Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

After complaining in a recent post that too many police procedural crime stories are about psychopaths and serial killers, the next one I pick up isn’t like that at all. Beams Falling (2014) is Newton’s second novel in a series featuring Detective Nhu Kelly (inevitably known as Ned) of the NSW Police. Like the first one, The Old School (2010), it is firmly set in the burgeoning underworld of gang and drug crime in Sydney. If you are going to read either of them, read The Old School first, as this story follows on from the end of that one. And don’t read any more of this review, as I can’t help giving away some of what happened in the first book. Here’s the link to it.

Ned is slowly recovering from being shot in the line of duty. Physically she is well enough to return to ‘light duties’, but she is still suffering psychologically from the trauma. She feels an overwhelming need to take her gun everywhere with her, though this is against police procedure. But is she in a fit state to carry a weapon? She is also driven to return to policing by the belief that she knows who killed her parents in an execution style shooting when she was a child. She is sure that Old Man Liu, a rich crime boss turned ‘respectable’, and his son Sonny are responsible, but they seem to be beyond the reach of the law, protected by members of the very police force Ned works for. (I like her comment: ‘Sydney. You were only a crook until you made enough money, then you were promoted to ‘colourful local racing identity.’) She is disappointed to be assigned to a task force dealing with Asian crime in the western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, as this is the home of Vietnamese, rather than Chinese gangs. But maybe they will lead her back to Chinatown and the Lius.

The story is set in 1993, though there is little to indicate this apart from a mention of a federal election and the absence of mobile phones. As in the previous book, the action takes place against a backdrop of internal police politics and external and internal investigations of police corruption. But they play a much smaller part in this story than they did in The Old School. Shades of bending the rules, ‘playing a bit rough’ and even of corruption, do add to an air of suspicion and mistrust that makes Ned feel an outsider. ‘Secret fucking squirrels,’ she thinks. ‘Last thing she wanted to do was to get sucked into whatever that lot were up to. Even so, being excluded, making it so obvious, it touched a nerve.’ Here the focus is much more on Ned herself, and her battle to deal with the effects of her injury. There is also more exploration of police culture, with several minor sub-plots designed both to illustrate and to undermine the idea of the force as a family that looks after its own – what she calls ‘the false sense of intimacy of the Job’. I guess this is where Newton’s own experience as a police officer comes in; she spent over a decade as a detective in Sydney, and must have a pretty good idea of what it’s like – particularly what it’s like to be a female police officer. Nhu of course has the further ‘difference’ of being part Vietnamese. I also wondered if Newton sets her stories in the early nineteen nineties because she feels more comfortable putting a bit of distance between policing then and now.

One of the strengths of the book is the daily round of police work which Newton is well able to describe. But the story is told from Ned’s point of view, so this means that she only sees scraps of the whole. Perhaps because of this, I found the plot a bit confusing at times, and though it did eventually come together, I thought the book lacked the narrative drive of Newton’s first one. The role of Detective Sean Murphy, from under-cover police operations, is vague, perhaps deliberately so, but you really need to have read the previous book to understand Ned’s relationship to him. There are lots of characters; I couldn’t always keep track of them. Several characters have a role – in either the action or the police culture – but then just disappear. The relationships between the various branches of the police are a bit befuddling too. Some things are left open-ended; it could be argued that life, particularly as far as police investigations go, is like that. It could also be that Newton will take them up in later books.

I thought at first that the emphasis on Ned’s state of mind had come at the expense of the social comment I valued in The Old School. But thinking about the book, I realised that Newton’s depiction of the drug wars in the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta is itself social history. There is a poignant picture of the fracturing of Vietnamese families and culture in collision with the unpleasant realities of crime and drugs. The young gang members – the ra choi  – which literally translates as ‘coming out to play’, but here means the foot-soldiers of the drug wars – are the children of Vietnamese migrants who struggle to give them a better life; the sound of the sewing machines of Vietnamese outworkers can be heard in the streets. Why have they rejected their parents’ values and chosen to ‘play’ with drugs and guns? Newton’s questions are well worth asking.

You can read a bit more about P.M Newton here. To understand the title, try reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1929).

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Yes, you’re seeing straight. This is Sense and Sensibility – 2013 style. It is the first instalment of the Austen Project, a series that rewrites Jane Austen’s six novels for the modern age. I don’t usually like prequels and sequels to Austen’s work, let alone the ridiculous vampire version of Pride and Prejudice. But Joanna Trollope is an interesting choice because in her own work she is very good at catching the speech and behaviour of the modern English middle class. She should be able to do a make-over of the 1811 original if anyone can.

Everyone pretty much knows the story, and Trollope sticks closely to it. It is a romance in which there are obstacles to the happiness of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in the shape of initial wrong choices of partner – ie wrong choices by Edward Ferrars and Marianne herself. Elinor reacts with sense to her situation; Marianne gets into hers by excessive sensibility. But as in all romances – see my discussion of romance novels here – it comes right at the end. Trollpe’s version includes most of the original scenes, translated into a modern setting. Norland is not left to Mrs Dashwood and her daughters at least partly because she isn’t actually married to Henry Dashwood, who hasn’t left a will. Barton Cottage is a rather ugly new house. Sir John Middleton has turned Barton Hall into the location for a high-end clothing business. John Willoughby arrives to rescue Marianne in his Aston Martin, not on his horse. On their visit to Allingham, they have sex. Marianne’s humiliation by Willoughby is recorded and posted on Facebook. Willoughby tells Elinor that he really loved Marianne at the hospital where she is recovering from an asthma attack, rather than the fever she suffers from in the original. Why asthma? Modern medicine says you can’t catch a fever from being wet.

The characters are also very much true to their originals. Elinor – often called Ellie – is practical and considerate of others. She gives up her architecture course to get a job to support the family. Marianne – often called M – wants to be ‘overwhelmed’ – to drown herself in emotion – and is scornful of anyone who doesn’t meet her romantic standards. The modern M is perhaps even more disdainful of others than the original. Margaret – here Mags – is a typical young teenager, convinced her family want to ruin her life; she gets rather more exposure than Margaret does in the original. This is also true of Bella – Mrs Dashwood, from whom M has learnt her love of drama and impulsiveness. She is more fully drawn, with her ‘gift for bohemian home making’, and maybe even a bit more demonstrative than the original. The adaptation of Edward Ferrars is possibly the least flattering; a man who is ‘of no profession’ in Austen’s day is a gentleman, whereas today he looks more like ‘a waste-of-space man’, sweet, but ineffectual.

It goes without saying that Trollope has done a great job updating the language of the book. Two examples will suffice. When it first seems that Edward is attracted to Ellie, M says ‘Wouldn’t it just completely piss off Fanny if you and Ed got together?’ And M is relieved to find that she wasn’t wrong in trusting that Willoughby loved her – he wasn’t just ‘a shagbandit’. Trollope’s ear for the idiom of the young – and not so young – middle class hasn’t deserted her.

But what has she managed to do with the social mores and expectations Jane Austen was working within? Clearly respectable marriage is no longer the only acceptable path for a young woman, though of all the major female characters, only Elinor has a job. Marriage – or at least romance – is still shown as a priority for women. ‘Do we have to have boyfriends?’ asks Mags. And Elinor replies ‘Of course we don’t have to. But we seem to want to, to need to, don’t we?’ But she agrees there’s no need ‘to make them our whole world.’ Money also remains important: Trollope has a little bit of fun here. When Elinor says: ‘this isn’t 1810, for God’s sake. Money doesn’t dictate relationships’, her mother replies ‘It does for some people.’  Willoughby deserts Marianne for a Greek heiress, and Lucy is after Ed for what he might inherit. Bill Brandon eventually finds Ed a job, but it remains unclear why he didn’t have one already. His dependence on his mother, OK in the nineteenth century, looks like weakness in the twenty-first. And Elinor can’t help finding his honourable nineteenth century behaviour in sticking to his engagement with Lucy as ‘utterly idiotic nobility’, as indeed it seems. Lucy’s decision to marry Robert, a gay party planner in this version, doesn’t have much justification other than to manufacture a happy ending – but I guess this was pretty much true in the original.

And what of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’? Ellie finds her role as the sensible one even more trying than Elinor does, and she wonders if she can go on coping with it. When she hears that Lucy is married, apparently to Ed, she is really upset; has she overdone ‘not wasting emotional energy in yearning’? ‘Serves you right,’ she says to herself. ‘Serves you completely right, stupid stupid Miss Sensible.’ Both Marianne and her mother come to see, as in the original, that there is more to ‘the good life’ than ‘allowing emotion to prevail over everything’. But there is a bit in the original, where Marianne is talking about how she bitterly regrets her misplaced devotion to Willoughby and her slighting of everyone else that is not in this version. Elinor asks her if she compares her conduct to Willoughby’s. Marianne answers ‘No. I compare it to what it should have been. I compare it with yours.’ In this passage it seems to me that Austen is endorsing sense over sensibility. I think Trollope is sitting a bit more on the fence.

And does this revised version suggest the Austen Project is worthwhile? I can’t see this book leading anyone to read the original. It’s fun in its own right, but I’d choose the original any day.

You can read more about Joanna Trollope here. The references to the tree house come straight from Ang Lee’s delightful 1996 film – a must-see if you haven’t already.

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After reading Evie Wyld’s traumatic but powerful All the Birds Singing – see my previous post – I was looking for something a bit more relaxed. But having found it, am I sure I really prefer comfortable?

Goddard is a well-established writer of mystery stories, where an ordinary person finds himself (and yes, all his heroes are male, as far as I can remember) having to uncover some dark secret.  Most of his twenty or so books deal with the impact such secrets from the past have on the present – see for example my review of the book before this one, Fault Line (2012). This one (2013), however, is set fully in the past. And a sequel to it – The Corners of the Globe (2014) – has already been published, going on from where The Ways of the World leaves off.

It is 1919. James Maxted, recently a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, wants to start a flying school. But his plans are interrupted by the death of his father, Sir Henry Maxted. Sir Henry was a retired diplomat recalled to service at the Paris Peace Conference. According to the French police, he died in an accident. James goes to Paris to bring his father’s body home, but soon finds there are enough ‘oddities and inconsistencies’ to throw doubt on the official version of events. He feels he has to investigate further. And one thing leads to another. What is the meaning of a mysterious list Sir Henry has left with a beautiful young widow? Why does the British Secret Service have an interest? Who else in the diplomatic community may hold a clue to Sir Henry’s death? You get the picture.

One of the things that interests me about ordinary person mysteries is the motivation of the main character to undertake the always dangerous task of uncovering the truth. Is it credible? Here, Maxted wants to find out why his father died; he feels driven by a sense of family loyalty. I don’t find this totally convincing in the sense that Maxted is rather braver than the average ordinary person. Goddard accounts for this in terms of his war experience: flying small planes over a battle field was not for the faint-hearted. He has been ‘forged by the fire, not consumed.’ When someone suggests he should be afraid, his response is: ‘I seem to have lost the knack’. But I think I’d be more convinced if Maxted wasn’t a bit of a cardboard cut-out – steadfast, loyal and resolute – in striking contrast to his stuffy older brother who just wants to avoid scandal. This is Boys Own stuff. Goddard actually describes Maxted’s actions at one point without apparent irony as ‘derring-do’, a phrase I thought was only ever used facetiously. Goddard hasn’t drawn any of the characters with any depth, which is disappointing. They are there just to make the story work.

And does it? Narrative is one of Goddard’s mains strengths, and he has crafted a clever enough plot. It moves along quickly, the short chapters adding to the pace. As with other amateurs, Maxted’s main way of operating is to ‘keep pushing’ and to see ‘who’s pushing back’. There is treachery and betrayal – common Goddard themes – and Maxted isn’t always right in his assumptions. There is a degree of happenstance and luck. But Goddard has also used the idea that ‘the things we think are unimportant are often the things that catch us out.’ In one case, what would otherwise be a gaping hole in the plot is covered by the explanation being deferred till next time. There are also some very loose ends, presumably deliberately left so that they can be taken up again in the next book. Indeed it may well be that some of what looks a bit like padding – Maxted’s expertise in flying, for example, or his period as a prisoner of war in Germany after his plane was shot down – will become relevant in the next book, to which this one is clearly a prelude.

It may also be that the relevance of the Peace Conference comes into sharper focus in the next book. It’s clearly an interesting time, and not one I’ve read about elsewhere. But apart from being an occasion bringing together a number of diplomats, and a matter for concern about the security of the various delegations, the Conference, and what it is trying to achieve, doesn’t play much of a part. Nor has Goddard put much work into the social setting of post-World War I England and France. Maxted’s off-sider, Sam Twentyman, his sergeant and former mechanic, finds it hard not to call his former officer ‘sir’; class is still alive and well, but is glossed over. Paris is cold and bleak, and there are demobilised soldiers begging on the streets, but there is no real sense of post war trauma.

