Book review: The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods by Emily Barr

the girl who came out of the woods postcardFor the first sixteen years of her life, Arty lives in paradise. She, her parents and a group of idealists have built a small community in a clearing in the middle of the Indian forest. It’s not an easy life but it’s a happy one – a matriarchal society where every community member is a god or goddess, decisions are made by consensus and her biggest worry is whether the monkeys are going to steal their food.

However one night everything goes horrifically wrong and Arty finds herself stumbling out of the trees into the 21st Century, to a world she has been taught to fear. Her old life is gone forever – but can she make a new one in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Can she make a new life in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Lonely and traumatised, faced with a family she’s never met – some of whom have secrets of their own – Arty needs to figure out who she can trust and who to fear – not an easy task when her mother’s last advice to her was “don’t go into the basement.”

Not everybody in the outside world has Arty’s best interests at heart.

I’m already a fan of Emily Barr’s, but I grabbed this one with extra enthusiasm because I love a cult – any story about a group of people trying to break away from society and think differently always fascinates me. This one’s a bit different though – in most books the cult becomes twisted, dominated by poisonous groupthink and manipulation. But in this story it’s the outside world which is a dark and terrifying place and the “cult” could teach us a thing or two about getting along.

There’s so many elements to this book it’s difficult to classify. It’s a thriller, full of thrillery tricks and twists and darkness. It’s a novel about travel and adventure. It’s also a coming-of-age story with a vein of wry humour running throughout, along with a sense of wonder and hope for the future. Each of Emily Barr’s books is stronger than the last and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Girl Who Came Out Of The Woods is out now

Cover of the girl who came out of the woods

Two other books about cults or isolated religious communities…

Laurie and Martha are a power couple with the world at their feet – but Laurie is still traumatised by the years she spent in the clutches of a controlling religious sect and when it gets too much she holes up in a tiny, secret room in their house. Then a man from her past appears and begins manipulating her teenage daughter. The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy uses the minutiae of everyday life and the horrors of the cult to create a tense, atmospheric story.

Educated is Tara Westover’s gorgeously written memoir of her strict, religious upbringing in the remote countryside and it’s absolutely fascinating. School was banned, traditional medicine was forbidden, the End of Days was always around the corner and violence was an everyday occurrence. As she grows up Tara faces a choice – remain loyal to her father despite growing doubts about his views or educate herself and alienate the family she loves.

And two I can’t wait to read…

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson is a debut novel about a “terribly English cult” called The Panacea Society – devoted member Dilys strikes up a friendship with new recruit Grace, but as their leader’s zealotry increases their faith, and the community, begins to fall apart… Out 6 June 2019

Crime writer Alex Marwood has long been fascinated by cults, narcissistic leaders and groupthink and her book The Poison Garden tells the story of Romy who escaped a toxic cult and, like Emily Barr’s Arty, doesn’t know who to trust in the outside world. Although if I know my Marwood, this story is going to get very, very dark… Out 25 July 2019

The Chalk Man: A creepy 80s thriller… a fun book launch

Set in the 1980s and the present day, The Chalk Man is one of my top thriller picks in a pile of chalk man hardbacksmonth teeming with twisty tales. It’s a brilliantly original idea: in the 1980s a gang of kids use chalk figures to communicate with each other. It’s all innocent, although somewhat creepy-looking fun until the day the chalk figures lead them to a body hidden in the woods. Thirty years later the gang has moved on, but has to confront the past when the figures start appearing again…

It’s a killer hook and debut author CJ Tudor has woven a confident, evocative story with great characters and a Stephen King-esque feel to it. It helps if, like me, you grew up in the 80s and have fond memories of Buckaroo, The Goonies and BMX bikes but readers of any age will relate to that feeling of being a child, yearning for adventure and stressing about how much your friends really like you.

There are a few chinks in the tightly-plotted armour but it’s such an absorbing, exciting story that I was completely carried away. Definitely worth reading. I’ve also heard great things about her next novel – involving an eerie abandoned mine in the North of England.

