Hot summer days are conducive to the consumption of good books. Since my last review post in April, we’ve spent most of the Spring in France, and I’m now settling down to what looks like a long hot summer under a parasol, with a pile of books beside me. The following are just some of the books I’ve read in this period, since a computer crash whilst cruising in France has obliterated the notes I made on many others (together with photos of the bookcovers). There are some brilliant reads amongst these, and I’ve noticed, with surprise, that with the exception of Nicci French (which is a male/female partnership) all of my reviews this time are of books written by women. In part that’s due to my following certain authors until I’ve read most of what they have on offer. It’s also due to the fact that some of these women are compulsive literary craftswomen!
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel ****
I’ve got some reservations about some of Hilary Mantel’s work which I’ll explore elsewhere in later reviews, but this collection of short stories was an excellent read. I always think it unfair that one must, it appears, have had one (or a number of) successful novels before anyone is interested in your short stories, but clearly each of the stories in this collection has had a successful outing elsewhere, before being collated into one publication. My favourite story was, I think ‘Comma’, a brilliant portrayal of the cruelty of children, but ‘Winter Break’ ran it a close second in sinister brutality. With collections I have a tendency to cherry-pick, but this book was a comprehensively compulsive read.
Every Day is Mother’s Day – Hilary Mantel ***
Evelyn and Muriel Axon, mother and daughter live together in Buckingham Road. Reclusive, odd and ‘known to Social Services’, the daughter has been removed from school quite early, and is never seen out of the house. She is something of a mystery to the reader. That she is mentally ‘challenged’ is self-evident, (she is only heard to speak once during the entire book) but she seems to be inwardly seething, seeking, testing the boundaries. The mother, some kind of a medium, is cruel, domineering yet frightened at the same time – frightened about entities in the house, entities that, you suspect, might have been conjured up during one of her séances.
Evelyn spends a lot of time and brain-power thwarting the attentions of Social Services, particularly when she discovers, unbelievably, considering Muriel never leaves the house, that her daughter is pregnant.
Another story runs in parallel, that of neighbours Colin and Sylvia Sidney, and their three unforgivingly unattractive children. Colin’s sister, Florence, lives opposite the Axons. And the final character is Isabel Field, a social worker, introverted, desperate, neurotic and engaging in a disappointingly futile affair with Colin Sidney.
A menacing book, fairly bleak, ending in the death (murder?) of Evelyn and the newly born child, and the incarceration of Muriel in a mental hospital.
Vacant Possession – Hilary Mantel ****
This book, a sequel to Every Day is Mother’s Day, cleverly picks up all the unanswered questions left by the prequel, including the identity of the father of Muriel’s child. Isabel Field is now unhappily married, Colin and Sylvia Sidney still unhappily married but now with a fourth child. The Sidney family now have bought Muriel Axon’s old home and have a daily cleaning woman. Unknown to them, this cleaning woman is Muriel Axon, now ‘living in the community’ having even released from a mental hospital, and who is operating in one of two alternative persona’s that she has carefully manufactured, rehearsed and perfected. Whilst living this double life she is intent on revenge, revenge on the entire Sidney family, and Isabel Field and her father. Muriel turns out to be clever, very clever in her own self-taught way and she carefully plots her way towards her final glorious revenge, bumping the odd character off along the way. There’s also just the hint of the supernatural that remains unexplored, but seems to revolve around the room that Muriel used to call her own, now occupied by one of the Sidney’s children.
I enjoyed this book much more than the prequel. Mantel has an unmistakably dry, laconic humour that has you grinning, even as the macabre plot unfolds. And the plot itself has more twists and turns than you could possibly imagine, the ending involving a massively clever coincidence.
Beyond Black – Hilary Mantel ***
Alison Hart, a medium is part of the psychic community which tours the suburbs of London. Somewhere along the line she has acquired Colette, a fairly mean-spirited ‘manager’ who assists during shows and handles the driving and other admin arrangements. There is some brilliant characterisation of the other members of the spiritual community, each of whom has their own particular psychic speciality, and some wonderful examples of bitchiness and jealousy amongst the group. Throughout the story Alison is plagued by the spirits of some very nasty men from her past, who pop up in the car whilst underway, lurk in her house, and generally make a nuisance of themselves. The terrible role they have played in her childhood is incrementally revealed throughout the book. Laceratingly macabre humour throughout, but the resolution is strangely unsatisfying for me.
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood ***
A collection of nine short stories, or tales as Ms Atwood prefers to call them. Some of these plots are brilliantly conceived, in particular the title story, Stone Mattress where an elderly woman on a cruise liner takes revenge on a fellow passenger for his rape of her, during her schooldays. The Freeze Dried Groom is another favourite of mine, as was Torching the Dusties, aka setting fire to old peoples’ nursing homes in an attempt to ‘hurry things along’. But perhaps the most brilliant of all was The Dead Hand Loves You, a tale of a young student who, in recompense for his fellow students having paid his share of the rent for some considerable time, offers them quarter shares in the book he is writing. The book, a fairly tawdry horror tale of the title, becomes an international best horror seller (even to the point where a blue plaque is erected on the lodgings where it was written) and the subsequent film rights guarantees the other three a substantial income for the rest of their lives. Or until the author tired of them leeching off him.
Her style is savage, crisp, tongue in cheek and at times hilarious. Consider me a convert, though not necessarily to her fantasy novels, which I’ve yet to read, and probably won’t.
Wolf – Mo Hayder *****
Mo Hayder is a brilliant crime writer, and not so dusty when she’s writing other topics. But she is an unremittingly savage writer, and many times I’ve almost been tempted to put down her books, so uncomfortable have they made me feel. Wolf is one such.
A dog is found wandering with a partial note tied to her collar – Help us… Jack Caffery (one of Hayder’s recurring characters) has to find her owners in exchange for information held about the fate of his brother, who was kidnapped by a paedophile as a child. The dog belongs to a family who were peripherally and innocently related to a savage murder of a young couple several years earlier. The parents and their daughter are being held hostage, and subjected to psychological and physical torture at their home right out in the countryside, with no way of contacting the outside world. In this book nobody and nothing is who or what they appear to be, and the surprises continue right up until the very last pages. This was a ‘wee small hours’ book; couldn’t put it down and I was glad I’d stuck it through the psychologically cruel parts earlier in the story. Hayder has a way of defining the characters in her stories such that the reader has no problem in identifying with them. She is at her best in this book.
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton *****
Still riding high in the best sellers list this book is set in the wealthiest quarter of Amsterdam. The characterisation in this book is second to none. I felt as though I were intimately and disturbingly acquainted with Marin, the acerbic sister of the man to whom Nella, the main character, has been married off. Nella approaches her as yet unconsummated union with interest and anticipation, but all is not as it seems. Her husband, when she finally sees him again after their official marriage ceremony in her home town, is a remote businessman. As a merchant trader he spends long periods away from home, but early in their ‘marriage’ (which remains unconsummated) he gives his wife a superb cabinet sized replica of the house in which they live. The furnishings, inhabitants, ornaments are being supplied by an elusive miniaturist who seems to have a complete and impossible understanding of the lives, secrets and futures of the household occupants. Other characters, beautifully drawn, include the maid (a driving force in the household) and a black handyman brought back by Johannes from his travels, upon both of whom Nell comes to rely. A magnificent story of love, obsession, betrayal and loyalty – well worth reading. As you see from the photo, even the cover of the book is worth having in your collection.
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins *****
Not a comfortable read, for me anyway. The main character commutes into London daily through the usual scenario of tall Victorian houses backing onto the railway line. As time goes by the occupants of these houses become familiar to her, their lives, their loves, and finally their betrayals. She winds fantasies around them, and one day she sees something shocking, something in which she feels she has to become involved. As the tale unfolds we see that the main character is in a whirlpool of alcoholic depression, jobless but unwilling to admit it, husband-less since his betrayal of her but unwilling to accept it. She’s out of control basically, and that’s the thing that made the book uncomfortable for me. I hate it when shunned women hang on to the shreds of their former relationships, when they allow their lives to spiral out of control, and when their actions are embarrassingly awful as they make a nuisance of themselves to others. In that respect, Paula Hawkins has written a superb book. My mortification on behalf of the main character was complete within the first third of the book, and only became more acute throughout the rest of it. One irritation, but I’d better get used to it because it seems to be an established style nowadays, is that the action darts backwards and forwards in time towards what is, in this case, a thrilling and unexpected conclusion.
The Girl Below – Bianca Zander **
A debut novel. Suki returns to London after ten years in New Zealand. After dossing around and generally making a nuisance of herself with friends, she reconnects with Peggy, and old family friend who still lives in the building where she grew up. Pippa, Peggy’s daughter and Suki’s former babysitter now has a sixteen year old boy, Caleb, and she invites Suki to ‘babysit’ first for the now elderly Peggy, and then later to provide some kind of supervision for Caleb. Throughout the book, we learn that Suki is a disturbed young woman, deeply affected by something that happened in the air-raid shelter in the garden of the house, by her father deserting the family for another woman, her mother’s harrowing decline through terminal cancer and a series of supernatural or mystical events.
If you like neat, tied up endings, this book isn’t for you. I am still no wiser as to what happened in the air-raid shelter, and, reading other reviews, I see I’m not alone. On the face of it, she got shut in down there and lost a tooth. There are however surreptitious overtones of abuse by her father and two of his friends which are never expanded upon. I don’t know what the significance of the hand that materialises in her wardrobe (for the purpose of untying bows), or the reasons why a statue (Madeleine) sends her into paroxysms of terror. The reader ploughs through a series of unsuccessful relationships, almost as though Suki has a compulsion to make unsuitable and sadistic matches and we explore her relationship with an entirely unsatisfactory father who seems engrossed in his second family to the point that he has forgotten he ever had a first. There are also a series of time-travel moments where she seems to be living in a parallel existence.
