‘The House Across the Lake’ – Riley Sager

The House Across the Lake was a story I was so excited to get my hands on, and parts of it really were exciting. However, as a whole, it felt messy and just too much to take in.

Our main character is recently widowed actress Casey Fletcher who has been banished to her lakeside home (the place where her husband died) by her mother who wants her out of the public eye after one too many drunken incidents. In what felt like a Rear Window homage, Casey takes to watching the home across the lake from her…home to supermodel Katherine Royce and her media husband Tom.

Casey’s first meeting with Katherine is when she fishes her out of the lake and saves her from drowning. The tentative steps to a new friendship are forged, but Casey is convinced that things in the Royce household are not what they seem. Obsessive, alcohol-fuelled stalking events occur and it’s hard to workout whether Casey is deluded or if there’s some truth to her fears about Tom.

In the background of this bizarre situation is a local writer, an ex-cop whose wife died and three missing women. From the moment each element is introduced my brain went into overdrive trying to work out what was a red herring, what was plausible and what was a diversion. Casey lurches from one imagined scenario to the next and things ramp up once Katherine goes missing and Tom starts acting suspiciously.

It was at this point that the book went to a whole other level and I had to check if I was reading the latest Sarah Pinborough. I have no problem with the introduction of the supernatural to a story, but in this instance it felt like a gimmick. It served merely to offer a hitherto unthought-of reason for what was happening, but it also served as a diversion to another element of the plot. It felt as if bets were being hedged here as to what type of book was the ultimate aim, and the truth is that it feels as if we don’t get a satisfactory answer.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this before its scheduled July publication, but I’d have been so gutted to have waited for release date and spent the amount I’ve had to on previous Sager books to then get this. I’m afraid this didn’t work for me.

‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ – Gillian McAllister

Our story opens with Jen, a lawyer, waiting for her adult son to come home after a night out. I feared there might be an accident as we watch Jen observe her son get closer to home. Another figure approaches her son, and I thought we were about to witness an awful crime that Jen would have to relive as she deals with this moment. We did…but it wasn’t at all what I expected. Todd, Jen’s son, stabs and kills the man. Watching your son get hurt would be awful, but I can’t imagine how you’d feel watching him kill someone.

The next day, the strangest thing happens. Jen wakes, and it is the day before the crime. Nothing has happened, and she believes she is going mad. Each time she goes to sleep she seems to travel back in time. There has, Jen is certain, to be a reason for this. Can she learn anything that will help her stop this crime before it happens?

Wrong Place, Wrong Time was a skilfully constructed story. From start to finish it was fascinating to observe Jen’s experiences and to try to piece together anything that could have relevance to the crime that instigated this event. McAllister weaves a rich story, where nothing is quite as it seems. We watch Jen as she is forced to relive her life, reflecting on interactions and trying to work out what might hold the key to protecting her son.

As the story unfolded I found myself quite amazed by the concept. I loved the mercurial quality to the story, and found myself wholly unsettled by the ending.
I can’t wait for someone I know to pick this up and read it. A huge thank you to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this in advance of publication.

 

‘The Perfect Holiday’ – T.J. Emerson

The Perfect Holiday is a book that tries very hard to throw you off the scent. There are clues throughout that what we’re seeing isn’t the full picture, but by the time we got to the end I just recall feeling pleased that at least something was going to happen.

Julian and Olivia are holidaying in their beautiful villa. They are, on the surface, the ideal couple. Olivia has money, and Julian is the perfect gentleman who has become known for caring for his ex-wife for years. Her murder was a shock, but Julian had a cast-iron alibi and has since become the face of the charitable foundation set up in her name.

While on their regular foray into the little town nearby, the couple meet Gabriel. There is a story behind his presence, and it soon becomes clear that he is more closely linked to Julian than they might want to admit.

For much of the book the focus is on Julian sneaking around with Gabriel. There’s lots of talk of love and a desire to plan a future together. Unfortunately, for a relationship so skewed – and firmly placed on the foundations of their tangled past – it never quite gelled.

As the book continues we learn more about Julian and his past. Things appear to be heading firmly in one direction and I found myself waiting for the twist that seemed so inevitable. Sure enough it came, but by this time I just felt relieved that at last we were getting an escape.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication, and thanks to the publishers for including me on the Blog tour.

 

‘Hope to Die’ – Cara Hunter

A new Adam Fawley book is a cause for celebration, so I was rather surprised that he took something of a back seat in this very odd case.

We open with an anonymous 999 call. When the police investigate, they find an elderly couple and the body of a young man blasted in the face with a shotgun. The investigating officers are suspicious. Something isn’t ringing true in the elderly couple’s story about shooting a burglar in self-defence. But nothing prepares them for what their investigations reveal.

The victim is found to have a DNA match with a young woman currently in prison for the murder of her child.

From start to finish there was a sense of the truth eluding our detectives. The characters involved were slippery to say the least, and I was gripped from start to finish as we watched them trying to navigate their stories.

There were attempts to develop some of the other characters on the force, and I’m wondering where this will go next. Huge thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

 

‘Black Sun’ – Rebecca Roanhorse

The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

I feel bad that it took me so long to get going on this, and that I struggled initially to keep track of who was who and the various factions involved. However, once I got underway this was a strong read.

Set mainly in the holy city of Tova, the book focused on the preparations for a very special Solstice…that of the black sun. We follow the current Sun Priest as she deals with the machinations of those who don’t support her. We also know that there is a very special cargo on its way to Tova, a young man who is part of a prophecy that will shake this world. He is being guided by a young woman who has to overcome the superstitions of her crew about who she is and what she can do.

From the start this was a world richly described. I can’t say I fully understood the various groups and what they each represented, but I loved the way they were presented to us. The interactions between the characters made this book, and I’m excited for the upcoming release of part two.

 

‘Insomnia’ – Sarah Pinborough

Insomnia is, usually, linked to periods of high stress but its effects can be awful. For our main character Emma, a successful lawyer approaching her fortieth birthday, her inability to sleep after she wakes regularly at 1:18am hints at a potential problem. Though she doesn’t remember precise details, her family have been plagued by issues around sleep and she fears history repeating itself as she approaches the age her mother was incarcerated after trying to suffocate one of her children.

The family history is revealed bit by bit as we follow Emma through the days leading up to her fortieth birthday. The tension created by Pinborough is well-depicted and as we learn about the stresses in her life we start to question to what extent Emma might be responsible.

From start to finish I found myself caught up in this. In turns frustrated by Emma but also empathising with her, I couldn’t help but get bogged down in the extraneous details about her present life that seemed to muddy the waters as we try to work out just what is going on.

As with some of Pinborough’s more recent books there is a dependence on something unnatural, which might not adequately explain events for some readers. While I’m not wholly convinced by it, the actual revelation as to what was happening and the motive for it made sense. Extreme, and it definitely made me reassess some of the earlier interactions between the characters concerned, but this book was a tense depiction of someone being pushed to their limits.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before publication.

 

‘Lessons in Chemistry’ – Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry is a book that I was desperate to get my hands on, and it did not disappoint. I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before publication, and I will be buying my own copy as this was a book that deserves rereading.

Our setting is California in the 1960s. The prevalent view of the time was that a woman’s role was in the home and that her job was to support her man. Thankfully, not everyone subscribed to this view. Some pushed against it, determined to be seen for their own worth. Elizabeth Zott is one of those characters.

Zott is a chemist. She is not able to complete her studies after being raped. Determined to pursue her interests she finds herself a job in Hastings laboratory. While many patronise her and treat her as a glorified secretary, Zott has a passion and is keen to pursue it – knowing full well that she is cleverer than so many of the men who hold her back. Unconventional, nobody quite knows what to do with Zott.

Another brilliant mind that people cannot contain is Calvin Evans. As a man, he gets more opportunities and yet after a run-in with Zott we see the development of something very entertaining. Their relationship flouts conventions, but few can deny their chemistry.

After a tragic accident Zott finds herself alone, unmarried and pregnant.
Nothing about Zott and her life follows the expected trajectory. While this is hugely entertaining to read, it is hard to ignore just how unlikely a character such as Zott would have been.

When she finds herself fronting a successful cookery show she is not an immediate hit. The backers hate her. Men are threatened by her. Yet, slowly but surely, Zott finds herself at the helm of a massive hit…challenging the status quo.

Zott herself is a brusque character, forthright and yet gauche in ways that don’t always make sense. The cast of supporting characters help make this book – each illuminating some element of Zott and her outlook. Whether it’s her neighbour Harriet dispensing her gem of wisdom in the early days of motherhood or her dog Six-Thirty who offers a very unusual perspective on events, the characters surrounding Zott help her to shine.

There will be elements to this book that will irritate readers. Not everything works, but this was a bold and brave book that I can’t wait to see how people respond to.

 

‘The Book of Cold Cases’ – Simone St James

The Book of Cold Cases blends thriller and paranormal elements to draw us in as we follow Shea Collins in her investigation.

Shea is a doctor’s receptionist, recently divorced, and blogger. Her obsession is with examining cold cases, unsolved crimes, and nothing taunts her more than the case involving the infamous female serial killer of Claire Lake. When Shea recognises Beth Greer in her doctor’s surgery, she is shocked when Beth agrees to an interview.

Initially, we focus on learning about Shea and picking over the known details of the case. Beth Greer was a wealthy socialite in the 1970s, attractive and yet distant. When arrested for the brutal killings of two men, everyone thinks they know Beth. She was, eventually, acquitted and has lived in the town since with many convinced she got away with murder.

Splitting our focus between Shea’s focus in the present and Beth’s past, there’s lots of hints about the case. We slowly pick out what’s relevant and, from the outset, it was apparent that each character involved had their secrets.

The truth about the crime was identifiable from quite early on, which made me think I would be rather underwhelmed by my suspicions being confirmed. That was far from the case though.

As the story develops we learn a lot more about Shea – a character with more in common with Beth than she might like to admit – and the exploration of society’s attitudes to women/crime was interesting. The paranormal elements created an unsettling atmosphere, but the rational part of me found it hard to reconcile these with details of the crimes.

 

‘Remote Sympathy’ – Catherine Chidgey

Remote Sympathy begins with Doctor Lenard Weber’s initial forays into a revolutionary cancer treatment. Inspired by a visit to an exhibition, Weber plans to try and cure cancer using his machine – the Sympathetic Visualiser. While there were a couple of seemingly positive reactions, at heart Weber knows his machine does not work. He becomes preoccupied with survival as he takes the steps necessary to survive the changes made in Germany under the Nazi regime.

Our other key focus is Greta Hahn, the young wife of the new Commandant of Buchenwald camp. Determined to support her husband, she makes the best of her new home. She fears the camp and those working inside, but she vows to try and make the best of her situation. After all, with so many craftsmen on their doorstep, Greta and the wives of the other officers are able to get whatever they want from the inmates.

The story focuses initially on Greta and her family, showing how life in such a place continues seemingly normally. The attitudes of those in power showed they were all too aware of what they were supporting, but they found ways to justify their actions.

When Greta shows signs of illness, she thinks she may be pregnant. The reality is that she has cancer. Her husband reads of this fantastic machine and, in desperation, arranges for Dr Weber to be sent to Buchenwald in order to treat his wife.

Set against the backdrop of a truly barbaric situation, the reality of these characters’ lives is depicted with honesty. Many take actions that could be seen as morally wrong, but each does what is necessary to survive. We can only watch as events unfold in front of us.

As time passes and we sense the increasing likelihood of Allied intervention, things at Buchenwald become increasingly desperate. The closing stages of the book were difficult to read, particularly so as we have laid out in front of us the reality that so many were complicit in such events by turning away. A timely novel that I would encourage others to read.

 

‘Such a Quiet Place’ – Megan Miranda

Such a Quiet Place begins a little too slowly for my liking, developing our understanding of events before picking up the pace and finally forcing our narrator to play their hand.

When Ruby returns to the quiet neighbourhood of Hollow’s Edge people are surprised. People suspect her motives. People wonder what she has to gain. This is because Ruby has just been released from prison after being wrongfully charged with the murder of two of her neighbours. She turns up at her old house, where her roommate Harper wonders just what she is going to do next.

From the opening we get a sense of Hollow’s Edge as the kind of community where, superficially, things are perfect but it only takes a little digging to realise that’s not the case at all.

A substantial part of the book establishes some of the key events of the past but also sets up our cast. When Ruby is found dead after a pool party, it doesn’t take long for the police to label it a homicide. So then we watch as characters’ behaviour changes. Who has most to lose? Who’s hiding what?

The truth is not quite the dramatic reveal that was implied. However, we see that people can do anything when they feel it will serve them well. I was rather surprised by Harper’s role in the key events, and did wonder why such a large cast had been brought in and not all developed fully.