Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

the dry

This book had won a range of prizes by the time I got to reading it: Australia Indie Book and Indie Debut of the Year 2017; Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year; CWA Gold Dagger. It even became the Radio 2 Book Club Choice. I think I read somewhere that film rights have been optioned.

It was therefore with some high hopes I opened it and the opening Prologue was promising: the town of Kiewarra was suffering from an interminable drought, farms were faltering and crops and livestock failing and

the drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra leveled their rifles at skinny livestock… The finds that day were unusual, though. Smaller and with a smoothness to the flesh. Not that it mattered. They were the same where it counted. The glassy eyes. The wet wounds.

The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation. Those that ventured beyond the initial offering in the hallway were rewarded with another, this time in the bedroom. This one was smaller, but less engulfed by competition.

There is a terseness and economy and clear simplicity to the prose here, which runs throughout the novel and its depictions of the ravages caused by the drought is powerful and evocative. The novel is set in an emotional as well as a literal tinderbox.

At its heart, this novel is not one but two tightly woven narratives centered around the friendship between Aaron Falk and Luke Hadley. As children, they had suffered to horror of the death of their friend Ellie Deacon, and subsequent suspicions falling on them; as men, Hadley, his wife and son were discovered dead and shot – apparently by Luke Hadley’s own hand. Aaron Falk – who by this point is a Federal Investigator – is persuaded or coerced into helping to look into their deaths.

The two cases slowly unravel: the present day one, in a fairly traditional police procedural way, albeit Falk’s involvement being informal; the past death, through a series of flashback embedded into the present day case. The use of the flashbacks feels organic and very cinematic: as characters are discussing something, we’ll slip into the past and see the conversations being discussed play out in front of our eyes.

The actual investigation into the Hadley family’s death is, actually, rather pedestrian: a lead is discovered, investigated, resolved and abandoned; another lead emerges – sometimes a little too conveniently – and the process continues. Old enmities are rekindled through the investigation; new friends grow. There is a satisfying but not terribly shocking resolution. One thing I was glad about: whilst the deaths were without question violent, we only got glimpses of that violence. Unlike some other (maybe Nordic) crime writers, Harper did not revel in or dwell in it.

What sets the novel apart from the basic procedural is the intertwining of the two cases, which was meticulously done, although I did feel that Ellie Deacon was sidelined a little, and the depictions of the small town tensions. The incident between Gretchen – another old friend – and Falk in the Centenary Park where the “the self-appointed spokeswoman of the anxious mothers’ group” challenges Falk and the dumping of industrial quantities of shit over Falk’s car – “At least it’s animal. Mostly. I think.” – were particularly well managed and balanced between humour and pathos. Other scenes, particularly Falk’s flirtation with Gretchen, are a little less successful and more self-conscious.

Harper’s writing throughout is terse and it is a novel in which no word feels wasted. There is a journalistic quality to it.

It was a hugely enjoyable book – and certainly an impressive debut novel – but I’m not quite sure that it lives up to all the hype it has garnered. I shall, however, be looking out for Force of Nature, the follow up novel.

Publisher: Little Brown

Date: 12th January 2017

Available: Amazon

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There is something very frustrating about this book. It was so close to being great that the fact that it wasn’t great is so disappointing.

The premise sounded brilliant: members of a religious community go on a retreat to an isolated location; suspicious and sinister villagers mill around; a young boy is being prayed for with desperation. Tensions within the group; tensions without the group. The hint of a less than reliable narrator. The presence of death covering the whole enterprise. It has echoes of M. R. James in the second half – Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad in particular but that was tied to the evocative use of landscape in both. There are moments of pathos and horrors. It touched on ideas of faith, occasionally explicitly and a little heavy-handedly, sometimes more carefully. The descriptions of the horrific excesses of zeal in Hanny’s mother were more chilling than the more vicserally gruesome moments.

And what does it say about today’s society that, when I first read the book and was introduced to Father Bernard who has nicknames for the young boys in the church and a close relationship with them, that I was fully expecting some degree of grooming, exploitation or abuse? I am grateful to say I was wrong: Father Bernard was a warm, humane and kind character who was, probably the most engaging character in the whole novel. The only one in the novel that you might have thought you’d like to have met him in real life.

