Monday, 18 September 2017

Holiday Reads Mini Review #1: EXQUISITE by Sarah Stovell

It's holiday time! I've had my reading list sorted for ages, leaving the most coveted books on my tbr pile for my trip - which you must agree shows great restraint!

After much agonising, I chose this little gem to sneak into my cabin luggage and be first off the rank. Unfortunately I was much too tired after coming off night shifts to read much on the plane, but made up for it once we got to the beautiful city of Barcelona.

I will try to post mini reviews of my holiday reads by painstakingly typing them out on my trusty old Samsung in hotel rooms at night, and challenging myself by trying to figure out my Blogger app as I go, so please forgive me any formatting errors.

Pictured here is the beautiful ancient city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where we are currently staying.




Title: Exquisite
Author: Sarah Stovell
Read: September 2017 in Barcelona, Spain
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐1/2

Book Description (Goodreads):

Bo Luxton has it all—a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.
Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops. Or does it?

Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

My musings:

Ever since its release date earlier this year, I have kept stumbling across raving reviews about Sarah Stovell's dark and unsettling psychological thriller about obsession and lies, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. With a premise that was certain to mess with my mind, I thought it would make the perfect holiday read. And true to its promise, once I started I was well and truly hooked!

Told in the alternating voices of Bo and Alice, the story soon spiralled into the murky waters of lies, deception and a friendship gone terribly wrong. Having two unreliable narrators, each with their own agendas and motives, soon saw me constantly questioning everything I read, which made for an interesting if somewhat exhausting reading experience. To be honest, neither of the two women were particularly trustworthy, both scarred from dysfunctional childhoods that make most of our ordinary lives sound like princess fairy tales. Despite the age gap between the women, and their obvious differences, their rich background stories explained perfectly why they would be drawn to one another. I confess that the young struggling Alice struck me as the more innocent of the two and I warmed to her much more than to Bo, despite her love for hiking (which I share) and being much closer in age to me.You will have to see for yourself whether I was on the right track or not!

Stovell's writing is engaging and seductive, drawing me so deeply into the story that I emerged a long time later like a sleeper out of a disturbing dream. With its constant twists and turns and two narrators who both tried to convince me that there account of events was the right one, I was constantly questioning what I was reading, to the very last page. And to be totally frank with you, I'm still not sure if I got it right, even after the last page has been turned. Yes, it certainly made good on its promise of messing with my mind!

I don't want to give any spoilers, so will not delve any deeper into the story other than to say that there is a lot of tension and foreboding as the two women's friendship blossoms. For me, disaster was always the inevitable outcome, and the power of the story lay in its detail. Personally, I thought that the ending was a bit of a let-down, feeling slightly rushed where it could have drawn out the unbearable tension just a tad longer to make it truly satisfying. However, I can fully understand the hype Stovell's book created, and will be anxiously looking out for her next book in anticipation of another great read.

Summary:

Exquisite is an unsettling and utterly compulsive story of a friendship gone wrong that will mess with your mind and make you question everything you read. A must-read for lovers of domestic noir who are looking for a character driven story with unreliable narrators who will stay with you long after the last page has been turned.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Book Review: DARK PINES by Will Dean

Title: Dark Pines
Author: Will Dean
Publisher:
Oneworld Publications
Read:
September 2017
Expected publication: 4 January 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2


Book Description:

An isolated Swedish town. A deaf reporter terrified of nature. A dense spruce forest overdue for harvest. A pair of eyeless hunters found murdered in the woods.

It’s week one of the Swedish elk hunt and the sound of gunfire is everywhere. When Tuva Moodyson investigates the story that could make her career she stumbles on a web of secrets that knit Gavrik town together. Are the latest murders connected to the Medusa killings twenty years ago? Is someone following her? Why take the eyes? Tuva must face her demons and venture deep into the woods to stop the killer and write the story. And then get the hell out of Gavrik.

My musings:

Tuva is an interesting, multi-dimensional character who I like straight from the start. Being deaf from childhood, life has not always been easy for her, but she is never bitter of bemoaning her fate, determined not to let her disability stop her from achieving her goals. Wanting to be near her dying mother sees Tuva give up her career as a journalist in London and move to the small town of Gavrik in a remote region in the Swedish countryside, where she finds work writing small features for the local paper. Her job suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when a man is found murdered in a gruesome fashion in the forest, mutilated in ways that link him to other killings twenty years ago.

The more Tuva starts investigating the town's dark secrets, the creepier the book becomes. There were some truly terrifying characters there - those woodcarver sisters will give me nightmares for some time to come I think! Everyone seems to have a motive for murder, and most of the characters are - for lack of a better word –odd, yet strangely compelling. There were so many interesting side stories here that would make for whole books just on their own, and I could have kept reading on long after the mystery had been solved just to find out more about this unusual cast of characters. Dean portrays small town mentality perfectly, with all its prejudice, allgiances and narrow-mindedness, Tuva always remaining the outsider. Her friendship with Tammy was portrayed beautifully, and I was glad that at least she had someone fighting in her corner!

I am always a sucker for a creepy remote setting, and the author certainly knows how to set the atmosphere: the dark, sinister woods Tuva is so afraid of take on a life of their own, closing in tighter and tighter around the small town the more people fear for their lives with a serial killer on the loose. Dean does a brilliant job in ratcheting up the tension by including small, seemingly insignificant details that add to the general undercurrent of danger, like the plague of insects that attack Tuva every time she goes into the woods, or the pile of rotting mouse carcasses she finds piled up against a stonewall near one of her suspect's homes. With its air of menace, the forest becomes almost like another character Tuva is up against in her quest to find out the truth. 


