A Lovely Way to Burn (Plague Times Trilogy #1) by Louise Welsh

lovely way to burn★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: It doesn’t look like murder in a city full of death. A pandemic called ‘The Sweats’ is sweeping the globe. London is a city in crisis. Hospitals begin to fill with the dead and dying, but Stevie Flint is convinced that the sudden death of her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey was not from natural causes. As roads out of London become gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie’s search for Simon’s killers takes her in the opposite direction, into the depths of the dying city and a race with death.

Why did I read this book?
Louise Welsh’s debut novel, The Cutting Room, is a masterful combination of crime and literary fiction that I loved from its first page until its last. Until now none of the plots of her subsequent books have appealed to me hugely, and although I did read The Bullet Trick back in 2011 (in fact it was one of the first books I reviewed here) it left me unimpressed. A Lovely Way To Burn’s synopsis intrigued me however with its combination of murder mystery and apocalypse.

Favourite thing about the book:
The plague concept and storyline. I enjoyed watching how it played out (as much as you can enjoy these things) and thought it was well-handled in terms of the impact the illness’ spread had on individuals and society as a whole e.g. looting and rioting, the army coming in, suicides etc.. It was quietly terrifying and made me appreciate what I have all the more and reflect on how perilous human existence is (see also: Sarah Moss’ Cold Earth which I read earlier this year). For this reason alone I’ll definitely be reading the next book in the Plague Times series.

Other positives:
+ A Lovely Way To Burn is lead by strong female character (though almost all the other central players are men, and the one other woman who is key to the plot is only so because she is the wife of a more-important-to-the-action man).
+ Louise Welsh’s prose is enjoyable to read and generally well-written (my lack of interest towards the end notwithstanding); with some good turns of phrase (I especially liked a bit that described a toddler clinging to his mum in a way that proved Darwin’s theory of evolution as I often feel keenly aware that my own son is a baby primate!).

Least favourite thing about the book:
I quickly tired of the “murder side” of the plot. The main mystery element of the story (as solved by Iqbar) didn’t grab me or shock me like it perhaps should have and thereafter I didn’t really care what had happened to Simon (especially as the more I found out about him, the less I liked him – and he wasn’t really my type of person in the first place, all flash cars and swanky bars). At the novel’s end when the revelations/explanations are coming thick and fast I had to force myself to stay focused on what I was reading as my eyes just wanted to skip ahead to something more interesting (and preferably plague-related).

Other negatives:
- Although I liked Stevie for being a strong, independent, female lead character I couldn’t warm to her personally. I found her shallow, reckless (as opposed to brave) and selfish (if she is indeed the only person immune to “the sweats” why does she not offer to help the authorities in finding a cure, if not the dodgy person who asks her to help him on an individual basis?)
- There were some plot inconsistencies, for example it first appeared that a small but sizeable percentage of people were able to survive the sweats but by the end pretty much everyone that came into contact with it was dead within days.

Favourite character:
Iqbar. He was the only person in the whole book that I liked.

Least favourite:
William, though his part is very small.

I recommend this book to:
~ Fans of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction.
~ People who distrust the medical profession.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

whr lemon grove

★★ (2 stars)

Synopsis from GoodreadsOne hot summer. One week in a villa on the outskirts of Deia, a village nestling in the rugged, mountainous west coast of the island of Mallorca. One family for whom the carefully laid jigsaw of life is about to be broken. Jenn and her husband Greg holiday each year in Deia, enjoying languorous afternoons by the pool. But this year the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, and her boyfriend Nathan. Beautiful and reckless, Nathan stirs something unexpected in Jenn. As she is increasingly seduced by the notion of Nathan’s youth and the promise of passion, the line between desire and obsession begins to blur. 

Why did I read this book?
After reading, and loving, both Go To Sleep and Once Upon A Time In England last month I had to complete my reading of all Helen Walsh’s books.

Favourite thing about the book:
Its setting and atmosphere – I felt like I, too, was on holiday in Mallorca (though I’ve never actually been).

Other positives:
+ It was mostly enjoyable/easy to read, Helen Walsh knows how to form a sentence after all (although by the last 50 pages or so I just wanted to get it over with).
+ There were some interesting observations on class, particularly regarding Emma’s attendance at a private school (though so much more could have been done with this).

Least favourite thing about the book:
As I closed The Lemon Grove for the last time I was left disappointed and feeling like I had just read a non-story, partly due to its open-ended ending (things were just about to get interesting!) If this had been my first experience of Helen Walsh’s writing I probably wouldn’t bother reading any more of it but hopefully this will be her only turkey.

