Recent reads: Max Seeck, Susanna Clarke, GE Trevelyan & Alison Belsham

I’ve been reading a mix of genres recently and it’s hard to find a common thread except to say that all the novels below pulled me deep into their worlds which, during these strange times, is exactly what you want.

Witch Hunter is the first in a new series by the Finnish author Max Seeck. It begins with an unsettling premise. A bestselling novelist’s wife is murdered and the ritualistic killing mirrors a death in one of the author’s Witch Hunter novels. As events turn darker and more victims are selected, Helsinki detective Jessica Niemi is convinced the killings aren’t the work of a single person. But she has her own secrets to hide and her duplicitous life might start to unravel. We’re in classic Nordic noir territory here – the brutal killings, stark setting and clever plotting – and I can see why the author has been liked to Jo Nesbo. I found it a compelling and twisty read with a decent female protagonist.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is a dazzling story of a man living in a house with infinite rooms. He is called Piranesi by the only other human he meets who he nicknames ‘the Other’ but is sure that he has another name. He’s aware that his memory is transient and keeps notebooks which chart his journey around the many rooms. The book draws you into its world and shows how a man can be content living with his loneliness. You’re always wondering what world we’re in – the man’s imagination, an altered state or perhaps the story serves as an allegory for what ever the reader chooses. However, there is a revelation which turns the narrative and which is wholly satisfying for the reader. Piranesi is perfect bedtime reading. I dropped off to sleep with dreams of great floods and sea creatures.

Publisher, Abandoned Bookshop, are to rerelease a 1930s debut from the talented writer, GE Trevelyan. Appius and Virginia is a moving tale of a women who raises an orangutan from birth and attempts to give it the upbringing of an ordinary child. Virginia’s motives feel initially benign, she is a scientist with knowledge of animal behaviour. However, as she tried to dress, educate and teach Appius to speak, she’s revealed as rigid in her views and exasperated by the orangutan’s essentially animal nature. The novel addresses ever present themes of how we try to mould our animals to our own needs and, in the passages I found especially moving, how hard our animals try to please us.

The Embalmer is an engrossing new thriller from the talented Alison Belsham. A recently mummified body is found inside a display cabinet in Brighton Museum. A clue to the death lies in tattoos on the body and Egyptian canopic jars found nearby. DI Francis Sullivan suspects he is looking for a serial killer and with his partner Marni Mullins the hunt is on. As the list of suspects narrow, we enter the twisted mind of a disturbed murderer. The book is fast paced and engrossing and there are plenty of surprises for the reader. I particularly liked the Egyptology element and there are some genuinely frightening moments. The Embalmer is out in ebook in November.

After Dark: Fireside Gothic by Andrew Taylor

I picked up Fireside Gothic at my local bookshop before lockdown. I’m a fan of Andrew Taylor’s books and here he’s written three short stories with a supernatural theme. The first, Broken Voices, is set just before the Great War where two schoolboys are left in the care of an elderly teacher one Christmas. In the shadow of a Fens cathedral, the schoolteacher tells stories of local myths until the schoolboys decide to check out the truth for themselves.

The Christmas and Fens setting are classic ghost story tropes and there’s a lovely gothic feel to this story, particularly as the protagonists’ stories are updated at the end of the tale.

In The Leper House, a man returning from his sister’s funeral gets lost and knocks on the door of a remote cottage. It’s an atmospheric time leap story and could easily have stretched to a novella, I was so wrapped up in the characters. The final story, The Scratch, has a beautiful New Forest setting and is perhaps the most disturbing of the three dealing with post traumatic stress and infidelity.

This is a perfect read for an October evening by the fire. Do check it out.