Then She Was Gone by Luca Veste

Then She Was Gone | Luca Veste | 2016 (eBook: 28 July, Pb: 1 December) | Simon & Schuster | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Then She Was Gone by Luca VesteTim Johnson is taking his baby daughter Molly for a walk when he is attacked. When he comes to his senses, Molly is gone. But when, in a frantic panic, Tim reports Molly missing to the police nobody believes him. As far as they’re concerned, there is no baby daughter, there is no absent mother. It is all in Tim’s imagination. And there is nothing whatsoever he can do about it. Some time later, Sam Byrne is on the point of being elected as a Tory MP in Liverpool, a remarkable feat – not just for his rightwing politics in a leftwing city but also because of his youth. A great future is forecast for this young man. All that is to change when Sam disappears. Everyone agrees that his absence is totally out of character. But, whatever the reason, Sam is gone.

DI David Murphy and DS Laura Rossi from Liverpool’s Major Crime Unit are given the Sam Byrne case to solve but it’s no easy matter. Byrne, the son of a retired MP himself, is protected by a political shell and nobody wants to do anything to harm the reputation of this golden boy. But the more that Murphy and Rossi dig, the more secrets they uncover and they go back years. Someone somewhere has vengeance on their mind.

Then She Was Gone is the fourth novel in Luca Veste’s excellent Murphy and Rossi series and, of the three I’ve read, this is by far my favourite. An achievement indeed. The structure is supremely intricate and confident, with several leads weaving in and out of its page-turning plot. I was fascinated by the thought of where this novel would take me. There are so many surprises along the way but these aren’t presented as attention-grabbing twists. Instead, they’re part of the novel’s natural development as characters and their story lines grow. It is extremely well done – entertaining and surprising but also very clever and pleasingly complex.

Murphy and Rossi are such a pleasure to spend time with. Each has their distinct character but as a partnership they shine. Both have complications in their private life and, while it’s been Murphy who’s had to suffer the most in recent books, now it’s the time for Rossi’s large Italian family to cause her worry.

The City of Liverpool is the other main character in these novels and it plays such an important role, providing colour and humour as well as that Scouse Noir mood that helps to give these books such a distinctive flavour.

I love a crime novel that makes me think and Then She Was Gone most certainly does. You need to keep your wits alive as we move among a rich cast of characters, following a host of red herrings, all in the excellent company of Murphy and Rossi. This series continues to go from strength to strength. Long may it continue.

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Rig by Jon Wallace

Rig | Jon Wallace | 2016 | Gollancz | 292p | Review copy | Buy the book

Rig by Jon WallaceRig completes Jon Wallace’s fine science fiction trilogy that focuses on the extraordinary, unusual figure of Kenstibec, set within a world destroyed by man – by nuclear blast, radiation, environmental catastrophe, disease and war. As always with a trilogy, you wouldn’t want to begin with the last, so, instead, make a start with Barricade and then Steeple. This review avoids spoilers but it assumes you’ve read the other two novels.

Kenstibec is a Ficial, a robotic human, part organic, part artificial. At least, that used to be the case. There is little of the artificial left in Kenstibec. His nanotech is dead, he is no longer invulnerable. He might still have great strength and courage under fire but there is little now to separate him from the Reals – the few humans who have survived the blight on the planet. Mind you, there are hardly any Ficials left now either. Everything has come down to survival.

There are few places left where anyone can make a life. Kenstibec and his group of survivors have been drive to the far north where humanity scrapes an existence on icy seas. But, as we’ve come to expect, trouble is never far behind and, while Kenstibec and the others do what they can to save the innocent, there are others who will stop at nothing to exploit it. The fight to stay alive will be a desperate one.

Rig follows on from Steeple but events have moved on for Kenstibec and the others. There are familiar faces here but there are others who are gone. This is a grim world. Survival of favourite characters cannot be guaranteed. Instead we are introduced to a new generation of humans, children who offer hope, and they are caught in the middle of something terrible. As in earlier novels, conflict takes place within confined places but whereas in the past events were located in a post-apocalyptic Britain, Rig moves beyond and shows the wider impact of the global catastrophe.

