Monthly Archives: June 2015

Second Life, SJ Watson

download (1)Help me out here. I loved Watson’s first book – and when I say ‘loved’, I mean really really really LOVED! I’ve actually read parts of it multiple times. I’ve used it in teaching writing techniques, I’ve referred countless people of all ages to it as a MUST read. So, you can only begin to imagine my elation when I heard that Watson had a new book coming out… and how I waited for this new book, knowing what I know about Watson’s skill at crafting a story and the way that he sucks a reader in to a plot, the complexity of his characters and the depth of the sway of his prose … with baited breath, I waited. And, as soon as the book was out, I pounced, grabbing this one to read on a long plane journey.

And I wasn’t disappointed, at least, not entirely. There’s no doubt that Watson has skill – in fact, he has a number of skills. There’s no doubt that he writes a mean psychological thriller. And I enjoyed this, I did. But – there’s always a but – it wasn’t nearly as brilliant as ‘Before I Go To Sleep‘ and I don’t think that’s particularly suprising. Those of you who read Watson’s debut novel will appreciate this immediately.

Like ‘Before I Go To Sleep’, ‘Second Life’ follows a female protagonist who finds out that her sister has been killed in Paris. The book unfolds as Julia, said protagonist, tries to understand how her sister died, the life she was leading and the person she had become. It was a solid plot and the characters were strong and nicely layered. Nonetheless, I found my concentration straying at various intervals throughout this book and I’m not entirely sure why… I’m not entirely sure that it was Watson’s fault. In many ways, The Guardian sums it up well: “Let’s face it, there aren’t many authors who could top Before I Go to Sleep.”

I’ll always be a fan of Watson’s. No matter what he produces, his first is too memorable to leave behind.

 

 

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Sandra Brown, Rainwater

I’ve read many a Sandra Brown book in the past and I’ve always been impressed by the way in which she sculpts her thrillers. She has always proved to be a writer who can balance a sound plot with convincing characters and a subtle intensity that sustains the entire novel.

Rainwater is an entirely different kind of Brown and I have to confess that I was thrilled to find that beneath this commercial writer there is a solid and emotive core, a beautiful way with characterisation and emotion and a purity that I was really not expecting.

This novel overflows with empathy in its rarest of forms. Here we have raw characters who chafe against each other, set in the context of a challenging period of American history. The dust bowl is true to its image, it is rough and ragged and brings out both the best of people and the worst. This novel was a pleasant surprise.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

download (2)This was one of those books that you both love and hate.

Let’s start with what’s to love:

1. The sweeping arc of this work – and by sweeping I mean hundreds upon hundreds of pages (over 700) which echo of Dickens and epic sagas set in the back streets of quaint towns of yesteryear. I really loved Tartt’s vision in creating the layers of this narrative. I loved the way she introduced us to her protagonist, Theo, and then stretched him out, exploring the nuances of his perplexing existence all through the lens of this painting and its drama.

2. The characters – Tartt is a wizard at building characters and this book is full of them – Theo, his mother, Boris, Pippa and the magnificent Hobbie brings Dickens to life in this modern text.

3. The premise of the plot – an art gallery, an explosion, a survival, a missing painting. What’s not to love?

4. The wonderful drug induced mania that Theo and Boris wade through and the trauma that this brings with it – this was so vivid and tragic that it echo consistently through this work.

5. The landscape – Tartt swiftly unfolds New York with its bustling streets and its hidden nooks and crannies and then throws us into the desert of Las Vegas, leaving us on the veritable edge of the wilderness, a barren housing estate symbolic of the failure of American prosperity and vaguely reminiscent, in my mind, of T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes and the stretching ash in The Great Gatsby.

And what’s to hate? It’s simple. The editors let Tartt down in this book – or she let herself down by insisting on such rambling prose. This novel seemed to never end. I read it for hours and hours and days upon days which flowed into weeks. I don’t think it’s taken me so long to plough through a tome since I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose at university. And it was infuriating because I loved the premise of the story and the characters but the book’s length plagued my reading experience and there was whole sections which I felt could have been left to my imagination.

So, I’m undecided about this book. So much to love but so indulgent in its length … Tartt has left me confused.

For a beautiful and intriguing review, don’t miss Vanity Fair’s take on this book!

 

 

Deserving Death, Katherine Howell

downloadWhat a find!!! Katherine Howell, I don’t normally enjoy Australian fiction and apart from Garry Disher, there’s no Aussie thriller writer that I can be bothered to read, but you have taken the cake!

While this book read like a classic murder mystery, the way that Howell crafted her characters and depicted the particularly Australian landscape of Sydney, makes this a unique book.

I was immediately captivated by the paramedic scenario – believable, filled with empathy and yet, at the same time, tortured with conflict and stress. I loved Howell’s sensitive introduction of each woman’s personal background – the lesbian who hasn’t come out to her family, the detective struggling to balance work and life and others dealing with loss and grief. It was a perfect tension. At times the plot waivered and I found myself having to reread sections in order to clarify things, but this didn’t deter me and I thoroughly enjoyed Howell’s prose.

I will definitely be seeking out more of Howell’s work!!

Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return

3486022When I wrote about The Pious Ones, I encoutered Shulem Deen. Joseph Berger had written about him in a NY Times article entitled ‘Outcast Mother’s Death…” and in another article in Tablet magazine which reveals a basic insight into Deen’s struggles to stay connected to his children after he left his Chassidic sect.

Deen was raised in the Skverer Chassidic sect; a closed and chaste community where questioning is not encouraged and thinking outside of the prescribed parameters are grounds for excommunication.

Having read about Deen’s journey in other books and having a connected to The Pious Ones, I was intrigued when I saw All Who Go Do Not Return on the bookshelf in a little shop in Newton Centre, Boston. I read Deen’s book as a captive audience on a plane, a long flight home. I was mesmerised from the first words:

“I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to formed their own prayer group, the young man rumoured to have studied the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.

But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.”

Allow me to preface this review with this fact: I have a deep fascination with Chassidic communities. On many levels, I am in awe of their unique characteristics, of their connectedness, their sense of community and the importance they place on family. On the flip side, I am fascinated by how whole communities can function like isolated microcosms inside a whole other world without engaging with that outside world or engaging only in limited terms. Consequently, this book filled a valuable space in my fascination – what happens when people don’t fit into the mould of a specific community? What happens when they are so much outside of that mould that it becomes untenable for them to stay within the community – what happens to the community and what happens to them?

Shulem Deen’s book is beautifully written, so beautifully written that I found myself wondering how a man who only had a primary school education in English could write like this as an adult … That aside, Deen’s pages are filled with magnificent prose and deep yearning and furious turmoil, taut and torn and challenging and above all, very very sad.

I am glad I read Deen’s book. I think it’s an important contribution to this genre of writing. For me, a book always leaves a particular taste in my mouth, and wtih this book, the taste was overwhelming sadness. I admire Deen for the tough decisions that he has had to make in his life and I respect the path that he has chosen but I can’t escape the enormous loss that he will carry with him always – not knowing his children, his grandchildren and extended family. It reads like a type of death.

So, while I loved this book and definitely feel its infinite value, it left me very raw and not just fleetingly. Rather, what I was left with was a dull ache for Shulem Deen, a clearly lovely and intelligent man, and his children who have lost more than they will probably ever realise and then for all the other people who don’t have Deen’s courage and live locked up in lives that slowly suffocate them.

This would be a wonderful book for a bookclub – there is so much to discuss! If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.