Review: The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

In Glasgow a young woman is murdered in her home, her face so badly damaged that even hardened police struggle with viewing the body. Almost immediately readers meet the two teenage boys who are responsible for the hideous crime (though there is doubt about which of them was more directly involved) and therefore we are less concerned with whodunit than why. The police, led by five months pregnant DS Alex Morrow, have to establish who committed the crime as well as work out a motive and so we follow their somewhat haphazard investigation. Very early on we also learn that the father of one the two boys has hung himself and we wonder what, if anything, that has to do with the murder; again we are primarily concerned with the motivation for the act and the impact it will have on the people left behind.

The people who populate The End of the Wasp Season are well drawn even, or perhaps especially, when they are the kind of black-hearted souls most of us would run a mile from. Individually, they are very complex and memorable people and I am especially impressed with the way Mina manages to make short term characters come alive so quickly. Thomas Anderson, the boy whose father has committed suicide, is a most believable boy on the cusp of manhood with his conflicting emotions and oscillation between childish behaviour and more mature thinking (of course the dose of insanity is less usual but with parents like his it’s not entirely surprising). Another memorable character is Kay Murray who is loosely connected to the case because she was the carer for the murdered woman’s mother. She was also a school friend of Alex Morrow’s though is now a single mum to four children, works as a cleaner and lives in a small flat, all of which is in contrast to Alex’s life which causes some tension between the two women, especially when suspicion is thrown onto Kay’s children. She has to struggle with her own pride and fight for the rights of her family and she is credibly depicted throughout the process.

On the whole though I found the book a little flat and in the several days since I finished it I’ve struggled to work out why. Firstly there is the fact that collectively, the characters do conform to pretty broad and annoying stereotypes (rich people are bastards, bosses are bastards, poor people are good-hearted & hard-working). Aside from the fact it made their actions and the outcome of the story fairly predictable this also wearied me more than a little. Perhaps I read too much into things but I sensed a tone of underlying hatred for anyone who isn’t dirt poor and it turned me off in the same way that blind acceptance of any stereotype makes me switch off.

The other element that may well have been entirely realistic but that nevertheless was disheartening and made the book feel quite cold was the attitude of the police. Throughout the book Alex has to work incredibly hard to get anyone else in the entire force to give a damn about the murdered woman and hence to get off their forever-complaining behinds and do a moment’s work on the case. Admittedly their boss is a hateful, bullying SOB but that doesn’t entirely explain their behaviour and work ethic. I kept thinking how lucky I am not to work with such a lazy, unthinking bunch of whiners.

This feels like a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde review as on the one hand I thought the structure of the novel clearly tried to do something new and generally succeeded and the individual characterisations were tremendous. To balance this out though I found the rest of the book a bit lacking. The ease with which the plot could be predicted and the nastiness of the tone at some points left me a bit cold. Having absolutely adored two of Mina’s other books I definitely won’t be giving up on her but I think I might be done with this particular series.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The End of the Wasp Season has been reviewed at Mysteries in Paradise and Reviewing the Evidence where both reviewers were more enamoured of the book than I am.

My reviews of Still Midnight (the first Alex Morrow book), Garnethill and Exile

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 3/5
Publisher Orion Publishing [2011]
ISBN 9781409112013
Length 404 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #2 in Alex Morrow series
Source I bought it

This post is published at http://reactionstoreading.com if you are seeing it at another site then it has been stolen and/or used entirely without permission.

Not a review of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Warning…there are spoilers below.

I decided to read this on a whim (well re-read apparently, my mother swears I read it as a young teenager because she remembers me telling her it was a load of twaddle but I have no recollection of that) (which is worrying as of the two of us surely it is the much younger me that should have the better memory). The book is being discussed on tonight’s episode of The First Tuesday Book Club (local television-based book discussion) and I happened to find an audio version narrated by marvellous English actress Anna Massey. So I dove in.

