Review: Snake Island by Ben Hobson

 

Title: Snake Island

Author: Ben Hobson

Published: August 5th 2019, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read August 2019, courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Snake Island by Ben Hobson is powerful tale of patrimony, regret, vengeance, and tragedy.

For two years Vernon Moore, and his wife, have refused to acknowledge their son, Caleb, who is serving time in a nearby minimum security prison, firm in their belief that he should serve his sentence for a vicious domestic assault without clemency. Yet when Vernon learns that his son is being victimised by a local thug, Brendan Cahill, given free rein to regularly bash Caleb by a corrupt prison warden, he realises his error and is determined to put an end to the attacks. Vernon knows that appealing to the local police for help would be futile, the Cahills’s pay Sargeant Sharon Wornkin well to ignore their transgressions, which includes a large scale operation growing and selling marijuana, but he hopes that an appeal to Cahill patriarch Ernie, one father to another, will save his boy. Instead, Moore unwittingly ignites a feud that threatens to destroy them all.

Unfolding primarily from the perspectives of Vernon, Sharon, and the youngest Cahill son, Sidney, I was riveted by this low key, gritty rural thriller as events spiralled out of control.

“A cornered rat used what teeth it had.”

The characters, and their relationships, are realistically crafted with a skilful complexity. Few are likeable, all are deeply flawed, but none (well almost) are entirely irredeemable. I had sympathy for Vernon and Sidney, despite the mistakes they made, but I had very little for Sharon, whose lack of integrity I found difficult to forgive.

“You keep giving up parts of yourself, you end up as far down the track as it’ll take you.”

Hobson explores several themes in Snake Island. I thought one of the most important was the notion of loyalty, to whom it may be owed, and where it’s limit may lie, and each of the characters wrestle with these questions. Another is the legacy of violence, whether from the experience of domestic abuse or war, and how it affects who someone becomes, as a father, as a son, as a wife, as a person. Also thoughtfully examined are themes of family, justice, forgiveness, and sacrifice.

“Vernon looked at his son. Understood deeply now what he had given up. Knew, too, he wasn’t willing to give up anymore.”

A vivid and thought provoking novel, I was gripped by Snake Island from the first line, to the last word.

++++++

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Review: Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

 

Title: Never Have I Ever

Author: Joshilyn Jackson

Published: July 30th 2019, William Morrow

Status: Read July 30th 2019, courtesy William Morrow/Edelweiss

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My Thoughts:

 

“She smiled and I had no premonition as I smiled back. She didn’t look like my own destruction to me.”

Only after inviting neighborhood newcomer Angelica Roux In to join the members of the Brain-Dead Mommies Bookclub clustered in her basement does Amy Whey realise her mistake. Without a shred of humility, and with confidence born of beauty, Roux, as she prefers to be called, disrupts the planned discussion about The House of Mirth, instead leading the women to play an adult game of Never Have I Ever. While a handful of drunken women grow ever more indiscrete, Amy refuses to participate.

“I knew what she was then. Too late, I understood her game.”

Two days later Roux appears again at Amy’s door, but this time she isn’t in the mood for games. Roux demands a quarter of a million dollars or she will reveal a dark secret from Amy’s past that will shatter her well ordered life.

“You owe me. You owe me, and you are going to pay.”

Deftly plotted, offering unexpected twists and turns right up until the last pages, Never Have I Ever is a compelling psychological thriller. Roux’s attempt at blackmail sparks a daring game of cat and mouse between two women who both have a lot to lose.

“She was better at this than I was, more experienced, but I didn’t have to win, after all. I only had to play down to a draw, get enough to make her walk away. I needed two things: a secret and to know who she was hiding it from.”

Amy is not so much interested in winning, as she is in simply ridding herself of the threat Roux poses, but each move she makes is met with a countermove from Roux that escalates the stakes. I’ve always found Jackson’s female characters to have an authentic complexity in thought and behaviour, and it’s no different here. Amy is a sympathetic character, but she refuses to be a victim. As a sociopath, Roux’s actions are more slightly more predictable, she puts her own self interest above everything, except perhaps her son. I was utterly absorbed by the battle of wits as it played out, particularly curious to see just how far Amy was willing to go to protect herself, and those she loves.

“The past remained the same, and so, apparently, had she, but I had come up new.”

Never Have I Ever is a provocative, gripping, and wildly entertaining tale of secrets, betrayal, revenge and redemption. A must read.

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Review: The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth

 

Title: The Blue Rose

Author: Kate Forsyth

Published: July 16th 2019, Vintage

Status: Read July 2019 courtesy Penguin AU

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My Thoughts:

 

The Blue Rose is an enthralling tale of love, betrayal, peril, and adventure, set against the turmoil of the French Revolution, and the inscrutable Empire of China.

After disgracing her father, Marquis de Ravoisier, at the court of Versailles, Viviane de Faitaud is exiled to her late mother’s estate, the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, where she spent her childhood. Though meant as a punishment, Viviane is happy in Belisama, far from her father’s cruel attentions, and able to regularly escape the notice of her chaperone.

While the estate is barely viable after years of the Marquis’s mismanagement and neglect, when Viviane’s father remarries, he decrees that an extravagant garden shall be created to honour his new bride and hires an ambitious young Welshman to design and oversee it’s construction. David Stronach hopes that the commission will launch his career among the French nobility, allowing him to support his family, and throws himself into the project, but he soon finds himself distracted by the beauty and grace of Viviane.

Despite the impossibility of the match, Viviane and David fall in love, but when the Marquis discovers their romance, David barely escapes the chateau with his life, and Viviane is given no choice but to marry a rich Duke more than twice her age. Believing her lover dead, Vivienne returns to the palace of Louis XVI, just as the revolution begins to gather momentum, while David, believing himself betrayed, joins a British diplomatic mission to Imperial China at the behest of Sir Joseph Banks.

Forsyth deftly illustrates the decadence of life at the court of Versailles under the reign of Louis XVI, and the extraordinary evolution of the French Revolution. After the death of her hated husband during riots in Paris, Vivane serves as a lady in waiting to Marie-Antoinette and stays with the beleaguered royal family as their rule falters. Seen through Viviane’s eyes, the French royal family, especially the much maligned Marie-Antoinette, become humanised as they face the situation with bewilderment, grief, and growing horror. The author’s recounting of the astonishing historical events that defined the Revolution, from the demands of the Third Estate, to the storming of Bastille, and finally to the wholesale imprisonment and gruesome beheadings of the country’s aristocracy, is utterly engrossing.

David’s journey was inspired by the author’s discovery of a diplomatic mission led by Lord Macartney at the behest of King George III to request the Chinese Emperor open trade with Britain, during which a member of the party gathered botanicals and shipped them to Sir Joseph Banks. This trip fits neatly into the timeline of the story, and ties beautifully into David’s desire to obtain a blood-red rose, unavailable in Europe at the time. I found David’s expedition by sea, and his impressions of Imperial China, interesting.

As with much of Forsyth’s recent work, The Blue Rose also takes some inspiration from traditional lore, in this instance a version of The Blue Rose, a Chinese folk tale. It is a romantic story that ties beautifully into David’s quest, and his relationship with Vivane.

An enchanting, captivating novel, with a plausible, seamless narrative which melds compelling historical fact, with vividly imagined fiction, The Blue Rose is another spectacular story from Kate Forsyth.

Read an Excerpt

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Also by Kate Forsyth reviewed at Book’d Out

 

 

 

Review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty

Title: The Chain

Author: Adrian McKinty

Published: July 9th 2019, Hachette Australia

Status: July 2019 courtesy BFredricksPR

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My Thoughts:

 

“Number one: you are not the first and you will certainly not be the last. Number two: remember, it’s not about the money—it’s about The Chain.”

Adrian McKinty’s The Chain is a riveting thriller with a terrifying premise.

The Chain works like this: your child is kidnapped, and the only thing that will ensure their safe release is the payment of a ransom, and for you to then kidnap a child, whose parents must in turn pay a ransom, and kidnap a child. If you fail to comply, your child will die, if your victim’s parents fail to comply, you must kill their child and choose another target, or your child will die. Attempt to inform law enforcement, or in anyway interrupt The Chain and you and your entire family will be the first to die.

Rachel Klein is not an obvious target for this macabre network. She is newly divorced, recently in remission after treatment for breast cancer, and has very little money. When her thirteen year old daughter, Kylie, is abducted, and Rachel receives the chilling instructions as the newest link in The Chain, she balks, as most right-minded people would. What Rachel is being asked to do is unthinkable, but with the life of her beloved daughter at stake, Rachel realises she has no choice.

The first half of the book is an absolute page turner, I raced through it wondering just how far Rachel was willing to go. McKinty skilfully communicates the fear and desperation experienced by victims of The Chain. When the lives of our children are threatened there is very little a parent won’t do to protect them, and it is exactly that primal instinct that the sociopathic minds behind The Chain exploit.

“Be thankful for our mercy and remember that once you are on The Chain, you are on it forever. You are not the first and you will not be the last. We are watching, we are listening; we can come for you at any time.”

The pace slowed somewhat during the second half as Rachel, and Kylie, struggle with the aftermath of their experience, but it ramps up again as Rachel realises the only way she and her daughter will ever escape The Chain, is to expose the diabolical masterminds behind the scheme.

The Chain is an impressive thriller that will get your heart racing and keep the pages turning. Don’t miss being part of The Chain.

Read an Extract

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Review: Conviction by Denise Mina

 

Title: Conviction

Author: Denise Mina

Published: June 25th 2019, Little, Brown & Co

Status: Read June 2019, courtesy Mulholland Books/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Sharp, fast-paced, witty and vivid, Conviction by Denise Mina is a lively and engrossing thriller.

Reeling from learning that an old friend, Leon Parker, is assumed to be responsible for the murder-suicide of his two children during her morning coffee on her favourite true crime podcast, Anna McDonald is further devastated when her husband announces over breakfast that he is leaving her, for her pregnant best friend. As she lies on the floor in her hallway considering ending it all, Anna is interrupted by her best friend’s shattered husband, celebrity Fin Cohen and, in need of a distraction from the mornings events, she impulsively decides on a road trip, Fin in tow, with the idea of proving that the producer of ‘Death and the Dana’ has got it all wrong. It’s not the wisest of decisions, especially when a photo of her with Fin goes viral, and now Anna, who used to be someone else, is back on the radar of the woman she believes killed Leon and his family, the same woman who once wanted her dead.

I found Anna to be an utterly compelling narrator for reasons I can’t quite define. Anna is, at least initially, not very likeable, she is unpleasant, rude, and an admitted liar, but well, we meet her on what we assume is probably the worst day of her life. As the story unfolds the reliability of Anna’s narrative remains suspect, but somewhere along the line she earns sympathy, admiration, and eventually trust.

Conviction has more depth than one might expect, exploring themes such as privilege, corruption, mental illness, assault and identity. While the plausibility of the thriller plot may be stretched a bit thin, I found it easy to dismiss any inconsistencies and absurdities. I guessed where responsibility for The Dana’s fate lay fairly early on, but there were other surprises I didn’t see coming, and I was particularly stunned by the circumstances that forced Anna to hide her identity.

I really liked the way in which Mina grounds the novel so thoroughly within modern society and she does an excellent job of exploring the double edged power of social media. The true crime podcast ‘Death and The Dana’ frames the mystery, as Anna and Fin google, tweet, Instagram, and ‘cast as they race across Europe, in their pursuit, and escape, of the truth.

Conviction is a terrific read- entertaining, astute, and inventive. This is the first book I’ve read by Denise Mina, but on the strength of it I have every intention of hunting up her backlist.

++++++

Available from Hachette Book Group US

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Review: Devil’s Lair by Sarah Barrie

 

Title: Devil’s Lair

Author: Sarah Barrie

Published: June 17th 2019, HQ Fiction

Status: Read June 2019, courtesy Harlequin Australia

+++++

My Thoughts:

Two years after Callie’s life is devastated by a shocking incident she flees relentless scrutiny to find sanctuary in a rural cottage in the Central Highlands of Tasmania. Changing her name, and her look, Callie hopes to make a fresh start, and when she is unexpectedly offered a job at nearby tourist retreat, Calico Lodge, she decides it’s an opportunity too good to pass up. Made to feel welcome by the owners, particularly Connor Atherton, and slowly winning over her gruff landlord at Waldron House, Callie begins to believe she can escape her past…until a psychotic killer revives a long held grudge.

Blurring gothic sensibilities with psychological suspense, The Devil’s Lair by Sarah Barrie is a gripping thriller that kept me compulsively turning the pages until the early hours of the morning. I experienced an almost visceral reaction to the sense of unease that builds as the story unfolds, finding myself startling at every unexpected noise outside my darkened window.

Barrie establishes the disquieting presence of Waldron House with descriptions of ‘shabby green walls and scarred wooden floors’, dim rooms crowded with boxes and dusty antique furniture, and the overgrown, wild gardens. Strange symbols are carved or drawn on door frames, the cellar door sports a large padlock, and chunks of black tormaline are placed on window sills. Add to that the odd noises and other strange occurrences that begin to plague Callie, as well as the disturbing rumours that persist regarding the property’s history, and the grandeur of Waldron House begins to lose its charm.

Callie is a sympathetic character, the tragedy that caused her to flee the Hunter Valley is horrifying to contemplate, and then, just as she begins to find her feet in Tasmania, members of the community are targeted by unspeakable violence, and Callie experiences a cascade of unsettling events that causes her to question not only her safety, but her sanity.

Contrivances were easy to dismiss as I got caught up in the story, and as the truth about the past and present unravels, Barrie stuns with plot twists that reveal shameful secrets, dangerous obsessions, and horrifying acts of revenge.

A compelling and darkly atmospheric tale, Devil’s Lair is a riveting thriller. I enjoyed it so much I’ve ordered Blood Tree River, also by Sarah Barrie, which shares the novel’s location and some of the characters though it is not directly related.

Read an Excerpt

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Review: A Lifetime of Impossible Days by Tabitha Bird

 

Title: A Lifetime of Impossible Days

Author: Tabitha Bird

Published: June 4th 2019, Viking

Status: Read May 2019, courtesy Penguin AU

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My Thoughts:

A Lifetime of Impossible Days is an impossibly enchanting debut from Tabitha Bird.

Silver Willa is 93 when she insists that her carer takes her into town on the first of June 2050 to post two Very Important Boxes.

Middle Willa is 33 years old when she receives a collection slip from the post office that she has every intention of ignoring.

Super Gumboots Willa is 8 years old when she finds a battered box, inside is a jar of water, accompanied by a note that says: ‘One ocean: plant in the backyard.’, which she does, while wishing for the impossible.

“Here’s what I know about impossible things. We can’t command them, but we can allow space for them in our minds.”

When the impossible happens, Super Gumboot Willa hopes it is an opportunity to save herself, and her younger sister, Lottie. Middle Willa refuses to acknowledge that the impossible offers any chance of change. Silver Willa remembers only that the impossible is her only hope.

This is a compassionate, emotional journey of tragedy, trauma, loss, love, forgiveness, and hope. I was moved to tears more than once by A Lifetime of Impossible Days. Though sensitively handled, the pain of Willa’s experiences are at times overwhelming as Bird explores the experience of family violence and abuse, and it’s lasting repercussions. Yet those tears also came when the Willa’s achieved the seemingly impossible, for their courage, and strength.

“Because I know one thing, Willa. We are all the ages we have ever been. We carry around our trauma. And if we have unfinished business at one of those ages we can’t move on to have a healthy adult life.”

Beautifully crafted, the past, present and future are deftly woven together, a strand at a time, ensuring the impossible makes sense. It requires an extraordinary imagination to write such a complex story, though thankfully only an ordinary one to appreciate it.

“We’re all stories, Willa. How else do you tell a story if you don’t make it all up? Sometimes, when everything seems lost, you just have to keep making stuff up”

A whimsical, heart-rending, and insightful novel, i was captivated by Willa’s journey.

Amaze-a-loo, Tabitha Bird.

 

Read an Excerpt

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Review: The Accusation by Wendy James

 

Title: The Accusation

Author: Wendy James

Published: May 20th 2019, HarperCollins AU

Status: Read May 2019- courtesy HarperCollins/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Accusation is author Wendy James’ contemporary take on the Canning Affair, an eighteenth-century criminal case that titillated the Victorian public, a compelling story of trust and betrayal, guilt and innocence.

Susannah Wells, a high school drama teacher, has been living with her mother in the small rural community of Enfield Wash for a just a few months. It’s a quiet life, her mothers dementia driven outbursts aside, in contrast with the years she spent as a young starlet on a popular TV soap.

Susannah, like the rest of the residents in Enfield Wash, expresses her shock when news breaks that a frail, bedraggled young woman has been found on the outskirts of town, claiming to have been abducted, drugged and chained to a bed for more than a month. When presented with the initial results of the police investigation, Ellie tearfully confirms the identity of her captors- Susannah Wells, and her mother, Mary.

Susannah vehemently denies the accusation, but with her arrest, her friends, even her closest friend, her colleagues, the townspeople, and the public at large, judge her guilty. Only her lover, Chip, is willing to believe in Susannah’s innocence, but even his faith begins to waiver as seemingly irrefutable evidence against Susannah builds.

If Susannah is innocent, why was evidence of Ellie’s ordeal found in her home? If Susannah is innocent, what possible motive could a stranger, especially a beautiful and bright young woman like Ellie, have to accuse her? If Susannah is innocent, who is guilty?

I raced through The Accusation, utterly engrossed by the question of Susannah’s guilt or innocence. James skilfully keeps the reader guessing, even while probing the possibilities of truth and deceit.

The story is structured in three parts, covering a period of about 12 months, for the most part progressing linearly, with the occasional slip backward and forward in time. Primarily the narrative unfolds from the perspectives of Susannah, and Honor, Ellie’s PR representative, with brief excerpts from a documentary produced about the case, after its resolution.

Of particular interest is the way in which James explores the role of ‘spin’ and social media in contributing to Ellie’s new found celebrity status, and Susannah’s public vilification. It’s an all too real scenario that demonstrates how easily the public can be manipulated, and how easily truth is dismissed.

The Accusation is provocative and gripping, a contemporary psychological thriller that should be moved to the top of your reading list.

Read an Excerpt

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Also reviewed at Book’d Out by Wendy James

Review: The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta

 

Title: The Place on Dalhousie

Author: Melina Marchetta

Published: April 2nd 2019, Viking

Status: Read April 2019, courtesy Penguin

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My Thoughts:

If you are familiar with award winning author Melina Marchetta you will delight in revisiting familiar characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son in The Place on Dalhousie.

If you are not, you will be charmed by the characters you meet, and eager to devour Marchetta’s backlist when you have finished this wonderfully touching novel of home, family and friendship.

After Rosie Gennaro and Jimmy Hailler cross paths and enjoy a brief fling while travelling through Queensland, neither expect to see one another again, but fifteen months later, Jimmy learns Rosie has given birth to his son.

Rosie has reluctantly returned to the house on Dalhousie Street in Sydney, the home she once shared with her family, before her mother succumbed to cancer, before her father’s sudden death, but in which now her hated stepmother, Martha resides, to raise her son.

The house on Dalhousie is more than just a home to Rosie, it is all she has left of everything she has lost. As far as she is concerned Martha, despite being the legal owner of the house, is an interloper with no legitimate claim. The two live together as if strangers, Marta is no more fond of her sullen stepdaughter than Rosie is of her. Marchetta explores this complicated relationship, and it’s progression, thoughtfully.

Rosie is an abrasive character, consumed by anger, guilt and bitterness connected to her mother’s illness, her father’s remarriage, and his sudden death. I found it difficult to like her initially, she comes across as a self involved brat, but slowly, for the sake of her son, she begins to relax her defences. The author’s development of Rosie feels authentic, the change in her is gradual, and realistically limited.

Jimmy’s entry into the tense and awkward situation at the Dalhousie house is a catalyst to soften the enmity between Rosie and Martha. Having been abandoned by his own parents, Jimmy, though hesitant, is determined know his son and meet his responsibilities. I quickly grew very fond of Jimmy, who has had a difficult and far from blameless life, but who is decent and loyal. Jimmy’s friendships with his high school mates are his anchor, and give him support as he grapples with the uncertainty of his future.

For all the authenticity of Marchetta’s characters, and their stories, in The Place on Dalhousie there is the lightest touch of magical realism, a coincidence that closes a circle in a way that could have felt melodramatic, but instead felt right and true.

A beguiling story of loneliness and connection, of home, of family and friendship, of belonging, The Place on Dalhousie is a captivating novel, I was smiling so widely during the last chapter my cheeks hurt.

 

Read an Extract

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Review: 55 by James Delargy

 

Title: 55

Author: James Delargy

Published: May 1st 2019, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read April 2019- courtesy Simon & Schuster

 

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My Thoughts:

 

Having raced through the compelling story told by James Delargy in 55, I almost threw it against the wall when I read the last sentence (after double checking there were no pages missing).

“‘He wanted me to be number fifty-five,’ the man spluttered, looking Chandler squarely in the eye for the first time. He shivered and squeezed his eyes shut.”

On an ordinary morning in the remote Western Australian town of Wilbrook, a bruised and bloodied man stumbles into the police station with a horrifying story to tell. Identifying himself as Gabriel, he claims to have have been drugged while hitchhiking, waking to find himself chained to a wall in a small woodshed. His abductors name, Gabriel tells Sergeant Chandler Jenkins, is Heath, a short, stocky man with a deep tan, brown hair, a beard, probably about thirty years old.

Just a few hours later a local man marches a bruised and bloodied stranger into the police station at the end of his gun after being caught attempting to steal a car. It’s obvious to the Sergeant that this stranger is the man Gabriel described as his captor, and he moves to arrest him, but is stopped cold when Heath claims to have been drugged while hitchhiking, waking to find himself chained to a wall in a small woodshed. His abductors name, Heath tells Jenkins, is Gabriel, a tall, slim man with a deep tan, stubble chin and a soft voice.

“One of them, and only one of them was the true victim and the killer was piggy-backing their story. There was no other explanation.”

It is an intriguing and original hook, with both men claiming to be the victim of the other, and the possibility that as many as 54 more victims could be buried somewhere on the outskirts of town.

Single father Jenkins, and his small staff- young rookie Nick, the ambitious Luka, second in command, Tanya, and reliable Jim- are perhaps a little out of their depth in this situation. They make a few errors at the outset, which adds to the excitement, but one innocuous mistake in particular will come back to haunt the Sergeant.

Given the potential for the case to become a sensation, the investigation is quickly appropriated by Jenkins’ immediate boss, and former friend, Inspector Mitch Andrews. The last case the pair worked on together as rookies, involving a missing person, is recounted In a series of flashbacks, going someway to explaining the animosity between the two men.

Delargy’s main characters are well crafted and nuanced. Chandler’s easygoing nature contrasts with Mitch’s self-aggrandising behaviour, much in the same way that Gabriel appears to be the antithesis of Heath, yet as the story progresses,the author subtly develops details that adds depth to their characters.

The author maintains an effectively unsettling atmosphere through the novel, where the uncertainty, anxiety, and animosity experienced by, and between, the characters is underscored by the heat and isolation of the environment.

“On he drove through the undergrowth, pursuing the echo of his cries but never catching up. He pushed on harder because he was panicked and he pushed on harder because of the tears streaking down his face. He didn’t want anyone to see his hurt, immersing himself in the trees, dirt and despair…”

Delargy does an outstanding job of pacing in this novel. Tension ebbs and flows unpredictability as the plot twists and turns. I raced through the pages, finishing it in under three hours, desperate to learn the truth.

Oh, but that ending! I still can’t say I’m happy about it, but neither, it’s important to note, can I say that it was disappointment.

With an arresting premise, a riveting story, and a provocative conclusion, 55 is an impressive crime thriller debut novel from James Delargy.

++++++

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