Tara Calaby

writer & editor

Tag: crime

Recap: (SVH13) Kidnapped! – Francine Pascal

Kidnapped! coverWhen Love Dies finished on a cliffhanger almost big enough to rival the one at the end of Dear Sister. Elizabeth has been kidnapped by Creepy Carl, an orderly at Fowler Memorial Hospital. That’ll teach her not to volunteer as a candy striper or be nice to weirdos.

Creepy Carl will go down in history as the first of the many creepers, psychopaths and werewolves that the twins encounter over the various Sweet Valley series. He’s one of the most boring, as well, given that there’s nothing very dramatic about Elizabeth sitting on a couch reading books about farm animals. Really, it has to be one of the most innocuous kidnappings in fiction history. He’s desperately in love with Liz (of course), but at no point is there any suggestion that he might try to do anything untoward to her. She’s faced much more rapey behaviour at the hands of Bruce Patman. Instead, he buys her books and cardigans and lovingly feeds her cold fast food. What a charmer.

Meanwhile, Jess is off at the home of Sweet Valley newcomers Regina and Nicholas Morrow. The Morrows are filthy rich, so of course our resident gold-digger Jessica falls in love with Nicholas before she’s so much as laid eyes on him. Luckily, he turns out to be handsome as well as loaded. He’s also way too serious and responsible for Jessica, but it’s hard to see clearly when you have dollar signs in your eyes. Jess is so busy throwing herself at Nicholas that she doesn’t notice how late Liz is to the party, instead lying to Todd when he questions her about Liz’s whereabouts. Eventually, she can drag herself away from Nicholas’s conversation about computers for long enough to realise that hey, maybe something bad might have happened to perfectly punctual Liz, and she flees the party with Todd, clad in nothing but a bikini.

Insert montage of searching, worrying and Liz remaining kidnapped.

Before the kidnapping, Liz had planned to meet Max Dellon to tutor him in English, and he immediately becomes suspect number one, because he’s a guitarist (and thus a rebel who can’t be trusted) and also foolish enough to search her car when he finds it abandoned at the hospital, instead of calling the police like an upstanding non-guitarist would have done. This leads to Todd punching him without provocation at school the next day, because hitting people is pretty much all Todd’s good for. Despite that, he seems to be convinced that “fighting [is] not his style”. By this point in the books, Todd has punched Rick Andover, Bruce Patman (knocking him unconscious) and Max Dellon, and has also threatened to punch Bruce on another occasion. He’s basically the poster boy for anger management issues. I hate to think what he’d be like if fighting were his style.

Anyway, in the end, Jess, Todd and Max team up and manage to catch Creepy Carl purely by accident and the miraculous power of mistaken identity. Elizabeth is found, Creepy Carl is arrested, and the Wakefield twins throw a party to celebrate Liz’s safe return. At which Nicholas Morrow catches sight of Elizabeth and falls immediately head-over-heels in love. Jess is not going to be happy.

For a book about a kidnapping, this isn’t one of the most exciting Sweet Valley High books. The parts of the book that centre around Liz are about as dull as her time spent locked in Carl’s house must have been. The most enjoyable bit is Jess and Todd teaming up. I always like the books where this happens.

Moral of the Story? Don’t be nice to creepy men.

Review: Stolen – Lucy Christopher

Stolen book coverStolen is an extremely cleverly written book. It’s essentially a book about Stockholm Syndrome, written for a young adult audience, and its greatest feature is the way that Lucy Christopher takes the reader along on the same emotional ride experienced by protagonist Gemma. At the beginning of the book, Ty – her captor – comes across as creepy and unappealing but, as he reveals more of himself and more of the past that led them both to the Australian outback, he becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. I never found him truly likeable, because there always remains something dangerous about him, but many other readers have been completely won over by the end of the novel. Manipulating one’s readers in such a fashion takes a lot of writing skill. Although Stolen has its faults, I came away from reading it with a healthy respect for the author’s talent. I love a book that can mess with my head.

As suggested above, however, Stolen isn’t flawless. At times, it feels over-long. There is a lot of description of the Australian outback and I’m not sure whether I’m just jaded to that, as someone who lives in Australia and has been fed images and romanticised perspectives of the outback all my life, or whether the description really does take over a little at times. For the first half of the book, I wasn’t very engaged at all. I kept reading because the premise interested me and the writing style is elegant and clever, but I wasn’t invested in the characters or their actions. I think the beginning of the change in Gemma’s attitude towards Ty also marked the beginning of my greater interest in the novel. Perhaps it was a case of my needing more movement in terms of character development and plot or perhaps it just comes down to me being in a more receptive mood by the time I reached the second half of the book. Either way, my near-indifference was not lasting and I definitely enjoyed the latter half of the novel and the book as a completed whole.

I think that’s really how Stolen should be assessed. Its power doesn’t lie in its characters or even in the artfully described and ever-present setting. The true power of Christopher’s work is its ability to draw its readers in and to make them feel a little of what Gemma is feeling. Her confusion became my confusion. And that’s the sign of a good author.

Review: The Writing Class – Jincy Willett

The Writing Class book coverThe Writing Class is an interesting novel. For much of its first half, it feels like light-hearted women’s fiction – a study of the standard “types” that fill writing classes across the world. The second half, however, ventures into cosy mystery territory, when the nasty pranks being played on the class’s members lead up to murder. I think it was this dual nature that limited my appreciation of the work. I could enjoy both aspects separately but, together, they both ended up feeling a little lacking.

As a novel about a middle-aged widow, a published author who has not written for years, The Writing Class initially feels promising. Amy is a multi-faceted protagonist who feels very real, and her situation as a writing teacher who no longer writes is interesting. At first, it seems like the reader will be treated to similar character explorations of the large ensemble of students who join her class, but unfortunately this is one of the areas in which the novel falls short. Of the students, only Carla feels truly three-dimensional. The rest are mere ideas – hinted at, but never really fleshed out at all. You know that a cast is too large for its story when you confuse one character for another and feel surprised when a name is mentioned, because you’d forgotten that character existed. This kind of thing works (just) in the standard And Then There Were None-esque whodunnit novel, because the reader is more invested in working out who the killer is than in the characters themselves, but it felt like The Writing Class was attempting to be more than that, and the lack of developed characters greatly hindered this ambition.

As a whodunnit, The Writing Class is just too slow to get started. Although mentioned in the blurb, the first hint of murder doesn’t happen until well into the novel. The motive isn’t sufficiently explained and the overall pacing is just off. Readers looking for a good mystery will likely struggle with the long lead-up to the crimes, not caring much for the development of Amy’s character and the glimpses Willett offers into her lonely and solitary life. The action picks up in the second half of the book, but there is not a great enough pay-off to make up for the amount of time needed to get to the denouement.

The Writing Class is not a bad novel, by any means. I was actually quite entertained by it most of the time. My issue is more with the fact that I felt like it could have been better than it actually was. It’s an interesting read and a nice way to pass time on public transport, but it’s ultimately quite forgettable.

(As an aside, the writing course that I took was not filled with these “standard” types at all. Perhaps it was due to the extremely competitive selection process, but regardless of the reasons why, my classes were filled with students who wanted to write a “literary” novel and looked down on anything that could be labelled genre fiction!)

Review: Hushed – Kelley York

Hushed book coverArcher would do anything for his best friend, Vivian. He’s proven that several times over by now – in the most drastic of ways. But then Evan arrives in town and, for the first time, Archer begins to question the hold that Vivian has over him. Evan’s love may have the power to change Archer, but is it too late?

Hushed is a tense novel that will have its readers hooked from the opening pages right through to its conclusion. It presents themes of love and loyalty and explores the aftermath of trauma and the choice to follow a particular path. While its content and focus are definitely gritty, Hushed doesn’t feel unduly dark. Indeed, I came away from the book feeling almost uplifted; for every depressing or sordid occurrence, there is a helping of love or hope.

The thing that really makes Hushed is the artful depiction of its protagonist, Archer. Multiple times within the novel, Archer is referred to as a “monster”, but somehow he is also extremely sympathetic and, amazingly, highly likeable. If someone were to tell me about a book with a loveable murderer, I would scoff, but that is exactly what Kelley York has produced. The reader can’t help but hope that, in spite of his crimes, things will work out well for Archer.

In contrast, Vivian is very difficult to like. Although we are given reasons for her behaviour, we are also shown that there were other paths that she could have followed. There is just something about her character that made me wary from the start. Archer’s devotion to her is perfectly plausible, however. She is cleverly described as just the sort of person who possesses that kind of hold over people.

Evan is sugar where Vivian is poison. He is perfectly understanding, perfectly devoted… and fairly perfect all round, for that matter. He offers the kind of unconditional care that Archer needs to start to break free of Vivian’s hold over him. The difficulty I had with him as a character, however, was the fact that he mostly is shown as being a positive force in Archer’s life. We don’t learn as much about Evan himself as I would have liked – just glimpses of the way he fits into Archer’s world.

The romance here is very nicely done, with little focus on the genders of the people involved. While there is definitely a place in YA literature for tales of coming out and the establishment of sexual identity, I think they tend to dominate the market more than they should. It was refreshing to read a book where the romance plays out much as it would with a heterosexual couple, but without ignoring the social implications of a same sex romance.

As mentioned, some of the content in Hushed is quite dark, and I would recommend it to readers from the late teens upwards. While the main characters are in their first year of university, I think that the plot and execution of the novel will endear it to adult readers as well. An engrossing and though-provoking read.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove – Lauren Kate

The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove coverFor years, Natalie Hargrove has been working towards achieving the ultimate high school goal – becoming the next Palmetto Princess. Coming from a less-than-exclusive background, she is always conscious of maintaining the necessary appearances to ensure her reputation remains unsullied as she pursues her prize. But then a tragedy causes Natalie’s carefully-constructed world to start to unravel…

I adore books about high school queen bees, and about the trials and tribulations of teen popularity, so I thought that The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, it seemed to miss the mark, and I am struggling to articulate why it didn’t quite work for me, because there were so many elements that should have made me love it.

There is a thoughtful exploration of life and character that lies beneath the glitz and drama of Lauren Kate’s plot. The true nature of Natalie’s deprived and depressing past is gradually revealed as the book unfolds, and there are thought-provoking contrasts between the two very separate elements of society that can be found in the town and in Natalie’s own history. Kate presents a picture of people with no prospects and little hope, against which Natalie’s social climbing and ruthlessness become more easy to understand.

While the two socio-economic groups detailed in The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove seem worlds apart in some ways, Kate also shows that they’re a lot more similar than her characters might consider. Indeed, the reader is forced to ask whether Natalie was really any safer once she had “made it” than when she still lived in a trailer. On both sides of the tracks, sex, drugs and alcohol rule. Natalie tries so hard to put behind the world in which a girl like her is only useful for sex, but yet her relationship with her boyfriend – overtly described as loving – is shown to be largely based around sex. It is the main way that Natalie and Mike know how to relate to each other and, once sex and physicality are removed, they flounder. It is also sex, and her mother’s willingness to use it as currency, that got Natalie out of the trailer park in the first place.

On an intellectual level, therefore, I have a good amount of respect for this book. Lauren Kate says rather a lot beneath the facade of a fairly fluffy story. My trouble with The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove is that this facade just doesn’t work for me. The reader is presented with a cast of unlikeble characters. Natalie herself is self-focussed beyond the point where it is easy to excuse her behaviour through knowledge of her past, Mike is almost entirely bereft of personality and the supporting characters are either caricatures or similarly unlikeable. J.B was, by far, the most interesting character to me and he isn’t in the book much at all.

I found that the writing style also distanced me from the novel. The choice of first person seemed odd, given the book’s ending, and both the prologue and the epilogue felt over-written. More importantly, however, the world of The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove doesn’t feel real. It read to me like a fantasy of what it is to be popular and daring and to be dating a fabulous boy.

While, on the whole, The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove didn’t quite work for me, it certainly wouldn’t deter me from picking up Fallen. I saw a lot of promise in the ideas behind Kate’s writing, even though the style and characters of this work were not as strong as I would have liked.

Review: All These Things I’ve Done – Gabrielle Zevin

All These Things I've Done book coverAnya is the orphaned daughter of the former head of the Balanchine family, infamous as one of the big-five families that supply chocolate to the populace despite its prohibition. Due to her family, her life has been filled with crime and even murder, but her own focus lies in taking care of her younger sister and her older brother, whose acquired brain injury makes him younger than his physical years. Anya’s life is fairly routine until the new Assistant DA’s son, Win, arrives at her school. When she falls for Win, however, she finds herself caught between protecting her family and protecting her heart.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like All These Things I’ve Done. The Australian cover is gorgeous, but I have never been a fan of fiction centred around the Mafia, whether in film or book form. It doesn’t hold the allure for me that it does for so many others. However, the focus of this novel is not upon the criminal activities of Anya’s extended family but, rather, upon her relationships with her immediate family members and budding romance with Win. Indeed, the normalcy of a good proportion of All These Things I’ve Done means that it is a book that should be enjoyed by lovers of contemporary YA fiction, despite its futuristic setting and crime-based plot.

For a book that focusses on a Mafiya family, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly low-key. While it easily retains the reader’s interest, Gabrielle Zevin accomplishes this not through constant action or page-turning suspense but, rather, through cleverly rendered characters who you can’t help but want to read more about.

Personally, I found Anya the easy stand-out. She is strong and independent and extremely aware of her responsibilities, but is not without her weaknesses as well. Zevin has created a character who truly reads like a sixteen-year-old who has been the protector of her siblings for several years, which is no small feat. Anya combines duty and mature insight with a tendency towards rash behaviour that exposes her youth at times. Above all, however, she is likeable and easy to identify with, despite her unusual upbringing.

All that said, it is Win who will likely prove the favourite of many readers. Kind, devoted and good-looking, he is just the type of romantic interest to gain a large following. For those who are not smitten by Win, Anya’s childhood crush, Yuji Ono, provides an intriguing alternative. I, for one, hope that we’ll see a lot more of him in the rest of the series!

I wasn’t entirely sure about Anya’s best friend, Scarlet, however. It’s hard to give my reasoning without spoilers, but her later alliance with someone who wronged Anya dreadfully towards the beginning of the book seemed unconvincing to me. Certainly, it wasn’t an action of the loyal friend she is painted as – and I’m not sure it sends a good message to Zevin’s readers. It will be interesting to see what comes of this plot point in later books.

Although it is the first book in the Birthright series, All These Things I’ve Done is surprisingly self-contained. While a few threads are left untied, in order to entice readers to continue with the series, those who do not read on will not feel robbed of a satisfactory (if not entirely happy) conclusion to the novel.

There is no reason not to continue reading, however. All These Things I’ve Done is a solid new offering from Gabrielle Zevin that is sure to appeal to a broad range of readers.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Cold Hillside – Martin Cooper

Cold Hillside coverWhen Simon Contraine’s brother, Giles, is killed in a car accident, he returns to the farm where he grew up to grieve and take stock. But there seems to be something suspicious about the death, a fact seemingly confirmed by the interest a detective inspector takes in the accident – and in Simon himself. As Simon learns more about his brother’s life, he finds himself drawn into a situation deeper and more dangerous than he ever could have expected.

Cold Hillside is the kind of book that demonstrates just why self publishing is beginning to really take off in the current publishing climate. With the bigger publishing houses currently focussing on genres and ideas that are proven best-sellers (the Dan Brown-style thriller, the supernatural teen romance), there is little room for books that deviate from the fashions of the moment. Self publishing allows books like Cold Hillside, which don’t fit so easily into genres and sales patterns, to find a readership. And this book deserves a readership.

Martin Cooper is a very capable writer with an easy, literary style. He has an obvious flair for description, with his locations all being so well-sketched that it is impossible not to envision them in your mind while reading. Cold Hillside employs regular flashbacks to flesh out its backstory, and these are integrated in a skilful manner, so that the reader rarely struggles to identify the time-period of each section. I think that this fragmentary style works perfectly for the story that Cooper has chosen to tell. There is an air of reminiscence that is important for the reader’s understanding of Simon’s loyalty to and love for his brother, especially as more and more of Giles’s life is revealed.

One thing that didn’t work as well for me, however, was the use of tense changes to indicate flashbacks. It didn’t feel entirely consistent to me and I think I would have preferred if the time changes were indicated solely through the content – which does an excellent job of signposting this without the need to do so through tense as well.

The plot of Cold Hillside is extremely engaging. From the very beginning of the book, I found myself caught up in the mystery of the story, becoming only more enthralled as the story progressed and the true depth of Giles’s dealings began to become known. While, at times, the literary style of the novel can detract a little from the feeling of urgency that I would usually associate with a crime novel, the plot kept me interested from start to finish.

Giles is a cleverly-drawn character. A good amount of skill is needed to combine the shown aspects of his character in a way that feels genuine, and Cooper succeeds totally when it comes to this. Bridie, too, is well-characterised. She is likeable and impulsive and works as a good foil to Simon, providing energy where sometimes he seems to lack it. Indeed, as a protagonist, Simon often felt a little too understated. By the end of the book, I still felt unsure about who he really was. We learn of his career and his parts, but he remains at an emotional distance from the reader, which is unusual given the first-person perspective. A lot can be revealed of Simon through the people around him – but there was a sense of disconnection for me nonetheless.

Such things, however, detract little from what is an interesting and well-written novel. Cold Hillside combines crime and family loyalties with a touch of music – and does so with style and genuine skill.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Death by Sugar – H.M. Goltz

Jesse Clarke is just starting out in the private investigation business. So when a car explodes right outside the cafe where she’s breakfasting, it seems like the perfect opportunity to gain her second-ever client. Her second case leads to a third and she soon finds herself juggling two clients and two mysteries – both of which involve a seemingly-harmless substance: sugar.

Death by Sugar is an enjoyable and accessible whodunnit with a likeable lead. The fact that Jesse is still learning the ropes of her new career makes her more accessible to the reader. She feels fallible and is thus likeable; one can identify with her fears and cheer her on as she slowly unravels the mysteries surrounding her two cases.

The supporting cast of the novel is also good. Jesse’s partner, Dom, provides a glimpse of her personal life and allows for a hint of a romantic side-plot. Another human touch is added through references to Jesse’s dog, Atlas – styled after the author’s own canine companion, it seems! Police officer Jason Abingdon was the stand-out for me, however, when it came to the lesser characters. He is rounded and likeable and I hope he’s a planned inclusion in further Jesse Clarke mysteries.

Without giving too much away, both of the cases dealt with in Death by Sugar were absorbing, with enough red-herrings to keep the reader guessing alongside the protagonist. Interest is added through the inclusion of one very current case and one very cold one. It kept me wondering whether perhaps they were linked through more than sugar.

When it comes to the writing itself, there were a few typos and grammatical errors in my review copy, but these will likely be fixed up in the release edition. Goltz’s style is chatty and fast-paced, with realistic dialogue and an underlying sense of humour. Her informal tone is perfect for the genre, as the reader is encouraged to focus on the plot, rather than the writing itself.

I very much enjoyed Death by Sugar and hope that there are further Jesse Clarke mysteries in the works.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Witness – Sandra Brown

I was expecting The Witness to be a legal drama or a whodunit-type novel, so was very pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be more of a thriller. From the very beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to the intriguing mystery surrounding the protagonist of the story being on the run. As the book unfolds, the truth is slowly revealed, with just enough left in the shadows to keep the reader turning those pages, wanting to find out what happened as well as what will happened. The combination of flashbacks and chapters set in the present worked well for me, although the change of character POV confused me a couple of times.

This is an enjoyable novel that is just perfect for holiday reading, as it’s an easy read but has some real substance to it. I’ll definitely be reading more of Brown’s work – and not only because I have two more books already sitting in my shelves!

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

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