Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard

Cover of Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard

Hot off the press – published today!

“First-class maiden voyage for this cracking thriller set on a cruise ship” was the headline I used to describe this novel on my Amazon review, the text of which I’ll reproduce at the end of this post. 

But first of all, I want to provide a bit of context for the novel and the author, because there is an interesting background story to tell here.

The Author’s Self-publishing Past

If, like me, you’re a self-published author, Catherine Ryan Howard’s name is likely to be familiar to you already. Based in Cork, Ireland, Catherine has been a self-publishing pioneer, spreading her experience, wit and wisdom, at length and very generously for many years. Her extremely useful how-to book for indie authors called Self-Printed (Catherine likes to do things her way, even when it means flying in the face of popular jargon!) is now in its third edition. My copy lives on my desk as a constant source of ready reference for the practicalities of self-publishing ebooks and print books.

Her entertaining blog about her passion for writing (and coffee) is also packed with advice. Originally headed Catherine, Caffeinated, it has been rendered more dignified and less quirky (though thankfully not decaffeinated) since she gained her trade-published status. It must have helped thousands of aspiring authors all over the world, but all the original information is still there, as far as I’m aware. (I’m always astonished at how few reviews it has on Amazon.)

Catherine has also written entertaining travelogues about her adventures in America as a Disney employee and a backpacker and a satirical novel about the diet industry. (She has since withdrawn this one, but I read and enjoyed it. )

An Unexpected Future?

Some people expressed surprise when she won a two-book deal with a trade publisher – not because of the quality of her writing, but because she had been such an advocate of self-publishing. However, I knew from reading her blog and her books, and from having had the pleasure of chatting to her over coffee last year, when we were both speakers at the BooksGoSocial Writers’ Conference in Dublin, that her prime ambition had always been to be conventionally published by a trade publishing firm. That’s her prerogative and in no way undermines her credentials as a self-publishing expert. I also knew she as addicted to reading thrillers.

Let the Readers Decide!

Ultimately, the success of her trade-published novels will be made or broken by the readers’ reactions. If her books don’t satisfy readers or lure them in to buy, the trade deal will come to a speedy end and the books will go out of print.

That’s the hard truth in the world of trade publishing, whereas with self-publishing you can keep your books in print and available in digital form for ever.  If that happens, she can do as growing numbers of authors of out-of-print books are doing, and regain her rights and self-publish them. Who better placed to do that than the author of Self-Printed?

However, I predict this will not be necessary. Having had the privilege of receiving an Advance Review Copy from the publisher, and reading it prior to publication, I have a feeling that this book will be a terrific success, and the first of many.

Not the Obvious Sequel?

To those who are used to her chirpy, cheeky, frank tone in her previous books, Distress Signals may come as a surprise. A serious, subtle psychological thriller is not the obvious sequel to the likes of Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida or Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across South America, although I daresay she will have seen plenty of cruise ships come and go from Miami when she lived in Florida. Even so, if her name wasn’t on the cover, you would never guess it was by the same author as these others. My recommendation is that if you know her previous work, you simply read the book as if by an unknown author, and see what you make of it. And of course, if you don’t already know her, that’s easily done!

My Verdict

You’ve seen from the opening line of this post that I thought Distress Signals was terrific. I’ve already recommended it to friends and lent my review copy to a cruise-addict chum. Let’s hope it doesn’t put him off his favourite type of holiday! On the other hand, he may spend future cruises evangelising about the book to fellow passengers. Or working out how to murder them!

So let’s cut to the chase: here’s my actual review, as posted on Amazon this morning:

My Review of Distress Signals

First-class maiden voyage for this cracking thriller set on a cruise ship

This compelling, accessible and memorable debut thriller from Irish novelist Catherine Ryan Howard is the kind of book you’ll want to recommend to friends. It’s a cracking read, populated with realistic characters, deftly depicted, so that although you are unlikely to like them all (in fact, I’d be worried if you did), you will understand their motivations and viewpoints, and the perfect storm of their coming together that determines the sequence of events in the book.

The basic premise of the story is a fascinating one: that the law governing the passengers of a cruise ship is that of the country in which the ship is registered. As cruise ships spend most of their time very far from their country of registration, crimes taking place on board are effectively subject not so much to that country’s law as the cruise company’s need to maintain its reputation. Even if the appropriate country’s police do bother to investigate a crime, travelling from say the Bahamas to the Mediterranean, thanks to the rigorous daily housekeeping routines on board such ships, any crime is going to be very hard to detect.

Against this backdrop, the plot revolves around a young man’s quest to solve the disappearance of his girlfriend on board a cruise ship. The poignant story will keep you guessing right to the surprising yet satisfying end. I’m giving away no plot spoilers here. Just enjoy the journey, which takes places partly in Ireland, where the couple live, in France, as well as at sea – settings which are all described very effectively.

Catherine Ryan Howard writes clearly, sensitively, and consistently, and the book is well balanced and mature. She is equally at home writing about any of her characters, showing equal insight, understanding and sympathy for even the most flawed and troubled characters with a clear sense of justice and moral good, without ever becoming sentimental or preachy. I should add that the story features episodes told from various characters’ viewpoints in different settings, with their connection not immediately apparent, but I felt in such a safe pair of hands with this writer after the first few chapters, that I was prepared to sit back and let the story unfold, trusting that it would all come together eventually to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. I was not disappointed.

The main setting was brought to life so well, and the plot so deftly executed, that it’s tempting to suggest that the author is invited to write a series of thrillers aboard cruise ship. But wherever her next thriller is set, I’ll be keen to read it.

headshot of Catherine Ryan Howard

Psychological thriller author Catherine Ryan Howard

For more about Catherine Ryan Howard and her work, visit her website:



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