Review: Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

25955290Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain by Barney Norris

Publisher:  Doubleday (April 2016)

Source:  Copy received for review from the publisher via bookbridgr.com

“One quiet evening in Salisbury, the peace is shattered by a serious car crash.  At that moment, the lives of five people collide – a flower-seller, a schoolboy, an army wife, a security guard, a widower – all facing their own personal disasters.  As one of those lives hangs in the balance, Norris draws the extraordinary voices of these seemingly ordinary people together into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that is startlingly perceptive about the human heart.”

I requested a copy of this book for review from the publisher via bookbridgr.com because I was intrigued by the premise.  The book is set in the English city of Salisbury, where (a fact I did not know) five rivers do indeed meet on a wooded plain.  The plot is cleverly constructed to follow the lives of five very different characters whose lives, like the rivers, converge in one spot on one fateful night.

As it turned out, this book was not quite what I was expecting.  It felt to me like five (fairly long) short stories, with a shared link.  Although the characters were linked by this event, and some of them through other events in their lives, they felt kind of unconnected to me.  The writing is beautiful and makes your heart stop at some points – Norris has an uncanny ability to make the mundane extraordinary, to somehow reach into the crux of what makes us human and lay it bare for all to see.  I marked several passages that I really identified with – something I rarely do.  I will share a passage here, one of my favourite parts of the book where a character is thinking about what he would say to his younger self – this goes on for a couple of pages, but I’ll just share one paragraph here:

I would tell him his life doesn’t start when he leaves school, he’s already in it.  It has been passing since the day he was born, and everything he puts off, chooses not to do or say be causing he is hoarding experience for his real, adult life isn’t a thing safeguarded but a treasure risked.  The world is full of things put off for the wrong reasons, which can suddenly become impossible without any warning.  They hang in the air like ghosts, their mouths and eyes sewn up for ever.  They will never be able to speak, but if it was you who put them there, you will always be forced to see them.

And while this is one of my favourite passages in the book, it is also one which throws up a bit of a problem for me.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is a 16 year old, talking to his 15 year old self.  I happen to live with two very intelligent teenagers, and I cannot imagine either of them (or, indeed, any of their friends!) having this articulate a conversation with themselves!  A little implausible, but beautiful nonetheless, and a reminder to us all to live every moment!

The lives of most of the characters are touching and moving without being sentimental, but unfortunately there was one character who I did not like and who felt somewhat superfluous to things, and this just took the whole thing down a notch for me.  I would definitely recommend this if you’re in the mood for a melancholic muse about normal people going about their lives, falling in love and living through tragic events.

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Review: Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

27245143Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Publisher: Headline (April 2016)

Source: Copy received for review from the publisher via bookbridgr.com

I was very lucky to receive a copy of the third instalment in Sarah Hilary’s DI Marnie Rome crime thriller series for review.  I don’t think I have ever been more excited to review a book than the day this dropped through my letterbox!  Anticipation and expectations were sky high, and I am very happy to report that Hilary did not disappoint me.  This series has leapt into the top spot in my favourite police series list, overtaking the DI Thorne series by Mark Billingham.

This third instalment sees DI Rome and DS Jake embroiled in an intriguing and fascinating crime set in grimy, gritty London – a setting which is simultaneously familiar and discomforting.  Tense and creepy, the plot kept me guessing right to the end and yet Hilary lays a perfect trail of breadcrumb clues throughout that left me scratching my head and thinking “well, duh!  How could I not’ve guessed that?!”.  This probably says more about me than Hilary’s writing though …

I think my favourite thing about this series is the relationship between DI Rome and DS Jake.  There is a mutual respect between them which is very satisfying.  At one point in the narrative, Hilary writes about how a dead body “talks” to DS Jake, and I just found this so fascinating and plausible.  He has a wonderful sixth sense that DI Rome accepts with respect and almost admiration.  I also love how the private lives of these detectives is slowly being revealed.  Each instalment in the series takes their stories a little further, and I am intrigued to see where these storylines will lead.  These secondary plot lines are just as good as the mysteries themselves, and I feel are the essential ingredient in what makes this series so great.  Hurry up with the fourth book, Sarah!

4stars

 

 

 

Review: Getting Life by Michael Morton

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Getting Life:  An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace by Michael Morton

Publisher: Simon & Schuster 2014 (first published 2012)

Source: Purchased

“On August 13 1986, just one day after his thirty-second birthday, Michael Morton went to work at his usual time.  By the end of the day, his wife Christine had been savagely bludgeoned to death in the couple’s bed – and the Williamson County Sherriff’s office in Texas wasted no time in pinning her murder on Michael, despite an absolute lack of physical evidence.  Michael was swiftly sentenced to life in prison for a crime he had not committed.

He mourned his wife from a prison cell.  He lost all contact with their son.  Life, as he knew it, was over.

It would take twenty-five years – and thousands of hours of effort on the part of Michael’s lawyers, including the team at the New York-based Innocence Project – before DNA evidence was brought to light that would ultimately set Michael free.  The evidence had been collected only days after the murder – but was never investigated.

Drawing on his recollections, court transcripts, and more than one thousand pages of personal journals he wrote in prison, Michael recounts the hidden police reports about an unidenfitifed van parked near his house that were never pursued; the treasure trove of evidence, including a bandana with the killer’s DNA on it, that was never introduced in court; the call from a neighbouring county reporting the attempted use of his wife’s credit card (a message that was received, recorded, and never returned by local police); and ultimately, how he battled his way through the darkness to become a free man once again.  

Getting Life is an extraordinary story of unfathomable tragedy, grave injustice, and the strength and courage it takes to find forgiveness.”

After my disillusion with Life After Death by Damien Echols, I was still looking to scratch the itch Making a Murderer had left.  Bookriot recommended Getting Life by Michael Morton, and this turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

The miscarriage of justice that saw Michael Morton fester in prison for 25 years was deplorable.  This man lost his whole life.  He was grieving for the wife he loved and for the loss of his son with whom he lost touch, the son who thought his father was a monster who murdered his mother.  Morton never gave up hope that he would be freed of this crime he did not commit and worked tirelessly with lawyers to clear his name.

And yet through all of this, Michael Morton remains dignified and humble.  The feel of this book is one of peace and forgiveness – a stark contrast to the anger and bitterness of Damien Echols in Life After Death.  Clearly there are huge differences in these two stories, but also many similarities.  The contrast between the two characters is remarkable.  This man’s journey is astonishing and he is an inspiration to us all.  Thank goodness for the Innocence Project and thank goodness for science and the discovery of DNA!

Review: Life after Death by Damien Echols

23098446Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row by Damien Echols

Publisher:   Atlantic Books 2014 (first published 2012)

Source: Purchased

“In 1993, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three – were arrested for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas.  The ensuing trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony, and public hysteria.  Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; while 18-year-old Echols, deemed the ringleader, was sentenced to death.  In a shocking turn of events, all three men were released in August 2011.  Now Echols shares his story in full.”

Don’t judge me, but I am fascinated by prisons, prison life and prisoners, and particularly those on death row.  It is a macabre fascination – the whole idea of prison absolutely terrifies me, but sometimes I just can’t help it reading about it.

I came to this book after watching Making A Murderer, the Netflix documentary highlighting the case of Steven Avery.  I had never heard of Damien Echols or this case – living in the UK we tend to hear about mass school shootings and spree killings, but I think this one passed us by.  So I went into this completely blind and unbiased.  And I came out feeling slightly unwell with a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Damien and I started off on the wrong foot when he proclaimed that he didn’t want this book to be read by those with a ghoulish fascination of death row – words to that effect (I’d look it up, but I’ve given the book to my brother).  Frankly, if you write a book called Life After Death: 18 Years on Death Row, you’re going to attract a certain kind of reader who IS interested in death row and all the horrors it entails, and I certainly fall into that camp, rightly or wrongly.  So I think I read this book with a background feeling of guilt that the author actually didn’t want me to read it at all.  Anyway, let’s move on from that.

There was a very long winded build up to the actual crime, parts of which were certainly interesting and lead the reader to the conclusion that Echols had  a pretty grim childhood and early life.  The details of the trial are a little thin on the ground (in fact I had to resort to Google to find out more), and if you’re looking for any kind of evidence to the fact that Echols and his friends were innocent of this crime you will have to look elsewhere.  For much of this book, Echols comes across as a very angry, bitter, selfish individual – perhaps rightly so (I’m sure I’d be bitter if I’d been on death row for 18 years for a crime I didn’t commit).  But there is no hint of forgiveness, no sign of any empathy for the parents of the murdered boys.

Maybe the reason I took a dislike to Echols is because of the feelings he stirred up within myself.  I SHOULD feel sorry for this young man who was incarcerated for half his life for a crime he didn’t commit.  And of course, it is a terrible injustice.  But *spoiler alert* the fact that the three of them admitted they committed this crime in order to be set free just doesn’t sit right with me.  If I was innocent, I would proclaim my innocence to the death.  I think.  Who knows what I would actually do in the same circumstances, but I would hope that I would come out of such an experience with a sense of forgiveness, some understanding for the victims of the crime, some hope for the future.  Echols seems to have none of this, but certainly likes to name drop the celebrities who fought his cause.

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Review: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

lovely way to burn

This book sounded right up my alley – pandemic wipes out the city of London, everyones dying AND there’s a murder.  Yes.

Turns out this is a quick, easy read with nothing too taxing for the brain to handle – and just what I was in the mood for, but nothing mind-blowing.  The tension promises to build and sizzle, but ultimately it just fizzles.  The descriptions of London falling apart in the wake of ‘the sweats’ are interesting and scarily believable – it really feels like this is a thing that could happen, people.  But much of it was just a bit too convenient to be truly exciting.  This won’t scratch your apocalyptic itch but it may just hit the spot if you’re looking for an easy mysterious read.  The first of a trilogy, and as I have the second book already, I may as well continue and see how it goes … when the mood strikes.  3 stars.

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Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

girl in the red coat

Now here’s a book that took me by surprise.  This is an unusual take on the whole ‘missing child’ mini-genre that is so popular these days.  It took a little while to get into, but once I was gripped I did not want to put this book down.

Kate Hamer uses the dual narrative with great success here – two contrasting voices both so well characterised.  The young girl comes as across as very true and realistic; a determined and unique young girl, full of innocent hope.  In stark contrast, her mother is desperately struggling to hold herself together, and keep the hope of finding her daughter alive.  At times the writing is so vividly descriptive, Hamer puts you right in the scene – the festival scene particularly resonates here.  And at times the writing is so poignantly touching and heartbreaking it will bring tears to your eyes.

Intelligently written, this is an unusual story about an unusual girl and although it was not quite the tensely gripping psychological thriller I was expecting, it was intriguing and captivating nonetheless.  4 stars.

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