‘The Wife Upstairs’ – Rachel Hawkins

Much as I love Jane Eyre, there are elements within that never quite sit right with me. I often wondered why Jane didn’t show the strength of will and defiance of expectations to really push the boat and do something truly shocking at the end. The whole mad wife in the attic scenario lent a more sympathetic portrayal to Rochester than he perhaps deserved. Yet it’s a book that I deeply enjoy, and I was more than a little nervous when I realised The Wife Upstairs was transposing many of these elements to a modern setting.
Having now finished the book I have to say I really enjoyed it as a concept.
In our version, Jane is running from her past but she is now a dog walker in an exclusive neighbourhood as she tries to find her way into the life she craves. We follow her interior monologue, so we know she has more than her fair share of secrets and that she is just as happy to manipulate someone if it suits her. For this reason, I found myself feeling less concerned for Jane’s welfare than I did in the original. She makes some silly choices and fails to see some potential issues that she really should have factored in.
Our Mr Rochester is Eddie, a charismatic man who is having to live with the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Bea. Neighbourhood gossip reveals a little more to this story than Jane was told, and it was pretty obvious that we would be watching this story unravel over time.
There are, perhaps of necessity, some changes to the original ‘Jane Eyre’ and these do work fairly well. If you read this with no knowledge of the text then you have a great thriller with some well-timed reveals and shocks. Even with those with knowledge of the text won’t be disappointed. I confess to waiting for some of the ‘twists’, but there are still surprises. I also really liked the ambiguity of the ending, which leaves us – and Jane – in a rather difficult position.

‘People Like Her’ – Ellery Lloyd

 

People Like Her is meant to be a timely reminder to consider the role played in our lives by social media. How far does it impact on us? To what extent does it influence our behaviour? Pertinent questions, but this book – sadly – didn’t really hit the mark for me.

Our main character, Emmy, is a popular internet phenomenon. The face behind ‘mamabare’, Emmy lays her life out for public scrutiny. She courts fame, purely to achieve more likes, and this is a lifestyle that more than pays the bills. Making a life out of selling your family might not make sense to many, but everyone will have experience of social media. We all have opinions on online presence, and how far is too far. For this reason I can see the book tapping into a fairly large audience.

Though the book begins slowly as we’re introduced to our couple, it shifts by the end into a much more dramatic affair. From early on we are aware that someone is unhappy with Emmy and wants her to pay for a perceived slight. They are a threat, but how do you ward off threats when they are safe behind a veil of anonymity?

Unfortunately, the character of Emmy was problematic for me. Initially she seems somewhat dizzy, a little naive and determined to milk her cash cow while she could. There was little to really encourage me to empathise with her as everything she did was about her public profile. When she is under serious threat I felt for her, and yet she had acted with such callousness towards those she claimed to care for that I struggled to not blame her a little for what happened. Victim blaming is never going to be a good thing, but it’s so hard not to do that with Emmy that I fear this will ensure some of the comments raised by this book will miss their mark.

Another problem character for me was husband, Dan. A writer in name, who seems to actually do very little, he infuriated me. He seemed to have reservations about this venture, but never took steps to challenge it. What little action he took to offset the influence held by his wife’s job was ineffective, and his final action was – perhaps – even more cynical than those we’d been encouraged to criticise in his wife. Yes, he helps resolve things…but what he does at the end suggests that the influence of the media is more insidious than we might think.

Thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan for granting me access to this prior to publication in exchange for an honest review. I’m convinced this will be lapped up by many, but the cynicism shown by our characters left me without the requisite sympathy I feel was needed to make this wholly successful.

‘The Last Thing to Burn’ – Will Dean

 

The Last Thing to Burn is a book that will haunt me. Will Dean has written a book that I read with an increasing feeling of sickness and disgust, but was deeply touched by the hope and strength of spirit shown by the female characters.
Our main character is ‘Jane’, who when we are introduced to her in the opening chapter sounds like a young child. She is running away from the farm where she lives with Len, and it quickly becomes clear that things are not at all as they seemed.

‘Jane’ is a Vietnamese woman, trapped in a hostile environment. Lured to Britain under the promise of a better life, she has been held captive and forced to endure the kind of life that nobody deserves or should have to live.

Watching the emotional and physical abuse this woman was subject to was awful. It was very clear why she did not try to escape, but I spent most of the book imagining just what it might take for her to snap and decide the risk was worth it.

Viewing events through Than’s eyes I was filled with horror that such events could ever occur. When she is forced to become privy to another woman being taken prisoner, it felt as if I was watching a dry tinderbox waiting for the match to be lit and send everything up in flames.

Her situation alone was bad enough, but once she becomes a mother it felt as if it were only a matter of time before something snapped. That was, indeed, the case and what transpired towards the end was bleak, though it gave some semblance of hope. It was certainly testimony to the strength of the human spirit.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication. Highly recommended.

‘The Midnight Library’ – Matt Haig

“It is quite a revelation to discover that the place you wanted to escape to is the exact same place you escaped from. That the prison wasn’t the place, but the perspective”

The above quote, for me, sums up my experience of reading The Midnight Library. I’m kicking myself for not listening to this on BBC Radio before Christmas, and reading it on New Year’s Day after a pretty miserable year by any standards lent it a certain poignancy that cannot be underestimated. We might all think about what might have been, and there are – undoubtedly – times when we might feel less than enamoured with what’s going on around us. At times this felt like A Christmas Carol for the modern reader – with the concept of the library and its alternate lives replacing the spirit guides. Whatever our response to the message, the reminder that how we perceive things can make a huge difference to our existence is an important one.

Our main character, Nora Seed, is a fairly ordinary character. Nothing particularly significant happens to her, but a series of unfortunate events in her life build up to her feeling that life is not worth living. She wants out. She chooses to die.

What she gets is the Midnight Library, a sort of magical portal capably overseen by the wonderful Mrs Elm, the librarian she recalls from school. Under Mrs Elm’s tutelage she learns that the library offers her the chance to try a new life. She can get to experience all the possibilities her life offered her.

We follow Nora as she becomes an Olympic swimmer, a rock star, a wife and mother, a drop-out, a pub owner. Each life offers something different. Each life was a possibility for Nora, had she made different choices. She tries many lives, but none feel quite right.

At a crucial moment, Nora comes to a startling realisation. There’s a chance things may not be quite right but she wants to live. She wants her life.

Quasi-scientific, magical in parts…and definitely the kind of thing I could see making a wonderful movie. This book will mean different things to each person who encounters it. For me, it offered escapism with a timely reminder to take the time to recognise the joy in the choices we have made and the lives we are leading. While things aren’t great, this might be tough. But it’s a sentiment I want very much to uphold.

 

‘The Burning Girls’ – C.J. Tudor

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this before its publication in January 2021. Unsettling but riveting, and while elements of this were tough to read the overall impact is powerful.

The story focuses on single mother Jack Brooks, a vicar, and her daughter. After an awful incident involving one of her parishioners Jack is troubled, and the Church is unsure how to support her. Their answer is to pack Jack off to Chapel Croft, a temporary placement in a small Sussex village. This village has a long and troubled history, and from their first day in the village it is evident that this place harbours many secrets.

As we follow Jack in her role we are given a number of clues about her mysterious past. She has her own secrets, and has had her own share of troubling experiences. We don’t learn the exact nature of these until later…but there’s little hints and I was desperate to know how her story tied in with that of the mystery voice – a character recently released from prison who we know has committed awful acts and for reasons we’re not sure of wants to find Jack.

The focus on Jack’s mystery was certainly intriguing, but the historical focus of the Sussex Martyrs and the two village girls who disappeared years earlier was just as interesting. The previous vicar had spent time investigating these incidents, and there’s lots of clues given as to what happened though the significance of certain details isn’t pertinent until later. The body count was surprisingly high, and I can only imagine the fun Tudor had planning this and working out how to combine elements of a number of story threads.

I don’t want to say more in case of revealing certain plot details that are best learned at the point Tudor chooses to reveal them. Suffice to say, if you enjoyed her other novels this will probably go down well. There are some elements of the story that aren’t fully resolved and yet this ambiguity – for me, anyway – showed all too clearly how the boundaries between evil and horror can blur.

 

‘Some Choose Darkness’ – Charlie Donlea

I think I might have found myself an author to try more by. For such an unpleasant subject I found reading this very oddly moving.
Initially we open with what is clearly an unpleasant scenario – a killer explaining the physical and mental high he achieved from strangling his victims with a noose. This was definitely a little close for comfort, but we then switched action and focus which offered a very different experience and this switch in timeline/narrative voice opened up an intriguing read.
The Thief was the moniker given to the man who was eventually charged with killing Angela Mitchell. No body was ever found, and it was thought – because of investigations carried out by Angela – that this man was actually responsible for many more murders.
We follow Angela as she deals with what she calls her obsessions. Convinced there is something odd she, like many at the time, is keen to know what happened to the women who have disappeared. She is suspicious of many, determined to use her notes and thoughts to work out what exactly happened. Unfortunately she soon learns that things are a lot closer to home and we worry about what happened to her. Her nature and depiction (as an autist at a time where misunderstanding was rife) was sensitively done.
Much of our time focuses on Rory Moore, a difficult character but one who I found fascinating. Shunned by many, definitely not comfortable in herself, but she is an expert in solving cold cases. When her father dies Rory is trying to tie up his business when she learns that she will have to take on his final outstanding case – getting parole for The Thief. Wondering what on earth her father was doing leads her to undertake some digging of her own. What she learns then shocks her to the core, and though we suspected her father might have closer links than we were expecting, this took us to a very different place.
Alongside the story and the time frame I was intrigued by the various characters that featured in this story. The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, and perhaps much could have been done differently, but this situation and the resolution was far more emotional in its impact than I expected.
I am very much looking forward to seeing more of Rory in her role.

 

‘If I Disappear’ – Eliza Jane Brazier

Sometimes people are running away from things, and they’re not always honest about their reasons.

In this true-crime/mystery we follow our main character Sera as she decides to leave her life and go to solve a mystery she has become obsessed with…that of Rachel, a true-crime podcaster who has disappeared.

Sera finds herself in a remote ranch working under Rachel’s parents. Nobody wants to talk about Rachel and nobody seems willing to offer any clues as to what might have happened.

With her imagination running riot Sera starts to unravel. She is struggling with the effect of her miscarriage and divorce, and is just as lost as the other girls mentioned.

The podcast seemed as if it would be more important, and yet there were hints it was used to help our killer find their victims.

We get answers…though these are not always what we expected.
Thanks to the publishers for the ARC. An intriguing idea.

 

‘The End of Men’ – Christina Sweeney-Baird

Invited to read this by the publishers Harper Collins, and I was really excited to be asked to participate in a group discussion of this upcoming release. The book arrived, I read the letter from the author and then I found myself reluctant to get started.

Being brutally honest the thought of reading a book about a fast-spreading virus that had such an extreme impact on the world felt all a little too close for comfort. How could I expect myself to have a rational reading experience, not bringing my own current experience to bear? Two days before the discussion I wondered whether I’d have to ‘fess up’ and admit to not reading it.

The day before the discussion I picked it up, felt my heart sink as we watch our doctor deal with the first case and then found myself immersed in it. While the discussion of the pandemic and its impact is bound to resonate with our current situation, I was genuinely surprised by how absorbed I became in these stories.

The description of the virus was fast, but the emotional impact on people was evident. There were some scenes I read with my heart in my mouth, holding back a dreadful sense of emptiness. The anthropologist reflecting on the experience was fascinating and it was a bold choice to focus on such a large timescale and such a broad scope of characters.

Perhaps to be expected, some elements of the story were more easy to read than others. Initially I found it hard to keep track of who was speaking and though it would have been bleak to gain little sense of resolution, some parts felt rushed because of the need to take us through to the end.

I can’t wait to see what others make of this.

 

‘Girl A’ – Abigail Dean

Girl A is not an easy read, but it’s a fascinating one – and on e I will recommend people get their hands on when it’s published (due January 2021).

At the age of fifteen our main character, Lex, fled her home – dubbed the ‘House of Horrors’ by the press – and then people learn the shocking truth about her home life. Now a successful lawyer, Lex has some understandable issues and things she does to protect herself from the trauma she lived through. These become more apparent when she is asked to be the executor of her mother’s will.As Lex deals with the realities of managing an estate of someone who was complicit in her suffering years of neglect and abuse, we see her fracture.

Alongside the focus on Lex in her present, we also learn of the gradual decline in her family situation which, ultimately, resulted in the deaths of some of her siblings and their enduring mental and emotional scars. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the adults in this, but there is an attempt to help us to understand the way this situation developed and to get into the head of the main perpetrators.

I was pleased that the author chose to not dwell on the abuse hinted at. Seen through Lex’s eyes it seemed to be a way of trying to come to terms with her feelings for those she’s interacting with now. While I came to admire Alex’s resolve and courage, it was clear that she was a long way from okay. Her relationship with her older brother, Ethan, was a difficult one and only felt more fragile once we learned of his role in events.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to this in advance of publication, and while it’s not a pleasant read it is definitely highly recommended.

‘The Stolen Sisters’ – Louise Jensen

When we meet the Sinclair Sisters – Carly, Leah and Marie – they are fairly typical kids. However, they are about to undergo a traumatic experience, one that will shape them for the future. Carly resents being left to babysit her younger sisters, but her only thought is to protect them when they are abducted from outside their house.

Told in split narrative we see that the girls survived their experience, and the story focuses on us learning how this has affected them. We follow them as they deal with both their past and present.

The style of writing was absorbing, and there were plenty of hints about secrets being held – meaning plenty of chances to hypothesise and try to work out exactly what was being covered up. While some elements were quite obvious, there were one or two surprises that meant some parts of the story didn’t feel resolved until later.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.