Friday, 26 September 2014

Written in stone: Review of Stones by Polly Johnson


“Stones”, the impressive first novel from author Polly Johnson, deals with some brave and unusual themes.

The story is narrated by sixteen-year-old Coo (Corinne), a troubled teen with plenty of reason to be that way. Dealing with the death of her older brother Sam, a violent alcoholic, and her painfully mixed feelings about both him and his death, Coo is struggling to make sense of the world and her place in it, if indeed she has one at all. She feels invisible at school – on the rare occasions when she turns up – and bitterness towards her parents who, she feels, failed to protect her from her brother’s violent rages. Indeed she feels herself to be trapped inside a glacier on which nothing outside makes any impression. Visits to the “Shrink Woman” – an expensive psychologist to whom her parents, caught up in their own grief, appear to have mainly (and unsuccessfully) delegated Coo’s emotional care – seem like a waste of time. Wandering the streets and the stony beach alone, Coo is somehow drawn to Banks, an alcoholic homeless man, and forms an unlikely and unusual friendship with him. She also befriends Joe, a boy of her own age who has troubles of his own.

The story builds slowly, layer upon layer, but is no less gripping for that, moving on as events happen to or are precipitated by Coo before ultimately building to a perhaps inevitable climax. The tone is fairly dark – as befits the subject matter – but the book is extremely well written and note-perfect throughout.

There’s something shocking in Coo, a middle-class teenage girl (her mother owns an antiques shop, for goodness sake) befriending and becoming part of a group – Banks and his friends – which most people would probably cross the road to avoid, but Johnson skilfully shows us the humanity beneath the unprepossessing exterior.

The narrative of Coo is very compelling and her voice, personality and situation comes through clearly. She appears to be in a self-destructive downward spiral and to an outsider the reasons for some of her behaviour may seem easy to interpret, but as another character points out, sometimes these are the hardest to see. Coo is young, na├»ve, socially isolated and frighteningly vulnerable, although – like sixteen-year-old girls everywhere – unaware of this fact.

The story is set in Brighton; I’ve never been there, but a strong and atmospheric sense of place emerges from the narrative and I could clearly picture the surroundings, especially the beach where many events of the story take place.

The characters are all extremely well drawn and believable – Banks and the other homeless men are particularly memorable, perhaps because this is a group of people rarely dealt with in fiction, certainly not in a sympathetic way. Johnson’s portrayal is realistic and does not shy away at all from harsh and unpleasant realities, but also manages to hold on to an awareness of these characters as people with their own histories. I would have liked to know more, though, about the aggressive, clearly mentally ill character of Alec , who presents a menacing figure throughout – although as we are seeing everything through Coo’s eyes our knowledge is filtered through her perceptions. An account of some incidents from the viewpoint of other characters would be interesting to read.

In an interesting post at the Authonomy blog, Johnson states that while the novel is not autobiographical, many of the incidents did occur in real life, and the story is clearly informed by her experience of her own brother’s alcoholism – although we never meet Sam in the book and his character only emerges through the memories of his sister, Coo (and, to a much lesser extent, what other characters say about him). 

This is a very engaging, well-written read which I would certainly recommend, and look forward to future work from this author. It’s aimed at young adults, or new adults, or whatever we’re supposed to be calling them these days, but its appeal will certainly not be restricted to this age group.  I enjoyed it very much.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

What lies beneath: Review of "The Girl Next Door" by Ruth Rendell


At 84, Ruth Rendell’s writing career has now spanned 50 years and encompassed well over that number of crime/mystery novels – both police procedural type stories featuring the popular Reg Wexford, and more stand-alone psychological novels - and short story collections, including those written as Barbara Vine. That’s quite an achievement. Although my reading career doesn’t quite stretch to 50 years (I think I first discovered Ruth Rendell in the early ‘90s) I’m fairly sure I’ve read all of them at some point – though some longer-ago ones are definitely due a re-read – and a new book is always an event to be eagerly anticipated. Rendell never fails to deliver a good read, even if some of her earlier works were perhaps more memorable than some more recent ones. Overall though there is no doubt that she has produced a remarkable body of work over those fifty years.

“The Girl Next Door” is perhaps the Rendell novel with the least entitlement to call itself a crime or mystery novel, although a crime certainly features, and right at the beginning too, almost as if it has to be got out of the way before the real business of the story gets started. There’s little mystery about it, however. In the very first chapter we learn what crime has been committed (murder, of course), who committed it (a very unpleasant man), why he committed it (because he was a very unpleasant man, more or less), and the identity of one of the two victims. Taking place in the 1940s, the crime goes undetected for many years until the grisly discovery in the present day, or near to it (judging by the ages of the characters it’s more like 2008 or 2009), of two severed hands in a box, long hidden. There is a police investigation, but this is far from the focus of the novel, and all that really remains to be determined for the reader is whether and, if so, how the now very elderly perpetrator will be brought to justice, and the exact identity of the other victim. 

The murder, or rather its discovery after many years, really serves as a plot device to bring back together the main characters – the now-elderly people who as children in the ‘40s played in underground tunnels  - named, by them, “qanats” because it sounded more exciting -  in the area (a place called Loughton, “twelve miles from London but almost in the country”). This is quite a large cast of characters and I did find it a little confusing to remember who was who, particularly the Batchelor brothers and their various wives. However, the main focus is on a few characters – Alan and Rosemary, now many years married; Michael, the son of the murderer; and still-glamorous Daphne, the “girl next door” of the title, with the others playing more subsidiary roles. The relationships between these characters form the main substance of the story and it is refreshing to read a story which focuses almost entirely on the lives, emotions and shifting relationships of older people, all interconnected and leading in different directions rather like those tunnels of the past. My favourite character was Michael, and I found the depiction of his character and situation to be quite moving. The other characters were also believable, though I am not entirely sure what purpose was served by the eventual reveal of an unsavoury aspect of Daphne’s past. The character of Clara Moss, former cleaning lady to Michael’s family, was a delight and provided some very touching moments. The murderer – that unpleasant man who has evidently become no less unpleasant with age – also features and I found him to be quite a memorable character even though no real reasons emerge for why he is the way he is.

As ever, Ruth Rendell’s writing flows seamlessly and contains many acute observations, though a rather trying quirk here is the author’s – through the characters’ – constant references to things she (erroneously, in my view) believes nobody under the age of sixty says any more – “chemist’s shop”, “what’s the matter”, “twenty to five” etc. I may not be in the first bloom of youth any more but I am still well under sixty and can say all of these things without a second thought. Surely I can’t be the only one?  Undoubtedly there are some terms and phrases which have fallen out of usage over a couple of generations, but I don’t generally think these are among them. Perhaps some will disagree. Thankfully there is less harping on here about the supposed obsession of everyone with speaking in a “politically correct” manner, which did become quite wearing in a couple of previous books (I really don’t think most people give it that much thought, whatever the Daily Mail would have you believe). I think the subject only gets one mention here and I do hope Ruth Rendell gives it a rest in future.

Though Rendell is now in her 80s I think this is the first book she has written to focus almost exclusively on people of a similar age group (though there are younger characters – mainly the children and grandchildren of the main protagonists – they play more minor roles), and clearly she brings her own experience of ageing to bear on her portrayal of the characters. It’s a welcome change and if Rendell chooses to focus future novels on her own generation of characters, I will be quite happy about that. 

This is a very readable and enjoyable if in some ways rather odd book, much less about the investigation of a long-ago crime than about rekindled romance, unforeseen consequences  and changing relationships among a group of elderly people – for all of whom the past casts a long shadow.

Recommended.

I was kindly provided with a free copy of this book from the publishers, Random House UK, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Review: Silhouette (Doctor Who) - Justin Richards

The hapless Marlowe Hapworth is bumped off in a locked room after a visit to the Frost Fair's Carnival of Curiosities, while in the process of writing a concerned letter to Madam Vastra, the Great Detective..... Rick Bellamy, bare-knuckle fighter and drinking/fighting buddy of Strax the Sontaran, is found dead in an alleyway.... Meanwhile, the Twelfth Doctor and Clara are on the trail of an inexplicable power spike in late Victorian London. What can it all mean, and what does it have to do with a puppet show operated by the mysterious Silhouette?

I LOVE the Paternoster Gang and their Victorian crime-fighting escapades, and they are on fine form here, with some excellent moments for Strax in particular. (The idea of him drinking, in pubs, with mates, is a delight.) Jenny Flint also gets plenty to do, though less is made here than in the TV series of her relationship with Vastra. And there's a surprising moment for Vastra...

I'm liking Clara a lot better recently - I wasn't overly taken with her character last series, but am finding her more likeable and believable now, and that continues in this novel, where we get to see her interacting with lots of characters other than the Doctor. There's a real flavour of her personality coming through now which I, personally, feel was a bit lacking in the previous series.

The Doctor doesn't actually seem to have that much to do for much of the story, but his characterisation seems to be in line with what we have seen so far in this series and he has some good moments. (I'm particularly enjoying the change in his relationship with Clara.) I loved the bit where he repeatedly bumps into - well, you'll see - while remaining apparently oblivious. Blatant fan-pleasing stuff, but hey, I'm a fan, and I like to be pleased.

As ever, Justin Richards is a safe pair of hands where the writing of Doctor Who books is concerned, and on this occasion he has delivered superbly, with a gripping plot, recognisable characters and a satisfyingly villainous baddie. I loved this story!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Daughter - Jane Shemilt

I wasn't sure if I really wanted to read this - the title is rather too redolent of Rosamund Lupton's "Sister" from a few years ago, and felt a bit like cashing in on the success of that - and the overall theme (teenage girl goes missing; secrets emerge) sounded hardly original.

The narrative, seen through the eyes of Naomi's mother Jenny, moves back and forth in time - from the night of the disappearance and the periods immediately before and after, to Jenny's life a year later. Again, this dual/multiple time-frame form of storytelling is not unusual, in fact at present it's more or less de rigueur for this type of psychological mystery.

Despite these initial reservations, Daughter drew me in very quickly and I subsequently found it hard to put down – especially towards the end when I really could not tear myself away. As mentioned, the story is narrated by Jenny Malcolm, a GP, mother of three teenage children – twin boys, Ed and Theo, and fifteen-year-old Naomi – and wife of neurosurgeon Ted. Her life is busy and fulfilling and it never occurs to her how much is going on beneath the surface of her seemingly perfect family. When Naomi fails to come home one night, some uncomfortable realities come gradually and painfully to the surface, forcing Jenny to challenge her own beliefs and assumptions.
 
The writing is excellent and the characters very believable. Clues are scattered throughout though it is not until the end that we learn what really happened to Naomi – and it might not be what you expect. The twist right at the end was something I didn’t see coming, and leaves the reader wanting to know more – what happens to these characters in the future? That said, it’s not an unsatisfying end by any means. The novel is well structured with the author drawing parallels throughout between, for instance, the attitude of Jenny and other characters to certain individuals, and how this may be reflected in her own family. Entrenched (comfortable?) beliefs may need to be challenged….
 
Mostly, it’s a portrayal of how a family – especially a mother – deals, or doesn’t, with the unexplained disappearance of a child. Jenny’s behaviour and reactions are completely plausible and the reader can imagine, only too easily, how she is feeling.
 
I recommend this as a gripping read, and look forward to reading more from Jane Shemilt in the future.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Angel With Two Faces - Nicola Upson

I was fascinated by the concept of this novel, which weaves a real, if fictionalised, character (crime writer Josephine Tey, author of "Golden Age" classics including The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair) into a fictional story of murder, mystery and dark secrets set in Cornwall in 1935.

This is, in fact, the second in a series by Nicola Upson featuring Josephine Tey and her friend, policeman Archie Penrose. Not having read the first could have placed me at something of a disadvantage, but in fact this detracted little, if anything, from my enjoyment of the story - which proved to be a cracking read with some genuinely unexpected twists.

Josephine Tey was, of course, a pseudonym for Scottish writer Elizabeth Mackintosh, but the character who appears in this book is clearly Josephine, rather than Elizabeth, and hence in some sense can be viewed as a fictional creation. Nicola Upson clearly recognises this in a concluding author's note, in which she states that the character of Josephine blends "some of what we know about Elizabeth Mackintosh with the personality which emerges so strongly from her eight crime novels". Tey is not the only "real person" to appear - Rowena Cade, founder of the Minack Theatre, also makes an appearance, and the open-air theatre itself provides a dramatic setting for one pivotal scene, as indeed does the Loe Pool - Cornwall's largest freshwater lake. Fact and fiction are hence blended to intriguing effect. (The Minack Theatre did indeed stage a production of The Jackdaw of Rheims in 1935, although Upson may have taken some liberties with the events....)

The story begins with the funeral of a young man, Harry Pinching, following what appeared to be a tragic accident - and its after-effects on the close-knit community. Close-knit or not, it soon becomes apparent that everyone in the community has secrets, and no-one - save for one naive young teenage girl - wants to share them. Nonetheless, the revelations come thick and fast, and are rarely predictable.

In common with a previous reviewer, I did have to question the realism of Archie and Josephine's reaction to some of these revelations. Both seem quite stunningly broad-minded and accepting - this is set in 1935, remember - in response to disclosures some of which are taboo even by today's standards, let alone in those days. I wondered whether Nicola Upson intended to portray these characters as remarkable in their attitudes, or whether she was applying more modern-day standards than those which would probably have been more prevalent at the time. The novel does, overall, have a fairly contemporary feel to it, given the era in which it was set.

That's a minor quibble, though, because this is a real page-turner. Upson excels at building up atmosphere and makes great use of the geographical setting. Characters are also well drawn (many have evocative, almost Dickensian names - Jago Snipe, Morwenna Pinching, Jasper Motley) and if the secrets and revelations come to Archie and Josephine a little too dramatically and conveniently.... well, it is fiction, after all. Mostly.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It has inspired me not only to seek out Nicola Upson's first novel in the series, An Expert in Murder (and I eagerly await further instalments) but also to go back and re-read the wonderful 1930s and 1940s novels of Josephine Tey. I'm sure many other readers will have the same reaction.

The Telling Error - Sophie Hannah

I've counted myself as a Sophie Hannah fan for some time now - since her pre-crime writer days (her poetry and non-Culver Valley novels are excellent, by the way), and have eagerly awaited each new book ever since. Some of her more recent novels have met with rather mixed reviews - I love her writing style so much that I've enjoyed them all, but I'd say "The Telling Error" is her best for some time.

As a crime writer Sophie specialises in strange, apparently inexplicable situations which are gradually unravelled; the labyrinthine plotting can at times be demanding on the reader ("The Other Half Lives" springs to mind - a book I loved, but which also gave me a headache at times trying to work out who knew what about who). "The Telling Error" is complex, but not so much as to interfere with the reader's enjoyment.

Her writing can also be very funny, especially where the brilliantly sarcastic DI Proust is concerned - his lines often make me laugh out loud (his very first line about the "Simon Waterhouse tribute programme" made me snort in a very unseemly manner) and he must be great fun to write, even though he doesn't feature that much this time round. I like Charlie and Simon too, both believably complex characters whose unusual relationship is, however, not centre stage in this latest instalment. Characterisation is, as always, excellent, with even minor characters having a depth and realism which is absent from a lot of crime fiction. Hannah also has some very spot-on observations about the internet keyboard warriors who take to Twitter and elsewhere to express their general bile at anything and everything (as one character accurately says, "They want to carry on hating - it's their hobby.")

Also, the title is great. Not sure though whether to make anything of the fact that the book includes characters called both Sophie and Hannah!

Anyway, in short, another first class outing for Zailer and Waterhouse. Already looking forward to the next....

Monday, 11 August 2014

Review: Into the Nowhere (Doctor Who) - Jenny Colgan

The last few months have certainly been a rollercoaster ride for Doctor Who fans. The Name of the Doctor! The Night of the Doctor! The Day of the Doctor! The Time of the Doctor! Splendid stuff, all of it. Not to mention a veritable plethora of audios, books, etc. (The Veritable Plethora of the Doctor, you might say.) It’s a great time to be a fan. Except – except for that one little matter. Come in, No. 11, your time is up. And much as I’m looking forward to Peter Capaldi’s tenure in the TARDIS (there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to be brilliant), I’m really, really going to miss Matt Smith. Because, you know what, Doctor? You were my Doctor.

Thankfully he’s not gone, not entirely, because there are still adventures out there we haven’t previously heard about, and one of these has now been recounted, as part of the new Time Trips series, by Jenny Colgan. The series kicked off in style last month with A L Kennedy’s Fourth Doctor story, The Death Pit, and I’m glad to say continues in equal-but-different style with Into the Nowhere. This e-book features the Eleventh Doctor and Clara, and a planet which doesn’t seem to exist. It’s not in any of the literature. (There’s a lovely Douglas Adams reference here, which made me very happy – and a nod to Harry Potter later, too. I do like the idea that these universes co-exist.) But anyway, there it is, and of course they have to go there and find out more, and it’s… really not a very nice place, actually, though the reason why is not what you might expect.

Jenny Colgan – author of numerous romantic comedies, and one previous Doctor Who novel, the acclaimed Dark Horizons (well, I acclaimed it. I’m pretty sure other people did, too.) – writes beautifully here. This is dark and scary stuff, and it’s very very good. This planet with no name is a frightening place and the reader feels that, every step of the way. But as good, if not better, than this is the characterisation of the Doctor and Clara, which is insightful and believable. I’ll admit that I have struggled to really warm to Clara as a companion, largely because the – to my mind –rather uneven series 7b never totally gave me a grasp of who she was, apart from cute and pretty and with a nice line in sarky repartee. I didn’t feel much depth of personality came across, somehow, and hence it was hard to care what happened to her. I think she’s growing on me, though, and Jenny Colgan – by giving us insight into Clara’s inner feelings, post-Name of the Doctor, about what has happened to her and how it feels and what it all means – has helped to give her genuine depth. The Doctor is also very well characterised in all his lightness and his darkness. I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it, so I’ll only say that things take an unexpected turn. It’s cleverly done, with some rather surprising imagery, and also very sad at one point in particular – but the end is satisfying and left me thinking.

Highly, highly recommended and I look forward to more Doctor Who stories from Jenny Colgan.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Ghost Runner - Bill Jones

Bill Jones first heard of the "ghost runner" in 1984, nine years after John Tarrant's death; researching a documentary about the Salford Harriers, an interviewee pushed a slender, battered paperback into his hand. The book, an Athletics Weekly publication, was John Tarrant's hastily written autobiography, also entitled The Ghost Runner. Unfortunately John's literary talent did not match his running talent and the book was not well written, but the story was absolutely compelling and Bill Jones quickly became haunted by this "ghost", determined to learn more about him, and ultimately to tell John's amazing story as it deserved to be told.

Subtitled "The Tragedy Of The Man They Couldn't Stop", it is a moving and inspiring story, yet the character who emerges from this book is not always easy to like - "self-centred, destructive and lacking in emotional intelligence", driven by anger and a burning sense of injustice. But John Tarrant had much to be angry about. Born in London in 1932, due to his mother's illness and later death and his father's conscription in 1940 he spent much of his childhood in a brutal children's home, his only companion and support his beloved younger brother, Victor. It wasn't until 1947 that the brothers, now 15 and 13, finally left the home, moving to Buxton in the Peak District with their father and newly-acquired stepmother.

There wasn't a great deal for young men to do in Buxton and when a new craze for boxing swept the town, John took it up with alacrity. Although he was never destined to be a particularly successful boxer, his years of surviving the harsh regime and defending himself and Victor against the bullies in the children's home had toughened him up and taught him to fight, and he participated in several matches over a couple of years, receiving a total of £17 for his trouble. This paltry sum was to prove his downfall. Discovering on the fells around his home an abiding love and talent for running, when John wanted to join a running club and enter races, dreaming of the success he was sure he was capable of, he was forbidden by the authorities to do so. Thanks to that seventeen pounds, honestly if naively declared, his amateur status had been compromised; he was banned for life, at home and abroad.

Confident that reason must eventually prevail, John embarked on a campaign of letter writing to the relevant authorities, only to be met by rejection after rejection. By this time married (in 1953) to the unswervingly supportive Edie, and working as a rather inefficient council plumber - the first in a succession of jobs which always took second place to running - John, aided and abetted by his brother Victor, embarked on a drastic course of action. If he wasn't allowed to run officially in races, he would run them unofficially, heading to the start line in disguise aiming to jump into the race at the last minute, where he would quickly speed to the front and stay there until he either won or collapsed of exhaustion. His intention: to show the powers that be just what he was capable of, and his genuine desire to run for the sake of it rather than for reward. Thus the ghost runner was born, quickly seizing the imagination of the nation.

Though officialdom refused to recognise his existence, John was welcomed and warmly supported by his fellow athletes, most of whom understood and sympathised with his predicament. (Former international athlete and main rival, Arthur Keily, even wrote repeatedly to the AAA pleading John's case, without success.)

The Ghost Runner is an incredibly good read, following John's running career from his first "ghost" outing at the Liverpool Marathon, to setting world records at 40 and 100 miles, and to South Africa where he ran the Comrades Marathon - a race which became an obsession for him - as a "ghost" and later defied apartheid as the only white man running alongside the black and Indian athletes who, like him, were barred from official races. In the process he earned himself the love and respect of many who were battling for equality in South Africa.

Although Bill Jones never, of course, met John Tarrant, in researching his life he received full and warm co-operation from John's family - his long-suffering, ever supportive widow Edie, son Roger, and indispensable brother Victor, all of whom deserve medals of their own - and found that many others, including John's running contemporaries, were only too happy to talk to him, and indeed believed the telling of John's story was long overdue. Hence, a clear picture of the man and his remarkable, if all too short, life emerges from this gripping book.

You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by this story (the last few pages had me in tears), which can also frequently make the blood boil. John may have been "the man they couldn't stop" but he was also engaged in a fight he could never win, constantly knocked back by the intransigent authorities, who refused to accept that £17 earned as a not particularly good teenage boxer did not render him a money-tainted "professional" for ever after. (Ironic, when money was the one thing John never had.) John wasn't the only person to fall foul of the elitist "cult of amateurism" which was unforgivingly enforced by the upper echelons, but he was probably the most determined to resist, and became a constant thorn in the side of the AAA.

The Ghost Runner is a great read, packed with fascinating incidents and characters, and extremely evocative of the post-war social and political period it describes. There are some extraordinary descriptions of races, including an attempt at the 50-mile world record which took place on a dilapidated Durban track periodically illuminated by flashes of lightning while rain lashed down flooding the track knee-deep in places, fighting broke out between rival gangs, and a local band continued playing regardless.

I would recommend anyone to read the book; it’s a terrific and thought-provoking story of a man whose life and achievements deserve to be more widely known.