Book Review – Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips: a gripping debut thriller

Fierce Kingdom is Gin Phillips’s debut thriller and its powerful story of a mother’s determination to protect her child when faced with unimaginable circumstances will certainly stay with me for quite some time.

Set somewhere in the United States, the book revolves around Joan and her four year-old son Lincoln. He loves the zoo, but on this day they find themselves caught up in a terrifying nightmare scenario, when young men armed with guns open fire just before closing time. Aware both their lives are in extreme danger, Joan knows she must use all of her instincts and courage to keep them alive.

Phillips has written a tremendously gripping book. However, unlike some people I couldn’t read it in one sitting, as I found it much too tense to do that. Although such shootings are almost unheard of here in the UK, you cannot fail to put yourself in to Joan’s shoes, or indeed some of the other characters she encounters and at a time in a world where we are much more aware of our safety being threatened, it’s a story that packs a powerful, emotional punch.

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As a reader, I connected with the character of Joan immediately. She has such a strength about her that you find yourself almost holding your breath as she fights to stay one step ahead of the young men roaming the zoo. I also liked how we learnt more about her and her life as time moved along, seeing a glimpse in to the person she is outside of the world of the book and I may not be a mother, but you cannot fail to be moved by her bond with her son and how that loves fuels her determination to keep them both safe and like Joan, I took comfort in his innocence during such a frightening ordeal.

It’s also a great structural choice to keep all of the story within the walls of the zoo, rather than jump away to those on the outside, for example Joan’s husband or the police. Some writers may have chosen to do this to broaden out the story, but by keeping us as readers inside that small space with Joan and Lincoln, Gin Phillips heightens our connection to them and draws us in much more. Her decision to bring in the point of view of one of the gunmen is also interesting and creeps up on you in a clever way and through those pages we are given an insight in to what may cause someone to cause such harm and whether there is anything that will bring them back from such a dark path.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving anything crucial away about the book, but if you are someone who enjoys a strong thriller, that will grip you from the first chapter and hold your attention until you put it down, then I recommend that you add this book to your reading list.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips is published in the UK on 15th June 2017 by Doubleday and is available from all the usual book stockists.

Book Review – Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse

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My local bookshop, West End Lane Books in North West London, is wonderful at arranging events with some of the finest writers around and a couple of weeks ago we were treated to readings and discussion with two such authors. One of these was Lucie Whitehouse, who talked about her latest book Keep You Close and having just finished it, I can guarantee you are in for a thrilling read from the first page to the last.

Rowan Winter grew up in Oxford. Her mother died when she was young and her father travelled all the time, meaning she kept to herself – until she met Marianne Glass and soon, not only were the girls close friends, but Rowan became almost part of the Glass family. Ten years later, Marianne has been found dead, an apparent fall from her flat and although they hadn’t spoken in a decade, Rowan suspects there is more to Marianne’s death. She knows Marianne had severe vertigo and never went near the edge of the roof, so how could she fall?

Keep You Close is a brilliantly written book, in terms of plot, character and construction, as Lucie Whitehouse skilfully weaves the past and the present together, while always suggesting that there are still secrets the reader has yet to uncover. I find so many books, although great reads, give their endings away too obviously and it is wonderful that this novel doesn’t do that. There were moments that really did make me stop and go “Oh, now I see! How clever!” which is all down to Lucie Whitehouse’s cleverness in constructing her story.

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Author Lucie Whitehouse

A key to any novel is its characters and one of the strengths of Whitehouse’s novel for me was the fact I genuinely liked Rowan. She was flawed from the outset, but I couldn’t help but like her because she was so believable. As the book moved forward, I was desperate for her to discover the truth so that I would know too! Marianne was also a very real presence in the story despite her death at its start and I very much enjoyed the way her life, both when she knew Rowan and just before her death were weaved in to the story in order to build the mystery and anticipation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Keep You Close. With interesting characters, an intriguing mystery and a pace that builds the further through you go, it’s the perfect psychological thriller, which keeps some surprises up its sleeve until the end!

If you’re already a fan of Lucie Whitehouse or, like me, hadn’t read one of her novels before, but love a great thriller, then this won’t disappoint. I’ll certainly be reading more of her work and recommending this book to friends and family.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published by Bloomsbury and available from all the usual book stockists.

 

 

Book Review – The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

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I seem to be on a role in 2015, reading one fantastic book after another and Joel Dicker’s novel will certainly be one of the book highlights of this year for me. Winner of the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, the novel sold more than 2 million copies in one year amid great fanfare in the France and has since been translated into 32 languages.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair introduces us to 28 year-old Marcus Goldman, a man struggling to find inspiration for his second novel. The pressure is indeed on, in order to follow the success of his debut and his publisher and agent are losing patience. Growing ever more frustrated and defeated he visits his old college English professor and literary success story Harry Quebert, at his coastal New Hampshire house Goose Cove, who is perhaps his only true friend. During that trip he discovers Harry’s deepest secret – that in 1975, at 34, he fell in love with a local girl Nola Kellergen, who was only fifteen at the time, only for her to mysteriously disappear without a trace.

Only months later this secret will be revealed to the world on the discovery of Nola’s body in the garden of Harry’s house thirty three years after she vanished. It seems impossible to Marcus that his friend could be guilty, despite the evidence against him, including the fact Nola’s body is found buried with the manuscript of Harry’s hugely celebrated novel. With nothing in his own life, Marcus arrives in the town of Somerset to conduct his own investigation and clear his friend’s name, which could also prove to be the perfect plot for his new book.

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Author Joel Dicker

This isn’t simply a murder mystery, but one that has so many twists and turns and branches to it that I was jealous that the writer had been able to come up with it! To say it’s a long book (600 pages), I flew through it. Once you are caught up in the mysteries of this small coastal town and its residents, you simply won’t be able to stop reading until you know the truth.

I loved the book’s structure, as events and moments from the past are woven in to the present to create a multi-layered plot with more questions than simply “who killed Nola?” We are transported in to the 1970s during Nola’s last summer, as well as in to the early time of Marcus’ own friendship with Harry. Joel Dicker keeps building on the numerous questions the story poses, adding detail and background through Marcus’ investigation, which frequently has you changing your own theory. I did however get one aspect of the story right!

Marcus is a great central character. He isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s clear he is a good man determined to do the right thing for his friend. The more you read, the more you also understand his bond with Quebert, who has helped him so much throughout his life and made him a better person as a result. Quebert himself is somewhat an enigma, giving the reader the sense he is never quite revealing everything to Marcus, a device which continues to hold your attention and interest. Overall though I did like him and found his fatherly bond with Marcus quite touching.

One of the strengths of the book is also the vivid mix of other characters, many of whom are multi-layered and believable. Police Sergeant Gahalowood was a favourite of mine, as I enjoyed his grudging growing respect for Marcus and even Marcus’s mother’s fleeting scenes are amusing. As Marcus wades deeper, the circle of characters (and indeed suspects) widens, as ever more residents of the area become possibly linked to Nola’s disappearance and murder. Then there is Nola herself, at the heart of the mystery and a character with as many secrets as the truth of what ultimately happened to her.

For me, the novel had all the key elements for a successful thriller – an intriguing story, excellently paced (highlighting the great translation work by Sam Taylor), three dimensional characters and twists and turns to keep you guessing. Not all thrillers have captured my attention the way Joel Dicker’s book did. I see that Warner Brothers acquired the film rights last year, at which point Ron Howard was on board to direct. There seems to have been no further updates, so we’ll have to see if a film does become a reality. I could certainly imagine the story on the screen, although a television seres may be almost more appealing in order to let every twist and turn play out to the full.

This is certainly a brilliantly engaging thriller, which I would recommend to any fan of the genre and is one  book I’ll be passing on to friends and family this summer.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker is published in the UK by MacLehose Press and is available from all the usual book stockists.

Book review – The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

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Have you ever thought about how your life may have been different if you’d made another decision about something? What if you’d never gone on that holiday? What if you’d never moved to the City? What if you’d never met that person so important to you now? The possibilities for each of us are endless and it is this thought-provoking and emotional topic that Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, brings to life so beautifully.

Without wanting to take any of the magic from this book by saying too much, it tells the story of two people, Jim Harper and Eva Edelstein from their first encounter at Cambridge in 1958 where they are both young students. Over the course of the novel we see the path of their lives as they move through all the stages of life, from youth to old age. This is one of the book’s most powerful aspects (and for me, something which makes it resonate much more than, for example, Sliding Doors, which I have seen referred to in some reviews). You genuinely grow to have a true sense of who these people are and how their experiences shape their lives over so long. I certainly became quite attached to Jim and Eva after spending so many decades with them and it certainly gives you perspective on your own life, whatever stage you have reached, whether 18 or 80.

The other beautiful and clever aspect of Laura’s story is her decision to not just tell their story, but to tell three possible versions of it, within which the lives and destinies of Jim and Eva (and, as a result, of those around them) take different turns, some only slightly altered, others much more drastically so. Through these three paths of the book, the reader has the opportunity to walk through 60 years with Jim and Eva, down three different routes and the effect is an incredibly moving one, especially the further through the story you go.

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Author Laura Barnett

It may sound confusing, but it really isn’t, which is a testament to Laura’s skill as a writer. The honest telling of the journey of ordinary people’s lives is something each of us can connect with and due to Laura’s ability to create such grounded characters (not just Eva and Jim, but those around them, who all feel very believable and well realised), The Versions of Us so quickly draws you in and captivates you to the end.

Although all three versions are split out throughout the novel, the events in one may still happen in the next and rather than repeat them, they instead build on each other, to lay the stepping stones we travel on through this couple’s life. So as well as reading effectively three versions, as a reader you still have a very real sense of an overarching journey.

I was lucky enough to go to a reading by Laura, at my wonderful local bookshop last week, West End Lane Books in North West London (always worth a visit for browsing or for one of their author events) and I was surprised to hear that she actually wrote the book as it is, jumping between the three versions, after waking up one morning with the idea fully formed in her head. I had wondered if she had written each one separately and then split them up and was impressed to hear that wasn’t the case and her description of plaiting the versions together is a brilliant way of describing the experience of reading it. Apparently some people choose to read each one as a whole, but I’d certainly recommend reading the novel as you find it, as part of its magic is the fluid movement from one path to the next and back again. I did ask her which version was the hardest to write and she said that was Version Two, which varies more from the others and she said trying to keep Eva and Jim apart was difficult, as they were like magnets wanting to come together.

I’m sure everyone will have a different response to the book, but personally, I took from the story that there are always different choices that could be made in life, with differing consequences, but that some things in our lives are always going to endure in some form. No matter the deviations along the way, the important people and events will hopefully remain. It’s this sentiment that I felt on reaching the end of the novel, as I said goodbye to Eva and Jim myself and as a result, found this to be a very moving and quite an emotional read. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough!

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and available in all the usual book stockists. It will be published in the USA in May 2016 (but I’d urge American readers to get a copy another way so as not to have so long to wait)! The website for the wonderful West End Lane Books (with details of the upcoming author events is here or follow @WELBooks).

Book Review – Disclaimer by Renee Knight (2015)

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“Imagine coming across yourself in a novel. A novel that exposes your darkest secret. A secret you thought nobody knew…”

This is the tantalising teaser on the back cover of the newly published debut novel by Renee Knight. I do tend to prefer thrillers, especially those in to which you find yourself drawn completely, without any idea of where the story will end. Disclaimer is certainly such a novel and one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

I first came across the book when flicking through my mum’s copy of Reader’s Digest. The synopsis sounded intriguing and I pre-ordered it. Three days after picking it up, I’ve finished and it would have taken me less time, had I not had to leave the house! Thursday night also saw the launch party of the book at the wonderful London bookshop West End Lane Books in West Hampstead (the shop is always hosting readings with authors and is always worth a visit), which meant I was even able to meet the author and get my copy signed, which was lovely.

As for the story itself, Disclaimer introduces us to Catherine Ravenscroft, a successful documentary filmmaker, happily married, but who has a somewhat strained relationship with her 25 year-old son Nicholas. Her life is shaken when she finds a book in her new house – she does not remember buying it, or how it reached her but, on reading it, she realises that it is about her, taking her back to a time and a secret she has kept buried for years. The standard disclaimer “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental..” is crossed out in red – someone is clearly sending her a message that they know her secret. At the same time, an elderly man, is grieving the loss of his wife Nancy, who seemingly knew Catherine’s past and for whom he is now determined to balance the scales and see his form of justice done.

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Author Renee Knight

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Crucially, it drew me in to the characters (all of whom are very believable) and the story very quickly and once the puzzle starts to grow deeper, the more I found myself unable to put it down. Renee’s style of writing is perfect for the story she set out to tell – the book alternates between chapters about Catherine’s life and that of the elderly Stephen, weaving the strands of mystery together, as we see glimpses of the past weaved between events of the present. Catherine’s chapters are also written in the third person, while Stephen’s are a first person narrative. Again this works well for the personalities and motivations of these two key characters, as Catherine is a little distant, closed off and somewhat of a mystery, while Stephen is more direct in what he desires, wanting to tell a story and the reader certainly feels he is speaking to them, which at times becomes a little unsettling.

I’ve seen comments from other readers who say that they did not like Catherine, but I didn’t find that was the case for me. As I read, I was intrigued to know her secret, but never disliked her and also believed whatever she had hidden had been buried to protect others, not herself. Perhaps the book also makes us think about our own attitudes to right and wrong, as I felt little sympathy with Stephen and could not agree with his vendetta, regardless of what the final truth of the story was.

As is the case with many successful thrillers recently (Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, for example), the story only continues to unravel the further through you read. Just as you think you’ve worked out the plot, something diverts it in a totally different direction, which I love as a reader and Renee’s writing achieves this much better than other authors, while ensuring that the emotional tension builds as the book hurtles towards its conclusion.

I certainly recommend Disclaimer to anyone who enjoys the thriller genre and personally, although it is being spoken about in the same breath as The Girl On The Train, in my view, this novel is much more intriguing, emotional and less predictable and is a very satisfying read, which is likely to stay with you for quite a while after you’ve finished it.

Disclaimer is published by Doubleday and available from all the usual book retailers. For book fans in London, keep an eye of the upcoming book events at West End Lane Books on its website or via twitter (@WELBooks).

Author Review – Carol Goodman

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I have wanted to write a review for this blog about a novel by one of my favourite authors Carol Goodman. However this left me with the difficult decision as to which book to choose! As a result, I have decided to instead write a general review about her work as a whole and would encourage you to pick up one of her wonderful books and discover her for yourself.

I have been reading Carol Goodman’s books since her debut novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, was published in 2002 and since then have eagerly anticipated each new release. The Lake of Dead Languages remains one of my favourite novels, perhaps in part because it introduced me to a writer who since then has created fantastic stories that have enthralled me over the years.

Her books are all written in quite a distinct style. They are in essence thrillers, but the atmosphere and tone of them makes them so much more than an ordinary thriller. Drawing on her own background as a teacher, her central characters tend to be strong, independent women, who are usually teachers or writers and all of whom have a background or secret they are trying to forget. Throughout her writing, Carol brilliantly weaves haunting stories that cannot help but feel eerie, somewhat gothic and often poignant in tone, which I find, is due to the fact that her books usually include an element of reaching into the past, to some unknown or hidden secret or incident, which impacts on those characters in the present.

I tend to enjoy novels that have some element of shifting time periods, letting you in to two stories in one and so I love the worlds created in Carol’s books, when two characters separated by years and even centuries become linked in a way that binds them together. It is also this that adds to the eerie, gothic atmosphere of her books – whether it’s returning to a lake which holds terrible secrets from the past, as in her debut novel, or exploring an ancient buried villa, which holds the secrets to people and practices long since dead. Very few authors’ novels capture my imagination the way hers do and that is due to her wonderful writing and the incredible haunting atmosphere she creates.

To give a flavour of her work, I have included a brief summary of each of her novels that I have read below.

The Lake of Dead Languages (2002)

Her debut novel is a gothic thriller set in both the past and the present and centres on Jane Hudson, a new Latin teacher at the Heart Lake School For Girls. However Jane already has a connection to the school – she was a pupil there 20 years ago until she left after the mysterious suicide of her roommates. As memories from her past start to resurface, Jane realises that the events from all those years ago may be about to repeat themselves and the secrets as to what happened to her friends may finally be revealed.

The Seduction of Water (2003)

Another tense thriller, this novel follows teacher and writer Iris Greenfeder who, unsatisfied with her life, has decided to write the memoirs of her mother Katherine Morrissey, who was also a writer of two successful novels and who disappeared one night when Iris was a child, only to die in a fire miles away from home. Iris’s literary agent encourages her to return to her childhood home, from which her mother disappeared – the Hotel Equinox in the Catskills, in order to research her mother’s life and attempt to discover whether the much rumoured third novel in her mother’s trilogy ever existed. As the story progresses, we find ourselves following Iris’s search, but also following her mother’s own story, which may at last be about to be revealed.

The Drowning Tree (2004)

Juno McKay’s fifteen-year college reunion is approaching at Penrose College and the only reason she decides to go is to see her old friend Christine Webb. She has also agreed to help restore the beautiful stained glass window in the university’s chapel, which has become a symbol for the college itself and which was commissioned by the Penrose family 80 years ago. On her return to the college, Juno attends a lecture by Christine, an art historian who is researching the story behind the window for her thesis. Christine reveals possible insight into the lives of two sisters who belonged to the Penrose family and it is a story that shocks those present. The next day Christine disappears. Juno is determined to discover what happened to her friend and begins to explore for herself the secrets surrounding the Penrose family fearing her friend discovered a secret that may have cost her life.

The Ghost Orchid (2007)

Set in an artists’ colony in Upstate New York, this novel’s main character is Ellis Brooks, a first-time novelist who has arrived at the colony to seek inspiration for the book she intends to write about the colony’s mysterious founder Aurora Latham and the mystery surrounding tragic events that occurred there in the summer of 1893 – the summer when Milo Latham brought the medium Corinth Blackwell to the estate to help his wife contact the couple’s children, who had died the winter before in a diphtheria epidemic. However after a séance went badly wrong, Corinth and her alleged accomplice, Tom Quinn, disappeared, taking with them the Lathams’ only surviving child. As Ellis explores the past and the eerie grounds of the colony start to give up its dark past and hidden secrets, she and the other residents begin to uncover connections which may finally reveal the truth about what really happened that summer. This is one of Carol’s most haunting books, as Ellis starts to unravel Corinth’s time at the colony and it is a novel that stayed with me for years since I first read it.

The Sonnet Lover (2007)

Rose Asher is a literature professor who travels from New York to La Civetta in Italy, a villa at which one of her students had been spending the summer on a school sponsored residency. The student in question had posed an intriguing question to Rose – whether Shakespeare wrote a series of sonnets, in praise of an unknown dark-haired woman – but soon after died in an apparent suicide in front of the faculty. However the villa also has a personal significance for Rose as it is the villa that she herself spent time at as a student and at which she first fell in love. On her return she finds that the man in question is still in residence. Rose must find out whether there is any truth in her student’s questions and how it is connected to his death.

The Night Villa (2008)

Classics professor Sophie Chase travels to Capri in Italy in order to explore the mysteries surrounding the occupants of a centuries old villa, Villa della Notte, which was buried after the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. It is believed that the nobles living at the villa practiced pagan rituals involving slaves. Sophie and her team are determined to uncover the story of a slave named Iusta, who may have died during the eruption and through the story we see in to the lives of both Sophie, as her exploration becomes ever more dangerous, and Iusta, who provides a glimpse in to a long lost world.

Arcadia Falls (2010)

Meg Rosenthal desires a fresh start for her and her daughter and she is determined they will find it when she moves to teach at a boarding school called Arcadia Falls. However, soon after they arrive the school is faced with the tragic and suspicious death of one of Meg’s students, who falls to her death in the campus gorge during the school’s First Night Bonfire. As the circumstances surrounding her death are investigated, secrets from the past begin to emerge and Meg must face them in order to protect not only herself but her daughter.

As these summaries suggest, Carol Goodman’s books take you in to a story of both the past and the present, to create tense, haunting thrillers that you won’t be able to put down. I think all her books are fantastic but if asked to choose my favourites I would probably say The Ghost Orchid and The Lake of Dead Languages, both of which have stayed with me for years after I first read them and which I have given as gifts to friends. If you are looking for a new author to read, definitely pick up one of her books!

Carol Goodman’s books are available from the usual book stockists.

Book Review – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

My second book review for this new blog is another debut novel that I have just read after it was recommended to me. First published in 2011 and longlisted for the Orange Prize For Fiction in 2012, The Night Circus is a fantastic novel, which mixes fantasy and reality to create an intriguing and imaginative novel that, like the magic in the story itself, puts a spell over its readers, making you believe you are really there!

It’s hard to talk about the plot without giving too much away. In summary, the novel tells the story of “Le Cirque de Rệves” (The Circus of Dreams) through the lives and experiences of the individuals, who create it, live and work in it or visit it.

The mysterious circus of black and white tents appears at locations throughout the world as if by magic and without warning. However this is no ordinary circus, as this one is only open at night – opening at nightfall and closing at dawn. It could remain in one place a month or a day. Nothing is certain and not everything is quite as it seems, even to those who are a part of the world of the circus.

Within this world, the story centres around two individuals who from childhood have been linked to each other through an age old rivalry between two illusionists, who have lived their lives testing which of them has the superior skills. To demonstrate this, a challenge is set, requiring an apprentice of each man to take part in a game that neither really understands and through this game their masters will decide on a winner. However this latest challenge involves another element – what happens when the two apprentices fall in love?

As a reader, you can’t fail to be enchanted by the magical world created by Erin Morgenstern in this novel, which I think is a remarkable debut. It reminded me of how I felt as a child reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then I wanted to the factory to be real. Now, as an adult, I wished the Night Circus could be a reality. The atmosphere of the world comes to life so vividly that you could think you were dreaming, with all the wondrous smells, tastes and sounds staying with you. All this is down to the wonderful writing, which not only creates this world but also the variety of characters, who are so central to the story, whether they are the performers at the circus, those who help build it (I especially loved the clockmaker and would love one of his clocks to be possible!) or the group of people, known as reveurs, who make it part of their lives to follow the circus wherever it goes, identifying each other through the clothes they wear on their visits to the circus (black and white only with a dash of red).

A lot of novels these days remind me of something I have read before, whether it be the plot or a character. The Night Circus however was something new and imaginative and is the type of novel I’d love to write one day. It is definitely a novel I would recommend to anyone. The only downside is that the circus still isn’t real when you finish it!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is available from all the usual book retailers.