The problem with reading a book that has achieved ‘classic’ status, one that has been copied, filmed and referenced multiple times in various ways in popular culture is that you really can’t come to it with fresh eyes; you have some expectations of some kind. In the case of Rebecca I expected an evil character called Mrs Danvers (which I got), a naïve young woman thrown into social circumstances she didn’t understand (half a tick), and loads of romance and suspense (there was some of the former and, for me, not much of the latter). All in all I found the book mildly entertaining, with moments of sheer brilliance, but I think if I’d been reading in print I’d have skipped over much of it. I found the descriptions of flowers and sandwiches and imagined conversations which might (but probably wouldn’t) happen in the future fairly tiresome after a while and the fairly passionless relationship between Max and his new wife was not terribly convincing.

In one sense though the book exceeded my expectations entirely with the characterisation of Mrs Danvers. As the housekeeper of English estate Manderley and devotee of the owner’s deceased wife Rebecca, Mrs Danvers does not take kindly to the new Mrs Maxim de Winter, the unnamed narrator of the novel. It is in the myriad of small ways she displays her displeasure where the woman’s pure evilness shines through, culminating in a scene where she urges the new bride to kill herself by jumping out of the window. This is seriously good writing and, as read by Anna Massey (who played Mrs Danvers in a 1980 BBC televised version of the story) it is also seriously but deliciously creepy. It is possibly worrying how much I enjoyed this depiction of pure evil.

Though in my favour I at least know that murdering people is not nice and therefore struggled to shrug off Maxim’s murdering of his first wife in the way that his new wife, and the friends who suspect it, so clearly did. I certainly didn’t see any romance in this aspect of the novel. I couldn’t help but ponder how unlikely it would have been for a story to become any kind of classic if the gender roles had been reversed. If a woman had killed her philandering first husband and gone on to cover up the crime with the aid of a new spouse and a handful of hangers on would it have been considered anything other than horrific? I think not. But it seems perfectly acceptable to Du Maurier, her characters and almost everyone whose review I have read that the killing of Rebecca is perfectly acceptable because, after all, she was a hussy.

I felt a tinge of sympathy for Mrs Danvers (who I think felt an unrequited love for Rebecca) and could understand (though not condone) the ultimate revenge that she took.

So, not a review, just some reactions. Have you read Rebecca? Have any thoughts? Do you read classics? How do you ensure you come to them with fresh eyes and not too many expectations?

Books of the Month – September 2011

After a bit of a slump during August I seemed to find my reading mojo again in September, getting through a reasonable number of books and, more importantly, finding many of them to be outstanding.

In the end I gave my book of the month award to a haunting African tale that I read at the start of September because I simply cannot get its story of the evil motivation for the death of a young girl out of my mind. Unity Dow‘s The Screaming of the Innocent  is set in the author’s native Botswana and tells a harrowing tale about a young girl who goes missing, the men who are responsible and the ease with which they engineer a cover up of their actions. It is emotionally harrowing (the ending particularly so) but not gratuitously so and it has flashes of beauty, bravery and humour amongst the sadness.

Other recommended reads from the month are:

Gianrico Carofiglio‘s A Walk in the Dark which tells the tale of an Italian lawyer who takes on the case of a battered woman who no one else will help because her ex-boyfriend is the son of a judge is a marvellous read. It makes me happy to think that my delay in finding this wonderful author means there are already several more books by him ready and waiting just for me. 4.5 stars

Detective Inspector Huss by Helen Tursten was one of the great Swedish novels I read in the month. Göteburg police investigate the death of a wealthy businessman in a superb example of the socially aware police procedural. Some of the story tangents and dead ends were as interesting as the main event and the characters are excellent. 4.5 stars.

Fool’s Republic by Gordon W. Dale tells the story of a man incarcerated and tortured as part of the ‘war on terror’. I was impressed with the understated way the author tackled this difficult subject, eschewing the temptation for overt preaching or simplification of the issues. I didn’t think the first person narrative was quite as successful but overall an entertaining and thought-provoking novel. 3 stars.

