Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book Review - Charlotte Says by Alex Bell

Do you like your novels with creepy little dolls and atmospheric settings? Then this is your story.

Charlotte Says is a prequel to the popular Frozen Charlotte novel from 2015. Not having read the previous instalment, I went into this knowing nothing about the storyline or characters, and I can honestly say I don't think it made any difference. This could easily be read as a standalone story.

A historical novel, this is set in 1901, with our main character Jemima excepting a job at an All Girls industrial school in the Isle of Skye following the death of her mother and step father in mysterious circumstances. Soon after her arrival an usual package arrives from Charlotte's former home which contains a number of Frozen Charlotte dolls. As mysterious occurrences start to happen, Jemima starts to suspect that the dolls may be more dangerous than they first appear.

There's instantly a feeling of foreboding and dread that surrounds the school, and the headmistress is as despicable as you would expect her to be. At times this felt almost like a Frances Hodgeson Barnett novel, with the descriptions of down trodden girls, awful maids and slave labour. I found I had a lot of fondness for all of the girls at the school, especially Estella the outcast of the group. This obviously helped a great deal as the novel progressed and they become more deeply entrenched in the dolls 'games' and misfortunes. I cared greatly about what would happen to the girls, and became anxious when they appeared to be in peril.

The introduction of dolls is cleverly done, and really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It involves the basement lit only by candlelight and giggling. It's creepy, and scary and the author clearly knows how to set a scene and make the reader feel unnerved. This continues as the story develops, as the dolls get more adventurous in the toy room during the night and as they start to explore the dolls house.

As we move deeper into the novel, the story starts to flit between past and present. We see how Jemima came to be at Whiteladies, her former home, and how the accident with her mother occurred. I would have liked to have spent more time with these chapters as they're short, rather than have them interrupt the flow of the present story so much. Having said that, most of the novel is well paced, with plenty of action and no side stories to get distracted by. All of the focus is on the dolls, and the plot progresses quickly, which is great.

The only aspect I didn't particularly warm to in the novel was Jemima's relationship with Henry. Henry seemed a little useless at times, not really acting as any real help in times of distress, and he often came across as a bit wet. He wasn't as strong a character as Jemima and the girls, and his undying love for Jemima seemed a little far fetched considering he hasn't seen her in a number of years.  However, that said their relationship plays more of a secondary role to the plot, so didn't ruin the story for me too much.

The conclusion is satisfying and very open ended, which helps it work as a prequel. I was surprised that this is aimed at a young adult audience however, as some of the final scenes are a bit graphic in their depiction of violence. I would be cautious before letting younger readers read this. For me though, I'm already set to read Frozen Charlotte ready for Halloween season.

 - 4 stars

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