THE MISSING WIFE by Sheila O’Flanagan

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Under the pretext of going to France for a business trip, Imogen plans her disappearance. She needs to vanish without a leaving a trail, otherwise he’ll find her. Vince, the devoted husband, is distraught at Imogen’s disappearance. Or so it seems. Underneath his calm but concerned demeanour, Vince is seething. He is determined to find his wife and bring her back home where she belongs. With him. Imogen is his. And so begins the search for Imogen.

Meanwhile, Imogen has planted some misdirects in Paris, in the hopes that, should Vince come to France, he will end up far from her actual destination. She’s hiding out in her childhood seaside town, a time and place she never told Vince about. There are good and bad memories in Hendaye and Imogen confronts the ghosts of her past while the devil of her present stalks her.

The missing wife delves into the territory of bad marriages and controlling spouses. It’s not an easy topic to cover and O’Flanagan portrays well the subtle destruction of self confidence and resulting fear, and the shift to confidence once out of her husband’s reach. Imogen’s character is well developed, and there is a good sense of connecting with her. I thought Vince was a bit wooden at the start, but he becomes more menacing as the story unfolds. At times I felt there was too much telling of emotions and feelings through internal dialogue. A certain amount is needed to convey the turmoil that Imogen feels, but I wondered if perhaps some of her fear and insecurities could be shown rather than told. Overall, a good solid read, and perfect if you’re planning some lazy holiday lounging.

Rating:           3.5/5

 

The missing wife by Sheila O’Flanagan (Hatchette Australia, 2016)

ISBN: 9781472210777

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

To find out more about Sheila O’Flanagan’s new title, or her previous titles, visit her website www.sheilaoflanagan.com

Facebook.com/sheilabooks

Twitter @sheilaoflanagan

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LILY AND THE OCTOPUS by Steven Rowley

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This book took me by surprise. Who knew that a story about a man and his dog could be so good? Not me, that’s for sure. It was funny, endearing, heartfelt and filled with lots of special moments that all pet owners will no doubt relate to. Lily and the Octopus was a genuinely delightful read.

Ted’s best friend is Lily, a rambunctious dachshund now in her older years. Ted and Lily do everything together – they have movie nights, eat pizza, talk about guys, play Monopoly, take walks around the neighbourhood, go for drives and eat ice-cream. After his break up with his boyfriend, Ted spends more and more time with Lily, and then one night he notices something odd: Lily has an octopus on her head. Perched over one eye, it clings to her, and refuses to leave, despite Ted’s numerous threats and pleading.

Ted’s friend, therapist and vet all join in calling the new arrival an octopus, and are duly sympathetic to the octopus’s grip on Lily and its vindictive attack on her health – she has seizures, and once the octopus inks her, she can no longer see. Ted, enraged by the the octopus and its refusal to leave, resorts to drastic measures in a bid to chase it away: he brings home another octopus and dismembers it, feeding chunks to the excited Lily. The octopus flees, but Ted isn’t satisfied. He knows in his heart that if he doesn’t track down the octopus and destroy it that it will return and take his beloved Lily from him. Ted simply won’t let that happen. He’s going to take a stand and fight for her life. And so the adventure begins, with Ted and Lily on the high seas in a fishing trawler, hunting the evil octopus. It’s an epic adventure that pushes them to the edge, and bonds them in new ways.

There is a magic to this book that slips in and surrounds you as you read. Lily is perfectly portrayed – she’s stubborn, has a big personality for a dog with short little legs, and enjoys life to the fullest. I had a dachshund when I was a kid, and he was just as excitable and cheeky as Lily. What I really enjoyed about this book was the relationship between Ted and Lily, the humanising of that bond and the depth of the emotions that tie them together. Highly recommend you put it on your reading list.

Rating:           5/5

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (Simon & Schuster 2016)

Web link: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Lily-and-the-Octopus/Steven-Rowley/9781501126222

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Author website: Steven Rowley – Lily and the Octopus

BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin

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There’s nothing better than jumping into a chilling psychological thriller when engulfed by a sweltering week-long summer heatwave. With the air-con blasting on high, I was quickly engrossed in Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans.

