Sue Keller, whose mother died when she was a child, is drifting through life in New York after the recent death of her father. She’s avoiding human contact as much as possible, until she bumps into Anneliese, who tells her she used to be Sue’s live-in nanny. At first, Sue doesn’t recognise her, but then the memories come flooding back and she finds herself desperate to cling on to this woman who represents a part of her vanished childhood. But there may be more to Anneliese than Sue remembers: why did her father never mention this beloved nanny? What happened to her after she left the Kellers’ home? And where is the line between love and obsession? Nanny Dearest (Quercus, £9.99) is American writer Flora Collins’s first novel, and it’s one to race through, the sense of looming dread growing exponentially as the truth about both Sue and Anneliese starts to seep out. If, like me, you were joyfully terrified by The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (starring Rebecca De Mornay) in the 1990s, then this is the thriller for you.
Italian author Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? was the story of a small community in northern Italy riven by some very dark crimes. Varvello’s Just a Boy (Two Roads, £16.99), translated by Alex Valente, tells of another tiny Italian community, Cave, where terrible things have also happened. The boy at its heart is 17, and much loved by his parents and his two sisters. They can’t quite believe it when rumours start to spread that he has been breaking into his neighbours’ homes and stealing things. But then he commits an attack that will change everything, for himself and his family, for the rest of their lives. His crime spreads its tentacles throughout the novel, but Varvello is more interested in exploring its fallout – how his mother has never been able to move on, driven to despair by her son’s actions; how his father has struggled to survive; what it’s done to his older sisters. Pietro, the father, finds a notebook filled with his daughter’s handwriting, her brother’s name scrawled repeatedly on the page. “The weight of that name – the enormous rock around his neck – pulled him to the floor, his back against the bed and his hands pressed to his mouth.” Varvello’s boy of the title is never named, but his presence is all-encompassing – although it is only towards the end that we start to see the world through his anguished eyes in this darkly eloquent and moving novel.
We are post-Covid in Simon Mayo’s Tick Tock (Doubleday, £14.99), but the world is in the grip of another pandemic. At first, it seems innocuous – just a ticking noise in your ear, which those around you can also hear. It’s not painful, not at first, but it spreads, and it spreads – and then people start dying. Mayo focuses on a London secondary school, where head of English Kit Chaplin’s daughter Rose first calls the ticking to his attention. Fortunately, Kit’s partner, Lilly, is a brilliant vaccinologist and she starts investigating the origins of this mysterious plague. While I have no desire to read thrillers in which Covid plays a major role, watching a fictional illness spread across the world is surprisingly gripping and intriguing. Mayo spools out his many twists and turns skilfully, as the hospitals overflow and things get worse and worse for poor Kit and Rose. A slice of scary, escapist fun.
What a pleasure to be back in the hands of Ann Cleeves and (for me at least) her greatest creation, DCI Vera Stanhope. The Rising Tide (Macmillan, £20) is the 10th outing for the scruffy and ingenious middle-aged detective brought so memorably to life by Brenda Blethyn. This book is about a group of friends, who spent a weekend on Holy Island 50 years ago. One of them, Isobel, died that weekend, rushing off after a row and attempting to drive over the causeway while the tide was rushing in (“Her vehicle had been swept from the causeway in the high tide of the equinox, tossed from the road like a toy by the wind and the waves”). The pals still return to the island every five years to remember her, but when one of them is found hanged, the detective is called in to investigate. She is as delightfully Vera-ish as ever (“she wasn’t good at small talk, unless it was about murder”), and it is a joy to watch a writer as skilful as Cleeves lay out her version of a locked room mystery. As ever, Cleeves goes deeper, examining the precarious nature of life and what it is to age and face your own mortality. I’m still absolutely reeling from the ending.
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