Monthly Archives: May 2014

THESE THINGS HIDDEN by Heather Gudenkauf

these things hidden by heather gudenkauf

I read a review of this in a magazine and it wasn’t until I bought it that I realised I’d already read some of Gudenkauf’s books – ONE BREATH AWAY and THE WEIGHT OF SILENCE. I don’t think this is as good as either of those, but what she does well is emotional tension and THESE THINGS HIDDEN is laden with it. Allison is the perfect teenager and the perfect daughter – bright, beautiful, sporty and popular. Then she gets pregnant and ends up in prison for killing her baby shortly after its born. The book starts as she is released and begins the process of piecing her life back together again, including reaching out to Brynn, the younger sister who has not spoken to Allison since the night she was taken away by the police.The owner of a half way house for ex prisoners helps Allison find a a job at a local book shop, working for Claire who has an adopted son Joshua, left as a new born in the town’s fire  station. Student nurse, Charm, is a regular visitor to the bookshop and her interest in Joshua suggests she may know something about the events leading up to his being abandoned.

As these four women’s lives unfold, it becomes clear that there’s a terrible secret connecting them all – and that uncovering it could cause untold damage. Trouble is, I just didn’t care that much. Yes, there’s an unexpected twist at the end. Yes, there’s a strong narrative and some interesting moral quandaries. Yes, it took me on an emotional roller coaster, tugged on my heart strings and made me cry. But, with the exception of Allison, the characters are fairly two dimensional. What’s more, they are lacking in courage and spirit. And whilst it’s great to read a book that centres around women, these failed to inspire or move me very deeply.

If you like this kind of small town secrets stuff, Jodi Picoult does it better.

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INFERNO by Dan Brown

inferno by dan brown

From the sublime to the ridiculous. All I’ll say is that I was finishing this when I was at Charleston Book Festival and was very grateful for the ability of my Kindle to disguise what I am reading. I really should know better than to pick up dross like this but, at times, like a really sweet bar of chocolate, nothing else will do, even though you know it’s bad for you. The only positive thing is that it has reminded me how gorgeous Florence and Venice are – and that I really must take my Dad to Italy soon, as promised.

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BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

burial rites by hannah kent

I saw this advertised on the tube and bought it on my Kindle, the combination of which meant I didn’t quite know what to expect when I started reading (no back cover blurb, no flicking through the pages to get a feel for it etc). If I had, I may well have given it a swerve, as Iceland in 1829 isn’t what usually grabs me. But that would have been a mistake and this book feels all the more special for being something I may easily have overlooked.

Kent skilfully evokes the bleak Icelandic landscape and at times her writing is exceptionally beautiful (note to self: must learn how to use the marking pages function on the Kindle so I can more easily quote phrases I love). It’ s a fitting backdrop for the true and haunting story of Agnes, found guilty of murder and arson, and now waiting out the days before she is executed. Told through a combination of official letters concerning her case, including instructions about who will pay for the blade on the axe being used for her execution, Agnes’ conversations with the priest that has been appointed to  prepare her for death, and the voice of an omniscient narrator, BURIAL RITES is one of those books that gets under your skin, slowly but surely.

Kent explores ideas like religious belief, the power of love, isolation, the absence of one final truth and the right to life with great subtlety. It would be easy to slip into melodrama given the subject matter, but Kent never does – the execution scene is exquisite in tone, pace and emotional impact. And what shines through is her obvious compassion for Agnes. Spellbinding, almost unbearably painful at times, and testimony to the way in which even the most simple acts of human kindness can transform our lives, whether we be the giver or the receiver, BURIAL RITES is a startling first novel and I look forward to more from Hannah Kent.

 

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THE SON by Jo Nesbo

the son by joe nesbo

The son of the title is Sonny Lofthus who has spent most of his adult life in prison, serving time for other people. A heroin addict, who grew up believing his father killed himself because he was a police mole, Sonny is good at keeping secrets and many of his fellow inmates confess their crimes to him as they search for absolution. One of those confessions prompts Sonny to question what he has been told about his father and so he kicks the drugs, breaks out of prison and embarks on a search for the truth and for justice. As a police manhunt gets underway, Sonny must also avoid the clutches of the head of Oslo’s criminal underworld, the Twin, whose vice like control over corrupt police officers, clergymen, prison wardens and drug pushers is in danger of being blown apart by Sonny the avenger. The police officer charged with finding and catching Sonny is Simon Kefas, reformed gambler and one time best friend of Abe Lofthus, Sonny’s father. Simon desperately wants to figure out what Sonny knows about Abe and why he’s now on a killing spree, and his affinity with the boy creates an ongoing conflict of interest. So too does having a wife who needs urgent and extortionately expensive surgery to save her sight and being caught up in a police investigation that brings Simon into contact with suitcases full of cash.

Fast paced and every bit as thrilling as Nesbo’s Harry Hole books, THE SON raises some interesting  questions about good and evil – I for one was rooting for Sonny the mass murderer for much of the book. With a climactic ending that’s heavy with revealed secrets, some strong female characters and plenty of unexpected twists, THE SON has lots going for it. I assume it’s a stand alone, but Nesbo likes to keep us guessing  and there’s certainly enough in here to constitute the beginning of a new series to rival his previous one.

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AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah by chimamanda ngozi adichie

This has been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. All too often I find the titles shortlisted for these awards a bit worthy and self obsessed but this is the exception – and it’s exceptional in every sense of the word. Glorious writing, a rich story and social commentary. An Observer review hits the nail on the head when it says ” There are some novels that tell a great story and others that make you change the way you look at the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a book that manages to do both.” I am very aware that nothing I can write about this novel will do it justice and have been almost evangelical in urging those whom I’ve spoken to since turning the last page to read it for themselves.

The tale of Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up and fall in love in Nigeria, are separated as she makes a life in the US and he in the UK, only for their paths to cross again much later back in Nigeria, AMERICANAH  immerses the reader in the messy gloriousness of different people living alongside one another.  Whether in a Lagos under military dictatorship, where teachers are on constant strike and the most prized possession is a visa that allows you to escape;  in a London where  middle class, self congratulatory dinner guests are impervious to the exploitation and desperation being played out a stone’s throw away; in a Brooklyn, where Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju works several jobs, buys only what’s on special offer at the store and changes the way she pronounces her name so as to fit in better; in a Manhattan loft where Obama’s election is a dream that comes true but dark skinned Michelle is the real sign of change; in a Philadelphia where finding a job without a work visa means being patronised by wealthy liberals or felt up by a man that needs help “relaxing” just so you can pay the rent; or in a Princeton that has no hair salons that cater for black hair but does have every possible type of organic, biodynamic, vegan juice on offer.

Adichie’s observations about race and culture give shape to each of the places Ifemelu and Obinze alight. She dissects their attitudes and those around them, with a humour that is too warm to be satire, yet is every bit as incisive. Ifemelu’s blog entries, which punctuate the novel, are an especially fine example – even down to the name of the blog  Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non- American Black. And it’s feisty, opinionated Ifemelu who’s the real star of the book, for me – along with the hair that she decides is the perfect metaphor for race. The Nigeria she returns to 15 years after leaving is an ambitious, forward looking country where education is still seen as the key to success. Sadly, as I was reading the book more than 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped by the Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram, in protest at girls receiving an education. As I write this, the group’s leader has announced he may sell them into “marriage”. Of coming back to Nigeria, Ifemelu says “Race doesn’t really work here. I feel I got off the plane and stopped being black.” That may be true, but it seems humankind can always find ways to deny people their rights and freedoms.

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