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Nicola Cornick – House Of Shadows

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What goes around comes around.

Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
Pages: 468
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45416-3
First Published: 5th November 2015
Date Reviewed: 5th November 2015
Rating: 5/5

Holly is woken in the early hours of the morning by her young niece. The girl can’t find her father, it seems he’s left their house and she hasn’t seen him for a couple of hours; Holly leaves her uncaring boyfriend and travels to Oxfordshire to be with her. Ben is gone and the police can’t find him but as Holly begins to search the house and move into it herself she finds items from her brother’s family research, and in time she discovers that the beautiful old house she sees through the trees has never actually been there.

It’s difficult summing up the plot without giving too much away; House Of Shadows is part contemporary, part 1600s Europe and part 1800s England – the narrative includes Elizabeth Stuart and her possible relationship with a squire as well as the tale of a Georgian courtesan.

This book is magnificent. It’s a historical fantasy mystery romance about a curse that uses tropes to good effect. It’s brilliantly written, well plotted. The mystery is drawn out by way of many factors rather than just to keep the story going – this is to say Cornick doesn’t make you wait, she’s always revealing aspects so you feel rewarded but she reveals things in drips and drabs to keep you coming back. She knows what to reveal and when.

Needless to say it’s lengthy but never boring. There’s always something going on and quite frankly you wouldn’t want it any shorter because it’s just so good. The character development is bar none. Cornick has done a wonderful job, most especially with Holly whose story us modern readers are most likely to relate to. There is romance in each of the eras, defined by a pushing back of affection. It’s sad in the case of the 1600s but understandable – a queen desperately in love with a squire, both knowing they could destroy her life if they made anything of it. It’s sad but understandable in the case of the 1800s, the poor Georgian courtesan who cannot leave her abusive patron for her poor lover. In Holly’s case it’s understandable but in an entirely different way. Holly is constantly pushing back her one night stand, a man she felt an instant connection with for reasons she can’t explain. It’s the sort of setup that annoys many readers but what Cornick does is fully develop Holly’s character and show the reader why Holly does this, really delveing into it but without any naval-gazing or other things that can bring plots down. Cornick lets you into Holly’s mind, into her psyche, she almost wills you to become the character herself (and sometimes you’ll certainly wish you were with the amazing experiences Holly has!) The author has written a fantastic character who, whilst she may be silly every now and then – who wouldn’t be in the situation? – is someone you want to keep reading about.

Holly stays realistic. She leaves her home but brings her work with her; she doesn’t neglect her business. She leaves her boring arrogant boyfriend and the few pages Cornick gives to the scene between them is more than enough to understand it. She goes to her friend’s coffee shop for lunch and to chat but doesn’t forget to walk her dog. And all these things drive the plot forward. The dog is an important character. There’s even a paragraph or two devoted to the career/children debate.

The other characters – Elizabeth Stuart and Lavinia – get their fair number of pages and are well thought-out, it’s just the limitations of their eras’ views of women that make them less memorable than Holly. This said, Lavinia is winsome and Cornick’s use of Elizabeth and William Craven, semi-fictional or not, will make you want to learn more about them. You’re going to want to help bring these Stuarts to the foreground.

The world building, then, is equally as good. You’re drawn in and you stay there. You might prefer one time period to the other but all have that same atmosphere, that pull on your mind. It’s that magical feeling you get when you’re reading an exceptionally good book. Cornick uses the basic history we have about the people and locations and then moulds them until they fit her idea, for example the Ashdown House of the book no longer stands – in reality it’s still around but access is limited. It’s all done respectfully.

The fantasy is there from the beginning and it’s the sort that straddles magical realism and full-on mystical. It’s the sort you wilfully suspend reality for whilst knowing there are patches of realism in it anyway. All genre elements in this book fit well together; they’re equally important.

It’s clear that Cornick has spent much time and effort getting it right; it comes together in one big successful stack of pages. Even the length is perfect. Informative sections have been kept to a minimum – you can almost see where a line was drawn for no more description. There are some errors – proofreading – but whilst noticeable they don’t detract from the reading experience.

