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This is the third novel I've read by Joolz Denby and was really looking forward to it as I absolutely loved the previous two. This is actually Joolz' second novel, and as the other two I read were written after it I did wonder if maybe this one wouldn't live up to her later offerings. Although I do think the later novels are slightly better, which is to be expected really, this novel did NOT disappoint and had me hooked from the first page.
The story is told in first person by Alma, whose marriage has just fallen apart in spectacular style, leaving her with almost nothing except the support of her two best friends, Millie and Maz, known collectively as the Em's. The Em's know the real Alma; they know that her life hasn't been easy. Her parents always favouring her prodigal brother and the hurt she suffered when her first serious relationship with the love of her life came to a bitter end. Alma knows she can rely on them, but this time the memories of her previous life are too much and Alma knows she needs to get away.
On a whim she decides to cut off her hair, pierce her lip, change her image and head to her parents villa in Spain for a few weeks to clear her head. On her return she plans to take up a masters degree and move into the spare flat above Millie's. Life will be good again, she just needs a break.
However Alma's life is changed beyond comprehension after she meets some people from the mysterious CDS Foundation. The locals call them a Cult and indeed the level-headed Alma tends to agree, after a chance visit to their Headquarters. But she soon finds out that her past is inexplicably linked to the Foundation and that they may hold some priceless information that could mean a lot to Alma. As she starts to spend more time there she warms to them. The people are friendly, accepting, kind and open. And when she faces the ultimate betrayal from those who were closest to her, she realises there is no one left to trust so she fully embraces the Foundation as a world away from the misery and pain of her old life.
However, is the Foundation all it seems? Alma soon learns that there is a gruesome price to pay in order to be a member, and that it is not all about love and spirituality as she was led to believe. When she finally witnesses the truth she puts her life in danger in a way she could never have imagined.
This story is about love, lies and betrayal and how those closest to you can betray you in ways you could never imagine. However it goes deeper than that and also shows that circumstances are not necessarily the way you imagine them to be. As Alma spends time with her ageing parents in Spain she comes to realise the real reasons as to why they were never there for her as a teenager. This is a dark story with some chilling scenes that will leave you reeling by the end.
The ending is suitably packed with suspense and I found myself desperately rooting for Alma until the last minute. The ending ties in perfectly with the book and the prose throughout is vivid and well written. There are a lot of shocks and revelations in the book but they are revealed in an appropriate manner so it never seems as if Joolz (or Alma) are deliberately trying to hold back information from us.
I definitely think Joolz' strongest talent is her ability to create such vivid characters. I could see them all so clearly (and in some cases smell them!) and could hear their voices so clearly it was as if they were standing next to me.
Alma is a wonderfully crafted character. She comes across as strong but has an intense streak of vulnerability that only her closest friends are aware of. When Alma is hurt by those closest to her, I felt for her as if she were a friend. Millie and Maz are fun as the chalk-and-cheese best friends; Maz is clearly a troubled soul aswell, which brings some of her erratic behaviour into perspective.
The members of the Foundation are well-created and come across as genuine people who really believe in what they are doing although it becomes clear that they all have their weaknesses. Joolz skilfully dictates Alma's change in faith as she becomes more embroiled in the Foundation and it's work, yet manages to keep her on the side of sanity.
Alma was believeable despite the seemingly bizarre situations she got herself into and she was a character that is easy to identify with.
This is an excellent, well written and well crafted novel that deals with out of the ordinary scenarios in a sensitive and appropriate manner. From the moment I started reading about Alma coming home to find a note in the kitchen, I was hooked on her story. I wanted to know what would happen to her and I wanted to know that she would be OK. There are some light moments in the story - some of Alma's observations are put across humorously - but on the whole this is a dark novel with some scenes that seems to have come straight from a nightmare. I would highly recommend it.
I have only given it 4 starts however as I feel Joolz' later 2 novels are better. If you're new to her work I would recommend you read "Billie Morgan" before this one.