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

An_honest_deceit_cover.indd

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.

Urbane-Publications-logo

Book Review: I Let You Go

letyougo

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

darkfragments

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.

Book Review: The Bird Tribunal

the-bird-tribunal-a_w-v4

The Bird Tribunal, by Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger), is a psychological thriller set on the edge of a remote fjord in Norway. The two main characters, Sigurd Bagge and Allis Hagtorn, each have secrets they are struggling to escape. They seek solace in seclusion, hoping for eventual redemption. Their pasts hover over and haunt each action they take.

Sigurd lives alone in the traditional wooden villa where he has spent his entire life. Allis arrives to take up an advertised position helping to bring order to his neglected garden. She prepares his meals and carries out simple housekeeping tasks. He tells her that his wife, Nor, is away, giving no indication when she will return. Despite their proximity he maintains a distant, steely silence. He gives instructions but shares little else.

Allis has run away from a scandal and initially finds the solitude of her new position a balm. She is content with the detachment her employer insists on, but over time curiosity and loneliness make her long for a greater connection. She works hard at the tasks assigned to her, learning as she goes along. Eventually she becomes frustrated at Sigurd’s refusal to share anything of himself.

As if realising she may leave him, Sigurd starts to share wine, time and, eventually, conversation. Fuelled by alcohol and darkness they reveal aspects of their pasts. Morning often as not brings regrets although rarely acknowledged. The advance and retreat of Sigmund’s willingness to share further vexes Allis, as does her awkwardness in his presence.

There remains a brittleness in their relationship that fractures under the slightest pressure. I wondered at the characters, their desolation and potential for psychosis.

The short, precise chapters weave a web of foreboding from the off. Each plot thread offers further detail whilst in the dark corners lurk unseen threats. As Allis tiptoes around the taciturn Sigurd there is the sense of an ominous reveal biding its time. The journey thrums with unease as it spirals towards a menacing denouement.

The setting is used to great effect as are the seasons. Locked rooms in the house are opened, the forest is both a blanket from the world and a threat. Allis is given use of many of Nor’s possessions. Although absent, her presence is felt.

I ponder still who was the spider and who the fly. This tale left me chilled, but in the best possible way. The author has taken familiar activities and shrouded them in intrigue. This is a captivating, atmospheric read.

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

This review is a stop on The Bird Tribunal Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

bird-tribunal-blog-tour-poster

The Bird Tribunal is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now. 

image001

Book Review: Undertow

undertow

Undertow, by Elizabeth Heathcote, is a psychological thriller with an intriguing synopsis, a gripping opening chapter, an acceptable enough denouement, but a plot and character development that just didn’t do it for me. The manner in which the protagonist acted too often lacked plausibility, as did the reaction she encountered from certain minor characters. I struggled to maintain engagement.

Carmen is married to Tom. They both have a history. Prior to meeting her husband, Carmen had been with Nick for fifteen years. Shortly after they split up, due to Nick’s unfaithfulness, the struggling actor got his big break and is now living the celebrity lifestyle in LA. Tom’s background is a part of his and Carmen’s everyday life. He has regular contact with his three children from a twelve year marriage to Laura. However, it is not Laura and the children who his latest wife has difficulty dealing with but the memory of Zena, a beautiful young woman Tom had an affair with, who he left his family for, and who subsequently died in a drowning accident close to their coastal holiday home.

Carmen and Tom had told each other of their pasts when they met. Their romance led to marriage within months and they are trying for a baby. It is only when Carmen starts to learn of the circumstances surrounding Zena’s death that she becomes aware there is much Tom has not shared. He has not, for instance, told her that he was supected of causing his lover’s death.

Carmen is a freelance journalist struggling to find work so her desire to dig out the facts and her doggedness in approaching those who may have known Zena can be explained. What I struggled with was marrying this side of her character with the prevarications she displayed. I perceived too many contradictions in aspects of her behaviour.

Carmen did not wish to believe that Tom could be a murderer as it would shatter the illusions she had created of their happy life together. She was, however, aware that he had a temper that could lead to violence. Her drug addict step brother, Kieran, was with them when Tom attacked a man and left him for dead on a night out. Kieran has, understandably, disliked Tom since.

Carmen cold calls strangers and asks them about Zena. She approaches the victim support officer at the police station which dealt with Zena’s death. I was surprised at how open these strangers were to Carmen’s questions. She pieces together much of what happened the evening Zena went missing. She also meets the woman who found the body washed up on the beach several days later, a neighbour at the holiday home which Tom still owns.

It all slotted together and provided a plot that twisted and turned. For me though it lacked clarity and depth. I was hunting for excuses as to how Carmen could realistically behave in one way and then another. For example:

  • Would a young, professional journalist really not know how to clear the browsing history on a computer? Such a device is an important tool of their trade.
  • She was suspicious enough of Tom to actively investigate his past. I find it hard to comprehend that a woman in love would consider her husband capable of murder, and remain with him if she did.
  • She must have realised it was foolish to let Nick stay the night. Tom had proven himself devious in his previous marriage so would understand how affairs happen. He has also demonstrated violent jealousy, and she still suspects him culpable in Zena’s death.

Laura appeared largely believable until the penultimate events, which struck me as at odds to what had gone before. Tom’s character was more comprehensible. It was, however, Carmen whose varied thoughts and actions I struggled to align.

In writing any negative review I feel I am being harsh on the author. No reader is going to enjoy every book they read. I have tried to explain my reaction in the hope that it will prove useful to future readers. This is not a book I can recommend.

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

Book Review: The Couple Next Door

couplenextdoor

The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena, is a psychological thriller that explores every parent’s worst nightmare – the abduction of a child. This is no ordinary abduction though, if such a thing can be possible. Six month old Cora has been taken from her crib while she slept in the tastefully decorated nursery of her parent’s upstate New York home. She has been taken in the middle of the night when she was home alone.

Her parents, Anne and Marco, had not intended to leave their baby girl alone when they agreed to attend their next door neighbours’ birthday dinner party. A sitter had been booked but then she cancelled just an hour before the event. The childless couple next door had clearly stated that this was to be an evening for adult’s only. They could hear how much Cora cried through the shared wall and had no intention of allowing this difficult to settle baby to disrupt their plans.

Marco, keen to enjoy an evening out, persuaded Anne that they should still attend. They took with them their baby monitor and popped home every half hour to ensure Cora was fine. When they eventually returned in the wee small hours, drunk on wine and irritated by each other’s behaviour, they found their front door ajar and their daughter gone.

The prose has a dispassionate quality that enables the reader to discern each of the main characters thought processes. There is the mother, heaping guilt on herself for her post partum depression, for not appreciating the perfect baby she has been gifted, for allowing her husband to persuade her to go out when she knew it was wrong. There is the father, shocked and numbed, fearful of the impact this is having on his fragile wife and their relationship, aware that the police investigation will bring to light financial troubles he has not divulged. There is the lead detective, meticulously carrying out his investigations, aware that in cases like these the parents are most often to blame, determined to uncover how and why.

Anne has wealthy parents and hopes that Cora has been kidnapped for a ransom. As the days pass and the media circus outside their home condemns them for leaving an infant whilst they partied, the police begin to believe the worst. There are possible motives – Anne’s mental history, Marcus’s financial distress – but leads are scarce. The detective digs deeper in an attempt to uncover the truth and loses the trust of the family. They decide to take matters into their own hands.

A good thriller will keep the reader hooked, offering clues but hiding the big reveal until the end. As the denouement approached and the threads came together I couldn’t read fast enough. I had not anticipated those final twists in the tale.

It is terrifying to consider how an ordinary life can be picked apart. Seemingly innocuous details were construed to imply guilt, secrets unearthed and their importance inflated. The shock and stress of the unrolling events are finely depicted. The analysis of a relationship will always bring to light flaws.

A tense and taut tale, cleverly constructed. The quality of the writing offers enough originality to make it worth selecting from a crowded genre. I finished this in a sitting and felt sated. A fast moving and enjoyable read.

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

Book Review: In Her Wake

In Her Wake HBcover copy 2

In Her Wake, by Amanda Jennings, is a psychological thriller that crosses genres into literary and women’s fiction. If, like me, you dislike pigeon holing books then this is a good example of why doing so can limit the potential outreach of what is a great read. It has well developed, believable characters and a plot that has breadth and depth. The tension required for a thriller is there in spades but this is also a story about people and the importance of family. It will leave the reader pondering well beyond the final page.

The protagonist is Bella, a compliant young librarian married to an older man who wants them to have a baby. Her husband likes to look after her. His need to control every aspect of her life appears creepy but Bella’s acceptance of it becomes more understandable when the details of her childhood are revealed.

Bella was sheltered from the outside world by her devoted if neurotic mother. She was home schooled, rarely permitted to leave their home where doors were triple bolted and curtains remained drawn. Links with the outside world were strictly limited; television was forbidden. Bella’s father, a doctor, was a kind but distant parent whose main concern was protecting his wife from the upsets which caused her to self harm.

The story opens with Bella’s return to the family home for her mother’s funeral. Her father has something he needs to tell her but cannot find the words. Following his death Bella finds a letter revealing that their close family unit was a sham. Twenty-five years ago her parents committed a heinous crime, the consequences of which led to their need to raise her as they did.

Bella is grieving, not just for the parents she now feels she did not know, but for the person she could have been if they had not acted as they did. She travels to Cornwall to confront her past, to try to reclaim what was stolen from her.

Life is rarely simple; people are never solely good or bad. Throughout her secluded childhood Bella was surrounded by love. So long as she remained compliant her parents and then her husband provided for her every need. Now she discovers the harsher realities of what could have been. Her life of ease, albeit in a gilded cage, came at a terrible cost both to those who were given no choice and to those who were complicit.

The opening chapters of this tale were pacy and powerful. I then felt some impatience with subsequent chapters in the first third of the book as they did not quickly satisfy my desire to find out what would happen next. It was necessary to understand the nuances of Bella’s life up to this point. The descriptions of place beautifully evoked the majesty and danger of the Cornish landscape which became an integral part of the story. I was still relieved when the pace picked up. It did not then relent until the well executed denouement tied up the many threads.

The narrative probes the meaning of family and how expectations of the roles within it shape character and relationships. It is also about the complexity of love. What an individual is attracted to in another may not be what the loved one wishes to be themselves.

I enjoyed Bella’s development but, for me, Dawn was the hero. The contrast between the experiences of these two young women offers an interesting exploration into the importance of nature vs nurture.

A well written book with a multi layered plot populated by believable characters. This was an enjoyable and satisfying read.

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

3P6A0204  In Her Wake Blog tour

This review is the penultimate stop on the In Her Wake blog tour. Do check out the other posts in the tour, detailed above.

This coming weekend, Amanda will be a featured author at Newcastle Noir.

Book Review: Different Class

DIFFERENT-CLASS-HIGH-RES

Different Class, by Joanne Harris, is the third book in a series of psychological thrillers by the author, each set in the fictional Yorkshire town of Malbry. I have not read the first two books so approached this one standalone. This did not detract from my enjoyment although has made me eager to pick up the prequels. There are numerous references to past events of which I would like to know more.

The story is set in an old and venerable fee paying school, St Oswald’s, which has been rocked by scandal. The elderly Latin master, Roy Straitley, arrives for the start of a new academic year curious to meet the recently appointed headteacher. He has seen several heads come and go during his thirty-four year tenure at the school, which he himself attended as a boy. Despite the difficulties of the previous year he believes that the institution can once again rise and wishes to ensure it does so without losing that which has made it what it is.

The new headmaster arrives with his sharp suit, his Crisis Intervention Team, plans for restructuring, IT and paperless administration. Alongside this leap into the future he brings a whiff of the past which Straitley balks at as much as the proposed changes. The new head is also an old boy, one who Straitley taught and who was complicit in sending a master and friend to jail. Neither head nor teacher holds the other and their ways of working in high regard.

The plot unfolds along two major timelines, 1981 and 2005. The earlier includes diary entries written by a boy newly arrived at the school and with obvious issues. Both timelines include first person accounts by Straitley. He is a traditionalist who cares deeply for his pupils, especially his Brodie Boys, favourites because of their initiative which manifests itself as minor rebellion. It is interesting to look at the school through these two sets of eyes, pupil and master. The reader can easily empathise with the challenges faced by both.

The diary entries emanate menace. The writer addresses an erstwhile friend, Mousey, and appears preoccupied by death. He enjoys watching animals suffer. His family are members of a strict church and insist he adheres to their skewed interpretation of godliness. They are outwardly successful and will not permit him to befriend those of a different class.

The diary writer makes two friends, also new boys at the school, and they are drawn towards a hip, young teacher who plays them music that would be banned in their homes. Their parents wish to protect their malleable young minds from corrupting influences, whilst filling them with their own narrow beliefs.

Although the school has a system of pastoral care it is Straitley who pupils approach for advice as he does not judge based on the Christian ethos promoted within the school. Straitley is not, however, without his personal prejudices. In the later timeline he is also constrained by the changing official views on what is acceptable behaviour for a master. This made for fascinating reading, how the old system was more effective than the strictures apparent now, yet how much damage could thereby pass unseen.

It is clear from the off that bad things are going to happen but, as with the best thrillers, the plot twists and turns offering the reader clues that will prove significant but not as expected. The provenance of key characters is revealed gradually with possible outcomes remaining shrouded, palpably sinister.

The denouement ties up the many threads yet leaves much to consider, not least the purpose of punishment. There is poignancy and frustration at young lives damaged. None of the characters emerges unscathed.

I read this book in a sitting as I could not put it down. It is brooding, complex, utterly compelling. Put simply, a fantastic read.

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

Book Review: Daisy In Chains

daisyinchains

Daisy In Chains, by Sharon Bolton, is a psychological thriller that grabs the reader’s attention from the off and doesn’t let go. The tension and sense of foreboding that permeates each page make it hard to put down. This is a book that will demand you read just one more of the short chapters until the end.

The protagonist, Maggie Rose, is a true crime writer and lawyer who has made her name overturning the convictions of murderers. She takes on few cases as she is only interested in those she is convinced she can win. When she is approached by supporters of Hamish Wolfe, a handsome doctor serving a life term for the murder of three young women, she is reluctant to engage as she can see no immediate flaws in his conviction. This is unacceptable to his fan club. Apparently it is a thing that felons acquire fans who adore them and care little for what they have done to warrant incarceration.

Maggie shows no desire to take on the Wolfe appeal but is intrigued by the web surrounding the man. She is befriended by the policeman who led the investigation into his crimes, whose career could be at stake if she were to become involved. His concern for her welfare, especially when Wolfe’s supporters find out where she lives, starts to penetrate her carefully cultivated reserve.

Throughout the telling of the tale clues are given which made me think I knew where the plot was heading only to discover that while I may have guessed correctly this was simply another thread leading elsewhere. The twists and turns are chilling, unexpected and suffused with a darkness I found delicious to explore. The characters are intriguing, each planting questions in the reader’s mind as to motivation and how this meshes with the plot. 

Wolfe’s victims were overweight and the insights into how popular society regards fat girls was poignant. The advice given on how to disappear and remain hidden were an interesting aside.

The denouement ties together the many strands whilst leaving a little space for reader interpretation. The questions over who was using who and why are answered. There is much to ponder around the after of a prize so hard won.

A highly enjoyable read for fans of this genre. The author is a master at her art. Treat yourself by picking up this book.

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