For the past few months I've been reading a lot of literary fiction, so I've decided to use the month of October to get through some of the more 'lightweight' books on my to-read list. It's my theme for the month, if you like. I'm only allowed to read genre fiction and short books and I might even (SHOCK!) read some chick lit (although I have to say I've tried to start a couple so far and no dice, I can't get into them). These are more likely to be books I'll read quite quickly, however, so I don't want to post every single review here separately or they will CONSUME my blog. Here are some edited versions - the full versions are all at my Goodreads account, of course.
The Ghost (2007) by Robert Harris
The story: Famous for being a roman à clef about the life of Tony Blair following his tenure as prime minister, The Ghost is told from the perspective of a nameless ghostwriter who is drafted in to edit the memoirs of the Blair figure, ex-PM Adam Lang, after the apparent suicide of an aide who was assisting with the book. Lang is holed up in a mansion in Martha's Vineyard, surrounded by security and a host of associates, including both his wife and his mistress. After Lang is accused of being involved in an illegal operation to imprison suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, the narrator is pushed to work quickly on the book, and soon uncovers evidence to suggest his predecessor's death may not have been suicide after all...
The verdict: In terms of plot and style, The Ghost was pretty much a standard thriller. What elevated it above the rest, and spurred my interest, was the fact that Harris was once close to Blair and they had a high-profile falling out, so it can be assumed that there's a fair amount of truth in this depiction. 'The ghost' was necessarily anonymous, but unfortunately the lack of a name or background didn't help in making him someone I could believe in and/or root for. I know Harris can write engaging, likeable, human heroes - after all, he created Fluke Kelso in Archangel, one of my favourite books of all time - but this guy wasn't one of them. He made some obnoxious observations (comparing bad conditions in an airport to the Holocaust, really?) and used a few too many daft similes, and although I didn't hate the character, I can't say I felt fully invested in his plight either. With everyone else in the story seeming to be either power-crazed or a complete liar (or both), and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the first half of the book, The Ghost had a tense but gloomy feel, full of dread and foreboding. After the narrator eventually left the isolated mansion, the pace picked up and I got through the rest of the book pretty quickly.
I didn't expect The Ghost to be a truly amazing read and it delivered more or less exactly what I expected - a gripping, if not brilliantly written, thriller that held my attention, didn't tax the brain too much, and didn't require any emotional involvement. It's certainly worth reading and I'd recommend it if you've got a flight or long train journey coming up, but if you want the author's best work, this isn't it. (Archangel is).
Like Bees To Honey (2010) by Caroline Smailes
The story: This is the tale of Nina; born and brought up in Malta, she moved to England as a teenager and was disowned by her family for getting pregnant by, and then marrying, an English man, Matt. At the beginning of the book, Nina is travelling back to Malta to face a reunion with her parents, accompanied by her teenage son, Christopher. However, all is not as it seems with Nina's journey, nor her destination. There is a supernatural element to the story, as the Malta of Like Bees To Honey is shown to be a magnet for wandering spirits, while Nina has the ability to communicate with them. The tale that follows is an exploration of loss, identity and faith, as Nina attempts to come to terms with the losses she has endured and struggles to maintain her religious beliefs in the face of personal anguish. The book is predominantly about Nina's emotional journey, interwoven with touches of fantasy and magic.
The verdict: The rather twee cover and title of Like Bees To Honey do it something of a disservice. If it hadn't been for a) a few good reviews I'd read and b) the setting of Malta (which holds a special place in my heart), I'd probably have passed over this, assuming it would be very lightweight and overly sentimental. In fact, this original and unusual novel turned out to be unlike anything else I've read. The writing was unique, very lyrical and emotive, but with a constant undercurrent of sly humour. Nina's narrative (which makes up the majority of the book) did seem somewhat emotionally overwrought at times, but the vividly imagined comic details helped to balance it out. There was Jesus holding court in a seedy bar where he drinks endless pints of Cisk lager, paints his toenails and talks to the local spirits about Come Dine With Me, Simon Cowell and Paul O'Grady; Tilly, a lesbian ghost with anger management issues and a very distinctive voice; and John Lennon playing ghost gigs in the defunct St Julian's branch of TGI Friday's. The book was occasionally hampered by frequent repetition of onomatopoeic words and translations of Maltese phrases, which really wasn't necessary. However, it was easy enough to skip over these lines and if you get into the story, they're not going to get in the way of your enjoyment of it. While I didn't fall completely in love with this book - I could never quite connect with the character of Nina - it really surprised me by going in directions I didn't expect. I paid just 49p for the Kindle edition, and it was absolutely worth the money.
The Crossing Places (2009) by Elly Griffiths
The story: The first in a series of mystery/thriller novels based around the character of forensic archaelogist Dr Ruth Galloway, this book begins with the disappearance of a child on the gloomy Norfolk coast, a case which seems to mirror that of a still-missing girl from ten years before. When a body is dug up, police suspect it's the first girl, but it turns out to be an Iron Age sacrifice, preserved by the peat. This finding brings Ruth into the investigation, and as events progress she finds herself closely involved in the hunt for the missing girls.
The verdict: A quick and easy read, this book's biggest asset was its main character. In Ruth Galloway, Elly Griffiths has created a protagonist who is clearly tailor-made to appeal to a certain type of female reader. She lives in an isolated house in the midst of a desolate, windswept landscape; she's happily single through her own choice; she loves cats but doesn't have/want children; she prefers to be on her own and makes concerted efforts to avoid her neighbours; she often shuns social events in favour of a good book. As a foil to Ruth, there was Harry Nelson, a no-nonsense, somewhat gruff police officer - a stereotype, but likeable all the same - and a great cast of supporting characters too. However, the story surrounding them was rather more standard fare: two missing children, a series of cryptic letters sent to taunt the police, bodies turning up in the Norfolk marshes, etc - without the archaeological detail, it would be a standard whodunnit. The book was written in present tense, which can work well in fiction, but sometimes seemed a bit clumsy here. If you've read a reasonably well-written crime novel before, there will be nothing in The Crossing Places to particularly surprise or excite you. It was competently put together and consistently engrossing, but contained a few irritating inconsistencies - it was hard to believe Ruth wouldn't be more alarmed about certain developments. Overall, while I enjoyed this book, I felt like something better could have been crafted around these characters and this wonderfully bleak setting.
I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan (2011) by Alan Partridge (ahem...)
There's probably not a great deal I can say about this, really; the fact that it's a spoof autobiography of a fictional comedy character tells you all you need to know. If you're a huge fan of Alan Partridge, you'll probably find it a very amusing read - if you're not, well, it's not going to be of much interest. The strongest point of the book was that the narrative captured Alan's voice brilliantly - I almost felt I could hear him speaking as I read it, and most of it would easily work as dialogue - but I kept having to take a break from it, as there was only so much of this I could take at any one time (it turns out you CAN have too much Partridge). Thankfully it's not just a rehash of material from the TV series, and it's quite obvious a lot of work has gone into making this book funny and original at the same time as staying true to what fans know of Alan's life, right down to the 'Forward Solutions' motivational seminars from Steve Coogan's 2009 live DVD. I did laugh out loud quite a bit, but some parts were a lot funnier than others, and at points I got fed up (not clinically, though) of reading it. This is a very amusing book and it's more than a let's-rush-this-out-in-time-for-Christmas job, but it's something I doubt I'm going to be reading again. My advice is to buy it now, read it (carefully) and pass it on to someone else for Christmas. I'm sure Alan would approve.
Blacklands (2009) by Belinda Bauer
The story: The 'hero' of Blacklands is Steven Lamb, a young boy whose uncle, Billy, was murdered as a child nineteen years ago. He is convinced that if he can discover where Billy is buried, he will bring his family closer together and make his grandmother, who has never recovered from the loss, happy again. At first Steven spends his spare time digging his way across the surrounding Exmoor landscape, searching for bones, but after an English lesson in which he receives praise for his letter-writing style, he has a better idea - to write to Arnold Avery, the serial killer who was convicted of the assault and murder of several other children from the area (but never admitted to killing Billy) in prison. Switching between the viewpoints of Steven and Avery, the story charts the pair's correspondence as both become increasingly obsessed with what they might be able to discover.
The verdict: I was really interested in the concept of this book, but sadly, I found the execution pretty average. On the plus side, I was impressed by the way Bauer managed to capture the thoughts of her characters and create a real voice for them, all within a third-person omniscient narrative. Steven's chapters effectively conveyed his youth, innocence and naivety without becoming childish. Avery's chapters were handled well too; Bauer didn't shy away from portraying the killer's lack of remorse or his continuing lust for his child victims, even his arousal at the very idea of his crimes, and while this occasionally verged on being harrowing, it was helped by frequent, if brief, switches to the perspective of fellow inmates or prison wardens. Even minor characters were given a brief backstory, making some of the chapters feel almost like self-contained stories. However, although the book was well put together, it was all just a bit... drab. Steven's home life was portrayed as loveless and depressing, and although this was perhaps necessary for the reader to understand his obsession with Billy and motivation for contacting Avery, the characters of his mother and grandmother were very unsympathetic as a result. Blacklands is a short book, and like many short books, it could have done with a lot more detail and explanation; certain parts regarding Avery's actions were completely unrealistic. I felt as though this book was designed to be skimmed over and wouldn't stand up to much analysis or a re-reading.