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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Revenge by Yōko Ogawa — book review

12987389.jpgHaving read two novels by Yōko Ogawa, I was curious to read Revenge, a collection of interconnected short stories. Ogawa’s magnifies the sense unease that usually permeates her narratives (even The Housekeeper and the Professor has its unsettling moments), as these stories seem intent on unnerving their readers. The characters within these pages are morbid, obsessive, prone to macabre thoughts and obscure actions.
What drew me the most was to ‘discover’ what linked these various characters together. I believe Ogawa succeeded in creating interesting connections between these different, or perhaps not so different, people. However, truth be told, I found that at times she sacrificed potentially terrifying moments for gratuitously grotesque scenes. Personally, I find that relying too much on obvious sources of ‘discomfort’ (such as detailed descriptions of dead animals or torture methods) is a ‘cheap’ way to repulse your readers. I wasn’t horrified or afraid, merely disgusted. The characters also seemed to have the same excited way of envisioning tortured bodies…which got old fast.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith — book review

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Blackwood is a gritty read. Set in Red Bluff, Mississippi, a rather dismal small-town, the story follows a small cast of miserable characters. There is a family that is new to town, that are referred to as ‘the man’, ‘the woman’, and ‘the boy’, who stir some trouble with the locals, the sheriff, Myer, and Colburn, a sculptor who has return to Red Bluff after years away. The characters spend most of the narrative expressing their dejected opinions, the male characters in particular seem prone to long and existentialist monologues (that did not seem to fit with their characters but whatever) and feeling a growing sense of unease. In the background there are some kudzu vines that are acting up, swallowing up whatever, and whoever, is in their path.
I wasn’t fond of the way in which Smith would avoid referring to his characters’ names, and often I wasn’t sure who the scene was focusing on. The two ‘mains’, Myer and Colburn, had the same kind of wretched disposition. The three women who have some page-time are treated like doormats most of the time….or are just there so the men can lust after their bodies.
I guess I liked the atmosphere but I didn’t find this to be a particularly memorable or disconcerting read.

My rating: ★★★3 of 5 stars

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Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella — book review


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“It’s supposed to be a time when you’re about to embark on your adult life, but for many young people, that springboard looks more like a precipice.”

Ghosts of Harvard is a patchwork of a novel. While the summary seems to promise more of thriller/academia type of book (I personally would not recommend this to those who enjoy campus novels or dark academia), what we do get is a mishmash of genres and storylines: to start with we have a moving family drama that examines the realities of caring for someone with a mental illness, then we head into the supernatural combined with the type of amateur investigation that is all the rage in domestic thrillers (someone you know has done something bad), before culminating in a melodramatic final act.

Francesca Serritella strikingly renders the setting of Harvard. Sadly however her protagonist’s investigation into her brother’s time there takes the centre-stage, so that Cadence’s studies and interactions with other students receive limited attention only. Nevertheless Serritella certainly knows Harvard, and she demonstrates her knowledge of its history, architecture, and traditions in a very compelling and evocative way.
After her brother’s suicide Cadence is obviously overwhelmed. Eric was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while studying at Harvard so Cadence does feel to a certain extent haunted. Hoping that being at Harvard will somehow bring her closer to her brother, she soon begins to suspect that her brother was hiding something. As she becomes obsessed with her brother’s past, she begins to hear ‘voices’. What follows is a story that has the trappings of most domestic thrillers, the only difference being the academic backdrop.

The third person narration distances us from Cadence, so that much of her personality remains unseen. We know of her troubled relationship with her mother but we never truly delve into Cadence’s sense of self. She makes many nonsensical decisions for ‘plot’ reasons, and I can’t say that she ever did or said anything remotely remarkable or moving. Perhaps I would have sympathised more with her if she had at any point had an introspective moment. She briefly questions herself only when she’s worried that the voices she’s hearing are a figment of her imagination or a sign that she too may suffer from schizophrenia. She forms superficial friendships with her roommates and a guy who shares one of her classes, but for the most part she only comes into contact with individuals who are directly connected to her brother and his secret. Speaking of Eric’s friends, it was weird that Cadence only speaks to his best friend once. Although Cadence grows close to one of her brother’s peers, I never believed that she cared for the ‘living’ people she encounters at Harvard. She becomes somewhat chummy with the three ghosts who keep talking to her in her head, and who unsurprisingly help her in her investigation.
Throughout the course of Cadence’s ‘investigation’ we get snippets from her past that focus on her family life and her bond with Eric. These were easily my favourite parts of the novel. These scenes, although painful, possessed a genuine quality that made them much more poignant that the ones that take place at Harvard.

