One day the blackbirds begin to fall. Naturally, this is something of a spectacle and attention is drawn to the small Pennsylvanian town of Mount Oanoke. With this new focus comes the media and a visiting journalist inadvertently witnesses an encounter that is later viewed as something quite sinister.
There is lots and lots going on in THE BLACKBIRD SEASON. Author Kate Moretti juggles all of these pans up in the air with skill, never letting the dust settle on any of the adults involved in the investigation for the missing Lucia. Our suspicions are thrown over a small cast of characters but there is also a supporting cast of others who are drawn closer in when the plot requires.
We are reminded in this book that you are only as golden as your last success, and that there will always be people surrounding you eager to witness any falls from grace. The sharks are constantly circling in THE BLACKBIRD SEASON and it is this sense of menace that is never far away. As a dramatic piece, this book would make a terrific film (I seem to be opining that a lot lately about modern crime novels), populated as it is with complex characters that have as much going on in their internal lives as is evident to anyone who now has cause to observe them from the outside.
THE BLACKBIRD SEASON is the story of a missing girl, but it is also the story of how relationships can often be weighed down by the legacy of old ghosts and that how any human interaction is never really insignificant.
WATCH ME, JODY GEHRMAN
Kate Youngblood is both a college lecturer and a writer of fiction. Both career paths are currently giving the thirty something professor enormous trouble. Having written a successful crime novel as her debut piece, it was a high platform from which to dive when Kate’s second novel is nowhere near as well-received as its stellar predecessor. Will there be a third book, or is it best for Kate to park her writing ambitions for now?
WATCH ME is essentially a two-player piece which adds to the intensity of the interactions between the stalker and the stalked. The inclusion of all the required elements – the isolation, coercion, relentless observation, break-ins, electronic pursuits – can be a little tick in the box in this novel but they all do add to the increasing concern we have for Kate’s welfare. Kate is a little slow on the uptake to react and protect herself, so this can be a little frustrating to read of, though of course there can be no crime to read of without there being a targeted victim.
The passages devoted to stalker Sam are addressed to the (at first, oblivious) Kate so we are privy here to all aspects of Sam’s self-serving toxic masculinity. Sam truly believes he has the right to do all of what he is doing, and the wishes and fears of the object of his affection are of little concern to him, just long as his desired results are achieved.
Was expecting this work to go a little more into collegial issues of teacher/student relations but this is not the focus of WATCH ME. Not sure or not if it is depressing or helpful that the motions of this stalker (and those of real life and other fictional stalkers) all seem to follow the same predictable formula but as a tool to making the reader more aware, WATCH ME may be helpful. Two thirds of this novel power along to back Kate into a corner but WATCH ME does lose some puff in the home stretch. The definite strength of this novel are the insights we receive into Sam’s delusions of self-grandeur. Perhaps there can be no stalker without that narcissistic sense of self importance that eventually derails when the rest of the world calls it what it is – madness.
The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn
Dr Anna Fox is a doctor currently without a practice but there are always people, others like herself, whom she can still help even whilst confined to her New York home. Without her much loved husband and daughter, there are too many hours in the day that Anna finds she needs to fill with small human interactions, elsewise the pills and wine will step up and do that for her. There is the gorgeous downstairs lodger, the online forums where she counsels other agoraphobics, her physiotherapist, her ex business partner, the myriad of delivery people who bring her food and other supplies. It
Reserve yourself a little time and settle in as this engaging novel will be a one or two sitting read. Anna, despite all she has experienced, is immensely relatable and a warm narrator to listen to. There is no shame, there is only the present and the need for Anna to get herself through one day and then through the next. It is very easy to see only a few pages in why THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW was a monster hit straight out of the gates. Immersive, introspective and warm, this read totally wraps you up in the four walls of Anna’s townhouse as her growing concerns about the neighbours become yours.
Brace yourself for the huge jump scare at chapter’s end in the final quarter of the novel - I promise you will be leaping out of your seat! (Tip: Do not read this book on public transport).
Author A.J. Finn (was quite surprised to find this was a male author) does an excellent job in building up both tension and our worries for Anna’s welfare, an obviously intelligent character who is coping the best way she can with loss and mental illness.
Review - Year One, Nora Roberts
As one American family enjoys their break at their Scottish holiday home, a terrible sickness is released when blood is spilt on ancient magical land. The sickness travels with the family back across the oceans and within an alarmingly short period of time, more than half of the world’s population is dead. The virus seems to be unstoppable.
