While trying to put my review together for this tour, I was trying to think whether I’ve ever read anything published by Orenda Books that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. I do choose my books – I’m not really a big crime reader, so there’s a large chunk of their catalogue that I haven’t tried. But they’re a simply wonderful publisher with a wide range of the highest quality output and something to delight everyone – and I’d place Exquisite by Sarah Stovell particularly high on my scale of personal delight. Available for kindle, in paperback and audio, this was a very different psychological thriller that captured my imagination from the moment I read the advance information:
Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.
Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…
Or does it?
Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.
There are certain elements within books that I find totally irresistible. One is a strong sense of place – and the Lake District setting of this book is beautifully described and integral to the story – but, perhaps above all else, I love an unreliable narrator. And in this wonderful book, we have two – both with different perceptions of what is real, different takes on the truth, contrasting accounts of the same events. And when that’s wrapped up with a searing sexual tension – but also the real minutiae of everyday life to ground the story in the comfortable and familiar – and written in the most exquisite (sorry…) flowing and readable prose, it made this remarkable book one of the best I’ve read this year.
It’s very rarely that I read a book from cover to cover (and what a cover…!) in a single sitting these days, but this was one that I just couldn’t bear to put down until I’d finished (and wow, such a magnificent ending!). It was a gloriously uncomfortable read – atmospheric, claustrophobic, immaculately paced. Both women were perfectly drawn – people you might just know, but with depths and secrets that, when uncovered, take your breath away. The supporting characters really worked too – Alice’s feckless boyfriend, Bo’s husband and the tedium of their marriage – but it’s the two women who constantly draw your eye as you wonder exactly what it is that’s playing out between them. I loved the book’s structure too: the passages from the unnamed woman prisoner – looking for forgiveness – that punctuate the story were desperately intriguing, revealing little and piling on the tension. There were times when I thought I had it all worked out and could see where the story was going despite the unreliability of the telling – but then the thread disappeared and I was guessing again.
Absolutely superb – and without a moment’s hesitation, one of my books of the year.
My thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books and to Anne Cater for my advance reading e-copy, and for inviting me to be part of this tour. You will catch up on and follow the other posts, won’t you?
About the author
Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, is set in the Lake District.
Follow her on Twitter at @Sarahlovescrime.