The One by John Marrs

It seems every January I read a book that I absolutely love and can’t put down.

 

Two years ago, I declared Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter my book of the year (regular readers will know it was just pipped to the post by A Little Life), and last year Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven retained the book of the year post right through to the end of the year.

 

The one for 2017 is The One by John Marrs, and while I’m stopping short of prematurely crowning it my book of the year, it is certainly a contender.

 

The One is set in a world where your soul mate can be determined through a DNA test. A company has discovered the gene and is charging people for the contact details of the loves of their lives – which is a wonderful business model.

 

The whole thing hinges on your partner having taken the test, however, and while some people get a result in a matter of days, others wait for weeks and months, even years.

 

We follow five very different people, all of whom have different reasons for taking the test.

 

Mandy is just getting over the break-up of her marriage; Christopher is a psychopath who took the test on a whim; Jade is a young girl looking for the love of her life; Nick is encouraged to take the test by his fiancée prior to their wedding; Ellie is a high powered businesswoman who seems to have no time for love in her life.

 

The book is constructed so that we get a small chapter (and I mean small, some are only two or three pages long) from each character’s view point, before moving on to the next. This makes it an incredibly easy read, because if you find any character dragging, it’s ok, because another one will be along soon.

 

Having said that, because of this it is a little difficult to invest in the characters. On consideration, however, the writer has done a good job of keeping erroneous detail out of those chapters. They’re packed full with detail and not a single word is wasted.

 

Each story is largely unrelated, although they do follow a similar theme, and brush up against each other occasionally. They all take very different paths and each one of them is quite believable, despite some moments that are a little larger than life.

 

I looked forward to reading this each time I picked it up, and I found myself staying up late on more than one occasion to just read a little bit more. Despite a few moments towards the end, it did lack a bit of emotional punch, although they were some truly gasp out loud moments.

 

This is one of those books that I would recommend to almost anyone. People who don’t read very often will find it accessible, while voracious readers will be able to consume quickly, but find enough intrigue and thought provoking questions to help whet their appetite.

 

I’d love to explore some of the stories a bit deeper (particularly Nick and Christopher’s) – and can’t help but feel this would make a great television series – think Tuesday night anthology series like The Syndicate or similar and you’ll get the idea.

 

Is The One the one for 2017? I’d like a bit more of an emotional impact, so I’m going to hold off for not, but it is certainly one of the ones.

 

The One by John Marrs is published in May by Del Rey

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The Watcher by Ross Armstrong

 

It’s really hard to review some books. I have a policy that I *try* to stick to of not revealing any major plot points, which can be difficult sometimes, especially thrillers.

 

I even know one person who get annoyed when she finds out a book has a twist, which I found hard to reconcile at first, because if there were no twists, then we’d have no books. But then I realised she was referring to the unexpected twists that you might get in an Adele Parks or a Jojo Moyes book, rather than in thrillers like Girl on the Train, which are screaming out at you that there is a twist.

 

Speaking of Girl on the Train, I’ve just finished reading The Watcher by Ross Armstrong, the latest but not the last in a long line of books where the publisher is comparing to the Paula Hawkins thriller.

 

There is, of course, a twist, and you read it expecting one, but where and how it comes is what keeps you turning the page.

 

The premise of The Watcher is that Lily lives in an apartment in a part of London where old blocks of flats are being demolished and replaced with luxury apartments. The mix of people on the estate is changing and Lily’s habit of bird-watching has also changed into watching her neighbours.

 

So far, so Rear Window.

 

One of the girls from the old part of the estate has gone missing, and most people are walking past the missing posters as if it’s nothing to do with them. Lily included.

 

But she starts to feel guilty. What if she should get involved. Maybe she can help. And so she starts to investigate and she soon learns that the person responsible may be in the flat opposite hers.

 

Her neighbour-watching steps up a gear.

 

All of this is told as part of a confessional, being recorded for some unknown person. Everything we know is from Lily’s point of view and while things start out as fairly standard, soon things start to become fantastical, and it’s hard to know whether we can really trust Lily, or whether writer is simply relying on some hackneyed clichés.

 

And… that’s all I can say without spoiling anything. It’s good. It’s better than Girl on the Train.