Nora Roberts hands down is a fiction writing juggernaut and anything this author puts out is always going to be welcomed with great glee by her army of fans. The news that Roberts was turning her talents to the post-apocalyptic (which well when done well, is my absolute favourite of all genres) was a real boost for the genre and well received by the reading (and reviewers!) community.
What you will quickly discover as you dive in is that this dystopian novel is unexpectedly populated by fantasy characters like elves and fairies, sensitives and telekinetics etc. The novel would have worked well as a straight post virus work, or as a fantasy novel. YEAR ONE is a uncomfortable blend of both that does not quite hit the mark. Going into this read I wasn’t anticipating the fantasy elements, and it was quite disappointing to encounter them. Can’t help but feeling a little cheated by the inclusions of characters that have such handy superpowers at their disposal to deal with any challenges that come their way.
Roberts always creates characters that you will want to invest your time in, and this is the min strength we see again in YEAR ONE. They won’t all survive, and the readers will have an interest in seeing through which ones will make it with or without newly acquired abilities. It is not a dark read as the fairy elements are a bit ridiculous and lighten the mood. As a beach read it serves very well and the impetus in picking up the next novel is to see where everyone ends up – what new alliances will be formed, who will go on to lead, who will be able to adapt and survive.
Review - RAMSES THE DAMNED - THE PASSION OF CLEOPATRA - Anne Rice and Christopher Rice
Planning a wedding to his newly immortal partner Julie, Ramses the Great has much to regret and much to look forward to. Now living life as Reginald Ramsay, Egyptologist, Ramses has kept his secrets to a chosen few and has found fresh hope in the modern age of the early 19th century. Always the diplomatic negotiator, Ramses intends never to waste his immortality again on steering the outcomes of those in power. It is enough to have his beloved Julie as his immortal companion, and the company of those intelligent and talented enough to amuse.
If like this reviewer you haven't read an Anne Rice novel for some years, what you might also be anticipating is some lovely floral prose that waxes lyrical about everything from flowers to landscapes. The glorious wallowing can be a bit of an acquired taste and all that navel gazing can come at the expense of plot.
As lovingly gothic and melodramatic the characters may still be, it was an absolute treat to experience Rice's creation King Ramses once again. It's been a long time since we saw his blue eyes on lurid paperback covers way back in 1989. THE MUMMY was gleefully passed around many an office worker back in the day, with all Anne Rice fans anticipating another lust worthy brat in the vein (pardon the pun) of Lestat from the Vampire Chronicles. (Can you believe that we first encountered Lestat in 1976?). Ramses too has had hundreds of years of past plots and relationships to mull over in his noble head, whilst playing God with the ability to keep others young forever, in the same manner as his hedonistic and pompous self.
In the winning fashion of why having one rockstar deity in your novel when you can have two, Rice and Rice have put two giants of history, King Ramses and Queen Cleopatra in the same work. Check your reality at the door of course, as despite having a wig out at the museum and dousing Queen Cleopatra with the immortal elixir, Ramses then sails forth into the world and creates a modern day identity and promptly exposes his baby blues to the social circuit. As one does, when you want to stay safe from scrutiny.
So we're not big on plot planning here but there are many gloriously overblown conversations, angsty experiences and swoon worthy immortals swanning about thinking furiously about what is to come next. Ramses is curiously toothless in this outing, compared to how fierce he was in the first book. More a brooder here than a doer.
The passion of Cleopatra isn't of the between-the-sheets kind as it turns out, but more that she has rediscovered her desire to live.
It was lovely to visit with Ramses once again, and as a co-authored book, you do wonder whose input we will see more of in future works of the (now continuing) series. One for the fans, but not a book you'd recommend for a reader who has never experienced the richness of the works of Anne Rice before. Once you have immersed yourself in the unrestrained narcissism of the immortals, it's an easy and pleasant reading experience just to ride along with their greatness just once again.
Review - Artemis, Andy Weir
Living on the moon in Artemis, the first lunar city built not only for exploration but also for the tourists, Jazz Bashara knows everything there is to know about the city and its people. Born on Artemis, Jazz is living life as best she can in a hostile climate and from her side hustle of smuggling in the odd piece of contraband, the lunar coinage rolls in. Infrequently. Not enough to keep her from dreaming of the next big haul.
Dang. We all really wanted to love this book after the monster science hug that THE MARTIAN unexpectedly gave us a few years back. The geek science is still there to be enjoyed - detailed and highly credible, and you never have cause to doubt the intelligence and passion of author Andy Weir here in his field of interest.
We see again some toasty dry humour, but without that sense of impeding peril ARTEMIS struggles to engage us in the fate of its lead, petty criminal Jazz Bashara.
Jazz isn't hideously unlikeable, but other than being rather admirably tenacious, she's not that likeable either. She's sketched a little too thin and the reader really needed for her to have a better sense of purpose in order to have a vested interest in her fate. Jazz's intentions didn't have be that noble, but considering the out-of-world setting, they could have been a lot more perilous and suspenseful. There are parts where Jazz is required to look outside of the personal ramifications to herself and think instead of the safety of others living at Artemis, but these scenarios just seem just inclusions to move the technical narrative along. Also, the danger to others is a consequence of Jazz's own actions on the whole anyway.
In the keen hands of Andy Weir, ARTEMIS gives us great insights to what practical challenges there might be to our future living outside of our own planet. It will happen some day on a larger scale of course, and Artemis is a living breathing city with all the usual challenges and petty concerns that would be scaled up to large potential disasters in a hostile 'off earth' environment.
As with THE MARTIAN, the strength of the writing lies in the imagining of the environment and the ever present threat to human life via any one of many small mistakes that could be made. The people depicted as living here in Artemis are mostly self serving, and there isn't the 'brave new world' community identity. It is on the whole every woman for herself. (Or man, etc).
ARTEMIS satisfies the space/science fan in all of us but needed better characterization and an a keener editorial eye cast over where all of the 'wacky races' shenanigans were going to end up. Too many broad brush strokes are made at the novel's conclusion to tidy it all up when it would have been just as okay to go a little dark, rather than feature film fodder light.
Looking forward to anything more that Weir can bring by way of a space action novel with less goof and more attention paid to what possible uniquely frightening space catastrophes could await us out there as we further explore and populate planets and moons other than our own.
Book review - Are You Sleeping, Kathleen Barber
Josie Buhrman has a terrific partner to whom she has told rather a lot of lies to. Caleb, with all his Kiwi charm, has been a solid and loving anchor for Josie, separating her from the mess of her family past which included the scandalous murder of her father, and the exit of her mother to a cult like order. Josie has travelled a long way from the mid-western town where she grew up and has set up a good life for herself away from all of the skeletons still festering in her family closet.
Crime fiction readers (and in particular, true crime or audio book enthusiasts) are generally mad podcast listeners also, so as a hook to make us pick up a novel by a new author, this absolutely worked!
Don’t be too fatigued about seeing once again that old trope of good twin/bad twin as it is put to good use in ARE YOU SLEEPING. Its likely readers will get the odd uncomfortable twinge about the twin stereotypes utilized also. One example of this is both twins having, at different times, the same romantic partner, the ability of the ‘good twin’ to forgive all ills for the sake of the blood tie etc. The reader will need to swallow those in order to move on and follow where it is all going. (Any twins out there, don’t groan too much!).
Readers will absolutely want to know the truth and also will absolutely feel empathy for Josie as she does her best to come through the mess without entirely destroying her new life with the (rather darling) Caleb. The toxicity of Josie’s twin Lanie makes her someone you wish the erstwhile Josie would run far, far away from and yet it is in this we are shown once again it is always that family ties which will continue to bind.
ARE YOU SLEEPING is a debut work for author Kathleen Barber. Insidiously adding weight to the past layer by layer, this is an enjoyable thriller with some clever dialogue that will satisfy those readers who not identify with the complexity of family dramas, but appreciate the recent wave of modern thrillers that include them.
Kudos to the book’s graphic designer for the 1970’s pulp fiction cover/s too – love it!
Book review - Lie to Me, J.T. Ellison
The Montclairs are a young married couple who are finding their marriage difficult to negotiate after the tragic death of their baby son. Working and living in the same space is now not as cosy and collaborative as it once seemed, and the pressure is on for both writers to honour their publishing contracts and produce the goods. It is of no surprise to Sutton’s girlfriends when her husband Ethan reports that Sutton has left, leaving a note that she needed to take a break. Sutton and Ethan are two brilliant people who spark creativity and passion each other, and that definitely means that
The reader will need to be patient here as it is not until after the half way mark that LIE TO ME reveals its underbelly with its first major plot twist. Nothing is quite as it seems. LIE TO ME is almost like two novels in one; in the first half we have the classic investigation into the spouse and in the second half, other characters in play begin to reveal their true intentions. Told via both past and present perspectives of Sutton and Ethan, LIE TO ME builds up a picture of a creative marriage which slowly dissembles as more facts are revealed from the relationship’s origin and recent past.
The comparisons made to a certain other wildly popular novel are probably not helpful as LIE TO ME is only vaguely similar in nature. LIE TO ME does struggle with continuity, and the “unseen” voice of the killer addressing the reader does not add much to the suspense; if anything it’s a bit of an irritating vain play. As a beach towel thriller, LIE TO ME does the job and almost (but not quite) ties it all up in a bow by novel’s end. Sharp eyed readers though will pick up on a few unfinished threads; perhaps a sequel in the works? It would be interesting to see if Ethan Montclair can forge on with his life after going through the twin horrors of his child dying and being accused of murder.
An escapist thriller for your summer holiday, LIE TO ME will keep you guessing and wondering just who it is you are supposed to feel for – the missing, or the one that remained?
Book review - Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King & Owen King
Right on the money as he always is, Stephen King - with his co-writer son Owen King - addresses here a premise that is ridiculously and soberingly topical. What is it that could bring down society in such a dramatically short space of time? The withdrawing of the women.
Women - those who bear the ‘thought burden’, those who do the nurturing, those who are responsible for the “reining in” of erratic behaviour. Stunningly simple, the thematical concept behind SLEEPING BEAUTIES is not to visualize the horror and drama as the world is slowly broken down, but more to realize how simple and obvious making this happen might be.
As you would expect with the epic novels of this size, SLEEPING BEAUTIES has a cast of thousands and the reader will need to keep on top of all that, in particular as the siege of the women’s prison continues. Lots of guys with guns all fighting what they think is the good fight. Stephen King has obviously been here before (not necessarily geographically - though any fan of King knows that many of his towns and folk do crossover in a freakishly satisfying way) as his legacy novels like THE STAND set new benchmarks for post-apocalyptic works. Benchmarks, that just quietly, may never be vaulted over by other authors. King is King. He does these “rise above the common doom” novels extremely well.
It is easy (and quite fun!) to imagine that a savage edit might have taken place to remove the odd literary swipe at present day government and industry leaders. Messrs King masterfully duck and weave around the particulars and instead illustrate the domestic oppressions and expectations still placed on women via poignant little vignettes that strike uncomfortable and familiar chords.
The identifiable everyday and the supernatural are fully meshed in SLEEPING BEAUTIES and it’s a testament to the writers skill that soon we don’t question when the otherworldly inclusions appear. It is not a full scale good versus evil battle here in this novel but the take home will unsettle regardless. Allow a few days to switch off and take it all in.
Book review - Best Day Ever, Kaira Rouda
Determined to make the day run to schedule, Paul sets off for the drive to his river home with Mia, his lovely young wife of ten years. Their kids are being taken care of by the dubious babysitter and this weekend will be all about the two of them. Paul has planned the next few days very very carefully. There are some work arounds that are necessary and Paul does get the feeling that Mia suspects something is up. But not to worry, the course of true love never does run smoothly. Paul is used to leading a complicated life and his increasing money troubles have brought him to this point.
BEST DAY EVER has a slow burn and is very much like a one room thriller, due to the small cast and its real-time play. We’re along for the ride with Paul, our urbane and narcissistic host, and included every step in the way in his Machiavellian plans to come out on top and be in complete control of his life and marriage. We’re not meant to like him, and of course we can’t admire him, but we can marvel at the inflated super ego that has resulted in his life unraveling at a greater speed now that he is finally spending some time alone with his witness, wife Mia.
Paul’s traits are horribly recognizable and therein lies the true horror; it is not inherent misogyny that drives Paul, it is more the extreme love he has for himself. Everyone has met one of these people, and Paul has taken it to an art form with quick thinking on his feet, lying on the spin of a dime and skillfully manipulating people and events to suit his own needs.
With domestic thrillers being so huge right now, many fiction writers have lifted the lid on the most dangerous experiences women can have; that being, those lived as a result of entering into relationships with controlling men. BEST DAY EVER is an excellent reminder that you don’t need to look too far from home to find real monsters. This novel doesn’t over dramatize and it doesn’t over explain, which makes BEST DAY EVER all the more chilling to read.