Louise is on the treadmill of busyness that all single parents are forced to negotiate every day. Her son is great, her ex operates at the standard level of selfish and annoying, her fledgling business is going well and in the between-times Louise checks in and tries to keep up with everyone else’s frantic lives via Facebook. The bright shiny lives of Louise’s friends, ex colleagues and acquaintances are cyber surreal to her and the friends that were once vitally important in the school years have now become just posts on her phone screen.
FRIEND REQUEST is not a social media crime novel as expected; the platform is used instead here to spark off a chain of events. Thematically the story does not labour over the highlight reel that is social media but it is importantly touched upon, tying it neatly back into the past before Facebook etc when many of the same societal pressures existed for young people, albeit in a less technologically advanced age. Different generations facing the same age old concerns. Children being horrific to other children. The feeling of being completely alone as a teenager even though you are typically surrounded by many people on any given day of your school dictated life.
Louise’s slow disintegration is written with care, and it is the increasing of Louise second guessing herself that rachets up the tension. Is Louise actually being stalked, is she over thinking, is there real danger to Louise’s own life and that of her son now as a result of what she participated in as a child. As a reader we’re never entirely sure but there is never any doubt that Louise is fearful and keen to find out the answers to all the questions she should have asked long ago.
Laura Marshall’s debut novel reminds us why most of us move on and far beyond what we were in high school. Remove the rose-coloured glasses, and the “good old days” actually probably were anything but. The adults in this novel are being forced to remember what they were, and its uncomfortable for them to be reminded. This is a cleverly written ‘slow draw’ mystery of dread and old baggage. It will resonate with those who have had to pull back from toxic friends, online or otherwise, and with those who wish they could blank out the mistakes they have made in the past.
Review - REMEMBER ME THIS WAY, Sabine Durrant
Everyone keeps telling me I have to move on. And so here I am, walking down the road where he died, trying to remember him the right way. A year after her husband's death, Lizzie goes to lay flowers where his fatal accident took place. As she makes her way along the motorway, she thinks about their life together. She wonders whether she has changed since Zach died. She wonders if she will ever feel whole again. At last she reaches the spot. And there, tied to a tree, is a bunch of lilies. The flowers are addressed to her husband. Someone has been there before her. Lizzie loved Zach.
It's getting to the stage now where you'd be forgiven for wondering if we're at peak "how well do you know those nearest and dearest to you" psychological thrillers, particularly those that concentrate on the relationship between husbands and wives. Which makes REMEMBER ME THIS WAY a noteworthy novel - standing out as extremely memorable in a very crowded peer group.
Right from the outset there is something profoundly unsettling about REMEMBER ME THIS WAY. From the time that Lizzie is heading for the spot where her husband Zach died it's an odd situation. When the bunch of lilies from another person appears at the spot where Zach died in a fatal accident it feels right that there's something profoundly off about this whole scenario, not just the odd things that Lizzie is discovering about their relationship, the abuse and manipulation.
Durrant is skilled at creating these discomforting, off-putting scenarios. In REMEMBER ME THIS WAY it's the emotion of the anniversary of Zach's death, it's the diary entries, it's the way that you're often in the head of a man that is now dead and it's the tight focus on Lizzie and Zach. There's something very unsettling about knowing things about a dead man that his own wife never has, and there's something uncomfortably challenging about dealing with Lizzie's emotion and unravelling while you really start to doubt the truth about Zach - right down to whether he is actually alive or dead and therefore what happened in that car accident.
The tension and disquiet starts right at the beginning of REMEMBER ME THIS WAY. It doesn't let up as it walks the reader through an abusive relationship. It's about the secrets that we all have, and the power that knowledge of those secrets can give somebody. It's about who do you trust, and what do you do when trust is obliterated. It's about human relationships and how they can be harmful not helpful.
Everything I've been fortunate enough to read by Sabine Durrant has left me with heaps of questions, and a lot of thinking to be done. For like-minded fans of psychological thrillers, those books that delve into more than just who and what, but why, REMEMBER ME THIS WAY stands out as another outstanding, memorable and thought-provoking book.
Review - Tattletale, Sarah J. Naughton
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who believed in fairytales. Now she is out to get your happy ending.
One day changes Jody's life forever.
She has shut herself down, haunted by her memories and unable to trust anyone. But then she meets Abe, the perfect stranger next door and suddenly life seems full of possibility and hope.
If you happen to find yourself feeling slightly confused and muddled in the early chapters of TATTLETALE - hang in there. It takes a while for everyone and everything in this novel to fall into place, but once they do - hang on for the rest of the ride.
Using an unusual structure, and some really complicated character back-stories, TATTLETALE starts out with Mags receiving an unexpected phone call. Her estranged brother Abe is in hospital back in their native UK, and no-one seems to know what was behind his fall from the 4th floor of the converted church that he, Jody his fiancé and an array of neighbours all have flats within.
Megs feels compelled to head back to the UK, after many years working as a lawyer in the US, for reasons which are complicated and very emotional. It's obvious right from the start that the story of Mags and Abe's childhood is going to be fraught, but it seems that everybody here has similar baggage that they are lumping around. The woman by Abe's bedside - his fiancé Jody has her own troubled past, and she and Mags not only have to find a way to come to terms with Abe's condition, but with each other.
TATTLETALE has an intriguing plot, as Mags tries to find out more about the brother she hardly knows, and the truth behind the fall - was it suicide, an accident or an attempt on his life. All the while the crime may or may not be what happened to Abe. It could be part of the harrowing child sexual abuse and rape stories that are revealed as the narrative continues. It could really be a lot of other possibilities as things progress. One thing that TATTLETALE does particularly well is confuse and bewilder. An emotion the reader is quite free to assume that Mags is experiencing as well.
The character's portrayed are also complex and extremely believable. Mags is prickly, moody and wildly unpredictable at points. She's unsympathetic and yet she's there - at the side of a brother she's not seen for many years. There is much in her background that is revealed as the novel proceeds - and readers are left to decide if those revelations are enough to excuse the difficult persona. Jody is different, almost passive, and obviously profoundly troubled. Her concern and affection for Abe could be touching, or it could be uncomfortably cloying - it's left up to the reader to decide. Even the snippets of Abe's life, prior to the coma, are left open to reader interpretation. It seems he might possibly be hiding something - but whether or not you'll guess what that is before it's revealed is a combination of a keen eye for obscure details and a willingness to extrapolate.
In a novel that's likely to polarise opinions, there are a lot of twists and turns, and a lot of opportunities for the reader to like, dislike, feel sorry for and want to throttle so many of the characters that it becomes quite the roller-coaster ride. For this reader, nothing in TATTLETALE was quite what it seemed, nobody quite who they were supposed to be and everything just slightly worse than you could have hoped it would turn out to be. It was therefore, compelling and frequently discomforting reading.
Review - You, Caroline Kepnes
When a beautiful, aspiring writer strides into the East Village bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he does what anyone would do: he Googles the name on her credit card.
There is only one Guinevere Beck in New York City. She has a public Facebook account and Tweets incessantly, telling Joe everything he needs to know: she is simply Beck to her friends, she went to Brown University, she lives on Bank Street, and she’ll be at a bar in Brooklyn tonight—the perfect place for a “chance” meeting.
YOU is one of those books that I've been hearing murmurings about for ages, so when it was talked up by a local publicist who knows her crime fiction well it became required reading. Having said that, I'm well aware that it has also garnered mixed reactions so all in all, quite an intriguing read.
It doesn't take long to identify some of the likely causes of the mixed reactions. YOU is a creepy, sobering and realistic story about stranger obsession which is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's discomfortingly, worrying and more than a bit weird to spend time with somebody talking intimately (in their own heads) to the source of their obsession.
The you of the title is a young college student / writer living in New York. She's a typical millennial girl, who lives her life in a public stream of Twitter, Facebook and email, willingly surrendering privacy to the point where she's even given up closing curtains in her apartment, regardless of what she's doing / when she's completely nude. It does feels like a very realistic portrayal, made even more disconcerting by something narcissistic, almost wanton about her as well.
The narrator is a seemingly charming, normal, well-read, good looking young bookshop manager. Yet readers may quickly come to believe that he's sociopath. He's certainly obsessive, manipulative and chillingly entitled.
