‘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.

‘Hollow Fires’ – Samira Ahmed

Due for release in early May, I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me access to this prior to publication. From start to finish this had me hooked, and I think it is Ahmed’s most powerful book to date.

It’s easy to feel outrage at the kind of privilege shown throughout this book. It’s easy to feel angered by the behaviour of the two young adults who plan, carry out and almost get away with their murder of a younger teen. It’s easy to feel the fire of injustice that forces Safiya into action. But it’s also easy for many readers (and I probably count myself in this) to feel that anger and yet to not be further impacted by it. This is not part of my daily experience, and I fear that my ‘fire’ as I finished this book could be seen as ‘hollow’ if I don’t do anything with it. This is something I need to digest further.

The story of Hollow Fires itself is a compelling one. It begins when Jawad, son of Iraqi refugees, is arrested when his English teacher believes the home-made Halloween costume he proudly takes into school is a suicide bomb. The absurdity of this situation stands out…but even after being cleared of all charges, Jawad is persecuted. He becomes known by the moniker BombBoy and the growing sense of unease felt by students who are not white is deftly portrayed through the character of Safiya. When Jawad goes missing, there is an appeal but the police quickly write him off as a run-away.

Safiya has always wanted to be a journalist and she has an inquisitive nature that doesn’t allow her to blindly accept some of the things she’s told by those in authority. She is determined that people should not accept this version of events. Set against a growing backdrop of racially-motivated attacks, Safiya is convinced there is more to Jawad’s disappearance. When she finds his body wedged in a culvert in a little known part of the local park, Safiya knows that there’s more to this story than people are prepared to acknowledge. She takes it upon herself to try and get justice for Jawad, determined that those responsible will be held to account.

There are issues with the way Safiya interferes with an ongoing investigation. The way certain characters behaved didn’t always seem realistic, and there’s still a part of me that feels the outcome of this case would not, in reality, have gone quite as it’s presented here. However, these were not enough of a distraction to prevent me from feeling this is a book I would highly recommend.

 

‘I Kissed Shara Wheeler’ – Casey McQuiston

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me a glimpse of this before its release. While it didn’t have quite the emotional pull of the other McQuiston books I’d read, it drew together nicely.

Our focus is Chloe Green who’s in competition with Shara Wheeler, the Principal’s daughter, for valedictorian. Both girls are fiercely competitive and they have, for the past four years, danced a strange dance of one-upmanship. When the book opens, rumours abound as Shara has disappeared.

Determined that she will not be given the top spot by default, Chloe vows to find Shara and get her back to school in time for graduation.

The main thrust of the book focused on this rather odd scavenger hunt orchestrated by Shara who has left cryptic notes for three people, all of whom kissed Shara before she left. As we only learn about Shara through the veil of someone else’s view, I found it hard to work out quite what kind of character we were looking at. I also found the setting of the book – a strong Christian homophobic setting – really off-putting. People were pigeon-holed and made to feel wholly uncomfortable, nobody seemed to do anything about it, and it appeared to have been this way since Chloe’s mum endured coming out years earlier.

While the days before Shana appeared were instrumental in helping to develop the characters, it was once everyone was back in their rightful place that I felt things started to fall into place for me as a reader. Chloe opened her eyes a little and started to look beyond herself. It had a relatively happy ending, even though there was clearly a long way to go!

 

‘The Agathas’ – Kathleen Glasgow and Liz Lawson

 

Oh boy, are readers due a treat when this is released in May. Huge thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this before publication, and I’m hoping this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the Agathas.

Alice Ogilvie is a rich kid who has everything. She recently disappeared for five days, and nobody knows where she was in that time, but now she’s returned to school and is forced to have a tutor to make up her grades. Her tutor is Iris Adams, a girl who’s determined to leave Castle Cove as soon as she can for reasons she wants no one to know.

Before too long we see an unlikely friendship develop between our Agatha Christie-obsessed duo. Their unlikely friendship centres around their quest to find out exactly what happened to Alice’s ex-best friend when she disappeared after a Halloween party.

When Brooke’s body is discovered, the investigation becomes a little more serious. Those close to Brooke are implicated, and some aren’t but are definitely hiding something. Through some rather dubious means, Iris and Alice (and their own little Scooby gang) try to work out what happened.

From start to finish I found myself wholly immersed in these characters. Sassy, a little crazy, but definitely with their hearts in the right places, Iris and Alice are characters you can’t help but root for. The book has its fair share of darkness, and I’m really hoping that Glasgow and Lawson will treat us to further adventures from this group. From the sounds of it Castle Cove has more than its fair share of mysteries to be solved.

‘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.

 

‘At the Table’ – Claire Powell

A glut of recent releases feature a character face down on the cover. This one really tickled me when I saw it, but the subject matter is a lot less humorous than it might appear.

At the Table is a debut novel focusing on characters and their interactions with one another. Though major life events take place, this novel focuses primarily on the little moments that make up the mosaic of our lives.

Our focus is a family comprising Gerry and Linda and their grown-up children, Jamie and Nicole. Their lives have been marked by meals, and this focuses on a year in their lives at different moments. We start with a meal where the parents reveal they’re getting divorced and we end with a meal shared with mother and daughter who are, due to the events they’ve been through, forging a new relationship. Along the way we have celebratory meals, catch-up meals, drunken meals but our focus is always the family and their gradual discoveries about themselves and each other.

Powell paints a frank yet tender picture of people at their lowest. The events felt, on occasion, as if they were washing over me but I found myself touched by the attempts of the author to show the characters shifting and developing.

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

 

‘Black Cake’ – Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake had me gripped at the start and, though I can understand why some feel as if rather too much was added into the pot by the end, it will definitely go down as one of my highlight reads of the year.

The book opens with estranged siblings Benny and Byron being called to attend a meeting with their mother’s lawyer to hear the recording bequeathed to them. Details are, initially, sparse but we learn that their mother had a secret. A secret that now she is dead can be shared.

The story she wants to share with them explains exactly who Eleanor Bennett was. They learn of their mother’s past living with her immigrant father, the ill-fated marriage with an older man her father was in debt to, her new life in Britain and her journey towards the life she grew into in California. While her story may be familiar in many ways for the time, it comes as a shock to her children.

I loved the structuring of this book and the gradual way we got to learn about the lives of all the characters involved. The characters are not without flaws, but their resilience and determination to try and do their best was something that I found appealing. I enjoyed reading about Eleanor’s experiences, and the love story between the key characters was well-depicted. As a number of reviews point out, there’s a shift towards the latter stages of the book to social commentary with a lot of issues being explored, but I think this reflected the rich tableau of characters and experiences we were introduced to. It certainly did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the story laid before us.

‘Felix Ever After’ – Kacen Callender

I admit to picking this up because I fell in love with the cover…sprayed edges made this a joy to look at. The content felt as if it might be an awkward read – I wondered if I could honestly sit through something where a character who is trying to be themselves gets such awful abuse. How would the author tackle some pretty hard-hitting issues?

I needn’t have worried. From start to finish, I was in safe hands.

Callender creates a very real character in Felix. Trans, black and gay…he worries he will never fit in anywhere and wants nothing more than to fall in love. He is a talented artist, but his feelings around his identity seem to be preventing him from really expressing himself. He gets angry, he messes up, on occasion he does some really hurtful things and yet there’s a searing honesty to him that I found touching.

The story focuses on Felix coming to terms with some questions about his identity, developing relationships and coming of age. There’s romance, though not quite in the way I expected it to go.

There’s no escaping the fact that the incident that is at the heart of much of the book – another student’s disgusting gallery show of old pictures and public deadnaming of Felix – was stomach-churning. The response from Felix and his friends was not, perhaps, the most sensible…but it was done with the right intentions. I loved the strength and support shown to Felix by those who he didn’t always recognise as allies.

