Sunday, 15 October 2017

Her Last Secret by Barbara Copperthwaite: Review

A lifetime can flash by in a moment. A moment can last a lifetime.

Her Last Secret opens on Christmas morning in an affluent residential area of London. Shockingly, gunshots have been heard from number fifteen Burgh Road, the home of Benjamin and Dominique Thomas and their two daughters, Ruby and Amber. Clearly, something terrible has happened, but what - and who could be capable of it? As police officers cautiously approach the house, the narrative moves back eight days to follow the Thomas family in the period leading up to the events.

The father of the family, Benjamin, is arrogant and status-oriented, focused on impressing others with the success and material trappings (the Rolex, the Mercedes...) of an alpha male. He's not yet living the lifestyle to which he feels entitled, though  - after all, he only has one Mercedes. But Benjamin's bombastic exterior hides some deep insecurities - and a ticking time bomb of a secret which could bring it all crashing down.

Meanwhile his under pressure wife Dominique, feeling increasingly isolated from her husband and despised by her elder daughter, fears the resurgence of a frightening problem from her past. Dominique is often referred to as a doormat, letting her husband get away with far too much. But what would it take for her to finally snap?

Troubled fifteen-year-old Ruby has more going on in her life than her parents have any idea of. They predictably disapprove of her council-estate-dwelling boyfriend Harry, but have no notion of the true scale of Ruby's problems and in quite how dark a direction her thoughts are heading.

Then there's eight-year-old Amber, known as Mouse due to her quiet nature and tendency to hide in corners reading. (Like a mouse - only without the reading.) The most obviously innocent, lovable and vulnerable member of the family, it's Mouse we fear for most, even as she escapes into her own fantasy world where everyone is finally happy.

On the fringes of this not-so-happy family are Ruby's boyfriend Harry, Dominique's oldest friend Fiona, Benjamin's business partner Jazmine, and a frankly idiotic young woman named Kendra.

Interspersed with this narrative are snippets of the police cautiously approaching and entering the house. It's an effective technique which builds a sense of mounting tension for the reader about what they are going to find. As the officers move further through the house, the nature and scale of the disaster is gradually revealed... Or is it?

Her Last Secret (as a Sherlock fan, the title recalls His Last Vow - whether intentionally or not, I'm not sure) is a very gripping and enjoyable read. There are a few awkward turns of phrase ("her fellow peers") but generally the writing flows naturally. The characterisation is very well done and I particularly enjoyed, if that's the right word, the strand of the plot following Ruby and Harry. The tension becomes almost unbearable at times, and as the story reaches its culmination there are some genuinely emotional, even heartbreaking moments.

This is the first book I have read by Barbara Copperthwaite and on the strength of this I will certainly seek out her others. Recommended.

Review also published on NetGalley. Many thanks to the publishers for the opportunity to read and review.

Barbara  Copperthwaite is the author of four psychological crime novels, of which Her Last Secret is the most recent. She has worked as a journalist on national newspapers and magazines.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Trans Mission by Alex Bertie: Review

Apparently Alex Bertie is well-known via YouTube - I'm fairly old, so this doesn't mean a great deal to me, and I hadn't watched any of his videos prior to reading Trans Mission (great title, by the way). Although I hadn't heard of Alex before, the book - largely a lively personal account of his life so far - sounded intriguing and I was happy to be given the opportunity to read and review.

Alex is still a very young man - 22, I think - but he has no shortage of experience to write about, as Alex is transgender, having been designated female at birth. The book recounts his journey through realising he was trans, coming out and undergoing hormone therapy and surgery as well as the effect on his relationships with family, friends and partners. (His Nan's reaction, in the form of a letter, is truly beautiful.) He also discusses some general issues about gender identity and issues for trans people, particularly those who are FTM (female to male).

Although there is much more awareness nowadays that some people are transgender, Alex's voice, as a transgender man, is one that is not all that commonly heard, and this is an important book in that respect.

Alex tells his story candidly and comes across as likeable and engaging. He acknowledges that his experiences are his own and not all transgender people will have the same experiences, but nevertheless I think many people (trans and otherwise) will relate to aspects of his story. The bullying he faced at school is heartbreaking to read.

I suspect "trans issues" are more high profile now than they have ever been and many people on all sides have some strong views. Alex is not afraid to engage with difficult and thorny issues and his opinions always come across as rational and considered. (He's often quite funny, as well.) It's clear that his high profile as a trans person, through his YouTube channel, is something of a mixed blessing as it makes it much harder for him to fly under the radar on occasions when he might want to do that.

 The section written by his Mum, Michelle, describing how things were from her perspective, is fascinating and invaluable, highlighting the mixed emotions of a parent faced with a situation few parents would expect.

Ultimately this is an interesting and enlightening read from a young man who seems intelligent, insightful and very resilient. I might even go and watch some of his YouTube videos...

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Foster Child by Jenny Blackhurst: Review

Is Ellie a monster... or a victim?

Imogen and her husband Dan have just moved back to her childhood home, a place of which she does not have fond memories, her family life having been not exactly idyllic. Imogen has secured a new job facilitating mental health support for children in schools, after her previous job in the private sector came to a disastrous end (the details of which are only gradually revealed).

Eleven-year-old Ellie, who attends the local school, is in foster care after her whole family died in a house fire. Ellie is an understandably deeply troubled young girl, but is she also something rather more sinister? Alarming things do rather seem to happen when she’s around…

This was a very intriguing and addictive read which effectively creates a growing sense of unease. I’m not really a fan of the “creepy child” trope beloved of certain Hollywood films, but while some of the people around her certainly see Ellie that way (the references to Stephen King’s Carrie are no coincidence), there’s enough doubt to keep things interesting. Should we be afraid of Ellie… or afraid for her? Who, if anyone, is really on her side?

It’s also an effective portrayal of a certain kind of mob mentality and the willingness of some people to point the finger at anyone who appears strange and different – even when that person is a vulnerable, very young girl. For this reason some parts of the book make painful reading, though there is enough nuance here that we can also, mostly, see things from all sides.

The plot is very cleverly constructed and effectively keeps the reader on the back foot, unsure of what is really going on.

The story was not necessarily what I expected – the “supernatural” element does add an unusual dimension, and this might not be for everyone. However I enjoyed it very much, right up to the end which unfortunately did not really work for me and while I can understand why the author chose to do it in this way, I’d prefer it if she hadn’t as it's a type of ending I dislike. Can’t say more without spoilers! While the “twist” was cleverly done, I did also feel there were a couple of unanswered questions. For these reasons I give the book four stars rather than five.

Overall though an excellent read with characters who really do get under your skin.

Jenny Blackhurst has written three novels: How I Lost You, Before I Let You In, and The Foster Child. She lives in Shropshire.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister: Review

Two roads diverge....

Thirty-year-old Joanna is somewhat disorganised, even shambolic, inclined to avoid rather than confront difficulties; not really sure what she wants to do with her life; never quite feeling like a Proper Person. Still, her life seems good - happily married to the socially-conscious Reuben, with good friends and a steady job, even if she's never quite measured up to the promise of her schooldays (or the expectations of her parents).

Then something happens while she's walking home from a night out. A split second, a terrible misjudgement which spells disaster - but it's what Joanna does in the immediate aftermath which will determine the path of her life from that moment on. To reveal - or to conceal? Own up and face the consequences - or flee and hide? Both possible paths, with their repercussions for both Joanna and those around her, are dissected in alternate chapters.

It's an original and challenging method of telling a story - two stories, even - and it is so well written and cleverly done that it works really well. I never felt confused about which version of "reality" I was reading. The differences and also similarities between the two timelines are fascinating to observe, not only for Joanna and her husband, friends, colleagues, brother - but also for the victim, who is simultaneously at the centre of everything yet still somehow outside, and his family.

Through the parallel timelines, we witness on the one hand a frightening and confusing journey through the legal system; and on the other, a depiction of the corrosive effects of persistent guilt, silence and concealment. Most of all this is a sensitive and nuanced character portrait and analysis of personal consequences.

There's also a very real sense of "this could happen to any of us", and I imagine most readers will at some point ask themselves the question: what might I do in a moment of sheer panic? And what might be the consequences of that?

Anything You Do Say is an enthralling and thought-provoking read which is destined to be very successful.

This review was previously posted on NetGalley. Thanks to the publishers for the opportunity to read and review