Book review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

blog book review The Stranger Diaries

I decided to request this on NetGalley when I saw that it was described as “A gripping contemporary Gothic thriller… Wilkie Collins and MR James meet Gone Girl and Disclaimer”; I do love a Gothic thriller!

Clare Cassidy is a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, about whom she teaches a short course  every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by the body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case. And Claire realises she is right when, after the (first) murder, she notices some other writing in her diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

I enjoyed this novel, particularly the meta narrative element of the novel. Elly Griffiths ‘quotes’ regularly from Holland’s work throughout The Stranger Diaries and in fact opens the novel with a long extract from his most famous short story, before shifting the reader cleverly into the main story arc by introducing Clare’s creative writing group deconstructing the Gothic story.

The only quibble I had was with the ‘big reveal’ – I wasn’t necessarily convinced by the murderer or his motive. However, it was a lot of fun getting to the denouement and I really enjoyed reading it.

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It’s a (wo)man’s world

Apparently it’s International Women’s Day today, so I thought that I would write about just a few of the women who influenced and inspired me as a child and young woman. Growing up, I always felt eminently confident that I could study any topic I wanted, have any career I wanted, have any life I wanted. And much of that feeing was down to the stories of the women who had made their mark on history, who were a wonderful character in a book, women who had bucked the trend. The following are just a few of those women; it’s an eclectic selection, a personal one, and yes, I know that there are many, many more I could have listed!
Wonder Woman
Who wasn’t inspired by Wonder Woman as a young girl?! She had a truth lasso. And an invisible plane. And she always won against the bad guys. There weren’t many female superheroes when I was growing up so Wonder Woman was particularly special to me.
George from the Famous Five stories
George should be held up as an example to all girls. She’s a tomboy who doesn’t want to ‘play house’; she wants adventures; she’s fearless and most importantly, she talks back to Julian (pompous prig that he is) and has an awesome dog called Timmy. I devoured The Famous Five books as a child, and I don’t care how non-PC these stories are perceived to be now, George still rocks!
Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni
She took on the Romans and won. Well, at first; the Romans won eventually and killed her. But she gave it a damn good shot and I always loved the illustrations of her in my history book, arm raised in a fist, standing in her chariot driving towards the enemy at the head of her army. A woman leading an army. Something else that was rare in my history books. Which leads me onto…
Elizabeth I
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too.” Elizabeth was a powerful ruler, she wasn’t a consort, she ruled in her own right. She faced down the Spanish threat, countless assassination attempts and managed relatively successfully to keep the religious in-fighting to a minimum. It was so refreshing to learn at school about a woman in control, in charge, as opposed to the endless stories of male leaders and their derring-doing.
Amelia Earhart
A female pilot. So no nonsense about women not being able to navigate or understand machinery!
Jane Austen
Yes Jane Austen was a ‘spinster’ living her quiet life in Bath. But what a waspish tongue she had, what a fabulous turn of phrase. So cutting and every word packing a punch. Her sentences are pure joy to read, the situations she wrote about still recognizable today. If I could write just one sentence in my life as perfectly crafted as one of Austen’s, I could die a happy woman.
Anita Roddick, The Body Shop founder
I have to admit I am not actually a massive fan of The Body Shop products, although I was a sucker for the banana hair putty and chamomile rinse as a teenager who wanted to be blonder but didn’t have the guts or the money for blonde highlights. But Anita Roddick was more than a woman who sold toiletries. She highlighted issues; she raised awareness of environmental challenges and supported fair trade, well before it became ‘trendy’ to be concerned about these things. A true trailblazer and one who made me realize that not every company was set up and run by men. And that women in business could be, and were, a reality.
Carmen Callil, founder of Virago
I devoured the Virago Classics novels as a teenager. Every time I saw that distinctive dark green livery and tiny apple logo on its spine in the bookstore or library, I had to have it. Antonia White. Willa Cather. Elizabeth Bowen. Writers I would never have come across, never have had the opportunity to read, if it hadn’t been for Callil’s vision for a women’s press. My heart still leaps when I see a Virago title I haven’t read yet.

There are obviously many, many more women out there who have been an inspiration to others in the past and who are an inspiration today, and I appreciate that I haven’t mentioned any female scientists, engineers, linguists, artists, but I am an English Literature graduate and books and authors will always be my inspiration in all areas of my life. In fact, if you would like to read more about fictional heroines, I suggest you read Samantha Ellis’ How to be a Heroine (Or, what I’ve learned from reading too much). It is a wonderfully entertaining book about the fictional women that have inspired and sustained the author over the years.
One last thing. At my current workplace (a publishing company), five of its seven board members are women. So not only do I read about inspirational women, read writing BY inspirational women, but I work with inspirational women every day. Who make a successful career the norm, not the exception. And so that gives me hope that maybe one day we won’t feel the need for International Women’s Days, women-only author prizes or women-only clubs. Because successful women will be the norm everywhere.

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Unread, now read book 14 – Every Day, David Levithan

Every Day

For all of you who have fond memories of watching Quantum Leap in the early 90s, Every Day is for you! A 16-year-old, wakes up each morning to find himself in a different person’s body. Every day. They are always the same age as the protagonist (known as ‘A’) but that is the only common denominator: pretty, mean, gay, jock, emo’, suicidal, happy; ‘A’ experiences each person’s life from waking up to falling asleep, approximately 16-18 hours, before then waking up as the next person the following morning. Apparently ‘A’ doesn’t remember a time when this hasn’t happened to him. He has never spent more than one day with a family as far back as his memories stretch. Luckily (and usefully for the plot!) ‘A’ can access the person’s memories and use these to get through the day.  It’s also helpful that ‘A’ has access to an email account as this means that he can keep track of his real ‘self’ across his daily transitions; he frequently emails himself information and notes on the people he was ‘in’ and thoughts he has about his predicament to give himself continuum (and then cautiously wipes all internet history from whosever computer he has used). ‘A’ has also set himself rules, and constructed a coping mechanism to help him with the transitions day after day:

Follow the person’s daily routine.

Don’t draw attention to yourself.

Don’t interfere.

Respect the person you are ‘in’ and keep them safe by making good decisions.

Don’t leave traces of yourself.

Don’t fall in love.

But of course, one day he meets Rhiannon. And ‘A’ breaks all of his rules.

Rest assured, this is not a soppy coming of age, a Romeo and Juliet-esque doomed romance novel. Every Day intelligently explores a fascinating concept and makes the reader think about what makes ‘you’ you, what drives people to make choices, and reminds you that no-one should another judge another on appearance alone.

I think I would class this as a YA novel, but only because the main character(s) are teenagers and the novel centres around everyday issues that teenagers face. It would be a fabulous text for use in schools to discuss ethics, or in English Literature when discussing ‘issues’ such as bullying, or how to analyze character. Because ‘A’ is always someone else, as well as himself, it teaches him to be tolerant and thoughtful of others. And some of the moral/ethical dilemmas he faces are genuinely tough; for example, he wakes up one morning as Kelsea Cook who has some form of mental illness and is suicidal. ‘A’ finds her journal and realises that she is planning to kill herself in six days’ time. What can he do? He will not ‘be’ her after that day so has to take action instantly. Then there is ‘Day 5998′ (chapters are titled as consecutive numbered days) when he wakes up as a drug addict.

Anyway, I could list all of the people’A’ ‘inhabits’ and what happens to him and Rhiannon… but I think you should read it and find out for yourself!

Unread, now read book 13 – Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth

Goodbye Columbus

Out of all the impulsively bought books that have been languishing around unread for the last year on my shelves, this probably has the silliest reason as to why I bought it. Put simply, it’s because Julian Morrow in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History makes a sly joke to Richard Papen about English freshman needing to purchase a copy of Goodbye Columbus for their course. Told you it was silly.

For some reason, that literary reference always stuck with me even though I didn’t know anything more about the novel than the title, not even who it was by. So when I saw a copy in a secondhand bookstore and noticed it was written by Philip Roth who I have read and (kind of) enjoyed, I decided to buy it. Like I said I have read other novels by Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, made the mistake of reading it in public and blushed quite a bit; American Pastoral, which I liked a lot) so I assumed that Goodbye Columbus would have similar themes and focus on a Jewish male protagonist who had some sort of angst going on.

And now that I have read it, I don’t have a lot more to say about Columbus than that! It’s always interesting reading a novel written at/set in an earlier time to which you currently live; the social mores portrayed are usually very different, particularly what men and women respectively want from life, their attitudes towards sex and marriage, etc. And Columbus is no different. But it didn’t really hook me; I didn’t get interested in any of the characters, who all felt a little two-dimensional. But then, it is his first novel; if you read some of his later novels, such as American Pastoral, his writing is highly accomplished. So there you go, not a novel (well novella, it’s pretty short) I would reread but it wasn’t a ‘bad’ novel. And for those who are interested, apparently it was made into a film, starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin in 1969.

 

Unread, now read book 12 – The Glass Room, Simon Mawer

The Glass Room

This is a domestic novel, concentrating on one family, the Landauers, and their close friends and what happens to them all throughout the 1930s and 40s (and up to present day) in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia (as it is called at the time). Liesl and Victor Landauer are newly married, happy and looking forward to their future together, starting with an ambitious new house build in ‘Mesto’ (fictional Brno) in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia. A modern house, a glass house, it reflects and reinforces all of their modernistic dreams and is a meeting place for the cultural figures of their acquaintaince, including pianists and poets. But Victor is a Jew. And war is coming. Soon they have to flee their home, first to Switzerland, then Cuba, then eventually the US. Their beautiful glass house is abandoned,  is requisitioned first by one occupying force, then another, before finally being claimed by the Communists and turned into a museum.

