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: 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.


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.


It’s thriller season!

Over the last few years, January has become Thriller Season. Publishers launch their twisty-turny tales when in the gloomiest darkest month of the year, then slowly excitement builds until by summer there’s a copy of that year’s crime hit in every airport departure lounge and by every pool. It worked last year with the smash hit Girl On The Train (soon to be a movie with Emily Blunt) and now everyone’s at it. So if you like your narrators unreliable, your families laden with dark secrets and your book covers monochrome then this is the month for you.

As the New Year approached, my TBR pile was overflowing with intriguing catchlines, books with ‘girl’ in the title and promises that this book would be every bit as exciting as Paula Hawkins’ novel which I remember last year was being promoted as every bit as exciting as Gone, Girl before it.

If you like your narrators unreliable and your families laden with dark secrets this is the month for you

For the reader, this is good news. Thrillers focus on plot, on strong, love-to-hate characters and juicy dark secrets – often the kind of situation that could happen to anyone. It’s a great formula but it’s also so easy to get wrong.

The problem is often in the twist. Flynn’s book set the trend for the jaw-dropping reveal and some authors seem to start writing the book with the twist in mind – then make their characters jump through all kinds of outlandish and increasingly unbelievable hoops to get there. I’m going to assume you’ve read Gone Girl here (if you haven’t, skip to the end of the paragraph) and argue that the ending of the book was colossally absurd. For starters, anyone who has had fertility treatment can tell you it ain’t that easy to get pregnant from one measly batch of home-frozen sperm.

pile of books with dark coloursOften the flaws are obvious as you read and doubt creeps in before the end as you think, that character would never do that, or hang on, where the hell did she get that gun from? But sometimes the author has done their job so well that you’re carried along by the page-turning writing and it’s not until after the book that you get that post-thriller hangover. The whole plot comes unravelled in your mind and the experience is ruined.

The good news is that there’s lots of strong contenders around this year (I’ve pictured a small selection here but there are many more.) I’ve had fun – well, sinister, spine-tingling fun – diving into them all and will be ready to share my reviews soon.

Happy dark and scary new year!

Reviews so far are:
Viral by Helen Fitzgerald
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood
The Widow by Fiona Barton