I realised too late that The Devil and the Dark Water was written by the same person who wrote The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. By that point I had spent £7 on it in the Kindle Store, having been told by the Daily Mail that if I read any book this year I ought to “make it this one”.
I had given up on Seven Deaths about 25% of the way in, utterly mystified by and moreover not interested in what was going on. My friend Simon Conway, who had read it all the way to the end, told me what happened after I gave up and I was so, so glad on hearing the denouement that I hadn’t bothered persevering with it. I was astonished that it had been so successful – to me it read like slightly clumsy Downton Abbey fanfiction. But then I am always astonished at the success of certain books: Where the Crawdads Sing, A Little Life, any Lee Child book, the Secret Barrister. I won’t slag them off – what do I know? They’ve all sold millions – I’m just baffled by what people like about them so much.
Are the people who like these books the same ones who liked the pop fiction that I liked? I’m no snob, I’ve read loads of Dan Brown and Jilly Cooper and that Eleanor’s perfectly fine one and Memoirs of a Geisha and Confessions of a Shopaholic. Do people who liked those also like the ones above? Do they discern no difference? Sometimes I wonder if there exist people who are just desperate to read a book and don’t care much what it says.
The urgent tone of the book review in the Mail made me keep going with The Devil and the Dark Water. This is the one book I’ve got to read!! Plus I feel like even though I don’t like mysteries, my life would be easier if I did. If I was less fussy I could always have a book on the go: like my dad. He always has some rubbishy pulp fiction tented somewhere to dive back into in spare moments when he’s not translating Goethe or doing maths. So I struggled on with Devil, which is an absolutely bizarre book.
Basically the premise is that it’s 1634 and there are these two characters on board a big ship sailing from Indonesia to Europe – Sammy Pipps and Arent Hayes. They have a hinterland as a kind of Sherlock Holmes and Watson duo and, as such, the book reads as if this were one of a series of their adventures, rather than a standalone novel. Aboard this ship there is a demon spirit with a grudge and it starts bumping people off and leaving weird devilish signs everywhere and our detective duo have to work out what’s going on.
It reminded me of that other infuriating book The Magus, where the author dumps you in a mire of confusion and you poke about in the book going “God what is this guff?” until the last 4 chapters when someone says “Do you remember that loud bang in Chapter 5? Well that was the secret trapdoor suddenly shutting!” or there is a reveal like someone has spent the last 20 years building up an immunity to a rare poison in order to poison someone and you go… do you know what? You’re just making this up.
But, again, what the hell do I know about anything? This will sell a million copies too.
I was very much hoping that Ghosts by Dolly Alderton would be terrible as she’s just too successful and I can’t really cope with it all. Not long ago she was nothing more than a spirited 20-something emailing me asking for advice and now she’s this terrifying mega brand, while I can’t even get my children to flush the loo or not use belching as a form of greeting.
I had also thought I would be able to dismiss Ghosts because it’s about dating, and I’m not interested in dating or descriptions of exciting men or lingering glances or amazing first dates or any of it. Don’t care! But, alas, alack, this book is good. Dolly’s terrific at making you care about things outside your niche clutch of immediate interests and she smartly dodges a lot of boring convention and cliché that you find in these sorts of books, while keeping you on reasonably familiar territory.
I liked the lead character’s crazy mum and the mad friend; her skewering of boring marrieds is excellent. She also has the same obsession as I do over those girls who somehow have a whip hand over their boyfriends and are able to get them to do things like “Montheversary” dinners and giant breakfasts-in-bed on Valentine’s Day. Before I was married I only ever made myself as small and convenient and undemanding in relationships as possible and I still always got chucked over or, yes, ghosted – probably ultimately for girls who said things like “What time do you call this?”
After 9 years of marriage I told Giles that if he didn’t occasionally bring me tea in bed once in a while I was going to leave and that seemed to shift something slightly. Is that what these girls do? Are they terrifying narcissists who crush men into doing their bidding? Did their mothers teach them how to do it? How? HOW??
