Unsettled Ground: A Novel by Claire Fuller

Sometimes, I reckon, we need something to come along and trip us up when we’re not expecting it. Otherwise, one day we’re kids playing with the hose pipe, and the next we’re laid out on an old door in the parlour.”

The incident that comes along and trips up twins Jeanie and Julius, aged 51, is the sudden, unexpected death of their mother Dot. The family of three have lived in “rural isolation and poverty” in a cottage since the death of the twins father when they were still children. It has been Dot who has faced all of life’s difficulties keeping her beloved children in a safe bubble. Dot, whose secrets are now going to force Jeanie and Julius out into the world, has kept them tied to the only home they’ve ever known, for better or worse. Jeanie has never been healthy enough to face the challenges of life, learning too was a struggle, unlike her brother who has been the one venture into town taking on jobs here and there, she has spent her life feeling this crumbling home is their only sanctuary. Debts have been collecting, all the things Dot sheltered and hid from her children are knocking at their door, as threatening as monsters. Figuring out how to afford to bury their mother is the least of their woes. Julius has never really had a relationship, and suddenly he thinks about a woman named Shelley Swift who has hired him to fix the window in her place above the fish shop. With their mother gone, his attention isn’t focused solely on whether or not they will lose the cottage, though it is a screaming fact that troubles him along with fears for his needy sibling. How has he let 51 years go by with nothing to show? It disturbs Jeanie, the time he is spending away from her but she isn’t his mother…it’s his life.

Suddenly, the locals don’t feel so forgiving, nor willing to let the pair go on living on their charity. Jeanie feels like their lives, their very way of existence, is being stolen from beneath their feet. Who is she without her daily routine, without her vegetable garden, without chickens to feed, without her mother Dot? Why didn’t they know their mother was sick, when it seems everyone else did? Suddenly every hour seems swollen with worries, all the things Dot protected them from has come home to roost. Jeanie and her brother Julius deal with it in different ways, distance grows between them testing their co-dependence. They will be humiliated and enraged by the actions of others, forced into a different life, lost in their new surroundings. Will they falter or thrive?

It seems like such a simple, quiet story, but the tale escalates with each challenge, every uncovered lie. How did they get through 51 years of life and never really know who their mother truly was? Why did they remain needy children far beyond an acceptable age, never forced to face reality? It gets a bit dark too, and sometimes the weakest link in the family chain is the one who life challenges the most. I was engaged, and admit there is a certain appeal to their self-inflicted isolation, keeping your beloved children near, but it’s a grievous wrong. You can’t hide from life, though they had quite a go of it for 51 years. Trouble will find you in every corner of the world. How much do we owe our family? What do we owe our children? One would think, at the very least, we owe them the ability to stand on their own two feet, if not our truths. Dot was quite a complicated lady. A novel of strength, loyalty and betrayal.

Publication Date: May 18, 2021

Tin House

The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

Nina and I studied each other. The adults watched us in silence, as if we were specimens being introduced in a zoo.

The Perfect Guests begins in the summer of 1988 with orphan Beth Soames being driven by her Aunt Caroline to meet the Averalls. If Marcus and Lenora’s daughter, Nina, takes to her she will become her companion. Maybe she will even be as welcome as a sister. They seem to have everything, class, money and love but it is love she has lost and longs for. She hasn’t begun to realize the importance the imposing, grand estate of Raven Hall will have on her life. If she can behave herself and fit in as her aunt urges, then she may be able to stay. Unwanted by her aunt after the car accident that took her parent’s lives, she longs for comfort and family, which she finds at the beautiful estate in East Anglian fens- a far cry from the children’s home she was sent to.

The girls become close, although the two are nothing alike, they soon begin sharing confidences with Nina even sharing her friend Jonas with Beth, cementing the acceptance she needs. Just as she is becoming accustomed to the family, Lenora and Marcus have a strange request, what could going along with it hurt, it’s for the best. Terrible things will happen, is it because she goes along with the couple’s silly game? Sadie does her best to please them even when she begins to notice suspicious actions. She doesn’t want to blow it, only to be sent away when she finally belongs but it is possible to ‘unsee’? Is it better not to question things? Does that make her party to deception? Is she tainted by tragedy?

2019 Sadie Langton’s acting jobs have been falling through but her agent Wendy has fantastic news. A murder mystery company wants Sadie which means no need to audition and the pay is beyond excellent for one weekend of work. She is invited to play a game… at Raven Hall. Supplied with vintage costumes to fill her role, instructions follow, if nothing else it’ll be fun and much needed money, surely her mother would agree, disappointed by her career choices as she is. She accepts not aware that at Raven Hall someone else is waiting, watching… lurking- are they taking the role too far? The other participants seem uncomfortable, suddenly it is all beginning to feel personal. Sadie learns about Raven Hall’s dark history and the ghost that remains after a once happy family abandoned it in the 1980s. Someone is pulling all their strings and there is so much Sadie doesn’t know about Raven Hall or even herself. A guest doesn’t return after she goes outside for a cigarette alarming everyone and other sinister things begin to occur- it’s dawning on Sadie that they aren’t pretending anymore. Will it cost Sadie her very life?

The past and present meet, family skeletons are released and it all boils down to inheritance and deception. It was a decent read, mostly I enjoyed the characters in the past, Beth and Sadie’s friendship. I didn’t expect the paths that the author took which were interesting, I also enjoy that every single character has their own intentions, even Beth at the beginning. It’s not bad to want a family and love, but who isn’t self-serving in some way? I would have liked more chapters about Sadie and her childhood as I didn’t feel as invested with her as I was with Beth. As a reader one of my pet peeves is each chapter going back and forth, I always feel it flows better with a part 1 and a part 2 into past and future but that’s a personal gripe. Other than that, Rous threw me off with the little deception Marcus and Lenora pulled because my mind was expecting something else entirely, so well done there. I enjoyed it even if it wasn’t as composed at the end.

Publication Date: January 12, 2021

Berkley Publishing Group