The excellent Mrs Peabody Investigates introduced me to the term respite crime, though my need for it pre-dated the name by many years. Happily during my current period of need one of Mrs P’s recommendations in this increasingly essential category became available from my library. It was indeed the perfect respite from both the real world and darker fictional offerings.

It introduces us to Ashwin Chopra: a decorated and well-respected Inspector with the Mumbai police. As the book opens it is his last day at work. He is retiring early, and unwillingly, due to ill health. Before he goes he encounters a grieving woman who declares that her son’s death is being left uninvestigated because their family is poor. But even after he has fulfilled his last official duty Chopra can’t forget the woman and her young son. He tries to interest the man who replaced him but that proves fruitless so Chopra undertakes his own, private investigation. With help from old friends and a new one.

The new one is a baby elephant that Chopra inherits from a favoured uncle. Ganesh is “no ordinary elephant” according to Chopra’s uncle and this does prove to be the case. At first Ganesh – who is installed in the grounds of the apartment building in which Chopra and his wife Poppy live – appears to be pining for something and Chopra has to take a crash course in elephant care. But as the book progresses Ganesh proves to have skills that assist Chopra in very practical ways. I’m not normally a big fan of semi-anthropomorphised animal characters that do implausible (if not impossible) things. But Ganesh got under my skin with his particular mix of cuteness, melancholy and sixth sense.

I don’t know if it’s despite the surreal elements – such as Chopra tailing a suspect through the streets of Mumbai with a 200kg elephant in tow – or because of them that the book does manage to have a realistic sensibility but I suspect it’s the former. It seems to me that Khan, who has lived and worked in India for long stretches of time, has captured the exciting chaos of Mumbai as it undergoes its transition from a traditional culture to a more modern one very well and that is partly due to the inclusion of oddball elements such as a sentient elephant. He juxtaposes the book’s lighter elements with depictions of the city’s poorer areas and the systemic corruption that pervades some segments of society so that the overall picture is accessible in a way that a wholly dark – or light – book would not be.

There is real poignancy too with the relationship between Chopra and his wife and the way they individually deal with their unwanted childlessness. I thought perhaps things were stretched a bit too far when Poppy dreamed up her scheme to feign a pregnancy under her observant husband’s watchful eye but the resolution of this thread sat well enough that I found it easy to forgive this very minor flaw.

I will definitely be continuing with this series and happily recommend it to those who like their crime fiction to have some lighter moments amidst the gritty realities. And I defy anyone not to be won over by the elephant.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hodder and Stoughton, 2015
ISBN 9781473612273
Length 304 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Baby Ganesh series
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library

Posted in book review, India, Vaseem Khan | 18 Comments

Review: A STRANGER IN THE HOUSE by Shari Lapena


If you need more than that one word review of this dull tome read on.

A middle-class man comes home late from work to find his wife gone. All her things still there – including purse and phone and all the things a person would take even if only leaving for a moment. Tom is annoyed, then a bit worried. Mostly for himself. Meanwhile an unidentified, middle-class lady has had bad car accident while in an unsavoury part of the city. It will surprise absolutely no one who has ever read a book or seen a movie that she is Tom’s missing wife, Karen, though the tone implied this was A Twist of Alarming Proportions. Additional unsurprising elements of the story include a case of amnesia, a hidden past for one of our not-so-happy couple, an unexplained dead body, an extra-marital affair and a barking-mad, childless neighbour.

Am I being too harsh? Possibly. But I can’t help it. Everything about this book is just so bland and predictable. That there is nothing new in the storyline need not have automatically made the book virtually unreadable but the entire thing has a tepid quality to it. Like someone from a government agency had documented a citizen’s worst nightmare on form 729B and in so doing smoothed away all of the interesting bits. Familiar plot devices and genre tropes are thrown in almost at random, certainly without subtlety or innovation, and there is a lot of telling and precious little showing throughout the book.

The characters are two dimensional; totally lacking in believable emotions or inner voices. Tom is a self-absorbed dullard whose love for his wife runs about as deep as a bird bath in a drought. Karen’s supposed troubles always read like someone talking about bad things, never like actual experiences a human being was actually going through. And the deranged neighbour lady is just a joke. For a much more nuanced and authentic-feeling characterisation of a woman driven to a kind of madness by her unfulfilled desire for motherhood check out Michael Robotham’s THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS rather than this dreck.

There is nothing memorable about the setting either. For ages I thought we might be in Canada because that is where the author lives but then one of the cardboard cutout cop characters said something like “that’s a big offence here in New York“. I assume the state rather than the city given there was a vague Stepford quality to the little enclave where Tom, Karen and the delusional neighbour lady live but I don’t care enough to work it out.

Or, as I have said before, meh.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As always, other opinions about this book are available including that of my fellow book club member Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Tavia Gilbert
Publisher Random House Audio, 2017
Length 8 hours 52 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Shari Lapena, USA | 16 Comments

Review: INVOLUNTARY WITNESS by Gianrico Carofiglio

I’ve read the second and fourth books in the series focusing on Bari lawyer Guido Guerrieri already, but on reviewing my Audible library recently I discovered the first instalment has been awaiting my ears for several years.

It is an odd book though I mean this, mostly, in a good way. It is crime fiction only if your definition of the term is broad. Generously broad.

The book opens with Guido Guerrieri going through a rough period in his life. His wife has asked for a divorce and his reaction to that – or to life in general – has manifest itself physically by way of insomnia and sometimes embarrassing bouts of crying or panic. He does see a doctor about it all but ignores the advice (and medication) given and instead takes up boxing, something he used to do in his youth. Interspersed with Guerrieri’s personal travails are some minor legal matters that have nothing to do with the overall plot. Such as it is. Eventually we learn about the events described in the book’s blurb. Namely a young boy has been found dead on a Bari beach and a Senegalese man, Abdou Thiam, has been charged with his murder. When Guerrieri is introduced to the case there has already been an initial hearing with a court-appointed lawyer and no one, aside from the man’s few friends, believe anything more needs to be done other than lock him up and throwing away the key.

Although I’m not going to say much more about the plot details I should point out that it probably isn’t what you’re imagining right now. This is not an Italian version of a Grisham or Turow legal thriller. Guerrieri does not race about Bari looking for clues or alternative suspects. He makes a couple of moves that can, if you apply the same generously broad definition as earlier, be described as investigative but he’s no Perry Mason. At first this is a bit difficult to get used to – a matter of expectations I suppose – but Carofiglio does know how to tell a good story and I was utterly hooked. The final third is perhaps more traditionally procedural in that it takes us inside the courtroom but these scenes too are…unexpected…in tone and plotting. Guerrieri’s passionate defence of Abdou Thiam offers some nuanced insights into the Italian legal system, no doubt benefiting from its author’s experience as a legal practitioner himself, and an incisive commentary on human nature.

The characterisation of Guerrieri is, ultimately, well-rounded though at first it seemed as if it would not be. I would have liked to learn a little more about some of the other people, especially Abdou Thiam, though his depiction is deftly handled even if we do not spend enough time with him for my liking.

My only real gripe with the novel is probably an issue with the translation rather than the original text though I guess I’ll never know. The ‘N’ word is used repeatedly to refer to the many African immigrants in Bari and Abdou Thiam in particular and I found this very jarring (particularly as I was listening to the audio version not reading the printed word). I don’t know if there is an Italian word of similar meaning but with (hopefully) less stigma attached or not, but either way I find it difficult to believe an alternative word, even a derogatory one in keeping with the context, was impossible to find. I cannot imagine this particular translation choice being acceptable to the American market at all and am surprised it was seen as such for the UK one.

That issue aside I thoroughly enjoyed INVOLUNTARY WITNESS, not least because it repeatedly confounded my expectations for a ‘legal procedural’ and ultimately offered a fascinating social and legal commentary. Its resolution would not sit well with those who dislike loose ends but I thought it fit the rest of the story admirably. Sean Barrett is one of my favourite audio narrators and, again, does a great job with this story.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Seán Barrett
Translator Patrick Creagh
Publisher This edition Audible Studios, 2011
Length 7 hours 30 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Guido Guerrieri series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Gianrico Carofiglio, Italy | 4 Comments

Review: THE LONG DROP by Denise Mina

All I knew of THE LONG DROP before bringing it home from the library was that it is a standalone work by a writer I admire, not least because she takes risks with her storytelling techniques rather than sticking to a winning formula as I’m sure she could more easily do. This latest book sees Denise Mina offer something different again: a fictionalised account of real events. Namely the sad, murderous life of Scotland’s worst serial killer Peter Manuel who preyed on the people of Glasgow and surrounding areas in the late 1950’s. Naturally enough given that her works are so disparate in style and subject matter I haven’t liked all of Mina’s books equally, but the one constant in everything I’ve read to date is exquisite writing. THE LONG DROP is no exception to this rule. It is a beautifully written tale of utter ugliness.

Not surprisingly given her penchant for narrative risk-taking, Mina approaches her subject in a kind of sideways manner by first introducing us to William Watt. He is under suspicion of having killed his wife, her sister and his daughter though he swears to have been miles away at the time. Because he fears the police will never look elsewhere for his family’s killer even if they don’t have enough evidence to prove his own guilt, he embarks on an attempt to unmask the culprit himself. Through a series of vaguely shady connections he meets Manuel who he is convinced (rightly) committed the murders of his family. The unlikely pair spend a drunken night together in which both reveal more about themselves than either would have planned. The events of this night play out across the length of the novel, interspersed with scenes from Manuel’s trial. An event where almost no one wants to give evidence and, after firing his lawyers, Manuel seals his fate with a daft and self-incriminating attack on key witnesses including his own mother.

Although there appears to be some doubt about just how many people Manuel killed and whether or not he might have been so mentally ill that his mental state should have played a mitigating role in deciding his fate, most people do seem to agree that he murdered at least 7 people for no reason other than his base desires. Possibly as many as 15. So it is not surprising that he is depicted as a delusional, deeply unlikable and frightening man whose own mother feels mostly relief when he is sentenced to death. But aside from a couple of minor players (more about them in a minute) none of the characters in Mina’s version of the story are much of an improvement. Watt is depicted as an adulterous, socially grasping creep who may even have played a role in procuring at least his wife’s murder. And 1950’s Glasgow – at least as much of a character in the book as the two men – comes across as vying for status as Dante’s eighth circle of Hell. Poverty and crime is the norm and no one, especially women, believes that rape is a real thing. This is just one glimpse of the city’s miserableness

If Hamilton [giving evidence in court] is upset by the sight of drunkenness then he’s living in the wrong city. Between lunchtime closing and the pubs reopening for the evening Glasgow is carpeted with drunk men. They loll on pavements, piss themselves at bus stops, fight invisible foes in the streets.

I love the way Mina can provide such a vivid picture of a place and its people with so few words. And so even though for most of the book I was actively fighting the urge to close its covers and leave its truly awful story unfinished I kept reading due to Mina’s evocative, almost hypnotic writing. It had me in uncontrollable tears twice in its couple of hundred pages. Once when it introduced the father of one of Manuel’s victims whose heartbreak at his daughter’s fate is palpable and again when we meet Brigit Manuel. Peter’s mother. Who loves her son as much as she fears him but can’t bring herself to lie for him like his father has repeatedly done. Brigit’s is a minor role in Mina’s version of events but I think I will remember her long after I wipe her hideous son from my memory.

It’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend THE LONG DROP given that it is a truly grim read. And I’m not entirely comfortable with all of Mina’s fictionalising choices, particularly her seemingly unorthodox interpretation of court transcripts to implicate William Watt in his family’s murder which just seems bloody unfair given the man cannot speak in his own defence. But even with these caveats I am, on balance, glad to have read the book. I can forgive a lot for great writing and haunting, if confronting, imagery and character depiction.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Random House, 2017
ISBN 9781911215240
Length 240 pages
Format Paperback
Book Series Standalone
Source of review copy Borrowed from library

Posted in book review, Denise Mina, Scotland | 5 Comments

Women in Translation 2017

I learned via Mrs Peabody’s excellent blog that August is being celebrated as Women in Translation month. This is in an attempt to address the fact that only about a quarter of the world’s literature that is translated into English is by women authors. Being woefully monolingual myself I am truly grateful to translators and thought I would share here some of my favourite books by women authors that have been translated into English.

