Can I expect more from undemanding books?

I have recently finished two books about which the most polite thing I can think of to say is that they were undemanding. I baulked for a while at putting this in writing because it sounds like the very definition of damning with faint praise. But if I am honest that’s not far off how I feel about these particular books, though not how I feel about all books I consider undemanding.

The first book in question is Sue Grafton’s 24th novel to feature Santa Barbara Teresa private detective Kinsey Millhone. In the first of many ‘meh’ moments the book is called X. Not, as in the pattern followed by all 23 previous installments of the series, X is for something. Just X. There are characters whose names begin with X and lots of exes in the plot and several not-so-oblique references to the role ‘x’ plays in popular culture (such as marking the spot) but I still think the title is a bit of a cop out.

XSueGraftonAudioThe book itself is not exactly disappointing but it’s not going to set the world alight either. There is precious little character development: series stalwarts will learn nothing new about anyone they’ve met before, while someone new to the series could would have no trouble getting up to speed with what makes Kinsey Kinsey, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary for this series. So the whole thing hinges on the plot, again as usual, which has some good elements but, as has been the case with other recent books in the series, there’s too much detail. For the second book in a row Kinsey is working on cases that don’t bring in any money as she is tricked into locating a newly released prisoner for someone, and at the same time is prompted to complete a mysterious investigation that a fellow PI was looking into before he died (in events  depicted in this novel’s predecessor). There is a lot of meandering before we get to the fairly obvious resolutions in both cases and we waste a good deal more time faffing about for no good reason with the Californian drought and its impending water restrictions. Note to authors: plumbing is not interesting. And while I’m doling out advice may I add that making a 20-minute long scene revolve around the discovery of a paper clip does not for suspense make. As someone who has been reading this series for 30 odd years and is determined to finish (assuming Grafton does) I was happy enough to pass the time listening to this as I did my housework or tried to block out the loud talkers on public transport but it’s hard to recommend it beyond that.

BuriedAdler-OlsenAudioThe other book I’ve been thinking about along similar lines is BURIED by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Also known as THE MARCO EFFECT it is the fifth installment of the series featuring Copenhagen’s increasingly quirky cold-case review team, otherwise known as the basement dwellers who make up Department Q. Clocking in at 17 and a half hours of listening this book is preposterously long, especially as the only real mystery within it is whether or not a young boy will survive until the end. There is a murder but readers know long before investigators who did it and why, and the focus on whether the young Gypsy boy (who isn’t really a Gypsy) will survive lost its allure for me after the fourth near-death experience from which plucky Marco barely escapes. Another half-dozen or so such incidents followed and I nearly gave up all together when one such escapade involved Marco being rescued by frightened but warm-hearted prostitutes. One modern cliché too many? Books in which readers know more than investigators can work well but here it removed much-needed drama. I’ve realised the only reason I keep reading (or listening) to this series is that I don’t have to think much at all while doing so and I do vaguely enjoy the soap-opera nature of the personal lives of the investigative team.

While they are my preferred reading I’m not a stickler for all my crime fiction having deep meaning and/or a social conscience. I still love reading Dick Francis novels for example and no one could class them as demanding. But I think what I do look for in this type of reading is a noticeable absence of plodding and neither of these books passed that particular benchmark.

Am I being too demanding of my undemanding reading? Is it reasonable to expect a book which sets out purely to entertain to follow through on all fronts? As always, your thoughts welcome.


Review: IN BITTER CHILL by Sarah Ward

InBitterChillWardIN BITTER CHILL is the story of a kidnapping and its lingering aftermath. Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins disappeared on their walk to school in 1978. Rachel was found unharmed several hours later and Sophie has never been seen again. When Sophie’s mother, who still lives in the Derbyshire house to which her daughter never returned, commits suicide three decades later public and police interest in the old case is reignited and Rachel Jones becomes determined to uncover what happened all those years ago.

