‘The House Across the Lake’ – Riley Sager

The House Across the Lake was a story I was so excited to get my hands on, and parts of it really were exciting. However, as a whole, it felt messy and just too much to take in.

Our main character is recently widowed actress Casey Fletcher who has been banished to her lakeside home (the place where her husband died) by her mother who wants her out of the public eye after one too many drunken incidents. In what felt like a Rear Window homage, Casey takes to watching the home across the lake from her…home to supermodel Katherine Royce and her media husband Tom.

Casey’s first meeting with Katherine is when she fishes her out of the lake and saves her from drowning. The tentative steps to a new friendship are forged, but Casey is convinced that things in the Royce household are not what they seem. Obsessive, alcohol-fuelled stalking events occur and it’s hard to workout whether Casey is deluded or if there’s some truth to her fears about Tom.

In the background of this bizarre situation is a local writer, an ex-cop whose wife died and three missing women. From the moment each element is introduced my brain went into overdrive trying to work out what was a red herring, what was plausible and what was a diversion. Casey lurches from one imagined scenario to the next and things ramp up once Katherine goes missing and Tom starts acting suspiciously.

It was at this point that the book went to a whole other level and I had to check if I was reading the latest Sarah Pinborough. I have no problem with the introduction of the supernatural to a story, but in this instance it felt like a gimmick. It served merely to offer a hitherto unthought-of reason for what was happening, but it also served as a diversion to another element of the plot. It felt as if bets were being hedged here as to what type of book was the ultimate aim, and the truth is that it feels as if we don’t get a satisfactory answer.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this before its scheduled July publication, but I’d have been so gutted to have waited for release date and spent the amount I’ve had to on previous Sager books to then get this. I’m afraid this didn’t work for me.

‘Gallant’ – V.E. Schwab

Our main character, Olivia, has always felt herself to be something different. An orphan, with no voice, Olivia is used to feeling unwanted and mocked…but she has always been able to console herself with the spirits she senses around her. This marks her out as an object of ridicule for the other students at Merilance School for Girls, but it clearly signifies there is more to Olivia than we might think.

Just as plans are being made for her to leave the school, a letter appears from her Uncle and Olivia is taken back to Gallant. She knows nothing of her family, but feels drawn to this place though her cousin seems resentful of her presence.

As Olivia settles into Gallant she learns a little more of the Prior curse and gets to learn a little more about her mother. While these questions make sense for anyone in Olivia’s position, it becomes clear quite early one that someone in particular has a vested interest in winning Olivia over.

Not knowing the secrets of Gallant places Olivia in a difficult situation. She is, without realising it, in danger and we can only watch as she throws herself headlong into her investigations without truly understanding their significance.

While the book itself reads very much like a middle grade/children’s story, the themes of loss and the paranormal setting mean there is much for older readers. The open-ended nature of the ending might frustrate some readers, but I liked the fact that Olivia was given a choice for the first time in her life.

 

‘Sundial’ – Catriona Ward

Sundial is a curious read, where I admit to feeling things were eluding me at key moments. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was a mercurial read and I’m still not wholly certain that I fully understood some of the finer details of our characters’ situations.

Ward creates a delightfully menacing environment in which our characters exist, but there were too many instances in which I found myself puzzling over exactly what was happening to feel quite as enamoured of this as I did The Last House on Needless Street. However, it is a story that explores some troubling scenarios and definitely encourages us to consider how our environment shapes us.

Our main character is Rob, mother to two young girls – Callie and Anne. There are hints that she is in an abusive relationship and it appears that Callie has rather disturbing tendencies. As a means of trying to help her daughter, Rob takes her to Sundial…the home of her childhood.

Alongside the story of Rob and her family, we have flashbacks to Rob’s past. It soon becomes clear that Rob came from a less than healthy environment, and that there are plenty of questions about her family.

I found myself perplexed by the details given about Rob’s younger life. The horrors she experienced as a child seem to have been swapped for other awful things…and yet she seems drawn to the darker elements of her experience. Without giving crucial plot details away, I am still convinced that Rob is not who we think.

By the time we draw close to the end of the story it is obvious that there will be deeply unsettling revelations. There’s an attempt to misdirect us somewhat, but the details of Rob’s past hint at what might be happening. I liked that the ending remained ambiguous in some ways though I can’t help wishing we’d got other viewpoints.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this before publication.

‘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 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 Gifts that Bind Us’ – Caroline O’Donoghue

I enjoyed book one, but hadn’t loved the book as much as I’d hoped to. However, this was a much more engaging read. Darker in tone, focusing on a range of concerns and the magic felt more natural in this.

Moving on from the events surrounding Lily, the group are practising their magic and preparing to move into the next phase of their lives. They’re all looking forward, and a substantial part of the book focuses on how it feels when something so momentous starts to fragment.

Maeve is the one most affected. Unsure of her academic potential she seems destined to stay in their town, and is struggling to understand why the others are so determined to leave. She fears losing Roe and her friendships with Fiona and Lily come under pressure.

