Don’t Let Go – Michel Bussi (translated by Sam Taylor)

I’ve got pretty simple tastes in tv most of the time*. I can take or leave reality shows, talent shows or real-life medical stuff. I’ll watch some sport and soaps (but if I miss them I’m not that bothered) but will almost always enjoy stuff on science, history and gardening. And then there are the programmes I really enjoy and will happily watch over and over again – Big Bang Theory and really cheesy detective shows. Not intellectual police dramas – I’ve watched things like Wallender but I’d rather read the books – but pure escapist cheese. The kind of series where you have one eye on the plot and the other on the lovely countryside – Midsomer Murders (known as ‘Murder Most reassuring’ in our house) or Death in Paradise (or ‘Murder Most Tropical’, inevitably). Bliss. Obviously with books I like a bit more variety (and, in my head, I can have whatever landscape I like) but sometimes these two areas overlap a touch.

9781474601788Michel Bussi’s previous two books (in English translation) have been set in Paris (and the snow-capped Jura mountains) and Giverny but this one ranges further afield to the island of Réunion. Still part of France but also very exotic to those used to the mainland – and certainly not immune to the ravages of drugs, revenge and murder. This was certainly less pre-watershed friendly than Death in Paradise and the darker side of life on a tropical paradise (built on slavery and colonialism…) is brought vividly to life. A couple and their young daughter are, it seems, enjoying their stay on Réunion until the wife, Liane Bellion, disappears from their hotel room. At first it seems to be a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery but soon evidence seems to point to Liane’s husband Martial – he goes on the run with his young daughter: the actions, it would seem, of a guilty man.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – Martial has a secret to hide but we gradually come to realise that murder is probably not in his repertoire. It is quite refreshing not to be working through the usual psychological thriller routine of an unreliable narrator – we see the story from the point of view of Martial, Liane and their daughter but also from that of two police officers involved in the case. These varied voices show us the truth about not only Liane’s disappearance and Martial’s past but also about life of the island – the relationships between the varied ethnic groups and the undercurrents of racism, poverty and violence which tourists rarely see.

If you enjoy crime fiction with a side order of exotic scenery, a convoluted plot and interesting characters then give this (and Bussi’s other books) a try. Any urge to drink rum while reading is your own problem…..

Jane

*I’m also, possibly, the last person left who watches about 95% of their tv in real time. If I’m not home to watch it I probably never will – I’ve too many books to read to be doing with catch-up….

The Breakdown – B A Paris

For some people the worst thing you can say about a film, a book or any other piece of creative work is that it is predictable. And in many ways I agree – why give an hour (or two, or fifteen) to an album, movie or novel which doesn’t add anything to the sum total of my experience? But….Sometimes I know how a plotline is going to end (honestly, I can read the mind of the Eastenders scriptwriting team) but still have enough invested in the characters to want to know how they will react to it. In fact we can all sometimes surprise ourselves with how we react to an event we’d known was coming for years – the wedding we’d dreamed of and planned for months, or maybe the eventual death of someone who’d been ill for decades: we can still feel the emotional impact of the shock even when it isn’t exactly a surprise. So, does this always matter when reading a novel (remembering that there are, apparently, only seven plots – or three if you ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)?

31450633In The Breakdown, B A Paris’ second novel, Cass decides to ignore her husband’s advice and drive home along a lonely, woodland road. She sees a car broken down, in appalling weather conditions, and stops to see if the female driver needs help. When they don’t react to her stopping she drives on but is shocked to discover, the next day, that not only did she know the driver but that she had been found dead in her car. She feels she can’t share the guilt she feels with her husband – he’ll be angry that she drove along such a dangerous road – but worse than the guilt is the feeling that she is losing her mind. Her mother died after suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s – is Cass starting to show signs of the same awful fate?

There is plenty of threat and fear for Cass – at first that she will become ill and a burden on her husband but later she is plagued by silent phone calls and feels physically threatened. She feels isolated, her husband blames call-centres and she never told him about her Mum’s illness because he might not want a woman with such potentially bad genes, and even her best friend isn’t there for her. As a reader you can see nothing more positive than heavy-duty meds in her future but, gradually, she starts to realise that all the things happening to her just don’t make sense. When she finally takes back control of her life she brings the story to a pretty satisfying conclusion.

