Friday, 20 January 2017

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's Hurting Distance (Culver Valley series, book 2)

Publication date: 23 August 2007
Published by: Stodder & Houghton

This is the second of the Culver Valley series, set in fictional Spilling, in North England. I reviewed the first in the series, Little Face, on 4th November 2016.

Hurting Distance follows a similar format to the first book, i.e., the narration alternates between the first person perspective of the person who reported the crime, Naomi Jenkins, and the third person perspective, focusing on one of the plain-clothes police officers - in this case DS Charlotte (Charlie) Zailer.

Naomi is having an affair with a married man, Robert Haworth, whom she has met once a week at the same time and place for the past 2 years.  When he does not arrive for their scheduled meeting she becomes worried.  After a few days without any word she goes to his house to look for him.  She creeps up to the house and looks through the window.  What she sees causes her to pull back and is followed by a panic attack.  She hurries to her car and on the way is confronted by Robert's wife, Juliet, who tells her she will never see him again and that she (Naomi) will be better off.  What she has seen in the window and what she has been told by Juliet causes her to report that her lover is missing and (she suspects) is in terrible danger...

Sophie Hannah's crime stories are quite complex.  I would describe this one as elaborate (and, dare I say, far-fetched).  As the story unfolds events become inextricably linked and, as the narrator points out, 'there are no coincidences'.  Once again the lines between the personal and professional lives of the police investigating the crime are blurred.

Spilling CID is very much a fictional one; one that would make a good TV soap. The officers are mostly superfluous and instead Naomi assumes the role of the principal investigator, while the DS and her DCs spend far too much of their time being either self-absorbed or overly absorbed in the lives of each other.  There is a DC with prenuptial moodiness, there is a DC who is preoccupied with juggling his marriage with his 'extracurricular' affairs, and then there is Charlie, whose response to Simon's rejection moves a gear up (from mortifying to humiliating).  Simon is the only one who seems focused on the job, and that is not easily done, thanks to Charlie.  There are occasions, on the job,  when Charlie's behaviour is unprofessional (e.g. sharing information about the case with people she should not), unethical (e.g. showing a complete lack of sensitivity for the victim of the crime, and not caring about the risk of putting the victim in harms way) and incompetence (e.g. events that cause her car to be stolen). 

An extended plot is emerging (one that is likely to span many novels) that is centered around the relationship between Charlie and Simon.

Hurting Distance is not without merit, since it explores sexism, misogyny and hate crime in its darkest form.   However, like most of the populist crime fiction novels I have read, I am beginning to get the impression that the Spilling CID series is rather light, contrived and lacking rigor.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Sense & Sensibility (The Austen Project no. 1) by Joanna Trollope

Publication date: 29th October 2013
Published by: Harper

Publisher's synopsis
John Dashwood promised his dying father that he would take care of his half sisters. But his wife, Fanny, has no desire to share their newly inherited estate with Belle Dashwood's daughters. When she descends upon Norland Park with her Romanian nanny and her mood boards, the three Dashwood girls-Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret-are suddenly faced with the cruelties of life without their father, their home, or their money.

As they come to terms with life without the status of their country house, the protection of the family name, or the comfort of an inheritance, Elinor and Marianne are confronted by the cold hard reality of a world where people's attitudes can change as drastically as their circumstances.

With her sparkling wit, Joanna Trollope casts a clever, satirical eye on the tales of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Reimagining Sense and Sensibility in a fresh, modern new light, she spins the novel's romance, bonnets, and betrothals into a wonderfully witty coming-of-age story about the stuff that really makes the world go around. For when it comes to money, some things never change. . . .

My review:

Joanna Trollope's modern day version of Sense & Sensibility has a plot that runs parallel to the original, while being a story in it's own right.  It is cleverly constructed and completely believable, which is quite an achievement considering the period and setting of the original source material. I would say this book is (so far) the most successful of the project in that regard.

Belle Dashwood had become far too comfortable with a life of luxury without contributing in any way, so when her common-law husband dies and she is left homeless and penniless, she is in denial.  It falls on her eldest daughter, Elinor, to do what is necessary to try to secure a home, to clothe and feed the family.  She does so at personal sacrifice, all the while nursing a broken heart.

This novel cannot help but read like chick-lit, albeit intelligent and sophisticated chick-lit (a sub-genre I am convinced evolved from the Jane Austen novel).  This is something I would say it has in common with all but one of the Austen project publications so far. Val McDermids' Northanger Abbey is the exception as it reads more like a coming of age tale. 

More Austen Project reviews

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (no.2)

Emma by Alexander McCall-Smith (no 3)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (n0.4)

Friday, 6 January 2017

Crime Fiction: Megan Abbot's You Will Know Me

Publication date: 28 July 2016
Published by: Picador
Genre: Psychological Thriller

Publisher's synopsis
Katie and her husband Eric have made their daughter Devon the centre of their world. Talented, determined, a rising gymnastics star, Devon is the focus of her parents' lives and the lynchpin of their marriage. There is nothing they wouldn't do for her.
When a violent hit-and-run accident sends shockwaves through their close-knit community, Katie is immediately concerned for her daughter. She and Eric have worked so hard to protect Devon from anything that might distract or hurt her. That's what every parent wants for their child, after all. Even if they don't realize how much you've sacrificed for them. Even if they are keeping secrets from you . . .

