Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Book Review: THE ASYLUM by John Harwood

The Asylum by John Harwood

Title: The Asylum
Author: John Harwood
Publisher: Random House. Expected publication May 21st 2013
Read: February 18 - 20, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

A brilliant new Gothic thriller from the acclaimed author of The Ghost Writer and The Seance Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton the day before, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.” Suddenly her voluntary confinement becomes involuntary. Who is the woman in her uncle’s house? And what has become of her two most precious possessions, a dragonfly pin left to her by her mother, and a journal that contains the only record of those missing weeks? Georgina’s perilous quest to free herself takes her from a cliffside cottage on the Isle of Wight to the secret passages of Tregannon House, into a web of hidden family ties on which her survival depends.

Another delicious read from the author praised by Ruth Rendell as having “a gift for creating suspense, apparently effortlessly, as if it belongs in the nature of fiction.”

My thoughts:

“Intriguing” was the word that first came to mind when I received John Harwood’s “The Asylum” in the mail. Always one to value a good spooky gothic mystery, I put it on top of my tbr pile and got stuck into it.

The novel opens with narrator Georgina Ferrars, a young woman living in Victorian London, waking in a strange place and being told she is an in-patient at Tregannon House, a mental asylum on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. Worse still, she has been admitted under a different name, Lucy Ashton, which she apparently used to introduce herself when first coming to the asylum after having suffered a serious grand-mal seizure causing confusion and memory loss. Georgina has no memory of the incident, or of the weeks leading up to her current predicament. When her desperate attempt to escape the asylum fails, Georgina realises that her only way out of the institution is to find out what has really happened to her and to prove her true identity. With the help of an unusual ally she sets out to uncover the truth.

The Asylum is partially told by Georgina Ferrars’ narrative, partly by letters from a mysterious relative to her mother, and partly by Georgina’s own notes in a journal she kept before her memory loss. I am not usually a fan of narratives in letter format, but oddly it worked for me in this instance, and added to the mystery.

Harwood does an excellent job in building mystery and intrigue, and had me wondering as to the true identity of Georgina Ferrars until all was revealed. However, I thought that Harwood could have taken better advantage of the setting – a spooky mental asylum on a Cornish moor – to create a truly chilling and atmospheric story. As it was, Georgina’s stay at the facility sounded almost sheltered and comfortable, with none of the spine-chilling details we normally associate with Victorian mental institutions. So whilst the mystery was grounded in strong foundations, it lacked the chill factor which would have seen me curl under the bedcovers, terrified and mesmerised and feeling very lucky to live in the 21st century. For health professionals, the cause of Georgina’s amnesia will probably become fairly obvious long before the end of the novel – for others it may come as a total surprise and still have the wow-factor of an unexpected twist. As I had guessed that particular detail before it was revealed, the ending was not unexpected, and perhaps a bit too Frankenstein-ish for me. But that is something every reader must judge for themselves, and I will not give away any more here.

This is the first novel by John Harwood I have read, and I am interested in picking up some of his previous books, which have received high accolades by his fans. As far as historic mysteries go, I did enjoy the atmosphere and the suspense. Though not in the same class as S. J. Bolton as far as gothic spine-chillers are concerned, I did enjoy “The Asylum” and look forward to reading more from this author.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through The Reading Room. However, all views expressed in this review are strictly my own.

I read this book as part of the 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - historical mystery.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Book Review: LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Doubleday
Read: February 9 - 17, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life's bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here is Kate Atkinson at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

My thoughts: 

On the 11 February 1910, during a fierce snowstorm, Sylvie Todd gives birth to a baby girl. The doctor is delayed due to the snow, and the child dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord.

On the 11 February 1910, the same baby draws a lusty breath, saved by the doctor who arrives in the nick of time, just before the roads are closed due to the snow. Sylvie names her daughter Ursula – “little bear”.

Over the years young Ursula Todd has many misadventures which result in her death, from drowning to suicide to being buried under a bombed building. But for Ursula, death is not the end, but rather a new beginning, as she is born time and time again to start her life from the very moment she is saved by the doctor cutting the umbilical cord. New choices, often miniscule variations from her former life, result in startlingly different outcomes for Ursula. However, Ursula has no memories of her former lives, only vague premonitions or growing feelings of déjà vu, which compel her to take actions she cannot rationally explain – and see her sent into therapy very early in childhood by her concerned parents, who put Ursula’s feelings down to her “vivid imagination”.

