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A Quiet Belief in Angels was my first R J Ellory book that I read. the title grabbed me as I was at a pont where I needed to believe in something! This book was nothing like I expected and surprisingly it had me hooked within the first chapter
Joseph Vaughan's life has been dogged by tragedy. Growing up in the 1950s, he was at the centre of series of killings of young girls in his small rural community. The girls were taken, assaulted and left horribly mutilated. Barely a teenager himself, Joseph becomes determined to try to protect his community and classmates from the predations of the killer. Despite banding together with his friends as ' The Guardians', he was powerless to prevent more murders - and no one was ever caught. Only after a full ten years did the nightmare end when the one of his neighbours is found hanging from a rope, with articles from the dead girls around him. Thankfully, the killings finally ceased. But the past won't stay buried - for it seems that the real murderer still lives and is killing again. And the secret of his identity lies in Joseph's own history
This was for me 403 pages of suspense and emotion. I could really feel,little Joseph's yearning to protect his friends and community. The author writes well in that you feel you are with the main character every step of the way. When josephmis 10 years older you can understand his every action and his every emotion. The author depicts a close community feeling that unite in utter sadness but also become so easily divided. I thought this was an excellent read which I have now read twice, the second time understanding Joseph's feelings more.
I,was surprised when I researched the author that he was not American but indeed a British author that so obviously researches thoroughly. I was even more astounded when I found that he only lives within 6 miles of me!
I have gone on to buy all of his books on the strenghth of this book!
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, but be warned the author is very graphic and easily gets those brain juices running!
If I had been left to judge this book based on my immediate impressions, I never would have read it. The title wasn't promising - especially as it didn't immediately appear to relate to the plot. The front cover, dominated by the author and title hewn in massive block letters, is quite an ugly red colour, evocative of violence. It had a sticker advertising that it formed part of Richard and Judy's book club. It had reading group notes. *shudder* This was a book that looked very worthy and popular, but not very fun. However, for reasons not worth explaining here, the book group I attend each month has to read a crime fiction novel once a year and this, announced the librarian gloomily, was this year's choice. Her (lack of) enthusiasm was infectious, and rather compounded by her mitigating statement: "At least it's not another Sophie Hannah." As I love Sophie Hannah's work, this was hardly reassuring. So, suitably under-enthused, I settled down to read a book by a writer who has twice been short listed for the Crime Writers' Association Steel Dagger, but never actually won it.
== The plot and the prologue(s) ==
The story begins in 1939, although it spans many years and finally closes in 2005. Set in fictional Augusta Falls, in Southern America, young Joseph Vaughn learns of the brutal sexual assault and murder of a young girl. Already grieving for his recently deceased father, the sensitive Joseph feels the death of his classmate strongly and, as a series of similar killings occur over the years, he develops an unhealthy obsession with the case. Initially the story focuses on these childhood years and shows how Joseph's efforts to protect the young girls in his community are in vain. Eventually, the killings seem to end - but only after a shocking event disturbs the whole community once more, and Joseph suffers another serious loss. Despite trying to put the tragedies of his past behind him, Joseph appears to be marked out for misfortune, and events take an almost unbelievable turn for the worst. Who is responsible for these terrible killings? And can they ever be stopped?
As should be obvious from the above, this is not a story to give you happy thoughts or sweet dreams. The storyline is one of ever increasing misery and entrapment, in which Joseph seems to suffer an unimaginable amount. The author almost seems to endorse Joseph's own conviction: that he is somehow cursed because he failed to protect little girls when he was only a little boy himself. His misery, and the omnipresent grief and fear of a county who are losing their daughters, creates a dark reading experience.
This dark atmosphere is established in the opening pages. There are two prologues which begin the story. One describes, in a highly stylised manner, a shooting in a New York hotel room. This short, third person narrative is immediately followed by a first person account from the shooter, who focuses not on what they have just done, but on the nature of life itself. The speaker attempts to align the reader to him by admitting that he has committed many wrongs, but insisting that he deserves to be listened to. He states that 'we go back now, all the way back to the beginning.' This seems to imply that a long time has passed between the opening of the story and this moment, which means that it will take a lifetime before Joseph (assuming that he is the speaker) is able to even begin to escape his past.
So far, so depressing. The tone is downbeat, moralistic and contains what I consider to be a religious edge to it, in the sense that life is presented as at once valuable and torturous, almost too good for the human beings who casually possess it. Although I was intrigued to know who had committed the terrible crimes, the highly reflective style suggested a slow paced novel to follow - which was exactly the case.
== Torture ==
If Joseph is tortured by his past, so, to an extent, is the reader. At least, any reader who wants to read this as a crime novel and find out what happened, how it happened, why it happened. Joseph, our narrator, wants to wallow. He is guilty. He did not protect these girls, even though, surely, as a twelve year old boy, he could not have been expected to. Although I found his guilt psychologically convincing to a degree, (ironically, I often feel guiltiest for those things I had the least control over - and not guilty about things I know I have done wrong!) his link to many of the later victims is non-existent: they did not even live in his county, let alone sit next to him in school, yet Joseph still experiences the hot shame of guilt. For a while, I wondered whether there was any chance that Joseph could turn out to be the murderer. It was a ridiculous thought, given that he was twelve years old when the killings began, and yet his excessive guilt seemed to need greater justification than it had. It would also have been a great twist, as I worked out who the killer really was half way through the book. As it was, I felt that Joseph's guilt began to grate. I wanted him to stop getting himself into trouble and take a more active, investigatory approach to the murders. He didn't.
The story started to drag quite early on. It also became not exactly predictable, but predictably sad and gloomy. I felt like I could almost hear the author musing, "What's the worst thing that could happen to Joseph at this point? Ah! I know." Misery is heaped onto misery and, although it is revealed later that the killer was manipulating the strings a little, it does seem like a powerful God in heaven hates Joseph. Somehow, the whole book feels very 'Catholic'. He becomes a lonely, obsessed creature who somehow still fails to see who the real killer is. Once again, I could actually understand why this was, and it made psychological sense, but it is a bit frustrating as a reader to spend the last third of the book wondering when the hero of the piece is going to wake up to the truth. I was expecting a twist...but there isn't one.
However, perhaps this is largely a case of me being too much led by genre dominated expectations. As the writer's own website notes, Ellory is not really a straight crime writer, but a writer who just wants to produce a good story. If you were to read this novel looking for an exploration of the damaging effects of guilt, or as the life history of this character, you would find this a great read. As someone looking for a traditional crime story, I found the slow pace and descriptive style of the novel made the reading experience drag for me. By the end I was keen to keep reading - but only so that I could move on and read something else!
== Style and culture ==
According to his website, Ellory had a great deal of difficulty finding a publisher in Britain who would publish stories based in America - and even more difficulty finding a publisher in America who would publish stories written by a British writer! However, although I do speak as someone who has never visited America, it seemed to me that he captured the South convincingly. Even the first person narration reflects the speech patterns of the main character, Joseph. He frequently ignores prepositions and definite articles, making his speech more truncated and often very list like. Initially, I found this slightly irritating to read, especially as it seemed to happen an awful lot in the first chapter, but I soon got used to it and I think it did help to create the sense that this story was taking place in a specific locale. This is important as Ellory does care about the history. References to the progress of the Second World War form part of a holistic background to the story. Although this is obviously not intended to be read as a historical document, it was interesting to get a sense for 'how things were' in this specific time and place.
The main story is intercut with a few fake newspaper clippings and frequent reflections from Joseph which continue the present day story begun in the prologue. The clippings help to inject an air of reality to the horrible murders and are short and focused. I felt that they were a useful addition to the story. The italicised passages from Joseph's point of view were almost the opposite. They are so highly stylised and reflective that they didn't seem like the thoughts of a real person - especially not a person who has just shot another person! I found that they didn't add anything new to the story and added to the sense that events were dragging on past when they should conclude. As for the conclusion...
== A warning ==
For those of you who are interested in the 'why' elements of a crime story, I feel that it's important to note that this is never uncovered. This is a story which is very much concerned with Joseph's psychological development, not the killer's. Although, as is obvious from the prologue (and therefore not a spoiler) Joseph does learn who the killer is - and confront him - there is none of the typical debriefing so often found in crime novels. So, once again, if you're looking for a straightforward crime story, this may not be the best choice for you. Personally, I did find the lack of explanation a little frustrating. Furthermore, the killer's later behaviour did not seem to make any sense, and it would have been nice to have that explained too. (Yes, I do like neat, tidy endings!)
== Conclusions ==
This is a slow-paced, highly reflective account of a life spent struggling to come to terms with a childhood and adolescence that was blighted by death, murder and tragedy. The writer convincingly portrays a small Southern community who are rocked by the horrific killings committed in the area. Although readers may be able to work out who the killer is before Joseph does, it is Joseph's attempt to achieve some peace of mind that is the dominant search of the story, not the hunt for a killer's story. The lack of joined up investigation shown by the police forces in the book will make you grateful for the modern day computerised nature of much policing, which means that information can be shared much more easily. The novel deals with the idea of outsiders and how they are treated, and insidiously suggests that those you trust and love are often darker than any stranger.
Overall, it is not a book that I particularly enjoyed reading, but I feel that it will be enjoyed by many others, perhaps especially if they are already fans of misery memoirs.
A Quiet Belief in Angels is a fantastically powerful and evocative piece of writing. From the start you are drawn into the eventful life of Joseph Vaughan, a 12 year old school boy who matures and changes throughout the book and endures both poignant and difficult events alongside the reader.
Both Joseph's future and his reputation become inter-linked with that of a serial child-killer; and through the book's many twist and turns we learn the fate of Joseph, his family, friends and loved ones. As Joseph ages, the serial killer continues to commit his crimes, and Joseph's own future hinges on the killer's next moves.
Impressively swift; the book never drags and is genuinely both heart-warming and tender, whilst upsetting and poignant.
Heartily recommended as a holiday read; genuine character development and an ending which, although alluded to throughout the book was well crafted and not obvious until the very end.
"...rumor had it that a white feather indicated a visitation of an angel."
A quote from R J Ellory's A Quiet Belief in Angels and the premise on which the story is built.
Joseph Vaughan is a young boy who, at the beginning of the book. comes to believe that a white feather from an angel is a portent of tragedy and tragedy surrounds this boy's childhood, following him throughout his life.
In 1939, in the small town of Augusta Falls in Georgia, there is the first of what is to become an obscene series of child murders. The young Joseph, a sensitive boy of twelve years old, is deeply affected by the horrific events and feels that he has somehow failed these children in not protecting them from the monster in their midst. He suffers nightmares about the girls who were murdered and mutilated.
A morose and tormented teenager, Joseph's life is dogged by tragedy and misfortune and the murders return to haunt him again and again.
Determined to become a writer, he moves to New York and with the hope of starting a new life meets new friends.
A happy book this most certainly is not, for it has dark, very dark, descriptions but it is so beautifully written as to be almost poetic,
"She stepped out of the fabric as if from a second skin. The rush of the cotton, as it kept its promise with gravity."
The book is worth reading if only for lines such as these, but there is much more to Ellory's writing and I was enthralled from the first page.
The reader is kept in ignorance of the identity of the murderer for almost as long as Joseph himself and yet the book is not entirely about finding out who committed these heinous murders.
This is a tale of a boy, who becomes a man coming to terms with the responsibility that he feels, the horrors that life inflicts upon him and ultimately his need for retribution.
We are submerged in the hardships, poverty and prejudice of the 1930's American South, led through a passionate love story, heartbreaking sadness and cruel injustice. Utterly absorbing and thought provoking, the author succeeds in making the reader believe in Joseph as a person and feel his story. A Quiet Belief in Angels spans the years from Joseph finding a white feather in his hallway in July 1939 to it's conclusion in 2005 passing through the major historical events of the intervening years.
If there is a downside it would be that I would have liked to understand a little more of how the realisation of the identity the killer, finally dawned on Joseph.
This was the only area of the story that I felt was slightly lacking and left me a little dissappointed in an otherwisw faultless tale.
If I could give 4 and a half stars I would.
This is an excellent read and highly recommended as a beautifully descriptive crime thriller.
I will certainly be reading more of R J Ellory.
I bought this for my mother's birthday last year I think, and I noticed it on her bookshelf a few weeks ago so I decided to give it a read. I must admit that on looking at the first few pages, I wasn't sure it was really my cuppa tea. I'm glad I persevered as it was definitely worth a read, if not for the storyline itself then for Ellory's almost poetic writing style.
I think two things made me buy this book; firstly the blurb on the back which made it sound like a mysterious crime/thriller (which I knew my mum liked & I love at the moment too) and secondly because it had a Richard & Judy Galaxy Book Club Award sticker on the front from 2008.