So, the novel revolves around Hanny, or Andrew, a late teenage boy with learning difficulties and communication problems, and his younger brother who narrates the novel. Their zealous mother has been taking – or dragging – them into the life of the Church and onto their pilgrimages for years, yearning for a miraculous cure for Hanny. As the father of a child with communication issues, I bristled at every mention of the words “cure” or “normal” and was warmed by the narrator’s ability to work around Hanny’s difficulties and care for and communicate with him. To accept him where no one else did. We first see the pilgrimage on what appears to be the last one: led by Father Wilfrid Belderboss, he loses his faith and dies in the months after the trip. As the new priest, Father Bernard, arrives, “Mummer”, Hanny’s mother, desperately clings to the established traditions and routines, insisting that the pilgrimage to the North East be reinstated.

Once established in the house Moorings for the pilgrimage, Hurley ramps up the tensions: strange noises and screams echo over the moors and sea and fields; stuffed animals abound creepily in the house, previously owned by a taxidermist; a gun is discovered and, conveniently, ammunition; macabre and possibly pagan discoveries are found in the woods. Alongside these, we see apples fruiting out of season, blind people seeing again. A triumvirate of locals glower intimidatingly. A pregnant woman arrives in the area, possibly being cared for, possibly imprisoned. It is enough to unnerve without horrifying. The sense of threat permeates the novel.

Until it doesn’t.

Our narrative is not chronological: it is told in flashback and flashbacks occur within the flashbacks all of which slightly irked me and took me out of the novel. The circumstances of Father Wilfrid’s death are revealed through these flashbacks and memories and a hugely conveniently ‘lost’ diary being found – I did roll my eyes as I read about that – and I was just not terribly interested in that. Yes, the ‘lost’ diary was a somewhat trite narrative device and it wasn’t the only one: the conveniently placed and permeable cupboard through the walls of which our narrator – and therefore we – could overhear conversations and confessions in Father Bernard’s room.

So, overall, I didn’t dislike the book and there were moments of great writing… But it felt strongly in need of some stronger editing and control. It was so nearly superb but left me not quite satisfied.

Publisher: John Murray

Date: 7th April 2016

Link: Amazon

 

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Some books you can knock out a review in a moment or two after reading them.

Others take time to digest and consider and reflect on. And this beautiful, heart-aching, visceral, funny, tragic novel is one of the latter. But as yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia Intersexism and Transphobia  – should not every day be against those things? And the use of the suffix “phobia” irks me because this not not about phobia, it’s about bigotry and bullying. But I digress. As yesterday marked the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexism and Transphobia, it seemed an apt time to bring this review into the light.

Because this novel is an absolute gem!

It is a delight and treasure, all the more wonderful because my hopes for it were not massive: I’d only read The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas by Boyne before and had not found it as powerful or compelling as its content matter should have been. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, however, is a tour de force.

We have here an episodic and picaresque Bildungsroman following the life of Cyril Avery – adopted by the Averys and never a real Avery.  We see Cyril every seven years of his life, starting as he is growing inside the womb of Catherine Goggin and ending as a seventy year old man. Over these visits to him, we glimpse the the horrors of the Irish attitude to homosexuality and very viscerally the violence that homophobic attitudes generate – and other forms of bigotry as Catherine Goggin’s denouncement and expulsion from her rural home in Goleen in Cork in 1945 for extra-marital sex is as bigoted as the homophobia we see. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of Catherine Goggin: her flightly, wilful, self-deceptive, stubborn self-recreation in Dublin was a tour-de-force and, whilst she recurred and was significant throughout the seventy years, I found hat I missed having her as my point-of-view character.

Nor does Boyne shy away from the privations forced on the gay community in Ireland and the lengths that they were forced to go to in order to meet their needs, or in order to hide or “cure” them. The tawdriness of anonymous meetings in the parks and toilets and alleys is not shied away from and Boyne does not glamorise it in any way. At no point in his time in Ireland do we see any stable, happy or open homosexual relationship: the atmosphere – which strikes the reader as wholly authentic and toxic – forces the encounters to be unsatisfying and purely physical. There is a clear political message being driven home here and a religious one.

