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The Wolf Mile by C.F. Barrington

Head of Zeus | 2021 (ebook: 6 May; Pb: 5 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Wolf Mile by CF BarringtonTwenty years ago the Pantheon was formed – the richest men, the most powerful organisations in the world, created seven kings, each controlling an army of warriors that do battle for one short period each year, watched by thousands of investors. The people of Edinburgh are used to sightings and rumours of strange armoured people on the city’s rooftops, in its streets and hidden passages but few are aware that the Valhalla Horde and Alexander the Lion’s Titans are at war in the Pantheon Games in the city. Tyler Maitland and Lana Cameron are among the latest recruits to the Horde and must fight for their places, while learning the elaborate rules and customs of the Pantheon. Both are looking for answers, particularly Tyler, who believes that his missing sister is lost within the Pantheon. As the season of war comes around again, Tyler discovers that he has a target on his back.

The Wolf Mile is the first in a new trilogy by C.F. Barrington, The Pantheon, and it is just the sort of thriller to grab my attention – secret societies, classical and ancient warlords reborn. As for Vikings fighting Hoplites through the streets of Edinburgh, that was not in my abilities to resist. If, like me, you’re a fan of The Hunger Games and the Matthew Reilly Jack West Jr thrillers, then I think The Wolf Mile will appeal to you.

We’re thrown headfirst into the action, which does mean that, while it is extremely exciting, there are lots of questions to be answered about the set up of the Pantheon and the nature of those who observe its rituals and battles. In a way, we’re viewing it through the eyes of Tyler and Lana, novices in the Pantheon. This also means that we’ll no doubt learn more through the next two books as they work their way through the layers of secrecy. For now, we see how warriors are recruited and trained and how preparations are made for the Grand Battle. It is engrossing.

Tyler is an intriguing individual, raising all sorts of questions about why he was selected. It becomes clear that there may be more to him than meets the eye. I’m looking forward to finding out where he goes from here. Lana is less successful as a character, as are the women generally. I wasn’t keen on her backstory. Tyler’s, by contrast, is much more involving.

The setting in Edinburgh is fantastic. I don’t know the city but it rings true and I loved how the novel moves across it, with modern-day Vikings and Greeks hunting through its shadows, while living ‘normal’ lives during the day. The Wolf Mile is a lot of fun and shows Edinburgh in a whole new light. It’s action-packed and thrilling and I loved the story and concept. I’m looking forward to the second novel, The Blood Isles, which will be out as an ebook this Autumn so not long to wait at all, which is always a good thing with a trilogy.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett

Viper | 2021 (Pb: 1 July) | 447p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Appeal by Janice HallettThe small town of Lockwood boasts a close-knit community, as exhibited in the regular productions of its celebrated amateur dramatics society, The Fairway Players. The Players are dominated by Martin (director) and Helen Hayward (lead actress) who run The Grange, a local posh country club. But members also hail from their extended family and from two other leading Lockwood clans, the Dearings and the MacDonalds. And then there’s the local St Anne’s Hospital, a veritable hotbed of gossip and the source of more eager thespians. When Sam and Kel Greenwood take up jobs at the hospital, fellow nurse Isabel Beck is keen to enrol them in The Players and get them cast in their new production of All My Sons by Arthur Miller.

It might seem surprising, then, when Roderick Tanner QC assigns his law students Charlotte and Femi to investigate a murder – but whose? All we know is that someone has been murdered, another person is in prison for it, and a third person is free and a killer. So what went so disastrously wrong for The Fairway Players? The clues are here. Can you solve the case?!

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is easily one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read and one of the most enjoyable books of any genre that I’ve read for a fair old while. I love cosy crime so much but especially when it is played with and Janice Hallett does a masterly job of playing all sorts of games with it. Firstly, it’s an epistolary novel – all we get are emails, letters, posters, newspaper reports and text messages. The only commentary comes in those text messages between Femi and Charlotte as they, like the reader, try to fathom out the clues from the correspondence between The Fairway Players.

What makes it particularly clever and completely fascinating, is that we don’t hear from all of the players. Some are referred to but are silent. We have to try and work out what they are up to in the wings or backstage. Others say an awful lot. Too much?

This is a witty book. Some of the observations in the correspondence had me rolling with laughter as we see the contradictions, slurs, sucking ups and lies.

As for the plot, I’m saying nothing. It is an absolute pleasure to watch it unfold in this unusual and engrossing fashion. I guessed some of the clues but by no means all. I may well re-read. I read The Appeal in two sittings over a day. I could not gobble it up fast enough. I long for more from this author and soon. A very serious contender for my top novel of 2021.

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

HarperCollins | 2021 (27 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Words for Goodbye by Hazel Gaynor and Heather WebbClara and Madeleine Sommers were once the closest of sisters but their differences have driven them apart. But now they must come together to fulfil the final wishes of their much loved and dying grandmother, Violet, who has asked them to travel to Europe from their home in America to deliver letters to three people who changed Violet’s life in her own travels across Europe 40 years before, a journey inspired by the great explorer, journalist and close friend Nellie Bly. But the year is now 1937 and Europe is a very different place. As Clara and Madeleine embark on the Queen Mary for Paris, Venice and Vienna, they will find a Europe slipping into the darkness of fascism. There is much for the two sisters to experience before they can return back to New York City aboard the Hindenburg.

I am such a huge fan of historical romance set during the earlier decades of the 20th century and, after reading the authors’ fantastic Meet Me in Monaco, I couldn’t wait to read Three Words for Goodbye. I am fascinated by the 1930s and this novel does such a good job of exploring the culture of the time in the three great cities of Paris, Venice and Vienna, while subtly portraying the sinister menace and threat of Nazism, which increases as the sisters move from France to Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Austria. The sisters travel in luxury and style, heightening the contrast between their experiences and those of the local people, whose freedoms are being threatened. They are shocked by the violence they witness and the rumours they hear. But the focus, though, is on relationships, both old and new.

The novel is effectively divided into three as the sisters progress across Europe and deliver each of the three letters, discovering more and more about their grandmother’s life when she was a young woman, while also learning about each other and what they both want from life. Clara, in particular, has some significant decisions to make. The chapters alternate between the two women and it works so well.

I loved Three Words for Goodbye. It’s romantic but not sentimental and tells a wonderful story about families, growing up, finding and losing love, being an independent woman at a time when this was not easy, especially if from the kind of background that Clara and Madeleine are from. It also has a fascinating historical setting and the descriptions of 1930s’ Paris, Venice and Vienna, as well as the voyage aboard the Queen Mary, are fabulous. As for the section aboard the Hindenburg…. Hazel Gaynor (one of my very favourite authors) and Heather Webb are a collaborative tour de force and I can’t wait, and hope, for more.

Other reviews
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb – Meet Me in Monaco
Hazel Gaynor – The Bird in the Bamboo Cage

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh

Sphere | 2021 (22 June) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Hostage by Clare MackintoshFlight attendant Mina does all she can to get posted on the inaugural twenty-hour direct flight from Heathrow to Sydney. Not because of the media excitement surrounding the flight, or because it will be full of celebrity passengers, but because she needs a break from her estranged husband and difficult, albeit lovable little daughter, Sophia. But it’s not long before things start to go wrong aboard the flight. She finds Sophia’s EpiPen in her bag and then a passenger is found dead in his seat. It seems tragic rather than suspicious, until Mina finds a photo of her daughter, taken that very day, in his pocket. Mina receives a message. She only has to do one little thing and if she does it Sophia will be safe. If she doesn’t, Sophia will die. All Mina has to do is to let one of the passengers into the cockpit.

