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review 2019-02-08 23:06
Dark, scary, and gripping.
The Nowhere Child - Christian White

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I’ve read quite a few books by Australian writers recently (Liane Moriarty, Jane Harper, Liza Perrat), and although very different, I enjoyed all of them and could not resist when I saw this novel, especially as it had won an award Harper’s first novel The Dry also won.

Although part of this novel is set in Australia, it is not the largest or the most important part of it. This novel is set in two time frames and in two places, and the distance in time and space seems abysmal at times. The novel starts with a bang. Kim, the main protagonist, an Australian photographer in her late twenties, receives an unexpected visit and some even more unexpected news. This part of the story, the “now”, is narrated in the first person from Kim’s point of view, and that has the effect of putting the readers in her place and making them wonder what they would do and how they would feel if suddenly their lives were turned on their heads, and they discovered everything they thought they knew about themselves, their families, and their identities, was a lie. She is a quiet woman, and although she gets on well with her stepfather and her half-sister, and she badly misses her mother, who died a little while back, she’s always been quite different to the rest of the members of her family, and enjoys her own company more than socialising. There are also strange dreams that bother her from time to time. So, although she does not want to believe it when the stranger tells her she was abducted from a small town in Kentucky as a little girl, she is not as surprised as she should be. At this point, we seem to be in the presence of a domestic drama, one where family secrets are perhaps a bit darker than we are used to, but the plot seems in keeping with the genre. And most of the “now” section of the book is closer in tone and atmosphere to that genre.

But we have the other part. The “then”, written in the third person, from a variety of characters’ points of view. Readers who dislike head-hopping don’t need to worry, though, because each chapter in the “past” section is told from only one character’s point of view, and it is quite clear who that is, avoiding any possible confusion. The story of the background to the kidnapping, and the investigation that followed, is told from the point of view of members of little Sammy’s family, the sheriff (I really liked him), neighbours of the town, and other characters that at first we might not grasp how they are related to the story, but it all ends up making sense eventually. This part of the novel feels much more gripping and dynamic than the other, and although we don’t always follow the characters for very long, the author manages to create credible and sympathetic (or not so sympathetic) individuals, some that we get to feel for and care, and even when they do some pretty horrible things, most of them feel realistic and understandable. And the story of what happened in the past makes for a pretty dark combination of thriller and mystery, well-paced and gripping.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I must say the town of Manson of the novel is a place that seems right out of a dark fairy tale, and I kept thinking of the opening titles of the TV series True Blood (not because of any supernatural thing, but because of some of the images that appear there). While some of the scenes seem typical of a small town in the middle of nowhere, others reminded me of Southern Gothic novels, and, a word of warning: there is violence, and there are scenes that can be terrifying to some readers (although no, this is not a horror novel, the author is not lying when he says he admires and has learned a lot from Stephen King). The story is full of secrets, red-herrings and confusing information, clues that seem clear but are not, and Kim/Sammy is a woman who keeps her emotions to herself, understandably so considering the circumstances. I am not sure many readers will connect with Kim straight away because of her personality, but I understand the author’s choice. If she was an emotional wreck all the time, it would be impossible for her to do what she does and to learn the truth, and the novel would be unbearable to read, more of a melodrama than a thriller or a dark mystery. The part of the story that deals with the present helps reduce the tension somewhat while keeping the intrigue ticking, and although it feels slow and sedate compared to the other part, it does ramp up as they dig into the past and the two stories advance towards their resolution.

Without going into detail, I can say that I enjoyed the ending, and although I suspected what was coming, I only realised what was likely to happen very late in the story. Despite this being the author’s first novel, his screenwriting experience is evident, and he has a knack for creating unforgettable scenes. This is a novel destined to become a movie, for sure, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t.

This is not a typical mystery or thriller, and although it has elements of the domestic noir, it is perhaps more extreme and darker than others I have read in that genre. We have a very young child being kidnapped; we have murder, extreme religious beliefs, prejudice, postnatal depression, a dysfunctional family, snakes, secrets, lies, child abuse, and more. If you are looking for an intriguing read, don’t mind different timelines and narrators, and are not put off by difficult subjects and scary scenes, you must read this one.

 

 

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review 2019-01-08 19:25
As good, if not better, than Harper’s previous books. Read it now!
The Lost Man - Jane Harper

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown Book Group UK, for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. I’m also grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for the launch of the book. After having read both of Jane Harper’s previous books, The Dry and Force of Nature, I rushed to grab this one as soon as I saw it was available. And yes, although it is quite different from the other two, it is another winner.

