Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: thriller

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: Rosebush – Michelle Jaffe

Rosebush book coverIt was very interesting picking up Rosebush not long after having read The Lying Game, because both books involve characters trying to remember the events that led up to them dying/almost dying and both focus on a group of popular kids who are not very nice. The key difference is that you find out who the attempted killer was at the end of Rosebush, which was a good thing for my poor, frustrated brain, as it probably couldn’t have taken a second cliff-hanger!

Because of the nature of the novel, Rosebush incorporates a lot of flashbacks, most of which work very well. I have to admit that I skimmed over the lake nightmares, though, because they felt unnecessary and didn’t fit very well with the style of the rest of the book. On the whole, it’s a very smooth and easy read, capturing its readers through plot rather than overly clever language.

Jane works well as a protagonist because, although she’s extremely popular in a school situation, she’s not presented as being cruel to people around her. She is very flawed, however, in that she’s quite a weak individual who places popularity before friendship and has a desperate need for the love of the people around her. This might be a little more grating if such behaviour hadn’t stemmed from the loss of her father. Instead, the reader is given reasons for her interactions with her peers and for the initial state of the relationship between Jane and her mother.

One thing that didn’t seem quite as well-explained by Jane’s loss was the way she reacted to the different romantic options that were presented in the novel. One love interest in particular seemed to be extremely sudden and not very well justified, despite being the one that sticks. I think the bisexual (?) side plot could have been done better as well.

That said, Rosebush is not a romance novel, and such minor criticisms detract little from the book. The key to Rosebush is its plot and in the mystery of which of Jane’s friends is trying to kill her, and this mystery does a very good job of holding the reader’s interest until the very end. A well-paced and entertaining novel that made for a great public transport read.

Review: Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca book coverRebecca is one of those classic novels that somehow invade your consciousness long before you pick them up for the first time. There are allusions to it in all manner of modern books and television programs and I, personally, saw the Comic Strip’s “Consuela” well over a decade before I finally read the original. None of this, however, dulls the power of Daphne du Maurier’s rich prose and the overwhelming feeling of discomfort that catches hold of you the moment you start turning the pages of this book.

Anger, sadness and joy are all familiar emotions to feel while reading, but never before have I felt so intensely uncomfortable as I made my way through a book. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to read Rebecca, so enormous are the sensations of inadequacy, ineptitude and uncertainty that flood from du Maurier’s text. Anyone who has experienced being second best or a rebound partner will find that the thoughts and emotions of the second Mrs. de Winter resonate far too clearly. There were times that it almost hurt to read this novel – times that were reminiscent of burying my head in a pillow to avoid someone else’s embarrassment on TV. But even when the uncomfortable truth of the text is at its most painful, the suspense of the plot ensures that the reader can’t quite turn away.

There are few likeable characters in Rebecca. Maxim de Winter is appallingly paternalistic by today’s standards, and it is hard to understand his place in literature as a fictional heart-throb when he treats his second wife so very much like a child (and wishes to keep her forever in that childlike state). She herself is too weak to be admired, particularly if the reader is able to see anything of their own weakness in her! It somehow doesn’t matter, though. The book is just so artfully constructed and written that one is able to adore it even while caring little for its main characters.

And adore it I did. It’s clever and engrossing and so prettily written that it’s no surprise that it’s considered a modern classic. A wonderful read.

Review: Erebos – Ursula Poznanski

Erebos coverI’ve been keen to read Erebos since first hearing about it at the Publishers’ Showcase at the State Library late last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy. I had rather high expectations for the novel, given that a young adult thriller centred around a computer game seemed right up my alley. Luckily, my expectations were met and possibly even exceeded.

There are a lot of things that make me feel like playing video games, but reading isn’t usually one of them. Until now. With Erebos, Ursula Poznanski has created a real page-turner of a thriller where, along with the strong urge to continue reading, there is also a temptation to put down the novel in order to play a game yourself. The gameplay inside the novel is so well described, however, that it feels a lot like watching a friend play, which takes care of the cravings while the reader devours the book!

On the most basic level, Erebos is a book about a computer game. In fact, a good amount of the text is devoted to describing Nick’s in-game journey as Sarius. These sections are written in the present tense, as opposed to the rest of the book, which employs the past tense. In addition, they are told from the perspective of Sarius, rather than Nick, which further distances them from the rest of the text, allowing the reader to become immersed in the game itself.

As a protagonist, Nick grows on the reader as the book progresses. At first, he seems a little whiny and rather foolish, and he, like many of the novel’s characters, is negatively affected by the game’s addictive quality. He is not without growth, however, and by the end of the book he has becoming a likeable character, due in part to the influence of Emily and Victor, as well as his own experiences with the game.

Initially, I found Emily a little flat as a character, but she is fleshed out more as Nick has further contact with her, and she ends up being one of the strongest characters in Erebos. In contrast, I struggled a little with the characterisation of Brynne. We are told that she is not likeable, but never really shown it, so Nick’s constant negativity towards her and callous dismissal of her obvious feelings for him can feel very uncomfortable at times.

Really, though, the key supporting character in Erebos is the game itself. Poznanski has created a game that reads very much like the roleplaying games that will be familiar to so many readers and has then infused it with a deeply sinister element that gives the novel its edge. The escalating real life tasks asked of the game’s players are cleverly constructed and the portrayal of addiction is very well done. I think Poznanski did an excellent job of explaining why a group of teenagers could find themselves so deeply embroiled in circumstances they never would have considered before playing the game.

I personally loved Erebos. It is a well-paced thriller and an interesting exploration of human nature. It is also a book about gaming, and it was the combination of these two elements that made me enjoy it so much. I do wonder whether it would hold so great an appeal to readers who are not familiar with (or who are unimpressed by) the world of video games. I can imagine that the in-game sequences, at the very least, may be a lot less enjoyable.

Beyond this limitation, however, I think that Erebos should have a very wide appeal. Although it is marketed as a young adult novel and most of the characters are teens, I think that it would be equally suited to adult readers. It is an exciting and clever novel that well deserves the amazing sales that it has achieved in Europe.

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

Review: He’s After Me – Chris Higgins

He's After Me book coverWhen Anna meets handsome, doting Jem, it feels like her life is finally going right. Still struggling to cope with her father having left her mother for a much-younger workmate, she is glad to have something positive to focus on. Quickly, Jem becomes the centre of her world. But soon her friendships and schoolwork begins to suffer. Is Jem the perfect boyfriend she thinks he is?

He’s After Me is a quick and easy read, written as it is in an informal style with a lot of short sentences, dialogue and internal monologues. Despite this, it deals with a subject that is far from easy. Anna is involved in an obsessive relationship and Jem is an overly-possessive boyfriend, who isolates her from her friends and former life and instead leads her into a life of lies and crime.

As a commentary upon abusive relationships, the novel works well. Chris Higgins does a good job of capturing the pull of different emotions experienced by Anna and the conflict between her desire to be with Jem and her reluctance to completely leave her old goals behind and enter an adult life she’s not quite ready for. Because the story is told from Anna’s unreliable viewpoint, the reader is shown all of the positive sides of Jem’s personality, while his bad points are quickly glossed over.

Unfortunately, the effect of this is lessened by the inclusion of short, italicised sections of text that sit between one or more of the main chapters and give the perspective of an unnamed male character. I assume these are included in order to add a sense of tension and suspense to the novel, but I personally found that they had the opposite effect. I guessed the twist in the tale very early in the piece and found that the overly-sinister comments felt clichéd and detracted from the real horror portrayed in He’s After Me: the loss of self to a toxic relationship.

Indeed, I think it was the combination of realistic relationship story and melodramatic thriller that just didn’t work for me. I felt like I needed He’s After Me to be one or the other. It wasn’t intense enough to work as a thriller and not measured enough to truly explore the issues involved with obsessive relationships. In addition, I was not able to connect with any of the characters, so the ending didn’t move me at all.

Other readers have definitely enjoyed He’s After Me and there was nothing bad or offensive about it; it just wasn’t for me.

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: Cross My Heart – Sasha Gould

Cross My Heart book coverLaura has spent the last few years of her life in a convent, and when her father calls her back to her family home, she is thrilled to leave its restrictive walls. When she arrives back at the Venetian house she grew up in, however, she discovers it run down and her family tragically changed. Her father tells her she is to wed, in a match intended to repair his fortune. But will Laura accept her father’s choice.. or look for assistance behind the fans and masks of Venetian society.

Firstly, I must say that I really didn’t like the cover choice for Cross My Heart. I don’t think it captures the feel of the book at all, and certainly doesn’t indicate it’s historical fiction. The blurb isn’t great either. It’s only very loosely tied to the actual action of the novel, and has the wrong tone to sit well with the actual text. Luckily, however, in this case I didn’t judge the book by its cover!

Cross My Heart is a well crafted historical YA novel. Set in Renaissance Venice, it is full of little details that help set the scene and draw the reader into the past. It’s not my area of historical expertise, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of Gould’s world, but it’s certainly attractive and easy to visualise. Venice is a memorable location but, interestingly, it was the descriptions of the Venetians’ clothing and grooming that proved particularly evocative to me.

Gould’s characters are good, if a little too close to archetype in places. Laura is a strong protagonist, and I was able to forgive her head-turning beauty due to the fact that she proved likeable in most other ways. Paulina, although rarely present, is an enjoyable character, who I was disappointed I didn’t see more of. For me, however, the stand-outs were Allegreza and Grazia, who would certainly be able to command an audience for further novels based on their respective stories.

In contrast, I found the male characters a little close to type. Giacomo is the typical handsome love interest, Vincenzo a near-caricature of repugnance and Laura’s father the standard power-focussed strict parent. I’m sure there will be plenty of teenage girls swooning over the thought of a good-looking fresco painter, but I found his and Laura’s romance a little unsupported by the action. Then again, we do live in the fiction era of Soulmates At First Sight 😉

I think, though, that the combination of romance and intrigue was what prevented me from enjoying Cross My Heart more than I did. The romance was very traditional in form (as the male character descriptions probably suggest) and followed a standard structure: so much so that I joked with my mother about what I expected would happen in Giacomo’s story line – and then was proven right as the book progressed! There is absolutely a market for this kind of historical romance… but I’m not really it

The other aspect of the novel, however, was a tale of intrigue, complete with murders, false identities and secret societies. I loved that side of Cross My Heart. Historical thrillers are right up my alley, and I think Gould did a very good job of weaving the different threads of information together and tying them up at the end. The reader is thrust into a world of politics, society, danger and secrets, all against the backdrop of Venice. Great stuff!

The ending of Cross My Heart seems to suggest that there will be a sequel and I would certainly like to read more about the Segreta. I feel that Laura’s story has reached its natural conclusion with the end of this book, however, so if Gould writes more in this universe, I hope her focus rests upon other women.

Review: The Moses Legacy – Adam Palmer

Ancient languages expert Daniel Klein is called in to help when his old acquaintance, archaeologist Gabrielle Gusack, discovers a collection of stone fragments, covered in Proto-Sinaitic script, on an Egyptian dig. A routine academic expedition, however, soon turns into a treacherous physical and intellectual journey encompassing several countries and thousands of years, with a dangerous assassin close on Daniel and Gaby’s trail.

The Moses Legacy is a historical/religious conspiracy thriller in the vein of Dan Brown’s popular bestsellers. Like Brown, Adam Palmer is a storyteller and a suspense-weaver, rather than a writer of high literature, but this does not detract from the reader’s overall enjoyment of the novel. Indeed, Palmer reveals a solid grasp of the technical skills necessary for his chosen genre. The Moses Legacy is fast paced and its historical mysteries are engaging, while the action of the novel helps to break up the passages of religious and historical explanations with enough danger and excitement to keep less history-focussed readers entertained.

As a protagonist, Daniel Klein is a well-rounded character, but he doesn’t feature the annoying perfection that so many leads succumb to. I think Palmer did well to make Klein Jewish, because it links him with the setting and the story through more than just his academic specialty. In contrast, Gusack is a little one-dimensional. This is largely due to the fact that she is generally seen through Klein’s eyes, but it would have been nice to learn a little more about her. As a villain who is really little more than a henchman, Goliath fits the general archetype. The reader learns of his motivations, but is not given the chance to really sympathise with him.

Ultimately, I think Palmer delivered exactly what I was expecting from The Moses Legacy. It was a fun read with an interesting mystery to unravel, but it’s not the kind of book to change the world or significantly affect its readers. And that’s okay. It’s entertaining and attention-holding and the perfect read for a plane ride or the everyday commute.

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

Review: Games – Robin Klein

Patricia Miggs is excited when the two most popular girls in her new school, Kirsty and Genevieve, invite her to spend the weekend in the country with them at Kirsty’s aunt’s house. But things go steadily downhill when it becomes obvious that neither girl really wants her to be there. When strange things begin to happen in the house, Patricia assumes they’re all part of an elaborate prank, with her as the intended victim. But are Kirsty and Genevieve behind the games – or are they the work of a tormented woman who died in the house many years ago?

When I was in year seven,Games was the book to read. The queue to borrow it out from the school library was so long that I’m amazed the school’s copy didn’t fall apart by the middle of the year. For many of us, it was our first introduction to the horror/thriller genre. The Goosebumps series didn’t begin until the following year (and we were all too old for it by then anyway) and the Point Thrillers didn’t take off at my school until a year or two later. And we were scared by Games. It was so popular because it got to us in a way that most books didn’t.

Re-reading Games again as an adult, I was surprised by the way that the old feeling of spooky tension came flooding back to me. I predicted the ending quite early in the book, but that didn’t relieve the feeling of uneasiness as I read on. These days, I’m almost completely immune to horror due to absolute over-exposure, but there was a residual memory there that sparked into something when teamed with Klein’s excellent storytelling ability.

One of Klein’s strengths was always her characters. They had flaws and back-stories and more levels than might at first be apparent. Games is no exception. Certainly, none of the three girls are very likeable, but Patricia, at least, becomes more so as the book progresses and she begins to come into herself.

Klein teams excellent descriptive language with realistic teen dialogue to create a novel that is both appealing and well-crafted. It was a pleasure to re-read Games as an adult; I found that my enjoyment hadn’t been tempered at all by the passage of the intervening years.

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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