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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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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One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis (US Release 27 January 2015)

One Step Too FarOne Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow publishers for this wonderful debut novel by author Tina Seskis.
The following review will be, to the best of my ability, spoiler free.
One Step Too Far is a thriller that manages to be exciting, escapist, and compulsively readable, as well as well-written, subtly plotted, and touching. It surpassed my expectations of a run-of-the mill domestic-noir novel, and instead, left me impressed and moved.
Here’s what you should know about One Step Too Far if you’re considering reading it:
The first chapter is written in the first person, and after reading only that, I was concerned that I was in for just another vague, amateurish attempt at a mind-trip, of the type which have been abundant in the wake of Gone Girl.
However, happily, I turned the page on chapter one, and continued reading chapter two, which shifts perspective, and time, into the past. Immediately, we are drawn into the middle-class, 1970’s, brown-carpeted world of Frances, a wife and mother in the process of giving birth for the first time. The shift to the third person also came with a shift in writing style, and all of a sudden, I felt like the IQ of the novel had gone way up.
Without being at all derivative, the writing reminded me of that of Kate Atkinson. Tina Seskis captures the foibles, humor, and tragedy that combine in our lives as human beings.
From here on out in the story, Seskis moves in and out of different perspectives and time periods, but I continued to be impressed and enchanted by her narrative voice.
One Step Too Far is a lot of things. It is, of course, a thriller with a big plot twist which took me completely by surprise. It is also a novel filled with subtle dark humor, especially at the beginning of the novel. As the novel progresses, it is very much a drama and character study of one woman’s choices, her experiences, and how she copes and moves through the world. It is a novel which is absorbing in its gritty descriptions of poverty, as well as the glitz of wealth and privilege. Towards the end of the novel, as the twist is revealed, there is tragedy and grief, and eventually, a sense of catharsis. The pacing is not always even. For example, the last couple of chapters confused me as the narrative abruptly jumped ahead years into the future.
In this way, One Step Too Far is not a perfect novel. But it is immensely enjoyable, it is well written, absorbing, and it has a soul.
As a side-note, Tina Seskis mentions in an afterword that she wrote this novel compulsively in the last few months of her mother’s life. Her mother read the novel as it was written, and Tina Seskis dedicated One Step Too Far to her.
One Step Too Far is a novel that is clearly written from a place of passion. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading more from the creative mind of Tina Seskis.

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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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Under Your Skin: A Novel by Sabine Durrant

Under Your Skin: A NovelUnder Your Skin: A Novel (4 Feb 2014) by Sabine Durrant

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant fits nicely into the psychological thriller category that has become so popular after the wild success of Gone Girl. Unfortunately, like many other novels in this genre, although Under Your Skin is adequately written, it fails to rise above the formulaic, and a few days after finishing it, I find that I am already forgetting the characters and plot.
The story is narrated in the first person by Gaby Mortimer, daytime television presenter and unhappy wife of the wealthy and distant Phillip. As the novel begins, she discovers the body of a strangled woman while on her morning run. In short order, Gaby becomes a murder suspect herself, and this motivates her to try to discover the identity of the real murderer.
The problem with a novel like Under Your Skin is that rather than beginning with a strong character and sense of place, it attempts to generate suspense mainly through an unlikely number of plot twists and reveals. I had no idea why Gaby, her husband, the reporter who befriended her, or the police, acted as they did. Rather than creating a sense of suspense, their inexplicable actions and reactions simply created a sense of confusion.
Because of this, Under Your Skin is a mildly entertaining read, but brings nothing new to this genre.
I received an advance review copy of Under Your Skin 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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