Book Review: Rivers of London

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Recently, thanks to multiple books lent to me byrivers of london by ben aaronovitch friends, I have been on a crime-reading spree. And while I have learnt that perhaps crime is not for me, unless it is really, truly worthy (Gone Girl is still a particular favourite), I have also discovered that, at least in the crime fiction world, 95% of all heinous crimes occur in London. Terrible, dreary weather can have that effect on people.

Told from the perspective of Constable Peter Grant, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, is part crime fiction, part fantasy. When a terrible murder occurs (think callous beheading), Peter thinks it’s just another case – until he realises that the first witness he speaks to is actually a ghost. Soon, Peter is taken under the wing of Inspector Thomas Nightingale, where he learns that not only is magic real, but he has the ability to learn how to use it.

Of course to make things all that more difficult, Peter and Nightingale have to first solve a tricky magical murder. When the terrible beheading is only the first of a series of disgusting, facial disfiguring murders, it soon becomes clear that there’s more to magic than simply saying ‘Hocus Pocus’ – particularly when vengeful ghosts are involved.

Fans of Jasper Fforde’s novels would probably love Rivers of London because it is the original combination of magic, surrealism, crime and dry wit. Yet in the same way that I didn’t particularly love The Eyre Affair so too was Rivers of London unfortunately not my cup of tea.

While I will readily admit that fantasy isn’t my forte, the biggest issue I had with this novel was its convoluted plot. It seemed as though I had to go round and round in circles for the crime to make much sense (or have a motive) and then the big conclusion was sadly a letdown. For a story that was already a bit tough for me to get my head around – police, murder, vengeful ghosts, different types of magic, different types of ghosts, fictional characters that might also be controlling the vengeful ghosts who are controlling others, etc. etc. – Aaronovitch then chose to pile on a secondary storyline that didn’t really make much sense in the context of things. Granted, Rivers of London is the first in a series and that plot may make sense further down the track, but for the time being it just added another layer of confusion onto my already very confused self.

The second issue that I had with Rivers of London was that it really came across that Ben Aaronovitch was trying just a smidgen too hard to be witty. Usually I love dry humour, and I’m the first to laugh at a bit of wit, but I do think there is such a thing as being too clever. Aaronovitch’s constant references to the Daily Mail (which I think we can all agree is outstandingly crap journalism) became too frequent to be witty and just came across smug, and it managed to change the whole tone of the novel. More importantly though, Aaronovitch spent more time trying to be humorous than actually developing his characters and the result was that his protagonist, Peter Grant, came across as two-dimensional, relatively unremarkable and not particularly interesting. And while Aaronovitch does add a back story for Grant, it seems almost as an afterthought, and didn’t provide me with any real intrigue.

If you’re a fan of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair then I would recommend Rivers of London to you. Otherwise, I don’t know if this is the book for you. I commend Ben Aaronovitch for creating something so original, but unfortunately the execution let it down.

Have you read Rivers of London or anything by Ben Aaronovitch? Are you a fan of his series? Let me know!

 

Book Review: Second Life

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second life by s j watson

After reading Before I Go To Sleep earlier this year, I honestly didn’t think that I would pick anything up again by S J Watson. Despite the fact that everyone seemed to be enthralled by it, I just didn’t like it all that much. So why did I give Second Life a go? Well, because a friend lent it to me – and I can never refuse a book.

Set in London, Second Life is told from the perspective of Julia, who appears to have the perfect life – surgeon husband, smart son and beautiful home in the heart of the city. But then, her younger sister, Kate, is murdered and Julia’s life falls apart. When the police find nothing and in order to deal with her own grief, Julia begins exploring the online, sexual world that Kate frequented, only to find that she too gets sucked in. What starts as a way to solve the murder of her sister quickly becomes an illicit love affair with a man that isn’t who he appears to be.

Dull. Dull. Dull. That is the first word that pops into my mind when I think about the plot of Second Life and it was one that I repeated like a mantra to myself while I was reading it. Reading this book was hard work, and considering it’s a crime novel, it really shouldn’t have been. Crime novels, though not considered the highest form of literature, are meant to be fast-paced, entertaining and gripping. This one? Not a chance in hell.

There were multiple problems with Second Life but the biggest one was that the protagonist Julia was completely unlikeable. While this doesn’t necessary have to be a problem with novels (such as with The Girl on the Train), in this case it was completely infuriating. Not only is Julia incredibly stupid, but she’s also neither particularly entertaining nor three-dimensional. We’re expected to believe that she scoffs at the idea of Kate having sex with strangers, only for her to, almost quite literally, begin an affair with a man she met online. And then this affair with this man who is clearly not a nice guy, just keeps getting dragged on and on because Julia doesn’t want to accept that he’s a creep. While I understand S J Watson was trying to depict addiction, his execution was simply frustrating and dull for the reader. What should have been a fast-paced thriller about a murder instead became an over-long drama about a silly woman and a control-obsessed man. Plus, I’d like to add that while this does take up the bulk of the storyline, it does still mean slogging through at least 200 pages before we learn that it isn’t a typical affair.

The second issue I had with this novel was Watson’s style of writing. I wasn’t particularly a fan of Before I Go To Sleep but this just cemented it – I honestly don’t think he’s a good writer. His characters are two dimensional, his plots weave in and out of themselves so that they end up nowhere, yet are still full of holes, and his sex scenes were, well, underwhelming at best. Any writer who uses the word ‘prick’ in a sexual way is not good at writing sex scenes, and it’s clear that his editor wasn’t female. Unless this is an Australianism, I was always taught that ‘prick’ was slang for ‘tiny penis’ (get it – cause it’s just a tiny little prick) and having the image of ‘tiny penis’ described in a sexual manner did nothing for me whatsoever.

Lastly, the devices that Watson uses weren’t used to their full effect. Not only are we competing with an affair and the murder of a woman, but we’re also expected to retain the energy and excitement over a third storyline that occurred 25 years ago and keeps getting mentioned, but never in detail. Also, it’s this third storyline that ends up being the main crux of the plot, though once again, we’re not told enough about it to deduce that ourselves. And then we’re expected to just ignore the fact that to be intertwined all three plots have to be the biggest coincidences of all time. Sorry, but not buying it.

Crime fiction is meant to be fast-paced, gripping and entertaining as hell. The turn ‘couldn’t put it down’ should first and foremost be associated with crime. Instead, Second Life is a lacklustre crime/pseudo-love story that fails to deliver on both counts. Choose something else when next at the bookstore.

Have you read Second Life or anything by S J Watson? What did you think? Let me know!

Book Review: Big Little Lies

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Set in an idyllic Australian beachside town, Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is a crime novel, but it’s also so much more. It also explores the everyday crimes that women inflect on one another…and really – that’s almost as bad as murder, isn’t it? (Probably big little lies by liane moriartynot, but nevertheless.)

Working backwards from a school trivia night where a terrible incident occurs, Big Little Lies follows the lives of three women whose children have just started attending kindergarten at the local school. Madeline is feisty and confrontational and considering that her ex-husband and new wife’s child is in the same year as her child…well, things could get ugly. Then there’s single mum Jane, who’s only 24 and holds a terrible secret about the father of her child. Lastly, there’s Celeste – beautiful, wealthy Celeste – who appears to have the perfect life, but is actually dealing with the realities of domestic violence.

While each woman has her own secrets, they are well and truly thrown into the pressure pot by the other mothers at Pirriwee Prep and things start to get, well, just a touch ugly. And murdersome.

Big Little Lies has to be one of the funniest books I’ve read about a murder. While it is definitely about the murder, it also isn’t. It’s almost instead a story about the intricacies and schoolyard antics of young mothers. There’s the do-gooders, the career mums, the professional mothers (who are at every event) and the mothers who refuse to serve their child anything that isn’t lactose, gluten or sugar-free. As someone who isn’t a mother, this was a perspective I hadn’t ever really thought about, but it is clear that Liane Moriarty has had to deal with catty mums during the school pick up.

Yet while it seems rather trivial on the surface, the hilarious aspect of all this is that it’s all, well, so accurate. The frustrations, the bitchiness the ‘she said, he said’ aspects that always seem to occur when large groups of women get together, regardless of age. Yet what could have quickly turned into a terrible pseudo chick-lit (you know the ones where all the women are spending their days driving around in their SUVs looking for a $400 gift for their three-year old’s friend?), becomes a wickedly dark play on suburbia.

What makes this novel great isn’t necessarily the storyline, although that is pretty entertaining, but Moriarty’s writing. With true Australian humour, her writing is dry, black and definitely a bit sarcastic – but all in the right measures. She conveys the emotions of the characters – frustration, fear, sadness – in a way that is clear to the reader without being cloying. And best of all, she somehow succeeds in making an almost 500 page crime novel read as though it could be polished off in a sitting. Which is almost exactly what I did.

Have you read Big Little Lies? Have you read anything by Liane Moriarty? Are you a fan of crime novels? Let me know!

Book Review: The Girl on the Train

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has recreated the ‘Gone Girl’ effect. Everyone’s reading it; everyone’s talking about it, and everyothe girl on the train by paula hawkinsne’s waiting with anticipation for the movie to be released. Because, yes, of course it has already been signed on for a movie – those movie exec types move fast.

Told from the perspective of three women, but primarily Rachel, The Girl on the Train is a crime thriller that uncovers the truth of what happened to missing girl, Megan. First, we’re introduced to Rachel, who catches the train each morning and evening and envisions a romantic life between ‘Jess’ and ‘Jason’ a couple whose house she can see into from the train. Only ‘Jess’ is actually Megan, and Rachel is horrified to discover that she’s gone missing and Megan’s husband is the prime suspect. And while Rachel is initially drawn to the case because she feels as if she knows them, things quickly become murkier and far more creepy. On the night that Megan went missing, we learn that Rachel was in the area – only she was so drunk, she didn’t remember a thing. And to make things even more complex, throw into the mix Tom, Rachel’s ex-husband, and Anna, his new wife, who both live in the area and seem to have their own agenda for wanting Megan out of the picture.

Narrated by three different women, all of whom are unreliable – a mistress, a vengeful alcoholic and a liar. So which one do we trust? Or are they all telling what they think is the truth? Paula Hawkins has done a pretty stunning job of creating a twisted, creepy crime thriller with deeply unappealing people – but in a way that you just have to find out what’s happened to them.

With its twists and turns, The Girl on the Train has all the ingredients for a page-turning thriller. We’re introduced to multiple characters that could be behind Megan’s disappearance, but almost as soon as we think we’ve worked it out, the story twists again and another suspect enters the scene. What on the surface seems like a straightforward case quickly mutates into dark marriages, shared lies and manipulation, and all end up wrapped up together in one neat, final package.

Perhaps the best part about The Girl on the Train is that it is fast-paced. Hawkins doesn’t try to introduce any unnecessary plots or secondary characters – every person, every story is there for a reason and it all becomes apparent in the final pages. As a result, we’re left with a thriller that can be read in a single sitting or two, and the reader isn’t left wading through unnecessary information in order to get to the crux of the crime. Basically, the ideal crime novel.

I’d read the blurb of this book and I honestly didn’t expect to like it, and it wasn’t until a friend lent it to me that I gave it a shot. Now I can understand the hype. It’s twisted, creepy and definitely a bit dark, but it’s also an absolute page-turner that will keep you guessing until the end. Which really isn’t that far off, because you’ll read it so quickly.

Have you read The Girl on the Train? Are you a fan of crime novels? Let me know!

Book Review: Secret Keeping for Beginners

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secret keeping for beginners by maggie aldersonPutting it out there, I love Maggie Alderson and I was overjoyed when I found out that she was releasing a new book (her first in about three years – rejoice!). So if this review is a tad bit biased, at least you know now. And yes, that does mean you should still definitely go out and buy all of her books immediately.

Set between London and countryside England (we’re already off to a great start!) Secret Keeping for Beginners tells the intertwining stories of three adult sisters and their mother. While each on the surface appears to have a great life, on closer inspection the reality is far more, well, realistic. Rachel is a divorced mother of two, but she’s also got a great career in PR and frequently jets off to European countries every second country. Tessa’s a muralist who lives in the country with her husband and three kids, and thanks to her husband’s reality TV show, she doesn’t have to worry about money in the slightest. Natasha’s a beautiful and successful career woman and even their mum, Joy, doesn’t seem to have a worry in the world. Except of course, they all do. Money troubles, mysterious letters and relationship secrets are all a part of the plot of Secret Keeping for Beginners – plus a delicious, flirty romance, like all good Maggie Alderson books (i.e. all of them).

Reading a Maggie Alderson book, I swear, is like slipping into a bubble bath after a long day of bleurgh. Yes, her novels are light and fluffy and the epitome of chick lit, but they are also damn wonderful. Just because she is writing about romance and domestic issues doesn’t mean that her writing isn’t still witty, well-structured and, essentially, entertaining. Will she win any awards with Secret Keeping For Beginners? No. But you will still manage to polish it off in the space of a weekend.

The protagonists in Secret Keeping for Beginners are beautiful, successful and lead lives that are appear glamorous. In all of Alderson’s novels, her characters have jobs that just seem so much more FUN than everyday jobs – interior designer, fashion journalist, muralist, beauty editor etc. etc. etc. Jobs that are probably just as successful as a regular, boring job, but can be presented in a way that is enviable and fun. Her latest novel is no exception to this rule that she’s created. Plus, throw into the mix descriptions of lovely clothes, beautiful country houses (seriously, I’m pretty sure Maggie Alderson is the reason why I want to move to London and spend my weekends in an English cottage) and handsome men and you have the thinking crumpet’s equivalent of escapism.

Not that I’m saying Secret Keeping for Beginners is perfect. It isn’t. There are certain aspects of the novel that just wouldn’t work in real life, like the way that Simon confides in Joy, despite meeting her only two times. And the problems that each of the women face are inexplicably solved in the space of a page, and only reinforce that these characters are dealing with very middle class issues. Prime example? One protagonist’s solution to her money woes is to sell her London house and instead move into a large London apartment. I mean, guys, that’s a really hard decision that I’m sure all of us worry about having to make someday. Right?

But, so what? I loved this book because it was exactly what I wanted it to be: classy, entertaining, smart chick lit. Maggie Alderson is a internationally best-selling author who has also been the editor of four magazines, amongst a whole lot more, and it shows. You don’t have to lose any brain cells in the process of reading Secret Keeping for Beginners but you’re also not going to be straining too many either. So seriously, buy this book, pour yourself a bath and crack open the chocolate. Your Friday night is now sorted. You’re welcome.

Have you read Secret Keeping for Beginners? Are you a fan of Maggie Alderson books? Do you read chick lit? Let me know!

Book Review: Apple Tree Yard

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Apple Tree apple tree yardYard by Louise Doughty has the makings for a great crime novel. Infidelity, a murder, a court case and a twist at the end. Heck it’s even set in London, where apparently, based on the crime novels I’ve read, all murders occur. Must be the terrible weather that entices people to it.

Set in London and told from the perspective of Yvonne, Apple Tree Yard begins in a court, during a trial for murder, and works backwards from there. Despite being in a comfortable marriage, with a renowned career as a geneticist, Yvonne is still enticed by the nameless man who seduces her in parliament. Yet what starts as a clandestine affair quickly becomes all too real when Yvonne is attacked by a fellow co-worker and she feels as though she has no-one to turn to. After all, that’s the problem when you keep too many secrets.

Before I go any further, I would like to point out that the book that I read before this one was Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – a novel that took him the better part of a decade to write and which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. So keeping in that in mind, I am probably being a bit unfair when I complain about Louise Doughty’s style of writing.

The issue that I had with this novel was the weird way that it was written. It was first person perspective, but almost as though it was in a letter form – rather than telling a story, the protagonist Yvonne speaks as though she is directly talking to her lover. While it definitely is something a bit different, which is usually quite refreshing, instead it came across as clunky, slow and a bit cliche. Overall, it felt like it could have had a good, tough edit, to make it more succinct and less…eh.

Secondly, there were aspects of the plot that didn’t really match up or have a great deal of relevance. One thing that we’re given a teaser about is the state of Yvonne’s son – we know there’s something odd about him, but what is it? What bearing will it have on the murder? Well, it turns out, it doesn’t really have much to do with the plot at all, and in the end it just sort of fades away, rather than being resolved. And while from the get-go Yvonne is described as smart, successful and leading the perfect life, it takes a long time to figure out what exactly it is that makes her life so enviable. The result is that instead of a suspenseful thriller about a high flyer, we’re dealing with a lacklustre affair that doesn’t really seem to have much to motivate it.

This book definitely does have potential and I can appreciate that Doughty tried to change up the traditional ‘whodunit’ crime thriller. Yet while I’m not the biggest crime reader, even I felt that I could guess the twists that were coming and some of the characters were just a touch too transparent. While it was an entertaining read overall, I have read better crime, and would probably recommend something else.

Have you read Apple Tree Yard or anything by Louise Doughty? What did you think? Are you a fan of crime novels? Let me know!

Book Review: Middlesex

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middlesex by jeffrey eugenidesJeffrey Eugenides frequently writes novels with strange premises. In The Virgin Suicides he created a story around a family of teenage girls who kill themselves. Weird, but highly successful and an entertaining read. His second novel, Middlesex, successfully tackles a new, equally tricky topic. Incest, immigration and intersex are just a few topics covered.

Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Price for Fiction, Middlesex is an epic story in every sense of the word. Spanning almost a century and across three generations, it tells the story of Calliope/Cal who was born as a hermaphrodite but only finds out when she is a a teenager. In order to tell her story (just a quick note – although Calliope eventually identifies as a man, I’m going to be using feminine pronouns because the majority of the novel she is portrayed as a woman) though, Calliope has to go back through time to when her grandparents fell in love with one another in Turkey. Of course, things were slightly more complicated than a usual love story because they had to deal with a war, a rogue gene (which shows up in Cal years later) and, oh yeah, the fact that they are brother and sister.

Tackling everything from ‘The American Dream’ to the Depression through to gender identity, Middlesex is a huge bite to chew, but thankfully Jeffrey Eugenides has the skills and finesse to make it a worthy read.

Do I think that Middlesex deserved the Pulitzer Prize? Wholeheartedly yes, but that didn’t make this the easiest book to read. While the premise definitely intrigued me, like many epics, it was what I would describe as a ‘slow burn’. For the first half the book (which is about 530 pages), we aren’t dealing directly with Cal’s story, but rather the story of her grandparents, their immigration and then the romance between her own parents. Despite being a story about gender identity and intersex, first we are told stories about the Depression, The American Dream and racial injustices in Detroit. And while this definitely adds depth, colour and emotion to what would otherwise have become a sensationalist novel, it can be a bit trying.

In saying that, Middlesex is written beautifully. Reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and even Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The GoldfinchMiddlesex is truly the complete package. While the story does revolve around Cal, it also revolves around the lives of so many other characters, who are each as flawed, complex and human as the next. And though it is a large novel, the fluidity and beauty of Eugenides’s writing show that he has bought care and thought into every page written.

What I enjoyed best about this story though was Eugenides’s ability to tackle subjects rife with taboos and humanise them. Incest is certainly frowned upon, yet portrayed in Middlesex it just comes across as another form of love. And with Calliope we learn about the anguishes and burdens that an intersex person has to deal with – a perspective we’re rarely shown in film, television or in novels. Though each story would of course be individual, I enjoyed being given this viewpoint in a way that was sensitive and accurate.

Middlesex isn’t for the faint of heart or for anyone who wants a quick Sunday read. If you choose this book, know that it will be complex, exhausting, but also truly rewarding. It’s definitely worth the slow burn and worth the hours spent reading it.

Have you read Middlesex? Are you a fan of Jeffrey Eugenides? Let me know!

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