The Cursed Girls by Caro Ramsey

The Cursed Girls by Caro Ramsey

Having previously enjoyed her Glasgow-based Anderson and Costello detective series, I thought I’d give this standalone psychological thriller by Caro Ramsey a try. The Cursed Girls is very different but equally compelling. Set on a country estate in the west of Scotland, overlooking the Holy Loch, this story takes us behind the scenes at the Melvick family ancestral home, the Italian House. After an absence of three years, Megan has returned to say goodbye to her older sister Melissa who is dying; their relationship had always been difficult, but her father was keen for her to return.

There are a lot of unsolved mysteries surrounding this family, who believe themselves to be cursed, and a sense that everyone has something to hide. Why did Megan lose her hearing as a small child (she was not born deaf), where did her mother go when she vanished all those years ago, and who caused the fatal explosion at Melissa’s wedding?

The story is told from Megan’s point of view, with flashbacks from Carla, and they have very different narrative  voices. Megan is trusting and naïve, and believes everything people tell her; Carla is tough, streetwise and trusts nobody. This way we get a much fuller picture of what went on.

The Cursed Girls is well written, with believable fully fleshed out characters and a wonderfully atmospheric setting in the wilds of Argyllshire. The slow beginning sets the scene, and the build-up of tension as secrets are gradually revealed lead to a kind of Agatha-Christie-style finale where DS Murray brings everyone together to reveal what he has discovered; there are other references to her as well if you know what you’re looking for.

Throughout the book there is a sense that nothing is as it seems on the surface. It starts off with a lot of questions, and under each layer that is revealed there is another, and another, until we finally get to the truth. I enjoyed this story immensely and kept on reading it late into the night.

Thanks to Black Thorn, Canongate and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.  

A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

A Corruption of Blood by Ambrose Parry

A Corruption of Blood is the third book in the series, written by Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman as Ambrose Parry, featuring Will Raven and Sarah Fisher. Set in mid-nineteenth-century Edinburgh, this thoroughly researched and beautifully written story highlights the realities of life for women at both ends of the social spectrum; the circumstances of your birth were no guarantee of your survival.

Sarah had gone to Europe in search of Dr Elizabeth Blackwell, hoping for advice and inspiration that she too could fulfil her dream of studying to be a doctor, but comes home strangely subdued. Back living in Dr Simpson’s house, she has been asked by one of the servants for help in locating the baby that was taken from her against her will.

Meanwhile, Will has become engaged to Eugenie, daughter of another Edinburgh doctor, who asks him to help her childhood friend, Gideon, who is accused of poisoning his father, Sir Ainslie Douglas. He is also trying to find out why a murdered baby was discovered in the harbour at Leith. At first glance, none of these things are connected.

Despite Will being engaged to Eugenie, there is still an undoubted attraction between him and Sarah, and they struggle to come to terms with how it affects their relationship. It is only after they pool their resources, and discover their investigations are connected, that they start to make some progress. Gradually, as the two storylines converge, long-buried secrets are brought to light.

Medical history and real-life characters are woven seamlessly into the narrative which uncovers the misery caused by the unscrupulous ‘baby farmers’. Parallels are drawn between the advice given to women, then and now, such as not walking in certain areas of the city alone or after dark.

The sights, sounds and smells of Victorian Edinburgh are vividly described, the characters are well drawn and flashes of dark humour help to lighten the darkness in A Corruption of Blood. The hypocrisy surrounding society’s treatment of women, the double standards and the social injustice are all combined in this gripping, tightly plotted story. While you could read this as a standalone, I suggest it would be more meaningful to start at the beginning as The Way of All Flesh and The Art of Dying are well worth reading.

Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.  

If She Dies by Erik Therme

If She Dies by Erik Therme

If She Dies is the harrowing tale of a mother’s grief, and shows how couples can be affected very differently by the loss of a child; in fact, a lot of relationships don’t survive this kind of stress. Nine months after losing their daughter, Lily, in a tragic accident, Tess and her husband, Josh, are on very different pages when it comes to dealing with their loss. Tess is slightly unhinged, behaving in an obsessive way and lying to her husband about what she does all day. Josh has a different way of coping and seems, unreasonably, to expect Tess to move on and return to how she was before.

Erik Therme has managed to get inside Tess’s head and give the reader a convincing portrayal of her grief. The story is told solely from Tess’s point of view, and this first person narrative really ramps up the atmosphere of paranoia, and emphasises that she is hanging on to her sanity by a thread. Despite her strange behaviour, I had great empathy for Tess and her situation. This story was not always easy to read, but perfectly captured the sense that she was on the edge and could go either way.  

The pace is uneven with a very long stretch at the beginning to set the scene, and then the story did not go in the direction that I expected it to, which was not necessarily a bad thing. If She Dies does not really fit into the psychological thriller mould and is, in fact, quite difficult to categorise. I had not read anything by this author before so did not know what to expect, but will definitely look out for some of his earlier books.

It is well written with believable characters, some likeable some not. I know Josh was hurting too, but I found it hard to feel much sympathy for him. There was such a gulf between him and Tess I’m not sure they would ever be reconciled. In this respect, the ending was unsatisfactory; I would have liked some kind of epilogue to find out if their relationship survived.

Thanks to Erik Therme for a digital copy that I reviewed as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

The Serial Killer's Wife by Alice Hunter

The Serial Killers Wife by Alice Hunter

One evening, while Beth is waiting for her husband to come home in time to say goodnight to their daughter, Poppy, two police officers knock at the door. She has no idea why Tom is so much later than he usually is, and is puzzled by why the police suddenly want to question him, after all this time, about the disappearance of his former girlfriend, Katie?

The idea behind The Serial Killer’s Wife is intriguing, but the execution is not completely convincing. Most of the story is told from the unusual viewpoint of Beth, with occasional contributions from Tom, and flashbacks from Katie. This could have been a much more interesting story – it took too long to get going, and there are just too many repetitive passages about Beth carrying on as normal while Tom is in police custody.   

Tom and Beth are both unreliable narrators, which is not uncommon in this kind of story. Unfortunately, I had little sympathy for either of them. His thoughts show him to be self-absorbed, controlling and violent, but I’m not sure his narrative voice was convincing as that of a serial killer. Right from the start Beth’s behaviour is strange. She seems obsessed with how others see her and giving her daughter a better life than she had when she was growing up. This might have been easier to understand had Alice Hunter let the reader in on a bit of her backstory; instead she just comes across as self-obsessed and heartless.

Despite having lived in the village for two years, they don’t seem to have made any friends, even though their daughter is at the nursery school. This isolation should ring alarm bells. The overwhelming feeling is that they are both hiding something; their perfect life is just a façade.

There is one final twist right at the end; I did not see it coming, but it felt forced and perhaps The Serial Killer’s Wife would have been a better book without it. The writing is good, and I kept reading to the end, but the character development leaves a lot to be desired. I will certainly look out for Alice Hunter’s next book even though this debut did not live up to my expectations.

Thanks to Avon and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Car Share by Zoe Brisby

The Car Share by Zoe Brisby

Maxine is a resident in a Parisian care home who decides to go to Belgium so that she can be in control of her own demise as she thinks she has Alzheimer’s. Alex is a deeply depressed young law student who advertises for someone to share his car journey to Brussels; he is expecting a young man called Max but gets a lot more than he bargained for.  

The unlikely friendship that develops between these two very different characters forms the basis of this charming and witty tale. I love a road trip theme in a book or film and this does not disappoint. Maxine and Alex are both on the run from the lives they currently find themselves living. Over the space of a few days, Maxine helps Alex much more than his emotionally unsupportive parents have ever done; she is like the grandmother he never had. And Alex is determined to make Maxine see that she has so much living still to do.

The Car Share is translated from the French though it is not obvious when you are reading it. It deals with some serious subjects, such as depression and our attitude to the elderly, but they are woven into the story and dealt with in a sensitive way. There are numerous music and film references to spot, and every woman surely needs a handbag like Maxine’s.

The characters of Maxine and Alex are well drawn and believable, the mood veers between really sad and very funny, and I can see it being perfect material for a film script. The overriding message is that life is short, and age is just a number, so make the most of every day while you can. If you are curious as to what happened next, at the end of the book is a link to a bonus chapter set five years after the events of The Car Share.  I really enjoyed this uplifting story and look forward to reading more by this author in the future. Thanks to Hodder and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.