The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas

I’m never quite sure how to describe Louise Douglas’ books. Set in either the present day or recent past, they are not exactly mysteries or crime novels, but more than just romances, and although they do have ghostly or gothic elements, they are grounded in the reality of family drama and personal tragedy. Probably romantic suspense is the best term for them, I think. Having enjoyed three of them – The Secrets Between Us, In Her Shadow and Your Beautiful Lies – I was hoping that I would also enjoy her new one, The House by the Sea.

Our narrator, Edie, has spent the last ten years blaming her former mother-in-law, Anna DeLuca, for the death of her little boy, Daniel, and the breakdown of her marriage that followed. When she hears that Anna has died she feels a sense of relief, but she is less pleased to learn that Anna has left her Sicilian villa to Edie and her ex-husband, Joe. Convinced that this is just an attempt to reunite her with Joe, Edie is angry with Anna for continuing to meddle in her life even from beyond the grave, so she heads for Sicily determined to find a buyer for the villa and return home again as quickly as possible.

On her arrival in Sicily, Edie has to endure an awkward meeting with Joe, who has also come to inspect his inheritance and look for a buyer. However, Edie soon finds herself falling in love with the crumbling old villa and is intrigued by the many secrets it seems to be hiding. Where is the valuable painting of the Madonna del Mare, missing from its place on the wall? Who are the two girls in Anna’s childhood photographs and why does one of them have her face scratched out? And what is the reason for all the bad luck Edie and Joe begin to experience? Is someone trying to drive them away from Sicily before they can uncover the truth?

Louise Douglas writes beautifully; she is one of those authors with a real talent for capturing the mood and atmosphere of a place, whether that place is the Yorkshire Moors (Your Beautiful Lies), the Cornish coast (In Her Shadow) or a rural village in Somerset (The Secrets Between Us). The House by the Sea is the first of her books that I’ve read which is set outside England and I loved the vivid descriptions of Sicily, beginning with Edie’s first sight of the island – probably the most travelling I’ll do this year!

The aircraft tipped to begin its descent and through the porthole I watched the southern side of the island of Sicily emerge from the glare of the sun. Beyond the breaching wing lay a hazy, mountainous land surrounded by turquoise water. Wispy clouds bunched around the summit of Etna, the shadow of a forest creeping up her flank. I saw the sprawl of cities, the pencil line of motorways, the meandering loops of a river and the brilliant blue rectangle of a reservoir. My journey was almost over and Joe was somewhere down there, waiting for me.

The mystery element of the novel is not very strong, to be honest. I found it easy to guess who was behind the strange occurrences at the villa – although I didn’t know exactly why and had to wait until the end of the book for everything to be explained. But what I did enjoy was watching Edie’s development as a character as, under the warm Sicilian sun, she begins to come to terms with what happened all those years ago and slowly finds the strength to move on. Her relationship with Joe and the way it changes over the course of the novel is well written and feels believable, but again, it was too easy to predict what was going to happen!

This is not one of my favourites by Louise Douglas, but it did remind me of how much I enjoyed reading her books a few years ago. I seem to have missed her last book, The Secret by the Lake, which was published in 2015, so I will have to catch up with that one soon.

Thanks to Boldwood Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Your Beautiful Lies by Louise Douglas

Your Beautiful Lies It’s 1984 and British families and communities are being torn apart by a miners’ strike. While miners clash with the police and tensions grow between the government and the mining unions, in the small Yorkshire town of Matlow Annie Howarth is facing trouble of a different kind. Her former boyfriend, Tom Greenaway, has just been released from prison after serving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. Meeting Tom again after such a long separation, Annie finds that she still has feelings for him – and that she’s not at all convinced he was guilty of the crime of which he was accused.

A lot of things have changed during those years apart, though. Annie is now married to police chief William Howarth and they have a young daughter, Lizzie. Leaving William for Tom could mean losing Lizzie, as well as the expensive house and comfortable lifestyle William’s salary provides. When a woman is murdered on the moors near the Howarths’ home, suspicion falls on Tom again and this time Annie must try to separate the truth from the ‘beautiful lies’.

This is the third Louise Douglas novel I’ve read and while I didn’t love it as much as The Secrets Between Us or In Her Shadow, I still enjoyed it. The backdrop of the miners’ strike is not a setting that I’ve seen used in fiction very often and yet it was a hugely important time in British history from both a social and political perspective. By making Annie’s husband a policeman and her father a miner, the author shows how loyalties were divided not just within towns and villages but within families too.

The story also has a strong mystery element, with the police investigating the murder on the moors and the question of who Annie can and can’t trust, but this is where I thought the book was less successful in comparison with The Secrets Between Us and In Her Shadow. It’s a very atmospheric novel (the bleakness and claustrophobia of Annie’s life is perfectly portrayed) but I found it less suspenseful than the previous two books and had my suspicions as to the likely identity of the murderer long before the answer was revealed. The ending was not entirely surprising, but very abrupt and not entirely satisfying either!

I didn’t like Annie very much – it seemed to me that she was being unnecessarily reckless and irresponsible – but I did think Douglas did a good job of depicting the boredom and loneliness of her daily existence and the reasons why her marriage to William was not a happy one. Because we see everything through Annie’s eyes, however, we can never be sure that we’re getting a fair and balanced picture of either of the men in her life. I think the only characters I did actually like were Annie’s brother, Johnnie, who remains cheerful and optimistic despite having some terrible things happen to him over the course of the novel, and William’s mother, Ethel, struggling with dementia but still aware that something isn’t quite right in the Howarth household.

