The Sun Sister by Lucinda Riley

This is the sixth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology of the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Each novel tells the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their biological parents.

The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and came from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which hasn’t yet been revealed, only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In the previous books in the series, we have heard Maia’s story, Ally’s, Star’s, CeCe’s and Tiggy’s. This latest novel, The Sun Sister, tells the story of Electra, and I will admit that I was not particularly looking forward to this one. Whenever Electra briefly appeared in one of the other sisters’ books, she came across as a very unattractive personality and I wasn’t really relishing the thought of following her throughout an entire novel. On the other hand, I had initially felt the same about CeCe and ended up liking her once I had read The Pearl Sister, so I hoped the same would happen here.

At the beginning of The Sun Sister, which opens in 2008, shortly after Pa Salt’s death, Electra is living in New York City, where she has built a successful career for herself as a model. Yet despite her beauty, fame and wealth, we quickly discover that Electra is not a very happy young woman. For a while now, she has been relying on drugs and alcohol to get through the day and the loss of her adoptive father, whom she feels was disappointed in her, has left her struggling to cope. To make things worse, she is aware that all five of her older sisters have by now traced their own origins and come to terms with who they really are. Then, just as she is reaching her absolute lowest ebb, she is visited by Stella Jackson, the grandmother she didn’t know she had – and the story Stella tells her will literally help to save her life.

Stella’s story involves another of Electra’s ancestors – Cecily Huntley-Morgan, a young American woman who, in the 1930s, goes to stay with her godmother in Kenya after having her heart broken not once but twice. Living amongst the notorious Happy Valley set, by the shores of Lake Naivasha, Cecily falls in love with the landscape and the way of life. She ends up staying in Kenya for much longer than she had planned, until she meets a troubled Maasai girl and agrees to help her – a decision that will change the course of Cecily’s life once again.

The two storylines alternate with each other throughout the book, but each section is long enough that we can become fully immersed in one character’s story before moving on to the next. Of the two, Cecily’s was my favourite; in fact, it might even be my favourite of all the historical storylines in this series so far. I loved the descriptions of Kenya and the way some of the real incidents and people from the Happy Valley society were woven into the story. Although I didn’t agree with all of Cecily’s decisions (and I was disappointed in her treatment of a certain person in her life towards the end of the book), I did like her and sympathised with some of the situations she found herself in.

But I also enjoyed reading about Electra and despite my dislike of her at the beginning, I soon began to warm to her and to understand why she behaved the way she did. It was clear that Electra had always felt slightly out of place in her family, so it was good to see her bonding with her eldest sister, Maia, in this book. Now I hope she can resolve her differences with CeCe in the final book!

After not really looking forward to this book, it turned out to be one of the best in the series. Now I’m very curious about the seventh one, which is going to have to provide answers to all of the questions and mysteries raised in the previous six. I hope we don’t have to wait too long for it.

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!

Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

This is the first book I’ve read by Jennifer McVeigh, although I do remember hearing good things about her first novel, The Fever Tree. This latest one, Leopard at the Door, sounded appealing too – and I did like it, although it was a much darker novel than I’d been expecting!

The novel opens in 1952 with our narrator, Rachel Fullsmith, arriving in Kenya after an absence of six years. Rachel was born to British parents but spent her childhood in Kenya until, after losing her mother at the age of twelve, she was sent to England to live with her grandparents. Now, as an eighteen-year-old, she is returning to the place she still considers to be home, only to find that everything has changed…and not in a good way.

Trouble is brewing in Kenya, with unrest threatening to spill over into violence as the group known as Mau Mau begin to rebel against British rule. Rachel has fond memories of her friendships with the Kikuyu people and at first she isn’t too worried, but with increasing reports of oaths being sworn to the Mau Mau and attacks on both Europeans and on Kikuyu who try to resist the movement, she realises how serious the situation is. The Fullsmith farmhouse is not a safe haven either, though; Rachel’s father has a new partner, Sara, who makes no secret of her contempt for the ‘natives’ and who can barely hide her hostility towards Rachel. Turning to her childhood tutor, Michael, for support, Rachel is glad that she still has one true friend left – but, as a Kenyan, Michael is torn between helping the cause of his own people and loyalty to the white people he has lived and worked with for so many years.

The Mau Mau Uprising of 1952 played a significant part in Kenya’s history, but although I had heard of it, I really knew nothing about it – the events leading up to it or what the rebellion itself involved – until reading this book. As you can probably imagine, it’s not pleasant to read about; although the cover may look light and romantic, the story is anything but. This was a harsh and violent time, with people killed for refusing to swear an oath and men, women and children murdered in their own homes or hacked to death with pangas (and I should warn you that there are also some graphic descriptions of the slaughter of animals). The characters in the novel provide us with a range of views and attitudes, from Sara’s racism and prejudice to Rachel’s horror at the brutality but desire to understand. As someone with no prior knowledge of the rebellion, I thought the author did an excellent job of explaining what happened and why, and of trying to show both sides of the story.

Rachel’s personal story is interesting too and again it’s quite dark. When she first returns to Kenya she is full of excitement and nostalgia, but she quickly has to reconcile her happy memories with the reality of the present day – with the violence surrounding her, the distance between herself and her father, and her struggle to find any common ground with Sara. Some horrible things happen to Rachel over the course of the novel, particularly near the end, but she does still have some moments of happiness; she also has a love interest, although I didn’t find their romance very convincing and I felt that this was the one element that let the book down.

Jennifer McVeigh writes beautifully about Kenya, bringing to life the vast landscape, the heat of the sun, the animals and birds. There is a lot to enjoy in this novel even if, due to the subject, it’s not always the easiest of reads. It reminded me at times of Dinah Jefferies’ The Separation, which is about a similar uprising in Malaya, so if you have read that novel I would recommend trying this one too.

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

The Obscure Logic of the Heart by Priya Basil

The Obscure Logic of the Heart is the story of Anil Mayur and Lina Merali who meet as students and fall in love. The problem is, Anil’s family are Sikhs and Lina’s are Muslims. It seems that almost everyone disapproves of their relationship: Anil’s parents are prepared to support their son but make it clear they’re not happy, Lina’s parents refuse to even consider allowing her to marry a non-Muslim, and Anil’s best friend Merc also has his own reasons for trying to split them up. And when Lina, who is beginning a career in the UN, starts to suspect that Anil’s father may be involved in illegal arms trading, she faces a battle not just with her parents but with her conscience too.

Interspersed with the main storyline are letters written by a woman to a man during the 1960s. At first this was confusing and I had no idea who or what I was reading about. Eventually, though, everything became clear and when I went back to re-read the letters again they made much more sense.

It took me a while to really get into this book, but as the author threw more and more obstacles into the way of Lina and Anil’s love, I became desperate to see how things would work out for them and whether they could overcome all their differences. Lina’s indecisiveness irritated me at times, but I could understand the difficulties and conflicting emotions she faced in trying to please both Anil and her parents. I thought Priya Basil did an excellent job of showing us the situation from a number of different perspectives so that at various points of the book we could sympathise in turn with Lina, Anil and both sets of parents. I particularly liked the parts told from the viewpoint of Shareef and Iman Merali, which helped me see why they were so reluctant to approve of their daughter’s relationship with Anil.

The variety of settings in which Priya Basil sets her story is another interesting aspect of the book. Anil’s family live in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, Lina’s family are from Birmingham in England, and there are other chapters set in London, New York and various parts of Sudan. I also found Lina’s work for the UN fascinating to read about. It gave the author a chance to incorporate lots of different political and human rights issues into the novel, including the illegal arms trade, the corruption of governments, guns and violence, poverty in Africa, and how people viewed Islam following the 9/11 attacks. There’s such a lot going on in this book; it’s much more than just a simple love story.

This is my second book for the Transworld Book Group reading challenge. It’s also the first book I’ve read by Priya Basil and I’m pleased to be able to say that I enjoyed my first experience of her work.