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The Qwillery

A blog about books and other things speculative

Review: The Well by Catherine Chanter

The Well
AuthorCatherine Chanter
Publisher:  Atria Books, May 19, 2015
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages
List Price:  $25.00 (print)
ISBN:  9781476772769 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: The Well by Catherine Chanter
From the winner of the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, a brilliantly haunting and suspenseful debut set in modern-day Britain where water is running out everywhere except at The Well—the farm of one seemingly ordinary family whose mysterious good fortune leads to suspicion, chaos, and ultimately a shocking act of violence.

Ruth Ardingly has just been released from prison to serve out a sentence of house arrest for arson and suspected murder at her farm, The Well. Beyond its borders, some people whisper she is a witch; others a messiah. For as soon as Ruth returns to The Well, rain begins to fall on the farm. And it has not rained anywhere else in the country in over three years.

Ruth and her husband Mark had moved years before from London to this ancient idyll in the hopes of starting their lives over. But then the drought began, and as the surrounding land dried up and died, and The Well grew lush and full of life, they came to see their fortune would come at a price. From the envy of their neighbors to the mandates of the government, from the fanaticism of a religious order called the Sisters of the Rose to the everyday difficulties of staying close as husband and wife, mother and child—all these forces led to a horrifying crime: the death of their seven-year-old grandson, drowned with cruel irony in one of the few ponds left in the countryside.

Now back at The Well, Ruth must piece together the tragedy that shattered her marriage, her family, and her dream. For she believes her grandson’s death was no accident, and that the murderer is among the people she trusted most. Alone except for her guards on a tiny green jewel in a world rapidly turning to dust, Ruth begins to confront her worst fears and learns what really happened in the dark heart of The Well.

A tour de force about ordinary people caught in the tide of an extraordinary situation, Catherine Chanter’s The Well is a haunting, beautifully written, and utterly believable novel that probes the fragility of our personal relationships and the mystical connection between people and the places they call home.

Deb's Review

Water impacts all of us on the most basic level. It sustains all life. It's used in manufacturing, transportation, and in the production of electricity among so many other things. If it stopped raining tomorrow and the reservoirs ran dry, how would it impact you? Life without water is scarcely life at all. Now imagine that you are the only one in the country with access to water. You and your property will thrive while all around you withers and dies. Welcome to The Well, where you will be envied and feared, hated and worshipped.

In Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, Ruth Ardingly and her husband Mark leave London to escape a scandal that he cannot seem to shake. At the beginning of a dry spell, they purchase the titular farm in the English countryside for its remote location and postcard charm. They make new friends, entertain her daughter Angie and grandson Lucien, and make a go of Mark's dream of self-sufficient living. All is right in their lush corner of the world until the dry spell turns into a deadly drought, and the only place where rain continues to fall is at The Well. The Ardinglys' inexplicable good fortune attracts the attention of their envious neighbors, the press, a suspicious government, and an order of nuns, The Sisters of the Rose, who have a particular interest in the property, and in Ruth. With this powder keg of conflicting interests, something is bound to go wrong.

The story opens after everything has come crashing down, and Ruth is being transported from prison back to The Well. She is being placed under house arrest for arson and her involvement in an unspecified death. Allowed only the company of the three soldiers guarding her and an occasional visit from a local priest, she is truly isolated from the world. She passes her empty hours piecing together the events leading up to her arrest, hoping to solve the murder and finally find some semblance of peace.

It's difficult to tell if Ruth is an unreliable narrator and, by extension, the motives of those around her. She and Mark have weathered many hardships in their marriage and have stood together throughout, but after the London scandal can he really be trusted? Angie, a recovering addict, is frequently at odds with her mother and lives an unconventional life with a traveling group of friends who are also in recovery. Is she an appropriate influence on young Lucien, and should Ruth take a stand against this vagabond existence for her only grandchild? And while the Sisters of the Rose offer Ruth a sense of purpose and belonging, what do they really want?

Although The Well is a murder mystery, to simply categorize it that way is to do it an injustice. It is not an action packed story, but a beautifully written time-lapse view of the Ardinglys' days at The Well. Chanter has a lovely, ethereal style that suits the story, but might not be everyone's cup of tea. I would still recommend this book to anyone with a love of character-driven fiction. Ruth is authentically flawed and fascinating: all at once nurturing and uncertain, bright and naive, needy and headstrong, sympathetic and selfish. The hidden pieces of the story revealed in the last handful of chapters, and the consequences accepted by those still standing, left me unexpectedly teary-eyed.

I also want to make mention of the website, The Ardingly Well. Intended to be Ruth's blog to keep their London friends apprised of the goings-on at The Well, it is a nice companion piece to the book, but I was disappointed to find so few entries. I believe the site was only maintained until the UK release of the book in March.

The Well is the sort of book that can prompt a sort of empathetic self-examination of personal connections and priorities. Ruth's story will, I believe, stay with me for quite some time. This is truly an exceptional debut.

Review: The Damned by Andrew Pyper

The Damned
AuthorAndrew Pyper
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster, February 10, 2015
Format:  Hardcover and eBook, 304 pages
List Price:  $25.00 (print)
ISBN:  9781476755113 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: The Damned by Andrew Pyper
ALREADY OPTIONED FOR FILM BY LEGENDARY PICTURES (Inception, the Dark Knight movies, Interstellar)

From the #1 internationally bestselling author of The Demonologist, called “smart, thrilling, utterly unnerving” by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, comes a spine-tingling supernatural thriller about a survivor of a near-death experience haunted by his beautiful, vindictive twin sister.

Most people who have a near-death experience come back alone…

After he survived a fire that claimed the life of his twin sister, Ashleigh, Danny Orchard wrote a bestselling memoir about going to Heaven and back. But despite the resulting fame and fortune, he’s never been able to enjoy his second chance at life.

Ash won’t let him.

In life, Danny’s charming and magnetic twin had been a budding psychopath who privately terrorized her family—and death hasn’t changed her wicked ways. Ash has haunted Danny for twenty years and now, just when he’s met the love of his life and has a chance at real happiness, she wants more than ever to punish him for being alive—so she sets her sights on Danny’s new wife and stepson.

Danny knows what Ash really wants is him, and he’s prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save the ones he loves. But to do this, he'll have to meet his sister where she now resides—and hope that this time, he can keep her there forever.

Deb's Review

Twins enter the world as a ready-made team; two distinct halves of one eternally bonded whole. In Andrew Pyper's The Damned, Ashleigh Orchard and her brother Daniel also share an even more remarkable distinction. They were both stillborn, only to be revived at the desperate plea of their mother, by a doctor with a particular set of skills. Dead and then not dead on their very first day in this world. Of course, such an extreme reversal of fortune almost always comes with a price, and sometimes the reckoning for hastily made promises isn't apparent until it's really too late.

Ash and Danny have the twin bond, but there are distinct differences between them that go far beyond their being fraternal twins. Danny is awkward and introverted, while Ash is a unique beauty who is popular, intelligent and accomplished. But only her family knows that she has a side far darker and colder than anyone suspects, and that she is slowly destroying the family from the inside. On their 16th birthday, Ash and Danny die in a fire in nearby crumbling Detroit. Unlike the first time, Ash remains dead, but Danny returns. Ash is not about to take Danny's revival lying down. At the minimum, she will haunt her twin's footsteps from beyond, chasing off friends and lovers, and ensuring that his existence is as lonely as hers.

Years pass, and awkward teenager Danny grows into an equally awkward adult who makes a modest living off of his book about returning from the dead. Still living in fear of Ash, Danny meets Willa at an Afterlifer meeting, where people share their near death experience stories. Their common ground of returning from The After gives them a quick rapport. A brief courtship leads to marriage, and with Willa's son Eddie, they form a family, giving Danny the will to fight for more than the miserable husk of a life Ash has allowed him. His defiance ups the ante for Ash, and Willa and Eddie wind up in her tightening circle of vengeance. If there's a way to put Ash to rest, Danny must discover it before she destroys his family a second time.

This book was a mixed bag for me. Ash is truly wicked. Without conscience. Tireless and unpredictable. If nothing is happening, chances are that she's only letting Danny develop a false sense of security; she has nothing but time. Danny is definitely the "good twin," but his character suffers from the nice guy mantle that is his birthright. It was sometimes a bit of a stretch to believe someone with such a tepid personality could be a worthy adversary to the formidable Ash. And while Danny's relationship with Willa is an important shift for him, it happens so quickly that it did not resonate with me. The depth of their bond should be Danny's new driving force, but there wasn't enough time to develop a true emotional connection. Danny adores Willa, and this may be because she is willing to stay, even in the face of Ash's torments. But it's difficult to understand Willa's motivation to stand by Danny, putting her young son at risk when so little time has been invested. It's not really surprising that the evil twin is lavished with a delicious story while the good twin pales in comparison because he simply wants a family and a normal life. In the end, it was this unfairly matched fight between good and evil that made this book a page turner.

Pyper has written a solid story, with an interesting premise, and a larger than life villain. His descriptions are lovingly detailed, whether he's relating Ash's nightmare vision of Detroit, or the oozing texture of burned, rotting flesh. The Damned has been optioned by Legendary Pictures, and I think the strong visuals in Pyper's story will translate well to the big screen. In spite of unevenly developed characters, there's a lot to praise about The Damned. It doesn't matter whether Ash is living or dead: what she does for fun and sport brings pain and ruin to everyone in her path. If you're looking for horror, Ash and Pyper won't let you down.

Review: Dead Spots by Rhiannon Frater

Dead Spots
Author:  Rhiannon Frater
Publisher:  Tor Books, February 24, 2015
Format:  Trade Paperback and eBook, 416 pages
List Price:  $16.99 (print)
ISBN:  9780765337153 (print)
Review Copy:  Provided by the Publisher

Review: Dead Spots by Rhiannon Frater
New horror from Rhiannon Frater: in the dead spots, dreams become reality, terror knows your name, and nightmares can kill

The stillbirth of Mackenzie's son destroyed her marriage. Grieving, Mac reluctantly heads for her childhood home to seek refuge with her mother, who constantly reminds her of life's dangers.

Driving across Texas, Mac swerves to avoid hitting a deer...and winds up in a dead spot, a frightening place that lies between the worlds of the living and the dead. If they can control their imaginations, people can literally bring their dreams to life--but most are besieged by fears and nightmares which pursue them relentlessly.

Mackenzie's mother and husband haunt her, driving her to the brink of madness. Then she hears a child call for help and her maternal instincts kick into overdrive. Grant, Mac's ally in the dead spots, insists Johnny is a phantom, but the boy seems so real, so alive....

As the true horrors of the dead spots are slowly revealed, Mackenzie realizes that time is running out. But exits from the dead spots are nearly impossible to find, and defended by things almost beyond imagination.

Deb's Review

Six months after the stillbirth of her son, Mackenzie Babin is grieving not only his death, but the loss of her job, her home, and her marriage. As a last resort, she decides to return to her mother's ranch in Texas until she can get back on her feet again. On her way home, a curious near-accident on an isolated road lands her in front of an abandoned diner. In an uncharacteristically bold moment, she steps inside the building to look around and finds herself trapped in a frightening limbo from which there may be no return. The diner is a dead spot - a place left behind by the real world that acts as a doorway to the ever-shifting world of dreams and nightmares. Mackenzie abruptly runs into Grant in the dead spot, and despairs when she she learns that he has been trapped inside this alternate reality for years. After the two survive a terrifying encounter with the diner's other-worldly staff and patrons, she comes to see Grant as her guide and protector in this dangerous, sentient place that knows your fears and sorrows, and uses them to hunt you down and drain you of your energy, your sanity, and your life.

Although Mackenzie is in her mid-twenties, Rhiannon Frater's Dead Spots feels very much like a coming of age story viewed through a dark lens. Raised by a rigid and critical mother, Mackenzie escapes her childhood home by eloping with a man who lacks the emotional maturity for a lasting relationship. She has had more than her share of pain and guilt heaped upon her, which makes her a delicacy for nightmare creatures that readily feed on those who have lost hope. In her travels, she must learn to rely on herself, trust her instincts, and use the steel spine she doesn't yet realize she possesses.

The primary characters in Dead Spots are multi-faceted and provoke specific emotions, whether positive or negative. Those emotions shifted for me as the story progressed, but I did respond to Mackenzie and company. Some of the choices she makes are ill-considered and frustrating, but Mackenzie is learning her way through an unfamiliar world while sorting out who she is and what she stands for. Perhaps the most exasperating thing for me was that even as she begins to develop insight, she remains emotionally attached to her ex-husband in spite of what transpired between them. Some of the story felt overlong, and some of the rules of the world turned upside down seemed arbitrary. Frater does take her time showing Mackenzie's growth, so there's purpose to the story length, but I did feel that the middle third dragged a bit. There are many villains: some predictable, some uniquely terrifying, and others with deceptively friendly faces. All we can do is watch Mackenzie and hope she can learn and adapt quickly enough, and that her hard luck streak breaks before she does.

Dead Spots conjures a complex and deadly world and populates it with interesting characters pitted against the things they fear the most. Be aware that there are scenes featuring gore and some sexual situations, and that people who have lost a child may find the story triggering, as Mackenzie's thoughts are never far from her lost son. One of the best things I can say about the book is that I was truly invested in the central characters as the story began careening to a close. Whether all key characters get their happy ending or not, an author has done his or her job when we care about their outcome. Frater succeeds with Dead Spots.

Review: Midian Unmade: Tales of Clive Barker's Nightbreed edited by Joseph Nassise and Del Howison - and GiveawayReview: The Well by Catherine ChanterReview: The Damned by Andrew PyperReview: Dead Spots by Rhiannon Frater

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