Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

When fourteen year old Marjorie Barrett begins to display the signs of acute schizophrenia, her family’s life begins to fall apart. The doctors are unable to stop her illness spreading, and when her father loses his job the family is soon running out of money, patience, and hope. Soon they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, and agree to participate in a reality television show in order to fix their worries.

Fifteen years later Merry, Marjorie’s littler sister, recalls the events she lived through as a child. As she does so, painful memories and forgotten secrets begin to surface.

I enjoyed this book. I just didn’t love it. There’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good. The characters are solid. The structure is interesting and the ending, while not mind blowing, is at least interesting and well set up.

The exorcism is a old an favourite sub-genre in horror. Tremblay is aware of that, and works it into the story. He is skilful in the way he makes the reader aware that he knows this isn’t a groundbreaking premise. It’s just that after he’s done this he doesn’t then add anything new.

I went into this book expecting more of the conflict between Marjorie’s illness and the lengths the family went to cope. How both religion and the media seemed like the only options available to them, despite how obvious seems that neither was going to help. In the end it felt as if Tremblay didn’t commit enough in either direction. It needed to commit more to this, or throw itself fully into the standard exorcism plot.

It’s still a solid read, and you could find a lot worse out there. Tremblay is a good writer – aside from some very clunky dialogue in the ‘present day’ sections – and I’ll probably keep an eye out for his other work. I was just left a little underwhelmed by the plot.

Summer Holiday reading

Last week I went on holiday! Five days in sunny (or at least warm) southern Spain. My last couple of holidays were either spent sightseeing, or with friends who had their child with them, which meant I didn’t get as much sitting around doing nothing done. But this year, other than one day to visit the Alhambra – which is beautiful and should be on anyone’s list if they ever go near Grenada – we had nothing to do by drink, sunbathe, and read in the sun.

I have to admit I was overconfident and packed far more books than I managed to actually read, and also had to follow tradition and pick something up at the airport, but these are what I got through.

“A God In Ruins”

I can’t remember who recommend Kate Atkinson to me. I know if was someone I met at the York Festival of Writing last year, but whoever it was I owe a dept. This is only the second of her books I’ve read, and she’s gone straight onto the list of authors who make me wonder why I bother trying to ape their talent. Her writing is so elegant and the story so intricately woven around itself. If I can ever write anything with such a perfect mastery of plot and time, I will die a happy man.

“Locke and Key”

I don’t why I had the urge to reread these, but the timing fitted perfectly for the trip. And I still love them. Joe Hill ready gets what ‘Lovecraftian’ is supposed to mean, and the art fits the setting perfectly. I’ve read more of Joe Hill’s work since I first discovered these, and can safely say his graphic novels are better than his novels. I think it’s because the medium of graphic novels prevents the bloated overwriting that Hill shares with his father.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

I’ve not seen the TV series, but since it came out this has been a book I’ve had a lot of people recommend and so when the book I was looking for the in the airport wasn’t available, I decided I’d pick this one up instead. I’m so incredibly happy I did. I’m so far only a little over half way through, and the writing and structure is just exquisite. Margaret Atwood manages to perfectly tease out character, setting, and backstory in such a beautiful way. And I can see why it’s resonating with so many people at the moment. It’s scary how possible the bits I’ve read so far seem.

So, has everyone else got their holiday reading lists up and ready yet? What have you got lined up for the summer?

Review: The Beauty of Murder

This was an odd one for me. Taken in it’s entirety, I liked every aspect of it. It’s only looking at each aspect individually that different elements jarred for me.

fullsizeoutput_33a4The Beauty of Murder has an truly fascinating concept; how do you track down and capture a time travelling murderer? Someone who can dump a body centuries before they committed the crime? Or even after? Stephen Killigan is a newly arrived Cambridge lecturer who stumbles upon the body of a missing beauty queen that seemingly disappears before he can show anyone. Soon he finds himself caught up in the web of Jackamore Grass, a man with the ability to time travel and a fascination with the apparent beauty of death.

The book itself is great. I’m not a massive fan of crime mysteries, but this avoids most of the tropes I dislike and its concept gaves it a twist that adds a wonderfully fantastical element that other books of this genre often lack. The writing itself is great, and for the most part the characters are interesting and believable.