So not a necessarily likeable pair of characters, but extremely believable and identifiable. Which ends up setting up a very interesting scenario for a reader, who will be confronted with a disconcerting plot of obsession and manipulation, in a manner that's very current day, and feels particularly insidious and particularly scary as much of it revolves around our technological lives.
Everything in YOU therefore wrong-foots the reader, creating a challenging reading experience of very intimate personal time with rather unpleasant people, wrapped up in obsession, fuelled by the manipulation of technology to control.
Review - Saigon Dark, Elka Ray
Good and bad. Life and death. Some choices aren't black and white
A grief-stricken young mother switches her dead baby for an abused child, then spends the next decade living a lie. She remarries and starts to feel safe when she gets a note: 'I know what you did'. Can she save her family from her dark secret?
It's taken an age to get this review to the point where it can be published, because it's it's been so hard to clearly identify what about SAIGON DARK really worked for this reader, and why there were some niggling doubts remaining.
A seemingly straight-forward story where Lily, a competent, respected surgeon has returned to her native Saigon, two children with her - leaving behind a failed marriage to an American Vietnamese man. When her young daughter dies in a drowning accident, she buries the body in her garden - never telling anyone what happened. Then grief-stricken Lily kidnaps (rescues) an abused child from the house next door, raising her as her dead daughter. Suddenly not so straight-forward.
Guilt, sadness and paranoia abound in this novel, which quite often feels like a long-running train crash, as Lily spirals out of control. The portrait of this woman is interesting and particularly well done as you have a seemingly competent, assertive woman in her professional life, who, from the moment she finds the body of her daughter, does so many inexplicable things. But it's not just the daft decisions, it's the absolute refusal to take stock / to consider the potential consequences / to stop and breathe until, as the reader just knows will happen, reality turns around and bites back hard.
Obviously there's an unreliable narrator at the centre of SAIGON DARK. Or is it perhaps the sinister echo of the ex-husband or her the best friend, miles away and somehow complicit in something. Perhaps this is where the niggling doubts come from. There's a lot of belief being suspended here. Sure you might think a little boy would accept a sudden change in sister without dropping his mother into it too deep, and you might sort of expect that an isolated, recently arrived family could hide a switch like this. And you can live with the idea that the guilt would be partly because Lily's dead daughter was a handful, and the hiding of her death by a seemingly intelligent, educated woman was all explainable. And the flitting, and returning, and the new husband, the ex-husband, and the odd interventions from the best friend, and and and. The batting away of disbelief is undoubtedly helped by the pace of the novel, and the cleverly sympathetic nature of the woman at the centre of it all, and fortunately, the unravelling starts early enough to give you hope that any doubts you might be experiencing aren't completely unreasonable.
All in all it's an interesting one this. SAIGON DARK is styled as a psychological thriller, with a central highly unreliable character who is oddly sympathetic and utterly infuriating all at the same time. Bought up in America, but with Vietnamese ancestry, she's both an insider and outsider. She's isolated without many friends or strong local connections, and she's profoundly impulse driven. With each wrong-turn she erects more and more hurdles to the point where you just know she's going to trip. And for most of SAIGON DARK this reader could not decide if that was a good or a bad thing. Definitely worth reading if you're looking for something that's outside the box by a long way.
Review - Kill The Next One by Frederico Axat
Ted has it all: a beautiful wife, two daughters, a high-paying job. But after he is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour he finds himself with a gun to his temple, ready to pull the trigger. That’s when the doorbell rings.
A stranger makes him a proposition: kill two deserving men before dying. The first is a criminal, and the second is, like Ted, terminally ill, and wants to die. If Ted kills these men he will then become a target himself in a kind of suicidal daisy chain—and won’t it be easier for his family if he’s a murder victim?
Kill the Next One, Argentinean author Frederico Axat’s first novel translated into English literally has a killer premise. Ted McKay has put a gun to his own head, prepared to commit suicide when there is a knock at the door. A stranger enters and offers him a deal – to become part of a club where he kills someone who deserves to die and then kills someone who themselves is looking to commit suicide. He will then be killed in turn by an anonymous stranger, saving his family the torment of dealing with a suicide.
This premise is just the start of a twisty turny psychological thriller. Every fifty pages or so Axat overturns the previous section and delves deeper into the mind and history of Ted McKay. Because of this structure it is hard to get a handle on the character. The book depends on constantly wrong footing the reader and confounding expectations.
Kill the Next One is a strange proposition. It is, in the end, an onion-like puzzle built around a bizarre history and mental illness so that it is difficult to talk about any more of the plot without heading into spoiler territory. Axat successfully shifts tonally from moral thriller to psychological investigation to a more conventional thriller as the pieces start to fall into place and the broader picture coalesces. The key aspect of this structure is that Kill the Next One keeps readers guessing and despite becoming a little frustrating at times, it is very hard to put down.
REVIEW - THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR by Shari Lapena
On the other side of a wall from where a modest dinner party is being held, a sleeping baby is taken from her bed.
What pulls the reader in hook, line and sinker into this “domestic noir” is that all the fraught scenarios we read of in THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR are only a couple of shaky steps off the normal path of married domesticity, walked by most of us every day. This makes the events in this fast moving book even more frightening to consider; it is only one mother’s group discussion away from our own possible realities.
The book does stumble occasionally with poor construction, notably in the scenes between married couple Anne and Marco. Lots of meaningful looks here with little engagement. Anne and Marco are a strangely disconnected couple. Throwing that old plot device of Post Natal Depression up against the wall doesn’t serve so well to explain the disinterest the two seem to have in each other. Neither of them seem to have a clue what the other is up to; odd, considering they are the two prime suspects as the parents of the abducted child. The reader needed to see more conflict between the couple; more pressure to confess or absolve.
It is very easy to see this novel being made into a Hollywood big screen thriller as all the right ingredients are there; no character is wasted, all are relevant. The author has done a sterling job of turning our suspicions this way and that, backtracking over connections we once discarded and allowing us see them differently in hindsight as the novel powers along. THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR is a blisteringly fast read with the ticking time clock of little Cora’s life always in the back ground. This clever thriller should be a huge hit and spark much discussion.
Review - All These Perfect Strangers, Aoife Clifford
You don’t have to believe in ghosts for the dead to haunt you.
You don’t have to be a murderer to be guilty.
Within six months of Pen Sheppard starting university, three of her new friends are dead. Only Pen knows the reason why.
College life had seemed like a wonderland of sex, drugs and maybe even love. The perfect place to run away from your past and reinvent yourself. But Pen never can run far enough and when friendships are betrayed, her secrets are revealed. The consequences are deadly.
In 2013 Aoife Clifford was awarded an Australian Society of Author's mentorship to help bring this debut novel - ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS - to fruition. To be fair to those who have read it and are finding the idea that this is a debut novel hard to believe, she has form. Shortlisted for the UK Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger, Clifford won the Ned Kelly / S.D. Harvey Short Story Award and a Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto. What she has now produced is an assured, clever and profoundly disconcerting psychological thriller.
In the manner of all good slow burner, tightly controlled psychological suspense novels, ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS is beautifully crafted. Told from Pen's viewpoint it combines the tantalising prospect of an unreliable narrator, or a past too dreadful to be revealed. By taking the reader straight into the life and mind of young Pen Sheppard as she is about to leave her small hometown, her difficult mother and a fraught childhood behind, heading for University and life within the walls of a typical residential college, the reader is immediately dragged straight into a relationship with this character. And it's discomforting to know so little about somebody, and yet be so intimately involved.
The narrative itself switches between the present of life in the College as she sets out to build a new life, start again, move on from a secret that nobody needs to know about and the alternative present of her "other life" where she is under the care of a psychiatrist - dealing with something from her University days that possibly has longer term and more deep seated elements behind it. As she tentatively makes friends, and the group settle into life in College, they party and they get to know each other - exactly as you'd expect from people this age. Then things implode with a series of attacks on the campus, and a dead student who may or may not have succumbed to a dreadful accident.
An exploration of truth, and presentation, ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS really does throw harsh lights on the perception of teenage life. The hesitancy with which the truth of Penn's background is revealed matches beautifully with her personality. The shakiness of the quickly formed friendships is as revealing as the way that edifices start to crumble. The good and bad start to reveal themselves (and it's not all bad), all of which exactly as you'd expect of a group of "perfect strangers" thrust into close proximity, the tension heightened by the threat of an unknown attacker. In this instance even the use of "perfect" in the title is exquisitely nuanced. Are they "perfect" people or will they always be "perfect strangers", is what you see really what you get, or are the persona's they have all constructed as deep and difficult as that which Pen hides behind?
It is a slow burner though, and you may start out profoundly confused about what's going on and why, but it is a very short trip from there to not able to put it down territory. As you'd expect from something this complex, layered, and confronting not everything is wrapped up in a neat bow, as it most definitely should never be. There's so much in ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS that is open to interpretation that it's only right that the reader is likely to be left with as many questions as answers.
This review is part of a blog tour organised for the release of ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS. For the other reviews:
Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children's books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease - enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma.
If you ever need to sum up UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent in one word then mesmerising is it. It starts out with the serious assault of Alice by her husband Oliver Ryan and then steps back through the previous five decades, charting the events in Oliver’s life leading up to the assault. The narrative switches from Oliver to other people he has spent time with over the years, and it carefully and very cleverly builds a story of the real Oliver and why he is who he is, why he did what he did. There is also geographical variation with many of the pivotal events in their lives happening in France, whereas day to day life, and the crime occur in Ireland.
There’s a claustrophobic, intense feeling to this style of narrative, as Oliver’s facade is laid bare, carefully and forensically. In a style that’s almost deceptively gentle, there’s a deliberation to the way that friends and family all step up to tell their part of this man’s sorry story each in turn, each twisting the knife a further turn.
Not that Oliver does not deserve skewering. His assault on his wife, as described in the opening pages of the book is shocking, vicious and seemingly utterly without regret. The mesmerising manner in which Liz Nugent does that cannot be understated. The assured narrative, the way that the cast of characters become so real in such short sharp chapters, the sense that you’re being given an opportunity to understand that great question of crime fiction - why, in such detail, all combine to create something extremely satisfying in UNRAVELLING OLIVER.
Review - LEONA: The Die is Cast, Jenny Rogneby
A naked and bloody seven-year-old girl walks into a bank, clutching a grubby teddy bear. She plays a threatening recording, demanding money. No one dares intervene.
The child leaves the bank and disappears, without leaving a trace of evidence.
Any readers looking for something different - LEONA: THE DIE IS CAST could be just the ticket. There's so much here in the writing, and the styling that is very brave of this author.
Leona Lindberg is both a highly regarded investigator and an outsider. She has a personality disorder which makes her a tricky person to work with, and an even harder protagonist for a reader to establish a connection with. Her internal dialogue clearly shows she's aware of her limitations, that her interactions with others are flawed, and able to moderate that to some extent. Every now and again her true self breaks out though - and she offends, and annoys many around her.
She's also the one that's more than willing to take on yet another case in a workload that's killing her and her colleagues - the really odd case of a naked, bloody young girl who has robbed a bank.
Whilst that case, and subsequent crimes by this young child stay in the forefront of the investigation aspects of the book, Lindberg's personal life, her family and her background are slowly revealed. There is much that gives pause for thought about this protagonist, and whilst you might struggle to see her in the role of victim, there's a real challenge being thrown at the reader throughout this book. Getting inside the head of somebody who is so different, so blatant and so matter-of-fact about her own self-interest isn't a straight-forward experience, but it's very worthwhile in LEONA. The reveals are built deftly into the narrative, in exactly the matter-of-fact style you'd expect of somebody like Lindberg, and there's no doubt whatsoever from the very start that there's something about her that's not quite right.
Spending time in Lindberg's head is hard work to be honest, she's not the nicest of people to be around, and her ruthless use and disregard for everyone around her is startling, fascinating and profoundly discomforting. It's also instructive and, for this reader, surprisingly moving in the end. This is a woman who simply doesn't seem to give a damn about anybody else, and for a while readers will have to wonder why.
Needless to say the revelations come solidly throughout LEONA and saying much about the actual plot is difficult without huge spoilers. But if you're lucky enough to get a chance to read this book, no matter how off-putting you find your initial introduction to Leona Lindberg, stick with it. This is an unusual approach to the psychological crime thriller, from a style of crime fiction that concentrates on "why", rather than who or how or gotcha.