The Good People by Hannah Kent

Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.

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The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.

Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.

Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.

Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.

He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.

As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.

I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.

Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.

The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.

*

Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

Most Anticipated Upcoming Books

I try to read a mixture of old and new books, and often find myself reading ‘new’ books some time after they come out, purely because I always have so many books I want to read that I rarely get to read things when they are really new. Often I just get to look at other reviews and wish I didn’t have so many books to read! There are several books that I am really excited about reading in the next few months – some new and some not-so-new. Here are the ones I’m most looking forward to…

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
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Sept 2016 Picador edition (image: goodreads.com)

I loved Room but somehow didn’t feel the need to pick up Frog Music; but now Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder really appeals to me. I know from reading Room that she is a wonderful  writer, and this story is not like anything I have read before. Kim Forrester wrote a brilliant review of it here. Fingers crossed I’ll get to read it before Christmas!

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
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May 2017 Tinder Press edition (image: goodreads.com)

This is coming out in May 2017 from Tinder Press, and I am really looking forward to it. It is a fictional take on the story of Lizzie Borden and the murder of her father and stepmother. She was acquitted of their murder but of course suspicion remains, and the story is fascinating. This looks like a really interesting and modern interpretation of the story, and I cannot wait to read it.

Labyrinths: Emma Jung, Her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
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Nov 2016 Harper edition (image: goodreads.com)

I’ve always had a vague interest in psychology and psychoanalysis and the fact that this book focuses on Emma rather than Carl Jung really appeals to me. It just seems like another way of looking at a familiar story, and I hope it’ll be as interesting as it looks! It’s always a pleasure to read about wonderful women from history.

The Good People by Hannah Kent
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Feb 2017 Pan Macmillan edition (image: goodreads.com)

Like many other readers, I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites. It really stuck with me and as soon as I heard she had written a second novel I knew I had to read it. The premise really interests me and I think it will be a great multi-layered book.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
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Sept 2016 Liveright/Norton edition (image: goodreads.com)

I have read three of Jackson’s novels and have The Lottery and Other Stories on my shelf waiting to be read, so I just have to read this new biography of her. New PMC editions mean that Shirley Jackson is again popular, and I am so glad she is – her writing is some of the most beautiful and beguiling I have read in years. Luckily she also seems to have been a brilliant and intriguing person, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

I’d love to hear about books that you are looking forward to – there are always too many to read!

The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath

Mantle 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com
Mantle 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

The Bone Seeker begins with both the style and plot of quite a standard crime novel. Teacher and ex-polar bear hunter Edie sees Martha Salliaq on a Friday afternoon at school. Martha drops her bag and make up falls out; Edie notes this is unusual for an Inuk girl. She asks Martha if she is going anywhere special and the teenager is coy, excusing herself in a hurry. Edie wonders what she is hiding, and the narrative tells us this was the last time she saw her. For Martha, the mysterious young girl, is the inevitable murder victim.

The discovery of Martha’s body happens very early in the book, and the hunt for her is very short. Up until she is found I was reminded of Margie Orford’s Water Music, as in both stories a determined civilian woman takes on the case of a missing girl, a girl who is intelligent and well-liked, but who has secrets no one would ever guess. Both stories are also set in landscapes and societies that are ‘foreign’ to me as a reader – Water Music takes place is Cape Town, while The Bone Seeker is set on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic.

The location is a crucial part of this story. In the 1950s the Canadian government moved a vast amount of Inuit people from their homes in northern Quebec to the High Arctic, which incorporates Ellesmere Island. Officially the move took place in order to provide the Inuit people with better resources and better quality of life; but in fact they were not properly provided for and measures were not taken to make sure that life would actually be better in the north. As a result the Inuit communities were poor and insular, and a great resentment grew towards the Canadian government. In The Bone Seeker the Inuit are very suspicious of anything from the south and see themselves as entirely separate from the qalunaat (non-Inuits) who live with them in the north.