Born into a time of war and upheaval, Ursula experiences both World Wars several times over, taking part in unique historic events which could change the future for mankind – if she can stay alive long enough to experience the consequences.

Life After Life is a clever and unique novel. Doesn’t everyone wonder at some stage how different their lives may have turned out if they had made different decisions, taken action, chosen another path? It is not the first time that the concept of the “butterfly effect” has been explored in a novel (such as in “Before I Fall”, for example), where small acts have far reaching effects. But Atkinson introduces a whole new concept to that idea – of having to relive the same life over and over again, each death starting a new beginning, a new chance to get it right.

The style of the novel is as circular as the pattern of Ursula’s existences – each time she dies, we are propelled back to the start, that fateful day in February 1910, when a little baby girl is born. And although Ursula’s actions have some bearing on the fate of her family, their paths stay fairly constant throughout the different storylines, their personalities unchanged. It highlights the interesting concepts of free will and predestination – how much control do we really have over our destiny? Despite the different timeframes and circular storyline, I didn’t find the book confusing, but caught myself eagerly awaiting another new chance at life when Ursula’s circumstances where especially grim. Since she has been written into some of history’s memorable moments, the novel was also like a trip back in time, of watching historic events unfold in front of my eyes. Atkinson’s atmospheric descriptions of London during the Blitz brought the era to life for me, adding another point of interest to the story.

As mentioned, some of Ursula’s lives are glum, her circumstances desperate. She experiences tragedy, loss and grief many times over, trying to find the right path which each new life she is granted. All characters are compelling and realistically drawn, from Ursula herself to her somewhat dysfunctional family and her companions in her different lives. By presenting a heroine as flawed as the average person, with an average life and hurdles to overcome which many can relate to, Atkinson draws in her readers and holds them captive until the last page is turned.

I would perhaps have preferred a more definitive conclusion – not answers, as such, but a “wow”-factor, a memorable ending which would niggle me into pondering it for some time to come. November 1930, for example – I thought that particular chapter offered the prefect finale (readers will know what I mean, I will not give any spoilers here). But with Ursula’s life being fluid, without a beginning and an end, just a constant circle of life, the novel too offers no neat answers, just possibilities. Fitting, but not entirely satisfying for my inquisitive mind (as I was left asking: Why? How? What?).

Life After Life would make a perfect book club novel with many points for discussion and debate. I thoroughly enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a fresh new concept about life in general, and an atmospheric, compelling read.

Disclaimer: I received a free ARC of this novel from the publisher, courtesy of The Reading Room - the thoughts contained in this review are strictly my own.

I read this novel as part of my 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - "published in 2013".

Friday, 15 February 2013

Book Review: CRIMINAL by Karin Slaughter

Criminal (Will Trent, #7)

Title: Criminal
Author: Karin Slaughter
Publisher: Audio Go (audio version)
Read: February 02 - 14, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Karin Slaughter’s new novel is an epic tale of love, loyalty, and murder that encompasses forty years, two chillingly similar murder cases, and a good man’s deepest secrets.

Will Trent is a brilliant agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Newly in love, he is beginning to put a difficult past behind him. Then a local college student goes missing, and Will is inexplicably kept off the case by his supervisor and mentor, deputy director Amanda Wagner. Will cannot fathom Amanda’s motivation until the two of them literally collide in an abandoned orphanage they have both been drawn to for different reasons. Decades before—when Will’s father was imprisoned for murder—this was his home. . . .

Flash back nearly forty years. In the summer Will Trent was born, Amanda Wagner is going to college, making Sunday dinners for her father, taking her first steps in the boys’ club that is the Atlanta Police Department. One of her first cases is to investigate a brutal crime in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Amanda and her partner, Evelyn, are the only ones who seem to care if an arrest is ever made.

Now the case that launched Amanda’s career has suddenly come back to life, intertwined with the long-held mystery of Will’s birth and parentage. And these two dauntless investigators will each need to face down demons from the past if they are to prevent an even greater terror from being unleashed.

A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and riveting suspense, Criminal is the most powerful and moving novel yet from one of our most gifted storytellers at work today.

