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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Tarnished by Julia Crouch

TarnishedTarnished by Julia Crouch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a brief(ish) review of Tarnished, the third book I’ve read by gifted author Julia Crouch.
First of all, I’ve read Crouch’s novels out of order. I read Cuckoo (2011) first, and enjoyed it, feeling that the character depth distinguished Cuckoo from other thrillers in the domestic-noir genre.
Then, I read The Long Fall (2014), Crouch’s most recent novel. I absolutely loved this dual-time, dual-place mind-bender, and consider it one of my favorite books published this year.  The Long Fall contained fluent, beautiful writing, incredible travel escapism (one setting being the remote Greek island of Ikaria), and a page-turning plot. I also enjoyed reading about one character’s “makeover” from  being a naïve, hopeful, backpacking teenager, to that as a wealthy, elegant woman appearing to live the first-world dream.
I was also impressed at how unique Cuckoo and The Long Fall were from each other.  Which brings me to the main subject of this review, Tarnished.
It was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up Tarnished, which was published in 2013. I was worried that nothing could live up to the vicarious travel and glamour that The Long Fall had described so well. Tarnished was in fact very different Cuckoo and from The Long Fall, but in its own way, it was a bit of a masterpiece.
Rarely do I think of the word “saga” when I am reading a novel I would also categorize as domestic noir, but in Tarnished, I saw how the two words could be positively compatible.
The main thing that makes Tarnished (and really, all of the novels I have read by Crouch) extra special is how absolutely real and complex her characters feel.
In Tarnished, this characterization was especially impressive. Reading about Peg (our main character) and her girlfriend Loz, I felt like I got to know them as if they were real-life friends. Crouch seems to know her characters inside and out, and has the ability to share them powerfully through the written word.

At 375 pages in length, Tarnished is not a short novel. But as I flew through the story, I was totally sucked in to Peg’s world, and the mystery of her own past, and her family secrets.
One big difference between Tarnished and The Long Fall is that Tarnished is gritty pretty much all the time. The story takes place in a crowded, dirty, smelly home, in a hospital, and in a McMansion that despite being built with lots of money, stinks from an open cesspit nearby. Crouch is adept at describing grime, sickness, and poverty.
Tarnished gave me none of the holiday escapism that I loved in The Long Fall.  But this was as it should be, as Tarnished was its own, absorbing and unique story.
As a final note, I loved the scenes in Tarnished with Parker, the ex-military rogue with a heart-of-gold, and the setting in which Peg and Loz encounter him. To me, these episodes, as well as the seaside setting, with its driving cold rain and shifting tides, were almost cinematic in their vividness. I loved the experience of reading Tarnished. I hope Julia Crouch is writing away at this moment, creating her next addictive story to share with readers.

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Before I Wake (1 June 2014) by C.L. Taylor

Before I WakeBefore I Wake by C.L. Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I Wake by CL Taylor is the kind of book that kept me up late at night reading, and the kind of book that, after I finished it, I fell asleep thinking about.
It falls into the same genre as many recent novels I have read, such as Under Your Skin, by Sabine Durrant, Jellybird, by Lezanne Clannachan, Precious Thing, by Collete McBeth, and the novels of Samantha Hayes, Julia Crouch, and Claire McGowan. These novels have a lot of things in common; they usually have a female protagonist who may or may not be losing her mind, and they usually deal with female friendships, or the relationships between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives. There is often a tragedy, either a murder, a kidnapping, or an act of violence, there is usually some kind of obsession, and there is often narrative from both the past and present. There is usually a strong mystery/thriller element, and almost always, some type of twist or reveal.
With that said, these novels are currently popular for a reason…the combination of elements mentioned above are an addictive concoction, even when thrown together in a less than stellar fashion. I think that part of the appeal of “domestic noir” as it has recently been coined by author Julia Crouch, is that it deals with real, normal women, presumably similar to the reader, who are dealing with relationships that are easily relatable.
Most of us have a mother, a friend, a child, or else the lack of those things, and that impacts us in deep ways. So the subject matter of these novels touches the heart of some universal experiences and fears, and allows us to get the voyeur’s thrill of reading about someone else overcome a problem.
To me, many of these novels are like a chocolate bar at the checkout counter of a supermarket; there is a whole selection of similar choices, each with slight variations: milk, dark, caramel, peanuts- it’s very easy to pick one up in passing, to consume it quickly, and to forget about it afterwards. And just like inexpensive chocolate bars, these types of novels pretty much always look tasty.
That said, I love chocolate, including the generic supermarket variety. I also seem to love this domestic-noir genre, and find that some authors who write this type of novel are truly gifted storytellers who are able to touch my emotions deeply. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of writers in this genre, probably because it is such a hot sell for publishers right now, who are simply mediocre.
Luckily, Before I Wake by CL Taylor is one of the more solid offerings in the domestic-noir genre. The story follows Susan, whose daughter Charlotte is in a coma. Despite the assumption of everyone around her that this coma is the result of an accident, Susan suspects that Charlotte was trying to kill herself because she had a terrible secret. What follows is a mystery with many of the aforementioned elements, and a story in which we aren’t sure until the very end who to trust.
Before I Wake is also, to my mind, a successful novel because as well as being a roller coaster of a thriller, it also chronicles the emotional journey and changes that Susan goes through as a result of what happens to her, and her response to it. Is Susan a victim? A murderer? Paranoid? Or is she the only person who can save her daughter? To avoid spoilers, all I will say is that the story ends with a rip-roaring, satisfying conclusion.
One more thing that Before I Wake made me think about was how many publishers and reviewers are comparing this type of fiction to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and usually stating that these “imitations” fall short of that inspiration. I had accepted that premise, since domestic noir has definitely seemed to flourish in years following the publication of Gone Girl. However, after reading Before I Wake, I began to think differently.
To me, there are crucial, basic differences between Gone Girl, and the novels categorized as domestic noir. Domestic-noir novels deal with issues primarily pertaining to women. These include the experiences of pregnancy and motherhood, the particular relationships between female friends, mothers and daughters, or of a woman being abused by a man who is physically, clearly stronger than she is. Gone Girl did none of these things.
To my mind, Gone Girl deals with issues that apply to both sexes. It chronicles a twisted marriage from the perspective of both the husband and the wife. It is more about power dynamics, rather than about a specifically female experience. So to me, the basic appeal of Gone Girl is completely different from the basic appeal of domestic noir.
This is not to say that men won’t enjoy reading novels in this genre, but it is interesting to note that domestic-noir authors are mostly (if not totally) women, and that in the novels I have read, there is almost never a male first-person perspective given. All that is NOT to say that domestic noir is better or worse than Gone Girl, but simply to say that I think the two have some fundamental differences. Although novels like Before I Wake are often compared to Gone Girl (perhaps initially in order to promote sales), reading them with that comparison in mind will often lead to judging them negatively.
Instead, I think novels like Before I Wake will be more enjoyed if read on their own terms. When I do this, I find that some of these novels are well written, and contain characters with whom I empathize deeply. I am happy to say that Before I Wake was a well-written novel, a chocolate confection with hidden depths, and I will be going back to the checkout counter gleefully looking to buy the next literary treat that CL Taylor has to offer. I received a review copy of Before I Wake from the publisher through NetGalley.

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The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall

The Woman Before MeThe Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall is one of the first great books I’ve read this year. This psychological thriller follows the story of two women whose lives intertwine. First, there is Rose, a prison inmate convicted of murdering her friend’s baby by setting a house fire. On the other side of the law, there is Cate, a young probation officer who becomes interested in Rose’s case as the inmate nears possible early release. The story is told alternately from each woman’s point of view, as Rose reveals to us the story of her life, from the time of her lonely and tragic childhood, to her obsessive relationship and the subsequent birth, and death, of her own two-day-old son. And Cate struggles to understand what makes Rose tick, whether she is in fact a child murderer, and whether she deserves early release. At the heart of the story there is a mystery, for Rose protests her innocence throughout, and we only learn what really happened on the night of the fire at the end of the novel.
The Woman Before Me falls into the category that author Julia Crouch has termed “domestic noir.” At the same time, Ruth Dugdall’s novel is unique, for several reasons. First, Dugdall herself was a probation officer for almost 10 years, and her passion for this challenging career is obvious in her writing. Having dealt with female offenders herself, Dugdall handles the character of Rose bravely, refusing to pigeonhole her as a complete monster, or as an innocent victim. In the extra material at the end of the novel, Dugdall writes that women are treated differently than men in the criminal justice system. Sometimes they receive harsher punishments because of their gender, but sometimes they are given lighter sentences because of the misperception that women are incapable of the violent crimes that men commit. So in the complex character of Rose, Dugdall has the chance to show the reader a female criminal who is capable of feeling deep love, but who also is quite scary. In this way, Dugdall has written an important book, because through a gripping story, she exposes the reader to new ways to think about women and crime.
Another thing I really loved about the story was Dugdall’s powerful depiction of motherhood. She wrote The Woman Before Me shortly after giving birth, in fact, it was inspired while she was still in hospital. Her descriptions of the love a nursing mother feels towards her baby, or of the devastation from the death of a child, are immediate and authentic.
Dugdall writes about human relationships with sensitivity and wisdom. She is a gifted storyteller, and I was very glad to discover that The Woman Before Me is the first in a series of novels following the character of Cate. Despite its often difficult subject matter, The Woman Before Me brightened my day as only a great book can. I received a review copy of The Woman Before Me from the publisher through NetGalley.

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