Saturday, 7 April 2012

Awakening by S.J. Bolton

Awakening (2009)
S.J. Bolton
Grade: A
Genre: Gothic thriller crime (from the mouth of the lovely Sharon Bolton herself)
Sex scenes: n/a but some wonderful sexual tension
Source: bookshelf in the Transworld/RHCB building

Clara Benning is very happy as a wildlife vet in Dorset, tending injured badgers, birds and hedgehogs as well as the more mundane household pets, despite being perfectly qualified to work in a big zoo - something she tried but didn't like. Quiet village life suits her, though Clara makes a concerted effort to avoid seeing and coversing with the few neighbours she has; despite being deliberately blunt and rude, her neighbours continue to be nothing but friendly. When Clara begins to see an increasing number of snake cases, she refuses to believe it to be the work of the local gang as many suspect; herpetology being a speciality of hers, she investigates deeper.

The first victim is John Allington, dying a handful of days after a snake bite after suffering excruciating agony. The injuries are much too excruciating to be the result of an adder bite; this is confirmed by the post-mortem toxicology report which shows a concentration of poison much higher to have been inflicted through a single adder bite as it would otherwise appear.

Next, Clara gets a phonecall from a young neighbour down the road who has found a snake in her newborn's cot and is understandably hysterical. Luckily, Clara manages to remove the snake before any damage can be done to the baby, but Clara, having noted the wet footprints in the hallway on her way to the rescue, is curious as to how the snake found its way inside and into the cot specifically.

Clara is called to another emergency when a whole house is infested with grass snakes. One man was bitten and the elderly Dr Amblin hit his head in the ensuing panic. Clara sets to capturing the snakes with a team of local men who are willing to help. She is working surprisingly companionably (considering her general dislike of people) alongside her attractive neighbour Mart Hoare when they discover a specimen that is not quite so harmless as a grass snake.

When it comes to venomous snakes, it's a toss-up between three as to which is the deadliest. Most have heard of the Black Mamba in Africa and the cobra in Asia, but Clara's vote goes to the less well-known taipan, discovered fairly recently in Australia, though also found in Papua New Guinea. The taipan can grow to over three metres in length and is a strike-and-release snake, thus capable of injecting large quantites of venom into its victims. The taipan that they are faced with is of the inland variety, more dangerous than its coastal cousin; one bite is thought to be capable of killing up to 62 people. Not a snake you would want to keep as a pet. With Matt's help and the aid of a Superman T-shirt, the pair capture the snake and pass it on to Sean North, world-famous herpetologist, more widely known for his television role travelling the world in search of new species and who Clara holds a little in awe.

As Clara tries to explain the snake infestation and how on earth a snake from Papua New Guinea reached rural Dorset, she begins to uncover fifty-year-old secrets that the village had tried its hardest to forget; finds that for the first time in her life, she has not one, but two men truly looking beyond her features and she might just want to reciprocate those feelings; and to her horror, she's the prime suspect in several murders as well as to blame for all the snakes.

I had the fantastic opportunity to hear S.J. Bolton speak about her newest novel Dead Scared (amongst other things) last Friday. She briefly described how she became a writer, admitting that even after five books, she still doesn't feel like one. There was a summary about each of her books and she named Awakening as her favourite novel; several others in the audience agreeing that Clara is their favourite heroine. On getting back to my desk, there was Awakening and Now You See Me (prequel to Dead Scared, review coming soon) on the wall next to my desk. On the basis that Awakening had more recommendations, and that I didn't really want to read a series-book first without the second to hand, I picked up Awakening.

As a rule, I don't read crime. When I do, it's by authors I know, and even then, I'll normally lean heavily into romantic suspense. I love Dennis Lehane and I've read one each of Kathy Reich's Temperance Brennan and James Patterson's Alex Cross novels though I didn't really like either that much; in the romantic suspense category, I love J.D. Robb/NR and Linda Howard. I'm not what you might call a crime aficionado. If it's not by an author I know/like, I will not volunatrily pick up a crime novel if there are other options. Not because I don't like the genre, but because I generally have other things I want to read. Ms Bolton was very funny in her talk and in hearing her speak, I got the impression that I would enjoy reading her style. So, being as highly recommended as she was, she didn't disappoint.

