Recently I’ve Read … The Last Honeytrap (Florence Love 1) by Louise Lee

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Last Thursday I was absent from work due to illness and feeling rather sorry for myself. I was desperately in need of something to pull me out of the doldrums and put the spring back in my step. The Last Honeytrap did exactly that.

This is the first in a new series by debut author Louise Lee. Here she introduces her funny, flawed and fabulous heroine Florence Love, a private investigator who specialises in entrapment cases. Other readers have noted that Florence isn’t always likeable and she isn’t. But who is? Florence is witty, intelligent and – above all – recognisably human. I’d definitely like to be friends with her, though I would only ask for her honest opinions on my outfits or lifestyle choices if I was feeling especially robust!

In The Last Honeytrap, Florence is approached by Alice, who is about to go public with her romance with world famous jazz singer Scott ‘Scat’ Delaney’. Before taking this step, however, Alice wants to be sure that Scat is the man she thinks he is. She thus enlists Florence to help test Scat’s fidelity. Things quickly get complicated, though, when Florence finds herself breaking one of the cardinal rules of entrapment: never fall for the target!

Woven in with this main plot is Florence’s preoccupation with the apparent suicide of her mother Bambi 25 years previously. On top of everything, it seems like Florence might have a stalker. Could this be connected to her mother’s death? And why is her father so insistent that  the matter be left well and truly alone?

The storylines in this novel are all compelling and the main plot has an interesting little twist at the end. My only niggle is that the structure is rather episodic and felt a bit confusing at times, particularly towards the end.

For me, the real draw here is the writing. Few novels make me laugh out loud but this one certainly did. Louise Lee is a fresh, funny and insightful new voice in fiction and she has created a wonderfully three-dimensional character in Florence. I am already in the queue for book two!

Recently I’ve Read … I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

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I Let You Go is impossible to discuss in great detail without revealing any wrath-inducing spoilers. Like Gone Girl, this is a novel that relies quite heavily on a series of twists and giving the game away would take away much of the enjoyment.

If enjoyment is the right word, that is. I Let You Go is Clare Mackintosh’s first novel and it is an astonishingly accomplished debut: well written, well paced and well structured. However, the novel touches upon several hard- hitting subjects, namely domestic violence and the death of a child. The level of detail is unflinching.

The novel gets off to a heart-thudding, heart-rending opening when a five-year old boy is killed in a hit-and-run incident. The narrative then splits in two with one strand following a character dealing with the aftermath of the accident, and another detailing the police investigation. Mackintosh was a member of the police force for 12 years, spending some time in CID. The sections depicting the police investigation are thus written with the detailed clarity of somebody who really knows what they are talking about. For me, these scenes really lift the novel, setting it apart from the other thrillers currently flooding the market. This aspect of the book is highly authentic and the detectives, DI Ray Stevens and DC Kate Evans, are vividly realised, compelling characters. I can’t recall seeing investigations depicted in such realistic detail in fiction before  and this is what makes I Let You Go worth checking out, along with the sheer quality of the prose.

I did find the central plot a little disappointing, however. The main reason was that, although the novel is billed as a psychological thriller, there is a distinct lack of psychological complexity here. For instance, the central antagonist is rather one-dimensional; their psyche and motivations are unexplored. There is no sense of ambiguity either: everyone is either good or bad, it seems. The novel held my interest, but I would have liked things to have been a little less clear cut, less black and white.

And then there are the twists. They are a mixed bag. One wrong-footed me and left me feeling slightly winded (which, just to clarify, is a Good Thing). Another towards the end stretched the bounds of credibility just that bit too far, I reckon. That said, the conclusion was truly gripping and made my heart race. It was also pretty satisfying, though I did think the epilogue could have been done away with as it had the whiff of ‘daft horror film for teenagers’ about it.

All in all, this is a well-written, pacey thriller that, although lacking in psychological complexity, is a compelling read.

Favourites on a Friday: Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman

Lydia Cassatt Front Cover

I read Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper in 2008 and it has stayed with me ever since. I am actually tempted to re-read this at some point and, for me, that is a statement and a half. I am in my early 30s now and the only novel I have ever read twice is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Which isn’t even a particular favourite of mine. I read it when I was 16 then revisited it a couple of years ago during one of my many periods of obsession with the Kate Bush song of the same name.

