PSYCH THRILLERS · REVIEW TIME

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

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‘No one lives this way unless they want to hide something.’

When Caroline and Francis receive an offer to house swap, they jump at the chance for a week away from home. After the difficulties of the past few years, they’ve worked hard to rebuild their marriage for their son’s sake; now they want to reconnect as a couple.

On arrival, they find a house that is stark and sinister in its emptiness – it’s hard to imagine what kind of person lives here. Then, gradually, Caroline begins to uncover some signs of life – signs of her life. The flowers in the bathroom or the music in the CD player might seem innocent to her husband but to her they are anything but. It seems the person they have swapped with is someone she used to know; someone she’s desperate to leave in her past.

But that person is now in her home – and they want to make sure she’ll never forget . . .

I’ve grown to love a good domestic noir and The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet definitely didn’t disappoint. Unlike some of the reviewers of this book, I’m a sucker for flawed characters.  Bring me your adulterers, your screw-ups, your goodies who do bad things for good reasons. In fact, just bring me your goodies who make mistakes because damn, don’t we ALL make mistakes? I’m always a bit perturbed by readers who want perfection and holier-than-thou goodness in their books, almost as if they don’t understand that sometimes people can be selfish and shite and get things wrong. I’m ALL for a bit of reality in my reading material, which is why domestic noir and psych thrillers, and yes, horror books, are right up my street.

I am so pleased that I found this book. I was having a bit of a rush on thriller books at the time and devouring a new one every weekend, and when I saw this, I read the blurb and knew I had to download it and I’m very glad that I did. I loved the premise of the story -without even knowing the story behind the characters, the idea of a house swap, to me, already held a ton of sinister promise, that I couldn’t wait to find out more. I mean, it’s one thing to go and stay in someone else’s house, but the idea of that person staying in yours? Of course, the film The Holiday did this already, but forget a handsome Jude Law dancing under your Christmas tree or a quirky Kate Winslet jumping on your Egyptian cotton bed linen, because The House Swap turned the ‘cute’ concept of house swapping on its head and gave me all the creepiness I was hoping for and more.

I loved the characters, flaws and all. Were they selfish at times? Did they make me want to reach into the screen and grab them by the scruff of their necks? Yes! But, so what? I want characters that rile me and keep me on the edge of my seat. I don’t want Ovaltine and cookies before bed. I want something that grips me and characters that challenge me and I got all of that in this book. The plot and characters were woven together so well that it kept me guessing most of the way through. There was something so tragic about all of the relationships, but so real and I found myself connecting with all the characters and understanding the choices they made, while not always agreeing with them.

All in all, I found this to be a brilliant thriller that I struggled to put down.

 

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crime fiction · REVIEW TIME

Tell Nobody by Patricia Gibney

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I discovered this book, quite by chance, when another Bookouture author favourite of mine, Shalini Boland, mentioned it on her Facebook. I ended up downloading it and I’m so glad for that recommendation, because I loved this book from start to finish.

The boy’s body was so white it was almost transparent. But that’s not what caused the nausea to rise up her throat. He was so young. His body was unmarked, surrounded by a halo of plucked wildflowers.

One hot summer evening, eleven-year-old Mikey Driscoll is on the way home from playing with friends. Two days later, his body is discovered on a bed of wildflowers by some local teenagers.

The case is assigned to Detective Lottie Parker and this time it’s personal. The victim was a close friend of her son, Sean, from the run-down Munbally estate on the other side of town. Sean tells his mother Mikey was behaving normally before he died, but Lottie can’t help but feel that her son is keeping something from her…

Then days later, another boy is found dead, surrounded by wild flowers next to beautiful Ladystown Lake.

On the hunt for a twisted individual with a terrifying calling card, Lottie must uncover the web of secrets within Mikey’s circle of friends. Someone is hiding something but who are they protecting and can Lottie find out before it’s too late? Lottie is desperate to catch the killer before he strikes again because this time her own child could be in terrible danger…

I discovered soon after starting that I was reading book 5 of a series, but fear not! You can dive straight into any Lottie Parker book and not be instantly confused that you’ve missed something vital. There’s a few hints at backstory which are clearly in the previous books, but you miss out on nothing by starting later on in the series as I did.

The story quickly grips the reader as the prologue starts with a girl/woman (we’re not sure which at this point) who is staggering through the streets, in pain, possibly injured, and who ends up shunning the opportunity to seek help near the local football clubhouse and instead, stumbles down the tunnel next to the canal. I mean, nothing good can EVER come from walking alone near the canal, right??

