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There is a quote in Neil Gaiman's latest novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane that, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, sums up the book rather nicely:
”I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
The ”I” of the tale is a young boy who, growing up in rural Sussex nearly forty years ago, encounters unspeakable evil from other dimensions. I will keep the plot details sparse and simply urge you to pick up this beautiful, darkly magical book! Part horror, part fantasy, part coming of age, this has something for everyone who loves great storytelling. Something in Gaiman's heartwrenching depiction of just how vulnerable children are, and what can happen when something evil preys upon them, reminds me of Stephen King's finest moments. This isn't an adult story, nor is it a children story. This simply is, and how gloriously so! Easily Neil Gaiman's best efforts in years.
ALSO RECOMMENDED THIS MONTH
The Wicked Girls was one of the best thrillers I read last year, so I had very high hopes for her latest novel. I finished it in less than 24 hours (clearly, this is the way her books are supposed to be read – I remember pretty much gulping The Wicked Girls down in two sittings) and was genuinely terrified by this tense psychological thriller. Set in a dodgy house in south London, it gives the reader close access to the house's tenants, one of whom is a serial killer. Silence of the Lambs meets Shallow Grave, sort of. Highly recommended – not for the faint of heart, though.
Did I just say ”tense psychological thriller”? Here's another one! Haynes' debut novel – she has written two more just as compelling thrillers since and has a fourth one out soon – deals with domestic abuse, destructive relationships, and OCD. It is absolutely unputdownable, as are her other two books: I've read all three in just over two weeks. I like how all her books depict deeply real problems and how she doesn't shy away from unimaginable darkness but rather revels in it. Her books are perfectly paced with an impressive narrative flow and she often uses multiple points of view in an elaborate and successful way. Clearly one to watch. Liked S J Watson's Before I Go to Sleep? Do yourself a favour and pick this one up, too.
Finally, with the publication of Helena fave Jennifer McMahon's The Winter People but weeks away, I'd like to bring up another McMahon title from 2011: Don't Breathe a Word. It is an utterly enthralling blend of thriller, coming of age, and fantasy, featuring dark Vermont woods, fairies, and lost children. It is every bit as delicious as it sounds - perhaps even more so. That got your attention, didn't it?
As I'm writing this, 2013 is stifling a yawn and getting ready to go to sleep. Really deep – c'mon, name that lyric, you know you want to! And no, this time it is not, shockingly enough, a Morrissey lyric…
Where was I? Oh yes, 2013. Not much left of it, is there? About bloody time, then, to get around to acquire that retrospective gaze, gather the literary soundtrack of my year, as it were. Bearing that in mind, I sat down and started writing a tentative top ten. While the top five came to me rather vulcano-like, completely without hesitation, as though my subconscious had already written it, time and time again in invisible ink, I must confess the rest was a bit of a struggle. Not for lack of candidates, mind you. I soon realised that I simply couldn't limit myself to a measly TEN books. How to choose between Anton diSclafani's poignant coming-of-age tale set at a 1920's riding camp for girls, Jess Walters' beautiful, beautiful ruins, Stephen King's surprisingly tender Joyland and his son Joe's utterly unputdownable, downright EPIC horror tome? You can't, of course.
And so my initial top 10 quickly became a not-so-tentative top 15, which became a top 20 since I just couldn't bring myself to exclude certain titles. And what, then, of Jonathan Tropper, Lisa Jewell, Lisa Unger, and Lionel Shriver, all of whom have written books which by turns moved me, entertained me, and made me think (sometimes all of the above at once)? And what, pray tell, of Curtis Sittenfeld? Granted, Sisterland failed to make that larger-than-life impression that American Wife did, but it is still a pretty damn good read. Not stellar, but pretty damn good. Ergo, I settled on not a top ten, not a top twenty, but a top twenty-five of the English language books – mostly, though not exclusively, fiction – I have enjoyed the most over the course of this year. 25 books out of the 80 odd books I have read in 2013: not quite a third nor a fourth of the sum total, but nevertheless a dive into a rather deep end of my reading pool this year. I often fret about the books I don't read, as in quite simply don't have time to read (don't we all?). Compiling this list made me realise that while I am no longer anywhere near my old 120 book record of 2008, I read more carefully now, and tend to go straight for the books I know I will adore - and find them, with a little help from my friends.
So yes, 2013 turned out to be a rather good year, as good reads go. It was, obviously, the year of The Goldfinch, of Morrissey's much anticipated Autobiography, and Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, which up until the release of the two former books was my number one read of the year. Along with Tell the Wolves I'm Home and The Woman Upstairs, these titles form the crème de la crème of my literary 2013. These are the unflinching ten out of tens, the literary equivalents of a home run or a perfect kiss. You can, if you like, view my list as a thoroughly chronological presentation, going from number one to twenty-five in descending order. Certainly there is that element of grading in there somewhere... to the extent that you can grade books (I don't think I could, if we're talking numbers). Having said that, though, I will stress that every book on this list, be it a number two or twenty-four, is a knockout. Or rather, it seemed that way to me, either at the time or in retrorespect (ever notice how some books tend to grow in your mind, sometimes months after you actually finished them?) or both. Literally NO lukewarm reads on this list, no siree Bob! These lucky 25 are all - need I say it once more? - really good books, each in their own way. If you look at my picks really, really closely, I suppose you could come to the conclusion that many of them are coming-of-age novels and/or crime novels of the darker persuasion. Well, yes: I know my own taste in books pretty well by now, and so does my bookshop of choice, so those types of reads tend to come my way, by premeditation, recommendation, or osmosis. Perhaps this year has been particularly heavy on the crime, seeing how I read all the Best Novel nominees for this year's Edgar Awards. That reading challenge, documented here on this blog, was such a success that I think I will do it again in 2014. Still a tiny bit miffed that Gillian Flynn didn't win, but she did sell a few million copies and even made the glossies. Not to sound judgmental or anything, but every time I pick up the book section of, say, Glamour I tend to notice a lot of beaches or snowflakes on the covers, depending on the season. (And yes, I do realise that this is bit like getting pissed off about not finding tofu at McDonald's.) Suffice it to say it was a pleasant surprise that Gillian Flynn - who I continue to think of as MY Gillian Flynn, despite the odd million sold copies, because she has that effect on you, particularly if you happened to name your blog after one of her novels - made it to their 2013 roundup. I, of course, read Gone Girl in early 2012 and am currently looking forward to Flynn's next novel, which I hope she is writing right about now. (Okay, so the beginning that last sentence did come off as a wee bit judgmental, didn't it?)
While not on my top 25, I must say that it was nice to see Bridget Jones again. And to read a thoroughly enjoyable Harlan Coben standalone after last year's rather lackadaisical effort. And ooh, the Edgar nominees! So good, all of them!
