Monthly Archives: March 2015

THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT by Kate Hamer

the girl in the red coat by kate hamer

I really don’t recommend reading this if you have children and worry a great deal about them going missing – it’s your worst nightmare. Beth takes her eight year old daughter, Carmel, to a story telling festival and she’s enticed away by a man pretending to be her grandfather. I do recommend reading this if you want a book that’s credible, grabs you in an instant and is a bit unusual. It’s got many of the best features of a good thriller but is also an emotionally charged novel, and suspense soon gives way to grief and an exploration of how the two main characters respond to being wrenched apart. Switching between the perspectives of Beth and her daughter, it’s unbearably sad at times, with Hamer capturing both voices with equal conviction. Carmel, cut off from all she has ever known, does what almost every child would do; tries to make new connections to people. That means her captors, those who have deceived her and who, presumably to avoid detection, keep her in virtual seclusion from the rest of the world. She’s also always on the move, both because that’s what children are like, and also because that’s the nature of her new life. Beth on the other hand, inhabits a world that’s on hold. At first she retreats into her anguish and chooses solitude, rejects those who reach out to her and rejects even more violently those who don’t know how. Until slowly, gradually she begins the painful process of rebuilding a life in which there is a Carmel sized gap, and that means forging new relationships, all the while haunted by the old. At times dreamy. almost fairy tale like, there’s the sense here that what unravels can be put back together. The title is reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood, and this is more dark Grimm than sugar coated Disney. Pain drives this story forward, far more than the need to find out why and how things happened or whether there will be a mother and daughter reunion. Pain that both characters are determined not to let get the better of or subsume them – the survival instinct here is strong and it too keeps things moving. There’s no giving up, accepting what’s happened, which in turn means there’s a powerful seam of hope running through the book. That it’s life affirming despite is desperate subject matter. I loved it, felt it keenly, cried at it and devoured it. I recommend you do the same.

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SECOND LIFE by SJ Watson

second life by sj watson

Having read BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP I was expecting all sorts of twists and turns from this novel, for apparent “goodies” to be quite the opposite. It’s testimony to the author that, despite this expectation, I completely failed to work out what was going on until the grand denouement when all is revealed to the reader.

The plot revolves around Julia, who is struggling to come to terms with the murder of her younger sister Kate. Fearing that the police are not doing enough to find the killer, she takes matters into her own hands, logging onto chat rooms and dating sites that Kate used in an attempt to learn about her sister’s online life, and perhaps even find someone who knows what happened to her. But as the online persona Julia has created gets sucked into a complicated web of deceit, she becomes less motivated by the desire to find Kate’s killer and more by the need to fulfill other kinds of desires. Wracked by guilt, lying to her husband, increasingly alienated from her teenage son and close friends, Julia is vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation and at risk too of being tempted back into the alcoholism that she thought she had under control. As she gets closer to the truth about Kate, Julia’s own story takes an unexpected turn and suddenly everything she holds dear is under threat, everything she thought she knew, seen from a new perspective.

This isn’t a patch on BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP but it is a well written, gripping psychological thriller. It kept me glued enough to finish it in 24 hours, although granted that might have something to do with the fact I am recovering post surgery and not able to do much else other than read and watch TV. What let the book down slightly for me, is that Julia’s behaviour and reactions aren’t quite believable. Despite evidence to the contrary, she trusts those around her far too much and as a reader I was constantly silently screaming at her not to be so stupid and reckless. There’s also a mismatch between her fierce protectiveness of her son and some the decisions she makes – we are all capable of acting illogically, of being swept up in the moment, but Watson’s gone too far, I think, in creating a character full of contradictions and as a result, Julia just doesn’t ring true enough.

The other real let down is the ending. It’s a complete cop out – abrupt and irritatingly open ended for no justifiable reason, it’s really not worthy of a story that’s been so carefully and cleverly crafted.  I have every expectation SECOND LIFE will be turned into a film, just like Watson’s debut, and hopefully the director will recognise the ending is a massive disappointment and salvage it by going off script.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of book before you get to that point  and much to enjoy, so for anyone that likes a good, slightly out of the ordinary but not too intellectually demanding thriller,  this should provide plenty of satisfaction.

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LAND OF NOD TRILOGY by Gary Hoover

land of nod trilogy by gary hoover

THE ARTIFACT, THE PROPHET and THE CHILD  combine to make up the story of teenager Jeff, whose physicist father has discovered a portal into another world and got trapped there. Jeff, looking for his missing parent, stumbles upon and then down the same portal, embarking upon a series of adventures as he tracks down information about his Dad.

Hoover has created an interesting world in the LAND OF NOD, similar enough to ours to be very accessible yet different enough to be intriguing. Time moves at a different pace, for example, and this gives Jeff  special powers that are hugely beneficial when he comes into conflict with some of Nod’s fantastical wildlife and other inhabitants. Jeff teams up with two other teenagers in Nod, Baldwin and Nahima  and gets drawn into a battle between the world’s human population and the Pheerions – who, judging by Hoover’s description, are a little like Mutant Ninja Turtles in appearance. His new found friends’ father, Artimus, is a community elder and politician who is advocating taking on the blood thirsty leader Pheerion Rex, but others refuse to acknowledge the threat and believe Artimus is a trouble maker. Artimus uses Jeff’s arrival, and similarities with an ancient prophecy about a Raja falling from the sky, to try to rally support for building an alliance that will successfully overthrow Rex. He also enlists the help of an old friend and outlaw Dave, and his trusty vehicle named Princess Trina, and so an unlikely band of brothers (and one sister) set out to save Nod from the wicked Pheerion King.

There’s much to recommend these books, which are written primarily for young adults. Jeff’s anxiety and uncertainty about rising to the responsibilities placed on his young shoulders is handled especially well, whilst the contrast between his real world self and the Jeff that he grows into during his time in Nod highlights the  coming of age elements of the books very nicely.  There’s some complex moral dilemmas too, such as when the man who assassinated his friends’ mother turns ally and Jeff must decide whether or not to reveal what he knows from his increasingly prophetic dreams.

This is old style sci-fi  – think magic lockets and force fields rather than sleek cyber fantasy – and really appealing for it. Hoover seems to have been hugely influenced by the original Star Wars films, with some Nod outposts, for example, reminiscent of George Lucas’ cantinas and their weird and wonderful populations. There’s even an oversized Wookie look alike called Benji.

The old style feel is responsible for some of what I disliked about the books too though, particularly that they are very dated in their dialogue, attitudes towards women and the sometimes puerile humour. Dave in particular is the epitome of a sexist 70’s throwback and I had to check when the books were actually written, as  they genuinely do feel like the product of that decade – in fact the last in the trilogy only came out last year (2014). The narrative is just strong enough that I managed to set my rising hackles aside temporarily, although it does grate, especially when Dave repeatedly reduces Nahima, the only consistent main female character, to her body parts.

Despite these elements and the fact that a war is being fought, overall LAND OF NOD is quite a gentle trilogy. Thanks perhaps to something nostalgic about the books, their simplicity, the happy ending of the nuclear family reunited and tucking into pizza. That’s not to say the books don’t pack a punch – they do. Nor that they avoid tough, even ruthless, choices.  But throughout there’s a timelessness and a certain kind of innocence that I found very endearing. I think it’s this that is Hoover’s greatest success and will no doubt mean that his books are given to children to read for many generations to come.

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