Posted in Personal Purchase

Both of You by Adele Parks.

Adele Parks is one of those authors whose books I tend to buy without reading any blurb or hype. I always enjoy her books and this was no exception, being addictive and unsettling from the start. Two women go missing in the same week. Leigh, married to Mark Fletcher and step-mum to his two boys, goes missing on Monday. Only days later Kai Janssen is reported missing by her distraught husband Daan, a wealthy Dutch businessman. Leigh Fletcher usually works away for part of the week and then returns to family life. It is as if she dropped the boys at school and vanished into thin air. This is so out of character for Leigh that her friend Fiona is also devastated. She saw how Mark and Leigh met, when she was picnicking in the park with her friend. When Mark’s youngest boy had a fall, a strange instinct seemed to take over Leigh and she made a dash to comfort him and give first aid. The four went to hospital together as if they were a family, and have been one ever since. Mark’s first wife Frances died a year earlier, and Leigh who couldn’t have children had stepped firmly into the step-mum role, fulfilling a part of her that had been crying out to care for someone. She and Fiona were like family, since Leigh didn’t have contact with her own, and she can’t think of any reason she would willingly leave Mark and the boys.

When the police visit Daan, in his large penthouse apartment, he is devastated by his wife’s disappearance. For part of the week, Kai would go back to her hometown and look after her mother who had dementia. Daan had more than enough money to ensure her mother had adequate care, but Kai wouldn’t hear of it and part of him admired her for wanting to look after her mother personally. Their separation each week hadn’t seemed to harm their relationship. They missed each other, but were very independent and their time apart seemed to put fire into their relationship. DC Clements is tasked with investigating both missing person’s cases and she’s concerned for both women. Leigh seemed devoted to her family, but she knows more than anyone, that if anything bad has happened to these women, it is likely to be solved close to home. The chance of two women being abducted by a stranger in the same week seems unlikely. She keeps a close eye on the two husbands. Daan seems a passionate and emotional man, it’s possible he has a quick temper. Mark, on the other hand, has already lost one wife. It seems careless that he should lose another.

The tension between these two investigations is heightened by the chapters in-between, from Leigh’s point of view. She is shackled by the ankle in a room with only a bucket to relieve herself and a small supply of snacks and water. She has no recollection of arriving there and is terrified about what might come next. Who could possibly hate her so much that they would do this to her. The author really captures the fear of the unknown in these passages and the indignity of her situation. Not knowing who has brought her there keeps playing on her mind. Could this be the work of her husband? Surely not. If it is a stranger though, she has no idea what might come next. Her fears are heightened when the snacks change to ones she would like – a very specific tea and her favourite nibbles. This has to be someone who knows her, but who?

I was a little disappointed that I worked out what was going on very early in proceedings, although it was still fascinating to watch it all play out. Themes of jealousy, deceit and greed run throughout. However, from a psychological point of view my interest was caught by the idea of not knowing who we really are and how dangerous that can be. It was also heartbreaking to see how the disappearance of their step-mum affects two boys who have already had the worst happen to them – the loss of their mother. What sort of damage might this cause for them down the line? The husbands are both interesting men with secrets of their own, that come to light through the investigation. Do we ever really know the person we’re sharing a life with? This wasn’t my favourite book from this author, but it was a great thriller all the same and is definitely a diverting holiday read to summer.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell has slowly become one of those writers whose books I buy without even reading the synopsis or any reviews. They are always intriguing, well paced and full of interesting characters who may not be who they seem. This book was no exception and I read it over a weekend – TBR be damned – just for sheer enjoyment. I felt so lucky to get a proof that I read it immediately! Crime writer Sophie is moving into a tiny cottage in the country, into the grounds of exclusive private school Maypole House. It has been a hasty decision to move with Shaun to his new place of work, because they haven’t been together very long. They knew they had something special, but since Shaun had already accepted the job and Sophie could write anywhere, they jumped in with both feet. Their cottage is situated on the edge of the woods. Exactly one year ago teenage couple Tallulah and Zach went missing from a mansion situated in the woods. They had gone to the pub for dinner, but were invited to a party at the house, by a girl called Scarlett Jacques who had been a student at Maypole, but now studied art at Tallulah’s college. They left at 3am to get a taxi, but never arrived home. Zach’s mum, Meg, thinks they’ve run away together to escape life. However, Tallulah’s Mum knows that’s not the truth, she knows something bad has happened, because they left their baby son Noah behind and she knows they would never do that.

Just a week or so before Sophie arrived, Kim had organised a vigil for Tallulah and Zach, to keep them in the public consciousness and to remember her daughter. Sophie had seen a picture in the paper, when she was browsing. She can’t seem to find her rhythm to write yet and this year old mystery seems to keep drifting into her mind. She didn’t expect to become so involved, but when a sign saying ‘Dig Here’ turns up on her garden fence with an arrow pointing downwards she finds a trowel and starts digging, bracing herself for what she might find. She is relieved to find a small jewellery box, and inside is a modest diamond ring. She notes down the jeweller and pays the shop a visit on the high street. Luckily, it’s a small local jeweller and he keeps track of every purchase in old fashioned ledgers. The buyer was Zach. So was Tallulah the intended recipient? Did she say no? Sophie knows she must take the information to someone and realises that Kim works in the pub. Within days the case is re-opened and once again the the spotlight is on Scarlett Jacques family home – Dark Place.

The character I connected with most was Tallulah. The structure of the novel is split into before the disappearance and then a year later when Sophie starts to look into the case. In the before sections, I could sense Tallulah feeling overwhelmed. She’s adjusted to becoming a mum so young and her love for Noah can be felt through the pages. There are times when she just wants to be her and Noah, getting home from college and picking him up for a cuddle she feels complete and calm. It’s everything else that unsettles her and there are times when her entire life feels mapped out for her. A life she doesn’t want. She’s in a perfect frame of mind to be enticed by an unusual new friendship with Scarlett from the bus. Scarlett is fascinating, older, rich and with a bohemian lifestyle. She has a charm or allure about her that’s hard to quantify and she clearly enjoys having an adoring entourage. So, what does she want with Tallulah? I’ve been where Tallulah is, feeling trapped by circumstances you can’t change, or even by your own mistakes. It leaves you open to taking drastic action and I wondered if that had happened.

Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is a strong woman who desperately wants to keep her daughter’s disappearance in the public eye. She has weathered the storm of her daughter’s pregnancy and her up and down relationship. The two are incredibly close and I enjoyed those moments when mother and daughter are sharing a moment. Kim knows her daughter so well that she has guessed parts of what happened in the lead up to the disappearance, which is more than I managed. I was hopelessly wrong, looking in the wrong place completely for answers. The author throws in red herrings, suspicious clues and people. I found teaching assistant Liam particularly creepy. The mystery is unravelled slowly as the before storyline hinges on one dreadful night and it’s aftermath. The after sequences are based on how quickly Kim and Sophie can find those involved using social media and follow the clues. The tension was really ramped up here and I was sucked into reading it so quickly, watching the pages reduce and wondering when the answers would come. Then, just when I thought I’d worked it out, the author went in another direction entirely. When I finished and put it down, my other half said ‘oh hello, you’re back in the room’ because I was utterly absorbed and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. It was a dark tale of what can happen when people have no moral compass or conscience, and was riveting to the last page.

Posted in Netgalley

Two Women in Rome by Elizabeth Buchan.

Regular readers may remember how much I loved Elizabeth Buchan’s last novel The Museum of Broken Promises, in fact it was one of my top twenty of the year. So, I was very excited to be approved to read this via NetGalley. The story is split into two timelines and follows the lives of two British women who spend some time living in Rome. Lottie Archer arrives at the Eternal City as a new wife and with a new job as an archivist at the Archivo Espatriati. Her very first task is to archive the papers and journal of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked as a gardener in Rome in the late 1970s. This was a difficult time for the country socially and politically, known as the ‘Years of Lead’ – a period which stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and resulted in many incidents of far right and far left terrorism. Nina’s task was to redesign gardens that still lay devastated by WW2, something she was passionate about and very talented. Within her papers, is a large leather journal, rather worse for wear and full of drawings and pressed plants. However, Lottie also finds a painting of the Annunciation – the moment where the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Lottie thinks it may be medieval, due to the colours used and the iconography. This piques her interest and she is disturbed to learn that Nina was murdered in Rome, and that very few people attended her funeral in the Protestant cemetery. Interestingly though, one mourner was a Catholic priest, which strokes Lottie as very unusual. She wants to find out more about the painting, but she also finds herself sucked into the mystery of what happened to Nina, who murdered her and why did she seem so friendless in this beautiful city?

I found the novel a little slow at first. I didn’t click with Lottie straight away, the detail and discussion of medieval art was quite dense (or I was) and the complexity of the political situation wasn’t always easy to follow. I also thought the intricacies and machinations of the Catholic Church might be a little difficult to penetrate for those who don’t know much about Catholicism – luckily I am one, with convent teaching under my belt, so this was not so difficult for me. However, I did like that the author didn’t simplify these areas of the book because in a way they added to the mystery of a city that has an incredibly complicated history. I was drawn in most by the story of Nina, just like Lottie is. I could understand why her story would get under your skin as someone interested in the past and trying to make sense of it. There is a kinship between the two women, even though they can never meet. Lottie is unsure of her position in Rome for several reasons. Firstly, when she arrives to work at the archive, her new role hasn’t quite been vacated. She moves into the apartment that her husband Tom shared with his previous partner Clare, and all around her are memories that don’t belong to her (including an ugly lamp, that should be kept because it works perfectly well, according to their formidable housekeeper). All of this is compounded by an underlying sense of abandonment, formed because she was left by her birth mother. There’s something lost about Nina that she latches onto and the more she finds out, the more she wonders whether Nina was more than a gardener?

Nina is a rather fascinating woman, who shares Lottie’s sense of rootlessness and lack of ties. There is definitely a deeply woven reason for Nina’s death, involving politics, security services, the church and a rather unwise, but beautiful love affair that unfolds in her journal. It is this aspect of her character that really humanises her for me, she becomes a real, living and breathing person and it is then even more tragic when the end comes. One thing both narratives capture beautifully is the city itself. Just like the narrative structure of the book, we get a sense of Rome as place where the past is very closely layered under the present. I thought about the tunnels and cave structures that run under the city’s streets, some still populated with WW2 vehicles, as an embodiment of this feeling. The present is full of tourists, rushing around on their itineraries getting a sense of the past and present city, but not necessarily the world underneath their feet. The author evokes the sights and smells beautifully: describing the less followed paths, the street fountains carved with dolphins and maidens, the detail of the plants so precious to Nina, the smells and sight of the deli counters full of salami, olives and beautifully ripe tomatoes. I found myself craving a trip to Italy all the time while reading!

However, she also shows its impenetrability to outsiders who know nothing of Catholicism, Roman etiquette or it’s slightly corrupt ways of getting business done. This is captured most beautifully in Lottie’s burgeoning relationship with their housekeeper. I also enjoyed her friendship with the book binder, who she asks to authenticate the painting she finds without understanding his significance. The background on medieval painting is vital here, not just to understand the symbolism within the traditional aspects, but to identify those that are far more transgressive and intensely personal. This is a complicated mystery/thriller, mixed with a travelogue of Rome and an intense love story. It asks questions about where we belong and whether our final destinations have been reached by choice, accident or a deep sense of duty to our family, our religion and our country. By the end I realised I’d become so enthralled, I was very sad to leave Rome behind.

Thank you to Atlantic Books for my digital copy via NetGalley.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Perfect Lie by Jo Spain

This thriller kept me guessing and a couple of times, even had me going back to previous chapters so I could be sure of what I’d read! Our heroine is Erin Kennedy, an Irish girl working in publishing in NYC and living with her husband of three years out on Long Island. She narrates her story across two timelines: one is the present and Erin is on trial for murdering her husband, and the other is a year earlier around the third anniversary of her marriage to Danny, a detective from Long Island. Our second narrator is a younger woman called Ally, a PhD student and proctor at Harvard University. My confusion arose from how these characters related to each other and the author is clearly a master of telling her readers just enough to keep us reading, but not enough to ruin the later revelations, twists and turns – and there are plenty of them!

The Erin from a year before is a very different person and early on in a shock scene, Erin and Danny are starting their day at their sea front apartment when his partner turns up at the door. Ben has two uniformed cops with him and when Erin answers the door he is not his usual self. He apologises but tells her they are there to arrest Danny. Erin thinks this is some elaborate joke, but her confusion gives way to horror as she realises Ben is serious. However, instead of being confused, Danny looks guilty and scared as hell. Before Erin’s eyes Danny runs to their fourth floor balcony, apologises to her, and throws himself from the edge. Ben doesn’t let her see, and she stands a little distance away, watching with disbelief as a small crowd gathers and paramedics work on her husband. Although Ben spares her the final image of Danny, broken on the sidewalk, she already knows he’s head. Through shock, and that awful first numb state of grief, she forgets to ask why Ben turned up that morning to arrest his own partner, why they take away papers and his laptop, and exactly what Danny is supposed to have done.

Those questions do come later though, especially when Erin has that realisation, that she isn’t being afforded the same support she’s seen other police widows receive from the precinct and the other wives. It’s almost as if she’s been cut off and they’re embarrassed by her, most notably not turning up for the funeral. It doesn’t take long for her to realise she’s going to need a lawyer. The police’s attitude tells her that Danny must have been suspected of corruption, and she needs someone who knows the system. Firstly they need to find out whether she’s still entitled to a widow’s pension, but next she wants them to do some digging into exactly what Danny was being investigated for. Her journey has her asking so many questions and she starts to wonder whether she knew her husband at all. With a small trusted group of friends and her sister Tanya, she starts to piece together the truth.

By now you’ve probably noticed the glaring big question mark in this story; if Danny committed suicide, how is Erin on trial for murdering her husband? I’m not going to ruin the story for you all so I’m not going to reveal any more. This question, and many others do get answered eventually. The author’s timing, in choosing what to conceal, what to reveal and when, is absolute perfection.

It takes a while for Ally and Erin’s stories to intersect, so after every one of Ally’s chapters I was racking my brains to work out where they fit. Ally is writing her PhD on crime novels and as proctor she is charged with taking care of one student hall of residence on the campus. It’s an unusual role that seems to cover mentoring, mothering, but also showing students how to have a good time. In fact, Ally’s hall parties have become so renowned that girls from other blocks want to get in on the guest list – so many that they’ve had to place a restriction on the amount of invites they can have per girl. We meet her as she tries to support a girl called Lauren, an undergraduate, who has been the victim of a crime. Luckily, Ally knows someone who may be able to help, and she offers to bring her boyfriend in to help with results neither of them expect.

I did struggle to understand Erin at times and her decision making. Of course she’s in shock and shouldn’t be making decisions anyway, but there were times when I was screaming at her not to do something. There was an element of her drifting along, rather than making well thought out decisions. Her grief is complicated by the manner of Danny’s death, but also because she’s angry he made this choice to lie to her, leave her behind and leave her haunted by that final image of him disappearing over their balcony. I think her confusion over where to be and who to spend time with was well done. To be with his family is difficult because their grief is different and not complicated by betrayal. She is shunned by the other detective’s wives so seeing them makes her angry. She feels abandoned in a country that isn’t her own, and she gathers a disparate group of new friends who offer support. There’s Bud, the owner of their local bar, her new firecracker of a lawyer, Karla, Danny’s psychotherapist and a man called Cal who knew Danny. These people seem to keep her afloat, but I didn’t trust anyone and treated all of them with suspicion. In feeling angry and betrayed with the one man she thought she knew, and his police colleagues, is she in danger of trusting all the wrong people? I found her story entertaining, compelling and the author paced it well. This would be a great read by the pool this summer and you’ll probably find yourself reading it in a couple of sittings, because like me, you’ll want to know exactly what’s going on. This book is a rollicking good thriller, that I’m sure you’re going to enjoy this summer.

Posted in Damp Pebbles Tour

Charity by Madeline Dewhurst.

I’m aware that blog tours have been a subject for discussion this month: giving them up; wondering whether they are a true reflection of a book; or might they be disappearing altogether? I enjoy them because I get to read outside my comfort zone, and then bring a great book like this, that might not have been noticed otherwise, to my follower’s attention. This was definitely the case with Charity, because I might not have encountered it in my normal reading life, but now I can tell you just how good it is and hope that some of you love it as much as I did.

Our narrator is Lauren, a teenage girl who is being interviewed as a potential lodger and carer for an elderly lady named Edith. The two get along, bonding over their experiences of Kenya where Lauren’s grandmother was born and where Edith’s husband Forbes was stationed in the 1950s, during what became known as the Mau Mau uprising. This was a war between the colonisers and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (the KLFA also known as the Mau Mau). This was a bitter fight for independence from the British by the KLFA, made up of Kikuyu, Meru and Embu people, as well as a small proportion of Masai and Kamba tribesmen. There were war crimes on both sides, but at the end of the war there were over 11,000 dead on the Mau Mau side, including over 1000 executions – the largest use of wartime capital punishment in the British Empire’s history. That’s not to mention the atrocities carried out on women, in a conflict where rape was deliberately used as a means to diminish tribal bloodlines with British blood.

