‘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.

‘Wrong Place, Wrong Time’ – Gillian McAllister

Our story opens with Jen, a lawyer, waiting for her adult son to come home after a night out. I feared there might be an accident as we watch Jen observe her son get closer to home. Another figure approaches her son, and I thought we were about to witness an awful crime that Jen would have to relive as she deals with this moment. We did…but it wasn’t at all what I expected. Todd, Jen’s son, stabs and kills the man. Watching your son get hurt would be awful, but I can’t imagine how you’d feel watching him kill someone.

The next day, the strangest thing happens. Jen wakes, and it is the day before the crime. Nothing has happened, and she believes she is going mad. Each time she goes to sleep she seems to travel back in time. There has, Jen is certain, to be a reason for this. Can she learn anything that will help her stop this crime before it happens?

Wrong Place, Wrong Time was a skilfully constructed story. From start to finish it was fascinating to observe Jen’s experiences and to try to piece together anything that could have relevance to the crime that instigated this event. McAllister weaves a rich story, where nothing is quite as it seems. We watch Jen as she is forced to relive her life, reflecting on interactions and trying to work out what might hold the key to protecting her son.

As the story unfolded I found myself quite amazed by the concept. I loved the mercurial quality to the story, and found myself wholly unsettled by the ending.
I can’t wait for someone I know to pick this up and read it. A huge thank you to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this in advance of publication.

 

‘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 Perfect Holiday’ – T.J. Emerson

The Perfect Holiday is a book that tries very hard to throw you off the scent. There are clues throughout that what we’re seeing isn’t the full picture, but by the time we got to the end I just recall feeling pleased that at least something was going to happen.

Julian and Olivia are holidaying in their beautiful villa. They are, on the surface, the ideal couple. Olivia has money, and Julian is the perfect gentleman who has become known for caring for his ex-wife for years. Her murder was a shock, but Julian had a cast-iron alibi and has since become the face of the charitable foundation set up in her name.

While on their regular foray into the little town nearby, the couple meet Gabriel. There is a story behind his presence, and it soon becomes clear that he is more closely linked to Julian than they might want to admit.

For much of the book the focus is on Julian sneaking around with Gabriel. There’s lots of talk of love and a desire to plan a future together. Unfortunately, for a relationship so skewed – and firmly placed on the foundations of their tangled past – it never quite gelled.

As the book continues we learn more about Julian and his past. Things appear to be heading firmly in one direction and I found myself waiting for the twist that seemed so inevitable. Sure enough it came, but by this time I just felt relieved that at last we were getting an escape.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication, and thanks to the publishers for including me on the Blog tour.

 

‘Hope to Die’ – Cara Hunter

A new Adam Fawley book is a cause for celebration, so I was rather surprised that he took something of a back seat in this very odd case.

We open with an anonymous 999 call. When the police investigate, they find an elderly couple and the body of a young man blasted in the face with a shotgun. The investigating officers are suspicious. Something isn’t ringing true in the elderly couple’s story about shooting a burglar in self-defence. But nothing prepares them for what their investigations reveal.

The victim is found to have a DNA match with a young woman currently in prison for the murder of her child.

From start to finish there was a sense of the truth eluding our detectives. The characters involved were slippery to say the least, and I was gripped from start to finish as we watched them trying to navigate their stories.

There were attempts to develop some of the other characters on the force, and I’m wondering where this will go next. Huge thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

 

‘Forging Silver into Stars’ – Brigid Kemmerer

I was unsure just how much of the world of Cursebreakers this would inhabit, and though many of the characters are the same there is enough here to offer something fresh.

Our main focus is baker Callyn and her best friend, Jax the blacksmith. They live in a fairly remote town, but have their own reasons to fear the magic that King Grey has at his disposal. Both struggling to survive, they are tempted by an offer to pass notes between people in exchange for silver. Naturally, they become curious as to the content of these notes, and as events proceed they learn all too well how their actions have consequences.

Alongside our pair, much of the action focuses on Tycho and Lord Alek, and their obvious dislike of one another. Both have their own reasons for visiting Briarfeld, and it’s a hard task to work out who to trust. Is their job protection? If so,who exactly are they protecting, and from what?

The pacing of the story means that things take a while to get going, but we learn some interesting details about Tycho and his powers. We get to see a little more of the inner circle and the issues they’re facing. Some familiar faces return…and there are more than enough hints about exciting things to come as the story continues.

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

 

‘Insomnia’ – Sarah Pinborough

Insomnia is, usually, linked to periods of high stress but its effects can be awful. For our main character Emma, a successful lawyer approaching her fortieth birthday, her inability to sleep after she wakes regularly at 1:18am hints at a potential problem. Though she doesn’t remember precise details, her family have been plagued by issues around sleep and she fears history repeating itself as she approaches the age her mother was incarcerated after trying to suffocate one of her children.

The family history is revealed bit by bit as we follow Emma through the days leading up to her fortieth birthday. The tension created by Pinborough is well-depicted and as we learn about the stresses in her life we start to question to what extent Emma might be responsible.

From start to finish I found myself caught up in this. In turns frustrated by Emma but also empathising with her, I couldn’t help but get bogged down in the extraneous details about her present life that seemed to muddy the waters as we try to work out just what is going on.

As with some of Pinborough’s more recent books there is a dependence on something unnatural, which might not adequately explain events for some readers. While I’m not wholly convinced by it, the actual revelation as to what was happening and the motive for it made sense. Extreme, and it definitely made me reassess some of the earlier interactions between the characters concerned, but this book was a tense depiction of someone being pushed to their limits.

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

 

‘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.

‘Lessons in Chemistry’ – Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry is a book that I was desperate to get my hands on, and it did not disappoint. I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before publication, and I will be buying my own copy as this was a book that deserves rereading.

Our setting is California in the 1960s. The prevalent view of the time was that a woman’s role was in the home and that her job was to support her man. Thankfully, not everyone subscribed to this view. Some pushed against it, determined to be seen for their own worth. Elizabeth Zott is one of those characters.

Zott is a chemist. She is not able to complete her studies after being raped. Determined to pursue her interests she finds herself a job in Hastings laboratory. While many patronise her and treat her as a glorified secretary, Zott has a passion and is keen to pursue it – knowing full well that she is cleverer than so many of the men who hold her back. Unconventional, nobody quite knows what to do with Zott.

Another brilliant mind that people cannot contain is Calvin Evans. As a man, he gets more opportunities and yet after a run-in with Zott we see the development of something very entertaining. Their relationship flouts conventions, but few can deny their chemistry.

After a tragic accident Zott finds herself alone, unmarried and pregnant.
Nothing about Zott and her life follows the expected trajectory. While this is hugely entertaining to read, it is hard to ignore just how unlikely a character such as Zott would have been.

When she finds herself fronting a successful cookery show she is not an immediate hit. The backers hate her. Men are threatened by her. Yet, slowly but surely, Zott finds herself at the helm of a massive hit…challenging the status quo.

Zott herself is a brusque character, forthright and yet gauche in ways that don’t always make sense. The cast of supporting characters help make this book – each illuminating some element of Zott and her outlook. Whether it’s her neighbour Harriet dispensing her gem of wisdom in the early days of motherhood or her dog Six-Thirty who offers a very unusual perspective on events, the characters surrounding Zott help her to shine.

There will be elements to this book that will irritate readers. Not everything works, but this was a bold and brave book that I can’t wait to see how people respond to.