Posted in Squad Pod

Nobody But Us by Laure Van Rensburg

I heard such great things about this dark thriller that I’ve been chomping at the bit to read it asap! It was our Squad Pod read for last month and as usual I’m late. The blurb grabbed me right away and my mind went immediately to Gone Girl so I expected some twisted people and storylines. That tagline is designed to draw us in, but also has a hint of humour as if she’s mocking the genre – meet 2022’s most f*cked up couple. I was waiting for a gap in blog tours and managed to get a sunny weekend, my day bed set up in the garden and a willing slave to keep me supplied with drinks and adjusting my parasol. It didn’t take long to hook me.

Ellie and Steven have finally managed to find a gap in their busy schedules to get away for a few days and celebrate their six month anniversary. They’re heading to an isolated cabin in the woods, many miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York. It will be the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time together and really get to know each other. A perfect weekend for a perfect couple. Except, that’s not quite the truth. Ellie and Steven are far from perfect. They both have secrets. They’re both liar. Steven isn’t who he says he is. But then neither is she …

The setting was clever too, usually I’d expect a log cabin in the woods or a period house as a background, but this is a contemporary, architect’s house. I didn’t think a modern house could be scary, but I found it’s glass and steel exterior very unwelcoming – there’s nothing cosy about this weekend. In fact the perfection, the materials used and the sheer amount of space seem strangely oppressive. The contrast with the forest outside is jarring, the natural surroundings make it feel like the owner is pitting his house against the elements, imposing man made order on the natural chaos outside. Yet, when the storm sets in, nature seems to be getting it’s own back, with the large glass panels showing the storm’s fury. Trees are lashing against each other and the snow is coming thick and fast. In fact the weather adds to the sense of isolation, no one is coming to save them, no matter how much they scream.

The story is told by the two characters in turn, relating the details of their weekend away, but also drifting into their pasts so we get some idea of how Steven and Ellie came to this point. Still, the biggest revelations are kept back from us so we don’t have the full picture. This drip feed of information kept me hooked. I needed to know what happened next and who the characters really were under their facades. Mostly though I wanted to know what had set these dramatic events in motion. I couldn’t love these characters, so I wasn’t invested in one side or the other at first, but as the flashbacks came I was surprised to find I did have flashes of sympathy for Ellie or Steven, depending on what had happened to them.

I enjoyed the way the author played with that edge, between what was once acceptable and now isn’t. In light of the #MeToo movement many women in my 40+ age group who can look back at events from the 1990’s and think they wouldn’t be acceptable now: a stolen kiss at a party; a hand on the backside while waiting on a table; pressure to go further sexually than we might have been comfortable with. Now, relationships where there is any form of power imbalance are viewed as wrong. The married man and the teenage babysitter, the older boss and young employee, or student and tutor relationships were happening around me at that time and I don’t remember thinking they were intrinsically wrong, just a bit dodgy. Now, thirty years later, the mood is very different. But of course that’s only one aspect of this complicated story. This is a gripping, atmospheric and explosive novel. If you love thrillers this should definitely be on your summer reading list.

Laure Van Rensburg
Posted in Netgalley

Sundial by Catriona Ward

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Viper 10th March 2022

Meet The Author

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

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

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

Posted in Throwback Thursday, Uncategorized

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell.

As some of you may know, reviews can get very personal for me. Probably because I’m a therapist and used to lots of self-reflection. When a book hits me emotionally I really think about why and this book had me scurrying to my journal. Lisa Jewell is a master of these domestic thrillers and the psychological suspense created when groups of people are in conflict. Here the conflict is controlled within one house 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, overlooking the river. That is until it’s secrets explode and the truth of the mystery is scattered across the world.

Three narratives weave in and out of each other to tell the story. We meet twenty five year old Libby with her little garden flat and her job at the kitchen design company where she’s worked for five years. Everything about Libby says organised, professional and quiet. That is until a bombshell is dropped on her life. Woven with this is the story of Lucy – if that is her real name. She is living in France but at the moment we meet her is homeless along with her two children and the dog. The family are reduced to sneaking in to the beach club to get showered but that doesn’t happen everyday. Lucy is at rock bottom. She can’t husk for money but needs money to collect her violin. They have nothing left to sell. Does she go and ask her violent but rich ex-husband for help? Or does she let the children stay with their grandparents? Either way she needs her violin and once she sees the date, she develops an urgent need to make her way back to London and a certain house in Chelsea.

Our third narrator is Henry, relating what happened at the house back in the early 1990s. Henry just about remembers family life when things were normal and it was just the four of them: mum, dad, Henry and his sister. He has vivid memories of going to private school in his brown knickerbockers and sitting drinking lemonade while his Dad read the newspaper at his club. The house was filled with curiosities such as animal heads, ceremonial swords and red thrones. It’s so distinctive in style that when the money starts to run out the house is scouted as a location for a music video. The fiddle player in the band is Birdie and she loves the house. So much so that when she needs a roof over their head, she and her partner, Justin, come to stay in the upstairs room. Henry’s father has had a stroke and doesn’t have the same strength and power he used to have. He seems to sit by and watch as Birdie and Justin take up residence.
Later another couple join the group. David Thomsen is a man Henry dislikes almost instantly because he seems to sense what his Dad and Justin fail to see. David has charisma and seems to have an effect on every woman in the house. His wife Sally and two children, Phin and Clemency, also join them. It starts to feel like they’re living in a commune but the only consolation is Phin. To Henry, Phin is beautiful with floppy hair, cheekbones and a distinctive style. When Phin takes him shopping, Henry develops a crush and trails after him, wanting to be like him. When it is suddenly announced at the dinner table that David and Birdie are now a couple Henry senses this is the start of something evil. They bring out the worst elements of each other and start to assume a power in the house that goes unchallenged by his parents or the other adults. They are told what they will eat, do and even wear. Henry knows this is out of control and this is only the beginning of the damage this man will inflict in the house.
Libby has been set a letter by a group of solicitors telling her she has been left a house. When the solicitor walks her round to the house she realises she is rich. The house is abandoned, but huge and in prime position. It could be worth millions. The solicitor also gives her a newspaper cutting describing the strange events that took place there exactly twenty five years before. Libby has always known she was adopted, but this tells her she was the lone survivor in the house, tucked in her cot with a lucky rabbits foot under the mattress. Downstairs were three people, dressed all in black and dead from poisoning themselves with belladonna. One was David Thomsen. The news story talks of a cult forming within the house and aside from Libby, whose real name is Serenity, all the children living at the house were missing. Libby feels there is more to this story and wants to meet the journalist who wrote the article. What is the answer to how this happened? And who is sneaking in and out of the attic space at the house?

There are so many questions that I won’t answer for fear of ruining the book, but I will tell you about the effect it had on me. When I was 12, the same age as Henry, my parents joined an evangelical church that became all-consuming and took over our lives for a few years. Up until then we’d been part-time Catholic’s and I’d gone to Catholic school for a while through my first confession and communion. These new people felt weird. They were so fervent and all that speaking in tongues was odd. But it got worse. My parents started to have no other social life from church. We were forced into church activities for kids. My dad lit a bonfire and they burned their secular music and all of my mum’s ‘inappropriate ‘ books like the Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins novels. I was scared by this. I started to wonder who my parents were as I was more restricted on what I wore, listened to and read. I couldn’t go to anything where there was a sniff of boys and from what I could see there was a lot of coercive control over women and girls particularly. I felt Henry’s fear when reading this book. I know what it feels to be a kid, looking at your parents and thinking they’ve been taken in by something dangerous. That beliefs are being forced on you and you can’t live like other kids. To feel like all of your security is being taken away.

Of course my solution wasn’t as dramatic as Henry’s but I did have to create coping mechanisms. There are times now when we can laugh about it, because as my brother and I have grown older we have become one of those families that openly discuss everything. However, I still occasionally have dreams where my parents can’t see or hear me and I think it has also bred a lifelong mistrust of authority. So I can understand the seismic effect the arrival of Dave Thomsen had on these children, with repercussions way into adult life. Whether it’s changing who you are to escape, or bouncing from one failed relationship to another or being unable to move on, even geographically, they are all responses to trauma. With a brief nod to the future at the end of the book the author does leave a tiny seed of hope that in future generations a type of healing can be reached. This is a dark, disturbing, look at how sometimes home is the most dangerous place to be.

Posted in Netgalley

The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish

#TheOtherPassenger #NetGalley #SimonandSchuster

I’ve started to think of Louise Candlish as one of my ‘go to’ authors for classy thrillers with unexpected twists. As always she drew me in with the characters, but at first I wasn’t quite feeling it. I was curious, but I found myself waiting for something to happen. Then there was a moment – if you’ve read it you’ll know where I mean – where everything changed and I realised everything I thought I knew about a character was wrong! After that I had to keep reading, and I kept reading till I finished at 3.20am precisely.

Our narrator is Jamie Buckby, who lives with his partner Clare in a beautiful home near the River Thames. Clare is a partner in an estate agency and Jamie.. well, Jamie is between jobs at the moment. After an incident on the tube made him infamous, he is working as a barista in a small, independent coffee house. Since the tube incident, Jamie has been commuting to work on the riverboat. Open air, a beautiful view of the city and a great way to relax on your way to work. Also, passengers aren’t crammed in like sardines, sweating in the heat, stuck in a tunnel, panicking and pulling the emergency cord. Anyway, the book begins in that weird week begin Christmas and New Year when two detectives meet Jamie off the boat before work. They’re concerned about the whereabouts of one of Jamie’s fellow passengers, Kit. However, Kit isn’t simply a fellow passenger. Clare and Jamie have been together a while and felt in need of some excitement, so invited one of Clare’s new employees and her partner over for drinks. Melia and Kit are young, attractive and have that hint of danger. They drink, but also dabble in a bit of coke. Melia is stunningly beautiful and on one evening in Clare and Jamie’s kitchen, she corners Jamie and says she finds him attractive. Jamie is twice her age at 50 years old and very flattered, but has a lot to loose. Not only his long standing relationship with Clare, but everything that comes with it – her family, her financial support, and the large Georgian house with communal garden that they share, but Clare owns. Will he be tempted to risk everything?

The book’s structure brings us back and forth, to the Christmas week and Kit’s disappearance, then back into the past few months and what’s really been going on in plain sight and in secret. Then, just when I was starting to get a handle on what’s really happened, Candlish pulled the rug right out from under me! Then I had to reevaluate everything I’d read before.

I love books that surprise me. Especially when I’ve become very invested in the story and have started running up my own theories on what’s going on. I became very interested in Jamie’s partner Clare. To some degree she has led a very privileged lifestyle both in London and back in her family’s home in Edinburgh. However, she has been a great partner for James and has supported him through the tube incident, his period not earning and even further into the novel as the questioning about Kit’s disappearance becomes more focused on James. Her strength and dignity shows when she still firmly supports him, despite their relationship being on shaky ground at times. Meanwhile, Melia is a master manipulator and actress – I will never trust anyone who’s performed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is not just a book about being deceived though. This book is about self-deception. About thinking you can party like twenty year olds when you’re middle-aged. About ignoring the reality of your situation, your finances, the roof over your head. About ignoring the reality of how attractive and how desirable you are. It was great to read a book where the women have all the power, whether it’s because they’re young, smart and beautiful, or whether they’re classy, wealthy and dignified. Even the seemingly quiet, unassuming, riverboat passenger Gretchen, has some tasty secrets of her own. This is a very taut, well-written thriller, that is difficult to put down and even harder to second guess.