This is my first post reviewing for ABBA. Just to recap my policy about reviewing: I’ll try and highlight books I’ve enjoyed, for both adults and children and will also be noticing books by friends of mine, acquaintances of mine and other members of the SAS. I hope that strikes everyone as okay and fair and not too LOGROLL- Y! I’ve got four books to start me off.
SERIOUS THINGS by Gregory Norminton 4th Estate (pbk)
You know the kind of story: a person in the present, writing about events in the past during which some ghastly thing has happened which will eventually come to light. Quite often, the events in the past involve a school and teachers and boys and they very often have a sexual dimension. So far, so predictable and I wouldn’t be highlighting this book if it weren’t for the fact that even though all the foregoing is true, Serious Things is a seriously good novel and well worth your time.
The narrator is Ben, who is shambolic, overweight, and gay. He divides his narrative between Then and Now and the whole thing begins when he meets, after many years, someone he knew at school. There are many impressive things about the way the story unfolds, not least the impeccable management of the First Person Narrative. Ben’s background is unusual; his parents work for the British Council in the Far East and he’s sent to boarding-school where he endures a low level of misery for a very long time. He makes one friend and one teacher becomes more and more important to him. What then unfolds is brilliantly conveyed: the misery, the elation, the lead-up to the great secret event and even better, what happens to Ben as an adult subsequently. It’s gripping and exciting and in very many ways unexpected. Normiston knows a great deal about the natural world nature and all the descriptions...I don’t want to give anything away so can’t say what they’re descriptions of...are quite breathtakingly good. The school, too, joins a line of horrible establishments groaning under the weight of arcane rules and riddled with petty meannesses. At times it’s hard to believe we’re talking about the 1970s. I do urge anyone who has a taste for this sort of novel to give Serious Things a try. Bet you’ll thank me!
TETHERED by Amy McKinnon (Orion Books)
I read this novel in proof. It appeared in the United States last year , but today it’s being published in the UK for the first time.
I confess that I get through an enormous number of crime novels. I love them. There are certain kinds of books I avoid: those whose USP is ever more Baroque and hideously inventive ways of dispatching victims; those where the writing is so weedy and sparse that it’s only the puzzle element that might keep you going; those that take pleasure in torture and cruelty and above all, those where the characters are neither believable nor particularly interesting. What I admire most in all novels is the writer’s ability to put together a whole universe ready for me to step into. I like detail. I like a book to have a strong sense of place. I like an involving plot and I do admire good writing. And if there’s some element in the narrative of the unusual, of a part of the fictional forest that hasn’t been much explored, then so much the better.
That’s why I enjoyed Tethered so much. We are in Brockton, Massachusetts and in a funeral parlour where Clara March, the heroine, works at preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. The business is owned by Linus, and as Clara tells us, most people trust him to take good care of their funerals because “his is a sincere belief.” He and his wife Alma are almost like parents to Clara, who helps the dead on their way to the after- life with a bouquet of flowers grown in her own garden. The imagery of gardens and flowers and the meanings and symbolism of the different plants she grows are strong threads running through the book. This was one of the main things which for me lifted ‘Tethered’ above the ordinary run of crime novels.
The first person narrative, which is well-managed at all times and which rings completely true, takes us right up close to the bodies. Perhaps the detail of Clara’s work in the funeral parlour may be a little too much for some tastes but the descriptions are neither gloating nor prurient. They are completely matter- of-fact and sombre and very often poetic. They help us understand the damaged Clara and the complicated history she carries with her into the events that unfold in the present.
The mystery concerns a child, known as Precious Doe, who died some three years before the novel opens. One day a young girl called Trecie wanders into the funeral parlour and Clara is then drawn into a renewed police investigation. It’s Detective Mike Sullivan who questions Clara about Precious again because of a more recent death and the rest of the story, together with the relationship between Mike and Clara, unfolds from that point. Along the way, a morass of horror, corruption and exploitation of the young is uncovered. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling readers’ pleasure.
I couldn’t put this book down when I read it and I do recommend it to anyone who likes crime fiction with the kind of attention to real-life detail at which the Scandinavians excel – and something of that bleakness too. It’s a book that shows you an America you don’t often see, written by someone who sees a strangeness in ordinary things.
Linda Newbery: The Sandfather. Orion Children’s Books. (pbk)
The cover of this book, while very attractive, doesn’t tell you much about the novel within. This is the story of Hal, a mixed-race boy who has never known the identity of his father. Circumstances send him to a seaside town in the off-season and the book is, on one level, about Hal trying to find out who his father was. It’s a real page-turner, with multiple plot-strands: full of engaging characters and laced throughout with both humour and mystery. We come to care about everyone we meet. Linda is good at conveying a sense of place and this seashore comes most vividly alive. One of the best characters is an eccentric artist called Don Inchbold and he provides a subtly symbolic dimension to the narrative. The book is both well and simply written and if you can get them past the Hokusai-type cover, it’s a story many boys would greatly enjoy.
Leslie Wilson. Saving Rafael. Andersen pbk
There was much discussion on Balaclava about the cover of this book, so I’m sure a lot of SAS members will remember this book. The novel is about a love affair between the heroine, Jenny and a Jewish boy called Rafael, and the action unfolds in war-time Berlin under the eyes of the authorities. It shows us a part of the story of the Second World War which we’re not so familiar with: the fact that there were Germans rescuers who hid their Jewish neighbours even though discovery would have meant death for everyone concerned. The historical detail is very thoroughly researched and through her mother, Leslie has personal knowledge of these events. A fascinating story.