Intriguing and pacy family drama: The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell ★★★½

Lisa Jewell’s author note reads that she has always been adverse to writing sequels. I am also adverse to reading sequels – especially when I’m not sure I can remember what happened in part one (thank goodness for reviews for jogging my memory!) It turns out I needn’t have worried. While it helps to have read The Family Upstairs, her first psychological thriller/family drama about the Lamb and Thomsen families in the ‘house of horrors’, all salient plot points are summarized in this sequel – so you can just dive on in.

In case you haven’t read part one, here’s a quick précis: as children, Lucy and her brother Henry were subject to unspeakable horrors after a conman called David Thomsen moved into their London home and manipulated and abused their family. They escaped as teens in the early nineties, and as the novel begins, have been recently reunited in the present day. David’s son, Phineas, has also been living under the radar for the past thirty years after making a break from the home – but he hasn’t been seen or heard of since.

One more thing – Lucy and Phin had a child when they were teenagers, a baby that is now a 26-year-old woman, Libby, who has reconnected with her birth mother but wants to know more about Phin. And Henry, who has been in love with Phin since they were boys, also wants to track him down. The problem is, Phin doesn’t really want to be found.

‘Their shared history is so big that it’s sometimes as if mere words cannot contain it and that it exists only in the pauses and the silences and the unfinished sentences. Twenty-six years is long enough for memories to grow cobwebby, abstract. Twenty-six years is long enough to doubt your recollection of things, to wonder if things really did happen the way you think they happened.’

Alongside this narrative are two additional story lines: a bag of bones is discovered in the Thames and leading the investigation is DCI Samuel Owusu, and a young woman, Rachel, finds herself in a whirlwind romance with a shady businessman, Michael. Rest assured everything comes together as the plot progresses. Although Rachel is more of a secondary character, I was gripped by her story line and desperate for her to get justice.

Henry is a beguiling character, and I remember his first-person narrative being the POV I enjoyed the most in The Family Upstairs. He is similarly fascinating and multifaceted here: you never know quite how he’s going to behave. But there’s an underlying sadness, too – a delicate exploration of the idea that these are adults still grappling with the childhood trauma that will never truly leave them, a trauma that leaves Henry with ‘a churning in my soul of loss and emptiness and lack and incompleteness…’ and Lucy with ‘the dull dread that blunts everything…’

‘Lucy lies and listens to the sounds of London traffic outside the bedroom window and she feels it again, this awful feeling that has followed her for over a year, the tightness around her skull, the dull dread that blunts everything with its incessant chipping away at her sense of security.’

There are many a preposterous coincidence in this novel, I won’t disagree (and is the reason I’m knocking off half a star). But they serve to push the narrative along at a pacy speed, whereas The Family Upstairs is more of a slow burn. It grapples with tough topics with finesse, and is a worthy sequel.

TW: rape, emotional abuse

Other books you may enjoy…

the it girl by ruth ware - book review

Murder mystery in Oxford’s hallowed halls: The It Girl by Ruth Ware ★★★

I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of The It Girl. Ruth Ware is an auto-read author for me, and this one has dark academic vibes that I couldn’t wait to dive into.

It’s the late noughties and Hannah has just started at Oxford University. Bookish and shy, she initially feels out of place amidst her polished and wealthy classmates, but soon falls in love with Oxford and the allure of all that prestige and history. This is a place, she is sure, where she will be happy.

‘With the sun shining and puffs of white autumnal clouds in the sky, the view had an almost unreal beauty and Hannah had the strangest feeling that she had stepped inside he pages of one of the books in her suitcase – Brideshead Revisited, maybe. Gaudy Night. His Dark Materials. A storybook world.’

Her roommate, April, is dazzling: beautiful, rich, charming. She’s also smart – she’s earned her place at Oxford. And she’s vicious too, at times, with a dark sense of humour. But despite their differences, she and Hannah become firm and fast friends. And then – no spoiler, it’s in the blurb – April is murdered.

Ten years later, Hannah is married, pregnant, living in Edinburgh, working in a bookshop, and has tried to leave the trauma of her best friend’s murder in the past. Her evidence alone convicted the prime suspect – but a journalist has just come forward with intel that might lead to someone else – someone who was never investigated. The thought that Hannah might have convicted an innocent man – who has recently died in prison – torments her, and she sets about on a quest for the real truth of what happened that terrible night.

