‘A Slow Fire Burning’ – Paula Hawkins

A Slow Fire Burning is most definitely not a fast-paced read, with a host of unlikeable characters, yet I still found myself caught up in the story and keen to know exactly how the various elements combined.

Our story opens with the body of a young man being found on a houseboat. His throat has been slit. A young woman, covered in blood, was seen walking nearby earlier on the day his body was found and it seems as if things are quite straight-forward. Of course, the truth is far more complicated.

Caught up in the story are writer Theo Myerson; his ex-wife, Celia; Celia’s sister, Angela; the dead boy, Daniel; Miriam, who lives on a houseboat next to where Daniel was found; Laura, a vulnerable young woman and her friend Irene, an elderly woman who lives next door to Angela. Each of them has things they would prefer remain hidden, and it doesn’t take us long to work out that they are linked…but the finer details are not all clear until quite late on.

The story – out of necessity – jumps backwards and forwards in time. We have extracts from the fictional novel written by Theo and there were moments throughout the book where I found myself feeling close to figuring out links, only to discover that it wasn’t quite what I thought.

While I enjoyed the overall idea, it did feel like it took rather a long time to get going. Some of the links were tenuous at best, and I found myself quite irritated by the portrayal of Laura. As with a number of the characters, there was a lot about them that I wanted to know which wasn’t covered – perhaps in order to keep our focus on the main story – but it left me with a sense of incompleteness.

 

‘Dinner Party: A Tragedy’ – Sarah Gilmartin

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this in advance of publication.
Dinner Party focuses on food and the role it plays in our lives, binding us to others and being part of celebrations as well as something that can be used to cause pain. Our main character is a young woman who it becomes clear has an eating disorder and who is struggling to cope with the death of her twin. Kate is a difficult character to engage with. There’s a veneer of hardness to her, and it always feels rather as if she’s keeping others at a distance in order to manage her emotions. We learn little about her and I’m sure this is deliberate, but it meant I found my attention wandering rather.
The story was written in a way that I could recognise as having quality, but – honestly – my overwhelming feeling as I read was of anticipation, waiting for something to happen to suggests purpose to the events described. Nothing did.
As the focus shifts in time and we see fragments of Kate’s interactions over time it always felt as if something was being held back. While her brothers were sympathetically portrayed they were weak in the face of their manipulative mother. This was not a family that I warmed to and it was frustrating that so much of my attention during reading was trying to establish what, if anything, might happen.
I’ve been lucky enough to be included in the blog tour for this, so I won’t post my review until the day of my scheduled involvement.

 

‘The Whistling’ – Rebecca Netley

The Whistling is a hauntingly atmospheric story, set on a remote Scottish island and harnessing all the elements of Gothic tales to create a richly satisfying read.

Elspeth is a young woman, left upset after the recent death of her sister, who has come to a remote Scottish island to look after a young girl called Mary. From the moment she arrives she hears strange tales of the house and its inhabitants, the seeds of distrust are sewn and we watch as Elspeth tries to uncover exactly what is happening.

Her young charge is mute and suffers extreme nightmares. Elspeth quickly succumbs to the charms of feeling useful and developing a bond with this young girl who has not spoken since the death of her brother. No one can establish what has happened, but rumours circulate the island and the sense of oppression and menace grows.

As the story progresses we focus on the background to some of the characters, and the development of the suitably eerie island they call home. Unexplained events and strange noises are made to seem quite terrifying, and yet I admired the strength of character shown by Elspeth as she tries to navigate this place.

Perhaps this is to be expected, but our heroine makes mistakes and her own shortcomings are exploited perfectly by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The final stages of the book shifted in a not wholly unexpected direction, though I have to say the actual revelation was deftly handled.

This was a book I found myself immersed in, and I’m grateful to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read it prior to publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.

 

‘Breathless’ – Amy McCulloch

Be bothered…this is the mantra that our main character has taken to heart. Be bothered to check your equipment. Be bothered to take note of your surroundings. This mantra could well save her life.

Cecily Wong is known in the press as the Snowdon hero. The woman who stayed with a climber who fell, who guided emergency services to the site. But sometimes what happens on the mountains isn’t clear-cut and Cecily knows that better than anyone.

When Cecily is promised an exclusive interview with mountaineer Charles McVeigh it’s on the understanding that she makes the summit of one of the world’s highest mountains-his final climb in his quest to climb the fourteen highest mountains without oxygen or fixed lines.

To anyone with climbing experience this man would seem pretty incredible. To anyone without climbing experience you might think this man is slightly mad. Is either response justified?

Cecily is determined to overcome her own fears in order to get this interview. Once on the mountain she is struck by some unusual circumstances and is convinced someone might be out to cause harm. Altitude-induced paranoia, or a creeping sense of unease that she would be wise to listen to?

This is a thriller that you cannot fail to get caught up in. Twists and turns aplenty, some breathtaking mountain descriptions and some utterly terrifying scenarios that had me desperate to see how things would resolve. The talk of the thriller of 2022 might well be justified, and I’m so grateful to NetGalley and the publishers for allowing me to read this early.

 

‘The Prank’ – L.V. Matthews

A prank is defined as being a bit of harmless fun. But what do you do if someone else’s fun causes another person pain? At what point should an innocent bystander intervene? And is it ever right to have such moments of humiliation recorded publicly?
El has been a different person since her father committed suicide. She knew he had depression, but had repressed her memories of the build-up to his death after finding his body. However, when a famous TV exec – who just so happens to be the producer of an infamous reality show called Pranksters – is served in her restaurant, El starts to remember things. She recalls her father being deeply affected by a prank that meant he felt responsible for the death of a young man. She eventually remembers the link between her father and this show.
Determined to avenge her father, a rather elaborate plan is hatched. El wants revenge, but is – as many of us would be – wholly clueless. She is not suspicious when an online search results in a friendly reply from someone calling themselves Horsehead who wants to help her. Alarm bells rang from the off, but it was great fun watching El worm her way into Jim’s life and start her preparations to bring him down…wholly unaware that someone else was pulling the strings all along.
The story was well-plotted and I loved the fact that nobody was quite what they seemed. Dig a little and it seems many people have something to hide, but there was a grim sense of satisfaction from watching how events unfolded.

 

‘My Heart is a Chainsaw’ – Stephen Graham Jones

My Heart is a Chainsaw is a story that had me perplexed for substantial parts…and this may have been deliberate on the part of the author as we struggle to work out what is happening.

Our narrator is Jade, a horror-obsessed teen who is convinced that there is about to be a slasher style killing spree in her town. It starts with the deaths of two tourists, and then Jade maintains events will unfold in a very specific way. In amongst her retelling of events, we have her supposed papers for school credit detailing her obsession with the horror genre and its various tropes. Having only a passing acquaintance with the genre I couldn’t say how accurate Jade’s prophecies were…but the knowledge and sense of dark humour really made me react to this more positively than I was expecting.

At around the midway point I really struggled to tell what was in Jade’s head and what was happening. She, it is clear, is suffering her own trauma and the events she’s involved in certainly link to this. I wish this had been more apparent earlier as I almost stopped reading, uncertain what was happening.

However, as we build to Jade’s dramatic moment there’s a grim inevitability to events that made me feel compelled to keep reading.

This will delight horror fans. There’s some gruesome scenes and, yet again, elements of supernatural crossing into our reality. Perplexing, and probably not to everyone’s tastes, but I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication.

 

‘Stranded’ – Sarah Goodwin

 

Stranded is a book that surpassed my wildest dreams…it went far beyond what I expected, and had a haunting quality that will stay with me. This is a book I expected to like, but it was so well-written that I can’t wait to recommend it to others.

The story focuses on eight very different people, cherry-picked by a team of producers to take part in a new reality TV show. They are to be taken to a remote island off the coast of Scotland where their every move will be recorded as they have to live in a new community for a year. As is made clear, something goes terribly wrong and not everyone survives this experience. Of course, we want to know what happens and how, but we are made to wait!

Our main character is Maddy. Something of a loner she wants to participate in the show as a way of escaping her reality after the death of her parents. Fitting in with new people doesn’t come naturally to her, so we are placed in the enviable position of watching things through Maddy’s eyes…outsiders, monitoring the interactions of the group and left to second-guess the motivations of others based on what Maddy tells us about them.

The other group members have – it’s clear – been picked as a way of generating conflict. Things begin positively enough, but it doesn’t take much to set off a deterioration in the group dynamic. All too soon we’re in a Lord of the Flies-style hell, with each of the group fighting for survival.

There was a certain tension that came from knowing that Maddy survived and was being interviewed about her experience. I feared this knowledge would mar the reading experience, but it actually heightened the tension for me since I was desperate to see exactly what had happened and how she’d managed to escape when things looked so very bleak. I also found the introduction of the supernatural at key moments a positive as it illustrated the extreme mental duress she was under.

I can’t thank the publishers and NetGalley enough for allowing me to read this before publication. A truly exciting book…

‘The Man Who Died Twice (Thursday Murder Club 2)’ – Richard Osman

In our second adventure with the members of the murder club we are treated to an outlandish crime, numerous twists, murders aplenty and the kind of healthy disregard for the rules that I assume you might acquire when you reach a certain age.

The Thursday after the events of book one, the club is meeting and we have set in place a most unusual scenario linked to Elizabeth’s past. It involves a rakish ex-husband, twenty million pounds worth of diamonds, the mafia, local shady businesspeople and an ever-increasing number of bodies as events play out.

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim are on fine form once again. Pitting their wits against those who have made a life out of crime the group are terrier-like in their focus and determination to solve this particular puzzle. Bogdan comes into his own, and the involvement of Chris and Donna allows for some amusing side action (though it doesn’t say much about the efficacy of the police). There’s a lot of diversionary wordplay but this does keep the feeling of a cosy mystery when they’re actually confronted with something that would be terrifying.

Great fun, and I’m grateful to the publishers for letting me read a copy in advance of publication.

‘The Fell’ – Sarah Moss

Living in the environment in which this is set, The Fell seemed as if it would encapsulate so much of my own feelings/experiences that I hoped this would be a book I found myself falling in love with. I wasn’t disappointed.

The story is deceptively simple. A mother, Kate, finding the restrictions of lockdown mentally challenging is struggling with the demands of a period of enforced self-isolation. Though it’s illegal, one afternoon she takes her backpack and walks out onto the hills of the Peak District. She doesn’t tell her teenage son she is going, a neighbour sees her leave and says nothing, but when she doesn’t return and night is drawing in the choice is made to call out Mountain Rescue.

Fragments of thoughts and we get a range of perspectives as the hunt for Kate goes through the night. We read the thoughts of Kate, her son, the neighbour – Alice, and mountain rescue volunteer Rob. It was surprisingly easy to read about the thoughts and feelings of each towards the lockdown of November 2020. The nuances of each characters’ reactions to events was well-captured, and though much of the focus tended to the mundane I felt it was an approach that allowed us to reflect on the ideas explored. Where this book won me over was with the descriptions of an environment which I deeply love, but also respect…knowing just how easily it can go wrong.

Thank you to Picador and NetGalley for granting me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication. I’ve already reserved a physical copy and can see myself re-reading this.

‘Medusa’ – Jessie Burton

This is a story that deserves to be told, and is wholly relevant now. Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before its expected October publication.

Medusa is a character so many feel they know. But in Jessie Burton’s reimagining we get another version of Medusa, one that it’s hard to ignore.

Merina, as she calls herself, has spent the last four years secreted away on a deserted island. She is accompanied by her immortal sisters and her dog. Though she is reasonably content, there is no denying the fact that Merina is lonely and bitterly upset by her treatment at the hands of others.

One day she hears a young boy arrive on the island. Though she doesn’t feel she can meet him in person, she takes the time to talk to the boy and learn his story. She trusts him, and even harbours hope that he may be someone who can overlook her physical appearance. But the young boy, Perseus, has his own story.

While this narrative focuses on Medusa it paints a more sympathetic picture and seeks to encourage us to look beneath the judgments of others. It reminded me of the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Medusa’ in its feminist focus on the myth we think we know.

I loved the illustrations in this as they captured the spirit of Medusa, particularly towards the end. The writing was poetic and yet the thing that will remain with me is the haunting depiction of a young girl trying to find her own way in the world.