Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd: Review

Dennis Danson is a convicted killer on Death Row - the Red River murderer - but widely and increasingly believed to be innocent. Documentaries are made about him, books written, celebrities espouse his cause. For Sam, a needy young woman in England,the case details and Dennis himself exert a deep fascination, and when she contacts him and subsequently travels to the US to visit him in prison, a relationship develops between them.

But is Dennis as innocent as Sam and many others believe him to be? What really happened to the girls of Red River?

This is a tense and compelling psychological thriller - Amy Lloyd builds up the tension extremely well. While few of the characters are particularly likeable - out of everyone, I was most concerned about the cats - I was still desperate to find out what was going to happen. The deeply dysfunctional relationship between Dennis and Sam is very well drawn, wince-inducingly so at times, as things do not progress between them quite as Sam had expected or hoped.

For me the name Dennis Danson immediately evoked the serial killer Dennis Nilsen - I don’t know whether this similarity was deliberate on the part of the author (there are certain other similarities too... so maybe) but it meant I was instinctively slightly predisposed against him! Whether guilty or not, Dennis is a difficult and complex character; the real man often at odds with the image of him created by others. The character of Sam, a somewhat obsessive and vulnerable young woman whose actions are often painfully misguided and whose insecurities can at times overwhelm her - is very believable.

There are some insightful observations here on the social media landscape, particularly as experienced for the first time by Dennis - the strange world of Twitter is especially well depicted as Dennis - and Sam’s - story is served up for public consumption and, of course, everyone has an opinion...

An often disturbing but always readable journey into some dark places.... recommended.

Review also published on NetGalley and on Amazon. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Cactus by Sarah Haywood: Review

“Because I’m not reliant on anyone emotionally or financially, I can’t be hurt. That’s how a feminist is: iron-willed, Teflon-coated, in total control of every aspect of her life.”

At forty-five, Susan Green shares certain characteristics with the cactus plants she keeps on her desk - prickly and self-sufficient. She has her life arranged precisely how she wants it - her flat, her job, her personal life - and certainly has no intention of changing it. But when her mother dies - and leaves a will favouring her feckless brother Ed, causing Susan to immediately launch herself into battle - and at the same time Susan is confronted with the hitherto unimagined prospect of becoming a mother herself, her life starts changing in some very unexpected ways. What does it take for a cactus to finally bloom?

I loved the sound of this book, but it was a bit of a slow burner for me initially. Susan is not obviously very likeable, at least to start with. She comes over as judgemental, intolerant of others’ failings and apparently lacking in any warmth or humour, though I did like her independence and determination. As the story continued, though, I was drawn in and found it ultimately to be a very compelling and enjoyable read, and Susan a very engaging character.

The basic premise is not, in itself, that original - a woman who shuns any kind of vulnerability as a defence mechanism against being hurt, who gradually becomes more open to new experiences and connections with other people. However the story is very well executed and I grew to really care about Susan - my heart broke for her at times.

One advance reviewer described Susan as a cross between Don Tillman (The Rosie Project) and Bridget Jones. I can certainly see where the former comparison comes from - both highly rational, uncomprehending of others’ less rational choices, and lacking in social graces - but I’m afraid any similarities with the latter are completely lost on me. (And Susan would undoubtedly be appalled at the comparison.) To this reader, Susan is more reminiscent of Eleanor Oliphant.

Not all the characters are believable: Susan’s jolly-hockey-sticks friend Brigid is a caricature, though an amusing one - I don’t believe any modern forty-five year old woman routinely addresses another as “old girl”! I did like neighbour Kate, and Ed’s friend Rob. Aunt Sylvia and her fairly awful daughters are very convincingly drawn. I’ve definitely known Sylvias...

Although it was, as I’ve said, initially a bit of a slow burner, ultimately I loved this just as much as I’d hoped, and didn’t want it to end! (It’s perhaps unlikely, but a sequel would be lovely... I really do want to know what happens next.)

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris: Review

This book kept popping up in my recommendations for an awfully long time before I finally got around to reading it. I think the unoriginal title put me off a bit... there must be hundreds of books called Behind Closed Doors. I’m sure I’ve read a few of them. I must admit, though, it’s an appropriate title here, because this book is all about the horrors (not an exaggeration) that occur in apparent domestic bliss.

It’s obvious from the start that all is not well in the marriage of Grace and Jack Angel, and that Mr Angel hardly lives up to his name. That’s putting it mildly - he’s an actual monster, one of those arch-villains with literally no redeeming features. He’s also, of course, handsome, charming and rich, because they always are, in fiction if not in life. And all-powerful, with almost everyone in his pocket, even the police. There’s a bit of suspension of disbelief required, but Jack’s clever....his heinous actions are always carefully planned and there’s little to be held against him, apart from Grace’s word, which he ensures counts for little.

It’s a real page turner, there’s no doubt about that. I had to keep reading, desperate to find out what happened and for the monster to (hopefully) get his comeuppance, even while in a constant state of slight anxiety about what horrendous thing was going to happen next. The full extent of Jack’s depravity is only gradually revealed and this generates a lot of tension.

Grace is quite an engaging character - she goes from a successful professional woman (with a rather unlikely sounding job) to someone with no power at all but she never gives up fighting. Her sister Millie - a young woman with Down’s syndrome - isn’t entirely convincingly drawn but is a likeable character. There are very few if any laughs in this book - the tone is unremittingly dark and grim - but “George Clooney” did raise a smile.

Ultimately this is a compelling read but I’m not sure I actually liked it. It’s basically a simple story of good vs evil with little nuance, and just a bit too unpleasant for me. I did like the very end, though, where a thread which has run through the novel has a satisfying payoff.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

White Bodies by Jane Robins: Review

Felix is so handsome and clever and romantic. I just wished he hadn’t forced Tilda under the water and held her there so long.’

Callie and Tilda are twins, but it seems they couldn’t be more different - Tilda is the doer, the attention getter, forging a successful acting career; Callie the observer, the quieter one, drifting into a job at a bookshop, existing around the edges of her sister’s life.

When Tilda enters a relationship with the wealthy and controlling Felix (he’s something to do with hedge funds... I don’t think I’ll ever understand what a hedge fund actually is), Callie’s anxieties for her sister’s safety cause her to be lured down some dark and dangerous paths.

From early on there are doubts as to Callie’s reliability as a narrator - she appears to have an unhealthy and certainly abnormal obsession with her golden girl sister. The relationship between the twins is complex and really rather twisted. Though intelligent, Callie has a naïveté and inexperience about her which render it doubtful as to how accurately she might interpret things at times; the author keeps us skilfully on the back foot, uncertain as to how well founded Callie’s fears about Felix are.

This is an incredibly addictive, often unsettling and very cleverly constructed read which constantly keeps the reader guessing as to where it is going; I really had no idea until very near the end, although with hindsight clues were there. The narrative voice of Callie is a triumph - she is an unusual but at the same time very believable character and you’re never quite sure what she’s going to do next. What this book kept reminding me of, and I’m not even sure why as they are very different, was the equally excellent Behind Her Eyes by Sarah  Pinborough - something about the tone, perhaps. 

Elegantly written and tightly plotted... highly recommended. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review.

Jane Robins began her career as a journalist with The EconomistThe Independent, and the BBC. She has made a specialty of writing historical true crime and has a particular interest in the history of forensics. She has published three books of nonfiction in the UK, Rebel Queen, The Magnificent Spilsbury, and The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams. White Bodies is her first novel.