Here are some short reviews of a few other books I’ve been reading since Christmas:
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty is an informative and thought-provoking memoir about the death industry written by a mortician seeking to demystify a taboo topic feared by almost everyone. Stories of burial practices, death rituals and cultural attitudes from around the world and throughout history are interwoven with Doughty’s personal experiences including the circumstances which led her to start working at Westwind Crematorium in San Francisco nearly a decade ago at the age of 23. Doughty’s sense of humour is appropriately dark without being disrespectful as she recounts some of her more memorable experiences at the crematorium and challenges readers to confront their own mortality. As much about life as it is about death, ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ is a fascinating look at a widely misunderstood career choice, although not a book I would recommend to the very squeamish or recently bereaved.
The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken tells the story of Dr David Manne, a psychiatrist living in New York in the 1940s. Shortly after discovering that his ex-wife has died, he is called to a building in downtown Manhattan to evaluate a man who insists he is not who his wife and the police say he is. The man says his name is Esterhazy whereas everyone else knows him as Smith. However, after an accident on the subway, Dr Manne wakes up to find that everyone believes he is Esterhazy.
Sometimes taglines on books along the lines of “Gone Girl meets Mary Poppins” don’t really match the combination of books or characters they are being compared to. However, “Hitchcock meets Camus in 1940s Manhattan” is a pretty accurate description of the hypnotic and uneasy atmosphere Wilcken has created in ‘The Reflection’. There is a real cinematic quality to Wilcken’s writing and the looping narrative is the literary equivalent of piecing together a smashed mirror as it soon becomes clear that not everything is as it seems. Overall, ‘The Reflection’ is a stylish book with substance and quite unlike anything else I’ve read recently.
Winner of the Not the Booker Prize last year run by the Guardian, Fishnet by Kirstin Innes tells the story of Fiona Leonard who is searching for her younger sister Rona. Fiona discovers that Rona has been working as a prostitute in the seven years since she went missing at the age of nineteen. When the construction firm she works for starts redeveloping a building used as a drop in centre for sex workers, Fiona hopes to finally trace her sister.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Innes is a journalist and had carried out a lot of background research into the sex industry while writing her debut novel. Some of the dialogue in Scottish dialect feels authentic enough to have been directly lifted from interview transcripts yet Innes never loses sight of the fact that the book is first and foremost a work of fiction. As well as prostitution, the story explores wider issues surrounding gender politics and although Innes makes a strong argument against the criminalisation of sex work, this doesn’t come across as preachy or self-righteous. As with another highly engaging debut novel Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh which I read last year, I probably wouldn’t have come across ‘Fishnet’ if it hadn’t been for the Not the Booker Prize, so I will definitely be looking out for more alternatives to the bigger literary awards in the future.
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood is a story which unfolds across two weekends a decade apart. In 2004, three year old Coco Jackson goes missing from her family’s home after a party in Bournemouth. Ten years later, her father Sean is found dead in a hotel room in mysterious circumstances. I had read some positive reviews about the black humour in the story which didn’t disappoint. Marwood is particularly good at dissecting image-conscious Londoners and although the plot is a bit baggy in places with the story alternating between Coco’s disappearance and the present day, the narcissistic cast of characters and large number of red herrings kept me entertained throughout. Many thanks to Little, Brown Book Group for sending me a review copy of ‘The Darkest Secret’ via NetGalley.
What have you been reading recently?