Pursuit- Joyce Carol Oates (2019)

My introduction to the work of this prolific American novelist was the five star rated “Blonde” (2000) which just missed out on my Top 10 Books Of The Year when I read it in 2020.  This fictionalised account of the life of Marilyn Monroe may soon see a boost in sales as a film adaptation is currently in post-production and due for release by the end of 2022.

Nineteen years on from “Blonde” and after publishing another 26 novels in her own name (and a few under pseudonyms) came this literary thriller.  Unwordly Abby is hit by a bus the day after her wedding to Willem.  As she slowly recovers questions are asked if this was an accident.  Abby is haunted by dreams from her past, when she was known as Miriam, and her parents had disappeared.  Do these dream have any bearing on her encounter with the bus?

This is a quick read which I polished off in a couple of days.  The whole thing has a nightmarish quality which clouds the characters and left me unsure of what is going on.  Insight into proceedings tends to come and go and this had an almost soporific effect on this reader.  I felt very tired whilst reading it and yet I wasn’t bored, it was caused by the hypnotic effect of the tale Oates weaves here.  It is tantalising as the author pulls us in, moving the plot forward and then holds us back without revealing all the mysteries.  The trouble with this is that despite this manipulation of us as readers it means that I felt it is not particularly memorable.  I don’t think this is a book which will stay with me for long and this is a marked difference to how I felt about “Blonde”.  What is undeniable is that Joyce Carol Oates is a writer unafraid of experimentation with style and genre which has sustained her well during a long career.  Because of this diversity I can’t imagine that many readers would be blown away by her every publication. I feel that on this occasion I wasn’t totally on board but I am sure that I would find other books by her that would enthral me as much as “Blonde”.

Pursuit was published by Head Of Zeus in the UK in 2019.

This Might Hurt – Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2022)

Stephanie Wrobel’s 2020 debut known in the UK as “The Recovery Of Rose Gold” was a 5 star little gem of a novel.  Its Munchausen By Proxy theme (although never actually specified in the book) fascinated me and it had an “under the surface darkness” which I loved.  It just missed out on my Top 10 Books Of The Year.

So, naturally, I was keen to read the author’s second novel although I must admit that when I heard the main setting was an island retreat for those who want to be fearless I didn’t experience the same anticipation as I did for the debut but I was keen to add the name of Stephanie Wrobel to my list of authors with two or more 5* reviews on this site (and because I am so stingy with my top rating she would have been only the 10th author to achieve this).

However, and as the title states, “this might hurt”, for me this book fell quite a bit short of my top rating and compared to her last book I felt so disappointed that I contemplated a two star but then appreciated that I had set the bar so high in my mind for this particular author and that 3 stars was the most fitting for this work.

Firstly, I found the narrative structure confusing.  I read enough books not to be confused by characters, but here I was, I thought maybe I was being misdirected on purpose and expected some big reveal but it never happened, I had just got characters confused.  I also love a bit of darkness but here I couldn’t get to grips with the sadistic nature of fearlessness or why these particular characters saw it as desirable.

There’s a number of first-person narratives here.  A child is being bullied into her father’s vision of reaching her full potential, being made to score “positive” and “negative” achievements and facing punishment if her score does not make his grade.  A young woman is at an island retreat getting her life back together when her sister receives a “I know what you did” type email and she goes to the island to confess a family secret.

The plot did not have enough to really hold me and unfortunately and surprisingly, considering how I felt about “Rose Gold”, the characters did not come alive  for me.

There are pluses, however, I liked the sense of isolation on the island and the not knowing whether anything was what it seemed was done very well.  It is another accessible, commercial read.  It is in comparison with Stephanie Wrobel’s previous work that this, for me, feels a little flat.

This Might Hurt is published in the UK by Michael Joseph on 3rd March 2022.  Many thanks to the author and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Mouth To Mouth – Antoine Wilson (Atlantic 2022)

Here’s a title I flagged up as one of the potential highlights of 2022 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  The narrator, a writer en-route to Berlin is delayed at JFK Airport and meets a man he vaguely knew twenty years before.  They share drinks in the lounge and this man, Jeff, regales the narrator with what has happened to him in the intervening time. 

It centres around an occasion when he reluctantly saved a man from drowning and his interest in the man he saved verges on the obsessive as he inveigles his way into his life.  This theme reminded me slightly of Ian McEwan’s impressive “Enduring Love” but the subject matter is handled differently here.

