The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz - book review

Inventive, twisty thriller with dark academia vibes: The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz ★★★★½

Books about the writing world are catnip to me. Combine that with one of my favourite genres, the psychological thriller, and I am the perfect audience for this inventive, twisted story about success, creativity, and the limits of both.

30-year-old Alex has ‘risen up the ranks from bleakly underpaid editorial assistant to bleakly underpaid associate editor.’ She had been working on her own writing, but since a catastrophic fall out with her best friend Wren (the circumstances of which are slowly revealed to us), she’s had impenetrable writer’s block. Seeing other friends in her writers’ circle garner mainstream success is a difficult pill to swallow.

‘A hungry, wolfish feeling reared up in my gut. What would it feel like to hold your own book in your hands for the fist time? For it to be a physical object, a thing that people paid for?’

Alex and Wren had bonded over their shared love for kooky author Roza Vallo, known for her deliciously dark novels that push the boundaries of genre. A series of fortunate events land Alex a spot at Roza’s much-coveted writing retreat in her remote 19th-century mansion in upstate New York. The only problem is, Wren will also be there, and Alex doesn’t know how she’ll manage being in such close proximity to her ex-best-friend, under such claustrophobic and high-stakes circumstances.

Because this is no ordinary writing retreat. The five young women chosen will each have to complete a full manuscript during their time at the mansion (which was, coincidentally, the historical site of two mysterious and brutal deaths). One will be chosen for an eye-wateringly big publishing deal at the end. And Roza, they discover, has a darkness both on and off the page, enjoying her mind games in the name of sparking their creativity. From the start, her unpredictability is what keeps the writers – and the reader – on the edge of their seat. 

‘Her jeans had a large tear and skin showed through like a bone poking through flesh.’

The atmosphere is spellbinding as the writers begin to work under the extreme pressure to perform – and when a major snowstorm cuts off transport and communication to the mansion, well, any seasoned thriller reader will know that this is when things get really hairy. 

So yes, I loved it – mostly. The first quarter, this was a five-star read for me. Things lost momentum a little during the middle, and the end went a little nuts (as psychological thrillers are wont to do). I also wasn’t as keen on the passages interspersed in the narrative showing Alex’s own writing – it took me out of the ‘now’ of the novel and I felt myself skimming past to get to the meat of the story. But overall, it is fresh and original, with three-dimensional characters and a complex exploration of friendship, trauma, sexuality, and the promise and pitfalls of literary fame. 

Many thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the advanced reader’s copy. The Writing Retreat will be published in February 2023.

Intriguing and pacy family drama: The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell ★★★½

Lisa Jewell’s author note reads that she has always been adverse to writing sequels. I am also adverse to reading sequels – especially when I’m not sure I can remember what happened in part one (thank goodness for reviews for jogging my memory!) It turns out I needn’t have worried. While it helps to have read The Family Upstairs, her first psychological thriller/family drama about the Lamb and Thomsen families in the ‘house of horrors’, all salient plot points are summarized in this sequel – so you can just dive on in.

In case you haven’t read part one, here’s a quick précis: as children, Lucy and her brother Henry were subject to unspeakable horrors after a conman called David Thomsen moved into their London home and manipulated and abused their family. They escaped as teens in the early nineties, and as the novel begins, have been recently reunited in the present day. David’s son, Phineas, has also been living under the radar for the past thirty years after making a break from the home – but he hasn’t been seen or heard of since.

One more thing – Lucy and Phin had a child when they were teenagers, a baby that is now a 26-year-old woman, Libby, who has reconnected with her birth mother but wants to know more about Phin. And Henry, who has been in love with Phin since they were boys, also wants to track him down. The problem is, Phin doesn’t really want to be found.

‘Their shared history is so big that it’s sometimes as if mere words cannot contain it and that it exists only in the pauses and the silences and the unfinished sentences. Twenty-six years is long enough for memories to grow cobwebby, abstract. Twenty-six years is long enough to doubt your recollection of things, to wonder if things really did happen the way you think they happened.’

Alongside this narrative are two additional story lines: a bag of bones is discovered in the Thames and leading the investigation is DCI Samuel Owusu, and a young woman, Rachel, finds herself in a whirlwind romance with a shady businessman, Michael. Rest assured everything comes together as the plot progresses. Although Rachel is more of a secondary character, I was gripped by her story line and desperate for her to get justice.