Summary:

Dark Pines is one of those dark, atmospheric and haunting thrillers that contains everything I look for in a good mystery, and I was instantly hooked. If you are looking for a sympathetic gutsy heroine, a rich cast of unusual characters, a creepy claustrophobic setting and a chilling murder mystery, you can’t go wrong with this one!  It definitely earned itself a spot on my favourites list for the year and I look forward to reading more from the author in future. Very highly recommended. 


Thank you to Netgalley and Oneworld Publications for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.





Monday, 11 September 2017

Book Review: COLD BLOOD by Robert Bryndza (Detective Erika Foster #5)

Author: Robert Bryndza
Publisher:
Bookouture
Read:
September 2017
Expected publication: 20 September 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟1/2


Book Description (Goodreads):

When a battered suitcase containing the dismembered body of a young man washes up on the shore of the river Thames, Detective Erika Foster is shocked. She’s worked on some terrifying cases but never seen anything like this before.

As Erika and her team set to work, she makes the link with another victim – the body of a young woman dumped in an identical suitcase two weeks ago.

Erika quickly realises she’s on the trail of a serial killer who’s already made their next move. Yet just as Erika starts to make headway with the investigation, she is the victim of a brutal attack.

But nothing will stop Erika. As the body count rises, the twin daughters of her colleague Commander Marsh are abducted, and the stakes are higher than ever before. Can Erika save the lives of two innocent children before it’s too late? She’s running out of time and about to make a disturbing discovery…there’s more than one killer.

My musings:

I’ve been a big fan of the Erika Foster series from the start, and was duly excited to see that a fifth book is coming out, doing my usual happy dance around the kitchen when I got the approval for an ARC from Netgalley. I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes Erika such a stand-out character for me, but I find the series totally addictive! Bryndza has a very direct, “no-frills” writing style that works well for the genre and really appeals to me. The short chapters are filled with action and move the story along at a good pace. Plus, I have grown very fond of the team of detectives and forensic scientists that have been featuring alongside Erika, eagerly following their side stories.

As usual, Bryndza has given Erika a chilling and challenging case to solve, which she approaches in her usual “give-it-all” manner, determined to find the killer/s before the body count mounts. Parts of the book are narrated from the perpetrators’ POV, and I must admit that on this occasion this did not work as well for me than in previous novels, especially Nina’s diary entries. The trouble I have with most fictional diaries is that they rarely read like a real-life diary, and tend to slow the story down with lots of internal dialogue. Personally, I thought that this distracted me from the main story and pushed Erika and her team into the background. I felt that I was not invested enough in Nina’s story to care about her most intimate thoughts, which made the book flag a bit for me in the middle. I would have much preferred to be more involved in Erika’s investigation and problem solving, which was overshadowed by the story of the two perpetrators and always being a few steps ahead of the police. This is purely a personal preference and will probably not bother other readers, but I didn’t feel that Cold Blood offered the same thrilling cat-and-mouse game as previous books. I am also not a big fan of the theme of detectives becoming targets, finding it overused and often quite far-fetched. That said, once the story picked up pace in the last quarter of the book, there was plenty of action to make up for the short lull, and I loved the tense and thrilling finale. 

Summary:

Whilst Book 5 was not my favourite instalment in the Erika Foster series, it features a chilling murder case, a ruthless perpetrator and plenty of action, and I am sure that many readers will love it. I am still a big fan of the series and am looking forward to Erika’s next case - I hope that she will finally find a bit more happiness in her personal life!


Thank you to Netgalley and Bookouture for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.





Friday, 8 September 2017

Audiobook Review: INTO THE DARKEST CORNER by Elizabeth Haynes

Author: Elizabeth Haynes
Read: September 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

“You think you know now, don't you? But you have no idea what it was like.” 


Book Description (Goodreads):

When young, pretty Catherine Bailey meets Lee Brightman, she can't believe her luck. Gorgeous, charismatic, and a bit mysterious, Lee seems almost too perfect to be true.

But what begins as flattering attention and spontaneous, passionate sex transforms into raging jealousy, and Catherine soon discovers that Lee's dazzling blue eyes and blond good looks hide a dark, violent nature. Disturbed by his increasingly erratic, controlling behavior, she tries to break it off; turning to her friends for support, she's stunned to find they don't believe her. Increasingly isolated and driven into the darkest corner of her world, a desperate Catherine plans a meticulous escape.

Four years later, Lee is behind bars and Catherine—now Cathy—is trying to build a new life in a new city. Though her body has healed, the trauma of the past still haunts her. Then Stuart Richardson, her attractive new neighbor, moves in. Encouraging her to confront her fears, he sparks unexpected hope and the possibility of love and a normal life.

Until the day the phone rings . . .

My musings:

Rarely has a book ever made me so angry! At one stage, I almost experienced a murderous rage against one of the characters, wanting – needing – to see justice done. It says a lot about the author’s writing skills to be able to elicit such strong emotional responses in her readers. Whilst this is a slow-burning mystery, its tension relying more on the psychological states of mind of its characters rather than action, at times it was almost unbearable to follow their slow but inevitable fate as they walked head first into the abyss.