What’s depressing to realise on reading Ghosts is that in the 13 years I’ve been off the dating scene, nothing seems to have changed except the invidious addition of the internet. The men are all still fucking freaks, the women are all still just looking for “someone nice to go to the cinema with”. The horrendous power balance of money/age/looks still operates and I’m extremely pleased to be shot of the whole nightmarish thing.
I’m sure Ghosts will sell a million copies. Dear God, just please let it outsell The Devil and the Dark Water.
OH GOD, I loathed that Evelyn H book. Somehow I slogged to the end, then took great pleasure in putting it in the recycling bag so no-one else would have to read it. Hype around books is a weird phenomenon though; did you read The Hunting Party last winter? Utter drivel but excellent reviews in Grazia and the like. I though it would be an enjoyable bit of wintery trash, mais non.
I really struggled with the Hunting Party, too. I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem with it was, though. I think the characters were all a bit cliched and I don’t like that, but I think a lot of people respond very well to it – they know where they are
A Reader says
It probably doesn’t hurt that the author is mates with the CEO of Harper Collins UK.
It’s really tempting to see success through that prism, I do it all the time – and yet… publishing people are ruthless and it really is all about sales. So I’m sure it doesn’t hurt, you’re right, that they’re mates but access isn’t everything. I’m telling myself this more than anything else tbh, you make a perfectly good point
Sometimes I think sales are just the result of an extremely good marketing campaign…if they can see how to market the book, it doesn’t really matter how many people READ the book. For example, I have at least 100 books on my shelves that I bought on the whim of a very flattering interview with the author and then I couldn’t finish after the first chapter or two . And as for reviews —— for quite while I reviewed (not books) for a magazine and I just sort of didn’t have a clue most of the time if I thought the thing was good or not. I barely had time to digest and think about it because deadlines between absorbing and writing about the thing were unbelievably narrow. So I vacillated between wildly over positive for things I kind of got where they were coming from to hugely critical of stuff I couldn’t be arsed to understand on its own terms. So not sure reviews are ever even mildly reliable, unless it’s the LRB or something where the reviews are 8k words long and you really know the writer has INVESTED – and tbh that’s probably where being a friend/relative of someone important comes in – gettting those media inches and cover quotes.
Kate thank you for this very insightful and candid shake-down!!!!
Obviously our mums neglected to instruct us in How to Henpeck Your Man into Submission. Mine was more concerned in teaching us to be kind and never tell a lie. Big fat lot of good that has done me in the gladiatorial arena that is romance!
I didn’t finish Seven Deaths for Seven Brothers either, gave it to my dad and he liked it though. I completely get what you mean about certain books, I have tried Jack Reacher but just CAN’T and figure he doesn’t need me to. The Magus was such a huge disappointment – that “you’re just making this up” feeling is so right. I nearly launched it into the Ionian when I read the last few pages. I am a bit the same with tv shows, I just can’t stop thinking “oh look at them all acting” sometimes. Like you roast a chicken every week fine, then one time you see a bone at a certain angle and realise what you’re doing and suddenly you don’t want chicken anymore. I just read a book that was longlisted for a prize and I thought it was crazily awful, I don’t want to say its name, but I tried so hard with it and it made me feel the world had just run out of good ideas. I did just read The Nickel Boys and that was good, and around 200 pages long, not a wasted word. I read the thing about demanding girlfriends with slight unease – I have not had to make myself a cup of tea in the morning for years and years unless it’s Father’s Day, his birthday or he is not present. I don’t know how this happened. Maybe I’m Sally Albright and think I’m low maintenance but I’m actually high maintenance. I think it is more about his personality than mine though (but then I would say that). I want the new Victoria Wood biography and I’m planning on beating my husband with a Woman’s Weekly until he agrees to buy me it for Christmas, or else…well nothing really, I’ll just get it myself.
