The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Compare and contrast…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When Rowan Caine spots an advertisement for a nanny position, she’s staggered by the huge salary that’s being offered. So she’s willing to overlook the little detail that it’s a desperate bid by the potential employers to find someone who doesn’t mind that the house is reputed to be haunted. Because obviously ghosts don’t exist, right? The last four nannies who’ve all left in the last year must have been mistaken. Off she goes, way up to the north of Scotland to a house set in splendid isolation, to take on a family of four girls: two small children, one baby and a bratty teenager. Their parents are busy architects running their own business so are often away from home, leaving their brood in the hands of the nanny, with only a hot handyman and a grumpy old daily help for company. And then the strange noises begin…

The title is a give-away that this is based to some degree on Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw. The isolation, the nanny who may or may not be a reliable narrator, the children who may or may not be sweetly innocent, the absence of parents, the suggestion of evil and the doubts over whether the odd things that happen are human or supernatural in origin, are all there.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will say again – if an author deliberately sets out to remind a reader of a great classic, she needs to be sure her own work will stand the comparison. I wasn’t a wholehearted fan of The Turn of the Screw, finding it a rather unpleasant read overall, but I admired James’ technique and ability to create a deeply disturbing atmosphere. He had, I assume, worked out that horror is exceptionally hard to sustain over lengthy periods, hence the novella form, and used ambiguity to great effect to unsettle the reader, never letting us know whether we could trust what we were reading. Ware has gone for novel length, meaning that there’s much repetition of not particularly scary stuff and far too much detail over the “joys” of childcare – do I need to know what the children have for breakfast every day? The framing mechanism is that Rowan, in prison, is writing a letter to a barrister begging him to take her case, so we are told from the beginning that a child has died and Rowan is accused of murdering her. A 384-page letter. The barrister knows the case from the papers, so Rowan repeatedly says things like “You’ll know why they think that I…” without letting the reader in on it. As always, I found this technique utterly annoying, although I know many people enjoy it.

Having got my grumps over with, there are some good things about it. After a far too slow start, it does become a page-turner, and the quality of the writing meant that even during the excessive details about everything I was never tempted to abandon it. The house is well done – a nice mix of Gothic overlaid with ultra-modern, again, I felt, a nod to the fact that this is a modern version of a classic story. It’s a “smart” house with everything controlled remotely by apps, giving plenty of scope for spooky things with a contemporary feel, but it also has traditional touches like the closed-off attic and the poison garden in the grounds. The house has a history of a dead child and a father who was either an evil murderer or a heartbroken bereaved parent – depends which gossip you listen to. The handyman is either a lovely guy who wants to be helpful or a weirdo with an obscurely evil agenda. Rowan herself isn’t clear-cut either – mostly it’s easy to sympathise with her, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to like children much and we quickly learn she has secrets in her background (of course), though (of course) we won’t learn what they are until the end.

Ruth Ware

The last quarter or so is the best bit, when the suspense begins to build towards a chilling climax, where all the hints finally become clear and everything is explained. And that brings me back to The Turn of the Screw, where the effectiveness of the story – and the reason it’s a classic – is precisely because all does not become clear! The reader is left to decide for herself what happened, and thus, in a sense, becomes complicit in the creation of the story. I finished my review of it by saying “Generally speaking, I shrug off written horror as soon as I close the book, but I found myself thinking of this story when I woke in the dark reaches of the night, and I had troubled dreams.” With this one, although I quite enjoyed reading it, because everything was neatly tied up and presented to me as a finished story I was left with no shivery after-effects and slept like a log.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvill Secker.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 209…

Episode 209

The TBR seesaw seed last week so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise that it sawed again this week! Up 2 to 225, but that’s because a lovely box arrived from the lovely people at lovely Oxford World’s Classics containing lots of lovely goodies I’m planning to read over the autumn and winter months. Lovely!

