Book Review: Black Wood by SJI Holliday

Title: Black Wood
Author:  SJI Holliday
Publisher: Black and White Publishing
Publication Date: 25 February 2015

Twitter: @SJIHolliday

Rating: 4 out of 5


“He spots the two girls through the cracked screen of beech, sycamore and leg-scratching gorse: a flash of red skirt and a unison of giggles . . . The smaller girl sees him first and she lets out a strange little squeak and jumps back, grabbing onto the other girl’s T-shirt, revealing a flash of milky white shoulder.
He grins.”

Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. 

Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant David Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun. But what is the connection between Jo’s visitor and the masked man? 
To catch the assailant, and to give Jo her long-awaited justice, Gray must unravel a tangled web of past secrets, broken friendship and tainted love. But can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?


Black Wood is a psychological thriller and, in my opinion, a brilliant debut novel from SJI Holliday.
The book is set in a small town in Scotland, the kind of village where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows your business! This provides a very claustrophobic setting for the story and invokes an ominous feeling right from the very start. I enjoyed Holliday’s style of writing, with the short chapters and descriptive paragraphs; I could feel the sense of foreboding rising up from the pages.
The timeline alternates between the past and the present, allowing the plot to progress sharply whilst filling the reader into the background to the events on that fateful day in the woods. The narration switches point-of-view between chapters, however the switches between characters are clearly marked and cause no confusion for the reader.  
The plot focuses on several of the town’s mysteries that are intertwined and unveiled throughout the story. The underlying theme of the story focuses on traumatic events that occur in childhood and the impact those traumas can have into adulthood. As circumstances cause Jo’s memories to come flooding back, she is overwhelmed with thoughts and questions from that traumatic event 20 years earlier. She feels compelled to investigate and to find out what really happened to her and Claire all those years ago.
The cast is made up of several interesting, if not overly likeable characters. Jo is the main protagonist and a very flawed one at that. Underneath a capable exterior, she is an emotional mess – sometimes obnoxious, sometimes needy and really quite unpredictable. I enjoy books in which the narrators can be deemed to be unreliable, as I think they make for a more interesting story in general since we cannot fully trust their perceived version of events. Sergeant Davie Gray was probably the most likeable of the characters for me. He is the local police sergeant, strong, solid, clever and somewhat bored in a low-crime town. He is protective of Jo and yet, like the reader, is aware of her unreliability when she believes to have seen the man involved in the earlier events that left her so traumatised.
There are some fairly disturbing moments in the story, most of which arise from the Boy’s chapters and pertaining largely to his collection of dead animals. Whilst his thoughts do invoke a great deal of sympathy for his start in life, I could not help but feel equally repulsed by his thoughts at times. Those chapters had a very dark tone and certainly made me suspect a serial-killer in the making!
The story is quite pacey and I could feel the tension and suspense increasing page by page. The plot twists and turns in a way that sustains the tension within the story and keeps you guessing until the very end as to how the story will pan out. I found myself on the edge of my seat in places. I find anything to do with woods especially creepy, possibly a throwback to childhood stories of monsters lurking behind trees!
Black Wood is a great story and a real treat to read. It is well-paced, atmospheric and very tense. I loved the twists and turns and found myself gripped from the start. I would highly recommend the book to fans of psychological thrillers.
I am very grateful to Black and White Publishing for providing me with a copy of Willow Walk, the second in SJI Holliday’s Banktoun Trilogy (released on Kindle on 5 May 2016 or in paperback on 10 June 2016) and I now cannot wait to get stuck into that second book!
About the Author

SJI Holliday grew up in East Lothian. A life-long fan of crime and horror, her short stories have been published in various places, and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham competition. She is married and lives in London. 

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