Henry is a beguiling character, and I remember his first-person narrative being the POV I enjoyed the most in The Family Upstairs. He is similarly fascinating and multifaceted here: you never know quite how he’s going to behave. But there’s an underlying sadness, too – a delicate exploration of the idea that these are adults still grappling with the childhood trauma that will never truly leave them, a trauma that leaves Henry with ‘a churning in my soul of loss and emptiness and lack and incompleteness…’ and Lucy with ‘the dull dread that blunts everything…’

‘Lucy lies and listens to the sounds of London traffic outside the bedroom window and she feels it again, this awful feeling that has followed her for over a year, the tightness around her skull, the dull dread that blunts everything with its incessant chipping away at her sense of security.’

There are many a preposterous coincidence in this novel, I won’t disagree (and is the reason I’m knocking off half a star). But they serve to push the narrative along at a pacy speed, whereas The Family Upstairs is more of a slow burn. It grapples with tough topics with finesse, and is a worthy sequel.

TW: rape, emotional abuse

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Propulsive and unsettling literary suspense: Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka ★★★★½

The hours are ticking down until Ansel Packer’s execution. And as he awaits his grim fate – in passages ingeniously told in second-person present, making it impossible to look away – the story of how he comes to be sitting on death row in a Texas prison slowly unravels.

But this isn’t a narrative propelled by our insatiable fascination with charismatic serial killers (although Ansel is both of those things). Instead, it centres the women irrevocably touched by Ansel’s heinous crimes. It starts with Lavender: a young mother married to a dangerous man and isolated on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In a desperate attempt to give her small sons the chance of a better life, she abandons them and calls the authorities to step in. One of those young boys in Ansel. 

‘You do believe in the multiverse. The eternal possibility of it. There is a version of you out there – a child, unabandoned. A boy who came home from school to a mother who read you stories and kissed your forehead goodnight.’

Elsewhere, Saffron Singh is a police detective who was in a group home with Ansel as a child, and was witness to his disturbing behaviour (textbook: killing and dismembering animals from a young age). The third woman in the narrative is Hazel, the twin sister to Ansel’s wife, Jenny.

‘Tragedy had a texture. A knot, begging to be unraveled.’

The novel brims in emotional depth and insight, offering no excuses or explanations but still interrogating thorny questions – are we fated to be a certain way? Would things have been different in a parallel life? Is our justice system truly delivering justice?

It’s excruciating to read at times, as the barbarity of Ansel’s violence is brought home in a crushing way. The murdered women are briefly given parallel lives on the page, as Kukafka imagines all that they would have gone on to do – walking the cobblestones of Italy licking gelato off a plastic spoon, raising sons and daughters who would then go on to live their own full, whole lives. 

‘There are millions of other moments Izzy has lived, but he has eaten them up one by one, until she exists in most memories as a summation of that awful second, distilled constantly in her fear, her pain, the brutal fact.’

Ansel shows no remorse and offers no justification for his acts of terrible violence. But the novel makes clear that as it is senseless to kill innocent people, it is senseless for the state to sanction killings. The hours before and leading up to his death – no matter how evil and unforgivable his crimes – never feel like justice done right. 

It’s completely unputdownable, even as we know the ending before it even begins, it doesn’t stop it being a stunning, complex narrative spinning around questions of fate, choice, justice, and the spaces in between.

the it girl by ruth ware - book review

Murder mystery in Oxford’s hallowed halls: The It Girl by Ruth Ware ★★★

I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of The It Girl. Ruth Ware is an auto-read author for me, and this one has dark academic vibes that I couldn’t wait to dive into.

It’s the late noughties and Hannah has just started at Oxford University. Bookish and shy, she initially feels out of place amidst her polished and wealthy classmates, but soon falls in love with Oxford and the allure of all that prestige and history. This is a place, she is sure, where she will be happy.

‘With the sun shining and puffs of white autumnal clouds in the sky, the view had an almost unreal beauty and Hannah had the strangest feeling that she had stepped inside he pages of one of the books in her suitcase – Brideshead Revisited, maybe. Gaudy Night. His Dark Materials. A storybook world.’

Her roommate, April, is dazzling: beautiful, rich, charming. She’s also smart – she’s earned her place at Oxford. And she’s vicious too, at times, with a dark sense of humour. But despite their differences, she and Hannah become firm and fast friends. And then – no spoiler, it’s in the blurb – April is murdered.

Ten years later, Hannah is married, pregnant, living in Edinburgh, working in a bookshop, and has tried to leave the trauma of her best friend’s murder in the past. Her evidence alone convicted the prime suspect – but a journalist has just come forward with intel that might lead to someone else – someone who was never investigated. The thought that Hannah might have convicted an innocent man – who has recently died in prison – torments her, and she sets about on a quest for the real truth of what happened that terrible night.

‘She is there too. Hannah. Not the Hannah of now, but the Hannah of then. The Hannah of before. Young, happy, full of hope and promise, and so unbearably, unutterably innocent of all the horror that life could hold.’

For the first half, I was hooked. We had Ruth Ware’s trademark evocative descriptions, the heady friendships of teenage girls, a sprinkling of 00s pop culture – all set within the beautiful, austere world of Oxford.

This thriller switches between past and present, although only for the first half of the book. And it was towards the second half that the story began to lose steam for me. The pace slows to a trickle and the suspense is totally lost as nothing much happens for quite a chunk of time. I also didn’t feel invested enough in the other characters to really interrogate who might have been the culprit. Had we spent more time with them in 2010 then I would have felt a greater sense of buy-in. The flashes we get of these characters do give a sense of who they are, but I was left wanting more.

The ending does pick up pace-wise as Hannah approaches the truth, and there are a few thrilling, cinematic moments, but by that point I wasn’t as interested in the idea as a whole and so I don’t feel that the narrative fully redeemed itself.

I wanted to love this, I really did! But it just didn’t end up being for me.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The It Girl will be published on July 12th 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press.

The other passenger - louise candlish - book review

Privilege, envy, twists & turns in The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish ★★★½

If you were able to commute by riverboat, wouldn’t you? Gliding along the Thames with the wind whipping your hair, instead of crammed onto an airless tube hundreds of feet underground? It certainly sounds like the appealing option for Jamie, whose panic attack on the underground was a viral sensation, for want of a better word.

He’s not alone in his riverboat commute. Kit, a twentysomething who works in insurance, joins him on the regular. Along with two others, they form a little group calling themselves the water rats.

Jamie and Kit begin an unlikely friendship. Jamie is in his late forties and lives with his partner, Clare. He left the corporate rat race after he could no longer face the suffocating enclaves of the tube, and now works at a café. Clare, a successful estate agent, laments his lack of ambition but remains with him, the long-suffering girlfriend.

Kit’s girlfriend, Melia, has just begun working with Clare. She’s extremely attractive, a fact that Jamie, predictably, can’t help but notice. But Kit and Melia, once aspiring actors, are up to their eyebrows in debt, and are green with envy at Jamie and Clare’s beautiful Georgian house (owned, of course, by Clare’s parents).

‘We were accustomed to the house being an object of envy, even among our peers. Prospect Square, a five-minute walk from the Thames, is an intact Georgian conservation area sometimes used in the filming of period dramas… We were fortunate by anyone’s standards and every so often the realization would take possession of me: I’ve got it made here. I’m #Blessed.’

Despite Jamie being hashtag blessed, he can’t help but jeopardise everything for himself. He’s a pretty deficient in the charisma department right from the start – a compulsive liar who laments ‘woke’ culture and clearly doesn’t know a good thing when it’s staring him in the face. We have some sympathy for him – his claustrophobia is undoubtedly life-limiting and serious – but those reserves quickly run out when he gets himself in a very sticky situation indeed. Because the book begins with him disembarking the boat one December morning with two detectives waiting for him, wanting to question him over the disappearance of Kit. The last time they were seen together, they’d been fighting.

This was a smartly-written and plotted thriller – Louise Candlish’s voice is sharp and distinctive – a pleasure to get lost in. I had some ideas about where the plot was going, but the twists and turns still kept me hooked. I enjoy a dollop of social commentary with my thrillers, and Louise Candlish delivered, as she interrogates the generational divide and how privilege and financial freedom – or otherwise – shape our lives. I’ve knocked off some stars for the pacing – a solid start and punchy end were hampered by a dragging plot in the middle when we don’t know what’s happened to Kit and things meander slightly. But it’s still a deliciously absorbing read.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Other books by Louise Candlish…

Book review: page-turning and emotional thriller ‘Then She Was Gone’ by Lisa Jewell ★★★½

Ellie is about to sit her GCSE exams. Smart and kind and bubbly, she has her whole life ahead of her. So when she vanishes without a trace, it’s hard to agree with the police assessment – that she probably ran away from home.

Her family – Mum, Dad, and two siblings – are forced to move on, but her mother Laurel doesn’t really give up hope that her golden girl will come home to them. The public interest in the case fades and they slide back into their ordinary lives.

