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.
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 - Did You see Melody? , Sophie Hannah
Tired and irritable from her cross continental flight from the UK, the last straw for Cara Burrows is being sent to the wrong room in the middle of the night by hotel reception. Disturbing a teenager and a man in the room, the over reaction is completely bizarre to Cara but in the light of day, it becomes just one of those things. The purpose of Cara’s trip was to regroup her thoughts and have a well-deserved break from her insufferable family so beyond that, she’d rather just enjoy what the Arizona resort has to offer. Cara has big mental fish to fry.
There’s both highs and dips with this novel. Some of the dialogue is quite fun and the main character Cara is comically harried with all that is going on in her life. We’ve all been there. Mother and teen daughter relationships based on sarcasm are very relatable, as is the faux cheeriness you often encounter from hotel staff when all you want to do is be left alone to enjoy your holiday. Author Sophie Hannah contrives to balance all of the mayhem of hotel goers joining forces for a holiday adventure with the darker depiction of a child’s murder.
As the abduction/murder plot is rather over worked, you will need to check your reality radar (and eyerolling) at the door in order to complete this read. As a beach towel novel, DID YOU SEE MELODY may have served a little better. As a crime novel, it’s a little oddball. It needs a little more darkness, or a little more lightness to slide home successfully in either category. Whether you are new to this author of an existing fan you will appreciate how Hannah has brought together a lot of diverse characters and made them interact in the unlikely environment of a high end desert resort.
Shades of “It’s a Mad, Mad World” for sure, but in the hands of Hannah DID YOU SEE MELODY has enough intrigue (satisfactorily largely in the hands of the women) to push (rather than sweep away) the reader through what is essentially a one location mystery. It’s a bit of frenetic trip in order to answer the burning question of the novel - did Cara really see Melody at the Swallowtail Resort?
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.
Book Review - Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
The highs of Rachel’s work in journalism brought her excitement, fulfilment and an outgoing husband to boot. She could not see how that could ever change. Until one wartime assignment took Rachel’s confidence, her career and the life of a young girl.
As you read SINCE WE FELL your expectations do fluctuate as to how the rest of the novel might shape up. The first third of the book is all solid backstory and quite satisfying; so much so that if we were to wrap this novel up as a drama read without the inclusion of the murders, it would serve very well. Dennis Lehane writes masterfully with all possible confidence as a writer and this is what we expect from his works – to be entertained, challenged and by novel’s end, satisfied.
The domestic thriller is the modern juggernaut of crime fiction. It’s fantastic for readers to see the crime giants like Lehane write works for this space and with each new release there is great anticipation to see where these writers will take the genre. Here, we have a novel that powers forward for a good two thirds. After this point, we are left wondering if we missed that left-hand turn at Albuquerque.
SINCE WE FELL is almost two books. It is certainly not a suspenseful screeching thriller that spirals towards a heart thumping conclusion; rather melancholic in flavour really as we lament the choices that Rachel has made. Not every novel needs to end with a proven hero, everybody being happy, all threads resolved etc. SINCE WE FELL is almost the alternate domestic thriller, not redemptive, not nail-bitingly tense; instead measured and thoughtful with insight into how a damaged person is able adapt dramatically in order to survive.