‘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 Rules’ – Tracy Darnton

Amber has, for as long as she remembers, been prepared by her father to expect the unexpected. As a survivalist he insisted on teaching her how to prepare for the worst. Her key rule was to ensure she followed his rules.

We’re not sure what happened, but we see Amber is in foster care. She is in the UK, and we learn her mother has died. A letter from Amber’s father has arrived from America and it immediately puts Amber on alert. She realises she will have to leave.

We follow Amber on her journey to try and learn more about her father’s plans. She doesn’t trust him, and journeys to familiar places in her attempt to learn what she needs.

For someone who is meant to be so well-trained she seems to make some silly mistakes. She places her trust in another person who used to be in foster care with her, and this results in some crazy decisions being made. Before too long, Amber’s father catches up with her and we start to glimpse for ourselves the extent to which one man’s delusions can impact on the lives of those around him.

Throughout the story I got a sense that things weren’t quite what we thought. Amber made some strange decisions, and the details of her past indicated there may be more to the story that she was telling us.

When we get to the rather explosive finale it seems to justify what Amber had told us, but it also suggested that perhaps Amber was better prepared than she wanted to let on!

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this, and I’m curious to see how this goes down (particularly in light of recent events that may have led people to question the extent to which they are reliant on others).

 

‘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…

 

‘Wilderness’ – B.E. Jones

A dark and fast-paced thriller with a definite psychological edge…and one that might have you watching your nearest and dearest very closely indeed.

The story seems fairly straightforward in some ways. Young married couple move to America. Husband has an affair with a co-worker. Wife finds out and decides to forgive him…but then organises a road trip to give her errant husband the chance to show he’s changed. Things aren’t going well, and it seems the wife is going to take the opportunity to remove her husband from the situation. But things don’t quite work out like that.

Our narrator, Liv, is definitely cut from a very special kind of cloth. Initially, I felt every sympathy for her and the situation she finds herself in. However, as we learn more about her actions over time, I couldn’t believe she was still walking round free. A dangerous woman, but the level of her danger doesn’t really become clear until the end.

This is certainly a story it’s best not to know too much about before reading. It’s a fast-paced story and one that was unsettling once we knew a little more detail about the characters and the events. There’s a lot of coincidences within the story, but it was still a good read.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this prior to publication.

 

‘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.

 

‘Eight Perfect Murders’ – Peter Swanson

Malcolm Kershaw – bookstore worker, widow and suspect in a series of murders. At least that’s what we’re led to believe initially.

Malcolm narrates his story, and it’s clear we’re not being told everything. The question is, what’s being hidden and why? When an FBI agent asks to speak with Mal in connection to a series of murders we’re immediately intrigued. There seems to be a link between a number of deaths and a blog post written some years ago by Mal called Eight Perfect Murders. Someone appears to be using the list to carry out their own killing spree.

While the initial idea seems rather far-fetched, we slowly learn further details that indicates there is indeed a link. We also get told by Mal himself that he’s hiding things. The details he does give us mean we have developed a sense of trust and I certainly didn’t want to think badly of him.

As the story develops little details are revealed that start to affect the way we regard Mal. His actions become increasingly strange, and it’s evident that there’s twists coming…but it’s all about working out why and when this info is given.

It’s hard to say more without inadvertently revealing details that are crucial to the book’s success. While I’d not read all the books mentioned on the list, the literary link was appealing and Mal – though evidently not quite the good guy I had him pegged as initially – has a rather mercurial charm. By the notional end I felt rather disappointed that things were going to go that way.

A huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this in exchange for my thoughts.

 

‘The Guest List’ – Lydia Foley

Will Slater, TV star of a survival show, is due to marry Jules Keegan on a remote Irish island. The two look perfect together, and Jules is – with the help of her sister, best friend and the wedding planner – determined to make this day special.

We start by being introduced to the dramatic moment when a body is discovered on the night of the wedding. We’re not told who, and I assumed it would be a fairly straight-forward ‘whodunnit’.

Immediately after this dramatic announcement we are introduced to some of the key characters of the story. As we learn a little more about each character we realise that many of them are harbouring secrets, and we do realise that a number of characters have good reason to want Will dead.

As the story progresses it was fascinating to see the menace such an isolated setting could generate. The cast of characters were flawed in many ways, and yet it was not until quite late on that we actually got answers as to how certain stories and events linked.

While the story was told in a way that kept you guessing I can’t help but feel that the ending all got wrapped up just a little too quickly.

 

‘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.