The Child by Fiona Barton

Bantam Press | 2017 (29 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Child by Fiona BartonWhen the remains of a young baby, long buried, are found in the demolished ruins of a London suburb street, more lives than one are thrown into turmoil. For some the skeleton brings hope, for others there’s nothing but guilt, while for journalist Kate Waters it’s a powerful human interest story that deserves to be told.

Only hours after Angela Irving gave birth to her daughter, little Alice was stolen from her hospital cot. Over forty years have passed since then but many still remember the event. Everybody wants the remains of this little baby to be Alice, Angela and Kate more than ever. At last there would be a resolution to a terrible crime and mystery – and to Angela’s constant agonising grief. Who wouldn’t want to read about that? But it isn’t going to be that simple. Another woman, Emma, is consumed by the news of the discovery at the building site. She, too, is in need of finding peace. Both Angela and Emma hope that Kate, in tandem with the police, will find the answers they desperately seek.

I loved The Widow, Fiona Barton’s 2016 debut novel, and I was delighted to learn that Kate Waters – and Bob Sparks, her police contact – would return in The Child, and it is so good to see them again. Once more, Kate finds herself at the centre of a mystery with the power to grip her readers but her ambition is here kept in check by her determination that Angela and Emma will receive the answers they need. Kate’s own investigations move the police case along and, except for some blips, she works closely with Bob and Andy – she is most definitely on first-name terms now with these dedicated police officers.

A lot has changed since the first novel. While there is less Bob Sparkes than before, Kate is now depicted much more sympathetically. For the first time I was aware of her older age and now we learn more about her home life. I liked Kate much more in this novel than in The Widow. This is largely because she’s a more rounded individual now, but it’s also because of her commitment to Angela and Emma. Kate always has her eye on the case but I sensed that here the women come first. But I also warmed to Kate for her role as mentor to young novice reporter, Joe. I love how this relationship develops. It also adds a splash of humour when it’s needed.

The stories of Angela and Emma are engrossing to say the least and Fiona Barton tells them with enormous compassion and care. I felt for these two women so much and became completely wrapped up in their lives, relationships and torment. The novel moves between Kate, Angela and Emma and this works brilliantly. Slowly the lives of these three women connect but so too do the lives of their partners, children, parents, friends.

As you’d expect from a mystery based around the discovery of a baby’s skeleton, The Child tells a tragic tale and the infant is as central to the novel as its title suggests. But it is also an enthralling read, driven on by a thoroughly satisfying story and some wonderful characters. It’s not often I shed a tear when I read a crime novel but I did with this one, and it came from an unexpected place – from Joe, the novice reporter. There are lots of little touches in Fiona Barton’s delicious writing that really add to the mood of the read. As a result, I gobbled it up. Kate has grown in my eyes with The Child and I can’t wait to meet her again.

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The Widow

The Silent Corner by Dean Koontz

HarperCollins | 2017 (29 June) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Silent Corner by Dean KoontzJane Hawk used to be a well-respected FBI agent and investigator. She also had a happy marriage to Nick, a full colonel in the army at only 32 years old, with whom she had Travis, a happy 5-year-old child who is already a vision of his father. But then Nick killed himself, completely unexpectedly, during the course of an ordinary, peaceful evening. His note ‘I very much need to be dead’ left far more questions than answers and so, reeling from guilt and confusion, Jane sets out to find out what it was that drove her husband to a death he greeted with open arms.

Jane discovers that the suicide rate among successful and seemingly happy and high-achieving individuals is on the increase and those who did leave notes, and not many did, left notes even stranger than Nick’s. As Jane investigates the connection between these men and women and their deaths, she discovers a conspiracy that strikes at the very heart of the American establishment and she uncovers something remarkable and utterly deadly. Jane is a hunted woman. Those she seeks will stop at nothing to destroy her and her young son. And there is nothing they can’t do. It will take all of Jane’s ingenuity and experience as a gifted FBI agent to conceal her trail while seeking out the truth. Every day she plans as if it will be her last.

In The Silent Corner, Dean Koontz introduces us to a new series of thrillers, this time featuring Jane Hawk. While this means that not all of our questions about Jane herself are answered in this opening novel, we are still presented with a standalone investigation and cat and mouse hunt that obsesses Jane through these pages. There is no let up in the tension at all as Jane removes herself from all distractions, including her beloved son, to pursue her husband’s killer. This is a chilling portrait of grief. She can’t allow herself to stop and think. Instead she unties the knots, one at a time, of Nick’s sad and tragic loss.

