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BOOK REVIEW – SPIRE by Fiona Snyckers

SpireImagine being in one of the most remote places on the planet … alone … but inexplicably, not alone, which is somehow worse! That’s what Fiona Snyckers presents us with in SPIRE, set in the South Pole International Research Establishment.

Dr Caroline Burchell has been selected as part of a team to ‘Winter over’ at the base. They’re there for the full season until September, which is when the next planes arrive to relieve them of their duties. She’s brought with her a container of mutated viruses which have been cryogenically frozen. Very soon after her arrival, however, the rest of her team begin to succumb to all manner of illnesses and before too long, Caroline is the only surviving team-member left on the base! How on earth does one survive in such isolated, harsh conditions, especially when you’re suspected of being a mass murderer?

While a devastating Arctic storm pounds at the base, Caroline is determined to survive to prove her innocence, despite the increasingly chilling evidence that someone is trying to thwart her every move. Using every available resource, including an unlikely external ally, and a very unreliable Skype connection, the reader is led breathlessly through this edge-of-your-seat thriller that will keep you guessing, as you cheer for this inventive heroine.

Ice Cube - Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole
Ice Cube – Neutrino Observatory in the South Pole

The topic of the Arctic is intriguing to many; the isolation, the temperatures, the climate, are all things that are possible topics of interest. I have to admit, I’ve never given the subject much thought, but after reading SPIRE, my curiosity was piqued. What fascinated me the most, however, was the exceptional research that the author has done in the creation of this novel. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it because it’s truly remarkable!

5 big glittery stars for SPIRE and an extra one (just because I can!) for the extraordinary amount of research that impressed me so much!!

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BOOK REVIEW – Tiger in a Cage by Allie Cresswell

tiger-in-a-cageThis is a dense, involved and intricate exploration into the lives of the ‘Combe Close Set’ as seen from the perspective of Molly, who so desperately wants to surround herself with comfortable camaraderie and friendship. Alas, this is difficult to do when you yourself are not a comfortable or socially aware individual.

Molly is, in fact, rather naïve, and as we delve into this deeply descriptive novel, told alternately between past and present, we see that she is often very much on the periphery of this group that she works so hard at forging cohesive bonds with. She’s socially inept and given to misunderstanding most of the undercurrents that occur within their little group. She misses many obvious social cues. She realises too late that a lot of what she classifies as ‘unacceptable’ behaviour is going on right under her nose.

I alternated between feeling quite sorry for the hapless Molly and wanting to shake the stupidity out of her! My pity came from her truly dismal background, which was due to no fault of her own. Escaping at the first opportunity she got, she married the awful Stan and much of the time actually fears him and his unfounded responses to the fairly reasonable behaviour of their neighbours . A stronger woman would most certainly have left him. Once again, she fails to understand the basis of much of his interaction with the people who they live among, and it often falls to them to protect her as best they can from many of his irrational outbursts.

Cresswell  fleshes out her characters so well, although it did take me a while to figure out who was who. I absolutely loved the in-depth descriptions of all the convoluted relationships that unfold. One feels quite voyeuristic reading of all the intricacies and complications that predictably result from living in such close proximity to one another.

With time, it’s inevitable that these connections break down; the bonds loosen and aren’t able to remain as strong as Molly wants them to be, no matter how hard she tries. And when it’s revealed to her that in actual fact maybe her friends aren’t quite who she thought they were in the first place, she’s not sure she wants to maintain the strong ties she’s worked so hard to maintain.

This is a profound and thought-provoking look into the complexities of human relationships; the faults and failings we possess;  what we’re willing to overlook and what we’re willing to accept, whether it’s for the sake of love, to keep the peace, or due to sheer indifference.

Be willing to commit time to this book. It’s engrossing and all-encompassing and well worth the read.

Many thanks to THE Book Club Reviewers Request Group and Allie Cresswell for my copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Damselfly by S.J.I. Holliday

the-damselflyThis is the third of Holliday’s ‘Banktoun’ trilogy, this works well as a standalone too. I’ve only read the first book – Blackwood – and missed the second – Willow Walk.

