Book Reviews-13-20 August


Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the BodiesTo summarise the story, if that is the right word, Bring Up The Bodies takes us inside the head of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s low-born right-hand man, in the months leading up to the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn. The court dances and flirts, but all the while life and death hangs on the whim of the increasingly capricious Henry VIII. Who will survive?

What’s right with it?

I find it enormously hard to review a book like this, where the enjoyment is in a conjuring trick – the perfect rendering of the past in all its smell, texture, and sound. You forget the author wasn’t actually there to record these facts. You forget until you read the acknowledgements that in some places she has invented scenes we can’t know about, and then you feel the slight rupturing of verisimilitude.  You forget it’s a novel at all.

What’s wrong with it?

Bring Up the Bodies, like many sequels, exists in the comet’s tail of the first book, Wolf Hall. That felt like something special; this is also special, but more of the same. I found it slightly less breath-taking than the first, thought I couldn’t say why. Perhaps because we’ve seen this trick before. We still can’t see how she does or where the strings are, but we know the outcome. If there was anything that slightly disappointed me, it was that we didn’t linger long enough on the events we’ve been waiting for – the arrest and trial of Anne and her brother. It also gets mashed up in my head with The Other Boleyn Girl –a comparison that does not reflect well on Philippa Gregory, it has to be said – but she could never be accused of skimping on the dramatic opportunities.

What did I learn

After several centuries, there are still totally different ways to write a novel.

Faithful Place, by Tana French

Faithful PlaceI’ve come to the end of my Tana French gorge reading her third – there’s no more now until she writes one. In this, an undercover detective we met in The Likeness receives a call from the inner-city Dublin family he left behind years ago. A suitcase has been found in a derelict house – and it seems to belong to the girlfriend he thinks ran off on him the night they were supposed to elope to London. Was she in fact murdered that night?

What’s right with it?

I love Tana French’s books. They cast a pure spell of prose, and the words are so beautiful you stay fixed on the particular sentence that has you in its grip at the time. When the murderer is revealed, it’s nearly always someone you could have guessed, but I find I’ve never tried, with no interest in skipping ahead. I just put myself entirely in her hands and follow where she leads. Here we have again a beautifully simple story – one first-person viewpoint, no gimmicks, no twists. The characters are wonderfully drawn, from the hair-raising Dublin family to the fragrant ex-wife and young daughter. The dialogue is pitch-perfect and the prose so beautifully crafted you hardly even notice you’re reading. Most of all, you feel emotionally engaged with the victim, and the sorrow of their death.

What’s wrong with it

The second murder, when it comes, seems forced and slightly unreal- the loss is never fully felt, even though it’s happening in the here and now. And once again I didn’t much like the viewpoint character. Her male detectives are always drowning in their own machismo, and have a most irritating habit of addressing everyone by nicknames. Here everyone is ‘babe’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘chickadee’ (who says that?), and so on. It starts to grate after a while and doesn’t sound like real speech, whereas all her other dialogue is so perfect. There were also a few loose ends not wrapped up – I expected to find out a dark secret behind the reason why his young girlfriend’s family hated his, but despite hints we never did.

What did I learn

When it comes to crime, true horror stems from caring about the characters and feeling their pain, not from tricks and twists or gruesome murders.

First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

First Among SequelsAgain, it’s hard to review this one as it’s a series book, and you’d probably only pick it up if you’d read the others. Nevertheless I did read it so I’ll attempt to review. I picked this up at the Edinburgh book festival, where I’d wandered in with the vague sense that, as a writer, I should really go and see the writing festival. Usually I just end up seeing lots of comedy and feeling in some inchoate way that the book fest is not for the likes of me. There is something peculiarly deflating about being an author at a book festival where you aren’t involved or on sale in the bookshop (and there’s no bar!). But it was impressive to see people queuing up to buy books, some with six or seven hardbacks in their arms. I got this because I have a vague idea to write a book about time-travel…

What’s right with it

The Book World books are set nominally in the real world, albeit one where Wales is a socialist republic and time travel exists. The heroine, Thursday Next, can also enter books at will, and is part of a police force tasked with keeping the reading experience the same for the reader. It’s hugely inventive and a real treat for book lovers – for example, I loved the idea that there are only seven pianos to serve the whole of Book World, and they have to be moved around between, say, Austen and Henry James, as readers make their way through. I also liked that this book engaged with real-life topical issues, such as falling reader rates. That is indeed a frightening thought, and not just to fictional characters.

What’s wrong with it

Maybe I’ve grown out of this kind of book a little, but the jokes have started to fall flat. Similar to Terry Pratchett, the text is full of jokes and allusions and puns. I used to giggle at these as much as the next person, but this time I found it a little tired. Maybe that’s what happens five books into a series? Maybe it’s just not my thing? I don’t know. I enjoyed the pastiche style, but these days I have a very limited tolerance for parody (see also views on TV series A Touch of Cloth). I’d sort of rather people actually had something to say, instead of just making fun of other things. Also, I much preferred the naïve and incompetent Thurday of the earlier books. Another occupational hazard of series characters – she’s become a little full of herself.

What did I learn

Don’t write a sequel just because you can.

Bollocks, Bollox, or Bollix?

There’s an increasing tendency in the modern world to elide the details. Your/you’re and their/they’re/there foul-ups are now so common it’s bad form to even comment on them, even if it makes you do a little sick in your (see?) mouth. I spot these mistakes all the time, and often from people (journalists, authors, editors) who make their (see?) living that way. So perhaps it’s not important. (I totally think it’s important, but am willing to accept no one else does).

I’ve spent the week working on my copy edits. I quite enjoy this stage, provided it doesn’t involve any major rewrites. I hate the major structural edits, the bit where you still haven’t answered the question: ‘is this book good enough?’ Once you’ve got to copy edits you’re (see?) in the home stretch, and the answer is: ‘fuck it, it’s too late now anyway’. Or as we’d say in Ireland – ‘Ah, sure it’s grand.’

On receiving the 507 page manuscript and the 13-page document detailing all my errors, I did quail somewhat. But in fact it’s not been difficult. Fewer (it seems) stupid mistakes with timeline and location. My main problem this time is repetition. The building blocks of text that you don’t even notice you’re handling when whizzing through your story and getting to know your characters. I don’t use a lot of dialogue tags (he said/she expectorated/he cavilled…actually I’m going to use ‘he cavilled’, that’s ace), so I end up with lots of gestures instead.

Such as:

She nodded

He sighed

She shook her head

He shrugged

She looked away

He couldn’t meet her eyes

She looked at him and then away

She stared out the window

He winced

She bit her nails

..and so on. My characters are a bunch of shifty, nodding, shrugging, shuffling weirdos. Sometimes all of those on the same page. It’s a bit embarrassing, but what’s the alternative? I rarely use any dialogue tag other than ‘said’. Use nothing at all and you risk having to flip back pages to see who’s saying what – especially if there’s more than one person in the room.

If you’re writing a book at the moment, I believe there’s no point in worrying about such things until you get finished, but when you do, it’s worth thinking about the mechanics of your tale. It’s not a script or screenplay, so we do need to know who’s speaking, what they look like when they’re doing it, and how they cross a room. Working out how to get this information over without halting the flow of narrative is the essence of style  – and everyone’s style is different.

To explain the title of this post, the other bit of copy editing I end up doing is unifying my use of swear words, or varying the pattern of foul language. It’s already been pointed out I don’t swear as much in this one, which only goes to show how voice seeps into your work without being planned (or it should), and is equally important in third-person narration. In this book I stay in the head of a 30-year-old female forensic psychologist from Northern Ireland (not a massive stretch as that’s basically me without the job). She would definitely swear if the occasion demanded (fecking right she would), but in most of the scenes she’s working, and tries (sometimes unsuccessfully) to keep a lid on it.

I can also now, I think, say what the title of this book will be – THE LOST. Hope you like it. Rest assured all your swear words will be spelled consistently throughout.

What I read this week (5-12 August)

Books! Books! Books! I need to get out more….

The Two, by Will Carver

‘I’ve come to know my mother a lot better over the past year, since she’s been dead’.

The TwoWith an opening worthy of Camus, The Two sweeps us back into the world of Detective January David, who is back on the trail of another ritualistic killer – or is it two? This time nothing is what it seems as a series of murders take place round London, each involving Wiccan symbolism and coinciding with major pagan feasts. Can January use his visionary dreams to find the killers, before it’s too late?

What’s right with it?

Fans of Girl 4 will recognise the trademark style that breathes fresh life into the crime novel – shifting viewpoint rapidly between short chapters and sentences, the suggestion of the supernatural combined with familiar London landmarks, and the intensely personal pull that links January to the crimes. If you liked that, you will love The Two, which takes us into even darker territory, unpicking the entire narrative arc of the crime plot and turning it on its head, to devastating effect.

What’s wrong with it?

I’d have liked to find out a bit more about the story from the first book – what happened to January’s wife, and his long-missing sister – but perhaps we’ll learn more in book three. The elliptical curve of the narrative makes it a challenging read at times, but I found this a hugely clever way to imprint the novel’s themes in its actual fabric.

What I learned

You can play with voice, point of view, and structure, to twist the traditional crime narrative into something very dark indeed.

Black Flowers, by Steve Mosby

Black FlowersA young university worker writes a short story in which a pregnant woman is kidnapped – only to find the events coming true in his own life when his girlfriend vanishes. His father, a writer, has also been found dead, and both events seem linked to a crime novel published years before, called The Black Flower. It told the story of a young girl who appeared one day on a street in a seafront town, telling a disturbing tale of her murderous father and the people he’s ‘planted’ in the soil on their farm. As the young man delves into the story, he finds that the line between fiction and fact is very blurred indeed.

What’s right with it

I was so impressed by this book. It wraps a gripping story around difficult questions on the nature of writing and reading about horrors, and it maintains three or four major narrative strands without ever losing track of them. There are some startling twists along the way, and an ingenious intertextuality pervades. The author is also highly skilled at getting us to care about his characters, even after we’ve known them for a very short space of time. I also got a big personal kick out of the fictional crime writers all meeting up at a fictional crime festival – close to the bone, that one.

What’s wrong with it

There’s an incredible amount packed into a relatively short space here, with the book standing at just 324 pages. A trademark of Steve Mosby’s work is the genuine empathy with the characters and the horror they’re experiencing but, I felt he could have gotten away with more details about the disturbing farm at the end, and I did wonder what happened to some of the other characters mentioned. However in a book that asks what we’d do if the horrors we imagine actually happened to us, perhaps it’s part of his skill to make us consider our response to such things.

What I learned

I don’t want to think too closely about why the things I write are so dark.

The End of Everything, by Megan Abbott

The End of EverythingThe teenage narrator and her best friend are inseparable, ‘body close’ – until the friend goes missing. Has she been taken by the older man who watched her in her bedroom window? And what does her glamorous older sister know about it?

What’s right with it

It’s a beautiful and harrowing evocation of teenage summers, so realistic you can smell the suncream and bubble gum. The story is gripping and just when you think you know what’s going on, everything is turned inside out. I raced through it, riveted by the voice and beauty of the prose as much as by the plot. The End of Everything is stunning, knifing you on every page with desire and loss. Read it. It’s still only 99p on Kindle.

What’s wrong with it

Occasionally I felt the voice, so authentically teenage in most places, slipped and jarred with a too-adult vocabulary or perceptiveness. In such a shimmering sliding narrative, I would also on balance have preferred not to find out what had been going on all along – I didn’t expect to, and it would have been audacious, but I think she could have pulled it off.

What I learned

I’m actually considering re-writing an old book of mine having read this and seen what you can do with a teenage narrator.

Book reviews – 3 August

Mercy, by Jussi Alder-Olsen

MercyA maverick Danish detective is asked to set up a new department looking into cold cases. Along with his mysterious Syrian assistant, he focuses on the disappearance of a rising female politician from several years before. What happened to the woman, who seemingly vanished off the face of the earth?

What’s right with it

I have to say I was really surprised by how well this book did. It’s little more than your average police procedural. However, the main narrative runs alongside one of an unnamed woman locked in a chamber by sinister assailants, and those segments are very well done indeed, bringing home the horror of being kept in the dark for years , tortured and abused. The painstaking way they unpack the seemingly unsolvable case is also enjoyable, and we are really rooting for the woman to be rescued, such is her tenacity of spirit and courage.  But…

What’s wrong with it

I found everything else pretty predictable – detective with troubled ex-wife (though this is played largely for laughs), odd-but-brilliant Oriental assistant (these bits sat uncomfortably with me, bordering on racism at times), the investigation ranging from the top to bottom of society. There were several sub-plots that seemed to go nowhere and had no relevance to the main plot. I’ve noticed a few times with work in translation that the tone can jar, so perhaps it can be put down to that, but there were some uncomfortable inconsistences as we leap from gags to torture, and some very clunky sentences.

What did I learn

It’s not nice being locked up for years in a pressure chamber.  And don’t believe all the hype around books.

Safe House, by Chris Ewan

Safe HouseA young plumber on the Isle of Man is involved in a motorcycle crash. When he comes to he believes a young woman was riding with him – but everyone else claims she never existed. Teaming up with a female PI, he uncovers a plot that may even be linked to the recent mysterious death of his sister.  Safe House was released yesterday (2 August), so check it out now. I know Chris in real life, and very nice he is too.

What’s right with this

Even including the Russian gangsters, kidnap, and spies we eventually encounter, this is one of the most plausible thrillers I’ve ever read, largely because of the main character, Rob. A down to earth heating engineer who races motorbikes, he’s believable and sympathetic, and the bits of the story we see through his eyes feel like they could absolutely happen. It’s also great to see a strong female lead in Rebecca, the tough and resourceful PI. We feel genuine sympathy for Rob’s family, reeling from the death of his sister, and it makes you really want to visit the Isle of Man (even though it’s apparently a hotbed of gangsters and spies).

What’s wrong with it

I liked Rob’s voice so much it was something of a wrench to leave him for other viewpoint characters. Though this was probably necessary to the plot, I think I’d have preferred to stick to as few POVs as possible.  The multiple POV has become very common in crime novels, sometimes even within the same scene, and while it can work well to build suspense, it can also pull us away from characters we’ve started to care about (which we do from page 1 of meeting Rob, a great achievement).

What I learned

To think about viewpoint in my own books, and how to create a strong sense of place.

Broken Harbour, by Tana French

Broken HarbourOn one of Ireland’s ghost estates, a young family are found stabbed in their dream house. Detective ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy is brought in to solve the case, along with his rookie partner Richie.

What’s right with it

I should say straight up – I loved this book. It pulled on me with a current dark and strong as the sea. What’s beguiling is the absolute simplicity of it. As a crime writer it’s very tempting to use gimmicks and tricks, like different narrative strands, flashbacks, subplots. None of that here, just a first-person voice that unravels the case straight and ruthless as an arrow. In the author’s hands the familiar ‘finding body and going for autopsy’ scenes go through a sea-change, into something rich and strange. By the end we know the dead as intimately and corporeally as our own family. The prose is to die for, with stand-out images like the sea ‘rising green and muscled in the bay’, yet the plot thunders ahead, flashing past these beautiful lines like stations in the window of a late-night train. I didn’t guess the ending, though I probably could have done – I just didn’t want to move my attention past the page it was currently welded to, enthralled. A brilliant story and a haunting snapshot of how recession warps and ruins lives that were built on so much hope. In its evocation of how money and houses can crush the human lives within them, it reminded me strongly of Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. Sadly, because Broken Harbour is about more obviously bloody crimes, it probably won’t make it onto any literary shortlists. Which is a damn shame.

What’s wrong with it

Thinking back, there were a few things I didn’t like about the book. I hated the main character – arrogant, cold, cocky. I’ve noticed in other Tana French books that her depiction of Ireland falters at times – as if she’s been told to tone down the Irishisms for overseas audiences. I don’t believe a Dublin detective would address people as ‘old son’, for example. This is odd because in other places she has caught the vernacular, and the shifting tides of Irish society, to perfection. Her books also ask a lot of the reader’s patience –her second novel, The Likeness, is 700 pages about a detective going undercover. By page 170 she still hasn’t decided whether or not she will actually take the case. I also wasn’t sure about the small sub-plot involving the detective’s troubled sister. This and the ice-cold pathologist are drawn straight from the Big Book Of Crime Novel clichés (see here- It was interesting that the lead character had a link to the location of the crime, and discovering at the end why that was packed an emotional punch, but I wonder if it slightly over-egged an already magnificently eggy pudding.

You know what though, none of that mattered, because I was welded it to it for three days, breathless and enthralled, and that’s what we really want.

What I learned

God, I wish I could write like this.