I doubt there is any 40-something person from my little corner of the world whose childhood was not in some way influenced by kidnappings. We lived in the shadow of two hugely publicized cases reminiscent of the one depicted here. The kidnappings of the three Beaumont children in 1966 and Joanne Ratcliffe and Kirste Gordon seven years later are among the entire country’s most notorious real-life mysteries (both remain unsolved) and the manner in which they shattered the innocence of what was then a small and unsophisticated city had lengthy reverberations for the community as a whole. I assume it is because of this that I am always particularly drawn to plots involving kidnappings but I often find them disappointing. Happily in this instance I was enthralled from start to finish because IN BITTER CHILL depicts the ripple effect such cases can have with terrific authenticity,  teasing out the impact of events on those directly involved along with the ‘lesser’ players and showing the relentless way in which the media and general public become consumed by such cases.

Without wanting to give too much away one of the themes the novel explores is the strength of various kinds of family bonds. This is not only in the obvious connection that Yvonne Jenkins has to her long-disappeared daughter but in many other ways, most of which I can’t detail any further for fear of plot spoilers. I will say that debut author Sarah Ward has used the profession of one of her lead characters to great effect here as Rachel Jones’ genealogical research skills prove useful both within the plot and to link various elements together.

The police playing a key role in the novel take the form of a somewhat remote but respected DI Francis Sadler, a male DS nervously contemplating his impending marriage in the form of Damian Palmer and a no-nonsense female DC called Connie Childs. If this novel is the start of a series I will look forward to meeting all three again as they have an interesting team dynamic and none appear to be of the ‘loner alcoholic genius who is always in danger due to their stupidly risky behaviour’ variety of crime sleuth that I am increasingly bored by. On balance though I’d say the police characters collectively take a back seat to Rachel and others directly involved in or impacted by the crimes that are committed which is, in my opinion anyway, as it should be. I thought the depiction of Rachel a particularly good one as she grappled with uncovering confronting things about the pivotal events of her early life.

Although I read the book in only a couple of sittings I’d put IN BITTER CHILL in the slow burn category of reading experience by which I mean its complex plot unfolds at a natural pace and without the assistance of the car chases or gratuitous blood and gore that a more ‘thrilling’ novel might have. For me this is much more satisfying because it is so much more plausible, and therefore more scary, than any serial-killer laden tome. There’s still plenty of suspense though and more than enough compulsion to keep turning the pages right to the very satisfactory resolution. A top notch read from an author I will be following closely.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Faber and Faber [2015]
ISBN 9780571320981
Length 355 pages
Format Hardback

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A Fresh Start

springIt is a gorgeous spring day here in my corner of the world and I’ve had a great morning decluttering my house in preparation for our council’s annual hard rubbish collection. This is where we get to put all the big stuff that won’t fit in the normal rubbish bins out onto the footpath, ostensibly for collection by the council waste trucks but only after all the neighbours have snaffled what they want (there’s an awkward sort of pride in putting out items other people fight over).

Because I adore getting rid of things (I am the opposite of a hoarder) (and it always annoys me there is no word for us) I found this activity thoroughly enjoyable and realised I could extend the joy and do some additional decluttering in other aspects of life to help me get back into reading, blog visiting and blogging myself.

To this end I went to my RSS reader and hit the “mark all as read” button. I don’t know who I was kidding when I looked a few days ago and thought several thousand unread items was “doable”. Apologies to those whose undoubtedly brilliant thoughts I have missed but at least I now feel able to visit you all again.

I also took back all the library books that were lying around the house half-read. Much better books than the utter nonsense I selected for the 1976 challenge were in that basket but I know which books they were and I can always get them again later. I doubt any of the rest were bad but I couldn’t concentrate on any of them for long (and in the case of Lauren Beukes’ BROKEN MONSTERS I couldn’t hold the damned thing so I’ll be aiming for a paperback of it next time around).