There’s an element of suspension of disbelief required for Jeff’s story forms virtually the whole of the book suggesting this is one long flight delay, for his account is so detailed, our narrator must hardly have got a word in.  It is a recounting of a tale told second-hand which seems a brave narrative style for a whole novel as that distance means characters are not fleshed out in the way that they could have been.

It is an interesting conceit but to be honest it didn’t really blow me away and whilst involved, and it is undeniably well-handled by Wilson, I didn’t feel that once-remove really pulled me into the actual narrative.

I can see why some readers would really like this book and I can also see why it might leave some unconvinced.  Unusually for me, I’m somewhat stuck in the middle.  I wonder if it might just be one of those books that do not completely win me over but leaves an impression which lingers hauntingly, lasting longer in my imagination than books which I had a stronger immediate response to.  Time will tell….

Mouth To Mouth is published in the UK by Atlantic Books on March 3rd 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

A Good Day To Die – Amen Alonge (Quercus 2022)

Here is a series debut I highlighted as one I wanted to read this year and a title which has appeared on at least a couple of forthcoming publications recommended reads lists.  Lagos born trainee London solicitor Amen Alonge has written a very commercial novel which may attract those who do not regularly read fiction.  It’s a day in the life of a young black man known only as “Pretty Boy” by some other characters who arrives back in London with a clear desire for revenge but who, by accepting a piece of jewellery as part payment for a debt provokes a lot of unforeseen circumstances.

It’s violent, it’s brash and unsentimental and both visually and aurally strong, as the author soundtracks many scenes by mentioning what music is being listened to.  It is branded well, especially with regards to cars and weaponry and at times is gripping and always involving.

It’s not easy to write violence and Alonge does a good job focusing on the details leading up to an attack and then dispatching characters quickly.  A couple of scenes are overwritten which gives a cartoonish quality and that is one of the inherent dangers of reading such scenes as compared to watching them on-screen.

It is hard to get into the mindset of these characters which can make them seem inconsistent.  The author uses a mixture of first-person narrative from “Pretty Boy” (which is strong) and a third person narrative which at times I felt slightly confusing.  There is a need to give the main character a back story which features mainly in a chunk in the last quarter of the book but I don’t know whether it helped in fully fleshing him out. 

Indeed, this may not matter as this is Book 1 of a projected series so there is plenty of time for “Pretty Boy” to grow as a character.  There is a freshness to this which I find invigorating but I don’t think the comparisons I’d seen to “The Wire” US TV series are helpful as that is one of TV’s modern greats and a masterclass in writing and crafting a narrative and these comparisons may have built up expectations for me which I do not feel were fully delivered.

Amen Alonge is a vibrant new voice in crime fiction and I would be interested to see where he goes with this character next.

A Good Day To Die is published by Quercus on 17th February 2022.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Jet- Russell Blake (2012)

This is a very different read for me.  I’ve had it on my Kindle for a long time and can only assume it was a free title I’d picked up at some time.  I thought I would give it a go but didn’t have a lot of positive expectations.  In a “From The Author” at the start, American born now Mexican resident Blake states; “It’s unapologetically over-blown and strives to be a non-stop adrenaline rush, an action thriller that breaks the mold and tramples convention.” He does deliver on that statement.

We start off in Trinidad on Festival evening where hitmen turn up at the internet café Maya is working in.  Dealing with this pretty effectively we learn that Maya had previously been Jet, working as a hitwoman for the Israeli Secret Service, a highly trained killing machine now seeking a quieter life.  Only this doesn’t happen as she realises her identity has been blown and sets off to seek answers.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to cope with a ruthless assassin as a main character but Blake gradually lets her humanity come through without compromising on her toughness.  I found myself rooting for her when I was expecting to feel distanced from a potentially preposterous narrative.  I was also pleased that it wasn’t exactly a non-stop adrenaline rush aimed at a video-games market but that the author had put in some light and shade and welcomingly varied the pace. 

Wanting to know about Russell Blake I discovered that this was the first in this (so far) 16 book series featuring Jet and he has got it off to a roaring start and has developed the main character enough to get the reader to want to read more.  Whether he can sustain this over another 15 titles is another matter.

He’s not an author I would have thought would have been on my radar.  He has written a lot of titles and a number of series but he has actually got into the top division as co-author of a couple of books with action/adventure legend Clive Cussler in his best-selling Sam and Remi Fargo series.  This was where I had seen his name before, I haven’t read these titles but I have shelved them often enough at work in the library.  So this is an author who can operate at the top levels of his genre.  It wouldn’t be one of my usual reading choices and I felt I might get lost in the globetrotting, weapon hardware and espionage aspects of the novel but I felt well supported and guided by Blake (in the same Author’s Note I quoted earlier he explains there will be flashbacks.  “Don’t be alarmed when it jumps around a bit.  It will all make sense as you get further into the book, I promise” ). I wasn’t and it did.

If you like this kind of title then this is a treat and although it won’t feature in my end of year Top 10 it kept me reading, I did experience tension as it built to a strong plot climax and the author certainly delivered his intentions.  I might need to read more.

Jet was first published in 2012. A paperback edition is available through the Createspace Independent Publishing Platform. I read a Kindle edition.

Girl In The Walls -A J Gnuse (4th Estate 2021)

This debut is an unusual and highly effective thriller.  There’s been good buzz about it pre-publication.  This was one of the titles I highlighted to watch out for in my Looking Back Looking Forward post.  We were promised a Gothic spooky house novel with comparisons made to Shirley Jackson.  I’m not sure I am on board with the comparison although it was this which attracted me to the title.  It is, however, highly enjoyable with a more original feel than the comparison might suggest.

Set in 2005 (judging by songs mentioned playing on the radio) just south of New Orleans, main character 11 year old Elise, having lost both her parents in an accident, escapes from her foster carers to return to a house her family formerly lived in now owned by the Mason family with two teenage boys.  There, unbeknownst to them she resides in the house, within gaps between walls, in hidden chutes and in the attic emerging when the family are not around or otherwise occupied.  This is working chillingly well until a younger boy turns up unannounced at the house and the teenagers in the family begin to have suspicions about the things going bump in the night.

I found the premise fascinating but did struggle with the geography of the house which would allow such a thing to be possible.  The tension is cranked up incredibly well when the boys begin to act on their suspicions and then environmental factors, particular to the region, begin to play a part.

As I was reading it I was aware of an easy option Texan author Gnuse could have taken and I was hoping he wouldn’t (he doesn’t) which means the story-telling is satisfactory throughout.  There are lots of unusual touches, including Elise’s fondness for Norse mythology and the characters of the neighbourhood boy and Eddie, the younger of the teenagers both give the novel a quirky feel (as does one character I don’t even want to talk about here in the interest of not revealing too much plot).  I was pulled in to the story, rather like Elise being pulled into the walls, found some section breath-takingly tense and all in all this ends up a quality commercial thriller with good literary touches which could also work splendidly as a TV or film adaptation.

Girl In The Walls will be published by 4th Estate in the UK on 18th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex (Picador 2021)

This entertaining novel sees Emma Stonex (her first written under her own name)  taking as her inspiration the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.  She moves the action 72 years forward relocating it to the Maiden Lighthouse in Cornwall and within her fictional account attempts to unravel this mystery.

In many ways it is a classic locked room thriller.  The men are found missing from the lighthouse which is bolted on the inside with food preparations on the table and clocks stopped at the same time. 

Alongside this narrative the author focuses on twenty years later and the wives and girlfriend of the three missing men as they are approached by a novelist wanting answers for his latest book.

What I feel is done very well is the 70’s set lighthouse sections which conveys the intensity and boredom of the three men cooped up together.  I felt that the more modern sections did not establish the characters as well, although, obviously, it is within these parts that the secrets of the past are revealed in first and third person narrative and through letters.

I was most intrigued by the almost romantic allure that the lighthouse had for the keepers whilst also acknowledging the reality of spending their working lives in a small inescapable space cooped up with others.  The book both builds up the appeal of this work as well as illustrating the downsides.  After months of lockdown I think we are all in a better position to appreciate better Stonex’s writing and have stronger ideas of these lives than we would have done a year or two ago, making this a very commercially apposite proposition.

The author makes no assumptions as to what happened during the real-life disappearance in 1900 but comes to a conclusion as to her characters.  At times I felt this might go in some outlandish direction but it all feels plausible and in some ways that felt a little anti-climatic, I almost wish she had left things a little more open-ended, which was an unusual response because surely the motive behind reading the book would be to find out what happened..

This was one of the titles that I highlighted for 2021 in my Looking Back Looking Forward post . I enjoyed Emma Stonex’s writing and look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

The Lamplighters is published by Picador in the UK on Thursday 4th March 2021.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Lost Brother – Susanna Beard (Joffe 2021)

I have saluted the UK publishers Joffe here before for the sterling work they have been doing in lockdown to provide very affordable good quality commercial fiction.  This new publication which they invited me to review is the fourth novel by Susanna Beard.

