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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Dead Silent

by Shirley Wells

'Dead Silent' is a gripping mystery that plays with your expectations, keeps you guessing and delivers an unforeseen and satisfying ending.

One of the great draws of the book is the private investigator Dylan Scott himself. This is his second outing for Shirley Wells and I hope there are due to be many more.

Dylan is flawed and has had problems in his past, but the reader can't help liking him as we gain glimpses into his personal life as well as following his progress in investigating the crime.

The problem for Dylan in this novel is to solve a cold case: from a trail that seemingly went cold a long time ago, Dylan sets out to find a missing young woman.

I really enjoyed following his progress as he meets all the disparate characters in Samantha Hunt's life and tries to work out who's telling the truth and who's lying. And more importantly, who's holding on to the biggest secret.

This is my kind of book. Fast paced, full of mystery and suspense and with a genuinely interesting premise and a solution which brings more than a frisson of shock.

I loved reading 'Dead Silent' and highly recommend it to others. I'm now looking forward very much to the next Dylan Scott mystery.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

You can find an interview with Shirley Wells on my main blog Fiction Is Stranger Than Fact.

DEAD SILENT, is available from Carina Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all good e-book retailers.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Facing Codependence

By Pia Mellody

Has anyone yet written a self-help book about how to wean yourself off self-help books? If they have, I need to buy that book, because I’m kind of addicted to books with titles like, ‘Heal Your Inner Clown’ and ‘Constellation Therapy for the Shining Star Within’. I’m building up quite a collection of popular psychology books. I’m even toying with the idea of writing one myself. All right, so I don’t have any free time or formal psychology qualifications, but in my defence I would point out that I do a) write psychological thrillers, b) know lots of weird, screwed-up people, and c) have a title ready and waiting. My self-help book will be called, ‘How to Prioritize One’s Mental Health Without Looking Like An Idiot In Public’. Hm. Maybe the title needs a little work. It’s not exactly snappy. Still, it’ll do until I come up with something better.

I had the idea for my popular psychology book recently while I was reading a brilliant example of the genre: ‘Facing Codependence’ by Pia Mellody. (Irrelevantly, I really hope she has at least one child called Unchained. No, of course she doesn’t – this woman is in the business of promoting mental health, and her surname isn’t Beckham.) I didn’t know what codependence was until I read Mellody’s book, which was as full of fascinating connections, patterns and revelations as any great thriller. And now I know: codependence, indirectly, is the reason why almost every murderer in every crime novel I have ever read kills his or her victim or victims. Which makes ‘Facing Codependence’ a must-read for crime writers everywhere – and I’m sure I don’t need to point out that there’s a convenient opportunity for deception here. Your real reason for reading it can be a desperate desire to get to grips with your own curdling insanity, but if anyone asks, you can pass yourself off as a sane professional doing research – perfect!

‘Facing Codependence’ is, quite simply, the best popular psychology book I have ever read. There are five core symptoms of this (according to Mellody) potentially lethal disease: 1) difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem, 2) difficulty setting functional boundaries, 3) difficulty owning and expressing your own reality, 4) difficulty taking care of your own wants and needs, and 5) difficulty experiencing and expressing your reality moderately.

So - lots of difficulty, basically. Lashings of difficulty. But lots of answers and solutions too. Pia Mellody knows how to sort out not only my problems but my fictional characters’ problems for several thrillers to come, which is pretty impressive. I won’t attempt to condense her wisdom or paraphrase it, because you really need to read the whole book – four times, ideally – but I will just mention the one problem I had with the ‘How to Recover from Codependence’ section of her book. It’s the same problem I have with most popular psychology books, when their authors start to describe what action we must take to free ourselves of whatever our psychological problem happens to be. The problem is this: not everyone reading the book is American. My title - ‘How to Prioritize One’s Mental Health Without Looking Like An Idiot In Public’ – will be aimed very much at the UK market. The embarrassed market, in other words.