My problems with this book are that a) I worked out who Cass’s main tormenters were fairly early on and b) Cass was a bit of a doormat. Which isn’t fair on her – she had been a carer for her mother for a long time and had watched her deteriorate. They had, apparently, had money problems (happily resolved after her mother’s death) and Cass had needed to quit her job to care for her mum full-time. All these things could have affected Cass’s sense of self-worth and that is how she is written – maybe my real issue is that, when she starts to assert herself in the last part of the story, I’m not clear what changes to give her this new burst of confidence. Maybe anger when she realises how she has been betrayed? I did still enjoy the book – the plot was quite convoluted and twisty so I was interested to see how it would unravel. In the end Cass explained it all in the monologue form of that bit at the end of a detective tv show where all the suspects are gathered in one room and the killer is revealed. And, to be fair, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing…

Jane

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

I’m assuming everyone knows about publication dates? The dates set by publishers for the release of new books, usually on a Thursday (or sometimes Tuesdays just to keep us on our toes) and occasionally combined with strict embargoes. My main quandary is not to do with embargoes (which I have to restrain myself from calling ‘umbongoes’ because I’m 51 not 15…) but the dates themselves. I looked at my spreadsheet (because, as I say, I’m 51 and this is the only way I can remember what I’m reading/reviewing) and realised I had 5 or 6 titles down for publication on 12th January. I then have the problem of spacing out the reviews because I can’t do them all on the 12th and then have nothing for two weeks. I feel bad for the book which is reviewed 10 days after publication and sometimes I don’t fit them all in before the next batch hits. I’ve even ended up missing a couple of books from the 12th because, blimey, when I got to books coming out on 26th January there are 6 again. Luckily, none of the books are embargoed so I can slip a few in on the previous week, but I did have some deciding to do before working out which book was going to get their review on the actual Thursday they are released. It was nearly going to be David Barnett (because I know him), or Christian O’Connell (because I listen to his radio show most days and feel like I know him) but I then plumped for Sarah Pinborough (because, this week of all weeks, it is all about girl-power…And also I’ve yet to read anything by her which failed to impress).

behindhereyesBehind Her Eyes has been heavily pre-promoted with the strapline ‘Don’t Trust This Book. Don’t Trust These People. Don’t Trust Yourself. And whatever you do, DON’T give away that ending’. Which makes telling you anything about the story quite tricky. I mean, it is possible to tell you about the basic outline, or how the book starts, without giving too much away but Pinborough has created such a dense and convoluted story (in a really, really good way) that I’m loath to try. Let’s just say it is a love triangle designed by Escher, where every angle is acute enough to be positively needle sharp. And I thought I had the hang of it near the end but then found I was fooled. It is very definitely correct to describe it (rather breathlessly) as ‘that ending’.

This will be a great book for those who couldn’t get enough of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. Everyone in the book is so unreliable they are probably currently being considered for political office in the States. The plot is complex and the ending, as previously mentioned, is arresting. Even better, this should be the book which makes Pinborough a household name (even though I’ve enjoyed being ahead of the curve on this one for a while…).

Jane

 

 

The Watcher – Ross Armstrong

You see that wave of what is currently hot? That gleaming zeitgeist machine? That trend that everyone will be following soon? What you probably won’t see is me anywhere nearby. To (slightly mis)quote the much-missed Douglas Adams I’m so unhip it’s a wonder my bum doesn’t fall off. (This is also my weight-loss strategy…). Take the whole psychological thriller genre, for example – I read Gone Girl about two years after everyone else and I still haven’t got round to Girl on the Train. I enjoy this kind of story – I’m very fond (if fond is the right word) of an unreliable narrator – but I keep being distracted by shiny post-apocalypses and warts-and-all historical fiction. I’m also slightly worried by the fact that, in most of the books I’ve come across, the unreliable narrator is female. I mean, I’m sure the male equivalent exists but the most popular titles give us women we can’t quite trust even as they appear to be in terrible danger. I don’t have a real problem with this but I’d like to think there is a new trend coming with unreliable male narrators in psychological thrillers…

watcherIn Ross Armstrong’s The Watcher our narrator, Lilly, is both female and, it soon appears, pretty unreliable. She lives with her husband, a writer called Aiden, in a swish new apartment block within sight of the areas still in need of ‘gentrification’. A keen birdwatcher, Lilly watches her neighbours in both the upmarket and lower-rent buildings, giving them names and back-stories  but when a woman from the soon to be demolished estates is found dead she starts to become obsessed with finding the killer. As I said it quickly becomes clear that Lilly is often happy with telling less than the truth but there are still plenty of surprises in the story. Because the story is told purely from Lilly’s point of view there is a surprisingly pleasing feeling of panic and paranoia – we feel her panic but can enjoy it because we know we are noy actually Lilly, we are just temporarily in her head.

If you like psychological thrillers then give this one a try. It is a gripping read while we are waiting for those fragile-minded male narrators to come along.

Jane

 

The Widow – Fiona Barton

I try to avoid reading the books that everyone says I should be reading (not our books of the month, if anyone from Head Office is reading this, obvs, I read them if I can) or, if I do read them, I’m late to the party. I only read To Kill a Mockingbird after the publication of Go Set a Watchman was announced and I’ve still got to attempt any of the Game of Thrones books. I’m always saying ‘so many books, so little time’ but, if the truth is told, I’m just stubborn. I will read something if I want to read it not because everyone else is. And when I do get round to reading something like, say, Gone Girl everybody else has moved on. I mention this because there have been a lot of books recently marketed as ‘the new Gone Girl’ (or the new Game of Thrones, etc) and, it seems, a lot of reviewers are not happy about this. I mean, they are perfectly entitled to be unhappy, but I’m not sure why apart from the fact that they are a bit fed up of seeing the claim made quite so often…This is nothing new, of course, we’ve been using this kind of shorthand for years. The easiest way to describe something is to say what it resembles. The items most people best remember are the first ones that hit big (Gone Girl, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) – the ur-novels if you like.