Well, anyway. I digress. The point is that I hardly ever re-read novels, for reasons I may blog about in the future if I can ever figure them out, but I am sorely tempted with Lydia Cassatt.

The novel is inspired by the work of Mary Cassatt, an American-born artist who moved to France, formed an attachment to Degas and became identified with the Impressionist movement. Harriet Scott Chessman takes as her inspiration five paintings Mary created of her elder sister, Lydia, who was afflicted by Bright’s Disease.

Mary Cassatt: Lydia Reading on a Divan (1880-1)
Mary Cassatt: Lydia Reading on a Divan (1880-1)

Lydia, who predeceased Mary by 44 years, is the narrator of this short novel, an approach that enables Chessman to touch upon an array of universal themes.

Seen through Lydia’s eyes, Mary’s world is rendered in details as impressionistic as her paintings. Readers are given a sense of Mary as a person and a painter, of her family life, her decision to choose career over marriage, and of her intriguing relationship with Degas.

Because Lydia is the narrator, Mary becomes both personally and professional defined by this sibling relationship. The connection between painter and subject is explored in some detail and Chessman seems to conclude that the latter has almost equal involvement in the creative process as the former. In doing so, she captures Lydia’s frustration at being ‘interpreted’ by a beholder who can only ever capture Lydia as they see her, not as she sees herself:

But you’re wrong. I’m not such a timid soul. Whatever I look at, I look at wholeheartedly and with as clear an eye as even you can turn on the world. (Chessman, p. 73)

Indeed, as portrayed by Chessman, Lydia is an intelligent, spirited woman, haunted by memories of the American Civil War and of past family tragedies. She is as creative as Mary and Degas, with a gift for embroidery and an ability to respond emotively and articulately to the world around her and to the work her sister creates. Tragically, Lydia is constrained by her illness and, whilst Mary’s unmarried status is seen as a sacrifice or exchange for her art, Lydia is cast into the role of unwordly, overlooked virgin. A role belied by her passionate nature.

An extraordinarily gifted writer, Chessman is at her strongest when exploring the nature of illness and the way in which it defines the sufferer and their relationships. The passages describing Lydia’s suffering and the most vividly realised and powerful. Lydia accepts her fate but Mary struggles to face the inevitable. It is Lydia who recognises that her sister has been able to gift her some form of immortality:

You will remember me because you caught my soul in paint. (Chessman, p. 191)

Lydia finds solace in her sister’s works, something that is apparent in this beautiful passage in which she confronts the imminence of death:

Terrible, to imagine a world continuing beyond my own dissolving; yet what if I am a presence for May (Lydia’s nickname for Mary), and for others too, leaving a trace, like the swath of white light on the top of this embroidery frame? Maybe I should not be so afraid of vanishing, after all. (Chessman, p. 192)

As well researched as this novel undoubtedly is, for me it functions not as a piece of biographical or historical fiction. Instead, I see it as a meditation upon illness, mortality and the power of art to partly negate the transient nature of existence. It is an incredible piece of writing. In a glorious instance of serendipity, I stumbled across the novel in a charity shop. It doesn’t seem too easy (or too cheap) to track down but, if anything in this post has piqued your interest, I urge you to don your deerstalker and have a go!

 

Waiting on a Wednesday: Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith is J.K Rowling.

Yes, I’m pretty sure we all know that now and I feel safe in the knowledge that I haven’t just broken the internet.

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The protagonist of Galbraith’s novels is as about as far removed from a certain boy wizard as it is possible to get. He has a far less prosaic name for a start, but a far more prosaic profession. For a character in a novel, anyhow. Cormoran Strike is a private investigator who, when we first meet him in The Cuckoo’s Calling, is not enjoying much luck. He has just separated from his fiancee, with whom he has had a long and tempestuous relationship, is heavily in debt and has very few clients. Strike isn’t quite what you would call a ‘people person’, something compounded by the difficulties he faces as an amputee (a former soldier, Strike lost a leg during the Afghan War).

Strike is a brilliant character and it is his relationship with his (female) assistant, Robin Ellacott, that really makes this series for me. Robin starts off as the temp that Strike cannot afford. Slowly, he realises the worth of this intelligent, competent young woman and she becomes invaluable in helping him solve cases. Their relationship is beautifully drawn and a scene from the second novel, The Silkworm, in which they are driving on a motorway in bad weather is one of my all-time favourites.

