Sunday, 14 January 2018

BLOG TOUR! What She Left by Rosie Fiore: Review

The book....

Helen Cooper has a charmed life. She's beautiful, accomplished, organised - the star parent at the school. Until she disappears.

But Helen wasn't abducted or murdered. She's chosen to walk away, abandoning her family, husband Sam, and her home.

Where has Helen gone, and why? What has driven her from her seemingly perfect life? What is she looking for? Sam is tormented by these questions, and gradually begins to lose his grip on work and his family life.

He sees Helen everywhere in the faces of strangers. He's losing control.

But then one day, it really is Helen's face he sees...

My review....

Everyone knows a Helen - she’s the one who’s always at the centre of everything. The school mum who’s turned it into a career. Always perfectly organised, always smiling, always in control, with the most well turned out children, the most immaculately beautiful house, the best cakes and costumes for school events.

Helen has to be the best at everything, so when she disappears - just walks out of her home one day without warning - she does it completely and untraceably. Helen’s the best at disappearing, too.

But what happens to the people she’s left behind?

As the title implies, that’s really what this story is about - husband Sam, children Miranda and Marguerite and fellow school mum Lara are all affected in different ways by the disappearance of Helen. Clearly, her immediate family are the most devastated - and the plight of the children who have experienced so much loss is heartbreaking -  but the ripples from what Helen has done spread further. We hear the story from the points of view of Sam, Lara and also snippets from nine year old Miranda. I was wondering quite a lot if we were going to hear from Helen to shed some light on where she’d gone and, most importantly, why. So do we? - well, I’ll let you find that out for yourself!

This was a wonderful read - it always feels like a slight risk volunteering to review an unfamiliar author, as you’re never sure what you’re going to get, but What She Left is very well written, engaging and often surprising. I was engrossed throughout and really did not know how it was going to end. The main characters, including the children, are fully realised and non-stereotyped. Lara in particular I found a very engaging character. Maybe more minor characters such as Lara’s mum could have been more fleshed out - but I’m only saying that because I really liked Lara’s mum!

All in all a very interesting and thought provoking exploration of an unusual situation: a woman who disappears not due to abduction, not fleeing terrible abuse, but by choice. (The scenario of a man walking out on a family, never to be seen again, is a slightly more familiar one, if no less devastating for those left behind.) While there is certainly a significant element of mystery here surrounding Helen's past and her reasons for disappearing, the main focus is firmly on the consequences of that disappearance, and it makes for a fascinating read.

The author.....

Rosie Fiore was born and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She studied drama at the University of the Witwatersrand and has worked as a writer for theatre, television, magazines, advertising, comedy and the corporate market.

Her first two novels, This Year's Black and Lame Angel were published by Struik in South Africa. This Year's Black was longlisted for the South African Sunday Times Literary Award and has subsequently been re-released as an e-book. Babies in Waiting, Wonder Women and Holly at Christmas were published by Quercus. She is the author of After Isabella, also published by Allen & Unwin.

Rosie’s next book, The After Wife (written as Cass Hunter), will be published by Trapeze in 2018, and in translation in seven countries around the world.

Rosie lives in London with her husband and two sons.

What She Left is available now in paperback and Kindle formats.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan - Review

I was really looking forward to reading this - while I didn't know a great deal about it, what I did know sounded right up my street. I do love a good courtroom drama, and if there's a current political angle, so much the better. All of that is certainly there, but we also have a nuanced portrait of a marriage and a thoughtful depiction of thorny issues of rape and consent.

In the present day, we follow dedicated barrister Kate, prosecuting sexual offenders but feeling increasingly frustrated at the difficulty in gaining convictions. Meanwhile, there's Conservative junior minister James Whitehouse, handsome, charming and tipped for success -  a close personal friend of the Prime Minister (who's called "Tom" but is hard not to picture as David Cameron). Then there's James's adoring wife Sophie, in some ways a typical Tory wife but with much more depth in her portrayal than that might imply.

In a further strand, intelligent but under-confident Holly starts at Oxford in 1993, fresh from her Liverpool state school and feeling out of place among the mainly privately educated students who have no conception of life outside their privileged bubble. Among the most privileged of all is James, who belongs to a group of equally arrogant, entitled and frankly obnoxious young men called the Libertines: a not even thinly disguised Bullingdon Club, even down to that notorious photograph on the steps. And while thankfully no pigs are involved, what they do get up to is no great improvement.

As the strands intertwine and sometimes collide, this is a fascinating, enthralling and often thought-provoking read.

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor: Review

"History itself is only ever a story, told by those who survive it."

The Chalk Man opens shockingly, with a grisly discovery in the woods. The subsequent story moves between 1986 - when narrator Eddie is twelve years old - and the present day. In 1986, Eddie and his friends - Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky - roam around the town and countryside of Anderbury on their bikes. When the  idea of secretly communicating with each other via stick people, drawn in chalk, is suggested to them they embrace it with alacrity. But the chalk men will lead them to a sinister discovery.

