Atmospheric mystery with elements of a thriller

The Two Houses by Fran Cooper

Recovering from a breakdown, Jay and her husband Simon move to the desolate edges of the north of England. They fall in love with Two Houses, a crumbling property whose central rooms were supposedly so haunted that a previous owner had them cut out from the building entirely. But on uprooting their city life and moving to the sheltered grey village of Hestle, Jay and Simon discover it’s not only Two Houses that seems to be haunted by an obscure past. It becomes increasingly clear that the villagers don’t want them there at all.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I picked up this book; was it a ghost story? A domestic drama? After finishing it, I’m still not sure which genre it fits in best. But it’s an enjoyable novel nonetheless and one I would recommend to those who like atmospheric mysteries.

I loved the premise of this book, with a house in the middle of desolate countryside, whose central rooms were supposedly so haunted that the previous owner had to have them demolished. It’s particularly gothic in its depiction of an isolated house near a quiet village where the residents mumble to themselves and utter mysterious warnings about the house up on the hill.

The atmosphere is also great, and Cooper’s writing is at its best when she is describing the desolate countryside and grey, rain-lashed village. As the pace increases and the novel hurtles towards its end, a storm bullies its way across the sky and threatens to flood the villagers out of their homes, and you’ll find yourselves gripping the book as you race towards the thrilling finale.

Where Cooper falls down is with her protagonists. I didn’t really connect with any of them, particularly Jay. I found her selfish and irritating and her husband, Simon, wasn’t much better in the likeability stakes. I’m not against unlikeable protagonists but I felt like I was supposed to root for Jay, but wasn’t given enough reasons to do so.

However, Cooper makes up for this with her secondary characters, a cast that is memorable and three-dimensional and whose conflicts added interesting layers to the story. I particularly enjoyed Dev, a young man who works at the local library and who is ostracised from the other villagers because of the colour of his skin.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is what keeps you reading and thankfully it has a solution that is both interesting and satisfying. Cooper ramps up the pace and tension so the ending rushes towards you with the pace of a thriller – before everything is resolved the way it should be: over a nice cup of tea.

The Two Houses by Fran Cooper is released on March 22.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Brilliant historical novel reminiscent of The Great Gatsby

The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F. John

The funeral has become something resembling a party: the drummer turns his sticks between nimble fingers; the trumpeter arches backwards and dips forward, following the undulations of his notes; couples twizzle and flick their feet to the stop-time beat, dancing the black bottom. And between dances, guests tip flutes of champagne into open mouths and kiss each other’s cheeks before swapping stories about a young woman who has been dead for exactly seven days.

London, 1926. Henry Twist’s heavily pregnant wife is hit by a bus and killed, though miraculously the baby survives. Henry is wracked with grief and left alone to care for his new daughter. But one evening, a man steps out of the shadows and addresses Henry by name. The man says he has lost his memory, but that his name is Jack. Henry is both afraid of and drawn to Jack, and the more time they spend together, the more Henry sees that this man has echoes of his dead wife. Henry begins to wonder, has his wife returned to him?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up The Haunting of Henry Twist, knowing only that it had been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2017. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to be the best book I’ve read so far this year.

The Haunting of Henry Twist is a beautiful novel that has so much to say about love, grief, fear and happiness. With its 1920s setting, its cast of Bright Young Things and its three-dimensional characters, it bears comparisons to The Great Gatsby.

Henry Twist is a wonderful character. Formerly a soldier in the trenches of World War I, his experiences in the mud watching his friends die have irrevocably changed him and formed who he is as a man, driven by fear and terrified of losing the people he loves. He is consumed by memories of his wife after she is hit by a bus and killed. Then Jack walks into his life, offering the hope that maybe he doesn’t have to say goodbye after all.

Despite the title, this is not just Henry’s story. We also follow Henry’s close friends: Grayson and Matilda, whose marriage is beginning to fracture under the weight of Matilda’s unrequited love for Henry, and Monty, an older man who surrounds himself with Bright Young Things so he doesn’t have to feel the relentless marching of time.

The atmosphere and sense of history in this novel is fantastic. In the years after the First World War everyone is struggling with the weight of all they have lived through, while trying their hardest to celebrate their hard-won freedom and have a good time. Bright Young Things flit through gardens lit by candlelight and decorated with fabric swings draped from trees, but beneath it all is the quiet acknowledgement of all the pain and suffering they have gone through to get to this point. Trying to have fun is not as easy as it seems.

