The Girls of 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib

The Girls of The Girls of 17 Swann Street, by Yara Zgheib belongs on the shelf I labelled Bell-Jars, from the most famous novel in the genre. The main character is usually a girl or young woman confined to a treatment facility, suffering from addiction or some other mental disorder, suicidal ideation, self-harm, or anorexia nervosa. Here the narrator, Anna Roux, is a victim of the last. She is a 26 year-old French woman, who has followed her husband Mathias to America, Saint Louis, Missouri. She is a former ballerina, and although no longer working as a dancer, continues to lose weight. As in cheer-leading, gymnastics, and modeling, anorexia is an occupational hazard for dancers. (Ballet also rivals American Profession Football for serious injuries and having to perform in spite of them.) Her husband becomes so alarmed at her condition that he compels Anna to commit herself to the faculty whose address is the title of the book.

Like alcohol and drug addiction, anorexia often represents an extreme form of misplaced spirituality. (It’s not simply a figure of speech that they feature “spirits,” “getting high” and “losing weight” and “fasting”—in the middle ages someone like Anna might have been canonized. That seems to me one of the short-comings of the treatment plan Anna encounters—the main emphasis is simply on getting her to up her caloric intake, without attention to her spiritual condition and to the experiences in her life that led to obsession with body image and self-denial. (An past unhappy affair with a director who constantly criticized Anna’s weight features in her backstory.) Being allowed to visit church on Sunday provides some solace though she is not a believer.

Having recently read Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire, I was struck by the unexpected resemblance between the treatment facility and a concentration or prisoner of war camp. Both feature obsession with food and risk of starvation; the difference is that in the former the inmates starve themselves and try to hide food to avoid having to eat it. In both they experience the sudden disappearance through death of other girls they’ve become fond of. And of course anorexics look like inmates of Belsen or a Japanese POW camp.

This is a gripping story and the reader sympathizes with Anna both when she resists treatment and when she finally appears potentially on the path to recovery. The reader of the Audible edition, Saskia Maarleveld, was superb, especially with the principal character’s French pronunciations; I loved “metro” and “crepe” especially. The American voices, especially that of the CNA called “Direct Care,” were rendered in realistically flat twangy midwestern dialect that provided an ugly contest to Anna’s sophisticated voice.

I cannot quite award five stars, though. Anna is a marvelous character, but the others, especially that of her husband Mathias, who relationship is crucial to her recovery, remain vague. He is supposed to be physicist, though we learn nothing about his career or why he is in Saint Louis. Some of the scenes with the other girls are very moving, but they too were shadowy for me. But this is was an excellent story with an engaging narrator.

Review of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix

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Though a generation older than the protagonists of this book, I loved the evocation of 1980s pop culture—like The Breakfast Club meets Teenage Exocist. There actually was a great Satanist panic in that time, which wasn’t funny – peoples’ lives were ruined – here played out in a snobby Charleston school without very much to be snobby about. Abby is a scholarship girl whose ne’er-do-well father has 200 lawnmowers in front of their house (is that upscale from a Buick on breeze blocks?) to repair for $20 each when he gets round to it; her mother is a hard-working but short-tempered nurse. All her classmates skip Abby’s tenth birthday party except Gretchen, and they become BFFs through fair and stormy weather. I am so envious a guy could write such a lovely account of a friendship.

Albemarle Academy was well up (or down?) on my list of horrible schools. The teachers communicate to their students in threats and cheap sarcasm and the headmaster is guilty of the grossest favoritism towards wealthy parents like Gretchen’s. Even worse (from my point of view) was the school chaplain, who though an Episcopal priest thinks like a teen counselor, so is utterly clueless faced with a diabolical possession. But even worse, conveys private information about one student to another, totally violating the ethics of chaplaincy. Appropriately, a fundamentalist weightlifter proves more helpful, not because one brand of religion is better than another, but because real spirituality is required, however bizarre and hilariously off-the-wall the situation. (That the form of prayer that actually works should be so pop-culturally secular proves something about Abby and Gretchen’s true spirituality, which is derived from their mutual relationship.) There’s also a dog that comes to an end reminiscent of a famous National Lampoon cover and a VW Rabbit (what Golfs were labelled then in America) called the Dust Bunny.

Funny, moving, nostalgic, sometimes infuriating and maddening (especially towards the adults who won’t listen to Abby or worse) are only a few epithets describing my feelings listening. It’s good to have the text too, for its visual effects, especially the teen-magazine quizzes. (“Is Your Best Friend Competing with You?”). This is a light-weight book, though we have moments we really fear for Abby and Gretchen. Think of it as a wonderful chocolate soufflé.

Review of Foe, by Iain Reid

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How many people know that the real name of “canola” oil is “rapeseed” oil? That was one of the lesser queries I was left wondering about with Iain Reid’s Foe. Another was whether the rhinoceros beetle has any kind of occult significant. Or why Terrance’s parents didn’t know how to spell the name of the Roman dramatist. As a space station places some role in the story, is there an allusion to “Terra” our home planet? The main character is named Junior and for just a moment as we are offered the final revelation I thought I’d spotted a significance, but no, that had always been his name. But who is he younger than? No one mentioned in the book. His wife is named Henrietta; Junior refers to her as “Hen” and he keeps chickens—which is apparently illegal because poultry is now confined to multistory battery farms—this clue leads nowhere. So far as I can divine, Reid has his own private mythology that only esoteric disciples are privy to, or he simply did not bother to finish his intended magnum opus and left us readers with a skeleton plot full of false leads.

As for the basis of the plot, I realized about halfway in that I had seen this movie already, more than forty years ago though I’m not sure whether it should be regarded as plagiarism or simply a standard science-fictional trope. Reid’s previous book I’m Thinking of Ending Things totally creeped (crept? Rule seems to be that back-formations are weak verbs) me out, and I was eager to enjoy this one and most disappointed. Apparently the author decided to change genres from horror to sci-fi with a dystopian ecologic message that became lost in transmission, leaving the yellow fields of rapeseed (bio-fuel we presume) and the rhinoceros beetles with nothing to do. Junior himself is a total bore (though once we know the secret, that is appropriate) who works in a feed mill. Supposedly he has won a lottery that will allow him to spend two-years on a space station. A mentor named Terrance moves into Junior and Henrietta’s farmhouse to prep them for his absence, which requires attaching all sorts of monitoring devices to him. Terrance is a brilliant satiric creation, given to such clichés as “It’s all good.” If you’ve ever made the mistake of letting a salesman into your house and then finding you can’t get rid of him, you’ll know the type. Which was my principal problem with this book—it was like listening to the kind of vacuum cleaner salesman who empties the bag all over your living room rug to demonstrate the suction power of the machine. And when he doesn’t make the sale, leaves you with the mess.

Reid can do so much better. Let’s have another horror story next time.

Review of You Let Me In, by Lucy Clarke

By the standards of routine psychological thrillers, You Let Me In is a decent piece of work, though a very slow boiler indeed; one’s three hundred pages into the story before the shoes start dropping. But I expected so much more, because the author is Lucy Clarke, author of The Blue, now renamed No Escape. (Why do publishers do this? Are they trying to trick readers into buying it twice? Shame!) The Blue, the name of a sailing yacht, was my choice for the best novel of 2017, a hauntingly tragic account of a doomed ocean passage with a mostly young pick-up crew, a book I’d class with Joseph Conrad amongst great sea stories.

This current book is about a writer who is quite literally house-bound. Elle was catapulted into fame when her debut novel turned into a best-seller. Now she has returned to her beautiful cliff-side house in Cornwall, into which she sank all her profits, to find that an Airbnb visitor seems to have subtly vandalised her retreat. Elle is also suffering from a mammoth case of writer’s block and is far behind her deadline for the second book. Elle also seems to have a strained relationship with her sister Fiona, a journalist turned stay-at-home mum envious of her successful sister. There is also an ex with whom Elle’s not getting along, and a neighbour’s motorcyclist son who may be a stalker. To complicate matters more, there is a backstory set in 2003/4 when Elle was an undergraduate in Cardiff.

Despite the home-alone menaces, I never found the frights very scary, which made waiting for this one to boil a tedious experience. When the revelations finally start, though, I was awed and admiring of the author’s artistry. There are basically three of them, in ascending order of surprise with a nice little twist at the very end that seemed most appropriate. For me the best twists are the one’s I foresee about two pages before they are revealed. That shows they have been nicely foreshadowed. The major one I found implausible in the extreme, at least in hindsight, but it was a perfect a resolution of what had gone before and tied the threads together most delightfully. So if you’re looking for a longer read you can spend some time with, you may well find You Let Me In an agreeable four-star for a long flight. At her best, though, Lucy Clarke is capable of working at so much higher a level, artistically and spiritually, and I so wish she would give us another story as moving as The Blue.

Review of A Treachery of Spies, by Manda Scott

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A Treachery of Spies now joins Sarah Helm’s nonfiction A Life of Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE and Elizabeth Wein’s YA Code Named Verity atop my list the exciting and moving Second World War historical books I have had the pleasure to read. This was one of the very worst periods in human history, but it was illuminated by the highest acts of bravery, sacrifice and comradeship that saved civilisation from the most despicable evil. Imagine being young and possessed of the necessary physical and linguistic skills, and then being trained to be the fittest you’ll ever be, able to sprint up mountain sides with heavy loads, shoot, set off explosives, code and decode secret messages, to derail an express train with an overcoat and to kill a man several different ways with your bare hands. And if you’re caught to face excruciating torture and transportation to a death camp. How could you ever return to ordinary life again? The principal characters in Manda Scott’s novel don’t. For them the war is never really over and old enmities and betrayals are avenged many years later.

The story is set in two time-frames. In the present, a French police captain in Orléans leads the investigation of the murder of a woman whose name appears to be Sophie Destivelle, shot in a car by an expert hit-man. In the back story we are in England and France from 1940 to 1944 with British Special Operations Executive and members of the French Maquis attempting to “Set Europe Ablaze” in the months leading up to D-Day, when a mixed British-American Jedburgh team joins them. The team, especially Sophie, Laurence, and his cousin Céline are very attractive and in the case of the latter two, aristocratic characters. Their antagonist is the Gestapo man Kramme, oozing with repulsive oily charm. And there is at least one traitor in their group, which indeed fits the setting; France was rife with double and even triple agents.

The breath-taking action scenes are excessively detailled and as they often take longer to depict than they would to elapse, the effect for the reader is like watching in slow motion. I liked the descriptions of firearms and explosives, though I thought the reliability and effectiveness of the Sten gun overrated. Unfortunately, the younger characters in the present story were nowhere near as attractive, especially the odious Americans. The principal artistic problem though was time: John le Carré has the same problem in Legacy of Spies, the characters who survive from the backstory are simply too old to be believably capable of present-day mayhem. In fact, one victim of a revenge killing is already a hospice patient—why bother? But forget the ugly Americans and almost as lourd (is there any other kind?) French police officers , the “Blythe Children of the Mountain Warriors of Vengeance” (as the Résistants style themselves poetically) shine like bright stars in a dark night. I expect A Treachery of Spies may become my favourite book of the year.

Review of The Murder of Harriet Monckton, by Elizabeth Haynes

Of all varieties of crime fiction, an historical based on fact may be the most difficult to execute. It requires all the best qualities of a fiction writer; whilst most of the characters and some of the plot are on tap, making them lively and believable is still up to the author. Then the writer has to be a social historian to imitate the manners and customs of the age, and to make the dialogue convincing requires an historical linguist. Language is the bane of contemporary writers; it is constantly changing and acquiring new idioms. Three struck me in The Murder of Harriet Monckton: ‘transpire’ to mean ‘occur’ instead of ‘become known’ was already current in the 1840s, though here characters use it to refer to events they wanted kept secret, quite the opposite of what transpire should mean. ‘Nauseous’ for ‘nauseated’ still evokes ludicrous images. And I am sure no one then used ‘to contact’ to mean ‘make contact with’! But generally the style of The Murder of Harriet Monckton felt right for the time, down to the typeface. I had a different problem with the Audible. Most of the voices were excellent, especially the actor reading the pompous George Verrall. But the reader for the young Thomas Churcher had an overpowering Estuary accent (‘thought’ and ‘thaw’ were homophones) that I’m sure was never heard in 19th-century Kent: in comparison he made Russell Brand sound like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Elizabeth Haynes shares with Sharon Bolton the honour of being England’s best crime fiction writer. She can create main characters we identify with and love. My favourite is Genevieve in Revenge of the Tide, for her skills both at pole dancing and restoration of watercraft (unfortunately power, not sail). Catherine Bailey of Into the Darkest Corner is such an appealing and vulnerable victim that I cannot bear to reread the book. And Scarlett Rainsford in Behind Closed Doors is the one of the bravest kick-arse heroines I’ve ever encountered. In the hands of a lesser writer, Harriet Monckton might have dwindled to a pitiable doormat, but as recreated by Elizabeth Haynes, especially in the section where Harriet’s diary takes over, Harriet is courageous and enduring, if perhaps too good for the world. An unmarried pregnant woman without any money, Harriet had only one option: “I should present myself at the …workhouse.’

Moll Flanders or Becky Sharpe would surely have contrived to blackmail both principal villains into paying her to keep silence. But this story is based on fact, and with Harriet’s death and the succeeding coroner’s inquest. The first being inconclusive, a second was required three years later.