Boyne also explores the fallibility of memory and recollections: as characters meet and leave and meet again, we see that memories differ. Who showed whom their penis first? When does a lie become so powerful it becomes a truth and when is the truth insurmountably present. Whereas Catherine could reinvent herself successfully, Cyril’s attempts to fit into a society that demonised his sexuality and his attempts even to marry and deny his sexuality fail time and time again in the face of the single inalienable fact that Cyril is gay. And reality and fiction bleed together as we get cameos of Brendan Behan conversing somewhat incongruously with the fourteen year old Cyril and best friend Julian and somewhat lecherously the girls they had gone there with; a Charles Haughey haunts the tearooms of Dáil Éireann, run by Catherine Goggin.

Despite this, however, there are moments of sheer joyful humour in Boyne’s writing – a humour which never jeopardises the pathos of the situation or the humanity of Cyril’s portrayal – in fact highlighting them both. His visit to a doctor who tries to cure his homosexuality by stabbing his testicles every time he mentions a male name; the priest’s (coincidental) death when he hears Cyril’s confession convincing Cyril that his sexuality had killed him; the introduction and teasing of Cyril Two. Very few modern novelists can weave together such pathos and such humour so skilfully.

The novel moves with an epic pace as Cyril flees Dublin and Julian Woodbead, the subject of his obsessions since he was seven, and his failed attempt to marry Julian’s sister. He re-emerges in Amsterdam and later in New York, apparently happily in a relationship with Bastiaan, a doctor. His escape from the tyranny of the Catholic Church’s hold is a release but life remains unkind: his sexuality remains the subject of bigotry and violence; he becomes embroiled in a shady underground world of prostitution and violence. the novel encompasses vast societal changes as prejudices lessen, the grip of the Church relaxes, homosexuality is legalised, HIV re-ignites old suspicions, gay marriage is legalised. And at no point in these seismic events do we lose Cyril’s voice or sight of the human and emotional responses to world events.

The novel abounds in coincidences and unexpected returns and a happy ending which, in other hands, would have felt forced and artificial and mawkish. Here, Cyril’s desperate attempts to hang on to life and love and himself were so awful and desperate that I absolutely accepted the end of the novel without a hint of my more accustomed snideness and cynicism.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is epic in scope, human in sensibility; it is a joy to read; it prompts tears and laughter and love; it inspires hope in the power of love.

It is a delight: intricately plotted and structured and full of warm and convincing characters.

Publisher: Black Swan

Date: 14 December 2017

Available: Amazon

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I was concerned about the shift in tone from the end of the second book in The Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance: Kaladin and Shallan had been lost characters slowly discovering their powers and paths in their own way, interracting with their spren and learning in a softly organic way; as Words of Radiance ends, Knights Radiant seemed to be popping up everywhere! And tentatively being drawn to and organised and systematised by Dalinar who himself had bonded the Stormfather himself.

Individual stories in the first two books looked like becoming institutionalised; human conflicts looked like growing to global and divine conflicts.

And, personally, the individual story is always more powerful than a global one; the human more intriguing than the world.

The headline to this review is that I most certainly did enjoy the novel. Sanderson delivers vivid characters as always, returning to Shallan and Kaladin in particular; his world building and magic system is as intricate and detailed and precise as it always is; his action scenes are intense and thrilling; it delves into elements of socio-economic commentary – a little heavy handedly perhaps with the divisions between light and dark eyes, and male and female roles; significantly more thoughtfully in Moash and Kaladin’s sympathy for the Parshmen and Parshendi. It is most certainly a novel on the strength of which I will be continuing with the series.

It is not without its issues though.

Dalinar Kholin is probably the central character in the novel and, as Oathbringer opens, has fled the Shattered Plains and set up a base in the mythical and lost Urithiru, with access to an Oathgate portal that, conveniently, allows him to access a range of other cities across the continent and, instantly, the world political expanded. Monarchies and city states which were mentioned previously are visited and invited by Dalinar to unite.

