Thursday, 1 December 2016

Book Review: THE WITCHFINDER'S SISTER by Beth Underdown


The Witchfinder's Sister




Title: The Witchfinder's Sister
Author: Beth Underdown
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Read: November 2016
Expected publication: 2 March 2017



Synopsis (Goodreads):

Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . .

This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.
Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew s soul.
There is a new darkness in the town, too frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he s become, Alice is desperate to intervene and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother s brutal mission and is drawn into the Hopkins family s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.
Inspired by the real-life story of notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown s thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience. 


My thoughts:


The Witchfinder’s Sister tackles a fascinating chapter of history, the life of the legendary witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, who is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 or more women in the mid-1700s in Essex, England. In her fictional account, Underdown bestows Matthew with a sister, Alice Hopkins, a strong and independent woman of her time, who finds herself back in her brother’s house after the sudden death of her husband. I loved the historical details of the novel, which were fascinating and sometimes confronting, as there seemed to be little cause for Matthew to accuse a woman of being a witch and condemn her to death. Alice, suddenly dependent on her brother’s mercy, is caught in a terrible dilemma – can she stand up for the women she thinks unfairly accused without endangering her own life?  

Underdown does a good job in creating an undertone of danger and malice in her descriptions of Matthew’s quest, and Alice’s dilemma is felt keenly by the reader. Personally, I would have liked to be able to explore the folklore and superstitions of the time a bit more, which allowed Matthew to carry out his sinister work. I am guessing that the author purposely steered away from this approach by creating a no-nonsense, intelligent protagonist, but I would have loved to delve a bit deeper into the psyches of the women accused and persecuted, as I found some of the female characters a bit difficult to connect with. Seeing that most women of the time wouldn’t have had much education and would have depended heavily on their menfolk for their survival, it would have been interesting to see their reaction to and feelings about the ever present danger of being accused o f witchcraft. The later part of the book introduces a lot of characters with a lot of different backgrounds and personalities, and I felt myself getting lost in different threads a few times, with some loose ends remaining. Apart from that, The Witchfinder’s Sister was an intriguing and interesting read, recommended to all lovers of historical 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. 



Thursday, 10 November 2016

Book Review: THE DEADLINE by Ron Franscell


The Deadline



Title:
 The Deadline
Author: Ron Franscell
Publisher: WildBlue Press
Read: November 2016



Synopsis (Goodreads):



Neeley Gilmartin, imprisoned in 1948 for the murder of a little girl, is let out of prison in 1996 because he's dying of tuberculosis. Wracked with pain, he still smolders from the injustice done to him all those years ago, and pleads with the newspaper editor, Jefferson Morgan, to clear his name and find the one who really killed the child.Morgan finds the request abhorrent, and is unable to believe that Gilmartin could be innocent. He refuses to help, until he does a little research and realizes that Gilmartin could indeed be telling the truth-the local sheriff won't release the trial records; the library has the microfiche files in a safe; Morgan's own newspaper clippings of the event hint at a cover-up by the town fathers at the time of the murder. Everything points to Gilmartin's innocence, and when someone burns down the newspaper office -- apparently to kill Morgan himself -- Morgan is sure of it.But what else will Morgan lose before he can print the truth? 


My thoughts:


In 1948, an out-of-work drunk named Neeley Gilmartin was convicted for the murder of nine-year-old Aimee Little Spotted Horse in the small community of Winchester, Wyoming. After having threatened Aimee’s father during a drunken bar fight, the case seemed a no-brainer, and there were no other suspects. But after 50 years in prison, Gilmartin, now dying of end-stage lung cancer, is back, and insists that he is innocent. Nobody in the community would ever take him seriously, except newspaper editor Jefferson Morgan, who always has an open ear for a good story and has made a reputation for himself by solving a tricky murder case whilst working for a paper in Chicago. Although sceptical, Morgan decides to look into the old crime to see if there is any truth behind the old man’s claim. Is it possible that the real killer is still out there? However, he soon discovers that there are people who are not happy about him asking questions about Aimee, and will go to any lengths to keep the past in the past.

The Deadline is an intriguing mystery set in the remote wilds of Wyoming. Franscell’s evocative writing brings forth believable characters in an interesting small-town setting, with its small-town politics, allegiances and tangled relationships. There is an undertone of menace and escalating tension in the background, slowly building to pose a real threat to Morgan’s safety, whose only interest is to find out the truth, and to clear the name of a man he believes innocent of the crime he served 50 years in prison for. The deeper Morgan digs into the town’s past, the more secrets and lies he uncovers, risking lifelong friendships along the way and putting himself in the firing line of people who want to keep the past buried. I loved the small town dynamics Franscell describes so well, and the slow but even pace the old mystery unfolded at. With a vivid cast of small-town residents, warts and all, the story comes to life and delivers a suspenseful, intriguing read which kept me captivated from beginning to end. There were some emotional moments as the secret and its terrible implications were revealed, adding a whole new depth to the mystery. Perhaps a few minor details at the end did not quite add up for me, but this did not detract from the overall reading pleasure.

I am excited about having discovered this talented new voice in crime fiction, and look forward to reading Franscell’s second novel in the series, The Obituary.


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

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Book Review: WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING by Kathryn Croft


While You Were Sleeping


Title:
 While You Were Sleeping
Author: Kathryn Croft
Publisher: Bookouture
Read: November 2016
Expected publication: 16 November 2016



Synopsis (Goodreads):



You wake up to find the man beside you is dead.
He is not your husband. This is not your bed.
What do you do?

Tara Logan lives a quiet life with her husband, Noah, and two children, teenager Rosie and eleven-year-old Spencer.

But her peace is shattered when she wakes in her neighbour Lee’s bed, with no memory of how she got there or what happened between them.
And worse – he has been stabbed to death.

Convinced she didn’t kill Lee, Tara stays silent, fearing the truth will rip her family apart.

But as her daughter spirals out of control, and her husband becomes increasingly distant, Tara soon realises that someone in her life knows what really happened to Lee. She must get to the truth before they do.

Tara made a mistake … but will one night cost her everything? 


My thoughts:



Looking at my one singular star, you can probably tell that I did not enjoy this book. It wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read, but it was probably one of the worst I have read this year. So whilst I give 1 star for effort, and perhaps another half for getting it published, I am finding it hard to point out anything I actually liked about While You Were Sleeping, except the title, which sounded intriguing, and the general premise of the story, which I thought held great potential and made me request this book in the first place. So where did it go so terribly wrong?

Firstly, I found it very hard to get any sense of character, place or time in this novel. Without actually searching for it, I am still unsure of where this book was actually set. Some non-descript cul-de-sac in a suburbian neighbourhood in ??? England? Australia? Siberia?  Tara’s rather bland and somewhat juvenile monologue is non-descriptive, telling rather than showing, and saying very little that is actually worthwhile knowing. Whilst the teenage Rosie can maybe be excused for being a complete strop due to her age, there was no defence for Tara’s faulty reasoning. There was no blood on me, therefore I couldn’t have killed my neighbour. No, I just woke up naked in his bed, with no recollection at all of what happened, but never mind, let’s just get on with our lives, shall we? I have seen plenty of people in shock through my work to know that there can be a certain sense of denial, but Tara really takes it to the extreme. She either is on a high dose of daily valium, or needs a mental health assessment – stat!

The writing often struck me as amateurish, and the police investigation is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever come across in a murder mystery. Forget about forensics, who needs them? No, instead, DI Holden Hunt (the name!!!), bases his whole investigation on: “Call me crazy, but I’ve always trusted my instincts, and you are not a murderer”, and shares the details of the ongoing murder investigation with one of the main suspects of the crime. Just to bring this point home to the reader, he repeats this several times in different passages: “But I am trusting my instincts here.” Perhaps this is a new technique we have not heard about, set to entrap the unsuspecting murderer?  Forget method – you have instinct? Welcome to the force! I am hoping that no real police detective out there ever picks up this novel, or my emergency department will be full of police officers with sore abdominal muscles from laughing too hard!

So, giving up on taking anything that comes out of Tara’s mouth seriously after statements like: “Turning back to me, he shakes my hand, and I hope he doesn’t take my clammy palms as a sign of guilt”, I read on with the sort of wry amusement that comes from resignation. This book was never going to do it for me. I was either going to give up on it, feeling slightly cheated out of the good read promised to me by comparisons of the novel to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (I should know by now that this usually means very little), or see the strange humour in between the lines. I hate giving up on any book, but it proved difficult. Sadly, While You Were Sleeping never managed to redeem itself to me with anything clever in its revelations or twists.


