Monday, 25 January 2016

Sealions, Penguins & Whales! Oh My!

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

I’ve been wondering if I have what it takes to kill. Whether I can look a living creature in the eye and take the one irreversible action that ends a life. Asked and answered, I suppose. I have no difficulty in killing. I’m actually rather good at it. 

We were inseparable until the day she killed my sons. Little Black Lies is Sharon Bolton’s first standalone novel since ‘Blood Harvest’. Set in the Falkland Islands 12 years after the end of the war, this suspense filled tale is told by three different characters over the course of just 6 days. Part one is told by Catrin, a mother whose two young sons died in a tragic accident three years earlier whilst being cared for by her best friend Rachel. Part two tells the story from the perspective of Callum, a former British soldier who now lives on the Island and finally part three is told by Rachel.

In the early chapters of this book Catrin lets us in on her plans for revenge. Three years after the tragic deaths of her sons she is still haunted by them, believing she sees them in her home, hears their voices and feels them still wanting to play games with her. Since their deaths she has lost everything. Her husband has divorced her and started a new family after she lost the baby she was carrying at the time of her sons deaths. She has lost her best friend, holding her personally responsible for her sons deaths and to make things worse she has had to watch as Rachel is able to carry on her life, continuing to raise her own three sons.
Catrin wants revenge. She wants Rachel to pay and is hatching a plan to coincide with the impending eclipse that will make sure she gets exactly what Catrin believes she deserves.

I honestly cannot say enough good things about this one. Right from the beginning I was totally hooked. The setting of the Falkland Islands was a very welcome change to the norm. The Falklands are not somewhere I have ever travelled or particularly know very much about. However having read this I would definitely be interested to visit. Sharon Bolton has painted a beautifully realistic image of the Islands and I had no problem in imaging the places described. I’ve seen a couple of people complaining that there is too much description of the setting. I can’t agree with these criticisms as I really believe that the setting adds to a lot of the tension in the story. The isolation, the dangerous terrain, the close knit community where everybody seems to know everyone, along with the visitors to the islands so unused to the ways of the locals all add to the story in one way or another and definitely add to the atmosphere the author is trying to create.

 I loved the characters despite their obvious shortcomings. There are a wide range of things explored with the various characters; revenge, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, forgiveness and human nature in extreme situations. I enjoyed the pacing, despite taking time to explore the landscape and a few mentions of the history surrounding the islands and the war fought there, I never felt like the story dragged. Even with the story being told from different perspectives the narrative never slows down to unnecessarily repeat events from various points of view. The different characters fill in the gaps throughout the beginning of the story, all telling their own tales before they all come together for a riveting ending. This book has so many twists and turns and they are all plausible outcomes throughout, none of them are thrown in without being a real possibility. This one really keeps you guessing what’s going to happen right through until the very end. In fact come the end of the book not every question has been fully answered and honestly I really like that. There are enough hints to lead you to some conclusions but not any concrete answers for some questions.

After Renee Knight’s ‘Disclaimer’ I truly believed it would be a long time before I could rate a thriller as a 5 out of 5 again. It was such a fantastic book that I didn’t imagine finding anything quite as good anytime soon. Fortunately I was wrong. This is 100% a 5 out of 5 book and I might even go as far as to say that I preferred it. I really can’t say enough good things about this one and would highly recommend you read it as your next thriller!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Trainspotting in the Suburbs

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

To everyone else in this carriage I must look normal; I'm doing exactly what they do: commuting to work, making appointments, ticking things off lists. Just goes to show. 

For a long time I had heard nothing but good reviews for this book. Touted as the thriller of the year I had fairly high expectations and on the whole I was not disappointed with the story of the girl on the train.