Jane’s grief has altered her. She would be the first to admit it. And we see its effects in her treatment of those she encounters along her journey. She doesn’t want to kill or hurt but she will if she has to and when she does have to she has not regrets. The scenes in which she confronts those involved in the conspiracy are powerfully painted and disturbing, but the most disturbing moments are those when we see something of what these people have done with their wealth and influence.

The Silent Corner is a tense and action-packed conspiracy thriller. It is also cold, its language clever and unusual, stark but also elegant at times. I found Jane extremely difficult to warm to but I don’t think we’re expected to care for her beyond our compassion for someone suffering such a loss. There are moments when she lets slip her guard and it’s those moments which I enjoyed the most, when she draws people to her by revealing her true nature. Dougal Trahern, a man we meet later on, has a similar way about him and his portrayal is drawn with great poignancy and care. And so our feelings are challenged through this novel. Its premise promises cold killing and science but in reality we are presented with people who are suffering greatly and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save their fellow men and women. There is a strong sense of service and loyalty in The Silent Corner.

My only issue with The Silent Corner would be that at times its language feels a little over the top and this distracts from Jane’s character and the plot. It makes the novel feel overlong on occasions. Nevertheless, this is a minor point and, on the whole, I found myself immersed in The Silent Corner, willing Jane on while always fearing the worst. I’m interested to see how the series will develop as Jane moves away from this defining opening case.

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Sphere | 2017 (29 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen DionneHelena is known to the fascinated media of the world as ‘The Marsh King’s Daughter’. Her father kidnapped her mother, then a young girl aged about fourteen years old, and stole her away to a life of deprivation, slavery and rape on an unvisited island in the marshy swamps of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, close to the border with Canada. Helena was born a couple of years later and, from then until her rescue many years later, the child had to learn the behaviour that would mean her father wouldn’t kill her. But Helena cannot change the horrific circumstances of her conception and birth – her existence – and this man is still her father just as the other person in this isolated Godforsaken trinity, a young, terrified and subdued woman, is her mother.

Helena is now a married woman with two children of her own. She’s still trying to survive, to do what’s right, conscious that she’s different, when her life is once more thrown into turmoil. Her father has escaped from prison, leaving a trail of murder behind him. Helena knows that he will head into the marsh and that once there only one person will be able to find him – the daughter he trained to be just like him. But just how similar is she?

On the surface The Marsh King’s Daughter tells of the manhunt for a criminal from the most unusual angle of the woman who pursues him – his daughter. But there is much more to this powerful and gripping novel than that. It presents an astonishing portrait of a corrupted childhood told in Helena’s own words as she reflects on her past and on her complicated relationships with her mother and father. It is absolutely engrossing. For much of the novel we don’t see beyond the limits of this small island in the swamp. We follow Helena’s train of thought as she recalls the most vivid memories of her childhood, all of which are dominated by a sadistic father and, to a much lesser extent, a cowered mother. But Helena knew no different and grows up loving her father, who teaches her to hunt and fish, much more than her mother who can’t leave the immediate area of their cabin or will have her arms broken.

Karen Dionne tells a fascinating tale of Helena’s growth from childhood to young adulthood, from ignorance to knowledge, all set within the frozen world of the marsh, which is wonderfully described. It’s a harsh environment, made even more so by Helena’s father. But we only see glimpses of his behaviour a little at a time and there are moments when we are jolted by things that we learn, as Helena’s eyes are opened. For a time, though, as the father tells his daughter stories of myth and folklore, there is something of the fairytale about this island in the marshes.

While the relationship between Helena and her father is central to the novel, both in its past and present strands, one cannot forget the destroyed presence of Helena’s mother and it is the mother who occupied my mind as I read the book. It’s a chilling study of a stolen woman.

Helena is a fascinating narrator. She can be unreliable at times but she has the perfect excuse – she grew up without any terms of normal reference. She is altered by her origins and also by the behaviour of her father and mother. She doesn’t see the world in the usual way and I found myself thoroughly immersed in her growing understanding and coping. Helena can be hard to empathise with. Her relationships with animals, her family and children aren’t conventional. But she’s doing her best.

