Book Review: Summer of the Dead

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Summer of the Dead, by Julia Keller, is a crime thriller set in small town West Virginia during a stifling summer. The backdrop of poverty and a socially stunted community mingle with descriptions of oppressive heat to create a claustrophobic tension as a series of murders unfold. Few clues are left for the forces of law and order to investigate. Everyone it seems has a criminal record, a drug problem or unsavoury family secrets that are suspected but rarely discussed. This is a place where residents expect few favours, each looking out for their own, raised to keep thoughts and feelings to themselves.

The protagonist is a prosecuting attorney with her own damaged past. Raised locally she understands the people she is dealing with and works hard to follow the rules that justice may be served. I did wonder about the repercussions when she failed in this endeavour, but the potential fallout for herself and the cases she was working on were barely touched upon.

In many ways the progression of the story reminded me of television crime shows: the slow build up; improbable fight scene; subsequent reveal of who was who, their relationships to each other, and why they acted as they did. As a crime novel it was easy to read. It offered false leads, twists, turns and surprises along the way. The book is atmospheric and nicely written. What I felt it lacked was depth and, at times, plausibility. I guess a work of fiction does not always have to be real.

Neither does every book written have to be a literary masterpiece. I found it difficult to empathise with the characters but I could appreciate the structure and pace of the developing plot. At times I had to check back to remind myself who was who, but I always wanted to know what happened next.

I would recommend this book to fans of compelling, gritty, crime dramas. This is the third book in a series. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I preceded it with episodes one and two.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Confessions

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Confessions, by Kanae Minato, is a disturbing tale of blame and revenge.  Set in contemporary Japan, it introduces the reader to a group of young teenagers, their teachers and families, who are each struggling to deal with the impact on their lives of the death of a four year old girl.

On the last day of the school term the dead child’s mother, a teacher, accuses two of her pupils of murdering her daughter. She then reveals her revenge for this act, from which events spiral to their chilling conclusion.

The story is told from the perspective of a number of key characters, enabling the reader to better understand why each acted as they did. None come out well in the unfolding drama. The same weaknesses and blind spots are apparent in different guises, each participant justifying their actions with reasoning that blames others, only rarely accepting any fault for themselves.

The author presents the mind of a killer in a disturbingly believable way. The desire for attention and praise are explored alongside a lack of empathy. The effect that other’s actions may inadvertently have on critical decisions is presented alongside how acts of vengeance can cause ripples in the lives of those close by.

The style of the writing is sparse but engaging. Sympathies are won and then lost as the tale is developed, the shocking denouement denying the reader any relief from the relentless unravelling of lives that had previously been considered so ordinary.

The book leaves much to mull over, not least how blind families can be to fault amongst their own. No answers are offered, except perhaps a warning against seeking revenge. There are no winners in this tale.

I liked the exploration of prejudices, how society judges those who do not conform to an ideal. I recognised and was discomforted by many of the observations. The actions of these protagonists may be extreme, but the catalysts which drove them to act as they did are all too obvious in a society that may not be as civilised as some would like to believe.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Mulholland Books.

Book Review: This is the Water

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This is the Water, by Yannick Murphy, is written in an unusual, stylised prose that distances the reader from the action whilst, at the same time, putting them inside the head of key characters. Reading the book I felt as though I were observing the lives described with the detachment of an outsider who is a part of a social group without a sense of truly belonging. The writing offered observation more than emotion, although feelings were astutely described. The approach taken presented a cast of characters who seemed unable to empathise with each other, so caught up were they in their own issues.

The story centres around an American youth swim team and the dedicated parents who support their offspring in this demanding activity, often with vicarious motives. One of the team is murdered in a vicious and bloody attack, which is linked to a series of previous murders that have happened in the locality over decades. Various parents in the group have links to the murders, and their desire to protect their comfortable lives plays out alongside feelings of guilt over how they have acted and the secrets that they are keeping.

The book explores the thoughts and feelings of the middle aged parents more than the members of the swim team. The murders provide a tension in the plot, but the main storyline is about changes in close relationships over time and how different personalities cope. The author depicts varying attitudes to ageing with a candid honesty that shines a harsh light on those who would still like to be seen as attractive, to be desired.

The characters each carry emotional baggage, but the reader is shown how new challenges can supersede what had previously felt overwhelming, allowing the sufferer to cope better with those problems. Having watched key characters behave foolishly (although all too believably) as the tale progressed, the denouement offered hope that such actions were ultimately unimportant when crises force drifting families to support those they truly care for rather than continuing to live their lives for personal gratification.

I found the conclusion of the murders a little too tidy, but the wrap up of the various relationships was satisfying. Having read through a story written in such an unusual style, I liked the way the reason for this approach was explained.

I suspect that this book will have its detractors purely due to the cadence of the writing; I enjoyed reading the tale for its critique on human nature. It is observant and believable, a warning of the damage that can be caused when life is allowed to become too self centred, and the challenge of living an ordinary life in any other way.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline. 

Book Review: Season to Taste

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Season to Taste, by Natalie Young, has the byline ‘How to Eat Your Husband’, which is pretty much what the plot of the book is based around.

Lizzie, who has been with her husband for more than thirty years, hits him over the head with a spade one Monday morning in March. She is then left with the problem of how to dispose of his body. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life in prison she decides that it must vanish without trace, and decides that the best way to accomplish this is to eat it. How she proceeds with her plan is described in stomach churning detail, alongside a dissection of their marriage.

No aspects of Lizzie’s actions are glossed over. In grotesque detail the author describes the means by which the body is bled, cut up into manageable chunks, and frozen. Over time each piece is then thawed, prepared and consumed. The feel, smells and tastes are all recounted along with Lizzie’s reactions to what she is attempting to do. She is a skilled cook and, with the help of a few internet searches, chooses suitable garnishes and accompaniments to go with the body part she is dealing with. The graphic descriptions are nauseatingly believable.

I found the book depressing to read, not least because Lizzie seemed to have few happy memories to recall from her long marriage. Her secluded cottage in the woods with its large garden seemed only to oppress her. She appeared unable to see positives in the few people she allowed herself to come into contact with, describing problems and flaws over achievements.

There were suggestions that Lizzie had become the way she was due to the manner in which her mother and husband had treated her. If her husband did little to bolster her self esteem then it was clear that she had treated him little better. We are only allowed to see the husband through Lizzie’s eyes, indeed much of the book is written from her point of view, so it is hard to form a balanced opinion of any of the other characters.

However Lizzie was treated, it is still difficult to accept that the way she behaved could in any way be described as a reasonable response. The book is well written, and an interesting slant on cannibalism, but is unlikely to make any reader think that this is a tempting means of corpse disposal.

I did not find the book an enjoyable read. Perhaps I had hoped for a little black humour, or some relief from a more typical supporting cast. By concentrating so fully on Lizzie’s view of the world the book remained bleak. Given her macabre activities it seems somehow appropriate that, despite my acknowledgement of the skill with which the story was told, I found it sickening more than satisfying.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.