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BOOK REVIEW – Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Then She Was GoneUtterly riveting! I couldn’t put this one down. 15-year-old Ellie Mack disappears without a trace one day. She’s the centre of her mom Laurel’s world, and her family can’t believe that this beautiful, young ‘golden’ girl (as she’s described) would leave home of her own accord as the police would have them think. But there’s no sign of her. What could have happened?

Ten years later, Laurel and Paul, Ellie’s parents have split up, unable to withstand the aftermath of her disappearance, and her siblings Jack and Hanna are somewhat estranged from their mother who they feel was unable to focus on them, but only on their absent sister.

Laurel leads a sad, solitary life unable to forgive the rest of her family for wanting to move on. Until one day she meets Floyd and he’s quite lovely, which makes her wonder if she’s made a mistake to remain in the past all this time. Laurel starts to slowly come back to life and as her relationship with Floyd begins to blossom, she meets his 9-year-old daughter Poppy. It’s a bit startling though, how very similar Poppy is to Ellie when she was that age. And suddenly Laurel is unnerved and all of those unanswered questions into Ellie’s disappearance come bubbling to the surface once again.

Cleverly told, in five parts, told mainly from Laurel’s point of view, but giving insight into Ellie’s world as well, Lisa Jewell has created an enthralling piece that reminds us that people are so often not how they present themselves to others. Hidden agenda’s are the order of the day and who is hiding what is what Laurel needs to discover in order to return to a semblance of normality.

Jewell’s characters aren’t always likeable, in fact some are downright bizarre, but she creates them with such clarity that one can easily understand why that act and react in the ways that they do.

This is a 5 star read. Highly recommended!

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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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DELILAH NOW TRENDING – BOOK REVIEW AND INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR, PAMELA POWER

Delilah Now Trending 2School is a scary place! The hierarchies, the who’s who, the procedures, the uniformity, the enduring methodology of it all! And I’m not sure if it’s worse among the parents, the teachers or the actual children themselves! Single mom Delilah’s about to find out that it can be a very tough place indeed. Her lovely 12-year-old daughter Daisy is about to be named head girl of Hill House prep school, but then … she isn’t.

Delilah is perplexed to say the least. Daisy is popular, bright, and pretty much an all-round achiever academically, culturally and on the sports field – not to mention the fact that she has a wonderful mom who overcame all odds to get to where she is today. Why on earth would they pick Rosie to be head girl when her mom (Buffalo) Beth is a complete nightmare? And then, as if things weren’t awful enough, Rosie meets with a bit of an accident. Who’s responsible and will it be possible for Delilah and Daisy to emerge from the trenches of institutional warfare unscathed?

Delilah Now Trending 3Thankfully they don’t have to battle on alone. They have loyal troops in their corner. There’s Henry, Delilah’s fabulously flamboyant business partner – I dare you to not fall instantly in love with him! Every single one of us deserves a Henry in our lives! Cass is Lilah’s straight-talking, rather scary lawyer. Fantastic if she’s fighting for your team, but beware if you’re anywhere near the opposition … you will not win! There’s also the delightful Portia, who … ummm … well … she doesn’t do much, at least not much of the stuff she’s supposed to do, but she’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that Delilah and Daisy are safe and secure.  The delectable Sam adds some roguish spice into the mix too, ensuring that all is not just gloom and doom for our Lilah.

Power is wickedly witty and there are many (oh, so many!) laugh-out-loud moments in this rather dark, but completely on-point, story about the psyche of mob mentality and how social media feeds it. WhatsApp groups run amok; Instagram feeds increase by the minute and Facebook groups attract all manner of unknown individuals. Who knows who’s out there and who’s going to start the next rumour? Who do you trust when you’re caught in the eye of the storm?

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Pamela in conversation with Amy Heydenrych at Love Books, Melville during the launch of Delilah Now Trending

Delilah Now Trending is fast-paced. Chapters are interspersed with anonymous diary entries, adding to the building intrigue, and you get that tight, knot-in-your-stomach feeling as you start to wonder if Daisy is quite as innocent as you were originally led to believe. I loved it, and it gets 5 fat, glittery stars from me!

Before Pamela’s book launch, I had the chance to sit and chat with her about some of the themes in Delilah Now Trending, and how she felt while writing the book:

Delilah Now Trending 1

JBB: You mentioned that Delilah Now Trending is about finding your voice. Do you think that schools manage bullying issues adequately today, what with social media being such a major part of this? Were you ever bullied? Do you think all pre-teens should have cell-phones?

PP: It’s the way of the world today. I was extremely bullied as a child, but strangely didn’t even think of that while I was writing the book! I don’t think it’s completely the school’s responsibility to manage the bullying issue. It’s ultimately up to parents to equip their kids with the tools to manage these situations.

JBB: Would you agree that no matter how old we are, no matter how successful in our careers, we never leave the playground? We always have to deal with authority figures who make us feel inferior, whether intentionally or not, in situations of confrontation over our kids, with other parents, and over differing parenting styles and opinions.

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PP: Absolutely! When your kids go to school, so do you! You can’t maintain distance when your kids are going through a hard time and you have to equip your children with life skills from an early age.

JBB: Do people, especially women, ever truly not care what others think of them? Lilah has fingers pointed at her for her drinking, her relationship with her black, gay business partner, the way she allows Portia to behave, the way she treats her ex-husband (despite the atrocious way he’s behaved) … the list seems endless!

PP:  Unfortunately the truth is that a successful woman can never win. That feeling that you don’t care may lessen, but it never goes away. There’s always going to be judgement, and to some degree or other you’re always going to care, depending on who’s doing the judging. Some opinions will matter, while most actually don’t!

JBB: What were the most challenging aspects of writing this book?

PP: It actually flowed easily! I wrote it at the same time as I was writing Things Unseen (Pamela’s previous book. Very brilliant! If you haven’t read it, then you really must!), so this one clicked easily. The topics that required the most research were those about disciplinary hearings and more medical aspects. I had a lot of assistance from ISASA (Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa) and from the ex-head of The Ridge School. I wanted this to have a domestic feel to it so that readers could easily relate to it and my 13-year-old daughter Ruby helped with the beta reading. I did have to give her a rather sanitised version though!

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Pamela with her gorgeous kids: beta-reading daughter Ruby, and son Liam

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BOOK REVIEW – The Optician’s Wife by Betsy Reavley

the-opticians-wifeThis one grabbed me even before the first page! When I saw the words ‘Inspired by true events’ I was already hooked.

We meet Deborah in mid-April 1983. She’s 17, unattractive, overweight, unhappy, and practically friendless … until for some reason, the dashing Larry Miller takes an unfathomable interest in her. After that, her life is never the same. Before she knows it, he’s decided that they’re getting married, and that’s fine with her. Larry takes full control of her life, makes all the decisions and Dee (because that’s what he calls her) feels safe and protected, which is actually quite relevant at the time as there seems to be a serial killer doing the rounds in their hometown of Cambridge.

The chapters are fairly short, making the story edgy and fast-paced. The characters are all pretty dysfunctional, and there’s something not quite right about most of them, which only makes you read that little bit faster so that you find out what it is!

And then from about halfway in, we jump ahead about 10 years and Dee is sitting in an interrogation room! Why? What’s happened? The second half of the book then goes backwards and forwards, twisting and turning, leading readers on a disturbing, yet intriguing dance as we try to race to the harrowing conclusion as quickly as we can!

It’s psychological thriller writing at its best, and if you’re a fan of this genre then don’t bypass this one!

 

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BOOK REVIEW – The Liberation by Kate Furnivall

the-liberationKate Furnivall is known for her sweeping, epic novels and The Liberation will not disappoint those who’ve loved her previous books.

Set in a post WWII Italy that is struggling to find itself and regain some of its former glory, Furnivall artfully depicts what it must have been like to live in a post-war era. While one would imagine that once the war was over, things slowly got back to normal, the reality was very far from this. There is so much to wade through in order for the country to truly move forward, and this is what the author focuses on.

Caterina Lombardi’s family are a shattered shell. First her mother left them eleven years earlier, to run off with a man from a rival family (it’s Italy remember, they love and hate with equal passion); then two years earlier her father was killed when his woodworking workshop was bombed. She has been left to look after her blind grandfather and her younger brother, Luca. Thankfully her father passed on his carving skills and knowledge to Caterina and she’s able to create beautiful wood articles to sell in order to make a little money for them to survive on.

It is through her craft that she meets two soldiers, British Harry Fielding, and American Jake Parr, and discovers that although they primarily appear to merely be part of the Allied forces in Italy to help the country regain its footing, they’re actually intelligence officers on a much more disturbing mission.

What follows is an intricate and convoluted tale of corruption, greed, intrigue, deception and conspiracy in which Caterina must clear her late father’s name and uncover the truth about Italy’s stolen artworks. With Furnivall’s talent for descriptive narrative, we’re able to picture it all against a magnificent Italian backdrop that is still beautiful, despite being ravaged by war.

The cast of characters is quite a heavily populated one and it did take me some time to figure out who was who. But everyone is well defined. I had some difficulty with Caterina’s brother Luca, who at just 11 years old seemed to act far older than this, even when one took the effects of the war into account.

If you’re looking for something fast-paced then I wouldn’t suggest this. Even though it has that element of mystery, it’s quite drawn out and because of the extensive narrative the action tends to lose some of its impact.

However, for fans of this genre and author I’d highly recommend this. I give it a 3.5 to 4 star rating – because there are no half stars, I’m going the 4 star route!

My thanks to the author and TBC Reviewer Request Group (on FB) for my copy of this in return for an honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW – The Food of Love by Amanda Prowse

the-food-of-loveYou think you know your children better than anyone else, don’t you? You’d say you were close, wouldn’t you? That they’re willing to share everything with you, and come to you when they have a problem? That’s what Freya and Lockie think about their teenage daughters Charlotte and Lexi.

And then one day Freya gets a phone call from school and is asked to come in for a ‘meeting’ about Lexi. She’s not overly concerned. Lexi’s dyslexic and has had learning difficulties in the past but she’s overcome all of that and seems to be on a steady footing with her schoolwork now. But this isn’t about her schoolwork. There’s a concern that Lexi might be having an issue with food. Freya finds this notion utterly preposterous! She’s a food writer after all, someone who’s always been open about food, especially all things relating to healthy eating. And anyway, she has such a good relationship with her girls. She’d notice immediately if something wasn’t right.

But something is very, very wrong. 15-year-old Lexi has an extremely serious condition. She is obsessed with the concept of taking food into her body. She literally cannot even tolerate the thought and will do anything she can to avoid it. And it’s getting worse. So far she hasn’t been discovered, but how long until she is?

Of course, Lexi’s secret is eventually exposed and her family are horrified at the lengths she’ll go to to avoid eating. And so follows a terrifying journey into an unknown world of doctors, treatments, psychiatric hospitals, forced feeding, tough-love, online chatrooms, support groups … all associated with the dreaded word that Freya can barely bring herself to think, let alone say: Anorexia.

Along the way, they learn that Anorexia in fact, has less to do with food, and more to do with the psychological association that the person has with its intake. It’s about the power one can exert over oneself. She and Lockie increasingly clash over the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to handle Lexi’s condition, Freya wanting to take the typical mother’s approach of nurturing and caring, not being able to bear seeing her child suffer, while Lockie prefers the stronger, tougher stance: don’t let her get away with it, if we’re stricter with her and show her who’s boss then it will all be fine! He feels that by being too soft on Lexi, she’s getting away with something that she shouldn’t be allowed to. But obviously it is far more complex than this.

This is a heartbreaking, often truly painful read of a family’s struggle with a devastating, destructive condition. Amanda Prowse is, as always, current and relevant. She writes honestly and with complete sincerity, making her characters so utterly believable and likeable that you feel like you just want to be there for them!

Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone who is a parent to teens (not just girls!), or who is involved in educating or mentoring teens. Yes, I’m well aware that this is a fictionalised account and professionals would obviously need to read up more academically based research on the topic. For those who are looking for a basic understanding of the subject, this is an excellent place to start.

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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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