Friday, 21 October 2016

Book Review: THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

The Girls

Title: The Girls
Author: Emma Cline
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Read: October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Northern California, during the violent end of the 1960s. At the start of summer, a lonely and thoughtful teenager, Evie Boyd, sees a group of girls in the park, and is immediately caught by their freedom, their careless dress, their dangerous aura of abandon. Soon, Evie is in thrall to Suzanne, a mesmerizing older girl, and is drawn into the circle of a soon-to-be infamous cult and the man who is its charismatic leader. Hidden in the hills, their sprawling ranch is eerie and run down, but to Evie, it is exotic, thrilling, charged—a place where she feels desperate to be accepted. As she spends more time away from her mother and the rhythms of her daily life, and as her obsession with Suzanne intensifies, Evie does not realize she is coming closer and closer to unthinkable violence, and to that moment in a girl’s life when everything can go horribly wrong.

My thoughts:

The Girls explores a mysterious and intriguing phenomenon of the human psyche – what makes someone susceptible to being drawn into a cult, leaving all they have ever held dear behind and pledging loyalty to its leader and members, even going as far as killing for them? It is instantly obvious that young Evie is particularly vulnerable to predators. Her home life is far from happy, with her parents divorced and her mother more interested in a parade of different boyfriends than her own daughter. She doesn’t fit in well at school, and is becoming bored with hanging out with her best – and only – friend. When she encounters the mysterious, beautiful and fearless Suzanne, she is instantly drawn to her, as the older girl represent everything that Evie has never been: strong, independent, uninhibited and free to live her life whichever way she chooses. Suzanne introduces her to her cult family and its charismatic leader, Russel, and again it is obvious why Evie is excited by her new friends. Apart from the poverty, the squalor and the lack of privacy, life on the ranch has that element of danger and thrill Evie has been missing in her own life. Cline has done a great job describing Evie’s “golden summer” on the ranch, her emotional high, her refusal to see the truth in front of her eyes. Until the day something happens that will open Evie’s eyes to the truth, the hidden menace, the realisation that she has given her trust to a devil in disguise. Stripped bare of her rose tinted glasses Evie realises that her life has taken a wrong turn, descended into dangerous waters she is not sure she can escape from.

Cline’s descriptive writing transported me effortlessly into the long gone era of the 60’s, exploring not the happy flower-power atmosphere that is often portrayed in other novels of the time but an altogether darker side. Her casual observations of Russell, his followers and their habitat were spot-on, and as readers we were able to see the cracks forming long before Evie does. Because of this, there is an ever-present atmosphere of menace and danger connected to the cult, at times downright creepy. One scene for some reason stuck with me long after I had finished reading – that of a naked toddler playing in the filth, defecating wherever he wants, feral as a wild animal. It embodied the longing for freedom as well as its hidden dangers, that of losing our civilised, controlled, human side that makes us function in society. However, for me a true understanding of Russell’s motives and his hold over the girls was lacking, and I found him a bit of an elusive character and not one I would have thought attractive or charismatic enough to wield such power. I would have loved to have this aspect explored a bit deeper to leave a bigger emotional impact. As it was, the killings lacked a sufficiently powerful motive for me and came a bit out of left field.

I found The Girls a fascinating albeit not always particularly enjoyable read, due to its somewhat sinister theme. All in all, this was a good but not great read for me. I loved Cline’s writing style and her keen observations and will make sure to look up her 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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Thursday, 20 October 2016

Book Review: THE SILENT CHILDREN by Amna K. Boheim

The Silent Children

Title: The Silent Children
Author: Amna K. Boheim
Publisher: Troubadour Publishing Ltd
Read: October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Vienna, 1938: Something's amiss at the home of young Annabel Albrecht. First, her favourite maid Eva disappears, then her friend Oskar. Worse is to come – her brother is murdered and her mother is taken away, leaving Annabel to fend for herself.

Almost 70 years later, Annabel's son Max uncovers his mother's long-buried past, and unlocks the secrets preserved by Annabel's missing friends. But as Max is to discover, some children can never be completely silenced. Is he haunted by ghosts or by guilt, and will he ever escape?

