Atmospheric tale featuring real life ghost hunter Harry Price

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

I am haunted by a man who told stories for a living. This cantankerous, ill-tempered and selfish man – the unlikely father of my lost child – is the reason I believe in the supernatural. I know now that death is not the end of life, and I know spirits walk the earth, because of Harry Price.

Many years ago, soldiers entered a remote English village called Imber and forced every inhabitant out. Each winter, on one night only, Imber’s former residents return to visit loved ones buried in the overgrown churchyard. But this year, something has gone wrong, and notorious ghost hunter Harry Price must reunite with his former assistant Sarah Grey to solve the mystery.

This is a sequel to Neil Spring’s first novel, The Ghost Hunters, and is based on true events. Harry Price was a real life ghost hunter, a man committed to debunking frauds, and Imber was a village taken from its residents to be used as a training ground for soldiers during World War I.

Where Spring succeeds is in taking these true stories and adding supernatural mystery that sends a shiver down the spine. He is adept at creating atmosphere; the village of Imber is masterfully rendered on the page, a ghost town riddled with bullet holes and haunted by its tragic past. One particular scene, describing a séance in an abandoned windmill, is particularly memorable.

However, where Spring falls down is his characters. An author can write the scariest haunting in the world but no reader is going to be truly involved in the story if they don’t care about the person being haunted. Ghost hunter Harry Price has great potential for a character; a man who spends his life debunking fraudsters and whose rational beliefs in science are frequently challenged by the things he sees, he nevertheless feels more like the author’s puppet than a character with any agency of his own.

Likewise with Sarah Grey, the book’s narrator, who has so little personality I’m struggling to think of anything to say about her. She doesn’t work out the answers through intelligence or skill, but rather through a series of random hallucinations that come to her at just the right moment. When the mystery was resolved and the curtain finally drawn back, I was surprised by the reveal, but because I didn’t care about any of the characters, I didn’t care about the outcome of the story.

I enjoyed this book’s mix of superstition and science, its creepy atmosphere and the mystery at its heart, but it should have ended 50 pages before it did. The twist feels unnecessary and tacked on at the last moment. I would have much preferred the book without it.

At its worst, The Lost Village is clumsy, nonsensical and dull. At its best, it reads like a Sherlock Holmes story, with a determined sleuth brought in to prove that the supernatural mystery actually has a rational explanation. There’s no doubt that Spring can write well; he just needs to spend more time on bringing his characters to life.

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


Unsettling thriller is guaranteed to shock

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. She’d fought like a wild animal. They found signs of a struggle, bits of skin under her soft fingernails.

When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband Paul look for a caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise, a quiet, polite and devoted woman who seems perfect in every way. But as the couple and nanny become more dependent on each other, jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani was first published in France, where it won the Prix Goncourt, one of the most important literary prizes in the country, and since its translation into English it has received a landslide of fantastic reviews. So is it worth the hype?

At just over 200 pages this short, intense thriller sure packs a punch. Slimani knows just how to build a powerful sense of dread and how to use small, seemingly insignificant actions to deeply unsettle the reader. It’s a powerful premise, exploring what happens when we invite strangers into our homes and give them absolute trust and confidence, and what happens when that trust is broken.

However, my problem with this book is that we know from the first sentence (and, indeed, from the quote on the front cover) what all that dread is building towards. Because of this, there is very little suspense. Personally I would have much preferred not to have known what was going to happen.

Many have called this book ‘the next Gone Girl’ (seemingly inevitable with any thriller these days) but for me the structure of the book kept me at a distance. How many people would have loved Gone Girl if we’d known about *that* twist in the first chapter?

The portrait of Louise the nanny is nevertheless fascinating. Myriam and Paul both prefer to think of her as the perfect woman who appears at their door every morning to take care of their children without comment or complaint. They don’t care about what happens when Louise leaves their apartment to go home – it doesn’t occur to them that they should care – until elements of Louise’s life start creeping into their own, and they can no longer ignore the fact that she is human, with her own flaws, just like them.

