The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley

Pan | 2014 (this edition 2018) | 627p (plus an extract of The Storm Sister) | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Sisters by Lucinda RileyMaia D’Apliese rarely leaves her home in the grounds of the grand lakeside castle in which she and her five sisters were brought up by their adopted father, known to them all as Pa Salt. But her father encouraged her to accept an invitation from an old school friend to visit her in London and it’s while she’s there that Maia receives a call from her father’s housekeeper Marina, the woman who effectively brought the girls up and who loves them as a mother, who breaks the terrible news that Pa Salt has suddenly died. Maia rushes home to discover that he has already been buried at sea, with no fuss at all. It’s devastating. And so Maia must wait for her five sisters to also return home whereupon they will each be given an object left by their father which hints at their early lives before they were adopted. If each wishes it, they can embark on an adventure to discover the truth of their past. But there is another mystery. Each of the sisters is named after one of the stars in the Seven Star constellation. So who is the seventh sister?

The novels tell the story of each of the sisters in turn, starting in The Seven Sisters with the eldest, Maia, a translator who is probably the most withdrawn from the world but is also the most beautiful. The clue left to her by Pa Salt takes Maia on a journey to Rio where she, along with the writer whose work she is there to translate, discover clues to her family’s identity. We’re then treated to a parallel story in the 1920s and there we meet Izabel, the stunning queen of Rio’s high society who falls in love with a man she shouldn’t.

When I received The Sun Sister to review I was intrigued. I loved the sound of it, with its time split story concerning one of six sisters trying to trace her origins in a distant land. I saw that it was the sixth in the series and so I thought I would go back to the beginning and read The Seven Sisters. I am so glad I did. It is enchanting and is so clearly only just the start of a great story. By the time I’d finished it I’d bought up all of the other novels so that now I can catch up, ahead of the publication of the much anticipated novel next year (hopefully) on the seventh mysterious sister. These are books in which clues are scattered. I want to follow them in order and watch the characters of these fascinating and very different sisters develop.

The Seven Sisters tells such a compelling story and it tells it gorgeously. I’ve read a novel by Lucinda Riley before (The Love Letter), which I loved so I knew I was in safe hands. This is important when embarking on reading a series in which every book is at least 600 pages long. I love how Lucinda Riley writes. It’s light but it’s also insightful. These characters are brought to life and I love here the way in which the past and the present interconnect. It’s a wonderful story but it’s also extremely sad and tender. It did make me cry.

I found myself completely caught up in the stories of Maia and also, maybe even more so, Izabel. I know nothing about Brazil in the 1920s but Lucinda brings it to life by focusing on an object that we’re all familiar with, the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, which Izabel and other characters in the novel observe being created. It even takes Izabel to Paris. Rio and Paris couldn’t be more different. Izabel must still wear a corset unlike her Parisian counterparts, she can’t go anywhere without a chaperone. Belle Époque Paris, with all of the freedom it offers, is irresistible and Izabel is completely consumed by it. It’s fabulous to read. My favourite pages, though, were those describing the lakeside castle in Switzerland. It really does feel like a secluded paradise.

I knew I’d fall for this series and I was right. The Seven Sisters, like the other novels, is very long but it’s a fast, engrossing read. It also contains layers of mystery concerning Pa Salt and the missing sister which are only just hinted at here. Clearly this will be developed through the novels. Next up is The Storm Sister, the story of the second eldest sister Ally, named for the star Alcyone. This time the destination will be Norway. I can’t wait.

Other review
The Love Letter

The Grid by Nick Cook

Bantam Press | 2019 (14 November) | 407p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Grid by Nick CookJosh Cain, ex-military and doctor to Robert Thomsen, President of the United States of America, is summoned to a church tower close to the White House. An ex-Marine stands ready to leap to his death. He seems to know who Cain is and he has something important to tell him. There is a plot against the President’s life and Cain must leave no stone unturned to protect him. Seconds later a sniper’s bullet to the head kills the unknown man instantly. The President receives death threats every day but there is something chilling about this warning and it speaks to Cain personally, reminding him of his own loss, that of his beloved wife. The dead man had asked if Cain believes in God. Cain’s mind is filled with questions about the gap, so small, just an instant away, between death and life. The President has his own death on his mind. He dreams about his own death time after time. It always happens the same way. It feels completely real. Cain must wonder if the President’s dreams and the plot are connected, that they are linked by a new threat, one that can manipulate the human mind.

I love political thrillers and I also can’t get enough of speculative or techno thrillers and when the two combine, as with Nick Cook’s The Grid, I cannot resist. The opening chapter has quite a hook to it as Cain tries to save the life of someone he cannot understand but desperately wants to. We’re immediately plunged into a mystery that’s both intriguing and sinister. At the heart of it is Cain and the novel is told in his words as he endeavours to unravel a complicated plot against the President. As it becomes ever more apparent that the plot might be closer to the President that he might like, Cain also has to navigate the complex structure of security agencies that work in secret to keep the President and the country safe. It is a minefield. And the more he digs the more the personal danger for Cain, and his helper Special Agent Hetta Hart, culminating in one absolutely terrifying moment.

The thriller doesn’t just stick to Washington DC and Camp David, it also takes us to Jerusalem and Moscow. The Moscow chapters are among the most fascinating of the book as the leaders of America and Russia try to develop a relationship that might just save the world, or not. I loved the mood of this, the move between offices (including the Oval Office), cars and planes. It’s all so official and yet it’s absolutely deadly.

I did have some issues with the novel, mostly to do with its huge number of characters, each working for different agencies, in America and elsewhere, meaning there is also an awful lot of acronyms. If it weren’t for the dramatis personae at the end of the novel, I would have really struggled, not least because sometimes characters are called by their first name and then later by their surname and it isn’t easy at all to tie the two together. I did find the nature of The Grid itself a little baffling but I don’t mind that in a techno thriller, I find keeping track of a multitude of characters much harder. And there are so many agencies! Fortunately, though, the second half of the book was much clearer and so I’m glad that I decided to stick with it. Because the latter stages are utterly compelling and gripping. They’re also quite haunting and emotional as Cain faces his own past, just as the President must face his.

There are some messages here that I like, especially the importance of being kind. You never know when life will end and perhaps the final judgement will come not from God but from yourself. How would you wish to be judged? The most important thing is love. It might be a complicated thriller but its prime message is a simple one and it’s very effective.

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino

HarperCollins | 2019 (14 November) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Women at Hitler's Table by Rosella PostorinoIt is 1943 and Rosa has fled Berlin, a city of bomb raids that reminds her of loss, to live with her parents-in-law in East Prussia. Her husband Gregor is fighting on the Russian front and her parents are dead. But Rosa finds no peace in this remote and rural part of Germany. Hitler’s hidden headquarters, the Wolfsshanze or Wolf’s Lair, is nearby and Hitler spends more and more time there, increasingly paranoid as the war begins to go badly. Ten German women are picked to serve as his food tasters, to protect Hitler from poison. Rosa is selected and there’s nothing she can do about it. Three times a day she plays a Russian roulette, eating Hitler’s food and then then forced to wait for an hour each time to ensure that she isn’t about to die. The women are virtually imprisoned, only allowed home in the evening. They’re not treated well. And so a type of solidarity slowly grows between these women. But each is so different from another. They think about everything, including the war, differently. It isn’t long before Rosa finds much more to test her than her daily fear of being poisoned to death.

The Women at Hitler’s Table (translated by Leah Janeczko) is a fascinating novel that examines the influence of Hitler on not just these women, but on all of Germany. This is increasingly a war he cannot win but he will not give in. The Wolf’s Lair feels like a den of paranoid madness, its grounds protected by wire as well as guards who are as temperamental as their master. These women live in a state of fear and it’s not just from the food. We also see the wider state of Germany as Rosa remembers her life in Berlin, her marriage. She now faces uncertainty about the fate of her husband. Hitler is a man who has sent his men to fight in the frozen East while he hides in his lair. Rosa suffers but there is another side to this book as it explores her relationship with the officer in charge of them.

Rosa’s an interesting character who is clearly at her wit’s end while trying to hold everything together and stay alive. She is difficult to warm to and the prose, which feels dispassionate, increases our distance. The sexual tension, which plays such a part of the novel, seems strange. But it’s difficult to judge anybody in this novel when they were living in such unnatural times. The line between love and murder, life and death could hardly be less thin. This does make for uncomfortable reading at times but I nevertheless found it mesmerising. It’s hard to look away.

The novel is filled with ideas and difficult questions as these women have to decide how far they will go to survive. Their feelings towards Hitler are ambivalent. They’re afraid of him but they’re working to keep him alive. As the novel goes on, Rosa has to make some choices that will stay with her for the rest of her life. She made these choices but how far was it due to Nazi pressure? And through it all, Rosa develops a relationship with food that is far from normal. At this stage of the war, many people are starving but Rosa and the others are full on Hitler’s food. But every mouth could kill. I found this such an interesting theme and it continues through the novel.

The historical setting is very well done as is the location. It feels cold, remote, hostile. There is a mood of paranoia that hangs over everyone, it even haunts Rosa’s dreams, and there is an atmosphere of distrust, the ever-present possibility of imminent potential death. Rosa and the other women don’t have normal relationships with one another. It would be impossible. Watching Rosa try to pick her way through each day, from meal to meal, is compelling. Despite the troubling subject matter, The Women at Hitler’s Table is a novel that lingers on the mind.

Die Alone by Simon Kernick

Century | 2019 (28 November) | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book

Die Alone by Simon KernickRay Mason, a disgraced detective, is in prison awaiting trial for a double murder when he is unexpectedly broken free by armed men. There are plenty of different factions who want to silence Ray and he can only think and expect the worst. But then they declare that they work for the secret service and they make him an offer. If Ray kills a man they will in return give him a new identity and Ray can leave Britain for good and make a life for himself somewhere far away. The target is Alastair Sheridan, a Member of Parliament. For they know, as does Ray, that Sheridan is a serial killer and there is a very real chance that he may become the next Prime Minister. Ray wants Sheridan dead for all sorts of personal reasons but he knows there’s something not quite right with either these people or their offer. He’s right.

Die Alone is the first thriller by Simon Kernick I’ve read and it was only after I was about a quarter of the way through that I realised that the book is actually the third and final novel in a trilogy, The Bone Field. Thankfully, though, Die Alone stands on its own very well indeed and this didn’t affect my enjoyment of it at all. It is a marvellous thriller, very cleverly plotted and with such a lot going on. It’s complex but it’s also very clear and so, although I had no knowledge of what had gone on before, I felt like I soon caught up. What it did mean, though, is that I didn’t get the impact of some of the revelations and character developments (some people seem like they’re minor players but I’ve since learned they played significant roles in previous books) that fans of the trilogy will get by the bucketload. I suspect that they will be very glad indeed to read this final part of the story and it comes together perfectly.

Ray Mason is a fascinating man. He is honourable and decent but he’s also a man who has been taken to the limits of his patience. He has promised justice to the parents of Sheridan’s first victim and one of his youngest. This promise has caused all sorts of trouble for Ray but also not just for Ray but for Tina Boyd, an ex-police officer who means so much to Ray, as he does to her. Even though he is now out of prison and with the chance of a fresh start, he can’t turn his back on Sheridan. Ray is caught in a web from which it is almost impossible to extricate himself. And it is lethal. But Ray has changed over the years. He’s become a killer.

The novel is mostly divided between Ray and Tina. Tina is, I think, my favourite character in the book. She’s brave and kind, clever and resourceful. She is taken to the edge here. But there are other characters who grab our attention, not least Alastair Sheridan whose mind we glimpse throughout the novel. And what a piece of work he is. He’s handsome, charismatic, clever and, on the surface, likeable. He’s also a monster. I loved the sense of good versus evil, that it’s time for Sheridan to pay.

Die Alone is a very exciting thriller from start to finish. Its plot is ingenious and the characters grab our attention. I really liked Ray and Tina. The relationship between them is intriguing and delicate. The danger both face feels very real. It had me on the edge of my seat. I do wish that I’d read the previous two novels first but I also know that I won’t be missing any more thrillers by Simon Kernick.

Interference by Sue Burke

Tor | 2019 (22 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Interference by Sue BurkeInterference is the second novel in Sue Burke’s Semiosis Duology. Both novels stand well on their own – they’re set a considerable time apart – but I think you do need to read Semiosis first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure.

Two centuries have passed since human colonists landed on the planet Pax, a world that humans had to share with sentient, intelligent animal life and plant life. A kind of utopia was established in which everyone and everything had to work together for the good of one and for the good of all. An animated world, filled with beauty and danger, watched over by Stevland, a bamboo plant who uses humans and indigenous animals as tools for the good of society. Earth seems a long way away and it is soon almost forgotten. Contact with the home world ceases. And that brings new humans to Pax, scientists who want to know why Pax went silent. Harmony is disrupted as the new humans introduce technology that the human colonists have lost. But perhaps more disturbing that that is the knowledge of Earth that these men and women have carried with them. Both Earth and Pax have shown themselves to be vulnerable.

I absolutely loved Semiosis and it’s a joy to return to the wonderful world of Pax. Life is lived in a small settlement. It’s a rural life, with humans working alongside the local population of Glassmakers (which look a little like praying mantises). There is a real sense of wonder about some of the animals and plant life of Pax. Communication, understanding and cooperation are such important themes. It’s all beautifully and lovingly described, although at times there is violence and sadness. The Glassmakers have customs which are hard for humans to accept. But they must do so. Humans and Glassmakers get along, despite the history of mistrust between them, something that is awoken when the new humans arrive with their racist descriptions of the Glassmakers as insects.

Each of the long chapters is told from the perspective of a different individual, whether an Earth human, a Pax human, a Glassmaker or the extraordinary plant, Stevland. Stevland is such a fascinating concept. My favourite characters, though, are the Glassmakers, who reveal their feelings through smell and are incredibly loyal.

The new humans are less appealing and I must admit that I enjoyed far less the sections spent in their company. Some of them are narrow-minded, ignorant (perhaps even stereotypically so) and embarrassing. They also reveal something about the apocalypse that has robbed Earth of almost all human life.

Interference didn’t grip me as much as Semiosis, possibly I think because of the introduction of these new, flawed humans. This all distracted from the wonder of Pax and the incredible way in which the human colonists have changed in two centuries, with the way, for example, that each generation of colonist distinguishes itself from the others. It was all so new and fascinating in Semiosis, all so positive. Interference is darker. It’s also slow in places – I don’t think that the structure helps. Nevertheless, this is beautiful writing and, with no doubt at all, this duology is extremely intelligent science fiction and Pax, gorgeous Pax, is an absolute joy to explore.

Other review
Semiosis

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

HQ | 2019 (31 October) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ones by Anita FrankIt is 1917 and Stella Marcham is stricken by grief for the loss of her fiancé Gerald, killed in the trenches of France during the Great War, a war which shows no signs of ending. There are still many young men whose lives the war waits to claim. Stella’s family find Stella’s grief hard to deal with and, as the months pass, suspect a mental weakness. They find a solution. Stella’s sister Madeleine is pregnant. Her husband has moved her away from London to the safety of the countryside and his manor house, Greyswick, and the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell, while he continues his war work in the capital. She needs a companion. Both sisters are delighted to see each other and draw comfort from the other. But Stella is worried by how she finds her sister. Madeleine seems unsettled, unhappy, even frightened, and when Stella finds a little toy soldier tucked inside her bed she begins to understand that something is not right with this house. And then the nights are disturbed by the sound of a child crying. A child that cannot possibly exist.

I love a good ghost story and I am drawn to tales of haunted houses and there is something extra chilling and sad about those which are set during the First World War, a time when many wives and mothers were drawn to learn about the spirit world due to the untimely, violent loss of their men and boys. The Lost Ones is beautifully written, with its gorgeous prose as haunted by a lost world as the house is. The descriptions of Greyswick and its grounds are evocative and powerful and the novel has such a strong sense of time, place and mood.

The heart of the novel, though, lies with its cast of characters, in particular Stella and her maid Annie Burrows. Annie’s relationship with Stella is a fascinating one. They’re from different classes and experiences but the two of them are drawn together by what they witness in the house. Annie’s past, as the daughter of a man who died trying to save Stella’s sister in a fire, casts a shadow over the relationship and the novel. Annie is hard to know. We’re presented this world from upstairs, in Stella’s words, in comfort. But Annie’s voice breaks through and it adds a real edge to the novel. Then there are the women who live in the house – Lady Brightwell, her companion and the housekeeper. Each is a scene stealer. Possibly the only character who doesn’t linger in the mind is Madeleine. It’s as if the house has stolen her true self away and she must leave to save herself.

The ghost story is such a good one. It’s poignant and sad and at times pleasingly frightening. There is also another side to things – the treatment of women in the early 20th century, the issue of mental health and grief, male domination of society and the home, and the role of women as both victim and oppressor. Stella had experienced an independent life in France as a nurse. She now has no independence at all. But The Lost Ones is also a novel about love. The moments when Stella remembers the precious, short time she shared with Gerald are upsetting but there comes a time when they start to give her comfort. This is something she has to work through. Just as the house itself must endure darkness before it can re-emerge.

The Lost Ones is an excellent and extremely atmospheric haunted house story set at a time stricken by loss due to the First World War. In this atmosphere of loss, grief, worry and traumatic memories, ghosts thrive. But what is it they’re trying to say? I loved the characters and I really enjoyed exploring the house. I did guess the outcome and there was some predictability but nevertheless this novel is beautifully written and evocative of time and place, just what you need for these long dark evenings.

And what a gorgeous hardback!

A Window Breaks by C.M. Ewan – a review and extract

Pan | 2019 (31 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the bookA Window Breaks by CM Ewan

Tom and Rachel are grieving for the loss of their teenage son, Michael, who crashed his father’s car into a tree some months ago, killing himself and his girlfriend. Tom and Rachel aren’t coping with it well and now their younger daughter Holly has been hurt in a violent mugging in London. They need to get away and look after each other, maybe Tom and Rachel will even be able to patch their marriage back together. Tom’s boss offers them the use of his luxury lodge in a secluded part of Scotland. It’s just what they need. Until the first night. They hear a noise downstairs. Men have broken in and they have much more than robbery on their minds. What will Tom do to keep his family alive?

A Window Breaks has such a thrilling premise and it fully delivers on it. This is a thoroughly exciting book, mostly set over just a few hours, and we spend every minute of it with this terrified family. It’s told in Tom’s words, which makes the tension even more immediate and real as we scramble over walls, along roofs, in confined spaces, through woods, in water, over every inch of this remote estate where there are no phone signals, no internet, just a gate that doesn’t open, a car that doesn’t go. It’s breathless. And the men who hunt them are relentless.

The location, both inside the lodge and outside, is excellent. Tom and Rachel are strangers here. They don’t know where to go. They have to try anything they can. It’s also mostly set at night. They can hide in the darkness but it also hides traps.

There is another story that threads its way through the novel, that of the son Michael and the crash that killed him and his girlfriend. It doesn’t take up much of the novel, which I did appreciate because I don’t think it’s as successful as the rest of the thriller. It moves back and forward, it’s confused. It does have significance for the novel’s story but fortunately it doesn’t disrupt it too much.

Otherwise, A Window Breaks is a hugely successful thriller and one that I had a great deal of trouble putting down. There’s a deceptively slow start but then it explodes! And it keeps on exploding all the way to its clever conclusion. Excellent!

To help celebrate the publication of A Window Breaks on 31 October, I’m delighted to post an extract from the novel below – and it’s a goodie…..

Extract

CHAPTER 12

‘Tom?’

Rachel shook my shoulder.

‘Tom, wake up.’ She  whispered, close to my  ear: ‘I think I heard something.’

I groaned and mashed my face into my pillow.

‘Tom, it sounded like a window breaking. I think there’s someone downstairs.’

I groaned some more. Rachel is a light sleeper. She hears bumps in the night. And I’m the one she’s turned to – again and again – to get out of bed and creep downstairs to investigate.

‘Tom?’

It was warm and fuggy under the covers – my legs were tangled in Rachel’s legs – and I could so easily drift off again. I could hear the hitch of fear in  Rachel’s voice but it wasn’t quite enough to tug me back to full consciousness.

Then a vague distant noise made me stir. It could have been the sound of glass crunching underfoot.

My heart clenched as Rachel yanked on my upper arm. ‘Tom? Wake up. Please.’

Eyes open, listening hard.

The room was black. The only light was the faint glow of my wristwatch. It was just after 2 a.m.

Another slight crunching sound.

Oh God.

I blinked and stared into the pulsing darkness as a great sucking fear invaded my  chest. In my mind I was watching a kind of home movie rendered in fuzzy greyscale. I was picturing a long, uninterrupted tracking shot – the visual equivalent of the auditory hunt I was carrying out with my ears. The camera in my mind’s eye went snuffling across the carpet and out of the bedroom door. It sped low along the unlit hallway, sweeping left and right in small, tight arcs, like a bloodhound following a scent. When the camera reached the mezzanine it pitched up and then down over the polished steel banister rail overlooking the vaulted space below. It dropped on a wire, spinning and sweeping, sniffing out the source of the gritty crunching I had heard.

‘I’m scared, Tom.’ ‘Shh.’

Was that the whisper of the sliding glass door on to the deck being pulled back? And now the dull thud of the door hitting the rubber buffer?

Rachel clutched my arm again. I didn’t have any clothes on under the covers. And all right, it shouldn’t have been a big deal right then, but it’s amazing how being naked can make you feel more vulnerable.

Silence. I waited.

My heart jackhammered in my chest, pushing me up off the mattress. Rachel’s fingers dug into my flesh.

The silence persisted, but this was no natural hush. It felt loaded. Felt forced. Like somebody was holding their breath downstairs.

I was listening so intensely it was as if I could hear the throbbing of the very air itself – the sound of millions of tiny molecules rubbing and vibrating against one another.   It was a sound like no other. The sound of pure fear in the middle of the night.