THE PERPLEXING THEFT OF THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN is a genuine treat and is particularly recommended to those looking for something other than an endless stream of death from their crime fiction. There isn’t even a murder in it. Well there’s one death that might count but I’d wager that even the most law-abiding reader would let this one through to the keeper.

Inspector Ashwin Chopra (Retd), former Mumbai policeman and current private investigator, visits a touring exhibition of the Crown Jewels (yes those ones) with his wife Poppy. Before they can do more than glance at a case or two everyone in the room falls to the floor. When they are woken the centrepiece of the exhibit, the crown in which the Koh-i-Noor diamond was set for Edward VII’s wife after being used in a bracelet and a brooch in during its relatively short time in British hands, has been stolen. Of course there is an official police investigation but it is being led by one of Mumbai’s most corrupt officers (refer to the first book in this series) and the prime suspect who has already been arrested begs Chopra to clear his name.

It’s hard to know where to start listing all the things there are to love about this book. Perhaps the wonderfully drawn characters. Chopra is a delight. Intelligent, a little old-fashioned but self aware enough to know it. And his integrity is not a remote concept but something he lives and breathes. Which can have truly disastrous consequences such as when he refuses to pay the bribe some petty bureaucrat demands in return for allowing Chopra’s elephant to remain in his restaurant’s back yard. Ganesh, the baby elephant Chopra inherited from his uncle, has become entrenched in the Chopra family’s life and plays an important role in this story. It sounds like a silly gimmick I know but Khan does a great job of making Ganesh’s various forays into the book’s events seem perfectly normal. And I want to believe so I shall. Chopra’s wife Poppy really comes into her own here as she takes on a teaching job at an exclusive boys’ school and then has to help investigate a theft there. Then there’s Rangwalla who was fired from the police force when it became clear he had helped Chopra during the events depicted in the first book of this series. Happily Chopra’s new business venture has so much work that he can employ his old friend who proves very canny. And a star of the Chopra’s unorthodox and ever-extending ‘family’ circle is  young Irfan, once a street beggar now working at the restaurant. He and his troubles will melt the hardest of hearts.

Though its characters are warm and not beset by damaging addictions (cricket doesn’t count) THE PERPLEXING THEFT OF THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN is not all sweetness and light. Even without a central murder the book’s crimes show the complexities of life in modern Mumbai with corruption being as commonplace as breathing, poverty remaining a profound problem for some despite the progress of recent years and the new, wealthy class providing a particular kind of social problem.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ripper yarn. There’s a clever locked room mystery, thefts galore, a kidnapping or two (well one is an elephant) and the infiltration of a meeting of mask-wearing rich chaps not bothered by the many crimes they are at least adjacent to if not directly involved with. A true adventure.

I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t feel at least little bit better after reading this book.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Mullholland Books, 2016
ISBN 9781473612310
Length 344 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #2 in the Baby Ganesh Agency series
Source of review copy Borrowed, library

Posted in book review, India, Vaseem Khan | 12 Comments

Review: BREAKHEART HILL by Thomas H. Cook

I’m very grateful to regular visitor Tracy (who blogs wonderfully herself at Biter Tea and Mystery) for recommending this book set in her native Alabama for my virtual tour of the USA via its fiction. Tracy hasn’t actually read her copy yet…maybe I will convince her.

BREAKHEART HILL is Ben Wade’s story of love gone awry in small town Alabama. Wade is a middle-aged doctor in the present day looking back on his teenage years. When he was a highschooler aching to escape the town and the life path it represented. Until Kelli Troy moved to town from ‘up north’. First Kelli became his friend then something more. But when she is attacked one summer afternoon on the book’s eponymous Breakheart Hill, a place with a tragic history before the events of 1962, Kelli’s is not the only life destroyed.

I loved everything about this book. Absolutely everything.

Perhaps most importantly (because it is part of my virtual tour) the setting is beautifully depicted. And not just because it shows some of the things I expected based on my extremely limited knowledge of the state but because it shows so much more. I think the town Cook has created is fictional (there is a Choctaw county but does not appear to be an actual town with that name) but it will exist in my imagination forever now. I feel like I could make my way from Ben’s house to where his father’s grocery store stood to the old high school. And I would know the people – then and now – and where each fit into the scheme of things. I’m normally quite terrified of even the idea of small town life but here it is depicted in a way that makes me at least appreciative if not a little envious. Much like Kelli, who has moved from Baltimore

“It’s taught me that basically every place has the whole world in it.” Kelli said. “Everything that happens happens everywhere”. She thought a moment longer then added, “But maybe in a small place, a slower place, you can see it better.”

As far as storytelling goes the book is perfect. From the outset we know that Ben is somehow involved in what happened to Kelli. He alludes to the fact himself and his best friend of 30 years keeps niggling away at the subject over the course of their shared lives. But any punishment Ben has incurred, such as returning to Choctaw after finishing medical school and being the best local doctor he could possibly be, is self-imposed. This ‘what really happened’ plot would probably have been enough to maintain my attention but there is more. There’s all the ripples that can be traced to what happened back then. Bad marriages, accidental deaths, missed opportunities. Lives half-lived and some not lived at all. Cook teases all of this out at just the right pace so the book feels like a collection of genuine, interesting surprises but not a jumble of shocks designed for nothing more than their heart-thumping value. It’s a book that prompts lots of “ah, now I see“s rather than “what the heck was that“s. Even the ending is satisfying which is, these days, a rarity.

Like the place, the characters here live and breathe. No one is just a trait. A jock or a racist or a nerd or a popular girl. Everyone has multiple facets to their personality which sometimes confirms what we already believe and sometimes surprises. I often fall in love with a single character in a book but here it’s more that I loved the collective that Cook introduced me too. He nails the teenagers who feel everything so intensely and, to their minds, for the first time in human history. Who hasn’t thought they were the first to feel a particular kind of love or anger or sadness? But he nails the adults too. Those who’ve coped with the upheavals of life, those who haven’t. Those who haven’t needed to. All of them are very, very real.

Finally the book doesn’t shy away from exploring some difficult themes and ideas. Most of it takes place in the American south in the 60’s and it would be almost absurd if it didn’t in some way look at race. So it does but in a way that manages not to be heavy handed yet remain quite thought provoking. There are other themes too. Friendship. Guilt. Reflection. All deftly handled.

Which is all a long-winded way of expanding upon my original point. I loved absolutely everything about this book.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 23rd book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Random House, 1995
ISBN 9780307572714
Length 297
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy Borrowed, library

Posted in book review, Thomas H. Cook, USA | 16 Comments

Review: THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS by Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan followed up her debut novel THE UNQUIET DEAD with another thought provoking exploration of the complexities of modern policing in THE LANGUAGE OF SECRETS.

The two main characters are again Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty from Toronto’s Community Policing Section. The team, and its leader Esa Khattak in particular, is under investigation due to the events depicted in the first book but they are still called upon for cases where the sensitivities of minority groups are at risk of being trampled upon. Here Mohsin Dar, a Muslim man, has been killed and his father, a loudmouth radio host, is threatening to cause the kind of publicity the police don’t want right now. For security reasons the family cannot be told but Dar had infiltrated a terrorist cell and was supplying information to the Canadian federal intelligence agency about an imminent attack. Intercepting the terrorists before they can carry out their plan is of paramount importance. Esa, who knew Moshin Dar personally, is asked to keep Moshin’s father from inadvertently bungling the time-sensitive operation. As if giving only the appearance of a murder investigation is not hard enough Esa’s job is made more difficult because the man in charge of the operation to stop the terrorist action is a personal enemy and keeps vital information from Esa and Rachel. As a contemplation on modern workplace politics the book is worryingly accurate.

Moshin’s way into the terrorist group had been via a local mosque from which a charismatic man has recruited members. While Esa tackles Moshin’s father and tries to begin a real investigation into the murder, Rachel is sent to the mosque as a potential convert to Islam with the aim of befriending the mostly young people who Moshin Dar had identified as probably being involved with the cell. I thought the rest of the book outstanding but unless Canada has a vastly different Health & Safety framework than any jurisdiction I’ve ever had anything to do with this element did not ring at all true for me. A cell leader of the type depicted here would only grow hyper vigilant to new faces if he is as close to carrying out an attack as police believe but Rachel just appears at the mosque without a shred of a cover story and behaves as suspiciously as humanly possible. In the read world I don’t think she’d have lasted five minutes and I can’t imagine any employer letting this happen.

But the rest of the book is remarkable so I was able to forgive this plot contrivance. One of the best things about it is its depiction of something other than the amorphous “Muslim Community” that is portrayed in much modern media. I am so sick of reading statements in which all members of any group say or do one single thing in response to every event. Here there are a range of Muslim characters who all think and behave independently and many are shown grappling with the same kind of life hassles as the rest of us. Unrequited love, family fights and heartaches, fitting in to a new social group. Extremism in the form of terrorism is shown but only in the wider context. I won’t pretend to be an expert on what it’s like to live as a Muslim in a world in which many equate the religion with terrorism, but my family background is Irish Catholic and I grew up with the stories of my relatives being labelled (and fired and in at least two cases imprisoned) as IRA terrorists on the flimsiest possible evidence. Khan has done a great job of showing just what a burden this kind of ‘guilt by (very) weak association’ can be for whole communities, not only those who are labelled.

But let me assure you the book is not all about terrorism. There’s lots of love and poetry too. Especially poetry. Esa, Moshin and the terrorist leader all use poetry to communicate within the story and Khan has, I think, included the extracts and conversations which surround them as a way to inform readers about aspects of Islamic history without making it feel like a religion 101 lecture. It’s beautifully done.

I realise I’ve rambled on a lot and haven’t said all I could about the book but I suspect that you’re either hooked by now or you’re not. If you are I would urge you to give the book a go as soon as you can (though I do think it would be a better reading experience if you’d read THE UNQUIET DEAD first). And if you’re not hooked I hope you stumble across a copy abandoned in a hotel room or something and are prompted by the absence of anything else to read to give it a go.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Minotaur, 2016
ISBN 9781250055125
Length 329 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #2 in the Esa Khattak series
Source of review copy Borrowed from library

Posted in Ausma Zehanat Khan, book review, Canada | 9 Comments

Six Degrees of Separation: From Lincoln in the Bardo

The starting point for the Six Degrees of Separation meme this month is George Saunders’ much lauded LINCOLN IN THE BARDO. Because of my personal history with this book I decided to have some extra fun with the meme this month and choose only books that I have been forced to read for one reason or another.

Even though it’s not a crime novel I did make an attempt to read LINCOLN IN THE BARDO which is (I think) about Abraham Lincoln’s grief over his dead son when a copy was thrust upon me by a well-meaning but misguided friend. I didn’t make it to page 50. I’m sorry that a young boy died and all but blurb descriptions like “…breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm…” and “…Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance…” made me reach for a car repair manual in preference. I’m not good with the paranormal or fantastical.

↓   ↓   ↓ Time Magazine ↓   ↓   ↓

At the other end of the literary spectrum is a book that was thrust upon me by a different (and frankly less well meaning) friend. I didn’t get more than 30 pages into: E.L. James’ first soft porn novel FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Although you might imagine Saunders and James have little in common other than me not wanting to read their books, a more concrete connection is that both authors have been listed in Time magazine’s annual list of the year’s most influential people (2013 and 2012 respectively). I can’t decide if this fact makes the world a wondrous place of inclusion for all or denotes the end of civilisation as we know it. The book, its sequels and cinematic adaptations have spawned much comment, controversy and parody including the delightfully named THE FIFTY SHAMES OF EARL GREY.

↓   ↓   ↓ Parody ↓   ↓   ↓

Although it is crime fiction, another book I had to be forced to read was Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. I am not a fan of the much-hyped, ‘must read’ book but this was selected for my book club which requires an attempt at least. Unlike the two books discussed above I actually finished this one and enjoyed it despite its flaws and need for editing. Among the parodies it inspired my favourite is a New Yorker article by Nora Ephron called The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut. As well as offering social commentary and a variation on the ‘impossible crime’ of old fashioned mystery novels this book does feature a significant character who is tattooed.

↓   ↓   ↓ Tattoos ↓   ↓   ↓

The interminable MOBY DICK by Herman Melville was required reading for one of the subjects during my first year at University and after I stopped reading somewhere around page 300 to beat myself over the head with a brick (for light relief) I quit the book and the subject. But I do remember Queequeg, the fully tattooed cannibal who Ishmael (the book’s narrator) encounters on his travels. Though from memory the tattoos are as illegible as I found the book to be. Of course MOBY DICK is considered a classic by bigger brains than mine which has led to many references in popular culture including during an episode of The Simpsons when Lisa points out to her father that the whole point of the book is that you can’t take revenge on an animal (Homer argues the point is to be yourself).

↓   ↓   ↓ The Simpsons ↓   ↓   ↓

Ayn Rand gets at least a couple of nods from the world’s favourite yellow family including the episode where Maggie is sent to a Rand-inspired daycare centre when Marge is rehearsing for a play. I particularly like the Helping is Futile poster visible inside the centre. My exposure to Rand came via a politics club at University when some bloke I thought interesting recommended ATLAS SHRUGGED. I struggled to about the half way point of this one before acknowledging that both Rand and  the chap who’d recommended her were not for me. I thought I liked dystopian novels but Rand has to be the most humourless woman to have ever walked the earth.

↓   ↓   ↓ Dystopian Nightmare ↓   ↓   ↓

Written nearly a decade earlier than Rand’s opus, George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR is another dystopian nightmare I was forced to read, this time for my final year of high school. While I had some excellent teachers the one who had us slog through this book was blessed with the superpower of sucking the enjoyment out of every subject she touched so I really didn’t get as much from the reading experience as I otherwise might have. The book has become hugely influential in popular culture terms and has provided the inspiration for several songs including David Bowie’s 1984 (from the album Diamond Dogs).

↓   ↓   ↓ Inspired a Song ↓   ↓   ↓

Regular readers of this blog will know that fantasy is not my cup of tea and my reluctance for it started early when I first had Tolkein’s LORD OF THE RINGS (which was then a single giant book) forced upon me by a family member/fan. Not then nor during the subsequent 3 or 4 attempts I’ve made to trudge through did I ever get more than about a quarter of the way. Among its many influences on popular culture the book has inspired a swag of music including the somewhat surreal Ballad of Bilbo Baggins by Leonard Nimoy!

↓   ↓   ↓   ↓   ↓   ↓

And there we are…From LINCOLN IN THE BARDO to LORD OF THE RINGS by way of books that I never wanted to read (and often didn’t). Read more about #6degrees at booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Posted in memes and challenges | Tagged | 27 Comments

Books of the month: January 2018

Pick of the month

Aside from the heat (which I must expect at this time of year) 2018 has started well in my reading and non-reading life. I haven’t read a load of books but have enjoyed my reading a lot which is surely the whole point. Of the 9 books I read only one was grizzle-worthy and somewhat perversely I even enjoyed that (the grizzling, not the book so much). My book of the month is a toss-up between two terrific Aussie reads but I’m going to pick Garry Disher’s UNDER THE COLD BRIGHT LIGHTS as my absolute favourite for the month. It’s a standalone novel (or the start of a new series?) about an ‘older’ policeman working cold cases in Victoria and I loved that Disher has given the police procedural new and engaging angles without resorting to the tropes that are tiring me (addicition and being quirky for the sake of it).

The rest, in reading order 

  • J.M. Green‘s TOO EASY is the second of her novels to feature Melbourne-based social worker Stella Hardy and has a plot depicting organised chaos, insightful social commentary, genuine humour and engaging characters. It’s a real treat and was vying for my favourite read of the month.
  • Jorn Lier Horst‘s WHEN IT GROWS DARK is the sixth book featuring William Wisting to be released in English. Although a recent publication in its original Norwegian too, the story is actually a cold case from the very early days of Wisting’s career, when he was only a patrolman. The book is short (yay) and offers some interesting back story for the main character who readers have only known as a mature and highly ranked policeman. I listened to the audio version, delightfully narrated (as always) by Saul Reichlin.
  • Ovidia Yu‘s AUNTY LEE’S DELIGHTS is a cosy mystery set in Singapore which offers a lot of local colour for the reader who travels virtually
  • Elina Hirvonen‘s WHEN TIME RUNS OUT is a very, very sad but quite beautiful book about the family of deeply troubled young man. I keep thinking about the people at the heart of the story even though I’ve moved on to other books.
  • Charlie Donlea‘s THE GIRL WHO WAS TAKEN isn’t one of those ‘girl’ books that makes me grit my teeth and the three women at the heart of it are wonderfully drawn.
  • Sarah Pinborough‘s BEHIND HER EYESis the book that had me grizzling. I summed it up by describing it as “a well written load of bollocks” which I standy by. Pinborough is a good writer but the paranormal element of this one is utter nonsense.
  • Gin Phillips’ FIERCE KINGDOM brilliantly depicts a mother desperate to protect her toddler amidst the horror of a mass shooting though it’s probably a little slow and disjointed for fans of the traditional thriller.
  • John Dickson Carr‘s THE CORPSE IN THE WAXWORKS is a classic novel which I enjoyed a lot more than I imagined I would based on the erroneous idea I’d developed about this author. It’s a gothic-style story taking place in 1930’s Paris and very enjoyable.

Bits and bobs

No goal progress to report on this year (due to last year’s dismal performance I decided not to set myself up for failure this year). But we can still have charts, right? This one shows where the books I read during January came from. You’d think I was doing well by borrowing more than I’ve bought (at least with respect to physical books) but alas I did acquire 7 books during the month (and borrowed 5 from the library). This doesn’t bode well for that TBR mountain I’ve been trying to dislodge.

What about you? Has your reading year started well? Anything you want to shout about? Or grizzle? 

Posted in books of the month, Charlie Donlea, Elina Hirvonen, Garry Disher (Aus), J.M. Green (Aus), Jorn Lier Horst, Ovidia Yu, Sarah Pinborough | 7 Comments

Review: THE CORPSE IN THE WAXWORKS by John Dickson Carr

Without the Crimes of the Century meme to prompt me, my reading of classic crime is almost non existent. Which is why I treated myself to a Vintage Mystery Box subscription late last year (check out Kate’s Etsy Store for a subscription of your own). Among other treats my box contained a book by a prolific author that I’ve somehow developed a fairly dismissive attitude towards despite never having read any of his work (a not uncommon behaviour for me when it comes to classic crime I’m afraid to admit). I’ve no idea if THE CORPSE IN THE WAXWORKS is indicative of the author’s 70 or so books (written under several names) but it wasn’t nearly as awful as I might have imagined.

It is set in Paris, presumably contemporaneously with its 1932 publication date. The story’s hero is Henri Bencolin, a much-feared judge d’istruction, though its narrator is the far less assuming Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s colleague of indeterminate purpose. This is the fourth book which features the pair so whatever ‘origin story’ might have been provided for them is not to be found here and all I gleaned was that they share a mutual respect.

As the book’s title indicates the body of a young society woman is discovered in a museum of waxworks figures. Indeed she is in the arms of one of the exhibits and on first appearance is thought to be part of the exhibition. The body of another young woman, a known acquaintance of the first, is found in the nearby river. Suspicion initially falls on the waxworks’ owner and his adult daughter but the suspect pool widens when a connection to a nearby night club is uncovered. Things seem to become especially sinister when Bencolin’s nemesis, Etienne Galant, proves to be involved with the club.

As an example of impossible crime style of puzzling mystery the story is a good one and, importantly for this genre, the author does play fair with the reader. The complexities of the various red herrings and false solutions are all believable and easy enough to follow. Much use is made of the rather gothic setting of both the waxworks and the neighbouring club, which is of the adult variety providing secluded rooms for the use of society’s mask-wearing wealthier members.

The characters too are well drawn, especially for this kind of book which can sometimes neglect character development in favour of more puzzlement. I found myself less interested in the somewhat inevitable dueling geniuses Bencolin and Galant and more intrigued by the minor characters including the young woman who is a friend (of sorts) to the two dead girls and the father and daughter pairing who run the waxworks. Marie Augustin, the proprietor’s daughter, is a particularly large-than-life character and has a lot more agency than many women of similar-era books (who have a tendency to be dead or harlots) (or both). The families of the dead girls too offer some interesting insights into the society being depicted.

The book is not without some of the elements that prevent me reading more classic crime including the overwritten style. By modern standards it is a short book but if you took out all the long, flowery passages describing not much at all it would almost be a short story. And the scene in which the story’s narrator inveigled his way into the club for a spot of eavesdropping on key suspects is preposterous from several angles. But I found these easy enough to forgive in the context of an otherwise enjoyable romp.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher This edition Dell Publishing, original pub date 1932
Length 224 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #4 in the Henri Bencolin series
Source of review copy Bought, secondhand

Posted in book review, France, John Dickson Carr | 12 Comments

Review: FIERCE KINGDOM by Gin Phillips

In a way I was not surprised to read that Gin Phillips didn’t set out to write a thriller when she created FIERCE KINGDOM. Because she hasn’t. Written one that is. In my view anyway FIERCE KINGDOM is a story about the bond between a mother and her son. They are in peril, which I guess is where the thriller tag comes into play, but the focus of the book isn’t really the danger or anything else much that is external to the relationship between Joan and her 4 year old son Lincoln. As a depiction of motherhood, especially motherhood at a time of difficulty, the book is excellent. Superb really. But as a thriller it is…patchy.

The pair are visiting their local zoo one weekday afternoon and are making their way to the exit around closing time when every parent’s worst nightmare starts to unfold. Joan sees people on the ground and is that someone with a rifle? She picks up her son and runs back into the zoo. As it is one of their favourite places to visit Joan knows the zoo well and soon finds a good, safe hiding place. They stay here for a long portion of the story. This makes sense from a survival point of view but is not conducive to the thrilling element of the book. What we do discover in this section is how deep Joan and Lincoln’s relationship is and the extent of Joan’s mothering instinct. Will she, for example, risk her son’s safety to aid other people trying to survive? Should she? Even when she elects to move out of the relative safety of their hiding place there is a strong sense that the only reason is Lincoln’s protection rather than the author’s need to move the plot along.

I found Joan a very believable character. Even when she makes some questionable decisions (one in particular gets criticised in many of the less glowing reviews of the book) I thought she was being consistent with her own previous character. And who among us really knows how they would behave when lugging 40 pounds of much-loved toddler through a darkening landscape populated by gun-toting nutters? I’m sure we would all make some daft moves. I must admit I thought Lincoln a little less credible. He seemed a little too clever with his almost genius-level vocabulary but he is a sweetie and the reader does rather desperately want him to use his inside voice and survive.

But the thriller elements of the book did not work all that well, at times feeling very much forced into the narrative. For example there are a couple of passages where action is seen from a gunman’s viewpoint. They’re not particularly long or insightful and I don’t know what purpose they served other than ticking a box on the list of things modern thrillers ought to have. Also in the last third (or so) of the story Joan links up with two other zoo patrons trying to hide from the shooters: retired teacher Margaret Powell and teenage zoo employee Kailynn. This does help add some more traditional thriller-style elements to the story but it is a bit too late really and the narrative shift is abrupt and jarring. I felt that the book should either be a traditional thriller all the way through, in which case these other characters should have been introduced earlier and fleshed out a little more, or the entire book should have stayed with Joan and Lincoln.

As is often the case these days I suspect this book’s misplaced marketing is largely to blame for my disappointment with aspects of it. Words like ‘electrifying’ and ‘suspense-filled’ do not apply to what I read. But if you are looking for a book that celebrates motherhood in a fresh way then you might want to give FIERCE KINGDOM a go. If audiobooks are your thing then Cassandra Campbell’s narration is a genuine treat.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Cassandra Campbell
Publisher Random House Audio, 2017
Length 8 hours 3 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in Gin Phillips | 17 Comments

Review: BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

If I had to sum up Sarah Pinborough’s BEHIND HER EYES in a single sentence it would be: it’s a well written load of bollocks.

