Friday 22 May 2015

Book Review: YOU BELONG TO ME by Samantha Hayes

You Belong To Me

You Belong to Me
Author: Samantha Hayes
Publisher: Random House UK, Cornerstone
Read: May 2015

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Isabel left England to escape her past. For the first time in months, she's beginning to feel safe. But then a letter shatters her world once more as she learns of her parents' death in a car crash. Reluctantly she returns home, unable to shake off the feeling she's being watched but determined not to let fear rule her life any more.

DI Lorraine Fisher is in the middle of a big murder case -- a serial killer is preying on young women. And it seems they had all complained of being stalked. She too is convinced she's being watched.

Are both women victims of their own imagination or is someone out there watching and waiting? And will one of them be next?

My thoughts:

Isabel, a young English woman with a traumatic past, is living and working in a small hotel in India to get away from whatever frightened her so much that it made her flee her home country and leave behind her friends and loved ones without even saying good bye. But when she receives word that her parents have been killed in a horrific car crash with her ex-boyfriend as the driver, she feels that she must return home to pay her last respects, despite her fears of the evil which has kept her away all this time.

In the meantime, DI Lorraine Fisher is investigating the suspicious deaths of two young women who had filed complaints of being stalked by an ex-boyfriend shortly before they died. Lorraine is convinced that there is a connection between the two women, even if her boss doesn’t believe her and instead urges her to drop the investigation and take a holiday. Tired, overworked and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Lorraine feels that she must find justice for the victims, and sets out on her own to follow her leads. Soon her paths cross with Isabel, for whom things have started to go horribly wrong. Could there be a connection between her and the two victims?

It is difficult to review this story without giving away a vital bit of information in the puzzle. Hayes has constructed an intricately woven story of mystery and intrigue which twists and turns and traps the reader in unsuspecting corners before revealing that they have gone down a completely wrong track. I was instantly intrigued by Isabel’s plight and got caught up in the story line and the undercurrent of menace which hung over it. However, I admit that the story became a little bit too far fetched for my liking at times, and I worked very hard to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it for its entertainment value when all my logical senses screamed – not possible! I did enjoy the psychological element of the thriller, where the main character questions her own sanity and makes the reader question whether the unfolding events are in fact true.

I really liked the character of DI Fisher and was pleased to hear that there are previous books featuring her as investigator – I will make sure to look those up. All in all, You Belong to Me was an enjoyable read which I finished quite quickly. Whilst some details still bug me (no I will not spoil anything here) the overall feeling was one of enjoyment and I give credit to the author for coming up with a very unique and imaginative plot and an ending you won’t see coming. 

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

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Book Review: INSIDE THE O'BRIENS by Lisa Genova

Inside the O'Briens

Title: Inside the O'Briens
Author: Lisa Genova
Publisher: Gallery Books
Read: May 2015

Synopsis (Goodreads):

From award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and neuroscientist Lisa Genova comes a powerful new novel that does for Huntington’s Disease what her debut Still Alice did for Alzheimer’s.

Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.

Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?

As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life “at risk” or learn their fate.

Praised for writing that “explores the resilience of the human spirit” (The San Francisco Chronicle), Lisa Genova has once again delivered a novel as powerful and unforgettable as the human insights at its core.

My thoughts:

Wow – what an emotional rollercoaster ride!

The O’Briens are a happy and close-knit Irish-American family of six all living under one roof of an old triple-decker at the “Bottom of the Hill”  in Charlestown. At 44, Joe O’Brien, patriarch and head of the family next to his devout Catholic wife Rosie, is enjoying the fruits of his labours after spending 25 years  as a cop on the Boston Police Force and raising four healthy children into adulthood. He is thinking that after another ten years of working the job he loves he may be able to retire with a good pension and spend his autumn years watching his grandchildren grow up and having some quality time with his wife and family uninterrupted by the constant demands of his job. His plans are cruelly interrupted though when he starts developing some strange neurological symptoms – muscular twitches and temper outbursts he cannot control and can no longer ignore.

After Rosie forces him to seek medical help and have some tests done, the doctor delivers devastating news: Joe has Huntington’s Disease, an neurodegenerative disease passed down from his mother who died when Joe was only a child. There is no cure, only temporary control of symptoms, and sufferers face a cruel fate as they progressively lose all muscle coordination. Instead of retirement, Joe may be facing a cruel death in ten years’ time after having lost total control over all his bodily functions. But worst of all: there is a 50% chance for each of Joe’s children to have inherited the disease. A simple blood test is all that is required to show whether Katie, Meghan, Patrick or JJ also carry the gene mutation causing Huntington’s. But is it better to know and be prepared or live life in the moment not knowing what cruel fate awaits?

I have read all of Lisa Genova’s novels, but Inside the O’Briens was definitely the one that touched me most – once I started reading I couldn’t stop! Genova’s neuroscientist background is obvious from the in-depth knowledge of the disease and its effect not only on sufferers but also on their immediate family, friends and neighbours. The reader watches in horror as the tight-knit O’Brien family slowly implodes and everyone faces their worst demons – their own mortality and that of the people closest to them. As Joe struggles to come to term with his own mortality and guilt about potentially having passed on a cruel deadly illness to his children, his wife Rosie is struggling with her faith, which in the past has given her strength and hope. Each of their children also face a horrible choice – would they prefer to know their fate or live life not knowing? There is anger, guilt, fear and despair, and each member of the O’Brien family deals with it in a different way.

Inside the O’Briens is written from the perspectives of Joe and his 21-year old daughter Katie, which gave a wonderful insight into family dynamics whilst not overdoing the psychological aspect of the story (as may have happened had Genova given each family member a voice). I really felt for Katie as she is struggling to make decisions regarding her future. How will not knowing if she is a carrier affect her? Will she be paranoid that each trip, each stumble or slip is a sign of Huntington’s? But would going through genetic testing be any better? Would knowing she had the disease stop her from having a relationship, planning a family, embarking on a career? As a yoga teacher Katie tries very hard to live in the moment and look after her health. But she knows that if she is gene-positive for Huntington’s, there is nothing she can do to make any difference – her fate is in her genes, it would just be a matter of time for the symptoms to manifest themselves.

There are so many impossible and heart-breaking choices in this book that it was difficult to fully comprehend the depths of despair a sufferer must face. And yet Genova manages to explore the topic with the family’s sense of hope, humour and love and support for each other. All the characters feel real and genuine, and it is impossible not to feel for them. Genova offers explanations of different aspects of the disease, reflecting the way in which Joe and his family find out the details themselves – the preview copy contained some textbook-type explanations (which may or may not be in the final edition of the book) which provided some background information on this cruel disease. Despite the serious topic, the overall feeling after reading it was positive, engendering a deep and instant gratitude for the health we take for granted. As a mother, I did not even want to imagine some of the horrible choices and devastating emotions experienced by the parents and would-be parents in this novel.

Inside the O’Briens is a complex and layered story of the emotional effects  of a cruel genetic disease on a family, which cannot be done justice in a review, so I will leave it at that. I think that Genova has done an outstanding job exploring this topic. Very highly recommended. Definitely a novel to go on my favourites list and one whose ethical dilemmas will stay on my mind for some time to come.

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


Friday 8 May 2015

Book Review: IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Read: May 2015
Expected publication: July 30, 2015

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In a dark, dark wood

Nora hasn't seen Clare for ten years. Not since Nora walked out of school one day and never went back.

There was a dark, dark house

Until, out of the blue, an invitation to Clare’s hen do arrives. Is this a chance for Nora to finally put her past behind her?

And in the dark, dark house there was a dark, dark room

But something goes wrong. Very wrong.

And in the dark, dark room....

Some things can’t stay secret for ever.

My thoughts:

26-year old Leonora Shaw, a published crime writer living a quiet life in London, is surprised and a little bit anxious when an email arrives in her inbox inviting her to the hen do of an old friend whom she hasn’t seen for 10 years. Reluctantly, she agrees to go, partly out of a strange sense of guilt about having lost touch with her former best friend from school and partly because Nina, another old friend she still sees occasionally, has also been invited. In the end, only six people arrive for the weekend, set in a lonely holiday house in the woods in Northumberland. It soon becomes obvious that nobody except the weekend’s organiser, Clare’s devoted and somewhat volatile friend Flo, really wants to be there. Relationships are strained, tempers short, and the weekend’s “fun activities” never quite seem to cut through the tension. In the isolated setting cut off from all phone and internet contact it doesn’t take long for people to feel cut off and trapped and for conflict to brew. Nora can’t wait to leave  – but before she can make her getaway, things start to go very very wrong .....

Despite the theme of hen dos and 20-something year old women’s peer group issues, which didn’t sound like my thing, In a Dark, Dark Wood grabbed me very quickly, drew me into the storyline and kept me interested until the final reveal. With its claustrophobic setting and atmospheric writing skilfully capturing the isolated forest setting, it made the perfect winter read curled up in front of the fire and feeling shivers down my spine as friendships become strained and events slowly but irrevocably spiral out of control. The author did an excellent job in building up tension: from the very first meeting of the disparate group of old friends and strangers whose only common denominator is Clare it is clear that there will be trouble. Then all phone contact is lost. Night falls, darkness closes in, tension rises. One of the friends makes a reference to the old Agatha Christie classic “Ten Little Indians”, and the comparison fits – a group of people each harbouring their own secrets and agendas trapped in an isolated house with things spiralling out of control. So who will die? And who will have done it? You will need to read it to find out.

Whilst the themes presented in the novel are not unusual and follow quite traditional guidelines of friendships gone wrong, In a Dark, Dark Wood is well executed and manages to build tension through a clever dual-timeline setting, switching from Nora’s present predicament of waking in a hospital room guarded by police to her memories of the events of that fatal weekend away. Despite the somewhat stereotypical theme of a key character suffering amnesia, which can be very convenient for the author enabling them to reveal events at a pace that suits the story but annoying for the reader, I felt that here it was not overdone and served to add to the tension and the final reveal. I also loved the author’s insights into toxic friendships and the dynamics of women’s peer groups carried over from childhood into adulthood, with all the little jealousies and ways to hurt each other. The setting itself, a modern house built of glass and steel set in a somewhat dark and menacing forest setting, added to the atmosphere and I felt that the author could have used this even more to add an extra “creepiness factor”.

Whilst I had a strong suspicion as to the identity of the killer quite early on, Ware added enough twists and turns to add extra layers of suspense that kept me interested. I was a bit disappointed in one really stupid decision Nora makes towards the end, which I felt was out of character for her, but which is a spoiler I do not want to give away here. However, despite this small niggle I really enjoyed Ware’s debut novel and think she is definitely a new voice to watch in the genre of psychological suspense – I hope there will be many more novels to come.

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

Sunday 3 May 2015

Book Review: FRIDAY ON MY MIND by Nicci French

Friday On My Mind

Title: Friday on my Mind (Frieda Klein #5)
Author: Nicci French
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Read: May 2015
Expected publication: June 24, 2015

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When a bloated corpse is found floating in the River Thames the police can at least sure that identifying the victim will be straightforward. Around the dead man's wrist is a hospital band. On it are the words Dr F. Klein.

But psychotherapist Frieda Klein is very much alive. And, after evidence linking her to the murder is discovered, she becomes the prime suspect.

Unable to convince the police of her innocence, Frieda is forced to make a bold decision in order to piece together the terrible truth before it's too late either for her or for those she loves. 

My thoughts:

Friday on my Mind is the fifth book in the popular Frieda Klein series written by husband & wife team Nicci French, and true to their usual style they have delivered another taut and tense psychological suspense story that penetrates deep into the unconscious and leaves an icy breath of dread in its wake. I am tempted to say that this one was my favourite in the series, realising that I have proclaimed the same about the last two books that came before – such is the addictive and compelling nature of French’s writing.

After leaving a trail of bodies behind in her wake in the last four books in the series and having had to face the demons of her own past, London-based psychotherapist Frieda Klein is confronted with yet another tragedy. A bloated corpse floating in the River Thames turns out to be her ex-lover Sandy, who is so decomposed that he can only be identified because he is wearing Frieda’s old hospital ID bracelet around his wrist. With no other clues to go on and considering the couple’s recent split, the police focus on Frieda as the only lead in Sandy’s murder, especially since it coincides with the disappearance of one of Frieda’s more troubled patients. Frieda is afraid that both incidents are connected to Dean Reeves, a dangerous man from her past who has been responsible for the death and misfortune of several people who have had conflict with Frieda. However, officially Dean Reeves is dead, and Frieda’s claims are being dismissed by police as delusional. When Sandy’s wallet is found hidden in one of Frieda’s drawers, Frieda becomes the prime suspect in his murder. She knows that to discover the truth she must evade police and set out on her own to investigate and find Sandy’s killer before another person gets harmed, even if it puts her own ordered life in jeopardy. Frieda Klein is on the run.

Over the course of the series, Frieda Klein’s character has really grown on me and can be summed up perfectly by the words of Detective Chief Inspector Sarah Hussein: “There is something odd about her.” Frieda wears her emotions like a dark cloak around her, firmly hugged to her body with mere snippets showing here and there, so that the reader is never quite sure what she is thinking. At times it makes her appear cold and heartless, until she lets small snippets of emotion show through the cracks, in her usual matter-of-fact voice:

“As was happening so often now, she had a sudden vivid flash of Sandy as he had once been, brimful of confidence and love. She saw the smile he turned on her. It was perhaps more painful to remember him happy than to recall him grim, angry and wretched. It almost took her breath away, the memory of what they had once had.”

A loner who is often abrupt and cold to the point of outward rudeness, Frieda can also be strangely warm and generous to the people she calls friends or random strangers she feels drawn to, giving insight into a kind, vulnerable side she shows only rarely. As an investigator, she is intuitive, methodical, fearless and determined, with an uncanny ability to read people without getting emotionally involved herself. There are no boundaries to what she will do in her quest for the truth, and she is not afraid to take action. By doing so, Frieda continues the theme running through most of French’s novels – a strong but troubled female protagonist touched by trauma who sets out on her own and takes action as her life spirals out of control. In the words of one of her friends:

“We know what Frieda would do because she’s gone and done it.”

Friday on my Mind features all of Frieda’s friends and foes from previous novels, taking up the story 18 months or so after the events of “Thursday’s Children”. And although it could be read as a stand-alone novel, I would recommend reading previous instalments in the series first to fully understand the characters’ backgrounds and motivations and get the full benefit of the story.

I have always loved Nicci French’s writing style, but more than ever, in the Frieda Klein series they have developed a voice which is uniquely theirs and quite different from other crime novels out there. Reflecting Frieda’s no-nonsense practical approach, the language is almost sparse, to the point and direct, not wasting unnecessary words on the emotions and inner feelings of characters. Instead, the book is driven almost solely by observation, dialogue and action, giving the reader the sense that the story is unfolding almost like an inner screenplay in front of their eyes. It is the skill of leaving certain things implied and left unsaid that French’s true talent lies, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks, keeping them engaged and owning the story. It also serves to maintain the constant tension and mystery that characterise French’s novels, since one can never be sure of the characters’ plans and intentions until they are in the process of carrying them out. Without being able to anticipate the characters’ next moves, the reader is taken on a fast-paced journey into the unknown, never sure where the next bend in the road will take them. The only advice I can give readers is to set plenty of time aside to enjoy this book – once you are on this journey you will not want to get off! I read it in one intense read-a-thon, so caught up in the action that I was unable to put the book down even with the prospect of severe sleep deprivation the next day. And it did not disappoint – a taut tale right until the very end, its constant tension and final twist made it well worth the journey. With the ending leaving the door wide open for Frieda to embark on yet another quest I am optimistic that the author duo will continue to delight their fans with further books in the series – after all, there are still two days of the week to cover at least!

Friday on my Mind is an addictive page-turner that will have you sit up late into the night reading. Very highly recommended and one of my favourite reads this year. 

A big thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Also see my review of Waiting for Wednesday

Friday 1 May 2015

Book Review: MISSING YOU by Kylie Kaden

Missing You

Missing You
Author: Kylie Kaden
Publisher: Random House Australia
Read: April 2015

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Missing You is a tantalising love story and a seductive suspense novel: ‘Our lives were built around the strength of a kiss between strangers. Yet seven years on, look where it led us . . .'

When Aisha met Ryan she fell hard for his good looks and easy charm. Why worry that he didn't want children or a 9 to 5 job? Nothing and no one would come between them.

But with the birth of their high-needs son, Eli, their extraordinary love is shackled into an ordinary life, their passion blunted by responsibility.

Until Ryan can't take it anymore.

Then, following a mysterious phone call late one night, Aisha leaves four-year-old Eli in the care of her elderly father Patrick - and doesn't come back.

As Patrick struggles with the grandson he barely knows or understands, his frustration with his missing daughter and absent son-in-law quickly turns to fear.

Particularly when blood is found in Aisha's abandoned car . . .

My thoughts:

When Aisha meets Ryan at university, the attraction is instant. Despite their unbridled passion for each other, their differences become obvious early in their relationship – Ryan is much older than Aisha, values his freedom and does not want to become trapped by children, mortgages and a nine-to-five job. Whereas Aisha, whose mother left when she was a child, yearns for babies, a stable family life and a home to call her own. Young and in love they are willing to compromise, and soon they are married, have bought their own home and are expecting their first child. But with the unrelenting demands of parenting an autistic son the cracks are soon starting to show. Aisha is always tired, whilst Ryan starts to resent his surburban life which holds little joy for him. They argue, Ryan leaves, and Aisha seeks the comfort of her family. A day later, after receiving a mysterious phone call, Aisha leaves Eli in the care of her father Patrick and disappears without a trace.

Missing You is told in the voices of Patrick, Aisha and Ryan and slowly unravels their story, spanning the five-year period between Aisha and Ryan’s first meeting to the time Aisha goes missing. Whilst I enjoyed reading about Aisha and Ryan’s romance, the slow spiralling out of control of their marriage and the mystery behind Aisha’s disappearance, my favourite by far was Patrick’s voice as he is trying to connect with his autistic grandson. “Seventy years I’ve made it, and never seen a boy like him. The kid is trouble”, are his first observations about young Eli. After bringing up his own daughters on his own, he is baffled by the strange little boy who does not respond as other children do. I loved the way Patrick slowly bonds with the boy – from his initial thought that he needs a good spanking to the realisation that Eli’s mind works differently to other children. The grandfather-grandson relationship evolving is touching and though provoking, and was the part of the story I enjoyed most of all. Whilst all characters’ voices are authentic and believable, Patrick’s grumpy-old-man character captured the essence of the story for me and kept me wanting to read more.

For me, Missing You was more a story about people and relationships than a mystery, and I found elements of the final unravelling of the story behind Aisha’s disappearance a bit disappointing and anti-climatic, but will not give any spoilers here. All in all, Missing You is an absorbing read giving an insight into the effects of raising a special-needs child on a marriage as well as the long-term effects of childhood trauma and loss reaching far into adulthood. This is my first novel by Kaden and I am interested to read more from this author.

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