Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Cho Nam-Joo, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea, Tanya Bretherton, true crime, Viking

Three Quick Reviews: Tanya Bretherton, Cho Nam-ju & Imbi Neeme

Good things come in threes, they say.

Here are three eclectic stories, all focused on women characters and written by women writers, that I have read this year. All are highly recommended.

They include a narrative non-fiction book by Australia’s queen of historical true crime, a best-selling novel from Korea and an award-winning new release set in Western Australia.

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’  by Tanya Bretherton
Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself in Australia as a writer of historical true crime. I have previously read The Suitcase Baby and have The Suicide Bride in my TBR. The Killing Streets is her latest.

It examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s. It took a while for the police to cotton on, but eventually, the cases, in which the women’s bodies were found dumped in public places, were linked together and suddenly the hunt was on for Australia’s first serial killer.

Unfortunately, in their rush to convict someone, the police made many mistakes and got the wrong man: the killings continued regardless.

As well as being a fascinating account of (unreliable) police investigative techniques at the time, this book is also an eye-opening portrait of a misogynistic society in which women were merely the playthings of men and if they went missing or were killed it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the “wrong” kinds of clothing, pursuing the “wrong” kind of career or simply belonging to the “wrong” class. This is very much a story of a society in which victim-blaming was king,  where the police were quick to rush to judgement and where media coverage and hearsay had an entire city gripped by fear.

The Killing Streets  is a thoroughly researched and highly readable example of narrative non-fiction that puts a series of Depression-era crimes into a social, historical and economic context. It gets a bit bogged down by detail in places and sometimes the creative elements of the narrative felt overdone, taking away from the reportage of the story, but on the whole this is a good one for true crime fans.

‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’  by Cho Nam-ju
Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 176 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. 

This international bestseller from Korea, first published in 2016 but recently reissued, is a damning portrait of a contemporary society that favours men over women in almost every facet of life.

It tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, who grows up in South Korea and slowly comes to realise that she is at a disadvantage in almost everything she does simply because she was born female. Her younger brother gets special treatment by her parents (extra food and his own room), she’s sexually harassed at school by her male classmates (but is expected to put up with it because that’s just what boys do), she gets overlooked for promotion at work despite being a dedicated and conscientious employee, she’s expected to give up everything for her husband when she marries — you get the idea.

The easy-to-read narrative is dotted with footnotes relating to gender inequality in Korea — for instance, statistical information on the sex ratio imbalance at birth (116.5 boys born to 100 girls in 1990), and the ways in which women do odd jobs on the side to make money as well as raising children, running households and looking after elderly family members — which lends the story real authenticity.

I found Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 a gripping story, easily read in a day, but I’m not sure it told me anything I didn’t already know. For many teenage girls and young women, however, this novel would be the perfect introduction to feminism. It’s an important and powerful read.

‘The Spillby Imbi Neeme
Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before The Spill was published, Imbi Neeme’s manuscript won the Penguin Literary Prize — and it’s easy to see why. This is a gripping tale of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha, whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood (a car accident on a remote road in Western Australia) and who later struggle to reconcile their differences — in temperament, in outlook and the ways in which they see their divorced parents — as adults.

The story, which is largely set in Perth, is told in such an original and ambitious way — vignettes from the past interweaved with the present day, told in alternate chapters from each sister’s perspective — that it’s hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. The writing is assured and the characters flesh-and-blood real.

In its portrayal of alcoholism, Neeme shies away from stereotypes or cliches, presenting the disease and its impact on others in all its messy, complicated detail. She does much the same for the relationship between sisters, for Nicole and Samantha are tied together forever but love and loathe each other in myriad different ways. There is jealousy and anger, hurt and regret, misunderstanding and confusion on almost every page. Yet this is not a maudlin story. There are many laughs and witty asides — often at the expense of stepmothers that come into their lives at various times —  dotted throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of this tricky and tangled family. It will be very interesting to see what Imbi Neeme comes up with next…

I read ‘The Killing Streets’ and ‘The Spill’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. They form my 10th & 11th books for #AWW2020.
Author, Book review, Catherine Steadman, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Something in the Water’ by Catherine Steadman

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster UK; 368 pages; 2019.

If you found $1million that didn’t belong to you, what would you do? Take it and say nothing, or report it to police?

In Catherine Steadman’s debut novel Something in the Water, this is the moral dilemma faced by Erin, a documentary film maker, and her new husband, Mark, an out-of-work fund manager, who discover a bag filled with money — and lots more other “goodies” inside — when scuba diving during their honeymoon on the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora.

