Book Review: The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell by Gail Aldwin


Novelist, poet and scriptwriter, Gail Aldwin has been writing for over a decade. Her first two coming-of-age novels were runners-up in the Dorchester Literary Festival Writing Prize 2020 and 2022. Gail was awarded a creative writing PhD in 2018 and still laughs whenever she’s called Doctor. She has appeared at Bridport Literary Festival, Stockholm Writers Festival and the Mani Lit Fest in Greece. Her psychological suspense mystery The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell is published by Bloodhound Books. Gail splits her time between a tiny flat in South West London and a home overlooking water meadows in Dorset.


A true-crime podcaster investigates a decades-old suspected abduction, in this powerful psychological suspense novel.

1979 Sixteen-year-old Carolyn Russell grows increasingly infatuated with her school mathematics teacher who is also giving her private lessons. Then she disappears.

2014 Struggling journalist Stephanie Brett creates a true-crime podcast focused on the disappearance of Carolyn Russell. By digging deep into this mysterious cold case, her confidence and flagging career are boosted. But after she confronts the suspects—and talks to a potential witness—the leads dry up. However, Stephanie refuses to let the story rest . . .

Can a small-time journalist with a shoestring podcast really hope to reconstruct the ultimate fate of Carolyn Russell after all these years, or are some secrets best left buried? 

‘Takes hold of the head and the heart and simply does not let go’ Jacquelyn Mitchard, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of The Good Son

‘Captures the zeitgeist for each period with telling accuracy’ Suzanne Goldring, bestselling author of My Name is Eva

‘A rare and thrilling book that manages to be thoughtful and intelligent’ Joanna Barnard, author of Hush Little Baby


  1. What was your first impression of the book cover?
  2. Describe Stephanie Brett.
  3. Describe Carolyn Russell.
  4. What do you think about podcasts? Is it a good idea to discuss cold cases on a podcast? Why or why not?
  5. How did Stephanie’s podcast help in solving the disappearance of Carolyn Russell?
  6. What was the contribution of Carolyn’s family relationship to her case?
  7. What were your predictions about the ending of the story? 
  8. Did the ending change your impression of the main characters? Discuss. 
  9. Which points in the story kept you turning the pages?
  10. What do you like the most about the book? Discuss. 


Facebook was the last place she should be spending time when feeling like this: inadequate. - on Stephanie

There was something enigmatic about Carolyn’s smile but Stephanie couldn’t put her finger on it.

Dangerous activity. You never know what you might unearth. - Doug

I loved every minute of being needed. - Carolyn

Like magic, the answer flew from my lips. By the time we reached ten times nine, I let my touch linger on his pinky. The closeness of the moment held me in a trance. - Carolyn


  • The fully developed main characters make the story relatable and interesting. The story is told in a dual timeline, alternating between the perspectives of Carolyn Russell and Stephanie Brett. Through her thoughts, actions, and choices, Carolyn could be seen as a typical teenager who had angsts and dreams but her relationship with her family, friends, and other grownups in the community deepened the complexity of her life which was rooted in the unfulfillment of her needs: love, attention, and guidance. This lack paved the way for Carolyn's doom in the end. On the other hand, Stephanie is shown to be resilient, creative, and brave in facing the consequences of a life-changing event. She fell but she was able to rise from the challenges by using her skills to the fullest. Early in her career, she almost lost her job as a journalist after giving wrong information about the disappearance of Carolyn Russell. Decades after, still guilty about her mistake, she was resolved to investigate the cold case again through a podcast. Her drive to find leads, interview people, and piece clues together moves the story forward and keeps me interested in seeing if Carolyn Russell would be found in the end. Creating good and memorable characters is one of Gail Aldwin’s strengths as a writer. 
  • The length of the book affects the pacing of the story. The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell is just long enough to develop the characters and the plot. The author threw interesting clues at the right places, nurturing curiosity and suspense.
  • The story is fresh and relevant as it included podcasting, a modern version of a radio program. Podcasts are popular nowadays since the Internet and streaming services are common. It's a convenient way to get information or entertainment from thousands of podcasts which range from comedy to true crime as one can download the audio files and listen to them anytime, anywhere. The author got hooked on true crime podcasts in 2020 which inspired her to write the book. She showed how a podcast came to be. Interviews with people who are linked to Carolyn and discussions of the events that led to her disappearance added more depth to the story.
  • The author layers the story with different themes that make it multidimensional– teenage life, the quest for love, family, loneliness, and the exploration of human emotions and experiences. 


  • The intensity of the thrill and suspense is on the mellow side. However, I still enjoyed the story because the characters and plot are well-developed and the writing is engaging. The story made me form my predictions along the way but they were all wrong. The twist at the end was the most shocking and definitely the best part of the book. 


Have you ever made a mistake many years ago that you still felt guilty about? Sometimes it’s hard to move on because you keep playing the mistake in your mind over and over again. Guilt could make you critical of yourself but it could also drive you to take action to make amends for your mistakes. 

In Gail Aldwin’s new novel, The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell, Stephanie Brett, a journalist who felt guilty about misreporting the disappearance of Carolyn Russell in 1979, decided to set things straight. When she got the chance, she reinvestigated the cold case through a podcast. Decades later, no body had been found and no perpetrator had been indicted. Could she get more leads and ultimately solve the case? Could she redeem herself? 

One of the things that I love about The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell is its well-developed characters and plot. It is told from the alternating perspectives of Stephanie Brett and Carolyn Russell which made the story more interesting and relatable. Carolyn’s teenage angst, lack of maternal love and attention, and her propensity to fulfill this lack in dangerous ways build up the tension, while Stephanie’s journalistic skills, keenness, and bravery raise the anticipation of the next events. For me, strong characterization is one of Gail Aldwin’s strengths as a writer. She’s also able to nurture curiosity and excitement by throwing intriguing clues at the right places and in between multifaceted themes, which include the vulnerability of teenagers, family dynamics, the power of media, friendship, and social issues.  

The novel contains an element of timeliness as well. The use of a podcast in revisiting the unsolved case gives the story a fresh perspective. Podcasts are common these days and they range from comedy to true crime. Listeners can download and listen to them anytime, anywhere. The author was inspired to write the book after listening to true crime podcasts in 2020 when she was in Uganda where she volunteered at a refugee settlement. In her novel, she showed how a podcast came to being and how it added more depth to the story.

As for the thrill and suspense, the intensity is on the mellow side but I still enjoyed the story because it made me form my own predictions along the way; predictions that turned out to be all wrong. The twist at the end was the most shocking and definitely the best part of the book. 

I highly recommend The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell. It is a well-written, suspense novel that rips your heart in the beginning, then blows your mind in the end. 

Thank you, Gail Aldwin and Bloodhound Books for the opportunity to read your book and share my honest thoughts. 


Gail Aldwin's Website 



Book Information:

The Secret Life of Carolyn Russell by Gail Aldwin

Published on July 3, 2023, by Bloodhound Books - crime, thrillers, and mysteries (3 July 2023)

310 pages (eBook)

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