This story reminded me of both George Eliot and Dickens. The odious George Verrall so recalled Mr. Bulstrode and Mr Chadband. He’s explicit about his sexual practices and the ‘spiritual succour’ he claims to derive from them: ‘The sensation was very different from fucking; the intensity of her efforts concentrated just upon my sex, coupled with her being on her knees in front of me, as if in supplication, as if in prayer…I found myself muttering some words out loud: “Lord grant me…in Thy Holy Name…lead us into Thy Light…” and that too seemed to amplify the sensations. The Lord was with me. The Lord had sent me another, to teach me His Way. That woman on her knees could bring me to Christ, could anoint me with the Spirit and take me to His Glory…At my peak I called out, “Praise be!” and spent into her mouth.’ He really believes it! I thought.

Helen worked as a school mistress in Bromley with Frances Williams, a woman in her thirties who was obviously in love with her. All the marriages in this story seemed unhappy (especially George and Sarah Verrall’s, not surprisingly) but most of the women do not support each other. Harriet’s sister is one of her worst enemies amongst other women as we try to suss out the perpetrator who administered the poison. In a story based on an unsolved real-life crime, the author has to provide a plausible solution and identify a culprit. In the case, the perpetrator was on my list of suspects with motives for killing Harriet, but only at the end do we have enough information. Is it fair, I wondered, to single out a historical person who might actually have been innocent? I think so. We know this is fiction and anyway, one cannot libel the dead.

The Murder of Harriet Monckton is the best historical novel I have read this year, and at times I would rank it with Middlemarch. It’s appropriate that a post-mortem exam should play such a key role here. Like Middlemarch, in this story we view an anatomy of a an entire society at a particular time and place. This is a superb work of historical recreation and Elizabeth Haynes deserves a place at the top level of English fiction writers.

Review of Someone Like Me, By M. R. Carey

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Weighing in at 500 pages, Someone Like Me presents the reader a considerable challenge. To decide if you’d like it, having enjoyed M. R. Carey’s previous The Girl with All the Gifts or Fellside is not a surefire indication. There is a blurb on the back cover from Lauren Beukes that’s a clue; the flavor of Someone Like Me is very much like The Shining Girls, including the setting in a run-down city in middle-America, time travel, serial killers, and paranormal features. If also you liked the notorious WTF ending to Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, you will have a good time with this one.

I was less happy with the setting, a very downscale section of Pittsburgh called Larimer. It’s daring of an English author to attempt to create American characters and Carey went to a lot of trouble to use appropriate details and language (including a can of Sunoco gasoline), though a few idioms such as “fit for purpose” “lived rough” and “slept rough” and “washing-up gloves” seemed out of place. It was also gratifying that the English edition uses American spelling and punctuation—I wish American publishers would extend the same courtesy to English authors. I caught only one distinctive mark of Pittsburgh dialect: Fran’s father addresses her as “doll baby.” But somehow the setting did not quite work for me. I wonder if Carey would have done better artistically putting the story in Liverpool, with lots of Scouse dialect.

Maybe the principal paranormal device, the Skadegamutc, determined the American setting, though even then Canada or New England would be more likely. Fran Watts, a sixteen year old girl, was abducted a decade ago and kept at a derelict motel by a mad killer called the Shadowman. She was found, apparently unharmed, but accompanied by a defective memory, a mammoth case of PTSD and a companion visible only to Fran, an armor-clad sword-carrying fox (actually a vixen) named Lady Jinx. At school she befriends Zac, whose mother Liz is a victim of domestic abuse by her violent ex Marc. But in the very opening chapter, as Marc attacks her, Liz suddenly discovers superpowers of self-defense, and gives him a what-for with a broken bottle.

Though invisible companions, paranormal abilities, and the living dead are familiar items in fantasy fiction, Carey gives them new and engaging features. Nothing ultimately is explained, but if you believe in theories of multiple universes and that time is ultimately an illusion, you have some notion of where everything is coming from. There is also a thoroughly unpleasant villain, but one that you will sometimes cheer for, because some of the victims quite deserve what happens to them. (See illustration above.)

I fear that I must rank Someone Like Me below GWATG and Fellside. The principal character of the former is more attractive, though Fran and her vulpine escort were great fun. And the spiritual issues in Fellside were much deeper and moving. Zac and Fran make a great couple, but their estrangement felt dictated by the plot rather than being consistent with character. I am very annoyed by the “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” distinction: both should work in harmony. Artistically, the book is too long. Writing teachers tell us to use dialogue rather than narration to inform the reader, but sometimes it would be better to have a paragraph of narrative instead of two pages of less than sparkling dialogue to convey the reader the same information. The final violent thriller conclusion was necessary, but it went on too long. Cutting this book by a quarter would lose little.

M. R. Carey continues to be the best contemporary author to occupy the borderland between fantasy and “realistic” fiction and his sheer inventiveness is thoroughly on display. If you enjoy this genre of literature, even with a bit of flab this is a very good read.