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ALL THE GOOD THINGS by Clare Fisher

 

ATGT.jpg ALL THE GOOD THINGS

Clare Fisher (clarefisherwriter.com)Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Beth is 21 and in prison, her life ruined by a bad thing that she feels there is no atonement for. Her counsellor, Erika, gives Beth a notebook and asks her to write down all the good things in her life.

“But what if…I can’t think of any?”

If you’ve never seen a sad smile, you should’ve seen hers just then. “You will.”

And Erika is right. As Beth approaches the bad thing she has done, carefully, creeping up on it by way of the things that make her happy, a portrait of a troubled young life emerges, proof that even the “worst” people are never all bad.

I know what you’re thinking: Clare Fisher’s debut, All The Good Things, is not at all the type of book you expect to see featured here on Reader Dad. And you’re right, yet there was something about this slim tale of twenty-one-year-old Bethany that captured my attention and made this a must-read. Like many of the books I enjoy, Fisher’s story examines the darkness at the heart of the human soul; unlike many, though, it finds many redeeming qualities, a well-timed message that we’re not all as horrible as all that, at least not all of the time.

All The Good Things is structured as a kind of diary, Beth’s list of good things with explanatory notes. What emerges as we spend time with this young woman is a portrait of a stereotypical teenager with more than their fair share of bad luck, and an overwhelming sense of “wrong place, wrong time”. Beth has grown up in the British foster care system, shifted from one set of temporary parents to another, often for the most mundane of reasons: a young couple who have finally gotten pregnant and feel that the presence of an older foster child will somehow negatively impact the relationship with their natural child; an older parent who dies. As Beth grows, and the list of parents grows longer, so too does her impatience with the system, so that she ultimately rebels and ends up looking like the stereotypical problem child.

Beth pulls no punches, using the notebook as the perfect excuse to be brutally honest with herself, safe in the knowledge that no-one will ever read it unless she gives them permission to. Her problems haunt her as she enters the prison system, an aloofness born from the desire to have no ties, but which marks her out as someone who thinks she is better than everyone else. As she learns from her past experiences, her relationships inside begin to flower, too. Fisher places us squarely in the middle of Beth’s head, and that’s no mean feat: what do I, a 41-year-old man, know about being a 21-year-old girl who is a product of a failed foster care system? And yet, I feel an empathy with Beth, a sense that “there but by the grace of god”.

The story focuses on the simple pleasures in life: reading, running, “a soft ear in hard times” or “[s]melling a baby’s head right into your heart”. Beth writes for herself, and for her baby, and this approach breeds an honesty that is at times touching, at others almost difficult to witness. Yet there can only be one outcome, and the fact that this is a prison diary of sorts is a constant reminder of just what that outcome is. “The bad thing”, when it is finally revealed towards the novel’s end, comes as no great surprise, as horrific and heart-rending as it is, and our witnessing it as we do, through Beth’s eyes, leaves us with a sense of deep sympathy, rather than the self-hatred that is eating the young protagonist from the inside, a sense that what happened was inevitable, unavoidable and, as such, should not be the sole responsibility of this lonely young girl.

All The Good Things lives up to its title if not its subject matter, and succeeds in being an upbeat and strangely life-affirming tale. Fisher breathes life into Bethany, giving her a unique and affecting voice and a story that gets under the skin and demands that we have an opinion, that we are more than a casual observer. Beautifully told, this tale of a life only half-lived will stay with the reader for a long time and will ultimately leave us with a much sunnier outlook on life. You can’t afford to miss it.

THE BONE TREE by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree - Greg Iles THE BONE TREE

Greg Iles (www.gregiles.com)

Harper (www.harpercollins.co.uk)

£8.99

With the investigation into the death of Viola Turner still very much unsolved, Penn Cage finds that his father, Dr Tom Cage, may have been involved in more than some Ku Klux Klan killings. An FBI cold case team, of which agent John Kaiser is a member, have linked the Double Eagles with one of the most well-known killings in American history, and are keen to pursue it while the momentum is good. It’s an approach that doesn’t suit Penn’s immediate need to get his father to safety, and with the leader of the Double Eagles about to take control of the Louisiana State Police, that’s looking less likely by the minute. There is one lead, a lead of almost mythical proportions: a tree in the swamp where there is enough evidence to convict all of the Double Eagles and solve one of America’s greatest mysteries, and Penn’s girlfriend, Caitlin Masters, will stop at nothing to find it.

The Bone Tree picks up immediately where Natchez Burning left off, dropping the reader back into the middle of the action as if we’d never been away. There are plenty of reasons to be excited about jumping back in: the murder of Viola Turner is still unsolved; we’ve been learning more and more about the past of Dr Tom Cage, and with luck there should be plenty more to come; and while the epic stand-off that closed book one is now in the past, there are still plenty of bad guys to keep Penn and his motley band of crusaders very much on their toes.

It’s an excitement that lasts for only a short while, I’m sorry to say. While The Bone Tree takes us back to Natchez, Mississippi, a small town where so many questions have been left unanswered, it isn’t long before Iles sets out a new agenda for this second book in the series. The murder of Tom Cage’s old nurse takes a backseat along with the murders committed by the Double Eagles during the 1960s, and The Bone Tree becomes, to all intents and purposes, a second-rate Kennedy assassination conspiracy thriller. It is, to say the least, something of an anti-climax after the pulse-pounding Natchez Burning. Couple this with the fact that the main characters become much less likeable the more time we spend in their company, their selfishness overriding any of the other qualities they may have had – particularly Penn and Caitlin – to the extent that they become almost like sulky children playing at adulthood.

Which is not to say that The Bone Tree is a bad novel. It’s just not the excellent novel that it should have been had Iles stayed on track and given us a proper follow-up to Natchez Burning. As the book ends, 850 pages later, we find that we’re none the wiser about any of the questions raised by the first book in the series: who killed Viola Turner? No idea. What’s the deal with Tom Cage and his strange and incriminating silence? No idea. Are we likely to find out in the next book? Frustratingly, no idea, because who knows where Iles will take the story next?

The book does have some glimpses of brilliance: the scenes at the Bone Tree are chilling and affecting, enough to bring a shiver to even the most hardened of readers. And Iles proves that he’s not all about the cliché, taking the unprecedented step of killing off key characters to advance the story – The Bone Tree racks up a main character body count that is worthy of Game of Thrones. It’s just a shame that the Kennedy assassination gets so much attention, and the original story becomes little more than a series of sub-plots to round out the page count.

In many ways it feels like The Bone Tree could be skipped without losing much momentum on the overall story, though it’s probably just about worth the read for the aforementioned glimpses of brilliance. Iles has a lot of work cut out for himself in book three to make us care about the central characters again, and it’s likely that many readers will only return to the trilogy’s final volume to get the answers to the questions that we expected to find in The Bone Tree. In short, it’s a disappointing novel that has the potential to wreck what could have been an excellent trilogy.

COMING SOON: Justin Cronin’s THE TWELVE Blog Tour

This coming Saturday, 20th October, Reader Dad will play host to Justin Cronin for the second stop of his blog tour to celebrate the release of The Twelve on October 25th. Be sure to check back after 9am Saturday for my review of the book, and for an exclusive video extract of Justin Cronin reading a short section of the book. Be sure, also, to check the other stops on the tour, for more video extracts, and an exclusive competition.

Twelve blog tour

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