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.


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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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


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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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


First book in new fantasy series introduces cast of bold female characters

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes 10 years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse.

Fantasy novels about assassins are ten-a-penny, so if you want to stand out in this overcrowded genre you’re going to have to do something pretty special. Though it is not without its flaws, I can confirm that Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is something pretty special.

In essence, this is a fantasy boarding school novel. Much of the action takes place in the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where young girls attend classes, forge close friendships, sleep in dormitories and sneak around after lights out. It will be a formula familiar to many readers, but Lawrence ensures his world has edges sharp enough to make sure the familiarity doesn’t breed boredom.

It’s a shame that the middle of the book becomes dull and repetitive. However, it’s worth getting through these slower moments to experience Lawrence’s skill when it comes to action scenes.

There are also moments when Lawrence falls prey to the fantasy writer’s worst enemy: the info-dump (in which writers give lots of information about their fantasy world in one long section). Some of the concepts he has come up with are quite complicated and he seems unsure as to how best explain them, so he runs to paragraphs explaining the same thing in a few different ways in the hope readers will understand.

But, luckily, the world Lawrence has created is fascinating – and his characters endearing. You will have to suspend your disbelief in regard to the characters’ ages (no eight-year-old talks like that) but Nona’s spiky attitude, witty comebacks and vulnerability will quickly bring you round to liking her. The only problem is that she verges on Mary-Sue territory – the perfect character who never gets anything wrong – and I hope Lawrence takes the chance to develop her character further in the sequel.

I also loved that the majority of the large cast are female. As such Lawrence presents the reader with a wide range of women – women who are brave, bold, frightened and flawed. In a genre that is often dominated by male characters wielding swords, it was refreshing to see women take the lead.

This book has its flaws but it opens up a fantasy world that I am more than happy to spend time in.

Red Sister is dark and bloody, marking the beginning of a new fantasy series that I will definitely be keen to continue reading.

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


New book releases December 2017

Year One by Nora Roberts

They call it The Doom – a deadly pandemic that starts on New Year’s Eve in the Scottish countryside. As billions fall sick and die, some survivors find themselves invested with strange, unexpected abilities.

This dystopian thriller is the latest release from New York Times bestseller Nora Roberts, who is the author of a staggering 190 novels.

Release date: 5th December

The Silver Music Box by Mina Baites

1914. Jewish silversmith Johann Blumenthal crafted a tiny ornamented box for his young son before leaving to fight in a war to honour his beloved country – a country that would soon turn against him. A half century later, Londoner Lilian Morrison inherits the box, and finds a link to an astonishing past.

This historical novel was originally published in Baites’ native German and has already received a slew of five-star reviews on Amazon.

Release date: 1st December

Catalina by Liska Jacobs

Elsa Fisher retreats to Los Angeles after being fired from MoMA on the heels of an affair with her married boss. Her abandoned crew of college friends receive her with open arms and, thinking she’s on vacation, a plan to celebrate their reunion on a booze-soaked sailing trip to Catalina Island. But Elsa is hell-bent on self-destruction.

Jacobs’ debut has already been compared to Bret Easton Ellis’ early work, and bestselling author Jill Alexander Essbaum has said: ‘Liska Jacobs writes with teeth; this book’s got bite.’

Release date: 13th December

The Good Samaritan by John Marrs

The people who call End of the Line need hope. They need reassurance that life is worth living. But some are unlucky enough to get through to Laura. Laura doesn’t want them to hope. She wants them to die. But now someone’s onto her – Ryan, whose world falls apart when his pregnant wife ends her life, hand-in-hand with a stranger.

This book is the fourth from journalist Marrs and has an intriguing, unusual premise.

Release date: 1st December

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Newlyweds Jake and Alice are offered a mysterious wedding gift – membership of a club which promises its couples will never divorce. Signing The Pact seems the start to a perfect marriage. Until one of them breaks the rules.

This new thriller has perhaps inevitably been compared with Gone Girl, and author Lisa Gardner has issued a warning that ‘this will keep you up all night’.

Release date: 14th December


What Remains True by Janis Thomas

From the outside, the Davenports look like any other family – until that devastating day when five-year-old Jonah is killed, and the family is torn apart. As guilt engulfs them, the Davenports slowly start to unravel, one by one.

This intimate portrayal of familial guilt is told from multiple points of view – including Jonah’s.

Release date: 1st December

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss anniversary edition

An Unremarkable Body by Elisa Lodato

When Katharine is found dead at the foot of her stairs, it is the mystery of her life that consumes her daughter, Laura. The medical examiner’s report, in which parts of Katharine’s body are weighed and categorised, motivates Laura to write her own version of events; to bear witness to the unbearable blank space between each itemised entry.

This novel has been described as part memoir, part thriller, and promises to be both heartfelt and haunting.

Release date: 14th December

The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen

No one in sleepy Woodbury where Ellery works as a police officer knows she was once victim number 17 of serial killer Francis Michael Coben. The only one who lived. When three people disappear from her town in three years, Ellery fears someone knows her secret.

This idea has been done many times before, but Scaffhausen’s credentials as winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition suggests this might be something special.

Release date: 5th December

Quick Curtain by Alan Melville

When Douglas B. Douglas – leading light of the London theatre – premieres his new musical extravaganza, he is sure the packed house will be dazzled by the performance. What he couldn’t predict is the death of his star on stage in the middle of act two.

This satirical novel from the golden age of British crime fiction between the world wars has been rediscovered in a new edition by British Library Crime Classics.

Release date: 5th December

The Name of the Wind: 10th anniversary deluxe illustrated edition by Patrick Rothfuss

Kvothe is living as an unassuming innkeeper. Few suspect that the man serving them drinks is actually a notorious magician, masterful musician, dragon-slayer and infamous assassin.

This deluxe edition marks the 10th anniversary of this brilliant fantasy novel, and would make a great Christmas gift for any fantasy fan in your life.

Release date: 7th December


New thriller examines close-knit community shaken by rumours

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

‘He had no way of knowing that this moment would become the lynchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; the police would come to him; his ex-friends, his gym buddies, the guys who knew him for God’s sake; and say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right? The last one is always the guilty one.’

In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a female student. The student claims that she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect: Nate.

This story is told through the points of view of four different characters: Nate, Alecia (Nate’s wife), Bridget (Nate’s best friend) and Lucia. None of these characters are particularly likeable. They bicker with each other over the smallest things and they make stupid decisions. Occasionally their brutal honesty about the lives they lead inspire a dull flicker of empathy, but the problem with creating a cast full of unlikeable characters is that the reader doesn’t really care what’s happening to them.

That said, there were a lot of things I liked about this book. The close-knit community rocked by gossip and speculation is hardly a new concept, but Moretti manages to cleverly explore the ripples that spread through the town. Nate’s insidious influence as a pillar of the community makes it impossible for other characters to see him clearly and decide whether they believe him or not.

However, this book also has a lot of flaws, not least the way the female characters relate to each other. At one point one character points out how much she hates women turning against women, but that’s exactly what these women do throughout the course of the story. Women are judged harshly here and Moretti tends to lump them into easy categories based on the way they look.

This book is also rife with clichés. The golden boy Nate, the tortured wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenager Lucia, the aspiring sport star student, the grumbling police officer… I could go on. It’s a shame because the writing is absorbing and clever.

The more I read the more concerned I became that the ending was going to be disappointing. Fortunately I was proved wrong and Moretti wraps things up with a conclusion that is both satisfying and realistic, twisted but not over-the-top.

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