Lauren works on a high street make-up counter and had been running out of places to live, since her Mum is getting remarried to someone she doesn’t get on with. She and Edith seems to rub along together nicely. So, Lauren moves into the spare room and starts caring for her. I love how the relationship between these two women works, as they have such diverse views. Edith is a staunch right winger whose views would really raise eyebrows these days. So, in the present day passages, there are a few clashes. There are statements from Edith that many would find offensive.

‘I’m sure I’m the last of their priorities. If you want to get to the top of the queue you have to be a Muslim who doesn’t speak any English, or a gay lesbian woman, then you’ll get seen straightaway.’

‘Oh, Edith, you crack me up, the things you come out with.’ Lauren shook her head and laughed. ‘I don’t think people’s religion or sexuality show up in X-rays.’

When they do talk about Kenya, and eventually Forbes, Lauren listens intently. At turns interested and horrified by the perspective he clearly brought home with him. Edith’s perspective affects Lauren so personally because of her grandmother. When Lauren suggests that Edith’s family were economic migrants, only in Kenya to make a better life for themselves, Edith strongly dismisses it, declaring Kenya had ‘nothing’ before white farmers arrived. Lauren is incensed.

‘There wasn’t ‘nothing’ there. There was people, living differently to how English people lived, but it was still their land – land the English colonists stole off them. I mean, imagine if I suddenly told you this was my house now, that you’re just a squatter and if you want to stay you’ve got to work for me, obey my orders.’ I thought I’d gone too far, but instead of making her angry, what I’d said seemed to excite Edith. She was looking at me weirdly, kind of like she was in awe of me. ‘Have you been talking to Mary?’

It seems that both women have secrets. Mary was Edith’s friend, but she now visits her at night, creeping into the bedroom and up the bed. Edith is sometimes so scared of her she can’t sleep. What could have happened between them? We do travel back in time to find out, following Edith’s childhood in Kenya as well as Forbes’s service in the army, and a young Kenyan woman named Charity. Charity is just a young girl, caught, accidentally out after curfew, and put into a prison camp where she meets a brutal British officer. There is bloodshed and sexual violence in these flashbacks. It’s harrowing at times, but necessary for us to see why this period of Kenyan history and the brutality of the colonisers, still resonates so strongly generations later.

Two other characters are brought into the present day section of the novel: Paul, who is Edith’s lodger in the basement flat and Jo her daughter. Jo is back from running a new age retreat in Europe and is probably the best example of white privilege I’ve seen in a long time. She has no concept of how her life is easier, because she is from financially stable parents, but also because she is white. She assumes that her mother will have her living there, that the house will be hers as soon as Edith has gone, and that she’s automatically prised by her mother above Lauren and Paul, even though she’s never been there for her mother. However, when Edith’s lawyer visits she’s soon disabused, of her assumptions. Paul seems to have watched over Edith for some time, supporting her with financial decisions and stepping in when she needs help. Once all the characters are in play, some very big secrets start to emerge and we begin to see how all of them are linked by one incident sixty years ago.

It’s very hard to believe that this is Madeline Dewhurst’s first novel. It’s a brilliant read and once you’re hooked, it will be so hard to put it down. I couldn’t wait and finished it in the wee small hours of the morning, following every twist and turn. The author has a great understanding of post-colonial cultures and how the atrocities inflicted by the British empire still resonate in those countries we colonised, but also here at home. I studied post-colonial literature over twenty years ago at university. It is stories like these that remind me why I feel sick when crowds at the Albert Hall sing Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms. This isn’t just a harmless song – it extols the virtues of empire, invokes God as being on the coloniser’s side and suggests that the boundaries of empire should spread further still. It calls Great Britain ‘the mother of the free’ but that freedom is only open to the coloniser not the colonised. This novel shows the impact of the British Empire on one family, with it’s malign influence still felt three generations later. I truly enjoyed this as a thriller, where you’re never quite sure who is the spider and who is the fly. I also loved the honest and brutal way the British Army’s rule in Kenya is depicted, tainting the lives of everyone involved across time. Finally, there is a glimmer of hope as to how this trauma can be addressed and resolved for the future.

Meet The Author.

Madeline Dewhurst is an academic in English and Creative Writing at the Open University. Her previous writing includes fiction, journalism and drama. Charity, which was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, is her first novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Source by Sarah Sultoon.

This was one of those books. The ones that make me stay up till 3am because I simply have to see the story through. Sarah Sultoon’s novel takes us straight into the action, starting in 2006 with a very tense scene where a group of men are discussing the terms for the exchange of a trafficked girl. Once outside and in their van, there’s a huge sigh of relief from everyone – the man is a journalist and he is deep undercover trying to expose the horrifying trade in young girls for sexual exploitation. In my head as I continued reading, was the author’s harrowing description of the girl in question. She’s shown off as if at a market, stunned by the terrible experiences she’s gone through so far. A young girl called Marie is working with the team and she has found the sight of the girl deeply upsetting, but is committed to bringing these people to justice and sometimes that means confronting awful practices or seeming complicit in acts that make them sick to their stomach. This time though, they’re sure they’ve got them.

We’re then taken back to our second narrator, a 15 year old called Carly living in an Army town called Warchester. The barracks loom large in town, the pubs are full of squaddies and even the roads have lanes specifically for Army vehicles. The Army has loomed large in Carly’s life too. Her dad is dead, killed in action. She and her brother Jason have never met him, but Jason followed his dad into the family business and is now stationed at the barracks. Carly lives in army accommodation with her mum and half-sister Kayleigh, who is still a baby. They live off her Dad’s pension, but it doesn’t always go far when Mum drinks. Carly is used to coming home to a mum who’s insensible, slumped in front of the TV and Kayleigh screaming her lungs out because she hasn’t been changed or fed all day. Carly is just about holding it together so that social services aren’t on their backs, but it isn’t easy. That’s why she needs time to blow off steam and just be a 15 year old, so when her friend Rachel invites her to a party at the barracks she is tempted. Rachel has a contact, and a secret way in where they won’t be seen. However, I could sense something ominous in Rachel’s reassurances to Carly – to just go along with what they want to do. Her instructions could be construed as grooming and I was worried about exactly what type of party this was going to be.

Our narrative flits between the two different women. Marie has clawed her way up into journalism the hard way, but is a diligent junior member of the term. That is until some news comes through that derails their trafficking expose and seems to shock Marie to her core. A press conference is suddenly called about a previous investigation called Operation Andromeda and the commissioner herself will be making the announcement. Every media outlet needs to be down at New Scotland Yard now, and when the announcement comes the room falls silent. The commissioner recaps for the press that Andromeda was an investigation into the sexual exploitation of young girls by those in the Army, followed by prosecutions. What happened to Carly all those years ago, happened to others too. The commissioner talks about failed victims, up to and beyond the dates they originally investigated. Girls who were let down and soldiers left to commit more crimes on further generations of girls. The news team know that there were potentially two girls exploited and abused in Warchester: Girl A who gave evidence in the original court case, but also Baby Girl A, removed from her parent after the abuse and taken into the care system. Both were given new identities.

This is a complex story in terms of who knew what was happening, who is part of the cover up and who is working on the inside to expose what happened. Although it adds to the tension and rapid pace of the novel it isn’t what grabbed hold of me. It was the human stories that really moved me and its easy in a case this big and a conspiracy so complex to forget what has happened to the individuals involved. By including Carly’s narrative we can see how this happened on a human level. In a town where kids are brought up to revere the army and its men, with few other opportunities and insidious grooming technique at play, it was easy. Rachel is the girl on the inside, recruiting her friends just as she was once recruited – this type of abuse is generational. She coaches Carly in what to do, how to please and slowly ratchets up the pressure for her to do more extreme things until it becomes Carly’s normal too. Generations of Warchester men have joined up and done their service. She’s doing what generations of Warchester girls have done, they do their service too. Yet, because Rachel is over 16 when the original investigation happens she could be tried as an adult for grooming the younger girls, despite having also been groomed into this behaviour when she was a child. The author shows us what happens when abuse is institutional, when safeguarding fails and a community is complicit. It’s a very hard read in parts – the neglect as upsetting as the sexual abuse – but it should be hard and people should be shocked by it. I felt the author had done her research and depicted the psychological effects of abuse thoroughly, showing how they persist into adulthood. She showed the effect of being let down, by family, friends, community and the agencies that are meant to help. However, Carly shows us how one person’s persistence and courage can force justice, of a kind. I love that this author was brave enough to write this novel and that she found a publishing house to share her vision.

Meet The Author

Sarah Sultoon is a journalist and writer, whose work as an international news executive at CNN has taken her all over the world, from the seats of power in both Westminster and Washington to the frontlines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has extensive experience in conflict zones, winning three Peabody awards for her work on the war in Syria, an Emmy for her contribution to the coverage of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, and a number of Royal Television Society gongs. As passionate about fiction as nonfiction, she recently completed a Masters of Studies in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, adding to an undergraduate language degree in French and Spanish, and Masters of Philosophy in History, Film and Television. When not reading or writing she can usually be found somewhere outside, either running, swimming or throwing a ball for her three children and dog while she imagines what might happen if…..

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Favour by Laura Vaughan.

Fortune favours the fraud…

When she was thirteen years old, Ada Howell lost not just her father, but the life she felt she was destined to lead. Now, at eighteen, Ada is given a second chance when her wealthy godmother gifts her with an extravagant art history trip to Italy.

In the palazzos of Venice, the cathedrals of Florence and the villas of Rome, she finally finds herself among the kind of people she aspires to be: sophisticated, cultured, privileged. Ada does everything in her power to prove she is one of them. And when a member of the group dies in suspicious circumstances, she seizes the opportunity to permanently bind herself to this gilded set.

But everything hidden must eventually surface, and when it does, Ada discovers she’s been keeping a far darker secret than she could ever have imagined…

I’m drawn to any book based in the beautiful cities of Italy, but I was also drawn by the premise of Ada’s inability to accept a change in circumstances after the death of her father means selling off the family’s ramshackle mansion in Wales. I felt that I might understand someone struggling to fit in between social circles having come from a working class family then through my 11+ ending up at a very middle class grammar school. I found it very hard to fit in, but once I did, it was just as difficult to fit back where I’d come from, forever caught between two different tribes. However, Ada was in another league altogether, totally unable to accept the life her mother had created for them. A period terrace in London and the local secondary school are not enough for her, nor is a stepfather with an ordinary, dull name like Brian. Her plan to study at Cambridge, at the same college as her father, falls through when she fluffs her second interview. It looks like she might have to accept her more humble lifestyle, but the along comes her godmother’s offer of a modern grand tour with Dilettanti Discoveries.

Now she has to find a way to fit in with the Lorcans and Annabelle’s of this world and she has a plan for that. Ada knows all the right lingo to seem like one of the group – using the phrase ‘we had to sell up’ is a distinctive one for people of a certain class. It has the scent of ‘distressed gentry’, people who have had to sell off the family pile due to death duties or renovation costs on their large country houses. She even talks about Garreg Las as the family’s smaller home, hinting of a more distinguished estate belonging to her father’s family in Ireland. One by one, as they stalk art galleries and churches, Ada tries to ingratiate herself with the group. Will they accept her story or sniff out the truth of who she is and where she belongs? These are deliciously awful people and there isn’t a single one I’d want to spend time with. They had an air of entitlement and superiority, but it was hard not to enjoy their witty, self-assured conversation. There’s a certain polish and charm that makes them alluring, but it’s all surface. Oliver seems suspicious of Ada, and Mallory has also been picked out as an outsider, being American and Jewish. However, Mallory’s attempts at friendship are shunned by Ada, who desperately wants to belong to the most fashionable set. To ingratiate herself with Lorcan, Ada reveals a secret; she has seen Lorcan’s half-sister Annabelle in a romantic clinch with one of their tutors. She agrees to keep the secret between them, to place herself at the centre of the group. Then, when a suspicious death occurs, Ada is not just at the centre of the group, she’s at the centre of a potential crime. She makes a decision to grant one of the group a favour, something you might barely notice, but it furthers Ada’s quest to belong. If one of the group owe her a favour, surely she becomes accepted forever? I didn’t even think about what it could mean going forward, but that’s how clever the book is. You are captive, watching each consequence of Ada’s decision opening up in front of you, one after another, like a set of Russian Dolls.

Meanwhile, in the background, Vaughan creates a beautiful backdrop of art, architecture and soft Italian light. I could imagine what a beautiful film this would make as these intriguing characters stroll through formal Italian gardens, along the Arno or in the twisty, labyrinthine lanes of Venice. All the reference points Vaughan touches upon – such as Ada glimpsing the same fountain where Lucy Honeychurch witnesses a passionate fight in Room With A View – were my own source of inspiration for visiting Italy. Of course the upper classes prefer the more refined Florence, whereas I’ll admit my lower class allegiance to Venice. This revered circle of friends have so many niche rules and in-jokes it’s impossible to negotiate them all, without tripping yourself up. Just like a valuable renaissance painting, being one of the elite is very difficult to fake. In these beautiful backdrops there are constant hints of fakery and disguise: the trompe l’oeil frescos of the country houses; the maze of laurel hedges; the association of Venice with carnival and disguise. Even the example of Room With A View has it’s plot of a well-to-do young girl on her own Grand Tour, trying to keep secret her love for a distinctly lower class clerk she meets at a pensione in Florence. All of this imagery and reference to facade, disguise and things not quite being as they seem adds to the atmosphere and intrigue. It’s like seeing a beautiful bowl of fruit, that at its centre, is rotten to the core. This book will make a great book club read, not only to discuss these awful characters, but to ponder on what we might have done in the same circumstances. As the years roll by, what price will Ada pay and how long can she maintain the facade she has built? This is a complex and intriguing novel, full of flawed characters, with a central character showing all the signs of a borderline personality – Ada simply doesn’t know who she is. There is a void at her centre that can only be filled by imitating and adopting the lifestyle of those around her, with possible lifelong ramifications.

Meet The Author

Laura Vaughan grew up in rural Wales and studied Art History in Italy and Classics at Bristol and Oxford. She got her first book deal aged twenty-two and went on to write eleven books for children and young adults. The Favour is her first novel for adults. She lives in
South London with her husband and two children.
For more information, please contact
Kirsty Doole
Publicity Director, Atlantic Books kirstydoole@atlantic-books.co.uk
07850 096902 @CorvusBooks | @theotherkirsty

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Posted in Netgalley

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joel Dicker. Translation by Howard Curtis.

I’m revisiting this book and expanding on my original NetGalley review for this blog blast, as I recover from moving house and suffering an infection from a nasty cat bite! So, I’ve refreshed my memory and really thought about this interesting book again. First of all, here’s the blurb:

A twisting new thriller from the author of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

In the summer of 1994, the quiet seaside town of Orphea reels from the discovery of four murders.

Two young police officers, Jesse Rosenberg and Derek Scott crack the case and identify the killer.

Then, twenty years later and just as he is on the point of taking early retirement, Rosenberg is approached by Stephanie Mailer, a journalist who believes he made a mistake back in 1994 and that the real murderer is still out there, perhaps ready to strike again. But before she can give any more details, Stephanie Mailer mysteriously disappears, and Rosenberg and Scott are forced to confront the possibility that her suspicions might have been proved true.

What happened to Stephanie Mailer?

What did she know?

And what really happened in Orphea all those years ago?

For me, this author manages to do something very clever with his novels. He writes thrillers that keep you hooked, while delivering a strangely relaxing read. It’s like the same feeling you get watching a really good TV series; in the days before multi-channels and Netflix, English dramas tended to be short and low budget, whereas American and Scandinavian channels invested money at their dramas, often delivering 22 episodes per season. These longer dramas allow every character to develop and lets the story breathe. If the series is a thriller there can be so many twists and turns over a longer time, red herrings can develop and be dismissed, and the tension of the last few episodes becomes unbearable. That’s what I felt happened with this book, it’s slow and characters change and surprise you. I think readers may have a bit of a marmite reaction to it – those who like their thrillers short and snappy will be frustrated, but those who love to explore character, setting, and a tale that meanders through many twists and turns before revealing the truth, will love it. It’s every shade of grey, rather like life.

The dual timelines of 1994 and 2014 work very well, with the past informing the future for the reader. Both cases are also intriguing and form an interesting contrast. The 1994 shootings are so dramatic, public and involve many victims, whereas the 2014 disappearance has a less public impact. I found myself constantly asking if Stephanie disappeared because of the 1994 case she’s investigating for an article – opening old wounds in a small town that wants to believe it caught it’s killer – or whether something more personal and unrelated was happening. The fact that she turns up just as Captain Jesse Rosenberg is about to retire seems too much of a coincidence though. Jesse is a likeable character, a good, honest cop whose diligence sets him apart. Despite his impending retirement, Stephanie’s disappearance and the knowledge that his findings on the original case were wrong, leave him determined to solve both cases before he leaves. However, Jesse and colleague Derek Scott became small town celebrities for solving the 1994 shootings, and maybe they liked the status and boost to their careers a little too much? It would be very difficult to accept they were wrong, but Jesse seems to do that and appears determined to find the truth of both cases. I also found myself questioning the circumstances of the original case. We know that the original investigation was wrong, but not why it was wrong. The mayor and his family were shot dead, but across the street a jogger called Megan is also shot, in the back of the head. Was this a case of wrong time, wrong place, for Megan? Did she see something that would have revealed the killer? Or should we be turning the whole case on its head? What if Megan was the intended victim all along?

These were just some of my thoughts as I wandered through this slice of small town life gone wrong. I love convoluted plots where I have no clue where I will end up in a few chapters time. All too often in thrillers, the truth is easy to work out early on, but here I had no idea and an array of clues and characters to decipher. This novel was long, but it has to be so the reader isn’t overwhelmed with the amount of information. It didn’t feel daunting though, and the writer’s technique of building tension towards small revelations throughout, certainly piqued my interest and kept me reading. Yes, maybe the novel might have benefitted from cutting a couple of characters or points of view. However, it might have lost that constant feeling of uncertainty needed in a good thriller. This is a slow burner of a novel, packed with possibilities and the odd red herring or two to keep the reader on their toes. In the last few chapters I couldn’t wait to uncover the truth, because the long build-up had intensified the tension. The manner in which the truth is revealed was a surprise, as if by accident rather than spelled out in black and white like a traditional detective novel. I felt this contributed to the ‘realness’ of the story; how many real life killers are arrested for something quite different at first? Life is full of multiple characters, faulty memories, strange cul-de-sacs and a million shades of grey, and that is exactly what the author has represented in this novel.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Deity by Matt Wesolowski.

I’m not sure I was fully prepared for the reading experience offered by Matt Wesolowski in his ‘Six Stories’ novel Deity. I was blown away by how creative and unique it is – roving between crime, mystery, the supernatural, and commentary on celebrity culture.

A shamed pop star

A devastating fire

Six witnesses

Six stories

Which one is true?

When pop megastar Zach Crystal dies in a fire at his remote mansion, his mysterious demise rips open the bitter divide between those who adored his music and his endless charity work, and those who viewed him as a despicable predator, who manipulated and abused young and vulnerable girls.

Online journalist, Scott King, whose Six Stories podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the accusations of sexual abuse and murder that were levelled at Crystal before he died. But as Scott begins to ask questions and rake over old graves, some startling inconsistencies emerge: Was the fire at Crystal’s remote home really an accident? Are reports of a haunting really true? Why was he never officially charged?

Dark, chillingly topical and deeply thought-provoking, Deity is both an explosive thriller and a startling look at how heroes can fall from grace and why we turn a blind eye to even the most heinous of crimes…

This is book five in a series started back in 2017, based around the structural idea of six podcasts, presented by character Scott King, that attempt to investigate and solve a cold case. The subject here is Zach Crystal, pop megastar and controversial figure, who died in a fire at his home in the Scottish Highlands. So much of his tale is familiar. A humble background, with music first made at home in the garage with his sister. Followed by paying his dues in the back rooms and clubs of the Midlands until fame came calling. At the height of his career, Zach Crystal disappeared into the wilds of Scotland into a property he crowned ‘Crystal Forest’. Then, just as he reappeared and announced a new album, there was a fire at his home and Zach’s body was found in the ruins. On each podcast, Scott invites a witness to talk about the case, and shares media evidence to shed more light on events. He never leads the witness or voices an opinion; the podcast is given over to to the witness, what they experienced and their theory on what happened to Zach Crystal. King’s a skilled interviewer, asking subtly probing questions that open up the interview, but never summarising or concluding. He merely lets the story tell itself, and it’s up to the listener/ reader to make up their own minds. This leaves us with a dilemma; who or what do we believe?

What grabbed me immediately about the book was how timely it is, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. There are many stars who’ve had a downfall in the past twenty years, but this story reminded me most strongly of Michael Jackson, because he was a music superstar who still divides opinion, years after his death. There are all the stories about his upbringing, the plastic surgery, Bubbles the chimp, and the fairground. Then there’s the ‘sleepovers’ with young boys, that he claimed were totally innocent, despite the payments made to their parents. The world seemed to be divided with many reading the rumours, watching the documentaries and concluding something dark and disturbing was happening at Neverland. Is there ever a situation where it’s ok for a grown man to sleep in the same bed as a little boy he barely knows? However, there are just as many people still fiercely defensive of Jackson, supporting him at court, calling him an innocent and labelling his detractors as cynics, then creating shrines when he died. Zach Crystal has a similar cultish following defending him while dark rumours circulated about parties hosted at his Scottish hideaway for possibly exploited, and at worst murdered, girl fans.

Often with thrillers, pace and tension are given priority, but here the story is thought provoking and the reader is given space to make those connections, such as the kind between fiction and our reality. In just the last two weeks we’ve seen women go public to expose their alleged abusers with both Shia LaBeouf and Marilyn Manson at the centre of accusations. It made me think about the difference between image and reality when it comes to celebrities. At what point do we think we know a celebrity? If we have a hero on a pedestal do we become blind to their behaviour? If the celebrity is paying the wages of a whole entourage, who would stand up and tell the truth? It’s only in the last week that I fully took on board the extent to which Justin Timberlake was complicit in the difficulties experienced by his ex-girlfriend Brittany Spears. Sometimes, the fact we enjoy someone’s music or find a celebrity attractive, influences us to overlook their behaviour. If someone is treated as a god, does it always cause them to exploit that, in terrible ways? All of these parallels were going through my mind as I read each witnesses response to Zach’s disappearance. King sits back and allows each account to speak for itself, leaving it up to the reader to accept or dismiss their version of events.

I loved the way the author cleverly combined a contemporary setting and such up to the minute issues, but also wove in elements of myth and folklore. I also loved the way that each episode, and it’s different perspectives, revealed more about the man behind a carefully constructed image. One episode brings in the possibility that a supernatural creature is stalking the Crystal Forest and that it was responsible for the deaths of two young fans. Then another perspective came and seemed plausible, then another, until I found myself immediately doubting the last. Instead of actually writing each twist and turn on the page, the author relies on it happening in the reader’s own mind. Of course, each reader brings their own concerns and biases to the book, so potentially the twists and turns could be different for every single reader. The author has incredible restraint in telling us just enough, never forcing a point of view. This was an incredible reading experience, from an accomplished and intelligent writer keen to explore the more dangerous and dark aspects of human nature. Meanwhile, allowing the reader to take their mind for a walk through these podcasts, sifting through evidence and forming their own conclusion. I noticed Matt Wesolowski named the ‘Dark Lord of Northumbrian Noir’ and that seems a very apt title. His vision in creating these novels is astounding, so much so that I was tempted to go back immediately and read the previous Six Stories novels one after another.

About The Author

Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care. Matt started his writing career in horror, and his short horror fiction has been published in numerous UK- and US-based anthologies, such as Midnight Movie Creature, Selfies from the End of the World, Cold Iron and many more. His novella, The Black Land, a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013. Matt was a winner of the Pitch Perfect competition at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. His debut thriller, Six Stories, was an Amazon bestseller in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, and a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick, and film rights were sold to a major Hollywood studio. A prequel, Hydra, was published in 2018 and became an international bestseller. Changeling, the third book in the series, was published in 2019 and was longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. His fourth book, Beast, won the Amazon Publishing Readers’ Independent Voice Book of the Year award in 2020.

Posted in Netgalley

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse.

I’ve been a little late to the party reading this thriller set in the Swiss Alps. Now I have, I can see why other bloggers have enjoyed it so much.It left me feeling chilled and genuinely claustrophobic. Elin’s brother Isaac invites her to celebrate his engagement to girlfriend Laure at a luxury hotel in Switzerland. The newly renovated hotel is Laure’s workplace and has a complicated history. An architectural triumph for the owner Lucas, the hotel was once a sanatorium for people with tuberculosis. Locals objected strongly to the project due to its position and liability to become cut off by avalanches, but there was also some disquiet about its history and the appropriateness of its new use. Elin and Isaac have a strained relationship, dating back to the accidental death of their little brother when they were children. However, she has been looking forward to trying again with Isaac and is excited to show her architect boyfriend Will around the hotel. Will is looking forward to relaxing with Elin after a tough year including her long sabbatical from work as a police officer. Elin is a detective, but isn’t currently working after an incident lead to her suffering flashbacks, panic attacks and other symptoms of PTSD. Can Will and Elin relax and enjoy their break, or will echoes of the past get in the way?

The author creates a edgy atmosphere immediately. We find out that Lucas’s business partner Daniel disappeared just as the hotel opened, thought to be swallowed up by an avalanche while taking his morning exercise. The remoteness is immediately apparent and I loved the way the author situates the hotel as a huge edifice almost doing battle with the surroundings. Guests can gaze directly out into the woodland and mountains. However, once the night falls and the lights are on, the hotel must be visible for miles. Guests can’t see out, but anyone could be looking in. The decor isn’t plush and ornate like a lot of hotels, but instead hints at the hotel’s past; almost like a luxury monk’s cell. There is nothing superfluous or showy about the bedrooms. There are also little glass display boxes where artefacts from the hotel’s archive are put on show. Elin doesn’t know whether they honour the past in a respectful way or whether they’re distasteful. There’s a real sense of the cold from outside, but also in the hotel’s decor. There’s nothing cozy or welcoming to offset the harsh weather.

It’s not just the venue that has a complicated relationship with the past. This whole visit is shrouded in secrets. Elin hasn’t told her brother that she’s taking a break from the police force. She also hasn’t told her partner Will about her previous friendship with Laure. Although it soon becomes clear that she’s not the only one keeping secrets. Her silence on certain subjects made me doubt her as a narrator creating an edgy reading experience. The venue seems to have tension built into its very foundations and I sensed something evil had happened there. Whatever had happened left an energy that rubbed off on the staff and guests. The author builds on the claustrophobic theme, by layering the imagery throughout the narrative. There is the history of patients literally struggling to breathe within these walls. Then there are Elin’s panic attacks, intensified by the scene where she is pushed into the plunge pool at the spa and struggles to force her way back to the surface. In flashbacks we learn of the tragic day at the beach when Isaac and Elin’s brother died, it’s always there simmering in the background and even Elin doesn’t seem to know the truth of what happened. There’s also the remote location, and the constant threat of avalanche. The author allows these feelings to build towards moments then describes moments of pure terror as an unknown assailant attacks, wearing a black rubber gas mask that makes a strange sucking and whistling noise. There were moments where I literally had to close the book and have a break with a cuppa!

There are a series of questions within the book, so there are a series of answers we’re chasing towards the end of the novel. Will we discover the truth of what happened when the hotel was Sanatorium du Plumachit? Will we find out what truly happened on the beach between Elin and her brothers? Who is behind the attacks at the hotel and what is their motive? The author has created a mystery that’s like a set of Russian dolls, moving from the present back to past events that still have a devastating hold on the here and now. The strange souvenirs left by the killer in glass boxes, are just like the exhibits from the archive, so there must be a link. I read the last few chapters in one go, because I simply had to know what was going on. There was a definite disregard for the next day that night as I was up till 3am racing through the revelations. I thought this was a brilliant thriller, full of atmosphere and with some genuine scares along the way. I absolutely loved it and would recommend it very highly.

Meet The Author

Sarah Pearse lives by the sea in South Devon with her husband and two daughters. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick and worked in Brand PR for a variety of household brands. After moving to Switzerland in her twenties, she spent every spare moment exploring the mountains in the Swiss Alpine town of Crans Montana, the dramatic setting that inspired her novel. Sarah has always been drawn to the dark and creepy – remote spaces and abandoned places – so when she read an article in a local Swiss magazine about the history of sanatoriums in the area, she knew she’d found the spark of the idea for her debut novel, The Sanatorium. Her short fiction has been published in a wide variety of magazines and has been shortlisted for several prizes. You can find Sarah on Twitter @SarahVPearse and Instagram @sarahpearseauthor