Category Archives: Mystery

The Wonder, Emma Donoghue – Book Review

Since reading Room years ago I’ve followed Emma Donoghue closely and read a number of her books, but I’ve never found one which could top the Booker-nominated, film-inspiring sensation that was Room. But this one come pretty damn close. I’m not sure I’d say The Wonder quite surpasses Room, but it stands in its own right as a riveting piece of historical fiction.

The Wonder

The story takes place in middle Ireland, a few years after the Great Famine. Lib Wright, an English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, is called to the area to take an unusual position. Her ward is Anna O’Donnell, an eleven-year-old who who has supposedly not eaten a morsel of food for four months. Lib is required to simply watch the young girl, and report her observations to a committee after two weeks. Continue reading

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You Will Know Me, Megan Abbott – Book Review

I received You Will Know Me in exchange for an honest review

This was my first experience with Megan Abbott, and I’m now keen to go back and tackle her back catalogue. You will know me is a well-crafted, slow-burning contemporary thriller packed with secrets, lies and paranoia.

youwillknowme

Katie and Eric Knox are dedicated parents: they’ve committed everything they can into ensuring that their talented gymnast daughter Devon succeeds. Their lives are built around spending hours ferrying Devon to and from practice, supporting her in any way they can, but, when a sudden death rocks their small community, everything – and crucially Devon’s future prospects – is thrown into the balance. Continue reading

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The Girl You Lost, Kathryn Croft – Book Review

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

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Kathryn Croft’s The Girl With No Past was one of my stand-out psychological thriller reads of last year, so I was very excited to get my hands on her new novel, The Girl You Lost. And it didn’t disappoint – she’s done it again; The Girl You Lost is a tense, addictive and dark psychological thriller with believable characters and emotional depth.

The Girl You Lost

Simone and Matt had their daughter Helena at a young age, while they were still in University. But that didn’t matter to them – for six months they lived as a happy family until one day Helena disappeared from their lives.

Eighteen years later, the couple are now married and have gone on to forge successful careers, working hard to fill the void made by their missing child. But their past is about to be dredged back to the surface as Simone is approached by a girl named Grace who believes she is her long-lost daughter Helena.

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The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood – Book Review

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review
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I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first Alex Marwood book I’ve read, even though I love a good psychological mystery. I bought her much-hyped debut The Wicked Girls back in 2012, but it’s still languishing away on my shelf waiting to be read. I’ll be rectifying that soon, because her latest book, The Darkest Secret, is a tense, engrossing and addictive read.

This book is all about secrets. It follows a group of family at friends, who at first seem a close-knit group; privileged and lucky, but scratch the surface and there’s a world of tension, lies and deceit bubbling away underneath. Continue reading

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Black-Eyed Susans, Julia Heaberlin – Book Review

I received a copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Black-Eyed Susans follows a similar plot to quite a few recent releases in the genre; girl is captured or attacked (or, in this case, left for dead in a ditch surrounded by the other victims’ bodies). She survives and goes on to forge a decent life for herself, but years later her past comes back to haunt her. It could have been formulaic, but it’s not. This is a taut, tense and dark psychological thriller, one of the best I’ve read this year.

blackeyedsusansbook Almost 20 years ago, Tessa Cartwright was left to die with a group of other young female victims, dubbed the ‘black-eyed Susans’ due to the flowers which grew near their make-shift grave. Tessa is the only survivor. A man named Terrell Goodman was convicted, but as Tessa looks back years later she feels she was coerced into giving a damning testimony in court, when in fact she remembers nothing of the events which lead up to her rescue.

The story is told from two perspectives; Tessie (as she was known then) aged 17 immediately following the incident, and Tessa present day. In the past, she is having regular meetings with a therapist in an attempt to come to terms with her trauma and ready her for court. In the present, she’s going through it all again, as she discovers the Black-Eyed Susan plant growing outside her window out of season, and is convinced the killer has planted them. She agrees to help a team of lawyers who are working to free Goodman from death row, and in turn find the real killer.

The characters in this novel were brilliant, particularly Tessa both past and present. Her younger self is so raw; at 17, there’s a naivety about her despite the fact that she’s experienced trauma far beyond her years. She has all the elements of a typical stroppy teenager, but something much darker shapes her actions. Her present-day character is still haunted, and regularly hears the voices of the other Susans who died beside her. She becomes fixated on freeing the man she originally sent to jail, in order to provide herself and the other girls – who she never knew alive but feels inextricably tied to – with justice. The supporting characters are all equally well-drawn; the lawyer, the forensic analyst, the therapists and Tess’as old best friend Lydia; loyal, quirky and complex. There is a small element of romance which I didn’t feel was particularly needed, but it doesn’t overtake the story and contributes to the character development, so I can’t complain too much.

