S.J. Watson’s Before I go to Sleep

Just a short entry, to get back in the swing of things, and sadly it’s for a book that I can only recommend with reservations. Although I love ‘unreliable narrator’ stories—Don’t Breathe a Word and An Example of the Fingerpost are among the 1% of the books I’ve read in the past three years that I bothered to buy—I couldn’t bring myself to like this one.

What would it be like to wake up, each morning, next to a complete stranger who claims to be your husband of twenty-two years? Horrifying? To be sure. Christine has a combination of forms of amnesia, which, together, means that she can neither form new memories–she can’t transfer information from her short- to her long-term memory–nor can she recall anything of her past life. The story begins in media res, and preceding events are revealed to the readers, as they are to Christine, through a diary that her psychiatrist has asked her to keep.

Re-reading the diary, and consulting with the psychiatrist, Christine begins to recall memories of her past, fragmented, confusing, frightening. Her husband’s told her she was hit by a car, which, among other things gave her a concussion which caused the amnesia. In the end, there’s a twist…but I’ll stop there.

On the plus side, I finished Before I Go to Sleep; that may sound like damning with faint praise, but I have no qualms about setting a book aside if it doesn’t pass the ‘fifty page test’.

There are more than a few minuses. Starting a book like this in media res is always difficult, since it gives astute readers clues about the underlying truth from the get-go. I started figuring out the plot twist about halfway through the book, and I’m terrible about figuring out plot twists, or why I love whodunits so much. I’ll try not to explicitly give the ending away, just say: We have only the husband’s word that he is her husband. No neighbors come to call, no friends visit. The psychiatrist has never met him, only spoken to him on the phone. Perhaps most perturbingly, there are no photographs of their early life together, before the accident that stole Christine’s ability to form memories.

Oh, and especially don’t read this if you’re fussy about medical accuracy in fiction. In fairness, Watson did work for the NHS in their health services branch, so he’s not entirely uncognizant of such things, and he does admit he combined different forms of amnesia deliberately herein; he didn’t err from ignorance.

The Quarry Line Mystery by A.C. Stewart

As the book begins, eleven-year-old Bill Parks has saved up his pocket money to take a train ride into ‘the city’1 (playing hooky from school) to catch a film. Life has been unpleasant at home since he failed his “exams”2, not to mention finding life in a small town as the son of a truck driver somewhat stultifying. Upon his attempted return, he just misses the local train by moments, as he hadn’t bothered to check the current schedule, and impulsively catches the next train going in the right direction…which is the express. Which doesn’t stop at his station. In the course of attempting to correct his mistake, he only gets further lost–he sneaks onto a freight train, not thinking how he’ll get off same when it passes his station, and gets carried out in the countryside on a rail spur that ought not to be in use on a freight carrying things it ought not to be carrying.

He dives off at what looks to be a convenient point, tumbles down the bank and finds his way to the nearest road, where fortuitously, one of the other lorry drivers with whom his dad works just happens to be driving by, spots him and backtracks to pick him up and take him home. Rhys takes Bill home to Bill’s parents, their fuming about the exams set aside as they worry where their boy’s gone.

Amid all the other turmoils in Bill’s life–his education in the short term, his economic potentials in the long term, his mum getting a job then moving out after she has a row with Bill and her husband about finances, and the annoying girl upstairs who did pass her eleven-plus despite being from a poorer background than Bill–he becomes fascinated by the mysterious freight train. Bill’s familiar with all the trains that pass through his town, both passengers and freights, and this one is perplexing. He determines to find out not only where the train was going, but whether it has anything to do with the fertilizer and horse feed that’s been going missing recently. He does discover that, after a bad few moments both prior and subsequent to unraveling the mystery. I’m going to leave the plot description there, except to say that we shouldn’t judge people merely by appearance: the engineer who appears to be hot-tempered and swift to use his fists on humans proves to be a soft touch for animals, and has adopted several mistreated animals, without the knowledge of or permission from their owners.

This is another of the books I found at a local book-oriented yard sale this summer, and found interesting to read. I think it’s intended to be a thriller for middle grade students, though the separation of decades and an ocean might make this slightly perplexing for American kids today. (Can’t really speak to what British kids in the appropriate age/reading range at the time of the book’s publication thought of it.) As with Second-Hand Family, I suspect this might be as much a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane for adults who’d been in the intended age range when the book first came out as it would be for kids today in that age.

Just as an example of the sort of problems American kids today might have: if I’ve interpreted the book correctly, these are the Eleven Plus exams, as Bill reflects that he’s somewhat relieved that he won’t have to go to the grammar school with all the academically clever children, but rather can go to the secondary modern school, where he’ll be able to work with his hands rather than his head (i.e. get something closer to vocational training rather than college prep courses)
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It’s an interesting glimpse into a time not too terribly long ago about a working class boy in England. It’s not much of a mystery and the plot’s a bit perplexing–I had to read it three times before managing to summarize the book–but might be interesting for kids who’re interested in trains. While the animal mistreatment is a significant sub-plot, it’s almost a MacGuffin: the trains play a much larger part in the book as a whole. Overall, I’d call it a combination of period piece and mainstream description of working-class life in the late ’60s and early ’70s in England3.

Kirkus Review

1Stewart doesn’t specify which one
2I’m guessing the Eleven Plus. More on this later in the post…
3don’t get pissy now, if you’re from the U.K. So far as I can tell, it’s in England, close to Wales

The Poison Tree by Erin Kelley

Through the framing story, the readers know from the beginning of The Poison Tree that Something Horrid has Happened to the narrator–she’s picking her husband up from his release from prison; he’s spent ten years in jail for something he didn’t do, or anyway isn’t wholly responsible for. For the weeks leading up to Rex’s release, Karen’s had hangup phantom harassment calls…not to mention the stranger in sunglasses parked outside her cottage at all hours of the night or day. To cap things off, there’s an obscure secret about Alice’s birth; Karen is worried that her daughter may be taken from her custody. None of this is mentioned to Rex, however. Karen and Alice struggle to fit Rex back into a life and a cottage that hasn’t included him physically since before Alice’s birth, nor his life their presence.

The phone calls and the anonymous observer circle closer, and through flashbacks, we the readers begin discovering what Karen’s past history is. In her senior year of college in London, Karen is considering her options. Academically bright, she’s got the opportunity to move farther up and away from her family’s middle-class with pretensions background; her linguistics ability has gotten her a spot in a graduate program in Switzerland. In the summer between her graduation and her continuation on to graduate school, her housemates decide, as a group, to go work on the estate of one of their relatives, leaving Karen as de facto house sitter while they’re gone. Karen, at a loose end, is in search of something to both keep her occupied and to earn some money towards her graduate school expenses, falls in with another student, Biba Capel, who is working towards becoming an actress and needs to learn German pronunciation for a role intended for her student portfolio.

Biba, and her brother Rex, suck the innocent and naive Karen into the maelstrom of their emotionally, familial and financially complex life with an almost frighteningly rapid pace. They’re living in a house the size of which Karen cannot imagine–a multi-story, single family dwelling, complete with servants’ quarters in the basement, of a size which would be divided up into multiple apartments for the people that Karen has associated with thus far. Drugs abound. Liquor flows freely. Relationships shift like quicksand and are rarely formalized with so much as an engagement. All this is intoxicating (aside from the chemical effects of what they may be ingesting) to the ignorant Karen, who has until now lived a staid and more than slightly repressed life in the suburbs with her lower-middle-class parents. She is enthralled by and fascinated with her new BFF, Biba, and with Rex, and with all their friends…until the father and stepmother return to Rex and Biba’s lives. Things spiral downward from there until Rex, Karen and Biba are involved in not one but two deaths relating to their activities and the house in which they’ve been living.

While it’s a reasonably well-written book, there are a few plot holes that bothered me. While it’s true that the police and courts give a considerable amount of credence to a heartfelt confession from someone who’s backed up by corroborating witnesses AND whose fingerprints are on the gun used in the murder, I don’t recall much investigation into the crime on the part of the law. While I acknowledge that’s not the point of the book–it’s a relationship book rather than a police procedural–I’m left with a few questions. Why did the father not do anything with the house he owned in London? I can see leaving it vacant for a short time, but to be so oblivious to the condition of a valuable property, simply by virtue of its location a urban area with sky high property values, that you do not know there are squatters on the property for months and even years? Nope, don’t believe it. Would someone overlook a brownstone in the Upper East Side? A house in Edgeware? Didn’t think you’d believe it either!

I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the ending, but am reluctant to go into why for fear of giving away spoilers; all I’ll say is that this is either bad plotting or one heck of a twist: who’s the naif and who the manipulative ****? Self-absorbed to the point of blowing off one’s friends and relatives? Consciously pushing others’ buttons to get what one wants? Given it’s told from Karen’s perspective, she’s going to come off sympathetic, but having slept on it, I’m not so sure. Biba and Karen could fit either role. Not bad for a debut novel, but I’ll wait for the author’s subsequent novels before declaring this an author worth watching. I’ve read rather a lot of “brilliant first novels” in the past eighteen months and before to think otherwise.

Deadly Sweet by Watson Sterling

Eddie Priest was a lawyer. Now he’s a hard drinking boat salesman and restorer, the latter chiefly of his own boat purchased sight unseen, with all the structural issues that suggests–hence its name.

Corey Darrow, auburn tressed green-eyed beauty, lightly leaps onto the Sight Unseen one day; she has been referred to him for help by Raymer Harmey, an acquaintance of Eddie’s who stuck with law enforcement. Corey’s worried about a botanist who went missing after he inquired at her office with the Water Management Department, a file that went missing from her computer shortly afterwards, sexual harassment following close on the heels of her expressing her concerns…not to mention the fact that she herself is being followed/stalked by a “darkly tanned” man in sunglasses who drives an outdated Caddy. Eddie demurs, insofar as a gun-toting tough guy of his type can do such a delicate gesture, despite the afternoon he spent skinnydipping (and other adult activities) on a picnic with Corey.

He’s sucked into the investigation willy-nilly when Corey Darrow is found drowned with a .357 Magnum locked in her fist, after her baby-blue Ford truck ran off the road into a swampy ditch. Or rather, when Corey’s twin sister, Sawney, comes sauntering into Eddie’s favorite gin mill dive to beg him to avenge her sister’s death.

Harry W. Feather, part-Indian, is working for Lofton Coltis, proudly pure Anglo and the local land baron–it is on Coltis’s land that a medical botanist (later found dead) discovered a plant (presumably still alive at the end of the book) thought only to grow in the Amazonian rain forest along with all the other phenomenally useful botanic specimens found there. Harry starts getting nervous when the police come sniffing around after he messes with Corey just a little too hard the night she died, and rushes off to the one lone body shop in town capable of repainting his Caddy where he bumped into Corey’s truck. The body shop owner, who is also the town’s only tow truck driver, puts two and two together when he realizes that the paint smudge on Harry’s car matches the paint on Corey’s car, and vice versa.

…and yes, if you’ve started guessing about the connection between Darrow and Feather and Coltis, with a few side bets on who lives and who dies at whose hand, you’re pretty much right.

Gators and swamps and long-legged beauties; big cars, handguns and gas guzzlers. Thugs and politicians1. Native Americans. Florida panthers. Steamy velvety dark nights, manly swaggering and fast car chases. This is dudelit if I ever saw it2; it’s an action-packed thriller with all the atmospheric swampiness one might expect from a book set in Fla’da. Reading it, I felt that I should have been sitting in a tent of mosquito netting imbued with full-strength DEET.

What to read next? Oddly, I first thought of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, though that’s largely due to the Florida backdrop, the protagonist’s ownership of a boat, and…well, the general dudelit air of the series, not to mention the protagonist who lives on a boat and who has an eye for the ladies.

1stop laughing. There is a difference. No, really.
2to the best of my knowledge, that’s not a real literary term, but I think it should be. Surely there’s a category of Manly Testosterone-Laden books to serve as a counterpoint to all the chicklit in which everyone has feelings but never does anything

A Conflict of Interest by Adam Mitzner

Alex Miller is the youngest partner at a prestigious New York law firm, and determined to be the firm’s rising star; needless to say, this involves a work week that, while light compared to associate partners’, is heavy by non-legal professionals. Sixty to seventy hours at work is not unusual for him.

The book’s action begins with the death of Alex’s father, from a presumed heart attack; at the funeral, a long-time family friend, Michael Ohlig, approaches Alex to discuss a legal matter, but refuses to divulge the exact nature of this request, as he believes it inappropriate to discuss professional matters at what is, after all, often considered an intensely personal event. Instead, Ohlig arrives at Alex’s office with a proposal that Alex represent him in an impending criminal case against Ohlig’s securities trading company.

