Monday, 28 April 2014

April Review Round Up or: Holidays and Why I've Learnt To Hate Them


A time to relax, kick back and recharge.

Or, in my case (and that of parents the World over) a time where your job as UN peacekeeper, bank teller, and chief cook and bottle washer is amplified ten fold; where time is relative and it certainly doesn't belong to you; where every single piece of electronic equipment seems to have a teen attached to it (even if it's yours and yours alone) and they are doing revision..."God Mum!" Where any opportunity to sit, for half an hour and write anything (let alone something where thoughts need to be collected into a vaguely coherent paragraph or two) is snatched away just as quickly as a wooden sword that's aimed squarely at a four year old's skull.

In other words...Easter. All my best laid plans of books and chocolate waylaid every single day.

All this is leading up to me admitting to being a bad blogger and not getting enough reviews in this month! At least having a houseful for two weeks didn't deter me from actually reading, and thankfully, I had some absolute crackers to take my mind away from several World Wars breaking out in the garden.

First up is The Other Typist by new novelist Suzanne Rindell.

It's prohibition era New York, and young, naive, prudish Rose Baker is making her living as a typist and stenographer in a police precinct on the Lower East Side. Told totally from Rose's perspective and always in the past tense, we hear how Rose was raised in an orphanage by nuns who saw potential in an upstanding and obviously intelligent young girl, and therefore give her greater opportunities than some of the other girls, including good schooling and training at an estate in the country. We're told, in great detail, how all of her experiences have shaped her into the woman she is today, enabling her to cope with the villainous beings that she has to deal with at the station, and the well-meaning (but obviously beneath her) landlady and room-mate who she lodges with.

All of this changes when new girl Odalie arrives on the scene and although Rose is immediately swept away by her glamour and mystery, she's soon questioning her every move and begins to plot how she can get nearer to this mysterious creature.

Where Rindell excels here is that Rose could easily be annoying and predictable, but she is so well fleshed out, with a believable back story, that she is totally relatable as a young woman on her own in a time and place of fast-paced and chaotic change. When her compete opposite Odalie first appears, she is just the right side of the stereotypical vampish femme-fatale; she has an obvious air of mystery about her, but as it's all Rose's POV you're always second guessing her motives.

The Other Typist is a clever, twisty debut full of foreboding atmosphere  that owes a lot to Hitchcock and Fitzgerald (Rindell acknowledges that Gatsby is a huge influence on her work) and it stands out as one of the better 'strong women in the 20's' novels out there.

The Girl With A Clock For A Heart is another debut and another 'it's not all what it seems' thriller. Written by short story writer and reviewer Peter Swanson it wears it's heart on it's sleeve as obviously as The Other Typist, but just falls short of it's subtlety and class.

When I received this as a review copy via Waterstones and publishers Faber and Faber, I knew nothing of it other than it was billed as a noir-ish tale of false identities and working out who you really love and trust and for the most part, Swanson achieves this.

Told over two timelines, The Girl With A Clock For A Heart gives us the story of George, a college student, and the love of his life Audrey. Totally inseparable, the 18 year olds live the idyllic college lifestyle and although Audrey is coy about her past and reluctant to let George visit for the holidays, they leave promising to stay loyal and meet again next term. Except, when George returns, he's told the devastating news that Audrey has taken her own life. Unable to rationalise events, he heads of to Florida and Audrey's family, not only for his sweetheart's funeral, but also to get answers. When he gets there, it's evident by pictures, family reactions and the involvement of the police, that the Audrey who died, was not the girl he'd devoted the last few months to.

Now, many years later, George is an (almost) successful professional in an 'on-again, off-again' relationship, but still haunted by the woman he thought he knew. So when he sees her across a bar, and she's not only sought him out, but is desperate for his help, George finds himself constantly torn between his head telling him to beware and his heart telling him to be loyal. Unfortunately, if you cut George in half, he'd have 'misguided' written all the way through him as none of his decisions are well thought out, leaving him and those around him vulnerable and at risk.

While the novel has some good ideas, none of them are particularly original; Swanson has obviously watched a lot of Hitchcock and read Ellroy, Elmore and Hiaasen but as yet, hasn't managed to pick up any of their style. Thanks to hugely repetitive sections and padded out inconsequential descriptions, the narrative feels padded and stretched. It reads like an extended novella, and when you read the acknowledgements, that's exactly what it is. This really would have been better suited to the Hard Case Crime series where it could be right at home among the novels that inspired it.

After two novels full of twists and double-dealings it was refreshing to then pick up The Free the truly stunning fourth novel by Willy Vlautin. No mysteries, just the interweaving lives of three people and their struggle to just 'get by' or 'get out'.

Leroy was young, happy, loved his sci-fi novels, his mum and his girl Jeanette. That's until he signed up for active duty and was blown away by a roadside device in Iraq. Now he's an invalid in a care home for disabled men, constantly living in a cloudy fug, not truly aware of his surroundings. When he wakes one day and his clarity has returned, the enormous rushing effect on his senses and memory brings him crashing back into reality, and realising he can't continue like this, he attempts to take his own life. It's then he's found by Freddie the nightwatchman and rushed to hospital where he his cared for by Pauline, and we continue to follow all three from this point on.

Pauline is a single, lonely, insomniac who goes from day to day totally dissatisfied with her lot, desperately looking for something other that her job and caring for her depressed dad. Although it's through her work with Leroy that brings her into the novel, it's her attempts to save a young runaway that really gives her the impetus to make a change.

Freddie is broke-seriously broke, thanks to massive hospital bills for his daughter, his marriage is over, relations with his daughters non-existent and he's at risk of losing the home that's been in his family for generations. His job at the care home exhausts him, but the bond he has with the residents is undeniable. The second job he has in the day is thankless with little chance of improvement, so it's no surprise that when an old friend asks him to look after some 'plants' while he's in jail, and there's thousands in it for him, that Freddie jumps at the chance.

Meanwhile, Leroy slips in and out of consciousness, and goes through several operations to save his life. All through this, he's visited by his mum who sits and reads Leroy his favourite sci-fi pulp fiction. These stories, combined with the treatment he's receiving cause Leroy's brain to create an alternate world in his head, where he's reunited with Jeanette and fighting off a military force desperate to hunt them down due to the growing bruise-like mark on Jeanette's foot-a mark that has lead to whole communities being slaughtered.

What's so fabulous about Vlautin's writing is there's no showing off, no giving character's unrealistic speech patterns-the realism is there right from the start, enabling the reader to truly visualise these people and get deeper under their skins. Yes, it sounds bleak, and thanks to Leroy's dreams at times it takes on an almost 'Gilliam-esque' quality (mainly Brazil-especially the theme of escape) but there is always hope and humour to counteract it.

By the end of The Free there is no feeling of 'God that was grim' as I've had from some novels this year, there was a genuine thought of 'Yes! They made it!' and that's all too rare in contemporary lit these days.

I've also finished the amazing The Luminaries but other than adding to what everyone else has said in that it is truly superb, all I can say is, if you plan to make notes...don't bother- not unless you want to do it CSI style and take over a whole wall covered with post-its and red string. I really hope that the forthcoming TV adaptation is long enough to do it justice. Anything shorter than eight hours would be a crime.

Anyway, I've got a TBR pile a mile high and the little blighters have another holiday in three weeks, so I've got to hit those books.

The Free was supplied as a free ARC by NetGalley in return for an unbiased review.