Claire is someone who appreciates fully the value of her privacy. There are many good reasons for that; the least of it being that Claire is not the name the London doctor was born with. Once the pampered children of two society parents, Claire and her brother Robbie were exposed to horrific violence at a young age after the murder of their nanny at the hands of their father and the attempted murder of their mother. Colin Spenser was never seen again after the attacks and his circle of dilettante friends soon after closed their ranks to exclude Claire and her family.
It was only recently that I watched a documentary about Lord Lucan, of which A DOUBLE LIFE was inspired by, so the release of this book was timely for me. So armed, was very keen to read Berry’s fictionalized take on such an iconic disappearance story.
UK novelist Flynn Berry’s first book, UNDER THE HARROW was a standout of 2016 and her second outing A DOUBLE LIFE has much of that same bewitching appeal. Another captivating and intelligent narrator makes no apology for her decisions and none of her incisive observations can be dismissed as unimportant. It’s all relevant and this pared down style of narration means that we are left with only the essentials. Berry’s writing is careful, precise and measured. The lack of thrills and spills is not a detraction from the work; the incremental pressure has a slow build and there’s a satisfying reward for your wait which is all the more powerful when you realize it was perhaps never possible to have any other kind of resolution.
Very interested to see what this author will write next as her writing has filled a space in the thriller market that we perhaps didn’t know was there. We need more writers of this calibre who operate with such precision and avoid all the tropes that can be pulled into play when writing about a single female protagonist. A DOUBLE LIFE asks many questions of the reader to be mulled over past the read and its explorations of the aftermath of family violence are welcomed in a genre that can skip on past what it means for the victims not only to experience such horrors, but to live well beyond and survive them.
The Outsider, Stephen King
Life has definitely become predictable for Terry Maitland and there’s a certain level of comfort in that for the small town sports coach. Having the trust of his friends, neighbours and colleagues is no small thing and staying put to support his community in a time of trouble would always be what Terry would choose to do. Being arrested in front of the entire town at a game is only the beginning of Terry’s nightmarish fall from grace. The murder of an eleven year old boy is a hard thing for Flint City to endure, let alone to find out that the chief suspect is one of their most beloved
Our beloved Uncle Stevie always has many wise things to share with us, his constant readers, and continues to faithfully inserts these pearls into the storytelling matrix of each new novel. Sometimes they may be bashed directly into your psyche and at other times they may merely brush against you in passing but at whatever level of introduction, there will always be a direct appeal to his reader’s hearts at some point. King writes ‘everyman’ like no other.
King has an inexhaustible supply of wry observations to dole out via the mouths of his creations and you will find plenty of these in THE OUTSIDER. This is a classic King piece and whilst wildly entertaining, could have done with a trim to reduce some ‘waffle’. King’s skill at spinning out his fantastical yarns always involves a lot of inclusions that don’t necessarily advance the plot but will have us smiling anyway.
How are with the science on this ‘woo-woo’ stuff in THE OUTSIDER? Not entirely sold. This is primarily written as a crime novel and the introduction of supernatural elements is always a handy out to logic, if there arises the need to explain something away. But we need to remember we are reading Stephen King, so that usually comes with the territory.
There’s a nice surprise awaiting King fans in THE OUTSIDER. For those readers lamenting the end of the Bill Hodges trilogy, fear not. THE OUTSIDER will catch you up with what’s been happening with one of your favourite King characters.
This review is written by a fan who can be critical of her favourite authors, including King, and can state hands down that THE OUTSIDER, with all its dark magic and violence, is a delight to read. Pure escapism written by the world’s greatest living author is never a waste of your time and THE OUTSIDER slides on up alongside the reader with a knowing smile and wink. Uncle Stevie knows what we need, once again.
GIVE ME YOUR HAND, MEGAN ABBOTT
It’s the weight of a massive secret that tips the balance between two women, confessed to in the time of a shared childhood that wasn’t all sunshine and roses for two children streets academically from their peers. A secret shared is not necessarily a secret halved. It means there is now another person made complicit by their silence.
Award winning American author Megan Abbott has written a thriller framed around the complexities of relationships that are quite often borne out of necessity and not affection. Competitors but not necessarily rivals, school relationships that don’t survive into adulthood, friendships for a season only.
Blood is a theme that river flows throughout the book, and this is a clinical inclusion to remind us that the inner lives of women are inextricably linked to their physical natures. Whether that dimension is evident or not from the outside, the power of it must be respected and acknowledged.
