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Julianne Pachico – The Lucky Ones

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Please note: as well as today’s post – which is in lieu of yesterday – and Wednesday’s usual post, I’ll also be posting this Thursday. As I haven’t been able to blog much recently I’ve a small backlog of posts that I’d like to share with you before Christmas. Next week will be back on schedule.

Or are they?

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32974-8
First Published: 31st January 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th December 2017
Rating: 3/5

In 2003, a girl decides to stay home instead of go to the party at an equally rich family’s house on the top of a hill, agreeing with her mother to tell the maid not to open the door to strange men. A few years later, a professor who may be a prisoner teaches a class made up of ferns, and leaves and twigs of other plants. And as the professor teaches the plants he mistakes as children, elsewhere the girl who lived at the top of the hill listens as her words are delivered as a lecture to the militia.

The Lucky Ones is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, the stories focusing on different characters who are all fundamentally linked by their school years. Set in Columbia (with a brief sojourn in New York), it looks at the drug war conflict in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting with the topic, it’s a difficult one to make out – you can by all means research but you may have to read a fair portion of the book first to work out what you’re looking for, instead of spending your time appreciating what the author’s saying, because so much crucial information has been left out. The identity of each story/chapter’s character is left out until a good way into it, and you have to piece together clues further on. This lack of identity is combined with a non-linear narrative. If you happen to know a lot about the topic already you’ll likely ‘get’ it but the approach may still prove a problem.

In view of the writing, there are some outstanding turns of phrase throughout, most often those that expose the things you should be considering. But there are also many clunky sentences, an abundance of hyphens, and a very noticeable reliance on ‘abruptly’.

Looking at the content, what Pachico is saying is very good. Thankfully there are some moments when proceedings are looked at openly, where times in the characters’ lives are referred to in a manner that clearly shows the shocking reality of the situation. There is also a story written entirely in metaphor – or is it? In this case, at least, you are meant to wonder about what you’re reading.

To speak of another positive, the title of the work is irony at its best, referring to all the characters. Some of them are in good shape but others have been altered forever whether mentally, physically, emotionally – if these damaged people are the lucky ones, what of the rest? It’s an excellent title which, when combined with the use of its singular version as the title of the first story, asks a few more questions.

So, in sum, notes of importance, but it could have used a different approach.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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A J Waines – Lost In The Lake

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The words of Rockwell are apt here: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me”.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 388
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-543-16398-8
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 30th October 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

Psychotherapist Sam Willerby is going to be careful about patients in future – she’s had trouble before and doesn’t want that again, but when Rosie is assigned to her care, she is lenient. Rosie was travelling home with her fellow quartet members when there was an accident – following trouble with the vehicle, it ended up in a lake, and Rosie was the sole survivor, her viola the only instrument recovered. She wants to remember what happened by she’s also taken a shine to Sam, believing they can be good friends. There’s a lot to remember, and also a lot to realise.

Lost In The Lake is a psychological thriller with a distinct difference – whilst it is a page turner, the general trend to get the pages turning faster is supplemented here by some fabulously relevant and literarily satisfying detail. An item of work by someone with a background in psychotherapy, it offers a lot to enjoy and rely on, along with some teaching moments.

The detail in this book is most apparent where it comes to character development – instead of the usual idea of a bad person – who you may or may not know from the start – and the resulting race to see what’s happened, Waines gives a definite nod to the structure but then goes into the villain’s mind. In a style akin to Georges Simenon but, it could well be argued, done better, the author shows you Rosie’s background long before she turns to look at the progression towards the finale, taking the reader back to the character’s childhood to show the effect extreme neglect and the loss of parents and constant changes in foster care have affected Rosie’s emotional well-being and stability. It’s a person-first story, a look at the humanity of a character before any literary thriller relish comes into play, a style of writing that you means you not only see exactly (very much) how it gets to the point it does, but also that you can relate – at least on some level – to the character.

Bolstering the effect further are the individual voices. This book is told by Samantha and Rosie, chapter by chapter, and both have distinct voices. You will never be confused as to whose chapter you’re reading and there is no feeling that the author is talking.

The story itself is involved. Full of music, trickery, and a fair dosing of red herrings (it’s apparent from the cover that Rosie is involved in something but whether the crime/accident or whether her villain status is separate takes a while to become known). There’s also Sam’s story; this is both the second story of a series and a standalone, and Waines has spent time on Sam’s background so that the times she does things that will move the plot along are relevant to her rather than mere devices.

As for the writing as an element it is very good and rather literary at times. The editing is solid, with the descriptions not moving towards filler except perhaps if you’ve read the first book (therefore the repetition is understandable) and as said previously, this is a text of showing. The telling that is included is the natural result of a story told in first person narration and particularly in Rosie’s case the words serve to highlight to the reader what Rosie cannot see or understand.

Lost In The Lake is a very good book. By the end you have a full working knowledge of the characters, the plot, and also a good example of a thriller as its own product. The climax is well done and the extent the characters go to make sense. Highly recommended.

I read this book in preparation for my event.

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Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze

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Tempted by the fruit of another has nothing on this.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 286
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63116-1
First Published: 15th August 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th September 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Norwegian Mats sees something changing in his marriage to his beloved Nina, and true to his thoughts, she wants to split up. He gets a job in Edinburgh, moves overseas. Meanwhile, Romania Marta, a girl from a poorer family, is lured into a hotel meeting with a man a gut tells her has bad intentions. She pushes past her worries; she is trafficked to Edinburgh to work in a brothel. Mats’ life is unstable, his new wife depressed and relying on alcohol, and Marta is trying to find a way to contact home.

The Squeeze is a fairly fast-moving thriller that looks at trafficking in 90s Scotland – girls from Romania in this case. It uses both regular chapters and a diary format to tell a tale full of narrators (but never too many).

This isn’t a particularly long book – it teeters on the 300 pages mark – but it manages to get through three periods of time without any rush. More an exploration than any edge-of-your-seat action (though due to the subject matter you will be wanting to find out what’s happening), Glaister takes the story beyond transport and prostitution to the home life of the regular person. And this is really what makes the book what it is – the lack of rush and the incorporation of the everyday of 90s Scottish living brings an added horror to what’s going on as well as a nod towards the fact that this goes on where others would not think it. Glaister uses accents to good effect, using a stereotypical Scottish dialogue that makes you think things are okay, normal, before pulling the rug from underneath you.

In this book, the trafficked girls – mostly girl, singular – are main characters. The book looks at both happy and bad times, with Glaister structuring it all carefully, considerately, but still with enough of the hopes of the reader in mind to, well, keep you reading. There’s detail in the book but not too much, again the three periods of time, the progression of it but all you need to know, is done well. There’s also a good mix of plot and character development, enough that it’d be difficult to say which is more significant. Glaister likes both.

The ending perhaps ties the book up a little neatly – it’s personal preference here all the way; does it really matter how it ends when what Glaister had to say has been completed already and achieved with aplomb? The only area in which the book does fall somewhat is in the editing – besides the somewhat broken English of Romanian Marta, which fits her, there are missing words and typos. These don’t make it difficult to understand, but are noticeable.

The Squeeze is good – well, as much as it can be given the subject matter. Glaister has produced a book that deals with a current subject of news but kept it well away from being a report or an opinion. Difficult sometimes but never so much that you feel the need to put it down.

I received this book for review.

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Emma Cline – The Girls

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The Girls (Chatto & Windus) has been shortlisted for the British Books Awards 2017. The winner will be announced 8th May.

Under the thumb.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 353
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-74044-3
First Published: 14th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th May 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

At 14, Evie’s life is becoming difficult. She’s got problems with her major friendship, has a crush on her friend’s brother and knows that’s a problem in itself, her father has left the family home for an apartment with his assistant, and her mother spends all her time elsewhere. Feeling the lack of love in her life, Evie is easily drawn to Suzanne and her friends, girls in well-used clothes who live on a ranch under the leadership of an older man. Evie chooses not to live with them exclusively, knowing she should go home sometimes so her mother doesn’t suspect, but the group’s influence is enough. Now, middle-aged and looking back on the time, Evie muses on the influence, her innocence and role, and the crime committed that saw the major players behind bars.

The Girls is a novel of semi-factual history, an account of a 1960s cult with a devastating end. Told from the point of an acquaintance, it is one part drugs, a manipulated idea of free love, and one part teenage anxieties and fitting in, particularly as a female.

Based on the Manson Family murders in the late 1960s, Cline’s book aligns to facts enough that her book can be considered a semi-retelling. Looking ever more closely at influence and the impact of neglect – both real and assumed – Cline’s focus on the female psych is the strongest element of the novel. Evie’s experience, enmeshed in the cult but with enough time away from it, enables Cline to study the way words, bullying, parental-filial relationships, can impact the self and the ability to be manipulated, both in general and sexually. This is of course mostly in the context of the era being studied, but Cline ensures her writing has long-term relevance, having the older Evie contemplate the experience of a young acquaintance in our present day, a girl she sees staying silent whilst her boyfriend and his friend talk, a girl who takes her clothes off to show her body when requested – though uncomfortable – in the company of both boys.

Evie’s teenage lack of self-confidence, self-worth, most terms that begin with ‘self’, is what enables her to be taken in by the group, their relative (though pretend) empathy and love for her driving her to do things that you as the reader can tell she would really rather not do – she’s always on the cusp of understanding it but lacks the forethought due to self-belief. (It should be noted this book is of a very adult nature.)

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

The title stays true to form – whilst there are a couple of men in this book who are manipulated, it is not the same – this is a book about girls and women in the ways discussed. There are few good male characters in this book; the literal good guys Cline has painted well, but with Evie’s narrative you don’t get to see them for long and they are not given much time.

Cline’s study has much to recommend it, but beyond this the book struggles to make a mark. The writing falls somewhere between excellent and too much; on a solely literary level it’s marvellous, it’s all very poetic and descriptive but on numerous occasions it detracts from the essence of the story, Cline appearing to favour words over getting her point across. Favourite words and terms of phrase are noticeable, for example, many times something ‘stipples’ something, and every so often words are made up.

It’s literary but missing a few things – it doesn’t say anything new. The background details – the hows, whys and whens of the cult – have been left out entirely; even if the book lines up with the stereotype of cults and rests on history, the details should have been included rather than the expectation that the reader already knows the story. The historical details about the hippie life do not always ring true.

This is a book where you know the ending at the beginning – on purpose – but all the action has been left until the end meaning that you must be enjoying Evie’s musings on the lackadaisical everyday to keep going. Due to Evie’s position in the group, a lot of the lasting information is relegated to paragraphs telling you what the TV reports said, which does mean it has less of an impact than it might have otherwise, and unfortunately this low level of impact is similar throughout.

I received this book for review.

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Frédéric Dard – Bird In A Cage

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Making a U-turn.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 117
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27199-4
First Published: 1961; 2nd June 2016 in English
Date Reviewed: 3rd June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Monte-charge (The Elevator)
Translated by: David Bellos

Albert has just returned home. His mother has died and after staying away for several years he’s returned without his girlfriend, who has also died. Coming to terms with the changes, he decides to visit the expensive restaurant he’d always wished he could visit as a child. There at a table nearby are a young girl and her mother. The mother is more than happy for him to chat to her daughter and seems interested in him, but there’s something about the woman and he just can’t put his finger on it.

Bird In A Cage is a slick novella that looks at a probable murder from the point of view of a potential conspirator. It’s a book that gets straight to the point and has no room for deviations in its storyline.

How reliable is Albert? That is a question and a half – from the start you get the feeling he can’t be trusted, but is that because of your knowledge of this genre or is it down to the character himself? For that matter how reliable is anyone here? Dard deals with few characters, a grand total of four specific ones, in fact, so there’s lots of room for suspicion. He holds your attention. Indeed due to the shortness of the tale, its pithy structure and overall atmosphere, you’re likely to finish this book within a couple of hours. Perhaps it was created this way, perhaps not, but Dard’s conciseness and detailing means you won’t feel the need to put the book down and that’s really the best way to read it.

A smidgen of mystery drips from the text – is what Albert’s seeing true? Depending on what aspect of the book is taking your fancy at any given moment you may well gain a suspicion as to what’s happening but if you do it will be only a half-formed idea. If you have spotted the clue you may well feel the age of the book more than a reader who hasn’t. This is to say the book is slightly outdated due to its atmosphere and the obvious now-historical nature of it, but it’s just so different and succinct that the age has only a minor impact. Unlike the work of Georges Simenon, who Dard has been compared to (and they knew each other), Bird In A Cage is written in such a way that it’ll likely entertain a wider age range.

The ending is deliciously ambiguous; there’s some wrapping up of the story but it’s only that which directly affects Albert – the rest is left unfinished in a literal way (it hasn’t happened yet). In saying this I’m reflecting on the way the story is told as a whole – whilst the plot is important, it’s Albert’s role in it all that is key, and the ending is one that, if you hadn’t already been doing a lot of thinking, will make you want to interact with the text. It brings a whole different flavour to the book, mixing two opposing tastes in one dish to create something that sounds unworkable but is really a triumph.

Enough with the food analogies. Bird In A Cage is a very solid, good book.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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