The Child by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Expected publication: June 27th 2017 by Berkley Books

As an old house is demolished in a gentrifying section of London, a workman discovers a tiny skeleton, buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters, it’s a story that deserves attention. She cobbles together a piece for her newspaper, but at a loss for answers, she can only pose a question: Who is the Building Site Baby?

As Kate investigates, she unearths connections to a crime that rocked the city decades earlier: A newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward in a local hospital and was never found. Her heartbroken parents were left devastated by the loss.

But there is more to the story, and Kate is drawn—house by house—into the pasts of the people who once lived in this neighborhood that has given up its greatest mystery. And she soon finds herself the keeper of unexpected secrets that erupt in the lives of three women—and torn between what she can and cannot tell…

 

I absolutely adored Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, so I was all-too eager to get my little hands on this one when I heard about The Child. Of course, that’s the problem with not reading blindly, isn’t it–with already being familiar with an author’s previous works: you go in with expectations, undoubtedly heightening your expectations on the author, and it doesn’t always pan out. When that happens, those reads seem to fall harder than if you’d never met their predecessors in the first place. But that didn’t happen here! This follow-up was awesome! Unfortunately, that’s what happened here.

Not too far into Fiona Barton’s sophomore novel, The Child, I realized that this one wasn’t nearly as clever as her debut, The Widow, and wasn’t nearly as captivating either. Read as a “rush job,” without the finesse and nuance of her previous novel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the follow-up to a blockbuster movie–you know, the ones where you can tell the studio was just rushing to churn the next one out to capitalize on the fanfare of the last one.

Have you ever read a novel and just knew you could pick out the characters on the street if you saw them? Their mannerisms are so real, their dialogue so witty, so poignant, so enthralling, that you recall a whole slew of their quotes from memory. These characters come alive on the page and delight you, make you want to be them—or at least kidnap them and keep them as your new bestie. Well, you won’t find that here, people. These characters didn’t saunter around, exuding their very essence across the page like in the previous novel.

Though, to be fair, it’s not all cons in this one. One of the better aspects of this novel is that Barton uses the format of short chapters to swiftly draw her reader in and keep them turning pages. It’s a style that I now recognize her for. That technique makes the read seem shorter, faster, and is a true hallmark of the modern-day thriller, which was once again used brilliantly here. Well, to an extent. Of all things, The Child was chalked full of filler. I could almost palpably feel myself ripping at the cotton-like filler to get down to the meat, the core of the novel. Some of the chapters were completely useless to the plot as a whole and slowed the read down to a near-screeching halt, contradictory to the goals of the short chapters, placing The Child very squarely into the “cozy thriller” category and loosening the tauntness that readers look for in a good mystery thriller.

All I needed for complete this novel was a cuppa Earl Grey and a biscuit. For some, this’ll work brilliantly, but I can see the flatly written characters turning off character piece buffs, while the added family drama will turn off mystery thrill seekers, stripping away its well-roundedness and landing this one in a category for a very specific kind of reader. It’s not that the characters here were unlikeable, more like they were just silly. Crying at the slightest stimulus. Sighing and huffing and wedge-driving over men who, for the majority of the read, weren’t much more than cliché sketches of cheaters and adulterers themselves. There were moments where I actually imagined them fawning and fanning themselves at the thought of these men, swooning in their own misery, and that made the read feel long, like I was trudging through used Kleenex the entire time.

Let’s go ahead and address this here, shall we?

There’s so much chatter in the book world about (female) characters who are unlikeable for being shallow or crass—The Girl on the Train immediately comes to mind—but these characters in The Child were equally unlikeable for a completely different reason: because they were so spineless, weak and lacking of any motivation that I could get behind for the vast majority of the novel.

**SPOILER** You can’t toss in driving motivation in the last quarter of the novel and expect me to suddenly care; no, I’ve already been too turned off by the past 300 pages to care at this point: Writer 101. **END SPOILER**

There were a lot of tears in this book, even moments of rushing out of a grocery store, abandoning their grocery cart, because the noise was too unbearable. These characters all needed a swift kick in the ass if you ask me.

Hmm, and the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will definitely say that I’m not sure how I feel about it. It could’ve been a phenomenal ending, but it was executed poorly and via unlikeable characters, so, in the end, it just felt like a hastily done soap opera ending. There were loads of other sections that could have been scrapped in favor of perfecting the ending, believe me—and the fact that the ending was held up by sappy, weak-willed characters just ruined it, like spilling liquid on a watercolor painting. **MILD SPOILER** I get the feeling that it was meant to be a tear-jerker ending but came off as vaguely melodramatic the way that it was handled, **END SPOILER** which, all in all, landed The Child with a average score of 3 stars ***

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Fiona BartonMy career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.
But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

The worm of this book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know. It took the liberation of my career change to turn that fascination into a tale of a missing child, narrated by the wife of the man suspected of the crime, the detective leading the hunt, the journalist covering the case and the mother of the victim.

Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow is available now in the UK, and around the world in the coming months. However, the sudden silence of my characters feels like a reproach and I am currently working on a second book. My husband and I are living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Sparky, crowing.

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

Hardcover, 386 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Grove Press (first published January 26th 2017)

“Karen didn’t believe in keeping a lid on things, picking your battles, and all that other claptrap parents were advised to do. When did people stop being parents, exactly? Karen knew when—when they were scared to death their kids wouldn’t love them any more if they scolded them, that’s when. When they’d fallen out of love with their spouses and so the thought of conflict with their child, the thought of saying a simple ‘no’, panicked them beyond measure. For Christ’s sake, people didn’t even scold their dogs any more…”

Trophy children are quite en vogue these days, judging by the recent publications so many publishing houses have put out. I, myself, have read and reviewed a large handful of novels about this “perfect child” phenomenon, often featuring plots wrapped around the mystery of the death or fall of that child. The backstories here are often the same, stemming from parental pressures inflicted by those living vicariously through their offspring, rather than asserting those pressures upon their own lives, so it really ends up coming down to two things: intended audience and execution. Paula Daly’s latest novel, The Trophy Child, is definitely for a certain audience and the execution was fine. But that’s about all that it was: fine. If the above blurb made you think you’d encounter some spin on this “perfect child” motif, adding poignancy, startlingly well-drawn characters, or anything resembling originality, you may be disappointed by this one.

Here you will find the quintessential “thriller” for housewives. I say that more so honestly than sarcastically, but, to answer your next question, “No, this one did not work for me.” I was bored to skimming (if not tears) for the majority of the first half of this novel, and could find nothing of value or originality to take from this one. It was formulaic in most ways imaginable; the twists were enough to keep me reading, while not enough to provide any sense of shock or admiration from me. Not a single character in this novel interested me or made me yearn for more, likely because I never saw anything within any one of these characters that made me care about the outcome of the lives in the slightest. How’s that for honest?

Starting with the “Tiger Mom” herself, Karen Bloom is painted as an overly ambitious sort of mother, one who pushes herself, her children and her husband to exude perfection in all shapes and forms. We have them here in the U.S., too, of course, usually identifiable by their hectic schedules filled to the brim with carting their minivan full of children to this practice or that, passing the days away in Whole Foods in their Lululemon getups. We know these women, and whether we identify with them or not, they have become a notorious stereotype in our culture. Thus, suffice it to say, the brilliantly written blurb for this novel will be more than enough to get readers to pick this novel up, but I suspect there will be polarizing opinions on this one. Here’s why:

Paula Daly has a fan base; there are plenty of people out there who are looking for a comfy pseudo-thriller, some book that you can curl up on the couch with and take in with a cup of Earl Grey and a bit of skim milk. If you’re one of those readers, then you may absolutely love this one! Daly will have lived up to her reputation and really entertained. However, if you’re looking for any sort of depth, action, major thrill, or narrative creativity, you’ve come to the wrong place and should step no further.

The trouble with Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child is that the 350+ pages that it took to tell this tale were not particularly well used. The characterizations were in a lot of ways lackluster and uninteresting, namely because the characters failed to live up to anything more than the stereotypes they’d been written as. Karen Bloom is, seriously, just a disagreeable and annoying person, to the point that she actually contemplates fairly early on in the novel whether not she should throw a huge tantrum, because its ‘been a while since she’s thrown one.’ (Goodness, I just wanted to slap her in the face and tell her to get off the page.) Her husband is mealy mouthed and spineless and also happens to be a drinker and womanizer. Add in the pothead son, the duo of the order-barking military grandfather + the spacy wife and you’ve got yourself a rather interesting novel, right? Wrong. Just think The Nest meets cozy pseudo-thriller, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, because none of these stereotypes were particularly turned on their head, no new and entertaining characterization of these typecasts ever happened across the page. I quickly lost interest and had to fight the urge to skim ahead. Often, I lost this fight with myself and went ahead and did it.

I would characterize Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child as an okay read for a quick little jaunt, something to read when you’re off of work on a random Tuesday or something. A nice airport read as you suffer through a layover. But it’s unlikely that I’ll remember anything in particular about this novel by the time I finish my next on, and, for me, that warrants a ‘Meh’ and a half. That’s about it. 2.5 stars, which, on a good day, could be rounded up to 3, per my rating scale of “Average.” ***

 

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Grove Press, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

The Black Album
Published April 1st 1996 by Faber & Faber (first published January 1st 1995)

“Chili’s basic understanding was that people were weak and lazy. He didn’t think they were stupid; he wasn’t going to make that mistake. He saw, though, that people resisted change, even if it would improve their lives; they were afraid, complacent, lacking courage. This gave the advantage to someone with initiative and will.” 

The Black Album, originally published in ‘95 then republished by Scribner in 1996, is the tale of Shahid, a Pakistani Muslim young man living in a contemporary British society. As he grapples with the line between fundamentalism and liberalism—his love of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll versus his traditional familial and community expectations—he finds himself coming of age and into his own in London after the death of his father, exploring and often crossing the line between the accepted and the taboo, his insight into the world around him growing ever more poignant as he does. Here you find two combatting worlds that do not, by definition, co-exist well: the ideology of the liberal neo thinker who is entranced by Prince, Baldwin and the idea of the Black Panther movement versus the radical fundamentalists, portrayed through Shahid’s friend, Riaz, and his clique. And in the middle is a cast of characters who are fully realized, led by an older brother who has followed drugs down their rabbit hole. The sequence of events and clash of cultures eventually lead to violence, fittingly in a controversy over The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Hanif Kureishi has never been an author to write to placate the masses, and he didn’t attempt so here either. This novel didn’t please everyone—in fact, it might have offended some—but if you’re looking for a single word to describe this pick, I’ve got one for you: soul. Pure soul on a page. Keep in mind that this novel was Kureishi’s response to the fatwah intent on killing Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses that was issued by Islamic fundamentalists. The grittiness and reality in this work left me breathless, and it was refreshing to find a work that so brilliantly mixed comedy, intellect and satire. I first read this pick while doing my M.A. in London. I remember chatting about it with my diss. advisor, Bobby Nayyar, over some beverage in some mostly-empty coffee nook, then the conversation continuing as we strolled to the tube in typical London drizzly weather. The Black Album was insightful and dared to go inside of the crannies that make us uncomfortable, into the room where drugs are being done, into the bed of the professor sleeping with her student. This novel was loud, as it had to be to compete with all of the background noise of London and to find its place within it, both for the characters internally and for the novel itself. Here you’ll find insightful little nuggets like the one above and you’ll follow Shahid in his modern-day journey, in a journey that both Baby Boomers and Millennials alike can relate to, because this world described within the pages of The Black Album has always existed though it isn’t often written about—that is, not so often as runaway chick lit bestsellers and formulaic thrillers. There was no formula to this one, only the free hand of a confident author not afraid to cross a few lines.

The industry needs more words—more books—from those who truly have something to say, and this one, this writer, does. As an agent, I fought for authors who had a true voice, passion, soul. But often they were turned down as too this or too that, while other writers, some of whom I have and likely will in the future review here, continued being offered contracts to write about…nothing. But reads like this let me know that some truly talented voices do still get through “the gatekeepers,” and for that we should all be both encouraged and grateful. More please. Five stars all day. *****

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by NAL

This debut novel hit the ground running. No doubt the packing, publicity and (yet again) comparison to Gone Girl—I mean, how many Gone Girls can there be! (but I guess we do keep falling for it, so it works)—have helped to propel it onto the NYT. It’s often a bit like watching a toddler on a tricycle when you buy one of those novels, you know. It’s like, can the work ride on its own right out of the gate, or will it be wobbly on the training wheels that the publisher and public expectations have placed on it, needing them as props? Will it fall over altogether? I’m happy to say that this one held its own!

          The Widow had an excellent start that immediately grabbed me. It was consistent in its format, if not always fluid in the reading of it, and had an element of creepiness to it that warranted its label “psychological” thriller when used. Some may not like “creepy” or the way that it was offered here, but I LOVE it because it’s so much harder to pull off than “scary” or “gross.” “Creepy” toys with the mind in its subtlety. Honestly, I felt chills and echoes from “The Yellow Wallpaper,” one of my all-time favorite short stories, so this one had me from the start, and it was up to Barton to keep me hooked all the way through. She did.

