Posted in Netgalley, Random Things Tours

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

This is an extraordinary debut by Carole Johnstone full of psychological suspense, supernatural and imaginary worlds, and sibling rivalries. Cat and El are identical twins to most people who see them, but actually they’re mirror twins. This means that not only are they the same sex and blood type, they have identical, but asymmetric physical features. For example, if one is left handed the other is right handed. Yet they’ve spent twelve years definitively apart. On separate continents. Cat has been living and working in L.A. In the meantime El has been married to their childhood friend Ross and is even living in the girl’s childhood home. No 36 Westeryk Road is a large Gothic house that becomes a central character in the story. When Cat gets the news that El has gone missing while out sailing, she travels back to Edinburgh; towards her past.

The facts are that El has gone missing and there have been no sightings of her or her boat. Ross, who is now a psychologist, meets Cat and takes her back to the house. She’s shocked to find that a lot of the original furniture is still at Westeryk Road, and she’s been put in a guest room instead of their childhood room. It takes a while for her to get her bearings because in their childhood world all the rooms had names: Clown Cafe, The Kakadu Jungle, The Donkshop. The clown cafe was a candy stripe American diner. The Kakadu Jungle was richly wallpapered with a rainforest. The only room without a name was Bedroom 3. There is an old-fashioned servants bell pull with a bell for each room, but Cat doesn’t want to investigate when the bell rings from No 3. The world of imagination doesn’t end there, because tucked away under the pantry was another world called Mirrorland populated by clowns, witches and pirates. My therapist’s mind was whirling round at this point – why would someone want to live exactly as they had when they were children? Are these real or imaginary spaces? Is the imagery of mirrors significant? Which sister is a reflection of the other?

Back in the real world we meet DI Kate Rafik and DS Logan who are heading up the search for El, and seem confused by Cat’s reaction to her disappearance. Cat doesn’t trust her sister, she thinks she’s alive and possibly playing a game with them. It seems that the sisters have a symbiotic but unhealthy relationship, where El could be spiteful and play tricks on her sister. There’s also the relationship with Ross – Cat loved him first, but El couldn’t stand to be left out, taking drastic measures to be noticed. Underneath this tale I had to keep reminding myself that this was Cat’s version of events. Was she an unreliable narrator? There’s also the issue of notes being left for El just before her disappearance, but the sender hasn’t been uncovered. It doesn’t take long before Cat starts to receive similar emails, but are they from El? If so are they real warnings or a game? Or could someone else know what’s really going on at Westeryk Road?

I did find the combination of real life and flights of fancy a little difficult at times, it was as if my head was being bombarded with different information: visual, aural, imaginary, factual. I was in sensory overload a lot of time and struggled to take in the detail that might unravel this strange mystery. I also didn’t like or connect with any of the characters, so couldn’t get behind any of them. I instantly felt suspicious of Ross, because I’m used to psychologists being untrustworthy characters in fiction. This being said, the skill it has taken to create these worlds – imaginary and real – is incredible. The way Johnstone creates such a strong sense of place is by layering so much detail and I became drawn in by real life details like their grandfather having the football results on so loud everyone in the house knew who’d won. Probably because I used to check off Grandad’s pools result with him every Saturday. These pieces of the twins early life ground them in reality, just when you think everything at No 36 is imaginary. Cat describes the house as a mausoleum, a preservation of something long buried. Yet the house is alive. The description of the kitchen where there are still wonky units, but a sapphire blue Smeg fridge tells us things have changed. Time has passed here, but is that just superficial?

This book is an epic reading experience from a masterful writer, and I defy anyone to have guessed what’s really going on. I had to stop myself reading it at night because it kept my brain whirring so much I’d struggle to sleep. It wasn’t that I was scared, I was just intrigued as to what would happen next. Well, that and I don’t trust clowns much either! This was a fascinating mix of mystery, magic realism and psychological theory. You have to read it to the very end for it all to make sense, and once you do you’ll want to go back and find the clues you missed. I’ll need something restful to read next because this one well and truly worked my grey cells and my imagination to the limit.

Meet The Author

Scottish writer Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, Mirrorland, will be published in spring 2021 by Borough Press/HarperCollins in the UK and Commonwealth and by Scribner/Simon & Schuster in North America. Her award-winning short fiction has been reprinted in many annual ‘Best Of’ anthologies in the UK and the US. She has been published by Titan Books, Tor Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and PS Publishing, and has written Sherlock Holmes stories for Constable & Robinson and Running Press. Carole is represented by Hellie Ogden at Janklow & Nesbit UK and Allison Hunter at Janklow & Nesbit (US).