My thoughts: 

“Criminal” is another taut and terrifying thriller in the style and quality we have come to expect from acclaimed author Karin Slaughter, and like her other novels this one does not disappoint. Although the latest in the Will Trent series, the story’s dual time format explores the early beginnings of Will Trent’s life, from the circumstances which saw him orphaned to his dyslexia and the complex origins of his relationship with his boss Amanda Wagner.

As Will Trent’s relationship with widowed paediatrician Dr Sara Linton becomes more serious, he takes Sara to the abandoned and dilapidated building of the Atlanta Children’s Home to show her the place where he spent most of his childhood. The couple are surprised by the sudden arrival of Amanda Wagner, lead investigator with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Will’s boss, when she storms into the building armed with a hammer, refusing to answer any of Will’s questions. Will suspects that her presence is linked to the investigation into the recent disappearance of a young female Georgia Tech student, a case Amanda has been keeping him away from by banishing him to airport duty for the small misdemeanour of wearing his hair too long. As she enters the steps leading into the basement, the old rotted wood gives way, sending her and the whole staircase crashing into the darkness. Suspecting the worst, Will climbs down after her, finding Amanda bleeding and dazed. In the few moments before the paramedics arrive, Amanda makes a startling confession, which will turn Will’s life upside down and brings back ghosts from the past he thought he had laid to rest.

In a parallel storyline, the novel skips back 30-odd years, to the time when a young Amanda Wagner and Evelyn Mitchell are working as plain-clothes detectives in the sex crimes division of the Atlanta PD. Constantly battling against discrimination from their male counterparts in the force, as well as the general perception that women are not suited to proper police work, the two women face fierce opposition when they start to look into the disappearance of three young prostitutes, especially when their informant dies in an supposed suicide. All women share similar characteristics – they are young, blonde, pretty and drug addicts. Drawn into a dark underworld of prostitution and the drug trade, the two officers risk their own lives and careers to bring justice to the missing girls, which they suspects have fallen prey to a serial predator.

Slaughter also grants insight into the victims’ fates by giving some of them a voice, adding a chilling and dark element to the novel which is not for the faint hearted. When a link between the early crimes and the present disappearance is revealed, it starts off a race against time to prevent any more lives being lost.

I have been an avid reader of Karin Slaughter’s novels for some time now, and soon became hooked on this latest instalment in the Will Trent series. For readers new to Slaughter’s writing, I do recommend starting the series from the beginning before attempting to read “Criminal”, as the characters and the storyline are complex and skilfully crafted, and it will make much more sense with a firm foundation of background information from previous novels. Personally, I loved finding out details about Will Trent’s history, as many questions about his childhood were finally answered.

Slaughter’s books are not for the faint hearted – some of the details in “Criminal” are truly horrific and mind-boggling, enough to give fuel to your worst nightmares. I listened to the audio book version of the novel, and often found myself holding my breath in terrified anticipation, or wincing in horror as the gruesome details of the victims’ fates are revealed. And yet I could not tear myself away and sat in my driveway long after returning home, unable to switch off the CD before finding out what had happened. The details of the sexual discrimination rife in the police force in the 1970’s was mind boggling, seeing that this was not all that long ago – my mother’s generation.

The dual time frame of the novel worked well for me, providing two very separate storylines which came together in the end in a terrifying finale and with an unexpected final twist I absolutely did not see coming. By weaving together the past and the present, Slaughter brought her characters to life, giving them not only a personal history but also very unique personalities and explanations for their decisions throughout the whole series. It is due to the author’s great skill that Will, Amanda and Sara became as real to me as flesh-and-blood counterparts – and I am craving to read the next book in the series.

My only criticism has more to do with the media I chose than the actual story – due to the many characters involved and the multiple timeframes, I sometimes found it hard to keep track of all the names and places mentioned in the book. If I were to read this book again, I would probably choose the print version for that reason. Having said that, the novel certainly made my commute to and from work a lot more interesting, and kept me awake late at night after a long tiring shift, so I’m not complaining!

A terrific thriller, highly recommended!

I read this thriller for my 2013 Audiobook Challenge.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Book Review: THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller

Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Read: February 04-09, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

An astonishing novel about redemption and forgiveness from number-one bestselling author Jodi Picoult.
Sage Singer is a young woman who has been damaged by her past. Her solitary night work as a baker allows her to hide from the world and focus her creative energies on the beautiful bread she bakes.
Yet she finds herself striking up an unlikely friendship. Josef Weber is a quiet, grandfatherly man, well respected in the community; everyone's favourite retired teacher and Little League coach.
One day he asks Sage for a favour: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses.
Then Josef tells her that he deserves to die - and why.
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed horrendous acts ever truly redeem themselves? Is forgiveness yours to offer if you aren't the person who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - would it be murder, or justice?

