Is it the end of August already? Sweet Christmas (which it almost is), time flies around here. Goodreads tells me I’m a little behind my nominal ambition to read on average a book a week in 2017, which probably means I’m due a visit from the reading mafia, with their pointy punishment sticks and scowly faces (those faces haunt my dreams), but I’ve read so many good books this year that I can’t complain.
Here’s what August offered me.
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes – There are different ways to think about The Shining Girls. There’s a killer called Harper in the 1920s, and he stumbles on a house that manipulates him and sends him forward through time to murder girls throughout the twentieth century who seem to shine, because he always has and always will, and his connection to that house is more intimate than he could guess but also incredibly perplexing, and somewhere in the eighties there’s the girl who survives and starts to hunt him while fulfilling an internship at a newspaper, and…and…
So yeah, you can think too hard about it, and miss the point. Or you can pay little attention and wind up incredibly confused. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. The time travel works if you pay attention, but it’s ultimately just a garnish, seasoning a spectacular blend of murder and obsession that pays off in all sorts of ways. The period detail is engrossing, the characters – particularly Harper’s victims – are as rich as any supporting characters I’ve read, and the staggered chronology of the book is a clever, clever way to play with the pace and tension. Mostly, it’s a bloody good mystery, and while not all of the questions you have are going to be answered (Beukes is more interested in her characters than the weird hole in the universe that the house represents), it’s a marvellous ride.
The Court of Broken Knives, Anna Smith Spark – An intensely frustrating read. Anna Smith Spark can write really well. Her descriptive prose is elegant and evocative without crossing the line into florid, and her characters are exceptionally nuanced and well observed. Unfortunately one of those characters is so unvaryingly irritating – an emo lordling so vanishingly self-obsessed that you would have no choice but to slap him repeatedly were you unfortunate enough to meet him real life – that it throws the book out of balance. The effect is worsened as he is in a central position in the story, a flywheel for the plot to move around. The result of this is rather baffling. He’s clearly not this annoying by accident because he’s too well written, yet it’s hard to understand why any author wants to evoke this reaction from the reader. Whatever the intent, the whiny brat threw me right out of what I might otherwise have enjoyed as a very rich piece of storytelling, and I’ve no interest in finding out what happens to him across a trilogy unless it involves long descriptive passages involving open wounds, salt, and scorpion pits.
The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) – I’m not well-versed in modern detective fiction, but it feels almost novel to meet a private detective whose superpower isn’t sociopathy or autism, who just puts in the work, applies a dogged intelligence, and gets the job done. Cormoran Strike is one such, and feels oddly, reassuringly old-fashioned for it as he plods through the occasional hangover and heartbreak to bring a murderer to heel. This is a remarkably unflashy book, comfortable in the way a perfectly fitting second hand jacket is comfortable, and it shines with the basic decency both of Strike and his new assistant Robin. The book plods just as the investigation does, through interview after interview with well-drawn characters, splashed with wit and wry observation. A perfect duvet book.