Robyn Reviews: The Ghost Tree

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This is a very difficult book to review. It has great elements, but certain parts of it make me very uncomfortable. I’m hesitant to recommend it because certain problematic aspects are never called out.

The Ghost Tree centres on the town of Smiths Hollow, a small town on the outskirts of Chicago known for being peaceful and prosperous. While towns around it have suffered from job losses and escalating crime, Smiths Hollow has flourished. However, there’s a dark secret behind that prosperity – and a cascade of events have been set in motion which might lead to it all falling down.

I want to start by explaining my primary issue with this book. It features a developing relationship between a fourteen-year-old girl who has yet to start high school and an eighteen-year-old college student. This relationship is never challenged or spoken of in any negative way. I’m enormously uncomfortable with the idea of young teenagers reading this book and thinking that relationships with adults are acceptable or even cool. There’s a huge inherent power and maturity imbalance here, and whilst it’s natural for teenagers to fantasise about relationships with those older than them, relationships between children too young for high school and actual adults should never be portrayed as normal. This isn’t being marketed as a young adult book, but in many ways it reads as one. I don’t understand why the fourteen-year-old wasn’t aged up to at least sixteen – this wouldn’t have affected the plot in any way, and would have made this feel less uncomfortable.

It’s a shame, because the characters in this are excellent. For a short book it has many point-of-view characters, but this works, creating a real small-town feel. There’s nuanced discussion about the difficulties of being a single parent, the difficulty of raising teenagers, racial tension, and being a teenager changing and growing apart from your family and friends. Many of the characters think uncomfortable things – one is unapologetically racist, another has very problematic thoughts about sex and virginity – but this actually works well, because many people do believe those things, and as long as those beliefs and opinions are challenged by other characters it becomes clear that they’re not being condoned. It captures the feeling of being a teenage girl very well, and whilst I haven’t been a single parent, the way it describes how this feels is also very nuanced and thought-provoking. Through the lens of all the different characters, it manages to show a variety of opinions on each event in a very eye-opening way.

To be honest, I think this would work better as a contemporary rather than a horror story. The horror elements felt unnecessary and a tad contrived compared to the cleverness and insightfulness of the characters and social commentary. They also weren’t particularly scary – I don’t know if this was the intent, but it combined with the age of some of the primary characters to give this a more juvenile feel. Personally, I would have preferred two separate stories – one a contemporary with this cast of characters, and one a gothic horror story about witches and the monster in the woods.

Having said that, the plot wasn’t bad, and I did enjoy reading this. Certain elements were very gripping, and I was really rooting for certain characters – especially Alex Lopez. Those looking for a basic horror story with an intriguing and varied cast of characters will probably enjoy this – I just think every reader needs to be aware that it’s not without its issues.

Thanks to Titan Books and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 8th September 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Living Dead

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The Living Dead is a zombie novel started by the filmmaker George Romero, responsible for some of the most well-known zombie films including ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Day of the Dead’. After his death, it was given to the novelist Daniel Kraus – a lifelong Romero fan – to finish. Having never seen a single Romero film I can’t say how accurate the novel is to Romero’s vision, but I can say that it’s an epic, sprawling homage to the zombie genre, filled with musings on humanity and what it means to live and die.

The book is split into three parts – one right at the start of the zombie epidemic, one very short section as it develops, and one fifteen years later as humanity regroups. The first section takes up more than half the book. It jumps between a variety of characters in different situations – the pathologists who found the very first zombie, the teenager skiving school in her trailer park only to be surrounded by the undead, a news crew trapped in their studio, several members of the US navy on a boat off the coast of Mexico. Each adds a unique element, providing a fresh voice and perspective and showing the breadth of responses to the crisis. As time goes on, their stories start to intersect, unlikely people coming together in a way only a crisis can precipitate. The final section groups all the survivors in the same place – but Romero never believed in books having happy endings, and the ending is more a comma than a full stop.

While the novel is US-centric, rarely touching on anything happening outside, the characters are designed to show the breadth of humanity. Some are likeable, some tolerable, and some downright horrible to be in the headspace of. Highlights include Karl Nishimura, the US naval officer unexpectedly having to command a crisis when all he wants is to go home to his husband and children; Etta Hoffmann, the statistician determined to record everything for the history books; Charlene Rutkowski, the pathology assistant who finds herself hiding out with the married boss she’s been in love with for years; Chuck Curoso, the Face of WNN news network tasked with being the last news reporter on air. There are even rare glimpses inside the heads of the zombies – these are fascinating, with zombies seeing themselves as many bodies of a single consciousness rather than the individuality of human beings.

The main problem with this book is its scope. While it all comes together eventually, the first half is spent getting to know a couple of characters only to suddenly jump to someone completely different. In a way, this is less one large novel than several shorter stories, all of which weave in and out of each other as characters cross paths. It’s hard to remain interested and invested when the perspective changes with no explanation. Once each character is established, the book starts to flow much faster, the story coming into its own – but its possible the beginning would have worked better with either fewer point-of-view characters or a different structure.

Overall, this is an excellent book. The plot is gripping, the writing brilliant, and the characters varied and fascinating. The ending is an uncomfortable read but appropriate to the tone of the book. There are flaws, and I question if it needed to be over six-hundred pages long, but it’s a book worth persevering with. Recommended to all fans of zombies, apocalypse novels, and those interested in the psychology of human nature.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Transworld Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

 

Published by Transworld
Hardback: 6th August 2020

Book Review: The Stepford Wives

Anyone who does not already know the story of The Stepford Wives should skip the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk that opens this edition and read it at the end. It is a thought-provoking opinion piece but gives away key elements of the plot. I picked up my copy of the tale having seen the film (the 1975 version) so was familiar with what would unfold. As is often the case, the book offers a much more powerful depiction than that shown on screen.

Given the way many men, and also certain women, are currently regarding today’s young women, this is a story that deserves to, once again, be widely read. Have we gone backwards from 1972 when the book was first published? Palahnick writes in this 2011 edition:

“In The Nannie Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada and Confessions of a Shopaholic, in this new generation of ‘chick lit’ novels, men are once more the goal. It’s successful women who torment our pretty, painted narrators […] women may now choose to be pretty, stylishly dressed, and vapid. This is no longer the shrill, politically charged climate of 1972; if it’s a choice freely made, then it’s . . . okay.”

“It’s fine. This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.”

The story opens with Joanna and Walter Eberhart, parents of Pete and Kim, settling into their new suburban home in Stepford having left the dirty and dangerous New York City. Joanna, a freelance photographer, is telling The Welcome Wagon Lady about her interests for the ‘Notes on Newcomers’ section of the local paper. Her female neighbours seem more interested in maintaining their already immaculate homes than in socialising. She hopes the article will help her find more forward thinking, like-minded friends. Walter plans to establish himself within the community by joining the local Men’s Association. Joanna is appalled that her supposedly liberated husband will consider attending a club that bans women.

Through the article in the newspaper Joanna meets Bobbie and then Charmaine. The three women get together and collectively wonder at the many beautiful and carefully presented wives in Stepford whose key interest seems to be housework. Their invitations to set up some sort of club for women have been declined with claims that there is no time for such pursuits if homes are to be maintained. And then the vocal and energetic Charmaine changes.

The gradual shift from suburban bliss to the horror of the situation is masterfully achieved. Even knowing the denouement I had to set down the book to catch my breath before finishing. The lengths the men of Stepford will go to in order to ensure their wives take more care over their appearance and become quiet and subservient may appear extreme. Swap their direct action for relentless and widespread emotional coercion and it is all too believable today.

This is a short book that packs a mighty punch with its succinct and fluid structure and language. I am left pondering just how many men would secretly prefer a Stepford Wife to a partner who is, at least, their equal.

The Stepford Wives is published by Corsair.

Book Review: Night Driver

From Wikipedia: Fritz Haarmann (1879 – 1925) was a German serial killer known as the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Hanover and the Wolf-Man, who committed the sexual assault, murder, mutilation and dismemberment of a minimum of 24 boys and young men. Described by the judge at his trial as being “forever degraded as a citizen”, Haarmann was found guilty of 24 of the 27 murders for which he was tried and sentenced to death. A known homosexual and police informant, his preferred murder method was biting into or through his victims’ throats.

Marcelle Perks has taken Haarmann’s story and reimagined it in a contemporary setting. Her serial killer is called Lars, a lorry driver who seeks the intense sexual thrill he gains from murdering young men picked up on his travels. Lars and his lover, Hans, co-own a nightclub that offers clients drugs and the services of prostitutes. Hans cleans up after Lars, making money from the bodies disposed of. Hans also enjoys the services of the women they employ, his handsome good looks and attentions leading each to believe he cares for them.

