Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour: The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy

It’s an honour to be asked to take part in the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 blog tour – cheers Craig! I was asked to – or begged to – read Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room for the awards this year. I confess to have had no knowledge of the premise or plot: only that it was written by Stella Duffy, who comes most highly recommended.

The Hidden Room follows Laurie and Martha, happily married with three children. Laurie’s career is taking off in the way that she could never have expected. Their children are all dedicated athletes – Hope, the oldest is a talented dancer, and Jack and Ana, the twins, are swimmers. Hope’s new dance teacher is motivating her to a new level, and when Martha befriends him, he asks her to help with his life coach training. And by the time that Laurie, busier than usual, realises the extent that this dance teacher has wormed his way into her family’s life, it’s too late. Because this man is a dangerous figure from Laurie’s past, that she has done her best to conceal from her family.

Laurie grew up in a ‘community’ in the US, a cult demanding absolute loyalty, but with the expectation of physical and sexual abuse. She was taken away and adopted at the age of 9, and this is the story that most people know – but as the reader gradually learns through glimpses of the past, this isn’t the full story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the shocks and twists that come through, but let it be said that The Hidden Room is an exquisitely written literary thriller, and a compelling exploration of how cults come to be. Despite the usual wanting to yell ‘you fool, CALL THE POLICE!!!’, Duffy makes a clever and convincing case for how manipulation and brainwashing can so easily turn into complicity – how abusers can maintain a hold. The narration is almost despairing, yet strangely detached, which has the effect of heightening the intensity, and making the atmosphere all the more claustrophobic.

Thought-provoking and genuinely chilling in its simplicity, The Hidden Room is a clever thriller about the nature of devotion and obsession and how far you will – or won’t – go to save your family.

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy is out now from Virago.

Advertisements

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I absolutely love an Agatha Christie novel. Upper class toffs, murdered and murdering for revenge, money, to keep secrets concealed… all to be revealed at the end by a moustachioed Belgian, or an elderly spinster. Just perfect. And now here comes an exceptional thriller with all the conventions of the genre: the rich family who suffered a terrible tragedy, the beautiful but doomed heiress, the haunted butler, the unscrupulous doctor, the blackmailer, the rake… then all spliced up, and drenched in a little more blood, as though by one of the more slash-happy villains of Stuart Turton’s remarkably assured debut.

The Hardcastles are throwing the party of the year at their dilapidated family estate, Blackheath, to celebrate their daughter Evelyn’s return from Paris. All the great and the good have been invited, and no expense has been spared. But the night will end in tragedy, with Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. A murder, that doesn’t appear to be a murder. And Aiden Bishop is trapped at Blackheath until he solves the murder. Every day, he sees the events through the eyes of a different person in the house and if he hasn’t solved the mystery by the end of his time there, he returns to the beginning, his memory wiped. On top of that, he isn’t the only one trying to solve the mystery, and only one of them can leave.

From the very first page, when Aiden wakes up in the body of his first host, with no memory of who or where he is, the pace of this novel doesn’t let up. As he gets to know the household, and begins to piece together clues, he also determines, despite being told it can’t be done, to save Evelyn. Some seem to helping him, some seem to be hindering him – and one person is hell bent on his death. Is there anyone he can trust? Without his memories, can he even trust himself?

There’s room for humour as well – each of Aiden’s hosts are different, some particularly monstrous, but each one has their own personality, battling with his own. In one case, he has to fight his host’s stupidity; in another, his host is so obese that he must be assisted in every task by a valet, to Aiden’s shame.

As Aiden runs around Blackheath over eight days, learning a little more as every guest, and working around his other seven selves, a lesser novel could have got lost in its own winding plot and challenging premise. With its truly unique, and perfectly executed premise, this is a terrific twist on the locked room mystery. Beautifully written, and populated with a mad cast of characters, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle will blow your mind.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is out now, published by Bloomsbury Raven.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

The Old Religion, Martyn Waites’s first novel in a while written under his own (male) name, has been described as ‘Brexit Noir meets The Wicker Man’ but there was another film that came to mind as I read this intensely sinister and creepy thriller. Remember the end of the Pegg/Frost/Wright film Hot Fuzz, in which [spoiler alert] Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel stands in front of the villagers, as they all chant ‘the Greater Good’, having realised that they’re all in on a series of murders committed in order to keep their community perfect? Well…

