House of Ashes by Stuart Neville

Initially, I had doubts about Northern Ireland writer Stuart Neville’s new crime thriller (audio narration by Caroline Lennon) House of Ashes. (Oh no, not another book about men abusing women.) But the story gradually creeps into your consciousness until it becomes irresistible. Sara Keane, who’s English, and her newish husband Damien have moved from Bath back to his home in Northern Ireland. He’s started a job in his father’s construction business, which is completing work on a rehabbed and expanded country house for the couple. It’s called The Ashes, named for the ash trees that distinguish the property.

There’s some irony in the book’s title, as a prologue recounts a dangerous fire that forces an elderly woman named Mary to flee the house in the middle of the night. As Sara begins to uncover the house’s history, she has questions about how that fire started. Worse, she learns, sixty years previous, the house was owned by Ivan Jackson, who lived there with his sons, Tam and George, women named Noreen and Joy, and the young Mary, about age ten.

Not until the dazed child Mary walked into a grocery shop on the edge of the village did the shocked locals discover the women even existed. But all five adults are dead, in what the authorities conclude was a murderous spree by George, who then took his own life. Neville gives away the outcome early, leaving the narrative to describe how the residents arrive at that fatal juncture.

Sara can’t stop probing this old story. Damien does all he can to extinguish her curiosity, suggesting it’s an obsession linked to Sara’s fragile emotional state. Back in England, she tried to overdose on pills, the result of finally realizing how Damien has isolated her from her friends and family. Now, he’s put the Irish Sea between them. And you can’t stop wondering whether Sara’s experience will parallel the house’s dark history.

The chapters narrated by Mary that describe her life with Mummy Noreen and Mummy Joy (an ironic name for sure) become riveting. The three men work them like slaves and prevent any contact with the outside world. Mary has never been to school or church or a shop. In the daytime, the women cook and clean, and do some farm chores. At night, they’re locked in the dark basement. Even the slightest commotion risks Daddy Ivan taking off his belt and beating them. They daren’t attempt escape, because the men will catch and kill them. All of them, probably. And you believe it, knowing what eventually happens.

Damien has a more twenty-first century approach to domination. He handles the couple’s money; he has the car; all Sara has is a creepy house she doesn’t want to be in. It’s a gripping story of manipulation and fear, nicely paced, so that you’re invested in both the historical and the contemporary stories. Although the course of Sara’s relationship with Damian is predictable, the tension lies in wondering whether she will have the courage to do what she needs to do.

Irish actor Caroline Lennon—who has narrated more than 300 audio books—does an excellent job. Her Mary is convincingly simple—when she’s both a child who doesn’t understand and an adult who does.

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****The Better Sister

wedding rings, rose

By Alafair Burke – Which is the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.

A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable, persistent threat lurking in the background.

When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.

The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?

Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.

Photo: Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

***Sticks and Stones


Herry Lawford, creative commons license

By Jo Jakeman – Phillip Rochester was a man who had everything—an ex-wife who acted more like his mother, a current wife, and his new young lover. When this debut domestic thriller opens, these three women are together at Rochester’s funeral, and each subsequent chapter begins by saying how long before the funeral it takes place.

Although Phillip is a malevolent presence in the lives of all three women, who live somewhere outside London, this is really their story as told by his current, albeit estranged and increasingly frantic wife Imogen. About three weeks before the funeral, Imogen visits Phillip’s home. She’s determined to stop his foot-dragging about signing the divorce papers and his increasing demands for more time with their son Alistair.

Imogen eventually leaves without seeing her ex. But she has seen something: evidence that Phillip is bullying his paramour Naomi in the same way she herself had been bullied for years, leaving more emotional than physical damage, though plenty of that too. But Phillip was a police officer, and the one time Imogen reported the abuse, the cops who arrived were buddies of his, and it was clear her complaint wouldn’t go anywhere. In her experience, ex-wife Ruby always takes Phillip’s part too.

Phillip’s begun insisting that Imogen and Alistair be out of their jointly owned house by the end of the month. Otherwise, he’ll fight her for custody of their son. He’s willing to play dirty, bringing up Imogen’s bouts of depression as evidence she’s unfit. When Phillip appears unexpectedly with new demands, Imogen, in a desperate moment, locks him in the cellar. It’s a small act of revenge that feels good, but now what?

By keeping most of the action in Imogen’s house and, even more constricted, the cellar, author Jo Jakeman creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that adds to the story’s power. The house and its disposition become a metaphor for the intimate relationship that has gone awry. Ruby and Naomi appear on the scene, and, over the next few days, power shifts back and forth as first Phillip and the women hold the upper hand. The relationships among these three women are nicely developed and believable, as is Imogen’s mistrust of them. Phillip is less convincing. It appears he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his control over them.

Starting the book with the information that Phillip is dead and the women are not removes a major source of tension from the story. Nevertheless, you wonder how it happens, and the novel takes pains to tell you why. If you’re a fan of the close-in domestic thriller, this may be a book you’d enjoy.

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