writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Genre: Crime

March Reading, 2021

Every so often I try to be a better reviewer, and shortly afterwards realise that my head really doesn’t work that way. I do want to talk about the things I’ve been reading, though, so I’m going to experiment with a monthly post that includes copies of the book-thoughts I post on Goodreads/Library Thing and perhaps a bit of extra commentary.  

March was a bit unusual for me, because I had surgery at the end of February and was therefore going through various stages of recovery during March. Because of this, I was mostly watching reality TV at the beginning of the month. That said, I did eventually do some reading, much of it PhD-focused.

My favourite fictional read this month was easily The Serpent’s Skin, by Erina Reddan—such a strong, original voice! As for non-fiction, I particularly enjoyed Prostitution and Victorian Society, by Judith R. Walkowitz, which combined thorough research and an engaging writing style.

REVIEW: The Pact (Jodi Picoult)

Cover of The Pact

Chris is found with his girlfriend, Emily, who is dying of a gunshot to the head. Was it a suicide pact, or did he murder his lifelong best friend?

I picked this up at a library book sale a few years back because I remembered enjoying Nineteen Minutes. I’m not sure how much I can say that I felt the same way about The Pact. At no point did I seriously consider leaving it unfinished, but I didn’t engage with the plot or the characters on an emotional level at all. My key motivation in reading through to the end was finding out what truly happened on the night that Emily died.

It’s definitely easy to read, and the 451 pages of my edition didn’t feel as lengthy as I had feared. Picoult keeps the reader guessing right up until the novel’s conclusion, and does so through the use of multiple point-of-view character. Most of these characters have no idea what really happened, so there’s always the awareness of truth being constructed by the individual according to their own biases—emphasised by the defending lawyer, Jordan’s, refusal to even engage with an objective truth any more. This would have been a more effective tactic, I think, if Chris had not been one of the characters giving their point of view. Chris, after all, knows what happens on the night in question, so the reader is always aware that it’s the author that’s keeping his truth away from them.

I think that the choice to have so many perspectives also limits the emotional connection that the reader can feel with the various characters. I felt very distant from the novel at all times. There isn’t a great deal of emotion in its pages, which is something I can actually very much appreciate, but I didn’t read any real emotion between the lines either. The Pact is a novel that deals with grief, suicide and trauma, but all of these things feel like mere pieces of evidence to be raised in the ultimate trial. This was particularly grating to me with regard to Emily’s childhood trauma and the ongoing effect it has on her, and it made me think a lot about how the traumatic experiences of women and girls are so commonly employed as inciting events in fiction, with inadequate space and sensitivity given to the subject. Here, at least, the trauma is inserted as motivation for Emily, not a male character connected to her, but I think we need to think deeply about the implications of creatively co-opting pain not personally experienced.

Does any of this mean that The Pact is a bad book? Of course not. It’s an engaging read that holds its mystery ever at the forefront, keeping the reader interested and curious right up until the very end. The lack of emotion I felt while reading the story means that it likely won’t stay with me for long, but I don’t at all feel that the time spent reading it was wasted.

Review: The Writing Class – Jincy Willett

The Writing Class book coverThe Writing Class is an interesting novel. For much of its first half, it feels like light-hearted women’s fiction – a study of the standard “types” that fill writing classes across the world. The second half, however, ventures into cosy mystery territory, when the nasty pranks being played on the class’s members lead up to murder. I think it was this dual nature that limited my appreciation of the work. I could enjoy both aspects separately but, together, they both ended up feeling a little lacking.

As a novel about a middle-aged widow, a published author who has not written for years, The Writing Class initially feels promising. Amy is a multi-faceted protagonist who feels very real, and her situation as a writing teacher who no longer writes is interesting. At first, it seems like the reader will be treated to similar character explorations of the large ensemble of students who join her class, but unfortunately this is one of the areas in which the novel falls short. Of the students, only Carla feels truly three-dimensional. The rest are mere ideas – hinted at, but never really fleshed out at all. You know that a cast is too large for its story when you confuse one character for another and feel surprised when a name is mentioned, because you’d forgotten that character existed. This kind of thing works (just) in the standard And Then There Were None-esque whodunnit novel, because the reader is more invested in working out who the killer is than in the characters themselves, but it felt like The Writing Class was attempting to be more than that, and the lack of developed characters greatly hindered this ambition.

As a whodunnit, The Writing Class is just too slow to get started. Although mentioned in the blurb, the first hint of murder doesn’t happen until well into the novel. The motive isn’t sufficiently explained and the overall pacing is just off. Readers looking for a good mystery will likely struggle with the long lead-up to the crimes, not caring much for the development of Amy’s character and the glimpses Willett offers into her lonely and solitary life. The action picks up in the second half of the book, but there is not a great enough pay-off to make up for the amount of time needed to get to the denouement.

The Writing Class is not a bad novel, by any means. I was actually quite entertained by it most of the time. My issue is more with the fact that I felt like it could have been better than it actually was. It’s an interesting read and a nice way to pass time on public transport, but it’s ultimately quite forgettable.

(As an aside, the writing course that I took was not filled with these “standard” types at all. Perhaps it was due to the extremely competitive selection process, but regardless of the reasons why, my classes were filled with students who wanted to write a “literary” novel and looked down on anything that could be labelled genre fiction!)

Review: Cold Hillside – Martin Cooper

Cold Hillside coverWhen Simon Contraine’s brother, Giles, is killed in a car accident, he returns to the farm where he grew up to grieve and take stock. But there seems to be something suspicious about the death, a fact seemingly confirmed by the interest a detective inspector takes in the accident – and in Simon himself. As Simon learns more about his brother’s life, he finds himself drawn into a situation deeper and more dangerous than he ever could have expected.

Cold Hillside is the kind of book that demonstrates just why self publishing is beginning to really take off in the current publishing climate. With the bigger publishing houses currently focussing on genres and ideas that are proven best-sellers (the Dan Brown-style thriller, the supernatural teen romance), there is little room for books that deviate from the fashions of the moment. Self publishing allows books like Cold Hillside, which don’t fit so easily into genres and sales patterns, to find a readership. And this book deserves a readership.

Martin Cooper is a very capable writer with an easy, literary style. He has an obvious flair for description, with his locations all being so well-sketched that it is impossible not to envision them in your mind while reading. Cold Hillside employs regular flashbacks to flesh out its backstory, and these are integrated in a skilful manner, so that the reader rarely struggles to identify the time-period of each section. I think that this fragmentary style works perfectly for the story that Cooper has chosen to tell. There is an air of reminiscence that is important for the reader’s understanding of Simon’s loyalty to and love for his brother, especially as more and more of Giles’s life is revealed.

One thing that didn’t work as well for me, however, was the use of tense changes to indicate flashbacks. It didn’t feel entirely consistent to me and I think I would have preferred if the time changes were indicated solely through the content – which does an excellent job of signposting this without the need to do so through tense as well.

The plot of Cold Hillside is extremely engaging. From the very beginning of the book, I found myself caught up in the mystery of the story, becoming only more enthralled as the story progressed and the true depth of Giles’s dealings began to become known. While, at times, the literary style of the novel can detract a little from the feeling of urgency that I would usually associate with a crime novel, the plot kept me interested from start to finish.

Giles is a cleverly-drawn character. A good amount of skill is needed to combine the shown aspects of his character in a way that feels genuine, and Cooper succeeds totally when it comes to this. Bridie, too, is well-characterised. She is likeable and impulsive and works as a good foil to Simon, providing energy where sometimes he seems to lack it. Indeed, as a protagonist, Simon often felt a little too understated. By the end of the book, I still felt unsure about who he really was. We learn of his career and his parts, but he remains at an emotional distance from the reader, which is unusual given the first-person perspective. A lot can be revealed of Simon through the people around him – but there was a sense of disconnection for me nonetheless.

Such things, however, detract little from what is an interesting and well-written novel. Cold Hillside combines crime and family loyalties with a touch of music – and does so with style and genuine skill.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Death by Sugar – H.M. Goltz

Jesse Clarke is just starting out in the private investigation business. So when a car explodes right outside the cafe where she’s breakfasting, it seems like the perfect opportunity to gain her second-ever client. Her second case leads to a third and she soon finds herself juggling two clients and two mysteries – both of which involve a seemingly-harmless substance: sugar.

Death by Sugar is an enjoyable and accessible whodunnit with a likeable lead. The fact that Jesse is still learning the ropes of her new career makes her more accessible to the reader. She feels fallible and is thus likeable; one can identify with her fears and cheer her on as she slowly unravels the mysteries surrounding her two cases.

The supporting cast of the novel is also good. Jesse’s partner, Dom, provides a glimpse of her personal life and allows for a hint of a romantic side-plot. Another human touch is added through references to Jesse’s dog, Atlas – styled after the author’s own canine companion, it seems! Police officer Jason Abingdon was the stand-out for me, however, when it came to the lesser characters. He is rounded and likeable and I hope he’s a planned inclusion in further Jesse Clarke mysteries.

Without giving too much away, both of the cases dealt with in Death by Sugar were absorbing, with enough red-herrings to keep the reader guessing alongside the protagonist. Interest is added through the inclusion of one very current case and one very cold one. It kept me wondering whether perhaps they were linked through more than sugar.

When it comes to the writing itself, there were a few typos and grammatical errors in my review copy, but these will likely be fixed up in the release edition. Goltz’s style is chatty and fast-paced, with realistic dialogue and an underlying sense of humour. Her informal tone is perfect for the genre, as the reader is encouraged to focus on the plot, rather than the writing itself.

I very much enjoyed Death by Sugar and hope that there are further Jesse Clarke mysteries in the works.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

I loved this book when I first read it (for school) in year ten. But I got so much more out of it as an adult. In a way, it almost seems wrong for it to be such common set reading in schools, because I think that we all end up reading it before we have the capacity, life experience and empathy to fully appreciate just what an incredible piece of literature it is.

Of course, the downside to re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult is the fact that it’s extremely difficult to read. Because, as a teen, you can live in your own little world and write the prejudices shown in the book off as something belonging to the oh-so-distant 1930s while, as an adult, it’s very obvious that humans are just as capable of perpetrating abhorrent acts of bigotry and injustice today.

A powerful book, made all the more so by the juxtaposition of the innocence of its protagonist and the reality of the world around her.

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