Sanderson continues his use of flashback chapters – as he did with Kaladin in The Way of Kings and Shallan in Words of Radiance – and here the flashback chapters show us Dalinar revelling in the thrill – and the Thrill – of battle in all its glory and gore and visceral delight. Sanderson does write these epic battle scenes very well and these are excellent and thrilling and sweeping. Almost enough for the reader to feel that thrill themselves – and satisfyingly giving the reader and Dalinar an explanation of his missing misremembered wife’s fate. And enough to make the present-day Dalinar’s somewhat half-hearted and inept attempts at diplomacy – and there is an awful lot of diplomacy and waiting and talking and negotiating in the book – feel wrong. He feels limited and impotent and constrained like a tiger in a zoo:  the fabled Blackthorn struggling to fill the role of leader and High King and turn his back on the battlefield and succumb to the temptation of drink.

It does make me wonder whether, by book ten in the series, the flashback reveal of a major trauma for a character, might become something of a cliched trope.

I accept that this is a deliberate contrast but, as a result of this conflict – and of the sheer ambition of the series – the pace of the book does suffer, compared to the previous two novels – and they were not fast paced due to the necessity of world building.  In a novel which revolves around the movements of massive stormfronts across the world, I suppose that the pace is appropriate, and the flashbacks keep giving us the drip-feed of action… but I wonder whether a little judicial pruning might have streamlined it. I wonder whether all of the pages – in excess of 1,200 – actually progressed the plot or the characters.

Sanderson explores a lot more of the nature of this world and the relation of it to others in his Cosmere – so much so that we have a fairly extended cameo appearance within it. Unfortunately, not from a novel I had read (imagine if Kelsier or Vin had passed through from the pages of the Mistborn Trilogy!); but fortunately not in a way which requires any prior knowledge. Odium is introduced directly as the vast Cosmere-wide threat; his followers, the ancient and twisted spren known as the Unmade, are fleetingly glimpsed  – with one disturbingly Bacchanalian scene in Kholinar – and enigmatic; the ancient voidbringer Fused spirits taking over the Parshendi and the fate of the lesser Parshendi are explored in more detail. Venli and her sister’s spren, Timbre, in particular, are developing into increasingly compelling characters.

Our more familiar characters, however, seem to suffer a little in this novel: Kaladin came across as more two-dimensional than previsouly; and Shallan’s exploration of different personas through her Lightweaving was just a little too extended and repeated. Just as we think she has reached some sort of self-knowledge and reconciled the various aspects of her personality, off she goes again! And her love interests and possible love-triangle felt just a little awkward and forced for me.

My biggest issue, however, was the extended trip to Shadesmar, the spiritual realm. I’m going to say it. I don’t want to but I feel I have to. It’s a midichlorian moment. The spren as these strange manifestations of emotion and nature were a delight and a pleasure because of their ephemeral, shifting, capricious nature, which made Syl so special – and later Pattern. But when our point of view characters are trapped in Shadesmar and realise that the spren had a very human set of geography and technology and social structure deprived them of that mythic caprice which they had. The mystical became scientific. Hence, a midichlorian moment. To see the deadeye manifestation of Adolin’s Shardblade, compared to the conscious Syl, was powerful but the novel spent too long with the main characters out of reach. It was narratively necessary to put them there – and it led to one of the most thrilling moments for Dalinar in the series so far – but was it necessary to show them there step-by-slow-step?

And the other thing that irked me? Over-powered characters. Stormlight overpowers characters. They can fly and fight and create illusions, sure, but at a mundane and physical level they seem to be invulnerable: when the climactic battle occurs

The thunderclast’s palm crashed down on Renarin, smashing him. Adolin screamed, but his brother’s Shardblade cut up through the palm, the separated the hand from the wrist.

The thunderclast trumpeted in anger as Renarin climbed from the rubble of the hand. He seemed to heal more quickly than Kaladin or Shallan did, as if being crushed wasn’t even a bother.

Obviously, the stormlight can run out and characters have only a finite access to that power… but even so… I suppose that is why Odium was needed as a world-shattering character: anything less would pose no threat at all to our heroes.

So, in brief, yes a great read which does pay off dividends on the significant investment of time. Not without its issues, but generally a vast and sprawling epic with engaging characters. The sort of ambitious project which only a master of the fantasy genre could pull off even half so well.

Publisher: Gollancz

Date 16th November 2017

Available: Amazon

I do love historical fiction and this is one of the best I’ve read for a while! Intricately plotted, rigourously researched and with vivid and well-drawn characters. And none of those elements displaced by any other. And with just a touch of magical realism thrown in. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Hilary Mantel – but that’s a huge height to reach!

The novel really has only two characters: Mr Jonah Hancock, the workaday, somewhat pedestrian and timid, merchant; and Angelica Neal, a self-absorbed and superficial courtesan. Neither character is particularly likeable in their own right and yet, somehow, Gowar made me care for them. The other secondary characters were distinctly secondary but still fleshed out: Sukie, Jonah Hancock’s niece, was probably the closest to a likeable character and her growth from little more than a housekeeper to de facto mistress of the house was a pleasure; Miss Frost, living with Angelica Neal as something between a friend, a housekeeper, a seamstress and a bawd; and Mrs Chappell, the grotesquely painted suppurating bawd, both morally and physically corrupt.

The mermaid of the title – in Part One at least – lamds in Mr Hancock’s hands unexpectedly and is a twisted and hideous goblin-like beast.

It is the size of an infant and, like an infant, it’s ribcage is delicate and pathetic beneath its parchment skin…. [But] no infant has such fearful claws, and no infant such a snarl, with such sharp fangs in it. And no infant’s torso ends in the tail of a fish.

It is something which might be seen in a museum of antique oddities – which is perhaps unsurprising as Gowar had a background in Archeology and Anthropology and History. It’s a physical and tangible thing – unlike the more alien creature discovered in Part 3.

Through various machinations, Mr Hancock allows Mrs Chappell to display the mermaid and Angelica Neal is tasked with keeping him happy.

The tenderest parts of the novel occur when Mr Hancock wins an audience with Mrs Neal and their conversation becomes humane and real and genuine – much to their own surprise.

The book is not without its visceral moments and it’s horrors, mainly in Part 3. Personally, I wonder whether Parts 1 and 2 could not have been trimmed down a little and perhaps Part 3 extended. My biggest gripe with the novel was the final conclusion: it seemed a little too neat and unnecessarily positive.

Publisher: Harville Secker

Date: 25th January 2018

Available: Amazon

My daughter is four.

She loves Talking Tom games and You Tube episodes.

I was more invested in the relationship between Tom and Angela on those cartoons than I was in the relationships between Laura and Freddy, or the post-death relationship between Anthony and Therése or between Eunice and Bomber.

It is a nice enough premise: Anthony Peardew is a widower who fills his life and home with lost things which has finds, collects and collates. Buttons, jigsaw puzzle pieces, a hair band, an umbrella.

When he dies, he charges Laura – his housekeeper – with returning them to their rightful owners. In exchange for his house. As you do!

In the meantime, she starts a relationship with the gardener, Freddy, and sort of adopts and befriends Sunny, a Down’s Syndrome teenage girl with a touch of clairvoyance. Has not the idiot savant trope been done to death yet? And I feel hugely uncomfortable writing the name of it!

Alongside this romance, the house reveals itself to be haunted by Therése – universally lauded as having been a wonderful person in life but whose spirit seemed petty in its hauntings.

And interweaving this is the story of Eunice’s unrequited love affair with her boss, the publisher Bomber who is revealed to be gay.

And all these stories were sweet enough and inoffensive and … nice. And just a bit dull.

And the self-referential ending was just a little mawkish.

This is one of the most unusual and beautiful books I’ve read for a while.

Hard to define. Difficult to keep track of people. But beautiful and lyrical. Radio 4 do a slot of “slow radio” sometimes and this book reminds me of that. And of my childhood. And of a familiarity with the country and countryside which I fear I’ve lost. Or am losing.

Perhaps it is easier to explain what this book is not. Despite beginning with a thirteen year old girl’s disappearance, the book is not a thriller or a police procedural or a detective novel. The girl – Rebecca or Becky or Bex – is recalled and mentioned throughout the thirteen years of the novel’s scope but never drives the novel.

There is no driving narrative or central character. Except perhaps the village itself.

There are no paragraphs. It is sectioned up and I struggle not to refer to those sections as stanzas.

We skim over the lives of the variety of characters at a distance and we may briefly linger here to overhear a conversation or there to watch a badger sett. But we stay nowhere terribly long. The narrative style is often that of a report rather than a story.

And yet McGregor intertwines and weaves and flows these moments together over thirteen years and I became strangely committed to the characters and to the community. Rohan, James, Lynsey and Sophie; Richard and Cathy; the Jackson boys; Cooper, Su and the twins; even Jones and his sister.

The novel, because of its taut focus on the village reveals the musicality and rhythm of the village – each chapter opens with New Year fireworks, the well-dressing, Mischief Night and the pantomime – and of the natural world of the births and deaths of fixed and badgers and the migration of birds. And those rhythms wove together beautifully as characters worked, lived in, ignored and learned about nature.

McGregor echoes and repeats phrases throughout – with and without variation – and has created an absolute gem of a novel. Maybe not a novel. A prose poem, a prose paean to the community he created.

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Sometimes, you read a short story that leaves you wanting more and makes you wish that the writer had extended it to a novel length.

With this novel, well written and crafted as it is, I wonder whether it could have been reduced to a short story. Or began life as a short story or a vignette and grew from there.

Family drama. Courtroom drama. Coming of Age. The novel explores all of these and they all intersect – bound by the constant exploration of motherhood – and it feels very carefully planned and constructed. And somehow left me wanting more rawness.

The novel opens as Lexie, Trip and Moody Richardson sit on the hood of their car in Shaker Heights, Ohio watching their mother as she watches their house burn down. Ng then tracks back other the months prior to the event in order to introduce a variety of conflicts and characters: the Richardson’s itinerant artist tenant, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl; Mirabelle McCollough – or May Ling Chow – the Chinese baby adopted by the McCollough family but tracked down and wanted by her birth mother Bebe; Lexie and Pearl growing up and discovering the joys and pleasures and responsibilities of sex. And Izzy, the wayward child of the Richardsons, struggling to find a place to fit into.

The city of Shaker Heights – if it is a city – I don’t profess to know beyond what Wikipedia can tell me, which is that “Shaker Heights is an inner-ring streetcar suburb of Cleveland, abutting the eastern edge of the city’s limits… Shaker Heights was a planned community developed by the Van Sweringen brothers, railroad moguls who envisioned the community as a suburban retreat from the industrial inner city of Cleveland” – seems to me to be the main character of the novel. The intensively planned and ordered city, designed to be harmonious and regulated to match. The home that Mia rents from the Richardsons is a clear symbol of the value of appearance in this world:

Every house on Winslow Road held two families, but outside appeared to hold only one. They had been designed that way on purpose. It allowed residents to avoid the stigma of living in a duplex house—of renting, instead of owning—and allowed the city planners to preserve the appearance of the street, as everyone knew neighborhoods with rentals were less desirable.

Through the novel, Eleni Richardson starts to learn that each identical home, each regulated exterior, held a myriad of narratives and sacrifices and angst and love and loss. Even the regulated exterior of her own safe and secure home.

Ng uses a very omnipotent narrator: she relates – and there is a lot of exposition through the novel – backgrounds and stories for the characters, very carefully placed through the novel, before reminding us the reader that her characters do not and cannot possibly know this. An occasionally hints at a future outside the world of the novel too. I found the technique and the narrative voice somewhat distancing as a result, somehow cool. Perhaps that was deliberate: the character Mia is a photographer and that narrative voice may be a reflection of the distance between photographer and subject because of the camera lens. It may simply be Ng’s style: I’ve not read her first book, Everything I Never Told You.

