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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

God's Own Country by Ross Raisin

Well, it has been a good while since I've encountered an absolutely top-rate read so I am delighted to say that I have no hesitation in awarding God's Own Country a 5 star review. I picked this up after seeing several reviews by bloggers who were left disturbed but largely impressed, and I'm really glad I made an exception to my 'no-acquiring-books' pledge.

God's Own Country is a tale about Sam Marsdyke, a 19-year-old farmer's son living in the North Yorkshire Moors. Expelled from school under controversial circumstances and ostracised by his peers, Sam lives a lonely life with only the land and his animals for company. When the neighbouring farmer dies and his land is bought by a family from the city, Sam strikes up an awkward friendship with Jo, their teenage daughter.

From the very first page you can't help but be struck by the strong first-person narrative voice. The book is written entirely in broad Yorkshire dialect and Sam springs vividly to life from the outset. I found him instantly amusing and likeable, and was left trying to decide whether he has been unfairly accused and judged by his community, or whether he is guilty of a heinous crime.

The premise of the book is not exactly an original one - reclusive loner develops obsession with attractive young girl - and I have found it difficult to write this review without comparing it to The Collector by John Fowles which is one of my all-time favourite reads. I heard strong echoes of that book throughout the novel. Both have a working-class male protagonist with a simple, slightly old-fashioned view of life and a strong narrative voice. Both have a female character who is middle class, self-confident, maybe precocious and manipulative at times which leaves the reader trying hard not to empathise a little with the man, even when their obsessions take a disturbing turn. For me, the main characteristic that sets God's Own Country apart from The Collector is its humour. Sam is darkly hilarious at times and the dialogue is littered with dry wit and one-liners about city folk invading the countryside. I also enjoyed the haphazard nature and disjointed punctuation of Sam's narrative, which reflected his chaotic mental state, in stark contrast to the cold, calculating nature of Frederick from The Collector.

Something else I really loved about this book was the excellent description of the bleak beauty of the moors and the harsh, relentless lifestyle that a farmer has to lead. It served to remind me of the incredible hard work that must be involved in farming, and of the fact that families like Sam's are becoming rarer.

God's Own Country is undoubtedly dark and disturbing, but is filled with humour and boasts one of the most memorable lead characters I have encountered in ages. I would really recommend picking up a copy

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The House At Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

The House At Midnight is a dark and moody novel about a group of close friends and the tremors and turbulence that arise in their relationships when one of the gang, Lucas, inherits a grand mansion in the English countryside. It is told from the perspective of Lucas' closest friend Jo, who feels uneasy and unsettled by the imposing house from her first visit there.

There is no denying that Lucie Whitehouse's writing is excellent. From the very first page I felt a sense of foreboding and dread at what was to come. She perfectly conveys the sinster claustrophobia that permeates the house and creates a wonderfully Gothic atmosphere. I was also really impressed at the way she gradually gives the reader a really thorough understanding of all the characters, illustrating their personalities impeccably. I personally found myself completely sympathising with Jo and almost relating to her even when she made some terrible decisions and behaved in a less than angelic manner. And the villain of the group - although I won't give away who that turns out to be! - is one of the creepiest, most devious characters I have come across in some time. There were times when I had shivers running down my spine at the way in which this person manipulated their friends without a single regard for their feelings.

Unfortunately, about halfway through, the book seemed to lose momentum slightly. There's an argument, there's a period of tense silence, there's an awkward reconciliation of sorts. And then the cycle repeats again. There was definitely a point where I was wondering if the tale was actually going anywhere. Things pick up a little towards the finale, which is undoubtedly chilling, but I found it a little rushed and some of the details were difficult to believe. I have written an extended review containing spoilers which can be found on my Goodreads account, so if anybody is reading this review who has already read the book, I'd be very interested to know your thoughts!

I will definitely read more by this author as the style of writing I have seen in this book is more than enough to convince me of her great talent. However it's a shame that it fell a bit short for me when it came to the plot developments.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

One of the main symptoms of being a true book addict is finding books in your collection and not having a clue how they got there. Similarly, you may remember acquiring a book but have no idea what possessed you to pick it up in the first place. This has happened to me with These Things Hidden. I can see that I originally came by this novel through ReadItSwapIt but cannot for the life of me remember why I wanted it. It has been sitting on my shelf untouched for months, while the book snob in me sniffed at its cover and blurb, thinking of it as some kind of poor man's Jodi Picoult. I don't even know what finally pushed me into picking it up last week. Maybe part of me wanted to read a few pages and have my worst suspicions confirmed, so that I could throw it back on the swap pile. However, I'm really happy to say that These Things Hidden has proved me wrong.

Allison Glenn was imprisoned at a frighteningly young age for a deeply disturbing crime. These Things Hidden opens as she is released from jail early for good behaviour, and has to return to the life and community she left behind. The story focuses on four women - Allison, her sister Brynn, and two of their neighbours, Charm and Claire. Each chapter is told from a different person's point of view and each of the four plot strands slowly bind together, unearthing skeletons from different closets and building to a dramatic climax.

OK, so I wasn't proved completely wrong. This is no literary masterpiece. I have to admit that some of the four characters are rather sketchily drawn. Allison and Brynn's chapters are both narrated in the first person, and unfortunately neither of their voices are that strong or distinctive - on a couple of occasions I found myself flicking back to the beginning of the chaper to remind myself of who was actually speaking. The ladies aren't particularly dislikeable but at the same time I felt they lacked that spark that makes you really feel for them. There is nothing especially pretty or clever about the prose, but it isn't bad.

I also had a bit of a grumble with the way Gudenkauf treats the subject of mental illness in her characters. It's difficult to explain exactly why without including spoilers, though. Firstly, I don't think it's giving too much away to say that Allison's crime was committed when she was going through a bit of a traumatic time in her personal life - things had gone on that would shake anyone's psyche to the core. The book gives the impression that she is simply packed off to jail without undergoing any sort of psychiatric assessment or receiving any support. All the doctors or police she encounters treat her in a really horrendous 'sick bitch/psycho!' kind of way, and I like to think that society has come a bit further than that. There's more, though - other characters have their own problems with mental illness  and this is alluded to with various degrees of clumsiness ranging from constant references to 'take your tablets' right through to extreme heavy-handed stereotypical depictions of psychosis.

Don't you love it, though, when a book is so much better than the sum of its parts? If there's one thing Heather Gudenkauf does really well, it is spinning a cracking good yarn. I whizzed through this book, finishing it in a day - and that was a working day, so you can appreciate that I really did grab every available moment to get through this. I literally couldn't put it down. Through my lunch break, while cooking the dinner, staying up way past my bedtime, you name it. The plot is perfectly weaved and every chapter ends with just a hint of intrigue to keep you wanting more. The final twist was one of those perfect endings where on one hand I didn't have a clue what was coming until the very last moment, but on the other hand I was kicking myself for being so blind because all the evidence had been carefully laid out throughout the book. It takes so much skill for an author to keep just enough back so that the finale has this kind of impact.

I would definitely recommend this one if you're looking for a light but engrossing read. Fair enough, it's not going to win any literary awards. But it is a quick, easy read and is genuinely entertaining. I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

I feel a bit silly reviewing this book as it's one of those that I feel everyone and their gran has already read recently. In fact it was my own grandma who passed this on to me! In case anyone reading isn't already aware of this book (or maybe if you have it on your to-be-read pile and aren't sure whether to prioritise it) here are my thoughts and I hope they are of some interest.

This book is an account of the difficulties faced by the protagonist, Bea, when she finds out that her sister Tess has gone missing. It uses an unusual narrative device in that the story is recounted by Bea herself using the first person, and is told retrospectively. This really sets Sister apart from similar thrillers. On one hand I felt it was somewhat lacking in suspense and tension, as the reader is made aware almost from the very beginning that Bea knows exactly what happened to Tess and has already solved the mystery, and that the book is just her telling us how she did it. I didn't find myself rooting for Bea in the same way that I do in other thrillers where the reader learns the key facts at the same pace as the main characters or investigators. On the other hand, though, I found that the retrospective narrative meant that the human sentiments were described extremely sensitively as Bea had had time to reflect on her relationship with her sister and to process the rollercoaster of emotions she has been on.

The central mystery is soundly plotted. There are enough supporting characters and suspects that I never guessed who was culpable, and not so many that it became confusing. There are plenty of twists and turns that I didn't see coming. The final 70 pages or so found me struggling to put the book down and I have to admit I was desperately trying to find 'down time' at work today so that I could get it finished! ....JUST KIDDING boss of course if you're reading this...

Before reading Sister, one of the main criticisms of it that I've come across concerns the way that the book deals with cystic fibrosis and the field of genetics. Several of my work colleagues (who are medically trained) found these sections of the book unrealistic and complained about the lack of precise detail. For what it's worth, I disagree - I think Rosamund Lupton has done a pretty good job. OK, so some of the information about treatments for cystic fibrosis is inaccurate, but it is all within the realms of possibility at some point in the future, and I think she has made this subject easy to understand for the vast majority of her readers who don't have a medical degree!

I enjoyed Sister more than anything else I have read for a while and will definitely be seeking out a copy of Lupton's other book, Afterwards. I would recommend it to anyone who likes their crime fiction with a human and sensitive slant.

As a little side point, EVERY SINGLE TIME I have looked at/picked up this book over the past few days, I have been unable to stop humming or singing 'Sister' by Sufjan Stevens which is one of my favourite tracks. It is completely stuck in my head. It's a beautiful song, a slow starter that builds and builds. Do you ever associate a particular book with a particular piece of music?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly

This one was a holiday read - I took it away with me when I went to Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. It didn't turn out to be a reading kind of trip though, so it has taken me a bit longer to finish than I would have liked!

I felt that there was almost a bit too much going on in this book and that I didn't really understand the author's focus. The blurb makes out that this is a bit of a murder mystery, with Mattie acquiring a dead woman's letters while working her summer job in a hotel and trying to fathom out exactly how she met her demise. In reality, this plot line felt entirely superfluous to the rest of the book and for me, could have been left out altogether. It didn't even add much in terms of character development.

The bulk of the novel, then, consisted of a coming-of-age type account of Mattie's isolated life in rural America. Much of it is very well written, and I particularly enjoyed the vivid depiction of the degree of poverty and isolation experienced by Mattie's community. This isn't a place or time I have read much about before and I found the historical detail very interesting. I am sure the author had done some painstaking research and I really appreciated that. What didn't do it for me was the characterisation and relationships described. Firstly, I have to admit I didn't really take to Mattie herself and found her a bit wet. Furthermore, on several occasions the reader encounters friends, neighbours or other supporting characters and is half-heartedly introduced to plotlines that aren't really followed up at the end. The finale all felt a bit convenient and rushed to me (without wanting to leave a spoiler for those who haven't read it - how much money exactly did Mattie make from her summer job?!!).

This has received so many glowing reviews, but I'm afraid it was a little lost on me!