Monday, 19 September 2016

Book Review: THE BEAUTIFUL DEAD by Belinda Bauer

The Beautiful Dead

Title: The Beautiful Dead
Author: Belinda Bauer
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Read: September 2016
Expected publication: 3 January 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Eve Singer needs death. With her career as a TV crime reporter flagging, she’ll do anything to satisfy her ghoulish audience.

The killer needs death too. He even advertises his macabre public performances, where he hopes to show the whole world the beauty of dying.

When he contacts Eve, she welcomes the chance to be first with the news from every gory scene. Until she realizes that the killer has two obsessions.

One is public murder.

And the other one is her . . .

My thoughts:

Eve is a young reporter trying to survive in the cut-throat business of modern crime journalism – to produce the most gripping headline, the most heart-rending interviews and the most gruesome photos of death and loss before her competitors beat her to it. First on scene to the brutal homicide of a young woman in an empty office building, Eve gets her headline and the pictures she needs, but also attracts the attention of the killer, who sees her as a kindred spirit in the “death business” and as a way to publicize his shocking crimes. As a carer for her father, who suffers from early onset dementia, Eve initially uses the information she receives from the killer to be first on scene after every murder and deliver the goods that keep her in her job and guarantee her income. Until she realises that she may unwittingly have become an accomplice in the murders by gratifying the killer’s craving for publicity. But will refusing to publish her photos of the killer’s work ultimately make her a target herself?

Bauer has a flair for the macabre and the bizarre and for making even the most innocent scenes chilling. One particular incident  stood out for me, involving an encounter between our protagonist Eve and the killer, which set the scene for the inevitable tragedies to follow. It painted such a vivid picture that it raised the hair on the back of my neck and stayed with me long after I finished reading the book. Very well done! Another skill I love and admire in Bauer’s books is the art of making even the worst of her characters human in a way that a faint spark of empathy will smoulder in the reader’s heart, despite the despicable acts they commit and the overall flawed human being they are. It creates a kind of conundrum, tossing the reader into waves of conflicting emotions and hope against all reason that something could change for the better. I also like that nothing in Bauer’s novels is truly black and white. Our protagonist Eve makes money from exploiting death and loss – despite this one cannot but like her and hope for her safety throughout the story. The killer himself, with his sadistic need to inflict pain and suffering, has a background so sad that I struggled not to feel sorry for him. Bauer has added her usual deft seasoning of irony and dark humour in most of the scenes, making this an extremely readable, clever and enjoyable story. I loved the little twist at the end, which was a prime example of Bauer’s ability to capture life’s absurd moments and use them for creating a clever, unusual story.

All in all, The Beautiful Dead captivated me from the very first page and I was loathe to put it down. A great read, very much recommended.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Book Review: FOUND by Emily Brett


Title: Found
Author: Emily Brett
Publisher: Sparkpress
Read: September 2016
Expected publication: 18 October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Twenty-seven-year-old ICU nurse Natalie Ulster has a desire to see the world, in case she dies young like her mother, and a need to heal, which is compensation for her own damaged heart. Armed with an independence and self-reliance that stems from her father s emotional abandonment and wanting to separate herself from a deranged nurse whose husband just died under suspicious circumstances on Natalie s watch Natalie grabs life by the globe and accepts successive assignments in Belize, Australia, and Arizona. When Natalie meets Dr. Joel Lansfield, a physician who is also familiar with grief, she finds that Joel sees her for the strong woman she is, and loves her for all she has yet to figure out but she s not sure she s ready to make room in her heart for love. Desperate to maintain her emotional distance with Joel, she continues to travel. In each country, however, she finds herself confronted with near-death accidents, from a poisoned drink to a severe food allergy to being thrown overboard in the Great Barrier Reef. Too many coincidences force her to ask herself a frightening question: Is someone trying to kill her?"

My thoughts:

Natalie is a young ICU nurse who loves her job. However, lately her days have seemed somewhat joyless and exhausting and she feels that she is not living life to the fullest. Having lost her mother to cancer at an early age, she is afraid that she will run out of time to do all the things she has dreamed of before the same fate befalls her. When the opportunity to travel as an agency nurse comes along, she jumps at it, taking first an assignment to Belize and later to Australia. But soon Natalie realises that she can’t escape her demons – or her enemies – that easily, and realises that she must face up to the past in order to embrace the future.