The book is set in 1939, in Augusta Falls; a close-knit community in the USA. Although it introduces a number of different characters which are linked together well to form a web of interesting relationships and incidents, it primarily focuses on the first person main character, 12 year old Joseph Vaughn.
A young girl is found murdered, and more deaths follow. These girls are assaulted, dehumanised and decapitated, then left for innocent eyes to find and be scarred for life. Vaughn forms a group called 'The Guardians' to try and protect the other children of his village. But the killings are elsewhere, and they keep happening, it seems, long after he moves away from his hometown. Falls in love, a love that has a tragic ending. His mother, caught out romping with a married German neighbour, slowly starts to lose her mind and is institutionalised. The suspicion falls on this German neighbour, Gunther, but further events cast doubts on his guilt and raise question to the true identity of the killer.
In an attempt to rid himself of the past, to quieten the voices of the dead girls and of his tragic losses, Vaughn moves to Brooklyn. Always an avid writer, he attempts to publish a book and makes new friends, acquaintances and lovers along the way. It's not long before the ghosts of his past catch up with him and take away what he's gained, only to drag him down further. I don't want to give too much away, but I'll just say that poor Vaughn really has a tough time of things!
This book does flitter sometimes from the present to the future as we snippets of the end in one to two page end-of-chapter specials. I quite liked this as it was different to the norm and made me think about what could have happened, who the culprit could be.
I must admit that it does take a little while to get the feel for Ellory's style; the sentences that aren't complete, the 1940's setting, the first person vision. Once I got into it, however, I found myself immersed in it and gripped to keep reading. But like I said, it took a little while.
I think some would probably pick up on the repetitious nature of the book, especially in some parts where it feels almost as if the saga will never end, that the mystery will still be just as mysterious by the last page. I can say though that by the end you get the answer to the big question you've been pondering throughout the book, and I was very glad for having read it start to finish.
I'm rating this 4/5 because of the writing style, which was different to what I'm used to so it made a welcome change. It was very well-written, poetic almost, and this made the characters and scenes easy to image and empathise with.
I would recommend this to be worth a read, but be warned it takes a little time to get used to and appreciate.
RRP £7.99 but selling on Amazon for £4.78
I had never heard of R.J.Ellory before and I only chose to buy this book as part of a Richard and Judy book club deal. But I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading it and found that it was hard to put it down. It is set in a small southern town in America at the start of world war 2 and up to sometime during the vietnam war (late 60's I think). The narrator is a man named Joseph Vaughan who lives with his mum in Augusta Falls, his Dad having died when he was young. The story follows him as he grows up and is slowly involved with the murders of young girls in his town and other counties close by (although he doesn't actually kill them). After his girlfriend Alex dies when he is still barely an adult he ends up moving to New York to better his life and ends up eventually meeting another girl who he ends up going to prison for having been falsely accused of her murder. When he is released after 13 years in the 60's he decides to go back to Augusta Falls in search of the Sherriff to try and solve the murder cases. The penultimate moment at the end sees the death of the sherriff and possibly himself, although you don't really know for sure.
I really did like this book. I liked how after most paragraphs there was a couple of pages written from the very last moments of his life in which he finally faces the murderer. It kept bringing you back to how he was thinking. I think that the fact it goes into so much detail is really good as you feel more involved with everything and like a part of the bigger picture. I also liked the way that you never know or have any clues as to who the murderer is and yet at the end of the book in the last chapter, you just sort of know straight away.
I picked this book up for 25p from the charity booklist at work. I had never heard of R J Ellory before, and for the purpose of this review I'm going to find out a bit more about him!
=== RJ Ellory ===
R J Ellory has an excellent website at - www.rogerjonellory.com
To summarise...Born in Birmingham in 1965 Ellory seems to have had a pretty difficult childhood. He began writing in 1987, and trying to get his books published proved to be impossible since he is English but his books are set in the US. Disillusioned, Ellory stopped writing until 2001 when he began again. His first published book "Candlemoth" was published in 2003.
A Quiet Belief in Angels is Ellory's 5th book, published in August 2007 and seems to have taken the UK (and other countries) by storm, being selected for the Richard and Judy book club - whoopee! He has another 2 books due for release, and it seems that Ellory's career is going from strength to strength - he is evidently quite a prolific writer.
Before going on to talk about the book itself, I will just share a bit from the website:
"On numerous occasions people have tried to identify Roger's work with a particular genre - crime, thriller, historical fiction - but this categorisation has been a relatively fruitless endeavour. Roger's ethos is merely to work towards producing a good story, something that encapsulates elements of humanity and life without necessarily slotting into a predetermined pigeonhole."
When thinking about writing this review I had been wondering what genre "A Quiet Belief in Angels" really comes into, and was leaning towards the historical fiction (a genre I seem to be getting into) and thriller, and tragedy! But I think the above quote sums it up pretty well!
=== The Story ===
Joseph Vaughan is 11 when his father dies. Family friend Reilly Hawkins suggests that with a bit of work he will become an angel. Joseph hangs onto this thought through what goes on to happen.
The first murder victim is a girl who Joseph goes to school with, young, innocent and beautiful - Joseph believes that she will become an angel. The community is devastated, but the murders continue in Augusta Falls and the surrounding counties. Always young girls aged between 7 and 12, always brutally sexually assaulted and mutilated in the most horrific ways - there is a serial killer on the loose.
Concerned for Elena Kruger (daughter of the richest man in Augusta Falls, Gunther Kruger) as she is epileptic, Joseph vows to protect Elena. Along with a group of other boys, Joseph forms a group called "The Guardians" - together they hope to be able to stop the serial killer and protect all of the girls. But can they really compete with this evil person, and can Joseph keep his promise to Elena? After all, Sheriff Deering and the police forces aren't having much luck finding the killer.
The book starts in 1939 - the war is beginning in Europe. Could the German Gunther Kruger be something to do with the murders? After all, one of the young victims was Jewish. And then what is happening between Joseph's mother and Gunther Kruger?
Joseph finds solace in his writing, and through spending time with his teacher Alexandra Webber, a relationship which evolves over time.
To say more would be to give away too much of the story. Let's just say that just about everything that could possibly go wrong in Joseph's life does go wrong. And then, just as things start to be looking up, his life plunges into an all time low.
You might think that the book is pretty depressing, and at times I suppose it is. But really it is so tragic at times that you just have to laugh (if you don't, you'll cry). To survive what he goes through but still striving to stop the evil which continues, Joseph shows an immense strength of character.
While the book is fiction (thankfully!), I really felt that I got to know Joseph, and got to know where he was living - the descriptions are captivating - Ellory really is an excellent writer. The book spans over a long period of time, and we watch as Joseph turns into a young (and then not so young) man, and pursues his love of writing - sometimes I forgot that the book wasn't actually written by Joseph himself, and that Joseph isn't actually real!
The chapters follow chronologically, but are interspersed with short chapters written in italics which are Joseph as he is now ('now' being the event at the climax of the book) reflecting on what has happened. In this sense we know what happens at the end at the beginning of the book, although not the details of course!
=== Conclusion ===
This is a great book which I would recommend to anyone, but particularly those who enjoy the works of Steinbeck, or are interested in American history (if you can call it that!) I will certainly be looking out for more of Ellory's books and hope that I enjoy them as much as this one.
I've found it quite hard to explain the book really, so if there is anything you'd like to see added to this review, please let me know!
=== Other ===
The book is 396 pages.
A Quiet Belief in Angels can be bought new on Amazon for just £3.47.
There are some reading notes at the back of the book, and also some suggested further reading.
Alos published on Ciao as ever.
I am a huge fan of R.J Ellory - I love Ellory's books, his books are really original with lots of meanings behind them -yet they are so easy to read. All I have read of Ellory's had really impressed me - no book being the same.
I would compare this book to "To Kill A Mockingbird" - another amazing read which I highly recommend.
Without giving too much away - The story follows the journey of Joseph's life which consists of sadness, challenges and moments which really tests his life. He has a shadow over him from something which has happened. The reader is drawn into this life, and you feel nothing but sorrow for him. Joseph seems like am amazing person - yet all these things happen to him.
A disturbing novel told in such beautiful words. Ellory has an ability to build an atmosphere, and give the novel depth with his powerful words; he does exactly that in this novel. You WILL be drawn in and effected after reading this.
It was a total surprise at how this book affected me. This is one of those books you would want to keep and re-read a few times over.