Book Review: Maria In The Moon

Maria In The Moon, by Louise Beech, is a story that explores the lasting effects of childhood trauma. Set in Hull following the devastating floods of 1997, the protagonist is a young woman named Catherine-Maria who works the night shift in a care home and volunteers at a telephone crisis helpline by day. She struggles to sleep, suffers nightmares, and pushes anyone who tries to get close to her away. She is awkward, clumsy and acerbic, struggling with memory loss, particularly from childhood where time frames have become muddled or vanished completely.

Catherine is living in a small flat with a friend, Fern, while her home, damaged by the floods, is dried out and repaired. She has recently separated from her boyfriend, another disappointment for her mother to bear. Mother and Catherine suffer a fraught relationship; words have been spoken in anger that are hard to forgive.

Old photographs, terms of endearment from strangers, and experiences at the helpline trigger vague recollections that Catherine’s family are unwilling to adequately explain. Eventually Catherine faces her own crisis and, overnight, the lost memories flood back. What she chooses to do with her newfound knowledge will define where she takes her life from here. This personal damage will be harder to repair.

Grief creates a sense of isolation resulting in blinkered understanding of other’s needs. Reactions to Catherine’s memories risk further rifts with family and friends. These relationships are astutely depicted, providing wit alongside the pain. Catherine’s life is raw and messy but the portrayal is compelling if heartbreaking.

The writing achieves an impressive balance between dark humour and a sympathetic yet honest depiction of the most shocking family betrayal. Expressive and affecting this is a story rich in humanity; traumatic yet somehow uplifting.

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

This post is a stop on the Maria In The Moon Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Maria In The Moon is published by Orenda Books.

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Book Review: House of Spines

House of Spines, by Michael J Malone, is a ghost story. Set in present day Glasgow its protagonist is Ranald McGhie, a bipolar writer whose parents died when he was eighteen and whose marriage fell apart after his wife had him sectioned. Now living alone in a small rented flat he is surprised to be summoned to a lawyers office for the reading of a will. Here he discovers that his mother’s estranged family were wealthy and that he has inherited a large house, Newton Hall, on condition he retain it and the many books therein.

The house comes with a housekeeper and gardener along with funds left in trust for its upkeep. Ran’s Great-Uncle Alexander had been preparing this bequest for some time. Ran finds quality clothes in his size along with new bedding and other essentials. What he also discovers is that the old property has a resident ghost, but is it real or a construct of his long disturbed mind?

Ran is not the only relative still alive and two cousins, Marcus and Rebecca, soon put in an appearance. The lawyer had assured Ran that Newton Hall was not wanted by anyone else, that his cousins were well provided for in the will. This turns out not to have been enough for the unpleasant siblings who have lucrative plans for the hall’s sale and redevelopment. Marcus tries to persuade Ran that it would be in his best interests to move away, sharing the proceeds, but Ran has developed an affinity for his great-uncle and is reluctant to agree.

The shock of his changed circumstances and the loneliness of this vast new home affect Ran’s mental wellbeing. He hears noises, sees shadows, discovers notebooks and letters in desks that affect his subconscious. The only places he feels truly comfortable are in the library or newly installed fitness suite. His uneasiness manifests in vivid dreams, activities he does not remember, and episodes of sleepwalking. He is continually drawn to a broken lift that his housekeeper had kept locked, advising him to stay away.

The writing is sharp, intense, and deliciously chilling until the last hundred or so pages. By this stage Marcus has become immured by the evolving situation, understandable given his illness and stuttered medication but a tad irritating to read. I guessed where the plot was going and wondered why his concerned friends had not checked in on him. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations of those he pushed away, and the impact of his trust issues.

The gothic elements of the tale are masterfully written; Newton Hall a fabulous creation. Ran’s reluctance to face up to his illness, his disavowal of the management strategies prescribed by professionals, added an interesting layer to the more usual fear of the dark, shadows behind curtains and monsters under the bed tropes of haunted houses.

This is an enjoyable read even if I did find the structuring of the conclusion weaker than the beginning and middle sections. I am, however, left pondering what will happen to Ran next, if perhaps this is a circular tale.

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

This post is a stop on the House of Spines Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

House of Spines is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Other Twin

The Other Twin, by LV Hay, is a thriller set in Brighton about families and the dark secrets they keep from each other and their friends. The protagonist, Poppy, is living in a rundown flat in London when she receives a phone call informing her that her estranged sister, India, is dead. Still reeling from shock, Poppy abandons her chaotic city lifestyle and returns to the family home. Her step-father is trying to hold the threads of their lives together while her mum falls apart. India fell to her death from a nearby bridge, into the path of a moving train. A post on her blog could be a suicide note, but Poppy cannot believe that the sister she once knew well would have chosen to die.