Straight off, you know that Clara, the recluse that she is, has a pretty big reason for being so, and not just that she doesn't like her fellow humans. You get some glimpses and snatches throughout via her conversations with others and in her own thoughts, but Bolton is very good at only revealing to the reader what she wants them to know incrementally. I usually dislike this style, but I found that here, you're never certain that you've guessed right, so curiosity pushes you to keep reading and reading until you're so immersed in the plot and it's so good that you've found more and more questions that you have to find the answers to and the intial questions have faded in importance. Seriously addictive. More addictive than cinnamon buns, which is saying something.

Bolton depicts fantastically detailed and realistic settings. In her talk, she laid out the various sub-components of the crime genre as shown below (I think I've remembered everything):

She states that she writes 'gothic thriller crime', though others have placed her under other headings. She gave a little background on the gothic genre, providing me with even more stuff to put on my TBR lists. The gothic genre, she described, is the realm of the haunted houses, monsters under the bed, secret underground passages and abandoned buildings where smart heroines/protagonists know they shouldn't venture into by themselves in the middle of a cold, dark night with no moon to guide their way, but they do it anyway because of course the killer wouldn't dare to even breathe on them, let alone approach them and try to kill them. Clara does a lot of exploring on her own, some of it not. Back to where I was talking about settings: the scene where she and Matt search the Witcher house is utterly edge-of-your-seat, biting-your-fingernails-to-the-quick fantastic. It takes a lot in a book to properly scare me, and there wasn't really any point that I was scared, but there were several moments where I felt creeped out or really felt the chilling effects of the scenes that Ms Bolton was depicting. Even more frequently, I felt scared for Clara's safety and well-being which for me, is a big sign of good writing: that an author has created (a) character(s) that you have come to like so much that you feel concern as if they were real people.

I loved the sexual tension in the Matt-Clara-Sean triangle. It was cute because Clara hasn't ever had men look at her that way and so she's really just an innocent little lamb. It reminds me a little of Evanovich's Morelli-Stephanie-Ranger triangle that I'm not quite up-to-date with yet, having only read the first ten books. In the latter, I'm definitely in the Morelli camp; similarly here, I'm all for Matt. I'm not sure if it's because both are the cops and thus the 'good guys', Ranger and Sean being the baddies, but I just love them both. I really want a sequel to Clara's book, if only to see what path her love life takes. Of course, we're not really sure if Matt is properly unattached as we see Clara meet a woman who calls herself his girlfriend, but seeing as how I'm such a Matt fan, I'm a little dubious. I know in my last review I emphasised about the wrong-ness of adultery, even if only in a work of fiction, I don't think it applies here. I know it might sound hypocritical of me, but seeing as how Matt isn't even married and we don't know how serious he is with his girlfriend, he really shouldn't be a love interest for Clara if he is already seriously attached. Thus, he can't really be that serious about his girlfriend if he's flirting with Clara at every chance he gets. So, basically, I'm not in the Sean camp.

Clara is a very strong heroine. Not the type of person who would be your best friend, mostly because you'd have a hard time trying to spend enough time getting to know her in order to qualify as friends, but it's nice to see other characters begin to chip away at the wall she's thrown up around herself and begin to integrate themselves into her life, whether she likes it or not. Her flaws (physical as well as mental) are an integral part of who she is and while she tries to carry on life as normal in public, the insecurities she reveals in private adds a touch more vulnerability to her otherwise mostly-untouchable demeanour and you find yourself caring that little bit more.

The plot is intriguing. Having not read much crime - as already established - I don't know how common snakes are in the genre, but I liked it. I like to learn stuff from what I read, so I had the added side-bonus of learning about taipans - some useful trivia, if nothing else. I really enjoyed the added religious element; a little controversial, but the best things are. Religion is a powerful motivator in any situation, so it explains why the village were so keen to try and forget the events of the past. It added another layer to an already complex plot, and there were times that I got a little confused what with all the characters, but the plot itself is easy enough to follow and compelling enough that it probably wouldn't matter if you couldn't even remember the protagonist's name, because it's that good.

Bolton ended her talk with a few quotes about how her writing has been described. One of these was "crime with a twist" which I think describes her aptly. There were some things that happened that I just wasn't expecting, but that might just be my naivete on show. I loved the characters and there were some truly brilliant lines. Bolton is descriptive enough without being overpoweringly so and she sets each scene wonderfully. As I've mentioned enough times already, I'm not a huge crime fan, but this definitely made me start my path on becoming one.

Image courtesy of fantasticfiction

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