Monday 21 October 2013

Book Review: TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham

Talking to the Dead

Talking to the Dead
Author: Harry Bingham
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Read: October 10 - 15, 2013

Synopsis (Amazon):
For rookie detective constable Fiona Griffiths, her first major investigation promises to be a tough initiation into Cardiff's dark underbelly. A young woman and her six-year-old daughter have been found brutally murdered in a squalid flat, the single clue a platinum credit card belonging to a millionaire businessman who died in a plane crash six months before. For her fellow cops, it's just another case of a low-rent prostitute meeting the wrong kind of client and coming to a nasty end, but Fiona is convinced that the tragic lives and cruel deaths of this mother and daughter are part of a deeper, darker mystery. Fiona, however, has secrets of her own. She is still recovering from a crushing psychological breakdown, and the feelings which haunt her are constantly threatening to undermine the mask of normality she has learned to wear. As she begins to piece together a bizarre and terrifying conspiracy, Fiona finds that what makes her vulnerable also gives her a unique insight into the secrets of the dead, and in solving the murders of Janet and April Mancini she can begin to start solving the riddles of her own past.

My thoughts:

When I saw Harry Bingham’s novel Talking to the Dead being compared to the writing of Stieg Larsson and Tana French, two of my favourite crime writers, it made me instantly curious but it also meant that the story had a lot to live up to. And it did! Introducing an interesting new protagonist, troubled Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, Talking to the Dead opened the door to a gripping new series of police procedurals set in Wales, one which is sure to attract a wide audience of readers who enjoy a solid police procedural with a main character who is slightly different from your mainstream heroine.

Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, a Cambridge graduate and relatively new recruit in the Wales police department, is investigating a case of police corruption when she is drawn into the investigation into the brutal murder of a prostitute and her six-year-old daughter in a squalid Cardiff flat on the wrong side of town. A credit card belonging to a millionaire recently killed in a plane crash is one of the only clues found on the scene. Fiona, who is still battling the effects of a mental illness which stole two years of her life as a teenager, is finding herself drawn to the murder victims, determined to bring their killer to justice. When her investigations into the owner of the credit card throw up strange connections to her other case, she finds herself stirring a hornets nest of corruption, unwittingly putting herself in the path of people who will do anything to keep their assets protected.

Fiona is an interesting protagonist with a fresh engaging voice and I found myself instantly drawn into the story and the mystery surrounding her own secrets, which are gradually revealed as the plot unravels. In his blog Sharing a Head with Fiona Griffiths, author Harry Bingham says that he wanted Talking to the Dead to revolve as much around the mystery of Fiona’s character as it does around the crime she’s investigating – and he has certainly achieved that. Without the graphic or action packed scenes of other contemporary murder-mysteries, it is Fiona who carries the storyline, her unpredictable and definitely somewhat odd character keeping the reader enthralled.

Fiona’s battle with her mental illness is well portrayed, especially her feelings of depersonalisation and isolation as well as her impulsiveness and at times lack of common sense and forethought. This is very clever, as it allows for her actions to be very un-police like at times, especially when she sets off alone in pursuit of dangerous criminals and gets herself in all sorts of sticky situations. Throughout her journey of self-discovery, hastened by the emotions this case brings out in her, Fiona is being brutally honest about her feelings, which I not only found touching and endearing but which also got me into her head very quickly. There is a little bit of Fiona in most of us at times, the feelings of inadequacy, of not fitting in, of not quite fitting the mould, which enabled me to relate to her quite well. With her troubled past and sometimes unorthodox methods, Fi follows in the line of other plucky but troubled crime novel heroines such as S. J. Bolton’s Lacey Flint (one of my favourites) or Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.

I did find Fiona’s tendency to go out on her own and take matters into her own hands a bit far fetched at times (especially towards the end of the novel), but not to the point where it was totally unbelievable – and let’s face it, if it weren’t for her adventures the standard police investigation would make for a rather boring read. There is one scene in the morgue which was slightly off-kilter and almost spoilt an otherwise solid plot – but fortunately this was adequately explained later on in the book, which mollified me somewhat. I also thought that the scenes in the lighthouse were a bit rushed and would have benefited from a bit more depth and explanation – after the long slowish lead-up, the final unravelling of the plot finally brought the action I had been anticipating, but it was all over all too soon. None of it however impaired my reading pleasure or my total absorption in the book.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Talking to the Dead and was thrilled to receive the next instalment in the series, Love Story with Murders, through Netgalley – which I am currently reading (and which is shaping up to be just as good as the first one). Strongly recommended – this will be one crime series to watch, and to provide many hours of entertainment yet to come.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Book Review: WEB OF DECEIT by Katherine Howell

Web of Deceit (Detective Ella Marconi, #6)

Title: Web of Deceit
Author: Katherine Howell
Publisher: Macmillan Australia
Read: September 20 - October 10, 2013

Read an Excerpt: click here

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When paramedics Jane and Alex encounter a man refusing to get out of his crashed car with bystanders saying he deliberately drove into a pole, it looks like a cry for help. His claim that someone is out to get him adds to their thinking that he is delusional.

Later that day he is found dead under a train in what might be a suicide, but Jane is no longer so sure: she remembers the terror in his eyes.

Detective Ella Marconi shares Jane's doubts, which are only compounded when the case becomes increasingly tangled. The victim's boss tries to commit suicide when being questioned, a witness flees their attempt to interview her and a woman is beaten unconscious in front of Jane's house.

Ella is at a loss to know how all these clues add up and then a shocking turn of events puts even more people in danger...

My thoughts:

I have always thought that paramedics would make great protagonists of a crime novel, coming in contact with all sorts of different people and crime scenes. I was thrilled to see that not only did Katherine Howell realise this potential, but she also executed it with such skill that she has created a truly remarkable series of police procedurals featuring charismatic detective Ella Marconi as well as various paramedic teams – and as an extra bonus, they are all set in Australia.

Paramedics Alex and Jane are called to a motor vehicle accident in Sydney, car vs power pole. The driver, Marco Meixner, appears unhurt, but extremely distressed, claiming he is being followed and in danger of his life but unwilling to give more information about his alleged pursuer. At first Alex and Jane put his claims down to a psychiatric disorder and delusional thoughts, but when he is found dead under a train later that afternoon, they start to believe that there may have been a sinister truth to his claims. Detective Ella Marconi, who is sent to investigate the incident, discovers that Marco was the sole witness of a murder seventeen years ago, leading to the conviction of the perpetrator, who has just recently been released on parole. When she starts digging into Marco’s past it soon becomes apparent that there are secrets he has hidden from his wife and friends – which someone is trying to protect at all costs and may just be the reason he had to die.

I love Howell’s writing style – whilst Ella Marconi features in every book in the series, she introduces different paramedics in each novel, their lives providing a parallel storyline to the crime under investigation. Here we learn of Jane’s secret affair with a famous lover, which goes terribly wrong, whilst single father Alex battles with his recalcitrant teenage daughter Mia. Their experiences on the streets of Sydney provide the reader with many interesting snippets of the everyday work of a paramedic. Drawing on her own experiences in the profession, the stories are believable and engaging, the information accurate and detailed enough to also hold the interest of readers who are in the medical profession. Her “warts and all” approach paints a realistic picture of life on the city streets and the city’s inhabitants. This is no glorified Hollywood movie - unlike many other crime novelists she is not afraid to unmask the boring and tedious side of police work, which form a large part of any investigation, such as workplace politics and restrictions such as funding cuts and red tape. Neither does she hold back when it comes to the everyday experiences of her paramedic protagonists, which can be horrific enough to result in lasting mental scars for Alex, who still battles with PTSD after attending an MVA resulting in the death of a teenage girl a few months ago.

Ella herself is a likeable protagonist, who struggles with issues in her own personal life, such as her new love affair with a young doctor who is suddenly giving her the cold shoulder. In fact, the dynamics of human relationships underpin every part of Web of Deceit – a parent worried about his teenage daughter, a jilted lover, a jealous girlfriend, an abused partner, a bereaved wife … each emotion presented in a heart-felt fashion which instantly grabs the reader and drives the storyline. I was especially touched by a scene describing the reaction of a young pregnant wife when told by police that her husband had been killed – it read heartfelt and true, like so many of the emotion driven scenes in Web of Deceit.

I loved this book so much that I immediately rushed out to get an earlier book in the series – Frantic – and I am deeply engrossed in it already. Katherine Howell is evidence of the great talent we have in Australia when it comes to crime fiction, and it is easy to see why Web of Deceit was nominated for the Ned Kelly Award 2013. I can see the writing on the wall that this will be one book series that will be utterly addictive and hold me in its grip for many hours yet to come. Highly recommended.

Friday 11 October 2013

Book Review: SOFT TARGETS by John Gilstrap

Title: Soft Targets
Author: John Gilstrap
Publisher: Kensigton Books
Read: September 21 - 22, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):
"Rocket-paced suspense."--Jeffery DeaverFour children's lives hang in the balance. A vicious criminal is on the loose. With law enforcement at a dead end, there's only one man who can recover the hostages--Jonathan Grave.

FBI Special Agent Irene Rivers is horrified to learn that because of mistakes made by agents under her command, a murderer and child molester will walk free. When Irene's own daughters become the monster's next targets, she reaches out in desperation to an elite Special Forces operator. His name is Jonathan Grave. For Grave, results matter more than procedures. Together, they discover a new kind of justice--and a new breed of evil. . .

My thoughts:

I have fond memories of reading my first John Gilstrap novel At All Costs whilst on a holiday in Augusta with friends many years ago – which made me extremely bad company as I was holed up in my room compulsively reading until I had finished, emerging stunned and bleary eyed for short moments only to get food and water.

Unfortunately Soft Targets did not have the same effect on me. Had I realised that the story was a novella rather than a full-length novel I might have hesitated before starting to read it. I have found in the past that novellas rarely manage to pack in a wholesome and fulfilling crime story, with character development or plot suffering from the need to wrap things up in a hundred pages or so. Soft Targets was no exception. Whilst the general story outline held promise, fitting a complex plot into a novella came at the expense of character development. Irene Rivers’ two children are kidnapped, and the first person she contacts is a Catholic priest – really? Strangely, Irene does not seem overly perturbed that her children could be in the hands of a child molester, seeming more worried about her job as FBI Agent, careful not to overstep any boundaries. Actually, she manages to live through the whole ordeal with minimum emotional involvement, which made her a rather uninteresting, shallow character for me. Jonathan Grave and his mate Boxers held a more promise, which however was thwarted by trying to fit a complex plot (plus a rather substantial red herring) into a mere 127 pages.

All in all, the story did not live up to its full potential and left me unfulfilled and rather disappointed in an author who I know can do better.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Book Review: DEATH OF THE DEMON by Anne Holt

Death of the Demon

Title: Death of the Demon
Author: Anne Holt
Publisher: Scribner
Read: September 02-05, 2013

Read a free chapter (click here) - courtesy of The Reading Room

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In an orphanage outside Oslo, a 12-year-old boy is causing havoc. When the institution's director, Agnes Vestavik, is found murdered at her desk, stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife – with Olav nowhere to be found – the case goes to Hanne Wilhelmsen, who has been recently promoted to superintendent. Hanne suspects that Olav witnessed the murder and fled, but this is one case where her instincts are leading her astray.

A dark and captivating thriller, Death Of The Demon examines the murky intersection between crime and justice.

My thoughts:

After having been a fan of Scandinavian fiction for some time, I was very surprised that I have never before come across a novel by Anne Holt, who is being described as the “godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction” by none other than Jo Nesbo, one of my favourite Scandinavian crime writers. Perhaps it has been the English sounding name which had thrown me – but now that I have discovered Holt’s work, it won’t be the last time I will pick up one of her novels.

The book opens with Olav, a troubled twelve-year-old boy, making his entrance into life in a foster home for problem children just outside Oslo. From the first day it becomes obvious that Olav has behavioural problems – and that he carries a deep-seated anger and hatred belying his young years. After an altercation with the foster home’s director, Anne Vestavik, Olav disappears, and Anne is found dead in her study, stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife. It is Hanne Wilhelmsen recently promoted to chief inspector in the Oslo police department, who is being sent to lead the murder investigation. Despite claims that Olav could have something to do with Anne’s death, Hanne is reluctant to believe those rumours – he is, after all, a young boy, surely not capable of such a heinous and cold-blooded crime. On top of the roadblocks in the investigation, Hanne struggles with her new role, being used to doing the detective work herself rather than delegating and leading her team. With very few leads to go on, this case may be one to challenge Hanne’s usually impeccable instincts ….

Death of the Demon has the feel of an old-fashioned whodunit. With a small cast of characters, each one flawed in some way, the story slowly reveals clues and peels back the layers of each character’s personality to reveal a possible motive for murder. I have seen Holt’s work being compared to Agatha Christie’s work in some reviews, and in some ways the comparison fits – the focus lying on interpersonal relationships and good old fashioned detective work. With such a small arena, there are few heart-stopping I-never-saw-this-coming moments, though the red herrings in the investigation manage to keep the reader interested to find out whether the gardener indeed did it or not. As with other Scandinavian fiction of the genre, Holt manages to intersperse crime fiction with a satirical look at modern society, where twelve-year-olds are sent into foster care because of unfit home environments.

Whilst enjoying reading a well-plotted whodunit, my overall feelings of Holt’s latest work are divided. Firstly, I found it hard to warm to any of the characters (in fact finding the majority of them downright unlikeable), apart from Billie T, who was like a breath of fresh air in the stiflingly dark atmosphere of the story. And whilst the dark atmosphere of the Scandinavian noir genre is the one thing that usually appeals to me, in this case it weighed me down a little. Well plotted and expertly crafted – tick. Enjoyable – I’m not so sure. There are scenes, such as Olav sitting in a stranger’s house and peeling wallpaper of the wall, which are downright depressing and left some very disturbing images in my mind. However, with the solid foundation of a well-crafted plot, the novel should appeal to Scandinavian crime fiction fans. I am intrigued by Holt’s writing, and will make sure to look up some of her other work.

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

Sunday 22 September 2013

Book Review: THE CRY by Helen Fitzgerald

The Cry

Title: The Cry
Author: Helen Fitzgerald
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Read: September 18-20, 2013

He's gone. And telling the truth won't bring him back...

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When a baby goes missing on a lonely roadside in Australia, it sets off a police investigation that will become a media sensation and dinner-table talk across the world.

Lies, rumours and guilt snowball, causing the parents, Joanna and Alistair, to slowly turn against each other.

Finally Joanna starts thinking the unthinkable: could the truth be even more terrible than she suspected? And what will it take to make things right?

The Cry is a dark psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma at its heart and characters who will keep you guessing on every page.

My thoughts:

The Cry is the first book I have read by Australian author Helen Fitzgerald, and I immediately took to her writing style, her vivid sense of place and the dynamic and emotionally laden dialogue driving the story. This book is very much about human relationships and the dark places of the soul, the things people are driven to when their backs are up against the wall.

Who has ever spent twelve hours on a plane with a screaming baby? A baby who will not settle despite trying everything in your power to calm him down – facing the ever-increasing frustration and hostility of your fellow passengers. I know the feeling well, I have been there! It was therefore easy to feel Joanna’s despair as she desperately tries to settle her nine-week old baby Noah, who is doing his best to scream on top of his lungs the entire way from Glasgow to Australia. Getting increasingly desperate, Joanna blames herself – surely it must be her fault that her child won’t settle. Perhaps she is a bad mother, fundamentally flawed in some way, or being punished for having a relationship with Noah’s father Alistair whilst he was still married his ex-wife, the mother of his teenage daughter Chloe. She is a home-wrecker, a scarlet woman, a bad mother, a flawed person – accusations driven home by her baby’s disconsolate screams, and the disapproval on the other passengers’ faces.

Fast-forward a bit and baby Noah is missing, reportedly abducted from his parents’ car in rural Australia whilst they quickly ducked into a store to buy some nappies. The media screens desperate pleas by Noah’s father to please return his son, whilst the mother, Joanna, looks dazed and stony, as if all of these events were happening to someone else. Exploring Noah’s disappearance and subsequent happenings through the eyes of Joanna, Alistair’s ex-wife Alexandra and their daughter Chloe, The Cry becomes an emotional roller-coaster ride of people trying to deal with every parents’ worst nightmare – that of losing your child.

It is hard to really delve into the details of this novel without giving anything away, so I will keep it brief. Since the author reveals very early on what happens to baby Noah, the main agenda of the novel is not a mystery, but rather the way humans react to trauma and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. All main characters – Alistair, Joanna and Alexandra – are fundamentally flawed in some way, their dysfunctional relationships driving their decisions. As an observer, I felt these emotions very intensely myself, watching in horror as events slowly, inexorably spiral out of control. And when you think that things cannot get any worse, they do – with a twist at the end which throws everything you have read before into a horrible new light.

The Cry is a brilliantly executed novel. By throwing the characters head-first into a horrible-beyond-words situation, it quickly manages to suck the reader into an emotional whirlpool which leaves its marks long after the final page has been turned. Highly recommended!

Friday 20 September 2013

Book Review: BLOOD HARVEST by S. J. Bolton

Blood Harvest

Title: Blood Harvest
Author: S. J. Bolton
Publisher: Bantam Press
Read: September 14-16, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Twelve-year-old Tom and his family have just moved to a small town perched on the crest of the moor. But troubles begin when Tom sees a mysterious child lurking around the nearby churchyard.

Psychiatrist Evi is trying to treat a young woman haunted by the disappearance of her little girl. A devastating fire burned down their home, but even two years on she is convinced her daughter survived.

Harry is the town's new vicar, quickly befriended by the locals. But unusual events around the church suggest he isn't entirely welcome, and that this odd little town harbours a terrifying secret.

My thoughts:

I only just complained to a friend that I haven’t read a good ghost story for years – that was before picking up Blood Harvest from my local library. Being the last book currently out by S. J. Bolton which I hadn’t read, the feeling on finishing it was bittersweet (now I have to wait till she writes a new one), but like her other novels, it swept me up in nail-biting suspense and kept me up all hours of the night reading. Its creepy setting also managed to spook me so much that I was tempted to sleep with the lights on!

Harry Laycock has no idea what he has let himself in for when he accepts a posting as minister in the small village of Heptonclough in the Yorkshire Pennines. Surrounded by sweeping moorland, it sports two old churches with a somewhat shady history, and old pagan rituals which at times even manage to spook the pragmatic Harry. Being a newcomer, Harry soon forges a firm friendship with Alice and Gareth, another couple who have recently moved to the village and built their home on land which used to belong to the diocese, nestled in between the churches and surrounded by graveyards. He shares Alice’s concerns when their young sons Joe and Tom become fearful and disturbed, reporting that they have been followed by the ghostly presence of a very frightening looking “girl”, who is apparently trying to harm their two-year old sister Millie. According to the boys, this strange spectre may be responsible for abducting Millie out of the house one afternoon and abandoning her on a small ledge high up in the nave of the church, nearly resulting in a fatal fall. Although Harry suspects a prank by local youngsters to be responsible, he is dismayed to find out that a little girl has previously died in that very spot, also by falling from a considerable height onto the slate floor. Delving deeper into the village’s history, he realises that several young girls have fallen victim to fatal accidents in the recent past – and that Millie may indeed be in danger.

To say that I loved this book is an understatement – I was totally absorbed by its characters and setting from the very first sentence to the last word. To me, Blood Harvest contained everything that makes a brilliant novel – vivid characters, vibrant dialogue, a well-constructed murder-mystery and a dark spooky gothic setting. Bolton has a keen eye for detail and human behaviour, as well as a vivid sense of place, which allows the story to play out almost movie-like in front of the reader’s eyes. I love Bolton’s attention to detail, the small seemingly unimportant elements which later all come together in the final reveal.

Blood Harvest first introduces the character of Evi Oliver, a psychiatrist who features in S. J. Bolton’s second Lacey Flint novel Dead Scared. Like many of S. J. Bolton’s female characters, Evi is hampered by the legacy of her past, in her case a physical disability from a skiing accident, which means she has to deal with debilitating chronic pain on a daily basis. When Evi and Harry accidentally (in the true sense of the word) meet, it is not love at first sight – but they soon discover a kindred spirit in one another, and there is even the hint of romance at one stage. I often find romance a bit of a distraction in crime novels, but found Evi and Harry’s friendship touching, and for me it did not overshadow the main story in the slightest. Having protagonists which are not police gives the story an unusual perspective, one which I thoroughly enjoyed –Harry does make a wonderful amateur sleuth, whilst Evi’s profession allows insights into the darker elements of the human psyche.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a good read, whether you are an S. J. Bolton fan or not. Whilst not a typical ghost story, it contains enough things to go bump in the night to make you snuggle deeper under the doona, and as most of Bolton’s books, its murder-mystery component is also not for the faint hearted. Another five stars from me – it just reconfirms why Bolton is on top of my list of favourite crime novelists. I am now eagerly anticipating her next book.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Book Review: HELL GATE by Elizabeth Massie

Hell Gate

Title: Hell Gate
Author: Elizabeth Massie
Publisher: Dark Fuse
Read: August 31 - September 02, 2013

My thoughts:

Suzanne Heath is a troubled young woman with a dark and disturbing past. Having been badly beaten and left for dead there was a time when she could not even remember her own name, and only survived thanks to the kindness of the students and staff of the Hudson Colored Waifs’ Asylum, where she became known as Rachel for lack of another name. After more than two years of taking refuge and working at the asylum, Suzanne begins to have strange visions and realises that she has an unusual gift – to see into the hearts of strangers and know their most intimate secrets. It is not long after that she suddenly remembers her own name, and events in her past so terrible that they compel her to flee to New York City, where she can disappear in its mass of people and make a fresh start.

Soon Suzanne is working as a cashier at Luna Park on Coney Island. But even in a city of thousands she cannot escape her dark past, and visions plague her every night in her dreams and through every physical contact with strangers. Having heard of Suzanne’s unusual psychic gift, she is asked to help in the police investigation into the gruesome slaying of a woman at Coney Island’s Capitol Hotel. At first, Suzanne has little to offer, but as more victims are found with the same horrific injuries, her visions slowly close in on a suspect – a force so terrifying that Suzanne must use all her powers just to stay alive.

Dark, mysterious and so very compelling, Hell Gate gripped me from the very first page and had me sitting up all night reading as shivers ran down my spine from the more gruesome scenes in the novel. I don’t normally read horror and would probably not have picked up this book had it not been for its historical setting: a New York amusement park at the turn of the last century – brilliant! I have vague memories of early childhood visits to historical side-show alleys in Vienna, and always thought it would make the perfect setting for a truly spooky murder mystery. And Massie really delivers in terms of historical detail and atmospheric descriptions of Coney Island’s Luna Park – from its superficial frivolity right down to its sleazy underbelly. Introduce some paranormal themes, and a power so evil it poses a threat to every human it encounters, and the stage is set. Be prepared to be chilled to the bone imagining the horrific scenes of carnage left behind by the evil that is afoot, an evil that may be linked to Suzanne’s own dark past.

All the details are there to bring the story to life, and reading Hell Gate feels like virtual time travel into a sinister past. It reminds me of the time I watched an entire season of “Carnivale” over one rainy weekend, which left me dazed and plagued by a vague feeling of dread and doom. Caught up in Hell Gate’s atmospheric descriptions I had a similar sensation, almost feeling like I had physically been there myself, looked over Suzanne’s shoulder, walked in her footsteps, felt her pain and fear. There are other interesting historical themes which Massie touches on in her novel: racism, gender roles, domestic violence and the details of turn-of-last-century murder investigations.

Alas, at 95% through the book I looked at its few remaining pages and became worried – there was no solution in sight as yet. How could this intriguing story possibly be resolved in a meagre 5% of its pages? Sadly, it couldn’t – for me, the ending felt rushed and very unsatisfactory, which was a huge let-down after hours of captivating reading. What had shaped up to be a very clever and unusual plot, turned so convoluted that it stretched the borders of credibility way too far for my liking, leaving behind many unanswered questions. It felt like sitting an exam and realising, two minutes from the end, that you have spent so much time elaborating on one question, that there is no time to answer all the remaining ones.

So, how do you rate a book which kept you totally spellbound for 95% of its pages, but which ending provoked a mutinous howl of protest and disappointment? Perhaps other readers, who are more adept at suspending disbelief than I am, may find the ending clever and unexpected. Unexpected – yes, it certainly was, in more ways than one. So all I can say is this: if you like historical fiction, it is definitely worth picking up Massie’s novel (even if horror is not usually your thing). Even its most gruesome scenes are no worse than popular authors like Nesbo or Cornwell, and should be acceptable to most lovers of murder-mysteries (apart from the really faint-hearted). Give it a go!

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

Book Review: NO PLACE LIKE HOME by Caroline Overington

No Place Like Home

Title: No Place Like Home
Author: Caroline Overington
Publisher: Random House Australia
Read: August 29 - 30, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):
From bestselling author and award-winning journalist Caroline Overington comes another thought-provoking and heart-rending story, that reaches from the heart of Bondi to a small village in Tanzania.Shortly after 9.30 in the morning, a young man walks into Surf City, Bondi’s newest shopping complex. He’s wearing a dark grey hoodie – and a bomb around his neck.Just a few minutes later he is locked in a shop on the upper floor. And trapped with him are four innocent bystanders. For police chaplain Paul Doherty, called to the scene by Senior Sergeant Boehm, it’s a story that will end as tragically as it began. For this is clearly no ordinary siege. The boy, known as Ali Khan, seems as frightened as his hostages and has yet to utter a single word.The seconds tick by for the five in the shop: Mitchell, the talented schoolboy; Mouse, the shop assistant; Kimmi, the nail-bar technician; and Roger Callaghan, the real estate agent whose reason for being in Bondi that day is far from innocent. And of course there’s Ali Khan. Is he the embodiment of evil, as the villagers in his Tanzanian birthplace believe? Or just an innocent boy, betrayed at every turn, who just wants a place to call home?

My thoughts:

When police chaplain Paul Doherty is called to the scene of a “siege” at Bondi Beach’s most prestigious shopping mall, he is expecting the worst. A young man has apparently entered the building earlier that morning with an explosive device strapped around his body, and is now holed up with four hostages in a lingerie shop on the second floor, whilst police are frantically evacuating the building and trying to establish the perpetrator’s identity and motives. As the story unfolds, things are not as straightforward as they initially seemed – who really is the mysterious Ali Khan, and what does he want? Why does he look as frightened as his “hostages”, and resist all efforts by police to make contact?

As the rest of the novel unfolds through Paul’s interviews with each of the hostages after the incident, the true story behind the siege is slowly uncovered – a story of such unspeakable suffering and despair that it will challenge even Paul’s strongest beliefs.

After having read a spate of highly praised but ultimately disappointing novels recently, No Place Like Home was like a breath of fresh air - it did not take long to draw me into the storyline and keep me turning the pages! Overington’s journalist background becomes obvious in her character development and her intimate knowledge of a hot topic which continues to steal the headlines in Australian news today – the issue of “boat people”, illegal immigrants and refugees alike, and their fates in detention centres and being subject to different and often highly contested political strategies.

I thought that Overington’s choice of protagonist was extremely clever. Making Paul a chaplain, and a man whose fate compels him to regard each person without prejudice and malice, allowed the author to explore this highly controversial topic from various viewpoints. Whilst Overington’s empathy for asylum seekers is evident, she is not afraid to uncover several different aspects of the issue, highlighting the inherent problems of various “solutions”, which ultimately lead to Ali Khan’s tragic fate. I loved the way each character’s background story forms a thread in the novel, converging in the “coincidence” of each of the innocent bystanders being present in the lingerie shop at the same time. As their motives and actions are slowly unveiled, the reader is challenged to ponder where the real evil lies, and whose actions are responsible for the final tragic outcome. Slowly, page by page, the focus shifts from the initially perceived evil to a completely unexpected villain.

Overington’s latest novel offers one of the more original plots I have read in a while. Her writing is casual and refreshing, almost like a laid-back yarn around the campfire, its ease belying the controversial topics it exposes so effortlessly.  Once I picked up the book, I did not want to put it down. And whilst the overall feeling it leaves behind is one of sadness, its topic has stayed with me and comes to mind whenever the issue of boat people is being raised – at this time, so close to the election, these occasions are too numerous to count. This reason alone compels me to recommend Overington’s novel to everyone who has set ideas and opinions about the topic – if only to give food for thought and invite a fresh perspective in the face of a fierce media campaign.

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed Overington’s latest novel and will make sure to look up some of her previous work.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Book Review: IF YOU WERE HERE by Alafair Burke

If You Were Here

Title: If You Were Here
Author: Alafair Burke
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Read: August 15 - 20, 2013

Read an excerpt - link

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When McKenna Jordan, a magazine journalist investigating the story of the heroic and unidentified woman, finds the video footage, she thinks she recognizes her as Susan Hauptmann. But Susan disappeared without a trace ten years earlier, having just introduced McKenna to her future husband, Patrick. McKenna's complex search for her missing friend forces her to unearth secrets that lie deep in all their pasts.

A sublimely plotted mystery and a devastating thriller about marriage, private security and journalistic scandal, If You Were Here further underlines Dennis Lehane's assertion that 'Alafair Burke is one of the finest young crime writers working today'.

My thoughts:

McKenna Jordan, disgraced former ADA turned magazine journalist, thinks she is on the brink of a potentially great story when presented with private video footage of a mysterious woman single-handedly rescuing a young man from getting crushed by an oncoming train. She gets the surprise of her life when she recognises the stranger’s face – Susan Hauptmann, her good friend who has been missing for ten years, and is presumed to be dead. But as soon as McKenna starts asking questions, things start to go wrong in her life. Her email account gets hacked, wiping all traces of the video footage from her computer and her colleague’s sky drive account. Her husband, who was a good friend of Susan’s before they met, is starting to act strangely and out of character, discouraging McKenna from looking into the mystery. Evidence McKenna has used to base one of her stories on turns out to be a set-up, once again costing her her career. And worst of all, nobody believes her when she voices her suspicion that Susan might still be alive. To clear her own name, she must try to find Susan and discover the secret behind her disappearance ten years ago, which someone is trying to protect at all cost.

