Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Riku Onda — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I was doubly intrigued by the blurb of Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight; first by the premise of a man and woman sharing a final night together before the end of their relationship, then by the twist that each believes the other to be a murderer.

I arrange my face into a smile, ready to greet the man who may be planning to kill me.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda

The opening chapters certainly live up to that promise. Riku Onda successfully evokes the tension from both characters’ perspectives without any hint as to which of them is more justified in their anxieties. Riku Onda doesn’t pull her punches, the atmosphere is immediately charged with danger as well as the complicated emotions of two people saying goodbye to each other and to a phase of their lives.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight isn’t a detective novel, even though both characters profess to want to know ‘whodunnit’, and in some ways that hurts it. Riku Onda never successfully conveys any motive for the possible murder from either character, which makes it hard to really believe their suspicions of one another.

Why do her words come to me in snatches, like sound bites from a documentary? They filter into my brain like pieces in a mosaic and settle into place.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda

Despite the fraught situation Aki and Hiro find themselves in, Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight isn’t an emotionally raw novel. The prose keeps the reader somewhat detached from both characters, even at moments that are supposed to be loaded with fear or anger. Similarly, the twist ending feels interesting without having much impact, either on the readers’ feelings or the course of events. By the end of the book, nothing has really changed from the beginning in a material way.

Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight was interesting, but not hugely memorable, nor something that seems it would reward rereading.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruin Zafón — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books that seems to always be featured in book shops. I must have picked it up a dozen times to read the blurb or the first page but never quite got around to actually buying it. It’s a book about books, and while those appeal to me as a reader in theory, they are often slightly disappointing in practice.

Such was the case with The Shadow of the Wind. While the cemetery of forgotten books is a fascinating concept, Carlos Ruiz Zafón spends hardly any time there. The Shadow of the Wind isn’t so much a book about books as a book about one author and his mysterious backstory. Except, some of the mystery, specifically Lain Coubert’s identity, could be guessed hundreds of pages before it was officially revealed.

Women have an infallible instinct for knowing when a man has fallen madly in love with them, especially when the male in question is both young and a complete dunce.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruin Zafón

Daniel and Julián simply aren’t that interesting as characters, unless you find adolescent male romances particularly compelling. Sadly, the women they fall in love with aren’t very well fleshed out, they exist mostly as aloof and unattainable examples of femininity, which is tiresome. Carlos Ruin Zafón does much better with the minor characters: Daniel’s father is sympathetic, Fermin’s story is unexpected, Bernada is sweet, and I could go on. In terms of building a large and interconnected cast of characters, Carlos Ruin Zafón has succeeded, but the story he chooses to tell with them isn’t all that inspired.

I looked again at the portrait of that couple and knew for sure that the young man was Julián Carax, smiling at me from the past, unable to see the flames that were closing in on him.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruin Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind‘s prose is very nice, there were several poetic descriptions of Barcelona, usually at the beginnings of chapters, as well as some lovely atmospheric moments throughout. It does veer towards pretension at times, but not enough to ruin the reading experience.

Overall, The Shadow of the Wind is solidly written, and has good moments especially in Carlos Ruin Zafón’s minor characters, but the main story wasn’t something I’d especially recommend.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org
Cover: thestorygraph.com

When book club nominated a book with a lighthouse on the cover, obviously I had to vote for it! The Lamplighters actually has two covers, both with lighthouses, but which give wildly different ideas of what the book is going to be like, so I was curious to see which one would prove more accurate.

A fifty-metre column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers’ safety.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Like most of the lighthouse books on this blog, The Lamplighters is historical fiction, set when lighthouses were still manned rather than automatic, but it’s more recent than most, only going back to the 1970s. What also sets it apart is that it’s about a tower lighthouse, jutting directly out of the sea, where there isn’t space for keepers to bring their wives and families with them. Perhaps that was why it was difficult to keep the threads of the marriages straight. Arthur-and-Helen and Bill-and-Jenny merged into such a shapeless muddle that I had to make a note in my reading notebook which I referred back to every time there was a chapter from one of the wives’ perspectives.

Even after finishing The Lamplighters, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a couple of of the plots. Emma Stonex was clearly keeping information back from her readers, raising questions which you’d hope would be answered by the conclusion to the story. Except, several of them weren’t. Maybe it was intentional, because real life rarely offers neatly-wrapped solutions to every question, but in a novel billing itself as a mystery, it was more frustrating than thought-provoking.

The truth is that women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear because this book, like all your others, is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Those plots which did feel complete were enjoyable, particularly the stories of those left behind: Jenny, Helen and the novelist Dan Sharp. (Michelle, despite being the most distinct of the female characters, sadly got a bit abandoned.) Bill’s storyline could have been more effectively handled, because the bare bones of it were interesting.

There was certainly a lot going on in The Lamplighters, arguably too much because no single plot or detail really got the attention and weight that it deserved. Maybe a less complex structure would’ve delivered the story with more impact. While I’ll be keeping this for lighthouse reasons, I won’t necessarily be running out to buy more books by Emma Stonex, unless one catches my interest or comes highly recommended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — Revisit Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Like most Agatha Christie novels, I’ve listened to And Then There Were None a dozen times and know the solution of the mystery by heart. It was interesting to slow down and read it on paper, because different things jumped out at me.

Enveloped in an aura of righteousness and unyielding principles, Miss Brent sat in her crowded third-class carriage and triumphed over its discomfort and its heat.