The Silent Children is a gripping tale of tragedy and revenge, a modern-day ghost story that will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

My thoughts:

I was thoroughly intrigued by the premise of this book as I do love a good ghost story, and the historical element of WWII was an added bonus. Plus, having grown up in the suburb of Hietzing, Vienna, as a child, many of the settings described in Boheim’s novel were very familiar to me. I could instantly visualise Annabel’s house with its high ceilings and chandeliers, and the dark damp cellar – ugh, I am getting goosebumps thinking about it. A good ghost story is one which makes you burrow deeper under the doona, shuddering at every creak of a floorboard, ducking for cover when a branch brushes against the side of the house in the wind, and having to turn all the lights on to venture to the toilet in the middle of the night. Boheim delivered all those elements to me, and the haunted house’s gothic setting followed me into my dreams (my fault for reading a ghost story before bed).

Where the story fell short for me was in the main character, Max, who remained an enigma to me despite the first-person narrative. To be honest, I found him rather wooden and stodgy, his voice that of an old person rather than the young man he is supposed to be. Had Max captured my heart and my imagination, the slow escalation of ghostly events would have worked so much better, but his inability to communicate his feelings to me, the reader, made the later part of the book appear exaggerated and forced. His account of events, rather than eliciting emotion, read like a tedious report he has to write as part of his office job (and I still haven’t figured out what his actual position there was). He didn’t shed a tear for his dead mother, and even the relationship with his new girlfriend was brushed over as if it had been a brief encounter with a stranger on the train. I felt that I was always held at arms’ length, forbidden to catch a glimpse of any emotion Max might be feeling, which in turn prohibited any real emotional engagement with the story from my end. Shame – there was real potential here to get me thoroughly engrossed in the chain of events had Max been a more sympathetic character.

The general theme of The Silent Children is a dark one, which has nothing to do with the wartime setting, but a different kind of crime altogether. I enjoyed Annabel’s flashbacks to her childhood, which initially appear innocent enough but soon acquire a much more sinister flavour. There were a few lose ends in Annabel’s story, which I would have loved to have answered, as they provided the backbone of the ghost story.

I guess I am sitting a bit on the fence with this one, as there were aspects of the story I really enjoyed, but others that didn’t work for me at all. To cut a long story short, I enjoyed the dark gothic feel of the story and its setting but would have loved to be able to relate more to the narrator to fully make it work for me and keep me interested.

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: DARK WATER by Robert Bryndza

Dark Water (DCI Erika Foster #3)

Title: Dark Water
Author: Robert Bryndza
Publisher: Bookouture
Read: October 2016
Expected publication: 20 October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Beneath the water the body sank rapidly. She would lie still and undisturbed for many years but above her on dry land, the nightmare was just beginning.

When Detective Erika Foster receives a tip-off that key evidence for a major narcotics case was stashed in a disused quarry on the outskirts of London, she orders for it to be searched. From the thick sludge the drugs are recovered, but so is the skeleton of a young child.

The remains are quickly identified as seven-year-old Jessica Collins. The missing girl who made headline news twenty-six years ago.

As Erika tries to piece together new evidence with the old, she must dig deeper and find out more about the fractured Collins family and the original detective, Amanda Baker. A woman plagued by her failure to find Jessica. Erika soon realises this is going to be one of the most complex and demanding cases she has ever taken on.

Is the suspect someone close to home? Someone is keeping secrets. Someone who doesn’t want this case solved. And they’ll do anything to stop Erika from finding the truth.

From the million-copy bestselling author of The Girl in the Ice and The Night Stalker, comes the third heart-stopping book in the Detective Erika Foster series.

My thoughts:

After her last murder case, DCI Erica Foster has been transferred to Organised Crime to salvage her career and keep her out of harm’s way. During a drug bust at a local quarry, Foster’s team retrieve a mysterious package from the water’s depths, which unveils the skeleton of a local child who has been missing for 26 years. A lengthy investigation into the girl’s disappearance at the time yielded no results, and due to its high profile in the press, it killed the careers of the detectives involved in the case at the time. With no new leads to go on, Erica knows she is taking a huge risk by insisting that she be allowed to lead the investigation, but she is determined to solve the mystery and find justice for the young victim.