I’ve even had a bit of a clean up here at the blog, choosing a new theme and getting rid of a few unnecessary widgets.

I’ve chosen a book by a new to me author about which I have heard only good things to formally reboot my reading. Which I intend to start doing just as soon as I’ve cooked some home made falafel (courtesy of a new recipe I found) and made myself a delicious sandwich.

Happy reading to all.


#1976book SOMETHING NASTY IN THE WOODSHED by Kyril Bonfiglioli

somethingnastyI embarked eagerly on Kyril Bonfiglioli’s SOMETHING NASTY IN THE WOODSHED for this month’s Classics Challenge as it was published in 1976 (mandatory) and was purportedly funny (highly desirable for me just now). The first few pages suggested the book would live up to its promise. A well-heeled art dealer named Charlie Mortdecai introduces the reader to his new home – the Island of Jersey off the coast of England – with a mildly cruel but amusing observational style and I settled in for a bit of a romp. A few pages later I was audibly growling in disgust and by page 47 I had thrown the book (gently, because it is a library book) at the wall.

I normally don’t review unfinished books but I wanted to say something about this one because it was selected for part of a challenge and also because I thought I might explode if I didn’t have a bit of a rant.

It’s probably a close run thing but it wasn’t the book’s absurd plot that drove me to throw it at the wall. Though it was seriously stupid. As if a group of not very bright Oxford students had written a Carry On movie. It revolved around a series of rapes taking place on the island, reportedly carried out by someone wearing the mask of a beast, and the local men-folk’s attempts to ‘solve’ the crimes (without the aid of police for reasons that never made sense).

But what tipped me over the edge was the book’s sensibility, dripping as it is with not so casual bigotry and rampant misogyny. I must have checked a half-dozen times to make sure it was written in 1976 and not one or even two hundred years earlier. I can accept that perhaps in 2015 things have gone a little too far down the path of political correctness for some, but surely even in 1976 it wasn’t OK to treat a rape victim as if she had nothing more than an attack of the vapours? For a while I thought I would soldier on – pretending that anything’s OK in the pursuit of satire – but then I got to this paragraph

You see, we anti-feminists don’t dislike women in the least; we prize, cherish and pity them. We are compassionate. Goodness, to think of the poor wretches having to waddle through life with all those absurd fatty appendages sticking out of them; to have all the useful part of their lives made miserable by the triple plague of constipation, menstruation and parturition; worst of all, to have to cope with these handicaps with only a kind of fuzzy half-brain – a pretty head randomly filled, like a tiddly-winks cup, with brightly-coloured scraps of rubbish – why it rings the very heart with pity.

I suppose I should be grateful that he goes on to suggest women are a little better to have around than the family dog (because we don’t chase cats or poo on the footpath).

But I’m not. Grateful that is. For quite some time I wanted to hit something (throwing the book gently at the wall didn’t really cut it) and for quite some time after that I was grumbling incoherently to anyone who would listen at the outrage of such thinking being published in my own lifetime!

I’ve calmed down a bit since yesterday but I’m not going to finish the book. There are some ways of thinking I’d really rather not expose myself to any more than I have to (by, for example, listening to the considered thoughts of our current prime minister). I don’t know if I believe there are some subjects – such as rape or child abuse – that should be taboo for humourists, but I do know that Mr Bonfiglioli didn’t succeed in tackling such a difficult subject with anything like the aplomb he needed. The book – or what I read of it – is crass. Crude. Cringe-inducing. It reminded me of the similar-era TV shows my parents used to watch when I was a kid (e.g. Love Thy Neighbour). Even my not-yet-fully-formed brain knew something was wrong with them and their very existence is what prompted me to escape to my bedroom with a book rather than share the family TV viewing. And I’m pretty sure that if this book had passed my eyes even at the tender age of eight I’d have known it for drivel it is.