The writing is also brilliant. John writes about character with piercing insight, so that they become living, breathing creations standing at your shoulder as you read about their lives. She captures their sense of dissatisfaction, their desperate, clawing search for happiness, with wonderful language and a real sense of empathy. At times the metaphors and descriptions can feel slightly muddled, but this can be forgiven for the overall strength of the writing.

This is a fantastic book and one that I highly, highly recommend.

Inspiring female characters for International Women’s Day

Eleanor Oliphant, from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor is an intensely likeable character, but one who is also incredibly lonely. She leaves work on Friday and doesn’t speak to anyone until she returns to work on Monday morning. Her social skills are, at best, subpar, but her honesty and her vulnerability invite empathy. Her struggle to make connections with others and her growth as a human being are wonderful to read about.

Beatrice Lacey, from Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Looking at reviews of this book, it’s clear to see that Beatrice is a divisive character. Some find her headstrong, while others see her as just plain evil. Ruthless, cruel and destructive she may be, she nevertheless proves that female characters in fiction don’t always have to play nice. Her methods might be somewhat questionable, but her determination to get what she wants is admirable.

Vasya, from The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Vasya is a young woman living in medieval Russia who rallies against the constraints placed on her because of her gender. She refuses to accept demands that she either marry or go into a convent. Why would she confine herself inside four walls when she can go out and explore the world?

Lucrezia Borgia, from Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

Lucrezia Borgia is often remembered as ruthless and cruel, a woman who slipped poison to those who stood in her way. Dunant paints a different picture; of a woman forced to marry several different men against her will, a woman using the few weapons available to her in 16th century Italy to prove that she is more than just a pawn in her father’s game.

Kathryn Parr, from The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

Another real woman rescued from history is Kathryn Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. While she is constantly reminded of her husband’s favourite wife, whom she can never hope to live up to, she is also haunted by memories of her predecessor, Katherine Howard, beheaded for her infidelity to the king. Kathryn must find a way to navigate dangerous political waters using only her intelligence and cunning.

Angelica Neal, from The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Bower

Like others on this list, Angelica is a character who invites debate. Viewed by some as infantile and selfish, others recognise her determination and strength. However, you can’t fail to admire the way she fights against society’s expectations and takes command of her own career (controversial though her choice of job may be).

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

In 19th century Iceland, Agnes is condemned to death for the murder of her lover. Viewed by her community as a kind of Lady Macbeth, no one is interested in hearing her side of the story; they only want to see her executed. Beneath her icy exterior, however, Agnes is intelligent, passionate and sympathetic.

Lyra Belacqua, from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Although Lyra is only a child when The Northern Lights begins, there is plenty to learn from her bravery and courage in the face of adversity. She refuses to meekly accept what adults declare to be true, choosing instead to question the world around her and try to do what she can to make it better.

Lila Bard, from A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

The heroine of this fantasy series has been criticised as being a bit of a Mary Sue (a character who is perfect in every way), but I had to include her on this list for her formidable skill with weapons. A cutpurse and gifted user of magic, her approach is to kick ass first and ask questions later.

Hermione Granger, from Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Of course this list would not be complete without a mention of my favourite bookworm. Hermione proved to a generation of girls that it’s cool to be smart – and that, when in doubt, the best thing to do is go to the library.

Clever and unsettling thriller

Consent by Leo Benedictus

I’m having to write this in snatched moments here and there, which is not convenient. Things generally are difficult right now for reasons that I’ll come to. But the spells between are a chance to think freshly. And I don’t know. I look back and I don’t know when all this started. The thing with Laura, Kathy’s death, the thing now, me writing, me growing up, when you put them in a line they make a kind of sense. More sense than at the time.

‘This book is an experiment. We’re experimenting together. You are part of the experiment, if you’ll agree to it. Normally I don’t let my subjects choose to be subjects. If you know you’re being watched, you cease to be you. But I want you to read this. I wrote it for you.’

Everything about this book is designed to draw you in, from the vague blurb to the simple all-white cover and the stark black words on the back of the dust jacket insisting ‘Read Me’. Often books that employ such tactics are trying to make up for a lack of substance. But this intriguing, well-written book has no such problem.

This book is difficult to talk about without giving too much away, and it’s also one of those books that is better if you don’t know too many details before reading it. Suffice to say that it is strongly reminiscent of American Psycho, and that those with weak stomachs might be better off reading something else.

But if you can get through those moments of gore (and there are only two of them in the whole book), you’ll discover a clever, unsettling thriller that invites you into the mind of a psychopath, while making you complicit in everything that happens from the first page. Just as the unnamed narrator develops a dangerous obsession with his various subjects, so the reader becomes obsessed with what he is going to do next. And by following his subjects in their private lives, the reader begins to feel like a voyeur.

Benedictus used to be a journalist for the Guardian so there’s no doubt he knows how to write. His sparse, clean style allows enough room for interpretation while creating a powerful sense of dread that mercilessly grips the reader in its claws.

But there is comedy here – black as it may be – so the experience of reading Consent isn’t entirely an uncomfortable one. The narrator remains deadpan in the face of his troubling escalating behaviour, and it is from this that most of the humour comes.

The ending is very blunt, but that’s usually what you expect from this kind of literary thriller. There are no answers offered and no clear-cut resolution, which some readers will probably find dissatisfying.

However, for those who enjoy clever and unsettling thrillers, this one is unmissable.

Many thanks to Faber & Faber for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

New book releases March 2018

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Among the bustling markets of 18th century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Nahri knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes… be careful what you wish for.

This debut fantasy novel has been called ‘stunning and complex and consuming and fantastic’ by bestselling author Sabaa Tahir, and is easily one of the most anticipated fantasy novels of 2018.

Release date: 8th March

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

After the death of her mother, Poornima is left to care for her siblings until her father can find her a suitable marriage match. So when Savitha enters their household, Poornima is intrigued by this joyful, independent-minded girl. But when a devastating act of cruelty drives Savitha away, Poornima leaves everything behind to find her friend.

This story of ambition and the strength of female friendship explores the darkest corners of India’s underworld and takes the reader on a harrowing cross-continental journey.

Release date: 6th March

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Abortion is once again illegal in America, in vitro fertilisation is banned, and the Personhead Amendment grants rights of life, liberty and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers.

This book has been highly hyped and, with its strong feminist slant, could be the next The Handmaid’s Tale.

Release date: 8th March

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969 the four Gold children sneak into a grimy building in New York’s Lower East Side to visit a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies given to them that day.

Karen Joy Fowler (author of the fantastic We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves) has said ‘The Immortalists is about as good as it gets’ – what more incentive do you need to pick up this book?

Release date: 8th March

The Two Houses by Fran Cooper

Recovering from a breakdown, Jay and her husband Simon move to Two Houses in the north of England: a crumbling property whose central rooms were supposedly so haunted that a previous owner had them cut out from the building entirely. But Jay and Simon soon discover it’s not only the Two Houses that seems to be haunted by an obscure past.

Following the hugely successful novel These Dividing Walls, Cooper’s next offering is all about buried secrets and the people who hide them.

Release date: 22nd March

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Let Me Lie by Claire Mackintosh

One year ago, Caroline chose to end her life in a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since. Now with a baby of her own, Anna starts to ask questions about her parents’ deaths, but in doing so may be putting her own future at risk.

I absolutely loved Mackintosh’s last novel, I See You, and I can’t wait to read her next twisty-turny psychological thriller.

Release date: 8th March

Neighbourly by Ellie Monago

Kat and Doug have settled down in the perfect community of Aurora Village with their infant daughter. But everything changes overnight when Kat finds a scrawled note outside their front door: That wasn’t very neighbourly of you. As increasingly sinister notes arrive, each one stabs deeper into the heart of Kat’s insecurities.

This suspenseful thriller plays on the question of how well you ever really know your neighbours, and what happens when things really are too good to be true.

Release date: 1st March

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

In a tiny village in 15th century Somerset, a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday. An explanation must be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim?

I love books set in medieval times, especially when they have an element of mystery to them, and this one apparently has an ‘unforgettable’ narrator.

Release date: 1st March

The Parentations by Kate Mayfield

In 18th century London, the lives of sisters Constance and Verity become entwined with the nearby Fowler household, charged with providing a safe place for a mysterious baby from far away. In 2015, the lives of sisters Constance and Verity are consumed by the wait for this boy, who may or may not be dead.

This intriguing novel about the dark side of immortality has been described as ‘epic, gothic, magic’ by Jane Harris.

Release date: 29th March

Love After Love by Alex Hourston

She is the centre around whom many lives turn. Mother. Therapist. Daughter. Sister. Wife. But Nancy has a new role: lover. Everybody can be happy, Nancy believes, so long as they can be kept apart. But when these lives start to overlap, collision becomes inevitable.

This psychological thriller examines the bonds between parents and children, and the emotional costs of adultery.

Release date: 1st March

Atmospheric Victorian mystery perfect for fans of Sarah Waters

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

To the right of the last wooden house, warped and stooping, there is a covered alleyway no wider than a whip thong. At the end of the alleyway there is a yard; small as a poke, never gladdened by the warmth of the sun. In the far corner of that yard, behind a door that hangs loose on its leather hinges, is a room. It is a small room with a brick and dirt floor. This room is the centre of my London.’

Out of the shadows of murky London comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums. When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past begin to poison her new life.

The Wicked Cometh is lauded as one of the most anticipated books of 2018, and with its promise of a gothic setting and wicked deeds I was sure I was going to love it. Parts of it I did love and overall it was a very enjoyable book, but the pacing was where it let me down.

The Wicked Cometh has been billed for fans of The Essex Serpent but it has far more in common with Sarah Waters’ fabulous melodramatic Victorian novels than Sarah Perry’s more subtle, character-driven debut.

Carlin is fantastic at creating atmosphere, conjuring the filthy slums of Victorian London where the sun never shines and danger lurks around every corner. Her meticulous research is evident in the 19th century slang in the dialogue, adding another layer of realism to the story.

Carlin has successfully emulated the tone and style of Dickensian novels. Our plucky heroine Hester is rescued from the slums and whisked away to a life of safety and contentment – or so it first seems. The descriptions are beautiful and unique and the darkness of the story is lightened with dashes of humour.

The problem most reviewers and readers have picked up on is the pacing. The plot doesn’t really get going for a good 150 pages and, with Carlin’s antiquated style, those 150 pages feel even longer than they are. At times I felt almost suffocated with the weight of descriptions. This is Carlin’s first novel and you can tell she suffers from a serious case of overwriting; large chunks of the novel would have benefited from an editor with a red pen to cut the unnecessary and improve the flow of the chapters.

Despite its flaws, the characters were engaging enough to keep me reading. Hester is a determined and intelligent young woman, and her search for escape from the poor circumstances she has found herself in leads her on an exciting and poignant journey. She is likeable and interesting, and readers are sure to enjoy spending time with her.

The ne’er-do-well characters populating the slums of Victorian London are also brought vividly to life and add layers of intrigue and mystery to the plot.

I really enjoyed the ending of this novel. The central mystery kept me going through the slower parts of the novel so I was thrilled that it had an exciting and unpredictable resolution. It will require some suspension of disbelief, but what else would you expect from a Victorian melodrama?

Fans of Sarah Waters need look no further for their next read than this gothic Victorian mystery novel.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Jane Harper proves she’s no one-trick pony with excellent sequel to The Dry

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things. One: No one saw the bushland swallow up Alice Russell. And two: Alice had a mean streak so sharp it could cut you.

When five colleagues are forced to go on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, they reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking down the muddy path. But one of the women doesn’t come out of the woods. And each of her colleagues tells a slightly different story about what happened. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker. In his investigation he will discover a tangled web of friendship and betrayal.

Last year Jane Harper released her debut novel, The Dry, a book which became an almost instant bestseller and which was one of my favourite books of 2017. Force of Nature is the sequel and Harper’s second novel. Second books are notoriously difficult, but Harper has proved that she is no one-trick pony.

Force of Nature is just as thrilling, clever and tense as its predecessor. Once again Harper has chosen a vivid setting. In The Dry she gave us the drought-stricken setting of rural Australia, with its wide open spaces and red-tinted desert. In the sequel Harper introduces us to a completely different side of Australia: the lush, claustrophobic bushland, where paths are easily lost beneath your feet, rain falls for weeks on end and unseen creatures move between the trees.

Into this dangerous landscape walk five women forced to spend time together for a corporate retreat. In the depths of the forest, without the usual societal boundaries and with the need for survival moving to the fore, their polite masks begin to slip and we begin to glimpse the primal, possibly even violent, self beneath. The complicated web of relationships between these women creates plenty of tension amid barely concealed hostility.

Harper is a master at planting red herrings. Just when you think you’ve worked out what’s going to happen next, she throws another curveball your way and you’re completely wrong-footed. This makes for a tense, exciting reading experience, and makes sure you’re never able to put the book aside for too long. And even if you somehow guess what’s going to happen, you’re still bound to have lots of fun on the journey.

Harper was a former journalist and you can see that in the clean, crisp prose; not a word here is wasted, yet characters and settings are conjured vividly all the same.

I wouldn’t say it was necessary to read The Dry before reading Force of Nature – though you’d be missing out on a great book if you didn’t, and the sequel does continue on the personal journey of Aaron Falk. Around him Harper creates a cast of lively and interesting characters. I particularly liked Carmen, Falk’s new police agent partner. My only complaint is that there were times when twins Bree and Beth became difficult to differentiate (and the fact that they were both on the retreat in the first place requires a little suspension of disbelief).

Harper has proved once again that she is a master of the thriller genre. Highly, highly recommended.

Many thanks to Little Brown for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.