The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2019 (8 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Family Upstairs by Lisa JewellThe police are alerted to the sounds of a baby’s cry from a large fashionable house in Chelsea, London. They find three bodies, dead for days. Upstairs is a healthy baby. It’s an enigma. Who has been looking after the baby? Is this a suicide pact, as a note suggests, or is it something else entirely?

Years later, more than one person is drawn back to the house. The baby is now a woman, aged 25 years. She’s inherited this magnificent house. But it comes at a price. Others may look for her there as the house’s layers of mystery are slowly and shockingly peeled away.

Lisa Jewell is the master of stand alone psychological thrillers and this is proven yet again by The Family Upstairs, which I found to be utterly compelling and engrossing, in a kind of voyeur sense, perhaps, but this darkly disturbing novel is as catchy and addictive as you could desire.

We’re given a bunch of lives to follow, and we spend time with them in the present day and in the past. The narrative moves between certain characters and between the years. It’s a complex structure but this is an author who has no trouble at all controlling, manipulating, an array of plot threads, each as fascinating as the next.

I don’t want to give anything away about the plot or the people. It’s a joy to watch it all unravel before your eye. But, at the heart of this book is 16 Cheyne Walk, with its several floors, many rooms and multiple hiding places. There’s barely a room without a secret, barely a space left untouched by its extraordinary past and we explore them all.

This is a dark novel with some dark themes. For several of the people in the novel the normal rules and codes of life don’t apply and Lisa Jewell shows us exactly why in the most beautifully-written and punchy prose. I loved The Family Upstairs. It kept me company through a couple of very hot, sleepless nights, but it wasn’t just the heat that kept me reading. I could not put this marvellous book down.

Other reviews
Then She Was Gone
Watching You


The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather Child

Orbit | 2019 (1 August) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Undoing of Arlo Knott by Heather ChildArlo Knott discovers, in the most appalling and traumatic circumstances, that he has an astonishing skill, almost a superhuman gift – he can reverse his last action; he can actually turn back time. This ability transforms Arlo’s life in every way and his personality undergoes a whirlpool of emotions, life choices and decisions, as he uses this skill for all kinds of purposes. As he learns to manipulate his talent, Arlo realises just how many ways there are in which he can use it to get rich or, perhaps more importantly to him, to win admiration and respect. But then he also considers its wider uses and his responsibilities – that he can use it to save lives, to become a hero. But what Arlo wants more than anything is to love and be loved and it’s there that sadness lies as he discovers what is genuinely important and the reality of his insignificance to change what matters.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott is a truly extraordinary novel. In big ways it’s speculative science fiction as we watch Arlo manipulate time and recent events for various reasons. All of which raises the huge question of what would we do if we could undo an event, reverse an action or word that we regret, save someone we love. But how much would you change? How far back would you go? Where would you draw the line as life’s knots grow increasingly complex and entangled?

There is so much going on in this novel. It’s absolutely packed with life as Arlo explores every aspect of his gift while still being traumatised by the event that triggered it and yet still trying to make a future for himself. The Undoing of Arlo Knott is extremely entertaining and lively as Arlo pursues so many personas, some of them outrageous. And all the time he is watched by those he loves and cares for.

Arlo Knott dominates the novel, as you’d expect, and we grow close to him as he tells his story in his own words. But there are other significant characters, too, each of whom plays an important role in Arlo’s life as he explores his relationship with them and tries to help them. But sometimes in helping you can make things worse. Some things cannot be undone. Arlo is an appealing character as he discovers the many different consequences of undoing an act and realises how dangerous, terrifying and whimsical life really is.

And so the novel investigates relationships and the nature of love in so many forms. Arlo’s family is fascinating. They’re almost just out of reach. Arlo defines himself by love and with it comes guilt. Heather Child explores this with such sensitivity and insight.

This is a brilliantly written and clever novel. It shocks and amuses and it has so many twists and unexpected developments. I love speculative fiction and with The Undoing of Arlo Knott we see the genre at its very best.

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday | 2019 (18 June) | 368p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Big Sky by Kate AtkinsonJackson Brodie, once a police detective and now a private investigator, has moved to a seaside village in north Yorkshire where he shares responsibility for his son and dog with his ex-partner. It’s an arrangement that works, for now. Jackson is currently at work trying to prove the infidelity of a client’s husband but everything begins to shift when Jackson comes across a desperate man on the edge of a crumbling cliff.

Jackson isn’t the only person interested in this man and his life. Detective constables Ronnie and Reggie are investigating the background to a troubling case, which involves terrible crimes. And then there’s the murder. Patterns emerge, coincidences confuse, in a soup of lies, secrets and deceit.

Big Sky is the first of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels that I’ve read. How that came about I have no idea because I adore her recent novels. Here’s an author whom I trust and I knew it wouldn’t matter if I hadn’t have read the others. And it didn’t but I’ll definitely be reading them now. I need to meet these people again.

The story is brilliantly constructed and told. There are so many threads to it, so many seemingly unrelated characters. We see events through the eyes of more than one, including our man on the cliff. But it doesn’t confuse in the slightest due to this author’s considerable skill. It does, however, amaze. If you’ve read earlier novels you’ll enjoy seeing familiar faces, to catch up with them all these years later, but each of them is given such life and depth that new readers will have no trouble falling for them. Ugliness can be found here in a story that at times grips the heart. But there is also hope and innocence. I adore Reggie and Ronnie.

Jackson Brodie operates almost in the shadows, sometimes on the wrong side of the right way to do things. His methods are unorthodox and he can place himself away and apart from the emotion, but we know he cares, that he worries. There are people here that need to be worried about, who need Jackson’s help.

Big Sky is a magnificent novel, not just for its excellent plot and beautiful, elegant prose, but also for its insight into human behaviour and motives. People here can do bad things, even when they don’t want to and know it’s wrong. That doesn’t make their behaviour any less evil, but it does make them interesting. There’s a battle between good and evil – Reggie and Ronnie (so brilliantly named) are the angels. Jackson is there to mete out justice and the way in which this novel comes together is jawdropping and marvellous.

Kate Atkinson is one of the very finest authors at work today. Big Sky Shows yet again why. I’ll be sure not to let this series pass me by again and I urge you to read it. This is undoubtedly one of my top books of the year. And it’s a beautiful hardback, with no fewer than two ribbons! Irresistible, inside and out.

Other reviews
Life After Life
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Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Solaris | 2019 (11 July) | 800p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Wanderers by Chuck WendigOn 3 June, in the small rural town of Maker’s Bell in Pennsylvania, fifteen-year-old Nessie gets out of bed, leaves her home and starts to walk. Shana soon tracks her little sister down but nothing she does can wake Nessie up. Then their father joins them. If they try and restrain Nessie she becomes agitated and dangerously, frighteningly distressed but still she doesn’t wake. Nessie is the first of the sleepwalkers, soon she is joined by others. They stop for nothing – they don’t rest, they don’t eat, they just walk. They are the Flock, watched over by their worried friends and loved ones, the Shepherds, who walk alongside them – a growing community on the move. But where are they going? And why?

Benji Ray is just one of the scientists and doctors trying to find out the answers. He used to work for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), fighting ebola, until he was fired. But now he has been selected by Black Swan, an AI of sorts, developed by Benex-Voyager to help tackle disease by predicting its behaviour; to watch new diseases hop from species to species in a series of events that Black Swan can foresee. And it wants Benji.

Others, too, are drawn to the walkers; some see them as angels, others as demons. Society can’t cope with the walkers. It can’t understand them. Order starts to collapse. It is a time for evil men to thrive, especially those who say they are servants of God. And all the time the Flock walks resolutely on, completely unaware of the growing danger around them.

Wanderers is one of those rare novels that becomes such a part of your life when you read it that you feel different for it. It’s 800 pages long and not a page is wasted. I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it and I bought and started it on the day it was published. I was lucky to find a limited signed and numbered first edition! It’s a beautiful hardback, which is also physically so easy to read – each page feels like it’s been given room to breathe. I loved it very much. I looked forward to reading it in every free moment I had and I was so sorry to finish it.

There is so much to Wanderers. It contains so many lives and their stories. Chuck Wendig is to be applauded for the sheer quality of the writing, for the complex, multi-layered plot, and for the range of characters that we meet and spend time with. Comparisons have been made to The Stand, and there are similarities but, personally, I think Wanderers is the better book. And that’s saying something because The Stand is one of my favourite books. As too now is Wanderers.

Wanderers is a sophisticated blend of genres, including horror and science fiction. It is also a literary, character-driven journey across America. It’s also an apocalyptic tale of disaster. We see people at their worst and at their best. Dark themes are explored – one scene in particular is pretty shocking. But what I take from it is the sheer wonder of its storytelling and the love I feel for so many of its characters. We see examples of different kinds of families, of loners (how I loved Marcy and Pete), the innocent and the guilty.

Wanderers has a fantastic premise that it more than lives up to from start to finish. There’s a timeliness about its story and its warning, politically, socially and environmentally. The nature of the book’s horror evolves through the novel. It changes and is genuinely frightening.

What drives it on, though, is the fantastic mystery at its heart. Where are the walkers going? What will happen when they get there? On so many levels Wanderer succeeds. It’s a significant novel. But it’s also thrilling, horrifying, emotional, engrossing and is an absolute joy to read.

Other review

The Possession by Michael Rutger

Zaffre | 2019 (25 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Possession by Michael RutgerNolan Moore hosts The Anomaly Files, a YouTube show that explores unsolved mysteries and allows Nolan to flounce around in a large, gaping white shirt under the scornful, sneering gaze of his cynical producer and crew. Time has passed since their last adventure, recorded in The Anomaly, and Nolan is ready for more. Although this time they’ll stick above ground and try not to die.

They arrive in the remote, small town of Birchlake in northern California to investigate the mysterious low walls that spiral their way around the town and its woodland. Noone knows who built them or why. The producer, Ken, thinks this is all rather dull, but the chances of getting killed do seem significantly reduced from their previous case. A low wall hardly seems dangerous, And then they learn about the missing teenage girl. Strange noises soon follow. Then comes the fear.

I loved The Anomaly and I was very keen to return to Nolan and his colleagues. Nolan is a personable, likeable man, interested in the strangest of things, full of endless useless facts, and he is very funny, not always intentionally. Certainly his colleagues think he’s funny, and not necessarily in a good way. But I love them all, perhaps all the more because of their griping, moaning and arguing. We get to know more about Nolan here, too, thanks to the appearance of his journalist ex-wife.

I love to be scared when I read horror and The Possession definitely gave me the heebie jeebies. I’m not sure it’s as scary as The Anomaly and the setting isn’t as terrifying as that horrible cave, but it’s nevertheless steeped in atmosphere and mist.

Once again, this is a very well-written, witty novel with glittering dialogue. There are plenty of smiles along the way to go with the thrills and the loud bumps in the night and so I gobbled up the pages. The highlight for me is most definitely Nolan Moore. He is a fantastic creation. I can’t wait to see what mystery he tackles next. But I do know I’m glad I’m not going with him. He’s a man who attracts ghouls and monsters like noone else. If only more people watched his YouTube channel…

Other review
The Anomaly

The July Girls by Phoebe Locke

Wildfire | 2019 (25 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The July Girls by Phoebe LockEvery year on 7 July a woman is snatched off a London street never to be seen again. The body of one has been found but the killer learned from his mistake. No more have been discovered. But that day in 2005 was the day of the London bombings, when the attention was stolen from the killer. He’s determined that this won’t be the case again. The police know him as the Magpie as he likes to keep mementos from his crimes. There’s a reason why he keeps them.

