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review 2015-02-14 15:55
These kids and their modern technology... - Second Life by SJ Watson
Second Life: A Novel - S.J. Watson

[I paid nothing for this book, instead being provided with an uncorrected proof copy through the kindness of the publisher, Harper Collins, gifted via Edelweiss. I thank them profusely.]


There is always a burden on an author delivering a second novel when their first novel has been a tremendous success. S.J Watson's first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, was not merely a success, it set the trend for all the huge domestic psychological thrillers which have come since: Gone Girl, The Silent Wife, The Girl on the Train... Watson's debut was there first, 4 whole years ago. Watson doesn't merely need to stand up well against himself, he also needs to stand up well in an increasingly saturated market where the books we now hear about tend to be very good indeed. 


When Julia's younger sister Kate is found dead in a Paris back-alley, Julia is destroyed with grief. Learning from Kate's housemate that Kate used internet dating sites to arrange smexy liaisons, Julia becomes convinced it was one of these men who killed her. So she does what anybody obsessed with an idea does: attempt to find proof. She sets herself up on some websites to entice the murderer. Except the man she does meet, Lukas, is everything her perfect middle-class life is missing. 


Initially, this is slow. It takes a good 40% to get started properly and I was consciously reading with one eye trying to work out what was going to Be Important Later and why. I couldn't really engage with Julia's initial shock and grief over the loss of her sister and was instead waiting for the inevitable Search For The Truth to begin. Once it does it's good, the flirty messages becoming something more until sexual fantasy collides with reality and being controlled is considered part of the game. These aspects of the book are done excellently - and by that I mean so horrific and triggering I would have stopped reading if this hadn't been an ARC, which is the reason I'm mentioning them. It's gradual and insidious, the type of thing which can be explained away so very easily even when you aren't Julia, a grief-wreaked alcoholic fighting a relapse. 


The trouble is it becomes boring. Julia's head is a fairly dull place to spend time and even before the book shifted into its end-game I became deeply irritated by her actions (and inactions), some of which felt designed to artificially spin the story out a bit longer. 


I was also unreasonably annoyed by her alcoholism. It felt like a device, and while I think it could have been a very effective one, it needed to treat alcoholism as more than just wanting a drink and riding out the compulsion.


For instance, there is nothing about Julia's active alcoholism in her youth, only her attendance at the AA meeting where she meets Markus. She bangs on about failing her sister, about her guilt at leaving her behind when she went to Berlin, but never a word about the drinking she must have been doing when she was bringing Kate up or the effects of it. I genuinely thought Julia would turn out to have been lying about it, or faking it for some reason. It's used as a minor spoke in the story and could have had far more mileage than it's given.


In the end this story is wrecked by its own plot. The grand reveal of what's really going on is a laser saw away from the Bond-Villain School of Illogical Schemes. Plus, it makes something either a catastrophic plot hole or a clever piece of misdirection depending on your overall view of the book. If I learned Watson was a pantser rather than a plotter, I'd nod sagely and say, 'Well, that explains it.'


SJ Watson is a good writer. Whatever churlish things I'd say about Before I Go To Sleep must be countered by the fact it had me absolutely gripped by the end. Although Second Life never managed to hook me the same way there are some excellently done parts; it's scary because it's real. Until the last 10%, I genuinely wasn't sure how I was going to rate this. Happily, the terrible ending made it easy: 2 stars (but I'm definitely going to be interested in whatever Watson comes out with next.)

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review 2014-08-16 09:10
Do yourself a favour and read this in one sitting - Confessions by Kanae Minato
Confessions - Kanae Minato

[This ARC was provided to me for the sum of precisely no monies by the publisher, Mulholland books, with thanks to the ever glorious Bookbridgr.]


Everybody has pet likes, and one of mine is Japan. I've never been and likely never will - I have enough problems with English, non-Roman scripts are so far beyond my abilities I'm more likely to pwn Martin Amis in a poetry slam than cope with the Japanese language. If you think I'm joking about the English, earlier today it took me three goes to get the spelling of "persuasive" correct enough for Chrome's spell-checker to understand what I was attempting. 


