Friday, 21 April 2017

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's The Point of Rescue (Culver Valley series book 3)

Publication date: 1st January 2008
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

The US publication has a different title: The Wrong Mother.

Publisher's summary
Bestselling author Sophie Hannah explores the various sides of motherhood in her third psychological suspense novel.

My synopsis
Sally Thorning, a wife and mother of two small children, has a hectic life running her home and managing her career.  One evening, after dinner and the children have been put to bed, she and husband Nick, are watching a news report about a woman who is reported to have killed herself and her daughter.  To her shock, Sally realises she knows these people.  Sally knows that something is not quite right: the man on the TV screen, Mark Bretherick, reported to be the husband of the dead woman is not him, but an imposter claiming to be him.  Her reason for knowing this is because she knows Mark Bretherick - intimately.  Revealing what she knows could destroy her marriage.  However, this is vital information that the police need to know and Sally has to make a decision, should she contact the police, or should she withhold the information?

My Review
This is the third in the Culver Valley series.  I have also reviewed Little Face and Hurting Distance, books 1 & 2, respectively.

It is probably clear from my previous reviews of the series that I have not been hugely impressed by them, and yet I have succumbed to their addictive qualities.  I am glad that I have (succumbed) because The Point of Rescue is a marked improvement on the other two.  This one reads more like a crime mystery and less like a soap opera.  Hannah has ditched the story lines that focus heavily on the personal lives of the police officers of Spilling CID and has focused on the crime.  At the same time, she offers up snippets of what is going on in the officers' personal lives - just enough to keep the characters well developed and the reader interested.  As a result, the Spilling CID come across more like professionals than in previous books. 

As usual, the plot is intricate and complex.  As alluded to in the publisher's summary (and the title of the US publication), Hannah is exploring motherhood in this book and she does so in a multifaceted way.  Gender inequality is a common theme in this series of books, but sexism towards women and misogyny are particularly prominent in this book

Where crime fiction is concerned, I think there is a danger of ruining a plot when too much is being thrown at it because it becomes less feasible*.  This is a problem I come across with all of her books (read to date). I think they would be improved with a 'less is more' approach.  She could probably get two crime mysteries out of one of her novels and double the length of the series! 

Caution: potential spoiler alert! I think it is fair to say Sophie Hannah's target audience is women, and she has skillfully managed to reel many of us in. I think one of the secrets of the series' success is the extended sub-plot running through all of them, which is about the relationship between Charlie and Simon.  In this book the story takes an unexpected turn.  Simon is a complex (and fascinating) character. I particularly like that the dynamic of his relationship with Charlie is one that is not typically portrayed in fiction; one that is quite realistic.  These books score zero on the fluff-o-metre. There is mutual attraction that is being hampered by a battle between the genders, caused because Charlie is highly educated, in a more senior position and therefore better paid than Simon, and he feels emasculated because of it.  Charlie may be completely besotted but she has no intention of stroking his ego. In books 1 & 2 Simon keeps her at arms length and the result is many awkward moments and on-going UST** - for Charlie, not Simon.  However,  in this novel things change because Charlie has become weakened and vulnerable, causing Simon to see her, and their relationship, in an entirely different light. The sub-plot has been dialed down significantly in this book, and it is a better read because of it (it does not compromise the central plot).  Also, it keeps us wanting to know what will happen next.

It was worth reading the first two books in order to get to this point [of rescue] and, of course, I am now reading the next one....

*Despite being compelling viewing, the UK TV Drama Line of Duty is a good example
**Unresolved sexual tension

More Reviews of Culver Valley Series

Coming Soon
The Other Half Lives (Book 4)
A Room Swept White (Book 5)


Friday, 24 February 2017

The Mime Order by Samantha Shannon

Publication date: 27th January 2015
Published by:  Bloomsbury
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopia (YA)

Publisher's synopsis
Paige Mahoney has escaped the brutal prison camp of Sheol I, but her problems have only just begun: many of the survivors are missing and she is the most wanted person in London...

As Scion turns its all-seeing eye on the dreamwalker, the mime-lords and mime-queens of the city's gangs are invited to a rare meeting of the Unnatural Assembly. Jaxon Hall and his Seven Seals prepare to take centre stage, but there are bitter fault lines running through the clairvoyant community and dark secrets around every corner. Then the Rephaim begin crawling out from the shadows. But where is Warden? Paige must keep moving, from Seven Dials to Grub Street to the secret catacombs of Camden, until the fate of the underworld can be decided.

The Mime Order is the second instalment to The Bone Season series.  I first read it when it came out in January 2015 and I read it again more recently (in January 2017).  I had completely opposing experiences/views of the book with each read.  I was rather disappointed with it the first time, possibly because it was so different from the first book, whereas, I enjoyed it a lot the second time around.

2017 Review

Like all good sci-fi/fantasy fiction, this book is wonderful escapism. I felt I had entered a new world where I was completely immersed and was in no hurry to leave.  The novel is quite complex and rather sophisticated (much like The Bone Season was but in a different way).  There are many layers to this story: there is what is happening in the clairvoyant community (including a murder mystery intertwined in the plot), then there is the constant threat of Scion and what is likely to result in a clairvoyants' revolution, and there is the danger posed by the Raphaim.  

The writing style is quite descriptive (as opposed to demonstrative), with a lot of explaining of both historical and current significant events.  Some readers prefer a 'show' rather than 'tell' approach, but I believe there is merit in both styles - it is all about the context (in this case descriptive is necessary because a demonstrative approach would take volumes of books).  That said, the first time I read this book parts of it felt a bit like an academic lecture, whereas it did not seem that way the second time around and I found it really interesting.

A novel that is novel, and not-so-novel
I have read quite a lot of fantasy fiction but I have never come across one centred on clairvoyants before this series, making it a novel reading experience. That said, I would argue there are influences coming through from other popular YA fantasy/sci-fi stories.

I alluded to this in my review of The Bone Season, but here are two examples pertaining to The Mime Order:

  • Twilight - I would say the relationship between Paige and Warden is as disturbing and he is as much a threat to her.  Although not a vampire, Warden is immortal and, instead of blood, he requires a clairvoyant's aura to sustain him.  He resists taking it from her (and other clairvoyants), much like Edward does.   He is part of the Ranthen, Raphaim who reject the cruel ways of their own kind (much like the Cullens).  Unlike Twilight, the romance in this book scores zero on the fluff-o-metre (see below). 
  • The Hunger Games - Paige is emerging as the face needed to promote and persuade the clairvoyants to unite with the Ranthen to expose Scion and defeat Nashira. Spoiler Alert!  Also, the reason for the meeting of the Unnatural Assembly is a competition that requires clairvoyant contestants to fight to the death in front of hungry for violence spectators.

Raphaite + Clairvoyant + Love = ?
Writing romance is a lot harder than one may think.  Where fluff (i.e. sentimentality) is concerned, you need a balance.  The trouble with this book's complete absence of sentiment is that it renders Paige and Warden's intimate exchanges unconvincing and, in my view, is a weakness of the book. 

Nerd alert! It is a tricky one because we just don't know enough about Warden or where he comes from.  We know that, although humanoid, the Raphaim do not procreate like humans. There is no such thing as a Raphaite child since they are not birthed (they are produced in adult form by the Netherworld itself).  Perhaps, therefore, (from a biological point of view) there is no need for sex (and therefore no need for intimacy). As a result, I struggle to understand Warden's motivation for his relationship with Paige. 

On the other hand, gender exists among the Raphaim and we know matrimony exists - since Warden is the Blood Consort. The way a Raphaite is created, and the existence of the golden cord (the bond that connects two souls) suggests the aether has something to do with the why and the how; but what? These are questions that need answers if Paige and Warden's relationship is to make sense (to me).  Perhaps all will be revealed in future novels.  So far, the narration has been first person perspective, so unless the stories switch to a different voice (in this case Warden's), I see a problem getting answers to those questions.

The next instalment
The Song Rising, is out the first week of March. I am finding it hard to control my excitement, but, perhaps this time, I will do well to do just that to avoid disappointment, and maybe even read it twice before I pass comment [embarrassed face].

Friday, 17 February 2017

Crime Fiction: Holly Seddon's Try Not to Breath

Publication date:  7th January 2016
Published by:  Atlantic Books Ltd
Genre: Crime / Mystery

Publisher's synopsis

You won't be able to put it down.
Just remember to breathe.

Alex is sinking. Slowly but surely, she's cut herself off from everything but her one true love - drink. Until she's forced to write a piece about a coma ward, where she meets Amy.

Amy is lost. When she was fifteen, she was attacked and left for dead in a park. Her attacker was never found. Since then, she has drifted in a lonely, timeless place. She's as good as dead, but not even her doctors are sure how much she understands.
Alex and Amy grew up in the same suburbs, played the same music, flirted with the same boys. And as Alex begins to investigate the attack, she opens the door to the same danger that has left Amy in a coma...

My Review
Try not to Breath is being compared to The Girl on the Train, and there are similarities.  Alex, like Rachel, is struggling with alcoholism and they have both experienced the same tragedy and misfortune in their personal lives.  The key difference is that in TGOTT, these experiences are the cause of Rachel's alcoholism, whereas, in TNTB, the experiences are effects of Alex's alcoholism and we are not given an explanation for the cause.  We know she started drinking in her mid teens and it seemed to carry on throughout her adulthood and got out of control before she realised it was a problem - which, in my view, is more plausible.  We also see the reality of Alex's situation (including scenes when she is drinking and the ugly after-effects), and how she skillfully manages to hide it and give the impression to those around her that she does not have a problem.  For me, Alex is a strong and sympathetic character who I could empathise with and I willed her to get better; whereas Rachel is a weak and pathetic one that I did not care about at all. 

Is Alex redeemed?  Well, that would be a spoiler.  I will say that her investigation into what happened to Amy, and her determination to discover the truth provides her with a purpose in life, as she seeks justice for a girl (almost) all but forgotten.

Unlike the other books like this that I have read and reviewed in the past, this one actually reads like a 'whodunnit' crime mystery.  I found it affecting, in that Amy's story in particular haunted me for a day or two after I had finished it.  Also, TNTB served to help me understand further why I disliked TGOTT so much - because with all the publicity, praise and hype about that book I was expecting something that reads more like this one.

Hooray! At last I have found another crime fiction novel I can highly recommend (Gone Girl) being the other.

Friday, 10 February 2017

A Day at the Office by Matt Dunn

Publication date: 3rd December 2013
Published by: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Romance

Publication synopsis
For most people, Valentine’s Day means flowers, chocolates, and candlelit dinners. But for five of Seek Software’s employees, it’s shaping up to be as much fun as a trip to the dentist.

Long-term singleton Sophie has a crush on colleague Nathan but worries he doesn’t even know her name. And is there really any point in her sending a card to the man who organises the annual office Anti-Valentine’s party?

Overweight, insecure, and still living with his mum, Calum’s desperate for a girlfriend. He’s recently met the woman of his dreams online but his exaggerated profile might mean tonight’s first date could also be their last.

Mark’s been besotted with Julie since she kissed him at the office Christmas party. While she doesn’t seem to remember a thing, today might be his best chance to remind her. If only he could work out how.

A Day at the Office is a wise, wonderfully moving, and laugh-out-loud novel about life, love, and relationships by bestselling novelist Matt Dunn.

My review
I got hold of a copy of this book having read and reviewed the follow-up, A Christmas Day at the Office, in December 2016, which I had thoroughly enjoyed.  I liked the characters and thought it would be good to spend a bit more time reading about them.  It was unfortunate that I had read the sequel first as it meant I knew the outcome to each of their stories ahead of time, so I would recommend reading them in the right sequence. 

A Day at the Office is a light romantic novel packed with humorous scenes.  Some of the jokes were a bit transparent - in that you could see them coming ahead of time, e.g. when Calum acquires a packet of condoms and puts them in his jacket pocket, you know somewhere down the line a gag is coming that will feature said condoms.  The humor was a bit hit & miss, and I did not enjoy that much of it was at the expense of the female characters, in particular, poor Sophie who is sexually objectified several times, purely for comedic effect.  There is also overweight 'hairy Mary'.  Mary has nobody to love but Mr Whiskers, her cat, who she refers to as 'him indoors', much to the amusement of her work colleagues (and intended to amuse us readers).  Then there is a 'cougar' type character that Calum has a blind date with who considers herself to be a bit of a 'MILF' (after all, we all know that dating sites are full of older women who are sexual predators looking for dates with boys young enough to be their sons, and not the other way around!).   If this had been balanced by some negative male stereotypes that we could also have a good laugh at, then fine.  Even though some of the male characters are presented as not particularly handsome or attractive, they don't get objectified or ridiculed for their shortcomings in the same way.  Instead, their shortcomings are presented in a self-deprecating way by the characters themselves, which encourages us to like them and laugh with rather than at them.

I quite liked the book (although, I should be embarrassed to admit it).  I am generally anti-Valentine's day because I think it is mostly a marketing ploy, but this book has (almost) convinced me the occasion has some value.  I enjoyed reading about the characters again and was amused by some of the comedic scenes.  A guilty pleasure, methinks.

A Christmas Day at the Office is the better book; although not completely absent of stereotypes and more jokes at poor Sophie' s expense.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Just One Year by Gayle Forman

Publication date: 10th October 2013
Published by: Dutton Children's
Genre: Contemporary Romance (YA)

Publisher's synopsis
When he opens his eyes, Willem doesn’t know where in the world he is—Prague or Dubrovnik or back in Amsterdam. All he knows is that he is once again alone, and that he needs to find a girl named Lulu. They shared one magical day in Paris, and something about that day—that girl—makes Willem wonder if they aren’t fated to be together. He travels all over the world, from Mexico to India, hoping to reconnect with her. But as months go by and Lulu remains elusive, Willem starts to question if the hand of fate is as strong as he’d thought. . . .

The romantic, emotional companion to Just One Day, this is a story of the choices we make and the accidents that happen—and the happiness we can find when the two intersect.

Caution - this review contains spoilers of the first book Just One Day.

My Review 
Just One Year is not so much a sequel to, but rather the opposite reflection of Just One Day.  The latter was Allyson's story about meeting and falling for Willem while on vacation in Europe. We know from the first book that after a magical day together, Willem disappeared and Allyson had no idea why.  Did he abandon her?  Or did she in her anxiety of waking up the next morning and finding him gone, give up on and abandon him?  Just One Year is Willem's story. It tells us what really happened. 

I enjoyed this novel as much as the first one and for the same reasons.  

For me the best parts were when Willem is on his travels - in Mexico and India, his experiences in those places and his interactions with the people he met on the way.  We get an insight into his character: we learn about his upbringing and this offers some understanding of his wander lust.  

While reading the first book, I found myself speculating about him and this companion novel revealed that some of what I came up with was correct, while offering revelations where I got things wrong.  I quite liked that about the about the book. 

These are both coming-of-age stories.  Where Just One Day is about self-discovery and the pursuit of true love, Just One Year tackles multiple themes, including loneliness, grief, falling in love for the first time and the pursuit of true love.  Gayle Forman manages to cover these themes without sentimentality.  They are both fantastic books that I can't recommend highly enough.  

There is a 3rd novella entitled Just One Night, which I have also read.  I wasn't so keen on that one.  I would say this book is for readers who do not like stories that have an open ending: stories where the conclusion is to some extent left to the reader's own imagination.  Just One Night attempts to tied things up nicely.  It did not work so well for me and I found it somewhat indulgent, to be honest.  It is very tempting to get the novella if you enjoyed the novels because you want to experience more of these very likeable characters.  But, personally, I was left wishing I hadn't.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Pale Dreamer by Samantha Shannon

Publication date: 6th December 2016
Published by: Bloomsbury
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy (YA)

This is a review of the kindle version

Publication synopsis
In the perilous heart of Scion London, a dangerous and valuable poltergeist is on the loose – and it must be caught before chaos erupts on the streets of the capital. Here, the clairvoyant underworld plays by its own rules, and rival gangs will stop at nothing to win such a magnificent prize.

Sixteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working for Jaxon Hall, the most notorious mime-lord in the city. He thinks she is hiding a powerful gift, but it refuses to surface. Maybe this is the opportunity she needs to secure her position in his gang, the Seven Seals…

My Review
The Pale Dreamer is the prequel to The Bone Season, the first in a seven-part fantasy series of books about clairvoyants set in a futuristic alternate reality.  The second book, The Mime Order is soon to be reviewed on the blog, and the third book, The Song Rising, is due to be released in early March.

This novella takes us to the very beginning when Paige was first recruited by Jaxon Hall.  She is still unaware of the power of her gift and is trying hard to make an impression and be taken seriously. When she is given her first assignment, to help capture a poltergeist, she gets an opportunity to demonstrate her worth.

The story served to fill in some of the gaps from the previous books, giving us a better understanding of Paige and her relationship with some of the other gang members under Jaxon's leadership.

I enjoyed the book and I am quite excited about the next instalment (The Song Rising).  So much so that I recently re-read The Mime Order.  I was rather disappointed with it when I first read it but, on the second read, I saw it with a new pair of eyes and I gained so much more out of it - which demonstrates that I do get it wrong sometimes! One thing I was right about was that multiple visits to these books offer a better understanding of the series as a whole, and, in that sense it is a gift that keeps on giving.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's Hurting Distance (Culver Valley series, book 2)

Publication date: 23 August 2007
Published by: Stodder & Houghton

This is the second of the Culver Valley series, set in fictional Spilling, in North England. I reviewed the first in the series, Little Face, on 4th November 2016.

Hurting Distance follows a similar format to the first book, i.e., the narration alternates between the first person perspective of the person who reported the crime, Naomi Jenkins, and the third person perspective, focusing on one of the plain-clothes police officers - in this case DS Charlotte (Charlie) Zailer.

Naomi is having an affair with a married man, Robert Haworth, whom she has met once a week at the same time and place for the past 2 years.  When he does not arrive for their scheduled meeting she becomes worried.  After a few days without any word she goes to his house to look for him.  She creeps up to the house and looks through the window.  What she sees causes her to pull back and is followed by a panic attack.  She hurries to her car and on the way is confronted by Robert's wife, Juliet, who tells her she will never see him again and that she (Naomi) will be better off.  What she has seen in the window and what she has been told by Juliet causes her to report that her lover is missing and (she suspects) is in terrible danger...

Sophie Hannah's crime stories are quite complex.  I would describe this one as elaborate (and, dare I say, far-fetched).  As the story unfolds events become inextricably linked and, as the narrator points out, 'there are no coincidences'.  Once again the lines between the personal and professional lives of the police investigating the crime are blurred.

Spilling CID is very much a fictional one; one that would make a good TV soap. The officers are mostly superfluous and instead Naomi assumes the role of the principal investigator, while the DS and her DCs spend far too much of their time being either self-absorbed or overly absorbed in the lives of each other.  There is a DC with prenuptial moodiness, there is a DC who is preoccupied with juggling his marriage with his 'extracurricular' affairs, and then there is Charlie, whose response to Simon's rejection moves a gear up (from mortifying to humiliating).  Simon is the only one who seems focused on the job, and that is not easily done, thanks to Charlie.  There are occasions, on the job,  when Charlie's behaviour is unprofessional (e.g. sharing information about the case with people she should not), unethical (e.g. showing a complete lack of sensitivity for the victim of the crime, and not caring about the risk of putting the victim in harms way) and incompetence (e.g. events that cause her car to be stolen). 

An extended plot is emerging (one that is likely to span many novels) that is centered around the relationship between Charlie and Simon.

