The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

Firstly, I want to thank BookShout and William Morrow for providing me with a galley copy of this fabulous debut novel, The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn.

Secondly, what a ripper of a read.

Arising out of the same oeuvre as the spate of “girl” books (Girl on the Train, Gone Girl etc), replete with their unreliable narrators, who are arch manipulators, alcoholics and liars etc., The Woman in the Window relies on many of the tropes these books used. However, not only is there a “woman” at the heart of the story, with a complex psychology and history, who happens to be a highly qualified child psychologist with a PhD but, importantly to the plot, structure and ambience of the novel, she’s also a black and white movie buff, her preferred genre being Hitchcockian thrillers. More on that shortly.

Dr Anna Fox is, for reasons that eventually emerge, housebound. Suffering from agoraphobia, she is also far too reliant and irresponsible with prescription drugs and wine and has poor personal hygiene. Separated from her husband and daughter, she is also without a support network, unless you can call her psychologist, occupational therapist, tenant in the basement and those she manages in an online group a support. When she’s not in her various chatrooms or playing chess online, Anna spends her days calling her husband and daughter or viewing her neighbourhood through her windows, camera in hand so she can use its powerful lens to really observe the goings on in the world she’s currently rejecting.

When she witnesses something terrible, the tight, closed domain she’s created starts to unravel and she begins to doubt – not only the life she’s created and the few people she’s allowed to enter it – but herself. But, as a fabulous line in the book declares, “It isn’t paranoia if it’s really happening….”

Or is it?

That’s the central question facing Anna and, in turn, the reader.

Though the core plot takes a while to kick off, this is not a dull book, nor does it have a slow start. Right from the outset, the reader is drawn to Anna and her claustrophobic environment. We learn to see the world and others the way she does before that too is overturned. Not only is Anna, a difficult, clever, self-depreciating woman who is at least honest with herself some of the time, eminently likeable, but you quickly root for her and feel a sense of protectiveness as her bland existence quickly becomes so very sinister.

Though the underlying notion of the book isn’t original, there’s no doubt the execution – and the characters that enact it – is. Superbly drawn though the various characters are, for me the use of old movies is what sets this novel apart. They function not only as a brilliant device that works as foreshadowing and even analepsis, but also to add flesh to the bones of specific scenes. References to fabulous old films like Rear Window, Rope, Birds and so many others, mean they too become characters in the novel, explicit scenes playing in the background or quotes from characters driving the narrative forward, adding to the building tension, making parts of the book almost gothic. There were times I was holding my breath while my heart knocked against my ribs, so well done was the atmosphere – the clever use of the movies and memories of those and their chilling soundtracks as well, adding a frisson.

Overall, once I really lost myself in Anna’s tale, I couldn’t put the book down.

I am not surprised it is being optioned as a film. Cinematic in execution and delivery, it’s crying out for the same treatment the films it plays such serious and celebratory homage to are given.

An outstanding book that readers of Girl on the Train, The Girl Before, Gone Girl, Girl Last Seen etc will devour, but also anyone who enjoys a good, well-written thriller and page-turner.

 

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The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

29540038Reading all the hype around Shari Lapena’s debut novel, The Couple Next Door, I was expecting a sort of Gone, Baby Gone of Dennis Lehane fame… Only, this isn’t in the same league.

Described as a thriller and using different points of view, it tells the story of young, married couple, Anne and Marco Conti, who leave their baby in her crib while they attend a dinner party at their next-door neighbour’s.  With a baby monitor on the table and checking on their daughter, Cora, every thirty minutes, what could go wrong?

