‘The Family Upstairs’ – Lisa Jewell

A curious read that was, for the early stages, confusing and – at times – irritating, but also which eventually had me astounded at the manipulative behaviour of the characters within its pages.

The story focuses on two different timeframes, and quite a large cast of characters though we only get detailed viewpoints from a number of them. On her 25th birthday Libby receives a letter that she had been prepared for – a letter from a solicitor representing her real parents. The letter tells her that because nobody else has come forward she now is the owner of a very large house in Chelsea worth millions.

Upon visiting the house, it’s clear to Libby that there’s a story to her past. She is determined to find out what she can…and it’s a story so strange that it’s almost hard to believe it.

Alongside Libby’s story we have the view of Henry, one of those living in this home before things went so horribly wrong. A wealthy family, mother charmed by a manipulative conman and a bizarre set of circumstances that leads to a most puzzling situation. Henry is not the most reliable of narrators, and when he appears in Libby’s present it definitely becomes more tense.

For me the thing that was most off-putting was the switching between the past and present, and the mysterious Lucy whose role didn’t become clear until a lot later on. However, if you don’t mind having to work that little bit harder to piece things together then you’ll probably really get your teeth into this.

It’s a fascinating psychological study, and though there’s plenty of questions left unanswered there’s more than enough here to satisfy most readers.

 

‘The Apartment’ – K.L. Slater

A quick thriller that draws you in despite the rather obvious holes in the story. Thanks to NetGalley for the entertainment, and I’d recommend this for anyone wanting an easy escapist read.

It’s clear from the outset that there is something weird being set-up. We don’t know exactly what, and there’s a few attempts to divert our attention until the author chooses to make their revelation.

Our main character, Freya, tells us she’s always been used to relying on herself and that she doesn’t trust easily. So, her decision to trust a random stranger who offers her a cheap apartment in a pretty exclusive area of London seems odd. We are told she’s recently widowed,so perhaps this could excuse her seeming lack of judgment.

Misgivings aside, Freya and her daughter move in. Determined to make it work, Freya overlooks the weird things that happen and the strange behaviour of her landlord. She clings to the friendship of the pleasant old lady who lives below them, and who strikes up a friendship of sorts with the young daughter.

From early on we are aware someone is watching these two. This someone has a plan, and we know it’s linked to a past experiment carried out by someone with the same surname as Freya’s new landlord. We’re suspicious, and I was keen to see just when/how the full story would be revealed.

If I’m being entirely honest this probably wouldn’t hold up to close scrutiny, but if you’re prepared to overlook these elements you’ll find plenty here to entertain you.

 

‘Glass Dolls’ – D.E. White

I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for my thoughts. Having just finished, my head is spinning. There are a lot of coincidences in this book, and it’s painful to think such evil could go under the radar so easily, but this was a story that really never let up.

The main focus for our story is Dove, a police officer who has clearly experienced some trauma in the line of duty. We first encounter her as she is called in to examine a body. This body is of a young woman, found entombed in a solid glass case. Immediately we are told that this killing bears many of the hallmarks of a previous case – that has been solved, and the guy responsible is dead. So, who is responsible for this copycat?

It’s important to not have too much detail before reading this. The glass doll case and the links to earlier events are clearly important, and feature heavily. As does the background information about Dove and her family.

It doesn’t take long before we start to realise that Dove and her family are more deeply involved in these events than you might expect. As more and more details are unearthed, we are let into some of the past of the family. Each new revelation ramps up the tension we feel for the current situation. By the end I wasn’t surprised by anything we learned, but I was left with a deep sense of admiration for these women…

 

‘Keep Him Close’ – Emily Koch

Keep Him Close is one of those books that will get under your skin, and make you re-evaluate yourself and your interactions with others.

After a dramatic opening that establishes something deeply upsetting has taken place, but offers little further, we focus on an almost mundane everyday experience – a mother preparing for one of her sons to leave for university, and a growing fractiousness with her younger son who seems to be growing apart from her. The conversation in the loft hints at problems and secrets, but we go no further. Then we learn that one of the boys doesn’t come home that night.