When they decide to smuggle it home to London, the pair set in motion a chain of events that will tip both their worlds upside down.

A tightly plotted tale

Of course, as with every crime thriller I’ve ever read, it’s difficult to review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, so forgive me if what follows is a little vague. Let’s just say that Something in the Water is a fast-paced, tightly plotted story that heads into some dangerous criminal underworld territory.

Apart from a few aspects, it feels largely believable throughout, which is some achievement given that Mark and Erin are portrayed as essentially squeaky clean lovebirds. How they get caught up in events much bigger than themselves makes the story more imminently relatable, because we are all capable of making bad choices or having our moral compass go a little skewiff when there’s a lot of money at stake.

Steadman, who is also British TV and stage actor, structures her story so that Erin’s working life  — putting together a documentary following three prisoners about to be paroled — collides neatly with her new criminal life, which adds an extra dimension of jeopardy to the tale. And it is this jeopardy that propels the narrative forward in a truly suspenseful and heart-hammering way. I don’t recall being this caught up in a crime thriller since reading John Grisham’s The Firm almost 30 years ago!

She also does something super clever: in the opening chapter she has her female protagonist digging her husband’s grave, so you immediately want to know how events escalated to that point. Did Erin kill Mark, or has she found Mark’s body and decided to bury it herself?

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave? Wonder no longer. It takes an age. However long you think it takes, double that.

The story then spools back to the honeymoon and then painstakingly outlines what happened on that fateful trip followed by the aftermath.

An intelligent thriller

Despite the octane-fuelled pace, Steadman doesn’t skimp on detail. Her characters are well drawn, the scenes are vivid and alive, the dialogue authentic, the sense of paranoia palpable. There’s an air of intelligence about the story, too: this isn’t a dumbed down thriller for a dumbed down audience.

And the best bit? The plot doesn’t hinge on the gruesome murder of a woman, which has become so de rigueur in this genre that I’ve stopped buying books (and watching films) that use this lazy device. There’s no gratuitous violence, either.

Apparently the film rights to Something in the Water have already been sold — to Reese Witherspoon’s production company — and I can see why, because it’s such a visual, plot driven, story. (The book is also a Reece Witherspoon Book Club Pick. I’m not sure that’s any indicator of quality, but it does mean the book will attract a large audience.)

I thoroughly enjoyed this crime thriller and look forward to reading Steadman’s next book, Mr Nobody, which is due for publication early next year.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Simon & Schuster, Sweden, TBR40, Tom Rob Smith

‘The Farm’ by Tom Rob Smith

Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster UK; 384 pages; 2015.

Looking for something easy to read on a recent weekend jaunt to Rome, I extracted Tim Rob Smith’s The Farm from my electronic TBR. A strange and twisted story about madness, lies, secrets and gaslighting, it kept me entertained for the duration of my trip — but I had very mixed feelings about it.

A parental tug-of-war

The tale centres around Daniel, a young man living in London, who gets drawn into a dispute between his parents who now live on a remote farm in Sweden having retired from their business (a garden nursery) a few years ago.

One morning Daniel’s father, Chris, calls him to say that his mother has had a psychotic breakdown and has fled the hospital where she had been committed. He’s warned that his mother is dangerously unwell and potentially violent.

Moments later Daniel receives a phone call from his mother, Tilde, saying that everything he’s been told by his father is a lie and she has the evidence to prove it. “I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow,” she says.

From thereon in, the narrative is structured around Tilde’s story of what happened to her. She sits in Daniel’s kitchen (and later a hotel room) and tells her story in strict chronological order, interrupted only occasionally by Daniel who wants to clarify things (or jump to conclusions), before a dramatic shift about 100 pages from the end which jumps ahead to reveal that Tilde is now in a psychiatric unit in London.

Who to believe?

What makes The Farm so compelling to read is not quite knowing who to believe: is Tilde really psychotic or is her tale of strange goings on in the local community, presided over by a creepy, manipulative neighbour, Håken, really true? Has she been gaslighted into believing that the crimes to which she alludes are just figments of her imagination? And is the disappearance of Håken’s adopted 16-year-old daughter, the beautiful Mia from Angola, connected to a pedophile ring (or something similar)?

What didn’t quite work for me is never fully knowing Chris’s side of the story. He is largely seen through Tilde’s eyes so we can never be entirely sure if what she’s saying about him is reliable.

Daniel’s own investigation — he heads to Sweden on a solo mission to uncover evidence for himself — seems a bit rushed and he never seems to quite ask the questions I wanted him to ask. This, in turn, made me wonder if his account was unreliable, too?

