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French Exit by Patrick de Witt

French Exit is so deliciously decadent that you will want to drink it, shaken not stirred. It is classy, it is wicked and it is irreverent.

The assemble of characters dazzles. The three main heroes (though they don’t qualify for that term in any way, shape of form) are Frances, Malcolm and Small Frank. Frances is an extravagant rich widow hellbent of self-destruction, financially and otherwise. Her son Malcolm is a man frozen in inaction, content to drift through life without any clear direction or destination, sort of attached to his mother like a barnacle to the underbelly of a sinking ship. And Small Frank is the late husband-father who has found home in a body of a domestic cat.

In transit to self-destruction Francis, accompanied by her two dependants, makes a stop in Paris.

At first sight you may think this book shallow, degenerate and immoral, but very soon you come to realise that there is a depth of despair and surrender under the surface of flamboyance and extravagance. Patrick de Witt is very elegant in hinting at it. He doesn’t tell you about it. He doesn’t let his characters tell you about it. Still, you know that depth sits there – the root of all trouble.

The story is character driven, and each character is a scream – unique, distinct and irredeemable. But you wish them well, you root for them, you hope for them.

It is a riot of a book!

 

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The Humans by Matt Haig

If I ever read a feel-good book, this is it. It is humanity-affirming, optimistic and generous of heart.

An alien being takes on a human form – that of professor of mathematics, Andrew – and comes down to earth to kill everybody whom the professor may have appraised of his great discovery that would give humans knowledge for which they aren’t ready. Flowed, weird and utterly illogical to the alien, unbeknown to themselves, the humans manage to charm him and get a stay of execution.

The book is entirely predictable. I am not betraying any great secrets or twists for there aren’t any. You will know very soon into the book that the humans in Andrew’s life will get our alien onto their side. But the predictability doesn’t matter. It is the spirit of this book that is so sweet and so endearing that you will want to keep reading. It is also the poignancy and almost Christ-like self-sacrifice of our alien that captures your heart. And last but not least, it is the hilarity of the alien’s observations of human rituals and his definitions of our everyday objects. Seen from the perspective of an alien, we are laughable – in a good way.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

The Hunting Party has a tight plot with not a minute wasted on miscellaneous matters. It is within the space of three days surrounding the New Year when the story unfolds from two opposite ends, heading towards the denouement with great precision and control. The idea of relaying the events from before and after the murder alongside each other is original and skilfully executed. It is not only the events that are developed and layered in this unorthodox fashion, but also the characters. Every new chapter adds a new dimension, a new discovery and takes the reader that one small step closer to the finale.
The atmosphere is equally well constructed. As a reader you feel as if you are being guided out of a thick wintry fog following those faint flickering lights of the narrative that become stronger and expose more ground ahead.
For me, the weakest aspect of the book is the characterisation. The story is told from the perspective of a few main characters, most of whom speak in the first person. The personas and their secrets are different, but I found their voices indistinct. Perhaps not enough effort went into rendering them distinguishable with a few language quirks for example. Perhaps, they are so uniform because the authorial intent was to show their commonality: of background, education, class, mentality. Be it as it may, I found those characters bland and they did not win my affection or interest.
Overall, a gripping thriller delivered with a secure hand.

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes by Ruth Hogan

If Ruth Hogan’s first book was a breath of fresh air, this one is a kiss-of-life.

Hogan navigates through difficult subjects with enormous sensitivity and what seems like plenty of direct personal experience. The title character, Sally Red Shoes, is painted with the bold strokes of an expressionist’s brush – she is a greater than life eccentric and at the same time a vulnerable old lady whom Masha, the heroine of the book, befriends and looks after. In fact, the looking-after is mutual, and the relationship between the two women is most endearing to the reader. Alice is the third character in this triangle of personal tragedies, secrets, crimes, redemption and survival. I simply couldn’t list all of the well intertwined themes of this beautiful book.

It is a deeply emotional book composed of three personal stories: Masha’s revival from the most excruciating tragedy of losing her child and her journey towards normality, Alice’s tight and claustrophobic world spinning out of her control, and the most enigmatic of the three: Sally and her unconventional past.

Each of the characters has a distinct voice. The story’s setting is a wonderfully portrayed old Victorian cemetery, rich with its own characters.

It’s a tender-loving book, touching and life-affirming.

 

How to be Good by Nick Hornby

 

I must be one of the only two people who, until now, has not read How to Be Good, and if you’re reading this review, you must be the other. Years wasted! The book is a cracker.

Katie is a good person, in her opinion: she is a doctor, provides for her family and has mild liberal views. Her husband David is the devil: opinionated, cynical and lazy. But David undergoes a sudden transformation, and it seems like it is he who ends up teaching Katie how to be good.

His metamorphosis starts with the shock of Katie asking for divorce. She is shocked by it herself. It isn’t because she is having an affair with Stephen, it is rather than she is emotionally spent. And that’s not good. David finds a guru in the person of DJ GoodNews, a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a saviour. Instead of fighting Katie for the house, for the custody of their children or even for the survival of their marriage, David goes about giving everything away and saving those less fortunate than himself, often at his family’s expense. Though you get a sneaky feeling that this may be the only way of saving his marriage since he has burned all other bridges…

David transformation and Katie’s reaction to it is wonderfully presented. From reacting to David’s antics Katie moves to introspection. And she is learning to let go of certain things and to hang on to others. But the beauty of this book lies in the fact that it is free from the so-called absolute truths or values and free from didacticism. Instead, it bristles with humour and sharp observations of the middle classes, mid-life crises and all that middle-of-the-road fluff our lives are stuffed with.

Kissing Christmas Goodbye by M C Beaton

I met Agatha Raisin on telly. I loved the feisty, blundering woman with a head for business and a fairly decent heart. And when those two came together (head and heart) sparks flew.

I then went to the trouble of finding Agatha in a book format, and enjoyed that too.

Kissing Christmas Goodbye is a light read, which I thought would do me nicely around the festive season. I must warn that Christmas only comes towards the end of the book, and doesn’t linger. The storyline is rather clichéd (a rich old lady fearing for her life, and then, yes, being murdered). As she was a nasty piece of work, murder suspects are multiple and their motives transparent. Agatha is retrospective about her longstanding love interest, James. Her friends, Roy and Charles are there for her – sort of. And a rival arrives in the shape of young and clever Toni. A girl with a working class background, cursed with a family of drunks, Toni seems to be a younger version of Agatha herself. Agatha envies her youth and at the same time takes the girl under her wing. This must be closest Agatha has come to being a mother.

The writing is sketchy and rushed. At times it seems like the book has been written in shorthand and nobody bothered to transcribe it into standard English. But it is jolly good fun!

All the Hidden Truths by Claire Askew

All the Hidden Truths touches a nerve. It is topical as it tackles the most disturbing challenges of modern times: gun violence and the media intrusion on victims’ and their families’ privacy.

After a fatal shooting at Three Rivers College in Edinburgh, three women’s lives are brought into the spotlight: Moira’s (the mother of the shooter), Ishbel (the mother of his first victim) and DI Birch (the investigating officer). Askew digs deep to exploretheir reactions and how they transform under pressure from the ever-present and unscrupulous attention of the press.

Row emotions are dissected with sensitivity and great insights, family secrets are revealed and some difficult questions answered. Askew makes poignant observations about the nature of gun crime where everyone ends up a victim, including the perpetratorand the society overall.

The resolution is most satisfying and Askew leads us towards it with skill and conviction.