Okay, you know what? Better make this a top 30 and be done with it. Are you ready?
(And yes, this is it, I promise. No more last minute additions - not even you, Linwood Barclay! Although I'm pretty sure you would be on here somewhere if I hadn't misplaced my copy of A Tap on the Window and found it several months later, in the midst of the all consuming Goldfinch rush. Note to self: continue reading, soon.)
1. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
2. The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer)
3. Autobiography (Morrissey)
4. Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)
5. The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud)
6. The Year of the Ladybird (Graham Joyce)
7. The Cry (Helen Fitzgerald)
8. Valley of Ashes (Cornelia Read)
9. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Anton diSclafani)
10. The Wall (William Sutcliffe)
11. NOS4R2 (Joe Hill)
12. Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walters)
13. The Wicked Girls (Alex Marwood)
14. The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
15. We Are Water (Wally Lamb)
16. Joyland (Stephen King)
17. Two Boys Kissing (David Levithan)
18. Sunset (Al Lamanda)
19. Gods of Gotham (Lyndsay Faye)
20. Lie Still (Julia Heaberlin)
21. Visitation Street (Ivy Pochoda)
22. Big Brother (Lionel Shriver)
23. Sisterland (Curtis Sittenfeld)
24. This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper)
25. The House We Grew Up In (Lisa Jewell)
26. Live By Night (Dennis Lehane)
27. The Lost Ones (Ace Atkins)
28. Heartbroken (Lisa Unger)
29. The Burning Air (Erin Kelly)
30. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy (Helen Fielding)
... and then, of course, there are those books I more or less know would be up there had I, you know, had time to read them this year. Yes, I am looking at you, The Accursed. You too, Life After Life, MaddAddam, and This Is Where I Am. Here's to 2014, gals. And here's to knowing great books, and encountering new ones. See you soon! Now I'm off to read those very last books of the year. Who knows, maybe I've been saving the best for last?
Let us establish something right off the bat, just so we are clear. This is NOT going to be a conventional review of Morrissey’s Autobiography.
Most likely, seeing how it will be, inevitably, hopelessly, written by someone whose first online screen name was The Girl Least Likely To, it will be something more along the lines of rambling declaration of love and relentless self-scrutiny. See, when I attempt to speak of Morrissey’s much anticipated memoirs (humbly published as a Penguin Classic), I inevitably find myself speaking of my personal relationship with Morrissey. In this regard, I realise that I am far from unique. Oh, but then again, it's not like any other love; this one is different because it's us, no? In any case, we’ve been at it for years, the Mozzer and I. Needless to say, it has been – and is – a rather one sided relationship. Not that there haven’t been times when we’ve been close, mind you. I will always relish the day when I fleetingly touched his right shoe. It was a very nicely polished shoe, should you ask, and the air was reeking of stale post-bandy match sweat (this was in 1997, prior to the big Morrissey revival of 2004, so small multi-purpose venues were common in the world of Morrissey). Appropriately – poignantly – enough, the shoe encounter took place right as Morrissey was singing "Paint a Vulgar Picture", that paragon of fan-idol lyricism. The relationship between the worshipper and the worshipped is at best an unbalanced one, and Morrissey addresses it beautifully in one of the finest tracks from The Smiths very last studio album. In it, the devotee fleetingly touches their idol at the sound check, only to realise later on that "to you I was faceless, I was fawning, I was boring – a child from those ugly new houses, who could never begin to know". A similar realisation, although possibly from a different angle (is Morrissey referring to himself or one of his previous – infamous – biographers?), takes place in another Morrissey penned song, "Reader Meet Author" from Southpaw Grammar:
You don't know a thing about their lives
They live where you wouldn't dare to drive
You shake as you think of how they sleep
But you write as if you all lie side by side
Surely I wasn’t the only one who had that particular song glued to my brain last Thursday, when Morrissey came to Gothenburg for a signing? (Yes, I temporarily wished I lived in Gothenburg. And yes, I soon caved in to fear of being cruelly disappointed and/or humiliated – or both. Just suppose – the horror! – that Morrissey would detect the chicken I had had for dinner last night on my breath as I leaned in to embrace my teenage saviour…? I would have to leave the country, surely. Listening to Meat Is Murder yet not fully embracing vegetarianism remains one of my life’s biggest failures, by the way.)
Here’s another realisation: next birthday, Morrissey will have been in my life for exactly half of my earthly existence. Seventeen, clumsy and shy, I went to England and found not love nor luck but something far, far better. I found a certain Stephen Patrick Morrissey, and it was his songs, his words, his outlook on life that provided a much needed soundtrack to a time where very little made sense. (That, incidentally, is called adolescence, aka something we all must endure at some point, but I am nevertheless very grateful for Morrissey’s help.) Never even attempting to fit it amongst the hormonal hell of vodka-flavoured parties and dreary popularity contests that my high school had to offer, Morrissey was a godsend. Unabashedly bookish, caustically witty yet strangely compassionate, oozing with homoeroticism yet (mostly) claiming celibacy, he made me fall in love with Oscar Wilde, daffodils, Shelagh Delaney, and the black and white working class England of yore. He also provided snappy comebacks for unwanted questions. Why did I wear black? "I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside." Do I seem a little strange? "Well, that’s because I am." What is the meaning of life? "There’s more to life than books, you know (but not much more)." And so on.
Oh, how I walked without ease on these, the very streets where I'd been raised on drab school day afternoons, Smiths and Morrissey mix tapes glued to my melting Walkman! Despite an age difference of just over twenty years, with heaven knows how many miles between us, Morrissey had so much to offer the teenage me: companionship, wit, lyrics that eerily captured my current mood, whatever it happened to be. More than anything, he got me. Let me in, then let me out, and for this I shall always be grateful. Yes, I’m older now, and I’m a clever swine, but there was a time when it felt like he was the only one who ever stuck by me. I still get misty-eyed just by hearing the opening chords of "Now My Heart Is Full" and have virtually every Morrissey lyric tattooed at the very bottom of my heart.
Do you sense a "but" coming? Oh, but here it is. In recent years, Morrissey has made some shall we say alarming comments that makes him feel a wee bit like that drunkenly outspoken, eccentric uncle you somehow always find yourself sitting next to at family gatherings. You love him dearly – how could you not, after all this time? – but you can’t help but cringe a bit, bracing yourself for the next debacle. You know, the oh dear, here we go again-ness of it all. I was, needless to say, not proud of being a Morrissey fan when he, right after the tragic events at Utoya, made a point out of telling the audience at a concert that this was nothing compared to what goes on at "Kentucky Fried Shit" every day. Somehow I can’t help but suspect that Morrissey, for all the good he has done to the maladjusted across the globe, is somehow lacking a sensitivity gene. Or does he simply enjoy the controversy? How else to attribute the fact that he, despite time and time again telling the world he is not a racist after NME’s "vicious attack" (his words, not mine) in the mid-90’s, continues to make statements that can be viewed as, if not downright racist, then at least deeply problematic? Morrissey, so much to answer for. And sure enough, he has to go there in Autobiography! Using vocabulary such as "Israelites" and "blackface" while attempting to clear one’s name in murky waters? Please.