I am getting naffed off with book reviews…in magazines, on Amazon, in the paper. Who is reviewing these books? I was just talking about this last night with my mum…it’s just huge PR campaigns focussing on one book to reel in the quids! The book shoots into the top ten and suddenly a million copies of a frankly shite book have been sold. I’m longing for a good book that and I think these are my new criteria: It mustn’t be 100 pages too long (so many books I read draaaaaag on and on), it mustn’t have a thousand 5 star reviews on Amazon, and it can’t have been picked by Richard and Judy or Reece Witherspoon!
The Rosie Project was another baffling one… such a creepy weird man with his creepy habits…
Yes!! I was also completely baffled by women who can “wrap a man around their little finger”, sorry for the vomitous phrase. Have they no fear at all of being ditched for being just… too much hard work? I suspect they’re often like that with their female friends too… and I’m thinking back on one or two friends who I’ve put up with for a long time who were stroppy mares to their partners – I think by and large they were quite stroppy with me and other women friends. Hmmm… Am certainly less tolerant of Difficult People as I get older.
But the sheer chutzpah, the deep reserve of self-certainty, the confidence that your husband or boyfriend won’t just tell you to fuck off if you act too unreasonably. Where do they learn it?! Where can I get it?! Actually no, that’s not true. I don’t want to be an arsehole. But (like you Esther) as a naturally rather diffident/easygoing woman married to an arrogant sexy bastard, I’ve had to learn over the years to be properly assertive and to stand up for myself much better. After 15 years I’m most definitely NOT a doormat.
Kate I’m so glad this didn’t end with “and the arrogant sexy bastard fucked off” hooray! and phew
Kate Sansom says
I started to wonder if I really knew the people in my book group when they loved Where the Crawdads Sing.
ISN’T IT SO WEIRD!
Oh god. My husband makes me a cup of tea every morning. Does that make me a narcissist? Am I the Meghan to his Harry?!
Joking aside, I think it’s because I grew up with brothers but who knows.
Natalie tell us your secret
This is when I love your writing Esther.
I was thinking that I had developed a concentration problem as I am on the third book that I am about to abandon a third of the way in (“The Guest Book”) and next one on the list was to be “Where the Crawdads sing.”I feel annoyed when I read the back of a book cover and realise only a few pages in, that the blurb really only relates to the first 3 pages. The Emily Maitlis book “Airhead” is a good read. Kate Atkinson is favourite author for me and I really enjoyed “Once upon a River” Diane Setterfield but that may be because we were walking the Thames path. There must be so many great authors out there and that’s why we should try and seek out non biased reviews (such as on your blog):)
There is something attractive though about reading some of the ‘bestsellers’ if only to judge for yourself what the fuss was about
Cindy Fried says
Yes that 7 Deaths book was completely baffling, but I finished it, because as usual I thought all would be revealed and it would get better (do they ever? Not in my experience yet).
It was so lauded when it came out, and like you with his new one I got sucked in. I have slowly realised to wait for all the fuss to die down before I succumb
Most books are too long and a lot are badly edited and sag in the middle.
As for men I think it is crucial to make it clear that they are punching above their weight when it comes to you from the very beginning. That takes bags of arrogance and confidence to pull off successfully but can sometimes be faked for brief spells. I had a friend who used to pull all sorts of strokes to get a bunch of blimming flowers from Wild at Heart on Feb 14th so she could crow about it. Exhausting.
Dolly’s book is too young for me now – I am sure it is great and I love her column and podcast, but I cannot go back to even thinking about dating *shudder*.
Cindy honestly I don’t think Dolly’s book is too young for you – I thought it would be too young for me, but it’s just entertaining
Esther, thank you. This post made me laugh and I totally related to it. So much of today’s literature is barely readable to me. Crawdads book was terrible. It reminded me of a kids book, the kind you excitedly buy at a school book fair when you’re 10. Everyone in my book club loved it but me. Either they are easily amused or I missed the whole point of it.
