Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Before She Knew Him – Peter Swanson

Crime Fiction
4*s

Often us booklovers are drawn to compare notes on the kinds of characters we like with broadly speaking divisions, those characters we like, we’d be happy to have them as friends, and those that you actively dislike. I’ve, in my more contemplative moments wondered why I am so happy to read about unlikeable characters, and I’ve decided that the authors who create these to populate their books tend to have other dynamics going on that make the likeableness of the character a bonus rather than a hinderance.

In Before She Knew Him there are unlikeable characters and to make things even harder the author has created a world, like he has in his previous novels, that is unlikely to exist but just likely enough to make the fiction only too believable.

Hen (short for Henrietta) Mazur and her husband Lloyd have recently moved house to a small suburb in Boston. They love their new house, they’ve left behind what appears to have been a few bad memories and Hen is now following her artistic path as an illustrator in the new neighbourhood. Their neighbours Mira and Matthew invite them for a dinner party. Hen, who has suffered with her mental health isn’t keen but Lloyd wants them to get out and mix. So they go and in one of those weird coincidences that occur in real life as well as novels, Hen makes a connection between Matthew and a victim of a murder who lived close to them in their previous home. What are the chances?

The book then takes on what could be a farcical turn, but doesn’t quite. Hen convinced that Matthew is in fact hiding some huge dark secret does what anyone would do in such a situation. Yes, she chooses to stalk her neighbour, whilst of course keeping this a secret from her husband, who is likely to worry far too much that she needs to go back to the doctor and have her medication altered.

In between this we see things from Matthew’s point of view. The only thing he is hiding from his wife is the visits his brother Richard makes to the house when Mira is out of town working. Mira has to travel a great deal for her work and Richard visits in her absence because she actively dislikes him – not surprisingly as we read excerpts from his thoughts, I’m sure most readers would decide to put him on the ‘not a friend pile!’

So all in all, exactly what you’d expect from a book by Peter Swanson. A bunch of weird characters, some less likeable than others followed by a somewhat bizarre scenario which is all rescued by some brash actions putting various people in danger of being discovered, followed and perhaps, given this is crime fiction, killed! And it was brilliantly pulled off. I didn’t want to put the book down, so engaged was I with what in the hands of a lesser writer would easily have been thrown against the ‘don’t be ridiculous’ wall.

I’d like to thank the publishers Faber and Faber who allowed me to read the experience that Before She Knew Him which will be published on 5 March 2019.

First Published UK: 5 March 2019
Publisher: Faber & Faber
No of Pages: 320
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Previous Books by Peter Swanson

The Girl with a Clock for a Heart
The Kind Worth Killing
Her Every Fear
All the Beautiful Lies

 

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Innocent Killer – Michael Griesbach

Non-Fiction
2*s

I’m not going to lie this book was requested from NetGalley some time ago, in fact it was published in February 2016! So why did it take me so long to get around to reading it? Well this book is strongly linked to the Netflix True Crime sensation which was  Making A Murderer, and I thought I would watch it but not being a great watcher of TV didn’t actually ever get around to it.  And then at the tail end of 2018 I did, and remembered The Innocent Killer!

True crime is always somewhat difficult to review, after all are we concentrating on the crime itself and how interesting/entertaining that is? You see what I mean? If you look at any true crime from that dimension it can seem at best completely heartless but to be blunt without the crime having some aspect to set it apart, its hard to see how you generate the interest. I’m hoping that the following review will indicate some of the areas that true crime writers need to consider when writing a book, it turns out true crime isn’t all about the crime after all.

The killer in this book is about Steven Avery, a man who lived in Manitowac County, Wisconsin, and this book concentrates for the most part on the crime he was convicted of the rape of a local woman back in the 1985 and went on to serve eighteen years in prison for the crime. Then in 2003 he was exonerated, the advances in DNA testing proving that another man was guilty of that crime. Then in a massive twist in the tale, just as Steven Avery’s civil suit was being played out in court for damages owed to him for the wrongful conviction, he was accused of the murder of a young woman photographer Teresa Halbach and in 2007 was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Michael Griesbach it should be noted is a prosecuting attorney for the Manitowac County Prosecutor’s Office and with the majority of the book going into the background, trial and the ultimate work carried out by the innocence project that led to Steven Avery’s exoneration in relation to the rape charge. This is done in far more depth than the TV series whose focus is on the murder and subsequent imprisonment with a particular focus on how sound or otherwise the conviction for that crime is believed to be.

I really did appreciate the additional details provided in this book on the original prison charge although perhaps the author’s lack of experience in writing a novel is apparent especially with the repetition, and surprisingly for a lawyer, the unusual narrative structure in places.

However once we are at the point when Steven is released from prison the book fell down for me because the author is unable to write the second part from anything like an independent perspective. He’s name-dropping his friends, piling on the absolute outrage he feels at the nasty television producers for even daring to question the integrity of the officers who serve Manitowac County, and in doing so lost any credibility from this reader. In fact it was at that point I began to seriously question why he even wrote this book. A sceptical person might say he saw an opportunity and decided to cash in on it, someone less harsh might say he was standing up for his friends, who lets not forget, very nearly had to part with a small fortune had they been deemed liable for the incorrect incarceration of Steven on the original rape charge. It was therefore with no surprise that I learnt on finishing the book that Michael Griesbach acts as an attorney for one of the Police Officers whose actions in both investigations and trials are highlighted by the TV programme.

So in conclusion, if like me you are so late to the party that it is a distant and somewhat hazy memory for everyone else, you may find the additional information on the first charge informative however I’d save yourself some rage and close the book once that part is over.

I’d like to say a belated thank you to the publishers Random House UK who allowed me to read a copy of The Innocent Killer albeit over three years ago, better late than never?

First Published UK: 21 January 2016
Publisher: Random House UK
No of Pages: 304
Genre: Non Fiction – True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2018, Book Review, Books I have read

American Heiress – Jeffrey Toobin #20BooksofSummer

Non-Fiction
4*s

Although I vaguely knew the story of Patsy Hearst it turns out I didn’t know very much at all, thanks to Jeffery Toobin I am now appraised not only about the facts of the case but of the political climate in the US at the time.

I’m not normally a fan of politics in my reading matter but without the political rhetoric, Patsy Hearst’s kidnapping would not have happened in the first place, we can’t begin to understand one without the other.

Patsy Hearst was a wealthy heiress to the Hearst’s family fortune. At the time of the kidnapping on 4 February 1974 she was living with her boyfriend, not exactly estranged from her family, but her mother in particular disapproved of her lifestyle. But Patsy was young, it was the 1970s and she was finding her feet. At the same time the self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army were looking to make the headlines and to do so they needed a story so they set-up a fairly shambolic kidnap. Luckily for them Patsy’s boyfriend wasn’t really up for a fight of any description and ran in the opposite direction. So Patsy was taken hostage and if you follow one point of view, she was brainwashed into becoming part of the Symbionese Liberation Army herself. The other point of view is that she didn’t need brainwashing, she believed in their aims. The world was all agog when two months later she was taped telling her family that this was what she wanted and she now had the nom de guerre “Tania.”

From the little I know it appears to me that this is an author who not only knows his stuff but is able to put it across so that those of us who have no understanding can access the information and gain an insight into the place, the times and the psychology of those involved. Jeffery Toobin explains how the family made its fortune and the reality, as opposed to the headlines, of what funds he was really able to raise.

But for me the best part of the book was to explain the era in terms of American social and political history. I won’t lie, I knew next to nothing to begin with so it could be called an ‘easy sell’ but I found the context and background really interesting. My précis of Jeffrey Toobin’s measured analysis was that there was a new angry generation wanting more financial security with fewer wars which they didn’t believe in with the result that domestic terrorism was booming. Sound familiar anyone?

What I had never appreciated before reading this book was that although the SLA were led by a male ex-prisoner with a somewhat erratic personality, there were a number of radical feminists in the group and therefore it was quite conceivable at that time that the former wealthy young Patricia was drawn to their cause. It therefore isn’t such a huge leap to understand that after the group became separated that the fight for survival was all that mattered. There are lots of shocking facts in this part of the story which I was completely unaware of but I’m pleased to say the tone of the book remains factual.

Nor does the author spend a lot of time trying to convince us of Patricia’s culpability or otherwise, he presents the facts and sometimes gives us one view or another but he plays it fairly straight. It is really up to the reader to decide and play the psychoanalyst with the tools he has provided.

Overall the book is a comprehensive look at the kidnap, the intervening years that Patricia Hearst spent as a revolutionary plus short book-ends on her life as a child and what happened afterwards.

“In the end, notwithstanding a surreal detour in the 1970s, Patricia led the life she for which she was destined back in Hillsborough. The story of Patricia Hearst, as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending. She did not turn into a revolutionary. She turned into her mother.”

American Heiress is my ninth read in my 20 Books for Summer 2018 Challenge and one that I feel has broadened my understanding of an era as well as educating me about a story I thought I knew about, but it turns out I didn’t really know anything at all. Now I do!

First Published UK: 2 August 2016
Publisher: Doubleday
No of Pages:432
Genre: Non-Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Carnegie’s Maid – Marie Benedict

Historical Fiction
4*s

Andrew Carnegie is best known for being one of the richest men in America having made his fortune by leading the expansion of the steel industry, and towards the end of his life he was a leading philanthropist. Marie Benedict’s book has been written as a fictional account of how this man was moved to better the lives of others when his early years had been spent focussed on lining his own pockets. To do so she looked at her own ancestors and imagined a young, bright Irish girl becoming a Lady’s Maid to Margaret Carnegie, Andrew’s mother.

We first meet Clara Kelly in December 1868 as her journey across the Atlantic is coming to a close and she’s got to find a way to get to her relatives in Pittsburgh. Clara despite being the second child of her parents has been sent to America to provide a ‘Plan B’ for the family since their leased farm is being carved up following the potato famine and now there are real concerns that the Landlord has it in for Clara’s father.

The premise to the book where a farmer’s daughter ends up being a Lady’s Maid is a great vehicle for studying the man at the centre of the book, Andrew Carnegie. It don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there is a relationship of sorts between Clara and Andrew, after all both were immigrants, Andrew moving the US from Scotland when he was barely in his teens. With the Carnegie family coming recently to wealth the need to never descend into poverty again is one of their key drivers for continued success. I’m pleased to say that the author doesn’t skimp on the less than moral and perhaps legal actions of this great business leader either before his later transformation into someone who champions the education of all.

It’s also nice that this book is populated by strong and intelligent women. Margaret Carnegie, whilst maintaining a tight grip on her household is also very much involved in her son’s business and Clara is also keen to learn more about business as the book progresses.

This is a heavily fictionalised account and shouldn’t be read as anything other than that but that doesn’t stop it being a fascinating insight into the lives of immigrants to America during and after the American Civil War. The descriptions of life both in Ireland and Pittsburgh make for illuminating reading especially the lives of Clara’s distant relations Patrick and Maeve who bring up an ever growing brood in a small and dirty ramshackle home. Patrick working at the Iron foundry whilst Maeve takes in needlework to be completed by poor light in the evenings. By contrast Clara’s efforts to become indispensable in the Carnegie household may mean long hours brushing hair, cleaning and darning clothes but she lives in luxurious surroundings although I pitied her the lack of friends apart from the former slave Mr Ford within the almost prison-like existence.

A fascinating historical tale which is indeed one explanation for Andrew Carnegie’s transformation into one of the best known philanthropists with the book ending with the opening of the free library in Boston built by Andrew Carnegie.

I’d like to thank the publishers Landmark for providing me with a copy of Carnegie’s Maid ahead of publication date of the 16 January 2017.

First Published UK: 16 January 2018
Publisher: Landmark
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
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Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Marriage Lie – Kimberly Belle

Psychological Thriller 4*s
Psychological Thriller
4*s

Well once again the premise of this book is intriguing. Imagine finding out your devoted husband has died in a plane crash, only he wasn’t supposed to be on a trip to Seattle because he is attending a conference as a key speaker in Orlando. That’s what happened to Iris when just that morning they’d snuggled in bed and planned on having a baby. After being married for seven years you’d think Iris knew all the big things about Will but when she tries to work out how he was on that flight she realises how little she knew.

I’m not going to say too much more about the plot, I’ll let you discover for yourself what Iris uncovers and the real reason why Will wasn’t where he’d said he’d be, and it’s a thrilling journey. The plotting is superb with plenty of twists and turns right from the beginning to the very last page and along the way we meet some interesting characters.

Poor Iris is suffering from grief for the man she thought she’d married along with a burning desire to find out who her husband really was. For all the conflicting emotions she comes across as a credible character, although perhaps she should have asked some of those questions before she married Will, he seemed so perfect and he’d had a tragic early life so of course she didn’t want to open old wounds.

Iris’s family were lovely, the fussy mother and her twin brother Dave who doesn’t hesitate to help her find out exactly who Will was, where he came from and what he was doing in Seattle, were particular favourites of mine. They were realistic, all the more so because behind them all stood the solid father, quietly managing the inevitable overspill of emotion. Together this wonderful family unit highlights how little Will had, apart of course from Iris.

Iris and Dave go to Seattle to follow in the footsteps of the deceased Will and one of the things I loved about this book was the bond between the siblings. It isn’t unusual to read about sisters in books but I realised how rarely brothers feature, unless to act as a bit of muscle or the odd snarl here and there. This was an authentic sibling relationship which mirrors the genuine pleasure the pair gained from each other’s company, even in this the weirdest, and saddest of situations.

As with so many of these psychological thrillers this is a book to put time aside for and enjoy the ride with all its high points and shocking moments, trying to discern the sneaky red herrings whilst pondering how some of the things you are reading can possibly be resolved in a realistic manner. Now I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t a few coincidences, a bit of trickery to smooth out some bumps, that is only to be expected but on the whole I was convinced by much of this book because of the characters, they really behaved as real people do. Some were straightforward and some much less so – don’t worry you will recognise them when you meet them… eventually.

I was delighted to receive a proof copy of this book from the publishers Harper Collins UK via Midas PR who have supplied me with so many good books in 2017. The Marriage Lie will be published on 29 December 2016 so keep some of that Christmas money aside to treat yourself to a great book to start 2017.

First Published UK: 29 December 2016
Publisher: HarperCollins Uk
No of Pages: 384
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
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Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

They Did It With Love – Kate Morganroth

Crime Fiction 4*s
Crime Fiction
4*s

This is the ultimate read for those who love a peek behind the curtains!

Sofie and Dean have moved from Manhattan to suburban Connecticut, an exclusive address, and one much to former bookseller Sophie’s delight, where there is a book club to join. Maybe if she knew what was going to happen next, she’d have reined in that enthusiasm a bit! Well to be fair she doesn’t seem too sure once she meets the other book club members, especially as the leader, Priscilla forgot to inform her that she needs a pair of shoes to be worn exclusively indoors, for book club meetings, on account of her white carpets and furniture complete of course, with a maid to serve cups of tea, which of course must on no account be spilled.

Priscilla is married to Gordon, a much mousier man than his bossy and controlling wife and within a moment of meeting her the state of her marriage is apparent:

Priscilla saw no hope. What she saw was her husband, Gordon sleeping beside her. Just looking at him she felt a surge of irritation. She’d reached the point where everything about him irritated her.

Susan is Priscilla’s best friend who has suspicions about what her own husband, Harry is up to but Priscilla is better at complaining about the neighbours than she is to being sympathetic:

‘Nothing,’ Priscilla repeated firmly. ‘If you kick up a fuss you’ll just drive him away. Besides, this kind of thing happens all the time.’
‘I know… but not to me and Harry,’ Susan said plaintively.
‘Apparently it does.’

Meanwhile Ashley second wife of Stewart has only been admitted to the Mystery Book Club because of her husband’s connections, they had preferred Pam the first wife! One of the newest members of the book club, before Sofie’s arrival is Julia,  whose husband Alex has got some ladies in the neighbourhood hot under the collar.

And then there is a murder…

This was a far better read than I anticipated with the book club meetings and various social drinks and dinners underpinning the book which I read with half-shocked amusement both sexes puffed and preened and jostled for position. The book chapters are entitled by the month, and almost always start with anxiety not to meet Priscilla’s wrath for not reading her choice of book. Sofie is exempt, being a true-book lover and already having acquitted herself quite nicely with her quiet confidence around the subject of mystery novels, has been accepted, whether she likes it or not. Further prompts are given throughout the chapters about the characters appearing, which is helpful with so many Stepford wife types.

The murder of course means that the focus switches to the detectives and as each household is questioned more secrets are uncovered.

‘I remember the interview, but for the life of me, I can’t remember which one she was. All the women out here look the same to me – every one is blonder and thinner than the next. It’s creepy.’

The husband of the murder victim wants Sofie’s help as she has already provided some clues, he badly wants the detectives to stop focussing on him, and Sofie feels this is something worthy of her attention. After all she is intrigued and sees an opportunity to emulate her heroine Miss Marple, decides to find the truth. So alongside the official investigation we have the amateur detective chatting to the other neighbours to try to uncover the events that led up to the killing.

With red herrings and misdirection aplenty this moves from being a fairly amusing book about spoilt housewives with far too much time on their hands, to a tightly plotted tale which never loses its sense of humour as so many secrets escape and when the truth is out, it would seem like life in their exclusive street will never be the same again.

This is a hard book to categorise, it is I suppose a fairly gentle mystery, possibly edging towards a cosy, but whatever it is, it kept me thoroughly entertained. The inclusion of The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie means that imagining how Miss Marple would perhaps behave if she was transported to twenty-first century wealthy Connecticut, is perhaps inevitable.

First Published UK: 18 Decmeber 2007
Publisher: Plume Books
No of Pages: 317
Genre: Crime Fiction – Mystery
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Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

It has been a while since I read one of Jodi Picoult’s books partly because she follows her tried and tested method, which once I’d read a few felt just a little too formulaic for me to fully enjoy. Typically there is a big event, a huge issue which naturally requires the reader to pick a ‘side’, a courtroom drama and a twist at the end, they also deal with huge issues, those that fortunately most of us don’t have to confront in our lives.

Small Great Things is no different but after a break of a few years, I enjoyed the story without the feeling that I’d read it before, albeit with a different issue at the heart. The big event is the tragic death of a baby, Davis just a couple of days old and had been born on the maternity ward where Ruth Jefferson is the only African-American on the staff of the small hospital. Brit and Turk are the baby’s parents and had met Ruth when she did the Davis’s initial checks after he was born. Ruth noticed a confederate flag tattooed on Turk’s arm shortly before he asked her to call her supervisor. The result of that chat was that a note was put on Davis’s notes stating that no African-Americans are to touch Davis. Ruth is hurt and annoyed, as well you can imagine, however when Davis stops breathing when she is the only one on duty she has to make a choice, does she resuscitate the baby or follow the order and leave him alone?

The story from there on in is told by Turk, a white supremacist, and Ruth, a widow and mother of the teenage Edison. We hear all about both their pasts which go some way to explaining how they reached where they are today. There is lots of information about them both but with a court case looming over the baby’s death I’d have to say that Ruth’s is far more prominent although Turk’s gave me insight to a world I have never encountered.

Jodi Picoult has clearly researched her subject matter and this is a book that makes you think, for me more about the difference between passive and aggressive racism. But here’s the crux of the matter, no matter how good the story is, I really don’t read to be preached at, and Ruth’s tale and the book’s message, is far from subtle. Ruth of course has led a blameless life and the subtext is that she’s only got her successful life by denying her colour and blending in, unlike her sister Adisa who is only too quick to point out the injustice in modern day America.

By the time we get to the courtroom, Turk conveniently being represented by a woman of colour while Ruth’s attorney is a young white American who has fought to take the first murder trial of her entire career, the drama hots up and despite being given another nudge to make sure I didn’t forget what the issue was, I have to admit I couldn’t stop turning the pages to find out how it was all going to turn out. Yes there was the twist and a touching ending.

There is no doubt at all that Jodi Picoult is an accomplished story-teller, the revelations about the characters that inhabit this book are well-paced, and if you want a book that makes you think, allows you to stand in another person’s shoes, her books are very appealing. Overall I really enjoyed Small Great Things, but although I like being challenged in my views, and I was by this book, I need a little more space to allow me to come to my own conclusion rather than having one imposed upon me.

Small Great Things will be published later this month and I was lucky enough to be given a copy by the publishers Hodder & Stoughton. This review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 22 November 2016
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
No of Pages: 512
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US