Friday, 25 April 2014

The Woman He Loved Before by Dorothy Koomson

Publication date: 3 February 2011
Published by: Hachette
Contemporary fiction for women

The publisher's synopsis:
Libby has a nice life with a gorgeous husband and a big home by the sea. But over time she is becoming more unsure if Jack has ever loved her ? and if he is over the death of Eve, his first wife. When fate intervenes in their relationship, Libby decides to find out all she can about the man she hastily married and the seemingly perfect Eve. Eventually Libby stumbles across some startling truths about Eve, and is soon unearthing more and more devastating family secrets. Frightened by what she finds and the damage it could cause, Libby starts to worry that she too will end up like the first woman Jack loved...Tense and moving, The Woman He Loved Before explores if the love you want is always the love you need ? or deserve.

My Review:
I listened to the audio version of this novel and quite liked it. The mystery behind it made it an intriguing page-turner. In particular, I found Jack's first wife Eve’s story fascinating and worked well - as did her relationship with Jack and the reasons for him wanting to 'hang on'. The events of the first date between Jack and Libby were unexpected - and some may be shocked - but it becomes clear that it is significant to the story. I did sometimes find myself questioning the plausibility of aspects of the story (it seemed like things were thrown in to aid the plot - like Libby telling Hector what she knew - would she really do that?). Also, I found the romantic dialogues between the lovers (Jack and Libby / Jack and Eve) a bit too corny and perhaps could have been toned down a bit. Then again, parts of this book are tough to read so maybe she wanted to balance things out.  I am not a fan of soppy romance but it certainly did not put me off as overall it was a great read. This was the first Dorothy Koomson book I read (and this is an old review - hence the quality).  I have since read Goodnight, Beautiful, which I preferred.

The Woman He Loved Before is another bitter-sweet romance by Koomson and (despite in my view the tendency for parts of her plots to be contrived) she does them well. I look forward to reading more of her books.  I already have two more on my shelf - The Cupid Effect and The Chocolate Run - so there are more reviews to come.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

Publication date:  13th February 2014
Published by: Simon & Schuster 

Publisher's synopsis
Until the moment he received a frantic call from his father, Daniel believed his parents were headed into a peaceful, well-deserved retirement. They had sold their home and business in London, and said "farewell to England" with a cheerful party where all their friends had gathered to wish them well on their great adventure: setting off to begin life anew on a remote, bucolic farm in rural Sweden.

But with that phone call, everything changes. Your mother's not well, his father tells him. She's been imagining things--terrible, terrible things. She's had a psychotic breakdown, and has been committed to a mental hospital.

Daniel prepares to rush to Sweden, on the first available flight the next day. Before he can board the plane, his father contacts him again with even more frightening news: his mother has been released from the hospital, and he doesn't know where she is.

Then, he hears from his mother:

I'm sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I'm not mad. I don't need a doctor. I need the police. I'm about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow.

Caught between his parents, and unsure of who to believe or trust, Daniel becomes his mother's unwilling judge and jury as she tells him an urgent tale of secrets, of lies, of a horrible crime and a conspiracy that implicates his own father.

My review 

Daniel is hiding something from his parents.  Something that has led him to avoid visiting them since they retired to a remote farm in Sweden.  He soon discovers that they too are hiding things from him.  

First he receives an alarming call from his father (Chris) about his mother (Tilde) and then he receives a worrying one from his mother implicating his father.

When Tilde arrives in London, she asks Daniel to hear her out.  All will be revealed, she clarifies, but she has to be allowed to tell it her way.  All she asks is that he be impartial.  She then begins to give a detailed account of events that have been occurring since she and Chris, moved to Sweden.  This becomes the narrative of the story which is told as though a lawyer is presenting a case to a jury rather than a mother talking to her son.  Tilde outlines the 'facts' as they occurred.  However, not all the information she offers are facts.  She fills in gaps with speculation and, as the reader, I found myself saying - hang on a second, certain things just don't add up.  Even so, her account is believable and it becomes clear that something ugly and sinister is going on in the small rural community that she and Chris moved to - and it would seem Chris is involved.  From very early on Tilde hints at what may have occurred and who the victims are. 

Tilde predicts every move that Chris makes while she is in London giving her account to Daniel - such as his decision to fly to London, his attempts to stop her having an opportunity to convince Daniel that what she has to say is true.  It is also apparent that he withholds information - all of which leaves Daniel suspicious and forces him to consider the possibility that his father is capable of monstrous acts - either that or his mother needs psychiatric treatment - both hard to reconcile with.

In the end, it is for Daniel (and the reader) to decide who to believe.

I really enjoyed this book. The plot was the best thing about it for me.  For example, during Tilde's account she would go off on a tangent and talk about stuff that didn't seem to make sense or be relevant (such as the troll story), leaving the reader to question her sanity.  However, everything comes together and it all makes perfect sense.  

The book is about family secrets and lies.  It is also about a desperate cry for help and the need for redemption.  I admit I was apprehensive and felt I had to brace myself for the big reveal - the subtle hints from Tilde helped me prepare myself.  I felt so engaged I had to see it through to the end - which was unpredictable.

The story is based on a real experience - of the author - although much of the plot is fiction.  

The Farm is a treasure and  I will definitely be reading more from Tom Rob Smith. 
To find out more you can listen to Tom Rob Smith talk about The Farm and his writing as part of the crime fiction discussion on The Guardian Books Podcast.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Publication date: 25th February 2014
Published by: Random House Canada

Publisher's synopsis
Taking place over the course of one week, The Lemon Grove lands in the heat of Deia, a village on an island off the southeast coast of Spain. Jenn and Greg are on their annual holiday to enjoy languorous, close afternoons by the pool, and relaxed dinners overlooking the rocks. But the equilibrium is upset by the arrival of their teenage daughter, Emma, and her boyfriend, Nathan. Jenn, in her early forties, loves her (older) husband and her (step)daughter and is content with her life, she thinks. But when this beautiful, reckless young man comes into her world, she is caught by a sexual compulsion that she's seldom felt before. As the lines hotly blur between attraction, desire and obsession, Jenn’s world is thrown into tumult--by Nathan's side, she could be young and carefree once again, and at this stage in her life, the promise of youth is every bit as seductive as the promise of passion. Jenn struggles between the conflicting pulls of resistance and release, and the events of the next few days have the potential to put lives in jeopardy as the players carry out their roles in this unstoppably sexy and unputdownable novel from a brilliant observer of the human condition.

My Review
Jen has enjoyed the first week of her holiday alone with husband Greg but is dreading the arrival of her stepdaughter Emma, which is how the book opens.  

Emma has persuaded her parents to let her bring her boyfriend, Nathan on the holiday with her.  It is clear to Jenn that Nathan is Emma's first love; she is completely besotted with him.  Observing them, her perception is that this relationship will most likely unravel and fall apart and that Emma will suffer when that happens.  She went through it herself as a teenager so she knows - and she is powerless to do anything about it.  You get the sense that all is not right with Jenn and 15 year old Emma.  It would seem that tension and resentment has been building on both sides for some time. An unfortunate incident causes a confrontation between the women the moment Emma and Nathan arrive and Emma continues to be nasty to Jenn thereafter. 

Jenn only met Nathan briefly in the UK and she did not get a proper look at him.  Now she has had a chance to meet him properly she can't help but notice how attractive he is.  Unlike Emma, Nathan is polite and friendly towards her.  She is surprised, although pleased, that he is a working class boy from the north.

Walsh writes about the GB class divide as well as the North-South divide. Jenn is a northerner who was raised in a working class family.  Greg is middle class and a southerner.  Jenn is not happy that Greg had insisted that Emma attend a private school and she resents having to pay for it.  Emma, as a consequence moves in circles of the affluent.  She uses her social status to snipe at Jen; she comments on how 'common' she looks, mocks her accent and implies that she is poorly educated. However, she does this not because she believes it, but because she knows how much it hurts Jenn - and she is out to inflict as much pain as possible. Why so hateful?  Mostly because she's 15 (see paragraph, below).  She doesn't really care about class - if she did she wouldn't be dating a 17 year old male version of Jenn, which also suggests to me that her hatred towards her stepmother is superficial.

The tension between the two women is mainly due to the fact that they are both at stages in their lives fraught with angst - Emma is at the peak of adolescence and Jenn has just approached what she considers to be 'middle age' and trying to come to terms with this.  She is overly conscious of her 'aging' body - which I imagine is in a lot better shape than she makes out - and she envies the teens their youth. That Jenn is not Emma's birth mother is also part of the problem, as is the fact that she never got to have a child of her own.  (Had either been the case I envisage an entirely different scenario.)  All this seems to have triggered in Jenn a mid-life crisis.  She demonstrates all the signs, including lusting after and becoming obsessed with Nathan.  Without giving too much away - no doubt you can imagine - the scenario heads in a downward spiral as the plot unravels and makes for very interesting reading. 

As for Jenn's relationship with Greg: they seem to be in a rut and she has lost interest in him (although possibly this is another symptom of the mid-life crisis).  She certainly has no interest in him sexually and she seems to think he is content with his life and their marriage as things stand.  It becomes clear that she doesn't know her husband as well as she thinks.  He certainly deserves more credit than she gives him.  The same applies to Emma.  Despite having raised her from a very young age, she does not really know or understand her.  In that sense, Jenn discovers who her husband and her stepdaughter really are on this holiday.

The Lemon Grove is a relatively short novel (288 pages) that reads very well.  It is smart and perceptive but for me the best thing about it is the prose - it is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction, in my view. As for the ending... very nicely done.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cloak and Dagger by Nenia Campbell

Publication date: 24 October 2012
Published by: Self-published
Genre: Romance / Crime Thriller (NA)

My Synopsis
Michael is a professional assassin working for Integrated Military Affairs (or the IMA), a powerful organisation of mercenaries.  He is young, good looking, and the best at what he does.  Despite being in his early 20s he is a high ranking agent, in charge of other agents, many of whom are jostling to climb the ladder of success and gain power in the organisation.  As such, some of his subordinates would be happy for him to fail and he has to watch his back when around certain colleagues.

Michael is working on a case investigating a breach in the IMAs security.  A computer hacker was able to infiltrate the company's network, access top secret information and plant a virus, causing serious damage to their systems.

The prime suspect is an expert in computer science, a man called Rubens Parker and Michael's only lead to him is via Parker's 18 year old daughter, Christina.

Christina Parker is an 18 year old good christian girl who is a senior at a private catholic school.  She has lived a sheltered and privileged life.  She lives in the shadow of her hateful, vacuous and over-bearing mother who was formerly a model and currently works as a fashion designer. This woman has made Christina feel self-conscious about her weight and deflated her self-confidence. One day Christina returns home from school to find her parents gone and a phone message warning her to get out of the house.  Before she is able to act she is attacked, rendered unconscious and taken.  She wakes to find herself in the back of a moving car, stunned by the realisation that she has been kidnapped.

Michael takes Christina to a 'safe house' owned by the IMA and holds her prisoner. He intends to use her as a bargaining chip to gain access to her father.  However, Michael fails to make progress in that regard and falls out of favour with his superiors.  His interaction with Christina also has an affect on him - could he be developing a conscience?  Things get complicated for him when his overly ambitious subordinate and rival, Adrian Callaghan, intervenes (on the orders of Michael's boss), taking Christina from the premises (while Michael is away) delivering her to IMA headquarters where she is in even more danger than ever; Micheal's approach had been to instil fear using threats he would not carry out whereas his colleagues have no problem inflicting pain and suffering on their captors.  The idea of Christina being tortured does not sit well with Michael so he defies his boss and attempts to get her back...

My Review
I liked this novel. I found it gripping from the very first page and it became more so with each chapter.  The story is told from two perspectives, Michael's and Christina's.  They are polar opposites; Christina is an angelic character while Michael's character is very dark.  (We learn from his back story that he grew up rough, became a vicious criminal and a gang member before he was spotted and recruited by the IMA.)

The novel is quite dark and goes to places some readers may find disturbing.  It may even anger some as Christina suffers repeatedly while captive by Michael and later by Adrian.

Make no mistake, Cloak and Dagger is a new adult fiction novel of the hot and steamy romantic kind (you know the ones that tend to have hand-cuffs or f*ck-me stilettos on the cover). Yes there are elements of the crime thriller but that aspect is rather contrived and serves purely to facilitate what the book is actually about, i.e. Michael and Christina's relationship.  That said, what sets it apart from the NA books mentioned below** is that they all read like romantic porn (and by that I mean they seek to stimulate the romantic desires of the reader) whereas Cloak and Dagger does not try to manipulate its readers and therefore, manages to avoid gratuitous romance - it is completely absent of fluff. 

It is not without problem areas.  I felt it started to falter towards the end, when Michael and Christina arrive in Seattle.  We are told that he is the best and yet what follows are a series of events that demonstrate that he is an incompetent field agent. By the time he realises his mistakes it's too late and his actions lead to Christina's capture by the IMA (for the 4th time!).  Also, he would sometimes say things that were at odds with his character.  For example, "..she slept with him for money and she had a child with him out of wedlock.  Both things make her a whore in my book."  This suggests to me that Michael is both an assassin and a devout christian (??). 

It is a thought-provoking read.  The significance of the female protagonist's name was not lost on me.  Her character is Christ-like (she endures countless suffering as a sacrifice for the sins of those around her, in particular her parents and later Michael).  She does this without hatred or malice and is willing to bear the sacrifices time and time again - and boy does she!

The relationship between Christina and Michael is very complex; the abuser and the abused is how it starts out, but the line blurs as the plot develops.  His treatment of her is undoubtedly abominable, but his back story and character explain (although do not justify) the reasons behind it.  The situation is not black and white - more like (Fifty) Shades of Grey. [Sorry, I couldn't resist.]

Cloak and Dagger is well worth reading in my opinion (although one you might want to avoid if you prefer your romance served sweet).  There is a sequel called Armed and Dangerous in which I hope Christina's situation improves - less Shawshank, more Redemption - and the dynamic of her relationship with Michael changes so the balance of power shifts from him to her.  I would however be disappointed if it turns out to be more of the same.

**If you are interested in reading a dark NA novel - minus the rom-porn - forget Fifty Shades, forget Gabriel's Inferno, forget Beautiful Disaster and read Cloak and Dagger instead.