‘The Dangerous Kind’ – Deborah O’Connor

A clever thriller that quickly drew me in.

Jessie is a presenter for BBC radio, her show focusing on those who’ve been convicted of a crime and looking at what could have been done to prevent their actions. As an ex-journalist she is obsessed with rooting out details and finding out the true story. When she is accosted by a woman on the street desperate for help working out what happened to her missing friend, Cassie, a thrilling sequence of events is set in place.

We shift from Jessie in the present to Rowena, a young girl in care, in 2002. Rowena is groomed and quickly ends up over her head in sex parties set up by paedophiles who are often meant to be part of the groups preventing such criminality.

Alongside this we watch Jessie struggle with the day-to-day problems of living with a teenage daughter who may or may not be having a relationship with an older man.

In spite of the subject matter I loved this story. It was told well, without unnecessary sensationalism but also encouraged us all to take a look at what extent we are all complicit in such events if we harbour suspicions but do nothing.

My only reason for not awarding the five stars I felt this deserved was that I did put two and two together and (for a change) made the links with the main story. However, it still surprised me with the subplot involving Jessie and her daughter and I can see this being a thriller that many will love. Thanks to the publishers via NetGalley for granting me access in exchange for my honest review.

‘Wolfhunter River’ – Rachel Caine

I was wondering how, with her husband dead, we would get another book out of this scenario…and it really is like a new story with the same characters (perhaps setting up options for more?).
This time round Gwen is struggling to keep a lid on things. She has been acquitted of any crime, but there are still people who are convinced of her guilt. Some of those people are very dangerous – they have money and the means to cause problems. She doesn’t want to leave Stillhouse but with a film-crew shadowing them, there’s potential for things to go very wrong.
The opening story doesn’t immediately seem relevant, and it takes some time before the pieces come together.
The family are healing, slowly, but things happen that cause flashbacks and serve as dangerous reminders of what they have endured.
When Gwen takes a call from a scared woman she sees it as nothing out of the ordinary. Then her daughter calls with the news that her mother is dead, and people are coming for her. As a witness to this (albeit over the phone), Gwen is asked to give a statement.
Heading to mysterious Wolfhunter it soon becomes clear that this town has its share of dark secrets and awful events. Gwen, Sam and the kids are soon caught up in an awful scenario that goes way beyond the worst things you can imagine.
Seriously odd and unpleasant, and this family really are being out through the wringer for our entertainment. When it’s this good, though, it’s fine.
Thank you to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication in exchange for my honest review.

‘The Binding’ – Bridget Collins

The Binding will be one of those divisive books that will have both fans and haters alike, but whichever camp you fall into I think there’ll be similar comments made about it.

For me this was the story of Emmett Farmer, a young man drawn to books but reluctant to take on the apprenticeship he’s offered for reasons he can’t explain. He comes to learn about himself and how he might challenge the expectations of his time.

When I requested this from NetGalley it was because of the lure of a story about books. In this world books are currency, used by fraudulent men to bind people to them. Books in this form are not stories – works of fiction are sneered at here as being less worthy – but they are used to draw memories from people who desire to forget things. Sometimes this is an unpleasant memory, but sometimes these bindings are used as a form of covering abuse or controlling others.

Intriguing though this was, we don’t focus on the books as much as I expected.
There’s no denying the fact that the first part of the story feels slow as you read. It drifts and it’s not clear why certain events are happening as they do, and the recurring allusions to secrets to be told did get a little wearing. However, as we started to uncover some of these details I became more invested in the story. Unfortunately I can see many readers being bored by the midway point where things really started to move forward, and simply not bothering to read on. That would be a shame.

As we come to understand Emmett’s actions and unearth some of the details that have led him to this point I couldn’t help but feel the story had shifted into a place that wasn’t expected.

Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this prior to publication.

‘Station Eleven’ – Emily St. John Mandel

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s very different to anything I’ve read before. Puzzling, but breath-taking in its approach, I have to admit that for a substantial part of the reading I was wondering quite how these characters/their stories linked.

