Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

Sarah Waters is one of my favourite writers. Anything she writes is a pre-order in my house, so there may be some bias in my next statement. For me, she is one of the best writers of the 20th Century with, hopefully, more to come. More recently, she has dabbled into the early 20th Century and even WW2 for her novels The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, but she started back in the 19th Century and this is my favourite from that series. Amazon calls her genre Lesbian Victoriana, which made me giggle a little, but I think Waters is doing more than that; she is chronicling women’s experience. She includes lesbian encounters and women falling in love with women, but in this book that’s an aside rather than the main focus of the plot. I think to term these novels as lesbian novels is reductive and has a sense of prurience. I remember the fuss and excitement when Tipping the Velvet was serialised at the BBC, and male journalists practically salivating over Rachel Stirling and Keeley Hawes. I think they’re intended to be read as women’s experiences of living in Victorian England, with the women’s sexual relationships as part of an unspoken subculture only just emerging into the open. She is using the device of ‘writing back’ to the historical period and bringing a group into the limelight who were hidden at the time and never portrayed in fiction. It’s about seeing the Victorian era and women’s lives in totally new eyes, and accepting that the literary canon only shows us a small part of a vibrant and varied world. As with history being written by the victor, literature of the early to mid 19th Century tends to be written by white, straight, middle-class males. Waters is trying to redress the balance and give us a minority viewpoint which I love.

Orphan, Sue Trinder, lives in a family of petty thieves and is trained to become a ‘Fingersmith’. Based in London, the den is run by a motherly woman who has a hard and ruthless side. All the thieves congregate and bring their wares to ready them for sale, while a baby farm is run on the side. It is here that a man called ‘Gentleman’ recruits Sue for a scam to defraud a wealthy heiress. We also meet a young woman called Maud Lily, she’s an orphan too, but with a home in a gloomy mansion as the ward of an odd Uncle. She has a very comfortable life, helping him with his work as some sort of secretary, but his subject matter might raise an eyebrow or two. He is an avid collector of Victorian pornography. This makes Maud very uncomfortable, but it seems an unspoken agreement that her help is in return for his protection. This strange upbringing makes Maud very sheltered and naïve in one respect, but also strangely knowing in others. Gentleman has devised a long con that starts when Sue is placed within the mansion as Maud’s lady’s maid. She will then encounter the Gentleman who will try to court Maud. They hope, that with Sue’s encouragement, Lily will fall for his charms. His long term aim is to marry her, because according to 19th Century marriage law, all of her fortune will then become his property. Then it’s a simple case of claiming she’s mad, and as long as a doctor agrees, a man could sign his wife into an asylum leaving him free to use her money. If she helps, Sue will be entitled to some of the ‘shine’.

As always with Sarah Waters books, the depth of research is obvious and this feels so real. The sense of place is so strong, in the filthy detail of the London terrace streets and the silent unease in the mansion. These two places feel entirely opposite. Where Sue grew up there’s constant noise, people running in and out, babies wailing upstairs and other people’s belongings being appraised and sold on. There’s squalor and poverty, so for her, the change to being a lady’s maid is a massive leap. By contrast the mansion is quiet with the sound of ticking clocks, days without seeing another soul. There’s a feeling of being imprisoned somehow, it’s stifling and the scene where she works in the library with her Uncle feel so uncomfortable. The tension as the con slowly starts to work is terrible. Then, in what is probably my favourite twist in fiction, the pace picks up and the reader is left reeling as everything changes.

In the second section of the book we go back in time a little to Maud’s story, some of this overlaps with the first part and some of it is her history and how she ended up closed away with only a perverted Uncle for company. We follow Sue’s journey as Maud’s lady’s maid and see how a friendship develops between the two young women. Maud is living like a prisoner and has experienced years of coercive control leaving her timid and unsure. The con would only work if Sue stays focused and doesn’t get involved with her new mistress, but their friendship is deepening and Sue is starting to have doubts about the plan. There is an attraction between the two women that was unexpected, but is there anyway to back out of the plan or is it too late? There is something hypnotic about this book. It is a long read, but unlike the Victorian novels it emulates, it didn’t feel long-winded or become boring. I was engaged at every point of the story, absolutely fascinated with the twists and turns of the plot and never quite sure who is telling the truth. I was desperate to find out who has really been conned in the end. This is one book where BBC adaptation is very good too, with great casting and a definite feel of the book.

However, the novel is perfection. It’s a historical thriller, told through unexpected heroines and delving into the more deviant side of Victorian life: pornography, pick-pocketing, theft, fraud, confidence tricksters, and baby selling. Not to mention the lesbian aspects of the storyline that would have been unthinkable in fiction of the time. In fact I clearly remember a tutor at university telling me that all the focus on deviant sexual behaviour was focused on gay men and prostitution – intimating that the thought of two women having a relationship was so taboo that it didn’t even exist in most Victorian minds. I loved that we were seeing a totally different section of Victorian society and it had a voice. There is a feel of Dickens in the poverty and living conditions, and of course he had his own wife detained in an asylum. However, there’s none of that Victorian moralising that comes with fiction of the period. This is the underclass speaking for itself and the character of Maud’s Uncle hits home the idea that even the middle classes were not necessarily as respectable and God-fearing as they seemed. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys Victorian fiction whether in the form of historical novels or of the period. It’s also a great thriller with enough double-crossing and revelations to keep any reader satisfied. This really is Sarah Waters at the height of her writing powers and should be on your TBR list immediately.

Meet The Author.

Sarah Waters OBE, was born in Wales. She is the author of six novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith, The Night Watch and The Little Stranger, which have been adapted for stage, television and feature film in the UK and US. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and she has won the Betty Trask Award; the Somerset Maugham Award; The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award; the South Bank Show Award for Literature and the CWA Historical Dagger. Sarah has been named Author of the Year four times: by the British Book Awards, the Booksellers’ Association, Waterstones Booksellers; Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade in 2015; Diva Magazine Author of the Year Award and The Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence in 2017, which is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work. Sarah was awarded an OBE in 2019 for services to literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sarah Waters lives in London.

