MADAM by Phoebe Wynne

When classics teacher Rose Christie lands the role of Department Head at prestigious Caldonbrae Hall, the private boarding school for girls on the coast of Scotland, she thinks all her dreams have come true. For over 150 years the education institution has prepared young women for womanhood, coaching them in the various skills required to succeed in society. As the first new member of staff in over a decade, Rose feels honoured to be employed by such an illustrious organisation. But whisperings about what actually happened to her predecessor, and an insight into Caldonbrae’s real teachings, leave her isolated and detached, and at odds with the shadowy establishment.

I really wanted to like Madam, the debut novel by Phoebe Wynne. The central character, Rose, is earnest and morally sound, and I shared many of her left-wing and socialist views. It is set in the early 90s; exactly why this period I’m not sure. Perhaps to avoid the use of mobile phones, as their presence might have created difficult plot points to overcome? Who knows. There’s a strong sense of the gothic to the synopsis, and I had expected something of a Rebecca-vibe, but sadly these elements were lacking. I did enjoy the female characters from Greek studies and their stories, although the manner in which they were integrated into the narrative felt rather contrived. Most of the characters are very unpleasant, so much so that there was little suspense generated by their actions. It just felt like a long battle against a regime that was overtly conservative and backward thinking. The theme was tackled far more successfully in Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society, only that was about the railing against the oppression of individuality. As it was set in the 1950s it felt appropriate to that time; this novel tackles the oppression of feminism, but the 1990s setting makes the theme seem hardly radical. The writing is workmanlike and unspectacular – nothing wrong with that – but did little to propel the story in the absence of an interesting plot. I can’t say I enjoyed this novel, but sadly it felt like a chore and – whilst I agree with the sentiments of the central character (and, presumably, the author) – it was not enough to make for a satisfying read.

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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It is often said of the writer Stephen King that if he published his shopping list, people would rush out to buy it. This isn’t really a derogative observation – at least I don’t think it is – merely a reflection on the fact that the author’s prose is so incredibly readable. The best writers (in my opinion) have the ability to engage you with their prose, not just impress you with their vocabulary. They work hard to make each word count, so that you savour the individual choice of word. Nicholas Royle’s White Spines – Confessions of a Book Collector is one such book. I was interested in reading this non-fiction title because Royle himself seems to be a fascinating man, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how fascinating it was to read the thoughts of a man detailing, amongst other things, his book-collecting obsession.

To be fair, there is far more to this book than just that. As well as covering Royle’s dogged pursuit of tracking down every Picador book from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s (as well as certain other books like Sceptres, King Penguins, Abacus, Vintage, Fontana Agatha Christie’s featuring Tom Adams’ covers, Paladins, etc) he also touches on his fascination with discovering ‘inclusions’ within second-hand books (personal items belonging to a previous owner that were perhaps used as a bookmark) and the nature of finding inscribed books and how they came to find their way onto the second-hand market. He reflects on many of the inscriptions, even displaying some minor research that he has done into the background of who these people in the inscriptions might be.

Royle has a relaxed, informal tone; at times it’s laugh out loud funny, and his personality and insecurities come across in the prose, a facet I found reassuringly enduring and relatable. It’s great to hear someone else talk with such passion about books and reading, as well as the nature of being a collector (of anything really), or even just about the respective qualities of a particular bookshop. Royle writes with great enthusiasm about a book’s cover art too, and his interest in an author’s connection with their own first published novel. There are snippets of overheard dialogue mixed with fragments of dreams, so much so that it’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether the author has penned a novel, instead of a piece of non-fiction – or autofiction as it’s usually known – although I suppose it doesn’t really matter, as the end result is so engrossing nonetheless.

I came away from this book with a renewed appreciation of bookshops and second-hand books, as well as a ‘wanted list’ of titles and authors, and a reference of bookshops to visit when I’m out and about. I had a wonderful time reading this, and I can heartily recommend it. Oh, and just for the record – I don’t think I’d be that interested in reading Stephen King’s shopping list, but I’d definitely pay good money to read Nicholas Royle’s.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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HIGHWAY BLUE by Ailsa McFarlane

That Highway Blue is a debut novel is remarkable. The writing is superb, incredibly controlled and restrained. It tells the story of Anne Marie, a young woman who has been living in a shared house in San Padua since her husband, Cal, left her a few years previously. When he turns up out of the blue one night, disturbing the settled nature of her new life, it sets in motion a series of events that sees them both having to flee north, crammed into a battered old car. The journey forces them to examine their damaged relationship. This road-trip takes them through the dark heart of America, through broken landscapes, desolate and neon-lit, populated by desperate and lonely characters. Is there destination a shot at redemption or merely a gateway to a new life?

I burned through this short novel in a matter of hours. The prose is unpretentious, stripped back and incredibly readable. I found myself caring deeply for the plight of Anne Marie, and yet I understood how her depth of feeling for Cal could leave her vulnerable. The characters – even the secondary ones -are well-formed and recognisable. Since her husband’s abrupt departure, Anne Marie has had to change and grow, and Cal’s return finds him encountering a very different woman to the young girl he abandoned. There are snippets of her childhood dropped into the narrative, colouring her character and hinting at why she fell in love with someone so inherently bad. But through the progress of the story – which, like the prose, is straightforward and simple – we begin to see how her life experiences have enlightened her to her past mistakes and perhaps given her the courage to do this time what’s right.

Highway Blue is a fantastic novel, marking Ailsa McFarlane as a writer to watch out for. I had a great time reading it and I have no hesitation in recommending.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Patrick McGrath is an author whose career I have followed since I first read Asylum back in the late 90s. His writing often tackles the psychological impact of emotional trauma, sometimes by hinting at supernatural elements like spectres and shadowy figures from the past, often using unreliable narrators. In The Wardrobe Mistress McGrath tells the story of Joan Grice and her discovery that the man she had been living with for many years, recently deceased, had once been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. Last Days in Cleaver Square, his latest novel, also deals with fascism, only this time it’s from the viewpoint of Francis McNulty, a poet living in London in 1975, seeing out the last few months of his life. Written in the first person, we get hints that McNulty’s mind may be drifting away, through his contradictions and admissions, so when he reveals that he is sometimes visited by the ghost of Francisco Franco, the Spanish fascist dictator, it is easy to dismiss this as another element of the elderly man’s fracturing mind.

We learn that McNulty did live in Spain during the Civil War, like other writers such as Orwell, Hemingway and Lee, and that due to a tragic case of mistaken identity he has been carrying a burden of guilt for decades. McNulty’s scrambled recollections blend the past and present together, creating a dreamlike quality to his narration. McGrath, as ever, does a fine job of describing the historical elements, some of which are clearly defined; others – like the aspect of repressed homosexuality – are merely hinted at. After McNulty journeys to Madrid with his daughter and son-in-law, for one last visit to the city in which he spent so much time as a younger man, he manages to commit an act of atonement which lands him in trouble with the authorities, but goes some way towards counterbalancing his feelings of hatred towards Franco.

Last Days in Cleaver Square is a short novel, well-paced and nicely written, but one that delivers quite a punch and is a worthy of your time. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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BEYOND THE VEIL edited by Mark Morris

Beyond the Veil is the second non-themed horror anthology from Flame Tree Press edited by Mark Morris, following on from last year’s After Sundown. I had a enjoyable time reading the first book so I approached this one with a great deal of anticipation. I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.

There are 20 stories in Beyond the Veil, 16 of which were commissioned from some of the best writers working today, with the remaining 4 selected from an open submission window in which Morris invited the public to send stories into Flame Tree Press for consideration. This is an ideal way to balance ensuring both a good foundation of quality to the book’s contents, whilst also allowing a way to foster fresh talent from emerging writers.

