Navigate / search

Book Review: Exhibit Alexandra / His Perfect Wife by Natasha Bell

I am cheating ever so slightly with the book for X in the A to Z Challenge by choosing Exhibit Alexandra which came out in paperback last month retitled His Perfect Wife.

Alexandra Southwood has vanished. Her husband, Marc, is beside himself. It isn’t long before the police are searching for a body.

But Alexandra is alive – trapped, far away from her husband and young daughters.

Desperate, Marc will stop at nothing to find the woman he loves. Even if it means discovering that he never really knew her at all.

Because Alexandra is no ordinary missing person – but then neither is she quite a perfect wife . . .

If you’re looking for a thriller with a difference, one that raises so many questions, making it ripe for discussion, then it’s worth taking a punt on His Perfect Wife.

I really admire Natasha Bell for approaching the story in the way she does. It’s not easy to maintain the mystery, especially when the missing woman is our narrator. Thankfully, we know early on that this is not one of those stories narrated by a dead woman. Alexandra is very much alive. But while she has access to some information, such as the recording of her husband reporting her missing, she can’t know how everything plays out at home.

Instead, Alexandra gives us her re-imagining of what happens and how people behave because she believes that she knows her family and friends well enough to do this. I found it fascinating that she would think this, and arrogant of her. I mean, even when you know someone intimately, can you ever predict their reaction or behaviour in response to a shocking event like this? I’m not convinced you can.

That said, it becomes all too easy to take Alexandra’s version of events as what might have happened while she’s missing. She makes it sound credible. Not that she isn’t challenged by her captor, she is; he does call her on some of her interpretations. But I have to confess to being distracted by trying to work out where she was and who was holding her. Which when revealed, only further jolted my perspective.

His Perfect Wife is a novel all about perspective, whether it be the moral stance we take or when considering identity. Alexandra’s disappearance and the police questioning force Marc to look more closely at his marriage. By sharing flashbacks to when they met and earlier stages in their relationship, Alexandra gives us what looks to be a more rounded view of their marriage. We see what she gave up to be with him and how different her life in York is from that earlier, freer and more creative life in the States. Read more

Book Review: The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel The Woman in the Dark was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2019. I have to say that this is partly down to us both being in a regional group of writers who meet up occasionally. I’ve followed Vanessa’s progression to thrillers with interest. Here’s what this first one’s about:

For Sarah and Patrick, family life has always been easy. But when Sarah’s mother dies, it sends Sarah into a downwards spiral. Knowing they need a fresh start, Patrick moves the family to the beachside house he grew up in.

But there is a catch: while their new home carries only happy memories for Patrick, to everyone else it’s known as the Murder House – named for the family that was killed there.

Patrick is adamant they can make it perfect again, though with their children plagued by nightmares and a constant sense they’re being watched, Sarah’s not so sure. Because the longer they live in their ‘dream home’, the more different her loving husband becomes . . . 

The Woman in the Dark opens in the early morning light on what appears to be a normal family morning routine. The idea of moving to Patrick’s former family home hasn’t come up yet and, instead, travel plans are being floated around. It’s useful to see the family in this different, lighter and more modern home and to get a feel for the relationship dynamics here, before they make their move.

We understandably spend most time with our narrator, Sarah. It’s clear that she’s still very poorly and in a vulnerable position following the death of her mother. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this as she takes us through her family’s story. She might seem more passive than we would like her to be at times but Sarah’s not a well woman and needs to take baby steps towards recovery. Even the smallest of tasks can seem overwhelming. She also spends long periods of time alone with her thoughts, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she’s prone to overthinking and repeatedly going over what she imagines is happening.

The warning signs are there before they move house but once they do, it’s almost as if Patrick’s former childhood home draws the fears, tensions and every poisonous thought out through their pores, bringing them to the surface. It does so at an insidious rate and this creeping sense of unease made it difficult for me to read The Woman in the Dark in the evening and especially at night before bed. I could feel my shoulders tensing and imagined myself right there with Sarah, willing her to turn on all the lights. Read more

Book Review: Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre #FallenAngel #blogtour

After having enjoyed Chris Brookmyre’s historical crime novel The Way of All Flesh (written in collaboration with Marisa Haetzman) last year, I was interested in reading some more contemporary work. His latest book, Fallen Angel, which came out yesterday seemed a good place to start as it’s a stand-alone novel.

To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.

Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible…

And suspicion is a dangerous thing.

I think this might be a good book for anyone who’s ever been slightly envious of the seemingly perfect family holidaying in the next villa or on the neighbouring sun loungers to them. It’s a salutary reminder how often things are never quite the way they appear, and that there are downsides to both fame and families.

Fallen Angel starts with a murder and a family coming together for a commemoration at their two villas in Portugal. In the third villa of the group, there is a young Canadian girl, Amanda, the baby she is looking after this summer, and his mother. While they wait for the child’s father to join them, Amanda’s interest is piqued when she finds out whose family is staying next door and what happened here sixteen years ago.

Quoting passages and using theories from the family patriarch’s book on conspiracy theories, and switching between the 2002 holiday, which is mired in tragedy, and this tense reunion in 2018, Chris Brookmyre explores the personalities, dynamics and dark secrets within the Temple family. He switches perspective between Amanda and the inhabitants of all three villas, suggesting where the tensions and cracks are behind the carefully-curated veneer, and that this is far from being one big happy family. Read more

Book Review: The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s second novel The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde is a dual timeline story about mothers and daughters, sisters, secrets and grief, which switches between 1959 and some fifty years later when new owners move in to the house at the centre of a tragic local mystery.

In the heatwave of 1959, four sisters arrive at Applecote Manor to relive their memories of hazy Cotswolds summers.

They find their uncle and aunt still reeling from the disappearance of their only daughter, five years before. An undercurrent of dread runs through the house. Why did Audrey vanish? Who is keeping her fate secret?

As the sisters are lured into the mystery of their missing cousin, the stifling summer takes a shocking, deadly turn. One which will leave blood on their hands, and put another girl in danger decades later . . .

Eve Chase’s gorgeous writing quickly drew me in to The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde; she conjures up Applecote Manor and its grounds, both as they were back in that heady summer of 1959, and in their current state of neglect as new owners come in and slowly bring the place back to life over the changing seasons. It’s been left with much of the previous owners’ furniture and possessions in situ, making it even easier to imagine this as a place unable to break free from its past or local superstition.

In the earlier time period, I found the relationships among the four Wilde sisters, affectionately dubbed the Wildlings by their Uncle Perry, interesting, especially seeing how the dynamic between them shifts over the course of the book. They’re certainly plunged in to a difficult situation. That this is likely to be the last summer which the sisters spend together before their futures start diverging, only adds to its poignancy.

There are sisters in the modern-day section too, which contrasts nicely with the sibling relationship of the Wildlings that is tested that summer of 1959. It’s not clear how close their more contemporary counterparts are in reality until they, too, are put to the test but factors such as their age gap, being part of a blended family and some worrying sleepwalking all have a part to play, as does the core mystery.  Read more

Book Review: Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Fredrick Backman’s Beartown was a firm favourite* among the books I read last year, so I was very happy to see him return to that ice hockey town in a large Swedish forest in Us Against You. 

Can a broken town survive a second tragedy?

By the time the last goal is scored, someone in Beartown will be dead . . .

Us Against You is the story of two towns, two teams and what it means to believe in something bigger than yourself. It’s about how people come together – sometimes in anger, often in sorrow, but also through love. And how, when we stand together, we can bring a town back to life.

(I think you could read this as a stand-alone but why would you want to read one book about Beartown when you could read two?! Get them both and read them one after another or leave this one a little while in order to savour the anticipation of there being more to come. Either way, go and read Beartown then come back to Us Against You.)

Us Against You picks up almost where Beartown left off; its townspeople are still very much coming to terms with what happened and dealing with the fallout. It’s left one family shattered, more shunned than supported, and held responsible for the town’s troubles, while others seem to return to normal.

The hockey team is haemorrhaging players to their nearest rivals in the neighbouring town of Hed. And if this continues, it could mean the unimaginable for a hockey town like Beartown: no senior team, its stadium closed down, and no ice hockey to give structure or focus to people’s lives.

While there are some good souls who will try and help their friends and neighbours heal, and attempt to bring the community back together again, there will of course always be those others who seek to exploit and profit from such divisions. Enter the politicians and property developers. I might have thought that hockey was a pretty bruising game but it’s nothing when compared to the political manoeuvring that’s about to play out in Us Against You. Read more

Book Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers has as its setting Papa Jack’s Emporium, a strange and magical toyshop that opens with the first frost of winter, and closes again when snowdrops appear.

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.

The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.

But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I wanted to read The Toymakers when one of my favourite places to visit in London is Hamleys. Famous the world over and with seven floors of toys and games at its Regent Street store, I hoped to find in the Emporium some of the magic and creativity that can be found there.

I wasn’t disappointed. There are such wonders and marvels among the toys being created by Jekabs (aka Papa Jack) and sons, Kaspar and Emil. As Kaspar says: “… our papa’s training us – to never lose that perspective. To make a toy, you’ve got to burrow into that little part of you that never stopped being a boy… hidden down there, are all the ideas you would have had, if only you’d never grown up.”

But children do grow up. And while Jekabs may have become Papa Jack and a toymaker to escape from past horrors in his own life, the Emporium can’t keep the adult world at bay indefinitely. It provides a place of refuge and work for young runaway Cathy Wray, yet her arrival and plight both indicate that the Emporium is not immune from the outside world. It creeps inside and disturbs the equilibrium even here.  Read more

Book Review: Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation is filled with wry and acute observations on life while Graham Cavanaugh takes stock of his: realising how greatly he and his second wife, Audra, differ from each other, the day before an encounter with ex-wife Elspeth.

Graham’s second wife, Audra, is an unrestrained force of good nature. She talks non-stop through her epidural, labour and delivery, invites the doorman to move in and the eccentric members of their son’s Origami Club to Thanksgiving.

When she decides to make friends with Elspeth – Graham’s first wife and Audra’s polar opposite – Graham starts to wonder: how can anyone love two such different women? And did he make the right choice?

Graham’s remarks about his second wife, Audra, chimed with me as I read the first few pages of Standard Deviation. They’re a variation on what I hear from my husband when I go out with him or the way I feel about a friend from university days who seems to know everyone when we’re out together, whichever one of us is visiting the other. We are all the Graham to someone else’s Audra.

Standard Deviation opens in the aisle of a grocery store on a Saturday morning and I loved that Katherine Heiny did this. She takes us behind the scenes of a marriage and a family, finding the humour, poignancy, hurt, love and affection in our everyday lives. We see the discussions that happen while running errands and during food preparation more than we sit down to meals with these characters. Even Thanksgiving Dinner has to be savoured more in the anticipation than in the coming together of Audra’s motley assortment of guests. Barely has it begun before we are getting our coats and moving on elsewhere.

Graham ruminates on marriage, both past and present, the challenges they face in bringing up their son, Matthew, and the people who come into their family’s life, however fleetingly. And while Audra voices every thought, devoid of any filter, Graham considers himself to be the more tactful. I’m not convinced that he is; he’s just rather more circumspect in what he shares with others, Audra included. Read more

Book Review: The Road to California by Louise Walters

The Road to California is Louise Walters’ third novel and the second to come out under her own imprint. It follows three family members over the course of a year as they attempt to reconnect for the sake of the son, Ryan, who is having a difficult time at school.

Proud single parent Joanna is accustomed to school phoning to tell her that her fourteen year old son Ryan is in trouble. But when Ryan hits a girl and is excluded from school, Joanna knows she must take drastic action to help him.

Ryan’s dad Lex left home when Ryan was two years old. Ryan doesn’t remember him – but more than anything he wants a dad in his life.

Isolated, a loner, and angry, Ryan finds solace in books and wildlife. Joanna, against all her instincts, invites Lex to return and help their son. But Lex is a drifter who runs from commitment, and both Joanna and Ryan find their mutual trust and love is put to the test when Lex returns, and vows to be part of the family again.

I liked how we meet Joanna and Ryan first and have a chance to see what their relationship is like for a while before Lex appears. It helped me to understand how much Joanna is trying as a single parent to do the right thing by her son, and how her sole help comes in the form of the wonderful Billy Plumb, who I thought was a terrific character and Joanna was fortunate to have as a neighbour.

As well as being a single parent, Joanna faces the additional challenge of running her own business. She crafts bespoke quilts and other handmade items from secondhand fabrics: “She took great pride in using the used, a characteristic of almost all her work… Reusing, reclaiming, recycling, upcycling: whatever you wanted to call it – it was what she did.”

This is apt because she’s about to put her business ethos into practice in her home life and reclaim Ryan’s father, Lex, and restore him to the family he deserted when Ryan was still too young to remember him. It’s a huge step for Joanna to take, especially after how badly he let her down once before. I really felt for her and appreciated how much this costs her. It shows how determined she is to try whatever it takes in order to help Ryan through this rough patch by putting his needs above her own feelings. Read more

Book Review: Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan

Ruth Hogan’s third novel Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel shows how one little girl’s childhood affects her present-day adult self, and what she does as she learns how incomplete a picture she has of her past and the people in it.

Tilly was a bright, outgoing little girl who liked playing with ghosts and matches. She loved fizzy drinks, swear words, fish fingers and Catholic churches, but most of all she loved living in Brighton in Queenie Malone’s magnificent Paradise Hotel with its endearing and loving family of misfits – staff and guests alike.

But Tilly’s childhood was shattered when her mother sent her away from the only home she’d ever loved to boarding school with little explanation and no warning.

Now, Tilda has grown into an independent woman still damaged by her mother’s unaccountable cruelty. Wary of people, her only friend is her dog, Eli.

But when her mother dies, Tilda goes back to Brighton and with the help of her beloved Queenie sets about unravelling the mystery of her exile from The Paradise Hotel, only to discover that her mother was not the woman she thought she knew at all…

The narrator’s the same but not the same here in that we switch between seven-year-old Tilly and her forty-six-year-old adult self who now goes by Tilda. The book opens with Tilda returning to her dead mother’s home to sort through her possessions and decide what to do with everything.

While doing so, Tilda finds her mother’s notebooks, starts to read them, and begins to see that the memory she has of her mother and her childhood is far from the full picture. Which sets her off on a hunt for answers. It felt a bit odd that this didn’t take us to the Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel of the title until late in the book but I promise it is worth the wait.

It’s not always easy to get the balance right between different narrators or timelines but I think Ruth Hogan achieves that. I enjoyed the nostalgia from Tilly’s childhood, her attitude towards ghosts, her funny observations and malapropisms. While with the older Tilda, it was the fact that she decides to use the wine glasses and clothes her mother kept for best now rather than waiting for a time that may never come. That, and how she slowly expands her circle of acquaintances to create a new family of friends.

I loved the people in her past and present equally as much and this being a Ruth Hogan book, there are some great, even colourful, characters in the mix. All the more so here, given the book’s set in Brighton. Apart from the two Tilly/Tildas, I particularly warmed to Eli, Queenie, Ruby and Mrs O’Flaherty, Valentine and Bunny, Austin and Aubrey, Daniel, and Joseph Geronimo. And what brilliant names Ruth Hogan gives her characters. Read more

Book Review: Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

Isabel Costello takes us to the quintessential Paris neighbourhood that is the 6th arrondissement in her debut novel Paris Mon Amour. But, once there, she guides us away from the romance of the tourist trail and instead we find ourselves deep in the heart of the Left Bank, and caught up in the tangle of Alexandra’s life.

‘The first time I caused terrible harm to the people I love it was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here.’

When Alexandra discovers that her husband Philippe is having an affair, she can’t believe he’d risk losing the love that has transformed both their lives.

Still in shock, Alexandra finds herself powerfully attracted to a much younger man. Jean-Luc Malavoine is twenty-three, intense and magnetic. He’s also the son of Philippe’s best friend.

With every passionate liaison, Alexandra is pulled deeper into a situation that threatens everyone involved.

I could tell from the book’s cover that this was no frothy confection of a love story. The petals on the cover and the book’s main character once I met her were both too brittle and refined a beauty for that. From Alexandra’s opening words, I sensed there was no happily ever after. And yet, I wanted to know what had happened, why it ended so badly, and if Alexandra felt its loss even when it had hurt others.

British-American Alexandra relates the events of the book through a series of therapy sessions where not even the relationship with her therapist escapes scrutiny. Paris Mon Amour may chart the course of an affair but it also looks into the many relationships which will feel the ripple effect of its impact.

Thankfully, Jean-Luc is more than simply a distraction or Alexandra’s younger lover in the book. These two connect more than sexually, despite the age gap, while in other matters such as their future, one sees more clearly than the other where it will all lead.

Isabel Costello realises her characters so well that I stopped judging them early on in the book. She writes them in a way where what they’re doing makes a certain kind of sense to them or such that they can’t resist the pull of attraction or risk of danger, even when they know it’s wrong or won’t end well. I began to see how fallible and human they were being. Isabel Costello took me into their world, up close and personal it’s true but, even in the sex scenes, this never feels voyeuristic or titillating. Read more

%d bloggers like this: