Author, Bantam, Book review, Fiction, John Knowles, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles

Fiction – paperback; Bantam USA; 208 pages; 1975.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is well known as a set text in the USA, but I first heard of it only a matter of weeks ago when I read an intriguing review by Trevor Barrett on The Mookse and the Gripes blog. I immediately scoured the internet for a cheap copy and managed to find one listed on BookMooch, which was soon whizzing its way across the Atlantic.

Boarding school novel

The novel, first published in 1959, is set in a boarding school called Devon, which is “sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England”.

The story is told through the eyes of Gene Forrester, a past student, who returns 15 years after graduation and stands among the pleasant surroundings — all “varnish and wax” — and recalls one particular year during World War II which shaped the rest of his life.

Here, in the summer of 1942, Gene was a quiet bookish boy and his best friend and roommate Phineas (sometimes dubbed Finny) was an extroverted, athletic type who charmed students and adults alike. We learn pretty much from the start that Finny is a bit of a daredevil but that he gets away with it.

The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant’s corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.

Meanwhile, Gene, desperate not to lose face with his friend, succumbs to peer pressure and cuts class, misses meals and skips chapel — often against his better judgment. And it is this crucial inability to say “no” that lands Gene in trouble.

Dark undertones

To say more would reveal crucial plot spoilers, which makes it almost impossible to review this book properly, but if you think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies you’ll come to understand the dark heart that beats very strongly at the centre of this novel.

Of course, there’s an exterior darkness looming over the story too in the form of the war, although it all seems rather remote to Gene, Finny and their fellow 16-year-old students, just a year away from the draft:

We saw nothing real of it; all our impressions of the war were in the false medium of two dimensions — photographs in the papers and magazines, newsreels, posters — or artificially conveyed to us by a voice on the radio, or headlines across the top of a newspaper.

Indeed, Finny is so cut off from the horrors of the war he doesn’t believe it is true. At one point he suggests it is nothing more than a conspiracy created by a “bunch of calculating fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs”. But to Gene, the clever intellectual one, it is more real; in fact, he describes it as his defining moment and 15 years on claims he still “instinctively lives and thinks in its atmosphere”.

Wise and knowing

A Separate Peace is a beautifully wise and knowing book. There’s no driving narrative to force you to keep reading save for a desire to learn what becomes of this fraught friendship between two completely different teenage boys, and yet I couldn’t put it down. It encapsulates everything that is wonderful and good in 20th-century literature, coupled with an intelligence that belies its simple premise.

Truman Capote, one of my favourite writers, described it as “a quietly vital and cleanly written novel that moves, page by page, toward a most interesting target” — and he is completely right.

This is a lovely gem of a novel and I’m so glad to have discovered it via Trevor’s blog.

Author, Bantam, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon Beckett

‘The Chemistry of Death’ by Simon Beckett


Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 438 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a straightforward crime thriller that delivers the right ingredients to keep me turning the pages: strong characterisation, a sympathetic narrator, a claustrophobic setting, a smattering of gruesomeness and fear, lots of dark secrets, a good plot and plenty of twists, turns and red herrings to keep me guessing all the way to the end. Simon Beckett’s Chemistry of Death certainly ticks all the right boxes.

Set in rural Norfolk, it tells the story of a young widowed GP, Dr David Hunter, who has a secret past: he was once a forensic anthropologist but gave it all away following the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Now living a new life in a small village, Dr Hunter is dragged back to the past when two local children stumble upon the decomposing body of a woman in the woods. The police seek his help to determine the time of death and before he knows it, he is completely embroiled in their investigation. It looks like there is no way out when a second body — and then a third — is discovered a short time later…

Beckett is an accomplished writer. The plot moves along at a furious pace, with rarely a dull moment, and each chapter ends with a “hook” that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the pages. He’s a master at ratcheting up the tension, so that at times you can feel your pulse racing in tandem with the heart-stoppingly good storyline.

But the best thing about this book is that Beckett makes the subject of forensic anthropology incredibly interesting. He has done his research — in fact, an article he wrote about the USA’s National Forensic Academy for the Telegraph magazine in 2002 is included at the back of this novel — which adds to the authenticity of the storyline. Is it any wonder he has been compared to Patricia Cornwall, the queen of forensic thrillers?

It’s only towards the end of the book that I discovered a few false notes. The climax, in particular, was slightly melodramatic and a little unbelievable — although the story was so powerful it needed to end with a big narrative “punch”. But this is just a minor criticism. As a whole I thoroughly enjoyed The Chemistry of Death and rather suspect that anyone who likes their thrillers to be packed with spine-tingling moments and stomach-churning detail will enjoy it too.

Author, Bantam, Book review, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Fiction – paperback; Bantam Classics; 272  pages; 1994.

This small tome features Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most famous story, The Yellow Wallpaper (first published in 1899), along with a selection of fiction (seven short stories and several excerpts from Herland) and non-fiction (excerpts from Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women and The Man-made World: Our Androcentric Culture).

According to the blurb on the back of the book, the author was an “enormously influential American feminist and sociologist”, so it’s no surprise to find that all her writing — fiction and non-fiction alike — concerns itself with the state of women in the early Twentieth Century. Such themes seem surprisingly before their time, but they were written during the height of the movement for Women’s Suffrage — although women in the United States did not get full voting rights until 1920 — when such things must have been at the forefront of female minds.

I have to be honest and say that, for the most part, I found the short stories in this collection entertaining if a little repetitive theme-wise. But I thought Herland, in which three male explorers stumble into a female utopia, was dull and laboured its point too much — thank goodness it was only a handful of excerpts, because I don’t think I could have handled the entire novel.

The non-fiction selections were interesting, if only because they so clearly showed that the author was way ahead of her time. While we might take her theories and suggestions for granted now, back then it must have been quite shocking to have a woman point out that the fate of all women “must come through a single channel and a single choice. Wealth, power, social distinction, fame — not only these, but home and happiness, reputation, ease and pleasure, her bread and butter — all must come to her through a small gold ring”.

Of course, the highlight of the book, is The Yellow Wallpaper, which had been recommend to me by various bloggers ever since I confessed that I had never heard of the story before.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I felt it was surprisingly short, perhaps too short, because I got to the end and thought, is that it?

It’s quite a harrowing and haunting read about one woman’s battle with what apparently seems to be post-natal depression (unheard of at the time). Forced to stay inside for lots of rest (the worst possible thing for depression, I might add!), the narrator’s mind is left to wander and before too long she begins to think that the ugly yellow wallpaper that lines her room has a life of its own… with horrific consequences. Definitely not a story to read alone in the dark of the night!

Author, Bantam, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Japan, Mo Hayder, Publisher, Setting

‘Tokyo’ by Mo Hayder


Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 480 pages; 2005.

Having written just two previous novels, Mo Hayder already has a reputation for writing fast-paced, intelligent thrillers. Tokyo is no exception.

For the first time, Hayder sets her novel on foreign soil, although her main narrator, the weird “Grey” whose shadowy past is never detailed in full, is English.

Grey has an obsession with the infamous Nanking Massacre of 1937. She tracks down a Chinese professor working in Tokyo who may be able to help her find a piece of film that records the atrocities that happened at the hands of the Japanese. But when Shi Chongming meets her he denies all knowledge of the film, claiming that it does not exist. Grey, who is annoyingly childlike and frustratingly naive throughout this entire novel, is unconvinced.

Not wanting to give up the search for the missing film, she moves into a crumbling old house in the Tokyo suburbs with a set of Russian twins and the weird Jason, who has an accent that sounds like he “might have been from England or America or Australia. Or all three”.

Despite her odd looks and penchant for Oxfam clothing, she finds work in an upmarket hostess club frequented by the Japanese mafia (yakuza). It is here that Grey is drawn to a wheelchair-bound gangster who drinks a strange elixir rumoured to ensure his ongoing health and well-being.

Little does she know that this yakuza “connection” will help her discover the real truth about what happened at Nanking all those years ago. Together with Chongming’s assistance, she sets upon a dangerous and terrifying adventure that will have you riveted from page to page. In fact, the stomach-churning conclusion is one of the finest heart-hammering pieces of fiction I have read in a long time.

Hayder has peppered this book with a vast array of mysterious characters with shady, unexplained pasts, which only adds to the intrigue. She deftly captures the seedy underbelly of Tokyo life, transporting the reader to a strange world of glass skyscrapers, neon lighting and oppressive weather conditions. And she successfully intertwines past and present by putting Chongming’s 1937 story and Grey’s modern day experiences in alternate chapters. (At first this is a little annoying, but the reader soon gets used to it.)

All in all, a very fine and fast-paced novel.

Author, Bantam, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Mo Hayder, Publisher, Setting

‘Birdman’ by Mo Hayder


Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 395 pages; 2001.

If you like crime thrillers that are fast-paced and intelligent, with believable characters and a plot that keeps you guessing right until the end, then you will eat up Mo Hayder‘s Birdman. Mind you, the gruesome detail is not for the faint-hearted, but this is what elevates Hayder’s writing above so many run-of-the mill crime novels cluttering the bestseller lists — she is not afraid to tell it like it is even if the descriptions may be hard to stomach.

Essentially, Birdman is about the police hunt for the murderer of five prostitutes, whose bodies are found dumped in wasteland near the Millennium Dome in south-east London. Inside each victim lies a mysterious clue left by the perpetrator of the crime.

It is the Met’s crack young detective inspector, Jack Caffery, who looks beyond the obvious, often incurring the wrath of his fellow colleagues, to track down the sexual serial killer before another woman falls victim.

Meanwhile, Caffery is wrestling demons of his own, including the mysterious childhood disappearance of his brother, a demanding girlfriend fighting off cancer and a burgeoning relationship with a pretty female artist who he feels he shouldn’t be getting involved with. This not only makes Caffery such a compelling and convincing character, it underpins the novel’s intelligence and moral seriousness, something which also characterises Hayder’s second novel, The Treatment.

Unfortunately, I read these books in the wrong order, not knowing that the storylines are linked, so I’d recommend reading Birdman first (otherwise you know which girl he ends up with and which of his fellow crimefighters is killed on the job).

Author, Bantam, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Mo Hayder, Publisher, Setting

‘The Treatment’ by Mo Hayder


Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 496 pages; 2002.

Mo Hayder’s The Treatment is one of those books that you read with a mixture of fascination, fear and repulsion.

It’s a disturbing and gruesome tale set in south London in which a young boy goes missing from a quiet residential area. It’s not a normal case of child abduction though — his parents are discovered tied up and beaten in the family home. It’s police detective inspector Jack Caffery who must not only find the boy but piece together what happened in the hours leading up to his disappearance.

The parents, traumatised by the experience, hint at a horror too despicable to imagine. But it’s only when Caffery — battling childhood demons of his own and juggling a volatile relationship with his demanding girlfriend — puts his life and job on the line, that things begin to fall into place.

All in all, this is a fast-paced read with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing all the way through. Hayder has created a relentlessly intense and chilling story with believable characters — particularly Caffery, who is drawn with just the right measure of tough-guy attitude and human vulnerability.

If you like your crime thrillers edgy, intelligent and thought-provoking, look no further than The Treatment, just don’t expect to sleep easy at night!

Author, Bantam, Book review, Elizabeth McGregor, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Ice Child’ by Elizabeth McGregor


Fiction – paperback; Bantam; 431 pages; 2001.

Elizabeth McGregor’s The Ice Child is two stories within a story.

The first, set in modern day times, is about a young female journalist, Jo Harper, who falls in love with an arctic adventurer, Douglas Marshall. When Douglas is killed in a tragic accident, Jo is left to bring up their child alone. The child later falls ill and desperately needs a bone marrow transplant to survive. The one person who may be compatible is Douglas’s son, John, from his first marriage.

But John, who has fallen out with Jo, has disappeared and is nowhere to be found. He has a special interest in the 1847 Franklin expedition to the Arctic and, it is believed, may be in the area trying to uncover the last traces of that expedition.

This ties together very nicely with the second story, which describes the plight of the fateful Franklin expedition as the two ships, Terror and Erebus, and their crews cut their way through the Arctic ice looking for the north-west passage.

While set more than a century apart, both stories are essentially tales of survival against extraordinary odds.

McGregor weaves together history and drama to create an intriguing novel. Her writing is, at times, incredibly poetic, at others it tends towards melodrama. But, as a whole, this is a lovely multi-layered book, well researched and with an authentic feel. While light, it’s never fluffy, and would make perfect holiday reading for those looking for something a little different.