Perhaps I have been spoiled by recent 5-star reads such as The Trespasser (now there is one of the best fictional police investigations I have ever had the pleasure to read!), or I See You (a real suspense thriller), but While You Were Sleeping did not deliver for me at all. I certainly did not get the palpitations experienced by another reader, except perhaps from laughing too much about one of Tara’s more absurd statements. Thrilling? No. Believable? No. Even the mystery is questionable, as in the end I really did not care about who killed the man. But, as always, this is only my very personal opinion, so if you are game, pick it up and judge for yourself. Rant over.

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

Image result for 1.5 stars

Book Review: THE TROPHY CHILD by Paula Daly


The Trophy Child



Title: The Trophy Child
Author: Paula Daly
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
Read: November 2016
Expected publication: 7 March 2017



Synopsis (Goodreads):


Paula Daly is acclaimed for her distinctive voice, masterful plotting, and terrifying depictions of ordinary people whose everyday lives are turned upside down through deception and murder. In her unsettling new domestic thriller, The Trophy Child, Daly digs beneath the serene surface of the idyllic suburban Lake District community where families strive for perfection, delivering a suspenseful, surprising story of motherhood and fallibility.

Karen Bloom is not the coddling mother type. She believes in raising her children for success. Some in the neighborhood call her assertive, others say she’s driven, but in gossiping circles she’s known as: the tiger mother. Karen believes that tough discipline is the true art of parenting and that achievement leads to ultimate happiness. She expects her husband and her children to perform at 200 percent—no matter the cost. But in an unending quest for excellence, her seemingly flawless family start to rebel against her.

Her husband Noel is a handsome doctor with a proclivity for alcohol and women. Their prodigy daughter, Bronte, is excelling at school, music lessons, dance classes, and yet she longs to run away. Verity, Noel’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, is starting to display aggressive behavior. And Karen’s son from a previous relationship falls deeper into drug use. When tragedy strikes the Blooms, Karen’s carefully constructed facade begins to fall apart—and once the deadly cracks appear, they are impossible to stop.

A thrilling tale of ambition and murder, Daly’s richly imagined world of suburban striving and motherly love is an absorbing page-turner about the illusions of perfection and the power games between husband and wife, parent and child.


My thoughts:



I really enjoyed Paula Daly’s previous novel The Mistake I Made, so was excited to receive a copy of her latest murder / mystery from Netgalley. As with the previous book, The Trophy Child is set in the idyllic Lake District, far removed in my mind from dysfunctional families, murder and mayhem, but a wonderful armchair travel location to get taken to.

Daly’s latest novel again deals with the mistakes people make and their consequences. Karen, who is a “tiger mother” and generally not a very likeable person, has not only made her daughter Bronte’s  life miserable by constantly pushing her to be an overachiever, but her relationship with her son Ewan and her husband Noel also leaves much to be desired. Not to mention her stepdaughter Verity, who is receiving counselling by a psychologist after actually trying to strangle her stepmother. Therefore, when Karen is found murdered and dumped in one of the idyllic lakes in the area, there are suspects galore – it seems that Karen has even alienated and upset random strangers to a point where their murderous tendencies were ready to surface.  And whilst a lack of suspects is never a good thing, DI Joanne Aspinall has her work cut out with too many potential murderers to choose from. This is further complicated by the personal history she has with one of the suspects, which is slightly clouding her ability to stay totally impartial.

