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Thursday, 25 October 2012

Jacquot And The Waterman by Martin O'Brien

I think I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I am on a mission of sorts to find a decent crime fiction series that I can get hooked into from the very beginning. On one of my regular blog-rounds I spotted a review of one of the Jacquot series by Martin O'Brien - unfortunately I can't remember now which blogger it was who brought these books to my attention but the premise immediately appealed to my inner Francophile so I quickly secured a swap for the first book in the collection.

Daniel Jacquot is an ex-rugby player with a glittering career behind him, having achieved national fame scoring the winning try in a Five Nations final. Sadly, a troublesome injury put paid to his sporting talent and he has returned to his home town, Marseilles, as a chief inspector with the homicide squad. In this book we find him on the hunt for a serial killer who the tabloid press have dubbed 'The Waterman' due to his nasty habit of leaving his victims to a watery grave.

I found this to be a really solid, well-written thriller. It started slowly and took me a while to get into it, but after about the 100-page mark I was gripped. The whole thing is meticulously plotted with a large cast of supporting characters, and O'Brien takes the time to develop even minor players and give the reader a real insight into their thoughts and behaviour. The narrative is made up of fairly short chapters that flit back and forth between different locations and characters. This ensured I stayed engrossed throughout, as I was constantly wanting to read 'just a bit more' to find out what would happen in my favourite plot strands. Martin O'Brien spent a number of years as travel editor at British Vogue and I suspect he may have spent a decent amount of time in Marseilles to paint such a vivid picture of the city with its lively seafront and seedy underbelly.

Aside from the slightly silly tagline (WHO says drowning is easy?!! They are wrong!) the only quibble I had with this book was with the ending. It initially seemed really abrupt and something of a cop-out - the author seems to have spent so much effort building a complex back-story with multiple plot strands and much of it is irrelevant to the final solution of the mystery. On reflection, though, I think I only felt disappointed because the finale was unexpected and didn't pan out the way I had wanted it to. Now that a bit of time has passed I feel that could actually be viewed as a positive.

I have already obtained a copy of book two in the Daniel Jacquot series so you can tell I was quite impressed by this one.

In other news, I am heading to London this weekend and have some time to kill with bookish company in the form of Justin Cronin's The Passage. If anybody has any recommendations of cosy places to while away an hour with a good cup of tea and maybe cake, please share them!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé

As the nights start drawing in and a chill settles in the air I am finding myself drawn to the more spooky titles on my bookshelf, keen for a scare. The Vanishing has been in my possession for ages but I have always been reluctant to read it until now, as the 1988 adaptation is one of my all-time favourite scary movies and I was worried that the book just wouldn't live up to my expectations.

The RIP VII challenge seemed like a perfect excuse to finally give this novella a chance, so on a blustery autumn day I curled up with a big mug of tea and read it in almost one single sitting.

The Vanishing (or Het Gouden Ei as the original Dutch novel was called) centres on Rex, a young man whose girlfriend disappears at a service station one summer evening and is never seen again. In the years that follow, his life is profoundly affected by what happened and he invests a huge amount of time and effort in trying to track Saskia down - sometimes at the expense of other close relationships. It soon becomes apparent that whoever is responsible for her disappearance is closer than Rex had imagined. But how far will he go to find the answers he has been waiting for?

This is a short but perfectly formed book. For me, it excels in giving the reader a glimpse into the mind of a killer. It is chilling to read the simple and matter-of-fact thought processes that lead a seemingly ordinary human being to commit murder. Krabbé's villain is so scary precisely because he is so 'normal', a man that you can easily imagine passing by in the street or bumping into at the supermarket. The tension builds and builds until the terrifying finale. Even though I knew exactly what to expect, having seen the film, I was at the edge of my seat for the last chapter.

It's difficult for me to say which I would recommend doing first - watching the film or reading the book? Usually the book wins every time, but in the case of The Vanishing I'm not so sure. I think if you're unfamiliar with the story then to be honest I'd probably recommend watching the original Dutch movie first, as the ending is one of the most shocking and memorable I can think of. However, even if you know what's coming, this little book is still a really worthwhile read and a good one to pick up for Halloween.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Wellcome Trust Book Prize

So this evening is an exciting one for the literary world and my Twitter feed is buzzing with anticipation of the Booker Prize announcement later this evening. I will of course be keeping an eye on the outcome - for what it's worth, my money's on Swimming Home by Deborah Levy - but tonight I want to highlight another literary prize that interests me more and doesn't get anywhere near the same recognition.

The Wellcome Trust Book prize "celebrates the best of medicine in literature". It looks at releases that put an interesting spin on a medical topic, be it through fiction or through non-fiction. Now you may be put off by this prospect and suspect that the shortlist might be full of dusty, dry, science-heavy offerings, but happily this is not the case. After a long day at work in the hospital the last thing I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a glorified textbook! However, I do enjoy reading books where the author has managed to present a medical topic in an inventive way with a depth that goes beyond just science. I also love seeing how authors can make such topics accessible and fascinating to readers who have no medical background. I have recently read and loved last year's winner, Turn Of Mind, so when the 2012 shortlist was announced a couple of days ago I was very interested to see what the judges picked.

Shortlist 2012

Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif
I would like to read this story of Alice Bhatti, a nurse who is not only an ex-convict but also a Christian woman in love with a Muslim man living in chaotic Afghanistan. It sounds like it's full of drama and covers some quite weighty issues.
Perfect People by Peter James
The only one of the shortlist that is already sitting on my TBR pile, this is a thriller about the sinister world of eugenics, and one couple's experience when they attend an unorthodox clinic who claims to be able to help them have a baby without a hereditary disease.
Merivel: A Man Of His Time by Rose Tremain
I know Rose Tremain already has a loyal fanbase who loved the first installment of this series about Robert Merivel, king's physician in the 17th century. I'll probably give this one a miss, though, as I'm not a big fan of historical fiction and haven't read Restoration.
The Hour Between Dog And Wolf by John Coates
I have to admit to knowing little to nothing about economics, so this might be a good place to start learning. John Coates is an ex-trader turned neuroscientist and has written this account about the role that biology and hormones play in the financial market. We like to think that investment bankers work in a logical and systematic way, but ultimately they are at the mercy of adrenaline and testosterone and have the same stress reactions as the rest of us. I won't be rushing out to buy a copy of this but may well end up reading it at a later date.
The Train In The Night by Nick Coleman
A memoir of music journalist Nick Coleman's experiences of sudden onset deafness and tinnitus. This has had excellent reviews and is certainly one I'd like to pick up.
Circulation by Thomas Wright
A biography of William Harvey, the 17th-century scientist who caused controversy and contradicted the firmly-held ideas of the time to come up with his theory of how blood circulates around the body. This is one that really interests me. One of my all-time favourite works of fiction is An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears, and that book covers some similar themes.

So there you have it - what do you make of the shortlist? Are you tempted to try any of these? I will be reading Perfect People soon and also have a couple of titles from the longlist that I am disappointed didn't get through (Intrusion by Ken Macleod and The Evolution Of Inanimate Objects by Harry Karlinsky). The winner will be announced on 7th November 2012.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Heft by Liz Moore

Some of my favourite bloggers have reviewed this recently and it sounded right up my street - what can I say, I'm a sucker for a good cover. So understandably I was delighted when the lovely Mrs Mac offered to send me a copy, and it was pushed right to the top of my TBR pile!

Charlene Keller is a single mother living with her 18-year-old son Kel in a downtrodden corner of New York State, struggling to get by in more ways than one. All she wants is for her boy to get into college and make a good life for himself, but Kel has other ideas. In desperation Charlene turns to her former mentor and friend, college professor Arthur Opp, for help. Little does she know that Arthur himself has struggled since they last met, growing morbidly obese and confining himself to the walls of his Brooklyn home. In Heft we learn how the two men deal with the trials that life throws at them through chapters that alternate between Arthur's and Kel's points of view.

The overwhelming impression that I have been left with after reading Heft is that it is a deeply sad novel. I'm not generally one for getting weepy over books but have to confess that even the first few pages of Arthur's story left a lump in my throat, and the tone doesn't really lighten up until the very end. Arthur's intense loneliness is expressed so vividly that you cannot help but empathise with him, and for poor Kel it is really just one disaster after another - just when you think things can't get any worse for him they do.

