I thought it would be a good idea to keep a log of all the books I buy! Posting reviews gives you a rough idea, but like a lot of avid readers I often buy too many books that’s unfortunately get pushed to the bottom of my TBR and are left unread.
I’m currently on a COVID-induced staycation in Oxfordshire, and I bought these two books from the local Waterstones.
The first is Stephen Fry’s Mythos. It’s a retelling of Greek mythology, and aside from being on the recommended reading list for one of my modules next year, it promises to satisfy my somewhat abandoned childhood Percy Jackson obsession. I’ve heard really good things about this book so I’m excited to get started!
The second is a book I haven’t heard of before, and to be totally honest bought purely due to my love for the weird. Jasper Fforde’s The Constant Rabbit doesn’t just have a wacky cover, but the blurb completely sold me. Here’s the excerpt that grabbed me, I don’t think I could do it justice by just describing it:
The village of Much Hemlock has always been a right-wing stronghold. British. Solid. Traditional.
Then they move in. They’re different from everyone else: they have a weird religion, an aggressive vegan agenda, and too many children. They may seem quiet and peace-loving, but who knows where it could lead?
They are a family of human-sized rabbits, the result of an inexplicable anthropomorphising event half a century before.
What an interesting concept, and definitely enough to make me spend my £8.99 on this book. Of course, the themes of racism and environmentalism are clear through the mask of eccentricity, but that only strengthens my interest more.
I think both of these books will be a great addition to my ever-growing bookshelf, and they’ve been bumped to the top of my TBR list.
Sharlene Teo compares Toon’s work to those by Shirley Jackson and Gillian Flynn. I’d like to say that this book missed that mark, but I’m not even entirely sure that that’s the mark she was trying to hit.
Plot Overview and Overall Thoughts (Spoiler Free)
Before talking in depth about how I felt about this book, I think it’s helpful to read the blurb:
In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren’s mother a decade ago.
Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father’s turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it’s no longer clear who she can trust.
In the shadow of the Highland forest, Francine Toon captures the wildness of rural childhood and the intensity of small-town claustrophobia. In a place that can feel like the edge of the word, she unites the chill of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller. It is the perfect novel for our haunted times.
Aside from the beautiful illustration on the cover (which I’ve inserted at the top of this review), this description really compelled me to buy this book. I’ve read a fair amount of Gothic stories, both traditional and modern, and it’s a genre that’s a personal favourite of mine.
Although I suggested that Teo’s comparison between Shirley Jackson and Francine Toon was far-fetched, one similarity I would draw out is the creation of an insular, suffocating environment that helps to create the creepy atmosphere of the novel. As the blurb mentions, the claustrophobia of the small Highland town that these characters live in is perfectly captured by Toon, and is probably what I found most compelling about this book. There really is a feeling that everyone is watching Lauren as she tries to uncover the truth about what happened to her mother, which strengthens the crime and Gothic aspects of this book.
Without going too in-depth and giving away the plot of the book, I would say that going into it expecting a big mystery and reveal is probably going to leave you disappointed. The book isn’t bad, by a long stretch (it won the 2020 McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the year), but the more other-worldly aspects which hint to the supernatural never quite solidify beyond a pasting suggestion. Maybe it’s just a misleading blurb, maybe Toon didn’t quite capture this as well as she’d hoped.
If you haven’t read Pine and you don’t want to see any spoilers, scroll down to the bottom of this review to see my rating and final concluding thoughts.
In-depth Review (Spoilers)
The characters are pretty well-written, with Lauren and Niall in particular being well-developed and complex. Niall is purposefully hard to like, with his drinking and partial neglect of Lauren really adds to her isolation. Despite this, you do feel some sympathy for him as a man who lost his wife and doesn’t really know how to cope with his growing daughter, misguidedly hiding information from her in the hopes of keeping her protected from harsh reality. At times I found myself getting frustrated with Lauren, but I think that’s largely because I kept forgetting how young she’s meant to be, and actually I think Toon captured the confusion that most people feel when they start to transition from child to young adult. Peripheral characters such as Diane and Ann-Marie emphasised this struggle by being typical teenage girls who Lauren looked up to and was envious of, their own experiences further demonstrating just how isolated the small town is. They are developed enough that I felt genuine concern when Ann-Marie went missing, which I think is a success for Toon considering how minor their role in the story was before that point.
Beyond the main characters, the figure of Lauren’s mum, Christine, haunts the novel, as she appears in an unknown form to seemingly try and deliver a message to her surviving family. She does bring a supernatural element to the novel, with her hair and teeth falling out and no-one being able to remember seeing her besides Lauren, but beyond being creepy and unsettling there isn’t really a feeling that she would hurt anyone, which I think is what makes ghosts scary. If you encounter a ghost who doesn’t want to hurt you, I’m not sure how frightened you would be. Especially if that ghost is your missing mother.
