Unsettling thriller is guaranteed to shock

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds. The doctor said he didn’t suffer. The broken body, surrounded by toys, was put inside a grey bag, which they zipped shut. The little girl was still alive when the ambulance arrived. She’d fought like a wild animal. They found signs of a struggle, bits of skin under her soft fingernails.

When Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work after having children, she and her husband Paul look for a caretaker for their two young children. They never dreamed they would find Louise, a quiet, polite and devoted woman who seems perfect in every way. But as the couple and nanny become more dependent on each other, jealousy, resentment and suspicions increase.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani was first published in France, where it won the Prix Goncourt, one of the most important literary prizes in the country, and since its translation into English it has received a landslide of fantastic reviews. So is it worth the hype?

At just over 200 pages this short, intense thriller sure packs a punch. Slimani knows just how to build a powerful sense of dread and how to use small, seemingly insignificant actions to deeply unsettle the reader. It’s a powerful premise, exploring what happens when we invite strangers into our homes and give them absolute trust and confidence, and what happens when that trust is broken.

However, my problem with this book is that we know from the first sentence (and, indeed, from the quote on the front cover) what all that dread is building towards. Because of this, there is very little suspense. Personally I would have much preferred not to have known what was going to happen.

Many have called this book ‘the next Gone Girl’ (seemingly inevitable with any thriller these days) but for me the structure of the book kept me at a distance. How many people would have loved Gone Girl if we’d known about *that* twist in the first chapter?

The portrait of Louise the nanny is nevertheless fascinating. Myriam and Paul both prefer to think of her as the perfect woman who appears at their door every morning to take care of their children without comment or complaint. They don’t care about what happens when Louise leaves their apartment to go home – it doesn’t occur to them that they should care – until elements of Louise’s life start creeping into their own, and they can no longer ignore the fact that she is human, with her own flaws, just like them.

The reader, however, follows Louise in her private life and knows that all is not quite right with her. This dramatic irony between what the characters know and what the reader knows creates a sense of tension that keeps the reader engaged despite the fact that we already know where the plot is heading.

Louise is an anomaly: a white Frenchwoman working as a nanny, while all the other nannies at the park are immigrants. Slimani cleverly explores issues of race and class whilst also delving into the strange occupation of the nanny. Part of the family and yet outside of it, deeply trusted and yet kept at a distance, the nanny inhabits a liminal space but is nevertheless gifted with a staggering amount of power.

This unsettling thriller has its flaws, but as a quick, clever read guaranteed to shock and provoke contemplation, it’s well worth a read.

Thanks very much to Faber & Faber for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Vivid and atmospheric historical fiction set in Georgian London

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock is told that one of his captains has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid. As gossip spreads through the city, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel, and soon he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto an entirely new course.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock has appeared on many ‘most anticipated books of 2018’ lists (including by Vogue, Sunday Times, Observer and Stylist) and the hype surrounding it may be enough to put some readers off. But if you can get past the hype, you will find an incredibly vivid and enjoyable historical novel.

At first it seems this is going to be little more than a frothy, bawdy historical novel exploring the hijinks of the aristocracy from the perspective of a courtesan and a merchant newly introduced to high society. But the more you read the more themes and clever storylines Gowar begins to explore, including (among other things) femininity, sexuality, race and class.

Without doubt Gowar is going to be an author to watch from now on. Her writing style is so vivid she seems to effortlessly conjure Georgian London on the page. From dim coffee houses to high society balls, we are taken on a fascinating journey through the eighteenth century. The prose glitters with atmosphere and the historical detail of the dialogue is wonderful to read.

Her characters are likewise vividly drawn. Each of them is introduced in a few deft strokes but as the story goes on layers and layers are peeled back until they feel so real, it seems absurd that they don’t exist in real life. I loved spending time with both Mr Hancock and Angelica Neal, two characters fighting to control the way they are viewed by others. This is a novel that proves again and again that it is what you make of yourself, not what you are born, that matters.

Gowar also has a lot of pertinent things to say about women, in particular the way they are often categorised in one of two ways: the whore or the angel of the house. Angelica struggles throughout the novel to free herself from the former label and prove herself good enough to be the latter, before realising how little control she has over how other people see her.

This novel has been compared to 2016’s runaway success The Essex Serpent, and there are certainly similarities, especially in its glimpses of magical realism (although these only take place towards the end). In my opinion, this book far outpaces The Essex Serpent; it’s much more engrossing and entertaining.

I imagine that some will complain of the story’s somewhat meandering pace and if you don’t have large chunks of time to spend reading it, it probably will feel slow. Best to settle down for a quiet afternoon (or perhaps put it on your list to take on holiday) and allow yourself to be carried along on the journey. Its only failings were a significant slowing of pace in the last 100 pages or so, and a few loose ends left over.