Control is a major theme in this one, and I loved that because it takes control of the author’s hand to be able to portray that in the way intended and in all of the different ways that it came up here. Here you have a ditsy housewife—who maybe isn’t so ditsy—who’s controlled by her husband (to an alarming and almost sinister extent), by the reporter and the media, by everyone in her world, really. Until. And it’s that “until” that shapes the novel in a lot of ways. The Widow is not a novel where the crime is revealed up front, thankfully. In fact, for the majority of the novel, you’re not really sure of what happened, and in what sequence and why. That’s the “thrill” of it; it allowed for a wonderful building of subtle tension.

There are splashes of humor and pondering from Jean’s thoughts that often border on disturbing when not surprisingly clear and aware. I even liked that the chapters skipped around, never in chronological order. It made the read a little more “thrilling,” not know which voice or occurrence would happen next, until the end when it got a bit jumbled for me for some reason. Navi followers know that I’m a stickler for voice and dialogue, and The Widow had that in its own right. It’s not that the voices were particularly unique to each other, though Jean and Glen’s were, but that they were all so deeply embedded in a place (London) that the novel had a true concept of setting.

I picked this one up not sure of what expectations to have, this being a debut and all, and that’s a delicious thing in itself: being able to go into something clean of prejudice or bias. The Widow had resonance. It offered those shards of thought, of dialogue, of wit that ring so true that they’re undeniable and, to some, possibly even a little off-putting. This was a great debut from Barton, and her experience in journalism came through. She offered insight into the world of breaking news media with a naturalness that can only come from a creature in their own element. You can always tell a fish out of water when they write about things they’re really not familiar with, and this novel did not have that issue. I thoroughly enjoyed this work and would read another from her. This novel is not a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thrill ride; hint, that’s why they put the word “psychological” in there. I will say that I wouldn’t mind a bit more closure on this one, though; that’s all I’ll say about that. Easily four stars. 4 stars ****

Beautiful by Anita Waller

Kindle Edition, 316 pages
Published August 31st 2015 by Bloodhound Books

This novel was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was a novel for the gentle of spirit and of mind. Waller managed to craft a solid idea but the writing did not read as either fluid or gripping. It read in a jolty, staccato sort of manner that did not enhance the novel but irritated me with its knack for telling instead of showing and jumping from scene to scene without properly filling out for the reader what had even happened. Without spoiling it, the end was exactly this, which made for quite the anticlimactic read as a whole. To come through over 400 pages to be rushed through the end (the end scene was literally comprised of one page of text, the epilogue only a sentence or two)? I found that to be quite the annoyance.

At the start, Beautiful was neither innovatively written nor particularly insightful. I struggled with each turn of a page because there was no meat of substance. Sure, there were twists to the plot within those pages, but they were so swiftly presented with no “meat on the bone,” no climax of suspense, that it was as if I were reading the author’s outline of events, not the intended finished outcome. Amy’s mental and emotional hang-ups are completely realistic in theory, but were not eloquently portrayed so as to elicit the intended reaction out of me as a reader. In all honesty, I had difficulty even finishing this one. I was spurred on by the plot line fundamentally, not by the writing or the execution of said plot line.

In addition, a big show was made of the era in which this novel was set, with the years of the setting at the start of each chapter. Yet, there were almost no references to the era whatsoever. No mention of what these characters may’ve worn, what they would have driven; there was no setting at all really aside from a few scattered cameo mentions and television or disk that may have alerted one to what decade it was. There was no world to be immersed in.

What Beautiful did have was good intentions. I could see where the author was trying to go but never felt that I’d actually arrived. I never read the other reviews for a work before I write my own, but this one made me curious because I felt that surely I’d missed something that others must have seen. However, what I found was that for those who seemed to rate the novel highly, they all commented on how “shocking or difficult” the subject matter was, which makes me believe that this is a wonderful read for those who have never experienced hardship or malice of any sort in life themselves, hence the opening line here.

What I felt was lacking was depth of character and emotion. The presence of the subject matter alone cannot carry the story for those readers who are not easily shocked and who expect more. For those of us in this category, this one merely scratched the surface, softly. Oh, there were wonderful elements to this story that could have really soared if properly filled out, but they instead were one-note and one-dimensional. Here you can find sexual abuse and the emotional trauma that comes along with it, love, murder, sex—the makings of a thrilling work. However, the volume was turned down so low here that it was nearly mute in impact, assuming that the mere presence of the subject matter would carry the novel. For some, that may work as a great read—and it seems that it did; for others, more is needed to make such a work stand out on the shelves, to make it worthy of digging into your pocket and spending your hard-earned money. I, myself, would not have gone into my wallet for this one. Two stars for the plot of this one. 2 stars **