REVIEW – The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

First of all, can we appreciate what a cool title ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is? Not only an incredible title, its so evocative when you’ve read the story and begin to understand the two polar opposites to be found in this book.

William Rackham is the younger son of a successful business owner, poised to take the helm of the company over his pious elder brother. As the book goes on, we are introduced to William’s wife Agnes, completely in denial about the birds and the bees, a little bit unhinged and unstable and generally rather helpless. William, as seems to be the Victorian man’s way, seeks passion elsewhere and hears of the mysterious ‘Sugar’, a 19 year old prostitute at ‘Mrs Castaway’s’ who ‘will do anything’ for a man. They’re coy about what this is, for the purposes of the repressed Victorian age this novel falls in.

The novel develops in complexity over its 800 odd pages, but I loved every moment of it. I love this contrast between the seedier side of this Victorian London underground and the pure, childish innocence that comes from Agnes – remember what I was saying about the Crimson Petal and the White as a title? This for me is its main contrast between the two female leads.

The characters are all so complex and deep and the narrative weaves a wonderful web in between William’s ‘charming’ friends, his brother Henry’s struggles with ‘carnal’ thoughts in his pious, guilty mind and Sugar’s desire to find something better for herself and how close she gets to the people around her.

I’m not sure whether by the end you were supposed to be feeling sorry for Sugar or hating her, I guess a bit of both? She had done a lot wrong in life, particularly as the book began to close, but she did feel genuinely guilty about a lot of her actions, and those actions themselves seemed to stem from love more than malice.

Overall a great venture into gender, religion and madness in Victorian London. A delicate and painstaking climb before an epic crescendo and an admittedly abrupt ending.

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REVIEW – So Much Owed by Jean Grainger

So Much Owed has been presented as an Irish WW2 story, but it has a slightly bigger scope than that, beginning at the end of WW1, when Dr Richard Buckley returns home from war with his best friend’s widow Solange in tow. Shortly after his arrival, twins Juliet and James are born to Richard and his cold and unfeeling wife Edith. Showing minimal interest in her children and never forgiving her husband for signing up to fight for the British, her perceived enemy, she ups and leaves, leaving Richard and Solange to manage.

And by all means, the twins do well, the bulk of the story follows the twins as adults and the build up to the Second World War and how they both play their parts but also make some questionable personal decisions along the way. And there’s this constant pressure of what is expected of them, that James will be a doctor and Juliet a wife, but the previously mischievous twins throw out the rule book and seem to do their own thing, which I adore about the two of them as characters.

James and Juliet’s closeness is echoed throughout the book, where you see both sides of them falling out and feeling conflicted, worried that they’re losing that closeness. They spent a lot of time away from each other but they’re still constantly wondering how the other is doing and worrying, wishing the other was there to help them navigate their decisions.

Some of the claims in the book, such as the IRA compliance with German spies and a conspiracy taking place in the republic, I can’t say I know much about, but I’m sure on some level events like this were taking place in that period – there’s too much tension between the IRA, Unionists and Britain to assume that this neutrality was respected on all sides. Although, I will admit that the big revelation towards the end about a certain conspirator, I had seen coming much earlier on – and that for me is where the book fell a little flat. In many instances it was so easy to see what was coming next, so the big revelations had far less impact because I found myself as a reader rolling her eyes and saying ‘No Shit Sherlock’.

Slight side note here – I couldn’t help but see comparisons with Juliet’s story and Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, which made me love this book a little bit more than I did already. The moral grey areas of Juliet’s side of the story, and in fact the grey areas all over this book made it quite an interesting read.

I absolutely loved the ending in every possible way. It had a smudge of tragedy, nothing to make you too inconsolable, but a whole lot of happy ending as well for the people of Dunderrig who I grew to love whilst reading this.

REVIEW – The Art of Fear by Pamela Crane

The Art of Fear introduces us to two main characters – Ari, who has been held responsible for the hit and run of her little sister Carli for the majority of her life, and Tina, who changed her name from Sophia after escaping a life of child sex trafficking her father sold her into. Their paths cross at a suicide support group that Ari sets up, for those who have attempted suicide in the past, feel suicidal or have experienced the suicide of a loved one. Tina attends this group after the apparent suicide of her father Josef, but obviously it becomes much more complex than that otherwise we wouldn’t have a novel to read just a short story of a few pages.

The two women get really close really quickly, which I guess needs to happen from the perspective of the storyline because everything develops at a really intense and fast-paced rate. There’s Josef’s killer to track down, there’s a whole lot of guilt to unpack and the main characters have a habit of getting hurt by the big mysterious baddie that every thriller has.

Tina is a much more complicated character than Ari simply because of what she’s been through, her trust issues are completely understandable and even her ability to hold things back and lie – she’s been burned that many times that I couldn’t really be mad at her for that, although Ari certainly was at times. The example would be the discussions and worry about baby Giana and where to find her, it’s a late entry into the story because of Tina holding back but as the story evolves you empathise, sympathise and begin to understand everything she’s not letting on.

We’re also introduced to big bad child sex trafficker George Battan, responsible for the trauma of Tina’s childhood and her loss of innocence. There’s a whole evolving storyline about the debts of Josef and his wife Mercedes and what apparently ‘necessitated’ Tina’s sale into the sex trade. What struck me as quite interesting was how this mingled with Ari’s story and the death of young Carli all those years ago. It was something they were hinting at in the beginnings of the story but held back the true scope of how bad it was until the bitter end, no doubt gripping you into buying the sequel. But I think I might, so it definitely served its purpose.