The tension kicks in from the start and from there it escalates relentlessly with clever plot twists and minimal clues. Sixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright is missing 32 hours of her life after having been kidnapped and left for dead in a shallow grave with another dead body and an assortment of bones from earlier victims. Tessie’s makeshift grave was covered with yellow flowers, Black-Eyed Susans, and the girls in the grave are soon nicknamed after the flowers, by the press.

Fast-forward 20 years and Tessa (as she’s known in adulthood) is a single mother and artist who has attempted to move on from her traumatic abduction, but someone won’t let her rest. She wakes one winter morning to a patch of freshly planted Black-Eyed Susans underneath her window. Someone is toying with her, taunting her, but it can’t be the perpetrator because he was convicted and sent to jail. Or was he? Is the wrong man in jail, now on death row? Tessa is terrified that the real killer is stalking her, worse, stalking her daughter. The walls that she built to protect herself from her abduction and attempted murder begin to crumble; her sanity and her life are on the line. Again. There is a race against time – to save an innocent man from being killed for a murder he didn’t commit, and to save Tessa’s daughter from the twisted serial killer who haunts and taunts her.

This is a gem of a book and the story is multi-layered, complex and compelling. Told by both Tessie and Tessa, alternating from past to present, there is a slow revealing of events – the teenager who struggles to cope and her subsequent sessions with a therapist, and the woman who has moved on to make a new life for herself, despite her fragile mental state. There’s a good peppering of suspicious characters to keep you guessing who the nasty serial killer is, and the motivations behind it all.

The story is driven by facts and misplaced leads, and Julia Heaberlin shows exemplary skill in knowing just where and when to place a crumb of evidence, to lead the story onwards, and when to create a diversion or false lead that goes nowhere. Black-Eyed Susans is an exhilarating thriller built on masterful writing and expertly handled plot development. If you’re a thriller fan, then you simply must add for this book to your reading list.

Rating:   4/5

 

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin (Penguin 2015)

ISBN: 9781405921299

Julia Heaberlin is the author of three thrillers and you can find out more about her other titles at her website: juliaheaberlin.com

THE PASSENGER by Lisa Lutz

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The Passenger is a fast-paced thriller that will most certainly leave you breathless. The plot is well crafted with good twists and turns, populated with strong characters, and short clipped sentences provide good momentum driving narrative forward, capturing the constant sense of urgency.

Tanya has been living a secret life for almost a decade, but she’s not a skilled perpetrator on the run and there’s an innocence to her, a naivety that rounds out her character nicely. Her husband’s death triggers panic and she’s quickly on the run, trying to stay ahead of her past. She soon meets Blue, a barmaid with icy eyes and a questionable background. Blue offers Tanya a place to stay and a solution to both their problems – swap identities as a means of escaping their personal demons. On the surface it looks like a good idea and Tanya agrees, but it soon becomes clear that Blue is cold-hearted and in looking after her own interests has set Tanya up.

Tanya changes identities faster than costume change at a fashion show. She changes her hair and looks, and quickly becomes adept at pick pocketing women’s purses in pursuit of a new identity and cash to keep her on the run and off the radar. Lisa Lutz has handled these multiple changes well with credible circumstances surrounding each new reason to ditch the old name and find a new one.

Some parts could have been better addressed, such as when Blue’s husband tracks Tanya down in a remote town and beats her up to find out where his wife is, she escapes but there’s no reference to her injuries or any pain that she’s feeling, which might have slowed her down.

What was great about this novel is that women were the main characters holding the story together. Men feature as support characters, or love interests, or as back stabbing bastards, but the women are the power component, and they aren’t reliant on men to save them. These women are gutsy, smart and resourceful and not some simpering female sidekick to a male character. Blue is cold and calculating, and will kill at will for her own moral reasons, or less, while Tanya still has a soul and feels remorse for her actions, however, events ultimately take her to a place of no return and she soon feels her humanity slipping away as she leaves a trail of bodies in her wake.

Rating:          4/5

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz (Simon & Schuster 2016)

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Author website: Lisa Lutz – The Passenger

 

HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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There’s nothing like a cracking opening line to hook you into a book. Hausfrau is one of those books.

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

 There is so much contained within that one little sentence. It’s weighted with intrigue. It tells so much about the main character. I love it.

Anna married Bruno Benz because she was in a ‘version of love’ with him, and subsequently moved to Switzerland and started a family with him. After nine years of marriage and living in Dietlikon, a suburb of Zurich, she still feels isolated and estranged from everyone. She hasn’t learned the language, has very few friends and doesn’t even have a bank account. Her banker husband takes care of everything – the finances, any necessary paperwork and major life decisions.

Passive by nature, Anna struggles to make decisions for herself, instead allowing herself to go with the flow of events that she is presented with. She struggles to connect with her own emotions and deflects deep introspection when challenged by her therapist.

“A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.” Doktor Messerli spoke with a grave sincerity.

To compensate for her boredom and listlessness, Anna indulges in fleeting affairs, which are one of the few ways that she can feel anything. One of her affairs is intense, she falls in love, but her passivity prevents her from acting on her feelings, and so when he leaves she is devastated. Haunted by deep loneliness and sadness, Anna attracts more and more men, which leads to a web of deceit in which she ultimately becomes stuck and then undone by a trajectory of events that she could never have anticipated. She tries to right her wrongs, but some things cannot be undone, and she pays a terrible price for her actions.

“Love’s a sentence, Anna thought. A death sentence.”

Anna takes German classes at a language school and Jill Alexander Essbaum has woven in some wonderful parallels between the structure of learning German and Anna’s outlook on life. I admire Essbaum’s ability to apply the rules of grammar to life. It’s clever, witty and unexpected.

Hausfrau is beautifully written with a complexity that slowly unravels, just as Anna’s life unravels. Her loneliness is an ache that reaches off the page and ensnares you. Her desperation for comfort and human contact is tangible. She has a deep unfulfilled yearning for something that she can’t quite identify.

She may be a bit of an adulteress, but reserve your judgements for a moment, or until you’ve read the book. Bruno may bring home the bacon but he hasn’t bothered to set up a bank account for her. Pfft, passive or not, it doesn’t mean he can’t give her some independence. Not only that, he shuns her English-speaking friends making it clear that they are outsiders, are not and never will be a part of the local crowd. Throw in a haughty, unaccepting mother in-law and you start to get a clearer idea of Anna’s life.

Anyone who has spent an extended amount of time living in another country will be able to identify with Anna’s feelings of being adrift, not quite being able to fully connect with others, or the culture, and the chasm that exists through simply not being native to that place. How does one bridge those gaps? By the time Anna gains clarity on this and realises how much she had, she has lost everything.

I finished Hausfrau a few days ago and have moved on to another book, yet still it haunts me, fragments of it interrupt my current reading. It was such a good book that I fear it may taint my opinion of my next read!

Rating: 4.5/5

 

My kindle copy of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Mantle 2015)

ISBN: 9781447280828

Author FB page: https://www.facebook.com/Jill-Alexander-Essbaum-26042908691/

THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale has been on my ‘must read’ list for some time now. I’d heard and read so many good things about this book that I was excited to finally get the chance to read it for myself.

The novel is set in a future-America, where the political extremists have created the Republic of Gilead. Radiation, chemical pollution and rampant sexual disease have resulted in widespread infertility. Under the guise of attempting to bolster birth rates, the new social regime subjugates women, removes their rights to choice or freedom of any sort, instead forcing them into roles as breeders for wealthy and high-ranking infertile couples.

We follow Offred, who remembers parts of her life before the new regime, and the rules dictating her presence in the household of the Commander and his wife. Offred’s life is sparse, nothing is left to chance, and her room is devoid of anything that could be used to harm herself – a common occurrence in handmaids. Reading is forbidden, as is making general conversation with other handmaids, and Offred and the other handmaids are monitored closely – any sign of dissent and she will find herself hanged at the wall.

Desires, however, do not follow the whims of any regime, no matter how tyrannical, and it is through the desires of other people in the household that Offred finds herself in dangerous territory. The Commander desires more from her than obligatory sex at the set hour of the Ceremony, and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, desires a child and doesn’t care if she has to break some rules to get one. Offred’s own many desires surface as she becomes a pawn in a game of fulfilling her owners’ needs while attempting to keep hidden her actions and avoid being taken to the wall and hanged.

I haven’t read a lot of dystopian novels and so I am always fascinated by the author’s ability to create a whole new world where control of the people has reached such bleak, restrictive and soul destroying conditions. Margaret Atwood is a master at creating this bleak new world populated with the tension and agony of women being reduced to nothing but breeding machines. Every minutiae of Offred’s day is excruciating, slow, and devoid of intimate contact or acknowledgement that she exists as a human. The Ceremony, the time of copulation and attempted conception, is an act that boggles the mind and makes the feminist in me want to shout in outrage.

Actually, The Handmaid’s Tale triggered deep reactions and emotions in me, both as a woman and as a reader in general. There’s a whole kaleidoscope of emotions that swirl to the surface, retreat and come forth again in a different combination. Despair, bleakness, desperation, anger, outrage, apathy, desire, hope, joy and sadness have all been intertwined with masterful skill.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a cheerful read, more likely if you’re a woman it will chill your blood and then set it boiling again. But don’t let that put you off. This novel reaffirms that the struggles women face and oppose every day to ensure they remain equal and free are worth it.

Rating:   4/5

 

My digital copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  (Vintage, 2010)

Epub ISBN: 9781446485477

Author website: http://margaretatwood.ca/

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

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I thought I’d start the new year with a bang, and review Paula Hawkins’ thriller The Girl on the Train, which I read over the Christmas break. This is a book that has received a lot of press and deservedly so – it’s intense with a slow burn and building tension that hooks you in right from the start.

Rachel catches the train into London every morning on her way to work, or so she’s been telling her flatmate. On the daily commute she’s watches the backyards that face the rail line and has fixated on the residents of one particular residence. She names them ‘Jess and Jason’ and based on the snippets of their interactions that she sees as the train slows and stops for a minute each day, she fabricates a fantasy life for the couple. Then, one day, Rachel witnesses Megan (aka ‘Jess’) with another man, and not long after Jess goes missing. She is certain that she has seen something important, that she can help find Megan.

Rachel has problems of her own. She’s a divorced, jobless alcoholic who is pretending to go to work every day, and can’t quite seem to let go of her ex-husband, Tom, who has married Anna, and now has a baby. The one thing Rachel wanted but couldn’t have was a baby. Her ex-husband lives a few doors down from ‘Jess and Jason’, and Rachel has on occasion paid Anna and Tom a visit, but can’t always remember what happened because she’s so drunk she has blackouts.

Rachel’s desire to feel important, to be needed, lead her to involve herself in the investigation surrounding Megan’s disappearance. Along the way she is forced to confront her own actions and she wrestles with her inner demons and desires to reach for a drink at every moment. She’s unreliable, desperate, and despite her best intentions she gets herself into a deeper and deeper mess with her ex, her flatmate and the police. Rachel’s alcoholism makes her an unreliable witness to her own life, and the frustration that she feels at not being able to remember events is palpable. She’s sure that she saw something important, if only she could remember that night at the train station. She just needs to somehow regain those lost moments so that she can help find Megan.

Narrated by three different characters, all as unreliable as each other, all with secrets of their own to hide, this is a thriller that does not disappoint. But, don’t expect it to be a big, bold in-your-face action thriller. The Girl on a Train travels at a slower pace, circling and escalating that tension. There is a clever layering and intertwining of lives and events that snake around each other, revealing little by little clues to Megan’s disappearance. Addictive reading at it’s best. Once you start it, you won’t want to put it down.

Rating: 5/5

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Transworld Publishers 2015)

eISBN: 9781448171682

Author website: http://paulahawkinsbooks.com/the-girl-on-the-train-by-paula-hawkins/

Author FB page: https://www.facebook.com/PaulaHawkinsWriter/