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A roundup of recent thriller and mystery novels.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
What if eight-year-old you had an imaginary friend? And what if that imaginary friend abducted another little girl?
And what if you grew up, and by the age of seventeen finally understood that your imaginary friend really was not imaginary, and that little girl must have been abducted by someone who just never got caught; and then you started seeing your imaginary friend again?
This is the knotty (and creepy) dilemma Tash Carmody finds herself in in Sarah Epstein's debut novel Small Spaces.
This YA thriller, set in a sunny beachside Australian town, has dark and twisted roots. This is somewhat like its protagonist Tash, who seems like a completely normal teenager, worried about going to university, pressured by her overbearing mother and busy having her head turned by the boy next door. Underneath it all, though, she has a (completely believable) seething morass of anxieties, doubts and fears, all stemming from this creepily real, and apparently criminal, imaginary friend.
Who is Tash supposed to trust? Can she even trust herself? Or is she just as crazy as everyone at school seems to think?
An interesting premise, largely well executed. However, the amount of back story that needed to be explained did mean that much of the actual plot only happened in the second half of the book, and while the final third was gripping, the final plot reveal felt a little out of left field and pushed against the suspension of my disbelief.
The main strength of this novel (and of Epstein's) was the characterisation. Tash was well layered and relatable, and even the secondary characters had their own lives, their own stories, and their own palpable energy.
Small Spaces is a well executed debut, and I'll be looking forward to Epstein's second book.
Feby Idrus is a writer, musician and arts administrator in Wellington
TOO CLOSE TO BREATHE
Reviewed by Mike Crowl
Frankie Sheehan is an Irish detective working in Dublin and the surrounding area. She's recently been the victim of a knife attack, and has returned to work still in recovery mode.
Called back to her job to investigate a suicide, she quickly concludes that the suicide is a disguised murder.
One thing leads to another: a possible serial killer, people who disappear off the radar, a murderer who may be innocent, strange sadomasochistic stuff going on in the background, and more.
Unlike those TV programmes where the serial killer is found and caught in less than an hour, Frankie and her team more realistically struggle to make any progress with a messy case in which the complications pile up.
Weeks pass, and as always, there's a boss at the top of the police chain complaining about all the money being spent.
The reader might feel at times that Kiernan doesn't allow her leading characters - Frankie has an interesting male sidekick, Baz - to ask the right questions early enough.
As a result, some information comes to light surprisingly late in the piece. This, of course, is an author's prerogative, if they can get away with it. Nevertheless, this debut novel is a taut, suspenseful thriller.
THE SECOND GRAVE
Reviewed by Mike Crowl
Ian Austin is an ex-British policeman now resident in New Zealand. His police background permeates the book.
The story - a sequel to The Agency - concerns Dan Carter. Carter is also a British policeman, similarly happily retired in Auckland from police work.
He receives a call from an old colleague in the UK, Nick, who has a desperate situation on his hands: his daughter has been accused of murder. Nick does not trust the cops who are looking after the case, and within hours, Dan, being the loyal friend he is, is on his way back to Nottingham, to lend his considerable and unofficial assistance.
There are plenty of intense, well-written scenes, but between these there are stretches intended to show Carter's softer, caring side. These hold up the excitement. The last chapters in particular get bogged down with Carter's backstory, while the climax is going on elsewhere - without him.
Austin's dialogue does not always ring true: characters can change dramatically within the course of a conversation, and even the villain becomes disappointingly wimpy towards the end. There is an odd use of formal English in the dialogue; Austin seems to have an aversion to using contractions in speech.
Still, if you can put these quibbles to one side, the story has a good deal going for it.
Mike Crowl is a Dunedin author, musician and composer
Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Pat Thwaites
Delia is beautiful. Delia is her father's darling. She is also nasty and devious. This lead character in Skin Deep is so unlikeable her personality coloured the book for me.
A colour of deep shades of greenish black would be appropriate, the initial setting being Inishcreann, an island off the coast of Ireland: the green of the land smudged by dark cloud shadows, whipped by winds.
She is a child when first met, with three younger boisterous siblings who are cared for by her mother, while her father is fixated on his only daughter. He feeds her legends which give her the misguided idea that she is special, the rightful "queen of Inishcreann''.
It's a violent and divided household and when Delia feeds lies about her mother to her father, the scene is set for a tragedy which divides it further and leads to her exile.
Alone and abandoned, she uses her beauty to lead a life of continuing manipulation and deception.
This is a psychological study of a narcissistic female monster whose exploits will lead you into a host of different worlds. As the plot twists and turns, the writing keeps you reading on in horrid fascination.
Read it if you can cope with a protagonist who is thoroughly repugnant.
Pat Thwaites is a retired Dunedin schoolteacher