The two previous books, two thrillers/mysteries, had as protagonist Aaron Falk, a federal investigator of fraud and related crimes, who somehow gets involved in cases outside his comfort zone, for different reasons. Here, there is no professional investigator (however loosely Falk’s credentials might relate to the mystery at hand). I had mentioned in my reviews of the two previous books the fact that the stories put me in mind of domestic noir, and this is even more the case here. It might sound strange to talk about noir when the setting is the Australian outback (the nearest town is Balamara, Winton, Queensland), but plot and character-wise, it fits neatly into the category. And it is atmospheric, for sure. Harper is masterful at making us feel as if we were there, in this unusual and totally unique place, where going out for a walk might end up getting you killed.

The story is set around Christmas time, (summer in Australia), and is told in the third person from the point of view of Nathan Bright, the oldest son of the Bright family, who lives alone in his farm after his divorce, four hours away from the rest of his family, and very far from his ex-wife and his son, Xander, who live in Brisbane. Xander is visiting his father for Christmas (he is sixteen and due to his studies it is likely this might be the last Christmas they spend together for the foreseeable future), and as they prepare to celebrate the holidays, Nathan gets a call. His middle brother, Cameron, has been found dead in pretty strange circumstances. His dead body was by the stockman’s grave, a grave in the middle of the desert subject of many stories and local legends, and a place Cameron had made popular thanks to one of his paintings. Bub, the younger brother, is waiting for Nathan and explains to him that their brother’s car was found nine miles away, in perfect working order, fully stocked with food and water. So, what was their brother doing there, and why did he die of dehydration? When the questions start coming, it seems that Cam, a favourite in town and well-liked by everybody, had not been himself recently and seemed worried. Was it suicide then, or something else?

Nathan is not the typical amateur detective of cozy mysteries, another aspect that reminds me of domestic noir. He is not somebody who enjoys mysteries, or a secret genius, and he only gets involved because he keeps observing things that don’t seem to fit in with the official explanation. As this is his family, he cannot help but keep digging and has to remain involved because, for one, he has to attend his brother’s funeral. The main characters in domestic noir tend to have troubled lives and be hindered by their problems, no matter how convinced they are that they have it all under control. As the book progresses, they learn how wrong they are. In this case, Nathan is a flawed character and lacks insight into his state of mind and that of his life. He has committed some terrible mistakes (perhaps even unforgivable ones), and he is the black sheep of the family, in appearance at least. As you might expect, things are not as they seem, and during the book he grows and learns, and not only about his brother’s death. Nathan might not be the most familiar of characters or the most immediately sympathetic to many readers due to his closed-off nature, but through the novel we also learn about his past and the circumstances that made him the man he is now.

The clues and to the case appear at a slow pace and naturally, rather than feeling forced, and they do not require a lot of procedural or specialized knowledge. There are also red herrings, but most of them go beyond an attempt at wrong-footing readers, and provide important background information that helps build up a full picture of the people and the place. In style the book reminds us of old-fashioned mysteries, without extreme violence or excessive attention being paid to the procedures of the police or to complex tests. No AND tests and no CSI on sight here. This is a book about characters, motivations, and the secrets families keep.

In contrast to the first two novels written by Harper, this book is deceptively simple in its structure. The book takes place over a few days, around Christmas, and, as I said, it is all told from the point of view of Nathan. The story is told chronologically, although there are moments when we get some important background into the story, be it thanks to Nathan’s memories, or to episodes and events narrated to him by other characters. The book manages to keep a good balance between showing and telling and it is very atmospheric, although it moves at its own pace, meandering and perfectly suited to the setting. I’ve never visited the Australian outback and have never experienced anything like the extreme weather conditions described in the book, but I felt the oppressive sensation, the heat, the agoraphobia induced by the open spaces, and the horror of imagining yourself in Cam’s circumstances. The initial setting, with the lonely gravestone, made me think of a Western, and the life in the ranch, isolated and extreme, where surviving requires a daily fight against the elements, made the story feel primordial and timeless. Although the story is set in modern times (there is no specific date, but despite the distance from civilisation, there is talk of mobiles, internet, GPS, etc.), due to the location, people are forced to live as if time had not truly moved on, and they have to depend on themselves and those around them, because if your car or your air conditioning break down, it could mean your death.

Apart from her evident skill in describing Australia and everyday life in the outback (she refers to her research and sources in her acknowledgments), the author is masterful at creating characters that are multi-dimensional and psychologically and emotionally believable, as I explained when talking about the main protagonist. These are people used to living alone and not allowing their vulnerabilities to show. Even within the family, its members keep secrets from each other and don’t share their feelings, although they might all know about what has happened, because that’s what they’ve always seen and known, and perhaps they believe that if you don’t talk about it you can keep it contained. The secrets are slowly revealed, and although many readers will suspect the nature of some of them, that does not diminish their power and impact. The themes discussed are, unfortunately, very current, and although I won’t talk about them in detail, to avoid spoilers, I am sure they will resonate with most readers. Although the ending will probably not be a huge surprise to most readers, it is built up expertly, and I found it very satisfying.

I had to share a couple of samples of writing, although it was a hard choice:

In the centre was a headstone, blasted smooth by a hundred-year assault from sand, wind and sun. The headstone stood a metre tall and was still perfectly straight. It faced west, towards the desert, which was unusual out there. West was rarely anyone’s first choice.

The name of the man buried beneath had long since vanished and the landmark was known to locals —all sixty-five of them, plus 100,000 head of cattle— simply as the stockman’s grave. That piece of land had never been a cemetery; the stockman had been put into the ground where he had died, and in more than a century no-one had joined him.

There was something about the brutal heat when the sun was high in the sky and he was watching the slow meandering movement of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colours in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness… It was harsh and unforgiving, but it felt like home.

In sum, this is a book for people who enjoy an unusual mystery and books focused on characters rather than fast-paced plots. If you love well-written books, and don’t mind investing some time into the story and its characters, especially if you are keen on an Australian setting, you should not miss this one. I will be on the lookout for the author’s next book.

 

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review 2018-11-20 14:37
Domestic noir, dark humour, and a fantastic new voice
My Sister, the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite

Thanks to NetGalley and to Atlantic Books (Doubleday) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

The title of this book hooked me. The fact that it was set in Lagos, Nigeria, made it more attractive. I could not resist the cover. And then I started reading and got hit by this first paragraph:

“Ayoola summons me with these words —Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”

Told in the first person by Korede, the book narrates her story and that of her “complex” relationship with her younger sister, Ayoola, beautiful, graceful, a successful designer, beloved of social media, irresistible to men, the favourite of everybody… She’s almost perfect. But, there is a big but, which you will have guessed from the title. She is a serial killer.

This is a short and very funny book, although it requires a certain kind of sense of humour on the part of the reader. You need to be able to appreciate sarcasm and dark humour (very dark) to find it funny, but if you do, this is a fresh voice and a different take on what has become an extremely popular genre recently, domestic noir. I kept thinking about the many novels I had read where I had commented on the setting of the book and how well the author had captured it. There are no lengthy descriptions in this novel, but it manages to capture the beat and the rhythm of Lagos (a place where I’ve never been, I must admit) and makes us appreciate what life must be like for the protagonists. Because, although Ayoola is a murderer, life goes on, and Korede has to keep working as a nurse, she is still in love (or so she thinks) with one of the doctors at the hospital, their mother still suffers from her headaches, Ayoola wants to carry on posting on Snapchat, the patient in coma Korede confides in needs to be looked after, the police need to be seen to be doing something, and there are more men keen on spending time with beautiful Ayoola…

I found Korede understandable, although I doubt that we are meant to empathise with her full-heartedly. At some points, she seems to be a victim, trapped in a situation she has no control over. At others, we realise that we only have her own opinion of her sister’s behaviour, and she has enabled the murderous activities of her sibling, in a strange symbiotic relationship where neither one of them can imagine life without the other. We learn of their traumatic past, and we can’t help but wonder what would we do faced with such a situation? If your sister was a psychopath (not a real psychiatric diagnosis, but I’m sure she’d score quite high in the psychopathy scale if her sister’s description is accurate) who kept getting into trouble, always blaming it on others, would you believe her and support her? Would you help her hide her crimes? Is blood stronger than everything else?

I loved the setting, the wonderful little scenes (like when Tade, the attractive doctor, sings and the whole city stops to listen, or when the police take away Korede’s car to submit it to forensic testing and then make her pay to return it to her, all dirty and in disarray), the voice of the narrator and her approach to things (very matter-of-fact, fully acknowledging her weaknesses, her less-than-endearing personality, sometimes lacking in insight  but also caring and reflective at times), and the ending as well. I also enjoyed the writing style. Short chapters, peppered with Yoruba terms, vivid and engaging, it flows well and it makes it feel even briefer than it is.

