Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Psychodrama (page 1 of 4)

Which one of us do you love the most?

The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne

ice twinsI love a good thriller or psychological drama as you know, but in order to truly hit the spot they have got to be unputdownable, read in as few sessions as possible. The Ice Twins has that quality in spades, even if one of its central premises is slightly preposterous, but let me introduce it to you.

Sarah and Angus are the parents of six year old identical twins, Kirstie and Lydia. So identical in appearance, they couldn’t be told apart.

At first we differentiated our babies by painting one of their respective fingernails, or toenails, yellow or blue. Yellow for Lydia … blue for Kirstie…
This nail-varnishing was a compromise. A nurse at the hospital advised us to have one of the twins tattooed in a discrete place … but we resisted this notion, as it seemed far too drastic, even barbaric: tattooing one of our perfect, innocent, flawless new children? No.
… So we relied on nail varnish, diligently and carefully applied once a week, for a year. After that – until we were able to distinguish them by their distinctive personalities, and by their own responses to their own names – we relied on the differing clothes we gave the girls.

A terrible accident happens. One twin dies falling off the balcony at their grandparents’ house. Lydia was very unlucky not to survive the twenty foot drop.

A year later, having been through enough trauma to last a lifetime, plus Angus having to leave his job after hitting his boss, a lifeline emerges. Angus’ grandmother owned a tiny island off the Isle of Skye, it has an automated lighthouse and a large but decaying cottage. They can sell their London house and move to the island and do up the house. Sarah can write freelance and Angus can become an architect for home extensions. They can make a new life – Angus, Sarah and Kirstie.

Picking up Kirstie from school for the last time before the long drive north, Sarah asks her teacher about Kirstie:

‘Recently I’ve noticed that Kirstie has got a lot better at reading. In a short space of time. It’s a fairly surprising leap. And yet she used to be very good at maths, and now she is … not so good at that’ […]
I say, perhaps, what we are both thinking: ‘Her sister used to be good at reading and not so good at maths?’

This is the first inkling for Sarah, that Kirstie is confused over her identity, compensating perhaps for her missing twin.  They move north, and get stuck into renovations. One day Sarah finds Kirstie looking at an old holiday photograph. She is distressed and confused:

‘Which one is me? Mummy? Which one?’
Oh, help. Oh, God. This is unbearable: because I have no answer. The truth is, I do not know. […]
‘Mummy? Mummy? Mummy? Who am I?’ (p95)

Kirstie continues to behave in a confused manner. A few days later, it’s nearly time for her new school – and Kirstie claims that they have got it wrong. She is not Kirstie, she is Lydia. Even the family dog seems to agree. Sarah insists if she thinks she is Lydia, they should call her Lydia.

The strain on all of them rapidly starts to become unbearable, Kirstie/Lydia has a hard time at school, and Sarah and Angus are pushed into opposing positions. There are so many layers of secrets and lies, misunderstandings, skeletons to come out between the couple, not to mention Kirstie/Lydia’s continuing twin separation trauma. It is clear that each parent had a favourite twin too which adds yet another factor into the equation. It is supremely creepy and totally gripping. Narrated mainly by Sarah, it’s hard to tell whether she’s getting more and more paranoid, or as she uncovers details beginning to logically work things out. However, when Angus takes up the story now and then, we are presented with a slightly different picture. The reader’s feelings are constantly tugged one way then the other between the couple, and also over the identity of the surviving twin.

Of course all this is compounded by the move to the isolation of the island – it’s a recipe for disaster!  In the normal world, you’d rent on the mainland while builders renovate the house, and then sell the island or rent it out as a holiday home, wouldn’t you?  But this is a psychological thriller, and the protagonists never act logically. Angus has only ever been there during summers, many years before.  He’s never experienced the storms of a Hebridean autumn, never been stuck on a little rat-infested island in a cold. damp cottage with no mobile signal and only shaky connections to other services.

Each chapter is prefaced by eerie black and white photographs of a lighthouse , a cottage and surrounding views, the monochrome pictures adding eerily to the isolated atmosphere of the island. If you enjoy Sophie Hannah’s convoluted dramas and like a wild Scottish location, then The Ice Twins will be right up your street. (9/10)

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Having discussed the novel above, I want to talk about the author below – beware, spoilers

The Ice Twins is the first novel by S K Tremayne, however Tremayne is not a debut author.  Tremayne is the pseudonym of a successful author who has written a host of other books under their own name and another pseudonym – something authors often do of course,  when they write in different genres or for different markets. If I hadn’t done some research, I would have sworn that this novel was written by a woman but, (like S J Watson), Tremayne is male. It’s clever marketing – his bio is gender-free and I bet they didn’t put an author photo on the dustjacket of the hardback, (ironically, the press release does say ‘he’ in one spot – oops!). The paperback cover is also pitched firmly in the same market as cover quoter Sophie Hannah – at least they haven’t stickered it ‘for fans of [… insert current best-selling psychological thriller title here].

Tremayne has written several religious/archaeological thrillers as Tom Knox and, as himself, he wrote a funny blokey-sounding book about his experiences internet dating in his thirties; he used to blog for the Daily Telegraph too. He is Sean Thomas, and he has a famous author father – D M Thomas of The White Hotel etc.  Arguably, if this book had been published as by Tom Knox, a calculatedly masculine nom de plume, it would imply a different kind of thriller to The Ice Twins! So I hope he writes some more as S K Tremayne for I enjoyed this one a lot.

Do you like to know whether an author is male or female? Does it affect your reading of a book?

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
The Ice Twins by S K Tremayne – published by Harper Books (2015) Paperback Sept 3rd, 384 pages.

The one who survived…

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Black eyed susans The ARC I was sent of this stylish psychological thriller came bound in black ribbon with a silk flower of the title.

I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America.  If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.

black-eyed-susan-vine-thunbergia-alata1Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.

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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived.  A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.

This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter.  Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent.  Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.

Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory.  Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial.  The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.

It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.

Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May).  Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.

I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.

Still more Shiny linkiness

I know, it’s getting a bit like Monty Python’s Gondolas around here… but I have to highlight my last two new reviews in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books for you, don’t I? Again, it’s one fiction, one non-fiction:


The Way Inn by Will Wiles


I really enjoyed Wiles’s first novel Care of Wooden Floors (which I reviewed here) – a quirky farce about flat-sitting for a minimalist with new flooring.

His second novel is equally quirky, but he has moved into much darker territory. The Way Inn satirises lookalike hotel chains, trade conferences and the business types that frequent them, and be warned, it will definitely mess with your head!

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this one. (9/10 and I bought my own copy.)

Read my full Shiny review here.

SNB logo tiny

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

You may have heard of Lightman before from his quirky novels and stories. However, first and foremost he is a physicist and has published many books of essays.

This is his latest – a survey of the latest thinking on the origins of the universe. Each essay takes a different aspect and alongside the technical discussion (which is lucid and understandable to the non-scientist), he illustrates it with his own life experiences and how nature does it. Fascinating stuff (8/10, Source: publisher – thank you.)

Read my full Shiny review here

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To explore either of these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Way Inn by Will Wiles, pub Fourth Estate, June 2014, Hardback 352 pages.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman, pub Corsair, May 2014, Hardback 176 pages.

OK – you’re wanting to see the ‘Gondolas’, aren’t you. Here’s the full Python travelogue, narrated by John Cleese. It was originally shown as a short in the cinema before Life of Brian

There are no new plots – Greek tragedy had it all!

The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes may be familiar to some of you from her appearances on BBC2’s The Review Show – a TV programme of which I tend to disagree with a lot of the reviewers’ views – even Paul Morley’s at times, and don’t mention Kirsty Wark! However, I rarely disagree with Natalie Haynes. Haynes is a classisist who did stand-up for years before giving it up to write. Her only other adult book is The Ancient Guide to Modern Life – which looks at what the ancient Greeks and Romans did for us, and how it resonates today.  It’s easy to see how she used that in her first novel…

amber fury

The Amber Fury is set in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for troubled kids whom the normal educational system is failing.  A new cover teacher arrives to do drama therapy. Alex took the job in Edinburgh to get away from her old life in London where she was an up and coming theatre director.  We know from the outset that she lost her fiancé, who was killed when he tried to stop a fight.

You might ask if she is the right kind of person to teach these kids given her personal circumstances, but her old friend Robert who runs the PRU has confidence in her.  Most of her classes seem to go fine, but there is one group of just five fifteen-year-olds that prove a challenge to engage. But engage them she does – with Greek tragedies – from Oedipus to Alcestis to the Oresteia.  These tales of meddling Gods, scandal, cruel fate, sacrifice and revenge strike a chord with her pupils.

The novel is mostly told in hindsight from Alex’s point of view and from the start we know she is talking to lawyers about something that happened.  In parallel with Alex’s narration, we have extracts from one of the pupil’s diaries, which puts some different faces on things.  The facts are meted out and the tension builds; we question whether Alex has done something awful, or is it her pupils?  Who’s hiding what?  The Greek Erinyes, aka the Furies, were, of course, the Goddesses of vengeance …

It’s an assured debut from an author who knows her stuff.  The way Alex gets her pupils involved in exploring the Greek tragedies is brilliant – I learned so much too. I knew, for instance from studying the siege of Troy from Virgil’s Aeneid for my Latin O-Level that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the Gods so he could set sail for Troy – but we never analysed it further – just polished our Latin translation; Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia was a Greek, so I’ve got the full story now…

Haynes also captures the feel of the dank greyness of the Scottish winter with all that granite around really well, making everything seem dull and allowing Alex to settle into a rather mechanical life outside the PRU – all the more unsettling as we find things out. Mired in her grief, Alex is somewhat an unreliable narrator, but not necessarily in terms of misdirecting us, rather in her naivety.

My mind has been wondering about other modern novels that employ Greek tragedy in their workings – and I couldn’t get past Donna Tartt’s debut The Secret History. In some respects, the PRU is an exclusive Club – you have to have done something to become a member, but that’s as far as it goes. Haynes’ novel is more of an anti-Secret History.

I am going to see Natalie Haynes at the Oxford Literary Festival later this month, and will be interested to hear her talk – I could even be brave and ask if The Amber Fury is in any way an opposite of Tartt’s novel if they do questions!

What I do know is that, although not perfect, I really enjoyed this book. I really hope she writes more, especially if they have lots of ancient Greek and Roman influences.  (9/10)

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Source: Review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes, pub 3rd March by Corvus, hardback, 320pp.
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes, paperback.

Book Group Report – A new SF classic?

The Explorer by James Smythe

the-explorer Our book group does read the occasional full-blown SF novel, or novels with some SF concepts in like Slaughterhouse-5 which we read last autumn.

I chose this book, selling it to the others as like the film Moon but even more messing with your head. It being a year since I read it, I re-read the novel and, if anything, enjoyed it even more second time around, so for me it was still a 10/10 book.

But what did our book group think?

NOTE: If you haven’t read the book – see my original review here, for it will get a little spoilery below…

Oh well…  No-one except me liked the book – but I don’t care! I still loved it, and I started reading the sequel, The Echo, when I got home from book group and am loving that too already. It made for quite a good discussion though.

I was challenged to say what I so loved about it. I replied that I had a strong visual sense of this small crew in a big ship all alone – rather like in one of my favourite SF films Dark Star – but with the sort of enforced cameraderie like the crew in Alien – all together before the chestbuster scene.  I relished the claustrophobic atmosphere of it, and didn’t foresee the twists.

One comment was that there wasn’t much to like about any of the crew, except for Arlen, who got killed off quickly like Claire Goose in the first episode of Spooks (remember that!). But you don’t have to like the characters when you read a book.

One of our group though did like the writing and thought it captured the sense of isolation and living at work really well, but she also found it depressing and not good for reading late at night. A couple of the group found it very creepy; well, it is more of a psychodrama that happens to be set in space than hard SF and wasn’t quite what some had expected, not SF enough?

The others didn’t like it for an assortment of reasons.  We wondered why the looped Cormac didn’t talk to the real one? Guilt over having caused Arlen’s death perhaps?  Guilt over his wife?  They also were confused by the design of the ship, and how the looped Cormac was squeezing here, and running through the voids in the hull there. There were more questions than answers.

One of the group really disliked the whole book, except for one sentence on p251 which completely summed up how she felt! :

I always said that the thing I was saddest about, when they had pretty much stopped printing books, was that I couldn’t tell how long was left until the end.

You can’t win ’em all. It was a brave book group choice but will go down as one of our few failures.

Next month we’re discussing Life after Life by Kate Atkinson – an author I’ve yet to gel with – but with this book’s Groundhog Day type premise – I’m looking forward to comparing and contrasting the time-looping with The Explorer!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Explorer by James Smythe; 2013, Harper Voyager paperback – Buy at Amazon UK
The Echo by James Smythe; Jan 2014, Harper Voyager hardback – Buy at Amazon UK

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.


Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

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