Alongside this family horror we have another mother, one who has to come to terms with the fact that her only son has been charged with murder.

The question of what actually happened the night Lou died does eat away at us. Was he pushed? Did he fall? Why was he fighting with his brother’s friend? Why were they on the third floor of the car park anyway?

There’s no quick answers. Some of them are hinted at early on, but we’re never entirely sure how the snippets of information link.

What intrigued me about this was the shifting perspectives. We see the viewpoints of both mothers, and a rather odd set of circumstances that lead to them working together to get the answers they so desperately crave.

While our main story is resolved fairly neatly, there are so many things left unsaid. This, no doubt, is deliberate but it left a rather unsettled feel to things.
Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication in exchange for my honest thoughts.

 

‘All Your Twisted Secrets’ – Diana Urban

I’d been very much looking forward to this, and it did entertain me though I was left feeling a little underwhelmed by the end.

Amber is our narrator. A keen musician, she has tried hard to fall in with the popular group in school – even doing things that go against her ideals, and failing to stand up for her best friend. She – along with a group of her peers – is invited to a special dinner in a local hotel as a chance to win a scholarship. The door shuts behind them, then they’re told they have an hour to decide which of them should die (being injected with a lethal poison) in order to stop a bomb being detonated.

What follows is a rundown of how the group spend their last hour trying to decide what to do. They unpick their behaviours over the last year and we learn – through their conversation and flashbacks – some of the secrets each is hiding and why they might have someone who wants them dead.

The start of the book felt slow. It’s once they’re in the room that we come to know a little more about each character, but there’s little to make us feel particularly about any of them. I had an inkling of who was behind it, and it seemed odd to me that nobody put two and two together before we got to the big reveal. Things were, in part, resolved by the end but nobody really seemed to learn from this experience and it all seemed a little unnecessary.

 

‘Strangers’ – C.L. Taylor

A well-constructed thriller, that culminates in a tense event, before trying to tie everything up in a way that had me shaking my head.
Our three main characters – Ursula, Gareth and Alice – are strangers. They exist on the periphery of one another, and are connected though we don’t learn how until late on.
Each of these three has something impacting on their life. Ursula blames herself for the death of her boyfriend. Gareth is struggling to cope with caring for his mother. Alice is a mother trying to start dating again. We follow them through the small steps they make to move forward, but little things start taking place that have us suspicious as to what exactly is going on. In the background are rumours of a serial killer murdering lone men on the riverbank – though this is very much a minor detail.
Much of the action takes place in the homes of the three characters, or the shopping centre in Bristol that ties them together. We grow to learn a lot about each character. Though they may not be all that likeable in some ways, what we learn about them does impact on how we react to each.
As events progress we start to piece together little details. The growing sense of unease ratchets up the tension, eventually leading us to the ‘big finale’ where a number of key questions are resolved.
While I found myself totally caught up in the story I felt less as we neared the conclusion. Some of the actions felt quite unlikely based on what we knew of the characters, and the need to resolve every little detail (yes, I’m talking about the seemingly minor background plot detail of the disappearing men) did mean we were suddenly dropped into something that made little sense. Perhaps this was felt necessary to tie up loose ends, but it made me rethink some of what I’d read and, personally, I could have left events with this never being explained more fully.
Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read this prior to publication.

 

‘Grace is Gone’ – Emily Elgar

While this begins slowly, it soon picks up pace and becomes a fascinating read. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read it prior to publication.

The story focuses on what happens when Meg, a much-loved local woman, is found murdered in her home. Her daughter, Grace, is missing and so begins a tense hunt to discover what happened to her and try to find her alive.

Watching this story unfold is a journalist called Jon who seems unhealthily interested in this story. As we follow him through his day, we learn why. This family is known to him. Things between them didn’t end amicably years earlier when Jon interviewed them and suggested Meg’s ex should not have been cut out of Grace’s life in the way he was. With Simon, Grace’s dad, the prime suspect for this kidnapping we guess it’s only a matter of time until we find the truth.

Simon is, eventually, found. He refuses to cooperate with the police, but asks to talk to Jon. Breaking with protocol, focused only on getting Grace back safely, this is allowed. And so begins a tale stranger than any you could invent.

Not knowing crucial information is essential to the success of the book. Whatever our views of the characters involved, it certainly raises interesting questions about criminality and human behaviour. The ending is ambiguous, and this definitely encourages us to reflect on the information we have been given and consider what we would do with it.

 

‘The Murder at the Vicarage’ – Agatha Christie

I’ve read very few novels by Agatha Christie, but I have clear memories of Miss Marple being shown on tv when I was younger. First impressions do count…and I’d always had this vague recollection of her being a rather prim and interfering elderly woman.

My overwhelming response after reading this was that Miss Marple as she appears here was the germ of an idea, but she’s not fully formed. In fact, we see very little of her – just an appearance at key moments. She is presented as shrewd yet on the ‘busybody’ side – always hovering and overhearing/seeing things she perhaps doesn’t need to.

In this first of the Marple series we focus on the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the kind of man many could find reason to kill. He’s found shot in the Vicarage and we follow the vicar and various villagers around as they try to establish the truth.

There’s the usual red herrings thrown in, and what was proven here was that sometimes the obvious solutions are the truth. People are, at heart, quite predictable and observation counts for an awful lot.

 

‘In the Clearing’ – J.P. Pomare

I was able to read In the Clearing thanks to Secret Readers, and this is a book I will definitely recommend.

We have two clear voices telling the majority of the story. There’s a young girl called Amy who we can see is part of a cult and she recounts some of the abuses and brainwashing she endures at the hands of those she calls family. And then there’s Freya, a woman who hints at a traumatic past, who lives with her young son Billy. A familiar face from Freya’s past pops up, and somehow we know these events are connected but aren’t sure how.

As the story progresses I was quite horrified by the details we’re given about life in The Clearing and the way this group is organised. This is not comfortable reading.

Freya herself is not a particularly easy character to empathise with. Abrasive and, at times, her own worst enemy. However, when her son disappears we start to sense there is more to come.

What I was struck by was the way in which the various strands come together. I genuinely did not see some of these links, and the ending gave me serious goosebumps as I can only imagine where this might go.

 

‘The Escape Room’ – Megan Gouldin

Perhaps there’s a small part of me that wants to intensely dislike one of our main characters, but once we learn what she’s actually done there was a part of me that shook my head in admiration and felt rather pleased for her, even though she’s not someone I found particularly likeable.

The construction of this book was so interesting.

We begin with a prologue that tells us how everything is going to end. A security man in an office building hears what he thinks is a series of gunshots. Nobody else is meant to be in the office, so he immediately calls the police. They don’t take him seriously…until they arrive to find an elevator with four people inside – three of whom are dead – and a lot of blood. Of course we have questions!

The focus then shifts to thirty odd hours previously where the four people found in the lift arrive at this building for what they think is a training exercise…an escape room task to help them bond. It sounds a ridiculous premise for a Friday evening, but as we delve into their moments in the lift and learn about them/their work on Wall Street for a highly successful company, it doesn’t sound quite so unfeasible.

Alongside the account of the time in the lift, which slowly uncovers the animosity between these characters, we have the narrative of another worker in the company – Sarah Hall – who joined them not long before this event. We are shown some of the daily life of such high-profile workers. It is brutal. None of the characters we meet – including Sarah – are particularly likeable. They may not have always been so selfish, but this environment brings out the worst in them. Without batting an eyelid they will spend thousands, because to them it is nothing. Vacuous, greedy and ready to stab someone in the back without hesitation these people are not people we are encouraged to feel sympathy for.

Yet for some on the periphery of this experience, this environment is not about money and selfish desires being fulfilled. Rather, it is an intellectual challenge…but such naivety cannot last in this environment.

As we slowly piece together the reality of the elevator setting and the background to each of these characters I found myself desperately hoping that someone would come out of this looking remotely good. While there is a definite murkiness to this resolution, I found myself feeling it could be justified. And for me that juxtaposition between what we know to be right and what we convince ourselves is acceptable lies at the heart of this fast-paced thriller.