The single story is told in two main voices. The first voice belongs to Louise; a single mum who works part time at a local medical clinic. One night she has a drunken encounter with a man who she later discovers is her new boss, David, who has just moved to the area. The story’s other voice is Adele’s. David’s wife. She meets Louise independently of her husband and the two women become friends even though Louise feels uncomfortable about befriending the wife of a bloke she snogged. I’m not prepared to reveal much more about the plot itself other than to say it is, of necessity, complicated. The path to the three lives becoming intertwined is full of twists and half truths and things hidden beneath the surface. And Pinborough does a great job of keeping all the balls in the air yet allowing the reader to follow the increasingly ‘out there’ story.

Why then do I not feel more warmly towards the book? My main issue is that I don’t think it plays fair with the reader. And even if someone convinced me that I’m wrong on that front (good luck, see below) I wouldn’t care. Books that rely entirely on this kind of paranormal/fantasy elements are just not for me. If literally anything can be true…humans can fly unaided or politicians never lie*…then I find it almost impossible to engage with a book and certainly do not find the action in any way suspenseful. I am especially irked when the fantastical element is presented as an accepted real thing. For a while this book read as a decent psychological thriller, albeit with a daft central character. Then the ‘woo woo’ element makes the first of many, many appearances and is automatically accepted as a real thing by everyone who encounters it. I don’t want to spoil the details but this element is way past “with hard evidence I could be convinced this might be a thing some people can channel” on the spectrum of paranormal activity. It’s right around “never gonna happen, I call bullshit“. So…long before the shock ending…I had given up caring about how it would all resolve because I knew that anything, realistic or entirely ludicrous, would be possible for this story.

But getting back to playing fair…I really would be hard to convince this book does so. Even if I was the type of reader who enjoys the kind of paranormal nonsense on display here I’m confident I would still struggle with the character of Louise. No one is that naive. It’s not even a bad case of femjep, where some insipid woman is repeatedly in absurdly dangerous situations because she completely fails to learn from her mistakes and there’s always a chiselled chap around to rescue her. Louise makes a series of moronic decisions, several of which are completely at odds with being the loving mother she is portrayed as, and is completely baffled when her stupidity has unpleasant consequences. I suppose later in the book she might be being unduly influenced by Adele but her absurd naivety is evident long before that. For me fictional people have to behave in a vaguely believable way because without normal-ish human parameters constricting their behaviour they are too cartoonish and any potential for suspense is gone because they might do anything.

If you like super twisty endings and can handle a paranormal element that is utterly preposterous then you may enjoy BEHIND HER EYES. Because Pinborough writes well and the ending will genuinely surprise most readers. But if you’re at all wary of stories which rely entirely on ‘woo woo’ factors for any kind of resolution then I’d read something else. I listened to the end because my audio book selection is more limited than for printed word books and because it’s not until more than halfway through that I realised this book was going to be so heavily reliant on that paranormal element.

*in case you are concerned these are examples only, not specific to this story’s content

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator  Anna Bentinck, Josie Dunn, Bea Holland and Huw Parmenter
Publisher Harper Collins, 2017
Length 11 hours 28 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, England, Sarah Pinborough | 14 Comments

Review: THE GIRL WHO WAS TAKEN by Charlie Donlea

I was so sick of Girl books a while back I refused to read any for a whole year. And while I have softened a little since then seeing Girl in a title still makes me grit my teeth. So I approached THE GIRL WHO WAS TAKEN warily but soon discovered it is not one of the psycho-babble filled tomes attempting to ride the coattails of its best-selling forebears. Frankly I’d prefer a different title but the content is solid.

There are actually two girls who are taken though neither is really the central focus of this story. Megan McDonald and Nicole Cutty are in the final summer between high school and college when they disappear from their small North Carolina town on the same night. Two weeks later Megan escapes to much public fanfare and private turmoil. Part of the book is told from Megan’s perspective starting a year after her abduction when she is trying to at least give the appearance that she has returned to ‘normal’. Another part of the story is told from the point of view of Nicole’s older sister Livia. The real star of the book. She is beginning her Fellowship year as a forensic pathologist. She wants to be the kind of doctor who would be able to help if her sister is ever found. And until then she’ll help others. Because that might just help ease the guilt she feels for not answering her sister’s phone call the night she disappeared. There are also some flashback threads that let us see how things were just prior to the abduction. And, my least favourite thing in crime fiction, some passages from the killer’s point of view.

