‘Little Bird’ – Tiffany Meuret

The cover and tagline had me intrigued, but I was unsure exactly how this book would blend horror and magical realism. Having finished it, I’m still not entirely certain I get it.

The story opens with our introduction to Josie, a rather reclusive character who does all she can to minimise interactions with others. Somewhat struggling with the death of her beloved father, Josie keeps her life together with the help of strict routines, her dog (Po) and copious amounts of vodka. When she finds herself visited by a new nosy neighbour who seems determined to befriend her, Josie is concerned at what is to come.

What she could never have foreseen is the arrival in her home of vines that seem to grow with her state of mental health and a skeleton who promises to leave her alone if she tells an original story.

The character of Skelly was, for me, a kind of barometer for Josie’s mental health. I liked that Skelly tries to help Josie regain a sense of purpose, but the whole thing was a little strange.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.

 

‘The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill’ – C.S. Robertson

 

Grace McGill…a character who makes her living out of death, and the undiscovered deaths referred to in the title are not quite what we might believe. Our journey with Grace might seem quite predictable in ways, but it throws up some interesting diversions along the way.

I’ve noticed there’s been an increasing number of characters in books released over the last year or so that are likely to be on the autistic spectrum and Grace is no exception. Socially awkward, lonely, liable to become fixated on certain topics and with a keen sense of right and wrong…Grace ticks a lot of the conventional boxes that alienate her in a neurotypical world. Her choice of job exacerbates the sense of oddness that hangs over Grace, but it’s crucial to what unfolds.

Grace is a death cleaner. She is called to clean up after a body has been discovered – often having lain undisturbed for months, sometimes years. Grace cleans and decontaminates these rooms, preparing them once again to join the normal world. The details given are stomach-churning, but to shy away from them would make us part of the problem. Grace believes that these people she works with, though no longer with us, are victims. Victims of society. The ones that slip through the cracks, with nobody deeming them important enough to check in with. So Grace vows to do her duty and help them leave this world with dignity.

I’ll admit to finding the details about Grace’s work unpleasant but darkly fascinating. I was intrigued by her attitude to her work, and the revelation that she creates these beautiful dioramas of the rooms she encounters struck me as unusual. Grace’s determination to honour each of her clients in representing their final rooms showed her obsessive nature to perfection. So it came as little surprise when she started to notice patterns in the scenes…

When she goes to the police with her observations about a dried daisy being found in two of the rooms she has recently cleaned they virtually laugh her out of the station. Yet Grace is convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye. In her mind, these deaths are related and she is determined to find out how.

It was at this point – a little over halfway through – that the book takes a turn in a rather unexpected direction and shifts into more familiar territory. Grace gets caught up in investigating a decades-old mystery, determined to restore dignity to this young girl who went missing after a holiday with friends. This shift in focus jars initially, and felt a little disappointing after such an intriguing opening, but as things continue it becomes apparent why it’s been done this way.

Grace McGill is not a character that readers will necessarily find endearing. She’s not without her faults, and yet there’s something about her and her story that gets under your skin. As we got given more details about Grace and the mystery of Valerie Moodie it was apparent that there was more to the character of Grace than meets the eye. There were signs throughout the book of what was happening, but it was easy to overlook them or – as I did – think I was reading too much into a throwaway comment. However you come to view Grace it’s hard not to be affected by her final work and what it tells us about her.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this before publication. I can’t wait to see how Grace is received when she makes her way into the world in January 2022.

‘Be Not Far From Me’ – Mindy McGinnis

Mindy McGinnis doesn’t shy away from the topics that many would rather not address. In Be Not Far From Me the mood quickly shifts and it was a lot more graphic than I was expecting. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this exactly, but it certainly was a story I was keen to finish as soon as I could and work out what would happen.

Our main character is Ashley Hawkins. Resourceful and more than a little intimidating if I’m being honest, and the qualities that made her so irritating at the beginning stand her in good stead as the book progresses. When she sets off for a party in the woods with her friends, it should be a welcome start to the summer holidays.

Of course, things have a habit of going wrong when groups of teens assemble in the woods for drunken fun…and this couldn’t have gone more wrong if they were trying!

Ashley definitely sees herself as slightly better than her friends in respect of her ability to navigate in the woods. The party starts well, but Ashley is on edge because her boyfriend’s ex has turned up. She looks amazing, and Ashley is feeling uncomfortable. She drinks more than she might otherwise be tempted to. When she wakes in the middle of the night to relieve herself, she is stunned to stumble across her boyfriend and his ex having sex!

Now, this scenario is not going to be one that many will ever have to face. Heaven only knows what someone would do. Certainly, the urge to flee would be high. However, Ashley runs and doesn’t stop…until she falls and passes out.

What follows is the grimmest fourteen days anyone could hope to experience.