The reader, however, follows Louise in her private life and knows that all is not quite right with her. This dramatic irony between what the characters know and what the reader knows creates a sense of tension that keeps the reader engaged despite the fact that we already know where the plot is heading.

Louise is an anomaly: a white Frenchwoman working as a nanny, while all the other nannies at the park are immigrants. Slimani cleverly explores issues of race and class whilst also delving into the strange occupation of the nanny. Part of the family and yet outside of it, deeply trusted and yet kept at a distance, the nanny inhabits a liminal space but is nevertheless gifted with a staggering amount of power.

This unsettling thriller has its flaws, but as a quick, clever read guaranteed to shock and provoke contemplation, it’s well worth a read.

Thanks very much to Faber & Faber for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

New book releases February 2018

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Five colleagues set out on a corporate retreat in the wilderness, but only four return. And each tells a slightly different story about what happened. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker, and in his investigation he will discover a tangled web of friendship, suspicion and betrayal.

Harper’s debut, The Dry, was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel.

Release date: 8th February

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

Out of the shadows of Victorian London’s slums comes Hester White, a young woman who is desperate to escape poverty. 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 fiercely intelligent Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life.

This debut novel has already received lots of praise and sounds just like the kind of dark historical novels I love.

Release date: 1st February

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

It is 1917, and while war rages across Europe, in the heart of London there is a place of hope and enchantment. The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own.

Billed for fans of The Miniaturist and The Night Circus, this novel promises to be both dark and enchanting.

Release date: 8th February

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

It is meant to be a celebration but ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to the house for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again.

We’ve all seen this concept done before with varying degrees of success, but this book has been described as ‘Agatha Christie on time-bending substances’ (Eva Dolan), so it’s definitely grabbed my attention.

Release date: 8th February

The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Maybe you’ve heard tales about Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path that winds from village to moor top. They say there’s something up there, something evil. Mercy Booth isn’t afraid. The moors and Scarcross are her home. But, beneath her certainty, small things are beginning to trouble her.

I love ghost stories, and this one sounds both atmospheric and terrifying – the perfect combination.

Release date: 8th February

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The French Girl by Lexie Elliott

Six university students from Oxford travelled to France for what was supposed to be an idyllic week together. It was perfect, until they met Severine, the girl next door. For Kate Channing, Severine was an unwelcome presence. And after an altercation on the last night of the holiday, Kate knew nothing would ever be the same.

It’s been a long time since I read a thriller that really blew my socks off, so here’s hoping this debut – described as ‘addictive’ and ‘gripping’ – will be the one to do just that.

Release date: 20th February

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

In 1627 Barbary pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted some 400 of its people. Among the captives sold into slavery in Algiers were the island pastor, his wife and their three children. Although the raid itself is well-documented, little is known about what happened to the women and children afterwards.

In this reimagining of true events, Magnusson gives voice to women in a time in which they were forced into silence.

Release date: 8th February

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup

Frankenstein has become an indelible part of popular culture. But how did a teenager with no formal education write such an extraordinary novel? Making the Monster explores the scientific background behind Shelley’s book, charting her possible influences.

I love Frankenstein, both the novel and the various permutations it has taken in popular culture, and 2018 marks 200 years since Frankenstein was first published.

Release date: 8th February

Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes by Diane Atkinson

Between the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of the First World War, the campaign for women’s suffrage was fought with great flair and imagination in the public arena. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, the suffragettes and their actions would come to define protest movements for generations to come.

2018 marks 100 years since (some) women were allowed to vote in the UK, so you can expect plenty of books, like this one, exploring how suffragettes brought about the change – and also how far we still have to go before equal rights.

