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review 2020-04-24 11:43
A spider web that traps readers and doesn’t let go
Odd Numbers - JJ Marsh

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

JJ Marsh is an author I’ve read great reviews about and has been on my list for a while, so I took the chance when I saw an ARC for her next book had become available. I can’t compare it to the rest of her works, but based on this novel, which is a new genre for her, I wouldn’t hesitate recommending her books, and I look forward to catching up on some of her previous novels.

I think the description above provides plenty of hints as to the plot, and this is one of those novels where the way the story is told and the fine details are fundamental, so I’ll try to avoid over explaining things or giving too many hints (I want to avoid spoilers at all cost). This is a story built around six friends (three women and three men) who meet at university, while they are studying to become international translators, and grow to be quite close. They come from different countries (mostly Europe, although one comes from the US, and one is from Indian origin), have very different personalities and backgrounds, and it’s likely that their friendship would have fizzled and died if not for a tragic event that takes place while they are away celebrating New Year (and the new millennium) in December 1999. After that, they meet every two years, and the event that binds them together weighs heavily on them all, having a very different impact in each one of them. Things come to a head on the 20th anniversary of that fateful New Year’s celebration and readers are privileged witnesses of another night to remember. This novel reminded me of a book I read and reviewed recently, The Hunting Party, but also of films like The Celebration (Festen), where there is a build-up of tension, strained relationships, plenty of secrets and lies, and a surprise or two. Although I think many readers will smell a rat from early on in the novel, even if they get it right (and let’s say things are left open to interpretation), the beauty of this novel is in the way it is built, the variety of points of view, and the psychological insights it offers into a catalogue of characters that are not miles away from people most of us know. Considering this is the author’s first incursion into the psychological drama genre, I take my hat off to her.

There are a variety of themes that come up in the novel, some more important to the action than others, for instance the nature of friendship, the way different people experience grief, the guilt of the survivor, how we change and evolve over time and how our relationships change with us, love, death, careers, priorities, family, charity missions, and, of course, lies.

As for the characters, I won’t go into too much detail about them, because the author does a great job of building them up through the novel, and readers should discover them as they read. Marsh chooses one of the female characters, Gael, as the main narrator, and she starts the story ‘now’ (in 2020). The whole novel is written in the first person, but not all from the same point of view. Although I’ve said that Gael is the main narrator, and she has more chapters than the rest, we also get to hear the voices of the other characters, who take us back into some of the reunions the friends have had over the years, and that allows readers to compare and contrast Gael’s version of the rest of her friends with their own words and insights. Readers can compose a mental picture and fit in the pieces of the puzzle, making their own minds up and deciding if they agree or not with Gael’s perceptions. It also makes for a more rounded reading experience, as we get to know each character more intimately, and perhaps to empathise, if not sympathise, with all of them. I liked Gael from the start: she is articulate, a journalist, and a bit of a free spirit, but she always tries to understand and accommodate others as well, and she is more of the observer and the outsider in the story, for reasons that will become evident to the readers from early on. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the friends are like an ersatz family, with individual roles they always fall back on when they are together (the nurturing mother, the responsible and dependable father, the youngest and spoilt sister, the rushed and sporty brother, the sister whom everybody confides in [Gael]), and this reminded me of Eric Berne’s Games People Play. All the characters are articulate and savvy enough to be aware of this and play it for keeps as well.

The book flows well, and the language used is appropriate to each one of the individual characters, fitting with their personalities and quirks without calling too much attention to itself. It helps move the story along, and manages to build up the tension, even when there isn’t a lot of action in the usual sense. There are mysterious events taking place (some that will have readers wondering if the characters are imagining them or not), clues that sometimes don’t seem to amount to much, hints, and some memorable scenes. But all those elements are woven subtly into the narrative creating a spider web that traps the readers and the more they read, the more they become entangled in the strands of the story and the characters, until it becomes almost impossible to put the book down.

There is a closure of sorts, although the ending is ambiguous and most of the surprises and big reveals have come before then. I liked the fact that there is much left to the imagination of each reader, but I know such things are down to personal taste.

This is a great psychological drama, with engaging characters (some more likeable than others), fascinating relationship dynamics, and a mystery at its heart. It’s a gripping read, perfect to keep our minds engaged and to have us pondering the ins and outs of friendships, relationships, and which actions would push us beyond the limits of forgiveness. A gem.

The last 7% of the e-book contains the first-chapter of the author’s work-in-progress, in case you wonder about its length.  

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review 2018-02-11 15:49
When a Stranger Calls- Karen S. Bell

     Writers enjoy having the power of God over their characters, but what if they also attract the forces of the devil? What if the power of life and death in a fiction translates into a ‘real’ existence, if some elements of the authors omnipresence on the page slips into physical life? The book is very much paranormal, some of a magical realism bend and some with a quasi-religious one. Through excepting the premise that many good versus evil, religious/paranormal boundaries collide in mystical ways one can enjoy the book. Most of us have little trouble suspending belief to enjoy a good yarn. I preferred to read this is the imagined world of a psychotic personality in total meltdown. This was easy given that the book is written in first person. I enjoyed this as a false reality from which we are supposed to hope the character voice, Alexa, will escape. I was a bit underwhelmed by the lengths Bell went to in exploring the threads of the story as it drew to the end, as for me the detail rather reduced the power of resolution. Climatic events, both in life and books, are best enjoyed without distracting reflections on the rationality of the mechanics.

