The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair – Joel Dicker (trans. Sam Taylor)

9780857053091I have decided that the only way to describe this book is ‘twistier than a bucket-full of greased eels’. And that is a good thing, I think. Apart from having to review it without giving too much away, of course…

Harry Quebert is a famous and acclaimed writer living in Somerset, New Hampshire – a coastal village which, given the events of the story, reminded me more than a little of Cabot Cove in Murder, She Wrote – getting by quite nicely until a body is found in the garden of his home. Things start to go really badly for him when it is revealed that the body is that of a 15 year old girl, Nola Kellergan, who went missing over 30 years previously and with whom he was having a relationship at the time of her disappearance. Harry’s protegé, the new wunderkind of American literature, Marcus Goldman sets about investigating Nola’s death in an effort to clear Harry’s name.

On one level this is a crime novel – interestingly one which doesn’t rely on gore or sex but reads more like a 1930′s mystery – but it is also about the relationship between the two authors, the process of writing and true love. There is a large cast of characters, most of whom seem to become suspects at some point or another, who are on the whole well drawn. My only issue is with Goldman’s mother who only seems to exist as a one-dimensional and stereotypical Jewish mother – although she may explain why Marcus has such problems forming relationships…..

I really don’t want to give away too much of the plot since a large part of the enjoyment of the novel is trying to work out what the next twist is going to be. Lets just say that the Harry Quebert Affair will not disappoint if you are looking for a well-written and carefully plotted mystery. It has humour and pathos and, in Nola, a complex and endearing heroine.

Jane

 

A Railway ABC (and A Story about Ducks) – Jack Townend

9781851777778 9781851777785These two little books arrived today and I have to say they have been the highlight of my week so far.  I had seen them offered by the publisher, the rather splendid V&A Publishing, and I am sure they described the illustrator (and author) Jack Townend as being from the Bradford area. However, I have been Googling him ever since and can find very few details (not even from arty friends who are proper Bradfordians rather than southern incomers like me….) beyond those given in the book blurb. Mind you being elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and tutoring Shirley Hughes are obviously not trifling details!

A Story about Ducks is the tale of some rather adventurous waterfowl who find that the world beyond their river has both pleasures (raspberry buns and roller-coasters) and perils (the threat of being eaten for Christmas dinner).  Luckily, spoiler alert, they manage to escape and, I feel, they return home with a much greater appreciation of their peaceful river home. The illustrations are absolutely charming lithographs which manage to convey huge amounts of duckish personality with a minimal amount of detail. The Railway ABC is even lovelier to my mind (possibly because it is pure charm without the threat of wholesale duck slaughter) with a fairly simple rhyming story – ending up at the zoo, of course – and more gorgeous illustrations. The high point of the pictures for me are the Viaduct (which is quite reminiscent of Thornton Viaduct) and the crossing which looks like it could be almost anywhere in the Dales.

Both books are wonderfully old-fashioned – they make Thomas the Tank Engine look quite new-fangled – and should go down well with small children, their parents and grandparents. I shall be passing these on to young Sophie – I think she will enjoy the ducks and her Daddy will appreciate the trains….

Jane

Bird Box – Josh Malerman

9780007529872Horror is not a genre that I usually go for – not in books or film – but I was intrigued after reading a teaser chapter of this debut novel. The last time I read anything that piqued my curiosity so much was Justin Cronin’s magnificent book, The Passage, which was a pretty good sign. I decided to see how much I could read on a train journey down to London – it turns out is was so gripping I had to dig something else out for the final hour’s travelling!

What made it so compelling? Well, imagine living in a world where you can’t look out of the window or see the sky. It is our world but you must hide from it because there is something nasty out there and if you see it you will die. Now, imagine that you are trapped in a house with all this horror outside – and you have two four year old children with you….. The story moves forward towards Malorie the heroine’s terrifying journey through this hostile world, blindfolded and relying on the unnaturally sharp hearing of toddlers who have never seen anything outside of a few rooms, and back through the events which led her to that point. We hear of the news reports, spreading round the world, of madness, murders and, above all, suicides which follow on from seeing ‘something’. This something is never fully described – only its awful effects.

