For once, no hot-off-the-press or yet-to-be-published books… these are all readily available, if you’re so inclined.
The Dinner Guest by B P Walter
I picked this up because Audible pushed it as a recommendation and because I fancied a break from fantasy. The performances by Katy Sobey and Marston York were great; I would definitely listen to more books read by them. It’s tricky to review a crime novel without giving too much away so I’ll be sketchy and vague. The opening tells us that four people were at dinner and one is murdered – the rest of the book flits back and forth between the past and the present as we discover how and why this happened.
A whodunnit needs to be balanced between the plausible and the not-too-easily guessable. I want twisty turns but I don’t want them to be lazily convenient or predictable. I want to be shocked but satisfied. The Dinner Guest more or less achieved this: I had figured out whodunnit pretty early on but not the motive. Frankly, that’s probably because the motive is a little questionable and stretched.
Walter has cleverly created superficially likeable protagonists in a dual narrative style whilst hinting enough that you inherently know you can’t trust them. In addition to the overarching crime, Walter touches on class, privilege, family structures, LGBT+ life, parenting. There’s definitely enough substance to keep you satisfied.
I didn’t enjoy the last chapter. I’ve seen other reviewers call it over-indulgent which I think is a great description. The penultimate chapter, in contrast, was sinister and menacingly threatening; ending it there would have been perfect. The last chapter was somewhat too obvious and overt – so it diminished the impact.
Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
This was recommended to me by a chum. It’s my second crime novel of the month, in which Elton explores identity politics. Set a little in the future, Detective Mick Matlock investigates a series of murders whilst trying to tiptoe safely around an ever-changing identity landscape, which he just doesn’t understand. The UK is a few years into its post-Brexit position and another referendum is on the horizon – this time England wants independence from the union.
I took the paperback with me on the day I had to have surgery because I knew I’d be waiting around. I raced through the first 120 pages as I waited for my turn to be knocked out. Then, as I was poorly for ages, I didn’t pick it up again for a few weeks but, once I did, I raced through the rest of it in two sittings. The racing wasn’t necessarily a reflection of pleasure so much as a) wanting to finish it so I could pick up my next book and b) not quitting so I could confirm my suspicions about whodunnit were right.
Identity Crisis is described as a satire. Hmm. Sure, it’s definitely topical with contemporary political issues – an important trait of satire. However, its depiction of life is a little too on the nose and realistic, rather than exaggerated, ironic or ridiculous as satire demands. The posthumous prosecution of Samuel Pepys as a serial sex offender is the only exception – it was sufficiently far fetched to be in the same country as satire, if not in the same county or town. But one example does not a satire make. Sometimes it feels as though Elton wants us to get on board with identity politics and sometimes it feels as though he’s poking fun at it for quick laughs. It left me feeling a bit lost. I have no idea what Elton is satirising…
Unusually for me, I’m going to defer to someone else’s review. Here, Emma Gert encapsulates exactly how I feel about the book. It was all a bit of a pendulum, swinging from extreme to extreme with minimal nuance. And I was very pleased to have finished it so the swinging stopped.
The name of the wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss published this back in 2007 and I’ve long meant to get on and read it. I think I have a copy on my Kindle but I opted for the audiobook instead. It’s a whopping 28 hours and I thought it would take me months of car journeys to get through it but I finished it in under two weeks because I kept reaching for it when doing chores, crafting projects, the washing…
As Rothfuss is fond of a simile (or seventy billion), this is like fish and chips: it’s filling, it’s familiar, it’s something you have as a treat because you recognise it’s not very nutritious and, despite that, you enjoy it so much you keep going back for more.
Fundamentally, Chronicler has tracked down Kvothe (who appears to be in hiding by running an inn) to extract his biography. The toing and froing between the present and the past is really enjoyable; it enables Rothfuss to tell lots of stories with their own narrative arcs, as well as weaving them together into a more epic, overarching story. In this first book of the tale, Rothfuss leads us towards something huge in Kvothe’s biography that’s somehow affected life for everyone – when the book ends, we still have to wait to discover what.
There’s lots to love about the book: Kvothe’s adventures; Rothfuss’ depiction of the impact of sustained poverty on Kvothe’s daily and academic life; the juxtaposition of his precocious intellect and his naivety; his kindness to those less fortunate than him; his willingness to make amends alongside his desire for revenge; and the exploration of truth in comparison to myths and legends. I disagree with others who say that Kvothe is a dislikeable character because he excels at everything (acting, music, magic, academic studies) and lacks flaws. I disagree – his main flaw is that he thinks he lacks flaws; he wants to progress because he’s capable without always recognising he’s not ready; he thinks his course of action or plan is the best because it’s his, rather than slowing down and considering potential consequences; he’s rash. And from these flaws, Rothfuss pulls drama, problems, resolutions and so on.
It drops a heart in my rating for Rothfuss’ depiction of women – far too much objectification for my liking, even when he’s trying to avoid it. Sure, in the retelling of his story, Kvothe is 15 years old and bound to be obsessed with women but I was pretty bored by the many references to “her breasts pressing against my arm.” Perhaps it’s a small mercy that there’s no sex. I know exactly how all the women in the book look – be it his mother, love interest, money lender or peer – which would be fine if Rothfuss helped me to picture what the men looked like with as much clarity.
That said, I enjoyed it well enough to immediately download the second book, which had this gem in the first chapter: “I’d heard he’d started a fist fight in one of the seedier local taverns because someone had insisted on saying the word utilise instead of use.” It’s this humour, I think, which kept me hooked on his writing.