Sunday, 17 April 2016

Emma's Review: The Daughters of Red Hill Hall by Kathleen McGurl

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

When Gemma discovers a pair of ancient duelling pistols encrusted with rubies in the basement of the local museum, she is immediately intrigued…

On a fateful night in 1838 two sisters were found shot in the cellars of Red Hill Hall. And when Gemma begins to delve deeper into their history she begins to realise that the secrets of that night are darker than anyone had ever imagined.

As the shocking events of the past begin to unravel, Gemma’s own life starts to fall apart. Loyalties are tested and suddenly it seems as if history is repeating itself, as Gemma learns that female friendships can be deadly…

Amazon link: Kindle

I first heard of Kathleen McGurl last year when I read and adored her novel The Pearl Locket. Kathleen is a fresh new voice in historical fiction and really deserves great acclaim and to be read and enjoyed by many people. With this new story The Daughters of Red Hill Hall she has once again proven to me what an incredibly talented author she is, one who has the knack of spinning a tale which you can readily lose yourself in. The opening page mentions this book would be ideal for fans of Rachel Hore and Kate Morton and I couldn't agree more as I love those aforementioned authors and I believe the comparisons are very well deserved. Kathleen's books use the similar method of the time slip element which I love in books as I enjoy the mixing of the past with the present. It is a method I never grow tired of once it is done well and sits suitably within the overall storyline and development of the book. 

The blurb for this new novel sounded really interesting and I was intrigued that the book was set way back in 1838 and not during either of the world wars as I had recently read an influx of books set during that time period and needed a change. I was surprised to read how the novel grew from a prologue Kathleen had written for an end of term competition in a writing class. It just goes to show how an idea can spring from out of nowhere but I am glad this happened otherwise her fans would have missed out on a fantastic read. Shocking events of the past were about to unravel in the present and it suddenly appeared as if once again history was about to repeat itself. I was curious as to just what this could be and how the main character Gemma could do her best to prevent things happening once again.

The prologue was powerful and took us back to a significant event in 1838. The writing was detailed, descriptive and emotive. Two women face a stand off that will leave lives irrevocably changed forever. But a question was sparked just how had they gotten themselves into that situation in the first place? Even within those few short pages the author had me hooked and I felt this way throughout the book. I don't like anything where too much is revealed too soon or even at the midway point because then I often find authors have no where left to go once the big event has happened. This didn't happen here at all, there wasn't anything dragged out or solved too early. Instead Kathleen takes us on a journey full of secrets, suspicion and intrigue one in which you never knew what the outcome could be. Yes you may have had your suspicions but they weren't confirmed or denied until right near the very end which is just as a book with this sort of plot-line should be. 

Each chapter alternates between the 1800's and 2015 and once I knew this was going to happen I settled easily into the story. I don't think the book would have had the same effect if it had been split into significant sections detailing the past and the present. What was clever that as the book progressed we read of events occurring in the past through newspaper articles, archives, letters or diary entries as Gemma uncovers the scandal and secrets. Then we were taken right back to the point in time at Red Hill Hall to read first hand accounts as to what was going on. I really loved this as it gave the reader a really good overall picture with which they could form their own opinions and viewpoints. Often I find one area stronger than the other when reading a time slip novel and that leaves me frustrated and disappointed but here the past and the present were as strong as each other and you were eager to get back to either Gemma or Rebecca and see how things were developing. Kathleen deserves great credit for achieving a strong balance between the two storylines as they truly did gel well together and did not read as two distinctively separate storylines rather as one overall bigger picture with jealousy, suspicion and cold-heartedness at their centre.

Gemma Rowling works as an archivist in a small museum in the little town of Bridhampton. Whilst cataloguing numerous books for display she comes across a pair of ruby encrusted duelling pistols donated by a lady who claims they were used in the infamous shooting in Red Hill Hall in the 1830's. Of course Gemma is eager to discover the history behind the guns and asks her boss Roger can she undertake some further research in the hopes of putting them on display in the museum with a little piece as to their history. Gemma sets about delving into the past and uncovering the remarkable if tragic story of two girls who grew up together yet jealousy, evil, bitterness and mistrust find their roots and take hold and a tangled web is spun. Gemma herself is happy in her life although admittedly cataloguing fossils is getting a little wearing but now that the pistols have come to light her job proves to be all the more interesting. The only thing is then her personal life takes a sinister turn for the worst. The more she delves into the story of Rebecca and Sarah the more strange, unusual things start to happen to her and the more a prevailing sense of unease and tension came over me that something bad was going to happen. It almost became a thriller of sorts (which I normally don't like) but the author did a brilliant job of keeping the reader guessing and turning the pages. In fact at times I wanted to scream at Gemma, and also Rebecca in the past, come on see the light, don't believe everything you see or that is said to you. Stand up for yourselves, take action not the blame.

After over seven years with her boyfriend Ben Gemma has just recently become engaged. This is everything she had wished for and she now believes her personal life is nothing but positive and she can look forward to planning her wedding. Best friends with Nat since they were small the pair have been through everything together and can always share a laugh and a good night out. So just why is Nat's reaction to the engagement not what you would expect from your best friend? Someone with whom you have shared all your secrets, have listened to their advice and weathered many ups and downs together. Suddenly Nat is acting all strange and aloof and Gemma feels she can no longer confide in her. Nat remained very much an enigma throughout the novel we never heard from her point of view but we weren't left short of details as to how she was reacting to things or treating people. A series of events left me disgusted on Gemma's behalf and I felt she was so hard done by regarding several situations. On the other hand was Gemma just that bit too gullible and forgiving and in some instances she seemed to take things lying down instead of putting up more of a fight. But maybe she had more investigating to do before she could confront the issues emerging head on.

Back in the 1800's the author did a superb job of setting the scene at Red Hill Hall and the events surrounding the Winton family. Rebecca was an only child but grew up in the company of the housekeepers daughter Sarah. There had always been suspicion as to who Sarah's father was but the young girls spent many a happy hour playing together and receiving an education. On the death of Sarah's mother she is kept on at the hall and continues to live with Rebecca. Here is where similarities with the present begin to make themselves known as Sarah starts to become distant and not as friendly as she once was towards Rebecca. Obviously there is alot more than first meets the eye as to what could be going on as the author takes the reader on a journey over several years. Tragedy and misfortune strike Rebecca and her family and the reader can do nothing but watch on in frustration and at times horror at what unfolds. To have such a happy life take so many uncertain and devious turns is not pleasant and you cannot help but sympathy for Rebecca at her life being turned upside down when everything had been so clearly mapped out for her. Sarah proves to be a person who is very persuasive and manipulative and your loathing of her grows ever more the further we progress into the book. She presents one side to certain people yet behind closed doors she is evil and cunning with bitterness and hatred at her centre. There was a far bigger plot ongoing than the reader could have possibly realised. Around the half way point I briefly questioned whether the author reveal things too soon but no I was proven wrong as the book was moving up a gear and there were surprises galore to be revealed. I never quite just how it was going to turn out and to be kept guessing is a bonus. The author had this book well plotted out with a clear beginning, middle and end and the secrets and twists kept you alert and engaged throughout. I did think why was there a certain fuss around the owner of Red Hill Hall in the present now it was a hotel but it turned out to be a lovely thoughtful touch.

I devoured The Daughters of Red Hill Hall in two sittings and think it showed off the many talents of Kathleen McGurl to perfection. I got a lot more than I bargained for than when I first thought I would and I say that in a positive light. So many questions were raised and it made me think about friendships and the pressure they can face and also the problems that can arise if someone hides their true feelings and allows them to manifest themselves into something which could lead to devastating consequences. I loved the thriller element and the guessing games throughout. I can't say I liked all the characters obviously there were people we were meant to abhor and my god I did. Really the whole book was just so cleverly done establishing connections and similarities between characters and events past and present and I haven't read anything like this before. It provided a whole new slant to the time slip element and I enjoyed it very much. The author clearly enjoyed writing this book and playing around with her characters as it showed through the powerful storyline which had such intensity making it a very compelling read. There is a huge influx of historical fiction with the time slip element out there at the moment but truly Kathleen McGurl should not be an author who you let slip through the net. She is going from strength to strength and I can only imagine what treats she may have in store for us with her next novel.

Many thanks to Carina UK for our copy of The Daughters of Red Hill Hall which we received via NetGalley to review.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much, Emma and Sharon, for this wonderful review! Much appreciated.