Book Review: The Things You Didn’t See by Ruth Dugdall

 

the things you didn't see

Ex-probation officer Ruth Dugdall won the CWA Debut Dagger award for her novel The Woman Before Me and also won the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2013, her experience within the prison system heavily informing her highly successful crime novels. In her new standalone suspense novel The Things You Didn’t See, Dugdall’s skill at creating mystery and intrigue continues.

In the farmhouse where she grew up, Cassandra Hawke wakes one morning to find her mother has been shot, the apparent victim of a tragic suicide attempt. Called to the farmhouse as part of the emergency response team, paramedic Holly realises that she knows Cassandra from the past. The two women becoming allies, they set about trying to unravel the mystery of what really happened to Cassandra’s mother, Holly using her rare condition, synaesthesia, to gauge who is telling the truth and who isn’t. Did Maya really want to kill herself? Or, with the authorities and her family fighting over her inherited farmland, is there more to the tragic event than at first appears?

Unlike in Dugdall’s crime novels, the plot in this one simmers rather than explodes, the reader taken down a number of twisted paths, not unlike the narrow lane that leads to the book’s rural farm setting.  This book is very character driven, the questions that Dugdall sets up for the reader possibly not so much about who is behind the tragic events of the 31st October but what their motives are, how the tragedy links to events of the past and who exactly knows what. Bringing in unusual subject matters like synaesthesia and sleepwalking also add a unique edge to the book that makes what perhaps could have been quite a traditional murder-mystery into something much more original. Dugdall’s use of setting in this novel is excellent and highly authentic, with the atmospheric Innocence Farm and its surrounding rural village perhaps akin to the small-town claustrophobia of a Stephen King novel.

If you like a traditional suspense novel with a unique twist, The Things You Didn’t See is definitely for you.

 

 

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Book Review: The Old You by Louise Voss

the old you

When I began reading The Old You by Louise Voss, I presumed that what I had ahead of me was a few pleasant days immersed in a memoir-ish fictional account of a family dealing with the aftermath of a diagnosis of dementia.

In the opening chapter, Lynn Naismith and her husband Ed deal with the devastating news that Ed has Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia that he has inherited from his father. As his condition seems to quickly worsen, Ed soon muddling words, forgetting essential passwords and losing all sense of inhibition, Lynn commits herself to juggling her new job with Ed’s care, the man she previously adored disappearing before her eyes.

When Ed is offered the chance to take part in a clinical trial, Lynn is hopeful that the results will at least put a halt to her husband’s rapid deterioration.

But is all as it seems?

A few chapters into the book, Voss suddenly pulls her reader down a completely unexpected path, the gentle suburban reading trip I thought I was taking suddenly becoming a dark and sinister mystery tour akin to the plot of a Hitchcock film. Gone now is the domestic tale of coping with illness. In its place is a twisting psychological thriller in which no-one can be trusted. To say any more would be to spoil what is a highly original plot. Suffice to say that The Old You is a one-of-a-kind novel that will have you turning the pages to find out what is really going on.

The Old You is published by Orenda Books and is out now.

Book Review: Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

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Good Me Bad Me is a disturbing thriller that tells the story of 15-year-old Annie. Until recently, Annie lived with her mother Ruth, in whose care she suffered devastating psychological and physical abuse alongside witnessing her mother commit crimes against other children that will be forever ingrained on her memory. Now living with a foster family and renamed ‘Milly’, Annie is attempting to come to terms with being the one who reported her mother to the police.

The premise of this novel is strong: Annie’s mother is a manipulative serial killer whose influence on her daughter didn’t simply come to an end when she was arrested. Constantly battling with the sound of her mother’s voice in her head, Annie tries to fit in at her new home and her new school whilst also preparing herself for having to testify against Ruth in court. Although, I occasionally wondered what the system was thinking placing Annie with another obviously dysfunctional family (her foster sister hates her and her foster mother is rarely seen without an alcoholic drink in her hand), the protagonist is a strong and likeable character for whom the reader feels much sympathy. Although the sometimes chatty style of her narrative is not always easy to read it is certainly authentic and her attempts to make friends, hampered by frequent panic attacks, make often heart-breaking reading.

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Annie’s attempts to fit in are possibly beyond her and that her battle to convince herself that she is not her mother’s daughter will quite possibly be one that she cannot win. Will it be ‘good’ Annie or ‘bad’ Annie that prevails?

Good Me Bad Me is a chilling page-turner that I’m sure will be adapted for cinema screens before long.

Book Review: The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon

summer of secrets

In the summer of 1983, lonely teenager Helen meets the Dovers, a quirky and sometimes dysfunctional family who move into a house on the bank of the canal near where Helen lives. As Helen becomes drawn into the Dovers’ world, attempting to fill the emotional gaps left by her parents’ split, her life changes forever.

Helen lives with her father, Mick, a reclusive drinker devastated by the loss of his wife. When the Dovers move into a nearby cottage, she is instantly captivated by their seemingly eccentric lifestyle. Young twins Pippa and Will run free without any discipline, teenager Victoria does as she pleases and mother Alice spends much of her time wrapped in her own world. The only authority in the family comes from older brother Seth and part-time uncle Piet. Spending the summer by the canal with her new friends, Helen feels that she has found her niche, never daring to imagine that her life might go back to the way it was before. It won’t, but not all change is good as we find out when we meet Helen thirty years later, the impact of that summer on the now reclusive and vulnerable adult clear.

Much as Helen’s world with the Dovers seems idyllic at first, Sarah Jasmon does an excellent job of making the reader feel uneasy from the off, of hinting at what is to come and of making us feel that all will not end well. As indeed it doesn’t. How exactly, we don’t find out until the end of the book. Along with the reader, even Helen is in the dark about what exactly happened during that summer, her memories as an adult unclear and playing tricks on her. It takes another meeting with the now successful photographer Victoria to reveal all.

The Summer of Secrets is highly atmospheric, Jasmon successfully making the reader feel the intense heat of Helen’s summer with the Dovers and her own experience of living on a canal boat making the novel’s setting highly authentic. The slow-burning plot in this book is like a ticking time bomb, the summer’s events being revealed bit by bit, both to the adult Helen and to us. And, when we find out what happened, we can clearly see why Helen is as she is, the secrets of the books title ones that will possibly stay with her forever.

The Summer of Secrets is available now. To find out more about Sarah Jasmon, visit her website.

Book Review: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

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Still Alice author Lisa Genova tackles another complicated medical condition in her latest offering: Left Neglected.

Left Neglected tells the story of Sarah Nickerson. Married with two young children, Sarah lives a hectic and demanding life, her job involving long hours, little time at home and reliance on a nanny for her children. Even when she is at home, Sarah’s time with her kids and husband is squeezed in between constant emailing and telephone calls, her position as primary wage earner enabling her family to keep up the two-house lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.

When Sarah suffers a devastating car accident, however, her life changes drastically. Waking up in hospital, she feels lucky to be alive and, determined to go back to work as soon as possible, she sets out to do everything she can to get better. What Sarah doesn’t realise immediately, though, is that her accident has left her with a life-changing condition: Left Neglect. Although not paralysed, she now has no awareness of the left side of her body. The left side of the room, anybody standing on her left, the left page of a book, for Sarah, simply don’t exist. Look left, scan left, go left becomes her mantra.

Having once managed her life as if it were a military operation, Sarah now must accept help for the first time: from her husband Bob, the staff of the hospital where she is recuperating and, even, her mother, with whom she has always had a difficult relationship.

What I liked most about this book is its realism. Sarah’s accident doesn’t immediately pull her up short. She continues to want to go back to work, is adamant that she will get her life back on track and, although positive (no spoilers here!), the ending of the book is not miraculous or sickly-sweet. The characters are all 3-dimensional and, like all of us, have their flaws, which makes it much easier to identify with them. Will Sarah get back to the job she so loved? Or will her condition change her life in more ways than she realises?

Left Neglected is available to buy now

 

Book Review: Who Killed Constable Cock? by Angela Buckley

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In the early hours of 1st August 1876, Police Constable Nicholas Cock was shot and killed as he patrolled his usual beat in the quiet area of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. The fascinating series of events that followed the young constable’s murder form the second in historian Angela Buckley’s Victorian Supersleuth series: Who Killed Constable Cock?

Although only 21-years-old, Constable Cock had made some enemies during his time serving the Manchester community. As a result, Superintendent James Brent, leading the investigation, was convinced that the perpetrators of the crime were a group of Irish immigrant brothers, the Habrons, who had been heard to make threats against the policeman. Soon arrested, the brothers were brought to trial, with various witnesses giving surprisingly different  accounts of what happened in the days leading to the crime and of the shooting itself. Who was the strange man seen lurking nearby? What was the strange noise heard by residents of the area? Why were William Habron’s boots muddy on a dry day? Despite the presence of several witnesses at the time of the shooting, including student John Massey Simpson and Cock’s colleague PC Beanland, witness statements could not have been more varied. After the trial concluded, the mystery of what happened to PC Cock appeared to have been solved but when, many years later, a notorious criminal confessed his involvement, it seemed that this crime was not so clear cut after all. Did Superintendent Brent help convict an innocent man?

This book also gives a fascinating account of the origins of the forensic and investigative methods that are so familiar in policing today. For example, the use of footprints, and the casting of them in plaster of Paris, was pioneered in the early 1800s by French ex-convict and police informer, Eugène Vidocq. The technique was later refined by physician and criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne, who even began to make casts in the snow by using salt. Vidocq was also responsible for the first uses of mugshots to keep records of arrested criminals.

Who Killed Constable Cock? is a fascinating and meticulously detailed account of a Victorian-era crime, the impacts of which spread far and wide and stretched over a period of many years.

The book is available to buy now.

To find out more about Angela Buckley’s work as a Victorian Supersleuth, visit her Facebook page.

Book Review: Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

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In 1996, 15-year-old Tom Jeffries goes missing while on an outreach expedition to Scarclaw Fell. His mutilated body is found the following year by the son of the land’s owner. Twenty years later, no-one has been brought to account for the seeming crime and Tom’s story becomes the subject of a series of podcasts by renowned journalist Scott King, who likes to investigate so-called ‘cold’ cases. Interviewing the members of the Rangers group with whom Tom visited the fell, King sets out to get a clearer picture of the events that led to the tragic death of the teen.

Wesolowski’s book is no straightforward crime novel; it is a psychological thriller, Gothic novel, series of podcasts and an in-depth exploration of the motives behind human behaviour all rolled into one. Structured as six interviews with Tom Jeffries’ friends and acquaintances, the novel explores their different perspectives on the events leading up to Tom’s disappearance, each ‘story’ giving the plot another subtle twist. While each take on what might have happened to Tom is different, each podcast gives the reader another set of clues. Thus, Wesolowski successfully builds a bigger picture that enables the reader to ‘see around’ the characters’ limited viewpoints. Are Tom’s friends telling the truth? Or is there more to what happened than they are revealing?

With folkloric tales of terrifying creatures on the fell, Wesolowski also dips into the supernatural in this novel. Indeed, his atmospheric and highly detailed descriptions of the novel’s setting carry a strong link to 19th century Gothic literature. The contemporary structure of the book, however, most certainly gives Six Stories a modern twist, ensuring its appeal to the 21st century reader. If you are a fan of podcasts, particularly the seemingly much revered Serial, then this book is for you. If you are not a podcast fanatic (as I’m not) then the traditional murder-mystery aspect of the novel is still very much likely to appeal. In other words, Six Stories has something for everyone.

Six Stories is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M Appel

mask of sanity

Dr Jeremy Balint appears to have it all. A successful and highly respected cardiologist, he has a professional reputation envied by many, is a supportive husband, doting father and model son. When his personal life and idyllic family set up are threatened, however, Balint’s Mr Hyde soon comes to the fore, the doctor making it clear that a sociopathic, and murderous, alter-ego is lurking beneath the suburban façade.

In this modern day, middle class version of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, the reader joins Balint as he explores the darker side of his own character. Discovering his wife is having an affair with one of his colleagues, Balint sets out to kill his rival. However, in order to do this without detection, the doctor determines that a series of killings are his only option. Thus begins the calm and calculated killing spree of the so-called ‘Emerald Choker’, carried out, mostly, without regret or remorse.

Keeping us closely tied to the mind of his protagonist at all times, Jacob M Appel invites the reader to spectate as Balint attempts to save his family, his personal life, rather ironically, beginning to slowly unravel whilst he is busy killing people. While his behaviour is often unforgiveable, the reader, I suspect, in most cases, is very much on Balint’s side. Although this learn-on-the-job killer seems to, somewhat unrealistically at times, very much pull the wool over the eyes of the authorities, his colleagues and his loved ones, that is exactly what we want him to do. Whilst we know he should be held accountable for these awful crimes, it’s actually the last thing we are hoping will happen.

The title of the novel says it all: Dr Jeremy Balint does indeed wear the Mask of Sanity and he wears it well. Is he discovered? That is for the potential reader to find out, and to hope for or against. There seem to be differing opinions about the ending of this book, with some readers not liking Appel’s decision to leave the interpretation to the reader and other fans hoping the last line might lead to a sequel. For me, however, the unexpected twist that the end of Jeremy Balint’s story brings is perfect just as it stands, even if it did start my mind racing….

The Mask of Sanity is published by Permanent Press and is available to buy now.