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Joanne Sheppard (England)
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The Vanishing Point
The Vanishing Point
Price: £3.95

3.0 out of 5 stars Over-the-top thriller, 23 Nov 2014
The Vanishing Point is a standalone novel which begins with a woman, Steph, helplessly watching her child being abducted at an American airport while she is being detained by security. In order for the authorities to build a picture of whomever might have taken Jimmy, it's necessary for Steph to explain the complicated backstory that led up to her travelling to the States with the boy in the first place.

It's this backstory that forms the bulk of the narrative of The Vanishing Point, interspersed with briefer sections in which Jimmy's suspected kidnapper is pursued. We soon learn that Steph is a ghost-writer of celebrity biographies, and that she had become a friend and confidante of one of her clients, a now deceased reality TV star called Scarlett Higgins. Also part of Scarlett's carefully chosen inner circle are her former husband, her cousin Leanne and her charming agent George, along with her Romanian housekeeper and latterly, her surgeon. Meanwhile, Steph's own partner is becoming increasingly jealous of the time Steph spends at Scarlett's Essex mansion.

Scarlett herself is the focal point of the story, just as she has a knack of making sure everything revolves around her in real life. McDermid makes a point of portraying Scarlett not as a vacuous bimbo but as a sharp, shrewd young woman with a carefully orchestrated persona - and indeed, if Scarlett really were the loud-mouthed dumb blonde she appears to be on television, her friendship with Steph would be implausible. However, the character of Scarlett draws so heavily from real-life reality TV celebrities - she's essentially Jade Goody with a touch of Katie Price - that I felt she sometimes tipped over into parody, and detracted from the credibility of the story overall.

There's no question that Val McDermid is an expert at weaving intrigue into a well-constructed story; I doubt many readers would find it hard to keep turning the pages of The Vanishing Point. She's also astutely observant on the nature of celebrity and on certain types of dysfunctional relationships. But I guessed quite early on roughly how the book would end, and ultimately, the plot would not be out of place in a series of Footballers' Wives, such is the heightened camp of certain elements of it and the sheer implausibility of the events it describes. It lacks depth and darkness, and it's hard to feel quite the level of tension which I'd look for in a thriller when it's so over-the-top.


The Amber Fury
The Amber Fury
Price: £2.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Amber Fury, 20 Nov 2014
This review is from: The Amber Fury (Kindle Edition)
The Amber Fury* begins with a young woman, Alex, starting a new job in Edinburgh as she grieves for her fiance,recently killed near their London home. Unable to cope with returning to her professional life as a promising theatre director, she takes a job teaching drama in a unit for teenagers excluded from the school system.

When her most difficult group scorns 'dramatherapy' and 'talking about feelings' she decides they will study a Greek tragedy instead, only to find that there are uneasy parallels between the grand themes of the likes of Sophocles and the lives of the sullen, wary and frequently manipulative students - and with her own life too.

If you come to The Amber Fury looking for something like The Secret History, you've picked up the wrong book - if anything, it reminded me much more of Notes On A Scandal. The story is told partly in flashback by Alex, with sections from a pupil's diary giving an alternative perspective, and Natalie Haynes does a remarkably good job of evoking the sinister nature of obsession and the rawness of bereavement. In particular, she is particularly good at capturing the uneasy psychological no-man's-land between an ordinary interest and a darker, more disturbing obsession - that wavering boundary that divides the realms of normality and a more disordered, dangerous way of thinking.

I do suspect that some readers might tire of the passages in which Alex and her class discuss Greek drama: although they certainly add something essential to the novel, I'm not sure they needed to be quite so in depth. But there's a grim inevitability about the way events unfold, which somehow makes it impossible not to keep turning the pages. The Amber Fury is is never contrived - although certainly the people and motives of the book are full of complexities - but also a sharply observant and unusually thoughtful take on the psychological thriller, as it begins to tip over into revenge tragedy.


Bellman & Black
Bellman & Black
Price: £2.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, but doesn't quite fulfil its potential, 15 Nov 2014
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This review is from: Bellman & Black (Kindle Edition)
Diane Setterfield's Bellman & Black begins with a group of boys arguing over whether one of them can kill a rook with a catapult. To his own surprise, Will Bellman manages to fell the young bird, although he feels no triumph over having done so - only a powerful sense of fear and remorse.

Some years later, Bellman is taken on my by his uncle, brother of his estranged father, to work at the family mill, and from that point on all Bellman's business interests seem to turn to gold, making him a successful man as well a popular one. The only poor luck he ever seems to experiences are the periodic losses of people close to him - but that is to be expected in the Victorian period, surely, when deaths occurred more quickly, more randomly, and to younger people than we've come to expect today ... and yet Bellman soon comes to believe that when his friends and loved ones die, they aren't doing so at random, and that only he can break the pattern.

Bellman & Black is billed as a ghost story on its cover, which is, while not entirely inaccurate, is somewhat disingenuous. Bellman is certainly haunted, but whether by a spirit or something of his own creation, it's hard to say. The story reads much more like a gothic-tinged fairytale or fable of guilt and grief, and its solidly linear narrative arc, punctuated only by the occasional interjection on the nature of rooks, has all the straightforward simplicity of that genre (in that sense, Bellman & Black is almost the polar opposite of Setterfield's previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale).

Although beautifully written, Bellman & Black doesn't leave much room for character development, and, rather oddly given the subject matter, a little lacking in atmosphere. The period details are well-chosen, and the ending has a strong sense of tragic myth and is satisfying in its inevitability, but rarely was I really gripped, and there were no real surprises or stand-out moments as the story rolled steadily on.


The Unquiet House
The Unquiet House
by Alison Littlewood
Edition: Audio CD

3.0 out of 5 stars The Unquiet House, 12 Nov 2014
This review is from: The Unquiet House (Audio CD)
I love a good haunted house story, and I downloaded the audiobook of Alison Littlewood's The Unquiet House hoping it would provide some creepy chills during the dark autumn days. While it did keep me entertained, though, ultimately I felt it didn't quite deliver.

The book opens with Emma, a single woman whose parents have recently died, inheriting a large old house from a distant relative. Although her early intention is to sell it, she is immediately captivated by the mysterious property, moves in, and sets about carrying out renovations. However, a musty old suit hanging in a wardrobe, the arrival of Charlie - who, as the grandson of the house's owner, has effectively been disinherited - and a series of strange incidents soon make Emma realise that the house is not the dream home she imagined.

At this point, however, the story shifts back to the 1970s and a different set of characters altogether: this time, a group of boys full of childhood bravado dare each other to enter the house, infuriating its current owner. And when this lengthy section concludes, we step back once again, this time to the 1940s, where we see a series of tragedies unfold through the eyes of a local farmer's daughter seeking a position as a maid. Only after another long digression do we return to Emma and the present.

This sort of structure isn't new to the ghost story genre - think of the portmanteau horror films of the 60s and 70s, for example, or books of short stories with a framing narrative of friends telling ghost stories round a fire, or a mysterious stranger relating sinister tales to strangers in a railway carriage. Neither is there anything particularly problematic about the flashback parts of the story in themselves: the writing is otherwise strong, particularly in the 1940s section, which has the added poignancy of documenting a rural community disintegrating at the outbreak of war. However, the problem for me is that these sections continue for so long that by the time we returned to Emma and the present, I'd lost any sense of a bond with her, and found it much harder to care about her fate. I found it even harder to have any interest in Charlie, who is a posh, floppy-haired type who probably wears a rugby shirt and who generally just seems altogether too insipid for the role he's required to play in the story.

My other issue with The Unquiet House is that it's notably derivative - and unsubtly so. I have little problem with well-used ghost story tropes and motifs - they're well used for a reason, after all, which is because they're highly effective - but the 'twist' at the end of this one has been done to death (no pun intended) in horror cinema over the last decade or two and there are major elements of this story that are so similar to another, extremely famous, ghost story that I almost snorted a couple of times. If you've ever read The Woman In Black, there's an awful lot that you'll recognise here, and The Woman In Black (while brilliant) wasn't startlingly original in the first place, just exceptionally well-executed in a way that The Unquiet House sadly can't match.

That said, the time I spent listening to this book was certainly not even close to being time wasted, and while the 'twist' is a relatively well-worn one, it does give the book a gripping final section. The start of the novel is suitably unsettling, and the characters, at least in the flashback chapters, are strong and vivid, each possessing a plausible voice.


Wolf in White Van
Wolf in White Van
Price: £6.69

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional debut, 19 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Wolf in White Van (Kindle Edition)
Wolf In White Van is John Darnielle's first novel, and those who know his music will certainly notice recurring themes and motifs in the book that crop up repeatedly in his lyrics. Misunderstood, teenagers drifting through comic shops and amusement arcades in soulless, rundown American towns, depression, awkward family relationships and a tendency to retreat into a world of fantasy are all elements of Wolf In White Van that Mountain Goats fans will recognise, and as usual, Darnielle writes about them with remarkable poignancy and clarity.

Don't, however, imagine that you need to know Darnielle's music to enjoy this book. It's an exceptional piece of work by any standards.

Wolf In White Van is an introspective, reflective novel narrated by Sean, a young man whose face has been partially destroyed by an 'accident' at the age of 17. Sean makes his living through what is essentially a role-playing game by correspondence that he devised during his recovery. Called Trace Italian and set in a post-apocalyptic America, it's played by the readers of comic books and science-fiction magazines who pay a subscription fee and receive each step in the game by post, mailing their choices for the next move back to Sean in attempt to reach the game's ultimate goal, a secretly-located safe haven for survivors.

As the story gradually unfolds, we learn not only of an alienated teenage couple whose intense obsession with Trace Italian (and with each other) has resulted in tragedy, but also of the days leading up to the horrific event that left Sean disabled and severely disfigured.

There is a great deal of beauty in Wolf In White Van. Darnielle's prose is outstanding, and there are whole passages that read to me like an extended prose-poem. His ability to pick out mundane details and turn them into something of an incredibly evocative, sometimes tragic significance is nothing short of remarkable. There is also such a desperate, vividly-realised sadness to parts this book that at times I found it almost painful to read (and rightly so - this is no criticism on my part).

A short but digressive novel, Wolf In White Van doesn't really leave its protagonist in any different state, mentally or physically, than the one in which he starts his story, and at the end, I was left wanting something more afterwards to bring the story to a neater finish. However, this by no means a plot-driven novel and it can't be denied that the ending is a powerful one, however uncomfortable it was for me to read: I can admire Darnielle's decision to leave the story there rather than pandering to any desire for a more reassuring conclusion.


Perfect People
Perfect People
Price: £3.59

2.0 out of 5 stars Nothing new, 6 Oct 2014
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This review is from: Perfect People (Kindle Edition)
Peter James is an impressively prolific bestselling thriller writer, of whose books I had before now read precisely none. I picked up Perfect People at a low-price book sale along with various other thrillers this summer because I was keen to know what Peter James does that sells so well, and because I was interested in the subject matter: a couple who agrees to have a genetically engineered son to avoid losing another child to the hereditary disease that killed their first baby, Halley, at the age of four.

Perfect People brings to mind of those high-concept, borderline sci-fi thrillers that were popular in the 1970s – think Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil or The Stepford Wives. As such, despite its contemporary themes of ‘designer babies’ and elements involving a religious fundamentalist terrorist organisation, there is something about it that feels oddly dated. This isn’t helped by the slightly Bond-villainish character of Dr Dettore, the geneticist who convinces John and Naomi Klaesson to agree to have a child with favourably tweaked genes. To avoid having to conform to US or European law, his clinic is located at sea on board a mysterious cruise liner, and there are chapters set on a mysterious island that can’t be located on a map. For the duration of the book, I rather felt as if I was reading a novelisation of a film, and not a recent one at that.

Perfect People's plot certainly does make you want to plough on quickly to end, despite the enormous suspension of disbelief required. I did keep turning the pages, despite my misgivings about elements of the story and frequent irritation at the writing style (heavy on the telling, light on the showing, and peppered with mundane exposition).

I don’t, however, think the story that will stay with me, and I felt none of the chills or unease that the ‘perfect people’ of the title should have conjured up. John and Naomi’s designer children (apologies if you consider this a spoiler, but the fact that there are two of them is already annoyingly revealed by the book’s own cover art) are obviously not like other toddlers, but their 'otherness' is all cliché: the idea of the cold, insular, unnaturally academic, freakishly beautiful and potentially psychic blonde child is a familiar one from The Bad Seed or The Midwich Cuckoos. They may be called ‘New People’ in certain quarters, but there’s nothing really new about them from the reader’s point of view.

Moreover, the relationship between parent and child here is infuriatingly inconsistent – neither parent is really shown to bond with their children as such, and Naomi in particular behaves as if she actively dislikes or even fears them, but suddenly when required for the purposes of the plot, they suddenly begin to behave completely differently towards them. I fully understand that the parent-child relationship is a complex one, but I don’t find the sudden turnaround in Naomi’s maternal instincts particularly credible. Other inconsistencies include the claim that the ‘new people’ abhor violence, which seems deeply out-of-kilter with the children’s ability to butcher their own pets or inspire outright terror in the other toddlers at their playgroup.

A bit of a wasted opportunity, this one. Plenty of potential, but just felt careless in the execution, as if the author was taking a paint-by-numbers approach to fiction.


Pretty Honest: The Straight-Talking Beauty Companion
Pretty Honest: The Straight-Talking Beauty Companion
Price: £9.15

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beauty advice with warmth and wit, 3 Oct 2014
Most beauty books I’ve come across have been huge coffee-table affairs full of glossy photographs of iconic or avant-garde makeup looks. That’s all well and good, and I enjoy looking at those books as much as the next beauty obsessive, but there’s little in them that makes entertaining reading (rather than looking) and their ideas are fascinating but rarely attainable.

Sali Hughes’ Pretty Honest is a different kind of beauty book. Pleasingly chunky and compact, and printed on discreetly sleek matte paper, it’s more words than pictures, and it’s essentially a comprehensive collection of immensely readable essays on real beauty for real women. Pretty Honest recognises that beauty encompasses doing your makeup on the bus, covering troublesome zits, going mental with Barry M glitter when you’re 13, sprucing up your face for the (misnamed, as Sali rightly points out) walk of shame and looking like yourself again after giving birth, having chemo or recovering from a serious illness.

There is far too much writing out there that makes beauty seem complicated: this book cuts the crap and reminds us with refreshing frankness that it really needn’t be. You can apply your nail polish while shouting at Question Time and eating crisps; you can wear as much red lipstick as you want because frankly, why the hell wouldn’t you? Pretty Honest is a welcome reminder that beauty is fun and should be a treat, not a chore.

There are loads of recommendations for looks, techniques, routines and products, plus welcome dismissals of beauty myths and pointless products – you can forget your restrictive ‘colour rules’ and bin your bust gel, for a start. But aside from the wealth of practical advice, what really makes Pretty Honest stand out is its enthusiastic celebration and robust defence of beauty itself, and the women who love it.

Sali Hughes is very clear on the difference between beauty and the beauty industry, and I wholeheartedly agree that you can be passionate about the former without being uncritical of the latter. Anyone who has ever dared to stray into the reader comments on beauty articles on any newspaper’s website will be familiar with the criticisms that women (and sadly, it is almost always only women) face for expressing an interest in makeup or skincare. We’re shallow, we’re vain, we’re not spending enough time thinking about Syria and world famine, we’re being duped by advertising, we’re trying to ensnare men who prefer us without makeup anyway, we only need makeup because we’re not beautiful in the first place, we’re not Proper Feminists. All this is, of course, a pile of old guff, and Sali does a fine job of arguing against it. Pretty Honest is a book that celebrates choice, individuality and creativity with beauty, and recognises that women who love beauty – shock, horror – think about other things as well.

The book’s analysis of what beauty can mean to women is also astute. Too many beauty writers talk to women as if makeup and skincare is something we should buy into because there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we look without it, or because it’s the done thing to look a certain way. Sali Hughes simply doesn’t do this – she recognises that most of us simply want a face to fit the day’s mood or mindset, to look like ourselves at our best, to spend a few minutes doing something creative every morning in way that helps us feel confident and in control.

I should probably point out that I wore makeup to have my gallbladder removed,* so obviously I’m someone who fully embraces beauty as an integral part of my daily life: my complete makeup collection fills six large washbags and that’s without skincare. I don’t, however, think you need to be anywhere near as into beauty as I am to enjoy this book – it would be a great read for anyone who likes the idea of makeup and skincare but doesn’t really know where to start or feels stuck in a rut, whether they’re a teenager or a grandmother.

Beauty obsessives like me will love the whole ethos of this book, no question – but the sheer warmth, wit and enthusiasm of Pretty Honest, together with the no-nonsense clarity of its advice, makes it a brilliantly unintimidating, friendly read for the beauty novice too. Unless you are one of those people who thinks they deserve some kind of medal for undertaking all personal grooming with Swarfega, vinegar and a J-cloth, this is a book I'd highly recommend.


Daughter
Daughter
Price: £3.49

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Daughter by Jane Shemilt, 30 Sep 2014
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This review is from: Daughter (Kindle Edition)
Daughter by Jane Shemilt centres on the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl, Naomi, from the kind of middle-class, well-off family that has a cleaner and a holiday cottage. It's Naomi's mother Jenny who tells the story of the events leading up to Naomi's failure to come home one night after her appearance in a school play, and of the aftermath of her - what? Abduction? Murder? Or has Naomi simply run away?

The general message of Daughter is that we don't always know our families - particularly our teenage children - as well as we think we do. Fresh-faced, chatty Naomi, who doesn't like the taste of alcohol, never smokes and rarely wears makeup, is soon revealed by the investigation into her disappearance to have been concealing no end of secrets from her mother, and this seems almost as painful for Jenny as the fact that she has gone missing. Moreover, Naomi's twin older brothers, Ed and Theo, seem to be hiding a few secrets of their own - and what of Ted, her neurosurgeon father?

Unfortunately, despite an engaging mystery plot, much of the book simply doesn't ring particularly true. It's not hard to believe that a teenage girl might have a secret boyfriend (or two) but I don't find it remotely plausible that, upon spending a day with such a boyfriend at her family's holiday cottage without her parents' knowledge, she'd be daft enough to leave stained sheets and half-empty wine-glasses behind in the bedroom for them to find. Nor do I think it plausible that a sixth-former would submit a naked photo of his underage sister for his school art project without his sister, teacher or mother having any kind of problem with this. And there are other elements to the story that I found just as irksomely unlikely - the ending, for example, not to mention the last few chapters building up to it.

I'm afraid I also felt it hard to care much about naive, mildly snobbish Jenny and her relationship with her characterless husband Ted. Both the couple and their marriage are somewhat dull, and their children are somewhat reminiscent of Julie Myerson's appalling brood in the now defunct Guardian column Living With Teenagers - rude, sullen, spoilt and in need of a sharp clip round the ear.

It's also infuriating that it's implied several times - not just by the characters, but by the narrative overall - that Jenny's failure to notice her children's multiple problems is down to her dedication to her career as a busy GP, leaving her with too little time to devote to her offspring. Apparently nobody (except, once or twice, Jenny herself) has an issue with Ted's equally demanding job, needless to say.

Overall, while the cleverly structured plot did keep me turning the pages, this wasn't the gripping read I'd hoped it would be, failing on matters of character development and plausibility throughout.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 10, 2014 10:08 AM BST


Poppet: Jack Caffery series 6
Poppet: Jack Caffery series 6
Price: £3.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Poppet by Mo Hayder, 30 Sep 2014
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I should probably come clean at the start of this review and admit that I bought Poppet almost solely because it had a creepy cover and was set in a high security mental institution, so that gives you some idea of the level of discernment I applied to this purchase. However, despite a somewhat ludicrous plot and some annoyingly clunky prose, Poppet was nothing if not an entertaining, dark and occasionally gruesome read. Great literature this is not, but a great read for a plane journey it absolutely is - I'd give it 3.5 stars if Amazon allowed it.

Poppet is the sixth novel in Mo Hayder's Jack Caffery series. I haven't read the previous five, and perhaps I would have got more of a sense of Caffery's character if I had. From this novel alone, I felt that he was pretty much a standard maverick loner detective type without a great deal to distinguish him - however, this honestly didn't matter a great deal as much of the action happens from the points of other characters, primarily AJ, a senior psychiatric nurse dealing with an outbreak of self-harm incidents among patients at his place of work. AJ doesn't believe in The Maude, an evil presence rumoured to haunt Beechway, but it's obvious that something or someone is unsettling the inmates in the most terrifying of ways, and with Caffery's help, he's determined to discover what it is.

Although Caffery is a police officer, this isn't really a police procedural crime novel - most of Caffery's activities in the book take place outside his police remit, in fact. It's a gripping suspense mystery with strong elements of horror and of the psychological thriller genre - a sort of gritty, grimy version of modern gothic, perhaps. There was a great deal in the story that I didn't see coming, and the scenes in the psychiatric hospital conjure up a strong sense of atmosphere that works extremely well. The 'poppets' of the novel's title are a stroke of sinister genius, as is the case history of Isaac Handel, a recently discharged patient with a shocking past.

Less effective is the building of the relationship between AJ and his colleague Melanie, whose romance has a tendency to descend into cringe-inducing territory - and I was unconvinced by a subplot involving Caffery's investigation into the disappearance of a minor celebrity, Misty Kitson, who is almost certainly dead yet whose body has yet to be recovered. I must concede that it may have made more sense to me if I'd read the previous books in the Caffery series and better understood his history with Flea, a police diver connected with the Kitson case, but as it was, it seemed an unwelcome digression from the events at the psychiatric hospital.

There are some tiresome cliches and stereotypes in Poppet - I was itching to edit at times - but as an over-the-top horror/crime hybrid, it works extremely well, and I'd consider reading another in the series.


The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests
Price: £6.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, 22 Sep 2014
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This review is from: The Paying Guests (Kindle Edition)
I think it's fair to describe The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters' first novel since 2009's The Little Stranger, as 'eagerly awaited', judging from the level of excitement I've witnessed on social media and in the mainstream press. It's hard for that degree of anticipation to end in anything but anticlimax, but I'm delighted to say that The Paying Guests lived up to my expectations.

Set in the 1920s, it begins with Frances Wray and her mother opening the top floor of their house to lodgers - the paying guests of the title. A young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber are below the Wrays on the class ladder but unlike the Wrays, have a discernible income which enables them to rent what is effectively an apartment. Their presence not only opens up an analysis of post-WW1 shifts in affluence and status and paints a dingy portrait of an uncomfortable marriage, but also sets in motion a chain of events that will come to turn the lives of the Wrays and the Barbers upside-down.

Part love story, part social commentary and part crime thriller, The Paying Guests has all the hallmarks you'd expect of a Waters novel: pin-sharp historical details, almost uncannily vivid characters and an account of a love affair between two women, the portrayal of which often painful in its emotional honesty, even when the two women are being far from honest with one another.

I've seen some reviews alluding to slow progress in the first half of the novel, and yes, this section of the book is considerably more halting in its pace than the second half, which deals with the aftermath of a crime and becomes, at times, extremely tense. But it's at the beginning of the book, that the love story develops and we build a clear picture of the characters, which is essential to the success of the rest of the novel and, in any case, is beautifully written. The pace felt entirely appropriate to me, and kept me turning the pages throughout, regardless of plot.


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