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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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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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.

The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer

Simon & Schuster | 2017 (15 June) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerIt is December 1348 and the Black Death ravages England’s terror-stricken population. God has turned His back. The bodies of men, women and children fill great death pits in the towns and cities while more corpses rot where they fell – on streets, on country roads, in their houses, in each other’s arms. Brothers John and William are travelling by foot to Exeter, a place that both know well but is especially meaningful to John, a stone mason, who carved some of the brand new cathedral’s statuary, incorporating representations of himself, his brother and his beloved wife into its carvings.

But they see the work of pestilence everywhere and know it is only a matter of time before they too are stricken. And when the inevitable happens, they seek to make peace with God in a sacred place. But instead they are made an offer: they can either return home to live out the six days remaining to them or they will experience each of those six days, 99 years apart from the one before. They would move through the centuries with all sign of the plague removed. But at the end of those six days they will face the Final Judgement.

And so begins an extraordinary journey for two men whose lives have been lived firmly within the medieval world of the mid 13th century. Men for whom God is central to their existence, just as the Earth is the centre of the universe. Both John and William fought for Edward III in France, determined if necessary to die for their beloved King. As they make the first leap – to 1477 – they realise that everything will change, that they will stand out more and more. Not just for their clothes and their accents, but also for their faith, their convictions and their morality. All of these elements of life are fickle. All of them change through the centuries as John and William experience such times as the rise of Protestantism, the English Civil War, culminating in the early 1940s. While their world expands across seas, some things remain the same. War, above all else.

The Outcasts of Time is an astonishing novel, not least because it combines a fascinating, irresistible Faustian tale with a clever scrutiny of the transition from the medieval to modern worlds as it would have affected an unexceptional everyman from the 13th century. It’s a personal story, as told through the words of John, and, as such, it is moving, heartfelt and often tragic, especially as he misses his wife and children. But it also tells the broader tale of humanity’s progress (or lack of it) through seven hundred years. The judgement on how well we have done comes from John as he struggles to make sense of it all, or at least some of it. Hanging over it all, though, is the memory of the plague and the descriptions of this are powerfully repulsive and painful to read. We all know about the Black Death and how it eliminated so many villages and devastated towns and cities but this novel reminds us of the countless human tragedies that combined to create the disaster. What John and William and others had to endure is appalling.

The novel is rich in themes but it is also packed with the most fascinating historical details, as you’d hope when considering the credentials of the author historian Ian Mortimer. I loved all the details about dress, houses, the shifting form of the city of Exeter and the changes to the use of the countryside, as well as the gradual introduction of developments in technology, the sciences, the arts. Imagine seeing trains for the first time, or a clock, or hearing a piano or Mozart, or a line from Shakespeare, seeing a movie. Or learning that man’s position to the universe and God is not what you thought. That morality can shift, even the nature of good and evil. Yet you can look into the night sky and the stars are still there. Whenever I visit a historic place I always think about the people who trod those stones before me – what did they see? What did they think? The wonder that history holds is everywhere in this novel.

The Outcasts of Time is one of those novels that I think would actually benefit from a second reading. It is so richly layered with themes that it is only when you (or at least me) reach the end that you fully realise what an achievement this book is, how much there is in it to discover. At the time of reading it, I was caught up in each of the episodes and I didn’t make all of the connections between the centuries. At the end I realised that I had missed some of the ‘clues’. This is most certainly a novel that deserves and rewards a close reading and your full attention.

The ideas in The Outcasts of Time are huge but they are also wholly accessible because they are planted in a story about two brothers who, when faced with a most terrible and frightening death, have to make a personal choice. This marvellous novel engages the heart and mind and, when finished, it’s not one you want to forget.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Doubleday | 2017 (15 June) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Fierce Kingdom by Gin PhillipsThere is nothing more fierce than a mother protecting her child.

The zoo is one of Lincoln’s favourite places. The four-year-old boy and his mother Joan go all the time, to play in the sandpit with his little superhero figures and watch the animals. But this one particular day, just minutes from the zoo’s closing time, they hear the sound of a gun firing. Making their way towards the zoo’s exit, Joan sees shapes on the ground. They are the bodies of the shot. She picks Lincoln up and she runs for their lives.

Fierce Kingdom takes place over a period of just three hours. During those hours, Joan’s focus is entirely on saving her son. As they cling to each other, nothing else matters. We spend much of the novel following Joan’s thoughts as she works through each problem – how to keep Lincoln quiet, how to feed him, how not to be seen, how to escape the gunmen, how to survive. Joan is consumed by her fears and this brings up all manner of thoughts about her past, her preoccupations with death and loss, her love for her husband and child, her transition from independent woman to fiercely protective mother and wife.

We don’t just spend time with Joan, there are brief chapters that we spend with others, such as the teenage girl who works in the zoo restaurant, a school teacher and, chillingly, one of the gunmen, Robby, whose confused thoughts chart his progression from schoolboy to murderer.

This is a thoroughly exciting novel and extremely fast to read as Joan and Lincoln literally race around the zoo. The tension is maintained throughout and the fear feels very real.

I did have a couple of minor issues. Firstly, I was expecting a lot more to do with the zoo animals and they actually feature very little. The novel is set in the US and the schoolteacher reflects on the high number of her students who have committed murder, rape and armed robbery (a few are on Death Row). This distanced me from the events of the novel as it made me feel that this is being presented as an unsurprising event. If it had been in a European zoo, I may have shared more of the tension because it would have seemed extraordinary. Lastly, Joan makes a couple of decisions that puzzled me (why did she throw away a phone that she only needed to turn off?). But all of this is quibbling as Fierce Kingdom is undoubtedly a very entertaining and fast action thriller with an original figure at its heart – a woman who will do absolutely anything to save the life of her child.

The Seventh Commandment by Tom Fox

Headline | 2017 (15 June for the ebook; 5 October for the Pb) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seventh Commandment by Tom FoxAngelina Calla is one of those rare things – an expert in the ancient Mesopotamian language of Akkadian. But finding a job in such a rarified field isn’t easy and so Angelina spends her days as a tour guide in Rome. Ben Verdyx, on the other hand, has a job that Angelina craves. He works in the Vatican archives and has access to their most secret and valuable documents and objects. Little connects these two beyond a shared love of history, until the day when gunmen pursue them separately through Rome’s streets. Against all odds, the two are saved thanks to agents of the Vatican Swiss Guard who also want Angelina and Ben in their control, albeit alive.

Angelina and Ben are in demand on all sides. A new Akkadian text has just been discovered. It is an astonishing find. And its text reveals a series of prophecies. The first one has already come true – the death of the person who uncovers it – but more are imminent, threatening the very heart and soul of Rome. Angelina and Ben must uncover the truth about the text before it is too late. And then Rome’s mighty river, the Tiber, runs red…

We’re told that the author Tom Fox is an expert in the history of the Christian Church, an interest which has already been put to good use in his 2015 enigmatic religious thriller Dominus. Although The Seventh Commandment is also set in Rome and is again focused around the Vatican, the two thrillers aren’t connected and so you can enjoy them both in whichever order you please.

As with Dominus, the thriller revolves around a mystery that goes to the heart of the Catholic Church, although its ramifications extend beyond the Vatican and across the city of Rome. This time the mystery focuses on a series of prophecies which the Charismatic Catholic Church in particular is adamant will come true in the next few days revealing the presence of God in our midst. But it’s clear to us all from the beginning of the novel that it’s unlikely God is working alone without human help as a series of astonishing calamities stun the people of Rome.

Although this is less of a religious mystery than Dominus, once again I loved the strong sense of place that Tom Fox evokes. This isn’t the Vatican of Dan Brown. It’s much more business-like and more ‘normal’, despite its wealth. It’s rich but it isn’t sinister. And the baddie’s motivation is also down to earth, albeit elaborate. The beauty and the charisma comes from Rome’s stunning churches and its glorious history, which surrounds this novel and fills it with atmosphere. Tom Fox clearly has a strong love and appreciation for history and, as someone who shares this completely, I love how this influences The Seventh Commandment. The Rome setting is a real bonus.

As with most mystery thrillers, you’ve got to be prepared to accept and believe the unexpected and the unlikely, and some characters are more developed than others. I did find some parts of the novel a little wordy and, while Angelina isn’t as three-dimensional as I’d have hoped, I really liked the villain of the piece, and there is also something unusual and curious about Ben. With The Seventh Commandment, Tom Fox has produced another fine mystery thriller that is both well-written and as intriguing as it is exciting, and its Rome setting is excellent. I look forward to the next!

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