Yesterday – Felicia Yap

How do you like your crime? Hard-boiled, cosy, police procedural? The list seems fairly endless and, after a while, one cosy crime novel or psychological thriller can seem pretty much like another. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good books out there but, well, after a hard week’s bookselling I start to get my franchises a bit mixed up. And this means I’m always glad to see a book which has something a bit more distinctive than usual about it. Ariana Franklin’s medieval female atheist pathologist perhaps, or A.A. Dhand’s Bradford-based Harry Virdee; or a distinctive setting like Bryant & May’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. But how about a crime novel where even the killer may not be aware that they committed a crime?

9781472242211The world in which Yesterday is set is our world. There are tabloid newspapers, reality tv, general elections and iPhones. All people, however, are one of two types – Monos, who can only remember the previous 24 hours, and Duos, whose memories span a whole 48 hours. Each night people fill in their diary (by law a private document, except in the case of serious crimes like murder) and each morning they learn the ‘facts’ of the day before. Society is split – Monos are barred from many careers and Duos are treated as a superior group – but academics are satisfied that, if people could remember everything they would divide themselves some other way. By nationality, skin colour or religion, perhaps… Against this setting Mark, a best-selling Duo novelist with a promising new career in politics looming, and his Mono wife are an unusual couple. They are being seen as the poster boy and girl for the government’s new policy of encouraging mixed marriages until the body of a woman, who turns out to be Mark’s mistress, is found and the police have only a short time to find the killer.

This was an interesting psychological thriller with a novel twist. Everyone has secrets – Mark, his wife Clare, his dead lover and the detective in charge of the case – and they are revealed as each of the four takes it in turns to tell their side of the story. But when facts are what you memorise from the words you write in your diary each day how do you find the truth?

Jane

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Friend Request – Laura Marshall

As we’ve previously established psychological thrillers are still a thing. Quite a big thing, in fact. The original big sellers in the genre, Gone Girl and Girl On The Train, are still selling strongly and, more importantly, are still the books which new titles are compared to in marketing terms. This happens quite a lot, in many genres – there is a popular title and then a lot of titles hailed as ‘the next…’. David Walliams is the next Roald Dahl (and he really, kind of is…), every psychological thriller writer is the next Gillian Flynn and every children’s series with magic, wizardry or schools is the next Harry Potter. Interestingly we’ve been promised the next ‘His Dark Materials’ for the last 20 years as any high concept, literary fantasy series for young adults has come out. In the end, Philip Pullman has had to write it himself… Anyway, it seems that I’m digressing again so I’ll get back to the latest psychological thriller on my personal reading list – Friend Request by Laura Marshall…

friendrequestAlthough the main character in this book, Louise, is a woman around 40, a mother with a good career and a decent little flat in London the whole story revolves around her experiences as a teenager in a little East Anglian town. Torn between her need to fit in with the popular girls and her rapport with new girl, Maria, Louise allows herself to be drawn into bullying behaviour. Over two decades later she gets a friend request from Maria on Facebook and doesn’t know how to react – because, as far as she knows, Maria died at their leaver’s dance back in 1989… The plot swings back and forth between the present day – with more Facebook messages and a school reunion – and 1989 until the mysteries of both past and present are revealed.

This was a good psychological thriller – and for once the narrator wasn’t so much unreliable as unaware of how much she didn’t really understand about her own childhood. She is, to all intents and purposes, a strong woman with a successful business and a bright, loving child but – in her own private thoughts and memories she is still under the influence of the bullies from her teen years. She blames herself for actions she was, in many ways, to weak to resist being bullied into herself. I really enjoyed this book – I didn’t work out what the twist was until shortly before it twisted – but only quibble is that she and her best friend seem to drive everywhere in London. Who can afford that?

Jane

After I’ve Gone – Linda Green

I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).

30302155The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.

This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…

Jane

Holiday reading June 2017 – a bit of YA

Today has been a bit of a day for making decisions (largely of a political nature) and I got to thinking that a lot of that kind of thing goes on in YA books. The target audience (12-18 or 15-24 year-olds I guess, certainly not me….) are often having to make the first big decisions of their lives – about what subjects to study, what future careers to aim for, about what they stand for politically, about what sort of adults they want to become. They are deciding whether to form relationships, where they fall onto the spectrum of sexuality, politics, religiosity and social tolerance. Some of these decisions will be wrong. From the perspective of 20 or 30 years it is easy to see that a choice made at 17 is not final: at 17 it feels very decisive.

25458747In Non Pratt’s Truth or Dare the main characters, Claire and Sef, need to decide how to make a lot of money in order to finance Sef’s brother’s care after a catastrophic brain injury. They decide to raise cash by filming dares and promoting them on some sort of Youtube-like channel and become Truth Girl and Dare Boy. The story is told in two main sections – one each from Claire and Sef’s points of view – and no final decisions can be made until both are able to see the other’s viewpoint. Pratt really seems to be able to speak in the voice of modern young people – their doubts, fears, joys and passions. She manages to touch on issues of sexuality, race and social privilege without making them the centre of the story (which remains as Claire, Sef, their burgeoning relationship and their fundraising attempts). It is particularly refreshing that Sef is a young British muslim lad but his story is not one of radicalisation or terrorism – his cares and concerns are those of any young man of his age (although he still has to deal with racism and islamophobia, obviously).

9780141375632In One of Us is Lying Karen McManus gives us a 21st century update on that 1980s classic, the Breakfast Club. In a typical American high school five students have detention – there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a bad boy and an outsider who is both feared and feted for his online gossip column – so far, so close to the film but then Simon, the online gossip, dies suddenly while the supervising teacher is out of the room and things start to go a bit C.S.I.

What I enjoyed most about this book is the fact that nobody is quite what they seem. The bad boy shows that he can be both kind and resourceful (although he’d never admit it), the princess is hugely insecure about her looks, the jock may not be the all-American hero he’s touted to be and the brain may not have got all her grades in the accepted way. We see these young people from their own points of view – each chapter moves from one voice to another – and yet we find that they are not as fixed in their cliques as they first appear. They each have to make choices about who they could become (with shades of Grease as the ‘brain’ makes an Olivia Newton-John style choice of boyfriend) while also trying to work out who could have killed gossip-boy.

contagionMy final YA holiday read was Contagion, the first in a new trilogy from Teri Terry. (This one is a slightly more tenuous link to my ‘decision-making’ theme since it is rather firmly in the post-apocalyptic genre but I’m sure it’s in there somewhere.) The book opens with a girl called Callie, in a mysterious facility full of doctors and nurses in biohazard suits, being sent for a ‘cure’. We switch to Shay, in a Scottish village, who sees a poster about a missing girl (Callie) and realises she saw her on the day she disappeared a year before. She contacts the number on the poster and meets Kai, Callie’s older brother. Shay and Kai end up trying to investigate Callie’s fate while dodging the effects of both a deadly epidemic and the even deadlier shadowy figures who appear to be behind it.

Again this book comes from two different voices – Callie and Shay.  They have similarities, especially in the way that they both love Kai, but also very many differences. Callie is much younger, more emotional and less rational – Shay is thoughtful, willing to make personal sacrifices but also more inclined to keep her worries to herself. Towards the end of the book we start to discover much more about the nature of the epidemic, its effects on the few who survive and the motives of those who seem to control its development. There are two more books to come – I think I’m hooked enough to need to know how this ends. Shay, and Kai’s, decisions will be important but I have a feeling that Callie will be the lynchpin (or, just possibly, the firing pin from a deadly grenade…)

Jane

Don’t Let Go – Michel Bussi (translated by Sam Taylor)

I’ve got pretty simple tastes in tv most of the time*. I can take or leave reality shows, talent shows or real-life medical stuff. I’ll watch some sport and soaps (but if I miss them I’m not that bothered) but will almost always enjoy stuff on science, history and gardening. And then there are the programmes I really enjoy and will happily watch over and over again – Big Bang Theory and really cheesy detective shows. Not intellectual police dramas – I’ve watched things like Wallender but I’d rather read the books – but pure escapist cheese. The kind of series where you have one eye on the plot and the other on the lovely countryside – Midsomer Murders (known as ‘Murder Most reassuring’ in our house) or Death in Paradise (or ‘Murder Most Tropical’, inevitably). Bliss. Obviously with books I like a bit more variety (and, in my head, I can have whatever landscape I like) but sometimes these two areas overlap a touch.

9781474601788Michel Bussi’s previous two books (in English translation) have been set in Paris (and the snow-capped Jura mountains) and Giverny but this one ranges further afield to the island of Réunion. Still part of France but also very exotic to those used to the mainland – and certainly not immune to the ravages of drugs, revenge and murder. This was certainly less pre-watershed friendly than Death in Paradise and the darker side of life on a tropical paradise (built on slavery and colonialism…) is brought vividly to life. A couple and their young daughter are, it seems, enjoying their stay on Réunion until the wife, Liane Bellion, disappears from their hotel room. At first it seems to be a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery but soon evidence seems to point to Liane’s husband Martial – he goes on the run with his young daughter: the actions, it would seem, of a guilty man.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – Martial has a secret to hide but we gradually come to realise that murder is probably not in his repertoire. It is quite refreshing not to be working through the usual psychological thriller routine of an unreliable narrator – we see the story from the point of view of Martial, Liane and their daughter but also from that of two police officers involved in the case. These varied voices show us the truth about not only Liane’s disappearance and Martial’s past but also about life of the island – the relationships between the varied ethnic groups and the undercurrents of racism, poverty and violence which tourists rarely see.

If you enjoy crime fiction with a side order of exotic scenery, a convoluted plot and interesting characters then give this (and Bussi’s other books) a try. Any urge to drink rum while reading is your own problem…..

Jane

*I’m also, possibly, the last person left who watches about 95% of their tv in real time. If I’m not home to watch it I probably never will – I’ve too many books to read to be doing with catch-up….

The Breakdown – B A Paris

For some people the worst thing you can say about a film, a book or any other piece of creative work is that it is predictable. And in many ways I agree – why give an hour (or two, or fifteen) to an album, movie or novel which doesn’t add anything to the sum total of my experience? But….Sometimes I know how a plotline is going to end (honestly, I can read the mind of the Eastenders scriptwriting team) but still have enough invested in the characters to want to know how they will react to it. In fact we can all sometimes surprise ourselves with how we react to an event we’d known was coming for years – the wedding we’d dreamed of and planned for months, or maybe the eventual death of someone who’d been ill for decades: we can still feel the emotional impact of the shock even when it isn’t exactly a surprise. So, does this always matter when reading a novel (remembering that there are, apparently, only seven plots – or three if you ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)?

31450633In The Breakdown, B A Paris’ second novel, Cass decides to ignore her husband’s advice and drive home along a lonely, woodland road. She sees a car broken down, in appalling weather conditions, and stops to see if the female driver needs help. When they don’t react to her stopping she drives on but is shocked to discover, the next day, that not only did she know the driver but that she had been found dead in her car. She feels she can’t share the guilt she feels with her husband – he’ll be angry that she drove along such a dangerous road – but worse than the guilt is the feeling that she is losing her mind. Her mother died after suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s – is Cass starting to show signs of the same awful fate?

There is plenty of threat and fear for Cass – at first that she will become ill and a burden on her husband but later she is plagued by silent phone calls and feels physically threatened. She feels isolated, her husband blames call-centres and she never told him about her Mum’s illness because he might not want a woman with such potentially bad genes, and even her best friend isn’t there for her. As a reader you can see nothing more positive than heavy-duty meds in her future but, gradually, she starts to realise that all the things happening to her just don’t make sense. When she finally takes back control of her life she brings the story to a pretty satisfying conclusion.

My problems with this book are that a) I worked out who Cass’s main tormenters were fairly early on and b) Cass was a bit of a doormat. Which isn’t fair on her – she had been a carer for her mother for a long time and had watched her deteriorate. They had, apparently, had money problems (happily resolved after her mother’s death) and Cass had needed to quit her job to care for her mum full-time. All these things could have affected Cass’s sense of self-worth and that is how she is written – maybe my real issue is that, when she starts to assert herself in the last part of the story, I’m not clear what changes to give her this new burst of confidence. Maybe anger when she realises how she has been betrayed? I did still enjoy the book – the plot was quite convoluted and twisty so I was interested to see how it would unravel. In the end Cass explained it all in the monologue form of that bit at the end of a detective tv show where all the suspects are gathered in one room and the killer is revealed. And, to be fair, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing…

Jane

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

I’m assuming everyone knows about publication dates? The dates set by publishers for the release of new books, usually on a Thursday (or sometimes Tuesdays just to keep us on our toes) and occasionally combined with strict embargoes. My main quandary is not to do with embargoes (which I have to restrain myself from calling ‘umbongoes’ because I’m 51 not 15…) but the dates themselves. I looked at my spreadsheet (because, as I say, I’m 51 and this is the only way I can remember what I’m reading/reviewing) and realised I had 5 or 6 titles down for publication on 12th January. I then have the problem of spacing out the reviews because I can’t do them all on the 12th and then have nothing for two weeks. I feel bad for the book which is reviewed 10 days after publication and sometimes I don’t fit them all in before the next batch hits. I’ve even ended up missing a couple of books from the 12th because, blimey, when I got to books coming out on 26th January there are 6 again. Luckily, none of the books are embargoed so I can slip a few in on the previous week, but I did have some deciding to do before working out which book was going to get their review on the actual Thursday they are released. It was nearly going to be David Barnett (because I know him), or Christian O’Connell (because I listen to his radio show most days and feel like I know him) but I then plumped for Sarah Pinborough (because, this week of all weeks, it is all about girl-power…And also I’ve yet to read anything by her which failed to impress).

behindhereyesBehind Her Eyes has been heavily pre-promoted with the strapline ‘Don’t Trust This Book. Don’t Trust These People. Don’t Trust Yourself. And whatever you do, DON’T give away that ending’. Which makes telling you anything about the story quite tricky. I mean, it is possible to tell you about the basic outline, or how the book starts, without giving too much away but Pinborough has created such a dense and convoluted story (in a really, really good way) that I’m loath to try. Let’s just say it is a love triangle designed by Escher, where every angle is acute enough to be positively needle sharp. And I thought I had the hang of it near the end but then found I was fooled. It is very definitely correct to describe it (rather breathlessly) as ‘that ending’.

This will be a great book for those who couldn’t get enough of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. Everyone in the book is so unreliable they are probably currently being considered for political office in the States. The plot is complex and the ending, as previously mentioned, is arresting. Even better, this should be the book which makes Pinborough a household name (even though I’ve enjoyed being ahead of the curve on this one for a while…).

Jane