The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware doesn’t write the sort of books I usually choose to read these days, but something drew me to her latest one, The Turn of the Key, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it courtesy of The Pigeonhole (a website/app which makes new novels available in daily instalments). I’m sure I will be looking for more of Ruth Ware’s books; they would be perfect to put on my list for this year’s RIP Challenge, which I’m hoping will be announced soon.

The novel opens with our narrator, Rowan Caine, in prison awaiting trial for murder. We don’t know exactly what happened, except that a child died while in her care and that suspicion fell on Rowan as the killer. With no one else to turn to for help, Rowan begins to write a letter to her lawyer, Mr Wrexham, in an attempt to explain the sequence of events that led to her imprisonment.

It all starts with a job offer which seems too good to be true: the position of live-in nanny for a rich family based in the Scottish Highlands, caring for four children in return for an unbelievably huge salary. However, it’s not just the money that attracts Rowan…although she doesn’t tell us, or Mr Wrexham, her other reason for applying for the job until much later in the book. In fact, it quickly becomes obvious that Rowan is telling lies about a lot of things; if you enjoy books with unreliable narrators this is definitely the book for you!

Rowan is not the only one with secrets, though, and when she arrives at her new place of work, Heatherbrae House, she becomes aware of some of the mysteries lurking behind its luxurious exterior. Why have the Elincourt children had so many nannies in such a short period of time, some of them lasting no more than a day? What are the eerie sounds Rowan hears during the night? Is Heatherbrae House haunted?

The Turn of the Key, as the title would suggest, draws inspiration from the classic Henry James novel, The Turn of the Screw (which I have to confess I still haven’t read, although I know what it’s about) but Ruth Ware updates the story into a very modern setting. Life at Heatherbrae House is controlled almost entirely by smart technology with cameras in nearly every room and apps to operate lights, heating, showers and music. The sense that Rowan is under constant surveillance with no idea who could be watching her every move creates a sinister and claustrophobic atmosphere which combines with the more traditional gothic elements such as the unexplained noises and other ghostly happenings to make this quite a spooky read.

There were just one or two things that bothered me. First, I thought there were several plot points that felt unconvincing and too convenient; for example, I found it a bit unbelievable that the Elincourts would leave for a week-long conference the day after Rowan’s arrival, leaving the children, including a baby, with someone they had only just met. Also, I felt that in the age of the internet and Google some of the novel’s mysteries could have been solved by the characters much more quickly and needn’t really have been mysteries at all. And then, some of the revelations that came in the final chapters of the book had seemed quite obvious to me and I had already guessed the truth well in advance. Not the ending, though – I hadn’t seen that coming!

I’m looking forward to my next Ruth Ware novel, whichever that turns out to be. I like the sound of The Death of Mrs Westaway and The Woman in Cabin 10, so I think it will probably be one of those.

Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye

This is the fourth in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… mystery series, although the books can be read in any order as they each stand entirely on their own. Like the other novels in the series, this one, Death in Kenya (originally published in 1958 as Later Than You Think), is set in one of the many locations in which Kaye herself lived for a while with her husband, an officer in the British army. In the 1950s, Kenya was still a British colony but the Mau Mau Uprising had been causing unrest across the country throughout the decade and this forms the backdrop for Kaye’s story.

The mystery takes place in and around Flamingo, an estate in Kenya’s Rift Valley which belongs to Lady Emily DeBrett, an eccentric elderly woman who has lived there for many years. When some mysterious, inexplicable events begin to occur at Flamingo – and rumours of a ghost begin to circulate – Lady Em acknowledges that she needs help and sends for her niece in England, Victoria Caryll, to come and join her as companion and secretary. Victoria is tempted by the invitation: Kenya is where she grew up and she longs to return to the country she loves so much, but she knows that Em’s grandson, Eden DeBrett also lives at Flamingo with his wife, Alice – and Eden is the man Victoria was once engaged to, before he ended their relationship with no explanation and broke her heart.

Torn between going and staying, the pull of the Rift Valley eventually wins and Victoria finds herself boarding a plane for Kenya. But when she arrives, she discovers that she has much more than an old lover and a jealous wife to worry about. A murder has been committed and the estate is in turmoil. Will the murderer be found before he or she kills again? Do the people of Flamingo face danger from the Mau Mau leader known as General Africa? And what is the significance of the haunting piece of music called the Rift Valley Concerto?

The mystery aspect of the book is quite enjoyable. I didn’t guess who the murderer was so I was surprised when the truth was revealed, although looking back I feel as though I should have guessed – we were given enough clues to be able to work it out, I think. The descriptions of Kenya are wonderful too, of course; it helps that Kaye lived there herself so could draw on her own experiences and memories when writing the book. I’ve read about the Mau Mau Uprising before, in Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh, so I already had some basic background knowledge, but that is a recent historical novel whereas Death in Kenya was a contemporary one, so the authors are looking at the same events from different perspectives and from different points in time. Kaye’s sympathies here seem to be more with the white European settlers, which is interesting because that’s not always the case in her novels – as anyone who has read The Far Pavilions or Shadow of the Moon will know, she usually takes a much more balanced view when writing about colonialism. However, she does state in her author’s note that “the opinions voiced by my characters were taken from life and at first hand.”

Although Death in Kenya has the same elements as the previous three books – an interesting, atmospheric setting, a courageous young heroine, a murder mystery to solve and a touch of romance – I found this one slightly different. While the others followed a similar formula (with the heroine actually being on the scene at the time of the murder and falling under suspicion herself), in this book Victoria Caryll doesn’t enter the story until some of the key events have already been played out. This makes Victoria feel somewhat like an outsider and no more or less important to the story than any of the other characters. That lack of one strong, central character to really focus on and connect with probably explains why I felt less engaged with this novel than I did with some of the others, particularly Death in Kashmir and Death in Cyprus.

I still have the last two books in the series – Death in Zanzibar and Death in the Andamans to read – and as they are set in two places I know nothing at all about, I’m looking forward to reading them and learning more!

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

Death in Cyprus by M.M. Kaye

I read this novel from 1956, the third in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series, in the final days of February and it provided some welcome respite from the freezing temperatures and heavy snow we were experiencing in my part of the country. Lovely, evocative passages like this one took me away from the cold for a while and into the warmth and beauty of Cyprus:

Olive groves, the tree trunks so gnarled and twisted with age that some of them must surely have seen the Crusaders come and go, stood dark against the glittering expanse of blue, and below them the little town of Kyrenia lay basking in the noonday sun like a handful of pearls and white pebbles washed up by the sea.

The setting is not as idyllic as it seems, however: there appears to be a murderer on the loose – someone has already killed once and could kill again. The first death occurs on board the S.S. Orantares on which twenty-one-year-old Amanda Derington is a passenger. Amanda has accompanied her uncle on a business trip to North Africa and has suggested that she could visit Cyprus while he continues his tour of the various offices of the Derington empire. Horrified at the thought of his niece travelling alone, Uncle Oswin arranges for her to be chaperoned on the journey and to stay at the home of one of his managers on her arrival.

Setting sail from Egypt to Cyprus, Amanda gets to know Alistair Blaine and his wife Julia, an unhappy, bitter woman who accuses every other female on the ship of trying to steal her husband. When Julia collapses and dies in Amanda’s cabin after drinking a glass of her favourite lemon water, only Amanda knows that it was not suicide. Taking the advice of her fellow passenger Steve Howard, Amanda keeps her thoughts to herself, and when she finds a bottle of poison hidden behind her pillow she conceals the evidence from the police. After all, she herself would be the prime suspect and could find it difficult to prove her innocence. Unfortunately, this decision puts her in danger of a different kind when they reach Cyprus, where her knowledge of the crime could make her the killer’s next target…

Death in Cyprus is a great murder mystery with plenty of possible suspects. Apart from Amanda herself, I could imagine every one of them being the murderer and my suspicion fell on one, then another, then another, then switched back to the first. Could it be Persis Halliday, the American romantic novelist who has come to Cyprus to look for inspiration? What about Glenn Barton, the Derington employee who was supposed to be Amanda’s host in Nicosia but had to cancel because his wife had left him? Claire Norman, who seems to know far too much about everyone else’s business? Or Lumley Potter, the spiritual, bohemian artist who is Glenn’s wife’s new lover? The eventual solution to the mystery is quite logical and I feel as though I should have worked it out, but I had allowed myself to get too distracted by red herrings!

As this is a book from the 1950s, some of the attitudes are a bit dated, particularly regarding a romance which develops between Amanda and one of the group she travels to Cyprus with (I won’t tell you who he is, even though it’s very obvious from early in the book). There’s a definite sense that he views Amanda as a helpless woman who needs the protection of a man – although, to be fair, she gives that impression herself with her habit of repeatedly putting herself into dangerous situations from which she needs to be rescued, wandering off on her own in lonely places and venturing into strangers’ houses late at night! Of course, Amanda’s reckless actions do have a purpose because they are the reason for most of the suspense in the story.

I love the Death In… novels. I’ve read three so far and enjoyed them all, especially this one and Death in Kashmir. The books all stand alone – they have different settings and different characters – but I have been reading them in publication order anyway, which means Death in Kenya will be next for me.

Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

I was drawn to Beneath a Burning Sky by the setting – Egypt in the late 19th century – and comparisons to other authors I’ve enjoyed, such as Victoria Hislop and Dinah Jefferies, made it sound even more appealing. Including it on my 20 Books of Summer list ensured that I got to it quickly but, although I did find a lot to like, I was left with feelings that were much more mixed than I’d hoped.

The plot is an exciting one. It begins shortly after twenty-two-year-old Olivia marries businessman Alistair Sheldon and leaves England to live with him in Egypt, the country where she spent her own early childhood. It’s not long before she becomes aware of the true nature of her cruel, abusive husband, but she is unwilling to admit to anyone just how unhappy her marriage is and devotes herself instead to settling into her new home in Alexandria and to getting to know her sister Clara, with whom she has just been reacquainted after many years.

When Clara disappears on a trip into the city – seemingly abducted from a busy street – Olivia is devastated. This is the second time she has lost her sister and she is determined to do everything she can to rescue her. As she searches for clues to explain Clara’s disappearance, however, she becomes convinced that her own husband, Alistair, may have had something to do with it. It’s a terrible situation to be in and even the one bright spot in Olivia’s life – her relationship with Edward Bertram, Alistair’s lodger – is just another additional complication. As the story unfolds, there is plenty of the “love and betrayal and mystery” promised by the blurb; all the ingredients for a great novel, so I was disappointed that, for me, they didn’t quite come together to form a successful whole.

My biggest problem with the book was the beginning. I found the opening chapters confusing and muddled. A lot of characters seemed to be introduced all at once – and had such involved and eventful backstories that I wondered if this was actually a sequel and if the early lives of Olivia and Clara had already been covered in a previous book (it isn’t and they hadn’t). Things did settle down after a while, but I still felt that some aspects of the plot were never fully explained or resolved.

Although I came to like and care about the two main characters, Olivia and Edward, and wanted them to find some happiness together, I thought the novel’s villains were just too evil to be true. Alistair had no nuances to his character and no redeeming qualities at all, while Olivia and Clara’s grandmother Mildred, a bitter, spiteful woman, had a hatred for her granddaughters which seemed out of proportion to the explanation that was given. There were some interesting characters amongst the Egyptians, though, particularly Nailah, a young woman whose story is linked with Olivia’s in ways which don’t become clear until the end of the book. The decision to write the novel from the perspectives of both Egyptian and British characters provided an opportunity to compare lifestyles and attitudes and to see things from more than one angle.

I didn’t feel that I learned much about the history of the period but, to be fair, it wasn’t really that sort of book. I think it will have more appeal to readers who enjoy romantic suspense rather than those who are looking for a more detailed work of historical fiction – personally I enjoy both, so despite my problems with Beneath a Burning Sky I still liked it enough to keep reading to the end, curious to see what had happened to Clara and whether Olivia and Edward could find a way to be together.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is Book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge

strangers-in-company Published in 1973, Strangers in Company reminds me of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, or maybe M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. It is set in Greece and follows the story of Marian Frenche, who is looking for a new job after finding herself at a loose end when her children move away to live with her ex-husband. Marian finds work with an agency who arrange for her to accompany a troubled young woman called Stella Marten on a coach tour of the major Greek archaeological sites. She is given very little information about Stella and her background, apart from a warning that she should be left on her own as little as possible, but after only a few hours in Stella’s company, Marian finds her to be rude, angry and irritable. It’s going to be a difficult trip!

As they set off on their tour, Marian’s time is divided between dealing with Stella’s moods, seeing the sights of Greece and getting to know the other people on the bus. Their fellow passengers include several young schoolteachers, a classics professor, an oddly-matched honeymoon couple and a handsome Greek tour guide. On the surface, they’re just a group of people hoping to enjoy a holiday in the sun and possibly learn something new along the way, but when accidents begin to befall members of the party – too many to be a coincidence – Marian is forced to accept that there could be someone on the tour who is not as innocent as he or she appears. Worse still, it seems that Marian herself could be the next target…

My first introduction to the work of Jane Aiken Hodge came a few years ago when I read and enjoyed Watch the Wall, My Darling, a gothic novel set in 19th century Sussex. Strangers in Company feels very different, having a contemporary setting, but I enjoyed this one even more. I loved the descriptions of Greece and its ancient historical sites, and with the benefit of Google to find pictures of the less famous places the characters visit, I almost felt as though I’d been on the tour myself! I did become very aware of my limited knowledge of more recent Greek history, particularly the period following the civil war of the 1940s, but although I wished I’d read up on this before starting the book, it wasn’t really a problem at all.

I’ve said that this book felt similar to a Mary Stewart novel (some of hers have a Greek setting too) and I think I was right to make that comparison because halfway through the book there’s a scene where Marian spends an afternoon relaxing with a copy of Stewart’s My Brother Michael! I don’t think Jane Aiken Hodge’s writing is as good as Stewart’s, however, and the characters are not as likeable or as well drawn (I found it hard to tell some of the members of the tour group apart). I was also slightly disappointed with the final few chapters of the book – I felt that, as the mystery began to unfold and revelations were made, the plot became very far-fetched and difficult to believe. Otherwise, though, I thought this was a great read!

I have another of Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels, Red Sky at Night, on my shelf still to be read. Has anyone read that one – or any of her others?

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

airs-above-the-ground This month, one of my favourite authors, Mary Stewart, would have been 100 years old and to mark the occasion I decided it was time to pick up one of the few remaining books of hers that I still hadn’t read. I chose Airs Above the Ground, a suspense novel set in Austria which was first published in 1965 – and it was a great choice because I loved it!

At the beginning of the novel, our heroine, Vanessa March, is angry and disappointed because her husband, Lewis, has insisted on going to Stockholm on a business trip just when they had been due to leave for a summer holiday in Italy. Left behind in London, Vanessa meets a friend, Carmel Lacy, for tea and is shocked when Carmel mentions that she has just seen Lewis in a newsreel about a circus fire in Austria. Convinced that there must have been some mistake, Vanessa goes to watch the news footage herself and discovers that it’s true – not only is Lewis in Austria when he’s supposed to be in Sweden, he has also been caught on film with his arm around a pretty young girl.

Conveniently, Carmel’s teenage son, Timothy, is hoping to go to Vienna to visit his father and Carmel is looking for someone to act as a chaperone. Determined to catch up with Lewis and find out what’s going on, Vanessa agrees to accompany him. On arriving in Austria, however, Tim admits that he hasn’t been completely honest about his relationship with his father and instead he ends up staying with Vanessa as she searches for Lewis. They are an unlikely pair – at seventeen, Tim doesn’t really need a chaperone, especially not one who is only twenty-four herself – but a friendship quickly forms and together the two become caught up in a mystery involving a travelling circus, a mysterious Englishman and an old piebald horse.

Airs Above the Ground is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time and I wasn’t disappointed at all. I found so many things to enjoy, first and foremost the beautifully written descriptions of the Austrian countryside, the mountains, the villages and the fictional castle of Schloss Zechstein which becomes the focus of the action for the second half of the story:

And, perched on the outermost edge of the crag, like something straight out of the fairy books of one’s childhood, was the Schloss Zechstein, a miniature castle, but a real romantic castle for all that, a place of pinnacles and turrets and curtain walls, of narrow windows and battlements and coloured shields painted on the stone. There was even a bridge; not a drawbridge, but a narrow stone bridge arching out of the forest to the castle gate, where some small torrent broke the rock-ridge and sent a thin rope of white water smoking down below the walls.

Many of Mary Stewart’s novels involve the heroine forming a bond with a lonely or neglected young boy, and while Timothy is too old to be considered a child, it was still good to watch the relationship between them develop. It’s a relationship based entirely on trust, friendship and mutual liking, with no hints of any romantic attraction at all. Of course, unlike most Stewart heroines, Vanessa is already married before the novel even begins and this does give her character a slightly different feel. Like the others, she’s a strong, intelligent and resourceful woman but she’s clearly in awe of Lewis, and although I did enjoy her interactions with her husband, it seemed that whenever he was around she tended to place too much reliance in him and lost some of that strength and resourcefulness.

I also loved Old Piebald, the horse whose master died in the circus fire and whose injured leg Vanessa treats using her veterinary skills. The scene at the end of Chapter 9 where he is grazing in a meadow with circus music playing in the distance has to be one of my favourite moments in all of Mary Stewart’s novels! Horses play an important role in the story – Tim’s real reason for coming to Austria is to get a job with Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School and it was nice to have an opportunity to learn more about the school and its beautiful Lipizzaner stallions. The novel takes its title from the movements performed by these horses, known as the ‘airs above the ground’.

As well as all of the other things I’ve mentioned, there’s also plenty of drama, including a desperate race around the castle battlements, a car chase and a scene involving a mountain railway train. Airs Above the Ground hasn’t become one of my absolute favourite Stewart novels, but it’s definitely in my top five or six (I’ve read eleven of her suspense novels so far, plus three of her Arthurian novels). Have you read this one? And have you done anything to celebrate Mary Stewart’s centenary?