Have I turned into a grumpy old woman? Is there a layer of brilliance I’m missing here? Does humour “date” more quickly than other kind of writing?

Books of the month: August 2015

Pick of the month

TheDyingTradePeterCorris24409_fFor what are probably obvious reasons I didn’t read a lot during August. I did re-listen to a swag of Dick Francis novels narrated by Tony Britton but they probably don’t count as I wasn’t giving them my full attention.

I did finish a couple of new to me books though and the standout was definitely Peter Corris’ first crime novel THE DYING TRADE. I picked this to read as part of the Past Offences Classics Challenge and was really glad to have been motivated to go back to where it all began for Australia’s best-known fictional private investigator. It’s a ripper yarn and very, very Australian so kudos to Corris’ publishers for giving it a go as the cultural cringe was still very much alive and kicking in the 80’s.

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 10*/25
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US 3/6
Personal – Outside my comfort zone Read at least 6 books that aren’t crime/mystery/thriller novels 2/6
Personal – Read Globally Read at least 10 books set in countries that aren’t Australia, America or England 23/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 13/20
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 1/0
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly ‘pick a year’ reading challenges hosted at Past Offences 6/6

*have read 13 books but only reviewed 10 of them

I made no progress on any challenges except for completing my personal target of participating in 6 of the classics challenges hosted by Past Offences. I’m happy to be finished but will continue participating where possible. I haven’t enjoyed all my selections as much as I did this month’s but I have enjoyed being motivated to read older novels. On that front if you’ve any suggestions for a 1976 crime novel I might like feel free to let me know. I’ve got nothing in my own TBR and though I have put my name down for a couple via my library there’s no guarantee they will arrive (older books tend to be lurking in storage locations rather than active shelving and it has been my experience that though they might be in the catalogue it’s not until someone goes looking for them that the librarians realise the book has disappeared).

Looking ahead

I’ve started reading ‘properly’ again the past few days so am hoping to get a good amount done in September. I picked up Lauren Beukes’ BROKEN MONSTERS from the library which I will be able to count towards my Reading US Fiction Challenge (it’s set in Michigan) and am going to try to get to some titles from my TBR (but then I always try that and it rarely works).

What about you? Had any particularly good reads during August? Got something good lined up for September?

So Long, and Thanks for All the Books

I undoubtedly fell in love with books when my mother read them to me in those few years before I could do it for myself but my first actual memory of the happiness brought on by the presence of books is an early visit to our local library. I learned later that the place was one of refuge for my mother but even though I didn’t fully grasp it then (I had not long turned four so can hopefully be forgiven for not being attuned to the psychological nuances of the event) I must have sensed enough of her reverence for the place and its contents that I was uncharacteristically well-behaved; sitting quietly in the small children’s section of the room until it was time to leave. Whereupon I was presented with my very own book-carrying bag to carry home the two books I had been allowed to select (it is the presentation of the bag I actually remember, my good behaviour became oft-repeated family folklore due to its rarity). And so began the ritual of my mother and I walking to the library together just about every Saturday morning until that branch closed a decade or so later.  Our respective love for books continued unabated but we tended to go separately to the library after that (me on my way home from school, mum squeezing in visits between her various charitable works of the day) but those Saturday mornings remain, collectively, one of my fondest and strongest memories of childhood.

For the past two years my mum’s brain injury induced dementia has meant she was with us only in a physical sense and I think I began my grieving for her when we learned that her sudden and almost complete loss of mental acuity was irreversible. Her death last week, at the age of 87, came then as an awkward kind of relief. It allowed me, quite suddenly, to stop feeling sad and angry at the ignominious way she had to live the last years of her life and instead start remembering the good times. Like those Saturday morning trips to the library. And so much more.