The arrival in an established setting of a new character sowing – consciously or not – discord is familiar and Mia is drawn with a subtle brush, rarely being followed by the narrative, and was a sympathetic character. One aspect of the novel that could have been explored more – which I was intrigued by – was Pearl’s adoption as another sister by the Richardson children, each for their own reasons; and Izzy – and possibly Lexie – Richardson’s adoption by Mia as a daughter… or, possibly more accurately, their adoption of her as a mother. It was hinted – more than hinted, each characters explicitly said that they felt like that – but not developed and not explored.

What was beautiful was one of the final scenes: a package of photographs left by Mia for each of the Richardsons. Taking one example, Trip – the jock of the family – was left a photograph of a

hockey chest pad, lying in the dirt, cracked through the center, peppered with holes. Mia had used a hammer and a handful of roofing nails, driving each one through the thick white plastic like arrows, then prying it out again. It’s all right to be vulnerable, she had thought as she made each hole. It’s all right to take time and see what grows. She had filled Trip’s chest pad with soil and scattered seeds on it and watered it patiently for a week until from each hole, burgeoning up through the crack, came flashes of green: thin tendrils, little curling leaves worming their way up into the light. Soft fragile life emerging from within the hard shell.

These varied photographs were gorgeous and, it seemed to me, the heart of the novel. Which is why I wondered whether the novel began with just this one germ of an image – a packet of poignant images – and had filled out from there…

Overall, I did admire the novel and I liked parts but it felt too thoughtful and too intellectual and too crafted for me. It touched on issues of race, surrogacy, adoption – and the tug-of-love between the McColloughs and Bebe Chow should have been heart-breaking – but didn’t explore or delve into them.

I like to be dragged into the world of a novel viscerally and this didn’t do that for me.

Broken-Harbour Tana French

Recipe for a Tana French Dublin Murder Squad novel:

Take an atmospheric and intense setting, such as the last remnant of an ancient forest, a secluded mansion or a half completed housing project abutting the sea; insert a handful of characters with intense and golden relationships; raise the pressure and temperature; remove from the oven when those relationships start to rip slowly and tortuously apart; dust with a subtle hint of the supernatural.

This is the fourth of Tana French’s explorations of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, after In The Woods, The Likeness and Faithful Place. I first read The Secret Place and loved it enough to gorge on the rest of the series which I continued to love – although Faithful Place has been a struggle to get into. This entry, however, I think is the strongest in the series so far.

The setting, the characters, the language here are all pitch-perfect: heightened but utterly convincing; rooted in the economic reality of the recession in Ireland but with a poetic lyricism. The Spain family is found slaughtered in their safe and middle class home in a housing project which was abandoned as the investments ran out surrounded by shells of houses and ghosts of what could have been: their children had been smothered; the father, Pat, knifed to death; the mother, Jenny, barely alive. An experienced detective, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy – being offered a chance to reclaim past glory following some vaguely hinted at disaster – is paired with a rookie detective to investigate. As usual with French, the relationship between the detectives and the budding trust and respect between Kennedy and Richie Curran – a mentor-mentee relationship growing into a putative partnership – is a beautiful and tender as the victims’ relationships. Kennedy is not immediately likeable saying such things as

“in this job everything matters, down to the way you open your car door. Long before I say Word One to a witness, or a suspect, he needs to know that Mick Kennedy is in the house and that I’ve got this case by the balls. Some of it is luck—I’ve got height, I’ve got a full head of hair and it’s still ninety-nine percent dark brown, I’ve got decent looks if I say so myself, and all those things help—but I’ve put practice and treadmill time into the rest. I kept up my speed till the last second, braked hard, swung myself and my briefcase out of the car in one smooth move and headed for the house at a swift, efficient pace. Richie would learn to keep up.

But a softer side to him emerges, whether it be consoling Curran in the autopsy or keeping his sister, Dina, whose mental state is simultaneously vulnerable and perceptive, safe or in his own deeply tragic personal history. He is a man who presents a mask to the world and may not know himself where the real face lies beneath it.

In terms of the plot, French keeps up a cracking pace: the advantage of the detective fiction form, perhaps. Pat, the dead father, is initially suspected; a stalker is discovered quickly but the case keeps deepening.

French’s prose, in the lips of different protagonists in each novel, is, as always, beautiful, poised between the lyrical and the real. As he enters the house, Kennedy tells us

that was when I felt it: that needle-fine vibration, starting in my temples and moving down the bones into my eardrums. Some detectives feel it in the backs of their necks, some get it in the hair on their arms—I know one poor sap who gets it in the bladder, which can be inconvenient—but all the good ones feel it somewhere. It gets me in the skull bones. Call it what you want—social deviance, psychological disturbance, the animal within, evil if you believe in that: it’s the thing we spend our lives chasing. All the training in the world won’t give you that warning when it comes close.

And when he sees the harbour, where his own personal tragedy is centred, we are told of the

rounded curve of the bay, neat as the C of your hand; the low hills cupping it at each end; the soft gray sand, the marram grass bending away from the clean wind, the little birds scattered along the waterline. And the sea, high today, raising itself up at me green and muscled. The weight of what was in the kitchen with us tilted the world, sent the water rocking upwards like it was going to come crashing through all that bright glass.

And, finally, when looking into the Spains’ attic, an attic guarded with a thick mesh and holding a vicious bear trap, Kennedy says that

For an instant I thought I saw something move—a shifting and coalescing of the black, a deliberate muscled ripple—but when I blinked, there was only darkness and the flood of cold air.

As well as location and atmosphere, which she manages and manipulates with an exquisite Gothic sensibility, French is very good at insanity here. No spoilers, but the Spains, behind their own affluent and successful mask – which marks them out as snobs to their few neighbours – both disappear into different rabbit holes. And they are both wholly credibly described and experienced by the reader.

This is one of the best detective novels I have ever read. Full stop. It is literary and eloquent but never loses its way as a piece of detective fiction. And its conclusion and final revelation – and the ethical dilemmas explored – are enough to warrant tears. Hauntingly, chillingly beautiful.

Okay. Please put Lafferton and Bevham in the list of places I don’t want to visit because of their high body count. Midsomer, Stockholm, Lafferton. 

Poor Lafferton. I think this, the fifth book in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailer series, has the third serial killer in the Cathedral city since the first book. I don’t think Serrailer needs his high profile SIFT work: Lafferton is awash with killers! I know it’s an easy complaint to make of detective fiction series, but there are other crimes than serial killing!

This time round, we witness an underbelly of Lafferton which we haven’t seen before: prostitution. Sympathetically portrayed local prostitutes Abi Righton and Hayley and Marie with their own dreams and problems. For a series which has felt – to me at least – uncomfortably middle class and complacent, this more inclusive tone was a pleasant change. These girls felt real and authentic, balancing the need to put money on the table with family commitments and health problems and the temptation to escape it in cider or cannabis.

Besides them, Hill juxtaposes the new Cathedral Dean, Stephen Webber and his wife Ruth and the canon residentiary Miles Hurley who had arrived with the Webbers. The politics of their changes to Cathedral hymns and services and committees were cloistered and less engaging … but turned out to be vital.

Beyond these changes, not much has altered in Lafferton since the end of the previous book: Simon Serrailler remains canonised at work but retains an inability to form any meaningful with women – and finally someone does the right thing and thumps him for descending on Taransay and hooking up with someone else’s fiancee. I don’t know why no one’s done it before! – and his relationship with his new  step-mother Judith improves . Almost to the point when I was anticipating them  having an affair! Cat continues to be the saintly caring voice in the novels. 

And prostitutes start disappearing and being found dead.

And then other women start to be preyed on.

It is a series which struggles with gender, thinking back. Brides. Sisters. Mothers. Prostitutes. Victims of Serrailler’s womanising. Women get hit hard by Hill. Even those who survive are haunted.

This novel – with a fresh DS – was perhaps the most successful in the series so far. It is still more of a soap opera than police procedural: it is through no dint of police work that the killer is caught – but Hill does like to play with genre conventions. Pure luck rather than Serrailler’s genius solved the case.

They are very comfortable and familiar now. The reading equivalent of a warm woollen jumper and cup of tea. And there’s nothing wrong with that!