‘White Rabbit, Red Wolf’ – Tom Pollock

Touted as the new Curious Incident this is a very different book, and I think if you go into it expecting a lovable main character trying to make sense of the world around him you may be disappointed.

Peter is a mathematical genius. He uses maths to manage his extreme anxiety, and is convinced that maths has the answer to everything. Being that bit older than Haddon’s protagonist, he’s also got a slightly different take on the world.
From the moment we first meet Pete crouched in his kitchen having eaten a salt cellar in an attempt to stem his overwhelming anxiety, it’s clear that this is going to be an unsettling read. I truly wasn’t expecting it to be as dark as it was.

It was fascinating to get under the skin of Pete, but the actual story was more focused on the thriller element and it had to be this way in order for the plot to work.

When Pete’s mother is stabbed as she goes to receive an award for her work, his sister is missing and he quickly learns that no one around him was who they claimed to be. We’re plunged into a nightmare world of spies, scientific manipulation and some gruesome deaths.

I don’t want to reveal too much more. Suffice to say, nothing was quite as it seemed and every time I thought we were getting somewhere there was another detail given that turned things on their head. This would have been an all-out recommendation, but for the sense of everything feeling rather rushed by the end and being left rather uncertain about a few key details. Still one I’d heartily recommend.

‘The Tall Man’ – Phoebe Locke

Thank you NetGalley for letting me read my oddest of 2018 so far.

There were issues with my ARC – parts of text missing or disordered – and this meant there was some inevitable confusion as I tried to keep fixed who was the focus/what was happening. Those issues fixed, I think this will be the kind of read you’ll either fall hook, line and sinker for or you’ll be ambivalent about. I, sadly, was somewhere in between.

For me, the start of the story was not quite there. We’re expected to fall for The Tall Man story but without really being given enough detail to justify such a reaction. Throughout, the supposedly creepy references to this mythical figure felt forced. I never felt I had enough to substantiate this, feeling it was always something of a smokescreen for another story.

Some reviewers have commented on the fragmented nature of the setting. This is disconcerting on occasion, but it does make sense as we learn more about Sophie, Miles and their daughter, Amber, as she is being followed by a film crew for a documentary about a murder. Certain details hint at there being more to certain characters and the events unfolding, but it’s not until later that we get to piece everything together.

‘The Last Time I Lied’ – Riley Sager

A complex multi-layered story that shifts from present to past seamlessly as we uncover the mystery surrounding Camp Nightingale.

15 years prior to our story, Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale. Forced to room with older students she is taken under the wing of Vivian and her friends. For the short time she is at the camp Emma is intrigued by Vivian and her obsession with the game Two Truths and a Lie. There is something compelling about the girls’ need to twist the truth, and how they manipulate those around them to suit their needs and interests.

When our story begins Emma is a painter of some renown. She is well-known for a series of paintings. Unfortunately, this series is borne from Emma’s need to make sense of the events that happened many years earlier when the girls disappeared from the camp. She hints at hiding things and we are never entirely sure to what extent she may or may not have been involved in the disappearance of Vivian, Allison and  Natalie.

As we watch her return to camp to teach the students there, it’s clear that there are many secrets in this place. Emma gets caught up in a potentially deadly game as she tries to establish what happened. She wonders why there is a security camera trained on her dorm, who is watching her in the shower and what the hidden clues left by Vivian all those years ago may or may not mean.

The shifting time scale means we’re never certain who’s hiding what, or what piece of information has been left out. Slowly getting to know the girls was an intriguing process. It was an interesting idea to replicate the set-up with the girls in the present time. Using this derivative plot for the present makes perfect sense once we know a little more of what’s happening.

Personally I’d have liked to know a little more about exactly what prompted certain actions but the story was well-executed and I was never certain how much our narrator was to be trusted.

Thank you NetGalley for providing access to this. A great read.

‘Stranger’ by Karen David

Astor, Ontario. 1904.
A boy staggers out of the forest covered in blood and collapses at the feet of 16-year-old Emmy. While others are suspicious and afraid, Emmy is drawn to him. Is he really the monster the townsfolk say he is?
Astor, Ontario. 1994.
Megan arrives from London for her great grandmother Emmy’s 105th birthday. It should be a happy family occasion, but Megan is nursing a broken heart and carrying a secret she fears might consume her.

These two stories don’t, at first, seem to make sense or link. One story concerns Tom, a young boy who is found in the woods in 1904, and the other focuses on Megan, a young English girl who goes to visit her grandmother at a particularly turbulent time in her life.

The stories of Tom and Megan are, of course, linked but we don’t establish how until quite late on.

Initially the story felt a little slow, but as we start to piece together events and identify links between the two timeframes I found it an absorbing story. Both stories explore themes of loss, motherhood and identity but in quite different ways.

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

‘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.

‘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 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.