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.