In a pre-internet age my mum believed inherently that the answer to all life’s myriad questions were to be found within the pages of a book but she particularly loved the escape and possibilities offered by great written stories and it was those we used to talk about most, even after we stopped visiting the library together. There are many, many things I will be forever grateful to my mum for teaching me but here is the place to acknowledge my gratitude for her passing on her deep love of reading. Thanks for the countless hours of joy mum. I’ll remember you always, but especially during my visits to the library which have, since I moved to this house three years ago, almost always taken place on Saturday mornings.


Books of the month: July 2015

Pick of the month

ATimeToRunPeaceFrontAlmost all of the nine books I read during July were well worth my time but I’m going to give my pick of the month to J.M. Peace’s A TIME TO RUN because I was so impressed with the things it wasn’t. I know that sounds strange but when the blurb indicated it was ‘a serial killer’ book I groaned audibly. I’ve thrown a couple of serial-killer-rampages-through-Queensland novels at the wall (literally) so had few hopes for this one. But serving policewoman J.M. Peace’s debut novel is not what you think of when you think of this well-worn theme. There are no italicised passages showing us his thoughts and he is not some evil genius able to outwit the cops (all but one of whom are, of course, preposterously stupid). Instead it is a perfectly paced novel of real suspense that has us spending time with the victim and some dedicated police instead of barking-mad killers. I read it in a single sitting and eagerly await the author’s next offering.

The rest (titles preceded by the ++ symbol are all recommended)

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 10*/25
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US 3/6
Personal – Outside my comfort zone Read at least 6 books that aren’t crime/mystery/thriller novels 2/6
Personal – Read Globally Read at least 10 books set in countries that aren’t Australia, America or England 23/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 13/20
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 1/0
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly ‘pick a year’ reading challenges hosted at Past Offences 5/6

*have read 12 books but only reviewed 10 of them

I’m a bit annoyed at myself for caving in and buying a book at Amazon. It was for my monthly book club, wasn’t available at the library and the cheapest I could find it from an Australian store was $14.95. It cost me $1.01 in kindle format which is how I justified it to myself. But it’s the first time in 18 months that I’ve bought anything but an audio-book from a non-Australian book store.

Aside from the challenge I completed several months ago (to read at least 10 books set somewhere other than the US, UK or Australia) the only challenge I am definitely on track to complete this year is the last one on the list which is a bit surprising as I tend not to read older or ‘classic’ crime fiction much at all. But I have enjoyed my participation in the Past Offences monthly challenges (to read a crime novel set in the nominated year), especially when I can seek out some classic Australian crime fiction (as I did during July with the excellent DRAGONS AT THE PARTY by Jon Cleary – an author I had previously ignored!)

I will try to pick up my game on my remaining challenges. Promise.

Looking ahead

The first order of business will be to find myself a crime novel published in 1980, preferably an Australian, for the Past Offences challenge. I’ve got my book club book to finish (Livia Day’s A TRIFLE DEAD) this week and I’ve only got one book home from the library right now (Karim Miske’s ARAB JAZZ) so I should be able to make a dent in my ‘books owned prior to the beginning of this year’ challenge. But I say that a lot and something always seems to come along to spoil my plans :)

What about you? Had any particularly good reads during July? Got something good lined up for August? Are you progressing well on your reading goals for the year or have you let them all slide in favour of a random approach to reading?

Book vs Adaptation: Secret Smile by Nicci French

I borrowed this book from my library because I had picked up a copy of the DVD in a bargain bin somewhere (curious to see a pre Doctor Who David Tennant in action) and noticed that it was based on a book.

The book

SecretSmileNicciFrench23205_fAlthough they have recently been concentrating on a series featuring a psychotherapist, the husband and wife writing team known as Nicci French are perhaps best known for their standalone novels of psychological suspense and THE SECRET SMILE was their seventh such release in 2003.

