Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Book Review: THE LAST PAINTING OF SARA DE VOS by Dominic Smith


The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith


Title: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
Author: Dominic Smith
Read: January 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):


This is what we long for: the profound pleasure of being swept into vivid new worlds, worlds peopled by characters so intriguing and real that we can't shake them, even long after the reading's done. In his earlier, award-winning novels, Dominic Smith demonstrated a gift for coaxing the past to life. Now, in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, he deftly bridges the historical and the contemporary, tracking a collision course between a rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, an inheritor of the work in 1950s Manhattan, and a celebrated art historian who painted a forgery of it in her youth.

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke's in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain--a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she's curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present.

My thoughts:


It's always interesting to pick up a book that has received such mixed reviews. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was recommended to me by a friend, who gave it a solid 5 stars and rated it the best book she had read in 2016. I was instantly intrigued. The subject matter is certainly interesting: art forgery, a love story and a back-story with historical content - I thought I would be in for a great reading journey! Maybe my expectations were too high, because for me, The Last Painting was a mixed bag. There were elements I really enjoyed, like Dominic Smith's prose, which is beautiful and flows in gentle undulations, conjuring vivid images of the landscape, people and time. What a difficult task, to capture the essence of paintings with mere words and convey their emotional content to the reader in descriptions of colours and texture only the mind can see! It is a credit to the author that I could visualise Sara's paintings vividly in my mind. I loved the chapters dealing with Sara's life, which explored a chapter in history that I knew very little about. Her character was well drawn, and I was finding myself constantly waiting for Sara's voice to return and to learn more about her. There were so many unanswered questions I was hoping would be explained at some stage, but this didn't happen.

It took me a lot longer to warm to the characters of Ellie and Marty, and just when I thought they had captured my imagination, the timeline changed and I found the minutiae of their lives a bit - let's be totally honest - boring. Both appeared to me as such passionless, unemotional characters, at odds with the painting that has affected and shaped their lives. Even their romance, if you could call it that, is totally lacking in passion or anything that may have made them a bit more appealing. To be frank, I didn't like either of them. Ellie's student days, and the emotions that led her to paint a forgery, opened up such a good opportunity to explore her emotional turmoil, but this never eventuated. To me, she remained a flat and rather insipid character. What a shame! The technical details behind the paintings were fascinating, but not quite enough to hold my interest in a story where I could not forge an emotional bond with any of the characters.

To be fair, I must make it clear that I am reviewing the audio version of the book, which contained one of the most irritating narrations I have ever come across. Firstly, two of the main protagonists are women, and yet the book is narrated by a male, which made no sense to me at all. But worst of all was the fake "Australian" accent used to narrate Ellie's voice, which sounded like a mixture of South-African, New Zealand and the narrator's natural American accent. It irritated me so profoundly that it stole any reading pleasure I may have gained from Ellie's voice in the printed version. In summary, The Last Painting dragged on for me, and I was somewhat relieved when it finished, and left wondering what I had missed. Therefore, I can only cast 3 stars out there into the bright sky of 5-star reviews and glowing accolades to a novel that I found, at best, okay. Smith can certainly write, there is no doubt, but as a whole, the novel was not really my cup of tea.

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Thursday, 19 January 2017

Book Review: WHAT HAPPENED TO ROSE by Helga Zeiner


What Happened to Rose



Title: What Happened to Rose
Author: Helga Zeiner
Publisher: POW WOW Books
Read: December 2016 / January 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):

Carola’s life is perfect – or so it seems. Her husband, her friends, her staff don’t see the emptiness of a loveless existence. Every day is the same, until the day when she has enough. Without warning she leaves her home country of Germany to start a new life in the Canadian wilderness.
But she is not equipped to handle the hardships of a lonely existence in a remote cabin. A five-day snowstorm brings her close to her breaking point. Searching for means to survive, she discovers the written confession of the previous cabin owner who wants to clear his conscience by admitting to a terrible sin he committed involving a girl called Rose.
When the storm subsides, Carola begins to ask questions but nobody is willing to talk. Nobody wants to tell what happened to Rose, but Carola becomes obsessed with finding out the truth.

Will Rose finally get justice? If you love mystery and suspense, with an added romance bonus, this new novel by an Amazon bestselling author will keep you turning the pages all night long.


My thoughts:


When Carola’s childless marriage fails and her husband tries to cheat her out of her fair share of marital possessions, Carola flees to Canada to escape her pain and disappointment and make a new start. Settling in an isolated country cottage in the backwaters of British Columbia she thinks she has found the simplicity and peace she had been hoping for. Drawn to Jason, the young realtor who first rented her the property, she is even taking a stab at love again, only to come up against the forbidding presence of Jason’s mother, who tries everything in her power to keep her away from her son. Stranded in her snowed in cottage in a wild storm for a few days, Carola comes across and old journal written by a man called John McLure on his deathbed, where he confesses to committing a terrible injustice to a young child, Rose, who came into his life after losing her mother in a coach accident. Drawn into the story and Rose’s sad childhood, Carola sets out to discover more about Rose’s fate – with unexpected results.

I agree that reading a book is a bit like a date – if you haven’t clicked by page 100 (aka the 3rd date, according to Bookstr), the chemistry just isn’t there and you’re not going to live together happily ever after. In fact, you may abandon the whole thing all together, and leave half-way through your first G & T, resigning yourself to a life of celibacy. What Happened to Rose was such a book for me – having fallen for its blurb I was eager to meet its characters, only to find we had absolutely no connection. I put the book down, I picked the book back up, and felt nothing, nil, nada. Even the historical backstory, which had intrigued me enough to pick up the novel in the first place, only elicited a wan yawn. Sadly, after thinking Carola would be a strong, independent woman setting out into the wilderness alone, I found her needy and inconsistent in her thoughts and actions, obsessed with finding herself a new man at all costs. Perhaps I am being unfairly harsh here, but I didn’t like any of the characters. Or perhaps, after a strong finale to 2016 as far as books are concerned, I am just experiencing reading fatigue. It obviously wasn’t the right book for me, despite the beautiful setting, which was the one aspect that kept me reading on. If you like romance with a historical twist, you may enjoy the aspects of the book that didn’t work for me. I looked for a bit of mystery, and felt let down, but as a light holiday read this book may just work for you.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Book Review: FIND ME by J. S. Monroe


Find Me



Title: Find Me
Author: J.S. Monroe
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 9 February 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):

Sometimes we choose to see only what we want. Sometimes what we see changes the way we look at everything.

Jarlath "Jar" Costello's girlfriend, Rosa, committed suicide when they were both students at Cambridge, and Jar has thought about her every day since. It's been five years, yet Jar is still obsessed with the idea that Rosa, the one true love of his life, is alive. He's tormented by visions of her and has disturbingly real sightings of her in unexpected places experiences the psychologist treating him describes as "post-bereavement hallucinations."

When Jar receives a message from Rosa's aunt telling him that she's just found Rosa's diary, he embarks on a frantic quest to finally make sense of the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding her death. But the deeper he digs, the more confused he becomes as he is pressed into a dark underworld where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. When a startling discovery convinces him more than ever that these are not just hallucinations that Rosa really is alive Jar is thrust into the heart of a larger intrigue that may finally shed some light on Rosa's death even as it dangerously threatens his own."


My thoughts:


Five years ago, Jarlath’s (“Jar”) girlfriend Rosa disappeared without a trace, leaving behind an apparent suicide note and witnesses who claim they saw her on Cromer pier on a stormy night, from which she presumable jumped to her death. CCTV cameras in the area confirmed that Rosa entered, but never left the pier. Unable to come to terms with Rosa’s death, Jar still suffers from “post-bereavement hallucinations”, seeing Rosa in people he meets in everyday life – a stranger on the train, a woman shopping in the supermarket. When Rosa’s aunt Amy tells Jar that she has accidentally come across some encrypted files on her computer which could be Rosa’s diary, Jar hopes he may finally find some answers as to why Rosa felt the need to kill herself, and get closure. But the diary, once deciphered, throws up more questions than it answers – and strangest of all, doubts that Rosa did indeed jump to her death that night. Could Rosa still be alive? Jar soon discovers that he is not the only one looking for the answer to that question. The police have suddenly developed a keen interest in getting their hands on the files, and Jar has a feeling that he is being followed. By looking for Rosa, could he be putting them both in danger?

Whilst the general premise of Find Me is not original – a person presumed dead is being spotted by her loved ones, throwing up doubts that she or he is still alive – Monroe has certainly put his own unique spin on the idea and taken the reader on a twisty journey of conspiracy theories that takes a few quite unusual turns along the way. Jar’s voice gripped me right from the outset and drew me into the story.  I could literally feel his torment and feared for him as he set out to discover the truth behind Rosa’s disappearance. With Jar’s inner demons thus exposed, there is of course always the question of how reliable he is as a narrator, adding a bit of suspense and doubt to an otherwise well-trodden path. In some passages, the pace and style of the narrative was reminiscent of a Harlan Coben tale (which I usually enjoy). Rosa’s voice is introduced into the book in the form of diary entries, which start off as long narratives that would normally set me off on a rant that nobody writes a diary like that. However, as Jar’s hunt for the truth continues, her entries become more frantic, jumbled and cryptic, alerting the reader that time is running out for Rosa. And very cleverly it all ties together and makes perfect sense in the end, which I will not spoil here.