Edie is Inuk and understands the deep rooted traditions and beliefs within the community – that it is wrong to speak of the dead until a certain amount of time has passed, so that the spirit can leave the body; and that certain places are ‘haunted’, plagued with evil spirits. One of these places is the half dried up lake where Martha’s body is found. It is located on the site of a decommissioned Radar Station, somewhere that nothing grows and that no animals will visit. The Inuit people believe it is an evil place because of this, but Edie knows that its history as a Radar Station must have something to do with its being ‘off limits’ and somewhere that people do not like to go.

McGrath’s prose is clear and simple, with not too much flowery language thrown in for no reason. Her plotting is well crafted, though at times the suspense and tension melted into long, slow sections where you are just dying for the story to move forward (there is a fair bit of legal investigation too, and this can get a little muddled). The novel is very atmospheric however, with a palpable sense of both place and society. There is a lot going on, and it does get a bit muddled at times. There are a lot of different paths of investigation that Edie explores, and a lot of people involved, and sometimes the strands got a little twisted around each other. At the end it all slots into place, but I couldn’t help feel that some things got more attention while others that were just as important were left a bit in the background.

The only things that really bothered me were the horrific nature of Martha’s murder, which I found a little unnecessary as well as unexplained (given the nature of her murder I also think the bloody knife on the cover is not quite appropriate), and the fact that when her killer is actually discovered it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. By that point the conspiracy theories and government secrets have become the main focus of the story.

As I said, The Bone Seeker starts out as a pretty standard crime novel as Edie and her partner Derek, a police officer, investigate Martha’s murder; but it becomes much more than that when they start to look into the secrecy surrounding the place where she was found, and the interest that the military seem to take in it. Why do they cordon it off and try to take over the investigation? Why will no one talk about happened at the Radar Station before it was closed?

As it goes on the novel becomes more and more about the secrets kept by the military, the government and the Defence Department, as well as the deep injustices committed against the Inuit people. M.J. McGrath conducted a lot of research into what happened, and there is a lot of historical and legal detail as the mystery slowly unfolds, and it is revealed that the relocation was just the start of the Inuit people’s problems. I expected the ‘bone seeker’ of the title to be the murderer or perhaps a weapon, but it turns out to be something else entirely. You might be surprised.

*

Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 5th June 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

 

The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee

This book grabbed me with its cover. It grabs your attention and makes you wonder what’s inside. There are some (lots of) covers out there that spell out what the book is (hello chick lit!), and I find this quite uninspiring. You want the cover to set the tone and mood, but not give too much away. So, with this cover, I will say that I instantly thought it beautiful, and also wondered why there was a kite, what the ‘investigation’ was of, and why it managed to look so sad despite being so beautiful.

2014 Mantle hardback edition (image: goodreads.com)
2014 Mantle hardback edition (image: goodreads.com)

Jung-Myung Lee is one of the bestselling authors in Korea, and his inspiration for The Investigation is one of the bestselling poets in Korea, Yun Dong-ju. Born in 1917 but not published until 1948, Yun Dong-ju was arrested in Japan in 1943 for his supposed involvement in the Korean resistance. He was sentenced to two years in Fukuoka Prison, and this is where and when Jung-Myung Lee sets his story.

Our narrator is Watanabe Yuichi, a twenty year old Japanese guard. As the book goes on we learn that until he was drafted he lived with his mother, helping to run their second hand bookshop. His love of books is deep, and he reminisces about sitting amongst the shelves at the back of the shop reading the classics, and letting himself be taken away by the stories he is reading. Fukuoka Prison is, crucially, a place where no unauthorised literature is allowed. ‘Unauthorised’ means anything that could incite the Korean prisoners to stand up for themselves or protest against Japan, and covers everything from the Ancient Greeks to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Poetry is also forbidden.

The Investigation opens with the murder of a guard, Sugiyama. He was the censor, the one who confiscated and burned the books and letters. He was also known as the most violent and cruel of the guards, and Watanabe knows there must have been several prisoners who wanted him dead – but who would take the risk of actually killing him? The young guard is assigned two awful duties  – investigating the murder, and taking over the position of censor. As a secret literature-lover he finds it incredibly difficult to destroy books; and how is he supposed to discover who was brave (or stupid) enough to murder Sugiyama?

A deep love of literature runs throughout this novel, in Watanabe and Yun Dong-ju (when they finally meet) and some unexpected sources; though literature is also viewed with suspicion by those (both prisoner and guard) who think it is elitist and that it shuns the uneducated. These opposing points of view form a fascinating dialogue that is taken up by various voices in The Investigation. The reader must consider all the negative and destructive ways in which literature can be used (like negative propaganda for example) against its many positive influences (education and intellectual freedom being the most important here).

This is at once a prison thriller, a crime novel, a philosophical text, and a paean to language and freedom. Lee’s writing, though translated, is clean and sparse but elegant. Nothing is overstated or clunky and though the subject matter and events are often dramatic and sometimes violent there is a sense of calm running through the book; although it may be resignation in our narrator’s voice. We learn at the start that Watanabe is telling this story from memory, now that his is a prisoner where he was once a guard. He thinks back to the short life of Yun Dong-ju, the one man who remained himself while in the prison. As a writer he is thought of as a dissident, and Watanabe speaks to him regularly as part of his murder investigation – though soon their meetings become more about poetry and philosophy than anything else. They also talk about Sugiyama, and the ways in which he and Yun affected each other’s lives.

There is also a lot to learn here about Japan and Korea during the Second World War, something I knew very little about. I did not know the extent of the hostilities between the two countries and was shocked at the hatred the Japanese guards have for the Korean inmates. They are considered beasts and must read and write only in Japanese. They are even given new Japanese names and forbidden to use their old ones. For us the Japanese were on ‘the other side’ during the War, and it is odd to hear characters worrying about the successes of the Allies and their ambivalence towards the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Yun’s poetry features throughout the novel, as chapter titles and when he recites his poems to both Sugiyama and Watanabe. Words become a means of finding freedom, even in prison.

The sky of passing seasons

Is filled with autumn.

 

Without a single worry

I think I can count all the autumn stars.

 

The reason I can’t count all the starts carved

one by one in my heart is

because morning is coming,

because night will fall again tomorrow,

because my youth is not yet gone.

 

For one star, memory;

For one star, love;

For one star, loneliness;

For one star, longing;

For one star, poetry;

For one star, mother, mother.

Watanabe is utterly moved by Yun’s words and though they are on opposing sides the young guard becomes increasingly concerned with the wellbeing of such a man, one who contains so much freedom and who sees such beauty. But it is not that simple. In Fukuoka Prison they are both wrong, and both right. When it comes to war, art, and freedom, there are always two sides to every story.

Published in the UK in March 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

 

Happy Easter! / I’m Back!

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Hello all, my apologies for being a bit quiet of late. I have just got back from holiday in Ireland (so many amazing photos! – coming soon), so I am rather behind on things. In fact I have read three books in the last couple of weeks and need to write about all of them! They were:

The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

I’d heard a fair bit about this before reading and though I knew it wasn’t going to be the happiest of books, I expected to enjoy it as well as finding it very interesting. Luckily my expectations were correct on both fronts. Bidwell Smith is natural writer with a flowing and comforting style that was easy to get lost in. Her story is sad (losing both her parents to cancer before her mid twenties) and there were times when I welled up, but this is in no way a depressing story. It is one of surviving grief and depression (though she never calls it the latter, as a sufferer I recognised the signs), and is ultimately uplifting and redemptive.

The Fortune Hunter by Daisy Goodwin

I was sent this in the same parcel from Headline as The Rules of Inheritance – the perfect example of two very different books appealing to the same person. While I love memoirs and psychology, I also love historical novels. Bay Middleton is the ‘best rider in England’, and Charlotte Baird is a young photographer who is the object of his affections. When Sisi, Empress Austria, comes to England to hunt, Bay is assigned as her pilot – her guide on the hunt. She takes a shine to him and wants to keep him close; all the while his relationship with Charlotte is slowly developing. At once a comedy of manners and a dramatic story of love and independence.

The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee

Honestly I was attracted to this one because of its beautiful and striking cover. But it was also the opportunity to see World War II from ‘the other side’, that of the Japanese. Set in Fukuoka Prison in 1945, it is the story of ‘a prisoner and a guard; a poet and a censor.’ The poet is the real life Korean writer Yun Dong-ju, who was arrested for his supposed involvement with the resistance against Japan. He was sentenced to two years in Fukuoka, but died there several months before his release. He is still one of the most widely read Korean poets, and his work is taught in Korean schools. The Investigation imagines his relationship with a guard known for his brutality. The investigation of the title begins when the guard is murdered; Yun Dong-ju proves to have formed a significant connection to him through literature.

*

Some varied and excellent books there! I will write full reviews shortly, as well as share my photos from Ireland. What have you been reading this week?

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

UK hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com
UK hardback cover. Image: goodreads.com

I know, I know – another book about World War II. Another book about a separated couple, a woman lost… but that is all that The Wind is Not a River shares with the last book I reviewed, City of Women. That and the fact that they are both set in the same year, 1943, when the war was edging towards its end.

A brief summary: John Easley is a journalist, but has snuck onto a military flight to Alaska by pretending to be his brother, recently killed in action. He has been there before to report for National Geographic magazine, but journalists are no longer allowed up to Alaska due to secrecy around the movements of both the US and Japanese armies. Meanwhile his wife Helen waits at home in Seattle. She did not want to him to leave, and told him that if he went back to Alaska he didn’t have to bother coming back. At the start of the book John’s plane has gone down and he has parachuted into the snow of Attu, one of the Aleutian islands. He seems to be the only survivor.

The book opens with one of the many passages of really excellent description, of both the landscape (sometimes cruel, often beautiful) and of the characters’ experiences and inner lives, as well as the bare facts of their situation.

The fog is better than an ally; it is a close, personal friend. It covers his mistakes and spreads its protective wing over him, allowing him to escape detection. But it also separates him from the crew, if indeed anyone else has survived. Then a red flash of memory: an airman’s lapel suddenly blooms like a boutonniere before the man’s head slumps forward and lolls.

I chose that passage almost at random, but that is easy to do if  you are looking for an example of the language in this novel. Payton is a skilled writer, making things seem more beautiful and rich than they perhaps really are. He does not waste words, but still manages to convey enough depth and, for lack of a better word, content. His language is full without being overstuffed or heavy.

Though we begin the novel with John, and his side of the story is the most dramatic, I think that The Wind is Not a River is really Helen’s story. John’s side of things moves along slowly, following his efforts to survive with his only companion, a young soldier named Karl from the same plane. It is existential, at time harrowing, and sometimes uplifting; but it is simple. Helen, on the other hand, is wrecked with worry and also trying to deal with her father, who has just had a stroke. She is desperate to hear news of John, desperate to the point where she uses a friend’s connections to blag her way into the USO as a performer. Her mission is get to Alaska and somehow find John. She has no idea how she might, but she feels she must.

Helen is extraordinary. She bottles up her nerves and dives headlong into a world she knows nothing about, muddling through and fighting her own battles against fear, doubt and an absolute lack of certainty. Her determination directs her to ask almost everyone she meets if they have seen John, and information (what little there is) only comes to her through the most tenuous and coincidental links. At first she does not even know that he has masqueraded as his brother, and asks after a journalist. She is met with shaking heads.

I of course will not give away what happens to Helen and John on their respective journeys of survival and longing, but I will say that it is not quite what I expected. A minor criticism here would be that the ending is a little rushed, and therefore seems a bit flat after the drama and emotion of the rest of the book before it. But I liked the ending – it was unconventional and somehow redemptive, and it convinced me this really is Helen’s story. It is explained at one point that the title is a phrase that means ‘this too shall pass’ – the battering wind is not a constant river. It will end. And Helen survives it all.

*

Published in the UK by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 13th Feb 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

My First Proper Crime Novel: Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Pan Mac 2013 cover. Image: panmacmillan.com
Pan Mac 2013 cover. Image: panmacmillan.com

Is it ever wise to impulse-buy a book? Annoyingly the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no. I’ve bought a lot of books over the years on the spur of the moment, both online and in bookshops that I’ve put on the shelf and then never bothered with again… luckily, that did not happen on my most recent foray into thoughtless purchasing of literature.

The journey between my new home in Oxford and my mum’s house is long and dull, and goes through Paddington station. The last time I made this journey I popped into WHSmith’s for a magazine for the train and came out with Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus.

I have read crime before, but they were always what you would call literary crime – literary novels with a crime element, but not really classifiable as being in the crime genre. However I love crime and mystery TV shows and films, so I reckoned I should try a proper crime novel.

I was attracted to the striking cover and the suggestions of a fairy tale, as well as the fact that Neuhaus has a very Scandinavian sounding name. She is in fact German and this is her first novel to be translated into English, though it is the fourth in a series. The series focuses on two police officers, Pia Kirchoff and Oliver Bodenstein, and Snow White Must Die follows them as they investigate the events following the release of a murderer from prison.

Tobias Sartorius leaves prison in 2008 after serving ten years for the murders of his friend Laura Wagner and his girlfriend Stefanie Schneeberger – a girl everyone referred to as Snow White. He returns to his home in the small German village of Altenhain (a real place that Neuhaus used as inspiration for the setting) and his reappearance instantly dregs up old issues and emotions. It is a very close knit place where everyone has lived and known each other for years and years, and Tobias’ release turns everything on its head.

Snow White Must Die is part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club this year, and there are a couple of short interviews with Neuhaus at the back of the book. She says that she chose Altenhain as the setting because a village is the perfect setting for a murder mystery – a close knit community where everyone knows everyone else, and both characters and events do not get lost in the rush and clamour of a city. She has utilised this perfectly, as the truth of the events in 1997 and the surrounding years is slowly revealed. It is complicated, but not so much that you get lost or annoyed; in fact it is perfectly clever and extremely well planned. Every character has a role to play, every person is significant in some way, as is every action.

When Tobias returns he discovers that his parents have lost the family restaurant and the farm because no one would go near the parents of a murderer; and that they have been divorced for several years, a fact they kept from him even when visiting him together in prison. Their entire lives have been destroyed by his conviction, and he feels an enormous sense of guilt.

Tobias’ father now lives alone in their house, which is dilapidated and unloved. A rival restaurant, The Black Horse, has opened across the road that no doubt contributed to the decline of the Sartorius restaurant. There is a new family now living in Stefanie’s house, and their daughter Amelie, only seventeen and working as a waitress at The Black Horse, hears rumours about Tobias’ return and becomes curious about the events of 1997. Everyone seems to have known him and the two girls, and everyone seems to have opinions. She becomes increasingly fascinated by how a few drinks at the village fair could have lead a well-liked young man like Tobias to murder one of his oldest friends and his girlfriend. Amelie begins her own investigations, asking people questions and trawling the internet for the truth. Tobias cannot remember what happened on the night of the murders; he is the only person who is glad Amelie is asking questions.

Pia and Oliver’s investigation builds when another young girl goes missing; this time it’s Amelie, a girl who bears a striking resemblance to Stefanie – ‘Snow White’. Everyone in Altenhain assumes that either Tobias or her friend Thies, autistic and mute, is responsible for her disappearance; but Pia is not so easily convinced. She is highly suspicious of the cruel and whispering residents of Altenhain who all dismiss Tobias as evil and Thies as stupid and odd and therefore dangerous.

Pia Kirchoff is a brilliant character; she combines the familiar territory of the headstrong, determined female detective with a normal woman trying to get planning permission to extend her house and advise her ex-husband about his new extramarital affair. She is extremely well paired with Oliver Bodenstein – he is grumpy and unhappily married, with too many problems of his own to notice the intricacies of Tobias’ story. But when he’s good, he’s good. He excels as an interrogator and knows how to pin someone down and get the truth out of them. He is intellectual and yet also a tough guy; Pia is these things too.

I warmed to these two characters immensely and cheered them on as they solved each little conundrum and raced to solve the next one. Neuhaus’ plot is complex and folded up into a tight ball, which is slowly unfolded, spread out and examined by Kirchoff and Bodenstein. Tobias is also an excellent character. He is dark and troubled, but also naive, fragile and bewildered by the new world he is thrust into.

I could not guess the ending of Snow White Must Die. I could not guess what happened in 1997 or how deep the secrets went. There is action right up until the last second, and nothing in this book is as simple as it seems – the people especially.

The next book in the series to be published in the UK is entitled Bad Wolf – and I will certainly be reading it.

*

Originally published as Schneewittchen muss sterben by List in Germany in 2010; and by Pan Macmillan in the UK in 2013.

Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (Man Booker Prize 2013 Longlist)

Image: charlottemendelson.com
Image: charlottemendelson.com

Almost English came to me by chance, and I was instantly taken with its cover (they are so, so important, aren’t they?).

It is not only striking but carefully designed, and modern too. ‘Modern’ – what I mean by that really is that it does not look like a lot of other book covers knocking about at the moment. So many of them seem to look the same, so it’s nice to see something different. It’s also understated – I for one hate covers where too much is going on and you don’t know where to look.

Our central character Marina is a schoolgirl, and I feel that in some ways this would be a great book for schoolgirls to read (of Marina’s age that is, i.e. 16/17) as it paints a vivid and realistic portrait of how utterly awful it is to be a 16 or 17 year old girl and how difficult it is to navigate between family, school, and boys.

Marina’s mother Laura is also rather central and gets her own sections of the book. She is, for lack of a better phrase, weak willed, and is also rather unhappy. Marina’s father left years and years ago, and the mother and daughter duo live with his mother and her two sisters – elderly Hungarians. The three of them are a wonderful trio, bringing both comedy and drama to the story and illustrating the vital importance not only of family ties but also family history and legacy. I loved all of them, and Mendelson’s knack for phonetically writing their accents is brilliant. Her own grandparents were Hungarian and you can actually feel the affection for them in this book.

Marina is unhappy living with this mish mash of family and begs to be sent to Combe Abbey, a traditional English boarding school, convinced that this will solve all her problems and make her feel less ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’. Of course it does not go to plan, and the results of Marina’s efforts to fit in and find happiness are simultaneously hilarious, excruciating, and rather sad.

Mendelson’s story and her characters are vivid and almost touchable. You are immersed in their world and when you close the book it lingers around you. Almost English entertained and moved me, and made me miss hugs from my also foreign grandma.

Visit Charlotte Mendelson’s website to hear her discussing Almost English on Foyles radio with Fiction Uncovered, and in a little video made with her publishers. Luckily she seems to be absolutely lovely.

*

Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 15th August 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Almost English is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Read more here.

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

The Promise was one of those books that had (and still has!) a lot of hype, and a lot of people told me I would love it – and that I would probably cry at some point during it. I therefore had quite high expectations. The blurb also attracted me.

1900. Young pianist Catherine Wainwright flees the fashionable town of Dayton, Ohio, in the wake of a terrible scandal. Heartbroken and facing destitution, she finds herself striking up correspondence with a childhood admirer, the recently widowed Oscar Williams. In desperation she agrees to marry him.

But when Catherine travels to Oscar’s farm on Galveston island, Texas – a thousand miles from home – she finds she is little prepared for the life that awaits her. The island is remote, the weather sweltering, and Oscar’s little boy Andre is grieving hard for his mother. And though Oscar tries to please his new wife, the secrets of the past sit uncomfortably between them.

Meanwhile for Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, Catherine’s sudden arrival has come as a great shock. For not only did she promise Oscar’s first wife that she would be the one to take care of little Andre, but she has feelings for Oscar which she is struggling to suppress.

And when the worst storm in a generation descends, the women will find themselves tested as never before…

With echoes of The Fever Tree, and issues surrounding parent/child relationships, The Promise really appealed to me. I had never read anything by Ann Weisgarber, but knew her debut novel (The Personal History of Rachel Du Pree) was very well received and this new novel is highly anticipated. And I did enjoy this novel – just not as much as I thought I would…

2013 cover. Image: easons.com
2013 cover. Image: easons.com

The pace is pleasantly slow and Weisgarber’s writing is measured and confident. Catherine and Nan take turns to narrate, and so we see their situations from two angles. Multiple narrators are an effective device to demonstrate perspective within a story, and Weisgarber uses them well. At first their voices are distinctive, but towards the end they get more and more similar, though I’m not sure if this was intentional. Perhaps the hurricane (which takes up the final third of the book) forces them to learn from each other, and their ways of thinking become a little more similar.

There are classic, or at least well trodden, images here of one woman resenting another for entering her world so unexpectedly and taking a role she herself would like. The differences between Catherine and Nan are well demonstrated, but these contrasts get a bit clunky at times and not as subtle as I would have liked. There are moments of great beauty, but the problem for me was that the characters’ personalities were hinted at and explained a little, but they did not develop enough and I could not ‘get to know’ them as I would expect to. For me Catherine was the character who developed the most, but even then her personality was limited.

The Promise is described (both in press and by people who’ve read it) and very emotional and sad. It was these things, but just did not have quite the emotional punch I expected. Certain moments with five year old Andre were very moving, as he is grieving for his mother and trying to cling to the familiar Nan, while being expected to bond with the terse Catherine. I thought of my eighteen month old nephew and felt a tug at my emotions – but as with all moments with Andre in this book, it did not last long enough.

Ann Weisgarber. Image: twitter.com
Ann Weisgarber. Image: twitter.com

While I liked The Promise, I did not love it, but I would still recommend it to others and am glad I read it. It is a very good novel, but for me both the characters and the story just needed more development.

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The Promise will be published in March 2013 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Best of 2012: Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – Guest Post by Sarah Chapman

This post has been kindly written by blogger Sarah Chapman, who also happens to be part of the amazing Mslexia team. Sarah’s blog The Bibliomouse is always a joy to read and I love her frank and witty reviews. She was an obvious choice to include in this series. Here she talks about her pick for 2012, Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

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When Lizzi asked me to write about my favourite book of 2012, I blithely agreed, forgetting both how indecisive I am and how many fantastic books I’ve read this year. From the multi-layered and atmospheric Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann to the tightly plotted and downright tricksy Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, from the magical The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey to the tense Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne and the brilliantly-realised Tom All Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd, there have been some fabulous books out this year. However, there is one which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since reading it and which I had to choose as the best of 2012 – Tell the Wolves I’m Home.

2012 hardback cover. Image: panmacmillan.co.uk
2012 hardback cover. Image: panmacmillan.co.uk

Set in the mid-1980s, Carol Rifka Brunt’s novel is a hauntingly gorgeous debut. When June’s uncle and best friend, the renowned but reclusive painter Finn Weiss, dies of a mysterious disease, she is devastated. In the early days of AIDS awareness, the stigma attached to it means that no-one will talk to June about Finn, and she cannot reveal why she is as upset as she is. When Finn’s partner Toby gets in touch with her and explains that he misses Finn as much as she does, she is prepared to hate him for occupying part of Finn’s heart that she had thought was all hers. As they get to know each other, she and Toby realise that Finn has been more cunning that they gave him credit for.

What makes the novel so fabulous is the quality of the writing. There are paragraphs that I had to read several times because the writing is so gorgeous, and June’s narrative voice is pitch-perfect. Insecure, baffled by her sister’s distance and somewhat isolated from her schoolmates, she thinks that she has hidden her greatest shame, her love for Finn, from everyone, not realising how obvious it was to those who mattered. She is self-aware enough to admit that there are less than altruistic motives to some of her actions, but at other times her naïvety is immensely touching. She is brave and imperfect and is my favourite ‘heroine’ since Cassandra Mortmain.

Carol Rifka Brunt. Image: panmacmillan.co.uk
Carol Rifka Brunt. Image: panmacmillan.co.uk

This book is about so much more than I have written but I wanted to hold things back so people will discover it properly for themselves. It’s a beautiful, hopeful and assured novel and I tear up every time I think about it. In a good way.

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Tell The Wolves I’m Home was published by Pan Macmillan in June 2012.