House Of Shadows is epic and glorious and a history lover’s dream. I can’t recommend it enough.

I received this book for review from the publisher on behalf of the author.

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Georges Simenon – The Late Monsieur Gallet

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Money and murder.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 155
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-39337-7
First Published: 1931
Date Reviewed: 8th July 2015
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Monsieur Gallet, Décédé (Monsieur Gallet, Deceased)
Translated by: Anthea Bell

When Maigret is called upon to solve a murder case, he realises there’s more to it; something’s not quite ‘right’. There are suspects but there seems little reason for Monsieur Gallet to have been killed. The bullet and stab wounds seem slightly suspicious. And whilst there’s motive, no one person sticks out as the murderer.

The Late Monsieur Gallet is the third book in Simenon’s extensive Maigret series and whilst it’s the only one I’ve read I have to say I get the impression that various others are better.

Chances are it’s partly the translation that’s the issue. Missing commas, sentences that aren’t phrased very well. The text reads too simply.

The story is told very swiftly and much of it is facts. It can be contrived, at least in the context of our present day (more on that in a moment). People pop out of the scenery to provide titbits of information as Maigret walks past, to pop back just as quickly. Premises give way to suggestions of dinner just as you’re getting into the swing of things.

The text is outdated but easy to see why it worked at the time. It’s enjoyable if read in the context it was written in, and the work that went into the mystery is plain to see. That the story is told swiftly seems odd nowadays but one can appreciate the way Simenon doesn’t linger on sub-plots – there aren’t any. This is a crime novella and that’s how it stays; everything is focused on the mystery at hand. Maigret walks you through everything so you know exactly what happened and is happening.

And the psychology behind it all is fascinating. Simenon spends just as much time on the who as he does the why, looking into the social context. He lets his character flourish on the page, to be there in front of you even though the man’s been dead since the beginning. Solving the mystery may be key to the world at hand but looking at the deceased as a person is key to Maigret.

I get the sense that this book isn’t reflective of the rest of the series. The books can be read out of order but I would certainly recommend starting with a different one and leaving The Late Monsieur Gallet for later. It’s a perfectly fine way to pass an hour or two but is unlikely to make much in the way of a good early impression.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Guy Ware – The Fat Of Fed Beasts

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When banks do not store money.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 233
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63024-9
First Published: 1st March 2015
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2015
Rating: 4/5

Alex, Rada, and D are ‘loss adjusters’ – they deal with lives that have ended, reporting on the worth. Alex gets up later than D and Rada. He wanted to be with Rada but she chose Gary. D is sick of Rada’s detailing and just completely sick of Alex, and hopes for better. Rada is in the bank when it’s robbed, can’t get the old man to lay on the floor and her following suspension leaves her aloof in the world. And then there are the demoted police who want to give something unlawful a try.

The Fat Of Fed Beasts is a somewhat confusing novel that looks at work, the worth of a life, society, and individual reactions to situations. Honing in on one particular situation, it deals with its subjects swiftly, mostly devoid of extraneous detail.

‘Mostly’ is the the keyword here because there is an aspect of The Fat Of Fed Beasts that is best noted prior to reading – the book is told from various viewpoints (it takes time to work out who is who) and one of these viewpoints is going to make you want to throw the book across the room. It takes a chapter of this viewpoint to realise what is going on and that chapter is a long, tiresome, one. The character provides every minute detail. They are frustrating, repetitive, and take forever to get to the point. It’s important to mention all this because for a time you may well wonder where the editor was: this is a style Ware makes use of for this (one) character. Odds are, Ware found them as tedious to write as the reader will to read; Ware has ensured his characters are different. In sum, you’re going to want to give up early on but bare with it. The author’s on your side, as are the other characters.

The minute detailing takes us to the next point: this is largely a book about personal responses to situations; the bank robbery. Characters worry about their jobs, about the person called Likker who no one seems to know, about society in general. The frustrating character allows us to look at customs and etiquette, British mannerisms, all in a relaxed but nevertheless slightly satirical way. The character who swears a lot shows the way a younger person can strive to keep up to be listened to (not that the swearing is due to age). Another character shows varying levels of anxiety, angst, and a certain sort of empathy that to name would spoil part of the story. It could be said that Ware’s little use of first names, especially at the start, shows that whilst these are individuals, their issues could be anyone’s.

