Contemporary fiction

This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash

Title – This Dark Road to Mercy512u5QBMBLL

Author – Wiley Cash

Published – 30 January 2014

Genre – Contemporary fiction

Cash’s debut A Land More Kind Than Home was one of my favourite book’s of 2012, so I was particularly looking forward to seeing what direction he would take with his second novel.

There are certainly many similarities between this and his debut. Again one of the main characters is a child – in this case Easter, a 12 year old girl who is currently living in a foster home with her younger sister. Much of the story is seen through Easter’s eyes – she’s seen a lot for her age and has something of a world-weary view. The story shifts between the view points of three main characters – as well as Easter there is Brady Weller, guardian to the girls, and a mysterious character called Pruitt.

It’s six years since Easter has seen her father, Wade, when he shows up at a baseball game she’s playing in at the foster home. It’s not an emotional reunion – there’s been a lot of water under the bridge for Easter. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Wade has signed his rights away to his daughters, which means he takes (relatively) drastic action in order to spend some time with them. When they inexplicably disappear from the foster home Weller feels bound to help track them down. In fact Weller has his own family issues, especially with his teenage daughter, and it’s easy to see that this influences his behaviour.

What seems to be important here is that the main character in the book – Easter’s father Wade – is only viewed through the eyes of others so his motives remain a mystery. Cash manages to make the fiction thought-provoking, and he certainly cements his ability to evoke small-town America, but somehow the story didn’t connect with me in the way that his debut did.

Amongst my misgivings is the fact that I felt the plot seemed more like a short story rather than a novel, which did little to reduce my impatience for something to happen. Although when it did it was quite surprising and in fact made me think of ‘No Country For Old Men (the film – I’ve not read the book!).

Wade is an ex-baseball player and the sport permeates the story. Unfortunately it’s a game I know very little about and I always feel at a bit of a loss in books where baseball features prominently – much like I imagine an American would feel when faced with stories featuring cricket. Despite reading plenty of books where baseball is significant to the plot, I’m just none the wiser and find it very hard to picture what is happening.

There were also a couple of aspects of the story, or backstory, that were alluded to but never stated explicitly, and I’m not the sort of reader who likes to fill in the gaps for themselves!

I know that there are already some fans out there, but I’m afraid that this just didn’t do it for me. You can see another review over at Raven Crime Reads. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

1star1star1star

Rose Petal Soup – Sarah Harrison

Title – Rose Petal Soup

Author – Sarah Harrison

Published – 2008

Genre – Contemporary fiction

Sarah Harrison is one of my few regular exceptions to crime fiction. I’ve been reading her books since the early ’80s and recently realised that there quite a few titles I’ve missed, so it was time to fit one into the busy reading schedule.

Joss and Nico Carbury are in their early 60’s. Nico manages a local theatre, Joss is the Mayor for a year and they have two grown-up children. Although their marriage has had the odd hiccough things are currently on a more even keel and they’re enjoying the fruits of their working lives. They have a somewhat strained relationship with their daughter, Elizabeth, who can be a little abrupt and are surprised when she calls out of the blue to say that she plans to visit for Sunday lunch. When she arrives she has an elderly gentleman in tow – who as the lunch progresses is confirmed as her fiance.

Needless to say that there is some anxiety for Joss and Nico when their daughter announces that she is going to be marrying a man older than themselves in the next few days, and no, they’re not welcome at the wedding.

But the story isn’t an exploration of how the two couples come to term with this age difference, but is about the potential relationship between Joss and her daughter’s new stepson. When Joss meets Rob she becomes convinced that during their first brief conversation something happens that implies that there is the potential for there to be more between them. And Joss believes that this was something shared, that Rob feels the same.

What follows is a sort of teenage angst as Joss tries to deal with what, at first glance, seems to be a crush. For Joss the question is more about whether or not she should act on her feelings, for the reader it’s about whether or not she has read too much into a simple conversation.

I actually found the insight into the Mayor’s role to be as interesting as Joss’s relationship woes – a huge variety of functions she attends.

I have to confess that this isn’t the best book I’ve read by Harrison. The story is small rather than epic. Although the main character of Joss is well written and engaging I did feel that she could be quite contradictory, and the situation felt a little far-fetched.

All in all a pleasant enough read.

Score – 3/5

Heart-Shaped Bruise – Tanya Byrne

Title – Heart-Shaped Bruise

Author – Tanya Byrne

Published – 10 May 2012

Genre – Contemporary fiction

It’s hard to start this novel without drawing comparisons with other popular titles using the device of a journal to tell a story (I’m thinking particularly of Before I Go To Sleep) but fortunately Tanya Byrne manages to find a new angle.

Strictly speaking though, this isn’t a journal – it’s the notebook of Emily Koll, an inmate of the psychiatric unit of Archway Young Offenders Institution. Koll is 18 and obviously notorious, but for committing a crime which isn’t yet clear. Trapped in the psychiatric unit with a small group of other girls, Koll resents the efforts of Doctor Gilyard to get her to talk about the circumstances that brought her there. But between her sessions with the doctor, her relationships with the other inmates, and the narrative of her notes, we soon find out more.

Unlike other authors, Byrne’s approach is to show us a psychological thriller from the point of view of the perpetrator and not the victim. After Emily’s father is stabbed by Juliet Shaw, the daughter of policeman he has shot dead, her world falls apart. She didn’t know her father was a gangster and that all the privileges she had were from his ill-gotten gains, and that makes her doubt everything she ever knew or felt. But Emily chooses not to be a victim and instead is hell-bent on revenge. When she tracks down Juliet, who has a new identity under witness protection, she herself assumes a false identity to gain Juliet’s friendship, before exacting her revenge.

The story is compelling – the slow unfolding of the events that brought Koll to the Institution, and the gradual revelation of the her real feelings and a hidden vulnerability. So perhaps she isn’t as evil as everyone thinks! I’m guessing that I’m not the target audience for this book – it feels a lot more like a Young Adult title, and that isn’t meant to be a criticism in any way.

Perhaps the ease with which Koll assumes a false identity and manages to maintain it seems to be a little unrealistic, but that’s a small quibble. I did think that some of Koll’s descriptions of her feelings were a little OTT too – but then it’s a while since I was 18! Nevertheless, this is an excellent debut.

Many thanks to Headline for the review copy of this book.

You can see another review of this over at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Score – 4/5

A Land More Kind Than Home – Wiley Cash

Title – A Land More Kind Than Home

Author – Wiley Cash

Published – 29 March 2012

Genre – Contemporary fiction

This is a thought-provoking debut novel by Cash, set in his home state of North Carolina. Dealing with an unconventional aspect of religion in the US, the story is told from three different perspectives – local matriarch Adelaide Lyle, sheriff Clem Barefield. and nine-year-old Jess Hall.

One Sunday morning Jess’s brother, Christopher, is taken away by Pastor Chambliss from the Sunday school Adelaide holds outside the church. Overcome by curiosity Jess and his best friend sneak down to the church – an old general store with yellowing newspaper covering the windows – to take a look inside.  But this is no ordinary church, it’s “River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following”, and the Pastor is a believer in the power of healing, drinking poison and snake-handling. So Jess finds it hard to understand what he sees through the window.

Through Jess’s tale of the events leading up to the Pastor’s interest in his brother, and the backstory told by the Sheriff and Adelaide, we learn something of the town’s history and the influence of the Pastor on its inhabitants.

This isn’t an expose on the less conventional approach to religion – we don’t hear from anyone who is a believer or a worshipper in the Church. In the Sheriff we have a narrator who is looking for the rational explanation for events, and he has a history with Jess’s family which may or may not influence how he deals with what happens to Christopher. Adelaide’s upbringing is unconventional and although she has her own strong beliefs, her experience with the pastor has stopped her attending the church.

What the reader sees from Jess’s perspective explains the story, but Jess is unable to see the whole story for himself. The tension in the story is waiting to see if he will tell his version of events, and if so to whom.

For someone who reads a lot of crime fiction this felt quite slow to get going, it’s a terrible habit to be waiting for something to happen in every book! It’s quite a small story with a limited cast of characters, but they’re all well written and very believable, and you do hope that the truth will prevail.

The story is beautifully written, and Cash really captures the small town feel of this part of America, a place that feels as if time has passed it by.

Many thanks to Transworld for the review copy of this book.

You can see another review of this over at Notes of Life.

Score – 4/5

The Wife Who Ran Away – Tess Stimson

Title – The Wife Who Ran Away

Author – Tess Stimson

Published – 2012

Genre – Contemporary fiction

Another short review – and another book courtesy of Pan Macmillan. If I were to run away (which is pretty unlikely) then Italy is where I would head for – so I was drawn to the premise of this book.

With a husband who doesn’t seem to notice her, a teenage daughter who is becoming unruly, a demanding mother and problems at work, Kate makes a snap decision to escape it all. She gets into a taxi in her lunch hour, goes to the airport and the next thing she knows she’s knocking on the door of an old friend in Italy.

Although this all seems very spontaneous, there is some background to her escape which, as Stimson slowly lets the reader discover, may explain the out of character behaviour.

The story is told from multiple perspectives – Kate, her husband, step-son, daughter and mother. As she doesn’t tell anyone that she’s leaving, it’s interesting to see how they each deal with her disappearance, and indeed how long it takes them to notice that she’s gone. It also shows the contrast between how she thinks the various members of her family will feel, and what they really make of the situation. The one jarring aspect for me, though, was the difference between what her husband thought about the situation and what he said & did about it – but perhaps that’s what men are like!

Although she arrives in Italy with no intention of doing anything other than turning round and going home, she somehow finds herself with a job and a flat. All in just a few weeks!

I have to say this was a bit on the raunchy side for me. There’s nothing like trying to read on the train & praying that the man next to you can’t see any of the words on the pages you’re reading!

