‘The Shadows’ – Alex North

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication, and for the author for scaring me rigid with this foray into darkness that goes way beyond my worst nightmares.

This is, by its nature, a complex tale with a large cast of characters and taking place over many years. It focuses on the discovery of a child’s body, almost decapitated, surrounded by bloody handprints. Two boys are taken into custody having confessed to the murder, and the Detective investigating has a strange feeling about this case.

There are, indeed, links with other events and we quickly switch focus to a lecturer called Paul Adams. I don’t want to give too much away here, but we first meet Paul as a teen when the police take him in for questioning in a murder. A mutual friend has confessed to the murder (a body almost decapitated and surrounded by bloody handprints), and another friend has disappeared. Paul is cleared of any involvement, but he feels guilt for some reason. Of course, we want to know why.

Over time we learn some of the circumstances surrounding this situation. We learn about Paul as a teen and his worries about the influence one of his peer group, Charlie Crabtree, has over others. Charlie is presented as a rather disturbed individual, certainly manipulative, but we’re never sure how much of this is a real fear. However, having never been seen following these tragic events this is a character we’re definitely keen to know more about.

Having returned to his hometown for the first time in years when his mother becomes ill, Paul is a character that I was never wholly certain wouldn’t suddenly be revealed to be completely unreliable. He’s hiding things, and some of these revelations will have you shaking your head in disbelief.

It’s not spoiling anything to say that our questions are answered and a number of mysteries are cleared up. There’s a certain amount of gore and yet my overwhelming feeling at the end was a sense of wistfulness for the many losses that took place through this story.


‘The Lost Soul Atlas’ – Zana Fraillon

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this in advance of publication.

We know little about Twig, but when he wakes up at the start of the book we’re told he is in the Afterlife. He is in a world like nothing he’s ever seen before, and his guide through is a raven called Kurrk! who gets more than a little frustrated at Twig’s refusal to follow the rules expected of him. With just an atlas and an assortment of other objects, Twig determines to find his way to the other side and to avoid the guardians looking for him.

During his journey we learn a little more about Twig and his life on the streets. We’re never entirely sure what happened to his Da, and whether the creature he calls the Hoblin is really his gangland grandmother or a made-up thing. We find out a little about his life on the streets and how – along with petty thief Flea – he is forced to steal to survive.

While Twig’s life is not one you would aspire to, he has a bond with those he lives with that is to be envied. Fraillon uses these characters to highlight some of the injustices in the modern world, while the magical elements keep it from being too bleak.


‘When She Was Good’ – Michael Robotham

Call it an oversight on my part, but I have to confess to not having read the first book in this series. While I do think it might have helped me understand better the dynamics between our two main characters, there was enough here for this book to stand alone (and I’m hoping when I go back and read the first book it will offer a different perspective on some events).

The story focuses on psychologist Cyrus Haven who has his own demons, but this time it’s about a young girl – Angel Face, or Evie Cameron as he has come to know her – and Cyrus’s attempts to help her remain hidden when people from her past come looking for her. Through Evie’s memories and Cyrus’s investigations we learn a little more detail about what led to Evie being found at the age of ten in an abandoned house with the dead body of a petty criminal who had been tortured. Nobody is meant to know who the young girl found at this infamous crime scene is, but Cyrus does and through his work someone has come to make the connection.

It’s not giving anything away to say that Evie’s past is closely linked to some very important people and a suspected paedophile ring. We suspect a number of those who Cyrus comes into contact with, but we do eventually get some answers – even if not everything is tied up cleanly.

There are some unpalatable details, and hints of a darkness that is quite unimaginable. Given that a lot of detail is told through Evie’s memories/her perspective we are not given too much (which I’m pretty grateful for), though what we are told is enough to sicken and make the reader root firmly for Cyrus and those trying to put an end to such horrors.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and I’m looking forward to digging out book one and seeing how it began.


‘The Damned’ – Renée Ahdieh

In this second instalment of the series, we start to get answers to some of the questions that so niggled me in the opening.

This time round we begin with the aftermath of what took place with Celine and Bastien. Celine has asked for her memories to be removed in exchange for letting Bastien live. He has been turned into a vampire, thus breaking an old agreement that looks as if it’ll cause trouble. She seems to be settling into her new life, even looking forward to a future with Michael Grimaldi, but we soon learn she is not fully unaware of her past experiences.

The answers behind Celine’s immunity to the mind-altering came as something of a surprise (I wondered if there were details I’d missed from earlier). I enjoyed her determination to be true to herself, in spite of what those around her say, though it didn’t really seem that we were in a particularly different time.

It won’t come as any surprise to see Bastien and Celine are more closely linked than people might like them to be. We get hints of a much bigger picture, and the references to the past and the other worlds suggest that there could be exciting times ahead.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication.


‘The Dead Girl Under the Bleachers’ – Donna M. Zadunajsky

The Dead Girl Under the Bleachers opens with the murder of an unnamed girl. We know this event is taking place late at night, before the weekend, and that whoever kills the girl blames her for something. Then we cut back in time to allow the author to build up to the why and where, and dropping little clues about the who.

I think the first thing to say about this story is it’s ridiculously over the top in content and style. The characters walking round in this book are, to put it mildly, deranged and if you were to experience just one hint of the craziness going on here you’d walk away. By the time we get to the end I was almost laughing at how preposterous this story had become.

Our story focuses on a trio of girls. There’s bitchy Mayor’s daughter, Scarlet, who is a bully used to everyone jumping to do her bidding just because. We have her best friend, Rachel, who doesn’t like her all that much but who recognises that small-town popularity has its advantages. Lastly, there’s loner Laura who used to be friends withRachel but who has kept herself to herself since her brother and father were killed in a crash and her mother has become an abusive drunk.

For reasons that make little sense – like much of this – Scarlet decides that she wants to humiliate Laura and tries to befriend her in an attempt to cause maximum hurt. In the process, Rachel and Laura become friendly again and start to unearth some awful secrets about those around them.

There are so many skeletons tumbling out of closets here that it’s hard to know which way to turn. The casual misogyny and use of traumatic experiences for entertainment seems callous – perhaps it’s meant to mean something, but it comes across as cheap. I find it hard to believe such things would take place without anyone being suspicious, but we do build to some answers and some of the worst things are dealt with.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication. If you like Pretty Little Liars then this could be up your street, but it really would be a stretch to say I’d enjoyed it or would recommend it to others.


‘Home Before Dark’ – Riley Sager

In spite of the relatively eye-watering price it cost to get my hands on this, it was most definitely worth it. Home Before Dark is a book that depends on you not knowing certain details, but even having finished it I think it could stand up to a repeat reading to look for the clues I missed first time round.

Every house has a story to tell and a secret to share we’re told. Maggie Holt’s life has come to be defined by her parents’ ill-fated decision to buy ‘fixer-upper’ Baneberry Hall when she was a child. The family only lived there for 21 days – and something so awful took place within those walls that they fled one night, never to return.

Everyone in the surrounding area – and many others – seems to know the story of Baneberry Hall as Maggie’s father released a book chronicling their short time there. From the time they look around the property we know there is something odd going on. There are the ubiquitous paranormal hints with strange noises, unexplained atmospheric changes and events that would – with no exceptions – have most people scared…snakes appearing from the kitchen ceiling, record players mysteriously starting to play and repetitive thumping noises. The history of the house doesn’t help – with a number of unexplained deaths and the murder/suicide of the most recent owners.

We don’t learn much of this until some time later. Upon the death of her father, Maggie learns that she has now become the owner of Baneberry Hall and although nobody in her family wants her to return, she is determined to do so. Much as I questioned this, I do understand that with so much of her life defined by this book and the events described within its pages she wants answers. And, boy, does she get them!

I loved the way this book told us about Maggie’s experience in the present but interspersed it with excerpts chronicling the story of her father and mother, and what happened to the family. This was a great way of divulging snippets to help establish what happened while maintaining the tension created.

There are – as you might expect – a number of attempts to throw us off the scent. It was, in hindsight, clear that things were not quite as Maggie had been led to believe but I was open-mouthed as we reached the climactic moments…I can’t wait for others I know to read this and then to be able to discuss it with them.
Highly recommended.


‘Thirteen Storeys’ – Jonathan Sims

I received this book from Secret Readers, and was initially attracted by the suggestion of different tales merging to form a coherent whole. I was unsure about the extent to which this story could hold attention, but I feel it works overall.

Our main focus is the wealthy businessman Tobias Fell, who is found dead in his penthouse apartment. Nobody knows what happened to him and there are no signs of anything untoward. On the night of his death there were a number of guests from the building he owns invited to his home. None of them claim to have seen anything or know anything. What on earth happened?

Having told us there is something unusual about this occurrence, we are then given thirteen different stories. Each of these focuses on a different character, and the only thing they have in common is that they live in the building and have been experiencing strange events.

Naturally, some of the stories were more interesting than others. Few of the characters were particularly likeable, and each had something about them that appeared to make them unusual in some way. What was quickly clear, though, was that this building was not a positive place.

As the stories progressed I did feel that things were becoming a little repetitive. However, in light of the overall story – and once we have the closing scenes that we have spent the book waiting for – it becomes clear that this makes sense.

This was a little more graphic in parts than I was expecting, and I’m still unsure how much of this was real and how much was imagined. However, it certainly made clear the sometimes the real horror can be much closer to home!


‘More Than Maybe’ – Erin Hahn

A love story written by someone who I imagine is obsessed with matching moments to music, this is a contemporary that deserves to be fallen in love with.

Our main characters are Luke Greenly, son of a rather famous British punk musician, and Vada Carsewell, daughter to an ex-musician and determined to follow her dreams of being a music journalist. Luke, along with his twin Callum, hosts a regular podcast and Vada is desperately trying to help keep her boss’s bar afloat (not least because it forms a major part of her plans). It could only be this way, but each harbours a secret crush…on each other…so we get to watch as they get thrown together for a college assignment and then start to develop their relationship.

Alongside the love story between these two, we get a lot of attention on their family set-ups as they’re instrumental to the choices these two make. Some of the characters are more appealing than others, but the general vibe is a positive one that you can’t help but smile at. I defy anyone not to be full of love, rainbows and sparkly unicorns (or whatever else signifies happiness to you) by the closing moments.

What made this book stand out for me though was the obvious love of music and the significance it can hold for us as we go about our business. Huge thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before publication, and now I need to go and dig out some old music!

‘The Day She Came Back’ – Amanda Drowse

Victoria is eighteen, about to travel with her best friend and a little nervous about leaving her beloved grandmother Prim behind. Our opening quickly establishes the loving relationship Victoria has with her grandmother, and alerts us to the fact that there are no other family members in this relationship. So it is something of a shock at the end of the opening chapter when Victoria returns home to find her grandmother dead in her gardening chair.

What follows clearly establishes the shock and upset you might experience at the sudden death of a family member. Victoria sleepwalks through the days immediately following the discovery, unsure how to feel or act now her only living family member has left her.

You can only begin to imagine the maelstrom of feelings experienced by Victoria at this point. So when, at the funeral, a woman turns up who claims to be Victoria’s mother it really is hard to know what to think/feel.

The book follows Victoria as she takes on this news and tries to work out what to do. She has always been told her mother died when she was young, so it’s understandable to see her upset/anger/confusion/excitement at this point. She takes the decision to find out more, and then we watch as these two start to unpick the choices that led them to the position they are in, and to try to work out how to move forward with this new information.

I loved reading this, even though it was heavy on the emotional elements that in real life are so confusing. The author depicted the mix of emotions so clearly, and it was hard to feel anything other than understanding and compassion for each of those involved.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in advance of publication in exchange for offering my honest thoughts.


‘Last Lesson’ – James Goodhand

Ollie Moorcombe, pianist and star student, about to take his GCSEs and seemingly on the brink of great things. Yet Ollie seems to be hanging on by a thread. On his last day of school he arrives with a home-made pipe bomb in his bag…how did it ever get to this stage?

We cut between past and present as we learn a little more about Ollie. We learn about the bullying he has endured at the hands of his classmates. We learn about the relationship he has with his grandpa, who he lives with as his mum is receiving treatment for schizophrenia. We learn that he fears for his life as he receives daily threats from some of his more sadistic classmates. And we learn something of the catalyst for some of these events – the death of his Aunt Kaye in a car crash, which Ollie was also part of.

There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a tough read. Graphic accounts of sexual violence, the flashbacks to the car accident and the details about Ollie’s treatment do not make for a comfortable read. The subject matter of a planned school bombing is scary – and getting into the mindset of the person planning it doesn’t make it any easier.

While it was easy to see some of the signs surrounding Ollie’s behaviour as potential triggers, it doesn’t go anywhere near explaining fully why he plans what he does. The author ensures we feel some sympathy for Ollie, which makes what he’s planning even more chilling. Seeing the decline in his mindset/behaviour was worrying, and not least because someone should have seen things were not right and done more. I got cross at all the missed signs that could have minimised the damage caused, and it certainly examines the toxic culture surrounding boys and mental health issues. I also found myself increasingly unnerved by the voice of Ollie, which was – perhaps – the first indication that this seemingly straightforward story was a little more complex than we might have been led to believe.

This will not be a book for everyone, but I do feel it raises important questions. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this and offer my honest thoughts prior to publication.