Books Read in 2015 – 13. A Kiss Before Dying – Ira Levin

Genre: American Crime

Narrative Style: 3rd person narration from multiple viewpointsUnknown-1

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1953

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The future had looked so rosy but then Dorothy announced she was pregnant and all his plans came crashing down. He knows he has to something – indeed he will do anything – to ensure his plans come to fruition. He is a man of ambition and his goal is the millions of wealthy copper ore family, the Kingships. He will stop at nothing, not even murder, to get what he feels he deserves. 

I was familiar with the plot of this story, having seen the film with Matt Dillon in the early 90s so I was eager to see what the book was like. As with other books by Levin, I was impressed to see that the book was even better than the film versions. Levin really was a master of suspense and he certainly kept me reading on.

The novel starts with an unnamed male narrator discovering that his girlfriend, Dorothy Kingship is pregnant. This does not please him but it soon comes clear he feels there is more at stake than merely the loss of his freedom. He has been courting Dorothy with the hope of marrying her and gaining access to her family’s money. If her father discovers the pregnancy, she will be cut off. At first, he tries to make her take pills that will make her miscarry and then, when that doesn’t work, his thoughts take an even darker turn. He cons Dorothy into thinking he will marry her and then lures her on to the roof of the building before pushing her off, making it look like suicide. I must admit, I felt little sympathy for Dorothy and I was more concerned with how he might overcome the obstacles that fate presented for him. It was fascinating to watch the thought processes of a psychopath unfurl. Especially one who thinks he may be getting away with the perfect crime.

In the second part, we are presented with Dorothy’s sister, Ellen who is unconvinced by her sister’s supposed suicide. She has some information about a boy who was seeing Dorothy and she is determined that he had something to do with her death. She meets two men, both of which fit the bill. As the man from the first part is never named, the reader is also in the dark about his identity. I was genuinely surprised when his identity was revealed.

The final part concerns the final sister, recovering slowly from one sister’s suicide and the next one’s murder. She seems to have found the perfect man. He likes all the things she likes. He is a gentleman although he is poor. Now the reader is fully aware that this is the same man from the start and the tension is now whether he will indeed get away with it. The ending was intense and immensely satisfying. It was also a relief. The tension before the end is almost unbearable. An excellent read.

Books Read in 2015 – 10. The Anniversary Man – R. J. Ellory


Genre: American Crime, Serial Killer

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating 4/5Unknown

Published: 2009

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2015

Time on shelf: About four years. I bought it at the same time as A Quiet Vendetta which I read straightaway and really enjoyed. I had no real reason for not reading it except other books got in the way.

Synopsis: John Costello survives an attack by a serial killer which kills his girlfriend. Now, twenty years later, he is the only one in New York to realise that a new spate of murders are in fact linked. They are all copies of old murders, committed on the anniversary of the original. However, contact with the police only brings John into the firing line of the killer. 

I wasn’t entirely sure about the premise of this book at first. I had visions of the film Copycat which I considered to be the definitive narrative of the copycat killer idea. I wasn’t sure what could possibly be added to the idea. However, I was wrong. This a completely different take on the tale.

The novel begins with the attack on John Costello back in 1984 and charts his difficulty with getting on with his life and his obsession with serial killers. He is damaged, not just physically but mentally by the attack and there is certainly something odd about him. Odd enough that when, later in the novel, the police believe he is the killer you begin to doubt yourself as to whether or not he is the guilty party.

The narrative then moves on to a series of murders in different areas of New York which have no stylistic similarities so no one links them until the Chief of Police gets wind of a possible article linking the murders together. This is the work of John Costello and he has realised the link between the deaths and the killer gets his name – The Anniversary Man.

It is at this point that the narrative really takes off and we really get to know the cop in charge of the investigation Ray Irving. He is suitably cynical and completely deprived of resources and time. He and Costello form an interesting team, both lonely and difficult men although in different ways. They face a race against time, trying to work out which murder will be the next enacted and I found that I couldn’t put the book down.

I have to say that I did work out how this would end. However, that is not to say that that it wasn’t enjoyable or that I wasn’t surprised by any of it. The ending was sad but also realistic and I wasn’t at all disappointed.

Books Read in 2015 – 5. A Room Swept White – Sophie Hannah

Genre: Chick-lit, Detective

Narrative Style; A mixture of first and third person with extracts from books and Unknownarticles. 

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2010

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fliss Benson is sent a card with sixteen numbers on it. She has no idea what they mean. On the same day, she is put in charge of a documentary about miscarriages of justice – specifically women who are thought to have killed their children. Then one of the main focuses of the documentary, Helen Yardley, is found murdered and in her pocket is a card very like the one that Fliss received. 

The premise of this novel was intriguing and emotive. Women who are accused of killing their children often provoke extreme reactions in people and I was curious to see how the subject would be handled. Unfortunately, Hannah allows the narrative to be muddled by too many different narratives and ideas. At first, I thought that the novel would be about Sids and the likelihood of that happening in more than one child from the same family but Hannah throws in high levels of blood salt, babies that appear to have been shaken and babies that reacted adversely to immunisation. To me, this muddied whatever point she was trying to make (and in actual fact, I’m not sure what that point might have been) to the point of incomprehension.

Of course, for all this to work, there had to be an evil doctor. Judith Duffy has given evidence in a number of cases and in Helen Yardley’s case claims that it would be virtually impossible for two babies in the same family to have Sids. This was clearly based on the real life doctor who said that the chances were one in 73 million. Of course, as Ben Goldacre has pointed out, this is erroneous and Hannah does quite a good job of showing us why the doctor was wrong. At least, at the beginning. About half way through, she changes tack and we are meant to view Duffy with some sympathy. And we are also supposed to believe that she becomes friends with one of the women that she helped to jail. This stretched my disbelief to the very limit.

Perhaps the most annoying element of this novel was Fliss Benson. The only narrator to have annoyed me more is Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey. Fliss is a bundle of insecurities, always doubting herself and bursting into tears. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all female protagonists should be strong or good role models or anything as crass as that but she really was annoying. I wanted to slap her, I really did.

At the beginning of the novel, she is promoted to creative director of the company she works for for no readily apparent reason except that the old creative director Laurie Natrass has found a new job. It is as if Hannah couldn’t imagine a woman being successful except at the whim of a powerful man. Of course, Fliss is in love with Laurie despite the fact that he is exceptionally unloveable which causes a lot of mooning and moaning which I could really have done without.

The most successful elements were definitely the third person descriptions of the police investigation and I know I would have enjoyed this more if it had been a straightforward police procedural. And if I’d been convinced by the ending. In fact, I found the last third of the book really difficult to finish. I only did finish it because I wanted the closure even while I knew it was going to annoy me. It is a while since I’ve been so relieved to finish a book.

Books Read in 2014 – 53. The Distant Echo – Val McDermid

2014tbrbuttonGenre: Detective
Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of viewpoints
Rating: 5/5
Published: 2003
Format: paperback
Synopsis: Four students find a girl, bleeding and almost dead, in a park on the way home from a party. A lack of any other suspects puts them in the firing line with the police and destroys their friendship. When twenty five years later, someone starts to kill them off, they feel they are back in the firing line. Will the real killer ever be found?
Reading Challenge: The TBR Challenge
Time on shelf: About three years. Not sure why. I guess, I forgot it.

