Category Archives: Fiction

Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday

Asymmetry from Lisa Halliday unfolds through three seemingly disparate sections, yet there’s an underlying theme of inequality that weaves these three sections together. I rarely comment about covers, but this clever design shows creativity and offers a visual hint of the book’s content.

Asymmetry

The first section concerns a relationship between Alice, a young book editor who lives in New York and the much older, successful writer Ezra Blazer. The book’s blurb says it’s an account of a “tender and exquisite account of an unexpected romance.” Hardly. This is an account of a writer successful enough in the literary world to win the Pulitzer prize who begins a sexual relationship with a young woman. Most of their relationship takes place at his apartment (with the occasional dinner at a restaurant and a trip out to his Long Island home), and while the relationship seems at least initially to be almost totally sexual, gradually it erodes into selfish, aging male and young nursemaid/errand girl who satisfies every whim.

Of course an older male can pat himself on the back that he is offering a young woman exposure to opportunities or education that a young, male rival cannot, and so we see that here. Ezra assumes the role of professor Higgins to Alice’s Eliza, and it’s just as cringeworthy as the film when Ezra slips Alice money and tells her how to get her hair cut if she should ever decided to cut it short.

There’s almost a trance-like quality in Ezra’s relationship to Alice (Alice down the rabbit hole). Why doesn’t she tell him to shove it when, for example, they are watching a baseball game, and he sends her out at night for ice-cream?

“Darling, in the cooler in the back of the deli here on the corner they have Häagen-Dazs bar. Do you want one?”

“Now?”

“Sure. You’ll be right back. But listen. I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, nuts. If they don’t have that I want chocolate on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. And if they don’t have that I want vanilla on the inside, chocolate on the outside, no nuts. Plus whatever you want darling. My wallet’s right on the table there. Go.”

The second section takes place at Heathrow as an Iraqi-American tries to spend two days in London before flying onto Iraq to see his brother. While in the previous section, inequalities of power, age, wealth and experience exist in the relationship between Alice and Ezra,  Amar, who is politically disadvantaged, is held hostage to bureaucratic red tape. As Amar waits patiently, his story gradually unfolds and we see a man, who through no fault of his own, has been a hostage to history and war.

The third section is Ezra on the Desert island Discs. I disliked Ezra in the novel’s first section, and in this final part, his character is fully revealed in its egotistical, exploitative glory as he talks about his disc choices.

I enjoyed the two main sections of Asymmetry very much indeed, and the novel’s underlying themes about inequalities are lucidly argued on both the personal and political level. My main complaint is the filler used in the first section: large sections of book excerpts (recommended to Alice by Ezra) break up the story and then there’s an entire section taken from a pamphlet explaining abortion. This is not a moral complaint, but just a reader complaint. Filler such as this seems … well just like filler. Apart from that complaint (which IMO unfortunately weakened the book) the two different stories with their vastly different characters were intense and excellent

Review copy.

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The Good House: Ann Leary

“I get so paranoid when I drink; that’s what AA and rehab will do for you.”

The funny, tart voice of a stubborn, alcoholic woman (in denial) as she careens though her life makes The Good House the most entertaining, funny and surprising book I’ve read in a long time.

Divorced 60-year-old real estate agent Hildy Good is one of Wendover’s most successful businesswomen. Wendover, located on Boston’s North shore, is a strange blend of legacy residents (Hildy can trace her family back to the Salem witch trials) and new money incomers who are looking for a better quality life for their children. Hildy capitalizes on local news (and gossip) to land listings and sales. So what if she drinks too much. That’s her business isn’t it? And her life was going great, wasn’t it, until her two adult daughters arranged an intervention, and Hildy went off to rehab.

The Good House

When we meet Hildy, she’s out of rehab, back at work, but listings and sales are dropping. A former employee, “with all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking,” is her biggest competitor and Hildy’s stint in rehab may have allowed the competitor an edge that Hildy is now desperately chasing. With a mortgage she can’t really afford, and still paying for therapy (and more) for her two daughters, Hildy is squeezed to the max.

Hildy, our unreliable narrator, is in control of what we see, but even so through the denial, the cracks show. At rehab, she didn’t think she belonged, but she completed the programme in order to get her daughters off her back and so that she could see her grandson.