Release date: 8th February

The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro

In 1928, an expedition was launched to Antarctica, the planet’s final frontier. Everyone wanted in on the adventure. The night before the expedition’s flagship set off, New York high schooler Billy Gawronski jumped into the Hudson River and snuck aboard.

This intriguing non-fiction story of a scrappy New York teenager who sneaks aboard a ship bound for Antarctica sounds like it will be full of adventure and historical intrigue.

Release date: 22nd February

Atmospheric fairytale set in medieval Russia

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

As though her words were a summoning, a door among the firs – a door she hadn’t seen – opened with the crack of breaking ice. A swath of firelight bloodied the virgin snow. Now, quite plainly, a house stood in this fir-grove. Long, curling eaves capped its wooden walls, and in the snow-torn firelight, the house seemed to lie breathing, crouched in the thicket.

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest. Meanwhile, bandits roam the countryside, burning villages and kidnapping daughters. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince and his trusted companion come across a young man riding a magnificent horse. Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, Vasya, thought by all to be dead.

I finished the first book in this new series, The Bear and the Nightingale (one of my favourite books of 2017) without knowing that it was the first in a planned trilogy. It worked well as a standalone novel, so I was nervously awaiting the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower. Thankfully, after reading it, I can confirm that I had nothing to worry about.

In the first book we follow Vasya, a young girl who is the only one who can see the house spirits that guard her home and must protect her village from the forces of darkness gathering in the woods. In this second instalment we follow Vasya on her journey across the wintry landscape of medieval Russia, as she follows her desire to see as much of the world as she can.

Of course, things are never going to be that straightforward. Vasya is a young woman completely at odds with her time. Unwilling to spend her days fulfilling the traditional feminine role of mother and housekeeper, she sets out for adventure, but her gender makes it impossible to fit in. Vasya is a fascinating character, strong and brave but also desperately searching for somewhere to fit in, and this continuation of her journey is both emotive and thrilling.

This is a strange mix of historical and fantasy fiction; it’s neither one nor the other but Arden has taken elements of both and created a vivid and atmospheric world that feels both real and fairytale-esque. She creates a sense of bigger elements at play – hinting at political machinations and a troubled country – while always keeping her characters at the forefront of the story.

The grand towers of Moscow are set in direct contrast to the superstition and pagan beliefs of Vasya’s village in the first book. In Moscow, the spirits readers were introduced to in The Bear and the Nightingale are still there, only faded, as those who once believed in them turn to the newer religion instead. The conflict between old beliefs and new was an interesting theme introduced in The Bear and the Nightingale and I was glad to see Arden develop it further in this second novel.

Perhaps my only complaint would be about Vasya’s blossoming romance with an older character that feels slightly strange (we should have learned from Twilight that immortal men lusting after young girls is just wrong).

Nevertheless, the atmosphere conjured by Arden’s magical writing is beautiful. Her descriptions of the snowy landscapes and the frosty woods are so vivid they’re guaranteed to make you shiver. My problem with The Bear and the Nightingale was that it builds up to a conflict that fails to deliver, but The Girl in the Tower suffers no such problem; the final conflict is thrilling and nail-bitingly tense.

This is a beautiful winter fairytale and I can’t wait for the final book in this trilogy to find out where Vasya’s journey leads next.

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

Vivid and atmospheric historical fiction set in Georgian London

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock is told that one of his captains has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the city, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel, and soon he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto an entirely new course.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has appeared on many ‘most anticipated books of 2018’ lists (including by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer and Stylist) and the hype surrounding it may be enough to put some readers off. But if you can get past the hype, you will find an incredibly vivid and enjoyable historical novel.

At first it seems this is going to be little more than a frothy, bawdy historical novel exploring the hijinks of the aristocracy from the perspective of a courtesan and a merchant newly introduced to high society. But the more you read the more themes and clever storylines Gowar begins to explore, including (among other things) femininity, sexuality, race and class.

Without doubt Gowar is going to be an author to watch from now on. Her writing style is so vivid she seems to effortlessly conjure Georgian London on the page. From dim coffee houses to high society balls, we are taken on a fascinating journey through the eighteenth century. The prose glitters with atmosphere and the historical detail of the dialogue is wonderful to read.

Her characters are likewise vividly drawn. Each of them is introduced in a few deft strokes but as the story goes on layers and layers are peeled back until they feel so real, it seems absurd that they don’t exist in real life. I loved spending time with both Mr Hancock and Angelica Neal, two characters fighting to control the way they are viewed by others. This is a novel that proves again and again that it is what you make of yourself, not what you are born, that matters.

Gowar also has a lot of pertinent things to say about women, in particular the way they are often categorised in one of two ways: the whore or the angel of the house. Angelica struggles throughout the novel to free herself from the former label and prove herself good enough to be the latter, before realising how little control she has over how other people see her.

This novel has been compared to 2016’s runaway success The Essex Serpent, and there are certainly similarities, especially in its glimpses of magical realism (although these only take place towards the end). In my opinion, this book far outpaces The Essex Serpent; it’s much more engrossing and entertaining.

I imagine that some will complain of the story’s somewhat meandering pace and if you don’t have large chunks of time to spend reading it, it probably will feel slow. Best to settle down for a quiet afternoon (or perhaps put it on your list to take on holiday) and allow yourself to be carried along on the journey. Its only failings were a significant slowing of pace in the last 100 pages or so, and a few loose ends left over.

This is a fantastic historical novel, and I can’t wait to see what Gowar does next.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published on 25th January.

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

Philip Pullman’s newest book fails to live up to expectations

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Three miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow, there stood the priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

11-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his daemon, Asta, live with his parents at the Trout Inn near Oxford. Across the River Thames (which Malcolm navigates often using his beloved canoe, a boat by the name of La Belle Sauvage) is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them; a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua.

It’s been a very long time since I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy so, in anticipation of receiving this book for Christmas, I re-read the original trilogy. Although these books had their flaws, I was surprised, on coming back to them as an adult, by the huge and often difficult themes Pullman explores. So I was excited to move on to La Belle Sauvage (described by Pullman as an equal rather than a prequel or sequel) to see whether Pullman returns to these themes.

What La Belle Sauvage is missing compared to the original trilogy is a strong story. While His Dark Materials is full of adventure and magic and awe-inspiring storylines, La Belle Sauvage follows Malcolm in his boat as he drifts from one weird scene to another; it doesn’t make for a coherent plot. Maybe it’s unfair to compare La Belle Sauvage to its predecessors, but this book just isn’t strong enough to stand on its own two feet.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoyed spending time with main character Malcolm, who is vulnerable but fiercely protective, and there were some villains whose frightening presence added necessary tension to an otherwise bland plot. I also loved the overall concept of Malcolm traversing a flooded, otherworldly Britain in his little canoe. There is some background given to the rise of the terrifying religious organisation, the Magisterium, and this was one of the most fascinating parts of the entire book and perhaps the only time when it came close to the complexity of the original trilogy.

Probably what exasperated me the most was Pullman’s writing style. Two characters will be having a conversation, and then another character will walk in and the first two characters will repeat the conversation for the benefit of the third. This happened over and over again and, in a book that’s 560 pages long, I was becoming more and more impatient to reach scenes where things actually happened.

We also don’t have a strong character to live up to the example set by Lyra in His Dark Materials. Alice is our main female character, a 16-year-old girl who works at the pub with Malcolm and joins him on his adventure. But she has so little personality and is given so little to do (aside from changing baby Lyra’s nappies) that I’m having trouble remembering her at all. She is lumped with a ‘typical female role’, that of taking care of the baby, while Malcolm is her protector. She is there only so that Malcolm might save her.

There have been plenty of fantastic reviews of this book and it was named Waterstones’ book of the year, but for me it failed to live up to expectations. The next two volumes are said to be set after the events of His Dark Materials, so perhaps Pullman will be able to create a more convincing sequel to make up for this watered-down prequel.

New book releases January 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

One September evening in 1785, the merchant John Hancock hears urgent knocking at his front door. One of his captains has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel, and he is steered through the doors of high society.

This historical novel tells a story of curiosity and obsession, and author Louise O’Neill has said: ‘Good god, it is a wonderful book’.

Release date: 25th January

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning. Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own? Was it the terrible accident? Or when they found the first body?

This book has been called – rather ambitiously – THE book of 2018. Only time will tell if it lives up to that promise.

Release date: 11th January

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

When Myriam decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband need to look for a caretaker for their two young children. They find the perfect candidate in Louise: a quiet, polite and devoted woman. But as the couple and nanny become more dependent on each other, jealousy, resentment and suspicions come to the fore.

This highly anticipated psychological thriller has already received a wealth of praise, and Publishers Weekly has called it a ‘gripping anatomy of a crime’.

Release date: 11th January

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

The court of the Grand Prince of Moscow is plagued by power struggles and rumours of unrest, while bandits roam the countryside. Setting out to defeat the raiders, the Prince comes across a young man riding a magnificent horse. Only Sasha, a priest with a warrior’s training, recognises this ‘boy’ as his younger sister, Vasya.

This novel is the sequel to one of my favourite books of 2017, The Bear and the Nightingale. I’m hoping The Girl in the Tower is full of the same wonderful magic, atmosphere and lyrical writing.

Release date: 25th January

Swansong by Kerry Andrew

Polly Vaughan is trying to escape the guilt of a disturbing incident in London by heading north to the Scottish Highlands. As soon as she arrives, she goes looking for drink, drugs and sex. In her pursuit, she also finds a fresh kind of fear, alone in the eerie landscape and prone to visions.

This debut from Kerry Andrew is inspired by British folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions.

Release date: 25th January

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This is How it Ends by Eva Dolan

This is how it begins. With a near-empty building, the inhabitants forced out of their homes by property developers. With two women: idealistic, impassioned blogger Ella and seasoned campaigner Molly. With a body hidden in a lift shaft. But how will it end?

This cryptic crime novel has already received a wealth of praise and has been described as ‘angry, compassionate and mind-blowingly clever’ by author Mark Edwards.

Release date: 25th January

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors. The widow of a resister murdered in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

With 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of the First World War, there are sure to be plenty of books – fiction and non-fiction – to mark the occasion. This one has already been called ‘a masterful epic’ by People magazine.

Release date: 2nd January

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder and Madness at the Dawn of the 20th Century by Simon Baatz

In 1901, 16-year-old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit was raped by celebrity architect Stanford White. Years later Evelyn confided in Harry Thaw, the millionaire playboy who would later become her husband. Thaw subsequently shot and killed White during a performance in Madison Square Garden. The following sensational trial gripped the nation.

This tale of glamour, excess and danger by bestselling author Simon Baatz is the first comprehensive account of a murder that shocked the world.

Release date: 16th January

The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette

A new arrival at an isolated school for orphaned boys quickly comes to realise there is something wrong with his new home. He hears chilling whispers in the night, his classmates are violent and hostile, and the Headmaster sends cryptic messages, begging his new charge to confess. The boy realises he must unravel the mystery at the school’s dark heart.

Any book billed as a gothic ghost story, as this one is, is bound to catch my attention. It’s been called bloodcurdling and brilliant, and sounds right up my street.

Release date: 25th January

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

Lynn McBride has learned much since society collapsed in the face of nuclear war and the relentless spread of disease. She has been forced to forge ahead in the snow-covered Canadian Yukon, learning how to hunt and trap to survive. But her fragile existence is about to be shattered.

This post-apocalyptic, coming-of-age thriller has been compared to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven as well as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – so it has a lot to live up to.

Release date: 11th January