Despite the bleakness of this destroyed world and the evil of those who continue to exploit what’s left, the character of Kenstibec means that the novels are never as bleak as you might expect. Through the trilogy we have watched Kenstibec become progressively more human and at times it’s been a dryly humorous journey. Kenstibec is our narrator and he’s a wonderful guide as he focuses on what matters to him, including his dog. He is always slightly detached, treated differently, and through this novel there are regular flashbacks to his creation and evolution as a manufactured artificial human. But during this evolution he was also part of a brotherhood and there are some poignant glimpses of the humanity buried within these unusual ‘men’. There are some interesting Reals in this book but perhaps they are not as memorable as in the previous two novels. The stage here belongs to Kenstibec.

Rig is packed full of action but it is also at times a deeply emotional read as it builds to what is quite a climax. The worldbuilding is so well done, the mood powerfully maintained and the writing is superb. But above it all is the marvellous creation of Kenstibec and I’ll miss him.

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The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10 | Ruth Ware | 2016 | Harvill Secker | 344p | Review and bought copy | Buy the book

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth WareTravel journalist Lo Blacklock needs to get away. A terrifying experience has left her feeling vulnerable and traumatised. Lo’s private life is also reaching a point at which decisions need to be made. Fortunately, Lo’s senior colleague has pulled out of the dream job – a week’s cruise aboard the small luxury liner Aurora in the company of its owners, Lord and Lady Bullmer, and a select group of travel writers, photographers, explorers and potential investors. The cruise is heading north, sailing around Norway in search of the Northern Lights, a sight that everybody, Lord Bullmer insists, should see at least once in their lives. But this is a cruise that will prove memorable for reasons far more sinister.

The cruise is a grand affair, its dinners formal, the cabins large and the highlights generous, such as the spa treatments, organised talks and cocktail receptions. But on the very first night, soon after the introductory dinner, Lo is awoken by a disturbance in the next cabin. She hears a splash and, when she rushes out on to her veranda, Lo is convinced that she sees a hand slipping into the black sea, a smear of blood on the next cabin’s veranda door. But when, panicked and frightened, Lo raises the alarm, nobody takes her seriously. Why should they? There never was a passenger in cabin 10, there is no sign of a fight, no blood on the door. And rumours are spreading around the ship that Lo’s recent bad experience at home might have left her a little ‘unstable’.

And so begins Lo’s determined and increasingly desperate struggle to find out what happened to the woman in cabin 10 as well as who she was. This is a small ship, with only ten cabins and a small crew berthed below decks. Lo must get to know them all, all too aware that someone on the ship is a killer and that they must know that she is after them. But out here at sea there’s nowhere to run.

In The Woman in Cabin 10 author Ruth Ware presents a very tidy, atmospheric and tense murder mystery. The number of suspects are few. There is only one location and it is cut off from the outside world. Each of the guests, and a fair few of the crew, has a history, while Lo’s own mental state is suspect. All of these factors help to create an Agatha Christie-esque Whodunnit made even more enjoyable by the well-written narrative and the tightly-structured plot. I particularly liked the extracts from social media and articles that are scattered throughout and are very effectively used, raising our sense of alarm.

I did guess a large part of the mystery well before the end but this didn’t spoil the read, there were plenty more twists and surprises to come, particularly for our heroine Lo. I grew to care for this young woman a great deal. I loved her mix of vulnerability and courage, her determination to do the right thing for another woman whose existence everyone else denies. The tension rises throughout, there are moments of real fear and the claustrophobia grows and grows as the cold, dark sea circles the liner.