Posted in Personal Purchase

Troubled Blood (Strike No 5) by Robert Galbraith.

While I’ve been taking time to deal with some family issues, I’ve been reading my own personal choices rather than to a schedule. This has given me the chance to pick up this rather weighty hardback from J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith. In fact this book was so weighty that my chiropractor had to put my thumb back into place this afternoon. I’d resorted to nestling the book into a soft cushion on my lap so I could finish it. My partner has never seen me so quiet, as I shunned TV and conversation because I was totally engrossed in this novel. Troubled Blood is the fifth book in the Cormoran Strike series and I must admit to being a little in love with the tall, dark, private investigator. I love the author’s slightly shabby descriptions of him with his unkempt curly hair, awkward gait from his prosthetic leg and his broken nose. However. I’m also incredibly fond of his business partner Robin and the obvious love that flows between them, despite both of them denying it, even to themselves.

We meet the pair with Strike’s agency in a good place – there’s a waiting list for clients, three new members of staff and Robin is now a full partner in the business. Some things stay the same though -Robin still drives the Land Rover, Strike is still smoking and living in the attic above the office, and there is still that unresolved tension around how Robin and Strike really feel about each other. Strike is in Cornwall, visiting his aunt and uncle, the closest people he has to parents. Strike’s father is Johnny Rokeby, rock musician and tabloid fodder. Strike’s mother was a beautiful, bohemian groupie who never had an idea of how to be a mum and abandoned Strike to his Aunt Joan in his primary school years. Joan is possibly, after Robin, the most important person in his world and she’s had a diagnosis of terminal cancer. While drinking with best mate Davey at the local pub, Strike is approached by two women. Anna tells Strike the story of her mother’s disappearance over forty years ago. She was working as a GP in London and saw a last minute patient, before leaving to meet a friend in a nearby pub. She never arrived. Despite extensive investigations she appears to have vanished into thin air. They make an agreement with Strike that he will look into it for a year. With several investigations ongoing and a long waiting list, this looks like the busiest the agency has ever been, but how will Strike manage his workload and spend time with Joan when he needs to?

Robin is happy to pick up some of Strike’s workload in London, such as the staff rota and catch up meetings. However, she does struggle to get one of the new staff members to take her seriously as an equal partner in the agency. She’s balancing this problem, her increasingly contentious divorce, important news about ex-husband Matthew, and supporting Strike as much as she can. This means pulling long shifts of surveillance after a day in the office. She loves her job as much as she did at the beginning but she is struggling with panic attacks related to an incident at university and a case where she was attacked with a knife. Anyone trying to push their way into her space, whether by sending inappropriate pictures or brushing up against her in the office, will come off worst from the encounter. She is doing a lot of soul searching in this instalment of the series, as her friendship with Strike deepens she asks herself a lot of questions.

The main case was very satisfying, with lots of clues, red herrings and bizarre twists and turns. The investigating officer at the time of Margaret’s disappearance appears to have had an obsession with Aleister Crowley and astrology. His notebook is a very odd mix of drawings, notes on the main people suspected and the record of a gradual descent into madness. He was sectioned after seeing a horned goat demon. Robin finds more meaning in it than Strike, and it does yield some clues, but it’s clear the original investigation was inadequate. By chance, a serial killer was prowling the very same area and the police’s official line is that she was possibly taken by him but it can’t be proved. I found the case mentally challenging and full of fascinating characters too. The psychological aspects of the interviews was really intriguing, showing that even in a small 1960s doctors surgery there can be a lot of secrets buried. It was interesting to see more of Robin working on her own and how far she’s come since the first book. As the case gathered momentum I found myself gripped and I kept wanting to pick the book up again to read more, even though it was looking likely that the author was going to keep the case unresolved.

Make no mistake, this book was huge. I always reserve the right to DNF a book if I’m not feeling it by a certain point in the story. Like Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook, I’ll happily throw a book out of the window if it’s not grabbing me or is overlong. I never felt that with this novel, besides I wouldn’t have dared throw this out of the window for fear of killing someone! I never felt a lull in the story, so it kept me engaged all the way through. This wasn’t just down to the cases, in fact I’d worked out one of them almost immediately – men visiting a woman’s house for a period of time where there are large deliveries of nappies – for which I blame a misspent youth watching every fetish going on C4’s Eurotrash. It was the themes running through the novel that kept me reading too. Absent parents loomed large: for their client Anna who having lost her Mum, had to watch her Dad marry the nanny; for Strike whose half-siblings are pestering him moook for a catch up with their rock star Dad, much to his disgust; even Robin feels dislocated from her family, who can’t understand her choice of career brought into stark relief as her ex-husband is about to become a father. We can see what a beautiful, but absent mother has done to Strike as he keeps Robin as his very best friend and struggles to keep ex-girlfriend Charlotte at a distance. Charlotte is the beautiful damsel in distress who will always pull him towards her when she’s vulnerable, only to withdraw as soon as she is back on her feet. It will take Strike to cut their line of communication but will he be able to do it. The stress of losing his aunt, Charlotte’s pestering and his father applying pressure, results in Strike choosing to drink too much and pushing those who love him most away.

I also enjoyed the ongoing development of Robin and the themes around female power and agency. Being Strike’s partner and his absences in Cornwall, mean she’s the boss. Trying to get all of their staff to accept that is difficult for one of their contractors who tries flirting and sexting, goes around her to get Strike’s approval and doesn’t take her seriously at all. She has to really assert her authority, it isn’t comfortable for her but she’s scared of enough in life without having to be wary at work. When she fights back and Strike finds out the true extent of the matter, his instinct is to physically defend her, but Robin doesn’t want to be rescued. She knows logically that her size and strength leave her slightly vulnerable while working in the same environment as the men. However, in terms of management and investigation skills she really does want to be Strike’s equal. I loved the way these themes were echoed in the case, with the missing woman being assertive, well-informed and educated around women’s rights and health. Some of the possible suspects are in the frame, because she was seen to interfere, to get mixed up in domestic violence cases or unwanted pregnancies and find solutions for those women.

