The book has a classic opener: teenage parents, Tallulah and Zach, vanish on the night he takes her out to propose to her. Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is left behind to take care of their child Noah. What follows are three narratives – one which take us up to the moment of the couple’s disappearance, told from Tallulah’s perspective; another one that relays the impromptu investigation of the disappearance by the new headmaster’s partner, Sophie; and finally the third thread that interlocks the other two, told from the point of view of Tallulah’s mother.
The plotting is tight, precise and gripping. Jewell leaves herself no room for error: everything flows, links and weaves together. Every new chapter introduces a new nugget of information – another revelation, another hook, and another diversion. Ultimately, all threads lead relentlessly to the conclusion that is inescapable and yet unpredictable. The drip of information and the transformations of the main characters’ emotions and attitudes give the reader a sense of discovery as if I, the patient and diligent reader, have reached the conclusion all under my own steam. I could not find any gaps or any loose ends in Jewell’s plotting. All my questions were answered in the end.
Jewell constructs deep and complex characters. They are believable if unorthodox. Tallulah, a quiet and unassuming mother and social care student, undergoes a rebellious identity crisis any typical teenager would be susceptible to without, for one second, losing her love for and devotion to her baby. Her mother Kim is pitted against Zach’s mother Meg in a few master strokes of Jewell’s pen. Scarlett, the seductive, entitled femme fatale is burdened with her own vulnerabilities. The level-headed Liam shocks towards the end. And so on – the gallery of characters is rich, multi-dimensional and memorable.
The language takes the back seat to the story. It is clean, precise, unobtrusive – a bit Hemingway-esque. All and all, another cracking read from Lisa Jewell.
Eight-year-old Chrissie is a child-killer. She is pleased with her effort – it gives that fizzy, sherbet-like feeling in the depths of her stomach. She can hardly contain herself from telling others that it was her, but, being a neglected and unloved little girl and the poorest from an already very poor housing estate, she has a strong sense of self-preservation, so she keeps her secret to herself. Not to mention that she doesn’t really understand death – her da had been declared “dead” by her ma on a few occasions but always managed to come back. But Steven, the toddler Chrissie throttled, seems unable to rise from the dead and his death endures to Chrissie’s bemusement. Twenty years later, Chrissie has a new identity as Julie and a daughter of her own. She believes that she is undeserving of motherhood, and fears that her child will be taken away from her. Julie picks up where Chrissie has left off and embarks on a journey of re-discovery and cautious redemption. The narrative oscillates between Chrissie’s and Julie’s stories which complement each other perfectly.
This is a harrowing read, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, whatever your reading preferences. It has a lasting resonance, a heart and a soul, and most of all – conscience. Chrissie’s voice is captured brilliantly. The little girl’s loneliness, despair, her everyday struggle for survival and love are heart-wrenching. Her anger is palpable. Each of her life’s raw disappointments hit me hard as an adult and member of the society that has made this child into what she is. Despite the bleak and gory subject there is a message of hope in this book: people aren’t born evil and they certainly don’t have to remain so. All it takes is for someone to care.
Other characters are also wonderfully observed and drawn: Chrissie’s inept mother, Chrissie’s best friend, the sister of the boy Chrissie’s has killed, Chrissie’s absentee-father… The commentary on our society is damning, but not the commentary on our humanity.
Freddie, a fifteen-year-old youngster, returns home after a night out to announce to his parents that he has killed someone. That is the dramatic opening of “The Lies We Tell”. What follows is a background story of Freddie’s parents, Sarah and Tom, told in the first-person narrative, starting from the moment they met. Slowly and reluctantly Sarah and Tom reveal their own dark secrets to each other which ultimately destabilises their already shaky marriage filled with doubts, incompatibility and mistrust. Following this long and detailed introduction spanning the first twenty years of their marriage, the story picks up again at the point of Freddie’s revelation. Drastic parental actions are taken (I won’t reveal what they are), but ultimately there comes the day of reckoning with a final twist, which isn’t as much shocking as it is unpredictable due to the introduction of a couple of new characters.
I enjoy book by Jane Corry, but this one is slightly different in that it isn’t a tight and fast-paced thriller, but rather a family drama. The long section that takes us linearly through the history of Sarah and Tom’s marriage does not conform to the definition of the genre.
Although it isn’t “thrilling” the book is certainly thought provoking and emotionally charged. I didn’t find Sarah’s character believable, but her dilemma and her reactions made me reflect on what I would do in her place.
“A Quiet Life in the Country” is the first book in Lady Hardcastle Mysteries. Both Lady Hardcastle and her faithful lady’s maid/companion are introduced as they arrive on the scene and settle in their new home in West Country. They begin to make friends amongst the land gentry, the “new money” and the lower classes.
They are unfortunate enough to discover a body of a hanged man and embark on a discreet investigation into the circumstances of his death. While they are at it they mingle with the locals which enables the author to present the locality and historical setting of this series really well.
