Monday, 23 February 2015

Some new and forthcoming books: a brief overview

February 2015 books so far

Checking in with a quick update on some February reads, since I'm very conscious that I haven't posted any reviews recently. I'll be writing more in-depth posts on a couple of these when I have time, but for now, I challenged myself to write one-paragraph reviews of each of them. Here are the results...

The Curator (5 February 2015) by Jacques Strauss
In a narrative that shifts between 1976 and 1996, we are introduced to the doomed and dreadful Deyer family, primarily patriarch Hendrik and underachieving son Werner. Living in pre- and narrowly post-apartheid South Africa, they negotiate a changing world with suspicion, hatred and selfishness; the junior and senior Deyers are both devious and murderous individuals, and both are defined by obsession. The story has a wide scope, with its main arc involving the lasting impact of a massacre on the Deyer family, but on a lower level it is concerned mainly with the repulsively fascinating character of Werner and all his idiosyncrasies. The aspiring 'curator' of the title, he nurses an unfulfilled love of art alongside tendencies towards sadism, and these repressed desires will bring him, like his father, to ruin. Indubitably bleak but laced with black humour, this is a book with dark themes - murder, racism and child abuse among them - yet it keeps a surprisingly light tone by centring on Werner. His naivety and self-delusion make him both amusing and dangerous - a brilliant creation - and part of what makes The Curator work so well is its ambivalence towards him. This is one of those books that stays in your head and reveals more layers every time you think about it; I loved it.
Rating: 9/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

The Predictions (5 May 2015) by Bianca Zander
In Zander's second novel - a more slick and accomplished affair than her debut, The Girl Below - Poppy and Lukas are teenagers raised on a commune, Gaialands, in New Zealand. The story follows them from 1978 to 1989, as their relationship, which could very accurately be described as star-crossed, is tested not only by a move halfway across the world, poverty, and (later) incipient stardom, but by 'the predictions' of the title, visions of their future laid out by an eccentric and charismatic prophet. While Poppy isn't as immediately engaging a character as The Girl Below's Suki, Zander's style has really progressed, chiefly by ironing out the clunky supernatural elements that marred her first book. If The Predictions was going to be broadly categorised as a genre, I suppose I'd have to (reluctantly) say it's a romantic novel; but the story is underpinned by much more interesting themes than that, exploring community, family and the idea of fate. The commune's effect on the children raised there, and the way political developments (and the conspicuous lack of any dawning of a 'New Age') affect its progression, are particularly well done.
Rating: 7/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Paperback

Day Four (21 May 2015) by Sarah Lotz
The unfortunate thing about Lotz's follow-up (and very loose 'sequel') to The Three is that it's not The Three. The setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a stranded cruise ship, and the story unfolds over four days as tensions rise, rescue starts to seem impossible, and things go bump in the... cabins. It's all filtered through a variety of viewpoints, with eight disparate characters revisited in alternate chapters. It's highly readable and you'll want to gulp it down in one sitting, but it suffers from barely differentiating the characters' narratives (baffling since Lotz differentiated to scintillating effect in The Three); being a story mainly about build-up, as the plot races towards the inevitable question of whether or not the beleaguered passengers will survive; and rather a lot of unpleasant detail (the author's vivid description may be a disadvantage when applied to a ship on which toilets and running water haven't been working for days). The ending is brilliant, but it's something of a slog to get there, and Day Four simply doesn't have the sky-high tension and utterly terrifying moments that made its predecessor so good.
Rating: 6/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Unbecoming (22 January 2015) by Rebecca Scherm
Saddled with a blurb that likens it to Hitchcock movies, Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl and Donna Tartt, Unbecoming is certain to raise expectations, and in a sense, primed to fail; I doubt even the most brilliant debut could live up to those comparisons, and sadly, this is not a brilliant debut. An intriguing opening - in which the protagonist, Grace, is revealed to be living under a false identity and on the run from her past - gives way to a largely unremarkable depiction of small-town America, with relationship wrangles and an allegedly audacious heist, both of which I struggled to care about. None of this is helped by the fact that Grace is a cold, empty character, difficult to like and even more difficult to understand. And just to top it off, I didn't like the ending either. There are flashes of interest in Unbecoming, such as an evocative interlude set in New York, but overall it was a disappointing story that wasted a very interesting premise on very dull characters.
Rating: 4/10 | Full review | Buy on Amazon: Hardback

I received advance review copies of The Curator, The Predictions and Day Four, the first through NetGalley and the latter two direct from the publishers.

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