Sunday, 4 April 2021

Book Review: WINTERKILL by Ragnar J贸nasson


 


Title: WINTERKILL

Author:  Ragnar J贸nasson

Publisher:  Orenda Publishing

Read: March 2021

Expected publication: out now

My Rating: 馃専馃専馃専馃専

 

Book Description:

 

Easter weekend is approaching, and snow is gently falling in Siglufj枚r冒ur, the northernmost town in Iceland, as crowds of tourists arrive to visit the majestic ski slopes.

Ari Th贸r Arason is now a police inspector, but he’s separated from his girlfriend, who lives in Sweden with their three-year-old son. A family reunion is planned for the holiday, but a violent blizzard is threatening and there is an unsettling chill in the air.

Three days before Easter, a nineteen-year-old local girl falls to her death from the balcony of a house on the main street. A perplexing entry in her diary suggests that this may not be an accident, and when an old man in a local nursing home writes ‘She was murdered’ again and again on the wall of his room, there is every suggestion that something more sinister lies at the heart of her death…

As the extreme weather closes in, cutting the power and access to Siglufj枚r冒ur, Ari Th贸r must piece together the puzzle to reveal a horrible truth … one that will leave no one unscathed.

Chilling, claustrophobic and disturbing, Winterkill marks the startling conclusion to the million-copy bestselling Dark Iceland series and cements Ragnar J贸nasson as one of the most exciting authors in crime fiction.

What attracted me to this book:

 

I love Icelandic crime thrillers, and the Dark Iceland series has been a great joy to read right from the start. I was excited to get back to Siglufj枚r冒ur and read about Ari Th贸r Arason’s latest case, which involves the apparent suicide of a nineteen-year-old local girl who jumped to her death from a balcony.



My musings:

 


Ari Th贸r’s estranged partner and son are visiting over Easter, and again he struggles to find time for both family and his job, a battle that is only to real for police or emergency workers, especially in a place as remote as  Siglufj枚r冒ur. I really felt for Ari Th贸r, who is only too keen to write the girl’s death off as the suicide it appears to be and enjoy spending time with his son, and yet also hears his inner warning bells chime that all is not as it seems.

 

After travelling to Iceland two years ago, I can vividly picture the small remote town of Siglufj枚r冒ur, now made slightly more accessible by a new road and tunnel. Jonasson is a master at creating atmosphere and tension through his setting, and this latest instalment in the series is no exception. As the mystery slowly unravels and all its layers are being stripped to reveal the tragic truth, I was thoroughly hooked.

 

All in all, WINTERKILL is a slow-burning, character driven and highly atmospheric read from a master of Iceland noir. It contains all the elements that make this genre so irresistible for me, and I was hoping for many more books in the series, but found out that this may be the last one. I will miss visiting Siglufj枚r冒ur! Whilst WINTERKILL can be read as a standalone, I would recommend starting the series from book one, as Ari Th贸r’s backstory adds a lot of depth to the mystery. Highly recommend the whole series!

 

 


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



Book Review: WHAT'S DONE IN DARKNESS by Laura McHugh

 



Title: WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS

Author:  Laura McHugh

Publisher:  Random House

Read: March 2021

Expected publication:  22 June 2021

My Rating: 馃専馃専馃専1/2

 

Book Description:

 

Seventeen-year-old Sarabeth has become increasingly rebellious since her parents found God and moved their family to a remote Arkansas farmstead where she's forced to wear long dresses, follow strict rules, and grow her hair down to her waist. She's all but given up on escaping the farm when a masked man appears one stifling summer morning and snatches her out of the cornfield.

A week after her abduction, she's found alongside a highway in a bloodstained dress--alive--but her family treats her like she's tainted, and there's little hope of finding her captor, who kept Sarabeth blindfolded in the dark the entire time, never uttering a word. One good thing arises from the horrific ordeal: a chance to leave the Ozarks and start a new life.

Five years later, Sarabeth is struggling to keep her past buried when investigator Nick Farrow calls. Convinced that her case is connected to the strikingly similar disappearance of another young girl, Farrow wants Sarabeth's help, and he'll do whatever it takes to get it, even if that means dragging her back to the last place she wants to go--the hills and hollers of home, to face her estranged family and all her deepest fears.