REVIEW – The Revelation Room by Mark Tilbury

The Revelation Room follows a strange sect/cult of unstable Christianity and mysticism called ‘The Sons and Daughters of Salvation’. The story opens in the ‘Revelation Room’, a room within a top secret farm compound where the group is based. The first victim? Geoff Whittle, a private investigator caught trying to prove the whereabouts of missing Emily, whose parents are desperate to rescue her from this particular group. So when Geoff goes missing and makes a concerning phone call, it falls to his son Ben, twenty-something and seemingly stuck in a rut and his friend Maddie to infiltrate the cult and find his Dad. As usual with this type of story, they got a lot more than they bargained for.

The aims of the Sons and Daughters of Salvation is somewhat unclear, but deliberately so. The party line seems to be this idea of ‘the Rapture’ – building a spaceship so the chosen few can essentially fly to heaven (or something along those vague lines). I actually found this concept interesting because it bridged for me the stereotype of a religious sect and a space-obsessed cult. Maybe this isn’t such a novel thing in our world, but it certainly seemed a bit of a hybrid to me.

The leader of this group is Father Ebb, a strange and sadistic fellow who is very obviously mentally ill and possibly even a psychopath (as the story develops you gain crucial insight into his backstory which makes you shudder and feel slightly confused all at once). The man who sets down the rules of the farm; no painkillers, no alcohol, no meat, no sex – yet indulges in all of the above, bending the rules and using his position within the group to argue that Jesus told him it was necessary. For example – the girls have to be ‘planted’ with his seed for their initiation – completely necessary to do the work of God right? Not for some weirdo to get his rocks off on young impressionable women.

The ending was certainly a fairly happy one, but not so happy in the sense that everything turned out ok. More like the central characters have escaped, the bad guy is dead but now comes the aftermath – the adjusting, the recovery from injuries both physical and psychological.

Overall this was a really nice easy read, with plenty of intrigue and a nice steady build up to the main crescendo.

REVIEW – When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul is just coming to the end of his neurosurgical residency and its taking a bit of a toll on his marriage. All of his plans had been put off until he could officially call himself an attending neurosurgeon. Until he starts getting ill, and starts avoiding what could be wrong with him.

Until he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The type they call stage 4 because there is no stage 5. So he starts to write down his story, part autobiography part journal.

We’re taken through the ups and downs of his battle, where it looks like he’s getting better and goes back to work, pushing his body to grueling limits to get to that end point he always dreamed of – that golden neurosurgical status. It seems within his reach, he’s getting better, he can dare to imagine a future. And you can really root for him and almost fight alongside him, as he has this spirit where he focuses on his goals, obsessing with time, to the annoyance of his oncologist where he consistently pesters her for mortality curves. He begins to wonder on the bad days, whether neurosurgery is his future. Can he face a toxic treatment that might damage his ability to perform surgery?

We’re treated to an insight into teenaged Paul, what made him pursue neurosurgery and neuroscience away from literature and philosophy. But the general tone of the book has input from these fields, particularly as Paul seeks comfort in them during his journey and the way that he thinks about death (or obsesses over it some would say).

Spoiler alert, Paul doesn’t make it, and the chapter from his wife that documented how short the book was because of how ill Paul got and how fast he deteriorated, resulting in his death holding his child, I shed a tear (or one hundred). An emotional and touching book, published posthumously and a great tribute to Paul’s memory.

REVIEW – The Night Manager by John Le CarrĂ©

I recently rewatched the BBC adaptation of Le CarrĂ©’s ‘The Night Manager’ – and not just for the glorious display of mostly naked Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie playing a blinder once more. It got me thinking that I should read the book and make my usual judgemental comparisons – I’m a snob who always prefers the books to the series. And The Night Manager was another example of that.

I mean I had stuck in my head what the characters of Roper, Jed and Jonathan should be like from the TV series, and it always annoys me when I get to things in that order. I like to have a concept of the characters in book form before they explode onto my screen. Anyway, I digress.

The Night Manager follows hotelier Jonathan Pine as he becomes embroiled in the criminal world and dodgy dealings of Richard Onslow Roper. You name it, Roper is involved in it – biological and chemical weapons, your standard tanks, bombs and blowing stuff up fare, fraud, tax evasion, murder and a whole lot of drugs to sweeten the bargain. Jonathan essentially finds his way into the British Secret Services’ attempts to bring Roper down after he experiences tragedy at the hands of the operation. What follows is a twisted intrigue and what looks to be a standard double agent story.

But it is so much more than that. Yes there is that familiar trope that comes with ‘spy’ stories but there were subtleties in this novel that for me the TV show simply couldn’t live up to. My only complaint about the book is the lack of a strong female lead – Jed is simply a poor, weak-willed helpless female always dependent on a man, Caro Langbourne is a pathetic spouting mess – womanhood can do so much better than what’s represented here. I now understand why they turned Leonard Burr from the books into Angela Burr for the BBC adaptation – it really was needed to even the score and desexist the plot a little bit of boys, their toys and beating each other up whilst screwing women and earning copious amounts of money.

Overall a fantastic read full of intrigue and slowly building into a crescendo.