Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

The Turn of the Key is my book group’s pick for November, and I suppose I’m glad to have been “forced” to read it. I’ve been hearing about this book and author Ruth Ware for a while now, so it’s good to know what all the fuss is about!

From the start, we know that there’s something off about the main character. We meet Rowan as she reaches out by letter to a lawyer she’s heard about, one who might be able to turn around her hopeless case. Rowan is in prison, awaiting trial for murdering a child left in her care. And while Rowan admits that she’s done plenty wrong, she insists that she didn’t kill the child.

From here, she relates her strange story, starting with the advertisement for a nanny. A wealthy couple is offering a huge salary for a live-in nanny for their four children at their Scottish estate. To Rowan, this is simply too good to be true. The money involves a huge step up for her, she’s ready for a change, and as we later learn, she has other reasons for wanting the position too.

It’s a weird set-up. The house is a huge, beautiful old Victorian, but the back half has been totally converted into a sleek, glass-walled modern structure. The estate encompasses acres of woods and trails that the children are free to roam about unattended. The children range from toddler to teen, and seem like a handful, but Rowan is enchanted.

Less enchanting is the smart-house design. Everything is run via an app called Happy, that controls all lights, locks and unlocks doors, interfaces with phone calls, replenishes the grocery list, plays music and audiobooks, and so much more. There are cameras everywhere. Creepy!

The parents, Sandra and Bill, are strangely hands-off, to say the least. Upon hiring Rowan, they depart on a business trip the very next day. Suddenly, Rowan is left alone with children who don’t know her (and seem very hostile), a house she doesn’t know how to operate, and only a thick binder left behind by Sandra to offer her instructions on the daily routines and needs of the children.

There are so many red flags that honestly, if I were in Rowan’s shoes, I’d be heading for the hills. Being left alone with children I’ve just met for weeks? Living in an isolated old house? The creaky floors and strange noises? The scary walled garden? The impossible-to-figure-out house app and Sandra’s remote surveillance? No thank you very much.

Still, we also suspect early on that Rowan has secrets. What was her real reason for wanting this job? Why does she hesitate when someone calls her by name? Why does she hide her necklace and just seem so damned awkward all the time?

I had a lot of guesses about Rowan’s secrets, but I was wrong. I was slightly more on target with some of my guesses about the murder — I mean, I got that wrong too, but I figured out some of the “hows” at least!

The ending is pretty abrupt and perhaps a little manipulative, and there’s an ambiguous line thrown in right before the end that has me wondering what happened to Rowan after she finished telling her story.

Overall, I was only partially engaged; hence my 3-star rating. Granted, I’m not a thriller fan in general, so take my responses with a grain of salt. Still, I thought there was something stilted about the set-up, and felt that Rowan’s actions didn’t make enough sense going along. She displays a temper toward the children that made me go in some really dark directions which turned out not to be true — which is a relief, but then why such strong displays of anger? For a childcare professional, Rowan’s anger issues seem really inappropriate and probably should disqualify her from working with children.

Also, it didn’t feel rational to me that a person would show up and take this job in the first place with no adjustment period, and the smart-house aspects are creepy without really adding to the plot. Likewise, the awful garden is in the mix as a danger sign and huge clue… except in the end, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on, except for being yet one more thing to freak out the main character.

Rowan’s letters from prison make her sound pretty unhinged, so learning that she’s not as unreliable a narrator as we’re led to believe makes me feel like I was being handled, rather than tricked by a clever story.

I don’t know. I was engaged and needed to see how it all turned out, but never particularly connected to any of the characters or cared about them as individuals — not even the children, who didn’t seem particularly realistic.

So yeah, just a 3-star read for me. *Shrug*. Kind of disappointing, considering that I have another book by this author on my shelf. Here’s hoping I have better luck with the next one!

PS – I keep having to stop myself from referring to this book as The Turn of the Screw… and I assume that’s an intentional nod to the classic. New nanny, strange and potentially haunted house, weird children… although the Henry James version doesn’t include invasive smart devices and apps!

Book Review: 500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan

Title: 500 Miles From You
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 9, 2020
Print length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan returns to the beloved Scottish Highland town of Kirrinfief, which readers first met in The Bookshop on the Shore, and adds a dash of London’s bustling urban landscape. 

Lissie, is a nurse in a gritty, hectic London neighborhood. Always terribly competent and good at keeping it all together, she’s been suffering quietly with PTSD after helping to save the victim of a shocking crime. Her supervisor quietly arranges for Lissie to spend a few months doing a much less demanding job in the little town of Kirrinfeif in Scottish Highlands, hoping that the change of scenery will help her heal. Lissie will be swapping places with Cormack, an Army veteran who’s Kirrinfeif’s easygoing nurse/paramedic/all-purpose medical man. Lissie’s never experienced small-town life, and Cormack’s never spent more than a day in a big city, but it seems like a swap that would do them both some good.

In London, the gentle Cormack is a fish out of the water; in Kirrinfief, the dynamic Lissie finds it hard to adjust to the quiet. But these two strangers are now in constant contact, taking over each other’s patients, endlessly emailing about anything and everything. Lissie and Cormack discover a new depth of feeling…for their profession and for each other.

But what will happen when Lissie and Cormack finally meet…?

Jenny Colgan is an absolute favorite of mine, so of course I was thrilled to receive an ARC of her new book, 500 Miles From You. This author’s books always make me smile, and her books set in the Scottish Highlands give me a major case of wanderlust each and every time.

In 500 Miles From You, we start by meeting Lissa, a nurse who specializes in follow-up care, spending her days driving around London from patient to patient to make sure they’re following doctor’s orders, taking their medications, and getting the treatment they need. As the story opens, Lissa witnesses a terrible hit and run that’s a deliberate attack, leaving a 15-year-old boy dying on the street.

Side note: The synopsis above, from Goodreads, refers to Lissie and Cormack. In the book, it’s Lissa and Cormac. Just FYI — I don’t want you to think I’m getting the characters’ names wrong!

Lissa is unable to shake off the horror, and finally, her hospital’s HR team strongly urges her to participate in a professional exchange program. She’ll be sent to a rural area to use her skills in a different environment, and a nurse from that area will come take her place in London to gain experience in urban medicine.

It doesn’t seem like an offer Lissa can refuse, and between her new assignment and her required ongoing therapy sessions, the exhange may be her only opportunity to heal and recover before her PTSD completely derails her career and her life.

Meanwhile, Cormac will leave his beloved town of Kirrinfief in the Scottish Highlands — where literally everyone knows your name — to live in Lissa’s nursing quarters in London and take over her set of patients. The two never meet, but they exchange patient notes, and over time, develop an email and text rapport beyond the professional requirements.

In my opinion. Lissa gets the much better end of the deal! As always, Jenny Colgan has me falling in love all over again with her depiction of life in the Highlands — the peace and quiet, the quaint small town, the local busybodies, the sense of connection. And frankly, while Cormac eventually finds reasons to like London, the descriptions of the noise, the dirt, the unfriendliness, the bustle all make it clear why Cormac yearns for home.

Lissa’s PTSD is portrayed sensitively. As a medical professional, she intellectually understands her reactions, but that doesn’t mean that she can instantly deal with it. Her progress is slow, and we see how her London habits keep her from fitting in or being accepted when she arrives in Kirrinfief. Eventually, of course, she opens up to her surroundings and to the way of life in a small village, and finds more than she could have thought possible.

Cormac, a former army medic, carries around with him the memories of Fallujah that eventually make him seek a civilian career. While he can relate to Lissa’s trauma, his own past still remains mostly undisclosed. I finished the book wishing we’d learned a little more about Cormac’s army experiences.

The back and forth between Cormac and Lissa is quite cute, and the book ends with all sorts of mishaps that turn their intended first in-person meetings into a series of catastrophic missed chances. But yes, there’s a happy ending — how could there not be?

The texts and emails between Lissa and Cormac are funny and sweet, and the story is a nice twist on the “two strangers fall in love without ever meeting” trope. Somehow, though, I was left wanting more. I felt that their connection needed more time to grow, and wasn’t given quite enough room to develop and breathe — and I was left wanting to see more of them together once they finally connected, rather than ending with their meeting.

This is the 3rd of Jenny Colgan’s loosely connected stories set in Kirrinfief. Characters from both The Bookshop on the Corner and The Bookshop on the Shore show up here (and become friends with Lissa). It’s lovely to see them all — I just wish they’d actually had bigger roles to play, since I enjoy those characters so much.

Overall, this is another winning romantic tale from a terrific author, balancing tough situations and emotions with lighter, more joyous moments and memorable characters.

And how could I not love a book where this happens:

He was wearing an open-necked white shirt made of heavy cotton and a pale green-and-gray kilt. […]

“Stop there, ” said Lissa, smiling and taking out her phone camera. “I want a pic. You look like you’re in Outlander.”

500 Miles From You can work as a stand-alone, but I’d recommend starting with The Bookshop on the Corner, which is a wonderful introduction to Kirrinfief and its quirky characters. Either way, don’t miss these lovely stories!

Audiobook Review: The Bookshop on the Shore by Jenny Colgan

Title: The Bookshop on the Shore
Author: Jenny Colgan
Narrator: Eilidh Beaton
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: June 13, 2019
Print length: 416 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A grand baronial house on Loch Ness, a quirky small-town bookseller, and a single mom looking for a fresh start all come together in this witty and warm-hearted novel by New York Times bestselling author Jenny Colgan.

Desperate to escape London, single mother Zoe wants to build a new life for herself and her four-year-old son Hari. She can barely afford the crammed studio apartment on a busy street where shouting football fans keep them awake all night, and Hari’s dad, Jaz, a charismatic but perpetually broke DJ, is no help at all. But his sister, Surinder, comes to Zoe’s aid, hooking her up with a job as far away from the urban crush as possible: working at a bookshop on the banks of Loch Ness. And there’s a second job to cover housing: Zoe will be an au pair for three children at a genuine castle in the Scottish Highlands.

But while Scotland is everything Zoe dreamed of — clear skies, brisk fresh air, blessed quiet — everything else is a bit of a mess. The Urquart family castle is grand but crumbling, the children’s mother has abandoned the family, their father is a wreck, and the kids have been kicked ot of school and left to their own devices. Zoe has her work cut out for her and is determined to rise to the challenge, especially when she sees how happily Hari has taken to their new home.

With the help of Nina, the friendly local bookseller, Zoe begins to put down roots in the community. Are books, fresh air, and kindness enough to heal the Urquart family—and her own?

Love, love, love, love, love.

Jenny Colgan’s books have been reliable, sweet escapes for me, and I’ve loved so many of them — but The Bookshop on the Shore just may be my favorite yet!

Zoe is a lovely main character, who starts the book in an awful situation. She’s about to be evicted from her grotty little apartment, she works in a posh nursery that she can’t afford to send her precious boy to, she can’t find help for the fact that Hari seems to be mute by choice, and Hari’s dad is unreliable and offers no support whatsoever.

The opportunity to be an au pair in the Highlands, providing a roof over her head and a small income, and to run a mobile bookselling business during the owner’s maternity leave, is too good to pass up — and frankly, Zoe is completely out of options.

She and Hari pack up and head to the Highlands, where the dark, neglected manor is in disarray and the children are completely wild, snidely referring to Zoe as “Nanny Seven” when she shows up, since she’s likely to be just one more in a string of hopeless caregivers who the bratty kids manage to drive away.

But Zoe is determined and desperate, and simply refuses to fail. She and Hari settle in. Hari is immediately befriended by Patrick, the precocious 5-year-old of the family, although the older children, 9-year-old Mary and 12-year-old Shackleton, are much harder to win over.

Meanwhile, Zoe takes up the bookselling business when the owner Nina is unexpectedly forced into an early bed rest, and combines her love of books with her startlingly good business sense to develop an entirely new clientele — one that Nina might not entirely approve of, but hey, at least Zoe is making money!

The description may make this seem like pretty standard fare, but I promise, this book is something special! The Urquart children are troubled and troublesome, but with good reason, and their behavior isn’t sugar-coated or made cute. Mary especially has some serious issues to contend with, and it’s heartbreaking to see what she experiences.

Zoe does come off a bit like a magical Mary Poppins/Maria from The Sounds of Music combo — swooping in with her good sense and cheery disposition, steeling herself against hurtful comments and making the children eat healthy, go outdoors, clean up, and all sorts of other positive activities, entirely against their will. Still, behind the scenes, we see Zoe’s vulnerability, and this keeps her grounded as a character and keeps her from seeming too super-nanny-ish.

Gradually, the children warm up to Zoe, and her influence lets light and joy back into the lives of this sad family. Naturally, there’s a love story too, and it’s sweet without being saccharine, and feels well developed and well earned.

Zoe’s anxiety over Hari’s well-being feels very real and all too relatable. To her, her boy is perfect, but at the same time, he’s isolated himself from the world in a way that brings him all sorts of negative attention from well-meaning strangers. Seeing the boy becoming close with the adorable Patrick is just one of the pleasures of this novel.

The narration of the audiobook is delightful, keeping the story moving along crisply, giving personality to each of the characters and making them all distinct and vivid. If you can’t tell already, my favorite is little Patrick, whose use of the word “absolutely” in every sentence is just the cutest thing ever.

There’s real heart-ache in this book, and some moments that had me at the edge of my seat, but also a realistic look at the messy business of raising a family, dealing with children who aren’t perfect, and looking for small ways to make things better, even if just a bit at a time.

Just to put this book in context, it’s set in the same world as The Bookshop on the Corner, with some cross-over characters, but I wouldn’t call it a sequel, and it can absolutely (thanks, Patrick!) be read a stand-alone.

Jenny Colgan’s books tend to have certain elements in common — a lonely or sad main character needing a dramatic change, moving to a small, remote community, meeting lots of quirky characters, finding a place for herself, and falling in love. This is all true of The Bookshop on the Shore, but that doesn’t mean that it’s at all formulaic.

I loved the setting, the characters, the investment in the portrayals of the children, and the way Zoe, Hari, and the Urquarts all change one another’s lives for the better.

A bonus is how much all of these characters love to read! In this book as well as The Bookshop on the Corner, the characters talk about books all the time, and listening to the audiobook, I was often tempted to hit the pause button so I could write down the books mentioned. What a treat!

I’ll use Patrick’s favorite word one more time and say that I ABSOLUTELY recommend The Bookshop on the Shore!

Take A Peek Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .

The only way to survive is to open your heart.

My Thoughts:

I had very wrong expectations when I started this book. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting something quirky, potentially funny, maybe reminiscent of The Rosie Project or something similar. I was shocked to discover just how misleading the synopsis is.

Yes, Eleanor has extreme social awkwardness. She lives a desperately lonely life and expects nothing else. But she’s not merely awkward or an odd duck waiting for her chance to shine — she’s the survivor of terrible childhood trauma that informs every moment of her life and keeps her trapped in her contact-free, isolated life.

Don’t get me wrong — Eleanor Oliphant is a terrific book. It’s deeply moving and horribly sad. Eleanor herself is a memorable lead character, lovable despite her coldness and judgmental nature. We understand early on that there’s something terrible lurking beneath the icy, unfeeling exterior. As we get to know Eleanor better, it’s easier to understand what has made her the way she is, and to cheer her on as she takes the necessary small steps toward recovery.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a lovely, powerful book. Once again, I’m grateful to my book group for picking such a great book to discuss. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a while now, but having a set date on the calendar is what finally made me pick it up… and once I started, I just couldn’t put it down until I finished it.

A final note: I bought my copy via Book Depository. The UK version has a very different cover, which I believe gives a truer sense of the book:

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The details:

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: May 9, 2017
Length: 327 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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