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Review: ‘The Fourteenth Letter’ by Claire Evans

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire EvansNo one was more surprised by my enjoyment of Claire Evans’ The Fourteenth Letter than me.  It looked like the kind of book I would enjoy as a fun distraction, but nothing more.  And I was sorely in need of a fun distraction.

The Fourteenth Letter opens with a grisly murder.  What follows is an historical mystery with a classical twist, blending old world British Gothic with new world American ingenuity.  It was a book about madness, privilege and eugenics, and while it didn’t keep me guessing through the whole reading experience, it definitely swept me along for the ride.

I was impressed with Evans’ characterisation.  Her characters were deeply flawed, mysterious, but personable.  Their experiences created a sense of real personal growth.  The William Lamb of the end of the novel was virtually unrecognisable from the character we’d met at the beginning, but his growth and development were so natural that it really gave his character depth.  Savannah Shelton, the American gunslinger as well, was introduced as a rough and hardened criminal.  Even she proved to have real depth, while Evans’ masterfully omitted the details of her erstwhile crimes, leaving the reader to judge the character on her personality and deeds through the novel rather than her sordid past.  The remaining heroes were appropriately heroic, with the generic good-guy police constable who served to move the plot at an even pace, and the villains were appropriately dark and menacing.

The pace, plotting and characterisation, however, were belied by The Fourteenth Letter’s title and branding.  The cover is more evocative of a feminine gothic family saga/romance.  There was nothing that screamed historical murder mystery.  The titular ‘Fourteenth Letter’ as well, was introduced far too late in the plot for it to have any real impact or meaning.  This was the book’s biggest letdown.  The big reveal was hardly a reveal at all, as I hadn’t even known in was an option up until that point.

All in all The Fourteenth Letter was a strong entry into the historical crime genre.  It was a fun read that was equal parts cliché and original that was just really, really enjoyable.

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Review: ‘Rattle’ by Fiona Cummins

Rattle by Fiona CumminsRattle won’t deliver anything new or provide any unexpected twists and turns, but what it does provide is a pretty gripping read that I devoured in only a few sittings.  Fiona Cummins gives us a strong, albeit formulaic, addition to the crime thriller genre that seethes with menace and tension.

I don’t want to give a plot outline because I honestly think that it will detract from the reading experience.  But what this book does have is a pretty unique psychopath and a bevvy of damaged characters who are just trying to get through life the best they can.  We see the abduction of their children affect two families in very different ways, and best of all, Fiona Cummins has included some interesting details about dealing with Natural History collections and biological specimens.  As a former museum curator, I loved reading about that part of her story.

Rattle is full of rich descriptions.  There is one passage that I thought was so beautiful I just have to share it:

Ribbons and sheets of ossified matter.  Stalagmites and bridges.  Twisted plates and bony nubs… He stands alone in the hallway, and drinks in the glory of the skeleton in its glass case, mesmerised by its distortions, the incursion of bone into thoracic cavity, the calcified trimmings decorating his spine.  A young boy trapped in a prison of stone.

It makes the human body sound like a work of art.  I’d heard of Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive before under its more commonly used name, ‘Stone Man Syndrome’ but I didn’t know a lot about it.  Rattle managed to give it a human face as I realised how difficult it must be not just for the sufferer, but for the families who have to see their children become trapped in their own bodies.  The Frith family were strong, but damaged, and had very real reactions to the reality of living with a sick child.  The Frith’s grew as characters as the novel progressed, and I was impressed with the reality of their emotions and the way Fiona Cummins wrote them in a way that ensures empathy rather than pity.

DS Etta Fitzroy was an interesting character herself, although not entirely original.  Every crime novel these days needs a disgraced detective with a tragic backstory, so she seemed more like an archetype than a real, fleshed out character.  She also made stupid mistakes unbecoming of a detective that felt contrived to bring a bit more tension to the narrative rather than for any reason that made sense to the story.  It was moments like these that brought the quality of Rattle down for me.

For me, my biggest disappointment with Rattle was its lack of any real resolution.  I’m not sure if Fiona Cummins was setting it up for a sequel or to become a series, but because of this, the whole novel felt somehow, unfinished.  Instead of making me want to desperately pick up the next book when it’s written, it made the preceding parts of the story feel somewhat lacking.  I just needed more from it.  I needed more explanation, more detail, more motivation and more resolution.  The ending betrayed what had, up to that point, been a stellar novel.

All in all, Rattle was a gripping, enjoyable read.  But if you’re looking for something groundbreaking that will reinvent the genre, then you’ll have to keep looking.  While the villain was interesting and unique, the plot, in general, was on crime thriller rails.  If you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know where it’s going.  But at least you’ll enjoy the journey.