“Simple narratives were easier to tell, to teach, to understand, to remember. The lie endures for generations, while the truth dies with its victims. But what were the consequences?”

Serritella’s writing was absorbing and I generally enjoyed her reflections on family, mental health, grief, and Harvard’s history.
While part of me was happy that the novel didn’t drag on the ‘are the voice real or not’, ultimately I wasn’t all that taken by the novel’s execution: it veers into exaggerated territories that are punctuated by flashy twists. What could have been a compassionate exploration of grief and of loving someone who suffers from a mental illness is weighed down by unnecessary thriller-esque melodrama. The supernatural element would have been a lot more ‘haunting’ if it hadn’t been so cheesily predictable. While I appreciated the novel’s commentary on academia/educational institutions, and the nuanced portrayal of Eric’s mental illness as well as the realistic depiction of the stigma and discrimination against mental health, I was underwhelmed by the storyline and finale.

Specific plot points/scenes that were unconvincing/clichéd:

➜ The prologue. I’m tired of these prologues that ‘tease’ a possible death that is to come. The novel’s first chapters were compelling enough that they did not require such a gimmicky opening.

➜ Cadence’s first interaction with her roommate was jarring: “I’m Ranjoo, do you hate me already?”
“Only for those abs.” Who says that? Maybe if we had a better grasp of Cadence’s personality I could have believed that she would say something alongs these lines.

(view spoiler)

➜ Nikos. (view spoiler)

➜ The ghosts. (view spoiler)

➜ Prokop. (view spoiler)

➜ Eric. (view spoiler)

➜ The chapters would often end on these would be cliffhangers.(view spoiler)

➜ Lee. (view spoiler)

➜ The epilogue (view spoiler)

All in all I can’t say that I disliked Ghosts of Harvard but there were many elements within the narrative that lessened my overall reading experience and opinion of the book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

The opening lines of this novel are wonderfully theatrical:

“All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is a gleefully dark novel, filled with mean, selfish, and cruel individuals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nugent’s latest novel features one of the most unlikable casts of characters I have ever encountered in a book. And yet, while the Drumm brothers and most of their social circle, are certainly detestable, the satirical tone that pervades Nugent’s narratives makes her characters’ nastiness a lot more ‘digestible’. Also, by exaggerating their worst traits and inflating the behaviours and reactions of nearly every-single character, the author gives her book a darkly humorous quality that keeps the story, and its characters, from being taken too seriously.image (1).jpg

“You see, in our family somebody always had to be the butt of the joke.”

The alternating point of views and the non-linear structure of this novel add some spice to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill dark family drama. We have three brothers from Dublin:
William, a film producer who believes that his only ‘weakness’ are women and that he is the “most successful and least screwed-up” Drumm brother; Brian, the middle-child, who, as the only non-famous and rather forgettable brother, feels like the underdog of the family (but before readers begin to feel sympathetic towards him we soon see him for the greedy skinflint he really is); lastly, there is Luke, the youngest brother is perhaps the only one who isn’t a wholly repugnant being. He has his moments of dickishness but readers are soon confronted by the troubled state of his mental health. His life is punctuated by unhealthy behaviours: as a boy he went through a zealously religious phase, while years later, once his music career kicks off, he goes in and out of clinics, perpetually plagued by morbid hallucinations and nightmares. Alcoholisms, drugs, paranoia, depression, become the backdrop to his 20s and 30s.
In spite of their different career paths and lifestyles William, Brian, and Luke often find themselves, much to their chagrin, drawn back together. While we initially believe that Luke is the only Drumm brother to demonstrate concerning behaviour, we soon see notice that William and Brian aren’t as clear-headed as they’d like to believe.