I really wanted to like Alafair Burke’s latest suspense thriller, because the underlying idea sounded exactly like the kind of book which would have me sitting up late into the night reading: a missing friend turns up ten years later on a grainy home-made video of a real life incident on a crowded railway platform. This premise alone opened up thousands of questions and possible answers, each presenting a portal for a great nail-biting suspense story. Maybe the limitless number of possibilities and choices was the problem, because instead of choosing one storyline, the author packed several convoluted plots into the one novel, each one containing complex twists and red herrings which presented an impenetrable maze of confusion and frustration for me.

There were so many explanations of past events relating to the main character that I thought I must have inadvertently picked up book seven in a series, only to find to my amazement that If You Were Here is a stand-alone novel. Excerpts from the protagonist’s journal, which she pens for her next book proposal, were so out of context and boring to read that I nearly gave up at that point in the book. However, every time I wanted to fling the book into a corner in sheer frustration, Burke managed to throw in a tiny bit of detail, a thread in the underlying plot, which grabbed me and kept me reading. And I must say that the general idea, the underlying plot which drives the story, is really good – it’s in the execution and editing where the book is letting the reader down. Bogged down by too many explanations, too many unconnected threads, too many unnecessary twist, the book became hard work rather than enjoyable reading. There are so many layers that you never get to the actual onion!

Sadly I also never managed to warm to protagonist McKenna – even after working out that McKenna was her Christian name and Jordan her family name, and not the other way around! Unlike Ellie, the main character of Burke’s Ellie Hatcher series, I found it hard to relate to McKenna, who came across as self-absorbed and shallow, not as the smart, strong female lawyer Burke wanted to present. Is the modern urban career woman really so hard, shallow and cold? Maybe I have lived in the boondocks for too long and am a bit sheltered and out of touch with reality? I know from past experience that Burke can write well, and present a solid plot wrapped in a thick layer of gripping suspense story. However, in If You Were Here I felt that the author was trying too hard to be clever, rather than letting her characters drive the story. I was longing for Ellie Hatcher, who I found to be the type of protagonist Burke likes to present in her books – strong, smart, plucky.

For those who like an overly complicated plot and an unpredictable ending, the book may appeal – however, it did not quite hit the mark for me.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Book Review: NOAH'S RAINY DAY by Sandra Brannan

Noah's Rainy Day (A Liv Bergen Mystery #4)

Title: Noah's Rainy Day
Author: Sandra Brennan
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group
Read: August 04 - 12, 2013
Read an excerpt

Synopsis (Goodreads):

From birth, Noah Hogarty has lived with severe cerebral palsy. He is nearly blind, unable to speak, and cannot run, walk, or crawl. Yet his mind works just as well as any other twelve-year-old’s—maybe even better. And Noah holds a secret dream: to become a great spy, following in the footsteps of his aunt, Liv “Boots” Bergen.

Now, freshly returned from training at Quantico, FBI agent Liv Bergen is thrown into her first professional case. Working side by side with veteran agent Streeter Pierce, enigmatic agent and lover Jack Linwood, and her bloodhound Beulah, Liv must race to find five-year-old Max—last seen at the Denver International Airport—before this Christmastime abduction turns deadly. Meanwhile Noah, housebound, becomes wrapped up in identifying the young face he sees watching him from his neighbor’s bedroom window, but he can neither describe nor inscribe what he knows.

And his investigation may lead to Noah paying the ultimate price in fulfilling his dream.

Noah’s Rainy Day (the fourth novel in Brannan’s mystery series) combines classic Liv Bergen irreverence and brainpower with an unflinching look at the darkest of human motivations, all while a whirlpool of increasingly terrifying events threatens to engulf Liv and Noah both in one final rainy day.

My thoughts:

Noah Hogarty is no ordinary 12-year-old – from birth he has lived with severe cerebral palsy and is unable to walk, talk or play like other children. Highly intelligent, his inquisitive mind is trapped in his body, with only his sister Emma able to communicate with him through an ingenious but slow system of sign language they has developed. But Noah is not easily defeated - inspired by his aunt Liv Bergen, an FBI agent recently graduated from Quantico, Noah’s dream is to become a great spy. Noah thinks he has one advantage over others, which will help him reach this goal – being physically disabled he often feels invisible, as many people assume that his mind must surely be as damaged as his body, and freely say things in front of him which they wouldn’t dare voice in front of others.

When a five year old boy is abducted from Denver International Airport on Christmas Eve, Liv and her fellow FBI agents are at a loss of any useful leads, and time is fast running out. With the media being their best option at the moment, young Max’s face is being branded across all news channels, with his parents pleading for his safe return. Noah, who watches the world go by from his upstairs window, feels like he has seen that face before – but how will he be able to communicate his suspicions to the adults around him, and who will believe him?

Brannan’s very unusual hero Noah, a bright mind trapped in a damaged body, reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window meeting a young Lincoln Rhyme. After witnessing a potential crime from his window, young Noah must overcome serious communication barriers to be able to voice his suspicions. Noah’s daily battles to communicate even his most basic needs were beautifully described, and show Brannan’s familiarity with CP and her heartfelt understanding of the challenges it presents for its sufferers and their families. The author also explores the stigma of physical disability, which often renders sufferers “invisible” in society, often due to others feeling uncomfortable around a person with a disability.  Being able to see the world through Noah’s eyes was very humbling in many ways, especially when Noah worries about being a burden on his parents and what the future will hold for him.

I also found Liv Bergen to be a likeable protagonist who brought her own dynamics into the story, and the details of certain aspects of the investigation (eg the search through the airport’s garbage using a grid system) were very interesting. The importance of family relationships in Brannan’s novel was refreshing, considering that a lot of protagonists of modern crime novel are loners with dark secrets in their past, condemning them to lonely lives with unfulfilled longing for love and acceptance.

The low points of the novel for me were the heavy reliance on coincidence for most of the plot and the loss of pace in the last third of the book, which could have been avoided by an unexpected development in the storyline. Giving the abductor a voice took much of the mystery away and made the outcome very predictable for me – I waited for a twist or surprise in the end, which never came.

All in all, Noah’s Rainy Day offered a refreshing new perspective and a likeable pair of protagonists, and made for an enjoyable read, even if it lacked a bit in the thrill department.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Book Review: GOOD AS GONE by Douglas Corleone

Good As Gone

Title: Good as Gone 
Author: Douglas Corleone
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Read: July 30 - August 02, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Former U.S. Marshal Simon Fisk works as a private contractor, tracking down and recovering children who were kidnapped by their own estranged parents. He only has one rule: he won’t touch stranger abduction cases. He’s still haunted by the disappearance of his own daughter when she was just a child, still unsolved, and stranger kidnappings hit too close to home.

Until, that is, six-year-old Lindsay Sorkin disappears from her parents’ hotel room in Paris, and the French police deliver Simon an ultimatum: he can spend years in a French jail, or he can take the case and recover the missing girl. Simon sets out in pursuit of Lindsay and the truth behind her disappearance. But Lindsay’s captors did not leave an easy trail, and following it will take Simon across the continent, through the ritziest nightclubs and the seediest back alleys, into a terrifying world of international intrigue and dark corners of his past he’d rather leave well alone.