My Review

You Will Know Me was published last summer and is currently out in hardback and kindle version.  It will no doubt be on the bookstands of major airport newsagents once it becomes available in paperback form and dubbed the next Gone Girl or the next Girl on the Train. What these books all have in common is that they are domestic psychological thrillers although I use the word 'thriller' loosely.

You Will Know Me is about a couple, Katie and Eric, with a daughter, Devon, who is a talented gymnast.  Her coach advises them that she has the potential to become an elite athlete and presents a plan to groom her for the Olympics.

Both parents, but Eric, in particular, become overly fixated on Devon's future and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure her success.  They have a younger son, who tends to get overlooked in the pursuit of the dream.  The family becomes part of a tight-knit community of parents with children who are gymnasts - none of whom are as talented as Devon.  The novel delves into the world of gymnastics and we gain an insight into the competitiveness and the various challenges it presents both financially and emotionally - challenges that directly effect all members of the family.

A mystery emerges when we learn that certain members of the family may be connected to the victim of the hit-and-run accident in ways that are both shocking and potentially suggestive of culpability in his death.  Unfortunately, the story did not work for me because I was neither thrilled nor intrigued, which presumably is supposed to be the point. 

Friday, 30 December 2016

SBR's 2016 Best Reads

SBR's 2016 Top Ten Books

With the exception of one, I could not rank them in any particular order. So, here is my number 1 read, followed by the other 9 in alphabetical order. 

They all get the Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of approval.

 These books were not all published in 2016 but they were all read and reviewed on the blog in that year.

1. The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon 
is Sooz Book Reviews' Best Read of 2016 


2. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

 3. Half Lost  by Sally Green     

4. Just One Day 
by Gayle Forman


5. The Martian by Andy Weir

by Ransom Riggs


7. Nutshell 
by Ian McEwan


by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki

  9.  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


10. Six of Crows 
by Leigh Bardugo

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 7th June 2011
Published by: Quirk
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

Publisher's synopsis
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is one of those books that holds your attention from the very beginning and keeps you interested to the very end.

It is quite gothic in tone, which - being a big fan of gothic fiction - really appealed to me.

Although it is a fantasy story, beneath the surface it is exploring the impact of the atrocities that took place during the second world war, not only on the Jewish people who suffered at the time, but also on generations in more recent years - subject matter that should be written about so that it is never forgotten. 

It is a young-adult book that can be enjoyed by anyone.

In short, it is simply brilliant.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas Novella: Spirit of Christmas by Kyle Andrews

Christmas Novella: Stories to get you in the Spirit

This one is from the archives, first posted in December 2013.  It's that good!

Publication Date: 21st November 2012
Published by: Independent Author
Genre: Contemporary (Christmas Novella)
Length: 78 pages

Publisher's Synopsis
This is the story of an eight year old boy who begins to question the nature of Santa Claus as he watches the adults around him grow worried and secretive during the happiest season of all. His curiosity leads him to an unsettling discovery that will change his world forever.

My Review
This is the final instalment of my review of Christmas novellas for the festive season.  I am pleased to say that I saved the best to last.

Spirit of Christmas is an excellent read.  For me it's like a 21st century A Christmas Carol in that it contains all the elements one would expect of a traditional Christmas story, while acknowledging and incorporating 21st century challenges.  It is about a family experiencing major changes in their lives (as a result of said challenges), as seen through the eyes of an 8 year old boy, Aiden.  That said, this is not a story aimed at children.

Aiden can tell that something is wrong.  He can sense that his parents are trying to keep something from him and his younger sister, Madison; something major is worrying them.  He is a very perceptive boy who is able to read his parents' moods, so even when his mother tries to put on a brave face he can tell she is unhappy.  His 8 year old mind makes it difficult for him to understand adult problems, as they often speak using words he does not understand. Whatever is going on has something to do with Santa Claus and Aiden is determined to find out what it is.  He does some detective work and attempts to put the clues together.  In doing so, he becomes increasingly suspicious and fearful of Santa.

The best thing about this story for me was the use of dramatic irony: the way we the readers come to learn what is really going on while Aiden comes up with his own interpretation.  As Christmas Day approaches, he is less concerned about what presents he will get and more concerned about who is Santa Clause and what is troubling his parents. He may not understand what is going on with them but he carries the weight of their troubles on his little shoulders and he keeps this burden to himself. The climax is poignant and it had me in tears. (Yes, I was crying while travelling on public transport.) All this is done with a complete lack of sentimentality. 