GIVE ME YOUR HAND plays on a small stage and this adds to the intimate menace of a read that slowly brings the conflict full circle right back to where it started, that being between two people who can’t seem to make it fully out of the orbit of each other. Female to female relationships could be the argued to be the most fraught and intense connections that women ever make, regardless of the sphere in which they come to exist.
Keeping it all close and personal, GIVE ME YOUR HAND is a carefully crafted work that drip feeds dread directly into the veins. You will need to commit yourself to the discovery as this book is comprised of a series of measured turns, rather than the relaying of screeching acts of violence. Small deliberate steps to a conclusion that is oddly satisfying. Don’t race to the end.
THE BLACKBIRD SEASON, KATE MORETTI
One day the blackbirds begin to fall. Naturally, this is something of a spectacle and attention is drawn to the small Pennsylvanian town of Mount Oanoke. With this new focus comes the media and a visiting journalist inadvertently witnesses an encounter that is later viewed as something quite sinister.
There is lots and lots going on in THE BLACKBIRD SEASON. Author Kate Moretti juggles all of these pans up in the air with skill, never letting the dust settle on any of the adults involved in the investigation for the missing Lucia. Our suspicions are thrown over a small cast of characters but there is also a supporting cast of others who are drawn closer in when the plot requires.
We are reminded in this book that you are only as golden as your last success, and that there will always be people surrounding you eager to witness any falls from grace. The sharks are constantly circling in THE BLACKBIRD SEASON and it is this sense of menace that is never far away. As a dramatic piece, this book would make a terrific film (I seem to be opining that a lot lately about modern crime novels), populated as it is with complex characters that have as much going on in their internal lives as is evident to anyone who now has cause to observe them from the outside.
THE BLACKBIRD SEASON is the story of a missing girl, but it is also the story of how relationships can often be weighed down by the legacy of old ghosts and that how any human interaction is never really insignificant.
WATCH ME, JODY GEHRMAN
Kate Youngblood is both a college lecturer and a writer of fiction. Both career paths are currently giving the thirty something professor enormous trouble. Having written a successful crime novel as her debut piece, it was a high platform from which to dive when Kate’s second novel is nowhere near as well-received as its stellar predecessor. Will there be a third book, or is it best for Kate to park her writing ambitions for now?
WATCH ME is essentially a two-player piece which adds to the intensity of the interactions between the stalker and the stalked. The inclusion of all the required elements – the isolation, coercion, relentless observation, break-ins, electronic pursuits – can be a little tick in the box in this novel but they all do add to the increasing concern we have for Kate’s welfare. Kate is a little slow on the uptake to react and protect herself, so this can be a little frustrating to read of, though of course there can be no crime to read of without there being a targeted victim.
The passages devoted to stalker Sam are addressed to the (at first, oblivious) Kate so we are privy here to all aspects of Sam’s self-serving toxic masculinity. Sam truly believes he has the right to do all of what he is doing, and the wishes and fears of the object of his affection are of little concern to him, just long as his desired results are achieved.
Was expecting this work to go a little more into collegial issues of teacher/student relations but this is not the focus of WATCH ME. Not sure or not if it is depressing or helpful that the motions of this stalker (and those of real life and other fictional stalkers) all seem to follow the same predictable formula but as a tool to making the reader more aware, WATCH ME may be helpful. Two thirds of this novel power along to back Kate into a corner but WATCH ME does lose some puff in the home stretch. The definite strength of this novel are the insights we receive into Sam’s delusions of self-grandeur. Perhaps there can be no stalker without that narcissistic sense of self importance that eventually derails when the rest of the world calls it what it is – madness.
The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn
Dr Anna Fox is a doctor currently without a practice but there are always people, others like herself, whom she can still help even whilst confined to her New York home. Without her much loved husband and daughter, there are too many hours in the day that Anna finds she needs to fill with small human interactions, elsewise the pills and wine will step up and do that for her. There is the gorgeous downstairs lodger, the online forums where she counsels other agoraphobics, her physiotherapist, her ex business partner, the myriad of delivery people who bring her food and other supplies. It
Reserve yourself a little time and settle in as this engaging novel will be a one or two sitting read. Anna, despite all she has experienced, is immensely relatable and a warm narrator to listen to. There is no shame, there is only the present and the need for Anna to get herself through one day and then through the next. It is very easy to see only a few pages in why THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW was a monster hit straight out of the gates. Immersive, introspective and warm, this read totally wraps you up in the four walls of Anna’s townhouse as her growing concerns about the neighbours become yours.
Brace yourself for the huge jump scare at chapter’s end in the final quarter of the novel - I promise you will be leaping out of your seat! (Tip: Do not read this book on public transport).
Author A.J. Finn (was quite surprised to find this was a male author) does an excellent job in building up both tension and our worries for Anna’s welfare, an obviously intelligent character who is coping the best way she can with loss and mental illness.
Review - Year One, Nora Roberts
As one American family enjoys their break at their Scottish holiday home, a terrible sickness is released when blood is spilt on ancient magical land. The sickness travels with the family back across the oceans and within an alarmingly short period of time, more than half of the world’s population is dead. The virus seems to be unstoppable.
Nora Roberts hands down is a fiction writing juggernaut and anything this author puts out is always going to be welcomed with great glee by her army of fans. The news that Roberts was turning her talents to the post-apocalyptic (which well when done well, is my absolute favourite of all genres) was a real boost for the genre and well received by the reading (and reviewers!) community.
What you will quickly discover as you dive in is that this dystopian novel is unexpectedly populated by fantasy characters like elves and fairies, sensitives and telekinetics etc. The novel would have worked well as a straight post virus work, or as a fantasy novel. YEAR ONE is a uncomfortable blend of both that does not quite hit the mark. Going into this read I wasn’t anticipating the fantasy elements, and it was quite disappointing to encounter them. Can’t help but feeling a little cheated by the inclusions of characters that have such handy superpowers at their disposal to deal with any challenges that come their way.
Roberts always creates characters that you will want to invest your time in, and this is the min strength we see again in YEAR ONE. They won’t all survive, and the readers will have an interest in seeing through which ones will make it with or without newly acquired abilities. It is not a dark read as the fairy elements are a bit ridiculous and lighten the mood. As a beach read it serves very well and the impetus in picking up the next novel is to see where everyone ends up – what new alliances will be formed, who will go on to lead, who will be able to adapt and survive.
Review - RAMSES THE DAMNED - THE PASSION OF CLEOPATRA - Anne Rice and Christopher Rice
Planning a wedding to his newly immortal partner Julie, Ramses the Great has much to regret and much to look forward to. Now living life as Reginald Ramsay, Egyptologist, Ramses has kept his secrets to a chosen few and has found fresh hope in the modern age of the early 19th century. Always the diplomatic negotiator, Ramses intends never to waste his immortality again on steering the outcomes of those in power. It is enough to have his beloved Julie as his immortal companion, and the company of those intelligent and talented enough to amuse.
If like this reviewer you haven't read an Anne Rice novel for some years, what you might also be anticipating is some lovely floral prose that waxes lyrical about everything from flowers to landscapes. The glorious wallowing can be a bit of an acquired taste and all that navel gazing can come at the expense of plot.
As lovingly gothic and melodramatic the characters may still be, it was an absolute treat to experience Rice's creation King Ramses once again. It's been a long time since we saw his blue eyes on lurid paperback covers way back in 1989. THE MUMMY was gleefully passed around many an office worker back in the day, with all Anne Rice fans anticipating another lust worthy brat in the vein (pardon the pun) of Lestat from the Vampire Chronicles. (Can you believe that we first encountered Lestat in 1976?). Ramses too has had hundreds of years of past plots and relationships to mull over in his noble head, whilst playing God with the ability to keep others young forever, in the same manner as his hedonistic and pompous self.
In the winning fashion of why having one rockstar deity in your novel when you can have two, Rice and Rice have put two giants of history, King Ramses and Queen Cleopatra in the same work. Check your reality at the door of course, as despite having a wig out at the museum and dousing Queen Cleopatra with the immortal elixir, Ramses then sails forth into the world and creates a modern day identity and promptly exposes his baby blues to the social circuit. As one does, when you want to stay safe from scrutiny.
So we're not big on plot planning here but there are many gloriously overblown conversations, angsty experiences and swoon worthy immortals swanning about thinking furiously about what is to come next. Ramses is curiously toothless in this outing, compared to how fierce he was in the first book. More a brooder here than a doer.
The passion of Cleopatra isn't of the between-the-sheets kind as it turns out, but more that she has rediscovered her desire to live.
It was lovely to visit with Ramses once again, and as a co-authored book, you do wonder whose input we will see more of in future works of the (now continuing) series. One for the fans, but not a book you'd recommend for a reader who has never experienced the richness of the works of Anne Rice before. Once you have immersed yourself in the unrestrained narcissism of the immortals, it's an easy and pleasant reading experience just to ride along with their greatness just once again.
Review - Artemis, Andy Weir
Living on the moon in Artemis, the first lunar city built not only for exploration but also for the tourists, Jazz Bashara knows everything there is to know about the city and its people. Born on Artemis, Jazz is living life as best she can in a hostile climate and from her side hustle of smuggling in the odd piece of contraband, the lunar coinage rolls in. Infrequently. Not enough to keep her from dreaming of the next big haul.
Dang. We all really wanted to love this book after the monster science hug that THE MARTIAN unexpectedly gave us a few years back. The geek science is still there to be enjoyed - detailed and highly credible, and you never have cause to doubt the intelligence and passion of author Andy Weir here in his field of interest.
We see again some toasty dry humour, but without that sense of impeding peril ARTEMIS struggles to engage us in the fate of its lead, petty criminal Jazz Bashara.
Jazz isn't hideously unlikeable, but other than being rather admirably tenacious, she's not that likeable either. She's sketched a little too thin and the reader really needed for her to have a better sense of purpose in order to have a vested interest in her fate. Jazz's intentions didn't have be that noble, but considering the out-of-world setting, they could have been a lot more perilous and suspenseful. There are parts where Jazz is required to look outside of the personal ramifications to herself and think instead of the safety of others living at Artemis, but these scenarios just seem just inclusions to move the technical narrative along. Also, the danger to others is a consequence of Jazz's own actions on the whole anyway.
In the keen hands of Andy Weir, ARTEMIS gives us great insights to what practical challenges there might be to our future living outside of our own planet. It will happen some day on a larger scale of course, and Artemis is a living breathing city with all the usual challenges and petty concerns that would be scaled up to large potential disasters in a hostile 'off earth' environment.
As with THE MARTIAN, the strength of the writing lies in the imagining of the environment and the ever present threat to human life via any one of many small mistakes that could be made. The people depicted as living here in Artemis are mostly self serving, and there isn't the 'brave new world' community identity. It is on the whole every woman for herself. (Or man, etc).
ARTEMIS satisfies the space/science fan in all of us but needed better characterization and an a keener editorial eye cast over where all of the 'wacky races' shenanigans were going to end up. Too many broad brush strokes are made at the novel's conclusion to tidy it all up when it would have been just as okay to go a little dark, rather than feature film fodder light.
Looking forward to anything more that Weir can bring by way of a space action novel with less goof and more attention paid to what possible uniquely frightening space catastrophes could await us out there as we further explore and populate planets and moons other than our own.
Book review - Are You Sleeping, Kathleen Barber
Josie Buhrman has a terrific partner to whom she has told rather a lot of lies to. Caleb, with all his Kiwi charm, has been a solid and loving anchor for Josie, separating her from the mess of her family past which included the scandalous murder of her father, and the exit of her mother to a cult like order. Josie has travelled a long way from the mid-western town where she grew up and has set up a good life for herself away from all of the skeletons still festering in her family closet.
Crime fiction readers (and in particular, true crime or audio book enthusiasts) are generally mad podcast listeners also, so as a hook to make us pick up a novel by a new author, this absolutely worked!
Don’t be too fatigued about seeing once again that old trope of good twin/bad twin as it is put to good use in ARE YOU SLEEPING. Its likely readers will get the odd uncomfortable twinge about the twin stereotypes utilized also. One example of this is both twins having, at different times, the same romantic partner, the ability of the ‘good twin’ to forgive all ills for the sake of the blood tie etc. The reader will need to swallow those in order to move on and follow where it is all going. (Any twins out there, don’t groan too much!).
Readers will absolutely want to know the truth and also will absolutely feel empathy for Josie as she does her best to come through the mess without entirely destroying her new life with the (rather darling) Caleb. The toxicity of Josie’s twin Lanie makes her someone you wish the erstwhile Josie would run far, far away from and yet it is in this we are shown once again it is always that family ties which will continue to bind.
ARE YOU SLEEPING is a debut work for author Kathleen Barber. Insidiously adding weight to the past layer by layer, this is an enjoyable thriller with some clever dialogue that will satisfy those readers who not identify with the complexity of family dramas, but appreciate the recent wave of modern thrillers that include them.
Kudos to the book’s graphic designer for the 1970’s pulp fiction cover/s too – love it!