The next, we are watching the aftermath of a children’s football match where one of the goal-scorers leaves the post-match party to walk home, only to accept a lift from someone he clearly knows, but who we, the reader, know must have sinister intentions after the journey takes a different route to the one the boy was expecting. Again, accepting a surprise lift always ends in disaster… the tension levels were through the roof already!

What follows is a complex but well-crafted plot of missing children, a missing baby, a confession of murder, and way too many locals who have connections to all the sinister goings-ons. In all honesty, at times, I had no idea how Detective Lottie Parker didn’t wring the necks of all those who obstructed her in her investigation. I wanted to reach into the screen and slap people within an inch of their lives as the wall of silence in the community and families went up. Everyone seemed to have a secret. Everyone was suspicious as Hell! On top of that, Lottie had to deal with her own son’s connection to the case, her new (but hopefully temporary) life living back with her opinionated mother and the fallout she still continues to deal with following the death of her husband.

I loved Lottie. I mean, I do love a damn good female detective anyway and am always intrigued by an author’s ability to make their female protagonist tough and ballsy in a world where she needs to be tough and ballsy, without making her instantly unlikeable to readers. There’s always a fine art to getting srong female characters right (trust me, I know) and it can always go one of either two ways – the Marmite effect, I like to call it – but Patricia Gibney completely nails it with her main character.

The story was compelling and complex, as I have said, although not in a way that confuses the reader because I was able to follow the plot and the numerous characters all the way through. At first, as the story was laid out, I was trying to work out how everyone could be connected, if at all, and it was fun guessing who were the villians of the piece. I always love a story that keeps you guessing and turns even the most innocent of characters into possible suspects, and Tell Nobody certainly ticked all my wannabe detetctive boxes!

This is a total rollercoaster of a read, that went through so many twists and turns that I couldn’t stop swiping at the screen. I can totally see this as a TV crime drama, it was so gritty and so real, that each character came alive on the page as if I was watching a TV show. As the pace began to pick up, I found myself addicted to every word, desperate to find out the secrets in Ragmullin.

This was a brilliant book that I would thoroughly recommend. Now I just need to go back and read the first four! Patricia Gibney definitely just gained a new fan!

PSYCH THRILLERS · REVIEW TIME

The Perfect Family by Shalini Boland

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‘Mummy, she’s gone…’

Gemma Ballantine is getting ready for work one morning when her eldest child comes running down the stairs, saying the words every mother dreads.

The front door is open. And her six-year-old daughter has disappeared. Frantic with fear, Gemma starts a nail-biting search for her little girl.

After what feels like forever, her mother-in-law Diane finds Katie wandering lost a few streets away. Relieved to have her youngest child back in her arms, breathing in the sweet scent of her hair, Gemma thinks the nightmare is over.

But then her perfect family starts to fall apart.

And she realises it’s only just beginning…

I always start reading Shalini’s books with a certain amount of apprehension, not because I think I won’t like it, because I know that within just a page or two, she’ll throw us into some horrible nightmare that’ll have me turning every page in anticipation.

The Perfect Family was no exception. I stayed up late to read as much as I could, then made myself late getting ready for work just so I could read another chapter and then I sat in the car outside the office just so I could finish it before I started work.

As always, I spent my whole time trying to work out which character was the villain of the story and was suspicious of practically everyone. Shalini has a knack of keeping the reader glued to every page, with situations that could be so real and I really do think it’s that which keeps you hooked – that sense of believable horror that these things could happen to you.

This was another fabulous page turner and I can’t wait to see what’s next from this author. My only complaint is that I read it too quickly and didn’t want it to end!

A definite five out of five stars from me.

horror · REVIEW TIME

The Lingering by SJI Holliday

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This was another brilliant find from the fabulous Orenda Books who seem to have a skill of discovering astounding, talented writers. In fact, these days many of my Kindle buys tend to be from Orenda or Bookouture authors. 

The Lingering intrigued me from the start, the cover is eye-catchingly creepy and the blurb definitely had me hitting that One-Click button on Amazon (how dangerous is that damn button???).