  • Karin Alvtegen‘s MISSING (translated from Swedish by Anna Paterson)
  • Karin Fossum‘s THE CALLER (translated from Norwegian by K.E. Semmel). This is probably my favourite of Fossum’s books but several others are just as good so you might also try DON’T LOOK BACK (translator Felicity David) or THE MURDER OF HARRIET KROHN (translated by James Anderson)
  • Kati Hiekkapelto‘s THE EXILED (translated from Finnish by David Hackston)
  • Camilla Lackberg‘s THE ICE PRINCESS (translated from Swedish by Stephen T Murray)
  • Asa Larsson‘s THE SECOND DEADLY SIN and UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST (both translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson)
  • Liza Marklund‘s RED WOLFLAST WILL and LIFETIME (all translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith). These later installments from Marklund’s long running series about journalist Annika Bengtzon form a high quality trilogy
  • Claudia Pineiro‘s THURSDAY NIGHT WIDOWS (translated from the Spanish by Miranda France)
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir‘s WHY DID YOU LIE? (translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb)
  • Teresa Solana‘s A NOT SO PERFECT CRIME (translated from Spanish by Peter Bush)
  • Fred VargasTHE THREE EVANGELISTS (translated from French by Sian Reynolds), I struggle with Vargas’ popular Adamsberg series but thoroughly enjoyed this standalone novel.

Although I don’t publish my ratings here on the blog any longer I do keep a personal record and all of these have a rating of 4 or 5 on that personal scale so are well worth reading.

I’ve already added a couple of titles to my wishlist from Mrs Peabody’s own list but if you have other recommendations for translated books by women I should read do leave a comment.

Posted in Asa Larsson, Camilla Lackberg, Claudia Pineiro, Fred Vargas, Karin Alvtegen, Karin Fossum, Kati Hiekkapelto, list, Liza Marklund, Teresa Solana, Yrsa Sigurdardottir | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review: THE CHALK PIT by Elly Griffiths

The Ruth Galloway series falls squarely in the ‘equivalent of curling up under a blanket with my feet encased in ugg boots and a hot chocolate close by‘ territory for me.  I have adored Ruth from her first appearance and now, in what is strongly rumoured to be her penultimate outing, reading one of ‘her’ books feels more like catching up with an old friend than the average reading experience. While this makes it a mostly enjoyable thing for me to indulge in I can’t help feeling that later volumes of this series must be pretty inaccessible to new readers. Like watching a random episode of Coronation Street without prior knowledge of all the who’s-been-sleeping-with-who shenanigans. That caveat aside I thought the CHALK PIT was Griffiths back to her best form after what were, for me, a couple of lacklustre installments.

The storyline of THE CHALK PIT is well-constructed and quite fascinating. Some bones are discovered in one of the many tunnels under the city of Norwich where an entrepreneur is planning to open an underground restaurant. Enter archaeologist Ruth Galloway to uncover the secrets of these bones. Then a homeless man reports that one of his fellow rough sleepers has gone missing and he is worried about her. DCI Harry Nelson treats the report with the dignity and seriousness it deserves (but probably wouldn’t get in the real world) but even so is limited in the resources he can assign to the case. However when a young mother who doesn’t inhabit society’s fringes goes missing there is a full-scale investigation. There’s a real social conscience here as the novel explores the issue of homelessness but there’s also loads of jolly good drama which includes the introduction of the possibility of entire communities living underground.

But readers of this series are at least equally as interested in the characters as they are in the stories. Ruth and Harry are both at their humorous best here even though they both have some heavy things going on their personal lives. Or perhaps it’s because of those personal struggles that both turned up the humour as a kind of defence mechanism against the world’s ills. I particularly identified with Harry and his workplace woes on this occasion as he struggled with a new boss demanding he be more strategic as I share Harry’s preference for doing ‘real’ work. And the realistic depiction of Ruth coming to terms with her parents’ frailties hit a nerve too. I must admit to finding the pair’s relationship twists and turns a bit overdone by now (certainly by the very end of the book) but it’s one of the things I choose to forgive in return for the rest of the series elements I do enjoy. There is less Cathbad than normal in this novel but it was nice to see his partner, police officer Judy Johnson, take centre stage in the investigation. I enjoyed seeing a new side to this previously overshadowed character.

I can’t seriously recommend this book to anyone who’s brand new to the series because so much of it concerns the personal lives of the main players and understanding all of that relies heavily on having read the earlier books. But for fans, or those who might have let the series lapse from the reading lists a book or two ago, this is a must-read. If you are an audio-book listener I can highly recommend Jane McDowell’s excellent narration.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Jane McDowell
Publisher Quercus, 2017
Length 9 hours 58 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series 9 in the Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Elly Griffiths, England | 6 Comments

Review: CROSSING THE LINES by Sulari Gentill

Plays within plays. Movies within movies. Books within books. It’s a familiar path for artists to tread when they want to offer us mere mortals a glimpse inside their respective heads. But in her new standalone novel CROSSING THE LINES Sulari Gentill dives into this meta world with an audacity that few would dare to attempt and even fewer could hope to pull off with such aplomb. A rare thing indeed is a book with a great premise that is fully realised.

About the only thing that is without doubt for readers is that CROSSING THE LINES is a book about a writer and their fictional creation. What is far less obvious is which is which. On one hand crime writer Madeleine d’Leon is taking a break from her successful historical series to write a mystery featuring a new character: reluctant, amateur investigator Edward (Ned) McGinnity. But then we also read a story by Ned McGinnity: a literary novelist writing a book about lawyer-turned-crime writer Madeleine d’Leon. This kind of double twist could easily have become a gimmick-laden mess, but in Gentill’s disciplined yet creative hands the complex plot truly sings. From the first page describing the transformation of a fictional character from pre-thought to an almost living person, right through to its unexpectedly sad but, in hindsight, inevitable ending.

I am not one of those readers who sees – or tries to see – biographical elements from the author’s life hidden in every book. I’m happy not to know which characters or plot lines spring from the imagination and which have a basis in reality. But even I couldn’t fail to observe that CROSSING THE LINES must surely be presenting at least some version of Sulari Gentill’s life and not only because Madeleine d’Leon is a lawyer-turned-writer and attends a local writer’s festival with the very real Australian crime writer, Angela Savage. It is the way in which Gentill depicts her authors’ first getting to know their respective fictional creations then slowly becoming obsessed – consumed even – by them that gives the game away.

Madeleine imagines her fictional Edward into being in this passage

She could see him sitting on the open deck of his expensive beach house, oblivious to the ocean view as he worked on the great Australian novel. She smiled. Of course he would write longhand, every word chosen after consideration, deliberation and requisite suffering.

I loved the way these fictional authors are depicted as knowing their characters more deeply than some people in their real lives. But even more enjoyable is when the creations surprise their creators, such as when Edward discovers that, like Sulari Gentill herself, Madeleine comes from a Sri Lankan background

Edward put down his pen. Realisation. Surprise. Why had he not noticed that Madeleine had eastern heritage? She was brown. He could see it when he looked at her now, but he hadn’t noticed it before. She looked a little-like Harigini, the Sri Lankan exchange student he’d known at school.

But it is the hold these creations develop over their creators that is even more memorable. Is Madeleine’s need to tell Edward’s story what all authors feel?

Madeleine closed her eyes and waited for Edward McGinnity, called him from that part of her soul where stories were held awaiting release.

It seemed odd to be thinking of Stephen King and Sulari Gentill as having any kind of authorial similarity but I was reminded of THE DARK HALF more than once when reading this book. The two novels share a sensibility in exploring the darkness that can – perhaps often does? – arise when an author becomes unwilling, or unable, to separate fact from fiction. It’s delicious stuff in both cases.

