Rachael (woodpijn) wrote,

Recent books

Nine Perfect Strangers - Liane Moriarty

I recently said Liane Moriarty was getting a bit formulaic, but this book breaks out of the mould and is very good.
It's about the guests at a high-end health retreat run by a woman who's a bit intense and cultish.
I was glad they weren't actually all strangers to each other, because that would have been too hard to keep track of, and too hard to become emotionally invested in nine unrelated people all at once. In fact, they include a young couple and another couple with an adult daughter, and we don't get viewpoint narration from all nine, so it feels like a more manageable number.
The interconnecting plot arcs of the various characters, and the suspense of what's really going on with the retreat, are all quite interesting and compelling, and there's a good climactic final sequence.

The Nanny - Gilly Macmillan

This is about a woman who is back living in the house where she grew up, with her ten-year-old daughter, and her mother, who was always quite narcissistic and un-maternal. Her old childhood nanny, Hannah, is also back in the area. Hannah suddenly left one night without explanation when Jo was a child, and Jo was devastated because she felt closer to Hannah than to her mother. She is now keen to see Hannah again and find out what happened, and hire Hannah to look after her own daughter.
It turns out that Hannah is the baddie, and a lot of the incidents Jo remembers from her childhood where her mother treated her unlovingly were actually carefully engineered by Hannah to make Hannah herself look good and the mother look bad. For example, Hannah knew little Jo had a phobia of balloons, so she arranged for balloons to be released at a party just as little Jo was handed from Hannah to her mother, so Jo screamed and cried and went back to Hannah for comfort. But I didn't find this a very satisfying resolution. I got the impression it was meant to exonerate Jo's mother, but a lot of the ways Jo's mother acted towards her were genuinely bad and unloving even after the reinterpretation. I like reinterpretations where the character you thought was bad was good and vice versa, but when the reinterpretation is "everyone sucks here" it's both less narratively satisfying and a bit depressing.

Going Solo - Roald Dahl

Reading this was an exercise in completionism, as I read all Roald Dahl's children's books as a child except this one, and Bethany now has a box set of all of them.
I didn't read it as a child because it was about him when he was an adult, and as a child I had a strong preference for books about children and found books about adults boring. Now I'm an adult, I wanted to read about Roald Dahl's adult life, particularly his marriages and children (including the one who died of measles) and how his writing career took off. But it turns out Going Solo doesn't deal with any of that. It only covers the first few years of his adulthood, where he works in Africa for Shell Oil and then flies for the RAF in World War II. I can see why he wrote it as a children's book - it's quite an adventure story and I can definitely see it appealing to a certain type of child who likes things like Biggles (which my dad tried to get me into as a child and I found boring). I can't say I really enjoyed it, although his style made it more interesting than the same content written by a different author would have been.
I'm glad I didn't read it as a child, as some parts of it were a bit scary and/or gruesome, more so than his other children's books.

It was quite an interesting snapshot of writing about British colonial history. His time working for Shell in Africa before the war, the people he interacted with and the social structures he moved within were all very much a part of colonialism. And I think in a piece of writing written a bit earlier, this would have been described with pride and nostalgia, and in something written a bit later it would have been described in an embarrassed and apologetic tone, but the book was written around the transition point (sometime in the 80s), so it's presented as a kind of morally neutral curiosity.

When She Returned - Lucinda Berry

This is about a woman, Kate, who turns up after being missing for a decade and presumed dead. Her young daughter is now a teenager and her husband has remarried. She is in a bad way physically and the assumption is that she was kidnapped and held captive, but it gradually emerges that she joined a cult and went willingly.
The cult leader did lie to everyone ("helping" her husband and police with the search, while telling her that her husband didn't want her back), but she chose to join the cult, chose to take the next step of going to live with them full-time without telling her family, and chose to stay with them for a decade rather than leaving them to start a new life as a single person once she believed her husband wouldn't have her back.
I didn't find it very plausible – although the author is a psychologist who's studied cults, so probably knows much more than I do about the psychology and behaviour of cult members/victims. But there were several points throughout the story where the cult leader did something so outrageously abusive and/or illegal that I felt sure Kate and his other followers would see through him and turn away from him, but they didn't. Some of these were before Kate joined them full-time, so I'd have thought she wasn't so entrenched at that point that she would feel unable to leave.
I know that in the case of domestic abuse, naive observers think "why don't you just leave him?" and one answer is that the victim feels emotionally and often financially dependent on the abuser. Often they've been together a long time and/or the victim doesn't know any different (if they've had a series of abusive partners and/or an abusive parent). But none of that applies here - Kate had a stable, loving family before she joined the cult. The only thing wrong was that she was getting a bit bored of her husband and feeling she wanted broader horizons in life than he did. But that just makes me ask even more: why didn't she leave the cult and start a new life on her own? If the cult leader lied to her and told her her husband didn't want her back, she could have used that as an excuse to cut ties and go and travel the world or whatever it was she wanted.
In this book, some of the cult members were former drug addicts who the cult had helped to get clean. I can see how they would feel very emotionally committed and indebted, and would overlook the cult leader's actions, maybe rationalising and finding excuses - but that didn't apply to Kate.
I do know about things like Jonestown, so I guess it is true that cult members continue following their leaders even when they cross the moral event horizon, but I didn't feel this book did a good job of making it seem plausible from the inside. And I didn't enjoy it very much; it was a bit depressing.