Married couple Jack and Ali Gardiner move to a self-sufficient commune in the English Fens, desperate for fresh start. The local village is known for the witches who once resided there and Rosalind House, where the commune has been established, is a former psychiatric home, with a disturbing history

When Jack and Ali arrive, a chain of unexpected and unexplained events is set off, and it becomes clear that they are not all that they seem. As the residents become twitchy, and the villagers suspicious, events from the past come back to haunt them, and someone is seeking retribution…

At once an unnerving locked-room mystery, a chilling thriller and a dark and superbly wrought ghost story, The Lingering is an exceptionally plotted, terrifying and tantalisingly twisted novel by one of the most exciting authors in the genre.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really enjoying seeing a bit of a revival on ghost stories recently. It seems writers had moved away from the good ol’ ghost tale over the years, and I don’t think I’d read many myself since the days of the David Ash series by James Herbert and I couldn’t help but always feel there was something quite sad about the fall of the Great Ghost Story.

Reading tales of things that go bump in the night was probably where many of us gained our first experience of horror stories as children, but at some point, we all became a little desensitised to horror and needed shock tactics to bring about the fear factor – think gory horror movies: Saw, Hostel, turning zombies from shuffling shop mannequins to scary AF monsters that could run at you like Usain Bolt on acid. However, with the Netflix production of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror The Haunting of Hill House, the concept of the ghost story and the horror it can hold has become desirable again. I feel as if I can’t go online or into a bookshop now without seeing more and more ghost stories on the screen and shelves. I’m sure there are those among you who will say the ghost story never went away, it was just overshadowed by vampires and werewolves and Walking Dead rip-offs, but for me, it’s been a pleasant and enjoyable discovery to see that the genre has risen from the dead (pardon the pun). 

Of course, The Lingering could have turned into one big walking spooky cliché. Yes, we can tick the box for ‘haunted house that was once a hospital where ever so slightly dodgy practices took place’ but that’s where the cliché can remain in its box, because Holliday took me back to what I loved most about ghost stories, while giving it a contemporary twist that kept me hooked. It was spooky, twisted, disturbing and definitely had the goosebumps rising on my skin a number of times as I wandered through the creepy confines of Rosalind House.

I must admit, at the start, I was a little thrown by the switching of POV’s between 1st person present tense and 3rd person present tense, but I am, alas a bit old school (I mean, I just said ‘alas’ which is sadly a dead giveaway, right?) and it took me longer than most to get my head around the contemporary trend of present tense fiction and the switching of POV’s. I read a lot on Wattpad where switching POV’s is a BIG thing and unfortunately, only a gifted few seem to get it right, so I’ve always been a bit sceptical, but, after a couple of chapters of this in The Lingering, I actually found myself really liking it – so much so, that I’m considering experimenting with it in my own writing.

Holliday’s use of POV method was a fantastic tool in aiding reader-character relation. It’s almost like reading subliminal messages within the text and once the story began to open up a bit more and I discovered, not everything was quite what it seemed at Rosalind House, that’s when I realised just how clever Holliday had been with her POV structure. The characters I thought I could trust, turned out to have their own agenda and the ones I was instantly suspicious of, were not necessarily the villains I expected them to be. The whole thing was very smartly constructed and helped ramp up the creep factor throughout.

A haunted house with a tale to tell, suspicious house guests and an addictive plot that kept me swiping the screen for the next page, this was a gripping read. Thoroughly enjoyable!

horror · REVIEW TIME

Review: The Chalk Man by C.J Tudor

There’s nothing quite like receiving a £50 Amazon voucher. I mean, FREE BOOKS, right?

Gifted with the voucher and with money to burn, I headed to Amazon with no mission in mind, other than to find some great new reads that would captivate me and immediately, the first one I found was The Chalk Man, by C.J Tudor.

The cover itself is simple and striking, pitching a chalk-drawn hangman game against a stark black base, complete with fake chalk smudges, reminiscent of those games we used to play on pavements when we were kids, and I was instantly drawn to it.

At the time of buying, the Amazon posting was full of accolades from the national press, and since I bought it, it’s been updated with a fresh recommendation from the Horror Don himself, Stephen King, who said ‘If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.’ An exhilarating time for a debut author no doubt, and I read Tudor’s reaction to her hero King’s post on Twitter with a big smile on my face, in the same way I did when King also tweeted about Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes.

Even without all this, I was already excited for this book from the blurb alone:

You can feel it in the woods, in the school and in the playground; you can feel it in the houses and at the fairground. You can feel it in most places in the small town of Anderbury . . . the fear that something or someone is watching you.

It began back in 1986, at the fair, on the day of the accident. That was when twelve-year-old Eddie met Mr Halloran – the Chalk Man.

He gave Eddie the idea for the drawings: a way to leave secret messages for his friends and it was fun, until the chalk men led them to a body.

Thirty years later, Ed believes the past is far behind him, until an envelope slips through the letterbox. It contains a stick of chalk, and a drawing of a figure.

Is history going to repeat itself?

Was it ever really over?

Will this game only end in the same way?

With Storm Emma in full effect in the UK and a ton of snow outside my house, what better way to spend a Saturday than fusing myself to the sofa with The Chalk Man, a hot chocolate and an endless supply of biscuits?

The result? I devoured everything, but nothing devoured was more enjoyable than the book itself, which is saying something because hot chocolate and biscuits would usually win hands down in any contest 😉

It’s 1986, and Eddie and his friends, Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey and Nicky don’t have much to worry about other than where to hang out at the weekends, having to commit the ultimate faux-pas by wearing a bum-bag or what ride to go on at the fair. When the fair does come to town, however, bringing with it a horrific accident for Eddie to witness, plus a meeting with the mysterious new school teacher, Mr Halloran, events are set in motion that will change all of their lives forever.

The action moves back and forth from events in 1986 to 2016, where Eddie is now a teacher himself with a life that seems mostly grey around the edges, that is until his old school friend Mickey turns up at his door, with a plan to dredge up the past and write a book about the horrors of that eventful year of their childhood.

Back in 1986, what began as an innocent game of leaving secret messages for each other written in chalk, with their own codes and symbols, supposedly decipherable only by members of their own gang, soon takes a sinister turn when the same chalk drawings start mysteriously appearing at the scenes of crimes, culminating in the discovery of a dead body.

Years later, when the chalk men start appearing again, we discover that the gang, all now grown up and moved on from the traumas of their past, haven’t really moved on at all and Eddie is about to be thrown headfirst into a new nightmare of secrets, dead bodies and chalk drawings that terrify him.

Expertly weaving the past and present together, Tudor gives us (older readers) a nostalgic trip back to the 80’s, in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of King and with a kind of Stranger Things UK-style vibe, then flips us right back to 2016 where Eddie is being haunted by things real and not-so-real.

Seemingly unconnected happenings and events are revealed to have a connection after all, and stories within the story that might seem like background noise when reading and a device to draw us in and make it feel more real, soon become pertinent to the whole plot in a way that I never saw coming.

In The Chalk Man, every action has a consequence, and I loved the way how even the smallest, perhaps most innocent of decisions, had far-reaching consquences that sent waves rocking through the lives of these characters and the people around them.

Eddie, on paper (pardon the pun), perhaps doesn’t seem the most exciting of characters. Having remained in the town in which he grew up, he now works as a teacher in the local high school, has never married or had children, and has a rather tragic (by his own admission) crush on his much-younger lodger, Chloe. He looks after his mum’s cat when she goes on holiday (a cat which detests him) and he likes a drink with his mates Fat Gav (now wheelchair-bound) and Hoppo. Nothing too exciting about all of that, right?  But, I have to say, this is what I like about a good thriller: throwing a very normal, veering-on-the-grey-side kind of person into a situation which is anything but normal. In my opinion this just adds to the creep factor, because let’s face it, Eddie could be you or me, or your neighbour, or your teacher, or the bloke who sits in the corner at the pub every Sunday afternoon reading the paper and having a pint and we live every new horror with him, as if it was us.

Reading from Eddie’s POV, we’re thrown into the chaos that starts to overtake his life, wondering who he should trust, whether he’s about to meet a sticky fate at the hands of the Chalk Man, or whether what he’s experiencing is the collapse of his own reality. We start to look at everyone with a strong element of suspicion, trying to predict what horror might be lurking around every corner, and the path in which Tudor leads us, isn’t the one we imagined we would be on.

It was pretty clear to me a few chapters in that I wasn’t going to put this book down until I was done. I devoured page after page, desperate to solve the mystery and constantly getting it wrong every time I thought I’d worked it out, but I LOVE that in a book. This is a cleverly-constructed thriller with the right amount of twists (without being overkill) that kept me glued to the sofa and to the book all day. The creep-factor is tangible throughout without ever being OTT, and there’s no doubt I will NEVER look at a children’s chalk drawing in quite the same way ever again!

Five stars for this engaging, dark page-turner! 

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