The Burning Girls, by C.J. Tudor

Eight stars

C.J. Tudor can never be said to follow the beaten path with her stories. Each finds a unique way to express things with an eerie undertone and strong messaging throughout. This was no exception, mixing chilling revelations with a bucolic setting in rural England. When Rev. Jack Brooks arrives in Chapel Croft with her teenage daughter, neither is sure what to expect. The new vicar of a handful of parishes, Brooks has fled a disturbing past only to be thrust into a community with a long history of darkness. While she tries to settle in, there are a number of goings-on that unnerve her and leave Brooks to wonder if she might have been better off staying put. Now, as truths come to the surface, it will take more than a prayer or two to remedy what’s gone awry, though some would like to add to the trepidation, rather than soothe the wounds that continue to fester. Another great piece that had me thinking throughout.

Chapel Croft seems like a bucolic place on the surface, which is exactly what Rev. Jack ‘Jacqueline’ Brooks hopes to find with her teenage daughter, Flo. They’ve recently relocated from Nottingham, leaving behind a scandal and seek to reset where no one knows them. However, this community has a long history of trouble as well, dating back to the time of Queen Mary’s purges on the Protestants. At a time when anyone who was not Catholic could be severely punished, many in Chapel Croft were killed, including a few small girls, who were burned at the stake. Their images appear to some at random times, leaving sightings of the Burning Girls as the lead topic amongst the locals.

While Rev. Brooks tries to settle in and help take control of a handful of small parishes, her past comes rushing back. Many of the locals have heard why she fled her last posting, the death of a little girl, and wonder if everything they’ve read is true. This forces Brooks to face truths she wanted shelved, all while she discovers ghosts and mysteries in this new place as well. Alongside the long history of the Burning Girls is the mystery of two teens who disappeared three decades before and a community with their own ideas as to what might have happened.

As Flo also tries to find herself, she’s forced to come to terms with the fact that her teenage life has been turned upside town. All her friends are hours away, their connection solely through text and social media, as well as a new group of mean peers, one of whom wants nothing more than to make her life miserable. However, as Flo befriends on of the town’s outcasts, she learns more about herself and Chapel Croft, including dark secrets many no longer wish to discuss.

With a mysterious entity lurking in the shadows, no one is entirely safe. Chapel Croft may be targeted for a new round of evil doing, though it’s not entirely clear just yet. There’s much to uncover, including the apparently suicide of the last vicar, though something is just not adding up. Rev. Brooks is trained in theology, not crime detection, but she may have to do a little of both to stay one step ahead of those who wish to see her fail in this new placement. A great story that pulls the reader in many directions!

There’s nothing like a story that has all the elements of a great mystery without needing the traditional characters to solve it. No police force or nationwide criminal investigators to poke their heads in, but simply a handful of townsfolk who come together and reveal their own ideas. C. J. Tudor does well to build up these sorts of stories and this was another winner. Gripping, yet still realistic, there are elements of the occult within that keep the reader slightly jarred throughout the slow reveal of this novel’s central theme.

Jack Brooks offers readers a great protagonist role with much that pushes the boundaries of what’s to be expected. The name alone screams ‘unwilling to conform’, but that is only the start. Having fled some problems in her past parish, Brooks must reassert herself here and try to fend off all the spins the media has put to print, keeping her parishioners from pre-judging her too harshly. Alongside that, she’s working to help shape her daughter’s future without the assistance of a second parent, something that is discussed throughout the book. With all this and the mysteries of Chapel Croft, Rev. Brooks may have bitten off more than she can chew throughout this experience.

C.J. Tudor presents a handful of exceptional secondary characters who not only complement the protagonist, but also add depth to the story as a whole. The community is trying to come to grips with a long history of troubles, many of which they cannot solve on their own. Still, there is something about a small community that adds layers to the narrative, troubling and enlightening in equal measure. Tudor does well throughout to keep the action high and the revelations coming, using her characters effectively throughout the storytelling process.

I quite enjoyed the story, as I often do when C.J. Tudor is leading the way. These are not your traditional crime thrillers or procedurals, but rather pieces where the reader must pull back the layers as the narrative gains momentum. New characters each time force the reader to connect and seek to explore each personal backstory they find intriguing, as the chapters flow and the story takes on a mind of its own. Great character development allows the mysteries of Chapel Croft to come to life, while history rears its ugly head throughout the experience. Standalone novels appear to be the way C.J. Tudor chooses to go, showing the reader how effective they can be in the hands of a stellar writer.

Kudos, Madam Tudor, for another winner. I can always be promised something thought provoking when I pick up one of your books. I only wonder what’s next and wait with anticipation.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Hiding Place, by C.J. Tudor

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, C.J. Tudor, and Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After the great success of her debut novel, C.J. Tudor returns with another psychological thriller that straddles two time periods to bring readers an enthralling novel. Joe Thorne left the village of Arnhill after a problematic childhood that included some tragic personal events. Now, armed with a teaching degree and having fled his last posting under a cloud of suspicion, Thorne is back to teach at the local academy. While many years have passed, Arnhill seems to still be the same speck on the map, with the problems flowing through to the next generation. As Thorne tries to acclimate himself to old grievances, he is reminded about his sister and her desire to chum along with him when she was a precocious eight. As he has memories of the events that led to her disappearance, Joe sees things differently and remembers the great changes in Annie when she turned up two days later. This led to an Annie he did not recognize, which snowballed into a fatal car accident that left Thorne orphaned. Struggling with those memories and how to handle his new crop of students, Joe Thorne’s recent past catches up to him and creates a gaping void. However, someone holds the truth to his past and a deep secret that he has spent decades trying to hide. With nothing to lose, Joe Thorne forges to rectify some of the pains of his youth and avenge Annie’s disappearance at the hands of another, while burying everything else a little deeper. Tudor presents another masterful psychological thriller that keeps the reader guessing as the story unravels at break-neck speed. Recommended for those who enjoyed her debut, as well as readers who like a little chill in their novels.

I admit that I was not as enveloped in Tudor’s opening novel as some, but I did find there to be some redeeming qualities, which is why I was happy to return for another go. Tudor makes no excuses for her writing style, which mixes a well-balanced narrative and flashback chapters to fill in the backstory gaps. Joe Thorne has an interesting role in this novel, living in both the past and present, while offering the reader a smorgasbord of development and backstory on which to feast. While he is a loner of sorts, the reader can see a Joe who has a purpose, even if it is fogged in an odd connection to his sister who died in a horrible crash many years ago. Many of the other characters prove useful vessels, both to propel the flashback sequences forward and to offer sober revisiting in their older incarnations. Tudor does well to keep the reader involved while also keeping large gaps out of the narrative. The guesswork left to the reader is interesting, though there are some nagging aspects that plague the narrative until the final chapters, rectifying an entire story’s worth of confusing in a single reveal. Tudor paces her story well and keeps the reader on edge, only pushing the final piece into place in time for the reader to catch their breath and end the intense novel.

Kudos, Madam Tudor, for another winner. I quite enjoyed this piece and hope others will find as many chills as I did throughout.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Chalk Man, by C.J. Tudor

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, C. J. Tudor, and Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

After being hooked my the premise of this book and noticing the extensive ARC review activity this novel received, I was drawn in to see if Tudor’s book met the hype. Eddie Adams lives what might be a typical twelve year-old life, with a number of friends who have taken it upon themselves to explore the world around them. During the summer of 1986, they attend a local fair and Eddie is witness to a horrible accident, where he meets a man who will soon become a teacher at their school, Mr. Halloran. For the rest of the summer, Eddie and his friends begin using a new form of communication, leaving messages in coloured chalk. There also seems to be someone who wants to up the ante and draws random chalk figures around town. When a number of other tragedies occur, there is always a chalk man left at the scene, or appearing soon thereafter, leaving Eddie to wonder who might be behind all this. Fast forwarding to 2016, Ed is now a grown man and have become a teacher himself. When one of his friends approaches him to write a book about the summer of ‘86, the memories begin to flood back. Threads left dangling are soon tied off as Ed is able to process some of the activities and seeks to better understand who might have been The Chalk Man. Forced to deal with his past and how the filter of adulthood synthesises events, Ed Adams comes to terms with what has happened, while finding new mysteries to leave him feeling ill at ease. Tudor does a decent job here to entice readers with the alternating chapters from 1986 and 2016, telling a dual narrative that meld together at the most opportune times. Those who like a mix of flashbacks and current day may enjoy this piece, though it did not leave me as spine-tingled as I might have suspected, based on the dust cover summary. That being said, what a great ending!

This being C.J. Tudor’s debut novel, I had little but the aforementioned hype to base my opinion on her work. Tudor has laid the groundwork for something sensational here and has moments of brilliance in the form of a creepy aspect, though I somehow felt the story fell short of being as chilling as it seeks to be. The characters found throughout develop well, using both the current and backstory building blocks that are supported with the alternating timeline chapters. Eddie Adams finds himself in the middle of the action and his coming of age occurs throughout the narrative, complemented by a cast of differentiated friends, all of whom have their own quirks. The looming Mr. Halloran and Reverend Martin characters provide additional chill factors, though the potential for true fear in the form of The Chalk Man is left too diluted or on the wayside. That is not to say the story is poor, for it definitely has some strong aspects and Tudor does her best to draw the reader in, if only to see how that summer shaped Eddie for the long-haul. Additionally, the narrative keeps the reader bouncing around, filling in gaps as the plot thickens. Mysteries left dangling find their resolution and new ones emerge, which keeps the reader on track with enjoying the book to the finish. I suppose I got caught up in the hype and the buzz of Goodreads tossing out so many stellar reviews that I feel slightly deflated. What I sought was a bone-chilling novel to keep me up well into the night. I received a decent story that develops well, though lacks the eerie quality that might have been present, given time and some slight changes to the plot’s path.

Kudos, Madam Tudor, for a great novel. Your debut piece shows me that there is potential there and I will certainly tackle another of your books, when you write your next novel.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons