The Girl in the Van by Helen Matthews

Traumatic events in Laura’s past forced her to retreat into a solitary existence filled with regret, denial, hurt and yearning for her daughter, Ellie. Six years ago, Laura left behind in Wales her husband Gareth and Ellie, and ran away to London. On a mental and emotional level, she’s been running ever since. But the time comes when she attempts to reclaim her life, buys a campervan and goes on a singles holiday in Pembrokeshire.

She meets new people and tentatively, cautiously begins to form a new relationship with Ben, but he doesn’t take the centre stage. The most significant new arrival on the scene is Miriana, a young woman who breaks into Laura’s campervan, and more importantly, into Laura’s life and conscience. Miriana is a reincarnation of Ellie and her background bears many uncomfortable parallels to Laura’s own past. There are ulterior motives and secrets galore, twists and turns which I couldn’t predict but which, when they came, made perfect sense and lent this family noir thriller an air of chilling authenticity.

Matthew’s writing is inobtrusive but also rich and lyrical. She is an accomplished plotter and handles the time slips and complex character-building techniques with mastery. Nothing is obvious or trite. The atmosphere of dread and foreboding penetrates every new development – the author never lets up.

This is the second book I read by this author and I am in awe of her ability to combine a thrilling piece of fiction with social conscience and her well-oriented moral compass. Don’t get me wrong – there is no moralising in Matthew’s stories. She doesn’t shy away from difficult, uncomfortable topics of domestic violence, County Lines, grooming, modern-day slavery and gruelling mental health issues, but she does it without judgment and with great sensitivity.

A deeply affecting read.

The Legacy of Halesham Hall by Jenni Keer

“The Legacy of Halesham Hall” is a delightful literary treasure hunt, full of secrets, riddles and trickery stretching over 20 years at the turn of the twentieth century.

A strict and cruel family patriarch and prominent proprietor of a successful boardgames business, Clement Ballingham pits his two sons against each other in a real-life game for superiority and the legacy of his thriving business and the family residence of Halesham Hall (a gothic edifice of curious architectonic design, riddled with traps, staircases leading to nowhere and horrific murals depicting female infidelity). Clement hates women because his wife abandoned him and his two sons. Clement transfers his resentment onto them. When Clement dies one of his sons takes it all while the other is banished. Twenty years later, Phoebe (the heir’s niece) arrives on Halesham Hall’s doorstep. She too has a game to play – or rather, a mission.

As the story unfolds, alternating between 1899 and 1920, the family secrets are gradually revealed and the background of their motives, misconceptions and errors of judgment is aptly painted, layer by revelatory layer. Jenni Keer’s prose is unintrusive and carries the story forward while holding the reader’s attention right to the very last revelation that finally puts the past to rest and paves the path into a brighter, more promising future. The characters grow with the story, react and transform with it. They are alive, distinct and responsive to the puzzling challenges posed by their discoveries and to the emotional baggage attached to them.

This isn’t a one-pony book – there isn’t just one puzzle to solve. The secrets are aplenty and tightly interrelated with one another. And even the blossoming romance isn’t what you may think it to be at the start.

I chose this book as my holiday read and what an astute choice that was, if I say so myself! I was totally engrossed in the story, snatching every moment to get to another chapter, another discovery that would take me close to the resolution. I relished the hunt and the book was indeed quite a little treasure.

Lessons by Ian McEwan

“Lessons” is a fictional memoir of Roland Baines, a boy of great promise, a man of negligible achievement.

His story spans his lifetime, the second half of the twentieth century, and bears ongoing references to the historic events of that period. Many of those events have an immediate effect on Roland’s life, in some cases derailing it, in others only forcing him to change the direction of travel. His story begins in Libya where his stern Scottish father, Sergeant  Baines, is posted, and traverses through the aftermaths of WW2 in divided Germany, the Suez Canal crisis, the Cold War, Chernobyl disaster and the dawn of New Labour, to mention a few.

The two pivotal events for Roland are the Cuban Missile Crisis and the fall of the Berlin War. These two events intervene directly in his personal life and in the choices he makes that will irreversibly distort his future. The theme of history and political changes on the global scale making life-changing incisions into individual lives is convincing, even compelling.

It is a memoir but it doesn’t present a linear sequence of events in Roland’s life in a conventional way. Two events cast a long shadow over his story and they keep re-appearing to haunt him, to provide justification and generate further questions, and to make him revisit and re-examine them. The first event is his juvenile affair with his piano teacher, passionate and obsessive on both sides. It is instrumental in transforming a promising young musician and academic into a wayward drifter, addicted to sex and averse to permanency and commitment. The second event is his abandonment by his wife Alissa who leaves him and their son in order to pursue a literary career unhindered by family and duty. One can’t help wondering if Roland is not only hurt by her departure, but also in some way jealous that it is her and not him who is able to detach herself so completely from the mundanity of the ordinary, pedestrian life he is obliged to live in order to take care of their son Lawrence. But perhaps that is Roland’s ultimate saving grace. Something that roots him in reality. “Lessons” is an intelligent, deeply introspective and emotionally loaded book. It has made me stop and think at every corner, at every twist and turn of Roland’s private life and its contemporary context.  

Counterpoint by Michelle Cook

Essie Glass is back. She is now older and sharing her life with Seth and their daughter, Willow. Their family idyl is shattered when Essie is tricked to reveal the existence and whereabouts of a device capable of trapping CO2 and saving the planet from climate catastrophe. Powerful people in high places are prepared to do anything to destroy the device in order to protect their financial and political interests. Essie makes a difficult decision to leave her family and go on the run. And so begins a relentless cat and mouse game, a chase, encounters with new people – those she can and those she can’t trust. Seth and Willow are also in danger and their story runs in parallel to Essie’s until … you will have to find out for yourself.

Counterpoint follows from Tipping Point and most characters and threads continue in the second book of the series. But, if unlike me, you didn’t read the first book, don’t worry – there is a short synopsis of Tipping Point at the start of this instalment. Better yet, read Tipping Point. It will draw you into the story and its themes, and it will get you acquainted with the characters and their back stories.

This is an excellent dystopian series: pacey, utterly gripping and unnervingly relevant to the world we live in today. The dialogue is razor sharp and lively. The characters (who take turns to power the story forward in their first-person narrative) are alive with emotions and purpose. The background of a world collapsing on itself, the ecological decay and the emergence of a totalitarian police-state will send a chill down your spine. It is all palpably described.

We All Have Our Secrets by Jane Corry

The story took off fantastically well in true Jane Corry fashion: the characters of Emily and Francois were pitted against each other at the very start. This created tension and a great deal of anticipation as to who was telling the truth and who was lying. And why. And what their next move would be. I began to invest myself in their respective tales. Secrets were insinuated with only morsels revealed one at the time as the story progressed. Critical past events provided explanation and additional characters made well-judged entry onto the scene to generate more layers and more complexity. With his war experiences conveyed in the first person and a further character development in the present moment, Harold was a particularly unpredictable and intriguing protagonist. I couldn’t wait to turn the next page, and the next, and the next as I headed towards what I expected to be a series of dark and twisty revelations.
They didn’t come.
Perhaps I set the bar too high because I found the ending most disappointing. A promising thriller turned into a soppy family saga. The final disclosure was overly sentimental and instead of twists I was served with a sugary happy ending. The pawns moved across the board to and fro, and to again without any sense of direction. There was no element of surprise and no nuance which I had come to expect from Jane Corry’s books.
Overall, despite the brilliant start, I can’t really give the book more than three stars.
I am not discouraged from reading Jane Corry. I just think that We All Have Our Secrets isn’t one of her trademark thrillers but an experiment with a different, softer genre which simply isn’t my cup of tea. So, if you enjoy a tale of family secrets and the past messing with the present and manipulating the future, then this book may well be for you.

Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer

The day Isaac and the Egg popped up on my twitter feed I knew straightaway that I had to take a closer look at the pair of them. The premise of the book was intriguingly bizarre and that meant that it had the potential to join the pantheon of my favourite if rather surreal books of last year, which included Piranesi and The Porpoise. I am delighted to say that Isaac and the Egg have lived up to their potential.
The story starts with almost an ending as Isaac Addy hovers over the parapet of a bridge, readying himself to jump to his death. He gives one last, gut-wrenching and harrowing cry of pain – and is answered by one of equal, gut-wrenching and harrowing quality. And so Isaac and Egg find each other, or rather Isaac finds the egg.
This is a surreal tale, just about tittering on the edge of reality, but that does not detract from its raw emotional authenticity. Both Isaac and Egg are lost and confused, frightened and grieving the loss of what each used to consider their whole world. Their friendship is built on their mutual need for each other and their joint discovery of what lies beyond bereavement, because there is always something out there to live for.
I don’t know what tragedies life has thrown at the young author to drive him to write this book, but, by golly, he knows what he’s talking about. Isaac is palpably throbbing with emotions and Egg is like a big, fluffy plaster to cover the open wounds and make their ragged edges come together in the end.
But what a crazy journey it is before that ending arrives! I wept, I gasped, I sniffled, and I laughed, too. Yes, you will laugh too because as much as this book is poignant and vivid in its description of loneliness and pain, it is also incredibly funny. The gentle humour makes it all so much better for the reader, for trust me, you as a reader will need your heart rescuing by the book’s subtle comedic quality.

Fatal Witness by Robert Bryndza

Fatal Witness was my first encounter with Robert Bryndza and his lead character, Erika. Although this book is the eighth in this crime series, I did not feel in any way disadvantaged by not reading the previous instalments. Bryndza afforded me enough glimpses into Erika’s background and some of her tragic past experiences to form a clear picture of who she was, what made her tick and how she left. I really understood and liked her. Her work taking precedence over such trivial matters as buying a bed for her new house and having to sleep on the floor with a stray cat made perfect sense in the context of her deliciously fleshed out personality.
Bryndza hit the bull’s eye with the pace and tension of this story. There were twists galore with the case of mistaken identity of the victim at the start of the book carrying a huge amount of emotional ordeal for the victim’s sister. Each chapter led into the next and I felt riveted to story, unable to find the right place to take a break.
Fatal Witness is sort of a dual crime case: firstly, the victim Vicky was hot on the heels of a serial rapist before she was killed; then Erika stepped in to pursue not only Vicky’s murderer but probably also the rapist who had so far eluded justice.
I don’t think this will be my last book by Robert Bryndza. A riveting read.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

It’s eight hundred years since the collapse of the world as we know. Our civilisation has done a full 360-degree loop and gone back to the basics. No planes, no cars, no IT technology and very few relics of what we have created. After a few hundred years of “dark ages” comes an era similar to medieval times with religion ruling supreme and man living in isolated, cohesive communities.
Christopher Fairfax, a young priest, arrives to such a small village to bury Father Lacey, a parish priest who fell to his death in a secluded area called the Devil’s Chair. Christopher discovers heretical writings of an antiquarian society pertaining to professor Morgensten who anticipated the end of our world hundreds of years earlier. It is a heresy to investigate such writings, but Christopher can’t help himself. With the help of lady Durston and Captain Hancock he embarks on a very dangerous quest – a quest for knowledge.
The Second Sleep is an absorbing fantasy tale about the downfall of man as well as man’s drive to discover the truth and to reinvent himself.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris was first published in 1961. It is older than most of its readers, but the story has not aged in the least. It is perhaps because it doesn’t rely on trickery, gadgets and mimicry. Its concept is utterly original and reaches beyond the confines of its sci-fi genre.
A psychologist, Kris Kelvin arrives at the space station on the planet of Solaris shortly after one of the scientists based there takes his own life. Immediately upon his arrival, strange things begin to happen. He sees a naked, athletic black woman who cannot possibly be there. Soon, Rheya, his long gone lover, makes an appearance, and will not leave his side. She too cannot be real but all his senses, and his memories, tell him that she is. Two other resident-scientists experience similar … hallucinations? encounters? relationships? It’s difficult to define.
This “resurrection” of the long-dead lovers can only be attributed to the planet of Solaris, and more specifically to the ocean that inhabits it. The ocean covers the entire surface of the planet. It appears to be a living, organic form which has evolved to such an extent that it is capable of thinking, creating, understanding and probably penetrating into man’s mind to retrieve his memories and to use them to recreate people from his past. This doesn’t seem entirely innocent – it may be that those “visitors” are spies or even assassins, although they claim to be benign and act innocently enough. They cannot be killed or sent away – they keep coming back. And more importantly their personalities evolve and they are able to form genuine relationships with “their” humans.
“Solaris” explores not only the depths of the universe and the diversity of matter/creation, but even more intriguingly the depths of human mind, its secrets, memories and its self-awareness. The book is about the new and unexplored frontiers, our soul being the most remote and the hardest to comprehend.
Brilliant, intelligent book!

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Perhaps because my expectations of The Midnight Library were sky-high, I was slightly underwhelmed by it.
It is a sweet, inspiring, life-affirming book, but it isn’t quite a cracking story.
The main character, Nora Seed, commits suicide and is given a chance to live many of her alternative lives. The conclusion is predictable, of course, and I won’t go into that.
For me, the problem lay with Nora skimming through her different lives’ options, not quite living them, not quite engaging with them, not even knowing what to say and do as she seems to parachute into this life and that without any prior briefing. So, it is all very superficial and intermittent. The other characters can’t come into their own because there simply isn’t enough time for them to grow. And as I said, there is no overarching story (other than Nora’s returns to the library to grab a ticket to another life).
There were a few fun moments, the polar bear being my favourite, but even they were heavily saturated with poignant messages and didactic wisdoms.
I am sure (and I’m not surprised) that other readers love this book as it is so reassuring, but for me it was more of a mindfulness expose than a tale of amazing fiction. Three stars, it is.
I loved Humans and other stories by Matt Haig. This was just wasn’t my cup of tea.