The Ice Twins – S.K. Tremayne

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Out 29th January.

This is the perfect book to read on a really chilly winter’s night. It’s the story of the Moorcroft family. Angus and Sarah were the parents of two beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed twins, Kirstie and Lydia. However, after a tragic accident at Sarah’s parent’s house, Lydia fell from a balcony to her death. Eighteen months on, the family are all struggling, individually, with their grief. Kirstie is, understandably, bereft without her twin sister; her other half. Sarah feels guilty as she had thought the girls were outside playing, until she heard the screams. And Angus feels guilty as he was late getting to Sarah’s parents’ that weekend. After a lot of alcohol, combined with guilt and anger, he punches his boss at the architects’ practice where he works, and is sacked. The Camden home he and Sarah had bought for their family life is now unaffordable. But there is another option on the (far) horizon: Angus’s grandmother has died, and left Angus and his brother Eilean Torran (Thunder Island), just off Skye. His brother lets Angus keep the whole legacy; he lives in the States and is doing well. Angus has wonderful memories of childhood and teenage summers spent on the island, and persuades Sarah that a fresh start, away from all the bad memories, is exactly what the family need. The house hasn’t been lived in for some time, and is pretty delapidated, but once they pay their debts off, they reckon they should have enough cash to rebuild it. Angus intends to look for work as an architect in the area, and Sarah, a freelance journalist, hopes to do some part-time work from there too.

However, before they even move, Kirstie has a revelation. She claims not to be loud, mischievous Kirstie (her father’s favourite), but bookish, quiet Lydia, who is more like her mother, and is her favourite. It’s certainly not impossible, as the twins were utterly identical – not a mole, nor a freckle, differentiated them. Did they make an assumption, after the accident, that their daughter has hitherto been frightened to correct? Or is this part of her mourning process – is she unable to let her sister go? Sarah starts to notice things that could indicate that her surviving daughter is Lydia – for example, their spaniel, Sawny Bean, or Beanie, reacted differently to each girl. And the way he’s behaving now is how he behaved with Lydia. Or could he just be atuned to a mourning child? And there are no definitive scientific tests which will reveal which daughter survived.

With this revelation hanging over them they head north. Eileen Torran is very remote: at low tide it’s possible to walk across the mudflats, but the rest of the time a boat is required to reach the island. The house is in a dreadful state: freezing cold, full of rats, filthy…And Beany is clearly unsettled in his new home, as is Kirstie (who they have now decided is Lydia) – she keeps saying that her dead twin hasn’t left her, and talks away in the strange nonsensical way she did with her dead sister. When she does this in her new school, it results – not surprisingly – in the other children being terrified of her, and she is unable to settle or make any friends. The school ask the Moorcrofts to remove their daughter for a short time, until things are calmer. Meanwhile, revelations about Angus’s relationship with Sarah’s hitherto best friend fracture the marriage further, as does Angus’s continued reliance on alcohol. Sarah eventually asks Angus to spend a couple of nights elsewhere, while she and Lydia remain on Eilean Torran alone, despite being told this is unwise, because of the impending storm. Sarah wants the time to consider what to do about other dreadful things she has convinced herself Angus has done. And then the storm hits the island…Sarah and Kirsty are trapped there, with their telephone down. The boat has been washed away. Angus is similarly stranded across the Sound…And Sarah becomes convinced she and her daughter are not alone on Eilean Torran…

This is one of these books where the sense of menace and impending doom winds faster and faster, until you can’t bear to put the book down – it demands you to read on, to discover what other dreadful things are in store. In this respect, it reminds me just a little of The Shining (remote setting, possible mental disturbances, being trapped by the weather, creepy twins..!) I’ve no idea who SK Tremayne is (it’s a pseudonym), but it’s difficult to believe this isn’t the work of an experienced author, judging by the skilful way s/he ratchets up the tension (although I suspect it’s a he!) The isolated, claustrophobic setting is also absolutely ideal. And it’s clearly an area the author knows well, and loves – s/he also understands the issues facing Scotland’s beautiful rural areas – the incomers, pricing locals out of the housing market; the locals, still struggling to eke a living fishing, and crofting, and farming; the local pubs, transforming themselves into seafood restaurants to appeal to the Southerners with plenty of money…I know Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy was set on the Outer Hebrides, which are less accessible and so less attractive to those seeking a weekend or holiday bolthole, but Tremayne’s depiction of modern Hebridean life chimed more closely with my experience.

