22 January 2022

Review: DREAM GIRL, Laura Lippman

Synopsis (author)

Following up on her acclaimed and wildly successful New York Times bestseller Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman returns with a dark, complex tale of psychological suspense with echoes of Misery involving a novelist, incapacitated by injury, who is plagued by mysterious phone calls.

In the end, has anyone really led a blameless life?

Injured in a freak fall, novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his glamorous high-rise apartment, dependent on two women he barely knows: his incurious young assistant, and a dull, slow-witted night nurse.

Then late one night, the phone rings. The caller claims to be the “real” Aubrey, the alluring title character from his most successful novel, Dream Girl.  But there is no real Aubrey. She’s a figment born of a writer’s imagination, despite what many believe or claim to know. Could the cryptic caller be one of his three ex-wives playing a vindictive trick after all these years? Or is she Margot, an ex-girlfriend who keeps trying to insinuate her way back into Gerry’s life?

And why does no one believe that the call even happened?

Isolated from the world, drowsy from medication, Gerry slips between reality and a dreamlike state in which he is haunted by his own past: his faithless father, his devoted mother; the women who loved him, the women he loved.

And now here is Aubrey, threatening to visit him, suggesting that she is owed something. Is the threat real or is it a sign of dementia? Which scenario would he prefer? Gerry has never been so alone, so confused – and so terrified.

Chilling and compulsively readable, touching on timely issues that include power, agency, appropriation, and creation, Dream Girl is a superb blend of psychological suspense and horror that reveals the mind and soul of a writer.

My take

In her author's note at the end of the book Lippman wrote: This is a book about what goes on inside a writer's mind and it is, by my lights, my first work of horror.

To be quite honest, I did not always think that I would give this novel as high a ranking as I have. That is probably mostly due to the incredible twist in the final pages.

Incapacitated and bed-bound by his recent tumble down the stairs in his Baltimore apartment, Gerry Anderson is reliant on two women for all his daily needs. He is unable to write  and spends most of his time remembering his past, his three failed marriages, the affairs that didn't become marriages, his devoted mother who eventually developed Alzheimer's, and his father who abandoned himself and his mother when he was a teenager, for another family.

All of those memories made the story flit from one time frame to another, and at times I struggled to work out which time frame I was actually in. The author makes the reader work very hard to "compose" the events sequentially.  

However I also think there are times when the story borders on literature, when Lippman shows how well read she actually is, under the guise of a crime fiction writer, taking on the person of Gerry Anderson himself.

My rating: 4.5 

I've also read

ANOTHER THING TO FALL
WHAT THE DEAD KNOW
4.6, THE MOST DANGEROUS THING

19 January 2022

Review: THE DISAPPEARING ACT, Catherine Steadman

  • this edition published by Simon & Schuster UK 2021
  • ISBN 978-1-3985-0635-7
  • 312 pages

Synopsis (publisher)

A woman has gone missing
But did she ever really exist?


Mia Eliot has travelled from London to LA for pilot season. This is her big chance to make it as an actor in Hollywood, and she is ready to do whatever it takes. At an audition she meets Emily, and what starts as a simple favour takes a dark turn when Emily goes missing and Mia is the last person to see her.

Then a woman turns up, claiming to be Emily, but she is nothing like Mia remembers. Why would someone pretend to be Emily? Starting to question her own sanity, she goes on a desperate and dangerous search for answers, knowing something is very, very wrong.

In an industry where everything is about creating illusions, how do you know what is real and how much are you willing to risk to find out the truth?

My take

Mia Eliot's reputation has gone before her to LA. She has just finished a television series of Jane Eyre for which she has a BAFTA nomination for best actress. She's also left after a relationship breakdown so she is feeling a bit vulnerable. Her time in LA will be focussed on auditions for television and film parts. Her London agent has organised a number of auditions and also a local agent to help her. Her time will mainly be occupied in learning lines for the auditions.

At an audition she is struck by the similarity of each of the actresses to each other, but then realises that that is related to the fact that they are all auditioning for the same role. However this afternoon, only one of the others is friendly to her and that is Emily. Mia ends up doing Emily a favour: she agrees to top up the parking meter that Emily left her hire car on. Emily arrived at the audition before Mia and therefore should be called in to audition first. Emily gives her a credit card to put into the parking machine and her car keys in case she needs them. When Mia comes back Emily is gone. Mia assumes she is doing her audition but in fact she has disappeared, Four days later Mia still has Emily's keys and credit card and reports Emily to the police as missing. Meantime Mia thinks someone is entering her apartment when she is absent, or may be even when she is asleep.

