Thursday, 30 June 2016

To Swim Beneath the Earth by Ginger Bensman

To Swim Beneath the Earth by Ginger Bensman is both an original and compelling novel that cleverly combines 1970’s US culture with that of South America in the 1500s. Not only is the story impeccably written, it also displays an impressive historical knowledge.

The book begins in Colorado in 1973 when the protagonist Megan Kimsey has just lost her father. Megan has always been regarded by her family as highly strung due to her random spates of clairvoyance and an inexplicable knowledge of the Inca Empire and its people. Only Megan’s father understands her and before his death purchased a ticket for her to travel to South America in a quest for answers about her troubling mental state.

Megan is a great character and I loved Bensman’s depiction of her family life. Her mother is a cold, unloving woman and her relationship with Megan is toxic and damaging. Bensman presents us with the dynamics of the dysfunctional Kimsey family in a way that is both heart rending and darkly funny.

The structure of the novel is complex and extremely effective which is indicative of Bensman’s strong writing skills. Once Megan travels to South America, she increasingly becomes connected to the past. We are given flashbacks to the time of the Incas where Megan takes on the identity of a man called Illapa. As Megan becomes consumed by the past and starts to resent the intrusion of the present, Bensman cleverly recreates that sense of tension for her readers. At crucial points in the narrative, she drags us back to 1973 as Megan’s consciousness returns to her, piquing our curiosity and leaving us desperate to find out what is going to happen.

Bensman’s particular strength, in my opinion, is her characterisation. Megan is a wonderfully prickly character who disappears at the first sign of conflict. She describes herself as a “social coward”. Bensman also creates excellent potential villains such as the obnoxious therapist, Dr Vickers, who Megan’s mother engages to work with Megan. He is constantly looming in the wings ready to perform an intervention which provides both humour and horror in equal measure.

There is also a really strong sense of place particularly once Megan travels to South America. Even in the 1974 sections, Bensman conveys a society that is steeped in ancient ways and wisdoms as personified by Megan’s friend Koyam, a medicine woman. Bensman’s knowledge of the Inca civilisation is such that it brings the period alive for the reader and makes us feel as though we are actually there.

There are so many heart breaking events in the story which are genuinely moving. As a child, Megan babysits for a little girl who suffers a misfortune that almost brought me to tears. Likewise Megan’s relationship with her young son when she is in the role of Illapa is emotionally charged and poignant.

I really loved this novel and found it entertaining, intelligent and thought provoking. It raises questions of reincarnation and a spirit world which I enjoyed exploring. Ultimately Megan is unable to find her place in the world until she has lain the past to rest.

This is not a novel that fits easily into any one genre but I believe there is something to captivate everyone. If you’re looking for a new read and fancy something a little bit different then I wholeheartedly recommend To Swim Beneath the Earth.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Shore Lights (Paradise Point NJ book 1) by Barbara Bretton

Shore Lights by Barbara Bretton is the first novel in the Paradise Point NJ series. It’s a warm hearted romance that I really enjoyed immersing myself into.

From the onset, it’s pretty clear where the story is going to end up but that doesn’t matter a jot as it’s the journey to get there that’s the fun part. Maddy Bainbridge is a thirty something single mother, who returns to her home town of Paradise Point after fifteen years. In doing so she finds not only herself but a handsome, single father called Aidan O’Malley.

Bretton’s skill lies in the way she has created a world within a world in Paradise Point. It’s a small community where everyone knows and cares about each other. The main characters of the novel and within the town are the DiFalcos (Maddy’s family) and the O’Malleys. Conflicts are explored and resolved within the story but a strong sense of family is never far from the surface.

I really like Maddy; she is just the right combination of gutsy and vulnerable. She’s struggling not only to find her way with her own daughter but with her estranged mother as well. The miscommunications that are tearing Maddy and her mother apart are probably something that we can all relate to.

Aidan is the perfect romantic hero, he’s endured lots of heartache but manages to be an excellent father and retain his decency and kindness. I really like the way Bretton doesn’t put obstacles in the couple’s way but rather allows them to support each other through the difficulties that occur.

Bretton also does a great job of making the novel seem contemporary and relevant. The characters and dialogue is realistic, punchy and at times hilarious. She also begins Maddy and Aidan’s romance via email, where they open up to each other before they realise their true identities.

The novel is made even cosier by the fact that it is set in the run up to Christmas and Paradise Point is in the grip of a snow blizzard. That said Christmas is not such a major theme that the story can’t be enjoyed at any time of the year. Although I’m sure it would be the perfect read for the festive season.

Despite the novel being essentially a feel good read, Bretton does touch on serious issues and handles them sensitively and realistically. There is the impact that broken families have on children, how people deal with serious illness and bereavement. Most poignantly there is also old age and dealing with the realisation at the end of your life that it may not have been well lived. The only slight criticism that I have is that 70% into the story it takes a supernatural turn that didn’t really work for me. However, I know that lots of other readers will enjoy the paranormal twist.

Shore Lights is the kind of novel that you can really lose yourself in and if you like romance I think you will love this one. By the end of the story I found myself wanting to get the next ticket to Paradise Point and I will definitely be catching up with DiFalcos and O’Malleys in the rest of their series.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Dark Web by T. J. Brearton

Dark Web is a chilling crime thriller that takes the reader into a dark world that most of us probably didn’t even know existed. It is a story with lots of twists and turns and each one is more disturbing than the last.

The story begins with the relocation of a family from Florida to a small town called New Brighton in upstate New York. Mike and Callie Simpkins and their three children have only been in their new home for a couple of months when an unthinkable tragedy befalls them. The family implodes and the rest of the novel is both the resolution of the mystery that has engulfed them and a depiction of the kind of personal hell that every family dreads.

T. J. Brearton is an assured story teller who keeps us guessing right until the very end. He somehow manages to cast a shadow over every character and I found myself suspecting everyone as I raced through the novel to find out what had really happened. The ending, when it comes, is both clever and unexpected.

The story is told in the 3rd person from several points of view and consequently there are a few main characters. My favourite is Jack Swift, a seasoned detective who is at odds with the modern world and its dependence on technology. Mike and Callie Simpkins start off as ‘every couple’ but over the course of the novel we realise that they may not be what they first seem. I particularly like the way Brearton has lots of great strong female characters such as the pathologist, Janine Poehler and Brittney Silas the CSI.

Brearton uses the setting of New Brighton to great advantage. The Simpkins arrive in winter and the small town is blanketed in heavy snow which hampers the investigation and creates a feeling of tense isolation. As Brearton describes the icy cold conditions, it matches the chilling incidents taking place within the story.

Much of the investigation involves the dark web of which I had no knowledge until I read this book. It’s a dangerous, murky world and its tentacles reach far and wide. Brearton creates a believable scenario which would terrify even the stoutest of hearts. What this novel highlights is the chasm between the old and new. Jack Swift represents the older, pre-technology generation whilst the younger characters are able to manipulate events from a place that he doesn’t understand.

I really enjoyed this book and it kept me reading well into the wee hours as I just could not put it down. If you like crime thrillers then I think you will love this one. 

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Dark Room by Mary Maddox

I enjoyed Dark Room by Mary Maddox on so many levels. On the one hand, it’s an exciting mystery but it is also underpinned by Maddox’s obvious love of art and in particular photography which enriches the story enormously.

The novel begins with a prologue describing four black and white photographs and Maddox goes on to cleverly structure the action around these images. They basically tell the story of a murder and Maddox uses her narrative to give the photographs meaning.

The person who captured the photographs is Day Randall, a free spirit who is dealing, not very successfully, with a bipolar disorder. Day disappears early on in the novel but her presence remains compelling throughout. Right from the title, it’s obvious that photography is going to be a significant aspect of the novel but it becomes an almost extended metaphor. One of the ways in which Maddox uses photography is in the idea of light and dark. It’s no coincidence that Day’s photographs are black and white with a raw, grittiness and Maddox proceeds to employ this idea in the depiction of her characters.

If Day is darkness then her friend Kelly Durrell is light. She is conventional to Day’s unconventional. Like Day though, her life is defined by art as she is the assistant curator of a museum. Kelly is probably the character most of us relate to, she is a kind, decent woman who always tries to do the right thing. Day has been living in her spare room for only 8 months but their bond is strong. Maddox gives us the information about Kelly, such as the fact that she is alienated from her family and lost her sister, but allows us to draw our own conclusions about her motives in creating a sense of family with Day. The light and dark motif also extends to other characters such as Gregory Tyson, a shadowy, dark figure or Cash Peterson the blonde, outdoorsy natural type.

Maddox’s love of photography is evident in all of her descriptions but particularly with buildings and locations. This creates a very visual novel so that at times it’s almost like watching a film. Likewise with her characters, particularly the minor ones who exist in the underbelly of society, her descriptions are vivid and almost documentary like. Interestingly, Larry Clarke is mentioned in the novel and Maddox recreates his style of photography with words.

The story is told to us in 3rd person but we get lots of the different characters’ viewpoints. This is very effective because it allows us to understand the motivations of the characters but it also adds to the suspense. Maddox feeds us new pieces of information via the different voices until, jigsaw style; the big picture starts to emerge.

I loved this novel for so many reasons. I think it can be enjoyed as a straight forward thriller but it’s also so much more than this. Maddox’s photographic way of creating a story is both ingenious and unusual. She has attempted to put a different spin on the crime genre and, in my opinion, has pulled it off with aplomb.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Sacrifice by Peg Brantley

The Sacrifice by Peg Brantley is an edge of your seat crime thriller which captured my attention from the very beginning. It’s the kind of book that, had I had the time, I would have loved to devour in one sitting.

The main protagonist is Mex Anderson, a complex character so called because he is half Mexican. He was a law enforcement officer who refused to be bought off by drug cartels and paid the ultimate price when his family was murdered. The story begins when he is approached by Vincent Vega, the leader of a cartel and a man who Mex suspects could have played a role in the slaying of his family. Vega convinces Mex to try and locate his missing daughter.

What follows is an exciting journey full of twists and turns that takes us from Mexico to New Orleans. One of the things I really like about this book is the way Brantley brings the settings alive. She creates places of vivid colour and culture but steeped in danger.

The conflict within the story comes from the explosive combination of Mexican criminals and a religious cult. Brantley describes the cult of Santeria in such a way as to make it seem totally believable. As the plot develops, the cult becomes more and more chilling until the tension is almost unbearable.

I really like the characters in the book and the relationships they have with each other. Mex is a flawed hero, crippled by debilitating depression whilst trying to do the right thing. His friend Darius is almost his mirror image, symbolising what Mex has lost with his own perfect family. Vincent Vega, the villain of the piece, pays for his sins through his dysfunctional relationships with his own children.

My favourite character however is Cade Le Blanc, a native of New Orleans who can hold her own in any situation. Having lost her sister as a result of her involvement in a religious cult, Cade devotes her life to rescuing and deprogramming cult members. She is the driving force in helping Mex and Darius to launch a plan to retrieve Vega’s daughter. Both Cade and Mex are damaged by their pasts but they are clearly attracted to each other and Brantley cleverly leaves the reader with the hope that their relationship might develop.

The Sacrifice is a page turner that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone who likes crime thrillers with lots of action. It would be the perfect holiday read as I guarantee once you pick it up you won’t want to put it down.