Echo Boy – Matt Haig

Matt Haig is, currently, going the right way about adding himself to my list of authors who are yet to write a book I dislike.  I haven’t read everything he has written but I enjoyed both The Radleys (an everyday story of a very English vampire family) and The Humans (an alien sent to destroy all evidence of a mathematician’s work is infected with humanity) and now I can add Echo Boy to the list.

9781782300069This is classified as a young adult/teen novel and the main characters are aged appropriately but don’t let this put you off. I know some adult readers are reluctant to try YA fiction but personally I think they are missing out – it isn’t all hormone-fuelled romance and sparkly vampires in the teen section of the shop! This book fits in with one of the more interesting (to me) themes – dystopic fiction, especially where the problems stem from environmental disaster – as well as exploring what it means to be human and how power corrupts. And all this without sounding ‘preachy’ or ‘worthy’…

The book opens with the heroine, Audrey, living with her parents and a kind of robotic housekeeper (known as an Echo) in the North of England. The landscape is almost unrecognisable – rising sea levels mean that homes are built on stilts 50 metres high – but some things are very familiar (it has been raining for 4 months…..). I liked Audrey’s relationship with her parents – she obviously loves them, is embarrassed by them, proud of them and rebels mildly against them – although it doesn’t last long: they are killed in the opening pages. Audrey then travels to London to live under the protection of her Uncle – an immensely rich and powerful industrialist whose company makes, among other things, Echoes. Echoes are more than robots – they appear to be almost human, only their perfection makes them different – but they are less than human because they are emotionless. They are also meant to be unable to harm their human masters but this is certainly not Audrey’s experience.

I won’t go too deeply into the plot – too hard not to give spoilers – but I will say that the story rattles along at a very fast pace. There is tragedy, danger, love and suspense. Audrey is a feisty heroine and Daniel, the Echo Boy of the title, is an interesting hero. He learns how to be human and Audrey, like so many teenagers before her, learns that things are never as black and white as they seem.

Jane

 

 

 

The Quarry – Iain Banks

It is to my great shame that I have to admit that I have not previously read any Iain Banks. Not even any of his science fiction written under the cunning pseudonym of Iain M. Banks. And not even after I met him at an author event in Newcastle and joined him (along with a crowd of fellow gin-swilling booksellers) for a very decent curry. And not even after I commented on the fact that he (unlike the booksellers) stuck to lassi rather than gin and he replied – with a perfectly straight face – that it was delicious and that he’d never had a day’s thrush in his life! I am a disgrace to the name of bookselling…..My only defence is the fact that there always seem to be so many books (and so little time).

The Quarry Anyway, I have now broken my Iain Banks duck by reading The Quarry, the novel he finished just before his death in 2013 and I suspect I will be reading more of his work in the future.  A man who can write a book about a man with terminal cancer, while having been diagnosed with the same condition, and yet make it a warm, funny novel (with a heavy dose of black humour, vitriol and olympic-class swearing) is a genius who will be much missed.

The story centres around Kit who lives with his terminally ill father, Guy, in a ramshackle old house in the North-East of England. Kit seems to be a young man with more than his fair share of problems – his father’s illness, not knowing who his mother is, money worries and the fact that he appears to be somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum – but he is also kind of charming in a rather gauche way.  On the other hand Guy is, understandably, embittered by his life and he takes it out both Kit and the group of friends he invites to his home for a debauched weekend.  The plot revolves loosely around  a search for a videotape which the group of friends fear could ruin their reputations but the story seems to be more concerned with the characters involved. The dialogue is very realistic, even if the situation is something out of the everyday, and the individual characters are well-drawn.

If you enjoy intelligent fiction about interesting people then this could be the book for you. But I don’t know why I’m telling you this – I’m the one who was daft enough not to have read any Iain Banks before now…

Jane

 

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