book review: DISTRESS SIGNALS by Catherine Ryan Howard

If you’ve not finished this book, DON’T READ MY POST UNTIL AFTER!

This was a great first book to kick off What We Read, my virtual book club. I received messages from most of the book clubbers at various points, telling me they had finished, or were halfway and completely hooked.

I loved the interaction as the book was being read, not just the discussion that will hopefully take place on this review post. It made reading all the more enjoyable, knowing others were reading the same book as me at the same time. I was talking to one book clubber today and she said it took her some time to get into Distress Signals and if she hadn’t been part of the book club she may have given up. As I’ve said before, it would not be a problem to give up and own up to that in the discussion. If a book we read has any content we’re uncomfortable with, or the book is simply rubbish, then any of us can feel free to quit. But in this case, she was hooked part-way through and pleased she’d stuck it out. Win for book club! If you fancy joining in the fun, find out more here and sign up.

I was a bit cocky with book one, for some reason. I have been steaming through books this past year and thought I didn’t want to finish too early and forget all about it. I also was concerned about getting too into it at times when I couldn’t afford to. Like when I took the kids away by myself, and just the entire summer holidays in general. It would have been unfair to them if I’d been ignoring them and getting narky when they uttered a single syllable in my direction because I was so engrossed. Note to self: don’t start a book club in August!

The thing is, I did start it well over a week ago and only just finished two days before my post deadline. I was gripped, but not REALLY gripped. There was much that impressed me about the book, it was a clever plot and well-written. It was believable.

Yet I think there may have been something lacking regarding pace. Perhaps also it’s just the nature of psychological thrillers; you want to find out what happens, but then you don’t, because it might not be pleasant.

So, onto the four prompts (I have changed the fourth one)…

Best Bit

I loved the parallel stories running alongside each other. It was intriguing as the author kept us guessing as to how the stories would tie together in the end. She kept us on the trail of Romain, thinking: “it was him! He did it, somehow, somewhen…”

But, it wasn’t. The stories were just linked in that the killers were both aware of/took advantage of the “lawless” location (a cruise ship). They also both met their end at this same location, and therefore as inconspicuously as their own victims.

The romantic, loves-a-happy-ending side of me wanted Sarah to be found at the end. For her to be alive and well, with a big apology, and then life goes on happy-ever-afterly. Though I expect that would have been somewhat unsatisfactory within this genre, and I was pleased that at least Adam had some resolution with knowing that she was wanting to go back to him.

Worst Bit

I found the story of Romain heartbreaking. Did you? Or did you agree with Corinne, that the world would have been better off if he’d never been born? The ending gave the impression that it wasn’t mainly about how she’d rejected him through his childhood, but more about this inner (perhaps inherited) “darkness” that he would never fully escape, no matter how much he tried. He seemed to cause death, even when his motives were good, or his actions innocent.

I was left feeling like he was a rabid dog that had needed to be put down. That nothing could help him. I felt sad that it was implied that overall it would have been better if he’d never been born because no amount of love from parents who’d treated him like the rest of their children could have prevented him from becoming a psychopath. I’m not saying this shouldn’t have been in the book. I’m saying it was my worst bit because it was hard to read. (As I’ve said previously, it’s up to you how you answer – your worst bit could be a specific scene, or some element of the writing style you didn’t get on with).

What I learned about the world…

NEVER go on a cruise! I jest, but it was very interesting and enlightening to learn about maritime laws and the implications of them for passenger safety on cruises. I had also never heard that advice about looking at air stewards when there’s turbulence to gauge whether you need to panic. I will do that on my flight tomorrow, though hopefully it won’t be necessary.

What impacted me…

When I finished reading this at midnight and it was all dark and quiet, I was rather disturbed! I’m a sensitive soul, as you’ll probably see with future novels of a similar genre. I was left feeling like the world is terrifying and it’s hard to truly know a person.

Though this is true to an extent, in the cold light of day, what this novel left me pondering is how easy it can be to give up on someone, to think that love isn’t enough. That it can’t heal, or satisfy, or last. The world is very scary and destructive when this belief prevails.

I think Corinne gave up on Romain from the start, before he even had a chance to prove her wrong. Sanne also gave up on Romain. Sarah gave up on Adam and when she realised her mistake unfortunately circumstance worked against her and she couldn’t go back. But Adam refused to give up on Sarah and sought the truth until he found it. Though perhaps he pursued her when it was too little, too late.

It was also an interesting study on that inherent part of us that believes we can best judge the consequences of somebody else’s actions. Did you experience that as the reader? “Sarah didn’t deserve to die, but Peter did!” Part of what made it a satisfactory ending was feeling as though the murderers got what they deserved… but there was something jarring about the fact that their comeuppance was not delivered by the law but by another human being who took it upon themselves to administer retribution. Side note: this kind of comment can lead us down a rabbit warren of discussing some major issues and ideologies. That’s ok, but let’s also keep focused on the book and understand that we can observe that a book prompts us to think about certain issues without actually having to give our opinion on them and end up debating them.

Distress Signals

So, there you have it! Those were my comments… Now let’s hear yours! Book clubbers, and anyone else interested, please comment below with your answers to the prompts (if you like). Remember, everyone is entitled to their opinion and we may differ, which is OK! In fact, it’s good.

Do provide any feedback you may have on using the review post as the site of our discussion (I know one book clubber isn’t on Facebook so a group on there would exclude some) and also send future book suggestions to:

Love to you BC’s (Book Clubbers)!


Add Yours
  1. Ellie Goddard

    Great review Jeni, my feelings are very similar to yours. I read the book in a day, which I haven’t done for a long time. (Being off work and having beautiful weather helped!) I really enjoyed the book – it was easy to read and kept my interest, and I appreciated that all of the stories had a conclusion, pleasant or not. I really like books which have parallel stories or chapters from different characters’ points of view, and enjoyed that aspect of distress signals. Romain’s story is heartbreaking, I want to believe that if he hadn’t been let down by his parents so much as a child that he could have turned out differently – I guess we’ll never know. It’s also such a shame that Adam and Sarah’s relationship got to the point that it did without Adam noticing – complacency is dangerous, and I find it really sad that Morsey knew the trouble his friend was in and didn’t say anything until it was too late. I’d like to know a bit more about Peter and Estelle’s relationship and what led her to escape in the way that she did – how much of the behaviour that he showed was present before her disappearance, and how much was as a result of it? All in all, a great read, and I look forward to reading another book by Catherine Ryan Howard in future.


    • Where I Write

      Thanks Ellie, I like your point about Morsey – I hadn’t really thought of that but at the time of reading about them they did annoy me a bit and seemed rather harsh. Perhaps that was necessary to give us a strong impression that it was believable Sarah could leave Adam, he was just completely clueless. It’s true, Peter and Estelle’s relationship is intriguing now. What could a relationship be like with someone who is willing to kill to find you again? A chilling thought. Sorry I took a while to reply! Holiday…


  2. Chrissy Goodban

    The most significant thing about the book club is that it got me reading again and I loved it. Finding time to read, being gripped and desperate to find out what happens. That is something I haven’t had in a while and I really liked that feeling. Reading is a good excuse to sit down and rest and I need that, so Thanks Jeni.

    I really enjoyed the book and it wouldn’t be a natural genre for me to choose to read although I would like to watch a thriller (e.g. Gone girl) so maybe this has opened something up for me. I felt that the characters were believable and I felt the genuine concern and panic that Adam and others felt for Sarah. The story unfolded and I drew my own conclusions which were wrong at times and other times right. I mis-trusted Peter . I found the story of Romain and family desperately sad and I felt so let down when the father didn’t stick by Romain when he left prison. The focus on ‘treatment ‘ for him was a way to medicalise the things that he had done and not look at the circumstances, environmentor other people’s responsibility. I felt sad that a life could be so clouded by ‘darkness’ from the time of his conception and followed through his whole life.
    I too was intrigued by all of the maritime laws and the author painted a good picture of the life behind scenes of a cruise ship which is usually the pinnacle of luxury holidays . I did find the fact that there were so many deaths on board unbelievable and I wonder if Sanne hadn’t been linked to Luke, and if he had truly turned over a new leaf, if the murder by Corinne would have been even more surprising.
    I was hoping that Sarah would be found alive but I guess it was a good conclusion that Peter was so focuses on finding Estelle that he killed two more women. The irony that she was still alive and had left him, presumably as she was not happy with him and didn’t want to bring her baby up in their home with him as an influence on them all.
    There was also a sense of injustice in the legal system, that Peter had to go to such lengths to get the FBI involved, and killed Sarah as he assumed she was American.
    An interesting story of what people will do in desperation, how people seek justice in different ways and how people can’t hide from who they are ( or who people think they are).
    In real life, I still have faith in justice, and feel that anyone can change despite early experiences and words people speak over you. I have always fancied a cruise …….


    • Where I Write

      Hi Chrissy, thanks for your comment! It’s really thorough and I loved hearing that you enjoyed the reading ‘experience’ so much. You make an interesting point about the ‘treatment’ for Romain really letting him down also. A lot of factors seem to work against him making it an even more tragic story. His desire to be loved by his mother and to feel a part of their family was clearly so strong, making the fact that his mother ended his life even more heartbreaking. I agree that anyone can change despite early experiences and can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that a book makes you question that… What do you think?


  3. Sandra

    Well I have to confess that I got to the part of the book when Peter and Adam were on the cruise ship and they met the girl ( cant remember her name) then I cheated and read the last chapter! Until that point I had been hooked , however, I did lose interest, maybe because this isn’t my kind of book. However,I did find Peters character interesting he was driven by something which would make him do/behave and thought and I did think he had had something to do with Sarah disappearing. He came across to me as man who liked to be in control ( possibly a coercive abuser) which could be why his wife wanted to get away and the only way she was going to do that successfully and stay alive was to disappear.
    Romains character was sad and I felt for him.
    I am pleased I tried a different genre of book for me , even if I did cheat!


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