     This book is well written, describing Alexa’s world in a way that easily paints strong scenes in one’s mind. As a writer, I can appreciate the mind games as Alexa the well-established, if quite famous, author, struggles to complete her trilogy. Some of the other characters, especially Margaret, her book editor, are very well-rounded. I may have enjoyed the book more with a few chapters written from the mind of Margaret, watching the mental breakdown of her number one selling author.

     This is the second book of Bell’s I have read. She is a very gifted writer who might achieve greater success with psychological thrillers without the distraction of paranormal elements. Provided, of course, she could find the discipline of scripting her stories without occasionally falling for the convenient escapes of the unrestrained supernatural.

     It should be obvious that I enjoyed this book more for the qualities of Bell’s descriptive writing than the story it tells. However, I am sure that those that relish the buy-in to the paranormal will find this to be a great read. There are plenty of original elements as well as standard themes of the paranormal and mystical realism genres. We have here a, ‘watch what you wish for’ morality tale. The allegorical foundations of the theme resonate throughout. The four stars rather than five isn’t a devaluation of the Bell’s work. Rather, it reflects my view that this book, despite all its qualities, didn’t do talent full justice.



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review 2017-05-07 10:55
Finding Freedom- Brittany Nicole Lewis

I was expecting a book full of violence, both physical and psychological, with layers of cruel malevolence driving its agenda. This read isn’t like that. This is a quiet pastiche, a sensitive unravelling of years of mental mind-washing, the story of well-planned escape and months of gradual adjustment to life outside of a closed, controlling community.

Those that expect to read about physical violence and a dangerous escape from it, will be disappointed, unless like me they find something ‘spiritually’ rewarding. This is a book that deals with the evils of abusive control and the immense difficulty victims of such authority have adjusting to the freedoms of liberal society. The subject matter is all North American, but the psychology of it applies wherever individuals struggle to escape constraining ‘walls’. Many of the issues raised are as applicable to whole populations, nations, as they are to individual humans.

The book is well enough written, in a simple non-intrusive style, with ‘christian’ belief strongly emblazoned by Lewis’s words. The read is gentle and rewarding, quietly preaching the author’s private convictions. I feel most comfortable describing this as Christian social drama. I feel that those that have escaped, or are contemplating escape from the dominion of other’s, whether to find their own space with God, or to the most secular of lives, will find this a rewarding read. The cult isn’t defeated but, by the end, its effects on the minds of some are ameliorated. The main lesson is that it isn’t easy to take responsibility for one’s future from a long-term suppressing evil, to risk escape, but that the light at the end of the tunnel can be reached, and is worth reaching for.


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review 2016-11-01 00:00
The Girl Who Lied: A gripping psychological drama that will keep you turning the page!
The Girl Who Lied: A gripping psychological drama that will keep you turning the page! - Sue Fortin **Note: I received a free copy of this book from edelweiss in return for my unbiased review of this book**

The Girl Who Lied takes place in a small town in Ireland. I say this up front because I felt like Rossway was a character in the story. Perhaps not an overt one, but it certainly crafted the lives of the people who grew up and live there.

While the title is deliciously deceptive, it's also true in the extreme. The main character, Erin, is summoned home from London when her father is seriously injured - but it coincides with a summons from a cryptic message she gets that calls back to her tumultuous past.

When she returns to Rossway, she finds her father hanging on to life. While many things were the same, there were also different perspectives Erin could see after growing up away from her small town. Was she hiding by leaving, or was she escaping?

Old ghosts, petty grudges, deep-seated hatreds - they all show up while Erin is trying to resolve her family issues and make sure her past stays firmly in the past. It doesn't help that she keeps getting distracted by Kerry, who just won't stop getting past her defenses.

Shaking my hair over my shoulders, I pull the helmet down over my head. The padding, although soft and spongy, holds my face firmly in place, squeezing the sides of my cheeks against my teeth. There's a funny smell to the inside of it; musty like a charity shop, with a dash of petrol. I struggle with the woven chinstrap, not being able to see the D rings makes it difficult to fasten. I feel Kerry's hand on my wrist as he pulls me towards him and takes over, securing the strap in a matter of seconds. Then, turning the key in the ignition and thumping down on the kickstart with his foot, the vintage Triumph Bonneville erupts into life, the noise rumbles through the exhaust pipes like a purring lion awakening from its slumber. A few flicks of the wrist on the accelerator and the beast roars into life, louder, deeper, faster, now snarling. I flinch and screw my nose up at the fumes emitting from the exhaust. A hot, burning oily smell, once again mixed with a hint of petrol that I can taste as it drifts in the air.

I include that quote because it's so descriptive, I felt like I was part of that scene.

I had questions all the way through, and that's a good thing. Every time I had something figured out, another mystery popped up and turned everything upside down. I give extra points here because nothing is black and white. There are characters you can hate, but even they do things that make them grudgingly okay.

The ending is satisfying, but I would've liked to get more of Kerry's story. I can't imagine fitting it in, so I'll give Ms. Fortin a pass. :-)

Solid four stars.
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