Even though I was tempted to give up at times and the doom and gloom all felt a bit much, the wonderful characters kept me reading. Both Arthur and  Kel are really lovable despite all their flaws and insecurities. I was especially surprised to find myself relating to Kel as sports-mad teenage boys are usually the last characters I take to, but it is testament to Moore's great writing that I was willing him to succeed on every page. Charlene was maybe a little less strong of a character. Try as I might I couldn't reconcile the young Charlene of Arthur's memories with the down-at-heel present-day Charlene. I also found it a little odd that there are frequent references to the fact that she suffers from lupus, without any explanation of what that means or how it affects her daily life. When she has so much else going on in her life, it felt a bit unnecessary and maybe confusing for readers who are unfamiliar with the disease. Although I suppose it did briefly reinforce my appreciation for the NHS (not that I really needed it), as I find it unthinkable that someone with a chronic debilitating condition such as lupus would have to forgo treatment simply due to lack of personal funds.

I am undecided as to my overall impression of this book. I think it was really well written and the main characters are impeccably drawn. But I can't say I truly 'enjoyed' it as for a large part of the book I had a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach and an imaginary grey cloud hovering over my head.  This had mostly resolved by the final page but there is still some ambiguity about the ending and some plot strands that are not neatly tied up and resolved. I am by no means a lover of fluffy happy chick-lit but did occasionally find Heft to be hard work. So I suppose I would recommend it but with a caution that it makes for bleak reading at times and is maybe one that you have to be in the right mood for.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Late to the party - Before I Go To Sleep

I wish I could lay claims to being one of those book bloggers who has her finger firmly on the literary pulse, but alas it's just not the case. It feels almost pointless adding this review because judging by the number of Goodreads contacts in my list who have already read Before I Go To Sleep, I am later than late to the party. By the time I got my hands on a copy it had already been passed around all the members of my immediate family, and several other friends had given it a glowing recommendation. But I can't help but share my two pence worth because at times I have to admit to wondering if I was reading the same book as everyone else!

The premise of this novel is excellent and I was really looking forward to giving it a go. Christine suffers from a rare form of amnesia meaning that she can only create and retain new memories during the day - while she is asleep they are all lost. This means that each morning she awakes to a world of the unknown. Her only aid comes in the form of a diary in which she logs the intricacies of her life and her relationships on a daily basis, to jog her barely-existent memory when morning comes around again. Because of course even if you don't know what else in your life to rely on, you can always trust what's written in black and white in your own hand. Or can you?

Unfortunately this story was just too implausible for my liking. I just couldn't get away from the fact that there are not enough hours in the day for Christine to have documented her every action in such detail, let alone having time to read through her previous entries as well. In addition, I felt like the way Christine was treated by the authorities was unbelievable - without wanting to give too much away, the final 'twist' relies heavily on the supposed incompetence of her carers. In reality there would be far too many safeguarding measures and red tape in place to ensure that something like that could happen (I hope?? Please fill me in if anyone knows of any such real-life examples!).

Plot intricacies aside, I found the novel as a whole to be somewhat lacking in tension & intrigue. I have to admit that I actually abandoned the whole thing at one point because I didn't really care what happened, only picking it up again because I was reaching the end of my holiday and had finished all the other books in my suitcase! It is a shame because Before I Go To Sleep has obviously offered so much to entertain so many other people. Well, we can't all agree on everything, can we!

I read this as part of my RIP VII challenge!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Turn Of Mind by Alice La Plante

Usually I read purely for enjoyment but every now and then a book comes along that is so powerful that I know it will impact upon my everyday life for a long time. Big words, but Turn Of Mind is definitely one of these books.

Firstly, I just want to mention the marketing of this book which I feel is maybe a little off key. The edition that I have bears an unfortunate resemblance to a certain blockbuster series that you will almost certainly recognise, and in fact two separate friends on two separate occasions spotted it lying around my flat and exclaimed 'ugh, you aren't reading one of those Twilight rip-off books are you?'. Another problem that has been mentioned in a couple of other reviews I've read is that the blurb suggests this is a fairly traditional crime thriller which has led to false expectations and disappointment for some readers. Turn Of Mind is neither of these things but it is a truly unique and thought-provoking novel.

An elderly woman is found murdered in her home in a gruesome manner, and bizarrely, her fingers have been expertly dissected away from her hand and can't be found. Naturally the police immediately turn to her best friend and adversary Dr Jennifer White, an eminent hand surgeon. The problem is that there is no concrete evidence, and Jennifer herself is well on her way into the slow decline of Alzheimer's disease. Jennifer is unable to even remember that her friend is dead most of the time, never mind remember if she was the one who killed her.

The murder provides an interesting backdrop to what is really a fascinating study of the turmoil that Alzheimer's disease, and dementia in general, inflicts on the mind. The prose is disjointed, the paragraphs short, the timeline flits back and forth as we travel between Jennifer's more lucid periods in the present and the old memories she escapes to. LaPlante vividly illustrates the sickening impact that dementia can have on the individual as well as the whole family unit. What's more, she explores the attitudes of society as a whole to individuals with dementia. It really made me reflect upon my behaviour towards my own patients and gave me a whole new awareness of their potential level of insight into their condition. I have also regularly seen quite dubious behaviour from colleagues, relatives, and other patients towards people with dementia on the ward, and reading this book made me want to actively challenge that.

Murder mysteries are always scary but for me the most terrifying thing of all was contemplating the prospect that any one of us could succumb to this very common condition, which is the worst way to live out old age that I can imagine. The plot is intriguing and the ending is satisfying but I think that all of us could potentially take a lot more than that away from this great book.

This book counts towards my RIP VII challenge!

Monday, 1 October 2012

The Adult by Joe Stretch

I was always a fan of Joe Stretch's band Performance, and keenly read his first couple of books as soon as they were on sale. I loved his witty yet uncomfortable prose and I have to admit that the novelty of recognising familiar Manchester locations amidst the pages held quite a silly sort of appeal for me. So I don't understand how the release of The Adult almost managed to completely slip under my radar. It wasn't until a week or so after I got my copy that I saw the first review of it in print (courtesy of The Guardian) and even now I haven't heard any buzz about it anywhere else. Which is a shame, as it's an excellent novel.

Usually I prefer to summarise plots in my own words rather than doing a sneaky copy-and-paste from Goodreads or Amazon, but here I am going to make an exception and use the official blurb because I think it sums things up rather well:

"Jim Thorne. He wants to understand love.
His mum. Her three sisters have epic perms. And they're famous.
Dad. Dad's focused on a vital question: Mario or Sonic?
It's England, 1989-2009. So expect a little history."

That's all there is to it - this book is about Jim and his life and his family. About the struggles of having to be an adolescent man in a family full of women. About growing up with unhappy parents in the North of England. Although this makes it sound like little more than a character study and it really runs a whole lot deeper than that. I suppose you could call it a 'coming of age' tale, but I won't because I don't usually enjoy stories with that label, and moreover I'm not sure whether Jim ever actually does grow up or 'come of age' or learn anything about how to relate to people in the end.

One thing The Adult never is, is a comfortable read. There were times when I found myself cringing on Jim's behalf and my heart ached for him, but equally there were times when I felt he was a repulsive human being who deserved no sympathy whatsoever. Either way, there is a constant horrible  sense of inevitability. Jim is unquestionably one of life's strugglers. His clumsy awkwardness - is that a real word? - is portrayed perfectly. This unease is nicely balanced by the dry humour that I loved in Stretch's earlier books. There is also a healthy dose of 1990s nostalgia backed up by numerous pop culture references that manage to highlight some of the things that were terrible about that decade while simultaneously making me wish I was back there. It's quite cleverly done without the aid of any sentimental rose-tinted glasses.

The main thing that strikes me about this novel is how much more sensitive and, I suppose, more 'human' it is than its predecessors. There is definitely a more emotional undercurrent running through The Adult than either Friction or Wildlife and this makes it much more accessible. While I thought both of those books were great, they are certainly bleak and often shocking. Some of my friends couldn't finish them and I definitely wouldn't pass them on to my mum, whereas I think Mum would quite enjoy this one. When he starts writing novels that my Grandma would read I might start to worry, but for now I think Joe Stretch is definitely onto a winner and I hope The Adult gets some more recognition over the coming autumn.