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!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy

This is one of the titles on The Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist (shortlist announced 15th October, winner announced 24th October). I try to read at least one of the titles each year. Last year I read A Little Life - I thought it was going to win, it was shockingly (literally) brilliant. Alas (for me), the winner was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Unfortunately for me, the one book I chose to read from the longlist I did not enjoy at all. There were too many things that annoyed me which spoiled it for me. It didn't help that I really didn't like one of the main characters, Jon. But let me tell you a brief outline of the story.

It's set in London over a 24-hour period. It is Friday 10th April. Jon Sigurdsson is 59, divorced, works for the government as some sort of spindoctor for one of the ministers (I think), and he is a very anxious, worrisome person. He was not shown love by his mother when he was young - he was sent off to boarding school, then Cambridge - then he was made a fool of by his wife, Valerie (she was an adulteress). This lack of love has affected him throughout his life, he doesn't feel worthy of anyone's love, thinks he'll mess it up, so he's afraid of entering into another relationship. He discovers a way of showing love to a person without having to actually meet them. He advertises his services as a letter writer to women who need to feel loved and wanted. He collects responses from a PO Box address in Mayfair. He has a very low opinion of himself, and work colleagues seem to hold the same view of him also. He is losing faith with the meaning of his work - so much so that he pays regular visits to the Natural History Museum and leaves secret notes with state secrets to a journalist.

Meg Williams is 45 years old, lives on Telegraph Hill, works at an animal shelter in the admin office. She is a recovering alcoholic, is paranoid, and she suffers bouts of depression - so much so, she was disappointed if she were to wake up in the morning. She attends support groups. She is foul-tempered and foul-mouthed. But we get a sense that she is trying to get her life back together. She goes to the cinema, regularly watches the sunrise on the Hill, and has answered an ad for receiving letters. She decides to reply to one of the letters, saying in the letter "I have what you write in my head all the time. It's sweet. It's serious and sweet."

So the story is set up with Jon and Meg, each only just coping with living their own lives, and suddenly finding themselves thrown together. Will their relationship survive? 

A lot more goes on in the 24 hours than just their relationship - in fact their actual being together is a very short part of the book. Which is a shame really, as that was the part I was enjoying the most. Seeing how these two troubled minds acted when together. The rest of the story is about their state of minds, their parents, Jon's daughter, and a great deal of Jon's work, which I found rather boring. Also, when Jon talks about his feelings, he stammers, mumbles, stumbles, and never finishes his sentences. I was getting furious with that! When he was talking about his job, he spoke eloquently without a stumble. I guess this was showing how vulnerable he was when it came to close relationships and his feelings. He just can't cope. I was pleased at one point when even Meg, who's had a dreadful and tumultuous past herself, tells him in her own sweet way to get a grip!

It doesn't surprise me that this title is on the longlist. It is the sort of literary fiction that book prizes just adore. But not me. Too rambling, with an annoying character with a boring job. It'll probably win.  

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is one of my favourite authors of adult fiction. His last, The Children Act, was just brilliant. Needless to say, when I heard he had another book out, I was rushing to NetGalley to request it. His diversity of subject matter and characters is just incredible. In this book, the narrator is an unborn baby. Very original.

Trudy and John Cairncross are separated. Trudy is living in a large old house left to John by his grandparents. It's in dire need of refurbishment - it is squalid, rotting, dilapidated and full of decay. Much like Trudy and John's marriage. Trudy is having an affair with John's brother, Claude, who lives in the house with her. She is 9 months pregnant with John's baby, the aforementioned narrator of the story. We learn nothing of baby from any conversation between the adults of the story, they do not mention him at all. None of them appear to want him to exist. The only way we know baby is a boy is because he finds it out for himself in the womb.

Through baby's running commentary, we find out much about Trudy, Claude and John, the most important fact being that the large house is worth 6 million pounds, and the only way Trudy and Claude can get their greedy hands on that money, is by getting rid of John. A plan is hatched and we follow baby's emotional journey while he is torn between love and hate for his mother, hatred and admiration for his uncle Claude, and love and pity for his father the poet John.

Do not assume that baby speaks only in baby talk. He is a highly intellectual being - he knows all the news and politics of the day by listening to all the radio channels and factual programmes that his mother listens to. He is also a connoisseur of wine - he becomes drunk with Trudy and suffers hangovers too. He is not yet born but he has the same worries as an adult in modern day - "In my confinement, I had other concerns: my drink problem, family worries, an uncertain future....."

Ian McEwan, while delivering an excellent essay on modern day life, is a great thriller writer. I was hooked throughout, staying up till the small hours to find out what would happen next.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Jason lives with his wife Daniela and teenage son Charlie in Chicago. They're a happy family. They might have regrets at some life choices they made, just like any other couple, but they've lived with their choices and happy with the outcome. One evening Jason makes the choice to go for a drink with his friend Ryan, promising his wife and son to buy ice cream on the way home. He never makes it home, and he may never see his wife and son again. He is kidnapped and drugged, and when he comes around, he is lying on the floor of a hangar with a man who seemingly knows him, but who Jason has never met in his life. So begins a horrifying journey for Jason who slowly realises he is living in a nightmare world which he recognises, but which he doesn't belong in. As he learns the truth about where he is and how he's got here, he has the almost impossible task of trying to get back to his real life with his wife and son.

This is a thrilling and suspenseful story about choices in life, a muli-dimensional existence, the paths we take, and the decisions we make. This is not the first time I have read this subject matter in a book, but Blake Crouch pulls you in, and carries you through to the end on a terrifying but thought provoking ride.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Kook by Chris Vick

Living in Cornwall, I'm surrounded by beautiful beaches and crazy surfers, and I love a story that features that adrenalin-fuelled sport. I've already read and loved Blue by Lisa Glass, a story about surfing set in Newquay, so I was looking forward to reading Kook, also set in Cornwall.

The author, Chris Vick, works for a whale and dolphin conservation charity and is a keen surfer, and that truly comes through in his first novel. The word 'kook' is surfer slang for a learner or a wannabe. In the book, 16 year old Sam is exactly that. He's just moved back to Cornwall with his mum and little sister - they used to live there when he was younger, but his father drowned and his mother couldn't bear to live there with the memories. Now they're back to be near Sam's grandma - she has cancer and may not have long to live. Next door to Sam lives Jade, with her dad. They both go to the same school, so slowly Sam gets to know Jade and her friends - all super keen surfers. Not wanting to be left out, Sam teaches himself to surf, all the while doing research on a giant wave that no-one has yet ridden, called the Devil Horns - a wave that could prove disaster for anyone who attempts it.

I quite enjoyed the book, but unfortunately there were a couple of things which spoiled it for me - the profanity, and the drug use. There was a huge amount of both in this book, and it came across that there was nothing wrong with it. I know teenagers these days use bad language fairly often, but you don't want to have to read it on every page of a book. And as for taking drugs, the characters again did it on such a regular basis, it was made to seem that it was ok to do it.

As a bookseller, I have to be very careful when recommending books to certain ages. Because of the content of Kook, I will have to make sure I don't recommend it to anyone under the age of 15, which surely cuts out a huge audience for the author. I always think it's such a shame that a certain aged-audience may be denied a book purely because of bad language or other bad content. It's not necessary in a story, people don't like hearing it or reading it, so why write it?

The last few chapters were very emotional - weirdly, the chapters I enjoyed the most. If Jade was a bit nicer, and there was less bad content in the book, I may have enjoyed it more.