‘A Slow Fire Burning’ – Paula Hawkins

A Slow Fire Burning is most definitely not a fast-paced read, with a host of unlikeable characters, yet I still found myself caught up in the story and keen to know exactly how the various elements combined.

Our story opens with the body of a young man being found on a houseboat. His throat has been slit. A young woman, covered in blood, was seen walking nearby earlier on the day his body was found and it seems as if things are quite straight-forward. Of course, the truth is far more complicated.

Caught up in the story are writer Theo Myerson; his ex-wife, Celia; Celia’s sister, Angela; the dead boy, Daniel; Miriam, who lives on a houseboat next to where Daniel was found; Laura, a vulnerable young woman and her friend Irene, an elderly woman who lives next door to Angela. Each of them has things they would prefer remain hidden, and it doesn’t take us long to work out that they are linked…but the finer details are not all clear until quite late on.

The story – out of necessity – jumps backwards and forwards in time. We have extracts from the fictional novel written by Theo and there were moments throughout the book where I found myself feeling close to figuring out links, only to discover that it wasn’t quite what I thought.

While I enjoyed the overall idea, it did feel like it took rather a long time to get going. Some of the links were tenuous at best, and I found myself quite irritated by the portrayal of Laura. As with a number of the characters, there was a lot about them that I wanted to know which wasn’t covered – perhaps in order to keep our focus on the main story – but it left me with a sense of incompleteness.

 

‘Dinner Party: A Tragedy’ – Sarah Gilmartin

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this in advance of publication.
Dinner Party focuses on food and the role it plays in our lives, binding us to others and being part of celebrations as well as something that can be used to cause pain. Our main character is a young woman who it becomes clear has an eating disorder and who is struggling to cope with the death of her twin. Kate is a difficult character to engage with. There’s a veneer of hardness to her, and it always feels rather as if she’s keeping others at a distance in order to manage her emotions. We learn little about her and I’m sure this is deliberate, but it meant I found my attention wandering rather.
The story was written in a way that I could recognise as having quality, but – honestly – my overwhelming feeling as I read was of anticipation, waiting for something to happen to suggests purpose to the events described. Nothing did.
As the focus shifts in time and we see fragments of Kate’s interactions over time it always felt as if something was being held back. While her brothers were sympathetically portrayed they were weak in the face of their manipulative mother. This was not a family that I warmed to and it was frustrating that so much of my attention during reading was trying to establish what, if anything, might happen.
I’ve been lucky enough to be included in the blog tour for this, so I won’t post my review until the day of my scheduled involvement.

 

‘You’ll Be the Death of Me’ – Karen McManus

For readers of an age to have actually been around for Ferris Bueller in his original incarnation that’s something of a lure. A vibrant character playing on their luck and exploiting everyone they interact with in order to have a fun-filled day…of course, that’s going to appeal. Unfortunately, for the target audience of this book the reference may be rather meaningless…

Our main characters are Ivy, Cal and Mateo. Three students who used to be great friends, who’ve barely spoken to each other in years and who are all – for reasons we don’t learn entirely – having a tough time. They turn up at school one day, decide to ditch and have an attempt to recreate their magical moment.

Even before they set off it’s clear this isn’t going to go well. They end up following another student from their school who is also truanting…and when he is found dead in a room they decide that they should run away and try to investigate this crime themselves, rather than let the police know what they’ve seen and sort things out.

The start of the book requires that we suspend our disbelief and follow them as they make up their minds what to do next. There’s a bit of wandering round, some unnecessary faffing about to establish that each of them has things they’re trying to hide and that others around them may be more than a little keen to keep things quiet. Eventually we get some details about what might be behind this death.

Once we learn a little more about the death, we are taken to a realm of quite ridiculous scenarios. These three behave in ways I can’t imagine, but I still found myself sucked in and desperate to piece it together.

We do, eventually, get our answers. Some were less obvious than others, and some of the predicted curveballs never got thrown in. It was quite preposterous, but entertaining and will definitely have its share of fans.

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

 

‘Chloe Cates is Missing’ – Mandy McHugh

Chloe Cates is Missing has all the ingredients for a perfect thriller: dysfunctional family; a death; an abduction; secrets from the past and an alarming focus on social media and the extent to which it influences our lives. From start to finish it was a book I couldn’t put down, and the ending was delightfully ambiguous in a way that will torment readers long after the story ends.

The book focuses on Chloe Cates, the teen sensation of an internet blog. Thirteen year old Abby Scarborough has known no life other than a life played out on screen. Her every move is crafted and filtered, and the whole family depend on the revenue the blog created around her on-screen persona brings in. When she was a child Abby complied with her mother’s demands, but as she matures she becomes increasingly reluctant to have her key life moments played out for the entertainment of others.

