Following the death of her husband abroad, Imogen returns to England. She is impoverished and bitter. By contrast, her sister Rachel appears to be a successful business woman, happily married and a mother. She has all that Imogen doesn’t, and more. While Imogen has to rely on pity and handouts, Rachel is supporting their parents in the upkeep of their beautiful home called the Old Rectory. The title of the book, Facade, aptly represents that old family home but it also has another deeper and more sinister meaning – it’s about all the secrets and sins that are hidden behind the facade. Twenty years earlier, Rachel’s baby brother drowned. An air of mystery and unspoken secrets lie behind that death. With Imogen’s return and her embarking on a vicious campaign of revenge, the silence will have to be broken and the secrets will drift to the surface. Facade is a complex, gripping and unputdownable psychological thriller. With every new page and every new revelation you will be drawn deeper into it, and you won’t be able to take a break until the very last page when everything is finally revealed. Matthews has achieved huge depth in her portrayal of her protagonists, Imogen and Rachel, who narrate this twisty tale. Their perspectives are diametrically different to begin with, but then as you go on, you begin to discover disturbing overlaps and similarities. This book is really well written and the storyline structured to perfection. Highly recommended. The author has recently released another thriller, The Girl in the Van. It promises to be as good as Facade. It’s already on my list.
Charlie Laidlaw has smashed it with Being Alert! I read it in a couple of seatings, chortling and snorting with amusement right through it.
Being Alert is political satire at its best, in the same league as Yes, Prime Minister and In the Thick of It. The author has a sharp eye for the outrageous and the absurd. He captures with flair and unforgiving astuteness the nonsensical antics of the ruling elites occupying the corridors of power in today’s Britain.
The main players are only thinly disguised under their new aliases: Winston Spragg (the PM), Derek Goings (his right-hand man), Kevin Kock (Health Secretary), Mick Gore, Vijay Patel (Chancellor), Timothy Raambo (the Foreign Secretary) and so on, and so on . . . ignorant advisers, slap-dash dilettante decision-makers, fantasists, sycophants and downright idiots ramble, strut and swagger through the pages of this brilliant book in a show of their abject and irredeemable incompetence.
The story is set during the turbulent time of the pandemic and while it is a satire and the author’s dry humour will have you in stitches, it is also a damning account of how badly the British government handled the crisis. There are sections in italics where Laidlaw reports the actual events and shocking statistics that require no commentary. In that respect, Being Alert is a tragicomedy – it is incredibly funny but is is also terribly poignant. Laidlaw holds Tory political elites to account, and he is merciless.
Reading Not My Brother’s Keeper I was reminded of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers at odds with each other because of the catastrophically bad choice made by Cain. Living with the consequences of that choice was damning. In Not My Brother’s Keeper, the older brother Robert is a bit like Cain: he makes the wrong – even immoral – choice and takes the wrong turn in life, a decision that will haunt him for years. He abandons his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and leaves town, asking his brother Tom to watch out for her. Tom is to some extent the equivalent of Abel – the good brother who stays behind, picks up the loose ends, keeps the family together and ultimately is rewarded with love and happiness with Michelle. Until, that is, Robert decides to come back and open old wounds. Not My Brother’s Keeper is a thought-provoking tale about family, morality, decency and second chances. The story will stay with you long after you read the last sentence. Highly recommended.
The Book of Sand starts as a story of two worlds – almost two different dimensions. There is the desert with shifting sands and dunes that are capable of burying whole cities; the nights are haunted by monstrous, blood-thirsty beings who are neither dead nor alive and who don’t seem to have a stable physical form. In that world a group of strangers is thrown together by fate or rather by mysterious design. The group – referred to as Family – travels by day in search of Sarkpont (a holy grail that has the power to end their apocalyptic desert trek). By night they cower in their shuck which is detached and suspended in mid-air to protect them against night-time perils. Spider, possibly of French heritage but that is only implied, is the focal character. We see the Family’s endeavours through his eyes.
In parallel to the desert world, there is the contemporary world of a teenage girl called McKenzie, a science geek, fascinated with sand and desert ,who one day wakes up to find a lizard in her bed. Her world, though seemingly safe and ordinary, begins to undergo a strange transformation. Others can’t see what she is seeing and soon her mental health comes into question.
You know that in time the two worlds will collide or merge in some way. The story leads that way. I found McKenzie’s story unremarkable at first, but soon it absorbed me and at some point took over from the fantastical world of the desert. Although you will have six hundred pages to plough through, this book is worth persevering with. Your time will be well invested.
The Book of Sand is a reflective and mesmerising tale set in a dystopian reality which tests man’s resilience. It is about interdependence and commonality of purpose. It is about togetherness and the intrinsic value each of us represents. All in all, it is an exquisite and thought-provoking story. The ending will take you deep inside yourself, into your past and even your beginning.
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.