A land more kind than home by Wiley Cash – a review

I had a bit of a book download frenzy before my trip to Canada, which of course was pre-TOPCWF2015 therefore it meant going through the festival programme and seeing who I hadn’t yet read. The problem when on the move is that I forget what the books I’ve downloaded are actually about and so have to come into reading them blind.
Wiley Cash was not only an author I hadn’t read, but he was one I hadn’t even heard of previously. This was his debut novel. The fact that his name sounds like a country and western singer was a little off putting but I tried to push past that.
The story is set in a small town in the American Deep South. The old time villagers grow tobacco, farm the land and fear the church which is the dominating influence on the community. Although this is a fire and brimstone type of church that uses live snakes to get people to prove their faith, with a pastor who is more reminiscent of a cult leader than a vicar.
This book is told from three viewpoints. There is Jess who has an older brother nicknamed Stump who doesn’t speak, meaning Jess has to act as the protector. There is Clem the local sheriff who has lived in the town his whole life. He is wary of the church but just keeps them at arms length as long as nothing illegal happens. Finally there is Adelaide the old woman who runs the Sunday school. She witnessed a horrific event when she was younger that has led her to avoid the church. However she runs the Sunday school as she believes this will be safer for the children than having them actually attend the church. Stump’s mother is a devout church goer, and one day she takes Stump along to a service in the hope that he can be healed. However he ends up dying at the hands of the congregation.
I really enjoyed this book. The story is not a fast paced murder mystery, but it is definitely a thriller. It starts slowly but each voice has their own story to tell. I liked the use of the colloquial language, and I felt that the descriptions of the area and the actions of the characters really drew you in.
Throughout the story different aspects of the characters are revealed and the flashbacks give a good idea of the history that brings the characters to the final chapter.
The ending was a bit of a shock, and was one of those scenes that leave you thinking about it for a long time afterwards. This was certainly worth the kindle space and I will definitely be reading more from Wiley Cash.

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Only ever yours by Louise O’Neill – a comment

I recently had a brief departure from my usual crime fiction reading and on a whim downloaded Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill. Suffice it to say this book made me pretty mad (not the writing I hasten to add, this was a very good book) but I wouldn’t call this a book review, more a rant.

For those who haven’t heard of it Only Ever Yours is essentially a scarier take on the Stepford Wives concept. The main character is Frieda and we see the world through her eyes. A world where women are created purely to compete with each other in order to make themselves the best choice when it comes time for the men to pick their wives. Whilst this is obviously a piece of fiction that is written for Young Adults to show them the bleakness of an existence like the girls in the book, it is worrying just how close this could be to real life.
The only goal in life for Frieda and her friends is to be the perfect women – to be skinny, be fertile and always agree with a man. Well that’s me being thrown on the pyre then, I eat too much pizza, I had a hysterectomy at 37 and the only time I’ve ever been known to be agreeable is if the question is Do you want another glass of wine? In fact I read this book whilst having a glass of wine and a meal on my own in my favourite Manchester pizza place.
Obviously the portrayal in the book is an exaggerated version of life, but the scary thing is I don’t think society is really that far removed from this. Everywhere you look on the tv or magazines the world is being told to diet or obsessing on some celebrity baby. Even at our age if you go out with a group of women the topics of conversation will inevitably include children, dieting and partners (always in a favourable way of course)

Throughout the book the women see themselves as property; they have no ambitions other than to be a companion to the men. For those who already know their rankings aren’t high enough to be chosen as a companion they aspire to be concubines. What kind of a world is it where women want to be less than they really are? We should encourage women to be strong not skinny, passionate not docile, to learn and have interests, to be proud to be a whole person in their own right not waste their lives in the hope of becoming someone’s ‘other half’ (A phrase I really hate – I’m a whole person just as Mr F is a whole person we go halves on our rent not on our personality)

It made me really sad this book had to be written but fingers crossed it has some good outcomes. Only Ever Yours should be a standard must read for all young people. Hopefully then more people will get mad and start realising that there is more to life than trying to shrink themselves – there’s pizza and wine for a start.

