Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

Doubleday | 2017 (2 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Into the Water by Paula HawkinsWhen Nel Abbott is found drowned, her fifteen-year-old daughter Lena is left almost entirely alone. Her best friend Katie drowned in the same stretch of river just a few months before. Lena can hardly fathom that her mother has shared the same fate. But this bit of river in the village of Beckford is known as the Drowning Pool – women have drowned here for years, sometimes by suicide, but also by the hand of others.

Nel’s sister Jules comes to Beckford to look after her niece, and at first neither are happy about it. Jules and Nel had been estranged for many years for reasons that one sister kept quiet while the other could never understand why. The small community of Beckford is grievously troubled by yet another death in the Drowning Pool. For many it stirs up the past, bringing back painful memories of their own losses in the water. As Jules and Lena are thrown into the heart of the village’s trauma, they come to understand how far the hurt has spread and that the significance – and pull – of the Drowning Pool is as dangerous and powerful as ever.

I don’t think there are too many people now who haven’t read Paula Hawkins’ previous novel The Girl on the Train and, while I was one of those with mixed feelings about that book (review), I was so looking forward to reading Into the Water. I’m glad I did. I think that Into the Water is a cleverer thriller than The Girl on the Train, its mystery more satisfying and complex, and its characters better developed. Its structure is also ambitious and very effective.

The story of Into the Water is told from a number of different perspectives. We hear from a whole range of different people and the narrative includes first, second and third person. While I initially found it difficult to keep track of the many different voices, by the middle third of the novel I was completely caught up in the lives of its people. This movement of narrative allows us to venture deeply into these characters’ motivations, feelings and fears. There are a range of agendas at work here and so the struggle to find the truth about why so many troubled women have had their lives ended in the Drowning Pool is never straightforward. As a result we have twists and red herrings galore.

We meet lots of different people but a fair few who stand out, notably Nel’s daughter Lena, the police officer Erin, and Katie’s distraught mother Louise. But all have interesting stories to tell and it’s easy to get caught up in them. Some, though, are darker than others and there are a few which are very dark indeed. Beckford is a place with many, many secrets. The reasons why it’s women who end up in the Drowning Pool and not men are deeply troubling.

Into the Water is a very well-written and intriguing mystery. It is undoubtedly dark and troubling, overshadowed by grief, loss and cruelty. There is little relief from its mood. But it is also extremely thought-provoking and compelling. No single character dominates. Instead, it is the women who lost their lives in the Drowning Pool who haunt these pages, demanding our attention as justice and vengeance are sought.

Other review
The Girl on the Train

From Darkest Skies by Sam Peters

Gollancz | 2017 (20 April) | 328p | Review copy | Buy the book

From Darkest Skies by Sam PetersIt is five years now since the death of Alysha, the wife of agent Keona Rause. Also an agent, Alysha was blown up on a night train as it made its way across their home world of Magenta. Rause doesn’t understand why Alysha was on that train. It wasn’t for passengers. She and a small group of other people had smuggled themselves aboard and they were blown up by a bomber, later caught. He can only assume that Alysha was following leads to a case. But whatever it was, the knowledge died with her and, besides, Rause was forcibly removed from investigations into the bombing, sent to Earth on a secondment for five years. That ended in disgrace when the alien artefact he had been guarding was stolen almost from under his nose. Rause is now back in Magenta, suffering from the terrible increase in gravity, getting used to the endless pummelling of Magenta’s rain, and investigating the death of one of the planet’s very few golden socialites. But Rause has an itch he has to scratch – why was his wife on that train?

Rause is not entirely alone. After his wife’s death, he had her memories and digital presence uploaded into a physical walking, talking ‘shell’. Its intelligence is also incorporated into his ‘Servant’, the AI that everyone carries around inside their brain, easing their way through life. But Liss, as he calls it/her, is completely illegal. And whether Liss is a help or hindrance is another matter entirely as Rause works through his feelings for a wife he mourns and her reconstructed digital presence which he struggles to understand.

The premise of From Darkest Skies is an extremely compelling one, combining some of the familiar ideas of crime fiction with the wonder of its science fiction setting on Magenta, complemented by some intriguing technology. Magenta is an extraordinary planet, named for the violet hue its land and water derives from its ‘organic rock-eating purple alien dust’. It is both beautiful and hostile, as too is its appalling weather which batters the plant with killer winds and painful, stabbing rain for days on end. But the story of how humans reached Magenta is one of the most fascinating things of all about From Darkest Skies. The novel is overshadowed by the enigmatic Masters, the alien race that altered Earth in terrible ways from which it can never recover before disappearing as mysteriously as they arrived. Their intent seemed to be to move humans across the Galaxy, giving them the technology to move freely, while leaving others hopelessly stranded. But why?

From Darkest Skies raises lots of questions, about the Masters, about Alysha, about the murdered socialite and about life as a whole on this unfriendly yet striking planet of Magenta. Sam Peters makes the reader want to know the answers every bit as much as Rause who is barely holding on. I liked Rause very much indeed. I felt for his plight. And I also cared for his fellow agents, some of whom he’d known before and others he hadn’t. They are a colourful bunch, likeable yet crotchety. But who wouldn’t be crotchety on this strange planet?

Sam Peters blends crime and science fiction well. The plotting is excellent and so too is the use of technology. It’s not overplayed but it is intriguing. This is a future society, one shaped by the Masters, apocalypse, the media (social and otherwise) and by a powerful sense of distance from Earth, a distance that is brought home every minute of the day by the unrelenting force of gravity. We’re familiar with walking, talking AIs but I did find Liss pleasingly unusual and unknowable. I really felt for Rause. My only issue would be the difficulty I had remembering some of the unusual names.

From Darkest Skies is a debut novel and it is a fine one. I would definitely welcome another novel set in this enigmatic world of Magenta and the Masters – there is so much more I want to know about both – but I’ll be very happy to go wherever Sam Peters takes us next.

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Bantam Press | 2017 (20 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon BoltonBella is about to turn 40 and her younger sister Jessica has the perfect present for her – a balloon ride above the beautiful countryside of Northumberland. They’ve been looking forward to it for ages. But they drift above something they shouldn’t, a crime scene. And when Jessica looks straight into the eyes of a killer, she knows full well he’s looking right back at her. The pursuit is on. He chases them from the ground, firing shots, creating panic, and it isn’t long before that balloon and everyone riding in its basket tumbles to the ground. There is only one survivor and she must run for her life.

And that is all I’m going to say because Dead Woman Walking is an extraordinary novel, exquisitely plotted, and I don’t want to give away a thing, not even the seemingly insignificant details. It all mounts up and where it takes us is somewhere I’m not going to forget in a hurry. I expected shocks and surprises but I was not prepared for this. As I said at the time, just when I’d finished it: ‘You think you know where you’re heading and then BOOM!!!’ That still sums it up for me. I thought I’d been clever, that I’d worked it all out. Ha!

Sharon Bolton is one of the most original writers of jaw dropping crime fiction about today and I could not wait to read Dead Woman Walking, especially after devouring Daisy in Chains. It did not disappoint. I’ve mentioned how good the plot is, but so too is its mood. This book has menace and dread written all over it. It is extremely tense, the action moving across the miles, the pursuit closer and closer. And the characters are fascinating – those doing the chasing, those being chased and the police. There is also a timelessness about it, contributed to by the stunning yet challenging countryside and the presence of, yes, nuns.

The relationship between Jessica and Bella is especially significant, moving backwards and forwards in time through the novel. There is such tenderness and I fell for them both completely.

I realise that this review is short and (hopefully!) sweet. I just want you to discover Dead Woman Walking for yourself, ideally knowing as little as possible. If you’ve read Sharon Bolton’s novels before then be assured that you’ll get more of what you love here and, if you’ve never had the pleasure, then do dive in with Dead Woman Walking. Although you may get hooked.

Other review
Little Black Lies
Daisy in Chains

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

Dead Woman Walking Blog Tour

The Body in the Ice by A.J. MacKenzie

Zaffre | 2017 (20 April) | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Body in the Ice by AJ MacKenzieIt is Christmas Day in 1795 and this is one of the coldest winters that people can remember. But the villagers of St Mary in the Marsh in Kent will have more reason than most to remember this particular Christmas – a body is discovered, frozen into the ice of a horse pond belonging to New Hall, the deserted grand house on the edge of the village. It’s not, though, as deserted as it should have been. Two men were spotted arriving there a couple of days before but both have now vanished. Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace as well as rector, doesn’t delay in pursuing these men but it’s not long before he realises that there is more to the murder mystery than first appeared. And matters are compounded when New Hall’s owners arrive to reclaim their ancestral home, years after abandoning it for new lives in America.

This is a time of unease. Peace has finally been achieved with America after the Revolution and independence but Britain is at war with France and this vulnerable Kent coast feels the threat more than most. And so Hardcastle and his friend and neighbour Amelia Chaytor will receive little help from the preoccupied authorities for their investigations, especially after an obvious suspect makes himself known. But, as the winter continues to hold its grip, Hardcastle is convinced that all is not as it seems.

The Body in the Ice is the second Hardcastle and Chaytor historical mystery by A.J. MacKenzie but, I’m sorry to say, it’s my first. There are links to the first novel The Body on the Doorstep but that didn’t affect my enjoyment or understanding of The Body in the Ice at all. The story stands alone very well and I was gripped from its opening icey chapter, immediately falling for Amelia and the rector (and the dog, even the rector’s sister). But, if you do want to read The Body on the Doorstep, make sure you read that first.

I love historical murder mysteries, especially those that evoke strong feeling for the times in which they’re set, and The Body In the Ice does just that with the American Wars of Independence and the war with France playing their part. I hadn’t thought before about the impact of the American revolution on families in Britain, many of whom would have been divided, but this novel brings that to the fore. But there are other big themes here, such as the treatment of black men and women on both sides of the Atlantic during these days of slavery.

But apart from all the tension and drama of the murder mystery (which is excellent), there is humour, mostly at the expense of the rector’s poor sister, Cordelia. She is a gothic novelist (currently engaged in writing The Lighthouse of Vavassal) and not above providing generous writing advice to the sister of a new arrival in the village, Captain Edward Austen from Hampshire. But Cordelia complements Amelia perfectly and I enjoyed them both.

The Body in the Ice evokes a world of Georgian country villages that revolve around their church and manor house, with a dash of smuggling thrown in as this is the Kentish coast. It is richly atmospheric and wonderfully written, with just the right proportions of domestic and national politics, murder and polite conversation. The ending put me on the edge of my seat – there comes a time when manners have to be put to one side. I will most definitely be following this series from now on. I’m looking forward to The Body in the Boat very much.

The Killer on the Wall by Emma Kavanagh

Arrow | 2017 (20 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Killer on the Wall by Emma KavanaghTwenty years ago Isla Bell’s life changed forever when she found the remains of three murdered people propped against Hadrian’s Wall, as if they had chosen to spend forever sitting beside its stones. More murders were to follow but the small community of Briganton was finally able to let out its breath when the murderer was caught and put away by none other than Isla’s detective father, Sergeant Eric Bell.

Twenty years on, Sergeant Bell is now a Superintendent, while Isla is a forensic psychologist, attempting to identify from medical scans what it is that makes a serial killer keep on killing. One of her subjects is the infamous killer on the wall but even outside work she cannot escape the memories of the past. Briganton is such a small village, everyone knows everybody else – the innocent and the guilty. And then it happens again. All these years later, with the murderer locked away, another body is found against the Wall. And then there’s another…

Emma Kavanagh is one of those authors whose books I long to read. She writes unusual, distinct and clever crime mysteries, each standing alone, asking questions about identity and relationships, to one another, to communities and to the places in which one lives. With The Killer on the Wall, the author has done it again. She has created yet another completely immersive and addictive crime thriller that is driven by its people and its location.

The narrative moves between stories, showing us the devastating impact of these crimes on Briganton by shifting perspectives. Most of the time is spent moving between Isla and Mina, a detective who leads the investigation into this new set of murders. While I enjoyed Isla, Mina is by far my favourite character in the book. She constantly fascinates and intrigues, not least because of her complicated relationship with her boss, Superintendent Eric Bell.

Briganton is an extraordinarily close village, edging up against the defining barrier of Hadrian’s Wall. There’s a sense that this is a place that has been around for millennia and, just as the Wall has been here for so long, so too has the evil of man. Briganton is more than notorious; it is believed to be cursed. And yet people like Isla and Mina cannot live away from it. People might leave it for a while but they always return. Such is the force of the location in this intense novel.

My one issue with the novel is in some ways a side-effect of one of its strengths – this small and remote community is all we have. While that gives Killer on the Wall its mood and intricate relationships, it also gives the story its coincidences and limited pool of suspects. It’s as if everyone we meet is either a victim, suspect or murderer. I did guess the outcome as a result. Nevertheless, this beautifully written novel is bleakly atmospheric and compelling throughout, tied to its stunning yet bleak location, and driven on by its rich line-up of characters. It’s irresistible.

Other reviews
The Missing Hours

Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace I) by Elizabeth Moon

Orbit | 2017 (13 April) | 434p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cold Welcome by Elizabeth MoonAdmiral Ky Vatta is on her way back to her home planet Slotter Key as a hero. The war is over and Ky, more than anyone, was responsible for the victory. It’s a bittersweet moment. Ky left Slotter Key in disgrace as a cadet years before but she’s told things are different now. Her great aunt is Rector of the planet, responsible for its forces, and the Commandant who expelled her is the one to greet her, ready to make peace and welcome home this great war hero. So all goes well until a saboteur crashes Ky’s shuttle, hurling it into the roughest of seas, close to the most hostile of the planet’s continents, abandoned and failed by its terraformers.

With most of her fellow officers murdered, it’s up to Ky to save the remaining shuttle crew and passengers, aware that her enemies may turn up to finish the job, long before rescue can arrive. But the immediate problem is to survive as this unwelcoming planet does its worst. Some of its secrets, though, are about to be revealed.

Cold Welcome is, I’m afraid to say, the first novel by Elizabeth Moon that I’ve read, but the premise of this one instantly appealed to me. I loved the sound of a disaster story set in space, in the same way that I was drawn to Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust and Andy Weir’s The Martian. I’m fascinated by the bravery and resourcefulness of individuals who fight to survive against all odds in the most volatile of environments, and space is as hostile – yet alluring – as it gets.

Much of Cold Welcome deals with Ky’s efforts to bring her fellow survivors together on sea and on land and it’s thrilling stuff, not least because Ky has to be as suspicious and alert as she is capable in a crisis. I really enjoyed these sections. Without giving anything away, what they discover on this planet is extraordinary. But I couldn’t help finding it all a bit of a coincidence because the shuttle could have crash landed anywhere on the planet. The novel becomes something else during its second half, perhaps losing my attention a little bit, but I’d be interesting in discovering more about what they found.

But not all of the action takes place on the planet. We also follow the – extremely drawn out – plans of Ky’s nearest and dearest (especially Rafe Dunbarger) to put together a rescue mission. It’s in these sections that we become aware of the wider troubling political situation as people scramble for control now that the war is over.

Winning the peace looks like it could be even more difficult than winning the war, as testified to by Cold Welcome being just the first novel in a new series, Vatta’s Peace. The book does have a satisfactory conclusion but it’s clear that it’s leading on to more. I think if you’ve read the Vatta’s War books, as I haven’t, then you would get more from Cold Welcome than I did. You may feel more of an attachment to Ky and her family and partner than I felt. You also might have more patience with the author’s style, which I did feel rambled a little. But, as I say, I suspect these issues were mostly because I went in to this as a newbie when there is an awful lot of back history which I couldn’t pick up on, even though it’s not necessary for understanding and enjoying the actual story. Which I did, very much.

I loved the descriptions of Slotter Key and its harsh environments. I am such a fan of adventure stories set in cold wastelands and this certainly fits the bill. I also really enjoyed the hints that there is more to this planet’s development than its history books might suggest. Cold Welcome is packed full of adventure and intrigue and I look forward to seeing how the series will develop.

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride

HarperCollins | 2017 (20 April) | 608p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Dark so Deadly by Stuart MacBrideWhen DC Callum McGregor is informed of the discovery of a body in the city of Oldcastle, Scotland, he makes the mistake of hoping that his luck might be about to change. Because Callum is one of The Misfit Mob, the place where Police Scotland dumps the police officers it’s not able to sack. But it appears that the proper police are a bit overstretched and this is a body too many for them to cope with. It’s all too good to be true, of course. The body turns out to be a mummified corpse hidden in the local tip. Callum knows how it feels.

But soon one mummy turns into two and the surprising evidence indicates that this might not be the work of a prehistoric murderer after all, but of one alive and well and thriving in the constantly rainy city of Oldcastle. It’s no coincidence that a number of young men are also disappearing. With reluctance, the powers-that-be allow Callum and his fellow Misfits to stick with the case. Being expendable and rather desperate might stand them in good stead.

What a group of characters these Misfits are, and all with good reason for hating where they’ve ended up, whether it be for taking the rap for somebody else’s wrongdoing, or for being injured, or for turning in corrupt former colleagues. They are driven by a fierce sense of injustice and this can make them very grouchy indeed with each other – especially between Dot and Watt. But they have an extraordinary leader, DI Malcolmson, known to her officers as Mother. That’s when she lets them call her Mother. Callum hasn’t quite reached that stage yet. But, blimey, she is a force to be reckoned with. And she is well supported by her second in command, the maudlin McAdams, who believes that if something can’t be said in a haiku then it isn’t worth saying.

How to describe the goings on of A Dark So Deadly? I’m not going to try. It is an absolutely stunningly rich and multi-layered novel. On the surface it might be a crime novel, with all of the pleasingly twisty and complex plotting you could wish for, but there is so much more to it than murder. This is a novel set in a fictional Scottish city but it is as real as any place on Earth, and not just because of the fantastic maps that adorn the inside covers, and the people who live in it are entirely believable and alive. Totally alive. There is so much going on, so many crimes – this is not the most contented city you can imagine – all going on at the same time and Callum and his fellow officers are deeply immersed in them all.

The officers have their back histories as you can imagine when you see how they’ve ended up, but Callum’s personal life delivers punch after punch and it’s a wonder he’s still standing. It is extraordinary. And I wanted to stand up for him so much. I felt deeply invested in Callum, and in the others, and especially in Mother whom I absolutely adored. I cannot describe in adequate words how much I loved these characters. How much they made me laugh. There might be cursing and all manner of insults but there is such a warmth behind it. Even the baddies made me care. Until they did something really bad.

At this point I should mention that Stuart MacBride is one of my all-time favourite novelists and his Logan McRae books are my favourite crime series. A Dark So Deadly isn’t part of that series and it is a completely stand alone novel. When I picked it up I felt about 10 seconds of regret that I wouldn’t be back with McRae and Steel but that feeling sharply dissipated as soon as I started reading this fabulous novel. Callum isn’t McRae and Mother isn’t Steel but I fell for them in exactly the same way and if we don’t meet them again in another novel, I will be distraught. Distraught, Stuart MacBride!

A Dark So Deadly is 600 pages long. Normally, I would argue that this is too long for a crime novel but of course this is no ordinary crime novel. In fact, I would suggest that 600 pages is far too short! I did not want it to end and I read it in two glorious days. I must also mention that the hardback is a thing of beauty. The maps I referred to earlier are gorgeous and brilliantly done. It is so hard to believe that Oldcastle isn’t a real place. Not that I want to go there…

I have no hesitation in proclaiming A Dark So Deadly to be, in my opinion, the most enjoyable crime novel that I have ever read. This is quite a statement but it is absolutely true. It’s complex, ambitious, warm and completely engrossing, tragic and funny, compelling and perfect. Do not miss it.

Other reviews
Logan McRae series
In the Cold Dark Ground