He was a mystery to me till the bitter end

never tell book coverNever Tell
by Lisa Gardner

I picked up this crime novel in need of an engrossing, compelling read to get me back into reading. It worked on that level, but it definitely has flaws, primarily that I found the conclusion offensive. So I can’t in honesty recommend this book. If you’re interested in my specific objection, read beyond the spoiler warning below.

For the most part, I liked the characters and the set-up of the crime. The leads are all women and they’re not all broken and/or alcoholics – particularly not the police professionals, which was refreshing. The chapters alternate between three characters: the prime suspect, Evie, a high-school teacher pregnant with her first child; the lead detective, D.D. Warren, who is a recurring character of Gardner’s; and Flora, who is a survivor of a past crime turned police informant and victim-support worker.

The book opens with Evie arriving home to find her husband Conrad dead. She takes the gun from his lap and fires it, and seconds later is found by the police still holding the gun, which makes it hard for them to believe her statement that she didn’t kill Conrad. D.D. recognises Evie from one of her first cases as a police officer, when Evie was a teenager who had accidentally shot and killed her father (or had she?). To make matters even more complicated, when news of the murder is televised, Flora recognises Conrad as an associate of the man who kidnapped and serially raped her.

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Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, we jump at it

Awakening by S J BoltonAwakening
by S J Bolton

I really enjoy Sharon Bolton’s thrillers, even if I am beginning to spot recurring themes and tropes. They’re easy and quick to read but still well and intelligently written.

Clara is a vet in a small village on the border of Devon and Dorset. She is more comfortable with animals than people, but her colleagues and neighbours recognise her competency and call on it whenever needed. Her background includes studying reptiles, so when snakes start turning up in people’s homes, and a man even dies from a snake bite, at first the locals and the police turn to her for help, but they soon start to suspect her instead.

“Sleep was a long time in coming. And when it did arrive it was restless, filled with dreams and shivery half-wakings. Towards dawn I had the recurring dream that I most dread. I am in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turn I see reflections of myself. As the dream goes on, the reflections become more and more distorted. No longer is it just my face that’s scarred, but the rest of me as well.”

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Pinging around the universe, hoping for a host

The Girls
by Emma Cline

I had heard mixed reviews of this huge bestseller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, from page one it was clear that this was an impressive book by an author with a masterful grasp of language.

The story is narrated by Evie, a middle-aged woman who is reminded by the intrusion of a teenage couple into her life of the summer of 1969, when she was 14. She was a typically insecure girl, lusting after her best friend Connie’s brother, feeling generally invisible. Then she saw the girls, or more specifically, she saw Suzanne. Suzanne is unwashed, wearing ill-fitting ragged clothes, but she exudes confidence and young Evie is transfixed.

Evie follows her new obsession to a remote ranch where she finds a cult led by a man called Russell. Over her summer holiday she spends more and more time at the ranch, exposed to drugs, sex and other behaviours Russell’s followers think of as adult. Evie clocks right away that Russell has magnetic appeal and that all the girls are sleeping with him, but for her the attraction is still Suzanne.

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Our words are trapped in time

House of Names
by Colm Tóibín

I’ve been meaning to read more Tóibín since I enjoyed his book Brooklyn last year, so I was excited to spot his latest novel on NetGalley. It’s a retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Clytemnestra, which I only loosely knew beforehand. Luckily an epigraph sketches it out, so that you start the book knowing how the story will pan out.

In common with some other myth retellings I’ve read, I initially found the language stilted, keeping me at a distance, but I gradually stopped noticing the old-fashioned style and instead enjoyed the beauty of the language. In the story, Tóibín has managed to be much less old-fashioned, primarily by telling much of it from the women’s perspectives. The opening section is narrated by Clytemnestra. Later her younger daughter Electra picks up the narration. But when Electra’s brother Orestes’ story is told it’s from a third-person perspective.

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In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

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The shadows resumed their jerky dance

The Silence of the Sea
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

I picked up this book because Sigurðardóttir was recommended by Gav Reads and Savidge Reads, whose taste I often share. I managed somehow to start this crime series with the sixth book about lawyer Thóra, but I don’t think that spoiled the story and she seems pretty badass.