‘She is there too. Hannah. Not the Hannah of now, but the Hannah of then. The Hannah of before. Young, happy, full of hope and promise, and so unbearably, unutterably innocent of all the horror that life could hold.’

For the first half, I was hooked. We had Ruth Ware’s trademark evocative descriptions, the heady friendships of teenage girls, a sprinkling of 00s pop culture – all set within the beautiful, austere world of Oxford.

This thriller switches between past and present, although only for the first half of the book. And it was towards the second half that the story began to lose steam for me. The pace slows to a trickle and the suspense is totally lost as nothing much happens for quite a chunk of time. I also didn’t feel invested enough in the other characters to really interrogate who might have been the culprit. Had we spent more time with them in 2010 then I would have felt a greater sense of buy-in. The flashes we get of these characters do give a sense of who they are, but I was left wanting more.

The ending does pick up pace-wise as Hannah approaches the truth, and there are a few thrilling, cinematic moments, but by that point I wasn’t as interested in the idea as a whole and so I don’t feel that the narrative fully redeemed itself.

I wanted to love this, I really did! But it just didn’t end up being for me.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The It Girl will be published on July 12th 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

Book review: ‘Behind Her Eyes’ by Sarah Pinborough ★★

Louise, a receptionist at a psychiatrist’s office, makes the mistake of kissing her charismatic new boss, David. In her defence, she doesn’t know he’s her new boss – not until the morning after the night before, when he walks into his new surgery with his glamorous wife, Adele, in tow. Louise bolts for the loos, trying to compose herself.

Against her better judgement, Louise (who has enough on her plate as a single mother of a six-year-old), falls for David’s charms again. He has the decency to act guilty about it – they both know he’s married – but she just can’t help herself. She’s characterised as bit of a frumpy, plain, do-gooder. I get that she’s supposed to be relatable, but it was all a bit depressing.

She gets herself into a very sticky wicket when she also becomes friends with his wife, Adele, who just so happens to bump into her after she’s done the school run. Behind her glam exterior, Adele seems timid and afraid of her husband. Over at Adele’s for lunch one weekday, Adele happens to mention the large cupboard of prescription meds David is making her take. And she also makes Louise swear she won’t tell David about their friendship. Louise is worried that David is abusive, but this is all undermined by the chapters in Adele’s perspective. There’s really no mystery here. Oh, and there’s the obligatory time travel passages that take us back a decade to Adele’s teenagerhood after her parents have died. All this does is interrupt the plot without adding anything else in terms of intrigue or character empathy.

I think this book was a bit of a case of the sunk cost fallacy. It was long (was it? Or did it just feel that way. I’m not sure) but I kept going with it, thinking that all might be redeemed by some hair-raising twist in the second half. And by the time I realised that probably wouldn’t be the case, it was too late to really stop – I’d invested too much.

I very rarely struggle to find positive things about a novel that I end up finishing (I rarely finish books I’m not enjoying. Very rarely indeed) but this winds up having a supernatural/paranormal element which could not be further from my thing. Not to say I’d completely rule out any genre, but this is pitched as a psychological thriller – and then it veers into territory I most certainly had not signed up for.

Perhaps if you go into it with that expectation, you’ll enjoy it a lot more than I did. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Netflix adaptation.

Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson Book Review

Book Review | Every Vow You Break by Peter Swanson

It was time for a gear shift around here, after the emotional upheaval of last week’s reading.

Peter Swanson’s latest addition to the genre starts off the way any good thriller starts off: a hasty marriage to someone you don’t know that well. Abigail is living paycheck-to-paycheck, working in publishing in New York, when handsome, kind, and obscenely wealthy Bruce sweeps her off her feet. Things might be moving a little too fast, but before she knows it she’s said yes to the proposal and is off on her California bachelorette party with her girlfriends.

With one too many drinks in her system, and nagging doubts about the wiseness of her decision, she’s ready prey for a handsome stranger who charms her one evening after her friends have gone to bed. One thing leads to another, and they have a one-night stand. Wracked with guilt, Abigail returns to New York, determined to keep her infidelity a secret from Bruce and reassuring herself it was nothing but a drunk mistake.

‘Deep down, she knew that Bruce was more in love with her than she was with him. But wasn’t that the case with every couple? There was always one person in each relationship who cared a little more than the other. And wasn’t it better to be the person who cared less?’

The one-night stand man, who she calls Scottie (they didn’t reveal their real names to each other), is, as it turns out, quite unhinged. He tracks Abigail down and begs her not to marry Bruce. He’s lurking in the shadows on their wedding day. And then he shows up on the exclusive, remote island off the coast of Maine, where Bruce has taken her for the honeymoon.

This seemingly idyllic island has an oppressive, menacing quality to it. Swanson builds up the suspense and tension in a masterful way, a slowly creeping sense of dread coming over Abigail. At first there’s the fact that there’s no phone reception (sold as an ‘off the grid’ experience), an uncomfortable ratio of staff to actual guests, and almost no women. Then there’s the aforementioned stalker who also appears. And Abigail realises nothing is quite as it seems.

‘That whole day she felt like a chasm had opened up in front of her, a big black hole she was powerless to escape.’

I sometimes find with thrillers that the best bit is just before you know what’s happening. When all the cards are still to play for, when the narrative might go in any number of directions. Swanson does a great job at building up the menace in a propulsive way, and then he doesn’t really know what to do with it once the big reveal has happened. The plot goes a little bit wild and becomes less psychological thriller and veers more into horror territory. It’s cinematic in its unravelling, but not quite believable and not entirely wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Without giving anything away, there’s a clever and compelling commentary on the dangers of toxic masculinity, incel culture and radicalisation – an ever-increasing concern, particularly given tragic events like those in the UK last week. Mix these hateful beliefs with almost unlimited access to money and resources, and you have a very dangerous cocktail indeed.

I enjoyed this one – more so than the previous two, All The Beautiful Lies and Eight Perfect Murders. Nothing has yet measured up to The Kind Worth Killing – but as a page-turning, unpredictable thriller, I’d recommend Every Vow You Break. Even if you now have the Police song stuck in your head on repeat. 🙂

Book blog - 2021 new releases

4 upcoming releases I’m excited for

It’s a funny old time. Not much is known for certain – I’m finding it hard to think much beyond the next 2 months! But in this great age of uncertainty, I find it comforting to know that there are new book releases on the horizon that I have to look forward to.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Expected publication: September 2021

The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we’re gone.

Why I’m excited: I loved All The Light We Cannot See, and while the plot of this one looks quite quirky, I will read anything Anthony Doerr writes. His writing is just phenomenal.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Expected publication: August 2021

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Why I’m excited: I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriler, and The Girl On The Train was one of the psych thrillers that really kickstarted a wave of new psych thrillers. So you can bet I’ll be reading this one come August.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Expected publication: September 2021

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

Why I’m excited: Sally Rooney really has been captapaulted into stratospheric heights, and although Normal People and Conversations with Friends were enjoyable but didn’t knock my socks off, I can’t resist getting on board a hype train once in a while.

Pub date is so far off there’s not even a final cover!

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Expected publication: January 2022

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.

Why I’m excited: Oddly, this structure sounds like Anthony Doerr’s – three timelines; long-ago past, near-present, and distant-future. That aside, it’s no secret that A Little Life is one of my favourite books of all time, and yes I have pre-ordered a signed copy even though I’ll have to wait all the way until January 2022!!


What are you looking forward to?

All images and descriptions taken from Goodreads.

Book Review - Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Book Review | Magpie by Elizabeth Day

28-year-old Marisa may not yet have reached thirty, but she’s keen to settle down and start a family. When Jake, a decade her senior, walks into her life, she feels that everything is falling into place as it should. They’ve only known each other a few months before they’ve moved in together, and she quickly falls pregnant. They’re both delighted.

We don’t learn much about Jake – or Marisa, for that matter. Of course, our suspicions (this is a domestic noir, after all) immediately fall on Jake, a man who ‘belongs to that cadre of Englishmen who have never had to worry about learning the rules because they are the ones who make them.’ He’s cagey about his family, his corporate job seems to be going south, and he doesn’t go in for PDA. But Marisa puts this to one side – she loves him, after all, and she’s having his baby.

‘Marisa felt, with unexpected acuteness, the fragility of everything, the ease with which it could all be taken away from her.’

So when Jake suggests that they get a lodger to help pay the rent, Marisa agrees. Kate is a lithe, attractive and friendly 30-something who works in the film industry. But her behaviour starts to concern Marisa – it feels like she’s making herself a little too comfortable; cooking Jake his favourite mac ‘n cheese, using the master bathroom, leaving her belongings in their communal spaces.

And then – at a perfectly timed half-way through mark –  we start to realise that things are not, of course, as they seem. Not at all. And in fact, we might have fallen prey to a rather unreliable narrator.

This was a slightly uneven reading experience for me; it began a little flat, as I struggled to connect to Marisa and Jake and felt frustrated at the direction I felt the narrative was heading in – an unwitting young woman falling victim. But once the perspective shifts in the second half – that’s when things changed; the story becoming richer, the character insights stronger and the overall narrative energy really picking up.

Part of the plot centres around infertility, and Elizabeth Day (who has been very open about her own fertility journey) addresses this in a candid, empathetic way that shines a light on an experience that is a lot more common than most people realise. The novel does important work with telling this story in the context of a domestic noir, and it helps to flesh out the characters into three-dimensional humans.

‘She had always thought that if did the right thing, worked hard, got good results and a stable job, and tried generally to be a decent person, that life would progress in the way she anticipated.’

The ending, though… I don’t know. Perhaps a little too pat. I won’t say more than that; it’s nevertheless an absorbing read – I devoured it in two sittings – and having been a fan of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast for a while now, I’m glad to have read some of her fiction.

CW: psychosis, miscarriage, sexual assault

Magpie will be published in September 2021. Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced copy. All quoted material subject to change.

Read if you enjoyed: The Push by Ashley Audrain, The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

Book Review | Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

CW: sexual assault, incel culture, self-harm

Owen Pick is an odd duck, whose unhappy childhood has transitioned into a miserable adulthood. After the death of his mother, he finds himself “in Tessie’s spare room with the saggy mattress, which, like everything about his tragic existence, he’d grown used to and come to accept unquestioningly.” Now in his thirties, he’s just lost his teaching job over allegations of sexual misconduct, and finds himself in a dangerous internet rabbit hole as he’s sucked into online ‘incel’ forums.

“Owen loves the comments, the grey places where the dusty trolls live; he loves to see how low some people will stoop to get the endorphin rush of a reaction.”

Cate and her husband Roan Fours live across the street from Owen with their two children. They typecast Owen as a creep, and suspect him of being responsible for a spate of attacks on young women in their leafy Hampstead neighbourhood.

Saffyre, the eponymous ‘invisible girl’, is seventeen years old and struggling with the weight of childhood trauma. She was sent to see psychiatrist Roan as a child, after her uncle found her self-harming. But she felt abandoned and at a loss when he told her their therapy was done and that she no longer needed his support.

When Saffyre vanishes, Owen becomes prime suspect. From the moment he is taken in for questioning, he is vilified in the media, who have a field day from his oddball looks and shifty demeanour. When apprehended by the police at his house, he has just recently attempted to cut his fringe, and has dried blood down his forehead from a slip – and the journalists are waiting at the gate, baying for blood. The sensationalism and trial in the court of public opinion is reminiscent of much British tabloid coverage, often ruining lives in the pursuit of selling papers.

The split first-person narration takes us into the heads of Owen, Cate and Saffyre. We see each of them dissect their lives and what’s brought them to this point, with insight into their unspoken pasts, difficult relationships and complex feelings of self-worth. The anchor point is the single event that occurs on a dark, cold Valentine’s Day night.

Jewell writes in three very different perspectives, and I found Owen’s character to be the most interesting. She explores, in a nuanced and careful way, the slippery slope of radicalisation for isolated young men, rejected by society at large. In incel culture, these extremist views take the form of hatred against women, and we watch Owen grapple with these horrifying beliefs and try to reconcile it with who he sees himself to be as a person. But all of our characters are grappling with unresolved trauma.

“She has been trying so hard to stop thinking of herself as a bad person, but as she lies in bed that night, the sudden awful knowledge of it gnaws at her consciousness until she feels raw and unpeeled.”

I’d been in a two-week reading slump, and I needed a fast-paced psychological drama to get me out of it. Thankfully, Lisa Jewell delivered with this atmospheric and evocative novel. I’m knocking off half a star for the ending, which was all a little too pat and easily resolved, and I would have loved to see greater character development in a more built-out narrative. But despite those qualms, I devoured this one in a couple of sittings.

Book Review | The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

“The facts, such as they were, were simple: Alicia was found alone with Gabriel’s body; only her fingerprints were on the gun. There was never any doubt she killed Gabriel. Why she killed him, on the other hand, remained a mystery.”

Alicia Berenson has been locked away in a psychiatric unit in a supposedly cut and dry case of husband murder. She’s not said a word since the crime took place, and Theo Faber, psychotherapist and self-aggrandising narcissist, is convinced he is the one to ‘save’ her.  

“I became resolved to stop at nothing until Alicia became my patient. There was no time to waste: Alicia was lost. She was missing. And I intended to find her.”

What follows is a in equal parts intriguing and meandering narrative to get to the bottom of what really happened the night that Gabriel was found riddled with bullets while his wife sat covered in his blood. We alternate between past and future, Theo’s unreliable narration slotted between entries from Alicia’s diary – and it’s a good job we got out of Theo’s head at times, because this protagonist really wound me up.

There were the bones here of a really good, gripping tale. The parts where Michaelides talks about the development of personalities and psychiatric disorders, embedding quotes from the likes of Freud, add an extra dimension to an otherwise fairly thin story, where it feels as if we only scratch the surface of the relationships and personal histories and motivations. And whilst the psychological grounding worked well for dramatic effect at the beginning, I’m less convinced that it pulled off what it was trying to do, particularly when key to a final denouement plot point.

You have to overlook a lot. And honestly, sometimes I do. Sometimes plot holes aren’t a deal breaker to me if the narrative can sustain my attention regardless, if there’s a reasonable balance of credibility and incredulity. But here, I’m afraid, it just didn’t entirely work for me. Clever, yes – and full of potential. But not quite clever or deep enough to live up to my expectations.

***

Book Review | The Truth Hurts by Rebecca Reid

Yesterday, hurricane Zeta knocked out the power across our state. I just about made my way through a work presentation in the morning, wedged into a corner of our living room, clinging to the 2 bars of signal and 25% left on my battery. By noon, all devices were out of juice – so what better time, free of other distractions, than to devour something in one sitting?

The Truth Hurts is the perfect curl-up-in-bed-on-a-random-Thursday-afternoon-in-a-blackout-while-a-hurricane-passes-through read. It’s domestic noir/twisty romance that starts when our protagonist, 28-year-old Poppy, is ousted from her Nannying post in the small hours of the morning while in Ibiza. With no money and no plan, she rocks up at a bar where she meets the charming financier Drew, in his forties. They begin a whirlwind romance, Drew’s lavish spending a far cry from the kind of lifestyle Poppy has been used to, scraping by for low wages with no family support.

At first, they’re living the perfect fantasy life, the finite holiday romance that is all the sweeter for its ephemeral state.

‘They never shopped for more than a day or two in advance, as if they were worried that this, whatever it was, had a shorter lifespan than the peaches or bread that they bought, as if anything more permanent might jinx the little world they had built.’

But then things get serious – much more serious, as Drew proposes. (None of these are spoilers, by the way – you’ll learn as much from the blurb). Gina, Poppy’s best friend, eggs her on – and they’re soon legally wed. There’s another important ‘catch’ to their relationship: neither of them can talk about the past. ‘It’s not relevant,’ Drew says. ‘I don’t believe that total transparency is always the way toward happiness.’ So Poppy finds herself married to man and she has no idea where he went to school or who was his first kiss or what his mother was named. You might question as to why anyone would agree to such an arrangement – but taking into account the depths of Poppy’s isolation and money troubles, it makes some sense.

They leave Ibiza for the country estate Drew has bought for the both of them, Thursday House in Wiltshire.  Another thing that we readers know: the novel opens with the destruction of this home. So whatever goes down here, we know it can’t be good.

Yes, there are some considerable plot holes, and the ending is all a bit silly – but there’s lots to enjoy in this twisty tale. Drew is a bit two-dimensional, but Poppy is a fleshed-out character, and we get a great insight into her plucky personality through her friendship through the vivacious Gina. There’s also a dual narrative following Poppy’s previous nannying job – where all is not as it seems.  The Truth Hurts isn’t a book with multiple shocks and twists, but it’s addictive and suspenseful – exactly what I was looking for.

‘Something low in her gut shifted as she said it. A feeling like Christmas being over or Sunday night, like the taste in your mouth after you ate something sugary. But that was stupid. The house was perfect. She was just unsettled by the mirror, nervous and superstitious. Everything was fine. She repeated the words over and over inside her head.’