Ten years later, and now divorced, Laurel walks into a cafe and locks eyes with a handsome author, Lloyd. A relationship quickly develops, and Laurel meets his precocious daughter Poppy – who has an eerie resemblance to Ellie.

There’s a palpable tension that builds as we approach the truth of what really happened to Ellie. There’s a poignant part of the story told in her third-person narration in the time leading up to her disappearance, and as we get to know her character, it makes the inevitable even more harrowing. The switching of narrative – a textbook thriller device – is a successful way of making her more than a(nother) faceless missing/dead girl.

It’s pretty sad, and pretty dark. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as the beach-read sort – although it’s an addictive read you can whip through it in a few sittings, it’s also emotional and raw and shows the devastating impact of not knowing the fate of a loved one, and the endless bounds of maternal love.

There’s some suspension of disbelief – as there always is with domestic noirs like these – but it doesn’t detract from it being an engrossing, twisty and character-driven thriller.

‘So, in retrospect, she could have blamed her sister’s friend with the loud laugh for her being there at that precise moment, but she really didn’t want to do that. The blame game could be exhausting sometimes. The blame game could make you lose your mind … all the infinitesimal outcomes, each path breaking up into a million other paths every time you heedlessly chose one, taking you on a journey that you’d never find your way back from.’

For anyone who has read this book, did you know that Lisa Jewell envisioned an entirely different ending in her first draft to her editors? Here’s a fascinating post where she talks about it. Obviously, spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read it!!

More psychological thriller reviews below…

Girl A by Abigail Dean

Book review: ‘Girl A’ by Abigail Dean – a transfixing story of rebuilding a life after horror ★★★★½

I almost stopped reading this book a few pages in. But I’m glad I didn’t.

I was worried, at the start, that this would be a ‘trauma-porn’ kind of read – a litany of horrors, a will-they won’t-they escape their captors. And whilst the horror is there – spoken and unspoken – this book is so much more about how to rebuild a life after enduring such cruelty and suffering, and about the myriad and complex ways it affects each of the Gracie siblings who made it out alive from the ‘house of horrors.’

Lex, the titular ‘Girl A’ who manages to escape the house at fifteen years old, is our first-person narrator. Abigail Dean resists giving her ‘plucky heroine’ status, or making her broken beyond repair. Instead, she’s a complex, empathetic and unreliable narrator. Her siblings were all split up and adopted by different families, and 15 years on are varying degrees of well-adjusted. The sibling dynamics were portrayed in a fascinating way: rather than necessarily being bonded by such a uniquely horrifying trauma, there is guilt, fear, incomprehension.

‘When I looked at my siblings, frailer around the table, it seemed as though they’d taken a little flesh from each of us and made something new.’

This isn’t a fast-paced read – we’re constantly drawn back, the present-day narration never gathering too much momentum until we’re pulled back to a slowly unravelling past. We learn how the children slid from a relatively normal existence – if moderately poor and unloving – to a hellscape of being chained to their beds, deprived of food to almost starvation and routinely abused by their maniacal father, supposedly compelled by the word of God. Thankfully, Dean spares us most of the graphic details, but the oppressive atmosphere of dread is unbearable – and hard to look away from.

‘The poverty crept into our lives like ivy on a window, slow enough that you don’t notice it moving, and then, in no time, so dense that we couldn’t see outside.’

We know that the horrors end – which is what makes reading these flashbacks slightly more bearable; these children escaped, grew older, began life on their own terms. Except the fate that awaits each of the children is complicated.

In one particular anecdote that gave me chills, Lex has made it to university – several years older than her peers, on account of her catch-up schooling. They’re out one night at a Halloween party, and she sees a bunch of fellow students dressed up as nightmare-material IRL criminals – Ted Bundy, Myra Hindley, Ian Brady – and her very own parents. The sight of it is enough to make her almost lose consciousness in horror.

In the present day, Lex has been named executor of her mother’s will, her having died in prison. The Gracie children have inherited the house where they were imprisoned, and through the course of the novel Lex grapples with this inheritance and what to do with it. A physical manifestation of all they endured, its presence looms large within the story, the squalor and misery of those four walls terrifyingly vivid.

It’s a transfixing read, the characters so intricately rendered and the prose so expressive and gut-wrenching. Don’t go into this expecting an edge-of-your-seat thriller – but if you’ll sit with the characters a while, you’ll likely be just as drawn in as I was. I’ll be thinking about this one for a while.

Massive TW/CW for child abuse, substance use.

The Heights Louise Candlish Book Review

Book review: ‘The Heights’ by Louise Candlish, a slow-burn domestic noir about motherhood, retribution, and obsession ★★★★

How far would you go to protect your children? To what lengths would you pursue justice for anyone who did them harm? Ellen Saint is less than thrilled when her golden boy, Lucas, is matched as a ‘buddy’ at sixth form with Kieran, whose foster-home upbringing and non-standard English is worlds apart from Ellen’s carefully-cultivated suburban London home and Oxbridge aspirations for her son.

She sounds like a Karen, and yet she’s not an unsympathetic character. Kieran is rude, obnoxious, seemingly untalented in anything other than leading Lucas astray. Before Ellen knows it, they’re out most nights drinking and taking drugs, and Lucas’s university aspirations are rapidly fading. And then the unthinkable happens, and Ellen’s dislike of Kieran turns into a full-blown obsession, consuming her day and night. Unable to forgive or move on, she channels her energy into a campaign to destroy him.

‘Far from getting cold feet, I had begun to feel the fanaticism of someone whose mission is absolutely – almost divinely – right.’

In a clever structure, Ellen’s retelling of the course of events is framed as a writing project for female victims of crime, and is interspersed with extracts from a newspaper article, painting the story in another (more impartial?) light. When the perspective shifts halfway through, to that of Lucas’s father, Vic, we see things from yet another angle.

‘When you write your history, you find that you identify – and scatter – clues you couldn’t possibly have seen when you were living events in the present. Which means what’s blindingly obvious to you reading this now was unfathomable to me at the time.’

It’s funny how there are base instincts that compel even the most respectable amongst us to acts of lunacy. Ellen suffers from ‘l’appel du vide’ – the urge to jump when confronted with a steep drop, such as you might find on a bridge, the edge of a cliff, or the roof of a skyscraper.

I almost finished this in one sitting on a transatlantic flight (and it accompanied me through the jetlag of the following days). In Candlish’s fiction – as in life – there are rarely clear-cut heroes and villains, and her well-plotted domestic noirs don’t want for depth or nuance. The pace is measured rather than frantic, but gut-wrenching in its slow reveals, the truths and untruths that emerge as the story unfolds.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. The Heights will be published in March 2022.

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Verity by Colleen Hoover - book review

Book review: ‘Verity’ by Colleen Hoover – a sinister thriller exploring the twisted mind of a writer ★★★★

Verity is an accomplished writer – at least she was. Lowen is a struggling writer facing eviction – at least until the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself.

Verity is involved in a tragic accident that leaves her unable to complete her crime-thriller series, and her husband Jeremy believes that what Verity would have wanted is for another writer to take on the task. That writer happens to be Lowen. And the only practical solution – given the enormous stacks of notes Verity wrote before her accident – is for Lowen to come to the family home and wade through Verity’s office by hand.

While she’s there, she discovers another manuscript. One that paints the picture-perfect family that Verity and Jeremy have built in a rather different light. And the more Lowen reads, the more disturbed she becomes. She starts seeing things, like Verity – ostensibly non-communicative and unable to move independently – moving around the house, talking to her young son and locking doors that were previously open…

“Some families are lucky enough to never experience a single tragedy. But then there are those families that seem to have tragedies waiting on the back burner. What can go wrong, goes wrong. And then gets worse.”

It’s a unputdownable thriller – Colleen Hoover constructs a claustrophobic, menacing setting and a tightly-wound plot. Something is clearly very, very wrong in that house – but who is the villain, and what really happened to Verity’s two young daughters?

“This is the point when other authors would paint themselves in a better light, rather than throw themselves into an X-ray machine. But there is no light where we’re going. This is your final warning.”

I learnt that Colleen Hoover is best known for her romance writing, and she tries to put that to good use here – there were a lot of sex scenes and a central romance that develops throughout the narrative, but not really enough character development for it to be a plausible relationship. I think the novel would have been stronger if Hoover hadn’t been trying to work a romance into a thriller.

Genre-blending pitfalls aside, I really enjoyed Verity. It is propulsive and creepy, and very easy to devour in a few sittings. I like the alternation between passages from Verity’s manuscript and Lowen’s present-day reality, working in tandem to ramp up the tension until the final few scenes.

In a final twist, the real story is left up for grabs – it’s up to the reader to decide on the truth. In some stories it might be frustrating, but here it’s a clever and satisfying denoument.

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