‘Vox’ – Christina Dalcher

‘Vox’ is being heralded as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ for a new generation. If that’s the push people need to pick this up then so be it., as this is a book that really should be read. By everyone.

Dr Jean McLellan is an eminent neuroscientist. She has her personal flaws but in her career she was at the forefront of studies into the brain and how it’s impacted by illness. I use the past tense because when we meet Dr Jean her role has been drastically reduced, like that of many women.

In this America women are no longer part of the work force. Their role is to nurture children and keep the home. Their rights have – as we learn in bits and pieces – been eradicated. This alone was enough to anger me, but the fact their voices are taken away was jaw-dropping. Each female wears a wrist counter. It allows them 100 words a day. 100!

The fact that nobody openly questions this tells us just how different things are in this imagined world.

The premise of this story was absorbing. I particularly liked the way we learn how such a situation came into being. Like so many periods in history where such things happen it’s always easy to look on in hindsight and question the actions of those alive at the time. Sadly, Dalcher paints all too vivid a picture of how this came to pass.

The story was chilling as we come to understand just what is at risk here. A timely reminder of the need to question decisions made by those in power.

Thank you NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

‘The Tall Man’ – Phoebe Locke

Thank you NetGalley for letting me read my oddest of 2018 so far.

There were issues with my ARC – parts of text missing or disordered – and this meant there was some inevitable confusion as I tried to keep fixed who was the focus/what was happening. Those issues fixed, I think this will be the kind of read you’ll either fall hook, line and sinker for or you’ll be ambivalent about. I, sadly, was somewhere in between.

For me, the start of the story was not quite there. We’re expected to fall for The Tall Man story but without really being given enough detail to justify such a reaction. Throughout, the supposedly creepy references to this mythical figure felt forced. I never felt I had enough to substantiate this, feeling it was always something of a smokescreen for another story.

Some reviewers have commented on the fragmented nature of the setting. This is disconcerting on occasion, but it does make sense as we learn more about Sophie, Miles and their daughter, Amber, as she is being followed by a film crew for a documentary about a murder. Certain details hint at there being more to certain characters and the events unfolding, but it’s not until later that we get to piece everything together.

‘The Last Time I Lied’ – Riley Sager

A complex multi-layered story that shifts from present to past seamlessly as we uncover the mystery surrounding Camp Nightingale.

15 years prior to our story, Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale. Forced to room with older students she is taken under the wing of Vivian and her friends. For the short time she is at the camp Emma is intrigued by Vivian and her obsession with the game Two Truths and a Lie. There is something compelling about the girls’ need to twist the truth, and how they manipulate those around them to suit their needs and interests.

When our story begins Emma is a painter of some renown. She is well-known for a series of paintings. Unfortunately, this series is borne from Emma’s need to make sense of the events that happened many years earlier when the girls disappeared from the camp. She hints at hiding things and we are never entirely sure to what extent she may or may not have been involved in the disappearance of Vivian, Allison and  Natalie.

As we watch her return to camp to teach the students there, it’s clear that there are many secrets in this place. Emma gets caught up in a potentially deadly game as she tries to establish what happened. She wonders why there is a security camera trained on her dorm, who is watching her in the shower and what the hidden clues left by Vivian all those years ago may or may not mean.

The shifting time scale means we’re never certain who’s hiding what, or what piece of information has been left out. Slowly getting to know the girls was an intriguing process. It was an interesting idea to replicate the set-up with the girls in the present time. Using this derivative plot for the present makes perfect sense once we know a little more of what’s happening.

Personally I’d have liked to know a little more about exactly what prompted certain actions but the story was well-executed and I was never certain how much our narrator was to be trusted.

Thank you NetGalley for providing access to this. A great read.

‘February’ by Lisa Moore

In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine’s Day storm. All eighty-four men aboard died. February is the story of Helen O’Mara, one of those left behind when her husband, Cal, drowns on the rig. It begins in the present-day, more than twenty-five years later, but spirals back again and again to the “February” that persists in Helen’s mind and heart.

In ‘February’ we follow Helen at various points in her life, but the whole story seems to pivot on the moment of the rig collapsing.

We see her in the present, in her role as grandmother, as a young woman and as a wife whose husband is one of the many killed when the oil rig he is working on collapses.

At times, the story felt like rummaging through one of those memory boxes. Some recollections were more vivid than others – and it was only Helen and her son, John, who really felt clearly portrayed – but the events recollected combine to form a picture of one woman and her life.

What was evident throughout this story is that Helen is not, in many ways, a remarkable woman. She lives her life and deals with what life throws at her with stoicism, but throughout we are given a picture of resilience and strength.

This is not a fast-moving story, rather ideas are unravelled and we slowly come to understand this character.

‘Only Child’ – Rhiannon Navin

After finishing this I was reminded of the cliché ‘out of the mouths of babes’…

Part of me wishes stories about school shootings were not such high-profile at the moment but, with recent events in America, it seems to be a problem that is not going away. This will not be a book for everyone. The topic is hard to read about, and there’s an element of earnestness to the message that doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

Our story begins with first grader Zach hiding with his teacher and classmates in the closet. He recounts the reactions of those around him as he listens to the repetitive pop-pop-pop sound that signals a gunman has entered the building.

From the outset we are placed in the middle of what must be a terrifying experience. For anyone. Zach’s youth and innocence mean we are seeing this through very different eyes and it’s hard to take. I sighed with relief as Zach and his classmates are escorted out of the building. This didn’t last long.

As Zach is collected by his mum we learn that his older brother, Andy, is missing. From this point onwards the pain level is hiked up.

Sadly, Andy is one of the victims. Through Zach’s eyes we watch how this event shatters and tears apart the family.

Zach has, at times, a voice just that little too adult and knowing. I can’t picture many six/seven year olds articulating some of their thoughts in the way he does. However, his observations of the family and those around them as they exist in the months afterwards are telling.

The child-narrator means we miss some of the details we’d like to know. Much of what Zach experiences is either directly related to him or gleaned from half-heard conversations. But what we get is enough.

By the end of the novel – perhaps because it would be simply too depressing otherwise – we are given signs that things may settle down with the family. There is hope.

Unfortunately, the question of the shooter, how he has access to the guns and how steps could be taken to prevent such events happening are never explored. They can’t feasibly be in this (probably not questions a seven year old would dwell on/even raise unless repeating things said around them), but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

Thank you NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to my publication. I’m sure readers’ “prayers and thoughts” will be with all the characters in this fictional story – as they are every time another school shooting takes place – but, ultimately, that changes nothing.

‘The Girl in the Tower’ – Katherine Arden

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingalecontinues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

After a very slow start (the first part I’m afraid was a slog), we catch up with Vasya and follow her on her reckless journey.

Having run from home Vasya is disguised as a boy and travelling the country. She gets caught up in all manner of political intrigue, but from the moment she reappeared in the story I couldn’t put the book down.

There’s a wonderful blend of political and fairy-tale, and Arden’s focus on the supernatural lends a real charm to the story even when she is focusing on deeply unpleasant elements. There was something magical about the characters Vasya encounters with her willingness to see beyond the confines placed on people by society.

From part two onwards this story zipped along and built to a dramatic climax. I didn’t want it to end.

‘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?