The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

Today I am absolutely delighted to share my thoughts on The Writing Retreat, the fabulous debut novel from Julia Bartz. I was sent an early copy of the book by the lovely folk at Magpie/One World and I have to say, it’s a book that kept me completely hooked … and put me completely off the idea of taking part in any future writing opportunities, not matter how fantastic they sound. Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: 21 February 2023
Publisher: Magpie

About the Book

The dark, atmospheric, feminist offspring of Squid Game, The Hunting Party and Misery

A book deal to die for.

Five attendees are selected for a month-long writing retreat at the remote estate of Roza Vallo, the controversial high priestess of feminist horror. Alex, a struggling writer, is thrilled.

Upon arrival, they discover they must complete an entire novel from scratch, and the best one will receive a seven-figure publishing deal. Alex’s long-extinguished dream now seems within reach.

But then the women begin to die.

Trapped, terrified yet still desperately writing, it is clear there is more than a publishing deal at stake at Blackbriar Estate. Alex must confront her own demons – and finish her novel – to save herself.

This unhinged, propulsive, claustrophobic closed-door thriller will pull you in and spit you out…

My Thoughts

If something seems too good to be true, then it very likely is. That certainly seems to be the case when wannabe writer Alex wins a place on an exclusive writing retreat with author Roza Vallo. They also say, ‘don’t meet your heroes’, and never has a saying been more appropriate. This is the writing retreat from hell, and although it may sound idyllic to begin with, and the perfect setting in which to knuckle down and get writing, the remote location and the isolation that it brings turns out to be just another twisted adversary in a book which is beset with atmosphere, tension and an undulating sense of threat. It all grabbed my attention from the off and saw me devour the book in a single day. Put simply, I loved it.

We meet our protagonist, Alex, as she attends the book launch for her close friend. It’s a setting that should be positive, full of good cheer, but for Alex the tension is already building, along with the fear of coming face to face with her former flatmate and best friend, Wren. the cause of their split is not immediately clear, but when both budding authors secure a place on this exclusive retreat, you know that the tension is going to be off the charts … and that’s before the strange demands of Rosa Vallo are slowly revealed. Think less writing retreat, more boot camp. This is not going to be an easy ride, and there is a very sinister feel to the whole set up right from the start. Any setting where there is no phone signal or Wi-Fi …. well you know they are asking for trouble. And trouble is most certainly what they get.

I liked Alex as a character. Sure, there is an uncertainty about her, partly because of the fact the reason for her split with Wren remains a closely guarded secret for a good portion of the book. I felt like I wanted to trust her, but there is the question mark over her head, always making me feel just slightly on edge. Is she the innocent party or is there a kind of ‘single white female’ vibe going on. It was hard to know, and that uncertainty, made the whole set up between the characters kind of spiky. It suited the tone of the book perfectly and meant that I took nothing at face value, no matter how open some of the characters seemed. As for the hostess, Roza Vallo, her reputation as a Horror master is enough to get the skin prickling, but meeting her, seeing her in action, there was always a sense of doubt about her intentions and a mystique that went hand in hand with the snippets revealed about her personality.

This is a brilliantly pacy novel, one which kept me turning the pages all through the afternoon. I found myself trying to keep ahead of the big reveals, guessing and second guessing what might happen. Whilst some of the most suspect characters may have been flaunting their untrustworthy natures, it’s fair to say that there was plenty of deception and some antagonists were hiding in plain sight, whilst other characters were hiding secrets that provided key to the whole story. As you might expect, due to the setting and Roza Vallo’s chosen genre, there is a kind of horror tinged edge to the story, not too dark, but enough to maintain that feeling of unease. The setting is creepy, the sprawling estate with the hint of long held secrets, and it intensifies the sense of unrest that underlies the main action. As we approach the end of the story, the pacing really picks up and the shock reveals, and dark intent, is thrust into the spotlight to perfect effect.

As to whether any of the authors ever actually finish their manuscripts … Well I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out. And I would recommend that you do, especially if you like edgy, intense stories with a dark and deadly spirit. It ticked all my boxes and I’m intrigued to see what the author might bring us next.

About the Author

Julia Bartz is a Brooklyn-based writer and practicing therapist. Her fiction writing has appeared in The South Dakota ReviewInDigest Magazine, and more. The Writing Retreat is her first novel.

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