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.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Book Review: LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from Skye: A Novel

Title: Letters from Skye
Author: Jessica Brockmole
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone
Read: July 06 - 07, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

A sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, Jessica Brockmole’s atmospheric debut novel captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart.

March 1912: Twenty-four-year-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, has never seen the world beyond her home on Scotland’s remote Isle of Skye. So she is astonished when her first fan letter arrives, from a college student, David Graham, in far-away America. As the two strike up a correspondence—sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets—their exchanges blossom into friendship, and eventually into love. But as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers as an ambulance driver on the Western front, Elspeth can only wait for him on Skye, hoping he’ll survive.

June 1940: At the start of World War II, Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, has fallen for a pilot in the Royal Air Force. Her mother warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn’t understand. Then, after a bomb rocks Elspeth’s house, and letters that were hidden in a wall come raining down, Elspeth disappears. Only a single letter remains as a clue to Elspeth’s whereabouts. As Margaret sets out to discover where her mother has gone, she must also face the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

My thoughts:

Two things instantly drew me to Letters from Skye when I came across it on Netgalley: its historical setting spanning both World Wars and the fact that the Isle of Skye has always intrigued me and is firmly engraved on my travel list (one day …..). I am happy to say I was not disappointed! Letters from Skye is a touching story of forbidden wartime romance, spanning two generations and two separate continents.

At twenty-four years of age Elspeth Dunn has never once left her home on the remote Isle of Skye due to her phobia of water and crossing the sea. Being somewhat of a dreamer she lives a reclusive life in the small cottage she shares with her fisherman husband, roaming the countryside and writing poetry. One day a fan letter arrives from far away America – David Graham, a college student in Illinois, has read one of her books whilst lying injured in hospital, and wanted to tell her how he has found solace in her poetry. One letter soon becomes a regular correspondence between Eslpeth (“Sue”) and Davey, as the two young people share their most intimate thoughts and dreams, finding a soul-mate in each other despite their personal circumstances and geographical distance. When the first World War breaks out, their friendship turns into more than just letters, and soon they are faced with some difficult choices ….

Twenty-six years later, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret Dunn accidentally finds one of the letters written by Davey to “Sue” and is surprised about her mother’s reaction when confronting her about it. Realising about how little she knows about her mother’s past and her extended family, Margaret decides to investigate. When her mother suddenly disappears, her quest takes her on a journey she has never imagined ….

Jessica Brockmole’s epistolary novel is told entirely by letters written between Davey and Elspeth, and later between Elspeth’s daughter Margaret, her fiancé Paul and her uncle Finlay. Although drawn by the content of the novel, I was worried that I would not like the unusual format, as I have never been fond of the epistolary style in the past and have even found it quite tedious at times. I am glad to say however that my fears were totally unfounded, as I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel! With Elspeth and Davey confiding their most private thoughts, hopes and dreams, the book felt strangely intimate, as if glimpsing into the very souls of its characters. Davey’s humour was refreshing and brought a smile to my face, and I could vividly picture his antics in college just as I had no trouble imagining a quiet and reflective Elspeth roaming the wild island and losing herself in nature. Having lived in some very remote places myself (before email), I related to Elspeth’s sense of isolation and her joy in being able to share her most private thoughts and dreams with a penpal thousands of miles away.

Like its modern counterpart Love Virtually (told by a sequence of emails between two strangers who fall in love through their correspondence), Letters from Skye tackles the topic of soul-mateship, of two people being able to connect intimately without ever having laid eyes on each other. I loved the way Elspeth’s and Davey’s friendship slowly develops and makes each person grow as their unusual relationship affirms their very personality, makes them become truer to themselves.  Although I did not get the same connection to Margaret and her letters, they serve their purpose in telling the second part of the tale and bring the story to full-circle. The one problem with the letters arose when characters experienced situations together – how to best share those with the reader? This created moments where characters had to re-hash shared experiences to one another in their letters, which did not quite ring true. However, this did not impair my enjoyment of the novel.

Having a weakness for anything set amongst the backdrop of the first or second World War, I loved the novel’s historical content, especially Davey’s descriptions of his life on the front in the French countryside as an ambulance driver. I could relate to his sense of purpose there, and found it easy to imagine how the camaraderie and mateship between the men would have drawn many other young men into battle only to lose their lives there.

Probably my only slight disappointment with the novel was its ending – this was one time where an open ending would have worked much better for me, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination rather than trying to stitch it all up too neatly. But for fear of spoilers I will not say any more about it here.

In summary, I really enjoyed reading Letters from Skye – curled up in front of the fire I soon lost myself in the novel’s landscape and its characters and it brought to life a different era. Letters from Skye is a quick, undemanding and enjoyable read which should appeal to lovers of historical fiction & romance (saying the word “romance” with trepidation since I am not a fan of lovey-dovey romance but really enjoyed this book – I even had a tear in my eye here and there).

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

Book Review: THE WEEPING GIRL by Håkan Nesser

The Weeping Girl

Title: The Weeping Girl
Author: Håkan Nesser
Publisher: Mantle
Read: July 01 - 05, 2013

Read an extract

Synopsis (Amazon):

Winnie Maas died because she changed her mind...
A community is left reeling after a teacher – Arnold Maager – is convicted of murdering his female pupil Winnie Maas. It seems the girl had been pregnant with Maager's child.

Years later, on her eighteenth birthday, Maager's daughter Mikaela finally learns the terrible truth about her father. Desperate for answers, Mikaela travels to the institution at Lejnice, where Maager has been held since his trial. But soon afterwards she inexplicably vanishes.

Detective Inspector Ewa Moreno from the Maardam Police is on holiday in the area when she finds herself drawn into Mikaela's disappearance. But before she can make any headway in the case, Maager himself disappears – and then a body is found. It will soon become clear to Ewa that only unravelling the events of the past will unlock this dark mystery...

My thoughts:

Police Inspector Eva Moreno is not overly impressed when she is asked to interrogate a “scumbag” criminal (and police informer) on the first day of which was supposed to be a relaxing holiday by the seaside with her new lover. On her way to the dreaded interview, Ewa meets a young weeping girl on the train – and finds out that the girl, too, is on her way to a difficult meeting. Having just turned eighteen, Mikaela Lijphart has finally found out the identity of her birth father, who has been incarcerated in a mental institution for the last 16 years. She is on her way to see him to find out about the events that saw him imprisoned and her own mother reluctant to ever utter his name again. A few days later, Mikaela Lijphart disappears. Drawn into the investigation by the impression the young girl left on Ewa, and the local Chief Inspector’s reluctance to take the disappearance seriously, Ewa conducts a few investigations of her own – and gets drawn into an old murder case which may not have been as straight forward as it appears on paper ….

Like Nesser’s previous novels (which I have not read), this story takes place in a fictional Northern European country which seems to be a hybrid of Denmark, Netherlands, Germany and Sweden – and features characters with names from various different European nationalities. This totally confused me at first, until I googled one of the featured town names (Maardam) and found out that it is not a real location – well, one mystery solved! I also found out that The Weeping Girl is the eighth book in Nesser’s Van Veeteren series, and the first one to feature Ewa Moreno as a central character.

I really liked Ewa – in her thirties, with a failed long-term relationship behind her, Ewa is at the stage where she is questioning her life and career and longing for a family of her own. Her relatively new love affair with psychologist Mikael Bau offers a small glimmer of hope for her dream to come true, but pragmatic Ewa has her doubts about any happily-ever-after, knowing only too well that her police career usually interferes with her private life. And Ewa is a conscientious, compassionate and dedicated police officer, who will sacrifice her own needs to find justice – and is not afraid to go behind the back of the inept local Chief of Police Vrommel (termed affectionately by one of his own team as “the skunk in uniform”). Resourceful and determined, Ewa follows her leads tirelessly to get to the bottom of the mystery. And despite some personal issues, Ewa is not the seriously damaged character depicted in many other Scandinavian crime thrillers, but a person most of us will be able to relate to on some level.

Nesser’s police procedural is not the typical Scandinavian thriller I have come to expect – with a very dark and brutal element dominating the storyline. I have seen the story categorised by one reviewer as “Eurocrime”, and with Nesser’s setting being modelled on several European countries, this is not a bad name for the genre. Readers who find writers like Nesbo, Mankell and Larssen a bit too bloodthirsty may be pleasantly surprised by this author, who focuses more on the actual police investigation than the dark foreboding atmosphere and lurid descriptions of crime scenes found in other Nordic thrillers.

I did find the book a bit slow in the beginning, but was quickly drawn into the mystery once it unfolded. At times the translation seemed clunky, which made for a few laughs (not sure if the humour was intended by the author or if it was courtesy of the translation only) – one description of a “coagulating head” sticks in my mind. A case of a quite literal translation of a Swedish idiom? Nesser’s writing style is sparse, with few words wasted on flowery descriptions or explanations, which may not appeal to everyone, but which I found quite refreshing and unique (although I thought it did make it a bit harder to connect to the characters).

In a new class of Scandinavian (or European) thriller, The Weeping Girl may appeal to a wider audience of readers who enjoy police procedurals without all the gore. And although it did not grip me as much as some of my favourite Scandinavian authors (Nesbo included), I enjoyed reading The Weeping Girl and will look up some of Nesser’s other work in the future.

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

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Book Review: LIKE THIS, FOREVER by S. J. Bolton

Like This, For Ever by S.J. Bolton

Title: Like This, For Ever (Lacey Flint #3)
Author: S. J. Bolton
Read: June 25 - 28, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Keep telling yourself it's only fiction... As you read this heart-hammering thriller from the queen of London's crime scene.

Bright red. Like rose petals. Or rubies. Or balloons. Little red droplets.

Barney knows the killer will strike again soon. The victim will be another boy, just like him. He will drain the body of blood, and leave it on a Thames beach. There will be no clues for detectives Dana Tulloch and Mark Joesbury to find. There will be no warning about who will be next. There will be no good reason for Lacey Flint to become involved ... And no chance that she can stay away.

Keep telling yourself it''s only fiction.

My thoughts:

Bolton has done it again – created an unputdownable psychological thriller which had me hooked from the very first page. Featuring the multi-layered plot, flesh-and-blood characters and seamless flow of storyline we have come to expect of Bolton’s work, this is the kind of book you should only pick up when you have plenty of time to spare – because it is impossible to stop reading!

Like This Forever picks up where Dead Scared left off. Lacey Flint, still licking her wounds from her experiences in Cambridge, has seconded herself away in her little London flat, taking sick-leave from her role as police officer and refusing to answer DI Mark Joesbury’s concerned phonecalls. In the meantime, London is reeling from a spate of child murders – four ten-year-old boys have been abducted and found dead on the shores of side arms of the Thames a few days later. There is no evidence of sexual abuse or any other motive, and police are at a loss of suspects. Lacey’s neighbour, eleven-year old Barney, has his own interest in the boys’ murders – not only has he discovered links between their disappearances, but he is also being stalked by a person on facebook who seems to know a lot about the boys’ murders before anyone else does. When his own enquiries uncover gruesome evidence which may be too close to home, it is Lacey he turns to – unwittingly involving her in the investigation and putting both their lives in danger.

As with Dead Scared, in Like This Forever Bolton introduces a new character into the Lacey Flint series, this time the fresh voice of eleven-year old Barney Roberts (who first appears in Bolton’s short story IfSnow Hadn’t Fallen). Seeing the world through Barney’s eyes made for an interesting perspective, and I loved putting myself in the shoes of a child for a while, especially one as quirky and unusual as Barney. Bolton’s familiarity with children of that particular age-group shows (she has a son the same age), and Barney is one of the most engaging and interesting child-protagonists I have encountered for a long time. And whilst Barney’s gang brought back memories of reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five as a child (who hasn’t?), the book’s dark themes are definitely adult fare. Saying that, despite the sinister themes explored in the novel (and as usual Bolton does not pussyfoot around when describing scenes of violence and death), I thought they were handled with sensitivity and insight into the effects of trauma on young children.

I was afraid that after enjoying Bolton’s rural backdrops I would be disappointed in a London setting. Far from it – with her usual flair Bolton unearths the scariest, creepiest city locations and uses them to bring out every reader’s worst fears. A rickety houseboat on a muddy river, deserted factories, dilapidated Victorian mansions, tidal creeks and dark alleys – yikes, it brought out the goosebumps! Exploring some of these locations through the eyes of a child was a clever idea. Don’t we all have creepy childhood memories of sneaking into forbidden places in the dark (well, my generation anyway)? Again, as mentioned in my last review, I held my breath A LOT throughout Bolton’s latest work, whilst the innocent tapping of tree branches on our roof suddenly took on a menacing air. This was one time when I regretted being a fast reader – trying to meter out the enjoyment as long as I could, using the book as reward for a hard day at work, limiting myself to a few chapters at a time. Who was I kidding? I caved in almost immediately, devouring the book like an alcoholic demolishing the last bottle of vodka with a defiant “oh stuff it” thrust of the chin before burrowing into my doona and settling in for a night long read-a-thon.

The more I get to know Lacey, the more of an enigma she becomes and by now I am thoroughly intrigued. With a passionate encounter between Flint and Joesbury inevitable at some stage (surely?), I am very interested to see how these two will be able to overcome the deep dark past shadowing Lacey, driving her to the destructive behaviour she is demonstrating in Like This Forever. Somehow I cannot see her fitting into Joesbury’s ready made family idyll – but we will have to wait and see, won’t we? Which brings me to the worst part of having finished the novel – the long wait for the next instalment!

Again, as with Bolton’s previous works, the plot in Like This Forever is multilayered, cleverly constructed and impossible to predict. There is a terrible “oh no!” moment close to the end, when the twists take a terrifying direction, but still the final resolution was a total surprise. And whilst I knew that my own theories would surely be wide off the mark, since my imagination is no match for Bolton’s clever plotting, I still harboured many different theories and hungrily soaked up clues – only to be proven wrong of course.

To cut a long review short - another five stars to a writer on top of her genre! I cannot wait to read the next instalment in the Lacey Flint series (this is a diplomatic way of saying – come on, hurry up and get writing!). Bolton firmly stays cemented on my list of favourite writers, with three of her novels on my list of “best reads” in 2013. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and whilst it is possible to read it as a stand-alone novel, why deny yourself the pleasure to start at the beginning and read all three?

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Audiobook Review: AFTER THE FIRE, A STILL SMALL VOICE by Evie Wyld

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice

Title: After the Fire, a Still Small Voice
Author: Evie Wyld
Narrator: David Tredinnick
Publisher: Bolinda Audio
Read: June 23 - July 02, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Frank and Leon are two men from different times, discovering that sometimes all you learn from your parents' mistakes is how to make different ones of your own.

Frank is trying to escape his troubled past by running away to his family's beach shack. As he struggles to make friends with his neighbours and their precocious young daughter Sal, he discovers the community has fresh wounds of its own. A girl is missing, and when Sal too disappears, suspicion falls on Frank.

Decades earlier, Leon tries to hold together his family's cake shop as their suburban life crumbles in the aftermath of the Korean War. When war breaks out again, Leon must go from sculpting sugar figurines to killing young men as a conscript in the Vietnam War.

My thoughts:

In her captivating and heartfelt tale After the Fire, Evie Wyld beautifully captures the essence of small-town Australia and explores the impact of the legacy of war passed on to future generations.

The story follows the lives of Leon Collard and his son Frank, two men who carry scars not only from their own experiences but also those of past generations who have been affected by war. Leon is the son of holocaust-survivor parents who have started a new life in Australia in the 1950’s to give their son a better future. When the Korean war breaks out, Leon’s father, a talented baker and pastry-maker, enlists out of loyalty to his new country – and returns a shadow of his former self, fleeing the family home to escape his demons. Forced to assume the position of head of the household, Leon leaves school to run the family bakery on his own, first whilst his father is at war and later when his mother follows his father to North Queensland, never to return. One fateful day a conscription notice to fight in Vietnam arrives at the bakery – and Leon himself is forced to experience the horrors of war.

Scarred by his mother’s death at an early age and his father’s escape into alcoholism and violence, Frank Collard has long cut off all contact to his father. After a traumatic separation from his girlfriend, he flees his home in Canberra to revisit his grandparents’ small cabin in Northern Queensland, where he remembers having spent many summers when his mother was still alive and their family was whole. Settling into his new life Frank must slowly confront his own demons – and start the process of healing and forgiveness.

Wyld’s novel is as brutal as it is beautiful, with heart-breaking moments which will steal your breath away and make your eyes tear up. She has a way with words which paints a vivid picture of rural Australia and its people, the despair which comes with isolation and loss, the harshness of the landscape imprinted on people’s souls. The novel exposes and explores many dark subjects, such as war, displacement, PTSD, alcoholism, domestic violence, racism, relationship breakdown and loss – and yet its last chapters opened the doors to a feeling of hope, of closure, of moving forward through the pain into a brighter future.

Having grown up with the trauma of war affecting past generations of my own family, I could relate to how these are passed on to future generations, of wounds that will not heal, of unspoken horrors, silences which hang dark and heavy, an unexplainable feeling of hopelessness and despair. All men in Wyld’s story bear their pain in silence, drowning their sorrows in alcohol, lashing out violently either against themselves or their loved ones when it all becomes too much to bear. As Leon’s mother mourns her husband – because the shell of the man returned to her is not the same person she married – her love for her son is pitched against loyalty to her spouse, and in the end loyalty wins out. Just as Leon is practically left an orphan, with absent parents, history repeats itself when the adult Leon abandons himself in his own grief after the death of his wife, leaving young Frank to fend for himself. The full extent of Frank’s childhood trauma is never fully disclosed, but hinted at in mosaic-like fragments of Frank’s memories.

The harsh Australian landscape, the strange unexplained noises in the night, and the disappearance and murder of a young local girl further highlight the theme of violence and menace. At times Wyld introduces a hint of mysticism, both in the landscape as well as her characters. The sugar-figures, carefully preserved in a jar in Frank’s cabin, not only symbolise the loss of happiness and love, but also the burden Frank carries with him from generations past. Creation and destruction – a biblical theme fitting the novel’s title.

Having listened to the audiobook version of this novel, I must also give credit to the narrator David Tredinnick, who did an excellent job in bringing the characters to life. His narrative was a pleasure to listen to, like a yarn around a camp-fire, his characterisations spot-on, his voice evoking a harsh and yet beautiful Australia as captured in Wyld’s words.

I was thoroughly captivated by Wyld’s novel and it evoked some deep emotional responses I found hard to explain logically. A beautiful, heartfelt story – highly recommended.

This book forms part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge, as well as my 2013 Australian Women Writers challenge.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Audiobook Review: DEAD SCARED by S. J. Bolton

Dead Scared (Lacey Flint, #2)

Title: Dead Scared (Lacey Flint #2)
Author: S. J. Bolton
Narrator: Lisa Coleman
Publisher: Random House
Read: June 05 - 25, 2013

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When a rash of suicides tears through Cambridge University, DI Mark Joesbury recruits DC Lacey Flint to go undercover as a student to investigate. Although each student’s death appears to be a suicide, the psychological histories, social networks, and online activities of the students involved share remarkable similarities, and the London police are not convinced that the victims acted alone. They believe that someone might be preying on lonely and insecure students and either encouraging them to take their own lives or actually luring them to their deaths. As long as Lacey can play the role of a vulnerable young woman, she may be able to stop these deaths, but is it just a role for her? With her fragile past, is she drawing out the killers, or is she herself being drawn into a deadly game where she’s a perfect victim?

Dark and compelling, S. J. Bolton’s latest thriller—a follow-up to the acclaimed Now You See Me—is another work of brilliant psychological suspense that plumbs the most sinister depths.

My thoughts:

I have been a huge fan of S. J. Bolton’s writing ever since picking up Awakening earlier this year, and she never fails to impress and surprise me with her wonderfully creepy imagination and cleverly constructed plots.

A recent spate of violent student suicides in the university town of Cambridge has drawn the attention of the Special Crimes Directorate of the Metropolitan Police who suspect that there could be more to these suicides than meets the eye despite any concrete lack of evidence of foul play. On DI Mark Joesbury’s request, DC Lacey Flint is deployed as an undercover officer posing as a student at St. John’s College in an effort to find out more about the recent victims. To gain access to information, Lacey is put in contact with Evi Oliver, a respected psychologist and senior lecturer, who has been very concerned about the disproportionate number of student deaths compared to other years. Soon both Evi and Lacey become involved in some strange and frightening happenings themselves, which target them at their most vulnerable and expose their most intimate fears. With their own demons threatening to push them over the edge, they must not only try to find out who they can trust, but also try to stay one step ahead of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to protect his secret.

I love everything about Bolton’s writing, from the atmospheric rural UK setting to her flesh-and-blood characters, and the way she can make the most innocent scenes take on an air of menace and fear. Having fond memories of Cambridge from several visits there in my teenage years, I found it the perfect stage for Lacey’s new deployment and could easily picture its historic halls, its canals, its sprawling grounds – so steeped in history that the spooky atmosphere Bolton creates so effortlessly suited it perfectly.

Bolton’s skills lie in being able to share her amazing imagination and cleverly constructed, original plots through her writing by letting her characters carry the storyline in their actions and dialogue. No time is wasted in boring explanations – instead, like peeling the layers of an onion, each character’s secrets are revealed step-by-step, making it impossible to put the book down. Every page holds a tiny clue, a new piece of the puzzle, designed to come together in a breath-taking finale, which always, always has that certain wow-factor which makes for a great suspense story. I love how some scenes retain an air of mystery which is never fully explained away, making them stick in the mind long after the last page has been turned. One of them for me was Lacey’s encounter with a bird of prey – one perfect example of how to raise the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck with an apparently innocuous scene. I find myself holding my breath A LOT throughout reading Bolton’s books.

Lacey is a character I am warming to more and more the more I get to know her – with the mystery surrounding her past and her plucky, independent personality she makes the perfect modern heroine. Somewhat rash and impulsive, Lacey is not afraid to take risks, but in Dead Scared we also find out about her deepest fears, the vulnerable side she keeps hidden from the world. Because of the mystery surrounding her, Lacey can get away with decisions which may seem reckless and unreasonable for a police detective – and which add greatly to the suspense. In Dead Scared, the frustrated sexual tension between Lacey and DI Joesbury heats up a notch, but never distracts from the actual storyline.

Evi Oliver is a character I am hoping to see more of in future novels – she may have started out as a supporting cast, but soon became a central figure in the drama playing out in this beautiful historic town. The parallel storyline of Evie nursing her own wounds and trying to keep her own demons under wraps was as captivating to me as Lacey’s story, and I was sad to think that we may not get to revisit this character again.

With Bolton’s usual flair, she has created a complex and clever plot which is impossible to predict and took me on a roller coaster ride of nail-biting suspense. Somehow, despite its complexity and perhaps at times far-fetched details, the story never pushed the boundaries of credibility, even when the full scale of the conspiracy was finally exposed. Instead, I was so engrossed in the story that it felt almost like I had been a bystander, witnessing events through my own eyes.

A final salute goes to Lisa Coleman, the narrator of the audio-version of the book I listened to (and which captivated me through many hours of night-time commute to and from night-shift, contributing to road safety because no matter how tired I may have been, I could NEVER have fallen asleep through that tale). Lisa’s narration fitted both the setting as well as the characters perfectly, who were brought to life by her skill of giving each one of them a unique voice.

I HIGHLY recommend Dead Scared to anyone who loves a gripping psychological thriller – even better, start with Now You See Me and work your way through Bolton’s entire Lacey Flint series. It is easy to see how Bolton earned herself the title of “High Priestess of rural gothic crime”. Wow. Five stars from me – what more can I say?

This book forms part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge.