Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Burnt Paper Sky – Gilly Macmillan

Psychological Thriller 5*s
Psychological Thriller

On the face of it this is a missing child story with all the horrors that are conjured up by the scenario but the commentary has far more to say about modern society and how we react to such tragedies. For me the appeal of ‘domestic noir’, the category that this book falls into is being able to question ‘What would I do?’ but in this instance the opportunity to examine how we react to this type of news is also present.

Rachel Jenner and her eight year old son Ben take a Sunday walk in the woods near the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, with their dog. Rachel’s wish is to allow Ben a measure of independence and he is allowed to run on to the rope swing hanging in a clearing – by the she gets to the swing there is no sight of either boy or dog. The police are called along with Ben’s father, John, the man that left his family for another woman, a loss that Rachel is struggling to come to terms with. The police swing into action and the requisite televised appeal is scheduled for Rachel to appeal to Ben’s return. With her every move scrutinised it doesn’t take long for the public to suspect that there she is in some way culpable for the loss of her son.  Someone sets up a blog spelling out her shortcomings and needless to say there is no shortage of commentators, the like of which will be familiar to anyone who has witnessed similar appeals, something I have always found shocking but understandable when coupled with the knowledge that the police often organise these appeals with the aim of studying the body language of those closest to the victim.

The story is told in part from Rachel’s point of view at the time Ben went missing, the emotions she displays are unsurprisingly raw and at times hard to read. The other part of the tale is described by DI James Clemo in part to his psychotherapist a year after the events. The fact that he is seeing a psychotherapist alone is enough to raise the tension, after all the reader wants Ben to be found safe and sound.

This is the story of an investigation with a difference as the main thrust of the book looking at the characters involved, including Ben’s close family, his aunt and his mother’s oldest friend along with other secondary characters. The timeline is kept linear so that the reader shares the frustrations of those looking for answers when a sure line of enquiry ends up at a dead end or discrepancies in stories are revealed. This alone keeps the levels of tension high while allowing the reader to piece together their own ideas of where the truth may lie.

For me having the breaking news excerpts along with the blog and comments gave this book a fully-rounded feel – as I said in my first paragraph – based on the information being released it gave me a chance to examine what my thoughts on the situation may be and I’m sure I’m not the only armchair detective out there, in fact I know I’m not from the number of people who do comment on these types of crimes – although I hasten to add I do not feel my skills sufficiently honed to add the clamour of voices that commit their thoughts to the internet – and in this case it seemed that many of the voices suspected that Rachel was involved – were they right? Well you’ll have to read the book to find out.

I received a copy of this extremely accomplished from the publishers Little Brown Book Group UK to coincide with the publication of the paperback on 27 August 2015 in return for my honest opinion. I’m pleased to report that Gilly Macmillan is publishing this book under the title What She Knew, in the US and it is due out in 2016.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

Contemporary Fiction 2*s
Contemporary Fiction

This book has the haunting quality of one you would expect that is set in Alaska where the weather couldn’t have been more at odds with the heat wave we were experiencing when I read it.

Yasmin has gone to Alaska with her ten-year old daughter Ruby to meet up with her husband Matt. Matt has been on an extended trip to the country to film the wildlife but with communications hard to maintain and a friendship with a local woman to boot Yasmin isn’t entirely sure how they will work things out but she is set on delivering an ultimatum to Matt despite being aware of what the loss of a parent can do to a child, let alone a fairly isolated child like Ruby who is deaf.

On arriving in Alaska, Matt is not there to meet them and it isn’t too long before Yasmin is told that he perished in a fire that swept through the village where he had been staying; there were no survivors. Yasmin goes into instant denial and persuades a trucker to take her partway to the village before the expected storm hits.

This is a story about love in all permutations within a family. Yasmin remembers the early days with Matt in flashback while part of her journey across this white, cold and bleak land is told in the third person some sections are told in the first person present tense. Ruby tells her story too, from her perspective as she joins her mother on the road-trip to find her father. Ruby uses sign language and we realise the limitations when it’s dark, so she also has a computer app that can convert speech into typed words, to reply Ruby types the words and the computer synthesizes a voice. Yasmin’s goal is to get Ruby to speak which she has refused to do for the last couple of years, the explanation given by Ruby in the book is perfectly understandable but so is Yasmin’s fears for her daughter’s future. The absent Matt is much more accepting of Ruby’s deafness which has created an underlying conflict between the parents.

The premise to the book is great, I loved Ruby’s character although her relentless good cheer and hopeful nature seemed slightly at odds with how a child would behave in such a hostile environment. I’m afraid I felt like I was on the journey with them across a landscape where little changes and the endless bundling into every item of clothing whenever they had to leave the truck. I understand the need for authenticity but I quickly tired of how such and such a task could only be done with the glove liners and not the warm gloves that prevent frostbite! In truth the scene setting for the true mystery took over two-thirds of the book, and I lost interest partly because little happened and partly because I didn’t believe that the actions taken by Yasmin were realistic although I get that this story was really a love conquers all, or does it? themed book.

There were clues to the mystery scattered amongst the pages but I don’t think anyone would struggle to work out what might have happened to Matt. The consequence of this is that the tension which would have tightened this story was removed.

I really enjoyed Sister which was this author’s debut novel and her second book Afterwards was also an interesting read but for me this one just didn’t work despite the brilliant descriptions of Alaska and other elements which were genuinely interesting the story didn’t quite gel for me.

I’d like to thank the publishers Little Brown Book Group for my copy in return for this review. The Quality of Silence was published on 2 July 2015.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Other Me – Saskia Sarginson

Contemporary Fiction 5*s
Contemporary Fiction

This wasn’t the book I expected but oh my, it was so much better! I expected a tale, similar to other ones I’ve read this year where the protagonist has changed her identity because she is either hiding from someone or something, and to an extent that is exactly what this story is about, but it tells a tale much deeper than that, truly exploring how we identify ourselves and illustrates how events in the past have very real consequences in the present.

Klaudia is the only daughter of Otto and Gwyn Meyer and we first meet her in the 1980s as she starts secondary school where her father is the caretaker. Having been home-schooled by her religious mother surrounded by the religious figures her father carves out of wood, Klaudia struggles to socialise, something not helped by the fact her father is a figure of fun and called a Nazi by her classmates. Saskia Sarginson paints a realistic picture of a teenage angst without it ever feeling melodramatic and so when Klaudia finds some evidence that seems to suggest that the name calling isn’t just childish taunts, but may have roots in reality, her reaction was entirely believable.

Klaudia leaves home in the 1990s, she moves to Leeds and becomes Eliza Bennett, named on the spur of the moment in honour of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett. She leaves behind the taunts that had followed her through her teenage years and reinvents herself, but she can’t quite forget the suspicions she has about her father’s past and is in no hurry to return to the claustrophobic home in London.

Interspersed with Klaudia’s and Eliza’s stories we have the story of Ernst, Otto’s brother. Ernst’s tale begins in the 1930s in Germany. Ernst and Otto were foundlings, taken in by the Meyer family living a bleak life, one where they aren’t treated as family but more as servants despite being young boys. We follow Ernst as life in Germany is changing with fascism on the rise and proving your ancestral line is a requirement of staying safe.

Earlier this month I made a comment that a book spoke to me, this one did too and I understood why when I got to the afterword. The author tells us she was informed that the father that she’d never met was a Dutch Jew and how that made the Holocaust all that more personal. My paternal family were also Jews who came to England from Amsterdam and like the author, I’ve always been aware that but for the decision of my ancestors to move to the East End, I may not be here at all. I’ve been to Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam and read through the names of those who died in the concentration camps and seen my family name, which only became anglicised in the late 1930s, listed numerous times as were the other surnames that crop up in my family tree. The author wrote this book after considering how she would feel about this period of history if her father had been a German Nazi rather than a Dutch Jew. Coincidently the same thoughts were running through my head as I read this book, and that is the randomness of reading, you just don’t know when that special book that feels personal will appear.

This book really moved me and although I had some sympathy with Klaudia/Eliza, the character I really grew to love was Ernst. If you want to find out why, well you’ll have to read the book!

This is the first book I’ve read by this author but having rooted around in the cupboard which houses a pile of unread books, I found a copy of her debut novel The Twins which was one of the Richard and Judy choices back in 2013 and this will be now promoted to a place on an actual shelf.

I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Little Brown Book Group who allowed me to read a copy of this book in return for my review. The Other Me is already available to read as an e-book with the physical copy being published on 13 August 2015.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

Crime Fiction 5*s
Crime Fiction

Wow, April is turning out to be a great month for reading! I Let You Go has such a fresh feel it could have been hung on a line to dry in the spring sunshine. This is a book that defies my (very) simple genre split, feeling part psychological thriller and part police procedural which apart from making me pause to check I was still reading the same book on my kindle the first time the switch happened, works exceptionally well.

The book opens with a police investigation into the death of five-year-old Jacob who was killed by a hit-and-run driver capably led by the principled Detective Inspector Ray Stevens, his Detective Sergeant Jake Owen, better known as Stumpy and the new addition to the team, the eager Kate. The team are soon given some extra resources as the media and the top brass heap pressure on the team to find the culprit.

We then meet Jenna who following the accident has retreated from life and she’s taken herself just about as far off the beaten track as she can to a small cottage in Wales where she takes time to heal away from the memories taking one small box of precious items that she simply couldn’t part with.

The pacing of this book is fantastic as the switching between viewpoints as the police become more dispirited while Jenna slowly begins to heal, keeps the momentum going and had me longing to know how the story was going to play out. All I can say is although I identified some aspects I couldn’t predict more than a couple of pages ahead of me at any point, especially when the book moves to the second half, by which time it was impossible to put the book aside for anything or anyone.

The characters are extremely well-drawn and realistic and for those readers who need to identify with their protagonists Jenna whilst damaged, is extremely likable, the police for the most-part agreeable a crew that you would happily sit down and have a chat with. In the newer traditions of police procedurals we get to know Ray through his home-life as well as the investigation and see him balancing the job with the demands of family life with his wife Mags left to run things while he works long hours. It was no surprise when I read up on the author to find that she had worked in CID for twelve years, as the small touches can only ever have come from someone who has lived the life.

In Wales we also meet some brilliant characters with the locals cautiously welcoming Jenna from Iestyn whose cottage she rents to the woman who runs the local grocery store and Beth Morgan owner of the caravan park, empty due to it being out of season, who takes the newcomer under her wing and is one of life’s nice people, are all well-rounded and life-like characters. There is even a bit of romance thrown in. This leads me to one of the reasons this book works so well, there is plenty of detail which is written into the story-line naturally so that I was kept constantly interested in what was going on. Refreshingly, this is a book that is far from formulaic but doesn’t rely on style to get it noticed, it doesn’t need to the talent is obvious from the tragic opening until the very last page.

I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Little Brown Book Group UK for not only publishing this excellent debut novel but allowing me to read a copy ahead of publication on 23 April 2015.

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Dying Hours – Mark Billingham

Crime Fiction 4*'s
Crime Fiction

There are times when I want to read a book where I know exactly what I am getting. Mark Billingham provides this in his Inspector Tom Thorne series. I wouldn’t say you have to read the entire series and this one works perfectly well as a stand-alone novel, the only downside to that is you won’t recognise the character progression of our protagonist Tom Thorne.

Mark Billingham was a stand-up comedian appearing at the places like The Comedy Store before becoming an author. It is the flashes of humour, that appear just at the right moment to lighten the mood, that makes his books so attractive to me. The other characteristic which puts these books up there as a must read for me is that they are set in London which is my favourite crime location for no real reason except it is.

Mark Billingham has done it again. By ‘it’ I mean this is a crime novel populated by characters I recognised a plot that is different but not so unbelievable that it made me go ‘That would never happen!’ and enough twists in the story to keep me on my toes.

I have to confess I have quite a soft spot for Inspector Tom Thorne. This lover of country music is a complex but not ‘off the wall’ character and at this stage in his story is no longer part of murder investigations, instead he is effectively demoted to dealing with local policing issues as diverse as breaking up fights and moving on those who frequent the local dogging sites.

When our Tom Thorne first suspects that some suicides were anything but he was laughed out of the Murder Investigation Team so he does some digging himself. Clearly the spot of bother he got himself into has not taught him a great deal! Juggling this covert operation he is also juggling his relationship with Helen and her young son Alfie. Billingham manages to weave the home life versus the professional life of Tom extremely well and with that touch of humour that makes me want his latest book each time one is published.

As much as I love this series I can’t say this is one of my favourites but it was still a great read. It is like visiting an old friend and not only finding out how their life is but the lives of their friends who you know vaguely. This reader is already eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

Here is the series so far:

SleepyheadHis first three victims ended up dead. His fourth was not so fortunate . . .
ScaredycatNow… killing is a team sport…
Lazybones The past has caught up with them.
And so has he…

The Burning Some fires never go out . . .
LifelessSome lives are cheaper than others . . .
BuriedThe past is a shallow grave . . .
Death Message That’s what coppers call it when they have to tell someone that a loved one has been killed.
BloodlineIt seems like a straightforward domestic murder….
From the Dead the man she paid to have murdered – seems very much alive and well…
Good as Dead The hostage, the demand, the twist.

Stand-alone thrillers

In the Dark A deadly crash… A dangerous quest… a shocking twist
Rush of Blood Perfect strangers, perfect holiday, perfect murder