A modern Gothic tale of a woman obsessed with her lover’s taxidermy creatures and haunted by her past.
One stormy Christmas, Scarlett recalls the ebb and flow of a yearlong love affair with Henry, a renowned taxidermist. Obsessed with his taxidermy creatures, she pushes him to outdo his colleague and world-famous rival in a crescendo of species-blending creativity. Scarlett will not be able to avoid a reckoning with her own past as Henry’s inventions creep into her own thoughts, dreams, and desires.
Drenched in the torrential rains of the Somerset moorland and the sensual pleasures of the characters, The Taxidermist’s Lover lures you ever deeper into Scarlett’s delightfully eerie world.
Bram Stoker Award Shortlist for Superior Achievement in a First Novel • IPPY Awards 2021 Gold Medal Winner
Anyone who knows me well is aware that I have a weird penchant for antique taxidermy, so I jumped at the chance to read this. This was an eerie story of obsession from a writer I’ve not come across before, but will look out for in the future. I expected the feel of a historical novel, with something a little spooky about it and I wasn’t disappointed. Dipping in and out of the past, Scarlett addresses her lover Henry, who is hoping to my find a foothold in this niche world of taxidermy. I loved these forays into the past, as it allows us to witness a developing tale of obsession and the macabre, in the tradition of gothic fiction – one of my favourite genres. There’s a strange sensation that you are reading a Victorian novel instead of a contemporary story. Hall’s writing is haunting and sensual, and sets a dark, forbidding tone. Although it’s a second person narration it feels very personal.There’s a sense of foreboding and I kept wondering about the veracity of Scarlett’s story. Would Henry tell us a different tale? Despite it’s potential unreliability, I felt drawn in and I simply couldn’t guess how all this would play out. I think it is so compelling because of that personal feel; writer is echoing that feel of obsession by deliberately keeping her focus narrow.
Scarlett and Henry’s relationship was very fast moving, with them moving in almost immediately and getting married very soon after. She becomes involved in his career and suggests he try something different; chopping and changing animal parts to create totally new creatures, rather like the jackalope. To say Scarlett is obsessed would be an understatement really, not with Henry, but with his taxidermy. It seems very unhealthy, but when we hear about Scarlett’s twin brother Rhett and the death of her parents, this obsession with body parts starts to make sense. However, it’s sense of a very disturbed kind. There’s a Frankenstein element to the tale, both in the jumbled creatures and the sense we get that the process of making them might be more satisfying than the finished product. It’s become more about the ability of the creator than the actual creature. Some readers might feel sorry for Scarlett and I did understand how life events might have overwhelmed and damaged her psyche. I found it satisfying to delve so deeply under a character’s skin, because we don’t often get the chance to really analyse someone this way in fiction.
This is a slow story so if you’re looking for fast thrill rides this isn’t the book for you, but that said it’s strangely satisfying. If you like character, quirkiness and having all your senses engaged, then this is your book. The menace builds inexorably until you’re desperate for the worst to happen, just for it to be over. The twists come thick and fast, until you’re finally faced with the horror ending. This is dark, twisted and very unique, with an atmosphere that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.
Published by Camcat Books 8th December 2020.
Meet The Author
Hall’s writing is lush, filled with startling conclusions about the nature of art and love and death. . . [A] shudder-inducing debut.” ~ The New York Times
Polly Hall is author of The Taxidermist’s Lover, conceived while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
Her flash fiction, poetry and stories have been included in national and international anthologies and collaborative arts projects.
You can find her @PollyHallWriter on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
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.
I was fascinated and blown away by this sixth novel in the author’s Six Stories series. As always the novel’s structure is based on a podcast format, where Scott King presents his investigation into a true crime case. Each podcast consists of six stories told by six people associated with the case, with additional emails, news reports and documents on the crime. This time King has chosen a highly emotive crime that reminded me of the James Bulger case. The novel takes us to the old mining village of Usslethwaite in Yorkshire, where a terrible crime was committed, one that shocked the world. In 1995 the murder of twelve year old Sidney Parsons, by two boys his own age, was front page news. The murderers were dubbed the ‘Demonic Duo’ by the press and as well as the usual speculation about both the boy’s upbringing and mental state, there was a whisper of something more sinister. The hills above Usslethwaite were reknowned as a place where witches congregated, all the way back to the 17th Century when witch-hunting was rife. Rumours of something dark and disturbing lurking in the caves near the crime scene had plagued the village for centuries, as well as more contemporary plagues of flies, animal deaths and a strange black shape seen nearby. Is there something supernatural and demonic about this crime? Or are they just hysterical excuses for a crime so savage no one can understand it? Now that the murderers have reached adulthood, they’re quite possibly rehabilitated and living somewhere in the U.K. Maybe now it’s time to hear the truth about what happened when Robbie and Danny formed a friendship and proceeded to commit this unspeakable crime.
I love the originality of this author’s work and his audacity in writing about subjects other writers might avoid. I was 20 years old when Robert Thompson and Jon Venables lured James Bulger away from his mother at a Liverpool shopping centre, then murdered him and left him on the train line in Walton. Everything I remember from that case also comes up in the course of King’s interviews about Usslethwaite. I remember being shocked by the murder, the age of Thompson and Venables, but also the savagery of the press and public towards the accused who were still children. Whilst the anger the crime aroused was understandable, I couldn’t understand grown men gathering outside a court to attack the prisoner transport. I kept wondering what their goal was. What would they do if they actually broke through to those boys? Even now, the mention of either boy, their incarceration or the new lives they now have kicks up a frenzy of controversy and rage. While Demon isn’t based on the Bulger case I did wonder if Wesolowski had it in mind, because he has managed to capture a lot of those conflicting feelings in this novel. Through his podcast guests we can look at different aspects of the Usslethwaite murder, and consider the differing perspectives on what happened. Although there is outrage that Scott King is even featuring this case, I can see that all he is trying to do is answer that universal question: Why? What drove these two boys to kill?
The psychological and paranormal aspects of the case are carefully intertwined here. Robbie is a newcomer to the village, fostered by a lovely, community minded couple who haven’t been able to have children. There is speculation on what Robbie went through before he was taken into care and whether he is the disruptive force behind the crime, with Danny simply taken along for the ride. However, Danny is quite a sad, lonely and disturbed little boy even before Robbie comes along. He found his mother when she had hung herself from the rafters of the barn. Rumours abound about his mother who was a herbalist and reiki healer – something rather frowned upon and misunderstood by some members of the village. In fact she was well regarded by her patients and it could be said that the suspicion was raised due to her occupation and how lucrative it seemed to be, more than anything she did. There were reports of her coming down from the caves with another person, scandalously naked. She was also thought to set fires and dance around them. However, to Danny she was the parent who brought warmth, love and softness to his life. Without her, he is left in the care of his father who is not a bad man, but is absorbed by work and struggles to show affection. Danny visits the caves to speak to his Mum, and thinks he might hear her, but in this dark place it’s hard to know who or what might reply.
The author is incredibly skilled at ratcheting up the tension, whether with more detail of the case or the next eerie happening. I often found myself reading yet another chapter so I could find out what was next. I found the paranormal elements clever, I wasn’t scared at first, but after a while the atmosphere built and I found myself uneasy. One night, my other half asked me to turn the bedside light off since it was late and I found myself unsure whether I wanted to carry on reading in the dark. The strange happenings in Robbie’s room at his foster home were very unsettling, from phantom footsteps to flies and a horrible smell that seems to permeate everything. There’s so much in this village that can’t be explained and is witnessed by lots of different people. Were these boys influenced by demons or was this a case of two very mixed up and lost boys doing something so terrible it would destroy the village, the victim’s family, and the rest of their lives. I loved the varied perspectives, especially those unexpected ones that took our understanding to another level. While never losing sight of the victim and his family’s loss, we get to explore the ideas of rehabilitation and how a perpetrator lives with their crime, especially ones so young. Can they ever make a life for themselves and get over the guilt? Or are they forever doomed to keep moving, constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of being exposed? I was fascinated with the question of whether a demon influenced these boys or whether we could call the boys demons. They are labelled monsters, but are they? Perhaps we just label them this way, because we can’t accept one human being could do this to another, let alone a child. This is another incredible read from this inventive and original author. I devoured it so quickly that I’m buying the whole series with this month’s book budget.
Meet The Author.
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care.
‘Six Stories’ was published by Orenda Books in the spring of 2016 with follow-up ‘Hydra’ published in the winter of 2017, ‘Changeling’ in 2018, ‘Beast’ in 2019 and ‘Deity’ in 2020.
‘Six Stories’ has been optioned by a major Hollywood studio and the third book in the series, ‘Changeling’ was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, 2019 Amazon Publishing Readers’ Award for Best Thriller and Best Independent Voice.
‘Beast’ won the Amazon publishing award for Best Independent voice in 2020.
Here’s the final instalment of my favourite reads of 2021. As I look back it’s been a brilliant reading year and I always think the past year can’t be topped but I have a huge list of anticipated reads for next year already! I’m spending the next fortnight doing the same things as everyone else – stuffing my face, drinking sherry, seeing family and watching far too much television. However, I’m also doing something that’s probably peculiar to book bloggers. I’m reading what I like for a fortnight. This might not sound like much, but it really is wonderful to read purely for pleasure. I enjoy what I do, but between blog tours and my NetGalley list (I’m greedy with both) I’m often reading to a schedule. So it’s nice to be able to go with my mood or my gut for a little while. I have reached a couple of milestones with the blog: I have reached ten thousand views this year and two hundred subscribers. I never imagined that I would have two readers of my writing, never mind two hundred. It’s amazing what a year’s hard work can do. Over the holiday I hope to evaluate how I’ve been working on the blog, maybe leading to some changes and hopefully time to share my personal writing too. I wish you all a very Happy Christmas with your loved ones and I look forward to writing for you all again in 2022.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas.
This is what I would call a quiet book; gentle, subtle even, but so charming and witty. I remember posting that only three weeks into January I was already in love with a new literary heroine. I absolutely adored Sybil and felt so at home in her company, that I just kept reading all day. I finished at 11pm and was bereft, because I wouldn’t be with Sybil any more. Yes, this is what happens to avid readers. We fall head over heels with a character, can’t put the book down, then suffer from withdrawal. All day I was grumpy and reluctant to start a new book. Sybil’s life is puttering along nicely. She has a job she enjoys at a London museum – Royal Institute of Prehistoric Studies (RIPS). She has Simon, her boyfriend and ardent baker of bread from obscure grains. Her quiet life is turned upside down when she, quite literally, bumps into an old nemesis from university, Helene Hanson. Sybil and Simon are ice skating, when they first spot Sybil’s old university lecturer. Sybil doesn’t want to say hello, after all Helene stole some ideas from her dissertation, then put them into her own research on the Beaker people. They’re very unsteady on ice and end up careering into Helene’s group, in Sybil’s case ending up in hospital from a head injury. Only weeks later, Helene has stolen Sybil’s boyfriend and taken a huge interest in Sybil’s workplace. Now RIPS will be selling her Beakerware (TM) in the gift shop and welcome her onto their committee. Sybil’s mum suggests a mature exchange of views, but Sybil hates confrontation. She’s not felt herself since her injury and we see how she thinks in the fragmentary structure the author uses. Sybil has to find a way to expose Helene Hanson as a fraud. I felt a deep connection with Sybil. She’s offbeat, quirky and has a dark sense of humour the comes through beautifully into the narration. A simply lovely read that I’ll happily pick up again and again.
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney
This was one of those novels that didn’t connect with me at first. In fact if it hadn’t been for a blog tour I might have stopped reading. Yet part way in I was suddenly won over by the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! Mammy is a hypocrite, playing the perfect Catholic matriarch on the surface – always loving or feeding her sons, cooking perfect chicken roasts and getting out the best china when the priest comes for tea. It broke my heart when she left Mary without tea, then next morning as the boys all lined up for their lunch boxes Mary was given an empty one. I felt so emotional for this girl, who doesn’t expect any better. The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm in Ireland is at odds with Mary’s romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult.
Jodi Picoult has been one of my favourite writers since PlainTruth and I was so happy to see that this was a real return to form and is the first novel addressing the COVID pandemic I’ve read. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono – when everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it’s a respiratory virus and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing, but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? Finn tells Diana to go on holiday and she gets to the islands just as their borders are closed. She has to throw herself upon the kindness of strangers – a hotel cleaner called Abuela, her granddaughter Beatrice, and Gabriel her tour guide father. He is the perfect person to be stranded with because he knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. The world Diana has at the beginning, becomes subsumed by the pandemic. It’s a structure that echoes how our own lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. Why should things ‘go back to normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine.
I don’t often read horror novels, mainly sticking to Stephen King and gothic historical fiction, so this is a departure from my usual reading and it was exhilarating. Mina, is a young woman living alone in urban Ireland, and has lost her mother. Now without family – except one sister who appears to phone once a month or so, just to feel disappointed – she is largely a loner. Her loves are sketching, red wine and her friend Peter who is a buyer and seller of various things and often pays Mina cash to deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse with a phone that works. Once in the forest Mina realises her mistake, it seems bigger than from outside and the light is fading fast. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. She’s standing by a building and although it seems odd, Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As they hurry inside and the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This was unsettling, because of the creatures and the dynamics of the small group trying to survive. The author has an uncanny ability to instil dread in his readers, all the way to an incredible and terrifying end.
The Beresford by Will Carver.
This was a brilliantly funny and clever book that had me smiling from the first page at theaudacityof this clever and creative author. This was my very first Will Carver novel and I came away wondering where he’d been my whole life. This novel had such a darkly, delicious opening set at The Beresford, an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this conjured up the Gothic looking Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths that are the perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. Resident Abe finds that as soon as one tenant ‘leaves’ another will ring the doorbell in sixty seconds. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price. I loved the dark humour, the unexpected murders and the characters who pass through – sometimes in seconds! Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? The side Abe calls ‘the bad side’. If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.
The Spirit Engineer by A.J. West
I’d anticipated this book for a couple of months having been told by my Squad Pod ladies that it was going to be a fantastic read. It certainly was, and even more than that, it was surprising too. Our setting is the city of Belfast, the Titanic sinking is still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s especially fresh at Professor William Crawford’s house since his brother-in-law Arthur was on the ship. Crawford is our narrator and he introduces us to his happy, but chaotic household as the novel opens. He is a man of science, working at an institute both furthering scientific enquiry and teaching the next generation of engineers. He’s a sceptic, so when he finds out that his wife is visiting a medium and has been trying to contact her brother Arthur, he’s shocked and angry. There’s no question that this girl is a fraud, stringing his wife along with a show put on with the help of her shady family. Yet, the couple have lost their son Robert too and Crawford’s grief is overwhelming. So when he hears Robert’s voice calling to him alongside an angry, vengeful Arthur who blames Crawford for his death, a small crack grows in his scepticism. What if he were to apply his scientific rigour to to this girl medium’s powers? If he could prove a link exists between this world and the next he could make a name for himself, not just in Ireland but all over the world. What I loved more than anything was the author’s ability to surprise, because as we neared the end I had no idea how the book and Crawford’s investigations would conclude. The theme of dishonesty is there right from the start, in Arthur’s reasons for being on Titanic, to the hidden note from their old maid who left in a hurry, and Elizabeth’s absence at weekly church meetings. By the end I felt triple bluffed, but couldn’t help smiling at how clever the author had been. As many of our characters find out, when it comes to being dishonest, the person we deceive most often is ourselves.
The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke
Just look at that stunning cover! Lighthouses have been a recurring motif in this year’s reading and this cover was particularly beautiful. This is a fascinating tale from the writer of last year’s The Nesting. Set on a remote Scottish Island, and with a hint of The Wicker Man about it, Liv and her three daughters arrive at a lighthouse named The Longing. We’re not sure what they’re driving away from, but Liv jumped at an opportunity to paint a mural in the lighthouse. An eccentric millionaire wants to use the lonely spot as a writing retreat. Liv and her three girls set up home in the bothy next door, but then some unusual happenings leave them wondering exactly what’s going on in this isolated place. There are some really unsettling scares for the family: a baby floating in flood water that turns out to be a doll; a child’s skinny arm creeping out from behind Liv’s paint supplies; a near naked and very dirty little boy appearing at the bothy, with no one on the island interested when he disappears again. Liv wonders why the lighthouse is named The Longing and finds a whole history involving the island’s women and the 16th – 17th Century witch hunts sanctioned by King James IV. Throw in some time travel and this is a brilliant combination of the supernatural and the historical. I enjoyed it immensely and would happily read it again.
So that’s my 21 favourite books and even now I’m wishing I could add a further three of four to the mix! Keep an eye on the blog over Christmas and New Year for some great recommendations for 2022 which is already looking like a bumper reading year. Happy Christmas and a peaceful, safe New Year. ❤️📚
This has been a difficult reading month and I haven’t read as much as usual, but these were my favourite reads. Two members of the family have had surgery this month so a lot of the usual routine has been a bit upside down. The last week, while winter has started to bite a little, I’ve had a lot more pain and stiffness, as well as being plagued by MS symptoms of vertigo and fatigue. Some days I’ve felt like I only open my eyes when someone wakes me to have a meal. The countdown to Christmas also started in earnest, so I’ve been ordering early to avoid disappointment. I do the majority of my shopping online these days so it’s really a pleasure rather than feeling sweaty and unwell in a shop packed with other people. I did venture out with my stepdaughter last weekend to buy new decorations for our Christmas tree. It’s a tradition I set up to get to know them better and now it’s annual mission. Since it’s our first Christmas in the new house and our living room colour scheme has changed we decided to go pink and blue. We did well and how have an eccentric collection of tigers, monkeys, tiny pink Minis and VW Beetles with Christmas trees on the roof, slices of cake and topless unicorns wearing just a tutu! Mainly though, with my lowered immune system I’m trying to avoid large groups of people. Thankfully my booster is now booked, but it’s not until the end of December so I’m keeping to my strict bubble again until we know more about the new variant. So, that’s me. Out of the books I’ve read there have been some brilliant reads and don’t forget to check last Sunday’s Spotlight post which featured the books I’m buying as gifts this year.
The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers
We open in Kerrigan Falls with Lara on the eve of her wedding as she starts to enchant her wedding dress to make it perfect. However, in the morning the groom has disappeared, mysteriously leaving his car behind at the scene where another young man disappeared thirty years before. Both men have links to Lara and her family. In her search for answers, Lara finds her great- grandmother’s diaries and reads the tale of a circus so secret it can’t be seen. The circus is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of Kerrigan Falls. I won’t ruin your discovery of this world, but it is truly fascinating, macabre, beautiful, magical and horrifying all at the same time. I was hooked by the scene the author was describing and fascinated by Lara’s family history. The small details, such as the circus only appearing to those with a personal invitation which bled if it was torn, were quite disturbing. The magic practiced there had parallels with Lara’s skills – simple tabby cats turned into ferocious big cats. There were surprises I hadn’t expected and Cecile’s final diaries are the vital first hand account of the circus’s history, as well as her own love story. I was immersed in this magical tale and didn’t really want it to end.
Before My Actual Heart Breaks by Tish Delaney
Oh my goodness, my heart did break for the intelligent, spirited and strangely beautiful Mary Rattigan. She is a character who will stay with me, especially the childhood Mary and her battles with Mammy – a woman who I hated so strongly it was as if she was a real person! The Rattigan’s life on her parent’s farm is at odds with her romantic and wild nature. She wants to fly. She will not be satisfied until she flies out of her dirty and dangerous surroundings, leaving ‘The Troubles’ behind her. She doesn’t care where she goes, as long as she’s free and lives happily ever after. However, life has a way of grounding us and Mary is no exception. In a life punctuated by marriage, five children, bombings, a long peace process and endless cups of tea Mary learns that a ten minute decision can change a whole life. These lessons are hard won and she’s missed a hundred chances to make a change. Can she ever find the courage to ask for the love she deserves, but has never had? I am probably a similar age to Delaney so I felt an affinity with Mary and understood her. Mary’s need to be loved is so raw she can’t even articulate it. How can she understand or recognise love when she’s never felt it? She has been told she’s nothing, so nothing is what she deserves. Delaney writes about love and the realities of marriage with such wisdom and tenderness that I was rooting for Mary Rattigan till the very last page.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult
Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono. Then, everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours flying around in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it affects breathing, because it causes pneumonia and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth? When Finn’s hospital announces all leave is cancelled they know the virus is coming. Diana asks what they should do with the Galapagos holiday and he tells her to go without him. So she arrives on the last boat just as everything shuts down and she has to take the kind offer of an apartment from a cleaner at the hotel called Abuela. This is just the start of an amazing and uplifting adventure for Diana, in a paradise separate from the COVID-19 nightmare happening in New York. The joy of this book is that it takes the reader in several different directions, some of them very surprising indeed. This is my first full on pandemic novel and it was tough but surprisingly uplifting too. A real return to form from Picoult who I absolutely love.
On the Edge by Jane Jesmond
I was thoroughly gripped by this tense thriller set in Cornwall and concerning Jenifry Shaw – an experienced free climber who is in rehabilitation at the start of the novel. She hasn’t finished her voluntary fortnight stay when she’s itching for an excuse to get away and she finds one when her brother Kit calls and asks her to go home. Sure that she has the addiction under control, she drives her Aston down to her home village and since she isn’t expected, chooses to stay at the hotel rather than go straight to her family home. Feeling restless, she decides to try one of her distraction activities and go for a bracing walk along the cliffs. Much later she wakes to darkness. She’s being lashed by wind and rain, seemingly hanging from somewhere on the cliff by a very fragile rope. Every gust of wind buffets her against the surface causing cuts and grazes. She gets her bearings and realises she’s hanging from the viewing platform of the lighthouse. Normally she could climb herself out of this, most natural surfaces have small imperfections and places to grab onto, but this man made structure is completely smooth. Her only chance is to use the rapidly fraying rope to climb back to the platform and pull herself over. She’s only got one go at this though, one jerk and her weight will probably snap the rope – the only thing keeping her from a certain death dashed on the rocks below. She has no choice. She has to try. I was already breathless and this was just the opening! What follows is a thrilling debut that is so incredibly addictive you’ll want to read it in one go.
The Watchers by A.M. Shine
This is a disturbing and beautifully written horror novel about Mina, a young woman living alone in urban Ireland. She is largely a loner, except for her friend Peter who is a collectibles dealer and often pays Mina cash to travel and deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasion she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway, but the day trip becomes something she lives to regret. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises that the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, but sees a woman with a lamp standing by a concrete bunker and although that seems odd they hurry inside. As the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching? This really is terrifying and you won’t be able to stop reading until the very unnerving end.
Insomnia by Sarah Pinborough
This is a sneak preview of a release for next year and one I couldn’t resist reading on NetGalley as soon as I was approved. This book hooked me straight away, which isn’t surprising considering this author’s talent in creating nerve-tingling domestic noir. Emma has survived childhood trauma to make a success of her life and is now a well-respected solicitor with a lovely family and beautiful home. The only thing is she can’t sleep. As her fortieth approaches her insomnia gets worse and she is terrified, what if this is just the start of the breakdown her mother suffered at the same age? She always said that Emma had the ‘bad blood’ and as her symptoms increase Emma is coming apart. I read this in two sittings, engrossed by Emma’s story and trying to work out whether she is being set up and if so, who by? Look out for this one at the end of March 2022.
I couldn’t have introduced my Sunday Spotlight feature in the month of October, without spotlighting the King of Horror himself, Stephen King. I’ve been reading King since my teenage years and I was horrified to learn that my first was at least 22 years ago.
I first encountered Stephen King when I borrowed my mum’s copy of Salem’s Lot, but when I started to look back I was shocked to see how many copies of his books I’d ‘acquired’ from other people. I remember when I was 18 begging, borrowing or ‘acquiring’ most of his back catalogue and I’ve bought most of his novels since. This month though, I was very happy to receive my first ever hardback copy of a King book on publication day. I haven’t read Billy Summers yet, but I know it will always be special because I bought it brand new. I have many well-loved and well-thumbed copies of his back catalogue, because I’ve read most of them more than once, so I picked out the ones where I can talk about my relationship with the book.
Well this is quite a colourful story. I’d read a bit of Stephen King before Misery arrived, and I was 17 when it did. Every summer, my friend would take me up to the Yorkshire Dales when she spent some of the summer holidays with her Dad. He always lived in quite remote villages, but this particular summer he was living in a small village called East Witton. It was a long village green with a row of cottages lined up on either side, facing each other. There was a tiny shop and at the bottom of the village a large pub with rooms. One night my friend and I went to the pub for a couple of drinks. My friend hit it off with the barman straight away and after a few freebie drinks, he introduced me to his friend who worked in the kitchens. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, which is awful, but he was a really quiet, sensitive guy, who read a lot so we had plenty to talk about. For some unknown reason we went to fetch our waterproofs and a torch and climbed a hill?! The view as the sun started to come up was beautiful. On the way back down we talked Stephen King and his favourite King novel was Misery. I hadn’t read it. So he was kind enough to lend me his copy and gave me his address to keep in touch (and return his book no doubt). I still have it. Misery is an incredible book, because of the tension and fear it creates in the reader, but also because it was weirdly prescient. In the novel Paul Sheldon is driving through ice and snow to post off his manuscript – the final book in the Misery Chastain series. He’s elated, because despite Misery’s popularity and the financial security she represents, he had started to hate her. Unfortunately for Paul, his manuscript will not end up in the hands of his editor. The terrible ice proves treacherous and Paul remembers nothing about the accident, but when he wakes he’s about to meet his number one fan, Annie Wilkes. The positive thing is that Annie is a nurse, capable of looking after his shattered bones and dosing the pain with some very potent painkillers. The negative is that Annie’s not a fan of all Paul’s writing, she’s the number one fan of the Misery Chastain series and now his provocative manuscript is in the hands of the person who might take Misery’s end badly. He has no idea just how badly. The tension is unbearable, the horror is visceral and the book is impossible to put down.
I found this old film tie-in copy of The Shining in a second hand bookshop and I had to be very brave to get it. This particular bookshop is a unit of our local Antiques and Collectibles Centre and the owner is always in residence, reading in a huge Windsor chair by the till. I didn’t know this the first time I went in and was stuck for forty minutes listening to him promoting the genius of L.Ron Hubbard. Forever afterwards known as ‘Fat Scientology Guy’ I used to try and avoid his eye and only browse around the back shelves, but he seemed to have eyes everywhere. Now I never shop there, but I do have this odd yellow copy of The Shining to remind me of my escape from Scientology. This is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read. It’s the combination of the supernatural horror like the creepy twins and whatever lurks in one of the rooms, and the horror of the person you love most becoming a monster. King brilliantly depicts a man on the edge in Jack Torrance and I love the little clues that show us his breakdown is looming. He starts to chew dry painkillers, his drinking increases, and once they reach The Overlook he starts to have hallucinations, or converses with ghosts depending on your perspective. Then there are the signs, like the wasps nest -a fascinating labyrinth of chambers and pathways, but with a nasty sting in its tail when Danny finds it’s still got the odd resident. I felt so sad for this little boy with his ‘shining’, it’s hard enough to have good perception and empathy in the moment, without seeing into the future. This book really did affect my sleep and made me feel a bit jumpy. I must have been 15 when I read it for the first time and at that point you’re breaking away from your parents a bit more. We start to see them differently, as people with their own personalities and faults. They’re like everyone else with the ability to make mistakes. Jack is a heightened version of that realisation, the family man who becomes killer. Aside from the supernatural elements, the fear is that anyone could boil over and become a monster.
This is one of those huge bricks of a book that can be a daunting prospect and I definitely felt that for several years. My mum’s friend, who’s like an honorary godmother to me, knew I read King’s novels and recommended this as her favourite. It was one of those books that sat on the shelves for years, and I tried to read it several times before giving up. How interesting could it be, to read about people catching a cold? I’m aware of the irony. I finally picked this up three years ago and for some reason it just clicked with me. I now think it’s one of his best, not just because he captures perfectly the terror of a pandemic, but because of the strange supernatural elements behind the disaster. A bio-engineered virus escapes from a lab and spreads across the world with fierce speed. It acts like a ‘souped-up’ flu and most of humanity succumbs to it, except for a mysterious few who seem immune. However, they get something else, a legacy of nightmares. Their dreams focus around a strange old woman named Mother Abigail, who beckons them to follow her. Worse though are the nightmares of a figure called Randall Flagg also known as the Dark Man. Survivors start to amass around these two strange people: Flagg is in Las Vegas (of course) and his survivors pledge to annihilate anyone who doesn’t follow him, whilst Mother Abigail is in Boulder, Colorado, advocating the old ways and telling followers they’re chosen by God. I was fascinated with Flagg, who is a devilish figure and has seen the plague as an opportunity to cause more chaos and division. We even get God, but a scary Old Testament one who isn’t afraid of zapping his detractors. This is an epic novel, and feels almost Biblical in it’s theology and it’s incredible push and pull between good and evil.
Meet The Author.
Stephen Edwin King is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, crime, science-fiction, and fantasy novels. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, and many have been adapted into films, television series, miniseries, and comic books
The other seven books in my top ten would be It, On Writing, Insomnia, The Green Mile, Salem’s Lot, The Outsider and The Institute
‘Oh my friend, won’t you take my hand – I’ve been so lonely!’
This week for Throwback Thursday – which has rolled onto Friday since I’m in a remote part of Wales with poor internet access – I’m going to take a spooky turn and tell you about one of the most terrifying and gloriously gothic novels I have ever read. Melmoth the Witness is a figure from mythology, or is she? Known as one of the woman who witnessed the tomb on the morning that Christ resurrected, she is now an eternal traveller. Wandering the centuries she lures people into following her, whereupon they too become damned to an eternity of itinerant, solitary wandering.