Hostage continues this summer’s trend for thrills at 30,000 feet but you know you’re in very safe hands with author Clare Mackintosh, who is the very best of thriller writers, largely because she combines incredible, ingenious plots with a great deal of heart and warmth, often exploring with great insight and feeling, as here, the relationship between parents and children. Children are innocent, their parents are not but they do all they can to protect these young souls who depend so completely on them. Loving them isn’t always easy. That’s the honest truth of these books. But it is overwhelming. Mina is very aware that passengers aboard a plane rely on the crew every bit as much. There is a trust there.

Mina’s troubled relationship with her husband, police detective Adam, and with her challenging, vulnerable daughter Sophia, lies at the heart of Hostage. The novel explores difficulties that Adam in particular faces and we fall deeply for Sophia. The plane situation dramatises the choices that both parents must make in a shocking and electric way.

This is a very exciting novel, there is no doubt about that at all. The chapters move between the ground and air and they also move between the passengers, giving us glimpses of the lives, dreams and sins of these people. I must admit that I did have some trouble keeping track as we get to know most by seat number rather than by name. Codes play quite a part in the book. It’s not always easy pinning people’s identity down. But it does serve to make the story deeply intriguing and very fast moving.

The scenes aboard the plane are full of fascinating details – the author’s research has been thorough.

I’m not going to give anything away about what goes on aboard the plane but I will say one thing – the ending of this book is absolutely brilliant! Clare Mackintosh does it again! As if that could possibly be a surprise…. Hostage is the perfect holiday read, not least because – possibly fortunately, having read this – so many of us are grounded.

Other reviews
I Let You Go
I See You
Let Me Lie

The Forevers by Chris Whitaker

Hot Key Books | 2021 (8 July) | 352p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Forevers by Chris WhitakerAsteroid Selena is on a collision course with Earth. Several extreme attempts have been made to divert it but all have failed. Now, ten years after its discovery, Mae Cassidy, aged just 17, knows the exact date of her death and it is barely days away. Just like her friends – and enemies – Mae is trying to cope with this knowledge while also dealing with the emotions of growing into adulthood, forming relationships with other teenagers who are also having to shape their last days.

Some fall. There have been three teenage suicides, the latest, Abi, was once Mae’s best friend and now that friendship is being turned against Mae by others in the community. For Mae and Abi were once Forevers, a secret society they developed for coping that makes others feel suspicious and excluded. Meanwhile Selena continues its relentless journey towards the Final.

I can think of no other author writing today who understands and portrays young people as Chris Whitaker can. His wonderful novels (do read them all!) are full of beautifully depicted children and teenagers, many of whom are isolated and lost. It wasn’t a surprise to me that he should now write a Young Adult novel, focusing on the very last generation of teenagers who face unique problems while still going through adolescence and school. Mae is a fascinating character. Her parents dead, she lives with an unsympathetic grandmother and cares for her blind little sister. Mae is already different from everyone else. But now, as the end comes closer, her friendships become more alive as she sees the world with intense, scrutinising eyes.

My favourite character is Felix, the boy who is determined not to sleep a single hour, and will do anything to win over the girl of his dreams who will barely look at him. Here is another reason why I love Chris Whitaker’s books – they are bleak and they are troubled but there is also humour and faith in goodness and kindness. Felix made me laugh time and time again.

The end of the world doesn’t just affect youngsters, of course, and we witness how it damages parents and others. Relationships are tested and ruined. Many become Leavers. People just vanish. Teachers lose motivation every bit as much as their students.

Through it all are memories of the schemes to divert or destroy Selena, and flashbacks to the friendship between Mae and Abi. This is, after all, a novel about friendship and love. For some people, this means religion, for others it means running away in hope of an earthly paradise, and for others it means joining together as the Forevers. It is all so beautifully explored by Chris Whitaker. It isn’t always an easy read – the minds of these teenagers are deeply troubled and fearful – but it is certainly powerful, engrossing and real.

And what a stunning cover!

