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Three Disappointing Novels

I subscribe to the Nancy Pearl rule of only reading fifty pages of a book and giving up if you aren’t enjoying it.  It works very well indeed for the mostpart, but there are occasions in which I have read an enjoyable book by a certain author, and want to see another of their works through to the end in the hope that it might improve.  There are also those books whose storylines sound far too good to give up reading.  I have grouped together an amalgamation of three such books, all of which I had high hopes for and was ultimately disappointed with.

‘The Listeners’ by Monica Dickens

The Listeners by Monica Dickens **
If I had bothered to read the blurb before purchasing The Listeners, I doubt whether I would have chosen it over Monica Dickens’ other books.  Its premise – troubled people seeking help from The Samaritans, which is partly based upon her own experiences in setting up the first American branch of the charity – does not render it the most cheerful of novels by any means.  The front of the very ugly Penguin edition which I read says that ‘her famous novel about the Samaritans’ is ‘compassionate, observant and amusing’.

I did like the way in which The Listeners followed different characters, both victims and workers for the Samaritans, but there was a real sense of distancing throughout, and I felt unable to identify – or even sympathise with – the characters because of it.  Dickens has created a cast of very troubled people, and there are far too many characters throughout, which further hinders any care and compassion being built up on the side of the reader.  Whilst Dickens is not shy in describing those whom she creates, they feel rather two-dimensional, particularly when considered as an entire cast.  As with much of Dickens’ work, it is nicely written, but it is neither as lovely as Mariana, nor as witty or absorbing as her memoir, One Pair of Feet.  It was even a little dull in places, which I found surprising; I was expecting it to be a very engaging novel.  It was lovely, however to see that some people do give up their time to help others in such life-changing ways.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Celebrations at Thrush Green by Miss Read ***
This was another book which I borrowed from the library, and based upon the two books written by Miss Read which are upon my read shelves, I was expecting quite a quick and cosy read.  The premise sounded relatively intriguing: ‘There’s double cause to celebrate in Thrush Green: the school is in its centenary year, and an unexpected letter sheds light on the village’s most distinguished son, whose statue has stood on the green for many years.  However, the preparations are plagued with anxieties…’.

Sadly, and even though I did enjoy it on the whole, Celebrations at Thrush Green is my least favourite Miss Read book to date.  It was a little too quiet and predictable overall, and some of the characters did not feel as though they had been well fleshed out.  I will still read more of the extensive Thrush Green series, but I can only hope that all of the books I have yet to come across are more enjoyable than this one.

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‘An Expert in Murder’ by Nicola Upson

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson **
This is one of the novels which I picked up in the library sale. I hadn’t heard of the author before, but the premise – in which an imagined Josephine Tey works as a detective of sorts to solve crime – was really interesting.  (Side note: I hate to be superficial, but the beautiful Faber & Faber cover also attracted me to the volume.)  The storyline does sound marvellous:

“It is 1934, and celebrated Scottish crime writer Josephine Tey is on her way to London to see her own hit West End play – but her trip is interrupted by the grisly murder of a young train passenger…  Cleverly blending elements of the Golden Age author’s real life with a gripping murder mystery, ‘An Expert in Murder’ is both a tribute to one of the most popular writers of crime and a richly atmospheric detective novel in its own right.”

I am beginning to adore quaint crime novels, and this seemed to fit the brief perfectly.  Until I started to read it, that is.  The sense of place is very well portrayed from the first, but the scenes and settings are the liveliest thing about the entire book.  The style of the prose fits the period relatively well, but oddly, a lot of the dialogue, and the things which the characters talk about – do not seem to.  There are often quite modern constructions within the conversations, which sit oddly against the whole.  The third person perspective which Upson has used does work well with the unfolding story, but something about it renders the characters rather flat.  Whilst An Expert in Murder starts off relatively well, it soon lost momentum.  It lagged a lot in places, and did not hold my interest throughout.  There were no characters whom I really liked – or was even interested in – and I even found Upson’s portrayal of Josephine Tey rather insipid.  I doubt that I will read more of the author’s work based upon this, especially given the poor reviews of her fiction which I have seen around the Internet since reading this book.

