‘The Woman in the Window’ – A.J. Finn

A solid homage to Hitchcock, with one or two modern twists.

Dr Anna Fox is agoraphobic. She spends her days inside her NY home in a fairly rigid number of ways: counselling on-line; playing chess; learning French; watching classic black and white movies; drinking fine Merlot; downing a wide variety of medication for all manner of illnesses and, last but not least, watching her neighbours.

In her very own ‘Rear Window’ moment, she creates her own life story through the lives of those around her. When a new family move in across the way, she is intrigued and it reminds her of all that she once had.

Dr Fox is not the most reliable of narrators, and yet there is something I found inherently trustworthy about her. When she says she has witnessed one of her neighbours get stabbed in the throat I wanted to believe her, even though the woman she claims was stabbed is alive and well.

The police don’t believe her. The husband of the woman she claimed had been stabbed seems to be hiding something. Her tenant is behaving oddly, and even the few people Anna allows herself to have physical interaction with start to fear for her sanity.

Inevitably there are comparisons with a number of other books featuring semi-incoherent female narrators and a was there/wasn’t there a murder storyline, but this is a solid thriller. The resolution to the story was not wholly incredible, and in spite of her evident flaws Finn manages to create empathy for his main character.

Unsurprisingly, the dust-jacket of my copy says this has already been optioned for a movie. It doesn’t really offer anything new, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to get lost in for a while.

‘The Toymakers’ – Robert Dinsdale

A captivating read from start to finish. A truly magical tale that will appeal to the child we all hold within us.

Enter the world of Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium and nothing is what we expect. From toys that seem to be alive to toys that defy our expectations everything to be found within this store is a wonder.

We learn about the story of Papa Jack’s when young Cathy Wray runs away from home upon learning she is pregnant. Like so many other lost souls, the doors of the Emporium open to her. And so begins a relationship with the extraordinary that sees her through to old age.

We pass through some awful years, watching how the effects of war tarnish the innocence that Jakebs Goldman and his two sons, Kaspar and Emil, try to keep alive. Throughout, the presence of the magical Emporium is a constant.

While I was captivated by the delights and wonders presented to us in the opening part of the book, it came into its own when we began to explore the concerns of adulthood and the impact family rivalry can have (even years on).

I must thank NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and now need to order my own copy to pass onto others who need that little bit of magic in their lives.

‘White Chrysanthemum’ – Mary Lynn Bracht

Korea, 1943. Hana has lived her entire life under Japanese occupation. As a haenyeo, a female diver of the sea, she enjoys an independence that few other Koreans can still claim. Until the day Hana saves her younger sister from a Japanese soldier and is herself captured and transported to Manchuria. There she is forced to become a “comfort woman” in a Japanese military brothel. But haenyeo are women of power and strength. She will find her way home.

South Korea, 2011. Emi has spent more than sixty years trying to forget the sacrifice her sister made, but she must confront the past to discover peace. Seeing the healing of her children and her country, can Emi move beyond the legacy of war to find forgiveness?

Hana has had the need to look after her little sister, Emi, instilled in her from an early age. As she performs the work of a haenyo, Hana keeps one eye on the shore to look out for her sister. One day her pledge to protect Emi costs her everything.

Taken from her family at the age of 16, Hana is seized by Japanese soldiers and taken to become what has been termed a ‘comfort woman’ – a Korean woman taken to fulfil the sexual needs of Japanese soldiers. In this new existence, Hana is expected to spend six days a week for up to eleven hours a day having sex with men who choose her.

Bracht is unflinching in the details she gives about the horrors Hana and those like her have to endure. It is hard to read, and knowing that this happened made me grit my teeth and read what I would really prefer not to have read. It’s the smallest act we can take to honour those who are treated so awfully in times of war.

The story does alternate between the events Hana experiences and the story of Emi, the sister left behind. This allowed us to get a sense of the cultural response to events described but it did lend a rather disjointed feel to the story.

I have to thank Bracht for writing this and raising my awareness of the subject. Thank you also to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. Lastly, thank you to the women like Hana for what they had to experience.

‘Stillhouse Lake’ series – Rachel Caine

Book one is an exhilarating read.

But for an unfortunate accident, Gina/Gwen (our narrator) would have remained oblivious to the actions of her husband. Giving him space to potter in his workshop takes on a whole new level of yuck here! When he’s sentenced for multiple murders many believe she knew…we’re never in any doubt of her innocence, but it was certainly interesting to see this from the other side.

Four years later, having spent the time running to keep her kids safe from those who still believe she knew, our narrator has changed her name and Gwen is finally feeling settled. She starts to put down roots at Stillhouse Lake, but someone knows more than they’re letting on.

When another body is discovered at the lake, Gwen is a prime suspect. It soon becomes a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Someone is watching her. There’s more than one or two who have an interest in the family, and we’re constantly second-guessing who she can trust/who’s betrayed her.

While I had suspicions about certain characters (and did think her feelings of guilt were overdone on occasion) this was a gripping read.

After Stillhouse Lake, with all its revelations, it is no surprise that book two picks up with a dramatic event and keeps ramping up the excitement.

With her ex on the run, Gwen is now desperate to find him. She is adamant that no harm will come to her kids. But how can you ensure that when some of the seeds have been sown long ago?
In book two we focus on the attempts of Sam and Gwen to try to get Mel before he comes for his family. Unfortunately we are quickly alerted to the fact that he is but a small part in a much darker picture.

Though there were some pretty sinister details I could not get through this fast enough. I enjoyed gaining more of an insight into the minds of Gwen’s kids and though you guessed things would not go quite as key characters hoped, there was enough misdirection to stop it being too obvious.

Much as I want to get onto book three as soon as I can, part of me wishes that Gwen could just have a quiet life now and be given the opportunity to heal. Where on earth can things go from this point?

‘The Chalk Man’ – C.J. Tudor

For me, this was an assured debut that I devoured but did not want to end.
Our narrator, Eddie, is in his early-40s and he lives in his childhood home, teaching in his old high school. One day he receives a drawing of a stick man in the post and it sparks memories of a childhood game he and his friends used to play.

Told in two different time-frames, this really is a compelling read. We jump from the present (2016) to thirty years earlier when Eddie and his friends are on the cusp of adolescence. It’s a very different time, and one which will only be familiar to some readers from Stephen King’s ‘The Body’ and the Netflix show ‘Stranger Things’. Eddie’s group of friends share a lot, but they all have their secrets.

The key secret that the novel focuses on is the murder and dismemberment of a teenage girl in 1986. The group are involved as they find the body having been led there by chalk drawings. We’re never certain if they know more than that, and what quickly becomes apparent is that in this town there’s a lot of people with things they’d rather others didn’t know.

I particularly liked the way the shifting perspective meant we could never be certain what revelations were relevant and how, and the nod to King is evident in so many ways (not least with the teacher being called Halloran). The style of writing was one I found hard to put down. It was very easy to picture this as a film, and seeing the viewpoint of both child and adult narrator added a complexity to this that I found hard to resist.

All in all, a wonderful read for the start of the new year and one I’d highly recommend.

‘The Innocent Wife’ – Amy Lloyd

Our main character, Sam, hints at a lonely life. She strongly suggests there are mental health issues and she does seem quite vulnerable initially, which perhaps explains how she ends up obsessed with the case of Dennis Danson.

When she first starts writing to Dennis on Death Row she is convinced of his innocence. She is part of a large community of people convinced Dennis did not kill the girl he was accused of murdering. With the appearance of a true-crime documentary focusing on his case more and more people are convinced of his innocence. Like so many of his supporters, Sam is determined justice be done and he should be released. Unlike them, she starts visiting him and ends up marrying him.

Putting aside some of the issues I have with this idea anyway, it troubled me that everyone was so keen to get Dennis released. Anyone who opposed this view was portrayed in a rather caricatured manner; their behaviour or appearance being physically repellent to reinforce how they did not agree with Sam’s view.

Once they are married things moved quite quickly. We suddenly have evidence that exonerates Dennis of all charges and he is released. Immediately I felt there were very unsubtle hints that all was not as it seemed, and we were on high alert to see just how wrong we were going to be proven.

The actual ‘truth’ does come out, but I really wasn’t wholly convinced by the way in which events panned out or the behaviour of some key characters.
All the way through I was waiting for the twist, but it really didn’t come. The big revelation was signalled pretty clearly and it lost impetus towards the end.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ – Katherine Arden

Something a little different here. Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this; it was the kind of book I might not have picked up otherwise, but that would have been a real shame.

Our story focuses on ‘wild girl’ Vasya – basically, a girl who is not conventionally pretty and who does not fulfil the expectations her society has of her. There’s a strong sense that her mother might have had some witch-blood and this is enough to mark her as different.

This is not a grip-you-from-the-start read; a slow-burner, it takes time to immerse ourselves in the world and come to understand how these people live/what is important to them. We have a blending of new religion and old beliefs, and this causes a dangerous scenario.

When Vasya’s father brings home a new wife from Moscow she is determined to make her mark. She forbids the family to continue their traditions of feeding the spirits that protect their homes, and determines to have Vasya placed in a convent. As the village weakens, the new priest plays a key role in what transpires. The question is whether Vasya will have the strength to play her own part in this story…

I admit that even having finished the book I am not totally certain who the two brothers are and why they have chosen Vasya as the object of their affection, but this was a compelling read. The world-building was elaborate and there was a wonderful sense of fairy-tale to this.

I personally can’t wait to read part two when it is released.

‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and other lessons from the crematory’ – Caitlin Doughty

I think there comes a point in everyone’s life when they have to face the thorny issue of death. Until then, it’s one of those things that we know will happen to us but are happy to ignore until we have to. Daft really, considering it’s one of the things we can count on happening.

Having recently had our first close encounter with death as a family the issues of how to celebrate the life of a loved one at a time of immense grief was pertinent. I was intrigued to see what Doughty shared with us about her experiences.

The thing that struck me first was the way Doughty recounted the ins and outs of daily life in her profession. There was a fascinating amount of detail given about what happens to the body after death and the ‘tricks of the trade’. I loved the sense of discovery we went on with Doughty as she explored her own feelings about death, and the details about how other cultures respond to death was interesting. I also felt Doughty was genuinely open to getting us as a society to examine our attitudes to death/funerals and the customs we associate with this very natural event.

The nature of detail given means it will not appeal to everyone. For many, keeping the experience as sanitised as possible will be just fine but it made me question some of the assumptions we have about what will happen to our bodies after we die. It certainly provokes thought.

‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ – John Boyne

My experience of John Boyne has been limited to his novels for younger readers and a ghost story. I wasn’t sure what I’d make of this, but I have to say thank you NetGalley for providing me with an ARc of a bittersweet, bleakly comic book that had moments of hope and despair intermingled seamlessly.

The book opens with sixteen year old Catherine Groggin being labelled a whore by her parish priest and cast out of her village because she is pregnant. Nobody steps forward to support her, and nobody helps her. This could have been a thoroughly depressing tale, but Boyne brings a bleak comedy to events by telling the story through the eyes of Cyril Avery (the boy Catherine was carrying).

We learn from Cyril that he was adopted by Charles and Maude, a wealthy couple desperate for a child. A successful banker and renowned novelist, in their home Cyril has a rather unconventional childhood.

Following Cyril as a child we see him go to school, develop an intense crush on a childhood friend and watch as he grows up gay in Ireland.

There was so much to despair over in this book: thypocrisy of the church; the bigoted attitudes of many of the characters; the needless violence and the overwhelming injustice at people not being able to live as themselves out of fear for what others might say or do. Yet, throughout, there were beautifully tender moments of hope for the characters. The dark humour showed by Cyril won me over totally.

Boyne has set himself an adventurous task here. He is exploring attitudes to homosexuality over a substantial period of time, and there’s a lot of characters interweaved throughout. At times I felt frustrated by the close proximity of the key characters to each other without them being aware of the significance, but there was a heartwarming sense of circularity to the novel that felt fitting.

‘How to Stop Time’ – Matt Haig

This has been one I’ve wanted to read for a while, but needed to ensure I had time to do it in one stretch.

Tom Hazard is a forty-one year old history teacher. He has a passion for bringing the past to life, and is desperate to start a relationship with fellow teacher Camille. Unfortunately Tom has anageria,which means he has actually been alive for centuries, is part of a secret society and has been given only one instruction-not to fall in love.

We dip in and out of Tom’s past and present, following him through his various guises as he tries to avoid drawing attention to himself.

Though the book tells Tom’s story, and gets us to focus on his search for his daughter, I was most intrigued by the insight it offered into the human condition. What makes us human? How do we make our mark in time?

I enjoyed the sense of dipping into different times, and I feel the novel offers some interesting ideas about what it means to be human. I would award 4.5 stars, but I didn’t feel all of the extra details about Tom’s past were strictly necessary.