Like both of her fictional creations Sulari Gentill has departed from her usual fare with CROSSING THE LINES but the result is highly satisfactory. There are two intriguing storylines to unfold, multiple engaging characters to meet and genuine insight into the inner life of an author to be had. Top stuff.

aww2017-badgeThis is the 9th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

Publisher: Pantera Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781921997860
Length: 257 pages
Format: paperback
Source of review copy: Provided by the publisher

Posted in Australia, book review, Sulari Gentill (Aus) | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review: THE LEGACY by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Although I very much enjoy her best-known series featuring lawyer-turned-amateur-sleuth Thora Gudmundsdottir, I love the fact that Yrsa Sigurdardottir (and her publishers) have regularly taken the risky step of publishing books outside this popular series. Even if the books haven’t all been totally successful I applaud the commitment to trying new things. And sometimes, such as with last year’s standalone novel WHY DID YOU LIE?, readers are treated to a truly outstanding read. With THE LEGACY the author is again in new territory; this time starting a series focusing on a Reykjavik children’s home.

I’m not going to discuss the book’s plot in much detail. Partly because I rarely do but mostly because this one is particularly well constructed and deserves to be uncovered in the way the author intended. Morsel by fascinating morsel. In summary, it starts out with a flashback to 1987 when three siblings are the subject of a tough decision for the Home’s management. In the present day there is a very brutal murder followed by a difficult investigation and some seemingly unrelated, odd events. Although even casual crime genre readers will anticipate that the events occurring in the present day are related to those described in the book’s opening, Sigurdardottir keeps us guessing as to how and with whom this relationship is to be revealed.

But plots on their own do not make for great reading and Sigurdardottier supplies the other elements needed to complete the experience. I particularly like the way she draws the characters here. They are not as quirky or personally traumatised as the more mainstream titles of the genre seem to demand these days but, for me at least, this adds to the novel’s credibility. Freyja is the director of the Children’s Home who becomes involved in the case because the present day murder was witnessed by the victim’s young daughter who was hiding under the bed during her mother’s attack. Freyja isn’t perfect but tries to do the right thing by the child while worrying a little about her personal life too. Huldar is the detective assigned to lead the investigation. This being the first case he is in charge of he is keen to succeed and the ways in which is troubled by some of the challenges the case presents all have a very credible feel. Although the book is tense and doesn’t treat its difficult subject matter dismissively there is room for some observational humour too, particularly stemming from the awkward circumstances of Freyja and Huldar’s prior relationship and the fact we hear both of their inner voices at different times. The minor characters, such as lonely Karl the ham radio enthusiast are also engagingly drawn.

If I have any quibbles one is that the book really has no sense of place but I suspect I am harsher on books from exotic (to me) settings on this issue when compared to books with more familiar backgrounds. And the first third of the book did drag ever so slightly, with virtually no progress at all in the case. But overall THE LEGACY is a genuine thriller that manages to keep its more salacious details within acceptable limits to make the whole thing believable. New to me narrator Lucy Paterson did a terrific job with the audio edition and, as always, the seamless way the story read, including its humour and linguistic puzzles, is a testament to translator Victoria Cribb. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next one in this series.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Lucy Paterson
Translator Victoria Cribb
Publisher This edition Hodder & Stoughton 2017
Length 13 hours 38 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Children’s House series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Iceland, Yrsa Sigurdardottir | 5 Comments

Not a Review: THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by Liane Moriarty

TheHusbandsSecretAudioI don’t normally read two of any author’s book’s in quick succession but my book club is going to discuss this one and BIG LITTLE LIES tomorrow. I wonder if my fellow club members will be as hard pressed as I am to tell the difference between the two.

I’m quite serious. Both books have three main female characters. These women are all basically middle class, middle-aged, east-coast Australian women whose sense of self comes largely from their role in their respective families (their jobs if they have them are background features of their lives). I am already struggling to separate any of them as distinct memories in my mind and I was mixing up their names long before I finished the second book. The stories are both very (very) long, predictable tales of what can happen when people keep secrets. There are glimpses of the author’s excellent observational skills in both books (here she could easily have been writing about the community surround the Catholic primary school I attended) but ultimately they present a pretty shallow view of humanity, sometimes squirm-inducingly so. They also spell out every element of the morality tales they contain so the reader doesn’t have to think. At all. Aside from the actual plot details I can’t think of any significant way THE HUSBAND’S SECRET differs from BIG LITTLE LIES.