7 July is also the birthday of young Addie Knight. On 7 July 2005 her father came home covered in blood and Addie, just ten years old, believed it was because of the bombings but then she and her much older sister Jessie find the purse of one of the missing women hidden in a hole in their father’s wall. Addie’s world is torn apart but while she struggles with what to do with the suspicion that consumes her, Jessie decides to make amends in another way entirely.

The July Girls is attracting a lot of attention and deservedly so. It’s a psychological thriller that races along – I read it in just a day – but it’s also driven by some beautifully drawn characters, especially sisters Addie and Jessie, as well as the younger children in the novel. They feel real; the awful situation they find themselves in also feels real, and we care deeply for little Addie as the worry she must contend with damages her. It’s a fascinating yet emotional portrait of a young girl caught in a situation she’s not old enough to deal with. And it’s through her young innocent eyes that we see this world that Phoebe Lock has created and it’s a menacing one, in which killers steal women, terrorists blow up innocent commuters and the disaffected riot in London’s streets.

I don’t want to give anything more away about the plot as it’s full of surprises as Addie grows into a teenager and learns more about the world and people around her. The menace is particularly prevalent in the first half of the novel and so this is my favourite part but I enjoyed the whole novel. It’s impossible to put down, with the pages flying through the fingers and – and this is a rare and good thing – I was completely caught out! I suspect this will be a very popular read on the beaches this summer.

The Bear Pit by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2019 (11 July) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bear Pit by SG MacLean

It is 1656, the war is long over and Oliver Cromwell’s grip on England is tight. But despite Cromwell’s new title of ‘Highness’ and even though he now lives in palaces emptied of their royal owners, his government is all too aware that their Commonwealth could crumble if anything should happen to their Lord Protector. And Charles II’s court in exile knows it. Captain Damian Seeker is back in London on a mission to protect Cromwell from assassins. And he knows that three of them at least are now in London.

But Seeker is preoccupied. He’s holding together his own network of untrustworthy spies, led by his former royalist prisoner Sir Thomas Faithly, when he and Faithly discover the remains of a man, torn apart by a bear. Cromwell has banned bear baiting and had all of the bears killed. One has clearly got away. Faithly tracks the bear, while Seeker goes after the dead man’s identity. It leads him on a perilous journey across London, from its grand houses to its Southwark stews and Lambeth marshes. At its heart lies a man who will stop at nothing to restore the monarchy.

The Bear Pit is the fourth novel in S.G. MacLean’s series featuring that most enigmatic, troubled and flawed of men, Damian Seeker. He is both hero and anti-hero. He is ruled by his code of honour but at times it is prejudiced, while his scarred face and body reminds us of his violent past, in war and in times of peace. He is a killer but he is also now a father and the two fight within him. He serves Cromwell faithfully and is prepared to die for him but we are all too aware that Cromwell may well not deserve this loyalty. We can approve, like Seeker, of some of Cromwell’s new laws, such as those banning bear baiting, and Seeker welcomes the new codes of morality and modesty, but we know, as he must too, that people don’t change. They just go underground. And it’s down there that Seeker must descend.

The plotting is fantastic. It’s a thoroughly engrossing tale of spies and murder, full of surprises and twists as people shift their position in these uncertain times. There’s a host of fascinating characters, some innocent, many not, and they live in a brilliantly described London, with its prisons, dark lanes, inns and bear pits. I love the little details – the descriptions of buildings and clothing, the moments we spend with famous historical figures. And there are people here we care for even though our own loyalties are tested by both sides. This isn’t black and white and demonstrates how divided and damaged England was by those years of royal neglect, war and then the Commonwealth.

The 1650s were such a fascinating and critical period in British history and the Seeker novels bring these years to life with such drama and colour. There’s violence and gore (how could there not be with a bear on the loose?!), there’s passion and tenderness. And there are so many lies. Although this is the fourth novel, The Bear Pit stands alone very well but I do recommend you read them all. Damian Seeker is one of my very favourite figures in historical fiction and historical crime. He lights up the page and demands our attention even when he follows a darker path.

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The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel