The Mistake I Made (September 8, 2015) by Paula Daly

The Mistake I MadeThe Mistake I Made by Paula Daly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review The Mistake I Made by Paula Daly.
If you’re a fan of Paula Daly, one of the hot new domestic-thriller novelists in the UK, then you will enjoy her latest offering. Having read Daly’s two previous novels, I came to this one with high expectations.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed this book less than Daly’s previous two novels. For me, The Mistake I Made was high on the “ick” factor, with our protagonist Roz in just a bunch of awful situations. The beautiful backdrop of England’s Lake District (which also features Daly’s other novels) was not enough to lift the pall of desperation that lay heavy on this story.
On the plus side, The Mistake I Made Was gripping and held my attention. On the minus side, the novel made me feel stressed rather than offering excitement or escapism. (In this way, tonally, it reminded me of The Girl on The Train, by Paula Hawkins.)
Ultimately, several weeks after finishing the novel, I find myself unable to recall much more than the introduction featured on Goodreads and NetGalley.

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The Lie (23 April 2015) by C. L. Taylor

The LieThe Lie by C.L. Taylor

First of all, big thanks to the publisher through NetGalley for my copy of The Lie by C.L. Taylor. Here’s my honest review.

I enjoyed the first half of The Lie immensely. However, as the story progressed, my initial reading pleasure transformed into something much more like stress.
Then, between chapters 34-38, a graphic sequence of violence, including murder, rape, and torture, occurred, which left me feeling completely blindsided and sick to my stomach. These chapters colored my experience of the rest of the novel.
Apart from that, the second half of The Lie was less successful than the first, in that I found the plot resolution underwhelming (compared to the initial, amazing premise). I also felt that the character development was a bit too neat and tidy to feel wholly satisfying.
I was especially excited to read The Lie because I loved Taylor’s debut novel Before I Wake. I was also really interested by the premise of The Lie, that of a group of close female friends who take a “vacation of a lifetime” to a spiritual retreat in Nepal. In short order, however, the complex and convoluted bonds of female friendship are tested, as the women become victims of what is actually a cult.
Although The Lie had a rip-roaring good premise, the actual exposition was not as interesting or thought provoking as I had hoped. I think there are two main reasons I felt this way.
First, in my opinion, the supposed close friendship between the four women was obviously unhealthy and full of drama and jealously from the beginning. I fully agree that female friendships are complex, but the characters in The Lie didn’t seem to start out with a basic trust or respect for each other that I consider essential in someone I consider a close friend. So, I didn’t find the deconstruction of the friendships in The Lie as interesting as it could have been.
Second, the cult in the novel was somewhat unconvincing to me because I didn’t sense a level of mystification or brainwashing which distinguishes cults from say, a group of thugs. The retreat in The Lie did have some cult-like characteristics, such as frequent observation of members in order to control them, some religious ideology, and punishment for members who did not cooperate. However, as a reader, I was not convinced that Isaac at any time believed what he was teaching (for example, about “letting go of attachments”). It seemed that he and his group of close pals were up front with each other about the fact that they just wanted to sleep with a lot of women, and get away with assaulting anyone they didn’t like.
I felt like the other members were afraid of Isaac, but it didn’t seem like there was a lot of brainwashing or internalization of religious values. In this way, the cult experience that the four friends encountered seemed much closer to the experience of escaping from being kidnapped by a gang of criminals. Thus, the characters mainly had to recover from their physical wounds, and the emotional traumas of having been abused. On the other hand, the main character Jane had not at any time been brainwashed, such that she needed any kind of deprogramming in order to see the world clearly again.
Ultimately, I felt disappointed because The Lie relied more on soap-opera-ish drama and violence to tell a story, than on delving into the murky workings of female friendship, or of psychological manipulation.

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You Can Trust Me (April 14, 2015) by Sophie McKenzie

You Can Trust MeYou Can Trust Me by Sophie McKenzie

First, thanks to the publisher through NetGalley for the opportunity to read You Can Trust Me by Sophie McKenzie.
I have been writing and rewriting my review of You Can Trust Me for days, struggling to both give credit to the hard work of the author, but also explain why this book was a big frustration for me.
Here’s my honest review:
You Can Trust Me is a mystery/thriller that I would rate at 2.5 stars on Goodreads if I could. Here’s why:
First, the plot is decent, convoluted, your sort of dime-a-dozen, uber-popular, twisty-turny-psych-thriller that is currently flying off the shelves. The plot is not bad; it does keep your attention and is a fast read.
On the other hand, the plot of You Can Trust Me is nothing new, special, or especially convincing. Though You Can Trust Me could easily be labeled “domestic-noir,” part of why the story didn’t work for me was that, on closer evaluation, it failed to explore the elements specific to that micro-genre.
There’s a very cool article on author Julia Crouch’s blog in which she coins and describes this term, first inspired by books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. You can find the url to that post here: http://juliacrouch.co.uk/blog/genre-b
Obviously, the term domestic noir is fluid and ever changing. However, what I love so much about domestic-noir-psychological-thrillers over and above say, a novel I would describe as a mystery-thriller, is in large part lacking in You Can Trust Me.
You Can Trust Me has many of the surface elements that I associate with domestic noir, such as an every-woman female protagonist who investigates a crime and discovers that someone she knows is not who they seem. The story also features a classic sociopath (or should I say, someone who exhibits all the clichés that are generally associated with a sociopaths.) However. Most murders, in real life, and in mystery fiction in general, are committed by someone the victim knows. Also, mysteries, by definition, involve the uncovering of secrets.
Without giving away plot spoilers, I will say that I don’t feel that You Can Trust Me explored power dynamics or revealed a dark reality lurking beneath the ordinary in a way different from most mystery novels. Furthermore, I found the token sociopathic killer to be surprisingly lacking as far as being a psychologically interesting character.
This lack of originality unfortunately reflected a larger problem within the novel. You Can Trust Me relied heavily on clichés. An example of this is that at one point, the main character Livy makes the clearly brilliant decision to drive out to an isolated farmhouse on a lonely moor with a man she barely knows. The description here is what I can only describe as lazy, and the scene itself, set in a Deliverance-style farmhouse, increasingly jumps the shark as the action unfolds.
The story took on the quality of a “B” grade horror film, and I found myself feeling increasingly emotionally disconnected from the characters.
The worst part of all this, for me, was that this description was one of the only times in the book in which the McKenzie actually attempted to create any sense of place. You Can Trust Me is set in several locations which literally ooze atmosphere, including Bath, Dorset, and other locations in the English countryside. Yet, aside from the house of horrors mentioned above, nary a descriptive word is used. Livy in fact states that she always found growing up in Bath dull (and of course, she has every right to her own opinion), but as an anglophile and traveler who adores Bath, it made me sad that Livy was meeting people in front of cathedrals and such, and seemed completely blind to or even dismissive of the beauty around her.
However, as I’ve implied above, Livy also does a lot of driving/riding around southern England during the course of the novel. From my admittedly limited experience travelling by bus, taxi, train, and tube in that area, I found the ease (and perhaps the distance) with which Livy traipsed all over the place within the course of a day unrealistic. Livy has nary a wait for a taxi or a bus, no matter how remote her location.
And finally, I felt frustrated by the sentiments that Livy expresses at the very end of the novel. Without revealing spoilers, I’ll just say that the conclusion that Livy comes to for herself is based on one condition specific to her personal, fictional situation. However, the conclusion she makes is presented in such a way that it would be easy for a reader to extend it to similar situations in the real world (which do not have the single condition that makes Livy’s opinion a possibility). My feeling as I finished You Can Trust Me was that of being let down, and told a story with lazy writing, and hazy logic.

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Dietland (May 26, 2015)

DietlandDietland by Sarai Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a decade, a novel comes along with the potential to alter our perception of reality, to change how we see ourselves and to reveal new possibilities in how we can live lives of joy and freedom. For many readers, Sarai Walker’s debut novel Dietland may be just that.
I am someone who rates reading right up there with breathing, eating, and loving, and who begins and ends her day with a book in her hand. But for me, the experience of reading Dietland has been something altogether new and different.
Dietland begins with Alicia “Plum,” a fat woman whose life revolves around her efforts to become her true, thin ‘Alicia,’ self. Plum’s plans are abruptly derailed when a mysterious girl named Leeta writes the word “DIETLAND” on Plum’s palm.
What happens next to Plum is life changing, and nothing that she (or the reader) could expect. I read Dietland with very little knowledge of the plot other than what I’ve shared above, and I would recommend that anyone interested read it (at least at first) in that same, fresh, way.
What I will say for now is that I’ve struggled my whole life with the realization that I don’t fit, and don’t want to try to fit, in a culture which tells me to be smaller. Dietland is the first book to convincingly show me a way in which a life of freedom might be possible. I know I will read Dietland many times in the future, and hope I have the opportunity to talk about it with other readers.
Dietland is a book that is for all women, but it is also a book that is intensely personal. It is very funny, very smart, and utterly absorbing. It contains scenes of graphic violence, but left me feeling comforted and energized. Read Dietland as a love letter to all women, and to yourself.
I received an advanced review edition of Dietland from the publisher through NetGalley.

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To the Edge of Shadows by Joanne Graham

To the Edge of ShadowsTo the Edge of Shadows by Joanne Graham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To the Edge of Shadows is a very difficult book to categorize or talk about without giving away key plot points, but I will do my best to write about it without revealing spoilers.
First of all, I eagerly anticipated To the Edge of Shadows, Joanne Graham’s second novel, after falling in love with the characters and world she created in her debut, Lacey’s House. You can see my review of that novel here https://hafullmer78.wordpress.com/2014…
That said, To the Edge of Shadows is an ambitious second novel that bridges several genres, including fiction focused on the lives of women, as well as suspense and mystery. Major themes of the novel include grief, abuse, memory, and self-actualization.
Graham has a recognizable voice as a writer, one which often borders on the poetic. At times, this voice works well to convey the sense of being lost, or undefined, which her characters struggle with. In Graham’s debut novel, Lacey’s House, this poetic voice was used with great success for an older character who was dealing with memory issues, while her younger friend seemed slightly more concrete and immediate.
To the Edge of Shadows also follows the intertwining narratives of two women. However, in this novel, I found the descriptive writing style to be overpowering at times, such that it slowed down the pace and immediacy of the story.
Some other impressions I have after finishing To the Edge of Shadows:
Part of what I really enjoy about Graham’s writing is that she has the ability to create an atmosphere of warmth and comfort, a feeling that you are in a cozy pink bedroom with a softly glowing nightlight, warm hot chocolate, and comfy pajamas. In fact, scenes very similar to this exist in To the Edge of Shadows, and combined with one of the main characters, the gentle and affectionate Aunt Leah, Graham is able to create a singularly lovely sense of place.
At the same time, Graham is able to write authentically about the horror of violent death, abuse, and fear. Her writing is never excessively gory, but rather, is powerful because it feels true.
So Graham is talented in that she is able to write a story that is (at different times) lovely, and terrifying.
So here’s the thing. The twist, and there is a big one, was something I realized 1/3 of the way into the novel. It seemed so obvious to me that I thought I couldn’t be right. I kept reading, wondering if the author’s intention was for the reader to guess so early on, or if this was a red herring. I was slightly disappointed when, near the end of the novel, my suspicions about the twist were proved true.
However, after that (and this is where Graham really excels) the way that Graham examines the repercussions of the twist on her characters’ lives, makes the story something special.
Joanne Graham writes books that no one else could write, with characters who are truly her own. But she writes in such a way that she gently draws readers into her imaginary world, and leaves us with deeper empathy for others, as well as a greater understanding of ourselves.
To the Edge of Shadows is, in some ways, a more ambitious novel than Lacey’s House, in that it attempts to be a thriller as well as a character-driven narrative. While it does not fully succeed at the suspense element, I admire that Joanne Graham is expanding her horizons as a writer. This second novel has flaws, but it also has much to recommend it, and I look forward to seeing where Joanne Graham’s imagination and talents will take us next.
I’d like to thank Legend Press who allowed me access to the arc of To the Edge of Shadows through NetGalley.

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A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Sudden LiA Sudden Lightght, by Garth Stein, is a book that I find difficult to rate or categorize, because it was both more, and less, than I expected. On the one hand, it was an enjoyable and easy read, one which included many tantalizing elements.

For example, A Sudden Light includes:
1. a haunted house
2. ghosts
3. a mystery
4. dual-time narratives
5. hidden staircases
6. hidden journals
7. secrets, secrets, and more secrets

On top of this, the setting, an area of beautiful, untamed woods just outside of Seattle, Washington, and the historical fiction element relating to John Muir and a love of nature, were a fascinating touch.

However, part of what didn’t work for me was that the author tried to fit SO MUCH into the story that I had a hard time figuring out what it was really about.
Furthermore, I’ve seen A Sudden Light categorized as both a young adult and an adult novel, and I can understand why this is. I felt like the story’s tone, as well as the way in which issues such as homosexuality, domestic violence, and possible incest were presented, left me feeling like the book hovered in a gray area between young adult and adult fiction.
To me, A Sudden Light clearly read as a coming-of-age story, in that it is a story told by an adult narrator about his 14-year-old self. However, the narrative voice didn’t quite work for me as a convincing 14-year-old point of view, or as an adult whose values and understanding I felt completely comfortable accepting.
I assume that the writer meant for the novel to be positive in tone towards some of the main characters, who were dealing with homophobia. However, some of the statements made by the narrator came across as possibly judgmental to this reader.
On top of this, I felt uncomfortable with the way an incident of domestic violence was never addressed, as well as how some incestuous attitudes were, to my mind, glossed over.
I also felt that the author (thinly disguised as the adult narrator, thinly disguised as a 14-year-old boy who claimed he was a genius) used A Sudden Light to lecture about issues such as conservation, good and evil, and Original Sin. I found the 14-year-old’s metaphors about the Garden of Eden, separation, and John Muir to be somewhat muddled and unconvincing.
Finally, I felt that A Sudden Light succumbed to the pitfall of substituting generic descriptions to create a “gothic” feel, rather than using specific details to create an authentic atmosphere. Stein’s writing reminded me of the generic descriptions in the lightly enjoyable stories of writers such as Simone St. James or Wendy Webb. On the other hand, writers who I admire for their ability to create authentic atmosphere include Sarah Waters, Michael Cox, and Jane Harris.
So in the end, A Sudden Light did a lot of things passably, but nothing brilliantly. I think it could have been a more powerful story if the author had clarified his focus.
I received an arc of A Sudden Light from the publishers through NetGalley.

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Dark Horse by Honey Brown

Dark HorseDark Horse by Honey Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dark Horse, which was recently named Best Adult Novel at the 14th annual Davitt Awards (held by Sisters in Crime in Melbourne, Australia), is a gripping and gritty tale, part survival story, part psychological thriller.
The story begins with our protagonist, Sarah, waking from unconsciousness on Christmas morning. We know little about Sarah, other than that she is recovering from losing her home, her marriage, and her business. Sarah packs a gun, pain pills, and a picnic, and sets off to ride up into the rugged Mortimer Ranges. On her ride, Sarah is caught in a sudden storm, and finds shelter in a ramshackle hut on top of the aptly named Devil Mountain. There, she meets a gorgeous, but mysterious, man named Heath. Together, Sarah and Heath must work to survive the storm. As they wait for rescue, they must also try to survive each other.
Without giving away spoilers, I can say that Dark Horse packs a few big twists which caught me completely by surprise.
As well as having a well-crafted plot, Dark Horse also has several other unusual elements which make it special. First, author Honey Brown clearly knows a lot about the Australian outback. Her descriptions of nature, of weather, flooding, storms, and survival in severe conditions, are detailed and fascinating. As a reader, I felt very close to the mud, muck, and fog that Sarah and Heath endure.
Second, Brown manages to pull off a novel in which 2/3 of the story contains just two people and a horse trapped in a hut. I am always impressed when an author is able to maintain tension and suspense in such a pared-down situation.
Third, Brown writes sex scenes that are actually sexy.
Fourth, Brown’s respect and care for horses comes through clearly.  As a reader living in the United States, I had a heck of a time getting ahold of Dark Horse. I’d like to thank Penguin Australia, who allowed me access to an arc through NetGalley.
I hope that with the recent recognition from Sisters in Crime Australia, Brown’s suspense novels will have the opportunity to reach the wider readership they deserve.

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