An anthology stands or falls by its stories. And yet it’s only reasonable to expect that not every story works on the same level for each reader, and so this review comes with the age-old caveat that the stories that I preferred might not necessarily be the ones that are liked by everyone. It’s fair to say that Christopher Golden’s The God Bag might not have the most original plot, but nevertheless it’s delivered in a masterful way. Caker’s Man is a wonderfully unsettling tale about a young family’s rather grotesque elderly neighbour. The always-brilliant Priya Sharma’s contribution, The Beechfield Miracles, is a slice of near-future dystopia, covering Brexit and xenophobia, food-shortages, and a society on the brink of collapse. Its prescient almost-believable truth makes for uncomfortable reading, and it builds to a superb climax. Clockwork by Dan Coxon was another favourite, detailing a man’s uncanny discovery of some metal items in his garden, building towards a dark suggestion of what caused the breakdown of his relationship with his recently-deceased father. Aliya Whiteley’s Soapstone is dreamlike and hypnotic, and Toby Litt’s The Dark Bit is equally as unsettling (in a way that is difficult to describe).

Provenance Pond by Josh Malerman is an evocative tale, written from the point of view of ten-year old Rose and her childhood recollections of an area of water in their garden and the shadowy characters that lingered there. Stephen Gallagher – who contributed one of my favourites in a previous anthology edited by Mark Morris, New Fears – here delivers another fine story in A Mystery For Julie Chu, which is incredibly engaging and comes with a satisfying twist. Lisa Tuttle’s Away Day concerns a work trip to Inverness in which put-upon Kirsty journeys north, losing her way and finding rather more than she feared. Polaroid and Seaweed is a disturbing, and at times funny, story about troubled child Daniel and his broken family and unpleasant classmates. Lynda E Rucker’s Die Geisterbahnhof is a wonderfully-written haunting tale of regret and nostalgia; another highlight. The Care and Feeding of Household Gods by Frank J Oreto reminded me fondly of the Pan Book of Horror Stories with its accessible tone and dark twist. There’s a strong sense of body-horror which chimes uncomfortably with the recent global pandemic in Yellowback by Gemma Files, a writer whose work never fails to deliver.

There are also stories by Bracken Macleod, Angeline B Adams & Remco van Straten, Lisa L Hannett, Karter Mycroft, John Everson, Nathan Ballingrud, and a rather Tales of the Unexpected-esque story from Jeremy Dyson. There is a high quality of stories here and I would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good horror story. The themes and styles are varied, and editor Morris – a fine author in his own right – has done a great job of assembling a selection of work that represents contemporary horror in all its forms, highlighting the nuances of the genre and, above all else, entertaining greatly. Recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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WHEN THINGS GET DARK edited by Ellen Datlow

A themed anthology can sometimes be a tricky thing, often the curate’s egg of the literary world. On one hand you might get stories that act almost as a pastiche of the source theme, either tonally or in prose style or even by utilising aspects of the work that first inspired it. On the other hand you may find instead that you get completely original tales that – on first appearance – seem almost unrelated to the theme, but which absolutely work as stand-alone tales, with subtle tonal cues which tie them to the inspirational source. I’m pleased to say that the contents of When Things Get Dark are wholly from the latter category.

Some horror themes seem rather more straightforward than others – HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe spring to mind, both genre giants whose work has inspired anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow – but the fiction of Shirley Jackson is a little more difficult to define, so editor extraordinaire Datlow has done a wonderful job of putting together eighteen new stories from some of the best writers working today.

Shirley Jackson, author of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, and an array of celebrated short stories such as The Lottery, The Missing Girl, The Possibility of Evil and The Summer People, wrote quiet, subtle prose, sometimes insidiously unsettling, very often incredibly dark. As Datlow says in her very engaging introduction, “Her stories, mostly taking place in mid-twentieth-century America, are filled with hauntings, dysfunctional families and domestic pain; simmering rage, loneliness, suspicion of outsiders; sibling rivalry and women trapped psychologically and/or by the supernatural. They explore the dark undercurrent of suburban life during that time period.” Taking into account those points, the new stories in this anthology work beautifully in celebrating the enduring power of Shirley Jackson’s fiction.

When Things Get Dark is a wonderful anthology. As with any collection of short stories, personal choice means that readers will find something in the odd story that appeals more to them individually, but the quality across the board is incredibly high. My favourites happened to be the contributions from Kelly Link, Richard Kadrey, Paul Tremblay, M Rickert, Josh Malerman, Elizabeth Hand, and Laird Barron, but it feels churlish to single these out as there genuinely isn’t a poor story in the book. I fully expect to see many of these stories appearing in next year’s annual Best Ofs and making the shortlists of genre awards, such is the high quality of tales. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this anthology, and it’s one that has inspired me to embark on a reread of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, so I have no hesitation in recommending it.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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APRIL IN SPAIN by John Banville

John Banville is an award winning author of literary fiction, one with an impeccable writing career spanning more than half a century. Since 2006, under the pen-name Benjamin Black, he has published a series of crime novels featuring the forensic pathologist Quirke, set in 1950s Dublin. Quirke is a fascinatingly flawed character, with a weakness for the ladies and a fondness for the bottle. So far there have been seven titles in the series.

In 2020 John Banville published Snow, featuring Detective Inspector Strafford, also in the same time setting and location of the Quirke novels. I really enjoyed that novel, and April in Spain, the latest offering from Banville, has been advertised variously as both a Quirke novel and a Strafford one.

Quirke and Strafford couldn’t be more different. Where Quirke is flawed and self-destructive, Strafford is scholarly and determined. The first half of April in Spain details a holiday in San Sebastian in which Quirke and his wife, Evelyn, come across a young Irish woman who looks remarkably like a friend of his daughter’s who disappeared four years previously, presumed dead. This touches on a previous novel in the Quirke series called Elegy for April (which I hadn’t read) and this current book acts almost as a sequel. But be warned – there are many spoilers for that novel, so your enjoyment will be much stronger if you’re familiar with the events of Elegy for April.

April in Spain isn’t so much a whodunnit as a why-and-howdunnit. As ever with Banville/Black’s novels, the quality of writing is superb. It is extremely readable, and even if the plot risks disappointing readers seeking out a traditional murder mystery, for those wanting an intelligent literary crime novel it definitely delivers. Strafford makes an all-too brief appearance, but it’s a crucial and dramatic one. There’s a memorable psychopath called Terry whose presence calls to mind Pinkie from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but where the novel really excels is in its first half where we spend time with Quirke and Evelyn, and see at first hand their realistically complex marriage. The novel’s historical aspects feel authentic and there’s a nice contrast between sunny Spain and the events taking place in rainy, windswept Dublin.

It’s almost as if, in writing Snow, John Banville was wanting to cast off his pseudonym Benjamin Black and write a literary crime novel under his own name. And he managed that with a great deal of success. I loved Snow, and felt the pacing was perfect, masterfully balancing the mystery aspects of the traditional detective story with that of a literary novel. April in Spain seems less finely blended, with the first half appearing more literary and the second half more fast-paced and plot-driven. And yet it still works. I had a great time reading it, even if it doesn’t quite come across as accomplished as the first Strafford novel. However I still have no problem recommending it, and I look forward greatly to reading more books in the series.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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BEST NEW HORROR edited by Stephen Jones

For as long as I can remember, at any given time in my life, I’ve been reading a book. I first discovered a love of reading when I was around ten years old, with the Three Investigators book series from my local library. I grew up in a working-class home in a mining village in South Yorkshire, and books were simply a luxury we could not afford. Plus, my parents weren’t book readers. So our local library was a haven of exploration to me. The kids’ section was well-stocked and I spent hours in there as a child, browsing the shelves, marvelling at the titles, all of which offered exciting escapes and promised adventure and thrills. The library was my home from home. I can still remember the smell of ink from the librarian’s date stamp and the odour of rubber linoleum where the sun poured through the expansive glass sunlight and warmed the floor.

From The Three Investigators I gravitated – through association to the character of Alfred Hitchcock, who featured in the series – to the Hitchcock anthologies that were pitched as kids’ books, but contained an array of talent from the golden age of crime, dark fantasy and horror. Featured in these pages were authors like Ray Bradbury, Joan Aiken, Robert Bloch, F Marion Crawford, Ambrose Bierce, August Derleth, Algernon Blackwood, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Arthur, Richard Matheson, Basil Copper, Fritz Leiber, John Wyndham, Roald Dahl, Patricia Highsmith, MR James, Shirley Jackson and Avram Davidson, so from an early age I was being exposed to some of the masters of the genre (although at the time I was unaware of quite how big a deal they were). Together with the Sherlock Holmes stories, they formed the cornerstone of my love for the short form.

So I had a book with me constantly. Around that time, my grandmother took me to a jumble sale and, having noticed my interest in the books on the table, purchased some cheap titles for me to begin my own collection. I remember there was an Agatha Christie Miss Marple short story collection (and a couple of her murder mystery novels), a handful of the Pan Book of Horror Stories with their lurid covers, and a couple of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories edited by Robert Aickman. This was exactly what I craved.

I have never looked back.

I read for pleasure in my spare time. I kept a current book next to my bed and would dip into each night before sleep. As I got older I began to experiment with reading two books at the same time – admittedly I’d chose two very different themes or genres – so I could read in bed and also enjoy a different title downstairs during the day.

However I still found it difficult to seek out the range of books I wanted to read. As I grew older I was allowed to borrow titles from the adult section of the library, but, frustratingly, my first love – the short story – wasn’t quite as abundant as the novel. When I started work in Sheffield I was delighted to find a WHSmith, which did stock a decent array of horror titles, and it was there one day that I came across a book called Best New Horror edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell.

I’d heard of Ramsey Campbell (having owned a couple of his novels) and recognised a few of the authors whose work was contained within its pages – as well as Ramsey Campbell there was Nicholas Royle whose name I recognised from Fear magazine, and Robert Westall who had written The Machine Gunners and a couple of other books I’d borrowed from the library) so I handed over my money and took it home.

At that time I was unaware of the actual format of the book – that the short stories had been selected by the editors from their original publication sources the previous year – but I hadn’t come across any of the tales already so it was no big deal. I devoured the introduction, where there was a comprehensive summary of 1989 in genre terms, and then moved on to the stories.

I won’t go into the individuals of each story but suffice to say I absolutely loved the book. Not just the 20 stories, but also the fascinating introduction and the sobering necrology at the back. This was information that was difficult to come across in the dark days pre-internet. Needless to say I have purchased each annual edition since then and read it religiously. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the stories reprinted in Best New Horror have influenced my own writing and have given me a benchmark against which to aim. There are 30 years’ worth of stories, so it’s a good selection of dark fiction to get through.

Some of the authors featured in this series have since become friends of mine. This would not have happened without Best New Horror. As well as shaping my writing and my reading, these books have also influenced my social life. I think of the writers whose stories graced the pages of just the first five editions – Ramsey Campbell, Nicholas Royle, Peter Straub, Karl Edward Wagner, Conrad Williams, Joel Lane, Kim Newman, Michael Marshall Smith, Lisa Tuttle, Graham Joyce, DF Lewis, Steve Rasnic Tem, Thomas Ligotti, M John Harrison, Charles L Grant, Christopher Fowler, Peter Atkins, Melanie Tem, William F Nolan, Elizabeth Hand, Dennis Etchison, Thomas Tessier, Poppy Z Brite, Harlan Ellison and many other brilliant authors – and it’s difficult to comprehend how buoyant the genre must have been at that time in the first half of the 90s.

Towards the end of the century, as the world seemed to become smaller because of technological advancements such as the internet, I began collecting books by my favourite authors (the catalogue of which was rapidly expending), as well as discovering similar annual best-ofs that were being published on the other side of the Atlantic – namely the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, but also the earlier Year’s Best Horror Stories edited by Karl Edward Wagner, the Whispers anthologies from Stuart David Schiff, Kirby McCauley’s Dark Forces, Prime Evil from Douglas E Winter, Dennis Etchison’s Cutting Edge, Foundations of Fear by David G Hartwell, Shadows from Charles L Grant, and the various anthologies from Marvin Kaye, John Skipp, Harlan Ellison, Al Sarrantonio, Michelle Slung, Martin H Greenberg, Alan Ryan, Poppy Z Brite, Stefan R Dziemianowicz, Ramsey Campbell, Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, etc. But it was the Best New Horror series that began this obsession with short horror fiction.

There was also the anthologies of original stories edited by Stephen Jones – Dark Terrors – which featured similar kind of fiction, and many of the Mammoth Books of …. that were also published by Constable & Robinson before the series ended. All of these have been a rich tapestry to me over the years.

All of this seems a very long-winded way of saying that I was delighted recently to find out that one of my own stories – The Children of Medea, which appeared in my second collection Murmured in Dreams, published by Luna Press – has been selected by Stephen Jones to be included in Best New Horror 31. It is due to be published by PS Publishing later in the year. I had finished just the first draft of this tribute to Best New Horror when serendipity struck and I received an email from Stephen Jones advising me that he was interested in reprinting my story. It was a surreal experience.

It will come as no surprise to hear that this marks a milestone that I honestly never thought possible when I set out submitting fiction back in 2006 – that stories of mine could appear in both Best New Horror and Best Horror of the Year. Just looking at the names of those writers who have appeared in the series, and thinking of mine as part of that honourable list, is humbling and, frankly, unbelievable. These past few years have been difficult ones for my writing, as real life has absorbed much of my free time, but appearing again in Black Static in March and then making the cut for Best New Horror 31 means that 2021 is turning out to be a very good year, even if it’s proving to be a very dark time for me in my personal life.

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Murmured in Dreams reviewed by the BFS

The British Fantasy Society has posted a review by Pauline Morgan of my short story collection, Murmured in Dreams.

You can read the review at

As ever, I’m always very grateful to readers and reviewers who take their time to spread news and reviews, so many thanks to Pauline for such an in-depth analysis.

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MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone

Cat lives in Los Angeles, far away from 36 Westeryk Road, the imposing gothic house in Edinburgh where she and her estranged twin sister, El, grew up. As girls, they invented Mirrorland, a dark, imaginary place under the pantry stairs full of pirates, witches, and clowns. These days Cat rarely thinks about their childhood home, or the fact that El now lives there with her husband Ross.

But when El mysteriously disappears after going out on her sailboat, Cat is forced to return to 36 Westeryk Road, which has scarcely changed in twenty years. The grand old house is still full of shadowy corners, and at every turn Cat finds herself stumbling on long-held secrets and terrifying ghosts from the past. Because someone—El?—has left Cat clues in almost every room: a treasure hunt that leads right back to Mirrorland, where she knows the truth lies crouched and waiting…

Mirrorland is Carole Johnstone’s debut novel, which seems remarkable given how accomplished the writing is. The prose is beautiful and engaging, at times heartbreaking. It’s an emotionally complex novel. The relationship between the two sisters is nuanced and believable. The story cleverly blurs genres so that it’s not quite as straightforward as a domestic noir novel, and yet not quite as oblique as dark fantasy. To its credit it completely manages to work as both, and yet by so deftly blending them, it elevates it beyond either category. The writing style is confident and authoritative, the plot development well paced, weaving seemingly unimportant details into the story one bit at a time until the reader slowly begins to see the full picture. The characters felt rounded and their back story tragic. There are some nice twists and turns and the narrative is captivating and imaginative. Mirrorland, as a concept, is so vividly recreated it makes me wonder whether there was some element of autobiography at work here. Perhaps I’m not giving full credit to Johnstone’s imaginative power. It’s a rich location, offering plenty of nods to other aspects of fiction, especially the work of Stephen King. I particularly enjoyed the parallels to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and Mirrorland makes fine use of them as both an anchor to the story and as analogies to the girls’ lives. I have no hesitation in recommending this book. Carole Johnstone has written an assured debut novel, one that heralds in an exciting new voice to the genre of dark fiction.

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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