I’m aware of there being controversy around the representation of a possible transgender character. I think this aspect of the book could have been handled better. An emergency patient turned up at the surgery just as Margaret was going to leave, and she agreed to see her. In all the accounts of witnesses they describe a woman with some very masculine characteristics and jump to the conclusion that it’s a man dressed as a woman. This then becomes confused with the passing serial killer who is thought to dress as a woman when approaching victims so they are less wary. One character even makes a comment about other serial killers who liked to dress in women’s clothing. I felt this was quite sloppily done and seems to be saying there’s a link between criminality, violence and men who wear women’s clothes or who are transgender. There should have been more emphasis placed on the fact that these men are not transgender, but are dressing as women for the purpose of disarming victims and luring them into a van or an alleyway. It’s purely a disguise for the purposes of murder, rather than a sign that transgender people are all deviant. This is something editors should be more aware of in the 21st Century and it was a shame to see it in a book I otherwise loved.

This latest instalment in the Strike series is a cracking read and keeps you gripped, despite the fact it’s huge! Every case is interesting, but the main story is such a puzzle and each time there’s a revelation it’s like peeling another layer off an onion. I never suspected the person responsible and that says a lot about my prejudices and bias, as well as societal expectations. There’s a real streak of social justice running through this novel with certain characters and from my work within the mental health system I did recognise the worry that people are falling through the net and being let down as government funding is withdrawn due to austerity. I recognised the practice of ‘cuckooing’ where a vulnerable person’s home is taken over for criminal purposes such as storing stolen goods, dealing drugs, or hiding body parts. I find it amazing that the author can bring so many strands together, while fully occupying her characters and showing us their inner worlds. I loved my time with Strike and Robin, and I thought the ending was lovely. This was a gripping, multi-layered and intelligent thriller with a simmering attraction between our two main characters that will have you rooting for them.

Posted in Netgalley

This Dying Day by Vaseem Khan

After winning a Twitter competition for a proof copy, I read some of the Inspector Chopra series of books by this author last year and really enjoyed them. This is the second book in a different series by Khan, featuring female police officer, Persis Wadia. Set in post-partition Bombay we get a real sense of the time period and political atmosphere in the background of the novel. I really enjoyed Persis as a character straight away. Her relationship with her family was well written and they were warm and inviting. They felt real, as if I could just walk into a house tomorrow and find them there, eating a meal. I found her relationships with colleagues just as interesting as her family, especially since Persis isn’t always polite or good at small talk. I loved her straight to the point attitude though and think it created a gently humorous exchange here and there.

It must have been very difficult to pitch her character properly, because she’s a police officer at a time and place that’s not the norm. She could have felt too modern for the time period, or too submissive as a woman to feel like a real police officer. I think the author gets this just right, and without her character overshadowing the plot of the mystery she’s investigating. There’s also the attention she receives from the media. As Bombay’s first female police officer she’s something of a trailblazer anyway, but on top of that there’s her notoriety from the last case she investigated (in the novel Midnight at Malabar House). This case dragged her into the spotlight a little, but she’s very unimpressed with fame and media types, plus her personality doesn’t always come across well at first meeting. I found her awkwardness very touching, especially when it extends to her personal life. She seems to have feelings for one colleague, an English forensic scientist called Archie. Of course, if her feelings were reciprocated, there would be the problem of being a mixed race couple. It’s very early in the 1950’s and the country has just gone through the horrors of partition after the British rule ended. Her family think she should steer clear of the controversy that would accompany a relationship with an English colleague, especially since she’s such a high profile police officer.

Her investigation is at the Royal British Asiatic Society where both a manuscript and an employee have gone missing. John Healy is a man traumatised by his experiences as a prisoner of war during WW2. He appears to have left some sort of trail, created in the form of clues and riddles leading to location of his manuscript, but are they genuine and is John even in his right mind? There are also political implications to the case, piling the pressure on Persis to solve the treasure hunt quickly. In the background there’s another case, investigating the murder of a white woman. George Fernandes has been given lead detective on the second case, but Persis is finding it hard to work with him, due to unresolved feelings of betrayal in their last case.

Thanks to Khan’s detailed description of the city I felt fully immersed in the sounds, sights and smells of India in the mid-20th Century. This is an India that’s just learning to stand on its own two feet after years of British rule followed by WW2. Khan evokes a colourful and vibrant, India where the mix of religions and cultural rituals bring the city to life. Persis is an anomaly, the only woman in a man’s world but she is intelligent, focused and up to the job. She does have flaws though, she’s feisty and prickly with others at times and not very good at being a team player. She is a loner, at work and at home. We find out towards the end of the novel that this isolation is something she, and her colleague George, have in common. Of course Persis is in a constant battle with male members of the team, belittling or appropriating her achievements but she handles this well and her results speak for themselves. Just in case any TV executives or producers are reading, this has ‘Sunday night TV drama’ written all over it. I would definitely be tuning in.

Meet The Author.

Vaseem Khan is the author of two crime series set in India, the Baby Ganesh Agency series set in modern Mumbai, and the Malabar House historical crime novels set in 1950s Bombay. His first book, The UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA, was a Times bestseller and an Amazon Best Debut, now translated into 15 languages. The second in the series THE PERPLEXING THEFT OF THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN won the 2017 Shamus Award for Best Original Private Investigator Paperback. The first novel in his new historical crime series, MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE, features India’s first female police detective, and is currently longlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger. The second, THE DYING DAY, is out in July 2021 and follows the theft of a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. 

Vaseem’s aim with his books is to take readers on a journey to the heart of India, showcasing both the colour and darker aspects of this incredible country. Vaseem was born in England, but spent a decade working in India as a management consultant. When he’s not writing, he works at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. In 2018, he was awarded the Eastern Eye Arts, Culture and Theatre Award for Literature. 

For more information about the world of his books please visit vaseemkhan.com where you can also keep abreast of Vaseem’s latest goings-on, competitions, events, and extracts from upcoming books via his newsletter.

Website: http://vaseemkhan.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VaseemKhanOfficial/

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Wedding Party by Tammy Cohen.