The only one who put me off a bit was, unfortunately, the protagonist himself. I didn’t go to Cambridge so I might not know the place or the culture, but Stephen Killigan just didn’t quite fit for me. He was a little too cool, and little too instantly popular. The scenes of him teaching didn’t really feel believable for someone starting a prestigious new job. (He also seemed to have a habit of getting tattoos on a whim, from tattooist who will work on people who have just wondered into their shop, which left me a little judging as to their integrity, but I think that’s just me.) Most of the time I had no problem with him, especially once the story got going and I was able to settle into him. It just took a little while to get comfortable enough to slide past those ragged parts.

The other issue I had was the timeframe. About halfway through there is a massive time jump which didn’t seem to be addressed. Without wanting to give too much away, one of the main characters goes through a serious operation that would have required several weeks of recovery. But this jump isn’t addressed, and I was left with the feeling that the plot just paused for a few months. It didn’t ruin the story, I just feel that there needed to be something more here to address this as it left me wondering why all the other character just got on with their lives waiting for this one to get batter.

But other than these two gripes I really enjoyed The Beauty of Murder. It took a few chapters for me to get into it, and the middle had this jarring point where timeframes didn’t match up, but the rest of it was great. A brilliant concept, intriguing ideas and a murderer with methods I hadn’t read anywhere else.

Review: Stick and Stones

Imogen has lived her life under the control of her husband, Phillip, from the first day she met him. Even after her left her and their son for a younger woman, their shared past has meant she’s never been able to be truly free of him. But when he suddenly demands she move out her house in two weeks, it start of a series of events that brings Imogen together with Phillip’s first wife and new girlfriend. Together they learn that through Phillip they share a bond no one else can understand, and decide that they will finally no longer allow him to control them.

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Sticks and Stones (Or Exes Revenge in America) is an amazing debut novel, and an astounding piece of domestic noir. Opening with the Phillip’s funeral, we’re then taken back over the previous two weeks – and the years preceding –  to discover exactly what happened that led to his death.

The story is expertly put together. It manages to twist and turn without ever feeling gimmicky or predictable. At no point do you get bored or feel anything is being padded out. Jakeman’s writing is lean and slick, leaving in nothing unnecessary. She perfectly keeps the mystery going without resorting to cheap tricks or cliches, throwing in red herrings and distractions that made it impossible to guess where we’re heading. At times I thought I’d guessed incoming reveals onto to discover I was completely wrong.

But as good as the story is, it’s the characters that really make this book. The concept of the mentally abusive husband and dominated wife finally seeking revenge is one that could easily become two dimensional, but Jakeman has created a cast of characters who all feel fleshed out and real. You really feel for Imogen, who never comes across as either comically weak or impossibly resolved. When she changes it’s because her character development brought here there, not because the plot required it to move forward. She comes across as a real person doing her best to avoid conflict with an ex-husband she knows can control her but can do nothing about, all the while fighting to protect her son over everything else. Phillip, too, is never a pantomime villain. He may be a monster, but he’s a monster of the type we all know is so very real. The kind who hides behind a reputation and knows exactly what they are doing.

Sticks and Stones isn’t any easy read. There are trigger warnings for all aspects of domestic abuse here. But all of it is packaged in an impossibly hard to put down story of one woman discovering how far she is prepared to go to defend her child and get revenge on a man determined to ruin her life.

Happy World Book Day all you Comfortable Books, you…

Happy World Book Day, everyone.

As is tradition, children all over the UK have gone to school dressed up as characters from their favourite books. Or this year, more likely, stayed at home due to schools being closed by the snow and spent the day actually reading their favourite books.

That’s what kids do on snow days, right? Curl up and read? I’m not a parent, but I’m pretty sure that’s right.

Anyway, I thought that in honour of this day rather than talking about one of my favourite books I would instead discuss those comfortable books we all love. You know the ones I mean. The ones that have been on your shelves for longer than you can remember. The ones you have been read countless times; because you needed something familiar and friendly to get you through a tough time, had nothing new to read, or just wanted to re-read an old favourite. You know the story like the back of your hand, but they’re either so good or have such sentimental value that you could never lose interest. The ones with worn down covers and curling pages, adorned with multiple tiny tears that broke your heart at the time but now seem part of its overall cosiness. They are not something you bought with the intent of it becoming like this. It’s something that just develops over time. 

I love hardback books. They may be harder to carry around or read on the go, but there is just something solid and satisfying about them. Once an author is on my Favourites List I’ll always start picking up their books in hardback rather than paperback. But sometimes you just can’t beat a comfortable, beaten up old paperback. 

img_0118I’ve actually just finished re-reading one of these; Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Look at it there. I believe that I “acquired” this one from my parents. If I remember correctly, I borrowed it to read at university, and have simply never returned it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read and re-read it over the following 13 years, and I’ve no idea how many time other members of my family did so before me. Each time he published a follow up I bought them straight away, in hardback of course, but but I could never bring myself to replace this one.

