The Haunting of Abney Heights by Cat Thomas

Description

An old asylum, a hidden diary and a secret that casts long shadows

When Meg returns to London, she knows she’ll be facing ghosts from her own troubled past.

Yet she doesn’t expect to find her new home so unnerving…

…even if it is a former asylum.

Investigating the mysterious deaths of two asylum patients, Meg discovers an intriguing Edwardian world of steampunk spiritualism, genteel gay romance and radical therapies. Digging deeper, she begins to realise something evil lurked behind the asylum’s liberal façade.

Did the patients find out? Was that why they were killed?

Deciphering a coded document takes her nearer the heart of the asylum’s secrets and reveals shocking truths about Meg’s own life. Her grip on reality crumbles as the dark Edwardian past begins to overtake her.

Can she survive the damaging path to the final piece of the puzzle?

Fans of Laura Purcell, Diane Setterfield, Bridget Collins and Stacey Halls will love this quirky gothic mystery.

(CAUTION: Written and set in the UK, this book uses British spelling and terminology. May contain traces of tea and irony.)

My thoughts

First up – the cover art is gorgeous and eye catching.

Second up – I see Goodreads users are describing this as horror and I can’t help but feel this may put potential readers off if horror isn’t their thing. Conversely, horror fans will be left disappointed. I would describe this more as a very solidly written Gothic mystery.

This is the first book I have read by Cat Thomas and I love her writing. It’s the kind of writing that you somehow instinctively recognise as British. It’s understated yet conveys everything it needs to and implies a little bit more and that really appeals to me. I like the way the story is told too, in two time frames. The contemporary story is told in the first person by Meg, a middle aged divorcee who is none too happy to be back in her childhood neighbourhood, with its accompanying bad memories, due to work commitments. The Edwardian era story unfolds mainly through the journal entries of Ella, a young woman who was a patient at the asylum, and of Doctor Woods, the psychiatrist who was treating Ella and the other patients.

I liked the characters too. Meg has a difficult childhood back story which she is being forced to revisit both by being back in the place where she was so unhappy, and by also having to deal with a trunk of her mother’s belongings which she has been able to avoid until now. She gains a small but dedicated group of supporters in the course of her research and I liked the dynamics of the group, the Scoobys as she nicknames them.

What I felt was lacking, considering the title, was a real feel for Abney Heights, the building which had originally been an asylum. We were led in the direction of it being creepy but I never felt that sense of unease which would have added to my reading experience.

I did see the twists coming, but it didn’t detract from the story, and there was a completely wild card chapter near the end which I definitely didn’t see coming.

I

The Raven Song by Luanne G. Smith

Description

Fleeing Victorian London, a witch finds her newfound independence comes with all-new perils—both mortal and immortal.

Forever untangling the branches of her strange family tree, Edwina Blackwood is at a turning point. Her parents’ disappearances still strike her as unaccountably odd. Her sister’s questionable life and untimely death have left her shaken. Spellfire has transformed her home and livelihood to ash. And now a devious stalker is on her trail. With supernatural detective Ian Cameron by her side, Edwina can’t get out of London fast enough.

Gaining safe passage, she finds refuge with Sir Henry Elvanfoot, famed wizard of the north, and is promised protection from ill-aimed curses. But in this unfamiliar city of fair folk and witches, where the veil between Earth and the Otherworld is about to be lifted, something is amiss. How else to explain Edwina’s sudden prophetic visions? Or the fear that surviving whoever pursues her will require the powers of an ancient bloodline she’s only beginning to comprehend?

Whatever destiny awaits, it’s Edwina’s to finally control. Where will it lead? Only time, cunning, and magic—in this world or the Other—will tell.

My thoughts
This is the second book in the Conspiracy of Magic series. I enjoyed the first book very much, but I enjoyed this one more and hope there will be another book. Book 1, Raven Spell, laid a lot of the groundwork with world building and especially the types of magic and those who wield them. The Raven Song built on all of that, rounding out characters and adding more layers.

I really like the main characters, Edwina and Ian. They were both more fleshed out in this book and their personalities came through more strongly. I also liked the side characters, even one who was treacherous had a mischievous charm that made him impossible to dislike.

My only complaint is that I wanted a lot more of Elvanfoot. Fingers crossed for another book with Elvanfoot in a more prominent role.

#NetGalley #LuanneGSmith #TheRavenSong

Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz

Description

This is not just another novel about a dead girl.

When she arrived in New York on her 18th birthday carrying nothing but $600 cash and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for a fresh start. Now, just one month later, she is the city’s latest Jane Doe, an unidentified murder victim.

Ruby Jones is also trying to start over; she travelled halfway around the world only to find herself lonelier than ever. Until she finds Alice’s body by the Hudson River.

From this first, devastating encounter, the two women form an unbreakable bond. Alice is sure that Ruby is the key to solving the mystery of her life – and death. And Ruby – struggling to forget what she saw that morning – finds herself unable to let Alice go. Not until she is given the ending she deserves.

Before You Knew My Name doesn’t ask whodunnit. Instead, this powerful, hopeful novel asks: Who was she? And what did she leave behind? The answers might surprise you.

My thoughts

Alice and Ruby arrive in New York on the same day, unknown to each other but both running from something. Once in the big apple their lives go in different directions but collide the day that Ruby finds Alice’s murdered body. Alice is a Jane Doe, but Ruby can’t put this nameless girl out of her mind. The story is narrated by Alice, which is an interesting POV. She tells us of her sadness at her unexpected death and her desperation to be identified and not remain nameless and forgotten, and through her we are given insights into Ruby’s struggle to come to terms with what she saw and to find out who Jane Doe was, seeing in the dead girl’s anonymity echoes of her own loss of self identity.
This was a book that started slowly but increased the pace as it went along. I really enjoyed it and the ending was very satisfying.

Recommend.

Starling by Sarah Jane Butler

Description

Starling can trap a rabbit, cook a meal from a hedge and hear a bailiff coming from a mile off. All she has ever known is a nomadic existence, traveling in a camper van with Mar, her strong-willed mother. But Mar has cut them off from their community, and this winter they’re stuck in deep mud in a wood, with no fuel, no money and no friends.

One morning, without explanation, Mar leaves and doesn’t come back. Utterly alone, Starling must learn to survive without her mother and build a life on her own terms.

An offer to stay with an old friend draws her into a more conventional way of living – but can rootless Starling ever find a place where she truly belongs?

My thoughts

To begin with, while the book description is accurate, it is deceptively simple. Starling is a complex character, raised wild and semi-feral in her thought processes. This is a result of having been brought up by Mar, someone who is an incredibly strong presence in the book. Mar’s deep mistrust and avoidance of humans has rubbed off on Starling to the point where Starling also trusts no one. So when Mar abandons Starling without warning Starling is completely adrift and with nowhere to go and no one to turn to except for the childhood friend she hasn’t seen for many years and whom she also feels abandoned by.

Starling is not always an easy person to like. Even knowing why she does the things she does it is hard to see her hurt others, sometimes unknowingly and other times intentionally. Being forced to live fully with other people for the first time in her life without Mar’s judgemental presence helps Starling to see, for the first time, that perhaps Mar’s perception of the wider world and those who live in it might not be entirely reliable.

This is a very insightful book with characters that get under your skin. One part of me hopes for a sequel, but the larger part wants to leave the story exactly where it ended and let my imagination continue to fire.

Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Description

A literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City.

Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?

My thoughts

I loved the premise, along with the bright cover, but the story felt weirdly flat for me and I think it was because I really didn’t like the main character, Meche. She didn’t seem to have any redeeming characteristics, being both a user and abuser of her friends. Which brings me to my next issue – how did she have friends, let alone keep them? Which made someone loving her a bit of a stretch.

It also took a very long time for the story to get going. I remember at the halfway mark wondering if and when it would get interesting. Thankfully the story itself did. It’s told in two timelines – 1988 and 2009 – and this is a plot device I usually enjoy except that the voices sounded the same in each. Despite being 21 years older, there didn’t seem to be any maturation of the characters. The second half was more interesting to read though and finally felt as though the story was moving forward.

Having loved Mexican Gothic I was full of anticipation for this and I’m sure that coloured my expectations but Signal To Noise just never really got going for me.

The Locked Away Life by Drew Davies

Description

Everyone has secrets… But are they saving you or destroying you?

Esther has shut away herself in her vine-covered manor house on the top of a hill for as long as she can remember. Everyone in the village whispers about the scandal that broke her heart. She has cut herself off from the world – until now. Now, she needs help uncovering the mystery that has plagued her for decades…

On a sunny spring day, eighteen-year-old Bruno is in the local library when he spots an advert. The old lady on the hill is looking for internet lessons, and Bruno sees his chance. Forever the outsider, he can’t wait to escape the sleepy village – the paid position could be his ticket out of there.

Esther and Bruno have nothing in common, except that they are both in hiding, and their secrets are stopping them from truly living… Esther must come to terms with her past, and Bruno needs to figure out his future. Can these two strangers save one another?

Just as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, this page-turner is for anyone who has ever felt left behind or came close to giving up.

My thoughts

Told in alternating points of view by Bruno and Esther, this is a beautifully written story about unlikely friendships, finding one’s sense of identity, and setting right past wrongs. It deals with some sensitive issues with enormous compassion and understanding.
Bruno is confused about his identity and desperate to escape the small village where he lives, due to the stigma of his Romani heritage and the fear of being trapped working in the industrial complex where all the young village men end up working and never leaving. He takes a job teaching elderly recluse, Esther, how to use the internet – “the online” as she calls it. Esther’s backstory, along with her refusal to let her decreasing mobility take away her independance, was also very strong. Esther is a wonderful character who refuses to engage in fake niceness and only respects honesty.
I loved how all the characters had their own distinct personalities and the conversations with each other. None of it felt manipulated or forced.
This is a heartwarming book that will make you fall in love with the characters but also really tug at your heartstrings. I was hooked from the prologue and remained hooked until the very end, which I absolutely loved.

Thank you to Netgalley for an advanced copy in return for my honest review.

In the Middle of Hickory Lane by Heather Webber

Description

Emme Wynn has wanted nothing more her whole life than to feel like part of a family. Having grown up on the run with her con artist mother, she’s been shuffled from town to town, drawn into bad situations, and has learned some unsavory habits that she’s tried hard to overcome. When her estranged grandmother tracks her down out of the blue and extends a job offer—helping to run her booth at an open-air marketplace in small-town Sweetgrass, Alabama—Emme is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to plant the roots she’s always dreamed of. But some habits are hard to break, and she risks her newfound happiness by keeping one big truth to herself.

Cora Bee Hazelton has her hands full with volunteering, gardening, her job as a color consultant and designer, and just about anything she can do to keep her mind off her painful past, a past that has resulted in her holding most everyone at arm’s length. The last thing she wants is to form close relationships only to have her heart broken yet again. But when she’s injured, she has no choice other than to let people into her life and soon realizes it’s going to be impossible to keep her heart safe—or her secrets hidden.

In the magical neighborhood garden in the middle of Hickory Lane, Emme and Cora Bee learn some hard truths about the past and themselves, the value of friends, family, and community, and most importantly, that true growth starts from within.

My thoughts

Heather Webber is like my comfort blanket or a warm hug when I want to read a book that is full of love and friendships and caring, and In the Middle of Hickory Lane delivers all this in spades.

Emme is a lost soul. She doesn’t know who she is anymore or what to do with her life next, so when she receives an invitation from her grandmother to come and stay in the small Alabama town of Sweetgrass she sees it as a lifeline. When she arrives her cousin, Cora Bee, is recovering from a broken heart and a broken foot and Emme moves in to be her assistant and a tentative friendship blossoms. For the first time in her life Emme finds herself surrounded by family and friends who truly care about her.

This is a story about found family and friendships and is beautifully told. In all of the author’s books that I have read there is an element of magical realism but it’s done lightly but interestingly. She has a gentle, calm writing style and I can highly recommend this if you want a book that leaves you feeling happy, relaxed and uplifted.

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Description

In a valley steeped in legend lies an abandoned house where Edens may be lost, found and remade…

The White Valley in the far west of Cornwall cuts deeply through bluebell woods down to the sea. The house above the beach has lain neglected since the war. It comes with a reputation, which is why Mila and her mother Magda acquire it so cheaply in the fateful summer of 1954.

Magda plans to restore the house to its former glory: the venue for glittering parties, where the rich and celebrated gathered for bracing walks by day and sumptuous cocktails by night. Mila’s ambitions, meanwhile, are much less grand; she dreams of creating a safe haven for herself, and a happy home for her little girl, Janey.

The White Valley comes with a long, eventful history, laced with tall tales. Locals say that a white hare may be seen running through the woods there; to some she’s an ill omen, to others a blessing. Feeling fragile and broken-hearted, Mila is in need of as many blessings as she can get. But will this place provide the fresh start she so desperately needs?

My thoughts

Mila and her overbearing mother, Magda, move to a neglected old house in a deep valley in Cornwall, along with Mila’s daughter, Janey. They plan to restore it and turn it into an exclusive holiday retreat but soon learn that the locals do not like the house because of its dark history, which they are reluctant to talk about, and many are hostile to the new occupants. This setting is very atmospheric and has a strong Gothic feel to it. The Cornish legend woven through the story is fantastic and I loved the supernatural touches, which were done with a light hand. Most of the characters are very strong and memorable, but the one who I felt had the least personality was the main character, Mila. This is partly explained by her recent back story and also having always felt unloved and overwhelmed by her very strong mother, but at the same time I struggled to see what her attraction was for the main male character. I really enjoyed the story though and Jane Johnson remains one of my favourite authors.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to review this book. My opinions are my own.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Description

From the best-selling author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a stunning new novel—his first since winning the Nobel Prize in Literature—about the wondrous, mysterious nature of the human heart.

From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change forever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.

In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro looks at our rapidly changing modern world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator to explore a fundamental question: what does it mean to love?

My thoughts

I loved Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro but I loved this book even more, and a lot of that is down to the unique and pure voice of Klara.

Klara is an artificial friend (AF) whose sole purpose is to provide positive role-modelling and non-judgemental companionship to children. She is purchased by the mother of a 12 year old girl, Josie, whose health is precarious. The story is told by Klara in an observational manner, and the reader is left to infer things through the context of the events and repeated conversations that Klara reports. Klara may not ‘feel’ emotion, but her intelligence means she can – to a certain extent – ‘understand’ some of what she observes.

This is a quick read but covers some complex ethical and moral dilemmas, none of which I can’t really enlarge on without risking spoilers. It is poignant and thought-provoking and will stay with me.

Ma and Me by Putsata Reang

Description

When Putsata Reang was eleven months old, her family fled war-torn Cambodia, spending twenty-three days on an overcrowded navy vessel before finding sanctuary at an American naval base in the Philippines. Holding what appeared to be a lifeless baby in her arms, Ma resisted the captain’s orders to throw her bundle overboard. Instead, on landing, Ma rushed her baby into the arms of American military nurses and doctors, who saved the child’s life. “I had hope, just a little, you were still alive,” Ma would tell Put in an oft-repeated story that became family legend.

Over the years, Put lived to please Ma and make her proud, hustling to repay her life debt by becoming the consummate good Cambodian daughter, working steadfastly by Ma’s side in the berry fields each summer and eventually building a successful career as an award-winning journalist. But Put’s adoration and efforts are no match for Ma’s expectations. When she comes out to Ma in her twenties, it’s just a phase. When she fails to bring home a Khmer boyfriend, it’s because she’s not trying hard enough. When, at the age of forty, Put tells Ma she is finally getting married—to a woman—it breaks their bond in two.

In her startling memoir, Reang explores the long legacy of inherited trauma and the crushing weight of cultural and filial duty. With rare clarity and lyric wisdom, Ma and Me is a stunning, deeply moving memoir about love, debt, and duty.

Quote

‘Failure to thrive’ is what the doctors said, three words flicked like sand into my mother’s ears. Taking shape inside her, docking on her deepest insecurities. If her baby fails to thrive, she will take it to mean only one thing, that she has failed, too. Three words are enough to make a story. A story I will spend my life trying to override.

My thoughts

I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy this initially as I felt the first few chapters jumped around between different places and people and eras before I’d had a chance to familiarise myself with them, so I kept having to stop and figure out whether I was reading about Ma or Ma’s mother. But once I’d got past those first chapters I couldn’t put this beautiful memoir down.

I knew the bare bones of Cambodian history and nothing about Cambodian Khmer culture. This was all explained so well that I felt immersed in Put’s story and family. The relationship between Put and Ma was one grounded in Ma’s history. Female Khmer children were expected to marry and bring a dowry to her parents, and then be subservient and devoted to her husband and family. Added to this expectation of Put was the fact that her mother had fought so hard to keep her alive and Ma expected unequivocal loyalty in return. Put’s refusal to settle down and marry young, followed by her insistence on being independant and successful in her career was difficult for Ma to understand, let alone accept. Put’s revelation that she was gay drove a further huge wedge in their previously close bond.

Put is honest about her feelings of guilt and failure to be the daughter her mother expected her to be. Ma is a force to be reckoned with and Put’s decision to at last forge her own way in life was extremely brave, knowing that the relationship with Ma might never be healed.

This is a beautiful account of what it means to be Cambodian in America, to be viewed as a foreign Cambodian in Cambodia, and what it means to not follow the traditional paths set out in Khmer culture. I loved the contrast in demeanours in the wedding photos at the back. I stayed up very late to finish this memoir because I couldn’t put it down.