This gripped me from the very first. I was convinced by the friendship between the four students – Alex, Ziggy, Weird and Mondo – by the end of the first chapter. I enjoyed the way that McDermid used their different viewpoints to add details to the story. They were all strong characters, some more likeable than others. There were many viewpoints – the police running the case, for example which gave the reader sympathy for them as they were unable to find the killer.
The pressure of being murder suspects takes its toll. The friendship – which has lasted since school – begins to break apart. The police investigation brings to light the fact that Ziggy is gay, which some of the group find hard to deal with. Then Weird finds God and the others wonder if that is a sign of guilt which further drives a wedge between them.
Twenty five years later and the first of the four is murdered. I won’t reveal who was killed but I will say that I was devastated as it was my favourite character. I was both surprised and impressed by McDermid killing of a character that I assume would be loved by most readers.
There are a number of red herrings in the second half of the book. McDermid gives just enough information to point you in the wrong direction while cleverly dropping hints as to who the real killer is. Once I realised who it was, the facts quickly fell into place and I realised what a master of the detective art McDermid really is. I will certainly be reading more.

Books Read in 2014 – 35. Plain Truth – Jodi Picoult

Genre: Chick Lit, Morality

Narrative Style: Third Person chapters alternating with first person

Rating 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2000

Synopsis: A dead baby is found in a barn on an Amish farm. At first, none of the women will even admit to being pregnant. And then there is the mystery of how the baby died. Ellie Hathaway is the streetwise attorney who becomes far too involved in her client’s life. 

I picked this up because I wanted something that would be easy to read while I was marking exams, something that would help me switch off at the end of a day of reading accounts that can’t decide what tense to be in. I certainly didn’t want to be struggling through some heavy piece of literary fiction. This had belonged to my mother (for all you wondering why I would even have a Jodi Picout book on my shelves) and when she died at the start of the year, it made its way onto my shelf. I was also curious. A few years ago I was loaned Change of Heart by a Picoult nut and while I thought it was okay, I wasn’t overwhelmed. I wanted to give her another try.

I must admit that the storyline drew me in quite quickly. Once it became apparent that the eldest daughter of the household, Katie, was the baby’s mother and that she denied giving birth, never mind killing the baby, then my interest was piqued. Picoult had also clearly researched her subject matter thoroughly as the picture given of Amish life was full of detail and seemed (to me anyway) realistic. I was ready to say I was wrong and that this was a very good book.

However, as I read on, things started to jar for me. The first thing was the mention of the ghost of Katie’s little sister. Which was fine when it seemed it was a figment of Katie’s imagination but it soon became apparent that not only could other people see this ghost but Picoult herself seemed to believe in its existence. I find this sort of spirituality quite troubling and it didn’t seem to fit with Katie’s character at all. It did mean, however, that there could be an utterly sickeningly corny image at the end of the book which I personally found completely unnecessary.

Picoult described the Amish as a group of people that lived for the community and the good of the group and who frowned on individuality. And there are some obvious advantages to this way of thinking but also disadvantages. In the novel, two characters have been shunned and had to leave because of decisions that they made and this is given as a possible motivation for the murder of the baby – and indeed, in a round about way, it does have to do with the baby’s death. Some of the difficulties this leads to are described in the beginning. However, by the end of the novel, through the decisions that Katie makes, Picoult seems to be privileging this form of living, as Katie decides to return to the fold, rather than follow her own heart. It may be that I find it too hard to fit in with any groups to be able to understand this sort of thinking but it does seem that at the start of the novel, this way of thinking is criticized but by the end, it is seen as some sort of salvation.

This is also shown in the character development of Ellie which I also found a little unsatisfying. At the beginning, she was a hard bitten attorney who liked to win so much that she had just managed to get a sex offender, she knew was guilty, off scot free. She ends up living with Katie as part of her bail conditions and as a result, begins to understand the faults in her own character. While it is apparent that Ellie had faults to understand, it all seems very easy for her and, in my mind, she doesn’t struggle enough psychologically for her change for the better to ring true.

At the end of the day, I have given this 3/5 because I did want to keep reading and I did feel sympathy for Katie but ultimately it didn’t work for me.

Books Read in 2014 – 29. Rabbits in the Garden by Jessica McHugh

Genre: Horror, Madness

Narrative Style: Third person chronological10504227

Rating 1/5

Format: Kindle

Published 2011

Synopsis: Life is perfect for Avery – she is in love with her best friend, Paul, and he loves her too. They have just shared a first kiss. However, trouble starts
when Avery’s mother finds out about the liaison and is determined to stop her daughter from taking the wrong path.

It’s not often that I give a book 1 star. Usually because if something is that bad, I don’t finish it. I’ve always hated doing that and even more so now that I add books on Goodreads. I feel obliged to get to the end. Even if, like this novel, it is a real struggle.

I picked this book because I liked the sound of the story and because it has a lot of good reviews. And it did start well with the appearance of Avery’s mother’s madness being quite well executed.

However, it went downhill fast. Events are easy to spot and there were little in the way of surprises. For example, when Natalie meets a handsome stranger, it is obvious that it is Paul. When she mentions that they did not use a condom, it obvious that she will be pregnant. When Avery’s mother appears the next morning, just in time to tell them of their real identities, it all just seems like a bit too big a coincidence. The whole novel is like that. events and characters are bent to the plot with no care as to whether that seems likely or not.

There are pages of unlikely dialogue which slow the action down. The characters often sound like they are spouting platitudes rather than having a conversation. it was like reading a bad made for TV film.

Even the ending was not that satisfying. There was never any doubt that Avery would win in the end. The lack of narrative tension was one reason why I struggled to finish this. Everything moves in Avery’s favour. The police do not find her. She manages to escape. She will live happily ever after. Even though she does suffer setbacks – like the loss of Paul – it never daunts Avery and the reader knows exactly how things will come to pass.




Books read in 2014 – 14. The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy, The Shocking Inside Story – Ann Rule



Genre: True Crime, Serial Killers
narrative style: first person, largely chronological Rating:3/5

format: Kindle

Published: 1980

Synopsis: Rule describes Bundy’s murders and also her reaction to them. She decribes their friendship and the difficulties she faced in accepting his guilt.

Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014 – genre True Crime.

I first came across Ted Bundy when I was writing my MPhil. I was writing a section comparing Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho with Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend and my research led me to read a lot about serial killers. Bundy stood out as one of the stranger cases. There was such a disparity between the persona he used to snare his victims (he liked to pretend to be helpless in some way, sometimes having his arm in a sling or using crutches) and the violence and depravity of his attacks. It stuck with me over the years and when I realised that I had to read a true crime book for this years challenge, I knew it would be about Bundy.ann rule

It is this disparity that is at the heart of Rule’s book. She knew Bundy, worked with him in fact, and was already writing a book about the series of violent murders when he became the prime suspect. She knew a charming and polite Ted, a man who worked the phones at a crisis centre, persuading people not to take their own lives. It is little wonder that she did not want to believe that he was the killer the police had searched for. Indeed, it didn’t seem possible that two such different personas could exist in the one person.

It surprised me how long Rule continued to be supportive of Bundy, even when she started to believe in his guilt. Perhaps it is easy to say when you are not emotionally attached to the person involved but I’m not sure I could have kept corresponding with him, sending him cheques and money as well. It maybe that she realised that this would help with her writing career – having the inside line on an infamous killer – and indeed this book did put her on the map. However, I think that the hold that Bundy had on her was a lot simpler. He knew exactly how to manipulate people and bend them to his will. Rule seems taken in by his need for her and at times seems almost awestruck. She claims not to have been in love with him and this may be true but there is something in the way that she writes about him that goes beyond mere friendship.

The details of Bundy’s crimes are horrendous and I had no idea how many women he had killed and how many murders he has been linked to that cannot be proved. Also his escapes from prison and many last minute reprieves from the electric chair made for interesting reading. However, I did get bogged down in what I felt was extraneous detail. Rule, undoubtedly, is very observant and thorough but there was no need to detail the weather or the background of every bit player. Also, I felt that the expression was clumsy at times and felt that who ever edited this work should have had a sharper red pencil. It was a shame because by the time I got to the end and Ted was finally going to be executed, I didn’t really care. I just wanted the book to be over.