Book Review: The Roanoke Girls

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The Roanoke Girls, by Amy Engel, is a darkly disturbing story set in and around Osage Flats, a small town in Kansas, America. Roanoke is a rambling farmhouse a few miles outside of the town that has been added to over the years giving it a bizarrely gothic feel. The wealthy family who own it and much of the surrounding land have lived there for generations. Its comfort and isolation have been an aid to their lifestyle.

Much of the tale is told from the point of view of Lane who moves to Roanoke from New York when she is fifteen years old following her mother’s suicide. She and her mother, Camilla, had a toxic relationship so she feels little grief at her death. She is aware that Camilla was raised at Roanoke but has not been told further details of the family history.

Underage and alone, Lane has little choice but to comply when her maternal grandparents offer to take her in. She is eagerly welcomed to Roanoke by her cousin, Allegra, who is of a similar age and possesses similar traits. Allegra’s mother, Eleanor, ran away just after she had given birth and has neither been seen nor heard from since. When Lane is shown old family photographs she realises that Eleanor looked just like Camilla. They had another sister, Emmeline, who died as a baby. The previous generation endured similar fates.

‘Hearing their stories turned the faces in front of me from beautiful to tragic. They watched me now with haunted eyes. The only one left was Allegra. And me. I suddenly didn’t want a place on the wall. “Wow,” I said, goose bumps sprouting along my neck, even in the closed-in heat of the hall. “That’s a lot of dead girls.” Allegra did a quick pirouette away from me, her smile a little too wide. “Roanoke girls never last long around here.” […] “In the end, we either run or we die.”‘

To the outside world it would appear that these girls have it all. They are beautiful, wealthy, and allowed to live much as they please. Lane has never known love so is drawn to her doting grandfather who willingly provides whatever she desires. Her grandmother remains more distant.

The story unfolds over two time periods – that first long hot summer during which Lane discovers why the Roanoke girls consider themselves special, and another summer a decade later when she is forced to return to the farm because Allegra has gone missing. It is clear that although Lane may have escaped she still carries the mental scars of the family secret. The details of this are revealed to the reader early on, but the devastating effect on each of three generations of Roanoke girls is more gradually peeled away.

Although repellent to consider in places the narrative deals sensitively with the issues explored. There is a sinister undercurrent that had me desperate to know what was to happen next yet fearful of what would be revealed. The tension never lets up as Lane seeks answers to her cousin’s disappearance.

This is not a story for the faint-hearted. It is tightly constructed and stunningly written but broaches topics few lay bare despite knowing they exist. The sex, drugs and small town thinking are mere backdrops to the damaging impact on all who attempt to breach the brittle Roanoke family circle.

A remarkable story that I recommend to any willing to dare. This is an electric read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.

Book Review: Cursed

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Cursed, by Thomas Enger (translated by Kari Dickson), is the fourth book in the author’s Henning Juul series of crime thrillers. In this instalment the protagonist is still reeling from the death of his six year old son following an arson attack on his flat. Henning is on leave from his job as a journalist and is using the time to do what he can to track down the perpetrators. There is a lot of backstory here which I assume is covered in more detail in the earlier books.

Henning’s ex-partner, Nora Klemetsen, is approached by the husband of an old college friend who has gone missing. Helga Hellberg failed to return from a three week retreat in Italy which her husband subsequently discovered she didn’t attend. Nora, another journalist, agrees to investigate and is drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding the wealthy Hellberg family which goes back decades.

Nora has personal issues to contend with. Her new partner, Iver Gundersen, who is a colleague of Henning’s, has not responded well to recent revelations. Nora and Henning still have feelings for each other, not least an understanding of their shared grief. When Nora approaches Henning and then Iver for support she finds they both remain distant, struggling with what she has shared. As a result she opts to approach the Hellbergs alone.

Henning’s state of mind leads him to take serious risks in his quest for information. He discovers that his life is still threatened although he is unsure why. The widow of Tore Pulli, a supposed criminal who died in prison just as Henning proved he was not guilty of the crimes for which he was incarcerated, may be able to offer some clues. Tore may also have had links to the Hellbergs although the murky details are unlikely to be willingly shared by any of his acquaintances.

The action alternates between the investigations being carried out by Nora and Henning. When they eventually share findings, and potential overlaps are recognised, progress is made. This puts them both in danger leading to a dramatic denouement.

Unusually for such a taut thriller there are many detailed descriptions of people and street scenes which do not always appear relevent to the plot but do help place the reader in the various settings. Typically of Nordic Noir the characters’ personal lives are as changeable and dark as the weather. Partnerships are distant and children, even when loved, grow up feeling resentful.