I was also impressed by the way Kyle Andrews realistically portrayed 8 year old Aiden, especially his thought process as he tries to reason things out. Also, the way he would come up with stuff that probably sounded random to the adults - but made sense to us because we are inside his head (like when he asks his grandmother about Cinderella's fairy godmother and the stagecoach).   After all, children do sometimes come out with statements that seem random and nuts to us adults.

Andrews' portrayal of Madison is also perceptive, as is the way she appears from Aiden's point of view.  She is a bit hyper - one of those children sometimes seen screaming in supermarkets when they don't get what they want, when they want it.  Aiden is very good at pacifying her, which is a great help to the adults who sometimes struggle to control the situation when she is having one of her screaming sessions.

As I read I thought it was going to be about a boy discovering there is no Santa, but that's not quite it.  It is about the loss of innocence, however.  If I am honest, it has somewhat tainted my own positive image of Santa Claus as a Christmas icon. As you probably guessed, this story has a melancholic undertone but ends on an uplifting note that is fitting for the occasion.

Spirit of Christmas is a hidden treasure; a wonderful piece of writing, both powerful and thought-provoking.  It is only 78 pages long and yet there is so much in there. I could not recommend this one highly enough. 

Merry Christmas!

Friday, 23 December 2016

The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon

SBR's 2016 Best Read

Publication date: 1st November 2016
Published by: Delacorte
Genre: Contemporary fiction for young adults

Publisher's synopsis
Natasha: I’m a girl who believes in science and facts. Not fate. Not destiny. Or dreams that will never come true. I’m definitely not the kind of girl who meets a cute boy on a crowded New York City street and falls in love with him. Not when my family is twelve hours away from being deported to Jamaica. Falling in love with him won’t be my story.

Daniel: I’ve always been the good son, the good student, living up to my parents’ high expectations. Never the poet. Or the dreamer. But when I see her, I forget about all that. Something about Natasha makes me think that fate has something much more extraordinary in store—for both of us.

The Universe: Every moment in our lives has brought us to this single moment. A million futures lie before us. Which one will come true?

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

 My Review
This book was brought to my attention a few weeks ago as a new publication recommended by a contributor to the New York Times Book Podcast.  Generally they don't disappoint so I got hold of a copy.  More recently, I noticed it was the 3rd highest scored book on the Goodreads Choice Awards 2016 in the category of contemporary YA fiction (although, to be honest, I have found this to be a less reliable source for recommended reads).

It is a short book (348 pages paperback version), and I whizzed through it over 48 hours, mainly because once I got started I could not put it down.  I had to force myself to do so and, each time I did, I spent my time looking forward to picking it back up again!

As alluded to in the publication synopsis, this novel is a bittersweet teenage love story, but it is much more than that.  Mainly it is about cause-and-effect.  It seeks to demonstrate how certain actions set off a chain reaction.  The reader sees how the decisions taken by one character has consequences that affect others, some in positive others in negative ways.  We may know this is true, but to be able to observe how it happens through this story is quite impressive.  Nicola Yoon does this by giving us snippets of backstory, not only of those close to Natasha and Daniel but also some of the strangers they interact with.  The result leads to thoughts of what if? and contemplation of the multitude of options/possibilities out there (which was both explored by the main characters, and formed part of my own thought processes).

It was a joy to read a novel featuring characters that generally don't get enough prominence in fiction+.  Natasha is Jamaican and, although Daniel is American, he is of South Korean descent.  Why does diversity matter?  Well, it does not if you want more of the same, over and over.  If on the other hand, you are open minded, curious and care enough about the lives other people, then I imagine it matters quite a lot.  Personally, I think fiction should be about walking in someone else's shoes once in a while.  In this case, what it is like to be a teenage migrant (or the offspring of migrants), not quite accepted in the country where you have settled and feeling a stranger in the country you were born (or your parents come from).  Yoon has steered clear of politics, so it does not touch on the hot topic of xenophobia and anti-immigration - which, when you think about it, would add to the difficulties these two teenagers would be experiencing in the real world.

I liked that neither Tasha nor Daniel are stereotyped. They are portrayed on an equal platform to Caucasian leading characters. The book also explores the generational divide, the clashing of cultures and racism, and does so objectively - so you get to see both points of view.  The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.... (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

We know that individuals are affected by and respond to experiences in different ways, and we see the contrasting effects that not belonging, being constantly made to feel 'different', and the pressure to conform have on Daniel and his brother Charles, shaping them into very different personalities, and driving them apart.

The Sun is also a Star is an excellent read, both thought-provoking and affecting. This is the first book I have read by Nicola Yoon but I will definitely be reading more - and not only because she has written the kind of book I aspire to write!

Potential Spoiler Alert!
My one criticism of the book is that it is overly contrived in parts - particularly the epilogue. The trouble with Deus ex machina is that it is at odds with the suspension of disbelief.

+ Some may dismiss this sentiment as 'multicultural left wing' nonsense, or put it down to the fact that I am an ethnic minority and therefore more inclined to give a you know what, but, hey, each to their own.