Book Review: Everything Happens for a Reason

Everything Happens

This book all but broke me with its mix of lonely sorrow and dippy behaviour. It tells the story of Rachel, a mother whose much wanted son, Luke, died in the womb at full term. Structured as a series of emails, Rachel writes to her dead child about her daily routine – people she encounters, how she is thinking and feeling. Mostly set over a five month period, it opens just a couple of weeks after Luke’s stillbirth. Rachel is on maternity leave and grieving deeply. What comes to the fore is how difficult it is to say anything appropriate to those suffering such a devastating experience. Rachel is upset by well meaning friends who use words she finds empty, yet there is no hint as to how one may do better – other than to never say the death of a child happened for a reason.

Rachel lives in London close to both her parents and her in-laws. She is married to Ed and they are comfortably off materially. The marriage appears to be a happy one although the loss of their child has, obviously, taken its toll on both of them. Ed is doing his best to support his wife but she is not sharing with him her coping mechanisms.

On the day Rachel discovered she was pregnant, while travelling by tube to meet Ed and give him the news they had both longed for, she prevented a potential suicide. Although she had no further contact with the young man involved, she now gets it into her head that Luke died because, due to her actions, he lived. She sets out to track the man down and in doing so meets Lola, an underground worker, and her feisty seven year old daughter, Josephine.

In what must be a breach of protocol, Lola provides Rachel with the details recorded about the young man on the day of the incident, when he tried to jump in front of a train. Internet searches enable Rachel to track him down remarkably easily. Her behaviour towards him – Ben – although well meant verge on stalking and harassment. Somewhat surprisingly, he mostly puts up with this.

Lola also allows Rachel into her life, entrusting her with Josephine after just a short acquaintanceship. Rachel turns to these strangers rather than her family, who have proved themselves painfully tone deaf to her current needs. She dreams up schemes to ‘help’ give Ben a better life, as a mother might her grown child. Rachel treats him as her mother treats her – overpowering with good intentions without taking in and adjusting for negative reactions.

The author suffered the heartbreak of a stillbirth so could write aspects of this work of fiction from personal experience. Knowing this undoubtedly coloured how I read the tale – why I tried to accept that certain responses might realistically occur. Rachel’s grief is palpable which makes it hard to condemn her inappropriate behaviour. Nevertheless, how she forces her plans and needs on Ben made me squirm.

Structuring the story as emails maintains pace, providing pithy updates on Rachel’s day to day plans and activities. The writing throughout is focused and heartfelt. Rachel’s dealings with her wider family provide lessons in how not to treat the recently bereaved. However, certain plot developments felt contrived, particularly in setting up for the denouement. It was not this that I found almost too difficult to read. I came close to abandoning the book several times because of how vexed it made me feel.

Rachel undoubtedly deserves much sympathy but I still found her character irritating – particularly how she used her wealth, and treated Ed. The depiction of her in-laws came across as two-dimensionally stereotyped – insular, instagrammable, yummy mummy and self-entitled granny – the oft depicted privileged and blinkered London set. Ed was developed better, highlighting how lonely grief can be even within a loving relationship. Lola’s reaction to Rachel, given their differing circumstances and the fact that she too had family close and willing to help, was hard to give credence to – I was curious about how Rachel made her feel with the over the top gifts to Josephine. Also, this is possibly the only story I have ever read where a dog died and I just couldn’t care.

Other reviewers have written about how much they enjoyed this tale. Some found humour amidst the poignancy. I wanted more depth and less ditzy behaviour from a protagonist supposedly successful career-wise – even if knocked sideways by tragedy. This story simply wasn’t for me.

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

Book Review: The Source

The Source, by Sarah Sultoon, tells a hard hitting tale of the sexual exploitation of children. At its core is a paedophile ring run by an army unit working on high level intelligence. Although certain key figures in this setup are eventually brought to justice – if that is ever possible for such crimes – there remain rumours of perpetrators who have proved untouchable due to the nature of their work and security clearance.