 

Armstrong treads a fine line at some points, and it nearly suffers for it, but he just about gets away with it, and makes for a fun Sunday afternoon read – it’ll make a great movie.

The Reader on the 6:27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

 

After reading the brief Grief is the Thing with Feathers I turned to The Reader on the 6:27, which at 194 pages is much longer – but still likely the second shortest book I’ve read in a very long time.

 

And here’s the thing. It’s too long.

 

The Reader on the 6:27 is the story of Guylain Vignolles a menial worker in a factory that’s sold purpose is to pulp books. I can, of course, relate to Guylain’s horror at all those lovely books being pulped, so full of potential, but not quite achieving it.

 

Every night he rescues from the machine some of the pages that have been pulped, and then, the next morning reads them aloud to his fellow passengers on his morning train.

 

It’s a wonderful hook, but what follows are two completely separate plots. While they don’t detract from each other, nor do they particularly compliment each other.

 

Guylain finds a memory stick one day, and reads the excerpts of the diary he finds on it. He reads it on the train, and then subsequently to the residents of the old people’s home he’s invited to visit by some of his passengers.

 

He falls in love with the writer of the diary entries and proceeds to track her down in her job as a cleaning attendant in a shopping centre toilet. His reading out loud on the train and the the subsequent consequences of that has no impact on his quest for his mysterious love.

 

It’s almost like the writer had a good idea, wrote it, and then realising it was a bit too short, fished in his ideas pool, found another good idea and stitched it together. It all feels a bit like padding, and I’m not sure entirely what the writer is trying to do.

 

Perhaps I’m too dense, or maybe there is no point to get.

 

The ideas ARE good however, and along with the writing and the unique cast of characters, they make a charming little book. It’s just a little galling that the publisher then slapped an £8.99 price point on it.

Grief is the Thing With Feathers – Max Porter

Back in November, I got the chance to present an award at the ‘Books are My Bag Reader’s Awards’. Like a nominee at the Oscars, it was an honour, just to be asked, but I also got to present the first award at the very awards.

 

I can already feel the blue plaque heading my way.

 

The award was for best fiction book of 2016 and the shortlist, selected by booksellers, was a strong one. Among the heavyweights of Maggie O’Farrell, Jessie Burton and Anne Enright were debut authors Joanna Cannon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Max Porter.

 

I’d read three of them and Cannon’s The Trouble With Goats and Sheep was already in my reading pile. When I spotted Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers in my local WHSmith, I grabbed it so that I could add a fourth tick to my list (and it’s not often I actually buy books, so this marks it out as special right away).

 

It is not a long book, I could read it under an hour, but it’s not meant to be read in one sitting. It’s to be savoured, dipped into.

 

When I revealed it as winner up on that stage I said “and the winner is… on my bedside table, so no spoilers please.”

 

In reality, that’s a stupid thing to say about this book – it’s not the type of book that has spoilers, in fact, the spoiler is right there on the front cover. Grief is the thing with feathers. The metaphor of crow is spelled out for you right there.

 

(As an aside, the reason I ended up speaking such nonsense was because I was concentrating on not saying what was actually in my head which was namely “What are you doing, Alex? Get off the fucking stage.”)

 

So, what is it about? Dad. Boys. Crow.

 

A woman has died leaving behind three men. Dad and her boys. Dad, a Ted Hughes fan, introduces Crow into their lives. Crow is the thing with feathers. Crow is grief.

 

At first crow seems quite ominous, an imposing force on the small family’s life, however as we progress through the snapshots of their lives we learn that the the crow, their grief, is there to protect them from something worse: despair.

 

This book is more poetry than prose, each snapshot of their lives presented in short form, a small anecdote, or even just a sentence or two, capturing a moment or feeling as the boys deal with their grief.

 

The type of book you will be able to dip in and out of and find different meanings each time in the same sentences.

 

I’m not sure it would have been the title I would have picked to win the award for best Fiction 2016 – it feels different to fiction somehow, a category of it’s own, an outpouring of emotion, and not the sort of book I would normally read.

 

But I’m glad I did – and I’m pleased I got to present Porter with his award, because it certainly deserves recognition.