Category Archives: family mystery drama

Review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

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This book was on my ‘To Read’ was a looong time – and finally I got around to it…

Christopher Boone is fifteen and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He knows a very great deal about maths and very little about human curious incidentbeings. He loves lists, patterns and the truth. He hates the colours yellow and brown and being touched. He has never gone further than the end of the road on his own, but when he finds a neighbour’s dog murdered he sets out on a terrifying journey which will turn his whole world upside down.

This short book caused a huge fuss when it first came out in 2003 – and having finally read it, I now know why. Haddon has managed to masterfully inhabit the skin of a teenager who cannot cope with human emotions, suffers from sensory overload and compensates by retreating into mathematical formulae and logical list-making. As a result, when confronted by major events – like being told of the death of his mother, for instance – Christopher tells us what he had to eat that evening and that he went to bed and fell fast asleep.

This doesn’t mean that Christopher is incapable of loving – but that he finds it difficult to understand or relate to his feelings. So when he discovers Wellington, the standard poodle who lives next door, skewered by a garden fork to the lawn, he resolves to find out who murdered it – even when told repeatedly by his father that he mustn’t interfere. He even overcomes his reluctance to engage with strangers in order to ask if anyone has seen anything suspicious – trouble is, he cannot process the heavy hints that a well-meaning neighbour gives him about his own domestic set-up.  His inability to process information that the reader clearly understands gives us greater insights into Christopher’s capacity to engage with the world, while also providing some comedy, albeit the darker, lump-in-your-throat variety. Books that make me both want to weep and laugh hold a special place in my heart – and this one joins that select few.

Haddon not only manages to give us an idea of what it must be like to experience the world while coping with Asperger’s – he also provides us with the daily challenges facing Christopher’s carers. I found myself wondering how you’d survive when the strong-willed, highly intelligent individual in your life retreats into black silence when he encounters a series of the wrong coloured cars on his morning bus ride…

But don’t go away with the notion that this is some worthy, high-mindedly literary attempt to give the rest of us an appreciation of what being born with Asperger’s can entail – the story that powers Christopher’s narration is a mystery. And while we learn who did do it, we also learn what the strains were that led up to the deed and Christopher’s unwitting role in the whole affair. It will be a book that will stay with me for a very long time – and if you want an outstanding example of character-led fiction, then this is a must-read book. Come to think of it – this is a must-read book, anyway.
10/10

Review of Summer of Dreaming by Lyn McConchie

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I’ll be honest – I don’t much enjoy reading books in PDF format. I spend most of my working day at the computer – sitting at the darn thing to read a book seems a bit too much like a busman’s holiday. So when Summer of Dreaming popped up on the computer, I wasn’t exactly rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of reading it. Deciding just to give the first chapter a go before going off to bed, seemed a sensible option, however…

I was still sitting at the computer screen a couple of hours later, absolutely hooked. No way was I going anywhere until I’d finished summerofdreamingthis delightful YA adventure novel set in New Zealand.

Thirteen-year-old Jo’s best friend is Rangi Jackson, a Maori boy from the neighbouring farm – which is a big problem for her grandmother and Rangi’s great-grandfather, who hate their friendship. When questioned about their hostility, they are both very tight-lipped – but mention a feud stretching back in time. Up to this point, it hasn’t been an issue, but when ill health forces Grandmother to convalesce during the summer at their farm and Jo finds herself sneaking off to meet up with Rangi, the pair decide to get to the bottom of this mysterious incident that has caused such enmity between their families…

Their investigation into their family histories is interspersed with daily events on the isolated sheep farm. McConchie’s fluid prose deftly draws us into this rural corner of New Zealand, giving us a taste of a very different lifestyle, without letting the pace or tension slacken one jot. Told in first person through Jo’s viewpoint, one of the main strengths of this book is the spot-on characterisation of the main protagonist, who jumped off the pages and grabbed my attention from the first chapter and didn’t let go until I’d finished the book. While she ensures that there is nothing too graphic, given the target readership’s age-group, McConchie isn’t afraid to confront her audience with a brutal scenario that didn’t end ‘happily ever after’ for those caught up in it.

Do I have any niggles? Well, I’m not too sure about the title. It makes the book sound less adventurous and action-packed than it is. It would be a crying shame if young readers didn’t pick it up because the title didn’t appeal.
All in all, Summer of Dreaming is a thoroughly accomplished, entertaining read that thoroughly deserves winning the 2011 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Young Adult Novel.
9/10

Review of The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

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Fran Morrison is returning home after a long absence. A falling out with her father led her to a life of traveling, playing the tuba with orchestras around Europe. She turned her back on the family glassmaking business, Minster Glass, along with her father and his assistant, Zac.

Now she’s back in light of her father’s illness and isn’t sure what she should be doing. In her discussions with those who knew her glasspaintersdaughterfather, Fran stumbles upon a mystery involving a stained glass window her family’s business made for the church in the 1800’s. As she becomes more and more immersed in the stained glass window, Fran begins making a home for herself, though she doesn’t know where she really belongs.

