‘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.

‘A Spoonful of Murder’ – Robin Stevens

What a delight this latest instalment of Hazel and Daisy’s adventures was. Thank you, Robin Stevens, for the story and I only wish it could have lasted longer.
This time round the girls are in Hong Kong when Hazel is called back after the death of her grandfather. As we come to expect, the girls are soon caught up in another mystery when Hazel’s new brother is kidnapped.
There’s a number of suspects – father’s business partners, old friends and even ex-servants – and the girls get to carry out some daring deeds as they investigate the crime.
As always with this series there is a wonderful sense of the relationship between the two girls and the ease with which they investigate these strange events. What I particularly loved in this book was getting more of a sense of the character of Hazel, and gaining an insight into her sense of alienation while learning a little more of her cultural background.
The depiction of Hong Kong was exciting and I think marks a real shift in the series. It was lovely to see Hazel coming into her own a little, and Daisy placed in the role so often assigned to her partner.
Another fantastic adventure.

‘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.

‘The Last Samsara’ – Kristen Ciccarelli

In the beginning, there was the Namsara: the child of sky and spirit, who carried love and laughter wherever he went. But where there is light, there must be darkness—and so there was also the Iskari. The child of blood and moonlight. The destroyer. The death-bringer.

From its opening lines where Asha lures the dragon by telling it a story, we are in fantasy territory and it is compelling stuff.

From childhood Asha has lived with the old tales about the Namsara and the Iskari. They cost her mother her life, and Asha knows she cannot ever let anyone know she continues to tell them in spite of her father’s edict banning them. Yet, as her country’s Iskari, Asha is forced to hunt dragons and do what she can to prove herself good.

As the opening in a series we know there’s a much grander scope to this tale. However, for the first instalment we are given plenty to entertain us.

We watch Asha struggle with her sense of duty; we have the background of the country’s turmoil; there’s the callous Jarek, to whom Asha has been pledged; we have a developing romance, some truly inspiring relationships and…dragons.

I wasn’t totally convinced when I saw the cover that I would like this. Thankfully, it entranced me from the start and I cannot wait to see how Ciccarelli continues this tale.

‘The Taste of Blue Light’ – Lydia Ruffles

 

Since I blacked out, the slightest thing seems to aggravate my brain and fill it with fire’

These are the things Lux knows:
She is an Artist.
She is lucky.
She is broken.

These are the things she doesn’t know:
What happened over the summer.
Why she ended up in hospital.
Why her memories are etched in red.

‘The nightmares tend to linger long after your screams have woken you up …’

Desperate to uncover the truth, Lux’s time is running out. If she cannot piece together the events of the summer and regain control of her fractured mind, she will be taken away from everything and everyone she holds dear.

If her dreams don’t swallow her first.

There’s no doubt about it that this contemporary YA read – due to be published in early February 2018 – packs a powerful punch.

Initially, Lux was not a character to feel empathy with. Her unwillingness to engage with things and people made her hard to care about. The environment in which she cloisters herself is alien to many of us.

Yet as the story progressed I found myself falling under a spell. Desperate to know what happened, we do get answers, and they are far more topical than we might expect. All along I had an idea in which way the book was heading (which wouldn’t have been awful), but Ruffles goes for something much bolder and braver…and it pays off.

This is one book I feel it’s best to know little about before reading. It is not immediately seeking to attract your attention, but it sneaks up on you. Once I’d closed the pages I was desperate to read it again.

‘The Wren Hunt’ – Mary Watson

The hunt for the wren is a traditional Irish event, taking place in late December, which is thought to symbolise the sacrifice of the old year in readiness to welcome in the new.

In this novel, an assured debut, we focus on the fight for survival of two ancient groups – augurs and judges – and the young girl born of both groups who is to decide their fate.

Initially, I have to say this was a puzzling start. I was not sure who Wren was, how she was connected to events or even what kind of book this was. However, the writing style totally drew me in and I felt that we learned of some of the key events through the eyes of our main character which allowed us to truly empathise with her.

The story drew heavily on folklore and the fantasy elements of this entranced me. The development of our main character will surely be enough to captivate most people and I was more than a little surprised by the themes and ideas that ran through this.

Though I have read that there is a second book due – and it should provide us with a satisfying link to what we see here – this is one of those rare books that you would not feel hard-done by if it remained a stand-alone. It’s also a story that I think would be one I could read again and still delight in.

A huge thank you to the publishers Bloomsbury, the author Mary Watson and a NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this prior to publication.

‘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?

‘The Nowhere Girls’ – Amy Reed

At a time when we can easily see some of the awful comments attributed to one of the most powerful men in the United States revealing his derogatory attitude to women and when the #MeToo campaign is sharing more and more disturbing stories of how women are treated, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of those books that everyone should be encouraged to engage with.

The Nowhere Girls. A group of young women, from all spheres of life, who come together to try to combat the toxic culture in their hometown.

New girl Grace is unsure how to fit in. As the only child of devout Christians their life has been in upheaval as their old church community was resistant to having Grace’s mum as a pastor. She wants to stand for something, but is so unsure of herself at the start of the novel. Grace finds herself making a rather unusual choice of friends at her new school, and when she learns that the girl who used to live in her home was forced to leave school after accusing three star footballers of rape she is determined to make a stand.

Along with Grace we are told the story from the points of view of Rosina and Erin. Each have their own concerns that impact on their lives, but their voices were pretty authentic. I was particularly fond of Erin who was a character you couldn’t help but root for.

As the Nowhere Girls movement gathers force we see the impact it has on some of the key players in perpetuating this slut-shaming culture. Small steps initially, but there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this relatively happy ending would not happen in real-life. I was repulsed by some of the characters (intentionally I think) and really irritated by the complacent and, at times, combative attitudes of those who have the power to tackle such institutional sexism.

With explicit scenes featuring sexual violence this will not be an easy read, but it’s a sadly necessary one. My biggest gripe with this was the relentlessly happy ending that, for me, belies the battle that many in such a situation will face. However, that doesn’t detract from the need for novels such as this to encourage young men and women to consider how they can truly make a difference.

‘Brightly Burning’ – Alexa Donne

The gravity stabilizers were failing again. I glanced up from my sketchpad to see globules of liquid dancing up from my drinking glass. They shimmered red, like droplets of blood, though I knew it was just cherry-flavored nutri-drink. Dammit, that’s my protein ration for the day wasted.

A sigh escaped me, and resignedly I stowed my drawing tablet and stylus in the drawer under my mattress. They would be calling me any minute.

A moment later, right on time: “Stella Ainsley, please report to Area Twelve.” The speaker crackled and popped, as it had done for years. I’d tried to fix it, but on a ship as old as the Stalwart, there was only so much you could do.

With this extract from the opening chapter of Donne’s debut, due for publication in May 2018, we can see this is no ordinary retelling of Jane Eyre.

From the moment I saw this on NetGalley I have to say I was curious about how it would work. There’s a few differences in order to fit the futuristic space setting, but it’s quite faithful to the original text.

Seventeen year old Stella is determined to not end up an engineer the rest of her life. With her space home looking close to the end, her choices are limited. When she gets a post as governess on board the much better-equipped Rochester we know exactly where this is going.

Many of the expected events are there. It was good fun to spot the links (while not being too precious about the adaptations made to fit the new setting) and I could see this appealing to teens with no sense of the source material, as well as being a bit of fun for those who know what’s coming.

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