In one respect, this is a book about the secrets that exist within families, sometimes as a (possibly misguided) way of protecting others – and their opinion of us. It’s about how, despite our best efforts, we can end up repeating the mistakes our parents made. It’s also about guilt, and grief, and the unreliability of memory. To reiterate, this is perfect winter reading. Just don’t bank on getting a lot of sleep once you’ve started it…

4.5 out of 5

I received a digital ARC courtesy of NetGalley and publishers HarperCollins.

Have you read The Ice Twins? Or do you fancy it? Let me know your thoughts on my review, the book, or any book-related matters – I love to hear from you!

Broken Harbour – Tana French

The book starts with murder detectives DS Michael Kennedy and his rookie partner DC Richie Curran being designated a new case. After a worried call from a family member, the Garda had visited the family home of Patrick and Jennifer Spain. They were sufficiently concerned to break down the door, where they found the bodies of the father and his two young children. The children had been smothered while asleep; the parents had stab wounds. The mother is still alive – barely – but unable to speak to the police. The estate where they lived is now called Brianstown, and was one of the many new developments built when the “Celtic Tiger” saw Ireland’s economy go through the roof. However, due to the recession, the majority of the houses remained unsold. The builders have abandoned the estate, and the houses are falling into a state of delapidation – even the ones in which people live are starting to fall into disrepair. Despite the Spain’s house being otherwise immaculate, when they visit, Kennedy and Curran notice huge holes in the wall. They also find several cameras, normally used as baby monitors, and their viewing screens, around the house. It’s as though the Spains were monitoring their property, hoping to see – what? Who? Examination of the victims’ finances show they were in serious financial trouble, Patrick having lost his job several months ago – another victim of the recession. They would undoubtedly soon have lost their home. Also, forensic examination of the family laptop shows it was cleared just before the events that resulted in their destruction occurred. Is this just what it looks like – another case of family annihilation, where a proud and desperate father, unable to provide for his loved ones any longer, sees only one way out? Or was there an intruder, who managed to enter the house without force and murder the family? And do the cameras have a connection with the murders?

Mickey Kennedy knew Brianstown well, back when it was called Broken Harbour. It was where his family holidayed when he was a child, and where a tragedy that impacts on his family (particularly his sister Dina) to this day occurred. He is now an experienced murder detective, and, in his first person narrative, he leads us through the investigation.

A search of Brianstown reveals a hideout where a stalker could clearly see everything that occurred in the Spain household. It doesn’t take long for the Garda to detain someone; a man who once knew Patrick and Jenny very well indeed. His trainers match bloodstained footprints found in the house. However, this happens relatively early on in this 500-plus page book – a sure sign to the crime fiction reader that there’s more to this case than meets the eye…and there’s a lot more. It’s difficult to say much more without spoilers, but police corruption (in the form of evidence being suppressed) is an issue raised, as is mental illness – and not only in the case of Michael’s sister Dina.

The estate of Brianstown really creeped me out, and that’s down to the skill of French’s writing, as a semi-abandoned housing estate isn’t an obviously creepy setting. Add in the cameras found in the house, and the holes on which some of them are focused, and I was pretty freaked out. What the hell was going on in this family? Jenny Spain’s sister Fiona insists everything in the Spain garden was lovely, but, as the hard drive on their computer is rebuilt, the reality of what was going on in this perfect middle class family is revealed. And it is truly terrifying…

In a sense, this isn’t just a whodunit. It’s an examination of what can happen when all hope is gone; when obsession takes over; when you can feel nothing but despair…and, expertly, French makes what happens seem entirely feasible, even – in a twisted way – logical. I really can’t add any more without ruining it for those who haven’t read it (although I’d love to discuss it further with those who have read it – which makes me think this would be a great book club read!) I’ve got French’s latest novel, The Secret Place (which has had mixed reviews), on the shelf. And after Broken Harbour, it’s a book I’m really looking forward to reading.

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

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It’s 1922, and Frances Wray and her mother are struggling financially, living in genteel poverty. Frances’s two brothers died in the War, with her father following shortly afterwards. Upon his death they discovered that he’d lost most of their money in bad investments. Their staff have gone, and Frances has to do everything to keep their large house clean, as well as cook, and deal with the household budget. They’ve cut every corner they can, but the time has time to do the unthinkable – take in lodgers, or “paying guests”, as they’re known in desirable Champion Hill.

Enter Mr and Mrs Barber; Leonard and Lilian. They’re part of the new, upwardly mobile “clerk class” (a phrase that was new to me.) Leonard has a good job in assurance with prospects; Lilian doesn’t work now she’s married, as was usual then. At first Frances intends to avoid their lodgers whenever possible, but she is lonely, and quickly becomes fascinated by the Barbers, with a friendship with Lilian developing. Of course, it being a Sarah Waters book, it won’t surprise anyone when I say their friendship develops into more than that. But a violent incident will put all relationships under strain, familial and romantic, as does the ensuing court case. And what are Lilian’s true feelings?

What can I say? I loved this book. I loved Frances, who I thought was coping admirably in getting on with a life she’d never intended nor wanted. She’s a “good egg”, as they used to say. No wonder when she gets a shot at happiness she grabs it with both hands. But it seems as though Frances is destined never to be happy, as the shocking and violent incident threatens to rip all joy from her life, not for the first time…

I actually felt bereft when I’d finished the book. I’d have happily read another 200 pages on the housekeeping habits of the 1920s, and I don’t think there’s another author I could say that about! I know many readers prefer Waters’ earlier, Victorian-set novels, but I feel more comfortable in the 20th century, and I love the old-fashioned phrases. Many of them remind me of the Chalet School books I loved as a child. I have to declare The Night Watch as my favourite Sarah Waters, though. Despite having this book since the day it came out, I delayed reading it until the Christmas holidays – simply because I wanted to savour it, and I knew it’d be a long wait for the next Sarah Waters book (this one was released four years on from The Little Stranger, her last novel – which I did enjoy, but Waters has set such high standards for her work that I ultimately felt it didn’t work as well as it might.)

I know reviews of this have been mixed, both in the UK broadsheets and on the blogosphere, but an average work by Sarah Waters exceeds the best work of most authors writing today. This is a short review, and I’ve puzzled over why that’s the case for some time, but I think it’s because I’ve nothing bad to say about it. Perhaps the pacing of it was slightly uneven, but that’s a tiny quibble, and I’m being very nitpicky even mentioning it. The review’s short because, to re-iterate, I loved this book. It’s as simple as that.

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

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Out January 15th

Simple premise (you’ve probably heard it by now) – girl on the same train every day, sees the same couple every day, then one day sees something which, as the woman is reported missing the next night, could affect the police investigation.

Now, it’s not Rear Window – she (Rachel) doesn’t see a murder; it’s a much smaller thing than that. But, as she obsessively follows newspaper accounts of the search for Megan, the missing woman, she begins to realise her piece of information could give the police a new – possibly crucial – line of enquiry.

But let’s rewind – as the book does – and learn a little more about Rachel. She is an alcoholic, having begun drinking when all attempts at having a child with her husband Tom failed. Tom had an affair, in despair at Rachel’s drinking and (sometimes) violence towards him. The new woman (Anna) gets pregnant, so he gets rid of Rachel, moves Anna in, and Rachel ends up living in an old university friend’s spare room. But, in order to get to her job (which she in reality lost months earlier, due to her drinking, but is ashamed/afraid to tell her flatmate Cathy) she still catches the same train to and from London every morning and evening. This passes her old house, where Tom and Anna now happily live with their new baby. But rather than look at their house – her old home – she focuses on the one belonging to the missing woman and her husband, who she sees as having a perfect life. She gives them names (Jess and Jason), imagines their jobs – watching them every day, to the extent she feels she almost knows them. So when Megan/Jess disappears, as well as telling the police what she knows, she takes the opportunity to contact Jason (in reality Scott) with her information, in order to try to insert herself into his – seemingly perfect (apart from the missing wife, obviously!) life. Because, of course, she doesn’t have one of her own. But what looks perfect on the outside may not be so wonderful upon closer examination…

However, Rachel could be more involved in what happened than just seeing something from a train window. Because she was there, at the station underpass at the end of the street, around the time Megan went missing. She went there with the intention of seeing Tom, her ex, of whom she can’t seem to let go, much to Anna’s distress. And she recalls being there, with blood on her hands. But because of her drinking, she can’t remember. If only she could recall what happened. Did she hurt Megan? Did she see her that night?