This is a fantastic historical novel, and I can’t wait to see what Gowar does next.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is published on 25th January.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

First book in new fantasy series introduces cast of bold female characters

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes 10 years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist. But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder, guilty of worse.

Fantasy novels about assassins are ten-a-penny, so if you want to stand out in this overcrowded genre you’re going to have to do something pretty special. Though it is not without its flaws, I can confirm that Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is something pretty special.

In essence, this is a fantasy boarding school novel. Much of the action takes place in the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where young girls attend classes, forge close friendships, sleep in dormitories and sneak around after lights out. It will be a formula familiar to many readers, but Lawrence ensures his world has edges sharp enough to make sure the familiarity doesn’t breed boredom.

It’s a shame that the middle of the book becomes dull and repetitive. However, it’s worth getting through these slower moments to experience Lawrence’s skill when it comes to action scenes.

There are also moments when Lawrence falls prey to the fantasy writer’s worst enemy: the info-dump (in which writers give lots of information about their fantasy world in one long section). Some of the concepts he has come up with are quite complicated and he seems unsure as to how best explain them, so he runs to paragraphs explaining the same thing in a few different ways in the hope readers will understand.

But, luckily, the world Lawrence has created is fascinating – and his characters endearing. You will have to suspend your disbelief in regard to the characters’ ages (no eight-year-old talks like that) but Nona’s spiky attitude, witty comebacks and vulnerability will quickly bring you round to liking her. The only problem is that she verges on Mary-Sue territory – the perfect character who never gets anything wrong – and I hope Lawrence takes the chance to develop her character further in the sequel.

I also loved that the majority of the large cast are female. As such Lawrence presents the reader with a wide range of women – women who are brave, bold, frightened and flawed. In a genre that is often dominated by male characters wielding swords, it was refreshing to see women take the lead.

This book has its flaws but it opens up a fantasy world that I am more than happy to spend time in.

Red Sister is dark and bloody, marking the beginning of a new fantasy series that I will definitely be keen to continue reading.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Wildly imaginative fantasy invites you into a world of magic and myth

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

‘He drifted about with his head full of myths, always at least half lost in some otherland of story. Demons and wingsmiths, seraphim and spirits, he loved it all. He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales his first day on the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about Lazlo Strange: head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy.’

Since he was five years old, war orphan and junior librarian Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep. But it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and Lazlo has the chance to follow his dream.

Laini Taylor, the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, once again puts her huge, fearsome imagination to the test in her latest offering – technically a young adult novel, it is nevertheless complex enough to warrant a devoted legion of adult readers.

I tumbled head over heels in love with this book. The world is utterly engrossing, captivating and wildly imaginative. Taylor has created a world that is so rich in imagery, myth and magic that readers will be hard-pressed to find the will to put it down.

Lazlo is a wonderfully charming character. He’s very likeable – sweet, courageous and a compulsive reader – so much so that when the viewpoint shifts to our other main character, Sarai, at first I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I was leaving Lazlo’s company. Thankfully Sarai turned out to be just as interesting to spend time with – tough but conflicted, powerful but flawed. Oh, and she’s also the daughter of the most feared goddess of all time.

Despite the depth and intricacy of the world Taylor has created, she has managed to create characters who still feel like real people – they’ve just been placed in extraordinary situations.

Unfortunately, the pacing is where this book was let down. The last third or so of the book is where I began to lose interest. All the adventure and strife that had gone before was relegated to the background and in its place was a story of two characters falling in love. Admittedly the way they fall in love and carry out their romance is unusual and intriguing, but no one needs a two-page description of two characters’ first kiss. The problem was that the story felt so big, the scale and the risks so momentous, but then it kept shrinking until all it amounted to was two characters pining for each other.

It’s quite obvious to see where the plot is going most of the time, and it does veer dangerously close to the Chosen One trope so overused in fantasy fiction, but it was nevertheless a highly enjoyable journey to get there, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next book in the series.

It will be up to each individual reader to decide whether Strange the Dreamer’s positives outweigh its flaws, whether the fantastic first two-thirds of the book are enough to make up for the disappointment of a muddled ending.


Sunday Times bestseller with quirky, offbeat charm

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

‘My phone doesn’t ring often – it makes me jump when it does – and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently. No one’s been in my flat this year apart from the service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter. You’d think that would be impossible, wouldn’t you? It’s true, though. I do exist, don’t I?’

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything. Now, one simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself.

This book has received a lot of praise. Not only is it a Sunday Times bestseller but it is also soon to be a made into a film produced by Reese Witherspoon. It’s a strange book, and nothing like what I expected, but the more I think about it the more I enjoyed its quirky, offbeat charm.

For a good portion of the book Eleanor is not a likeable character. She criticises others while remaining unaware of her own flaws and is rude more often than not because she’s unaware of the intricate rules that govern social interactions. It takes a long while to warm to her, but Honeyman is very clever with the way she drops in hints of why Eleanor is the way that she is, so that we start sympathising with her before we even realise it.