My thoughts:

Jodi Picoult’s latest book, The Storyteller, is a dual time novel, partly set in the present and partly during World War II. Weaving together the stories of several different characters, Picoult creates a powerful tale exploring several fundamental moral and ethical dilemmas arising from the human condition. Are there crimes so horrible they can never be forgiven, even if the person has shown remorse and tried to redeem himself? Is it justice to take a life for a life, or does it make you a killer? Is evil inherent, or can it be created by the environment we live in? Picoult tackles these issues sensitively and bravely, not shying away from exploring all angles to these questions.

The novel opens with the character of Sage Singer, a reclusive young woman scarred in an accident and recently bereaved by the death of her mother. Estranged from her sisters and her peers, she befriends an old man, Josef Weber, at her local grief-counselling group. The friendship is tested, however, when one day Josef asks Sage a favour - to kill him. Sage is shocked and repelled when Josef, a much beloved upstanding citizen in the community, confesses horrific crimes he has committed during World War II as a leading SS officer at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Haunted by those memories he says he deserves to die.

Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is a Holocaust survivor who has never spoken to her family about the things she had to endure as a young girl during the war. Rounded up and sent with her family to the Łódź Ghetto and later Auschwitz, Minka was the only one of her family to survive to see the liberation of the concentration camps by the allies at the end of WWII. When Sage involves a federal agent investigating war crimes to look into Josef Weber’s history, and bring him to justice, Minka must confront her past once again.

The story weaves together narratives by all the characters involved, including a fictional character who played a crucial part in Minka’s survival and provides a kind of fable which helped Minka make sense of the terrible events she had to endure.

Picoult’s descriptions of life in the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz ring true and paint a vivid – and therefore often gruesome – picture of a young Jewish girl’s life during the war. In The Storyteller Picoult’s skills as a writer shine through once again, stirring up strong emotions and inviting the reader to explore the themes exposed in the story, where there are no easy answers. I thought that giving Josef Weber a voice was very brave, and it shows that there is a human side even to persons we may perceive as monsters due to the heinous crimes they have committed. At the same time, Picoult doesn’t make excuses, nor does she pass judgment – instead, the topic is explored in several ways, like this dialogue between Sage and Josef:

[Sage] Can you blame the Nazi who was born into an anti-semitic country and given an anti-semitic eduction, who grows up and slaughters five thousand jews? Yes. Yes, you can. […]
“I just don’t understand how you did it,” I say, into the silence. “How you lived a normal life, and pretended none of this ever happened.”“It is amazing, what you can make yourself believe, when you have to,” Josef says.

And later, in Minka’s fictional tale, the character of Aleks says to Ania:
“It turns out that the more you repeat the same action, no matter how reprehensible, the more you make an excuse for it in your own mind.”

The themes of justice vs retribution, forgiveness vs hate and the bonds of the past on future generations are themes which stayed with me long after finishing this book. I have personally met Holocaust survivors, and am constantly amazed by their resilience and positive attitude after such tragedy, and the ability of many to forgive their perpetrators. I take my hat off to Picoult for being able to create an authentic character such as Minka, who reflects this perfectly. With Minka, she gives a voice to many Holocaust survivors, making sure that that part of history is not forgotten, whilst inspiring the reader to think for themselves.

The only reason I didn’t give the book five stars is that I found it very hard initially to warm to Sage. Having found her last couple of books a bit lacklustre and uninspiring, I very nearly cast this book into the “same old, same old” category without giving it a proper chance, only reading on because I was interested in the subject matter. However, as soon as Minka’s tale took over, I was riveted, and sat up late into the night unable to put it down. Picoult’s trademark twist at the end was clever, though not totally unexpected – which brought the novel to a fitting finale.

If like me you have been underawed by Picoult’s last novel, “Lone Wolf”, I very strongly recommend giving her another chance and picking up “The Storyteller”. You won’t be disappointed.

Thank you to the publisher Allen & Unwin for providing me with an advanced reading copy of this novel. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are strictly my own.

This book also forms part of my 2013 Eclectic Reader Challenge - "published in 2013".

