Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Do you ever not read a book because it’s so very hyped and everyone is talking about it and you’re afraid you’ll be disappointed? Well, stupidly, that was me with Where the Crawdads Sing. I resisted its allure, the reviews that told me to enjoy it, that declared it wondrous. As a consequence, I’m very late to the praise party – praise, I might add, that is so richly deserved and to which I’m about to add.

This is a superb novel that carries such emotional heft. It is filled with heart-aching loveliness but also threats of billowing darkness, that it’s only now, over a week after I finished it, I feel I can step back enough to review it.

The tale commences in the late 60s with a suspicious death. It then rolls back twenty or so years and introduces us to the young, sassy yet quiet Kya Clark, a child who dwells on the edges of a town in the wetlands of the American south. She lives in poverty, in a makeshift house, apart from and yet also among those existing on the margins. Known as the “marsh-girl”, rumours about her and her ever-diminishing family abound in town, rumours that have no basis in fact, but are part of what ensure people like Kya, her family, and those who don’t fit the (white) mould are kept at arm’s length and othered. There are exceptions to how she and those who eke out a living in these wetlands are treated – there are a few who are able to see beyond the wild tales and stories of peculiarity and recognise the possibility and beauty in a child who rejects human contact – except on her terms.

The novel segues between the investigation into the death in the late 60s and Kya’s life as she matures, mostly in solitude and yet, never really lonely. At one with her natural environment, Kya’s searing intelligence, burgeoning knowledge and endless curiosity guide her year after year beyond her once narrow boundaries and into the extraordinary landscape she knows and loves and into the lives of two very different men.  

I don’t want to say too much more except this book tugs at the heart like no other I’ve read in a while. I ached while I read, cried, smiled, felt my flesh crawl, my soul open. At one time, I held my breath for so long, it was as if I forgot to breathe. It was an extraordinary reading experience which I now regret is over. I sort of wish I was still to discover this magnificent book; had the painful beauty of its story, of its words and the emotions it stirred, the images it evoked, to look forward to.

As it is, I will pass on the wonderful impact of this tale and hope that the next reader to pick it up feels about it the way I did. Sensational, moving and unexpected in every regard.

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The Shrine by L.J. Ross

It’s hard to believe that L.J. Ross has already written sixteen DCI Ryan books (and others besides), but I am so glad she has. This series is like comfort food. When you pick up the next one in the series, you know you’re in great hands. The familiar characters whom, over the years, you’ve grown to genuinely care about and will to succeed and survive appear and you settle in, knowing the recipe is being prepared by a master.

This book is yet another very satisfying meal. When a colleague of Ryan and co., a high-ranking officer, is shot dead outside her home and then an explosion goes off in Durham Cathedral and a priceless relic is stolen, Ryan’s team are swiftly put into action. Ryan (for reasons I won’t reveal) is forced to bury personal feelings and simply get on with the job.

But as the cases unravel, it’s clear that not only may they be related, but the killer hasn’t finished…

Character driven, these books are slower-paced than many crime novels, allowing plot and certainly anything gritty to slide into the background as setting and dialogue and the bonds that connect the main characters are brought to the fore.  This is what makes them both an easy but immensely pleasurable read and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

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The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

This was an unusual book to which I had incredibly mixed reactions. I can only think of this as a positive thing – for both the reader and the author. In telling the story of Lucy, a breast cancer survivor who, while struggling to deal with her new body (never mind the trauma of cancer treatment and everything the mind, body, and those around you deal with post-recovery – I speak from experience), has a strange and incredible experience with an octopus.

This has a profound impact on her life in many, many ways, changing her both internally and externally and altering the relationships she has with those closest to her, those she meets and, above all, the natural environment and the fauna that inhabit it in ways humans cannot possibly comprehend.

The novel opens in one of the most original ways I’ve read in a long time and it took me a moment to become accustomed to the voice. I found it strangely beautiful and moving – particularly when I understood it was a wondrous creature narrating. This occurs at different times in the novel- creatures take over the story. I am not as convinced by the success of those other voices or the position they hold in the book as I was this first one. In many ways, they jarred a little. That said, when Lucy and the humans and their interactions take over, the story moves well and the characters are interesting and mostly engaging.

There were times I really didn’t like Lucy at all. I struggled so hard with this because as a woman, cancer survivor, and someone who feels bonds with the environment (especially in Tasmania), I felt I should like her more. But, as is the case with others in the book, she is flawed and all too human and a bloody great hypocrite too (I really, really loathed some of the things she did). Yet, she owns her failings while some others excuse them or seek to blame others. Perhaps the reader isn’t meant to like her very much and that is the point. By the end, she is somewhat redeemed, but only somewhat. Thinking over this, I find this to be a positive rather than a negative and think the author is to be commended for writing such an honest character who can potentially polarise readers. No doubt, others will love her – and that’s a sign of terrific writing and characterisation.

The Tasmanian environment is beautifully captured – I could smell the sea, see and inhale the scents of the various land and sea scapes that were described. Hortle really captures the sense of local life as well and what it’s like to both live in a small community and enter one as an outsider.

The feminist component of the book, the examination of women’s bodies and their objectification and the ways in which we can be complicit in this or seek to resist and subvert it is sometimes heavy-handed. Again, I feel awkward saying that as I understood what Lucy was trying to say and how she also set out to resist dominant narratives of femininity and find agency in a world that so often denies it to those who don’t conform, but it was sometimes (only sometimes) overplayed and usually because the point had already been made really well earlier. Still, we need these kinds of stories of resistance and the whys and wherefores of them – the way women particularly (and men) collaborate in their subjection, work within and around it or refuse to partake. It’s a continuously negotiated space that, like sand, can shift and change in a moment. If you think about in this way, the novel explores this well.  

Overall, I did enjoy the story – the challenges it gave to me as a reader. It is well-written and certainly original story-telling.

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The Atlantis Plague by A.G. Riddle.

A.G Riddle’s books are what I would call a guilty pleasure. His Winter World series and Pandemic novels were easy-read page turners that were perfect holiday fare. The first book in this series, The Atlantis Gene was similar in that it was a fast-paced sci-fi action adventure story that was good enough for the sequel to beckon.

While there were some worthy moments in this second book, especially near the beginning, I’m afraid that even for this genre, there were times it was impossible to suspend my disbelief. Not only did dead characters keep resurrecting but one of the main characters performs the equivalent of an ex machina manoeuvre, meaning that all the questions the reader and thus characters had could be (conveniently) answered as she suddenly became a font of all knowledge (because… shhhhh… she’s not who we think she is). It became a bit too much.

So, while the book and characters were pitched into chaos which had folk flying, sailing, running, digging beneath the earth and making all kinds of discoveries and taking incredible risks, being transported here and there, I virtually ceased to care. My investment in the story, which became incredibly convoluted and expedient, ran its course. Not even the science was plausible or even, for that matter, interesting enough to give the wild tale credibility anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Riddle knows how to write and the short pacey chapters keep you turning the pages, even if it’s only to get to the end. Nah, that’s not entirely fair. There’s a smidgin of wanting to know left that did that.

The ending prepares the reader for the third instalment. Not sure I have the energy.

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Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza

Robert Bryndza burst onto the crime-writing scene a few years back with his excellent Erika Foster series, which I thoroughly enjoy. It was with great excitement then that I picked up this first book in a new series, featuring police officer, Kate Marshall.

Kate was a high-flying young police woman who, after sleeping with her superior, also catches a sought-after serial killer – the Nine Elms murderer. Instead of being rewarded for her efforts, she leaves the force in disgrace. The story begins fifteen years later as Kate, now a mother and a criminology lecturer, is living a quiet life by the coast, teaching keen students and interacting with her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper.

When she’s approached by distraught parents with a missing daughter, Caitlyn, essentially a cold case that the police never took seriously but which the parents believe is connected to the Nine Elms murders, she reluctantly takes it on. In the meantime, a Nine Elms copycat killer has emerged and the body count is growing. Against her will, Kate finds herself doing private investigating with Tristan, not only to try and resolve what happened to Caitlyn, but learn what she can about this mimic killer, a killer who is getting too close to Kate and her son, Jake, for comfort.

This novel opens in a strong and brutal manner (which is Bryndza’s style), grasping the reader by the collar and not letting go for a while. After this knockout beginning, the book slows a little as we’re introduced to Kate and invited to peel back the various layers that make the person she is now. Likewise, her professional and personal environment are described and explored, setting the groundwork for the character and future stories. But before long the pace builds again to breakneck speed as past and present collide. Well-written, tightly plotted and with great characters, this is a fabulous introduction to a great new series.

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