Set in the beautifully, atmospheric city of Prague we meet a woman called Helen who finds a manuscript. It tells of a winter in Prague, with all the darkly gothic details of cobbled streets, shadowy corners, and jackdaws patrolling the city walls. One winter night in Prague, Helen Franklin meets her friend Karel on the street. Agitated and enthralled, he tells her he has come into possession of a mysterious old manuscript, filled with personal testimonies that take them from 17th-century England to wartime Czechoslovakia, the tropical streets of Manila, and 1920s Turkey. All of them tell of being followed by a tall, silent woman in black, bearing an unforgettable message. Helen reads its contents with intrigue and some scepticism, but everything in her life is about to change. We follow Helen’s story, but within it are all the other stories and lives, creating a Russian doll style tale, but where each incarnation has the same sense of menace and impending doom.
This is based on an 1820 novel by Charles Robert Maturin called Melmoth the Wanderer, that very few people will have read. I studied a wonderful module at university entitled The Gothic, Grotesque and the Monstrous and I know from experience that early gothic novels can be long winded and difficult to read. What was found terrifying in 1820 does not necessarily translate today. In the original novel, Melmoth is a man who makes an almost Faustian pact, in this version she is one of the women who visits Christ’s tomb. She could have borne witness to the resurrection, but lied and is now damned to wander the world forever. She’s like a Sybil, heralding evil and disastrous events, but never listened to and doomed to witness the worst humans can do to each other over and over. I love the ambiguity of her pleas to ‘take her hand and follow her’ because she’s lonely, is she friend or foe? Her pleas are all the more tempting because she’s a woman and we associate that with gentleness, nurturing and perhaps even needing protection. There’s also the element of seduction and persuasion that might make a gentleman take her lonely hand. I think Sarah Perry made this choice because of those qualities. How much more effective could a woman be in gathering souls?
I love how Prague is turned into a haunted city and it’s history certainly might have drawn the wanderer to it’s cobbles. The city is the book’s second biggest character, dark and mysterious with magical landmarks like the astronomical clock. Perry’s descriptions of night in the city are haunting, and if I ever visit the capital I might well look over my shoulder when out in the evening in the same way I do in Venice. It is the perfect backdrop for the modern section of the novel, with every inch of the city steeped in history and the endless pull between light and darkness. Perry brings to life fears we have all had, as Helen draws the curtains at night, because she fears looking up at the window and seeing that lonely, beseeching face. The most terrifying thought is that Melmoth bears witness to anything we have ever done, including those awful things we hope no one witnessed or found out about.
I think an important aspect of the novel for me is something any sort of ‘listener’ has to think about. It’s the toll witnessing takes on a person. This book is brief compared to the original novel, but still takes in the breadth of the horrors experienced in Prague throughout the 20th Century. It made me imagine being present to witness the trenches of WW1, the Holocaust, and so many other atrocities and personal tragedies. I’ve worked in mental health for twenty years and I’m taking a break at the moment to study. I know the emotional toll that listening to people’s stories can take on the listener or observer. For Melmoth, this would be so much worse because she has to sit back and witness all of humanity’s horrors. Even worse, she has no power to change anything, but is doomed merely to witness. No wonder she wants other souls to witness with her, she must feel the weight of the horrors yet to come.
This book has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, because I loved the blurb of course, but also because I’ve had a lot of luck this year with fantastic books that have a lighthouse on the cover. The Lighthouse Witches was even darker than I expected and I enjoyed it immensely. In the late 1990s, artist Liv Stay finds herself homeless and without work so travels all the way up to Scotland and an island called Lòn Haven where a friend has recommended her to paint a mural. She travels to the coast, with her three daughters Saffy, Luna and Clover. There she meets Isla, caretaker of the bothy they’ll be staying in next door to the sea lashed lighthouse where she’ll be painting the mural. The mural is planned out on a large roll of paper and Liv is bemused to see a diagram of sorts, full of runic symbols she doesn’t understand. Getting this accurate in a circular building is her first challenge, and the second is to inject some of her own creativity in the design to make it beautiful. The girls are a bit shell-shocked to be brought to this remote and wild place, and there are certainly some unanswered questions as to why and how they ended up somewhere so remote and creepy. Liv carries a huge secret inside her, but the family are about to find out that Lòn Haven holds its share of secrets and ancient beliefs too, causing the whole family to disappear.
The story is told through different characters in three main time zones. Liv narrates the main section in the 1990s, then we meet her grown-up daughter Luna twenty years later, but we also go back into the history of the island and the witch trials of the 17th Century. The grown-up Luna is drawn back to the island when her sister Clover is found. However, to Luna’s shock, her contact Eilidh the social worker takes her to a little girl. Clover should be around thirty years old. Yet, Clover recognises her childhood toy and his name; she immediately squeezes Gianni the Giraffe like an old friend. Luna can’t understand why the social services haven’t noticed the anomaly in Clover’s date of birth, but her instinct is to protect her sister. So when asked, Luna fudges her date of birth and takes Clover away with her to the Air BNB she’s booked. At times, once they’ve settled, Luna does wonder if everything is okay with her sister. There’s the strange marking like a brand on her skin, which has four tiny numbers inscribed. There’s also a look she has, as if she isn’t present in her body and doesn’t recognise Luna. Over a couple of days she also displays some disturbed behaviour. Luna finds Gianni with his insides pulled out and his head cut off and then Clover floods the bathroom on purpose. Luna is desperately trying to find some sort of disease or syndrome that might have regressed her sister’s age. The only other explanation is a supernatural one and Luna isn’t sure she’s ready to accept the the local folklore she heard when she went missing all those years ago. However, she’s pregnant and alone with Clover in the middle of nowhere, so what if she isn’t her sister?
The author creates a brilliant atmosphere across all three time periods, starting with the name of the lighthouse, The Longing. Rather than full on horror, it’s a sense of the uncanny that starts to unsettle the reader. We all know that sense of rising tension when we feel so on edge, that anything would scare us. Here, it’s glimpsing a baby in the water that’s flooding the floor of the lighthouse, when it’s just a doll; a small child’s arm reaching out from behind Liv’s art materials; or opening a door to see your own double standing there. As we delve into the past and the history of The Longing, we are faced with the real-life horror of the 17th Century witch trials encouraged by King James, the first joint King of England and Scotland who ascended the throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir. Women with skills such as herbalism or midwifery could come under suspicion, but more usually local disputes and grudges led to women being branded a witch. In this case the local midwife, her friends and their daughters have all been accused and in matters like this the islanders stick to the rule ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Accused women in this time period were often checked for the Devil’s mark – a mole, birthmark or blemish of any kind – had their hair shorn, were stripped, humiliated and then burned. The history of the island shows that a burning happened on the very rock, that now serves as a foundation to The Longing. I wondered how the old beliefs, in the fae or fairies, witches, and strange children called wildlings still held sway in the present day. In the 1990’s narrative there is still a definite undercurrent of ancient beliefs, with their followers having enough reach to influence both the police and the richest man on the island, owner of the bothy and lighthouse. Liv comes up against the reach of these believers when she reports seeing a small boy who looks like he’s been living wild. The police don’t want to know when she reports him missing, and it feels as if they view her as a nuisance, someone who doesn’t understand the island’s ancient way of life. When you visit Lòn Haven, as Luna does years later, there’s a sense of the ancient past existing alongside the present, as if time isn’t linear but looped upon itself.
I did get a little confused at times, especially with the elements of time being manipulated, through the cave known as the Witches Hide. There is old magic here. I was trying to understand the marks and numbers branded on Clover and others, and match them to the different time frames. In the end I gave up and decided to just go with it. I found this quote, in a letter from mother to daughter, very apt:
‘I’m not sure if I’ll make it, Luna. I’m not sure I’ll be able to hang on long enough to see you one last time. I’m going to try. But if not, if I slip away before I get the chance to hold you again, I wanted to write down the story of what really happened on Lòn Haven. As you’ll see, Cause and Effect in this tale do not fit easily together. The pieces are odd and mis-shaped because truth is messy and porous’.
I enjoyed the ending, despite feeling it was untidy. I thought it was a great story of women, and how their power and position changes over time. It also has a lot to say about mothers and daughters, how they communicate and the stories they tell each other to help navigate a world that can be set against women. I felt so much for Saffy, a very confused 15 year old who, in the midst of all the supernatural activity, is dealing with the usual teenage angst. Unsure of herself and this new place, she is lured into sexual activity and sending explicit pictures to one of the local boys. This is a girl who desperately needs her Mum, and isn’t getting any support or advice. There’s one occasion where Liv honestly has no idea where Saffy’s been for the last 24 hours. I wanted to give this girl a massive cuddle and help her set boundaries that she’s comfortable with instead of being coerced. The author mixes the present day perfectly with ancient folklore, supernatural happenings, and time travel, which is not an easy feat. Not to mention the depth of historical research that underpins the more fantastical elements. So, it seems my attraction to books with lighthouses on the cover, has paid off once again.
Meet The Author
C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com
Mark Edwards has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years. His books are fascinating, addictive thrillers where an ordinary domestic situation is subverted or even blown wide open. There’s maybe a new person brought into the situation who upsets the dynamic or a massive life change that makes a character question their life. This was a slightly different premise, but still based around a modern family, with more than a nod to another of my favourite authors – Stephen King. The title reminded me of the wooded area where the kids would meet in King’s novel It, there are allusions to burying a live cat that brought to mind Pet Semetary, the backwater town has the feel of Salem’s Lot and the passing drunk who helps Tom at the end has the feel of the janitor at the Overlook Hotel. As soon as Tom arrived at the cabins it reminded me of the secluded cabin in Bag of Bones. This gave me the sense we might be getting a supernatural element to this thriller and there’s definitely a pagan or Wiccan aspect to the tale.
With his marriage over and his career in freefall, journalist Tom decides to reconnect with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Frankie. Desperate to spend precious time together now that they live an ocean apart, he brings her to Hollow Falls, a cabin resort deep in the woods of Maine.
From the outset there’s something a little eerie about the place—strange whispers in the trees, windchimes echoing through the forest—but when Tom meets true-crime podcasters David and Connie, he receives a chilling warning. Hollow Falls has a gruesome history: twenty years ago this week, a double slaying shut down the resort. The crime was never solved, and now the woods are overrun with murder-obsessed tourists looking to mark the grim anniversary.
It’s clear that there’s something deeply disturbing going on at Hollow Falls. And as Tom’s dream trip turns into a nightmare, he and Frankie are faced with a choice: uncover the truth, or get out while they still can. There were times in the book when I was screaming at Tom to just pack the car up and leave without looking back! The killing from twenty years ago is a heavy influence on the story. Two teachers on a field trip with their students, sneak away at night to a clearing in the forest and start an illicit affair. Both are married and it is a double shock to their spouses to find out they’ve been cheating and murdered. The bodies are posed in a symbolic way with Wiccan symbols painted in their blood. The suspect is a local teenager with an interest in death metal and all things pagan. He disappeared at the same time as the murders, and Tom’s daughter Frankie is spooked by tales of him still living wild in the woods to this day. She forms a friendship with Ryan, son of the true crime enthusiasts David and Connie. They take a walk into the local town, Penance, which is a real backwater with locals who are openly hostile to those at the holiday village. The teenagers run into some other kids, but they’re not friendly. The way the author describes brother and sister duo Buddy and Darlene, standing together, arms by their sides and completely motionless – is creepy and reminiscent of the twin girls from The Shining. Ryan takes pictures and lampoons the locals on Instagram using hashtags they’re going to find, putting himself and Frankie in danger.
The author really ramps up the tension to great effect. Little creepy incidents like a dead rabbit at the cabin door, Tom thinking he’s seen a horned goat man, as well as Connie’s hints about a big surprise for her true crime followers on barbecue night, keep camp residents on edge. Then more serious incidents start to occur – Frankie and Ryan are pelted with rocks, an unlucky guest with a heart condition sees what she thinks is Satan. The stakes are getting higher, building towards the Saturday event. Tom makes friends with local bookshop owner Nikki, there’s an instant charge between them, but can he trust her? As he starts to look into the murders and myths surrounding the Hollows, using his investigative skills, he realises that Nikki was about the same age as suspected murderer Everett. Everybody seems to know each other in such a small town so did she know him? Suspicions reach boiling point, and when Frankie and Ryan go missing in the midst of the party preparations Tom has no idea who to trust and how to find his daughter.
Mark Edwards never lets me down. His thrillers are always well thought out, psychologically unsettling and paced beautifully. I didn’t work out the whole mystery, and the eventual reveal developed in an unexpected and rather grisly way. There was something slightly comical, as well as horrifying, about people wandering the woods in animal masks – particularly when the horned goat happens upon a very religious woman with a very weak heart. I must admit to a rather dark sense of humour because that made me laugh. I enjoyed the friction between locals and holiday makers, because it’s true of many beautiful places. The locals need tourists, but it’s an uneasy partnership. The pagan backstory to the forest being sacred ground, that should remain wild, linked in to this and felt very apt in a time when humans have ruined their habitat. I think the prurience of true crime fans was also timely with many of my friends glued to crime documentaries on Netflix. I’m also a Stephen King fan so I enjoyed the nods to his creations and the whole ‘townie versus country locals’ vibe that permeates a lot of his work. I devoured this so quickly that I’m already thinking about thr next book from this ‘must buy’ author.
Meet The Author
Mark Edwards writes psychological thrillers in which scary things happen to ordinary people.
He loves hearing from readers and always responds. Mark can be contacted in the following ways: Email: email@example.com Twitter @mredwards Facebook/Instagram: @markedwardsauthor
Mark has sold over 3.5 million books since his first solo novel, The Magpies, was published in 2013 and has topped the bestseller lists numerous times. His other novels include Follow You Home, Here To Stay and The House Guest. He has also published six books co-authored with Louise Voss. His latest book is The Hollows, published in July 2021.
Mark lives in the West Midlands, England, with his wife, their three children and two cats.
This was my first introduction to the work of Will Carver. My fellow bloggers and Squad Pod members kept telling me about how great his writing is, but I’d not taken the plunge till now. I started the book last night and finished at lunchtime today, because I was hooked from the end of the first chapter.
Abe Schwartz lives in a one-bed furnished flat. An apartment building called The Beresford. The bell rings and he’s the one opening the front door to a stranger. Before that, he’s dragging a dead body into his room, mopping up blood and asking himself, What the hell just happened?
Maybe I’m a bit weird, but a cracking beginning like that really is so darkly delicious I can’t help but read on. I was then blown away by the originality and inventiveness of the writer and the explosion of historic and popular culture references the book created in my mind.
The Beresford is an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this first conjured up the Gothic towers of the Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths. The perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. Of course she has time to pray each day, but to whom and for what? In fact when I first encountered Mrs May praying, I hoped there would never be a film version of the book. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price.
The atmosphere is strangely claustrophobic and reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. I loved the tone of our narrator, who is quite matter of fact, and cleverly combines both horror and humour. I also loved the sense of history the author creates about this quirky building. These stories and urban myths reminded me of a documentary I’d watched about the Chelsea Hotel, again in New York, showing how each generation of residents impacted on it’s history: from the original collective of 1920’s writers; 1960’s musicians and artists like Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen; from the death of Dylan Thomas in the 1950’s to Sid Vicious killing Nancy nearly thirty years later. It’s legends are almost bigger than the hotel itself and it’s often claimed as the most haunted hotel in NYC. It’s somehow bigger than just a building, it’s almost an instant portal to the past. The Beresford is described in a similar way is as if it could only belong on old news reels or sepia photographs. Yet there it is, still standing on the sidewalk in the 21st Century. The myths about The Beresford give the place a sense of longevity – it was there before you and sure as hell will be there after you. Sid Vicious told the Associated Press that the Chelsea Hotel “…is a vortex – an artistic tornado of death and destruction and love and broken dreams”. I think second floor Beresford resident Sythe, artistic impressionist and sometime pyromaniac, would probably say the same thing.
Interspersed with the comings, and often darkly humorous, goings of the residents are sections entitled ‘What do you Want?’ We don’t know who the speaker is, although I will admit I imagined a few of these monologues in the voice of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus from The Matrix. It’s as if we are having our world explained to us, but in a way that lifts the scales from our eyes. This is what’s really going on. These sections address beauty pageants, social media usage and even the way we buy our books. We like to think we ‘discover’ something in a bookshop, but we’re directed to it by placement, marketing, and demographic. Or perhaps by book bloggers? They know so much more about us than we think they do. Ever talked briefly about a subject at home then found an advert for the very same thing on your iPad? It’s listening. In a piece that I loved because it’s unsettling and so close to the truth, our narrator tells us:
You are being told what to watch, who to vote for, which team to support and which God to believe in. You want the truth? All of these things serve to obscure the greatest lie of all. The fruit and vegetables are placed at the front of the supermarket because the colours draw you in. Everything behind is bad for you. But you just see the colours. You buy into them. You believe them. It’s easy to do as you are told.
You are not where you think you are.
Finally, when lovely, peppy, young Christian Blair joins the residents she strikes up a friendship with Abe. Mrs May thought they might get along, just like Mrs May knows a lot of other things. There’s nothing she doesn’t know about the residents of her building. He takes her to the building’s side entrance where they get into the Art Deco lift to access other apartments and convention suites. The side where they live is just two floors with it’s own front entrance, but this is bigger, especially at the top, where apparently a couple fell to their death on the sidewalk. Abe calls this side the ‘bad side’. There’s a man who sees them and calls out. The couple break into a run for the old elevator and hope he doesn’t get there before the slow mechanism starts to move. They then burst out into the street laughing. Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.
Meet The Author
Will Carver is the bestselling author of the January Series – Girl 4 (2011), The Two (2012), The Killer Inside (2013), Dead Set (2013) – and the critically acclaimed Detective Pace series, which includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were selected as books of the year in mainstream international press. The books in this series have also been longlisted/shortlisted for the Amazon Readers Independent Voice Award, Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award, Not The Booker Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. Will spent his early years living in Germany, but returned at age eleven. He studied theatre and television at King Alfred’s Winchester, where he set up a successful theatre company. He currently runs his own fitness and nutrition business and lives in Reading with his children.