Hurting Distance is not without merit, since it explores sexism, misogyny and hate crime in its darkest form.   However, like most of the populist crime fiction novels I have read, I am beginning to get the impression that the Spilling CID series is rather light, contrived and lacking rigor.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Sense & Sensibility (The Austen Project no. 1) by Joanna Trollope

Publication date: 29th October 2013
Published by: Harper

Publisher's synopsis
John Dashwood promised his dying father that he would take care of his half sisters. But his wife, Fanny, has no desire to share their newly inherited estate with Belle Dashwood's daughters. When she descends upon Norland Park with her Romanian nanny and her mood boards, the three Dashwood girls-Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret-are suddenly faced with the cruelties of life without their father, their home, or their money.

As they come to terms with life without the status of their country house, the protection of the family name, or the comfort of an inheritance, Elinor and Marianne are confronted by the cold hard reality of a world where people's attitudes can change as drastically as their circumstances.

With her sparkling wit, Joanna Trollope casts a clever, satirical eye on the tales of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Reimagining Sense and Sensibility in a fresh, modern new light, she spins the novel's romance, bonnets, and betrothals into a wonderfully witty coming-of-age story about the stuff that really makes the world go around. For when it comes to money, some things never change. . . .

My review:

Joanna Trollope's modern day version of Sense & Sensibility has a plot that runs parallel to the original, while being a story in it's own right.  It is cleverly constructed and completely believable, which is quite an achievement considering the period and setting of the original source material. I would say this book is (so far) the most successful of the project in that regard.

Belle Dashwood had become far too comfortable with a life of luxury without contributing in any way, so when her common-law husband dies and she is left homeless and penniless, she is in denial.  It falls on her eldest daughter, Elinor, to do what is necessary to try to secure a home, to clothe and feed the family.  She does so at personal sacrifice, all the while nursing a broken heart.

This novel cannot help but read like chick-lit, albeit intelligent and sophisticated chick-lit (a sub-genre I am convinced evolved from the Jane Austen novel).  This is something I would say it has in common with all but one of the Austen project publications so far. Val McDermids' Northanger Abbey is the exception as it reads more like a coming of age tale. 

More Austen Project reviews

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (no.2)

Emma by Alexander McCall-Smith (no 3)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (n0.4)

Friday, 6 January 2017

Crime Fiction: Megan Abbot's You Will Know Me

Publication date: 28 July 2016
Published by: Picador
Genre: Psychological Thriller

Publisher's synopsis
Katie and her husband Eric have made their daughter Devon the centre of their world. Talented, determined, a rising gymnastics star, Devon is the focus of her parents' lives and the lynchpin of their marriage. There is nothing they wouldn't do for her.
When a violent hit-and-run accident sends shockwaves through their close-knit community, Katie is immediately concerned for her daughter. She and Eric have worked so hard to protect Devon from anything that might distract or hurt her. That's what every parent wants for their child, after all. Even if they don't realize how much you've sacrificed for them. Even if they are keeping secrets from you . . .

My Review

You Will Know Me was published last summer and is currently out in hardback and kindle version.  It will no doubt be on the bookstands of major airport newsagents once it becomes available in paperback form and dubbed the next Gone Girl or the next Girl on the Train. What these books all have in common is that they are domestic psychological thrillers although I use the word 'thriller' loosely.

You Will Know Me is about a couple, Katie and Eric, with a daughter, Devon, who is a talented gymnast.  Her coach advises them that she has the potential to become an elite athlete and presents a plan to groom her for the Olympics.

Both parents, but Eric, in particular, become overly fixated on Devon's future and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure her success.  They have a younger son, who tends to get overlooked in the pursuit of the dream.  The family becomes part of a tight-knit community of parents with children who are gymnasts - none of whom are as talented as Devon.  The novel delves into the world of gymnastics and we gain an insight into the competitiveness and the various challenges it presents both financially and emotionally - challenges that directly effect all members of the family.

A mystery emerges when we learn that certain members of the family may be connected to the victim of the hit-and-run accident in ways that are both shocking and potentially suggestive of culpability in his death.  Unfortunately, the story did not work for me because I was neither thrilled nor intrigued, which presumably is supposed to be the point.