How’s everyone doing? All set for Christmas?
I’m very conscious that I haven’t uploaded a review for a while: setting aside proper time to wrote has just not been feasible lately. But I have been reading, and I wanted to share a few of my thoughts, so I’m thinking of this as a preview of my full reviews.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton
This book was fantastic: genuinely one of my favourite reads of the year. The style and structure was very Agatha Christie meets Doctor Who (but the plot was nothing like the episode where Agatha did meet the Doctor – no giant wasps here, I’m afraid).
A man wakes one day in the middle of a forest with no recollection of where he is, how he got there, or even his own name. When he reaches a grand house, he discovers that he is the guest of the Hardcastle family, who have gathered old acquaintances for a ball at their estate, Blackheath. But things not all: our narrator encounters a mysterious figure who reveals that he is trapped in Blackheath until he solves a murder.
Seven Deaths is a quintessential mystery-thriller in my opinion. It has a fascinating plot that also feeds into its structure. Turton builds the suspense and intrigue magnificently, ramping up the stakes enough without overdoing it so I was always left wanting to read on. There are betrayals, secrets, violent confrontations, all contained within the dark, claustrophobic setting of Blackheath. And at the core of this is the mystery of our narrator. Who is he? Why is he at Blackheath? And to what lengths will he go to escape?
Conversations with Friends, by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s debut is unusual. I can’t think of a much better word for the lasting impression I have of it. The themes it explores and Rooney’s composition are so interesting, but it’s not really a book that was completely captivating or that I would read again.
Frances and Bobbi are childhood friends, former teenage lovers, college classmates, and now co-performers of a spoken word act in Dublin. It’s this last relationship that introduces them to a well-known journalist Melissa, and subsequently her actor husband Nick. The casual flirtation between Frances and Nick quickly gives way to an intimacy neither of them expect, and in spite of her best efforts, Frances struggles to keep her emotions, and other relationships – with her father, with Bobbi – under control.
Frances’ disorienting and painful personal journey are so well effected by Rooney’s writing style, which is at once stark and beautiful: some of the passages took my breath away with how simultaneously direct and emotionally resonant they were. This was initially disorienting to me as a reader, because I just wasn’t used to the style, but gradually I became used to it. There were moments of frustration with certain characters or events, but I did appreciate that the rough edges weren’t smoothed away or excused. People are prickly and contradictory and often selfish, and Rooney allowed her characters to be so. Conversations with Friends is a very good book, but I found that I had to be in a certain frame of ‘reading mind’ to approach it, and it really isn’t a book that will be engaging or everyone.
Midwinter Break, by Bernard MacLaverty
Another great read! I’d seen this sold in Waterstones at the start of 2018 so had been familiar with the premise and was intrigued to pick it up. It did not disappoint.
Retired couple Gerry and Stella have decided to go on a short break to Amsterdam just after Christmas to see some local sight and to take stock of their lives. Om the surface, their marriage seems comfortable and familiar, but as the days progress, the uncertainties and frustrations that have grown between them reveal themselves. Gerry’s forgetfulness and reliance on alcohol frustrates Stella, while her devout religious belief is at odds with the trauma Gerry constantly relives of their troubled past in native Ireland. The question here is: can they save themselves and their marriage?
This book is so touching, so raw on every level, that some moments really took my breath away. There’s something that appears effortless in the way MacLaverty crafts and presents this story, with compassionate observations and stunning writing. It’s a remarkable novel in so many ways , and exploration of human love, of trauma and hope.
An Unremarkable Body, by Elisa Lodato
I was floored by this book. It reads like a memoir, and offers a deep, profound examination of grief, but also has the intrigue and pace of a crime-thriller.
When her mother is found dead at the foot of her stairs, Laura becomes fixated on the medical examiner’s report. The coldness with which the familiar, comforting image of her mother is dissected into component parts of the body, motivates Laura to write her own version of events. As she tries to unpick the mystery of her mother’s life and fill in the blank spaces left behind in the aftermath, Laura is forced to confront a new version of the woman she knew.
An Unremarkable Body is a truly remarkable book. I just cannotexpress what a beautiful reading experience it was, particularly in moments where grief was explored, presented in its almost inexplicable rawness. I liked that the mystery aspects didn’t overwhelm the story of a young woman coming to terms with her mother’s death, and the things between them that were left unspoken.
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
What a tome this is! I technically started it back in March this year, but the size of it was daunting so I set it aside until last week. I was gripped as soon as I picked it back up!
When Walter Hartight takes employment as an art restorer for Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge House, he has no idea what a tumultuous journey he is about to embark on. As he travels there for the first time, he encounters a frightened young woman, dressed all in white, who begs him to help her. He later learns that this woman had escaped from an asylum, that she had once been familiar with Limmeridge House, and that she bore a curious physical similarity to Laura Fairlie, the heir to the estate. Soon Walter, Laura, and her sister Marian are embroiled in a horrifying conspiracy, a betrayal of the deepest kind, and it seems to revolve around that mysterious woman in white.
Though this book is incredibly long, I found the use of multiple narratives to be really effective in making it manageable, as well as serving the plot in delivering the keys to the mystery. It’s Victorian melodrama combined with elements of detective fiction. Some parts dragged, and as was typical of the time, there was excess of language to express relatively simple points. But overall, I loved reading it, trying to decipher the clues as the characters did.
So there’s my mini round-up of recent reads. Thanks so much for reading!