The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

One of my favourite historical fiction books ever is The Witchfinders Sister, Beth Underdown’s STUNNING debut. When she announced on Twitter that proofs were being printed for her new novel, I was dizzy with excitement, I kid you not.

I’ve been lurking on Beths socials for a number of years, liking, commenting and generally making my presence known. So thank you Beth for putting up with my harping on about how keyed up I was (see what I did there 😉) to read your second novel, The Key in the Lock.

To my utter astonishment, (and maybe to shut me up!!) Beth kindly sent me a beautiful dedicated proof, so I instantly cast aside my TBR plan for the month, and dived straight in.

‘I still dream, every night, of Polneath on fire. Smoke unfurling out of an upper window and a hectic orange light cascading across the terrace’.

By day, Ivy Boscawen mourns the loss of her son Tim in the Great War. But by night she mourns another boy – one whose death decades ago haunts her still.

For Ivy is sure there is more to what happened all those years ago: the fire at the great house, and the terrible events that came after. A truth she must uncover, if she is ever to be free.

I’d imagine it’s very nerve-racking for authors when sending their second book out into the ‘bloggers wild’, as it were. Particularly when a debut has had such excellent reviews and feedback. A hard act to follow, perhaps? Take it from me Beth, you’ve nothing to be worried about, The Key in the Lock is brilliant.

What struck me the most about this story was how much effort had gone into the research. It is meticulously written down to the very last minute detail. So much thought is put into Beths novels, this is something I noticed when reading The Witchfinders Sister, this one has that very same precision.

From the creative descriptions to the most authentic characters, from the intricacies of plot detail, to the slow burning reveals, The Key in the Lock is top quality historical fiction.

I absolutely adored the secretive, atmospheric story-line. I often find if plots are gentle in motion, if the writing style isn’t quite ‘up to it’, I become a little bored when revelations take their time to unfold. But not here, I found it so immersive, the gothic feels, dark tension, cleverly haunting reveals, and characters so vivid in my mind, it made for some breathtaking reading.

I can count on one hand authors whose books are an auto-buy for me. Beth has been one of those authors since reading her debut in 2017. She sits comfortably alongside Sarah Waters where I don’t even have to read the synopsis, I already know I’m going to love it, it’s a given.

Thank you so much Beth for sending me a signed copy, it’s a treasure on my forever historical fiction shelf.

Beth Underdown was born in Rochdale in 1987. She studied at the University of York and then the University of Manchester, where she is now a Lecturer in Creative Writing.

The Key in the Lock is released in January 2022 from Viking books

Immortelle by Catherine McCarthy

An immortelle is a long-lasting flower arrangement placed on graves in cemeteries. They were originally made from natural dried flowers or could be made from artificial materials such as china and painted plaster of paris or beads strung on wire arrangements. Unless made of a highly durable material (e.g. china), they would often be enclosed in a glass container (known as globes) to protect them from the weather.

[Source :Wikipedia]

Elinor’s daughter, Rowena, is found poisoned and dead in an animal trough, Elinor is certain the local priest is to blame. Influenced by her late grandmother’s interest in supernatural magic, Elinor crafts an Immortelle for Rowena’s grave in an attempt to capture her daughters spirit.

I’m not telling you anything else about the story. I read very little about it before starting (other than to find out what an ‘Immortelle’ is) and I think this is the best way to read.

Witchcraft, the natural world, mother/daughter relationships, (a firm favourite of mine) gothic tones, alchemy, love, hope, grief, the supernatural, spirituality, revenge, good/evil, it’s all in here. For a 95 page novella, it’s full to the brim of everything I look for in gentle, quiet horror.

We weren’t quite in September when I started, but on reading the first three chapters, I knew I’d made the right choice to kick off my “Spooky Season” reads.

My favourite time of year by far, Autumn is THE time for enjoying books that chill, thrill and creep into my mind. Horror doesn’t have to be all blood and guts and carnage. Horror can be subtle, hidden in the shadows, full of atmosphere and tension, characters created with careful consideration so the story instantly comes to life, an easy invitation to become entranced. Catherine’s novella has all this, and so much more.

Her story telling is mesmerising. It feels as though it’s made of the most sublime ingredients. She has a way with words, a way with pace and timing. Immortelle ticked every box. It is an astonishingly beautiful story. I had many moments with it where I had to stop and think and appreciate.

If you enjoy calm, wistful horror with touches of darkness, I highly recommend Catherine’s writing.

‘I press on, guided by the rhythmic lap of the sea, her breath a sizzle as it caresses the shore and a gasp as she sucks a mouthful back. The slow rhythm steadies my breathing, and the distant beam from the lighthouse, which seems to flash in time with the waves, illuminates the scene in a sweeping arc’.

The Maid by Nita Prose

Meet Molly Gray. 25, lovable, intelligent and rather eccentric. Her mind is as organised as her maids trolley, she’s a stickler for routine, order and cleanliness, so working at the five star Regency Grand Hotel is the perfect job for her.

I’m not one for reading cosy mysteries, they can be a bit ‘twee’ for my tastes, but there is so much more to Molly than meets the eye. I got this feeling from reading just the synopsis. When my request was approved on NetGalley, the prologue reinforced my theory that this Molly character really had quite an edge.

“Have I mentioned how much I detest cheaters? Cheaters deserve to be thrown in quicksand and to suffocate in filth”.

I really enjoyed this closed (hotel!) room style murder mystery. Nita Prose created a dazzling hotel, the descriptions and scene settings were so easy to visualise. Inside the hotel, the array of characters were as colourful and as quirky as the hotel decor itself. From kind, gentle and caring, to acerbic, unlikeable and untrustworthy, The Maid had it all.

Molly lived with her Gran, but sadly she passed away, so Molly is left to deal with life and everything that’s thrown at her by herself. She finds interacting with people a little tricky and prefers to be blending in and doing her job rather than being the centre of attention.

Mollys world is tipped on its head in an instant when she discovers the dead body of hotel guest Mr Black, on the bed in one of the hotel rooms, and so the story takes off from there.

Mollys intelligence and unusual way of thinking things through is tip top entertainment from the word go. She maybe JUST a maid, but she’s not daft. Far from it.

“Cheryl may be my boss, but she’s definitely not my superior. There is a difference, you know”.

I enjoyed how Molly and her Grans relationship and their backstories were subtly weaved in throughout the story giving little nuggets of who they are and how they came to be.

“Where shall we travel tonight?” she (Gran) would ask. “To the Amazon with David Attenborough or to Japan with National Geographic?”

Molly went from delightful, model employee to a deep, dark thinker at the drop of a hat.

“…I fantasised about all the things I would do – spray bleach in her face, strangle her with a bathrobe tie…”

This is the main reason I loved this story as much as I did. Me and my dark heart, lapping up those macabre moments. I had lots of questions dancing around in my mind about what kind of person Molly truly was, and I wasn’t disappointed when things began to fall into place. I was rooting for her from the get-go.

The Maid is thoroughly enjoyable, completely believable and above all, a cracking murder mystery. I read that the film rights have been bought for it and an actor chosen already to play the part of Molly. That, I have got to see!!

Thank you so much to the publishers, Harper Collins, for my advance readers e-copy via the NetGalley platform, it was an absolute pleasure to read.

The Maid is out in January 2022.

Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

‘One day, the mother was a mother but then, one night, she was quite suddenly something else…’

Nightbitch, that was her name. That is all she is. All she’s referred to. That was her something else.

Mothers, cast your minds back to when your babies’ body clocks were trying to get into a routine. Awake half the night, or all night. Those small hours when it felt like you and your tiny bundle were the only two people on the planet. The sleep deprivation holds strong. Your brain feels weird. Your body feels weird. Lack of sleep does stuff to you. Strange stuff. It’s a mad time looking after a new human.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a good man at your side. He might be snoring his head off peacefully or away all week, working, bringing home the bacon. But when you’re loosing your mind because twenty minutes sleep a night for months on end doesn’t quite cut it, a woman’s grip on reality may become a little compromised.

‘At first she did nothing, waiting for her husband to wake, which he did not, because that was a thing he ever did. She waited longer than she usually did, waited and waited, the boy wailing while she lay as still as a corpse, patiently waiting for the day when her corpse self would miraculously be reanimated and taken into the Kingdom of the Chosen, where it would create an astonishing art installation composed of many aesthetically interesting beds’.

Nightbitch used to have a career, a life outside of four walls. A life beyond feeding and vomit and nappy changes and laundry. She was an artist, a creator. She and her husband had made the greatest creation of all, their baby son, and yet, it wasn’t enough. She had a gap in her life which couldn’t be filled with toddler play dates, meetings with other Moms, chatting baby this, baby that, all day long. No. It wasn’t her. Nightbitch was her. Small signs. Small urges. Slowly, terrifyingly, and at times, hilariously, she felt that she was simply turning into a dog.

‘Yes, vegetables were very civilised. Dogs wouldn’t buy vegetables. Listen to what you’re saying, she said to herself.’

As Nightbitch became more and more Nightbitch, so her parenting abilities changed, for the better? In some ways, I’d say yes. In others, absolutely hell no!! Her son adored their playtimes, the ‘let’s pretend’ at being doggies. Woof!

She was finally finding herself. At last. Even her husband reaped some benefits, on occasion.

As you can probably sense by the first part of my review, this is a story about motherhood and coping and not coping. The best way to describe it to someone would be –

‘It’s an alternative Mother and Baby Book’. Or…

‘It’s an alternative Marriage Counselling Book.’ Or…

‘It’s an alternative Spiritual Health and Well-being Book’.

