Posted in Netgalley

Sundial by Catriona Ward

I was left slightly shell-shocked by Catriona Ward’s new novel Sundial, a state of mind that is rapidly becoming her trademark as a writer after her mind – meltingly strange and clever previous novel The Last House on Needless Street. When people ask me what it’s like to read her novels I liken it to the early films of M. Night Shymalan. Remember when you first watched The Sixth Sense? I remember sitting in the cinema as the final credits rolled thinking ‘what have I just watched?’ Then wondering if I could simply stay for the next showing and watch it again, knowing what was actually happening. They’re novels that won’t immediately show up as film or TV adaptations, because directors will be scratching their heads, wondering how best to tell the story visually, while keeping the revelations under wraps till the end. I’m waiting to see how someone manages the narrating cat, but if anyone can do it it’s Andy Serkis, who is currently developing last year’s smash hit.

I haven’t read her earliest work, but didn’t know what to expect in this new novel and whether she would be able to deliver those WTF?? moments that characterised The Last House on Needless Street. Well it turns out she can and she has. At first I was reading what seemed like a normal family drama and I wondered if we were going to have a change in style. Then there was a moment, everyone who has read it knows where I mean, where the everyday and mundane became strange and distorted. I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Rob is mother to two daughters, Annie and Callie, and wife to Irving. They are a normal nuclear family, or so they seem. Rob finds out that Callie has the potential and the urge to hurt her little sister. She also finds that Callie is collecting the bones of small creatures, including a puppy from a dumpster. She also whispers to imaginary friends. Rob senses that there might be a darkness in Callie that reminds her of Sundial, the home in the desert where she grew up. Rob resolves to take Callie with her to the Mojave, and back to Sundial which has lain empty since she and Irving became a couple. She thinks this trip into the past will give her answers, but once there she is overwhelmed by memories of the past. Might she have to make a choice between her two children?

The author lets Rob start the story in the family home, establishing the dynamic of their family and the way we view them as readers. As we change to Callie’s narration, things seem very different. We realise that Callie is actually scared of her mother and this ‘mother/daughter’ trip they’re taking. She thinks Rob is looking at her differently and is worried about being alone with her. Consequently, we’re on edge with both narrators. I was never sure which one was telling me the truth of events or whether there is even is one established truth. The author is so brilliant at creating a ‘hall of mirrors’ effect where each reality becomes distorted, but in such a different way that I was struggling to get a grasp on who was dangerous and whether anyone would be leaving the desert in one piece.

With such complex books that are dependent on the scary location and unexpected revelations it’s very hard to know what to tell. I feel that Rob thinks she will shock Callie into a different path by telling her the story of her upbringing, even though I’m not entirely sure she has the ‘true’ version of events. We find out that she lived with her adoptive parents at the ranch, where dogs were kept for scientific experiments into behaviour. I’m not a huge believer of trigger warnings, but if you are genuinely upset or angered by this type of experimentation on animals then maybe this isn’t the book for you. I found this element disturbing and it definitely added to the dark atmosphere of their home. When we drop back into her childhood we know Rob believes that her father and stepmother, became a couple after the death of her mother who she only has fleeting memories of because she was so young. She doesn’t mind her stepmother, but feels an obligation to dislike her out of loyalty. However, slowly we slip through versions of this story rather like a set of never ending Russian dolls until I didn’t know who to trust. This is a perfect psychological horror where the supernatural elements may be real, or may be a delusion or hallucination formed by an unstable mind. There’s a truly sad moment where I can see Rob’s world could have become wider and full of life experiences we want for our children like friends, education and travel. Can she break with Sundial or will she be pulled inexorably back into her past?

It’s fair to say that no one is what they seem in this story. I was very interested in whether the family would be reunited again, but this seemed to become further and further away. There are believable elements; as a lot of people with horrific childhoods do, it seemed as if Rob may have replaced the ranch with another house of domestic horrors. Or had she been so tied to her past she had recreated it? There was manipulation and abuse evident alongside the hauntings. It would maybe be a stretch to say I enjoyed this book, because if it were possible I’d have been reading with my hands over my eyes! I didn’t always want to see or know more. Yet I can see that it’s a brilliant piece of writing that stirred up so many emotions from fear to hope, back to being completely terrified again.