It tells the story of twenty-something Miranda Cotton. While ice-skating one afternoon she meets Brendan Block and the two start seeing each other. But only a couple of weeks into their fledgling relationship Miranda comes home from work one day to find him in her flat. She is unhappy (she hadn’t given him a key) and when she sees him reading her private diary (which he would have had to search for) she breaks off the relationship. Two weeks later her sister invites her out for dinner. Kerry has news. Kerry is in love and wants Miranda to be happy for her. Kerry hopes Miranda will be able to deal with the fact her sister’s new love is Brendan. Brendan quickly makes it clear to Miranda that he is playing some kind of twisted game but to everyone else he is the very definition of charm and no one can understand why Miranda begins behaving oddly and trying to turn people against the delightful Brendan.

For this type of novel to work best the reader has to be invested in the characters to whom awful things are happening. At least enough to want the bad things to stop happening and the nasty person to get their comeuppance. In this case for most of the book I didn’t really care if Brendan managed to turn Miranda into a jibbering basket case. Or worse. That I found Miranda irritating and many of her actions plain stupid wasn’t the biggest issue. The thing that impacted me most was that I never quite believed the entire premise. Don’t get me wrong – I know there are evil bastards like Brendan out there. But Miranda’s family were too quick to side with him. Every member of her family (and her best friend too) took Brendan’s word over Miranda’s from the get go. “Really?” I kept thinking. We’ve had some arguments over they years but I’m confident my brother would still take my word against that of a complete stranger in any scenario I can imagine. As I would his. Even if that stranger was uncommonly charismatic. I suppose the book was trying to create a sense of Miranda against the world but, for me at least, this had the opposite effect of ratcheting up the tension. For this story to work better for me Miranda would have to have been more naturally isolated at the outset, i.e. if she’d never had anyone to turn to for support, or have at least one member of her circle on her side. I think Brendan’s evilness could have continued virtually unchecked in such a scenario but Miranda’s circumstances would have had more ‘truthiness’.

I guess my other issue is that I realised early on that I knew what was going to happen for the whole book. Of course there were individual “bad stuff happens” incidents that I couldn’t have guessed at but the story arc is a very simple one and there were only two possible outcomes. Perhaps if the characters had engaged me more this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem but as it was I really was a bit bored and felt the story dragged. If I were going to recommend a suspense novel with this kind of theme I’d nominate Elizabeth Haynes’ INTO THE DARKEST CORNER instead.

The adaptation

SecretSmile200550685_fA two part TV series which aired first in the UK in 2005 falls into the faithful adaptation camp. A few minor details are altered for reasons known only to producers (though I always assume snobbery is involved when a character is given a more prestigious profession for no reason as Miranda is when she changes from the house painter she is in the book to the architect she is in the film) and the ending is taken to an extra extreme but no one who has read the book would have any trouble recognising the entire story. Which is a blessing or a curse I suppose depending on whether you liked the book or not.

For me the same problems as I had with the book carry over (Miranda is still unlikable and stupid but it is still odd that everyone she knows is prepared to disbelieve her) although because the film is of necessity shorter it does feel more tense than the book. The bad stuff just keeps happening without you having to wait impatiently for Miranda to whine for a couple of pages (there’s a lot to be said for a quick visual shot of a girl lying in bed with her hair unwashed to represent angst).

David Tennant gives a nicely understated performance as Brendan. I imagine it would have been easy to go over the top but he really does pull of the apparently-nice-guy-who-occasionally-lets-his-evil-twin-face-be-seen-by-others. Very Creepy. Kate Ashfield (who I only know from SHAUN OF THE DEAD) does as good a job as possible with the one-dimensional character of Miranda. The remaining characterisations are about what I’d expect.

The adaptation actually makes a better first of the final act of the story. Once Brendan has shown his true nature to Miranda’s family there is at least some evidence of them re-thinking his earlier behaviour and there is some much-needed dramatic tension. I’m not sure about the far-fetched resolution though but can’t say more without spoiling it (as many of the IMDB reviews do so read those at your peril)..

The winner?

