Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Book Review: DARE TO REMEMBER by Susanna Beard

Dare to Remember

Title: Dare to Remember
Author: Susanna Beard
Publisher: 1 February 2017
Read: December 2016
Expected publication: Legend Press

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Reeling from a brutal attack that leaves her badly injured and her roommate dead, Lisa Fulbrook flees to the countryside to recuperate. With only vague memories of the event, she isolates herself from her friends and family, content to spend her days wandering the hills with her dog, Riley. However, Lisa is soon plagued, not only by vivid flashbacks, but questions, too: how did their assailant know them? Why were they attacked? And what really happened that night? As she desperately tries to piece together the memories, Lisa realizes that there’s another truth still hidden to her, a truth she can’t escape from. A truth that may have been right in front of her all along.

My thoughts:

After a horrific attack in which Lisa’s best friend died and she herself was badly injured, Lisa suffers from severe PTSD and retrograde amnesia relating to the event. In an effort to get her life back on track, she moves away from the city to a sleepy little country village, working from home and staying away from human contact as much as she can. Forming a fragile friendship with her elderly neighbour, she finds solace in long dog walks with her neighbour’s dog, an escape from sleepless nights where terrible flashbacks still plague her. But life has a way of invading, and Lisa finds that she cannot stay a hermit forever. To finally lay her demons to rest, she must face up the past, and explore what really happened that fateful night.

Beard has done her research, and with her main protagonist Lisa, offers the reader insight into the effects of PTSD on everyday life. Since we don’t know what really happened to Lisa on the night of her attack, in which her best friend Ali died, Lisa’s hesitant journey back into the past with the help of her therapist also becomes the reader’s way of finding out the truth in little baby steps. This was my main qualm with Dare the Remember – it moves along at a very slow pace, and nothing much happens as the characters each go through the motions of everyday life: sleeping, eating, shopping, walking the dog. And since Lisa works from home, the main cast of the book revolves around her dog, her elderly neighbour and her dog-walking friend from next door. Yawn! I thought my own life was a bit monotonous! Whilst I found the author’s insights into grief and trauma interesting and insightful, they weren’t quite enough for me to keep me riveted. I found myself waiting for something shocking to happen, a surprise twist, a threat to Lisa’s safety – anything! But this never eventuated, and even the side stories relating to Lisa’s new friends added little excitement and were – sorry to say this – a bit boring. I never quite got the sense of Lisa’s anguish, her desperation, her innate need to find closure. In fact, I never felt very close to Lisa at all, and some of the dialogue she has with her therapist and new friends was a bit too close to textbook “how to deal with trauma and grief”.

Unfortunately for me, the novel was lacking in the elements of mystery and suspense that justify the label of “psychological thriller”. I think that long dog walks in nature whilst recovering from trauma can work, if there is an underlying threat of danger, a dark element appearing in the storyline– like for the character of Jenna Gray in Clare Mackintosh’s novel “I Let You Go”, where mysterious writing in the sand brings Jenna’s traumatic past into the present and hooks the reader immediately with the implied danger to Jenna and the secrecy that shrouds her past.  Of course there we also have that great plot twist that made the novel memorable, which was also lacking in Dare to Remember. If you are looking for a slow, contemplative read about a women trying to come to terms with trauma and loss, than you may really enjoy this book. I however was looking for a psychological thriller, finding that the “thrills” never quite eventuated.  

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

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Book Review: THE BETTER SON by Katherine Johnson

The Better Son

The Better Son
Author: Katherine Johnson
Publisher: Ventura Press
Read: December 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

1952. Tasmania. The beautiful green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, the younger and more vulnerable Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him his whole life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to have a second chance. To go back and set things right. To be the father you never had.

Following the release of her hugely successful first novel Pescador’s Wake, Katherine Johnson is back to share her exceptional writing talent with the world.

The Better Son is a richly imaginative and universal story about the danger of secrets, the beauty of forgiveness and the enthralling power of our natural landscape.

My thoughts:

The Better Son makes the perfect finale for 2016 for me, capping a year of discovering some very talented new Australian writers. Set in the wild and wonderful Tasmanian countryside, it not only offers a moving family drama but also a perfect opportunity for armchair travel. Written with insight and an intimate knowledge of the area and its inhabitants, the words have the power to carry you away into a magical place of danger and beauty, where people have to eke out a meagre living from an untamed and sometimes cruel land. Into this landscape steps Kip, an adult male, returned to his old childhood home to revisit the setting of a terrible tragedy when he was only nine years old, in the hope of finally putting his demons to rest. Little does he know that the full horror of the past is only just unfolding.

