In a bid to avoid thinking about my PhD, which I pick up next month following a 12 month extended maternity sabbatical and hope that by the start of March I have realised where I put my brain, I have read a series of modern paperback editions of various novels since birth of Son No 2. For those of you keen to pick up a pageturner, please read on. You’ll find the usual smattering of psychological thrillers amongst the rabble of course. And, reader, I hope your copies of books will not be covered in lashings of Sudocreme and mashed banana as mine are. Anyway, enough about my sex life. Read on, Macduff.
Michelle Frances, The Girlfriend
Hugely enjoyable escapist thriller about a desperate girl from a humble background who sets cap at well-heeled Kensington chap with a large head and an equally large W11 basement extension. Conflict appears in the shape of his adoring mother who occupies her time arranging three course family breakfasts surrounded by enormous, sad white flowers in circular bowls which appear to be the floral calling card of the urban rich. With its well-plotted series of calamitous and dramatic events (quick engagements, dire canoeing accidents, comas, mortal illnesses, sad Croydon mothers staring into empty biscuit tins, and large swimming pools in oligarch-style houses where Bad Things Happen) and its anti-heroine intent on “marrying up” it could be straight from the pen of a Victorian sensation writer such as M E Braddon. Rollicking read. Take bets on who is going to end up dead in a hole by the end.
Sarah J Naughton, Tattle Tale
An excellently written chilling tale, about a young man killed as he fell from the bannister of the stairwell of his hostel, and his estranged sister attempting to work out what happened to him. The dead man’s eerie fiancee cuts an interesting is-she-or-isn’t-she crazy character, and the disturbing tale of childhood abuse was succinctly and sparsely written, burning with the horror of the unsaid. Who was the dead man really in love with? And how does this slot in with old grievances concerning disloyalty? Told in a London of chilly orange streetlights, threat and distrust, this was a compelling read, deftly told, although it occasionally suffered from the slightly awkward structure of the flashbacks. A recommended read, well-edited and impossible to put down. For those with a flavour for the graver and grimmer side of the mystery genre.
Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight
This was a hearty, satisfying sort of read concerning five university friends who spend the best part of a year weekending at one of their number’s (Lucas’s) inherited stately pile in deepest, darkest, squelchiest Oxfordshire. Told in the first person by Joanna, who works as a tabloid journalist but who has aspirations to upgrade her literary work to publications where words of more than three syllables are permitted, the story really grabs you when she romantically – and disastrously – involved with Lucas. The dire romance provokes psychological traumas which Lucas seems intent on projecting onto everyone else, whose the decadent, poisonous inheritance the house offers hangs around like an unwanted ghost. Characterisation was particularly good, plotting was taut – even taking into account the ending which sadly spun into soap opera territory. Evocative and atmospheric, this would suit readers who enjoy the Daphne du Maurier Creepy Houses Histories section of the local library.
Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin No 10
One of the joys of this reading year has been the discovery of Ruth Ware, a psychological crime thriller author who’s invaded the Top Ten lists like nobody’s business. I loved this tense novel because the main setting for it was the location that is at the top of my (Hyacinth) Bucket List – a North Norwegian cruise to the Northern Lights. Fresh fish, cable knit sweaters, iced vodka and bracing air. However, my desire to go anywhere north of Oslo was quashed immediately after reading this. A freelance female journalist (textbook female traits : damaged, thoughtful, jaded, heavy drinker and smoker) thinks covering a terribly smart five star northern lights cruise is the best way to recover from a violent break-in in her flat. (Man, balaclava, four a.m., your basic nightmare). On her first night on the boat she realises she has forgotten her mascara (women: is this not worse than the Man, balaclava, four a.m. scenario in ALL HONESTY IS IT NOT WORSE) so she goes to the cabin next door, No 10, and borrows a mascara from the woman in the room. She goes to enjoy a pseudo-Scandi-ish evening of warm white wine with a host of other dreadful journalists, only to witness a body being thrown from the neighbouring cabin window. However, when she tries to alert those on board she is told no one ever checked in to Cabin No 10, no one is missing from the boat and no persons on board are missing. Was there ever a victim? If so, who wants to conceal her death? The claustrophobic life on board ship is described with great visceral energy, the writing taut and the plotting worthy of Agatha Christie. This is a prime A+ example of the thriller genre. A wonderful sense of tying up the loose ends fills the last ten pages; when all the narrative strands become neatly tucked in, and you’re left with the satisfying “there that goes, all done, and filled up…” feeling that comes from filling the tank full to the brim of petrol and driving the car off the station forecourt on a sunny day.
