A(nother) Review: The Closer I Get by Paul Burston

I’m trying out a new format for reviews – just to see if it will help me find the time to actually write them! I’m still reading loads, but not finding the time to put my thoughts down in words. Hopefully this will work!

The Facts

Title The Closer I Get

Author Paul Burston (Twitter: @PaulBurston)

Publisher Orenda Books

Publication Date 11thJuly 2019

Buy it on Bert’s Books bertsbooks.co.uk/the-closer-i-get

The Blurb

Tom is a successful author, but he’s struggling to finish his novel. His main distraction is an online admirer, Evie, who simply won’t leave him alone.

Evie is smart, well read and unstable; she lives with her father and her social-media friendships are not only her escape, but everything she has. When she’s hit with a restraining order, her world is turned upside down, and Tom is free to live his life again, to concentrate on writing

But things aren’t really adding up. For Tom is distracted but also addicted to his online relationships, and when they take a darker, more menacing turn, he feels powerless to change things. Because maybe he needs Evie more than he’s letting on

Does it deliver?

The first two paragraphs of the blurb are a neat summary of Part One, the first sixty pages or so, where we flit between Evie’s POV and Tom’s POV during the time of the trial. 

Tom’s parts are told in third person, reflecting on the events that led them to the trial, while Evie’s sections are in first person and told through the course of the trial.  

Part Two picks up after Evie is given her restraining order and this is where the blurb doesn’t quite match up. I didn’t feel that Tom was particularly addicted to his online relationships. He does neglect a real-life friendship with Emma when he’s cruising – but that’s in real-life, not online.

Characters

The characters are sparse, we are tightly focused on Tom and Evie and their relationship, and as you might guess from the blurb, it’s only really through Tom that we meet anyone else. His best friend Emma, a hook-up called Luke, and his next-door neighbour whom he starts to form a bond with.

And though we don’t focus on them very much, it’s only really Luke who doesn’t quite feel real to me (only because his presence in parts is a little coincidental). Tom and Evie feel real, both of them flawed, and as a result we’re never quite sure if they’re both telling the truth or if neither of them are.

Tom, particularly, is well-drawn, both as the victim, and as someone who needs the victim-hood. He seeks out Evie, wanting to know where she is, wanting to keep an eye on her, and while it might be a case of wanting to keep your enemies close, it dances the line between self-protection and self-harm. 

Setting

Set between London and Hastings, this is very much set in the real world, more so than many other books I’ve read. Burston’s characters think and speak in the way we all do. They don’t sensor themselves to stop them inadvertently advertising a brand. 

When they walk past a bookshop, they walk past Foyles, not a bookshop. When Tom talks about being picked for a book club, he talks about Richard and Judy, not a ‘TV Book Club’. They’re small things, but it helps the whole world much more real.

Perhaps the only thing against it is the world doesn’t feel hugely populated, perhaps because of the limited use of characters. This works really well in Hastings, but the London scenes felt a bit 28 Days Later to me.

Verdict9/10

Of course I liked it. I don’t review books if I don’t like them, but I more than liked this book, I loved it. 

It was a gripping read, one I kept wanting to pick back up whenever I wasn’t reading it, and so I devoured it. 

It’s a new kind of fiction, not just because it explores the effects that social media has on our lives – the stalker can find out everything she needs with just a click of a mouse, but also, the victim can stalk right back – but because it’s that rare thing where a gay man is front and centre, but the plot doesn’t revolve around his sexuality.

Of course, it’s referenced, and it does play into the plot, because it’s part of who Tom is, but it doesn’t define the plot. A lot of what happened to him, could have happened to a straight man. 

Thrillers where the lead character happens to be gay are rare, and that’s what makes this refreshing. The fact it’s so well written is what makes it excellent.

Don’t Forget…

You can buy The Closer I Getfrom my own online book shop Bert’s Books. If you use the code RAMBLING at the check-out, you’ll get 10% off.

A(nother) Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Last week I was heading into London and found myself on a train with no book – EEK! So, I ran into WHSmith in the station and looked for something I hadn’t read yet.

 

It was a small one with only a handful of books – so there wasn’t much there I hadn’t read, but from the new Richard and Judy Book Club (my boss has asked me to add here that it said Book Club is indeed exclusive to WHSmith and is in fact Britain’s Biggest Book Club) – there was Little Fires Everywhere.

 

That’s not a grammatically incorrect description of the state of the store, but in fact the new book from Celeste Ng (whose twitter name is helpfully @pronounced_ing).

 

The story is set in the planned community of Shaker Heights where Mrs Elena Richardson wakes up to find her house on fire. Her husband and four kids are all out of the house and she escapes easily, but once outside, with the fire brigade in attendance, she learns that the fire was started deliberately.

 

There were in fact, little fires set everywhere through the house.

 

What follows takes us back to a year previously when the mysterious artist Mia and her daughter Pearl move to town, renting a home from the Richardsons.

 

Mia’s presence figuratively sets little fires going inside all of the Richardsons, her and Pearl’s influence on them bringing forward a maelstrom of different emotions amongst them all, particularly the kids, who much of the story focuses on.

 

What I loved about this was the way the story seamlessly shifted point of view across eight different characters. Some books I’ve read in the past have struggled with just three, or over ambitiously gone for ten or twelve, but Ng manages to make each of them engaging enough and for the right length of time that it’s not off-putting.

 

Even my least favourite character – Mrs Richardson – earns that accolade through being a busy-body, rather than through poor writing, or for outstaying her welcome.

 

The only thing I found slightly distracting? It took me a while to figure out exactly when the book was set. My automatic assumption with most books is they are in present day – so when I worked out that one of the teenage characters ought to be in their early thirties, I realised I had to go back and reassess.

 

Maybe I missed something – quite possible – or maybe it just wasn’t clear. Still, it was only a minor niggle for a book I really enjoyed. The next time you’re in a train station and needing a read… give this one a go!

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is available now from Abacus

 

 

The Widow by Fiona Barton

“The ultimate psychological thriller.”

Ok.

 

“Shortlisted for Richard and Judy Search for a bestseller competition”

Interesting.

 

“If you liked the Girl on the Train, you’ll love The Widow.”

Oh.

 

Oh dear.

 

Before I started reading it, I wanted to like The Widow, there’s a little bit of a buzz about it in the industry, and I love it when a book becomes a huge success, but regular readers will know that likening something to The Girl on the Train is not going to massively enthuse me.

 

On a side note, it’s really irritating when people say things like “2016’s Girl on the Train”

 

For a start Girl on the Train was not 2015’s anything, it stood on it’s own merit.

 

Secondly, nobody remembers what 2014’s Gone Girl was (mostly because Gone Girl was still selling).

 

Thirdly, you’re only setting the readers up for disappointment. Either they hated Girl on the Train and so won’t buy this, or they loved it – and this doesn’t love up to it.

 

I was disappointed by Girl on The Train (she kept getting off the train, for one) and so with some trepidation I sat down to begin The Widow.

 

We’ll start with the positives… mostly because there are some.

 

It was a total page-turner which pushes the reader on, right to the end.

 

Kate, the reporter, is a very well drawn character and the scenes involving her and the photographer are the most realistic of the whole book. Not surprising considering the previous occupation of the author (clue: it rhymes with preporter).

 

Despite being set across several years, and jumping about in time in no discernible pattern, the book actually flows quite well. The time jumps are not jarring as they easily could have been – and often are in other books.

 

There are other positives, but they involve the resolution of the plot and so I’m not going to go into too much detail on those.

 

Onto the negatives, and in truth, it’s not negatives plural, there’s one thing wrong with this book.

 

The writing is lazy.

 

Jean and Glen, the couple at the heart of the story, are written as if they’re in their late fifties, sixties – but the writer for absolutely no reason has insisted on putting them in their thirties. Every time their young age is referenced, it shatters the illusion, the image that has formed in the mind.

 

The writing is spot on… for an older couple. And there is no benefit to pretending they’re young.

 

This is the biggest problem with the writing, but there are various other things that don’t quite work.

 

For example, our police officer gains a new colleague during the book named Zara, she is classed as thirty five, and then the writer suggests she is named such as her parents were probably fans of the Royal Family.

 

That’ll be Zara Phillips they’re referencing who isn’t even thirty five now, let alone in 2008 when that particular scene was set.

 

It took me ten seconds on the internet to work out the maths of that, but once again, it was a moment that took me out of the book, because it didn’t seem quite right.

 

And once again, there was no need for it. She could have just been called Zara with no further reference as to why and the book would have carried on fine.

 

There are lots of little things like this throughout and it’s so disappointing because this could have been a really good book.

 

Ultimately, it’s ok. It’s annoying when you read it, but you do want to read it, and you do want to find out what happened. It’s a great read for passing some time on a plane, or by a pool, and by that measure it will sell really well, but you probably won’t remember it a week later.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

The Torun Way book club is back.

For those of you that have been reading the blog for a while (anticipating that number to be somewhere between 0 and 0.5) you’ll know all about the Torun Way Book Club.

For those that don’t know what it is… take a wild guess.

It actually came back earlier in the summer when we read The Girl on the Train but I was going to read that anyway (and we all know how well that turned out).

This time Debs chose I Let You Go, a Richard and Judy summer pick, and also a title selected by the Loose Women.

If that doesn’t say quality, I don’t know what does.

Five-year-old Jacob is out walking with his mother when he breaks away from her and is hit by a car. He dies in her arms as the driver of the car speeds away.

The story then follows Jenna as she leaves Bristol to get away from the death of Jacob and DI Ray Stevens who is investigating the hit and run, attempting to track down the driver.

At first, the book felt odd to me. It flipped between Jenna mourning poor Jacob, trying to start a new life in a remote Welsh village and a police procedural miles away.

It felt like two different books, like last year’s Daughter by Jane Shemilt stitched together with a Peter James book. Both of them very good, but an odd combination.

I struggled with it at first. Jenna’s story seemed to be developing at some pace, meeting new people, then getting on with her life, while Stevens story in Bristol seemed to centre around the struggles of his marriage and his growing attraction to a colleague.

Then there is one of the best twists I’ve ever come across in a book. I didn’t see it coming at all.

There’s not much else I can say that doesn’t ruin the twist, so I do suggest you go and read the book, then come back to me.

There is another twist later on in the book that made me think “Oh, FFS.” – but then the twist is swiftly explained and the book is rescued.

The two parts of the story still remain separate, and I’m struggling to understand the point of delving into the police’s private lives for no other reason than padding the book out a little.

The first third of the book is definitely built around the twist, which is a shame. It would be nice to see that section become a bit more developed, because I can believe some people would have given up before the revelation.

Like I Let You Go, the return of The Torun Way Book Club got off to a shaky start, but is now back on track. It’s my turn to pick the next book. It’ll come as no surprise that I’ve picked A Little Life

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

In my blog post about The Martian I warned about pre-judging books because they’re from a genre you might not normally read.

 

It’s a lesson I learned from a book I read a short while before I read The Martian, when I read The Devil in the Marshalsea.

 

I think I’ve said on here before that I don’t really like books set in the past. If I haven’t said it, then I meant to.

 

The Devil in the Marshalsea, Daughter and The Martian are all books from the Richard and Judy Book Club’s Autumn 2014 selection. This is where I get a bit work-y, so forgive me, please.

 

My job means I get to work on promoting this Book Club in our stores, which means I get to hear a lot about each of the books, including first hand what Richard and Judy think about them when they’re recording the podcasts for the series.

 

I was trying to read as many of the books prior to the filming day as possible, or at least a bit of as many of them as I could. I figured I’d start with Devil in the Marshalsea because, being a historical novel it was the one I was going to enjoy the least.

 

Well, I got that wrong, didn’t I?

 

I worked out a while back that the reason I don’t like historical novels is because often it feels like the author is showing off everything they’ve discovered while researching.

 

They go into far too much detail about the world their characters inhabit – they either do it in a third person narrative, which ends up being long paragraphs of just descriptive text before the characters even turn up.

 

Or, even worse, in a first person narrative, the main character wonders around supplying remarkably insightful comments about the political situation of the time or else it’s a surprise they’re not walking into things because they’re so busy describing everything in tiny, tiny detail.

 

Take any historical novel, lift out a paragraph and ask yourself – if this was set in the present time would anyone really have that much conscious thought about a lamppost? Probably not – yet, it seems a perfectly normal thing to do in any book set pre-WWII

 

BUT – my point is, that in this book Antonia Hodgson does something quite remarkable. She puts a simple author’s note at the beginning to give a little context about the world we’re visiting – and then she just gets on with the plot – which turns out to be quite a wonderful little murder mystery.

 

Anything else I might say would possibly ruin the plot, but a handy little hint to anyone who does now read it is to remember the rule about any murder mystery. Don’t try to work out who the murderer was, work out why the victim was murdered in the first place.

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

In the last review, I talked about an influx of books that flip between two time periods and said that I didn’t always feel the need for it.

 

Elizabeth Is Missing used it effectively to explore the concept of memory and put us into the mind of the main character… Daughter by Jane Shemilt uses the same technique to do the opposite.

 

Jenny starts the book, alone, isolated in a cottage, cut off from her family, the only communication she receives from her husband are blank postcards, a way of simply saying hello.

 

And then back to the past, a year previously where Jenny is surrounded by family, one daughter, twin sons and a loving husband.

 

Then Naomi disappears. One night, she just doesn’t come home.

 

The book alternates between the immediate aftermath of the disappearance, where Jenny begins to learn the secrets surround her family.

 

There is nothing particularly revolutionary about this story, it’s your basic mystery premise, which presents a number of suspects and possibilities and slowly whittles them down for the reader.

 

What it does manage to do very well is present the suspects – and part of that is down to the structure of presenting the past and the future at the same time.

 

There are parts where you know more than Jenny does and that puts you in a more advantaged position – and then suddenly, you’re a year in the future, and she knows more than you do.

 

What annoyed me was that I twigged ‘who’ it was straight away – and then forgot about them. The reason I say ‘who’ is because, from the beginning, it’s not entirely clear if Naomi has been kidnapped, or if she has run away.

 

I can’t really say any more than that – apart from that my gaydar is so good, I spotted a gay character on his first introduction, PAGES before it was confirmed – because I fear will give too much away, but the ending… the ending inspires debate.

 

I was fortunate enough to meet the author on Tuesday when she was being interviewed by Richard and Judy as part of their new Book Club. The ending divided Richard and Judy, but also my colleagues and I. Some people like it, some people don’t, some people interpret one thing from it, while others take a completely different view.

 

For me, what made it, was the heartbreaking realisation as the book went on that Jenny doesn’t know her family, specifically her daughter as well as she does. And, that it feels like she starts to hope that her daughter has been taken against her will rather than simply chosen to leave because that would mean her daughter isn’t a complete stranger.

 

It wasn’t touched on in any great detail, and was maybe just something that I read into it, but both options were as terrible the other. Do you hope that you knew your daughter really well, and that she’s now in danger, or do you hope that your life has been a lie, that you don’t know her, but she’s somewhere else, living her life.

 

She’s happy… without you?