Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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Extreme Food (May 2015) by Bear Grylls

Extreme FoodExtreme Food by Bear Grylls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers for my review copy of Extreme Food: What to Eat When Your Life Depends on It, by Bear Grylls.
Extreme Food, the latest book by ex-special forces, nature/survival enthusiast, and television personality Bear Grylls, is a fast, fact-packed read that offers survival information that anyone can benefit from.
As a sometime viewer of Grylls’ nature shows (usually when my dad or brothers have it on television), and someone with an abiding, but rarely deeply explored interest in the natural world, I especially enjoyed the parts of this book which dealt with the basics of food as a source of energy in a survival situation, edible (and toxic) plants, and how to track animals.
I found the sections on making traps, hunting, and preparing a kill more disturbing, and so skimmed those sections. I do, however, think that the information presented therein seemed like a useful introduction to techniques that could save one’s life.
I found the sections on edible/toxic fungi, as well as all the edible creepy crawlies and extra-dangerous animals (think snakes and scorpions) to be fascinating reading from a “bizarre foods” perspective, but anything I was about to try to apply to my own life. I also didn’t enjoy some of the pictures in the middle of the book, which included gratuitous shots of Bear eating bloody animals.
In his introduction and afterward, Grylls states that this book is meant as an introduction to survival concepts which can save your life. His hope is that this book will increase readers’ interest in, and sense of empowerment about, survival techniques, and that it will encourage readers to investigate further.
Read in this context, I think that Extreme Foods pretty much hits the mark.
Overall, I’m really glad that I read Extreme Foods. I learned something from it, and am inspired to learn more, and in that way, I’d call this latest book by Bear Grylls a great success.
This review can also be found Goodreads and Facebook.

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The Predictions (May 5, 2015) by Bianca Zander

The PredictionsThe Predictions by Bianca Zander

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have contradictory feelings about this novel by author Bianca Zander.
British-born Zander has lived in New Zealand for 20 years, where she is a creative-writing lecturer and recipient of writing awards and bursaries. In The Predictions, she spins a tale that spans the globe from New Zealand to Great Britain.
The Predictions is the story of Poppy, a young woman growing up in a commune called Gaialands in New Zealand in the 1970’s.
Part of what I didn’t like about The Predictions was the way in which it was narrated; Poppy tells us the story of her life in linear fashion, as if she is writing her memoir. The narrative style gives the story a sense of already having been completed and thus set in stone. This diminished my emotional engagement with the characters.
The memoir style also meant that Poppy tells us about her life in hindsight, which serves to distance her from her own experiences. As she reflects on her life, she judges people and interprets events in a way which sometimes feels didactic and self-satisfied.
Although Poppy encounters many diverse situations and types (“types” being an operative word here) of people in her life, she herself begins and ends the novel as much the same person.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting that The Predictions ends with Poppy in her 30’s. As the novel concludes, we very much get the sense that Poppy has completed her life arc…her biggest troubles and struggles are behind her. As a reader, I wasn’t satisfied or impressed by this.
What I did like about The Predictions was that it was an interesting story, with settings ranging from a commune in rural New Zealand to the heavy metal/glam rock scene in London in the 1980’s, to women’s right’s marches. What I didn’t like was the perspective from which these potentially fascinating and complex situations were viewed.
Thank you to William Morrow Publishers for my review copy of The Predictions.

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The Ice Twins (May 19. 2015) by S. K. Tremayne

The Ice TwinsThe Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Ice Twins is an absorbing, fast-paced read which I debated between giving 4 and 5 stars. Although not a “perfect” book, it is one of the most interesting suspense novels I’ve read this year, and so, in some ways I think it merits 5 stars.
However, this review reflects my personal reactions to the book, and so I’ve rated it 4 stars. This is because, for all its strengths, I just didn’t love it as much as I felt I should. Below, I’ll try to explain what was great about The Ice Twins, and also, why it didn’t fully succeed for me.

First, a quick plot introduction:
The Ice Twins is told variously from the points of view of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft, the parents of identical, seven-year-old, twin girls. As the story begins, we find out that they are grieving over the death of Lydia, the quieter, more bookish twin. Nearly a year before, Lydia fell from a balcony while vacationing at her grandparents’ home in Devon. Sarah, Angus, and Lydia’s twin sister, Kirstie, have been unsuccessfully trying to recover from this tragedy ever since.
Finally, in an attempt to start anew, the family moves to a small tidal island off the coast of Scotland, which Angus’ family has owned for generations. However, moving to Eilean Torran (Thunder Island) proves to be anything but a good idea. What follows is part psychological thriller, part ghost story, part domestic noir, and part horror, as they (and the reader) begin to suspect that the apparent facts of Lydia’s death are not as straightforward, as they at first seem.

My thoughts:
Author S.K. Tremayne (a pen name for a published author living in Britain), has, in many ways, absolutely nailed it in the choice of Eilean Torran (a fictional name for an actual tidal island near Skye) as the setting for this tale.
The Isle of Skye is well known for its unusual quality of otherness and solitary beauty. Tremayne knows this area well, and has capitalized on this eerie atmosphere in The Ice Twins.
Now, I’m a reader who loves sense of place above pretty much all else. And I am enamored of Scotland. I honestly can’t ever recall having had the experience of reading a contemporary novel in which I felt that the atmosphere was overemphasized before. However, in The Ice Twins, Tremayne inserts descriptions of the light, sea, and sky, so frequently and indiscriminately, that I realized I was beginning to skim some sentences.
For me, it was the quality and the quantity of the description, rather than the fact of description itself, which was problematic. I think that the best authors create a sense of place with enough well chosen, and well-placed words. Description can be almost like poetry, with powerful lines that set a scene, or turn up at perfect points in a narrative, anchoring the reader in a place and time. But the best writers do this, and then entrust the reader with that sense of place, that imagination. It felt to me like Tremayne thought we would forget we were on a Scottish island unless we were constantly reminded.
One thing I did really enjoy was that Tremayne inserted photos of the sea, island, lighthouse, etc., throughout the novel. These pictures added to my immersion and pleasure in the atmosphere.
So this whole ‘sense of place’ thing has another important dimension. Tremayne speaks highly of Skye in the author introduction. As mentioned above, Skye is world-famous for being a “thin place,” a place of unparalleled but stark beauty. However, after reading The Ice Twins, I felt like Skye was a place of nightmare. The photos coupled with the descriptions of the characters and the place evoked a sense of primal fear in me such that I questioned my long-held desire to visit Skye.
I think this reaction goes hand-in-hand with another reason I didn’t love The Ice Twins, which is that it has strong elements of a horror novel.
While I love psychological thrillers and suspense, I am not, so much, a fan of horror. Obviously, the genres sometimes merge. For me, one of the tonal elements that I do not like about horror is the (sort of obvious) goal of creating a sense of “horror” in the reader. I don’t like being taken to a place of primal fear. The Ice Twins was a psychological chiller, a tale of domestic noir, a mind-trip, a novel of suspense. But ultimately, it left me with that icky feeling that all is not right with the world, that deep evil lurks beneath seemingly calm waters, and that none of us is safe.
More than anything, I think this is why I did not love the book. I’d love to hear other readers’ reactions to the novel, especially regarding the portrayal of Skye and its tidal islands.
Thank you to the publishers through NetGalley for my advanced review copy of The Ice Twins.

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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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Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

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