The story is presented to us from the perspectives of three different women. The main character and the first perspective we are introduced to is that of Rachel, a divorced alcoholic who watches other people's lives from the window of the train she takes to and from London Euston each and everyday. She has a favourite couple that she watches from the train, a couple she believes to have the perfect life. She has named this couple Jason and Jess and has imagined their whole lives just from brief glances of them as her train stops outside their back garden everyday.
The second perspective from which we are told this story is that of Megan. Megan is one half of Rachel's imaginary couple, Jason and Jess. We soon find out, however, that Megan's life is far from the imagined fairy tale that Rachel believes it to be.
The third and final perspective is that of Anna, the new wife of Rachel's ex husband Tom. All three women's perspectives are presented in a diary style format with the main part of the story being set between July and September 2013. There are several entries from outside of this time period and I quite often found myself flicking backwards and forwards to keep track of dates and times (Not something which is particularly necessary but my Sherlock Holmes instincts kicked in and I became convinced that the dates would become pertinent to unravelling the mysteries of this tale).

The plot revolves around the sudden and unexpected disappearance of Megan. With our flawed protagonist Rachel believing she may be able to help to unravel the mystery, we begin a journey with her as she attempts to fill in the gaps of her blackout drunk evening when Megan went missing. I will say that I guessed the ending fairly early on but this in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the story and there were many times throughout when I doubted whether or not I was even right.

The story starts slower than I was expecting but picks up pace fairly quickly and from that point onwards never slows down as we are treated to all the usual twists, turns, clues and red herrings that we have come to expect from the modern thriller. Rachel's struggles will have you cringing and trying to reason with her as you watch her make the same mistakes again and again. I found it hard to read her constant struggles and just wanted to help her sort her life out, desperately hoping that things come good for her in the end. There are many unlikable characters within this story and you will be frustrated with many of the decisions that characters make but you will be enthralled by their tales and ultimately race to the end, eager to figure out what has caused Megan to disappear.

I would rate this book 4 out of 5, not as good as Renee Knight's 'Disclaimer' but a fairly decent read nonetheless. I wasn't a huge fan of the diary style delivery of the story with its morning and evening entries but that would be my only gripe. When compared to the likes of Sharon Bolton's 'Little Black Lies' and Renee Knight's 'Disclaimer' it feels like i'm being generous with my rating; however I believe this is more due to just how good they are rather than 'The Girl on the Train' being a bad novel. It's hard to pinpoint anything particularly wrong with this book, I just found the other titles more enjoyable with more to sink your teeth into. I was looking for a fairly quick read with a mystery to unravel and this ticked all the boxes of what in was looking for in this type of book. Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of thrillers or mystery novels and is looking for something quick. I will be interested to see the big screen adaptation of this one when it comes out towards the end of 2016. Done right, it definitely has the potential to become a great movie.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Another return to Enniscorthy of Yesteryear

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived under water and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened? 

Shortlisted for the Costa best novel award as well as the Folio prize, Nora Webster is the latest novel from bestselling author Colm Toibin. This book explores the grief and despair experienced in the wake of great personal tragedy. Our title character, Nora Webster, is a middle aged widow mourning the loss of her husband Maurice whilst trying to continue raising her four children.

The story begins not long after the death of Nora’s husband, yet long enough that well meaning visitors are becoming more of a burden than a comfort. For those of you who have previously read Brooklyn, one such visitor will already be familiar to you; Eilis’ mother May Lacey. Colm Toibin quickly hints at what may have become of some characters from the previous novel during May’s conversation with Nora before moving on with the tale of Nora Webster. This is not a sequel in the sense that you need to have read Brooklyn first but I found the nod to his previous work a nice touch. I enjoyed him talking of the other characters years removed from Eilis’ original tale and was grateful that he didn’t go too much into detail, still allowing the reader to imagine what might have become of Eilis and co.

As with Brooklyn previously, I again found myself coming to care for the characters in this story very quickly. Within a very short space of time you are embroiled in Nora’s grief, mourning right beside her as she tries to come to terms with the monumental changes happening in her life. Nora is a woman who has lived for many years as a wife and mother with no real identity beyond these roles. This is the story of her trying to find her way in life as an individual, torn from the comfortable familiarity of being one half of a couple. This isn’t the story of a widow trying to find love again. This is the story of a widow trying to find herself. Everything has changed for Nora including her children who she is struggling to deal with alongside her grief.

In the early stages of this book I found it fairly heavy going. Due to the subject matter it begins as melancholy as you would imagine. The line in the extract above about living underwater and giving up on the struggle to swim towards air is a fairly accurate representation of how I felt reading the beginning of this book. It is all of the small things that you may not even have considered with somebody being widowed that begin to add up to a considerable weight that Nora is having carry with her. For a long time it feels like you are sinking along with Nora as she struggles to keep going.
However, slowly but surely, small things begin to change Nora’s life and you begin to believe that she may one day be happy again. The story spans a roughly 3 year period and takes it’s time, not rushing through the grieving period to a sunny day years down the line. This isn’t that type of book. Expect a slow but steady pace as you follow Nora’s story of rediscovery. Whilst there is no huge turning points or massive surprises this book will leave you with one main feeling, hope.

I took my time with this one, allowing myself to slowly enjoy Colm Toibin’s wonderful characters over the course of a week. I felt fully immersed in their world and enjoyed sharing in their lives. Colm Toibin has become a must read author for me and if you enjoy slower explorations of character then I definitely recommend giving him a go. As with Brooklyn, I would have to rate this as 5 out of 5. Quiet and unassuming, this is another brilliantly subtle novel from Colm Toibin.
I see so many people criticising books like this for not having any major turning points or any exciting action. These negative reviews confuse me. I’m often unsure why people believe these elements should be in these types of novel. This is a storied exploration of a widow grieving and trying to raise her children as best she can. The action is in the tender moments as Nora begins to allow herself to live again in the smallest ways. Her rebellious streak extends as far as purchasing records, a car chase or a gun fight would be most out of place! If you don’t begin with these absurd expectations then I am sure you will be sucked in to the world Toibin has created and you will enjoy every second of it.
Sometimes you can find joy in the smallest things.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Journey to Brooklyn via the mean streets of Enniscorthy

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
She would make them believe, if she could, that she was looking forward to America and leaving home for the first time. She promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt, and she would keep it from herself if she had to until she was away from them. 

This coming of age tale starts off in 1950’s Ireland where our main character, Eilis, is living with her sister, Rose, and their elderly mother. We follow Eilis as she emigrates to America and begins a new life in Brooklyn. The first half of this book sees Eilis navigating her way through homesickness, alienation, depression and loneliness as she tries to find her place in America. However just as Eilis is starting to settle into the American way of life a great tragedy strikes and she is left trying to decide between her new life or returning to the Irish town she left behind.

Straight off the bat let me point out that I usually steer clear of books like this. Behind the beard and tattoo’s lies a fragile emotional wreck still traumatised by the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3. O.K so maybe I’m not that bad, but on the whole I am not a fan of investing heavily in characters, growing to love them before having my heart broken by what happens to them. I find it easier to read thrillers and crime novels where on the whole those who end up dead or hurt are characters I am not all that invested in.
I initially chose to read this book as it was set in Enniscorthy. A rather random reason perhaps, but as a child I used to visit relatives in Ireland most summers and have spent a lot of time in Enniscorthy and the surrounding Wexford area. I also had relatives who made the move from Ireland to America during the period which this book is set in so thought it could make for an interesting read. I convinced myself that I could read this without being too invested in the characters and instead I would just enjoy reading about a familiar place in a time before I knew it. I was wrong. Very wrong.
Throughout the first half I fell in love with so many of the characters despite my attempts to distance myself from them. Colm Toibin has created a very believable cast who reminded me of so many people from my own life. Far from your typical Irish caricatures, Toibin has created distinctly Irish characters in a far more subtle fashion, many of the different character traits reminded me of my Nan and her siblings.

Throughout this book there are very few major events. This is far from action packed and is very subtle throughout the majority of the story. The beauty lies in it’s making the everyday so intriguing. You want to read about these characters lives and you don’t want them to be thrown into dangerous situations or life changing dilemmas just for the sake of it. The slower pace allows you to grow very fond of these characters and so when tragedy finally strikes it definitely hits you hard. Having read the synopsis I was aware that there would be a tragedy at some point and I decided early on what I believed this would be. Yet again I was wrong. I was so convinced the tragedy was going to be something else that when it finally happened it totally shocked me. From this point on the book changes and whilst reading I wasn’t sure it was for the best. It is hard to really discuss my issues here without spoiling the book for those who are yet to read it. I think in the moment I really didn’t like the way some characters changed and where the story started going. However having finished the whole story and given it some thought I really did still enjoy this one despite the shift in the last part.

