Archive for the ‘Thriller’ 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

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!

origin

Oh dear. Oh, poor Dan Brown. Poor, incredibly rich and famous Dan Brown.

It seems that you have become a parody of yourself. But, as an aspiring writer, I thank you. I can look at my writing and yours and think…. “If Dan Brown can get that published, I must have a decent chance!”

Let’s be frank and open upfront: I read and enjoyed this as a half-term read. In the same way that I might enjoy a MacDonalds. Neither are good for me but they give a childish comfort. And I have read all of Dan Brown’s previous work: his earlier novels were fresher and more lively than this one perhaps. I wonder whether Brown’s success has gone to his head, or whether he is struggling to live up to the pressure created by The Da Vinci Code. Either way, his more recent books have become downright silly in places.

The Brown formula is in full force once again: exotic and foreign location, check; a murder of a friend, check; a beautiful woman accompanying Robert Langdon through various locations, check; a suspiciously helpful ally, check; twist at the end which anyone with half a brain cell would have anticipated 25 pages in, check; references to art, check; self-aggrandisement of Langdon, check; a series of fatuous ‘clues’, check.

The basic scenario is that Langdon’s erstwhile pupil and friend, Edmund Kirsch, has uncovered a scientific breakthrough which will undermine all religions and just as he is about to reveal it in the Guggenheim Museum, he is assassinated. Langdon helps the authorities by fleeing with Ambra Vidal, the museum’s director and fiancée to the Prince of Spain. Dodgy churches, suspicious machinations, looming royal security.

And – oh god! – the dialogue. It is just awfully written! Allow me to drop in a small sample here:langdon

Let it go.

Oh God.

At least there is one moment of genius here: Dan Brown must have been told that dialogue is not his main strength, that his characters sound robotic and unconvincing, so in this novel one of the main ‘characters’ is Winston, an Artificial Intelligence who guides and assists Langdon and who is robotic and… well… unconvincing. Have you seen 2001, A Space Odyssey, or The Terminator or I, Robot? Trust me, so has Dan Brown. Not convinced he’s read Asimov et al, but he has seen those films.

And what is it with his obsession with numbers? Never has my understanding or appreciation of a book been assisted by knowing exactly which model of gun, car or plane I’m looking at, nor it’s engine horsepower statistics, nor the precise measurements of a room. Seriously, “vast”, “cavernous”, “cosy” or “cramped” would do! There are almost more numbers in this books than words. Writers are told repeatedly, “Show don’t tell.” Brown never shows and tells oh so badly! Delay information to create suspense, that’s another piece of advice I give students… and Brown does that, but does it so clumsily it’s almost painful to read!

And the biggest problem with the novel? The eventual “reveal” of the discovery which will destroy all religion and which we, as readers, are meant to believe would prompt religious leaders to arrange the assassination is just so weak!

The plus points: mindlessly entertaining if you overlook the writing; better than Inferno, the fallout of which is not even mentioned even though Langdon’s other previous adventures are referenced.

And the true tragedy? Tom Hanks may be contractually bound to present this on screen.

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As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

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Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

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I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.