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.


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.


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.


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