Kate Sullivan has a beautiful home, a job she loves and a handsome fiancé: all she’d ever dreamed of since getting sober and painstakingly piecing her life back together.
But a chance encounter with her old best friend Becky threatens Kate’s newfound and fragile happiness. Kate remembers nothing of their last drunken night out, the night Becky broke off their friendship without warning or explanation.
With Becky back in her life, Kate is desperate to make amends for the past. For the closure she craves, Kate needs to know what she did that ruined everything.
But what if the truth is worse than Kate could have imagined?
This novel gripped me from the beginning and I could relate this back to being a young woman, unsure of my place in the world and being uncomfortable in my own skin. It’s depiction of how our fears and demons can shape us if we let them, and the dangers of self-medicating our anxiety and lack of confidence. It was such a thoughtful and honest exploration of female friendship and what can happen when those bonds are broken. As is usually the case in this type of domestic noir when the novel opens Kate appears to have everything. She’s just about to marry her American fiancé Ben, they have a beautiful home and she’s settled into a job she loves as a teacher. However, all of this hasn’t come easily for Kate, because she spent a few of her young adult years totally out of control. Thanks to the 12-step programme she has found a way out of alcoholism, and is on an even keel.
Yet, her past does threaten her perfect future when she meets an old friend by chance. Back in her wilder, drinking, days Becky was a partner in crime. In fact the pair were best friends, until one drunken night out, after which Becky never spoke to Kate again. Kate has no memory of that night. On meeting Becky, she feels the need to make amends for whatever happened that night, even though she doesn’t remember what she’s done wrong.
What distinguished this book from the average thriller was Freud’s compassionate and thorough understanding of alcoholism and the psychological journey individuals take when they embark on their recovery with AA. It was beautifully written, slightly slow in parts, but infused with a creeping unease throughout. I loved the psychological ins and outs of Kate’s journey, because we are inside her mind as she battles her past and tries to hang on to the life she loves. Freud really does nail the complexity of our inner voices and how they can trip us up and knock us off balance. That endless negative chatter that tells us we can’t do this, we’re not worthy and don’t deserve the good things we have in our life. I felt so much empathy for Kate and wanted her to be resilient enough to resist the chatter, and stay on course. I thought the author showed incredible knowledge and compassion for how childhood trauma affects our lives, particularly the struggles to form good, solid relationships. This was a powerfully written thriller, and I will be looking out for whatever the author writes next.
Meet The Author
In her other life, Emily Freud makes TV. She has over ten years experience in development and production and has worked on some of the most loved, talked about and award-winning series in recent years. Credits include: Educating Yorkshire, First Dates, and SAS: Who Dares Wins. This lifelong fixation with story and character is the thread that runs through her work, and ultimately led to the pursuit of a writing career.
‘My Best Friend’s Secret’ is her debut novel, published by Quercus.
I was meant to be reading this for the recent Random Things Tour, but have been taking a break for family stuff and my health. However, I did read Vol 1 of this series last year so found it very difficult to see the next novel on my TBR and not dive in. So here are my thoughts, a little late, but surely it’s always good to hear someone praise your work? No matter how late they are.
The author opens the novel on a freezing cold day and a bleak volcanic crime scene, immersing us straight into both the story and the landscape. Two boys, wandering on the local lava fields have found a body in a small cave. They frightened themselves at first into thinking they’d found a black imp, the body was so dark. However, our heroine and police investigator Elma, believes it may be the body of Marianna, a single mum who disappeared from town seven months previously. Thought to have committed suicide, Marianna left a short and cryptic note on the kitchen table for her daughter Hekla, then was never seen again. Now, it’s clear that this is a murder, and as Elma reviews the files from the previous year, when this started as a missing person investigation, she finds the work less than satisfactory. She can see so many unanswered questions to follow up. Hekla is now in foster care, with a couple who have fostered her many times, before when Marianna was struggling or disappeared. Now Elma’s team will have to wade into the previous investigation, social services files and the difficult life of a children whose parent simply struggled to cope.
I loved the complex psychology behind this story of teenage pregnancy, family expectations and how to be a parent. Added to that is othe challenge of preventing emotional pain passing to another generation. Our investigation is interspersed with a narrative of a young teenage girl who tells us about her life as the mother of an unwanted child. Her identity is not revealed and we don’t know this girl’s connection to the main plot, but her narrative is sad and traumatic to read both for her and her baby daughter. Meanwhile Elma is beginning to understand the difficult and disconnected relationships that surrounded Marianna and her daughter. Hekla was first placed with foster parents at the age of three when Marianna left her home alone while she went on a drug binge. Hekla’s foster parents were a wealthy, stable couple who made no attempt to hide how much they would have loved to take Hekla on permanently, but Child Protection Services had a policy of trying to keep children with their birth families as much as possible. Elma can see the theory behind this, but starts to wonder whether it’s a policy that actually fails children in practice. So, Hekla leads a life of moving back and forth between Marianna, who was harsh and belittled her daughter, and a foster mother who wanted to be more than her support family. If Hekla had been given the choice, she would have chosen to stay with her support family, but instead was pulled between them, both literally and emotionally. She describes how she feels:
‘It’s strange to be six years old and feel as if you’re a black stain on a white sheet. As if the world is in headlong flight and all you can do is grab hold and try not to fall off.’
Trying to act as gently as possible, Elma must speak to both Hekla and her support family about inconsistencies in their stories. She doesn’t want to cause more distress, but Hekla is a girl of secrets and perhaps lies too. There are parts of this story that might be upsetting for someone who has been through the care system or had a dysfunctional parent. Marianna is barely able to cope with her own life, never mind being a parent. I love that we are party to Elma’s thought processes around the case, and on her private life. As she reflects at the end of each day, the author hints strongly at unresolved trauma in Elma’s own past. There’s also the dilemma in her private life, where the loss of her partner to suicide has affected her more than she lets on. She’s not ready to have real, deep feelings for someone, preferring no strings encounters. Yet she does have feelings for someone, and if she doesn’t act on them, will it be too late? The proximity of her family, and the support she receives from them, is both helpful and irritating by turns. This is her home town, so she knows all the allegiances and quirks of the community, something which can have its own problems when investigating such an emotive crime.
The first half is slower and more thoughtful, giving the reader time to soak up the atmosphere and Hekla’s experiences. In the second part, the pace quickens and the past also catches up as our mystery narrator is revealed – a reveal that had me reassessing everything I’d thought before. In a world where every thriller boasts twists and turns galore, this one packed a punch, was truly clever and had played with my misconceptions of who it might be. Another thing that really hit home for me, as the stepmum to two teenage daughters, was just how damaging the constant wrangling between co-parents becomes. I thought the character of Hekla was pitched perfectly, with a deep understanding of being a teenage girl. She showed that need to belong, to be accepted, whilst also feeling complete isolation – that nobody in the world understood her or had felt what was going in on her head. This is an age where being singled out as different is painful, it takes time to work out that your originality is your super power. This was a tense and compelling read, with undercurrents of deep melancholy that seemed to come from Elma and the forbidding landscape. This was a psychologically astute murder mystery, with deep empathy and a strong sense of place. I would recommend it highly.
Meet The Author
Born in Akranes in 1988, Eva moved to Trondheim, Norway to study MSc in Globalisation when she was 25. After moving back home having completed her MSc, she knew it was time to start working on her novel. Eva has wanted to write books since she was 15 years old, having won a short story contest in Iceland. Eva worked as a stewardess to make ends meet while she wrote her first novel, The Creak on the Stairs. The book went on to win the Blackbird Award, was shortlisted (twice) for the Capital Crime Readers’ Awards, and became a number one bestseller in Iceland. Eva lives with her husband and three children in Reykjavík, and she’s currently working on the third book in the Forbidden Iceland series.
I feel slightly sucker punched only seconds after finishing this fantastic new thriller from Louise Candlish – a name I only came across when it appeared as a ‘you might also like’ recommendation on Amazon, but is now top of my list when it comes to twisty, delicious and impossible to put down thrillers. After the final twists in The Heights I think this might be her best yet. She has an incredibly incisive way of portraying middle class southern morés and the way they change and mutate under immense pressure. It’s like reading a weaponised Jane Austen for the 21st Century; what if Willoughby had been a killer or Wickham had kidnapped then killed Lydia? These are the same type of people, centuries apart, but still playing out gender and class politics. Except now it’s from a beautiful Victorian semi (with a large family room leading to bifold doors into the garden with pizza oven).
Kieran Watts has been dead for over two years. Yet, there he is, on the roof terrace of an exclusive building in Shad Thames. Called the heights – all lower case – this is a tall, thin building that you might not notice at all, had you not been standing in the window of the flat opposite. There are subtle changes. The physique for a start has had some work. There may even be a touch of plastic surgery here and there, but you know it’s him. Even though he’s meant to be dead. You were sure he was dead, because you were the one who had him killed.
Ellen Saint lives with husband Justin, their daughter Freya and Ellen’s son Lucas from her previous marriage to Vic. They really are the perfect family unit, with a shared parenting ethos for Lucas and everyone getting along well. Lucas is a bright teenager, possibly on course to apply to Oxbridge, who loves gaming and spending time with friends and girlfriend Jade. Then along comes Kieran Watts. Kieran moves nearby after being taking into care and placed into a foster home with Prisca. This puts him into the catchment area for Lucas’s school and on Kieran’s first day, Lucas is asked to ‘buddy’ Kieran and help him settle in. The two boys really hit it off and from here starts a spiral that’s only travelling one way, towards tragedy. Firstly, Lucas goes out a lot with Kieran and some older kids, who have cars. Then his grades start to slip and he uses bad language at home. Ellen fears his late nights, mornings in bed and red- rimmed eyes are down to drugs. She tries to reduce his time with Kieran, but only succeeds in pushing them together. Lucas and his girlfriend Jade, find Kieran funny. Ellen doesn’t. She sees the way Kieran looks at her. It’s bad enough when he’s dead behind the eyes, but when focused on her, Ellen sees defiance, challenge and threat. Tragedy strikes one evening, as the boys are out in Kieran’s car and veer off road into a lake. Kieran escapes, but Lucas’s seatbelt is jammed. Ellen can stop imagining her son in his final moments of realisation, panic and terrible fear. Kieran will be made to pay for this.
Ellen is a very single-minded character and I was never sure whether I liked her or not. There are times I think she was a snob, only wanting her son to be with other middle class kids. She also seems to be obsessed with Lucas at the expense of her daughter. Obviously she loves her children, but how much of her interest in Lucas is fuelled by his good looks, his academic prowess and future promise as a potential Oxbridge student. There is an element of Ellen’s concern which is caught up in what others think. She’s still very close with Vic, Lucas’s father, but he has a very different way of parenting. He has no qualms about Kieran, and let’s them hang out at his place. Ellen likes to think that she and Vic are on the same page and is proud of their ability to co-parent alongside her new husband Justin, but is Vic really in tune with Ellen’s values? I kept wondering if this small act of undermining Ellen, was a sign of greater betrayals to come. Similarly, Ellen acts unilaterally as soon as she sees Kieran at the heights. I was surprised that she never once talked with Justin, so they don’t work together on this discovery. After Kieran was sentenced for his part in Lucas’s accident, Ellen starts a media campaign about stronger sentencing for deaths caused by dangerous driving. However, Vic is her partner in this with Justin holding the fort at home. Don’t they agree? Or does Ellen simply disregard his feelings? Her love for her son and her deep sense of grief are driving her forwards and are stronger than her feelings for either husband or her daughter.
As usual Louise Candlish has written a fantastic thriller here. It has all the ingredients that keep you reading till the early hours. Short, snappy chapters keep the pace and tension throughout. There are twists and turns galore! Her incredible ability to analyse and dissect human nature is forensic in its detail. She lampoons middle class concerns here perfectly, from Ellen’s home that Vic remarks is just the right location and style for his ex-wife, to her determination that Lucas is Oxbridge material and shouldn’t be dragged backwards by someone like Kieran. Her children, on the other hand, are more than happy to mix with friends from different backgrounds. Ellen would probably consider herself liberal, but her actions and attitude betray other, perhaps more conservative values. Her very public campaign for longer sentencing seemed to be a distraction, something to throw herself into that potentially delays her grief. It was fascinating to see how such a seismic loss, affects each family member differently. This combination of raw family emotion and tense, thrilling, revelations makes for an incredibly intelligent and enjoyable read that’s impossible to put down until you read the final page.
Meet The Author
Louise Candlish is the author of 15 novels, a fact she can’t quite believe herself. THE HEIGHTS is her newest – Louise Candlish describes it as a ‘twisty revenge thriller whose narrator, Ellen, has a strange fear of heights known as ‘high place phenomenon’. You could say she’s my most Hitchcock-inspired character yet! I can’t wait for you to read it and share your thoughts.’
‘A bit about me: I live in a South London neighbourhood not unlike the one in my books, with my husband, teenage daughter, and a fox-red Labrador called Bertie who is the apple of my eye. Books, TV and long walks have been my top sanity savers during recent times. Oh, and wine’. From her Amazon Author page.
This was an unexpectedly quirky and refreshing take on the obsessional friendship trope, a theme I’ve loved ever since watching Single White Female back in the 1990’s. This is the first of the author’s novels to be translated into English from the original Japanese. I was surprised by that, because there was something about the writing style and the main character that I thought would appeal to the British reader. I thought earlier novels might have also appealed to British readers. The daily eccentricities of the the Woman in the Purple Skirt the man m were charming and intriguing, so it was that and my curiosity about the motives of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan that drew me in to the story. There is also an interesting, melancholic sense of humour that struck me as something British reader would enjoy.
There are some characteristics that the two women share, such as living standards and finances. It’s possible that both are lonely and are living from hand to mouth, but what drives the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan to get up and watch her every move? What does she want? Eventually, she lures the Woman in the Purple Skirt to a job with the cleaning agency where she works as a hotel housekeeper. This brings the women into proximity, but instead of a friendship emerging, the Woman in a Purple Skirt falls into an affair with the boss. This is the main difference between the women; the Woman in a Yellow Cardigan only watches, while the Woman in a Purple Skirt actually lives. I felt this distinction very strongly and wondered whether there would be resentment or even anger towards the Woman in a Purple Skirt. This is where the book really ventures into thriller territory as the women meet and we see the dynamics of female relationships, the obsessiveness and that human need to be seen, recognised and even desired. This woman simply wants to be noticed and considered by someone else. Why do people recognise the Woman in the Purple Skirt? What does she have that makes people sit up and take notice?
I found myself thinking about the word ‘sonder’ – one I’m using for my own writing at the moment. It’s a German word to describe the realisation that every random passer by has a life as rich and varied as our own. This seems to be what the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wants to know, the rich complexity of the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life. The woman always wears a purple skirt, it is possibly this and her set daily routine that makes people notice her. As she leaves her apartment every day she is followed and insulted by neighbourhood children, in fact she’s great entertainment for the neighbours who seem equally fascinated by her set routine. Every day she walks to the bakery and buys a single cream cake, takes it to the same park bench and eats it. No one knows who her family are or where she’s from. Her jobs are temporary, she lives alone and doesn’t even attempt to relate to others. She is an enigma, and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her every move, until she knows her daily routine uby heart. Even her appearance is intriguing. From a distance she could pass for a schoolgirl, but up close she has liver spots that belie her age. Her hair is dry, she lives in a small, shabby apartment and is short on money. She looks like one thing, but could very well be another. She’s different, but seems to have carved a life out in the world, something that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan seems to find so difficult.
I thought it was wonderful to have two such complex and multi-dimensional female characters, especially where the relationship between them is the focus. There was a peculiar creeping unease built into the narrative. Japan seems to exude ‘otherness’ like nowhere else, a theme explored in the film Lost in Translation. I lived next to a Japanese Garden for seven years, where English plants and trees were pruned into the shapes of Japanese topiary. Stepping into it from my cottage garden made felt like entering a surreal and alien landscape. That’s a little bit what this book felt like. It was original and refreshing, perfect for if you’re in a reading slump, and a fascinating take on the thriller genre.
Helene Flood has written a fascinating thriller about a therapist, set in Oslo. It’s complexity of character and their motivations probably comes from the fact that the author is a psychologist. Straightaway, I was invested and really excited me to get inside the character’s minds. Sara. and her husband Sigurd live in his family home, a large three storey house they’re currently renovating. Next door is a small addition to the property, housing Sarah’s office and therapy room. On this Friday, Sara is seeing three clients and then settling in for a quiet weekend while Sigurd is on a boy’s weekend away with his best friendS. At lunchtime he leaves Sara a message to say they’ve arrived safely at his family’s cabin and his friend is gathering firewood. She expects to speak to him that evening, so is shocked when one of his friends calls to ask where Sigurd is, as he hasn’t arrived yet. In the days following Sigurd’s disappearance Sara must cope with a very thorough detective searching her house and dissecting her relationship, an intruder breaking into the house, breaking the news to her distracted and narcissistic father, and constantly wondering where Sigurd has gone. On top of everything, she has clients to see.
The story is told in two narratives from Sara’s point of view. In one, we’re in the present day, experiencing the investigation and Sara’s interactions with family and friends in the wake of Sigurd’s disappearance. In the second we meet a very different Sara, as she first meets Sigurd, spends time with friends and makes the decision to move to Oslo. This Sara seems lighter mentally, she’s obviously younger but not by much, so what has changed? The past Sara seems to be enjoying life, despite a stressful clinical post with drug users. Sigurd is also completing his training in architecture and is incredibly busy. The distance between them is something she hadn’t anticipated, she knew they would both be busy, but thought the strength of their feelings would keep them on track. A brief interlude away at a festival with friends sees Sara’s mood lift completely. She starts to relax and enjoy herself. However, there will be secrets kept about this weekend that have huge implications for her future.
Present day Sara seems very controlled and reserved. The author creates this interesting gap between Sara’s interior world and the way she presents herself to the world outside. She is always thinking, analysing and wondering, but her conversation is minimal and gives very little away about how she feels. There’s something called cognitive dissonance going on here, a huge gap between the Sara she presents to others and how she truly feels. There are three core values a therapist should have when seeing clients: authenticity, non-judgement and prizing the client. Sara seems strangely detached from her emotions – still seeing clients even after Sigurd’s disappearance as if nothing’s happened. While this is great for continuity, it isn’t very authentic and I felt that instead of practicing authentically she is wearing her therapist’s role like a mask. Even before she knows about her husband, Sara’s thinking is very ordered. She has the day split into therapy hours, admin time, lunch until she can throw on some pyjamas and chill out. It feels like she’s listing tasks just to get through the day, mentally ticking it off seems like a habit borne out of anxiety or trying to keep motivated when depressed. I wouldn’t say she’s enjoying life much. Their home seems the same, with plans for a beautifully finished house, that are currently a list of tasks they can’t afford. In trying to achieve something ambitious and beautiful, they’ve made their current lives very uncomfortable and messy. The state of the house seems to get Sara down and Sigurd wants her to take on more clients so they have more money to get on with the plans. However, I don’t think Sara is in the mental state to cope with more therapy hours.
I loved the author’s creation of Sara’s narcissistic father, a professor and philosopher with controversial right wing views about crime, family and vigilantism. Sara describes talking to her father, almost like an audience with royalty. It’s so rare to have all his attention on you, it’s difficult just to be his daughter. He seems to give off the sense they should be grateful for his unwavering attention and if either daughter struggles to make use of the time, conversation soon turns to him, his work or one of the many students who seem to loiter round the house like acolytes. In fact Sara is so bewildered by his attention on this occasion she doesn’t tell him her devastating news, but instead debates something totally unrelated with him then goes home again. It’s no surprise that she keeps her vulnerabilities and worries to herself – there’s never been anyone interested in hearing them. Even her sister Annika, although she looks after Sara, drops into her role as lawyer as well as sister. This is partly to remind Sara how she’s being viewed by the police, to remind the police not to take liberties, but also to give herself a professional role to hide behind. It is only when one of Sara’s friends arrives and acts naturally by hugging her, that she even feels like crying.
As Sara starts to undertake her own investigation, secrets start to emerge about the couple’s life together. There has been some distance between them for a while. Her relationship with his family is not a warm one, with Sigurd’s mother resentful that they live in her childhood home – left to Sigurd by his grandfather. They don’t even attempt to look after h er and she foresees a long wrangle over Sigurd’s will. There were arguments at Sigurd’s work with differences in architectural perspectives, and who is the mystery blonde that sometimes wait for Sigurd after work? If his work on the Atkins house was finished long ago, why is it still in his diary and where is he really spending his time. The author keeps us brilliantly on edge with red herrings and reveals galore. We see the police through Sara’s eyes, which might explain why they seem curiously non-committal about everything. We never truly know how they feel about Sara or where the investigation is going. Obviously she is a possible suspect. However, there are points in the investigation, when Sara is sure there is an intruder at the house, where they seem indifferent to her worries and her safety. I was never quite sure whether Sara was the ultimate unreliable narrator and would turn out to be implicated in her husband’s disappearance. She seemed detached from the reality of it, even within the context that their relationship has deteriorated over time. The ending was a surprise and the double reveal was beautifully done, and very satisfying. I stayed up late to finish the last few chapters, because I was so hooked on the story. This was a psychological thriller I would definitely recommend.
Meet The Author
Helene Flood is a psychologist who obtained her doctoral degree on violence, revictimization and trauma-related shame and guilt in 2016. She now works as a psychologist and researcher at the National Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress. She lives in Oslo with her husband and two children. The Therapist is her first adult novel. It has been sold in 27 counties and film rights have been bought by Anonymous Content. Her second novel, The Lover, will be published in English in 2022.
Today I get to share with you an extract from this brilliant sequel to Ellen Alpsten’s novel Tsarina.
When they took everything from her, they didn’t count on her fighting to get it back…
Born into the House of Romanov to the all-powerful Peter the Great and Catherine I, beautiful Tsarevna Elizabeth is the world’s loveliest Princess and the envy of the Russian empire. Insulated by luxury and as a woman free from the burden of statecraft, Elizabeth is seemingly born to pursue her passions.
However, a dark prophecy predicts her fate as inexorably twined with Russia. When her mother dies, Russia is torn, masks fall, and friends become foes. Elizabeth’s idyllic world is upended. By her twenties she is penniless and powerless, living under constant threat. As times change like quicksand, an all-consuming passion emboldens Elizabeth: she must decide whether to take up her role as Russia’s ruler, and what she’s willing to do for her country – and for love.
THE TSARINA’S DAUGHTER
In the Winter Palace, St Nicholas’ Day 6 december 1741
My little cousin Ivan is innocent – he is a baby, and as pure as only a one-year-old can be. But tonight, at my order, the infant Tsar will be declared guilty as charged. I fight the urge to pick him up and kiss him; it would only make things worse. Beyond his nursery door there is a low buzzing sound, like that of angry bees ready to swarm the Winter Palace. Soldiers’ boots scrape and shuffle. Spurs clink like stubby vodka glasses and bayonets are being fixed to muskets. These are the sounds of things to come. The thought spikes my heart with dread. There is no other choice. It is Ivan or me. Only one of us can rule Russia, the other one condemned to a living death. Reigning Russia is a right that has to be earned as much as inherited: he and my cousin, the Regent, doom the country to an eternity under the foreign yoke. Under their rule the realm will be lost; the invisible holy bond between Tsar and people irretrievably severed. I, Elizabeth, am the only surviving child of Peter the Great’s fifteen sons and daughters. Tonight, if I hesitate too long, I might become the last of the siblings to die. Curse the Romanovs! In vain I try to bar from my thoughts the prophecy that has blighted my life. Puddles form on the parquet floor as slush drips from my boots; their worn thigh-high leather is soaked from my dash across St Petersburg.
Despite my being an Imperial Princess – the Tsarevna Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova – no footman had hooked a bearskin across my lap to protect me against the icy wind and driving snow while I sat snug in a sled; I had no muff to raise to my face in that special graceful gesture of the St Petersburg ladies, the damy. My dash towards my date with destiny had been clandestine: snowfall veiled the flickering lights of the lanterns and shrouded the city. Mortal fear drove me on, hurry- ing over bridges, dodging patrolled barriers – the shlagbaumy – and furtively crossing the empty prospects, where my hasty passage left a momentary trace of warmth in the frosty air. This was a night of momentous decision-making that I would have to live with forever. An anointed and crowned Tsar may not be killed, even once he is deposed, as it sets a dangerous prece- dent. Yet he may not live either – at least not in the minds of the Russian people or according to the diplomatic dispatches sent all over Europe. What then is to become of the boy? I feel for Ivan’s limp little hand. I simply cannot resist – never could – nuzzling his chubby, rosy fingers, which are still too small to bear the Imperial seal. We call this game a butterfly’s kiss; it makes him giggle and squeal, and me dissolve with tenderness. I drink in his scent, the talcum powder blended for his sole use in Grasse – vanilla and bergamot, the Tsar’s perfume – carefully recording it to last me a lifetime. The men outside fall quiet. They are waiting for the decision that will both save and damn me. The thought sears my soul. In Ivan’s nursery, the lined French damask drapes are drawn. Thick, pot-bellied clouds hide the December new moon and stars, giving this hour a dense and dreadful darkness. During the day, the seagulls’ cries freeze on their beaks; the chill of night grates skin raw. Any light is as scarce and dear as everything else in St Petersburg. The candle-sellers’ shops, which smell of beeswax, flax and sulphur, do brisk business with both Yuletide and Epiphany approaching. On the opposite quay, the shutters on the flat façades of the city’s palaces and houses are closed, the windows behind them dark. They are swathed in the same brooding silence as the Winter Palace. I am in my father’s house, but this does not mean that I am safe. Far from it – it means quite the opposite.
The Winter Palace’s myriad corridors, hundreds of rooms and dozens of staircases can be as welcoming as a lover’s embrace or as danger- ous as a snake pit. It is Ivan or me: fate has mercilessly driven us towards this moment. The courtiers shun me: no one would bet a kopeck on my future. Will I be sent to a remote convent, even though I do not have an ounce of nun’s flesh about me, as the Spanish envoy, the Duke of Liria, so memorably recorded? I had once been forced to see such an unfortunate woman in her cell; as intended, the sight instilled a terror that would last me a lifetime. Her shorn head was covered in chilblains and her eyes shone with madness. A hunchbacked dwarf, whose tongue had been torn out, was her sole companion, both of them shuffling about in rotten straw like pigs in their sties. Or perhaps there is a sled waiting for me, destination Siberia? I know about this voyage of no return; I have heard the cries, seen the dread and smelled the fear of the banished culprits, be they simple peasants or even the Tsar’s best friend. By the first anniversary of their sentence, all had succumbed to the harsh conditions of the East. Maybe a dark cell in the Trubetzkoi Bastion, the place nobody ever leaves in one piece, will swallow me; or things will be simpler, and I am fated to end up face down in the Neva, drifting between the thick floes of ice, my body crushed and shredded by their sheer force. The soldiers’ impatience is palpable. Just one more breath! Ivan’s wet-nurse is asleep, slumped on her stool, resting amidst his toys: the scattered pieces of a Matryoshka doll, wooden boats, a mechan- ical silver bear that opens its jaws and raises its paws when wound up, and a globe inlaid with Indian ivory and Belgian émaillé. One of the nurse’s pale breasts is still bare from the last feed; she was chosen for her ample alabaster bosom in Moscow’s raucous German Quarter. Ivan is well cared for: Romanov men are of weaker stock than Romanov women, even if no one ever dares to say so. I cele- brated his first year as a time of wonder, offering my little cousin a cross studded with rubies and emeralds for his christening, a gift fit for a Tsar, and put myself in debt to raise an ebony colt in my stables as his Yuletide present.
Ivan’s breathing is growing heavier. The regiment outside his door weighs on his dreams. As I touch his sides, his warmth sends a jolt through my fingers, hitting a Gold in my heart. Oh, to hold him one more time and feel his delightful weight in my arms. I pull my hands back, folding them, though the time for prayers has passed. No pilgrimage can ever absolve me from this sin, even if I slide across the whole of Russia on my knees. Ivan’s lashes flutter, his chin wobbles, he smacks his pink and shiny lips. I cannot bear to see him cry, despite the saying of Russian serfs: ‘Another man’s tears are only water.’ The lightest load will be your greatest burden. The last prophecy is coming to pass. Spare me, I inwardly plead – but I know this is my path, and I will have to walk it to the end, over the pieces of my broken heart. Ivan slides back into slumber; long, dark lashes cast shadows on his round cheeks and his tiny fists open, showing pink, unlined palms. The sight stabs me. Not even the most adept fortune-teller could imagine what the future has in store for Ivan. It is a thought that I refrain from following to its conclusion. Beyond the door utter silence reigns. Is this the calm before the storm my father taught me to fear when we sailed the slate- coloured waters of the Bay of Finland? His fleet had been rolling at anchor in the far distance, masts rising like a marine forest. ‘This is forever Russia,’ he had proudly announced. ‘No Romanov must ever surrender what has been gained by spilling Russian blood.’ In order to strengthen Russia, Father had spared no one. My elder half-brother Alexey, his son and heir, had paid the ultimate price for doubting Russia’s path to progress. Steps approach. My time with Ivan, and life as we know it, is over. I wish this were not necessary. There is a knock on the nursery door, a token rasp of knuckles; so light, it belies its true purpose. It is time to act. Russia will tolerate no further excuses. The soldiers’ nerves are as taut as the springs in a bear trap. I have promised them the world: on a night like this, destinies are forged, fortunes made and lost.
‘Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova?’ I hear the captain of the Imperial Preobrazhensky Regiment addressing me. His son is my godchild, but can I trust him completely for all that? I feel as if I am drowning and shield Ivan’s cradle with my body. In the gilt- framed mirrors I see my face floating ghostly pale above the dark green uniform jacket; my ash-blonde curly hair has slid down from beneath a fur cap. On a simple leather thong around my neck hangs the diamond-studded icon of St Nicholas that is priceless to me. They will have to prise it from my dead body to take it from me. I am almost thirty-two years old. Tonight, I shall not betray my blood. ‘I am ready,’ I say, my voice trembling, bracing myself, as the door bursts open and the soldiers swarm in. Everything comes at a price.
Meet The Author
Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, where she dressed up her many pets and forced them to listen to her stories.
Upon graduating from the ‘Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris’, she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. So much for burning midnight oil!
Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador.
Ellen and Alexa have survived hangovers, dodgy landlords and most of their twenties together.
But can they survive this?
After waking up with a terrible hangover, Ellen’s day is about to get much worse. It’s Saturday morning and a flooded kitchen leads best friends Ellen and Alexa into their attic looking for a stopcock. Their scream, after finding a mouse, leads their friend and housemate Jack up there too. But when Ben – Alexa’s date from the night before – walks in, the handle breaks, and all are trapped.
While Ellen nurses her hangover, she watches her best friend fall for this gorgeous stranger. Only to come to the horrifying realisation that she knows him from somewhere. Frantically searching her memories, Ellen wonders: is Ben really who she thinks he is?
And more importantly, what on earth is she going to do about it . . . ?
This is a fun rom-com and one of those deceptively light novels, that’s actually very difficult to write. It feels light-hearted and restricts the characters to one space – an attic within their shared home. I need a wee every five minutes, so I’d have ransacked every box in the attic for something to force the door open! I can’t possibly wee in a room with strangers! On a more serious note, the attic is a great dramatic device because it heightens tensions and seeing how that affects characters, is so interesting.
To create a good sense of the shifting perspectives in the room, the author gave each character their own narrative in the novel. It worked brilliantly because we could get a sense of how the existing relationships in the house worked, and how Ben’s presence changed that dynamic. It gave us different perspectives on what was happening too – who is panicking, who is a natural leader in a group, who comes up with creative solutions to the situation they’re in? It also showed how Alex’s presence with a man, a man she seems to be falling for, affects the others. When friends fall in love we’re happy for them, it’s a good thing, but will it change our relationship with them? Is the beginning of their relationship, necessarily the end of an era as single twenty-somethings sharing a home? I felt for Jack, who feels like an outsider in the house. Everything about him told me he was a warm-hearted and kind. Yet he seemed shy and a little bit awkward to. My heart went out to him.
There were some times I felt so old and I’m also completely out of touch with urban Iiving. I’m 47 years old and I’ve lived in a rural county my whole life. There were many references lost on me. Their teenage years may well have been spent on MSN messenger, mine was spent drinking on a riverbank and dancing in a psychedelic hoody to the Happy Mondays. My teenage years are pre-internet, which makes me feel prehistoric. I enjoyed the stories of internet dating, but my dates had to run the gauntlet of my Dad and suffer stifled, anxious, phone calls taking place in our living room with my whole family listening. I’ve heard stories of terrible landlords from friends who have lived in London, but here no one can afford to rent anything till they’re in their thirties. So I had to enjoy this as an amused older generation, learning about the world as it is now or might be for my stepdaughters (although that’s slightly worrying).
This is a great summer read, if you’re looking for something light-hearted with characters you’ll enjoy stuck in a very awkward situation. It’s a very modern room-com, bringing the genre bang up to date with some good laughs along the way.
Meet The Author
Phoebe Luckhurst is a journalist and author, who has written for publications including the Evening Standard, ES Magazine, ELLE, Grazia, Sunday Times Style, Guardian, Telegraph and Grazia. The Lock In is her first novel, and she is currently writing her second.
Reading this book was a little like trying to get a knot out of a necklace chain, it seems impossible to unravel, until suddenly one move loosens it and the whole thing unknots very quickly. Our central character, Nadja Kulka, was convicted for a terrible crime in her native Poland, many years ago. Now she’s out of prison she’s looking for the simple everyday things that others have: a job, a nice flat to live in and eventually a few friends. She just wants a ‘normal’ life. She does make one friend. Laura Von Hoven is her boss’s wife and a beautiful woman, who’s very free spirited. When she asks for Nadja’s help, of course she wants to give her friend a hand. However, Laura has killed someone and wants Nadja’s help to conceal the body. Nadja doesn’t feel like she can refuse, showing how her earlier trauma, from the original crime and punishment, has affected her emotionally. She’s full of anxiety, awkward with people and easily talked into bad ideas. Nadja isn’t a likeable character at first, there’s a stand-offish, prickly sort of manner she has that keeps people at a distance. Yet, underneath these defences, she’s vulnerable and naive. When they find the perfect place to hide the crime, an abandoned cabin in the woods, the rest seems easy. However, their seemingly simple plan falls apart and Nadja finds herself in a game of cat and mouse. It’s a deadly game and one that’s stacked against Nadja, because she’s the perfect murderer as well as a perfect victim.
