Robyn Reviews: The Cousins

‘The Cousins’ is Karen McManus’s latest YA mystery. It’s slower paced than some of her other novels, with more of a contemporary focus than crime thriller, but equally as enjoyable and compelling. With each new novel, McManus continues to cement herself as a stalwart of the YA mystery genre.

Decades ago, the wealthy Mildred Margaret Story – owner of a lavish resort on Gull Coast Island – suddenly disinherited her four children with a single sentence: ‘You know what you did’. They never heard from her again – until unexpectedly, each of her three grandchildren receives a letter inviting them to work at her hotel for the summer and meet their mysterious grandmother. The three barely know each other, but suddenly find themselves packed off to the island to untangle a family mystery that’s remained buried for years. However, the more time they spend on the island, the more it becomes clear that nothing is as it seems – and some secrets are better left well alone.

The story alternates between four perspectives – the three grandchildren, Milly, Audrey, and Jonah, and flashbacks of Milly’s mother Allison, Mildred’s only daughter. Milly is introduced as the typical heiress – entitled, obsessed with fashion and her appearance, more interested in scoring drinks off men in bars than obtaining the grades for college. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye, and once you get past her caustic one-liners she becomes a caring and insightful character. She also shares her grandmother’s name – Mildred Margaret Story-Takahashi, for her Japanese father – and, despite her protestations, is more desperate for her grandmother’s approval than anyone else.

Audrey is an absolute sweetheart and one of the nicest characters in the book – however, she initially comes across as angry and petulant, throwing a competitive swim meet just to spite her instructor. There’s obviously a lot going on in her life behind the scenes, and her character development is probably the strongest of everyone’s. In many ways she’s naive and anxious, but she’s also incredibly smart and always wants to do the right thing.

Initially, Jonah seems like a typical entitled man, complaining about how going to the island is ruining his chances of going to an exclusive science camp and throwing insults left, right, and centre. His attitude and refusal to open up makes him a bit of a mystery – but as the story unfolds, he too becomes a far more sympathetic and intriguing character.

The plot is sedate, with more focus on family dynamics than the mystery until nearly the end of the book – but this works well, allowing each character to become established and their backgrounds to become clear. Towards the end, some of the revelations are pretty far-fetched, but nothing completely breaks the bounds of plausibility and McManus makes you want to believe it. The ending is excellent, with just the right amount of lingering mystery. The only part I’m less fond of is the romantic subplot – McManus always has one, but it doesn’t feel entirely necessary in this book. That being said, there’s a certain scene related to it involving a balcony which is absolutely priceless, so it might be worth it for that section alone.

This is a book about money, and the exploration of the lives of the rich – not the obscenely wealthy billionaires, but the sort of comfortably wealthy people who end up CEOs and politicians – is one of the most interesting parts. Their attitudes to money are so different, and there’s a complete gulf in understanding over what it actually means to be poor. It illustrates perfectly how those who have always had plenty simply cannot understand what it’s actually like to struggle to make ends meet.

Overall, this is a slower story than McManus’s previous books, but equally as well written with excellent characters and an intriguing backdrop. Some may not find it as engaging, but read for what it is rather than what it isn’t it makes a highly enjoyable read.

Published by Penguin
Paperback: 3rd December 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Devil and the Dark Water

‘The Devil and the Dark Water’ is part mystery, part horror story against the background of a trading ship in the 17th century. An eclectic group of people – the governor general of Batavia, the world’s greatest detective, a loyal bodyguard, the greatest navigator in the East India Trading Company, a healer, the last Witchfinder – have all ended up on the Saardam, a ship travelling from Batavia (now Indonesia) to Amsterdam. However, their voyage appears cursed – and as demonic symbols and strange events start to strike the ship, they must all band together to solve the mystery before it kills them all.

The key part of any mystery novel is the reveal at the end, and whilst this is very clever – it’s difficult to guess the key players right until the end, with red herrings left right and centre – the final chapter isn’t entirely convincing. Nonetheless, this is a great read filled with solid characters, and the narrative spins in different directions throughout. There are plenty of historical fiction tropes – forbidden romance, clever women stifled by men, the seductress wanted by every man she meets – but they’re written well, adding to the narrative rather than detracting from it.