The figure of the father hangs over the entire novel as a great force of evil and power. But his portrait is drawn with great skill. It’s complex and layered. It’s not easy for the reader to view him with anything but the most evolved repugnance and yet Karen Dionne also allows us to see him through the eyes of his child, not just through the terrified eyes of his stolen wife. This beautifully-written novel is powerful indeed, moving between just a small group of people all within the eerie hostile marsh, and it will stay with me for quite a time. Karen Dionne is to be congratulated for this astonishing novel, a standout thriller of the year for certain.

After I’ve Gone by Linda Green

Quercus | 2017 (ebook: 15 June, Pb: 27 July) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

After I've Gone by Linda GreenOne cold January day it looks as if things might be about to get interesting for Jess Mount. She has a job she loves, working alongside her best friend Sadie in her local cinema, and she has a close relationship with her father with whom she lives. But Jess just isn’t the sort of person, or so she believes, that men can fall in love with – on a whim, in an instant. And then Lee comes along. But falling in love isn’t the only strange and unfamiliar thing in her life. Suddenly, Jess’s Facebook is full of messages of condolence from her friends, colleagues and family. Her father and Sadie leave devastated posts and private messages. Because the person who is dead is Jess.

The posts give Jess a date, about eighteen months into the future, on which she can expect to meet her death. Nobody else can see the posts and she can’t save or download them. And when she tries to tell anyone about them she’s not surprised to find them looking at her as if she’s lost her mind. But as the posts continue and Jess learns more about her future life – and death – she discovers one element of her future she wouldn’t change for the world, even if it would save her life – she has a child. It’s while looking at her son’s picture that Jess learns once and for all the true meaning and power of love at first sight.

The psychological thriller market is a crowded place and, these days, to grab my attention there has to be something different about them – After I’ve Gone gave me this in buckets and is one of the most original thrillers I’ve read for a long time. Its premise is intriguing and it’s certainly original and the way in which it’s handled is brilliantly done. Although it sounds unbelievable that future posts can suddenly appear on one’s facebook, we accept it because Jess takes the dilemma into her heart and she makes us believe. The novel moves between narrators and the posts themselves, but the vast majority of the novel is told in Jess’s own words as she struggles to reconcile her need to survive this death foretold with her intense commitment to ensuring that she does nothing to prevent the birth of this child.

Jess’s character is deeply likeable. She’s not a conventional heroine, with her DM boots, quirky sense of humour and disregard for what’s normal. Her unusual job in the cinema suits her, as does her best friend Sadie. I cared for Jess so deeply but she also made me laugh. I really enjoyed the delicate way in which Linda Green portrays the effect of love on these two close friends as Lee inevitably moves them apart. Jess’s past overshadows her and this affects the way that people deal with her in the present. It makes her vulnerable. Her tender relationship with her father is a wonderful part of this novel. We believe that Jess is the sort of person that might see these strange future Facebook messages but we don’t question it – our focus is on Jess in the here and now.

But Jess’s death hangs over this novel from the very beginning and, as the days and weeks pass, the mood becomes increasingly ominous. It adds an incredible amount of tension to the book and also pace. After I’ve Gone is one of the most urgent pageturners that I’ve read. I read this book in a day and it’s not a small one. I had to know what happened. I couldn’t bear not knowing. And I was thoroughly intrigued as to how this situation would be resolved.

After I’ve Gone is an outstanding psychological thriller with a great story backed up by some of the most wonderful characters. I couldn’t get enough of it. I haven’t read any Linda Green novels before – what a mistake that’s been. I intend to put it right.

Trust Me by Angela Clarke

Avon | 2017 (15 June) | 375p | Review copy | Buy the book

Trust Me by Angela ClarkeWhen Kate catches online a live video showing the rape and probable murder of a young girl, she has a job to do persuading the police to believe her. The video has been deleted, the username removed, and Kate is known to have had issues in the past which make her an unreliable witness. But DS Nasreen Cudmore and Freddie Vinton (once a social media consultant to the police and now promoted to the role of civilian investigator) do believe Kate. They are currently investigating the disappearance of Amber, the daughter of a local gangland boss, and, from the sound of it, this murdered girl could well be her. When further people own up to having seen the video it’s harder for the police to ignore it. Nas and Freddie are put on the case and it takes them right to the heart of one of London’s large and labyrinthine estates.

Trust Me is the third novel in Angela Clarke’s hugely entertaining Social Media Murders series. I’d go so far as to say that it’s my favourite of the three, perhaps because Nas and Freddie, despite a few inevitable misunderstandings, have settled into being a team and Freddie is more comfortable in her role. While other members of the team continue to treat her as an outsider, it’s clear that Freddie has made significant progress – and not just because of the obvious reasons. She is more settled and therefore she can begin to think about some of the other areas of her life. Freddie is really beginning to shine and in Trust Me it’s a joy to spend time with her. Also, in the previous novels, the focus in each had been on a particular type of social media. This time we’re given a more general picture of the role of social media in life, crime and policing. I liked that.

The focus in Trust Me is largely on Freddie but that doesn’t mean that Nas is left in the cold. She has always been my favourite of the two as she balances her career with her friendship to the more wayward Freddie. I thoroughly enjoyed her repartee with her boss Saunders, whose personality is such a highlight of the novel. As usual with these novels, Angela Clarke brings us closer to her characters by moving the narrative between them. Most chapters focus on Nas and Freddie but, significantly for this book, other chapters give us Kate’s story (and it’s a powerful and often moving one) and also take us into the world of the killer.

The crime which opens Trust Me is particularly unpleasant and, I must admit, I did wonder if I would be able to get past it. But I was soon back in safer territory with Nas and Freddie, and the investigation into the crime is sensitively handled. As is Kate’s story. There is an emotional power to this novel which complements very well the banter we’re used to between Nas, Freddie and their colleagues. But, as we’d expect, Trust Me is every bit as exciting as its predecessors and Nas and Freddie continue to go beyond the call of duty and put themselves in the heart of danger. They care so much.

Trust Me can be read easily as a standalone novel but I’m really enjoying the ways in which this series is developing as Nas and Freddie come into their own. Roll on book four!

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Follow Me
Watch Me

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

Doubleday | 2017 (15 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

For the Winner by Emily HausnerWhen King Iasus of Pagasae ordered his newborn daughter to be exposed on the frozen rocks of Mount Pelion, he set in motion a series of events that not only threatened his own kingdom’s future but also the peace and order of the gods themselves. The baby, with only a medallion around her neck to hint at her true heritage, was rescued and adopted by a woodcutting man and his wife but, as the girl grew into a woman, it became increasingly clear to the family that loved her that Atalanta was destined for a great future. On learning the truth, having committed an extraordinary feat of daring and skill, Atalanta is determined to prove herself to the father who discarded her like rubbish on the mountainside.

Atalanta learns that King Iasus has sent his nephew Jason on a formidable yet glorious mission – to sail with a band of Greek heroes aboard the Argo to claim the legendary Golden Fleece from the distant land of Colchis. His reward will be the kingdom of Pagasae. But Atalanta is determined to win that throne for herself. And to do that this formidable young woman must earn a place among the Argonauts and steal the Golden Fleece for herself. But this is no mortals’ game. The gods watch the affairs of men from the blissful gardens and pools of Olympus and they are more than ready to take sides. Each of them has a favourite; the rest must suffer the tempests of divine disfavour. But even the gods can’t have everything their own way. For the winner, the stakes will be very high indeed.

In For the Winner, Emily Hausner once again returns to the pre-classical world of Greek myth and legend. This is the age of heroes and mighty quests, when gods walked the earth and meddled in the affairs of men, and centaurs and other strange creatures did their bidding. In her last novel For the Most Beautiful, Emily Hausner portrayed the Trojan War, focusing on the women, both divine and mortal, who steered its course. In For the Winner it’s the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to steal the Golden Fleece. But once again, Hausner examines a well-known legend from an unusual and female perspective, this time focusing on Atalanta, one of the lesser known Argonauts but an extraordinary woman of her time.

Much of the novel follows Atalanta on her adventures with the Argonauts and it’s an astonishing tale of larger-than-life heroes and their mighty ambition. The ultimate affront is a woman daring to pretend to be a man to sail with them. Their outrage can be nothing but calamitous. But Atalanta is a woman set on her course, in pursuit of justice and vengeance, and she will endure whatever obstacles the gods put in her path. And there are plenty of those. Throughout the novel are chapters which take us to the playworld of the gods and what a capricious bunch of gods they are. But in this novel, their scheming is held in check by the influence of Iris, one of the ‘lesser’ yet undoubtedly powerful gods, who also has her eye on Atalanta.