The tale is told across two timelines. In 2006, a young journalist named Marie is investigating human trafficking with her colleagues from a national news channel. Just as their story is coming together, it is announced that a police investigation into child sex abuse within the army, uncovered a decade earlier, is to be reopened. Marie and her colleagues are required to make this development their priority. The human trafficking story is to be shelved.

The earlier timeline opens in 1996. Thirteen year old Carly is barely coping with the life she has been dealt. Carly’s alcoholic mother is incapable of looking after her toddler daughter, Kayleigh, so Carly must try to keep her little sister clean and fed while still attending school – necessary to ward off social services. The girls’ elder brother, Jason, is a soldier at the local army base – following in his dead father’s footsteps. When he cannot deliver food and other supplies to the family home, the sisters go hungry. Carly’s best friend, Rachel, suggests they both attend parties they have been invited to at the army base. This offers the chance for some fun along with welcome rare attention. However, these outings quickly turn into something more sinister and damaging.

I struggled with this tale for a number of reasons. The opening chapters detailing the human trafficking investigation were written as a fast moving, dangerous assignment that Marie appeared badly suited to deal with. At key moments she would lose concentration. Her stress reaction throughout the story is to puke or faint. I lost track of the number of times she was: distracted and didn’t hear what could be important information, fumbled equipment, swallowed down bile. This is hardly the cool, clear head needed when trying to appear in control of a situation involving dangerous criminals – potentially putting her colleagues at risk. As the tale moved forwards I wondered how the human trafficking investigation would be woven into the army base story. I was left disappointed.

Carly’s experiences were more strongly written. Sadly, the supporting cast on this earlier timeline appeared two-dimensional. Many people are mentioned but not developed. It is never explained why Jason acted as he did – was he simply a horrible person or perhaps being bribed or blackmailed? It is a challenge to comprehend the choices he made, why he stayed. As the two timelines come together, such questions about character behaviour – the whys and wherefores – are too often left hanging.

The author is a former CNN news executive so will likely be much more familiar with the realities of characters such as these than I can be. Nevertheless, reading the book I was struck by the sickening horror of what was going on but not sufficiently drawn into the various predicaments. There are attempts to build tension through set piece scenes – an underground room containing a shadowed man, clandestine meetings requiring code words and pseudonyms, a broken down train in which other passengers appear inexplicably deaf to pleas for assistance. Actions described in these, including physical violence, are rarely developed further or even referenced.

Marie is obviously a badly damaged individual, doing her best to cope with personal demons but struggling. It is explained why she wanted to be a journalist, and how she landed the role, but this explanation made me question how she had been allowed to survive. I wanted to be rooting for her – of course I did – but cold-blooded criminals, particularly those holding high office, find ways to quietly dispatch inconvenient witnesses or those they believe have reneged on agreements.

The denouement suggests a degree of closure but I was left with too many unanswered questions. It is depressing to consider how the Carlys and Kayleighs of this world find ways to cope with day to day living after what wicked men and their accomplices have done to them. It may be true that Carly is not entirely innocent – as treatment of Rachel’s character serves to demonstrate. Nevertheless, their experiences deserve to be heard as the author has attempted here.

That I did not derive satisfaction from the tale may be down to the fact that I have read other books exploring similar subject matter that I have gained greater satisfaction from – that expanded my awareness of the logistics of child abuse and slavery beyond the evil perpetrated. This was not a book I enjoyed due to the style of the writing and lack of wider character development. Other readers have looked on it favourably as a thriller but, sadly, it wasn’t for me.

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

Book Review: Absolution

Absolution, by Paul E. Hardisty, is the fourth installment in the author’s Claymore Straker series. It is an all action, adrenaline fuelled thriller in which the protagonist dices with death on numerous occasions attempting to survive and protect his friends. Underlying his stream of misadventures is the question of who he can trust and the motives of every character.

The tale opens in Paris where Rania, now married and a mother to one year old Eugène, is writing in her diary. She addresses her entries to Claymore who she still loves despite leaving him. The reader learns that her husband and son have vanished. The local police investigate their disappearance and Rania finds herself under suspicion. She decides to flee to Cairo under an assumed name.

Claymore, meanwhile, is living aboard his sailboat off the coast of Zanzibar. He has befriended a local woman who lives on the island with her two children. Knowing that he is being hunted, staying in one place for any length of time is dangerous. When assassins arrive, deaths are inevitable.

Determined to find those responsible, Claymore sets sail. As he attempts to track the mercenaries, they are also tracking him. During one of their early clashes, an old acquaintance – Crowbar – appears and together they set sail for Kenya. Claymore learns of Rania’s plight and decides to travel to Cairo in order to help her, as she requested.

The trials Rania is facing are told through her diary entries, in chapters interspersed between those detailing Claymore’s escapades. Both must evade the deadly hunters without knowing who these people are or if their motives go beyond revenge. The pair have seemingly endless supplies of currency to offer as bribes but any who try to help them end up endangered. Their skills keep them alive but also draw unwanted attention.

As in the previous instalments of this series, there are environmental and political threads. Egypt in the 1990s – when the story is set – was a country ravaged by corrupt dictators whose armies were akin to the terrorists they blamed for atrocities used as reason for further suppression. Where there is civil war, there is money to be made.

The plot twists and turns as Claymore travels across Africa while Rania fights for her life in Cairo. The former uses firearms and physical endurance. The latter must rely on her cunning and wits. As their plotlines converge, the reader gains some understanding of why they are in such danger.

There are many characters to place and the action is unrelenting. Roles eventually become clearer but for much of the book the story is of: perilous encounters, life-threatening battles and challenging journeys. The author is not afraid to kill his darlings, with those who survive coming through scathed.

The tension weaves through the many threads and their interlinks. The denouement offers a reminder that righteous people can be radicalised, but that religious belief can also be a power for good. Whilst I may question if the reach of any organisation could be as effective and above the law as that depicted, it is chilling to consider how much electronic tracking is now done in clear sight and without much consideration.

This is a fine thriller offering plenty of important issues to consider without compromising the protagonist’s willingness to enact his deadly skills. No easy answers are offered in a ride that, though flexuous, remains engaging. Escapism grounded in a world that is disturbingly familiar.

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

Book Review: Winterkill

Any crime fiction fans who have not yet read Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series should rectify this as soon as possible. Set in the small town of Siglufjörður, northern Iceland, this is claustrophobic noir delivered with aplomb. The voice given to the protagonist, Ari Thór Arason, conveys much about the difficulties this young man faces in his personal life. By ‘showing not telling’ the focus of each book remains on the crime to be solved. It is refreshing to have intimate scenes presented without unnecessary, voyeuristic detail. Characters have depth and nuance but exist to provide tension and pace to the story.

In this, the final installment in the excellent series, Ari Thór is now a police inspector. He and a young rookie cop are the only employees based at the town’s police station – not a problem when crimes tend to be few and minor. Set over an Easter holiday weekend, the tale opens with the discovery of a teenage girl found dead in the street with a terrible head wound. Initial impressions are that she took her own life by jumping from the balcony of an adjacent building.

Early on we learn that Ari Thór is separated from his partner, Kristín, who has moved to Sweden with the couple’s son, three year old Stefnir. Kristín and Stefnir are due to visit Siglufjörður, to enable father and son to spend time together. Ari Thór’s work ethic had been a bone of contention in his relationship with Kristín so he is concerned that this new case will impinge on his plans for family time. He cannot, however, do his job without following all leads that come to light. 

The dead girl turns out to be the sheltered, only daughter of a couple who now live apart. The mother is convinced she knew everything about her daughter’s life. The father flies in from America to harangue Ari Thór about his handling of what happened. Neither parent believes their child would have committed suicide. They expect the inspector to uncover a murderer.

Meanwhile, an old man in a local care home writes a disturbing message on his bedroom wall. Is this connected to the recent death or is it something from his past, coming to light as his dementia muddles memory timelines?

Many of those Ari Thór questions come from families who have lived in Siglufjörður for generations. Although he has now worked in the town for seven years – during which time it has changed markedly as tourism increases – he still feels at times like an outsider. He is not familiar with the many familial links that have proved important in tying threads of past cases together. He misses his old boss, and is struggling to build the same rapport with his cocky, junior officer.

Ari Thór’s desire to spend time with his son must be balanced against his need to solve the case satisfactorily. With a violent storm approaching there is an undercurrent of impending crisis – difficult decisions to be made about the future. 

The writing is as well paced and engaging as previous installments in the series. The denouement is satisfying without compromising what has gone before.

I pick up little crime fiction these days as so much merged after reading and I prefer stand out books. The Dark Iceland series is an exception. Winterkill provides a Stygian story with a somehow hopeful conclusion for readers to enjoy.

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

Book Review: Turbulent Wake

“No one wants to admit that we are all fucked up, that we are all imperfect, vain, frightened, too easily flattered, so readily tempted. Christ, I sound like the Old Testament.
And yet we go on with our fictions, our made-up lives, trying to mirror some television or internet ideal of who we should be, what we should look like, how we should act.”

Turbulent Wake, by Paul E. Hardisty, opens in Canada where a young boy, Warren, is lying in bed hoping for the snowfall that will transform his neighbourhood. He is ‘warm and safe and excited’. He is at the beginning of a long life that he will recount in snapshots, explaining its course and decisions made with hindsight.

Each chapter tells the story of a key event in the boy’s life between his birth and his death. Interspersed with these are the reflections of his estranged son, Ethan, who is reading through the manuscripts, found in a house left to him in his father’s will. As each story is finished lingering questions are answered about Ethan’s childhood and the father he has long resented for repeatedly sending him away.

“You never really know anyone. Especially the ones you love.”

Ethan is an insurance salesman in his forties whose career has stalled. He lives in London, is divorced from the professionally successful Maria and hated by their ten year old daughter. He knows that his life is a mess but not how to fix it. He feels emasculated. Maria wanted a man who would willingly help with childcare and housework. She regards Ethan as selfish for not fitting her ideal.

“Everything now seems an exercise in control – hold back my emotions, rein in my temper, restrain the physical side of myself, that part of me that always felt the most natural, the most real.”

Warren led a life that took him around the world. As a child, his family moved regularly. Growing up, he wanted to be: a soldier, a pilot, a writer. Eventually he ends up an engineer. Warren survives horrific incidents and personal tragedy. He tries to be a good person but often fails. Around him he observes a world being increasingly ravaged and reflects on the effects of man’s egocentric behaviour.

“the forces of greed were inestimably more powerful than the endeavours of any one person.”

“he knew that none of these good and perfect places was safe from the cutting and mining and the plunder”

“what was irreplaceable had become inconsequential”

In learning of Warren’s personal life, viewing him through a lens few children are capable of accepting is their parent, Ethan’s life view subtly shifts. Warren comes to question how anyone can channel their actions to benefit those left behind given their and societies’ imperfections. He acknowledges his mistakes, recognised in hindsight. Warren speaks to Ethan through his writing as doing so in person would have required his son to listen without prejudice – something loved ones, those directly affected, can rarely achieve.

Neither Warren nor Ethan are inherently bad men but they struggle to fit into the expectations of the women and children in their lives. An underlying thread throughout the story is the change in how men are required to be.

“All he wanted to do was make her proud, be worthy of her. He wanted to change. That’s the secret. You have to want to change. The only thing was, she couldn’t change him enough.”

“who is this guy she thought she wanted? Be all the things a traditional man is supposed to be: strong, protective, financially secure, generous, all that shit. But she also wanted me to be, what can I say? […] I was never the man she thought I could become”

The writing is succinct and absorbing with thought-provoking themes and threads. Although many of these could be viewed as dispiriting there is a hopefulness in the direction they take. Pleasure and appreciation in the natural world is granted significance despite how it is being stripped and despoiled. There is a reminder that, whatever mistakes have been made, while there is life there is a chance to do better moving forward.

An affecting story of relationships and the inherent difficulty in openly communicating with those whose opinion is valued. More than this though it is a wider exploration of what position an individual chooses to occupy in their world, and the legacy this leaves for those who come after.

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

Book Review: Trap

Trap, by Lilja Sigurðardóttir (translated by Quentin Bates), is the second novel in the author’s Reykjavik series of crime thrillers. I have not read the first. While the story holds together as a standalone I wondered if the limited backstory, which brought new readers up to speed, contributed to my inability to sympathise with any of the characters. Perhaps had I better understood how they ended up in the difficulties they must now face I would have felt more concern over their fates. It is hard to care for drug runners and murderers no matter how much they love those dear to them.

Opening in April 2011, in a trailer park in sunny Florida, Sonja wakes from an unplanned nap to realise that her young son, Tómas, is not where she expected. The pair are on the run from Adam, the boy’s father. He is furious that Sonja has thus far evaded him.

Forced to return to Iceland and resume her job as a drugs courier, Sonja contacts her former lover, Agla, for assistance. Neither of the women appear to understand what the other works as. Theirs is an unbalanced relationship based on sexual attraction – a driving lust and its associated jealousies.

Following the financial crash Agla’s money laundering activities are under investigation. What the authorities are unaware of is their size and reach. Needing to clear a large debt she schemes with others working the financial markets to pull off a lucrative deal. She has many associates who will benefit, operating in powerful places.

As both women call on their contacts in an attempt to extricate themselves from official attention and underworld danger, their games of cat and mouse are surveilled by circling predators. Agla’s activities have come under scrutiny from a diligent investigator at the special prosecutor’s office. Sonja finds herself caught between drug barons vying for power on both sides of the Atlantic, including Adam who is using Tómas as leverage. Even when supposed kingpins are taken down there is always another ready to step into the vacated space.

It is not hard to believe that this is how the mega wealthy operate, and that they will always have minions seeking to increase their personal power and influence by whatever means. The observations on the men involved – driven by ego and unwilling to admire any woman’s superior contribution to their business – were familiar.

Sonja’s strength and resilience were sometimes irritatingly erratic – perhaps this was an attempt to make her appear more human by showing occasional weakness.

Agla misunderstands love, associating it with some form of ownership and control, as did Adam. Despite being clear headed and capable in business she too suffers weaknesses – her egocentric attitude to Sonja, and cocaine.

The writing and structure maintain the tension as each character takes risks and encounters danger. The movement of drugs and money is portrayed as beyond the control of authority – above the law due to the influence of the globally wealthy. Although the story held my interest and attention I found this, and the way key characters were willing to behave in extremis, somewhat depressing to read.

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

Book Review: The Man Who Died

“Death only comes round once in a lifetime”

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen (translated by David Hackston), is a thriller written with a wicked sense of humour. Set in Finland during a sultry summer, it opens with the protagonist, thirty-seven year old Jaakko Kaunismaa, being told by his doctor that he will die soon, possibly within the next few days. Jaakko has been slowly poisoned, irreparably damaging vital organs. This news comes as something of a shock as Jaakko believed he had flu and would be cured with a course of antibiotics. With death imminent he is determined to discover who has done this to him.

Still in shock, Jaakko seeks out his wife, Taina, for advice. He finds her in a compromising position with one of their employees. While digesting this second piece of new and unwelcome information he starts to suspect that she may be behind the poisoning. Taina is a skilled cook and prepares most of what Jaakko eats. If he is to confront her he requires proof.

Jaakko is CEO of a moderately successful mushroom processing and distribution company. Recently, competitors have set up beside his factory. Run by three local thugs they threaten Jaakko and headhunt key members of his staff. With his life close to its end Jaakko decides that he wishes to save the business and ensure it does not all go to his suspected murderer.

From being a comfortable but unexciting boss, Jaakko proposes innovative changes to operations. This sudden switch in personality surprises everyone, not least his wife. The competitors are impatient with Jaakko’s refusal to do as they demand and threaten violence. In a bizarre series of events the police become involved and Jaakko is forced into hiding. He discovers that Taina is planning something to do with the business and is determined to thwart her.

Plans require immediate action as Jaakko may have little time left. He must also battle the symptoms which can, at times, be debilitating. He requires assistance but must be clever in bringing on board those who he previously had little to do with. Imminent death brings into sharp focus what must be achieved when reacting to unfolding events. While there is still life though, there are also typically human vanities and concerns. These are portrayed with sympathy, gently mocking at times but empathetic.

This is a clever and entertaining take on the thriller genre, offering unexpected twists with just a touch of the surreal. Coming face to face with one’s demise may sharpen focus but death is, after all, a prospect anyone living could face on any given day. Deftly written with a satisfying originality this is a warm and witty but still suspenseful read.

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

Book Review: Whiteout

Whiteout, by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates), is the fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English by Orenda Books. At the beginning of this instalment the protagonist, policeman Ari Thór Arason, is once again working in the small fishing town of Siglufjörður in northern Iceland. His former boss, Tómas, has moved to Reykjavik where he has joined the city force’s Serious Crimes Department. Neither is completely happy in their roles.

When the body of a young woman, Ásta Káradóttir, is discovered beneath cliffs near the deserted village of Kálfshamarsvík, Tómas feels he must prove himself to his new colleagues by uncovering how she came to die. He eschews their offers of help preferring to call on Ari Thór for assistance. Together they travel to the scene of the investigation, in a remote, northern location which has a chequered history and harbours many secrets. Ásta’s mother and sister were found dead at the same spot more than twenty years before. The policemen question if each of these deaths could have been accident, suicide or something more sinister.

In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. The cliffs are located by a large house, a lighthouse and a nearby farm, with little else close by. The residents of these properties have barely changed in the decades over which the story is set. Parents have died, their children grown, but few have moved on.  Although Ásta was sent to live with a distant aunt when she was seven years old, shortly after her sister’s death, those who knew her as a child remain.

Ari Thór and Tómas set about questioning their potential witnesses and suspects. An elderly brother and sister, Oskar and Thora, live in the basement of the big house and work as housekeeper and caretaker. The house is owned by Reynir who inherited the property and a successful business from his father and spends time there regularly. Living on the nearby farm is Arnor who looks after Reynir’s horses and helps Oskar with his duties at the lighthouse. All were close by at the times of each of the three tragic deaths.

Post-mortem examination shows that Ásta had sex shortly before she died yet the men deny involvement. Her body was found on rocks but there is a possible head injury from another cause. Her mother and sister’s deaths were officially regarded as suicide and accident. Rumours float to the surface that Ásta, when a child, may have witnessed more than has been acknowledged. The policemen’s questions bring to light historic behaviours that those involved sought to suppress. Then another body is discovered within the big house.

The story is set in the days leading up to Christmas which everyone is eager to celebrate for a variety of reasons. To avoid problems encountered in previous years, Ari Thór has brought his heavily pregnant girlfriend, Kristin, along with him to the hotel where they are staying. The author does not introduce plot threads without reason. Knowing this adds to the tension.

I was eager to review this book as I have followed Ari Thór through each of his adventures to date and grown fond of this young man trying so desperately to do something worthwhile with his life alongside creating the happy family of his imagination. He resents having missed out on this himself. His flaws are not of excess but rather a struggle to deal with his past and accept Kristen’s individuality. The ghosts haunting all the characters are the secrets they have tried to bury.

The writing is effortlessly captivating with a brooding quality that ensures plot direction remains actively unsettling. The reader’s eagerness to understand how and why is gradually rewarded. The denouement is accomplished yet retains a degree of ambiguity.

An entertaining read from a master storyteller that is crime fiction yet avoids the genres sometimes cliched predictability. I hope this is not the final book in what is a fabulous series. Highly recommended.

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

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

Whiteout is published by Orenda Books.

 

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.

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.