“Western Fringes” by Amer Anwar – review

I’ve got something a bit different for you on the blog today!  If you’re a regular visitor to Girl, Reading you’ll know I don’t read an awful lot of crime thrillers but I was lucky enough to be sent a free reading copy by the author and hey, I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to try something a bit different!  It sounds pathetic in the extreme, but one of the main reasons I’m wary of the crime genre is that I have a real aversion, almost hypersensitivity if you will, to any kind of violence or psychological cruelty whether it’s in books or TV and movies.  This novel does undoubtedly have its occasional brutal moments (and one particularly grim one) but in spite of this I was pleased to discover I quite enjoyed it, racing through at breakneck speed, anxious to find out if the characters I was rooting for would emerge from the action unscathed.

Zaq, the novel’s hero, isn’t exactly squeaky clean – he’s recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for manslaughter – but you can’t help feeling from the off that he’s less of a thug and more a man who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyway, as it turns out someone who was squeaky clean wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the situation in which the unfortunate Zaq finds himself.  The owner of the builders’ yard where he works, Mr. Brar, calls him into the office out of the blue and demands that Zaq track down his daughter Rita, who’s gone missing.  If he fails, or even lets slip to anyone else that’s she’s disappeared, Mr. Brar will make sure Zaq’s back in prison before he knows it.  The Brars are a Sikh family, and Zaq assumes this is a case of wanting to protect the family honour, and in all likelihood the end result of the daughter’s liaison with someone of whom her father and brothers don’t approve.  His first instinct is to try and do the bare minimum to get Rita found, pass on her whereabouts to the family and wash his hands of the whole business as soon as possible, but the deeper he’s drawn into the case the more unexpected he finds its complexities and the realisation soon dawns that stepping away with a clear conscience isn’t going to be the option he assumed it would be.

In terms of the plot, I’m stopping right there as I have no intention of spoiling the mystery or suspense for anyone who hasn’t yet read it.  There is a genuine sense of tension throughout as the author isn’t afraid to ramp up the stakes for his characters; suffice to say not everyone will make it through to the final page.  If you like your bad guys unequivocally bad then you won’t be disappointed – there are no mitigating circumstances or tortured psychological explanations for the brutality, just out and out bare-knuckle thuggery.  It makes sense too that the protagonist, although essentially good-hearted, is no stranger to the world of street violence, shady dealing and macho intimidation, as his ability to navigate his way through the various perils becomes infinitely more credible that way.  It’s a world with which I am (very clearly) not familiar, having spent most of my formative years in a picture-postcard village a million miles away from Southall, where the novel is set, so I’m working on the assumption that the author knows his stuff and that this is indeed an accurate reflection of the capital’s criminal underbelly – but even if it isn’t it felt authentic enough that I totally believed it.  It was also interesting from a cultural perspective to read a story set in a section of society where honour violence, while not universally condoned by any means, is a familiar and predictable occurrence.  As a female reader I have to say I found it immensely satisfying to see female characters who took on the predominantly masculine world around them with barely a second thought.  Huge credit has to go to the author too for refusing to fall into the trap of thinking that Strong Female Characters have to be signposted to the reader by having men comment on their fortitude and gutsiness every five minutes.  For that reason alone I’d recommend it!

As I say, it was something quite different for me, and while I confess I do miss the corsets and bustles if I’m away from them for too long, it was interesting to undertake an excursion into unfamiliar territory and try something I wouldn’t normally read.  Am I going to develop a new obsession with dark, gritty thrillers?  Honestly no, but what “Western Fringes” goes to show is how much books can keep on surprising you even when you thought you had yourself pegged!

See you back on the blog soon…

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“A Conspiracy of Violence” by Susanna Gregory – review

When you read a book you love AND it’s the first of a long series, it’s a double-whammy of reading joy.  I’m very late to the party with the Thomas Chaloner series (of which this novel marks the beginning) but better late than never.  Of course, being a latecomer to a literary saga brings with it the benefit of having a number of books already written, so you can instantly feed your new obsession by reading several instalments in a row – which I might just be doing in this case.  I can’t take any credit for this discovery myself, however, as it was recommended to me by author and fellow blogger Bernadette Keeling, who’s read some of my reviews and therefore knows my taste pretty well!

It’s set in one of my favourite periods of history, the seventeenth century, not long after the monarchy has been restored to power with the accession of Charles II.  Forget the Tudors – this has got to be one of the most fascinating tines in our nation’s past.  Many who had supported Cromwell and his puritan leanings were dismayed to see a return to licentious behaviour as demonstrated by the new king and his flamboyant court; others were delighted to see the back of the Parliamentarian zealots who had manufactured Charles I’s death.  And some, like a number of characters in this story, were people who were just trying to survive, and who were prepared to bury old allegiances for the sake of staying on the right side of the victors.  The novel’s hero, Thomas Chaloner, is used to leading a double, or at times even a triple, life; when the story begins he has just returned from the Netherlands where he’s been working as a spy.  Political changes mean his role is no longer needed, but coming from a family that included a regicide (in the shape of his uncle) is rather a large stumbling block to employment in Restoration England.  Luckily for him there’s more than one ex-spymaster kicking his heels in 1660s London, and before too long Thomas’ caseload is mounting up, including an intriguing mission on behalf of the Earl of Clarendon to find a cache of gold supposedly hidden inside the Tower of London but never yet found.