Alex takes the case, but as he and Abby Sloane, the one assistant the firm spares him, work through gathering evidence and preparing for the case, Alex’s personal life becomes more closely entwined with his professional as a result of their work. Not only does Alex begin falling in love with his gorgeous clever talented assistant…but he discovers that Ohlig had been having an affair with Alex’s mother, which began prior to the death of Alex’s father. The personal entanglement between Alex and Ohlig tightens when Alex’s mother is found dead on a beach near her home in Florida; the police are inclined to think it was suicide, but there is enough evidence to suggest murder, and Ohlig is the chief suspect. Alex continues defending Ohlig to the best of his abilities, but is more than slightly relieved when that trial ends and Ohlig is arrested in the New York court and extradited to Florida to be put on trial for the murder of Alex’s mother.

Alex testifies in Ohlig’s personal trial, but does not play any further legal part in the proceedings. He believes that the close of that trial ends his involvement with Ohlig, allowing him to return to his work in New York. In the end, there’s something of a twist ending; is it a happy ending? I suppose that depends on which of the characters you sympathize with most.

Overall, this strikes me as dudelit in two parts. The first portion of the book might serve as an introduction to the life of a lawyer in New York and the stresses it places on partners’ and associates’ lives, and a description of the process leading up to a trial and the trial itself. While there are a great deal of subplots involving Alex’s personal life, each of which might serve as the basis for a chicklit novel’s worth of character development and relationship building, the majority of A Conflict of Interest revolves around legal proceedings–Ohlig’s trials and the amount of work Alex puts into his work to the detriment of his home life.

What to read next? Unfortunately, I haven’t read much in the way of legal books, so can’t make a personal recommendation, though John Grisham might be an option for readers who found this a bit slow moving. Scott Turow, particularly his Presumed Innocent, might work as well.

Kirkus Review
Seattle PI review

Room by Emma Donoghue

Jack’s a five year old boy, living in Room with Ma. While it is clear to the readers that the two of them are being held captive by a psychopath under decidedly unpleasant conditions, Jack, knowing nothing else but this sharply delineated environment, thinks little of its limitations. He plays, reads, complains about having to eat his green beans, wants to watch more television than his mother permits and generally enjoys himself as best he can within the 11’x11′ sized shed in which he lives.

There are dark spots, though perhaps more obviously horrifying to adult readers of this book. There are the visits from “Old Nick” (his mother’s captor); he hides in Wardrobe and counts while he waits for his Ma to give the all clear; he counts his teeth, the bed creaks, his teeth again, the number of days until his next birthday, whatever it takes to occupy the time until it’s all right to emerge from hiding. On several occasions, his Ma is “gone”, withdrawn into a depressive fugue state by her circumstances, and Jack must care for and entertain himself until his Ma returns. Even these are so integral a part of his life that they do not seem strange to Jack; he accepts them and does not analyze them as an adult would.

As the book begins, Ma has begun to reveal to Jack that there is a world outside their Room, that she has a family other than himself and a life before this room and this boy, that the television programs he watches are not other planets but real documentaries about that world outside this room. Not surprisingly, however, Jack’s not buying it.

About halfway through the book, shortly after Jack’s fifth birthday, matters come to a head. Ma, never named, plots an escape by convincing “Old Nick” that Jack is ill enough to require a visit to the ER; Old Nick, perhaps mindful of the Fritzl case, refuses to take the boy, at which point Ma moves on to plan B: Jack’s death. She rolls him up in Rug, and persuades Old Nick to take the body away with him when he leaves that night. Brave as the hero of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, Jack squirms out of the rug and half-falls, half-jumps out of the truck bed, landing at the feet of a man out walking his dog and child in the evening air. “Old Nick” speeds away when he realizes what has happened, leaving Jack to the mercies of the bystander, and later the police.

Through GPS and plat maps, the police quickly narrow down which property Jack must have come from, and release Ma. The local government agencies quickly whisk the two into protective custody in a psychiatric treatment center. All this is strange to Jack, and not entirely pleasant: simply the noise of a world that includes more than himself and his mother is overwhelming, not to mention the possibility of choosing his own lollipop from a basket of rainbow flavors after his immunizations and dental treatment. Syrup on french toast is an alien concept, as is choosing between two different vegetables. Other children are mystifying. Paying for things you select in a shop is confounding. Sunburns and bee stings are startling. And so on.

On the plus side, Donoghue rarely wavers from the perspective of the narrator. While Jack is a very precocious five year old, having had only the companionship of one singular adult, there is little he comprehends about this strange new outside world, which is described for the most part in terms he might use. On the minus, that concentration on one narrator, and a young one at that, might grate on readers’ sensibilities. Jack’s own detachment and egocentric nature (not unusual for a five year old!) remove much of the potential horror from the scenario. His inability to truly understand what is going on, and his mother’s efforts to separate him further from what Old Nick is doing to her may render the trauma of the events no more than a wad of cotton wool emotionally.

On the plus side, using a five-year-old child with constrained experience as the narrator in a first person limited-perspective novel may temper the story for readers not prepared to deal with a situation of this sort. On the minus, that choice of narrator does rather severely limit the perspective an author may use. The fact that this is all Jack has ever known could either mute the horror of the situation to the point of innocuous blandness or heighten the nightmare through what the author does choose to include through the filter of a little boy’s lack of understanding of what’s actually happening. Donoghue skirts mawkishness and horror without descending into exploitation or grotesquerie.

Ripped straight from the headlines, this is a story about abuse and mental illness of the kind that most people can only imagine. The nature of the plot is such that it may be triggering for people who are connected in some way to such cases, but on the whole this is a fairly simple non-threatening way of reading more about them. I, like (I think) most readers, am glad that this is the closest I’m likely to ever come to such things.

New York Times review
The Guardian

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

It’s a hot dry summer in Atlanta, and there’s a serial killer haunting the city. Chinese-American (and recovering alcoholic) private investigator Key Street is struggling to make ends meet with a range of cases1 sent her way by various local agencies, while struggling with the eternal desire to return to drink. Aaron Rauser, her close friend on the police force, pulls Street into the case on the theory that her background in the FBI2 will give her an investigative edge.

As the case drags on, with more murders claimed by “The Wishbone”3 and no plausible leads, the Atlanta police department calls in the FBI, and the head of the department insists that Street be removed from the case officially. Unofficially, from the police perspective, she remains involved in the case for a very frightening reason: the killer is targeting her. A loosened automobile wheel, two dozen roses delivered to her home4, and a predatory series of emails later, Street is frightened for her life. as it becomes increasingly obvious that not only is she being stalked, “Wishbone” is familiar with her every move in the way that only someone acquainted with her personally could be.

The fact that it took me a while to get into the book shouldn’t be construed as a criticism; tastes vary and I tend not to like dudelit or thrillers. Once I did get engaged, I finished it willingly. Racial and gender issues struck me as being handled awkwardly in the novel, however. At every other turn, the protagonist perceives women as lesbians interested in her while at the alternate turns, she oogles men. I can understand that the protagonist might not feel terribly Chinese, as she’d been adopted by a Caucasian family at age five; having never been through a similarly traumatic experience as she, I’m not sure how realistic it is to remember how her grandparents died while forgetting all her Chinese language, though I’ll take Williams’ word for it. The book felt like it was edging into hypertokenism with the second-adopted child, a gay African-American boy.

What to read next? If you like the (tough) female protagonist, try Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series or Wallace Stroby’s Cold Shot to the Heart; Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is somewhat similar but is more lighthearted than either of the aforementioned books/series. This book’s ending is constructed in such a way as to leave an opening for sequels, and indeed one is slated for publication this year.

And at the risk of spoilers: this is an interesting book for the underlying precept of “Never assume serial killers are men, even when they’re clearly preying on women and the crimes seem sexual in nature.”

1for which read largely serving subpoenas or collecting people who’ve jumped bail with the occasional leavening of odd cases, such as tracking down a cow
2awkwardly, she was asked to resign from the FBI because of her alcoholism, and hasn’t spoken to them since the separation
3so named for a comment the killer made describing the sound a victim’s neck made as it snapped
4one thing if its from a good friend…would you want roses from a serial killer stalking you? Me neither.