Johnson has a way of bringing the Tasmanian countryside to life in the pages of her novel, which had me hooked from the start and made me devour the story in one single sitting. Initially told through the eyes of nine-year-old Kip, we get to know a family fractured by the scars of war and the violent temper of Kip’s father, who rules with a cruel hand, letting his temper and frustration out on his youngest and most vulnerable son. Kip’s only escape is nature, and it is no wonder that he feels happiest out of doors, exploring the wild foothills and its network of hidden caves, which have already cost many a life.

The Better Son is a story of secrets, family, relationships and survival, and ultimately the wounds left by a cruel and unjust childhood. All throughout his life, Kip bears the scars of feeling like the lesser son, the one not worthy of his father’s love. Even without the tragedy befalling the family, he would have been a troubled man – now also bearing a terrible guilt, which makes him incapable of being a loving father and husband to his own family. Although an air of sadness and tragedy runs like a fault line through the novel, the overall feeling ultimately is one of hope and redemption. I loved the historical detail, which so skilfully describes the hardships of farming folk in a wild country in the 1950’s. The only one criticism with the story was the somewhat inconsistent portrayal of Kip’s father – I initially got the sense of a man scarred by the horrors of war, which rang true to me. However, in later pages, Harold is described as senselessly cruel and vindictive, which somewhat didn’t fit with my image of this particular character. But this is a small quibble that did not detract from the overall storyline.

To recap, The Better Son is a well-written family drama you will be loathe to put down. Inspired by true historical events, it makes for a compelling read, the perfect book to pick up for the holidays to enjoy on the beach or in the hammock.

Thank you to Ventura Press for providing a copy of The Better Son in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Book Review: DESPERATION ROAD by Michael Farris Smith

Desperation Road

Title: Desperation Road
Author: Michael Farris Smith
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Read: December 2016
Expected publication: 23 February 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

"An elegantly written, perfectly-paced novel about a man and woman indelibly marked by violence" (Ron Rash) set in a Mississippi town where drugs, whiskey, guns, and revenge explosively collide.

For eleven years the clock has been ticking for Russell Gaines as he sits in Parchman penitentiary. His sentence now up, Russell believes his debt has been paid. But when he returns home, he discovers that revenge lives and breathes all around him.

Meanwhile, a woman named Maben and her young daughter trudge along the side of the interstate. Desperate and exhausted, the pair spend their last dollar on a room for the night, a night that ends with Maben holding a pistol and a dead deputy sprawled in the middle of the road.

With the dawn, destinies collide, and Russell is forced to decide whose life he will save—his own or those of the woman and child.

My thoughts:

Desperation Road is a beautiful story about regret, redemption and second chances.

One mistake eleven years ago cost Russell Gaines everything he held dear – his freedom, the woman he loved and his place in the community. Just released from prison, he finds that he may have served his time and paid the price for his wrongdoings, but the past has left an ugly stain that will forever make him a marked man. At the same time, another lost soul comes back to the place she once called home. A young woman with a small child in tow, homeless and down on her luck, running from a terrible crime. When their paths intersect, Russell discovers that staying on the right side of the tracks may not be as easy as it seems, even for an innocent man. Unwillingly caught at the wrong place at the wrong time, he will have to make some difficult choices once again. Will paying an old debt ultimately jeopardise his own freedom?

Michael Farris Smith has a way with words that drew me in immediately and held me under its spell. Although the characters are flawed, and the world they inhibit is not a kind place, the general feeling of the story is hopeful and heart-warming, belying the constant undercurrent of danger, tension and pain. With astute characterisations and evocative writing, the author sets a vivid scene with real-to-life characters that will leave and impact long after the last page has been turned. Even the support cast march through the pages as life-like as your friends, your enemies, your family, your neighbours, each with a rich history to draw on, a life lived, choices made. I could hear the roar of the trucks as they whizzed past the truck stop on the interstate, and smell the damp earth near the lake where Russell  sits in his car amongst the buzz of small insects and the embers of a dying fire. Michael Farris Smith is that good that he captures a snippet of life in the time capsule of his novel, ready for the reader to breathe in its scent, hear its sounds. Reading it was like sitting in the middle of a snow globe with emotions swirling around me like small white dust, tugging at my heartstrings. A truly memorable and unputdownable book, highly recommended.

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

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Thursday, 15 December 2016

Book Review: THE DRY by Jane Harper

The Dry

Title: The Dry
Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Macmillan Australia, Little, Brown Book Group UK
Read: November 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Luke Hadler turns a gun on his wife and child, then himself. The farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily. If one of their own broke under the strain, well...

When Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, he is loath to confront the people who rejected him twenty years earlier. But when his investigative skills are called on, the facts of the Hadler case start to make him doubt this murder-suicide charge.

And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, old wounds start bleeding into fresh ones. For Falk and his childhood friend Luke shared a secret... A secret Falk thought long-buried... A secret which Luke's death starts to bring to the surface...

My thoughts:

I was very excited about receiving a copy of The Dry from Netgalley, and it did not disappoint – in fact, it rocketed straight up the list to one of my all-time favourite reads of the year. I am hoping that Jane Harper won’t stop here, because I want to read a lot more from this exciting new voice in Australian crime fiction and perhaps even see the character of Aaron Falk come back in another book?

The story revolves around a terrible tragedy in Kiewarra, a small farming community affected by the worst drought in living history. Luke Hadler, a local farmer, is believed to have shot his wife and small son before turning the gun on himself in an apparent desperate murder-suicide, which has affected the whole community deeply. Most people are surprised to see one of Luke’s old friends, Detective Aaron Falk, make an appearance at Luke’s funeral. Twenty years ago, Aaron left Kiewarra under the cloud of another tragic death, and not everyone is ready to welcome him back. With old memories flooding back the minute he sets foot on Kiewarra soil, Aaron is eager to leave as soon as the funeral is over. But before he can make his escape, he is confronted by Luke’s parents, who beg him to look into Luke’s death. They do not believe that Luke killed himself and his family, and want his name cleared for the sake of his only surviving child, baby Charlotte. Out of love and respect for Luke’s parents, Aaron reluctantly agrees to stay for a few days to look into Luke’s affairs. Teaming up with the newly appointed local sergeant, Greg Raco, Aaron stumbles across a few discrepancies that throw up doubts about the case. Perhaps Luke’s death was not as clear-cut as initially thought?

It is hard to believe that this is the author’s debut novel, so masterful is her prose. Harper’s descriptive writing had me hooked straight from the start, picked me up, plucked me out of my comfortable armchair and deposited me straight into a harsh and remorseless rural Australian landscape.

“First on the scene, the flies swarmed contentedly in the heat as the blood pooled black over tiles and carpet. Outside, washing hung still on the rotary line, bone dry and stiff from the sun. A child’s scoter lay abandoned on the stepping stone path. Just one human heart beat within a kilometre radius of the farm. So nothing reacted when deep inside the house, the baby started crying.”

Chilling and impossible to put down, The Dry taps right into the beating heart of rural Australia. On one side, there is the honest hard work, the hope, the peace and tranquillity of farmers working hard for their livelihood. In the shadows, there is heartbreak, despair, utter hopelessness – people driven to the brink of endurance by the harsh elements of the Australian landscape. The volatility of the environment is reflected in the people that inhabit it, and Harper is a master at characterisation, serving us up true-to-life rounded characters that could be your family, your friends, your neighbours. Friendships are lost, trust broken. People band together in times of trouble, they hunt in packs. If you leave the pack, there is no way back in, as Aaron has had to find out the hard way. As he struggles to make sense of his friend’s death, he must also relive the memories of a tragedy in his past which ultimately changed his life forever.

The Dry is as honest and merciless like the harsh Australian landscape itself. Masterfully plotted, it carries the reader along in its wake to a terrible and totally unexpected finale. This is one of the best murder / mysteries I have read all year, and will appeal to readers of all ages and both genders alike. A masterful debut, very highly recommended!

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

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Monday, 12 December 2016

Book Review: LIE WITH ME by Sabine Durrant

Lie With Me

Title: Lie With Me
Author: Sabine Durrant
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Read: December 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

"I suppose what I am saying is, how much do we collude in our own destruction? How much of this nightmare is on me?

You can hate and rail.
You can kick out in protest.

You can do foolish and desperate things, but maybe sometimes you just have to hold up a hand and take the blame."

Impossible to put down.

My thoughts:

At the age of 42, Paul Morris is, by all accounts, a failure. Still relying on the literary success of a book he published in his early twenties, he is a womaniser, a layabout, a conceited man who relies on the few friends who have stuck by him to get by with a minimal amount of work or effort. Just as his life is starting to unravel and he has to face moving in with his mother, a chance encounter with an old friend from college leads Paul to meet Alice, a successful lawyer and single mother of three teenagers. Initially seeing Alice as a needy widow and a chance to exploit, Paul is surprised when he finds himself falling in love with her. He is thrilled when he gets invited to join the family and friends on their annual holiday in Greece. But Greece holds a terrible secret, and soon Paul finds out that no one, and nothing, is quite as it seems.

Now this is what I call a real psychological thriller! With its rather slow pace, Lie With Me relies heavily on character development, clever plotting and a strong sense of place and time to reel the reader into its web – and the author does this very, very well. I love books where seemingly ordinary, everyday events suddenly turn to disaster, an underlying sense of dread and danger slowly building whilst the characters remain totally unaware, slowly stumbling down the path to their own undoing. Special kudos to the author for serving us up a rather unsavoury main protagonist, Paul Morris, whilst still enabling the reader to feel a sense of connection and empathy for the man. Despite his chauvinism, his womanising, his lying and cheating and using his friends for his own gain, I had moments when I felt actually sorry for Paul. And despite a logical little voice telling me that he got what he deserved, I never stopped barracking for Paul and hoping against hope that he would find happiness. Perhaps this trait is what made so many women fall for the man in the first place? To convey Paul’s charisma in the written pages of a book shows the author’s skill in presenting true-to-life characters that masterfully played out the story in my mind like a carefully chosen movie cast. I could see them so vividly, lying around the pool surrounded by olive groves, that I almost felt like I had been there myself, toasting pale British skin under a hot Greek sun.

Lie With Me had everything I look for in a psychological thriller, slowly building tension and a sense of certain doom, which made it impossible to put the book down. And of course the ending, though not totally unexpected by then, was very clever, casting all events of the past into a totally new light. A great read, one of my favourite psychological thrillers of the year. If you are looking for a good book over Christmas, don’t look any further, because Lie With Me has it all. Highly recommended.

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Sunday, 11 December 2016

Book Review: NEVER LET YOU GO by Chevy Stevens

Never Let You Go

Title: Never Let You Go
Author: Chevy Stevens
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Read: December 2016
Expected publication: 14 March 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Eleven years ago, Lindsey Nash escaped into the night with her young daughter and left an abusive relationship.Her ex-husband was sent to jail and she started over with a new life. Now, Lindsey is older and wiser, with a teenage daughter who needs her more than ever. When her ex-husband is finally released, Lindsey believes she’s cut all ties. But she gets the sense that someone is watching her. Her new boyfriend is threatened. Her home is invaded, and her daughter is shadowed. Lindsey is convinced it’s her ex-husband, even though he claims he’s a different person. But can he really change? Is the one who wants her dead closer to home than she thought? 

My thoughts:

When Lindsey took her small daughter Sophie and ran away from her abusive husband, she knew that one day he may come looking for them. With her daughter now a teenager, and Lindsey herself in a relationship with a stable, supportive man, she is as happy as she has ever been. Until she finds out that her ex-husband, freshly out of jail after serving a sentence for dangerous driving causing death, has moved into her neighbourhood. Soon she feels no longer safe in her own home – have things been moved or touched? Is she in danger? Worst of all, she finds out that he has tried to make contact with Sophie. Sophie claims that she has seen her father, and that he is a changed man. But leopards never really change their spots, do they?

Despite an interesting premise, a constant atmosphere of tension and a clever twist at the end, Never Let You Go never fully gripped me. Perhaps it was the voices of the characters, who didn’t quite speak to me, or the format of various different voices narrating individual chapters set in the past and present. I felt that I never fully got to see into the hearts and minds of any of the characters, and just didn’t care enough about them to find the story compelling. Or perhaps I have just been spoiled by some very masterfully constructed psychological thrillers recently, and now nothing can quite live up to them. Whilst Never Let You Go was an ok read, for me it lacked – something. Depth, perhaps. An emotional connection. Despite musing on it and trying to give constructive feedback,  I cannot quite put my finger on it. So I will just put it down to being the wrong book for me at the time. It happens. 2.5 stars from me.

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

Book Review: THE LANGUAGE OF DYING by Sarah Pinborough

The Language of Dying

 The Language of Dying
Author: Sarah Pinborough
Publisher: Quercus Books, Jo Fletcher Books
Read: December 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Tonight is a special, terrible night. A woman sits at her father's bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters - all traumatised in their own ways, their bonds fragile - have been there for the past week, but now she is alone. And that's always when it comes. As the clock ticks in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her... 

My thoughts:

A daughter sits at the bedside of her dying father, holding his hand, pouring out her heart to him for the last time. He can no longer hear her, but that is ok, there are still so many things to be said, so little time to say them. The final good-bye.

Very gently, despite the heat and energy raging at me from outside, I kiss your head. I leave my love there forever [...]

As the family gathers for the last time in their old family home, it becomes obvious that their father was the glue that held them together. Without his presence, cracks are already beginning to show, even whilst he is still clinging to life, his body slowly wasting away, the strong man of their childhood now only a dry husk.

[...] It’s crystal clear that we’ve fallen apart. We’ve fallen apart and we didn’t even have the good manners to wait until you’d gone before we did it.

As the siblings each try to come to terms with the loss of their parent and say the final good-bye, old grievances come out, tensions rise, arguments erupt. In the end, there is only the middle daughter left to hold her father’s hand in that last, terrible vigil.

The Language of Dying is a beautifully written book which will speak to anyone who has ever had to watch a loved one die, or is caring for a terminally ill family member. Written in the narrative of a daughter talking to her dying father, the book touches the very centre of the heart, where our love, our grief and our heartbreak live.  Pinborough has a way with words that is both touching as well as evocative, exploring the desolate, lonely place only death can bring us to.   Most of all, it is honest, baring the soul and exploring that most feared of all situations – losing a loved one. There is a mystical, supernatural element to the story, too, which will mean something different to every reader, but which for me embodied the terrible and yet compelling power death has over us. Whilst The Language of Dying is sometimes confronting, bringing us face to face with our own emotions and fears surrounding death, I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever had to say their final good-bye to someone they love. A powerful, emotional read, one of my favourites for the year.

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

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Thursday, 1 December 2016

Book Review: THE WITCHFINDER'S SISTER by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder's Sister

Title: The Witchfinder's Sister
Author: Beth Underdown
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Read: November 2016
Expected publication: 2 March 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . .

This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.
Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew s soul.
There is a new darkness in the town, too frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he s become, Alice is desperate to intervene and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother s brutal mission and is drawn into the Hopkins family s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.
Inspired by the real-life story of notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown s thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience. 

My thoughts:

The Witchfinder’s Sister tackles a fascinating chapter of history, the life of the legendary witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, who is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 or more women in the mid-1700s in Essex, England. In her fictional account, Underdown bestows Matthew with a sister, Alice Hopkins, a strong and independent woman of her time, who finds herself back in her brother’s house after the sudden death of her husband. I loved the historical details of the novel, which were fascinating and sometimes confronting, as there seemed to be little cause for Matthew to accuse a woman of being a witch and condemn her to death. Alice, suddenly dependent on her brother’s mercy, is caught in a terrible dilemma – can she stand up for the women she thinks unfairly accused without endangering her own life?  

Underdown does a good job in creating an undertone of danger and malice in her descriptions of Matthew’s quest, and Alice’s dilemma is felt keenly by the reader. Personally, I would have liked to be able to explore the folklore and superstitions of the time a bit more, which allowed Matthew to carry out his sinister work. I am guessing that the author purposely steered away from this approach by creating a no-nonsense, intelligent protagonist, but I would have loved to delve a bit deeper into the psyches of the women accused and persecuted, as I found some of the female characters a bit difficult to connect with. Seeing that most women of the time wouldn’t have had much education and would have depended heavily on their menfolk for their survival, it would have been interesting to see their reaction to and feelings about the ever present danger of being accused o f witchcraft. The later part of the book introduces a lot of characters with a lot of different backgrounds and personalities, and I felt myself getting lost in different threads a few times, with some loose ends remaining. Apart from that, The Witchfinder’s Sister was an intriguing and interesting read, recommended to all lovers of historical fiction.  

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