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.
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.
In January 1998 two skiers separate from their guides and go missing during a blizzard in the French Alps. Only one of them is found. Twenty-two years later, at the same ski resort, Hugo and Ria entertain a potential investor in Hugo’s struggling business and his young wife. They are staying at a luxurious chalet, waited on by a chalet girl, Millie. The scene for a perilous slalom through this thrilling mystery is set. It will ultimately lead to the finish line where the events of the past merge with the present and culminate in chilling disclosures.
Cooper’s narrative is gripping and her characterisation flawless. The story is told in the first person from the point of view of individual characters. The reader gains first-hand insights into their memories and feelings, which may be fragmented at times and biased, but that’s what makes them credible. Although there are many characters taking over the narration in turns, Cooper doesn’t lose her overall control over the plot which powers forward unhindered by too much baggage. New POVs are introduced into the story gradually and are layered in such a way that each person remains constant but the story acquires different new dimensions.
The Chalet is a tightly plotted and expertly delivered psychological thriller with a punchy conclusion.
Still Me is a third book in a trilogy. I hadn’t read the first two, but that didn’t matter. The story is so skilfully developed that I just dived into it and in no time felt like a little fish frolicking in a friendly pond. All the characters were fully fleshed out and multi-layered. They weren’t just cardboard cut-outs, but talking, feeling, walking people complete with their shadows, their past, their secrets and their quirks. Their stories flew and crossed with one another, and all of them were delivered to a satisfactory resolution. New beginnings, heart breaks, up and downs, injustices and small acts of kindness were assembled together to create a rich background to what, in essence, was a classic love story.
Heart-warming, life-affirming, sweet, uplifting and adorable are the kind of superlatives I wouldn’t hesitate to use to sum up Still Me, and that’s some compliment because I am not a romantic. I enjoyed it just like I sometimes enjoy a box of chocolates, which always takes me by surprise as chocolate isn’t my thing.
This is a classic Scandinavian crime noir. It has all the essential ingredients: a series of gruesome murders, a strong female detective, a damaged and complex male detective, and dark, brooding atmosphere. There are painful secrets and the storyline manoeuvres across and through the body of evidence, closer and closer to the perpetrator. The perpetrator is psychopathic and seemingly inhuman, but at the same time highly intelligent. He knows how to play the police and on some level he interacts with the detectives, pokes and probes them, and manipulates their investigation. This draws the reader into the events on a more personal, intimate level.
Perhaps because the Nordic crime fiction is so crowded these days, I found myself craving something more, something different, something to make this book stand out from the rest and render it unique.
As much as it was a compelling piece of fiction, that something special eluded the author. Assuming that this is the first instalment in a series, I am expecting Sveistrup to develop that personal trademark as he builds this brand. I would most certainly read the next book.
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.
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.
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.
Lorna, a self-confessed agnostic, steps in front of a car and dies. Whether it was an accident or suicide is subject to debate. Lorna wakes up in heaven, but it isn’t heaven in the conventional sense of the word: it is a malfunctioning spacecraft operated by aliens, God being one of them. I found Laidlaw’s concept of heaven fascinating and totally different from my own version of it in Paula Goes to Heaven. Laidlaw’s heaven is scientifically justifiable and would make good sense to many a rational disbeliever.
God, too, isn’t what we have come to expect him to be. He’s a tracksuit-wearing geyser, struggling with his command of the ship and of his crew, especially the irreverent, chain-smoking Irene. He is painted with many humorous touches of the paintbrush, as is his heavenly abode. But the tracksuit doesn’t detract from the fact that he is God: he saved man from self-obliteration by lending his own DNA to us and he keeps a watchful eye over how we progress on earth. He also works in mysterious ways as his reasons for choosing Lorna remain obscure.
Lorna’s life memories are regenerated in heaven: her working class family, her best friend, the flamboyant Suzie, her lovers and the challenging world at large she cared passionately about. She is learning about who she was in life. Laidlaw leads her to a full disclosure with a steady and assured hand.
The Things We Learn When We’re Dead isn’t your average sci-fi book. It is much more than that. It is poignant and philosophical. It will make you think.