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 Survivors by Jane Harper

It’s hard not to be disappointed that the new Jane Harper isn’t set in the outback like The Dry and The Lost Man. She uses the relentless heat and harsh environment of that setting in a way that adds suspense and atmosphere by the bucketload. The Survivors sweeps us off to Tasmania and a coast that has seen scores of shipwrecks with tides that can catch out the unwary. A different environment, but still there’s that sense of danger.

Though for most of the inhabitants of Evelyn Bay it’s just the place they call home and where many make enough of an income from the tourists that visit every summer. It’s the place where Kieran grew up, but he’s made a new life in Sydney with Mia, who knew Kieran at school. The couple have returned with a baby in tow to their childhood home to help Kieran’s parents pack up and move to a nearby town. Kieran’s dad has dementia. The family are still haunted by a tragic event that took the life of Kieran’s brother, Finn, and almost Kieran too, for which he feels survivor’s guilt and more.

But this was a dozen or so years ago, and Kieran has a family, a new life, plenty to be getting on with. Another death, a murder no less, threatens to drag the earlier tragedy back into everyone’s thoughts. For at the same time that Finn and his friend had been attempting to rescue Kieran, Gabby, a fourteen year old girl and Mia’s best friend, disappeared, her backpack washed up days later. When Bronte, a young waitress, is found murdered on the beach, questions arise about why the death of Gabby wasn’t investigated properly all those years ago.

Harper really understands how to work small-town prejudices, the tendency to make connections where there are none, to leap to conclusions. The emotions run high in this book, particularly around Kieran and his family, but also on the appearance of Bronte’s parents. You can’t help but feel a parent’s anguish of losing a child. Then there’s all the guilt Kieran feels for the events that led to the earlier tragedy, particularly as he remembers the laddish behaviour, the sexism and one-upmanship he and his mates indulged in. One can’t help hoping he’s a better man now.

The Survivors is another brilliant read by Jane Harper – it doesn’t really matter where she sets her books, because it’s the characters and the way we connect with them that really drives the plot. And living in a country with treacherous coastlines everywhere you look, it was easy for me to visualise the setting and imagine the danger. And yet…. I just love the buzz of reading about the outback and I’m kind of hoping to return there with the next Jane Harper. Still, this one scores and easy four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.

Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.

The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?

The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.

With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.

Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.

Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.

Pandemic Reading Part 2: A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

This book is definitely a little closer to home than The Last Hours, my previous pandemic read. A Lovely Way to Burn describes a modern-day pandemic – the kind that kills virtually everyone who catches it. Unofficially called ‘The Sweats’, it seems to have caught everyone off-guard. There’s no obvious policy for mask-wearing or lock-downs while people panic, party like there’s no tomorrow or carry on as usual.

In the latter category is Londoner Stevie Flint. We meet up with her at work, where she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel. After a busy day persuading people to buy guff they don’t really need, she is miffed to discover her surgeon boyfriend, Simon, has stood her up – no apologetic text or phone-call. Maybe their relationship has run its course, she wonders. Dropping by Simon’s flat to pick up a dress and some rather expensive toiletries she’d left in his bathroom, Stevie finds Simon’s dead body and calls the police.

The problem is, Simon doesn’t seem to have died of The Sweats. The police say it’s natural causes, and yet he was always so fit. Stevie is left to ponder how little she really knew about him, and then she gets sick. When, surprisingly, Stevie recovers she receives a letter from Simon – one of those ‘in the event of my death’ missals which sets her on course for a whole lot of trouble.

Simon worked in paediatrics – in particular, finding a cure for children with cerebral palsy, along with several colleagues who were also his closest friends. Having hidden a laptop containing sensitive information in Stevie’s flat, Simon has requested her to take it to a Mr Reah and absolutely no one else. When Stevie tries to track Reah down at Simon’s hospital, she finds he has died, and not surprisingly, that as a survivor of The Sweats, Stevie is medical hot property.

So begins a gripping cat-and-mouse story, as Stevie, believing Simon to have been murdered, attempts to discover the secrets on the laptop. There are people out to get her, she has to fight off more than one assailant, and take a punt on who to ask for help. In the background, London grinds to a halt, there are curfews and the army rolls in to help maintain order.

I wanted to yell at Stevie that she had to get in some supplies, fill her car up with gas and get out while she could. That she should find a cottage in the country somewhere with a big vegetable garden and maybe a henhouse; that her amateur sleuthing could wait. Simon would still be dead and in a week or two; chances are the evil perpetrator would likely enough be dead too. But then we wouldn’t have had much of a story here, would we?

A Lovely Way to Burn is the kind of book that has you in thrall from page one. It reminded me a little of The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan with our beleaguered heroine holding a secret she doesn’t understand that someone wants to kill for. And there’s the surviving against the odds aspect that ramps things up a gear. It may not be the book for you if you’re squeamish about disease, bodily fluids and the misery of knowing your number’s up and there’s nothing you can do about it. And rats, there are those too.

But however icky things got, I found I couldn’t put the book down. A Lovely Way to Burn is the first in Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy, and I shall look forward to checking in with Stevie again – she’s a great character. Will Stevie get out of London, find a bolt-hole to hide in while the world as she knows it disintegrates? What will the world like be after that? A new regime based on subsistence agriculture or will chaos prevail? I can’t wait to find out. Some copy-editing issues did slightly spoil my reading pleasure, so this one’s a three and a half out of five 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.

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.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

nowI am so glad I read Miller’s latest as an ebook because such is the dramatic tension he maintains throughout, that if it had been a regular book, I would have been flipping to the end to see what happened. 

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows John Lacroix, a young English cavalry officer, sent home to recover from terrible events during the retreat from Portugal – we’re talking about the Peninsula Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. He’s barely alive, but under the care of his housekeeper, recovers his health enough to plan a visit to Scotland in search of old folk songs, taking his violin, but also his pistol. He shouldn’t really be doing that – he’s supposed to report back to his regiment. The war is still going and they need all the men they can get.

Another cavalry officer comes looking for him to tell him this but gives him a bit of extended leave. Meanwhile, in Spain, there are reports of a horrific atrocity against a village – rape, pillage, murder, etc. during the retreat. Desperate men do desperate things but someone has to pay to appease the locals. Somehow Captain John Lacroix becomes their man. They send brutish Corporal Calley to deal to him and the infinitely more refined Spanish officer Medina to make sure he does. Continue reading “Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller”

Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

familiarsStacey Halls’s debut novel, The Familiars, concerns the Pendle witch trials which occurred in Lancashire in 1612. It’s a topic Hall has always been fascinated with, according to her author blurb, and it shows. The novel is well-researched and instead of taking the easy path and writing a story around her own made-up characters, virtually all the book’s personnel really existed.

First off there is Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, whose main role in life is to produce an heir. She’s had three miscarriages already, and just when she begins to feel she might be pregnant again, she finds a doctor’s letter to husband Richard to say that giving birth is likely to kill her.

Still pale and sickly from her last miscarriage, Fleetwood is helped by her unexpected friendship with midwife Alice Grey and gradually she begins to hope she may survive to be a mother. But when Alice is accused of witchcraft and murder, Fleetwood has to fight back if she wants to save both her friend and her own life. Continue reading “Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls”