The Lie by C. L. Taylor

The Lie

This psychological thriller has stayed with me since I read it three months ago. I was so absorbed by the plot that I completely forgot to make my usual highlights to aid my review. And that’s a first.

So what’s it about?

I know your name’s not really Jane Hughes…

Jane Hughes has a loving partner, a job in an animal sanctuary and a tiny cottage in rural Wales. She’s happier than she’s ever been but her life is a lie. Jane Hughes does not really exist.

Five years earlier Jane and her then best friends went on holiday but what should have been the trip of a lifetime rapidly descended into a nightmare that claimed the lives of two of the women.

Jane has tried to put the past behind her but someone knows the truth about what happened. Someone who won’t stop until they’ve destroyed Jane and everything she loves…

The story uses the popular ‘switching timeline’ device. In other novels this has left me confused but here it works seamlessly. Alternating chapters tell the story of the present day and that of five years previously when Emma, Daisy, Leanne and Al arrive at Ekanta Yatra – a yoga/meditation retreat in Nepal. As it suggests in the blurb, events here take on a sinister aspect and end tragically.

Back to the present day, and only Al and Emma (now ‘Jane’) have survived. The two are no longer in contact after Al sold their story to the Press against Emma’s wishes. She has moved away from London, has a new partner and works for an animal sanctuary in Wales. She has done her best to move on with her life and reinvent herself but things start to slip when she receives a series of emails telling her that her old friend Daisy is still alive.

Without giving anything away, the novel explores the dark, disturbing side to friendship and female friendship in particular. How far can you really trust your friends? And what happens when the cracks start to appear? All the characters are well-developed, flawed and damaged in different ways which makes their interaction fascinating.

I was completely absorbed by this story – so much so that as soon as I put it down, I picked up C L Taylor’s other novel – The Accident and devoured that one too. One of my favourite reads of the year so far and a new favourite author to add to the list.

You can get The Lie on kindle at the moment for only £1.99: The Lie

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What Lies Within by James Morris

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‘For as long as she could remember, she felt as if she didn’t belong’.

If you’re in the mood for a novel with a difference, look no further than this dark tale from James Morris. Despite being aimed at young adults the questions tackled regarding identity and the nature versus nurture debate are bound to appeal to a more mature audience in addition.

So what’s it about?

“You’re going to die.”

Shelley Marano is an ordinary, unexceptional high school senior… until the day she receives a cryptic text message, and her world tilts sideways. Now she’s in real danger, although she doesn’t know who would want her dead, or why.

As she starts to unravel the mystery, the truth about who she really is proves to be more frightening than she ever imagined. With the lives of her and her friends hanging in the balance, one thing is certain: Nothing will ever be the same.

This is a hard book to review without giving anything away but as you might expect from such a teaser, it’s a fast-paced story with an original twist. Whilst dealing with some fairly profound ideas, it also works well as a coming of age story dealing very early on with the destruction of all Shelley thinks she knows: ‘Lies, all lies: her relationships, her history, her identity. Her life. The world tilted.’

After a series of fairly terrifying revelations, one way or another she has to learn to re-build her life knowing that things will never be quite the same again. She is aided in this mission by her ever-loyal friend Winston who she herself describes as ‘her guardian angel’. Winston is the friend we all wish we could have had as a teenager. Particularly as a teenage girl! I warmed to him in a way I didn’t with Shelley which I suspect was deliberate on the part of the author. Despite her strength, Winston is considerably less flawed than Shelley and just an all-round nice guy. He is the Samwise Gamgee of the story and we all need a Samwise Gamgee.

If when you see the term ‘YA’ you see ‘easy read’, think again. This novel is not for the faint-hearted and that’s coming from someone who probably reads altogether more crime/thrillers than is altogether healthy. It has a healthy dose of sex and a lot of (pretty nasty) death. There is even one of those moments when you can see what’s going to happen, but your brain is begging to be proven wrong.

This is an impressive debut from an author who I will definitely be keeping my eye on. Highly recommended.

‘Anyone who’s ever been involved in this has died.’

You can get What Lies Within on kindle for an incredibly reasonable £2.29 at the moment: What Lies Within

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A J Fikry

‘Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time’.

I rarely re-read books because let’s face it, there are just too many new things out there to read. I found this book by chance in the library last year and it was absolutely a case of ‘right book, right time’. So much so that I jumped at the chance to re-read it and review it for the publisher this year. AND I’ve chosen it as my book club book of the month – I hope the group like it as much as I do.

What the blurb says:

“Who the hell are you?” A.J. asks the baby.
For no apparent reason, she stops crying and smiles at him. “Maya,” she answers.
That was easy, A.J. thinks. “How old are you?” he asks.
Maya holds up two fingers.
“You’re two?”
Maya smiles again and holds up her arms to him.”

A.J. Fikry, the grumpy owner of Island Books, is going through a hard time: his bookshop is failing, he has lost his beloved wife, and a prized rare first edition has been stolen.
But one day A.J. finds two-year-old Maya sitting on the bookshop floor, with a note attached to her asking the owner to look after her. His life – and Maya’s – is changed forever.

If you’re a parent or a booklover, or a booklover parent – this book is for you.