Catherine Bailey and Cathy Bailey may be one and the same woman, but they are like night and day. How can the carefree young Catherine have turned into a frightened, obsessive recluse, too afraid to get out of her house, and endlessly checking windows and doors to make sure they are secure? Don’t worry – you are about to find out. Told in a “now” and “then” format from the POV of Cathy as she reflects on her present life and her past, we get to follow her journey from first meeting the charismatic Lee to having to lock herself in her flat and fearing for her life. The experiences that turned Catherine into Cathy are as intense as they are terrifying – I listened to the audiobook, and some scenes left me shaking in horror as well as rage of the sheer “wrongness” of it all. Without giving anything away that has not already been mentioned in the blurb, Into the Darkest Corner is a tale of domestic abuse, psychological terror and of a relationship gone horribly wrong. The story is so well plotted that every time I questioned Catherine’s options, I realised just how limited they were, how omnipotent the evil that had taken over her life. I constantly asked myself: what would I do? And shuddered at the image of the dead-end corner Catherine had found herself in, with her back against the wall.  

Summary:

Into the Darkest Corner tells of one of the most chilling fictional relationships I have ever encountered in a psychological thriller, and it terrified me to the core. A brilliantly plotted, dark and sinister book that will stay with me for some time to come, and makes me want to check that my windows and doors are locked up tight. It would make for some brilliant bookclub discussions!

Credit must also go to Karen Cass, whose voice was perfect for narrating Cathy’s story – I loved listening to her and she gave life to all the characters in the book. 



Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Book Review: LITTLE SECRETS by Anna Snoekstra

Author: Anna Snoekstra
Publisher:
Harlequin Australia
Read:
September 2017
Expected publication: 23 October 2017
My Rating:🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2


Book Description (blurb):

What happens when ambition trumps the truth?

A town reeling in the wake of tragedy…

An arsonist is on the loose in Colmstock, Australia, most recently burning down the town’s courthouse and killing a young boy who was trapped inside.

An aspiring journalist desperate for a story…

The clock is ticking for Rose Blakey. With nothing but rejections from newspapers piling up, her job pulling beers for cops at the local tavern isn’t enough to even cover rent. Rose needs a story — a big one.

A bizarre mystery…

In the weeks after the courthouse fire, porcelain replicas of Colmstock’s daughters begin turning up on doorsteps, terrifying parents and testing the limits of the town’s already fractured police force.

Rose may have finally found her story. But as her articles gain traction and the boundaries of her investigation blur, Colmstock is seized by a seething paranoia. Soon, no one is safe from suspicion. And when Rose’s attention turns to the mysterious stranger living in the rooms behind the tavern, neighbour turns on neighbour and the darkest side of self-preservation is revealed.


My musings:

I think that over the last decade or so, Australian mystery & crime fiction has really come into its own, with authors using unique characteristics in their stories and creating a niche market for themselves that draws readers from all around the world for an Aussie interpretation of “noir” . For me, these are books that have a strong sense of place, using the harshness of nature and the remoteness of the setting to create tension and a constant undercurrent of menace and danger to the story. Little Secrets definitely falls into that category! Snoekstra has done a wonderful job in creating not only a setting, but also characters that captivate and terrify at the same time. The dying little country town of Colmstock is so quintessentially Australian that you can literally feel the heat and hear the flies buzzing in its dusty, deserted streets! Not only does its remote setting make for a perfect background to a chilling mystery, but Snoekstra includes some seemingly insignificant but terrifying elements that make the streets of this particular country town even more creepy: such as the smoking ruins of the courthouse, or the spooky presence of the paper plate kids – and those creepy dolls of course! I had goosebumps reading it!

In Rose, Snoekstra has created a wonderful main protagonist – one you cannot help liking, even though she definitely has her flaws. Young and ambitious, Rose’s main dream is to get out of the dying town she has grown up in, and yet has limited means to do so. An aspiring journalist, Rose knows rejection only too well, even though this latest one threatens to put all her best-laid plans to rest. Like any creature trapped, Rose is not afraid to fight for her chance of an escape. Her friend Mia, on the other hand, has long resigned herself to living and dying in Colmstock, which makes her both adore and resent Rose in equal measure. The dynamics between the two best friends was fascinating and very well drawn, and held a few unexpected surprises.

I really don’t want to give anything away to spoil this wonderful mystery for anyone, so won’t be delving too much into the storyline, except to say that it had me captivated from beginning to end. If it hadn’t been for the reality of having to go to work, and catch a few hours sleep, I would have devoured this book in one giant read-a-thon. I couldn’t tear myself away! As things start heading south, and the small community of Colmstock is beginning  to unravel like a pack of wild dogs snapping and snarling at each other, the tension was almost unbearable. I loved how the author slowly strips each and every character of their masks, revealing their true personalities underneath. There were a few surprises there!  Snoekstra’s ability to give all her characters true-to-life personalities and flaws made them come to life for me. As tensions grow, and neighbours turn against neighbours, friends against friends, there was a palpable sense of menace that had my heart racing and my knuckles turn white as I gripped the book tightly in my hands, wanting, needing to find out how this would all end – what more can you ask from a good mystery? 

Summary:

Little Secrets is Australian crime fiction at its best – this is the type of psychological thriller that makes me come back for more, and I can’t wait to read more from this talented author. Highly recommended! 


