Tag Archives: gripping

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

It seems that almost every modern day US based book  and TV programme or film I watch at the moment is speaking to me about Trump’s America, and BEFORE THE FALL is no exception, featuring as it does a news channel established to make news rather than report it and an outspoken host Bill Milligan that specialises in fake news and in telling us “what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out in life was not that we were losers but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours”.

The book opens with a private jet crashing into the sea a few miles from Martha’s Vineyard. On board were media mogul and David Bateman, his wife Maggie and their 2 children, his security detail, a small crew,  a Wall Street financier, Ben Kipling, and his wife,  and a painter, Scott Burroughs, who Maggie knows from the farmers market.  Only Scott and the Bateman’s 4 year old son JJ survive, thanks to a daring rescue which sees Scott heroically swim for several hours to shore, JJ in tow.

From this action packed start, the novel evolves into something much subtler than the thriller I first expected. It alternates between looking forward and the aftermath of the crash, and looking back at the every day and not so every day events that preceded each passenger stepping on board the plane. Driving everything is the the unresolved question of whether the crash was an accident or not, as investigators hunt for the bodies and wreckage to try to piece together what happened. What they’ll never discover is the same level of privileged access into each individual’s state of mind that Hawley allows his readers, yet this knowledge doesn’t give us any extra insight into what caused the crash – that happens in real time as the investigating team firstly see the wreck though camera’s strapped to divers’ helmets, then study the readings from the black box, and finally hear a voice recording of the co-pilot as the plane goes down. The penny drops for everyone simultaneously.

Who knows what and how is a recurrent theme of the book, with Milligan hacking Scott’s phone and using his TV show to reveal all kinds of “secrets”. Its runs parallel with another theme about watching and being watched, with Hawley posing a series of questions about the relationship between camera and individual, how we are affected by it and what  it looks like when the media crosses a line and reporting becomes intrusion. “Does the television exist for us to watch…or do we exist to watch television?” His treatment of corporate America and the wealthy that inhabit it is scathing. Some of the most memorable scenes are those involving Kipling’s aggressive lawyer, the saddest those in which JJ’s aunt comes to terms with the greedy entitlement of her waster husband’s response to  the boy’s inheritance.

BEFORE THE FALL is a smart and insightful book that is a particular kind of success because it captures the space between the selves we choose to project, the ones we seek to define – “the unemployed mother of a toddler or, more precisely, the pampered wife of a millionaire” is Maggie’s variation  – and the ones our actions may or may not reveal. Family features strongly, as does the idea of life as one long lesson, that sometimes “the only way to learn not to play with fire is to go up in flames”. And as Hawley  explores both what constitutes the truth and what makes someone a survivor, I really like that in a messy, morally challenged world he grants his characters control of these very simple things.  It’s this that raises a cracking good story to another level and what kept me turning page after page long after I should have been asleep. It’s this that I want to hear about Trump’s America.

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DIFFERENT CLASS by Joanne Harris

“There is no risk assessment for Life. And Life is what we are teaching.”

Joanne Harris once again mines the same rich seams of St Oswald’s School for Boys as she’s done in BLUE EYED BOY and GENTLEMAN & PLAYERS. This time it’s 2005 and the school governors have appointed a new crisis management team, who come bearing such dubious gifts as rebranding advice, paperless workplace policies and joint classes with sixth formers from the nearby Mulberry Girls School. Latin master Roy Straitley is up in arms, especially when the identity of the new superhead is revealed as Jonny Harrington, one of his least favourite ex pupils and who is now “double-dipped in a toxic brew of arrogance and sanctity.”

Straitley’s narrative is interspersed with one from the 1980s, when the school was rocked by a scandal involving his close friend, English teacher Richard Clarke. As each layer unfolds we learn about a web of disturbing secrets. Unifying past and present is the question of reputation – how far we might go to protect it, what it’s based on, whether it’s deserved and how much it shapes how we respond to people or events.

Harris’ trademark ability to mix unreliable voices and dark humour with a glorious grasp of human nature is evident throughout. So too is her alertness to hypocrisy and apparent admiration for values such as loyalty and friendship. And, as in previous St Oswald’s novels, she displays her ongoing fascination with class, pitting the grammar school boys against those from the Sunnybank Estate where “there’s a whole language of spitting…It’s got its own grammar, and everything.”

I especially enjoyed the tension between the old school and would be modernisers at St Oswald’s – and Harris’ sympathy for the way things have always been done, for the compassionate neglect that seems under attack. “In my experience, pastoral care and paperwork exist in inverse proportion to each other, like common sense and training” declares Straitley, who rebels against the use of email, health and safety, the fast tracking of his younger colleagues up the career ladder and all advice about smoking less, exercising more and laying off the saturated fat. DIFFERENT CLASS allows Straitley to celebrate a number of small victories – reminders that not all progress is necessarily better than the past it replaces. His days are numbered though and Harris clearly thinks that’s a tragedy, for all he’s gently mocked.

A seductive novel, adorned with blackmail, murder, licquorice all sorts, homophobia and chalk dust, DIFFERENT CLASS plays out cleverly like the game of chess to which Harris herself deliberately invites comparisons. As a whole though it feels less like a homage to life as a series of winning moves to gain the upper hand,  and more as celebration of turning up and taking part. 

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THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

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I loved Donoghue’s last novel, ROOM, but wasn’t sure I’d like this as much because its setting is historical – 19th century Ireland to be precise. In fact it’s almost as good and her story telling abilities drew me in from the offset.

The plot is quite simple: Lib, a Nightingale nurse trained in the Crimea, is contracted to watch over eleven year old, Anna, who appears to have survived 4 months of self imposed fasting with no ill effects. The local community think Anna is a holy miracle in their midst, and a committee made up of the local priest, doctor, publican and baronet want independent verification that all is as it seems, not least so they might fully benefit from her potential as a religious tourist attraction. Lib is joined in her task by a local nun and the pair take turns to watch over Anna, monitor her condition and observe whether she is indeed faith personified or in fact a fraud.

Lib is convinced Anna is getting food from somewhere and that she will find her out immediately. So when her thorough searches of the family’s most basic of homes reveals no evidence the girl is eg sneaking into the kitchen at night, she turns her attention elsewhere and variously suspects the doctor, the priest, her nursing colleague the nun and both parents. Hitting related brick walls it’s only as Anna’s condition deteriorates rapidly severely, that Lib is forced to change tack. In doing so she confronts the difficult truth that it is her own presence making Anna sick – that the very act of being observed has changed the subject of the investigation. Buoyed by the words of a passionate journalist she meets at her lodgings, and her growing attachment to the young girl, Lib determines that the matter of miracles must take a backseat to persuading Anna to eat to stay alive. To do that she must better understand why Anna stopped in the first place and that discovery makes Lib wonder whether the girl will ever be safe.

One of the most striking things about WONDER is Lib’s scorn for Ireland and everyone she meets there. She rails at the poverty, ignorance, superstitions and religious fervour. And her fury at the damp and the peat smoke that permeate everything is palpable. Lib stands for progress, for science, yet this is sorely tested as the story unfolds, and she finds herself having to draw on aspects of  the very same faith and folklore she despises in order to save Anna from the inevitable consequences of starvation.

The other most striking thing is the same sense of claustrophobia and oppression that marked out ROOM. But Lib isn’t really in a contained physical space – just one of her own making – and one of the downsides of this novel is that she has the freedom to act sooner and more actively challenge what is so obviously going on, so her refusal to do so is both frustrating and calls her moral superiority into question. We know her reaction to Anna is complicated by a backstory that contains loss and grief, but that doesn’t quite excuse her failure to see what’s staring her in the face, or the way her assumptions about Ireland lead her to wrongly assume all sorts of things about the situation in which she finds herself. Donoghue has given as a flawed protagonist and that’s OK, but she’s also given us one who doesn’t quite measure up to her own self or experiences and that’s less forgivable. Nonetheless, this is a good book, with strong, interesting characters and a compelling narrative – definitely worth the read.

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A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

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This book picks up the story of Teddy Todd, from LIFE AFTER LIFE,  granted a reprieve at the end of that novel and and who survives a bombing mission and a prisoner of war camp to return home. Whilst flying a record number of missions and repeatedly unsure if he has a future, Teddy vows that if he survives he will just be kind. A GOD IN RUINS tells how he tries to keep that promise, living a life, that, after the war, is unremarkable in many ways, with Teddy the very definition of stoic. It could make for a very dull read but this is Atkinson, so it’s quite the opposite.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE Atkinson’s narrative thread turned on the alternative paths that might be followed if seemingly small events turned out differently. In A GOD IN RUINS she picks a similarly unusual structure, this time based around memories. The novel moves around a great deal in time, between Teddy’s childhood, the war, his marriage to Nancy (whose family lived next door to the house at Fox Corner where he grew up), the arrival of his own daughter and then of grandchildren, and old age and his final days in a nursing home. It often segues between these not in any apparent order but because what happens in one thread prompts recollection of an earlier episode – that might be the sight of a girl on a bicycle, finding a much treasured clock whilst packing to move house, or lines from poetry. Oft repeated refrains tie things together, as they do in our own lives, whether it’s Nancy’s exhortation “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”, the appearance of a skylark, or the way in which all the Todd family conjure an idealised past with their litany of the flowers that grew near Fox Corner, “flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion, the ox-eye daisies”.

The overall effect is of feeling we have truly shared someone’s life with them – both the every day mundane and the stand out highlights. What’s very special about this book is that, although essentially a catalogue of events, we nonetheless experience Teddy’s life more as the relationships that hold him together.  Most of us tend to look back and forward in time by way of specific moments, whether they are quiet or of heightened drama, yet Atkinson’s novel celebrates these moments more for their  long and short term consequences on how we interact with our fellow human beings, and in Teddy she gives us a character whom she clearly admires for embodying awareness that it is the point of it all. In turn, his daughter, Viola, is mocked relentlessly for her obliviousness to this universal truth and it’s striking that Atkinson’s trademark satire, of which Viola is the most common victim, is far harsher here than in her other novels.

One of the most moving aspects of A GOD IN RUINS is the sense we have of life being wasted, whether it’s viscerally in the horrific sixty million dead overall from the Second World War or more indirectly from the way in which the past infects the present – at one point Teddy’s grandson reflects that he has no idea “how to get a life” and resents his grandfather’s generation, “They’d been given history.” Atkinson’s book is peppered with various utopias, about which she’s largely rather impatient – make the most of what you have, here and now, she seems to be telling us. You get one shot and this it is. Like Teddy, just be kind and appreciate being given a future. The totally unexpected twist at the end of the novel, and that I am still resisting – hard – but, which I have to hand to Atkinson, is perfect in almost every way, underscores her theme. And after all, as Teddy remarks when he finds out his sister is having an affair,  nothing should really surprise us, because, “The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”

Teddy’s existence encompasses horrors beyond belief (“people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars”) and small lies (the stain on an old photo is blood not tea), it is part of history and crosses centuries, there’s unbridled passion and the safety of an altogether less demanding kind of love,  it is vast and at the same time no bigger than his predilection for saving rubber bands. And at the end, a beautiful end, there’s no prize for having endured “its never ending grinding labour”, no “afterward after all“, just “time tilting” and, if you are lucky, having someone by your side who can make you feel loved.

Breathtaking, magnificent, dazzling and heartbreaking, according to the reviews printed on the front cover, A GOD IN RUINS is all these things and more. But crucially, it’s truthful and it’s real, and I think therein lies the incredible impact it had on me.

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THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

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sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water

Evie is haunted by her past. A past in which she spent one summer at a free love commune, in thrall to the dangerously charismatic and delusional Russell Hadrick and, perhaps even more so, to the girls that hung around him. The summer ended in mass murder.

Unhappy and bored as she waits out the weeks before being dispatched to boarding school, Evie lives with her mother, cringing at the recent divorcee’s efforts to find herself, a new boyfriend, and her inner thinner more beautiful being. Best friend Connie and even her older brother are an increasingly ineffective distraction, so when Evie encounters the long haired, sullen, provocative Suzanne, stealing toilet roll from the store, she is immediately smitten by the prospect of breaking out of her dull existence.

Suzanne invites Evie to the ranch that’s home to Russell and hangers on, and it’s not long before she has her first sexual encounter with him. But it’s her encounters with the girls that really change and shape Evie and Cline has captured perfectly that time in a teenager’s life when girlfriends are your entire world and everything is viewed through the prism of how they might react. She’s also nailed the underlying cultural norms that contribute to such behaviour, along with the vulnerability, desperation and poor self esteem that makes some young girls so at risk of exploitation and abuse.

At one point Evie reflects: “I waited to be told what was good about me” and “all that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” Being noticed is a recurring theme for Evie, unable to hide her longing to be someone else. As an adult, she is hugely sensitive to the young girls she finds campaigning for their own existence, “before finally giving up”. And as a teenager, the only time she seems to notice the absence of absence inside her is when she takes drugs or fills up with hatred for her mother: “it was almost nice, how big it was, how pure and intense”.

No wonder she’s so drawn to Suzanne, the first person to really look at Evie. Whose “face answered all its own questions” and who seems the very opposite of the resignation, being overlooked and being backed into someone else’s corner that Evie assumes is her fate.  Suzanne represents a turning point, with life before “limited and expected, objects and people occupying their temperate orbits” and life afterwards “come into sharp, mysterious relief, revealing a world beyond the known world.” The other girls on the ranch are similarly drawn to Suzanne’s combination of worldliness, affection and challenge. She is a skilled prophet too, proselytizing on Russell’s behalf, delivering his judgments and girls.  When Russell incites murder, it’s Suzanne who makes it all happen, who eggs them on, and it’s Suzanne who, whether deliberately or not, ensures Evie isn’t implicated.

It’s almost impossible to read this book apart from the knowledge of the events that inspired it – the Charles Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate and her family. One of the Manson cult’s trademarks was to break into empty houses and disturb them a little, to mess with the occupants’ heads. The girls do the same. But Cline’s sympathy for the fictional girls, who are portrayed  as victims as much as killers, is strongly evident and is what ultimately stops this being a simple retelling of the Manson story. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand how such things can happen – even a warn that they are perhaps not so unlikely once you understand the way girls are made to feel, and the way men feel they are made to behave.

Evie says of her teenage self, “At that age I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.” What’s striking about the sections of the book set in the present is that she seems to still be inhabiting that space – as well as projecting it onto others. This is never clearer than in the closing scene, when she’s running on the beach and expects to be confronted, if not attacked, by a man coming towards her. A man who, headphones plugged in and  lost in a world of his own, has in fact not even noticed her. It’s an ending that I found immensely frustrating at the time but seems very fitting now, with some distance. After all, being noticed only matters if you define yourself in relation to others. Or, as Cline puts it, “even at the end, the girls had always been stronger than Russell”.

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

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A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

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I was in Wales for a few days over New Year and over a lovely relaxed evening meal was trying to explain to someone I was only meeting for the second time just why I loved this book – and I think I came across as rather blood thirsty and vengeful! It’s about a future reality in which the vast majority of women have developed the ability to inflict enormous amounts of pain on others by way of electric shocks delivered through their fingers – and about the anthropological impact of possessing such physical power. I loved it.

The story is about a period of immense change known as the Cataclysm and during which women’s physical power was awoken. A period of time some 5000 years or so prior to when the book is being written and which roughly equates to the early 21st century – or so we deduce thanks to the appearance of an i-pad, which that far in the future is judged to be some kind of plate like implement thanks to the apple motif.  Four different narrators are our main protagonists: Allie, abused by her foster carers as a young girl and who reinvents herself as Mother Eve. Roxy, daughter of a crime boss who sees her mother murdered and fights back, as well as her way into the top echelons of her father’s business.  Margot, an ambitious politician whose daughter doesn’t have the same levels of power as other women (and in whose narrative we get the prescience of a shock US election result courtesy of an electorate choosing lies, immorality and strength over reasoned discourse and calm authority ). And Tunde, the only man and a Nigerian journalist who documents the riots, wars and upheaval caused as different parts of the world adapt to or resist a new reality. These sections are book ended by an exchange of correspondence between the author and a colleague, sharing feedback, reflecting on the recent discovery of historical artefacts, theorising about what life was like before the Cataclysm, and discussing how their work will sit in the political and social context of the day. Alderman’s final line is a smart, sad, laugh out loud, killer than I am smiling wryly just thinking about. It’s worth reading the entire book just for that pleasure.

Let me clarify here and now what I failed to get across during my new year dinner table conversation – the reason I loved THE POWER is because I don’t want one gender to systematically humiliate, oppress, threaten, undermine, rape, abuse and  kill another, and by turning the tables so comprehensively, Naomi Alderman has laid bare the everyday reality we currently inhabit and which is just as shocking as her fictional one. In some countries post Cataclysm men are denied the right to drive and even have their genitals mutilated. Such parallels are obvious but many other extremes of this fictional dystopia are so entrenched that it would be easy to overlook the extent to which they are a powerful part of the present. In a lesser writers’ hands, the point might have been laboured a little too hard but, with a few notable exceptions and mainly in Tunde’s parts of the narrative, Alderman doesn’t do this and her restraint makes THE POWER all the more impressive.

The novel tackles religion, politics, personal relationships. It explores how girls learn to control their power and the alienation felt by those who don’t have it. It doesn’t describe or judge women based on their looks but on what they do, say and think, though Tunde is sexually objectified on a number of occasions. It examines when girls become women, how written and oral stories shape our understanding of history and herstory, whether the ability to inflict pain causes more damage to the wielder or the victim, whether matriarchal societies are kinder than patriarchal ones, the link between violence and power, and whether certain power structures, belief systems and hierarchies are likely to emerge because we are all alike or because of our differences. We get cults, conspiracy theories galore, corruption and control via opiates. In other words, Alderman’s not afraid to take on a lot and mostly she does so with skill and humour. The characters are  a little more two dimensional than I’d have liked but I can forgive this because the whole is so brilliant – energetic, angry and clever. This is how I like my sci-fi and, whilst THE POWER has just sneaked in at the end of 2016, I think it may just be one of my favourite books of the year.

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