Book Review: The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles

The Boy at the Keyhole
Stephen Giles
Hanover Square Press, September 2018
ISBN 978-1-335-65292-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Nine-year-old Samuel lives alone in a once-great estate in Surrey with the family’s housekeeper, Ruth. His father is dead and his mother has been abroad for months, purportedly tending to her late husband’s faltering business. She left in a hurry one night while Samuel was sleeping and did not say goodbye.

Beyond her sporadic postcards, Samuel hears nothing from his mother. He misses her dearly and maps her journey in an atlas he finds in her study. Samuel’s life is otherwise regulated by Ruth, who runs the house with an iron fist. Only she and Samuel know how brutally she enforces order.

As rumors in town begin to swirl, Samuel wonders whether something more sinister is afoot. Perhaps his mother did not leave but was murdered—by Ruth.

Artful, haunting and hurtling toward a psychological showdown, The Boy at the Keyhole is an incandescent debut about the precarious dance between truth and perception, and the shocking acts that occur behind closed doors.

On the surface, this book would seem to have elements of a dark, gothic story, something like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, with a looming, cavernous manse, a creepy, sinister housekeeper and a protagonist who becomes more and more suspicious about what’s going on. Really, the main difference is that the protagonist is a child rather than a new young wife being intimidated by the housekeeper while the husband is apparently distant emotionally.

Certainly Samuel has reason to be suspicious, lonesome, baffled, all the feelings a child would have when one parent is dead and the other disappears, supposedly legitimately but without even telling him goodbye. Right there, my empathy went to this little boy who surely deserved better. How disappointed he must have been each day when she didn’t come home.

Ruth is undoubtedly an unpleasant caregiver and it’s no wonder Samuel begins to have dark thoughts about this woman and her peculiar behavior. These feelings are exacerbated by Samuel’s friend who, intentionally or not, hints at nefarious goings-on and the suspense begins to build while Ruth understandably becomes more and more frustrated by this child who dares to snoop and raise questions. Is this all just a child’s imagination run amok?

A promising beginning doesn’t quite succeed, as least not as fully as it could have, and the very slow pace doesn’t help. I also felt the ending was a bit lacking but, overall, I think readers who like a slow-building suspense will be satisfied.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2018.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Books-A-Million
Amazon // Indiebound

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About the Author

Stephen Giles is the Australian author behind the lauded children’s series “Anyone But Ivy Pocket”, penned under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp. The series, published in the US by HarperCollins/Greenwillow and the UK by Bloomsbury, appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List, has been translated into 25 different languages and was optioned by Paramount Pictures.

Prior to selling his first book, Stephen worked in a variety of jobs to supplement his writing including market research, film classification and media monitoring. The Boy at the Keyhole is Giles’ first work for adults and the film rights for this book have been acquired by New Regency.

http://madeleinemilburn.co.uk/mm-authors/stephen-giles/

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Book Review: The Quiet Child by John Burley

The Quiet Child
John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, August 2017
ISBN: 978-0-06-243185-1
Trade Paperback

This is not a novel for the faint of heart. Dark, moving, at times excruciating, the pain author Burley evokes from his characters is a palpable presence through the entire novel. One wonders how many readers have ever been faced with the community disdain and rejection based, not on race, but on more common attributes. And a reader wonders what the response might have been.

In Cottonwood, California, multiple unexpected deaths are occurring. The family of Michael and Kate McCray are beginning to feel isolation as it grows, the odd looks, the loss of friendly interactions, the murmurs behind their backs. McCray is a valued teacher at the local high school. He and Kate have two sons, Danny and Sean. Danny, the youngest, is the focus of the growing community concern. He doesn’t speak. At all.

Kate is becoming ill and the doctors are worried but non-committal. The novel moves smoothly back and forth in time which can at times confuse a reader, but the technique works extremely well to heighten the tension and overall feeling of dread.

One evening, Michael drives the boys to a nearby convenience store and with a startling suddenness the tension rises. The boys are kidnapped. The rest of the story concerns the police attempts to find the boys and rescue them, Kate’s accelerating deterioration, and the rising suspicions from the community.

Ultimately, of course, there are resolutions, nearly all of which are unforeseen and startling in their placement and evolution. Enthralling, mesmerizing and surprising, a dark, moving thought-provoking experience.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, April 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Wicked River by Jenny Milchman

Wicked River
Jenny Milchman
Sourcebooks Landmark, May 2018
ISBN 978-1-4926-6441-3
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Six million acres of Adirondack forest separate Natalie and Doug Larson from civilization. For the newlyweds, an isolated backcountry honeymoon seems ideal-a chance to start their lives together with an adventure. But just as Natalie and Doug begin to explore the dark interiors of their own hearts, as well as the depths of their love for each other, it becomes clear that they are not alone in the woods.

Because six million acres makes it easy for the wicked to hide. And even easier for someone to go missing for good.

As they struggle with the worst the wilderness has to offer, a man watches them, wielding the forest like a weapon. He wants something from them more terrifying than death. And once they are near his domain, he will do everything in his power to make sure they never walk out again.

Many, many years ago when I was a teenaged Girl Scout, my troop traveled from Virginia to New Hampshire so we could hike a 50-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains, ending at the summit of Mt. Washington where you can find some of the most extreme weather imaginable. We were experienced hikers and campers and had trained hard for this adventure which turned out to be wonderful except for one night. During the day, we had separated into two groups because some of us were more energetic than others and the slower group, the one I was in, took the wrong path at a fork, not long before dusk. Hours later, we were undoubtedly lost and we had to spend most of the night in the wilds until a team of rescuers showed up. Needless to say, we were humiliated but, still, it was an adventure for sure so I’d have to say we all felt an array of emotions from embarrassment to elation and I still remember it with a good deal of clarity.

All that came to mind while I was reading Wicked River and I think allowed me to have a real connection with Natalie and Doug during their ordeal, especially Natalie. It’s a different forest, of course, and the Whites are generally considered to be the most challenging and formidable terrain in the Northeast but wilderness is wilderness, no matter where it is and especially so for Natalie who was only minimally prepared for this honeymoon trip.

Natalie is a really interesting character because she’s so much like most of us. Her experience in wilderness trekking is limited but she wants to please Doug who loves this sort of thing. That doesn’t mean that she’s been talked into the trip against her will; far from it, although she does have reservations about her abilities even after a certain amount of training and preparation. In short, she’s you and me, setting off on an adventure with more than a little trepidation but she’s still looking forward to it.

What Natalie and Doug don’t know but we do is that there’s a truly dangerous man in this part of the Adirondacks. As Natalie prepares for her wedding, we get a hint of something being not quite right, actually several somethings, and, at the same time, we meet Natalie’s niece, Mia. This teenager can be monumentally annoying but I liked her and it’s a good thing since she’s going to become very important later on.

Jenny Milchman is a master at wilderness settings and this one is no exception. Instead of crippling cold, which the author does extremely well, Wicked River plants us in the midst of heat and alarming sounds and smells as well as the frightening sense of aloneness and being truly lost. None of that even begins to reflect the menace coming up behind them nor what Natalie will have to do if there’s any hope of survival.

Well done, Ms. Milchman—once again, you’ve kept me up at night because I couldn’t stop reading 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2018.

Teeny Book Reviews: Shattered Roads by Alice Henderson and Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

Shattered Roads
The Skyfire Saga #1
Alice Henderson
Rebel Base Books, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-63573-049-4
Trade Paperback

Shattered Roads starts out gloomy—in a subgenre that’s already exceedingly gloomy—with a protagonist who’s living a life of nothingness. Her soul purpose in life is to remove bodies when people die, much like the people in 17th-century London who trundled carts from door to door to pick up the dead. The truth is no one in this terribly damaged world has any joy, having no names, spending all their time in front of computers, interacting with no one while, outside the city walls, chaos reigns supreme.

One day, H124 finds something that piques her curiosity and leads her to unimagined discoveries about what really happened to bring such devastation to this land and to people who just might be able to make a difference. Now, H124 has a new purpose in life and, after a somewhat slow start, I found myself almost unable to turn away. Shattered Lands will be out in December and I’m already anticipating spending more time with this brave young woman.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2018.

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Good Me Bad Me
Ali Land
Flatiron Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-08764-5
Hardcover

We often wonder whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in the development of a person’s psyche, especially a violent criminal, and Good Me Bad Me addresses that very question. Milly is placed in foster care after turning in her mother who was a vicious serial killer of children and you would think that Milly, only fifteen, has at least a chance of a normal life now. The trial is coming up and that gives Milly enough stress but her new family is not as welcoming as one could hope and her foster sister, the real daughter in this family, really resents her presence. That animosity leads to bullying in school but, in reality, it’s Milly’s own mind that could be her worst enemy in any future she might have.

This is a truly unnerving story and could be almost too much if the mother were present but the author chose to keep her on the periphery. We never see her commit her heinous crimes but we know what she’s done and the feeling of evil is full-blown. Watching Milly learn to cope—or not—with her life before and after was intriguing in many ways and I heartily recommend this to any reader who is curious about what happens to the children of truly wicked people.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, June 2018.

Book Review: The Elizas by Sara Shepard

The Elizas
Sara Shepard
Atria, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-5011-6277-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When debut novelist Eliza Fontaine is found at the bottom of a hotel pool, her family at first assumes that it’s just another failed suicide attempt. But Eliza swears she was pushed, and her rescuer is the only witness.

Desperate to find out who attacked her, Eliza takes it upon herself to investigate. But as the publication date for her novel draws closer, Eliza finds more questions than answers. Like why are her editor, agent, and family mixing up events from her novel with events from her life? Her novel is completely fictional, isn’t it?

The deeper Eliza goes into her investigation while struggling with memory loss, the closer her life starts to resemble her novel, until the line between reality and fiction starts to blur and she can no longer tell where her protagonist’s life ends and hers begins.

The Elizas is an interesting kind of crime fiction in that much of the story has the protagonist, Eliza, questioning her own mental faculties and the reader is just as baffled as she is. Eliza isn’t very likeable—some of her behavior, particularly in the past, can be called unpleasant at best—and most of us are not saintly enough to blithely overlook some aspects of mental issues so connecting with her takes patience and effort. After all, having someone in our lives who may or may not be psychologically damaged is just not easy but I did sympathize with Eliza as she struggled to understand what was real and what wasn’t.

There’s a scene near the end that I wondered about because it seemed so unlikely; a police detective tells Eliza something about the authorities not doing an autopsy and it struck me as a strange accommodation for the police to make. Perhaps the approach is different in Los Angeles and I was just unaware.

The impact this novel could have had on me was lessened somewhat by the use of first person present tense. I know many other readers feel otherwise but I just don’t understand why any crime fiction author does this. Instead of heightening the tension, it pulls me out of the story because (1) unless something supernatural is going to happen, I know the speaker is going to survive so I really don’t need to worry and (2) I can’t help wondering how the protagonist is telling the story as he runs down the street, gun blazing. But then that’s just me and I’m quite sure others will find this perfect for the reader who wants a thriller that is less intense than so many.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // iBooks
Google Play // Books-A-Million
Amazon // Indiebound // Simon & Schuster

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About the Author

credit Danielle Shields

Sara Shepard is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Pretty Little Liars series. She has also written other Young Adult series and novels, including The Lying Game, The Heiresses, and The Perfectionists. Sara now lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

Find Sara:

Website
Twitter
Instagram

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“A story blending Hitchcock,  S.J. Watson, and Ruth Ware.”
—Entertainment Weekly (EW.com)

 

“Shepard brings her knack for the tightly-wound thriller that
earned Pretty Little Liars its runaway success to a whole new
demographic… Clever and attention-grabbing, this is one book
you won’t be able to leave sitting on the nightstand for long.”
—Harper’s Bazaar, 10 New Books to Add to Your Reading List in 2018

 

“With a cast of dodgy characters and twists you won’t see coming,
the New York Times bestselling author of Pretty Little Liars
will keep you on your toes until the very last page.”
—Redbook, 14 Books You Won’t Want to Miss in 2018

Book Review: The Clarity by Keith Thomas

The Clarity
Keith Thomas
Leopoldo & Co./Atria Books, February 2018
ISBN 978-1-5011-5693-9
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Dr. Matilda Deacon is a psychologist researching how memories are made and stored when she meets a strange eleven-year-old girl named Ashanique. Ashanique claims to harbor the memories of the last soldier killed in World War I and Matilda is at first very interested but skeptical. However, when Ashanique starts talking about being chased by the Night Doctors—a term also used by an unstable patient who was later found dead—Matilda can’t deny that the girl might be telling the truth.

Matilda learns that Ashanique and her mother have been on the run their whole lives from a monstrous assassin named Rade. Rade is after a secret contained solely in memories and has left a bloody trail throughout the world in search of it. Matilda soon realizes Ashanique is in unimaginable danger and that her unique ability comes with a deadly price.

Fast-paced, suspenseful, and a chilling blend of science and danger, The Clarity is a compelling take on the possibilities of reincarnation and life after death.

With splashes of science and history, The Clarity is, at its core, the stuff of a little girl’s nightmares but the nightmares are real. Certainly, past instances of experimentation on humans have turned out to be dark shadows on our psyches no matter what the initial, seemingly well-intended, idea was or where it took place. Then, throw in a good oldfashioned conspiracy and a villain who would frighten even the most unimaginative of us and you have a frantic race to find truth and survival.

For readers who tend to be a little squeamish, be forewarned—Rade is no mildmannered, polite assassin. He literally will kill anyone in his way and do so with a lot of gore and even more gore. At the same time, he’s the most fascinating character (to me, at least) because of his complete lack of morals or compassion. Ashanique is almost as mindgrabbing but its because of what’s happening to her rather than any aspect of her short, inexperienced life.

As thrillers go, this one has its pacing issues and, as mentioned earlier, an abundance of violence, but I enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone interested in stories rooted in the past.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2018.

A taut, riveting thriller, a perfect balance of scientific
speculation and storytelling.—
James Rollins

About the Author

Keith Thomas worked as a lead clinical researcher at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine and National Jewish Health before writing for film and television. He has developed projects for studios and production companies and collaborated with writers like James Patterson and filmmakers like Paul Haggis. He lives in Denver and works in Los Angeles.

Website

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“Chilling speculative thriller. Tautly plotted and well researched,
this book is a riveting take on the possibility of afterlife
and reincarnation.”—Book Riot

Book Review: After the Fire by Henning Mankell

After the Fire
Henning Mankell
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Vintage Books, October 31, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-5254-3508-2
Trade Paperback

Henning Mankell, who died in 2015, capped a distinguished career with this follow-up to Italian Shoes, in which Frederik Welin, a disgraced surgeon, was the principal character, as he is in After the Fire.  In  each novel, Welin looks deeply into his present as a lone resident on an island in the Swedish archipelago, living in his boyhood home built by his grandfather, as well as dredging up past memories.

The major difference between the two novels, however, is in the later book, his house burns down, apparently by arson (of which he is suspected) while he is asleep and narrowly escapes death.  Previously, Welin was content to live quietly, taking a daily dip in the sea, even if he had to cut a hole in the ice with an axe to do so.  Following the destruction of his home, things change.  When a female journalist visits to write a story about the event, it awakens sexual hope in the 70-year-old retired doctor, but to develop into only a close friendship.  At the same time,  his somewhat strained relationship with his daughter changes for the better.

In other words, the consequences of the house being reduced to ashes forces Welin to approach life differently, accepting life (and death) as it is, rather than as was his attitude toward it in the past.  His introspection leads him to develop a more practical approach to his relationships.

Mankell has here written a superlatively insightful look into a man’s mind.  While, perhaps, better known for his Kurt Wallender mysteries, Mankell has here added another well-written and -thought-out novel to a long list of other books he penned.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2017.