interestingly because the murder story in this book could be taken straight out of a Midsomer Murder episode!

Susan Reynolds is a book editor at a small publishing house, Cloverleaf Books. Their main money-making author is crime writer Alan Conway, whose novels featuring the German detective Atticus Pund sell in their millions. He sends her the manuscript of his latest detective novel, 'Magpie Murders'. She spends the weekend reading it (as do we, as the novel is part of this book), but when she reaches the end, she realises frustratingly that there are pages missing - pages where Atticus Pund is just about to reveal the murderer. When she goes into the office Monday morning to tell her colleague about it, she is met with the news that the previous day Alan committed suicide. Susan decides to become detective herself - she doesn't understand why Alan would take his own life without finishing the book. She thinks he may have been murdered. As she delves into his past and his family and friends, she realises that perhaps this may be one instance where life imitates art, and clues may be hidden within his novel.

This is a very clever book - you get a novel within a novel. While I was reading the section of Alan's book, I forgot that it was part of another story, so when it came to an abrupt end, I too was surprised, just like Susan. Anthony manages to keep all the characters interesting, and importantly keeps them all under suspicion. It was like a book version of Cluedo! Booksellers will delight in all the references to authors, festivals, publishers, radio shows and publicity tours.

The only downside to the book was that I got confused between the names in Alan's novel, and those in his real life, there were so many characters to remember!

Other than that, I can recommend this book to those who love to read a good murder mystery, very much a la Agatha Christie.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

The last book I read by Maria Semple was 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette?' which I absolutely loved. This one....meh...hmmm...not so much. A bit higgledy piggledy, a bit all over the place, some early facts I think she actually forgot until later, when she quickly had to tie it up in a few sentences, the young boy in it is only 8 but sometimes talks and acts older than his mother, and the ending is a bit too unbelievable for me.

Eleanor Flood, well known for being the Director of Animation on a famous cartoon show 'Looper Wash', is married to Joe, a well-revered hand surgeon to the stars. They are both 50 years old, and have an 8-yr-old son Timby (born Timothy), and a terrier/pug cross, Yo-Yo. Eleanor wakes up one morning determined to be different - she will give more time to her husband and son, will put on a dress and look smarter, she will be a nicer, calmer person. She walks the dog (because she has to - Joe doesn't particularly like Yo-Yo), drops Timby off at school, and goes off to her poetry class (to try to improve her memory by learning and reciting the lines). But soon the day starts to take a turn for the worse. 

Timby's school rings to say he is feeling unwell. This is the third time in a couple of weeks that he's done this, and has feigned tummy-ache, so already Eleanor's new state of calm is unravelling. She takes him to the doctor's where Timby reveals,much to Eleanor's surprise, embarrassment and shame because he hasn't told her, that he is being bullied at school. Eleanor decides to spend some time with him for the day. It is over the course of this day that Eleanor's past catches up with her, and memories which she has tried to kept hidden for years are brought back up to the surface. We learn about her parents, her sister, her brother-in-law, and she learns more about her husband in one afternoon than she wanted to - will this bring their relationship to an end? 

I felt the story didn't flow incredibly well, it felt rather clunky. We spend more time in Eleanor's past than in the present, so much so that I sometimes forgot what she was doing and where she was before we ran off down memory lane. Even the characters she was with at the time seem surprised to have her back. There's so much to-ing and fro-ing that at one point poor Yo-Yo is forgotten about - seemingly even by the author herself - abandoned outside a supermarket for hours. It's only when Timby reminds us and the author about him that he is quickly retrieved. The revelation concerning her husband at the end was, to me, complete nonsense. From what we learn about him during the story (again, from the past, he doesn't make much of appearance in the present), it doesn't fit with his character and way of thinking. Indeed, Eleanor is just as shocked as me, but the final way she responds just doesn't fit right.

It's a whirlwind of events and characters, and a story that left me feeling a little indifferent.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Holding by Graham Norton

Graham Norton written a novel? As in, Graham Norton, most brilliant and funniest chat show host ever? Yes, that one. I was surprised at first, but then thought 'why AM I surprised?' Celebrities are branching out into everything nowadays. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the book though. I just loved the outline of the story.

It's set in Ireland (good start, he's writing about what he knows), in a small village near Cork called Duneen. The village garda is Sergeant Patrick James Collins, single, overweight, looked after and fed by Mrs Meany the housekeeper. His life as the village garda is a simple and boring one - he issues licences and checks tax discs. He hopes to prove himself as something more. His hopes soon come true - human remains are found by builders working on a new housing development behind the primary school. Detective Sergeant Dunne arrives from Cork to assist Sergeant Collins in the case. It is thought by many of the villagers that the remains may be those of Tommy Burke, a young farmer who had vanished about 20 years ago, but it seems some of the villagers are hiding secrets and may know more than they're letting on.

I just loved reading this book. There was action on every page which kept you interested in the story, you wanted to know more about all of the characters, none of them annoyed me! There were twists and turns, interesting sub-stories of characters' private lives, bits of humour (as you'd expect with Graham). I'd finish a chapter of an evening, and look forward to picking up the book again the next day. I did find myself reading the words of the whole book in my head in an Irish accent, but surely that's understandable, so it is? (oops).

Bravo Graham - I look forward to your next one!