“We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”

The story charts their bitter relationship as they try to one-up each other throughout the decades.The three brothers have never been on easy terms. They are—and always have been—rivals. If something good happens to one of them, the other two are envious and feel they themselves are entitled to happiness/success/money. The little ‘cruelties’ that they do to one another can vary from a seemingly childish taunt to a much more perfidious offence. As the narrative progresses we see that most of their interactions have always been either openly hostile or purely transactional.
Whichever brother is narrating will often paint himself as the blameless victim, the only ‘sane/good’ Drumm brother. I enjoyed discovering more about the Drumm’s familial history and found the story to be fairly suspenseful.

However, as much I enjoyed the ongoing melodrama between the Drumm brothers, part of me was ultimately unconvinced by the whole thing. From the first pages we understand that these three have never and will never love each other. Even Luke is far too self-involved to care for his older brothers. If he helps them out, he doesn’t do this out of selflessness.
The Drumm brothers have always resented or outright hated one another. At times it seems that there is some loyalty or affection between them but it is merely a false impression. They pretend to do things out of ‘brotherly’ concern or care but they are just trying to keep face (with their parents/partners/etc.). This made their recurring ‘betrayals’ less duplicitous. These ‘cruelties’ don’t seem all that cruel once we realise that they never shared a bond or connection. A toxic type of love would have been more interesting…but what we have here is three guys pretending—not very hard—that they feel something other than distaste for one another. They don’t seem hurt by the cruel words or slights they receive, rather they seem to think on the lines of ‘how dare he do this to me’.

I don’t know…I just didn’t feel the passion behind their actions. These characters weren’t unreliable as such. They simply recount events in a way that puts them in a good-light. And when they are describing some of their questionable behaviour they do so in a matter-of-fact way, without any ceremony. They quickly and efficiently justify their actions by saying that it was the only way or that the other brother deserved it.
It would have been a lot more interesting if they had done these ‘cruelties’ to the people they loved rather than to people they did not care for. In fact, they seemed to care for no one but themselves.

For the most part Nugent does a terrific job in rendering certain time periods: from the 70s to the early 2000s. However, when it came to the 2010s she gives us a simplistic vision by portraying this time as little other than ‘the social media/influencer era’. Here we have cliche after cliche. William’s daughter is the embodiment of the millennial (or what individuals of a certain age imagine all millennials to be like): she is attention-seeking, body-insecure, not very bright, bisexual only because it makes her seem alternative, a self-harmer, a fake depressive…in general Nugent’s portrayal of mental illness struck me as little other than showy.

Speaking of female characters, the three main women in this novel came across as flat. Their actions made no sense and it would have been a lot more interesting to have some short sections from their povs. The Drumm’s mother had the potential of being a complex character but she doesn’t get a lot of page-time. William’s wife is a mere plot device.

Also, as much as I was entertained by the sensationalist behaviour of these characters, I did find the latter-half of the novel to be slightly less intriguing than the first. The whole build up to ‘which one of them is dead’ loses a bit of its initial steam and the final reveal struck me as anticlimactic.
The epilogue was laughably cheesy, and I’m unsure if this was intentional or not.

Final verdict:

Our Little Cruelties is best enjoyed as a wickedly fun read rather than a psychological thriller. For the most part it is engaging and chock-full of drama between horrible people. The conversational style of the brothers’ narratives drew me in, so that I almost felt implicated by what they were telling me. Dark moments or serious issues are treated with flippancy, in a soap-opera sort of manner. If you stop to think whether the story or characters make sense…well, it might ruin your reading experience.