More information on the author can be found at carolejohnstone.com

Posted in Netgalley

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Publisher: Viper (Serpents Tail) 18th March 2020

I finished this novel in a sort of shell-shocked silence. I felt like I needed to go straight back to the beginning and start again. It is extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s also very difficult to review without spoiling other reader’s experience of it, but I have to give it a go.

The house in question is the home of our first narrator Ted. As we read Ted’s view of the world we start to realise there is something unique and odd about the way he experiences the world. He made me feel uneasy. We get a sense that something is very wrong when the birds he loves to watch, are trapped and killed. Ted spends a lot of time thinking about an incident several years before when a little girl disappeared from the lake nearby and was never found. Others might have forgotten, but not Ted and not the girl’s sister who has a huge sense of guilt about her sister’s loss. Ted was a suspect at the time and it’s not hard to see why; he’s a slightly strange loner, living nearby in a ramshackle home with boarded up windows. The girl’s sister hasn’t forgotten that Ted was a suspect and decides to rent the house next door and watch him, in the hope of finally discovering where her sister is. CCTV proved Ted’s alibi at the time, but the sister’s convinced she has found the culprit.

Things take a very strange turn when we meet another narrator, Ted’s cat Olivia. In other hands this might have seemed twee or whimsical, but here it isn’t. It did give me a shock in the first instance, when a narrator I’d assumed to be human, stopped to lick the back of their legs! I loved the way the author played with language in these sections. Olivia doesn’t realised Ted is a name, she thinks it’s a word for his species, so all people are ‘teds’ and dogs are ‘brouhahas’. She describes her love for another of her species, a beautiful cat with emerald eyes that she sometimes spies preening herself, through the cat flap. She also has a belief system, including her very own god who she refers to as LORD. Yet there are aspects of this cat, that are distinctly not cat-like and I started to wonder if all wasn’t as it seemed. Could this cat be someone or something else entirely?

Other narrators are introduced and I was sometimes thoroughly confused, but never contemplated putting the book down. The beauty of the language and cleverness of the structure kept me going, determined to work out what exactly was going on. I was starting to be unsure which sections were real and what was illusion. The author is clearly hugely skilled at creating that sense of the uncanny – when everything seems normal and recognisable, but there is just that sense that something is off-kilter and sinister. This was so psychologically clever and I enjoyed Ted’s visits to the ‘bug man’ who appears to be some sort of psychotherapist, until he appears where we don’t expect him. I was so involved in this world of Ted’s that I was starting to forget the original crime, the loss of a little girl on the beachfront of the lake. The writing is so involving that I was inside Ted at times and the uneasy feeling is that you will never be able to get out. I guessed some of what is going on, but not the whole and I love the ambition and audacity. This is a unique, original and deeply creative piece of work that enthralled and stunned in equal measure. Ward is a writer of immense imagination and talent and I feel privileged to have been given the chance to read this before it hits the shelves and becomes a phenomenon.

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. Her next gothic thriller, The Last House on Needless Street, will be published March 2021 by Viper (Serpents Tail). 

Ward’s second novel, 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 Random Things Tours

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell.

I must admit to being a bit of a fan girl when it comes to Laura Purcell. The mix of historical and gothic fiction is probably my favourite genre, so I had been impatiently awaiting the publication of her latest novel anyway. I jumped at the chance to join the blog tour, because she’s one of my favourites – in fact I had already pre-ordered a signed edition of this two months ago. So I came to it full of anticipation. I was hooked by the end of the first chapter and didn’t put it down. Our narrator is Miss Agnes Darken, living in Bath with her invalid mother and nephew Cedric. Agnes earns her money cutting silhouettes or ‘shades’ for people, but her art is put under threat not just by newer inventions, but by a mysterious killer stalking the people who have sat for her. Desperate for answers, Agnes visits a spirit medium – an albino child named Pearl who lives with her sister Miss Myrtle West, and an invalid father. Agnes and Pearl try to conjure the spirit of one of her murdered sitters, so they can find the killer. Unfortunately, they have underestimated the power of what they have unleashed.

The story is full of little twists and turns that unsettled me and kept me guessing. When Agnes finds the shade she cut of her first sitter with a squashed face, she ends up with the police on her doorstep. She was his last appointment before he was killed and the murder weapon was a mallet, in fact his face is quite ruined. Agnes is shocked, but could perhaps write this off as a coincidence. Maybe she simply caught the silhouette as she closed the book? I thought the awkward relationship with Simon, who is there when the police come, was really interesting. He is Agnes’s friend, but also a doctor and was married to her sister Constance. Yet it is Agnes and her mother who have Cedric, her sister’s son, living with them. I kept wondering how this had happened and it was these awkward relationships and the whiff of scandal that really caught my attention just as much as the supernatural element. Simon is deeply protective of Agnes and her health since she’d had pneumonia a few years previously. Yet there’s another concern underneath, her mental health and whether certain things are ‘too much’ for her delicate nerves.

The horror in Pearl’s household comes from poverty and working in dangerous environments as much as it does the supernatural. Pearl’s father has worked in a match factory and has succumbed to the horrific disease of ‘phossy jaw’ where the phosphorus used for the match heads, eats into the mouth and slowly poisons the victim. The descriptions of being able to see the workings of his jaw and of Simon trying to clean the area and burst abscesses on the gums is visceral and left me far more horrified than the seances held by Pearl and her half-sister Myrtle. Myrtle has named Pearl The White Sylph, which only adds to the air of mystery created by her snowy white hair and skin and the wispy glow of ectoplasm that can be seen emanating from her body when the lights are off. Pearl is exhausted and drained afterwards, and her fear of the spirits who take control of her is obvious. She fears them sitting in her body or speaking through her mouth. It seems her gift is involuntary and all the more genuine for that. When Agnes visits they have no idea what they may summon up together, whether in terms of the spirits or a plan that may prove even more deadly.

Agnes is haunted by her sister whether she visits Pearl or not, but the pair do have something in common; sisters who try to control their lives. Agnes’s sister Constance has wronged her sister terribly in life, but continues to be there in death. I love the tiniest details that are placed by the author to echo the relationship:

‘Agnes scrubs at her eyes with the handkerchief. She has gone through so many of them lately that she’s been forced to use Constance’s old ones; she has picked the initials out but the ghost of the letter C still marks the corner’.

I saw an echo of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca in this, they way her initials are all over the house, marking everything the new wife has to touch. Here it is a way for Constance to be ever present for Agnes. Constance is like Agnes’s shadow, and just like Myrtle and Pearl there is a yin and yang to these sisterhoods. One sister the innocent and other the dominant, rule breaking force. It’s as if they’re two halves making a whole. I enjoyed the description of Constance’s wardrobe towards the end of the book and the bright colours of her gowns contrast strongly with Agnes’s jet black, almost Puritan style of dress. Agnes is giving off that sense of grief and this uniform of mourning can mask who someone is as effectively as a disguise.

I also loved the period detail in the book, not just the clothing, but the etiquette and position of women. Although Agnes struggles financially she does have some measure of freedom and runs her own household. She has Simon, her brother in law, as her protector and because he is a doctor and a widower there is no impropriety in this. However, she does need him for certain things such as talking to the police and dealing with other men, who simply don’t consider a woman as an equal. I also loved the descriptions of Agnes’s craft, the cutting machine that she barely uses in order to keep cutting by hand alive. There is an alchemy in the descriptions of her work, the magical way she’s able put a person’s character into what seems like a very flat, characterless medium. There is a great description of a session with a young man, who admits he would prefer the new- fangled photograph, but his mother prefers the old ways. Photography is a threat to Agnes’s business, and there’s an interesting thought process around the belief that too many photographs could diminish you as each photograph takes a bit of your soul.

‘Part of your soul would remain forever imprisoned in the glass lens. Sit for too many and you might be depleted. More alive in the photograph than in real life.’

I thought that could be my thought process when I’m worrying about my niece or stepdaughter’s ‘addiction’ to social media. I like to take breaks from social media, but I sometimes worry that they’re so obsessed with their online personas that they miss out on what’s actually happening in real life. Social media is an edited or even purposely cultivated idea of who we are, not our real selves. It’s good to hear that each generations worries about the same things.

This is an excellent gothic mystery, that grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go. I thought the characters were well developed and fascinating – even the ones who are no longer there! I liked that were transgressive females who had their own agency and independence. I enjoyed the author’s sense of place, the evil portents like the magpies and the build up of tension. I also liked the contrast between those living in poverty and those with a more middle class lifestyle. The supernatural elements are always spooky with Purcell, so the seances and visitations are unsettling, but so are the real life people. As the mystery deepens you won’t be able to stop reading, because you’ll have to know what’s going on. There’s a saying we use about timid people – afraid of your own shadow – and that’s what this book does, it makes us afraid of what others might see in us, and who we can become in the dark. An utterly brilliant addition to Laura Purcell’s work.

Why not check out some of the reviews of my fellow bloggers?

Meet The Author

Laura Purcell is a former bookseller. She now lives in Colchester with her husband and their pet guinea pigs. Her first novel for Raven Books, The Silent Companions was a Radio 2 and Zoe Ball ITV book club choice. It was also the winner of the Thumping Good Read award. Her next novels The Corset and Bone China have cemented her reputation as the queen of the spooky but sophisticated page turner.