Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech

11th January 2020.    4 stars.

I find many psychological suspense stories formulaic, relying on dark family secrets being slowly peeled away. Star Girl was quite different, being focused on the death of a pregnant woman, Vicky Valbon.

The story is told by Stella and her mother, Elizabeth, who abandoned her daughter at a young age. It jumps back and forth in time, which helps to build tension and suspense as more details are revealed. At times it felt like there were too many background details, slowing the pace and drawing out the story to delay revelations and key developments.

The characters are intense and driven by passion, often selfishly, often darkly, but the author portrays them sympathetically and deeply so you understand them and the way they think and behave. The intensity of the characters drives events and the consequences that lead towards a shocking climax. Several further twists then follow. Though they are clever and reveal what really happened to Vicky Valbon, I thought the twists drew out the ending, just taking the edge off the emotional impact.

Dark, occasionally disturbing, but always intriguing, Call Me Star Girl is a complex, consuming story that will take you on an emotional roller coaster. It will leave you drained but glad you took the ride.

Description

Stirring up secrets can be deadly … especially if they’re yours…

Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught.

Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers.

Stella might tell you about Tom, a boyfriend who likes to play games, about the mother who abandoned her, now back after fourteen years. She might tell you about the perfume bottle with the star-shaped stopper, or about her father …

What Stella really wants to know is more about the mysterious man calling the station … who says he knows who killed Victoria, and has proof.

Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything…

Call Me Star Girl

The Family by Louise Jensen

6th November 2019.  2 stars.

After reading some of the reviews for this psychological thriller, I started the book with high expectations. The first impressions were good. The story was told through the eyes of the three main characters, Laura, her daughter, Tilly, and Alex, who ran the community. They took it in turns to present their version of the events that unfolded.

The emotional states of the characters were particularly well portrayed, and the unresolved problems each one had helped to create the suspense needed for this type of story.

But despite the good writing, I never fully engaged or connected with these characters. I’m not sure why because they were realistic enough. Maybe their many secrets and past tragedies, which were hinted at regularly, got in the way, slowing the pace of the story. When the pace finally picked up towards the end, many of the twists and surprises felt more like convenient coincidences.

I wanted to like the story, but finished it feeling disappointed. The slow pace meant it never really got going for me. I never felt uneasy or threatened because I didn’t connect with the three viewpoint characters. And the revelations that explained the characters’ problems felt contrived, taking the edge off any surprises.

Description

ONCE YOU’RE IN, THEY’LL NEVER LET YOU LEAVE.

At Oak Leaf Farm you will find a haven.
Welcome to The Family.

Laura is grieving after the sudden death of her husband. Struggling to cope emotionally and financially, Laura is grateful when a local community, Oak Leaf Organics, offer her and her 17-year-old daughter Tilly a home.

But as Laura and Tilly settle into life with their new ‘family’, sinister things begin to happen. When one of the community dies in suspicious circumstances Laura wants to leave but Tilly, enthralled by the charismatic leader, Alex, refuses to go.

Desperately searching for a way to save her daughter, Laura uncovers a horrifying secret but Alex and his family aren’t the only ones with something to hide. Just as Laura has been digging into their past, they’ve been digging into hers and she discovers the terrifying reason they invited her and Tilly in, and why they’ll never let them leave…

The Family by Louise Jensen

Girl on a Train by AJ Waines

3/5 stars. While I loved the idea behind the story, the concept felt stretched and contrived in places.

My thoughts

I loved the idea of sitting next to a stranger on a train, only for that person to die. Okay, this is a psychological thriller, so it’s unlikely to be an accident or suicide, no matter what the police and coroner say. But it gives the main character, Anna, a chance to dig around and follow the poor girl’s trail to find out why she might have died.

Being a journalist, Anna has a nose for a story and her own baggage to carry. As she slowly unravels the mystery, she finds out a lot more than she bargained for.

This is where I felt the story lost momentum and began to feel a little contrived. A past trauma that provided some of Anna’s motivation to investigate was referred to so many times, I wondered whether the author was trying to convince me or herself. And though the author tried really hard, the latter stages of the book stretched credibility a little too far.

The flow of the story was also spoiled by more similes than you can shake a proverbial stick at, often three or four on a page. These constant similes jumped out and jolted me out of the story, which is a shame, because it’s well written and constructed, with a concept I really liked.

Description

Everything points to suicide – but I saw her face…

Headstrong Journalist, Anna Rothman, knows what suicide looks like – her own husband killed himself five years earlier. When Elly Swift, an agitated passenger beside her on a train, leaves a locket in Anna’s bag before jumping onto the tracks, Anna starts asking awkward questions. But everything points to suicide and the police close the case.

Anna, however, believes Elly’s fears for Toby, her young nephew, missing since being snatched from St Stephen’s church six months ago, fail to explain the true reason behind Elly’s distress. Through a series of hidden messages Elly left behind, Anna embarks on a dangerous crusade to track down Toby and find Elly’s killer.

But nothing is as it seems and Anna opens a can of worms that throws into question even her own husband’s suicide – before the threads of the mystery converge in an astonishing conclusion.

Girl on a Train

 

The Good Mother by Karen Osman

3/5 stars. The plot and the twist placed constraints on the way the story was told, draining much of the tension and suspense from it.

Description

How far would you go to protect your children?

A gripping psychological suspense, with a shocking twist that will leave you reeling…

Catherine is a good mother and a good wife. The family home is immaculate, her husband’s supper is cooked on time, but when she starts writing to Michael, a prisoner convicted of murder, she finds herself obsessing about his crime and whether he can ever truly be forgiven…

Kate has no time for herself. Caught in the maelstrom of bringing up two young children with no money, and an out-of-work husband, she longs to escape the drudgery of being a wife and a mother. And she soon starts taking dangerous risks to feel alive…

Alison has flown the nest. But university life is not what she had hoped for, and she finds herself alone and unhappy. Until the day her professor takes a sudden interest in her. Then everything changes…

Three women – all with secrets. And as the days tick down to Michael’s release, those secrets can no longer be ignored.

My thoughts

I was puzzled when I finished this book – not at the ending, but my reaction to it. The shocking twist didn’t leave me reeling – quite the opposite.

“Is that it?” I thought, not sure why I felt flat. The story is well-written, cleverly plotted, and I thought the characterisation of Kate, Alison and Catherine was excellent overall. They came to life from the first paragraph and kept me intrigued as their stories unfolded.

I don’t think the tagline – gripping psychological suspense, with a shocking twist that will leave you reeling – was to blame. I ignore these overblown and all-too-frequent claims by publishers. However, this didn’t feel like psychological suspense to me. The tension didn’t build or grip me, especially towards the end when two of the story strands faded out.

This turned out to be necessary for the twist.

And that’s why I felt flat. The plot and the twist took over. They placed constraints on the story and the way it was told to disguise the twist. The resulting compromises affected character behaviour and some of the decisions made by the women. The overall result, I feel, was to drain much of the tension and suspense from the story.

It’s a shame because I think the author is talented. She brought the characters to life with some excellent writing and insights, and had she not gone for the clever plot and twist, I think The Good Mother could have been a tense, suspenseful story.

3/5 stars.

The Good Mother