Misterioso by Arne Dahl is one of 3 books set in Sweden I read this month and while I found it a bit awkward to get into I did enjoy it overall. Having read them so close together I couldn’t help but compare this debut police procedural with Tursten’s (above) and I did not think this one quite as well plotted but still a very engaging story about a series of murders of high-profile business men. 3.5 stars

Sister by Rosamund Lupton would probably have been better off if it hadn’t been shoe-horned into the whodunnit genre as the parts of the book that work superbly are the depictions of two fragile familial relationships (two sisters and a mother and daughter) and a delicately painted portrait of grief. Frankly the crime-y bits of the story were clunky. 3.5 stars.

The Donor by Helen Fitzgerald tackles the hideous premise of a father with twin daughters both needing life-saving kidney transplants with deliciously dark humour to ensure the book doesn’t fall into the misery-lit category that one-line synopsis could otherwise suggest. 4 stars.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney is a novel about a gypsy family and the man hired to find out what happened to one of their members. One of two narrators is a 14 year old gypsy lad known as JJ and he the star of this thoughtful novel (though mainstream reviews would suggest I am in the minority as someone who liked the book). 4 stars.

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn wasn’t quite as good as O’Flynn’s first novel which I fell in love with earlier this year but only because that book was something extra special. I still thoroughly enjoyed this tale of a melancholic English newsreader who starts to worry about the death of an old friend. A treatise on the downside of valuing looks over substance if ever there was one. 4.5 stars.

The Ottoman Hotel is a debut novel by Christopher Currie and is set in a small Australian town. It tells the story of a young boy whose parents disappear while they are all on holidays and its evocative writing style made for a quick, engaging and nicely unpredictable read. 3.5 stars.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past is the latest instalment of the Rebecka Martinsson series by Asa Larsson. Rebecka becomes involved in the investigation of the death of a young girl whose body is found a long way from where she died and the case turns out to be connected to events from many years earlier. 4.5 stars.

Whispering Death by Garry Disher is one of the most cleverly constructed novels I’ve read in a very long time and has well developed characters and a gentle undertone of social commentary to book. There are far too many story threads to them justice in a brief summary; you’ll just have to read the book. 4.5 stars.

The meh reads for this month were:

Ian Rankin‘s The Complaints (I know, I know I’m the only one who doesn’t ‘get’ Rankin) and Nigel McCrery‘s Scream (gratuitous gore).

I also listened to Dick FrancisSecond Wind narrated by the always brilliant Tony Britton and while not a meh book in the sense I usually mean it, I do find it hard to come up with something new to say about the 40+ Francis novels which are all, essentially, the same.

Other happenings at the blog

I celebrated a year of eBook reading which has been a mostly positive experience aside from the appalling customer service received from the Sony corporation and the fact that the ever-present geographic restrictions are more of a problem in the eBook world than with physical books. I am however still hopeful of having virtually no physical books at all to read (and worry about finding homes for afterwards) within four years.

I continued to celebrate women crime writers for #SinC25, this time focusing on those who write historical crime fiction which features strong female characters. I propose it’s easy to understand the temptation to write such books given that in much factual history the role of women is often ignored.

a last word…

I’m going to pick up a couple of physical books next week, both new titles by Australian authors. One is the sixth novel in Kerry Greenwood’s fun Corrina Chapman series and the other is the debut novel by Y A Erskine. Australian publishers generally charge the same for eBooks as they do for the equivalent physical books which in one of these cases is $33...an amount I simply refuse to pay for something I don’t really own. I do wish these people would wake up but until they do I’ll borrow most of my Aussie reads from the library (think of the lost sales) and pick up a handful on special or using vouchers.

What about you…was September a good reading month? Did you have a favourite book? Or did you acquire anything you’re itching to read? Any issue you need to get off your chest?