Tag Archives: America

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Other review
Tall Oaks

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

HarperCollins | 2017 (29 June) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Corner by Dean KoontzJane Hawk used to be a well-respected FBI agent and investigator. She also had a happy marriage to Nick, a full colonel in the army at only 32 years old, with whom she had Travis, a happy 5-year-old child who is already a vision of his father. But then Nick killed himself, completely unexpectedly, during the course of an ordinary, peaceful evening. His note ‘I very much need to be dead’ left far more questions than answers and so, reeling from guilt and confusion, Jane sets out to find out what it was that drove her husband to a death he greeted with open arms.

Jane discovers that the suicide rate among successful and seemingly happy and high-achieving individuals is on the increase and those who did leave notes, and not many did, left notes even stranger than Nick’s. As Jane investigates the connection between these men and women and their deaths, she discovers a conspiracy that strikes at the very heart of the American establishment and she uncovers something remarkable and utterly deadly. Jane is a hunted woman. Those she seeks will stop at nothing to destroy her and her young son. And there is nothing they can’t do. It will take all of Jane’s ingenuity and experience as a gifted FBI agent to conceal her trail while seeking out the truth. Every day she plans as if it will be her last.

In The Silent Corner, Dean Koontz introduces us to a new series of thrillers, this time featuring Jane Hawk. While this means that not all of our questions about Jane herself are answered in this opening novel, we are still presented with a standalone investigation and cat and mouse hunt that obsesses Jane through these pages. There is no let up in the tension at all as Jane removes herself from all distractions, including her beloved son, to pursue her husband’s killer. This is a chilling portrait of grief. She can’t allow herself to stop and think. Instead she unties the knots, one at a time, of Nick’s sad and tragic loss.

Jane’s grief has altered her. She would be the first to admit it. And we see its effects in her treatment of those she encounters along her journey. She doesn’t want to kill or hurt but she will if she has to and when she does have to she has not regrets. The scenes in which she confronts those involved in the conspiracy are powerfully painted and disturbing, but the most disturbing moments are those when we see something of what these people have done with their wealth and influence.

The Silent Corner is a tense and action-packed conspiracy thriller. It is also cold, its language clever and unusual, stark but also elegant at times. I found Jane extremely difficult to warm to but I don’t think we’re expected to care for her beyond our compassion for someone suffering such a loss. There are moments when she lets slip her guard and it’s those moments which I enjoyed the most, when she draws people to her by revealing her true nature. Dougal Trahern, a man we meet later on, has a similar way about him and his portrayal is drawn with great poignancy and care. And so our feelings are challenged through this novel. Its premise promises cold killing and science but in reality we are presented with people who are suffering greatly and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow men and women. There is a strong sense of service and loyalty in The Silent Corner.

My only issue with The Silent Corner would be that at times its language feels a little over the top and this distracts from Jane’s character and the plot. It makes the novel feel overlong on occasions. Nevertheless, this is a minor point and, on the whole, I found myself immersed in The Silent Corner, willing Jane on while always fearing the worst. I’m interested to see how the series will develop as Jane moves away from this defining opening case.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

Quercus | 2017 | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy MejiaPine Valley, a small rural community in Minnesota, will not be the same without Hattie Hoffman. The 18-year-old girl, beautiful and playful, is the centre of attention both in and out of school. With ambitions of heading off to New York City to follow her dream to be an actress, Hattie has landed the role of Lady Macbeth in the school play. All eyes will be on Hattie Hoffman. But on opening night, Hattie is stabbed to death in a derelict barn on the edge of town. Close family friend Sheriff Del Goodman is given the terrible task of unravelling the tragedy, of hunting down the murderer of a girl he loved as a daughter. This is a community where everybody knows everyone. One of them, though, is keeping the biggest secret of all. Del will not rest until he uncovers it.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman might begin with Hattie’s murder but this vibrant young woman remains at the heart of the book thanks to its enticing structure. Mindy Mejia presents us with three narratives, belonging to Hattie herself, Del Goodman, and the school’s English teacher and play director, Peter Lund. We also move backwards and forwards through time, focusing on the weeks and days that led to Hattie’s death. Each of the narratives introduces us to the people of the town, often from different perspectives, building up layers of relationships, bits of which are revealed at different times. This gives extra depth to quite a few of the novel’s characters while building up the layers of Hattie’s personality. Hanging over it all is foreboding – we know just how this will end for Hattie.

Hattie’s character is key to the novel. And it most certainly isn’t straightforward. All she wants to do is be an actress, and it’s worth bearing this in mind as she plays one person off against another, time after time. She is an intriguing person, and so too are Del and Peter, but I did find her impossible to like. In fact, I think the only character in the novel that I actively did like was the sheriff, Del Goodman. I enjoyed his sections of the novel most of all.

I was engrossed by The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman but, as the novel went on, I realised that it might not give me all I expected from it. I’m used to twists and surprises in a novel such as this. This isn’t a fault of this book at all but it did mean that I was rather unexcited by the way in which the story developed, while still being caught up by its structure and mood.

The writing is of a high quality and that did keep my attention, as did its atmosphere. The rural location is very well painted indeed. I could picture Pine Valley perfectly from the descriptions. There are few places that people can meet in this town and we move between them, always being reminded that we’re seeing the same people. It makes you understand why Hattie had her dreams of escape. Pine Valley was far too small a town for Hattie Hoffman.

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker

Twenty7 | 2016 | 360p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Tall Oaks by Chris WhitakerTall Oaks used to be such a quiet small American town, unknown to strangers. But then, one terrible day, three-year-old Harry Monroe was stolen from his bed and the country’s media came to call. Three months have passed and Harry is still missing. Harry’s mother Jess is traumatised. Every time she closes her eyes she sees the clown masked-face of the man who stole him. Although the reporters have moved on to the next big story, the detective in charge of the case, Jeff, can’t stop caring, desperate to give the boy back to his distraught mother.

But life has to continue and Tall Oaks is full of busy lives. Teenager Manny sees himself at the centre of much of it and is setting about proving it in his own inimitable style, while trying to ignore the fact that his mother has begun dating again. Jerry is a photographer in the making, a trapped spirit, but his life is tied down to his domineering, awful mother. And moving around them is a circle of family and friends, all interacting, all with their own cares, all finding laughs where they can, and all with their secrets.

At this point I have to say that Tall Oaks is a fantastic novel and all the more brilliant when you consider that it’s Chris Whitaker’s debut. I believe he lives in England and yet he has created a portrait of an American small town that doesn’t just feel real but is also absolutely enchanting – a wonderful blend of the authentic and the strange. Whitaker also blends its mood. This is a story that is at times desperately sad and shockingly tragic but there is also a warm humour that runs through it. Its wit sparkles, especially in the dialogue and in its creation of Manny. If you have to have one reason why you need to read this novel it’s Manny. He might be out to shock but a heart that huge cannot be hidden.

Tall Oaks is another of those novels that is promoted for its shocking twists and, yet again, this does this wonderful book a disservice. There’s a crime in it – the abduction of little Harry – but this is just one part of the story. There are so many other elements to it and it is driven as much by character as it is plot, if not more so. There are some powerful surprises, hardly surprising in a community so private, and one or two stunned me. They felt to me as if they were my reward for growing to care so much for these people. This is what happens when you get to know somebody.

Chris Whitaker is a marvellous, witty writer. His prose feels light and real, flowing naturally, and his gift for characterisation is just wonderful. The character of Manny is a masterpiece. He is complicated for all kinds of reasons that are explored with an astonishingly delicate touch. He is a pure delight to know and how he made me laugh! But there’s more to this novel than Manny. It gives and gives. Tall Oaks also begins with one of the most disturbing opening chapters I’ve read and it continues with writing that made me want to cry and laugh.

I’ve got to say it again – this is a debut novel. Extraordinary. Whatever will be next? But Chris Whitaker is a new author whose future books I will be sure to snap up at the earliest opportunity.

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree | Greg Iles | 2015 | Harper | 850p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Tree by Greg IlesNext spring Mississippi Blood is published. This is the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As part of the celebrations, I was so pleased to post a review of Natchez Burning for an international blog tour back at the end of August and now it’s the turn of The Bone Tree. The Bone Tree follows on directly from Natchez Burning and so this review assumes you’ve read the earlier book first.

Penn Cage, attorney and Mayor of Natchez, a small town in rural Mississippi, continues to hunt for his father Dr Tom Cage, the town’s popular doctor for many years, who is now on the run for the murder of Viola Turner. This elderly black woman was once, in the sixties, Tom Cage’s much loved nurse. She was also the sister of a man brutally murdered by the Double Eagles, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, and she suffered greatly at their hands. Everyone involved is now much, much older and some are in the mood to confess before death claims them. Journalists Henry Sexton and Caitlin Masters (also, just to complicate things, Penn’s fiancée) are working together to expose the truth, and one of the best ways to do that will be to discover and reveal one of the Double Eagles’ killing grounds, hidden within the Mississippi swamps – the Bone Tree. Legend has it that the Bone Tree contains, in addition to the bones of the murdered, evidence that links these men to one of the most devastating and notorious crimes in American history.

The plot of The Bone Tree is a complicated business, as you’d expect from a novel that comprises 850 pages and one that also succeeds the equally substantial Natchez Burning, one of the most satisfyingly structured and richly layered crime novels I’ve read. There are multiple threads and many characters and we move between them – there can be a fair few chapters before we return to each strand – but at the heart of the novel we have Caitlin’s pursuit of the truth, Penn’s hunt for his father and Tom’s struggle to survive at as little cost to the lives of others as possible. All set within a fascinating re-examination of a dark period in Mississippi’s history, one that might not be as safely buried in the past as one might have hoped.

But The Bone Tree differs from Natchez Burning in that there is another investigation on top of all of the rest and for long stretches of the novel it takes precedence over anything else – FBI Special Agent John Kaiser’s investigation into one of the biggest crimes of modern American history. For the time being, the Double Eagles will have to wait.

There are sections of The Bone Tree that are utterly harrowing, tense or thrilling – or all three of these at once. There are moments here I’m not going to forget, there is one in particular that is totally shocking. But these sections are surrounded by great swathes of meticulously detailed discussion into the big, arguably unsolved, mystery of the 1960s. I’d argue that The Bone Tree contains within it a superb, much shorter novel but this, and the pace, has been lost to some degree by the material that surrounds it.

The events of the novel take place over a period of just a few short days and the events of each are described over hundreds of pages. Nevertheless, my interest was kept alive throughout because, despite it all, the evil of the Double Eagles and their terrible deeds can still be traced through the pages. Tom and Penn continue to focus on their crimes, refusing to be sidetracked by Kaiser’s ulterior motives, and Caitlin’s pursuit for the truth is absolutely dedicated, but the author’s fascination with Kaiser’s investigations takes precedence far too often, in my opinion, for the flow of the novel.

This is an extraordinary trilogy, welcoming the reader to become fully immersed in its portrait of evil, focusing on events that took place over just a few days. The conclusion of The Bone Tree is so tense and gripping that it left this reader so excited for the concluding novel Mississippi Blood. It sounds as if this final novel will be half the size of its predecessors which makes me think that its focus will be narrowed further and this time the emphasis will be on the answers we are all so desperate to learn.

Other review
Natchez Burning

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Natchez Burning | Greg Iles | 2014, Pb 2016 | Hodder | 853p | Review and bought copy | Buy the book

Next spring is published Mississippi Blood, the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As a run-up to the big day, I am so pleased to be part of a blog tour that will review Natchez Burning through September and The Bone Tree during October. I jumped at it. This tour has provided me with the perfect opportunity to read books I should have read a long time ago. I’ve heard nothing but good things and, as I read Natchez Burning, I kept asking myself why on earth I hadn’t read it before. I must have been barmy.

On with the review…

Natchez Burning by Greg IlesNatchez Burning might be the fourth Penn Cage novel by Greg Iles but it is the first in a distinct trilogy. Earlier books are referred to and characters do reappear but you certainly don’t need to have read them to get every bit of satisfaction out of this wonderful book.

Penn Cage, once a prosecuting attorney, is now the mayor of Natchez, a small and relatively quiet community in Mississippi. It wasn’t always that way. Natchez, now reeling from Hurricane Katrina, was once caught in the fire of civil rights abuse, held to hostage by the Ku Klux Klan and, even worse than the Klan, the Double Eagles, a local KKK splinter group that tortured, raped, murdered, with no fear or expectation of justice. Justice in Natchez at that time and place was white and it was supremacist. Few people then stood firm against the Klan, albeit carefully, quietly, and one such man was Dr Tom Cage, Penn’s much loved father and a very well-liked and caring doctor. But, to Penn’s bewilderment, Tom Cage has been accused of murdering Viola Turner, his immensely popular African-American nurse from the 1960s, who, now an old woman, had recently returned home to Natchez to die but had instead met a death that was anything but peaceful.

Tom Cage refuses to defend himself for reasons he will not explain and so Penn is compelled to hunt for the truth. To do that he must tear open the wounds of the past and what he finds is utterly horrifying and terrifying. Natchez is a town rotting with secrets, so many of its citizens stinking of past crimes, but not all of these crimes are in the past and the more that Penn prods the beast, the more it stirs. The murder of Viola is just one of the many mysteries facing Penn as he uncovers hints of a conspiracy that, if revealed, could leave American history in need of a rewrite. It could also mean the death of Penn and Tom. Just how well do you know anyone? This is a fundamental question that now faces Penn.

Natchez Burning is a substantial novel at about 850 pages but its size hides the fact that these are pages that will fly through the fingers. Greg Iles is a great storyteller and he keeps this immensely complex and multi-layered plot well under control so that at one moment you can sense everything coming together while, at the next, you become well aware of a whole new mystery developing legs. And what that means is revelation after revelation, not to mention shock after shock as Penn uncovers the truth, or at least some of it (some secrets are even deeper buried), about the town’s past. This scrutiny of such a terrible period in recent history is also a great thriller and it enthrals from start to finish. The narrative itself moves through time, taking us and Penn even closer to events.

The victims of the Double Eagles, their lives, hopes and deaths, receive care in this novel and in a way provide its heart.

Natchez Burning is a full and satisfactory novel in its own right but it leads directly into The Bone Tree and that is where I’m heading next. I expect great things and I have every confidence that my expectations will be exceeded.

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

To the Bright Edge of the World | Eowyn Ivey | 2016, Pb 2017 | Tinder Press | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn IveyIt is 1885 and Colonel Allen Forrester, with such a small group of men, leaves Vancouver to embark on an expedition to explore the Wolverine River in Alaska. Recently relinquished by Russia, Alaska is now open for prospectors, the military, traders, hunters and the curious. Its resources are believed bountiful, its wildlife as beautiful as it can be dangerous, its Indians as useful as they are feared. Its majestic rivers are Alaska’s natural highways but they are only ice-free for brief months each year. The Wolverine River links the coast with a well-used river way to the north. Its exploration and mapping could prove key for the future settlement of Alaska. Allen Forrester and his men aim to be upon it as soon as it is released from winter’s grip and then they will travel for 1,000 miles, recording what they see, photographing it, trading with the Indians, introducing themselves, forging friendships. Trying to stay alive.

Colonel Forrester’s mind is not entirely on his mission. Recently married to Sophie, he has had to leave her behind in the barracks at Vancouver, with only the other officers’ wives and daughters for company. And Sophie has such an adventurous, independent spirit. She would far prefer to be exploring with her husband, capturing the images on a camera, seeing with her own eyes the wildlife of this remote region. But it is not to be and instead she must stay behind, missing her husband intensely, experiencing a personal journey of her own, every bit as hazardous as the one that her husband must face, fearing that he may never return, too distant for letters, her mind too alive to the risks ahead while doing all she can to combat them.

At the heart of To the Bright Edge of the World are the experiences of Allen and Sophie, told through their journals, alternating between them, covering the great distance between them. There are photographs, sketches, as both Allen and Sophie experience the world around them, from the great glaciers of Alaska to fish, birds, animal tracks and people. But there is also another strand weaving in and out of this novel. In the present day, the latest member of the Forrester family is trying to find a home for Allen and Sophie’s journals and artefacts in a museum by the side of the Wolverine River and this element is absolutely fascinating.

This is not an easy novel to review, largely because I don’t have a hope of doing it justice. To the Bright Edge of the World held me mesmerised. I could not get enough of it, barely putting it down, as I read it in just one day and what a day’s reading it was. I knew this book would be good. I adored The Snow Child, it continues to be one of my very favourite novels, and I knew that Eowyn Ivey’s writing, imagination and deep, penetrating insight into, and empathy with, her own Alaska could not fail. However, I was not expecting To the Bright Edge of the World to exceed The Snow Child but that is exactly what it does.

The writing is breathlessly beautiful. The journal extracts bring the long dead characters of Allen and Sophie to life in such a meaningful, memorable way. They both lay themselves bare and it is hypnotic, a privilege to be allowed so deeply into their lives and thoughts. The illustrations work so well. This is such an attractive book even before you read its words! But what makes it truly astounding is its portrayal of the natural world, not just in Alaska but also in Vancouver. Nature is infused with magic and the imagination. Its wonders are ultimately unknowable despite mankind’s best efforts to record it and trap it, whether physically or through the lens of a camera. It is dangerous but it is also so beautiful. The indigenous tribes are shown to have a much closer connection to the environment they live in, which is hardly surprising, but both Sophie and Allen, as well as the people that Allen travels with, each makes their own meaningful relationships with the world around them and that changes how they interact with the men and women they spend time with.

This creates a haunting, atmospheric setting for this wonderful novel that is matched by the grandeur or simple beauty of its locations, the impact of its changing seasons, its merging of nature with mystery and magic, the contrast of masculine and feminine, fertility and decay, the mix of science with indigenous wisdom, where anything is possible, not only in the natural world but also within the minds of Sophie and Allen, as well as our contemporary protagonists who treasure the legacy of this husband and wife who lived so many years ago.

With no hesitation at all I state that if I read another novel this year that I love as much as this I will be entirely surprised. This is a very special book indeed and Eowyn Ivey is an incredibly gifted writer, bringing to us all the wonder, beautiful strangeness and fragility of the Alaska she loves.

Other review and feature
The Snow Child
An interview with Eowyn Ivey for The Snow Child