This was a real turn up for the books as they say. I’ve been ill for a few days with a virus – not that one – so I’ve been bundled up in bed, not really able to bear much noise or fuss. Yesterday morning I picked up this book, I’ve never read the author but had decided to give her a try for this tour. I’m so glad I did because once I’d started, that was me engrossed for the whole day. I read it in four hours straight and enjoyed it immensely. The action all takes place at a wedding venue hotel on the island of Kefalonia. Lucy has been planning her wedding to Jase for a very long time and she’ll be okay as long as everything she’s planned is perfect, down to the last napkin. However, she’s about to find out that once you bring other people into the equation, plans can veer off course. There’s her alternative sister Jess who has promised to behave but turns up with a stranger in tow and a psychedelic dress instead of the tasteful dusky pink they’d agreed on — not to mention her dyed pink hair will turn a straggly peach colour once she hits the sea. There’s a strange old lady who they met washing her breasts in the airport toilets, but who now seems to be everywhere. Best man Gil, who used to be Jess’s boyfriend, is here with his wife Zoe, with all the tension that could cause. Surely Lucy can rely on the older generation to behave? Her mum Hazel and Dad Dom are solid, and although they’re irritatingly close, Jase’s mum Cora is lovely. Thank God though for her best friend Shelley, who is an absolute rock and would have been a better maid of honour than her sister. There’s also wedding planner Nina, who has everything in hand, except perhaps the small matter of money. What could go wrong?

The setting was wonderful, with beautiful descriptions of stunning sunsets over the beach – Lucy has chosen this hotel specifically because although it might be a bit shabbier than some of its counterparts on the other side of the island, they can’t create a wedding at sunset. A perfect photograph for Instagram of course (I loved how even on her wedding day Lucy is itching to update her status). The author’s descriptions of olive trees, swaying grasses full of poppies, the scent of honeysuckle on the breeze, all made me want to fly out there tomorrow. I was fascinated with the idea of illusion, what’s real and what isn’t and which we present to the world. This applied to the people present as well as the online content Lucy keeps imagining in her head. When Jase said he would have married her in a registry office with none of the fuss, it really makes her think. Who was all this expense and stress for? Even wedding planner Nina has been seduced by an illusion, that of the island as an idyllic place to set down roots, but also in destination weddings themselves. She’s placed her entire financial future into a house she doesn’t fully own (thanks to local land laws) and the certainty that people will always want to buy into the dream of a destination wedding. It seems like she must have a wonderful lifestyle, but actually the island is deserted and bleak out of season and she’s literally one pay cheque from going bust. Especially when the people who buy into this illusion can’t always afford it. Almost everyone in the wedding party is hiding something. Jess, although irritating to her sister, is actually the most open and authentic person there. She just needs some self-awareness and discretion. Gil is possibly the only other member of the group with no secrets and is seemingly devoted to wife Zoé and seems to understand her, despite her brittle exterior. I enjoyed some of the evening dinner, when a lot of the smaller secrets are out in the open and people can really get to know each other, on a deeper level.

If you simply want a good thriller read, this book really delivers. We know something goes drastically wrong because in-between the story are transcripts of police interviews with members of the wedding party. The author is very skilled in giving away snippets of information, enough to get your brain whirring, but not enough to work it out. This keeps you reading just one more chapter. There are also therapy journal entries – which I loved because it’s something I ask my clients to do – but we don’t know which member of the wedding party they belong too. Every so often there’s a delicious red herring thrown in, like the groom disappearing during a dare on the fishing trip. There’s also the rising tension and suspicions of each other, even the married couple are keeping some secrets close to their chests. Watching them try to avoid being exposed, made me cringe. There are also some comedic moments, in the descriptions and behaviour of old lady Vivienne particularly, but also I the eccentricities and foibles of those in the wedding party. The author is adept at showing us aspects of human behaviour that feel totally authentic – such as the shopping day the women have, where almost everyone rejects their purchases as something they’ll never wear as soon as they return to the hotel. She also nails that feeling of loneliness, and how having no family leaves you rootless and free-floating. There’s nothing to ground you. It’s this understanding of human behaviour that made me feel there’s something subtly different going on. Underneath the thriller there’s an underlying message that I felt really elevated this above the ordinary and said something about the times we’re currently living in. It’s the old cliché of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, because some suspicions that arise in the novel, say more about that character’s prejudices than the person under suspicion. Once the secrets are in the open and disagreements are resolved, there are a lot of deep conversations and apologies to be made. We can never know what another person has gone through and while our brain may well go into overdrive when we’re unsure about someone, I felt the author was telling us to hang back a bit, find out more and be kind.

Published by Black Swan, 19th August 2021.

Meet The Author

Tammy Cohen is the author of six psychological thrillers, the latest of which is Stop At Nothing. She is fascinated by the darker side of human psychology. Her books explore how ‘ordinary’ people react when pushed into a corner, the parts of ourselves we hide from the world – and from ourselves. Previously she also wrote three commercial women’s fiction novels as Tamar Cohen debuting with The Mistress’s Revenge which was translated all round the world. In addition, she has written three historical novels under the pseudonym of Rachel Rhys. The first, Dangerous Crossing, was a Richard & Judy book club pick in Autumn 2017. She is a member of the Killer Women crime writing collective and lives in North London with her partner and three (allegedly) grown up children and her highly neurotic rescue dog. 

Visit http://www.tammycohen.co.uk to find out more, or find her on facebook or twitter as @MsTamarCohen or on Instagram as @tammycohenwriter

Posted in Publisher Proof

Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke.

VIGILANTE

True crime podcaster Elle Castillo has long been obsessed with The Countdown Killer.

VICTIMS

Twenty years ago, he went on a killing spree. Each new victim was a year younger than the last.

VENGEANCE

Now, he’s back.

Elle must stop the deadly countdown before the killer can claim his next victim.

Girl 11 is the perfect read for fans of True Crime, whether they’re addicted to Netflix series or listen to podcasts. True crime podcasts have played a part in two other books I’ve read in the past six months, so their popularity has come to the attention of authors wanting to keep their crime fiction as up to the minute as possible. Here, Elle is a podcaster turned sleuth and she is determined she has what it takes to catch the Countdown Killer. We’ve all sat and watched documentaries – I admit an addiction to Forensics: The Real CSI – and considered the evidence, only to find ourselves screaming at the the detectives on screen to go back and look at x or y that didn’t make sense or a witness who seemed a little too interested in the details of the crime. I imagine what it must be like to psychologically profile a suspect, or to come up against them in interview.

Elle takes armchair detecting one step further by carrying out her own investigation into crimes, often involving children. The structure of the book is clever, as a transcript of her podcast is placed between each chapter. This divides the book quite neatly into the detail of Elle’s past research into the crime, and the present day action that drives the story forward. This latest podcast on The Countdown Killer details crimes from twenty-four years ago. The killer abducted and murdered young women according to their age, starting at twenty, but then threatening to count down from there, reducing each victim’s age by one year each time. Then the killer stopped abruptly, leaving most crime enthusiasts thinking he was dead, but Elle isn’t so sure, especially when another child goes missing. When asked by the police to consult on the new case she considers whether it might be the same killer, but her colleagues start to question her judgement. Is she too fixated on the Countdown Killer? Also, is it wrong that every time I read that name I imagined a killer rampaging through the C4 Countdown studio?

I thought the set up of the book was excellent and the first half really grabbed my attention and pulled me into the story. I thought the ritual nature of the original murders and the whole of the cold case, was fascinating and if it was a real podcast I could imagine a lot of people enjoying the content. Yet, having set a brilliant scene and pace, I thought the second half of the book slowed down and didn’t keep me as engaged. I knew what was coming a little too much, and I waited patiently to be disproved or for a huge twist that didn’t come. Having read the Six Stories series of Matt Wesolowski, which also follows a cold case podcast, I felt this wasn’t as inventive as it could have been. I did really enjoy Elle though. She was an interesting and intelligent woman, very good at her job and almost forensic in the detail she brings to her podcasts. I felt there was more than just prurient interest in the crimes she details, she truly wants to solve these cases and get justice for the victims. I enjoyed the interviews she carries out with experts too. I thought her private life could have done with some fleshing out, because I felt I only knew Elle through her work, rather than feeling she was a fully rounded character. This was an interesting debut, and I think the format of the podcasts could work very well as a series going forward and I think there’s much more to come from this author in the future.

Published 26th April 2021 by Pushkin Vertigo.

Meet The Author

Amy Suiter Clarke is the author of GIRL, 11 and is a writer and communications specialist. Originally from a small town in Minnesota, she completed an undergraduate in theater in the Twin Cities. She then moved to London and earned an MFA in Creative Writing with Publishing at Kingston University. She currently works for a university library in Melbourne, Australia.

Posted in Netgalley

House of Whispers by Anna Kent

Some secrets aren’t meant to be kept…

When Grace returns to Abi’s life, years after they fell out at university, Abi can’t help but feel uneasy. Years ago, Grace’s friendship was all-consuming and exhausting.

Now happily married, Abi’s built a new life for herself and put those days behind her. And yet as Grace slips back into her life with all the lethal charm she had before, Abi finds herself falling back under her spell…

Abi’s husband, Rohan, can’t help but be concerned as his wife’s behaviour changes. As their happy home threatens to fall apart, he realises that there’s something deeply unnerving about Grace. Just what influence does this woman have over his wife, and why has she come back now?

I seem to have read a few books in the last year that focus on the dynamics of female friendship. From the teenage years of Madam, where the school regime pits the girls against each other, to the middle aged years of The Nearest Thing to Crazy where a woman forms a friendship with a newcomer to the village and regrets it bitterly. This seems like a very rich mine for writers to delve into and this is an interesting addition to these psychological thrillers. Our oldest friends, so the saying goes, remain friends because they know where the bodies are buried. Our ‘besties’ are often the closest person to us in life, and in my experience have held me up when times have been too hard to keep going. When these close relationships go wrong, the mental scars can last a lifetime. Abi and Grace’s relationship seemed to become toxic at university, when Abi suspected Grace of trying to control her life. Soon after university Abi married Rohan and now they are renovating a house together. The house was derelict and as they’ve settled into it and started with their plans, Abi feels the years of history in the old house. The creak on the stair created by decades of weary feet. The sense of owners long gone and the weight of their memories.

When Grace writes to say she’s coming to the U.K. after years working abroad, the timing is serendipitous. Rohan has to work in New York for a while. Abi is going to be creating pieces for an art exhibition. Grace needs a place to stay till she finds her feet, and Abi feels enough water has passed under the bridge, maybe it will be fun to reconnect with her old friend? She’s probably changed in the intervening years and a catch up could be just what she needs to inspire her art. Besides it will be nice to have some company while Rohan is away.

It turns out that Abi is right, she does find her house guest inspiring and I was drawn in to the author’s descriptions of her work which were vivid and full of life. Her output soars and she’s making great headway into the pieces needed for her exhibition. I was interested in the psychology of creativity and the author taps into that long term link between artistic success and the deterioration of the mind. As Abi’s art is elevated, the rest of her life is soon suffering. It seems that maybe Grace has not changed after all. Abi can recognise her controlling behaviour and the passive aggressive way she deals with conflict, but wonders if she can handle it until her work is ready. No artist wants to give up their muse and Abi thinks that because she can recognise the behaviour, she won’t be manipulated. It’s like watching a fly edging ever closer to a spider’s web.

We know there has been a traumatic event in Abi’s past because the author drip feeds us little snippets of the past, in order to increase the tension. What this also does is create a bit of suspicion around our narrator. She values honesty in herself and others, even where it might sound harsh, but is she affording us the same honesty? Should we really trust our narrator. I thought the author cleverly linked the state of the house with Abi’s state of mind. She starts to neglect the house, becoming ever more hyper-focused on her paintings. Her life is starting to fall apart. Her in-laws are very concerned, but are struggling to intervene. As Rohan returns he notices a change in his wife, but puts it down to a fierce burst of creativity. However, as time passes he starts to wonder whether this friendship is healthy for his wife and their marriage. Yet, Grace seems to possess an incredible charm. Will she start to manipulate him too? There are interspersed sections that read like formal interviews with Rohan, but we don’t know if they’re with a lawyer, the police, a psychiatrist..? This had the effect of making me race forward with the book, dying to know how it unfolds. In the end though, it was best to just sit back and let the twists and turns reveal themselves. This was a competent and enjoyable thriller, with a fascinating and dangerous female friendship at the centre.

Published HQ 5th August 2021

Anna became a published author after the manuscript for her first novel, ‘Coming Home’, won the Montegrappa Prize for First Fiction at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in 2013. The book itself was published in 2015 and, since then, she’s written three more novels in the ‘domestic noir’ genre: ‘The Disappearance’, ‘The One That Got Away’ and ‘I Know You’.

On her Amazon author page she admits that she likes to set things up for her readers so they think they know what’s happening and then, very gently, she starts to pull the carpet out from underneath so that the reader– and often the characters themselves – are never quite sure what’s really going on. Scratch the surface of her characters’ lives and you’ll always find something dark going on. She’s currently working on a fifth book, which will be something slightly different.

She live in Dubai, UAE, with her husband, two children and a little Tonkinese rescue cat. She writes every day while the cat sleeps alongside her on a pile of old manuscripts. Writing isn’t an easy job, but she wouldn’t change it for the world.

Posted in Publisher Proof

My Best Friend’s Secret by Emily Freud.

Kate Sullivan has a beautiful home, a job she loves and a handsome fiancé: all she’d ever dreamed of since getting sober and painstakingly piecing her life back together.

But a chance encounter with her old best friend Becky threatens Kate’s newfound and fragile happiness. Kate remembers nothing of their last drunken night out, the night Becky broke off their friendship without warning or explanation.

With Becky back in her life, Kate is desperate to make amends for the past. For the closure she craves, Kate needs to know what she did that ruined everything.

But what if the truth is worse than Kate could have imagined?

This novel gripped me from the beginning and I could relate this back to being a young woman, unsure of my place in the world and being uncomfortable in my own skin. It’s depiction of how our fears and demons can shape us if we let them, and the dangers of self-medicating our anxiety and lack of confidence. It was such a thoughtful and honest exploration of female friendship and what can happen when those bonds are broken. As is usually the case in this type of domestic noir when the novel opens Kate appears to have everything. She’s just about to marry her American fiancé Ben, they have a beautiful home and she’s settled into a job she loves as a teacher. However, all of this hasn’t come easily for Kate, because she spent a few of her young adult years totally out of control. Thanks to the 12-step programme she has found a way out of alcoholism, and is on an even keel.

Yet, her past does threaten her perfect future when she meets an old friend by chance. Back in her wilder, drinking, days Becky was a partner in crime. In fact the pair were best friends, until one drunken night out, after which Becky never spoke to Kate again. Kate has no memory of that night. On meeting Becky, she feels the need to make amends for whatever happened that night, even though she doesn’t remember what she’s done wrong.

What distinguished this book from the average thriller was Freud’s compassionate and thorough understanding of alcoholism and the psychological journey individuals take when they embark on their recovery with AA. It was beautifully written, slightly slow in parts, but infused with a creeping unease throughout. I loved the psychological ins and outs of Kate’s journey, because we are inside her mind as she battles her past and tries to hang on to the life she loves. Freud really does nail the complexity of our inner voices and how they can trip us up and knock us off balance. That endless negative chatter that tells us we can’t do this, we’re not worthy and don’t deserve the good things we have in our life. I felt so much empathy for Kate and wanted her to be resilient enough to resist the chatter, and stay on course. I thought the author showed incredible knowledge and compassion for how childhood trauma affects our lives, particularly the struggles to form good, solid relationships. This was a powerfully written thriller, and I will be looking out for whatever the author writes next.

Meet The Author

In her other life, Emily Freud makes TV. She has over ten years experience in development and production and has worked on some of the most loved, talked about and award-winning series in recent years. Credits include: Educating Yorkshire, First Dates, and SAS: Who Dares Wins. This lifelong fixation with story and character is the thread that runs through her work, and ultimately led to the pursuit of a writing career.

‘My Best Friend’s Secret’ is her debut novel, published by Quercus.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Heights by Louise Candlish.

I feel slightly sucker punched only seconds after finishing this fantastic new thriller from Louise Candlish – a name I only came across when it appeared as a ‘you might also like’ recommendation on Amazon, but is now top of my list when it comes to twisty, delicious and impossible to put down thrillers. After the final twists in The Heights I think this might be her best yet. She has an incredibly incisive way of portraying middle class southern morés and the way they change and mutate under immense pressure. It’s like reading a weaponised Jane Austen for the 21st Century; what if Willoughby had been a killer or Wickham had kidnapped then killed Lydia? These are the same type of people, centuries apart, but still playing out gender and class politics. Except now it’s from a beautiful Victorian semi (with a large family room leading to bifold doors into the garden with pizza oven).

Kieran Watts has been dead for over two years. Yet, there he is, on the roof terrace of an exclusive building in Shad Thames. Called the heights – all lower case – this is a tall, thin building that you might not notice at all, had you not been standing in the window of the flat opposite. There are subtle changes. The physique for a start has had some work. There may even be a touch of plastic surgery here and there, but you know it’s him. Even though he’s meant to be dead. You were sure he was dead, because you were the one who had him killed.