So it’s about people, crime, features a bit of comedy and a smattering of mystery. The writing style, almost to suit this smorgasbord, is part literary, part general. It’s hard to say it’s literary fiction but at the same time that’s sort of what is it.

To be sure The Fat Of Fed Beasts isn’t for everyone, though even those who aren’t overly keen are likely to take something from it. It’s short, almost necessarily so; the length is pretty perfect actually. The ambiguity is something to savour; it let’s you focus on what’s most important.

Give this one a chance; there’s a chance you’ll like it.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Emma Healey – Elizabeth Is Missing

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Or is she?…

Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-00350-3
First Published: 13th March 2014 (in translation); 5th June 2014
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2015
Rating: 4.5/5

Maud can’t seem to get through to her family (or anyone else for that matter) that her friend is missing. Everyone says that nothing is wrong, that Elizabeth isn’t missing, but all the signs seem to point towards the opposite. As a child post-WWII, Maud lost her sister, Sukey, and as she goes about her search she remembers this.

Elizabeth Is Missing is a rather excellent novel about old age and the way others treat the elderly.

Our narrator, accidentally unreliable, is an octogenarian who has become very forgetful. Maud thinks the same things over and over, says the same things, and forgets where she is moment by moment. It is in the details that Healey shows us what she is trying to get across: it’s all very well getting frustrated by those who forget, but remember to view things from their perspective. Maud is patronised and knows she is patronised; she also knows that no one is listening to her even when they should. And the reader knows, even when Maud doesn’t notice, that people are not respecting her, are laughing at her. In amongst this is the question of care homes, of old age care in general, and how the wishes of the person should be respected.

Healey’s writing of Maud is simply incredible. She is believable and, though it does not matter in regards to whether it would affect the tale, very likeable. Because you’re on this journey with her, in her head, you don’t feel any frustration or boredom; Healey makes you understand what it is like. You’re able to chastise Maud’s daughter, Helen, for not listening to her mother (whilst understanding the pressure Helen is under); you’re able to think up the rest of what Maud should say yet be satisfied that she does not say it.

Maud’s memory isn’t static – Healey’s story incorporates the progression of memory loss. She manages to make you feel upbeat whilst you begin to loiter on the edges of upset for the character. Something that is never answered (this is not a drawback) is how long we are with Maud. It’s plausible that we spend a few weeks or months but it could just as easily be days.

The structure of the book is quite simply genius. It makes you keep questioning what snippets of information relate to which part of the story, and of course, ultimately, you have to decide which versions of Maud’s many retellings are true. It’s prudent to say that this book isn’t a thriller in the usual sense – ‘thriller’ is the description on the book, but it’s far from edge-of-seat nail-biting drama. You soon work out a few possibilities for Elizabeth and none of them are particularly amazing. The page-turning factor of this book lies in the way Healey makes you want to stick around, to hang out with her expertly-written main character.

What you may find irritating is the almost predictable way no one will tell Maud where Elizabeth is even when it’s obvious they know. There are two points to this withholding. The first is that there would be no story if people told Maud where her friend is. Of course. And as much as this in itself is obvious, you have to just accept that you’re going to have to keep reading to find out for certain, even if you don’t feel it’s much to look forward to. The second point is that it makes perfect sense no one is telling Maud where Elizabeth is. Maybe they have; she’ll have forgotten. Maybe they don’t because they’re sick of repeating themselves. Maybe, if Elizabeth is dead (which is of course possible given her age) they don’t want to upset her. The end of the book is very much a look at the entirety of this second point.

The second ‘plot’, then, concerns the disappearance of Maud’s sister. It’s a long time before the reason for its inclusion, its creation, comes to light. You’re invited to feel confused and perhaps a bit miffed that Sukey gets all this time when the book is about Elizabeth. This plot is confined to Maud’s childhood so the book is effectively part historical fiction. Maud’s long-term memory allows her to tell the reader about this period of her life in a generally usual way.

The only shortcoming can be found in the words Healey uses for Maud’s own descriptions. Some of the terms are too modern or colloquial and not what a British person of Maud’s age would use. These terms are therefore jarring and can pull you out of the text for a bit if you’re susceptible to them (for example, this may not affect American readers but it is going to affect British readers old enough to have witnessed the introduction of the terms). This, however, is a minor issue overall.

Elizabeth Is Missing is driven by all three ‘drivers’ – character, plot, and society. (I realise society isn’t generally thought of but this book’s commentary on issues requires it.) It’s fabulously character-driven, slow but steadily plot-driven, and what it offers for thought will stay with you for a long time and likely affect the way you think and deal with others (or at least make you constantly aware). It’s not going to take you on a whirlwind journey – Maud can’t take the bus with you alone – but it is going to leave you highly satisfied no matter what conclusions you reach in regards to the excellent and superbly devised climax. (Some questions are left unanswered, but there are enough hints.)

Take your place at Maud’s side and prepare to take note of when the gas needs to be turned off and when the kettle’s on the boil. This is a journey without travel and one you’re likely to enjoy very, very much.

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Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

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He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 424
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-25089-0
First Published: 3rd July 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2015
Rating: 2.5/5

It’s 1686 and Nella moves to the home of her new husband in Amsterdam. She expects happiness but instead receives a frosty reception – she’s not particularly wanted, her sister-in-law is clearly mistress of the house, the servants seem too big for their boots, and her husband makes no move to consummate the marriage. Instead of the life she thought she would have, Nella finds herself living in a mystery and this only increases further when her husband buys her a miniature of their house and the creator she assigns to complete it appears to know an uncanny amount about the family.

The Miniaturist is a book that could have been amazing but is sadly held back by a lack of focus, poor writing, and a decisive gap between the characters and the readers.

Burton seems to have chosen the 1600s to gain the attention of history lovers. The book could have been set at some other time at no cost, and the characters do not at all conform to the time period. By this I do not mean the way they defy convention – indeed servants on a par with their masters is not unbelievable – more it’s the way Burton wields power that is an issue. As an example, Nella has a fit over something most of her era would naturally have a fit about, before doing an about turn and completely changing her opinion within hours, emulating views of the present day.

Is Nella confident or nervous? Burton cannot decide. One moment her character is close to being obnoxious, the next she’s a delicate flower who will not speak a word. She leaves the house without question one day, then stays in her room and lets people make all the decisions for her the next. It is clear that Nella is a device – this is a plot-driven novel – but there is nothing to hang on to, so to speak. Burton hasn’t made up her mind and wants both worlds.

The characters never come into their own. You’re never given a reason to care about them; they are distant from the first page to the last. A lot of this is down to the way the author chose to write her story – the particular way she uses the present tense, third person narration, does not allow the reader to feel they are at all close to what’s happening. Instead there’s the sense Burton realised, at some point, that she should have been writing in the first person but didn’t want to rewrite what she already had. Nella does lots of thinking and imagining when dialogue would work better. Everything is too detailed, info-dump is common.

Much of the issue is that The Miniaturist is full of drama. Full of drama to a melodramatic, unnecessary degree. As the book progresses it reads ever more like a prose version of a theatrical production, the problem being that theatre has to be expressive to reach the audience at the back of the room but a book by its very nature has no requirement for it. Disaster follows disaster to a silly level and social issues are packed in like sardines.

As said, this book is not very well written. Whilst modern language is natural – a book in old English would be difficult to read – very modern slang and colloquialisms pull you out of the story. Burton moves between ‘oldy-worldy’ English grammar, modern English grammar, and American grammar, making for dialogue that doesn’t ring true. (The characters may be from Amsterdam, but they would not have peppered their language with Spanish grammar, for example.)

Lastly, it must be said questions are not answered. The question of the miniaturist is never answered. There is a half answer that spells out who they are in terms of background, but you never learn the mystery nor do you ever really meet the miniaturist. The question of what will happen to these characters now they are in a bad position is completely forgotten.

The Miniaturist is strictly okay. Read it if you will, but don’t pass up the chance to read another book for this one.

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