CTG Reviews: The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly

The Poison Tree cover image

The Poison Tree cover image

What the blurb says: “It is London in the sweltering summer of 1997. Karen is a strait-laced, straight-A university student. When she meets the impossibly glamorous Biba, a bohemian orphan who lives in a crumbling mansion in Highgate with her enigmatic brother Rex, she is soon drawn into their world. As the summer progresses, Karen becomes tangled up in their tragic family history and the idyll turns into a nightmare, culminating in murder.

A decade later, Karen collects Rex from prison. Together with their nine-year-old daughter Alice, they try to settle into family life. While Rex has served his time, Karen keeps dark secrets that mean she has her own life sentence to serve. What happened that summer casts a terrifying shadow over her future. Will the past catch up with her?”

I have to confess that this book has been in my To Be Read pile for months. Having opened it up, I was hooked by the claustrophobic immediacy of the prologue and read the whole thing in a single weekend, cursing myself for not having got to it sooner.

After the panicked situation in the prologue, Chapter One starts with conflict of a different kind, Rex is coming home from prison and Karen, Alice and Rex are all having to adjust. As they start to live, for the first time, as a family, Karen finds herself remembering the sequence of events that led to murder all those years before.

This is one of those books that gets into your head and keeps you trying to guess what happened. The reader knows that Karen has secrets, things she’s never told anyone, not even Rex. As the 1997 timeline unfolds, Karen turns from disciplined student to bohemian party girl. The writing is so vivid, the descriptions so atmospheric, that you can almost feel the heat on your skin, see the wine in your glass and imagine yourself joining in with the endless house parties hosted by Biba. But as the long, hot summer plays out, and Biba’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic,  cracks, tensions and jealousy cause events in the seemingly carefree household to take a deeply sinister turn.

I especially loved the characters of Karen – the diligent student on a journey of self discovery, Rex – the sensible, reliable one who’d do anything for his sister, and Biba – beautiful, neurotic and gifted. As the story progresses, and the events of 1997 return to threaten Karen and her family in the present, the tension reaches its climax and Karen is, once again, pushed to her limits. Like all great psychological thrillers, this story keeps you guessing what will happen right to the very end, and finishes with a shocking dramatic twist.

The Poison Tree was a major ITV drama, a Richard & Judy Summer Read in 2011, and was longlisted for the 2011 CWA John Creasy (New Blood) Dagger Award.

Highly recommended.

CTG Reviews: The Never List by Koethi Zan

THE NEVER LIST cover image

THE NEVER LIST cover image

I first read The Never List when it came out in hardback last year. It was one of the standout books of 2013 for me. It’s now available in paperback, and to celebrate I’ve reposted my review …

What the blurb says: “For years, best friends Sarah and Jennifer kept what they called the ‘Never List’: a list of actions to be avoided, for safety’s sake, at all costs. But one night, they failed to follow their own rules. Sarah has spent ten years trying to forget her ordeal. But now the FBI has news that forces her to revisit her memories, and finally attempt to find justice for Jennifer. If she is to keep her captor behind bars, Sarah needs to work with the other women who shared her nightmare. But they won’t be happy to hear from her. Because down there in the dark, Sarah wasn’t just a victim.”

From the very first page, no, the very first paragraph, this story had me hooked. I don’t know if it was the terrifying premise – three women imprisoned in a cellar by a man they thought that they could trust; the unwavering loyalty to her friend Jennifer that the protagonist, Sarah, maintains despite the danger that in puts her in; or the three women’s determination, against all odds and all that had happened to them, to succeed in their quest for justice and uncover the shocking truth. Whatever it was, I just couldn’t put it down.

One of the things that, for me, made the story seem so real was the voice of Sarah. A prisoner in her own home at the start of the book, she has to face her fears (and there are so very many of them) just to be able to leave her own building. She knows that she has allowed herself to be governed by fear, and that it’s far from normal, yet she has engineered a life for herself that allows her to work, to eat the food she likes and see her physiatrist without ever leaving the safety of her apartment. She is still a prisoner, only now it’s within her own home. And she is still receiving letters from the man who abducted her.

Then she gets a call from the FBI telling her that the man responsible for her imprisonment, and her friend Jennifer’s death, is coming up for parole. The news spurs Sarah into action, setting her on a quest to not only keep her abuser in jail, but also to get justice for Jennifer by finding her body. It’s hard to go into any more detail without spoilers, all I’ll say is that Jennifer manages to reunite with Tracey and Christine, the other two survivors from the cellar, and re-enter the world inhabited by her abductor to seek out the clues, and the people, that the FBI failed to find.

For their ‘Never List’ Sarah and Jennifer had imagined every terrible thing that could happen, and made a list of actions to prevent against them. At the creepy and heart-wrenchingly scary climax of the book, Sarah learns that sometimes the truth is even worse than the terrors in her imagination.

A chilling, page-turner of a psychological thriller: a real must-read for all fans of the genre.

Highly Recommended.

[Many thanks to Harvill Secker for my copy of THE NEVER LIST]

ps. pop back on Wednesday when I’ll be interviewing Koethi Zan about writing The Never List, her writing process and all things bookish …