The writing is engaging and the varied cast of characters well presented although I was somewhat surprised at how willing some were to talk to journalists who are more usually presented in fiction as vultures. There is good in the bad and bad in the good which adds to the intrigue and unprectability. The short chapters encouraged me to keep reading just one more.

A tightly written thriller that had me puzzling the clues throughout as the plot threads were untangled and then woven into place. This is an entertaining and supenseful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Cursed Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

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Cursed is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Treats

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Treats, by Lara Williams, is a collection of twenty-one short stories exploring the challenges of navigating modern life in the twenty-first century. With insight, poignancy and wit the author presents her cast of independently minded, mainly youngish adults who are each searching for love, meaning, or simply a way to get through each day in a British city.

My favourite story was the first in the collection, appropriately titled ‘It Begins’. In this an arts graduate returns to the parental home ready to start the next stage of her journey. All too soon she is assailed by reality.

“You get an office job. You assimilate with business graduates, with their hearty sense of cynicism, a premature world-weariness, worn with a badge of honour. So pleased with their early resignation, their: this, this is life. […] Imagine being that lacking in wonder, aspiring to jobs in logistics or IT services, imagine never entertaining frothy careers […] Did it make the heartbreak easier or earlier? You grip your rosy ideals, your soppy security blanket.”

Subsequent stories look at the excitement of lust, falling in love, and the inevitable disappointment. There are attempts to make a solitary life enough. For all the progressive ideals the various characters espouse there are still expectations to be met, small lies being told, frowned upon behaviours downplayed in order to impress. There is the hankering after a mate despite the recognition that this is unlikely to fill any void more than temporarily.

Dates are recognisable. There are backhanded compliments, men whose eyes linger on vaporous women passing by, excuses pouring forth for behaviours deemed inappropriate as these condescending alphas attempt to maintain the false idea they have formed of the woman they asked out.

Throughout each story the protagonists endeavour to mould themselves and those granted access to private spaces and lives. There is a strong desire for acceptance.

The freedoms offered by contemporary life in a metropolis come at a cost which these stories present with acuity and compassion, concisely voicing the equivical experiences of many. Although sharp in focus, harshness is avoided. This is an empathetic, satisfying read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Freight.

3 Days. 40 Victims. #RagdollBook

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Tomorrow sees the long awaited publication of Ragdoll by Daniel Cole. To celebrate, its publisher, Trapeze, has rounded up 40 bloggers to share their thoughts on the book. My review was posted just after Christmas and is reposted below. Do check out the other participants on the 3 day tour.

My Review

Ragdoll, by Daniel Cole, is a fast paced, tightly written crime thriller set in London. It introduces the reader to DS William Oliver Layton-Fawkes, nicknamed Wolf, whose temperament and determination to achieve justice has landed him in serious trouble in the past. Four years ago he was commited to a psychiatric institution following his attack on a man he had been pursuing for the so called Cremation Killings. Recently permitted to return to duty, he has now been assigned to a case that looks to be just as challenging.

A body has been found in an otherwise empty apartment. It has been strung up from hooks, carefully posed and illuminated. This grotesque installation would be shocking enough on its own, but the body has been created from the dismembered parts of multiple victims. Wolf recognises the crudely attached head. It has been taken from a man who should be safely locked up in prison.

The team assembled to identify the remaining body parts includes Wolf’s former partner at the Met, Detective Emily Baxter. She is mentoring Edmunds, a recent transfer to the Serious Crimes Unit from Fraud. Edmunds is determined to leave no stone unturned in his thorough investigations. With the body count rising and manpower fully stretched his dogged persistence, against orders, is not appreciated.

Wolf’s ex-wife, Andrea, is a reporter working for a sensationalist TV station. When the murderer sends her photographs of what is soon being referred to as the Ragdoll she approaches her ex-husband. Included in the package is a list. On it are names and beside each is a date. It would appear that the murderer intends to strike again.

The team divide their resources between protecting those threatened and trying to find links between all involved. Meanwhile Andrea broadcasts what she knows to the nation, much to the delight of her boss. Whatever happens next it will happen within the glare of maximum publicity, and he understands that the more horrific the footage the higher his ratings.

Six people were killed to create the Ragdoll, six more are threatened. The murderer has the ability to strike in protected locations. To find him the team need to understand why he is targeting this apparently disparate set of people. And the clock is ticking.

I was hooked from the beginning (no pun intended). The tightly written narrative is brutal and shocking, populated with characters willing to break the rules. The collatoral damage is high, the body count grows. Working out how the murderer strikes is as darkly enjoyable a puzzle as why he has selected his targets.

Although running with familiar tropes – the damaged cop, the alcoholic, the family man, the close to retiree – this somehow transcends the formulaic. Alongside the brutality there is wit and gently mocking humour. The author has pitched the pace perfectly, added twists but retained the plot’s integrity. An intriguing and entertaining read.

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Ragdoll is published by Trapeze who provided me with an early copy for review.

Book Review: Martin John

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Martin John, by Anakana Schofield, takes a challenging subject and presents it in an offbeat style, yet somehow creates a story that draws the reader in to the eponymous protagonist’s strange and disturbing life. It generates more questions than answers but this seems fitting. Martin John is inherently unlikeable. His actions are loathsome yet the author presents his plight in such a way as to engender a degree of sympathy however discomfiting this may feel.

Martin John is a sexual predator. His mother, despairing of his behaviour and determined to minimise the inevitable disgrace in his home town when a young victim threatens legal action, banishes him to London with a stream of invective and instructions designed to prevent him from repeating his misdemeanours. He is to get a job, keep busy, avoid triggering situations, and visit his aunt every week to reassure her that all is as it should be.

Martin John does his best but the temptation to give in to his urges proves hard to resist. He takes on a house when an acquaintance goes to prison, letting out the top room to illegals who are easy to move on. When his nemesis gets past the rules and defenses he has put in place to protect his solitary habits and routines, Martin John’s precarious existence begins to slowly disintegrate.

The background and details are peeled back with a tender precision that is at odds with what is being revealed. The often profane language employed is fitting. Martin John’s predilections are described in gross and graphic detail from the point of view of the perpetrator and are disturbing to consider.

The writing is impressive. There is much repetition but this works in portraying the mindset of a man trying to control the perversions to which he seems addicted. His brushes with authority demonstrate society’s inability to help those such as him, who are widely and vocally disdained.

Knowing a little of what Martin John was about I was surprised by how engaging the book turned out to be. It defied my expectations. An intriguing and rewarding read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, And Other Stories.

Book Review: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine

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Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, by Diane Williams, is a collection of forty very short stories exploring such wide ranging themes as life, death, love, sex and associated, often fractious, relationships. There is a rough honesty to the thoughts and interactions in each snapshot – for a snapshot is all that can be offered in a tale that plays out in so few words. These are little moments of detail, vividly recalled with a point that is not always clear.

The opacity adds to the sense that the reader is observing rather than participating in each scenario. Characters share their thoughts with a dark, sometimes fevered intensity. There are moments of quiet reflection, gatherings where participants seem barely able to tolerate each other’s company, family groups displaying their love and despair at behaviours. Partners and friends huff over habits that grate.

A number of the stories provide observations on possessions when moving house or dealing with inheritance. The changing dynamics of relationships caused by the passage of time and a perceived lack of appreciation are touched upon. There is an apartness to each individual with occasional geysers of feeling spilling over those who happen to share proximity. Participants wade through many petty vexations.

Although easy enough to read and offering plenty to ponder I did not find this collection satisfying. As with incidents in life few tales offer a tidy conclusion. They are ripples in time, keenly considered, but sometimes frustratingly opaque. There is depth and immersion but too often I missed the point, if there was one, being made.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, CB Editions.

Book Review: Solar Bones

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Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, is the most accurate adherence to stream of consciousness style writing that I have come across. The entire novel, all 223 pages in the edition I read, is presented as one continuous sentence. Do not let this put you off. Despite its apparently mundane subject matter it is an engaging and compelling read.

The narrator is Marcus Conway, a native of the county of Mayo in Ireland. When the book opens Marcus is standing in the kitchen of his family home listening to the Angelus bell ring out from the village church a mile away.

We learn that Marcus has been married for twenty-five years to Mairead, a teacher at a local school. They have raised two children – Agnes who is an artist, and Darragh who is casually working his way across Australia. The committed parents have adjusted to the initial emptiness felt when their grown-up children first moved away. They have settled into a comfortable routine.

Marcus looks around him recalling history as he has lived it through familiar places, possessions and significant events. He is an engineer by profession working for the local council on infrastructure projects. He is frustrated by the influence self-serving politicians exert on the decision making process. He takes pride in his ability to work to a standard.

Raised on a farm he remembers his childhood and then the deaths of his parents. His relationships have at times been rocky as life sometimes is. Mostly though he feels grateful for the chances he has been given. In many ways his is an ordinary life, as he wished it to be.

It did not take long to slip into the cadence of the writing. Its beauty is in the detail, the observations made and insights given. The reader is drawn into the intricacies of this man’s everyday pleasures and irritations. Not a single turn of phrase is dull or misplaced.

A haunting elegy that captures the battles and the beauty of existence. This is an extraordinary, life-affirming read.