And the ending itself felt abrupt — and hugely disappointing. I don’t expect everything I read in novels to be neatly tied up at the end, but this left open too many dangling threads for my liking. So while I largely enjoyed the journey I was left disappointed with the destination.

Nevertheless, The Farm is an entertaining, suspenseful (but slow-paced) read. It’s just a pity that what started out as a truly intriguing premise for a story got waylaid somewhere along the line.

This is my 18th book for #TBR40. According to my Amazon account, I purchased this book on 14 March 2015 for £2.85, but I have no idea what prompted me to buy it. Was it someone else’s review, perhaps?

Author, Book review, Joe Bennett, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, travel, UAE

‘Hello Dubai: Skiing, Sand and Shopping in the World’s Weirdest City’ by Joe Bennett

Hello-Dubai

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 272 pages; 2011.

The first time I went to Dubai, on a day trip from neighbouring Abu Dhabi where I was staying in 2009, I couldn’t get over the scale of the place. It was like one giant construction site, with all manner of skyscrapers and shopping malls and apartment blocks being built. And when you went to any of the hotels or shops, there was a real feel of big money and glitz and glamour to the place.

But Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has a dark underside — or should that be underclass? — of mainly emigrant workers, largely from India and the Phillipines, which the glossy tourist brochures, and the ruling Arab elite, would rather you didn’t know about.

Joe Bennett, who is a professional travel writer, comes to grips with both sides of Dubai in this intriguing, and very witty, book based on his time living in the city. His highly readable account explains how Dubai went from being a quiet Arabian port into a hub of global trade and finance in just a matter of decades.

Bennett suggests that Dubai is essentially a British creation. That’s because Dubai is a sheikdom, ruled by the “royal” Al Maktoum family, who were never elected into power, they simply “assumed” it with the backing of the British, who, for all kinds of economic reasons, did not wish the UAE to be a democracy.

Dubai’s wealth initially lay in oil, but by concentrating on tourism, trade, real estate and financial services, the Al Maktoums have turned it into a Western-style economy. This has meant relaxing many of their rules to attract foreigners and foreign businesses to their shores.

For example, up until 2006, the only way a foreigner could live in Dubai was on a limited three-year visa system tied to employment. They could not buy property, because it was all owned by the ruling sheikh and Emiratis. That’s now changed, and expats can purchase their own homes — although judging by the examples Bennett quotes here, it’s not exactly straightforward, nor cheap — but they cannot obtain citizenship. This means they can be told to leave the country at any time, which is quite a convenient system for those in charge.

But Bennett doesn’t just look at what makes Dubai tick, he goes out into the other emirates (except the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi) to compare them, and much of what he finds is in stark contrast to the wealth and opportunism that Dubai affords.

He meets a variety of people, from expat South Africans living in mansion-like villas equipped with swimming pools and driving expensive four-wheel drives, to hard-working Filipino maids, who are treated like second-class citizens by their employers. He hangs out with foreign businessmen, the nouvea rich, who are making big bucks and plays cricket with Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan labourers on their day off.

And while he has a perceptive eye and notices the unobtrusive underclass and the lewd, often culturally insensitive, behaviour of the richer expats, Bennett’s book is far from heavy or judgmental. It features some delicious comic moments, such as when he accidentally finds himself caught in no man’s land between the UAE and Oman, or when he falls over in the shower, tears the curtain from the wall and knocks himself out on the toilet seat.

This is a terrific book, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. If you’re thinking of visiting Dubai, or even if you’re not, this is a fun, but intelligent, read about a city that is truly unique.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, historical fiction, Pearl S. Buck, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck

Good-earth

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster Ltd – Washington Square Press; 368 pages; 2004.

The Good Earth is the first in an “oriental trilogy” written by American-born Pearl S. Buck. First published in 1931, it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal in 1935. (Buck later received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 — “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces” — the first American woman to do so.)

The story, which spans some 50 years, is a relatively simple one about a poor peasant farmer, Wang Lung, who works hard to become a wealthy landowner.

Set in the period before the Revolution, it depicts China under the reign of its last emperor and presents a fascinating glimpse of rural life, where famine, flood and locust plagues are never far away.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day. He has never meet his betrothed, O-lan, who is a slave at the House of Wwang (a family of rich landowners), but he is excited to have finally taken a wife.

