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‘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.

‘It’s Behind You’ – Katherine Foxfield

A reality TV show that is losing viewers is about to start filming what could be its last series. The producers want to ensure it packs a punch so they plan to send the five contestants into a series of caves that are rumoured to be haunted by The Puckered Maiden, a supernatural entity who eats the hearts of her victims. All they have to do is survive the night, and whoever lasts until morning wins £10,000.

Our five contestants are – naturally – not all they claim to be. From the outset we know that some of those involved are hiding things…the question is, how relevant are these secrets to what is happening in the caves during the course of the show?

While the characters themselves are irritating on occasion, things get wrapped up far more quickly than I felt made sense and I HATED the fact that the epilogue was left so open-ended, I can’t deny that this was the kind of pacy YA thriller that cannot fail to entertain. From the first ‘accident’ we know there is more to this show than seems to be the case. Like Lex, we can tell these events have their foundation in something that happened in the caves years earlier. The book manages to walk the fine line of horror and thriller well – awful things are happening around them but the characters’ sense of knowing produces what are often amusing responses.

 

‘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.

‘The Pariah’ – Anthony Ryan

The Pariah is my first experience of reading anything by Anthony Ryan, and I can safely say it won’t be my last. Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read this prior to publication, and to the author for delivering a book that would seem to be the first in what promises to be an exciting trilogy.

Our main character is Alwyn Scribe, and events are narrated through his eyes. This means there are some details about him and his past that we don’t get answers to, but it does allow us a clear focused look at events Alwyn is caught up in. There’s a lot crammed into this, but the book is so well-structured that it doesn’t feel too much.

I have to say that first impressions were not immediately favourable. I made the mistake of trying to read this while reading another book alongside. The style/world-building was so dense that it felt difficult to engage with when not giving it my undivided attention…however, once I focused solely on this, I immersed myself in it and could not wait to see what came next.

Alwyn begins the story as an outlaw, part of a group under the leadership of one of the King’s illegitimate children. He is not above committing awful acts, but he exhibits a keen moral compass and shows himself willing to do the right thing. When the group is attacked (which is definitely suspicious) Alwyn is captured and taken prisoner. In some ways he is lucky as he survives some awful experiences, and the other characters he meets along the way give us the opportunity to see him in a slightly more rounded way.

From the outset I was struck by the attention to detail. It’s descriptive, but not in a way that seems unnecessary. Every event and setting was captured in a way that vividly brought them to life. Alwyn, in some ways, leads a charmed life but there are numerous hints that there may be more to him than has been revealed in this book.

I enjoyed the way this was put together, with Alwyn shifting from outlaw to prisoner to soldier…and to then find himself in familiar territory at the end, but with a clearer objective in mind that seems to be part of a bigger picture. Some of the characters will linger longer in my mind, but I remain convinced that there is a lot more to this man than we’ve been told about so far. I can’t wait to see how this story picks up in book two.

 

‘This Poison Heart’ – Kalynn Bayron

This Poison Heart is the first in what promises to be a most exciting series. I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication, and am genuinely wondering what will happen next.
Our focus for this story is Briseis, a character with a most unusual talent. She has an affinity with plants and is able to bring anything back to life and help it bloom. This skill comes in very handy in the florists her mums run, but the fact she has seemingly no reaction to poisonous plants suggests there’s more to this than Bri realises.
Introducing us to Bri’s talents early on is a great way to get our attention, but her lack of knowledge about what she can do means many of our questions are not answered. We are given time to get to know Bri and her mums. Their relationship and interactions are warm and caring, and spending time with them means we genuinely care when we learn of the financial pressures they are under.
Bri is adopted, and when she is told that an aunt has bequeathed her an estate just outside New York we – like Bri – have questions. They travel to what can only be described as a spooky mansion, to find over-run vegetation, mysterious people hanging round their property and a run-down apothecary filled with strange ingredients. People turn up requesting help, and it is soon obvious there is more to this arrangement than we might expect.
Naturally curious, Bri wants to find out more about her family. She unearths letters from her aunt and learns that she appears to have immunity to deadly poisons. There is talk of her lineage being traced back to the ancient Greeks, and though this would be exciting enough…there’s more.
Bri meets all manner of people in her new town. Her position lends her some respect, but it also brings great danger. For what is clear is Bri’s natural family have been guarding a great secret…something that some will stop at nothing to learn.
From the beginning I found myself really caught up in this. I loved Bri and her characterisation. The introduction to mythology lent an interesting element to the story, and there are a few characters that definitely pique your interest as you try to figure out their link to Bri and the repercussions for any friendship developing.
My only criticism of the book was how the pace picked up in the last quarter and was then relentless. We had a lot of info thrown at us, and – on occasion – it didn’t feel as if it made sense. The dramatic end to this book was, naturally, not an end at all and that is highly frustrating…but a very good incentive to have me racing to pick up book two when I can.

‘The Book of Stolen Dreams’ – David Farr

 

When things are tough, you want those around you to be people you can trust. In the world we encounter at the start of this wondrous story, that is not necessarily the case. Under the rule of Charles Malstain life is dreary, and anyone who does not do as he requests is made to disappear. This is a time of dark secrets, where family are suspicious of each other and where things are about to get worse.

We don’t know why this has happened, but Farr immediately sets up a tense and unsettling atmosphere. We are introduced to our protagonists, Robert and Rachel Klein, when they accompany their father to the lending library where he works. This journey is done at night, and nobody is told about it so we know it is dangerous. All we know is that it has something to do with The Book of Stolen Dreams that Felix Klein steals – rumours are that it is scheduled to be destroyed – and charges his children with protecting until they can hand it over to a man called Solomon.

The children escape, but have to watch their father beaten by Malstain’s forces. They are subject to intimidation in their home as those under Malstain search desperately for the Book that the children vow to protect, though they don’t really know why.

As we follow Rachel and Robert in their task, they are placed in extreme peril. They suffer in the way that only young children in stories can. The odds are against them. They are pitched into a battle they might not win…but their determination to do the right thing and their bravery makes for a gripping story.

Along the way we meet a host of characters – at both ends of the spectrum. Malstain is a shadowy villain, orchestrating terrible deeds for his own selfish reasons. Opposing him are a motley crew, and not all are guaranteed to do the right thing when asked.

From the outset this was a book that delighted. Due for release in September 2021 I can’t wait to see the buzz it generates, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read it early.

‘Twelve Secrets’ – Robert Gold

While NetGalley had me as auto-approved for this, I couldn’t (for reasons I haven’t worked out) access a copy. Secret Readers had it as one of their prospective reads and having heard such good things about it, my choice was clear. Thank goodness…and this is a book I’ll be urging people to read when it is eventually released.

I often find a point in most thrillers where I’ve guessed who is responsible or started to put details together. With Twelve Secrets there was a lot going on, so even though I’d answered a couple of questions there were still some surprises. This was refreshing, and definitely one of the many things it had going in its favour.

The story centres on Ben Harper, a journalist of some repute, who is known by many in his town as the younger brother of someone who was brutally murdered. With an anniversary approaching, the press are keen to find out how those impacted by the murders of Nick and Simon by two teen girls are coping. Ben is reluctant to be involved, but when one of the killers is found murdered it seems that there may be more going on than was originally thought. Someone is keeping secrets, and these secrets are going to be very dangerous.

As the story progresses we start to uncover some of the secrets being kept in this small town. Some were deeply upsetting and some made me angry for those affected but they all served a clear purpose in helping to bring together a compulsive read.

I’m hoping this is going be the start of a relationship with the character of Ben Harper…he definitely has more stories in him.

 

’56 Days’ – Catherine Ryan Howard

A book set in the early days of lockdown is, while we are still living with the virus that pre-emptied such circumstances, always going to be tricky to read.

Thankfully, COVID is a backdrop to the very specific set of circumstances taking place at this point in the story we watch unfold. It certainly does not unduly affect the narrative that we’re concerned with.

From the start we know that a body has been discovered in an apartment in Dublin. Little information is given initially, other than the body seems to have been there for a few weeks. Of course, anyone would have questions.

The narrative then shifts to 56 days ago, when new to the city Ollie meets Ciara. The pair talk briefly, seem to hit it off and decide to go on a date. With a fledgling relationship happening at the precise time that lockdown is announced, it could go either way. The pair decide to take their chances and move in together.

We are shown the events from both the viewpoint of Ollie and Ciara. We are alerted to the fact that both are keeping secrets. Other information is imparted on a strictly need-to-know basis, and sometimes done in such a way as to send you scurrying down the wrong route. When you become aware of these little bits of misdirection, you’ll kick yourself but then be desperate to see exactly what happened.

As the pieces fell into place I pitied those caught up in investigating the crime. Suffice to say, nothing is as it seems…and it certainly shows how your past can – no matter how careful you have been – catch up with you.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in advance of publication.