Thursday, 27 April 2017

Book Review: THE PERFECT STRANGER by Megan Miranda


The Perfect Stranger


Author: Megan Miranda
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster
Read:
April 2017
Expected publication: 16 May 2017

Synopsis:

I’m not who you think.
I’m not going to tell you.
I’m no one.

Leah Stevens has always believed that if you dig deep enough you will eventually get to the truth. But her quest for exposing injustice has cost her a career as a journalist, forcing her to move to the country until the scandal of her last expose’ has died down. So when she accidentally runs into an old friend, Emmy Grey, who offers her a house share in a small town in rural Pennsylvania she grabs the opportunity with open arms. Now settled into her new home and working as a highschool teacher, Leah thinks she may have had a lucky escape. Until one morning, when a young woman is brutally assaulted and left for dead near a lake close to her house. A young woman, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leah. Suddenly Leah no longer feels safe in her new home. And why has her housemate not come home for five days?

As she becomes increasingly worried about Emmy, who seems to have disappeared at the same time as the assault occurred, Leah realises how little she knows about her housemate. Emmy has always insisted that the lease and all the bills go in Leah’s name, as she was running away from an abusive relationship. But looking for Emmy, Leah discovers that no one has ever laid eyes on the woman, even at the place Emmy was supposed to be working. Even the police are doubting that Leah is telling them the truth. It’s as if Emmy has never existed...

To discover the truth, Leah must go right back to the beginning, even if it brings her face to face with the demons of her own past.

This was my belief. That the truth rises to the surface like air bubbles in boiling water. That it rushes upward like a force of nature, exploding in a gasp of air when it reaches the surface, as it was always intended to do.

My thoughts:

I haven’t previously read any books by Megan Miranda, but have since put All the Missing Girls on my to-read list, as The Perfect Stranger is exactly the kind of book I enjoy curling up with. Extremely suspenseful, with an interesting main protagonist and a cat-and-mouse game that kept me guessing until the end, this was another one of those “all-night-read-a-thon” books that has been contributing to my permanent state of sleep deprivation lately!

I love an unreliable narrator in a psychological thriller, and Leah is perfect for that role. What is truth and what is fiction? Is Leah going crazy? As the story twists and turns, the reader can never be sure whether to take Leah’s version of the truth for gospel. Is she losing her mind and imagining things, or is she lying to protect herself? Miranda sows these little seeds of doubt very cleverly, hiding them in seemingly innocuous detail, which adds a lot of tension and an ever-present sense of danger to the story. The claustrophobic and atmospheric setting in rural Pennsylvania is a  perfect backdrop, and I could vividly picture Leah moving around the house at night, fully exposed behind the windows of her new home as if she was on stage, watched by a sinister predator crouched at the edge of the woods. A perfect read whilst huddling under the safety of your doona, with only the rustling of the pages audible in the still, dark night. For me, the only slight let-down was the ending, which fizzled out a bit, with some questions remaining unanswered and the subplots not quite gelling in the way I had hoped. Whilst this did not spoil my reading pleasure, I missed the bold, twisty and unexpected finale the story had been building up to.


Summary:

The Perfect Stranger is a suspenseful mystery with an interesting premise: how well do you really know your friends? Containing all the elements I look for in a psychological thriller – an unreliable narrator, a constant sense of menace or danger facing our main protagonist, an atmospheric setting and plenty of twists and turns that make you question everything you have read -I highly recommend it to any lover of the genre. The budding romance added a pleasant addition to the story, and perhaps an added element of doubt – you will need to read it to judge for yourself. 



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



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Sunday, 23 April 2017

March / April Audiobook Recap


I’m usually so busy with writing reviews for ARCs that my audiobooks come off as the poor second cousins and often don’t make it onto my blog. This is a shame, since I often pick the books that are on top of my really-really-must-read list to keep me company during the long hours I spend driving. So I thought: why not write a quick monthly recap of the audiobooks I have been enjoying?