 

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If she did it by Jessica Treadway – a review

As I have mentioned many times before, one of the best things about the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is the abundance of new books and writers that are around. The goodie bag this year was a thing of beauty, sturdy, black and full of books. Of course it does always lead to a bit of sibling rivalry as it seems the contents of no two book bags are the same, and this year it did look that my sister got the better haul.
However disappointment never hangs around long in Harrogate and I soon found a spare copy of one I had my eye on – If She Did It by Jessica Treadwell. An intriguing black cover with the strapline ‘The only thriller you need to take home from Harrogate this year’ it was impossible not to pick up.
If She Did It begins when Hanna finds out that the man who is in prison for murdering her husband Joe is being granted an appeal. The man, Rud Petty, was their daughter Dawn’s boyfriend. Hanna and her husband were attacked by Rud in their bedroom. Many people think that Dawn was involved but Hanna can’t remember what happened and refuses to believe her daughter could be so terrifying.
If She Did It was termed a ‘domestic noir’ which I think is a great term and a category that I personally really enjoy. This book was no exception. The story is told from Hanna’s point of view, both present day as her daughter Dawn returns home and flashbacks to the time prior to that attack. The story is not exactly fast moving and it is all told from one point of view so can feel a bit stifling but that was what made it so gripping. Not only did I want to find out who had actually killed Joe it was intriguing to see how the relationships between mother, daughter and sister Iris would pan out.
As is often the case with these kind of books, the heroines are by no means perfect, in fact they are often downright annoying. There was a part of me that just wanted to shake Hanna and make her realise what was in front of her. Especially during the flashbacks to Dawn’s childhood and the elements where you were hard pushed to believe that she didn’t realise that there was something wrong. However equally the idea of having to admit that the child you love might have problems and even be capable of such a horrific act must be terrible. Clearly love can be blind which is really the theme of this book, and the ending gave it a nice feeling of completion.
This was a really enjoyable book which whilst not perfect makes you think. It was another great pick up from the festival, and I will be looking forward to reading more from this author.

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The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton – a review

I was given a copy of this via netgalley and took it on my recent trip to Canada. I have really enjoyed Rosamund Lupton’s previous novels so was looking forward to this one.

The Quality of Silence centres on young girl Ruby and her mother Yasmin. Ruby and Yasmin are travelling to Alaska to meet Ruby’s Dad who is filming over there. However when they arrive they are told he has been killed in a fire that has wiped out the entire village he was staying in. Refusing to give up hope Yasmin hitches a ride across Alaska to try and find him. The story is told from the two characters points of view. Ruby is deaf and refuses to use her speaking voice, yet she has found a new voice through the wonders of twitter. By ‘speaking’ through cyberspace she feels as though she is no longer disadvantaged and is communicating on an equal footing with everyone else. We also hear from Yasmin who tells us about the relationships within the family whilst she looks back on her life with her husband. As the journey continues we begin to understand more about the family dynamics and what is forcing her to risk the lives of her and her child in order to find out the truth about her husband.

This book had me in two minds. The idea was good, and the writing was excellent. Yet I’m afraid I was left a little disappointed by this. Some of it just seemed a little bit too far fetched for me. For example we are meant to believe someone who has never driven a truck before in their life can drive one safely across the ice and even manage to put on snow tyres. I’m just not sure it would be that easy.

I think for me, the issue was actually one of perception. I wasn’t really sure if it was meant to be an environmental story or a mystery or a love story and therefore I think this caused some confusion in my little brain. I am easily confused after all. Putting the far fetched bits to one side, what did stand out was the quality of the writing. Whilst I’m certainly no expert in literature, there were passages that actually made you feel as though you were stood in the middle of a frozen wasteland, and I enjoyed those bits. However there was just something lacking and I got a little annoyed by some of the repetitive descriptions of actions such as putting clothes on and off. Overall I’d say this was an interesting read and a good holiday story although very far fetched in places.

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In a dark, dark wood by Ruth Ware – a review

As I’ve mentioned many many times, one of the most exciting things about the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is that you not only get lots of free books, but often you are also lucky enough to get proof copies of some novels before they go on general sale. Although this isn’t always straightforward, and the fabulous people at Dead Good Books made us work for a copy of In a dark, dark wood by dressing up in feather boas with a very large hat in order to recreate a murderous hen do. In return I received a copy of the book, which was completely worth the embarrassment.
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In a dark, dark wood is Ruth Ware’s debut novel. It centres on crime writer Nora who is suddenly invited to the hen do of her child hood friend Claire despite not having seen her for 10 years. She decides to go along in the hope of putting the past behind her, but things go wrong and Nora ends up in hospital with no memory of how she got there or what happened.

This was a thoroughly good read. Whilst I don’t think it was a particularly suspenseful or dramatic book, I really enjoyed it and it was one of those books that kept me wanting to read just one more chapter before sleep. The story itself is reasonably predictable and there are few twists, yet the writing is good and it was a fun quick read. The story keeps you interested although it isn’t especially scary, however having spent the past few weeks reading altogether darker crime novels this actually felt like it was a great change of direction for me. There is a very limited number of characters which works really well and gives the story a claustrophobic air that’s adds to the tension.

In a dark, dark wood is definitely worth a read, and if you’ve ever been on a hen do and wondered why on earth we go through it, you’ll love this book.

