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.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley

The Olive Tree I wasn’t sure, when I first heard about The Olive Tree, whether I really wanted to read it or not. I’ve enjoyed most of Lucinda Riley’s previous novels but part of the appeal is the way she intertwines past and present, linking the lives of modern day characters with ones who lived in times gone by. The Olive Tree is not like that; it has a contemporary setting, with the action taking place mostly in 2006 with a few chapters bringing us right up to date in 2016. I thought I would miss the historical element, but actually, once I started reading, I found I didn’t mind that it was a different sort of book and I ended up enjoying it anyway (although not quite as much as the historical ones).

The Olive Tree is the story of a family holiday in Cyprus. The setting couldn’t be more idyllic – a house called Pandora, with its own pool, a sunny terrace and a beautiful view – but the holiday itself is the holiday from hell. As its Greek name suggests, Pandora holds a lot of secrets and some of them are about to be revealed.

Pandora belongs to Helena Cooke, the novel’s main female character, who is returning to the house for the first time in years, having recently inherited it from her godfather. Almost as soon as she arrives, however, she wonders whether coming back was a mistake: Alexis, with whom she had a teenage romance in Cyprus more than twenty years earlier, is still living nearby and still seems to have feelings for Helena. Her husband, William, is not going to be pleased!

Someone else whose life has been thrown into turmoil by the presence of Alexis is Helena’s eldest son, thirteen-year-old Alex. Alex has never known the identity of his biological father…could it be Alexis? As Alex retreats to the privacy of his tiny bedroom to write in his diary and pour out his hopes and fears, another troubled family arrives to stay at Pandora. They are the Chandlers: William’s alcoholic best friend, Sacha; his long-suffering wife, Jules, and their two children, one of whom is Alex’s worst enemy. With the additions of Chloe, William’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and Helena’s friend Sadie, who is getting over a break-up with her latest boyfriend, it’s going to be a difficult summer!

At nearly 600 pages, this was a surprisingly quick read, which is something I’ve found with most of Lucinda Riley’s novels; she knows how to tell a good story and how to hold the reader’s attention from one chapter to the next. I don’t think the book needed to be quite so long (the Sadie storyline, for example, added very little to the overall plot) but otherwise I did enjoy spending time getting to know the Cooke and Chandler families. There were some twists in the story towards the end and although I’d had my suspicions, I was still surprised by some of the revelations.

Interspersed throughout the novel are passages from Alex’s diary and I particularly liked reading these sections. I found Alex an intriguing character; having been assessed as a gifted child with an exceptionally high IQ, sometimes he seems much older than thirteen, but in other ways – such as his attachment to his toy rabbit, Bee – he feels very young and insecure. I think if the whole novel had been narrated by Alex it might have been too much, but I always looked forward to returning to his diary entries – they were written with such a unique combination of humour, wisdom and vulnerability.

This isn’t my favourite Lucinda Riley novel but with its sunny, summery setting it was a perfect August read. I’m now looking forward to reading The Shadow Sister, the next book in her Seven Sisters series, which is coming out later this year.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of The Olive Tree for review.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

The Sunrise This is Victoria Hislop’s fourth novel but the first one I’ve read. She has previously written about the Greek leper colony on the island of Spinalonga (The Island), the Spanish Civil War (The Return), and the history of the Greek city of Thessaloniki (The Thread), all of which sound interesting to me as I know nothing about any of those subjects! Like the three books I’ve just mentioned, in The Sunrise, Hislop takes a time and place that many people, including myself, will be unfamiliar with and weaves a story around it.

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta in Cyprus is a thriving holiday resort, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. The beach is lined with luxury hotels, the most luxurious and expensive of them all being The Sunrise, which has just opened its doors for the first time. For the hotel’s owner, Savvas Papacosta, these are exciting times; his dream of becoming the most successful hotelier in Famagusta is moving one step closer to reality.

Within two years, everything changes. Unknown to the tourists as they enjoy the sun, sea and sand, a Greek military coup has led to Turkey invading the northern part of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots. When the army approaches Famagusta, frightened guests evacuate the hotels and people flee their homes, among them Savvas and his glamorous wife, Aphroditi. But as Turkish soldiers surround the abandoned city, two families remain hidden inside their apartments. One family, the Georgious, are Greek Cypriots, and the other, the Özkans, are Turkish Cypriots. We follow the stories of both of these families, as well as the Papacostas, and see how each character copes with what has happened to their city.