If you like historical fiction I just finished a good one called The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline, about female “criminals” transported to Australia in the 1840s. I really didn’t know anything about this place/era so I found it very interesting. An easy read but very well researched. Next I’m going to read Luster by Raven Leilani, another book that is getting a lot of hype. Which means I probably won’t like it ha
Shit. My sister has just sent me the audio book of Where the Crawdads Sing saying she loved it. Now I don’t even want to start reading the thing. Personally (and it’s all so subjective) I liked: William Boyd: Love is Blind (well most of his books to be fair). John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany. Philip Roth: The Plot Against American. I read the first two books about Henry VIII by Hilary Mantel and loved them, but picked up another about the French Revolution and it left me cold. At the moment I’m reading about the social history of the East End which is great. I love Marian Keyes as a person, but her books just leave me cold. Read one and that was enough.
LOL just re-read. Looks like I’m cold all the time:)
deb Khan says
New William Boyd is terrific. Then again – I liked Seven Deaths – oops
Deb: someone had to x
I hated Evelyn Hardcastle! The reveal of the killer was completely ridiculous, but then the twist about what the premise of the book was at the end was so bad it made me feel cheap for having actually bothered to read it through. So incredibly unpleasant.
“incredibly unpleasant” is very damning
Zeba Clarke says
Loathed Crawdads, loathed 7 Deaths, and Fleischmann is in Trouble and Daisy Jones and the Six – at the moment, I just feel that I get sucked into picking up these books and then they turn out to be diabolically awful. All I want is something to suck me in so I turn pages at the rate of knots, reach the end and feel satisfied. I remember reading books like Jilly Cooper’s Imogen and Bella, aged 13 and 14, or racing through James Bond and Saint books. Recently, I’ve loved Pullman’s Belle Sauvage and Secret Commonwealth, and anything by Frances Hardinge, but her latest one is lurking on my unfinished pile, sigh. Any recommendations gratefully received, but not sure about Dolly Alderton, at 50-something, I feel as though I am much too old to really enjoy it.
Thank you! I found A Little Life so weirdly drawn out and stufffed full of suffering upon suffering that it was very hard to take seriously, impossible to enjoy
yes I did wonder a bit about the sanity of the writer – although I know TWO people who know the author well and she’s said to be a perky, sparky normal person and she wrote this… NIGHTMARE
Crawdads has a ridiculous plot but the nature descriptions are lovely. Eleanor Oliphant really isn’t much better.
The best books I’ve read this year are translations of foreign novels that were written about 30 years ago. The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (a dreamlike dystopic novel) and The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod (historical novel set during the slave rebellions in Suriname). It can be fun to read the odd best seller but waiting till the fuss dies down is a good way to sift out the crap.
Did enjoy Crawdads but what a load of tosh the Hunting Party was. Last book that I really, really loved was A Gentleman in Moscow. Before that I loved Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie.
I also loved Home Fires! I think it lived up to the hype surrounding it. We read 7 Deaths for our book club and I think a few would have abandoned it halfway through if they hadn’t been so dedicated to doing their homework. I was able to read it in a couple of sittings which helped get me a bit more stuck in. I have a habit of recommending books for book club that I see/hear or read a lot about so I think I may let things settle a bit before doing this in the future to avoid the PR hype!
While we’re taking about terrible books which get great reviews- My House is Falling Down, anyone?? Her non-fiction sounds v interesting, but this was just terrible.
One of your readers- I think? Or maybe even you, Esther?- recommended Susie Steiner’s Dct Bradshaw books and I finally got around to picking up the first one last week. And then the second. And then the third, like some sort of book-inhaling chain-smoker/reader. So anyone looking for easy to read, well-researched, decent plot and character- these are worth a shot. It’s not high literature (thank god, actually) but you’ll be sad rather than fucking thrilled when the book ends.
Home Fire I really enjoyed. Such a clever ending. Towles’ Rules of Civility is much better than A Gentleman in Moscow. The Mirror and The Light I dragged myself through, though I’d raced through the first two. My best recent find was The Dutch House.
For easy and well-written, try the British Library series of forgotten crime novels. A few duds but in the main good, clean, easy fun, and stylish covers too. Without shame I confess to a great love of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb thrillers, though less gripped by his other series. I have learnt to steer clear of anything shortlisted for anything until years have passed and I can sneak up on it quietly in a charity shop. But then I have a house rammed full of parental books so feel guilty about buying any more. I basically live in my own personal lending library, specialising in Second World War history, Napoleonic history, art, crime fiction and gardening.
“sneak up on it quietly in a charity shop” love this
The last book I read that I really loved was The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I’ve started choosing to read books that have been around for a while but are new to me, but that I have, on multiple occasions heard discussed positively. I have also very much fallen into the trap of buying THIS YEAR’S MOST EXCITING NOVEL and almost without fail am disappointed. I have really lost faith in professional book reviewers; I think the comment above from Kate on her experience as a reviewer probably explains why. Who really does have the time to read and properly digest and form an opinion on hundred and hundreds of books in a year? Also so glad you said that re: Evelyn Hardcastle; complete fucking bollocks. Upstairs Downstairs meets The X Files. No thank you.
Elizabeth Brooks says
White Teeth – so much rave yet first chapter left me cold so I abandoned it. The God of Small Things – no. I used to feel that it was a sign of my own ill discipline to not keep ploughing through. Then I heard someone say, nah, there’s too many books out there to waste time on ones you’re not enjoying. Richard Madeley, who I have a soft spot for, once said whatever you’re reading it must nourish you. During lockdown I have been nourished by the 2 for £5 chick lit at my local garden centre. It’s hit the spot. One day soon I will return to the bookshelf that I want to want to read. But not this day.
Elizabeth Brooks says
And I have Ghosts ready to dive into. Post divorce 44 years old and I wonder if I’m too old too but I love listening to Dolly. And what I’ve seen after my return to the dating scene – well, we didn’t ‘date’ 15/20 years ago – is that men are pretty much the same arses they were then.
Yes. I used to tell myself when I was dating that I only needed ONE. Just one man, that was all. Sorry, not “needed”, “wanted”. I wanted one man, for me. Not thousands. Just one. That actually helped when most men were utter weirdos or twits. I was like “doesn’t matter – I only need ONE, after all”
Can I mention talk about’The Salt Path’? Universally hailed as fantastic but I hated it. I felt so much was left out, you don’t suddenly end up bankrupt with no friends. There was a whole back story not addressed. And why did no friends step into help? I know she said they didn’t want to but to then decide that walking the SW Coast path was the answer? I
I can’t believe that everyone they met was so judgy and looked down on them? How come every they met was very negative except hippies and extreme lefties? She was a bit horrible about the friend who let them stay in their barn free of charge for most of the winter.
TThe whole book was so negative; I know her husband’s diagnosis was terrible and their bankruptcy was awful but i can’t believe they didn’t meet more people who were nicer to them.
You read my mind, I was just looking at the salt path in the bestsellers and thinking… what is so great about this book. sounds miserable but there are people who lap that sort of thing up
I read the Evelyn Hardcastle book on Cromer beach in August which was the correct place to read it. I quite liked it after I’d got into it but LAWD it took some getting into.
Recently it’s ‘memoirs’ written by journalists (specifically Deborah Orr and Grace Dent) that I’ve gullibly bought because their media friends recommend them. After ploughing through the pages thinking there’s going to be something worth reading at some point, I reach the end and feel duped ‘Really? Is that it? Is this the best you can muster?’. The odd perfectly constructed sentence or pithily witty observation does not a good book make; I need a barrage of them, a full on assault of scathingly snappy ideas that are memorable and get me thinking. There’s a lot of self-congratulation and aggrandising in these books but not much genuine reflection or charm. (My God, I sound as joyless and grumpy as Beryl from Banbury getting her knickers in a twist over next door’s hot tub heavy-petting-sessions. Forgive me).