I’m a bit meh about the whole thing really but if pressed I’d nominate the adaptation as the winner. The story being much the same it is at least shorter than the book (without losing anything at all) and there’s David Tennant to watch :) So this is one of the few occasions I’d say don’t bother with the book at all and don’t go out of your way to see the adaptation but if you happen to notice it on the tele one night and there’s nothing else…

Have you read the book and/or seen the adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?

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Review: CONCRETE ANGEL by Patricia Abbott

ConcreteAngelAbbottGiven I am an avid reader of her mostly but not entirely crime-fiction themed blog I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t read Patricia Abbott’s own fiction before. But the short story form for which she is so well known just doesn’t grab me (I buy collections of them, I’m just never tempted to actually read them). Paradoxically I love a short novel so CONCRETE ANGEL, which clocks in at just over 250 pages, sounded perfect. Its unsettling contents more than lived up to expectations.

Although there are a lot of crimes depicted in CONCRETE ANGEL they are not the heart of the matter. No one is really interested in solving any of them, not even the murder with which the book opens. People are interested in covering them up though. In pretending they haven’t happened. Although for the perpetrator of most of the crimes – Eve Moran – this is all just part of the way she builds a story of her life that is the way she wants it rather than the way it is. Eve is a ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good yarn’ kind of gal. Those who are under the influence of whatever charms Eve possesses willingly play their part in such coverups. And even when they’ve grown tired of her manipulations a combination of lingering entanglement and desire for self preservation means Eve is rarely without assistance when it is most needed.

The story starts in Philadelphia in the 1970’s. Eve shoots dead a man she brought home to the apartment she shares with her twelve year old daughter Christine. Within a few hours Christine has confessed to the shooting and accepted the mantle of child who kills and all that goes with it (though the ‘all’ is a lot milder than you might imagine). Before long Eve’s ‘memory’ is of the made up version of events rather than the reality and that pattern is repeated throughout the novel as we learn about Eve’s life both before and after this particular night.

Eve was born just before the start of the second world war, described in Abbott’s imaginative prose as “descending on [her parents’] simple Lutheran lives in 1938 like a tsunami”. The reader gets the sense that Eve’s traits – her wilfulness, her narcissism and the almost primal need to acquire things – are not entirely the result of her strict upbringing. Even when things are going well for her – such as when she marries a soldier from a local well-to-do family – she can’t control her impulses. Or perhaps it is better to say she won’t control them. Why should she? Eve is hardly a likeable character but she certainly is compelling.

I grew up at roughly the same time as Christine so the book’s period setting should feel vaguely familiar to me but it doesn’t. I don’t mean it doesn’t seem realistic, just not something that I recognise. I suspect it’s the gun thing. They are normalised in America in a way that still has the capacity to astound me. The fact that CONCRETE ANGEL opens with a scene in which a woman shoots a man six times with a weapon provided by her ex-husband ‘just in case’ she ever needs protection and that no one ever queries this puts the book into foreign territory for me in a way that something set in the remotest part of Iceland probably wouldn’t do.

CONCRETE ANGEL is a slow-burn of a read that delves deep into the darker side of human psychology. Though not full of twists in the traditional sense for crime fiction there is genuine suspense in seeing the relationship between Eve and her daughter develop.  I can’t be the only reader who spent a good portion of the book very, very worried for the child who desperately needed someone in her corner.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Polis Books [this edition 2015]
ISBN 9781940610443
Length 261 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series standalone

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Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD by Ausma Zehanat Khan

TheUnquietDeadAusmaZehan23526_fAs someone who makes extensive use of her local library’s holds system I’m often in the situation of embarking on a book about which I know nothing. If it’s not by an author I already know, I’ve generally put the book on hold thanks to a review by someone I trust (in this case the excellent Euro Crime) but because it can take months for the book to become available (in this case four) I’ve usually forgotten what prompted me to place the hold by the time I get that delightful message telling me there’s (another) book for me to collect. And I don’t read blurbs anymore. Which is how it came to be that I sat down last Sunday morning to dip my toes into a few pages of THE UNQUIET DEAD before attacking my household chores and was so immediately enthralled that I forgot to stop reading until the very end.