“We three brothers all looked, one to the other. We knew it was inevitable.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup — review

In spite of its promising beginning The Chestnut Man implements far too many cliches for my liking (a few of which are listed on CrimeReads).41154336.jpg
This book centres on a series of gruesome killings in Copenhagen. On each crime scene the killer leaves behind a chestnut doll.
Although the writing is detached it does pay attention to the visual aspect of its scenes, pointing out something in the environment where the characters are, and emphasising some of their gestures and or habits. In this it had an almost cinematic feeling to it, and perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given that the novel’s author is also a screenwriter (of the successful The Killing, and the not quite as well received The Snowman).
While I initially thought the novel unsentimental tone worked in its favour, making most scenes much more chilling, but I soon noticed that it wasn’t as impartial as it seemed. Even when the narrative follows other characters, it clearly favours its two ‘protagonists’. The narrative’s voice seemed to treat characters other than Hess and Thulin with dislike, or it addressed them by their nationality (the narrative calls Hess’ former colleague François the Frenchman…even after we already have been informed that yes, François is French), vices, or the role they play in the story. For example, when the narratives follows the two ‘bad’ detectives that work against our two main leads, it is quick to present them as stupid, since it has to emphasise that they are CORRUPT and STUPID.
While the chapters’ shortness occasionally did create a sense of suspense, they often seemed to end on rather silly note, and it seemed that the author was make even the most boring or ordinary scenes abruptly end witha sort of ‘cliff-hanger’.
Here are a lists of the clichés that I could have personally done without :

The Brooding Male Lead With A Past
In spite of his intelligence, this temperamental guy often behaves in a way that makes his superiors see him as insubordinate. Yet, he is the only who notices the chestnut men, and he is the main drive behind the investigation’s process.
I really disliked Hesse. I thought he was arrogant and difficult for no reason (yes, he has been ‘relocated’, but would he really act like such a sulk? ). He made no attempt to form a work-relationship with his colleagues, so I’m not sure why I should feel bad that they regard him with hostility (very tit for tat if you ask me).

The Hot Female Detective Who Is Good At Her Job But Not The Greatest Mother
She takes no shit from her male colleagues, who often try it on with her. While I’m sure that there are cases where male detectives try to sexually harass their female colleagues, I’m getting kind of tired of reading of the same scenes, especially if they are included just to make her seem more ‘badass’. Allegedly Thulin is smart, but her expertise lies in certain computer programs (she wants to join the department for cyber crime) so she is surprisingly useless for most of the investigation. In addition to her supposedly intelligence, she also has a banger of a body. I get that being strong or fit is an advantage in her line of work but it’s one thing to have a muscular body, it’s another to have the perfect body (much is made of “her slender waist and shapely backside”). When questioning a doctor she ‘uses’ her looks and acts “coquettishly” to trip this guy up. Couldn’t she have been able to question him effectively without having to rely on her physical appearance ? What about her brains? Not enough?
And because the story has to stress that she is not like other women, in that she is focused on her career, she also has to have an active sexual life. And no, she doesn’t do ‘romance’. Nor does she have time for her child (which is perfectly reasonable given the type of job that she does, yet she is made to seem like a careless mother). Anyway, she is too busy and badass for any of that sentimental stuff.

Corruption Ahoy
We have these two detectives who are clearly there just to make our leads look good. They are racist, sexist, stupid, amoral, and incompetent. Yep. Because they are jealous of our main leads they try to make their life harder. The narrative makes it clear that these are BAD detectives. In fact, most of the police personnel seems unfit to work.

The Detective’s ‘Crazy Wall’
You know the wall that appears in shows like The Wire and True Detective. It’s full of strings, scribbles, articles, and all of that sort of stuff. Well Hess happens to have one of his own, and the narrative reveals this in such a dramatic way, as if it’s a huge reveal or something when it is anything but.

Consulting a Convicted Killer
This whole interaction was laughable and full of poorly veiled allusions.

The Twist
Knowing the killer’s identity doesn’t always detract from my overall reading experience. Here however I found the killer’s character and motivations too be rather overdone.

