‘Such Pretty Things’ – Lisa Heathfield

Heathfield’s adult debut is definitely in the vein of Henry James, and the emphasis on creepy dolls is enough to send chills down my spine. It offers thrills aplenty and yet didn’t always work for me.

After an accident involving their mother, Cara and her brother Stephen are sent to live with their aunt and uncle. They’ve never met, and yet are thrust into the bosom of their mother’s childhood home. Things are different, and though each looks forward to the experience it soon becomes clear that things will not go as either side hoped.

A rather languid start sets up the oppressive atmosphere in the new home. Cara and Stephen are expected to follow their aunt’s rules. Though she desperately wants them, nothing prepares her for the reality of children. The noise, the capriciousness and the conflict from someone trying to assert their own will on a situation. They never meet their uncle, but his presence is felt through the rules enforced.

Cara fights their new reality. She becomes increasingly upset. Stephen, desperate for a mother’s love, is more willing to adapt his behaviour.

As the children adjust to their new home we are given details that indicate that their aunt is struggling with her mental health after suffering with the miscarriages/deaths of her five pregnancies.

After what seems like a long time, we start to see things unravel in spectacular fashion. Genuinely creepy at this point, and it would have been great to have seen this element introduced earlier/perhaps offering a little more background to their lives. By the time we’re privy to what’s happening, it’s too late to do anything other than look on in horror and wonder how such a thing could happen without anyone being alerted to the oddness of the situation.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

 

‘The Last House on Needless Street’ – Catriona Ward

Immediate response on finishing…wow! Not at all what I expected when I picked it up. Wrong-footed, completely, but I like that. Fascinating subject, encouraging me to feel empathy for characters I was resistant to feel positively towards. Hard to review without giving details away…highly recommended.
I’d seen some cracking reviews of The Last House on Needless Street, and there is a definite buzz developing about this book. Sometimes, that puts pressure on a book to live up to your expectations…but in this case, I think it surpassed all thoughts I had about it.
We’re told little about the story. It’s a story about a serial killer, with part of the story narrated by Olivia who happens to be a cat. Olivia lives with Ted, a man who harbours secrets and who happens to live near a lake where a young girl disappeared years earlier. The young girl’s sister, Dee, is convinced that someone knows more about her sister’s disappearance than was revealed at the time. Thanks to her own investigations, she ends up moving next door to Ted, who she thinks is key to discovering the truth.
From the opening pages it’s clear we’re dealing with some characters who are keeping secrets. I was convinced that we were dealing with something quite straightforward…and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Within a short space of time I found myself captivated by what I was reading. At times, I found myself second-guessing events and desperate for answers as things didn’t go as I expected. As the story developed and we learned further details I found myself developing a highly emotional reaction. It was all too apparent that things were not at all as they seemed.
I really did not expect to have such a sensitive portrayal of such a dark and disturbing subject. This was masterfully presented, and informative in a way that cannot be underestimated. As soon as I’d finished I found myself wishing desperately to be in the enviable position of starting the book again with no idea of what I was about to encounter. I’m insanely jealous of everyone who gets to pick this up for the first time, and I can’t wait to discuss this with others.

 

‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ – Monique Roffey

For such a slim volume this novel holds so much within its pages. A fascinating insight into the lives of those who make their home on the small Caribbean island of Black Conch, a heartfelt romance and a tender exploration of women and their relationships with one another.
The story focuses on the inhabitants of Black Conch in the summer of 1976 when some of them are involved in the capture of a mermaid. Naturally superstitious, the islanders have their reservations about interfering with such a powerful creature. For them the sea holds power and they are wary of what the capture of the mermaid could mean for them. For the white men who chartered the boat which captured the mermaid this is a money-making opportunity.
The opening scenes focus on the capture of the mermaid. Exhilarating in the power depicted, yet from the outset there is a sense of unease about what has taken place.
Daniel, a young man living on the island, determines to rescue the mermaid and return her to sea. Things don’t quite go to plan and she ends up in an old tub in his home. He watches over her, determined to help her escape. Over time he feeds her and watches, astounded, as she turns into a woman. He falls in love with her and is in awe of her. Enlisting the help of Arcadia Rain, a white woman who owns a lot of land on Black Conch, he starts to teach her language and try to assimilate her into island life.
Perhaps inevitably, things don’t end up quite as we might hope. People are disappointed and there are old scores settled with Aycayia placed at the heart of events.
Quite a different read from my usual fare but I was absorbed in this world and found myself desperate to see how things would be resolved.

 

‘The Lamplighters’ – Emma Stonex

The Mystery of Flannan Isle is a poem that has always unsettled me. The idea of three men disappearing from a locked lighthouse, a table laid for an uneaten meal and two stopped clocks is unnerving. The remoteness of the lighthouse setting and the effect of such enforced loneliness seems the perfect make-up for something tragic. The knowledge that what happened might never be known means the story is ripe for imagining.

In The LampLighters Emma Stonex takes the bare bones of this story, transposes them to a remote Cornish setting and goes to town in allowing us to consider what might have taken place.

The mystery is definitely one you want answered, but (rather surprisingly) I’m not at all disappointed by the ambiguity of the ending. A myriad of possibilities are offered, all plausible, and it seems fitting that we remain unsure right to the end.

Stonex splits the narrative between the view of the keepers and their partners. We are given an insight into their lives before this unexplained tragedy and the effect of such an experience on those left behind. We learn the minutiae of life in such a remote setting, and the routines that are adopted to make such a life bearable. Along the way we also learn some less palatable truths about each of those involved in this story.

I end the story no closer to knowing what happened, but I found myself caught up in its telling. Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to publication.

 

‘People We Meet on Vacation’ – Emily Henry

Due for release in May 2021, I was thrilled to be invited by the publishers to read this prior to publication.

Without giving too much away, this is a book where everything seems as if it should go horribly horribly wrong but it works so well.

Our main characters are Poppy and Alex, two very different people, whose first meeting seems as if it will quickly become the kind of meeting that you talk about in years to come with a sense of having escaped something. They are unlike each other in so many ways, and everything one likes the other dislikes. They have little in common – their only shared ground discovered in their first meeting is that they both have an irrational hatred of anyone who calls boats ‘she’. Yet that first meeting sets in place a relationship like no other.

Poppy and Alex spend years on the outskirts of each other’s lives. A remnant of their college years, they spend time each summer on a vacation. Their only stipulation that it should give them the chance to experience something new.

Over the years they’ve had some memorable trips…and we get to catch up with a few of them, learning as we go just what a place these two have for each other.
Alongside learning about their past, we see them in their present. Poppy writing for a travel magazine and based in New York; Alex teaching at his former high school, in the town Poppy couldn’t wait to escape. Still very different, but with a history whose reach is hard to ignore.

It didn’t surprise me to see what happened by the end. That always seemed likely, but it was great to see how they got to this point in their lives.

 

‘Piranesi’ – Susanna Clarke

Piranesi was a shifting, mercurial delight of a story.
I was lucky enough to be granted access to an ARC of the audiobook narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I found myself carried along by it. There were moments where I found meaning elusive, and we’d be given hints of what was happening but could never be quite certain. Normally this would frustrate me beyond belief but in this story it is a very necessary part of the experience.
Piranesi, our narrator, journals avidly and spends his days curating the house in which he lives. Twice a week he meets with The Other and discusses the things he observes within the many rooms he journeys to. There are allusions to a sixteenth person, and the perceived threat from an unwelcome visitor.
Suffice to say, nothing is quite as it seems.
Once I came to the end I found myself full of longing to return. This is a world that you will fall in love with.

 

‘Dear Emma Blue’ – Lia Louis

Dear Emmie Blue, you smashed my heart but made me smile, laugh and cry (sometimes at the same time) and I would have to be heartless to not award five stars to this even though some elements REALLY irritated me.
Emmie is a woman who definitely has not had it easy. An emotionally closed-off mother, an absent father who she has no contact with, a friend who refused to stick by her when she was abused by a teacher…thankfully these details don’t come out at once or I think I’d have stopped reading! What Emmie has had as a constant in her life is Lucas, born on the same day and living in France, he has known Emmie since they were both 16 and he found a balloon she released and they started to write to each other.
This kind of friendship over time means lots of memories and recollections. The importance Emmie places on Lucas is evident…and when he asks her to take on the role of ‘best woman’ at his wedding she accepts, even though she’s in love with him and thinks this act will physically kill her.
What we see is Emmie throw herself into this role, determined to do her bit. She smiles at his family, jokes with the fiancé and launches herself into every linked activity as she tries to do the right thing.
For the first quarter of the book I doubted I’d be able to read this. What she was doing wasn’t selfless, it was masochism at its worst. I also found myself intensely irritated by Lucas and how demanding he was of Emmie without ever really giving the same back.
Then things shifted a little. Emmie started to open up to some of the other characters this features, and we see that perhaps her feelings for Lucas stem not from love but a need to feel loved. Big difference.
Once we’d seen this shift I started to get little indications that the love story I expected might be on its way, though not necessarily in the place I expected.
Things don’t always go smoothly. There’s one or two bumps along the way, but I felt privileged to follow Emmie on her journey.

 

‘Exit’ – Belinda Bauer

A cleverly plotted mystery that had me scratching my head at regular intervals, and smiling by the end. Given the subject matter, that’s no mean feat.

Within Exit there’s a large cast of characters, all of whom are pertinent to the story though it’s not always clear how. Stick with it though as all is revealed.

Our primary focus is the pensioner Felix Pink, a rather staid man who has a good heart but who – after the deaths of his son and wife – has lost his way. Partly to alleviate the suffering of others, and out of a desire to do good, Felix has signed up to be an exiteer. A curious idea, but this is a group of people who go to sit with someone who is terminally ill and wants to commit suicide in order to oversee their exit from this world to ensure there are no legal implications for family members. Whatever your view of this practice, I was captivated by this story the moment Felix and new girl Amanda end up on a job with the wrong man dead. What went wrong?

The investigation into this was great fun to follow. From Felix’s panic over the implications of breaking the law and the mundane matters of who would look after his dog when the police came to take him away to the much darker reasoning behind who might be responsible for the set-up I was desperate to find out exactly what had happened. Characters who seemed good were not; characters who I doubted were very much more positive than I’d considered. Throughout, I was guessing as to who was behind this obvious set-up and getting it very wrong.

Felix was a character it was hard not to warm to. His developing relationship with Skipper (the man they didn’t manage to kill) was heart-warming, and there were so many little scenes within this to love. Our final image of Felix waving Skipper off lent a lovely circularity to the book and I was quite in awe at the level of plotting that must have gone into the creation of this novel.

My only question after finishing the audiobook was about the slip…what did Calvin do?

 

‘The Duke and I’ – Julia Quinn

It’s always a strange experience to read a book after watching an adaptation, but once I’d accustomed myself to hearing the Lady Whistledown sections in Julie Andrews’ voice I didn’t find it too distracting.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Christmas 2020 it’s highly unlikely that you won’t have heard of/seen the Netflix adaptation of The Duke and I. You’ll probably have an idea about the story, some of the more controversial elements of the book and maybe even watched it (and perhaps have developed a rather unhealthy fascination with a certain actor). I shan’t spend too long recounting the plot.
From the outset we were plunged into life with the Bridgerton family, and it was clear that they were rather progressive for their time in some ways. Yet in others, they were very much of their time and this causes more than one or two problems.
Though her relationship with Simon is at the front of the Netflix adaptation, the book allows more opportunity to get into the mindset of Daphne and to gain some understanding of her as a character. Astute at times, yet painfully naive, but it seems Quinn wants us to favour this character so even when she is committing an act of betrayal that’s hard to read we’re given to understand she’s acting out of love for Simon. Sounds like an attempt to justify abusive behaviour to me, which doesn’t sit well, but Simon is more than capable of dishing out equally painful things. Again, he does this from a position that we are given to understand is due to his damaged persona. I found myself going round in circles rather as regards how to view these two and their relationship, and I don’t think Quinn makes it easy for readers.
I certainly found myself missing the ideas and attitudes of some of the characters who are clearly introduced to liven up the screen version – though Lady Danbury is mentioned here, she is reduced to a minor role that doesn’t seem fitting, and I was desperate to learn more about Eloise. It was certainly enough to have me keen to read the rest of the series to see how elements have been integrated.

‘The Lost Village’ – Camilla Sten

Finishing this with the wind whistling in the woods outside my home, I confess to feeling more than a little jittery at the thought of this story.

The Lost Village focuses on a mystery that has puzzled people for years…a village where all 900 inhabitants mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of their presence. The only person found when someone later entered the village was a young baby. A grisly scene met the people who rescued the baby – the body of a woman who had been stoned to death in the village square. Of course, people want to know what happened.

In the present day we have filmmaker Alice whose grandmother used to live in the village. She received letters from her family when she first moved, but had no idea what happened to them. She shared stories about village life with Alice, so this is very much a personal journey.

This personal involvement leads to what can best be described as a blinkered passion. Alice has spent years dreaming of making a film about the village and documenting what happened. She manages to track down the daughter of the baby found in the village (this isn’t a spoiler, though this fact isn’t shared with all the cast who journey to the village to shoot material to secure backing for their film).

From the moment they arrive in the village, Alice and her crew sense something eerie about the place. Of course, their unease starts to grow and we’re never quite sure whether the mysterious noises and sightings are products of unsettled minds or something more threatening.

As the story progresses the growing unease is well-captured. When it becomes clear they are trapped in the village it doesn’t bode well. This claustrophobic sensation is increased as Sten cuts into our present story with the narrative of incidents in the village leading up to the disappearance. The threat is real…and once this is clearly established it became (for me) scarier but also enabled me to develop some empathy for the characters who I wasn’t unduly concerned about initially.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for giving me access to this prior to publication.