In this episode of Icelandic noir, a luxury yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour wall with no-one on board, not one of the seven people known to have boarded in Lisbon. The parents of one of the missing people employ Thóra to prove that their son Ægir is dead – they really need to claim his life insurance money to be able to afford to raise their (now presumably orphaned) granddaughter.

A second timeline follows Ægir from the day he, his wife and their older two children leave Lisbon on the yacht. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience luxury beyond their means – the yacht is being repossessed by the bank Ægir works for. But from the surly skeleton crew to hideous seasickness, it’s a nightmare from the start. One that only gets worse.

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Washed gently by the lapping waves of time

high-windowThe High Window
by Raymond Chandler

Tim and I have both been working our way gradually through the Philip Marlowe books since I picked one up in 2011. He’s now a couple ahead of me and assures me there are no duds.

While Chandler may not have invented pulp fiction or purple prose, he really and truly mastered the art. From the first page, the language is exquisite. In the wrong hands this would be overwritten, or artificial, but Chandler uses it as the perfect reflection of his hero’s highly coloured view of the world.

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is really growing on me as a character. Deeply cynical and ever-so-aware of the worst of humanity, he is somehow not a morose pessimist who has given up on the world. Instead, he is ever hopeful, ever the gentleman, in his quiet take-no-notice-of-me way. Plus, he’s funny.

“I looked into the reception-room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond…a framed licence bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hat-rack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping. The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”

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The world has fallen into the shadow of something sinister

little black liesLittle Black Lies
by Sharon Bolton

I had a long train journey coming up so I thought I’d buy something for the Kindle and I’d heard rave reviews of this book from bloggers I trust. The book turned out to be so good that I snatched every moment to read it until it was over. It’s really good. And it’s crime, which I hardly ever read. Maybe I should read more crime?

The story is set on the Falklands, which is a setting I hadn’t read about before. We appear to be told in the first few chapters what the crime is going to be, but it then gets complicated by another crime having been committed – a young boy has gone missing – and the question becomes whether these things are linked and whether the planned crime will go ahead.

The book opens with Catrin diving for samples for the environmental organisation that she works with. Like the rest of the book, it is a lyrical piece of writing that combines nature, science, memory, contemplation and emotion to wonderful effect. I have zero desire to go diving in any sea or ocean but while reading those pages I was transported to a self that was right there with Catrin enjoying the experience.

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I wish you to gasp not only at what you read

Pale Fire

Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov

I need to let you know from the start that this is one crazy crazy book. The structure, the plot and the characters are complex to the point of inscrutable. This is truly experimental literary fiction.

How to describe this book? The poet and academic John Shade has been murdered and this is his last poem, introduced and analysed by a neighbour and colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. Kinbote is clearly crazy, but the question is exactly how crazy.

Kinbote’s “commentary” mostly ignores the actual poem and rambles on about the last king of Zembla, the country he has emigrated from to the small New England college where he met Shade. The story of this king is one of wild adventure, preposterous even, and Kinbote is clearly obsessed with it. He had told this story to Shade in the hope that the great poet would write a great poem about it, but that’s not what this final poem is and Kinbote’s disappointment is palpable.

“What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable (so I used to tell my students)…I can do what only a true artist can do – pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and weft of that web.”

The whole conceit, and Kinbote himself, are often frustrating, occasionally tedious and frankly wholly ridiculous and yet at times it becomes almost, almost, believable. Kinbote’s obsessive nature has attached itself to his learned neighbour and he has clearly read the situation wrong time and time again, convincing himself that he became Shade’s dearest friend on the basis of flimsy evidence. It’s not a new story, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it’s being told in a very new way.

Thankfully, the scholarly frame of the novel is not entirely po-faced. This is a comedy, packed full of satire, poking fun at poets and scholars and literary criticism. Kinbote is somehow both subtly ambiguous and a broad comic character. The language is laughably over-the-top academic and delights in putting together pleasing sounds and amazing, if unwieldy, sentences.