The book is told from the viewpoint of the three women in the story; initially it’s alternate chapters, from Rachel and Megan, then Anna gives her side of the story. It also bounces about time-wise, in order for us to learn about the lead up to Megan’s disappearance, when, for reasons she won’t share with Scott, she’s struggling to sleep, and so begins seeing a therapist, Dr Kamal Abdic. But where is she? Is she dead? Did her husband – always the first suspect – kill her? Or someone else?  Has she been abducted, by someone she knows, or a stranger? Or has she disappeared? Alone, or with a lover? I’m not telling…

I’ve read some reviews of this book which describe Rachel as utterly unlikeable. But, to be quite honest, none of the small cast of this book come out smelling of roses…Rachel has a lot of problems – her drinking, her obsession with Tom, her lies to Cathy about her job…But as we learn more about her past life, her drink problem becomes understandable (if not excusable.) But, without revealing too much, in my humble opinion, she more than redeems herself at the end of the story, unlike the rest of our (pretty horrid) cast of characters.

This book will clearly be massive: it’s a fast moving, cleverly devised, well-paced psychological thriller, with lots of red herrings. But it’s the literary equivalent of a bag of crisps – you know it’s not very good for you, but it’s very tasty at the time. As ever, I had a good guess at whodunit – whatever “it” turned out to be – and I was right, but I didn’t get the motive – and tbh that was just dumb luck, as Hawkins was smart enough to leave it open to go any number of ways. Expect to see this book all over the place this year.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for allowing me to read this book in exchange for my honest review.

Shallow Waters – Rebecca Bradley

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Phew! I felt like I’d been on a bit of a rollercoaster the other night (or should I say morning…3.45 in the morning!) when I finished reading Shallow Waters, the debut police procedural by Rebecca Bradley. But let’s go back to the beginning…

Our main character is DI Hannah Robbins, who heads a unit in Nottingham investigating serious offences. And it doesn’t get any more serious than the death of a young teenage girl, badly beaten, sexually assaulted, and dumped in an alleyway like a piece of rubbish. And they’re not long into the investigation, which is hitting nothing but dead ends, before another young girl’s body is discovered, looking remarkably like she’s been a victim of the same sick assailant. Then Hannah and one of her DCs, Sally, are involved in a gas explosion when leaving one of the victim’s mother’s houses. They are lucky to escape with a few scratches and bruises. But experts rule this explosion no accident. And surely it’s no coincidence…?

Hannah’s clearly struggling with this case, and I can only assume it’s because it involves young girls, as, being a Detective Inspector in a city, she must have been involved in the investigation of a number of murders. She seems to get by on sheer adrenalin and a worrying amount of red wine. Her DS, Aaron Stone, seems a much more sober and grounded character, and, in this case at least, he’s essential to steady her. I actually thought that, on occasion he behaved more like the senior officer – but that’s probably because we were getting Hannah’s reactions to the crimes.

She’s also (possibly unwisely, and somewhat loosely) involved with a local newspaper reporter, Ethan Gale. I get the impression they both want more than what they’ve got with each other – but are scared to even commit themselves to a relationship! In Hannah’s case, this is undoubtedly due to the problems of a police officer (especially one so senior) seeing a reporter. It makes her private life rather interesting, and there’s also a backstory (of which I assume we’ll learn more) of a sister in prison, who Hannah’s refusing to see or forgive for her (hitherto unknown) transgressions. And there’s a rather sweet dad who’s desperately trying to hold the family together. All this means Bradley has plenty of background material for further novels featuring Hannah.

The story, for me, really warmed up around page 100, when an arrest is made. “Too early for an arrest!” my crime fiction-addled brain screamed (like when they arrest someone at quarter past the hour in Law And Order or Scott And Bailey) “It can’t be them!” Well, no spoilers, but I can assure you Bradley has plenty more up her sleeve. As for the last 60-odd pages, well, I couldn’t put it down (hence me reading so late…thank goodness it was the holidays!) And did I guess whodunit? Nope. I barely even noticed the character.

Shallow Waters is perfect for fans of police procedural, and features a driven character with a complex personal life. She’s clearly got it together career-wise to have reached such a position, but, in private, Hannah’s clearly struggling, with her (tentative) relationship, her family, her feelings toward her sister. And, possibly, with alcohol…I very much look forward to reading about Hannah and her team again. More please!

4 out of 5

Shallow Waters is available as a Kindle e-book.