This is Laois-born Helen's first novel, and this paperback version was released earlier this year. I'd never heard of it, I haven't checked any book recommendations in a long time. I was browsing the book section in Tesco about a month ago with a bottle of wine in one hand, a bag of sweet chilli crisps in the other, fully intending to add another Mills & Boon to my collection. Feeling very let down by the selection of "Sheik's Bride" or "His Reluctant Mistress" titles (ick), I took a look through the fiction section. This one caught my eye - here's the spiel from the back cover:
Leaving behind a broken marriage and a city life she no longer wants to lead, Martha Armstrong takes her baby daughter to start again in the beautiful English countryside. Living in a tranquil cottage in the heat of a perfect summer, it seems that all her wishes have come true.
Until the noises start.
Plagued by mysterious footsteps, scratchings, and crying in the night, Martha is at first unnerved and then terrified. What is happening to her idyllic existence? Is it all her imagination or is someone persecuting her?
Little does Martha know but the cottage has witnessed terrible hatred, fear and pain in the past, when two young Irish sisters lived in it. The fate of these girls and the baby born there now casts a dark shadow over Martha and her daughter.
Martha begins to unravel the story of the cottage's past, and uncover the terrifying secret that still haunts it. But can she discover the truth in time to keep herself and her little girl safe from the evil that threatens them?
To be honest, I was expecting a typical spooky "she closed the door and suddenly, BOO!" story, but I wanted to read something different after a solid year of "she looked at him with lust in her eyes and his pants tightened" and it was only €5.95 so I took the chance. I'm SO glad I did - this is a little gem. The characters are so well-developed - even down to Gabriel, and that's saying something, as he only appears half way through the novel.
Martha is a young mum, recently divorced, who leaves the big city behind to follow her dream of writing a storybook for children. She thinks that Hawthorn Cottage is the perfect place to start her new life - sure, her new landlord is a little pushy and brutish, and the townsfolk seem to be holding something back from Martha, but that's nothing to worry about, right? And the noises - well, houses settle, don't they? Mice scratch?
This book is interspersed with letters written by one of the sisters that lived in the cottage in the 1950's. As we read these letters, it becomes glaringly obvious who the writer is - but it doesn't ruin the ending. If anything, it makes you want to read quicker to find out how the writer ended up where and how she did. Helen gives us no hint as to what is going to happen right up to the last few chapters, and that's refreshing. There's nothing I hate more than figuring out an ending with a half a book to go. With this book, I was devouring the chapters to find out the fate of the two sisters equally as much as I wanted to find out what Martha would do.
One of the characters in this book is one of the most horrible, evil characters I've come across in a novel in a long time - the things she did actually made me bawl crying, and it was for this reason I found the book hard to read in places - I wanted desperately to find out what happened, but I didn't want to read any more of the terrible things this person did. I didn't find the book "bone-chillingly scary" or "genuinely terrifying" as some have - I did however find it disturbing, upsetting, and very, very sad in places. I felt heartbroken for the poor victim and the unimaginable cruelty that befell him at the hands of this evil person - and yes, as I mentioned above, I did have a little cry. Okay, I cried more than once (dont' let that put you off though, I cry at ads).
I didn't plan to buy this book, but it was definitely worthy of a read and it's definitely one I'd recommend if ghost stories or thrillers are your sort of thing. Helen has a fantastic writing style, very descriptive and imaginative without using try-too-hard language (no danger of that on this blog, that's for sure). One of the most effective scenes is so simply written - the main character, on her own, watching repeats of Desperate Housewives, tired, but afraid to go to bed. I could almost feel her fear hopping off the page when I was reading, and it takes a strong writer to convey that sort of emotion without the usual "heart-thumping, mind-racing" kind of writing.
All in all it was a brilliant debut novel - worth a read, also, is the included three-page extract from Helen's next novel, "The Dark Water". It's a follow-up to this book, featuring some of the same characters, and I can't wait to read it and see what happens in their lives! It's due to be published later this year.
For now, though, "The Dead Summer" gets 5/5 stars from me!