While Ashley is trying to survive and find her way back to humanity, we learn a little more about her and her past. This allowed us to gain a little more understanding of her character, and while I admired her resilience and ability to cope in adversity there was a part of me that wished the details were a little less graphic.

By the time we get to the end of the book, things have developed considerably. Ashley certainly grows as a character and while I don’t begrudge her the relatively happy ending I can’t help think it’s highly improbable.

 

‘The Couple on Maple Drive’ – Sam Carrington

The book opens with a body being carried out of a house on Maple Drive and someone led out in handcuffs. By the end of the book we know the identity of each of these characters, and have been offered the reasons for it.

Isla and Zach are a relatively new couple. They’ve worked together for a while, and after experiencing a violent mugging Isla has been struggling to cope. Zach has moved in to care for her, but as Isla begins to get flashbacks to the night of her attack she starts to wonder whether Zach might know more than he’s letting on. She enlists the help of a group of true-crime enthusiasts and, from this point on, things happen quickly.

What happened is actually signalled fairly early on. I wondered to what extent we were being toyed with, and whether the reality of the situation was more focused on Isla. While there’s something refreshing about things being as they seemed, it felt odd. I felt duped; expecting something clever but then realising it was exactly what it seemed. This is very much more about my expectations than a problem with the book.

The story began, for me, rather slowly. It seemed to take a while to flesh out Isla’s situation and she was a protagonist that it was difficult to warm to. She made dubious decisions and the rapidity with which things escalated was bizarre.

Much of the story hinges on characters that play a peripheral part in events, and things meld together in a way that is quite incredible. It was hard to reconcile the images we’d been given of certain characters with the reality of their actions. Some elements made little sense.

While I had my issues with the book, this was a pretty solid thriller that offers enough to keep you entertained while reading.

 

‘The Christie Affair’ – Nina de Gramont

Due for release early 2022, I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this before publication. The Christie Affair focuses us on the imagined story of what happened when the novelist Christie disappeared for a period of eleven days.

Though I was aware of this period in Christie’s story, I didn’t know any details and I found Gramont’s version of events highly entertaining. I had expected the character of Agatha to play more of a key role in the story but I actually found myself caught up in the story of our narrator.

Our narrator, Nan, is a young woman who has been having an affair with Archie Christie. For reasons that become clear later, she is determined to make a future with him. Obviously, the fact he is married makes this difficult. When Agatha is told about the affair she is angry…and the next thing we know, her car is found abandoned by a nearby lake and there is no trace of her. She’s abandoned her daughter, taken little with her and the worst is assumed about her husband.Though at this stage in her life Christie is not the celebrated author she becomes, she’s certainly known well-enough that her disappearance sparks a nationwide manhunt. Archie is under suspicion, and people are determined to find her/learn what happened.

In spite of her being the other woman, Nan is a likeable character who actually seems more central to events than we might expect. As we unearth Nan’s story it’s unclear how much is true, but she certainly knows how to spin a yarn.

Imagined it may be, but this tale of Christie’s missing days was a cracking read.

 

‘The Grimrose Girls’ – Laura Pohl

The Grimrose Girls makes for an interesting story…death, secrets and a boarding school with a history tinged with odd events. When the book begins we learn that Ari, a student at the school, has recently died. The general consensus is that she committed suicide, but her best friends – Yuki, Rory and Ella – are convinced that she would not have done this and there is more to the story.

Upon their return to school the girls decide to try and investigate. They have to broach some dark secrets and try to address some of the things about themselves they would prefer to keep hidden. It’s unclear who can help them and who might have something to gain from keeping them in the dark.

New girl Nani is given Ari’s place in the school and it’s no surprise that she finds it hard to settle. She has her own secrets and is reluctant to trust others. Determined to find out exactly what caused her father to leave before he got her the place at the famed school, Nani offers to help the girls try to discover what happened to Ari.

Once Nani finds a mysterious book the girls start to realise that there are some disturbing links between Ari’s death and other strange deaths of students that have taken place in the last few years.

I enjoyed the natural way in which we learned about each of the girls and the details of the mystery of the school. Some of the finer points of the story weren’t always explained, but I wonder whether this might be because there’s more details to come in the next book.

 

‘The Raptures’ – Jan Carson

Throughout my reading of this book I found myself puzzling as to who I would recommend this to, and what it is actually about. The plot is straightforward, and a little repetitive, but there is so much more to it that will probably stick with readers. I haven’t read anything by Carson before, so don’t know how it compares to her previous work, but it certainly has a lot to recommend it.

The plot centres on the small village of Ballylack in the early 1990s. This dated it rather, particularly as so much of what was happening in the book seemed to resonate with our current experiences of living through a pandemic, but the reactions of characters to what was happening are not date-dependant. We start with a young boy, Ross, succumbing to a mystery illness. He dies and, slowly, others in his class show similar symptoms. One by one, others in his class die and the impact this has on the village and surrounding community is evident. Desperate for answers, we watch as a small community tries to find answers.

Our primary focus is the character of Hannah, one of Ross’s classmates who has always felt like an outsider due to her father’s religious beliefs. Shunned by her classmates, Hannah wonders why she does not appear to be suffering any of the symptoms shown by her peers. Her family try to keep the news of her apparent immunity from her, but Hannah is keeping her own secrets…she can see the dead children and is having conversations with them about how their lives have changed now they are on the other side.

While the nature of the story unravelling is repetitive, I was taken aback by the emotional impact these events had on the families. Each reacted in the way that made sense to them, and this was certainly something that will strike a chord.

The rapture is a theological belief held by some (particularly more evangelical Christians) that supports the view that all believers will, at the end of the world, rise up and be taken to meet Christ. Religious beliefs certainly play a key role in this novel, and I liked the fact that we see a range of attitudes. Hannah’s Grandpa Pete was definitely a character who I felt a lot of sympathy with. Determined to support his family he does what he thinks is the right thing, and this causes its own problems, raising concerns and addressing tensions.

Without giving away spoilers, this was a story that had a clear cause and effect. The exact details of this are not revealed until a lot later in the novel, and I was shocked by the dilemma raised. Once we learned the origins of the illness, I felt this was sidelined which surprised me.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me the chance to read this before publication.

 

‘Hare House’ – Sally Hinchcliffe

A story that unsettles you, where you’re never quite sure what is behind events and then come to suspect something quite different. As I drew near to the end of the book I was convinced of certain details, only to be surprised by hints that things were quite different.

Hare House is an atmospheric tale, relying on superstition to fully develop the sense of unease. It focuses on a narrator that is definitely unreliable, someone who we are never certain of.

Our unnamed narrator was, as we eventually learn, a teacher in a relatively prestigious girls’ school in London. After an unfortunate incident (which it seems she was more involved in than she wanted to admit) she leaves her post and escapes to a rural home in Scotland. Away from prying eyes she has only her landlord and his younger sister, and the mysterious older neighbour, for company.

As the story progresses we notice odd events taking place. There’s talk of clay models, witchcraft and mysterious things. We’re never entirely sure what is taking place and what’s imagined, or who is responsible. Tensions run high, and not everyone survives the events narrated.

There was a clear sense of the supernatural at play, but it was hard to tell exactly what was happening or who/what was responsible. Many of the issues that caused problems were put down to the behaviour of older single women, and some elements of the story felt too easily linked to existing prejudices.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to review this in exchange for my honest thoughts.

 

‘PAH’ – Orla Owen

I knew nothing about this before starting it, hadn’t heard of the book/author and I had already bought The Lost Thumb (her first book) before finishing on the strength of my reaction.

PAH is a story that explores relationships, and though our main character is not likeable I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her.

Susan Brown is a nurse, desperate to escape her life. She alludes to a past that caused discomfort and the details we get (slowly) help us to understand some of her behaviours. Certainly guilty of some dubious conduct, there was a steeliness to Susan’s attempts to get a husband that surprised me.

Watching the interactions between Susan and Jeffrey was difficult. Both very needy and struggling with their own issues, it was hard to see a way out of things for them. The casual violence and disregard for others was alarming, and there were so many examples of this.

The third character, Calton, to feature in the novel always felt slightly off-kilter. Orphaned as a teen, he was placed in a difficult situation and it took a while to work out how the paths of these characters would cross. When they did, I feared what might happen.

Owen has created a character that is so clearly suffering the effects of trauma, seemingly destined to continue such behaviours, but one you can’t help but feel sympathy for and understanding of. Dark, at times incredibly uncomfortable but also fascinating. I have to thank the online book club for putting me on to this.

 

‘The Man in the Brown Suit’ – Agatha Christie

The Man in the Brown Suit is my first foray into the 2022 Christie challenge, and I knew nothing about it before starting.

Our main character is the spirited Anne Bedingfield, a young woman who is not without intelligence and who finds herself firmly embroiled in a mystery like no other, the mystery concerning the man in the brown suit.

After the death of her father Anne finds herself low on funds but determined to make something of herself. When travelling one day she finds herself caught up in some rather unusual events.

A young man, scared by something he has seen, falls onto the rails and is killed. A doctor in a brown suit attempts to help, but Anne soon realises that this mystery man is far more involved than initially suggested.

With the murder of a Russian ballerina at the home of a respected gentleman, Sir Eustace Pedlar, it seems that there is more to this. Rather than walk away, Anne determines to investigate further and finds herself on a boat headed for South Africa.

The story focuses on Anne’s attempts to work out what’s happened, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between characters who are not all that they seem. Diamonds, double crossing and attempted murders keep the frantic pace going, although it felt the ending rather fizzled out. However, as a first journey into the Christie back catalogue it wasn’t a bad start.