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84K by Claire North

Orbit | 2018 (24 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

84K by Claire NorthTheo works in the Criminal Audit Office. It’s his job to decide what a crime is worth, how much a murderer, rapist, thief, embezzler (the worst of crimes) should be charged to atone for his or her crime. Every life has a value, although for many that value is very little indeed, and that life can be paid for – if you have enough money to pay for it. And that is by no means everybody. The majority of people can’t pay for their crimes, even when they’re no real crimes at all, merely a misdemeanour against the financial security of the state. Or, to put it more precisely, against the Company. Because in these days the state is run as a business and nothing, absolutely nothing, is free. The poor who can’t pay are sold into slavery.

Theo gets through life by keeping his head down, seeking obscurity, doing his job well but not too well, never noticeable. But this all changes when he is approached by an ex-lover, Dani, who confides in him that Lucy, her daughter – his daughter – is missing, stolen away by the Company. She begs him to find Lucy. But within no time at all Dani is brutally murdered, by an assassin who pays her fee and walks away. Theo’s pursuit of the truth will take him to the heart of this dystopian world, and it will raise every kind of question about Theo’s own identity and past.

Claire North is one of the most original writers of speculative and science fiction around today. Each of her books is very different from the one that went before and each has so much to say about human nature and the difficulties challenging its survival. 84K is no different. This horrifying near future world is still recognisably our own – this is the way in which it could develop, if there were no Theos to oppose it. This is Capitalism run wild and, as you’d expect, it’s the poor who suffer. And they suffer horribly. This is a novel full of warning.

I did find the structure and style challenging. The narrative hops back and forth between at least three different periods of Theo’s life and we’re given very little notice. This distanced me from Theo. I couldn’t warm to a character that I didn’t really understand and I don’t think I ever got to the bottom of what he is about. There were lots of fascinating and charismatic glimpses but then we were off somewhere else. Lots of characters come and go and it can be difficult to keep track of them. Again, I would be immersed in one thread of life and then I’d be off to another. I did, however, really enjoy Lady Helen. This difficulty, for me, was compounded by the style of the prose. It’s very fragmented, it feels experimental. Sentences are left unfinished, thoughts abandoned, it’s time to move on. It’s undoubtedly clever and serves as a useful tool to reflect the state of Theo’s mind, but I found it tiring to read. This may just mean that I’m less patient as a reader than I should be!

However, the worldbuilding is fascinating. I loved the descriptions of the different regions of England, each of which needs some kind of entry permit. The Cotswolds are particularly difficult to get into. Others are almost no-go areas. There is no area of life that isn’t controlled by Company regulations and costings. The more I learned, the more I wanted to hear. This is engrossing and it’s backed up by the extraordinary level of detail.

84K is hugely ambitious and, at times, quite beautifully bewitching. Claire North wields such power with her words. While this isn’t my favourite of her novels – I loved especially The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope – there is much here to enthral the reader. I will always look forward to Claire North’s books. She is staggeringly talented. She always challenges me and, while I wasn’t quite up to the challenge this time, I cannot wait to see what future wonders she has in store for us.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day

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Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

HarperCollins | 2018 (17 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cross Her Heart by Sarah PinboroughAva knows that her mum, Lisa, loves her but sometimes she wishes she weren’t so overprotective. Ava’s at that age now. She’s 16 years old. She’s got good friends, a boyfriend, and the chance of something even more exciting due to some tantalising messages on her Facebook. Mind you, it also seems that things are looking up for Lisa as well. Her job’s going well, she’s got such a good friend in her colleague Marilyn, and she’s seriously thinking of accepting an offer of a date from one of her business’s clients. But there’s something niggling away in Lisa’s mind. There’s something not quite right, things possibly being moved, strange song dedications on the radio, and more besides. Lisa doesn’t want to worry but every single bone in her body tells her she should be terrified.

And that is all you’ll hear from me about what goes on plotwise within this compelling and richly layered thriller. Sarah Pinborough is such a clever and original writer, with an imagination that challenges everything that we expect from a psychological thriller, and she’s done the same with other genres in the past. You never quite know what you’re going to get but there is one certainty – it will be make you stop in your tracks. And it will make your jaw drop. Not just once but time after time. And that’s just what happens in Cross Her Heart.

The characters created here are fascinating and each of them has their own story and we keep an eye on more than one of them at a time. The narrative moves between three voices in particular but there are multiple characters who move through, some just turning up unannounced and demanding our attention as we work out where and how they’re going to fit in.

I must admit to having one issue with Cross Her Heart but it’s a personal one. There were some brief sections that were too painful for me to read. They tore into my heart and I just couldn’t deal with them. This is testament to the power of the author’s writing and the strength of the feeling that she conveys. Other readers made of sterner stuff will be fine, I’m sure.

I had the floor swept out from under my feet a couple of times during my reading of Cross Her Heart. The plot is extraordinary. Behind Her Eyes was such a clever and original psychological thriller and Sarah Pinborough has challenged it in completely different and fresh ways. She knows how to grab our attention and I’m in awe of how she manages it, with every book she writes whatever its genre. No genre can hold Sarah Pinborough back. She conquers them all.

Other reviews
The Death House
13 Minutes
Behind Her Eyes

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Tor | 2018 (24 April) | 144p | Review copy | Buy the book

Time Was by Ian McDonaldEmmett Leigh is a used book dealer and one day in London he finds something that catches his imagination – a love letter from one soldier to another, written during the Second World War, hidden away in a book of poetry. Emmett is determined to find out everything he can about Tom and Ben and it takes him on a trail of bookshops and collections in England and further afield. What he finds seems impossible – photos taken during other wars and times, including World War I, and Ben and Tom look no different. Emmett has to accept that these two men are time travellers, lost in time, searching for one another, using the letters in copies of this book of poetry as a map.

Time Was is a novella and, as a result, skims the surface of a story that has the most intriguing premise – lovers cast out into time by a wartime scientific experiment that went very wrong indeed. On one level, it’s a gay love story that is both touching and tragic, and on another it’s a science fiction tale of time travel and wartime experiments. Both are equally appealing but I’m not sure that the story completely makes up its mind over which way to go. It is, though, exquisitely written. Ian McDonald writes so beautifully, filling this little book with poetic prose.

I loved the setting for much of the story which is in Shingle Street, Suffolk. I love books set in places that I’m fond of and I adore this area. The author captures it perfectly and it presents such an evocative backdrop to Ben and Tom’s story. Mostly, though, this is the story of Emmett, a man who has problems in his own relationships.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way that the story ends. I can’t say that I understood it completely but I loved how the strands came together. I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s Luna science fiction series. I will always seek out his writing. Time Was wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it certainly resonates and it most definitely haunts.

Other reviews
Luna: New Moon
Luna: Wolf Moon

Dying Truth by Angela Marsons

Bookoutre | 2018 (ebook: 18 May) | Review copy | Buy the book

Dying Truth by Angela MarsonsWhen the battered body of teenager Sadie Winters is found in a tangled heap at her exclusive boarding school of Heathcrest it seems clear what happened – she jumped from the roof. A terrible, tragic end for a troubled youngster. But when another pupil, a boy this time, dies at the School that same week, Detective Inspector Kim Stone suspects foul play. She isn’t one to believe in coincidences, no matter how many times the headmaster assures nervous parents that their children are safe. Stone and her team dig into the culture of the Heathcrest, uncovering stories of a secret society, while Kim Stone becomes fascinated by the idea of a child killer. There is something very rotten at the heart of Heathcrest School and its astronomical fees cannot hide it forever. Stone will do whatever it takes to discover the truth and so too will her dedicated team.

Dying Truth is the eighth novel in Angela Marsons’ absolutely wonderful Kim Stone series. I’ve yet to read them all – I’ve bought them all so they’re ready to go – but it’s abundantly clear that this is a very special series indeed and this novel is a fine contribution to it, if not the best. Angela Marsons is a crime writer that stands out on that crowded shelf and Dying Truth confirms that place. If you haven’t read the others, then I think you could read and enjoy this as a stand alone novel. But if you’ve read some or all of the others then you may well find yourself as traumatised as I was by the end. Angela, what have you done to me?!

The setting is fantastic. Murder mysteries set within a confined space with a limited number of suspects always appeal but there is nothing cosy about this novel. We break through the confines of the school by learning what has happened to former pupils but the school dominates like an ogre that reaches the dark sky. It’s a horrifying place. Angela Marsons evokes it perfectly, its mood of terror is portrayed convincingly.

Dying Truth is a pageturner if ever I read one. This is one of those delicious thrillers that you just don’t want to put down. Its short chapters, many with their own cliffhangers, maintain the pace from start to finish. It’s as exciting as it is disturbing.

But while the school dominates the novel’s mood, it’s the character of Kim Stone who forms its heart. I love everything about her. I love how fearless she is, how she refuses to take any nonsense and she has the perfect response to any sexist or snide remark. She’s clever, grumpy and strong-willed. She can go after the red herrings but she knows when to let them go. And then there’s her devotion and loyalty to her team. This is a major theme of Dying Truth and it gives the novel such a heart, in contrast to some of the families that we meet here. It also gives the novel some of its pain.

Dying Truth is the perfect example of how to pace and plot a crime thriller. There is interest on every page, every character adds something, and its mood is perfectly captured. I loved this book and I can’t recommend it, or the Kim Stone series, enough. Don’t let it pass you by.

Other review
Dead Souls

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

HQ | 2018 (17 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cliff House by Amanda JenningsIt is July 1986 and teenager Tamsyn dreams of another life. Her own is difficult. She lives with her mother and brother in a small house in St Just on the coast of west Cornwall. Money is scarce, jobs are few and it seems like no time at all since Tamsyn’s beloved father, a lifeboat man, was lost at sea during a rescue. He used to take Tamsyn on walks along the coastal path, spotting birds, and a highlight on the walk was the beautiful Cliff House, owned by the wealthy Davenport family who spend much of their year in London and other more exotic destinations. Tamsin and her father would even swim in the pool when the family were away.

Now Tamsyn watches the house on her own, observing the daily lives of the glamorous Mr and Mrs Davenport during their summer stay in Cliff House. To Tamsyn, their lives are perfection. She wishes nothing more than to be part of their lives. And when Edie Davenport, the daughter Tamsyn had never seen before, catches her swimming in the pool, Tamsyn gets her wish. But sometimes the truth is even more extraordinary than the dream.

In The Cliff House, Amanda Jennings returns to the gorgeous Cornish coast that she brought to life so beautifully in the outstanding In Her Wake, one of my top reads of 2016. I know this stretch of coast, around Sennen Cove, St Just and Cape Cornwall, very well and it is one of my most favourite places in the world. It’s clear that the author shares my love for it because it is evoked here with such eloquence and warmth. It is irresistible.

The novel revolves around the two very different families, the wealthy Davenports and Tamsyn’s much poorer family – her mother is Mrs Davenport’s cleaner. When the two come together, emotions become tangled, complicated by the influence and presence of Tamsyn’s brother Jago. But the heart of the novel can be found with Tamsyn and Edie who become unlikely friends due to a shared loneliness and sense of isolation and separation from their parents. The more that we learn about Mr and, especially, Mrs Davenport, it becomes clear that their stunning art deco Cliff House is no paradise.

Both Edie and Tamsyn are wonderful characters. The narrative moves between the two girls, allowing us to see both sides of a sometimes difficult, developing friendship. Tamsyn’s life is dominated by the grief she feels for her father and we spend uncomfortable moments in her mind as she works through the pain of watching her attractive mother date. Tamsyn is laid bare and we’re drawn close to her. The Davenports, by contrast, take on an almost distorted, ugly air, with Edie struggling to free herself. There is tragedy in this novel, at contrast with the beauty of its landscape.

I would argue that The Cliff House isn’t a psychological thriller, or even a thriller at all. I would suggest that you shouldn’t go into the novel expecting that kind of read. Instead, Amanda Jennings gives us an exquisitely written literary novel about loss, love, madness, and, above all else, growing up, all set against the most stunning backdrop of this splendid house, perched on a cliff along the most beautiful coast.

Other reviews and features
In Her Wake
Guest post: The inspiration of Cornwall

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

Doubleday | 2018 (3 May) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The marriage of Caroline and Francis is in trouble. Sometimes it seems as if the only thing holding them together is their adored young son, Eddie. Perhaps it’s time for them to rediscover themselves, to take some time away from home, from Eddie, to reignite that spark that drew them together in the first place. On a whim Caroline had entered a house swap scheme. Finally, she gets a hit. Somebody would like to swap for a week his house in the leafy London suburb of Chiswick for their flat in the centre of Leeds. Full of hope, Caroline and Francis set off. But the house they find is nothing like they expected. It is stripped of personal items and character. It feels like a spotless shell.

But there are flowers waiting for them and a choice of music in the CD player that gives Caroline an uneasy feeling. There is something very familiar about these little things, almost as if a message has been left for her in this stranger’s house. It reminds her of a past she wants forgotten forever. And suddenly the thought hits her that this person, whoever they might really be, is in her own flat. And they seem to know everything about her.

The House Swap has a fantastic premise and it certainly had me intrigued to read it. Its narrative pushes the story on in chapters that move between the present day and events that took place about three years before. Most of the narrative is from Caroline’s point of view but there are other chapters which give us another perspective, especially that of her husband Francis. And it’s to Francis that we are increasingly drawn as we learn more and more about Caroline’s past. There are other sections, though, the ones filled with menace, as we’re taken into the Leeds flat now inhabited by a stranger who has their own plans for Caroline.

I did have issues with The House Swap, largely focused on how difficult I found it to empathise with Caroline. She’s increasingly difficult to like, as is her behaviour. I did feel sorry for Francis and I was glad when chapters allowed him a voice. My other issue was with the frequent sexual content, which I wasn’t expecting and gave the novel an erotic edge that I wouldn’t normally go for. However, the story kept me intrigued throughout and I was keen to discover the truth. There are moments of menace here that I particularly welcomed. Rebecca Fleet is very good at establishing a sinister tone. She can also write a pacey tale because the pages of The House Swap flew through the fingers.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

House Swap blog tour

Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood

Michael Joseph | 2018 (17 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightfall Berlin by Jack GrimwoodIt is 1986 and at last there are hopes that the Cold War might finally be about to thaw. Gorbachev has initiated talks to reduce the number of nuclear weapons – if he had his way he’d ban them all – and the world is watching. But it’s business as usual for British Intelligence Officer Major Tom Fox, who has been ordered to East Berlin to organise the return to the west of Sir Cecil Blackburn, a notorious spy who defected to the east many years before. It seems he wants to die at home. But to many in Britain Sir Cecil remains a traitor who still hasn’t paid the full price for his sins. This will be a delicate mission. But the most carefully arranged plans have a habit of falling apart and it’s not long before Fox is on the run, wanted by both east and west for murder.

In order to escape alive, Fox must first find out who is responsible for the crime and why. He must hurry. Anyone who might be able to help is being silenced at a merciless rate. The stakes are high, the consequences of failure devastating.

Nightfall Berlin is the second Cold War thriller by Jack Grimwood to feature Major Fox and, although I haven’t read Moskva (yet!), this didn’t affect my enjoyment of Nightfall Berlin at all. Grimwood introduces Fox and his world perfectly, revealing little bits about his wife and son, making it clear how central to his life they are, even though he is forced to spend most of his time away from them. As a result of that, and various other things, this is a family in crisis and Fox’s worry about this is there as a shadow in the background all the way through the novel. I thought this was done brilliantly. It’s not laboured, it’s enigmatic and mysterious, there is an absence in Fox’s life.

But then we get on to the main business of the book and that is a Cold War thriller that had me glued to the pages. This is fantastic stuff! We follow Fox as he moves through a vividly realised East Berlin, tracked by Stasi agents, and then there are the spies, both Russian and British. In this world it’s hard to trust anyone. But there is even more to this story than the fractured Berlin of the 1980s. This is a city that can’t escape the past and the end of the Second World War. There’s a legacy from those days that hangs over this world. It’s a fascinating story.

As you’d expect from an excellent Cold War thriller, this is a complex, involved and tense novel. The reader must stay alert and is rewarded for their attention. We meet so many men and women with extraordinary stories to tell. But at the heart of the novel lies Major Tom Fox whose past haunts him every bit as much as Berlin is haunted by its own past.

I loved Nightfall Berlin so much that as soon as I finished it I bought Moskva, a thriller set in Cold War Moscow. I’m now hooked on Major Tom Fox and this series. If you have any interest at all in this most fascinating period of modern history then I suspect you will be too.

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