A big thank you to Harlequin Australia for the free copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.



Monday, 4 September 2017

Book Review: IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE by Emily Koch

Author: Emily Koch
Publisher:
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Read:
September 2017
Expected publication: 11 January 2018
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟


Book Description (Goodreads):

Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen.

But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger.

As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.

My musings:

I know that this book is not going to be published until January. Plus, I have plenty of books on my reading list that I should be reading first. But I felt like I just needed something a bit different, something that stood out from the fray– what would fit the bill better than a mystery told from the POV of a character in a permanent vegetative state, his active mind trapped in a lifeless body and unable to communicate? I just couldn’t resist!

Alex is in a coma, unable to move his body, eat, speak, or even move his eyes.  Two years after a terrible climbing accident, the doctors have long given up on him ever regaining any function and have been unable to prove that Alex is even aware of his surroundings. Pneumonia has almost claimed his life several times, but still Alex clings on to the small hope that one day he can return to his old life, his girlfriend, his family. Lying helpless in bed, totally at the mercy of others, he overhears his visitors talking about the incident that has cost him his life as he knew it, but as hard as he tries to think back, he cannot remember anything. Hearing that the police are investigating his accident as a possible attempted murder, Alex is determined to find out what happened – if it’s the last thing he will ever do.

I really loved the premise of If I Die Before I Wake, which was both original and captivating. Imagining what it must feel like for our main character, Alex, trapped in his own body unable to communicate even his most basic needs or pain, created an almost unbearable tension. His frustration over his helplessness was highlighted by the many scenes in which he had to endure pain or suffering, simply because of being locked into his lifeless body. It was horrible to imagine what this must be like! The mystery element is well thought out and kept my attention, and it was interesting how slowly but surely all the pieces of the puzzle came together in Alex’s mind. The interpersonal relationships were sensitively drawn – the nurses, the doctors, Alex’s girlfriend and family – and made for some touching and some infuriating moments.

The main issue I had with the book was the pacing. Whilst Alex’s predicament made for an original plotline, it also slowed down the story quite significantly in places, whilst the reader follows his long internal dialogue and his daily frustrations. It reminded me a bit of Tom Hanks’ epic movie Castaway, where a marooned Chuck Noland only has his volleyball to talk to – which, to be fair, is very original, but wore a bit thin after a while. Parts of the story dragged a bit for me, and I would have liked to have a different element introduced, a different POV perhaps, just to move the story along and shed light on some other aspects of the investigation Alex was not privy to. Some threads didn’t seem to go anywhere, like the scene where Alex’s catheter “fell out”, which made me wonder if I had missed something? Because of this, I struggled at times to fully connect to Alex, hoping for things to move along a bit faster than they did. 

Summary:


All in all, If I Die Before I Wake was a very original mystery written from the POV from the most unlikely character – a man trapped inside his lifeless body, surely one of the most terrible situations a person could find themselves in. Koch explores this topic with sensitivity and insight, realistically portraying the frustrations of her helpless character as he strives to find out the truth. Whilst the pacing was a bit slow for me at times, the story certainly made up for it in originality. One of the most unusual mysteries I have read this year.


Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Book Review: ARE YOU SLEEPING by Kathleen Barber

Author: Kathleen Barber
Publisher:
Pan Macmillan
Read:
August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟1/2



Book Description (Goodreads):

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father's murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.

My musings:

I love mysteries that feature or revolve around strong dysfunctional family dynamics, and Are You Sleeping certainly fits the bill. Two estranged sisters. A father who was murdered when the twins were in their teens. A mother who abandoned her children to join a cult. Wow, that makes my own life look pretty normal!

Out of this cast of dysfunctional characters, Josie – our narrator – is probably the most level headed one, trying to escape her past and the legacy of her father’s murder, for which a (then) teenage neighbour is currently serving time in jail. Having changed her name and dissociated herself from everyone who knew her then, Josie has managed to create a normal life out of the spotlight. Even her boyfriend has no idea who she really is. But as false identities go, Josie’s is about to burn down in flames after her mother’s suicide in Northern California. Returning to her old hometown for the funeral, Josie must not only face her estranged twin Lanie, but also the reasons which drove the sisters apart all those years ago. To make matters worse, the Buhrman twins are being relentlessly pursued by Poppy Parnell, a true-crime reporter who has been questioning the verdict in the twin’s father’s murder case, which hinged solely on Lanie’s testimony at the time.

By including excerpts from Poppy Parnell’s true-crime podcast and social media feeds into the story, Barber not only creates a very contemporary and unique narrative, but also manages to build tension as Josie’s life is once again thrown into the spotlight. I admit that it took me a little while to get engrossed in the story, due to the many different elements in the beginning, but once the whole extent of the mystery was unveiled, I was well and truly hooked.

There are plenty of skeletons in the Buhrman family closet, which were intriguing and unsettling and made for compulsive reading to find out all the gory details. Whilst the main plot held few surprises for me, the general theme of the brutal impact of social media on the victims’ lives was an eye-opener. We know that this happens, but to be honest, I had never given it much thought before. Having to change one’s identity to escape the media spotlight and live a normal life out of the public eye seems like an extreme measure to take! It was unsettling to read the online trolls’ judgments and opinions about the Buhrman family, so brutally and thoughtlessly discussed in public forums, with no feelings spared for the people involved. I really felt for Josie, an innocent victim in the whole sorry saga. The complicated dynamics between the sisters added an irresistible psychological element to the story, even though I thought that some of the darker elements could have been explored a bit more deeply to create extra tension. 