How could anyone, besides my ridiculous, ungrateful spoiled daughters, imagine that I had a problem with alcohol?

She used to drink with a friend, but now that she is supposedly dry, she drinks alone on the sly. She has ‘rules’ about drinking, and she keeps a secret stash in the cellar where no one will find it. She likes herself more when she’s drunk, and thinks alcohol enables her success. Over the course of the novel, her relationship with alcohol becomes more and more problematic. Whether she’s driving drunk, experiencing blackouts, or sneaking vodka at family holidays, Hildy’s life is out-of-control.

While the novel is ostensibly about Hildy’s alcoholism, other characters in Hildy’s life drag her into various problems. Rebecca, a beautiful, troubled, wealthy newcomer becomes friends with Hildy–drinking friends, and so we see how alcohol impairs Hildy’s judgement and how it impacts her emotional responses. Then there’s Hildy’s long-cold romance with Frank Getchell, a local bachelor with desirable legacy property, who makes a rather lucrative living collecting trash and doing various construction jobs. At yet another remove, we see how Hildy functions in a community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, and the locals who used to own the big properties are now lucky if they can get a job working for the new owners.

Hildy is always an entertaining narrator whether she’s complaining about a fellow dinner guest using any excuse to talk about her “annoying writing,” or bitching about a rival grandmother:

Honestly, if she hadn’t had my grandchild in her arms, I would have clocked her on the head. Could she have been more obnoxious about Grady? I’ve never liked Nancy Watson. She’s a nitwit. When not watching Grady, she’s busy “scrapbooking,” which is her hobby, and Tess is always showing me the sickly-sweet scrapbooks featuring Grady that Nancy puts together, seemingly every week. I always smile as Tess flips the pages for me, and I say things like “Imagine having all that time to devote to something like this.”

The Good House is consistently funny from the first page until the end. Hildy always surprised me with just how far she was prepared to go. She’s dug down so deep in denial that there were numerous occasions when I was deceived, and either laughed out loud at the consequences or shock my head in concern. Unreliable narrator, psychiatry and real estate are all buttons for me.

I was sorry to finish this novel, and sorry to say goodbye to Hildy–a woman who’s extremely capable, someone who has an uncanny knack at ‘reading’ people but who is blind to herself. At one point she brags to local psychiatrist:

I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.

According to Hildy:

I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives–you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before, the marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s more clearly hers--well you get the idea. 

Finally, beyond the entertainment factor there’s real quality here. Hildy’s youth is seen in shimmering, poignant flashbacks, and it’s really really well done.

TBR list

(There’s a film of this book in production. I would have preferred to have seen a miniseries–thinking Big Little Lies)

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Resurrection Bay: Emma Viskic

Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay, a novel about organised crime and police corruption, is published by Pushkin Press Vertigo, and it’s the first in a series featuring Caleb Zelic. Private Investigator Zelic and Frankie Reynolds, his alcoholic, ex-cop partner specialize in corporate security, and they are hired to investigate a string of warehouse robberies with net losses in the millions.  When the book opens, “Gaz” Senior Constable Marsden, who was moonlighting for Zelic “earning a bit of extra cash,” is brutally executed in his home.

It had been a flash of fuck-I’m-good inspiration over Friday-night beers with Gaz. A solution to a job that was way too big for them. One that Frankie had tried to talk him out of accepting. Why the hell hadn’t he listened to her?

Zelic, who is deaf, received a panicked text from Gaz right before Gaz was murdered, and Zelic is the one who finds Gaz’s brutalized body.  As Frankie and Zelic dig into the case, trying to find a connection between the robberies and Gaz’s murder, they meet a terrified witness. It soon becomes clear that they are on the scent of something big….

Resurrection bay

Zelic, Frankie and Zelic’s ex-wife team up to solve the robbery case and Gaz’s murder. It’s one of those situations where they have little choice. The police are hostile and smell a connection between the murder and Zelic’s drug-dealing brother, and so Zelic and Frankie are squeezed into continuing the investigation even though they are being warned off. Whoever is behind Gaz’s murder makes sure that Zelic and Frankie feel intimidated; they’ve made someone very nervous–someone who doesn’t like loose ends.

