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…

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Sabine Durrant

‘Remember Me This Way’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 368 pages; 2015.

When it comes to suspenseful psychological thrillers, Sabine Durrant has become a firm favourite of mine in recent years. She’s written five to date. Remember Me This Way, published in 2015, is her second.

It’s a gripping tale of a marriage that isn’t quite what it is cracked up to be. Lizzie, a school librarian, is quiet and passive, always pleasant, helpful and kind. Zach, a struggling artist, is self-possessed, devoted to his work and his wife. But when Zach dies in a car accident on a rural road, London-based Lizzie begins to realise the man she married is not who she thought he was.

A year after his death, when she finally works up the courage to pack up Zach’s private artist’s studio in Cornwall, a sense of dread and unease descends when she discovers items of his clothing missing and his laptop still plugged into the wall. She begins to believe that maybe he is still alive, that he faked his death in a twisted form of revenge after she wrote him a letter telling him that their marriage was over.

What follows is a fast-moving story that plays on the idea that we can never really know the people to whom we are closest.

Clever structure

But what makes this thriller slightly more original than others in a similar vein is the structure, for both characters narrate their side of events in alternate chapters (in different typefaces to aid comprehension): Zach tells his story pre-accident; Lizzie’s narrative is entirely post-accident.

This clever device allows us to see how the pair met and fell in love, but it also gives us (alarming) insights into their character traits and shows how Zach was a manipulative, controlling narcissistic who did everything in his power to keep Lizzie all to himself.

As the story unfolds, Lizzie comes to see the truth of Zach’s behaviour and begins to uncover, slowly but surely, all the lies he told to create a believable backstory for himself, the kind of backstory that would make Lizzie take pity on him. It is only in death that his artifice becomes exposed.

Narrative tension

As you would expect from a psychological thriller, there are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings and unexpected reveals that made it almost impossible to guess what is coming next. As a form of escapism, Remember Me This Way is an entertaining read. Durrant knows how to create terrific characters; she’s very good at narcissistic types and downtrodden middle-class Londoners, as these kinds of people also feature in her other novels.

And she knows how to get the pulse racing, how to create an atmosphere of fear and dread, and to lace everything with an air of menace and build up the suspense chapter by chapter.

But this is not a “dumb” novel. There is social commentary too: about domestic abuse (in all the many forms it takes, including coercive control) and how no one can ever really know what happens behind closed doors. The power plays between husbands and wives; parents and children; students and teachers; and even siblings; are all explored, to varying degrees, as well.

Remember Me This Way is a clever and suspenseful novel that doesn’t necessarily comply with the genre’s normal rules of engagement. I enjoyed the twisty ride it took me on, and am looking forward to reading Durrant’s new novel, which was released just a few weeks ago…

This is my 7th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on Kindle in November 2019.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Lucie Whitehouse, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Bed I Made’ by Lucie Whitehouse

The bed I made by Lucie Whitehouse

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury Publishing; 320 pages; 2010.

British author Lucie Whitehouse does a nice line in stories about women who fall in love with psychopathic men.

In her 2014 novel Before We Met, 30-something Hannah Reilly slowly realises that the man she has hurriedly married may not be the fine upstanding citizen and successful businessman he purports to be; in The Bed I Made, an earlier novel first published in 2010, Kate Gibson enters an erotically charged relationship with a successful property developer who isn’t quite as charming and kind-hearted as she initially thought.

Admittedly, both novels aren’t entirely believable, but who cares? I raced through The Bed I Made in a matter of a few days and found it got me over a minor reading slump (co-incidentally, Before We Met did exactly the same thing three years ago). I loved its gripping cat-and-mouse narrative, the atmospheric island setting and the compelling dynamic between two mismatched characters.

A new life on the Isle of Wight

The book opens with Kate, a translator, relocating from London to the wintry Isle of Wight, just off the Hampshire coast, for what appears to be a temporary change of scenery.  Here, she follows the case of a local woman who’s believed to be missing at sea, but before long it’s clear that it is Kate’s own life that is in danger.

In a fast-paced narrative that switches between the present and the past, we learn that Kate’s ex-boyfriend, an attractive man with whom she’d had a passionate relationship for more than a year, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. Now she’s ignoring his increasingly insistent and worryingly nasty pleas, via email and text message, to get back together — but at what cost?

This psychological thriller ratchets up the tension and suspense the further you get into it, and Whitehouse weaves a gripping tale of a young woman being stalked by a dangerous man while trying to reinvent a new life for herself.

The atmospheric setting, of an insular, close-knit coastal community with its own secrets to keep, adds to the often overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia that ensues with each turn of the page.

Typical of this genre, the ending becomes slightly hysterical (for want of a better word) and my interest began to wane as soon as I realised Kate’s best friend had succumbed to Richard’s charms: the denouement was as predictable, and as over-the-top, as I expected.

Yet The Bed I Made is a wonderful form of escapism. It’s thrilling and tense, the sort of book that keeps you turning the pages long into the night. It’s not highbrow fiction by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes it’s good to simply romp through a book without thinking about it too much.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in June 2014, based on the strength of Whitehouse’s Before We Met, which I reviewed that same month. I also bought her debut novel, The House at Midnight, which remains unread. Both were just £1.54 each as part of a Kindle promotion.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Spain

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.

The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.

The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.

Sexual shaming

As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.

Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.

And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:

The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.

She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

Fast paced, but preposterous plot

The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous.  Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.

Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.

Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.

So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.

This is my 19th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 15th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Nicole Trope, Publisher, Setting

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2015.

The publisher Allen & Unwin bill Australian writer Nicole Trope as the “queen of domestic suspense” — and I can see why.

Hush, Little Bird — her fifth novel, but the first one I’ve read by her — is a brilliantly told tale about two women from opposite sides of the social spectrum whose lives are thrust together when both are sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Birdy is a young women with learning difficulties, who is struggling to raise a daughter on her own; while Rose is a rich woman in her 50s, who was once married to a famous television personality. Now in a low-security prison — “a halfway house between that and the real world” —  Rose works in the garden tending the plants and Birdy is in charge of an aviary filled with zebra finches and Gouldian finches. (As an aside, the bird on the front cover is neither species.)

The pair would seem to have nothing in common, yet they were once neighbours when Birdy was a little girl. Rose fails to recognise Birdy as an adult and is unaware of their connection. She’s also unaware that Birdy harbours a desire to do her harm, and the book’s nail-biting narrative hinges on whether or not Birdy’s dastardly plan ever comes to fruition. It makes for a rather fast-paced and compelling read.

Alternate narrators

The story, which is highly reminiscent of Harriet Lane’s Her, is told from both women’s viewpoints, with Birdy and Rose taking it in turns to narrate alternate chapters. This allows us to get a glimpse of their mindsets — Birdy, who has been labelled stupid her whole life, is aware of her limitations but is also a lot sharper than many might give her credit, and Rose, married at 16 to a handsome actor, has spent her whole life subsumed by someone else’s personality.

Their individual back stories are slowly fleshed out so that over the course of the novel the reader begins to piece together the puzzle of each character’s troubled life.

But this isn’t just your average run-of-the-mill tale of suspense: Trope deals with some important and  contemporary themes, which lends the story some weight (albeit with a slightly voyeuristic twist), and which could well have been lifted from today’s news. For instance, Rose’s husband Simon, who once hosted a children’s talent show in the 1970s, is accused decades later of horrible crimes against the children who appeared on screen (think Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris here in the UK):

When the second woman came forward to accuse Simon of touching her when she auditioned for My Kid Can . . ., we waited for the interest to die down as quickly as it had after the first woman. But it didn’t. This time the media grabbed hold of the story and it began to appear everywhere, and then more women came forward with the same allegations. Articles appeared in newspapers and on the internet. Websites were set up to condemn Simon, and an equal number of them were set up to support him. Journalists began to call the house, first during the day and then at odd hours, hoping we would pick up. We had to change our phone numbers. News vans took up residence outside the house. Letters and emails arrived, some wishing Simon dead and others wishing him luck.

Shocks and surprises

Despite the fact I’d guessed most of the major plot “reveals” before they happened, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this entertaining book which held me in its sway for two rather intense days and nights. Trope really knows how to keep her readers on tenterhooks by withholding information and then delivering it in such a way that the narrative seems constantly full of little shocks and surprises.

And while it revolves around child sexual abuse, Hush, Little Bird is never gratuitous; in fact, the subject is handled with great sensitivity and, dare I say it, wisdom. This is a compassionate, intelligent and provocative read; it’s also a stunning one about silence, lies and the secrets we keep.

This is my first book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my first for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.