I know of course that many authors write to a formula, including some of my favourites, so I can’t really criticise Moriarty for making use of one. Especially one that is obviously so popular. However, having tried it twice now I’m pretty certain hers is not a formula that works for me. I was happy enough to listen to Caroline Lee’s excellent narration as I did a long stint of driving today but I’ve already decided to give away unread the third Moriarty novel I own.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

aww2017-badgeThis is the 8th book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge (but it’s stretching the point to call this a review). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Caroline Lee
Publisher Bolinda Audio, 2013
Length 13 hours 48 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in Liane Moriarty (Aus), mini review | 9 Comments

Review: BIG LITTLE LIES by Liane Moriarty

Somewhere in the almost 16 hours of the audio version of BIG LITTLE LIES is a good story. Even a great one, though the ending was too schmaltzy for my tastes. But that good story is only 8 hours long. 10 at a stretch. If I’d been reading this in print form I’d have skipped great swathes of it just to get to the point.

At its heart it is the story of three women. They all have kindergarten-aged children attending Pirriwee Public school in a beachside suburb of Sydney. Madeline is the loud, feisty, funny one. She is struggling to come to terms with the role her ex-husband and his new wife are playing in her oldest daughter’s life but she tackles this, and everything else in life, head-on. Celeste is the stupidly rich, beautiful one who adores her twin boys enough to stay with their father. Even though he is violent. Jane is the single mother, young enough to be mistaken for the nanny. When her son is accused of bullying she is torn between believing him innocent and wondering if he has inherited something awful from the man she slept with once.

All three of these characters, and most of the minor ones who flesh out this world, are well drawn. Not all are likeable – as in real life – but they are realistic. People you’ve met. People you’ve liked. People you’ve tried to avoid being in the same room with. The politics that plays out in the school community is deftly drawn and – again – believable. If you haven’t had this exact experience you’ve come close in a workplace or community group or somewhere. People forging alliances for their own selfish ends, listening to half-truths, manufacturing outrage on behalf of others, taking action without thought… Moriarty has depicted this type of community with equal parts heart and humour and spot-on observational skills.

The problem, for me, is that BIG LITTLE LIES lacked suspense. Partly due to the often stultifying details that pad out the book, especially in the first half. And partly due to its predictability.

We learn at the beginning of the book that someone dies at the school trivia night but we don’t know who or how. We then go back to the beginning of the school year – ostensibly to the point that sets events in motion – and discover what series of events lead to the death. But it’s a bit like watching a children’s pantomime. Every time something even vaguely scary (or interesting) looks like happening there were so many hints I wanted to scream “look out he’s behind you“.  I guess I don’t like books that tell me every, single thing they want me know. I like to be left to use my own imagination. Or at least be able to feel a little bit clever for seeing where things are going. Here the signposts are so big and loud and obvious even someone not paying attention at all would have known what was coming.

For half a moment towards the end I thought there might have been a genuine surprise. Some people’s initial reaction to the death was not quite as predictable or as ordinary as the rest of the book would have suggested. If it had finished then – at about the 15-hour mark – I would have felt better about the overall read. But it didn’t. Finish then I mean. Ultimately no one did anything extraordinary and everything was wrapped up very, very neatly. Just as the real world doesn’t ever do.

I think I’m crankier than I ought to be with a book that isn’t all bad and has elements that are genuinely good. But it’s the missed opportunity that I mind most. BIG LITTLE LIES had the potential to be something…else. Memorable rather than forgettable. Subversive rather than safe.

aww2017-badgeThis is the 7th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progresssign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Caroline Lee
Publisher Bolinda Audio, 2014
Length 15 hours 56 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in Australia, book review, Liane Moriarty (Aus) | 6 Comments