It’s a tense, creepy read with Tessa’s paranoia gradually increasing as she comes closer to the truth. The two time frames complement each other, slowly revealing pieces of the puzzle which has remained unsolved and unfinished for two decades. It’s one of those novels where you can’t really say much about the plot itself – it’s best you read it with as little preconceptions as possible, so that you can make your own decision on who you think the killer might be. But, whether you figure it out or not, the writer has you rooting for Tessa, building an emotional involvement so you’ll be desperate for her to find the truth and get her closure once and for all.

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Broken Promise, Linwood Barclay – Book Review

I received a copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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As with all of best-selling thriller writer Linwood Barclay’s novels, when reading Broken Promise you can’t take anything for granted. Nothing is at it seems; the story is packed with twists, turns and plenty of action.

brokenpromise

The book’s protagonist is David Harwood, whose life has taken a series of unfortunate turns which find him living back with his parents in his hometown, bringing his son Ethan with him. He hopes for a little downtime for him to get back on his feet. He of course gets nothing of the sort.

David’s unstable cousin Marla has been troubled since losing her baby last year, so when he turns up at her house to find her looking after a baby she claims an ‘angel’ delivered to her doorstep, he’s not convinced. Things take a darker turn when the mother of the baby, Rosemary Gaynor, is found murdered, and David decides to conduct his own investigation into events.

Alongside David’s storyline, we’re introduced to local detective Barry Duckworth, the disgraced ex-Mayor Randall Finley and a few other key figures in the small town. Rosemary’s murder isn’t the only drama to take place that day – there’s been a series of gruesome goings-on involving a bunch of squirrels, a rollercoaster and a potential rapist on the local college campus.

Fast-paced is a little bit of an understatement for this novel – from the beginning, there’s lots going on and Barclay adds layer upon layer of small town mystery and intrigue. At times, it’s almost too much – there’s a lot of seemingly unconnected strands and various viewpoints so it can be a little difficult to keep track.

I was hoping they would be tied together nicely in the conclusion of the story but, whilst it was satisfactory, it still leaves a lot more to be explored and explained as this novel sets up the beginning of a new series. Barclay has definitely created an intriguing little town here with a great cast of colourful characters; perfect for a series but the ending isn’t the best if you’re just trying to read the novel as a standalone.

Still, this is a great little book which kept me guessing. It’s fun, action-packed and engaging with colourful, well-drawn characters. Barclay has definitely set the stage nicely for the sequel next year.

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The Museum Of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman – Book Review

I really wanted this to be a five-star story, as the premise, touted as “a tale of star-crossed lovers, freak shows, murder and mystery”, sounds like something I’d love. Unfortunately, it just missed the mark for me although I can’t quite put my finger on why, as it is a beautiful book.

The Museum Of Extraordinary Things

The titular Museum Of Extraordinary Things is a Coney Island attraction which showcases an array of natural wonders, presided over by scientist and magician Professor Sardie. The Professor’s daughter, Coralie, lives an isolated life with him at the museum, and when she turns of age she herself is encouraged to become part of the show, performing as a human mermaid due to her webbed hands and impressive breathing abilities.

The book’s narration is split between Coralie and Eddie, a photographer who has abandoned his family and his religion to spend his time documenting New York life with his camera and fishing in the Hudson river. Both lead very solitary existences, until a chance meeting one night by the river.

Between the two narratives, Hoffman explores the two unlikely mates’ past, present and future, all bookended by dramatic, real-life events which took place in New York in 1911. Coralie is confined to her father’s run-down, seedy museum, but at night she sneaks out to the great Dreamland, a ambitious theme park which towers over their own inferior attraction. She loves to visit, not to go on the rides but to be amongst the people, soaking up the merry atmosphere which is juxtaposed against her own lonely lifestyle.

On mainland New York, Eddie is witness to the Triangle fire at a local factory, deemed one of the most deadly industrial disasters in history. After Eddie experiences the horror of the event first-hand as he photographs it, he is then tasked with finding a missing factory worker. His investigation leads him back to the Hudson river and to Coralie, and so the two become enmeshed in a mission for answers and justice, and entwined with each other.

There’s lots of things to love about this book. One aspect which impressed me was the integration of real life events – two very severe fires bookend the novel – of which I had very little knowledge of previously, and they are used not just as background fodder but as crucial turning-points in the story. Another this is the writing; it’s beautiful – Hoffman knows how to write words that send a shiver down your spine, how to capture a period and the atmosphere of magic and wonder of Coney Island. I loved the depiction of Professor Sardie as the villain of the piece too – he treats his daughter and workers terribly, but as a reader his dark, obsessive ideas were fascinating.

Within Coralie’s story – and that of some of the other museum’s wonders too – Hoffman explores the struggle to be oneself and be free; many characters begin as victims of their circumstances, held back by their oddities, but the story explores how everyone can make their own fate; “The past was what we carried with us, threaded to the future, and we decided whether to keep it close or let it go. Fate was both what we were given and what we made for ourselves.”

A key theme running through the novel is that of magic – or rather, illusion. I think it’s probably what attracted me to the story in the first place, and ultimately perhaps its downfall with me on a personal level. I was expecting a The Night Circus, complete with real, whimsical magic. This book is all about illusion; the magic and fantasy is proved to be false and it’s much more grounded in realism.

“Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed in the natural world often were contradictory. The human eye was not capable of true sight, for it was constrained by its own humanness, clouded by regret, and opinion, and faith.”

All in all, this was a gorgeous little book – it just wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping it could be.

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The Quality Of Silence, Rosamund Lupton – Book Review

I received a copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Quality Of SilenceRosamund Lupton has already began carving a name for herself in the literary thriller market with her 2010 debut, Sister, and then its follow up, Afterwards. The Quality Of Silence is her third offering and in this novel she’s moving away from familiar territory, forgoing good old England for the icy mountain roads of Alaska.

Yasmin and her deaf daughter Ruby arrive in Alaska from England looking forward to being reunited with Matt, Yasmin’s wildlife cameraman husband and Ruby’s father. But the family reunion plans are marred as soon as they step off the plane when the police tell Yasmin that there’s been a savage fire in the village where Matt was staying. There’s no survivors.

Yasmin just can’t believe that her husband is dead, she’s sure she received a phone call from him but the police won’t listen so she decides to set out into the hostile Alaskan wilderness to find him. Lupton gradually reveals how their fragile marriage had reached at breaking point after Matt kissed a local villager and Yasmin is driven by her love as she embarks on the perilous journey. “And here was the base of illogic on which she built the rest of her cogent hypothesis – that he had to be alive because she loved him; an emotional truth so keenly felt and absolute, that it couldn’t be dented by rational argument.”

The journey to find Matt takes them on some of the most treacherous roads in the world, and it seems Lupton’s change of location has paid off. There’s a wonderfully tense atmosphere as she captures the dangers of the road and struggle to survive in a cold which is “predatory and remorseless” in “unutterable darkness” and “screaming wind.”  The pair battle both natural dangers – ice, avalanches and hypothermia – and something more human, and altogether more sinister.

The characters in this book were a little bit of a mixed bag. I was unsure how I felt about Yasmin throughout the novel and kept changing my mind; she’s represented as a strong, powerful woman but she chooses to expose her child to unthinkable dangers. And yet, I couldn’t help but sympathise with her as she battled inhumane conditions, finding the will to carry on out of a deep-seated love and determination for her family.

On the other hand, I loved Ruby throughout; her young, innocent voice was refreshing to read in what could have otherwise felt like quote a bleak novel. Her deafness added an extra layer of complexity to her and her relationship with the outside world, including her mother. Ruby relies on her laptop for a lot of her communication and loves social media and she feels it is the only place where she can connect to people on an equal playing field. This habit of communicating through a computer irks her mother, but as their journey progresses, so does their relationship and respect for each other as they begin to understand one another better.

The author has a knack of slipping ethical issues into her psychological thrillers, and this one is no different. In the wilderness of Alaska, she examines the effect of hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – on the natives of the land. It’s something I’d never even thought about, but I was drawn in straight away and Lupton covers it well without ever getting too bogged down with an overload of facts.

The mystery in this novel is quite a slow burn; it’s more of a relationship drama in parts and a survival novel in others, but it picks up in last third. There are some good twists and it had me gripped throughout, but it does require a little suspension of disbelief and the final few pages felt a little bit weak. Still, the original plot, great characters and epic location make this a worthwhile read.

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Church Of Marvels, Leslie Parry – Book Review

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Release date (UK): 2nd June 2015

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I was so excited to get my hands on this book, and it really did not disappoint. It has everything; the vibrance of a spectacular Coney Island circus show, the darkness of an isolated women’s asylum and more, tied together in a tangled web of mystery which the talented Leslie Parry gradually unravels.

Church Of Marvles

Set in 1885, Church of Marvels introduces us to three seemingly disparate individuals. There’s Sylvan, a struggling night-soiler and sometimes boxer living in New York City, who finds an abandoned baby in a local privy and impulsively takes her in. Then Odile, a circus performer on Coney Island who has recently lost her mother in a theatre fire and is searching for her twin sister Belle who moved away soon after. And Alphie, trapped in an asylum on Roosevelt Island for no clear reason which the reader can see.

This book is a slow burner. As Parry gradually introduces the characters, the first half of the story offers up more questions than answers and it’s almost impossible to see how the seemingly disconnected storyline will tie together. But as it progresses, the writer leads the reader through a labyrinth of New York’s back alleys, brothels, opium dens and apothecaries as the interconnecting backstories behind the characters are revealed.

The scene-setting in this novel is fantastic; New York at the turn-of-the-century is beautifully imagined and Parry’s evocative writing perfectly captures the atmosphere of the time and the vibrancy of the big city, while also exposing a dark and seedy side to century New York. “I’ve found that here in this city, the lights burn even brighter, but they cast the darkest shadows I know.” The quirky circus life of Coney Island and the stifling atmosphere of the island asylum are also brought to life through Parry’s visceral writing.

But more than that, the plot is incredibly strong, with twists and turns I never expected. Near the beginning of the novel, Parry writes; “We can be a weary, cynical lot—we grow old and see only what suits us, and what is marvelous can often pass us by.” This concept is true for this entire book; nothing is as it seems and you can’t take anything for granted

The book does jump between character points of view a lot, and I think because of this coupled with the sharp changes in plot, I did feel I didn’t get to know some of the characters as well as I would have liked, and struggled to emphasise at times as a result. There are some parts of the novel I would have liked explored in more depth – particularly a twist focusing on one of the central three character which is thrown in near the end, and the new viewpoint which is only introduced in the epilogue.

But these foibles didn’t detract too much from the book for me; the richly imagined world was a beautiful place to explore and the plot was so strong I just wanted to keep reading. This is yet another impressive debut to look out for in 2015, and it only just missed five stars from me.

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Things We Have In Common, Tasha Kavanagh – Book Review

Advanced reader copy received from the publisher (Cannongate) via NetGalley

Release date (UK): 7th May 2015

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“The first time I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field. You were looking down at your brown straggly dog, but then you looked up, your mouth going slack as your eyes clocked her. Alice Taylor.

I was no different. I used to catch myself gazing at the back of her head in class, at her silky fair hair swaying between her shoulder blades.”

Things We Have In Common

Sometimes you have to take a chance on a book. The blurb for this debut is simply the first few paragraphs. It sucked me in straight away, and that’s all I went into the story knowing. The rest of the book proved as refreshing and captivating as those first few lines.

The protagonist of the story is Yasmin, a troubled, overweight fifteen-year-old who is still struggling to cope with the loss of her Dad years before. She has a tense relationship with her step dad and no real friends of her own, so she fixates on the most popular girl in school, Alice Taylor. She collects items that Alice leaves around, she follows her, and she spends her time fantasising about the two of them together, saying “I could probably write a trilogy about eloping with Alice”.

But Yasmin realises she might not be alone in her fixation on Alice. She spots a man at the school gates, who appears to be watching Alice too.

“If you’d glanced just once across the field you’d have seen me standing in the middle on my own, looking straight at you, and you’d have gone back through the trees to the path quick, tugging your dog after you. You’d have known you’d given yourself away, even if only to me.

But you didn’t. You only had eyes for Alice.”

Over time, she concocts an entire fantasy around the man – who we later learn is called Samuel – taking Alice, and becomes convinced that she is the only one who can rescue her.

I had no idea what to expect from this novel, and I think it works best this way. Yasmin’s young voice as the narrator was brilliantly realistic, and her tone was so naive and strangely optimistic it took me a while to realise how dark this book really is. She refers to ‘you’, the man she saw at the gates throughout the book, and she relays events in such a chatty, laid-back manner it took me a minute to realise that I was reading about a potential murderer.

But was I? That’s what’s so clever about this book. It’s clear that Yasmin is a little unstable, and so for the majority of the novel I had no idea whether I was reading about an innocent girl’s involvement with a potential paedophile, or simply the neurotic ramblings and fantasies of a lonely girl who needs help.

Kavanagh keeps the reader guessing up to and beyond the last pages in this novel, with an ending which is both frustratingly ambiguous and quietly brilliant. But at its heart, this book is a character study too, and while I had no idea whether any of her thoughts and actions were right, I couldn’t help but sympathise with Yasmin. Kavanagh captures the fragility of the troubled teen perfectly, and provides a stark but darkly humorous portrayal of loneliness in the form of both Yasmin and Samuel.

This novel is difficult to pinpoint to a genre – the naive narrator could point to young adult, but the dark themes suggest not. It also follows the familiar path of the tried and tested missing-girl plot, but turns this theme so completely on its head that it’s almost unrecognisable. This book’s got dark humour coupled with raw emotion, a classic unreliable narrator and a twisted plot – it’s unique and refreshing, and definitely one of the strongest debuts I’ve read so far this year.

 

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