Book Chat: ’55’ by James Delargy

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

I was completely lured into 55 by the premise. On a hot afternoon in Willbrook, a small remote town in West Australia, an injured man stumbles into a police station and speaks with Sergeant Chandler Jenkins. He claims that he was drugged and taken to a cabin in the woods to be chained to a wall. His name is Gabriel, and he was kidnapped by a man named Heath who told Gabriel that he would be victim number 55.  A little while later, another man is brought in to the station. He tells Chandler that his name is Heath, that he was kidnapped and imprisoned by a man named Gabriel, a man who told Heath that he would be victim number 55.  COOL, RIGHT?!

And for a while, it really was. The two men continue to give conflicting statements and the police try desperately to puzzle out which one they ought to be protecting. The stifling heat, the small town police force facing dealing with a serial killer, the confusion. It was also really nice to read a book set in Australia and the way that the novel plays on the unforgiving environment is brilliant. The first third was taut, tense and everything else that you could want from a thriller.

Unfortunately, it loses its way. Fearing the local force to be in over its head, a larger force is drafted in to help. Sadly for Chandler, they’re led by Mitch, an old friend-turned-enemy. Chandler and Mitch seemingly hate each other, apparently caring more about undermining each other than about stopping a serial killer. Running alongside the main plot is a story from both men’s past that I think is meant to explain the animosity. Only it doesn’t. We’re meant to believe that one of these men has let the other down so badly that they’re almost incapable of working together. We’re told it frequently, but I never bought it. The side story was also very repetitive and got rather annoying rather quickly. I’m sure that a manhunt in the Australian wilderness is in fact very repetitive but I just don’t want to trudge through reading numerous pages of walking and the same ‘should we/shouldn’t we call this off?’ musings.

Those chapters were short enough that I still found 55 very readable but they did disturb what was otherwise quite a clever plot. The characters were all pretty one-dimensional (there’s a New Constable, a Womanising Constable, a Nagging Mother and so on…) but I’m fairly relaxed about overlooking failings like that for a good twisty thriller. But then came the ending. Oh, the ending. From a browse of Goodreads (carried out after finishing with a shocked look on my face no doubt), some readers love it because it is different and certainly unexpected. Others, like me, don’t. It’s hard to really grumble without spoiling it for readers who do still love the sound of the plot but I just felt completely blind-sided. It’s ambiguous, which I can sort of live with, but it’s also very unsatisfying. The book lost a whole star in a few pages. I’m still grumpy about it 24 hours later and I feel cheated.

Overall: This is tricky. I don’t feel like I can whole-heartedly recommend 55 knowing full well what readers are running into. And yet it’s actually quite an entertaining read, and something a bit different to the more often seen thrillers set in the US and UK. I suppose actually that’s the best thing to take from this review – there’s good, there’s bad and it’s all very confusing and conflicting emotions will abound!

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Date finished: 25 January 2019

Pictured edition published: by Simon and Schuster UK in April 2019

Source: Bought

Book Chat: ‘The Raw Shark Texts’ by Steven Hall

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

FIRST THINGS FIRST, STAY CALM.

If you are reading this, I’m not around anymore. Take the phone and speed dial 1. Tell the woman who answers that you are Eric Sanderson. The woman is Dr Randle. She’ll understand what has happened and you will be able to see her straight away. Take the car keys and drive the yellow Jeep to Dr. Randle’s house. If you haven’t found it yet, there’s a map in the envelope – it isn’t too far and it’s not hard to find.

Dr Randle will be able to answer all your questions. It’s very important that you go straight away. Do not pass go. Do not explore. Do not collect two hundred pounds. The house keys are hanging from a nail on the banister at the bottom of the stairs, don’t forget them.

With regret and also hope,
The First Eric Sanderson

Just look at that for a blurb. How good does that book sound?! Add to it a note on the back billing The Raw Shark Texts as “Jaws meets The Matrix meets The Da Vinci Code” and my expectations were super high. Like so many others, I’ve had the book on my shelves for ages. At the end of last year when I’d already decided that 2019 would be the year I finally focussed properly on reading the books already on my shelves, I picked this up as the first of the bunch because I was almost certain I’d love it.  Spoiler alert: I didn’t really.

The start was excellent. Eric Sanderson wakes up in a house he doesn’t recognise and can’t remember a thing about who he is or how he got there. He receives a letter that purports to be from himself in the past (‘The First Eric Sanderson’) and is left to try and unravel the mysteries of himself and his life.  The writing is sharp and hugely entertaining and there’s plenty of plot to go at. It felt like a real ‘cult movie’ of a book and I was genuinely excited to be reading it.

“I did not know who I was. I did not know where I was.

That simple.

That frightening.

Within 100 pages, I was confused and a bit grumpy. While I do love fantasy and science fiction and some magical realism, I found the plot of The Raw Shark Texts baffling. I just couldn’t get a handle on what was going on. I’m not sure how much to say without straying into spoiler territory. Eric finds out early on that he is believed to have lost his memories following an accident in which his girlfriend was killed and in dealing with the loss somehow managed to attract the attention of a “conceptual shark” called a Ludovician which “feeds on human memories and the intrinsic sense of self”. I think I liked what the shark was there to represent but it was all frankly just too off the wall for me, the novel eventually coming to feel like an overworked extended metaphor.

I didn’t put the book aside because there was always enough that I was enjoying to keep me reading. Eric’s relationship with a vaguely mysterious character called Scout, the cat called Ian who was the most perfect illustration of a cat I’ve ever read, and the development of Eric’s character as he tries to work out what kind of person he is and how he fits in the world, including how he reacts to those who knew the first Eric Sanderson and want to imprint that Eric’s personality onto this later Eric. There were plenty of moments, though, where I was just reading the words on the page and not really engaging with them. They were abstract and bonkers and didn’t translate themselves into anything like meaning in my head. Or where they did, it was just weird. Not dissimilar to when somebody is trying to tell you about a dream they had.

You know those books where in the last couple of pages there’s something that changes how you see everything that’s gone before? Those reveals that make you realise that what you thought you were reading was perhaps something else entirely? I hate them. I don’t like labouring over a book that makes no sense while you’re reading it only to have an author show me in the last two pages what was going on. While I might eventually come to acknowledge that the book was clever, my main takeaway will still almost always be how annoying the reading experience was. That’s The Raw Shark Texts. While I can objectively admire a lot of what Steven Hall does with the pages of the book and the ultimate fate of Eric Sanderson, I’m still irritated that I was made to wade through some surreal borderline nonsense first.

Overall: If you’re into magical realism or you like your fiction particularly quirky, I’m sure that there’s a lot about this book to love. It plays around with language and uses text art in a way that does add to the story rather than just take up space and  I would never deny that it’s clever.  If you like to feel like you understand what’s going on in the book that you’re reading, or if you aren’t a fan of the surreal, I’d pass on this.

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Date finished: 05 January 2019

Pictured edition published: by Canongate Books in March 2017

Source: Bought

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: A debut novel