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.


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


Most anticipated books 2018

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller

In the house of Helios, god of the sun, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft. When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to a remote island. There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike.

This is the highly anticipated novel from the Orange Prize-winning author of the brilliant novel The Song of Achilles, and is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey.

Release date: 19th April

  1. Folk by Zoe Gilbert

The remote island village of Neverness is a world away from our time and place. The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments. As the tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation, their desires, resentments, idle gossip and painful losses come to life.

This debut novel is highly anticipated and has been called ‘as delightful and dark as the collected Brothers Grimm’ by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. It sounds magical and disturbing in equal measure.

Release date: 8th March

  1. 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

  1. The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Carcassonne, 1562. As the Wars of Religion begin to take hold, 19-year-old Catholic Minou Joubert and Huguenot convert Piet Reydon find themselves in possession of a priceless treasure. Together, they set out on a quest to uncover a long buried secret.

I love Kate Mosse’s novels (particularly her Languedoc trilogy which begins with Labyrinth) and her next book is the first in a highly anticipated historical trilogy.

Release date: 3rd May

  1. 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

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  1. Vengeful by V.E. Schwab

We don’t have a blurb yet for fantasy author V.E. Schwab’s next novel, but we do know it’s a sequel to her 2014 novel Vicious, a novel about two college roommates whose shared interest in near-death experiences and supernatural events leads them both down a dark path. Originally thought to be a standalone novel, Vicious is a fantastic story exploring themes of ambition, power and revenge, and I can’t wait to return to these characters.

Release date: September

  1. The Corset by Laura Purcell

We don’t have a blurb yet for this one either, but the second novel from Laura Purcell (author of 2017’s highly acclaimed The Silent Companions) is also set in the Victorian period and Purcell has described it as ‘ghostly’ and ‘spooky’.

Release date: April

  1. 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. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert. 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 promises to be one of the most anticipated novels of 2018.

Release date: 8th March

  1. The Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor

We don’t have a blurb or even a firm release date for this one but we know it should be released in 2018. The second novel in Laini Taylor’s duology which began with Strange the Dreamer in 2017 is likely to contain just as much magic, mythology and adventure as the first. Although I had mixed feelings about Strange the Dreamer, I’m still very much looking forward to the sequel.

Release date: 2018

  1. Doors of Stone by Patrick Rothfuss

Fans have been waiting for the third book in this epic fantasy series since 2011, when The Wise Man’s Fear was released, following four years after the first in the series, The Name of the Wind. There have been some hints that 2018 will be the year we finally get to read Doors of Stone. I’ll be one of many keeping my fingers crossed that that’s true.

Release date: Unknown


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.


Sunday Times bestseller with quirky, offbeat charm

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

‘My phone doesn’t ring often – it makes me jump when it does – and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently. No one’s been in my flat this year apart from the service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. I do exist, don’t I?’

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. Now, one simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself.

This book has received a lot of praise. Not only is it a Sunday Times bestseller but it is also soon to be a made into a film produced by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a strange book, and nothing like what I expected, but the more I think about it the more I enjoyed its quirky, offbeat charm.

For a good portion of the book Eleanor is not a likeable character. She criticises others while remaining unaware of her own flaws and is rude more often than not because she’s unaware of the intricate rules that govern social interactions. It takes a long while to warm to her, but Honeyman is very clever with the way she drops in hints of why Eleanor is the way that she is, so that we start sympathising with her before we even realise it.

At times this book is laugh-out-loud funny, at others it is heart-wrenching. Honeyman’s exploration of loneliness is pin sharp and devastating, showing just how easy it is to go through life telling everyone you are fine; if you repeat it enough times, you even start to believe it yourself. But beneath the surface, Eleanor is not fine, and admitting that is going to be one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

Honeyman is adept at creating characters that feel real. In fictional worlds it’s often frustratingly obvious who’s good and who’s bad, but the vast majority of characters here feel like they exist in the realistic space between the two, including Eleanor. They are capable of profound acts of kindness, and they are capable of being judgemental and cruel.

The twist at the end felt a bit cheap and I didn’t think the story needed it, but it didn’t have too detrimental an effect on the book as a whole and altogether the ending was satisfying. For readers who like their books to explore the relationships between characters, with a plot that is equal parts happy and sad, you need look no further.


New book releases for September 2017

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories

This collection of short stories is the result of eight authors being given after-hours freedom at their chosen English heritage site, immersed in history, atmosphere and rumours of hauntings.

There’s nothing I love more than a truly chilling ghost story, and these short stories from authors including Sarah Perry, Mark Haddon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Jeanette Winterson promise to be the perfect read for that time of the year when the nights start closing in.

Release date: 28th September

Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir

The first in an epic new series, this is the story of England’s medieval queens, stripping away romantic mythology to reveal the real lives of these royal women in the century after the Norman Conquest.

I’m a fan of Alison Weir’s historical fiction but I’ve never read any of her non-fiction. This new release promises to tell the untold and often ignored tale of England’s early queens.

Release date: 28th September

The Ravenous by Amy Lukavics

When the youngest daughter of the Cane family, Rose, dies in a tragic accident, her sisters are devastated. And when she is brought back from the dead, they are relieved. But soon they discover that Rose must eat human flesh to survive, and when their mother abandons them, the sisters will find out how far they’ll go to keep their family together.

This book sounds bizarre and horrifying in equal measure, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

Release date: 26th September

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Liza Cole, a novelist whose career has seen better days, has one month to write the thriller that could land her back on the bestseller list. As the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur, Liza’s husband is arrested for the murder of his best friend, forcing Liza to face up to the truths about the people around her.

I’m still searching for the 2017 thriller that will really blow my socks off; I’m hoping this one could do just that.

Release date: 28th September

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

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 student. The student claims 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.

Described as ‘harrowing’ and ‘a haunting mystery’, this book promises to be full of twists and turns.

Release date: 26th September

Eight Ghosts SV

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

Jerusalem, 1119. A small group of knights seeking a purpose in the violent aftermath of the First Crusade set up the Knights of Templar, a band of elite warriors. Over the next 200 years, the Templars would become the most powerful religious order of the medieval world.

I’m trying to read more non-fiction this year and, as I don’t know much about the Crusades, this book from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones sounds very intriguing.

Release date: 19th September

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Paul loves his wife. But he also wants to get rid of her. So he promises her a romantic weekend getaway, and with every hour that passes he ticks off another stage in his carefully constructed plan.

A new thriller from a bestselling author, this book has been described as ‘fast-paced, dark, and slightly disturbing’.

Release date: 7th September

The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay

In 1860, a 70-year-old widow named Mary Emsley was found dead in her home, killed by a blow to the back of her head. What followed was a murder case that gripped the nation, a locked room mystery which baffled even legendary Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The case has finally been solved by author Sinclair McKay, in this captivating study of a 19th century murder.

I do love a bit of true crime and this Victorian murder mystery sounds right up my street.

Release date: 7th September

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, the women become feral and violent. In West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women’s prison, affecting all the inmates except one.

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King, but any new release from the master of horror (plus his first full-length collaboration with his son) deserves a mention.

Release date: 26th September

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

15 years ago in small-town New Jersey, a teenage boy and girl were found dead. Most people concluded it was a tragic suicide pact. The dead boy’s brother, Nap Dumas, did not. Now Nap is a cop, but he’s a cop who plays by his own rules, and who has never made peace with his past.

I have a soft spot for Harlan Coben; his books are always fun and easy to read (even if all his female characters are the same person) and his standalone novels are often his best.

Release date: 26th September