Sunday, 3 February 2013

More Nele Neuhaus

My excitement was HUGE when I came across one of Nele Neuhaus’ books in a tiny hidden-away second hand bookstore on Gili Trawangen, and my normally scroogy self didn’t hesitate when asked to part with three times more money for the well-thumbed novel than I would have spent for food for the whole day. With what my husband called disproportionate enthusiasm (“but as long as it keeps you happy”) I threw myself into the story. There is nothing better than getting your hands on a really good book, except getting your hands on a really good book whilst you are on holidays and not hampered by work or other commitments to fully commit to a massive read-a-thon (apart from the odd swim or food break). Plus, discovering a new favourite author who has written a whole crime series opens the door to a lot of future reading pleasure. After stumbling across S. J. Bolton’s novels earlier this year, Nele Neuhaus is already my second author discovery for 2013, which added several must-reads to my tbr list – seeing that this was only January, I thought I am doing well!

So it was with some sadness that I turned the last page this morning, feeling as if I have lost a good companion which has kept me company through good times and hard, such as airport stopovers, even though its 500-odd page bulk nearly sent my backpack over the baggage limit.

Wer Wind sät (Bodenstein/Kirchhoff, #5)
This is the book I am talking about:

Title: Wer Wind Sät
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Publisher: Ullstein
Read: January 28 - February 02, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Ein Nachtwächter stürzt zu Tode. Ein Grundstück im Taunus, das plötzlich zwei Millionen Euro wert ist, kostet einen alten Mann das Leben. Pia Kirchhoff und Oliver von Bodenstein ermitteln im Kreise von Verdächtigen, die alle vorgeblich für eine gute Sache kämpfen. Doch jeder von ihnen hat sein eigenes Motiv - nichts ist, wie es scheint. Bis die Lügengebäude einstürzen. Rachsucht und Gier offenbar werden. Liebe in Hass umschlägt und Menschen büßen müssen.

My thoughts: 

Wer Wind Säht is the 5th book in the Kirchhoff and von Bodenstein thriller series, and is currently only available in German and Korean (as far as I know). For once I am really grateful to be bilingual, and it makes up for the countless amount of times people have asked about my accent and whether I am South-African (the answer is no). Being familiar with the language also helped immensely with keeping track of the many names of characters in the book.

I won’t go too much into the storyline of Wer Wind Sät, since it is a complex thriller with many characters, but I will give away that it revolves around the apparently big business of alternative energy, borne out of climate change being the number one news item hogging the headlines in the 21st century. Neuhaus explores the bribery and corruption which may underlie the profit-making from alternative sources like wind energy, and that perhaps there is more (or less) to the climate change debate than the average person realises. In her usual style, the topic is packaged neatly into a complex, atmospheric and intelligent police procedural, which had me hooked until the very end. The personal stories of police detectives Pia Kirchhoff and Oliver von Bodenstein continue from where they left off in “Snow White Must Die” and alas, end with several “cliff-hangers” so that I now have to try to get my hands on the next book in the series!

What I like most about Neuhaus’ novels (apart from her writing style, which appeals to me greatly) is her ability to uncover the evil which lurks in ordinary people, living ordinary lives in ordinary towns – if the motivation is there. Whether it is money, revenge, power or self-protection, it implies that evil can live right amongst us, or even lurk within us, and be unleashed where you least expect it. Lulled into a false sense of security by descriptions of idyllic country life in the beautiful Taunus region, the reader is soon confronted with less palatable truths, escalating into nightmarish proportions. I was shocked to find one of the protagonists I felt drawn to was not who he / she appeared to be – how could I have been so blind? I became so involved in the story that it almost felt real, as if I had been there and seen it all. It is not often that an author can really pull this off, but Wer Wind Sät did it for me.

This is definitely and author I want to read a lot more of. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t sell the kindle edition of the series in Australia, but after some intense and time-consuming internet searching I have managed to secure one second-hand paperback copy of Tiefe Wunden (#3) on ebay, as well as electronic versions of Mordsfreude (#2) and Böser Wolf (#6) from an ebook store. Seeing that each book is around 500 pages long, my next month of reading is taken care of. How exciting!

For more information about Nele Neuhaus and her books, visit her website.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Book Review: THE PERFECT HUSBAND by Lisa Gardner

The Perfect Husband (Quincy & Rainie, #1)

Title: The Perfect Husband (Audio CD version)
Author: Lisa Gardner; narrator Regina Reagan
Publisher: ISIS Audio Books
Read: January 15 - February 2, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

What would you do if the man of your dreams hides the soul of a killer?