“The heating system was a farce, depending as it did on registers in the floor wherefrom the tepid exhalations of a throbbing and groaning basement furnace were transmitted to the rooms with the faintness of a moribund’s last breath. By occluding the temperatures upstairs I attempted to give more energy to the register in the living room but its climate proved to be incurably vitiated by there being by there being nothing between it and the arctic regions save a sleezy front door without a vestige of a vestibule.”

It’s a clever balancing act and I would be thoroughly impressed by a book that made me laugh out loud despite such an outlandish structure if I hadn’t found other sections painfully tedious. This is a short book but it took me a long time to read, partly because I kept putting it down and declaring “This is batshit insane.” Which it is.

“The coming of summer presented a problem in optics: the encroaching foliage did not always see eye to eye with me: it confused a green monocle with an opaque occludent, and the idea of protection with that of obstruction.”

I must admit, this is one of those books I’m a little bit proud of having got through. Which perhaps undersells it. Many people consider this a masterpiece and I certainly see that there’s plenty to admire but I don’t think Nabokov will ever be a favourite of mine.

First published 1962 by G B Putnam’s Sons.

Source: Secondhand, probably from the Oxfam Bookshop on Park Street, Bristol.

London Road: a Musical

Bristol Old Vic Studio, 11 June
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Describing this production too briefly would probably put off most people. It’s a musical based on the real-life murders of five prostitutes in the London Road area of Ipswich in 2006 – that’s fine, if a bit dark. But it’s also verbatim theatre – all the words are taken from interviews that writer Alecky Blythe conducted with residents of London Road and are performed as precise copies of the original voices – the intonation, pauses, repetitions, accents, ums and ahs are all learned by the actors. And then a level of stylisation is added in the form of songs and song-like sections that perhaps most closely resemble poetry.

All of which could have added up to something unwatchable in the wrong hands. But this is more than just watchable, it’s actually pretty good, though the verbatim dialogue does take some getting used to. Key to this is the excellent script. Blythe took what were presumably many many hours of many interviews and cut together a story of a community both haunted and hopeful, with plenty of those small humorous moments that real life serves up. But a good script is nothing without a good cast, and here Bristol Old Vic Theatre School really delivers.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Once again the Studio Theatre was used to good effect, with the stage area and audience chairs arranged at the start as if for something like a town hall meeting. The cast milled about a tea trolley making cups of instant coffee and settled around a cheap folding table and a noticeboard covered with flyers. As the live orchestra on the balcony started up and hush fell over the small but eclectic audience, we learned that this was a Neighbourhood Watch meeting, that the London Road residents want to wrestle something good out of the horror they have lived through.

The cast all play multiple roles, fleshing out the story to include visiting journalists, police, prostitutes and other townsfolk, but they have clear principal characters who make up the Neighbourhood Watch committee – concerned citizens who obviously had plenty to say to Blythe and were trying to be positive for the future. This positive spin shines through the story, though it’s hard not to wonder what the tone might have been if a different set of people had opened up to Blythe.

With so many changes in character with just a subtle adjustment of costume or props, it’s perhaps little wonder that there was an occasional slip into comic overacting. And I couldn’t help but be irritated to spot that the first photographer depicted carried both a Canon camera and a Nikon, which is really not realistic. But that’s a pernickity detail that my being a bit of a photography geek taught me! More importantly, the “real words” added a certain something to the show – it felt more realistic than the average scripted drama despite all the repetition and singing.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
(Copyright: Graham Burke)

Though it is very much an ensemble cast, I’d like to give special mention to Bethan Nash who was excellent both in her main role as Julie, organiser of the local “In bloom” gardening competition, but even more excellent in the short scene of an interview with three prostitutes, which ended with Nash appearing near tears despite having said very little. That scene was exceptional and I don’t wonder that it is the one section of Blythe’s original recording that was selected to be played toward the end of the show.

For all my praise, this is an odd show that probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re willing or even eager to experience something a bit different, I would encourage you to try it.

Disclaimer: Tickets were kindly supplied to me by the theatre in return for an honest review.