Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas

Then She Vanishes

Penguin UK – Michael Joseph|27 June 2019|403 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

I loved the other books by Claire Douglas that I’ve read – her third and fourth books, Last Seen Alive and Do Not Disturb, so I had high expectations for her latest book, Then She Vanishes. I was not disappointed – it is brilliant. It gripped me from the start and never let me go. It has twist upon twist upon twist, until I began to doubt everything I’d thought about what I’d read – I was guessing right up to the end when all is revealed. And even then the final twist took me by surprise. So good!

What more can I say? The opening is dramatic as a killer calmly and coolly considers which house harbours the victim and then enters and shoots first a man and then an older woman. Who are they and why were they killed in cold blood?

Enter Jess, a journalist reporting on the murders in the seaside Somerset town of Tilby for the local newspaper, The Bristol and Somerset Herald. She has recently returned to Tilby, her home town, after working in London and is keen to make a name for herself. But it’s not going to be easy, for it turns out that the murderer is Heather, her best friend from school. Heather is unconscious in hospital having tried to take her own life.

Jess can’t believe that her kind, generous friend Heather is capable of killing anyone. So, Jess is torn – how can she report objectively on the case and how will Heather and Margot, Heather’s mother, react when they realise she is a journalist? Their friendship had ended after Heather’s older sister Flora had disappeared, and both girls had withheld what they knew about Flora – Jess still feels guilty about what she did that summer of 1994. The story alternates between events in the present day, and in 1994 when Flora was last seen, told from Margot’s perspective. As Jess investigates she discovers things about Heather and her family she had not known as a young teenager.

Needless to say, but this is a book in which many family secrets are eventually uncovered. It delves into the nature of mother/daughter/sister relationships and of friendship and guilt. To write too much about the plot would only spoil it – you have to experience it as you read to get the full impact. At first it seems quite simple and straight forward, but of course, it isn’t.

Now, I want to read her first two books, The Sisters and Local Girl Missing.

Many thanks to the publishers, Penguin UK – Michael Joseph, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

Those who are loved

Headline Review|30 May 2019|496 pages|Review e-book copy|4.5*

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop is one of the most moving novels I’ve read for a long time. But it begins slowly and it was only at about the halfway stage that it really took off for me. And now I’ve come to write about it I’m finding it difficult to put into words just how exceptional I think it is. Whatever I write will not do it justice – it really is ‘an epic tale of an ordinary woman compelled to live an extraordinary life‘.

It is historical fiction ‘set against the backdrop of the German occupation of Greece, the subsequent civil war and a military dictatorship, all of which left deep scars.’

The main character is Themis Koralis/Stravidis (in Greek mythology Themis is the personification of fairness and natural law). In 2016 she is a great grandmother and realising that her grandchildren knew very little about Greek history she decided to tell them her life story, beginning from when she was a small child in the 1930s, through the German occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the civil war that followed, then the oppressive rule of the military junta and the abolition of the Greek monarchy, up to the present day.

As she grew up she and her brothers and sister had many disagreements, holding differing political opinions, which came to a head when the Germans invaded Athens in 1941.  Themis and her brother Panos joined the communist party in their fight against the Germans, whilst her other brother Thanasis and her sister Margarita opposed them, hating the communists’ views and believing that Germany was a friend of Greece, not a foe.

During the civil war Themis was imprisoned on the islands of exile, Makronisos and then Trikeri. Her experiences were horrific, but only strengthened her determination to survive. On Makronisos she met Aliki, also a member of the communist party, and when Aliki is condemned to death, Themis promises to find and raise Aliki’s son, Nikos as her own.

During the early part of the book I felt it was rather like reading a history book. But then, the book sprang to life, the pace increased, and I was totally gripped and moved as history and fiction came together dramatically in glorious technicolor, telling the story of the characters personal lives and their parts in the action.

I have only skimmed the surface of this book – there is so much more to the story than I can mention here. But after the slow start I loved it, even though it is not a book I can say I ‘enjoyed’. It is a powerful and shocking story of remarkable characters faced with brutal and traumatic events. It has a completely convincing and vivid sense of location. I knew next to nothing about this period in Greek history before and I was astounded by what I learnt. 

On a personal note, the earthquake in Athens on 7 September 1999 plays a part in the story. We were there then on holiday. We had been out at sea on that day and travelled back to our hotel through Athens, seeing some of the destruction and terror it caused. The earthquake had been felt at our hotel in Marathon – people had been thrown out of the swimming pool and later that evening we could still feel the aftershocks.

Many thanks to the publishers, Headline Review, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession

Doll Factory

Picador|2 May 2019|336 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is one of the best books I read so far this year. It captivated me with its tale of Iris, the young woman who worked painting dolls in Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium, but who dreamed of being an artist. It tells of her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite artists – in particular with Louis Frost (a fictional character) who attracted by her beauty and her red hair wants her to model for him. She agrees, despite the disapproval of her parents and twin sister Rose, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. Meanwhile Silas Reed, a taxidermist and a collector of curiosities, worships her from afar and fantasises that she returns his love.  

But it’s much more than my brief outline conveys. This is historical fiction that transports me back in time and place to the 1850s when the Great Exhibition is being constructed and then opened to the public, a time when the young artists who had recently formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, first formed in the summer of 1848, are challenging the art world with their vivid paintings, at once both stylised and naturalistic. The descriptions take me straight into London of the early 1850s with all its sights and smells, its squalor and bustling crowds as people go about their daily lives.

There are some really memorable characters, such as ten year old Albie, who collects dead creatures for Silas. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, in a ramshackle house down a dead-end alley and with just one tooth he dreams of buying a set of false teeth. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt also appear alongside the fictional characters and I loved all the details about their paintings, and their fascination with wombats. Rossetti owned two wombats – the inspiration for Louis’ wombat, Guinevere, who lives in his studio.

As I read on I began to feel a growing sense of menace and the tension between the characters rose almost to an unbearable peak as the book reached its conclusion. It’s full of atmosphere, dark and gothic towards the end as it reached its climax – and left me wanting more. It’s wonderful – historical fiction, art history, and a love story as well as a dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.  I loved it!

About the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Codename Villanelle

John Murray|6 September 2018|224 pages|Review e-book copy|3*

Originally published as ebook singles: Codename VillanelleHollowpointShanghai and Odessa.

Synopsis from the publishers:

She is the perfect assassin. A Russian orphan, saved from the death penalty for the brutal revenge she took on her gangster father’s killers. Ruthlessly trained. Given a new life. New names, new faces – whichever fits. Her paymasters call themselves The Twelve. But she knows nothing of them. Konstantin is the man who saved her and the one she answers to. She is Villanelle. Without conscience. Without guilt. Without weakness.

Eve Polastri is the woman who hunts her. MI5, until one error of judgment costs her everything. Then stopping a ruthless assassin becomes more than her job. It becomes personal.

I loved the brilliant TV series Killing Eve and when I saw that Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings was the basis for the series I was really keen on reading it. However, this is one of those rare occasions when I preferred the adaptation to the book. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did – just not as much as the TV version. Now, that may be because I watched the TV series first – but I don’t think so. They begin at different points in the story. Codename Villanelle begins by introducing Villanelle, giving her background, real name and the details of her training as an assassin with the codename Villanelle, and her paymasters, known as The Twelve. Thus the suspense in that is built up in the TV series by not knowing anything about her other than her codename, just isn’t there in the book.

Both are fast paced, although the action sequences come over much better on TV, as you would expect.  Both portray Villanelle as a young woman who is psychologically invulnerable – a ruthless and successful killer, experiencing neither pain nor horror and totally unaffected by the pain she inflicts on others or the murders she carries out. But the dynamic between Villanelle and Eve Polastri that plays a large role in the TV series is missing in the book and there are several other changes too.

The book ends before the ending shown in the TV series and I’m assuming the next book Killing Eve: No Tomorrowwill continue the story, which I’m planning to read in the near future. There is a third book on the way too – Killing Eve: Endgame

About the Author

Luke Jennings is a London-based author and journalist who has written for The Observer, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Time. He is the author of Blood Knots, short-listed for the Samuel Johnson and William Hill prizes, and the Booker Prize-nominated Atlantic.

My thanks to the publishers, John Murray, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.’

Mrs Whistler

The Borough Press|2 May 2019|465 pages|Paperback Review copy|5*

I loved this novel about the American artist James McNeill Whistler and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin, the ‘Mrs Whistler‘ of the title. I’m familiar with some of his paintings, his Nocturnes and the portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, known as Whistler’s Mother, but knew nothing about his private life. He was painting at the same time as the Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century and some of his paintings seem to me to be similar in style to their work, but I think he is above all an individual, standing on his own. I love his signature, a stylised butterfly based on his initials, that heads up some of the chapters in Mrs Whistler.

Whistler Arrangement in White and Black Maud Franklin 1876
Maud Franklin (Arrangement in White and Black) by Whistler 1876

The book covers two episodes in their lives during the years 1876 to 1880 – a bitter feud with his patron Francis Leyland about his fee for painting The Peacock Room, and the libel trial in which Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin, over a review that dismissed him as a fraud. Ruskin had criticised Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, accusing him of asking for ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ These two events brought Whistler to the point of bankruptcy.

Whistler Nocturne in black and gold
Nocturne in Black and Gold (c.1875, Detroit Institute of Arts)

And interwoven is the story of Maud and her relationship with Whistler. Maud, as the title indicates, is the main character, on the borders of society she is not only his model, but also the mother of two of his children – both fostered at birth. Alongside these two are Whistler’s so-called friend, the flamboyant and duplicitous Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl, and Howell’s mistress Rosa Corder.

It’s a good story, albeit a long one, that moves quite slowly through these four years. I loved all the detail – of Whistler’s impetuous and rebellious character, his relationship with his brother and mother (the real Mrs Whistler), as well as with Maud – and the details of the house he had built in London on Tite Street in Chelsea, which he called the White House, his flight to Venice and most of all about his paintings.

In his Author’s Note Matthew Plampin lists the books he consulted in writing his novel and referenced the online archive of Whistler’s correspondence at the University of Glasgow, which he used, as he puts it, for ‘many of this novel’s best lines.He explains that there are gaps in the records – notably about Maud. The American art critic Elizabeth Pennell and her husband Joseph had compiled a biography of Whistler in 1903, but they found that certain details were elusive. They had questions about Howell, about the saga of The Peacock Room and about Maud. Maud was still alive at the time but refused to talk to the Pennells, as they described it: ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.‘  Plampin’s fictionalised biography fills in some of the gaps in the story, imagining what Maud thought and how she coped with Whistler’s behaviour and attitude towards her and especially about how she felt about her daughters, living with their foster family.

Many thanks to the publishers, The Borough Press for my review copy via NetGalley.

About the Author

Matthew Plampin completed a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art and now lectures on nineteenth-century art and architecture. He is the author of five novels, The Street Philosopher, The Devil’s Acre, Illumination, Will & Tom and Mrs Whistler. He lives in London with his family.

The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley

The Butterfly Room

Macmillan|2 May 2019|624 pages|Review copy|4*

If you love family sagas spanning generations then you’ll love The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley. This is a standalone novel and the first book by Lucinda Riley that I have read, although I have some of her Seven Sisters series waiting to be read.

The story revolves around Posy Montague and her family home, Admiral House in the Suffolk countryside, a house that had been in her family for generations. The narrative alternates between the different periods of her life from her childhood in the 1940s to the present day in 2006 as she nears her seventieth birthday. It is not a fast paced book but moves in a leisurely fashion through the various decades building a complex picture of her life.

Her early childhood years were idyllic spent with her parents at Admiral House. It was then that her love of nature began as her beloved father encouraged her to draw plants and showed her how to catch butterflies. The Butterfly Room in the Folly in the grounds of Admiral House plays an important role in the book. As a child Posy thought it looked like a fairy-tale castle with its turret made of yellow sandy brick. It was there that her father spent a lot of time on his own and she imagined it as a place where fairies and their butterfly friends lived. However, as the story developed it was clear to me that the Folly was not the wonderful place she imagined – and there is a dark secret hidden behind its locked door.

After a period spent with her grandmother in Cornwall and her time at Cambridge University followed by a job at Kew Gardens, she married and returned to Admiral House where she brought up her two sons. Years later the house is in desperate need of restoration, which Posy can’t afford and she is faced with the prospect of selling it, despite all the memories it holds and the beautiful garden she had created in the grounds.

But life is never straightforward for Posy and her two sons both present her with almost insurmountable problems. Then Freddie arrives on the scene, a man who broke her heart fifty years earlier when he suddenly ended their engagement without any explanation. He is still reluctant to tell her why and much as she wants to trust him she hesitates.

There is so much more in the book than I’ve mentioned here, too much to reveal in this post without spoiling the story.  I used to read family sagas like this years ago, books I used to race through and read one after another. I don’t think they have quite the same appeal to me these days, but I did enjoy it, and even though I think it is too long, it kept my attention to the end. Maybe because I read a lot of crime fiction I could see what would happen to some of the characters, but as for the secret of the Butterfly Room, I guessed some of the truth, but not the whole secret! It reads well, is a page-turner, full of interesting situations and believable characters. A minor criticism, which is purely personal, is that I became so tired of Posy addressing her family and friends as darling/dear boy/girl so often.

Many thanks to the publishers, Macmillan for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Broken Mirror by Jonathan Coe

A fable for all ages about a mirror which reflects an alternative world

The Broken Mirror

Unbound|November 2017|81 pages|Library book|4*

The Broken Mirror was first published in Italian in 2012. It is a collaboration between novelist Jonathan Coe and Chiara Coccorese, an Italian artist, and is described as ‘a political parable for children, a contemporary fairy tale for adults, and a fable for all ages.. It’s published by Unbound, a publishing house funded directly by readers  

The hardback book is lovely to hold and the coloured illustrations are beautiful. It tells the story of Claire, a little girl of eight, who finds a fragment of a broken mirror in a rubbish dump behind her house. This is no ordinary mirror, as what she sees reflected in it is a beautiful world so unlike the real world around her. It’s a world full of colour, where her house is transformed into a castle, just like the sandcastle she had built at the beach on holiday – a fairy tale world, so much more exciting and magical than the real world. As Claire’s father remarks, Claire lives in a dream world.

By the time Claire reaches her teens she doesn’t look in the mirror as often. But she is dissatisfied with her life and, seeing her home town being spoilt by property developers and how badly immigrants are treated, she begins to look into it more and more, where she sees a better way of life. Then Claire meets other people who also have a fragment of broken mirror  – she is not alone with her dreams of a better world.

It is well written and I enjoyed reading it. Coe shows a society in crisis and how it might be improved. It’s a simple story, simply told but presenting important issues, ending with the possibility of a better future.