John Barlow's blog

John Barlow's blog

Like Chocolate for Chocolate

ReviewsPosted by John Barlow Sat, February 25, 2012 20:37:14
This is the first `chick-lit' book I've ever read. Perhaps it's not chick-lit at all, but whatever it was I enjoyed it. The narrator is a feature writer on a British newspaper. She is also a chocoholic (although she would deny this). The novel is an exploration of how career women juggle the pressures of work, young kids, and husbands who are at best passive partners in the domestic sphere. It is also a slow-burn `marriage-mystery' which develops in a very satisfying way, with several unexpected twists and turns, and a plot involving journalistic scoops, professional intrigue, and, ehm, chocolate (but in a good way, not just eating it...). The author, Alice Castle, was herself a feature writer on the Daily Express, and her description of the working environment of a national newspaper is fascinating. Castle is also clearly a fine cook, and besides a large helping of chocolate, there are a number of other sumptuously drawn foodie moments to get your teeth into. It felt, above all, as if you were wholly immersed in the life of the main character, and that you desperately wanted her to prevail. Does that make it `chick-lit'? I don't think so, because this is also the kind of book that driven, professional (married) men should read.

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JAR CITY, by Arnaldur Indridason

ReviewsPosted by John Barlow Tue, February 14, 2012 16:56:47

JAR CITY by Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason is sombre, clever, and extremely absorbing.

It’s a straight police procedural, involving a lead detective (Erlendur) who works on his instincts rather than simply following the obvious clues, and this sometimes frustrates of his colleagues. Like Wallander, he’s not an exciting or glamorous detective, and the whole setting (it rains throughout almost the entire book) is dour and underplayed, which, of course, is pretty much how many murder investigations would be if you described them flat, without verbal tricks or fancy scene-setting.

Indridason brings a very moving kind of humanity to the main character of Erlendur, and although you don’t fall in love with either him or his life (which seems dull and disappointing) you do admire him. The plot itself twists on a number of possible solutions, and there are several of those moments when you *know* the solution, and you’re inevitably wrong.

Despite the sombre mood, and the increasingly unsettling themes, the plot moves fast enough to give the reading experience excitement and urgency.

Kindle edition

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/277490839

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Review: FRAGILE by Lisa Unger

ReviewsPosted by John Barlow Sat, December 17, 2011 11:00:09

Lisa Unger’s FRAGILE is a kind of slow-burn crime novel. Set in a small town 100 miles from New York, the story is about the disappearance of a teenaged girl from the community. There’s a lot of character-based development, especially at the beginning, and for a good hundred pages you’re not entirely sure if the novel really is about a crime, or whether it’s a study of the personalities, relationships and backstories of the main characters. Indeed, for the first third of the book it seems as if the hunt for a missing girl is simply a loose structure to hang the novel on. This initial perception isn’t helped by the fact that the main character is a practising psychologist who spends a lot of time analysing those around her and herself.

But it is a crime novel, one with a very elegant and complex structure. The main players in the unfolding drama of the missing girl are all connected, either directly or indirectly, to the disappearance of another girl from the same community a generation earlier. In that case, she ended up dead, a fact which adds an extra layer of implied jeopardy to the new situation. The disappearance of the new girl (after an argument with her mother) is a typical case of a seventeen-year-old girl going AWOL, but as the town slowly wakes up to the possibility that she has been abducted or killed, the truth about the murder thirty years ago slowly surfaces.

The novel deals with issues of guilt, and how we are able to conceal it so well that it lies unnoticed, not forgotten, but on the outside of our lives, like something hidden at the back of a large, junk-filled attic where no one ever goes (an image used in the novel); the facts are all there, still nominally amongst us, close to our lives, but we allow them to fade almost entirely from memory. In FRAGILE it takes another potential murder to draw out the truth, and Lisa Unger does this incredibly well. We learn only gradually what happened thirty years ago, yet it doesn’t feel like a trail of cues any more than the hunt for the missing girl feels like a straightforward mystery, because by the time the plot is moving to its double resolution we’re heavily invested in the characters themselves (warning: you’re going to read the final chapters fast). The effect is strangely compelling: two mysteries to resolve, and a complex web of personal relationships that are about to be torn apart by the truth.

Didn’t like? Important dialogue was often interspersed with the internal thoughts/analysis of Maggie (the psychologist). In fact, I didn’t like Maggie much at all. I did understand her character, and empathised with her on many levels. But at the same time I wanted her to be a little more assertive. I think the novel could have done with a stronger person at its heart, rather than a massively tolerant one.

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