This is perhaps disappointing, because as I noted in the earlier post on Goddard, he set out with higher standards than he seems to be achieving here. He says ‘I was inspired to take up writing by a growing dissatisfaction with much contemporary literature in which I detect a growing rift between technique and meaning. By wedding richness of language and intricacy of plot to narrative drive and dense imagery, I seek to heal that rift’. Well, there’s intricacy of plot and narrative drive, but the richness of language – and of characterisation – seem to have got lost along the way. Some of his earlier novels were better. It seems I need a book that is a bit more of a challenge for real satisfaction.

You can find more about Robert Goddard – and the next book – here.

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All the Birds Singing is the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award, given to a book judged to be ‘of the highest literary merit’ which presents ‘Australian Life in any of its phases’. I don’t have a very good history with literary prize winning books, and I’ve only read one of the other five short-listed booksEyrie, by Tim Winton (and you can see my post on that book here). But I think this time they’ve got it right. I can’t really say I enjoyed the book, but I found it utterly compelling.

The structure of this book is crucial to its power. In the first chapter, we meet Jake Whyte, a young Australian woman living on her small sheep farm on an unnamed island off the British coast. She welcomes solitude and avoids the locals as much as possible, her only company being a dog called Dog. But something is killing her sheep. The second chapter takes the reader, quite without warning, back to a sheep station in Australia, where Jake is working as a shearer. The next chapter is back on the island, the next in Australia and so on. The chapters set on the island deal with Jake’s life there and her determination to protect her sheep. She is the narrator, and the story moves forward in time, though it is told in the past tense. She also narrates the chapters set in Australia, but in the present tense. These, however, move back in time. They tell how Jake comes to be working as a shearer, why she has fled to Britain and how she got the terrible scars on her back.

This structure was a little confusing at first, but I quickly came to feel that the story couldn’t have been told in any other way – surely the mark of excellent writing. Instead of spoiling the tension by revealing what has happened, the Australian chapters incrementally increase the tension as each chapter hints at what happened earlier, leaving the reader hungry to know more, and increasingly anxious about what they may find. It also increases the poignancy, with the reader knowing that some hopes and expectations are doomed to be unfulfilled, as their outcome has already been revealed. And it turns out there is every reason to be apprehensive.

You know right from the start that there is a lot of pain in this story – though I don’t know what the quote on the front cover, that ‘Wyld has a feel both for beauty and for the ugliness of inherited pain’, actually means. Inherited pain? But the eviscerated sheep on the first page isn’t a one off; there are animal deaths of one kind or another in nearly every chapter, as well as human misery. Jake gives animals feelings, often enough of panic or terror. Her personification of Dog, on the other hand, is one of the delights of the story, though it is also an illustration of her loneliness and alienation from human beings.

Some critics, and the Miles Franklin judges, see in the story ‘perhaps, some form of redemption,’ but I didn’t really find much comfort amidst the bleakness. As Jake says, ’Stupid to think it wouldn’t all fall to shit.’ The incident that sums up all the desolation for me is the one where she hits a kangaroo while driving. At first she thinks the animal is ok: ‘I laugh out loud at how wonderful life is that takes a hell of a knock like that and it’s just fine,’ she says. But it isn’t. The kangaroo is fatally injured, and she has to finish it off with a crowbar. I suppose the point is that she takes responsibility for what has happened, rather than just driving away and leaving the animal to die in pain. But then there are the circumstances in which Jake gets the wounds to her back. Can the reader feel any optimism for her after what happened? Again, maybe it is the responsibility she feels for the sheep in her care on the island that will be her salvation.

When I recently read and reviewed Victoria Hislop’s The Island, my immediate response was that it was not well written. This time, the language feels just right. What’s the difference? What is good writing? The Miles Franklin judges, and other critics, emphasise the ‘deceptive sparseness’ of the prose. I think it’s also that the tone is just right – or ‘perfect pitch’, as another reviewer called it. Jake speaks and thinks exactly as she should for who she is. Thinking about what makes some writing good and some just ordinary, I often fall back on John Carey’s definition of literature: ‘writing that I want to remember … those particular words in that particular order’. That sounds about right for this book.

