I discovered Mark Mills by accident - he spoke alongside Emer McCourt at Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years back. His debut, Amagansett (renamed Whaleboat House) was a period murder mystery set in Long Island just after WWII. It was stylish, well written and dealt with the social issues as the local population were being displaced by wealthy NYC types.
Mark Mills has now followed this up with a novel set in Tuscany in the 1950s. A young English student is tasked with uncovering the mysteries of a 400 year old memorial garden at a castle owned by a friend of his Cambridge tutor. As the mystery is uncovered - details matching with various classical texts - our student hero Adam discovers that the present day family have their own secrets. He starts to unravel those secrets, discovering what really happened when the castle was occupied by the Germans in the war.
The writing is well researched and very intelligent. Mills creates an air of menace that gets stronger as the novel progresses. But his forte is in creating believable characters with shades of light and dark. As the finger of suspicion is pointed, the suspects don't panic and wave guns around, they don't seek confrontation. Arguments are avoided, issues skirted. This lack of action then adds to the suspense and intrigue.
Moreover, the scene setting works well. Mills is a master of painting a scene with vivid, clear language. In this case, the mountains, the castle and the villages create a very claustrophobic atmosphere - the perfect environment for feuds to simmer and vengeance to be taken. And within each confined space, yet more confined spaces are created. Tuscany - the village - the castle - the garden - the grotto... The pacing, too, works very well. The details are covered effectively but painlessly in the opening third of the novel. The pace then quickens as the plot thickens. This really is a page turner.
And the denouement, when it arrives, is well thought through, completely lucid despite being really quite complex. It is a far cry indeed from Agatha Christie's unveiling of the culprit in front of the assembled guests and constables.
This is a thoughtful, literary version of the crime novel - and all the better for that. I think Mark Mills will go on to become a very well known name; deservedly so.
This is the first novel by Mills that I have read. I admit, I came to it via the Richard & Judy summer read bookclub. Having been disappointed with previous selections for this year, I have to say I wasn't holding out much hope at the beginning of me enjoying this. Happily, I was found to be wrong.
The book is about Adam, a university student who is encouraged to travel to Italy to the Villa Docci, home of the Docci family, by his lecturer. Adam is told that there is an interesting 400 year old memorial garden there, which could be a good subject for his thesis. As he sets out, he does not realise just how enchanting this garden shall be. Made up from hidden groves, grottos, statues depicting Greek gods and goddesses, this garden is more than first appearances would suggest. Rather than being a mere memorial garden, it holds a secret hidden in the imagery and symbolism it contains.
As Adam emerses himself more into the secrets of the garden, he also begins to suspect that the living members of the Docci family also have their secrets to hide, secrets that seem to echo history.
Mills does a fantastic job at creating mystery throughout this book. At first, I was unsure that the premise of the book would be enough to carry it. However, the way that Mills explains the symbolism of the garden, you completely get carried away with the unfolding mystery. I loved how the garden was linked to a piece of literature - as a lover of English throughout my whole life, Adam's pouring over literary texts to unlock secrets of the past was an absolute delight.
The characters are also superbly written. Having finished the book, I could see the progression that took place in Adam, for example. Just how he says at the end, he is unrecognisable as the young man who appears at the beginning. His brother, Harry, is also a fabulous character - almost the complete opposite to Adam, although at first he seemed rather cliche and crass, he in fact added humour and another element to the book, something that Adam's character was unable to provide.
As a summer read, this novel ticks all the right boxes. It is intelligent, cleverly written, encorporating many interesting themes. Highly recommended.
I started this book with some trepidation, thrillers, murders and mysteries are not my norm when it comes to books. I have since changed my mind! The murders have already been committed, by the time we see Adam make his journey to Italy and we are taken on a journey as he uncovers what happened in these murders and also how they are being hidden from those left around them. In fact the clues are all around and I learnt just as much about Dante's Inferno, (though confess to having to go and find some additional information about it) as Adam did and how this knowledge helps him solve clues but also create more along the way.
There are some quite 'wordy' passages, and this book requires an element of concentration to keep with the plot, but once it has you hooked then you are in the garden with Adam and those he meets along the journey to solving the mystery. It is billed in some places as somewhat of a thriller, it isn't it is a mystery though and if you are happy with a fairly loose mystery and no overly descriptive passages about how the murders were committed then you will enjoy it.
on 4 September 2007
I was very impressed by the author's first book 'The Whaleboat House', and ordered this one. But it's almost as if it's another - lesser - writer, or 'The Savage Garden' was really the first novel, put away in a drawer years ago, then dusted off...
If I hadn't liked the author's other book I would have given up after about 50 pages - it's very pedestrian, and you don't really get a sense of place : he's writing about one of the most beautiful parts of the world, but the descriptive passages feel like they could have been copied from guidebooks.
I find this strange because 'The Whaleboat House' is set in America's Long Island in 1947, and Mills puts you there effortlessly - the Atlantic coast setting, the period, the tensions of a place on the cusp of changing from a hardscrabble fishing community to its colonisation by rich New Yorkers, looking for a summer retreat. The characterisation is very subtle and believable, and it wasn't until after I'd finished that I found out that the author wasn't American - it's pitch-perfect.
So I was disappointed by 'The Savage Garden' - I didn't really believe in any of the characters or the love story, the 'crime' plot is paper-thin, the 'garden' plot is better, but doesn't take up much space, and the 'twist' is so-so.
It would have been better to have made the 'garden' story the main thrust and expanded it greatly, with the protagonist seeking out clues, looking in archives, teasing out the full story from centuries ago etc.
However, if you liked this, you should like 'The Whaleboat House' even more - and if you didn't like this, you'll be pleasantly surprised by 'The Whaleboat House'.
on 19 August 2007
First of all I was utterly captivated by the book's cover - that lovely green pastel other-worldly look.
Then I was locked in to that beautiful writing style, certainly a class or two up from the ordinary fare these days.
The story held me and I wanted to find out the answers to the mystery, but sadly I felt that the ending left me a bit under-dazzled, if you know what I mean?
However, the garden segments are surprisingly interesting and the statues therein tend to create a quite special, haunting atmosphere.
I would say go and read it but if you're expecting any kind of action - forget it. This is a mystery from the past that unravels at a very slow pace, but much enjoyment can be obtained from a slow cooking dish.
on 30 September 2007
This one's not for me, I'm afraid, and I felt like giving the book up on several occasions, but did plod my way through.
It is an exceptionally slow read and nothing really happens until the last 100 pages - even then, nearly all is explained in a letter from one protagonist to another.
As another reviewer has observed, Mills' habit of `over-describing' bored me no end. The first few hundred pages are just very drawn out descriptions of everything Adam, as the lead character, sees or experiences.
Mills otherwise writes well, and with some colour, but he really struggles with plot development. In truth, this book may have been better as a short-story with quite some editorial effort, of course. A murder mystery is meant to be at the heart of the plot but it is unconvincing and secondary to the descriptive ravings.
Overall, despite some rich writing, I must say this was a very irritating and slow read with the most basic of plots.
on 7 January 2008
At first glance, it seems that Mark Mills has created a world for readers seeking an escape from twenty-first century issues. However, his lush Italian landscape soon becomes littered with fragmented lies and (not very well-hidden) secrets.
I enjoyed the descriptive elements and the journey of the naive narrator. Also, the art history thread is woven throughout without being either obtuse or patronising. I was, though, hoping for a complex plot or subtlety of character and I began to turn the pages in anticipation of the novel gaining a momentum which I don't believe it achieved.
It's a pleasant, albeit unchallenging read, and I wouldn't recommend against buying this book, as it is always interesting to see and compare contemporary fiction, to better understand the passions and concerns of writers and new writing .
on 16 November 2008
Alex, an art history student in the 1950s, is broken up with and finds an offer to study the garden of the Docci villa in Tuscany a welcome chance to get away. He is drawn into a wilderness of a family secret and the secret of the centuries' old garden and its artwork. "The Savage Garden" is about pulling back and leafed branch and stepping into the unknown and daring to see.
I found this novel difficult to get start. The beginning is a series of horticultural description and scenes that seems out of place. However, about a third into the novel, it gripped me. By then, finally, Alex was three-dimensional and so were the other characters, the matriarch Docci and her sensual granddaughter. The horticultural elements became part of what set "The Savage Garden" apart from other novels. When I finished, I had even reached the conclusion that this is a great book.
The plotline in "The Savage Garden" is divided between Alex's experiences, the search for the murderer of the uncle during WWII, and the interpretation of the garden with its ties to Dante's circles of hell and mythology. I found the garden-plotline most interesting. The poking around for the murderer of the uncle seems rather trivial.
All in all, given the chance, this book is just above average.
on 7 October 2007
The idea this book is based on is a good one. Lots of puzzles which could have had me gripped. However, some weak underlying storylines and a predictable ending spoiled it. Following on from the likes of the Da Vinci Code, authors know that readers enjoy trying to solve puzzles. I guess to appeal to a broader audience, a romance and some sex were included. For me, this distracted from the main theme of the book, the one that drew my interest in the first place. It was a shame. The book could have been so muxh better.
on 6 February 2007
Loved it. The Savage Garden maintains, even exceeds, the very high standards set by Mills' first novel The Whaleboat House (what a relief that it didn't turn out to be a one-off). As before, The Savage Garden is well written, taking its time whilst being truly gripping - which is presumably why such novels are called "literary thrillers" by the publishing trade. Whatever, this latest book confirms Mark Mills is definitely an author to follow.