It begins in the summer of 1987 when it is decided that 12 year old Ricky should, in the New Year, attend the same boarding school as his father did – in South Africa.  This fills Ricky with horror, he does not want to leave the UK and does not feel he is the right sort of person for boarding school but is particularly unhappy because of his close relationship with his 10 year old sister Leonora, and the thought of leaving her with his cold, cruel father and emotionally distant mother.  No amount of cajoling on the children’s part can stop the inevitable and once Ricky has left their father is determined to drive as big a wedge as possible between the boy and Leonora.

This novel is about the damage families can do to one another alongside the lasting bond of a positive sibling relationship.  Characterisation is solid and the sense of desolation endured by the separated pair is conveyed very effectively.  Leonora has always experienced synaesthesia, in her case letters are represented by colours, which is an unusual device on the part of the author but one which I wish had been made more of as it feels slightly under-realised.

The plot is always involving.  As the years pass the brother and sister are unable to forget how much they mean to one another as circumstances continue, through twists, to keep them apart.  Although I did not feel the ending was as “electrifying” as the cover suggests it all added up to a very satisfactory reading experience.

The Lost Brother is published on 11th February 2021 by Joffe Books.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.  

Before I Go To Sleep- S J Watson (2011)

S J Watson’s thriller debut made a splash on arrival, getting critical acclaim, picking up awards and having a 2014 film made of his book starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, (it’s currently on Amazon Prime in the UK, I haven’t seen it but may watch it this weekend now I have finished the book) not bad for a hospital audiologist writing on evenings and weekends.

The premise is fascinating.  A middle-aged woman wakes up each morning knowing nothing about her life, believing herself to be in bed with a much older stranger.  Shocked by her appearance as much older than she was expecting to see in her bathroom mirror she has to piece together her life since she lost her memory.  Each morning it’s back to square one, no recollections and needing her husband to fill in the gaps.  It seems that this has been going on for years and secret meetings with a doctor provide her with a strategy of getting some of these memories back.  She begins to keep a journal which makes up the bulk of the narrative and through this starts to realise that all is not as it seems.

This is a real-slow burn of a thriller and Watson is great at building up the tension gradually as the reader begins to share Christine’s mistrust.  I was very involved but felt the resolution did not live up to the build-up which had been so very good.  It’s impossible to read about Christine’s predicament without putting yourself in her shoes reflecting how you would react in her circumstances and that is a great way to build empathy for your main character.

This book’s success made it one of the key titles in revitalising the psychological thriller which dominates best-seller list almost ten years on.  Since then Steve Watson has published two more novels, the latest “Final Cut” published in August 2020.

Before  I Go To Sleep was published in 2011.  I read the Black Swan paperback version.

PS: Just watched the film last night. Oh dear! The slow burn and gradual cranking of tension has been abandoned and everything I liked about the book has more or less gone.  Instead we get a creaky standard straight-to-DVD type thriller with an unnecessarily starry cast who do not add much to it.  The film doesn’t limp above a 2* rating.  I wonder if the author was disappointed with the liberties taken to get this end result?

The Recovery Of Rose Gold- Stephanie Wrobel (Michael Joseph 2020)

rosegold

Here’s a debut that has had a big buzz around it pre-publication. Stephanie Wrobel is a Chicago born writer now living in the UK who has ditched her advertising agency copywriting work to concentrate on fiction and the feel is that this could very much be one of the biggest thrillers of the year. I was determined to get in before the hype and find out if this buzz is deserving. I’ve already mentioned it in my Looking Back Looking Forward post so I know I’m adding to that hype but now I’ve read it I’m more than delighted to build up a bit of anticipation for readers. It is very good.

Taking as its theme (although I don’t think it’s actually mentioned by name in the text) Munchausen By Proxy, which is a fascinating idea ripe with dramatic potential the novel opens with Patty Watts being released from her prison sentence for child abuse which was sustained over a number of years treating her daughter as if she was seriously ill. On release she (and this is such a good idea for gripping fiction) goes back to live with the daughter, Rose Gold, now in her twenties with a family of her own. I’m saying little more about the plot but it wouldn’t take too much conjecturing to realise the potential. These two damaged women attempt to put together the pieces of their fractured relationship. Is this going to be a second chance for them or will they not be able to escape the traumas of the past?

The author uses an effective structure of two first-person narratives from the main characters with different time settings. Mother Patty focuses on the time from her release and Rose Gold’s narrative is interspersed moving from the time of the mother’s conviction towards Patty’s present day. Given the context of the plot this works sublimely.

It has an under the surface darkness which I love and it builds beautifully. This is certainly a read to look out for.

fivestars

The Recovery Of Rose Gold is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on  5th March 2020.  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.