Zander’s writing style during the opening stages of the book worried me slightly. It seemed slightly clunky and led me to believe I was not in good literary hands. However, it sharpens up remarkably after the first couple of chapters and by the end I was captivated by her style.
How would I describe the book? As if it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be fantasy, supernatural, time-travel, literary fiction or chick-lit. I stuck with it, and would probably read another of hers because of the way her style developed (or settled with me). But I think plot construction might be a bit of a frustration.
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson ***
I find it hard to describe this book. Lauded to high heaven by such notables as Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Hilary Mantel (well you don’t need me to remind you of her claim to fame) I found it difficult to put down (all unnecessary 600+ pages of it), yet quite uncompelling as a plot. Basically, it’s about a child that is born dead. And yet in the next part of the book she is not dead. But she dies many times over, has many lives, is raped but not raped, has a child but is childless, is a friend of Eva Braun in Hitler’s entourage and misses the transport back to London at the start of the war, whilst killing Hitler before the start of the war and being shot dead. She falls out of a window and dies but doesn’t die. Her friends are killed but in other chapters are not dead… and so it goes on. She dies young, many times but but dies old. Beautifully written, and if you’re someone who can just read what turns out to be a series of stories told as alternative ‘might have been’ scenarios, then this one is for you, particularly if you don’t mind being plunged backwards and forwards through time. Sadly, I need something a bit more than that in the way of credibility and overall plot so it wasn’t for me, but I will pick up another of her books when I can.
Blue Monday – Nicci French. ****
This writing partnership has produced a number of excellent books. This book is the first of a series featuring Frieda Klein, a psycho therapist with a troubled past herself. The concept of partnership writing is somewhat alien to me, but I have to admit it’s easy to see how you could produce such convincing multi-layered stories if there are two of you pursuing different storylines.
This plot deals with the abduction of a five year old child, and the resultant publicity surrounding his disappearance sparks a recollection in Frieda Klein’s mind. One of her patients is describing an overpowering fantasy about having a son of his own, and the description has an uncanny resemblance to the missing child. Frieda uncovers a link between this abduction and one that took place twenty years earlier, and the plot develops from there. A striking cast of characters appear as the mainstay for this book, and, since I read them out of order, I know they provide the framework for the remainder in this series. The duo have a knack of making the characters eminently believable, and Reuben (her former therapist), Oliva (sister-in-law) Chloe (niece), Sasha (friend, conveniently one who has access to back-door lab testing) DCI Karlsson, Josef (Ukrainian handyman) all provide and continue to provide a rich backdrop for the plot. The narratives from the five year old boy, incarcerated in his prison and later transferred to an even worse holding place, are movingly vivid as his mind enters the twilight world of a perpetual hostage.
Waiting for Wednesday – Nicci French ****
Two themes run through this, one is the brutal murder of a seemingly innocuous middle aged wife and mother, and the other is Frieda Klein, still recovering from a near-death experience and no longer persona grata with the police, who is following a lead that has emerged from an unrelated incident. As the opening theme unfolds, it becomes clear that nobody is who they seem to be at all – the housewife, her lover of ten years, her husband, her children. Frieda Klein becomes involved on the periphery of this murder when the children of this tragedy are brought into her life by her niece she becomes unwillingly involved.
In the background she is still being stalked by someone from an earlier book, someone (a murderer we gather) who appears to be watching out for her but in a menacing fashion – “it wasn’t your turn” being one of his sinister messages that implies it still might be.
And then there is the other plot, prompted by something she hears whilst the victim of a cruel antic on the part of a professional rival
I wonder, though, whether the plot isn’t a bit too multi-layered. The ‘hook’ for the final plot seemed unconvincing to me, though the plot itself was immaculately conceived and executed.
Thursday’s Children – Nicci French *****
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Again, the principle character is Frieda Klein, the psychotherapist and this book more or less revolves around her past history. Throughout other books featuring Klein, she comes across as a fairly cold, determined, brave individual, a bit spiky, a bit forbidding. This book explores the circumstances that led her to developing this persona, and we see that as a child she was not particularly well-liked by her peers. The brutal revenge that was exacted to deal with this ‘difference’ that she had from others, made painful reading, as did her relationship with her mother and her brothers, if indeed you could call it a relationship. In this book she revisits the Suffolk coastal town where she grew up, meeting up once more with friends who were less than friends, a mother who was nothing of a mother, and the person who ruined her childhood. The writing partnership have developed this character well over several books, and I look forward to reading more now that I understand the character better. As ever, the thread from other books continues to run through this one, drawing ever closer to a conclusion but still, as yet unresolved.