The highlights are undoubtedly Arent Hayes – the gruff bodyguard of renowned detective Samuel Pipps, who is heading to Amsterdam in chains to face judgement for an unknown crime – and Sara Wessel, the wife of the governor general who hates her husband with the ferocity of a wildfire. Arent is a genuinely good man, one who became a soldier out of a lack of options but is now so good at it he doesn’t believe he’s good for anything else. Sara is a smart woman who knows there’s no place in the world for smart women and will do everything in her power to keep her even smarter daughter out of harms way. This unlikely pair lead the search for answers – Arent with his fists and his sword, and Sara with her brains and sheer determination. It’s impossible not to root for them both, and to feel deeply for how they’ve been scarred.

The ship makes an excellent setting for what, at its heart, is a locked room mystery. It’s filled with stark divides – rich and poor, passengers and crew – and these dynamics deeply affect each part of the novel. The look into life at sea is fascinating, if regularly horrifying. Stuart Turton never flinches from the stark reality of sailors’ lives, and the imagery he creates is visceral.

Overall, this is a solid historical thriller with an intriguing and varied cast, brought to life by its setting and the vivid language. The ending could have been more satisfying, and some of the characters more original – but this is still a great story. Recommended for all fans of historical fiction and closed-room mysteries.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for providing an eARC – this in no ways affects the content of this review

 

Published by Bloomsbury
Hardback: 1st October 2020

Robyn Reviews: We Are All the Same in the Dark

We Are All The Same In The Dark is a gritty mystery novel with twists right to the end. The writing is beautifully atmospheric and pulls you right into the deep Texas setting. It’s a multiple POV novel, but instead of cycling between characters it follows them sequentially – Wyatt for the start, Odette for the build-up, and Angel for the thrilling conclusion.

Wyatt is the town’s pariah. Ten years ago, his sister Trumanell – prom queen and the town’s sweetheart – disappeared, with only a smear of blood and some glitter left behind. The prime suspects were her father – now deceased – Frank, and her mad brother Wyatt. These days, Wyatt hides out at the house he grew up in, talking to his sister as if she were there and painting the walls Chantilly Lace white – her favourite colour.

Odette is a cop, like her father and grandfather before her. After Trumanell disappeared, Odette left town, determined to start anew – but the town’s secrets dragged her home, Chicago lawyer husband in tow. Odette has history with Wyatt, and with Trumanell, and when Wyatt finds a girl on the side of the highway it sets off a chain of events that might just uncover a mystery that’s been sleeping for ten years.

I’m not American, so I can’t speak for the accuracy of the setting or the characters pictured, but they all felt thoroughly believable. It felt like a typical small town – obsessed with its own secrets. I was gripped by the simultaneous fear and veneration of Wyatt, people’s opinions of Odette always framed by their opinions of his dad, the missing girl never let go by a town which only had one claim to notoriety. The writing was as tough and gritty as the Texan setting and, whilst this made it jarring in places, it wouldn’t have felt quite right without it.

I felt sorry for Wyatt – haunted by the past and unable to move on – but even in his own head he is never framed as an innocent party. Whether because he truly believes it or simply because so many people have told him so, he doesn’t think of himself as a nice man. Readers can judge for themselves.

Odette is a fantastic character – brave, feisty, reckless, and never defined by her weaknesses. She makes mistakes – and plenty of them – but she is honest, and always determined to do the right thing. The town sees Trumanell as some sort of goddess – Odette sees her as a girl. Spending time in Odette’s head isn’t always easy but it is fascinating – especially the insights into her disability and how it frames her outlook on life.

Angel was my favourite. Her section flew past much faster than the rest of the book – possibly because it was faster paced, but I think because it gripped me more. It would be spoiler-y to give away too much about her, but she is a fascinating and brilliant character; the epitome of the impulsive teenager but also one who’s had to fight to survive. Her interactions with Rusty and Finn were spectacular, and every twist – of which there are many – had me on the edge of my seat.

