The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

HarperCollins | 2021 (2 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Chateau by Catherine CooperAura and Nick have uprooted their young family – boys called Bay and Sorrel – and moved from London to a dilapidated chateau in France. There is an unbelievable amount of work to do on it but a project such as this is just what Aura needs to take her mind off why they left England in such a rush. Best not to think about that. Luckily, chateau buying is all the rage with Brits and so the local ex-pat community soon takes the new couple under their wing, offering practical help as well as glamorous parties. It helps that the project is being observed by a TV documentary film crew. They even manage to get an au pair for no more cost than food and board. It seems too good to be true. And of course it is. The alarm bells are starting to go off even before one of their neighbours is found murdered.

Hot on the heels of The Chalet comes The Chateau. I love the recipe of these novels – a remote location, a small community of strangers, a murderer in their midst, a bunch of lies. I thoroughly enjoyed The Chalet and so I was looking forward to this and it did not disappoint. What a bunch of people…. It’s difficult to know who is the most despicable. Aura is our narrator for much of the book and it’s clear that what she doesn’t say is more important than what she does. The reader is left to fill in the gaps as slowly the truth emerges about what they left behind in London. You’ve got to wonder about anyone who would name their sons Bay and Sorrel, though.

The chateau itself is a fantastic location for a psychological thriller. It’s an abomination. Aura might view it as this beautiful ruin crying out for repair but it’s clearly horrible, dangerous, creepy and malignant. It fits the mood of the novel perfectly and reflects the characters of most of the people in it, including the ghastly ex-pats. Even the film crew are shifty.

I’m not going to give anything away but what I will say is that the way in which this story plays out is thoroughly satisfying. Catherine Cooper is such a good writer, she sets the scene so well. It’s creepy but it’s also fun and a little bonkers! I can’t wait to find out where she’ll take us to next!

Other review
The Chalet

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing

Michael Joseph | 2021 (19 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

For Your Own Good by Samantha DowningTeddy Crutcher has been teaching English at Belmont Academy for a long time and, at last, he has won Teacher of the Year. At last. Nobody deserves it more, at least in Teddy’s eyes. He always wants the best for his students, especially those who treat him with respect and have influential parents on the School’s Board. He also likes to teach a different kind of lesson to those who deserve it, especially gifted student Zach and the popular teacher Sonia. To his chagrin, Sonia is about to be given a party to celebrate her tenth anniversary at the Academy. But when a member of the School’s Board, a pupil’s mother, is poisoned at the party, it’s not just Teddy who is shocked into action. This is a school where it seems everyone has a secret and nobody is safe.

Samantha Downing is an absolute genius at witty and wicked psychological thrillers. She did it with My Lovely Wife and she’s done it again with For Your Own Good. Usually, I need to like someone in a novel, at least a little bit, to engage with it but this novel shows that, as long as a book is written as well as this one, that’s really not the case. Pretty much everyone at Belmont Academy, including the over-reaching parents, is despicable! Sonia might be ‘nice’ but she’s living some sort of dream in her head that doesn’t seem to fit with reality. We might feel sorry for one or two of the students but not for long. And Teddy is utterly appalling.

The reader spends time in the heads of several people, although it’s Teddy who sets the mood. The more he reveals of himself the more you can hardly believe what you’re hearing. And then we move into the perspective of other students and teachers and you realise that you’re in some sort of nightmare territory and it’s all brilliantly wicked! As the story goes on, nothing seems impossible. There seems nothing these people won’t do. But do they actually do them? That’s the thing. We spend time in people’s minds – how much of what they think is true?

The plot is fabulous and it kept me reading compulsively.  The more the novel went on, the more intrigued I became. By the end, it was absolutely compelling and engrossing, so much so that I read it in one day. I can’t remember the last time I read a book in one day. This delicious book demanded it.

Other review
My Lovely Wife

An Island at War by Deborah Carr

One More Chapter | 2021 (16 September) | 383p | Review copy | Buy the book

An Island at War by Deborah CarrIt is June 1940 and the people of Jersey are under no illusion – the British government has announced that the island has been demilitarised, effectively leaving Jersey open to conquest. Rosie Le Maistre is one of the lucky ones. The little girl is sent away on one of the last evacuation ships, heading to her Aunt Muriel in London. Estelle, her much older sister, is left behind to work on the farm with her father and grandmother. It’s not long before the German army arrives in force, a catastrophe for the men in Estelle’s life, her father and boyfriend. Life on the island changes entirely, everything from a conversion to German currency and time to the arrival of slaves who will turn Jersey into a fortress island. But it’s not just the island that’s occupied. Soon Estelle and her grandmother have a German office, Hans Bauer, billeted on their farm. Life becomes a struggle for survival.

I’ve always been fascinated by the German occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War and have read several novels on the subject over the years. I was therefore drawn to An Island at War. There is definitely something of The Guernsey Literary Pie Society about An Island At War, albeit on a different island, and that’s no bad thing. This is another very human story, focusing on the impact of war and occupation on the lives of otherwise ordinary people who happened to live in the only part of Britain that was occupied.

Most of the novel tells Estelle’s story on Jersey but there are a few extracts from Rosie’s journal, written in London. I found these tantalising and would have liked much more of Rosie’s life during the Blitz. It’s clear that tumultuous things are happening to her but it’s all in the shadows and all too brief.

I liked Estelle very much and enjoyed reading about her relationships with her grand mother, their friends and with the Germans on the island. It’s mostly black and white but there is some interesting grey as Estelle and Hans struggle to reach a compromise. But it is very difficult to have sympathy for Hans when the horror of the German occupation and what is happening on the continent to Jews and people from the east is such a big part of the book. In a way, there is a conflict between the fascinating historical detail of the novel and its emotional element. The author lives on Jersey and knows its history well and that adds so much to the book. I’m not quite sure that other parts of it – Estelle’s relationships, Rosie’s experiences in London – live up to that. My main issue with the novel, though, is its ending, which is far too abrupt and unsatisfactory.

An Island at War is an enjoyable light read, which shines with the author’s knowledge about her island and its history. I learned a great deal about the little details of life under occupation. I had no idea about much of it, and that is what I’ll take away from the novel.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Viking | 2021 (16 September) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard OsmanWhen ex-spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she knows to be dead, it becomes clear that this is not going to be a normal week for the residents of the Coopers Chase retirement community. A man with whom Elizabeth has a long past needs her help – and that of the Thursday Murder Club. He’s now realised that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea after all to steal those diamonds worth many millions of dollars from the NYC Mob. It’s hard to imagine a bigger target on his back. It’s not long before the septuagenarian Thursday Murder Club and their police friends have a ruthless murderer to hunt. You could almost feel sorry for the killer…

Richard Osman’s debut novel The Thursday Murder Club was one of my top reads of 2020. I absolutely loved it, with its delicious mix of wit, cosiness and wickedness, all brought together with the most fantastic prose. Any fears that the author couldn’t do it again were instantly dispelled when I read the very first page of The Man Who Died Twice. It is absolutely fantastic!

I’m giving nothing more away about what’s going on in this fine novel but I do want to say a bit about why I love it so much. I love all of the characters but Joyce, whose journal entries are scattered throughout the book, is my favourite. A former nurse, she’s lived for others and is now having the time of her own life helping Elizabeth to dig out bad guys. The disparity between how she appears and what she reveals in the journal is just wonderful, but, while it’s funny, it’s also extremely poignant in some ways. And that poignancy is present with others, too, especially Ibrahim, the psychiatrist. The humanity of the writing is incredible. All of the characters are given their little moments for us to connect with on really quite a deep level, even DCI Chris Hudson. I was so moved by him in The Man Who Died Twice. So, actually, when I say that I love Joyce the most, maybe I’m wrong, maybe I adore them all equally.

The baddies are brilliant! The insight we’re given into the mindset of one of the villains is fantastic – evil trying not to be evil while knowing that he really is very evil but still wanting to be polite. Absolutely wonderful.

The plot is magnificent and works on so many levels. Enough said about that.

Richard Osman has done it again. Rarely have I felt so warmly attached to characters and, in these books, there’s not just one or two characters to love but several. A fabulous plot, beautifully witty and kind, clever, poignant and tragic at times, even shocking, and so completely fun to read. Please can we have more!!

Other review
The Thursday Murder Club

The Good Death by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (5 August) | 304p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It is 1370 and time has passed at the manor of Somershill in Kent. But the past has never been so urgent for its lord, Oswald de Lacy. Oswald’s mother, a formidable woman, is dying and in her possession is a letter that raises ghosts from that terrible time of 1349 when the Black Death crossed the land, killing so many in its path, including Oswald’s father and brothers. Oswald’s mother needs to understand what happened all those years before in order to make peace with her son before it is too late. And so Oswald sits by her bedside and recalls the time when young women disappeared from the village and he, a young novice monk, tried to find out why, when every day the world grew smaller as communities shrank into themselves, or fled, as the plague crept relentlessly nearer.

The Oswald de Lacy series is wonderful. It’s beautifully written and it moves around the years, and around Europe (Oswald has spent time in Venice), but its focus is always the plague years and always this Kentish haven. Almost ten years have gone by since The Bone Fire but this fifth novel, The Good Death, calls a halt and instead goes back into the past. We spend brief interludes in the ‘present’ of 1370 but the majority of the time is spent in the days leading up to the arrival of the Black Death when Oswald found himself with reasons to investigate the disappearance, and presumed murders, of several girls from the village. At the time, Oswald was a novice monk on the cusp of manhood, never expecting to inherit. Everything was about to change.

The story, as usual in these fabulous novels, is excellent and the further it progresses the more involved the reader becomes. It has a gentle pace but during the second half I found myself utterly engrossed and read all of that half in one sitting. The mood and atmosphere build and build as the plague creeps ever nearer. The village feels like a refuge but for how long? And where are the young women? The answers lie in the woods around the village and, in that lawless place, anything is possible. It is sinister and menacing in equal measure while Oswald, the innocent, falls into the thick of it.

The Good Death is beautifully written and immersed in its time, surely one of the most terrible periods in English history. Of course, this was written, and read, in a time of pandemic and that certainly adds to its mood and perhaps makes it easier for us to relate to these frightened communities. You don’t need to have read the other novels to enjoy this one, although you might have a greater appreciation of Oswald’s mother and sister if you have done. The focus is most definitely on the past, although that is rather pleasing as it means we have fresh light thrown on the earlier novels in the series. It’s clever, without a doubt.

I love Oswald. He feels real to me, as do his family and friends. I marvel at the way in which the author evokes this feudal age. It’s so well drawn and full of lots of historical details about life, society, law, medicine, work, obedience in a mid 14th-century manor, in which workers are compared to mute insects, and monastery. Oswald bridges society and in some ways is very alone and on its margins. There is a strong sense that he must let the past go and here we find out why.

The Good Death is a fabulous historical crime mystery and I didn’t guess it at all! The historical setting is great, as is its location in woody Kent. The story is so good but this book goes bigger than that, finding a way in to explore a time in our history when death became more horrifying than ever and when feudalism itself came under attack from an unexpected foe, plague.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

The Bone Fire

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2021 (9 September) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth ChadwickIt is 1238 and Joanna of Swanscombe serves as a lady in waiting to Eleanor of Provence, Henry III’s Queen.  Joanna’s future is uncertain despite her illustrious heritage – she is granddaughter to William Marshal – but many stand between Joanna and any chance of inheriting her family’s land and titles. But all of that changes and suddenly Joanna discovers herself to be one of England’s wealthiest heiresses. She has become a prize and the King decides to award her to his own half-brother, William de Valence. Now a grand lady in her own right, Joanna’s relationship with the Queen changes as the nobles of England, led by Simon de Montfort, turn against Henry’s half-brothers. Civil war grips the land and Joanna and William must use all of their skill to avoid the destruction of everything they hold dear.

Elizabeth Chadwick has long been a favourite novelist of mine and the novels of hers that I love the most are those that focus on William Marshal and his extraordinary family, as well as on the women who are less well known to history but nevertheless played a significant role in public life in the 12th and 13th centuries. A Marriage of Lions gives us just such a story, and it is every bit as wonderful as the author’s last novel The Irish Princess, which I adored. Joanna is a fabulous character and, as we follow her from childhood to middle age, we experience so much of life at the court of Henry III, domestic and political, a place divided by land- and power-hungry lords, these conflicts intensified by strategic marriages. There can be no peace for Joanna once she’s wealthy – others want that that wealth – and once she’s married above her station.

It’s a fantastic story and it immerses the reader in so many ways. The domestic details of a privileged life in the early 13th century are particularly interesting, with Joanna moving between palaces, castles and manors, turning fortified walls into a home, even travelling between England and the Continent. It is grand until we’re brought into the birthing chambers of Joanna and the women she knows. It is then that these women are faced with a life and death situation. The brutal reality is that women faced death throughout their child bearing years and Joanna, the Queen and other women in the novel give birth many times. Death is a companion and a shadow. Rank is irrelevant to it. There are moments in this novel of such sadness.

Then there’s the political and martial side to Henry III’s court. The son of King John, Henry is a weak ruler and often a weak man. The novel takes place over a fair few years and we watch Henry and his wife change in character. Joanna feels it keenly. It’s actually tragic to watch Henry’s decline and the Queen’s increasing hostility. The title of the book, A Marriage of Lions, is so well-chosen and apt. There are many lions and lionesses in this novel, not least of whom is Simon de Montfort, who is well drawn here as an appalling bully. Henry is trapped between big personalities, including that of his brother William de Valence, Joanna’s husband. I loved William. He is a man of action and a man who frequently makes errors of judgement but he is always likeable. His marriage with Joanna is arranged but it is strong. It’s such a pleasure to read about Joanna and William’s life together and the way in which they face their trials.

Elizabeth Chadwick illuminates this period of medieval history like no other author I can recall. The men, women and children of her novels are so believable and genuine. Their motivations and aspirations are so well understood. I’ll be visiting Goodrich Castle in Wales shortly and, when I do, I’ll think of Joanna walking in its grounds. She lived there so many hundreds of years ago but, thanks to Elizabeth Chadwick, I can feel a connection. Likewise, when I’m next in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, just down the road from me, I’ll stand where the royal palace of Woodstock once stood and imagine Henry III and his court feasting, laughing and fighting in its great hall.

A Marriage of Lions tells an utterly engrossing and captivating story, giving Joanna and William the limelight they deserve, bringing them out of the shadow of the monstrous and astonishing Simon de Montfort. I was particularly fascinated by the depiction of Henry III’s marriage but Joanna and William take centre stage and shine in this fabulous, immersive novel.

Other reviews
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
Templar Silks

The Irish Princess

The Noise by James Patterson and J.D. Barker

Century | 2021 (5 August) | 421p | Review copy | Buy the book

Terror has come to Mount Hood in Oregon and Tennant Riggin and her much younger sister Sophie are the only survivors from a small community of people living off the grid. Everyone has either vanished or their bodies have been smashed to pieces. The government gathers together a group of scientists, experts in, among other things, the environment, in medicine, in space. They are sealed off from the rest of the world as they study this terrible phenomenon – death is brought by a catastrophic noise and it seems there is a pattern to it. Psychologist Martha Chan believes the answers can be found with Tennant and Sophie but, with the noise spreading, will there be time to save humanity?

I love a good thriller and The Noise was irresistible to me. It’s got the lot – science fiction, horror, mystery and speculation, apocalyptic threat, action, goodies, baddies, all set within the spectacular and isolated mountains and forests of Oregon. The authors are also a draw, bringing together thrills and horror, and they do it very well.

The Noise is a fast read. It races along, with short chapters which move between the protagonists – the sisters, the scientists, the military, the President and his advisors. It’s all thoroughly entertaining but what gives this novel an edge is the nature of its mystery. I was fascinated by the noise and really wanted to know what it’s all about. Is it manmade, is it alien, is it supernatural? What is it?

Martha Chan is a sympathetic character but, surprisingly, I was most drawn to Lt Col Fraser’s story. He is in many ways the perfect soldier but he battles the noise more than most and his struggle against it is really involving.

There are also some interesting takes on horror themes, such as zombies, and It reminded me a little of Wanderers by Chuck Wendig but in many ways it’s very different. Its ending is absolutely brilliant to my mind. This is a horror thriller that totally delivers at the end and, when you know why, it makes you realise just how clever the novel has been, as well as exciting and tense. The authors of The Noise are a winning partnership and I really hope for more from them.

Other reviews
With Marshall Karp – NYPD Red 5
With Bill Clinton – The President is Missing
With Bill Clinton – The President’s Daughter
Target
With Brendon DuBois – The First Lady

A Winter War by Tim Leach

Head of Zeus | 2021 (5 August) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Winter War by Tim LeachIt is 173 AD and only the Danube stands between the mighty army of Marcus Aurelius and the complete destruction of the Sarmatians, a fierce, fractious nomadic people. The warrior tribes come together to fight the Romans on the Danube’s ice surface but it is a disaster. Few survive and those that do must make a choice when given a terrible ultimatum by an emperor who believes himself a god. Kai survived, hidden by one of the fearsome horses that his people prize, and must become a leader of sorts, a role that doesn’t suit because to many he is a coward, a shamed outcast. And no-one hates him more than his sister, the most feared of warriors. But, as the winter freezes the ground and people alike, the Sarmatians must walk an uncertain path between honour and shame, watched over by a Roman army, fascinated by their enemy but determined to crush it forever.

The Last King of Lydia and its sequel The King and the Slave are among the most wonderful historical novels that I have ever read, immersing me in an unfamiliar and almost mythical period of history (the 6th century BC), and illuminating that time with its astonishing depiction of Croesus and his transformation from king to slave. Now Tim Leach portrays a clash of cultures on the fringes of a Roman empire ruled by an enigmatic, cruel philosopher emperor. We spend time with Marcus Aurelius, camped by the Danube, and it’s a dangerous place, but most of the novel is spent with Kai and those closest to him, his friend, his daughter, his lover and his slave. And his extraordinary sister.

Through Kai, Tim Leach explores the society of the Sarmatians, its blurring of genders and roles, its strange and terrible traditions, its relationship with horses and the land, and its complete lack of perception about what the Romans really are, what they represent and what they will do. Knowledge brings with it desperation and division. Male and female characters fascinate equally here, which is a real draw of this novel.

Tim Leach writes beautifully. This is gorgeous prose, immersing the reader in the trials of this cold, cold place at such a time of brutal crisis. It’s lyrical and thoughtful. There is plenty of action, some of it quite shocking – these are violent people! – but this is offset by Kai’s journey.

A Winter War is the first in a new series. It’s a complete novel in itself while also making the reader very keen for book 2! I can’t wait to see what happens next  because it is going to be incredible.

Other reviews
The Last King of Lydia
The King and the Slave

A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

Century | 2021 (19 August) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Line to Kill by Anthony HorowitzFormer Detective Inspector Daniel Hawthorne and his biographer Anthony Horowitz are rather pleased when they are invited to a literary festival on the beautiful and quiet Channel Island of Alderney, although Anthony is a little surprised that Daniel agreed to it so readily. It’s almost as if he knew that they would soon be embroiled in a murder case that has the whole island locked down while the police (and Anthony and Daniel) seek out the killer. There is a fine selection of suspects among the festival attendees, speakers and organisers, not all of whom will leave the island alive. But who among them is the murderer?

I love this series so much and A Line to Kill, the third, is every bit as fun and engrossing as the previous novels, The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death. The concept is fabulous – the author as a character in his own novel, helping an enigmatic detective to solve murders, but often getting it all wrong while Daniel works it out. These books are wonderful, witty satires on all things literary, whether that’s authors, publishers, agents, reviewers or, in this case, literary festivals.

The Alderney setting is my favourite of all the locations in the novels, not least because I really want to go to the historical literary festival there one of these days (when I can conquer my terror of small planes), and I love the descriptions of the island. There is also a strong sense of history. The horrendous years of the Occupation during World War Two, when the island was prison to thousands of slave labourers and transformed into a fortress, cast a shadow over the novel and adds another fascinating element. The past cannot be forgotten.

I’m not going to give away anything about the plot, other than to say that the suspects are an incredible bunch of characters, including a blind psychic and a celebrity chef. They are a lot of fun to read about while Daniel Hawthorne is his usual aggravating self.

I love cosy, locked room whodunnits and I also like it when cosy crime is played with, as this series does so well. A Line to Kill is a thoroughly entertaining, clever and engrossing read, as are all of the novels I’ve read by this author. I really hope Anthony will assist Daniel Hawthorne in another case and very soon.

Other reviews
The Word is Murder
The Sentence is Death
Magpie Murders
The Moonflower Murders

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2021 (22 July) | 480p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa JewellIn 2018, detective novelist Sophie arrives to live at Maypole House, a country boarding school. Her boyfriend is its new head and she finds it hard to settle so far away from her old life in London. When she goes out for a walk in the woods behind the school, she finds a sign nailed to a fence – ‘Dig here’. What she finds will re-open raw wounds among the members of the school and surrounding small community.

In the summer of 2017, teenage mum Tallulah left her baby son at home with her mother Kim to go out on a date night with her boyfriend. They ended up at a pool party at Dark Place, a house in the woods behind the school. Neither Tallulah or her boyfriend Zach were seen again, leaving Kim and the detective in charge of the case in limbo, endlessly searching. But now, after all these months, somebody is trying to get Sophie’s attention and the mystery intensifies.

Lisa Jewell writes such brilliant stand alone crime and psychological thrillers or twisters and with The Night She Disappeared she has done it again. The premise is appealing and the mystery intriguing. I really wanted to know the answer to what happened to Tallulah and her boyfriend Zach.

But this is more than just a crime mystery, it tells several stories in a structure that moves between the present – Kim and Sophie’s stories – and the past – Tallulah’s life as a teenage mum trying to fit in with her friends who are so entirely different from her, all leading up to the night of her disappearance. Following that disappearance, our sympathies move to Kim who now has to raise an unhappy small child. She is filled with love for him but wasn’t ready to raise another child. And, of course, he is a constant reminder of the child she has lost.

So there is the deeply involved story of Kim and then the outsider perspective of Sophie, looking on the mystery with fresh eyes and finding potential suspects all around her. The school and its woods take on a sinister and menacing air as Sophie literally digs for clues.

I did find the ending slightly rushed and a little unconvincing but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed The Night She Disappeared and found it hard to put down. Its portrait of Tallulah is particularly well done as she does battle with herself. The structure of the novel works very well. Lisa Jewell is such a wonderful storyteller.

Other reviews
Then She Was Gone
Watching You
The Family Upstairs