Brilliantly bonkers murder mystery

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

‘Thirty seconds. That’s how long I hesitated when I first spotted her and that’s how far away I was when she was murdered. Thirty seconds of indecision, thirty seconds to abandon somebody completely.’

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 Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book since its release earlier this year. It’s on the ‘must-read books of 2018’ lists in Stylist, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. It’s been described as ‘Agatha Christie meets Black Mirror’ – and I loved each and every second of reading it.

It boggles belief that this is Stuart Turton’s debut novel. He writes with great confidence, creating such an intricate plot I can only imagine the amount of planning that must have gone into it. Any of the myriad small details could prove to be the key to unlocking the case, so it’s vital that you pay attention.

The story takes place in a familiar setting – a crumbling country house in the 1920s, which has more than a few shades of a Victorian haunted house as well. But the story itself is anything but familiar. Turton takes the murder mystery and the locked room thriller and turns it on its head, creating something entirely new and original.

The cast of characters is large but each one is vividly crafted so you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. Although our main character is technically several different people, there is enough consistency to make you empathise with him and care about what happens to him. Interestingly, each of his hosts threatens to overwhelm the original Aiden; they get stronger with each new body he inhabits, until he can barely distinguish himself from the person he is currently wearing.

Although the main mystery is the question of who murders Evelyn Hardcastle, there are many other mysteries that will need unravelling before the book is done, and each one is just as clever, complex and interesting as the last. The pace never lets up, so each time you pick this book up you’ll feel the need to take a deep breath before plunging back in – and once you do so, you won’t want to put it down again.

There might be times when you have to go back and read over a certain passage just to make sure you know exactly what’s going on, but in a book this brilliantly complex, that’s a small price to pay – especially as you’re bound to have loads of fun reading it.

This is a fantastic book with a brilliantly clever plot. It’s completely and utterly bonkers, but in the best possible way. I urge you to pick up a copy.

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

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Harrowing novel explores slavery in America

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Liberty was reserved for other people, for the citizens of the City of Pennsylvania bustling a thousand miles to the north. Since the night she was kidnapped she had been appraised and reappraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale. Know your value and you know your place in the order.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

I’m aware I’m a little late in reading The Underground Railroad. In 2016, it was the book on everyone’s lips. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. So to say that my expectations were quite high is an understatement.

It starts off very well, plunging you into the hellish world of the plantation on which Cora lives and works and where violence and rape are a matter of everyday life. The portrayal of violence is truly shocking, but their power lies in the fact that these kinds of things did happen in real life rather than the fact that we care for any of the characters. Each secondary character is no more than a brief sketch, so even though we wince at their pain, we’re not as emotionally invested in their journey as we should be.

Cora starts off with great potential; an incident involving her wielding a hatchet in the early chapters bodes well for her as a character. But after her and Caesar’s escape I still didn’t know enough about her to really care about her as a character. Caesar has nothing but his name to make him memorable; we know so little about him as a person that it hardly matters when he disappears from the narrative.

We are further put at a distance to the characters by the flitting between different characters’ points of view and the overly formal style of writing. Some sentences I had read over two or three times, they were so dense with language.

In Whitehead’s novel, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Some reviewers have complained that this tipping over of the book into fantasy territory takes away from the true experience of slaves. But I personally enjoyed Whitehead’s clever metaphor for the darkness of the journey through America for people of colour. After all, this is fiction, not a history lesson.

I enjoyed the first three-quarters of this book, but towards the end Cora’s journey began to feel very repetitive. She travels somewhere new, things seem okay for a while, something terrible happens, and she is forced to flee again. By the end I was glad to finish the book as I was starting to become bored.

Despite its faults, The Underground Railroad is a book worth reading if only for its astonishing, harrowing portrayal of a horrendous time in American history, and the shocking parallels with the world today.

New book releases May 2018

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

Synaesthesia paints the sounds of Jasper’s world in a kaleidoscope of colours that no one else can see. But on Friday, he discovered a new colour – the colour of murder. He’s sure something has happened to his neighbour, Bee Larkham, but no one else seems to be taking it as seriously as they should be.

This debut novel examines themes of isolation, bravery and morality, and has already been touted as one of the best books of summer 2018.

Release date: 3rd May

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Carcassonne, 1562. Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop, containing the words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Before Minou can decipher the message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever.

Mosse returns to the Languedoc setting of her bestselling trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel) with this first book in a new series. Promising adventure, conspiracies and betrayal, it sounds like the perfect beach read.

Release date: 3rd May

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

Leo Stanhope is an avid chess player, assistant to a London coroner, in love with Maria, and hiding a very big secret. For Leo was born Charlotte, the daughter of a reverend. He fled his family home at 15 and has been living as a man ever since. But when Maria is found dead, Leo is accused of her murder.

This is the first in a new historical series set in Victorian London and has been described as ‘wonderfully atmospheric’.

Release date: 3rd May

Snap by Belinda Bauer

On a stifling summer’s day, 11-year-old Jack is left in charge of his two sisters in a broken down car while his mother goes to get help. But she doesn’t come back. Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, and of finding the truth about what happened to his mother.

As C.L. Taylor says, ‘no one writes crime novels like Belinda Bauer’, and her latest offering promises to be a gripping, terrifying thriller.

Release date: 17th May

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molley

They call themselves the May Mothers – a group of new mums whose babies were born in the same month. Twice a week, they get together for some much-needed adult time. When the women go out for drinks at the hip neighbourhood bar, they are looking for a fun break from their daily routine. But something goes wrong, and one of the babies is taken from his crib.

This is another of the most anticipated books of the summer and there is already a film in the works starring Kerry Washington.

Release date: 1st May

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Imagine a world very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia and Sky, kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things every woman must learn about love. And it is the story of the men who come to find them.

This literary debut has been compared to Hot Milk and The Girls, and has been called ‘eerie, electric, beautiful’ by author Daisy Johnson.

Release date: 24th May

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The king’s three daughters know the only chance of resurrection for the struggling nation of Innis Lear is to crown a new sovereign. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align. Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war.

Even in 2018 it’s still rare to find a fantasy novel that centres on female characters, so I have high hopes for this epic, blood-soaked debut.

Release date: 17th May

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

War orphan Fang Runin grew up with poppy. Her adopted family smuggles it, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into an arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to a prestigious military academy.

This powerful epic fantasy novel has its roots in the 20th century history of China, and Booknest has raised expectations by calling it ‘one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time’.

Release date: 3rd May

The Outsider by Stephen King

When an 11-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park, reliable eyewitnesses point to the town’s popular Little League coach, Terry Maitland, as the culprit. DNA evidence confirms the crime was committed by this well-loved family man. But Maitland has an air-tight alibi. A man cannot be in two places at the same time. Can he?

Stephen King’s latest offering has been called ‘a compelling and chilling suspense novel’ – just what King does best.

Release date: 22nd May

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

This sequel to Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister sees Nona Grey struggling with the choice of which path to take: the red of a Martial Sister, the grey of a Sister of Discretion, the blue of a Mystic Sister or the simple black of a Bride of the Ancestor.

Although the first in this fantasy series, Red Sister, had its flaws, I’m still looking forward to the sequel to see where Nona’s path takes her next.

Release date: 17th May

New crime thriller will keep you up until the early morning

Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh

‘They say sudden goodbyes are easier. Less painful. They’re wrong. Any pain saved from the lingering goodbyes of a drawn-out illness is offset by the horror of a life stolen without notice. A life taken violently. On the day of my death I walked the tightrope between two worlds, the safety net in tatters beneath me. This way safety; that way danger.’

One year ago, Caroline Johnson chose to end her life: 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 misses her mother more than ever and starts to ask questions about her parents’ deaths. But by digging up the past, is she putting her future in danger?

Last year I read Clare Mackintosh’s I See You, a fantastically creepy thriller written with skill and flair. Mackintosh’s latest novel, Let Me Lie, is much in the same vein, with enough twists and turns to keep you up into the small hours of the morning.

There is nothing subtle about this book. The writing is rather on-the-nose and ventures into melodrama at times, with certain characters’ dialogue sounding like something a moustache-twirling villain would shout at a victim tied to railway tracks. But despite its flaws, Mackintosh excels in creating tense situations in which characters we care about come up against impossible odds.

With Anna Johnson, Mackintosh has created a believable young woman struggling with her grief over her parents’ deaths. Mackintosh introduces numerous different elements to her character that make her feel well-rounded and empathetic, and her reactions to the mad events happening around her (which themselves often require some suspension of disbelief) are always measured and realistic.

Our other main character is Murray Mackenzie, a semi-retired police officer who becomes embroiled in Anna’s fight to find out what really happened to her parents. He, too, is a very likeable character, whose skill in detective work doesn’t always extend to knowing how to cope with his mentally ill wife.

You might get whiplash from the number of twists in this book. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Mackintosh once again reveals that nothing is as it seems. Readers who delight in being wrong-footed and in trying to figure out the answers to complicated puzzles will find much to love here.

This is a thriller that adeptly succeeds at jerking you out of your everyday life and plunging you into a thrilling journey full of secrets and with danger at every turn. Prepare to lose sleep over this one.

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

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.