9780552172363The Widow is a debut novel which has been widely compared to Gone Girl and I can understand this comparison since it is a psychological novel largely written from the point of view of the women (mostly) involved in a criminal case.  A young child goes missing and Glen Taylor is a suspect. His wife Jean supports him, the child’s mother will not rest until her child is found and the police officer and journalist who are most closely involved with the case are similarly dogged. We know a lot of what Jean knows – that her husband is interested in online pornography involving youngsters for example – but we can also see a lot of things she doesn’t. It was obvious to me that Jean is abused by her husband – not physically but psychologically. She is detached from her friends and family at a young age, her self-esteem is picked at constantly and she is made to feel that Glen’s online habits are her fault because she wants a child too much.

Other interesting points for me were the mother of the missing child and the journalist. Fiona Barton is a journalist herself so the press are given a better write-up than is usual – to be honest, from the few journalists I have ever met, I think this kinder view is fairly realistic of reporters on local papers at least – and the mother develops into quite a media-savvy woman, but with a persistent and ongoing belief that her child, against all the evidence, is still alive. The policeman is a little more formulaic but it seems to me that Barton’s real skill is in her female characters.

This is an enjoyable thriller in a genre that was hugely invigorated by Gone Girl. It doesn’t try to copy that book’s methods but seems to be developing one of its own – worth a read if you enjoy a complex plot and well-defined characters.

Jane

 

Black Water Lilies – Michel Bussi

I was intrigued by the idea of this book – a crime thriller set in Giverny, the home of Monet and his wonderful water-lily paintings. I visited the gardens once and they are beautiful (although we were constantly thwarted in our attempts to get really good photos by both the crowds and the elusive nature of the French sun) and we had a good wander around the village too. This helped make some of the scenes really come alive for me – particularly a funeral scene in local churchyard (and in the rain…) – although I don’t think it would matter if the nearest you’d ever come to a Monet was on a birthday card. This is a cracking good little thriller.

51Ls5znsSrL._AC_UL320_SR210,320_A body is found in the village of Giverny. Stabbed, head crushed with a rock and partly in the river and it is the job of a detective recently transferred from the South to find out who killed him. And why. We see the story from his point of view and from that of three women – Fanette, a ten year old art prodigy, Stephanie, a beautiful teacher with a very jealous husband, and an elderly woman who lives in an old watermill and watches over the whole village while being, in the way of old women, invisible to its inhabitants. I can’t even begin to explain how they are all connected because that would be an enormous spoiler but the connection is there. This is a very clever book, tightly plotted with lots of well-rounded characters and, after the success of his previous novel After The Crash, it looks as if Michel Bussi is going to become a writer to be reckoned with.

Jane

While My Eyes Were Closed – Linda Green

I’m sure I have mentioned before that I love to read books set in places that I visit but  sometimes reading about familiar places does more than just enhance your reading pleasure. In fact, in the case of Linda Green’s latest novel, it completely freaked me out at points. Of course, as I shall explain, that is down to my own experiences as much as it is the story itself.

linda greenThe plot, in brief, concerns a busy young mum who loses her child while playing hide and seek in a local park. Every parent’s worst nightmare is explored in detail – the anger, disbelief and panic when realisation hits; the actions of the police, the public and the press; the false alarms and the sleepless nights. Interestingly, and this could be a spoiler but it becomes apparant a short way into the book, that in a Columbo-like way we see the story both from the point of view of the missing girl’s family and from that of the person who has her.

The book explores the way families work – real families in a very real world. Everyone is there – parents, children, grandparents and even the in-laws – and we see the parent-child relationship from both sides (and at many ages from pre-school to adult). What make it stand out among psychological thrillers, currently a hugely popular genre, in that what keeps you gripped isn’t action, violence or perversion but characters who are painfully real, with realistic flaws and fears.

So. Where does my experience come into it? Not from experience of motherhood or loss – I don’t have any children – but from the setting. This book is set in Halifax, a town I frequently walk to from my home on a day off, and, more specifically, the key events take place in and around a local park which I know really well. I have visited the park, the butterfly house and even the ice-cream van and I could envisage the setting for so many of the events in the novel. Of course, this should just be interesting to me as a familiar place but I do get a hint of something darker. The child in this story is a bright, forthright four year old looking forward to her first day of school – and I can’t help but think of the child of good friends who I have spent happy hours with in this particular park. She’s four. And looking forward to starting school…This is a book which can make a non-parent really understand what motherhood can be like.

Jane