Reviews: E-book and audiobook fiction - J. K. Rowling and more dark Scandinavia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2015, 11:12pm

Second Life
by S.J. Watson
(read by Imogen Church)
Random House

S.J. Watson didn't so much hit the big time with his 2011 novel Before I Go to Sleep as smash it to bits. Much of its effect derived from a slick, if less than original premise - the strange haunting of a middle-aged woman with odd memory lapses - and a twist that the conclusion didn't quite follow through. Second Life's heroine is once again a middle(ish)-aged woman, Julia Plummer, whose life has been decimated by trauma. Here it is overt: the murder of her sister Kate in France. Discovering that Kate was obsessed with online dating, Julia decides to entrap her killer by going undercover online. The title hints both at Julia's dark, wild past and the idea of virtual identities. This idea plays out through her increasingly Jamesian relationship with Lukas - and I mean E.L. not Henry. Watson handles the gap between the truth and what he tells about it deftly enough to keep you guessing. The problem as in his previous novel is what to do after the reveal. Sadly, Second Life is all twist and no shout. Still, Imogen Church's cultured tones convince as Julia.


The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling
(read by Tom Hollander)
Random House

There is never a bad time to read something by J.K. Rowling. Thanks to a new BBC adaptation of The Casual Vacancy, her first post-Potter novel, it was worth downloading the audiobook read by the wonderful Tom Hollander. It was a brave move, not because Rowling turned away from the young adult genre she all but invented, but because her premise was a local council election in a small English town called Pagford. Fleshed out with a large, varied and constantly criss-crossing cast, the story is not a million miles from being Harry Potter minus the spells. The election follows the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, whose casual vacancy opens up all manner of local infighting. At the heart is a dispute between Pagford's well-to-do citizens (the Mollisons) and its poor relations in "The Fields". What is striking is the angry disappointment lurking between parents and children, which simmers on Pagford's red-hot online chatrooms. Rowling does not neglect tricky issues: economic woes, domestic abuse, drugs and suicide. A fine book finely read.


The Winter War
by Philip Teir
Serpent's Tail

Philip Teir is being hailed as a superstar of Scandinavian literary fiction thanks to this unflinching portrait of family despair. The family in question are the Pauls, who live in Helsinki. The patriarch is facing a late midlife crisis. His fear of death is quickened by the slow disintegration of his marriage to Katriina who seems more interested in designing the perfect kitchen than her husband. This is understandable, as Max has done little personally or professionally in years: his biography of marriage expert Edvard Westermarck is long delayed. Enter Laura, an enticing, if rather clichéd journalist who wants to interview her former professor, once hailed as one of Finland's brightest minds but now known as "the sex professor". Teir traces the misery to the Pauls' daughters. Eva is a student living in London where she mixes sex, art and politics, but essentially recreates her unsatisfying family relationships. Her sister Helen has made an even more faithful photocopy. Teir writes well and with unsentimental insight. A fine debut.