Having said all that, there are still a few things that nag at me about the story. While the British chapters are continuous in time, the Australian chapters jump back irregularly, so it is sometimes hard to get a sense of how much time has passed between the events being described. The practical part of my brain wonders how Jake became such a competent shearer in what seems like a relatively short space of time. And even though the reader knows she has been left some money, how is she able to buy the British sheep farm? How did she even get a passport? If the story is, as has been claimed, a ‘moral fable’, maybe this level of social realism isn’t relevant, but I still can’t help wondering. I guess it’s because Wyld has made Jake such a real person for me.

You can read more about Evie Wyld here. This is her second book. I’ll take a deep breath and read the first one, but I might look for a little bit of light relief first.

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Peter Robinson is a very competent writer of police procedurals.  There are sixteen stories featuring DI Alan Banks before this one (2007), and three more after it. You can read my review of one of the newer Banks stories, Watching the Dark (2012), here. I enjoyed Friend of the Devil, but not as much as I usually do police procedurals. I don’t think this is Robinson’s fault; it’s rather that I’ve perhaps overdosed on the sort of story that seems a natural fit for the police procedural, and this one is a perfect example of it.

DI Banks works out of the imaginary town of Eastvale in Yorkshire. His former sergeant and occasionally on but mostly off again girlfriend, Annie Cabbot, now also Detective Inspector, has been seconded to a neighbouring force. Both are dealing with murder cases. These get alternate treatment until eventually they run together. Banks’s case is the rape and murder of a young woman. Cabbot’s case is more bizarre; a woman in a wheelchair with quadriplegia is found at the top of a cliff with her throat cut. If this sounds familiar, it may be because the book is the basis for one of the episodes in the successful TV series, DCI Banks (2010-14). It is also links back to an earlier book Aftermath (2001), which was the pilot for the main TV series.

Both cases are about sexual violence and murder. I’m not for a moment suggesting that such crimes aren’t horrific; they deserve the maximum of police resources to solve. But I am suggesting that psychopaths and serial killers are becoming the staple of British police procedural crime fiction. There are several reasons for this, all exemplified to some extent in this book. Such crimes are more suitable for police procedurals than they are for stories about private detectives. Police are the ones immediately on the scene. They have extensive scene-of-crime resources, giving them access to DNA testing, and post-mortem results. All these factors are important in this story – though Robinson is clever, and not all is as it seems. In Britain at least, there seems to be an extensive web of CCTV which can be checked for the movements of people and vehicles. This is also important here, and again, Robinson uses it well.  But these resources aren’t usually available to private detectives, so they often need to look at different sorts of crime – ones that the police have missed, or crimes in the past that reverberate into the present.

The psychopath is also useful for the police procedural writer because there is less need to provide a credible motive for the murderer. Murder is what psychopaths do. There are usually a range of suspects, all of whom could be the murderer; none of them can be drawn in any great depth, because giving them depth of character is difficult without giving away too much about possible motive. But any smiling face can hide a psychopath. And so it proves here. I’m not saying that Robinson doesn’t do a good job of hiding the identity of the killer; even after he has identified that the motive is revenge, he still has to make a lot of connections – which of course DI Cabbot is also making – to identify who the killer is. It’s a cleverly put together story – it is just limited by the police procedural form.

Part of what I miss in this form of crime fiction is the ‘state of society’ emphasis that I find in some crime fiction that has a private detective, or is simply a mystery involving someone outside law enforcement. The police procedural usually only does this through the private lives of the police involved, and their formal interactions with the public as witnesses or suspects. We learn quite a bit about Banks and Cabbot; Banks, for example, is reading Tony Judt’s Postwara very good choice. Robinson makes implicit social comment, but of only a limited kind. A writer such as Kate Atkinson, for example, is able to write much more explicitly about the society her characters operate in, to the point where in her hands, the crime novel is subsumed into a general literary category.

A further result of concentrating on the psychopath is that other forms of crime are neglected. Where is the police procedural about corporate crime, like large-scale financial fraud, or illegal environmental pollution? Presumably there’s not much of a story in going through bank statements and mobile phone records. A few police procedural writers have however brought such issues alive. DI Rebus has had run-ins with crime that is closely linked with politics. Gangs, drugs and people trafficking also make an appearance in Rankin’s work – which are technically police procedurals. Michael Robotham has also ventured into some of these areas, though the majority of his books aren’t really police procedurals and are anyway often about serial killers. Police forces can investigate only when they know there has been a specific crime; they aren’t usually the ones who identify the systemic problem. This is much more likely to be done by a private detective working for a concerned individual; Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is easily my best in this area.

