Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way

Who killed Ruby

Harper Collins|30 May 2019|403 pages|Review e-book copy|3.5*

Ruby was murdered 32 years ago but her death still affects her family – Stella her mother, Vivienne her younger sister, and Cleo, Vivienne’s 13 year old daughter. Who Killed Ruby?  begins in a house in Peckham, London where the three of them are in shock, as a man lies dead on the kitchen floor. Whilst they wait for the police to arrive, Vivienne asks what they should tell them and Stella replies that they will tell them it is the man who murdered Ruby. This rather begs the question – is it?

The novel then rewinds two months describing the events that led up to that first scene and also reveals the events that led up to Ruby’s murder. It’s a complex tale told mainly from Vivienne’s point of view. She was just a child of eight when the murder happened and it was largely her testimony that convicted Jack Delaney, Ruby’s boyfriend. She had been alone in the house when she found her sister’s pregnant body splayed out on her bedroom floor. Jack has always protested his innocence and now he has been released from prison. But Vivienne is vague about the details of the murder, having blocked out her memories of what had happened and what she had seen. Plagued by nightmares ever since Ruby was killed, she is now terrified that Jack will come looking for her, wanting revenge.

The second viewpoint is Cleo’s. She is excited about the messages she’s exchanging online with Daniel, who she met on a gaming site. He tells her he is 14 and lives in Leeds. She lies to Vivienne about it and says that she is texting her friend Layla. Gradually Vivienne begins to remember what happened the day that Ruby died, but when Cleo disappears she becomes frantic, certain that Jack has taken her.

It is a tense and emotional mystery that kept me guessing to the very end. My suspicions about Cleo turned out to be partly correct, but as for who killed Ruby I was thrown off track by all the different characters who could be the culprit and I just couldn’t decide who I thought it could be. When the identity of the killer was revealed I was so surprised as it was someone I’d not even considered. I wasn’t convinced by some of the characters and thought they were too obviously there to confuse the reader. But overall I did enjoy the book. And I liked the emphasis on family relationships – particularly on the mother/daughter relationships.

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

The Bear Pit by S G MacLean

Bear Pit

Quercus/ 11 July 2019/Paperback/ 416 pages/ Review copy/ 5*

S G MacLean is one of my favourite authors of historical fiction, so I was delighted to read her latest book, The Bear Pit.  It is the fourth book in her Damien Seeker series, set during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. I’ve read the previous three books. Reading them takes me back to England in the 17th century, a time and a place full of danger and unrest, teeming with spies, exiles and assassins. Whilst I  was happy to read them as standalones, I think it would help to follow the progression of events if they are read in order.

This one begins in September 1656 as three men are waiting for Oliver Cromwell to emerge from Westminster Abbey on his way to the State Opening of Parliament in Parliament House. Their plan to assassinate Cromwell had been in preparation in Cologne and Bruges for a year and a half, but that day it was thwarted. However, they will not give up.

Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime, running a virtual secret service. Thurloe is floundering under all the reports from the Continent about plots against Cromwell’s life and to reinstate Charles Stuart as King. He tells Seeker until they have corroboration of the rumours they don’t have the time or capability to look into the matter. Not wanting to go against Thurloe’s orders, Seeker decides to take part in a raid on an illegal gaming house which ends with the discovery of the body of an elderly man chained to the wall by his neck and half eaten, obviously ravaged by a bear. But bear baiting had been banned and all the bears had been shot recently – or so it was claimed. Where had the bear come from and why was the man killed? And what connection, if any, does the murder have to the plots to kill Cromwell?

Like all good historical fiction The Bear Pit blends historical fact and fiction. There was indeed a plot to assassinate Cromwell in the autumn and winter of 1656 as described in the novel, whereas the mystery of the man killed by a bear and the subsequent search for the bear’s whereabouts are fictional. 

Some of the things I enjoy in this book are the return of characters from the earlier books -Sir Thomas Faithly, Lawrence Ingoldby, Manon, Marie Ellingworth, to mention just a few, and the glimpses we see of other historical figures – such as John Evelyn, a young Samuel Pepys, the poet Andrew Marvell as well as John Milton and one of my favourite historical figures when I was at school – Prince Rupert of the Rhine. I was fascinated by the details of The Cabinet of Curiosities, assembled by John Tradescant and his son, in Tradescant’s Garden in South Lambeth. In her Author’s Note S G MacLean states that these were indeed, very much in existence and were open for business as well as being a public attraction. The remains of the collection are held in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. 

S G MacLean is a wonderful storyteller and her books are full of authentic detail skilfully interwoven in the stories without holding up the action. The Bear Pit is a fast-paced book, full of action and danger and wonderful characters, especially in the figure of Damien Seeker. He is the hero of the book – strong, dedicated to his work, indefatigable in his search of the truth and loyal to his friends and colleagues. The atmospheric setting complements the plot – the streets of London in winter, the cold, fog and damp and in particular Bankside in Southwark and the eerie atmospheric wastes of Lambeth Marsh. I was completely absorbed in the book. I found it compelling reading both the murder mystery and the assassination plot gripped me and I raced through it, eager to find out what happened. I was absolutely incredulous at the ending though, but it does give me hope that there may be fifth Damian Seeker novel.

