Tag Archives: gripping

SET THIS HOUSE IN ORDER by Matt Ruff

Matt Ruff’s other books have been, to put it mildly, riotous and this is no exception. The house of the title is a construct in the mind of Andy Gage, created as a means of managing his multiple personality disorder (MPD). Andy shares the house with over a hundred other souls, including his father, Aunt Sam, a boy named Jake, fighting fit Seferis and testosterone-fuelled  Adam. The mental landscape they occupy features a pumpkin patch, a pulpit where the souls go to communicate directly with Andy, a meeting room where everyone can convene, a lake with an island to which the soul Gideon has been banished, and a locked basement.

Learning how Andy satisfies the needs of all his personalities, draws on their different qualities and carefully holds together the whole is fascinating. The delicately balanced order by which he strives to live is in direct contrast to – and threatened by – the chaos that is the life of Penny Driver, otherwise known as ‘Mouse’, who also suffers from MPD and who crashes into Andy’s life thanks to his friend and boss, Julie Sivik. Julie owns and runs a not very successful tech company that’s developing virtual reality software. Both her frequent change of career and boyfriends, alongside the different tents within a warehouse structure of the workplace she has created, serve as gentle reminders that most of us consist of different selves, urges and interests – and that MPD is just that normality taken to extremes.

Andy suspects Julie’s motivations for hiring Mouse, believing she either wants to match make them or help ‘cure’ Mouse – if not both. Her agenda never become entirely clear but Andy and Mouse do develop a close relationship, as together they confront some of the causes of their disorder, the traumatic events of their pasts and go haring round the country getting into all sorts of potentially difficult situations when their different personalities take control. Mouse also gets to meet Andy’s doctor, thanks to an intervention by the evil twins Maledicta and  Malefica and her protector personality, ‘Thread’, a move which is the start of her getting her own house in order, albeit along a very different model to the one favoured by Andy.

This is a smart, fast paced novel that has multiple dimensions as well as personalities – far too many for me to capture or do justice to here.  Also featuring a 1957 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, a dilapidated real house on the verge of crashing to the ground, two broken-hearted police officers, heart-breaking emotional and physical abuse, regular notes to self, frequent mayhem, Harvest Moon diner, the gem that is Mrs Winslow, a hunt for a child murderer, a serious amount of swearing, and some seriously unexpected twists. Ruff has magnificently combined horror and humour to write a story that messes with your head and I challenge anyone not to get swept along in the strange whirlwind.

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UNDER A POLESTAR by Stef Penney

It’s 1948 and Flora Mackie is on an airplane heading for the Arctic Circle. She’s seated next to a young and irritating journalist, who insists on asking Flora all sorts of questions, when all she wants to do is remember….

This is an epic adventure and love story, with a mystery at its heart. From Flora’s first expedition aboard her father’s whaling ship in 1889, she falls head over heels with the ice, snow and people of northern Greenland, forging friendships that will last a lifetime and which are repeatedly rekindled when she heads up her own scientific expeditions to the Arctic as an adult. Flora breaks ground time and again, as a woman and as an explorer, railing against her male rivals and the media that have dubbed her ‘Snow Queen’. But she is limited in what she can do alone and all too often has to rely on men to help her fulfill her dreams. Flora’s passion for the North is matched only by her passion for Jakob de Beyn, an American, with whom she crosses paths when he’s a geologist on an expedition led by the ruthless Lester Armitage. There’s an inevitability about the doomed relationship between these star crossed lovers that’s only in part down to the reflective structure of Penney’s narrative, but it doesn’t detract from the intensity of their connection – or the heat they make to keep out all that cold.  The erotic heart of the novel burns deeply and is all the more powerful for being set in a context that’s interesting in its own right, as well as unpredicatble. For example, Armitage’s lies, recklessness and treatment of the Inuit in particular cast a new and less than flattering light on the brave explorers mythology that persists, even today.

Penney writes in exquisite detail of the discoveries made in the region at the time, of Flora and Jakob’s exploration of one another’s bodies, and the emotional landscapes they traverse as they conquer the inhospitable glaciers and frozen seas of the North. The ice is smelled as well as felt, heard and tasted. She’s created too in Flora in particular a beguiling and eminently likeable and admirable central character, and in common with Jakob, one who is the very definition of principled and good without being dull or smug. Penney also manages to craft a narrative that moves around in time and is at times timeless, and to do so with a clarity and mostly leisurely momentum that’s somehow difficult to resist.  Every bit as good as THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES, UNDER A POLE STAR is a beautiful story with a dark edge, beautifully told.

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LA BELLE SAUVAGE by Philip Pullman

I have had a handful of encounters with Philip Pullman through work, most recently in the run up to this year’s general election, when I called his house and his wife told me he wasn’t able to speak to anyone. He was busy writing. I have no idea whether he was working on LA BELLE SAUVAGE but I like to think he was, or perhaps on its sequel, and of him retreating from the madness of early summer in Oxford in 2017 to the wildness of the Oxford he created in HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and which is revisited here.

LA BELLE SAUVAGE goes back to one beginning, to the days when Lyra from the trilogy, is a baby. It explores the political and scientific forces trying to control her life and shape both her destiny and the world around them. Familiar characters such as Mrs Coulter and Coram the Gyptian, rub shoulders with wonderful new creations, including Malcolm and Alice, an unlikely duo who team up to protect baby Lyra as a flood of biblical proportions sweeps through Oxford and its famed colleges.  And of course, the daemons are back too, from Panatalaimon to a whole new cast including a very disturbed and damaged hyena.

Pullman draws on and is inspired by a wealth of stories, myths, ideas and legends. He does so with confidence and imagination. What is essentially a simple narrative about a baby being chased down, becomes the most glorious, captivating, magical tale in his hands. Just as good as the originals and I profoundly hope that if I were to call his house again, Pullman is working hard on the next installment. I cannot wait.

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THE GIRL WHO TAKES AN EYE FOR AN EYE by David Lagercrantz

The latest installment in the Millennium series sees  Lisbeth Salander come to the defence of a young Muslim girl, in prison for murdering her brother,  the exposure of more shocking revelations about her own past, and a social eugenics experiment that separates high achieving twins at birth.

The core cast is the same. Lagercrantz introduces a new perspective on violence against women with  an honour killing whilst remaining true to how we expect Salander to respond. And the  journalist Blomvkist is back in prime bed hopping and investigatory mode. But that’s where the similarities with Larsson’s books ends. Most notably the energy that Salander and Blomvkist exude is largely absent. In fact we barely spend any time with her, despite her being the real draw of the series, and the book suffers as a result. Lagercrantz’s new characters are either pantomime villains or bland victims.  And unlike the clever complicated plots Larsson wove, this story has over complex threads that never really come together, some even just fizzle out. It’s still gripping stuff but not anything like as good as it ought to be given what the author has to play with.

Disappointing.

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THE ICE by Laline Paul

I was reading this as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck the Americas and an estimated 40 million people were affected by flooding in South Asia. Anyone who still thinks the climate isn’t changing and that the effects are not dangerous isn’t paying attention. Paull has set her novel in a chilling and not too distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted and multi nationals compete to exploit the new business and shipping opportunities that have opened up. It revolves around two close friends, Greenpeace campaigner Tom Harding and his university friend and global entrepreneur Sean Cawson. It opens with a cruise ship  detouring for a rare sighting of a polar bear and instead finding Tom’s frozen dead body, revealed by the melting ice of the Midgard glacier.

What ensues is a fascinating story about the pair’s different journeys and choices, a searing commentary on the corruption, lies and motivation of the corporations seeking to profit from investment in the Arctic region, and a thrilling and emotionally charged drama as the inquest into Tom’s death unfolds. Sean trades in exclusivity, discretion and powerful connections. He has created a retreat at Midgard for the world’s elites – and Tom has been persuaded to get on board to provide ethical and environmental credibility. When a visit to Midgard ends in tragedy, Sean is forced to confront his role in events and the value of the life he has created for himself.

The beating heart of THE ICE is a tension between two different takes on humankind, captured in one particular scene between Tom and Joe Kingsmith, Sean’s long term mentor and financial backer. The latter mocks Tom’s idealism: “Your beautiful idea of everyone pulling together only happens in the movies, war and sport”. Tom counters with an assertion that “People are better than you think.”  Paull uses small but perfectly chosen details to illustrate the vast gulf between Tom and Sean’s ideologies – one of my favourite is an aside about the Tom Harding Bequest, his friend has established, worth £100,000 and set to awarded in the first year to “Imperial College for the newly patented biodegradable Fruit-Fly drones, nano-tiny and with unprecedented maneuverability”. Very little could be further from the natural world that’s been the focus of Tom’s life work.

The friends share an lifelong obsession with the Arctic and each chapter is prefaced by a short passage taken from older writing and accounts about the region – including the effects of gangrene and an 1893 excerpt from an explorer’s journal which describes movement in the ice as “Nature’s giants… awakening to the battle.” The overall effect is of a moving and very gritty eulogy for the frozen region we have lost forever. “Climate change was too big to care about, too vague to talk about, and was just – unsexy” reflects Sean at one point. Paull has proven that literature has a leading role to play in challenging that perception. But THE ICE is a gripping story even without its dramatic backdrop of climate breakdown and Paull doesn’t labour her environmental subtext – she doesn’t need to when it speaks  so powerfully for itself. Lines like “Record deaths this month both sides of the Schengen Fences” seem almost throwaway.  The combination of personal conviction, politics and corporate greed really made it stand out for me though. A truly impressive book and a more than worth follow up to THE BEES. If it doesn’t touch you deeply, you aren’t paying attention.

 

1893

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YOU DON’T KNOW ME by Imran Mahmood

The idea of this bold debut novel is really smart and original. A young man, in court facing murder charges, sacks his lawyer and makes his own closing speech, arguing that the jury deserve to know the whole truth, not just the sanitised, edited version he has previously been advised to tell them. The truth is a story involving drugs, gangs, guns, corruption, modern day slavery and  extortion. Most importantly, it gives the jurors insight into a world none of them is likely to have experienced – other than perhaps as news headlines – and into the difficult decisions a young black man growing up in London’s subculture faces every day.

Mahmood is himself a lawyer so, as might be expected, the novel is one long well crafted argument, rich in precise detail. The defendant’s voice is credible and authentic – even as his story stretches credibility and exposes him on a number of fronts, including as a liar. That conflict is at the heart of YOU DON’T KNOW ME, which raises all kinds of challenging moral and legal dilemmas. If someone has been dishonest once, does that mean everything they say is untrue? If they have broken other laws, does it mean they are guilty of murder?

Set out as a court transcript, this book had me rattling through it and I was entirely caught up in the world Mahmood has captured, as well as the twists and turns of the defence statement. And then the book finished – really abruptly – and I almost hurled it across the room. Not just because of the abruptness, but because we never learn if the defendant’s found guilty or not – and I really wanted to know. I get that the reader is the jury and gets to make up their own mind but I was expecting more than that – I wanted to cheer if the defendant got off and be angry if he didn’t. I get that Mahmood is writing about moral ambiguity, and how innocent until proven guilty means suspending disbelief, and how what really matters is the truth, but none of that would have been lost by giving us a verdict. The absence of one made me feel hoodwinked and spoilt what, until that point, had been a brilliant novel.

So if you don’t mind books that end with more questions than answers, I’d thoroughly recommend YOU DON’T KNOW ME, for it’s hugely successful attempt to take on some of the prejudices and tensions at the heart of the justice system. If, like me, you prefer books that end with clarity and resolution, you have been warned.

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HE SAID/SHE SAID by Erin Kelly

he said she said by erin kelly

Laura and Kit witness a rape whilst at an eclipse festival in Cornwall.They call the police and are called as witnesses in support of the survivor, Beth Taylor. So begins a nightmare that sees their lives turned upside down and their trust in one another destroyed.

Kelly deploys the classic unreliable narrator technique to great effect here and I never really knew who was being honest or accurate. She steadily reveals crucial details and doesn’t give too much away until right at the close. It’s a very atmospheric novel too, with a growing and claustrophobic sense of the past closing in on the present, and an ever present undercurrent of latent violence. Laura’s pregnancy and high levels of anxiousness, coupled with Kit’s obsession with chasing eclipses moments all add to the mood.

Clever, never cliched and deeply compelling, this is Broadchurch in book form (and in fact she has written a best selling novel inspired by that TV series). Perfect for the beach and whiling away sunny days.

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