I read The Woman in Cabin 10 on holiday and it was the perfect holiday read – as long as you’re not on a cruise that is.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

I See You | Clare Mackintosh | 2016 (28 July) | Sphere | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

I See You by Clare MackintoshEverything is going right for Zoe Walker at last – she has a loving partner, Simon, to replace the husband who will never stop regretting his moment of infidelity, and her two grown and live-at-home children, Justin and Katie, are finally settling down into jobs they enjoy. Zoe hasn’t much money but she has a job she likes and she has good friends down the road to help out when she needs a hand. The daily commute’s a nuisance but that’s what you expect when the jobs are in one zone and the more affordable homes are in another.

And then one day, while flicking through the local paper, Zoe sees a photo of a woman advertising a dating website – it’s her. Everyone around her tells her that she must be wrong, it’s not an exact match, and Zoe is almost ready to believe them until the next day and another familiar face stares at her from the paper, advertising a website link that doesn’t work and a phone number that doesn’t ring.

That is as much of the plot as you’re going to hear from me – the pleasure of watching it all revealed, the growing tension and the self-doubt and anxiety that rack Zoe and her family, as well as the determined efforts of constable Kelly Swift to solve this mystery, forms the heart of this wonderful, clever and involving thriller that is driven by character, shadows and the all too believable horror of what unfolds.

I loved so much of this book. The everyday routine of Zoe’s life and the completely normal tussles with her children and partner provide the context for a mystery that becomes increasingly sinister. It’s a frightening tale, largely because it’s so plausible. I See You is one of those novels that makes the reader extra wary, keeping an eye open, alert and suspicious, as Zoe learns to strop trusting. I particularly liked the character of Kelly Swift. I really hope that this is a figure we see more of in the future.

Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel I Let You Go has been an outstanding, runaway success and for good reason – it proved to be the most fabulously twisty novel of recent months, brilliantly written and plotted and rich with surprises. Its review is also, incidentally, the most popular post on the blog. It is a lot to live up to (the pressure is hard to imagine) and, for me, I See You almost matches it. The difference here is that I did guess the outcome a little earlier than I’d hoped. Nevertheless, I See You is such a fine novel, fully satisfying the anticipation and expectations that surround it. Clare Mackintosh is a fantastic writer, a true talent and we’re so lucky to have her. I See You proves, as if proof were needed, that Clare Mackintosh is much more than her first novel, she’s here to stay and this makes me very happy indeed.

Other review
I Let You Go

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

Three Sisters, Three Queens | Philippa Gregory | 2016 (9 August) | Simon & Schuster | 560p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa GregoryWhen Katherine of Aragon arrives in England at the turn of the 16th century to marry Prince Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, the feelings of Arthur’s sister Margaret are conflicted. While she is pleased to welcome another sister and potential ally to court, her envy of Katherine’s superior status as Princess of Wales threatens to consume her. Margaret and her younger sister Mary are Tudor princesses, arrogantly confident in their superiority, perhaps, paradoxically, because their dynasty is the newest in Europe, the crown seized in battle not inherited. But Katherine’s fortunes are to waver as Arthur dies and Henry VII seems reluctant to honour her subsequent betrothal to the new heir, Prince Henry. Margaret couldn’t be more delighted.

As Katherine’s position at court flounders, Margaret’s ascends. She is married to James, King of Scotland, becoming Queen of this richly cultured and volatile land. But Margaret’s position is threatened by none less than Katherine. Now Henry VIII’s Queen, it is Katherine as Regent during Henry’s absence in France who destroys Margaret’s life, with Margaret’s despair compounded by her sister Mary’s illustrious marriage to the King of France. As the tables turn once again, Margaret must contend with everything pitted against her and the list is long. The result for Margaret is heartbreak, helpless love, betrayal.

