Monday, 29 May 2017

Book Review: ACHE by Eliza Henry-Jones


Title: Ache
Author: Eliza Henry-Jones
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Read:
May 2017
Expected publication: 1 June 2017
My Rating:🌟🌟🌟🌟


Book Description:

Months after the fires that almost claimed their lives, Annie and her small daughter Pip are still plagued by nightmares and flashbacks. Even though the papers hailed Annie a hero, their front pages all showing the dramatic photo a woman galloping her horse through a blazing inferno, clutching her child in her arms, Annie knows that it wasn’t that simple. It was her fault they were in the path of danger that day. Annie, who had grown up in those hills should have known better.

Escaping back to her city life and into the arms of her bewildered husband, who cannot possibly understand the trauma Annie and Pip have been through, may have put some geographical distance between her and the scene of the horror, but it hasn’t been able to erase her memories. Annie knows that she has to go back to the hills she both loves and fears. The place where she grew up, went to school, first kissed a boy. The place where she nearly died. So despite her husband’s advice, she packs up the car, bundles up Pip and sets off for the hills to confront her worst nightmares.

My musings:

Ache is a beautifully written book by an author who clearly understands the aftermath of trauma and loss, and who sensitively explores the issue through the eyes of her main protagonists: Annie, the young mother, who has left her home in the hills to pursue her career as veterinarian, but whose heart still belongs to the country. Pip, her six-year old daughter, who hides her trauma and fears by acting out. Susan, Annie’s mother, an eccentric artist who has retreated into her lonely cabin to bake cupcakes, unable to paint or move past the event which cost her mother’s life. And the bewildered Tom, Annie’s husband, who looks on helplessly as his wife and daughter battle their inner demons, unable to get close to them. Although the story is narrated by Annie, we get to know each character intimately – their pain, their fears, their inner turmoil.

As Annie returns to her hometown, she must not only confront her own demons but also those of the town’s inhabitants, people she has known all her life. It is this portrayal of a small community rocked and split apart by tragedy where Henry-Jones’ real talent shone through for me, perfectly capturing the dynamics of people touched by trauma and death. Having lived through a real-live natural disaster myself in the past, some of the things she describes hit very close to home. There were those people who pulled together, and those who fled. People who exploited the tragedy for their own gain, and those who just quietly got on with things, helped out where needed, never craving the spotlight. The initial euphoria of having survived, quickly replaced by the reality of the devastation surrounding them. And the need to find a scapegoat for the pain, the suffering – lashing out at each other in blind fury, all previous allegiances forgotten in the aftermath of the tragedy. Each one of Henry-Jones’ characters is well drawn and true-to-life, their emotions raw, honest and laid bare for everyone to see.

As Annie returns to her old home, we get to know her through flashbacks to her childhood, growing up with a teenage mother and a grandmother who was very much the head of the household, Annie’s uncle the only male figure in her life. There is a nostalgia in Annie’s voice that goes deeper than just dealing with the trauma – it speaks of displacement, of loss of place, of innocence, of home. Still drawn to the hills that featured so strongly in her life, Annie’s city life is a mere front, one that she can no longer maintain.

“Each time she comes back the knows fewer people, fewer cars, fewer trees. Each time she comes back it feels less like home and makes her feel strangely helpless. She wants to go home, but she no longer knows how to find it.”

I also loved Pip, the small girl whose inability to express her trauma into words makes her act out, lash out in anger and fear. It is only with her equally traumatised grandmother that Pip learns to confront her fears, step by little step, to make real healing possible.

Summary:

Ache is a beautiful tale of trauma, loss and redemption. Like a phoenix rising out of the ashes, our characters need to be stripped completely raw to be able to move on. A rebirth of a kind, a healing, a moving on. In the small steps Henry-Jones’ characters take towards rebuilding their lives, there is a message of hope, of inner peace, of growth. Beautifully written, this is a nostalgic and somewhat dreamy read which deeply touched my heart. Very highly recommended. 

Quotes:

And Annie learned the strange, bewildering lesson that there was often a path of unrelated, unpleasant things that had to be followed to get somewhere that you loved.

Annie wonders what Pip will think about, when her daughter reflects on her childhood. How endless these years seem now. But Annie knows that soon they will seem as fleeting as the gap between an inhale and an exhale. A teetering moment of stillness. 



Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

Book Review: NOT A SOUND by Heather Gudenkauf


Author: Heather Gudenkauf
Publisher:
Harlequin Australia
Read:
May 2017
Expected publication: 1 June 2017
My Rating:🌟🌟🌟🌟


Book Description:

Amelia Winn was a skilled and dedicated ER and sexual assault nurse when a rogue driver slammed into her, almost killing her and leaving her fighting for her life in ICU. Amelia survived, but was left profoundly deaf. Depressed and drowning her sorrows in alcohol in the two years following the hit and run, Amelia now lives on her own in a remote cabin in the woods with only her service dog Stitch for company, trying her best to overcome the addiction that has cost her her family and most of her friends. When the craving for alcohol strikes these days, she takes her kayak to the vast system of rivers and channels near her home and paddles until her muscles ache and the calm of the water has seeped into her body. But her refuge is compromised when on one of her morning paddles she finds the body of a woman in the shallows of the muddy river banks. A nurse, who was once Amelia’s colleague and friend. Deeply troubled and touched by the incident, Amelia seeks out the dead woman’s husband and discovers that she had tried to contact Amelia shortly before her death to discuss some concerns she had about an incident at work. Is it possible that her work as a sexual assault nurse had put her in the path of a killer?


My musings:

I really enjoyed Amelia Winn’s character in Not a Sound and, seeing the impressive list of books written by the author, I am amazed that I have not come across more novels by Heather Gudenkauf! This must definitely be remedied (I can see my Himalayan TBR pile growing even higher). In the epilogue to Not a Sound, Gudenkauf says that, like Amelia, she has first-hand experience of being hearing impaired. Perhaps it is this deep personal understanding of Amelia’s daily struggles that make her character so sympathetic and believable. Throughout the story I was constantly reflecting on the implications of not being able to hear even the slightest sound – no birdsong in the early morning hours, not the voice of your loved ones, not the warning crunch of an intruder’s footsteps in the snow outside your house. Even your own panicked voice, calling 911 after finding a dead body in the water, not sure if there is a person on the other end of the line receiving your call.  I loved the inclusion of scarred service dog Stitch into the story, who added an interesting and engaging element – and not in the corny, overacting way that animal characters can sometimes appear in other books. Plucky, determined and not easily scared, Amelia made for a perfect amateur sleuth, with Stitch by her side.

Fast paced and full of action, Not a Sound is both a taut and engaging thriller as well as a story of personal growth and overcoming challenges. Being a nurse myself, I could easily put myself into Amelia’s position, wondering how I would fare losing a job I love and that fulfils me due to a freak accident (or was it?). I also take my hat off to the author for mastering the art of including medical terminology and detail into the story in a way that is easily understandable by a layperson but also rings true for medical professionals – it may sound trite, but as with any specialty field, this balance is not easily achieved. Gudenkauf not only brings her characters to life, but also paints an atmospheric setting that made for some wonderful armchair travel to rural Iowa. I just love thrillers set in wild and remote locations, where the terrain, the weather and the somewhat reclusive inhabitants create their own unique challenges. So whilst the actual mystery underlying Gwen’s death may have been fairly straight forward to me (and somewhat predictable), the action-packed cat-and-mouse game as Amelia tries to outwit a killer more than made up for it!


Summary:

Not a Sound is a character driven, taut and action packed thriller that kept my interest throughout. With its atmospheric setting and sympathetic main protagonist, I enjoyed it immensely and would not be averse to seeing Amelia and Stitch back for another amateur sleuth adventure.


Thank you to Netgalley and Harlequin Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.


Not a Sound Purchase this title or other books by the author here



Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Book Review: LIAR by K.L. Slater


Liar


Title: Liar
Author: K.L. Slater
Publisher:
Bookouture
Read:
May 2017
Expected publication: 16 June 2017
My Rating:🌟🌟1/2


Book Description:

Devoting herself to her family has always been the most important thing to Judi. When her son Ben’s wife Louise dies from cancer, she is only too happy to take over the reins and look after her two young grandsons Josh and Noah whenever required, as well as help with Ben’s household chores. Every Sunday, her “boys” gather around Judi’s table to eat the sumptuous feast she cooks for them. This is all Judi has ever wanted – to spoil her loved ones and to feel needed. But life is about to change when Ben falls head over heels in love with Amber, a pretty young childcare worker whose presence is like a thorn in Judi’s side. Not only has Amber installed herself in Ben’s household, but she is also usurping Judi’s rightful place in the family. Sunday gatherings are no longer the carefree affairs Judi has treasured for so long, and she is dismayed to find that her help with the children and the chores is required less and less. Worst of all, Judi has her suspicions that Amber may have an ulterior motive, but both Ben and her husband Henry think she is being paranoid and jealous of the young woman. How can she get her rightful place back in the Jukes household?

My musings:

The theme that inspired the author, the interesting dynamics of the daughter-in-law / mother-in-law relationship, and the potential to turn this into a riveting mystery saw me requesting this book as soon as it appeared on Netgalley, and I was overjoyed when it was approved. Slater makes it clear right from the outset that in this family, things may not be as they seem on the surface. Judi, the loving grandmother, who is also a bit of a control freak. And Amber ... well, we know very early on that Amber has her own agenda. As tension between the two women grows, I could not help turn the pages, interested to see how this doomed relationship would play out.

