HISTORICAL//Crimson and Bone- Marina Fiorato*

Crimson and Bone (Jun) On New Year’s Eve, Annie Stride, a desperate and pregnant young woman stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating the icy water below. As she’s about to step off the ledge, a gentleman appears in a hansom cab and saves her. What seems to be a blessing quickly turns into something strange…

This novel is being touted as one for fans of The Crimson Petal and the White (which I loved) and does have some similar themes: a Victorian prostitute is saved from poverty by a richer man with a good reputation- in this case, a talented Pre-Raphaelite painter, for whom Annie becomes a muse and his ‘wife’. But no matter what her new life brings her, she’s still haunted by her past- and the friend whose death led to Annie’s life spinning out of control. It’s a novel about one man’s obsession and the woman who is unwittingly trapped in a gilded prison- and I bloody loved it.

To be honest, this book had me at ‘Victorian’ and ‘Pre-Raphaelite’; I also noticed that the names of Annie and her protector Francis have a link to another famous Victorian person of interest (which I won’t give away here- you’ll have to read the book!) It’s a great book that really took me on a journey to Victorian London and Florence through wonderfully vivid descriptions, and there’s undercurrent of menace that lurked beneath the shiny, respectable exterior of Annie’s new world is ever present. It’s one of those stories where you know there’s something not quite right, but you can never quite put your finger on it- only for the ending to make you realise it all makes sense.

This is a satisfyingly brooding novel that never lets you trust yourself- or any of the characters- until the final page is finished.

 

FICTION//Into the Water- Paula Hawkins*

Into the Water (Apr):  I’m aware how lucky I am to be given a copy of Paula Hawkins’ much anticipated second novel; after the huge success of The Girl on the Train, everyone is going to be looking at this. I remember being vaguely ambivalent about The Girl on the Train- I neither loved nor loathed it- so I went into this with an open mind.

The narrative features around the death of Nel Abbott, a woman known in her town as an artist obsessed with the Drowning Pool, a local beauty spot known for the high numbers of dead women turning up in its waters. In the novel, we’re told the stories of these women,  from a young woman drowned for witchcraft hundreds of years ago, the wife of a respected policeman in the 80s, up to Nel and, a few months beforehand, a fifteen year old girl, who happens to be Nel’s daughter Lena’s best friend. All of these deaths may be connected, but it takes a while for the story to unravel.

One of the reasons for this is that there are FOURTEEN narrators, their stories told in a mixture of first and second person, past and present tense. This can take a bit of getting used to and I did wonder if all of these characters were necessary; I wasn’t sure if they were all useful to moving the plot forward and it did feel a bit wearying to try and remember who said what when I read the book the day before. However, towards the middle of the book, three voices become stronger and easier to follow: Jules, estranged sister of the deceased Nel, who finds herself in loco parentis of a niece she’s never met; Lena, the fifteen year old daughter of Nel, who hides more secrets than anyone ever should; and Erin, a policewoman who’s new to the area and has no idea of the town’s dark past. Once you untangle the confusing web of subplots, unreliable narratives and pile of themes, these three women come across as strong voices. I wish that the novel had focused on these three from the start- although I do understand what the author was trying to do, but it’s sometimes hard to pull off and some voices get lost in the mix.

The story is an interesting one, and one that I’m glad I persevered with. I also know that this book will be huge and that many people- especially those who enjoy twisty, dark thrillers with complex plots- will love it.

FICTION//Fierce Kingdom- Gin Phillips*

Fierce Kingdom (Mar):

What would you do if your life was turned upside down in a second? If everything was OK until you heard a sound that changed everything? This is the premise in Gin Phillips’ novel, Fierce Kingdom.

Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are enjoying an early evening visit to the local zoo when gunshots ring out at closing time. Over the next couple of hours, Joan must protect herself and her son from a massacre. How can you persuade a pre-schooler to behave in a situation like this?

As the mother of a four-year-old boy with the same obsessions as Lincoln, I really did find myself wondering at how I would respond to such a scenario (although I *did* slightly wonder at some of the language Lincoln used and the wisdom of Joan’s admission that she let him watch Predator, even without the swearing. I’m a fairly laissez faire parent, but that was a bit weird, even for me.) I also found myself wondering how my son would react. These are not comfortable thoughts, but they are compelling ones that meant I raced through the book. There were moments that Joan makes really difficult choices (including one that made me very uncomfortable) and although she’s not likeable, per se, you do see the logic of her actions.

Although Joan’s the main narrator, we also see glimpses of other characters- a young girl working in a cafe, one of the shooters, and a retired teacher- who happens to have taught Robby when he was in junior school. I would have liked more of this side of the story to have been explored, maybe because I know four-year-olds can be pretty boring sometimes (even in high-danger situations, probably) and also because as a teacher myself, I know that there are kids you look back on and think about what might have made them into the adults they ultimately became. It’s often the quiet ones that surprise you the most.

Overall, this is a compelling read that will make you question how you would respond to a dangerous situation: would you run, or would you hide?

FICTION//See What I Have Done- Sarah Schmidt*

See What I Have Done (Nov):  I have been DYING to tell you about this book since I read it at the tail end of last year, but the publicist asked me to hang fire until March. It is now March. I can now tell you more about this novel other that the occasional tweet singing its praises.

Because OH MY GOD, it’s good. I see great things in this book’s future, I really do.

Everyone knows the poem about Lizzie Borden, right? ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ I remember first reading about this case as a kid in a book of unsolved mysteries and I’m pretty sure it sparked my life-long interest in true crime. It’s a case many of us are familiar with, even if we’re not so sure about the ins and outs of it.

The crime is told from multiple viewpoints, including Lizzie and her sister, which lends the story an air of confusion and danger- exactly how I imagine the Borden house would have felt in the aftermath of such a crime. Unreliable narrators mean that this is often a gripping, if somewhat uncomfortable read. After all, if you can’t trust the characters who act as your eyes, who can you trust? NO ONE. Of course, there’s never been a definitive answer to whodunnit (Lizzie was tried but acquitted, because according to the all-male jury no woman, let alone a respectable middle class spinster, could ever be so brutal as to murder her pillar-of-community father and obedient step-mother), but there is a sense that Schmidt has an idea of who committed the crime. Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide.

What has stayed with me more than anything in the months since I read this book is the use of language. I have honestly never read a novel so creepy and unsettling. Little things like clocks and pigeons become threatening and defining. This is a novel that is as claustrophobic as the house in which the crime itself was committed. It’s also a clever way of conveying the sense of underlying madness and hysteria that the Borden sisters had to deal with as they closed themselves off from media sensation that was going on around them. You really understand the oppressive atmosphere in which the narrative takes place and the toll this takes on the already strained relationships between those who live in the Borden household after  the horrific murder.

It’s a quiet menace that runs through the novel and one that resonates eerily afterwards. That’s the appeal of this novel, I think. It’s not a big, showy novel that smacks you in the face from the first page, but one that slowly creeps up on you and, by the time you’ve finished, you realise that it’s firmly embedded in your brain. Good stuff.

Oh, and you’ll never look at mutton in the same way again. Promise.

 

FICTION//His Bloody Project- Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project (Feb):

Well, this is a clever little book- sort of like a Scottish version of Rashomon. What is the truth? Who do we reveal the truth to? Do we hide it from ourselves?

In this novel, Burnet creates a murderous ancestor of his own- seventeen year old Roderick Macrae, a boy whose entire world is contained in the tiny Highland village he has lived in all of his life. Caught up in one of those feuds that seem to be woven in Scottish legends, he finds himself accused- and admitting- a terrible triple murder. So far, so typical murder novel. Except that Burnet has created archival documents- witness statements, trial transcripts, newspaper articles and, most intriguingly, Macrae’s confession document, ‘written’ at the behest of his defender and counsel. In it, Macrae admits what he has done and why, but other pieces of the puzzle come to light as you read that make you wonder whether what you believed earlier is the God’s Honest Truth.

I liked the piecemeal feeling to the book; I’m a huge fan of non-fiction work and I admire the fact that this feels very authentic. The author has had to weave in viewpoints and voices from a range of characters, as well as create the harsh landscape of 19th century Highland Scotland. It’s a brutal way of life that’s not without some hope (Roderick is a gifted student who does have a chance at a different life.) Events in the novel are explored from different viewpoints and I found myself guessing and my sympathies constantly shifting. I also found myself feeling heartbroken for the women in the novel; life on a croft was apparently hard, brutal and short and so much is left to the reader to infer.