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‘Brat Farrar’ by Josephine Tey ****

I had only read a couple of Josephine Tey’s novels before I started Brat Farrar, but she is an author whom I very much enjoy.  This particular novel was first published in 1949, and is more of a mystery than a murder mystery.  The plot is most interesting:

“A stranger enters the inner sanctum of the Ashby family posing as Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family’s sizeable fortune.  The stranger, Brat Farrar, has been carefully coached on Patrick’s mannerisms, appearance and every significant detail of Patrick’s early life, up to his thirteenth year when he disappeared and was thought to have drowned himself.  It seems as if Brat is going to pull off this most incredible deception until old secrets emerge that threaten to jeopardise his plan and his very life…”

I was intrigued all of the way through the book, but sadly the plot twist which was used was quite obvious, and I guessed what would happen just a little way in.  The entirety of the story was so well written and plotted however, that it didn’t seem to matter in the grand scheme of things.  All of the characters were believable beings, and they had qualities which set them apart from one another, which is quite tricky to do sometimes when there are a few protagonists in a novel.  Brat Farrar is not my favourite Tey to date, but it is still a great novel.

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Flash Reviews (15th November 2013)

‘The Red Garden’ by Alice Hoffman

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman ****
Before beginning this beautifully titled book, I had no idea that Hoffman had turned her hand to short story writing, so I was rather intrigued to see how she would use the shorter fictional form to her advantage.  I have found with previous books of hers which I’ve read that she creates clever and well-rounded plots and realistic characters, and she is adept at writing about small town life in America.  I am pleased to say that this book contains all of the elements mentioned above, and it certainly met my expectations.  Hoffman’s descriptions particularly shine in The Red Garden.

The stories which she has woven here are both lovely and thoughtful.  I really liked the way in which she linked the seemingly separate tales too.  All are set at various points in history in the same small town in Massachusetts.  The different families and the relationships they forge with one another are the concrete which have made a cohesive whole of these tales.  I very much enjoyed The Red Garden and would recommend it highly, particularly if you are a newcomer to Hoffman’s work.

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear ***
I am really beginning to enjoy murder mysteries, and know that Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is very well liked.  When I saw several of her books in The Works as part of a 3 books for £5 deal, I thought I would give one of her stories a go.  I chose this one merely because the plot intrigued me.  I was not sure which book in the series this was when I picked it up (it transpires that it is the ninth).  Throughout, I found that Winspear set the social and historical scene of the early 1930s well.  It is not a very well written book at times, and it was sadly rather lacking in correct punctuation (the eternal quibble of proofreaders worldwide, it seems).  The dialogue did not always fit with the time period, and aside from the constant assertion of events and objects which Winspear included, on this basis it could have been set anywhere, and during many different time periods.  I did not warm to Maisie Dobbs, the investigator of this series, as much as I thought I would, but it is by no means the best crime book I have read of late.  The plot was a little drawn out and there was no very clever twist which I did not see coming.  Overall, I found Elegy for Eddie mildly enjoyable, but I do not think I will carry on with the rest of the series on the strength of this book alone.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil **
Narcopolis begins with a stream of consciousness; the prologue is essentially one long sentence, which has barely been broken up.  It then moves into a more traditional style of prose (with full stops and everything!) when the first chapter begins.  I found the overall feeling of the novel to be rather gritty.  Thayil does not show many – well, any, really – of the positive elements of Indian society, but focuses instead upon elements such as brothels, drug taking, addiction, and corruption.  In this way, he has highlighted the brutality of Bombay during the 1970s, and he does well in showing that such violence affects those from all walks of life.  This, for me, was the definite strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I found that Narcopolis felt rather too matter-of-fact at times, particularly with regard to the many episodes of drug-taking (which made me feel a little queasy), and the pain experienced by the protagonists.  Throughout, even the few positives which his characters are faced with are tinged with sadness and cruelty.  Whilst I was not enamoured with any of those whom Thayil had crafted, they were all rather enigmatic and did intrigue me in different ways.  I neither liked nor disliked Narcopolis, and shall end only by saying that it wasn’t really my thing.  Note to self: do not be so taken in with brightly coloured covers and books adorned with ‘Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize’ slogans in future.