Highlights in the Charts
Penance by Eliza Clark
Reviewed by Arabella Peets
A work of fiction disguised as true crime, Penance recounts the shocking murder of a schoolgirl in a northern seaside town. Taking place the night of the Brexit referendum, it drew little attention in the media and so was quickly forgotten by those outside the small town of Crow-On-Sea.
After his last few books failing to further his career, true crime journalist Alec Carelli thinks he has hit the jackpot when he comes across this story in the depths of the internet. Determined to make his next book a success, he chooses this story and begins to research. Penance is his account of what happened.
While researching for this book, Carelli moves to Crow-On-Sea, interviews the victim’s family and friends, and digs deep into the crime to build a compelling picture of what happened. But with so little information of which to go off, how much of this book is true?
This book is another deconstruction of society’s love for true crime, and after reading (and loving) Notes On An Execution earlier this year, I was interested to see how this would work. I thought it portrayed true crime fandoms' impact on young minds really well, particularly when it’s an important topic to talk about right now.
I love an unreliable narrator, so reading an entire account without knowing what was and wasn’t true, especially in the context of a murder case, was exhilarating.
It has been a long time since I read a book with a story that is so engaging and characters that are so reminiscent of those from my own teenage years. The character development, in particular, was so strong that I found myself incredibly eager to know their “real” stories, and wishing that we had the “true” account of what happened alongside Carelli’s fabrication.
Even though this was the first of her books that I have read, this has made me fall in love with Clark as a writer, and I am really looking forward to anything she publishes in the future.
Death of a Bookseller by Alice Slater
Reviewed by Jenna Tomlinson
True crime, or rather society's rapture for true crime, has always taken the media by storm, whether it's the latest documentary series, a chilling drama or a thrilling read for a cold day. I love autumn, but an autumn day with a crime novel is another level for me. In that sense, Death of a Bookseller does not disappoint and the slurry of rave reviews it is receiving does not shock me.
Told as a dual narrative switching between the point of views of Brogan Roach and Laura Bunting, Death of a Bookseller takes place in Walthamstow amongst the shelves of a dwindling high street bookshop and on the streets of a town living in the shadow of a serial killing spree.
Brogan, informally known as “Roach,” is hooked on true crime, particularly serial killers. She spends her days monotonously clocking through her routine as a bookseller and her nights living in the shadow of her mother's role as landlady of a raucous late-night pub. Desperate to be seen as alternative, and to some extent interesting, Roach is dismissive of most people around her, describing them as “normies” and looking down on their mainstream choices and behaviours.
Laura is a stark contrast to this. Meticulously put together, Laura exudes femininity, with a seemingly effortless affinity for her role as a bookseller and her impression on others. However, Laura refuses to show that she is plagued by her mother's death and the memories of it that lie in Walthamstow Village. Beneath the facade of her matching outfits and carefully constructed routines, Laura is set on edge by Roach, and her acutely curated life starts to unravel under Roach's obsessive eye.
Both are unreliable narrators. Laura's drinking creates gaps in her memory which we can't always trust, and Roach's compulsive need for Laura's attention, and the lengths she is willing to go to in order to get it, mean her accounts are always skewed by her emotional state. But I loved this about the novel. It felt similar to Eliza Clark's Boy Parts and the tense, haunting tone reminded me of Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter. I was thrust into Roach's world and, from the moment Laura joined us, I was nervous for her, concerned about Roach's behaviour and willing Laura to be more careful, more guarded and more cognisant whilst around her.
I was also enraptured by the story of Laura's mother's death and the events surrounding it. Considering Slater created this crime for the novel, I found myself wanting to know more about it. Like Roach, Slater pulled me in with the “true crime” tale and I found myself getting nervously enraged when the characters were engaging in behaviours that could put them at risk: walking home alone after copious drinks, meeting strangers in poorly lit areas or forgetting to lock a door.
Slater's talent for writing is made abundantly clear in this novel. To create not only a novel but an entire backstory of crime and a serial killer – his victims and their backstories as well as the tales of their deaths – is no mean feat, which Slater has done without even the faintest crack. Her characters are so well-rounded and developed that I can see Laura in her carefully selected outfits, smell her rose perfume, and imagine how she peppers her conversations with elegant draws on rolled cigarettes. Likewise, I can see Roach, hidden behind her true crime novels; I can imagine her wild excitement at the latest gory crime story flashing on the news. I devoured this book in a single sitting and the ending left me hooked. I cannot wait to read what she writes next.