When they return home worse for drink to find their baby, well, gone, panic erupts. Police are called and an investigation ensues. As hours turn into days and suspicion falls on the distressed parents and every aspect of their lives and those closest to them are forensically examined, more than skeletons and motives for the crime tumble out of the closet. Skeletons that some would do anything to ensure stay buried…

I had great hopes for this book. A fantastic and uncomfortable premise that resonates in the real world (think the poor McCanns) and which preys on deeply held fears – the idea that someone could be so cold and ruthless as to steal into your home and not only violate that sanctuary but take your beloved child – is a chilling basis for a novel. The writing is mostly taut and the first part of the book maintains a great pace. But at some point, it not only became a little repetitive (the number of times Cora is referred to as “fussy”, how often we’re told Anne doesn’t trust her husband, adores her father, how wealthy her parents are, how it’s her mother’s money, how much her parents hate Marco, are just some examples), but a bit convoluted as well. You also reach a point where you stop caring about any of the characters except Cora. In some ways, for all we learn about the characters, they’re a little two-dimensional, a bit too shallow, but perhaps that’s the whole point.

In the end, I was speed-reading to finish, especially once the “reveal” happened and the guilty were exposed. I just wanted to get to the end. The twists when they happened were often implausible or too convenient and you have to wonder why someone would go to such awful lengths to do what they did… We’re only given a very superficial reason and it doesn’t sit well. I also found the ending a bit staged for my taste – staged and predictable – but in the sense I was thinking, “oh, don’t let character C do THAT to character D… Oh, you did…” But again, this was a book that was morally very grey so rather than be disgruntled about lack of depth of characters or even an obvious plot point, I prefer to see it as a commentary on the type of people and society and a deliberate construction on the part of the author.

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Book Review: When Will There Be Good news? Kate Atkinson

I feel a bit sad this is the last time I will have the opportunity to “hang” with Kate Atkinson’s wonderful creation, the ex-army, ex-cop and PI Jackson Brodie. It’s not that this novel is the last in the series, but because I read them out of order (and that doesn’t affect the quality of the narrative or pleasure a reader gains from the prose and overalWhen Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie, #3)l story arc), it’s the final one I get to enjoy until Atkinson pulls her keyboard out and gets another one written – and I wish she would tout de suite! Till them, it’s au revoir Jackson…

Just as well then that When Will There Be Good News is a fabulous, ripper of a read that incorporates a few narrative threads and some fascinating characters.

The novel opens with an idyllic scene of a mother and her three kids walking country lanes. Undercurrents involving marital discord quickly disturb this pastoral picture but not in a distressing way – more in that well, “life is like that” manner. When the chapter ends in utter tragedy and we’re catapulted thirty years hence, there’s a feeling of both horror and relief that we’re spared only, in typical and wonderful Atkinson fashion, we’re not because the past always, always infects the present and this novel is no different. Part of the sheer joy of reading is in seeing just how they are connected and what unfolds.

Enter Jackson Brodie who, hot on the heels of another failed relationship and the start of a new one is seeking proof of paternity. Travelling north to get the DNA required, it’s no surprise to those familiar with Brodie’s habits, that he ends up in the wrongest (is that a word?) of wrong places at the wrongest of wrong times with catastrophic consequences.

But it’s also his ability to do that –  turn up like a good penny –  that links the stories as does the wonderful character of teenage Reggie – a girl who, when all is said and done, should be morose, despondent and at the least an emo, but who is infected with both a fine mind and an indefatigable joy in life as well a loyalty that can only be found in the hound that ends up accompanying her everywhere. Oh, and in her employer who is a simply magnificent character. On reflection, Dr (call me “Jo”) Joanna is like an ice-berg… She presents a portion of herself to the world (and we discover the reasons for this), but it’s the seven-eights below the water to which we’re slowly introduced that offer threat and promise. But when you cannot see what lies below the surface, how do you know which it is? And what happens when parts float to the surface? (cue Jaws theme)…

I cannot give too much away here, but while Reggie connects the seemingly disparate threads of the novel, it’s the Dr who’s the heart of the tale – one that threatens to stop beating….

When Reggie and Jackson’s paths collide, you just know something important is going to occur. And it does and it’s brutal, soulful, and ultimately incredibly satisfying.

Add to this a mixture of amazing other characters, including the hard-nosed (but wanting love) DCI Louisa, and this is a stunning read. Sublimely written, neatly tied together, I couldn’t put this one down.