This is an excellent book which has instantly become one of my favourites and I am sure I will probably revisit it again in the future. It felt authentic both in setting and with characters which you genuinely end up caring for as though they are close friends. If you want non stop action or huge twists and turns then this probably isn’t for you but if you want to follow some great characters and immerse yourself in their world then this is definitely one I would recommend. In fact I am going to rate this one 5 out of 5! I really enjoyed it and I will now be reading Colm Toibin’s latest novel ’Nora Webster’ very soon.


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Your Darkest Secrets Published For The World To Read

Disclaimer by Renee Knight

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. 
The disclaimer has a neat, red line through it. A message she failed to notice when she opened the book. There is no mistaking the resemblance to her. She is a key character, a main player. 

Imagine if the next thriller you opened was all about you reads the tagline for this highly rated psychological thriller. A Sunday times bestseller, book of the month in a number of bookshops and being advertised everywhere I turned. To say that the tagline had me intrigued is something of an understatement. The simple idea of somebody revealing your deepest darkest secrets in a novel that the whole world could read is terrifying and sent chills running down my spine.

When I started reading this I really wasn’t sure what to think. Initially I naively believed that this was going to be a throwaway thriller which taunted you with a piece of information you didn’t know and strung you along for 300+ pages before a disappointing reveal. It took me about 40 or 50 pages before it really started to interest me fully. I started reading this on the same evening that I finished reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and I think this may well have more to do with me struggling to get into the story than the writing itself. My head was still swimming with 1950s America and the memories of my own time spent in the Wexford area. However, I pushed through and kept reading and soon found myself enthralled in this emotional rollercoaster. I am so glad that I did.

It’s very hard to talk about the plot of this one without giving anything away that might spoil the ending so I will avoid talking too much about plot specifics here. The general idea is that one of the main characters, Catherine, has started to read a novel that she finds on her bedside table only to realise that the story is about her and a secret which she has kept for many years and was unaware of anyone else knowing. I really don’t want to go too much more into it than that as it really would become a minefield of potential spoilers.

This novel is beautifully paced. There are many twists and turns and a whole lot of misdirection as the secret contained in the novel remains a closely guarded secret. However, there is so much more going on here than simply discovering the secret in the novel. The characters are wonderfully crafted and believable all the way through. The pacing of this book and your determination to discover the secret lures you in and then this tale will take you on one hell of a journey, not letting you go until it is finished. Who is in the right? Who is the bad person? This book will toy with your expectations all the way through, you will sympathise with all characters at some points and hate them all as well. Once it has grabbed you, this book will mess with your head right through till its final pages. Unrelenting, dark and deeply emotional, this is a stunning debut novel and I will be certain to look out for more books by Renee Knight in the future.

Everywhere I turn I seem to keep reading comparisons between Disclaimer, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. I have only seen the big screen adaptation of Gone Girl but I have read The Girl on the Train and in my opinion Disclaimer is much better. The characters have a lot more depth, the plot keeps you guessing for longer and I enjoyed the way this one ended far more. A lot of thrillers seem to have a big reveal followed by a couple of pages which hint at what happens next. Disclaimer takes time after the big reveal to complete the story in full and doesn’t leave you feeling short changed but at the same time does not overstay its welcome.

I have to rate disclaimer as 5 out of 5. Disclaimer has set the bar very early on for me this year and all other thrillers will be judged by the standards this one has set. Intense, unpredictable and genuinely moving. Everything a good thriller should be.    

Thursday, 7 January 2016

A Guide To Bad Parenting In Rural Scotland

The Ice Twins by S.K.Tremayne

I am Kirstie I am Lydia 
I lived I Died 
Or did I?

 These few lines emblazoned on the back cover of S.K. Tremayne's The Ice Twins managed to grab my attention many months ago and I was keen to get reading right away. However below the promising synopsis of a tale filled with every parents worst nightmares were a vast amount of negative reviews attacking almost every aspect of this book. I decided I did not have the time for a book which offered the promise of an unbearably suspenseful thriller but would ultimately let me down and for the next few months completely forgot about this book. In the end I am glad that I once again found this book in the sales section of Amazon*. I only wish I had taken a chance on it far earlier.

The first chapter introduces us to Sarah and Angus, a couple who we immediately get the sense aren't entirely happy together anymore. We quickly discover that Angus drinks heavily, has lost his job and that there are money worries. We also discover that Sarah and Angus have experienced great tragedy over the last year after they lost one of their identical twin girls, Lydia, who died in an accident 14 months previously. The next step in trying to pick up the broken pieces of their lives is to sell up their previous life in London and move to a remote island in Scotland which Angus has just inherited from his dead Grandmother. It seems a strange thing to do when the surviving twin, Kirstie, is already likely to be feeling isolated and alone but the author does go out of their way to explain just why this seems like a good idea to Sarah and Angus. This is an island which Angus used to visit when he was younger and has fond memories of, and Sarah, after researching the area, has discovered that if they can restore the property they are likely to be able to sell it on for over £1 million. A seemingly great opportunity to start again, away from the painful memories of the last year, with the potential to also solve their financial problems at the same time. Everything seems to be falling into place for the couple again, that is until the final paragraph of chapter one when their surviving daughter utters the nightmarish line "It was Kirstie that died. I'm Lydia."

Now I know many people seem to have given up on this book at this point, labelling it ridiculous and refuting the idea that a parent wouldn't be able to differentiate between their children, even if they were identical twins. In normal circumstances I am prone to agreement on this point. There is usually always a way for parents to know which twin is which, but this is a work of fiction and the author has gone out of their way to establish that these twins were totally identical in every physical way possible. There were no unique birthmarks or moles, nothing at all to separate them visually and Sarah and Angus hadn't followed advice given to them to have a small dot tattoo inked on one twin. They used different coloured clothing as the main way to tell Lydia and Kirstie apart, something which is only effective if the twins stick to wearing their own colour. The twins before Lydia's death had begun to pretend to be each other, wearing all white outfits to confuse people. 'The parents would surely know them by their personality' I hear you cry and ordinarily that would be the case but in the aftermath of a child’s twin sibling dying it is very unlikely that the surviving twin is going to act normally.

The author has worked hard to explain just why this unlikely scenario is true and I commend them for that. They have made the effort to try and explain what a lot of people are labelling a totally unbelievable scenario and because of that I made the effort to suspend my disbelief. I would implore you to do the same. You will be rewarded with a chilling tale, full twists and turns delivered at breakneck pace. Every time you think you have everything figured out, another bombshell will be dropped leading you to question everything that is going on. Is this simply the tale of a troubled young girl whose life has been turned upside down since the death of her sister? Is there something supernatural going on?  I won't say too much more as I wouldn't want to ruin the story for you but be prepared for some of the most unlikeable characters you have ever read about! I enjoyed this book and found myself thinking about it for a long time after finishing it. A lot of interesting ideas are raised and there is plenty to talk about once you have finished reading.

This book is not without its problems and I can imagine it dividing opinion into 'loved it' or 'hated it' camps with very little in between. For me personally I would probably rate this book as a solid 4 out of 5. The main characters are very unlikable but this wasn't a drawback in my opinion as I still wanted to find out what happened to them, even if it was not for the typical reason of wanting the hero to prevail. The remote setting of a Scottish island is beautifully described throughout to such an extent that you feel you have seen this island for yourself and experienced life away from the mainland, alone and back to basics. For all of the twists and turns it only noticeably tripped itself up once and it's not the end of the world in the grand scheme of the story being told. Just a slight annoyance as this was otherwise well written and kept me entertained throughout. It felt like the book was over fairly quickly but I think this was due in part to my inability to put it down. If you give this one a chance I hope you enjoy The Ice Twins as much as I did. 

*At the time of writing this review The Ice Twins can be found in Amazon UK's 3 for £10 paperback deal.