Let’s take an example from Mellody’s book: boundary violation. This is something we all experience to a certain extent, I would guess. People trample all over our external and internal boundaries – they pat our pregnant bellies without permission; they tell us how we ought to feel, what to think in order to make ourselves acceptable to them. If we let them do this, that means we have damaged boundaries and are unable adequately to protect ourselves; we have at least one of the five core symptoms of codependence. Mellody gives an example of two women who meet by chance. One tries to kiss the other hello, and the other, not wanting to be kissed, takes a step back and extends her hand instead by way of greeting. Now, imagine you’re that woman, not wanting to be kissed by this acquaintance for whatever reason (obviously, you don’t work in publishing or any other arts or media profession that involves kissing everyone you meet on at least fourteen cheeks, even if you loathe them). You’ve taken a step back, but she ignores your attempt to set a clear external boundary; she invades your space and her lips are coming your way, fully intending to kiss you. According to Pia Mellody, what you should do at this point is demonstrate that you are willing to defend your boundary by saying, ‘Stop. I don’t want to be touched.’ In theory, of course, this is quite right. I have often wanted to say that very thing, but I haven’t, because I’m English. On every occasion that I have ever not wanted to be touched by someone determined to touch me, I more wanted not to sound like a freak who takes herself too seriously, and not to cause any trouble or offend anybody. Hence the title of my own self-help book, the one I will almost definitely never write. I suppose I could try to be less embarrassed about boundary-setting, but even if, by some miracle, I could persuade myself to say things like, ‘No, I’m sorry, you can’t try a bit of my meal – I want all of it’, or ‘No, I won’t give you a cover quote for your new book, because I hated it’, that wouldn’t be the end of the embarrassment, not by a long way. Next on Mellody’s recovery list, after asserting one’s boundaries, is finding a ‘codependence sponsor’. Er…a what? They don’t have those in the One Stop on Hills Road, or even in the big John Lewis in town.

None of this is intended as a criticism of the book. I have learned a huge amount from reading it, and feel mentally healthier for having imagined my American alter-ego totally sorted, with firm but flexible boundaries and a top-notch codependence sponsor, not to mention a thoroughly disentangled want-need balance. I know the difference between healthy feelings experienced moderately and an overwhelming, out-of-control carried shame core, which I didn’t a few weeks ago, and I know that if the traditional English martyrdom-and-resentment path ever loses its passive-aggressive appeal, there are alternatives. Pia Mellody has done the world a huge service by writing such a wise and informative book.

Reviewed by Sophie Hannah

Sophie's latest book 'Lasting Damage' is out in paperback now! You can read my review of it here, and you can find a review of one of her previous books, 'Hurting Distance' here.

You can find out more about Sophie and her work on her website.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Lasting Damage

By Sophie Hannah

While I was reading this book I was desperate to get to the end to find out what happened, but at the same time I didn’t want it to finish because I was enjoying it so much.

I loved the quirkiness of the story, which starts with the main character Connie looking at a property website in the middle of the night. What she sees on the website sets her on a very dangerous course of discovery.

Connie is a great study of a person falling to pieces. She’s surrounded by people who might be friends or enemies; she doesn’t know which, and nor does the reader.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way that absolutely every line of text counts. Every single thing that each of the characters says and does is consistent and reveals something about that person; even if the reader doesn’t discover what that is until much later.

Psychology is very important in this novel and the psychological motivations of both Connie and her husband are examined by the police investigators Sam, Simon and Charlie as they try to get to the bottom of what is going on. There is also a lot of emphasis on playing games with people’s minds and what the consequences of this can be. I found this aspect of the novel absolutely fascinating.

The plot is complex and multi-faceted and the way all the strands are brought together at the end is skilful. ‘Lasting Damage’ is a gripping, satisfying and very clever read. When I got to the end I was seriously tempted to go back to the beginning and start again.

A brilliant book in every way. I loved it.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

‘Lasting Damage’ is available in paperback now.

Please pop back to Bookersatz on Sunday when Sophie Hannah will be my guest reviewer, and please see my main blog Fiction Is Stranger Than Fact for an interview with American crime writer Lisa Jackson.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Lessons In Laughing Out Loud

By Rowan Coleman

I found this book a very moving and emotional read. In Willow Briars, Rowan Coleman has created a very sympathetic main character. In ‘Lessons In Laughing Out Loud’ we meet Willow and her twin sister Holly, and slowly find out what it is that has caused the sisters to be so different and to have lives that have taken them down very different paths.

Willow is a great character, but I also loved Chloe the teenager from Willow’s past who turns up on her doorstep needing help and India, the starlet with a problem who also has to rely on Willow to bail her out. The unlikely friendship that develops between Chloe and India is one of the most touching things in the book.

As we follow Willow’s story we find out a lot about her past loves and her present emotional dilemmas, including an ex-husband and a best friend who she’d like to be a bit more, and we also eventually find out the secret from her past that has been holding her back from getting what she wants and preventing her from laughing out loud.

It makes for a very satisfying plot. Throw in a borderline psychotic boss, a fur coat and some magic shoes and you have a very beguiling mix indeed.

Finally, I have to say that the ending wasn’t the one I was rooting for, but it was the right one!

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Flesh And Grass

By Libby Cone

This is a beautiful little gem of a book; an intriguing nugget of a story, skilfully polished into a wonderful jewel. As I read I felt as though I’d been transported into a totally different world – partly because the historical setting was so unusual and partly because of the narrative technique.

Because the narrator, Cornelis, is blind the narrative relies heavily on the descriptive power of the sense of smell. As we get to know Cornelius better throughout the course of the book we get to know what certain scents mean to him and how they can trigger emotions in him more intensely than in other people.

The story is set during the time that the Dutch were setting up colonies in the New World and follows the unrest between Holland and England on the Delaware coast. This is a period of history that I don’t know much about, and haven’t read much about – so for me that added a lot to the interest of the story.

Like Libby Cone’s previous book ‘War On The Margins’ there is a firm base of historical fact to the fiction. She says in the epilogue, “I humbly present this work, ‘Flesh And Grass’, as a work of fiction loosely based on the story of the Plockhoy settlement.”

As such, I found it an informative, different and enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

You can find out more about ‘Flesh And Grass’ here. And you can read my review of ‘War On The Margins’ here.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Light Years

by James Salter

What makes you return to a particular book again and again? If I had to choose one novel for my desert island, ‘Light Years’ by James Salter would be it. It’s a luminous portrait of a marriage, (and as we know, nobody really knows what goes on inside other people’s marriages). Here Salter shows us how something seemingly perfect falls apart and unravels over the years.

I first read it hungrily, in one sitting. The prose – or perhaps prose-poetry is a better description is some of the finest I’ve ever read. When the novel was reissued recently as a Penguin Modern Classic, the introductory essay by Richard Ford began: “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” I couldn’t agree more.

Salter himself said: “a page should seem effortless … as if the page wrote itself”. And this is how the book feels – full of light, lean and natural. Each time I go back to it, some new jewel of a phrase or sentence sparkles out. Take this section:
"Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.

And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see."

Salter’s writing is so good, that as a writer it either makes you want to put the lid on your pen – or it makes you want to raise your game. I love his work – he can be tough (this is the man who wrote: "Women fall in love when they get to know you. Men are the opposite. When they finally know you they're ready to leave"), and he can be tender. Just as whether an artist can ‘do’ hands, I’ve always thought whether a writer can write about sex is a good test of their skill. And no one can do it like James Salter.

Reviewed by Kate Lord Brown

Kate Lord Brown’s debut, ‘The Beauty Chorus’ is available here.

You can read more about Kate on her website here, and you can read my review of the fabulous 'The Beauty Chorus' here.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Touch Of Frost

by Jennifer Estep

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an avid Jennifer Estep fan. I am not familiar with her first series: but I am totally enamored of the Elemental Assassin series. When she first announced in her newsletter that she sold a YA series and gave some hints on what it would be about I was extremely excited to get my hands on the first book, 'Touch of Frost'.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been very interested in mythology, especially Greek and Chinese mythology. I tried reading a mythology book that strictly talked about the different gods and goddesses, but, it was a bit boring for a younger teenager. I have been tearing through the Internet, Amazon, BN and Goodreads looking for Urban Fantasy and YA Urban Fantasy that covered Greek mythology. It was like a coup to have one of the most talented authors around write a series that covered this topic. I received an ARC of 'Touch of Frost', read it immediately, and loved it! I just re-read it so that I could post a review close to the release date. I plan to purchase it to keep it in my library so I can read it again just before the release of 'Kiss of Frost'.

I finished the 2nd reading of 'Touch of Frost' last night which only confirmed how much I love this new series. Gwen Frost is this quirky teenager who has a gift of receiving images about the history of an item or a person if she has contact with either on her bare skin. This works in her favor sometimes and when she least expects it the gift turns her world upside down. Gwen finds herself in an academy styled school to learn how to control her gift. This school is full of students that have their own special gifts and histories. One of the great things is that in the first book we get a great glimpse into the Greek mythology world and how this school is related.

Gwen becomes embroiled in a huge mystery that has her learning more about her own history, her family's history, and the real purpose of the new school she is attending. It takes a while, but Gwen starts making a new life that includes her new school and some of the people that she has managed to let into her life. Her relationship with her grandmother grows as secrets are revealed. There are Amazons, Valkyries, Spartans and a host of other descendants of serious kick butt heroes from throughout history and mythology.

One of the fun things was a nice tie-in to the Elemental Assassins world and of course the great food that is depicted has crossed over and morphed into things that Gwen and her grandmother love to eat. Another great thing in this book was Gwen’s new friendship with Daphne. She turned out to be more than we could ever have guessed judging by the first run-in that she and Gwen have at the beginning of the book. Daphne turns out to be a bright light in this series. The jury is still out on Logan, but, he has potential. A sneak peak at the first chapter of the next book in the series (which I usually stay far away from when they are posted because they just drive me nuts with the wait for the entire book) looks like the possibility Gwen might have some choices at Mythos Academy.

I look forward to the next in the series!

Reviewed by Lady Techie

Available in paperback at the end of August, and in Kindle edition now.