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

Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill

Beneath the surface

Penguin UK – Michael Joseph|11 July 2019|403 pages|Review e-book copy|4*

I loved Fiona Neill’s novel The Betrayals, so I had high expectations for Beneath the Surface, another family drama. It’s set in the Fens, where Patrick and Grace Vermuyden and their two daughters, teenager Lilly and ten year old Mia, are living in badly built, damp and draughty house. Grace says it’s because the marshland beneath is reclaiming the land. It’s not just the land and the house that cause the problems the family face. They’re a dysfunctional family, all of them keeping their secrets well hidden from each other – as the subtitle indicates: Everyone Lies.

Patrick’s in debt, Grace keeps the tragedy of her childhood to herself, wanting her daughters to have the happy childhood denied to her, Lilly seems to have everything going for her, a clever girl who looks set to do well and go to university, until she suffers a seizure and collapses at school. Whilst Lilly spends time in hospital as they try to discover what is the cause of her illness Grace discovers to her great dismay that Lilly has been living a secret life.

As for Mia, she is a problem child and always in trouble at school. Her only friend is Tas, who lives in a caravan on the Travellers’ site.  She’s an eccentric child with a vivid imagination, who keeps an eel she calls Elvis, in a bucket in her bedroom and she has a knack of saying the most inappropriate remarks at the wrong time. At times I really didn’t like her much – especially for keeping the eel in captivity and also because of the barefaced lies she sometimes tells. And it is Mia’s actions, for ever wildly thinking up reasons for what is going on around her that add to their problems.  Even as she tries to put things right everything just seems to get worse.

Beneath the Surface is an emotionally charged novel about the burden of keeping secrets and the effects that misunderstandings and lies can have. In parts I found the story weighed down with words, but I was gripped by it and anxious for all the characters as it seemed they were in an ever decreasing spiral of disastrous events. After quite a slow start it gradually builds to a dramatic climax that took me totally by surprise. 

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

The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

House by the loch

Two Roads|19 June 2019|384 pages|Review e-book copy|4*

I loved Kirsty Wark’s debut novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, so I was keen to read her second book, The House by the Loch. I enjoyed it very much. It’s a beautifully written family saga covering three generations. It has a strong sense of place and goes deep within the characters’ inner lives, hopes and fears. And as mysteries and secrets, losses and tragedy are gradually revealed I became totally absorbed by the story. At times immensely sad it is also uplifting. It’s set in Galloway in Scotland, south of Ayr near the Galloway Hills, mainly around Loch Doon.

The House by the Loch begins when ten-year-old Walter MacMillan witnessed a Spitfire crashing into Loch Doon in October 1941, based on a real incident. It was something he never forgot and he built a cairn as a memorial to the pilot. The narrative switches between the 1950s and the present day, telling of Walter’s marriage to Jean, a vibrant young woman when he first met her, his relationship with his children, Patrick and Fiona, and his grandchildren, Carson, Iona and Pete. They all have their problems and difficulties within their relationships, but matters come to a head one weekend when there is another tragedy in the loch.

This is a book that you need to take your time reading, a book to savour and reflect upon at leisure. It has a slow meditative pace as the beautiful scenery of the Galloway landscape unfolds in front of your eyes. But it is the characters themselves that kept me turning the pages, centred on Walter and his granddaughters Carson and Iona. Walter is an immensely patient man, but he was unprepared for the effect living in isolation in the house by the Loch had on Jean, who came to see it as a prison, and on their marriage and children.

Even the minor characters came across to me as real people – Edith, for example, Jean’s mother, an elegant beautiful woman who couldn’t leave her house and garden, feeling she might collapse, and her father brash businessman Billy. Then there are Marie, who helped Jean when she couldn’t look after Carson and Iona, Fiona, who struggled with her marriage, Elinor, Patrick’s wife and her sister, Meg and also Walter’s cousins who only come into the story in the latter part of the book.

Kirsty Wark’s love of Scotland comes over very strongly in this novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it reminded me of family sagas I’d read years ago – books that swept me along as the secrets of earlier generations impact on their descendants. It’s about family relationships, happiness, love, loss and heartbreak.

About Kirsty Wark

She is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who has presented a wide range of BBC programmes over the past thirty years, from the ground-breaking Late Show to the nightly current affairs show Newsnight and the weekly Arts and Cultural review and comment show, The Review Show. Her debut novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, was published in March 2014 by Two Roads and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as nominated for the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award. Her second novel, The House by the Loch, has been inspired by her childhood memories and family, particularly her father. Born in Dumfries and educated in Ayr, Scotland, Kirsty now lives in Glasgow.

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

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.