Ruth Ware, In A Dark, Dark Wood
A woman you went to school with, who you have not heard from in twelve years, invites you to her hen weekend in a remote, ultra-modern glass house in distant Northumberland. You’re sitting in your Hackney pied-a-terre (predictive text : “pies and terror”) clutching you new life fondly between your cosy urban hands and wondering why this person has invited you. Our heroine lays down her crafted Dalston macchiato in its rainforest friendly cup and heads off to a a real forest in a remote part of England where the weather takes up 90% of the landscape and there is so much space that there is nowhere to hide. The mood and pace shift enticingly to a dark Northumberland night, a cast of five people with shared histories, a slew of drugs and booze and an accidentally loaded shotgun. I mean, for God’s sake, what could POSSIBLY go wrong. Sounds like a lovely LastMinute hols to me. Only it isn’t of course. Who pulled the trigger, and why? Her characters are vital; totally credible. There’s also lots of blood. Great plotting again from Ware.
Emma Cline, The Girls
Much praise has come Cline’s way for this novel; and deservedly so. The story is told in the voice of a woman, now in her late 50s, in present day California. Her memory tracks back to a golden time – her late teens, an endless summer, the outlandish teenager-ish belief that a unique, special destiny is carved out for her – but from the start the teenager’s world is stagnant, a clammy boredom and frustration pervades the pages as our lonely heroine gets drawn into the world of a late 1960s cult figure. Inspired by the Manson murders, the story continues to shuttle back and forward from the present to the late 1960s, pulling the reader into the darkness and fractured logic of the cult’s activities. This is a startling book, very beautifully written, concerned with the quicksilver way a teenager desperate for affection can slip into a murkier world, and a telling truth about the impossibility of escaping from the past in its pages. Outstanding.
Elizabeth Buchan, The New Mrs Clifton
Clapham, 1974. The new owners of a house beside the common discover the body of a woman in their back garden. Approximately 30 years old, the story sets out to discover who this woman was. The bulk of the story is set in 1945-7, the days of fragile recovery at the end of the Second World War. Gus returns from active service to the family house where his two sisters live. But he has brought a bride from Berlin. Why? Who is this woman he has thrown his English fiancee over for? What hold does she have over him? How will the locals ever accept a German in their community? What darkness have they shared in Berlin? The dynamics of the sibling relationships shift and change in surprising directions. Life after the war appears as reckless and hysterical as life during it, for some characters. London remains dusty and decimated, paranoid and hopeless. The echoes of spying and conflict still ripple through the streets. The climax of the novel is great – if a little odd that the 1974 storyline that picked up the start of the tale is not fully completed and tied up at the end.
Cass Green, The Woman Next Door
Another discovery from the local library shelves, this is a great yarn. A glamorous, wealthy housewife has a dowdy, elderly neighbour called Hester, whose loneliness brings her to see her friendship with the younger woman as having much more meaning than it truly has. Gauche and out of place at the occasional soirees she is invited to, the older, fastidious lady is a good-humoured embarrassment. But the power base of the friendship shifts dramatically when the elderly neighbour sees something she should not have seen, and uses it as an opportunity to keep a secret – and in doing so keep the woman under her influence and control. Clever, creepy suburban psychological thriller, with Hester as a particularly memorable, prim, dark personality.
Books I did not like
Sam Hepburn, Her Secret Life
I read this in the throes of post-partum hormone lunacy so I am so very sorry Mr (or Ms?) Hepburn but forgive me when I say that the celebrity chef character at the centre of this had a life that must have been very secret because three months on I can’t remember what it was. I think one of the secrets centred on a buxom lady who ran one of those Oxfordshire pubs that serves nothing but warm beer and cold cream teas but to be honest I might be confusing that with a dream I once had. The pace got stuck a lot and the scenes – particularly in kitchens or concerning lifestyle / interior design choices – felt repetitive. However, would be somewhat perplexed if a certain Gizzi Erskine does not see a slight resemblance in the vintage hairstyle, facial features, make up and dazzling array of pastel-coloured kitchen equipment that our heroine basks in here. Disappointing.
Rachel Hore, The Dream House
I’ve been reading Rachel Hore on and off for a couple of years, launching myself into her back catalogue when I read the very good The Silent Tide. But the more I read her, the more formulaic I’m discovering her novels to be, the more two dimensional her characterisations and the more predictable the plots are. It’s as if she’s discovered a recipe that works and so is determined to cook the same thing for every single dinner party she ever has. I can see where the lines are going to fall, and I find that frustrating and sad because I really wanted to like her books. I finally snapped and the will to live left me completely when I read “Max, who had left his terrine untouched to concentrate on Kate’s story…” and there was no other option but the throw the book out of the window. Hore, the honeymoon’s over. Stop writing the same book over and over again with nothing different except a winsome photograph of a stately home’s rusty wrought iron gate on the front cover, and a man with lots of dark eyebrow hair who turns up in the plot a third of the way through, wears very neat clothes, has a terribly unlucky romantic history, unravels a family secret from 1932 and, rather depressingly, “makes love” to our unsuspecting heroine 26 pages before the end, and 4 pages before it’s revealed what really happened re : family secret on / around / inspired by Second World War when someone feel into doomed love with a watercolourist. It’s a novel, not a victoria sponge. Change the recipe. You can do better.