This is an interesting novel that I suppose is a romance – but that isn’t the engine that drives this book. As Fran’s father becomes increasingly ill, she is forced to confront the problem at the heart of their relationship – his refusal ever to discuss her mother. And when she continues to research the lost stained glass window in the local church, she finds out a lot more about the past than she bargained for. The book has two protagonists; Fran and Laura Brownlow, whose diary from the past draws Fran to examine aspects of her own life. This can be a tricky call – especially if one plotline is significantly stronger than another.

While Fran’s need to put down roots is the main story arc, I thoroughly enjoyed Laura’s struggle to cope with her grieving parents and the conventions of a gently brought up Victorian girl. Hore is an accomplished writer who deftly manages to convey just what a brittle, twitchy character Fran is – a difficult call when writing in first person viewpoint.

The other impressive aspect of this book is the amount of detail that Hore uses regarding the craft of making stained glass objects. Whether this has been a much-loved hobby, or she grew up in a family business like Fran, she produces just enough detail to intrigue the reader and make us aware of just what a skilled job it is, without silting up the narrative drive, again – a difficult balancing act.

I also enjoyed the fact that while Fran evidently comes from a fairly comfortable middle-class background and her research into a Victorian past initially appears to be quite gentle, Hore makes us very aware that this is a contemporary book with modern issues. While living at home, Fran encounters an old school friend, Jo, whose need to help leads her into a mess that causes personal havoc and we are never allowed to forget we are in the middle of London, with vandalism and crime a constant concern.

Any niggles? Well, I do have one – and it’s the fact that Fran discovers Laura’s story through her diary, but as often happens with such primary source material, the diary entries stop and her storyline is continued in third person point of view. While I fully accept that if Laura had been introduced and then the reader was left without knowing what became of her, it would have been extremely annoying, the historian in me was grumping a bit at this piece of ‘cheating’. The fact is, if we are lucky enough to possess a slice of writing from an ancestor in similar circumstances, they all too frequently stop pouring their thoughts out onto the pages when that particular crisis is past, leaving us perpetually wondering exactly what happened to them. It is the nature of looking back into the past. The neat closure Hore gave Laura was a solid piece of storytelling, but at the expense of the reality that faced Fran.

Overall though, this is an accomplished well-written book that manages to be so much more than an escapist romance read and one I highly recommend if you enjoy contemporary women’s fiction.
8/10

Review of The Legacy by Katherine Webb

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This book was recommended to me by my mother; I picked it up with no great hopes from the cover – and within a handful of pages was hooked.

In the depths of a harsh winter, Erica and Beth Calcott return to the house where they spent idyllic summers as children. As Erica sorts through her late grandmother’s belongings, strange fragments of family history and vivid memories break the surface of the present day… Memories of their cousin, Henry, who disappeared on summer long ago. Of their grandmother, a bitter woman, full of a deep dark hatred.

As Eric sifts through remnants of the past, a secret emerges, reaching all the way back to a beautiful heiress in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma. As past and present converge, Erica and Beth must come to terms with two terrible acts of betrayal – and the heartbreaking legacy left behind.

And there you have it. The book is split between two narratives – Erica, in first person viewpoint, tells of her present day hunt forthelegacy something in their past to help her fragile sister, Beth. While Caroline’s story, set in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s, is told in third person point of view. It’s a tricky balancing act. Almost inevitably in dual narrative books, I generally find myself drawn to one of the stories above the other. However, Webb’s flawless pacing and deft characterisation ensured that I was equally absorbed in both these plotlines. She also manages to pull off another neat trick; there is quite a lot of foreshadowing in this book, which certainly had me making certain assumptions about where the story was going – only to find that it didn’t. Yet, at no point was I exasperated.

This is an extraordinarily accomplished debut book that tells two intertwining stories with such clarity, that I’ve read several reviews that described this book as ‘simple’ and ‘uncomplicated’. However, there are plenty of elements within this book that could have rapidly caused the story to degenerate into an impenetrable mess in the wrong hands.  In addition to her skilful handling of the plot structure, Webb’s writing is a delight to read. Both main characters give detailed descriptions of their surroundings without holding up the narrative tension, which steadily builds so that I read late into the early morning to discover exactly what happened. I also appreciated the fact that Webb also manages to have one of her heroines commit a terrible act without losing the sympathy of the reader.

I found I was genuinely moved by this book – the effect of what happened wreaks havoc on this family and Webb is unflinching in exposing this to our gaze. So, after a 400 page build up, keeping me on tenterhooks right to the end, does the climax and denouement deliver? Absolutely. And again, although Webb manages to make it look very straightforward – this is a tricky balancing act when dealing with a dual narrative. Two story strands have to come to a convincing and satisfactory ending and in this case, there also has to be an answer to a major mystery dangled in front of our noses for most of the novel… If this had somehow fallen flat, or I had successfully guessed the answer fifty pages from the end, then The Legacy would have been seriously compromised – and it isn’t.

Small wonder, then, that this book was recommended as one of the TV Book Club’s 2010 summer reads. If you missed it and you enjoy a well-constructed, engrossing family drama – go and hunt for a copy. You’ll be glad you did…

9/10