Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

 Source: Free review copy received from the publisher

Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt

Five words from the blurb: abandoned, children, surviving, worst, spirit  

I accepted a review copy of Anna because I really enjoyed reading I’m Not Scared, one of Ammaniti’s earlier books. This latest novella shares the beautiful evocative writing style but, unfortunately, I thought the story lacked originality.

Anna is set in the near future, four years after a virus has spread around the world, killing every adult on Earth. The children are learning to survive on their own; dealing with the loss of their families, whilst fighting amongst themselves for the dwindling resources.

I enjoyed the initial section of this book – it set up the apocalyptic world with a horrific vividness.

A hundred metres further on, she entered the cool shade of an oak wood. Anna thought this wood must be magical; the fire hadn’t succeeded in burning it, but had merely licked at its edges before giving up.

Anna is a strong, resourceful girl looking after her younger brother.  I loved her character and the way she struggles to balance protecting him from the harsh reality of their life, whilst ensuring he is able to cope with what they must do in order to survive.

I also loved the introduction of the Maremma sheepdog – a breed not commonly known in this country, but one very similar to the Pyrenean Mountain Dog I own. The way this beautiful giant dog won the children’s heart was probably the best part of this book for me. It is rare to see the relationship between dogs and children described so well.

Maremma Sheepdog

Unfortunately, as the book progressed I began to lose interest. I felt as though I’d read variations of this plot many times before, with books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy or Blindness by José Saramago covering similar scenarios with greater power. It didn’t add any new thoughts to the genre and I was able to predict the direction of the plot.

If you’re a massive fan of apocalyptic fiction then this is a quick, enjoyable read but I’ll probably have forgotten about most of it in a few months time.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

 Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: change, courage, darkness, kindness, life

Eleanor Oliphant seems to be the most talked about book on Twitter this year, so I bought a copy in order to join in the conversation. I can see why everyone wants to talk about it, but I’m afraid I didn’t fall in love with Eleanor as much as everyone else seems to have done.

Eleanor Oliphant is a grumpy recluse who never sees anyone socially and reacts angrily to the ordinary suggestions of those she encounters. I initially hated reading about her life – I found it uncomfortable to read about such an antagonistic person. As the book progressed I was gripped by the story but became increasingly unconvinced by Eleanor’s behaviour – and that of those around her. Many of Eleanor’s behaviours were autistic traits, but these were muddled with ones from a wide range of different conditions/situations. Many readers talk of the humour in this book but, unlike The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, I failed to find anything amusing. Perhaps I’m just too close to the subject matter?

But, by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, or do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me. I had decided, years ago, that if the choice was between that or flying solo, then I’d fly solo. It was safer that way. Grief is the price we pay for love, so they say. The price is far too high.

Throughout the book, Eleanor slowly warms as she accepts her childhood problems and begins to engage with those around her. The ease with which Eleanor changed her lifestyle didn’t ring true and I found many scenes unconvincing. The way others welcomed her back into their lives after years of rudeness also seemed unrealistic. It’s a lovely story, but I’m afraid real life isn’t like that.

On a more positive note, the writing in this book is very good – it flows effortlessly but frequently contains beautiful, insightful thoughts. I suspect this will be a strong contender for many book prizes this year.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is an engaging book and is a perfect book club choice, but the reader must be able to suspend their disbelief and cope with reading about one of the most obnoxious characters in literature. I found rating it really difficult, but although I wasn’t convinced by much of it, I will remember Eleanor for a long time to come – and isn’t that the sign of a good book?

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The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

 Source: Free review copy received from the publisher

Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Five words from the blurb: murder, lies, family, exploration, suspense

The Adversary is an investigation into what caused Jean-Claude Romand, a seemingly happy and successful man, to murder his entire family in 1993. The author, Emmanuel Carrère, interviewed all the people involved in this horrible crime and discovered how one small lie escalated and led to Romand leading a secret double life for over 20 years. This fascinating insight into the eyes of the killer shows how easily ordinary people can become trapped and feel as though their only way out is through a terrible act of violence.

I was enthralled throughout this book. The structure was perfect – giving the reader new details at exactly the right point and keeping tension and intrigue all the way through.

The murders were described briefly but were not sensationalised. Instead, the book focused on the life of Jean-Claude and those who knew him. His friends described their shock at discovering what he’d done, but also how clues to his problems could be seen with hindsight. The book enabled the reader to form an empathy with the murderer – a rare achievement that makes this uncomfortable read all the more special.

He would rather have suffered from a real cancer than from a lie – because lying was a disease, with its risks of metastasis, its guarded prognosis – but he had been fated to come down with a lie and it wasn’t his fault he had.

My only wish is that the book had been updated with what happened to Jean-Claude in the years that have elapsed since the murders. Hopefully, another chapter or two can be added to this book at a later date. Otherwise, I have no complaints. The Adversary joins People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry and A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold as one of the best pieces of true-crime I’ve read.