So yes, I do have my reservations – reservations which also, ultimately, reflect on how I view Autobiography. But let us go back to the very beginning of the book, shall we? I did mention there is a book, didn't I? Not in the new year but, rather to the delighted shock of Mozophiles worldwide, THIS year?
Yes, the book. It's about time we talked about that, isn't it?
The first half of Autobiography could well be the finest piece of autobiographical writing I have yet to encounter. Full of the gloom and doom of post-war Manchester, introducing death, sexual ambivalence, Northern grimness, and virtually Dickensian characters such as teachers who are "old, and will never marry, and will die smelling of attics", it serves as the perfect backdrop for the tiny rays of light that do eventually manage to creep into the life of one lonely Northern boy. For, as we all know, the good life is out there somewhere, and it is when Morrissey discovers music - 60's pop tunes, Patti Smith, David Bowie (who in a poignant turn of events will go on to cover one of Morrissey's own songs, "I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday") and, most notably, the New York Dolls - that he knows this for a fact. A music fan first and foremost, with his signature style and wit to boot, Morrissey is heavenly when depicting the cathartic and escapist nature of music. In this, of course, he mimics the experience of many, many Morrissey fans (including this one), adding further weight and heart to lyrics such as "Rubber Ring" and "Paint a Vulgar Picture". But, true to form, Morrissey does not start dancing, laughing and finally living simply because he has found a coping mechanism. Yes, Morrissey does eventually meet Johnny Marr, who luckily turns out to be a window-tapper, and he throws himself into singing and performing with a near-sexual ferocity. He remains alone, but perhaps not forevermore. Well into his thirties, Morrissey finds requited love for the first time. Reader, meet Jake, who knocks on Morrissey’s door and stays for two years. Enter: tears of joy. What do you know, he has seen brighter sides to life! Here is yet another beautifully written and touching part of Morrissey’s life story, so when it gives way to a 40 page dive into the infamous Joyce trials where Morrissey (quite unsuccessfully) tries to make himself into a modern day Oscar Wilde, I can’t help but feel slightly disheartened. Yes, yes, we know, you bear more grudges than lonely high court judges, and clearly this is something that has had a great effect on Morrissey’s life ever since so I am all for the inclusion of such an event in his autobiography. It is, after all, his story to tell. Still, though: FORTY pages? Really? I turn the pages more quickly now, actually come close to stifling a yawn at one point (something I NEVER thought could happen while reading Morrissey’s autobiography).
Then there is that infinitely sad postcard from Kirsty McColl, written on holiday in Mexico just before she was killed in a horrendous boating accident, and suddenly Morrissey’s hand has a relentlessly firm grip on my heart again. He is very good at that: going on and on about something rather uninteresting, then suddenly, by a sudden turn of phrase or perspective, making things interesting again. Ah, the amount of loss and sudden death resonating against the pages of Autobiography! Seems so unfair, I want to cry. A more lighthearted note of the book takes place in the funny depiction of Morrissey’s musician acquaintances. Here, the already much talked of Chrissie Hynde dog biting incident earns top marks. I also love the fact that Michael Stipe, along with the previously mentioned Hynde and, of course, David Bowie, get an altogether positive treatment (and with "altogether" I mean "c’mon, it’s Morrissey!"). He never does reveal whether Kill Uncle’s "Found, Found, Found" is in fact about Stipey (a fact that, I shall hasten to add, he has previously refuted, but… well, see above) though.
The final part of Autobiography is a rapidly shifting yet beautifully structured series of countries, venues, and people passing through – with special emphasis, I am happy to report, on Sweden. Near 500 pages do not seem nearly enough – that is, as long as he at least tries to take the high road. I would gladly read 1000 pages of those "streets upon streets upon streets" of Morrissey’s childhood, of love found and lost and the songs that saved his life. Cheap digs on Julie Burchill’s middle-aged legs, though? Why, oh why does he have to make it so difficult for us to defend him? I mean, I LOVE Julie Burchill and I really believe that Morrissey respects her as a writer, in spite of their personal baggage, in spite of, well, spite. And yet, here we go again… do we sense a pattern?
I have said it before in this "review", and now I will say it again: it is the absolute prerogative of any autobiographer to depict one’s life however way they deem appropriate (or, preferably, inappropriate – oh yes, please!). Following that logic, every prospective reader of said autobiography – or Autobiography, as it were – should be free to read whatever they like into and out of the story. Now, this particular autobiography is rather tough to separate, seeing how it has no chapters, no clear chronology, just a never ceasing, mostly flawless wall of beautiful, essentially Morrisseyesque prose where the subject, rather than neat chapters, serves as a constant point of reference. Still, I choose to emphasise on the wonderfully bleak Victorian feel of Morrissey’s childhood, music, and love (there is quite a bit of love going out to his fans, as well, which needless to say is very pleasing indeed). Is it, then, okay to simply cut out the 40 odd pages of dull court proceedings and vindictive feelings, along with the seemingly pointless digs at physical flaws and looks? Can we really do that? If we could, there is no doubt in my mind that Autobiography is one of the finest bits of writing I have read in a long, long time. The things that irk me are, perhaps, there to put everything – including me, the former Girl Least Likely To – into perspective. Morrissey, ultimately, as a human being made out of flesh, blood, genius and a great deal of spite. Could it be?
I honestly don’t know, and therein lies perhaps part of the appeal. I will say this, though, all earnestness and big eyes, standing at the very front of the stage, desperately elbowing my way across bequiffed boys and daffodil clutching girls both taller and younger than I am:
Nothing’s changed, Moz, I still love you. Only slightly, slightly less than I used to. Oh, and please, please, please write more books. A novel – why not a darkly Victorian tale of bleak modern times? – would be absolutely smashing. Thanks, and see you soon! Who knows, maybe I’ll get to touch your hand one day…?
The girl least likely to
What are you reading right now? Just finishing off Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda, the first book to be published on Dennis Lehane's new imprint. Incidentally - accidentally, I should think not... - it is rather reminiscent of Mystic River, although in a more ethnically diverse Brooklyn setting. Gritty, real, and beautifully written with a terrific sense of place.
