‘All of this is True’ – Lygia Day Peñaflor

A group of teens go to a book signing and end up being befriended by the author. They are given unlimited access to her home and time, and she seems genuinely interested in getting to know them. Except, then her latest book is published and it is – in fact – the story of their lives.

The book idea itself was fascinating. I liked the inclusion of excerpts from the fictional book. Unfortunately, the group of teens were not particularly interesting characters. They had potential to be, but they were focused on in relation to the fictional book so we don’t see much beyond the surface.

Stylistically it feels choppy. We cut from interview to interview, to messages, to novel excerpts and it’s difficult to get a sense of quite where it’s going. It always felt like we were second guessing events/characters and those I’d really like to have heard from were not given a voice.

An intriguing idea, but one which didn’t quite come together for me.

‘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 Chalk Man’ – C.J. Tudor

For me, this was an assured debut that I devoured but did not want to end.
Our narrator, Eddie, is in his early-40s and he lives in his childhood home, teaching in his old high school. One day he receives a drawing of a stick man in the post and it sparks memories of a childhood game he and his friends used to play.

Told in two different time-frames, this really is a compelling read. We jump from the present (2016) to thirty years earlier when Eddie and his friends are on the cusp of adolescence. It’s a very different time, and one which will only be familiar to some readers from Stephen King’s ‘The Body’ and the Netflix show ‘Stranger Things’. Eddie’s group of friends share a lot, but they all have their secrets.

The key secret that the novel focuses on is the murder and dismemberment of a teenage girl in 1986. The group are involved as they find the body having been led there by chalk drawings. We’re never certain if they know more than that, and what quickly becomes apparent is that in this town there’s a lot of people with things they’d rather others didn’t know.

I particularly liked the way the shifting perspective meant we could never be certain what revelations were relevant and how, and the nod to King is evident in so many ways (not least with the teacher being called Halloran). The style of writing was one I found hard to put down. It was very easy to picture this as a film, and seeing the viewpoint of both child and adult narrator added a complexity to this that I found hard to resist.

All in all, a wonderful read for the start of the new year and one I’d highly recommend.

‘The Innocent Wife’ – Amy Lloyd

Our main character, Sam, hints at a lonely life. She strongly suggests there are mental health issues and she does seem quite vulnerable initially, which perhaps explains how she ends up obsessed with the case of Dennis Danson.

When she first starts writing to Dennis on Death Row she is convinced of his innocence. She is part of a large community of people convinced Dennis did not kill the girl he was accused of murdering. With the appearance of a true-crime documentary focusing on his case more and more people are convinced of his innocence. Like so many of his supporters, Sam is determined justice be done and he should be released. Unlike them, she starts visiting him and ends up marrying him.

Putting aside some of the issues I have with this idea anyway, it troubled me that everyone was so keen to get Dennis released. Anyone who opposed this view was portrayed in a rather caricatured manner; their behaviour or appearance being physically repellent to reinforce how they did not agree with Sam’s view.

Once they are married things moved quite quickly. We suddenly have evidence that exonerates Dennis of all charges and he is released. Immediately I felt there were very unsubtle hints that all was not as it seemed, and we were on high alert to see just how wrong we were going to be proven.

The actual ‘truth’ does come out, but I really wasn’t wholly convinced by the way in which events panned out or the behaviour of some key characters.
All the way through I was waiting for the twist, but it really didn’t come. The big revelation was signalled pretty clearly and it lost impetus towards the end.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘The Child Finder’ – Rene Denfield

A book whose impact will be felt long after the story is finished.

Our main character, Naomi,  finds missing children. Sometimes they are alive, sometimes they are not. What matters is that she, like the parents, never forgets. Her determination to do her best by these children is compelling, but we learn early on that it stems from her own experiences. We’re never told exactly what happened to Naomi, but it’s all too obvious that it drives her…completely.

In this novel Naomi is asked to investigate the disappearance of Madison, a young girl who disappeared three years ago when her parents drove out to the mountains to cut their own Christmas tree. Most people are convinced the child, who was five at the time, died that day in the woods, but we know different.

I was initially nervous that this would be a bloody, violent read. How do you write a book about what happens to a missing child without being crass? Inevitably, the matter of how to write about abuse and Stockholm syndrome is one that has to be contended with. This is where the character of Naomi is so important.

The book switches from Naomi’s investigation to Madison’s experience trapped in a deserted cabin. Yes, there are inevitably details that you wish weren’t there but – amazingly – we are caught up in a cycle of awful experiences and all the characters involved are treated respectfully (perhaps too much so in the case of B).

The Child Finder will not be to everyone’s tastes, but this was a dark tale that felt it needed telling. Thank you NetGalley for providing me with the opportunity to read this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

‘How Will I Know You?’ – Jessica Treadway

Thank you NetGalley for this ARC. Something of a slow read, creating a small cast of characters and revealing, bit by bit, how they may or may not be instrumental in the death of Joy Enright, a high school senior.

When Joy’s body is found it is first thought to be a tragic accident. But then police reveal she was strangled and it becomes a murder investigation.

Her parents are devastated, but the experience raises awkward questions about the state of their family affairs and their interpersonal relationships. Alongside the immediate family we have Tom, a jack-of-all trades who was one of the last to see the girl alive and who is the son-in-law of one of the investigating police officers. The Detective is not portrayed positively – seen through the eyes of someone he does not have a good relationship with – and questions are raised as to whether he subverted the course of justice in his quest to become Chief of police. Added into the mix is talented artist, Martin, who had been having an affair with Joy’s mother.

There were times I found my attention drifting here. The split perspectives means it’s hard to really become invested in anybody. It meant the characters never became particularly likeable, and once we had the insight into Joy’s story at the end it was frustrating because it was clear to see how just one different action could have sparked a very different chain of events. Ultimately, though, that is part of the book’s charm.

‘The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ – Stuart Turton

The rules of Aiden Bishop’s incarceration are simple. Every night at 11.00pm Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed. You have eight hosts, from whose perspective you will see the day re-run, and eight days in which to solve the murder. Once you reveal the name of Evelyn’s murderer you’re free to leave Blackheath.
That is all you are told before starting, so there’s enough to pique your interest but you’re left alone to find out the extent to which Aiden is manipulated through the course of the day.

There was a wonderful cast of characters in this. As we follow Aiden through his time, and start to learn a little of what he is required to do, we really get under the skin of these people. Not all of them were pleasant, but there was something compelling about seeing events through the different perspectives.

For me, the appeal was the twisting structure of this. I’ll admit it required focus on occasion to try and draw events together, and to keep track of the bodies into which Aiden was thrown. However, for a devoted fan of Quantum Leap this was like pulling on a cosy jumper and being let loose in a familiar setting.

I couldn’t trust anyone, and I even doubted Aiden’s sanity at times. The linking of this event to a murder many years previously was a master stroke, though it does make sense once we’re in possession of some key details.

Hugely entertaining, and an intriguing idea (which you’ll be desperate to talk about once someone’s read it) that deserves to become a book to be talked about.
Thank you NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

‘Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle’ – Gabrielle Kent

Alfie Bloom’s life is dull. Dull and lonely, and this summer is set to be the most boring yet. All of that changes when he is summoned to the bizarre offices of mysterious solicitor, Caspian Bone, where he discovers he has inherited a castle full of wonders that has been sealed for centuries. Alfie is astounded to learn he was born in that very castle six hundred years ago during a magical timeslip. There, Orin Hopcraft, the last of the druids hid an ancient magic inside him, which others seek but should never be used. With the help of his cousins Madeleine and Robin, and Artan the flying bearskin rug, Alfie must keep the magic from terrifying adversaries and ensure that the secrets of Hexbridge castle stay secret, forever!

From the moment he arrives at Hexbridge Castle Alfie gets the feeling that this is a good place. However, it’s clear that there are secrets being hidden…and that they involve his new head teachers.

This is an exciting read for younger readers, with just a hint of terror. There are elements of the novel that can be found in a number of other popular stories for this age-group, but it doesn’t seem overly-similar . Great fun, and the events were left in a good place for book two.

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and for Alfie that is certainly the case!

 

‘Lies She Told’ – Cate Holahan

Scheduled for publication in September 2017, I must thank Crooked Lane Books publishers and NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

Our plot focuses on Liza, a novelist who hasn’t been able to reproduce the dizzy heights of her debut novel. We meet her as she is struggling to work out the plot of her next novel. It’s hard to focus on writing though as she’s undergoing fertility treatment, desperate for a child, and her husband’s work partner has disappeared.

We regularly switch to chapters of the work in progress. Here we follow the character of Beth, a young mother who learns that her husband is having an affair. We watch as Beth follows the adulterous couple, eventually killing the other woman, a police officer.

From the outset it was hard to keep focused on which parts of this story were Liza’s and which belonged to the fiction of Beth. Their voices were very similar, and the details from both stories were clearly intertwined.

There’s a moment in the book where Liza says “Blurring fact and fantasy is my trade. I am a con artist. A prevaricator. I make up stories. So why does he think this one is real?” This, for me, was the essence of the story-what was reality, and what was fiction?

A rather difficult one to get into initially, but it was certainly worth it.