Published by Viper 10th March 2022

Meet The Author

CATRIONA WARD was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the United States, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. She read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia.

The Last House on Needless Street’ (Viper Books, Tor Nightfire) was a Times Book of the Month, Observer Book of the Month, March Editor’s Pick on Open Book, a Between the Covers BBC2 book club selection, a Times bestseller, and is being developed for film by Andy Serkis’s production company, The Imaginarium.

Little Eve‘ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2018) won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award and the August Derleth Prize for Best Horror Novel at the 2019 British Fantasy Awards, making her the only woman to have won the prize twice, and was a Guardian best book of 2018. Her debut Rawblood (W&N, 2015) won Best Horror Novel at the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award and a WHSmith Fresh Talent title. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. She lives in London and Devon.

Posted in World Book Day

World Book Day! The Books That Shaped Me.

Oh how I wish dressing up for World Book Day had been a ‘thing’ when I was still at primary school. I would have wanted to be a Moomin or Little My with her triangular dress, furious eyebrows and little topknot. The best book related thing that’s happened to me so far this year was last weekend when my stepdaughters arrived for a few days and both of them had one of the books we’d bought them for their birthdays and spent part of their weekend reading. It made me tear up a little to see them popping their books on top of my tbr pile in the living room. There are things about the books we read as children that stay with us and I read furiously. I went to the library every Saturday and I’d always read everything by the next week. I’ve written before about how I was reading Classics by the age of ten when I’d read everything in the reading scheme. Jane Eyre was my first and I believe it gave me a love of all things Gothic and now a love of writers like Stacey Halls, Laura Purcell and Sarah Waters. However I started thinking about those first books we read as children, even as far back as when our parents read them to us. These are also our formative books and I started to think about how they’ve shaped my reading choices, and whether they’d shaped my character or life. So here are some well and lesser known books that I think shaped me a little.

The Tiger Who Came To Tea by Judith Kerr

This beautiful book was bought for me when I was very small, because I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. I know I’d started going for tea myself with my mum and dad. I must have been younger than four years old because my brother wasn’t born yet. On Sundays my parents would take me on an outing to the museum, Normanby Country Park to see the peacocks and the pet cemetery (which I weirdly loved) or we would go to the cinema followed by tea at a Greek restaurant next door. I remember feeling grown up and very posh indeed. Somehow that book has a similar feeling associated with it and I have always loved going for afternoon tea ever since. I loved the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party but this was even more exciting. A very posh seeming tiger wants some tea, so much so that he guzzled it straight from the teapot. Sophie and her mum are very polite but he is a naughty tiger and eats everything they have. I do have a lifelong love of things that are naughty and mischievous and I think this lovely book helped that blossom, as well as my next choice.

No Kiss For Mother by Tomi Ungerer.

When I mention this brilliant book to people there are a surprising amount who’ve never heard of it. It’s a shame because it really is an odd little gem and I think it fuelled my dark sense of humour, but also my fondness for grumpy, abrupt people. There is nothing that teenage cat Piper Paw hates more than having to kiss his long suffering mother. In fact this is a teenager’s manual – he hates being seen with or fussed by his parents, hates getting up in the morning, loathes fish and wants to be out with his naughty cat friends. The problem is that Piper has probably the most long suffering and doting mother in literature. The author has his cat’s teenage antics spot on and the family dynamics are brilliant. I loved the very dark illustrations, such as Piper’s alarm clock with all it’s insides hanging out after he attacked it with a tin opener. There are also inexplicable ones, such as Mrs Paw taking the scales off a fish with a comb! Me and my brother would laugh so hard at this naughty cat’s antics and we longed to name a cat Piper Paw. I remember when this was out of print, my mum went to great lengths to find a copy for her grandchildren and now the great grandchildren, ensuring mischief for the next few generations.

The Moomins Series by Tove Janssen

For a grown woman it’s quite ridiculous how much I love Moomins. This obsession is evident in my house where there is Moomin art, mugs, shadow frames, T-shirts, jewellery and soft toys. Rather like some people believe the Winnie the Pooh characters represent certain personality archetypes, I believe that most people can be summed up by likening them to a Moomin character. The most obvious one in my family is my brother, who is loving and loyal, but needs a lot of his own space and needs nothing more than a leisurely smoke in the open air with one or two fishing rods in the river. He is, quite obviously, a Snufkin (who I carry on my key ring as a reminder). I am soft, romantic, slightly round and worry a little about my weight like the Snork Maiden, but wish I was more feisty, bitey and intelligent like Little My. My late husband was rather studious and enjoyed calm and quiet like a Hemulen ( although I am at pains to point out he didn’t wear a dress). As a child my imagination was fired by all these wonderful creative creatures and this amazing house that looked like Rapunzel’s tower but painted blue. I loved that Moomintroll had these wonderfully loving parents who never ran out of food and would take in a stranger at a moment’s notice. There’s never any judgement so whether you wear a dress, like your own space or bite a little bit, you were welcome. Like all the best children’s books there has to be a little darkness in the background and there are disasters along the way – I’ve never forgotten the creepy hobgoblin, or the weird little hattifatteners who look like glow sticks and sting like nettles. I love the humour of these little hippo-like creatures and since I’m a Northener, one of my favourites is our toothbrush mug which depicts Moominpappa rowing a boat and saying ‘it’s a little warmer, do you think we’re nearing the South’ and Moominmamma replying ‘I’m afraid so dear.’

The Bagthorpe Saga by Helen Cresswell.

I wanted to live in the home of this rather rambunctious and eccentric middle-class family, possibly because they were quite different from us. The Bagthorpes are rather arty, with both parents being writers – although dad, Henry Bagthorpe, would disagree with that classification. His wife is an Agony Aunt in a national newspaper, whereas he is a ‘real’ writer. It seems that real writing is torturous and involves long hours locked in his office, but can anyone remember the last time one of his scripts was commissioned. His wife suspects it’s a way of avoiding the family and writing complaint letters to commissioning editors. The four children are encouraged to try new projects and hobbies (‘strings to their bows’). All apart from Jack, who doesn’t have one except for spending time with his dog Zero. William has drums and is a radio ham – involving long conversations about conspiracy theories with Anonymous from Grimsby. Tess plays music and is currently translating her own edition of Voltaire’s works. Even the baby of the family Rosie has some musical ability. The agents of most of the chaos are the Unholy Alliance formed by Grandma – who lives with them along with a malevolent ginger cat – and toddler Daisy, the Bagthorpe’s cousin. Aunt Celia is either naturally has her head in the clouds or is on prescribed medication and thinks Daisy is a creative who should be allowed free rein. Uncle Parker is a little more savvy about his daughter’s exploits, but doesn’t believe in punishing his daughter. He drives a red sports car and likes to needle his brother-in-law, on one memorable occasion writing a script in his ‘spare time’. Every book ends with a complete disaster of the flood and fire variety, and various rooms are in different stages of repair throughout the series. They are comical books and wry satirical look at a liberal, middle class family.

The What Katy Did Series by Susan Coolidge

Both this choice and my other American girl’s book, Pollyanna are really 19th Century moral plays, designed to instruct young girls on good behaviour, but also to guide them into making the transition into (an acceptable version of) womanhood. As a grown-up I looked at them again in light of my own disability and saw an even more sinister agenda lurking between the pages. On the face of it, What Katy Did was an enjoyable story of a young girl in a big family coping after the death of their mother. Katy Carr is the eldest sibling and is at heart a bit of a tomboy, still climbing up on the roof and running round the yard like her younger siblings. Their father is a doctor and he decides it would be better for his children to have a woman in the house, especially as he works long hours. So he brings his sister Aunt Izzie to live with them and restore order. Izzie is quite severe, very religious and disgusted at the way the children behave especially the oldest girls, Katy and her sister Clover. Yet Aunt Izzie’s methods don’t always get the desired effect. The person most likely to calm and restore order is Cousin Helen, who is a wheelchair user and uses her disability for good. When Aunt Izzie bans Katy from the swing in the yard without explanation, Katy defies her, but the swing breaks and Katy is seriously injured with some sort of spinal injury. Katy returns home from hospital in a wheelchair and now has to learn how to be a respectable young woman – quiet, gentle and obedient. It’s a harsh lesson and one that resonated in my own life when I had a spinal injury aged 11. I did buy some of life lessons in the this book, probably because we were church goers too, but I can see how damaging the premise is and it isn’t just used in this book.

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

There are a lot of similarities between Pollyanna and the Katie novels and not just the covers. Pollyanna is also being looked after by an aunt, after her missionary parents die leaving her an orphan. Aunt Polly is rather austere and certainly expects her new charge to be seen and not heard, but thankfully one of the staff called Nancy takes the orphan under her wing. Pollyanna is a character designed to teach children Christian values. She has a game she tries to teach everyone in their small town – no matter what happens, you have to find something to be glad about. When explaining to Nancy she talks about getting her Christmas presents from missionary barrels and how one year there was nothing inside, but a pair of crutches. Nancy can’t imagine what she found to be glad about, but Pollyanna got there in the end – she was glad she didn’t need them. However, this feels like a bad omen when Pollyanna has her own accident, like Katy she has a fall and injures her back. The local doctor organises for her to have an operation in the city, but can’t guarantee she’ll walk again. But before they leave, Pollyanna is visited by everyone in the city that she’s touched in some way, mainly by being her chatty, sunny, self. Both of these books are charming on the surface, but have a much darker and disturbing message beneath. It teaches young women that they should start to grow up, become young ladies and become quieter, ladylike, less free. I imagine the popularity of them has waned since I was an adolescent, at least I hope so, because I felt like quite a failure when I wasn’t as good or tame as these young ladies after my accident.

The Mary Plain Series by Gwynedd Rae

It was a Blue Peter ‘Bring and Buy’ sale that brought this book series into my life and I fell in love at once with this gorgeous little bear. So much so that I had to have my own cuddly toy bear who I named Mary Plain (and still have somewhere with my Snoopy and my ET). Written in the 1930’s in the U.K, the series features Mary, a very real juvenile bear, who lives with her family at the zoo in Bern, Switzerland. We meet her family, including a beautifully named Aunt Friske, but the book mainly concerns Mary’s adventures with her human ‘godfather’. Called The Owl Man by Mary, because he wears glasses, he seems able to converse with her, and takes her out on a special ‘svisit’ – the result of teaching Mary that if you’re talking about more than one visit you add an ‘s’. Mary doesn’t wear clothes, but occasionally likes a hat, and in the illustrations has an endearing little pot belly. She’s not always confident of how she looks and although she enjoys rubbing her belly, she does wonder if it’s a little big. Mary is well behaved, for a bear, and never intends to get into scrapes, but they do tend to happen anyway. I used to love reading about her picnics, going for tea, meeting important people and mostly just enjoying sitting in The Owl Man’s car with the top down and the wind in her ears. I still think these books are delightful and they must have been great reading for children back in the 1930’s.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Lying Club by Annie Ward

If you love a juicy gossip about your fellow villagers or friends, or watching rich people’s lives implode, then this is definitely the book for you. Based around an elite Colorado private school, a tangled web connects three women. Brooke, the archetypal private school mum, fiercely protective and an filthy rich heiress with a creative approach to her wedding vows. Asha is a realtor, staging and selling houses while juggling children, hormones and an increasingly distant husband who she fears is having an affair. Then there’s Natalie, a lowly office assistant, watching the parents and children at the school taking for granted a life she could only dream about. Brooke has probably passed Natalie hundreds of times since she started working at the school, but probably doesn’t even know her name. Asha has noticed her, but only because Natalie has turned up at lots of her open house events. This is strange because there’s no way she could afford the types of properties Asha is selling. These women are bound by their relationships with the handsome, charming assistant athletic director Nicholas. Brooke wants him, in the way she wants any handsome man to notice her, but also because he has the contacts to get her daughter Sloane into one of the best colleges based on her talent at football. Asha uneeds him to get daughter Mia ready for the competitive world of college applications, because the best school won’t take two girls from the same school and Brooke seems several steps ahead. Natalie’s motives are the purist, she’s falling in llove with him and he’s making all the right noises, but is it just lip service? When two bodies are carried out of the school early one morning, it looks like the jealousy between mothers and daughters, or rival lovers, or the haves and have-nots has boiled over. The truth will shatter the surface of this isolated, affluent town, but whose version of the truth counts in a town where people will stop at nothing to get what they want?

I’ll be honest, it was hard to like anyone in this novel. Even the kids were awful; they were spoiled, entitled and self-centred. Asha’s daughter Mia, being the best of the bunch, is unsure what it will take to get into a good college until Brooke brings it to the family’s attention when she buys a state of the art camera to film Sloan’s soccer matches and create a reel for her application. Once Asha realises and approaches Coach Nick for help, Brooke becomes furious, worried that Mia’s Indian heritage will ensure her a place thanks to the positive discrimination built into the application process. Meanwhile, it’s clear there’s something brewing in the girl’s social circle of students who are particularly gifted at sport. I was shocked by just how sophisticated their sports programme was with gym work, massages, physiotherapy, and even anti-inflammatory injections happening on school premises. Are these kids simply rebelling over the level of control the coaches seem to have in their lives? I wondered whether they were plotting revenge against Coach Nick. Sloan’s boyfriend Reade, is fed up with Nick’s control over his athletes, hinting that he may want to get rid of Nick or at least have him reprimanded and he wants to recruit Mia to their plan.

Natalie is meant to be the most sympathetic character I think and on the morning she drives to the school to find it swarming with police she is in genuine shock. Then we go straight back to her reasons for being in Colorado; her brother had an accident and broke his leg so badly he couldn’t get around. So Natalie has been caring for him and took the job at the school when he started doing more for himself. She’s a painter by trade, with a shop on Etsy selling quirky pet portraits. She starts seeing Nick, almost accidentally, after a bit of flirtation at her desk when he’s been in to se the Headteacher. He invites her to his home and Natalie is blown away by how beautiful it is. Yet I was seeing red flags everywhere about their relationship going long term: Nick is a lot older and possibly wants different things; he’s previously been a womaniser; they never go anywhere but his place; he asks Natalie to keep their relationship secret. Yet Natalie seems to be falling in love and I had to admit he talked a good game. Is Nick just super careful because of his teaching role and what are these private sessions he seems to be conducting with elite kids?

The best thing about not really warming to anyone in the novel meant I could genuinely enjoy the tension and these people getting their comeuppance! The structure worked really well with an excerpt from a police interview, then going back to the events in question. The move back in time a few months illuminated the case going forward and the interview drew together many of the things I’d been concerned about. The drip feed of new information definitely kept me reading and gave me sudden changes of opinion on some characters. I was so invested in what the kids were up to and why Mia seemed to be under pressure from the others to join in. I kept wondering if they really had the measure of their opponent or was someone going to get hurt? I was also wondering if the mystery of the memorial Natalie had seen on her walk would be explained? Who was the crying woman and would new revelations shed light on this old story? With it’s luscious settings, opulent homes and beautiful people the best way to describe the book is to say this was like a particularly indulgent dessert. Strangely, even though the subject matter is dark, it’s delicious, decadent and rather thrilling.

Published by Quercus 3rd March 2022.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Breath, Eyes, Memory from Edwidge Danticat

At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished Haitian village to New York to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child shouldever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti – to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence.

In her stunning literary debut, Danticat evokes the wonder, terror, and heartache of her native Haiti – and the enduring strength of Haiti’s women – with vibrant imagery and narrative grace that bear witness to her people’s suffering and courage.

Reading this incredible debut novel at university sparked a lifelong interest in the history of Haiti and its people. The republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and despite only occupying three eighths of the island, it has a staggering population of 11.4 million making it the most populated island in the Caribbean Sea. However, there is a huge Haitian diaspora with many residents relocating to the USA, probably due to the fact that Haiti has the lowest Human Development Index in the world. The indigenous Taino people seem to have been the original residents of the island, but the first European settlers landed in the 1400’s claiming the island for Spain and it remained part of the Spanish Empire until the 17th Century. The French then laid claim to the most westerly point of the island and they brought the first slaves to Haiti for labour on their new sugar plantations. It has the incredible honour of being the first island in the Americas to abolish slavery after a successful slave revolt led by Toussaint Louverture and eventually declared sovereignty on Jan 1st 1894 under his successor Dessalines. As the country slowly united there were attempts to declare the whole island as Haiti, but eventually they recognised the Dominican Republic as a separate state. Haiti has been notoriously unstable due to crippling debt owed to France, the dearth of resources left by the French and Spanish, as well as political volatility. The USA took control of the island in the early twentieth century, until Haitian leader Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier took power in 1956 and it is this period that is explored in the novel. Papa Doc’s reign and the following rule of his son known as ‘Baby Doc’, was characterized by state-sanctioned violence, against any political opposition and it’s own civilians, corruption, and economic stagnation. It was only after 1986 that Haiti began attempting to establish a more democratic political system.

Danticat’s story is about the women of Haiti, particularly the three generations of Sophie’s family, and how this period of history impacted upon the women of Haiti. Sophie has been brought up by her Tante Atie and this is a beautifully warm relationship that really grounds Sophie in her Haitian identity. They are also incredibly close to her Grandma Ifé who tells Sophie stories passed down orally about people who could carry the sky on their heads. Atie is beautifully conveyed as a loving but slightly abrupt woman, conflicted between the needs created by her own motherlessness and her love for this child who has been left behind. Both Sophie and Atie have a void that each other can fill, but Atie is honour bound not to replace Sophie’s mother and to be sure that her mother’s wishes are carried out. This comes to a head one Mother’s Day when Sophie takes a Mother’s Day card home from school clearly wanting to give it to her aunt, not the woman living thousands of miles away who she’s never met. Danticat is very adept at evoking her homeland with recipes and descriptions of mouth watering food. It’s not been a wealthy upbringing, but it is rich in stories, colour, warmth and nourishment. So when Sophie is sent to live with her mother in New York City the contrast is stark and confusing. Whereas Tante Atie seems comfortable in her skin, Sophie’s mother is shown to diet and use skin lightening creams, showing an obvious discomfort about her body and possibly even her identity as a black Haitian woman.

Men are largely absent in this novel, but their impact is enormous. Maxine lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and Sophie hears her mother’s nightmares through the wall. Left alone for long periods, Sophie forms a friendship with a male neighbour in the apartment block. This seems to trigger Maxine and the truth of Sophie’s family starts to come to light, as her mother becomes obsessed with protecting her. She begins the horrific practice of ‘testing’ her daughters virginity – something apparently passed down from her own mother – causing shame, confusion and trauma. Sophie learns she is a child of rape and we travel back to the Haiti of Maxine’s teenage years where she is spotted by one of the ‘Tonton Macoutes’ – Papa Doc’s foot soldiers and the bogeymen of every Haitian child’s nightmares. He drags Maxine into the sugar cane field and assaults her. It will take a return to Haiti, for both Sophie and her Mother, to bring about healing. Danticat beautifully portrays inter generational trauma and the oppression of women that’s caused by the patriarchal system, but enacted by mothers on their daughters. Daughters who were virgins kept their value in the marriage market, just as in other cultures the men want wives who have undergone FGM. It takes rebellion and refusal from the women to create change. Sophie must also face the the ghosts of slavery, represented by the sugar cane her ancestors were brought from Africa to cut. Danticat paints a vivid, colourful but painful picture of a country created by trauma that is still felt many centuries later. She explores how each new generation must find some way to live with that past, whether by leaving the country of their birth for something different or by staying to face the past and break the chain of hurt each generation has passed on to the next. This is an emotional, evocative and difficult read in parts, but is a beautiful debut from an author whose love of her homeland shines through.

This edition published by Abacus 7th March 1996

Meet the Author

Edwidge Danticat picture from Fresh Air Archive

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and came to the United States when she was twelve years old. She graduated from Barnard College and received an M.F.A. from Brown University. She made an auspicious debut with her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and followed it with the story collection Krik? Krak!, whose National Book Award nomination made Danticat the youngest nominee ever. She lives in New York.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Faceless by Vanda Symon.