Just as the reader is tempted to cast a deep sigh heavenwards, thinking that he / she has worked it all out, the story twists and turns and throws all theories out the window once again. The ending is quite unexpected, and for good measure the author seasons it with a last sprinkling of doubt, which will leave a little seed of “what if” behind, even after all the threads have come together. I really love that in a mystery! Whilst I felt the story lost a bit of momentum in the second half, with the introduction of another POV, it always kept the right amount of intrigue to look forward to the moment where I could pick it up and continue reading – even though it did not have the same grip on me as Jar’s first chapters. Some well-researched dark and often confronting elements in the later part of the book added depth lacking in other similar mysteries. This made up for the moments of having to suspend disbelief, especially concerning the timeline, and a couple of plot holes that didn’t quite add up. But of course, in true conspiracy theory fashion, it could be possible! All in all, a very enjoyable, fast paced and intriguing read. I look forward to reading a lot more from this talented author in future.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Book Review: UNPUNISHED by Lisa Black (Gardiner and Renner #2)


Unpunished (Gardiner and Renner #2)



Title: Unpunished
Author: Lisa Black
Publisher: Kensington Publishing Corporation
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 31 January 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):

It begins with the kind of bizarre death that makes headlines literally. A copy editor at the Cleveland Herald is found hanging above the grinding wheels of the newspaper assembly line, a wide strap wrapped around his throat. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner has her suspicions about this apparent suicide inside the tsunami of tensions that is the news industry today and when the evidence suggests murder, Maggie has no choice but to place her trust in the one person she doesn t trust at all .

Jack Renner is a killer with a conscience, a vigilante with his own code of honor. In the past, Jack has used his skills and connections as a homicide detective to take the law into his own hands, all in the name of justice. He has only one problem: Maggie knows his secret. She insists he enforce the law, not subvert it. But when more newspaper employees are slain, Jack may be the only person who can help Maggie unmask the killer-- even if Jack is still checking names off his own private murder list."


My thoughts:

Unpunished is the second book in the Gardiner and Renner series, featuring crime scene technician Maggie Gardiner and detective-by-day and vigilante-by-night Jack Renner, who are asked to investigate the death of the copy editor of the Cleveland Herald, a large daily newspaper on the brink of bankruptcy. What first appeared to be a suicide soon turns into a murder investigation, with more bodies stacking up as the story progresses. What could be the motive behind killing the employees of a struggling newspaper?

Unpunished is a slow-moving police procedural, focusing heavily on the technical details of Maggie’s forensic work and the background story of the demise of the newspaper industry in our age of technology, which I generally found interesting but which at times slowed the story down to a point where I felt like skipping pages just to get on with it. I felt it needed a bit of careful editing at this point to keep up the pace. The narrative didn’t really grip me until Chapter 14, at which point there were enough bodies and unanswered questions hanging in the air for it to be intriguing.

When I requested Unpunished from Netgalley I was unaware that it was the second book in a series, and was somewhat puzzled by the references to Maggie and Jack’s shared secret past, which play a prominent part in the investigation and colour their professional relationship. Whilst Unpunished is a stand-alone novel as far as the plot is concerned, it took me a long time to work out the gist of the “secret” that binds Maggie and Jack together. Not fully understanding the dynamics between the duo somewhat marred my reading pleasure, though paradoxically it also served to keep me interested, especially since Maggie is prepared to sacrifice her professional integrity to tamper with evidence in order to help Jack. Why, why, WHY?  Unfortunately, these questions were not fully answered here – I guess I will have to read the first part of the series – and Jack kept to the straight and narrow for the best part, not showing his true vigilante side the book hints at. Personally, I found the story lacking in suspense and an emotional bond with the main protagonists, who seemed to keep me at arms’ length at all times. I would have liked to get more of a feel for both Maggie and Jack, and the forces that drove them, in order to be able to picture them in my mind and care about them. All in all, I found Unpunished well written and researched, with an interesting background story and well constructed plot. Perhaps, had I read the first book in the series, Unpunished would have gripped me a bit sooner and held my attention a bit better. As a stand-alone novel, it just lacked an emotional connection for me, though I am intrigued enough by the character of Jack to pick up That Darkness to see what I missed.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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Book Review: WITNESS by Caroline Mitchell


Witness



Title:
 Witness
Author: Caroline Mitchell
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Read: December 2016 / January 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):

To Rebecca it was a brave decision that led to her freedom from domestic abuse. To Solomon it was the ultimate betrayal.

