Book Review: Nemesister

Nemesister, by Sophie Jonas-Hill, is the first book in a proposed series of American Gothic thrillers. The story opens in a remote and run-down lodge hidden within the swamps of Louisiana. The protagonist is a young woman who arrives at this place badly injured, with no recollection of who she is or why she is here. In her hand is a gun, in her pocket a leaflet. She can find no other clues to her identity.

As she stumbles into the damp-ridden shack a man appears who introduces himself to her as Red. She is terrified of him but has no idea why. Red offers her water and then a bed on the couch. When she wakes from exhausted sleep he has tended to her wounds. Despite these efforts the woman remains wary. With injured feet and no means of transport she has little choice but to stay. Red tells her that his truck requires attention, that once mended he will take her to the nearest town as she has requested.

Over the course of the following twenty-four hours Red tells the woman about himself. He was a soldier, had a wife, and is at the shack to meet his brother for a spot of fishing. He is not always consistent in what he says. The woman feels a strong urge to escape but when unknown assailants fire shots at the house, the doors are locked and the key pocketed by Red.

The woman’s memory returns gradually with brief flashbacks to scenes that as yet make little sense. It is unclear if she is remembering what happened to her or to others, and who those others are to her. Within the shack are clues, but the more she uncovers the less she understands. Then what happened to her sister returns.

From the first page the tale unsettles. Despite the unremitting tension it takes some time before the flashbacks coalesce and characters gain form and context, enabling greater reader engagement. From here the pace picks up as backstories are presented and woven together. The drip-fed details now make disturbing sense.

The writing is taut and polished. Each of the cast’s true motives keep the reader guessing to the end. Dark and disquieting throughout, this is an intense, compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

Book Review: Exquisite

Exquisite, by Sarah Stovell, is a deliciously disturbing psychological thriller centring around two women. It employs familiar tropes such as troubled childhoods, the unreliable narrator, and an ill advised affair. Yet it rises, indeed it soars, with a use of language that matches the title. Beneath the beauty of the descriptions, the subtlety of the prose, an undercurrent of menace pervades every twist in the tale.

Bo Luxton is an established author of best selling books. She is married to Gus, twenty-two years her senior and retired from his successful city career. They have two young daughters and live in a beautiful house near Grasmere in the Lake District. Bo has worked diligently to achieve this settled life after a difficult childhood from which she ran away when she was fifteen years old.

Alice Dark is a twenty-five year old English graduate whose life has stalled. She is living in a damp and dreary bedsit, or at her boyfriend’s equally squalid shared house, in Brighton. When she is accepted onto a residential creative writing course in Northumberland, to be run by the famous author Bo Luxton, she is inspired to seek change.

Bo likes to take waifs and strays under her wing. She sees something of her younger self in Alice who spent part of her childhood in care and whose latent talent Bo now wishes to nurture. With the older woman’s encouragement, Alice starts to believe she could write the book she has dreamed of creating.

Bo and Alice form a connection on the writing course which they continue to develop via email when they return to their respective homes. Then Bo invites Alice to visit her in Grasmere. Gus is wary of their burgeoning friendship and voices his concerns but to no avail. Bo tells Alice he becomes jealous when she offers her loving care to anyone but him.

Each section of the book opens with an update from a woman serving time in prison. The reader knows that the story being told is leading to this. The subsequent short chapters are written from either Alice or Bo’s point of view. Overlaps create doubt as to whose version may be complete and true.

The tension builds as the protagonists find themselves backed into corners. The final page provides a memorable end to what is a satisfying, chilling denouement.

A tightly constructed, beautifully written, impressively unsettling psychological thriller. For fans of the genre this is a must read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the Exquisite Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Exquisite is published by Orenda Books and will be available to buy from 15 June 2017.

Book Review: The Stolen Child

The Stolen Child, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s second psychological thriller. Much as I enjoyed her first, Bone by Bone (which I review here), in this latest work she has upped her game. An underlying darkness pervades every page. I needed to know what happened next but at times had to pause, so acute was the tension.

The protagonist is Zoe Morley, an artist and mother of two. Seven year old Evie was adopted as a baby; two year old Ben was a delightful surprise for a couple who had given up hope of birthing a healthy child themselves. Zoe’s husband, Ollie, is a hard working accountant. The long hours he puts in at the office in order to provide for his family are resented by Zoe who struggles with the demands of parenting alongside her desire to further her artistic career. She feels that Ollie does not take her work seriously as it yields little additional income for the family’s material needs.

When Zoe discovers that Evie has received cards and presents from someone claiming to be her real daddy she is concerned and aggrieved that Ollie will not offer her the comfort and support she craves. He is angry but does not share her feelings that their position in their daughter’s life is threatened.

Zoe’s attention is fragmented between her work, a demanding toddler, and a daughter who is starting to question her place in their family unit. Zoe is also dealing with the distraction of another artist, a sculptor named Harris, who pays her flattering attention and supports her work.

In the small town where they live Zoe has plenty of options for childcare. Evie and Ben are regularly looked after by professionals, friends and babysitters, giving Zoe time to walk the moors for inspiration and then to paint. She trusts these people with her children, until her world is turned upside down and inside out when Evie disappears. Suddenly everyone she knows, including Ollie, is under suspicion.

As the police investigate, personal secrets threaten to derail trusted relationships. Zoe’s devastation at her loss is compounded by feelings of guilt and anger at her husband for not being more present. As days pass and progress appears to stall in the search for her daughter, she takes matters into her own hands.

The writing is taut and visceral. I did not warm to Zoe but empathised fully with her pain. The events related tear many lives apart, not least the children’s. Trust is shown to be such a fragile thing.

This is an emotive and disturbing tale presented with compassion and skill. A thriller with soul and depth that I recommend you read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.

Book Review: Gone Without A Trace

Gone Without A Trace, by Mary Torjussen, is a psychological thriller that takes a while to get going but ends up packing an almighty punch. Set in and around the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England, its protagonist is a young and ambitious professional woman, Hannah, who lives with her boyfriend, Matt, and socialises with a group of similarly minded friends. She is closest to Katie who she has known since childhood. They have a competitive relationship, likening themselves to the sisters neither of them have.

When the book opens Hannah is returning from a training course in Oxford where she has been commended by her employers for her recent performance and told to expect the promotion she has been working towards for some time. Happy and excited she is eager to share this news with Matt, picking up champagne on her way home to enable them to celebrate. After a long drive she opens their front door and immediately realises something is wrong. Every trace of Matt’s occupation has been removed. She has been left no explanation.

What follows is shock, distress, despair and then determination. Hannah discovers that Matt’s phone number is no longer available. He has left his job and removed himself from all social media. He has not just left her but also disappeared. She can find no one who knows where he has gone.

Hannah will not give up. She sets out to track Matt down, believing if she can talk to him he will want to return. Her work suffers and her friends worry but she refuses to be deterred. When she starts to receive texts from unknown numbers and realises that someone has been in her house when she is not there, she believes Matt is behind the intrusion and will not be persuaded otherwise.

I couldn’t empathise with this Hannah. For a successful, professional woman she seemed blinkered and irritatingly unable to face reality. She did not seek time off work despite recognising her performance was now well below par. I struggled to push through this section of the book.

The shocking explanation, when it eventually came, made sense of most of what had gone before. The pace picked up, the tension rose and the denouement was impressively constructed with a chilling finish.

Narrated in the first person, this was not a comfortable read but explores interesting topics. Before knowing why, Hannah’s dogged determination to find Matt and the personal cost she seemed willing to pay came close to making me set the book aside. I am glad that I persevered.

I am somewhat reluctant to recommend a book that I struggled with in part, yet the ending made the reading worthwhile. There are complex issues to ponder, not least how much support friends can be expected to offer. Once understood, Hannah is a fascinating creation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: An Honest Deceit

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An Honest Deceit, by Guy Mankowski, is a psychological thriller with a theme of domestic noir. It is written in a language that is almost poetic so vivid is the imagery and emotion conjured. It tells a story that had my heart racing and my anger growing as the protagonist battles a corrupt system which is hiding behind due process, determined to protect its own.

Ben and Juliette have worked hard to provide a home for themselves and their two children, Marine and Christian. They met at university where Ben was encouraged to ask Juliette out by his best friend, Philip. Ben subsequently becomes a teacher, a job he enjoys. Philip makes his name as a stand-up comic and moves to a modern flat nearby the couple.

When Marine dies whilst on a school trip their world is blown apart. They are told it was a tragic accident, but the reactions of a few key staff at Marine’s school plant seeds of doubt. Juliette wishes to mourn and move on. Ben determines to fight for the truth. In the process he discovers that this may cost him his job and thereby their home.

Philip uses his contacts to raise public awareness as Ben battles to keep investigations into his daughter’s death open. A new headmaster appears to hold all the cards and resents what he regards as the unnecessary expense of detailed enquiries, and the adverse publicity this can cause. The confrontations that ensue threaten not just Ben’s job but his remaining family. He must dig deep to find the resolve to go on.

The pain of losing a child is unimaginable. The rawness of this hurt is sensitively portrayed yet does not overwhelm the tight progression of the plot. Ben’s choice to grow and then draw on public support makes him enemies who could prevent him ever working again. Juliette questions his loyalty and motives.

This book has a potent depth – it is rare for me to feel so emotionally invested in a story. An impressive and absorbing read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

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Book Review: I Let You Go

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I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh, is a twisty, turny psychological thriller that will keep the reader guessing right up to the chilling last page. It starts with a fatal hit and run on a rain soaked residential street in Bristol. Unable to face what has happened, Jenna Gray leaves her home to try to make a fresh start in a remote cottage in South Wales. Here she finds kindly locals who, although curious about her past, allow her the space to keep her secrets. She discovers that secrets can be difficult to escape.

Back in Bristol Detective Inspector Ray Stevens is trying to trace the driver of the hit and run. He has few leads. Kate Evans, a capable Detective Constable on his team, is determined not to let the case rest. Ray admires her tenacity, but finds himself drawn to her in other ways. With his home life making greater demands than he feels able to give, he turns to Kate for relief.

In Jenna’s past is a husband, Ian, who she met whilst at university. The details of their relationship are disquieting to read.

The story is expertly crafted. There are moments when what had seemed clear gets turned on its head. The sense of foreboding oozes as clues are offered and direction changes. Even as threads start to come together the tension remains.

This is a standout addition to a crowded genre. I read the book in a sitting as I had to know what would come next. The characters are well rounded, the subject at the book’s heart disturbingly believeable. A recommended read.

Book Review: Dark Fragments

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Dark Fragments, by Rob Sinclair, is the first standalone thriller written by the author of the popular ‘Enemy’ trilogy. It introduces a protagonist who at first appears to be a standard issue male. He has macho tendencies but displays many weaknesses. He has suffered personal tragedy for which it is hard not to feel sympathy. Somehow he has become indebted to a barbarous crook. His attempts to extricate himself further complicate his life which is slowly falling apart.

Ben Stephens loves his family. His beautiful wife is a good mother to their two children. The elder child’s birth mother was Ben’s first wife who was murdered in the couple’s bed seven years ago. Since that event Ben has struggled. Not only does he owe a serious amount of money but his potentially high flying career has stalled and now his second marriage is faltering. He appears craven, needing others to validate his existence. He blames everyone but himself for his position, justifying each ill-advised move he makes as necessary at the time due to the unfair manner in which he was being treated.

It becomes clear that Ben is possessive and seemingly incapable of shouldering responsibility. He is resentful of other’s successes believing himself more capable, more deserving and with better taste. Although arrogant, arrogance in others angers him. He allows perceived slights to fester.

Ben has a twin sister who he has neither seen nor spoken to in four years. He believes that she was favoured by their parents and blames her for their apparent inability to recognise and celebrate his potential. When she appears on his doorstep with an offer to help with Ben’s current dilemmas he suspects an ulterior motive.

Ben is trying to solve his problems by taking matters into his own hands. His actions draw the attention of the police. When the women in his life try to reason with him their words do not register. Always the focus must be on him. He begrudges their personal concerns when he needs their support, despite having put them in danger. When asked why he acts so foolishly he always replies:

“It’s hard to explain”

To which his sister retorts

“No, it’s not. What’s difficult is you getting over yourself.”

Ben feels hard done by when he is treated with contempt. He is angry and revengeful. His narcissism builds to a disturbing crescendo leading to an explosive denouement.

There is a chilling slow build with an expertly crafted unreliable narrator. Interspersed with the chapters written from Ben’s point of view are a conversation with what appears to be a therapist. She is being told a version of the truth, and Ben’s history is revealed.

I moved from sympathy to irritation to horror as the story progressed. This is a tale that may disturb, but is ultimately a clever and satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.