The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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The Marriage Plot sounds all twee and rom-commy, like a modern Jane Austen. Beautiful and privileged Madeleine studies Victorian writers at Brown in the 80s. She falls in love with cool scientist, Leonard, whilst her friend, geeky theological student Mitchell, is secretly in love with her. 

A bit more sentimental than I’d expect from the author of the Virgin Suicides, it nevertheless delivers emotional truths about growing up. This is about coming of age, as the three try to find purpose in different ways and navigate adult relationships. Mitchell goes to India on a proto-gap year. Madeleine effortlessly cycles through literary theory trends. Eugenides is good at bottling youthful nostalgia. 

He’s actually at his best when writing on darker, more complex subject matter such as the book’s compelling exploration of mental illness. Leonard’s manic depression is a nuanced look at the highs and lows, the self-medication, the internal struggle, and the impact on others. 

It’s ironically the romantic love triangle that falls down a bit. Structuring the novel against the marriage plots of old makes me shrug my shoulders. So what? It’s a literary construction that bears no relevance to the ache of young love and introspective angst captured. 

Read: When flicking through old essays and photo albums from university

A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee

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Ruth Ellis was the last woman to have been hanged in the UK, at Holloway Prison in 1955. She was convicted of shooting and murdering her lover, racing driver David Blakely.

This book is a good piece of social history. Ellis’s short life spans some major 20th Century trends: the ebb of traditional industry in the UK caused her family to constantly move in search of work, she had a child with a Canadian pilot with all the devil-may-care attitude of the Blitz, and then in her role as a nightclub hostess in fast London society. 

The combination of seedy nightclubs and glamorous race tracks are potent. Christine Keeler, Stephen Ward and a Maharajah make cameo appearances. Showbiz, sex and class intermingle. You can see how amidst this a peroxide blonde bombshell, soaked in booze and with multiple lovers, scandalised Britain at the time.

Where Carol Ann Lee gets into trickier territory is where she theorises on Ellis being wrongly convicted by malpractice or misunderstanding. It’s true there are  unanswered questions, and no doubt the double sin of being working class and a woman played into her unsympathetic treatment. Ultimately though, there’s no getting round the fact that Ellis definitely committed murder.

This moral relativism is unhelpful in an already a fascinating, sympathetic portrait of a young woman trying to hustle her way to a better life. 

Read: To see if the crime fits the punishment 

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

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I had a complicated relationship with The Black Dahlia. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I equally couldn’t stop reading it. Filled with obsession and self-loathing, I devoured Ellroy’s classic in a sitting.  

In real-life 1947, a young woman named Elizabeth Short is found mutilated and murdered in LA. An aspiring actress dressed in black, she’s nicknamed by the press ‘The Black Dahlia’. In fictional 1947, Bucky Bleichert, LAPD officer and amateur boxer, investigates. He gets sucked into the murky underworld of Hollywood, riddled with exploitation, crime and corruption. Even the good guys are either morally bankrupt and emotionally damaged (or both).

The book itself is deliberately exploitative as a literary device, mimicking news coverage of the time. Actually, the novel isn’t really about Elizabeth but about the impact her death has on others. Bucky’s first-person narrative perspective fills the book with unhealthy obsession and a hint of existentialism.

Is it the pinnacle of LA Noir? Did it spawn it? The tropes and cliches are now so familiar that it’s hard to tell what came first. Irrespective, it’s so nihilistic and seedy that it has my usually-optimistic self wanting a warm bath and my dressing gown to recover.

Read: If you like your eggs (and fiction) hard boiled 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

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You’ve woken up, but have no idea where you are or even who you are. You have to solve a murder that happens at midnight. You relive this same day in the body of eight different people, and have those eight days to solve this murder. 

Confused? Yes, me too. 

These are the parameters of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. It’s a recognisable English country house whodunnit, but it has a strange video game vibe too. The layers within layers and multiple parallel narratives feel very modern. Pleasingly, it’s marketed as ‘Gosford Park meets Inception’- There’s definitely a Christopher Nolan influence but it’s actually more like Memento. It’s very stylish, whatever it is.

A common criticism is that it’s too clever- it takes a lot of mental energy to keep up with the twists and turns that accompany each ‘host’ or revelation of another clue. Examining the parameters of the universe disturbs the complex conceit a bit. Thankfully there isn’t too much of that- enough to explain why things are happening, but not enough to spoil the 1920s period feel.

I enjoyed it. I think. I also felt quite stressed throughout. The pace is frenetic and adrenaline pumping. But it’s like they say, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the terrifying stately home time-warp.

Read: For a fresh new take on the murder mystery genre

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

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The premise of The Heat of the Day would make anyone’s pulse race: a love triangle and thrilling espionage in London during WWII, at the height of the Blitz.

Stella Rodney is an attractive middle-aged woman with a lover, Robert, an heroic injured soldier. Harrison, a strange intelligence officer who sporadically appears in Stella’s life, warns her that Robert is a spy for the Germans and suggests he’ll withhold this information if Stella leaves Robert for him. Also in the mix are Stella’s enlisted son Rodney, an inheritance from their rich cousin Charles, and Louie, a flighty young woman on the town whilst her husband is at the front.

Despite such exciting subject matter, I found it absolutely unreadable. The characters all speak in subjunctive convoluted sentences, laden down with multiple sub clauses (who knows? Maybe this is how they spoke back then). It’s all the back-and-forth of Noir and none of the directness, laced with some extra Edwardian politeness and stuffiness in case you weren’t bored and confused enough.

I wanted sexual tension, double crossing, and impulsive blackout trysts. Instead I got long conversations about inheritance, social propriety, and eating arrangements. Each conversation hints at exciting subtext, but it’s so deeply buried beneath that I can’t be bothered to find it.

It’s such a shame. I was so predisposed to love this but it barely raises an eyebrow, never mind a pulse.

Read: Not in the heat of the day. You’d definitely fall asleep.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

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A topical read in light of the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook revelations, The Circle looks at data, privacy and the way we interact online.

Mae goes to work at The Circle; a futuristic tech company focussed on linking you to your online identity to create a ‘TruYou’. Through her induction and work, she witnesses innovative concepts as to how the analogue world can be digitised: camera feeds to digitise and make accessible visuals around the globe, chips implanted in children to stop abduction, voting systems moved online.

It is simultaneously paranoia-inducing and fascinating, effectively summing up my attitude to technology generally. It is very convincing, exploring hard-to-articulate contemporary topics and their moral implications.

Sometimes it verges on silly- any theory extended to its furthest logical conclusion is. It’s more a thought exercise than other science fiction like Fahrenheit 451 or Brave New World. Characterisation mostly falls flat at the expense of the technological concepts being explored.

Aside from a couple of moments between Mae and best friend Annie, there’s not a lot of soul to this book. Like it’s subject matter, it is a data-driven, emotionless algorithm- incredibly effective at what it does but without humanity.

Read: If you’ve been thinking about deleting your Facebook profile

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara is about a prolific American serial killer you’ve never heard of. The Golden State Killer raped and murdered a huge number of victims, prowling around suburban California in the late seventies.

This book, and generally the True Crime genre, is as much about the investigators as the ghoulish subjects themselves. There is an amazing amount of detailed research here, from geo-profiling (mind- blowing) to forensic DNA. The parallel obsessive, stalkerish behaviour is fully acknowledged. No getting away from the fact that by reading we’re also voyeurs.

Aside from keeping me awake at night, it’s a superb social history of 1970s and 80s suburban America affected by a Post Vietnam war malaise and social restlessness. There are skater boys, ageing hippies, teenage runaways, aspirational couples.

Because of the author’s untimely death, McNamara’s book isn’t a cogent whole. There are chapters missing and it has an odd structure so it reads as if it were a box of evidence- some narrative, letters, transcripts, photos. It’s quite fitting but makes for disjointed reading.

To say I enjoyed isn’t quite right (should one ever ‘enjoy’ reading about serial killers and their victims?) Rather it was fascinating and horrifying, redeemed by the glimpses into Southern California lives.

Read: If you listened to Serial

Dear Life by Alice Munro

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Dear Life is just so…Canadian. I mean that as a genuine compliment, by the way. It’s just so considered, moderate and lovely.

Nothing that extraordinary happens in this collection of tales. Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro writes of characters who are farmers, teachers, clerks, and housewives. Played across these snippets is the spectrum of hope, happiness, melancholy, disappointment, anger, and confusion arising from everyday situations. As a collection, they form something lovely from very basic ingredients.

Individually, they are beautifully written in meandering, gentle prose and are elegantly constructed- concise but with exactly the amount of colour to capture character and feeling. Each is just enough to satiate but not too much that you don’t want more.  Munro’s best writing is as a child or adolescent- her narrators have a touching naivety about them.

The best are the last four; she calls them autobiographical in feeling if not in content. The one called Night is particularly special- a sleepless young girl finding peace in the still of the night. It is the pinnacle of Munro’s skill in elevating the ordinary, in a most un-showy Canadian manner.

Read: To gently soothe you to sleep at night

Christodora by Tim Murphy

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Welcome to the Christodora- a charming historic building in East Village, New York, witness to decades of life. Residents include a young artist couple with their adopted son and an old down-and-out man, using young lovers as an antidote to deep depression.

Tracing their antecedents and stories back and forth over four decades, the book becomes less about the building itself and more about a setting where societal issues like activism or gentrification are played out, where art is created, where addiction creeps into lives.

I think the best parts are those about the AIDS activists, a subject I don’t know much about but whose pioneers fill me with deep awe. This is a part of history that is gradually being forgotten or disregarded as the struggle is considered ‘over’. It’s also a good, easy-to-understand fictional depiction of how class, sexuality, and race intersect in minority or political movements.

It’s a lot to take in. The book is lengthy from a richness and attention to period detail. Sometimes thematically it doesn’t tie neatly together. Which is fitting because like its historic namesake, Murphy’s novel is complex, charismatic and bursting with anarchic free spirits.

Read: For a slice of New York history

A Column of Fire by Ken Follet

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Reading A Column of Fire is to swashbuckle your way through the important historical moments of Reformation Europe. We witness the French Wars of Religion, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, the attack of the Spanish Armada, and even Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. Follet squeezes a lot in.

I loved the first two books of the series. The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were original in that they accessibly showed the intersection of religion and everyday life within small Medieval communities. They really demonstrate the power of good historical fiction to both illuminate and entertain.

This riffs off similar themes: Protestant merchant’s son Ned Willard falls in love with Catholic local entry Margery Fitzgerald. Religion and social mores divide them and so we follow the course of their (inevitably exciting) lives, amongst those of a whole cast of other characters.

Fans of the first two books might feel disappointed as this feels quite a different style. Because of the huge scope, some of the narrative suffers as reader attention is spread too thinly and not much action happens in Kingsbridge, diluting the bubbling community feel that made the first two immensely readable.

As a stand-alone, it’s as entertaining as watching pirates plunder a ship with all guns blazing (perhaps because that’s an actual scene for the book). Which is to say, very.

Read: For an armchair Tudor adventure