Saturday, 29 July 2017

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas - Review

I'd read a previous book by Claire Douglas (Local Girl Missing) and while I did enjoy it, I couldn't say I found it unputdownable and I didn't remember much about it afterwards. Maybe I just wasn't in the right frame of mind, because her latest, Last Seen Alive, had me thoroughly gripped.

It begins when Libby - recovering from stressful events in both her recent and more distant past - and her husband Jamie (plus dog Ziggy, who was great) agree to a week's house swap, exchanging their very ordinary flat in Bath for a beautiful, incredibly luxurious country house in Cornwall following a desperate request from a stranger. It's clear there is more going on here than meets the eye, and indeed strange and often alarming things start to happen very quickly. 

While this premise - young couple move into a remote house, scary stuff happens - was in itself not especially original, I really enjoyed this part of the book. Claire Douglas builds up the tension very effectively and while it was obvious that *something* was going on and all was not as it appeared, I had absolutely no idea what. I was also finding the straightforward, linear style of storytelling quite refreshing, devoid (apart from a very short section right at the beginning) of the flashbacks, flash-forwards and multiple narratives and timeframes so beloved of current psychological fiction. I have nothing against these devices which can work very well indeed, but they do seem to be all but compulsory now.

This does change, however, in the second part of the book, when everything suddenly gets turned on its head in a rather mind-bending way and it takes a while for the reader to work out what on earth is happening. This was very effectively and cleverly done, though it's difficult to say any more without risk of spoilers! And yes, there are flashbacks and yes, there are changes of narrator - though it is not overdone.

All in all I enjoyed this enormously.  The plot was unpredictable, often surprising, and does become quite complex, but ultimately the twists and turns made sense The only thing which jarred a little was the ending, which left the reader on a knife edge with matters unresolved - if with a certain sense of natural justice perhaps being dispensed. While I'm not someone who necessarily requires everything to be tied up neatly with a bow, though, this was just a step too far in terms of future uncertainty! I hope Claire Douglas will at some point resolve this, perhaps through a reference in a future book.

A recommended read!

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel - Review

"The first time I saw Roanoke was in a dream." From that first line onward, there are distinct shades of Daphne du Maurier here.

The Roanoke Girls came garlanded with praise. Compelling... addictive... disturbing... challenging. And dark. Always the dark.

Lane is not quite sixteen when her mother - a deeply damaged woman incapable of normal mothering - takes her own life, leaving only a baffling note: "I tried to wait. I'm sorry." Luckily for Lane (or so she's told), her hitherto unknown grandparents Yates and Lillian Roanoke, who are already raising her similarly-aged cousin Allegra, are keen to offer her a home, and Lane is duly dispatched from New York to the old family home in a remote part of Kansas. After one hot summer, she's gone - returning ten years later for the only reason which could draw her back - Allegra has disappeared.

This family is full of damaged girls and Lane is no exception, angry and prone to verbally lashing out at those who care for her. As Allegra tells her on her first day, "Roanoke girls never last long around here... In the end, we either run or we die." And the litany of lost girls... Jane, Sophia, Penelope, Eleanor, Camilla, Emmeline.... proves the truth of her words.

There aren't a lot of surprises here - the never-spoken secret at the heart of the Roanoke family is revealed early on, and the rest of the book mainly expands on that. There is an element of mystery around Allegra's disappearance, but this is low key and the resolution is no real shock. Nonetheless the novel is compelling, atmospheric and haunting - and yes, it's dark - and will, I suspect, remain in the minds of most readers for a long while as a horrifying portrayal of some deeply twisted relationships and the harm caused as a result.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond - Review

"The Pact has no divorces, but it also has more widows and widowers than you would expect."

I really wasn't sure what to expect from The Marriage Pact. The title sounded a bit Mills and Boon, and I'd never heard of the author. In fact I was engrossed from the start, and - while a love story is at the novel's core - there's nothing remotely Mills and Boon about it. 

Newlyweds Jake - a psychotherapist mainly working with relationship counselling - and Alice - a former rock musician turned lawyer - are both intrigued and flattered when invited to join The Pact, a somewhat shadowy organisation devoted to ensuring its  members stay married. As it turns out, they have some rather unusual methods of ensuring that. Things quickly become rather weird and unpleasant. Then they become even weirder and more unpleasant. Still, they can just leave.... can't they?

Tightly plotted and skilfully characterised (the story is told by Jake, but I particularly liked Alice, who had a certain unpredictability about her), this is a thoroughly absorbing read, even if a few questions remained unanswered by the end. The apparently limitless capacity of The Pact to know exactly what's going on in its members lives all the time is never really explained. And I felt Alice and Jake - and indeed the other members - were a little too ready to (almost literally) sign their lives away without finding out more about what they were potentially  letting themselves in for. A certain suspension of disbelief was necessary in order for the story to work, though.

Most of the way through, I was wondering how on earth this was going to end and how Alice and Jake could possibly extricate themselves from the nightmare they'd stumbled into. Safe to say, the ending was unexpected. Satisfying? I'm still not sure, but it's hard to come up with an alternative.

All in all a compelling read with, ultimately, some interesting things to say about love and marriage.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

They All Fall Down by Tammy Cohen - Review

I've only recently discovered Tammy aka Tamar Cohen, but she has rapidly become one of my must-read authors - you know, one of those who immediately has you seeking out their entire back catalogue for a spot of binge-reading - so I was excited to get my hands on her latest.

They All Fall Down is set in a private women-only psychiatric clinic, The Meadows - clearly fertile ground for psychological intrigue. The central character, Hannah, is being treated following a deeply traumatic incident, the details of which are only gradually revealed. All we initially know is - ominously - that there's a baby involved. We also see events from the perspective of Hannah's mother Corinne, and Laura, one of the therapists at the clinic. Following two recent suicides, Hannah has become convinced a murderer is on the loose. But how reliable are her perceptions? And just who is tormenting her with reminders of what she has lost? Suspects abound, both within and without The Meadows.

The plot is very cleverly put together and while it's obvious there is more to certain characters than meets the eye, the ending came as quite a surprise. While I'm not sure if I would class this among Tammy's very best, it's definitely a compelling and highly enjoyable read with many intriguing and well drawn characters, including one truly heinous individual - but will you guess who that is?

With a psychiatric clinic as the setting and many characters having mental disorders of various types, there is plenty of scope here for getting things wrong, but in fact the subject is sensitively handled.

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sunday Best: Review of Sunday Morning Coming Down by Nicci French

 Sunday Morning Coming Down  is the seventh book in a series which started with Blue Monday and progressed through the days of the week all the way to Sunday. Probably because I hadn't read the blurb properly, I'd assumed this would be the final book in the series and would tie up the overarching plot. Clearly this is not the case, but having now exhausted the days of the week I wonder what the next book will be called?

Anyway, I've read most but not all of the previous books; I haven't yet read the Saturday instalment, which was a slight disadvantage but not much of one. It does help if you've read the others, particularly with regard to the ongoing Dean Reeve storyline, but I imagine a new reader could enjoy the book without that background knowledge.

The main protagonist, as in the previous ones, is Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist (with a name like that, she could hardly have chosen any other career path). Frieda has more than a passing acquaintance with murder. Here, the first body appears right at the start - under her floorboards, in fact - and things don't get any easier thereafter. Someone is targeting Frieda's friends and allies - but is it Dean Reeve or someone else?

I really enjoyed this - tightly plotted and a gripping read. Even though I've never somehow managed to fully engage with the character of Frieda, all the characters are well drawn (I particularly like Josef the Ukrainian builder). The sinister Reeve remains a lurking presence throughout.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy. Looking forward to the next instalment!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Good As You: From Prejudice to Pride by Paul Flynn

Paul Flynn's gallop through thirty years of gay (male) life in Britain is hugely entertaining. It's a largely personal account of social and cultural changes , beginning with his experiences growing up in 80s Manchester and ranging through various aspects of the subsequent decades of increasing, if still far from total, acceptance. Jimmy Somerville, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Clause 28, Chris Smith MP, Terrence Higgins, Colin and Barry on Eastenders, Peter Tatchell, Out on Tuesday, Kylie, Brian Dowling on Big Brother, Attitude magazine,  Justin Fashanu, Robbie Rogers, Elton John and David Furnish... all this and much more. Like Paul, I was an 80s kid in the Manchester area (though I'm a couple of years older) and there was a lot here I could relate to and some things I'd completely forgotten....

The book's subtitled "30 years of gay Britain"' but really it should be 30 years of gay men in Britain, because women are few and far between in these pages (Kylie notwithstanding) and lesbians are even fewer. For instance we get a fair bit on Eastenders' Colin and Barry but nothing at all on Brookside's equally significant Beth/Margaret kiss. That's understandable - the author is a gay man and writing about his own perspective and experiences. But the cover could make it clearer that the book is very much about the gay male experience rather than any other letters in the LGBTQIA alphabet soup.

I did enjoy Paul Flynn's style of writing, though there are a few odd turns of phrase and word choices. ("Having exempted himself from the admonishment of the closet...."). Then again - he's a successful journalist and I'm not.

All in all I found this a great read packed with observations, interviews and touching/thought-provoking anecdotes, which brought back many memories and provides further compelling evidence, should it be needed, that "gay" is indeed as "Good As You".