Three Sisters, Three Queens is the tale of Margaret, Katherine and Mary – Queens of Scotland, England and France – but it is Margaret who dominates and it’s her voice that tells the story, spoken in the present tense to give us even greater access into the motivation that drives her on despite all that is thrown against her. We follow Margaret from her childhood and so the narrating voice is initially that of a child but, as time passes, the voice alters, the cares and emotions become those of an adult, a wife, a mother, but some things never change. And here that is Margaret’s competitive envy of her sisters, her need to surpass them but also to please them. Love and hate co-exist here just as they seem to co-exist in so many of Margaret’s relationships. Margaret is a complicated person, and so too is her relationship with Katherine in particular.

Katherine’s presence is felt throughout this novel and her influence on Margaret’s life is powerfully felt. The two women meet little but Katherine is never far from Margaret’s thoughts, as seen by their letters and news from the English court where Katherine is slowly losing her influence and place in Henry’s heart. Both women have grief and treachery to overcome but they continue to tread carefully around the other. Mary on the other hand is a glamorous, beautiful figure – the favourite – but even she is bound to suffer. I did enjoy the moments when Mary comes on to the stage. There’s an innocence to Mary which is missing from Margaret. As Margaret is all too aware – it’s so easy to fall for Mary.

I was utterly captivated by Three Sisters, Three Queens. Margaret isn’t the easiest woman to warm to – her arrogance and jealousy aren’t the most attractive traits – but her life is astonishing. Always overshadowed by Henry VIII, who plays a relatively minor part here and when he does appear it’s in the unfamiliar role of brother, Margaret more than deserves a novel in her own right, as Philippa Gregory demonstrates so wonderfully. You couldn’t make this story up and as a result the novel is packed full with drama, intrigue, action and peril as well as intimate moments of love and tragedy. I couldn’t help but warm to Margaret while, by contrast, I was little moved by Katherine. But this book is full of fascinating, memorable figures, particularly in the Scottish court, and the action is moved along by politics at their most devious and treacherous.

I used to think that I wouldn’t be able to read another Tudor novel but it’s books like this, a marvellous book, that reveal that there is so much more to explore in this most extraordinary, larger than life period of history.

Other review
The Taming of the Queen

The Death of Robin Hood by Angus Donald

The Death of Robin Hood | Angus Donald | 2016 (4 August) | Sphere | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Death of Robin Hood by Angus DonaldThe Death of Robin Hood completes Angus Donald’s utterly superb and original reimagining of the legend of Robin Hood. And with a title like that many of us will approach this novel with tissues at the ready and not a little amount of gin. As with any great series, this book does stand alone well if you demand it to but, really, this is a book that should be read in sequence because how else could you appreciate the drama, tension and high emotion of a final novel with a title as charged as this one? This review assumes that you have knowledge of the earlier books but it won’t give much away.

King John has turned his back on the Magna Carta and full-scale Civil War is about to break out. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Great leaders such as Robin, Earl of Loxley fight against the King, knowing only too well his lack of worth, but when a French army lands in support of the rebels, bringing with it a French Prince hungry for the prize of England, Robin and others change sides. Robin’s knights, notably Sir Alan Dale, are none too pleased but these are men who would fight to the death for their lord Robin Hood and many do just that. But, as with all Civil Wars, these are uncertain times and loyalties within families are divided. Robin and Alan both have to deal with that. As if matters couldn’t be any more desperate, as the French and English rebels march towards the decisive battle, a new force for evil is brought into the fray – the cruel and vindictive French White Count. The fight for survival is about to become much more deadly.

Alan has suffered more than most over the years. At last it appears that happiness might lie just beyond the horizon, even if it comes in an unlikely form. There is so much to fight for.

I cannot overstate my love and affection for Angus Donald’s Outlaw series. I’ve followed it for years, each book such a highlight of my summer’s reading. And now, with the eighth novel, it comes to a close, and I can’t tell you how miserable that makes me. I’d have had it last forever. But it’s not to be and that is partly because we’re not in the world of legend and myth here. Donald’s Robin and Alan feel very real indeed, coping with one of the most tumultuous periods in English history, and, although there are frequent, intense moments of high drama, action and even romance, it’s well rooted in the times and that means anything can and will happen. As readers of a much loved and long-running series, we’re advised to brace.

