Welcome to the nbmagazine.co.uk stop on the blog tour for Violet by SJI Holliday!

Here’s a little info about the book:

Carrie’s best friend has an accident and can no longer make the round-the-world trip they’d planned together, so Carrie decides to go it alone.

Violet is also travelling alone, after splitting up with her boyfriend in Thailand. She is desperate for a ticket on the Trans-Siberian Express, but there is nothing available.

When the two women meet in a Beijing Hotel, Carrie makes the impulsive decision to invite Violet to take her best friend’s place.

Thrown together in a strange country, and the cramped cabin of the train, the women soon form a bond. But as the journey continues, through Mongolia and into Russia, things start to unravel – because one of these women is not who she claims to be…

And about author SJI Holliday:

S.J.I. (Susi) Holliday is a scientist, writing coach and the bestselling author of five crime novels, including the Banktoun Trilogy (Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly), the festive chiller The Deaths of December and her creepy Gothic psychological thriller The Lingering. Her short story ‘Home From Home’ was published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and shortlisted for the CWA Margery Allingham Prize. Encapsulating her love of travel and claustrophobic settings, her latest novel, Violet, explores toxic friendships and the perils of talking to strangers, as well as drawing on her own journey on the Trans-Siberian Express over 10 years ago. All of her novels have been UK ebook number-one bestsellers. Susi was born and
raised in Scotland and now divides her time between Edinburgh, London and as many other exciting places that she can fit in.

And here’s Paul Burke’s review of Violet:

Halfway round the world two girls travelling alone in an unfamiliar landscape form a friendship, they become very close, but both of them are hiding something and one of them isn’t who she says she is. This psychological thriller is clever, modern and, above all, gripping.

Every good psychological crime novel preys upon the reader’s mind, we are victim to the author’s suggestion, Othello to Iago’s poison. Holliday loves to play on that, she takes little worries and insecurities and unlocks the mechanism that keeps them in check in your mind. Violet creates doubt and uncertainty, suspicion and fear out of friendship and adventure (wicked!). Our own darker concerns are weaponized against us and it’s glorious fun.

‘The body lies broken on the dusty, potholed track.’

The setting is a dark alleyway at the back of a third-rate Russian hotel bathed only in the dim light from one of the rooms. A hooded man asks the young woman a second time to explain the body lying in a pool of blood. He fell, she says, he was climbing across the balconies, he was getting nearer to theirs, they shouted, threatened him with the police, he laughed: ‘Let me in little piggy…’ But he lost his grip.

The hooded man wants to know what is ‘Leetle peeg?’, so she tells him it’s a nursery rhyme as if that would suddenly make sense to the Russian, to the dead man? So why doesn’t she go to the police, he wants to know. She’s heard bad things she says (about Russians in general but she doesn’t say that). Can he make it go away, the corpse? Yes, of course, but first he unbuttons his trousers and steps towards her, he puts his hand on her head, pushes her to her knees. She can do this.

It’s a descriptive scene, so vivid it’s pungent, the tone is set for the whole novel (it’s much more evocative than my précis). The easy but implausible lies are already flowing, the matter of fact brutality, cold, fear and cruelty, it turns your stomach, it’s disturbing. This is the second psychological novel I’ve tackled today, the first I hated but this, this is exciting, I’m already drawn in by the dark tones, the stylish storytelling.

We go back to where it all started, Beijing, smog laden, noisy, busy. The narrator regrets leaving Sam behind in Bangkok but he was being such a dick. Her backpack has gone missing somewhere and she feels lonely but trying to get back with Sam would smack of desperation. He didn’t want to stick to her schedule, got swayed by the young girls, the German tourists and the cheap booze. She makes her way to the foreign travel centre at the international rail terminal, she wants to go to Moscow. There’s a blond girl at the counter who can’t get a refund on a spare ticket for the Trans-Siberian Express, however, it is transferable if she can find someone who wants it. Next at the counter the narrator finds that the assistant is closing for the day, there are no more seats on the next train anyway. Deflated she sees the blond girl sitting at a bar with a beer. She introduces herself ‘I’m Violet’. She tells Carrie that she is heading to Moscow to meet up with friends, it’s a lie. The girls share a few drinks.

The girls laugh, get drunk, Carrie is Scottish, Violet from Nottingham. Eventually Carrie asks Violet to join her on the train, Carrie even calls her V, it’s endearing. Carrie keeps in touch by email with Laura, the friend who couldn’t make the trip because of a broken leg. The first stage of the journey is Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, then on to Irkutsk and Moscow before flying to Berlin. Along the way there are boys, men, grotty hotel rooms, drugs, dangerous adventurers and risky behaviour that will make you shudder. All the time the girls are getting closer but the friendship is fraught, things begin to turn sour. Both girls are hiding dark secrets and one of them is a psychopath!

Having established a bleak atmosphere with the prologue Holliday then builds a picture of the relationship between the two girls. The past bleeds into the story and we are constantly having to rethink what we know of them. We are wary of the developing relationship between them but that’s not the only thing going on, we fear for them both, they take terrifying risks. The tension mounts as we anticipate things going wrong, an event that will be the catalyst for Carrie and Violet’s break up. Holliday let’s us in on which girl is the psychopath is but the other girl has a troubling story too and so there’s plenty of nuance.

Holliday takes the BFF idea and twists it into something sinister, there is something darkly comic in the way she explores the relationship between the girls, at times it’s very witty. The story plays out in Violet’s head and the way she sees events is not necessarily as they are, the unreliable narrator adds a lot of fun to the tale. Violet is loaded with suspense the storytelling is tightly contained, beautifully restrained, hinting at the explosions to come. There is Patricia Highsmith as a modern tale.

The journey and the train ride are a perfect setting for this psychological thriller, toxic sure but also deliciously entertaining.

Paul Burke 4/5

Voilet by SJI Holliday
Orenda Books 9781912374854 pbk Nov 2019