Jim Beckett was everything she'd ever dreamed of...But two years after Tess married the decorated cop and bore his child, she helped put him behind bars for savagely murdering ten women. Even locked up in a maximum security prison, he vowed he would come after her and make her pay. Now the cunning killer has escaped—and the most dangerous game of all begins....

After a lifetime of fear, Tess will do something she's never done before. She's going to learn to protect her daughter and fight back, with the help of a burned-out ex-marine. As the largest manhunt four states have ever seen mobilizes to catch Beckett, the clock winds down to the terrifying reunion between husband and wife. And Tess knows that this time, her only choices are to kill—or be killed.

My thoughts:

What would it feel like to be married to a psychopathic serial killer? Teresa Matthews is only 18 and from an abusive home when the handsome young police officer Jim Beckett proposes to marry her and offer her an escape from her dreary existence. Little does Tess know that soon her life is about to become a lot worse. Suffering psychological and physical abuse from her husband she is also worried that behind Jim’s covert nightly activities lies a terrible secret. As more and more young women disappear and are found brutally murdered, Tess finally musters up the courage to contact authorities, who confirm that Jim Beckett is indeed one of the worst serial killers the county has ever had to deal with. But before they can apprehend him, he wreaks terrible revenge on Tess, who barely escapes with her life.

Now, after only two years, Jim Beckett is back after murdering two prison guards and escaping the high security jail he had been confined to. Knowing that her husband will not rest until she is dead, Tess decides that she can no longer be a sitting target – for her own sake and that of her 4-year-old daughter. Instead of staying at the safe house the authorities have provided for her, she travels to the desert to hire ex-mercenary J. T. Dillon to teach her everything he knows about self-defence. When Jim finally comes for her, she intends to be ready…

The Perfect Husband is one of Lisa Gardner’s earliest books, but already shows her hallmark of creating a fast-paced thriller with lots of action, violence and a mounting body count. Personally, I am a bit divided about this book, which makes if difficult to review it. There were elements in the story I really enjoyed, such as the premise of hiring an ex-marine to pro-actively protect yourself against your abusive husband who is coming to kill you.

However, as with many of Lisa Gardner’s books, I found some things just too hard to swallow, the characters just a bit too black-and-white, and the timeline didn’t fit. Jim Beckett, the young cop-turned-serial-killer has almost superhuman powers, outwitting authorities at every opportunity and leaving behind a trail of bodies. J. T. Dillon, the posterboy of testosterone, clutches the bodies of innocent maidens to his sweaty naked chest whilst drowning his sorrows and demons in binges of tequila. And Tess, on one hand weak, helpless and abused, miraculously learns self-defence and develops a muscled body in little more than a couple of weeks – hmmmm, not sure about that one. Also, not trusting authorities to protect her, she nevertheless leaves her young daughter in their care. Being a stickler for such details, these things annoyed me, even though I reminded myself over and over again that this was purely fiction, and to be taken for its entertainment value alone. But alas, it still bugs me! The constant sexual tension / frustration between J. T. and Tess was also hard to bear, and if he had clutched her to his naked chest one more time I would have screamed! Personally, I find that going to such extremes in the good / evil stakes takes away from the suspense rather than adding to it (I found Jim Beckett more of a laughable caricature than scary), and makes the story appear clumsy and a bit contrived. But seeing the many five-star reviews out there, this is just my very personal opinion (so don’t shoot me down in flames, ok?).

This is my usual gripe with Lisa Gardner books, and despite moaning about them I still pick up her novels and generally enjoy reading them. Gardner is not afraid to discuss some very dark elements in her stories, and this one is no exception. Incest, abuse, sexual perversion, betrayal – all of Gardner’s characters are flawed in some way or another, overcoming personal tragedies which play sidelines in the larger story and add depth to their personalities. There are plenty of twists and turns, albeit very little mystery (since there is never any doubt as to who the killer is), and lots of action and violence.

If you are a fan of Gardner’s writing, the odds are that you will enjoy this one as well. The Perfect Husband is the fist book in the Quincy / Raine series, though FBI profiler Pierce Quincy only appears on the sideline.

I chose this book to cover several of my 2013 reading challenges: