Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Setting

‘Her’ by Harriet Lane


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Whenever I’m feeling under the weather I love nothing more than curling up under the duvet with a good psychological thriller: something that’s fast-paced and won’t tax my brain too much. So this weekend, after four very intense weeks at work (in the lead-up to my Christmas break), I finally succumbed to a horrid head cold. Thank goodness, then, for Harriet Lane’s latest novel, which was an effective diversion from the aching sinuses, the snotty nose and the ever-increasing mountain of used tissues by my side.

Some of you may recall that I read Lane‘s debut novel, Alys Always, in the summer and loved the story of a manipulative young woman who inveigles her way into the life of a rich author, so I was looking forward to her new one.

Her, which was published in hardcover in June and is due for paperback release next month, is cut very much from the same kind of cloth. It’s a proper page turner that brings to mind the likes of Nicci French — one of my favourite psychological thriller writers — but never slides into farce or violence. Instead it’s rooted very much in the every day, which makes it all the more sinister.

An unlikely friendship

The story revolves around the unlikely friendship between two women, both of whom are around the same age: Emma has given up a TV career to have children and is caught up in the day-to-day struggle to raise two young ones while her husband juggles a freelance job that barely covers the bills; and Nina is a successful artist, with an equally successful architect husband and a 17-year-old daughter (from her first marriage).

The pair meet when Nina returns Emma’s wallet, which she claims to have found on the local high street. What Emma doesn’t realise — and which Nina takes great pains to disguise  from her “new” friend — is that the pair met 20 years earlier, as teenagers.

As Emma and Nina’s lives become more and more entwined over the course of the novel, it becomes clear (to the reader) that Nina is a rather nasty piece of work, hellbent on wreaking revenge on a rather hapless and naive Emma. But she does it in such a smooth, almost guileless way, that no one seems to notice, making her behaviour all the more chilling.

A tense read

Both Emma and Nina take it in turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters, which is a great device for building tension. It also shows Emma’s desperation to be viewed as a person (rather than a mother, whose life now revolves around “scraping and rinsing and wiping and sweeping”) in contrast with Nina’s chilling level of self-control. But if I was to fault the novel it would be that the two voices are barely distinguishable from one another.

However, that doesn’t really matter, because what makes Her work as a page turner is two-fold: we never quite know what is motivating Nina — what is it that Emma did that requires this level of well-plotted revenge? — and will Emma cotton on to the threat before it’s too late?

Admittedly, the denouement falls a bit flat, but I loved the slow-building of suspense and my inability to guess Nina’s next move. It’s a deeply unsettling read that feeds into every mother’s deepest fears — and the danger that lurks where we least expect it.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘Alys, Always’ by Harriet Lane

Alys always

Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 240 pages; 2012.

It’s hard to fault Harriet Lane’s psychological thriller Alys, Always, which has a perfectly paced narrative that becomes increasingly more disturbing and unsettling the further you get into the story.

It opens with Frances Thorpe, a 30-something sub-editor, driving back to London one wintry night after visiting her parents in the countryside. When she turns a bend in the road, she comes across the scene of an accident in which a car is laying on its side. The driver — the only person in the vehicle — is trapped inside.

Frances calls an ambulance and tries to comfort the woman driver whom she cannot see because it is so dark. This turns out to be the last conversation the woman ever has — she dies in hospital later that night.

What should rightly be the end of the story is really just the beginning.  The next day a police officer tells Frances that the dead woman’s family would like to get in touch.  And so that is how Frances — nervously, warily, cleverly — inveigles her way in to the lives of the Kyte family: 19-year-old Polly, mid-20s Teddy and the woman’s husband, Laurence, a literary star and Booker prize-winning author. Things are never quite the same again.

Motivations of a sub-editor

Alys, Always (the title refers to the dead woman, whose name was Alys) is narrated by Frances in a voice that is believable, vulnerable, sharp and perceptive. But there’s a dark undercurrent that makes you think twice about Frances’ motives: is she being genuine, or is she playing a game of deceit?

For as the story gallops along, Frances becomes more entwined in the Kyte’s lives, first of Polly, whom she befriends in a “big sister” kind of way, and then of Laurence, whose literary credentials offer Frances a shot at the big time herself. That’s because Frances is a downtrodden sub-editor on a struggling newspaper, The Questioner, whom no-one pays the slightest bit of attention to — “I spend my days correcting spelling mistakes and moving commas around” — until she casually mentions that she knows Laurence Kyte. Suddenly this dull, overlooked, single woman gains new-found respect from her colleagues and, especially, her editor.