I just wish there was another JB to lose myself in again…

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Book Review: Life or Death by Michael Robotham

In an earlier review oLife or Deathf Robotham’s works, I said they should come with a health warning as they render the reader unable to sleep. I want to correct that statement and instead recommend they be issued as a cure for narcolepsy, because I defy anyone to try and sleep while reading his latest work, Life or Death, because I sure as hell could not.

While I will read anything this man writes, I initially thought this was to be another in his Joseph O’Loughlin series and kept waiting for one of my favourite fictive characters (and his cop buddy, Vincent Ruiz) to make an entry. They don’t. This novel isn’t part of the O’Loughlin series and I initially experienced a small flash of disappointment that was swiftly staunched. That’s because this novel is a tremendous standalone with a fabulous premise: why would a man escape from prison the day before he’s due to be released?

Why indeed.

That question is enough to arouse anyone’s curiousity, and I wondered how Robotham was going to pull off the story of Audie Palmer, a young man convicted of armed robbery ten years earlier and in which four people died, who flees his jail cell the day before he’s given state-sanctioned freedom for serving time. Reviled outside the prison, hounded endlessly within, Palmer’s life has been one of misery and hardship – so why does he make it worse by escaping? Why risk adding 20-25 years to his sentence by becoming a felon once more?

Palmer’s escape sets in motion a series of events over which he appears to have no control. Hunted by the authorities and criminals alike, Palmer is on a mission, but will he succeed and what’s the nature of this mission? Why didn’t he just wait one more day and walk from behind bars a free man?

This was a simply sensational tale. Taut, fast-paced, filled with believable characters, Robotham’s cracking dialogue, and original descriptions, I couldn’t put this down. Not only do the people come to life as the present and past unfold, but the different settings, the American landscape from the borders with Mexico to Texas, also develop a life of their own. You can smell the heat, taste the brackish water or the greasy eggs in an out-of-the-way diner, feel the sand, hear the flyscreens squeaking on rusty hinges as forlorn and deadbeat extras make an appearance. Despite having a horrible headache that required codeine, I stayed up till 3am to finish the book. I had to know what happened to Audie (who you come to champion so hard it hurts!), I had to know why he did what he did. The plot doesn’t only thicken in this novel, as back-stories and flashbacks weave their way in, laying solid foundations upon which the present is built, it sets harder than concrete making the conclusion one, though you don’t see it coming until the end, marvellously strong and utterly satisfying.

The only downside is that I have finished the damn thing and now have a long wait for Robotham’s next book. But if you like crime novels, edge of your seat thrillers, character driven works that also pay homage to setting, and are just superbly written, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

 

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Book Review: Victims by Jonathan Kellerman

This is only the third Jonathan Kellerman book I’ve read and I intend to remedy that tout de suite (as Poirot would say). Victims is number 27 in the Alex Delaware series, so I am glad I have many more stories about this psychologist with a wicked sense of humour and fine capacity to read people and situations and his cop buddy, Milo Sturgis (the books recall to me Michael Robotham’Victims by Jonathan Kellermans sensational series) to delve into. Victims is one of the more gory books I’ve read in this oeuvre, the story opening with a really gruesome murder of a cantankerous old bitch who no-one liked and everyone is not-so-secretly glad is dead. If it wasn’t for the almost ritualistic and brutal slaying, Sturgis and Delaware would have numerous suspects.

But an interesting and dark psychopathology is at work here and as more bodies, are slain and in similar ways, but with no apparent connection, Delaware and Sturgis realise they have a very sick serial killer on their hands. The only way to discover the identity of the murderer is to uncover a link between the victims. At first, this seems an impossible task, but as more people are found and connections are made, not only do Delaware and Sturgis start to hone in on the killer, they start to realise he’s closer than they think…

A fast-paced, oft-times scary book, it delves into the capacity of humans for both cruelty and revenge and the sickness that resides inside. Dark, but laced with humour and really well-rounded characters, I couldn’t put it down, despite the fact I found the descriptions of the murders both brutal and graphic. I think because they didn’t feel gratuitous but built a profile of the killer, I was able to stomach it, to see it through Delaware’s eyes and thus be drawn into the narrative.

 

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