This wasn’t my first read by Susanna Clarke so I knew to expect something magical and otherworldly, but “Piranesi” surpassed my expectations. It isn’t about magic, but it certainly is otherworldly, and more. There is something profound, almost biblical about this book.
The House, which is immeasurable and whose kindness is infinite, is the only world Piranesi knows. And it is that knowledge, or its limitation, that are pivotal here. For Piranesi a house of many chambers and vestibules, rising from the waves, filled with statues depicting real-life and mythical scenes, but otherwise devoid of our modern-day props, constitutes his whole universe. He recognises it as his creator, guide and protector – the House is God-like. The House defines Piranesi’s identity. He worships it, but he also explores and studies it. In a way, he reinvents it: its topography, its dead, its beauty and kindness. The whole premise of one man detached from reality but insistently scientific in his understandings, alone but not lonely, innocent through his ignorance of the existence of others is fascinating. His awakening and transition to the truth seems almost cruel although, despite his naivete, he deals with it admirably.
“Piranesi” isn’t about action or relationships, at least not in the conventional sense, but it is utterly compelling and it will draw you in and make you forget about everything else.
The Whistleblower is a vivid and authentic political thriller. Gil Peck, its protagonist and narrator, is an unapologetic anti-hero. Like a shark, he cannot stand still – he has to be on the move constantly, chasing scoops and grabbing new headlines. He is a political reporter with links to those in power (an in opposition) in the 1997 fictional Britain (although the fiction is just thinly veiled reality). His contacts are as morally corrupt as he is: sex, drugs, underhanded manoeuvres and few regrets. Everyone in this book has a political agenda and seems to live on knife’s edge. The vibe of the late nineties – as Labour led by the then charismatic Tony Blair consolidated its grip on power – is depicted with vibrant authenticity. The frenzied media of that era are depicted honestly and without disclaimers.
On top of his professional intensity, Gil Peck is deeply flawed on a personal level: obsessively washing his hands and mumbling superstitious chants when distressed (which is pretty much all the the time), drinking excessively and snorting cocaine in order to keep going. He has detached himself from his Jewish roots and antagonised his family, and in particular his sister Clare (a high flying government figure). All in all, he is a fantastically fleshed out character. As the story unfolds and he begins to dig deeper in his sister’s last cry for help and her suspicious death, his softer, more human side starts to emerge.
If this book was a film it would probably be categorised as a dramatised documentary rather a feature movie. It does feel very real and utterly credible, and that’s what makes it unputdownable. Reading it you will feel like you’ve been let in a big fat state secret.
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.
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.
I have read a couple of books by Nick Spalding, notably my favourite “Bricking It”, and have come to expect lots of anecdotal humour, wild slapstick comedy and tongue-in-cheek observations of the crazy modern world we live in. Spalding always delivers, and “Going Green” is no exception. At the heart of the story is Ellie Cooke who jumps out of her skin to save her job, inadvertently ending up in the ‘saving the planet’ camp. Her antics at trying to impress her new eco-friendly (and quite dishy) boss Nolan Reece are at times hilarious. The scenes at the protest march in front of the shopping centre had me in stitches. Ellie may be desperate but she is also out of her depth and all her efforts come across as utter non-starters (at least in the eyes of her colleagues). Yet, she gets her point across to her boss and it looks like she has saved her job. But that’s not quite the end of the story. Expect quite a twist at the end! “Going Green” has a topical storyline, a hapless but in her special way principled heroine and a motley crew of minor characters. The story is told from Ellie’s point of view and is narrated by her. Spalding makes her believable by reducing her language to colloquial with some curses thrown in to spice things up. Perhaps a touch too many for me, but hey, that’s how most of us would speak if our job was on the line.
The premise of this story is intriguing: a young man sends a text message to all his contacts, informing them that he is about to commit suicide. And then he puts his phone on fight mode thus blocking people from replying. This isn’t a typical cry for help, and he certainly isn’t craving attention. He is not interested in the world’s reaction to his news. He is factual. He boards a sleeper train to his truly “final” destination. This book isn’t just about about the main character’s emotional state and his motives; it is also about all those contacts who receive his message and have to do something about it. The title of this book is very deliberate indeed. James’s phone contacts are the collective title character of this book. The moment the message is received and at least partially digested, a flurry of activity follows. A flatmate begins to mount a coordinated rapid response. The sister in the far away Australia starts organising a rescue operation. An ex-best friend changes course and heads for Edinburgh. An ex-girlfriend stops to think and atone. All of the people who once may have hurt James, used or abused his feelings, are united in the effort of saving him. Contacts is a beautifully written moralistic tale about empathy, second chances, redemption and the value of people simply being there for each other. It isn’t a book about suicide. Quite the opposite. I quite liked it that Watson brought the topic up to date, straight into the twenty-first century to show that human interaction may have become seriously digitised but that doesn’t mean that technology dehumanised us and left us lonely and hopeless. I enjoyed Watson’s clear prose. It isn’t emotive. It doesn’t take centre stage and it doesn’t take away from the story and the characters. It treats about emotions by it doesn’t allow itself to get carried away. I also enjoyed the wry humour. A poignant tale about a man and his network of support full of holes but also very many best intentions.
Cassandra Fortune (Cassie) is a civil servant moving in the high echelons of political elites. She carries about the burden of her previous, badly imploded, career and tries to rebuild it in her new role at the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. It is at this point that she uncovers a body of a young Polish man among the remains in one of London’s old “Plague pits”. Another body, this time of a young Spanish man, is found together with Cassie’s pass to the Palace of Westminster. Links begin to form between the deaths, Cassie, the Whitehall and commercial lobbies.
Cassie embarks on an investigation alongside Detective Inspector Andrew Rowland.
Plague is a tight, fast-moving and absorbing crime drama. The theme of the resurging plague is particularly relevant in today’s reality as is the exploration of political power and influence, corruption and dodgy dealings. Cassie’s romantic interest in Andrew Rowland (which doesn’t quite take off) adds that extra human touch to the story, which is both believable and nuanced. The plot picks up pace as it moves towards the dénouement and becomes quite impossible to put down.
Invisible Girl is one of those rare specimens of fiction where you simply cannot skip to the final chapter to find out what happened. You will itch to do that, but going to the end won’t give you many answers. The complexity of this book is hidden in every sentence and every chapter as you press on, page after nail-biting page. You cannot it blink or you will miss another nuance or vital clue which will only make sense later. This book is booby-trapped with twists, secrets, suspicions, misdirection and complication.
Last night, before midnight, I started on 68%, thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish it in one sitting. How wrong was I! I read into the early hours of the morning.
The story is told from the point of view of three main characters, diametrically different from each other, but closely interconnected. Owen is a socially inept, 33-year old virgin who loses his teaching job because of allegations of sexual nature made by his students. Cate Four is a wife of a respected psychotherapist, a mother to two teenage children, a woman given to suspicion and guilt about being suspicious. A troubled teenager with a past that affects her mental health, Syffire Maddox is the psychotherapist’s erstwhile patient who develops unhealthy obsession with the man and starts following him around. At first sight the only thing they have in common is their postal code in Hampstead, London. Soon, it becomes clear that much more binds them together as several themes are being dissected by the author: the deception of appearances, the veneer of respectability, the suffocating effect past trauma has on a person’s life, the restraints of morality the society places on people and what happens when some of us give themselves a respite from sticking to them. and much, much more.
Invisible Girl is a psychological thriller at its best.