Other negatives:
- The book would probably have been much better were it twice as long, with the holiday segment a precursor to what happened when they got home and when/if Greg and Emma found out about the affair; and/or with more of a backstory woven into the text (there was a little of this, and more as the novel went on, but nowhere near enough).
- The Lemon Grove lacked depth to the extent that I almost can’t believe it came from the same author as Once Upon A Time In England, a novel that tackles so many issues so skillfully.
- The main characters (and there are really only four characters in the book, plus Benni and Monica as very minor ones) were all repellant and/or boring. I don’t mind unlikeable characters (in fact, they’re preferable to “too nice” ones) but I have to be made to root for them somehow and I wasn’t here.
- The plot was awash with cliches e.g. the storyline about Greg’s job.
- I couldn’t believe that Nathan and Jenn would have got away with their shenanigans without being spotted (or overheard!) by Emma and/or Greg, especially when she describes how wild, abandoned (and persevering!) they were.
- The attraction between Jenn and Nathan wasn’t believable, in either direction.
- I don’t buy/don’t like the idea that sexual urges can’t be resisted, particuarly when they are supposedly as purely physical as this was. If there had been more of an emotional connection between the characters I’d have found it slightly easier to swallow.
- The sex scenes themselves were pretty grim. Nathan’s penis is at one point described as “springing free” of his clothes – the last time I heard that phrase was in Fifty Shades Of Grey and it stuck with me because I found it so unintentionally hilarious.
- Finally, let’s take a minute to reflect on whether reactions to this novel would be the same was Nathan a 17 year old girl and Jenn a man twice her age…

Favourite character:
None. I can’t even think of a decent minor character I can dredge up to fill this space.

Least favourite:
How to pick – Jenn, with her betrayal and woe-is-me regrets of making such boring life choices? Greg, the dullest man on earth? Nathan, boaster and also no stranger to betrayal? Emma, the spoilt brat (though also the most forgivable as Jenn/Greg have made her how she is).

I recommend this book to:
~ Anyone like me who wishes to read all Helen Walsh’s books (she is still one of my favourite authors, and I hope she doesn’t stumble across this review… but, well, I have to be honest in my writing here or else what’s the point?).
~ If you know the part of the world it’s set in it might be enjoyable too, but don’t get your hopes up.

Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

whr necessary lies ★★★★★ (5 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: North Carolina, 1960. Newlywed Jane Forrester, fresh out of university, is seeking what most other women have shunned: a career. But life as a social worker is far from what she expected. Out amongst the rural Tobacco fields of Grace County, Jane encounters a world of extreme poverty that is far removed from the middle-class life she has grown up with. But worse is still to come. Working with the Hart family and their fifteen-year-old daughter Ivy, it’s not long before Jane uncovers a shocking secret, and is thrust into a moral dilemma that puts her career on the line, threatens to dissolve her marriage, and ultimately, determines the fate of Ivy and her family forever. Soon Jane is forced to take drastic action, and before long, there is no turning back.

Why did I read this book?
I have been familiar with Diane Chamberlain’s work for a while but was put off actually picking up one of her novels because a) I am inherently suspicious of the quality of work produced by authors who have churned out more than twenty books and show no sign of stopping. This is highly judgmental I know – after all, perhaps the reason some of my favourite authors haven’t written so many yet is only that they haven’t been writing long enough? Come back in twenty years and the picture might look quite different. And b) even more judgmentally, I was put off by the “granny”-esque covers applied to the British editions of her novels, all swirly text and pastel colours. My sister recommended Necessary Lies to me however (thank you, Sophie!) and the plot* intrigued me so much I had to pick it up when I saw it on the library van a week or so ago (and I enjoyed it so much that I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Diane Chamberlain’s work).
* It isn’t clear from the synopsis above and nor is it a spoiler to tell you that Necessary Lies is about the Eugenics Program ran in North Carolina, USA from 1933 into the 1970s. People were sterilised, often without their full knowledge and/or consent, for reasons such as mental health, epilepsy, learning disability and being “too poor” to have any more children. It was horrendous and Necessary Lies communicates that by focusing on one family’s experience of the Program.

Favourite thing about the book:
It was educational whilst entertaining – I couldn’t put it down yet felt I was learning something new on every page. Not just about the Eugenics Program either, but how American Social Work differed/differs to British (US social work seems to be much more money-orientated and linked to receiving Welfare whilst here welfare benefits are dealt with by a separate organisation) and how shockingly segregated and racist life in the American South was as recently as the 1960s.

Other positives:
+ Brilliant analysis of the care/control dilemma within social work, and the question of how close social workers should get to their clients. Jane is far kinder towards her clients than her predecessor, Charlotte (which leads the families she works with to like and trust her more), but this spills into potential conflicts of interests where she finds it hard to separate her personal and professional life or to make decisions (I’m not referring so much to the eugenics plotline here, more things like the impromptu beach trip, and the Baby William plotline).
+ An immersive novel, as soon as I opened the book I was there.
+ The characters were generally well-drawn – Mary Ella perhaps a bit more sketchily than the others but this fit in with her being mysterious, other-worldly almost. Jane in particular was a convincing, and sometimes contradictory, mixture of characteristics.
+ Necessary Lies showed me a side of America/its history that I wasn’t familiar with – as mentioned earlier, I was shocked by the amount of racism and segregation; and there was a lot of sexism too, from the way the working class women were treated by their employer and the State (including, of course, the social workers) to the way Jane’s husband and his cronies expect her to behave as a middle/upper class married woman. And let’s not forget the huge amount of discrimination faced by the poor, too.
+ Diane Chamberlain could have made this a melodrama, but she didn’t. The storytelling is measured and well-paced – I didn’t want the book to end (although I also wanted to know what happened).

Least favourite thing about the book:
Nothing. I liked it all!

Other negatives:

Favourite character:
Lois; but out of the main characters: Jane. I loved her rebelliousness and independence.

Least favourite:
Robert. What an odious man. Though, to be fair, Jane is at least partly to blame of their unhappy marriage – why did they not openly and honestly discuss long-term plans like when to have children and how much of a servant Robert expected his wife to be before they were married? I suppose they both made presumptions about the marriage that they assumed the other shared (though Jane hiding her birth control started even before their wedding), and again the difficulties within their relationship are partly “of their time” (when men and women’s roles were shifting and more and more women chose not to fulfil the role their husbands expected).

I recommend this book to:
~ People working/who have worked in social work/social care
~ Anyone interested in finding out more about life in rural america in the 1960s
~ People who like books about “issues”- think Jodi Picoult but better
~ Anyone interested in issues around race and/or the changing role of women in the 1960s

Divergent (Divergent #1) by Veronica Roth

DIVERGENT_B_Format_UK.indd★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from GoodreadsIn Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is – she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Why did I read this book?
I first heard about Divergent over a year ago and am sorry to admit instantly dismissed it as a Hunger Games rip off (which yes, maybe it kind of is. Or maybe it was just inspired by HG?). A few weeks ago something inspired me to look into the series in more detail however (maybe it was hearing about the upcoming movie) and the idea of the factions appealed to me so much that I just had to read it ASAP. I expected there to be a long wait for Divergent at the library given the imminent film release but I was able to get it instantly despite the fact Angus Council have only one copy. Given that Divergent is a YA novel it made me wonder whether teenagers are all reading on Kindles now, or maybe it’s just that I’m very late to the party and they’ve all read it already? Or perhaps they like to own things rather than borrowing library copies (I am so over needing to own books, but that’s a whole other post).

Favourite thing about the book:
The concept of the factions. Granted there are a lot of unanswered questions about it which I’ll get to later, but in general I thought it was an interesting idea. Like pretty much everyone who has read Divergent I wondered which faction I would be in – I think it would be Amity or Erudite (though I of course grew less enamoured with Erudite as time went by).

Other positives:
+ The novel was paced well with a good amount of suspense – I enjoyed reading it, and read it quickly.
+ I enjoyed the romantic storyline, which is quite a compliment coming from me. The attraction felt real and I liked the pace at which it developed.
+ Tris is badass. In many ways she’s not a very nice person – moody, self-indulgent, unafraid to trample others to get to the top – but nice is dull.
+ There is equality between men and women within the Divergent world and especially within Dauntless where they even have mixed gender fist fights.
+ Al’s storyline – I genuinely didn’t predict the way it would develop.

Least favourite thing about the book:
The last few pages read like a collection of action movie cliches. It was hard to follow what was going on, probably because I was getting a bit bored. This is quite a personal thing though and if action is your thing you’d probably enjoy it.

Other negatives:
- Although I liked the faction idea there are some issues with how it could actually work. For example the factionless appear to do all the working class/blue collar jobs but are also homeless? Plus given how many initiates are rejected by Dauntless alone (and how many jobs they have to do) around a quarter or a third of the population would be factionless which kind of undermines the whole “you must chose a faction” thing. What about the children of the factionless, do they get to pick a faction at 16? And if the point of factions is conformity and those in power don’t like divergents because they don’t conform to one faction why are factionless people not seen as equally dangerous? Surely they would have more freedom than some of those in the factions who even have their clothes determined by their leaders? Hopefully these questions will be answered later in the trilogy.
- Some features of the story seem to have been put in because they are “cool” (or more specifically would look cool in a movie) rather than having a practical purpose, e.g. the train that doesn’t stop, living underground.
- I was a tad disappointed that Divergent focused on Dauntless so much as it’s the least interesting faction IMHO (with Abnegation a close second) but again maybe we’ll learn more about the others in later books?

Favourite character:
Four. Christina. I did like Al too, but, well…

Least favourite:
Eric, obvious choice though he is.

I recommend this book to:
~ The obvious: people who liked The Hunger Games.

Internetting, March 2014

Give Childhood Back To Children on The Independent’s website

I need music that makes me feel on Catherine Elms’ blog

Literary pet peeves: the best of the worst author blunders on The Guardian’s website

Newfound love of comic zines on Athemaura

Mindful Magazine & “Filling In” for Maira Kalman on Lisa Congdon’s blog – some beautiful illustration here

Catty Post on Letter Loves

& you should all check out the very talented artist Emma Jane Falconer‘s new website; and if you’re looking for more book blogs to follow I suggest you try Buried Under Books which is a favourite of mine.

Also, I keep meaning to include in this post a link to the best book I read in the past month, so I’ll catch up with the year here.

January’s best read: When Mr. Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan
February’s best read: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
March’s best read: Go to Sleep by Helen Walsh

Once Upon A Time In England by Helen Walsh

whr onceupon★★★★ (4 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: “A young man with shock-red hair tears through the snowbound streets of Warrington’s toughest housing estate. He is Robbie Fitzgerald, and he is running for his life – and that of his young family. In his heart, Robbie knows the odds are stacked against them. In this unbending northern town, he has married the beautiful brown nurse who once stitched up his wounds. Susheela is his Tamil princess, but in the real world the Fitzgeralds have to face up to prejudice, poverty and naked hatred from their neighbours. Now Robbie has seen a way out, and he’s sprinting to his date with destiny …” “This night starts a chain of events that will reverberate throughout this family – Robbie, Susheela, their son Vincent and unborn daughter, Ellie.” Across two decades of struggle, aspiration, achievement, misunderstandings, near-misses and shattered dreams, Helen Walsh plunges us into their lives and loves. And in the Fitzgeralds, she has created a family who will stay in your heart, long after the final page.

Why did I read this book?
I read Helen Walsh’s excellent third novel, Go To Sleep earlier this month and it made me want to plough through her other books (excluding Brass, which I read when it came out). I’m still 6th in the queue for my library’s copy of The Lemon Grove but was able to get Once Upon A Time In England almost straightaway.

The novel’s synopsis didn’t grab me (to be honest I thought sounded a tad dull) and I wouldn’t have read it was it not for Helen Walsh being its author. Happily I can report it was definitely not boring, and that I am very glad to have read it. It’s a more complicated (and, arguably, deeper) novel than Before I Go To Sleep and Brass and showcases Helen Walsh’s writing talents beautifully.

Favourite thing about the book:
That Once Upon A Time In England is far more than just entertainment – it examines a whole time and place in British culture whilst emotionally investing you in its characters.

Other positives:
+ Once Upon A Time In England tackles a range of issues with brutal honesty – most notably it addresses racism but family breakdown, LGBTQ issues, mental health, the decline of industry in the North of England, bullying, sexual assault, drugs and class are here, too. I found the latter theme most interesting, perhaps because I heard echoes of my childhood within the novel (family with blue-collar-job Dad living in a predominately white-collar-job area and the children encouraged to attend selective state schools – or private school, in Ellie’s case – with their parents believing that tangible academic achievement is the best way to success).
+ Helen Walsh’s readable, vivid and intelligent writing.
+ Believable, well-developed, characters with a mixture of good and bad traits.
+ The relationships between the characters were complicated, sometimes tense, often dishonest but always convincing; and added extra depth to the individuals.

Least favourite thing about the book:
The ending was just too bleak for my liking. Of course novels (especially gritty realist ones like this) don’t have to have happy endings, and life isn’t all happy endings, but this one was brutal.

Other negatives:
- Whilst the narrative’s structure (several long sections, each around 4 years apart) was largely well-done, allowing us to look deeply into the Fitzgeralds’ lives for a short time before moving on and showing us how things had changed; it did mean that some plotlines were left hanging just when I wanted to know more about their development, e.g. Sheila’s relationship with Liza.
- Like this Goodreads reviewer, I found 13-year-old Ellie’s antics hard to believe, but perhaps less so now that I’ve read this interview with Helen Walsh and what she got up to as a teenager.

Favourite character:
Vinnie: poet, Smiths-fan, ugly-duckling-turned-swan.

Least favourite:
Of the main characters: Robbie (obviously I hated the racists and bullies the most). Robbie made many sacrifices for his family, but wasn’t open enough with Sheila about how these made him feel (and likewise she wasn’t open enough with him – she annoyed me a bit too, come to think of it, but I was more sympathetic towards her than I was towards Robbie, perhaps because I related to her more as a woman and mother). If only they had communicated with each other better things could have been so different. Maybe this is a sign of the times they were living in and nowadays people are more aware of the importance of communication within relationships?

I recommend this book to:
~ People with an interest in class, race, Northern England and the 1970s/1980s.

The Sleeper by Emily Barr

whr sleeper★★★ (3 stars)

Synopsis from Goodreads: Lara Finch is living a lie. Everyone thinks she has a happy life in Cornwall, married to the devoted Sam, but in fact she is desperately bored. When she is offered a new job that involves commuting to London by sleeper train, she meets Guy and starts an illicit affair. When Lara vanishes from the night train without leaving a trace, only her friend Iris disbelieves the official version of events, and sets out to find her. For Iris, it is the start of a voyage that will take her further than she’s ever travelled and on to a trail of old crimes and dark secrets. For Lara, it is the end of a journey that started a long time ago. A journey she must finish, before it destroys her.

Why did I read this book?
Emily Barr is one of my favourite authors. Granted, her books are all quite similar but I’ve not come across one I haven’t enjoyed and they are perfect for a quick and easy distraction from everyday life. I reserved The Sleeper at the library a few weeks ago and unfortunately the day after I picked it up became unwell… which means that I can report that The Sleeper is an ideal “ill read”: unchallenging yet absorbing.

Favourite thing about the book:
Just as I said above – it was hard to put down, fun and easy to read. I feel a little mean only giving it three stars as I did massively enjoy the experience of reading it but it was a shallow sort of pleasure and I can’t imagine the characters or the plot staying with me long-term. It’d get three-and-a-half stars if I gave half stars.

Other positives:
+ The first part of the story felt very real to me, and I enjoyed getting up close and personal (forgive the cliche) with Lara’s life. It felt like reading a letter from a friend.
+ Although the switching of perspective from Lara’s to Iris’ after a hundred pages or so felt abrupt at the time it was a good way to move the plot along (and it’s always interesting to see characters through a variety of eyes).
+ I enjoy reading books with unlikeable characters, and Lara was not easy to like despite the fact we were supposed to sympathise with her. Although Emily Barr’s writing is sometimes, as my friend Lisa once put it, “GCSE English” in style she has created a complex character in Lara.
+ On a related note, I found the dynamics of Lara’s dysfunctional family believable, if depressing.
+ A lot of the characters talk about marriage/weddings as unnecessary and enjoy happy long-term relationships without these complications (in fact the married relationships are the most dysfunctional ones). I agree with these opinions.

Least favourite thing about the book:
The constant brand references within the narrative. Was Emily Barr paid do to this as product placement? There is also an extraneous section where Lara discusses a couple of Falmouth pubs she likes to visit that read as though a paid blog post reviewing the pubs had been dropped into the story.

Other negatives:
- The second half of the novel stretched the limits of credulity, particularly once the action moved abroad.
- I didn’t like the Laurie-related twist. It did surprise me, but it was just too ridiculous.

Favourite character:

Least favourite:
Sam. We are constantly told how “nice” he is, that he’s “too nice” and dull, but I didn’t think he was very nice at all. He was controlling and although we are also told many times that he loves Lara passionately I got the impression he would love any woman who showed an interest in him just as passionately. She could have been anyone and he never really knew her.

I recommend this book to:
~ Long distance commuters,obviously; though I think people who feel they have two lives in two different places (e.g those in long distance relationships, people who live away from home for university or even just those who feel their work and home lives are very separate) would be able to relate to parts of the story too.
~ Anyone who needs a quick easy read - The Sleeper was a great “ill read” and I imagine it would pass the time easily on a long train journey, too.