Overall, this is a great book – one that really draws you into its setting and complex characters. The disability representation was a bonus. If you like stories with an eerie atmosphere about strong characters and long-buried secrets, you’ll like this. Recommended.

 

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Michael Joseph for providing an eARC of this book – this in no way affects the content of this review.

 

Published by Michael Joseph
Hardback: 6 August 2020

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: Everlasting Lane

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Everlasting Lane, by Andrew Lovett, explores the effects of trauma on both the present and memory. Told from the point of view of ten year old Peter Lambert, who moves with his mother to a cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley following the death of his father, it is a poignant tale of the difficulty of communication and lack of understanding between children and adults. It is about choices and their consequences, of the dangers of secrets and what reality means to each individual.

On his first day in his new surroundings Peter meets Anna-Marie, a slightly older girl who appears to spurn authority. Anna-Marie possesses a curiosity apparently lacking in Peter. The boy lives for the moment, conjuring from his surroundings imaginary worlds that he weaves into his games. What may appear obvious to adults, there in plain sight, he ignores fearing what he may learn and have to face.

Set in the mid 1970s the village harbours damaged survivors from the Second World War attempting to cope with their experiences amidst the disparagement of those who do not understand why they act as they do. It also has a sadistic headmistress whose religious vehemence borders on the deranged. Other than inciting fear, the eccentricities of these adults are accepted by the children. Adults, after all, rarely act in ways that children can reason with. Words that are understood by both are hard to find; deeds are done to the young over which they exert scant control.

Anna-Marie introduces Peter to a classmate, Tommie, and the three form a fractious friendship group with the girl as their leader. They wander the village exploring places where they often shouldn’t be. When Peter mentions that there is a room in his cottage which his mother keeps locked and has never talked of, the trio set out to discover what it contains.

Their findings offer up a mystery to be solved. Anna-Marie uses this as a distraction from her own fears of impending secondary school little realising the effect their discoveries will have on Peter, who himself lives unaware of the traumas in his friends’ lives.

Although childhood contains the innocence of a lack of wider knowledge and understanding there is little serene about living with the cruelties and constant oneupmanship of peers and the frustrations of rules imposed by the plethora of micromanaging adults. This world is brilliantly, painfully evoked. Peter’s mother is doing her best but has her own demons to face. Neither can effectively communicate to the other how they feel.

“he was talking like he thought things that weren’t real weren’t as important as things that were. […] But I think they’re wrong in a way because there was a lot of stuff in my head that wasn’t real but was really important: like the things I wanted to happen or the things I wished had happened instead of the things that had.”

Peter is living with the consequences of actions that set off chains of events affecting the people he relied on for love. The story is told as a simple childhood mystery yet it contains layers of emotion. The writing is subtle yet devastating in its perceptiveness.

Whilst empathising with each of the main characters I could see no way around the dilemmas they faced. Peter was urged to focus on what was important, but those urging could only comprehend what seemed important to them.

The story got under my skin. It is distressing in places yet woven together with skill and sensitivity. It is a reminder that words needed at a critical moment can too often prove elusive. This is a tale worthy of wider consideration.

Book Review: Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods

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Warren the 13th and the Whispering Woods is the second book in a series of fantasy adventure stories aimed at middle grade children (ages 8-12). It is a delight for any age to read. Written by Tania Del Rio and illustrated by Will Staehle, it mixes an almost comic book style presentation with double column text. The book is a near square shape with an eye-catching, gothic design – truly, the aesthetics deserve appreciation.

The story told is a deliciously dark take on old style fairy stories. It features a small and somewhat ugly, twelve year old hero determined to do his forebears proud. There are wicked witches, talking trees, a snake oil salesman and loyal friends with intriguing powers. Warren must solve riddles, decipher codes, and save the lives of monsters who threaten to cook him over an open fire. All the while he is trying to ensure that his beloved inheritance, the Warren Hotel, survives that he may humbly serve its guests as did the twelve Warrens before him.

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The first book in the series, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye, ended with the discovery that, amongst the many secrets hidden within the run-down and ominous looking hotel, were a set of mechanical legs which enabled it to, quite literally, rise up and walk away. The sequel opens with the hotel restored to its former glory, travelling around the land of Fauntleroy filled with delighted guests – until a malfunction causes it to trip and fall over. Disgruntled and dismissive of apologies, the guests demand refunds and abandon the now sideways building. When Warren goes in search of a potion to put right the controls, the hotel is hijacked by a doppelganger intent on delivering it to a powerful witch who has offered a reward to anyone who brings it to her lair – a mile wide crater known as the Black Caldera.

As the hotel marches through the dangerous Malwoods towards the Dark Queen, Warren determines to follow it on foot. He discovers that his hotel is not the only thing Her Royal Darkness wishes to control. To thwart her wicked plans he must face every danger lurking within the shadows of the mysteriously damaged wood. There are bats and snakes, whisperings in a forgotten language, and hungry creatures who must kill to survive. The wood is home to witches intent on freeing their peers, captured by Warren’s friends and hidden within the travelling hotel.

The book is due for release in the spring of 2017 so my copy was an early proof with the artwork representative but incomplete. Nevertheless, it is clear that this is going to be a stunning addition to any imaginative child’s library. The humour and play on words adds to the enjoyment for all ages. If you are a fan of Tim Burton’s films, or of the Unfortunate Events series of books, you should seek out these stories.

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

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker

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The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis, is a story of family secrets, lives thwarted, and objects that speak from beyond the grave.

Margaret Penny, at close to fifty years old, returns to her elderly mother’s small flat in Edinburgh with no money, few possessions and fewer prospects. Her life has not turned out as she had hoped when she escaped to London without warning some thirty years previously. Her mother offers neither a welcome nor a rejection, she has never been one to share her thoughts. Her daughter learned young to follow her example: ‘tell no one’, ‘leave no trace’.

The two women attend the funeral of a local indigent where it is suggested that Margaret find work with the council tracing the family and assets of those who die alone that a funeral may be paid for. She is assigned an old woman, Mrs Walker, recently arrived in Edinburgh and found dead in her living room chair.

Margaret searches for clues as to who Mrs Walker was but all she finds are random objects in a freezing flat which reminds her of her mother’s home. She requires formal identification, paperwork, but has no hint of even a first name. She ponders her own nebulous past and uncertain future.

The story moves backwards and forwards to various years between 1929 and 2011. Snapshots of key incidents in the lives of the Walkers and Pennys are offered. It becomes clear early on that there are familial links but what they are is a mystery to be solved.

It begins with a tragedy – the death of two beautiful twins. What follows involves much that is untoward. There is betrayal, abandonment, thievery of home, possessions and children. Times were hard and love scarce. Subsistence was secured by nefarious means.

The jumping around in time and the style of writing offers the reader jigsaw puzzle pieces, knowledge gleaned ahead of and in more depth than is uncovered by Margaret. Each episode narrated provides clues as to who the protagonists were and are, and to why the many secrets have been kept.

There is a sense of isolation in the lives lived, a depth of sadness in what is left behind be it people or things. The picture painted of humanity is mordant, yet the girls in the story retain an affecting hopefulness as each works to escape the incarceration of their circumstances.

This is not a book to be rushed and offers much to consider. An intelligent but never difficult read.

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

Book Review: Patchwork Man

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Patchwork Man, by D.B. Martin, is an intriguingly twisted story of complicated families. The first in a planned trilogy, it introduces us to QC Lawrence Juste, an eminent barrister with a sordid but secret history. Following the death of his wife he finds his past catching up with him, threatening to unravel the life he has worked so hard to create. As he confronts the family that he believes abandoned him, he discovers that he has been manipulated for many years by shadowy figures linked to his childhood. The convoluted interrelationships uncovered threaten to ruin him and those he has come to care for.

The young Lawrence Juste, or Kenny Juss as he was then, suffered many kinds of abuse. The reader is spared no detail as these are described along with his coping mechanisms. That this type of treatment undoubtedly happens made me feel an impotent despair, especially when it seemed that his attempts to rise above his victimhood were to be dashed. Bullying is not confined to childhood.

I found the intricate and interwoven threads of the plot difficult to keep track of at times. A series of family trees would have been useful, but would have taken the edge off the various revelations that were intrinsic to the pace and structure of the story. The book has a large cast of significant characters, many of whom will, I hope, be further developed in the sequels.

I found the writing challenging. It is certainly not a comfortable read with its casual violence and underbelly of cruelty, callousness and lies. Although poverty played its part, the wealthy could be just as twisted and evil. The author explores how low a man will sink to survive, how much of the better self he wishes to believe in will be sacrificed when he feels sufficiently threatened.

Knowing that some people are capable of this kind of behaviour gives the tale resonance. I liked the analogy of life as a patchwork of experiences, but it is depressing to consider that if circumstances prevailed then a tale as black as this could be true.

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

Book Review: Summer of the Dead

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Summer of the Dead, by Julia Keller, is a crime thriller set in small town West Virginia during a stifling summer. The backdrop of poverty and a socially stunted community mingle with descriptions of oppressive heat to create a claustrophobic tension as a series of murders unfold. Few clues are left for the forces of law and order to investigate. Everyone it seems has a criminal record, a drug problem or unsavoury family secrets that are suspected but rarely discussed. This is a place where residents expect few favours, each looking out for their own, raised to keep thoughts and feelings to themselves.

The protagonist is a prosecuting attorney with her own damaged past. Raised locally she understands the people she is dealing with and works hard to follow the rules that justice may be served. I did wonder about the repercussions when she failed in this endeavour, but the potential fallout for herself and the cases she was working on were barely touched upon.

In many ways the progression of the story reminded me of television crime shows: the slow build up; improbable fight scene; subsequent reveal of who was who, their relationships to each other, and why they acted as they did. As a crime novel it was easy to read. It offered false leads, twists, turns and surprises along the way. The book is atmospheric and nicely written. What I felt it lacked was depth and, at times, plausibility. I guess a work of fiction does not always have to be real.

Neither does every book written have to be a literary masterpiece. I found it difficult to empathise with the characters but I could appreciate the structure and pace of the developing plot. At times I had to check back to remind myself who was who, but I always wanted to know what happened next.

I would recommend this book to fans of compelling, gritty, crime dramas. This is the third book in a series. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I preceded it with episodes one and two.

 

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

Book Review: The Weight of Blood

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

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The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh, was a pleasure to read from start to finish. This is not to say that the subject matter was pleasurable. Many of the plot lines dealt with situations that, although all may be aware happen, are easier to ignore. It was a small town society’s willingness to do this that was explored in excoriating detail.

The story is told over two time periods, with each chapter progressing through a different character’s perspective until the tales merge for the satisfying, if grim, denouement. Events kick off when a stranger arrives in a remote town that copes with transient tourists but will not welcome incomers who wish to stay. This antipathy enables the grisly events that unfold, and it soon becomes clear that protecting established families counts more than obeying the law.

The book lays bare the damage that can be caused when human weaknesses are normalised, accepted or simply overlooked for the sake of maintaining the status quo. With limited expectations for their future, the residents see as inevitable that men will act as they wish, and that it is easier to look the other way. When accidents happen they are cleaned up, gossiped over but rarely investigated. Truth is not something that is to be faced if it will cause trouble for those who must continue to live alongside the perpetrators. Asking too many questions is discouraged for fear of the fallout.

Into this web emerges a young girl, born and raised in the heart of the town, who has lost her friend and her mother in circumstances that nobody seems willing to discuss or explore. Determined to uncover what has happened, she enlists the help of a friend, and together they start to unravel a generation of secrets and unacknowledged truths.

From the first chapter I was hooked. The pace of the novel was perfect, the unfolding tale never ceasing to engage. Every word earned its place, moving the plot along effortlessly. Such seamless writing demonstrates the skill of the author, keeping this reader engrossed for the entire three hundred pages.

The tale was compelling and thought provoking, leaving me questioning how far I would go to help a stranger when rocking the boat could bring down an accepted way of life. It got under my skin and I am glad that it did.

This is quality writing, but more than that, it is story telling at its best.

My copy of this book was supplied gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson, via My Independent Bookshop rewards.