Into this murky environment enters Fran, an English woman living in Hanover who is eight months pregnant. She met her husband, Kurt, on a business trip to the Cayman Islands where he was working as an engineer. At the time Fran had a well paid job and a house in London. She was drawn to Kurt by his old-fashioned, movie star good looks, his charm, attentiveness and dry humour. When Fran lost her job she sold her house and moved to be with Kurt. They married and returned to his native Germany, to a suburb where he expected Fran to keep house. Since she fell pregnant Kurt has lost interest in his wife. Alone and frustrated by the limits on integration imposed by the language barrier, Fran is determined to learn to drive that she may regain a little independence. Despite daily lessons she is struggling to master the skills required.

Lars in his lorry comes across Fran on one of her lessons, hassling her slow progress until she loses control. Fran’s instructor reports him to the police but they take no action. In her current state there is a risk to the unborn child leading to leniency from the examiner on her driving test. Shaken by events, Fran has no confidence behind the wheel. Determined to overcome her fear she decides to take Kurt’s car without telling him and practice while he sleeps and the roads are quiet.

On her first night drive Fran meets a young Polish man, Tomek, who is trying to track down his sister, Anna. He is kind to the lonely woman and she is attracted to him. She decides to help in his quest as a reason for them to meet again.

Fran and Tomek visit Dorcas, a prostitute and friend of Anna’s. Both women work for Hans. When Tomek goes missing Fran grows concerned and asks for Dorcas’s help. Neither women are yet aware that the focus of the nightclub’s criminal activity has moved to a more lucrative use of the bodies they dispose of. Their dogged interest in the missing siblings makes them a liability that Hans and Lars come to realise they must deal with.

The structure of the story is episodic as in TV dramas with short chapters divided into scenes shown from key characters’ points of view. The narration is clipped in style which suits the typically British portrayal of the German language and efficient attitude. This idiosyncratic presentation was easier to read in short spurts than one sitting.

Descriptions are vivid and often bloody. Sex is perfunctory. I found Fran’s limited concern for her unborn child difficult to empathise with but her isolation in the face of Kurt’s lack of interest for her well-being was well portrayed. The men at the nightclub are chillingly authentic, their treatment of women as property to be used and then discarded believable. The sociopathic tendencies of the killers was unsettling but fitted well in explaining their warped reasoning.

This is a disturbing tale but one that maintained engagement. That it is inspired by true events gives it an added edge.

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

Book Review: The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path, by Katherine Clements, is a ghost story set on the edge of a lonesome moor in 1674. Its protagonist is thirty-two year old Mercy Booth who lives in the gradually decaying splendour of Scarcross Hall with her ageing father, Bartram, and his faithful servant, Agnes. Mercy works alongside the shepherds and farmhands hired to till their land and care for the flock of sheep that provide the family’s main income. She has been told that one day it will all be hers.

The story opens with the arrival of the first of the season’s lambs. It is not an easy birth and proves a portent of happenings to come. The first of these is the arrival of a stranger, Ellis Ferreby, who is looking for employment. Although the locals are wary of outsiders he is taken on, proving himself a capable shepherd and hard worker.

Mercy has spent her life out on the moor but notices a new, chilling presence, a feeling of being watched as she goes about familiar tasks. Within the hall she hears unexplained noises above the expected creaks and movement of the old house. There have long been rumours of a curse, and her father is suffering a decline of mind.

In her troubles Mercy finds herself drawn to Ellis although both keep their thoughts and fears close. Their interactions are noticed by a local man, Henry Ravens, who grows jealous and threatens to denounce Mercy. Within the hall, Bartram becomes agitated when items he values go missing. These include three old coins, one of which is found under the pillow of a young lad named Sam, the son of the head shepherd and a favourite of the master.

Sam is often around the hall, spending time with Bartram in his study. As the year progresses and strange events continue to unfold the boy becomes agitated and withdrawn. Mercy suspects he knows more than he is saying but cannot coax him to confide in her. Likewise she is unwilling to share her fears with even those she would previously have trusted.