When I start reading any new historical crime series my first instinct is to compare it to C J Sansom’s magnificent Shardlake books.  If you’re going to write a series of stories featuring a recurring central character then they need to be something special, and the characterisation in those novels is extraordinary.  If similar books in that genre fall down, it’s often I think because the protagonist, although perfectly likeable, just isn’t captivating enough.  At first I feared that might be the case with Thomas Chaloner, as it took me quite a while to really feel I knew him.  My relationship with him undoubtedly deepened as the book went on however, and by the end I was interested in his personal story as well as the outcomes of the various mysteries, and that’s a definite big tick in the book’s favour.  In fact, considering just how many key characters there are in this story I was really impressed by how well Susanna Gregory managed to flesh them out and create genuine interest in their often complex backstories.  I particularly loved Metje, Thomas’ fiery yet vulnerable Dutch mistress, who finds life increasingly difficult in a city where paranoid xenophobia is on the rise every day.  John Thurloe too is intriguing from first introduction, being Cromwell’s former Spymaster General who is now working for… underground Parliamentarians? The resurgent Royalists?  Or maybe both?  In this novel as in life, very few people wear their heart unequivocally on their sleeve, and most keep us in the dark about their true loyalties and motivations until the final pages.

The main difficulty for me came in the first two or three chapters; the political situation is so complex, the characters so numerous and their allegiances so complicated that to start with there’s quite a lot of exposition that results in some clunky and contrived dialogue.  I also struggled to remember who was working for whom in this world of subterfuge and had to do a fair bit of flicking back to read certain paragraphs again as a reminder.  After this slightly ropey early section though the plot started to take care of itself without constant explanation and the book really took off.  More than anything else, what stayed with me was what an incredibly lonely place England could be at that time.  Families and individuals whose political beliefs meant they were in the ascendancy only a few years earlier suddenly found themselves at best shunned and at worst in danger following the abrupt switch in regime.  As I said earlier in the review, I find this one of the most absorbing periods in history, and it’s to her great credit that the author really digs deep into not only political but social history, enabling us to appreciate the infinite nuances of this time of great upheaval as it would have played out in the lives of ordinary people.

I’m really looking forward to reading more of this series (at the time of writing I believe there are eight instalments, hooray!) and adding another historical fiction writer to my bookshelves.  And now that I’ve clambered back onto the reading treadmill after a bit of a hiatus, I hope to have more reviews for you very soon.

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“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins – review

Thrillers can be challenging books to review as it’s so difficult to talk about them without inadvertently giving away plot spoilers and ruining the suspense of the story.  Be assured though I’ll do my best to give you a meaningful blog post without revealing too much!

I’m one of the ever diminishing few who hasn’t read Paul Hawkins’ astonishingly successful debut novel “The Girl on the Train”, and in a way I’m quite glad about that as it meant I came at this novel with no expectations and could read it without making any comparisons to her previous work.  It’ll be interesting for me to hear, as more and more people read “Into the Water”, whether the prevailing opinion is that it’s a better or worse book than the first.  All I can say is that for the most part I found it a really enjoyable and memorable thriller, even if there were a few elements that didn’t quite convince me.

At the centre of the story is a patch of water known to locals as the Drowning Pool.  On summer days it’s a magnet for children to play and teenagers to congregate, at other times it’s a picturesque spot for solitude and contemplation; but despite its beauty it can never escape the negative associations that have developed over the centuries due to the number of women who have perished in its depths.  Some of the earliest victims were those suspected of witchcraft who were deliberately drowned, and they were followed in turn by other violent deaths – murders, suicides and some cases where the truth of events still remains a mystery.  The latest woman to come to an unfortunate end in the notorious pool is Nel Abbott, single mother to a teenage daughter Lena, and the estranged sister of Jules, who reluctantly returns to their childhood home to sort out Nel’s affairs.  The two haven’t spoken for years following a dramatic falling-out, and Jules’ initial reaction is to resent her sister’s suicide – for that’s what most people seem to believe it was – as a final, spiteful bid to attract attention and drag Jules back to a place she hoped to have left behind for good.  Before long though the question upon which so many mystery stories have hinged over the decades – did she jump or was she pushed? – rears its head and the investigation to uncover the truth begins.

The story hops between the aftermath of Nel’s death and the events that led up to it, and is told through a multitude of voices: members of Nel’s family, the investigating police officers and an extensive cast of local people who were connected to Nel in some way.  At first I wasn’t sure I liked having such a large number of narrators; it takes a while to feel a connection to the characters when their contributions are so fragmented.  As the novel progressed, however, I found the technique began to work really well.  Nel, it transpires, had created a bit of a stir among her tight-knit, somewhat insular rural community with her controversial project on the history of the Drowning Pool, and the short, sharp bursts of narration from the different voices perfectly reflects the frenzy of circulating gossip, speculation and suspicion that follows her death.  It also ensures that the book gallops along at a pretty brisk pace, and I found myself failing miserably to put it down, constantly thinking, “just ONE more chapter”!  I’ve abandoned a few psychological thrillers over the past year because although they were fast-moving and intricately plotted I simply didn’t care what happened to the main characters, but in this case I absolutely did.  That’s not to say they’re all likeable (in fact there are a few who I found hideous) but somehow I was still desperate to find out how their stories ended.

It was the tying up of all the different story strands that I felt let the book down slightly.  I would never have guessed the outcome of the mystery surrounding Nel’s death, and I was pleased to have been taken well and truly by surprise.  The story arc for a couple of the other characters though I didn’t buy.  [Small spoiler alert!]  Following a melodramatic and for me unbelievable event in the later stages of the book, one person suddenly undergoes what appears to be a complete personality transplant, which I felt was a jarring attempt to bring closure to a situation that was far too psychologically complex to ever have been resolved in that way.  I was also left with a few unanswered questions after the final page, although that could be down to my personal preference for neat endings and a deliberate decision by the author to leave some things ambiguous rather than any oversight on her part.  Whatever the novel’s minor flaws, Paula Hawkins certainly knows how to tell a gripping story, and for its compelling narrative, excitement and genuine mystery I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.

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