Readers can no doubt supply a list of police procedural crime stories which are not about serial killers and psychopaths. Probably I’ve just read too many that are in too short a time.

You can read more about Peter Robinson and DI Alan Banks here.

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One of the great things about being in a book club – besides the interesting discussions and wonderful food provided by my generous book-club friends – is that I get to read books that I probably wouldn’t otherwise come across. The downside is that what we read comes from a list of books held in multiple copies generated from a local library – and taking pot luck doesn’t always result in a satisfying book. After becoming Richard and Judy’s top Summer Read in 2006, this one went on to sell 1 million copies in Britain alone, and the author won the Galaxy (now Specsavers) British Book Award for the New Writer of the Year in 2007, so it seemed a good bet. Not so. I don’t know who Richard and Judy are, but apparently the award is more about sales impact than quality – and it shows.

The story begins in the present day with Alexis, who is visiting Plaka, the village on Crete where her ancestors once lived. Her mother, Sophia, has always been reticent about her family history, but now that Alexis is holidaying in Crete, she has agreed to put her in touch with an old friend who can tell her about the family. The friend, Fotini, agrees, and most of the rest of the book is about what happened to the family between 1939 and 1958. Alexis and Sophia return briefly at the end.

The story that she hears is partly a history of the island of Spinalonga – Greece’s former leper colony – which is located just off Plaka. It is partly a story of the German occupation of Crete during World War II, and partly a family saga of romance and tragedy. Of these, the history of the leper colony is by far the most interesting and even moving, perhaps because the least known. The war history is perfunctory; if you really want to know about the kidnapping of General Kreipe by British special forces, read Ill Met by Moonlight, the account written by one of the participants, W (Billy) Stanley Moss, or better still, see the classic film starring Dirk Bogarde. The family saga unfortunately doesn’t rise above a Mills and Boon romance.

One of the problems with the book is that despite the author saying at the beginning: ‘It was here that Fotini began to relate Sophia’s story’, and near the end: ‘As Fotini reached this point in the story’, Fotini doesn’t actually tell the story. Instead, it is written as a third person history of the family, and contains information that Fotini, a by-stander, could not possible have known. This makes the whole device of Alexis’s visit pointless. Hislop might just as well have told the story, without a modern reference, or alternatively, told it in Fotini’s voice. I don’t think she can have it both ways.

The second, and even greater problem for me, is that Hislop just doesn’t write very well. Some of the description is OK, but her weakness as a writer shows in the excessive use of adjectives, as for example: ’Dressed in the unfamiliar feel of crisp, ironed cotton, she wandered down the dark back stairway and found herself in the restaurant kitchen, drawn there by the powerful aroma of strong, freshly brewed coffee.’ And if she ‘found herself’ in the kitchen, she wasn’t ‘drawn there’. The adjectives are often banal; hair is ‘lustrous’ and roast meat ‘succulent’. Elsewhere, ‘the green fields were verdant’ – no doubt they were, since verdant means green. And ‘he was being pressurised by his parents to find a wife’ – I’m perhaps being picky here, but what’s wrong with ‘pressured’? This is disappointing from someone who read English at Oxford and worked in publishing and as a journalist.

Furthermore, Hislop has not succeeded in giving any depth to her characters. Circumstances ensure that the course of true love doesn’t run smooth, and some of the characters behave badly. But no one has any shades of grey, and each is absolutely predictable in their actions and emotions. The ‘good’ characters are just too noble. I know you can’t expect writers to come up with entirely new angles on romance, but Jane Austen did the one found here first, and better, with Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. I’m simply not convinced.

One of the comments on the back of the book praises it for showing that ’love and life continue in even the most extraordinary of circumstances’ and this is perhaps the book’s saving grace. The information Hislop gives about the leper colony on Spinalonga and the disease itself is interesting and important, given the strong prejudice against lepers that has existed for centuries. That people managed to live any sort of normal existence in the colony – and she seems to have done her research on this – is indeed a testament to the human spirit.

Obviously other people don’t agree with my less than flattering estimate of this book; here’s the review that generated the blurb on the front: ‘a beach book with heart’. Hislop has written two further books, one of which, The Return (2008) is set in Granada during the Spanish Civil War. Given the Spanish emphasis of my current reading, I should try it – but somehow I don’t think I will. You can read more about Hislop here.