Speaking of the supernatural elements of the book, a lot of them felt like they were thrown in there in an effort to make the plot more Gothic. Christine’s use of crystals and spells in her life is touched on, and used to provide a suggested explanation for how she is able to appear to Lauren despite being presumed dead, but it never really leads anywhere beyond Lauren meeting her old friend who can also remember seeing Christine. Lauren’s own attempts to participate in witchy activities reads more as a childish belief in other worldly things and an effort to feel some kind of closeness and similarity to her mother. It never feels like these spells or tarot cards will truly help Lauren find her mother, and the curse she places on her school bullies can’t be taken as having a serious impact on the events of the novel. Maybe the point of these things are to demonstrate how childish and helpless Lauren is, and if this was Toon’s intention then they fulfill their purpose. Unfortunately, this is all they really do.
Speaking of Lauren’s school bullies, there are a lot of side plots and details that feel unnecessary and seem to be included just so no loose ends have to be explained away at the end. It’s Maisie, the main bully, who finds Ann-Marie’s hat when she’s missing, rather than having an unnamed character do so. Lauren being bullied does help her to feel more isolated and I guess adds a bit of a threatening edge to her life, but I think the book would’ve worked just as well without her. A side plot that I did like was Niall playing in the band with Sandy, as it gives the reader a really unsettling conflict between this helping Niall to begin to heal and get back to normal after Christine’s disappearance, and the later knowledge that he is the one who killed her.
I think my main disappointment with Pine was how predictable the outcome was. From the first few pages when Lauren and Niall pick up the woman and take care of her in the house, it’s easy to guess that it’s at least some version of her missing mum, whether it be a ghost, alive, a conjured memory, reanimated corpse etc. As the plot progresses and Lauren hears the stories about a man in the woods, it becomes pretty clear that at some point this will link into her mother’s disappearance. It was a bit of a twist that it was Sandy who killed Christine, but Ann-Marie vanishing into the woods did little to convince me that it potentially could have been Niall beyond a slight doubt. When you consider that the crime is not a big mystery and the Gothic elements are unsettling but not quite threatening, then what you are really left with is a book that builds a creepy atmosphere but fails to create a plot that fulfills this at its conclusion. The most danger Lauren is ever in is when she is lost in the woods looking for Ann-Marie, and even that plays out in a single chapter.
The main problem with this book for me is how few pages are devoted to solving the actual mystery of the crime. I think this book could have done with being a hundred or two pages longer, maybe using a dual-perspective so we could’ve seen Ann-Marie’s journey through the woods ourselves, rather than hearing her recount the ordeal after-the-fact when we already know she’s safe. As I’ve said, I think Toon’s creation of the Highland setting was really effective and a stand out example of how to set a creepy, insular and unsettling atmosphere in a Gothic crime novel such as Pine, so I don’t think time should have been taken away from this in the early parts of the novel. Perhaps this was a problem of trying to conform with the conventional length of popular fiction, and it ended up compromising the overall effectiveness of the book. Regardless of why, the majority of the book is devoted to Lauren’s everyday life, occasionally having a weird visit from her mother and discovering more about her disappearance and suspicious goings on in the town. I would say enough time is given to Ann-Marie’s disappearance that it carries intensity and creates genuine concern for the character’s safety, but once she is found the reveal of how Christine died is rushed within a page or so, almost brushed over like an insignificant detail.
Overall, then, I would say that Pine is an okay book. It’s enjoyable, and I don’t think you’d find it a waste of time. It’s not too long (I think I read it in two sittings), and it does have a really compelling unsettling atmosphere and a good crime plot. I think going into this book expecting a plot that gives great importance and a big pay off to supernatural Gothic elements would leave you feeling disappointed though.
“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”
C.S.Lewis’ problem is one that is very familiar to me, as I’m sure it is to you.
I caught the reading bug at a young age. I used to stay up past my bedtime, huddled up under my duvet with a torch, reading as late as I could. It didn’t really matter what I was reading, whether it was a prescribed reading from school, a borrowed book from a friend, or an old favourite from years before. A far more simple judgement was passed on the books I read- either I loved it, or I forgot about it.
As we get older, however, it becomes far more important to assess whether a book is worth reading before starting it. We have less time to read, and what time we can give over to this hobby needs to be used in a way that is valuable to us. We need reading as a respite, not an addition to the boredom of daily life.
This point became even starker to me as I progressed through my undergraduate degree in English Literature. Suddenly, it wasn’t just my enjoyment that mattered when deciding whether I should read the book. External ideas (fuelled by my imposter syndrome as a first generation university student) about the academic worth of books began to influence my reading decisions, forcing me to create quite a pretentious reading list for about a year. By this, I mean, I read War and Peace just so I could say that I had read War and Peace.
I’ve just graduated, and I’m about to start a masters course in English Literature in September. After submitting my dissertation, I began to read for pleasure properly, probably for the first time since I was 18. I went to a book shop, I scoured the popular fiction section and I looked at what was popular on social media (TikTok advocates very strongly for certain books and I couldn’t just ignore that). I went home with some books that I thought would be interesting to me, rather than books I thought would validate my position as ‘the reader’.
This blog is going to try and offer book reviews that can speak to both the simplistic enjoyment of books, and a more academic assessment of them. I’ll be reviewing books that I’ve read for pleasure, and ones that are part of the reading lists for my modules at university. I think that offers more of an accurate picture of how we read as adults, half for our entertainment and half to serve a higher purpose, maybe to educate us or offer different perspectives on a certain place, topic or issue that we might not encounter in everyday life.
I hope you enjoy these reviews, and maybe find some inspiration for your own reading in them.