Welcome to the first in my monthly(ish) thoughts on the books I’ve read lately and would recommend – some recently published, others less so. These days I’m reading lots of psychological suspense along with a generous dash of crime, ‘book club’ and literary fiction.
Everything is Lies by Helen Callaghan
Published February 2018 by Penguin Random House
‘No one is who they say they are.’
Though a little odd where it is, the first sentence of Everything Is Lies is a good indication of what’s to come. As the story unfolds I kept wondering which of the characters were not who they seemed – I guessed wrong, I admit.
This is Helen Callaghan’s second novel (her first was Dear Amy). The novel is narrated in the first person, mainly by Sophia an overworked young architect whose job has taken over her life, who’s distanced herself from the demands of her elderly parents. Then a phone call from her mother changes everything – Sophia realises she’s made the worst mistake of her life by hanging up on her mother the night that her mother is found dead and her father in a coma.
Sophia proceeds to uncover the mystery of why her parents were apparently attacked in their Suffolk garden – is there a killer on the loose or could her mother really have killed herself as the police seem to think? As she digs deeper, she’s shocked to find notebooks written by her mother detailing her past involvement in a cult… These first-person accounts form part of the novel.
Sophia is easy to relate to, the characters are well drawn, the plot is taut and fast moving, the writing is precise and vivid. Everything Is Lies is an involving, emotional story centred on the Sophia’s search for her ‘real’ mother – highlighting the gulf between who she thought her mother was and who she now appears to be – alongside a suspenseful plot involving a sinister cult. I much enjoyed the story-within-a-story of how the cult leader lured Sophia’s mother, then a young student at Oxford. This is intertwined with the present-day story of how Sophia tries to work out what happened to her parents.
Well worth a read if you like crime or suspense novels. There’s quite a twist at the end, too. Thanks to the publisher for my copy, from Netgalley.
The Other Mother by J.A. Baker
Published December 2017 by Bloodhound Books
Like the other novels I’ve reviewed here, The Other Mother keeps wrongfooting the reader. In the opening, two girls are left alone with a baby, whose screams are so painful to listen to that one of them does something to shut him up… The baby is later found dead and one of the girls has been prosecuted in court, we infer from chapter headings ‘Child A’ and ‘Child B’). Years later, in the present, a tormented woman takes refuge from the world, afraid to tell her daughter about the terrible things that happened when she was a child…
I read this psychological thriller with increasing urgency after a slightly difficult beginning while I tried to work out who the characters were and how they all fitted together. Once I’d sorted it out though, I found the novel reeling me in and my anxiety levels increasing, especially during the climactic scene. My assumptions were shaken in a twist towards the end. The characters are not all likeable but they felt authentic, and the ending provides a satisfying resolution.
He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly
Published April 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton
It’s easy to see why so many readers have so enjoyed this book, tagged ‘the must-read bestselling suspense novel of the year’ – the subject matter of differing male/female perspectives in sexual assault allegations is highly topical, and the author keeps one guessing as to who is telling the truth and who is hiding what sinister things. I found it totally engrossing.
The central character Laura is at a festival with her boyfriend Kit (an eclipse chaser) during a solar eclipse, where she witnesses the rape of a young woman – or does she? As the key witness in the ensuing rape trial and a committed feminist, she immediately takes the side of the woman she perceives as the victim. In her desire to see justice done, she’s is tempted to change the truth just a little bit. Her boyfriend, however, sees things rather differently…
The structure of the novel is inspired, split as it is into sections named after the stages of a total solar eclipse (First Contact, etc). The plot shifts back and forth in time quite a lot around two crucial past events, the festival incident and the trial, and in the present an eclipse viewing cruise. Switches in narrator between Laura and Kit cleverly develop the story and at times gobsmacked me, just when I thought I had it all worked out. Great editing, too.
Some psychological thrillers can leave one feeling somewhat empty at the end, but not this one. My emotions and curiosity were engaged by the changing relationships between the central trio of Laura, Kit and the apparent rape victim, who we know at the start both Laura and Kit have lived in fear of for many years, but not why… He Said, She Said underlines how apparently small mistakes can turn out to have huge consequences, and the ethical dilemmas over whether or not we choose reveal the truth. How can we weigh up the different kinds of pain that may be caused to another person, when we decide whether or not to tell them the truth?
The Dry by Jane Harper
First published 2016 by Little, Brown
Many will by now have read this debut which became a bestseller. The setting of a drought-stricken town in rural Australia is what lifts this crime novel into another zone altogether.
A Melbourne-based financial detective is lured back into his home town to help unofficially investigate the dreadful crime that haunts the community of Kiewarra – the shootings of his childhood friend Luke, Luke’s wife and their young son, which the local police and much of the town believe was a murder-suicide committed by Luke. He sees with fresh eyes his old home and the people he grew up with. His close third person point of view is given all through, with short interludes from time to time from the POV of whichever character has something important going on that we need to know about.
This device I wasn’t totally sure about, I admit. However, I quickly became fully immersed in The Dry and was reluctant to reach the end. It has well portrayed characters, an absorbing plot and often beautiful prose:
‘the huge river was nothing more than a dusty scar on the land’; ‘cockatoos whirled and screamed into the scorching red sky’
The descriptions of a ravaged landscape and community are outstanding, conveying the web of invisible connections, business and personal, between the inhabitants. Everyone is affected by everyone else, it seems, and the past can’t help but seep into the present.
The detective is warned early on: ‘Out here, those badges mean less than they should.’ But he resists the temptation to run away. ‘A family shot dead in a small town like this? I’d say that was something to do with everyone.’
While the pub landlord tries his best to keep order, the reader wonders along with the detective if someone is trying their best to stop the crime being solved.
Bestseller: A Tale of Three Writers by Terry Tyler
Published 2016 by Terry Tyler
That’s it, then. Any latent fantasies I may have had to steal the work of an unpublished author and lob it onto Amazon as my own in order to make a mint have been quashed by this highly entertaining, thoughtful novella. Even if I happened to have, like the main protagonist, a ripe-for-exploiting manuscript fall into my lap.
In the world of fiction publishing the stakes are high, and for some writers the temptation to take a shortcut to success is a little too much… Three members of the North Norfolk Novelists deal with the ethical dilemmas of being an author in rather different ways, is all I shall reveal. The plot is carefully constructed and has a wonderfully satisfying symmetry. Ms Tyler brings her own authorly expertise into play with this light in tone but surprisingly poignant tale. I admit I had more sympathy for some characters than others, but all came across as real, flawed human beings whose actions one could certainly understand.
Authors in particular will enjoy the numerous references to book publishing and the intricacies of Amazon. Many will I’m sure also identify with the talented-but-hopeless-at-marketing Jan, or the hopeful but lacking in confidence Becky (hopefully not so many with the love-to-hate, success-at-all-costs Eden Taylor!). And what would we do, in their situation? I hope all who read this perfectly served morality tale will take note of what it reminds us – that all the money and fame in the world isn’t worth much if you’ve sold your soul along the way.