Category Archives: Fiction

Blackout: Ragnar Jónasson

The first book in Ragnar Jónasson’s  Dark Iceland series, Snowblind, introduced rookie policeman Ari Thor. Set during Iceland’s financial crisis, Ari, a Reykjavik resident and former theology student, takes a job in far-way Siglufjördur. This isn’t a dream job by any means, and Ari’s girlfriend Kristin, is upset with Ari for taking the position. It means long separations and Ari’s decision will impact her career as a doctor, so there’s relationship turbulence ahead. The second book in the series, Nightblind, takes place five years after Snowblind. Ari and Kristin are now living together and they have a child, but their relationship problems are far from solved, and the murder of a local policeman strains their relationship even further.

Blackout

The third novel in the series, Blackout, takes place between the first two published books. Ari is in Siglufjördur and he and Kristin, who is working as a doctor in Reykjavik, no longer have a relationship–although they have sporadic contact.  The novel is set during a volcanic interruption, and a tourist discovers a corpse of a murdered man.

Ari isn’t quite as central to this novel. He’s there, of course, and he has regrets about his lost relationship with Kristin. There’s an ambitious reporter, Ísrún, who hears about the discovery of a body and runs with the story.  Her boss is looking for an excuse to get rid of her, so the story may just be the ticket she needs to help her flailing career.

The investigation into the man’s death follows two tracks: Ísrún’s hunt for the story and the police investigation. For this reader, Blackout is not as strong as the other two entries in the series. It’s looser and not as tightly written. Whereas the other two novels emphasized the bleakness and isolation of winter in Siglufjördur, this novel moves to another feature of Icelandic weather: the volcano. As with all crime series novels, we get the current crime woven with details of our characters’ lives, and depending on the book/series, one aspect is usually more interesting than another. It didn’t help the momentum factor that this novel takes place between the other two books, as the reader already knows where Ari and Kristin’s relationship is heading.

Translated by Quentin Bates.

Review copy

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Gallic Noir Volume 1: Pascal Garnier

Gallic noir

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a Pascal Garnier fan. His dark, bleak humour fits my mood and world view so I’ve loved (most) of his books. Gallic Books has compiled three titles into one volume, so if you’ve been waiting to check out Garnier, this may be a great choice for you. Volume 1 includes:

The A-26

How’s the Pain?

The Panda Theory. 

Here’s a list of my reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

The A-26 is the story of brother and sister Bernard and Yolande. Yolande, “Yo-Yo” (an apt name since she’s bat-shit crazy) live together in disharmony with Bernard ‘caring’ for Yo-Yo, but this insane world spins out-of-control when Bernard, a serial killer, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is my least favourite Garnier. It contains Garnier’s signature motifs of death and decay, but I felt as though I needed a shower after reading it.

Onto How’s The Pain? which I rated much higher. I really liked this one. This is the story of an aging hitman, posing as an ‘exterminator’ who picks up a directionless young man as his driver. This book contains a depth absent in A-26, and the description of Bernard’s hopeless mother is extraordinary, painful, and hilarious all at the same time.

The Panda Theory concerns a stranger who turns up in small town in Brittany. Again the central motifs of death and decay are present. This wasn’t the easiest read for me for its rather constant references to meat, but this is a cleverly written book that doesn’t veer from its imagery.

There are three volumes of Garnier’s Gallic noir available

Review copy

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Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville (1934)

“This is getting too much like one of those gangster films for my liking.”

The gathering of a motley assortment of guests at a remote country house is a staple of crime fiction, but when author Alan Melville adds humour to the mix, the plot suddenly becomes light and breezy. Result: Weekend at Thrackley is a delightful romp.

Jim Henderson, unemployed for three years, and living in a boarding house, is down on his luck and short of funds when he receives an unexpected invitation to Thrackley, a country home for the weekend. He doesn’t know Edwin Carson, the man who sent the invitation, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Jim thinks that at least he’ll be in for a mini-holiday in Surrey and free grub. Why not accept?

But then Jim talks to his friend, Freddie Usher, who has also received an invitation, and the two friends exchange notes. According to Usher, Carson, who has a shady reputation, as “the greatest living authority on precious stones” is interested in the Usher diamonds, and has requested that Usher bring the diamonds to Thrackley so that Carson can compare the Usher diamonds to some in his own collection.  It seems a foolish idea to agree to Carson’s request since it’s rumoured that Carson may have acquired his collection by nefarious means. Jim is appalled:“You’re not going to?”

“If I can get them out of pawn and give them a wash and a brush up in time. Why not?”

“Of all the blithering, nit-witted –“

But Usher assures Jim that Carson is now “reformed,” plus he’s packing a revolver along with his razor and toothbrush.”

A handful of guests gather at Thrackley for the weekend. The home is isolated and has a depressing, suffocating setting. Along with the host, Carson, his lovely daughter, and a sinister, thuggish butler, there’s Mr and Miss Brampton, Lady Stone, and Miss Raoul, an actress. There’s a commonality with the guests: they all possess a disgusting number of jewels. The exception is Jim, who has  a modest private income but little beyond that. He can’t understand why he was invited, but Carson claims that Jim’s father, (a man Jim knows little about) was his best friend and that they met in prison. This is all news to Jim, and he’s stunned by the revelation.

So here we have a shady jewel collector who has invited jewel laden visitors for the weekend. We more or less can guess why these people have been invited, but the fun here in the story comes from its humorous approach. Jim, as the main character, sniffs out some bizarre goings-on almost immediately and then he enlightens his friend. These two men stumble towards the truth, and a great deal of the novel’s lively wit is derived from their energy and attitude towards life. Jim, for example, considers Lady Catherine Stone, a “dangerous type of woman. The type that spends her days and other people’s days in Getting Up Things; on fifty-three committees, he had heard, and perpetually organizing charity matinees and midnight cabarets and chain teas for vague and unknown institutions.”

According to Freddie, Lady Stone makes an appointment to talk about “the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Aged Organizers of Charity Bazaars, or some such title,” but she fails to meet him. Where did she disappear to? Carson has an explanation, but it seems suspicious at best. Freddie and Jim decide to begin their own investigations which is assisted by the fact that Carson drives off with Raoul, who is “plastered with good jewellery given to her by bad men.” Carson, according to Jim, “is a “dirty old devil,” who tries to isolate Raoul in order to make a pass at her.

I read Death of Anton from the same author, and while I enjoyed it, I preferred Weekend at Thrackley–the opening scenes with Jim’s landlady were brilliant and set the jolly tone for the rest of the bookAccording to the introduction from Martin Edwards, this novel was extremely successful and represented a turning point in the author’s career. Melville went on to have a career in entertainment and given the wonderfully light, well-paced tone of the novel, I’m not surprised.

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Smoking Kills: Antoine Laurain

“It’s never a good idea for an evil bastard to imprint himself on the retina of a murderer. I don’t advise it: it might lead to an idea for a spot of entertainment on an idle afternoon.”

Antoine Laurain’s wickedly funny novel, Smoking Kills, examines the extent, drive, and unexpected consequences of addiction through the acts of a man who seeks the high of “the good fairy Nictoine.”  Middle-aged Parisian headhunter Fabrice Valantine, an avid smoker for years, isn’t ready for the smoking ban which threatens to ruin his life by depriving him of one of his greatest pleasures. The threat against his smoking addiction finds little sympathy with his non-smoking, art curator wife. Plus then there’s the little matter of Fabrice leaving the unfortunate comment “makes me want to vomit,” in a guest book following the show of “Inflammatory Art” from pretentious “artist” Damon Bricker. Bricker, nicknamed “the pigeon roaster” by Fabrice:

Cheerfully chargrilled his animal subjects, using his blowtorch like other artists use their brushes. His installation of a life-sized chicken house, complete with hens cockerels and a fox, had caused a sensation at the previous years’s FIAC art fair in Paris.

After an embarrassing incident at an art show, however, Fabrice is encouraged by his non-smoking wife, Sidonie, to seek hypnosis therapy to help him stop smoking. The hypnosis is successful, and yet … Fabrice discovers that life without a “nicotine fix,” is lacking zest. He begins smoking again, only to discover that the pleasure factor has been removed, and by a strange set of circumstances, Fabrice discovers that nicotine can once again be pleasurable under certain circumstances….

Laurain sets up his main character into a set of devilishly clever circumstances: While Sidonie flies to New York to attend an art show, Fabrice’s situation at work changes for the worse. Exiled to a windowless basement office, he’s then required to attend a pool party with the young, fit, boss. What a brilliant humiliation from the author, to place middle-aged out-of-shape office workers awkwardly into swimsuits which reveal cellulite, body hair and flab.

The sight of the entire office staff in swimsuits was certainly strange. Bizarrely immodest. Some people looked taller or smaller than usual. The women had bigger or smaller chests than one might have thought. I wondered what my colleagues thought about me. They, too, would be thinking: “Goodness, Valantine isn’t hairy at all, and he’s musclier than I thought.” Or perhaps the opposite.

The new boss has created a situation of dominance:

He was standing on the diving board, microphone in hand. His athletic musculature gleamed, but not with pool water: he must have slathered himself in oil, like a bodybuilder. He delivered a short speech about the Piscine Pontoise, a gem of thirties architecture, with its thirty-three metre pool, and about how we would all get to know each other better through the joy of sport, and other nonsense. He looked like an Aryan SS officer, glamorised in a film by Leni Riefenstahl. With his short blond slightly swept-back hair, a black and white photograph of him would easily pass for an old piece of Nazi propaganda.

I’ve read three Laurain novels to date:

The President’s Hat

The Portrait

And now Smoking Kills which is my favourite so far. How delightful that Laurain seems to be getting darker and darker. The President’s Hat was a touch whimsical while The Portrait examined the life of man who loses his sense of identity and sinks into madness. Smoking Kills is the story of  a man who, in order to recreate a nicotine high, turns to murder.  Pushed to his limits. Fabrice uncovers a talent for murder and revenge. I’m not a smoker, but I’ve known smokers so determined that even a diagnosis of lung cancer and the removal of one lung has not dimmed their enthusiasm for cigarettes.

Smoking Kills is very funny in a twisted dark way, but apart from that, it’s full of Laurain observations and wisdom:

Sidonie inhabited her world, and I mine. My world was the more real: people came with a price; they were hired for a given time, for their skills, and paid handsomely in exchange. The whole system made the world go round, and created jobs for other people, drawing on their skills in turn. My world was logical. Sidonie’s was irrational. Serious, highly serious, but irrational. Artworks were worth more than the men who had created them, often achieving colossal sums of money at sale. A single picture could be worth as much as a small business; one museum’s holdings could equate to the GDP of an African state. The galleries played the role of the big financial groups, everything was quoted on a kind of invisible stock exchange, and the dead were worth more than the living.  

An I’m ending on this poignant quote:

Fathers are unwitting objects of fascination for their daughters, and the interlude of their childhood leaves a bittersweet taste: never again, for anyone else, will we be domestic demi-gods, greeted like long-awaited saviours when we come home for dinner at the end of the working day. The years go by and their joy becomes less and less palpable, until one day they fail to greet us at all. This time is past and the countdown reaches zero. We had known it would happen, we just hadn’t expected it to happen so quickly.

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Translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie

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The Gravedigger’s Bread: Frédéric Dard (1956)

I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.

Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread is another well crafted, tightly written noir tale from Pushkin Press’s Vertigo imprint. This is a classic tale of adultery and murder. Think The Postman Always Rings Twice but add more twists and turns as ill-fated lovers attempt to outrun Fate.

Gravediggers bread

This short novel takes us right into the heart of our first person narrator’s life. Blaise Delange, a man with a checkered past, unemployed and desperate, has been funded by a friend in order to seek employment at a rubber factory in a provincial town. By the time Blaise arrives, the job is gone. When Blaise finds a wallet stuffed with 8,000 francs, he considers taking it as a “consolation prize,” but then he thinks about the beautiful, sad, badly-dressed blonde woman who dropped the wallet and decides to return it. The owner is Germaine Castain, the wife of the town’s only undertaker. Blaise visits their depressing home and walks into a scene of marital misery.

Then I went up to the door and drove the yellowish little man back into the interior of his shop. The inside was even more wretched than the outside. It was cramped, dim, lugubrious and it smelt of death. 

One look at Achille Castain, an ugly, unhealthy, brutish man old enough to be Germaine’s father, tips Blaise to be careful how he proceeds. Blaise can see that all is not well in the marriage, and so he lies about where he found the wallet. He realises that Germaine can’t possibly love this disgusting man, and yet Achille, rather than treasure a wife that is so much younger and beautiful, abuses her and treats her like an indentured servant. Why did they marry? Why is Germaine, who has no children to consider, staying with this man?

A few hours later, Achille offers Blaise a job, and Blaise, attracted to Germaine and curious about this incongruous marriage, decides to stick around. Turns out that Blaise is a terrific salesman, and soon Blaise, an opportunist, is selling up: talking grieving families into buying fancier coffins which reflect status, guilt, or loss. Achille thinks he knows his customers (after all they all live in this small, dull town), and so he makes the mistake of selling what he thinks the family will spring for, rather than attempt to work on other, latent emotions.

“You see Delange,” he said. We can’t expect anything on the business front here. It will be the second-lowest category and a pauper’s coffin.”

“Why do you foresee that?’

“The fact that it’s the grandfather. That’s ten years now they’ve been spoon-feeding him and changing his sheets three times a day. If they could they’d stick him in the dustbin.”

Soon, there’s an unhealthy, tense, claustrophobic little triangle at the bleak, depressing funeral home with Blaise watching and fantasizing about Germaine, and Achille watching Germaine with suspicions that she has a secret lover….

The Gravedigger’s Bread does not take the conventional path. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but the plot was more complicated, with Fate interacting more capriciously, cynically and cruelly than anticipated.

I’ve read several Dard novels, and here they are in the order of preference:

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage.

Crush

The King of Fools

The Gravedigger’s Bread goes straight to the top of the list.

Review copy

Translated by Melanie Florence

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In the Distance With You: Carla Guelfenbein

“passion and what we’re prepared to do for its sake.”

80 year old Vera Sigall, a Chilean writer, lives a quiet solitary life in Santiago. Most of her contact is with her neighbour, architect Daniel. One day, Daniel finds Vera at the foot of her stairs, and it’s not clear if she fell or was attacked, and with a vagrant seen nearby, exactly what happened to Vera seems unclear. Certainly Detective Alvarez has his suspicions, and it doesn’t help Daniel’s case that he doesn’t tell the police the truth about several facts.

As Vera lies comatose in the hospital her story goes back to the 1950s, through the Pinochet dictatorship, and is revealed through several voices: Daniel, Emilia, a French-Chilean student, working on her thesis who has travelled to Santiago to read certain papers by Vera, and Horacio Infante, a famous poet who had a passionate affair with Vera decades earlier.

In the distance

Daniel is married to Gracia, but there’s a distance between them (back to the title). They live together, have a relationship, have sex, and yet there’s an undeniable distance in spite of the fact that Daniel acknowledges that Gracia “had the something I was missing.” Daniel wants to cancel a planned anniversary party, out of respect to Vera, and Gracia doesn’t understand how Daniel’s loyalty can be to an old woman in hospital. But there’s something unique between Daniel and Vera:

I remembered our conversations in your study, and how you’d made me see the stuff marital relationships are made of. Stuff whose composition possesses the ingredients for self-destruction. I always resisted believing you. In the end, it’s just a matter of will, I used to tell you. The will to love, and to be faithful to the object of your affection. But then you told me about the voraciousness of love, about its longing to swallow the beloved and ensure that he or she breathes only through us, But above all, you talked about love’s secret desire to be realized without transactions, without words, moved solely by its own essence, by its supposed unconventionality. 

Emilia starts lingering around the hospital and meets Daniel. Gradually through the three voices of Daniel, Emilia and Horacio, Vera’s story, is revealed, and at the same time, Daniel and Emilia discover things about themselves. It’s clear that Vera’s great love affair with poet Horacio was intense and inevitable. They met and circled one another for some time before falling into a long, sporadic affair. Vera, who is married when the affair begins,  knows Horacio better than he knows himself.

The book examines the disparity of love. One person in a relationship seems to love more than the other–which one would you prefer to be? Despite this disparity, relationships balance in a status quo for years, and then some event or some person can throw the delicate negotiation of an established relationship into chaos. But for this reader, the most fascinating area of any relationship is the ‘me/us’ negotiated spaces. When we enter into any relationship, this me/us space seems to be the most fraught, and often so difficult to establish. Chilean author’s Carla Guelfenbein’s characters must face this issue in their relationships–how much to share, how much to let someone in, the space to maintain. And it’s these, often unspoken negotiations, that make or break relationships.

I don’t want anyone or anything to stand between us, not distance, not time, nothing, nobody. I don’t know how to achieve that state, but it’s what I want. 

Daniel’s voice is the strongest–perhaps because he is the most interesting of the three characters. I’m not a fan stories of prolonged love affairs, so some of this book didn’t work for me. There’s also a prolonged masturbation scene that was a bit much.

(The character of Vera is loosely inspired by Clarice Lispector)

Translated by John Cullen

Review copy

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The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet

I liked the premise of Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. We live in a world that’s changed a great deal in the last few decades: the internet makes the globe smaller in some ways and also much more dangerous. Through the story of a troubled marriage, The House Swap shows the ease with people can elbow into our lives.

The House Swap

The novel opens in 2015 with Caroline and Francis, a married couple, parents of a small boy, traveling to Chiswick on a house-swap arrangement. Caroline signed onto a house swap site “on an idle whim,” but then was contacted by an S. Kennedy who expressed interest in swapping a Chiswick house for the couple’s flat in Leeds. Francis had wanted to go abroad, but Caroline nixed that due to concerns about leaving their son. So the book finds the couple, who’ve left the child with a grandmother, a bit combative and miffed with each other. Chiswick seems a poor exchange for Paris or Spain.

The truth underneath the choice of location is that neither Caroline nor Francis have the energy to rustle up a holiday that requires much planning. You see, their marriage is on the rocks. Caroline has been a bad girl, but their marriage has survived the affair. Sort of….

Not in the best of moods, the couple arrive at the Chiswick house. Caroline finds the house a bit odd.

It’s the emptiest house I have ever seen. Nothing on the walls, not even a mirror. Pale pine floorboards and smooth blank doors opening into near vacant rooms. 

Weird, weird weird…. But then things get weirder when Caroline finds items in the house that remind her of her former lover, and what of the nosy, pushy neighbour a few doors down.

The story goes back and forth in time through a few different voices, while the background of Caroline’s affair and her marriage to Francis unfolds. Francis is a therapist, and gradually we see what a wreck Francis is, his unhealthy behaviours and exactly what pushed Caroline towards another man. Against this backstory, events in the past also occur which trouble Caroline in the present; she’s tried shoving thoughts of the affair into the back of her mind, but the Chiswick house brings memories flooding back.

This is a domestic thriller about two married people who had a lot going for them but threw it away, and now the consequences are there, back in their lives in spite of their best efforts otherwise. The characters are not likable (which is often a plus for me) but they were also not terribly interesting. Caroline ‘wakes up’ too slowly IMO, but the novel is stronger when showing that when a marriage is wrecked, the pieces never fit together again…

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books.

review copy.

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Filed under Blogging, Fleet Rebecca

The Day of the Dead: Nicci French

The Day of the Dead is an ominous title for the final book in the Frieda Klein series from husband-and-wife writing team “Nicci French” (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). For those playing catch-up, this is the eighth book in the series which follows London psychologist Frieda Klein. I’ll add here that in spite of the fact that this book includes many repeat characters, it can be read as a standalone, but if you want to get a bit more out of the story, I’d recommend that you read at least the first one in the series: Blue Monday.

the day of the dead

The Day of the Dead begins with a horrific incident in London which leaves many people wounded, but as the police begin to investigate what seems like an accident, the incident turns into something much more sinister. This murder case initially baffles police, but then another body surfaces, and another, and another…..

Meanwhile, Frieda Klein (who doesn’t appear until we’re really deep into the plot) is in hiding. In Blue Monday, she met serial killer, psychopath Dean Reeve, and although he was supposedly dead at the end of the book, Frieda has insisted to the police for years that Dean was still alive. And considering how her life has been turned into a theatre of blood and murder since meeting Dean, she may be onto something.

Dean Reeve is the ultimate predator, and over the course the series he’s played a cat-and-mouse game with Frieda, always close by, always circling. To some, Frieda’s claims about Dean Reeve are too fantastic to be believed, and she is regarded as an attention seeking nut, a woman “who has left a trail of havoc behind her,” but Frieda also has her defenders.

In The Day of the Dead, the police finally have to acknowledge that Dean Reeve is alive, and into his current string of showy murders stumbles a young confused criminology student named Lola who has become so interested in Frieda that she decides to write a dissertation “deconstructing” the psychologist. Lola seeks Frieda and manages to find her, but with Dean Reeve circling, Lola doesn’t want to leave Frieda’s side. Frieda is in hiding for a reason as she knows that those close to her are in danger from Dean. Frieda knows that Dean “is reaching the end. One way or another.” 

Although this book clocks in at just over 400 pages, it was a very quick, addictive read. The novel’s strongest point, IMO, is that Frieda, having dealt with Dean Reeve, never underestimates him. Psychopaths are underestimated by novices who cannot even begin to imagine how someone like Dean thinks. Most of us are lucky enough to live our lives without ever crossing the path of a psychopath, but if you’re unfortunate enough to ever tangle with a sicko and survive, you move forward into an unsettling life. The authors nailed this feeling.  As the novel builds to its inevitable crescendo, the pacing is excellent. While Frieda seems to have reached a zen-like plateau in her acceptance of this, her final duel with Dean, the character of limpet-like Lola is rather annoying. The authors pulled a bit of a switcheroo with the plot, and I might have been a bit annoyed about it had I not already guessed it. Still, if you are in the mood for a a crime novel that sucks you and and refuses to let go, then The Day of the Dead may fit the bill.

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Filed under Fiction, French Nicci