It’s to the author’s credit that the story never slides into farce, because even though Laurence is a little on the clichéd side (I kept seeing him as a Martin Amis/Ian McEwan type figure, well respected by the establishment but a little bit up his own backside, if you’ll forgive my crudity), everything else feels spot-on. And I loved the little insights into the literary world, the life of a sub-editor (seeing as I’m one too) and the ways in which the newspaper business is slipping into terminal decline.

It’s that kind of detail that makes this a cut above your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. This isn’t so much a heart-hammering ride, but one that carefully dissects what it is to climb the social ladder and make something of yourself using guile, cunning and every little opportunity that comes your way. It’s a fun read and one that makes me want to explore more of Harriet Lane’s work: her second novel, Her, was published earlier this year.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gillian Flynn, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn


Fiction – Kindle edition; Phoenix; 340 pages; 2009.

I recently took a couple of days off work in order to do some study for a certificate I’m enrolled in. The plan was to read lots of journal articles, to get my head in the required space, so that I could write a 3,000-word essay, which is due to be submitted at the beginning of August. Alas, I made the mistake of picking up Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects — and then I got so gripped by it that I spent all my study time reading it instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Do I regret it? No. This is one of the creepiest, weirdest and most unusual books I’ve read in a long while. It’s also the most absorbing.

Unlike Flynn’s better known Gone Girl, which is about a couple whose marriage goes off the rails in a very dark, disturbing and ludicrous way, this one is more restrained — in prose style and plot — but feels all the stronger and more believable for it.

Two murders in a small town

The story revolves around the murder of two young girls, a year apart, in a small town in Missouri. Both girls were strangled, their bodies dumped in public places, their nails painted with polish and their teeth removed.

Reporter Camille Preaker, who grew up in Wind Gap but escaped it 10 or so years ago, is dispatched to her home town to report on the crimes for Chicago’s Daily Post. Of course, no one wants to talk to her — they don’t want the town’s tragedy turned into entertainment fodder for a national audience — and it’s an uphill struggle to even win the trust of the police.

Camille, who narrates the story in the first person using strong, forthright language, is headstrong, feisty and full of attitude, but she’s also got a few secrets of her own to keep: she’s a reformed self-harmer and for much of this novel she’s constantly battling her deep psychological need to carve words into her skin.

It doesn’t help that living back at home with her seriously kooky mother, oddly quiet step-dad and highly sexualised 13-year-old half sister brings back memories of the past: her younger sister, Marian, who died of an unspecified illness when Camille was a young teen still haunts her.

Southern Gothic

As you can probably tell this is not your average “who dunnit” — mainly because it’s more reliant on characterisation than plot, but also because Camille is constantly on the back foot trying to seek out clues from people who don’t want to help. In other words, there’s not much of a procedural element to it, but it is a good insight into how reporters do their legwork (although I don’t think it’s usual to sleep with the murder detective and then the prime suspect — just saying).

In fact, I’d suggest that Sharp Objects is probably closer to horror — don’t let that put you off — because it has all the feel and claustrophobic atmosphere of Southern Gothic (even though it’s set in the mid-west),  something Donna Tartt might have cooked up with Stephen King. Consequently, it’s quite a dark, edgy read — there are scenes involving drug-taking and plenty of sex, for instance, but it’s all in keeping with the book’s themes and subject matter.

And while this is not the kind of “crime thriller” that is full of twists and turns, when the culprit is finally unveiled at the very end of the novel it feels like a genuine shock.

In 2007, Sharp Objects won the CWA New Blood Fiction award and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel award. It was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger (won by Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore) the same year.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, Venice, Vikram Seth

‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 496 pages; 2004.

An Equal Music is one of those big, beautiful books best appreciated by kicking off your shoes and curling up on the sofa to devour it in one or two longish sittings. It’s even better if it’s accompanied by a steady supply of coffee and cake, while the rain outside patters on the window. That’s not exactly how I read this book, but I could easily imagine doing so, because the story is so captivating and pleasurable.