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s prose is clear and to-the-point, summing up all ten of her main characters in only a few words. The descriptions of Emily Brent and Anthony Marston were particularly effective, while on the other hand it’s easy to get ex-Inspector Blore and Philip Lombard mixed up in the early stages. Even knowing the ending, it’s interesting to watch the atmosphere of increasing dread play havoc on everyone’s anxieties.

“My point is that there can be no exceptions allowed on the score of character, position or probability. What we must now examine is the possibility of eliminating one or more persons on the facts. To put it simply, is there among us one or more persons who could not possibly have administered cyanide to [the first victim], or an overdose of sleeping draughts to [the second victim], and who had no opportunity of striking the blow that killed [the third victim]?”

And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

One of the things which makes And Then There Were None a really clever mystery is the total lack of trustworthy sources. Every character is equally open to suspicion, and that means the reader can’t trust anything, not even murder mystery staples like time of death or who last saw the victim alive. And by the time solid alibis are established, the characters are all too psychologically wound up to recognise and act on it.

While And Then There Were None is widely recognised as one of Agatha Christie’s most unique offerings, it’s surprising to me that it’s so often recommended to people who haven’t read any others. The very fact that it’s not a detective story makes it a slightly odd place to begin. I’d advise new Christie readers to start with something a bit more traditional and work their way up to And Then There Were None once they’re familiar with the format!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart — New Review, Bookclub Edition

After a run of book club books I was immediately excited about (‘muggle goes to dark Hogwarts’, ‘the navy with dragons‘), we’ve now hit a few books where the premise doesn’t particularly hook me. Which isn’t to say that the books themselves won’t be good! Only that they can’t be summed up in a catchy elevator pitch.

The beginning of The Bone Shard Daughter left me a little dubious. In good news, it came out of the gate at a good, quick pace, with things immediately happening. In somewhat less good news, it seemed to centre around an amnesia plot. When I took a creative writing module at university, it seemed that everyone wanted to be write about either being in a coma or having amnesia, so my history involves having read it handled pretty amateurishly.

Fortunately, Andrea Stewart was anything but amateurish. She managed perspective shifts in a way I haven’t seen before, and yet they immediately felt right. I didn’t even notice until the end that some perspectives are written in the first person while others are in the third, and that’s the kind of thing that jarred me out of The Light Between Oceans pretty badly!

The Bone Shard Daughter is as much a mystery as it is a fantasy novel, in large part thanks to that amnesia plot I mentioned. I was always trying to work out who characters really were, how they were related to one another, why they were acting in the way they did. I’m not a reader who constantly tries to guess where books are going, but The Bone Shard Daughter really caught me up in the way a murder mystery does. It even has what you might call ‘a second body’ partway through. My notes are full of questions: ‘Is X causing the memory loss?’, ‘Is Y related to Z?’. Many of them get answered, but there are enough left over that I really want to read the next book in the series.

Always, always at the end of these fights, Ranami would say that Phalue just didn’t understand, and Phalue would say “Well, then make me understand!” And then Ranami would look at her as though she’d asked a dog to sail a boat. It was like they stood on two different islands when they argued, and neither of them could find a way across.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Because there was so much else going on, the character development didn’t stand out to me immediately. It was only towards the end that I really realised just how integral it was to the novel. I can’t talk about the intensity of Lin’s character arc without spoiling a huge chunk of her plot, so I won’t, but Phalue’s reluctance to come to terms with her privilege is something I haven’t seen before in a fantasy novel. The Bone Shard Daughter compares favourably with Witchsign because I’m supposed to dislike the bad parent, rather than being expected to sympathise with him. I found that much more effective.

He kept a veneer of politeness over his commands, but it was thin, and easily scratched away by disobedience.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter was a very different kind of fantasy novel, so much so that it feels weird to compare it to other book club books that I’ve enjoyed. That said, this is only the third time I’ve immediately added the next book in a series to my ‘want to read’ list, which has to say something!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt — Reread Review

I picked up The Secret History mostly because I’d heard of it. I had some idea that Rebecca had enjoyed it, though I don’t recall us every talking about it beyond that. I wanted to reread it because I didn’t really remember what I made of it. Which hasn’t worked out so well, because having finished it for a second time, I’m still not sure what I make of it.

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw’, that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature?

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

It’s got a great ‘first’ line, especially for someone like me who reads entirely too much writing about writing and values character development over just about everything else. (It’s actually the first line past the prologue, but we’ll count it!) Overall, Donna Tartt’s writing is compelling. I always wanted to read more, and only very briefly found my interest waning (around the funeral) before it picked up again.

A November stillness was settling like a deadly oxymoron on the April landscape.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

As often happens, I found myself wondering what genre to put The Secret History in. It’s about a crime, certainly, but it’s not a ‘whodunnit’. The first half of the story is, I suppose, a ‘whydunnit’, but even that doesn’t accurately capture the second half of the novel. I described it to Caroline as either a ‘dark spin on a coming of age story’, which feels more or less right to me. The characters certainly leave behind the innocence of childhood in a pretty significant way. They’re coming to cynicism, and responsibility. From what I know of Atonement, I’d describe that in a similar way.

So there is character development, even if it’s mostly that the cast go from people I don’t much care for to people I definitely dislike. That’s fine, I don’t need to Richard and Henry and the rest of the students in this kind of story. I find them interesting, I want Donna Tartt to tell me more and more about them, even if I wouldn’t want to break bread with any of them!

I believe that having a great diversity of teachers is harmful and confusing for a young mind, in the same way I believe that it is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

There isn’t much else for me to say about The Secret History. It’s a well-written book. It’s even a good book, one that I enjoyed reading more than once. But perhaps it’s not my kind of book in the way that some others are.

Rating: 3 out of 5.