While the love triangle was necessary to help Felix start to realise what/who mattered to him, I found myself most impacted by the scenes involving Declan’s grandfather and Felix’s dad. It was nice to see someone else’s view of things, and it was encouraging to see that people in such a situation will react differently.

There’s no guidebook to how to manage such a scenario, but this book will certainly offer support and encouragement. Highly recommended (and the cover is so beautiful that I’m tempted to put it on my bookshelf the wrong way round just so I can see the edges!)

 

 

‘How to Kill Your Family’ – Bella Mackie

When we first meet Grace she tells us she is incarcerated for murder, but claims her innocence. However, she then expresses frustration about the fact she has been imprisoned for a crime she did not commit when she has actually been responsible for the murders of six of her family. From that statement, I was drawn in. What was this character, and what on earth were we going to learn?

What we quickly discover is that Grace is the product of an affair between a very wealthy English businessman and a young Frenchwoman. She has never met her father and when her mother dies, Grace is determined that the man who denied her existence will be made to pay for his rejection. So, she comes up with a plan to kill off each member of his immediate family and then reveal her identity before killing him.

While her logic might be more than a little skewed (ie. totally deranged), the black humour with which she sets about her task is mesmerising. I found myself repulsed by her behaviour while highly amused by her wry comments on society and the people she is targeting. I’m not sure what that says about me!

The book itself is structured rather repetitively as we learn about each of the murders. Grace, though in prison (which means this does not seem like the most sensible of moves), is writing her memoirs, determined that one day people will give her credit for her actions. This need for affirmation places her, for me, very firmly in the sociopath category…but she is thwarted by a mix of bad luck and other characters.

Her plan for the destruction of the family of Simon Artemis comes under threat when her best friend’s fiancé falls off a balcony and dies. Grace is charged with the murder, though she was in no way responsible. Eventually, Grace is released and is free to continue her plans. Unfortunately, while she is deciding on her next course of action her father dies. Grace has no part in this…or does she?

As we neared the end of the book I found myself wondering quite how events would be wrapped up. Would Grace finally admit her identity and get her inheritance? That was the plan. Her plans are thwarted, however, by a character that we learn about very late on – yet who is integral to events. While this made me a little more sympathetic to Grace, it also frustrated me.

How to Kill Your Family is definitely a book I’d recommend to others, and I loved the narrator for Grace in the audiobook version I was lucky enough to be granted access to via NetGalley.

‘A Lesson in Vengeance’ – Victoria Lee

A Lesson in Vengeance is a twisted story, which will probably warrant a reread to appreciate fully.

Set in the Dalloway School, a remote academic establishment mired in rumour and stories of witchcraft. None of the staff talk of these rumours, but the girls do. Secret societies devoted to spells and the study of the dark arts thought to be responsible for the death of five students of Godwin House abound, and they draw the attention of students such as Felicity Morrow, our narrator.

Felicity was present on the night her girlfriend, Alex, disappeared and has now returned to the school to complete her studies. Certainly emotionally vulnerable, Felicity has a record of erratic behaviour and her conduct gives cause for concern. She is convinced she is haunted by the spirit of her ex-girlfriend, and we watch as strange events occur.

This year sees the arrival of new girl Ellis Haley, a published writer, and a character very keen to learn more of the hidden past of the school. She befriends Felicity in an attempt, she says, to debunk the older girl’s belief in magic and witches. But it’s clear that Ellis has other ideas in mind.

Initially rather slow, I found myself intrigued by the school and its depiction while also feeling rather disassociated from events. As the story develops and we start to see more of Ellis in action I found myself quite gripped. The relationship between Ellis and Felicity felt like something from Donna Tartt herself, and as events built to their climax I could not quite get my head around exactly which character I disliked more. To make you like and hate a character in equal measure is quite something, and Lee certainly toys with our perception of the two leads. My main issue with this – and the only reason I didn’t award 5 stars – was the sense of remove I felt at the beginning and the sense of the secondary characters/school environment being rather underdeveloped.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication, and this is certainly one I’ll bookmark for a re-read at some point.