From an historical point of view I found this novel interesting as I didn’t know much about the Czechs’ experience during the war; obviously I have read a lot of novels set in WWII France, Britain, Germany, etc. and learnt a lot of WWII history at school but I have never really read much about the political and cultural situation in Eastern Europe at this time. The tension between Germans and Czechs (then the Russians and Czechs) is well drawn and the architectural, lyrical descriptions of the house (which is a real house the the author once visited, the Villa Tugendhat in Cerna Pole in Brno) are excellent. In fact, quite honestly the house displays more personality than the characters who are quite one-dimensional (except Hana Hanakova, Liesl’s best friend, who is fabulous!).

However, the heavy-handed symbolism and the reliance on coincidences to drive the plot annoyed me. That the plot relies on five or six outrageous coincidences experienced by Victor and/or Liesl beggers belief. I refuse to list them here, they are just silly. So not sure I would recommend this novel.

Unread, now read book 11 – Old Filth, Jane Gardam

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I bought this novel, along with Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room,  because they were part of a nice point of sale display in my local bookstore containing the 40 years of Abacus special edition books, and had lovely covers. Shallow of me, I know, but really sometimes that’s all it takes. Which is why I don’t let myself in bookstores very often.

Anyway, I digress. Old Filth.Essentially Old Filth (FILTH standing for Failed in London Try Hong Kong) tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge who, having spent most of his long career in Hong Kong, has now retired to Dorset with his wife. At the beginning of the novel he loses his wife suddenly to a heart attack and that is when he starts to unravel and we get the extended flashbacks to his childhood and early career. Born a child of the British Empire, a Raj orphan who is then shunted off to Wales, where he suffers dreadfully at the hands of his sadistic guardian before escaping that life to go to a boarding school where he is happy, Edward’s life arc appears to be as unpredictable to him as it is to the reader following his story. At the mercy of the whims of family members who have jurisdiction over him till he turns 18, then the war and the army, then his career, Edward seems constantly surprised by where he is in life. But he is no Paul Pennyfeather. Everything good that happens to him is a result of him showing kindness or understanding to someone in need that he has come across. But he isn’t a goody-goody either. Oh, it’s really hard to explain.

Suffice to say, I loved this book. Got to the end and wanted to read it again. I still can’t really tell you why; the writing was strong but not wow, amazing; the characters were well-drawn but most of them weren’t very likeable; the plot was interesting and the constant shift between the present and various points in the main character’s past kept me on my toes. So why so engaging? I think because when I reached the end, although I thought I understood buttoned-up, emotionally desolate Edward, the final reveal made me revisit everything that had gone before. I would normally say that I felt cheated but it’s not that. Having read the introduction written for this particular edition by the author, I was relieved to see that she felt the same way. Old Filth was meant to be a standalone, a one-off but once she had finished writing it, she felt the urge to write two more linked novels and turn it into a trilogy. The second novel (The Man in the Wooden Hat) tells the same story but from Betty’s (his wife) point of view and the third (Last Friends), focuses on the retirement of all of the protagonist from Hong Kong to Dorset. I can’t wait to read the second, I feel as if there is so much more waiting for me. So once again, I add to the list of books I want to read when I have finished my current list of unread books!

Unread, now read book 10 – A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt

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Coming in at number ten on my unread, now read list (in a neat twist, as this is the tenth book by A.S.Byatt that I have now read) is A Whistling Woman. The last of Byatt’s ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’, A Whistling Woman portrays Frederica in the late 1960s and her reaction to all of the extraordinary social changes that was happening so rapidly at this time. I wouldn’t recommend reading this if you haven’t read the other novels in the Quartet (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower) as I don’t think it stands alone as well as Still Life, and you will get more out of it if you have traced her journey from her 17-year-old self through to the 33-year-old she is in this novel.

Particularly interesting in A Whistling Woman is the general attitude towards television, which is still in its infancy; the newly-formed BBC is looking around for programming ideas, and decide they need a programme that hosts a very cerebral, political and philosophical debate with guest talking heads – reality tv isn’t even a twinkle in an executive’s eye at this point! Frederica is offered the role of hosting the weekly debate accepts and is thrust into the brave new world of television with very little, well no, training. Running in parallel with Frederica’s story, are the stories of her friends, her lover and her family, back in her native Yorkshire; an ‘anti-university’ is being promoted to students who are currently following studies at a traditional university; a cult is forming around a psychologically-disturbed man at a farm nearby; all of the stories intertwining and acting as a catalyst upon one another.

Always erudite, crammed with literary, biblical and philosophical allusions and references, but wearing her learning lightly, Byatt dazzles again in this novel. However, I have to admit though that Possession will always be my favourite novel of hers, partly because I have a weakness for Victorian-esque literature and partly because it has everything – a quest, multiple love stories, fabulous poetry. So if you haven’t read any Byatt, start with Possession, then The Game, and then move onto the ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’. If you get through all of those, come back to me and I will suggest more of hers to read!