What will you be reading next? Night Film by Marisha Pessl, finally!
A book you've been saving for a special occasion? I'm off to Spain on holiday in a few weeks time, and have deliberately put the latest Linwood Barclay, A Tap on the Window, on hold. Should be the perfect holiday read. Also saving Julia Heaberlin's Lie Still for the same trip.
The last book you gave up on? The latest instalment of Carol Goodman's Fairwick Chronicles, The Water Witch. Truth be told, I only managed thirty odd pages. I absolutely adore Goodman's previous literary thrillers, though, and hope that she will pick those up again once she's done with the series.
The first book you read in English? Elizabeth's First Kiss by Francine Pascal, a true Sweet Valley classic.
And the last book you read in Swedish? A novel from 1956 by Swedish cosy crime queen Maria Lang, Mörkögda augustinatt. Her books are like security blankets for me, and this is one of her best, with a more menacing feel than her other novels. At least two of Lang's books (A Wreath for the Bride and No More Murders, both recently filmed) are actually published in English and rather fun reads in a very 1950's, Agatha Christie sort of way. Bizarrely enough, many of the names have been changed so as to become more English language appropriate: Einar, for instance, is called Edwin and Detective Chief Inspector Christer Wijk's last name has been changed into Wick. Kronors become shillings and so on... I suppose Swedish crime didn't have as much appeal back then as it has now, hence the apparent need to adjust everything to the English market. (Maria Lang is out print since long, but do check with our BookFinder service.)
Can you recite any poems? It is mainly pop songs that I tend to memorise, particularly ones by Belle and Sebastian or Morrissey. I do have several poems that I know more or less by heart, though, including William Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say" (in all fairness, it is a very short poem), Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" (okay, the last lines...) and, of course, several of Shakespeare's sonetts. One day, I would love to be able to recite all of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". As it is, I can recite parts of it and often, when I find myself misinterpreted and/or misunderstood, I will think "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all." One of the main characters of a novel I recently finished, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, does the same thing.
How do you find the time to read so much? Honestly? I don't, at least not as much as I'd like. Juggling two kids, work, blogging, and reading isn't easy, but since reading is the number one thing that makes me relax and - does this sound pretentious? - grow as a person, I try to make it a top priority in my everyday life. I read on the bus to work, in the bathtub after I've put my daughters to bed, in queues, on my lunch break, during Bolibompa, that famous everyday void for Swedish parents... There's a great quote from Stephen King that goes "Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn't carry around a book for those inevitable dead spots in life". I suppose that is what I do: carry around a book for those inevitable dead spots in life. Above all, though, I crave and seek those long, uninterrupted hours of non-stop reading until the real world fades and you ARE the novel you're currently reading, the edges between fiction and reality blissfully blurred.
Which new releases are you most excited about this autumn? Is that even a question? Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, of course! Only about a month to go now! I'm also eager to read Wally Lamb's new novel We Are Water, which will be published on the same day as The Goldfinch (October 22). And I must admit that I'm a bit excited about Helen Fielding's new Bridget Jones novel, also due out in October. Okay, perhaps more than a bit.
The effortlessly genre defying Joyce's new novel takes place in the blistering summer of 1976. David, a young student, has come to the coastal town of Skegness to work at a holiday camp and, hopefully, watch his life begin. No sooner has he arrived than he begins to notice strange occurrences, all somehow connected to the resort: a man in a blue suit keeps appearing at the beach carrying a rope, a young boy in tow, and his colleagues drag him to late night meetings where emotions run high. As the heat wave intensifies and ladybirds begin to swarm the premises, political tensions rise while David is forced to confront certain traumatic childhood events. It is the year of the ladybird, the summer of love, the last days of the working-class summer idyll and - literally and figuratively - the beginning of colder times. The Year of the Ladybird works on so many different levels. As the title implies, it is indeed a ghost story, but also a coming-of-age story, a love story, a politically acute tale of the last (pre-Thatcher) glory days of the working class... This is the second book I've read by Graham Joyce and I'm very impressed with the range he has been showing so far. His writing will undoubtedly please the horror/fantasy crowd as well as fans of contemporary British novelists such as Ian McEwan. One objection, though: I wasn't crazy about how the (very few) female characters were portrayed. Still, as 1976 UK goes, I'm guessing it might be depressingly accurate. Okay then, she muttered. The novel as a whole is, after all, way beyond the realms of okayness, with the simmering heat and nightmarish quality of David's wanderings lingering long after the last page has been turned.
I am very much in agreement with Jan over this impressive debut - and no, that is not just my old horse loving, camp going self talking: truly, this is so much more than a story of a girl being sent to riding camp. Despite being set in the decorum obsessed South of the early 1930's, this is a fresh, bold, sad, and poignant tale of a girl coming into her own self, body, and sexuality in unforgiving times. DiSclafani's writing is exquisite and somewhat reminiscent of Curtis Sittenfeld, whose enthusiastic blurb made me curious in the first place (I love it when literary worlds collide like this!). Anton diSclafani is definitely one to watch!
A beautifully eclectic and delightfully eccentric read, this one. It begins in the 1960's in an Italian coastal town, where a beautiful, supposedly dying, actress emerges from the set of Cleopatra to get some well needed rest. Cut to modern day La-La Land and the crazed world of pitches and movie deals and an unforgettable cast where past meets present. This is the kind of novel that benefits from a very short plot description, so I'll be scant on the details. Suffice it to say that I truly enjoyed it. There are so many talented, diverse writers out there who deserve a larger audience; Jess Walter, whose previous works include The Secret Lives of the Poets and Citizen Vince, is one of them.
By far Jewell's darkest and most engrossing book to date, this is the story of a seemingly picture perfect family whose lives take a tragic turn one Easter. Years later, the eldest daughter is back in her childhood home, unearthing the dark, dark secrets and sad, sad consequences of that day. If you think Lisa Jewell is a chick lit writer, think again. While her novels have an emotionally rich and satisfying streak, this is far darker and more mature than anything typically encountered in the chick lit section. Think mashed potatoes served with vodka, straight up. (Is that a weird analogy? I hope you understand what I mean: that while this is a novel visiting some pitch black places, it is also, ultimately, redemptive and comforting.) I raced through this.
Speaking of chick lit: here's the sequel to Devil Wears Prada and if you're looking for something light and entertaining, with a near perfect fluff to edge ratio and plenty of fabulous New York apartments and the odd Hamptons sea front villa, you could do a lot worse than this. Deeply enjoyable in an escapist sort of way.
