Monday, 16 April 2012

Book reviews in brief: What I read on holiday

The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (2011) by Richard T. Kelly

The story: Grey Lochran, Steve Hartford and Robert Forrest are a trio of successful doctors who have been friends (and rivals) since their schooldays, although in recent years Robert - a plastic surgeon - has developed a dangerous obsession with youth and vanity which has led to him becoming somewhat alienated from his old friends. When Robert goes missing, the others are perplexed by his sudden disappearance, and Grey in particular is determined to uncover the truth about what has happened to him. The story is told entirely through diary entries and charts the increasingly sinister events that unfold after Robert's disappearance.

The verdict: A modern reworking of Doctor Faustus with a distinct neo-gothic feel, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is a powerful tale of sin and devilry which I thoroughly enjoyed. It's a very meaty and intriguing story with plenty of layers and is deliciously rich and dark in its settings, themes and language. The only problematic issue is that the author has a very distinctive, florid style, and using the voices of several different characters doesn't really work as they sound too alike - not to mention the fact that we all know nobody writes like this in their personal diary. Also, the final 'confession' is much weaker than the rest of the narrative and could have benefited from revisiting some of the other narrators. Still, overall this was an excellent, compelling read - I felt like it was the literary equivalent of a huge slice of black forest g√Ęteau. I'm always excited to find good modern authors who write subtle, effective horror, and I will definitely be looking out for Kelly's future books.

Rating: 8/10

The Uninvited Guests (2012) by Sadie Jones

The story: As my list here will testify, The Uninvited Guests was one of my most-anticipated books of 2012, and I was delighted to discover it had been published in advance of the expected release date. Set in a grand old country house inhabitated by the Torrington family, the whole story takes place across the course of one night, as eldest daughter Emerald's birthday party is interrupted by the 'uninvited guests' of the title, a group of lower-class travellers who have narrowly escaped a train crash. As ever with this type of story, all is not as it seems: the Torringtons are on the verge of losing their home, one amongst the party of survivors is not quite who or what he claims to be, and there may be an even more disturbing reason for the presence of the uninvited guests...

The verdict: This is an enjoyable and likeable book which, unfortunately, has a few too many flaws to be truly memorable. I liked the way the plot did something different and original with a well-worn setup, the characterisation was great (the Torrington siblings are charming, the odious Charlie absolutely hateful) and I could really feel the dread and trepidation in certain scenes. In fact, my main problem with the book has to do with how it's been marketed. A certain word splashed across the cover, along with certain comparisons drawn in the plot synopsis, led me to guess the biggest plot twist before I'd even started reading - a disappointment to say the least. Perhaps, if it hadn't been for this, I would have derived more pleasure from the story. Additionally, I wasn't keen on the ending and found the 'pairing off' that happened between the characters to be incredibly saccharine. Well-written and a decent enough story, but I was left disappointed in several respects, and think it could have been much better.

Rating: 6/10

Bunheads (2011) by Sophie Flack

The story: Hannah Ward is a 'bunhead' - a 19-year old dancer with the prestigious Manhattan Ballet Company, she lives, breathes and sleeps ballet and has never even considered devoting any of her time to anything else. However, when she begins to fall in love for the first time, she starts to reconsider her life choices and questions whether life as a ballerina is truly right for her. Is her heart leading her astray, or is giving her whole life to dancing really the right path?

The verdict: A cute, light and easy YA novel that made a perfect holiday read. Very absorbing and entertaining: I was surprised by how much I liked it and how quickly I was drawn into the plot. Despite the brand name-dropping that seems to be a compulsory part of every book for teenagers these days, I really liked the author's style and didn't get that 'this is too childish for comfort' feeling I often experience with YA fiction. I actually think the book could have been longer and contained more drama without doing any harm to the strength of the narrative. The ending was also handled skilfully - it could easily have felt like the book was sending the wrong message, but it worked better than I expected. A great piece of entertainment, this was a 'guilty pleasure' that surprised me by being genuinely warm and engaging.

Rating: 7/10

The Pleasures of Men (2012) by Kate Williams

The story: In 19th-century London, Catherine Sorgeiul is living an isolated life in Spitalfields, where she is confined to her uncle's home. An insular and slightly disturbed young woman, she has a troubled history which always seems to be threatening to rise to the surface. When a serial killer, nicknamed 'the Man of Crows' by the press, starts to strike around Catherine's home, she becomes convinced she can get inside the heads of both murderer and victims, and that she is the only person who can solve the riddle of who the killer really is. The narrative progresses through Catherine's attempts to identify the Man of Crows, and as it does, the secrets of her own past are uncovered.

The verdict: This was an odd one. It's hugely derivative, for a start: it's been compared to Sarah Waters by a lot of reviewers and critics, but then how could it not be when it features: lots of dank, dreary settings in Victorian London; a young woman with a troubled past being confined to her home by a cold, sinister uncle; lesbian liaisons between mistresses and servants; potential implications of supernatural goings-on which may actually be in the protagonist's head; a disturbing murder mystery, etc etc. I was quite surprised by how blatantly the story seemed to be inviting comparisons to Waters' work, and when I began reading, I didn't think there could possibly be anything truly original about it. Indeed, I found the first few chapters somewhat dull. Then, slowly but surely, I found myself being reeled in. Although some elements (including the ending) were rather pedestrian, the book had some sort of mysterious allure which kept me hooked. The narrative voice is fragmented and sometimes disjointed but somehow it works, perhaps because it's so effective in communicating the disturbed state of mind experienced by Catherine. If you're willing to stick with it, this is a delightfully dark piece of historical fiction filled with complex characters and an unsettling, twisted plot which slowly reveals a number of dreadful secrets. Weird, but unexpectedly good.

Rating: 7/10

PS: I did also read another of the books from my 2012 wishlist while in Barcelona... but as it isn't published for several months yet, that review is going to have to wait!


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