The Predictions (May 5, 2015) by Bianca Zander

The PredictionsThe Predictions by Bianca Zander

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have contradictory feelings about this novel by author Bianca Zander.
British-born Zander has lived in New Zealand for 20 years, where she is a creative-writing lecturer and recipient of writing awards and bursaries. In The Predictions, she spins a tale that spans the globe from New Zealand to Great Britain.
The Predictions is the story of Poppy, a young woman growing up in a commune called Gaialands in New Zealand in the 1970’s.
Part of what I didn’t like about The Predictions was the way in which it was narrated; Poppy tells us the story of her life in linear fashion, as if she is writing her memoir. The narrative style gives the story a sense of already having been completed and thus set in stone. This diminished my emotional engagement with the characters.
The memoir style also meant that Poppy tells us about her life in hindsight, which serves to distance her from her own experiences. As she reflects on her life, she judges people and interprets events in a way which sometimes feels didactic and self-satisfied.
Although Poppy encounters many diverse situations and types (“types” being an operative word here) of people in her life, she herself begins and ends the novel as much the same person.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting that The Predictions ends with Poppy in her 30’s. As the novel concludes, we very much get the sense that Poppy has completed her life arc…her biggest troubles and struggles are behind her. As a reader, I wasn’t satisfied or impressed by this.
What I did like about The Predictions was that it was an interesting story, with settings ranging from a commune in rural New Zealand to the heavy metal/glam rock scene in London in the 1980’s, to women’s right’s marches. What I didn’t like was the perspective from which these potentially fascinating and complex situations were viewed.
Thank you to William Morrow Publishers for my review copy of The Predictions.

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The Paying Guests: Spotlight on Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters’ novels. Waters is one of those authors who I think is truly exceptional and extraordinary.
There are a lot of things about Waters’ fiction that, to my mind, make it something precious. Here, in no particular order, are what come to mind.
First, her amazing, meticulous, meaningful, attention to detail. Waters’ novels are long, and they are dense. But the thing is, when you read them slowly, and literally pay attention to the details of place, and what the characters are doing in every ordinary moment, it matters.
Whereas a lot of authors of historical fiction (or fiction in general) rely on generalities to create a sense of place…for example, throwing a few words around, say, “misty moors” or “crumbling old mansion” and expect readers to mentally fill in a generic sense of place, Waters describes her world in particular, carefully chosen detail. When Waters writes, no description of washing dishes, or cleaning the stairs, is ever just the thing itself. It is an opportunity to create the feeling of being there, with the character, in that moment in history and in their life.
Second of all, Waters is a master of creating bubbling, under the surface, menace. In The Paying Guests, especially, this darkness is so woven into the fabric of the ordinary, that it is all the more chilling.
Waters’ thrillers are powerful in that they are not melodramatic (except when she does this purposefully). The Paying Guests is always about “real” people. There are no utter villains, no monsters. The characters are all flawed and human. They show impulses to love, but they also suffer cowardice, selfishness, and fear.
One underlying theme in The Paying Guests is the exploration of grief. Waters places this novel historically after World War I, when the world, and individuals, were grieving the loss of so very much. The menace that Waters creates in The Paying Guests, the secrets, and guilt, and fear, are related to her exploration of life in London after the Great War. Waters’ characters are struggling with the loss of the geographical boundaries of the world as they knew it, as well as the loss of a way of life and a class and gender system that is falling apart. They are grieving the loss of their brothers and lovers and sons. And in The Paying Guests, the main characters of Frances and Lilian are grieving a loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams.
Which brings me to the plot of The Paying Guests, which, as with pretty much every novel I’ve read by Sarah Waters, is not what it first appears. The basic premise is that Miss Wray-Francis-and her widowed mother, have fallen on hard times after the War, and, unhappily, find it necessary to allow lodgers to live in their home, in order to make ends meet. These lodgers, whom the Wrays refer to as “paying guests,” are a young married couple named Lilian and Leonard Barber. When the Barbers enter the Wrays’ home, all their lives will change in irrevocable and unimaginable ways.
What you need to know about The Paying Guests, if you’re considering reading it, is that, on the good side, it is among the very best of Sarah Waters’ work in its creation of a powerful, intimate sense of place. After reading this novel, I’m picking up historical fiction by other authors, and finding that the characters and their world feel like shadows in comparison. This creation of a wholly absorbing, authentic, fictional reality, is one of Waters’ great talents. As I read The Paying Guests, I thought (whimsically) that her characters must really exist, in some parallel universe.
On the other hand, Waters’ world and character building takes a lot of words. It can be an exhausting pleasure to read.
Also, if you’re considering reading The Paying Guests, you should know that, having read Affinity and Fingersmith previously, I found this novel to be less “shocking twist” and more grave and thoughtful in tone. When I think of Fingersmith, I think of fun, “oh my gosh!” moments of revelation, and a (with reservations) happy, hopeful ending. When I think of Affinity, I think of wonderful eerie spookiness, but also, great emotion and loss. Both these novels contained major twists I didn’t see coming.
To my mind, The Paying Guests didn’t have that twist aspect, at least not to the same degree. The last third of the novel was almost more of a courtroom drama. And I think, some of the choices that Frances and Lilian made, and even, especially, the options they had, made me sad. In the end, The Paying Guests had a plot that resonated with the postwar setting and the themes of grief, loss, change, and living with an uncertain future. But these themes are not easy ones to confront. As such, I found myself feeling sad at the end of the novel, feeling unsettled.
The Paying Guests is extraordinary, but it is also exhausting. When you start The Paying Guests, make sure you’ve got something light and bright to read or watch after.