Kanae Minato's Confessions has been a huge bestseller in its native country, the film adaptation was nominated for an Oscar in 2011, but I requested it basically because I really like Japan. Which was lucky because this book is amazing.


Middle school teacher Yuko Moriguchi's four-year-old daughter is dead, drowned in the school's swimming pool in what everybody believes was a tragic accident. Yuko knows better. She knows her daughter was murdered by two of the students in her class and so, on her final day as a teacher, she announces this fact to her students, tells them what really happened, and what she has done about it. 


Confessions is what it says on the tin: the personal perspectives of this event and what follows. It begins with Yuko's lecture, written as it is spoken, then moves on to other stories told in different ways by various people involved in what happens. In lesser hands this could become dull or repetitive, but Minato's plotting is taut, her ideas horrific, and she performs the literary equivalent of a magician whipping a silken handkerchief to reveal his disappointingly un-dismembered assistant. And then she does it again. Then a couple more times with feeling. To the end, Minato is yanking back great swathes of fabric, forcing you to reassess and rethink what you've been told. It was only at the top of the final page that I understood what was going to happen by the bottom - and it is perfect. 


The story feels a little odd at first. The writing - which has the flatness I typically expect from a Japanese translation - sits uneasily with the story conveyed. The juxtaposition of realism and an almost absurd level of dramatic reveal pushed my credibility, but what felt discordant became understandable with the perspectives of other narrators. Trust Minato the writer, but do not trust her characters. Confessions should be an object lesson for anybody hoping to pen a psychological thriller of their own. 


I define a five star book as one which makes me want to run up to people in the street and make them read it. If I knew where you lived I'd be standing over you now. Confessions is dark, horrific, and immaculately done: you really want to read this one.


5 stars.



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text 2014-08-12 09:59
Dora's ARC - Confessions by Kanae Minato
Confessions - Kanae Minato

It arrived last night, I'm already 2/3s of the way through.


This book is good.


It might even be looking at a full five stars.



[For your reference, this book was provided to me for no monies by the fabulous Bookbridgr]







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review 2014-04-12 12:01
If this were a film, I'd want Duncan Jones to direct it - The Explorer by James Smythe
The Explorer - James Smythe

If you asked me, and I've no reason to suppose that you wouldn't because I'm fairly anti-social and all your attempts at conversation would meet with bored glances until you got onto the subject of books at which point I would become sufficiently enlivened to answer the questions you would surely be asking if you weren't concentrating quite so hard on backing away slowly, I'd tell you I don't like sci-fi books. I don't know why I think this because I can't think of a sci-fi book I haven't enjoyed. What I can think of are a few dozen books I've read the blurbs of at the library and put down again because I'm prejudiced against books in which the protagonist's name scores more than 38 points in Scrabble. 


The Explorer is the story of a journey. Mankind go into space. They will go out, they will turn around, they will come back triumphant. Our protagonist is Cormac Easton, a journalist who's on the crew to provide the people back home with the story. He is the human in a craft staffed by highly trained boffins, one of whom is dead when they wake up after take-off. 


The blurb of this one is at once incredibly misleading and incredibly accurate. It suggests you're going to get something action packed with Cormac trying to avoid dying - you're not. This is a tense, tightly plotted novel of the kind which doesn't make you wonder what's going to happen, it makes you watch as it does. I'm not going to tell you anything else about the plot because I think it would spoil it, I will however tell you that the blurb covers the first 20%ish *raises eyebrows in a significant fashion*


I'm not a big reader of sci-fi so I honestly don't know how it stacks up against the rest of the genre, but I would push it on people who like books about humans and their humanity. It's the big empty, close-up view of a person and their head.


If I have a criticism, it's probably with the story. I loved the way it was handled, the way it was written, but it's not terribly original. That said, it avoids feeling derivative and it brings its own identity to the party so I don't have a problem with it. I just like to complain.


I really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to reading the followup, The Echo. Which I actually already have. Spooky.


4 stars.






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