Sunday 26 June 2016

Two books on a hot summer day...

It seems like a long time since I’ve written about books.  Unfortunately I’m suffering from an unpleasant summer cold and so, instead of a hot cup of steeped chai tea, I’ve got a steaming cup of Neo-Citran in front of me as I write.  Not so nice, but necessary.  

I have two books to tell you about this week.  The first one I read was one I recommended as a purchase for my public library, The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson.  This psychological thriller begins with Jessie Constable, part-time charity-shop worker, bumping into a tall red-haired man with his two children buying groceries in Marks and Spencer.  She’s seen him before in passing, but he doesn’t appear to recognize her as she offers to assist him with his purchases.  He appears to be dealing with a crisis, and Jessie is good at helping people deal with crises.  She herself has to deal with her own overwhelming phobia, her fear of feathers (but she’s not afraid of birds).  Although at first it looks like the man, Gus, will refuse her offer, with a crafty and subtle turn of phrase, Jessie is suddenly installed at their secluded cottage near a caravan site far from her own home in Dumfries, and is making dinner for Gus’ two children, Ruby, aged four, and Dillon, aged two.  Gus, a sculptor, reveals that his wife, Becky, has disappeared, and they find a suicide note on the dresser in their bedroom.  Then police show up at the door to inform them that Becky has apparently driven off the cliffs - her car and body have been recovered.  Gus goes with them to identify the body, and comes home bereft, determined that Becky would never have killed herself.  Jessie is coerced into spending the night, and one day becomes two and then three, as she is seduced by Gus and by the gorgeous seaside setting.  Gus and Jessie quickly become lovers, and he reveals that he never really loved Becky, that their relationship was all a sham.  Jessie would love to believe this, but some niggling details bother her.  For one thing, there is the sudden departure of Becky’s best friend, Ros, whom Gus says just decided to return home to Poland.  Then there is the strange Polish man hanging around the caravan site who informs Jessie that Ros would never have gone back to Poland.  Why does Gus keep taking different ways to the cottage, first the back way, then the main route - is he trying to confuse Jessie or elude the farm workers and stay under their radar?  And what's with his obsession with the baby monitor? As more pieces are revealed, we become more entangled in the plot, until we don’t know what to believe, and nothing is as it seems.  We are led through a maze of details until the final satisfying conclusion, and while we as readers may find Jessie a bit too gullible at times, she shows herself to be a strong, resourceful and capable woman at the end and redeems herself, at least in this reader’s eyes. This is the second standalone novel I’ve read by this Scottish-born author (who now lives in Texas, I believe), and while it’s not great literature, it sure is creepy.  I’d give it a 7.5 out of 10 and would recommend it to readers who like mysteries where all is not what it seems, and hidden pasts play havoc on the present.  Note: I want to pass on my favourite quotation from this book.  Jessie is talking to Steve, a volunteer at the charity shop where she works, about having the contents of her dreams under control.  Steve, who has taken “every social sciences Open University course ever invented", says “The problem with positive thinking as a therapeutic device… is that it’s so depoliticized that it, in effect, privatises misfortune and turns it into blame” which, according to Jessie, “was a very typical Steve kind of thing to say and ended the conversation like only Steve can” (p 139).

And I read a book by Canadian writer Iain Reid, his first book of fiction, called I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  This book begins with an unnamed girlfriend confiding in the reader that she is thinking of ending her relationship with Jake, her boyfriend of about six weeks.  They are headed along a country road to his childhood home to see his parents, whom she has never met.  She recounts how she and Jake met, and the pros and cons of their relationship so far.  She is unsure about ending things, and thinks this may be a turning point for them, that this visit may just help her decide one way or the other.  But the reader senses that something is not quite right about this scenario, and these suspicions grow deeper as they arrive at the old secluded farmyard and farmhouse.  The interactions the girlfriend has with his parents over a hasty dinner, and her conversations with each parent individually as she explores the house deepen our suspicions and we want to warn her… but to do what?  We have no real proof that something strange is brewing, nor are either of her options good ones - stay with his parents or get back into the car?  As the tension mounts, we are led further and further into this unreliable narrator’s psyche as she tries to save herself from what she fears may be in store for her.  And then the final twist of an ending, which was, for me, a bit of a let-down, but I’m not sure what other ending would have worked.  It was not brilliant, but parts of the book were brilliantly written and made this reader think deeply about life and relationships.  I think I would rate it a 7.5 out of 10, and would recommend this short novel to readers who enjoy books where, once again, all is not what it seems, and whatever the narrator says should not be taken at face value. (Oh boy, so many books about ending things! Maybe I should choose something uplifting next!!)

That’s all for today.  I hope to be feeling better next week as I write my first post for the summer vacation.  Stay cool and keep reading!

Bye for now…

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