The real strength of THE GIRL WHO WAS TAKEN is its characters. All three of the young women at the centre of events are well drawn and much more nuanced than the blurb might have the reader expecting. Each is something of a jumbled mix of character traits which is entirely believable and each garners more sympathy as the book progresses, even when we discover some unpleasant things about them. They feel like very real people. And Livia’s life as a pathologist-in-training is fascinating.

The story too is well constructed and, for the most part, very believable. Donlea does a good job of doling out the facts and the suspicions; keeping readers in just the right amount of suspense. There are multiple characters who might be the culprit but the book never overtly points them out. My overactive imagination did that. I also liked the way Livia is drawn into a more active role in the investigation of her sister’s disappearance via the appearance of a young man’s dead body in her autopsy room. Involving amateurs and/or family in official investigations can appear very clunky but Donlea handles it well and makes it very plausible. The only element that didn’t entirely ring true for me was the resolution. Neither the ‘who’ nor the ‘how’ felt as real as the rest of the book for me though I’m not sure I can pinpoint exactly why. Partly I think it’s the feeling that the book had gone out of its way to make the end shock at all costs, even at the expense of credibility. And partly because the killer did not feel nearly as realistic as the other characters and their role as the town’s resident sicko seems to come out of left field.

Having chosen this book primarily for its setting (I’d not yet visited North Carolina on my virtual tour around the USA and don’t know anything much about the state myself) I can’t really comment on how well the book shows off the state as a whole. But it does offer a good depiction of small town town life in which most people at least know of each other and, mainly via Livia’s work, shows how interconnected some of the smaller US states must be.

Overall then I was impressed with THE GIRL WHO WAS TAKEN even if I thought the killer’s point of view a bit lame and their identity implausible. The rest of the book more than made up for this in offering a complex and compelling mix of characters and suspense.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 22nd book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Bantam, 2017
ISBN 9780143784463
Length 339 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy Borrowed from library

Posted in book review, Charlie Donlea, USA | 4 Comments

Review: WHEN TIME RUNS OUT by Elina Hirvonen

Hat tip to Raven Crime Reads for recommending this unsettling but excellent book

There couldn’t be much worse than being the parent or sibling of a horrendous criminal…someone who has randomly shot multiple people for example. Except perhaps being the parent or sibling of a someone who isn’t that criminal…yet. Someone you know isn’t thinking or acting rationally but who is unable to accept the love or help you offer. WHEN TIME RUNS OUT is the compelling, sorrow-filled story of a deeply troubled young Finnish man, Aslak, and the family powerless to help him.

The book is not concerned with the facts of the mass shooting. We learn only the bare minimum about the mechanics of the incident, which takes place in Helsinki, and the victims of the crime. Instead the book focuses on the people at the centre of events. Part of the story is told from Aslak’s point of view so we learn his reasoning for his actions and something of the events of his life which might shed light on how his thinking developed. Interspersed with his view of the world are the perspectives of Laura, an environmental campaigner and Aslak’s mother, and his sister Aava, a doctor working in the most troubled communities on the planet at least in part because she has been unable to get through to her younger brother.

I was a little reluctant to try this book given most reviews make the inevitable comparison with Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN but I am pleased to say WHEN TIME RUNS OUT is, at least in my eyes, a much better exploration of the difficult subject of irretrievably damaged human beings. Hirvonen, a journalist like Shriver, has created characters who are less sure of themselves, less able to label and classify the actions of their loved ones. They observe and struggle and flounder. As most of us would likely do when faced with the unthinkable. In the end I found each of them at least partly sympathetic…even Aslak. None of them are wholly likeable, but it is possible to feel for their pain and their inability to fix the unfixable.

There are some flaws, the book does get a bit didactic when espousing Aslak’s beliefs for example. But its sparseness, simplicity and authentic feel to its characters’ struggles make it very, very readable.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Hildi Hawkins
Publisher Manilla, 2017 (original edition 2015)
ISBN 9781786580276
Length 290 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy Borrowed from library

Posted in book review, Elina Hirvonen, Finland | 8 Comments