I’ve been very impressed with all three of the Louise Douglas books that I’ve read, despite the few problems I had with this one. They are difficult to classify as belonging to a particular genre, being a mixture of crime, romance, suspense and domestic drama, but it’s a mixture that I love and that’s why I’m already looking forward to her next book, whatever that may be!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas

After reading The Secrets Between Us last year as part of the Transworld Book Group, I’ve been looking forward to reading another book by Louise Douglas and I was pleased to find that her new novel, In Her Shadow, has the same combination of suspense, mystery and psychological drama that I loved in The Secrets Between Us.

The story is narrated by Hannah Brown who works at the Brunel Memorial Museum in Bristol. When Hannah glimpses her best friend Ellen Brecht in the museum one day, she is left feeling shocked and frightened…because Ellen died almost twenty years ago. Is Hannah imagining things or has her friend really come back from the dead?

In alternating chapters, Hannah tells her present day story and also shares with us her memories of growing up in the 1980s with both Ellen and another friend, a boy called Jago who was adopted by Hannah’s family. She remembers the day Ellen moved to their quiet Cornish village with her glamorous parents – her handsome, charismatic German father Pieter and her mother Anne, a former pianist. At first Hannah is captivated by the Brecht family but as time goes by she learns that things might not be quite as they seem. And so Hannah’s happy, nostalgic childhood memories are mixed with other, more disturbing ones that she would rather forget.

I really like the way Louise Douglas writes and the way she creates atmosphere. There are some lovely pieces of descriptive writing in this book, especially when she is writing about the area of Cornwall where Hannah, Jago and Ellen lived, but despite the beautiful, idyllic setting, there’s also a mood of darkness and foreboding that hangs over the story. We know from very early in the novel that something had happened between Hannah and Ellen that damaged their friendship and left Hannah with feelings of guilt, but we aren’t told what it was. We don’t know the circumstances surrounding Ellen’s death, what Jago’s involvement was, or why Hannah is still affected by it all so many years later. And we are kept wondering whether or not Ellen is really dead or whether her appearances are just a figment of Hannah’s imagination. As the novel progresses, the truth is gradually revealed and we can eventually start to piece the story together.

I didn’t find any of the three main characters – Hannah, Ellen and Jago – very easy to like, yet I could still have sympathy for all three of them and could care about what happened to them. They make mistakes, do the wrong things, make poor decisions and act on impulses, but their flawed, unpredictable behaviour only makes them feel more believable and human.

The construction of the novel, with the chapters alternating between Hannah’s current story and her childhood story, means that we learn a little bit more in every chapter, but some of the biggest surprises remain hidden until the very end of the book. Sometimes this type of structure can feel disjointed and confusing, but in this case I thought it worked perfectly and it helped maintain the right levels of tension and suspense throughout the book. I enjoyed In Her Shadow as much as I enjoyed The Secrets Between Us and I’ll be looking out for any future books by Louise Douglas!

I received a review copy of In Her Shadow from Transworld

The Secrets Between Us by Louise Douglas

Suffering from the trauma of a stillborn baby and the end of her relationship with her boyfriend, Sarah agrees to accompany her sister and brother-in-law to Sicily for a holiday. Here she meets Alexander and his six-year-old son, Jamie, who are having problems of their own: Alexander’s wife, Genevieve, has left him and disappeared without trace. When Alex offers Sarah a job as housekeeper at his home in England, she agrees. Despite her family’s concerns, Sarah thinks it’s the right decision: she’s attracted to Alex, adores his little boy, and is desperate to make a fresh start and move on with her life.

But after joining Alex and Jamie at Avalon, their home in the village of Burrington Stoke in Somerset, Sarah begins to wonder exactly what happened to Genevieve. The missing woman’s family are convinced Alex knows more about the disappearance than he’s admitting to, but Sarah knows that can’t be true…or can it?

The Secrets Between Us was my final choice for the Transworld Book Group. Louise Douglas is not an author I’ve ever read before, so I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I was immediately drawn to it when I saw that it had been compared to Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, one of my favourite books. And there are definitely some similarities. Genevieve, like Rebecca, is described as beautiful, popular, talented and loved by everyone who knew her – and although she’s not there physically, she’s still a very strong presence and always at the heart of the story. The two books also share a gothic atmosphere and a sense of uneasiness and foreboding.

But this is also an excellent book in its own right. The author expertly keeps us guessing right to the end by adding some unexpected plot twists and ensuring that we can never be quite certain whether Alexander can be trusted or not. It’s also possible that Sarah, as the narrator, may not always be completely reliable. Some very strange and spooky things happen at Avalon and we are made to wonder whether they have supernatural causes or whether Sarah’s emotional state is making her see things that aren’t really there.

I did find it hard to believe that Sarah would agree to move in with a man she’d only met on a couple of brief occasions in Sicily, but at least this meant we were thrown into the action almost immediately, with only a short build-up. And Sarah is a narrator who is easy to like and to have sympathy for. I could really feel her fear and confusion as more and more facts about Genevieve were revealed, and her sense of growing isolation as the people of Burrington Stoke turned against her, believing that she and Alexander were trying to cover up the truth about Genevieve’s disappearance.

The Secrets Between Us is an excellent psychological thriller, with just the right amount of tension and suspense. Although Louise Douglas’ previous novels sound very different to this one, I really liked her writing and would be happy to try her other books at some point too.

I received a copy of this book from Transworld for review.