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A while back I reviewed Gillian Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl (2012). I liked it so much that I included it in my five favourite books of 2013, and decided I should read Flynn’s earlier work. Dark Places is her second book, published in 2009 – though my edition says on the cover ‘from the author of Gone Girl’, suggesting that the third book is carrying the less successful second one. I think this suggestion is pretty right, though it may be a matter of taste rather than quality. Certainly it’s a very different book from the one that followed it.

Libby Day is the sole survivor of a massacre at her mother’s debt-ridden Kansas farm, twenty four years ago when she was seven. She lost her mother and two older sisters. Her older brother, fifteen year old Ben, was convicted of the murders and jailed for life; it was Libby’s evidence against him that ensured his conviction. It soon becomes clear that the family was in a bad way before the murders; Libby now lives in a state of aimless depression. She has used up the fund that was created for her from donations by well-wishers, she has no job, no skills and no motivation to acquire any. Then she receives a letter from the ’Kill Club’, a macabre organisation made up of people with obsessions about particular crimes. They believe Ben to be innocent. They will pay her to talk to them, to sell family mementos to them, and above all to find out if someone else could have committed the crimes. Libby wants the money and knows that her carefully coached testimony as a child wasn’t true, but what sort of can of worms will she open if she has to go back to that time – a ‘Darkplace’ she tries never to think about? What if Ben really is innocent? Who else might have done it?

Half of the book tells the story, with Libby as narrator, of her search for the truth, which gradually becomes as important to her as the money. Alternate chapters tell what happened on the day leading up to the murders from the perspective of Patty, Libby’s mother, and of Ben, though in the third person; a series of events is recounted that spiral into worse and worse disaster. As in Gone Girl, there are multiple voices; each has its distinctive tone. Flynn has a very good ear for nuances of region, age and gender. This is a very clever narrative structure, as Libby’s story expands the possibility of arriving at the truth and even changing her life, while Patty’s and Ben’s stories can only close in, edging closer and closer to catastrophe we know is about to happen. And of course, ‘every single person in this case lies, is lying, did lie.’

Libby is certainly no heroine struggling for freedom from her messed up life. Right from the beginning she presents herself as seriously damaged. The book begins with the sentence: ‘I have a meanness inside me. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something is wrong with it.’ This is a theme she returns to again and again. Is it an explanation? Or an excuse? Her mother feels constantly inadequate; she has done the best she can, but the farm is mortgaged to the hilt, there’s never enough money, her ex-husband, Runner Day, is worse than useless: ‘wily and dumb at the same time’, dealing drugs, always on the scrounge. Her sisters are mean and whiney, and her brother Ben is an angry and hostile teenager. But Patty loves her kids, and would defend then if she could; can Libby be blamed for only occasionally glimpsing this? Can she actually change for the better?  The only reason you don’t thoroughly dislike her is that she is very self-aware; she knows when she’s being hateful. And some of her terrible habits turn out to be useful.

What happens during the final day before the murders, and the murders themselves, is actually very nasty, so nasty that I skipped over a couple of bits. I think Flynn describes Ben’s situation very well; you can see how it could happen, even if it is a bit over the top. A fear of the devil worship he is accused of did actually sweep the United States in the 1980s, crazy as it sounds. Communities  – especially poor rural ones? – can get caught up in mindless hysteria. Teenager boys do struggle to understand how to be men; we might blame Ben for some of his decisions, but Flynn makes them understandable. I’m not so sure about Patty, though.

I took some of the social relations in Gone Girl to be satirical, though I thought the tacky mid-west landscape the story was set in was realistic enough. There doesn’t seem to me to be any satire in this book. The social relations are a real reflection of deadening poverty, greed and selfishness – with only a tiny bit of love. And the physical landscape – the run-down farm, the failed tourist town, the toxic dump and the plastic bags blowing out of the landfill – also ring true. Libby’s self-deprecation may lighten the blighted tone somewhat, but is just that; it has no wider social reference. Overall I couldn’t help thinking that Gone Girl is nasty in a clever way, whereas Dark Places is nasty in a cruel and twisted way. They’ve made a film based on the book, but I certainly won’t be going to see it.

You can read more about Gillian Flynn here, and the film here. It is to be released in September of this year.

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