It is the strength of Robin and Cormoran’s relationship, which does have a tantalising ‘will they-won’t they’ element to boot, that is powering my anticipation for the third in the series, Career of Evil (due to be published in the UK on 22nd October by Sphere). However, these novels are also very well written, with compelling plots and intriguing casts of characters. They are very contemporary in flavour, with grisly, complex cases at their heart. There is also a distinct nod to the Golden Age detective story. Both novels have Christie-esque lists of possible suspects and buckets of red herrings. Like Agatha in her prime, Galbraith gives the reader all the clues they need to solve the puzzle: can they work it out before Strike does?

In Career of Evil, Robin receives a mysterious package, only to discover that it contains a woman’s severed leg. Strike identifies four people from his past who could be responsible, taking matters into his own hands when the police focus their enquiries on the one person he is sure couldn’t be the perpetrator. As Robin and Cormoran investigate the lives of three men capable of extreme violence, they face danger and a race against time.

I can’t wait!

Recently I’ve Read … The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

 

The Bone Clocks

 

The Bone Clocks is David Mitchell’s sixth novel. Long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize before its publication last September, eyebrows were raised when it failed to make the shortlist.

I haven’t read enough of the shortlisted novels to comment on the justness or otherwise of the judges’ decision.What I can suggest is that Mitchell is a novelist burdened by the weight of expectation.

It is impossible to categorise Mitchell as a writer because his work ranges across several genres. For me, his writing is best defined by his debut, Ghostwritten, and by his best known novel, Cloud Atlas. These books are both highly experimental, consisting of separate yet interconnecting stories written in a variety of voices and literary styles. Both works challenge and extend existing expectations of what the novel form can do, how it can be defined.

I reckon that, when novelists become known for experimenting in such ways, they raise expectations that their works will contain earth-shattering truths that will Show Us The Way. Approaching The Bone Clocks  with this expectation will probably lead to disappointment. It certainly provides myriad examples of Mitchell’s clear-eyed and cutting intelligence; of his ability to encapsulate a universal truth in an original manner and with admirable brevity. The giveaway there, though, is the phrase ‘universal truth’: the insights the novel provides are of the ‘nod of recognition’, rather than the mindbending, variety. Looking to Mitchell for answers dilutes the impact of his prose and ruins the enjoyment. For, what The Bone Clocks really is is unusually well-written, inventive entertainment.

But what is it all about? A helpful starting point is the scene in which Mitchell’s novelist character, Crispin Hershey, recalls a savaging he received at the hands of a reviewer:

So why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look (Mitchell, p. 281).

Here for the first – and possibly only – time, Mitchell resembles Taylor Swift. Swift demonstrates a similar concern with her own artistic reputation, expressed in the manner of an unpopular child poking fun at themselves before the bullies get the chance.

There is a grain of truth in this self-referential review. In including it, Mitchell pre-empts the critical mauling he can anticipate The Bone Clocks receiving. The ‘top note’ of the novel is a realist narrative, perhaps a bit more in keeping with Mitchell’s more conventional works like Black Swan Green. This narrative follows Holly Sykes from 1984, when she is a teenage runaway, to 2043, when she is an elderly woman in Ireland enduring the aftermath of a global crisis triggered by the decline of the world’s oil reserves. So we can start to see the ‘State of the World’ element creeping in there: the message here is that, if we all carry on the way we’re going, this dystopian vision could well become a reality. A familiar but always timely refrain.

Along the way, Holly encounters Ed Brubeck who becomes a war journalist, covering the Iraq war and the crisis in Syria. There is, then, very much a State of the Nation novel in here. This strand is not all that original or insightful, but it is well executed. The characters are fully realised and their stories compelling.

Like Ghostwritten and Cloud AtlasThe Bone Clocks consists of disparate, interconnecting stories. Where the latter differs is that there is more continuity; we stick with Holly and her family throughout and it is always pleasurable and intriguing to encounter her through the decades.

Interwoven with Holly’s story is, as the fictional review hints, a fantasy sub-plot. As a child, Holly hears voices belonging to those she dubs the Radio People. She also has an ‘imaginary’ friend, Miss Constantin. It transpires that Holly is caught up in a war between two groups of ‘Atemporals’ (they are sort of immortal; it’s complicated). The ‘goodies’ are known as Horologists, the ‘baddies’ are Anchorites. Most of the time, this aspect of the plot merely emerges at intervals. This is always entertaining and very well done; it doesn’t clash violently with the State of the World concerns at all. However, it doesn’t exactly enhance them, either. One strand doesn’t comment on or illuminate another (unless I’m missing something. Highly plausible); they just happen to exist alongside each other because … well, this is a David Mitchell novel. It is when the fantasy element takes over completely, in the penultimate chapter, that the novel falters. There is too much lengthy exposition and too many unnecessary flashbacks in this part. The whole section is heavy-handed and tedious.

Aside from this one rather tedious section, the novel is a fun and memorable ride with strong characters: it is a pleasure to bump into them over multiple narratives and over many decades. The two contrasting strands don’t really clash, but nor do they seem to hang together for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. The novel’s themes are enticing, though. The Bone Clocks‘ key concerns are with the transience of time, ageing and death (from what I can gather – and I may be completely, embarrassingly, woefully wrong – ‘bone clocks’ are faces: they are made of bone and demonstrate the passage of time). Mitchell provides some thought-provoking reflections on this subject, suggesting that there are different, ‘non-supernatural’ varieties of immortality.

All in all, The Bone Clocks is a dazzlingly ambitious, ultimately flawed but hugely enjoyable read. This is what fiction should aim to do, even if it is almost certain to fall short of its ambitions.

 

Recently I’ve Read … Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Me Before You

I know. I am awkwardly late to the party with this one. Me Before You was published in 2012 and went on to sell millions of copies. Somehow, I never got round to reading when it was ‘all the rage’ but decided to pick it up last week. It seemed like a good time, what with a sequel on the way and a film adaptation – starring Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke – in the works.

This is the story of Lou and Will. Will is a quadriplegic who enjoyed the trappings of life as a City highflyer before being injured in a road accident. Lou is the somewhat directionless young woman who becomes his carer. Will is unable to resign himself to a life of dependence, frequent bouts of illness and constant discomfort.  Lou, still deeply affected by a traumatic incident in her past, is also living a restricted existence. Sticking close to her family, staying in her home town and never straying far out of her comfort zone makes Lou feel safe and in control. However, it also makes her feel unfulfilled.

This is Lou and Will before they meet. The novel focuses on what happens afterwards: how will these two people change one another? How will their meeting affect their lives?

Me Before You is a superbly written, emotionally engaging story. I did feel, however, that it cleaved rather too closely to rigid class stereotypes. Of course it is the middle-class mother who appears chilly and remote whilst the working-class mother is obsessed with housework and never sits still. Of course the working-class parents are a little in awe of their younger daughter because she attends university and is thus so much cleverer than them or anyone else they’ve ever met before. And, naturally, it is middle-class Will who likes classical music, opera and foreign cinema whilst all of these things are quite alien and discomforting to working-class Lou. I found the My Fair Lady/Pygmalion aspect to Lou and Will’s relationship hugely irritating and highly patronising.

Moreover, Lou and Will are, to a great extent, instantly recognisable stereotypes themselves: the formerly ruthless businessman in massively reduced circumstances; the clever but ditsy girl who is obviously a bit wacky because she wears – wait for it – stripy tights.

But – and it is rather a large ‘but’ – Jojo Moyes pulls off quite a feat by making Lou and Will seem like real people anyway. I reckon that the majority of commercial successes – be they novels, films, or songs – do so well because they are somehow new and familiar at the same time. We recognise these people; we have seen their like before. But there is something else here, too: an added depth. Moyes’ characters are all able to transcend their stereotypes and appear fully fleshed out and human. I felt I had come to know them and and am glad that a follow-up is on its way: I really want to catch up with these people and discover how they’re getting on.

As well as the characterisation, this novel is lifted by its clear-sighted, unsentimental portrayal of disability and life-changing trauma. The difficulties Will faces are vividly documented, right down to the tiniest detail. One of fiction’s greatest gifts is that it offers us real insights into lives markedly different to our own. Moyes excels at providing unflinching depictions of the lives of Will, his family and his carers, pulling no punches as she does so.

What is probably quite clear by now is that Me Before You isn’t always the light read its pastel-hued (in the UK at least) cover promises. And, as I have outlined, it really did irritate me at times. However, when I read, I want to encounter characters who come to feel real to me, and I want to close the book feeling like I’ve gained a little something – be it greater insight, empathy, knowledge. This was certainly the case with Me Before You and I eagerly anticipate the sequel.

Favourites on a Friday: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attended a conference at which Kate Mosse, the bestselling author and founder of the  Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange Prize), was one of the keynote speakers. During her talk, Mosse discussed the ‘distinction’ between literary and popular fiction. The inverted commas there represent Mosse’s, and her audience’s, acknowledgment that this distinction is possibly more perceived than actual. These perceptions are that literary fiction focuses on language and ideas, whilst popular fiction is concerned with plot and character. Myriad debates blow up right at this point. Are the two mutually exclusive? Is one perceived to be worthier and/or cleverer than the other? Is one considered to be something of a poor relation, created by those less skilled and/or after a fast buck? I don’t plan to address these questions because they are very complex and I will get myself into a right old tangle, inciting fury and rage.

No. What I really want to do here is to reveal a little bit more of my reading identity by saying that most of my favourite novels occupy the border territory between literary and popular fiction. Language and ideas are all very interesting and everything, but I am not that well-endowed in the attention span department so … hang on what was I … oh yeah. I’m not that well-endowed in the attention span department so I really need more of an impetus  to keep on turning the pages. Consequently, I like a nice, gripping plot and some interesting characters. But – and I hope you don’t think me an insufferably pompous arse here – I don’t like things to be too unchallenging because I get bored. So the recipe for the  perfect, Caroline-friendly novel has plot and character as the main ingredients, with a side salad of ideas and a dash of language. A tiny bit of something to make my brain spark a little, but not a load of beautiful written nothings that offer no thrills whatsoever. I am the literary Goldilocks.

I reckon that Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth falls into this category. It is primarily a blockbusting thriller, but also reflects upon the deeper themes of remembrance and the invisible links between generations. However, one of my favourite occupiers of this border territory is a novel by another Kate – Kate Atkinson.

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 Case Histories is the first in a series of four novels that offer a new twist on the genre of crime fiction. The central character in all four books is the appealingly gruff and refreshingly human Jackson Brodie, a former policeman  turned private detective. Brodie is coming to terms with the recent breakdown of his marriage, is trying to maintain a relationship with his young daughter and continues to be haunted by a tragedy from his past. In this beautifully written and structurally complex introduction to Brodie, the detective becomes involved in three different cases:

1970: three-year old Olivia Land vanishes, without apparent trace, from her back garden never to be seen again. Years later, her sisters discover Olivia’s beloved soft toy Blue Mouse locked in their recently deceased father’s desk.

1979: a wife brutally murders her husband with an axe.

1994: Theo Wyre’s cherished daughter Laura is killed in an apparently random attack.

Three compelling mysteries. Yet, tellingly, I cannot remember ‘who dunnit’ or how the cases were solved. What I do remember is the profound sense of loss caused by Olivia Land’s disappearance. The bewildering sadness of the fact that a tiny human being can vanish without a trace, leaving nothing behind but an ownerless cloth mouse. Just thinking about Blue Mouse makes me sad; I am torturing myself here. I also remember vividly the devastation caused by Laura Wyre’s death, and the idea that a person and all they are can be erased utterly in just a second of mindless violence.

This is a novel, then, in which the crimes themselves are peripheral. They frame rather than drive the plot. Case Histories is not really about the detection or solution of crimes but their impact; it is about the way in which survivors deal with grief and loss. I fear I have made this book sound pill-poppingly depressing but, for me at least, that is far from the case. It is hauntingly beautiful and full of wit. Moreover, the combination of truly skillful, ‘literary’ writing and compelling, more populist plot devices is both interesting and satisfying.

So far, there are three other books in the series: One Good Turn; When Will There Be Good News; and Started Early, Took My Dog. All three are excellent but it is Case Histories that has stayed with me for years.

Before I go, you might be interested to know that all of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels have been adapted for television. These adaptations were broadcast by the BBC under the blanket title of Case Histories. The series starred Jason Isaacs (A.K.A. Lucius Malfoy) as Brodie and is well worth a watch.