Not all books like this survive. I remember watching as my family’s copies of the Discworld books were read into oblivion; slowly falling apart or becoming damaged until they were replaced, with like for like or by more durable hardcover upgrades. And when I left home and had to buy them for myself, I always picked them up in hardcover, or course. You don’t buy your favourite author of all time in paperback if you have the choice. 

But this one has lasted. It’s 28 years old now, and I’m sure within a few years I’ll feel the urge to pick it up, open it’s ragged cover and read the smooth, gently yellowing pages once again. Who knows, maybe it’ll last another twenty years or so until I have children old enough to give it ago and it will somehow transfer my my collection to theirs. Or maybe not.

I’ll never stop buying hardbacks. But whatever their qualities they’ll never quite have the same character as a good, well-worn and well-loved paperback.

Review: A Column of Fire

Once more this year I find a book I would normally love cursed by its own quality. Or in this case, the quality of what came before it.

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This is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Or at least I guess it’s a series now there are three books. The first book, Pillars of the Earth, told the story of the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral, intertwining the lives and relationships of all those involved against the backdrop of the national upheaval of The Anarchy. The second book, World Without End managed to pick up the story a couple of hundred years later, taking us back to the same place and the descendants of the original characters as the Cathedral undergoes further work. It succeeded in bringing together the same elements once again with enough change to create a new story without feeling like it were retreading old ground.

Unfortunately, while A Column of Fire is an amazing book in its own right it doesn’t quite hit the same notes as its predecessors. This time the story sits during the time of the Catholic/Protestant conflicts during the time of Elizabeth the First. However this time the national event take prominence, with the link to Kingsbridge almost coincidental. Again the characters are descendants of the previous casts, but this time the town of Kingsbridge is merely their home town and has no plot of its own, while the characters take part in the national drama.

This doesn’t make the book bad. It’s an excellent piece of historical fiction. But without the local point of view taking prominence it lacks the same grounded charm as its predecessors. I would definitely recommend this book, but if you’re a fan of the previous books don’t expect exactly the same feel this time around.

Review: Herring Girl

This is one of my “Pick A Random Book I Know Nothing About” purchases, and this time around I had great luck with my selection. Debbie Taylor’s Herring Girl is an amazing book. Almost perfect in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that it manages to disappoint me through its not living up to its own promise. It’s strange when the main thing that detracts from the quality of a novel is itself. That’s how I feel about Herring Girl.

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The story is set up with Ben, a 12 year old boy with gender dysmorphia who’s desperate for a sex change before puberty sets in. Learning he has to have a psychological assessment he starts visiting a local doctor who leads him into past-live regression. Together they uncover the mystery of Anne, a young girl who went missing at the turn of the previous century and may, they believe, have been Ben’s previous life.

It goes on to explore the idea of reincarnation and group reincarnation, weaving together an incredibly compelling story and truly beautiful writing. I always take gushing cover quotes with a pinch of salt, but Taylor’s writing is so beautifully researched and realised that it’s impossible not to find yourself immersed in the world of an 1890s fishing town. The passion behind it shines through. I’ve never read a historical novel that managed to so complete put you right there in the immediacy of the period.

But the half of the story set in 1898 is told so well, the present-day sections just don’t keep up. The characters are great, but the story in these parts seems to coast along as a vehicle for the Past Life sections. That’s not to say they are bad, not at all. They’re just not as good as the other sections.

The main thing that bothered me was how the gender dysmorphia plotline fell back the wayside. I thought this was going to be a really interesting story, as it was clear Taylor had done her research and created the character so well that I wanted to know more about this side of them. But as soon as the past-life murder mystery kicks in the original plotline is barely mentioned again until the end.

I also felt that the reincarnation idea and past life regression therapy concept fell into place felt a little too easily. It seemed far to simple for someone to recall a previous life, and the way they were all linked was just a little too easy. The only obstacle seemed to be that certain people didn’t believe in it on principle. It has a lot of similar ideas and themes to Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, but where in a fantasy novel it’s easier to take outlandish ideas at face value, in a real-world setting I would have expected a little more difficulty.

It definitely picks up again towards the end, and the climax is astoundingly well written and wraps up the story perfectly. But such an intriguing opening and such a emotionally devastating ending, I just felt that the middle coasted along a little too much.

I can’t help but feel I’m being unfair to this book, as I’m only being harsh due to it’s own high standards. But there we are. It’s still a definite recommendation.