Girl, 11 is a crime novel about a serial killer who, twenty years before the book opens, murdered a number of women and girls without ever being caught. A methodical person with an obsession with numbers, the killer picks up young woman in descending age, keeps them for a period and then deposits their bodies for the authorities to find and their broken families to mourn. Most people believe the killer died in a catastrophic fire which also destroyed the body of the last girl he took.
True Crime podcaster, Elle, has long been fascinated by the TCK (the Countdown Killer), so when she starts to release a weekly podcast featuring a new angle on the investigation and interviews with the retired chief investigator, medical people, bereaved parents, it quickly becomes popular. But popularity isn’t necessarily a good thing and attract numerous trolls and personal threats as well. Yet, it seems as if Elle is on the cusp of learning the identity of TCK and, when someone about to give her crucial information is killed, she’s convinced the murderer has surfaced again.
Understanding how obsessed Elle is, there are those even very close to her that believe she’s allowing this to overtake her reason, putting herself and others in terrible danger. When someone close to Elle is kidnapped, she no longer knows whether she can trust her instincts. Is the killer back? Is it a copycat? Or is she torturing herself for other more personal reasons or worse, for none at all?
A clever, well-plotted book that segues between the first-person transcripts of the podcasts and third-person flashbacks and present day accounts, it’s a story of trauma, grief, incredible resilience and trust.
A fabulous, fast-paced read that will keep the blood pumping into the wee hours.
The moment I heard about this book, I was looking forward to reading it. Not only was the actual novel based on a sensational premise, but I loved the tenacity of TJ Newman that after 41 rejections, she still kept trying to get her manuscript published. Thank goodness she did and thank goodness for the foresight of the 42nd agent who recognized a great story and talent.
Falling has a terrifying set-up (and opening). It’s not spoiling anything to reveal the what drives the overall story as the blurb does the same thing. Basically, an experienced pilot is told to crash a laden commercial passenger plane or his family, who have been taken hostage, will die. If this sounds like the plot for an action movie (and it’s going to be) that’s because it is non-stop action from beginning to end. Furthermore, the book is deliberately cinematic so its easy to visualise each and eery scene and character, particularly those of us familiar with flying (most of us) and the type of aircraft – an A320. The characters are well drawn, you have empathy for both the heroes and the villains, the latter being crafted in such a way that like some of the other characters, you understand their rage but not their ways of resolving it. And even though the American ra-ra is laid on a bit thick at times, and the story borders on sentimentality, it somehow fits. Newman worked for Virgin America for 10 years and this shows. readers are given insights into what goes on behind the scenes with cabin crew, in the cockpit and the relationship between these colleagues and their counterparts on the ground. This was so interesting and brings an authenticity to the story (I was going to write “implausible story” – not as a criticism, hell, it’s fiction, I’d watch a documentary if I wanted plausible. But ever since 9/11 and MH 370, what’s implausible has taken on a whole new meaning) and thus a very real frisson as well.
I read this while in the throes of suffering (chills, fever, headache etc) from a Covid vaccination and I have say it was the perfect panacea. A page-turner par-excellence that made me grateful that, for the time being at least, flying isn’t high on the agenda. So, fasten you seatbelts, stow away your phone and other electronic devices, and prepare to take off with Falling. You won’t be disappointed.
I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…
Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.
Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride.
Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.
I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder…
After watching the Netflix series, Bridgerton, and enjoying it thoroughly, I was encouraged by a dear friend to also read the books by Julia Quinn. It’s been a long time since I picked up a book marketed as purely “historical romance” – especially one with the kind of cover that looks like something Barbara Cartland would have adored (and I adored her and her books when I was a teenager). Yet, as I read the first book in the Bridgerton series, The Duke and I, staying up far too late, laughing, sighing, being transported to a different time and place, I wondered why had I waited so long? What is it about the word “romance” and especially when it’s applied to a genre, that has people either flatly refusing to read it or denying the pleasures it offers? When I thought about it, every book I read (and write), regardless of genre, either has romance at its heart or is unashamedly romantic – even if it’s a love affair between the words and the reader. But what is it about the term “romance” and romance books and their writers generally that sees them excluded from serious evaluation in the review pages of newspapers, scathingly referred to (and usually by people who have never, ever read one), and ignored when it comes to awards unless they’re specific to the genre? As one writer recently pointed out in The Times, the romance genre, which sells in the squillions, is what keeps publishing houses and, indeed, writers in other less finically viable genres afloat! Try as I might I cannot get the link to damn well work!
Well, what I really, really love about both the “Bridgerton” book and the Netflix series, is what they remind and/or teach those who either don’t know or have forgotten about what the “Romance” genre – literary or visual – contributes to popular culture and social discourse. Often dismissed as “chick-lit”, or as only dealing with women’s concerns (as if women’s concerns weren’t relevant or significant!), it is, as I said above, overlooked in favour of more “serious” genres. Yet, “Romance” deals with everything from sexual desire, love – fulfilled and unfilled, sexual identity, morals, mores, gendered norms, restrictions and freedoms imposed by femininity, masculinity, challenges to these, violence, coercion, familial bonds, professional and personal boundaries, feminism, friendship, expectations in relationships, break-ups, heartache, marriage, mother and fatherhood, misunderstandings, personal histories, and so much more. Historical romance locates all of these within different pasts, contributing to our understanding of how far we have or haven’t come. Not only that, but they’re well-researched too.
If you don’t believe me, then just look at all the conversations – civil and uncivil, posts, newspaper articles and more that both Quinn’s books and the recent Netflix series have generated. I don’t think a day has passed where I haven’t read or seen people discussing how much they loved or loathed the show or books, their reasoning, and then heated defences of these positions with many examples. Whether it’s Daphne “stealthing” Simon (SPOILER: she has sex with him when he’s drunk and he ejaculates inside her after trying, for various reasons not to), the violent dialogue and masculine braggadocio of the male characters, how like the book it places an emphasis on friendship, or the casting of the show. The latter particularly has facilitated many debates as, despite the book having all white, Anglo characters (in keeping with Britain’s colonial past and the Regency period), Bridgerton, the Netflix series, chose to include people of colour and different cultural backgrounds in their cast – as Dukes, royalty, middle-class merchants, the ton etc as well as servants and ordinary folk. While this definitely doesn’t adhere to historical “fact”, as Quinn herself said, her books aren’t factual and Bridgeton is not a documentary! Even so, it’s amazing how many people this casting choice offended (it wasn’t “colour blind” as some have suggested which, as Shonda Rimes the Executive Producer says, infers it wasn’t deliberate, which it was), simply because this didn’t happen in the past. So what? It’s been fabulous seeing so many different cultures and colours represented in ways they never have been on the screen. Even if the premise for them having different social roles is convenient (it’s also really nice – I think it’s episode 4 where it’s revealed) it works at so many important social cultural and televisual levels. But neither did women have trimmed pubic hair at that time, but you don’t read or hear so many complaints about that (!), but I digress… Likewise, some argue that the show presents women as commodities (sorry, in some ways, that’s very historically accurate!) and their (naked) bodies are there for men’s viewing pleasure alone; some talk about the violence and “pornography” of the sex scenes as opposed to the way in which the books deal with sex as mutual pleasure etc etc etc.
Look, I’m not going to debate every little point, some of which I wholeheartedly agree with and others which I don’t. What I do want to reiterate, however, is how much I love all the different conversations this kind of book, this GENRE, this oft-demeaned, belittled and snubbed (except by those of us in the know) genre generates. And not just these books or the series. This has been going on for decades! Important discussions which lead us to examine everything from relationships, race, culture, gendered behaviour, social change, bigotry, prejudice, colonialism, class and so much more.
Mind you, I find that so many different genres do this – sci-fi, fantasy, speculative fiction of all sorts, horror, historical fiction, crime – in other words, any darn good story that engages the reader. Yet, so often, these genres if not poo-pooed, are disregarded for prestigious awards, for reviewing in newspapers and magazines – a point that is worth repeating. But, just like their more “literary” counterparts, they deal with so many of the same issues but in easily accessible and often relatable and very entertaining ways. I mean, who doesn’t want to find love, for example? Yet, they’re “punished” for it! Go figure.
So, back to The Duke and I – after all, this IS a book review! While possessing a deceptively simple title that smacks of the historical romance it so cleverly embraces, it also has so much heart and, like the show based on it, deals with an abundance of social, sexual and gender issues. The Bridgertons are a wealthy family, overseen by the widow, Violet who has eight children. The fourth, her eldest daughter, Daphne, is of marriageable age. Focussed on trying to make a good catch for her, after all, not only will that ensure Daphne is secure socially, economically and in every other way, but potentially, her younger siblings (and older brothers) as well. It’s all about connections – familial and otherwise. Yet, after meeting the Duke of Hastings, who has more baggage than a coach-and-eight, a handsome young man who finds the social scene of the ton and its incredible expectations abhorrent, they come up with a convenient arrangement to get mothers off their backs – one where they’ll pretend an interest in each other. In doing so, the Duke will be left in peace and Daphne, well, now that she’s seen to be desired by someone top of the pecking order, will be inundated with suitors and able to choose her future husband with ease. But this a romance and Cupid has a way of throwing even the best laid plans awry.
A clever, witty delight – not without its issues – but like the show, this is what makes it so worthwhile and so damn social media and water-cooler worthy.
Now, off to unearth my Georgette Heyers, thank you!
I’ve been a long-time fan of Graham Norton and his self-named chat show, where celebrities of all ilk grace his couch as he not only puts them at ease, but entertains his guests and audience alike by unearthing gems about those he interviews. The same can’t be said for the folk who are foolish or brave enough to dare the Red chair…
Though I’ve known for a few years that Norton had also written some well-regarded novels, such is my funfair bias against celebrities who write a singular book, let alone books, and receive the kind of publicity that most authors can only dream about – whether the famous person ever wrote the book or not – that I tend to avoid reading them, unless they’re memoirs or come with a recommendation. While I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past, I still find myself feeling irrationally annoyed when, say, someone highly regarded and successful for acting writes one book and calls themselves an author, and then appears on every chat show and newspaper and online, using their “celebrity” to promote their work. But the rational part of me also thinks, why wouldn’t you? Good for them! (I told you I was biased about celebrities who become writers (as opposed to celebrity writers – no problem with them) – and I’m not proud of it). But this is something Norton doesn’t do. Like other people more famous for one or two things than writing, he humbly creates his fiction and allows it to speak for itself.
And my, awards and accolades aside (which he’s deserved) does it do that.
Let me tell you Norton can not only tell a cracking good yarn, but his writing is moving, evocative and filled with insights about what makes people tick.
Homestretch opens in 1987, just as a small Irish village prepare to celebrate the wedding of two of their young people. On the eve of the wedding a terrible tragedy occurs and lives are lost. But it’s what happens to the survivors and their families, particularly young Connor, in the aftermath and the unfolding years that compounds the sorrow. This unfolding tale of grief, identity, the bonds that both unite and tear us apart, demonstrates how, try as we might, we can never run from our past, let alone our mistakes.
From country Ireland to England and America, this is a poignant, beautifully told story about choices, weakness, strength and how fear – of others, of ourselves and who we were and are – can be a much greater burden than either sorrow or guilt.
Now that I’ve read one Norton book, I cannot wait to read his others.