This was a very bland thriller. I disliked both the narrative’s judg-y tone and its shallow characters. The plot went on and on, but I wasn’t all that interested.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — book review

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I can definitely see why many consider And Then There Were None to be Agatha Christie’s magnum opus. Over the past year I have read—or listened to—approximately 30 works by her. With the exception of one one or two anomalies, her books have never failed to entertain me. And I agree with those who call her the queen of crime fiction. Most of her murder-mystery stories implement literary devices that are now considered to be conventions of this genre, and while readers are duped by red herrings and false leads, her professional, or amateur, detectives always manage to extrapolate the truth. The guilty parties are punished, justice is served, and everything is well in the world.
In And Then There Were None she disrupts her usual form, as she challenges her readers expectations by providing us with a cast of quite likely guilty characters. Justice in And Then There Were None takes a sinister role, as we become invested in the lives of the people it seeks to punish.
A rhyme also acquires a dark and deadly significances as Christie uses the ten little soldiers rhyme to create, maintain, and build tension. As the story progresses, and the number of soldiers dwindles, this seemingly harmless rhyme seems far more terrifying than it first appeared to. Christie almost seems to be making a game out of this rhyme, one that is guaranteed to captivate her readers’ attention.
As per usual Christie demonstrates a shrewd insight into human nature. Cut off from the rest of society, the guests soon realise the direness of their situation…soon they fall prey to suspicion and an ever growing sense of uneasiness. The crimes they may, or may have not, committed will arouse further mistrust among the already divided group. Readers too will find themselves questioning the reliability of these characters, and depending on our feelings towards them, we will hope for their innocence or guilt…
With a few singularly effective descriptions Christie breathes life into her characters and their personalities. The changing dynamics between these various characters also provide us with yet another source of excitement. While their various exchanges and discussions do demonstrate Christie’s wit, I had the distinctive impression that this time around Christie had reined in her humour.

When reading crime fiction we often expect the naming and capturing of a criminal. This is usually followed by a restoration of both a moral and a social order…in And Then There Were None it is not the case.

A note on the audiobook edition:
Dan Stevens is such a charismatic narrator. His performance make for a highly engaging experience.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Platform Seven by Louise Doughty — book review

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In spite of its flaws Platform Seven is a lot more thoughtful than one might expect from its murder mystery premise.

“There was a man on the station only two hours ago who will never go home again.”

One of the weakest aspects of this book is that it tries, and doesn’t really succeed, in combining two different genres and concepts together.
The first 30% or so of this novel proposes a slow and atmospheric take on the ghost story. Louise Doughty’s use of the supernatural, although patchy, allows her to create a mosaic of the lives and troubles of the people working at Peterborough Railway Station. Forgotten and largely overlooked, they are forced to deal with horrific situations such as suicides. Through Lisa Evans, the ghost of a suicide victim, we follow some of the night staff in their everyday lives. Lisa is somehow able to tell what these people feel and think, and there is a sense of quiet resignation in the people she observes. Although depressive, very much so, it was interesting to glimpse the fears and desires of the people observed by ghost-Lisa. I found Dalmar, Tom, Melissa, and Andrew’s lives interesting and affecting.

“What is the point where a human being stops being a human being and becomes a thing? Most people think it happens with death but Dalmar knows it can happen a long time before then if it needs to, so that other people can bear what they are seeing. ”

At times being reminded that we were seeing their lives through ghost-Lisa seemed to offset how realistic these characters were. Ghost-Lisa herself seems to fluctuated between being a ghost, invisible and silent, nothing but consciousnesswho doesn’t have memories of her past, a body, or a sense of her own humanity (“When you don’t have a body, time is no longer even or consistent: it stretches and bends, folds in on itself. ”) little more than an impassive and intangible observer, and yet, she also comes across as the cliché of a ghost, one that wouldn’t be out of place in A Christmas Carol.
As the narrative slowly progresses ghost-Lisa seems increasingly incongruous. Although she initially stresses that she is a mere consciousness with no links to her past, she can also ‘see’, ‘float’, and move her human-shaped-ghost-body.
Because of this I was never able to immerse myself in what she was narrating, and part of me wishes that it had all been narrated from a third perspective as it would have made ghost-Lisa slightly less off-key and more convincing.