She had a square, honest face, a short, broad nose with large black nostrils, and her mouth was wide as a gash in her face. Her eyes were small and of a dull black in colour, and were filled with some sadness that was not clearly expressed. It was a face that seemed habitually silent and unspeaking, as though it could not speak if it would. She bore Wang Lung’s look, without embarrassment or response, simply waiting until he had seen her. He saw that it was true: there was not beauty of any kind in her face — a brown, common, patient face. But there were no pockmarks on her dark skin, nor was her lip split. In her ears he saw his rings hanging, the gold-washed rings he had bought, and on her hands were the rings he had given her. He turned away with secret exultation. Well, he had his woman!

He takes her to his small house that he shares with his ageing father, and together the pair till the soil and tend to the crops.  O-lan, stoic and hardworking, bears him three much-desired sons, as well as two daughters, one of whom is mentally handicapped.

Their life together is ruled very much by the seasons, and when starvation threatens in the early days of their marriage they retreat to the city in order to beg for food and try their fortune earning money by means other than farming.

But through sheer hard work, and a little bit of good fortune, Wang Lung is able to secure the future of his family by buying up little parcels of land whenever he has enough silver, and by the time he is in his 50s he is the wealthiest man in the village. This, in turn, presents him with new problems, including lazy relatives who suddenly want a piece of his new-found wealth. And how Wang Lung deals with these interesting moral dilemmas provides a good dose of narrative tension.

Stylistically, the book has the feel of a much-loved fable. The prose style is slightly old-fashioned, without being clunky, but there’s never any doubt that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.

I enormously enjoyed following the course of Wang Lung’s extraordinary life. And while Pearl S. Buck obviously has a message to push — that hard graft reaps rewards — this doesn’t detract from an epic story that is filled with emotional highs and lows, joy and fear, lust and love, life and death.

The Good Earth is highly recommended if you are looking for an absorbing tale that highlights how ambition, honour and a smidge of good luck can overcome adversity but not necessarily solve all your problems…

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Rebecca Frayn, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Deceptions’ by Rebecca Frayn

Deceptions

Fiction – paperback; Simon and Schuster; 240 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I suspect Rebecca Frayn may have personal reasons for not wanting to include her father’s name — the writer Michael Frayn — in any of the publicity material accompanying her new novel, but it was this very parentage that actually made me interested in reading Deceptions if for no other reason than to see if the writerly genes had been passed on. I am pleased to report that they have.

Deceptions, which is Frayn’s second novel, is literary fiction, but it could equally fall into the thriller camp because the narrative is so fast-paced and so well plotted it is next to impossible to put the book down. I read it in two sittings.

The nub of the story is one we have all heard before — the disappearance of a child — but Frayn tells it in a new and fresh way. She does this by making the almost step-father the narrator, which lends the story a rather detached, almost cold, tone. And mid-way through — and this is not a plot spoiler — there is news of the child’s fate, so that you are not left in limbo, wondering what has happened.

Deceptions opens on the day that 12-year-old Dan fails to return from his comprehensive school in West London. During the course of the police investigation, it seems more and more likely that he merely ran away. There are insinuations that Dan’s position as the sole male in the household, usurped by the impending wedding of his widowed mother, Annie, to Julian, an art consultant and narrator of the story, may have given him reason to flee. This theory is further supported by Dan’s recent bad behaviour at school where he has fallen in with a rather hostile and dubious bunch of under-achieving students.

But it is not so much the potential cause of Dan’s disappearance that Frayn trains her eye: it is the outfall of his loss on his mother and, in turn, her relationship with Julian. I imagine Annie’s behaviour is fairly natural of any mother who loses a child in strange circumstances: she never loses hope of a possible return. Julian, on the other hand, wants her to move on, and to come to terms with the notion that Dan may, in fact, be dead.

Over the past three years I had formed my own theory about Dan’s disappearance. […] At first I tried various circumspect means of broaching the subject, yet she was resolute in refusing to pick up on any of my cautious overtures. Each time I had to overcome a deep aversion to actually articulating the subject we had for so long tiptoed around. But eventually I took myself in hand by preparing a little speech, which I delivered one evening before my courage could fail me.

The outfall of this speech, which is almost as devastating as Dan’s disappearance, is long-lasting, because once the words have been said, they cannot be unsaid. For Julian, this is a recurring issue: how does he say the things that need to be said without being diminished in the eyes of Annie, whom he loves so much?

The over-riding theme, however, is the small deceptions we tell ourselves in order not to address the underlying cause of our sorrow or failings, because to do so would change things in irreversible ways. We see this in Annie’s love for, and belief in, her son, as she refuses to acknowledge that maybe she doesn’t know him as well as she thought.

There’s a real humanity about this story — and a truth about the ways in which we cope, not only with tragedy, but with day-to-day issues that challenge our perception of the world and our relationships with the people closest to us. And it feels incredibly authentic, perhaps because it was inspired by a true life case, the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay in 1994, whose fate remains unknown.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Neil Cross, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Burial’ by Neil Cross

Burial

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

A good, thoroughly believable crime thriller doesn’t come much better than this. In Burial, Neil Cross has delivered one of those realistically chilling reads that makes your skin break out in goosebumps.

Cross, who has a handful of novels to his name, including the 2004 Booker long-listed Always the Sun, knows how to create a rising sense of fear and paranoia. Not surprising, then, that he’s been lead scriptwriter on the BBC spy-drama series Spooks for the past two series.

In this novel, Cross tells what appears to be a perfectly ordinary story that goes off on a dark and disturbing tangent.

It’s about Nathan, a young man, who attends a Christmas party, hosted by his boss, a late-night radio DJ, that turns out to be the worst night of his life. High on cocaine and booze, Nathan and his friend Bob momentarily leave the party with an attractive girl called Elise. In a car parked in the nearby woods they take turns having sex with her. But things go horribly wrong and Elise dies. The pair hatch a plan to bury the body and return to the party as if nothing has happened.

When Elise is reported missing by her family the next day, a police investigation ensues. Suspicion is cast on the DJ but no-one is charged with the crime — and no body is ever found. Nathan and Bob seem to have got away with it, although their relationship is fractured and they make a deal never to see each other again.

Fast forward 15 years and one night there’s a knock on Nathan’s door. It’s Bob with some bad news: developers are about to dig up the woods where they buried the body in order to build a housing estate. Their carefully constructed lives are about to be torn asunder…

The cover-up of a dastardly crime by two men who should know better might sound like a relatively straight forward plot, but there’s a few additional complications which would spoil the story if I were to reveal them here. But what I can say is that the character of Nathan is brilliantly realised. He’s a man with a guilty secret plagued by a conscience that won’t let up. His remorse is so great that he becomes afraid of the dark and has to cover the bathroom mirror for fear he might catch a glimpse of Elise’s ghost staring back at him. You get the very real impression that he’s sorry for what he did, but not sorry enough to come clean to the authorities.

My only quibble is that the book does tend to read a little like a screenplay. There’s a lot of telling and not much show, but who cares when you get to experience such a beautifully realised story arc? From its slightly slow beginning through to its meaty middle and perfectly satisfactory ending, Burial is a masterpiece of storytelling in the heart-hammering, sweaty palms vein. I very much enjoyed it — and if it’s ever turned into a TV drama I’ll be the first to sit down and watch it!  If you’re looking for a fast-paced, chilling read then definitely add this one to your list.

1001 books, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster

‘Fall on Your Knees’ by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Fallonyourknees 

Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster New York; 508 pages; 2005.

First published in 1996, this acclaimed debut novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald tells the unforgettable story of four sisters — Kathleen, the beautiful and talented one; Mercedes, the good and morally upstanding one; Frances, the wayward and bad one; and Lily, the much-adored crippled one — growing up on Cape Breton Island in the early 20th century.

Their parents — James, a complicated but intelligent man, and Materia, a troubled woman of Lebanese extraction — battle demons and family secrets to raise their children amid the poverty-stricken coal mining community in which they live. Coupled with the horrors of World War I and the diseases which ravished whole towns and killed children before their time, is it any wonder this book is a little on the depressing side?

If that’s not enough Fall on Your Knees, which can best be described as a sprawling family drama, is charged by a disturbing undercurrent of violence, racism and incest.

Despite the explosive subject matter I must admit that it took me some time to ‘get into’ the story. I found it a little slow in places and the storyline seemed pointless. Plus, I didn’t feel emotionally attached to any of the characters. But there were certain parts that I adored (for example, Book 6: The Girl Guide, which is about Frances’ foray into the sleazy world of strip-teasing, and Book 8: Hejira, which is about Kathleen’s risque time amid New York’s emerging jazz scene). And, just when I’d resigned myself to giving this novel a fairly mediocre 3-star review, along came one of the most satisfying and surprising endings I’ve read in modern fiction for quite some time.

MacDonald somehow neatly draws together all the loose elements to deliver a heart-hammering and completely unexpected shocker of an ending, a climax that left me feeling totally stunned.

Fall on Your Knees is an ambitious novel which requires a lot of hard work on behalf of the reader, but it is well worth the effort in the long run.