I found the story pretty slow going, although when an incident at home threatened to force Kate into making a decision I felt the story picked up the pace.

Score – 3/5

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Title – The Language of Flowers

Author – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Published – 2011

Genre – Contemporary fiction

After almost three weeks of upheaval in our house (due to some kitchen improvements) and a “To be reviewed” pile that’s growing like Topsy, I’ve decided to post a few shorter reviews.

First up – The Language of Flowers. Not my normal genre, but I was lucky to get a copy of this book at an event held by Pan Macmillan. It’s one of those titles that seemed to receive a lot of mentions on Twitter, but I didn’t really know what it was about.

The book is Victoria’s story. She’s spent her life in the foster-care system and the book opens on her 18th birthday when she is emancipated and has to begin life on her own. And she’s very much on her own. It becomes clear that she’s had a difficult time in the care system and this is either the result of, or the cause of, difficulties she has in maintaining relationships.

Victoria has an affinity for plants and this stems (excuse the pun!) back to some time she spent with Elizabeth, who fostered her when she was 9. Elizabeth had her own a vineyard and a sister with a flower farm. Although Victoria only seemed to live with her for a short time, it was there that she learnt about the language of flowers. This knowledge is something Victoria uses to her advantage when she has the chance to help out a florist and from this she starts to put down roots (sorry!).

There were some aspects of the story and how Victoria dealt with the relationships she formed which were pretty strange, but her background makes this seem more believable.

I found this very slow to start, but once the characters became clearer to me I got caught up in their story, and wanted very much to find out the secret which lies at the heart of the book. It was an enjoyable read, although I suspect it may be aimed at a younger audience. The publishers have done themselves proud with the printed books – one of those cases where the printed version is so much more than the e-version.

You can see another review of this over at Leeswamme’s blog.

Score – 4/5

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Title – A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author – Jennifer Egan

Published – 2011

Genre – Modern fiction

I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book (along with a huge stack of others) from the lovely people at Constable & Robinson.

This must be one of the titles I have heard most about this year. On Twitter and Blogs there are numerous references to this book. Just a quick search on Twitter will tell you that people love this book “Loved Jennifer Egan visit from goon squad”, “it was fab & I might just read it again” and “Bloody brilliant, surreal & touching!”. Not much of a clue about the contents though – except for one description of  it being “set in the US music biz.” I also knew that the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, although I may be showing my ignorance here by saying that the only Pulitzer I’d previously heard of was for journalism. A quick look at that font of all knowledge, Wikipedia, tells me that unless the previous winners have been made into a film, I haven’t heard of them. Perhaps time to broaden my reading horizons?

So when I began reading I had no clue what the book would be about, except that I’m bound to love it & the writing’s clever (because obviously I hadn’t read the blurb on the cover).  

The book begins with Sasha, in a  session with her therapist, discussing a recent episode of her kleptomania. We’re in what seems to be contemporary New York and Sasha’s telling a story about her first date with a guy, and after a purse snatching incident in a bar, they go back to her apartment. 

Next chapter – we’re with Bennie (ah – is this the Bennie that Sasha referred to as her boss?) who’s something big in the music industry – and there’s Sasha , who is his assistant. Phew. And we seem to be at the same time as Sasha’s story. Great.

OK, I get what’s happening here and I understand books that have multiple characters with their own stories. One of my favourite books is Marge Piercy’s “Gone to Soldiers” which does this in the Second World War with 10 characters, so I’m more than happy with this type of storytelling.

After two relatively straightforward chapters, the book then starts to jump around in time and introduces yet more characters. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy the story and seeing where the stories and characters interlink, but a pet peeve of mine is authors who leave the reader to guess when something is set. Why? Not knowing is only distracting and unless the timing is supposed to be a mystery we’ll find out somehow. Just a big date at the front of the chapter and I’ll be much happier.

Then we get to a penultimate chapter which I’d not heard about – Powerpoint. Yes, a whole chapter told by a child through the medium of Powerpoint. Whether you think this is clever, innovative, or just plain odd – try sitting on a train reading your book sideways & see what other people think!

In the final chapter a number of loose ends are tied up, but in some ways the gaps in the characters lives and the changes in their situations leave you with some unanswered questions. Ultimately I enjoyed the end and the way the story wrapped up, but there were some pretty significant aspects of this chapter that I didn’t like. Set some time in the future there have been huge changes in society and communication which are intrinsic to this part of the book. Without much explanation it was hard to know if this was just a way for us to know we were in the future, or was the author trying to make a point. Perhaps this was this Egan’s stab at 1984 or Brave New World? It did feel as if it was a criticism of the development of social media and mobile technology, a future where everyone shares their most personal thoughts with everyone one else.  Odd for a book which has used social media to promote it. Hey ho.

It certainly doesn’t feel like an insight into the US music business or celebrity. The writing is clever, but there’s not enough detail to the story and each of the episodes only provides a snapshot into the characters’ lives.

Score – 3/5