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Review: ‘I See You’ by Clare Mackintosh

I See You by Clare MackintoshI had heard such wonderful things about Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go (which I have yet to read), that I jumped at the opportunity to read I See You which promised a just as interesting premise, and had been described as “an edge-of-your-seat, page-turning psychological thriller”.  A quarter of the way through the book, and I was still waiting for something to happen.

Instead of a thrilling, fast paced jaunt through a dark underworld I was treated to long passages about boring police procedure, parenting problems, financial accounting and misogynistic bosses.  Every character was hinting at something, but nothing really progressed or went anywhere.  I didn’t care who was hungry and who had skipped dinner; the entire first quarter read like a boring treatise on everyday life.  I found myself skim reading just to get it over and done with.

The pace certainly doesn’t pick up much as the narrative progresses.  There was no sense of impending dread, no excitement, no tragedy. The characters lacked depth and I felt myself completely unable to engage in their lives. Everyone felt like caricatures of their archetypes. Teenagers with ‘you wouldn’t understand man’ attitudes, unfulfilled housewives, philandering ex-husbands, struggling writers and troubled cops with tragic pasts and rogue ways who take issue with authority. The victims were nothing but faceless plot elements, something that I abhor in crime writing. I should feel sympathy for the victims, and sadness at their misfortunes, but instead, they were just names with no voice. There was nothing new in I See You, and nothing that made me desperate to read on or invest myself in the characters’ lives.

But worst of all? It was predictable! Everything followed on rails to a formula that was all too familiar. There were an appropriate number of red herrings from the 3/4 mark so you knew who to eliminate as a suspect. When the antagonist surfaced they were given little to no legitimate and believable reason and ability for the crime, and the final plot twist was given away by a rather jimmied in explanation of a particular character near the end of the novel. This explanation (without giving anything away) highlighted a certain skill set making the ‘surprise’ ending exceedingly unsurprising, while also managing to invalidate some of the descriptions of the character earlier in the book.

I really wanted to like I See You. I might even still try I Let You Go. You can’t become such an overnight sensation if you have nothing going for you. Maybe I just started with the wrong book?  I did see a talented writer buried beneath all the formula. Clare Mackintosh ‘s dialogue was convincing and her prose was fluent and interesting to read in and of itself. But for me the plot never came to life. It didn’t build, it lacked depth and the characters weren’t particularly likeable or interesting. I didn’t hang on the story, desperate to read on and know what happened. I didn’t sound out the words in my head or savour them. Instead, I speed read the book in a day. It was just good enough for me to want to finish it, but not good enough for me to care that I had.

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Review: ‘Finders Keepers’ by Stephen King

Finders KeepersReading Finders Keepers, Stephen King’s new crime thriller directly on the back of Mr. Mercedes was both a blessing and a curse. While I enjoy Stephen King novels once in a while as a distraction, I’ve never been a huge fan. He does really excel at horror writing and so both Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers, purely crime novels, somehow felt a little lacking.

The overall pace of the novel was exciting. It was a general page turner like so many of King’s novels are. It lacked the grizzlyness of Mr Mercedes however, and for a crime novel seemed to focus more on the psychology of poverty and the psyche of the criminal. No bad thing, let me assure you, but it certainly felt like a departure from the viscerally graphic murders of the previous novel. The descriptions of the Mercedes massacre and the job fair, and of Brady Hartsfield’s mother after imbibing poised hamburger meat in Mr Mercedes stayed with me for a few days after finishing it. The murders in Finders Keepers on the other hand were over relatively quickly with little to no fanfair or excess grimness attached. Without the insertion of Det Ret Hodges and his new company ‘Finders Keepers’, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a book which was not in the same series as Mr Mercedes, let alone a book which was the direct follow on from it.

In Mr Mercedes we were introduced to Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, the characters who should be integral to the plot of Finders Keepers but in reality were barely in it. With the introduction of Holly as a character left to very last minute in Mr Mercedes I did expect there to be a little more development of her character in this novel. While the characters from the first novel existed, their appearance is brief, and did not really flow with the rest of the plot which developed the new characters of the antagonist, Morris Bellamy, and the unfortunate Finder and titular Keeper of the stolen notebooks of the late, murdered, fictional Salinger-esque John Rothsein. Even Rothstein’s unpublished body of work is almost a character in its own right. Through Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers I did start to feel attached to Rothstein’s work and wished I could read it for myself. With all of this in mind, I actually think Finders Keepers would have been a better novel had Hodges and co. not actually featured in it and it had stood alone as the spiritual successor to King’s earlier novel Misery.

Despite it’s other flaws, such as some clunky allusions to events of the previous novel, an unnecessary and irrelevant (to the plot of this novel at least)supernatural plot twist involving the near brain-dead Brady Hartsfield, and some questionable decisions of the part of its characters, Finders Keepers was a welcome distraction. It wasn’t brilliant, it didn’t blow me away, but it kept me entertained on some long journeys home. And isn’t that sometimes just what you need?

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