I was very disorientated at first by the disparate strands of this complex thriller. We have three separate narratives, two different narrators plus a set of letters that don’t sound like they belong. I thought there were three different people here, because the author of the letters feels different to the others. Unlike her novel Dear Child, these separate threads feel a long way apart and it’s impossible to make them diverge into one clear narrative. I found the chopping and changing too ‘bitty’. I would pick it up after a break and found I couldn’t pick up the thread without going and re-reading previous pages. It was only when I read a good third of the book that I really started to make sense of the story and these narrative voices clicked into place. However, after sitting back and thinking, I wondered if this confusion wasn’t deliberate? Haussmann doesn’t strike me as a writer who makes mistakes, I think her plotting and structure are very deliberate, so what is she trying to telling the reader with this complicated beginning?
In retrospect, I feel that the author likes to manipulate and control her readers. She was giving us the same experience as her characters, like we’re in the centre of a complicated web waiting for a spider to strike. I was exasperated with certain characters here and there, but I found myself willing Nadja to come out of this okay, despite her past and her faults. My advice is to keep reading; things become clearer and after that prepare to set aside a whole evening to finish the story in one go. The pace quickens, increasing the tension and rushing us towards a conclusion. By this point I was intensely invested in the characters and how this would play out. I wasn’t disappointed and Hausmann kept a few final twists in reserve, that I didn’t expect. This isn’t an easy read at first, but it’s clever and psychologically astute. I loved trying to work out who had the upper hand in the web of lies. So in the end, this book firmly places Hausmann as a must read author for me.
Meet The Author
Romy Hausmann was born in the former GDR in 1981. At the age of twenty-four she became chief editor at a film production company in Munich. Since the birth of her son, Romy has been working as a freelancer in TV. Dear Child is her thriller debut. She lives with her family in a remote house in the woods near Stuttgart.
Lisa Jewell has slowly become one of those writers whose books I buy without even reading the synopsis or any reviews. They are always intriguing, well paced and full of interesting characters who may not be who they seem. This book was no exception and I read it over a weekend – TBR be damned – just for sheer enjoyment. I felt so lucky to get a proof that I read it immediately! Crime writer Sophie is moving into a tiny cottage in the country, into the grounds of exclusive private school Maypole House. It has been a hasty decision to move with Shaun to his new place of work, because they haven’t been together very long. They knew they had something special, but since Shaun had already accepted the job and Sophie could write anywhere, they jumped in with both feet. Their cottage is situated on the edge of the woods. Exactly one year ago teenage couple Tallulah and Zach went missing from a mansion situated in the woods. They had gone to the pub for dinner, but were invited to a party at the house, by a girl called Scarlett Jacques who had been a student at Maypole, but now studied art at Tallulah’s college. They left at 3am to get a taxi, but never arrived home. Zach’s mum, Meg, thinks they’ve run away together to escape life. However, Tallulah’s Mum knows that’s not the truth, she knows something bad has happened, because they left their baby son Noah behind and she knows they would never do that.
Just a week or so before Sophie arrived, Kim had organised a vigil for Tallulah and Zach, to keep them in the public consciousness and to remember her daughter. Sophie had seen a picture in the paper, when she was browsing. She can’t seem to find her rhythm to write yet and this year old mystery seems to keep drifting into her mind. She didn’t expect to become so involved, but when a sign saying ‘Dig Here’ turns up on her garden fence with an arrow pointing downwards she finds a trowel and starts digging, bracing herself for what she might find. She is relieved to find a small jewellery box, and inside is a modest diamond ring. She notes down the jeweller and pays the shop a visit on the high street. Luckily, it’s a small local jeweller and he keeps track of every purchase in old fashioned ledgers. The buyer was Zach. So was Tallulah the intended recipient? Did she say no? Sophie knows she must take the information to someone and realises that Kim works in the pub. Within days the case is re-opened and once again the the spotlight is on Scarlett Jacques family home – Dark Place.
The character I connected with most was Tallulah. The structure of the novel is split into before the disappearance and then a year later when Sophie starts to look into the case. In the before sections, I could sense Tallulah feeling overwhelmed. She’s adjusted to becoming a mum so young and her love for Noah can be felt through the pages. There are times when she just wants to be her and Noah, getting home from college and picking him up for a cuddle she feels complete and calm. It’s everything else that unsettles her and there are times when her entire life feels mapped out for her. A life she doesn’t want. She’s in a perfect frame of mind to be enticed by an unusual new friendship with Scarlett from the bus. Scarlett is fascinating, older, rich and with a bohemian lifestyle. She has a charm or allure about her that’s hard to quantify and she clearly enjoys having an adoring entourage. So, what does she want with Tallulah? I’ve been where Tallulah is, feeling trapped by circumstances you can’t change, or even by your own mistakes. It leaves you open to taking drastic action and I wondered if that had happened.
Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is a strong woman who desperately wants to keep her daughter’s disappearance in the public eye. She has weathered the storm of her daughter’s pregnancy and her up and down relationship. The two are incredibly close and I enjoyed those moments when mother and daughter are sharing a moment. Kim knows her daughter so well that she has guessed parts of what happened in the lead up to the disappearance, which is more than I managed. I was hopelessly wrong, looking in the wrong place completely for answers. The author throws in red herrings, suspicious clues and people. I found teaching assistant Liam particularly creepy. The mystery is unravelled slowly as the before storyline hinges on one dreadful night and it’s aftermath. The after sequences are based on how quickly Kim and Sophie can find those involved using social media and follow the clues. The tension was really ramped up here and I was sucked into reading it so quickly, watching the pages reduce and wondering when the answers would come. Then, just when I thought I’d worked it out, the author went in another direction entirely. When I finished and put it down, my other half said ‘oh hello, you’re back in the room’ because I was utterly absorbed and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. It was a dark tale of what can happen when people have no moral compass or conscience, and was riveting to the last page.
This memoir sounded so intriguing and had such a great write up from other authors who I love, so I was very keen to read it. This is the story of a woman who didn’t live life by society’s rules. Even with a child in tow, she lived life on a knife edge in the hope of fulfilling the childhood belief she was destined for greater things than the poverty she was born into in 1930s Liverpool. My mum’s side of our family are from Liverpool and this was my grandmother’s era so I had a real sense of the sort of poverty the author’s mother might have experienced. As one of five in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a miner, it can’t have been an easy life. I had thought my Great-Aunt Connie must have lived an interesting life having become pregnant as a teenager, yet managing to keep her daughter and bring her up as single mum. It would have been brave of my great-grandfather and ‘Mother’ (as she was known) to accept the stigma from neighbours and their church community. Connie had earrings that looked like mint imperials and was incredibly glamorous, always ready with a laugh or a joke and always had an admiring gentleman in tow, right up into her seventies. I thought she was fabulous. However, this author’s mother was in another league altogether and I loved hearing these incredible and mysterious escapades.
The best word I can think of to describe Sarah Aspinall’s mother Audrey is incorrigible. Our opening chapter takes us to a Hong Kong hotel bar in 1965 when Sally (now Sarah) is eight years old. The opening conversation between mother and daughter really sets the tone for the type of woman Audrey is. A piano player is softly running through his repertoire of Frank Sinatra tunes. Sally knows them all, she’s heard them in every piano bar she’s been to, but something about this song makes her ask her mother:
‘Why is she a tramp? I ask.
‘ She wants to be free to do her own thing’ she says, ‘you know’, then she croons about having the wind in our hair and being without a care’.
This small conversation opens a window onto a life that is far from conventional and often, shocking, like what transpires next. Audrey calmly identifies a lone man at the bar to her little apprentice who lets her Mum know she’s going to the bar for a Coke. Sally then wedges herself onto a bar stool next to the man and calmly asks him if he will ‘look after’ her Mummy when she goes to bed. When she’s pointed out, Audrey pretends to be bemused, but in a heartbeat turns herself into a fascinating femme fatale. She apologises for her bothersome daughter and says she must get her settled in bed. The man is hooked – could they possibly have a nightcap? Back in their room, Sally watches her mother refresh her smokey eye make-up and step into a mist of perfume, then she departs. Sally knows she won’t be back till morning, so settles to read herself a book, wondering what scent she will wear when she is older. Books are Sally’s only education and she is fascinated with love, currently studying the love story in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.
I didn’t want to ask my mother, as she didn’t like to talk about things in books, but […] why didn’t one of those men who my mother met ever love her, when she was so beautiful and could sing and dance and tell funny stories and make the room light up? It must have been a run of terrible luck.
The author is brilliant at occupying the mind of a child, who is by turns naïve and innocent, but also knowing and wise beyond her years. Often she can see when an ‘opportunity’ is going sour before her mother. She is definitely a willing accomplice, but is that down to her mother’s training or simply a family trait? The pair flee from one country (and prospect) to another, via luxury travel and the best hotels if lucky, or on a wing and a prayer if not. It is glamorous, exciting and full of adventure, as Sally mostly presents it. However, it must have been destabilising and possibly even scary at times, especially in her youngest years. For me there was something touching about this little girl, taking herself to bed in a strange hotel while her mother works on their chosen ‘mark’ down in the bar. Sally treads a very careful line; this is no misery memoir, as she makes clear in the afterword. She writes truthfully, but stops short of outright criticism of her mother. Nevertheless, I sensed loneliness in a little girl who only has adults to converse with and is reading books she manages to find left in hotels, some of which are way beyond her years and understanding. This is how she gets an education of sorts. Although the book really does celebrate the glamorous and irrepressible Audrey, there is a hint of anger and resentment too.
Even back in Southport, Audrey isn’t the settling down, cosy type of woman at first. She’s something of a local celebrity. What she doesn’t seem to recognise is the void opening up in her daughter – that need to know who you are and where you’re from – coming from the lack of knowledge around her father and his death. She doesn’t remember him, but has enough skill at reading people to know that just under the surface of her mother’s party personality, is a deep sadness and even perhaps, depression that surfaces from time to time. This keen sense of perception is what drives Sally forward, into completing the jigsaw puzzle that is her mother’s life, for herself and for the reader. I was deeply engaged at this point, eager to understand both of these incredible women. When, finally, Audrey does find some contentment in life and Sarah has the settled family she has always craved, the anger and resentment does start to surface. Audrey appears none the worse for her escapades, but Sarah has paid a heavy price including her lack of education and structure. Now she rebels against rules that are being imposed for the first time. Yet, this is such a generous book. Although she tells the story honestly, Aspinall never judges and shows incredible compassion towards her mother. Yes, this is a very unorthodox mother and daughter relationship, but she didn’t want her memoir to be a grenade lobbed backwards, detonating the past. She allows Audrey to shine out of the pages as the beautiful, dazzling and vivacious woman she was. Meanwhile she shows herself at peace with the past and her mother, by becoming a smart, capable woman with a beguiling set of storytelling skills.
Meet The Author
Sarah Aspinall is a producer and documentary maker. She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.