The second thing to say is that this was a book that made me feel I was constantly reaching for something, only to have it tugged away at the last moment. It was elusive, but not in a frustrating way. Having just finished it I’m aware of feeling unsettled, as if I need to read it again to get a firmer grasp on its message.

Station Eleven is the title given to a comic book series that features at moments throughout the book. It’s a work of love by Miranda, a character within the story, that explores the idea of a hidden civilisation.

Very often when reviewing a book I focus on the general plot and give my reactions to it. Station Eleven felt, for a lot of the time, like a book with no story – more an exploration of the timeless ideas of what makes us who we are/what it means to be civilised. So, why does it feel like a book that’s so important?

There’s no simple answer.

The book opens with famous actor Arthur Leander dying on stage as he performs Lear. It’s a moment that foreshadows the events to come. For, at the same time as trainee paramedic Jeevan is trying to resuscitate Arthur, a deadly virus is spreading the world. Within hours of coming into contact with this virus, people come down with flu-like symptoms. Within hours they are dead.

Civilisation as we know it is coming to an end.

The timeline skips and, at times, I found this disconcerting. We flit between the time Arthur is dying and the immediate aftermath to twenty years after the end of the world. We also venture into the past to learn more about the five characters central to the story. They are connected in ways that seems most unlikely, but reinforces the sense of humanity.

My somewhat random thoughts here do, I think, reflect what a strange read this was. That’s a good thing, but not one that immediately feels comfortable.

‘The Secret History’ – Donna Tartt

For what feels like years I’ve been told I should read this modern classic. The rave comments on the cover were enough to make me reluctant to read it…and now I can say I have, indeed, read it though I can also safely say it won’t go down as one of my favourite reads.

I like the fact that, from the beginning, we know that a key character ends up murdered. This lends a creeping tension to the pages showing the build-up to this event and yet I couldn’t help but feel slightly non-plussed once I’d finished.

Our narrator is Richard, a young man on scholarship who ends up studying in a rather out-of-the-way college. He becomes infatuated by a rather eclectic group of students. They keep themselves to themselves, studying under a rather odd professor of Classics. In this group they read and converse in Greek, examine little-known texts and seem to bask in their own sense of superiority.

None of the group are likeable. Henry is a bully; Charles and Camilla (yes, really) are twins who also have an incestuous relationship; Francis is a closet homosexual, determined not to let his family know the truth about him, and Bunny (the man who ends up dead) is a boorish character who spends everyone else’s money and finds himself a lot more appealing than he is. I can’t understand why Richard is so keen to ingratiate himself with this group or why, on the numerous occasions he has to walk away from them, he remains entangled in their mess.

My overwhelming sense with this was of a writer trying very hard to be clever, writing about people who like to show their superiority at any opportunity and then crumble once they realise they have to live with the consequences of their actions.

Once we’ve learned why the murder comes about, we then focus on the decline and fall of this once great group. It takes a long time. We know it’s coming, but have to watch every slow and painful moment. As the fall-out becomes more brutal I couldn’t help but think we’d have been spared a lot if they’d been a little less selfish in the beginning.

I know my comments may seem harsh. There was a lot about it that I liked, but just not enough to offset the things that irritated me. Now I just have to ‘fess up to those friends who rave about this and have been encouraging me to read it…

‘The Dreamers’ – Karen Thompson Walker

An unsettling read.

Our story begins with young student Mei, an outsider in her dormitory, hearing her roommate drunkenly come home. She goes to classes and when she returns later the next day realises that her roommate is still asleep. Nobody knows why, and there isn’t anything the medical staff looking after her can do, but slowly the town succumbs to this bizarre situation.

One by one people drift off. They sleep, their heart slows and there are signs of them dreaming. There’s no explanation for this scenario, and nobody comes up with any answers about how to deal with it.

All too soon the town of Santa Lorna is placed in quarantine. Nobody can enter, and nobody can leave. Everyone is treated with suspicion, as nobody can tell who might have the virus.

We follow a number of characters through their experience.

Initially I felt the writing was atmospheric and there was a stifling feel to what was described. Sadly, the scenario doesn’t lend itself to a sustainable one for me. There’s a limit to how many people can fall asleep and how many dreams can be described before I lose interest.

This was a beautiful opening that promised much, but felt like it fizzled out. With no explanations offered for what took place and no real advancement in many of the characters I had a rather detached reaction to the closing section. Shame.

‘Then She Was Gone’ – Lisa Jewell

Laurel Mack has a seemingly perfect life. Loving husband, three beautiful children and a sense of enjoyment. Then her youngest daughter, Ellie, doesn’t come home one day and the family are launched into a nightmare that has some considerable impact, even years later.

When we’re introduced to Laurel it’s ten years since her daughter went missing. The family have split and she has become a shadow of the woman she was. Then she meets Floyd in a cafe and things seem to be looking up.

Not surprisingly, things are not what they seem. When she’s introduced to Floyd’s younger daughter, Poppy, Laurel cannot get over the similarity between her and Ellie.

As a reader I felt I was a little ahead of the characters. The key plot details were signalled, and at times I wondered whether things really would take the turn I expected. Often, they did.

As we start to unearth details – not long after Ellie’s bones are discovered – we gain a new narrative voice and this helps delay the inevitable, creating tension that we expect but also welcome.

Some of the details surrounding the key players felt unnecessary. They often felt like an attempt to misdirect or divert our attention from what we really wanted to focus on.

‘Normal People’ – Sally Rooney

When Connell and Marianne first meet they are in school, and their lives are worlds apart. There is, however, an attraction between them and though nothing is ever shared with classmates they start a relationship (of sorts).

Each is messed up in their own way. They’re lost and wanting something. Neither really knows what, but we watch them go through time in this on/off relationship.

At varying times each finds someone else. Through university the pair maintain this relationship, but as we learn more about their backgrounds some of their quirks become a little more understandable.

Perhaps this will resonate with some, but I found the self-consciousness of the writing a little off-putting and it was, at heart, quite a miserable read. I can see how the soul-searching might appeal to some, but life is too short to waste on such a miserable situation.

‘This Child of Ours’ – Sadie Pearse

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a topical and thought-provoking read.

Riley is seven and a strong character. At the start of the book a long time is spent showing us how cosy and (dare I say it) comfortably middle-class her parents are. They were even a little irritating. However, when she announces that she wants to be a boy, so many things are questioned and the parents veer into unknown territory.

Do they support Riley in what is expressed, or, at seven, should they keep things ‘normal’ until their child is older and better able to understand the consequences of their actions?

There’s no escaping that this has no answers. Who’s to say what you do for the best in such a situation? I’m sure some readers will be outraged that the parents take the actions they do and others will be horrified by the bigoted response of certain characters.

I don’t think this is something anyone expects to deal with, but it was certainly something that encouraged me to look at a range of views and consider why each felt as they did. I felt that Riley’s behaviour at the end made it all rather easy and I don’t think some of these experiences would go as they do in the novel. Still, a timely look at a subject that many will have strong views on.

‘The Roanoke Girls’ – Amy Engel

A tricky book to review as so much about it is horrid – subject matter, characters and the environment described – but it is done in a way that draws you in.

Lane is a teenager when she first goes to Roanoke to live with her grandparents and cousin, Allegra. Upset from the suicide of her mother Lane struggles to feel comfortable in this new environment, but she seems to blossom under the care of her grandfather, the attention of her cousin and the excitement of her relationship with local bad boy, Cooper.

When we meet Lane she is an adult, and has not been to Roanoke for some years. We don’t know why, but over time we get some answers. They’re hard to read, particularly as we unearth some of the mysteries surrounding the infamous Roanoke girls. Alongside this we have the mystery of Lane’s disappearance.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the book as it’s definitely more impactful if you don’t know what’s coming. The characters – even our main character – are not likeable and yet I came to like Lane more as I realised what she’d loved with/the background to her story.