Last summer, I read almost everything Lisa Unger had published to date and fell in love with her strong sense of place and almost Harlan Coben-esque way of blending the mundane with the terrifying. As frequent blog readers will know, I have previously praised her two Hollows novels, Fragile and Darkness, My Old Friend. Her latest effort, set on a remote island in the Adirondacks, just may be her best standalone novel yet. I also recently read Black Out, which had a great, slightly gothic Florida setting (she is so good with settings - secretive small towns, sweltering Florida trailor parks, the pulse of New York City, you name it, Lisa Unger will make you see, feel, and smell it!) but had a few plot twists too many (more of a quirk than a flaw, really). Black Out had a certain late 90's vibe to it that made me think about Joy Fielding, a Florida based thriller writer whom I read religiously ten, fifteen years ago. I wonder if she's still got it...? Only one way to find out.
As you may have seen on English Bookshop's Facebook page, I will be interviewing British writer William Sutcliffe during this year's installment of Culture Night and as part of the preparations, I have been reading up on his back catalogue over the past few months. Such a treat for a book geek and former student of literature, getting to read everything by one particular author in chronological order, looking for recurring themes and influences, a way into the very "themness" of their writing! These are the two books I liked the most - am very much looking forward to discussing them with him in person! I am currently in the process of preparing questions for William based on his entire body of work (no small feat, but fun!) and should you have anything you would like me to ask him, feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org - or, better yet, come to the shop and ask him yourself after our chat!
For this month, I thought I'd try something new and post shorter reviews of some of the books I've been reading lately/am reading at the moment. All of the titles are, I daresay, ideal for the warmer season, whether you're looking for spine-tingling horror, light, fun beach reads, or simply a plain old good book. Enjoy! I will be writing all about my summer reading plans shortly, so stay tuned for that!
Ever since his debut novel Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill has been a force to reckon with in the horror genre. His books, while genuinely creepy, are tinged with a dry wit and an excellent eye for the morbid and the strange. His works are often very touching, too, especially when treading into coming-of-age territory. One could, of course, argue that his flair for the macabre yet heartfelt runs in the family, seeing how his father is a certain Stephen Edwin King. In NOS4R2 – you work it out... – his heritage is more evident than ever. It is a big old sweeping horror story in the classical sense with plenty of references - obvious as well as more thematic ones - to the old man's oevre. Still, Hill manages to pull his own weight, drawing the reader into the terrifying world of Christmasland (note to self: so glad that I didn't read this at Christmas time!). If you're a fan of fun, epic horror with a nice coming-of-age streak to it (think IT or indeed Hill's previous novel Horns), you will devour this. At just over 700 pages, it is a hefty read, but one that you will undoubtedly breeze through. The antagonist, diabolical, freakishly ageless Charlie Manx is almost as scary as Pennywise the Clown, while the protagonist, Vic, is relatable and human both as a child and an adult. Hill's previous novels, while deeply enjoyable, have been very laddish in their outlook on life with very little female representation. Therefore, I was particularly pleased with the character of Vic – that, and the fact that Hill dedicates the novel to his mother Tabitha King, the storytelling queen. Now he just needs to pick up his dad's publishing pace!
You just have to love Lauren Graham, right? She seems just as sympathetic outside Stars Hollows, and as a massive Gilmore Girls fan – well, Lauren Graham fan in general, really – I was pleased to learn that she has written a novel. Someday, Someday, Maybe tells the tale of struggling young actress Franny, who has six months left on her deadline to make it in New York City. Between the odd detergent commercial, endless auditions and acting classes, she is no way near her dream and occasionally longs for a quiet normal life with her highschool sweetheart. Still, she does not want to give up just yet - or does she...? Someday, Someday, Maybe is a light, fun read with a nice wit and several laugh-out-loud moments, very much what you would except from Graham. Ideal for lazy summer days.
Okay, so the concept of lazy summer days (and lazy summer reading) may be a bit of a paradox when you have two four-year-olds at home, but on those rare occasions when I can actually sit down and relax during the day and when sun is shining, I love settling down with a new Lisa Jewell novel. She is the queen of comfort lit, always sympathetic and engrossing, light yet substantial, with a large heart in the centre of her stories. Before I Met You, just out in paperback, is no exception. I haven't finished it yet since a ghost story on orphan choir boys came in the way (as they tend to do...) but so far, I am very satisfied. Looking forward to reacquainting myself with Jewell this summer, when her new novel The House We Grew Up In is published.
Fans of supernatural horror in general and spine-tingling chillers in particular ought to do themselves a favour and get acquainted with Hammer Books, which is also the UK home for Sara B Elfgren's and Mats Strandberg's Engelsfors books (yay!). So far, I've read and enjoyed Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat and Jeanette Winterson's The Daylight Gate (Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, reissued by Hammer upon its theatrical release, is an old fave) and Sophie Hannah's The Oprhan Choir is another good choice for fans of old-fashioned ghost stories. Hannah, who normally writes tense, page turner-y thrillers, balances the mundane and the supernatural very well in this novella about Louise who is tormented by her neighbour's constant music playing at night. When she relocates to the countryside, she finds that the music has continued to haunt her - only now the pop tunes are replaced with eerie choir music, hitting particularly close to home for personal reasons.... The Orphan Choir is a fast read, ideally devoured in one tense sitting. It does not quite reach Susan Hill's exceedingly high standards, but it is thrilling, atmospheric, and - frighteningly enough - very real in its depiction of bleary-eyed reality versus something far more sinister. Hopefully, this isn't a one-off for Hannah as I would very much like to read more by her in this vein. I am also eager to read Hannah's latest (non-supernatural) thriller The Carrier.
On 2 May, this year's Edgar Award winners will be announced during a big banquet in New York City (would have loved to have tickets, incidentally). I have read the seven nominees in the Best Novel category and found some real gems, made several new friends, reunited with old ones, and, in a few cases, been mildly disappointed. All in all, though, the Edgar jury has settled on a solid bunch with nice versatility: we've got some fine historic crime writing, a toxic marriage where nothing - and I mean NOTHING - is what it seems, a blockbuster thriller satire, a heartwrenching privat eye procedural, some gritty New York City noir, and atmospheric Deep South small town drama. Granted, the jury's literary tastes are more directed towards tough crime than its cosier, tea-drinking cousin - but then again, so are mine (although I do love Agatha Christie and old school whodunnits), so you won't hear any complaints from me.
When I embarked on this particular adventure, in all fairness, I did it mainly to see how five of those books could compare to Gillian Flynn's and Dennis Lehane's. ”How”, perhaps, being closer to ”if”, ”if”, being more along the lines of ”if at all”. Now, I still think Gillian Flynn has it in the bag – her main rival being another awesome lady writer I discovered through this reading challenge, but I'll get to that later on – but I have to admit to some serious competition.
Let us start with Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl, then, seeing how I already reviewed it upon its publication in May 2012. Flynn's dark and twisty tale of Amy and Nick, a goodlooking thirtysomething couple with some seriously disturbing secrets, has become a bestselling phenomenon (and rightly so, although The Independent's "thinking woman's Fifty Shades of Grey" headline left me flabbergasted and slightly pissed off - I mean, COME ON! Fifty shades of arbitrary, anyone?). It is utterly absorbing, with positively Patricia Highsmith-esque plotting and a genuinely shocking twist - I nearly fell out of my seat! Flynn's prose is razor sharp and deeply addictive, her characters deeply fucked up the way all the best crime fiction characters are... I'm probably repeating myself here, seeing how I've been known to gush over Flynn on several occastions, but if you want to read more about Gone Girl, feel free to check out my rather fangirly review.
Al Lamanda is a name I had never heard of prior to the Edgar Award reading challenge, but I have to say Sunset was a pleasant surprise, raw, cutthroat and deeply human in its depiction of cop turned burnout John Bekker and his quest for justice and redemption. Twelve years ago, Bekker's wife was brutally raped and killed during a house break-in, the terrible deed made even more devastating by the fact that the couple's five-year-old daughter witnessed it. Since then, with their daughter institutionalised and Bekker spending his time drinking himself into oblivion in a trailer, no progress has been made on the case. The deed was believed to be aimed as a warning towards Bekker, who at the time was assigned to a special task force investigating organised crime. Main mobster Eddie Crist never admitted to the murder of Bekker's wife, but Bekker has always believed that he was somehow involved. Until, that is, Bekker finds himself naked and hungover, handcuffed to a bed in Crist's mansion. Crist has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and with months to live, he wants to solve the case that pushed Bekker into self combustion... and he wants Bekker to do it. This is a nicely paced pageturner with great characterisation and some rather heartwarming moments. Highly recommended. Full review (in Swedish) here: http://helenadahlgren.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/sunset-al-lamanda/.
Moving on to something else entirely, namely a satire on the blockbuster thriller (think Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, etc) where the protagonist, failed literary writer turned miserable creative writing teacher Arthur Pfefferkorn, decides to give recently deceased college buddy, bestselling author William de Vallée, a run for his money but soon finds himself involved in a series of events rivalling those in his dead friend's penny dreadfuls. I can see why Potboiler earned a nomination: Jesse Kellerman (son of Jonathan and Faye Kellerman) has created a fresh and amusing spin on the modern thriller, although a bit too tongue-in-cheek for my liking. Not my cup of tea, ultimately, but hopefully someone else's. Loved the meta blurbs from Stephen King and Lee Child, though, and I would no doubt enjoy it as a movie (no plans that I know of, though), particularly if the producers were to share my vision of old Sideways buddies Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as Pfefferkorn and Bill, respectively. Full review (in Swedish) here: http://helenadahlgren.wordpress.com/2013/04/16/potboiler-jesse-kellerman/.
Walter Mosley is a great writer. This I know first hand, having read and thoroughly enjoyed several of his Easy Rawlings books and – more than anything, because this is truly a remarkable piece of fiction that poses many difficult and important questions about today's society– The Man in My Basement. True to old form, All I Did Was Shoot My Man is an expertly delivered, gritty piece of noir with characters as shady as they are imperfectly sympathetic. If I had read the previous books in the Leonid McGill series, I would no doubt have gobbled this down. As it is, I find myself feeling a bit lost in Leonid's hectic world when so much in his past is alluded to and I have no way of keeping up, or indeed knowing when I am accidentally spoiled. I wouldn't recommend anyone jumping into the very middle of an ongoing series, but if you're into noir, do give Mosley and the delightfully morally ambigious McGill a shot – starting with the first installment in the series, The Long Fall.
Ace Atkins comes highly praised by the likes of Michael Connelly, and I can easily see why. The Lost Ones delivers some seriously good writing, with heaps of Southern atmosphere and a nicely flawed protagonist (yes, I do have a thing for those), former Army ranger turned small town sheriff Quinn Colson. The plot also delivers, although I can't help feeling a bit squeamish about anything involving children and animals (here, we have thirteen empty cribs in a horrifyingly negligent environment, a fatally injured baby and several neglected dogs... yes, that is the sound of Helena's heart breaking!). Still, despite the broken heart and all, this was another pleasant surprise for me, especially in terms of sense of place, and I will make sure to read the first book in the Quinn Colson series, The Ranger, asap. Can't help feeling a bit bad about reading the second installment first, though (see above). Surely I'm not the only one who prefers reading things in correct order? One has to assume, of course, that the Edgar jury is already well acquainted with any previous books in an ongoing series so this isn't really a valid objection.
I have been dying to read The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye’s take on the 1845 formation of the New York Police Department, for quite a while now. So glad that I finally got around to it, because this is top notch stuff, with impressive historic detail and an atmosphere so vivid that the reader – or at least this reader – soon starts thinking in flash, the 1840’s New York slang so important to the novel that a glossary is included. I am deeply in awe of the sheer ambition of this project, and literally could not put this darkly atmospheric historic thriller down. If Gillian Flynn doesn’t get it – "if" being the operative word – then Faye is a very strong contender for the prize, especially considering that this is only her second novel. Clearly, Lyndsay Faye is one to watch. I love period thrillers, and this is one of the best I’ve read for quite some time. And get this: her debut novel Dust and Shadow, set in Victorian London, deals with Jack the Ripper AND Sherlock Holmes! As a lifelong fan of all things Victoriana, may I please squeal for a bit? Perhaps go a pitch or two higher when mentioning that Lyndsay Faye, like Neil Gaiman, is a member of Sherlockian superstars Baker Street Irregulars; is in fact so high up in the ranks of all things Sherlockian that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's relatives have approved of Dust and Shadow? Lyndsay Faye, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
But then, of course, you have this other period piece among the nominees, written by a certain Dennis Lehane. Lehane, so highly renowned in the business these days that even those strange people who won’t openly admit to reading crime fiction (who ARE those people, anyway?) can’t stop praising him. Lehane, who with The Given Day, as if Mystic River and Shutter Island weren’t enough, placed himself at the very top of contemporary US fiction, regardless of the genre. I still get all misty-eyed when I think about the baseball scene in The Given Day - and I don’t even like baseball! Lehane can outwrite pretty much everyone, and sure enough, Live by Night is another winner, brimming as it is with atmosphere, spark, and remarkable characters (including Joe Coughlin, younger, considerably less law abiding brother of The Given Day’s Danny Coughlin). You have the speakeasies, the liquor fuelled night time drama, the bad, the gifted, and the damned… Yes, this is undoubtedly another stellar effort from Lehane, but I can’t help but feel that he is acting in a league of his own here. Call it reverse discrimination if you like, but I reckon it would be nice to see someone less senior awarded – and yes, obviously I would be thrilled if the winner turned out to be named Gillian Flynn, seeing how mindboggingly good she is, but I would be very happy to see Lyndsay Faye or Ace Atkins as the 2012 Edgar Award recipient. Needless to say, should the jury decide on Lehane, I would be thrilled as well. Clearly, the Edgar jury knows good books, and if you are interested in the American crime scene at all, you should do yourself a favour and start looking for "Edgar Award nominee" mentions when scouting for new literary acquaintances. I had a lot of fun reading this year’s crop and will make sure to do it again next year. Now, let the best (wo)man win...!
With 2013 already well underway, am I correct in thinking it is high
time to focus on some of the most anticipated new books of the year?
Why yes, of course I am! This is in no way a definitive list, seeing
a) how new releases tend to keep popping up throughout the year, b)
how some of the best reads of the year will be dark horses; titles and
authors that somehow have managed to slip under my radar, and c) how
there is something to be said for spontaneity. It is, however,
somewhat consistent with my current literary cravings. So, without
further ado I give you...
First of all, a book that is already out: Jennifer Haigh's News from
Heaven: The Bakerton Stories. Ever since I accidentally stumbled over
The Condition five years ago, I have considered Haigh one of the most
promising voices of contemporary US fiction, as deeply readable as she
is stylistically elegant and thought-provoking. This short story
collection, set in the coal mining town of Bakerton, is another
must-read for me.
Also out already are Linwood Barclay's Never Saw It Coming, a further
exploration of 2011 Quick Read Clouded Vision (more from Barclay to
look forward to this summer!), and – shocker – a new novel by Joyce
Carol Oates, the very creepy-sounding Daddy Love.
There is something eerily soothing about authors so punctual you can
set your watch to their publishing rhythm, isn't there? For instance,
I take great solace in knowing that every February for the last few
years – bleak, dreary, draining February! – have seen the publication
of a new Jodi Picoult novel. This year's Picoult is called The
Storyteller and the plot, at least to me, bears echoes of Stephen
King's excellent novella Apt Pupil. Whenever someone slams Picoult –
which happens on a regular basis, particularly after her and Jennifer
Weiner's public reaction to The New York Times favouring male authors
– I kind of want to punch them. No, she may not be receiving the Nobel
Prize anytime soon, but she does make you think about complex moral
dilemmas and she always, always makes me cry and feel deeply about her
characters. There is undoubtedly something to be said for cathartic
reading, especially when there is that trademark Picoult "what would
YOU do?" aspect of it. Bring on the Kleenex and ethical pondering, 26
5 March marks the publication of Joyce Carol Oates new, delightfully
gothic novel The Accursed, which I have been oohing and aahing over
for quite some time now. Granted, the ever prolific Oates has produced
some less than stellar efforts recently, and the sheer effort of
trying to keep up with everything she writes can at times be draining.
This, though, seems worth it.
Already looking mighty fine on my nightstand, but not technically out
until 5 March is Andrew Pyper's The Demonologist. I loved his previous
books, which successfully blended horror and thriller in a bleak,
literary landscape, and this one is blurbed by the likes of Gillian
Flynn, S.J. Watson, and Michael Koryta.
March is also a good month for thriller buffs as the always reliable
pageturner king Harlan Coben has a new standalone, Six Years, out on
19 March. Like many a Coben novel before this one, it deals with
betrayals and mysteries of the past coming back to haunt us.
Okay, let me just say straight away that April looks like a GREAT
month! First of all, we have a new Lacey Flint thriller from S.J.
Bolton out on 11 April – yay! Like This Forever, it is called, and
there is no doubt in mind that Bolton will scare me senseless once
again. Can't wait.
Having read and enjoyed the literary pageturners of Douglas Kennedy
for well over a decade, I can't help but enjoy the blissful
serendipity of his new novel, Five Days, being published the day after
my birthday (30 April – that's the pub date, not my birthday). Happy
birthday, Helena! (Aww, you shouldn't have, Doug. Although of course,
you really, really should.)
More serendipity: on the very same date, the highly anticipated new
novel by Claire Messud, her first since her magnificent The Emperor's
Children, which was published in 2006, will be out. The protagonist of
The Woman Upstairs has been described as "a feminine counterpoint to
the rantings of Dostoevsky's Underground Man". This is definitely one
of the books I'm most excited about so far this year, seeing how I
rate The Emperor's Children as one of the finest novels I read in the
Bizarrely, I haven't been able to find any particularly fetching new
releases for May. Surely just a matter of time, though.
Another top contender for this year's most anticipated new release
from a fave author is Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland (25 June) and get
this: it's about identical twin sisters!
Julia Heaberlin's debut novel Playing Dead was a pleasant surprise for
me last year, so I will most definitely pick up Lie Still, due out 9
July. If you're into dark, literary thrillers of the Gillian Flynn-ish
breed, do give Heaberlin a try.
Is it...? Why yes it is! All Linwood Barclay fiends can look forward to
yet another standalone thriller, the evocatively titled A Tap on the
Window, on 6 August. I've devoured each and every one of his books –
having said that, I thought last year's standalone was particularly
captivating, so I have equally high hopes for this one.
Ever wondered what Danny Torrance, the young clairvoyant boy of
Stephen King's horror classic The Shining, may be up to in that
alternate fictional reality we all fantasize of every now and then? On
24 September, King brings Danny into the 21st century, teaming him up
with a tribe of semi-immortal mind vampires feeding off young people
who, like once Danny, have "the shining". Oh, and there is also a
prescient cat. Doctor Sleep sounds like fun, doesn't it? (Might be
slightly out there, though, but then again the best King books are.)
September also marks the publication of the dead lovely Helen
Fitzgerald's latest novel, The Cry, which she was writing during our
chat at Kulturnatten 2011. I'm anticipating heaps of dark, twisty
brilliance of that wickedly funny, slightly morbid Fitzgerald variety.
We have waited – oh my, how we have waited. Grey hairs have been
discovered in the process, children have been born, empires have
fallen... and now, finally, what we've all been waiting for looks like
it actually will happen. No, I'm not talking about the second coming
of Jesus Christ; this is something far, far better. Last week, it was
revealed that Donna Tartt's third novel, her first since 2002's The
Little Friend, is to be published this October. Set for publication on
22 October, The Goldfinch is the tale of orphan Theo Decker, who as a
young boy miraculously survives an explosion. Roaming the streets of
New York, he becomes fixated with a small, mysteriously captivating
painting that soon draws Theo into the art underworld. I don't know
about the rest of you, but I already have "THE GOLDFINCH!" written
down in my calendar with indelible ink. 22 October – save the date!
November and December seem so very far away at the moment – not to
mentioned cold, dark, and dreary in a "too close to home" sort of way
– so I will get back to you regarding late 2013 book releases. All in
all, though, I have to say we're looking at a pretty solid year,
sometimes (OMG DONNA TARTT) verging on the spectacular. Let's just
hope that in terms of highly anticipated books, everything really is
as good as it seems. Fingers crossed and all that.
If you have yet to acquaint yourself with the fierce, smart-mouthed, caffeine-fuelled ex-débutante one woman show that is Cornelia Read's protagonist Madeline Dare - honey, you've been missing out! I'm only just getting started myself, and am very much looking forward to reading the next two instalments (and praying for a fifth book during 2013).
Not only by far French's finest effort to date (which speaks volumes in itself), but one of the darkest and most poignant takes on the economic crisis I've come across so far.
Because it reads as a UK Goth version of Gillian Flynn's Dark Places. Loved every page.
As deeply unpleasant as it is beautifully written, Winterson's first true dip into the world of horror is one of the books I'll remember best from 2012.
Because, really, no decent top 10 list is complete with just one Elizabeth Hand book on it. This ageless urban fantasy on art, loss, and relationships transcending time is another perfect example of why Hand is one of the best writers out there today - in any genre. Go, Rimbaud, and go, Liz!
I am utterly addicted to Griffiths novels featuring forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway, and this year's effort just may be the best one yet. Too bad I've already read next year's (which, incidentally, was every bit as good)...
Dreamy, atmospheric, and gorgeously written, this is almost too good to be a debut novel. Can't wait to read more!
Also highly recommended:
Would probably end up on the top 10 if I had, you know, read it:
Live By Night by Dennis Lehane (see you in 2013!)
Biggest mystery of 2012 (nope, not a crime novel):
How all those copies of the Fifty Shades books got sold. For an erotic novel, it is shockingly lacking in sex appeal (not to mention minor things such as literary qualities). My inner goddess just threw up in her mouth. Oh my.
Helena reads two top-notch literary thrillers from both sides of the pond (and inevitably ends up buying more books, although she promised she wouldn’t, or at least not until Christmas..).
High school, as My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase would tell you, is a battlefield for your heart. For the characters in Megan Abbotts latest novel Dare Me, it is also a battlefield for your kidney, spleen, stomach, kneecaps, arms, legs, and skull. Among other things. Yes, bones break, perfect, unblemished teenage skin bruises, dreams are crushed and fulfilled, friendships formed and killed... and yes, there will be blood. Cheerleading has never been quite as cutthroat as portrayed here, and for me, whose previous experience with cheerleading boils down to a few dozen Sweet Valley books and two instalments of Bring It On, it is absolutely fascinating. The narrator, Addy, has been inseparable with Beth, captain and queen bee of the cheerleading squad, all through high school. When a new coach arrives, immediately taking charge and stirring things up, the dynamic between Addy and Beth, as well as all the cheerleaders, changes. Increasingly fascinated with their new coach, Addy finds herself drawn into a grown-up, distinctly dangerous world, and cheerleading - or indeed life - will never be the same again.
Part thriller, part pitch-black high school drama, Dare Me is an absolute must for everyone who is into dark, edgy thrillers, Tom Perrotta’s oeuvre, and Heathers. I, personally, adore all of these things, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed every single page. Abbott’s style, cut-glass sharp, is perfect for the story, and I found myself taking note of particularly captivating phrases, such as “her eyes shot through with blood and boredom”. Abbott is clearly a natural when it comes to depicting the complexity (and absurdity) of teenage life, as well as a deeply readable thriller writer. I will most definitely read up on her back catalogue, starting with her penultimate novel The End of Everything.
As soon as I’d finished Dare Me, I picked up Cathi Unsworth’s latest novel Weirdo and was blown away with the realisation of just how many brilliant female literary thriller writers there are out there at the moment. Clearly, these are great times to be Helena, literary thriller reader extraordinaire. You’ve got your Flynn, your Hand, your French, your Bolton, and now, seemingly, your Abbott and your Unsworth. Keep them coming, please! (Yes, I’m looking at you, Jan.)
Weirdo also explores the world of teenage boredom and the combined allure and danger of transgressing into an adult world at too tender an age, although from a different angle. There are no cheerleaders in this story, only outcasts, freaks, Goths and bloody weirdos. For me, never the popular girl at school and clearly more of a Goth than a cheerleader type (I couldn’t do a backflip if my life depended upon it, but I do have everything Nick Cave and Joy Division have ever recorded), these are more comfortable, and relatable, turfs. Weirdo is razor sharp and emotionally intense, a declaration of love to the 80’s Goth scene as well as a pitch-perfect and haunting depiction of small town fear, prejudice, and secrecy. In 1984, the small coastal town - my Morrissey marinated mind immediately starts humming “this is the coastal town that they forgot to bomb” - of Ernemouth was shellshocked by the brutal murder of a teenage boy. Local outcast Corinne Woodrow, later dubbed the Wicked Witch of the East by the tabloids, has spent the last decades locked away in a mental institution after having been convicted of the crime. But did she actually do it? As cop turned private investigator Sean Ward takes on the case, he unearths old memories and secrets kept hidden by a close-knit community. Secrets: dark. Potential danger: yes. Oh yes.
When I first read about Weirdo, I was reminded of the premises of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Both novels are partially set in the 1980’s, a notorious and violent crime at the dark heart of the story. Furthermore, both deal with fear of unknown subcultures and teenage phenomena, and alienation, poverty, and social injustice run deep in both novels so yes, I would say that there are definite similarities although the plots, settings, characters, and style are different. There is also a nice punky noir feel to Unsworth’s prose that will, I daresay, appeal to fans of Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books (Generation Loss, Available Dark). I have, ostensibly, issued myself with a book buying ban for the remainder of 2012 (seriously, my “to read” piles have never been higher, or more life threatening, for that matter) but I will make an exception for Unsworth. The Singer and Bad Penny Blues, come to mama! If I need to reason with myself, or those perilously towering book piles, I’ll just think of it as early Christmas gifts.
The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh
Louise Welsh has been a huge favourite of mine ever since I read her universally praised debut The Cutting Room, and this is the best one she’s written in years. I’d describe it as queer noir with a distinct Hitchcockian vibe. Great stuff.
Dolly by Susan Hill
There’s nothing quite as satisfying as curling up on the sofa on a rainy November night with a brand new ghost story from Susan Hill. Dolly isn’t as terrifying, or as good, as Hill’s number one ghost story, The Woman in Black, but it is atmospheric and intensely readable in that spooky/cosy M.R. James tradition I love so much.