At times this book is laugh-out-loud funny, at others it is heart-wrenching. Honeyman’s exploration of loneliness is pin sharp and devastating, showing just how easy it is to go through life telling everyone you are fine; if you repeat it enough times, you even start to believe it yourself. But beneath the surface, Eleanor is not fine, and admitting that is going to be one of the hardest things she’s ever done.

Honeyman is adept at creating characters that feel real. In fictional worlds it’s often frustratingly obvious who’s good and who’s bad, but the vast majority of characters here feel like they exist in the realistic space between the two, including Eleanor. They are capable of profound acts of kindness, and they are capable of being judgemental and cruel.

The twist at the end felt a bit cheap and I didn’t think the story needed it, but it didn’t have too detrimental an effect on the book as a whole and altogether the ending was satisfying. For readers who like their books to explore the relationships between characters, with a plot that is equal parts happy and sad, you need look no further.


Ali Land’s debut novel asks: is blood thicker than water?

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

‘Forgive me when I tell you it was me. It was me that told. The detective. A kindly man, belly full and round. Disbelief at first. Then, the stained dungarees I pulled from my bag. Tiny. The teddy bear on the front peppered red with blood. I could have brought more, so many to choose from. She never knew I kept them.’

Annie’s mother is a serial killer. The only way she can stop her is to hand her in to the police. As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family to give her a fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But blood is thicker than water.

This book is gripping from the first page to the last, building up suspense until the reader’s every muscle is tensed with dread at what is going to happen next. It’s undeniably very dark, with some troubling subject matter, but it’s perfect for those who like their thrillers to unsettle and make their skin crawl.

The twists and turns aren’t exactly surprising but Land’s writing more than makes up for it. She knows that a few carefully chosen words can be more powerful than paragraphs of description; splashes of blood on a child’s discarded clothing are more disturbing than seeing the body, and peering through the keyhole can be more terrifying than throwing open the door. It’s claustrophobic and so immersive you’ll find your heart racing and your breath catching in your throat.

Annie is an incredible narrator, struggling to forget who she was and focus on who she might be. But her mother’s presence looms over everything she does, every word she speaks, and despite her best efforts she finds herself slipping back into old habits. She is adept at manipulation, knows just what to say and how to act to get what she wants, but her damaged childhood means she isn’t always in control of herself.

All the characters surrounding Annie are also realistically portrayed. Even those who veer towards stereotype have enough flawed edges to mark them out from the crowd and make the reader care about what happens to them.

The plot does require some suspension of disbelief, but if you’re able to let that go you’re sure to find lots to enjoy here. Good Me Bad Me is an incredible debut novel, and I would highly recommend it.


A fantastic piece of historical escapism from bestselling author Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

‘Beauty is your gift from God and it should be used and not squandered. Study this face as if it were a map of the ocean, your own trade route to the Indies. For it will bring you its own fortune. But always believe what the glass tells you. Because while others will try to flatter you, it has no reason to lie.’

1527. With their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her companion dwarf Bucino escape the sack of Rome. They head for the shimmering, decadent city of Venice, where the sins of pleasure and the pleasures of sin lead them both down new and dangerous paths.

This was the only book of Sarah Dunant’s five Italian Renaissance novels that I hadn’t read. There was no reason to think that it would fail to live up to the expectation of her other great books, as In the Company of the Courtesan is a fantastic piece of historical escapism, a novel rich in the sights and sounds and smells of the 16th century.

This is a story where brutality and beauty go hand in hand. Dunant is never one to shy away from descriptions of blood and gore; the sack of Rome is described as intimately as any bedroom scene. The perfumed rooms of the wealthy are contrasted with the filth and poverty of the poorer parts of Venice, and during Fiammetta’s sensual morning routine she uses ingredients such as mercury and dove entrails to make her skin flawless and her hair shine. At every step Dunant never lets us forget the squalor beneath the splendour.

The two characters at the heart of this story – the narrator Bucino and his mistress Fiammetta – are a wonderful double act, their relationship adding welcome flashes of humour to what is a dark tale at its heart. Fiametta is far more than just a courtesan; she has trained herself to be witty and intelligent, just as talented at playing the lute as she is at plucking her clients’ strings, and she is always searching for a way to further her status, always calculating how much she can get away with. Bucino, as a dwarf and therefore an outsider, offers a unique perspective tinged with sadness and pathos.

Dunant’s descriptions of decadently beautiful Venice made me long to visit the city. Her original characters rub shoulders with real people from the time period, including writer Pietro Aretino and the painter Titian. The ballrooms lit by candles placed between the ribcages of skeletons, the narrow twisting streets and waterways of Venice, and the vaulting Catholic churches are conjured so vividly that you will look up from the book only to be surprised that you aren’t standing in Italy.

Sarah Dunant is a wonderful historical fiction writer and, for those who have yet to read any of her books, In the Company of the Courtesan offers the perfect place to start.