Esa Khattak is in charge of a new Toronto-based unit called the Community Policing Section or CPS. Its purpose is somewhat vague although it was established after a bungled terrorism case that has cost the federal government millions in compensation because they targeted an innocent man. The choice of Khattak, a second-generation Canadian Muslim with experience in both homicide investigation and counter-intelligence work, is deliberate. As this book opens he is asked by an old friend to look into the recent death of a man called Christopher Drayton. At first glance the apparent accidental death via a clifftop fall wouldn’t seem to require the particular skills of the CPS but a friend of Khattak’s at the Department of Justice is worried that Drayton might not have been who he claimed to be. He might just have been one of the nastiest war criminals of the horrendous three-year long campaign of death and destruction that culminated in Srebrenicia massacre of 1995.

The characters are a strength of this novel. Khattak is assisted in his investigations by Rachel Getty. She is younger and less experienced than Khattak and there is some trouble in her working past but Khattak deliberately sought her out for his unit. The pair are compelling as an investigative team and as individual characters. The investigation requires Khattak to reconnect with a childhood friend – a well-known writer – with whom he has fallen out. And Rachel has her own worries stemming from her family life that includes an abusive father and a missing sibling. But they work through these personal difficulties. Or around them if necessary. To get to the truth. The case introduces Esa and Rachel to a small group of Drayton’s friends and acquaintances, some of whom have secrets as devastating in their way as Drayton’s own. Everyone is someone that needs close observation and it is a pleasure to see the way their hidden layers are revealed.

Although fiction, the book clearly draws heavily on its author’s expertise as a specialist in the legal aspects of military intervention for human protection purposes and war crimes in the Balkans to tell its hauntingly sad story. There are a number of tools used to give the reader the sense that this is not a superficial ‘gosh isn’t war awful‘ sort of treatment but the kind of fictional story that is almost more realistic than fact. I am not normally a huge fan of chapter epigraphs but here they are used to great effect with many being extracts from primary sources related to the conflict such as letters from survivors or witness statements from various International Criminal Tribunal proceedings. They definitely help define the novel’s atmosphere. And although the bulk of the story takes place in present-day Canada there are devastating flashbacks to several people’s experiences during the war. These are harrowing. Truly harrowing. It is difficult at times to keep reading. Knowing that real events very like these made up ones – mass killings on an unfathomable scale, the use of rape as a weapon – took place during my own adult life. And even when we learned it was going on the world let it happen. Again.

The book isn’t perfect. The character of Drayton’s girlfriend felt out of place to me. She’s brassy and grasping and an almost comically appalling parent and her obviousness doesn’t fit with the rest of the deftly drawn characters. I’m not sure either that the thread involving the relationship between her two daughters and Drayton actually adds much to the story. Again it’s out of step and feels a bit like its been added to give the story a more mainstream appeal than perhaps a book dealing with such disturbing history might have. But in the scheme of things these are minor critiques.

I don’t know that I could recommend THE UNQUIET DEAD if you have first-hand knowledge of a scenario like the ones it depicts: only you would know if you could deal with revisiting such a thing. But if, like me, you are fortunate enough to have only learned about such things via news reports then I think it should be required reading. Though I’ve lost my naive belief that if we humans share such stories widely enough we won’t repeat the same atrocities in another time and place, surely the very least we owe the victims of such senselessness is to remember them. And, using the drama and emotion that allows fiction to go where fact often cannot, Khan has provided a fitting tribute to the senselessly lost souls of the tragedy that was the Bosnian war. On top of that, it’s a bloody good yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Minotaur Books [2014]
ISBN 9781250055118
Length 320 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series

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