I usually save stories like this for the colder months, when I can hole up under the duvet and scare the crap out of myself in the semi-darkness. But this one seemed like it would be good and child, I have nothing but time on my hands right now – so no putting things off for a more appropriate time.

Pine by Francine Toon

Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she’s gone.

In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren’s mother a decade ago.

Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father’s turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it’s no longer clear who she can trust.

Ten-year-old Lauren and her father Niall bump into the mysterious woman on a winding country road late one night. They take her back to their home, warm her up and feed her – but in the morning she’s gone and Niall has no recollection of any of it. Lauren is convinced she didn’t dream it all and is more convinced than ever when she keeps spotting the same woman, though nobody else seems to be able to see her.

Meanwhile, she deals with bullying at school and tries to work out why the villagers are always whispering behind her and her father’s backs. She has an ally in her pal Billy, whose family are always on hand to pick her up when Niall isn’t up to it, which is more and more frequently these days. Niall for his part, is still devastated by the loss of Lauren’s mother Christine, who left suddenly when she was just a baby.

Unable, or perhaps unwilling to move on, he’s finally interested in the new GP, Catriona – though her attitude towards him is decidedly chilled, based no doubt on village hearsay.

Lauren tries to glean information about her mother from Niall but he’s unwilling to talk about her – so she turns to local older girls, best-friends Diane and Ann-Marie for answers. The girls look out for Lauren and vow to help her where they can. But when Ann-Marie goes missing, last seen in the company of Niall, Lauren looses grip on who she can trust. And, is Ann-Marie’s disappearance connected to what happened to her mother? What if she didn’t leave them after all?

This novel is best described as ‘atmospheric’. It’s certainly a page-turner and the did-he-didn’t-he? story-line is gripping. I went back and forth on how I thought it would turn out, praying out loud that Niall would prove himself to be the good person his daughter hopes he is. The decade old missing mum story is fascinating and I love the tension built around Niall and his complicated feelings for his wife, the descriptions of his dreams and hallucinations are so vivid and really set a tone. The wild setting suits this ghost story so perfectly and it gives off seriously witchy vibes, which of course is a bit of me.

Lauren is a wonderful character, mystic and open in a way I never was at the same age. I love the comfort she gets from her mother’s battered old tarot cards – and the spells she takes from an old journal, passed down by generations of the women in her family. Women I wish she knew.

I feel like, although this is set hundreds of miles away from where I grew up, that I can relate to those small-town feelings. The mild bullying, the rumours, the folklore about local families. Every town must have these and it’s comforting somehow.

I’m a fan of this book and I’m intrigued to read what Francine writes next. I’d also like to revisit Lauren sometime and see how she’s fared in life. Just fine I would hope.

4/5

What are you reading?