Summary:

All in all, Are You Sleeping is an original and contemporary psychological thriller focusing on dysfunctional family dynamics and the impact of social media on victims’ lives. Including several different elements into the narrative made for interesting reading and reflection, and I really liked Barber’s engaging writing style. Whilst lacking some of the dark tension some readers may look for in the genre, this slow-burning mystery made up for it in originality and character development. I really enjoyed it and would not hesitate to recommend it to lovers of the genre. I look forward to reading more from this author in future.


Thank you to Netgalley and Pan Macmillan for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.



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Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book Review: NEON PILGRIM by Lisa Dempster


Title: Neon Pilgrim
Author: Lisa Dempster
Publisher:
Ventura Press
Read:
August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Book Description (Goodreads):

During a culture-shocked exchange year in Japan, fifteen-year-old Lisa Dempster’s imagination is ignited by the story of the henro michi, an arduous 1200 kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage through the mountains of Japan.

Perfectly suiting the romantic view of herself as a dusty, travel-worn explorer (well, one day), she promises to return to Japan and walk the henro michi, one way or another, as soon as humanely possible.

Fast-forward thirteen years, and Lisa’s life is vastly different to what she pictured it would be. Severely depressed, socially withdrawn, overweight, on the dole and living with her mum, she is 28 and miserable.

And then, completely by chance, the henro michi comes back into her life, through a book at her local library. It’s a sign. She decides then and there to go back to Japan almost immediately: to walk the henro michi, and walk herself back to health.

Brushing aside the barriers that other people might find daunting – the 1200km of mountainous terrain, the sweltering Japanese summer, the fact she has no money and has never done a multi-day hike before – Lisa is determined to walk the pilgrimage, or die trying.

My musings:

I love hiking nearly as much as I love books, so when I received an offer to review Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster it was a no-brainer to put my hands up – yes please!  Neon Pilgrim is Lisa’s account of her pilgrimage on the Henro Michi trail in Shikoku, Japan – walking 1200 km of mountainous terrain in the gruelling summer heat. I admire people who have the courage to step outside their comfort zone to experience truly life-changing events. My own hikes, whilst having taken me to some beautiful locations, have been tame in comparison, always holding the promise of company, a good meal, a hot shower (sometimes) and a bed to sleep in at the end of the day – even if the bed was in a remote mountain hut. Lisa, on the other hand, hiked in true pilgrim style – navigating completely alien territory on her own, with both her meals and her shelter often only received at the hands of generous strangers. What a lot of courage it takes to travel like that!

Writing with total honesty and an irresistible sense of Aussie humour that was both refreshing as well as laugh-out-loud funny at times, Lisa recalls her experiences on her pilgrimage, giving the reader an insight into both the gruelling as well as the rewarding aspects of her journey. Setting off without any experience or prior training, and fighting an ongoing battle with depression, she navigated the pain and pitfalls of her first few days (and weeks) on the trail with amazing stamina, not holding anything back when recalling her pain and doubts on setting off on her hike. 

"Are you sad?" Shunya asked in English.
"No," I replied. "Maybe. I don't know. Just tired."
He nodded.
"It's hard," he said gently.

What wonderful armchair travel – I have never been to Japan, but could vividly picture both its beautiful countryside as well as its graceful people. Lisa’s inner journey was also an interesting one, as she slowly became more comfortable in her own body and managed to still her ever-chatty Western mind to reflect on her life choices.

With a voice that is as honest as it is heartfelt, the tale never comes across as whiny or preachy, as some similar life-journey books tend to do – and it was always entertaining to read about Lisa’s encounters with the many colourful characters she met along the way. I think the one thing I loved most about Neon Pilgrim (and which made the book stand out from many similar travel tales) was Lisa’s uninhibited honesty, the way she never censors her thoughts in order to make herself appear braver or tougher in the eyes of the reader. It takes a lot of guts to leave yourself so exposed and vulnerable and own up to your own weaknesses!
  

Summary:


If you like hiking, or armchair travel, or just a tale about someone who was gutsy enough to step out of her comfort zone, Neon Pilgrim may be just the book for you. Brimming with interesting characters and written with warmth, honesty and an irresistible Aussie humour, this memoir was both interesting as well as entertaining. I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever yearned for adventure but has found many excuses why they can’t do it – Lisa’s honest account of her pilgrimage proves that where there is a will, there is a way! 


Thank you to Ventura Press for the free copy of this memoir and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

About the Author:

Lisa Dempster is the Artistic director and CEO of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Previous roles have included Asialink fellow at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Director of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Founding Director of EWFdigital (now Digital Writers' Festival) and publisher at Vignette Press. Lisa has travelled widely in search of literary and other adventures.







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Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Book Review: BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman

Title: Bird Box
Author: Josh Malerman
Read: August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


“How can she expect her children to dream as big as the stars if they can't lift their heads to gaze upon them?” 


Book Description (Goodreads):

Something is out there, something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse of it, and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remains, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now that the boy and girl are four, it's time to go, but the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat--blindfolded--with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. Something is following them all the while, but is it man, animal, or monster?


My musings:

Wow – what an utterly compelling and at the same time terrifying read! After shouting out on social media for recommendations from readers for a good “creepy” book, Bird Box by Josh Malerman kept popping up everywhere, and I can see why. I am so glad that I read it, and a big thank you to everyone who recommended it to me.

Told in a dual timeframe, Bird Box tells the story of Malorie and her two young children, who are prisoners in their own home to stay safe from a terrifying presence outside which sends you crazy and kills you if you as much as lay eyes on it. To protect themselves, they must wear a blindfold at all times, navigating the hostile world they live in totally blind, knowing that there is an evil presence out there wishing them harm. As Malorie reflects on the time leading up to her present predicament, the reader slowly finds out how the world ended up being such a dangerous, hostile place for humans. With a constant thread of tension and danger lurking in the background, the book held many absolutely bone chilling moments that made my heart pound and my hair stand on end.

Bird Box is one of the most original stories I have read in a long time, and whilst I am normally not a huge fan of dystopian horror, this one had me captivated from page 1. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in one massive four hour read-a-thon, despite getting in trouble with my family for being totally unsociable. The thought of living in a dangerous world without the benefit of sight to navigate me whilst carrying out chores to ensure my daily survival was so terrifying that a sense of dread prevailed long after I had turned the final page. Rarely does a book leave such a lasting impression on me – I even dreamt about it that night!

Seeing that I don’t want to give any spoilers, I will just leave it at: if you want an original and creepy book, Bird Box is a must-read! Whilst I find many dystopian books either too depressing or too unbelievable, Bird Box struck exactly the right balance to sneak its way into my psyche and haunt me with its utterly terrifying premise. I also loved the way the author did not have to resort to blood, guts and gore to get the heart pounding – the power of the book really lies in the reader’s own imagination. Two days after reading it I still marvel at the miracle of sight – the blue skies, the green grass – knowing that I couldn’t survive without it. A brilliant book, very highly recommended!


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Thursday, 24 August 2017

Book Review: THE MOUNTAIN by Luca D'Andrea

Title: The Mountain
Author: Luca D'Andrea
Publisher:
Hachette Australia
Read:
August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟 1/2

"That's how it always is. In the ice, first you hear the voice of the Beast, then you die."

Book Description:

Jeremiah Salinger blames himself.

The crash was his fault. He was the only survivor. Now only his daughter Clara can put a smile on his face. The depression and the nightmares are closing in.

But when he takes Clara to the Bletterbach - a canyon in the Dolomites rich in fossil remains - he overhears by chance a conversation that gives his life renewed focus. In 1985, three students were murdered there, their bodies savaged, limbs severed and strewn by a killer who was never found.

Salinger, a New Yorker, is far from home, and these Italian mountains, where his wife was born, harbour a close-knit, tight-lipped community whose mistrust of outsiders can turn ugly. All the same, solving this mystery might be the only thing that can keep him sane.

My musings:

A wild and dangerous place.  A gruesome 30-year old murder that has never been solved. A small town with lots of secrets and many different allegiances. A stranger, who becomes obsessed with solving the mystery. What more can you want from a book? D’Andrea skilfully incorporates each of those subjects into his intriguing novel The Mountain, set in the rugged and beautiful region of the Dolomite Mountains in Northern Italy. I used to climb those peaks as a child with my father, so how could I resist a book that would feature both a murder / mystery as well as armchair travel into one of my favourite childhood places! And like our main protagonist, Jeremiah Salinger, I was soon completely obsessed with finding out the answers to the murder mystery, which contained that slight undercurrent of menace and hint of mystique that added an irresistibly creepy air to the story. D’Andrea is obviously very familiar with the setting of his book, and really brought the mountain to life for me. Even if you have never seen those rugged peaks, the book will take you there.

I admit that I picked up the book several times and put it down again, because I found the lead-up to the story quite slow and long-winded, and felt it could have done with some editing. The same goes for some middle passages of the book, which digress into background information that slowed the story down and was not all that relevant to me. However, once I got to the crux of the mystery, I was completely hooked, and D’Andrea surely packed in a few unexpected surprises! 

I loved the way the author describes the slow unravelling of the main character Salinger, whose obsession with the old mystery soon threatens to destroy his marriage and alienate him from his friends and family. The deeper he delves into the past, the more the mountain seems to fight him, which makes for a wonderfully tense atmosphere. As most characters are tight-lipped and somewhat unreliable narrators, I was never quite sure who I could trust, and all my theories were soon debunked as the story progressed. Personally, I loved the inclusion of the mystical element into the story, as I have found that wild places like the Dolomites have inspired local legends as long as there have been humans inhabiting them. D’Andrea has achieved the perfect balance between reality and legend, always pulling the story back to cold hard facts just at the right time, so I never once had to suspend disbelief. Small town dynamics are astutely portrayed, forming an invaluable part of the mystery, which added depth and credulity. 

Summary:

All in all, whilst a bit bogged down with too much detail at times, The Mountain was an utterly intriguing and compelling mystery which soon captured my interest and kept me reading on avidly, wanting to find out what really happened on that stormy night thirty years ago. And there were quite a few surprises in store along the way! With its irresistible armchair travel component, this was a must-read book for me that I would recommend to anyone looking for a multi-faceted mystery set in a wild and unusual place.


Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.




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Blog Tour / Book Extract: DEAD GIRLS CAN'T LIE by Carys Jones


Title: Dead Girls Can't Lie
Author: Carys Jones
Publisher:
Aria
Publication Date: 15 August 2017


Book Description:

Best friends tell each other the truth – don't they?

When North Stone's best friend Kelly Orton is found hanging lifeless in a tree, North knows for certain it wasn't suicide. Kelly had everything to live for – a loving boyfriend, a happy life, and most importantly of all, Kelly would never leave North all by herself.

The girls have been friends since childhood, devoted to each other, soul sisters, or at least that's what North has always believed. But did Kelly feel the same way, or was she keeping secrets from her 'best friend' – deadly secrets...

When the police refuse to take North's suspicions seriously, she sets out to investigate for herself. But her search soon takes her to a glamorous world with a seedy underbelly, and before long North is out of her depth and getting ever closer to danger. Determined to find the truth, she soon wishes that dead girls could lie, because the truth is too painful to believe...


I am really excited to be taking part in my first ever blog tour! On this maiden voyage, I am sharing a little taste of Carys Jones' new crime novel, Dead Girls Can't Lie, courtesy of Aria. 


Please also make sure to check out the post of my co-host, The Purple Book Stand, and the rest of the great blogs that are participating:




Excerpt: 


Kelly didn’t kill herself.

It came again. Her phone had beeped in acknowledgement. The message had been there. North had read it, twice. But now it was gone, her inbox suspiciously devoid of it. Even the message she’d previously taken care to save was gone, it was like a slate had been wiped clean within the device. As she stared at her phone, North dared to wonder if exhaustion was playing its usual tricks on her, or worse, if she’d deleted the message herself in some half-asleep state. But surely she wasn’t capable of that kind of self-sabotage? Someone was trying to connect with her, trying to get through and tell her that they believed in the same truth that she did.

Sleep.

The word was almost a mantra. North just needed to sleep and then everything would start making more sense, things would stop disappearing.

Kelly didn’t have a cure for insomnia. But on the nights when North couldn’t sleep they’d sit up together and watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite Kelly’s best efforts, she’d usually drift off before the end of the first movie, leaving North to sit and watch the drama unfold across Middle Earth on her own. But listening to her friend’s steady breathing just a few feet away comforted North.
Insomnia was a lonely affliction. It had first visited North when her parents failed to come home. As the police searched and her grandparents fretted, she lay wide-eyed on the single bed in her bedroom. When everyone else was overpowered by exhaustion, she sat at her window and watched the stars. Kelly couldn’t sneak over back then, not during the night, not as teenagers. The next day at school she was always wrought with guilt over her friend’s nightly plight.

‘I’d have stayed up with you,’ Kelly would insist. ‘You shouldn’t have to be alone, North.’

Back then there was only her namesake, her star, to keep her company. North would look up at it outshining the rest of its peers and wonder why her parents chose to name her after something so commanding when she herself was more darkness than light. A bringer of death, according to her grandmother.

On the television the gathered fellowship were daring to journey through dwarven mines which tunnelled deep into the ground. Too deep. North stirred on her sofa. She’d bought the duvet from her bedroom and snuggled beneath it but still sleep wouldn’t come. Candlelight flickered around her but she wasn’t even sure if it was night. The curtains were drawn. She’d banished any lingering daylight when she returned from Dean’s flat. She couldn’t return to work. Her grandparents’ home had been sold several months ago. There was nowhere for her to go except to the hollowness of her flat. She was just drifting like an unsettled spirit. The DVD boxsets were stacked up beside the television, where they always were in case of such an occasion. Something to occupy the dead hours when everyone else was sleeping. North pulled her duvet up to her shoulders, wishing she could hear the soft breathing of her friend over the epic soundtrack.

Banging.

North twisted upon the sofa and blinked at the television. The characters looked afraid, backed into the corner of a stone room as a terrible sound echoed out from the depths.

More banging.

‘What?’ North rubbed at her eyes. Had she fallen asleep? Perhaps she’d slipped into a doze. The banging was coming from the television, wasn’t it? She stared at the screen as the banging continued. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. ‘Urgh,’ she pressed the heel of her hands against her temples. First insomnia came for her sleep and then her sanity. Once, she spent an entire week believing that Leonardo DiCaprio had emailed her. She’d imagined the whole thing. Or even dreamt it. It was hard to know what was real and what wasn’t when sleep failed to visit her. Of course Kelly had believed her. She’d kindly sat at North’s side as she frantically trawled through her inbox trying to find the evidence and then, when it failed to materialise, agreed that it must be a malfunction within the computer.

North moved from rubbing her eyes. The banging didn’t stop even though the scene on the television had moved on. With a groan, North reached for the remote and paused the action, freezing all of the characters mid-motion. The banging bounced around her little flat. Someone was at her front door and they were hammering on it with great force.

‘I’m coming!’ North shouted over the ruckus as she shed the duvet. She shivered away from its warm embrace. Hugging her arms around herself she scurried across her flat towards her door. She pulled it open without pausing to look through the peephole. ‘Dean?’

He was standing in the corridor, one fist still held in the air ready to pound on her door again. His muscles twitched as though he was consumed with restless energy. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a wildness to him. A wildness which concerned North. She took a tentative step back and he immediately advanced towards her.

‘Did you know?’

About the Author:


Carys Jones loves nothing more than to write and create stories which ignite the reader's imagination. Based in Shropshire, England, Carys lives with her husband, two guinea pigs and her adored canine companion Rollo.

Connect with Carys on:


Twitter: @tiny_dancer85
Facebook: @CarysJonesWriter
Instagram: tiny_dancer_8

Purchase Links:




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Monday, 21 August 2017

Audiobook Review: THE TRUTH ABOUT MELODY BROWNE by Lisa Jewell

Author: Lisa Jewell
Read: August 2017
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Book Description (Goodreads):

Melody Browne can remember nothing before her ninth birthday. Now in her early thirties, Melody lives in the middle of London with her seventeen-year-old son. She hasn’t seen her parents since she left home at fifteen, but Melody doesn't mind. She’s better off on her own.

And then fragments of her past start to come back. At first her memories mean nothing to her but slowly, day by day, she begins to piece together the real story of her childhood.

But with every mystery she solves another one materialises, with every question she answers another appears. And Melody begins to wonder if she'll ever know the truth about her past...


My musings:

What a beautiful, touching story! As usual, Lisa Jewell has created characters that seem to leap out of the pages of her book, and became so real to me as the story progressed that I felt I had known them all my life. Even more so, since we slowly get to discover the truth about Melody’s past, feel her joy and her pain, which at times broke my heart – expect to cry! There is a rich cast of supporting characters which defy any stereotype and add a depth to the story lacking in many other books. It shows what a skilled, accomplished writer Jewell is, and why she is firmly embedded on my list of favourite authors.

Written in a dual time format, the story starts with Melody Brown’s life in the present, and it may seem a bit slow and run-of-the-mill for the first few pages – but don’t be fooled! The rest of the story jumps back and forth between Melody’s past (starting with her earliest memories) and the present, as she slowly uncovers the truth about her childhood. Whilst this is a format that can feel disjointed  in some books, Jewell marries the two stories together so cleverly that it worked perfectly for me. a) I never got bored with one of the stories, wishing to jump back to the other; and b) I never got confused as to what period she was relating to, even with the audio version. And whilst I am talking about the audio version, I must give credit to Julie Maisey, who lent her voice to the characters and made them come to life for me. I loved Maisey’s ability to give each character their unique voice, especially the small Melody Brown, whose voice I loved!

I could say a lot more about this book, but it is best delved into without spoilers, so I will leave it at: read it, you won’t be sorry. A touching, thought provoking and emotional read by a writer on top of her game. I loved it!




Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Book Review: BENEATH THE SURFACE by Sibel Hodge

Author: Sibel Hodge
Publisher:
Thomas & Mercer
Read:
August 2017
My Rating:🌟🌟1/2



Book Description:

After the breakdown of her marriage, a failed career and the loss of her pregnancy, Holly returns to her hometown to work for a small-town newspaper and mourn her losses. Defeated and ashamed of her thwarted ambitions, she does not make contact with many of her old friends, keeping to herself and plugging away in her joyless job with little hope for something better to happen in her life. 

She is shocked and saddened to hear of the murder/suicide of one of her former best friends at the hand of her friend’s own teenage son, unwilling to believe that the sweet little boy she knew in the past could do such a terrible thing. Reaching out to the victim’s mother Barbara, who used to be a mother figure to her in her childhood, Holly learns that Barbara also finds it impossible to believe that her grandson would be capable of such a horrific act, and begs Holly to investigate, hoping to be able to clear his name.

My musings:

Beneath the Surface has been touted a “gripping suspense thriller”, which is usually something I cannot resist! Not having read any previous books by Hodge, I was also curious to explore a new author and was thrilled to have been granted a preview copy of the novel on Netgalley. Hodge’s writing drew me into the story very quickly, and I was intrigued by Holly’s damaged character and the unspeakable crime, which took up the first chapters of the book. Who would not be shocked and saddened to hear that their best friend had been murdered, especially at the hands of her own son? I could imagine the grief that rocked the whole community, and understood Holly’s desire to investigate.

However, it was after this point that things started to bug me. Despite admitting to having been a journalist working for a fluffy women’s magazine, Holly makes some vast leaps of imagination and deduction to very quickly come up with her conspiracy theory into what had caused young Dean’s descent into madness and murder, which seemed a bit far-fetched to me. For a person without any medical background, or previous experience of the field through investigative journalism, some of Holly’s convictions didn’t ring true to me. I would have preferred if more time had been spent on Holly investigating the crime and finding a lot more clues before being convinced of her (at that stage rather far-fetched) theory of what had caused Dean’s murderous rampage.

I am trying to tread carefully here, so as not to give anything away, so will only say that the author spends some time later in the book explaining her theory – and she has obviously done her research into the topic at hand – but to me it felt a bit too conspiracy-theory like all the way through. Perhaps I am just the wrong audience for this type of book, as I felt that the background conspiracy got in the way of being able to engage with the main characters, and I totally lost any emotional connection with Holly in the process. The ending also seemed rushed to me, tying all ends just a bit too neatly and quickly, and I turned the last page feeling rather let down by the whole story. There just wasn’t enough tension or mystery in it for me, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a psychological thriller, as it is pretty obvious from the start where the book is heading. The story didn’t mess with my mind nearly enough to justify the tag in the genre, in my opinion. However, I am sure that a lot of readers will enjoy the fast-paced last third of the novel, and concede that if I had known the focus of the book I would not have chosen it, as I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this type of story. 


Thank you to Netgalley and Thomas & Mercer for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.