My biggest disappointment with the story was that the author gave away too much too early for my liking. I have said it before, and I will say it again, I am fussy with what I call a “psychological thriller”.  For me, to qualify for the term, a story must mess with my mind, play me like a yo-yo. I want shades of grey, not obvious black-and-white. I love an unreliable narrator, or one whose motives are so well disguised that I am in a constant dilemma as to whether I can trust them or not. I want the author to manipulate me, make me question all my preconceived ideas, vacillate between doubt and belief and generally addle my brain to an extent where the book stays in my thoughts even when I am not reading it. Unfortunately in this case – and this is not a spoiler, as it is revealed very early on – we know pretty much from the start that Amber has an ulterior motive when she engineers her meeting with Ben, to make him fall in love with her. There is never any doubt that she is a scheming little minx with her very own agenda. The only mystery here is her reasons for this, which, to be honest, was not quite enough for me.

How much better this would have worked had I (as the reader) been able to give her the benefit of doubt, to constantly question myself whether she was innocent or guilty of deceit and whether Judi’s hate and suspicions were justified or not. As it was, I felt forced to root for Judi, who I equally disliked, but with Amber cast as the villain I couldn’t very well stand and cheer in her corner, could I? So, whilst the family dynamics kept me turning the pages, there was no mystery and no suspense, except for a few surprises along the way, which did not make up for the mental manipulation I had hoped for. Looking back, I realise that this was my main gripe with Slater’s previous book, Blink.  Seeing that it worked well for other readers, I am conceding that perhaps her writing style just isn’t for me. 

Summary:

In summary, Liar was a fast and somewhat predictable read with moderately interesting family dynamics that kept me turning the pages but didn’t quite capture my imagination enough to make it memorable. 


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




Book Review: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman


Title: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publisher:
Harper Collins Publishers Australia
Read:
May 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


Book Description:

“I am a self-contained entity.”

Thirty-year old (Miss) Eleanor Oliphant lives her life by a strict routine. Monday to Friday, her 8.30 to 5.30 job as an accounts clerk in a graphic design firm fills in her waking hours. On Wednesday night, a 15-minute phone call from “Mummy” will leave her exhausted and seeking the oblivion of sleep. And on Friday evening, there is a pizza from Tesco to look forward to, and vodka. Lots of vodka. Often she doesn’t see another human being from Friday night until going back to work on Monday, but Eleanor is fine with that, absolutely fine. She doesn’t really need anyone else in her life. After all, she has a house to clean, Polly the houseplant to water, and vodka to keep those dark doors in her mind firmly closed.

But Eleanor’s life is about to change when her computer at work breaks down and the IT guy drops into her office to fix it. Meet Raymond, a thirty-something scruffy man who just doesn’t get Eleanor’s hints that she really is not in the mood for chit-chat. Instead, annoyingly, he insists on walking to the bus stop with her, as if she was an ordinary person, not the office oddball people whisper about. When an elderly stranger collapses in front of them, Eleanor reluctantly helps Raymond take care of him. Against her better judgment, mind you. Little does she know that this one incident will change Eleanor’s life – and routine – forever.

My musings:

I cannot adequately express how much I adored this book! It was love at first page! I laughed out loud, I shed some tears, and most of all, it left a warm fuzzy feeling with me all day as I heard Eleanor’s voice in my head (ok, that sounds a little bit crazy, but I mean that in a good way). Eleanor’s voice is the most refreshing thing I have read all year! A cross between A Man Called Ove and The Rosie Project, this damaged, judgmental and totally honest thirty-year-old woman wormed her way into my heart immediately, and I looked forward to every minute I could spare to keep reading. I started highlighting the passages that made me laugh out loud, or ponder life, or those where I would throw a punch into the air, exclaiming: Yes! Exactly! as the ever honest Eleanor states it just as it is. How often have I thought exactly the same thing, only for social convention to hold me back actually voicing it. It was so liberating! When I found that I was drowning in a sea of highlighted pages I realised how very, very much this book spoke to me.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is not all fun and games, though, as it explores the effects of childhood trauma and people’s reactions to those who may not quite fit societal norms.

“I’d tried so hard, but something about me just didn’t fit. There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into.”

Step by step, we get to know Eleanor through her “good days”, “bad days” and “better days”. Bittersweet and deeply insightful, Honeyman has created a character so damaged that she has long given up hope of ever being loved – or being able to love.

“I was thirty years old, I realised, and I had never walked hand in hand with anyone. No one had ever rubbed my tired shoulders, or stroked my face. I imagined a man putting his arms around me and holding me close when I was tired or upset; the warmth of it, the weight of it.”

Eleanor’s journey of self-discovery is as touching as it is humorous – and there are indeed a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in this book.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t want to accept a drink from you, because then I would be obliged to purchase one for you in return, and I’m afraid I’m simply not interested in spending two drinks’ worth of time with you.”

