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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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 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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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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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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The Paying Guests: Spotlight on Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters’ novels. Waters is one of those authors who I think is truly exceptional and extraordinary.
There are a lot of things about Waters’ fiction that, to my mind, make it something precious. Here, in no particular order, are what come to mind.
First, her amazing, meticulous, meaningful, attention to detail. Waters’ novels are long, and they are dense. But the thing is, when you read them slowly, and literally pay attention to the details of place, and what the characters are doing in every ordinary moment, it matters.
Whereas a lot of authors of historical fiction (or fiction in general) rely on generalities to create a sense of place…for example, throwing a few words around, say, “misty moors” or “crumbling old mansion” and expect readers to mentally fill in a generic sense of place, Waters describes her world in particular, carefully chosen detail. When Waters writes, no description of washing dishes, or cleaning the stairs, is ever just the thing itself. It is an opportunity to create the feeling of being there, with the character, in that moment in history and in their life.
Second of all, Waters is a master of creating bubbling, under the surface, menace. In The Paying Guests, especially, this darkness is so woven into the fabric of the ordinary, that it is all the more chilling.
Waters’ thrillers are powerful in that they are not melodramatic (except when she does this purposefully). The Paying Guests is always about “real” people. There are no utter villains, no monsters. The characters are all flawed and human. They show impulses to love, but they also suffer cowardice, selfishness, and fear.
One underlying theme in The Paying Guests is the exploration of grief. Waters places this novel historically after World War I, when the world, and individuals, were grieving the loss of so very much. The menace that Waters creates in The Paying Guests, the secrets, and guilt, and fear, are related to her exploration of life in London after the Great War. Waters’ characters are struggling with the loss of the geographical boundaries of the world as they knew it, as well as the loss of a way of life and a class and gender system that is falling apart. They are grieving the loss of their brothers and lovers and sons. And in The Paying Guests, the main characters of Frances and Lilian are grieving a loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams.
Which brings me to the plot of The Paying Guests, which, as with pretty much every novel I’ve read by Sarah Waters, is not what it first appears. The basic premise is that Miss Wray-Francis-and her widowed mother, have fallen on hard times after the War, and, unhappily, find it necessary to allow lodgers to live in their home, in order to make ends meet. These lodgers, whom the Wrays refer to as “paying guests,” are a young married couple named Lilian and Leonard Barber. When the Barbers enter the Wrays’ home, all their lives will change in irrevocable and unimaginable ways.
What you need to know about The Paying Guests, if you’re considering reading it, is that, on the good side, it is among the very best of Sarah Waters’ work in its creation of a powerful, intimate sense of place. After reading this novel, I’m picking up historical fiction by other authors, and finding that the characters and their world feel like shadows in comparison. This creation of a wholly absorbing, authentic, fictional reality, is one of Waters’ great talents. As I read The Paying Guests, I thought (whimsically) that her characters must really exist, in some parallel universe.
On the other hand, Waters’ world and character building takes a lot of words. It can be an exhausting pleasure to read.
Also, if you’re considering reading The Paying Guests, you should know that, having read Affinity and Fingersmith previously, I found this novel to be less “shocking twist” and more grave and thoughtful in tone. When I think of Fingersmith, I think of fun, “oh my gosh!” moments of revelation, and a (with reservations) happy, hopeful ending. When I think of Affinity, I think of wonderful eerie spookiness, but also, great emotion and loss. Both these novels contained major twists I didn’t see coming.
To my mind, The Paying Guests didn’t have that twist aspect, at least not to the same degree. The last third of the novel was almost more of a courtroom drama. And I think, some of the choices that Frances and Lilian made, and even, especially, the options they had, made me sad. In the end, The Paying Guests had a plot that resonated with the postwar setting and the themes of grief, loss, change, and living with an uncertain future. But these themes are not easy ones to confront. As such, I found myself feeling sad at the end of the novel, feeling unsettled.
The Paying Guests is extraordinary, but it is also exhausting. When you start The Paying Guests, make sure you’ve got something light and bright to read or watch after.

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Affinity by Sarah Waters

AffinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Affinity back in June of this year, and it’s one of those few books that continues to haunt me months later. The descriptions of the labyrinthine Millbank women’s prison in Victorian London, and of the longing for beauty and connection in a world of despair, are exquisite.

The ending, in particular, really affected me. It’s hard to say more without giving things away, but, although the situation is completely different from my life (thank goodness!) in some way, I empathized painfully, truthfully, with the final, climactic night of the novel.

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