“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.
Following the death of her husband abroad, Imogen returns to England. She is impoverished and bitter. By contrast, her sister Rachel appears to be a successful business woman, happily married and a mother. She has all that Imogen doesn’t, and more. While Imogen has to rely on pity and handouts, Rachel is supporting their parents in the upkeep of their beautiful home called the Old Rectory. The title of the book, Facade, aptly represents that old family home but it also has another deeper and more sinister meaning – it’s about all the secrets and sins that are hidden behind the facade. Twenty years earlier, Rachel’s baby brother drowned. An air of mystery and unspoken secrets lie behind that death. With Imogen’s return and her embarking on a vicious campaign of revenge, the silence will have to be broken and the secrets will drift to the surface. Facade is a complex, gripping and unputdownable psychological thriller. With every new page and every new revelation you will be drawn deeper into it, and you won’t be able to take a break until the very last page when everything is finally revealed. Matthews has achieved huge depth in her portrayal of her protagonists, Imogen and Rachel, who narrate this twisty tale. Their perspectives are diametrically different to begin with, but then as you go on, you begin to discover disturbing overlaps and similarities. This book is really well written and the storyline structured to perfection. Highly recommended. The author has recently released another thriller, The Girl in the Van. It promises to be as good as Facade. It’s already on my list.
Running away from trouble in the UK, Jess arrives in Paris to hole up for a while with her brother Ben, who has half-heartedly invited her (or rather acceded to her inviting herself). But when she gets to his flat in an upmarket apartment block, Ben is nowhere to be found and a patch of bleached floor testifies to something sinister. Jess has nowhere else to go. She stays and tries to understand what happened. The neighbours aren’t friendly or forthcoming with any information about Ben. It seems like they close ranks or simply don’t know; or perhaps it is their famous French discretion. Each of them harbours their own version of Ben and what their relationships with him were like. None of them were straightforward. Their memories are coloured with emotions, frayed, and there are huge gaps as information is withdrawn from the reader until the very end. None of the characters are likeable or trustworthy and that includes Ben as seen through their eyes. You can’t tell whether he was a victim or a perpetrator. The suspense is maintained right to the final chapters. There are hard-hitting themes in this tense psychological thriller: alcoholism, sexual exploitation, modern slavery, drugs, societal inequalities, police corruption and the corruptive effect of wealth on morality and family dynamics etc etc etc. Although the ending was inevitable and therefore expected, the nuance of it and the few final twists make it worth reading to the last page while remembering to breathe. My only tiny issue was with the slowness of retrospection when each character speaks for themselves – there is a lot of internal monologue, telling rather than showing, and repeated explanations. That adds up to the over 400 pages of this book, which if some of that was left to the reader to work out for themselves would make this book much tighter and faster-paced.
This book is like one of those fireworks displays. You start reading it and you know you are in for something spectacular that will be blow your brains. But there is a bit of a wait – the slow burner of anticipation in the first two-thirds of the book. That’s where Jensen develops her characters and builds the suspense. From page 1 you are told that Connor is going to be taken. In a way he expects it himself. He’s carrying a guilty secret and is overwhelmed by grief over a tragedy that has befallen his girlfriend. His mother Lucy is totally absorbed by his brother’s illness. Kieron has a degenerative liver condition and may soon need a liver transplant if he is to live. His father, Aiden, is entangled in an affair he doesn’t know how to end and fears that if he does end it, the consequences may be dire for him and his family.
Days are counted to the moment of Connor’s disappearance, and when it finally happens you will be tempted to conclude that maybe, on some level, you could have predicted it. That moment is the first firework going off, but it certainly isn’t the last. More and more revelations and twists blow up in your face, a whole barrage of even bolder, brighter and more explosive illuminations. In the last third of the book Jenson puts on the real fireworks extravaganza. You will be kept on your toes to the very end, and then you will be exhausted.
Reading Not My Brother’s Keeper I was reminded of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers at odds with each other because of the catastrophically bad choice made by Cain. Living with the consequences of that choice was damning. In Not My Brother’s Keeper, the older brother Robert is a bit like Cain: he makes the wrong – even immoral – choice and takes the wrong turn in life, a decision that will haunt him for years. He abandons his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and leaves town, asking his brother Tom to watch out for her. Tom is to some extent the equivalent of Abel – the good brother who stays behind, picks up the loose ends, keeps the family together and ultimately is rewarded with love and happiness with Michelle. Until, that is, Robert decides to come back and open old wounds. Not My Brother’s Keeper is a thought-provoking tale about family, morality, decency and second chances. The story will stay with you long after you read the last sentence. Highly recommended.
This wasn’t my first read by Susanna Clarke so I knew to expect something magical and otherworldly, but “Piranesi” surpassed my expectations. It isn’t about magic, but it certainly is otherworldly, and more. There is something profound, almost biblical about this book.
The House, which is immeasurable and whose kindness is infinite, is the only world Piranesi knows. And it is that knowledge, or its limitation, that are pivotal here. For Piranesi a house of many chambers and vestibules, rising from the waves, filled with statues depicting real-life and mythical scenes, but otherwise devoid of our modern-day props, constitutes his whole universe. He recognises it as his creator, guide and protector – the House is God-like. The House defines Piranesi’s identity. He worships it, but he also explores and studies it. In a way, he reinvents it: its topography, its dead, its beauty and kindness. The whole premise of one man detached from reality but insistently scientific in his understandings, alone but not lonely, innocent through his ignorance of the existence of others is fascinating. His awakening and transition to the truth seems almost cruel although, despite his naivete, he deals with it admirably.
“Piranesi” isn’t about action or relationships, at least not in the conventional sense, but it is utterly compelling and it will draw you in and make you forget about everything else.
Eight-year-old Chrissie is a child-killer. She is pleased with her effort – it gives that fizzy, sherbet-like feeling in the depths of her stomach. She can hardly contain herself from telling others that it was her, but, being a neglected and unloved little girl and the poorest from an already very poor housing estate, she has a strong sense of self-preservation, so she keeps her secret to herself. Not to mention that she doesn’t really understand death – her da had been declared “dead” by her ma on a few occasions but always managed to come back. But Steven, the toddler Chrissie throttled, seems unable to rise from the dead and his death endures to Chrissie’s bemusement. Twenty years later, Chrissie has a new identity as Julie and a daughter of her own. She believes that she is undeserving of motherhood, and fears that her child will be taken away from her. Julie picks up where Chrissie has left off and embarks on a journey of re-discovery and cautious redemption. The narrative oscillates between Chrissie’s and Julie’s stories which complement each other perfectly.
This is a harrowing read, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, whatever your reading preferences. It has a lasting resonance, a heart and a soul, and most of all – conscience. Chrissie’s voice is captured brilliantly. The little girl’s loneliness, despair, her everyday struggle for survival and love are heart-wrenching. Her anger is palpable. Each of her life’s raw disappointments hit me hard as an adult and member of the society that has made this child into what she is. Despite the bleak and gory subject there is a message of hope in this book: people aren’t born evil and they certainly don’t have to remain so. All it takes is for someone to care.
Other characters are also wonderfully observed and drawn: Chrissie’s inept mother, Chrissie’s best friend, the sister of the boy Chrissie’s has killed, Chrissie’s absentee-father… The commentary on our society is damning, but not the commentary on our humanity.
The End of Men was already on my kindle (courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley) when I heard an interview with the author on Radio 4. In that interview Christina Sweeney-Baird mentioned that she had made references to The Power when submitting her manuscript. I was disappointed. I didn’t want another book about the male-female reversal of fortunes and about power corrupting women in the same way as it would men. I didn’t want another book where the pronoun he/him would be replaced with she/her. I almost didn’t read The End of Men.
I am so glad that I put aside my reservations and dug into it! Apart from the common denominator of men becoming vulnerable and women holding the balance of survival (and ensuing power) in their hands, The End of Men is nothing like Power. It is incomparably better, in my opinion.
There is subtlety and many different layers of emotions here as Sweeny-Baird explores a world where the male population becomes decimated (literally to the tenth of its original number) and women have to take over the reins. No cheap gloating, primitive vengeance or abuse of power ever enters the page. When the virus attacks their men, women go through what any human being of any gender would: initial disbelief transforms into an instinct of preservation and protectiveness, loss brings on immeasurable grief, the disintegration of the world inspires action, resourcefulness, survival and regeneration. Many women (and one man) narrate/are the protagonists in this book and each of them tells her (or his) own unique story of metamorphosis. The story of Amanda (the doctor who first discovered the virus and identified Patient Zero) and Catherine (the anthropologist who after an unsuccessful attempt at escaping and saving her loved ones, begins to research and record the events and their impact on individual lives) are the two leading threads. But there are many more characters, each with their own reactions to the challenge of the pandemic. There are personal, deeply intimate stories, but also wider events on a larger, geo-political scale tacked in this book. The book reads in places like a factual account – a dramatized real -life occurrence.
The End of Men rings true. Although it is a work of fiction, it touches on the subject of pandemic that changes the world and the traditional male-female roles beyond recognition. As we have all just gone through a life- and society-transforming pandemic, it is easy to believe in this tale and the possibilities it contemplates. But it isn’t just about the pandemic. After WWII in which many men died, women had to take charge of their families, communities, and the future of the world. Women took on new “masculine” careers. This sort of a challenge to the established traditional values of our society is not new. Sweeney-Baird treats it with great sensitivity and insight.
This story is told by Ellen. It begins with her death in a car accident, but it isn’t a story of what happens to her after death. It is about the people who keep her rooted on earth: her daughter Naomi (who survives the accident to Ellen’s unmitigated relief), her bereaved and desperately lost husband Marc who is trying to pull together the loose ends of their family life, and her difficult mother with her own life falling apart.
McCormick spins a moving tale of life interrupted, the unfinished business of love for one’s family, regrets and consuming yearning. Ultimately, it is a life-affirming tale of surviving a personal catastrophe and moving on.
There are many heart-rending moments. I must confess that I welled up a few times. But there is also plenty of humour and hope. George, the apprentice angel, provides some loud-out-lough comic relief and I chuckled a lot at some domestic situations which were both realistic and hilarious. McCormick has a good eye for details and situational comedy.
Overall, The Things I Should’ve Said and Done is a poignant story, told beautifully and with great assurance. Despite its paranormal theme, it is credible and true-to-life.
Tired of all the doom and gloom around me, I decided to reach for something that would cheer me and draw me into a different world. I have certainly found it in An Officer’s Vow. It is a classic Regency romance with a pinch of adventure and good dose of genteel humour. In this book you will find everything you would expect from Regency romance: an endearing and feisty damsel in distress, a handsome but somewhat insecure around the opposite sex veteran of Napoleonic wars, greedy and unscrupulous fortune hunters, cold-blooded spies and an array of unforgettable characters. You will hurtle from one misadventure into another at a gallop, with little time to catch your breath. Hampson is clearly on a first-name basis with the era. She conveys the setting details and the linguistic style of that century with ease. You feel like the book was written two hundred years ago by the likes of Jane Austin. All in all, I relished every minute of this delectable story.