After tragic events in his home city, Tom Killgannon is in witness protection, living in the tiny Cornish village of St Petroc. It’s a tight-knit, often downright hostile community, which suits Tom perfectly – he’s happy being the ‘outsider’ for as long as necessary as it avoids unwelcome questions about his past. His policy of keeping himself to himself ends when he comes home to find that Lila, a young woman on the run, has broken into his house and is eating his cheese. Before he can find out much more about her, she’s taken off again, with his coat, and, inadvertently, his entire identity. He takes off after her, with no idea what he’s letting himself in for…

But Lila is on the run from something more terrifying than Tom could even begin to imagine. St Petroc is a community in peril – destroyed by years of neglect and underfunding, with the lies of Brexit being the final kicker, and out of desperation the villagers have turned to the unthinkable. Into the void has stepped a charismatic leader, full of promises – but with a terrible price.

Dark, chillingly atmospheric and thought-provoking, The Old Religion explores the insidious power of mob mentality, but also the desperation of those who have nothing. But this is also a page-turning thriller, with an extraordinary cast of characters, and a plot that races along. Highly recommended.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites is out now, published by Zaffre

Circe by Madeline Miller

At last! Circe is the long-awaited follow-up to Madeline Miller’s 2011 masterpiece The Song of Achilles, which told The Iliad from the point of view of the awkward prince Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, best of the Greeks. In Circe, Miller moves on to The Odyssey, to tell the story of the witch who turned Odysseus’s men to pigs, before falling in love with him.

Circe is born to Helios, the sun god, and the naiad Perse. The least favourite of the couple’s children, she can’t aspire to a good marriage, and falls in love with a mortal. After her love is spurned (with memorable, and unfortunate consequences), and she is revealed as a pharmakis, Circe is banished to an island by herself, unable to leave. Thus begins her exile. One regular visitor is Hermes, who becomes a lover. Her niece Medea also visits, with her lover Jason, seeking help. On one occasion, her sister Pasiphae calls her to assist in childbirth – where the offspring is the result of an unfortunate coupling between her and a beautiful white bull. And then later, when she is back on her island, sailors begin to land, including Odysseus’s men. Feeling threatened (with good cause), Circe turns a large number of them into pigs… and the rest is history. Or Greek mythology, if you will.

Circe is a stunning reimagining of some of the favourite Greek myths – taking in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, the Minotaur, Scylla the sea monster, the endless punishment of Prometheus, amongst others. And at the centre of it is the story of a woman Circe – immortal, yes, but who feels love, anger, loneliness, fear, jealousy, and who struggles with single motherhood. She grows to look down on the Gods, almost as wilful children who make their mark by killing mortals who slight them somehow, or starting wars for fun. It’s a fast-paced story – after all, if you have an eternity to live, mortal lifetimes pass in the blink of an eye.

A timely rewriting of all your favourite Greek myths with a feminist angle, and the Odyssey with more than a hint of #MeToo, Circe is also a thrilling and captivating page turner. Well worth waiting for.

Circe by Madeline Miller is out now, published by Bloomsbury.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Where to begin when discussing The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock? A beautifully packaged, buzzy debut which you’re almost afraid to begin for fear it won’t live up to expectation. However, this is one of the most spellbinding and magical historical novels I’ve ever read, reminiscent of the gritty authenticity of The Crimson Petal and the White, which deserves all the acclaim it’s had to date.

Set at the end of the 18th century, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens with Jonah Hancock, a widowed merchant who lives a lonely life, cared for by only his young niece, dreaming of the family he could have had. One fateful evening, that will change his life, his most trusted agent returns with the news that he has sold his best ship, in exchange for what appears to be a dead mermaid. Initially horrified, Mr Hancock is persuaded to exhibit it, in the hope that he might recoup some of his money. Word quickly spreads, and in no time at all Mrs Chappell, one of the most renowned bawds in London determines to rent the mermaid as a diversion for her ‘nunnery.’ She charges Angelica Neal, one of her former protégées, and one of London’s most beautiful courtesans, to keep Mr Hancock sweet – and thus their lives will be intertwined, in the most unlikely way, weathering decisions both good and bad.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is clearly impressively researched, but wears it lightly, striking a brilliant balance between comedy and social commentary. There are great lines, humorously reminding the reader of the wonders yet to be discovered by 18th century England, such as the coffee shop owner pointing out how ridiculous it is to believe in the ‘kongourou’, but not in mermaids, and the scientist who remains sceptical, but who doesn’t wish to repeat the embarrassment of his previous – disproven – assertion that lions are born as puffballs. Yet much is also made of the extent to which women’s fortunes rely on their mensfolk, be it Angelica, searching for a sponsor to keep her, to Jonah’s niece Sukie, who will rely on him for a dowry. And even Mrs Chappell relies on a network of powerful men to keep her safe. It’s also a fascinating exploration of sex and virtue in the 1700s – the mermaid orgy scene I think will stay with all of us for some time!

A compelling, memorable story of love, obsession and commodity, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is nothing short of a masterpiece in my opinion, and signals an exciting new talent.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is out now from Vintage Books.

Dark Pines by Will Dean

There’s really something to be said for reviewing books when you actually read them, rather than some months later. Nonetheless, let’s give it a go. I had heard much about this exciting Sweden-based debut from the oh-so charming Will Dean. Liz (of the ‘Loves Books’) fame had been talking it up for quite some time, and the premise (one word – Swedish) sounded intriguing. So one cold January evening, I curled up and took a look.

Dark Pines’ protagonist is Tuva Moodyson, a young deaf reporter working in the remote town of Gavrik. She is used to covering local stories, ‘your daughter scoring in a hockey match or your neighbour growing the town’s longest carrot’, but when a body is found in the forest, eyes missing, in a manner similar to another case known as the Medusa case twenty years ago, Tuva senses that this could be the story that makes her name. But between visits to her sick mother, navigating the resentful locals who don’t want negative stories damaging their town, and even keeping on top of laundry, nothing about this story will be simple.

The suspects are all weirder than the next, and include a keen hunter, two terrifying sisters who carve unnerving wooden trolls, and a militant anti-hunting vegetarian possibly taking revenge on the many hunters in the area. Tuva already has a fear of the forest, let alone with one of them on her tail… Nothing about the trail makes sense, and as more bodies pile up, Tuva is running out of time.

Dark Pines is a thrilling and clever mystery, but what made it outstanding to me is the unique and interesting lead character of Tuva, and the completely exquisite, evocative and atmospheric writing. You can almost smell the damp pine needles, and feel the boggy thickness of the air as you read. A very exciting debut, and I look forward to reading whatever Will Dean produces from the forest in which he lives (obvs).

Dark Pines by Will Dean is out now, published by Point Blank.

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

It’s been far too long since I last blogged – too many time constraints, poor time management, etc – which is a shame, for, dear reader, I have read some simply marvellous books, both in the last months of 2017, and in 2018. And instead of blogging about them, I have simply tweeted about them, and spoken about them, and…rated them on GoodReads. Which never feels like quite enough.


But I’ve got carried away. Today, I’m writing about The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, that spooky book you saw all over Twitter last year. There was a suggestion that the book was very scary and that those of a weak disposition should stay away. I, knowing myself to be of a weak disposition (not sleeping after reading The Shining, fainting whilst reading The Shining Girls, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil and The Witchfinder’s Sister, amongst other books) avoided it. But then, I popped into my local library, and spotted it there, temptingly positioned under ‘P’. I couldn’t resist…

The Silent Companions opens with Elsie Bainbridge, locked away in an asylum, accused of murder, but unable, or unwilling to speak and defend herself. And already, we know that her story will not end well. The narrative then jumps back to a year or so previously, with Elsie, newly widowed, newly pregnant, moving into her late husband’s crumbling estate, with only his boring cousin Sarah for company. Elsie explores the house, discovering a locked garret, which contains a hidden 200-year old diary and a strangely life-like and life-size wooden figure, known as a silent companion. Sarah starts reading the diary, excited to learn about her ancestors, and learns about a 17th century noble family with their eye on the king’s favour, with only their youngest daughter, a mute, standing in their way. And then odd things start happening around the large rambling house. The companion appears around the house, and apparently multiplies. And the companions’ eyes seem to move, following them around. The resentful servants playing tricks on them? Elsie’s mind, addled with grief? Or something more sinister? 

Events build to a terrifying crescendo, with all the terror of Stephen King’s hedge animals, and all the atmosphere of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. It’s a breathless, agonising read, that you can’t bear to keep reading, but also can’t put down. Highly recommended, but don’t do what I did, and decide to tackle the last hundred pages at about 11.30 at night…

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is out now, published by Bloomsbury.