Saturday, 16 June 2018

Book Review: BELIEVE ME by J.P. Delaney


Title: Believe Me
Author: J.P. Delaney
Publisher: Quercus Books
Read: June 2018
Expected publication: 26 July 2018
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ


Book Description:



A struggling actor, a Brit in America without a green card, Claire needs work and money to survive. Then she gets both. But nothing like she expected.

Claire agrees to become a decoy for a firm of divorce lawyers. Hired to entrap straying husbands, she must catch them on tape with their seductive propositions.The rules? Never hit on the mark directly. Make it clear you’re available, but he has to proposition you, not the other way around. The firm is after evidence, not coercion. The innocent have nothing to hide.

Then the game changes.

When the wife of one of Claire’s targets is violently murdered, the cops are sure the husband is to blame. Desperate to catch him before he kills again, they enlist Claire to lure him into a confession.

Claire can do this. She’s brilliant at assuming a voice and an identity. For a woman who’s mastered the art of manipulation, how difficult could it be to tempt a killer into a trap?

But who is the decoy . . . and who is the prey?


My musings:



I absolutely loved JP Delaney’s previous novel, The Girl Before, so Believe Me was one of my most anticipated books of the year and I was ecstatic when I received an ARC from Netgalley. The premise was very intriguing: a young actress illegally working for a private detective agency in NY without a green card finds herself entangled in a murder investigation – to get herself out of trouble she agrees to work for the police as an undercover decoy to help catch the killer. It sounds very original, and dangerous, just what I like. Remembering the tension and claustrophobic atmosphere that immediately captured my attention in The Girl Before, I was looking forward to see how Delaney would tackle this plot!


Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I love a mystery that messes with my mind – and this book surely managed to do that! In fact, at one point I was so confused that I had no idea of what was really going on. The author takes the theme of unreliable narrator to an extreme, because each and every character of the book tells lies – you can’t take anything for granted! I really liked the premise of Claire taking on different personalities as character studies for her acting career, who makes her a bit of a slippery fish. Is she telling the truth, or is she acting? I could never be sure, but I really enjoyed the parts of the book that describe her acting classes, which opened up a whole different world to me. Parts of the book are written like scenes from a play, with a location and a dialogue between the different players, which was a very original idea. As they are seen through Claire’s eyes, who often lets her imagination play out pretend scenarios in her mind, I was never sure if those conversations really took place or if they were solely her own construction. Clever, I thought, even whilst feeling like a blind man tapping around in the murky darkness trying to find out the truth. To be honest, I am still not quite sure about some things ....

Whilst the novel immediately drew me in and got my attention, I found myself floundering a bit around the half-way mark, as I was trying to untangle the lies from the truth, coming up short. At times I felt like the author was trying to pack too much into the story, going off on different tangents that didn’t add much to the overall plot for me. I also admit I didn’t care at all for the BDSM theme, and the excerpts from Baudelaire’s twisted S & M poetry, a subject I found disturbing, seedy and sickening and which detracted from the main story. In hindsight, looking at how the overall plot played out, I think that Delaney had a great, original idea, with a clever, multi-layered plot that unfortunately got drowned in convoluted detail and dwelling on the dark subject matter of the BDSM scene. For me, the strength in The Girl Before lay in its claustrophobic setting and a relatively small cast of characters, which created tension. Here, we have a multitude of unreliable characters, all of whom are untrustworthy, and many different settings, to a point where it all got a bit too confusing for me – instead of tension, I felt frustration on the many different directions this story was taking, and felt it could have used a bit of editing to bring it back on track. Delaney states in his postscript that Believe Me is the re-write of an earlier novel he thought he had not done justice to – maybe this explains why it felt a bit disjointed to me, as if different aspects of the book didn’t quite gel.