In the present day, Eddie - now a 42-year-old teacher, single and still living in the same house he grew up in, still socialising with the same friends - has in many ways not moved on that much from his childhood self. The past will never quite stay buried and when Eddie receives a letter with a picture of a stick man and a piece of chalk, it's clear that whatever happened then is not yet over.

Although this is categorised as a thriller there is a definite vein of horror running through it. At certain points I was strongly reminded, in a good way, of Stephen King - having read some other reviews subsequently, I see I'm far from the only one to make that comparison. I'd like to explore this further but that's difficult to do while avoiding spoilers! Certain aspects of setting (the fairground, the woods), character (Mr Halloran, Sean and others), plot and style were at times very reminiscent and this was especially so in some "dream" sequences.  The concept of the chalk men as a central theme is brilliantly effective.

The characterisation is very strong. Eddie and his little gang of friends have their own distinct personalities which clearly emerge, and other townspeople are similarly convincing. The unusual character of Mr Halloran, the faintly sinister "Pale Man" from whom the idea of the chalk men originally came, was wonderfully depicted and I could visualise him so clearly. (The David Bowie comparison didn't hurt.) Eddie himself I found to be a largely sympathetic character, even if there was always a certain element of doubt about his reliability as a narrator...

This was a terrific read: hauntingly dark, deceptive and unpredictable yet with moments of humour and humanity. I think it will be deservedly successful.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Daughter by Lucy Dawson: Review

Thanks to NetGalley, I’ve read a lot of books lately which I know next to nothing about. I read the synopsis, request the book, then by the time I get approved and get around to reading it, I’ve generally forgotten what the synopsis said. This has been quite refreshing as I’m a lot more unspoiled than I would otherwise be, not knowing even the basics of what a story is going to be about.

This was perhaps a mixed blessing in the case of The Daughter, as I was unprepared for the very emotionally distressing first part of the book. It’s very well written and really quite devastating. Readers should be aware that the story hinges on a very difficult topic, the death of a young child. This could have gone badly wrong but thankfully is portrayed with sensitivity and compassion.

I liked the character of Jessica, who at the start of the story is a young mother who feels somewhat out of place among the affluent, mainly older parents at her daughter’s private school. Jess is a devoted mum who wants nothing more than to keep her little girl safe. When something terrible happens to Beth, the consequences not only for Jess and her husband Ben but for others too will echo down the years... Seventeen years later Jess has rebuilt her life to some extent, but while the past will never go away, it’s now coming back to haunt her in ways she could never have expected.

I certainly didn’t predict the ending - though in true psychological thriller tradition, I had suspected absolutely everyone at some point - as the author no doubt intended. Lucy Dawson has constructed her plot very ingeniously and it really does keep you guessing. When the reveal came it was one of those “Oh, I should have guessed” moments.... but I didn’t.

There are some troubled people in this book who can act in bizarre ways, and I did find some of the behaviour of one character in particular hard to understand. Actually more than one when I think about it! 

A great read which I would highly recommend, but do be prepared for some emotionally distressing moments.

Review will also be posted on NetGalley and on my blog. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review.

Published on 24 January 2018 by Bookouture.

Lucy Dawson lives in Devon with her husband and children. The Daughter is her seventh book.

Monday, 1 January 2018

The Birthday Girl by Sue Fortin: Review

When Joanne invites her three friends - Andrea, Zoe and Carys - to help celebrate her fortieth birthday, she promises “an adventure weekend, full of mysteries and surprises, the like of which you can’t imagine”. She’s not lying.

The three women are whisked away in fairly cloak-and-dagger fashion to a remote croft in the Scottish Highlands, where Joanne has carefully laid plans for a weekend none of them will ever forget. But no one could have predicted how it would eventually turn out...

It’s difficult to say much more without spoilers, which would be unfair as this book is really best approached knowing next to nothing.

This was a really gripping and enjoyable read right from the off, with - at least for a while - a distinct flavour of the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None. A group of people, all with something to hide, all brought together for reasons unknown.

But who is the hidden hand orchestrating events? I considered everyone it could possibly be, and constantly changed my mind and my theories, but never had any real conclusive idea regarding who was ultimately responsible - and why. The denouement is both surprising and disturbing. Indeed the whole thing is really quite dark.

The story is narrated by Carys, who gives her account of events, but again it’s never entirely clear how reliable her narrative is - she has her own secrets. I enjoyed the “outdoor adventures” element of the plot which added a refreshingly original dimension to a tale of four women on a birthday weekend.

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

Sue Fortin is the author of four books. She was born in Hertfordshire but had a nomadic childhood, moving often with her family, before eventually settling in West Sussex. She is married with four children, all of whom patiently give her the time to write, but when not behind her keyboard she likes to spend time with them, enjoying both the coast and the South Downs between which they are nestled. Sue is a member of the Crime Writers’ Association.