Being a nurse myself, the premise of the story appealed to me and I thought I would be able to relate to its setting and protagonist. I really enjoyed the human aspect of Natalie’s patient encounters and the little side stories relating to her work, where the author’s love for her profession shone through for me, as did the common frustrations of our job. I also liked how the loss of her mother at an early age gave Natalie a vulnerable side and affected her in many ways in her adult life, driving some of her actions in the novel. However, I found it very difficult to relate to Natalie’s voice, who is 27 years old but sounds like a stroppy teenager throughout the book, which is totally at odds with her professional side. The pages are peppered with her rather juvenile angry phrases, such as: “You want to go bitch? Let’s go.” Or “What the fuck? This is not my fault, buddy. Hell no!” Do professionals in their mid-twenties really talk like this? Not any of the people I work with – it got a bit tedious after a while. Perhaps this would appeal to a younger audience, but I felt like I was in the room with my sulky teenage daughter, resisting the urge to shake her and telling her to snap out of it!

There were also some glaring holes in some of the medical details in the story, which were hard to overlook. Given the author’s professional background and experience I guess this was for the benefit of entertainment for the not medically trained reader and to spice up the action parts of the story, but it took some of the book’s credibility away for me. I guess it is a fine line between bogging down the story with too much medical jargon and detail, but on the other hand there is always the risk that people who work in the industry read it and roll their eyes in frustration if the facts don’t add up. I have never been good at suspension of disbelief for the sake of entertainment, so this really bugged me. I also thought that the story generally floundered a bit, roaming he streets of different genres like a poor little orphan Annie in search of a home. Was it supposed to be a romance, a mystery, a coming-of-age story? The mystery part was a bit too far-fetched and underdeveloped for me, and I wished that the author had concentrated more on the aspect of a young woman trying to “find herself” and overcome the shadow of her mother’s death and the unhappy childhood that followed. The romance part would have fit into this scheme perfectly.

As it was, the book as a whole did not really work for me personally, but I think that as a general idea the story had a lot of potential. Seeing how this is a debut novel, I look forward to giving this author another try as I think she has some great stories waiting to be written, using the background of her passion for her job and her many experiences as a nurse as a base for future novels.  

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: I SEE YOU by Clare Mackintosh

I See You

Title: I See You
Author: Clare Mackintosh
Publisher: Hachette Audio
Read: September 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

You do the same thing every day.

You know exactly where you're going.

You're not alone.

When Zoe Walker sees her photo in the classifieds section of a London newspaper, she is determined to find out why it's there. There's no explanation: just a website, a grainy image and a phone number. She takes it home to her family, who are convinced it's just someone who looks like Zoe. But the next day the advert shows a photo of a different woman, and another the day after that.

Is it a mistake? A coincidence? Or is someone keeping track of every move they make . . .

I See You is an edge-of-your-seat, page-turning psychological thriller from one of the most exciting and successful British debut talents of 2015.

My thoughts:

Zoe Walker is an ordinary woman with an ordinary life – mother of two grown kids, wife to Simon, living in an ordinary little house in an average London neighbourhood, working an averagely paid job in a real estate firm and commuting to work every day on public transport. Zoe is the type of woman who blends in - you may see her across from you on the train but won’t give her a second glance. So it is with surprise and shock that Zoe finds her blurry picture in the dating / escort section of the local paper one day. Who put it there, and what does it mean? Little does she know that this is only the beginning of a journey that will derail her life, threaten her family and destroy her perfectly ordinary routine forever ....

What a brilliant premise for a psychological thriller – that your ordinary daily habits could make you a target for murder. I loved it! Having commuted on public transport many moons ago, I could instantly relate to the author’s observations that people are creatures of habits. Yes, I did board the train on the same spot on the platform every day and tried to sit in the same seat. My timing seldom varied and I saw the same people on the same train every day of the week. I felt safe in my routine. How wrong I was! Suddenly I don’t feel so inclined to park in the same favourite parking spot at work every day – because Mackintosh has sown a little seed of doubt and vulnerability deep into my psyche. I love it when authors come up with a brilliant original idea that makes their story stick out from the rest and touches their readers’ lives, infiltrates their thoughts. Will I ever be able to board a train without thinking that someone, somewhere is watching my every move? Probably ... but on occasions a little voice will be in my head, whispering menacingly: “I see you!” And the hairs will go up on the back of my neck ....

I loved this book in every way and it is one of my favourite reads of the year. I See You is original and clever, with everyday ordinary characters I could relate to. Yes, there were a few moments of suspending disbelief in the later parts of the story, but in a way that enhanced the suspense because the slow escalation befitted the characters involved. The pace was perfect and steadily built a sense of urgency until its gripping finale – from its slow beginnings recounting Zoe’s mundane everyday life to the hidden dangers lurking in that very same boring routine.   And just when you think yourself safe, the author throws in a curveball at the end – I take off my hat to you, Clare Mackintosh, I did not see that one coming! In an era where weird twists are all the rage, this one actually works. I still have goosebumps thinking about it.

All in all, this is a must read for all lovers of mystery and suspense who want to read a gripping psychological thriller with a twist. I listened to the audio version of the book on my daily commute (oh, the irony of that!) and was so engrossed in the story most of the time that I was surprised to find myself at my destination – how did I get there? This was one hell of a ride, and one I can fully recommend to everyone who likes the genre. I look forward to the next great read from this author.

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Friday, 9 September 2016

Book Review: THE FENCE by Meredith Jaffe

The Fence

Title: The Fence
Author: Meredith Jaffe
Publisher: Macmillan Australia
Read: September 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Gwen Hill has lived on Green Valley Avenue all her adult life. Here she brought her babies home, nurtured her garden and shared life's ups and downs with her best friend and neighbour, Babs. So when Babs dies and the house next door is sold, Gwen wonders how the new family will fit settle into the quiet life of this cosy community.

Francesca Desmarchelliers has high hopes for the house on Green Valley Avenue. More than just a new home, it's a clean slate for Frankie, who has moved her brood from Sydney's inner city to the leafy north shore street in a bid to save her marriage and keep her rambunctious family together.
To maintain her privacy and corral her wandering children, Frankie proposes a fence between their properties, destroying Gwen's lovingly cultivated front garden.

To Gwen, this as an act of war.

Soon the neighbours are in an escalating battle that becomes about more than just council approvals, and boundaries aren't the only things at stake.

My thoughts:

Imagine that you have lived next door to your best friend for decades, have shared countless cups of tea and glasses of wine, have raised each other’s children and moaned about each other’s husbands. You cried on her shoulder when you lost yet another baby and in turn tended to your friend’s garden as lovingly as your own. Your doors where always open for each other, and your children were free to roam the neighbourhood, safe under the umbrella of a large network of close neighbours. But your best friend has just died, the house has been sold, and strangers are moving in next door. Strangers whose children have names like Silver, Amber, Buttercup and Bijoux, with a double-barrel surname nobody can spell or pronounce. Children whose first action is to pick the flowers you have lovingly watered and tended, and let lose their two mutts who defecate all over your garden. And worst of all, the new neighbours demand that a fence be built between their house and yours, which means cutting down the line of trees you have planted for your old friend as an informal boundary line. For Gwen, this is the worst insult of all.  “But I promise you one thing, young lady. Building a fence is not going to keep the world out and won’t keep your children in. Life is not that simple.” Thus starts Jaffe’s new satirical novel The Fence, set in one of Sydney’s leafy neighbourhoods whose peace is forever shattered by the neighbourhood feud soon to ensue.

I truly loved this book, and it is one of my favourite Australian reads of the year! With her astute observations and skilful characterisations, Jaffe presents a refreshing new voice in Australian contemporary fiction, and one I look forward to reading a lot more from in future.

Jaffe’s novel explores, amongst interpersonal issues, the generational differences concerning family values and child rearing, with the fence representing not only a physical but also metaphorical divide between two very different women, two generations, two differing life philosophies. On one side we have Gwen, the archetypal stay-at-home Earth mother, whose home is always open to extended family, friends or neighbours and whose garden is a self-sustainable food haven and her gift to her neighbours. On the other side of the fence is Frankie, a busy working mother of four small children struggling to save her marriage and juggle career with family commitments. Whilst Gwen believes that children should be raised by the “village” and sees the street as a communal area for all residents, Frankie takes a much more insular approach, wanting to fence her loved ones in to keep them safe and contained in the little fortress she has built against the world and its problems. It is no surprise that these ideologically different women soon clash as they struggle to fight for their right to live life the way they believe is suited to them.

It is to Jaffe’s credit that she manages to present all her characters in a way that the reader is able to feel empathy for them, no matter how appalling their actions may seem at times. I found I had a soft spot for everyone in the book, even the most flawed characters – as soon as I was ready to hate one of them, Jaffe would throw in a new perspective, a new bit of information that threw me off my track and turned my dislike to empathy and prompted introspection on my part. Didn’t every character act out of a deep conviction that their way was the right one?   After recently having read a spate of books with unlikeable characters, I really appreciated Jaffe’s art of unearthing a soft vulnerable core in every character on both sides of the fence. I also loved how she brings in the children’s perspectives of the whole fence debacle in a way that challenges any preconceived ideas or opinions the reader may have formed. Whilst the adults are busy erecting barricades, the children have long learned to overcome them, in a literal as well as symbolical sense. It begs the question whether we are doing our children any favours by depriving them of contact with the older generation, as they would have had in the era of extended families, when grandparents were still involved in their lives.

By the way – I loved the little snippets from Gwen’s gardening column and will try some of her advice on my own plants! A wonderful novel, and a full 5 stars from me. Loved it – very much recommended, especially for readers who enjoy a good Aussie drama, such as Liane Moriarty’s writing. 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Book Review: THE WONDER by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder

Title: The Wonder
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Read: September 2016
Expected publication: 20 September 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In Emma Donoghue's latest masterpiece, an English nurse brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle-a girl said to have survived without food for months-soon finds herself fighting to save the child's life.

Tourists flock to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, who believes herself to be living off manna from heaven, and a journalist is sent to cover the sensation. Lib Wright, a veteran of Florence Nightingale's Crimean campaign, is hired to keep watch over the girl.

Written with all the propulsive tension that made Room a huge bestseller, THE WONDER works beautifully on many levels--a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a powerful psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil. 

My thoughts:

Lib Wright, an English nurse who trained and served in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale herself, doesn’t realise what exactly she’s letting herself in for when she accepts a posting to a remote Irish village to investigate the claim of an 11-year-old Irish girl being able to survive without food. Apparently little Anna O’Donnell has been able to live without eating anything for the last 4 months, surviving by the grace of God alone, or as Anna calls it, her “manna from heaven”. Religious folk from all over the world are flocking to the remote village of Athlone to catch a glimpse of this “miracle” child, believing she has the power to heal them of their ailments. There is even talk she may be hailed one of Ireland’s new saints. Fully prepared to expose the girl and her family as frauds, and their claims as a way to make money, Lib and an Irish nun commence alternating eight hourly shifts in their charge’s modest home to make sure that she is indeed receiving no food. But what was supposed to be an easy assignment soon turns into an emotional roller-coaster ride as Lib realises the full extent of little Anna’s resolve to refuse food – and her reasons for it. Torn between her duty and her heart she must fall back on her intellect and training to do what is right, even if it means sacrificing everything she has worked so hard for ...

I loved this book! Donoghue does such an excellent job at bringing her characters and the setting to life that reading The Wonder felt like time travel, and I was so totally and utterly absorbed in its pages that I could not put the book down. What starts off as a gently and rather straight-forward tale soon throws the reader into a world where superstitions reign, where religion has such a strong hold on people that they even accept the demise of their most loved ones as “God’s will”. A world, where intelligent strong women like Lib are frowned upon, whilst men who value their own ego more than common sense get to make all the decisions. I loved the way Lib slowly grows as a character, changing from an emotionally cold and remote personality to a strong, determined woman fighting for her patient’s rights in the face of adversity. As a nurse myself I very much enjoyed the character of Lib, reflecting on how the profession of nursing has changed over the years but that in our hearts we are all in it for the same reasons – to fight for the nest possible outcome for our patients, which often brings us into a conflict between duty and ethics.

With its remote and somewhat claustrophobic setting Donoghue creates an aura of mystery and suspense as the story unfolds and casts its spell upon the reader.  Donoghue’s eye for historical detail is reflected in the astute way she explores the hold religion has on the poor in the aftermath of Ireland’s catastrophic potato famine – presented in a way which shows both sides, through the eyes of fervently religious Anna and Lib’s fierce intelligence and scepticism.  As a reader you can feel the conflict in every pore as the story takes us to its inevitable finale. I loved the ending, which brought tears to my eyes – but no spoilers from me!

I applaud Donoghue for her latest novel, which is definitely one of my favourite reads for the year and would make a wonderful bookclub read – I loved it much more than her previous bestseller Room. Very highly recommended, a full 5 stars from me.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

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