In Five Years - Rebecca Serle

This starts with a woman who's just got engaged and has a vivid dream about herself in five years' time, where she's living with a different man. She later meets him in real life, and he's her best friend's new boyfriend.
I thought this would be another interesting "what if?" story, like After I've Gone,the one where the woman sees posts on her Facebook wall from a future where she's dead. This one has similarities, in that Dannie worries about the predicted future and tries to avert it. But the glimpse into the future is a much smaller part of this book than it was in that one. In this book, the dream serves as an inciting incident, but the book is more just about a relationship gradually ending for boring and prosaic reasons, and it just wasn't very interesting to read. I didn't really like any of the characters very much.
The book is actually more about Dannie's friendship with her best friend Bella than her relationship with her fiancé.
Bella gets cancer, and actually her illness and eventual death becomes a bigger part of the book even than the drifting apart of the engaged couple. Obviously anyone dying is sad, but I just didn't feel emotionally grabbed by this as a piece of fiction.
Dannie doesn't actually get together with Bella's boyfriend. The dream was a genuine glimpse of the future, but it took place the evening after the funeral, when Dannie and the boyfriend are grieving together, in Dannie's new apartment where she lives alone after having left her fiancé; they have dinner together, and end up sleeping together, and past-Dannie assumed they were a couple and both lived there. The dialogue between them is the same as in the dream and is reinterpreted, which is normally something I really like, but it's done in a really contrived and unconvincing way. For example, in the dream she asked the strange man "Do you know me?" and, on realising five years had passed, "Am I still a lawyer?" In the real-life future she asks this man she's known as a close friend for a few years "Do you know me?", supposedly meaning "Do you really, truly know me?" and "Am I still a lawyer?" supposedly meaning "I've been so busy with everything that's happened over the last couple of weeks that I barely feel like I'm a lawyer any more." And they never mention Bella all evening. It just doesn't ring true. I think it would be possible to come up with a sequence of dialogue that could realistically be spoken by a woman confused about why she's finding herself five years in the future with a strange man, and also by two friends grieving together after a funeral, and that would be very satisfying to read, but this wasn't it.

Also, minor quibble, but the "present" bit is set in 2020 and the "future" bit in 2025. Why not just have them in 2014 and 2019, to avoid having to set most of the book in an unknown future? That always bugs me a bit - unless you're writing sci-fi that has to be set in the future, writing ordinary fiction set in the future just seems unnecessarily set up to fail. A book covering the current period but not mentioning the coronavirus pandemic breaks suspension of disbelief, and who knows what other world events will happen in the next 5 years that will have the same problem.

The Other You - J S Monroe

This was extremely good - very sinister. The author is really good at ratcheting up the tension.
It's about a "superrecogniser" (the other end of the face recognition spectrum from prosopagnosia/face-blindness, which I have to some extent) who used to work for the police, identifying criminals, and is now worried her boyfriend has been replaced by a double. I had heard of the Capgras delusion (where you think a loved one has been replaced by an impostor) and I was worried the book would be a mediocre one-dimensional dance between "she has Capgras" and "he really is an impostor", but actually there was a lot more to it than that: it was twisty and intelligently written, and "is he an impostor?" was only one of several plot arcs, which were all resolved in a satifyingly interconnected way.
I guessed the two main twists before the end, but I don't feel this detracted from my enjoyment, because it was as much a "how will the good guys get out of this scary situation" thriller as a "what's really going on here" one. If anything, the way the clues were stacking up without the protagonist realising it added to the sense of foreboding.
It's closer to being sci-fi than a lot of the thrillers I read these days. Face recognition technology is a major theme, and so is the Internet of Things. The latter makes it feel a bit like a poltergeist story, without the supernatural but with the sinister sense of malevolence from the everyday objects around you: houses where the lights go out and the hob burners come on by themselves, and cars where the doors lock and the heaters come on full-blast.

I have a slight quibble in that a character uses the principle "First do no harm" to persuade a doctor to risk his life by giving up information to help save another character from danger. The principle means that it's better to err on the side of inaction rather than take actions that may harm people, but both characters seem to assume it means intervening to prevent a harm that someone else would commit if you didn't act. That's a perfectly valid principle, but it's not what "First do no harm" means.

I was glad this was so good after the previous two books I read were a bit meh. I want to read more by this author. My LJ helpfully tells me I've already read one of his (Find Me). That was definitely good, but not as outstanding as this one.
Tags: books, reviews

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