Warning: Eleanor’s honesty is infectious. As I found out when my fingers typed out an email stripped of the polite word-play that usually disguises the issue at hand in political correctness – I only just managed to wrench my index finger away from the ‘send” button in time. I guess my circle of friends and colleagues may not be ready for such an Eleanor Oliphant-esque moment of truth quite yet. But how liberating it may have been!


Summary:

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has definitely been one of my favourite reads this year and will make it on my all-time favourites list. I am indescribably grateful to the Goodreads community for recommending this gem of a story, as I probably would not have picked it up otherwise – and what a loss this would have been indeed. This book was everything I look for in a book: tender, touching, funny, quirky, heart-breaking, heart-warming, inspiring and just totally and utterly GOOD! Reading it felt like a warm hug by a good friend whilst pouring your heart out to them. This is apparently Gail Honeyman’s debut novel – amazing! I can’t wait to read more from this talented author in future! 

Quotes:


Grief is the price we pay for love, so they say. The price is far too high.

You can make anything happen, anything at all, inside a daydream.

I suppose one of the reasons we’re able to continue to exist in our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it may seem, the possibility of change.

Image result for 5 stars

Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Collins Publishers Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel, and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Book Review: HERE AND GONE by Haylen Beck



Title: Here and Gone
Author: Haylen Beck
Publisher:
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Read:
May 2017
Expected publication: 13 July 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟1/2


Book Description:
“Please,” she said, unable to keep the quiver from her voice. “I’ve done everything you said. I’ve been cooperative. Please tell me where my children are.” Whiteside held her gaze. “What children,” he asked.

Haylen Beck is the pseudonym of a well-known crime novelist and screenwriter, and his writing skills became instantly obvious as he quickly drew me in with the opening chapter to Here and Gone. It starts innocently enough. A young woman is driving along a lonely desert road with her two children in the back. She is trying to escape an abusive marriage, hoping to make a new start with a friend in California. But when she looks in the rearview mirror she sees a police car following her, flashing its lights, forcing her to move over. The sheriff tells her that her car is overloaded and asks her to step out of the vehicle, leaving her children in the back seat. She is scared.

He is an officer of the law.

He is armed.

He has all the power.

And her nightmare is only just beginning ...


My musings:

I loved Beck’s ability to paint the opening scene with the type of technicolour clarity of a bad dream, playing out in every small and terrible detail in my mind. The long, hot, lonely road. The sour taste of fear in Audra’s mouth as she spots the police cruiser in her rearview mirror. The crunch of tires and spray of dust as she pulls over onto the side of the road. The slow walk of the sheriff, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, hands on his gun belt, as he makes his way over to her. “Please step out of the car.” It sent a shiver down my spine imagining myself in the same situation! With such an imbalance in power, what options does Audra have other than to comply and follow the sheriff’s orders? Her absolute horror and panic when she realises that her children are being taken away by a stranger is palpable in every written word. Beck’s portrayal of a woman with her back against the wall as no one believes her is well drawn, as is the moment Audra summons her inner tiger-mother and begins to fight back.

With its claustrophobic atmosphere and constant sense of menace and danger to our hapless protagonist, Here and Gone was reminiscent of a Lee Child novel – I was waiting for Jack Reacher to come to Audra’s rescue and kick some butt! Instead, we get Danny Lee, a fascinating character I absolutely loved! He would definitely make a worthy vigilante for many more future novels yet to come. Danny appeared at exactly the very moment in the book where I feared it would go down the conspiracy theory track, and immediately snapped my attention back into focus.

Perhaps my only gripe with the story was that it gave away too much too early, which took some of the thrill factor away. I am trying not to give any spoilers here, but basically we know very early on who is behind the children’s abduction, and there are no surprises in store in that regard. A lot more suspense could have been created had the author kept back that bit of information until much later – there were certainly plenty of opportunities to create other suspects in the reader’s mind. Instead, with the mystery solved, the story turns into a race against time to find the missing children, and I had plenty of faith in Danny Lee that this would be accomplished. That said, there was still plenty of action and a nail-biting finale that made it well worth reading on for! 

Summary:

Here and Gone is a fast –paced and atmospheric thriller which will appeal to fans of the Jack Reacher series and similar novels. Personally, I hope for a return of Danny Lee in future books, as he made for an intriguing protagonist worthy of a lot more missions. 