When events begin it wasn’t clear where we’d end up. The girls head back to school and are shocked to see signs of the Children returning. This toxic group has worked their way into school, trying to establish a hold on those susceptible to their message. However, it soon becomes apparent that they’re after something much bigger.

As events unfold we learn more about Maeve and her friends, their skills and the way groups such as the Children operate. There’s some unexpected developments regarding some familiar figures and it was lovely to see certain elements developed more fully here. Dramatic moments, plenty of witchy action and a wonderful focus on friendship.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this before its scheduled February 2022 publication.

 

‘Only a Monster’ – Vanessa Len

Monsters are, traditionally, the things we hate but in this fascinating story we not only get to learn more about the monsters but we also are encouraged to side with them. Nothing is quite what it seems.

Our main character, Joan, is aware of feeling different. Her family background is a mix of cultures, and though she loves her father’s family she also enjoys the time she spends with her mother’s side of the family. When we first meet her she is spending the summer with her grandmother and spending time working at a local historical house. She was drawn to the place, and is excited to be going on a date with Nick, another volunteer.

On the day of her date, Joan learns something about herself that she could not have foreseen. The truth about her family is revealed, and it sets in place an awful chain of events with Nick at its heart.

Without giving too much away we learn that monsters walk the earth. We don’t know how they came into being, but they can travel through time…only they have to steal time from humans to do so. Joan is half-monster. Nick is the hero created to destroy monsters – so him falling in love with a monster is never going to be a good idea!

What we get is a tense and dramatic time-travel fantasy story, with lots of potential strands for development. I am desperate to learn more about the history of the monsters, and am pretty sure that we have not seen the last of the characters that make this such an exciting read.

Though not due for publication until early 2022, I’m grateful to the Secret Readers for allowing me the opportunity to read it in advance of publication. Exciting stuff!

 

‘The Coldest Touch’ – Isabel Sterling

Our main character, Elise, has been struggling to find happiness after her brother’s death. She blames herself, and ever since this accident Elise has not wanted to touch anyone as she can foretell a person’s death if she does.

Initially, it was hard to tell what was going on with Elise. However, there is a young woman following her. Claire seems to know more about Elise than she should, but we don’t get to know much initially.

What we eventually learn is that Claire is a vampire. She has a vested interest in getting to know Elise…but there’s someone else trying to get to Elise. Someone who has the potential to make things very difficult for her.

The story of two sides battling one another for control is not a new one. The humour and developing romance offer us something to get interested in…and there’s definite hints that this is far from over.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me the opportunity to read this before publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.

 

‘The Bewitching of Aveline Jones’ – Phil Hickes

Summer holiday, and Aveline is with her mum in a remote cottage in a little village in the middle of nowhere. Boring…or at least it is until Aveline befriends one of the local girls who isn’t quite what she seems.

We can tell where this is going a mile off, but the story is engaging and offers some genuinely creepy moments. If you loved book one, this delivers another similarly engaging read.

Hazel and her desire to be friends with Aveline could have gone very differently, but we sense things will resolve themselves.

A quick read, giving just the right amount of creepy vibes. Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this before publication.

 

‘The Taking of Jake Livingston’ – Ryan Douglass


Jake Livingston is one of the only black kids in his school. The other is his popular older brother. Jake is reserved, finds it hard to interact with others and when a lot of your time is spent seeing dead people I imagine it’s hard to deal with the real world. This alone would make Jake’s high school experience a challenge, but Jake is also having to come to terms with being gay, and when we later learn about how his now-absent father responded to this years earlier his reticence is understandable.
From the outset we were encouraged to get into Jake’s head and try to understand his experience. We watch the micro aggressions in school, and we see how these are affecting him. This seems quite familiar territory, but the book is very far from familiar.
With its focus on spirits and the main character being a medium, this was always going to be something a little different. Alongside Jake’s experiences, we are also given chapters by a character called Sawyer. This is a character who is receiving treatment for potential depression and who seems to have little support around him. We may be tempted to feel some sympathy for him, particularly later in the book when he experiences some deeply concerning events, but he was a character I found it hard to feel anything positive about as he is so skewed in his attitudes to others. As we also have Jake’s experience alongside we learn that Sawyer is – in the present – actually a ghost, a malevolent force who in life gunned down several of his peers, killed himself and now appears to be haunting those who survived.
Learning that Sawyer is determined to cause trouble, and Jake is going to be the vessel through which he achieves this, lent a much darker tone to the book than I expected. When we get into scenes of possession, I admit to being not only spooked by the events described but also very very confused. There were considerable sections where I really could not say with certainty what was happening.
I may be wholly off in my reading of this, but the spirit possession and the scenes towards the end seemed (at least they did at the time of reading) to be some form of symbolic representation of Jake’s struggle to come to terms with his self-identity. Perhaps this was not the case, but by the end I did feel Jake had found some clarity about himself and how he might be in the future.