One seemingly normal weekend morning, the Scarborough family have their lives turned upside down when they realise Abby is missing. Detectives are called in and, conscious of this girl’s online presence, they take this threat seriously. Detective Emelina Stone is heading up the investigation, but she soon realises she has a closer link to the family than she’s comfortable with. The secret Emelina is keeping had me on tenterhooks, and I was desperate to see how it would be relevant. This secret isn’t given up easily, but it is VERY relevant to the events in the present.

As the investigation progresses, a body is found. Suddenly, there seems to be a link between the disappearance of Abby and the murder of this missing girl. Trying to work out exactly what had happened drove me crazy, but I loved reading the way this unfolded in front of me.

Without giving away important details, this was such a clever thriller. You could never be sure who was hiding what, and though my reading of the ending may not be accurate I like to think that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree on this. Nobody comes out of it well, but it made for such an entertaining read.

I’m grateful to the publishers for allowing me the opportunity to read this before its scheduled January 2022 publication.

 

‘Breathless’ – Amy McCulloch

Be bothered…this is the mantra that our main character has taken to heart. Be bothered to check your equipment. Be bothered to take note of your surroundings. This mantra could well save her life.

Cecily Wong is known in the press as the Snowdon hero. The woman who stayed with a climber who fell, who guided emergency services to the site. But sometimes what happens on the mountains isn’t clear-cut and Cecily knows that better than anyone.

When Cecily is promised an exclusive interview with mountaineer Charles McVeigh it’s on the understanding that she makes the summit of one of the world’s highest mountains-his final climb in his quest to climb the fourteen highest mountains without oxygen or fixed lines.

To anyone with climbing experience this man would seem pretty incredible. To anyone without climbing experience you might think this man is slightly mad. Is either response justified?

Cecily is determined to overcome her own fears in order to get this interview. Once on the mountain she is struck by some unusual circumstances and is convinced someone might be out to cause harm. Altitude-induced paranoia, or a creeping sense of unease that she would be wise to listen to?

This is a thriller that you cannot fail to get caught up in. Twists and turns aplenty, some breathtaking mountain descriptions and some utterly terrifying scenarios that had me desperate to see how things would resolve. The talk of the thriller of 2022 might well be justified, and I’m so grateful to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me to read this early.

 

‘The Missing Hours’ – Julia Dahl

The Missing Hours is a book that will infuriate many readers. Though it is a book focused on a deeply triggering topic, our character takes action and this could seem a positive step. However, by the end it’s fairly evident that little has changed for our main character and such an incident could easily reoccur.

The book opens with a graphic account of our main character, Chloe Castro, waking up the night after an evening out. From the description of her it’s clear she’s been attacked, but we’re not given the full horror until later. Chloe is a girl who, on the surface, seems to have it made. She’s from a wealthy background, is friendly and doesn’t have to worry about much. But, the Chloe we meet at the start of the book is one who is very far from okay and who you cannot help but feel sorry for.

The attack that took place on Chloe was perpetrated by people she knows, a guy she dated in the past and a new acquaintance from college. One raped her, the other forced her to perform oral sex and they filmed it. This sickening act is described a number of times as one of them sends the video to Chloe and a couple of her friends.

I found the way this incident was treated fascinating. Chloe’s initial reaction is to hide away and though she deals with some of the practical issues arising from such an incident, the emotional impact is ignored. Once the video is released, family members try to step in and prevent anyone learning of it…and the focus is very much on damage-limitation. I struggle to understand how anyone could see such a film, know a criminal act had been committed and not do anything to challenge it.

Certain people within the book blame Chloe and there are some distressing moments that clearly indicate why so many victims never bother to report such events. Chloe is in the position that many might envy…she has the money and means to do something about her attackers.

Vengeance is a key element of the book. While Chloe’s actions cannot be condoned, they are understandable and those impacted are such unpleasant characters that you almost feel like turning a blind eye.

This is a murky read, nothing is clear cut and I liked the way we are presented with the facts and left to judge for ourselves. However, it still felt as if the victim was to blame for things and I found it hard to deal with the lack of closure by the end.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication and it’s one I would, with caution, recommend.

 

‘Not Here to be Liked’ – Michelle Quach

A topical yet entertaining story, that delivers a sweet romance while exploring some pretty big ideas.

Our main character, Eliza, is a rather serious young woman. Her parents want her to succeed in school so she has a choice for her future career. Eliza is desperate to be editor-in-chief for her school paper and it seems she’s a guarantee for the role. But she hadn’t banked on new writer, Len, applying for the role…and when he gets it she is disappointed.

Eliza throws herself into venting her thoughts, blaming his success on the misogyny at play. When her vent is published it sparks a school-wide movement…but things get complicated when Eliza is forced to work with Len and finds herself developing feelings for her purported enemy.

The enemies to lovers thing isn’t new, but I liked that we get to see both views here and are not expected to see everything simply. The focus on parental expectations in certain family environments was interesting, and it was good to have characters that were a little more nuanced than we might have expected for a group of teens.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me the opportunity to access this before publication.

 

‘Stranded’ – Sarah Goodwin

 

Stranded is a book that surpassed my wildest dreams…it went far beyond what I expected, and had a haunting quality that will stay with me. This is a book I expected to like, but it was so well-written that I can’t wait to recommend it to others.

The story focuses on eight very different people, cherry-picked by a team of producers to take part in a new reality TV show. They are to be taken to a remote island off the coast of Scotland where their every move will be recorded as they have to live in a new community for a year. As is made clear, something goes terribly wrong and not everyone survives this experience. Of course, we want to know what happens and how, but we are made to wait!

Our main character is Maddy. Something of a loner she wants to participate in the show as a way of escaping her reality after the death of her parents. Fitting in with new people doesn’t come naturally to her, so we are placed in the enviable position of watching things through Maddy’s eyes…outsiders, monitoring the interactions of the group and left to second-guess the motivations of others based on what Maddy tells us about them.

The other group members have – it’s clear – been picked as a way of generating conflict. Things begin positively enough, but it doesn’t take much to set off a deterioration in the group dynamic. All too soon we’re in a Lord of the Flies-style hell, with each of the group fighting for survival.

There was a certain tension that came from knowing that Maddy survived and was being interviewed about her experience. I feared this knowledge would mar the reading experience, but it actually heightened the tension for me since I was desperate to see exactly what had happened and how she’d managed to escape when things looked so very bleak. I also found the introduction of the supernatural at key moments a positive as it illustrated the extreme mental duress she was under.

I can’t thank the publishers and NetGalley enough for allowing me to read this before publication. A truly exciting book…

‘The Fell’ – Sarah Moss

Living in the environment in which this is set, The Fell seemed as if it would encapsulate so much of my own feelings/experiences that I hoped this would be a book I found myself falling in love with. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is deceptively simple. A mother, Kate, finding the restrictions of lockdown mentally challenging is struggling with the demands of a period of enforced self-isolation. Though it’s illegal, one afternoon she takes her backpack and walks out onto the hills of the Peak District. She doesn’t tell her teenage son she is going, a neighbour sees her leave and says nothing, but when she doesn’t return and night is drawing in the choice is made to call out Mountain Rescue.

Fragments of thoughts and we get a range of perspectives as the hunt for Kate goes through the night. We read the thoughts of Kate, her son, the neighbour – Alice, and mountain rescue volunteer Rob. It was surprisingly easy to read about the thoughts and feelings of each towards the lockdown of November 2020. The nuances of each characters’ reactions to events was well-captured, and though much of the focus tended to the mundane I felt it was an approach that allowed us to reflect on the ideas explored. Where this book won me over was with the descriptions of an environment which I deeply love, but also respect…knowing just how easily it can go wrong.

Thank you to Picador and NetGalley for granting me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication. I’ve already reserved a physical copy and can see myself re-reading this.

’56 Days’ – Catherine Ryan Howard

A book set in the early days of lockdown is, while we are still living with the virus that pre-emptied such circumstances, always going to be tricky to read.

Thankfully, COVID is a backdrop to the very specific set of circumstances taking place at this point in the story we watch unfold. It certainly does not unduly affect the narrative that we’re concerned with.

From the start we know that a body has been discovered in an apartment in Dublin. Little information is given initially, other than the body seems to have been there for a few weeks. Of course, anyone would have questions.

The narrative then shifts to 56 days ago, when new to the city Ollie meets Ciara. The pair talk briefly, seem to hit it off and decide to go on a date. With a fledgling relationship happening at the precise time that lockdown is announced, it could go either way. The pair decide to take their chances and move in together.

We are shown the events from both the viewpoint of Ollie and Ciara. We are alerted to the fact that both are keeping secrets. Other information is imparted on a strictly need-to-know basis, and sometimes done in such a way as to send you scurrying down the wrong route. When you become aware of these little bits of misdirection, you’ll kick yourself but then be desperate to see exactly what happened.

As the pieces fell into place I pitied those caught up in investigating the crime. Suffice to say, nothing is as it seems…and it certainly shows how your past can – no matter how careful you have been – catch up with you.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in advance of publication.