If you enjoy books with a strong sense of morality and providing deep lessons, this novel is not for you. Good and bad are not black and white in this novel, and there is an undercurrent of flippancy about the subject that might appeal to fans of Dexter more than to those who love conventional thrillers or mysteries. But if you want to discover a fresh new voice, love black humour, and are looking for an unusual setting, give it a go. I challenge you to check a sample and see…

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review 2018-07-21 14:39
An unsettling page turner recommended to lovers of first-person narratives.
The Party - Lisa Hall

Thanks to NetGalley and to HQ for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is an unsettling novel. It starts with a woman, Rachel, who wakes up after a New Year’s Eve party not remembering what has happened and feeling quite vulnerable, and as she tries to get her bearings and find out what went on, while keeping face (as she’s in one of her neighbours’ houses and feels more than a little embarrassed), she comes to realise that something horrible has taken place. The author’s use of first-person narration immerses the readers in Rachel’s mind and makes us share in her fear, confusion, and contradictory feelings. There is physical evidence that something has happened to her, but she cannot recall what, or who might have done the deed.

The story moves between the immediate aftermath of the story, in chronological order, and interspersed chapters that share the events prior to the party, always from the protagonist’s point of view, but they don’t reach into the faraway past and only takes us a few months back, giving us some background that helps us understand why the people closest to Rachel (especially her husband, Gareth) react as they do to the events.

In the present time, somebody starts playing with the protagonist, in a game of cat-and-mouse (which sometimes takes on gaslighting characteristics) and manages to make her doubt herself and everybody around her, from mere acquaintances to those closest and dearest to her.  The first-person point of view works well at making readers feel the claustrophobia, paranoia, anxiety, and sheer terror of not knowing who to trust and seeing your whole life crumble around you.

The book, which fits into the domestic noir category, uses well some of the tropes of the genre, including the protagonist who feels trapped and not taken seriously by the police and therefore has to do her own investigating. There are also plenty of red herrings and a number of credible suspects that make us keep turning the pages to see what will happen next, although readers of thrillers will probably guess who the culprit is (I did).

On the negative side, personally, I did not feel a connection to the characters, particularly Rachel. I empathised with her circumstances, and with the terrible crime she has survived, but I did not feel there is enough information provided about her to create a credible individual. One of the other characters at some point talks about her belief that she is a strong woman, and I wondered what that was based on, as we are only given snippets of her current life and her recent past, and nothing that makes her come alive (What does she like? What did she do before she got married? Does she have any passions, apart from her relationships? She has a friend but other than calling her for support, there is no indication of what that friendship is based on). She does things that are morally questionable, but that was not my issue (I have long defended unlikable main characters, but I still need to feel that they are real, somehow). I wondered if this was intentional, trying to make sure that everybody would be able to identify with Rachel and her plight, rather than making her too distinctive and individual, but, for me at least, the opposite is the truth, and we know enough about her to make her different from us, but not perhaps to make us feel as if we know who she is. This would not bother me so much in a standard plot-driven thriller, but when the book depends so closely on the protagonist’s voice and on her sense of identity, it didn’t gel for me. There were also some things that I thought readers who are not fond of first-person narratives might find annoying (like the character looking at herself in the mirror as a way of providing us a description, something that is frown upon in general writing advice, and a leaning towards telling rather than showing in the bulk of the writing).

The novel moves at a good pace, it creates doubt and hesitation in the readers’ minds, and it has a good sense of timing. And the ending will probably satisfy most fans of the genre. It also touches on an important and, sadly, topical subject, although it does not cover new ground. It brought to my mind C.L.Taylor’s The Fear and I noticed the author, Lisa Hall, had reviewed that novel. I have not read the author’s previous books, but I am curious to see how this compares to her other novels.

A page-turner I recommend to lovers of domestic noir, particularly those who enjoy claustrophobic and unsettling first-person narratives.

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review 2018-02-19 23:36
A solid domestic-noir thriller with a familiar plot, unlikely to surprise those who love Hitchcock movies and habitual readers of thrillers
The Woman in the Window: A Novel - A. J. Finn

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.

I have been reading a lot of thrillers recently and kept coming across this book and, eventually, I thought I would read it. The description and the accolades mention Hitchcock and noir film and that convinced me I should read it.

Many of the reviews compare it to The Girl on the Train. Although I have watched the movie adaptation of that book, I haven’t read the novel, so I cannot compare the style, although yes, I agree that the story is very similar. This is more Rear Window (because the protagonist, Anna Fox, a psychologist, suffers from agoraphobia following a traumatic incident, and she is stuck at home, in New York) with touches of Body Double (I agree with the reviewer who mentioned that). It also brought to mind, for me, apart from the many Hitchcock and noir movies the character herself is so fond of (Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes, Rope), some newer movies, like Copycat (the main protagonist is also a psychologist suffering from agoraphobia, in that case after being assaulted by a serial killer) and Murder by Numbers (that is a new treatment of Rope).

Anna is an unreliable narrator, and she tells us the story in the first-person (I know some readers don’t like that). I do like unreliable narrators, but I did not feel there was much new or particularly insightful here. She is a psychologist who seems to be able to help others with their problems (she joins an online chat and helps others suffering from agoraphobia) but is not capable of fully accepting or recognising her own (she sees a psychiatrist once a week but lies to him, does not take the medication as prescribed, keeps drinking alcohol despite being fully aware of its depressant effects and knowing that it should not be mixed with her medication), and lies to others, and what is worse, to herself. The fog produced by the alcohol and her erratic use of medication make her unreliable (and yes, some of her medication can cause hallucinations, so there’s that too), and although her predicament and her agoraphobia are well portrayed, because a big twist (that if you’ve read enough books will probably suspect from very early on) needs to remain hidden, for plot reasons, it is difficult to fully empathise with her. She is intelligent, she loves old movies, and she’s articulate (although her intelligence and her insight are dulled by her own behaviour and her state of mind), but we only get a sense of who she really is (or was, before all this) quite late in the book, and yes, perhaps she is not that likeable even then (in fact, she might become even less likeable after the great reveal). Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved books where the main protagonist is truly dislikeable, but I am not sure that is intentional here, and I felt that the character follows the plot and accommodates to its needs, rather than the other way round.

The rest of the characters… well, we don’t know. As we see them from Anna’s perspective, and this is impaired, there is not much to guide us. She is paranoid at times and can change from totally depending on somebody and thinking they are the only person who can help her, to dismissing them completely (that detail is well portrayed), but although some of the characters are potentially intriguing, we don’t know enough about any of them to get truly interested. This is a novel about Anna, her disintegrating mind, the lies she tells herself, and how her being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or rather, looking at the wrong place at the wrong time) almost ends her life. For me, the needs of the plot and of making it an interesting page-turner end up overpowering some of the other elements that I think are truly well achieved (like her mental health difficulties).

The writing style is fluid and competent, and it is evident that the writer knows what readers of the genre will expect (yes, from his biography is easy to see he knows the knots and bolts of the profession), although, personally, I think people who don’t read thrillers regularly will find it more interesting than those who read them often, as avid thriller readers are likely to spot the twists and expect what is coming next early on. The agoraphobia aspects of the story are well written (and from his biography it is clear that the author has a first-hand knowledge of the condition), although I agree with some comments that the many mentions of the wine spilling down the carpet or on the character’s clothes, of opening another bottle, and abandoning a glass of wine somewhere could have been reduced, and we would still have got the message.

Lovers of film-noir and Hitchcock movies will enjoy the references to the films, some very open, and others more subtle, although the general level of the character’s awareness and her wit reduces as the book moves on due to the stress and pressure Anna is under. The ending… Well, I’m trying not to write any spoilers so I’ll keep my peace, although, let’s say you might enjoy the details, but there are not that many possible suspects, so you might guess correctly. (Yes, it does follow the standard rules).

In my opinion, this is a well-written book, that perhaps tries too hard to pack all the elements that seem required nowadays to make it big in the thriller genre: a female unreliable narrator, domestic problems (domestic noir), meta-fictional references to other books and films, twists and turns galore, witty dialogue (not so much, but yes, especially early on Anna can quote with the best of them), an action filled ending with a positive/hopeful message. I enjoyed the descriptions of Anna’s agoraphobia and, particularly, the way the house becomes another character (that is what I felt gave it most of its noir feel).  People who don’t read many thrillers or watch many movies in the genre are more likely to be surprised and thrilled than those who do, as the storyline will be very familiar to many. I am intrigued to see what the writer will produce next, and I am not surprised to hear that the book’s film adaptation rights have been already bought. That figures.

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