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


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Book Review: SECRETS OF THE DEAD by Carol Wyer


Secrets of the Dead


Author: Carol Wyer
Publisher:
Bookouture
Read:
May 2017
Expected publication: 30 May 2017

Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ



Synopsis:

The community of Lichfield is rocked to the core when the body of a young mother is discovered murdered in her bathtub, clutching a receipt for £250,000, stating “all debts paid”. Who could do such a terrible thing? The case lands on the desk of DI Robyn Carter, who feels like she has bitten off more than she can chew. A few days ago, the mutilated body of a young bar manager had been found with a similar receipt on his body. At first, there is nothing else to connect the two victims, and Robyn is at a loss where to start her enquiries. On top of all this, she is already running a clandestine investigation into the death of a local spa owner, which has been ruled accidental by her colleague (and arch-enemy) DI Tom Shearer but appears suspicious to Robyn. With three dead bodies on her hands and no concrete leads, Robyn feels the pressure as the press are having a field day, dubbing the perpetrator the “Lichfield Leopard” and fuelling public fear. She knows she will have to deliver something to her superior soon in order to save her career – and to prevent the killer from striking again. 

My thoughts:

There are a lot of detective series out there, and to stand out, a novel needs that certain something to make it memorable for me. I really loved the original idea of invoices found on the victims’ bodies, which added an intriguing element to an otherwise straight-forward police procedural. But whilst I enjoyed the story and the line of the police enquiry kept me interested, I was missing the one gasp-out-loud element that would make the book stick in my mind and put all past and future books in the series on my wishlist. DI Robyn Carter had all the elements of your archetypal flawed detective, and yet it appeared to me as if her demons were forced upon rather than owned by her. Grieving for her dead husband – tick. An over-the-top work ethic which takes over her life – tick. Conflict with a colleague – tick. Employing questionable tactics to get the job done – tick. I cannot put my finger on why these didn’t work for me, when the same elements seem so compelling in other fictional detective characters, such as Rob Bryndza’s Erika Foster, or Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan. Robyn felt constructed to me somehow, lacking the emotional depth her flaws were aiming to give her. Some aspects of her life, such as the relationship to her step-daughter, seemed like unnecessary fillers which added nothing to the story for me. Perhaps I should have read the first book in the series to get the necessary background to her character?

Over years of devouring all kinds of murder-mysteries with an insatiable appetite for new and original characters and plot lines, I have discovered that I am generally not a fan of books where there is too much narrative from the perspective of the killer. I gather from reading reviews of the author’s first book that she likes to give glimpses into the perpetrators’ past to explain their descent into madness and crime. And there are indeed A LOT of chapters from the perpetrator’s POV, starting from his traumatic childhood to his present life. Personally, with a few exceptions, I prefer the killer to remain an enigma that is slowly being unmasked by the police enquiry. Delving into the killer’s childhood in detail may explain the state of his mental health, but do I really need to know his whole sorry life-story? Does it add value to the plot or contribute to the feeling of mystery and suspense? In this case, for me, it didn’t. Giving the killer a mental health issue with overused phrases like “he could feel the red mist descending” just reads like it could have been copied and pasted from countless other similar stories. Not my cup of tea at all, but thankfully all readers are different and no doubt the very things that vexed me will work well for others. 

Summary:


Secrets of the Dead is a solid police procedural with some original ideas which will undoubtedly appeal to a lot of readers. Whilst it made for a pleasant, fast read, it was lacking the elements that make it stand out from the fray, though, and I am not sure if I will come back to read any more books in the series. 



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.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Book Review: THE HOUSE by Simon Lelic


The House


Title: The House
Author: Simon Lelic
Publisher:
Penguin Books UK
Read:
March 2017
Expected publication: 17 August 2017


Synopsis:

Young couple Jack and Syd think that all their dreams have come true when they are the successful bidders in the auction of an old house in London, even though deep down Jack has a few niggling doubts about some of the logistics of the purchase. The house itself, for example, which looks as if its owner had merely stepped out for a bit of shopping and never returned, with all his personal belongings still cluttering every available surface. And Jack knows for a fact that their bid cannot possible have been the highest, seeing how they had been up against some fierce competitors from much more affluent backgrounds than their meagre budget allowed. But for Syd’s sake he is content to bury those questions under the elation of moving into their “forever home” at last. With all their money swallowed up by the purchase, there is none left for re-decorating. Surrounded by the old owner’s possessions, it is difficult to feel a sense of home. When strange and scary things start happening in the house, Jack decides to dig a bit deeper and makes a disturbing discovery in the attic. Not wanting to worry Syd, who is struggling with anxiety issues, he decides to keep his misgivings to himself – until a body is found in the alleyway behind their house, and the police come knocking on their door ...


My thoughts:

I was instantly drawn into the storyline hook, line and sinker by the unusual writing style, which initially plays out as a series of journal entries by both Jack and Syd to each other, reflecting on the events which brought them into their present predicament. And I absolutely loved both the couple’s voices! For example, Syd, who reminds herself to “think yoga” every time she feels stressed. To which Jack replies:

What was it Syd said? Think yoga. Which doesn’t actually help me at all, because when I think yoga the only thing that comes to mind is middle aged women in leotards.