This is the sort of book that keeps you reading because you want to know what has happened to Emily. In addition you learn a lot about the LA "pilot season". Mia learns that LA has a very nasty underside, and that some people will do anything to capture a prize part.

My rating: 4.6

I've also read

4.2, SOMETHING IN THE WATER
4.5, MR NOBODY  

18 January 2022

Review: THE INVISIBLE HOST, Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

  • This edition an e-book on my Kindle
  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B09C7KK499
  • first published 1930
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Dean Street Press; 1st edition (6 December 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 190 pages 

Synopsis (Amazon

"Do not doubt me, my friends; you shall all be dead before morning."

New Orleans, 1930. Eight guests are invited to a party at a luxurious penthouse apartment, yet on arrival it turns out that no one knows who their mysterious host actually is. The latter does not openly appear, but instead communicates with the guests by radio broadcast. What he has to tell his guests is chilling: that every hour, one of them will die. Despite putting the guests on their guard, the Host's prophecy starts to come horribly true, each demise occurring in bizarre fashion. As the dwindling band of survivors grows increasingly tense, their confessions to each other might explain why they have been chosen for this macabre evening-and invoke the nightmarish thought that the mysterious Host is one of them. The burning question becomes: will any of the party survive, including the Host . . . ?

The Invisible Host (1930) established one of the best-loved and most durable forms in classic mystery fiction. It was famously to reappear in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). How much Christie's novel is indebted to its predecessor is open to conjecture (and the subject is discussed in our new introduction, by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans). Whatever the verdict, readers will delight in The Invisible Host, an innovative and most unusual mystery from the golden age of crime fiction. It was adapted into a play, and a Hollywood movie as The Ninth Guest (1934).

1930. The Invisible Host is the first novel published by the husband and wife team of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. The tale of murder was based on a facetious scheme to get rid of a neighbor whose raucous radio disturbed them day and night. 

The novel begins: That makes thirty-seven words, said the girl. Will you read the telegram again? came the voice over the wire. She read: Congratulations stop plans afoot for small surprise party in your honor Bienville penthouse next Saturday eight o'clock stop all sub rose big surprise stop maintain secrecy stop promise you most original party ever staged in New Orleans Signed Your host.

My Take

I have read this as a prelude to re-reading AND THEN THERE WERE NONE with my U3A Agatha Christie Discussion group. THE INVISIBLE HOST pre-dates the publication of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by 9 years. 

In New Orleans in 1930, 8 guest, all well-heeled and well known in society are invited to a surprise party in their honour. All think they know who the host organising the party is, and all think they know the reason why the party is being given. When they arrive at the party, each of them sees there the person whom they think is the host, but amongst the guest each sees at least one person that they hate.

They are met by a butler who says he does not know who the host is, that he has his instructions, and among those is to turn on the radio, and that their host will communicate with them via it during the evening. Through the radio the host tells them they are all scheduled to die before morning, and that they are taking part in a competition in which he will outwit each one of them. And so the plot proceeds.

I didn't actually know of the existence of this book, nor of the possibility that Agatha Christie plagiarised the main plot. We don't know now, and can't ask, if Agatha Christie had read the book, but to me, if she had, there is no surprise in the possibility that she said something like "What an interesting plot - but I can do better than that". That is actually a situation that we come across quite often in crime fiction - where an author seems to have taken a plot that someone else has used, and seemingly tried to do better or produce a variation. 

There are many differences between THE INVISIBLE HOST and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE but I will let you discover them for yourself. I'm not sure that I agree that in the former the guests were in a competition with the host - if they were, the rules were never made clear.

My rating: 4.4

About the authors:

Gwen Bristow was born in Marion, South Carolina in 1903, and Bruce Manning in Cuddebackville, New York in 1902. In 1924, following Bristow's graduation from Judson College, her parents moved to New Orleans, the setting for The Invisible Host (1930). In the late 1920s, Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning, both Louisiana journalists at that point, met and married.Their first joint novel, The Invisible Host, was a success, and was followed by stage and film adaptations, and two further mysteries.The couple moved to Hollywood and there Bristow established herself as a prolific and successful writer of historical fiction, while Manning became a well-respected screenwriter, producer and director.They continued to live in California until their respective deaths, Manning's in 1965, Bristow's in 1980

16 January 2022

Review: A VIKING'S SHADOW, H. L. Marsay

  • This edition on Kindle (Amazon)
  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B094PMF95F
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Tule Publishing (August 12, 2021)
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 167 pages 
  • Chief Inspector Shadow Mystery #2

Synopsis (Amazon)

The shadows of the past are never far away...

Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow is doing his best to ignore the madness of York’s annual Viking Festival when duty calls. The body of a wealthy businessman, who was playing the role of the Viking king, is found slain by his own ancient sword. The murder scene looks staged, but before Shadow can compile a list of people to question a second body is found. Shadow doesn’t have to look far for suspects—the victims were by no means model citizens.

John Shadow is a man of contradictions. A solitary figure, who shuns company, but is a keen observer of all he meets. A lover of good food, but whose fridge is almost always empty. He prefers to work alone but is ably assisted by the eager Sergeant Jimmy Chang. Together, the two men navigate a web of corruption and family drama to solve the murders before the killer can strike again.

My Take

Another quick and enjoyable read, just a little longer than the first in the series. The characters of  the detection duo are developing nicely, and once again the subsidiary characters are well fleshed out.

Although Inspector Shadow works out eventually who to arrest for the main murder, the author pinned it on a character that I would not have chosen. Shadow and Chang present two main themes in modern police procedurals: on the one hand, the older copper with years of experience that he combines with intuition, and on the other hand, the face of modern policing, enthusiastic, not afraid to ask questions, and keen to use modern technology.

My rating: 4.4

I've also read
4.4, A LONG SHADOW, H.L. Marsay

15 January 2022

Review: A LONG SHADOW, H.L. Marsay

  • This edition on Kindle (Amazon.com)
  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08D6JR8FC
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Tule Publishing (May 13, 2021)
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 148 pages
  • Chief Inspector Shadow #1

Synopsis (Amazon.com)

Old sins cast long shadows…

When the bodies of a young, homeless girl and a girl who disappeared thirty years ago are found on the same day, residents in the historic city of York are aghast. It seems unlikely the two cases are related, and yet some of the same players knew both victims. As Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow and his eager new partner, Sergeant Jimmy Chang, dive into their investigation, they uncover a complicated web of pop stars, pub owners, shopkeepers and old school friends who each have something to hide.

John Shadow is a man of contradictions. A solitary figure who shuns company, but is a keen observer of all he meets. A lover of good food, but whose fridge is almost always empty. He prefers to work alone and is perpetually trying to dodge his partner, who’s full of energy, modern ideas and theories.

But as the two men gradually learn to work together to solve the case, it’s clear that the past is never as far away as you think.

My Take

A new contemporary police procedural series set in York, a new pair of detectives to get to know.  I enjoyed this first outing. The plot came together well towards the end, the characters were well drawn and the scenario believable. Detective Chief Inspector Shadow is a bit curmudgeonly, his offsider Jimmy Chang a "modern boy", technologically-savvy, and keen to make an impression. There are two pathologists who appear frequently and contrast well with each other.

I have been to York a few times and enjoyed walking around the city.

This was a relatively easy read, and really a novella in length, and I will be reading #2 in the series.

My rating: 4.4

About the author
H L Marsay has always loved reading detective stories and promised herself that some day, she would write one too. “A Long Shadow” is the first book in her Chief Inspector Shadow series. Fortunately, living in York, a city full of history and mystery, she is never short of inspiration. When she isn’t coming up with new ways to bump people off, she enjoys red wine, dark chocolate and blue cheese – not necessarily together!
On the rare occasions when it isn’t raining in North Yorkshire, she can be found tramping across the windswept moors with the five men in her life - two sons, two dogs and one husband!

From Fantastic Fiction - the series so far

Chief Inspector Shadow Mystery
   1. A Long Shadow (2021)
   2. A Viking's Shadow (2021)
   3. A Ghostly Shadow (2021)
   4. A Roman Shadow (2022)

12 January 2022

Review: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SHEEP, Sally Coulthard

  • This edition on Kindle (Amazon.com)
  • ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08CP7LLT2
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Apollo (August 6, 2020)
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 237 pages 

Synopsis  (Amazon.com)

From the plains of ancient Mesopotamia to the vast sheep farms of modern-day Australia, sheep have been central to the human story. Since our Neolithic ancestors' first forays into sheep-rearing nearly 11,000 years ago, these remarkable animals have fed us, clothed us, changed our diet and language and financed the conquest of large swathes of the earth.

Sally Coulthard weaves this fascinating story into a vivid and colourful tapestry of engaging anecdotes and extraordinary ovine facts, whose multiple strands celebrate just how pivotal these woolly animals are to almost every aspect of human society and culture.

My Take

This was a very entertaining, and at the same time easy, read. And of course not my usual crime fiction.

Who knew there would be so many aspects of our relationship with sheep to consider: from how they were originally tamed, to the properties that make wool so useful,  how long we have been relieving sheep of their woolly coats, and then the employment that sheep have sponsored in the human race, the importance they have had economically and socially speaking, the role they have played in the history countries all over the world? 

Each chapter is entertaining with myriad anecdotes. For those who want the serious stuff of history there are scores of references to follow up. I just enjoyed the stories.

Highly recommended.

My rating: 4.6

About the author
Bestselling author and columnist Sally Coulthard has spent the last two decades writing about her favourite things – nature, history and craft. Many of her books delve into the traditions of rural life – from artisans to agriculture – the people, plants and creatures who make the countryside tick.

Sally’s work often weaves together different disciplines, pulling threads from social history, anthropology, archaeology, design and nature writing to bring her diverse subjects to life.

After studying Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford, and a brief stint working in factual television production, Sally moved back to her beloved Yorkshire, married a gardener and set up a smallholding; it’s from there, surrounded by her family and other animals, that Sally writes from a shed in the old orchard.

Her books have covered a wide range of themes – from native bees and hedgehogs to folklore and the history of rural buildings. The countryside remains a constant source of inspiration – whether it’s barn owls or earthworms – and many of Sally’s books share her love of native wildlife and sustainable living.

Sally also writes a column for Country Living magazine, A Good Life, in which she reveals the triumphs and disasters of growing her own fruit and vegetables, and keeping an unruly gaggle of livestock including Soay sheep, runner ducks and hens.

Sally’s written over twenty-five non-fiction books. Her titles have been translated into a dozen languages and many of her more recent publications are also available as audiobooks

11 January 2022

Review: THE RIVER MOUTH, Karen Herbert

  • This edition an e-book on Libby made available through my local library
  • ISBN: 9781760990466
  • Pages: 256
  • Publication year: 2021
  • Publisher: Fremantle Press

Synopsis (publisher

Fifteen-year-old Darren Davies is found facedown in the Weymouth River with a gunshot wound to his chest. The killer is never found.

Ten years later, his mother receives a visit from the local police. Sandra’s best friend has been found dead on a remote Pilbara road. And Barbara’s DNA matches the DNA found under Darren’s fingernails. 

When the investigation into her son’s murder is reopened, Sandra begins to question what she knew about her best friend. As she digs, she discovers that there are many secrets in her small town, and that her murdered son had secrets too.

My Take

The setting of this novel is a small coastal town on the West Australian coast at the mouth of the Weymouth River some days south of the Pilbara. There are two major timelines. The novel has several narrators including Darren, his friends Colin and Tim, and Darren's mother Sandra. The combination of the timelines and the various narrative voices give the story considerable complexity.

The narration starts with Sandra, and what she knows, ten years after her son was killed and few days after her best friend's body has been found in the Pilbara. Chapter 2 is narrated by Colin and begins a count down 25 days before Darren died. From there we flit backwards and forwards from the past to the present. The reader is often left to deduce which timeline we are on, and I did find that confusing at times, although we do know who the narrator is. There is a lot for the reader to unravel, but that is part of the pleasure of the book, so I am not going to explain everything here. At times the author attempts to see things through the eyes of the three boys, and at times reflects their lack of understanding of what is happening in the adult world around them.

Sandra thinks she has moved on since Darren's death, but there are questions she has never asked and answers she has never sought.

I thought there were hints that various of the characters may have indigenous background but perhaps I missed out on picking up on when that was more clearly stated.

The final resolution to who killed Darren, and why, seems to come out of left field, but there were hints among all the red herrings.

So here is another new author to watch!

My rating: 4.4

About the author
Karen Herbert spent her childhood in Geraldton on the midwest coast of Australia, attending local schools before moving to Perth to study at the University of Western Australia where she attained a Bachelor of Commerce with First Class Honours. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Psychology. Karen has worked in aged care, disability services, higher education, Indigenous land management, social housing and the public sector, and is a graduate member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. She is a Board Member of The Intelife Group, a Board Observer at Advocare, and President of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA). Karen lives in Perth, Western Australia with her husband, Ross, and the occasional fledgling.

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