Highly recommended.

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The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins

  Source: Free review copy received from the publisher

Five words from the blurb: historian, author, beetles, research, atmospheric

The Night Visitor is an intriguing story about the dysfunctional relationship between an author and her researcher. The story is told, in alternate chapters, from each of their perspectives and becomes increasingly gripping as their dislike for the other grows.

The book was a bit like a cross between The Behaviour of Moths and Notes on a Scandal, but with beetles instead of moths and authors instead of teachers. The scandal was of a different type too, but I won’t reveal more for fear of spoiling the end.

The writing was slow at first but quickly became compelling – I especially loved the sense of unease and tension that was created. It was fantastic that the reader could see both sides of the story and how they misinterpreted the actions of the other.

She pretends to be kind, reasonable and morally upstanding but when it comes to protecting her own interests she is capable of anything.

The lies and deception quickly escalated and neither of the women was likable, so avoid this book if prefer to become friends with the people you’re reading about. But, if you like to investigate the darker side of humanity, this is a memorable story packed with vivid scenes. I found a few of the plot points at bit too convenient but was willing to forgive these as the overall story was quite clever. I think it will be a big hit with book groups as it was easy to read and brought up lots of different discussion points.

Recommended to anyone looking for a psychological thriller with some interesting facts about beetles!

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The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis

 Source: Free review copy received from the publisher

Five words from the blurb: gothic, family, saga, ghosts, home

The Barrowfields is a strange mix of two different books. It begins and ends as a deliciously spooky Gothic tale, but has an ordinary story about a boy attending college in the middle. The entire thing was beautifully written, but I thought it didn’t quite work as a whole.

The book begins in North Carolina, with a family moving into a mansion in which disturbing events happened to the previous occupants. I loved the creepy atmosphere and thought it was a fantastic start to an original story.

About a third of the way in, the story abruptly changed to one of a boy heading off to college for the first time. Again, the writing felt very accomplished. It reminded me of the greats in American literary fiction, like Jeffrey Eugenides or Michael Chabon. The characters were all beautifully developed and I felt a real connection to them. It perfectly captured the mixture of emotions felt by someone leaving home for the first time – the apprehension and loneliness were described more vividly than anything I’ve read before.

Unfortunately, the fantastic characterisation was then ruined by the reintroduction of weirdness. It jarred badly after so many chapters of realism. On its own, the ending would have been good; but after reading such a touching centre section about young love I found the ghostly horses ridiculous.

At last I began to resolve a shape, almost out of the corner of my eye. A lone horse, white with a white mane and rutilant eyes, skeletal and specterlike, was revealed inch by subtle inch from the parting gloom. It stood alone before us, lambent in the waking light of the nascent horned moon.

Phillip Lewis is clearly a talented writer and, if he sticks to just one genre, I’m sure his next novel will be outstanding. The bizarre nature of The Barrowfields will ensure I remember it for a long time to come. I just wish it was for all the right reasons.

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Blue Light Yokohama (Inspector Iwata #1) by Nicolás Obregón

 Source: Free review copy received from NetGalley

Five words from the blurb: Tokyo, murder, cult, suicide, investigation

I accepted a review request from NetGalley to read Blue Light Yokohama because I am a big fan of Japanese crime novels and this sounded like an interesting take on the genre. I’m pleased that I read it, as it had a fantastic ending, but I wish that the central section had been condensed, as the plot meandered a bit too much.

Blue Light Yokohama is a police procedural which begins with Inspector Iwata transferring to the Tokyo homicide squad. He is assigned to investigate the murder of a family of four; a disturbing crime with many ritualistic elements. The previous investigating officer committed suicide, so Inspector Iwata also has to deal with the problems caused by this.

Blue Light Yokohama has all the elements of a fantastic Japanese crime novel, but it tended to over-explain things – especially in the beginning. This could be a big positive if you are unfamiliar with Japanese culture, but I found it a bit patronising.

I also found the number of characters difficult to keep track of. Many of them were so similar that I kept mixing them up in my head. This problem was compounded by the number of side stories introduced. It could be said that these added to the difficulty of the “whodunnit” element, but I found there were so many I couldn’t possibly deduce why the crime was committed.

These complaints should only put off those who like fast-paced crime thrillers. The writing in this book was of a high standard and so will appeal to those looking for a slow-burner. The atmosphere was also beautifully described – if you can ever describe the Tokyo crime scene in that way!

The Tokyo cityscape stretched out below him, cities within cities, angles incalculable. Thirty-five million existences crammed into circadian rhythms of concrete and cables. Immense infrastructure, never-ending networks – all of it delicate as hummingbird heartbeats.

The book was based upon a real case and was well researched. Its reflection of real events made the story all the more chilling and I was impressed by the amount of information about police investigations that was included.

Overall, Blue Light Yokohama was a good, if slightly too long, crime novel and I look forward to seeing how Inspector Iwata’s character develops through the coming series.

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