Book Review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Who knows what goes on behind closed doors? That could be the subtitle of many a Lisa Jewell novel.

The Family Upstairs starts happily enough with twenty-five-year-old Libby Jones coming into an inheritance. Libby has always known she was adopted and is prepared for some news of her provenance the day of her birthday and maybe, with luck, a few hundred pounds. What she doesn’t expect is to inherit a large house in Chelsea, worth millions. It’s a shock for a girl who works for a kitchen design company and financially is just getting by.

The other thing she doesn’t expect is to discover that her parents, Harry and Martina Lamb, and an unidentified male died in a suicide pact when she was 10 months old. And before the bodies were found, somebody looked after the baby, then disappeared. It’s a lot to take in and the house itself creeps her out – it’s dilapidated, and there are signs someone’s been camping out upstairs, and what are those noises?

The story flips between Libby and two other characters. First off there’s Henry Lamb, the twelve-year-old son of Martina and Harry who’s looking forward to his new school when everything changes. His father, once a somewhat shady businessman, has a mild stroke and Martina, wanting to play Lady Bountiful, begins inviting people to stay. When the Thomsen family move in, Henry is mesmerised by their beautiful son, Phin. Things take a sinister turn or two as Henry slowly fills us in on events that lead up to the suicide pact. He’s an oddly distant character, with no friends and left far too much on his own.

Flipping forward again, we’re in the south of France, where Lucy is homeless, struggling to make a living for herself and her two children as a busker. A message on her phone reminds her that ‘the baby’ has turned twenty-five and she becomes determined to do anything she can to get back to England. If only she had a passport. Even before that she has to find the money to pay for the repairs on her violin. When her son Marco reveals he has recently seen his father, a man capable of horrible violence, Lucy has the extra worry of how to ask him for help without conditions.

The three stories carry the reader through to a point where past and present converge and the trio of narrators meet up. Libby garners the help of Miller Rowe, the journalist who has wasted years and his marriage investigating what happened at the Chelsea house, and her colleague Dido who has the wisdom of being ten years older than Libby. It is probably just as well; left to herself, Libby wouldn’t have coped at all.

The story comes together in a cleverly paced way that has you galloping through the book to find out what happened earlier and what will happen next. The backwards and forwards sequence gives you lots of aha moments, while spicing up the tension. But in the end, this isn’t anything like Gone Girl for upsetting revelations, whatever promised by the cover so don’t be too disappointed.

This is a subtler kind of thriller altogether. For in spite of a resolution that promises new beginnings, there are lurking in the background some disturbing niggles. You can’t help thinking that the children from the Chelsea house will always have a tough time settling down to be normal, well-adjusted people. You might be thanking your lucky stars you didn’t grow up at an expensive address like this one. I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and it was superbly read with a different actor for each of the three main characters. A four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

I may be wrong, but The Sixteen Trees of the Somme could be the first Scandinavian book I have read that wasn’t a crime novel. Not that there aren’t some terrible events here: war, genocide, theft, a disputed legacy, blotted reputations and simmering feuds. Why throw in the police as well? There’s also a fairly mind-boggling mystery at the heart of the story.

Edvard has grown up on a remote potato farm in Norway under the care of his grandfather, Sverre. His parents died with he was three in mysterious circumstances while on holiday. The family of three were on a road trip to visit the birthplace of Edvard’s French grandmother, a farm adjacent to the battlefield of the Somme. Young Edvard went missing for several days before being left at a doctor’s surgery. Nobody knows who cared for him before Sverre arrived to take him home.

When his grandfather dies, a beautifully crafted coffin has been kept for him at the undertakers, which can only have been built by Sverre’s brother, Einar, a master cabinet maker. Edvard may have left it at that, buried his grandfather, and carried on with the farm. There’s Hanne, a high-school sweetheart back home from veterinary college, to hang out with. But the past nags at him and before long, Edvard is following a trail of clues to a tiny island off the Shetland coast called Haaf Gruney, in search of the uncle he hardly knew.

The Shetland Islands have a long Norwegian history, before becoming part of Scotland, and it is curious just how many place names and turns of phrase have a Norwegian ring to them. Edvard arrives off the car ferry from one remote spot on the atlas to an even remoter one with very little life experience. Soon he meets the much more savvy Gwen, a young woman the same age as Edvard, with a strong connection to her late grandfather, a wealthy timber merchant who owned Haaf Gruney. The two have a connected history it seems.