I devoured this fast paced novel set on the streets of Auckland and focused on a young street girl called Billy and a hardened homeless veteran called Max. Ever since Billy stumbled into the same doorway one cold night, she and Max have had a connection. He showed her how to use cardboard boxes to keep warm and where to find the best thrown out food. They have a pact to take care of each other and wherever they go in the day, they always make their way back to the same adjoining doorways at night. So, when Billy doesn’t appear one night, Max knows something is wrong. He needs to find her, but where to start in a city of this size and will anyone take him seriously?

Meanwhile, Billy has stumbled into the path of someone having a very bad day. Bradley is exhausted. Over-mortgaged, overworked and under appreciated, he is reaching the end of his tether. Having neglected his family all weekend to work, Bradley has been in the doghouse with his wife Angie. Yet it’s not enough for his boss who doesn’t seem to appreciate that five people used to do the same job Bradley is now doing alone. Bradley sees the prostitutes on their usual patch as he drives home, wondering idly what sort of man actually has the nerve to drive up and do it, to actually pay a woman to do what he wants. He wouldn’t have the nerve. Then he sees a young, tomboyish girl standing a little way from the others. She’s not a regular and he is less intimidated by her. So he picks her up and she directs him to an industrial area where no one will disturb them. He doesn’t know what impulse drives him to hit her, possibly the amusement in her eyes when he isn’t ready for her, but the feeling it gives him is better than anything he’s felt in a long time. There’s a rush of power and it’s intoxicating. So he takes her to an empty industrial unit he owns and using cable ties he makes sure she doesn’t escape. He might come back tomorrow.

Told from both Max, Billy and Bradley’s points of view in short chapters that prove rather addictive, the story unfolds of how both these people ended up on the streets and how an ordinary family man becomes a monster. I was constantly thinking ‘just one more chapter’ until I was half way through the story in my first sitting. I finished the book the next morning. The story is gritty. It doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to describing life living on the streets, or the realities of being kidnapped and left with nothing for your comfort. I could actually feel the cold, smell the mustiness of not showering for several weeks, and understand the shame of being left with no toilet facilities. It is vivid and because it’s a first person experience it’s very confronting in parts. I was so caught up in Max’s search for his friend, linked somehow to an old trauma and another young girl, and how desperate he becomes to have someone listen to him. So desperate that he has to overcome embarrassment and maybe even face whatever terrible experience has kept him running all this time. Billy is running too, but being alone and captive gives her ample time to explore what’s happened to her. Although it will take the police investigation to find out the full truth of Billy’s need to run. Through these two people we see just a couple of the reasons that people end up on the streets, but no matter why it’s a tough life that no one would choose unless they were desperate.

As for Bradley, he raises a lot of questions about the making of violent offenders, particularly those who commit crimes against women. Would anyone in Bradley’s position make the same choices he does? Or was there something latent in him, triggered by stress and what he saw as a girl from the streets looking down on him? He doesn’t fully understand the changes himself, all he knows is that the more he takes out his stresses and strains on Billy, the better he feels. He also seems to have regained his libido too, as he and Angie cavort like teenagers. He has just the right sort of happily married suburban man vibe to get away with what he’s done. I found myself rooting for Billy and whatever strength she could summon to survive just long enough for Max to find her. The visions of her grandmother are touching, providing context for Billy and an insight into her culture. Auckland is a strong presence in the novel too, from the rough, deserted areas where Billy creates her spray paint portraits of mythical women to the over-mortgaged suburbs where Bradley is lucky enough to live. We see the multi-cultural mix of kids hanging out in the park and the life of a suburban wife with their book club, exercise class lifestyle. It’s very clear that for most people in this life how you look and what you have defines you. Thankfully thats not the case for everyone and I loved Meredith, a snappy and intelligent detective who would rather wear heels than the regulation shoes. She looks beyond the surface and her investigative skills are the best, but she doesn’t have much to go on. Through her we get Max’s back story and her respect and trust in him doesn’t depend on his status – although she does insist on a shower. This book will keep you up at night to find out what happens to these characters. There isn’t a word wasted here and the pace is perfect. If you like your crime gritty, with great characterisation and empathy then this is for you. I loved it.

Meet The Author

Vanda Symon is a crime writer, TV presenter and radio host from Dunedin, New Zealand, and the chair of the Otago Southland branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. The Sam Shephard series, which includes Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, hit number one on the New Zealand bestseller list, and has also been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award. Overkill was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger.
Twitter @vandasymon, Instagram @vanda-symon, Facebook, @vandasymonauthor,

Posted in Netgalley

Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough

I was absolutely gripped by this incredible thriller! Emma is nearing her fortieth birthday and she can’t sleep. Her insomnia is triggering anxiety about her Mum and the reappearance of her sister Phoebe isn’t helping. Both girls were taken into foster care on the night of their Mum’s fortieth birthday, when she’d had a breakdown – could the same thing be happening to Emma? Her Mum always said she had inherited the bad blood in the family. As the days pass and irritability, paranoia, fear and the hallucinations start to kick in Emma starts to wonder. Is she going mad or is someone out to ruin her life? Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.

This was a great read and I’ll be shouting about it until publication day. The way Emma disintegrates over the course of a few days is shocking, but believable as every relationship in her life is touched by this ‘madness’, until there’s really nothing left. Emma has always prided herself on being a competent solicitor, very organised and together. I was desperate to find out what happened in their childhood and why her sister Phoebe has popped up in her life right now. I felt there was an element of Emma not processing her childhood trauma. She’s locked it away in the back of her mind, but Phoebe’s appearance, and advice that she should visit their mother, seems like the trigger that unlocks these memories. It’s very common for people to set great store by the ages of their parents when trauma occurs – such as thinking you’ll have a heart attack before your 60th birthday because your Dad did. The worry and stress this causes can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What the author does, very cleverly, is muddy the waters; just when I was starting to think she was having a breakdown, other things start happening. Her young son keeps creating a strange macabre drawing of a terrible memory that haunts Emma. How could he know? Who has told him this happened? It can’t be anyone in the home, because they don’t know. Her dictated letters have turned into a mumbled series of numbers when her secretary plays back the dictaphone. Added to these strange and inexplicable events the author also throws in a number of stressors that would make anyone struggle with their mental health. At work she is trying to avoid the advances of a very unpleasant client, not only that but his ex-wife confronts Emma over losing custody of their boys. Emma’s tyres are slashed among other nuisance acts that start to pile up over the week, particularly affecting Emma’s job. It becomes hard for the reader to see which events can be explained away, which events are incredibly strange and what are normal daily obstacles made worse by Emma’s severe sleep deprivation. I was never fully sure what to attribute to who, what is real and what is imagined, and who is to blame?

This novel kept me on my toes right up till the end. I felt stressed and paranoid alongside Emma, and could really feel her sense of panic and powerlessness as her carefully constructed life unravels. There are some jump scares here and there that really did give me a jolt! The way the author drew me in was brilliant and I was firmly on Emma’s side, while constantly worrying that she might be an unreliable narrator after all. The ending was unexpected with final scenes that had me on the edge of my seat, glued to the action until the early hours. This really will be an addictive and thrilling film or TV series. Insomnia is a psychologically complex novel, intelligent and exciting till the last page. Pre-order your copy, because this is a cracking read.

Published byHarper Collins 31stMarch 2022.

Meet The Author.

Sarah Pinborough is a New York Times bestselling and Sunday Times Number one and Internationally bestselling author who is published in over 30 territories worldwide. Having published more than 25 novels across various genres, her recent books include Behind Her Eyes, now a smash hit Netflix limited series, Dead To Her, now in development with Amazon Studios, and 13 Minutes and The Death House in development with Compelling Pictures.

Sarah was the 2009 winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story and also the 2010 and 2014 winner of the British Fantasy Award for Best Novella, and she has four times been short-listed for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the British Book Award for best Thriller.

Sarah lives in the historic town of Stony Stratford, the home of the Cock and Bull story, with her dog Ted.

You can follow her on Twitter @sarahpinborough