Book No 3 (2018) : The Blackhouse

the blackhouseCrime fiction has never been one of my favourite genres, but this novel drew me in from the very first pages. It’s set on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides and we all know I’m a sucker for a Scottish tale, but it was the back story which had me hooked.

Fin is a detective in Edinburgh, but hails originally from the Isle of Lewis. When local islander Angel McCritchie is found murdered, the crime bears similarities to another murder in Leith. So Fin returns to his childhood home with the brief of finding Angel’s killer. Being back on the island brings Fin Macleod straight back into contact with his upbringing; childhood friend, Artair, his first love, Marsailli and their son, Fionnlagh and they all have secrets to reveal.

Central to the plot is the annual guga hunt undertaken by the men of the island. They spend two weeks on a desolate, craggy rock, fending for themselves in the blackhouse of the book’s title, whilst carrying out the historic cull of young gannets. The setting is harsh, violent, and woven into the very fabric of the relationships in the close community. What happens on the island, stays on the island, but the consequences of Fin’s participation in the guga hunt are devastating.

Peter May’s cleverly-crafted novel works on so many levels. As well as the twisting, turning plot, there is a very strong sense of place, evoked by descriptions of landscape and weather. Like the incessant wind, character’s emotions are raw and biting, cutting deep into the reader’s imagination. The closing chapter of the book is exciting, with a couple of last-minute revelations that I really couldn’t see coming.

A racy crime thriller with a real heart is a winning combination in this instance. I also love it when I discover that an author I’ve enjoyed has penned more of the same. I’ll definitely be seeking out the other two novels which follow Fin Macleod’s debut – the Lewis trilogy continues with ‘The Lewis Man‘ and concludes with ‘The Chessmen‘.

Even if, like me, crime is not usually your thing, I strongly urge you to let Peter May try and win you over. I bet he does.

Book No 43 (2015) : The Blue

the blueFate must have been having a laugh when she gifted me with an innate love of the sea, coupled with debilitating motion sickness. As a child, twenty minutes on the 441 bus with my Nan, up Egham Hill to the Great Park was enough to leave me retching. So as I can’t be a real sailor, I have to take my sea-faring pleasures vicariously. Hence my choice of books such as Lucy Clarke’s ‘The Blue‘.

This intriguing thriller tells the story of Lana and Kitty, two best pals who have their own reasons for wanting to leave the UK. With a random spin of the globe, they head for the Philippines. The girls join the glorious yacht ‘The Blue’ and its eclectic crew. Although they have never sailed before, Lana and Kitty soon adapt to the idyllic life on board; swimming, snorkelling and camaraderie. They try their best to abide by the on-board rules of Aaron, the skipper, and form friendships with the rest of the crew – Joseph, Shell, Heinrich and Denny. But their trip starts to turn sour after a night of heavy drinking, when one of the crew members goes missing at sea.

Lucy Clarke is clearly a traveller. She captures the lure of the sea and adventure beautifully, transporting the reader to the clear blue waters of the ocean, but also describing the menace of stormy weather. I could feel the warm sun and smell the tang of salt in the air. As the mystery within the novel begins to unfold, I was drawn deeper into the story, keen to see the secrets of ‘The Blue‘ revealed. If, like me, you are an armchair mariner, this book will probably float your boat. It did mine.

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Book No 35 (2015) : The Daughter’s Secret

daughters secretHalf way through reading Eva Holland’s novel I dreamed that I had killed my baby: she had got too hot, so I wrapped her in cling film for warmth. Unfortunately though, I left her outside a lift and she died. The reason I mention this, is because ‘The Daughter’s Secret‘ tapped into that deep seam of anxiety which comes as part of the package of motherhood. Most of us are able to suppress it most of the time, telling ourselves that serial rapists, ravaging fire and motorway pile-ups are the exception rather than the norm. We push our fears to the back of our minds and get on with the school run. But Rosalind, mother of Stephanie, struggles to keep her anxiety under control at the best of times. So when her daughter goes missing and is found to have disappeared in the company of her Geography teacher, Nate Temperley, Ros’ worst fears are realised.

The novel opens at the point where Ros discovers that Temperley is about to be released from prison. Stephanie is struggling to cope at University, resorting to alcohol to blot out her pain and so her parents bring her home. Desperate to protect her daughter from her abductor’s influence, whilst battling her own personal demons, Rosalind is once again caught in a spiral of distress. The author exposes secrets and lies, as well as the role of instinct and desire within her character’s lives.

This thriller was the winner of the Good Housekeeping Novel Competition in 2014, an accolade which may send out a subliminal message that it is cosy, chick-lit fiction for women. But it is certainly not a comfortable read, concentrating as it does on the tensions of motherhood; as we try guide our children safely into adulthood, we crave to pull them back when they are threatened. The writing is taut and incisive, keeping me occupied for several hours and lingering in my mind even when I wasn’t reading. A great debut, although probably not for you if you tend to worry about your kids!

Thank you to NetGalley for my copy of this book.

Book No 34 : The Girl On the Train

Commuting is a tiresome business. Squashed, sweaty, no seats, same old, same old. Rachel travels in to Euston every day, but instead of doing something useful like reading a novel or teaching herself Mandarin, she stares out of the windows. The main object of her scrutiny is the street where she used to live with her husband, Tom. He still lives there but with his new wife, Anna and their baby, Evie. A few doors down Blenheim Road lives another young couple, Jason and Jess: Rachel watches and notices things about them, sees them out on their terrace together. Only they aren’t called Jason and Jess, that is just Rachel’s fantasy; their names are actually Scott and Megan. When Megan goes missing, Rachel may have seen something which could help find her. The difficulty is that Rachel drinks; and she drinks so much that sometimes she can’t remember exactly what she did see.

The novel is narrated by three alternate characters; Rachel, Megan and Anna. As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the three women are interlinked in more ways than were obvious at first. Despite the immense hype around this thriller, comparing it to other successful publications such as ‘Gone Girl‘ and ‘Before I Go to Sleep‘, I was not taken with it. Characters don’t have to be unfailingly kind, generous and witty for me to enjoy a book, there is a lot of enthralling literature about dark and evil people. But the cast of Hawkins’ book is perpetually gloomy; the females are unreliable and untrustworthy, the men are duplicitous and violent. Even the baby grizzles. As the narration itself is well-suited to a suburban London setting i.e grey and repetitive, the plot needed to be extraordinary to lift the novel out of the doldrums. Sadly, I didn’t think it was as although there is a twist in the end, it was predictable.

Two-thirds of the way through reading ‘The Girl on the Train‘, I pondered what I would do if the book was swept out of my hands by a huge tidal wave: would I be so desperate to discover Megan’s fate that I would swim against an oceanic tide to recover it? Sadly not, I concluded. I would have been quite happy to let it drift away. Hardly a recommendation, I know, but life is too short to be a trainspotter.

Book No 24 (2015) : Shoes for Anthony

anthonyEmma Kennedy is an attractive blonde, born in Corby and educated at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. As far as I can tell, she has never been an eleven year-old boy. Which makes her first fiction novel for adults quite an achievement; Anthony’s schoolboy perspective is insightful, sensitive and amusing.

In WW2 Wales, Anthony’s Mam has more to worry about and pay for than shoes for her youngest child. With her pitworker husband and two sons, as well as daughter Bethan, plus Anthony and herself, there are a lot of mouths to feed on wartime rations. So Ant has to make do with hand-me-down wellies which make him smell like a ‘mouldy log.’ But Anthony doesn’t mind too much, although he does hoard a picture of his dream brogues. Times are tough but Ant has his mates, a group of lads from the village with whom he spends time scrapping, hanging out in the den, climbing, exploring and getting into boy scrapes. But everything changes the day that a German plane crashes into the mountain overlooking Treherbert. Its occupants are all dead when the villagers arrive. But they soon discover there was a survivor.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from the book as the only other thing I have read of Kennedy’s is the hilarious ‘The Tent, The Bucket and Me.’ ‘Shoes for Anthony‘ is quite different. The author herself describes it as a thriller, but that is not immediately apparent from the relatively slow start. However, the pace gradually picks up until one minute I was laughing and the next crying. This was a genuinely moving read, beautifully recounted and with a very special human touch. I thoroughly recommend it.

Even if your usual style is more Givenchy than galoshes, you are guaranteed to be captivated by Anthony and his wartime community.

Film No 9 (2015) : Secret Window

secret windoe 2Netflix can be a bit random sometimes, as it offers very few real blockbuster successes, but plenty of less well-known films. I took a chance on David Koepp’s 2004 thriller ‘Secret Window’, primarily on the basis that 96 minutes of mostly Johnny Depp couldn’t be bad. Actually, I was right as it wasn’t bad and, in some places, it was really very good. The film is an adaptation of a novella of the same name by Stephen King, which formed part of his ‘Four Past Midnight’ collection.

Depp plays Mort Rainey, an author who has separated from his wife and who retreats to a remote log cabin in order to write. Although he is struggling to get anything down on paper, Rainey is still not pleased to be interrupted by a visitor, who introduces himself as Shooter and accuses Mort of plagiarising his own publication, “Sowing Season”. Mort is surprised to see that there are striking similarities between “Sowing Season” and a story called “Secret Window” which he had published a few years earlier. The next time Shooter calls, Mort promises to provide him with the evidence that he had written his version first. Events take a nasty turn for the worse when Mort later discovers that his pet dog has been killed by a stab wound inflicted by a screwdriver. As Mort’s estranged wife begins to put pressure on him to finalise their divorce and the pressure to produce evidence of his work for Shooter, Rainey’s life begins to implode, with shocking consequences.

One of the things I love about Johnny is his ability to do quirky; Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Sparrow. Mort Rainey is equally idiosyncratic; suffering from writer’s block, he is a slob, sleeps on the sofa, talks to himself and tries to hide his cigarette-smoking habit from his cleaner. As the links between Shooter and Rainey are revealed, the tension in the film really racks up and there are several ‘jump in your seat’ moments. Given that it’s Stephen King, I was prepared for a certain amount of suspense and gore and the movie delivered on both of those. In spades. Quite literally at one point.

Film No 35 (2014) : Before I Go to Sleep

before i go to sleepThis film is an adaptation of the thriller written by S.J.Watson (who, incidentally, is a man. In case you wondered).  The premise of the story is straightforward: Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) has survived some kind of trauma, but has been left with a specific form of amnesia. Every night whilst she sleeps, her memory is erased. Every morning her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), has to remind her who she is, who he is, how they met etc. By the end of the day she begins to piece together more recollections, but forgets them by the next morning, when the whole cycle begins again.

We begin to understand some of the frustrations of Christine’s memory loss as Ben leaves lists pinned to the wall to remind his wife to carry out certain tasks. A montage of photographs provides a pictorial record of the couple’s life before tragedy struck. It seems as if this endless cycle of remembering, sleeping and forgetting would remain unbroken, but the audience learns that Chris has secretly been seeing a neuro-psychiatrist, Dr Mike Nash (Mark Strong). With Dr Nash’s help, Chris begins to recover and retain more memory, using a video diary to re-cap on what she knew the previous day. But as she emerges from her brain-fog, questions begin to arise about whom Chris she can trust. Suspicion falls upon Ben and Chris is forced to unravel some disturbing mind-games before the truth of her situation is finally revealed. There is undoubtedly tension throughout the film, heightened by some shockingly violent scenes, making you wonder what other dangers are lurking.

One striking thing about the cinematography is that it is almost totally devoid of bright colour. Clothes are drab, the exterior of the Lucas’ house is monochromatic, the effect accentuated by the white bark of the silver birch trees which surround it. Interiors are stylised and stark, as is most of the background scenery. Much of the action takes place in semi or total darkness. In contrast to this subdued lighting, it is only when Chris’ memory is at its most acute, when there are periods of optimism, that light comes flooding in.

It was extremely difficult to be objective about the film when I already knew the ending, in that Bruce Willis ‘Sixth Sense’ way. My feeling is that it may be quite difficult to tie up some of the flashbacks, memory relapses etc if the plot was unfamiliar. There is no doubt though, that the intricacies of the psychological battles and demons which Chris fights, have been greatly simplified within the film, and I think this is to the detriment of the movie. Given a choice on this one, I’d go with the written version.

Coming out of the Picture House though, I had a sense of what it must be like to have one’s memory wiped overnight, as I experienced that alarming feeling of having absolutely no idea where I had parked my car. But that happens to me 9 times out of 10. I park, I lock the car, I go about my business, only to return to wander aimlessly about the sea of silver Ford Fiestas and abandoned shopping trolleys, hoping that some feature of the landscape will prompt me to recall the whereabouts of my battered Passat. Multiplying that sensation to not being able to remember where I left my husband, or children – or even who my family members are, would be seriously terrifying. I’m not even sure that waking up every morning and seeing Colin Firth on my pillow would compensate for that kind of distress!

Book No 33 (2014) : Bad Company

bad companyThis book was a deal between myself and a friend’s teenage son. He is an avid reader but our tastes are wildly different. As we both had holidays coming up, he agreed to read a book of my choice and I promised to read one of his. I gave him Michel Faber’s ‘Under the Skin‘ and he gave me ‘Bad Company’ by Jack Higgins, a thriller featuring undercover enforcer Sean Dillon.

Several things occurred to me whilst reading. Firstly, there is neither description nor emotion in the book. It reads more like a witness report, one event following another, actions and dialogue linking more bits of  action. There is precious little in the way of examining the characters’ psyches, motivations or reactions. As a result, the only point of moving through the chapters is to see what happens next – there is virtually no engagement with the people at all. Secondly, the scope of the book is vast in terms of history and politics, managing to include Hitler’s bunker, Middle Eastern oil, the IRA, SS and Mafia connections. There are lots of guns,  weapons, dead bodies, lies and dastardly plots. It felt formulaic and I am not absolutely certain whether the work is intended as teen/crossover fiction; the limited vocabulary seemed unlikely to engage an adult reader.

To be honest, I can’t really summarise the plot in any meaningful way and I did occasionally get lost trying to keep up with who-was-who and who was on which side. At one point, my sympathies were with the baddies. They died at the end. I figure that is probably how a lot of Jack Higgins books end, but I am afraid I am not likely to be reading any more in order to test my theory. I am, on the other hand, very keen to know how my book buddy got on with the Faber!

 

Book No 26 (2014) : The Back Road

back roadPsychological thrillers seem to be very popular at the moment. I discovered this as an Amazon Kindle ‘Daily Deal’ 99p bargain. At that price, it wouldn’t have mattered if I only read the first chapter then abandoned it.

Set in a rural village, the book opens with a young girl trying to escape across the fields at night. We don’t know who from, but she is obviously terrified and desperate to get away. She finally makes her way to the Back Road of Little Melham, but is knocked down by a passing car. The driver fails to stop. The focus shifts to Ellie Saunders, her family and circle of friends. As news of the hit-and-run spreads, several villagers fall under suspicion – someone has something to hide.

In lots of ways this reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery. A well-defined cast of characters, carefully linked by plots. sub-plots and sub plots of sub-plots. Just when I thought I had sussed out one of the mysteries, the narrative took another twist and my deductions were revealed as cunning red herrings. Pleasingly though, the ending drew all the loose threads into an extremely satisfying conclusion. This book won’t change your life, but it might allow you to forget about it for a few hours!

I’ve actually already bought Rachel Abbott’s latest offering, ‘Sleep Tight’ (also for 99p!). I’ll let you know how I get on with it.

Film No 24 (2014) : Taken

takenI struggled to see this film as entertainment. As I am a parent, it hit where it hurts most – the fear of something happening to my children. In particular, my teenage daughter being abducted and sold into sex slavery. It was almost unbearable to watch.

Maybe I am a little too old for heartthrobs but I have a soft spot for Liam Neeson. In ‘Taken’, he plays Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent living in California. His daughter, Kim, travels to Paris with a friend. The girls are kidnapped by an Albanian gang. Using all his detective skills, Mills sets out to find them. It’s a film: you can probably guess the ending.

The film is gritty (not a word I use often) and violent. The scenes with drugged-up young girls trapped behind dingy curtains is frightening, especially as I imagine there must be more than a grain of truth in these portrayals. Shooting, fights and torture also feature prominently, together with some impressive car chases. I have to be honest; I spent a fair amount of the film peeping through my fingers.

Despite the uneasiness it caused, this is a ‘must-see’ film. A stark reminder of the dangers of society – and why you should always tell your parents the truth about where you are going.