You just can’t help but love Ajay. Even his grumpiness is endearing – eventually – once you’ve seen him with Maya and Amelia is also fantastically, unconventionally fabulous: ‘She had looked like a time traveller from 1990s Seattle with her anchor-printed galoshes and her floral grandma dress…’ You’ve got to admire her dating technique: ‘Amelia had not allowed herself to be certain until dessert, when she’d asked him about the book that had to greatest influence on his life and he’d replied Principles of Accounting, Part II’.

Maya is simply adorable; so smart and sweet in her childlike observations: ‘The store is fifteen Mayas wide and twenty Mayas long… It is fortunate that it is not more than thirty Mayas long because that is as far as she could count on the day the measurements were taken’. I challenge any reader not re-live some of the magic in discovering books and bookshops for the first time through her: ‘The place Maya loves most is downstairs because downstairs is the store, and the store is the best place in the world’.

Incredibly, the novel manages to deal with the themes of love, death, grief and parenthood without once becoming sentimental or overly saccharine. In fact, this book is honest, forthright and FUNNY! I actually chuckled out loud – more than once: ‘A.J. has never changed a diaper in his life though he is a modestly skilled gift wrapper’ and in describing his long-suffering sister –in-law: ‘Pregnant, she is like a very pretty Gollum’. I just chuckled again 😉

But even more than that, there are so many acute observations in this novel (particularly for readers) that had me nodding my head frantically. A few of my favourites:

‘Remember, Maya, the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa’.

‘I assure you that prize-winning can be somewhat important for sales but rarely matters much in terms of quality’.

‘Infinite Jest is an endurance contest. You manage to get through it and you have no choice but to say you like it. Otherwise, you have to deal with the fact that you just wasted weeks of your life’.

Oh yes indeed!

The story is simple but Zevin ensures it is utterly endearing. I guess it was ‘right book, right time’ again this year.

‘You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: What is our favourite book’.

Only £3.99 on kindle at the moment: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

NB: This was previously published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I Let You Go

As soon as I finished this book, I tweeted: ‘Wow. Now I have to find the words to review this in more than that one word’. I’ve left it a few days and the story is still firmly with me.

What the blurb says:

A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?

In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world is shattered. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape her past, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of the cruel November night that changed her life for ever.

DI Ray Stevens is tasked with seeking justice for a mother who is living every parent’s worst nightmare. Determined to get to the bottom of the case, it begins to consume him as he puts both his professional and personal life on the line.

As Ray and his team seek to uncover the truth, Jenna, slowly, begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her and the consequences will be devastating . . .

Which rather cleverly (and from the perspective of someone who has now finished it), actually tells you everything and nothing all at once. At more than one point in this novel I thought I knew what I was reading and what was coming; each time I was wrong.

This novel just breaks all the rules – brilliantly and over and over again! I couldn’t put it down, despite the fact (and probably partly because) it is an intensely uncomfortable read for a variety of reasons. The first of which becomes clear very early on in the story and which I am therefore going to tell you about; I promise it will be the ONLY spoiler in this review.

The story opens with the tragic accident referred to in the blurb: ‘hit-and-run in Fishponds, guv. Five-year-old boy killed’. If, like me, you routinely avoid novels that might make you feel sad, I promise you won’t regret giving this one a go. Although the accident is the catalyst for the novel, there are SO many layers to this story: ‘I’ve told him more than I ever intended to, but I can’t tell him everything. If I do, he’ll leave, and I’ll have no one to stop me from falling’. Sooooo many questions!

Initially, the story moves between that of DI Stevens and his team investigating the accident, and that of those involved with Jacob (the five year old boy) himself. The police sections (ironically) serve as a palate cleanser in-between the faster-paced, higher-tension parts of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there are tensions there too:”‘Ray, you said no work!’ Ray was confused. ‘But the kids are in bed.’ ‘Yes, but I’m –‘Mags stopped…”. But without this part of the story, the reader would quite probably be holding their breath continually…

I honestly can’t remember the last novel I read that was comparable in terms of emotional experience. I felt all the same emotions as Jenna, deeply and compellingly. From grief: ‘Such a small impact on the world, yet the very centre of my own… The grief I feel is so physical it seems impossible that I am still living’; to anger and disgust: ‘You can’t do anything by yourself, Jennifer’; to guilt: ‘Each time a wave of fear hits me, I remind myself what I did, and that I have no right to be frightened’; and finally, complete and utter fear: ‘I will find you… Wherever you’ve gone to, I’ll find you. And then I will come for you’. Just imagine welcoming the idea of Prison, simply for the security and safety it provides. Chilling.

Later on in the story, the narrative is split further between Jenna and Ian, her husband. I would love to ask Clare Mackintosh whether writing Ian’s parts in the first person were as difficult to imagine and write as they are for the reader to read? Just incredible – infuriating, jarring and brutally honest.

I can’t talk in specifics about themes and events without spoiling the story, so I won’t. Suffice it to say, this novel will NOT let you go. Just read it.

‘You must remember that he was a boy. That he had a mother. And that her heart is breaking’.

I Let You Go on Kindle: I Let You Go