‘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.

 

‘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.

 

‘The Prank’ – L.V. Matthews

A prank is defined as being a bit of harmless fun. But what do you do if someone else’s fun causes another person pain? At what point should an innocent bystander intervene? And is it ever right to have such moments of humiliation recorded publicly?
El has been a different person since her father committed suicide. She knew he had depression, but had repressed her memories of the build-up to his death after finding his body. However, when a famous TV exec – who just so happens to be the producer of an infamous reality show called Pranksters – is served in her restaurant, El starts to remember things. She recalls her father being deeply affected by a prank that meant he felt responsible for the death of a young man. She eventually remembers the link between her father and this show.
Determined to avenge her father, a rather elaborate plan is hatched. El wants revenge, but is – as many of us would be – wholly clueless. She is not suspicious when an online search results in a friendly reply from someone calling themselves Horsehead who wants to help her. Alarm bells rang from the off, but it was great fun watching El worm her way into Jim’s life and start her preparations to bring him down…wholly unaware that someone else was pulling the strings all along.
The story was well-plotted and I loved the fact that nobody was quite what they seemed. Dig a little and it seems many people have something to hide, but there was a grim sense of satisfaction from watching how events unfolded.

 

‘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.

 

‘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 Man Who Died Twice (Thursday Murder Club 2)’ – Richard Osman

In our second adventure with the members of the murder club we are treated to an outlandish crime, numerous twists, murders aplenty and the kind of healthy disregard for the rules that I assume you might acquire when you reach a certain age.

The Thursday after the events of book one, the club is meeting and we have set in place a most unusual scenario linked to Elizabeth’s past. It involves a rakish ex-husband, twenty million pounds worth of diamonds, the mafia, local shady businesspeople and an ever-increasing number of bodies as events play out.

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim are on fine form once again. Pitting their wits against those who have made a life out of crime the group are terrier-like in their focus and determination to solve this particular puzzle. Bogdan comes into his own, and the involvement of Chris and Donna allows for some amusing side action (though it doesn’t say much about the efficacy of the police). There’s a lot of diversionary wordplay but this does keep the feeling of a cosy mystery when they’re actually confronted with something that would be terrifying.

Great fun, and I’m grateful to the publishers for letting me read a copy in advance of publication.

‘This Poison Heart’ – Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart is the first in what promises to be a most exciting series. I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and am genuinely wondering what will happen next.
Our focus for this story is Briseis, a character with a most unusual talent. She has an affinity with plants and is able to bring anything back to life and help it bloom. This skill comes in very handy in the florists her mums run, but the fact she has seemingly no reaction to poisonous plants suggests there’s more to this than Bri realises.
Introducing us to Bri’s talents early on is a great way to get our attention, but her lack of knowledge about what she can do means many of our questions are not answered. We are given time to get to know Bri and her mums. Their relationship and interactions are warm and caring, and spending time with them means we genuinely care when we learn of the financial pressures they are under.
Bri is adopted, and when she is told that an aunt has bequeathed her an estate just outside New York we – like Bri – have questions. They travel to what can only be described as a spooky mansion, to find over-run vegetation, mysterious people hanging round their property and a run-down apothecary filled with strange ingredients. People turn up requesting help, and it is soon obvious there is more to this arrangement than we might expect.
Naturally curious, Bri wants to find out more about her family. She unearths letters from her aunt and learns that she appears to have immunity to deadly poisons. There is talk of her lineage being traced back to the ancient Greeks, and though this would be exciting enough…there’s more.
Bri meets all manner of people in her new town. Her position lends her some respect, but it also brings great danger. For what is clear is Bri’s natural family have been guarding a great secret…something that some will stop at nothing to learn.
From the beginning I found myself really caught up in this. I loved Bri and her characterisation. The introduction to mythology lent an interesting element to the story, and there are a few characters that definitely pique your interest as you try to figure out their link to Bri and the repercussions for any friendship developing.
My only criticism of the book was how the pace picked up in the last quarter and was then relentless. We had a lot of info thrown at us, and – on occasion – it didn’t feel as if it made sense. The dramatic end to this book was, naturally, not an end at all and that is highly frustrating…but a very good incentive to have me racing to pick up book two when I can.

‘I Am Still Alive’ – Kate Alice Marshall

Jess Cooper is, depending on which if the final stories you listen to, a footnote in a much bigger story or a plucky heroine. Whichever version you plump for, you can’t ignore the fact she’s resourceful, determined and – dare I say it – a little bit lucky.

The book begins in a suitably dramatic fashion. Jess is alone, watching the remains of a cabin smouldering. She reveals her father is dead, she’s alone in the Alaskan wilderness and that there are men involved who could hurt her. Of course we have questions, but Jess controls her narrative and tells us there are two beginnings to her story – before her father died and after. With a start like that, how could you not want to know more?

When we first meet Jess in her ‘before’ narrative she’s struggling after surviving the car crash that killed her mother. She is being sent to live with the father she hasn’t seen for years, and her injuries make even walking hard. Given where she’s at, it wasn’t difficult to understand her upset at being taken to her father…in a remote cabin somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. He’s a survivalist, and she is stuck with him.

Reading about her at this point was frustrating. She was hurting, uprooted from everything she knew and definitely a reluctant participant in this drama. The only thing she seemed to like was Bo, her father’s dog. It was interesting to see how she adapted to this situation – and it was clear she wasn’t as ill-equipped for it as many sixteen year olds might have been – but we weren’t being given any details of what happened.

Eventually, it couldn’t be put off longer and we were given the story of how Jess came to be alone. This was shocking, made me see her in quite a different light…and I think encourages you to hope she’ll take what she’s learned in the short time she had with her father to get through this.

This story won’t be to everyone’s tastes. I’m not wholly convinced she would have come out of the initial experience alive, but she did and that meant I was invested in seeing her remain alive. Some stomach churning moments but definitely a dramatic bit of escapism.

‘The Hawthorne Legacy’ – Jennifer Lynn Barnes

I was so excited about this, desperate to see where things would head after book one, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read it before publication but it didn’t feel as satisfying as I’d have liked.

The book picks up with Avery trying to come to terms with her new wealth, and dealing with the problems posed by the will. She is starting to feel part of the Hawthorne family but she remains at risk.

There are new dilemmas to solve here, and Avery has to contend with the realisation that certain people remain desperate to remove her from the equation. During the course of her investigations we learn that things have been covered up, the family are no strangers to doing whatever is necessary to preserve their choices and Avery remains somewhat on the periphery.

Part of the issue for me with this was that I had such high expectations, and nothing quite seemed to gel as I was reading. Not much really happened to begin with, and there were a lot of rather conveniently revealed details to allow another phase to play out. The big secret around Avery didn’t really come to anything, and the ending felt just a little too vague to make sense. I can only guess that this was done deliberately to get readers clamouring for book three…but I’m not sure it’s done that for me.