Here are a few more I’ll be butting heads with soonish

History

Peterloo by Robert Poole

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. As a child at school the story of the Peterloo massacre caught my imagination and inspired my forming political beliefs. Two hundred years on and with democracy feeling more fragile than ever in my lifetime, it’s time we all remembered the sacrifices earlier generations made to give us the rights we take so much for granted that many of us don’t even bother to vote…

The Blurb says: On 16 August, 1819, at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, armed cavalry attacked a peaceful rally of some 50,000 pro-democracy reformers. Under the eyes of the national press, 18 people were killed and some 700 injured, many of them by sabres, many of them women, some of them children.

The ‘Peterloo massacre’, the subject of a recent feature film and a major commemoration in 2019, is famous as the central episode in Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. It also marked the rise of a new English radical populism as the British state, recently victorious at Waterloo, was challenged by a pro-democracy movement centred on the industrial north.

Why did the cavalry attack? Who ordered them in? What was the radical strategy? Why were there women on the platform, and why were they so ferociously attacked? Using an immense range of sources, and many new maps and illustrations, Robert Poole tells for the first time the full extraordinary story of Peterloo: the English Uprising.

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Classic Fiction

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Oh, how I loved DH Lawrence when I was a teenager! This was one of the first real adult heavyweight lit-fic books I read and it gave me a lifelong love for books with a strong political and social setting and characters full of emotional truth. I haven’t read DH Lawrence in decades because I have a fear that I won’t find him as impressive as my hormonally-manic teenage self did. So it’s with as much apprehension as anticipation that I’ll be setting out to re-read this one from my Classics Club list…

The Blurb says: Lawrence’s first major novel was also the first in the English language to explore ordinary working-class life from the inside. No writer before or since has written so well about the intimacies enforced by a tightly-knit mining community and by a family where feelings are never hidden for long. Paul Morel is caught between his need for family and community and his efforts to define himself sexually and emotionally. Lawrence’s powerful description of Paul’s relationships makes this a novel as much for the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was for the beginning of the twentieth.

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Thriller

The Turn of the Key edited by Ruth Ware

Courtesy of Harvill Secker via NetGalley. I loved Ruth Ware’s last book, The Death of Mrs Westaway, so have high hopes of this one!

The Blurb says: When she stumbles across the advert, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss: a live-in nanny position, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten by the luxurious ‘smart’ home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare – one that will end with a child dead and her in a cell awaiting trial for murder.

She knows she’s made mistakes. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty – at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace, The Turn of the Key is a gripping modern-day haunted house thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

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Fiction on Audio

Queen Lucia by EF Benson narrated by Nadia May

When I recently reviewed Benson’s excellent mystery novel, The Blotting Book, fellow blogger Calmgrove reminded me that he was also the writer of the Mapp and Lucia books. I did read one or two of these back in the day but can’t remember which, so it seems logical to go for the first in the series…

The Blurb says: The fascinating story of the village of Riseholme’s reigning queen of high society: the indomitable Lucia!

England between the wars was a paradise of utter calm and leisure for the very, very rich. But into this enclave is born Mrs. Emmeline Lucas – La Lucia, as she is known – a woman determined to lead a life quite different from the pomp and subdued nature of her class. With her cohort, Georgie Pillson, and her husband, Peppino, she upends the greats of high society, including the imperious Lady Ambermere and her equally imperious dog, Pug; the odious Piggy and Goosie Antrobus; the Christian Scientist Daisy Quantrock, with her penchant for the foreign; and everyone else in the small English town that the wealthy Britons call their country home. Beset on all sides by pretenders to her social throne, Lucia brings culture, the fine arts, and a great deal of excitement and intrigue into this cloistered realm.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Drum roll please…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

I’m still struggling with the obsession with identikit so-called psychological thrillers that is dominating modern crime fiction at the moment, so have read fewer books in this category this year than every before in my adult life, I think. I can’t help thinking that the astonishing rise in popularity of vintage crime over the last few years suggests I’m not alone in this. However, happily I’ve still managed to find a few great reads, none of which have the ubiquitous and terminally unoriginal woman in red/yellow coat on the cover, you’ll note…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago… 

All I ask for in crime fiction is a good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

Click to see the full review

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Broken Ground by Val McDermid

DCI Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s Historic Cases Unit is in the middle of re-investigating a series of rapes when she is diverted to a crime scene in the Highlands. A woman and her husband are on a kind of treasure hunt, looking for something that the woman’s grandfather buried in a peat bog long ago. They find the spot, but when they dig down into the peat, they are shocked to discover not only the looted items but the body of a man, almost perfectly preserved…

Now that a national police force has taken the place of the old regional forces in Scotland in real life, it gives fiction writers the ability to have their detectives travel all over the country, and McDermid is as comfortable writing about the Highlands as she is her hometown of Edinburgh. She gives an amazingly good sense of place and a wholly authentic feel to contemporary Scottish life and to a professional police force where dysfunctional drunken mavericks wouldn’t be tolerated. The fifth book in the Karen Pirie series and an excellent addition.

Click to see the full review

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Sweet William by Iain Maitland

A man escapes from a secure psychiatric hospital to find his little son, sweet William, and run off to a new life, just the two of them, in the south of France. This is the story of the next forty-eight hours…

And what a story! A complete roller-coaster during most of which we’re stuck inside the head of Orrey, the father, whose frequent assertions that he’s not mad somehow fail to convince us! Dark and disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it. By all rights, I should have hated it – I’ve bored on often enough about my dislike of using children to up the tension in crime fiction. But it’s a tour de force piece of writing with one of the most brilliantly drawn disturbed central characters I’ve read in a long time – think Mr Heming or The Dinner or Zoran Drvenkar. Then add in relentless pacing that drives the book forward at a speed to leave you gasping – the definitive page-turner! 

Click to see the full review

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Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Roused from a drug-addled stupor in an opium den in the backstreets of Calcutta, Sam Wyndham, Captain in the Calcutta police, discovers the place is being raided. Discovery of his addiction will finish his career so he flees, only to stumble across the body of a horribly mutilated Chinaman. Or did he? Next day, when no report of the murder comes in, Sam is left wondering if he hallucinated the whole thing. That is, until he is called out to another murder, where the body has been mutilated in exactly the same way…

This series goes from strength to strength with each new instalment – this is the third. Set in the early 1920s, the dying days of the Raj when the Indian Independence movement was well under way, Mukherjee always manages to work the political situation into his stories without allowing it to overwhelm them or feeling like a history lesson. As always, though, the plot is founded much more on human nature than on politics. I feel this is his strongest plot so far, which takes us into some dark episodes in the dealings between the Raj and their subjects. There’s a good deal of moral ambiguity in there, and some excellently complex characterisation to carry it off. And it all builds to a first-rate, entirely credible thriller finale that I found fully satisfying.

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

MODERN CRIME FICTION/THRILLER

The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Since I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise about this book, it was the only possible choice to be this year’s winner.

When Bertrand Barthelme runs his car off the A35 into a tree one evening and dies, Inspector Georges Gorski has no reason to think it was anything other than an unfortunate accident. But Barthelme’s widow thinks there’s something odd about her husband having been at that spot at that time and asks Gorski to look into it a bit more. Mme Barthelme is an attractive 40-something with more than a touch of the femme fatale in this first meeting, so Gorski finds himself agreeing. Meantime, Barthelme’s 17-year-old son Raymond starts a kind of investigation of his own, in an attempt to learn more about the father with whom he had always had a rather cold, distant relationship. Both investigations will head off in unexpected directions.

This is on the face of it a crime novel, but the quality of the writing, the depth of the characterisation, the creation of place and time and the intelligence of the game the author plays with the reader all raise it so that it sits easily into the literary fiction category, in my opinion at the highest level. The setting – the small town of Saint-Louis, in the corner of France that borders Germany and Switzerland, some time in the 1970s – is brilliantly drawn, but it’s the human characters who make it such an absorbing story.  Not a word is wasted – with the briefest of descriptions, Burnet can create a person who feels real, solid, entire, as if they might be a neighbour we’ve known all our life. I loved every lean and beautifully placed word of this slim book, and was wholly absorbed from beginning to end. Superb!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Family ties…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Hal (Harriet) Westaway is struggling to keep her head above water. The bills keep pouring in and in these winter months she doesn’t get enough custom at her kiosk on Brighton’s West Pier to pay them all. Things are reaching a crisis. So when she receives a letter from a solicitor informing her that she has been left a legacy by her grandmother it seems like the answer to a prayer. There’s only one problem – Hal knows there’s been a mistake. Her real grandmother died years ago. But the temptation is overwhelming, and Hal knows that the skills she uses in her tarot-reading will help her to con her way through the situation. And so she sets off to Trepassen House in Cornwall, to meet a bunch of people who think she’s the daughter of a long-lost relative…

I know I’m very critical of modern crime fiction but truly I don’t ask much. A good story well told; some characters I can like, hate, worry about, mistrust; enough uncertainty about how it will play out to keep me turning pages; a minimum of unnecessary padding; and told in the past tense, preferably third person. And that’s exactly what Ruth Ware has given me in this hugely enjoyable thriller. Add in a dark and dusty old house full of attics and cellars and narrow little staircases, the shade of a wicked old woman who tyrannised over her family, a bunch of squabbling siblings, and a scary old housekeeper who knows more than she’s telling, and I’m pretty much in modern-Gothic heaven!

To be honest, I had a fair idea from pretty early on of the solution to the central mystery, but I found it didn’t really matter. There was enough doubt in my mind to keep me reading, and I didn’t know how it would all come to a head. Although it’s a fairly slow-burn book, and quite long, I found the pacing was just about perfect. I never felt my attention dip, nor had that sensation of wishing it would all hurry up and get to the end. This is because the quality of the writing makes it a pleasure to read, and the characterisation is great, with a sufficiently large and well-developed cast to provide a lot of interest. And the creepy old house itself becomes a character too – a deliciously scary one.

I loved the way Ware manages to make Hal so likeable and easy to empathise with, despite the fact that she’s trying to commit fraud. Hal’s mother had died a few years earlier when Hal was just about to finish school, leaving her penniless and with no relatives to help her out. This makes her financial woes understandable and we see at the same time that she’s doing everything she can to get her life back on track. She doesn’t believe in the mystical side of tarot herself, but is nevertheless sympathetic to the people who consult her, doing her best to give them the space to think through the problems that have brought them to her. And while initially she goes to Cornwall purely for the money, she can’t help beginning to wish she really was part of this big family with aunts and uncles and cousins – all the things her lonely heart craves.

The other characters are just as good, though obviously not all done with the same depth. I loved that Ware makes room for a lot of kindness and generosity of spirit amidst the danger and evil – something modern thrillers often forget to include, but it makes the whole thing more emotionally involving, I find. Plus, for me there’s more tension to be got out of a feeling of “oh, I hope it’s not her/him!” as there is in simply wondering which of an unsavoury bunch will turn out to be the guilty one.

Ruth Ware

This was my introduction to Ruth Ware, goaded on by the relentless stream of glowing reviews for her previous books from so many of my bloggy friends, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. What a pleasure to read a book written without all the stylistic fol-de-rols so many contemporary authors seem to think necessary – a strong story well told doesn’t need “creative writing”, just good writing (FF’s Ninth Law). Highly recommended – I’m off now to get hold of Ware’s earlier books!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 160…

Episode 160…

Oops! The dramatic falls of the last few weeks suddenly went into reverse this week – the TBR is up 1 to 220! It’s just a blip, though – I’m sure it will all be fine again next week…

(Tip: apparently, this isn’t a good way to uproot the stump of a tree…)

After what seems like an awful lot of heavyweight books recently, I’m looking forward to some lighter reads (aka murders) over the summer months. Here are a few to start me off in the right direction…

True Crime on Audio

I have a feeling someone recommended this to me or I was inspired by a review long ago, but I don’t seem to have kept a note of who or where. It really appeals, anyway, and listening to the sample, the narrator, William Dufris, sounds great…

The Blurb says: In Long Island, a farmer found a duck pond turned red with blood. On the Lower East Side, two boys playing at a pier discovered a floating human torso wrapped tightly in oilcloth. Blueberry pickers near Harlem stumbled upon neatly severed limbs in an overgrown ditch. Clues to a horrifying crime were turning up all over New York, but the police were baffled: There were no witnesses, no motives, no suspects.

The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives headlong into the era’s most perplexing murder. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus. Re-creations of the murder were staged in Times Square, armed reporters lurked in the streets of Hell’s Kitchen in pursuit of suspects, and an unlikely trio – an anxious cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor – all raced to solve the crime. What emerged was a sensational love triangle and an even more sensational trial: an unprecedented capital case hingeing on circumstantial evidence around a victim that the police couldn’t identify with certainty – and that the defense claimed wasn’t even dead.

The Murder of the Century is a rollicking tale – a rich evocation of America during the Gilded Age and a colorful re-creation of the tabloid wars that have dominated media to this day.

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Crime

Courtesy of Urbane Publications. I thoroughly enjoyed The Rock, the first book in Robert Daws’ Sullivan and Broderick series set on Gibraltar, so I’m looking forward to reading this second one…

The Blurb says: In London, the British Government has declassified a large number of top secret files regarding British Military Intelligence operations during World War Two. One file, concerning espionage operations on Gibraltar, has been smuggled out of the U.K. to Spain. It contains information that will draw Sullivan and Broderick into the dark and treacherous world of wartime Gibraltar. A place where saboteurs and espionage plots abounded. Where double and triple agents from Britain, Germany and Spain were at war in a treacherous and deadly game of undercover operations.

As the summer heat reaches its zenith in Gibraltar Town, a film crew has arrived on the Rock to shoot a movie about one of the most enigmatic and legendary spies of the war years – ‘The Queen of Diamonds’. Starring Hollywood A-lister Julia Novacs and produced by local born film maker, Gabriel Isolde, it is the talk of the Rock.

It is only a matter of time before past and present collide and a dangerous battle begins to conceal the truth about the Rock’s poisonous wartime history. Detectives Sullivan and Broderick become caught in a tangled web of intrigue and murder that will once again test their skills and working relationship to the very limit.

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Crime

Courtesy of Amazon Vine. It’s set in Cornwall, it claims it’s perfect for fans of Peter May, the blurb sounds like fun and I love the cover. And that’s as much as I know about it…

The Blurb says: He was running from his past. She was running from her future. Sometimes helping a stranger is the last thing you should do . . .

The Cornish village of St Petroc is the sort of place where people come to hide. Tom Killgannon is one such person. An ex-undercover cop, Tom is in the Witness Protection Programme hiding from some very violent people and St Petroc’s offers him a chance to live a safe and quiet life. Until he meets Lila.

Lila is a seventeen-year-old runaway. When she breaks into Tom’s house she takes more than just his money. His wallet holds everything about his new identity. He also knows that Lila is in danger from the travellers’ commune she’s been living at. Something sinister has been going on there and Lila knows more than she realises. But to find her he risks not only giving away his location to the gangs he’s in hiding from, but also becoming a target for whoever is hunting Lila.

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Crime

Courtesy of Random House, Vintage, via NetGalley. My resistance to contemporary psychological thrillers has been worn down by the relentless drip-drip of glowing reviews for Ruth Ware from you enablers over the last year or two, so it better be good or on your heads be it!

The Blurb says: When Harriet Westaway receives an unexpected letter telling her she’s inherited a substantial bequest from her Cornish grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers. She owes money to a loan shark and the threats are getting increasingly aggressive: she needs to get her hands on some cash fast.

There’s just one problem – Hal’s real grandparents died more than twenty years ago. The letter has been sent to the wrong person. But Hal knows that the cold-reading techniques she’s honed as a seaside fortune teller could help her con her way to getting the money. If anyone has the skills to turn up at a stranger’s funeral and claim a bequest they’re not entitled to, it’s her.

Hal makes a choice that will change her life for ever. But once she embarks on her deception, there is no going back. She must keep going or risk losing everything, even her life…

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Audible UK or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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