The story is told in the first person by the unexpectedly eloquent lady’s maid who seems to be very well travelled and educated (presumably thanks to being Lady Hardcastle’s companion). The banter between the main characters is witty. It is also unusually egalitarian and societally uninhibited.
All in all a relaxing and amusing historical cozy.
If you enjoy light, amusing and elegant humour and would relish the thrills and chills of the supernatural kind, the Something Wicked is definitely for you.
Lord Penrith is murdered by exsanguination, with only two drops of his blood left on the carpet. When an investigation into his bizarre death commences, two worlds collide, but not necessarily clash: the modern and rational world of detective Galbraith and the darkly mysterious, ancient world of secret agent, Pole. They are the worlds of humans and vampires. Williams pits the two characters against each other and at the same time brings them together rather amicably in their collaboration to track down the killer.
London features prominently in this novella. The author’s intimacy with its boroughs, squares, back alleys and all its unique rhymes and rhythms is evident. The late night’s excursion into Brompton Cemetery will send a shiver down your spine, but don’t fear – it won’t give you nightmares. This humorous detective thriller isn’t a horror. And did I mention the thrills of tango?
Williams doesn’t fail to bring history into the equation – after all, his day job is writing historical fiction. I enjoyed his exposé on the arrival of vampires in Britain and the bargain Pole (then Ivan Paolo) had struck with Charles II.
All in all, a quick fun read that will take you out of the box of grey reality.
On the run from the Holy Inquisition, Giordano Bruno arrived in England and travelled to Oxford, seeking professorship with Oxford University. SJ Parris used these historical facts to spin a fast-past and intricate crime thriller set in 1583 – during the turbulent reign of Elizabeth I when assassination plots, religious persecutions and political intrigue ruled the day.
Bruno is recruited by Walsingham to act as his spy and to uncover any catholic conspiracies against the queen. It is suspected that such conspiracies are operated by those of the prestigious Oxford academia who secretly adhere to the old faith and refuse to recognise Elizabeth’s legitimacy. Bruno has his own personal reasons to visit Oxford University library – he is searching for a prohibited occultist manuscript he believes may have found its way to England.
As soon as Bruno sets foot at the College a body of one of the Fellows is found mauled viciously by a diabolical dog, the death disturbingly resonant of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. At the insistence of the College Rector, the death is dismissed as an unfortunate accident. But soon another death follows and its similarity to yet another martyred saint cannot be ignored. Bruno is requested to investigate. He ventures into the secret world of sectarian Oxford and over the next few, action-packed days, risking his own life – and heart – follows the clues to make stunning discoveries and not only find the killer but also learn hard-hitting truths about devotion, love and passion, obsession and the all-destroying power of religious convictions.
The historical setting of the tumultuous Elizabethan era in general and the scholarly Oxford in particular provides a rich and intriguing background for a gripping thriller with a multi-layered and complex plot, vivid characters and a historically accurate theme. Bruno is an interesting protagonist: a man possessed of an open mind in the world rife with bigotry and dogmatism, a humanist and scientist, a survivor and a pragmatic idealist. I will be reading more of this series.
The End of Men was already on my kindle (courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley) when I heard an interview with the author on Radio 4. In that interview Christina Sweeney-Baird mentioned that she had made references to The Power when submitting her manuscript. I was disappointed. I didn’t want another book about the male-female reversal of fortunes and about power corrupting women in the same way as it would men. I didn’t want another book where the pronoun he/him would be replaced with she/her. I almost didn’t read The End of Men.
I am so glad that I put aside my reservations and dug into it! Apart from the common denominator of men becoming vulnerable and women holding the balance of survival (and ensuing power) in their hands, The End of Men is nothing like Power. It is incomparably better, in my opinion.
There is subtlety and many different layers of emotions here as Sweeny-Baird explores a world where the male population becomes decimated (literally to the tenth of its original number) and women have to take over the reins. No cheap gloating, primitive vengeance or abuse of power ever enters the page. When the virus attacks their men, women go through what any human being of any gender would: initial disbelief transforms into an instinct of preservation and protectiveness, loss brings on immeasurable grief, the disintegration of the world inspires action, resourcefulness, survival and regeneration. Many women (and one man) narrate/are the protagonists in this book and each of them tells her (or his) own unique story of metamorphosis. The story of Amanda (the doctor who first discovered the virus and identified Patient Zero) and Catherine (the anthropologist who after an unsuccessful attempt at escaping and saving her loved ones, begins to research and record the events and their impact on individual lives) are the two leading threads. But there are many more characters, each with their own reactions to the challenge of the pandemic. There are personal, deeply intimate stories, but also wider events on a larger, geo-political scale tacked in this book. The book reads in places like a factual account – a dramatized real -life occurrence.
The End of Men rings true. Although it is a work of fiction, it touches on the subject of pandemic that changes the world and the traditional male-female roles beyond recognition. As we have all just gone through a life- and society-transforming pandemic, it is easy to believe in this tale and the possibilities it contemplates. But it isn’t just about the pandemic. After WWII in which many men died, women had to take charge of their families, communities, and the future of the world. Women took on new “masculine” careers. This sort of a challenge to the established traditional values of our society is not new. Sweeney-Baird treats it with great sensitivity and insight.
This story is told by Ellen. It begins with her death in a car accident, but it isn’t a story of what happens to her after death. It is about the people who keep her rooted on earth: her daughter Naomi (who survives the accident to Ellen’s unmitigated relief), her bereaved and desperately lost husband Marc who is trying to pull together the loose ends of their family life, and her difficult mother with her own life falling apart.
McCormick spins a moving tale of life interrupted, the unfinished business of love for one’s family, regrets and consuming yearning. Ultimately, it is a life-affirming tale of surviving a personal catastrophe and moving on.
There are many heart-rending moments. I must confess that I welled up a few times. But there is also plenty of humour and hope. George, the apprentice angel, provides some loud-out-lough comic relief and I chuckled a lot at some domestic situations which were both realistic and hilarious. McCormick has a good eye for details and situational comedy.
Overall, The Things I Should’ve Said and Done is a poignant story, told beautifully and with great assurance. Despite its paranormal theme, it is credible and true-to-life.
We meet Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward – the future king of England, as she is taken hostage by Gilbert de Clare, lord of Gloucester. It is the perilous time of the Second Barons’ War against King Henry III. The leader of the pack, Simon de Montfort, controls most of the country and holds the king and his supporters checkmated. Separated from her beloved husband, Eleanor is forced into penury and swears revenge. This is a dynamic and tense introduction to the heroine of Carol McGrath’s biopic novel, The Damask Rose.
The story of her life unfolds in dramatic episodes that defined her and Edward’s rule: the defeat of the barons, his coronation, a crusade and retaking of Acre, an attempted assassination and a whole array of political and diplomatic machinations on the domestic and international front. The main players of the era, such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, enter the scene. The settings extend beyond the shores of Britain and into France and Italy. European socio-economic dynamics form the backdrop to Eleanor’s story.
McGrath is sympathetic towards Eleanor, but that doesn’t prevent her from being honest about who she was: a smart and tough businesswoman who accumulated an extensive property portfolio and handled it with cunning expertise. She was also a mother who wasn’t motherly, but then again the mortality rate of newborn and young children didn’t allow much room to form emotional attachments, at least not until her children were older. Eleanor of Castile did not bow to the stereotypical female models of the Middle Ages – her strong personality and life skills would stand her in good stead were she to travel in time to the twenty-first century. She could brave our reality with no difficulty, I imagine.
There is another heroine of this story, Olwen. She is a humble herbalist and Eleanor’s companion, confidante and on occasion even her spy. Her loyalty to her mistress is unsurpassed, but she also has her own story which flows in parallel to Eleanor’s but somewhat more idly and with greater intimacy. After all, Olwen doesn’t hold the weight of a whole kingdom on her shoulders.
The Damask Rose is written in beautifully stylised prose. I found myself fully immersed in the language and in Eleanor’s tumultuous life punctuated with many dramatic climaxes. The period detail and descriptions are totally absorbing. McGrath created a sense of immediacy with her heroine and took me on a journey of discovery that will stay with me for a while yet.
After so many years when I had read it for the first time and found myself fascinated by it and swept into its currents, I re-read “The Master and Margarita” with relish. It is a literary classic because it has stood the test of time and it transcends its original settings and social commentary of the day it was written.
In “The Master and Margarita” Satan, going by the name of Professor Woland, descends on the Soviet Russia, and wreaks absolute havoc. Heads roll, people go insane and events occur that make the reader’s hair stand on end. Yet, the existence of Satan defies not only logic but also the atheistic mantra of the communist state. The citizens cannot afford to believe in the supernatural causes of the goings on. Those who do are dismissed as lunatics and placed in a mental asylum. This is where poet Ivan Bezdomny meets the Master who is the author of a novel about Pontius Pilate and the times of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. The story is retold from the point of view of a direct observer (the Devil himself) and gives an eerie sense of intimacy with the tormented Procurator of Judea. Still, nobody believes in it. In fact, just in case somebody might, the Master’s book is denigrated and he burns his manuscript in despair. His lover and devotee, Margarita is in despair. Even though she wants to stand by the Master he leaves her and checks himself into an asylum.
This book may be a revered classic but it is also a vivid, engaging, funny and utterly intriguing piece of fiction. The message of condemnation of the soviet regime, human greed, stupidity and narrow-mindedness is masterfully hidden within the plot and brilliant story-telling. The reader is immersed in the supernatural, the surreal, the macabre and burlesque all at the same time. The book bristles with satirical humour. And it is as relevant today as it was in the Stalinist Russia.