I’m laughing now, because, really, it is none of those things at all. It’s a dark and deeply disturbing story where the reader can take from it whatever they see fit. There’s a speculative feel to it all the way through, and I love that in a book. There is no right or wrong way to how this book should make the reader feel.

Rachel Yoder’s writing style has such wickedness to it. Her characters are drawn on the pages so clearly, yet we know only just below the surface of most of them. Apart from Nightbitch. Around half way, we know her well. A little too well perhaps.

What I found unusual in Nightbitch was the way her two year old toddlers personality developed into such a big-part character as the story unfolded. We start to see the kind of child he is becoming. How family traits can go far back and then journey their way to the current time. For such a young character, his innocence and sheer glee was a pleasure to read. It was even heartwarming in places. Not too often though, let’s not get carried away from the darkness this book has in spades.

Nightbitch is a wild, wild ride and I think it would either entertain or horrify. I don’t think there’s middle ground here. It entertained me from beginning to end. I loved everything about it. After all, we are all animals at the end of the day, aren’t we?

Be more Nightbitch ladies, and control yourselves in the raw meat aisle at Tesco.

Thank you to Kate at Harvill Secker for sending me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Life on Other Planets by Matt Cook

It’s 1997 and Ben Carters Great Aunt Pearl has just died. Ben arrives with his Dad, Victor, and various Aunts and Uncles meet at the dilapidated old house in order to get cracking with the sorting out and organising of the funeral. Nothing unusual about that, where there’s life, there’s death. Where there’s families, there’s stress. Goes hand in hand.

However, no one can seem to find Aunt Pearls Will, which is a tad problematic. Patience is tested, the families true colours begin to emerge and relationships take a bit of a toxic turn. And then there’s the discovery of something called the ‘Church of The Holy Heavens’ which causes no end of questions and suspicions. Things begin to get as messy as the stale old house itself.

At first glance the title and cover hints that the story is going to be somewhat ‘out there’. Other planets, things that are not of this world, the suggestion of alternative life and beyond.

But the story within couldn’t be more grounded to planet earth and the people on it if it tried. I found myself becoming quickly absorbed and at one with the trials and tribulations of the Carter family.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 47 years of being on planet earth, it’s that humans can be pretty crap when it comes to familial stress. Moving house, new jobs, new schools, relationships, babies, doing the monthly ‘big shop’, health, money, death. It all plays a part in what we all become as we age and slide into that older generation category. (I’m not quite there, yet…!)

As we age, the more knowledgeable we become, yes? Well, actually, having just spent 266 pages with fourteen year old Ben and seeing his family unit through his young eyes has triggered a bit of a rethink actually.

Matt Cooks writing gave me a bit of a zap when I started reading. I knew from a very early point that this was going to be a thoughtful, relatable story, with nuggets of dark humour dropped in throughout.

So, this zap, let me explain. On starting a book, sometimes you read a paragraph, or one sentence in the first few chapters and you already know that you’ve got yourself some quality writing. That’s exciting. That’s the zap.

‘The refrigerator was a riot of mould and malfunction; ancient foodstuffs of unknowable content glistened and furred and hatched plans.’

I mean, who’d think to link crusty-labelled jars of the unknown with dodgy best before dates in the back of a cupboard with the ‘hatching of plans’? Matt did, and it made me laugh far too hard, I completely got it. I’ve rummaged through a similar cupboard or two myself!

That’s how Matt writes. His humour has a slightly dark, yet soft, spiritual side. He has a real understanding of the human psyche, which shines throughout the book. This is particularly prominent with his characters. He must of cast his mind back to his fourteen year old self numerous times.

Matt has created a heartfelt story that is full of life, even though the plot is predominantly about death. Humans are simply being human. Teenagers loitering on the sidelines, often invisible, yet brimming with ideas and carefully trying to work out their own lives. Adults in the thick of it, unknowingly (and probably knowingly) cocking things up.

Many of us have been there, lived it, seen it.

But have we properly seen it?

Fact: Matt has.

I think he’s a bit of a ‘people watcher’. He sees things from a different angle, this helped in creating his characters, the descriptions and situations.

‘I tried again to speak, to clear things up, but my voice was a chewy substance that fell straight out of my mouth on to the floor’.

Matt has a way with words, his story telling has a flow that is so immersive. Before I knew it I had read well over half the book, I’d only picked it up for a chapter or two. A sure sign of a great book is when you’re lost in those pages and don’t realise you have been until you stop, and jump back out into real life.

I would highly recommend Life on Other Planets to everyone. It’s the kind of book which would appeal to adults, teenagers, or a senior human being. It’s got an abundance of emotion, and what stood out most of all was it’s readability. It’s so readable, you don’t even feel yourself getting sucked in. I felt like I was hiding in a cupboard in Pearls hallway, earwigging and spying on the family.

So as you’ve probably gathered, I absolutely loved it and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Matt has up his sleeve. Marvellous stuff!

Thank you Matt for sending me a gifted copy, it’s found it’s comfy slot on my forever shelf.