These were my commute-companions during March and April:


A Man Called Ove The Bird Tribunal In Her Wake


A Man Called Ove A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

Narrated by Joan Walker


What an utterly delightful read! I am very grateful for having stumbled across Shelleyrae’s review of this book on her blog “Book’dOut”, which initially made me put it on my to-read-list. My only regret is not having picked it up a lot sooner! A Man Called Ove is easiest one of the best books I have read all year, and one that will definitely make it on my all-time-favourites list. Told with both humour and wisdom, it follows the story of a 59-year-old Swedish man called Ove, who has recently lost his wife and his job and decided that life is no longer worth living. Always considered a somewhat taciturn and grumpy old man by his neighbours, Ove is sure he won’t be missed by anyone, and makes his plans for a clean exit from this life. But one by one all his plans are foiled by the arrival of new neighbours next door - a pregnant “foreign woman”, her tall lanky husband and their two little girls, who will not accept that Ove wants to be left alone. 

Written with laugh-out-loud humour as well as tender insights into his characters’ lives, Backman instantly drew me into the storyline and made my daily commute richer as I laughed, cried and pondered the meaning of life, love and death with Ove. Very highly recommended. I absolutely adored it!

PS: whilst Joan Walker does a good job narrating, I would have preferred a male narrator, seeing that Ove is our central character and the story is told from his perspective. 
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The Bird Tribunal The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn

Narrated by Penelope Rawlins


With her life in ruins after a scandal that wrecked her marriage and cost her her job, historian and TV presenter Allis Hagtorn leaves it all behind and takes on the position as housekeeper for 44-year-old Sigurd Bagge, a mysterious reclusive man living in a small cottage in the rugged Norwegian countryside. Far from town and without transport except a bicycle at her disposal, Allis throws herself into the housekeeping and gardening chores expected of her whilst Bagge’s wife is away. But when time goes by and the woman fails to materialise, Allis slowly falls more and more under her employer’s spell, trying to appease his labile moods. What follows is an account of a dysfunctional and somewhat obsessive love affair, its claustrophobic atmosphere enhanced by the remote setting and a sense of menace and danger always hovering in the background. What really happened to Bagge’s wife?

The Bird Tribunal is a slow-burning mystery with very little action and only two central characters to drive the story, which worked well in some parts but dragged a bit in others. Whilst I enjoyed the tension underlying the story and really liked Allis as a character, I found that the strange “dance” between the two  main protagonists became a bit repetitive, and I longed for a bit more action or a twist to move things along. However, I loved the claustrophobic and atmospheric armchair-travel setting, and the mystical component of Norse mythology interspersing the story. I am definitely interested to read more from this author in future.

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In Her Wake In Her Wake, by Amanda Jennings

Narrated by Kate Rawson


After losing both her parents in quick succession, Bella Campbell’s life is further turned upside down when she reads a letter left to her by her father, which tells her that she is not Henry and Elaine Campbell’s biological daughter, but that her “real” family lives in Cornwall. Having grown up cloistered in an old vicarage, home-schooled and without any family and friends other than her parents, Bella has never had the opportunity to truly grow up. Instead, she married a much older man who took over from her mother, controlling everything Bella does, from the food she eats to the clothes she wears. Now that all she has ever believed to be the truth has gone up in smoke, Bella must rise out of the ashes and set off on her own to discover her true origins – and ultimately discover herself.

In Her Wake had an intriguing premise, which soon drew me into the storyline. However, this is NOT a psychological thriller. Whilst there is an element of mystery in the story, the reader finds out the truth very early on, and what follows is a slow-burning family drama of family members re-united after years apart, and the struggles they face in getting to know one another and overcoming the trauma of the past. The setting on the Cornish coast was atmospheric and added a wonderful armchair-travel element that brought the story to life for me, and I enjoyed the emotional turmoil Bella finds herself in and her journey of self-discovery. However, at times I found the story a bit slow and repetitive and thought it needed a bit of editing to move things along (especially Bella’s “dreams”, which really added nothing to the story for me). I found myself waiting for bit more action or an element of surprise to spice things up, which did not eventuate.


Currently listening to:





Friday, 21 April 2017

Book Review: THE RED HUNTER by Lisa Unger


The Red Hunter


Author: Lisa Unger
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster (Australia)
Read:
April 2017
Expected publication: 1 May 2017


Synopsis:

At fourteen years of age, Zoey Drake was forced to watch as her parents were brutally murdered in front of her eyes, whilst she barely escaped with her own life. Over the last ten years, instead of letting the trauma destroy her life, Zoey has channelled all her energies into making herself stronger, vowing never to be a victim again. Now fully martial-arts trained, the anger still  living inside her is the “Red Hunter”, a force that compels her to seek out and fight injustice.

“It was getting to me. I was vibrating, giving off the energy of the thing I tried to hide and harness. I had given it a name. A thing that lived inside of me, The Red Hunter. Rage.”

Claudia Bishop has also had her life shaped by trauma. Brutally raped as a young woman she has never been sure whether her daughter is her husband’s child or that of her attacker. Over the years, this uncertainty has destroyed her marriage and has propelled her to make a new start with her teenage daughter, leaving the city and seeking solace in the country. Restoring an old house she inherited from her father might just be the project she has been looking for to put her life back on track and find the peace she is craving.

Strangers to each other, the two women are linked by the house’s dark past and the secret it still harbours. A secret that some people are prepared to kill for, which will see Claudia’s and Zoey’s paths collide and have them fighting for their lives once again.


My thoughts:

What is the difference between justice and revenge? This is the underlying theme of her latest thriller, and is a question Zoey asks herself many times as she channels the “Red Hunter”, an avenging energy which is the one thing that has kept her going over the years, trying to overcome after the horrific trauma she suffered as a teenager.  

“In our touchy-feely culture, there’s a lot of talk about forgiveness, a commonly held belief that the nurturing of hatred and anger is a toxin. No one ever tells you that is can be an angine, that it can keep you alive.”

But as Zoey will find out – revenge may not be as satisfying as she has believed, nor will it bring the peace and closure she has desired.

“When you plan revenge, you should dig two graves – one of them for yourself.”

I loved the background theme of empowerment for victims of crime, both for Zoey as well as Claudia, and how both women find their inner strength in different ways, which allows them to become stronger and move on with their lives. With characters who are well drawn, believable and engaging, the thriller comes to a nail-biting finale as the two women’s lives collide. I made the mistake of reading this book in the evening, which meant another sleepless night as I absolutely could not put the book down until I had turned the last page!


Summary:

The Red Hunter is a tense and suspenseful thriller which will set your heart racing as the action unfolds. At the same time, it raised the age-old question in my own mind: is revenge justified if it brings a murderer to justice? I guess that depends on each individual’s own moral code, and would make a very interesting discussion point in a book club gathering. Lisa Unger is a new and exciting discovery for me – after this nail-biting rollercoaster ride of suspension I will make sure to put her other novels on my to-read list!


Quotes:


There are certain dark doorways in this life, and when you open one and step inside, you can't come back out.

It's funny how two people meet and come together, and through their differences form someone unique with with a whole new set of gifts and quirks.

"Revenge seeks chaos," he said. "Justice seeks balance. That's the difference."



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


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Book Review: THE BURIAL HOUR by Jeffery Deaver (Lincoln Rhyme #13)


The Burial Hour (Lincoln Rhyme #13)


Title: The Burial Hour (#13 in the Lincoln Rhyme series)
Author: Jeffery Deaver
Publisher:
Hodder & Stoughton
Read:
April 2017


Synopsis:

The Burial Hour is the 13th book in the Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs series, which has been offering intriguing murder-mysteries with fascinating forensic details since 1997. In this latest instalment, Sachs and Rhyme are about to get married and are trying to agree on a location for their honeymoon – if Rhyme could only see the point of choosing a romantic setting for this occasion. He is saved from this tedious chore by being asked to help in the investigation into the abduction of a businessman by a sinister perpetrator, who later posts a video online in which the victim is being slowly strangled to the sounds of classical music – which consequently earns him the nickname “The Composer”. The only clue the perpetrator has left behind is a noose, fashioned out of cello string. But before Rhyme and Sachs can close in on their suspect, a similar kidnapping occurs in Naples, Italy, with the same trademark noose left at the scene. So instead of going on their honeymoon, Sachs and Rhyme make their way to Italy to help the Italian authorities with the case – whether they like it or not.


My thoughts:

I still remember the excitement of discovering the first book in the Lincoln Rhyme series almost twenty years ago, and the nail biting suspense as Rhyme and Sachs hunt the terrifying Bone Collector. At the time, I was totally enthralled by the forensic details, and protagonists who were so different from the usual fictional police detectives. Then followed a few years of compulsively snapping up everything written by the talented  Jeffery Deaver. Now it has been a few years since I picked up a Lincoln Rhyme book, and I thought it would be great revisiting this series. I loved that part of the Burial Hour is set in beautiful Naples, adding a great armchair travel setting and some fresh characters to the story.

Unfortunately, I think that the series may have run its course for me. Apart from the armchair travel component, The Burial Hour did not hold the same fascination for me that I remember from previous books, and to be totally honest, I struggled to get to the end. Perhaps it is the simple fact that the last twenty years have turned me into an old cynic who finds it hard to suspend disbelief. I work in the health industry, which is not much different from law and order when it concerns budget and staff cuts, and I doubt that America is any different from Australia in that regard. So I wasn’t far into the pages when I snorted my first big huff of disbelief when an alleged kidnapping (only witnessed by a child) generates a full investigative team consisting of the top forensic experts in the country, as well as every forensic investigation the lab has to offer – stat! And no expenses spared! And there isn’t even a body in sight anywhere yet. Riiiiight .... nope, I don’t believe it. Ok, let’s cut the author some slack here and keep reading, since my family always remind me when I snort in derision during some medical TV soap when someone has once again shocked asystole: “Mum, it’s FICTION, get over it, OK?” But the story continued in the same vein, without the redeeming features of riveting, nail-biting suspense that may have distracted me from such blatant violations of fact, and I admit – I couldn’t get over it. Petty? Perhaps, but that is me.

I was also somewhat perplexed about the two main protagonists, who I remember as interesting and engaging in earlier novels. What has happened to Sachs and Rhyme in the last few years, to turn these quirky characters into such two-dimensional, boring people? For me, there was absolutely no chemistry between any of the characters, who gravitate around each other like planets around the sun without ever actually touching emotionally. Why Sachs and Rhyme want to get married eludes me – there wasn’t a tender moment or word between them throughout the whole book. The only likeable character for me was the Italian forestry cop Ercole Benelli, who unfortunately gets overshadowed by the complicated and somewhat contrived political plot unfolding in the story later on. 

Summary:


The Burial Hour may appeal to die-hard fans of the series, or readers who prefer a factual, somewhat unemotional read with a political conspiracy theory as the main premise. I, however, am a reader who needs to be able to forge an emotional connection to the characters in order to enjoy the story, and I struggled throughout the book to stay interested. So how do I do justice in rating a book by an author I have long admired and who so obviously can write, but whose novel just didn’t hit the mark for me? Going solely on enjoyment, I would give this book a 2-star rating, rounded up to 2.5 since it is well written, with occasional snippets of dry humour hidden amongst its pages. Sorry, but this one was obviously not the right book for me at this time, and I don’t think I will revisit the series again if it continues along the same trajectory.

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

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Book Review: THE RIVER AT NIGHT by Erica Ferencik


The River at Night (Hardcover)


Author: Erica Ferencik
Publisher:
Bloomsbury Publishing Australia
Read:
April 2017


Synopsis (Goodreads):

'A thought came to me that I couldn't force away: What we are wearing is how we'll be identified out in the wilderness.'

Win Allen doesn't want an adventure.

After a miserable divorce and the death of her beloved brother, she just wants to spend some time with her three best friends, far away from her soul-crushing job. But athletic, energetic Pia has other plans.

Plans for an adrenaline-raising, breath-taking, white-water rafting trip in the Maine wilderness. Five thousand square miles of remote countryside. Just mountains, rivers and fresh air.

No phone coverage. No people.

No help. 


My thoughts:


Wow. WOW! Is all I can say as I am turning the last page of this nail-bitingly intense roller coaster ride of a story, staring out of my rain-streaked window and trying to reorient myself to person, place and time, feeling the beginnings of an adrenaline hangover. Undoubtedly, The River at Night is one of the most insanely fast-paced adventure stories I have read in a long time. This, good people, is how you write a good thriller! Containing all the right elements an adrenaline fuelled action story needs to make it memorable, The River at Night appeased my longing for adventure, because I feel like I have been there, on the river with Wini, Pia, Rachel and Sarah, fighting for survival.
Early one morning in late March, Pia forced my hand.
And I was instantly hooked ....

Wini, Rachel, Sandra and Pia are four women just shy of the big four-oh, whose friendship has lasted almost two decades through all the highs and lows of their individual lives: marriage, childbirth, divorce, cancer, substance abuse and bereavement. And even though their lives may have drifted apart over the years, for one week every year the friends take the opportunity to spend quality time together, usually organised by their “fearless leader” Pia. What would be a better group-bonding exercise, Pia tells them, than a white-water rafting trip in the wilds of Maine, away from the constrictions of the city, of work and family commitments? Wini has her doubts (remembering the ill-fated sky diving expedition organised by Pia a few years back).
I couldn’t tell which was worse, the fear of being left behind by my friends as they dashed away on some ├╝berbonding, unforgettable adventure, or the inevitable self-loathing if I stayed behind like some gutless wimp – safe, always safe – half-fucking-dead with safety. Why couldn’t I just say yes to a camping trip with three of my best friends? What was I so afraid of?
Pia’s enthusiasm for age-defying adventure is infectious, and in the end the friends set aside their doubts and fears, like they always do.
“Oh, screw it, Pia. You may be one crazy bitch, but you know in the end we follow you around like a bunch of little ducklings.”
And so, one early morning in June, the four women set off in their brand new hiking boots and state of the art waterproof pants to embark on an adventure that is going to take them out of their ordinary city lives and comfort zone for five whole days.
“Just think,” Pia interjected, oblivious. “Over five thousand square miles –“ 
“- of trees, trees and more trees –“ Rachel said, shaking her head.
But soon the adventure takes an unexpected turn even the timid Wini could not have envisaged. And the trip of a lifetime turns into a fight for survival ...

If you are too ensnared in your somewhat mundane everyday life to embark on an action adventure to cross some of those ridiculously ambitious items off your bucket list that may have been fitting for a twenty-year old, what can be better than armchair travel of the most thrilling kind? I am not surprised to read that Erica Ferencik is, amongst other things, a screenwriter, because her writing is extremely “visual”. With her acute observations of the minute details that make a scene more realistic, the story played out like a tense action movie in front of my eyes, following me into my dreams in the form of disjointed images of flowing water and overturned rafts, until I woke gasping for breath, still entrapped in the storyline.

Told in the first person through Wini’s eyes, with protagonists close enough to my age that I could relate to most of their hidden fears, desires and agendas, this was a book I instantly knew I would love – and I did. Cleverly, the author drops just enough information about the four women’s lives to give a solid background and flesh out their characters, without ruminating too much about their pasts. A lot of the tension is based on inter-personal dynamics which are realistically drawn and very relatable. I thoroughly enjoyed Wini’s voice as she tells her story with both an unfailing sense of observation, wry humour and the right amount of terror that had me holding my breath for pages on end, clenching my teeth so hard that it left me with a slight ache in my jaw for days after. Not to speak of the sleep-deprivation for sitting up until late into the night to read “just one more page”, knowing I had to be up at five to go to work. The River at Night will easily make it on my list of most enjoyable and memorable reads of the year, and one I will wholeheartedly recommend to all my friends (and anyone else who will listen). I loved it!

Thank you to the author and the publisher Bloomsbury Publishing Australia  for sending me a copy of this novel as part of their “what was your worst holiday experience” competition.

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