This is a tautly written story – and, in fact, the genre seems to fall somewhere between horror, thriller and dystopian fiction. It turns out that it is as much about how different people react to a crisis as it is about the crisis itself. The story was taken up by Universal before publication and the screenplay has been given to genre specialist Eric Heisserer. I don’t know how long it will take to make but I may even try to overcome my reluctance to watch horror films when it comes out. But I may have to go home with a blindfold on…

Jane

Northanger Abbey – Val McDermid

Yes, you did read that right – Val McDermid.  Although she is better known for writing rather violent and graphic crime novels, often referred to as ‘tartan noir’, rather than light and witty social comedies this is actually a really interesting retelling.  I love Jane Austen and this, her earliest written novel, is one of my favourites – the combination of a very young heroine and the lure of sensational fiction is hard to resist.northanger-abbey

 

What I particularly liked about this book was the way in which the obsessions of our modern lives are mapped onto those which dominated in Jane Austen’s day.  There are some obvious one – instead of referring to Cat Morland’s diary  Henry Tilney teases her about her Facebook feed – and some are virtually unchanged. After all, what is our fascination with true crime, lurid newspaper reports and outrageous celebrity stories, but an extension of the excesses of  the gothic novel? Every generation has its own brand of sensational literature and this is a good bridge between ours and that of the 19th Century.

The most inspired change to the plot is that of moving the location from Bath to the Edinburgh Festival.  Bath is a lovely city but probably doesn’t, these days, have enough of the hustle and bustle it had in its heyday. The Edinburgh Festival provides all this and also gives the characters a perfect excuse to indulge in conversations about books, theatre and art without sounding like the kind of culture vultures we would, maybe, dislike intensely.  And you probably can’t think of any fictional show which is too daft for the Fringe Festival….

My only problem with the whole novel is the realisation that our heroine, Cat, is only 17 yet she ends up in a relationship with a young man who is probably 10 years her senior. This isn’t a terrible thing, obviously, but it made me a bit uncomfortable.  I never noticed this in the original so it must be a tribute to the quality of the re-imagining that I read it as a novel of the modern day – and applied my modern day standards to it.  Given Val McDermid’s comments about a character in Wire in the Blood being based on Jimmy Saville this may have been in her mind too. Or maybe it is just me…..

I really enjoyed this book. It has all the bits of Jane Austen which I need – I found the tone light, entertaining and clever – but is firmly located in the early 21st century. I would recommend it to those who think Austen has no relevance to today and maybe we will get them onto the original in time.

Jane

A Very British Murder – Lucy Worsley

The British do seem to be very slightly obsessed with murder. We have television shows virtually wall to wall -  we even import them from all over the world – newspaper reports, films and, of course, books; but it seems this fascination is nothing new. 9781849906340  In this book Lucy Worsley – a historian whose tv shows have explored the British home, 17th Century women and royal illness among other things – looks into the history of all things murderous. From Thomas de Quincy to Broadchurch we delve into what I am probably obliged to call the seedy underbelly of life and along the way we learn quite a lot about waxworks, popular publishing and the history of forensic science. Our cast of characters includes Madame Tussaud herself, Dr Jekyll (and Mr Hyde, naturally), Charles Dickens and Dr William Palmer (who seemed to specialise in strychnine and may have been responsible for the phrase ‘What’s your poison’….) and most of the great crime novelists of the 19th and early 20th century get namechecked.

Many of the historical cases were ones which I had heard of – mostly via the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, of whom I am a huge fan – and I was very interested to see how, as life became less dangerous for many, the enjoyment of the ‘murder industry’ grew until today, we are told, one in every three books sold is a crime novel.  And although today’s crime fiction is far more graphic than anything from the pen of Agatha Christie we can at least take comfort in the fact that we no longer show up in droves to visit the actual scene of gristly killings before the police have even taken away the body, and we also don’t, generally, collect souvenirs of famous murders and executions.

