The Drowning Pool (2011) by Syd Moore
The story: Sarah Grey, a young mother whose husband has recently died, relocates to the coastal town of Leigh-on-Sea. The seaside community is a welcome escape from reminders of Sarah's past, and she quickly develops a network of close friends. During a drunken night out, Sarah learns that one of the local legends concerns a woman with the same name as her - supposedly a 'sea-witch' who attacked children and cursed a ship and its crew. After that night, Sarah begins to experience a series of visions, dreams and strange incidents, and gradually becomes convinced she is the subject of a haunting by the malevolent spirit of her 19th-century namesake. The story is given a further twist when Sarah discovers she may have a neurological condition; could what she's experiencing be down to a brain tumour? The Drowning Pool (the title relates to a local pond said to have been used for 'ducking' trials during witch-hunts) follows Sarah as, using various methods, she attempts to get to the bottom of what is really going on, and tries to understand why she is being haunted.
The verdict: The awful, tacky cover almost put me off this altogether, but the plot sounded right up my street and the fact that the Kindle edition is just 99p sealed the deal. It's actually a pretty good book, engaging, original and fast-paced; the trouble with it is that it tries to pack so much into one story. It starts as a spooky tale with a psychological twist, as Sarah wonders whether her 'ghost' could be a product of illness or grief, and struggles against her friends' doubt. Then it turns into an assessment of the horrors of witch-hunts from a feminist perspective. Then it starts diverging into Sarah's friends' lives, particularly an old family scandal that appears to have seriously affected one of her closest friends, Sharon. Then it becomes a historical mystery, with Sarah researching her namesake's past and turning up some fascinating old diaries and letters. Then it goes all swoon-worthy-romance for a couple of chapters. Then it becomes a suspense thriller - can Sarah trust the man she is falling for? Finally, it becomes a crime novel with a paranormal slant, resulting in a bloody and really rather daft climax. The genre mash-up is sometimes an advantage, delivering some genuinely unpredictable twists, but in the end it's all too much. It's a shame, because this is an enjoyable story with some truly interesting foundations (the local legends and Sarah's 'haunting'). I don't think I'll be bothering with the author's second novel (there's an unpromising extract at the end of this one), but The Drowning Pool was definitely enough fun to be more than worth 99p.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2011) by Ransom Riggs
The story: Jacob Portman is an isolated, bored and friendless American teenager. Since childhood he has been very close to his grandfather, who told endless exciting and far-fetched tales about his own youth which Jacob has never forgotten. The stories - about Abraham Portman's escape from horrifying 'monsters' to a children's home full of refugees with amazing powers - have been explained away in intervening years as an allegory for the refugees' survival of WWII. The photographs that accompanied them, supposedly showing the extraordinary abilities of these 'peculiar' children (such as the levitating girl pictured on the cover), Jacob now regards as poorly doctored fakes. However, when his beloved grandfather dies in strange circumstances - leaving behind a letter from his old headmistress, Miss Peregrine, and a series of intriguing clues - Jacob begins to suspect there could have been something more to those odd stories after all. He persuades his father to take a birdwatching trip to the Welsh island where the children's home is situated, and sets out to discover the truth.
The verdict: I was well and truly sucked in by the beginning of the book, and initially it had all the makings of a great light read. The set-up is well-crafted - lonely Jacob is a sympathetic character, the mystery of his grandfather's past is tantalising, and the island itself, while contrived, is a suitably atmospheric setting for the rest of the action. The trouble begins about a third of the way in: after Jacob has solved the mystery of the children's home (which doesn't appear to surprise him anywhere near as much as it should), the book slumps into a very formulaic series of events in which everything seems to happen way too easily. The tension collapses, the characters' speech (whether faux-British slang-laden or 'old-fashioned') is beyond parody, and Jacob's voice is uneven, sounding far too mature and descriptive at certain points. I don't want to give any spoilers away, but so many of the major developments left me with a lot of unanswered questions, and the conclusion was far from satisfying (or, indeed, conclusive). And yes, I know it's for kids, but good YA literature should no more be peppered with plot holes than the adult equivalent.
Despite its popularity among the online reading community, I rarely read YA fiction, and this book reminded me of why. I was immediately sucked in by the fascinating premise, but the story ended up being a lukewarm rehash of elements of X-Men and Harry Potter, without any of the drama, excitement or decent characterisation. Unsurprisingly, my conclusion about this book is that I'd have enjoyed it much more 15 years ago. Not quite a complete waste of time, but I wouldn't recommend this to adult readers at all.
Great House (2011) by Nicole Krauss
The story: Great House is both a novel with an overarching theme, and a collection of short stories - most of which are told in two parts, and all of which have loose connections with the others. In All Rise, a lonely writer in New York is haunted by the memory of a Chilean poet she met many years ago. In True Kindness, an elderly man in Israel, close to death, is both infuriated and pained by recollections of his difficult relationship with his youngest son. In Swimming Holes, a man is consumed with jealousy over the mystery of his wife's connection to a young male visitor, and after her death he sets out to discover the truth about what they meant to one another. Finally, in Lies Told By Children, a young American student at Oxford University becomes infatuated with a brother and sister whose father, an antiques dealer, has devoted his life to recovering the furniture stolen from his family by the Nazis. A single motif connects these stories: a huge, imposing antique writer's desk, owned by a variety of the characters at different points in history, and pivotal to the lives of a few.
The verdict: This is yet another of those literary novels that's all about characters looking back on their lives, meditating on loss, memory and regret (see also: this year's Booker winner, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending). Everything seems to be unspoken, everything is dreadfully complicated, and everyone suffers in silence, hardly ever simply asking for the answers they seek. In a lot of ways, it's nothing new, but the key thing is, this woman really can write. I frequently found the descriptions breathtaking, and the characterisation is wonderful; even if the characters' actions are often frustrating and sometimes very hard to understand, they seem so real. I found myself highlighting paragraphs all over the place: partly because I strongly related to a couple of the characters (especially Nadia, the narrator of All Rise), but also because their observations were so beautifully put, succinct yet poetic. However, my favourite part of the book was the very first story-half, which I genuinely loved, but the rest of it failed to match up to that promise. It isn't that I didn't like the use of short stories to build a fractured narrative, more that I felt there was something fundamental missing - I simply couldn't connect with most of the characters as I'd have liked to. I would read something else by Krauss, because I think she is a wonderful writer, but I just couldn't fall in love with this book, no matter how much I admired the tone and style.