It’s been ten years since Rebecca’s testimony saw Solomon locked away. Enough time for the nightmares to recede, the nerves to relax; enough time to rebuild her life and put the past behind her.

Then one day a phone rings in her bedroom—but it’s not her phone. Solomon has been in her home, and has a very simple message for her: for each of the ten years he has spent in jail, Rebecca must witness a crime. And, to make matters worse, she has to choose the victims.

Fail to respond and you get hurt. Talk to police and you die. Ready to play? You have sixty seconds to decide…

As the crimes grow more severe, the victims closer to home, Rebecca is forced to confront a past she had hoped was gone forever.


My thoughts:


Ten years ago, Rebecca finally managed to get away from her abusive partner Solomon and start a new life. Now mother to young Lottie and wife to veterinarian Sean she lives a peaceful existence in the Welsh countryside belying her traumatic past, which she has successfully hidden from her family. Her life is about to change when Solomon is released from prison after serving ten years for murder. Rebecca knows that it won’t be long until he will come to find her – and seek revenge. But even Rebecca could not have foreseen what Solomon has in store for her. To save herself and her family, she must become a player in a twisted game he has devised specially for her. For every year of his prison sentence, Rebecca must choose a victim for a crime Solomon has planned, and witness it unfold – and therefore become an accomplice in his crimes.

In a market saturated with crime novels, it is difficult to come across an original idea that has not been explored before. In Witness, Mitchell has found the one element that makes her novel unique – the game Solomon plays with Rebecca to get his revenge for ten years in prison after she betrayed him and handed him over to the authorities. I loved the premise of the story, which makes Rebecca an accomplice in Solomon’s crimes, simply by being forced to choose the victims. Very clever! The idea is both confronting as well as thought provoking: would you choose your victims from amongst your enemies so you can justify that they will only get what they deserve? How sweet is revenge, really, when it comes down to it? There is so much potential in this idea and the ethical and moral dilemmas arising from it, it could have served as the single element of the whole story and still succeeded in keeping the reader’s interest. If only Rebecca had been a character I could have liked, wanted to understand, care for! Which is exactly where the novel failed for me – as hard as I tried (and I really did), I could not empathise with any of the characters. Despite insightful descriptions of domestic abuse that would make anyone’s skin crawl, Rebecca remained an enigma to me, and I never quite understood her motives or the torment she would / should have felt when confronted with her abusive former boyfriend once again. Solomon, the ultimate sociopath, was such a stereotype that his chapters didn’t ring true for me, and the book would have worked better if it had excluded his POV altogether.

I really wanted to like this book, because it had so much potential to be great, and Mitchell definitely knows how to write and build suspense. On self-reflection, I don’t think that I judge a book simply by whether I like the characters. I think I can deal with unlikeable protagonists, for example Paul Morris in Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, as long as I can relate to them, picture them as flesh and blood beings in my head until the acquire a life of their own, infiltrating my very being whilst the story plays out in my mind. Unfortunately, this never happened for me here. The one thing that kept me reading on, and pick the book up time and time again when I had vowed to give up on it, was the brilliance of Solomon’s “game”, which intrigued me until its final conclusion.


I realise that I am definitely in the minority here, my twin stars drowned by a tidal wave of 5-star reviews, which just goes to show that readers are individuals, with different tastes, preferences, likes and dislikes. This is why everyone should take my review with a grain of salt, and just as it has been intended – as my personal opinion only.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 


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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review: SECRETS OF SOUTHERN GIRLS by Haley Harrigan


Secrets of Southern Girls


Title: Secrets of Southern Girls
Author: Haley Harrigan
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 1 June 2017



Synopsis (Goodreads):



Ten years ago, Julie Portland accidentally killed her best friend, Reba. What's worse is she got away with it. Consumed by guilt, she left the small town of Lawrence Mill, Mississippi, and swore nothing would ever drag her back. Now, raising her daughter and struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan, Julie still can't forget the ghost of a girl with golden hair and a dangerous secret.

When August, Reba's first love, begs Julie to come home to find the diary that Reba kept all those years ago, Julie's past comes creeping back to haunt her. That diary could expose the shameful memories Julie has been running from, but it could also unearth the hidden truths that Reba left buried…and reveal that Julie isn't the only one who feels responsible for Reba's death. 

My thoughts:

Secrets of Southern Girls tells the story of a friendship between two teenage girls, Reba and Jules, who are growing up in the small mill town of Lawrence, Mississippi. Jules sees her friend as pure and innocent, oblivious to the secrets Reba is keeping from her. Secrets, which would surely destroy their friendship. But secrets have a way of revealing themselves in little innocent remarks, chance encounters, routines broken. Soon Reba’s worlds collide, ending in terrible tragedy – an event that will haunt Jules throughout her adult life. Too traumatised at the time, she has only sketchy memories of the incident, and guilt has been her constant companion since. With too many questions unanswered, she agrees to Reba’s old boyfriend’s request to look for Reba’s diary to be finally be able to find out the truth and put her demons to rest.

Secrets of Southern Girls is both a coming-of-age story and a mystery of sorts, as Jules (now Julie) is trying to find out whether she really killed her best friend on that fateful day decades ago, and the events leading up to it. Harrigan skilfully sets the atmosphere of the small mill town, and I got a good sense of the small town politics and relationships that shape the girls’ lives.

My biggest gripe with the book are the chapters that read “Reba’s diary” – it is a pet hate of mine when authors use the diary perspective in a novel, in a way no one would ever write a real diary. Reba is a teenage girl consumed by the lust and passion of first teenage love, and yet her diary reads like a literary work, dialogue and all. I was a teenager once, given to passionate and woeful outpourings into the pages of my diary (which makes me laugh today), full of my own importance and seeing my small problems as disasters of epic scale. This is what I would expect from Reba, who is so consumed with her first experiences with boys and sex that these form the centre of her whole universe. If you have to involve a diary, it would be better to offer small, cryptic excerpts in the style of teenage writing, and then flesh these out and explain them through narrative from Reba’s point of view. But titling whole chapters “Reba’s diary” just did not ring true. This may be petty, but it irked me, as did the constant chopping and changing between the so-called diary and Julie’s story, which made it a confusing read. Ok - rant over.

Secrets of Southern Girls is a slow moving story, with the mystery at its centre not quite compelling enough for me to keep me interested. Seeing that Julie’s main concern was that she was somehow involved in her friend’s death, I did not fully understand the importance of the diary to her – since her friend would not have been able to write about her own death from the afterlife, those final moments would still remain a mystery. That aside, I found it difficult to bond with either character, although Reba’s discovery of her own sexuality at times was sensitively drawn and authentic, especially in the scenes with Toby (who was by far my favourite character as he had the most authentic voice of all the characters – unlike the other characters, I was able to visualise him clearly). I was often confused by different characters’ motives for some of their actions, for example Nell, who held on to the diary knowing that there were at least two characters consumed with guilt due to unanswered questions – why? This outlines my quintessential struggle with the book: I found it extremely difficult to visualise or understand its characters. The often stilted dialogue and ambiguous motives and thought processes of all protagonists always seemed to keep me at arms’ length, and I never bonded with any of them. They just lacked spark. Seeing that this is Harrigan’s debut novel, these issues may be ironed out in future novels, so I will definitely give the author another go.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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Monday, 9 January 2017

Book Review: MY SISTER'S BONES by Nuala Ellwood




Title: My Sister's Bones
Author: Nuala Ellwood
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 23 February 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):



Kate Rafter is a successful war reporter. She's the strong one. The one who escaped Herne Bay and the memories it holds. Her sister Sally didn't. Instead, she drinks.

But when their mother dies, Kate is forced to return to the old family home. And on her first night she is woken by a terrifying scream.

What secret has Kate stumbled upon?
And is she strong enough to uncover the truth . . . and make it out alive? 

My thoughts:

We meet Kate Rafter, a successful war journalist posted to Syria, as she is being questioned by a police psychologist, and know that all is not well in her world. After having witnessed atrocities most of us cannot even fathom, she returns to her childhood home to settle her affairs after her mother’s sudden death. Having broken off contact with her alcoholic sister Sally a long time ago, she reluctantly gives in to her brother-in-law’s pleading to go and see Sally, in a last ditch effort to help her seek help for her addiction problem. But Kate is in no fit state to face up to the past of her dysfunctional family and the childhood trauma that has damaged her sister and made Kate herself flee her home for good. Suffering from severe PTSD from an incident in Syria, she still experiences terrible flashbacks and insomnia. Worst of all, she keeps seeing the figure of a young boy standing in her mother’s garden at night, calling out to her for help.  Nobody believes her that the child exists, and the neighbours are close to having a restraining order issued after Kate has knocked on their door to save the fictional child. Is Kate going crazy? Or is the past trying to catch up with her?

Whilst I was immediately drawn to the premise of the story and thought that Ellwood got her novel off to an intriguing start, there were parts where I really struggled with this book. Kate’s battle with PTSD is sensitively drawn, and it is obvious that the author has had a personal connection to the topic. I especially liked the way Kate’s two worlds collide, time and time again, as she is confronted with the vast contrast between our sheltered lives and those of the people in Syria she has come to love. Her war experiences read like the harrowing events they must have been, but also explore the human side of the Syrian crisis, through the eyes of a war reporter. With the effects of PTSD, Kate is in no fit state to deal with her own traumatic past and abuse at the hands of a violent, alcoholic father, or to try to solve her sister’s substance abuse problems. Ellwood does a good job at portraying Kate’s fraying mental state, the flashbacks haunting her, her emotional baggage from Syria, and her denial that anything is wrong with her, which makes her an unreliable narrator and gives unlimited potential to interpret the events unfolding in the novel. Unfortunately I did not feel that this potential was reached, finding the final twist much too contrived and unbelievable. I often get the impression that authors these days are trying to outdo one another by finding that “shocking twist no one will see coming” at the expense of the story. We already have all the elements of a strong story with Kate’s PTSD and family past, but Ellwood tries to pack even more into the novel, to a point where it all becomes too much to ring true. I will not give away any spoilers for those who enjoy the “shocking twist”, only to say that I didn’t – for me it was a bit too crass, when the subtle hints of Kate’s mental state could have offered so much more in the way of psychological suspense. It was like a drum roll for the big finale, which only resulted in an eye roll from me.

I was also a bit flummoxed by the sudden change in voice half way through the book (I have a preview copy only, not the final published version), when a part of the story is suddenly being told from Sally’s viewpoint. Both POVs are in the first person narrative, but there is no warning that the perspective has changed, and the style of the narrative remains the same, so it took me some time to work out what was going on. I am hoping that the publisher will address that in the final published novel.

Altogether, whist I enjoyed parts of the story, I found My Sister’s Bones to be a rather depressing read with lots of damaged, miserable characters and a mountain of issues, but without a redeeming finale that would have made my reading journey worthwhile. Unfortunately not the right book for me at this time, though I think that Ellwood has all the right ingredients to tell a good story and I look forward to reading more from her in future.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Book Review: MOVING by Jenny Eclair


Moving



Title: Moving
Author: Jenny Eclair
Read: January 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):


Edwina Spinner has lived in the same house for over fifty years. It used to be a busy, crowded family home but now Edwina lives alone and it has grown too big for her. She has decided to sell it.
The young estate agent who comes to value the house sees potential. Knock down a few walls, add a wet room. 'People like a project.' But as Edwina takes him from room to room, she is transported back to her old life as a young mother. Back to her first husband Ollie and their twins, James and Rowena. Back to lies and dark secrets and to a stepson whose name Edwina cannot even bear to speak aloud.

As Edwina's story unravels she is revealed as a complex and intriguing person. Not just the 'frail old lady' trapped in her dated house, but a woman who has lived an extraordinary life, full of love and tragedy. Why is she now so alone? What happened to Edwina's family all those years ago?

Moving - Jenny Eclair's fourth novel - reveals a writer at the height of her powers. Gripping, heart-breaking and laced with black humour, it is a novel of family secrets, shocking betrayals and most of all, of home.


My thoughts:


I accidentally stumbled across a review of Moving on Goodreads, decided it sounded just what I felt like reading at the time and purchased a copy of the audio version for my daily commute. And what a wonderful treat this book turned out to be! Having only known Jenny Eclair through her work as a comedienne, I had no idea that she is also an accomplished writer. There is nothing funny about Moving, though Eclair’s wit and astute observations of human behaviour shine through the pages and make her characters come to life.

Told through three different POV’s, Moving starts with the reminiscences of Edwina, an elderly woman moving through the rooms of her vast empty house and reliving different moments from the past, from when she was first married, to childbirth, the death of her first husband, the highs and lows of motherhood, a second marriage and tragedy. I loved the way each chapter revolved around the separate rooms of Edwina’s house, each relating to the characters who had inhabited them and their involvement in Edwina’s life – very clever! In the second part of the book the writing style changes dramatically as 19-year-old privileged drama student Fern takes over the narrative, connecting with Edwina’s life story in a way that is not instantly obvious. Of all the characters, I found Fern’s voice the most compelling, perhaps because Eclair so aptly describes the ecstasy and agony of first love. I was devastated when Fern’s part of the book ended without revealing ... well, you will need to read it to know what I mean, I don’t want to give any spoilers here. Taking over from Fern we have Lucas, who I initially found quite repulsive and difficult to relate to. There is always a risk of losing the reader’s interest when introducing such an unlikeable character, but I need not have feared, because it soon became evident that Lucas provided an important part of the story. With Eclair’s insight into all of life’s stages evident, she managed to gift even the unlikeable Lucas with a voice that kept me interested and soon drew me back into the storyline.


Thanks to Eclair’s keen understanding of the human psyche as we move through life – young love, marriage, motherhood and the insights and regrets of old age – Moving took me on an emotional rollercoaster that made me laugh and cry and shake with fury. Sometimes funny, often confronting and mostly heartbreaking, Moving tells the story of an ordinary family through the eyes of different people. To say it touched me deeply is an understatement – it haunted me long after I had finished reading it, and I missed the characters as if I had lost old friends (or foes). There is so much emotional baggage in this story, it is impossible not to relate to some of it, even for the most sheltered and righteous reader. Eclair writes with a black humour and a candidness that some may find confronting, but which I found refreshing and unique. I recommend Moving to anyone who enjoys an honest, thought provoking read about families and relationships and look forward to reading more from this talented writer.

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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Heidi's TOP 10 for 2016

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Reflecting on a year of reading: thanks to Netgalley I received a myriad of books from different authors and genres to review during 2016, and the quality was very high. It is always difficult to pick the top 10 reads, but there were a few stand-outs which instantly made it to my favourites list. So, in no particular order, these were my top 10 reads of 2016 (I do notice a very strong Australian contingent here):


The Dry The Dry by Jane Harper (full review here)

The Fence The Fence by Meredith Jaffe (full review here)

Truly Madly Guilty  Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty (full review here)

The Wonder The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (full review here)

Redemption Road Redemption Road by John Hart (full review here)

Out of the Ice Out Of The Ice by Ann Turner (full review here)

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad #6) The Trespasser by Tana French

I See You I See You by Clare Mackintosh (full review here)

After the Fire (Maeve Kerrigan #6) After the Fire by Jane Casey (full review here)

The End of Winter The End of Winter by T. D. Griggs (full review here)


I look forward to another year of reading and many more book reviews to come, so watch this space!

Book Review: DISTRESS SIGNALS by Catherine Ryan Howard


Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard

Title: Distress Signals
Author: Catherine Ryan Howard
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Read: January 2017
Expected publication: 2 February 2017



Synopsis (Goodreads):



The day Adam Dunne's girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads "I'm sorry--S" sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her.

Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate--and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before.

To get answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground ...

My thoughts:


Adam Dunne is a happy man - he has a gorgeous, hard-working girlfriend, Sarah, who supports his ambition to be a writer, and has just managed to get a film studio interested in a screenplay he has written. But his life is about to change when Sarah fails to return from a supposed business trip to Barcelona. Strangely, neither Sarah’s parents nor any of her work colleagues are aware that Sarah has gone abroad, and she isn’t answering her phone. As Adam starts a frantic search for Sarah’s whereabouts, he discovers that Sarah has been keeping secrets from him for a while. Fearing that she may be in danger, Adam embarks on retracing her last known steps, which take him aboard the large cruise ship Celebrate, where a ruthless killer may be on the loose. Will his quest to find Sarah put Adam himself in the killer’s path?

In a genre oversaturated with books aiming to stand out from the rest with that “shocking surprise twist” (which is, in most cases, a rather dubious marketing ploy), Catherine Ryan Howard has managed to find an original, intriguing setting where different rules apply: a large cruise ship filled with thousands of passengers from all over the world traversing international waters. Brimming with fascinating facts about maritime law, Distress Signals will take you into the dark and murky waters (literally) of the cruise ship industry. To be honest, the thought of being trapped on a tin can in the middle of the ocean with thousands of other people has never appealed to me, but after reading this clever murder mystery, I will definitely strike the experience off my bucket list. Not only do the confined quarters make a perfect hunting ground for a depraved mind, but the intricacies of maritime law make it even easier for perpetrators to escape the justice system – if they know how to use these rules to their advantage. I was fascinated (if horrified) by the interesting facts the author explains as Adam frantically searches for Sarah aboard the Celebrate.  

There are three separate elements running through the storyline, with three different POVs: Adam, our main protagonist; Romain, a young French boy with a trouble past; and Corinne, a crew member on the ship. Initially these three narratives seemed quite separate and I thought Romain to be quite an odd character. However, as the story nears the end, all three threads are cleverly woven together to form the well-plotted finale to the story. And don’t worry, if you thought you had worked it all out, as I did, there is an extra surprise in store, which I certainly did not see coming.

Atmospheric, character driven and cleverly plotted, Distress Signals had me hooked from the very start and captivated me until the final reveal. I loved the setting, which added a claustrophobic feel to the story, and threw Adam an extra curveball when his back was already up against the wall and his world as he knew it had gone up in flames. Adam’s despair was tangible on every page, adding that emotional connection that kept me reading much too late into the night.

“I was a guy who couldn’t face a full and frank discussion about how best to pay for a shared taxi ride home. How in the hell was I supposed to confront a killer?” 

A very clever mystery which stands out from the fray in more ways than one – well worth picking up this summer for a great holiday read!

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.


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Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Book Review: HER EVERY FEAR by Peter Swanson


Her Every Fear




Title: Her Every Fear
Author: Peter Swanson
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Read: December 2016
Expected publication: 19 January 2017



Synopsis (Goodreads):

Trading apartments with her Boston cousin seemed like a good idea to Kate. She might finally shake off the nightmares that have haunted her. On arrival, she discovers that the woman in the next apartment has been brutally murdered. Kate’s worst fears are about to be realized, as the police come to suspect her cousin as the killer. There are other bodies in his past that she has yet to learn of.

HER EVERY FEAR is a classic nail-biter about a troubled young woman in jeopardy. This novel echoes those of Patricia Highsmith at her best.


My thoughts:


Some may think that Kate Priddy is a “glass-half-empty” person, who always anticipates the worst possible scenario. But after having suffered a brutal attack at the hands of her ex-lover which nearly cost her her life, Kate knows that her fears are often justified.
“Bad things happen to me. Bad people happen to me.”
So it is with some trepidation that Kate agrees to a 6-months house swap with her American cousin Corbin, whom she has never met. Soon after her arrival in Boston, Kate’s worst fears are once again confirmed when a woman in the neighbouring flat is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Initially believing this to be a tragic but unrelated event, Kate is alarmed to find links between the dead woman and Corbin, who is now living in her apartment in London and denies having had any contact with the dead woman apart from innocent neighbourly encounters.  At the same time, strange things are happening in Kate’s life – she is sure that things have been moved out of place in the flat and that her artwork has been tampered with. Initially writing off these incidences as manifestations of her own anxiety and growing paranoia, Kate becomes increasingly worried that Corbin was somehow involved in the events leading to his neighbour’s death.  By staying in the apartment, is Kate putting her own life in danger?

I loved the premise of Her Every Fear, and it proved to be a tense, suspenseful and unputdownable psychological thriller, giving me goose bumps and fully living up to all of my expectations.  Apart from serving up true-to-life, believable characters, Swanson very cleverly incorporates other features into this often creepy tale of murder and depravity, like Sanders the cat, who is instrumental to the storyline in a way you won’t suspect. Thus setting the atmosphere and letting the characters do the rest of the work, the book played out like a black and white Hitchcockian movie in my head. There is a dark and chilly undercurrent of menace and danger running through the entire book, often escalating in seemingly innocent observations that, in the context of the story, sent shivers down my spine:

“She noticed a slight indentation on the blanket, and looked closer. There were white hairs – Sander’s hairs – and Kate pressed her hand on the bed; it was still a little warm from where he had his afternoon nap. That was why the door was ajar.”

Other scenes will pray on your most innermost fears of having your private spaces invaded by evil – I would love to give a couple of examples but will refrain from doing so in case it gives away spoilers. Let me just say that one of them involves Kate’s toothbrush -  ugh! Her Every Fear is not an action packed or particularly fast moving thriller – here the thrills are packaged in the everyday, the mundane, the places you would never expect them to lurk, taking you back to your most basic fears, like Kate’s journey down the back stairs into the basement of the house. For me this was the best thing about the book: the spine tingling moments of anticipation and terror sneaking up on me where I least expected them. As for the characters – can you really trust any of them? Even Kate herself, who may (or may not) be an unreliable narrator due to her anxiety and paranoia may not always give a true account of events. Even Sanders was a bit suspicious, and he is a cat!

I was worried that the tension would be broken, the mystery spoiled, by the introduction of the villain, but Swanson even manages to pull this off perfectly. There aren’t many novels where exploring the mind of a depraved killer works so well – Swanson has managed to strike the right balance between allowing us a peek into the killer’s mind without giving too much away or pushing the novel over the thin line of “too much information”. A rare skill indeed, and one which made this a stand-out read for me to cap off 2016.

Her Every Fear was an excellent read, a must for every lover of true psychological thrillers that mess with your mind and haunt you long after the last page has been turned.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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