Katie is a bright teenager who, despite her challenging background, is planning her future in London. Together with her boyfriend Neil, and her teachers she has the support she needs to leave the small town of Banktoun, and her unhappy family life behind her.

But then Katie is discovered dead in her bed and foul play is suspected. Who could have murdered her? It’s up to Detective Davie Gray and his partner Louise Jennings to discover that. Gray is a Banktoun native and knows the lay of the land.

New school counsellor Polly McAllister is realising that although she’s recently returned to Banktoun to make peace with her past demons, new ones seem to be surfacing at a rapid rate! As she tries to handle the fallout of this tragedy that’s occurred on her first day on the job, she’s also trying to deal with the detritus of her own personal life.

As the reader is swept along by all the twists in this well constructed psychological thriller, we also get a shocking look at the mob mentality that’s so easily fuelled by the negative use of social media. Even those who mean well can’t help but be overwhelmed by that crowd influence. In fact, the use of social media and its damning effects are demonstrated throughout the book. Chapters are interspersed with blog posts from The ThreeWiseMonkeys Blog (subtitled ‘Telling it Like it is’), and Facebook posts from a page set up purely to incite – we see the escalating anger as the number of posts increases, and how the voices of reason (very much in the minority) are completely ignored, no matter how hard they attempt to calm the waters.

Susi Holliday has once again created a cast of characters, some of whom are likeable, some not so much. All of them though, are visibly just trying to do their best to make it through each day with the cards they’ve been dealt. Some decisions they make may not be the best ones, and we are clearly shown the consequences of these.  We also get an understanding of the pain that’s so often caused by making snap judgements about people without really knowing them.

This is a fast-paced read … one of those ‘just one more chapter’ books! I highly recommend it.

Thanks so much to Helen Boyce and the TBC Review Group and Susi Holliday for sending me an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW – Things Unseen by Pamela Power

things-unseenEmma and Rick seem like a typical upper middle-class Joburg couple, until the night that they’re attending a social event and Emma tries unsuccessfully to contact her mother. Feeling unsettled, she begs Rick to take her home and discovers that her mom’s been brutally murdered. Sadly, it’s a common event in crime-stricken Johannesburg and police see it as an open and shut case, blaming the immigrant gardener, Surprise (that’s his name). But Emma is adamant that it couldn’t have been him, and so we enter into her world … a world that looked like it was pretty ok on the outside before tragedy struck, but actually wasn’t that great to start with. This was just the trigger she needed to motivate her into action.

Supported by her best friend Gay, who is in fact, not straight (I love Pamela Power’s quirky sense of humour) Emma tries to manoeuvre her way through the minefield that is her current life: the reappearance of her past love, Craig; the volatile behaviour of her arrogant, controlling husband, Rick; the juvenile and irresponsible antics of her brother, Ross who’s returned from Australia, supposedly because of the family situation and the ongoing police investigation.

Power has created an extremely clever and tight storyline that never wavers, keeping you guessing all the time, while you alternate between hastily turning pages, and biting your nails! Adding to the ever-increasing excitement is the fact that chapters are interspersed with flashbacks that tell of past child abuse, but who is the child? It could be any one of our characters, and the suspense builds, keeping you guessing all the way.

Each personality is well rounded, and comprehensively portrayed.  The references to well-known Johannesburg landmarks added to my enjoyment of the book (as this is my hometown). This will undoubtedly strike a nostalgic chord with any ex-pat reader, and the writer’s familiarity with her environment only enhances the depth and atmosphere of her storyline, but this will be appreciated by any reader, regardless of their having no prior knowledge of the area.

And that storyline, while being a tense ‘whodunnit’, manages to deftly deal with numerous uncomfortable social issues that weigh greatly on the shoulders of the South African middle-classes on a daily basis: the ever-lingering shadow of racism , class disparity and gender discrimination, just to name a few! Power seamlessly weaves these all into her narrative while managing to maintain a punchy pace, a feat that not many authors can achieve.

My only complaint? I raced through this so quickly! It’s one of those books that’s easily read in just one or two sittings, and then you’re disappointed it’s over so quickly! It’s an excellent 5-star read!

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BOOK REVIEW – Duplicity by Sibel Hodge

duplicityOh my very goodness!!! I don’t remember the last time I flew through a book like this! This one ticks all the boxes for a psychological thriller that you just can’t put down. Fast-paced, tons of ‘OMG’ moments, and with enough twists and turns to ensure you’ll need a good physiotherapist to see you right when you’re done!

Max and Alissa Burbeck are the perfect couple: wealthy and gorgeous, they’re the newly-weds who have the world at their feet … until one night an intruder murders Max, inexplicably leaving Alissa to escape unscathed. Who would have wanted him dead? And why didn’t they kill her too?

These are questions that are left for DS Warren Carter (although I must say it took a few chapters for his first name to be mentioned and I wasn’t sure if he was male or female!) to find answers to. Carter has his own demons to deal with – he’s still trying to overcome the loss of his wife to cancer roughly a year ago, and he’s bitter about being passed over for promotion due to a previous case where palms were greased, stopping the true criminals from being brought to book.

And along the way he needs to deal with a preening superior, an obsessive ex-boyfriend (not his own, Alissa’s!), a depressed colleague, and a distraught widow and a band of friends determined to protect her. Throw in an ecological cover-up, hidden jealousy and a mysterious childhood of horrific abuse, which could only lead to the victim becoming a sociopath of epic proportions … but who could it be?

Hodge keeps the action going at a cracking pace. You might have to suspend belief a teensy bit, but hey, it’s fiction, so just go with it! She doesn’t leave anything to chance, and ties it all up very neatly with no loose ends at all. Her characters are well-rounded and she cleverly shows you exactly what she wants you to see of each of their personalities – you’ll only catch on to that afterwards though!

If you’re looking for something that you just can’t put down, then this one’s for you! 5 big shiny stars from me!

Many thanks to THE Book Club (reviewers group) and the author for my copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW – Nina is Not OK by Shappi Khorsandi

nina-is-not-okI know this has been classified as Young Adult reading, but it should also be read by all parents as a cautionary tale! It should also be prescribed reading for all high school learners – perhaps in a slightly watered-down form (teachers tend to get slightly embarassed).
Shappi Khorsandi doesn’t hold back in this bare-all, brutally honest telling of the downward spiral of Nina, a 17-year-old girl on the brink of complete and utter disaster. It’s all here … drink, drugs, sex, friends, back-stabbing friends, self-esteem and lack thereof, parental issues, peer pressure, boyfriends. I see you there, nodding along and thinking “blah, blah, yadda, yadda, heard it all before’ … but you haven’t; not this way.
Khorsandi has made it one hundred percent real, and any parent reading this should quake with fear!
And the scariest thing? Nina isn’t actually a bad girl! Nope, she isn’t. She’s a really sweet, big sister who just can’t cope with the fact that her dad (an alcoholic – it’s hereditary you know) died a few years ago, her mom remarried, she’s not keen on her stuffed shirt of a step-dad or that her mom’s become a different person now that she’s married him, and her one true love is now on the other side of the world – and is now in love with someone else. But she adores her little sister, Katie and will go out of her way to protect her, and the image Katie has of her bit sister.
And doesn’t everyone else drink anyway? How else do you have a good time when you’re 17 and you’re partying your life away? Well yes, go on and justify it all you like (as teens are wont to do), but everyone else isn’t being thrown out of nightclubs for performing lurid sex acts on others, arriving home in a taxi with no clue of how you got there, screwing strangers in the park just so they’ll buy you a drink, and drunk messaging the love of one’s life (yes, the one who now loves someone else) an untold number of times a night (regardless of the fact that he still hasn’t replied after the last untold number of nights that you did this)!
So it would seem that no, Nina is not OK.
Compile a collage of all your teenage angst and embarassments. Now compound that a hundred fold once you’ve added the complication of an alcoholic haze that allows you to misbehave so diabolically, that once your hangover mist lifts, you want to disappear into its loving embrace once again, if only to forget the truly cringe-worthy things you’re reading about yourself, splashed for all the world to see on social media.
This is Nina’s reality, played over and over, again and again. And in a way, is she grateful to social media for answering her questions about what she gets up to when the liquor takes over and all becomes a blur?
This is an extremely powerful commentary on an all too common scourge of society – after all, look around you, alcohol is so very easily and readily available. It’s thought provoking, and will hopefully encourage much-needed dialogue.
Like driving past a bad accident, where you know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t tear yourself away, this is one of those books that begs attention. As much as you feel like you’re imposing on Nina’s life, you want to keep reading to see how much worse it’s going to get … while at the same time, you’re silently cheering her on to pull herself together and get through this truly horrendous phase of her life.
I loved this book, as much as it horrified and terrified me, it has to be read. So thank you to THE Book Club on Facebook for bringing it to my attention, and to NetGalley and Ebury Press for sending me the ARC in return for my honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Devil’s Work by Mark Edwards

the-devils-workSophie Greenwood has decided that the time is right to return to work after taking time off to be a full-time mom to 4-year old Daisy. She’s found her dream job at Jackdaw Publishing (I even found the name a bit sinister), but on day one, she has an unnerving experience. If she thinks that it’s just an isolated incident, she’s sorely mistaken, and so begins a well-constructed meandering tale in which Sophie (and the reader) is led further and further into a frightening and confusing maze of deceit that trails back further than she could have imagined.

Set in the offices of a publishing company (which in itself will intrigue any avid reader), the insular workplace environment will be familiar to anyone who’s ever worked closely with a team of colleagues. The back-biting, the wrong-footing, the gossiping … it’s all there, magnified to the maximum levels! And when you’re the ‘new girl’ you feel like everyone’s out to get you, except this time, maybe someone really is!

As the book alternates between Sophie’s, increasingly fragmenting current life, and her very obviously complex past, we realise that something is most definitely off-balance in Sophie’s world. How is she going to reconcile with her past so that she has any chance of having any type of future, let alone a happy one?

I’m sure Mark Edwards must have whiplash from the razor-sharp twists and turns he incorporates into every single one of his acclaimed psychological thrillers. This one certainly doesn’t miss the mark. There’s a reason why he has a loyal following, which I’m sure is about to increase in numbers with this new addition.

If you’re a lover of plot-twists a-plenty, surprises galore, and a good game of guessing whodunit then you’ve come to the right place. This book delivers all of these, and then some! I can highly recommend it, but maybe not at night, or when you’re home alone!

Many thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for my advance copy.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next DoorHortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours in the affluent (fictitious) Cape Town suburb of Katterjan Estates. They’re both getting on in years, struggling to deal with their past successful careers that they can no longer use to define who they are, and using the Estate committee meetings as the battleground for their intense dislike for each other.

Both are embittered by the deep disappointments that life has dealt them: marriages that weren’t what they anticipated; for Hortensia, the lack of children, and for Marion, four children and the undeniable realisation that she has failed dismally at motherhood. They are unable to leave past hurts behind them. Marion cannot get over the fact that Hortensia is living in the perfect house that she designed in the heyday of her architectural prowess, while she, Marion is living next-door to her. But what irks her the most is that Hortensia dared to come and live in Marion’s neighbourhood, snubbed her when she first arrived, and still has the nerve to behave as if she’s as good, if not better, than all of those who’ve lived there much longer than she has, when she’s not even white!

In post-Apartheid South Africa, this is really the crux of the feud between these two women. Because Marion is a racist snob, and will go out of her way to point out to anyone who will listen that when the fine balance of things gets tilted, the entire world can spin off its axis. She therefore feels that it’s her civic duty to maintain order in her little empire of Katterjan Estates. If that means waging war with Hortensia then she’s fully prepared to take her on.

However, she doesn’t quite reckon on someone who’s just as bolshie as she is! And both of them also forget that the universe has a funny habit of throwing us curveballs when we least expect them. I couldn’t help wondering what Hortensia and Marion would have been like had they lived in another place and time. What would their relationship have been like? This question continues to intrigues me, and I can’t help imagining them quite differently, almost in an alternate universe!

This is an intricate, profound novel about the complexities of growing old and the desperate need to cling to long-held beliefs and philosophies, even when hit by the rising dread that these might be wrong. It delves into how we’re moulded by family, country and political sublimation, despite our adamant claims that we’re free-thinkers.

Omotoso’s writing is intense, dignified, moving and provocative, as are her characters. She will challenge you to think and to question; to look deep inside yourself and examine your interactions and relationships with those close to you, as well as your reactions to those who are different from you.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I highly recommend this book!

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BOOK REVIEW – My Husband’s Wife by Jane Corry

My Husband's Wife - Jane CorryThis is a breath-taking psychological thriller told in two parts, and from two different perspectives: Lily’s and Carla’s.

The story opens with Lily, a fairly young, recently married, newly employed lawyer, who’s off to a maximum security prison to interview Joe Thomas who’s appealing his life sentence for brutally murdering his girlfriend. I must say my first thoughts were to wonder why such a young, inexperienced lawyer would have been given a case like this, but I suppose one never knows. We learn that Joe is on the Asperger’s spectrum and his previous counsel had insufficient understanding of his condition, which lead to his conviction and sentencing, hence his appeal.

Lily is not a confident person – not within herself (she’s consciously overweight), her career or even her barely begun marriage. Her husband Ed is an up and coming artist (with a day job in advertising – one must pay the bills) with all the mood-swings, drinking and drama that go with it. Their romance was brief and Ed’s proposal when it came was somewhat of a surprise, albeit a welcome one. So Lily hasn’t quite gotten used to being part of a married couple yet and doesn’t feel that they’re on a comfortable footing. She realises though, that they should be a lot happier than they actually are, and wonders why they aren’t. She knows she’s got her own very well hidden secrets that she’s not quite ready to reveal, and realises that Ed might very well have some of his own too, which leads her to believe that maybe rushing into this marriage might not have been as wonderful as she originally thought.

The strain of Lily’s high profile case starts to take its toll as does Ed’s increasing misery with having to work at a job he can’t bear while failing to achieve his goals in the art world. Things start to become even more unbearable when he decides to quit his job to focus on his art full-time. The tension between them increases and an ultimatum is issued.

Watching them carefully is 10-year-old Carla, the unhappy little Italian girl who lives in the next door apartment with her Mamma, Francesca. She’s bullied at school for being different and she hates not having the same things as the other kids, but there just isn’t any money for luxuries. Most of all, she hates not having a father, but Francesca has told her that her father died. Carla manages to manipulate herself into Ed and Lily’s lives and more and more often they find themselves looking after her when her Mamma has to work late, or on weekends.

And then … it’s fifteen years later. Lily is now a confident, successful partner at her law firm; Ed finally achieved fame some years back, but it was short-lived and he’s constantly trying to replicate it. He and Lily are still together. Carla is a law student returning to London from Italy where she and her Mamma had been forced to return when things got too difficult for them living in London. She’s determined to find her old neighbours and get back from them what she feels is her fair due: her share of the money that Ed earned from the sale of a painting many years previously; a painting he did of her as a child, the painting that launched his career.

As you delve into the deep, dark, layers of these profoundly flawed characters, you’d better buckle up for the roller-coaster ride of your life. It starts off slow, and then builds up before taking you on the most convoluted, complex journey with some rather twisted individuals. And this is where Corry shines. She’s created characters who really aren’t likeable … at all! In fact, I don’t think I liked a single one of the central protagonists in her story: Lily, Ed, Joe, Carla, Francesca – they’re all not very nice. But they are all very real. And by starting out in the year 2000, and then jumping ahead to 2015, Corry has filled them out extremely successfully so that we’re able to gain a full understanding to what makes them tick. I think that the author shows incredible talent in having created these unpleasant people while still maintaining the reader’s interest in the story, regardless of their awfulness!

The intricacies of the criminal activity here are so cleverly back-tracked and tied together, that I was literally gasping at the skill with which it was all accomplished (both the writing, and the actual crime)! In fact, once I’d finished the book I think I tweeted something to the effect of “Oh my very goodness!” I was that awed by it all!

So 5 stars from me. It’s really extremely good, I highly recommend it (maybe keep the lights on and check behind doors and under the beds) and I can’t wait to read whatever’s next from Jane Corry.

Many thanks to THE Book Club (FB) and NetGalley for my copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW – My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

My Name is LeonA heart-wrenching, complex, stellar debut from Kit De Waal about the intricacies and complications of the British care system during the 80’s specifically relating to a sensitive little boy named Leon.

We meet Leon when he’s 8 (almost 9). He has a baby brother, who he adores, but his mom Carol is battling to keep up with the demands of looking after them both. There’s no money. Neither of their dads (yes, they both have different dads) are around, there are no jobs, and even if she had a job, who would look after the kids while she was at work? Carol takes to her bed and it’s left up to young Leon to look after the 3 of them, hardly a task for a little boy. But then a neighbour notices that something’s not right and the social workers are brought in.

Leon and Jake go and live with Maureen, a carer in the foster system. She’s been doing this for years and she’s kind, loving … but also, just about at the end of her foster-mom vocation. But she’s willing to take the boys in and dote on them, giving them what they’ve lacked in the department of love and attention. The problem is though, that Jake is a white baby and Leon is a now 9 years old … and not white.

Inevitably Jake is adopted. As much as Leon tries to understand this, ultimately all he really comprehends is that the 2 people closest to him in the entire world have been taken away. He endeavours to do his best to get the 3 of them back together. And then Maureen falls ill and once again Leon has to face a change. He’s packed off to go and live with her sister Sylvia, who’s also done her stint as a foster-mom in the past, but isn’t quite as easy-going and loving as Maureen is. Leon, understandably finds it difficult to adapt to yet another new environment.

He begins to explore his new neighbourhood and together with his bicycle and his backpack (loaded with all his worldly possessions) he discovers The Allotments, and a mixed up bunch of people who are just as lost as he is. It’s the mid-80’s and being of mixed race isn’t exactly viewed as a positive thing. Somehow he gets caught up in the riots in his neighbourhood, still not understanding quite what’s going on or why his new friends are angry and why they’re being beaten up.

Told through the eyes of this broken child, My Name is Leon is a sensitive, moving and absolutely devastating book about the vulnerability of children in a system that does its best, but that somehow never quite manages to do right by all who it’s responsible for.

Kit De Waal, with the proficiency of a skilled, experienced author has constructed a poignant, sensitive, often painful novel. It’s difficult to believe that this is her debut book. Her characters are so very believable that you want to reach out and comfort them. It’s not just Leon, but so many of the people who make up his world are so damaged that one can understand why this is how he conceptualises everything around him. De Waal describes individuals who are just trying desperately to do their best; to make a life for themselves out of the exceptionally miserable cards they’ve been dealt. It’s in her telling, through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy that makes it even more shattering to the reader. Children see things simply, with no pretence. They see behind the ‘pretend’ faces and voices of adults, and they react in typical childish retaliation. But as the author so aptly describes, adults react in typically grown-up ways. We analyse, we label, and we judge.

I found this book difficult to read at times, and admit that I had to put it aside more than once. But it’s an excellent debut from an author who we can definitely anticipate great things from in the future.

Many thanks to THE Book Club (Facebook) and NetGalley for my copy of this book.

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