Zelic’s deafness, obviously, in his line of work, presents some unique challenges. Viskic shows the casual cruelty heaped upon the disabled, and how Zelic has learned to cope with nastiness, prejudice and the inference that his deafness is often equated with mental deficiency. We also see how Zelic’s deafness has spurred the development of other skills-including the realization that he’s often underestimated.

How to read people’s hands and eyes. How to know when a sideways glance meant he should run, when it meant he should throw the first punch.

Resurrection Bay is getting a lot of good press. With an emphasis on action, the book swerves into thriller territory, which isn’t my favourite crime presentation.  I’ve been impressed with Pushkin’s Vertigo line of crime reads, but contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t wild about this novel. I guessed one of the major baddies from almost the beginning of the book, and then the whole ex-wife thing seemed a little cliched.

This is my second entry in the 2018 reading Australian Women Writers Challenge.

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Review copy

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Beast in View: Margaret Millar (1955)

“In the mirror above the telephone stand she saw her mouth repeating the lie, enjoying it, and she saw her head nod in quick affirmation–this lie is true, yes, this is a very true lie.”

Thirty-year old Helen Clarvoe has a lot to be grateful for, and yet she lives a miserable, solitary existence at a bleak, second-rate hotel. After the death of her father, she left the family home and has very little to do with her flighty mother and dilettante brother. Beast is View is an exploration of loneliness, madness and manipulation, a claustrophobic novel with few characters and very little down time.

Beast in view

The novel wastes no time on preliminaries, and we are dropped right into the action when Helen Clarvoe picks up the phone, and begins a conversation with someone who purports to be an old friend. As the conversation becomes increasingly disturbing, Helen demands to know who is calling her: the caller identifies herself as Ellen Merrick, and that they met at school.

Peculiar things begin to happen to Helen. She hardly goes out as it is, but the phone call and the subsequent events rattle Helen so much, she turns to her late father’s financial advisor, 50-year-old Paul Blackshear for help.

What a graceless woman she was, Blackshear thought, hoarding herself like a miser, spending only what she had to, to keep alive. 

Blackshear, a widower, is already semi retired, and when Helen tells him about the threatening phone call, and that she’s beginning to wonder if someone has access to her apartment, initially he doesn’t want to get involved. Then he changes his mind. Armed with scant information, Paul begins to track down the mysterious Evelyn Merrick. Soon he finds himself on the track of a woman who leaves a trail of damage through poisonous innuendo, and this trail leads him right back to the Clarvoe family. ….

Blackshear discovers that Evelyn Merrick has an almost hypnotic power over her victims. There’s one scene that takes place at the Lydia Hudson School of Charm and Modelling.

The outer office was a stylized mixture of glass brick and wrought iron and self-conscious young women in various stages of charm. Two of them were apparently graduates: they carried their professional equipment in hat-boxes, and they wore identical expressions, half disillusioned, half-alert, like travelers who had been waiting too long for their train and were eying the tracks for a relief car.  

This scene is representative of  the novel’s premise of truth vs. illusion. The charm school students feed the business–the graduates don’t feed the modelling industry. Millar creates a schism, a mirror fractured in two in the very first scene, and this sensation continues through Blackshear’s quest. Most of the (unpleasant) characters appear to have some sort of duality–whether they’re two-faced or living some sort of lie. Millar feeds this unsettling thread throughout the plot’s twists and turns.

Beast in View is an unnerving, classic woman-in-peril novel with an emphasis on terror through psychological suspense–something along the lines of Midnight Lace (although the plots are dissimilar). After reading this, it’s easy to see why it was picked up for an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, for in this novel, terror exists (mostly) in the mind. This book should appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell.

Margaret Millar was the wife of Kenneth Millar AKA Ross Macdonald

review copy

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My Mortal Enemy: Willa Cather (1926)

“We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeletons.”

Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, a story of an unhappy marriage and the bitterly unhappy woman who gave up a fortune for love, is reminiscent of both Edith Wharton and Henry James. In this instance, our Jamesian narrator is Nellie, a teenage girl when this novella opens, and the story follows Nellie’s observations of an older woman over the course of three meetings that take place during a ten-year period.

Nellie has heard so much about Myra Henshawe, and to Nellie, Myra’s life is swathed in romance. Nellie’s mother and Aunt Lydia were friends with Myra Henshawe (Myra Driscoll as she was known), and they all grew up in the small southern Illinois town of Parthia. Myra lived with her wealthy uncle, and she was his heir, but everything derailed when Myra eloped with Oswald Henshawe against her uncle’s express wishes. Myra married Oswald knowing that she would be completely disinherited

My Mortal enemy

When 15-year-old Nellie first meets Myra, the young impressionable girl already has images of romance in her head, and those ideas evaporate when she meets the flesh-and-blood woman who is now plump, matronly and 45 years old. Myra and her husband live in New York, and while they are affectionate towards each other, there are sinewy troubling undercurrents in their marriage. Nellie who finds Myra “perplexing,” is disturbed by the meeting and her observations, and yet Nellie is too young to process what she sees. Myra has a way of taking control of every situation by making unsettling comments. Nellie notes that “it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one didn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.”

“How good it is,” my mother exclaimed, “to hear Myra laugh again!”

Yes it was good. It was sometimes terrible, too, as I was to find out later. She had an angry laugh, for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh–I was destined to hear that one very often! Untoward circumstances, accidents, even disasters provoked her mirth. And it was always mirth, not hysteria; there was a spark of zest and wild humour in it.  

A second meeting with the Henshawes occurs shortly afterwards, and this meeting takes place when Nellie and her Aunt Lydia travel to New York. This visit yields more glimpses into the Henshawes’ marriage. There are tensions, hints of unhappiness, and Myra’s extravagances (which Oswald comments on but can’t curb).

During this visit, Oswald makes a strange request of Aunt Lydia regarding a pair of cufflinks. This is a fascinating section of this short, finely structured novella, for the incident seems to make Myra, at least in Aunt Lydia’s eyes, even more unreasonable, but there very well could be a deeper story about the cufflinks.

The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs.

I’ve included that quote simply because it is so beautifully evocative.

The final meeting takes place ten years later when Nellie is 25 and Myra is 55. I shan’t say more of the novel as to detail the meeting would give away too much of the plot.

For this reader, My Mortal Enemy encapsulates the mysteries and subtle politics of marriage.  Clearly Myra and Oswald loved each other once, and Myra made a tremendous sacrifice to be with him. Does she regret it? Did she make the right choice? Would she have been any happier if she’d turned away her impoverished suitor and kept the money and the mansion? Are we human beings, flawed as we are, capable of forgiving someone for letting us sacrifice? And then there’s the incident of the cuff links, and Myra’s bits of hidden money.

Aunt Lydia seems hard on Myra and I don’t think that’s totally fair. It’s impossible (unless there’s gross misbehaviour) to untangle the knotty threads of a marriage.

Light and silence: they heal all wounds–all but one, and that is healed by dark and silence. 

TBR stack

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Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan

There are some books that manage to hit the pulse of current societal issues, and by that measure, Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal comes just at the right time.  With the recent Hollywood scandals, the subjects of consenting sex and acceptable sexual behaviour are in the headlines. I’m old enough to say that I had a employer who called women ‘broads,’ and I’ve lived long enough to see attitudes about rape shift. But in spite of attitude shifts, there’s always that underlying notion that saying ‘no’ can just be a coy way of playing hard-to-get.

So here we are in 2018 …

Anatomy of a Scandal is the story of a sex scandal–the type of sex scandal that makes headlines. Sophie is married to James, a junior Home Office minister in the government; they have two children and a beautiful home. James and Sophie met while attending university at Oxford and they dated for a while, broke up, and then reconnected years later in London. Sophie, who’d attended university primarily to snag a husband  (and not build a career) was ready to settle down, and she was sure that James’s wilder days were behind him.

We all mature, right?
Anatomy of a scandal

Sophie’s world comes crashing down when James comes home one night, sits her down  and explains that he’s accused of rape. The accuser is his parliamentary researcher, Olivia. Oh but wait… they had an affair, he broke off the relationship, but then they had one last hookup. And it’s this one last encounter that’s at issue: Olivia claims that she did NOT give consent and James says the incident was just the same as many others they had had before. …

The book follows the fallout from the accusation, and the story is told through 4 voices: Sophie, James, Kate (Olivia’s barrister, “an experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes”) and Holly. Holly’s voice goes back to Sophie’s days at Oxford when Sophie was dating James. Part of the narrative is courtroom drama.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a page-turner. The author capture’s Sophie’s confusion as she is abruptly told about the affair by her husband. Then, with little time to absorb the information or assess her marriage, she’s groomed by the prime minster’s director of communications to stand-by-her-man. Sophie’s distress is shoved aside for political concerns, and there’s no room for any mourning, adjustment, or even time for the shock to be absorbed. At first Sophie cannot believe that the rape charge has any legitimacy, and her husband’s defense is that Olivia is a woman scorned. Of course, at the same time, she knows that he is a government minister and that he “dissembles,  yes. That’s part of his job–a willingness to be economical with the truth.” She also has an intimate view of James’s attitudes towards women and sexuality.

The courtroom scenes are marvelously done, so we see Kate eyeing the juror’s reactions as she walks Olivia through her testimony. The jury is composed of 7 women and 5 men:  “A jury that’s not ideal as women are more likely to acquit a personable man for rape.” James knows how to act the “penitent,” knows the pose to strike as a sensitive man who knows he shouldn’t have had an affair. James’s attractiveness pays off with even Kate’s friend admitting that he’s “the one Tory I wouldn’t kick out of bed.”

Wasn’t he having an affair with her, and didn’t she go to the papers when he called it off to be with his wife and kids? Doesn’t sound like she’s much of a victim to me. More of a woman getting her own back.

For this reader, by far the most interesting aspect of the book was the incident itself and whether or not rape had occurred. We slip into a grey area here as both sides are presented, and James is so smooth:

It pained him to say this, he said it more in sorrow than anger–he was now concerned for her mental health. It hadn’t been as robust as he’d assumed; a bout of anorexia in her teens; the rampant perfectionism that made her a superb researcher, but indicated a lack of balance; and now that her going to the paper hadn’t paid off–that he hadn’t left his wife as she’d wanted-this patent fantasy.

His blithe dismissals tumble from my mouth. Does he believe them? A politician who is so self-assured that his version of the truth is entirely subjective. His truth the one that he wants to believe? Or is this the smooth response of a liar who knows that he lies?

The book pivots on a central coincidence (which in all fairness, the author addresses), but for this reader, the coincidence distracted from the central moral questions of the case.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a great book club choice for not only does the plot center on the issue of rape and consent, but also there are underlying questions regarding male/female relationships. It would be interesting to sit in on post book club discussions. I could see readers coming to blows over this book.

To be fair, I sometimes wonder why so many of us women allow ourselves to wander so directly into the path of danger. Why return to a man who has made an unwanted advance or send a text with a kiss or a smiley face emoji? Why engage when it’s the last thing you feel?

review copy

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Death Makes a Prophet: John Bude (1947)

“If there are many roads that lead to perdition, then there are as many that lead to salvation.”

I’d read 5 John Bude novels before arriving at Death Makes a Prophet. There was an unhappy marriage and a dead husband down on the farm in the 1936 The Sussex Downs Murder.  Then I read the 1952 Death on the Riviera in which serial character Scotland Yard’s  Inspector Meredith is hot on the scent of a counterfeiting ring. Then came 1935’s The Cornish Coast Murder along with a vicar who reads too many crime novels. The Lake District Murder, published in 1935, is a grimmer novel, but then humour returned in The Cheltenham Square Murders (1937) which concerns a handful of residents in an upscale neighbourhood. There’s adultery, bankruptcy, nosy neighbours and what’s more someone is taking their archery club membership to extremes by shooting the dashing Captain Cotton (wife stealer) through the head with an arrow.

Even though Death Makes a Prophet is now my sixth John Bude novel, I was unprepared for the comedy here. The novel concerns a religious cult centered in the town of Welworth:

Death makes a prophet

Welworth is not an ordinary town. It is that rarefied, mushroom-like, highly individualistic conglomeration of bricks and mortar known as a Garden City. There is no house in Welworth over thirty years old. There are no slums, monuments, garden-fences, bill-boardings or public houses. There is a plethora of flowering shrubs, litter baskets, broad avenues, Arty-Crafty Shoppes, mock-Tudor,  mock-Georgian, mock-Italianate villas. There is, of course, a Health Food Store selling Brazil Nut Butter, cold spaghetti fritters, maté tea and a most comprehensive and staggering range of herbal pills and purgatives. Per head of the population, Welworth probably consumes more lettuce and raw carrot than any other  community in the country. A very high percentage of the Welworth élite are not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-much-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for the less high-minded citizens.

So Welworth is a town that attracts those who wish to live a certain lifestyle. These days we might say it’s a hippie community, or a crystal-waving town.  While there are 57 (!) religions in Welworth, the most “queer, somewhat exotic sect” is the Children of Osiris. Founded by Eustace K. Mildmann, the sect is also known as the Cult of Coo–or the religion of Coosim.

Clearly Bude is having great fun here with his subject. The timid Mildmann, a former bookseller, is Coo’s prophet and a sincere believer while the “financial prop, the true director of policy” is the wealthy, bombastic, insufferable Mrs. Alicia Hagge-Smith.

When the novel opens, Mrs Hagge-Smith claims to have had a vision of holding an “al fresco Convention”–a “gathering” of all of Children of Osiris (who will be housed in tents) at her country estate, Old Cowdene. Mildmann is horrified but the crafty, slimy Pen Penpeti, the so-called prophet-in-waiting, who claims to be a reincarnation of a “priest in the temple of Amen-Ra” is on the sidelines, flattering and stroking Mrs Hagge-Smith’s bloated ego. There’s a rift within the sect, and with money, power and influence in the offing, there will be murder….

A ferment was at work; small hostilities were growing, vague jealousies were gaining strength; little intrigues swelling into obsessions. And far off, no more than a dark speck beyond a horizon, wasn’t there a nebulous hint of approaching tragedy in the air?

Death Makes a Prophet is the funniest book I’ve read so far from the British Library Crime Classics. Bude very wisely mixes his characters, so we get sincere believers of Coo mixed with the opportunistic (Penpeti) and those who just need a paycheck (Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary). Plus then there are those innocent bystanders such as Mildmann’s adult son, Terence who is given sixpence a week pocket money and is forced by his father to wear “rational clothing.” Terence dreams of steak and kidney pudding, sneaks out for secret meat binges, and falls in love. Great fun.

Review copy.

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The Other Side of Everything: Lauren Doyle Owens

The Other Side of Everything from Lauren Doyle Owens explores the lives of three characters as a series of murders takes place in a Florida community. That’s a one-sentence description of the book for those who want a quick summary. But for those who want a bit more, read on…

The Other Side of Everything concerns crime, murders to be precise, and so the book may be categorized as a crime novel and will probably end up on the mystery shelf in bookshops. But while this emotionally rich novel includes crime, the plot is more concerned with how residents in Seven Springs, this run-down, post-boom Florida community, react to the murders and how the murders impact their lives.

the other side of everything

Under scrutiny here are three characters: Bernard, a widower in his late seventies, a lonely man who lives with regrets. Then there’s middle-aged artist Amy who is not coping mentally following a cancer diagnosis which resulted in a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. Finally there’s Maddie, a fifteen year old girl who lives with her mostly absent father and teenage brother after her mother abandoned them. All three of these people cope with their unhappy lives in various ways, and the murders pull them, ultimately, out of the ruts they’ve sunk into.

The Florida housing tract still contains some of the ‘originals‘–people who moved there in the 50s and 60s, but many of them died in the decades that passed. The first victim is one of the originals, and as other murders take place, it’s clear that someone is targeting elderly women. Bernard, who exists on frozen burritos and ice cream sandwiches, reconnects with Danny, an old friend he hasn’t seen in years even though they live just a few blocks apart. This visit forces memories of his prime to the surface:

Bernard looked around the sunporch, hunting for familiar objects. They used to play canasta out on the porch on hot summer nights in the days before air-conditioning. They would smoke cigarettes and laugh and drink. He could feel the ghosts of them all in that room, he could almost hear their lighthearted chatter, almost smell the cigarettes and beer. 

Amy, alone now that her architect husband left to go work in San Juan, becomes obsessed with the first murder. The elderly victim lived right behind her, and Amy begins painting a series of murder scenes which are so realistic, she becomes a suspect.

Maddie who cuts herself to redirect her emotional pain, waitresses at the local diner where men try to get her attention. For the most part, her prickliness acts as armour, but then she accepts a ride from a young man named Nate whose predatory behaviour is magnified by Maddie’s lack of parental protection.

I’m not going to mince words here: I loved this novel for strong characterizations, and its exploration of pain and loneliness. The murders and the subsequent solution were the least satisfying aspect of the story, but for this reader, that matters little. The characters are well-formed, believable people, caught in sadness, depression and regrets. Bernard hears the voices of both his dead wife and his dead mistress Vera, and while he understands that he made his wife unhappy (and didn’t deserve her kindness) he still has unresolved questions about Vera’s death. Amy spends hours looking at adoption websites:

She hovered over the photo of a three-year-old girl, and lingered for a bit, noting the girl’s tired eyes and crooked smile. Amy imagined making breakfast for her, and making up songs about tying shoes, teaching her how to paint, and walking her to school. She imagined a life in an instant, and, just as fast, it was gone. 

A smattering  of wry humour appears through Bernard’s friend, the impressible Danny, who doesn’t use his air conditioning because it’s a “waste of money” and who thinks sweating is “like exercise without the work.” Danny loves being a widower even though all the “lookers” are dead.

“But these are the best years, aren’t they? This is what we did all that other stuff for.”

Bernard was taken aback. These were hardly the best years. They were more like purgatory.

“Think about it,” Danny continued, a finger in the air, “our wives are gone, we can do whatever we want, with whomever we want. We can have whiskey sours for breakfast! We can look at internet porn! In-ter-net porn!”

In contrast, Bernard thinks that impotence is the greatest gift of old age and now, in retrospect realises how much energy he wasted “thinking about sex.”

Three people: Bernard, Amy, and Maddie. Three people at different stages of their lives, all struggling with incidents flung at them: death, cancer, and abandonment. All three pried out of their lives by a murder investigation.

The rain was soft at first–tapping politely on the flat white roofs; dribbling down blades of grass; collecting in droplets on large, saucer-like leaves. Then, the rain began to drive, battering the large, bushy fronds of cabbage palms, disturbing delicate Bougainvillea blossoms, and hammering the ground, causing mud to rise among perfect blades of St. Augustine grass, creating puddles where the driveways met the streets of Seven Springs, Florida.

An aside, this novel was NOT told through multiple voices. I’m getting a bit tired of the device to be honest. Now I’m waiting for the next book from Lauren Doyle Owens. She’s shown how much can be done with crime.

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

“And if there’s magic in the world, there’s magic beyond it.”

Chloe Benjamin’s novel, The Immortalists begins in 1969 with the four Gold children Varya, 13, Daniel, 11, Klara, 9, Simon, 7 who head out, pressured by Daniel to have their fortunes told by a travelling psychic. Daniel has heard that the fortune-teller can predict death dates.

The practical minded Varya asks “What is it’s bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?”

“Then it would better to know, ” said Daniel. “So you could get everything done before.”

But would the knowledge of the date of your death ‘help’ or hinder you? You won’t know if the date is correct or not until it arrives. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel as many years ago I had a friend who had a similar experience. He refused to tell me the date he was given, but it haunted him. After seeing how traumatized he was by this experience, I would rather not know. Of course, we all come with a hidden expiration date, and the novel asks whether or not knowing (or thinking you know) the day of your death makes a difference as to how you choose to live your life. What if the date is wrong? How does this knowledge, true or false, impact behaviour?

In a tatty apartment building, the children are each, separately, told the day of their deaths. Although they keep the information initially secret, it impacts their behavior in the years to come.

the immortalists

Simon Gold as a teenager who is facing joining the family’s “Tailor and Dressmaking”  business, instead opts to run off to the heady freedom of San Francisco in the late 70s-early 80s. There, underage Simon finds work as a dancer in a gay bar, and he meets an older man. Meanwhile his sister Klara who runs off to San Francisco with Simon gets a job as temp. while dreaming of becoming an illusionist. Klara turns to magic in a dangerous and obsessive attempt to cross the barriers between the living  and the dead.

The second brother Daniel, quiet, steady and serious becomes an army doctor post 9-11 and Varya becomes a scientist whose area of expertise/interest is longevity research. (This involves Rhesus monkeys, so reader beware). In her longevity research, quantity becomes more important than quality.

The Immortalists, beginning with Simon, follows the siblings on their life paths. Each sibling keeps the death date in his/her head, always conscious of it, even if they disbelieve it. Simon, who is told that he will die young, certainly takes this information and runs with it. Hurls himself towards it might even be a better description.

What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.

I liked the novel’s premise and the mystical elements, and I loved Klara and Varya’s stories, possibly because they tried to understand life in alternate ways. Daniel’s section stretched credulity, and readers should be aware that in Simon’s story, there’s a considerable amount of sex. This is described rather clinically, not salaciously, but still, anyone intending to read this should know what they are in for. IMO, it added nothing to the book. That’s not meant in a puritanical way, but these scenes did nothing for me whatsoever, and seemed, frankly, rather gratuitous.

The Immortalists asks how much we really control our lives. Would the Gold children have acted differently if they’d never met the fortune-teller? If you were told you were going to die young, would you dive right into life and to hell with the consequences or would you try to avoid disaster? Character is fate, right? Can you escape fate? We see each of the Gold children tackle those questions differently.

If you like The Immortalists, you will probably also like Daniel Kehlmann’s F  (or vice versa)

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Sunday Silence: Nicci French

“After all, you’re a psychiatrist. You’re an expert in people’s dark sides.” 

Sunday Silence is the seventh novel in the Nicci French (husband and wife writing team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French ) Frieda Klein series. If you haven’t at least read some of the series, then you don’t want to start with this book. In fact you need to go back to the beginning, to Blue Monday, the first Frieda Klein novel, which introduces the complicated world of our London-based psychotherapist Frieda Klein, and also her arch-nemesis, Dean Reeve.

Sunday Silence

Sunday Silence opens with Frieda’s world becoming (once again) the object of public scrutiny. A body is discovered under the floorboards of her London home, and since Frieda’s house/office has become a crime scene, she finds she must relocate, at least temporarily, to her friend, Reuben’s house.

The prickly Chief Inspector Petra Burge is in charge of the investigation, but the crime pulls Detective Chief Inspector Karlsson, who’s out on leave due to a broken leg, and Constable Yvette Long back into the game. Other returning series characters include: builder Josef (who discovered the body during renovations) and Frieda’s troubled niece, Chloe. It’s always satisfying to reconnect with series characters and see how their lives have progressed. In Reuben’s case, he’s suffering from cancer.

The body is identified as ex-policeman Bruce Stringer who was hired by Frieda to find Dean Reeve, so of course, the finger points towards Dean Reeve as the murderer. Dean Reeve was thought to have committed suicide years earlier, but Frieda has always insisted that he’s still alive. This murder seems to prove that she’s right.

Frieda is as complicated as ever, and as usual, she never reacts as she is expected to react. As the case gains national attention and reporters circle, there’s one scene that takes place during a press conference. She’s been groomed as to how she should behave.

Frieda opened her eyes. “There are psychiatrists who are interested in violence and evil but I’m not one of them. I’m a therapist and I deal with ordinary unhappiness. I don’t have any big theory about Dean Reeve. At a certain point in his life, I just got in the way.”

Months pass, and the furor over the crime dies down, and then attacks begin on people in Frieda’s life. … Frieda, a character full of contradictions, must curse the day she ran into Dean Reeve. And while she says she ‘just got in his way,’ we can’t help but feel that there’s a bit more afoot. It’s a terrible thing to become a psychopath’s object of interest, and the more he understands about his victim, then the more vulnerable that person becomes. Will this page-turner (one of the best of the ones I’ve read in this series) bring a close to the near-invisible cat-and-mouse relationship that’s existed between Frieda and Dean?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for books about therapists, so I enjoyed this one.

I always thought it was a mistake for Frieda to live AND work in the same place. Just saying…

There’s an eighth book in the series: Day of the Dead scheduled for July 2018 in the US

Cleo also read and enjoyed the book. (UK title: Sunday Morning Coming Down)

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