As far as including diary entries into a novel, this is THE best and most skilful way I have ever encountered, and those who have ever read my reviews would have heard my rant about diaries that read like novels. Not so in this case. Jack and Syd tell of their experiences in a way that resembles a lively dialogue around a campfire with good mates, taking every opportunity to interrupt or correct each other if they think that the other has got it wrong (quibbling like an old married couple). Their candid banter was engaging and laugh-out-funny, and I knew I was in for a lively and interesting read. As each of the pair drop little worried doubts about things going wrong in their dream home, I was intrigued and suitably goose-bumped imagining all kinds of sinister reasons behind the events.

It was about at that point that the book took a completely unexpected turn. And whilst I think that the events following were well thought out and provided that “killer twist you won’t see coming” that so many books rave about, I also think that a great opportunity was missed here. Spoiler Alert! Because suddenly the main star of the novel so far, the house, dropped into the background, and it was as if a character had gone awol. The sinister atmosphere the author had so skilfully created vanished with the disappearance of the house as its own evil and hostile entity, which was a real shame. There was so much potential here to keep up the tension and make this a spooky and terrifying read. Instead, the different mystery that unfolded lost a lot of momentum for me – and whilst the elements of childhood trauma, domestic violence and revenge are strong themes to deliver a clever and intriguing psychological suspense story based on human relationships, I did mourn for the spooky element the house had provided.


Summary:

Simon Lelic surely knows how to create lively and interesting characters, and his way of introducing Jack and Syd through journal entries to each other is a winner in terms of originality – I go as far as saying that it was the cleverest way I have ever seen diary entries included into a novel! Whilst The House did not quite live up to my expectations of a spooky and sinister read, it contained all the elements of a cleverly constructed mystery with that one element so coveted in modern suspense thrillers: the “killer twist you won’t see coming”.


Quotes:

Freedom: it’s just another term for living in fear.

About the only thing my father was afraid of was the prospect of maybe one day being called upon to express some emotion that wasn’t indignation.

It was like that question you get on US immigration forms. Are you, or have you ever been, a terrorist? Well, shit – you got me. And here I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.

It was attitudes to women like his that had kept our society rooted in the dark ages and political power in the hands of the privileged, penis-wielding few. 



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.


If you like the concept of a house as a dark and sinister presence, you may also enjoy:

The Girl Before The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney





Friday, 12 May 2017

Book Review: THE WOMEN OF THE CASTLE by Jessica Shattuck



Title: The Women of the Castle (also published as: The Women in the Castle)
Author: Jessica Shattuck
Publisher:
Bonnier Zaffre
Read:
May 2017
Expected publication: 18 May 2017

“To me, you can learn as much about looking at complicity as you can at resistance. [...] I hope that readers will come away with a sense of the complexity of life at that time and the decisions people made and didn’t make.” (Jessica Shattuck)

Synopsis:

Told from the perspective of three different women, The Women of the Castle focuses mainly on the immediate aftermath of WWII, when people are trying to come to terms with the realities of the atrocities committed during Hitler’s reign, and their part in them, either as willing participants or passive bystanders. Only one of the women, Marianne von Lingenfels, can truly say that she had an active part in the resistance movement and the plot to assassinate Hitler, which ultimately left her a widow. Marianne is a woman who sees the world as black and white, which earned her the nickname “The Judge” as a child – there is good, and there is evil, and no shade of grey in between. One is either guilty, or not.

Inaction was impossible. Once you knew – really knew – of the women and children being shot in the woods, of the shower rooms constructed for the sole purpose of killing, how could you not act?

Her moral principles guide her every action, and she takes her responsibilities very seriously. When she is tasked to take care of the widows and children of fallen resistance fighters, she uses everything in her power to bring them to Lingenfels Castle, where they are safe amidst the tumult of post-war Germany. It is this promise that makes her collect two women from the occupied territories: Benita, who is the young widow of Marianne’s best childhood friend and fellow resistance fighter Connie; and Ania, the widow of a Polish foreign officer. Both women arrive with their children in tow, and the group find shelter in the old castle ruin. Bit by bit the reader gets to know each of the women’s backgrounds, their fate during the war years and their most intimate thoughts and feelings – and there are a few surprises in store!


My thoughts:

The Women of the Castle was one of those books that evoked so much emotional turmoil whilst reading it that I had to sit quietly for a few days afterwards and sort those feelings before being able to put my thoughts into words. Wow – this was one powerful story! I am a bit of a sucker for WWII fiction, but in a vast choppy sea of war stories there are only a few true beacons of light that manage to shine through the darkness and stand out. I feel privileged that this year I already managed to discover two such books, and The Women of the Castle is one of them (the other was All the Light WeCannot See, by Anthony Doerr).