The story takes you through a maze of twists and turns as Edvard pieces together his uncle’s life. There’s his war – we’re up to World War II now, where Einar was involved in the French Resistance, and the importance of some trees that once grew in the Somme, and its link with Gwen’s grandfather’s experiences in the previous war. Then there’s the question of Einar’s feud with Sverre, attributed to the fact that Sverre fought for the Germans – or was there more to it than that? And then there’s Einar’s reverence for wood – you learn a lot about the craft of making fine things, the timber that makes it special.

Mytting builds the story beautifully, pulling you in as Edvard and Gwen make the discoveries that lead back to the terrible day when Edvard’s parents died. But this is so much more than an extremely satisfying mystery. Edvard has a lot of growing up to to do and some big decisions to make. The legacies of both Einar and Sverre pull him in two directions, as does his attraction to two women. And this a young man who until leaving Norway had never eaten anything remotely as exotic as an Indian meal served in restaurant on a Shetland island.

The revelations of the story will really tug at your heart as well – the events of two world wars have hammered both Gwen’s and Edvard’s families. It’s no wonder they form an attachment. As the past drags them into some terrible discoveries, you wonder how they will recover. It makes you ponder the way that people’s heritage is linked to who they are and how they build a future from that. How much can be forgotten? It all adds up to a powerful story, one that will haunt you well after finishing the book.

I’m happy to see there’s a new Lars Mytting book just out – The Bell in the Lake – the first in a trilogy no less and which promises more of the themes Mytting is drawn to. One for my To Read list for sure. This one scores a four and a half out five from me.

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton

Canadian author, Kate Hilton describes her latest novel as a divorce comedy, although there’s a wedding as well, and a treasure trove of family secrets. In the opening pages, Zoe is not looking forward to Christmas, as she is reluctant to reveal that she is getting a divorce. Christmas is tense enough, without dropping that bombshell.

Along with Zoe’s parents, who are hosting the festive meal, plus her brother Zack, we meet Zoe’s uncle and feminist icon Aunt Lydia, and Lydia’s daughters and grandchildren. Zack has won fame and fortune writing a TV sitcom loosely based on the lives of his famous aunt and her family, for which he has never been quite forgiven.

Lydia’s daughter, Beata, is particularly bitter about it, but she has enough to deal with with her teenage son, Oscar, discovering that he wasn’t the product of a sperm-bank after all and has already made contact with his father. Enter, Will, an old pal of Zoe’s from her university days, and also a colleague of Beata’s partner, Eloise. Eloise just happens to be the lawyer handling Zoe’s divorce.

Meanwhile, still on Christmas day, things are obviously not going well in Zoe’s cousin Mariana’s marriage to shiftless but charming Devlin. Things reach a crunch when Mariana snatches up Devlin’s phone and smashes it to bits in the kitchen.

Hilton gets her book off to a flying start, with so much going on with in the lives of Zoe, Mariana and Beata. They’re all great characters – engaging and interesting – while the impossibly high bar set by Aunt Lydia for the younger women in her family hovers in the background. No wonder they keep secrets from each other – secrets, which are due to all come out sooner or later.

The book reminded me a little of Emma Hope’s Expectation, in that we have the same well-meaning pressure from an older generation of feminist women on their daughters whose lives haven’t quite turned out as they’d planned. In Better Luck Next Time, we are reminded how hard it can be for women to ‘do it all’ – manage children, careers, marriage and be true to themselves. Mariana is a journalist who has had to sacrifice writing the important political stories she’s so good at so she can support her family. She ends up writing publicity for a ‘wellness’ company, an industry Hilton sends up beautifully.

There are plenty of amusing scenes, including a feminist rally that turns nasty and a bridal shower which makes you wonder why anyone would ever get married. The book gallops towards another, somewhat, happier Christmas, an ending where its characters have learned a lot about life, love and themselves. This is a funny yet thoughtful novel, with characters you really warm to and plenty of digs at the fads and obsessions of modern life. Just what you want in a comedy for our times. A four star read from me.

Book Review: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty is a novel about ordinary people. They’ve all got their quirks and kinks of temperament, their baggage – some more than others. Simmering with problems, insecurities and resentments, the characters are all set for some kind of train wreck; the setting: an ordinary suburban barbecue.

Moriarty creates a powder keg of volatile ingredients a bit like a chemistry experiment gone wrong. Three families who probably shouldn’t really be friends come together to socialise: There’s Sam and Clementine and their two little girls, Holly and Ruby. Clementine is a cellist, anxious about an upcoming audition; Sam is stressed about the way their finances depend on a his new job in advertising where he feels out of his depth. It’s all causing a toll on their marriage.