Mutilated lambs are discovered and bad weather threatens the harvest. Along with the ghostly noises from an unused chamber within Scarcross there is much to concern the Booths and those who rely on their employ. Mercy fears that her sinfulness has brought down punishment from God. Ellis watches and waits, keeping his true reason for being there from all.

The plot has many elements of a good ghost story: a run down hall housing secretive sinister artefacts; rumours of an ancient curse linked to the devil; fear of the dead returning; accusations of witchcraft. The church plays a role as does the stranger with a past that is revealed gradually. It is unfortunate that I guessed the main twist early on, and that I struggled to maintain engagement as the Booth’s troubles mounted. I would have preferred a tighter plot construction and a clearer drawing together of the mysterious and the supernatural.

Having said that the last fifty pages held the strongest part of the story. There was horror aplenty and a spine chilling final line.

A tale that started and ended well enough but felt somewhat bloated in between. I am left feeling underwhelmed.

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

Book Review: Warewolff!

Warewolff!, by Gary J Shipley, is a collection of prose poetry that is intentionally the antithesis of linguistic beauty. It takes a mash-up of recognisable deformities and inverts them, playing with what is considered distasteful and thereby mocking what is socially acceptable. Perceptions and behaviours are stretched beyond possibility but at its heart is the hypocrisy of what modern man will tolerate when he chooses to look away.

The pieces included are between half a page and three pages in length. Reading and trying to interpret them put me in mind of a walk through a high end art gallery. I was aware that there was more to each offering than I was appreciating but from time to time an image would resonate.

As an example, the following excerpt from Foot Glut put me in mind of how a lover attempts to own their beloved, yet in doing so causes change that is unlikely to be desired. They spoil what they loved by attempting to keep it only for themselves.

“I cut off his feet to keep him from leaving. It would take a month, perhaps two, but a new pair always grew back. This was the first of many taunts. I was receiving an education. I was being told that if I wanted to keep something I’d have to mutilate it, and keep mutilating it. That that’s just how things are kept, how lives are maintained. Eventually I cut off his head, and waited for that to grow back. But it didn’t happen. Instead a spider came and nested in the neck. Suspecting it of laying eggs, I killed it with a rolled up magazine.”

Throughout the collection the human body is deconstructed, reactions to what it contains masticated and regurgitated. Few baulk at the idea of taking in other’s saliva when kissing, sexual gratification occurs when a lover is willing to allow semen to enter an orifice, yet who would consider swallowing faeces? The imagery offered is grotesque but it raises questions.

Likewise, few wish to think about the animal parts eaten in processed food. What is done to bodies – human and animal – is twisted to extreme. Actions considered ordinary – sex, cosmetic surgery, transplants, eating, disease – are perverted and then presented in gory, stench filled detail. Cruelties that should be shocking yet are not so far from what is known to happen, kept at a distance where they may be ignored, are reimagined – starvation, rape, incest, cannibalism. The language used is not always easy to interpret and is often weird, intended to sicken.

The raw stream of consciousness with which each piece is narrated is explicit and disturbing. Direction is often unclear, language difficult to elucidate. It is a fantasy horror show that is grimly challenging, horrifically portrayed with a chilling detachment. What is conveyed is appalling, but also appallingly familiar.

Not a book intended to be read for enjoyment, I found myself less upset by it than by more prosaic offerings where men behave abhorrently yet are treated as typical lads having fun. There is no fun to be had in this book, but shocking behaviour is seen for what it is. Man may not do exactly what is detailed but somewhere, someone is doing something as dreadful.

Warewolff! is published by Hexus Press.

Book Review: Broken Branches

Broken Branches, by M. Jonathan Lee, is the story of a family inheritance which brings with it a curse. Ian Perkins, his wife Rachel and their young son Harry had a happy family life until they moved to Cobweb Cottage. Built in the nineteenth century, on land owned by the Perkins family, this remote property had been handed down from father to son for many generations. Ian was raised here but left when he was eighteen. As stipulated in the trust under which the land and cottage were held, his elder brother, Stuart, gained ownership when their father died. Several years later Stuart put a shotgun to his own head, blowing out his brains.

Now Ian and Rachel move through their days barely speaking. They are sleeping in separate rooms. Ian believes that if he can just get to the bottom of the family curse that he had heard spoken of, although never explained, when he was growing up then he can make sense of what has gone wrong with his marriage and rectify the situation. He spends his days sifting through old photographs and papers, researching his family history. Rachel, suffering miseries of her own, treats his efforts with contempt.