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Affinity by Sarah Waters

AffinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Affinity back in June of this year, and it’s one of those few books that continues to haunt me months later. The descriptions of the labyrinthine Millbank women’s prison in Victorian London, and of the longing for beauty and connection in a world of despair, are exquisite.

The ending, in particular, really affected me. It’s hard to say more without giving things away, but, although the situation is completely different from my life (thank goodness!) in some way, I empathized painfully, truthfully, with the final, climactic night of the novel.

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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

FingersmithFingersmith by Sarah Waters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So.
I read Affinity, my first Sarah Waters book, a couple of weeks ago, and liked it a lot. I then ordered Fingersmith, and read it with complete delight, absorption, and obsession. I finished Fingersmith several days ago and am still thinking about, and missing, the characters of this wonderful story.
Fingersmith delighted me in so many ways, and I wrote a long and formal review of all its good qualities (which I may revise, and post, at some point in future.)
But the thing I want to share, right now, is that I keep thinking about Fingersmith; I keep thinking, primarily, of the characters of Sue and Maud, and the way this story is, at its very heart about two souls on their difficult, painful, journey towards each other.
Fingersmith is brilliant in that it sucked me into a visceral Dickensian world that felt utterly authentic. It is also brilliant in its plot, twists, dialogue, and depiction of the desperate, hopeless lives of women and the poor.
But don’t let all these elements, both wonderful, and sometimes disturbing, fool you.
Fingersmith is, first and foremost, a love story. And I, in turn, have fallen in love with the writing of Sarah Waters, and look forward impatiently to the release of her new novel, The Paying Guests, in September 2014.

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The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar

The Hidden GirlThe Hidden Girl by Louise Millar

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Having really enjoyed Louise Millar’s two previous novels, I was excited to receive an advance reader’s copy of The Hidden Girl from the publisher via NetGalley.
This domestic-noir thriller begins with Hannah and Will, a young, hip, London couple, moving to an old fixer-upper in the English countryside. At first, the reader is only given bits of the whole picture…we know that Hannah is desperate to renovate the house for a mysterious visitor scheduled to arrive in two weeks. We also know that Will is a music producer who is not happy about moving from London, and we know that the relationship between the two is inexplicably strained. In short order, Will commutes to his studio in London, leaving Hannah alone in the creaky, tumble-down old house. When a storm snows her in, Hannah is left to fend for herself, along with a cast of neighbors straight out of the movie Deliverance.
What follows is nothing short of bizarre and baffling.
First off, The Hidden Girl doesn’t seem like it is written by the same person who wrote Accidents Happen and The Playdate. I don’t know if author Louise Millar’s previous novels were heavily edited before publication, or whether she felt uninspired or rushed to complete this work, or simply was trying something new, but the writing itself is generally, perplexingly poor.
One reason that the writing seems disjointed is that Millar overuses the characters’ proper names. Where she could have substituted “he” or “she,” she refers to “Hannah,” and “Will,” even when each character is by themselves.
Secondly, the story itself is a bit of a mess. As other reviewers, such as Cleo at http://cleopatralovesbooks.wordpress.com/ have noted, the plot stretches the limits of credulity. If written differently, it could perhaps have dealt with “big” issues. Instead, to this reader, it was simply unbelievable.
The odd thing is that, despite all these negative qualities, The Hidden Girl is not an unpleasant read. In contrast, I am currently reading Ninepins, by Rosy Thornton. I am really impressed with the depth of characterization, the original voice, and the subtle symbolism in this novel. However, Ninepins is a slow burn of a read. It takes a bit of work and patience.
The Hidden Girl, on the other hand, is not brilliant. The characters don’t make much sense as real people. But despite this, and despite generally feeling like I’ve stepped into a rather weird dream, I found The Hidden Girl to be an easy, interesting, mess of a story.
The closest thing I can compare it to are the novels of Sophie Hannah. Often, they have a pervading sense of strangeness, and I find the characters hard to relate to as more than horror concoctions. About halfway through her thrillers, I often find that I’m pretty confused by all the twists and turns, and yet, the fact that I don’t understand the plot, and don’t really like the characters, somehow doesn’t matter. I’m still addicted to the weird, strange, suspense that Sophie Hannah so skillfully weaves.
The Hidden Girl will entertain you, if you like twisty tales like those of Sophie Hannah, or any kind of domestic noir in which you’ve got an isolated, possibly crazy, main character who gets, through no fault of her own, into a dangerous situation.
The Hidden Girl is not great art, but it is fun. Louise Millar is still one of my favorite authors, and I will wait hopefully for her next novel.

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The Burning by Jane Casey

The Burning (Maeve Kerrigan, #1)The Burning by Jane Casey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve seen The Burning by Jane Casey popping up on my Goodreads book recommendations for some time, so when I got a chance to read it on NetGalley, I gave it a go.
From the description of the mystery, I had expected a rather forgettable, formulaic, police procedural. What I got instead was likeable characters, an intriguing plot, a beautiful setting, and themes of obsession and friendship, which are always creepily compelling.
I immediately warmed to the main character of Maeve Kerrigan, a young DC in London with a heart of gold. Her partner is the witty and loyal Rob Langton. As the story begins, the two are investigating a series of murders in London, in which young women are killed and then burned.
Part of the reason I was reluctant to read The Burning in the past was that I didn’t look forward to reading the details of people being burned to death, so I was relieved to find that the gore factor in The Burning was not too disturbing. I think part of this was because Maeve herself reacted strongly to the violence, and also because victims were described in medical terms, rather than in a purely sensationalist manner. So happily, this book was less upsetting than I had feared, while still managing to create a sense that a very horrible psychopath was on the loose.
As mentioned above, another good thing about the novel was the human relationships between the characters. Maeve and Rob are both innately decent people, as is Godfrey, their boss. This lends a sense of hope and safety to the dangerous world that they navigate. Also, the author portrays abusive, obsessive relationships between some of the other characters in a psychologically astute manner.
A third thing I really enjoyed about The Burning was the setting, which mainly took place around London and in the beautiful town of Oxford. I am pretty much guaranteed to enjoy any book that has a setting in a gorgeous old university town, with the requisite stone arches, arcane traditions, and storied past.
I was impressed with the depth that Jane Casey brought to The Burning. While it was clearly a twisty, action-packed mystery, it had a plot that really interested me. I also feel like Casey touched on some deeper themes, such as how difficult it is to change one’s true identity. I thought the fact that she used the disfiguration of burning as the crime related nicely to the way some of the characters were trying to change their outward appearances, but were unable to escape their basic natures.
The two quibbles I have with The Burning are minor. First, at 368 pages, it is a long novel. Secondly, I felt that at times, the repartee between Maeve and Rob seemed juvenile, rather than funny and flirty. Regardless, I really liked Maeve and Rob, and am glad that I took a chance and read The Burning. Luckily, it is the first in a series, and I will definitely be reading more novels by Jane Casey. If you read and enjoy The Truth Will Out by Jane Isaac, I would recommend that you read The Burning, by Jane Casey.

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Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

Before We MetBefore We Met by Lucie Whitehouse
4.5 stars

I feel like I just have to write a review for this novel (as well as wanting to) because, unlike many reader reactions I’ve seen, I absolutely loved this third book by author Lucie Whitehouse.
Before We Met is easily my favorite book by this author, but it is a bit of a departure from her earlier writing style, so I can see how some readers might not be pleased. First of all, the plot:
Before We Met introduces us to our main character, Hannah, who seems to have pretty much the perfect life. She is independent, beautiful, and capable, and is recently married to a man she believes to be the love of her life. She met her new husband, Mark, while the two were in New York, and as a couple, they have moved home to their native England. They have a passionate love affair, a beautiful home, and Mark is a successful businessman. As the story begins, however, Hannah’s seemingly idyllic world begins to crumble, as she realizes that Mark has lied to her about where he is going on a business trip. As Hannah investigates the deception, she uncovers more and more lies that will put her world, and ultimately, her life, in danger.
Before We Met is a compelling mystery of the best kind, one in which we have a likeable heroine, layer upon layer of secrets, and a great dose of suspense and action to round out the story.
With that plot intro out of the way, here’s why I liked the story, and why I think some readers might not.
Lucie Whitehouse’s earlier novels, The House at Midnight, and The Bed I Made, share some characteristics and themes with Before We Met. They all have a young female main character who is intelligent, kind, and easy to identify with. They also all involve psychological suspense; The House at Midnight follows a group of friends with buried secrets, The Bed I Made follows a young woman who moves to the Isle of Wight to get away from a bad relationship. And they all deal with issues of trust, abuse, and personal agency.
However, there are some crucial differences in tone between the novels. While to me, The House and Midnight and The Bed I Made were definitely on the literary side, in the sense that to some extent, I found them slow going, Before We Met is a novel that, although just as well written, was fast paced and included more action along with suspense. To my mind, in this way, Before We Met has the potential to appeal to a wider audience. I can see how some readers who were fans of Lucie Whitehouse’s first novels might be unhappy with what they view as a more “mainstream” novel, but to me, Before We Met was just as good as Whitehouse’s earlier works, with the added bonus of a really compelling mystery and a pace that didn’t let up.
I didn’t see Before We Met as any kind of Gone Girl imitation or as succumbing to commercialism. To me, it was a well-plotted, well-written thriller in its own right, and it was a blast to read.
The other thing that I really loved about this novel was how the author described contemporary London-the streets, subway stations, and neighborhoods in detail. As someone who recently visited London, I enjoyed reading about Hannah taking subway lines that I remember taking, and it made her story seem that much more real.
I would highly recommend Before We Met. It exceeded my expectations, and I hope that it will find a wide audience of readers.

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