In a former job I worked with clients who were holocaust survivors or forced labourers in Germany during the war and was deeply moved by their individual tales of survival. What inspired me most of all was their capacity for forgiveness, and their courage to forge a new beginning after staring into the abyss of human depravity. The Women of the Castle brought back a lot of those stories for me, and most of all I reflected on the ethical and moral dilemmas each of the women faces. Guilt (even by association) and blame feature strongly in the book, as they did in the immediate post-war years, when the world still reeled from horror of discovering the sheer scale of atrocities committed in Hitler’s name.

It was so ugly. The peace and plenty of this time were like a thin quilt spread over a pile of shit. No one was innocent.

I have read only few books which focus on the immediate post-war period, and I loved the way the author explores the topic open-mindedly and without trying to judge or lay blame. As intended, I continuously asked myself the question: if faced with a similar situation, would I speak up? Would I risk my own life and that of my children to stand up for what is right? It is easy to judge people of that time from my own high horse of living a sheltered life in democracy and peace. I would love to be able to say: Of course I would! But would I? As a mother, would I not try to protect my children at all cost, even if it meant turning a blind eye? The Women of the Castle opens an emotional minefield of moral and ethical dilemmas I am glad I have never had to face. I personally was deeply touched by the character of Franz Muller, a German man who had fought in the war and was unable to forgive himself or allow himself to ever feel happiness again. His story could have been that of my grandfather, who narrowly escaped with his life from the Russian front, only to find that living with the things he had seen and done in the war was a daily burden he could never totally escape from.


Summary:

The Women of the Castle is a powerful, thought-provoking and insightful story which took me out of my comfort zone and awoke a true rollercoaster ride of emotions in me that haunted me for days. Questions of moral and ethical dilemmas would pop into my head at the most inopportune moments, causing me to pause and reflect on my own convictions and beliefs. Absolutely everyone should read this book! War and atrocities are still going on all around us, and we have become immune to the flickering horrors on our TV screens every evening. It is one thing to judge from our high horse of privilege, and another to truly understand what motivates people to act the way they do in the hope that we can recognise the potential of destructiveness in ourselves and consciously choose a different path. The Women of the Castle is a non-judgmental account of three women faced with often impossible choices. Fully recommended! 

When things are so outside human experience, you really can’t believe it, you need to deny, because all of us have the capacity to be sadistical and horrible to other people. The potential of destructiveness is in all of us. (Lydia Tischler, holocaust survivor)  


Quotes:

Only when we prove that international law and the human rights of all mankind are greater than any villain can we vanquish evil.

History was horrible, a long, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone’s own personal understanding of the past.

There is nothing she can do about this now. Your actions are your actions. At the end of your life you have done what you have done.

As a German, she knows that if you start poking through a shoebox of photographs, you’ll find Nazi uniforms and swastikas and children with their arms in Heil Hitler salutes.

With their language of “extermination” and “elimination”, they could not come close to conjuring this. How could they? There was no point of reference. Later, such footage would come to be so familiar it became unseen – kind of placeholder for human evil.

Links:

Read about Jessica Shattucks own personal connection to the story here

Read a conversation between Christina Baker-Kline and Jessica Shattuck about The Women of the Castle here

Jessica Shattuck's website


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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.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Book Review: A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline


A Piece of the World


Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher:
Borough Press
Read:
May 2017


Synopsis:

Born into an old seafaring family on a remote farm on the coast of Maine, Christina Olson grows up surrounded by her grandmother’s maritime relics and stories of sailing to distant shores with her sea captain husband. These exotic tales have little to do with Christina’s own reality though, living in a large bleak house buffeted by the relentless ocean breeze, trying to make a living from the land. Having been born with an undiagnosed neurological disorder that makes walking increasingly difficult, Christina’s world is shrinking daily, and she rarely gets to venture far from home. So how did this woman become the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the 20th century, Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”?


My thoughts:

I remember my initial feelings when first coming across a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”, the image of a girl in a pale pink dress lying in a meadow, looking up the hill towards the stark and bleak facade of a weatherboard farmhouse. To me, the picture depicted both a longing and a sense of desperation and loneliness I could not quite explain, and I was curious to find out more about this mysterious woman who can evoke such emotion in the viewer.

Told in the first person from Christina’s perspective, the story skips back and forth in time between Christina’s life as an older and somewhat bitter woman confined to her family homestead and her childhood, from the first time she suffers the fist debilitating flare up of the neurological disorder that will ultimately cost her her mobility. With three younger brothers and an ailing mother, all the household chores fall to Christina, especially after the death of her formidable grandmother, the only person in the family who recognises Christina’s tenacious spirit, despite her disability. Unfortunately, the era she has been born into is very much male-dominated, and after her father forbids her to take the opportunity to stay on at school to train as a teacher, Christina’s only hope for a different life is through marriage. But when her first and only romance with a young Harvard scholar fails, Christina is condemned to live out her days as a spinster in the old house, further burdened by her daily struggles with pain and illness. Until Andrew Wyeth appears on her doorstep, and offers her not only friendship but also true understanding, and a glimpse into a different world.

In a postscript to her novel, the author Christina Baker Cline states that she hopes she has done Christina Olson’s  story justice – and she has certainly achieved that. Perhaps it was her extensive research coupled with her own knowledge of the simple life, close to nature and without the amenities we take for granted, which gave her such a depth of understanding for Christina. She manages to recreate life on a wind-beaten farm perfectly, as well as the restrictions Christina faces on a daily basis, not only due to her disability but also her gender.

A Piece of the World sheds light on an interesting piece of American history I knew nothing about. I admired Christina’s tenacity in the face of adversity and felt an intense sadness as slowly all her hopes and dreams are eroded by not only her mind-numbing daily routine, but also the people around her, who do not take the time to see the fiercely intelligent, independent spirit of the woman trapped inside her inform body. I could not help wondering how much better her life could have been had she been born a century later, a time when women have more opportunity to make their own way in the world, and education is no longer a privilege of the wealthy in our society. Maybe I sensed this on seeing the menacing presence of the dark house in the distance in the painting, which ultimately became Christina and her brother Al’s prison, preventing them from finding love. 

He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me. 

Summary:

For me, this was a melancholy and somewhat bleak read. Even though I enjoyed the author’s writing, and appreciated the historical detail and obvious mountain of research backing the story, I found it difficult to fully engage with Christina during some parts of the story. I guess it is related to the inevitable miserable fate of Christina becoming a lonely spinster trapped in a joyless routine, with little hope of escape. Even Andrew Wyeth’s friendship could not compensate for the loss of her dreams and ambitions, and a sad taste lingers on long after turning the last page.


Quotes:

I wonder, not for the first time, if shame and pride are merely two sides of the same coin.

The places we go in our minds to find comfort have little to do with where our bodies go.

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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, 3 May 2017

Book Review: EVERY LAST LIE by Mary Kubica




Author: Mary Kubica
Publisher:
Harlequin Australia
Read:
April 2017
Expected publication: 1 June 2017


Synopsis:

Clara Solberg is tired, but happy. She has it all: a handsome, clever husband who loves her, their adorable four-year old daughter Maisie and a new healthy baby boy. Life is perfect. Until one afternoon, when a policeman knocks on her door to inform her that her husband Nick has been fatally injured in a car crash. Apparently, he was speeding around a tight bend when he lost control of the car and collided head-first with a tree. Miraculously Maisie, who was in the backseat, escaped without injuries. In the days and weeks that follow, Clara’s life goes from dream to nightmare as she tries to come to terms with Nick’s death and Maisie’s increasingly odd behaviour. The girl, who is still unaware that her father is never coming home, is having nightmares, talking of a “bad man” who is after them in a black car. The police are convinced that it was Nick’s speeding that caused the accident, but what if there was another car involved?  What if someone wanted her husband dead? As Clara looks more deeply into her husband’s last days before the accident, she uncovers some inconsistencies. Is it possible that Nick has been keeping secrets from her?

“Nick was driving too fast. He took the turn too quickly. It's Nick's fault that he's dead.”
 But was it?


My thoughts:

Now this is what I call a real psychological thriller! With her new novel, Every Last Lie, Mary Kubica once again proves what a great writer she is. Using just the right bait, she widely casts out her seeds of doubt, inevitably hooking you, slowly reeling you in until you get totally trapped in her net of intrigue and there is no escape – you are captivated without any hope of escape and have to keep reading to the end. I bet she is a great fisherwoman!

I loved everything about this book, and was grateful that I started reading it on a rainy day off, when I could devour it in one sitting. Told from alternate viewpoints – Clara’s life in the present and Nick’s telling of the events leading up to the crash – I was absolutely riveted as the book slowly but inevitably broke my heart. With an eye for the small details that make up life, Kubica delivers characters that are so real they could be stepping out of the pages any moment and you would feel as if you had known them forever. I loved Clara as the new mother and grieving widow, and felt her pain as she is trying to adjust to her new reality. Her slow unravelling is so well depicted here, it is impossible not to feel her pain and confusion. Kubica also masters one of the most difficult arts – that of delivering a realistic child character. Maisie is a wonderful addition to the story, and I never once doubted her age – yep, here is a four-year old all right, tantrums and all. 

Summary:

After reading – and loving – all of Mary Kubica’s book, this is an author who is firmly embedded on my favourites list, and my happy dance on receiving her latest novel through Netgalley was fully warranted. Every Last Lie is a must-read for lovers of psychological suspense who like a slow-burning, character driven mystery where doubt is ever present and images shape-shift like colourful reflections of oil on water, distorting reality until it really messes with your mind. I was instantly hooked and loved the whole journey. Thank you for a full rainy day of reading pleasure. Highly recommended!

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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.