Navigating the balance between familiar and fresh can be tricky business, but with her debut crime fiction title, Black Wood, SJI Holliday makes it look easy. Black Wood is one of those novels that employs the use of unreliable memory as a device to heighten the mystery and suspense.

Twenty-three years ago, something happened in Black Wood that left two friends forever scarred: Jo has trouble trusting people, while Claire is physically paralyzed. These two women have made efforts to maintain their connection, but the psychological impact of what happened to them does not make that process easy. It certainly doesn’t help that Claire can’t remember exactly what occurred and authorities doubt what Jo has been telling them for years.

In the present day, Jo is working at a local bookstore when one of the men she says is responsible for the events that transpired in Black Wood comes in to shop. Triggering memories of that fateful day, Jo makes it her mission to expose Gareth Maloney’s secrets. Local Sergeant Davie Gray still questions what Jo is claiming and is too busy trying to solve another string of strange attacks taking place in the small English town of Banktoun.

If this sounds like a familiar trope of the genre, this is probably part of SJI Holliday’s plan. She lulls readers into a sense of familiarity and ease only to rip away those security blankets as each new secret is revealed. Elements are sure to turn out the way crime fiction fans expect, but getting there hardly takes the standard route and the ride is unforgettable.

In Jo, Holliday has crafted a fascinating character filled with multitudinous layers. The chapters that flashback to the past confirm for readers that perhaps not everything Jo is remembering is accurate, but clearly something happened in Black Wood and healing can only happen once all is revealed.

Reading Black Wood hardly takes any effort at all. The writing is so smooth and engaging that the pages simply fly by. As a debut, this shows a rare gift for storytelling and a knack for knowing just when to flout expectations. Fortunately, Black Wood is the first of the Banktoun trilogy, so readers have other tales to look forward to. The second book, Willow Walk, is already available.


Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.