Books I’ve read in 2016
City of Shadows, Michael Russell
In Dublin 1934 detective Stefan Gillespie arrests a German doctor and meets Hannah Rosen who is desperate to find her missing friend who has been involved with a priest. When the bodies of a man and a woman are discovered it becomes clear this is not simply a missing persons investigation. Stefan and Hannah trace the evidence across Europe to Danzig where the Nazi party is gaining power.
A classy and intelligent detective novel that fully engaged me from start to finish. It seemed very well researched and I found the history of Danzig especially interesting.
The Tea Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jeffries
Nineteen year old Gwendolyn Hopper moves out to Ceylon determined to be the perfect wife and mother. But she finds life there very different from what she expected. The discovery of a child’s grave in the grounds sets her wondering about her husband’s past but she also has a secret of her own and there is no one she can trust…
A compelling read that I enjoyed mostly for its beautifully written, vividly painted settings but it also has an intriguing plot and well drawn characters. Although the revelations didn’t come as a surprise, they were logical outcomes and well delivered.
Secrets in the Stones – Tessa Harris
In the sixth and final instalment of this series about the anatomist Doctor Thomas Silkstone, Lady Lydia is released from Bedlam only to find herself a murder suspect when she stumbles on the body of vile Sir Montagu Malthus. Can Thomas clear Lydia’s name? During his investigation he discovers that the murder was committed using a ceremonial Sikh dagger from India – a clue that may be connected to the lost mines of Golconda…
Another brilliant plot by Tessa Harris – full of suspense with lots of twists and turns and vividly captured settings
A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler
A portrait of an American family spread over four generations revealing amid the high points and celebrations jealousies, disappointments and closely guarded secrets…
This is one of those stories where nothing much happens but somehow it keeps you turning the pages. The characters are all so well depicted, especially Abby and the prodigal son Denny, that I missed them after I finished the book.
The Outcast – Sadie Jones
When nineteen year old Lewis is released from prison in 1957 he receives a hostile reception. We’re taken back to just after the Second World War when his troubles began. Alienated by the repressive suburban society in which he lives, Lewis is left even more isolated by the death of his mother, leading him to find his own solution to his grief. The one person who understands the adolescent Lewis is Kit, the daughter of his father’s boss but she has problems of her own – a violent father who beats her and a flirtatious sister who’s out to catch Lewis’s eye…
I loved everything about this book. It’s brilliantly written, cleverly plotted and the characters all all complex and believable.
The Edge of the Fall – Kate Williams
This is the second book in the de Witt trilogy that traces the fortunes of a family from 1914 to 1939. In the aftermath of the Great War the family are struggling to piece together the shattered fragments of their lives but a mystery surrounds the death of young, trusting Louisa and her caddish cousin Arthur with whom she has fled to London…
I hadn’t read the prequel to this, The Storms of War, but the story seemed to stand well on its own. I loved the family dynamics and the period setting. The author weaves in lots of authentic detail without making the novel read like a history book. The visit to Baden Baden was especially interesting. The style is a bit melodramatic for me in places (people gasping and fainting at news) and I didn’t like the way the characters address each other throughout the book as ‘husband’, ‘brother’, ‘cousin’ etc. I’d also have liked more of a surprise ending but these niggles aside it’s a very enjoyable read.
The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell
In this dual narrative Lexie Sinclair is drawn from rural Devon to London to experience life in postwar bohemian society with the older and more worldly Innes Kent with whom she falls deeply in love. Fifty years on, Ted and Elina are a contemporary couple who have just had their first child and both are afflicted by memory problems. Finnish painter Elina can only remember bits and pieces from before the birth and wonders if she will ever paint again, while Ted is fighting off flashbacks he can’t even recognise…
I’m a big fan of Maggie O’Farrell so I was expecting to like this and wasn’t disappointed although it isn’t my favourite of her books. The writing style is elegant and poetic, the characters are brilliantly portrayed and I loved seeing how the two stories eventually came together.
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
In the 1920s a genteel widow and her spinster daughter Frances are forced to let rooms in their Camberwell villa to make ends meet, having been left with considerable debts. The Barbers, a gaudy, working class couple, move in bringing with them laughter, music and risqué attitudes. Frances and Lillian Barber embark on a secret love affair which ends in tragedy and a dramatic court case.
This is a powerful book – beautifully written with convincing period details and strong, believable characters. It gives an insight into the era – the death of the old order and the dawning of a new age. The tension builds steadily up to the satisfying end.
Vault – Ruth Rendell
This is the sequel to A Sight For Sore Eyes and features Inspector Wexford in retirement. Reg and Dora have moved from Kingsmarkham to a renovated coachouse in London owned by their daughter. After a chance meeting Rex is invited to advise on a murder case. Some bodies have been discovered in the coal hole of an attractive house in St John’s Wood during a basement conversion.
I’m a huge fan of Ruth Rendell and thought there were some great aspects to this novel although for me it didn’t quite live up to some of her other books. I hadn’t realised before reading it that it was a sequel and it might have helped to have read the other book first as I did find it a bit confusing. However, I loved the premise with basement conversions being so popular at the moment and liked the characters although there were quite a lot of them to keep track of.
The Shape of Snakes – Minette Walters
A woman is determined to get justice for a neighbour ‘Mad Annie’ who died under suspicious circumstances 20 years ago – but she finds herself up against a wall of bigotry and indifference.
An uncomfortable but brilliant read – dark and disturbing with lots of twists. As usual with Minette Walters the characters are deeply flawed and none of them very likeable and yet the story is compelling. It raises issues of racism, class warfare and prejudice against people with mental illness. As the tale unfolds we see what lengths people are prepared to go to in order to protect themselves and keep their secrets.
Messandrierre – Angela Wren
The first in a French detective series. Having left his investigative job in Paris, Jacque Foret has only a matter of weeks to solve a series of mysterious disappearances in the rural French village of Messandrierre. To complicate matters further one of the suspects is a woman he is in love with…
I thoroughly enjoyed this detective story set in the beautifully described French countryside. The plot was interesting and the characters engaging. I’m looking forward to the next book in this series.
The House at Zaronza – Vanessa Couchman
A story of love, loss and reconciliation in a strict patriarchal society. Rachel, a young woman staying at a house in Corsica is intrigued by a collection of love letters and delves into their history. The story unfolds to reveal a secret romance at the start of the 20th century between a village schoolteacher and Maria, the daughter of a bourgeois family who have different plans for her future. Her story is played out against the backdrop of World War I. As Rachel finds out more she discovers something interesting about her own past.
I loved this. It’s beautifully written and the settings are so evocative. I was immediately attracted to the book by its beautiful cover and title – it was clear the story was about an intriguing house in an exotic location. I like the way the plot develops and found the story got better and better as it went along. The war section is particularly interesting and obviously well researched and the ending is satisfying.
The Secret of Lakeham Abbey – Sally Quilford
Fourteen year old Percy Sullivan’s family take Lakeham Abbey for the summer hoping for a quiet break away from battered post-war London. But when the housekeeper is convicted of murder and admits to the crime Percy is convinced she is innocent and is determined to save her from the gallows. He launches an investigation to find out what really happened, gathering everyone together at the end so he can reveal his findings.
Expertly done. I love stories about intriguing houses and the secrets they hold so had high hopes for this book. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s cleverly plotted with engaging characters who each give their side of the story leading to some startling revelations. I will look out for more books by this author.
Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith
Vic and Melinda’s loveless marriage is held together by an agreement that to avoid the embarrassment and mess of a divorce Melinda is allowed to take other lovers. She does so but flaunts them publicly until Vic, unable to suppress his jealousy any longer, tries to win her back by putting about a story that he has killed one of them – but then fantasy becomes reality.
This is a chilling, complex portrayal of a disturbed and dangerous man. Patricia Highsmith had a knack of evoking sympathy for her villains, allowing us to get right inside Vic’s head and see things from his point of view. He is calm, polite and self-restrained while his wife is appalling. But when he says to one of her lovers “I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody I kill him” we get a sense of where this might lead. A friend points out to Vic “You’re like someone waiting patiently and one day – you’ll do something.” As with many of her stories the tension builds not so much over what he might do but whether he will get away with it.
The Ninth Hour – Claire Stibbe
The first in a series of Detective Temeke stories. When the ninth young girl falls into the clutches of a serial killer, maverick detective David Temeke enters a race against time to save her life. The killer keeps the body parts of eight young victims as trophies and has a worrying obsession with number nine. Can Temeke unravel the mysteries of Norse legends and thwart the killer before he dismembers the next victim?
A grisly but gripping tale. It’s well plotted with plenty of tension and the pace keeps up throughout. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys procedural crime thrillers.
Lamplight – Olga Swan
In 1912 eighteen year old David Klein runs away from the poverty and orthodoxy of his Jewish home in Birmingham for the bright lights and opportunities of New York. But trouble is in store as he boards the ill-fated Titanic and nearly drowns. The story moves between New York, Birmingham and eventually Breslau in Germany where, working as a war reporter, he meets Karin. Together they live through the growing terror of the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1938.
I really enjoyed this. David and Karin are essentially good people in a bad world. They have to make the most difficult decisions, not knowing who they can trust. David might seem a bit naive in going to Germany at that time but if you read the book you’ll find he has a mission of his own. Although on occasions I felt that the historical information could have been delivered a bit more subtly, it’s an engrossing read and I’ve already bought the sequel.
Stranger Child – Rachel Abbott
When Emma marries David he’s a man shattered by grief after his first wife was killed in a car crash and his six year old daughter Natasha disappeared from the scene of the crash. But just as Emma thinks the painful years are behind them and they have built a new life together with their baby Ollie, Natasha walks back in and turns their lives upside down. It’s clear she’s been through a terrible experience but Emma is frightened for herself and her baby. When Emma reaches out to her old friend DCI Tom Douglas for help she unwittingly puts all their lives in jeopardy.
A taut, brilliantly plotted psychological thriller. The characters are all well developed and believable, there are plenty of twists and the tension mounts throughout. I read it in one go.
The Italian Matchmaker – Santa Montefiore
Part of the Valentina series. After his marriage breaks down Luca leaves his successful city job and soulless existence in search of serenity at his parents’ home Palazzo Montelimone on the Amalfi coast. But life there is not as peaceful as he’d hoped. The palazzo is filled with his mother’s eccentric friends and haunted by ghosts of its murderous past…
I haven’t read any other books by this author as the covers didn’t really appeal but I brought this with me to read on holiday in Italy and it was a perfect choice. It’s a feel-good story with lovely descriptions and is more than just a romance as it also includes a mystery attached to the palazzo, Luca’s unusual ability and the unexpected identity of the matchmaker. I’d recommend it to people who enjoyed reading The Enchanted April.
The House Sitter – Jill Barry
How much would you entrust to your house sitter? Your dog? Your clothes and jewellery? Your husband? When Suzanne and Eddie decide to move house they neglect to confide in neighbour Ruth Morgan who feels slighted. Against the dramatic landscape of mid Wales a series of unfortunate events seems destined to ruin the couple’s plans, especially when they go away leaving Ruth in charge. A tenacious estate agent and a prospective purchaser start to suspect Ruth’s motives…
I really enjoyed this. Ruth is a delightfully horrid villain whose antics kept me turning the pages to find out where it would all lead. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a lighthearted character-based crime story.
The Summer of Secrets – Sarah Jasmon
Set in the 1980s – sixteen year old Helen’s lonely life becomes much more interesting when the bohemian Dover family move in next door. As the long, hot days stretch out in front of them Helen and Victoria become inseparable. But gradually she starts to question whether the family are really what they seem.
This is a beautifully written, atmospheric story with strong, plausible characters. It’s a gradual reveal with a dramatic and powerful conclusion. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes character-based coming of age stories and will look out for more books by this author.
The Sisters – Claire Douglas
After a tragic accident, still haunted by her twin sister’s death, Abi moves to Bath to make a fresh start but when she meets brother and sister Bea and Ben she is quickly drawn into their privileged and unsettling circle. But strange things start to happen – precious letters go missing, upsetting messages are discovered – and Abi has no idea who to trust, including herself…
A compulsive read. Abi, Bea and Ben are intriguing characters and the plot is full of twists, revolving around a series of secrets and lies. There’s an air of menace throughout, leading to a climactic ending.
Roadkill – Marcia Woolf
What would you do if you were driving along a country lane one night and discovered a man lying dead in the road? Jack and Cookir Garrity do something unexpected. They then witness a second crime which puts them squarely in the frame. What begins as a mystery soon becomes a farce.
Quirky, clever and at times very funny. The main characters are deeply flawed and don’t act in the most logical way but are all the more interesting for that.