Tuesday 5 December 2023
Tuesday 21 November 2023
A man, Nealon, returns home to find his house empty; not just empty but seemingly abandoned. No heating. No lights. No inhabitants. The only welcome (as such) is from an unknown man on the telephone. A man who seems to know all about Nealon, and certainly more than the reader does..
As days pass more of Nealon's life is revealed - his childhood in rural Ireland, his career as an artist, his relationship with his wife and son, and, crucially, where he's been for the past few months - but he himself remains an enigma. He may, or may not, have been behind an enormous insurance fraud. He may be the person behind an ongoing security alert ... but, then again, he may not
This is definitely a difficult book to describe, but for its length (under 200 pages) it gives the reader a lot to think about. It's a strange book, weird but absorbing, enigmatic like its protagonist, which raises more questions about characters and events than get answered. (I once read that a lack of resolution was the mark of a literary novel - in which case this must be the most literary of them all). For me, it's a book that I'd go back to and mull over; I feel like there are hints and details along the way that didn't register with me on a first read-through but which would help clarify the ending.
I haven't read anything previously by Mike McCormack but knew he'd been long-listed for the Booker, so was intrigued when I saw this come up on Netgalley. I'm not certain if this is typical of McCormack's style but to me it seemed reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's work, with that feeling of a character creating the world around him as he names things and people.
Tuesday 31 October 2023
The Shell House Detectives are back. Thrown together over the solving of a murder case, unlikely couple Ally, the widow of a retired country policeman, and Jayden a much younger ex-city cop have set up the Shell House Detective Agency. Over summer they've solved some low key cases but the approach of Christmas finds them on the fringes of another murder.
Ally Bright is in Mousehole for a fun evening of carols and Christmas lights when the evening's festivities are cut short by the discovery of a dead body. Her friend Gus, despite being a budding crime writer, wants to head home immediately, but Ally is eager to find out more. This time, though, she really does have to leave things to the police.
The dead man is quickly identified as J P Sharpe, a chef at a local restaurant, and someone with a string of enemies. An added complication is an unposted letter found in his coat pocket, which might be the solution to a local family mystery. This is something Ali and Jayden can get involved in, especially as they know those involved, but their inquiries lead them back to the killer and a dangerous situation they may not be able to get out of.
I really enjoyed the first in this cosy crime series, The Shell House Detectives, and if anything this return to Porthpella is better. I felt there was more opportunity this time for Hall's ability to create atmosphere and location. The real Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, setting for the murder; with its jolly festive lights sharply contrasting with the empty dunes and lonely out-of-season vibes of Porthpella.
There's also opportunity to get to know the characters better. To explore Ally's unsettled relationship with Gus, Jayden's absorption with fatherhood and misgivings about leaving the police force, plus the lives and backstories of the 'supporting cast' of Saffron, the cafe-owning surfer, and Mullins, the inexperienced and slightly immature local policeman.
If you're looking for a Christmassy cosy crime adventure this is perfect, but if you're looking for a snow-filled coming-of-age mystery I'd also add a suggestion to track down one of Emylia Hall's earlier novels - A Heart Bent Out of Shape
Thursday 19 October 2023
To be honest, when I first heard about 'Julia' I wondered if we really needed a re-telling of "!984" - it's a dystopian classic after all - but I was intrigued enough to read it, and I'm glad I did.The story is told this time from the point of view of Winston Smith's lover Julia, and their relationship given a new twist.
While outwardly following the rules laid down by Big Brother and the Party, following the dull, regimented life expected of lower Party members, Julia has found ways to sidestep the regulations and live a slightly fuller life - or so she thinks. Big Brother has eyes everywhere, Julia's activities have been noted, and she finds herself drawn into a plot against Smith.
Newman has managed to catch Orwell's writing style, cleverly twining a new story around the original, and incorporating much of his dialogue. If anything the dreariness of existence under Big Brother's regime seems more overwhelming - perhaps because Julia desires more from life than Winston does. Unqualified support of the Party is necessary, sex and marriage are frowned on, and entertainment consists mainly of meetings given over to Party propaganda and the occasional game of table tennis. Being selected as part of a conspiracy plays into Julia's craving for excitement, but she isn't as essential as she feels; in fact she's merely being manipulated along with everyone else.
To say I 'enjoyed' this is maybe not the accurate word - hard hitting and brutal, it's a story about living without hope and with no real prospect of any in the future - but it's a powerful read. A word of warning - there are disturbing torture scenes, and explicit sex scenes.
Out of curiosity, I decided to reread "1984" immediately afterward, and actually found "Julia" the better of the two. Maybe it speaks more directly to me as a woman, but it benefits, I feel, from losing the long chapters of Goldstein's subversive text and the torture scenes which go on for far too long. In Julia they're short and sharp, but lose none of their terror.
Also, when your lover has betrayed you rather than face a couple of rats, what do you do? Julia's way is gruesome, if not sickening, but definitely effective. Proving once again that the female of her species is more deadly than the male
Saturday 14 October 2023
Thursday 5 October 2023
Thursday 21 September 2023
Meet Sally Pinner - the most beautiful young woman you're likely to meet. All her life Sally's looks have stopped people in their tracks, and attracted attention. Throughout her childhood she was kept quietly hidden away in the backrooms of her parents' shop, but now, as she's growing up, her widowed father doesn't know what to do to keep Sally safe from the men who flock around whenever she appears. At first he tries moving from London to a sleepy village near Cambridge, but even there the threat of her being 'discovered' by undergraduates gives him cause for alarm.