Erika is socially awkward and, like her husband Oliver, works in accounting. They are a fit, childless couple and to many seem a bit boring. But both have had terrible childhoods which has helped them connect with each other, if not with other people. Erika was foisted on Clementine as a child, and the two have been friends ever since, although sometimes Clementine wishes Erika was less friendly with her mother and wasn’t always in touch.

Erika and Oliver invite their friends for afternoon tea to put forward a proposal, carefully planned before the two families head next door to a barbecue hosted by wealthy and gregarious Vid and his glamorous younger wife, Tiffany. Vid has recently discovered classical music and becomes a bit fixated on Clementine; Tiffany has something of a shady past. The two little girls are entertained by Tiff and Vid’s ten-year-old daughter Dakota, but sometime later on, with much alcohol having flowed and one or two secrets revealed, something terrible happens.

Moriarty has a knack for feeding out just enough information to get the reader interested, switching timeframes from some weeks after the event, during a period of persistent rain, and the day of the barbecue. We don’t discover exactly what happened until halfway through the book, and not entirely until near the end. The story is told from several perspectives, filling in all the details and building up characters you can feel empathy for. They are so ordinary and yet so unique, after all.

Can the three couples come back from what happened? Rebuild their lives? Learn from their mistakes? There’s also an interesting commentary on class and wealth running in the background, the snobbery associated with money or with talent.

Truly Madly Guilty is a very smart novel with some very poignant moments and a few surprises. I hadn’t ever read a book by Liane Moriarty before, and this will certainly not be the last, striking for me a happy balance between entertainment and something to think about. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

The Bird family seem to have everything: a yellow brick house in the Cotswolds with a big, rambling garden – the perfect family home. Their mother, Lorelei is a happy, hippie, stay-at-home mother who does lots of fun things with her kids. She holds yearly Easter Egg hunts and keeps all her children’s art to hang on the kitchen walls – all of it, forever! There’s Dad/Colin, an amiable, shambling academic, and four kids: confident Megan, beautiful Beth, Rory, who’s everyone’s mate. And then there’s Rhys.

Rhys was Rory’s twin, a sickly baby who has grown into a quiet, brooding child who nobody likes. When tragedy strikes, cracks appear in the cement that had once held the Bird family together, and each of them struggle in various ways. In particular, Lorelei, with her habit for keeping anything she felt sentimental about, now a chronic hoarder.

The book opens with Meg and her teenage daughter, Molly, having returned to the old Bird family home, to clear it out of all the teetering piles of junk Lorelei has collected over the years and to prepare for her mother’s funeral. Slowly the rest of the family drifts home to help.

The House We Grew Up In follows various characters as it fills in the gaps between then and now. Often we are with Meg who is compulsively tidy, some of the time we’re with Beth who can’t seem to get her life together enough to leave home. Then occasionally we’re with Rory who has a habit of throwing in his lot with the wrong people. And then there are Lorelei’s emails to a man she’s met online

With all different different points of view and shifts in time, the novel can take a bit of concentration to keep track of it all. I was nipping back and forth a bit, checking dates, calculating ages. Was it worth the effort? Definitely yes. Jewell is a brilliant writer when it comes to families that seem happy on the outside and what could go wrong with them and why. She gets you to care for her characters, even when they mess up, and these guys do big time.

And then there’s the guilt. Everyone has something to feel guilty about and with that comes the secrecy. How do members of a family come to terms with the wrongs of the past to rebuild those relationships that were once so special? The House We Grew Up In takes you through all of this and makes you realise that even the seemingly nicest, ordinary people can do very destructive things without meaning to. Another engrossing read from Jewell and a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

I wasn’t going to read the Vera Stanhope novels by Ann Cleeves – they’d been so good on television, and surely I’d know all the endings. I’d forgotten that it doesn’t really matter when it’s good writing and the characters are interesting, which is most certainly the case here. And in the end I couldn’t remember this story after all.

Silent Voices begins when a body is discovered at a leisure centre. Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope doesn’t spend a lot of time at her gym, and there’s no way she’d let on to her sergeant, Joe Ashworth, that she even has a membership. But when she discovers a murder victim, strangled in the sauna room, she has to call it in. Nobody recognises the attractive, middle-aged woman in the sauna, but the wallet in her locker leads Vera to a cottage in a coastal village and the victim’s eighteen-year-old daughter.

Hannah has no idea why anyone would want to murder her mother, Jenny Lister, a social worker who seems to be in every way a good, kind person. It is fortunate that Hannah has her fiancé, Simon, nearby to stay with her, as she has no other family. But ex-social worker Connie is shocked to discover Jenny had lived in the same village. Both had worked closely together until Connie made an error of judgement and a young child was drowned in the bath by his mother. Connie lost her career and has always thought Susan sold her down the river.

Cleeves brings in a number of other connected characters: the smooth-talking alternative therapist who works at the leisure centre; Danny the student who cleans there at night; Simon’s snooty mother Veronica who for some reason has made Connie’s life a misery. It is a rich and diverting plot, peopled with a cast who each have axes to grind, or complicated pasts.

And that doesn’t include the police. Vera Stanhope, is a wonderful creation with her distrust of social workers and anyone who is too obviously nice; her jealousy of Joe’s time and family commitments – she’s altogether lacking in family herself. There’s smart and ambitious Holly and sad-sack Charlie who is only just holding it together – fortunately Vera knows what he’s good at and leaves him to it.

Meanwhile, there is the sense of a storm brewing, reflected in the wild, coastal weather of Northumberland, which adds a ton of atmosphere. The story illustrates so well that anybody can have a dark episode in their history that might just lead them to murder. It’s what this kind of crime fiction is all about and Cleeves pulls it all together really well to create a satisfying read building to a superb ending.

I listened to this as an audio book and loved the gentle and nuanced reading by Janine Birkett. I think the Geordie accent could become a favourite. Four out of five from me.

Lockdown Listening 1: I Found You by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell writes a good page-turner, often combining psychological drama, secrets and vulnerable characters. I Found You begins when sole parent Alice Lake finds a man on the beach below her house in the fictional seaside town of Ridinghouse Bay. Alice is prone to poor decision-making, often taking in waifs and strays and has three children by three different fathers, none of whom were Mr Right – mostly patently Mr Wrong.

She is one of those scary women the locals don’t like much – a Londoner (this is Yorkshire), she’s loud, her children often late for school and then there are all the dogs. When she finds Frank (they have to call him something) sitting on the beach in the rain, she ignores the misgivings of others and gives him a room – just for the night – sure his memory loss is just a temporary thing.

The story flips to that of Lily Monrose, whose husband hasn’t come home from work. You can usually set your watch by him. And what happened to all the adoring texts he sends when he’s on the train from London to their flat in Surrey? He seems to have vanished into thin air. When she goes to the police, Lily doesn’t get a lot of interest – she’s from Kiev, and she and Carl have only been married a few weeks after a whirlwind romance. Lily knows so little about his background and things look bad when Carl’s passport turns out to be false.

The plot also flips back in time to 1993 and a family summer holiday. Gray is seventeen and suddenly aware of how his sister, Kirsty, a lanky fifteen year old, seems to other men. When posh Mark takes an interest in them, Gray’s family are charmed, but Mark’s attraction to Kirsty sets their holiday on a course for disaster.

I Found You is told in short chapters, switching between these three perspectives, slowly filling in the gaps, as glimpses of Frank’s memory begin to appear. Each chapter ends in a cliff-hanger, so you keep reading as more secrets are revealed. The characters are varied and well-rounded, and Alice, who is oddly optimistic for someone struggling with a lot of difficulties, is an engaging heroine. Memory loss in fiction can so easily seem a convenient and even hackneyed plot device, but Jewell makes it believable here. As usual, she is a safe pair of hands for an escapist read.

I listened to the novel as an audiobook and really enjoyed the rendition by Antonia Beamish, who managed a wide range of voices and accents with aplomb. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Aussie Noir has become incredibly popular since The Dry by Jane Harper was published in 2016. Similarly drought and the high heat of summer, this time in outer New South Wales, is the setting for Hammer’s debut crime novel. Newspaper journalist Martin Scarsden visits Riversend, site of a mass killing, a year later to write an update on the town, a story previously covered by rival journo, D’Arcy Defoe.

Scarsden, once something of a lothario, suffers from PTSD following an incident when he was covering the Gaza Strip for his paper. His boss thinks this assignment will be a tonic – get him out of the office yet keep him busy. But Riversend is a depressed sort of place for recovery. The miserable Black Dog Motel lives up to its name; the town’s businesses are struggling and nobody’s very forthcoming – except for the young policeman, Robbie Haus Jones, the hero of the day.

Reverend Byron Swift was a good-looking, charismatic preacher, popular with the young and, with Jones, helped resurrect the youth centre, a Pied Piper figure it seems. So what made him open fire on his church steps, gunning down several men from the Bellington Anglers Club? Scarsden talks to the locals and gets a few more snippets out of Harley Snouch, the dero who says Swift was a pedophile. He takes coffee and comfort at the Oasis bookshop, run by drop-dead gorgeous, Mandalay Blonde – a what’s a beautiful girl like you doing in a place like this scenario.

Fortunately before you have too much time to wonder on the clunkiness of the love angle or the characters’ names, events start to hot up, literally. Martin becomes suddenly popular when he saves a teenager’s life and helps out with a bushfire. There are more murders, including a cold case involving two German backpackers. But Martin’s luck soon runs out as he tries to get his facts straight and more reporters and the police close in. People may be talking but everyone seems to have something to hide. Who can Martin trust?

Hammer manages a lot of plot threads in the novel, carefully reeling out backstory and tying them all together in the end. The pressure to file the story first and the mock camaraderie between the news teams add authenticity. I really enjoyed the lively, unmistakably Australian dialogue which spins the plot along nicely making Scrublands an entertaining read. And in the background there’s that oppressive, drought-stricken landscape.

Hammer earned a best new crime novel Dagger Award for Scrublands and it’s easy to see why. It’s an interesting story given weight by the way it deals with bigger things like evil and redemption. But I found the character of Mandalay Blonde (that surely should be a Bond heroine) and her relationship with Martin didn’t work for me. This one gets a three.

Book Review: Akin by Emma Donoghue

It is hard to imagine Akin was written by the same author who created mega-selling Room, shortlisted for the Booker and made into a movie in 2015. Room is a novel told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy held captive with his mother in a room custom built by a psychopath. Akin is quite a different style of novel, narrated by Noah, a retired science professor about to take a trip to Nice to investigate a few years in the life of his mother during World War II. What the two novels do have in common is Donoghue’s amazing skill with characters, an ability to get inside their heads to tell a story.

Noah is a New Yorker, scholarly, urbane and without any family – his wife, Joan, died some years ago and he has recently lost his sister. Mere days before he is due to depart for Nice, a social worker contacts him to ask if he can be the temporary carer for Michael, the eleven-year-old son of his late nephew. There’s nobody else, it seems. So suddenly Noah has a travel companion, a stressed and grieving boy from Brooklyn, who doesn’t know much about good manners but is streetwise when it comes to drugs and violence. The perfect odd couple.

Akin is a novel of many layers. The most obvious one is the story of Noah and Michael and what begins as a grudging acceptance of each other and how this develops into something more. Blood is thicker than water fortunately because there are lots of bridges to build here.

Then there is the story of Noah’s famous photographer grandfather, Père Sonne, and Margot, his mother, who stayed behind in France during the war, sending Noah to New York and his father. This has rankled with Noah, he was only three, and why did she leave with his sister a strange collection of photographs from her war years? The pictures are part of Noah’s luggage along with his grandfather’s famous fedora. Noah’s visit to Nice is about discovering the past and coincides with his eightieth birthday; now with Michael in tow, he is forced to think about a different kind of future.

Noah begins to fit together his mother’s story, with help from Michael who is unsurprisingly nifty on the ‘net. We learn more about Nice during the war, where a resistance group, the Marcel Network, saved over 500 Jewish children from the concentration camps. What was Margot’s connection? Was she a resistance fighter or a collabo? Noah is terrified the snapshots prove the latter. Michael also knows about ‘snitches’ and there are connections with the drug deal that was the undoing of his father, and the reason his mother is in prison. So many layers.

And then there is the story of Nice itself. Noah is the perfect tour guide. He speaks French and translates it for the benefit of Michael, often playing with words and meanings in an interesting way. We visit restaurants where they serve delicacies such as testicules de mouton panés (crispy fried sheeps balls) and tête de veau avec langue (calf’s head with tongue), while Michael holds out for for American hotdogs and chicken nuggets. There are stories about the Roman occupation of Nice, of saints and angels. Nice is a rich and colourful place.

Akin takes its time, slowly pulling you into Noah’s and Michael’s developing relationship and the story of Nice as well. It’s a book to savour, but it’s gripping too with plenty to entertain – a five out of five read from me.