ghost

A House of Ghosts – W. C. Ryan

Title – A House of Ghosts

Author – W. C. Ryan

Published – 4 October 2018

Genre – Historical thriller / supernatural

This is not just an excellent read but is a beautiful book to own. I read the netgalley which means that my hardback copy, with its gold embossed cover, map and illustrated chapter headings, can stay in pristine condition!

The starting premise of the book is terrific. It’s the winter of 1917 and on a tiny island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering in an attempt to contact his two sons who have already been lost in the war. He has a very specific guest list and this attracts the attention of military intelligence who ensure that included in the invitations are a number of people in their employ. As the guests gather a storm descends on the island, cutting off the route back to the mainland.

So we have a house party on an island, a raging storm, spies, ghosts, and guests with secrets. Excellent! The setting is Agatha Christie-esque but deals with much more serious issues than she would have tackled in her books. Some of the guests have profited from the war and commercial decisions aren’t always the same as ethical ones, people’s actions have had unpleasant consequences.

I’m not sure if there has been an increase in the books which have a ghostly or supernatural slant to them or I just happen to have read more recently but what sets this book apart is its unambiguous approach to spirits, an approach I really liked, although this does mean they don’t necessarily add to the suspense with the story.

There is a strong cast of characters and everyone adds something to the story. The main characters are Kate Cartwright, a bright, young woman with her own connection to the Highmount family, and Irishman Captain Robert Donovan, a veteran of the war and with plenty in his own past that he would prefer no-one knew about. There is a hint of chemistry between them but the relationship that unfolds is very within keeping for the period setting. One common trait in Ryan’s writings is the ‘reserved hero’, in the Korolev series and The Constant Soldier this is more due to the necessity of the situation but while that is to some extent true in this book it also reflects the etiquette of the time.

The book is neatly plotted with many layers and although the elements may make it sound like it’s all about the action there are some serious themes at the heart of it, including the treatment of those who have served at the front and returned. The writing had a very visual quality and by the end I felt as if I might have seen a film rather than read a book, my recall of the scenes being very vivid. An excellent read for dark winter nights.

Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley.

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The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

Title – The Silent Companions

Author – Laura Purcell

Published – October 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

This was a book that I’d heard a lot of people raving about and when I saw the hardback on the shelves it was so beautiful that I added it to my Christmas list (and received it!). And now I’m in two minds whether or not to publish a review. It didn’t come from a publisher so I feel no pressure to be positive but I don’t mean to be negative for the sake of it. I still feel it’s worth saying what I thought because there are comparisons to be drawn with other similar books that I’ve read.

The book is set (mainly) in 1865. A little while in the future Mrs Bainbridge is in an asylum and a doctor persuades her to write down her account of the events in an effort to understand what led to her incarceration. In 1865 Elsie is newly married and newly widowed. The death of her husband has taken place at his family home, The Bridge, an old and crumbling mansion where her story starts, with shades of Rebecca. This part of the book is very much a chilling, gothic story but quite slow to develop and it didn’t have the atmosphere of something like The Unseeing. One of the issues I had was when a third timeline was introduced after diaries dating back to 1635, written by a previous owner of the house, are found in a mysterious garret. I then found the shifts through the three periods a struggle and I couldn’t take to the character who had written the diaries.

The silent companions of the title are a set of mysterious wooden figures that, sometimes, resemble some of the characters in the household and then appear where they aren’t expected. I had a quick ‘google’ to see a real example – http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object. Part of my problem was that these didn’t seem as sinister to me as they should have done. By coincidence it’s not long since I read The Coffin Path and that was where I first came across these unusual figures – and these I did find creepy, perhaps if the order in which I read the books had been reversed I might have felt differently.

When the threads of the different timelines are resolved and there is a final climax to the story I was impressed by the turn of events.  It’s a shame that I didn’t find the book as atmospheric and chilling as others did.

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The Coffin Path – Katherine Clements

Title – The Coffin Path

Author – Katherine Clements

Published – 8 Feb 2018

Genre – Historical fiction

I might be posting this review WAY in advance of its publication date but this was such a perfectly timed read in the run up to Halloween. The Coffin Path is a gothic ghost story set in the seventeenth century at an isolated farm and manor house on the wild Yorkshire moors.

The book starts out from the perspective of Mercy Booth, a woman who challenges the expectations of the time about how a woman should behave. She sees herself as the mistress of Scarcross Hall (what a name!) and expects to inherit it when her father passes away. Scarcross is run down and the source of local rumour and superstition; the arrival of a mysterious stranger coincides with events that bring these to the fore. The man is Ellis Ferriby and as the narration switches between him and Mercy we see a different perspective on the period and gradually discover the secret that haunts him.

The controlled pace allows us to get to know and understand the characters as they face the sinister and mysterious events. Verging between the menace of a more corporeal threat versus an ethereal one, the tension is gradually ramped up through the book. As the incidents increase they take their toll on the inhabitants and the farm’s workers and gradually Mercy comes under more and more pressure and becomes more and more isolated.

The location could perhaps be credited as the third main character – the wilds of the moors, the remote location and the unforgiving weather all play their part. This isn’t a book that’s heavy on historical scene-setting – the period is obviously important for a number of reasons but it provides the backdrop to the story, rather than being the driver for it.

There was a point where I suspected that this might become something of a formulaic romance but while the relationship between the two main protagonists could take that direction the author kept the tone of the writing true to their personalities and anything that does (or doesn’t) happen avoids any predictable clichés. Both characters have their flaws but are immensely likeable and both are presented with situations which put them to the test.

The climax is thrilling and there was a sudden ‘aha’ moment which I hope I haven’t misinterpreted… A chilling and eerie story this is bound to make many lists as a ‘must read’ book for next Halloween.

Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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