In the front garden of Cobweb Cottage is a huge sycamore tree with branches reaching out towards the house. The shadows it casts have always discomfited Ian. Soon it is not just the tree but also the house that is disturbing his mind. The more he finds out about his ancestry the more convinced he becomes that a curse exists.

The story is told along two timelines – the present day and Ian’s memories of growing up. By the time he left Cobweb Cottage he had developed resentments towards his father and brother which eventually led to him severing contact. Similar fallings out existed in the previous generation.

Many horror story tropes are employed in the telling of the tale, and acknowledged along the way. There are badly lit rooms in a creaking old house where shadows move and things go bump in the night. Items are displaced with no explanation. Icy draughts accompany ghostly sightings which Ian is unsure if real or a dream.

Although the author conjures the requisite tension, and I was intrigued by what the details of the curse may be, I found the obsession of the protagonist difficult to engage with. His belief in a curse seemed at odds with the other sides of his personality. The final reveals made sense of what had gone before leaving enough space for a degree of chilling uncertainty. This brought to mind the endings of several horror films.

And this story could be developed into a deliciously unsettling film. The soundtrack may even be provided – the mentions of the music played on vinyl during Ian’s research went over my head but may be better appreciated by a more knowledgable listener.

A tale then that intrigued even if it didn’t fully draw me in. Read it, but perhaps not alone after dark.

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

Book Review: American Psycho

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American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, is a book that I would advise readers to approach with caution. It is brutal and searing in its study of the wealthy with their heightened sense of entitlement and need for validation from their peers. It is deeply depressing how recognisable the packs of men and the vacuous women they seek out appear. This is an intense study of the worst of humanity – the uncaring, self made millionaires whose lives revolve around how they are seen by others. What is offered is a world filled by conspicuous consumption and instant gratification. It is a world devoid of hope.

The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is twenty-six years old. He has a model’s good looks, a gym honed body and an apparently effortless sense of style that his wealth enables him to display. When socialising with his Wall Street peers he is often mistaken for others like himself, just as he regularly recognises colleagues who turn out to be someone else. With their slicked back hair, non-prescription glasses and designer clothes they stand out from the crowds yet are clones.

Patrick and his ilk date women who are young, wealthy and beautiful. They are also seriously messed up. To the men they are accessories, facile and desired only for sex. The men eye up ‘hardbodies’ with any female not of their desired shape and age despised. It matters to them that they are seen in the latest restaurant or club. Image is all.

Patrick is regarded by these men and women as gentle, amusing, a boy next door. He is anything but. In his tastefully decorated, perfectly located apartment he amuses himself by watching hard core, violent pornography. He then picks up or pays young women to act out his sexual fantasies which become increasingly bloody and grotesque.

Patrick is a psychopath seeking to feel something in his empty life. The descriptions of his treatment of these women as he demands certain sex acts then assaults them, torturing and mutilating their bodies before dismembering and disposing of the parts, are horrific and disturbing, gratuitous in their detail. Nothing is left to the imagination. It is sickening but this is, of course, the point. I found it challenging to read.

I felt that the author was messing with my head. The fact that he could imagine such scenes in order to write them down is beyond my comprehension.

Interspersed with these violent acts are many dinners and dates, conversations where little is said. There are chapters where Patrick opines about music. He visits the gym, describes his beauty regime. He observes the clothes those around him wear, taunts the homeless and worries about the quality of his business card or his ability to secure a reservation at an ‘in’ place. He sees what his life has become but, when he tries to talk about it, encounters disinterest. To be a part of the crowd it is required that members follow a script. Those around Patrick see only what they want to see.

This is a clever, powerful but torrid work of literature. The writer’s skill may be admired but it is also deranged. I do not want to consider that someone like Patrick Bateman could exist.

 

Book Review: Alchemy

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Alchemy, by Chris James, tells the tale of Jacob Silver, an orphaned child prodigy who is set the task of translating the recipe for an ancient potion promising the consumer immortality. Jacob’s story unfolds around his trial for the gruesome murder of a handful of women in Victorian London. It mixes scientific discovery with hints of the supernatural to weave a macabre tale.

Jacob is the son of a Jewish apothecary, raised in the family shop at Blackfriars on the banks of the Thames. Although he is a precocious and highly intelligent boy, his interest is in art rather than science. He admires the work of Leonardo da Vinci and is moved when his father takes him to view the Mona Lisa, on loan at the National Gallery, the day after his fifteenth birthday.

On his birthday an elderly gentleman had called unexpectedly at their home, presenting Jacob with the gift of an ancient book. The boy is delighted when he discovers sketches inside, apparently drawn by da Vinci. The book contains details of all manner of potions promising cures for ailments of the body and mind. It bears the title ‘Alchemy’.

Events unfold and Jacob is left orphaned. He is offered a scholarship at a school for the wealthy where he is granted individual tuition due to his advanced abilities. Science lessons take place in catacombs beneath the main school building, his tutor the man who presented him with his book. This professor is eager that Jacob should learn everything within its pages that he may unravel the mystery of a particular potion, written in a language or code that neither of them recognise, which promises resurrection and eternal life.

Jacob’s time at the school comes to an abrupt end when experimental medicines he provides for his peers have untoward side effects. He is sent away in disgrace, leaving the girl he has fallen in love with, Emily, unwell and disturbed.

Returning to the family shop in London he begins painting in order to earn money. He befriends poor women who will become the victims in the murder trial being narrated alongside the story of his life.

This brilliant young man, a talented artist, becomes addicted to drinks he concocts to fuel his creativity. Blighted by the drugs, and by the demands of the art buying public for erotica and then violence, his mind becomes skewed. When the professor reappears Jacob submits to his request to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the elixir of life.

I found the story far fetched but it was written with aplomb. The author name drops a great deal, which I found off-putting, but it did not overly detract. The erotic elements did not appeal, but the grim descriptions of boarding school, of life for the poor in London, and the concoction of the final potion, were impressively brutal and chilling.

Undercurrents throughout leave the reader unsure what in Jacob’s life is as he narrates. The denouement was satisfying, tying up the varied threads whilst allowing scope for a planned sequel. Despite reservations, which mainly centred around credibility, I was sufficiently drawn in to wish to read what happens next. What more need a book offer than that its reader remain eager to turn the next page.

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

Book Review: The Loney

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The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, is a masterfully written gothic horror which disturbs without the need for graphic detail. Set in a remote village on the north west coast of England it takes beautiful countryside, mixes it with inclement weather, and creates a dark and brooding setting. Religious extremism and the rumour of historic witchcraft stir up a cauldron of emotions as visitors cross paths with locals and grapple with belief, ritual, fear of truth, and change.

The narrator of the tale is a man named Smith. When the book opens he is middle aged, living in London, and recalling events from his childhood. His mother barely noticed him except as a conduit for her ambitions.  Her elder son, Hanny, was a mute who was mentally impaired. She believed that Hanny’s problems were a test for her faith, that if she could prove herself before God then he would be cured.

From the first page this book is chilling. When the religious ferocity of the mother and her friends are introduced it becomes clear that reason is unlikely to prevail. What draws the reader in is the use of language as each scene is brought to life.

The brothers meet a drunk at a bus stop:

“Hanny and I couldn’t take our eyes off him. We gorged ourselves on his dirtiness, on his brutal, alien smell.”

Driving through what their mother considered a bad part of London:

“aproned women stood and screeched obscenities at the men stumbling out of corner pubs. It was a safari park of degradation. What a world without God looked like.”

As a child, Smith and his family spent a few days each year on a religious retreat up north with their parish priest and a handful of other parishioners. When the old priest dies these trips cease until his replacement is appointed. The group then return to the setting of this tale for what turns out to be a final time.

It is important to Smith’s mother that the habits of previous visits are maintained but the new priest struggles to meet her expectations. Her husband seems more interested in a hidden room discovered within the old house where they have always stayed than in her preparations for their son’s cure. With emotions running high they encounter locals who resent their presence, especially when the boys stumble upon their secrets.

I enjoyed the interplay between the varying beliefs, how threats and lies were deemed acceptable if they kept disciples within the fold. It is interesting to consider where the evil lies, what a blinkered mother may be willing to sacrifice to achieve her own ends. After all that had gone before, the macabre denouement was perfect.

A dark and spooky read where not everything is fully explained. As in life, revelations may be ignored if they do not fit with the desired narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it.

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