In this riveting new novel from Laura McHugh, blood ties and buried secrets draw a young woman back into the nightmare of her past to save a missing girl, unaware of what awaits her in the darkness.



What attracted me to this book:

 

There is nothing quite like a segregated religious cult to create a tense, atmospheric setting, which immediately put this book on my radar. I am happy to say that I wasn’t disappointed!



My musings:

 


WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS tells the story of Sarabeth, a young girl growing up in an ultra religious family in the isolated Ozark mountains. Like her peers, she is expected to grow into a good wife and mother, married off in her teens to a man of her parents’ choosing and from there on bound to house and home with the expectation of meekness and servitude to her husband. But unlike her younger sister, Sarabeth remembers a life before her parents joined the church, and she longs for the freedom she has since lost.

 

McHugh does a brilliant job in creating a sense of claustrophobia as we see the word through Sarabeth’s eyes. Her only escape from her strict parents is to offer her help in the household of a neighbouring family, where she enjoys things like TV, books or music, all banned in her own home. Sarabeht knows that soon this small reprieve will come to an end, as her parents are planning to marry her off soon. She longs to escape, but how can she get away, when her every move is being monitored by her family and the church? Sarabeht’s escape will come about through an unlikely event – one day, when stocking the family’s farm stall with produce, she is abducted and held prisoner for a week.

 

Now an adult and estranged from her family, Sarah (as she is now known as), still bears the scars of her strange childhood. When another girl disappears and police ask her to help them with their investigation, Sarah will finally have to confront her past.

 

Rolling out in two different timelines – one in the present and one from the POV of a much younger Sarabeth – the reader soon gets drawn into the sinister world of a strict religious cult where you cannot trust anyone or take anything at face value. And when Sarah returns to her childhood home, she once again puts herself in terrible danger.

 

I loved the way McHugh created tension by letting a young Sarabeth narrate the story of her everyday family life. There is an undercurrent of menace here that really got under my skin and made me feel trapped like an animal in a cage, envisaging Sarabeth’s bleak future.

 

 


Summary:

 


In summary, WHAT’S DONE IN DARKNESS is part mystery, part a character study of a young woman coming to terms with her ultra-religious upbringing and the trauma of her abduction and captivity that has ultimately freed her from the confines of her controlling family. It is dark and claustrophobic and oozes tension, and kept me in its grip whilst also touching my heart. Noone quite captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of Ozark mountain villages like Laura McHugh, and if this type of setting appeals to you, I also highly recommend reading her earlier book THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD.

 

 

 

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


Book Review: THE LAST REUNION by Kayte Nunn

 



Title: THE LAST REUNION

Author:  Kayte Nunn

Publisher:  Hachette Australia

Read: March 2021

Expected publication: out now

My Rating: 馃専馃専馃専馃専

 

Book Description:

 

Burma, 1945. Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy: five young women in search of adventure, attached to the Fourteenth Army, fighting a forgotten war in the jungle. Assigned to run a mobile canteen, navigating treacherous roads and dodging hostile gunfire, they become embroiled in life-threatening battles of their own. Battles that will haunt the women for the rest of their lives.

Oxford, 1976. At the height of an impossibly hot English summer, a woman slips into a museum and steals several rare Japanese netsuke, including the famed fox-girl. Despite the offer of a considerable reward, these tiny, exquisitely detailed carvings are never seen again.

London and Galway, 1999. On the eve of the new millennium, Olivia, assistant to an art dealer, meets Beatrix, an elderly widow who wishes to sell her late husband's collection of Japanese art. Concealing her own motives, Olivia travels with Beatrix to a New Year's Eve party, deep in the Irish countryside, where friendships will be tested as secrets kept for more than fifty years are spilled.

Inspired by the heroic women who served in the 'forgotten war' in Burma, The Last Reunion is a heartbreaking love story and mystery by the international bestselling author of The Botanist's Daughter and The Silk House. It is also a tribute to the enduring power of female friendship.



What attracted me to this book:

 

Historical fiction has been a bit hit and miss for me lately, and from the description, THE LAST REUNION could have gone either way. Would it be, as so many others, simply a Hallmark style romance in disguise? I am very happy to be proven wrong, because this story packed some punch and I really enjoyed it from beginning to end.



My musings:

 

Have you heard of the “Wasbies”? The Women’s Auxiliary Service of Burma (“Wasbies”) were an intrepid group of women who supported the 14th Army during WW2 by providing the troops with food and drink and boosting morale. I admit that this piece of WW2 history was new to me, and I applaud the author for bringing the service of these brave and resilient women to our attention. The Burma campaign is often referred to as the “forgotten war” because it did not garner as much attention as the events in Europe at the time, but with the creation of her five plucky female characters Bea, Plum, Bubbles, Joy and Lucy, Nunn has made sure that the women’s contribution to the war effort will be remembered.

 

THE LAST REUNION plays out in two separate timeframes, one during the Burma Campaign and one in the present time, as an older Beatrice is getting ready to meet her fellow ex-Wasbies for a reunion. I was pleased to find that I enjoyed each timeline equally as much, perhaps thanks to the character of Olivia, who stars as the enigmatic second lead in the present-tense timeline. This was further aided by providing the atmospheric setting of Beatrice’s rambling English mansion as a backdrop, serving as a crass contrast to the humid Burmese jungle the five women served in during the war. To connect the two timelines, the author uses a rare netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture, traditionally used to secure pouches or other items to kimonos, which were devoid of pockets. I had great fun looking up pictures of netsukes online, and they truly are works of art! And whilst Olivia’s ulterior motive may initially have been to secure the rare netsuke of the “fox girl” for her art dealer boss, she soon falls under Beatrice’s spell as she learns more about her history.

 

I really enjoyed Nunn’s writing and it is obvious that a lot of research has gone into her story as her characters are brimming with life. It was interesting to find out more about the Wasbies and the harsh life they endured so bravely on the frontier – a part of history that should never be forgotten.

 


Summary:

 


THE LAST REUNION is a perfect example of the way that historical fiction should be written: brimming with interesting, enigmatic characters set against an atmospheric background. The writing just flowed and the characters soon had me in their spell. The details of the era seemed authentic and further enhanced my reading experience. Not only has Nunn mastered the art of bringing history to life, but she also achieved what many writers struggle with – to make each of her two timelines equally interesting. I really look forward to reading more from this author in future!

 

  

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


Monday, 29 March 2021

Characters stumbling headfirst into disaster: FOLLOW YOU HOME by Mark Edwards and THE POISON TREE by Erin Kelly

 



Sometimes the most sinister stories are the ones that could happen to everyone. Ordinary people caught up in situations that arise from one wrong decision, trusting the wrong person, choosing the wrong path. A split second decision that can change your entire life. Stories that read like watching a train rumble towards the abyss and being unable to stop it. These two books are perfect examples of the genre and held me spellbound in their grip as I watched the characters self destruct ....


FOLLOW YOU HOME by Mark Edwards


“Unfortunately, real life has no erase button.”

 

I never enter a Mark Edwards novel without bracing myself, because I just know that he will bestow my worst nightmares on his hapless characters! Whether it’s evil houseguests taking over your home and refusing to leave (HERE TO STAY), or horrible neighbours (THE MAGPIES), or a missing child in a dark forest (THE RETREAT), Edwards has become a go-to author for me when I want a truly terrifying domestic noir thriller that messes with my mind. And I am happy to say that he has done it again with FOLLOW YOU HOME.

 

“This fucked-up situation, this mess, this horror story, had started with me, with a single unwitting mistake I’d made back then...” This seems to be Edwards’ theme in most of his novels, and can’t we all relate to that at some point in our lives!

 

If you are a traveller, you will undoubtedly have had a few interesting experiences that were horrible at the time but made for good stories later. Like the time I left our tickets in the hotel room and the whole airport shuttle had to turn around for us and go back, making everyone on the bus hate us. Or the time we didn’t know we needed a visa and got thrown from a night train at a lonely border crossing somewhere in Eastern Europe. So when I read about poor Laura and Daniel’s experience on the train through Romania, I shuddered and trembled and my heart rate sped up. This could never end well!

