‘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.

‘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.

‘Copycat’ – Alex Lake

In this age, where every little detail is shared online, privacy is everything. We take reasonable precautions to protect our data…so what do we do if someone steals our identity? How can it happen, and what are the consequences if it does happen?
While this raises issues around how we use social media and the security of our online information, the book itself is about a story much closer to home – the desire for revenge.
Sarah is a doctor, has three lovely kids and a loving husband. She is pretty settled in her routine, and still in touch with many friends from her past. When an old school friend moves back to the area and tries to befriend her on Facebook she doesn’t think anything of it…until the friend sends a message asking which account she should use.
At this point we are suspicious. Has Sarah set up an alternative account or is there a more sinister motive? Watching Sarah and her husband, Ben, try to work out who might have done this – and the turmoil caused as things progress and the suspicion is on Sarah herself was bad enough. However, we are privy to another voice – unknown of most of the novel – who shares with us the details of their plan to remove Sarah and take revenge for an act from her past.
There’s no doubt this was a page-turner. I was keen to work out what was going on, and there were moments when the suggestion that Sarah might be experiencing some kind of medical condition causing her to not remember actions was an intriguing possibility. The venom behind the actions of the unknown ‘stalker’ was palpable…
It was only when we were told who was behind it and saw just how far they were prepared to go that I found myself less entranced. There was a sadistic cruelty to the novel that I found discomfiting, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the plausibility of what we were being told to believe. That aside, a cracking read.
Thank you to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this in exchange form honest thoughts.

‘STAGS’ by M.A. Bennett

Feature film rights for M A Bennett’s debut YA novel S.T.A.G.S have been bought by Chernin Entertainment, ahead of its UK publication. The novel focuses on the exclusive St. Aidan the Great’s School (S.T.A.G.S.) in England and follows first year boarding student Greer as she navigates the traditions of the school hierarchy, until she is invited for a weekend getaway by the school’s elite and most popular group, known as the Medievals. The invite promises a weekend of bloodsports, but what Greer and the other invitees don’t know is that the Medievals just might be hunting, shooting, and fishing them over the next three days.

It comes as little surprise to me that there’s plans to turn this into a movie. It definitely has that feel to it, and there’s more than one or two scenes that I think have been inspired by classic films.

From the moment we meet Greer, we know she’s caught up in something shocking. She tells us she might be a murderer, and I couldn’t wait to see just how this came together.

Greer’s scholarship at S.T.A.G.S. – a school of traditions, where money is revered and there’s a sense that those who have money/status will always come out on top – makes her feel like an outsider from the start. The book itself reminded me of a number of films/novels, where we are asked to look at how privilege affects character.

Our story starts properly when Greer and the others are invited to the home of Henry de Warlencourt (leader of the Medievals) for a shooting, hunting, fishing weekend. I was fascinated by the aura of wealth and privilege, but also slightly repulsed by the air of menace that exudes from this group.

As the story picks up, the rose-tinted glasses fall from Greer’s eyes. What she’s involved in isn’t simply an attempt to make a group of people feel socially inferior, it’s deadly serious. Over years ‘accidents’ have happened and it quickly becomes a case of survival, and trying to work out just how far-up the chain this goes!

The focus on wealth and race felt uncomfortable. Yet I know this probably isn’t too far from the norm for some. Whether it goes quite this far is hard to credit, but it certainly makes for a thrilling story.

Thank you NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of publication (and I await news of the movie).

‘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.