The quote on the cover says that this is ‘Scotland’s answer to Scandi noir’, and I’m not sure that’s true. (Also, can we stop comparing stuff to Scandinavia?) What it is, though, is an exploration as to what it is to be honest, and of the ties of family, loyalty and community. It’s a short but dense novel and one that I’ll be recommending to anyone who will listen.

FICTION//A Dangerous Crossing- Rachel Rhys*

A Dangerous Crossing (Feb):  I’ve always found the 1930s fascinating- a glamorous world on the cusp of irreversible change and the lives of people unwillingly  hurtling towards that change always makes for fascinating reading. This book is a story of people on a life-changing journey: physically, as they leave for Australia for new lives and metaphorically, as war looms and follows them wherever they go.

Lily, a young woman travelling on an assisted passage ticket, is leaving her life as a waitress and her secrets behind in a bid to start a new life in a strange on the other side of the world. As she becomes used to life on-board the ship, the old ways of class and privilege become blurred and allow Lily to socialise with people who would not usually give her the time of day. She becomes embroiled in scandal, love affairs and a mysterious disappearance during the course of the voyage, as well as confronting her past and the realities of her future.

The characters are relatable, yet somewhat unpredictable; there was a point about halfway through where I gasped when I suddenly realised that one character was not at all who I thought he was, although I was not entirely sure until the end what that meant. The novel is full of things you think you know with certainty, only to suddenly find the rug very cleverly and swiftly pulled from beneath your feet. I loved not being able to predict the who/what/when/where/how of this book. It really is stellar writing and not at all what I was expecting (I think I was ready for a Poirot-esque drawing room mystery on a ship…) Imagine a Golden Age of crime story, but brought up to date for an audience hooked on tense thrillers and you’ll have this book.

I loved this book whole-heartedly. Rachel Rhys is the alter-ego of Tamar Cohen, a writer whose dark psychological novels I have read and enjoyed. What amazes me is how effortlessly she has slipped into her Agatha Christie-esque other self; this really is like reading a completely different author and I enjoyed every second of reading it. I honestly didn’t want it to end. I am very jealous of those who have yet to read it.

FICTION//The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley- Hannah Tinti*

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (Nov) One of the best things about being sent books for review is when you get something you wouldn’t normally read, but then fall in love with it. This book is one of those. It arrived one morning and the cover quote intrigued me- Tarantino and the storyteller of Arabian Nights together? That’s quite an interesting prospect! Also, the cover of the proof is gorgeous- all Van Gogh stars- and, contrary to popular beliefs, sometimes it’s a good thing to judge a book by its cover.

Hawley has lived a hell of a life- and he has the bullet scars to prove it. But now he just wants to live quietly with his daughter Loo in the small town where his wife grew up. For years, it’s just been him and Loo on the run from things that she will never really understand, and so Hawley sees it as his job to protect her from his past. Until one day, that past comes knocking on the door and knocks him off his feet.

The story itself is woven around Hawley’s past- each of his scars is revisited throughout the novel- and Loo’s present, as she learns about growing up in a small American town. The pain of being an outsider is coupled with the strength she gains from her relationship with her father, as well as his struggles to accept the death of his wife, Lily, when Loo was tiny. It’s a big sweep of a novel, both literally (it takes in a huge chunk of the States as its setting, thanks to Hawley’s nomadic existence) and emotionally, as we travel with two people who love each other desperately but due to their nature and the fact that one is a teenager, they can never really talk about things until dramatic events force them to. As a reader, I really felt Loo’s frustration with her life and her father, and the tension she feels about never really living up to his memories of Lily. I felt, too, for Hawley, trying to make a life for his daughter that was free of his dysfunctional past and never quite managing it. In some ways, it’s quite a claustrophobic novel, but this is not a criticism- it means that we can really start to get beneath the skin of the two main characters.

And yes, it IS a combination of Tarantino- there are gunfights and getaways, robberies and murders- and Scheherazade in its intricately woven plot. The past and  the present weave together to create Loo’s future and it’s an exhilarating ride. I can see this as amazing film in the near future (Kiernan Shipka would be a perfect Loo. Not so sure about Hawley, off the top of my head) and the book itself should do great things once it’s released.