I’d hate to declare any book in this series my favourite because I think I love them all equally with some truly standing out for different reasons (Holy Warrior which takes Robin and Alan on Crusade, the brilliant, harrowing reworking of myth in Grail Knight, and the siege of Richard the Lionheart’s impregnable fortress Château Gaillard in The Iron Castle – I picked these three at random, I could have easily selected the others). The Death of Robin Hood is every bit as fantastic as the others in the series and succeeds magnificently in the difficult task of drawing the series to a more than satisfactory close.

There are moments of great action, culminating in the Battle of Lincoln in 1216. This is edge of your seat stuff, made even more tense because now not all of our heroes fight on the same side. A shadow of foreboding hangs over events, not helped by the novel’s title, but this is not a straightforward story. There are several strands tangled together here, some of which tug at the heartstrings. This is a fantastic series for baddies (the Sheriff of Nottingham has a fight on his hands to win the crown of evil) and the White Count is a truly terrifying, menacing creation.

Robin of Loxley is a world away from the Robin Hood of Hollywood, more gangster than hero to the poor, but over the course of the novels Robin has changed enormously and in this final novel, set many years after the first, he is not the man he once was and we love him all of the more for it. But the hero of these novels is not Robin but Alan Dale and our journey with him has been full of ups and downs to put it mildly. As Alan’s tale of the past catches up with the present, it’s a time for us all to think back on this wonderful, wonderful series and thank Angus Donald for the glorious gift he’s given us.

Other reviews
Holy Warrior
King’s Man
Grail Knight
The Iron Castle
The King’s Assassin

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The Couple Next Door | Shari Lapena | 2016 (14 July) | Bantam Press | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Couple Next Door by Shari LapenaAnne Conti isn’t happy. She and her husband Marco have been invited to their neighbours for dinner and the babysitter has cancelled. Anne wants to stay at home and look after their six-month old baby Cora but Marco insists they still go out. The neighbour doesn’t care for babies but they can take the monitor with them, they’d hear every sound, and every thirty minutes Anne and Marco can take it in turns to pop home to check on the baby. Against her better judgement, Anne is persuaded to go. Her instincts prove right. When they finally get home at 1.30am, the front door is open and the cot is empty. The baby has been stolen.

The Couple Next Door carries us through the drama and trauma of this absence, so violently inflicted on Anne and Marco. Along with the grief there is guilt and shame – how will the world judge them for leaving their little daughter unattended? Parents take sides, cruel things are said that can’t be unsaid, the media watches, and the police come and go, their questions increasingly targeted. Detective Rasbach is no fool. He’s seen it all. And he knows that there is something going on here. He knows he will discover the truth. It’s only a matter of time.

As soon as I started The Couple Next Door I knew that it was one of those books that would make no apologies for gobbling up my time. Psychological thrillers centred upon missing children are no rare thing these days but this one grabs from the outset. We have to know what happened. It doesn’t let you rest. We’re taken deep into the pain of Anne and Marco and it is relentless. We need to know.

It’s quite a story, a twisty thriller full of unexpected surprises revealed one after the other as the hours and days pass. When something as terrible as this happens secrets are no longer allowed but another thing banned is politeness. This is raw.

I did guess some of it, other bits I didn’t. There were also developments in the story that I didn’t care for. Much of the book is well-balanced on the side of believable but there are a few aspects of it that tip it over the wrong edge and I was not so keen on that. My main stumbling block here were the characters. Excluding the detective, who remains as inscrutable as a waxwork, the main characters were not very likeable and they became increasingly less likeable as the novel went on. Innocence is suffering in this novel and that is the child and the child alone.

The Couple Next Door is a fast, fun read indeed, actually making me miss my bus stop. While I didn’t find it as polished and sophisticated as some of the best psychological thrillers being published at the moment, it’s certainly better than some that I’ve read recently. If you’re after an entertaining holiday read then this will do the job.