Ellen Saint lives with husband Justin, their daughter Freya and Ellen’s son Lucas from her previous marriage to Vic. They really are the perfect family unit, with a shared parenting ethos for Lucas and everyone getting along well. Lucas is a bright teenager, possibly on course to apply to Oxbridge, who loves gaming and spending time with friends and girlfriend Jade. Then along comes Kieran Watts. Kieran moves nearby after being taking into care and placed into a foster home with Prisca. This puts him into the catchment area for Lucas’s school and on Kieran’s first day, Lucas is asked to ‘buddy’ Kieran and help him settle in. The two boys really hit it off and from here starts a spiral that’s only travelling one way, towards tragedy. Firstly, Lucas goes out a lot with Kieran and some older kids, who have cars. Then his grades start to slip and he uses bad language at home. Ellen fears his late nights, mornings in bed and red- rimmed eyes are down to drugs. She tries to reduce his time with Kieran, but only succeeds in pushing them together. Lucas and his girlfriend Jade, find Kieran funny. Ellen doesn’t. She sees the way Kieran looks at her. It’s bad enough when he’s dead behind the eyes, but when focused on her, Ellen sees defiance, challenge and threat. Tragedy strikes one evening, as the boys are out in Kieran’s car and veer off road into a lake. Kieran escapes, but Lucas’s seatbelt is jammed. Ellen can stop imagining her son in his final moments of realisation, panic and terrible fear. Kieran will be made to pay for this.

Ellen is a very single-minded character and I was never sure whether I liked her or not. There are times I think she was a snob, only wanting her son to be with other middle class kids. She also seems to be obsessed with Lucas at the expense of her daughter. Obviously she loves her children, but how much of her interest in Lucas is fuelled by his good looks, his academic prowess and future promise as a potential Oxbridge student. There is an element of Ellen’s concern which is caught up in what others think. She’s still very close with Vic, Lucas’s father, but he has a very different way of parenting. He has no qualms about Kieran, and let’s them hang out at his place. Ellen likes to think that she and Vic are on the same page and is proud of their ability to co-parent alongside her new husband Justin, but is Vic really in tune with Ellen’s values? I kept wondering if this small act of undermining Ellen, was a sign of greater betrayals to come. Similarly, Ellen acts unilaterally as soon as she sees Kieran at the heights. I was surprised that she never once talked with Justin, so they don’t work together on this discovery. After Kieran was sentenced for his part in Lucas’s accident, Ellen starts a media campaign about stronger sentencing for deaths caused by dangerous driving. However, Vic is her partner in this with Justin holding the fort at home. Don’t they agree? Or does Ellen simply disregard his feelings? Her love for her son and her deep sense of grief are driving her forwards and are stronger than her feelings for either husband or her daughter.

As usual Louise Candlish has written a fantastic thriller here. It has all the ingredients that keep you reading till the early hours. Short, snappy chapters keep the pace and tension throughout. There are twists and turns galore! Her incredible ability to analyse and dissect human nature is forensic in its detail. She lampoons middle class concerns here perfectly, from Ellen’s home that Vic remarks is just the right location and style for his ex-wife, to her determination that Lucas is Oxbridge material and shouldn’t be dragged backwards by someone like Kieran. Her children, on the other hand, are more than happy to mix with friends from different backgrounds. Ellen would probably consider herself liberal, but her actions and attitude betray other, perhaps more conservative values. Her very public campaign for longer sentencing seemed to be a distraction, something to throw herself into that potentially delays her grief. It was fascinating to see how such a seismic loss, affects each family member differently. This combination of raw family emotion and tense, thrilling, revelations makes for an incredibly intelligent and enjoyable read that’s impossible to put down until you read the final page.

Meet The Author

Louise Candlish is the author of 15 novels, a fact she can’t quite believe herself. THE HEIGHTS is her newest – Louise Candlish describes it as a ‘twisty revenge thriller whose narrator, Ellen, has a strange fear of heights known as ‘high place phenomenon’. You could say she’s my most Hitchcock-inspired character yet! I can’t wait for you to read it and share your thoughts.’

‘A bit about me: I live in a South London neighbourhood not unlike the one in my books, with my husband, teenage daughter, and a fox-red Labrador called Bertie who is the apple of my eye. Books, TV and long walks have been my top sanity savers during recent times. Oh, and wine’. From her Amazon Author page.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura.

This was an unexpectedly quirky and refreshing take on the obsessional friendship trope, a theme I’ve loved ever since watching Single White Female back in the 1990’s. This is the first of the author’s novels to be translated into English from the original Japanese. I was surprised by that, because there was something about the writing style and the main character that I thought would appeal to the British reader. I thought earlier novels might have also appealed to British readers. The daily eccentricities of the the Woman in the Purple Skirt the man m were charming and intriguing, so it was that and my curiosity about the motives of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan that drew me in to the story. There is also an interesting, melancholic sense of humour that struck me as something British reader would enjoy.

There are some characteristics that the two women share, such as living standards and finances. It’s possible that both are lonely and are living from hand to mouth, but what drives the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan to get up and watch her every move? What does she want? Eventually, she lures the Woman in the Purple Skirt to a job with the cleaning agency where she works as a hotel housekeeper. This brings the women into proximity, but instead of a friendship emerging, the Woman in a Purple Skirt falls into an affair with the boss. This is the main difference between the women; the Woman in a Yellow Cardigan only watches, while the Woman in a Purple Skirt actually lives. I felt this distinction very strongly and wondered whether there would be resentment or even anger towards the Woman in a Purple Skirt. This is where the book really ventures into thriller territory as the women meet and we see the dynamics of female relationships, the obsessiveness and that human need to be seen, recognised and even desired. This woman simply wants to be noticed and considered by someone else. Why do people recognise the Woman in the Purple Skirt? What does she have that makes people sit up and take notice?

I found myself thinking about the word ‘sonder’ – one I’m using for my own writing at the moment. It’s a German word to describe the realisation that every random passer by has a life as rich and varied as our own. This seems to be what the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan wants to know, the rich complexity of the Woman in the Purple Skirt’s life. The woman always wears a purple skirt, it is possibly this and her set daily routine that makes people notice her. As she leaves her apartment every day she is followed and insulted by neighbourhood children, in fact she’s great entertainment for the neighbours who seem equally fascinated by her set routine. Every day she walks to the bakery and buys a single cream cake, takes it to the same park bench and eats it. No one knows who her family are or where she’s from. Her jobs are temporary, she lives alone and doesn’t even attempt to relate to others. She is an enigma, and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan watches her every move, until she knows her daily routine uby heart. Even her appearance is intriguing. From a distance she could pass for a schoolgirl, but up close she has liver spots that belie her age. Her hair is dry, she lives in a small, shabby apartment and is short on money. She looks like one thing, but could very well be another. She’s different, but seems to have carved a life out in the world, something that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan seems to find so difficult.

I thought it was wonderful to have two such complex and multi-dimensional female characters, especially where the relationship between them is the focus. There was a peculiar creeping unease built into the narrative. Japan seems to exude ‘otherness’ like nowhere else, a theme explored in the film Lost in Translation. I lived next to a Japanese Garden for seven years, where English plants and trees were pruned into the shapes of Japanese topiary. Stepping into it from my cottage garden made felt like entering a surreal and alien landscape. That’s a little bit what this book felt like. It was original and refreshing, perfect for if you’re in a reading slump, and a fascinating take on the thriller genre.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Hollows by Mark Edwards.

Mark Edwards has become one of my favourite authors over the last few years. His books are fascinating, addictive thrillers where an ordinary domestic situation is subverted or even blown wide open. There’s maybe a new person brought into the situation who upsets the dynamic or a massive life change that makes a character question their life. This was a slightly different premise, but still based around a modern family, with more than a nod to another of my favourite authors – Stephen King. The title reminded me of the wooded area where the kids would meet in King’s novel It, there are allusions to burying a live cat that brought to mind Pet Semetary, the backwater town has the feel of Salem’s Lot and the passing drunk who helps Tom at the end has the feel of the janitor at the Overlook Hotel. As soon as Tom arrived at the cabins it reminded me of the secluded cabin in Bag of Bones. This gave me the sense we might be getting a supernatural element to this thriller and there’s definitely a pagan or Wiccan aspect to the tale.

With his marriage over and his career in freefall, journalist Tom decides to reconnect with his fourteen-year-old daughter, Frankie. Desperate to spend precious time together now that they live an ocean apart, he brings her to Hollow Falls, a cabin resort deep in the woods of Maine.

From the outset there’s something a little eerie about the place—strange whispers in the trees, windchimes echoing through the forest—but when Tom meets true-crime podcasters David and Connie, he receives a chilling warning. Hollow Falls has a gruesome history: twenty years ago this week, a double slaying shut down the resort. The crime was never solved, and now the woods are overrun with murder-obsessed tourists looking to mark the grim anniversary.

It’s clear that there’s something deeply disturbing going on at Hollow Falls. And as Tom’s dream trip turns into a nightmare, he and Frankie are faced with a choice: uncover the truth, or get out while they still can. There were times in the book when I was screaming at Tom to just pack the car up and leave without looking back! The killing from twenty years ago is a heavy influence on the story. Two teachers on a field trip with their students, sneak away at night to a clearing in the forest and start an illicit affair. Both are married and it is a double shock to their spouses to find out they’ve been cheating and murdered. The bodies are posed in a symbolic way with Wiccan symbols painted in their blood. The suspect is a local teenager with an interest in death metal and all things pagan. He disappeared at the same time as the murders, and Tom’s daughter Frankie is spooked by tales of him still living wild in the woods to this day. She forms a friendship with Ryan, son of the true crime enthusiasts David and Connie. They take a walk into the local town, Penance, which is a real backwater with locals who are openly hostile to those at the holiday village. The teenagers run into some other kids, but they’re not friendly. The way the author describes brother and sister duo Buddy and Darlene, standing together, arms by their sides and completely motionless – is creepy and reminiscent of the twin girls from The Shining. Ryan takes pictures and lampoons the locals on Instagram using hashtags they’re going to find, putting himself and Frankie in danger.

The author really ramps up the tension to great effect. Little creepy incidents like a dead rabbit at the cabin door, Tom thinking he’s seen a horned goat man, as well as Connie’s hints about a big surprise for her true crime followers on barbecue night, keep camp residents on edge. Then more serious incidents start to occur – Frankie and Ryan are pelted with rocks, an unlucky guest with a heart condition sees what she thinks is Satan. The stakes are getting higher, building towards the Saturday event. Tom makes friends with local bookshop owner Nikki, there’s an instant charge between them, but can he trust her? As he starts to look into the murders and myths surrounding the Hollows, using his investigative skills, he realises that Nikki was about the same age as suspected murderer Everett. Everybody seems to know each other in such a small town so did she know him? Suspicions reach boiling point, and when Frankie and Ryan go missing in the midst of the party preparations Tom has no idea who to trust and how to find his daughter.

Mark Edwards never lets me down. His thrillers are always well thought out, psychologically unsettling and paced beautifully. I didn’t work out the whole mystery, and the eventual reveal developed in an unexpected and rather grisly way. There was something slightly comical, as well as horrifying, about people wandering the woods in animal masks – particularly when the horned goat happens upon a very religious woman with a very weak heart. I must admit to a rather dark sense of humour because that made me laugh. I enjoyed the friction between locals and holiday makers, because it’s true of many beautiful places. The locals need tourists, but it’s an uneasy partnership. The pagan backstory to the forest being sacred ground, that should remain wild, linked in to this and felt very apt in a time when humans have ruined their habitat. I think the prurience of true crime fans was also timely with many of my friends glued to crime documentaries on Netflix. I’m also a Stephen King fan so I enjoyed the nods to his creations and the whole ‘townie versus country locals’ vibe that permeates a lot of his work. I devoured this so quickly that I’m already thinking about thr next book from this ‘must buy’ author.

Meet The Author

Mark Edwards writes psychological thrillers in which scary things happen to ordinary people.

He loves hearing from readers and always responds. Mark can be contacted in the following ways:
Email: mark@markedwardsauthor.com
Twitter @mredwards
Facebook/Instagram: @markedwardsauthor

You can download a free box set of ‘Short Sharp Shockers’ by visiting http://www.markedwardsauthor.com/free

Mark has sold over 3.5 million books since his first solo novel, The Magpies, was published in 2013 and has topped the bestseller lists numerous times. His other novels include Follow You Home, Here To Stay and The House Guest. He has also published six books co-authored with Louise Voss. His latest book is The Hollows, published in July 2021.

Mark lives in the West Midlands, England, with his wife, their three children and two cats.