His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

project

Wow.

I loved this book.

When I first learned of its publication, I thought that it was a non-fiction account of a murder trial in Scotland in the 1860s. His Bloody Project is actually a novel, written as though it’s non-fiction, which makes the story all that more believable and engrossing. It was short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2016.

I’m not normally drawn to thriller/mysteries, as that’s what this book is categorized as, but in my opinion it should not be categorized as either of those. This is a novel of psychology, of endurance, of the questions of what is moral and what is immoral. This is not a whodunit, but a whydunit.

The book is broken up into parts, the first part being a memoir of events written by the accused, Roddy Macrae, while he’s in prison awaiting trial for murder. The subsequent sections are medical reports, psychological assessments, and accounts of the trial. Roddy’s first-account narrative lends sympathy for his circumstances. The reader follows Roddy’s thoughts and emotional turmoil, forming a bond with the murderer; but later, others’ interpretations of the events, during the lawyers’ investigations and at the trial, cause the seeds of doubt to be sown, and nothing is certain.

This is an expert writing full of nuances and subtleties. I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time. His Bloody Project will definitely make you ponder; it would be great for book clubs. I’m planning on stopping at Applecross while visiting Scotland this summer, just to walk around the same village as Roddy Macrae. I have to keep reminding myself that this book is fictional.

No Man’s Land – Simon Tolkien

nomanslandI was excited to be given a chance to review this Advance Reader Copy. I’m fascinated by WWI, especially first-hand accounts of trench warfare. A novel written by JRR Tolkien’s grandson about his experiences at the Somme in WWI, what more could you ask for?

A lot, apparently.

My feelings about this book formed a slightly imperfect parabola: disappointment in a lackluster beginning, then amazing apex, then slowly dwindling back down into jejune story. I think Tolkien is riding his grandfather’s coattails a wee bit. I’ve discovered from previous books that often the descendants of famous authors try to distance themselves from their predecessor’s success in order to stand on their own two feet, but that was not the case here.

The first 47% on my Kindle read like a poor man’s Jeffrey Archer.

A rushed, “tell” not “show” sentimental story of a young boy with a heart of gold just aching to do the right thing. The writing was lacking. There were so many instances where I read “he could feel”, “he could see,” “he could hear,” that I was taken aback. This usage of present perfect – if that’s the tense it is – takes the reader a step away from the events at hand. Bottom line, it’s just poor writing. The first half of the book was overly sentimental with dialog that was stilted and pedantic. The plot was interesting enough to keep me going, but the amateurish writing overrode any enjoyment of the story. About a third of the way into the book, I almost bailed. The story was so full of tired tropes and one-dimensional stereotypes that I wasn’t sure I could keep going. But I’m really glad I did.

At the halfway mark, the reader finally reaches the Somme, the bludgeoning horror of WWI, and the story takes off. The shocking atrocities and grueling fatigue, the appalling brutality of trench warfare, these were things I had read about before but never with such depth. I loved this part of the book, and it was worth the slog to get to this point. I tore through the middle, my eyes blazing across the sentences. The account of the war had the impact I wanted. It was emotional reading without becoming saccharine, and I was captivated. I’m wondering if Tolkien’s real desire was to write this middle section, but to get there he had to write the insipid initial story line.

The necessary last third of the book was essentially an epilogue of what happens to the remaining characters, and I was invested enough now to want to know what happened in the end, even though I knew that everything would be tidied, the wrongs would be righted, that good would prevail. (And sometimes, it’s best if everything doesn’t work out perfectly. Just a thought, S. Tolkien. It makes the story more real.)

So, would I recommend this? Maybe. I would most certainly recommend a heavy-handed editor. The middle of the book about WWI is amazing reading, so if you’re willing to endure the beginning to get there, then I encourage it.

Thanks to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Simon Tolkien for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson

tirra-lirra-by-the-river-225x300Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River should be brought up from the depths of its obscurity  and celebrated for its timeless relevance. The story follows Nora Proteus, a 70-ish divorcee convalescing in her childhood home, reflecting on her life. Nora has finally returned to the place of her youth, a place she thought would bring her the peace she seeks, only to find that no matter her surroundings, her quest for her purpose goes unfulfilled.

What I really appreciated about this semi-autobiographical novel is how Nora and her close friends  handle their disregard. The men in their lives want them to do their duty, serve their families, and have no voice. For some women, being ignored slowly wears them down, often with brutal results, and for others, like Nora, the freedom to pursue a purpose overcomes them.

Tirra Lirra reminded me of Madame Bovary and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. The subtlety of women enduring their lack of empowerment is what makes these books so important. Winner of the Miles Franklin award when it was published in 1978, Tirra Lirra is especially relevant today, when women are still undervalued and considered less-than. Even those misguided women angrily chanting “not my march” on social media can thank all the brave women who marched before them for the opportunity to have their say.

Books like Jessica Anderson’s reflect how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.