As Lucy Worsley moves chronologically from the Georgian era to the immediate aftermath of World War 2 we see how our view of murder has changed but how reading about it has become almost a comfort to us (in my house Midsomer Murders is usually referred to as ‘Murder Most Reassuring’). Certainly until recently a common feature of most crime fiction is that wrongdoing is caught and punished – crime, in fictional terms, doesn’t pay – which seems to appeal to a natural sense of justice. I do enjoy modern crime fiction but, I must admit, prefer to read the stories from the Golden Age (did I mention how much I love Dorothy L. Sayers? I spent my teens wanting to marry Lord Peter Wimsey….).

I have decided quite recently that I read for plot rather than purely for the quality of the writing.  We are told, in a Very British Murder, that ‘the literature of murder tells us not what people thought they ought to read. It tells us what they really read’.  This book has given me lots of ideas of where to go to for my next crime fix and I can hold my head high knowing I am upholding a great British tradition…

Jane

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

9781846689659Tolstoy tells us, in Anna Karenina, that ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ but I’m not sure that he would ever have thought of the ways to be unhappy the family at the centre of this novel have found. And I can’t really tell you much about these ways as they are a major part of the plot – you could still enjoy the book if I told you but you would be losing something in the telling.

What can I tell you? This is a book about families and about learning who you really are. It is about a girl who used to talk all the time and is now very quiet, who used to have two siblings and now seems to be an only child, who was once the subject of scientific papers and now revels in the anonimity of going to University hundreds of miles from her home. Our heroine, Rosemary, is someone who you take into your heart – she is alternately engaging and annoying, obviously clever and socially inept.  She starts her story in the middle and we follow her both back into her past and as the tale progresses towards the present day – the secrets of her life are doled out to us piece by piece so that, by the end, a fuller picture emerges.  We also, incidentally, discover lots of seemingly unrelated stuff – odd facts and quotes from a variety of disciplines; philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and religion – and meet some fascinating characters. A paranoid building manager (but it turned out they were watching him all along), a self-centred drama queen (who ends up sacrificing her future for someone else’s cause) and a big brother (who turns out to need protecting, mostly from himself).

I hope I haven’t made this book sound too ‘worthy’ or serious. It is contemporary fiction written with a very light touch – there is humour as well as sadness – and I can see me recommending it to a lot of customers.

Jane

 

The Third Daughter – Susan Kaye Quinn

After enjoying my first steampunk novel (and while waiting for David Barnett to publish the next volume) my eye was caught by a book with all the Victorian automata and goggles required by the Steampunk genre but set in a world with many similarities to India. Of course they called it ‘Bollypunk’.

Third daughter

The story involves Aniri, the third daughter of the title, a princess who hopes to marry for love. Her older sisters have married for political reasons, but seem happy, but Aniri has her heart set on a dashing court fencing-master (and courtesan – gender roles are rather reversed in this world) from a neighbouring state. However, when her mother, the Queen of Dharia, hears that the barbarian nation to the north has developed a new weapon – a flying ship – she asks that Daria agrees to travel there to find out the truth of the rumours. The only way she can do this is by accepting an offer of marriage from Prince Malik, the ruler of the northern state.

Aniri is certainly on the feisty side – she is an adept swordfighter and climber – but she is still politically naive.  Alone in Jungali, the northern land, apart from a couple of servants, she struggles to know who to trust – Prince Malik, her lover Devesh, her bodyguard Janak or even her own mother.  And her growing attraction to the Prince (who sounds like an awesome kisser!) doesn’t help. The plot rattles along, with fights, flights, fires and the odd fainting fit, and you are carried along by the need to know who deserves Aniri’s love. The characters are good – the ones who need to be obvious, like the scheming Jungali general, are obvious but the rest have plenty of depth and are realistically drawn. The ending had me on the edge of my seat (even though, as the book is the first of a trilogy, I knew the heroine at least should survive).

I really, really enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced with a gripping plot and, although you did realise who the heroine would end up with part way through, it didn’t fail on the twisty-turny front. It is an action packed romance which would be suitable for young adult readers. My only disappointment is that, at the moment, it is not being stocked in the shop. But I am certainly going to be begging for it to be added to the catalogue – this is such a Bradford book I feel we really have to have it!

Jane