My thoughts:

Ten years ago, Simon Fisk’s six-year-old daughter Hailey was abducted from the family home, never to be seen again. Devastated by grief and guilt, his wife Tasha committed suicide a short while later. For the last ten years, Simon has tried to outrun his demons by tracking down children unlawfully abducted by non-custodial parents, wanting to spare others the grief of losing a child Simon had to experience himself. However, he has never had to deal with abduction by strangers, so when he is approached by French authorities to help locate a six-year-old American girl taken from her parents’ hotel room in Paris, he has serious misgivings about getting involved. To rescue little Lindsay Sarkin, and save her parents the unspeakable pain Simon has had to live with for the last ten years, Simon must risk his own life to discover why Lindsay was taken, and who is behind the abduction – and time is fast running out. In a desperate man-hunt which will take Simon across several European and Eastern-block countries, he tries to outwit ruthless killers who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Good as Gone is a fast-paced, action packed thriller which gripped me from the very first page and kept me entertained until the very end. Simon Fisk, the solitary vigilante fighting for justice was both an intriguing as well as an enigmatic protagonist, and I found myself wanting to know more about him. Fisk, with his US Marshall background and a painful past, which reads like a parent’s worst nightmare, is a moralistic  character in the vein of Jack Reacher – a man who will stop at nothing to get justice and who is not afraid to risk his own life for it, perhaps because he has nothing to lose. In Good as Gone, his mission takes on a new perspective when a woman he feels attracted to joins him in his mission, and Simon faces the moral dilemma of putting her in the path of danger. The small element of romance hinting at the possibility for Fisk to move on and find love again took some of the edge off the sadness prevailing in his life, and introduced a touch of hope and warmth in an otherwise grim situation.

Good as Gone is entirely propelled by fast paced action and suspense. As the body count mounts on the side of the “baddies”, whose untimely demise is always justified by being rightly deserved, Fisk narrowly escapes being one of the casualties himself despite a few flesh-wounds along the way. Although well-plotted, a few crucial developments in the novel hinge on some convenient coincidences which necessitate the reader to suspend disbelief for the sake of reading pleasure and entertainment. Normally a bit anal about such matters, I usually roll my eyes and mutter “yeah right” under my breath, but the fast pace of the novel and Fisk’s mission were enough to get me so caught up in the storyline that I managed to overlook these flaws in an otherwise very compelling story.

From child-pornography to sex-trafficking, from drug-dealing to arms-secrets, from underworld criminals to political corruption – all these issues and more feature strongly in Corleone’s latest thriller. And whilst one easily gets swept up in the action, the novel also raises some very topical issues and gives food for thought. For example, the poverty in Eastern block countries giving rise to exploitation of women and children in a perverted sex-trade, even involving whole families. Or the fate of residents of the Belarus region, who still suffer from the after effects of the Chernobyl disaster and have to watch their children die from horrific birth-defects or thyroid cancer. Even Fisk’s missions always have a shadow-side, as a previous case leading to the death of a girl he tracked down in Germany for her custodial parent shows. The ending of the novel, too, throws into question the black-or-white, right-or-wrong aspects of situations, and the final twist came totally unexpected.

Good as Gone is an action-packed adventure thriller which should appeal to both genders and to readers across many age-groups, providing readers can suspend disbelief for the sake of entertainment value. Especially parents will be able to relate to Fisk’s driven nature on account of his traumatic background, and find his latest mission very compelling.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final published copy may vary from the one I reviewed.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Book Review: SAY YOU'RE SORRY by Michael Robotham

Say You're Sorry. Michael Robotham

Title: Say You're Sorry
Author: Michael Robotham
Publisher: Hachette Book Group
Read: July 28 - 29, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):


When pretty and popular teenagers Piper Hadley and Tash McBain disappear one Sunday morning, the investigation captivates a nation but the girls are never found.

Three years later, during the worst blizzard in a century, a husband and wife are brutally killed in the farmhouse where Tash McBain once lived. A suspect is in custody, a troubled young man who can hear voices and claims that he saw a girl that night being chased by a snowman.

Convinced that Piper or Tash might still be alive, clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin and ex-cop Vincent Ruiz, persuade the police to re-open the investigation. But they are racing against time to save the girls from someone with an evil, calculating and twisted mind...

My thoughts:

England is blanketed by a layer of snow from a recent blizzard, whilst Joseph O’Loughlin, the Parkinson’s inflicted psychologist we got to know in Robotham’s earlier novels, is looking forward to spending a few days with his teenage daughter Charlie in Oxford. His plans are rudely interrupted, however, when he is asked by local police to assist with the investigation into the brutal slaying of a middle-aged couple in a nearby farmhouse overnight. Joe quickly makes the connection between the murder and a crime-scene Charlie spotted from the window of their train on the trip to Oxford, that of a young girl found frozen in the thick ice of a nearby lake. Bur who is the girl and what is her connection to the murdered couple? When Joe digs deeper, he discovers that the daughter of the farmhouse’s previous tenants was abducted several years earlier together with a friend from school, never to be seen again. Sensing a connection between the “Bingham girls” and some clues found at the crime scene, Joe must try to convince police to re-open the investigation into the girls’ abduction. And if the dead girl was indeed on of the Bingham girls, is there a chance that her friend could still be alive?

With Say You’re Sorry, Robotham has once again delivered a well-plotted suspenseful murder-mystery in the style which has firmly cemented him on my list of favourite crime writers. From Robotham’s first O’Loughlin novel Suspect I have been intrigued by psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin, a family man who not only has to fight against the obstacles brought upon him by the cruel disease Parkinson’s, but who also brings a unique new perspective into the police investigations he is involved in. Following a growing trend of crime writers using protagonists from professions outside the police force to solve murder cases, Robotham uses his knowledge of psychology to pepper his novels with unique insights into the human psyche, which allow his character O’Loughlin to make headway in investigations where police efforts have failed. Although sometimes there is a danger of stereotyping human behaviour, I really enjoy O’Loughlin’s characterisations of both the victims and the perpetrators in this case.

Part of the story of Say You’re Sorry is being told in the first person by Piper, one of the Bingham girls, an ordinary everyday teenage girl who has fallen victim to the twisted mind of a sadistical child abductor and murderer.

My name is Piper Hadley and I went missing three years ago on the last Saturday of the summer holidays. Today I came home.

The topic of abduction and keeping young girls prisoner for years in dank basements seems to have grown in popularity amongst crime writers and their audiences, undoubtedly fuelled by real-life events covered in the news in recent years. It is hard not to be deeply affected by events like the Natascha Kampusch imprisonment, for example, especially the fact that an unspeakable crime against human rights can happen right under our noses without anyone suspecting anything (or acting on their suspicions). Robotham not only delves into the dynamics of the crime and the mind of the perpetrator, but also its effects on the victims’ families, friends and communities.

There are enough red herrings amongst the investigations’ clues to throw the reader off track, and I admit that the ending of the novel came as a complete surprise to me. And although the subject matter is as dark and chilly as Robotham’s atmospheric description of the English winter, the author spares the reader some of the more unnecessarily gruesome and graphic scenes found in other novels with similar themes.

As with Robotham’s previous books in the series, I thoroughly enjoyed Say You’re Sorry and highly recommend it to all lovers of contemporary crime fiction – especially those looking for a different kind of protagonist. Robotham’s attention to detail and his well-plotted storylines where nothing is left to chance or coincidence make him one of the top English crime writers of our time. I can’t wait to get my hands on the next instalment in the Joseph O’Loughlin series!

Thursday 25 July 2013

Book Review: LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE by Jan Costin Wagner

Light in a Dark House by Jan Costin Wagner

Title: Light in a Dark House
Author: Jan Costin Wagner
Publisher: Random House UK
Read: July 17 - 23, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Finnish detective Kimmo Joentaa is called to the local hospital in which his young wife died several years before. An unidentified woman in a coma has been murdered by someone who wept over the body, their tears staining the sheets around her. The death marks the start of a series of killings, with the unknown patient at their centre.

As autumn turns to winter, and Christmas fast approaches, Kimmo's attempts to unravel the case and identify the first victim are complicated by the disappearance of his sometime girlfriend, who has vanished after an awkward encounter at a party thrown by the head of the police force, and by a colleague's spiral into the depths of a gambling addiction.

Light in a Dark House is an atmospheric, haunting and beautifully written psychological crime thriller from an award-winning crime writer.

My thoughts:

In an autumn when no rain fell, Kimmo Joentaa was living with a woman who had no name. The anticyclone keeping the weather fine had been christened Magdalena. The woman told people to call her Larissa. She came and went. He didn’t know where from or where to.

Thus starts Wagner’s latest novel, Light in a Dark House. Young detective Kimmo Joentaa has finally found the courage to move on after the death of his wife and is living with a mysterious woman who calls herself Larissa. When he is called to the scene of the murder of a nameless woman at the local hospital in Turku, Joentaa is surprised – the woman had been the victim of an unsolved violent crime and had been in a coma for weeks, not expected to survive. What would be the motive to kill her? Even more mysterious is the evidence that the killer has shed tears at the woman’s bedside – a murderer who weeps for his victim? For Joentaa, solving this particular crime takes on a new meaning when he not only has to deal with the memories of his wife’s death on the same hospital ward years ago, but also Larissa’s disappearance from the house at the same time the victim is murdered. Soon more victims follow, and Joentaa links the murders to his nameless victim in Turku – someone is apparently seeking  revenge for a crime committed years ago, but what was it, who was the woman, and most importantly, who is the killer?

German born and raised and having made Finland his new home, Wagner writes an unusual hybrid type of mystery – a Scandinavian setting with the melancholy atmosphere of Northern Europe. The scenes play out almost movie like in front of the reader’s eyes - imagine a kaleidoscope of atmospheric visual backdrops accompanied by mournful violin music. Snow softly falling on a lost key under an apple tree, a lonely cabin with its lights burning waiting for Joentaa’s lover to return, the stark halls of a hospital where Joentaa’s wife died. Each scene providing a small glimpse into a character’s most innermost feelings, hopes and dreams. Wagner doesn’t offer explanations, but instead slowly develops the picture of his characters through carefully placed hints and descriptions which circle in the air like carelessly blown smoke rings, expanding and intertwining until the reader can form his/her own picture.

Unlike many other Scandinavian thrillers, violence is understated in Light in a Dark House, though it is always present, a menacing shadow bearing down on its characters. Wagner is not interested in serving up graphic scenes of violent death to shock his readers, but instead focuses on the crime’s victims and its aftermath of sadness and loss on others. Often the boundaries between good and evil, justice and crime are blurry, with the victims becoming the perpetrators and vice versa. Wagner does not judge, simply presenting each character’s thoughts and emotions and letting them speak for themselves. And yet the novel deals with some dark and disturbing issues: domestic violence, sexual abuse, trauma, loss, grief and the fate of the nameless victim with nobody to fight for them.

Sadness is a dominant thread running through the entire novel, expressed in the tears the murderer sheds for his nameless victim, in Joentaa crying when confronted with the crime’s secondary casualties, or in Larissa sobbing in her sleep. Wagner shows a rare insight into the dark night of the soul when a loved one dies, and explores this in the thoughts and actions of his characters. Everyone who has ever lost a loved one will relate to some of the desolation described in the novel – both in its symbolism as well as its characters. Light in a Dark House is more than simply a murder-mystery, but deals with intricate emotional issues which stay with the reader long until the last page has been turned. In the end not everything is explained and much is left to the reader for interpretation, which in this case worked well for me and left me mindful of the complexities of the human psyche. For my part, I loved Wagner’s writing style, which is both sparse and yet rich in emotional depth. Joentaa, who is not afraid to shed tears for the victims of the crimes he is trying to solve, is a complex, mysterious character who I would love to know more about. Only after reading this novel did I find out that Light in a Dark House is the fourth book in a series featuring Kimmo Joentaa, with earlier novels dealing with the aftermath of his wife’s untimely death and developing a character with rare psychological insight into the minds of the perpetrators.

I highly recommend Light in a Dark House to anyone who is looking for a bit more than your average murder-mystery. For my part, I am planning to read all of Wagner’s earlier books, and eagerly await the next Kimmo Joentaa book in the series.

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

Friday 19 July 2013

Book Review: MAN VS CHILD by Dominic Knight

Man Vs Child

Title: Man vs Child
Author: Dominic Knight
Publisher: Random House Australia
Read: July 15 - 18, 2013

My thoughts:

At 34 years of age, Dan is somewhat dismayed that his circle of friends is dwindling as most of his mates are getting married and are starting families. Like a rock in a stormy sea, Dan has so far firmly withstood the threat of any commitment or (shock-horror!) the invasion of the dreaded al-childa. As Dan puts it: “Everyone who professes to be enjoying parenthood has a brain that’s been addled by exhaustion and hormones.” Besides, his jobs as morning radio presenter and nighttime stand-up comedian are not really relationship material. But at night, when he is returning to a lonely flat and staring at the ceiling, Dan muses what it would be like to come home to a warm family home.

Dan's resolve to resist the “c-word” is challenged as his old highschool flame Penny moves into his neighbourhood, recently separated from her husband – with her 14-month old son Lloyd in tow. Having any chance of being with Penny comes at the cost of spending time with her child. Dan is terrified when she first takes him up on his offer to babysit for her. Will the al-childa threat prove too much for him?

With Knight’s background as comedy writer and member of the Chaser team, humour forms a big part of his latest novel, but there were also touching moments when Dan reflects on his life and his relationship woes. Being female, with an apparently in-built nurturing instinct, I found it quite interesting to read about Dan's teenage-like angst around anything concerning commitment. At thirty-four he is a tad bit old for that, surely? Does it really represent your average thirty-something career guy out there today? Perhaps I am a bit too old in the tooth to appreciate the gravity of the situation regarding the existential fears young males of our species are facing every day.

Knight’s broadcasting background allowed a fascinating insight into the breakfast radio scene, which made for some hilarious moments and some interesting characterisations. Alas, it also shattered one of my innocent (or naïve) beliefs – prank calls recorded in the studio???? It almost made me cry!

Whilst the first half of the book humorously deals with Dan's commitment phobia, his failing aspirations as a stand-up comedian and his disillusionment with his day job, the book lost a bit of steam after Dan meets Penny and hopes to ingratiate himself by offering to babysit her fourteen-month-old son. After the first babysitting episode, which runs surprisingly smoothly given Dan's paranoia of anything child, the story settles into an almost comfortable (and not-so-funny) routine of dating a mother of a young child. Which was a bit of a let-down for me, since it was exactly the stuff which could have produced so many more hilarious moments the book’s title Man vs Child promises.

Make the child a two-year-old instead of fourteen month, and the name al-childa would be truly justified (I should know, I am a survivor of the terrible-twos, and it’s left it’s scars). True, there would be the sacrifice of a few boobie jokes (although many mothers still breastfeed their two-year-olds), but think of the possibilities of embarrassment: tantrums in the supermarket, faecal fountains out of nappies on a crowded bus, projectile-vomiting of baked beans, a streaker episode as the child strips naked in public and tries to escape any attempts of re-dressing efforts made by parents …. The list goes on. Instead, Lloyd is a little angel who gives Dan hardly any trouble and settles off to sleep peacefully with his dummy. If only my own babysitting attempts all went that well! Personally, I would have preferred if Knight had built a bit more on the whole man vs child aspect of the book, instead focusing his efforts on Dan's tortured relationship with Penny and his work problems. With Knight’s Chaser background, I did not expect him to shy away from the endless list of potentially embarrassing moments, even if it meant sacrificing political correctness.

Man vs Child is an easy, humorous read which should appeal to the thirty-something male crowd out there with commitment phobias similar to Dan's. Saying that, I got a few laughs out of the first half of the book myself, despite belonging to the opposite gender and being a survivor of the whole marriage-with-children deal.

Thank you to the Reading Room and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final version of the book may differ from the one I reviewed.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Book Review: UNTHINKABLE by Clyde Phillips

Unthinkable by Clyde Phillips

Title: Unthinkable
Author: Clyde Phillips
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Read: July 11 - 13, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

For homicide lieutenant Jane Candiotti, stress is part of the job. But now that she and her husband are expecting their first child, Jane is under strict instructions to take it easy. A tall order on an average day, yet never more so than when a mass shooting at a local restaurant claims six victims ? including her teenaged nephew. Jane's always been professional. But this time, it's personal. Before she can bring a baby into this world, Jane vows to hunt down the monster who didn't think twice about shooting an innocent kid. But every thread of evidence leads her deeper into a tangled web of deception, violence, and murder. Her only hope of navigating the twisting turns of this case is to enlist the help of a dangerous ex-con, one who could shed light on the connection between the death of her nephew and a decades-old murder case ? eventually leading her to the most shocking discovery of her career.

My thoughts:

Unthinkable is the fourth book in a series featuring married San Francisco homicide detectives Jane Candiotti and Kenny Marks.

Jane and Kenny are excited about expecting their first child when a tragedy shatters their peace. A mass shooting in a local fast-food restaurant has claimed the life of Kenny’s nephew Bobby amongst five other victims, with no obvious connections to one another. Only one staff member has survived the massacre by locking herself in a freezer, but she cannot give any clues as to the killer’s identity other than having heard his voice yell a single command. With little information to go on, Jane begins looking into the victims’ pasts in the hope of finding a motive for the killings, whilst Kenny tries to comfort his sister and come to terms with their loss. Jane finds an unexpected ally in the ex-con brother of one of the victims, who also has connections to San Francisco’s underworld. Their investigations unearth a startling link nobody had expected, and put Jane in the line of fire of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to fulfil his mission.

Unthinkable is a solid police procedural with an unexpected twist at the end which left me satisfied overall - even if not totally wowed - by its storyline. There is enough action to keep the pace going, and the police investigation unravels in a realistic and timely fashion. As the investigation comes closer to unveiling the identity of the killer, the pace picks up a notch, racing towards an unexpected finale.

The theme running through the novel, that of an unthinkable crime and its effects on the police officers working the scene, intrigued me and gave food for thought. Tragedies like the mass shooting explored in the novel leave their marks on all first responders of the various emergency services called to the scene (from police to paramedics to crime technicians) and may result in more casualties other than the shooting’s actual victims. This is an aspect we often ignore when hearing about tragedies on the news, and one which is definitely worthy of being further explored to raise awareness of the great job our emergency services do, often at great cost to their own lives. Unthinkable touches on the after-effects of the shootings on many levels, from the devastating effects on the victims’ families as well as the personal demons some emergency personnel have to face afterwards. I was surprised that Kenny was allowed to remain part of the investigation, when he had such a deep personal connection to the case! The theme of the after-effects of trauma and loss (and its resulting anger) played a large role in the story until the very end of the novel and formed an integral part in the final resolution of the plot.

Throughout reading Unthinkable I thought that the story would make a great TV series, and was not surprised to find out later that the author Clyde Phillips is in fact a prominent writer for television and film, and was Executive Producer for popular TV shows such as Dexter and Nurse Jackie. Perhaps it is the different writing style which allowed the story to play out vividly in my mind, yet always held me at an arm’s length from feeling truly connected to its characters. Jane, intelligent, dedicated and professional, always remained a bit of an enigma to me, which made me a spectator rather than a participant in the story. Whilst this did not impair my enjoyment of the story, it never totally held me in its grip. Since I have not read any of the previous books in the series, I cannot comment whether this is due to jumping in at number four rather than getting to know the characters through Phillips’ earlier novels.

Unthinkable is a well-constructed police procedural which should appeal to lovers of the genre.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free preview copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final version of this novel may differ from the version I have previewed.

Previous books in the series:

Book Review: ELOISE by Judy Finnigan

Eloise by Judy Finnigan

Title: Eloise
Author: Judy Finnigan
Publisher: Redhook Books (Hachette Book Group)
Read: July 07 - 08, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

She was a daughter, a wife, a mother. She was my friend. But what secrets did Eloise take to her grave?

After her best friend Eloise dies from breast cancer, Cathy is devastated. But then Cathy begins to have disturbing dreams that imply Eloise's death was not all it seems.

With a history of depression, Cathy is only just recovering from a nervous breakdown and her husband Chris, a psychiatrist, is acutely aware of his wife's mental frailty. When Cathy tells Chris of her suspicions about Eloise's death, as well as her ability to sense Eloise's spirit, Chris thinks she is losing her grip on reality once again.

Stung by her husband's scepticism, Cathy decides to explores Eloise's mysterious past, putting herself in danger as she finds herself drawn ever deeper into her friend's great - and tragic - secret.

My thoughts:

I’m a sucker for a good ghost story, especially ones set in rural UK settings, so I was very excited to receive Eloise from Netgalley.

Still recovering from a recent bout of clinical depression, Cathy finds it difficult to cope with the untimely death of her best friend Eloise, a mother of two young children, from breast cancer. When Eloise begins to appear to her in her dreams, trying to convince her that her children are in terrible danger, Cathy finds it difficult to turn to anyone for help without appearing crazy and disturbed – even her husband Chris is doubting her sanity. Left without support, Cathy must find the courage to step out on her own to uncover her friend’s tragic secret.

As it turned out, the setting in beautiful Cornwall was the one thing I really enjoyed about the story, even when parts of the book read like advertising from the local tourism board. Finnigan’s love for the place is obvious, and showed in her descriptions of the story’s settings, which made Cornwall a strong contestant for moving a few notches up on my travel list.

Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the ghost story part, which for me was a huge let-down. From the start I found it very hard to relate to the protagonist Cathy, whose constant whining and self-pity wore thin very quickly. Having lost loved ones to cancer myself, the problem wasn’t a lack of empathy for Cathy’s feelings of loss – but the fact that I could not connect with Cathy’s feelings at all. Cathy mentions her depression, her sense of loss, her powerlessness – but she does not show them to the reader. Repeatedly we hear about her suffering from clinical depression, but where is the evidence?  When reading a novel, I am not interested in text-book explanations (I get enough of those at work), but I want to connect to the person’s feelings, the very soul of the character. I wanted Cathy to share her feelings, the sense of hopelessness she feels on waking, the blackness engulfing her with every step she takes, her sense of isolation, of living in a world apart from her peers, of being separated from the joys of life by an invisible wall, a heavy cloud bearing down on her. Instead, Cathy seems steeped in self-pity, without giving the reader a chance to feel her pain. This became very wearing after a while, until I dreaded picking up the book at all. I believe Eloise is Finnigan’s first novel – perhaps telling rather than showing is a trap many first-time novelists fall into, and this was certainly the case for me in this novel.

With the main protagonist having become a two-dimensional and rather tiresome figure I didn’t particularly like, I found it almost impossible to be emotionally engaged in any of the storyline unfolding. Cathy’s dialogue with the “ghost” of her deceased best friend Eloise is wooden and unbelievable, and destroyed the chance of any goose-bumps arising from the ghostly encounters. Cathy’s husband Chris, who is supposed to be a psychiatrist, at times acts so unprofessionally and unethically that I would have severe doubts about his professional credentials.

To keep this review as constructive rather than negative criticism, I will conclude with some points which normally make a good ghost story for me:

  • An emotional connection to the main character and an insight into their inner torment / fear.
  • An atmospheric description of the setting which has the power to elicit an emotional response and a spine-tingling feeling of fear / dread in the reader – eg a lonely moor, a bleak windswept coastline, a dilapidated mansion, etc.
  • A mystery at the heart of the novel which is slowly unveiled and which is strong enough to see the novel through to its conclusion. This mystery should also drive the ghostly activity.
  • Dialogue and action (rather than descriptions and explanations) carrying the story forward.

Unfortunately Eloise didn't deliver on any of those points for me.