Thursday, 31 January 2013

Something's Gotta Give: Slimline Reviews

My edits have now arrived, proving once and for all that this agent thing is really real and not something I made up in an overexcited moment.

I am preparing myself for the great task ahead of me: wantonly destroying all the characters and scenes in the book that are lovely but completely pointless to my plot. This will obviously take some time, and time is something that seems to be in short supply in my life already.

Therefore, I am proposing a change to this blog's reviewing rules. I just can't do a full blog post on every novel I read any more (and was anyone reading them anyway, my grandmother excepted?), so from now on I'm going to be doing lists of snap reviews.

Like this!

Before the Fact by Francis Iles

Alas, this was a good idea, lamely executed. Iles (pen name of Anthony Berkeley, a slightly less ingenious contemporary of Agatha Christie) was interested in making up new ways to write crime novels. This one is set before the crime actually happens. You'd think that this would be a promising concept. A woman wakes up one day convinced that her husband wants to murder her. But is she right?

Well... yes. As is painfully evident from the first page, her husband is going to murder her. We have to trail painfully through years of their life together, until we get to the day when he actually kills her. Believe me, by that point you will be begging him to go ahead and do it.

There's a very interesting question buried in Iles's premise, about whether we can ever really know what kind of person we're spending our life with, but he does absolutely nothing interesting with it. Frankly, this is one of the most boring thrillers I've ever read.

 If you want a book that does run with that idea in an awesomely clever way, try Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (which I just happened to read for The Bookbag the week after I read this). It's amazing. This isn't.

2 stars.

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

Now this one was good. A creepy historical murder mystery (it's Taylor, what else would you expect?) that's based on events during the childhood of Edgar Allen Poe, it's well imagined and satisfyingly well executed. It's got a nice, big, engrossing plot, full of mistaken identities, big chilly houses and lots of gloomy weather.

Taylor's novels aren't just mysteries, they're stories, and often quite involved ones - novels that happen to have murders in them, rather than novels about murder. The star of the show is always the setting, the (very accurately rendered) historical moment, and I thought that the world of The American Boy (Regency England) was particularly well imagined.

This is a book that you can get your teeth into, a blockbuster production that's good down to its smallest details. It's delightfully dark and twisty with just the right level of nastiness - basically, this is vintage Taylor. The sequel (prequel?) is out next month. Let me tell you, internet, I am excited.

4 stars.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Let me sell you this book in a single sentence: it's about a magical Victorian circus. A MAGICAL. VICTORIAN. CIRCUS. And not just any magical Victorian circus, either. It's pretty much the slickest, the most sideways and in all ways the best vision of the best possible circus you could ever imagine. Only it's better.

Morgenstern's cirque des reves assaults all your senses at once. Her writing makes you slaver over the burnt-caramel smell of popcorn, taste cinnamon pastries and light up your mind's eye with fire and fluttering ribbons. There's a circus tent that's a garden made entirely of ice, a tent where you climb up into a labyrinth in the clouds and one where you can smell stories.

The circus itself is the setting for an absolutely beautiful love story. The two main characters of The Night Circus are a boy and girl who have been brought up knowing that they have to fight a mysterious and fatal magical duel - except that when they actually meet, they realise that all they want to do is spend the rest of their lives together. Can they manage it? Or will the power of the circus, the setting for their great game, send events spinning out of their control? Morgenstern plays with time and place masterfully, messing with the lives of her wonderful characters in a way that's like watching an illusionist carry out a virtuoso magic trick.

When I finished this book, I physically missed it. I wandered tragically around my house hugging it to me and whispering, what do I do with my life? I loved The Night Circus heartbreakingly much. I can do nothing else but give it

5 stars.

Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

I have been itching to get my hands on this one for a long time. A teenage girl writes a series letters to a convicted murderer on Death Row, confessing to a terrible crime that she's kept secret from everyone she knows.

I loved this idea from the moment I first heard about it (you know how I love terrible secret crimes), but, more importantly, on closer acquaintance the story stands up to its premise.

I think what Pitcher has done with her hook is exceptional. She doles out the suspense - what did Zoe do, and who did she do it to? - in perfectly pitched little sips. I was going completely mental trying to work out which of the two possible victims Zoe has actually killed, so much so that I read half of the book on the train to work, and the other half on the train on the way home. Was the actual moment of the crime a let-down? Slightly, but that's just because I was keyed up to such a pitch that I would have been disappointed with anything that wasn't as insane as what I had been picturing in my head.

Zoe is a wonderful narrator, though, so realistic and funny that the book's success doesn't rest on the reveal of her crime alone. She's a real presence, and her words bring her world to life. Cleverly on Pitcher's part, one of the book's most engaging and present characters never actually appears in the text or says a single word. Zoe's murderer, Stuart Harris, never replies to her letters (he can't, since Zoe writes from 'Fiction Drive' to keep her story secret), but nevertheless he becomes an incredibly important person in her life. Zoe has made up a totally romanticised concept of him, the magical persona she needs to listen to her and understand the awful things that she's done. Like the rest of Ketchup Clouds, it's a perfectly pitched little detail that will break your heart and make you feel absolutely complicit in even the worst of Zoe's actions.

4.5 stars.

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