Essentially it is an epic romance, set in London (and Venice), involving classical musicians. Now this is where I put up my hands and reveal I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to classical music, so some of the terminology and musical references were completely lost on me. But it certainly did not detract from the story, nor the all-encompassing, occasionally claustrophobic world presented here. I am sure anyone with a love of classical music would absolutely adore this novel.

The story, divided into eight parts, is told through the eyes of Michael, a 30-something violinist, who is the member of a quartet. He makes a little money on the side by teaching music, and has recently fallen into a relationship with one of his students. But it’s clear that Michael is nursing a great hurt. Ten years ago he left the woman he now realises was “the one” and has no idea what happened to her. Then, one day, while on a double-decker bus stuck in Oxford Street traffic, he finds himself eye to eye with his long lost love, Julia, who is sitting in the bus opposite.

It’s difficult to say much more without revealing crucial elements of the plot, so if this all sounds a bit vague, I’m sorry. What I can say is that Michael and Julia do, eventually, get back together, but the course of true love never runs smoothly, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and pain with which to contend — for both characters.

It’s pretty hard to fault the characterisation in this novel, although I have to admit that Michael, did, at times, feel slightly creepy and obsessive to me and there were occasions when I wondered how much of his narrative I could trust. Similarly, Julia’s motivations are often puzzling, and because we are never told her side of the story, there’s no way of knowing why she behaves the way that she does.

The secondary characters, of which there are quite a few, including Michael’s musical partners, the quartet’s agent, his neighbours and his father, all feel like living, breathing people. And the insights into life as a classical musician — rehearsing, negotiating a record deal, touring in Europe and performing on stage — are fascinating, especially the tensions and rivalries between quartet members.

But it’s the setting, too, which really sold this novel to me. How could I not like a book set in an area of London I know fairly well? Hyde Park in winter has never felt more atmospheric to me than Vikram Seth’s evocative descriptions of it. And the parts set in Venice had me itching to revist the watery city I love so much.

An Equal Music was first published in 1999. It’s a hugely passionate novel about passion — passion for others, passion for music, but, most of all, passion for life.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Michael Collins, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Lost Souls’ by Michael Collins


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 292 pages; 2003.

Dark, depressing and claustrophobic. These are the words that best describe this unconventional crime novel set in the heartland of industrial America, where “the smell of sulphur made the air taste bitter, a haze of pollution hanging in the wintry light, the chimneystacks breathing fire”.

Into this “crouched, grand, sad and burned out landscape” dotted with factories, shopping malls, dilapidated motels and highways, Lawrence, a divorced policeman, discovers the body of a three-year-old girl lying face down in a pile of autumn leaves by the side of a road. It appears as if the toddler, who is dressed as an angel, has been the victim of a hit-and-run accident during the town’s busy Halloween night festivities.

But why was she by herself? And why did the driver fail to stop and give assistance?

During the ensuing investigation, the town’s star quarterback, a 17-year-old schoolboy called Kyle, emerges as the chief suspect.  But in a soulless town desperate for heroes a cover-up takes place to ensure the teenager’s promising football career remains untarnished.

Lawrence, his sense of right and wrong dulled by his own personal and financial problems, becomes an unwitting pawn in the mayor’s plan to “fudge” the investigation. When he later finds his own life threatened by an unknown assailant, Lawrence begins to question his role in the power games being played out by those around him. His actions, fuelled by fear, loneliness and paranoia, only serve to turn him into a suspect in the very case he is supposed to be investigating…

Lost Souls is a sombre, moody novel that explores some very dark places in the human psyche. The main character, Lawrence, is a sympathetic one, even if the reader may question his morality and, indeed, his sanity. But his malcontent voice, depressed, pained and vitriolic, is so claustrophobic you wish it could be broken by some light relief — perhaps a dash of humour every now and then — but sadly there is nothing to ease the burden on the reader.

But that’s not to say that this book, the fifth by Irish author Michael Collins, is not worth the effort. Despite the bleak prose and subject matter, Collins has an uncanny ability to dissect America into its many dysfunctional components to convey a country on the brink of social breakdown. He also has a keen visual eye, and describes many scenes befitting of a high-octane screenplay.

However, it is the slow burning plot that makes Lost Souls such a satisfying read. So much happens in this book beyond the initial crime that the riddle of the toddler’s death seems unlikely to be resolved. But then in the best time-honoured tradition of hitting the reader over the head with an unexpected climax, Collins delivers a wonderful ending that reveals who did it — and why.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book. I found its eerie atmosphere too heavy for that. But the narrative was intelligent, insightful and well written and for those reasons Lost Souls is a worthwhile and satisfying read.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Philippe Claudel, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘Grey Souls’ by Philippe Claudel

Grey souls

Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 184 pages; 2006. Translated from the French  by Adriana Hunter.

Grey Souls, by Philippe Claudel, is a deeply mysterious, brooding novel set in a small French village during the First World War.

The unnamed narrator, a melancholy soul with secrets of his own to keep, reflects on the investigation of a young girl’s murder in 1917.

Swinging backwards and forwards in time, the narrator explores the town’s leading figures — the judge, the public prosecutor, the school teacher et al —  and shows how the murder affected them, socially, professionally and emotionally.

At the same time, he examines his own life — the ups and downs and great pains he has borne — in order to get at the real truth: was justice delivered when a soldier confessed to the crime?

I read this book holed up in bed with the worst chest infection known to man and I can’t say that this book lightened my mood any. It is very well written, if somewhat meandering to begin with, but the subject matter is quite heavy and depressing and the narrator’s voice borders on suicidal.

At times I found it difficult to work out in which direction the story was going, but the prose is so free of abstractions and beautifully restrained that I didn’t mind too much: I just enjoyed the writing.

Grey Souls is definitely not a light read, but it is certainly a thought-provoking one. And the ending is positively astonishing, if somewhat appalling.

Author, Book review, Edna O'Brien, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘In the Forest’ by Edna O’Brien


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 273 pages; 2002.

Set in the countryside of western Ireland, this dark, brooding book is based on a real life triple murder in which a man shot dead three people — a woman, her young child and a priest — in a forest glade in 1994. But wounds run deep and Edna O’Brien, who wrote the book eight years later, was accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of a novel and much vilified for her efforts.

With this is mind, I read In the Forest with some trepidation. But I was gripped from the first page and read the book within a matter of days.

Story of a kinderschreck

It tells the story of Mich O’Kane, a young boy who gets shunted from one institution to another. Devoid of any motherly love he grows into a fearsome individual that the locals call the Kinderschreck — a kind of monster — and eventually goes to jail for a serious crime.

Meanwhile, Eily Ryan, an unmarried mother, moves to the small town of Cloosh. Here, with her young son Maddy, she sets up home in a remote dilapidated cottage on the edge of the forest, where she can concentrate on her art.

But when O’Kane is released from jail he returns to Cloosh. With no family support and outcast by the locals, he is forced to live in the forest, only appearing in the village when he needs to beg or steal food.

Animal-like in behaviour and thought, he begins stalking Eily. One day, unable to control his sexual fantasies any longer, he abducts Eily and orders her to drive deep into the forest …

Dark and disturbing

There’s no doubt that this book is dark and disturbing. On more than one occasion I felt goosebumps erupt on my skin. But O’Brien never resorts to sensationalism. Her prose is careful, at times clipped, and she moves the story along at an almost annoyingly slow pace, building to the chilling climax slowly but surely.

What I didn’t particularly like was the narrative devices she uses. The story is told from too many divergent and various sources, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third person. While I understand this was probably O’Brien’s attempt to cover all points of view, to demonstrate that the crime was not as straightforward as one might have expected, it hampered the narrative drive.

All in all, In the Forest is an intriguing, atmospheric novel, which is almost Gothic-like in its brooding intensity. Just don’t expect to find yourself falling in love with O’Brien’s work.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Michael Collins, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix – Orion Books; 297 pages; 2001.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, Michael CollinsThe Keepers of Truth has been widely applauded — and with good reason.

I found it to be a gripping, unputdownable read about a misfit journalist working on the biggest story of his new, fledgling career. Bill, the narrator, is well educated and well-off, but he is not unlike the more lowly masses he finds himself writing about — the only difference is the money.

Dark, disturbing and at times downright morbid, Collins’ tale centres on a murder in small town America in the seventies. But it goes way beyond the crime genre, charting the social disintegration of an industrial town in decline.

Some of his descriptions are particularly poignant given the recent events in America:

It’s maybe the greatest secret we possess as a nation, our sense of alienation from everyone else around us, our ability to have no sympathy, no empathy for others’ suffering, a decentralised philosophy of individual will, a culpability that always lands back on us.

Not only is The Keepers of Truth an intelligent read, it’s a gripping read as well.