01 September 2016

Etc — August 2016

1. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott's latest novel, You Will Know Me, which is set in the world of competitive gymnastics, is an ideal read for anyone mourning the end of this year's Olympic Games. 15-year-old Devon Knox is about to qualify as a Senior Elite gymnast, which would put her one hop from the US national team and just two skips from the Olympic team. Since she was three years old, her whole life has been focused around achieving this goal since with an uncommon drive and single-mindedness, and her parents Katie and Eric have done everything they can to support, encourage and finance their 'extraordinary' daughter's ambition and talent. But in run-up to the qualification, a violent accident throws shockwaves through the community, threatening to destroy Devon's hard work and the sacrifices her family have made to propel her into the top spot.

You Will Know Me is told through the perspective of Katie as she becomes drawn into the investigation of the accident, and the novel is a compelling and suspenseful story of ambition and love, posing the question of what a parent wouldn't do to help their child achieve her dreams. There isn't as much gymnastics in the novel as I would have liked — the novel focuses more on what it takes to be a top-level gymnast (or her parent) and the relationships among the gymnasts' families — but the story is nonetheless taut and addicting.

2. Stranger Things
I'm a little late to the party on this but if you haven't already checked out the Netflix series Stranger Things, I would highly recommend that you do. The series opens in the month of my birth, November 1983, in a small Indiana town. A 12-year-old boy vanishes and the police, his mother and his friends begin to investigate. Winona Ryder, who plays the boy's mother, gets top billing but it's the young cast (especially Mille Bobby Brown as Eleven) who really impress. Moreover, the show seamlessly melds genres, from horror and sci-fi, to political thriller and mystery, with a hefty dose of inspiration from classic 1980s films. If you like Stephen King or John Carpenter, you'll probably love Stranger Things.

3. FM-84
This music recommendation follows on quite neatly from Stranger Things because California-based FM-84's blend of 1980s-inspired synth pop would slot in nicely to the show's soundtrack — or Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, another Netflix series, for that matter. I particularly like the song Running in the Night, which features vocals from Ollie Wride, but I've been listening to the whole album (Atlas) repeatedly over the past month. It's a great soundtrack for summer. You can download the music from Bandcamp.

4. Undertow by Elizabeth Heathcote
In Elizabeth Heathcote's gripping psychological thriller, freelance journalist Carmen struggles with demons from the past — her husband Tom's demons, to be more precise. Tom has three children from his first marriage to Laura, a practical and self-assured fellow lawyer, but it's his relationship with Zena, the beautiful but troubled woman for whom he left Laura, that is still creating ripples even three years after Zena drowned in the sea. Carmen's freelance career is floundering and she must also deal with the challenge of being a step-mother to Tom's children, when she begins to discover that her husband seems to have been keeping secrets from her. Secrets that could shatter her marriage — and her whole world.

Although Undertow loses pace during the middle section, the opening is smart and intriguing and the dramatic conclusion is suspenseful and surprising. Carmen is a sympathetic character but sometimes felt like a bit of a cipher — a means to tell an interesting story about other characters.  I also wondered whether it was a coincidence that Zena nearly shares a name with the eponymous robber bride Zenia in Margaret Atwood's novel. Heathcote really captures the essence of the places in her novel — both the beautiful Norfolk coast (the sea itself being a catalyst and having a constant, looming presence) and Carmen and Tom's southeast London neighbourhood, and Undertow is a well-plotted and clever mystery.

Disclaimer: Undertow will be published by Quercus on 1 September 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

5.  A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto
Seicho Matsumoto, who died in 1992, is widely acclaimed as one of Japan's best crime novelists. His work came to my attention when a new English translation by Louise Heal Kawai of his 1976 novel Kikanakatta Basho (A Quiet Place) was published earlier this year. The novel centres on Tsuneo Asai, a modest and precise government bureaucrat who learns that his wife has died suddenly while he is on a business trip. Although his wife had a heart condition and, as such, for her to die of a heart attack wasn't entirely unexpected, the circumstances surrounding her death do not seem to quite ring true to Tsuneo and he begins to investigate. Matsumoto's novel is meticulous in its execution and a wonderfully controlled piece of writing — even as events begin to spiral out of control, he maintains the suspense without deviating into the realms of hyperbole or hysteria.

A Quiet Place is as much of a character study of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances as it is a crime thriller and it is the perfect antidote to the numerous books whose jackets proclaim them to be 'the new Gone Girl' or 'the new Girl on the Train'. Although it was written and set in the 1970s, it hasn't become dated and you can really see how the writer (and translator) have taken great care in choosing each word so that it is exactly right.

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