The Chalk Man – CJ Tudor

chalk man cover

“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Short version: It, without the demonic clown.

Eddie Adams thinks his past is tightly locked up in his head. But as childhood friends and old memories start to come out of the woodwork, is it finally time to face up to the past? Because in 1986, five pre-teen friends have their idyllic summer holiday shattered first by a horrific accident, and then the discovery of a dead body. But the chalk stick figures – they were just a game. Who, then, has sent each of them a letter 30 years later, with just that single stick figure drawing?

There was something in the description of this that called to me, despite the fact that I rarely read dark thrillers these days. But, oh, this spoke to the teenage me who adored Stephen King books – and it really is somewhere between Stand By Me (aka The Body) and It – although as I say, without those supernatural elements. They aren’t missed: this is a gripping enough mystery without bringing in anything other worldly.

The chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, and both strands follow Eddie as his life goes from perfect childhood to tinged with terror and darkness. It’s very well done: both plotlines are equally intriguing, adding to the other, so the flip back and forth never left me wishing for the other segment. I did prefer the earlier segments, though, as the mood that’s conjured is just brilliantly evocative of those 1980s childhood summers that some of us remember (albeit with less, y’know, dead things!), and some have grown to love from watching Stranger Things.

I did think I’d guessed the ‘whodunnit’ early on, only for the whole thing to swerve in an unexpected direction – hurrah! Still, as the mysteries start to be unravelled at the end, there were just a few bits that seemed perhaps a little too coincidental, so I’m knocking a mark of for that.

Otherwise, though, I gobbled this in just two days – it really was that gripping! Absolutely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 342 pages
First published: January 11th 2018
Series: none
Read from 6th-7th January 2018

My rating: 9/10

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The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Rabbit Back Literature Society cover

“The reader was at first surprised, then shocked, as the criminal Raskolnikov was abruptly slain in the middle of the street, right before her eyes.”

Rabbit Back is a small town with a large literary heritage. World-famous children’s author, Laura White, is not only from the town but once set up the tituar Literature Society: nine young children taught how to be successful authors.

Decades later, and an observant eye might notice that the nine – all successful – seem to avoid each other. It might also notice the strange behaviour of all the local dogs, running away and congregating in packs of strays. There have been strange things afoot for years in this town, but the combination of the announcement that there will finally be a tenth Society member, and the mysterious disappearance of a resident, is set to rock the whole town.

And as the new member discovers The Game, and the books with text that mutates overnight, we delve deeper into the mysteries of Rabbit Back and the Literature Society…

Views on this book seem really mixed, with no shortage of 5 or 1 star reviews. I fall firmly into the former category: I loved this book! The mix of mystery and the supernatural, the latter fully supported by twisted human psychology, was just perfect to keep me glued to the pages. I do like fantasy fiction, which perhaps helped on some of the stranger elements of the story. I’m also less than easily shocked, which definitely helped with the scenes of mild torture and/or some sexual content. I suspect the mix is enough to put different people off for differing reasons, though.

However, if you are willing to brave all those factors, I thoroughly recommend this. The mix of human and magical, past and present, mysteries completely set my imagination alight, and I was more than sorry to see this one end.

Paperback: 344 pages / 39 chapters
First published: 2006 (2013 for English translation)
Series: none
Read from 8th-13th December 2017

My rating: 9/10

A Murder for the Books – Victoria Gilbert

A Murder for the Books cover

“Anyone who claims there are no stupid questions has never worked in a public library.”

Having fled an embarrassing end to a terrible romance, Amy Webber is now director of the library in the small, old town where her aunt lives. Still, it’s far too soon to deal with the flirting from a hunky new neighbour as she sets about helping him research some of the town’s past. Murder and poison and disappearances make for juicy history – but not so happy times when the past starts to seep into the present.

I requested this book from NetGalley because I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my ‘cosy mystery’ reads, set in libraries or bookshops. This one, however, was perhaps a little less cosy and actually quite dark on the murder mystery side – nothing too awful – but with a hefty dose of chick-lit romance. Throw in a shiver of the supernatural and it was all rather intriguing.

While I wasn’t exactly enthralled with the romance aspects – just not my genre – I did enjoy the descriptions of the historic town and its dark past events. There are plenty of characters to throw red herrings in the mix, before an okay-if-not-brilliant denouement of the present mystery ties in nicely with the cold case.

Overall, this was a nice enough read. I’m not entirely sure where the series could go next, but the writing style was strong enough to make me consider finding out.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 12th December 2017
Series: Blue Ridge Library Mysteries book 1
Read from 4th-11th December 2017

My rating: 6/10

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder on the orient express poster

Famous detective Hercule Poirot has just solved yet another baffling case – the resolution of which we see at the start of this movie – but he feels weary and out of sorts. He’s a little love lorn, as it turns out, but generally just tired of being a famous detective. However, his planned vacation goes a little awry when one of the thirteen other passengers is murdered. Of course Poirot is called upon to use his skills: because they are now trapped on an avalanche-blocked train, high in the mountains, with a murderer.

I have absolutely no recollection of any previous adaptation of this, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and lauded novels, which I have also failed to read. So, for me this was still quite the mystery, which really added to the experience – something that I’m not sure many viewers would have. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that I did at one time know the ‘whodunnit’, or the story was even less well handled as the who reveal was a little less than the stonking surprise it perhaps should have been.

That’s rather my general view of this movie: given the cast, the obviously generous budget, the pedigree of the material and the opportunity to put on the big screen something that hasn’t really been done for decades – why isn’t this just somehow better?

On the plus side, it looks absolutely gorgeous. The period detail, the scenery, the train itself – all wonderful. And yes, the cast is an amazing list of names to gather in one place: Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz… phew!! And, of course, director, theatre luvvy, and bearer of the most amazing moustache seen on screen this year, Kenneth Branagh.

And… that’s perhaps the problem. Or rather, Branagh himself might be. The movie gives so little time to any of these amazing actors, relegated to bit-parts and almost-cameos, that it’s hard to care as much as I think we should about their characters. Instead, we get a few too many self-indulgent moments with the great detective laughing oddly at Dickens, or sighing over a woman’s photo – trying, perhaps, to add complexity to his character when I’d suggest the detective should be the least well-rounded person in the story, to be honest.

So. Y’know, I’d still say go and see it. It’s lush and lavish, and the sort of thing I do rather wish they’d make more of. Okay, I’m a bit so-so on the idea of the end-of-movie hint at a sequel (it does bookend the story, which also starts with a different case), but I’d probably still go and see it, just for the spectacle. That said, I’m reliably informed that if you have fond memories of David Suchet in the role from back in the 1980s-90s, then this is going compare poorly. You have been warned!

Released: 3rd November 2017
Viewed: 6th November 2017
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

Greenglass House – Kate Milford

Greenglass House cover

“There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.”

It’s the first day of the Christmas holidays, and Milo already has his homework out of the way so he can enjoy the festivities with his parents. Then, disaster: the usually quiet season for their family-run hotel is disturbed by not just one unexpected guest, but an increasing parade of odd and shifty characters. It seems obvious that they’re all looking for something – probably the same thing – but what on earth could be hidden in the home Milo’s lived in all his life?

After reluctantly teaming up with the housekeeper’s youngest daughter, Meddie, the pair set out to discover the secrets of Greenglass House. After all, it was once owned by a famous smuggler…

I am so, so glad I took up the recommendation to read this book – and to read it instantly, not do my usual of adding it to the insane reading pile – as it is quite possibly the best thing I’ve read in ages! Fair warning: it’s a ‘middle grade’ book, so the main character is about eleven, but think Narnia or Sabriel – by which I mean, the themes are still a little dark at times, and the language is totally not ‘dumbed down’, despite the suitable-for-younger readers status. It’s also hugely suitable for older readers, who are open to having a little magic in their lives 🙂

There is an absolute magic in this story, in the way it swept me up and stirred up memories of childhood adventures – or at least, the ones I imagined, whereas Milo and Meddie get to have the reality of familiar surroundings becoming so much more exciting. The plot is a perfect mix of mystery and adventure and a little of the supernatural. It’s also got a huge amount of heart, not least from the background detail of Milo’s adoptive status. Overall, it’s just lovely!

Not only was I utterly in the mood for that, but reading this actually reminded me of why I want to write: to capture the excitement and enthusiasm for stories, for adventures. I can’t give that anything less than full marks!

Do yourself a favour: at time of writing this is still on sale in the Kindle store, under £2. It’s an absolutely perfect, slightly cosy but still exciting book to snuggle up with and particularly appropriate for the Christmas season. Go go go!! 🙂

Kindle: 384 pages / 15 chapters
First published: 2014
Series: Greenglass House book 1 (of 2 so far)
Read from 11th-15th October 2017

My rating: 10/10

Death Overdue – Allison Brook

death overdue cover

“Time to move on.”

I’m getting quite fond of the ‘cosy mystery’ genre, turning to these kinds of titles for easy and uplifting reads. I also love books set in libraries, so this sounded like a win-win.

Carrie Singleton is getting ready to leave her childhood town again and go back to her rootless existence when she’s offered a better role at the library where she’s been temping. One of her first tasks is organising a talk by a former police detective, one who’s now promising to solve the cold case he failed with fifteen years before: the murder of a local mother and library employee. However, it seems that the secret killer might be less than keen to let him have his say…

There’s plenty to enjoy reading this book, but in all honesty I can’t give it a very high rating. It’s a lot more ‘chick-lit’ and romance-based than I would have hoped, which could be fine, but alas that pushes the mystery and paranormal bits not only to lesser importance but to rather rushed and not-great written parts. The opening murder, for instance, seems very clunkily handled: a ‘I know I need this bit, but not quite how to write it’ feeling, which is a real shame.

There’s also the usual fluffy genre failing of the heroine’s too-perfect life falling into her lap. First it’s the near-perfect job – okay, that one comes with half an explanation. But then there’s the massively reduced rent on an amazing house, interested dishy men to chose from, family who spoil her endlessly, enemies made good, and heck – we can even squeeze a kitten in here because why not?! I didn’t even wholly like the main character, with her goth look so easily cast aside, murky reasonings for turning sleuth and quite frankly daft ways of stumbling onwards, and not-great treatment of other characters.

Still, it was easy enough to read and keep going with, despite the flaws. Perhaps the next in the series will be able to build on the strengths – an intriguing and helpful library ghost, for instance, or perhaps an explanation as to how this particularly library is so well-funded – and lose some of the fluffier failings.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 37 chapters
First published: October 2017
Series: A Haunted Library Mystery book 1
Read from 6th-11th October 2017

My rating: 5/10

Odd & True – Cat Winters

Odd and True cover

“‘Tell me the story again,’ I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.”

Raised on stories about their mother and uncle’s monster hunting past, Trudchen Grey is still not inclined to believe her sister’s letters, telling of Odette’s adventures in the circus or even wilder escapades. But when Odette returns to their aunt’s house to whisk her little sister into an even bigger adventure, Tru has to make a choice to believe – or not. Either will have repercussions.

In alternating chapters, the narrator switches from Tru to Odette, who fills in some of the mysteries of the family’s past. Soon, the reader is left trying to figure out which half of the story – either side of the fin de siecle – is the bigger mystery.

You might be able to tell from my rating: I loved this book! I went in not knowing too much about it, but I suppose with expectations of a ‘Hansel and Gretel Witchhunters’ ya adventure – which would have been fine. But this is absolutely not that book. It is so much more!

I’m left not really wanting to spoil it all too much for any would-be readers, rather allowing you to make those discoveries for yourself. Suffice to say, this is a heart-pulling drama, a lovely historical slice, and sure – a l’il bit about monster hunting. It’s also a perfect book about the power of stories, and the bonds of family.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of the book, and the chance to discover Cat Winters.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters plus epilogue
First published: September 2017
Series: none
Read from 6th-12th September 2017

My rating: 9/10