As ghost-Lisa becomes preoccupied with the latest suicide on ‘her’ platform she somehow becomes able to remember her own past. The switch between ghost-story to a tale of an abusive-relationship is quite jarring.
Rather than presenting us with Lisa’s whole life, Louise Doughty focuses on the last few years before her death, depicting a detailed, occasionally frustratingly so, portrait of the relationship between Lisa and her boyfriend. We follow them through nerve-racking dinners to conversations and fights that draw attention to the secret and concealed violence that dictates her boyfriend’s behaviour towards her. Lisa recounts how time and again she glossed over his increasingly manipulative behaviour towards her. The realisation that her beloved boyfriend Matty is a toxic little sh*t is a slow one and first we are forced to watch as Lisa becomes increasingly alienated from her life and daily existence because of him.

While I could sort of emphasise with Lisa’s difficultly in reconciling herself with her abusive relationship it a bit weird that this came to her as a ‘surprise’…from their very first meeting he acts in a perturbing way towards her. Other people think that he is charming-golden-boy…but I never saw that either. Late in the novel he sings her song during her birthday party but I’m not sure that singing one song would make her friends and family believe that he is the perfect boyfriend. As ghost-Lisa sort of pre-warns us about Matty’s true character, my perception of him never changed: from his first appearance to his last one he struck me as a horrible manipulator.

The scenes which feature their deteriorating relationship could at times be very repetitive and part of me wishes that we could have been properly introduced to Lisa before her relationship with Matty. At times her role seems to be confined to that of ‘victim’ (not that she isn’t a victim but her roles seemed to be restricted to that of Matty’s girlfriend) . I wish more of her personality had come through rather than having such a large part of the narrative focus on how paranoid and anxious she became during her relationship with Matty. More could have been made of her relationship with her family and best friend, so we could have at least seen Lisa ‘without’ Matty.

The pacing of the story was rather uneven. Occasionally the slow and ambiguous narrative could create and build tension. For example, Doughty emphasises Lisa’s unease during a fight with Matty at their favourite restaurant by dragging out the description of a pepper mill:

“As he turned it over our plates, coal-black chunks of pepper fell from the end and the grinding blades made a squeaking sound like the iron wheels of a very old train creaking slowly into motion. I felt plunged into seriousness, all at once, as if I had been missing something important in the debate we had just had, as if I should have known what it was but was too dim to work it out. The squeaking of the pepper mill set my teeth on edge. I realised the waiter was going to keep going until I told him to stop, so I lifted my hand.”

In other instances however Doughty seems to loose herself in detailed and irrelevant descriptions. A few pages are wasted on ghost-Lisa taking a gander through a Waitrose where she is repeatedly amazed by the items they sell:

“Since when did doughnuts come in so many flavours; lemon icing, raspberry icing, salted caramel icing? It isn’t just the doughnuts. I traverse the aisles. Ice cream sauce comes in creamy fudge flavour, Belgian chocolate flavour, raspberry coulis flavour and – my favourite – Alphonso mango, passion fruit and yuzu. What is a yuzu? Is an Alphonso mango significantly different from any other kind of mango […] then I go and confirm my suspicions about carrots: they are, of course, even more orange than I remember […] on my way out, I drift along the salad bar, glancing into the tubs of salad one by one, wondering why so many of them contain kidney beans.”

That scene lasted way longer than it should have and it didn’t really serve any purpose other than a weak reassertion that ghost-Lisa has few memories of her life.

Overall I think that the idea was better than the execution. There were scenes which were both powerful and horrific, but more often than not these were lost in a painstakingly redundant narrative which repeatedly looses itself in digressions that added very little to the overarching story.
Platform Seven seemed to contain two different books. A not entirely convincing supernatural ghost-story (where much is made of the coincidence of two suicides at the same platform) in which ghost-Lisa follows others around, making occasionally thought-provoking deliberations but frequently resorts cookie-like musing. The other narrative is an uncomfortably close look at how vicious and insidious an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship can be. We see how Matty uses his job as a doctor to guilt-trip Lisa, how he deliberately works to erase her sense of self, her self-esteem, and her happiness.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that I ‘enjoyed’ reading this (given that the novel deals with many different forms of abuse) Doughty’s approach to this subject was interesting and refreshing.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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