Personally, I found the title, The Trophy Child, a little bit misleading, as the mother / daughter dynamic is only one of the features in this tale about an extremely dysfunctional family, the Blooms. Noel, the cheating, absentee father who only married his second wife Karen because she (“accidentally”) fell pregnant during an extramarital affair whilst he was still married to his first wife Jennifer, now in a nursing home with end-stage MS. Karen, the “tiger-mother”, who is pushing her youngest child to the brink of breakdown by asking her to be a prodigy even when according to her teachers she is just an normal little girl with no outstanding talents. The three children, Ewan, Verity and Bronte (honestly, who calls their child that?), who have various problems as a result of the strange family dynamics and with support from either parent sadly lacking.  Yikes! A Brady Bunch they are definitely not! Therefore, when the murder finally happened I didn’t shed any tears for the unlikeable Karen, except that I found her husband Noel equally loathsome. Not only did he stand by and watch his wife push his youngest child to the brink of madness, but he was also sanctimonious enough to think it was perfectly acceptable to have extramarital affairs because he was bored / unhappy / unfulfilled in his marriage/s – boo-hoo! I was therefore mostly disgusted that anyone would fall for this smooth talker – at the cost of my respect for one of the other characters in the book. At least he should have gotten his just-desserts in the end! Anyway, with my blood thus brought to boiling point, the author achieved the coveted highly charged emotional response, which keeps readers reading on and gives fuel for great bookclub discussions.


All in all, The Trophy Child was an enjoyable read, even though it did not grip me quite as much as The Mistake I Made – mainly due to some of the characters, who were sadly lacking in any redeeming features in my opinion. If you enjoy murder / mysteries centring around dysfunctional families that may appear quite normal on the outside, then definitely give this one a go. 

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

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Book Review: SWIMMING LESSONS by Claire Fuller


Swimming Lessons




Title:
 Swimming Lessons
Author: Claire Fuller
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Read: November 2016
Expected publication: 26 January 2017



Synopsis (Goodreads):



Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband Gil about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides each in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.


Twelve years after her disappearance, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Sexy and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious and complicated truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.


My thoughts:



There is so much to love about this book, it is hard to know where to start!

Swimming Lessons is told in a dual time frame, the present time told in third person mainly through the eyes of the youngest daughter, Flora, whilst the past is being explored by a series of letters Ingrid wrote to her absent and cheating husband Gil before her disappearance. The author is one of the few writers who are able to make this style work, artfully weaving Ingrid’s recollections and musings into the storyline without sacrificing either the flow of the novel or its cohesiveness. I absolutely loved Ingrid’s voice, which tells the sad tale of the steady erosion of innocence by the damaging dynamics of a dysfunctional relationship. In her first letter, she remembers her 20-year old self, all smiles, twirling skirts and innocence, on the day she first lays eyes on Gil, a charismatic university professor twice her age with a reputation of drinking and womanising. Inevitably drawn to his dangerous handsomeness, like a moth to the flame, Ingrid chooses a path that will totally consume her, change her life and ultimately destroy her.

In the present, we get to know Flora, a free-spirited girl in her early twenties, who is summoned back to her childhood home after her father has suffered an accident. Again, the author comes into her own, exploring the complex dynamics of the Coleman family – Flora, her older sister Nanette and her dying father Gil, all thrown together one last time in the dilapidated “Swimming Pavilion”. By weaving Flora’s reality together with Ingrid’s recollections of the past, we are able to glimpse the different realities of each individual family member. Whilst Nanette , as the older, sensible girl, has a good grasp of her father’s shortcomings as head of family and husband, Flora has been sheltered from the harsh realities of this dysfunctional family, and still adores her ageing father as the champion of her childhood.  
“Oh Flora, there are so many things you conveniently remember wrong. Sometimes I wonder if you were living in the same house as Mum and me.”
And whilst Nanette has long given up her mother for dead, Flora still has hope that one day she will walk through the doors of the Swimming Pavilion as if nothing has ever happened.

The setting is stunning and befitting this unusual family, and the author’s lyrical writing evokes the wild and untamed coastline perfectly. I had vivid mental images of the rock “Old Smoker” and loved Ingrid’s descriptions of swimming there, her one escape from her unhappy life. 

“Under the surface, the water boiled as if storm clouds were massing and dispersing at great speed, and I spiralled through them, a leaf in a whirlwind.” 

Swimming features strongly in both Ingrid’s and Flora’s lives, as an escape from reality, a healing force, a way to get back to basics and beginnings.

All in all, Swimming Lessons is a beautifully drawn story about relationships, family and the sacrifices we make for love. The author’s exquisitely drawn characters and setting captured me from the very first page, and I could not tear myself away. Highly 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. 


Image result for 4.5 stars