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.

.

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.

.

 

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: astronauts, Mars, relationships, focused, job

I’ve read several books on space travel recently, but The Wanderers is the first to really examine the relationships experienced by astronauts – both professional and personal. It is a slow, observational character study, rich in the detail of day-to-day life. It shows the calm temperament of these highly trained individuals and also the thoughts and feelings of the family members left behind. If you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure then The Wanderers isn’t for you, but if you’re interested in how astronauts deal with stress and isolation then this book will reward you with an insight into their enviable composure.

The book follows three elite astronauts (from Russia, America and Japan) as they are selected for the first manned visit to Mars:

It was evident that Prime considered the three of them to be a kind of dream team, a trio whose individual temperaments, skills, and experience would combine in such a way as to be able to withstand the most challenging and dangerous expedition in the history of humankind. It was not unlike being told that one’s soulmates had been located.

Each of the characters was well developed and I was impressed by the insight into their changing mental state. The detail of their training also felt accurate and the science was all well researched.

Unfortunately I predicted the plot direction early on. There was almost no forward momentum and the calmness of the astronauts meant the writing lacked tension. It was nice to see this realism, but it meant the book wasn’t as exciting as others in this genre.

I also found the ending to be a bit of a let down. I wanted the book to continue for longer than it did, as I felt it ended just as things were beginning to get interesting. I think book clubs will enjoy debating its ambiguous nature, but I found it frustrating.

Overall, The Wanderers is a welcome addition to the space-travel genre and I recommend it to anyone who’d like to examine the way the way people feel about travelling so far from everything they know and love.

 

 

New Additions!

Hello! Sorry there haven’t been many posts around here recently, but I’ve been busy with a few new additions to my household. The most exciting purchase is a Pyrenean Mountain Dog puppy. She’s called Holly (because she was born on Christmas Day) and she is a giant bundle of energy. She has such a gentle nature and is so intelligent. I’m looking forward to seeing her develop.

I have also hatched some chicks, so I’ll have chickens around here too.

I will get back to reviewing books soon…after just one more cuddle with my baby animals!!!!

Breathing Into Marble by Laura Sintija Cerniauskaite

  Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Translated from the Lithuanian by Marija Marcinkute 

Winner of 2009 EU Prize for Literature

Five words from the blurb: adopt, troubled, trauma, unsettles, family

Breathing Into Marble is probably the first Lithuanian book to be translated into English, and it is for this reason that I agreed to accept a review copy from its publishers, Noir Press.

The book follows Isabel as she adopts Ilya, a boy with a troubled past. The way he disrupts life in his new family is beautifully described, skillfully showing how trauma from past events affects people as they try to proceed with their lives.

The problem was that I was too aware of the writing. Brilliant prose flows so well that you barely notice it, but the writing in this book was strangely jarring. There was an overuse of metaphor that often made me cringe, in what would otherwise be a great paragraph:

The sky above the woods shone like a pearl, a reproach to the heavy darkness of the earth. The painfully empty space attracted her. At night, half sleeping in bed, as heavy as a bag of gravel, her body would grow lighter and soon Isabel would feel that if she just rid herself of one last small stone she would rise up into the air.

In copying out the above passage I realised that it was quite beautiful in isolation. The problem was that there were so many metaphors throughout the book that I quickly became irritated by them.

I also found reading the book to be hard work. So much of what happens isn’t described explicitly – the reader has to deduce it by reading between the lines. This meant I sometimes missed important events and, confused, had to back-track to see where I had failed to spot the action.

The above criticism makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book, but this isn’t strictly true – I appreciated its literary quality, and the emotion of individual scenes, but found it wasn’t compelling as a whole. I’m pleased I read it – particularly as it’s the first Lithuanian book I’ve tried, but I prefer reading to be less hard work.

If you enjoy literary fiction that works the mind, then you’ll find a lot to like in this book. It is beautifully observed and captures many profound moments in the relationship between family members.

.

 

 

A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold

 Source: Free review copy received from publisher

Five words from the blurb: Columbine, grief, tragedy, honesty, compassion

In 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve students and a teacher in, what was at the time, the worst High School shooting on American soil. Sue Klebold has spent the last fifteen years of her life coming to terms with the horrific acts that her son carried out in Columbine High School. This book explains the guilt she felt for failing to spot the tiny signs her son was plotting this atrocity, and how she has gone on to promote mental health awareness in order to prevent similar attacks in the future.

A Mother’s Reckoning is an outstanding book. It is written with incredible honesty – showing the conflicting thoughts of a family caught between grieving for their son and trying to understand what could have motivated him to kill innocent people in cold blood. The book managed to capture these emotions without ever becoming sentimental or self-indulgent. I was especially impressed by the dignity shown throughout and the way it respected the families of those killed.

The book detailed Dylan’s life – describing how he went from a happy child, to a teenager plagued by bullies. It explained how his family were unaware of the extent of his problems and their horror at discovering these details after his death. The structure of this book was impressive. It reminded me of People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, my favourite true-crime book, in that everything was laid out perfectly. New details were added at exactly the right point to enable the reader to engage with each aspect of the narrative.

It’s hard to imagine we slept at all that first night home, but the mind eventually shows mercy and shuts down. As it would be for years, waking was the cruelest moment of the day – the split second where it was possible to believe it had all been a nightmare, the worst dream a person could have.

I think this book should be read by all parents, as it shows how easily things can go wrong. It highlights the importance of understanding teenage mental health and shows what can be done to reduce problems. I admire Sue Klebold for her bravery in publishing this book and hope she gains some closure from the positive work she’s done for society in the last decade.

.