Thank you, Robert Bryndza, for giving us DCI Erica Foster, and especially for concluding this latest book in the series with the statement that there are “many more books yet to come”. It soothes the pain on turning the last page just a little bit. For me, the Erica Foster series is one of the most exciting discoveries in crime fiction this year. In an oversaturated market, Bryndza has managed to create an interesting, gutsy and complex lead character with a unique voice. Some of Foster’s attributes may seem like the common stereotype – yes, Erica is a troubled soul and a detective who likes to forge her own path rather than follow the rules. Yes, she gets into a lot of trouble because of it. But somehow Erica Foster manages to stand out from the fray of fellow fictional detectives. Perhaps this is due to her different cultural background, or her direct and sometimes borderline abrasive manner. This detective will spend very little time in rumination and self-doubt, because Foster likes to get things done, even at the cost of her personal life and safety. Once DCI Foster has sunk her teeth into a case, she won’t let go until she has solved it. Even if this cold case from 26 years ago presents more of a challenge even to DCI Foster’s skills than any other case in her career so far. As the readers, we are privileged to ride the roller-coaster ride with her, the twist and turns, highs and lows, and the stunning finale coming like a plunge into the icy waters of truth. I certainly did not see it coming!

Bryndza does not waste words on unnecessary fillers, which sets the pace of the story and holds the reader in its grip at all times. It had me hooked from the opening sentence to the end, and I was loath to put the book down. I really like this no-nonsense approach, which at times appears almost abrupt, like Erica Foster herself, leaving cliff-hangers at the end of chapters which make it impossible to resist the temptation to read “just a little bit longer”, even when it is 2 a.m. and you have to go to work in the morning.  I fully blame Bryndza for my sleep-deprivation over the last 2 days! But it was so worth it ....

At this stage in the series, I feel like I have come to know Erica quite well, and Bryndza has done an excellent job in developing her character, like unveiling different layers of her personality in every book. This is even more evident in Dark Water, as we get to see a more personal, vulnerable side to Erica with the visit of her sister and her nieces and nephew. There is also the small supporting cast of regulars, such as Moss, Peterson, and Erica’s boss, Commander Marsh, who complement the book by providing side stories and fleshing out the narrative. Dark Water was my favourite of the series so far, and I am already looking forward to the next instalment. A great read, very much recommended to all lovers of crime fiction.

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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Thursday, 13 October 2016

Book review: MISCHLING by Affinity Konar


Author: Affinity Konar
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Read: October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

"One of the most harrowing, powerful, and imaginative books of the year" (Anthony Doerr) about twin sisters fighting to survive the evils of World War II.

Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.

Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.

It's 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele's Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks--a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin--travel through Poland's devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.

A superbly crafted story, told in a voice as exquisite as it is boundlessly original, Mischling defies every expectation, traversing one of the darkest moments in human history to show us the way toward ethereal beauty, moral reckoning, and soaring hope. 

My thoughts:

I realised when I chose this book that it would be a difficult rather than enjoyable read, as it deals with a truly horrific part of history. Having had the privilege to meet several holocaust survivors through my work and having talked to them about their experiences, I have always been humbled by the human survival instinct and the resilience and courage to move on and rebuild their lives. I was hoping to find the same message in the pages of Mischling. Pearl voices this sentiment when she reflects on her twin sister Stasha’s desire for revenge on her Nazi tormentors, whilst she herself feels very differently.

“The whole world might be obsessed with revenge. But for my part – I knew I wanted to forgive. My tormentors would never ask for forgiveness – this was certain – but I knew it might be the only true power I had left [...]”


“Forgiving did not restore my family; it did not remove my pain or blunt my nightmares. It was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgement of the fact that I still lived [...] In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.”

Through Pearl, the author explores the psyche of someone who has been to the very brink of death, glimpsed the worst mankind can serve up, but manages to step back from the abyss and move on, despite the ultimate price that has to be paid later. To me, Pearl was the very essence of the book, the one voice which kept me reading even when the story became very difficult. Stasha, her twin and her polar opposite, offered the other perspective, although I never fully managed to get into Stasha’s head or understand what made her tick. I admit that due to the sheer horrors explored in the book, I was often tempted to abandon it, and it haunted me in my nightmares.

What was missing for me was a sense of time and place. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the main characters are children, whose sense of reality is blurry at times. I found it difficult to visualise both the setting as well as the supporting characters, and the whole atmosphere took on a slightly surreal, often bizarre quality in the vein of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Perhaps it was the author’s intention to cloak the horrors in a kaleidoscope of peculiar, nightmarish images. However, I found that for me the cost of this approach was the authenticity of the main characters, and I often found myself floundering as I tried to follow the storyline. By masking the perpetrators and their victims in bizarre imagery, giving it the atmosphere of a freakish travelling carnival, it made it difficult for me to truly grasp its depth and meaning.

To sum it all up, this is definitely not a book for the faint-hearted, due to the horrific subject matter. Nor will its style work for everyone, as the mixed reviews which have been posted on Goodreads clearly show. Although I managed to glimpse the occasional insight through Pearl’s voice, I belong to the group of readers who found the book difficult due to its writing style. This is by no means a criticism on the author, who has obviously done her research and knows her subject matter very well, , but simply a personal preference. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially set in WWII, should definitely pick it up and make up their own minds.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final product may vary slightly from the one I have reviewed.

Book Review: LILY'S HOUSE by Cassandra Parkin

Lily's House

Lily's House
Author: Cassandra Parkin
Publisher: Legend Press
Read: October 2017
Expected publication: 15 October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

When Jen goes to her grandmother's house for the last time, she's determined not to dwell on the past. As a child, Jen adored Lily and suspected she might be a witch, but the spell was broken long ago, and now her death means there won't be any reconciliation. Lily's gone, but the enchantments she wove and the secrets she kept still remain. In Lily's house, Jen and her daughter Marianne reluctantly confront the secrets of the past and present—and discover how dangerous we become when we're trying to protect the ones we love.

My thoughts:

What a lovely treat this book turned out to be! I was constantly torn between the urge to keep reading in order to find out what happens versus a longing to savour the pleasure to make it last longer. Lily’s House reminded me how much I enjoy reading a well-written family drama / mystery as a nice change from my usual fare of gruesome murder mysteries.

For me, Lily’s House had all the essential ingredients for a great read. A strong interesting female protagonist, who may not always be a totally reliable narrator – check.  Believable dialogue driving much of the storyline – check. A couple of family skeletons in the closet and an intriguing mystery to keep the reader guessing in the end – check. At least one moment where everything is being turned on its head by a very clever twist which puts the whole storyline into a completely different perspective – check! But Parkin takes it even one step further and adds a pinch of whimsical spice into the mix, stirring it into the storyline where it unfolds its gentle aroma and leaving a pleasurable aftertaste of magic in its wake. It is hard to find a novel where the whimsical and magical elements are providing just the right balance without swinging too much into the realm of the unbelievable. Parkin has pulled this off perfectly, both in her character of Lily as well as Lily’s legacy to her loved ones. As Harris did so masterfully in her novel Chocolat, Parkin manages to convey a slightly magical side to her female characters, especially the old wise women (Lily) and the innocent honesty of the child (Marianne), adding a depth to the story which would otherwise have been missing. I also thought that Jen’s disability enhanced the narrative in ways that only fully became evident to me as the story unfolded, adding complexity to her character and giving a deeper meaning to her decisions and actions, as well as those of her daughter.

With clever plotting, the author managed to convey both the warm and fuzzy memories of Jen’s childhood, as well as the sinister undertones of buried family secrets shadowing the lives of three generations of women. Confined mainly to the setting of Lily’s house and its surroundings, and with a relatively small cast of characters, the story perfectly reflected the relative isolation of Jen’s world, both due to her disability as well as the circumstances revealed later in the novel.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was extremely happy to have come across it by chance on Netgalley, especially as this is not a genre I normally read a lot of. I usually judge an author’s skill by the emotions they are able to evoke in me as reader. Lily’s House brought them all out in force – I laughed, I cried, I got angry and I closed the last page with a satisfied sigh, regretting only that the journey was over. A truly enjoyable read, one of my favourites this year. I will make sure to pick up other novels from this talented author!

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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