I wasn’t sure about how well the gods worked as a device in the previous novel For the Most Beautiful. But I have no such concerns with For the Winner, possibly due to the extremely successful and calming influence of Iris, who serves as an effective bridge between the mortal and the divine. They still have comic value but it’s not overpowering and I thoroughly enjoyed these diversions – I particularly liked Zeus. King of the gods he might be, but somebody needs to tell the other gods.

For the Winner isn’t a novel about Jason and the Golden Fleece, it’s about Atalanta. I enjoyed the glimpses we’re given of Jason’s cruel character and I was gripped by the scenes aboard the Argo (and did wish that we saw something of Medea), but our attention stays with Atalanta and she deserves it. She’s a woman of her age, fighting against it, but she’s also easy for us to empathise with. But it’s wonderful how Emily Hauser brings alive this Bronze Age world of ancient Greece, with its walled towns and rural settlements, its sea passages and its fundamental beliefs in the gods and fates. Women, obviously, don’t fare too well, barely treated better than slaves, and so Atalanta’s story is all the more extraordinary and powerful. We’re behind her on every stage of her perilous journey.

Emily Hausner is a classics scholar and clearly knows her subject, bringing the time and its people and places to life, but she also writes beautifully. This is immersive writing, marvellously descriptive and evocative, and the voyage itself is thrilling from the outset. The dialogue and narrative feels natural yet reminiscent in some ways of the great classics, particularly Homer, but it isn’t laboured. It feels right. I enjoyed For the Most Beautiful but For the Winner is a great step forward – an elegant, exciting and in some ways moving story of Atalanta’s adventure to steal back her fate from man and gods.

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For the Most Beautiful

The Mayfly by James Hazel

Zaffre | 2017 (ebook: 4 May; Pb: 15 June) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Mayfly by James HazelIt’s not your typical situation and neither is Charlie Priest your usual lawyer. When Charlie is asked by wealthy entrepreneur Kenneth Ellinder and his daughter Jessica to investigate the horrifically brutal murder of Ellinder’s son Miles, Charlie can’t help thinking that the death might be his fault. The night before, Miles had violently attacked Charlie in his own home, prepared to kill him for something he believed to be in Charlie’s possession. Charlie had nothing to give him and now the man is dead and the manner of his death is a clear warning of what is to come. Shortly afterwards Charlie’s godfather, Attorney General Sir Philip Wren hangs himself, leaving a note addressed to Charlie. And then it’s discovered that Sir Philip’s daughter Hayley is missing. Suddenly the hanging looks less like suicide and Charlie is caught in something that is spiralling out of control.

And this is all at the beginning of this wonderful novel, The Mayfly. The plot that follows is brilliantly clever and complex. More than that, it is extremely tense, with a grip of iron. But what holds it all together is the fabulous and captivating character of Charlie Priest. This is a man who caught my attention from the very beginning and the more I learned about him, the more I loved him. He has a medical disorder that makes him stand out from other people but he also stands out for his extraordinary family background. I’ll say nothing about this except to say that it is brilliantly handled. Charlie is a man we want to get to know. He is deeply interesting. This is a novel that delves deeply into character and motivation.

Charlie isn’t the only draw in The Mayfly – his associate, lawyer Georgie Someday, is utterly adorable and keenly intelligent. Charlie’s other associate, ‘Solly’ Solomon is also a favourite of mine and I love how Charlie deals with him. The three make up the most marvellous and strangest of teams and, as a result, The Mayfly stands out on a crowded crime fiction shelf.

The Mayfly takes us to some dark and dreadful places. The gory horror of the deaths isn’t easy to read but it isn’t gratuitously done. This is a story and a crime with its roots in the Holocaust and that is not a subject to be treated lightly. The evil from those days might survive in elements of this novel but so too does the determined pursuit for justice of good men and women.

James Hazel writes so well. This book might be dark in places but it is also witty and full of heart, compensating to some measure for its violence and the sheer evil of its villains. It’s an exciting book, packed with intrigue, and the pace is matched by the quality of the plot. The Mayfly launches a new series and I am hooked.