CJ Tudor with publicists jenny platt and laura nicol

CJ Tudor with her fab publicity team

So I was thrilled to venture out of my writing and reviewing cave to attend the book launch last night. It really is great to see a debut author so blown away by the response to her book and to learn that her love of the 1980s is very passionate and real – after five minutes chatting to her I was desperate to go off and rent The Lost Boys again.

Her story is also an inspiration to aspiring novelists everywhere. Caz was running a dog-walking business when she was inspired by her daughter Betty’s chalk drawings on their driveway. As she played fetch and scooped poop, the plot refined itself in her head.

It wasn’t her first attempt at a book – she’d been writing on and off for 10 years and that practice really shows in her writing – her agent admitted she was blown away at the first reading and it went onto become the agency’s fastest-selling debut. The book has already been sold across the world in multiple languages.

So although the book has an unnerving atmosphere, the scene at the launch venue, The Driver pub in North London, was celebratory and full of hope and excitement. I’m looking forward to seeing what CJ Tudor does next.

The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor is out now

creepy image of a hangman drawn in chalk

Book review: The Truth And Lies of Ella Black

the truth and lies of ella black by emily barrElla Black is a good girl, to the point of boring. She studies hard, she keeps her head down and the craziest thing she’s ever done is dye her hair purple. But the reason she’s so good is that she has an alter-ego – the violent, destructive Bella. The first time Bella makes an appearance she does something so shocking I almost dropped the book and it’s clear why Ella needs to keep on the straight and narrow and keep Bella under control.

But then one day her parents collect her from school early and, without explaining why, fly her to Rio de Janeiro. There Ella learns the truth about herself – a truth which unleashes Bella in all her crazed glory and that means her safe, comfortable life has gone forever…

That’s the setup for The Truth And Lies of Ella Black, by Emily Barr – who specialises in weaving travel and exotic locations into gripping plots. This is her second novel for young adults (I also loved The One Memory Of Flora Banks last year) and I know fans are going to love it.

Teenage me loves Ella’s longing for adventure… adult me loves the dark suspense

Whenever I read a YA novel there are actually two people reading. There’s me – the not-so-young adult writer and book fanatic, and then there’s teenage me holed up in my pretentious looking bedroom waiting for the day when something will happen to change my life forever too.

teenage me sitting at my desk with lots of books in the background and my pet dog jack photobombing me

Teen me in my bookish bedroom being photobombed by my collie, Jack.

Most of the time the books I love now aren’t the same as the books I loved then. I never wanted to read about girls like me, going to school and worrying about friendships and boys – I had enough of that in my day to day life. I wanted fairytale romance and pure escapism. These days I like my stories grittier, my characters more flawed. But Ella Black appeals to both versions of me.

What Emily Barr does so well is create a sense of escapism – for teens desperate to explore the world her description of the beaches, streets and favelas of Rio is compelling and addictive – like Ella you want to find out what’s around the corner. Teenage me loves Ella and identifies with her longing for adventure – adult me loves the dark suspense over what Bella will do next and the slow creeping realisation of what her secret really is. All of me wants to book a ticket to Brazil, like, RIGHT NOW.

It’s a thriller, a coming of age novel with a splash of South American colour a slice of romance and added zombie parades. Teenagers of all ages will long to dive in.

The Truth And Lies of Ella Black by Emily Barr is out now

Book review: Beside Myself

Identical twins have been swapping places for centuries now, from the Man in the Iron Mask through to The Parent Trap, but the twins in Beside Myself don’t exactly swap – it’s more like one performs a hostile takeover on the other.

Helen and Ellie are identical, although Helen is the leader and silly, slow Ellie is the oppressed follower. The school, their friends and even their mother all have a slightly lower expectation of Ellie, just waiting for her to mess up. Then one day Helen suggests they swap places and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

Before she knows it, Helen is forced into the role of secondary twin – rejected and forced into the background while Ellie (or Hellie as her bitter twin comes to call her) gains confidence and grows. There follows a dark and gripping tale of addiction, mental illness and the strange bond between sisters who hate each other, but still share a link which neither of them can break.

How much of our identities is made up by the judgements and opinions of others?

Like many books being pitched as part of Thriller Season this year, it’s not really strictly speaking a thriller. There are no twists and turns or ghastly murders – but it is addictive reading with a few revelations along the way. And although the central idea seems a little silly (Surely someone would notice. Don’t twins have different moles and stuff?*) the idea that such a thing could happen, and the havoc it could wreak on someone’s life and sense of identity is nothing short of compelling. That’s what keeps you reading on.

cover of beside myself by ann morgan two stick figures drawn in condensationIt’s a great one for reading groups as it throws up so many questions. Would Helen have continued to be “perfect” if the swap hadn’t happened, or would the flaws in her personality have come out anyway? And how was it that Ellie could suddenly lose her clumsiness, her untidiness by taking on Helen’s mantle? In short: How much of our identities is made up by the judgements and opinions of others?

For anyone who ever had a sibling and saw small differences in their treatment, the question is irresistible, and the novel itself is eminently readable. So although the central premise is old as the hills and there are a few cracks in it besides, it’s still a fresh, entertaining take which is definitely worth reading.

*There is a partial explanation but it would involve spoilers so I’m keeping schtum.

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan is out now.

Other Thriller Season reviews include…

The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Book review: The Widow

If you’re wondering which book is going to be “This Year’s Girl On The Train,” stop stressing about it: it’s this one.

There’s a few reasons for this and some of them are commercial – the publisher, Transworld, won the book in a hotly contested auction and has thrown its full weight behind getting it into as many readers’ hands as possible. Industry bible The Bookseller has already dubbed it TYGOT – it’s well on its way to being a must read.

But the real reason is that, like Paula Hawkins’ novel, the book has the kind of premise that makes a reader’s mouth water in anticipation.

the book has the kind of premise that makes a reader’s mouth water in anticipation

Think about it:

A little girl named Bella vanishes and all the evidence points to a man named Glen Taylor, but due to an epic police cock-up the trial collapses and Glen walks free. Throughout the whole experience, despite his character being dragged through the mud, his wife Jean stands loyally by him.

Then four years after Bella’s disappearance Glen dies leaving Jean free to be herself, to tell the truth about her husband for the first time. What happened behind closed doors? Is Glen guilty and if so, why did Jean stand by him? And what will she do now?

the widow book coverCome on, it’s got you going “oooh” already, hasn’t it?

Told through the eyes of three different narrators – Bob Sparkes, the police inspector who messed up the trial; newspaper journalist Kate Waters who’s after the inside story and the widow herself, the story is slowly pieced together by the three characters, the pace gathered and you wonder what on earth Jean is going to reveal next…

It’s a fantastic idea for a story, and there are some sympathetic, well drawn characters. The glimpse into how newspapers operate – signing real-life stories onto a contract and hiding them away in a hotel – is accurate and realistically told without anti-press hysteria but also without hiding the more uncomfortable side of the business: the doorstepping, the news editors screaming for their headlines.

But as for the widow herself, as for Jean – I never felt I truly got under her skin. I couldn’t understand why she was so loyal to such a mediocre person as Glen or why she kept a lid on her own needs and desires for so long. She was strangely ageless to me (if the author specified her age at some point I apologise for missing it, but from the way she talked she could have been anything from 35 to 55.) This could be because Barton paints such an effective picture of her suffocating home life that you end up picturing Jean as a stifled 1950s housewife rather than a 21st Century woman.

One thing is for sure, though – this book is going to be huge. It hits on a raw public nerve and gives us a peek behind the headlines. TV rights have already been snapped up, and I can hear the water-cooler conversations brewing already. Definitely one to watch.

The Widow by Fiona Barton is out on 14th January.

More reviews and thriller season chat here.

the-widow2-crop

Book review: Viral

If there was an award for best first line of 2016, Viral would definitely be the winner – I won’t repeat it here but it’s certainly not one to show your Great Aunt Ermintrude. Although if Auntie E was to keep reading, she’d find an eye-opening tale about the modern world and the traps it sets for young people.

It’s about the hypocrisy surrounding young women and sex

Su and Leah are sisters and naturally their parents put them into pigeonholes – Su is the good one, studious, neat and considerate. Leah is the irresponsible, selfish one.

But when the girls both go on holiday to Magaluf, Su is the one who finds herself starring in a drunken sex video which goes viral and blows her entire life apart. Disgraced and ashamed, Su flees and tries to lose herself in Spain leaving the rest of the family to face the consequences at home in Scotland.

The makers of Broadchurch have acquired the TV rights to this one, and it’s being hotly tipped, so the book stands a good chance of going viral itself – and it is a compelling look at what happens when an ordinary person makes a drunken mistake that just happens to make it onto YouTube. It’s about the hypocrisy surrounding women and sex and about what holds families together when something like this happens.

viralIt’s a short book, tightly focused on the events of just a few days (with the occasional flashback) and the characters are real and loveable – especially Leah, the immature bully who finds more strength than she expected. However, don’t come to this expecting a crimey, thrillery read – the darkness just isn’t there. Fitzgerald has too much affection for her characters – and chances are you will too.

So it’s not Gone Girl. It’s a family drama, a coming-of-age tale and a wry look at the weirdness of our society. Enjoy it for that, and it definitely won’t disappoint.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald is out 2nd February

More reviews and thriller season chat here.

 

Book review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

TifAni can’t wait to marry her cookie-cutter Perfect Boyfriend. So why is it that, in the very first scene of Luckiest Girl Alive she is fantasising about stabbing him with their carefully chosen designer wedding cutlery?

It could be because – whisper it – she can be a bit of a cow. In fact, there is lots that will irritate you about TiFani FaNelli. Her snobbery, which blends beautifully with her inverted snobbery; her snarky asides about perfectly nice people and not least her heartfelt belief that size 12 is fat. Even reading her name grates – did the caps lock button keep getting stuck when they made out her birth certificate?

But TiFani is not a heroine, she’s a person. Sometimes she’s a pain in the arse, other times she’s sweet, compassionate and funny – like many real people are. And it’s the compelling reality of the character that is making Jessica Knoll’s novel one of the big word-of-mouth hits of this year.

TiFani is not a heroine, she’s a person.

Back at High School TifAni made a few mistakes. She hung out with the wrong people, she got a crush on the wrong boy and set in motion a chain of events which affected the whole school and still haunt her 10 years on. The wedding has become her way of showing she’s moved on, that she is no longer TifAni but has reinvented herself as Ani Harrison – successful writer on a glossy magazine, wearer of designer clothes and WASP in training. But as Madonna could tell you, reinventions are rarely permanent and don’t really fool anyone. As the wedding gets closer she’s forced to confront what happen to her in the past, and things start to unravel…

Luckiest Girl Cover resizeSo chances are you won’t love TifAni. But you’ll sit up all night reading to find out what happened to her, whether she’ll get the wedding she deserves and who she decides to be in the end.

When I was a kid I loved Cinderella heroines. I loved the idea that if you were a good person and kept doing the right thing eventually someone would notice and give you a big sparkly tiara and a fancy title. And most of us have never fallen out of love with that idea (otherwise who would have bought Fifty Shades of Grey, ever?) But in the past few years there’s been a bit of an awakening. A desire for real three dimensional characters who we will love, warts, neuroses and all.

That’s how we ended up with Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck character, and Eliza Kennedy’s sexy debut novel I Take You which features yet another driven New York heroine trying to balance love with her unfortunate casual sex habit. Bluebirds do not alight on these women’s shoulders when they get dressed in the morning. They do not sing about how a dream is a wish your heart makes. But they take us to new, entertaining places where women are fully formed human beings with layered, complicated lives. And with women like that, you never know what will happen next.

Luckiest Girl Alive is out in hardback now