Childhood friends attend the funeral including Matthew, a boyfriend Poppy left behind when she moved away. Matthew’s twin sister, Ana, treats Poppy with disdain. Ana is in a struggling relationship with Jayden, the playboy son of wealthy hotel owners. Their two families are well known in the area, valuing the image they project alongside their reputations.

Poppy determines to find out more about her sister’s death and soon comes across a name on line, Jenny, of whom everyone she asks denies knowledge. Through India’s blog she tracks the girl down but learns only that there is a secret Jenny will not share. She is wary and elusive but had obviously been close to India. Poppy begins to suspect each of her old friends in turn, that they know more about her sister’s death than they are willing to tell.

As Poppy persists in her somewhat haphazard investigations, Matthew and she feel a rekindling of desire. Poppy also realises that since they were last together, the Matthew she thought she knew so well has changed.

This is a competently put together thriller but I struggled to engage with the plot progression or to empathise with Poppy’s singular mission. Clues are dropped in plain site and not pursued with the determination she grants nebulous suspicions. Her mother is struggling yet Poppy appears largely unsupportive, concentrating on what happened to the sister she had not been in touch with for many years.

An enjoyable enough tale but not one that resonated with me as it has for others. With the work required to create, it is a shame that we cannot adore every book we read.

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

This post is a stop on The Other Twin Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

The Other Twin is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: Dying to Live

Dying to Live, by Michael Stanley, is the third book in the authors’ Detective Kubu series to be published by Orenda (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). As with the previous instalments the imagery takes the reader into the heat and heart of Botswana where the books are set. Kubu masters his volatility better than before and less is made of his girth, although he continues to enjoy good food. His character, and that of his colleagues, add interest and depth but their varying foibles do not distract from the twists and turns in the plot. Witch doctor’s and their muti – alternative medicines that require belief to have any effect – continue to play a significant role.

The story opens with the death of a Bushman in a remote region of the country. He was a very old man who had been of interest to various foreigners due to his longevity. A prominent witch doctor is then reported missing in the town of Gaborone. There is nothing to link the two investigations until the names of the foreigners are found in the witch doctor’s appointments book.

Many in the police force despise the Bushmen and witch doctor’s, although the latter are still widely feared. The investigations are not therefore approached with much enthusiasm, deaths of such people regarded as of no great loss. When a body is stolen from a morgue it is assumed the parts were wanted for muti. Kubu is unconvinced as that of a young girl, which would have been considered more valuable by practitioners of such dark hocus pocus, is left untouched.

With so many aspects of the two cases remaining shrouded in secrecy by those potentially involved, Kubu is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. What he uncovers goes beyond Botswana, and officials from abroad are not always willing to trust the integrity of their African counterparts.

The integrity of all concerned is key. Backhanders are common and the desire for health and wealth, whatever the cost to others, widespread. When Kubu’s daughter, Nono, reacts against her HIV medication and becomes seriously ill even his staunch belief in scientifically proven medication over muti is tested.

The pace feels gentle despite the dark events unfolding but reader engagement is retained throughout. This was a complex but enjoyable read; my favourite Kubu adventure thus far.

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

This post is a stop on the Dying to Live Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Dying to Live is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: Wolves in the Dark

Wolves in the Dark, by Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett), is the third book in the author’s Varg Veum series of crime thrillers to be translated into English by Orenda Books (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). Four years after the death of his beloved Karin, Veum is slowly dragging himself from the mire into which his grief took him. He is now in a relationship with Sølvi, although her faith in him is about to be tested.

The book opens with Veum being arrested for accessing child pornography on line. He is accused of being part of an international operation supplying images and videos of such content. Incriminating evidence is found on his office computer and personal laptop. Veum vehemently denies the charges but the investigating officers do not believe his claim that he had no idea the files were there. When his lawyer requests information about potential contacts from his past who may be seeking revenge, Veum is forced to admit to alcohol induced gaps in his memory since Karin’s death.

As a private investigator of many years standing Veum has accumulated a bank of enemies. He delves his patchy recollections but realises that the evidence against him and the understandable revulsion felt by those who are convinced of his guilt undermine his protestations of innocence. When an opportunity to escape incarceration unexpectedly presents itself he goes on the run. He must solve his own case before being recaptured or face a prison term where he would likely be punished by inmates as the worst possible type of offender.

The plot is tightly constructed and written with a droll humour that offers relief from the sickening subject matter and page turning tension. Veum deploys a direct approach to people of interest in his investigations, a tactic that further angers those he interrogates but which builds the intrigue for the reader. There are the requisite twists and turns with blind alleys and dubious characters. Few of those he encounters emerge untainted in some way.

This challenging topic is tackled with empathy and skill, characters rising from the pages fully formed, grotesquely believable. Veum may not be entirely likable but it is hard not to confer a degree of sympathy for his predicament.

A dark thriller that uses its setting in Norway to fine affect. This is a gritty, gripping read.

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

This post is a stop on the Wolves in the Dark Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Wolves in the Dark is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Exquisite

Exquisite, by Sarah Stovell, is a deliciously disturbing psychological thriller centring around two women. It employs familiar tropes such as troubled childhoods, the unreliable narrator, and an ill advised affair. Yet it rises, indeed it soars, with a use of language that matches the title. Beneath the beauty of the descriptions, the subtlety of the prose, an undercurrent of menace pervades every twist in the tale.

Bo Luxton is an established author of best selling books. She is married to Gus, twenty-two years her senior and retired from his successful city career. They have two young daughters and live in a beautiful house near Grasmere in the Lake District. Bo has worked diligently to achieve this settled life after a difficult childhood from which she ran away when she was fifteen years old.

Alice Dark is a twenty-five year old English graduate whose life has stalled. She is living in a damp and dreary bedsit, or at her boyfriend’s equally squalid shared house, in Brighton. When she is accepted onto a residential creative writing course in Northumberland, to be run by the famous author Bo Luxton, she is inspired to seek change.

Bo likes to take waifs and strays under her wing. She sees something of her younger self in Alice who spent part of her childhood in care and whose latent talent Bo now wishes to nurture. With the older woman’s encouragement, Alice starts to believe she could write the book she has dreamed of creating.

Bo and Alice form a connection on the writing course which they continue to develop via email when they return to their respective homes. Then Bo invites Alice to visit her in Grasmere. Gus is wary of their burgeoning friendship and voices his concerns but to no avail. Bo tells Alice he becomes jealous when she offers her loving care to anyone but him.

Each section of the book opens with an update from a woman serving time in prison. The reader knows that the story being told is leading to this. The subsequent short chapters are written from either Alice or Bo’s point of view. Overlaps create doubt as to whose version may be complete and true.

The tension builds as the protagonists find themselves backed into corners. The final page provides a memorable end to what is a satisfying, chilling denouement.

A tightly constructed, beautifully written, impressively unsettling psychological thriller. For fans of the genre this is a must read.

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

This post is a stop on the Exquisite Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Exquisite is published by Orenda Books and will be available to buy from 15 June 2017.

Book Review: Block 46

Block 46, by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski), is the first book in a proposed new series of crime thrillers featuring protagonists Emily Roy, a Canadian profiler working for Scotland Yard, and Alexis Castells, a French true-crime writer living in London. Dealing as it does with a suspected serial killer who preys on young boys, and with a backstory that graphically details the horrors of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, the tale is dark and raw in places. It studies circumstances that can allow for the normalisation of evil.

The story opens with a group of high-end friends coming together for a launch in London of a bespoke jewellery line created by Linnéa Blix, who is one of their number. When she does not show up for the event they are gravely concerned as this was a much anticipated highlight in her career. Three of the group – her partner Peter, and old friends Alba and Alexis, opt to fly to Sweden where Linnéa had been on retreat. As they arrive they are informed by the local police that Linnéa’s mutilated body has been found on a small marina near her holiday home.

The short chapters jump around in time and place which took me some time to engage with. A body is being buried in a wood in 2013; a German medical student is experiencing dehumanising treatment in a crowded train on his way to Buchenwald in 1944; the Swedish police call in a talented profiler to assist with their investigation into Linnéa’s murder in 2014. The London based friends experience intense grief at their loss and I was somewhat perplexed by how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Perhaps this is simply that I struggle to empathise with such relationships.

Of the key protagonists, I found Alexis weak initially but enjoyed the way Emily’s character was being developed from the off. Both harbour tragedies from their pasts that are gradually revealed. This promises to be an interesting literary pairing.

The presentation of the thought processes of the killers, both contemporary and at Buchenwald – the pleasure they derived from their actions and the way they justified what they were doing – is chillingly portrayed.

The tension picks up as the threads are expanded and the murder investigation progresses. The twists and turns ensure that the reader cannot easily guess the next reveal or where it may be leading. The denouement was deftly handled although not all my questions were answered. I am left wondering if I missed clues along the way.

I enjoyed the reactions of the characters to each other. For example: the policeman Olofsson generates annoyance amongst colleagues with his actions and attitudes yet is genuinely trying to fit in; Emily changes persona when she deals with interviewees as she has been advised what manner can be effective, something that perplexes the more emotional Alexis who has only previously experienced Emily’s natural brusqueness. I was drawn to Emily, her innate abilities, honesty and social distancing.

The author has based the Buchenwald sections on the experiences of her grandfather and these are a strong if disturbing addition to the story. In weaving a contemporary plot around how certain inmates may have been affected long term by interactions within the camp, and the cost of their survival, the reader is challenged to consider personal actions and justifications.

Despite a lingering degree of ambivalence there is much to ponder from this tale. It developed into a gripping if sometimes harrowing read. I will look with interest for the next book in this series. The author’s astute and uncompromising style suggests she is one to watch.

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

This post is a stop on the Block 46 Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Block 46 is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.