A ray of sunshine

Reading an author you like, and being disappointed by their latest offering, is pretty crushing. A new book from an old favourite is like a special pudding at the end of a meal. Having a hot chocolate made with full fat milk, topped with whipped cream and marshmallows melting into the froth. It is something I really look forward to, and this week both Karin Slaughter (Pieces of Her) and Lisa Jewell (Watching You) have let me down.

Slaughter, I’m going to forgive, mainly because the rest of her work is consistently of a high standard. Pieces of Her, about a mother having rather surprising secrets, is sloppy, unbelievable and not terribly interesting. Andrea, the heroine, is dull and uninspiring. The bizarre romance Slaughter tries to inject falls flat. Her other standalone novels, those outwith the Grant County stories, are brilliant – The Good Daughter being a case in point – so I won’t hesitate to pick up the next one she writes.

Lisa Jewell, however, is another matter. Jewell is like my big writer sister. She’s the only “chick lit” author I like; she’s got brains, emotional intelligence, and knows how to make a big story out of not very much. She knows how to write characters who you understand, who live just round the corner, who you see on the bus and on the next table at Starbucks. Her simple stories are much more complex than they first appear, just like real people.

So why has she started going down the thriller route? One of those which are inevitably marketed with the “… twist you won’t see coming!!!!” on the blurb? It’s disappointing. Jewell’s thrillers don’t thrill, they just annoy. I am not interested in who killed the corpse alluded to throughout the book; the sections of police interview fail to convince; what I want to know is more about the relationship between Joey and her brother Jack, how the dysfunctional Fitzwilliam family fits together, why Jenna’s mum has started losing her marbles. The little minutiae of life which Jewel makes so fascinating are discarded for the Big Mystery and it’s enough to make a grown man weep (I cry pretty easily). This is now the third thriller and I keep reading her latest, hoping that she’ll have gone back to the style she does better than anyone else. But each time I am disappointed and I don’t know if I will dare pick up the next one.

Thank heavens then for Gillian Flynn. Having devoured Sharp Objects on TV – the only TV series I have finished and immediately started watching again – I read the book in one morning. I got out of bed 2 hours later than I should have done because I didn’t want to stop. This was her debut novel, and is accomplished, sinister and fabulous. This was the hot chocolate; not just with whipped cream and marshmallows, but a load of cocoa sprinkled on top. Top marks.

Next on my To Read pile is the new Ann Cleeves: Wild Fire. I have just finished Raven Black, the first in her Shetland series, and enjoyed it. I’ve got that hot chocolate feeling again. Let’s hope it’s made with full fat milk rather than water – that’s as big a let-down as some of these books.


You Are What You Read

I made a decision while in Greece this year which was to stop reading horrible stuff. Spooky stuff is still in – horror is out. There is a big difference.

I got my annual free Kindle Unlimited pass and every year I remind myself these things are free for a reason. The occasional good title sneaks in – Mark Edwards isn’t an amazing author, but his dark little stories show originality and I keep going back for more (Follow Me Home was the one everyone went mad for, but The Magpies deserves fans too). The Hangman’s Daughter series by Oliver Posztch, about his ancestor who was a hangman in medieval Germany, is again not astounding authorship but is nonetheless enjoyable. I also got some free horror, one of which was “beautiful” horror stories – and they weren’t beautiful. There is no beauty in dredging up the very worst of what humanity is capable of and feeding your brain with it.

I lay in a splash of sticky golden sun on a boat which rocked lazily from side to side. I was in the company of some of my favourite people. If I looked to the left the Mediterranean sea sparkled, inviting me to jump in and cool my tight, salty skin. On my right rose my favourite place in the whole world, a green and purple island.

This is what I could have been looking at.

And I was reading about – a girl who got her mother killed by Nazis in Auschwitz. Someone’s mouth being sewn up. A man turning into a giant penis (yes, really).

I stopped reading and removed the book from my device along with the others of a similar ilk. If your body is poisoned by eating toxic rubbish, what’s it doing to your mind?

I’m not going to tell you what those books were. You don’t need to know and the authors, who are utterly entitled to write whatever the hell they want, don’t need to know that they made me feel ill. Here are the books which I really, really enjoyed and which I think you SHOULD know about.

A Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration England – Ian Mortimer
Entertaining, fascinating and a most enjoyable read. The others in this series have been ordered from the library.

Larry’s Party – Carol Shields
An extraordinary book about an ordinary man. Shields takes the minutiae of a man’s life and creates a life from it. I loved it.

The Habit of Murder – Susannah Gregory
Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series is great fun. Fascinating from a historical point of view, it’s also funny, touching and bloody well written. If you haven’t read about this medieval monk, get into the habit. Arf, arf.

Day of the Dead – Nicci French
A fantastic end to the Frieda Klein series. When these books started I wasn’t keen, but Frieda has grown on me and the taut, well-plotted stories are spell-binding. To all those churning out trashy “a story with a twist you’ll NEVER SEE COMING” nonsense: this is how it should be done. Nicci French (aka Nicci Gerrard and David French) very rarely let you down. If you can’t do it like them, don’t bother.

The Outsider – Stephen King
King has no equal, not only in his imagination but also in his observations on humanity and his ear for dialogue. I’m pleased to see the return of the Finders Keepers detectives. King’s supernatural horror may not sit entirely comfortably with the detective genre, but it’s still far superior to most of the stuff out there…

The Killing Habit – Mark Billingham
… although Billingham is probably one step ahead of King in this particular style. This was another Thorne novel which throws up so many red herrings it was in danger of smelling. Great work. (I’ve just realised that Billingham and Gregory almost share a title!)

There are a lot of dark books here, but nothing I’d call horrible. Horrible is cheap, nasty and unrefined. Horrible is designed to shock and sicken, creating violent visceral reactions rather than gently building up disturbance. Not all horror is horrible, and those who dismiss it as such do it a disservice – but I have to admit most horrible stuff can be found on the Horror shelf. Browse it if you want to, pick up anything that looks fascinating, but tread carefully; choose your titles wisely. The worst will not leave you, and life is short; we should only have worthy companions for it.

P.S. Today is National Read a Book day. So go on! Read one and tell me if you ever find one you liked as a result of my blog. Someone did that recently and her kind message sparked this entry.