What I read this [week] fortnight (18 June-1 July)

What I read this week fortnight

Time seems to have wasted me, as I do waste time, these past few weeks. I’m slightly ashamed of the paltry three books I’ve read in that time. But here they are all the same.

Absolute Zero Cool, by Declan Burke

It’s hard to explain this book. I was expecting a straightforward crime novel, perhaps with added jokes, but I got something very different. Absolute Zero Cool uses the device of the struggling writer (who may or may not be the author, if you know anything about him), accosted in a Pirandello-esque nightmare by the hero of his own unpublished novel. We then cut between the main storyline, the novel as it’s resurrected and rewritten, and the inset novel the character is writing. This is often a comic device (think of Adrian Mole with Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland) but in Declan Burke’s hands it is quite chilling. Indeed the whole book will strike terror to the heart of anyone who writes for a living, or tries to maintain that creative spark under the weight of bills, disappointments, commitments of the heart, and the ceaseless onward drag of life.

What’s right with it?

It’s beautifully written and very funny in parts, stuffed with wisdom and acerbic wit. I will definitely read his other novels, hoping to admire more smooth and cutting sentences, barbed jokes like thorns around some real naked pain. It has a great twist ending, and the title is – well -absolutely cool.

What’s wrong with it?

It kind of made me want to drink a whole pint of vodka just to drown out my own fears about the writing life. The cleverness of the structure may also put off those looking for a straight-up crime drama, and if so I’d recommend trying the others, which I also plan to do.

Do I know the author? – yes

Did I pay for the book? – yes

What did I learn?

That writing for a living can be really bloody hard sometimes.

Crossbones Yard, by Kate Rhodes

I approached this crime novel with interest, as my next book also has a female lead with a similar job, and similar tendency to fall into bed with unsuitable men. Dr Alice Quentin is consulting on a case linked to a previous one, that of a murderous couple who killed their lodgers and buried them in the cellar.  She quickly stumbles over a dead woman who seems to have been killed by the same brutal methods the couple employed (kept alive, starved, mutilated). Soon Alice realises someone is stalking her, and that her brother (disturbed by their traumatic childhood) is possibly involved.

What’s right with it?

It’s great to see a strong female lead in a crime novel, and I enjoyed the insights into Alice’s dating life. I was (pleasantly) surprised by how steamy the book got, in fact, as various gorgeous men kiss her in alleys and give her meaningful looks over the corpses (definitely my own MO too. In my next book, I mean…not life…You know what I mean). The novel is very well-paced, flying along nicely, and the sense of central London beautifully caught. I also thought the concept, with its echoes of Rose and Fred West, was both strong and chilling.

What’s wrong with it?

Although the murder story had lots of promise, I didn’t feel it was fleshed out or exploited for chills enough. And when the killer is unmasked, I did genuinely get a surprise –the twist really worked – but I still don’t understand what their motivation was. There were many, many descriptions of what people are eating and wearing. At times this added a nice sense of realism, but on the whole it felt as if meals got much the same screentime as murders. Still, having a female lead in itself felt fresh enough to lift the book above the ordinary.

Do I know the author – no

Did I buy the book – no

What did I learn?

How to do fresh and fast-paced female-centred crime with a steamy centre – watch out, Shades of Grey…

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

This one I approached with curiosity. I absolutely loved Bel Canto, her Orange-prize winner from 2002 – it was charming, funny, romantic, and tragic. I felt less sure of the follow-up, Run. I’d put State of Wonder between the two. Marina, a corporate scientist, is sent by her employer (with whom she’s also in love), to the Amazon to find out how a colleague has died, and track down rogue researcher Dr Swenson, who’s developing a wonder drug with a native tribe in the jungle. What Marina finds there will surprise and change her.

What’s right with it?

The sense of place is just wonderful – sensual, oppressive, so creepy you’ll be slapping the back of your neck for insects. There’s a scene with an anaconda that is just (literally) jaw-dropping – full of flesh and stink and awe and horror. Patchett is brilliant at conveying the sense of fear, exhaustion, and heightened awareness that comes from being in a strange and hostile country. The novel manages to layer extreme realism with a magical world apart from ours, where the remarkable discoveries they’ve made seem entirely plausible. The science, such as we get, is quite fascinating, though I’d have liked to know a lot more about what they were actually doing.  Despite a slow start, I was eventually totally gripped.

What’s wrong with it?

It takes forever to get going. Marina hasn’t even gone into the jungle until halfway through the book. Yes, this helps us to feel her frustration and boredom, but perhaps this would also worked had the story kicked in, say, a third of the way in. None of the characters are particularly likeable. Even Marina, whose head we stay in, is irritatingly passive, both in her relationship and how she behaves in the jungle. As a for instance, she puts all her essentials (malaria tablets, satellite phone, spare pants) in her main suitcase rather than hand luggage – has she never been on a flight before? The bag then goes missing, but rather than march to the airport and kick up a humungous stink, she passively accepts it, and what’s more, allows all her things to vanish for a second time on moving to the jungle.  Perhaps we’re meant to take from this that Marina secretly longs for abnegation in the wilderness, but come on. It’s the jungle. You’d be weeping for your lost insect repellent within two minutes. Never underestimate how important clean pants are until you don’t have any, that’s what I always say…

Do I know the author – not at all! I wish.

Did I buy the book – yes

What did I learn?

Um…don’t put important stuff in your checked luggage. And that I never really want to go to the Amazon.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hey there! I understand this is somewhat off-topic but I had to
    ask. Does operating a well-established blog like yours take
    a large amount of work? I’m brand new to running a blog but I do write in my diary everyday. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share
    my personal experience and views online. Please let me know if you
    have any ideas or tips for new aspiring bloggers.

    1. Hi! Yes it can be hard to keep up with it, and keep having ideas for posts. But no more than a diary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.