 

I love the way Edwards slowly builds tension, initially almost innocuously, luring you in until BAM! Here then is your worst nightmares come true. The young couple’s trip of a lifetime soon turns into a disaster of epic proportion when they not only get thrown off the train, but end up without their passports or phone contact in the middle of the night in a dark Romanian forest. What happens after this won’t be revealed much later in the story, except that we know it is so horrible that it has left lasting scars and has broken up Laura and Daniel’s relationship. This not knowing, this uncertainty, this speculation about what exactly happened to the couple was my favourite part of the story, because it created an almost unbearable tension. I was almost disappointed when the mystery was unravelled, because it took away some of the pulse-pounding suspense, even though of course I wanted to know the answers just as much as every other reader.

 

If you have read any of Edwards’ books, you will have noticed that they are never predictable and they don’t always end the way your justice craving self would like. Sometimes they even stray into the border territory of the great conspiracy theory or the type of events that are passed along the grapevine usually starting like this: “A friend of my second cousin’s godfather ....” Yes, there was A LOT happening here, and I had to suspend disbelief a bit to swallow it all, but it made for a heck of an entertaining read. I could see this book turned into the type of movie where you have to turn the volume low and peek through your fingers as the young couple stumble along the railway tracks in search of help.

 

With its creepy and ominous opening chapters, FOLLOW YOU HOME drew me in immediately and captivated me so fully that I read it all in the course of one day. If you haven’t read any of Mark Edwards’ books yet, then I warn you that his power lies in telling tales that could happen to anyone – you, your family, your neighbours, your friends – which makes them all the more terrifying. Edwards states that this story, too, had been inspired by true events, which is perhaps why the real-life tension is evident in every page. I really enjoyed it and look forward to being scared out of my wits by this author in future.


____________________________________________________


THE POISON TREE by Erin Kelly


Sometimes I really crave a slow-burning, character study of family secrets and relationships, and Erin Kelly does this so well! Whilst HE SAID / SHE SAID remains my all-time favourite by this author, I really enjoyed her portrayal of the friendships in THE POISON TREE.

 

One thing I love about Erin Kelly’s writing is the languid way in which she builds her spider’s web of growing tension that gradually entangles the reader and holds them in its spell. Just as Karen, the straight-A student and only child of conservative parents gradually falls under the spell of the bohemian Capel siblings and their rambling, tumble down English mansion. I could easily picture straight and slightly awkward Karen being bewitched by the outgoing siblings whose free and easy lifestyle must feel totally alien and enchanting to her. Biba Capel is the sort of character who blazes into people’s lives like a bright comet of destruction, dazzling them with her light but in the end only leaving smoking ruins behind. Rex, who is more subdued and stable than his sister, holds his own allure as the brooding, overprotective male counterpart to his vivacious sibling.

 

Despite the slow build-up, Kelly makes it very clear that nothing good can come from these dynamics. And whilst I did predict a major part of the “twist” (I read A LOT of these mysteries), I was still invested to watch the slow descend into disaster as both Karen and Rex act as if remote-controlled by Biba’s destructive hand. I love a good character study, and the way poor Karen gets drawn into the Capel siblings’ world was well executed. I related to some of Karen’s fascination with the Capel’s lives – “straight A student falls for more exciting personalities” is a theme that really does play out in real life. A wonderful premise for a novel that is part character study and part domestic thriller and will undoubtedly stun some readers with its twist.

 

All in all, THE POISON TREE should probably be avoided by readers who don’t enjoy a slow-burning mystery, because their attention may wane in the first half, when the interpersonal dynamics are being set up. However, lovers of a good character study will appreciate the way Kelly builds her characters’ relationships that ultimately lead to disaster. I felt like I was watching a train chugga-chugg towards the abyss, unable to stop it as it built momentum with its unsuspecting passengers still dazzled by Biba’s light. A well-written story simmering with an undercurrent of tension and menace. I look forward to reading more from this author in future!


Monday, 15 March 2021

Book Review: EVERY LAST FEAR by Alex Finlay

 


Title: EVERY LAST FEAR

Author:  Alex Finlay

Publisher:  Head of Zeus

Read: March 2021

Expected publication: out now

My Rating: 馃専馃専馃専馃専1/2

 

Book Description:

 

After a late night of partying, NYU student Matt Pine returns to his dorm room to devastating news: nearly his entire family—his mom, his dad, his little brother and sister—have been found dead from an apparent gas leak while vacationing in Mexico. The local police claim it was an accident, but the FBI and State Department seem far less certain—and they won’t tell Matt why.

The tragedy makes headlines everywhere because this isn’t the first time the Pine family has been thrust into the media spotlight. Matt’s older brother, Danny—currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his teenage girlfriend Charlotte—was the subject of a viral true crime documentary suggesting that Danny was wrongfully convicted. Though the country has rallied behind Danny, Matt holds a secret about his brother that he’s never told anyone: the night Charlotte was killed Matt saw something that makes him believe his brother is guilty of the crime.

When Matt returns to his small hometown to bury his parents and siblings, he’s faced with a hostile community that was villainized by the documentary, a frenzied media, and memories he’d hoped to leave behind forever. Now, as the deaths in Mexico appear increasingly suspicious and connected to Danny’s case, Matt must unearth the truth behind the crime that sent his brother to prison—putting his own life in peril—and forcing him to confront his every last fear.



My musings:

 


Sometimes, I just want to binge on a book just as I would on a great Netflix series or a classic action movie, and Alex Finlay’s debut was perfect for a pulse-pounding night of reading. Yes, I did read this in one sitting, and I enjoyed it immensely!

 

EVERY LAST FEAR started off with some of the most sinister and intriguing first lines I have ever read: “They found the bodies on a Tuesday. Two days after the family had missed their flight home. Six days after all the texts and social media had gone dark.” I was immediately hooked. Here starts Matt Pine’s nightmare, when he finds out that his entire family – mum, dad, sister Maggie and brother Tommy – have been found dead in their cabin whilst vacationing in Mexico. No, hold on, not his entire family, because he also has an infamous older brother who is in jail, convicted of the murder of his girlfriend when he was in his teens. And thus, Matt’s life is shattered once more.

 

Even though the story starts with the deaths of most of the Pine family, we get to know them gradually through flashbacks to their lives just prior to their ill-fated holiday. Not every author can pull this off, because it’s difficult to get invested in a character when you already know their fate. But the more I read about Evan, Maggie, Olivia and Tommy I got to like them, and ultimately grieve for them as they met their death. Which was the very thing that made me emotionally so invested in this book that I read until late into the night to find out all the answers.

 

With multiple POVs and a rich cast of characters – we not only hear from the entire Pine family but also from the POV of Sarah Keller, the FBI agent tasked to investigate their tragic deaths – the story rolled out movie like in front of my eyes. This is not a simple whodunit, but a multi-layered plot with roots in another crime, the one Danny Pine has been convicted of all those years ago, devastating his parents and alienating his younger brother Matt. There are a lot of threads, red herrings galore, a true crime podcast thrown into the mix and some political happenings, too. Even with all those threads shooting off in different directions, the story moved along at a pace that made my pulse race, craving answers.

 

Yes, some readers have said that there were moments when you had to suspend disbelief. And yes, some of the characters are stereotypes, but just as I automatically picture a Bruce Willis type in an action movie, these somehow helped to form some strong imagery of characters you only get to meet very briefly. Did this bother me? No. This was pure entertainment, and I was happy to roll with it. To be honest, a lot of it went over my head as I cried for Maggie and little Tommy, held my breath as Matt went to Mexico to claim the bodies of his entire family (just imagine that heartbreak!) and was intrigued by Danny’s backstory. There was just so much going on! It wasn’t until the end that I could see where this was all headed, and by then I was almost glad for the reprieve.

 


Summary:

 


EVERY LAST FEAR will appeal to readers who enjoy a fast-paced, entertaining thriller rather than a whodunit that offers up clues like a trail of breadcrumbs for readers to follow and practice their own investigation skills. It requires some suspension of disbelief and may feel a bit heavy-handed at times, but as far as entertainment value goes, it was pure gold for me. Read it binge-style as you would sit through an action movie. With food on hand. And plenty of time to spare. I loved it and look forward to reading more from this author in future.

 

 

 

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