 

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The facts of life and death (in Harrogate)

What do the following statements have in common:

  • Patricia Highsmith used to breed snails and was so attached to them that when she moved to France she smuggled them in her bra.
  • The north is better than the south at playing football
  • I am really rubbish at quizzes.
  • The name Jack Reacher came about because Lee Child could reach things from high shelves in supermarkets.
  • Knitting can be taken anywhere.
  • I have the same first name as Simon Theakston’s wife – sadly for Mr F that doesn’t allow me a discount on his favourite Old Peculier.
  • If turning around a hotel room from theatre to cabaret style was an Olympic sport the Old Swan would definitely take the gold medal.
  • In Iceland they suck on boiled sheep heads as a tasty snack.
  • Crime writers make me look a complete amateur when it comes to drinking in the bar.

The common thread? Yes you guessed it, these are just some of the many fascinating facts that I learnt at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Once again the festival is over and I’m sure I’m not the only person to feel the disappointment. Having spent three days immersed in crime books, crime authors and crime discussion, having to return to the boring minutiae of work really is rather dull. It’s difficult to remember that when my boss tells me about her recent vandalism problem she just wants a bit of sympathy and head nodding – not a ten minute monologue on why fingerprints are only fingerprints once they’ve been identified.

It was as always another fantastic festival. This year the sister and me had agreed not to make our usual mistake of spending three full days rushing from session to signing queue to coffee queue to session and to take time to enjoy the atmosphere a bit more. We were very selective with what sessions we actually attended and managed to have at least one each day that we kept spare. This gave us a great chance to chat to people outside, sit in the sun and get even more free books than previously.

The atmosphere at this festival is always the best; it’s no exaggeration to say that for people who spend their time conjuring up the most gruesome ways possible to kill and scare people, crime writers really are the most friendly bunch. To me the writers at this festival are the equivalent of A List celebrities to the readers of Hello, but you can actually talk and walk amongst them. I bet not many festivals include an award winning actor browsing in the bookshop (on being asked to say a few impromptu words at an awards ceremony their reply was I can’t I’m pissed) or the winner of the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Novel of the Year standing next to us in a signing queue. (The winner was the lovely Sarah Hilary)

The programme for this year again gave a great range of authors and topics. Apart from my favourite New Blood panel led by Val McDermid, some of the highlights for me this year included the Perfect Match with David Mark and Anya Lipska discussing reviewing and choosing that next new book, the Forensics panel which was fascinating and gave an interesting insight into the real world of detection, as well as the surprise of the weekend which was Eddie Izzard talking to Mark Billingham. Not strictly crime but very entertaining.

Of course no matter how excellent the weekend there is always a downside. This one being the amount of books I returned with. Despite my best acting I’m not sure Mr F believed that they were all ones I already had and had taken with me! I’ve definitely got my work cut out to read my way through them all before the next festival. Which reminds me of one final fact:

  • Its only 52 weeks until the next TOPCWF.

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The Good Girl by Mary Kubica – a review

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica was a book I had heard good things of. Whilst it was technically not part of the TOPCWFC2015 I wanted something that was going to be interesting enough to keep me occupied on my recent plane ride. Therefore I added this to my very large download pile.

This was another book told from three viewpoints (I seem to have had a run of these recently) split into before and after time frames. Firstly there is Eve who is the mother of missing Mia and married to a Judge. Gabe is the policeman who is investigating Mia’s disappearance. Then there is Colin, who kidnaps Mia. Early on in the story Mia returns but it is clear that something very disturbing has happened, as she has complete amnesia about the time she was away. The story progresses through a series of flashbacks as Eve tries to help her daughter come to terms with her kidnapping and find out what went on.

I’m in two minds about this story. The premise was good, and it was an interesting take on a kidnap story. However there was just something that didn’t work for me. It all seemed a bit too cliché and the fact that I guessed the end twist about three quarters of the way through was a bit disappointing.

I unfortunately didn’t really like the characters and found the relationships to be a bit stilted. I was left really not caring about any of them or what was happening which is never a good way to read a mystery. I do think partly the problem is my expectations were quite high, and this can often lead to disappointment. Equally I don’t know whether my enjoyment was hampered by the fact that I read it whilst travelling and broke off half way through to watch the film of Gone Girl on the plane, or if it was just that the writing wasn’t really my style. I found that the switching between viewpoints was really annoying, and for some reason they didn’t flow very well.

It was a shame as the story could have been really good, and I had high hopes. However I’m afraid to say that for me although it certainly wasn’t a bad read and I wanted to read to the end, neither did I find it particularly ground exciting. Maybe it just goes to show I should stick to reading people who will be at Harrogate and concentrate on the TOPCWFC2015.

 

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