I did enjoy The Sunrise but I thought it felt a bit uneven; not much happened in the first half of the book and a lot of time was spent introducing the characters, setting the scene and describing the interior of the new hotel. With hindsight, I can see that maybe this was necessary, so that we could appreciate the extent to which the lives of these characters were disrupted and destroyed by the coming conflict, but I still found myself getting impatient and wanting to get into the story! I loved the second half of the novel, though. The descriptions of the abandoned city – houses with beds still unmade and food still on the tables, waiting in vain for their owners to return – are extremely vivid and there are images from the book that have stayed in my mind several days after finishing it.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in the story but I thought they were an interesting selection of people and I could certainly sympathise with the situations in which they found themselves. While there are one or two characters in the novel who are motivated by greed and self-interest, it was good to see people of different backgrounds and political beliefs working together, overcoming their differences and discovering that their ‘enemies’ are human beings just like themselves.

Towards the end of the book there are too many coincidences and things are wrapped up too neatly for my liking, but overall I found The Sunrise a fascinating read. I have never been to Cyprus and as I said at the start of this post, I know very little about its history (apart from the 15th century civil war, which I read about in Dorothy Dunnett’s Race of Scorpions) so I’m pleased to have had an opportunity to learn about Famagusta’s tragic past. What makes the story even more poignant is that the district of Varosha, where The Sunrise is set, remains a ghost town even today, untouched and uninhabited for four decades.

Thanks to Bookbridgr for my copy of The Sunrise.

Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunnett

This is the third book in the House of Niccolò series, the first two being Niccolò Rising and The Spring of the Ram. The series is set in the 15th century and follows the adventures of Nicholas vander Poele as he travels throughout Renaissance Europe and beyond. By the time this third volume begins, Nicholas’s spectacular rise from dyer’s apprentice to head of a successful trading company, bank and mercenary army has not gone unnoticed and has brought him to the attention of various people who are hoping to use his skills for their own purposes.

In Race of Scorpions Nicholas finds himself kidnapped and taken to Cyprus, an island torn apart by civil war. Cyprus is in a strategically important location and has become the centre of power struggles between various groups including Christians and Muslims, Genoese and Venetian merchants, Egyptian Mamelukes, Portuguese traders, the Pope, the Sultan, the Knights of the Order of St John – and the two Lusignan siblings who are fighting for the crown. Both of the claimants to the throne, Queen Carlotta and her half-brother James de Lusignan (known as Zacco), are determined to recruit Nicholas and his army to their side and are prepared to use any means possible to do so. Nicholas must choose which of them, if either, to support in their battle to gain control of Cyprus, but as well as being drawn into the conflict between Carlotta and Zacco, Nicholas faces some problems of a more personal nature when he is reacquainted with Katelina van Borselen, who we first met in Niccolò Rising.

Many of the characters we have been getting to know over the previous two books are here again – including Tobie, Loppe, Astorre and John le Grant – and we are also introduced to some new ones. A lot of the other characters in the book are real historical figures and one of the most fascinating, I thought, was Zacco’s mother Marietta (known as Cropnose after her nose was bitten off by her rival). Nicholas also meets his young cousin Diniz Vasquez for the first time, contends with a new villain in the form of the Mameluke emir, Tzani-bey al-Ablak, and tries to unravel the complex motives of Primaflora, a beautiful courtesan who is working for Queen Carlotta…or is she really working for Zacco?

Luckily, with his talent for solving puzzles and coming up with labyrinthine plots and schemes, Nicholas is adept at getting out of the difficult situations he finds himself in and although his plans don’t always work out exactly as he wanted them to, he usually manages to stay at least one step ahead of everyone else, including the reader – or this reader at least, and I don’t mind admitting that! But despite not quite understanding everything that is happening or being said, I still loved this book. It also features one of the best scenes in the series so far, certainly one of the most eerie and atmospheric. I’ll never be able to see a moth again without thinking of it!

I loved the setting too – I haven’t been to either Cyprus or Rhodes (Dorothy Dunnett’s books always make me aware of how little of the world I’ve actually seen) but as usual every location is described so thoroughly I can form a vivid picture of them without ever having been there. And not only have I never visited these countries, I know almost nothing about their histories either so it was good to have an opportunity to learn about the Cyprus civil war – a fascinating piece of 15th century history I’d never read anything at all about before.

However, I wouldn’t recommend reading Race of Scorpions unless you’ve read the previous two novels in the series first. These books are complicated enough as it is without reading them out of order and you would also miss watching the development of Nicholas’s character over the course of the series. I really enjoyed this one, and luckily for me I still have five more House of Niccolò books to read. Scales of Gold is next!