Whilst I never fully warmed to Claire, I found her background intriguing and I thought she made a perfect protagonist for a psychological thriller. It was soon obvious that she could take on any personality at will, as part of her aspirations to become a great actress, and her foster-child background, which meant that she had very few personal ties and was a bit of a wild child. I really enjoyed the parts where Claire described her acting methods, and the way she could lose herself in her many different roles – and the way she used these skills to ensnare her subjects. However, I felt that parts of Claire did not quite ring true, and she always kept me at arms’ length, denying me a deeper connection that would have invested me more in the story. 



Summary:

All in all, this was a mixed bag for me, and the subject matter not really my cup of tea. However, lovers of twisty thrillers with unreliable characters will undoubtedly be as intrigued by the premise of this story as I was, even if they may find themselves floundering in this maelstrom of lies and thoroughly unlikeable people they encounter along the way. Whilst the final denouement was a bit farfetched, I found the overall unravelling of the plot clever and original, redeeming those parts of the story that didn’t work so well for me.


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

Friday, 15 June 2018

Book Review: THE MEMORY WATCHER by Minka Kent


Author: Minka Kent
Genre: Psychological thriller
Read: June 2018
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ


Book Description:



When Autumn Carpenter stumbles upon the social media account of the family who adopted her infant daughter years ago, she finds herself instantly drawn into their picture-perfect existence.

From behind a computer screen, Autumn watches Grace's every memory, from birthdays to holidays to bedtime snuggles. But what starts as an innocent fascination spirals into an addictive obsession met with a screeching halt the day the McMullen family closes their Instaface account without so much as a warning.

Frantic and desperate to reconnect with her daughter, Autumn applies for a nanny position with the McMullens, manipulating herself into Grace's life under false pretenses. And it's only then that Autumn discovers pictures lie, the perfect family doesn't exist, and beautiful people? They have the ugliest secrets.


My musings:



I’ve noticed that a lot of my favourite books appear totally out of left field. Somehow they have slipped under my radar, and I come across them accidentally: maybe I am attracted to the cover, or there is a special deal on Amazon, or I randomly pick out a title from my bottomless tbr list. And then: Bingo! All the stars align!


The Memory Watcher was such a book for me. I don’t even know how I first came across it, only that once I started reading, it totally blew my socks off. How could I have missed this one on social media and the many book blogs I follow when it first came out? Perhaps because it’s not your typical psychological thriller, starting off more like a slow character study that evolves into a very clever mystery with a “hall of fame” twist I certainly did not see coming! Minka Kent’s evocative writing immediately drew me in, and whilst I am usually not good with unlikeable characters, this dysfunctional bunch had me totally enthralled from page one. I was even a bit sad when it finished, because I had grown quite fond of being a spectator of these people’s lives – does that make me sound a bit strange?

Over the recent years, I have noticed a lot more authors incorporating social media as a main feature in their plots, which is not surprising, given how this medium features so large in most of our lives these days (here I am, after all, writing a review for my blog and facebook page). Autumn Carpenter, one of our main characters, is addicted to following the Instaface (note the name!) account of Daphne McMullen, who regularly posts updates of her picture-perfect family for the world to see. Autumn, whose own childhood was lacking all the things the McMullen children so obviously enjoy – adoring parents, a huge house, healthy home-cooked meals, the best education money can buy and  unlimited amounts of parental love – is living out her own fantasies through her idol Daphne, the perfect wife and mother. Married to the handsome, rich and adoring Graham McMullen, Daphne is the epitome of living the American dream. Unbeknownst to her, her adoptive daughter Grace is Autumn’s biological child, the baby she gave up at birth to give her the type of childhood Autumn herself could never have offered her. But thanks to Instaface, Autumn can still be a part of her daughter’s life, even if just as a secret spectator. One day, Daphne’s account mysteriously disappears from Instaface, and Autumn is devastated. How dare Daphne rob her of her daily pleasure of spying on the McMullen family? How will she now be able to stay connected to her daughter’s life?

Narrated from both Autumn and Daphne’s POVs, the story soon reveals that all is not as it seems behind the scenes of Instaface. In fact, I got very mad with Daphne for being such a doormat – until the point where she suddenly isn’t. Boy, I so want to discuss the plot on this one, but at the same time I don’t want to spoil anything for other readers. The Memory Watcher is easily one of the best books I have read all year, and one that was all-consuming for me. Even though both women are very flawed, I was totally drawn into their realities. What really goes on behind the picture-perfect world of social media? What secrets hide behind the photos of happy families, beautiful homes, well-behaved children? What’s hiding in the shadows of this beautiful, make-believe world? This was  such a clever, well-written story, with characters so real they still feel very familiar to me now. Kent creates a whole world with her writing – offering little, seemingly unimportant details that evoke a vivid setting, flesh out her characters, make the story play out like a movie in the reader’s mind. I simply could not tear myself away!



Summary:

So, without delving into the plot, just believe me when I tell you that this book is brilliant. If you are a lover of character driven, psychological thrillers where nothing is quite what it seems, then rush out and borrow, beg, steal or buy this book right now. The writing was so good and the charactes so well drawn that I found it hard to believe this is Kent’s debut novel! Five glowing stars from me! I have just purchased her latest book and can’t wait to read more from this talented author.


Image result for 5 stars



Thursday, 14 June 2018

Audiobook Review: EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng


Author: Celeste Ng
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Read: May 2018
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2


Book Description:


“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.


My musings:


“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”


This must be one of the saddest and most foreshadowing opening sentences I’ve ever come across, and it was a sign of things to come. Rarely has a book pierced straight through me like this heart-breaking novel of dysfunctional family dynamics, secrets, broken dreams and things left unsaid until it is too late. I loved Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere for her portrayal of family life, and this one (her previous novel) shows the same astute insights into the very hearts of her characters, until they are laid bare in front of us.

Ng’s skill lies in the way she presents relatable characters, slowly peeling away layer after layer until all their secrets are revealed. As a reader I could relate to each member of the Lee family, recognise their feelings, hopes and ambitions, find traces of those in my own heart. Everything I Never Told You is all about parents, and the way their broken dreams affect their children – how they form their personality, the way they view the world, their relationships and their futures. The terrible thing about this book is that the parents, James and Marilyn, love their children and want only the best for them, but in doing so, put a terrible burden on their shoulders. Each child assumes a certain role in the family, with all the expectations resting on Lydia, who slowly gets crushed under their weight. On one hand, her father constantly tells her to fit in, to be like everyone else, to work hard towards having lots of friends and being popular. On the other hand, her mother tells her to stand out from the rest, to be exceptional, to live the life Marilyn wanted but couldn’t have. When Lydia finds herself floundering, not living up to either of her parent’s expectations, she is already so entrenched in her role that she cannot see a way out.

Looking back on my own childhood, I could see that we, too, each played a role, even long into adulthood. I left home at eighteen, emigrated to the other side of the world and had children of my own, and yet every time I stepped off the plane to visit my childhood home I was straight back in that role. Maybe that was part of the reason why my heart simply broke for Lydia as I could see her drowning. This was such a sad, sad story! Although I loved Ng’s writing, I had to take small breaks in between chapters, as the sheer weight of sadness in the Lee family infiltrated small corners of my life to a point where I was thinking about the book constantly. It shows the skill of an author to create characters so real that they form three dimensional pictures in the reader’s mind, and Lydia’s sad blue eyes haunted me as I balanced on the brink between waking and sleep at night. It seemed that every single character in this story carried a sadness so profound that it shaped every moment of their existence. Ng writes beautifully, in a language that easily carried you straight into the heart of the story. I look forward to reading more from this talented author!






Friday, 8 June 2018

Book Review: THE LAST OF THE BONEGILLA GIRLS by Victoria Burman

Title: The Last of the Bonegilla Girls
Author: Victoria Purman
Publisher: HQ Fiction
Read: May 2018
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2


Book Description:



1954: When sixteen–year–old Hungarian Elizabeta arrives in Australia with her family, she is hoping to escape the hopelessness of life as a refugee in post–war Germany. Her first stop is the Bonegilla Migrant Camp on the banks of the Murray in rural Victoria, a temporary home for thousands of new arrivals, all looking for work and a better life. There, Elizabeta becomes firm friends with the feisty Greek Vasiliki; quiet Italian Iliana; and the adventurous Frances, the daughter of the camp's director.


In this vibrant and growing country, the Bonegilla girls rush together towards a life that seems full of promise, even as they cope with the legacy of war, the oppressive nature of family tradition and ever–present sorrow. So when a ghost from the past reaches out for Elizabeta and threatens to pull her back into the shadows, there is nothing that her friends wouldn't do to keep her safe.

But secrets have a way of making themselves known and lies have a way of changing everything they touch... 


My musings:


Bonegilla, a migrant processing and reception centre in north-eastern Victoria, was the first port of call for more than 320,000 migrants looking for a new start in Australia in the post-war years, including the author’s own grandparents, who arrived there in 1954 from Germany with their five children in tow. With families from all over the world passing through its gates, the centre became a place of multi-culturalism, with many different languages spoken. There was one thing everyone coming to Bonegilla had in common – they were looking for a fresh start, a better life in a world far away from home. With its history so close to her heart, the author made this interesting historical place the setting of her latest novel, which follows the life of four young women from four different cultures, who forged a firm friendship whilst staying at Bonegilla, which would last a lifetime and see them through many turbulent times in their lives. It is, in its essence, a celebration of Australia’s multi-cultural history, of love, friendship, tolerance and building bridges. Set from the 1950’s to today, it spans a lifetime and covers a chapter in Australian history that is not often explored in novels.


Being a migrant myself, I found many of the topics Burman explores in her novel especially close to my heart. However, whilst my choice to emigrate was propelled by love, many of the migrants coming to Australia after the war were displaced persons, people who had lost their homes through conflict and had been through unspeakable trauma. Arriving by ship from the other side of the world, they did not know if they would ever be able to see their loved ones again, the friends and family left behind in their “old country”. The four women in this novel are all in their teens when they arrive at Bonegilla with their parents. Vasiliki from Greece, Elizabeta from Germany, Iliana from Italy and Frances, who is the only Australian and whose father is Bonegilla’s new camp director. The girls first come together through an unfortunate incident with a soccer ball, which will be the start of a life-long friendship. With four protagonists from very different backgrounds and personalities, Burman not only explores the topic of migration and multi-culturalism, but also the realities of womanhood in the post war era. Whilst some issues the “girls” encounter along the way may be shaped by their culture, such as Vasiliki having to marry a Greek man chosen by her parents, other events are universal to women everywhere. Falling in love, marriage, children, divorce, work, illness, looking after sick elderly parents etc, all of life’s milestone feature in this bittersweet coming-of-age novel that will have you laugh and cry in turn as events unfold.

The one difficulty with having multiple main protagonists over a long time-span (a lifetime) is that there are not enough pages in a book to fully explore each of the characters’ fate or go too deep. Instead, we get glimpses into each of the women’s lives at various turning-points in the years after leaving Bonegilla. As commonly encountered, I felt more invested in some characters over others, and found myself wanting to find out more details about their individual fates – questions that plagued me long after turning the last page. Burman does a great job in evoking the post-war era, when women were not yet free to make their own choices, and of the price they often had to pay – which was a prominent theme in each character’s life and made me reflect on how times have changed for the better. I loved how the four friends were able to overcome their differences to form such deep and loyal friendships in an era when multi-culturalism was a relatively new concept, which was very moving and inspiring and gives hope for a better future.

This is my first book by the author and I really enjoyed this glimpse into a chapter of Australian history we normally hear little about. In a previous job, I was privileged to get to hear many real-life accounts of displaced persons coming to Australia to start a new life, and their experiences closely matched many of the sentiments described in Burman’s novel – I thought at the time that “someone should write a book about that”, and was thrilled to find that someone has! The Last of the Bonegilla Girls is an insightful, uplifting and feel-good book that I recommend to all lovers of Australian historical fiction.



Thank you so much to Harlequin Australia for sending me a copy of this gorgeous book and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Book Review: THE LOVE THAT I HAVE by James Moloney


Author: James Moloney
Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Read: May 2018
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

"The dead should know they are loved."

Book Description:



Margot Baumann has left school to take up her sister's job in the mailroom of a large prison. But this is Germany in 1944, and the prison is Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.

Margot is shielded from the camp's brutality as she has no contact with prisoners. But she does handle their mail and, when given a cigarette lighter and told to burn the letters, she is horrified by the callous act she must carry out with her own hands. This is especially painful since her brother was taken prisoner at Stalingrad and her family has had no letters from him. So Margot steals a few letters, intending to send them in secret, only to find herself drawn to their heart-rending words of hope, of despair, and of love.

This is how Margot comes to know Dieter Kleinschmidt - through the beauty and the passion of his letters to his girlfriend. And since his girlfriend is also named Margot, it is like reading love letters written for her.


My musings: 



Apart from my usual preferred genre of mystery / suspense, I have a weakness for historical novels set during WW2 and can never resist a new angle on this dark chapter in human history. When I saw that James Moloney’s new novel, The Love That I Have, was being compared with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is one of my all-time favourite novels, I knew I had to read it!


It is perhaps no surprise that Moloney, a successful children’s author, would choose a sweet and naive sixteen-year-old girl as his main protagonist in a story of hope and love. Don’t we all remember that turbulent time in our teens, on the cusp of adulthood, when all of life still lay ahead of us and anything was possible? Even in the darkest of times, teenage girls will still swoon over handsome young men and dream of meeting their one true love, their happily-ever-after, even if the world around them is rapidly disintegrating.

At sixteen, Margot Baumann is an innocent when it comes to love, and with youthful optimism she believes that it will always triumph over adversity. I really enjoyed seeing how the foundations of the political views she has been indoctrinated with under Hitler’s reign slowly crumble when she is being confronted with those purest of human emotions – the will to survive and love. Love expressed in the words of Konzentrationslager prisoners, whose letters she secretly reads in the camp’s mail room. Letters that will never make it to their intended recipients, because Margot, the camp’s new mail clerk, has been tasked with burning them. Her moral dilemma is very well explored here – on one hand she has been told that Jews are not really human, but on the other hand she can see that their letters prove otherwise. These are people just like her brother, who is imprisoned in a POW camp in Russia, writing home to their loved ones, voicing their hope of seeing them again. One of the letters that fall into Margot’s hands is from a political prisoner called Dieter Kleinschmidt, expressing his love and longing for his girlfriend, whose name coincidentally is also Margot. I could easily imagine that a young naive girl could fall in love with a person’s letters – and that she would act impulsively to “save” the young man who has captured her heart with his writing. I really liked Margot – she was sweet and innocent and courageous.

My own sixteen-year-old self would have been totally enamoured by this story and the idea of pure love through the written word, the meeting of two souls at a time when death was only ever a heartbeat away. However, my old cynical self was not so easily swayed, pointing out the plot holes and the implausibility of some of Margot’s actions. I was reading this book like a split personality, the little angel on one shoulder whispering: “How sweet, how beautiful!” Whilst the little devil on the other sneered disdainfully: “This would never work – this could never happen!” This novel is not marketed as a YA novel, although I thought that it would probably work better for a less cynical, younger audience than the seen-it-all jaded reader that I am. Perhaps there is a reason I prefer dark and sinister murder mysteries! So, whilst parts of the story captured my heart and offered a fresh new angle to an episode in history that has featured in thousands of books, there was a lot of suspension of disbelief necessary for me to go along with parts of the plot.


Summary:



In summary, The Love That I Have offers a unique angle to one of the darkest chapters of human history, with a courageous and innocent heroine that reinforces the message that love can indeed triumph over hate and adversity. With a young teenage cast and a rich historical setting, it will appeal to a younger audience or lovers of the genre who are looking for a different approach to your typical holocaust novel in which the “good” and the “bad” are clearly defined. However, readers who find it difficult to suspend disbelief may struggle with certain parts of this story.



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