The Talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith

★★★★½

Tom Ripley: Book 1

Two jolly good books in a row! I had a bit of a head start on Patricia Highsmith’s most famous novel, because I’ve seen the 1999 film adaptation several times. However, it’s been so long since I last watched it that I really couldn’t remember all the details, and had the pleasure of being caught up in the cat-and-mouse game of the plot. Will he or won’t he be caught?! Highsmith’s smart, calculating antihero Tom Ripley must, in a sense, be the patron saint (or devil) of introverts, with the caveat that most of us aren’t psychopaths. There’s a kind of wish fulfilment about this story, in which a mousy, impoverished nobody finds himself thrust into the glittering orbit of an American trust-funder – sampling a lifestyle which proves so irresistible that he is prepared to commit murder in order to keep enjoying it. Highsmith’s genius is to write this story from Ripley’s perspective, making his actions seem so self-evidently logical that you find yourself rooting for him to prevail. A classic thriller, well deserving of its status.

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Blueeyedboy: Joanne Harris

★★★

On a web-journal mailing list, blueeyedboy holds court. He is the ringmaster of his own little circus, the svengali to his audience of adoring readers, the puppetmaster of their fantasies. World-weary and nihilistic, he begins to tell the fable-like story of three brothers, brought up by their widowed mother and each, for ease, given their own signature colour: Black; Brown; and Blue. Struggling against each other, and against the mercurial furies of their dangerous, unpredictable mother, the boys try to carve out their own identities in their bleak little town. But this isn’t just a story of three boys coming of age. It’s a tale of ambition, obsession and, most fascinating of all, murder. Don’t get over-excited, though, blueeyedboy coyly reassures his readers: it’s only a story. The problem is that not everyone seems to believe him. Setting her story in the same town as her St Oswald’s novels, though in a far less privileged neighbourhood, Joanne Harris invites us to come down the rabbithole of internet anonymity, where everyone wears avatars and usernames, and no one is quite what they seem.

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The Stranger Diaries: Elly Griffiths

★★★½

Clare Cassidy is au fait with Gothic drama. She’s an English teacher at Holland House school, formerly the home of the reclusive Victorian author R.M. Holland, whose eerie short story The Stranger is one of Clare’s favourite pieces. But Clare prefers the Gothic to remain within the pages of her books. When her friend and colleague Ella Elphick is murdered, it initially seems to be just that: a shocking, upsetting, horrifying crime. Yet there are disturbing elements to Ella’s death. A scribbled note is found beside her body: a line from The Stranger. Her murder bears some resemblance to one of the deaths in that story. And worse is to come. For Clare, a committed diarist, suddenly discovers that someone else has been leaving notes in her journal – someone who apparently has knowledge of the crime, and has been able to get access to her most personal possessions. Griffiths’s novel is a satisfying combination of old-school Gothic and thoroughly modern thriller – even if its final denouement is a bit limp.

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Famous Trials: Alex McBride

★★★½

In this set of three bite-sized books, barrister and author Alex McBride presents six cases adapted from Penguin’s Famous Trials. This classic series gave readers the chance to read the transcripts of court cases, to study the evidence and to judge for themselves whether the final verdict was correct. In their newly edited form, these cases are short enough to read on a commute, each offering a glimpse of a notorious murder trial. Penguin and McBride have grouped them thematically. In Unwanted Spouses we explore two crimes motivated by marital strife; Thrill-Killers introduces us to two criminals who developed too much of a taste for blood; and Lucky Escapes shows us two people who were acquitted and walked free. But did they deserve it? While I’m not a fan of modern true crime, these cases are old enough to cast light on a different age – while reminding us that human nature, worryingly, might not have changed all that much…

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Siracusa: Delia Ephron

★★★½

It was meant to be such a delightful break. Two American couples, tangentially connected, decide to holiday together in Italy: first in Rome and then in Syracuse in Sicily (‘Siracusa’, the characters call it, to distinguish it from Syracuse in New York). Vivacious Lizzie hopes to rekindle her relationship with her novelist husband Michael, who has withdrawn into his most recent book. Her old flame Finn, now married to uptight Taylor, looks forward to spending time with his irrepressible former girlfriend. And Taylor, prim and self-consciously cultured, looks forward to introducing her precious daughter Snow to the glories of the Old World. Yet our travellers find that Italy exacerbates, rather than heals, their divisions. And worse is to come, for Siracusa will prove the backdrop to a tragic and unforeseen crescendo.

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Through Darkest Europe: Harry Turtledove

★★★

The civilised world has been rocked by a sudden surge of terrorism. Extremism has proliferated even in the countries in the shores of the Mediterranean, which are meant to be that bit more sophisticated than their hinterlands. Suicide bombers spread terror in the streets of previously buzzing cities. Ashen-faced religious leaders condemn horrific acts committed in the name of their faith. Sound familiar? But this isn’t the world as we know it. Harry Turtledove takes us into an alternate reality in which Islam, not Christianity, became the dominant religion of the world in the medieval period. Now, progressive, modern and comfortable Muslim nations look warily at their Christian neighbours, and two brilliant investigators are dispatched to the dangerous streets of Italy in an effort to nip the terrorist threat of the Aquinists in the bud.

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Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

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Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

★★★★

I remember Helen wrote about this with enthusiasm some years ago and, since then, I’ve been keen to read it. Fortunately I found a copy during a very ‘productive’ recent visit to Hay-on-Wye and pounced upon it with great glee as ideal summer reading. Although I’ve had Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels sitting on my shelf for some time, this is the first of her books that I’ve actually read and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But with delight I found myself drawn into its deliciously Gothic modern tale of a governess in a remote French chateau: a tale of avarice, greed and attempted murder. After all, when you are alone in the world, who can you trust?

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Social Creature: Tara Isabella Burton

★★★½

What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.

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Lullaby: Leïla Slimani

★★★½

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Leïla Slimani’s bestselling novel evidently strikes a chord with its readers and it isn’t hard to see why. It plays on the deepest fears that any parent can have. What if our children are most at risk from those we’ve hired to care for them? On the very first page, we’re shown a horrific scene: two children brutally murdered, their nanny lying with self-inflicted wounds beside them. It’s a shocking, apparently senseless crime. But then Slimani takes us back, to tell the story of the family, the nanny and the children. Her novel raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about domestic service, modern parenting, class, and the desire to be needed.

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