Recently I’ve Read … The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

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The fantasy element of The Wrath and the Dawn just bubbles under the surface, leaving the book itself to weave the most potent magic. This novel is one of the most richly atmospheric I have read for some time. Ahdieh deftly brings the Middle Eastern setting to life. And, whilst it is  rueful that this is still noteworthy, a novel firmly rooted outside Western culture and with a cast almost wholly comprised of non-white characters is always a welcome sight.

The Wrath and the Dawn has been described as a retelling of the One Thousand and One (or ArabianNights but this is only the jumping-off point of the novel; the platform on which it is built but soon diverges from.

Khorasan lives in fear of its boy king Khalid, a reputedly cruel 18-year-old who takes a new bride each night only to have her executed come dawn. Shahrzad (or Shazi to her friends) volunteers to become Khalid’s bride so that she can avenge her best friend who also married the Khorasan only to die by his orders. But Shazi soon suspects that Khalid may not be the monster she once thought he was. As she fights her growing feelings for him, she begins to search for the truth.

This novel is genuinely romantic and I certainly got caught up in the love story between Shazi and Khalid. There is a rather intriguing love triangle here, too. I thought that all of the characters were very well drawn and I came to care about them. So much so that I am eagerly anticipating the sequel, The Rose and the Dagger, which is scheduled for release this May.

I do have some quibbles, however (just in case you think I’ve been abducted by aliens who are much nicer than I am and who have taken over this blog). As much as I love Shazi and think she is just the kind of intelligent, confident heroine YA fiction needs, I did feel that Ahdieh spent more time telling us how capable Shazi was than actually showing us. There was a bit too much lounging around on luxurious cushions, I thought.

Additionally, I thought the love story could have been explored in a bit more depth. Shazi does begin to fall for Khalid at a point when she is still pretty convinced that he is a murdering despot responsible for the deaths of hundreds of women, including her beloved friend. Furhter examinination of this moral conflict would have been welcomed.

Lastly, I did feel that the novel was slightly over-written in places, with too many descriptions of food, clothes and – most repetitively of all – characters’ facial features.  I think being told about a character’s (often improbable) eye colour just the once is probably sufficient.

Overall, though, this is an intoxicatingly atmospheric and compelling novel with an intriguing cast of characters. I am already in the queue for the sequel.

Recently I’ve Read … The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

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Joanna Cannon’s debut novel, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, was only published in late January and is already being touted by some as one of the books of the year. For me, however, this is a solid three-star read rather than a five-star favourite. But I would still recommend this novel wholeheartedly.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is set on the Avenue during the long, hot summer of 1976. The stars of the novel are a brace of lovable ten year olds (Tilly and Grace) and Joanna Cannon’s writing, which manages to be comic and piercingly insightful at the same time:

My mother said I was at an awkward age. I didn’t feel especially awkward, so I presumed she meant that it was awkward for them.

When their neighbour Mrs Creasy goes missing, Tilly and Grace devote their summer holidays to finding her – and to finding God. As their search gathers pace, the novel flits from Grace’s first-person narrative to viewing events from her adult neighbours’ perspectives. It thus becomes clear that the grown ups, including Grace’s parents, are harbouring secrets far beyond Tilly and Grace’s understanding. The security and certainties of childhood are about to be challenged:

Even the avenue had changed. Giant fissures opened on yellowed lawns and paths felt soft and unsteady. Things which had been solid and reliable were now pliant and uncertain. Nothing felt sure any more.

There is a whiff of To Kill a Mockingbird about this novel, and not just because of the child narrator. The central theme of the book is the treatment of outsiders, with outsiders being the goats of the title and the rest of society being the sheep. This theme isn’t dealt with in great depth, though, and I never felt that the children’s perspectives shifted enough for this to be considered the coming-of-age novel it promised to be. Grace and Tilly are, of course, slightly too whimsical and knowing to be wholly convincing as characters but they make up for this with their sheer charm. Their friendship is also depicted very touchingly. The plot doesn’t have a great deal of momentum but it ticks along quite nicely. There are no real revelations, however, and  the ending does have a slight ‘is that it?’ quality.

This is a beautifully written, charming and entertaining novel that is well worth reading. For me, though, it doesn’t quite have the substance or the originality to be considered the modern classic it is being billed as in some corners.

Recently I’ve Read … The Widow by Fiona Barton

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The Widow was one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016, drawing the now inevitable comparisons to Gone Girl and being variously described as “this year’s Girl on the Train” and “the ultimate psychological thriller.”

The first half of the book certainly lived up to this promise, taking the reader deep into the heart of domestic noir territory. It appears that all the key ingredients for a gripping thriller are present, not least the flawed and unreliable female narrator and the promise of a dark secret between husband and wife.

The widow of the title is Jean Taylor. For years she stood by her man, her somewhat dour and controlling husband Glen, as he was accused of the abduction – and suspected of the murder – of two-year-old Bella Elliott. Now Glen is dead and Jean is free to tell her story to the doggedly persistent journalist Kate Waters. But what does Jean know? Can she reveal Glen’s guilt or demonstrate his innocence? Was she as much his victim as anyone else? Or was she his accomplice? There is certainly something troubling and ‘not quite right’ about Jean and I flew through the novel’s first half in a frenzied bid to learn the truth.

And then I got past the halfway mark and everything fell as flat as a pancake.  My advice would be not to read on if you have yet to read this book because Slight spoilers are on the way.

 

 

 

It was as I hit 60% or so that I realised that, instead of racing towards a thrilling climax, this plot was actually levelling off and heading towards a very obvious conclusion. This section of the novel is terribly dull and largely descriptive. The police investigation is depicted in minute, deeply uninteresting detail. It would be worth ploughing through this section if it brought us closer to the final revelation. But at this point, it became painfully apparent that there would be no final revelation. It is obvious what Glen has or hasn’t done and it is crystal clear what Jean knows or doesn’t know. There is no mystery here, no tension, no twist.

Of course, the twist here could be that there is no twist; a way of refreshing this somewhat crowded genre. But it isn’t presented this way and just comes across as woeful plot development.

The Widow isn’t just a weak thriller; it isn’t a thriller at all. It teases us for the first half and then just meanders to the finish; all of its ‘secrets’ were, it turns out, floating right on the surface from the very beginning.

And it certainly isn’t a psychological thriller. I felt that I was kept very much at arm’s length from the characters here and there were no real glimpses into their psyches. What has made Jean the way she is? A deeply strange character, it is a shock to discover she is only 39 when she seems so much older. But there are no clues as to what has led to her living the life of someone almost twice her age. She, like the other characters in the novel, remains two-dimensional.

So, for me at least, this is not a thriller of any description. Which could just be down to misleading marketing; to the book being presented as a thriller when it isn’t really. Except there is nothing else it could be; The Widow doesn’t offer anything in place of a thriller plot. It certainly touches upon some very interesting themes. Bella’s disappearance recalls that of Madeleine McCann in that some sections of the public feel that the parents should accept some of the blame. This doesn’t really lead to any kind of discussion, though. Similarly, the book touches on the media’s and public’s perception of the wife or partner of a (male) criminal. There have been countless crimes with a “don’t tell me she didn’t know what was going on!” element. Obviously, this plays a huge role in The Widow but, again, this theme isn’t explored in much depth. The only thing that really is examined in detail is the media’s role in and response to crimes like this. Barton, a former journalist, confirms what many of us suspected in scenes that have more than a whiff of truth and read more like a chilling expose than fiction.

A debut novel, The Widow is incredibly well-written throughout but I cannot for the life of me find a gripping thriller – or any kind of thriller at all for that matter – lurking anywhere within it.