Other reviews
Tall Oaks
All the Wicked Girls

We Begin at the End

The Serial Killer’s Wife by Alice Hunter

It’s good to be back! I’ve been away for a few days while I descended into the chaos and mayhem of moving house. I can now understand why normal people hire removals and don’t do it all themselves. I now have room for bookshelves and books no longer need to act as furniture. Although, having said that, my books, like everything else I own, are all hiding in unreachable and unlabelled boxes at the moment. On with a review! The first in my new house.

The Serial Killer’s Wife by Alice Hunter

Avon | 2021 (27 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Serial Killer's Wife by Alice Hunter

Beth Hardcastle is a contented woman. She has the perfect life. She has a loving husband in Tom, a beautiful daughter in Poppy and she has her dream job of running a ceramics cafe. She is a valued member of a small community, even thinking of starting up a book club. And then the evening arrives when the police come calling and Tom is absent. They want to speak to Tom in connection with the murder of a former girlfriend who went missing years ago. Beth. When they ask her where Tom is, it’s an easy question to answer. He will be in the office where he often works late. But is he?

The Serial Killer’s Wife has a great premise and is a fun read as we follow Beth Hardcastle’s struggle to face a situation which is entirely out of her control, all under the noses of an enthralled community. The author explores the public and private worlds of a couple, who are now greatly at odds as secrets very slowly emerge. We, the readers, are spectators as Beth attempts to adjust while trying to protect her daughter. There are many questions as the world comes to know Beth as a serial killer’s wife.

I think there are pacing issues with the novel. It takes a fair bit of time to find out why the novel has the title it has and it does get rather bogged down in Beth’s obsession with what the other mums will think of her. In fact, that seems to bother her more than the fact that her husband may be a homicidal maniac. This does make her an unsympathetic character, along with most people in the novel, but this is one of those books where that doesn’t matter. We’re not reading this book to like Beth or Tom but to find out what’s going on.

There are also chapters which go back in time and are from the point of view of the missing former girlfriend. I’m not sure these are entirely successful. There are also some very unsavoury scenes but that’s probably just me being prudish! The chapters from Tom’s point of view are, in my opinion, the best in the book.

The Serial Killer’s Wife is a fast and entertaining read, which reminds us that sometimes you think you know someone and maybe you don’t after all.

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin Percy

Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 10 June) | 290p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ninth Metal by Benjamin PercyThe mining town of Northfall, Minnesota, was already dying before the night it was hit by a devastating shower of meteorites. On the same night, a young boy’s life is changed forever by the murder of his parents, a deed that is overshadowed by the discovery that the meteorites contain an unknown metal, the Ninth, which is more precious than gold and more useful than any known element. Now the world is coming to Northfall. Anyone can become a millionaire but the biggest money is for those who own land. Northfall has become a new Wild West and at the heart of it stands one family, the Frontiers.

Benjamin Percy is such a good writer of speculative fiction and The Ninth Metal has it all – science fiction, horror, apocalypse and disaster, crime, all set within the world of what feels like a modern Western as Northfall becomes the focus of a frenzied Gold Rush (strictly speaking, an Omnimental Rush). The novel is populated by big characters, especially the enigmatic John Frontier and his utterly horrifying sister Talia, but there are other memorable people here, too, both monstrous and innocent, all transformed in the five years since the meteorites hit. Some are little more than gangsters in a violent battle to control land while others have become a cult with the strange metal their object of veneration. There is a lot of life in this town. There is chaos, mystery and more than a little fear. For one boy and the scientist who looks after him, there is terror.

The Ninth Metal is the first novel in a new series, The Comet Cycle. As a result, we don’t get all of the answers but it does have a satisfactory and tantalising end. It left me wanting more without feeling that I’d been left on the edge of a cliff. It tells a great story, packed into about 300 pages. It moves between the present, the night of the fire from the sky, and the following few years. It’s a very fast read. There wasn’t as much science fiction as I would have liked but I suspect that there is more of that to come in book 2 and so I can’t wait to read that.

I thought that there was very much a Stephen King-y feel to the novel, and that is a good thing – a small town at the centre of something horrific, powerful and apocalyptic, even religious, and where salvation may also be found. It’s a novel about good and evil in a dying town cut off from the rest of the world. There’s a sense that people may leave but they will always return. It works on small and epic scales as we realise that what is happening to Northfall could have apocalyptic consequences for everyone. We don’t yet know the nature of what is happening and what it all means but we really want to know!

The Ninth Metal is a fabulous book. I was thoroughly gripped and I cannot wait for book 2.

Falling by T.J. Newman

Simon & Schuster | 2021 (10 June) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

Falling by TJ NewmanWhen Captain Bill Hoffman of Coastal Airways agrees to take on another flight, against his wife’s wishes, he takes on the responsibility of over 140 souls. It’s not long into the flight before he realises with stark horror that every single one of them is in jeopardy. He receives a call – his wife and children are being held hostage. Only one thing can save their lives. Bill must crash the plane.

Falling has a fantastic premise and kicks off a summer of plane thrillers (never has travel seemed such a nostalgic pleasure!). The author is a former flight attendant and that inside knowledge really adds to the authenticity in the chapters set aboard the plane. The authentic detail also makes the thriller more frightening.

The chapters alternate between the plane and the drama on the ground as the FBI goes into action and Bill’s wife tries to negotiate with her kidnapper. The scenes on the plane are the most successful and are absolutely engrossing and tense. The characters aboard, especially the experi flight crew, are very well drawn and Bill is great. The horror feels real. The FBI and hostage scenes and characters are less convincing and stall the pace somewhat but overall Falling is a very enjoyable ‘holiday thriller’ with a difference. And what a fantastic cover!

It’s possibly fortunate that you’re more likely this year to read Falling on the ground than in the air…

As a side note, I read the ebook but I can see that the audiobook is narrated by Steven Weber who did such a brilliant job of narrating Harlan Coben’s Win.

Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Tor | 2021 (27 May) | 560p | Review copy | Buy the book

Shards of Earth by Adrian TchaikovskyEarth is destroyed, its form twisted and distorted by the Architects, a species the size of a moon, that barely notices the planets and ships that it moulds into more pleasing shapes. Technologies developed to try and confront this enemy, including the creation of enhanced humans, until a method of attack was discovered almost by accident when one type of altered human – the Intermediaries – was found to be able to communicate with them and the Architects, almost in horror, left. But now, years later when humankind is divided by warring factions, vessels are vanishing and it is possible that they have returned. Intermediaries are few and far between and their sleepless endless lives are a torment. One of them, Idris, is navigator aboard a small salvage vessel. He wants to lead an obscure, quiet life. That will not be allowed to happen.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is a truly brilliant writer of science fiction. He is stunningly inventive and imaginative and he fully delivers on that vision with fantastic prose, plots and characters. Children of Time is one of the best books I have ever read, and I thoroughly recommend Cage of Souls and The Doors of Eden as well. And now I can add Shards of Earth to that. I was thrilled to learn that the author was embarking on another space opera series (The Final Architecture) and this is a great beginning.

The world building is vast and glorious. Humanity is divided and warring in the aftermath of the home world’s destruction, and the factions are all represented here, notably Idris and Solace, a Parthenon warrior. The chapters move between key characters, which keeps up the momentum but also widens the epic scale of this universe. The crew members of Idris’s ship are so well drawn (I love the paternal, even maternal Captain) and we follow them as they get into all sorts of scrapes (to put it very mildly indeed) as they travel through the truly terrifying Unspace. These aren’t characters you want to get too attached to…

As with most epic space operas, it does take a while to get going. There’s a lot of history to learn but the book ends with a chronology of events and a list of people, places, ships and factions. This isn’t spoilery and I would definitely recommend reading that first. I found that it helped a lot and when I met Idris, I already had a good idea of what he would face.

This is a witty book, it’s also frightening. The Architects are the stuff of nightmares and the descriptions of what they can do really stand out in the novel. I love the mix of banter and mayhem as people go about their business on ships, habitats and worlds, some of which are lawless and run by gangsters. Everything we see is the result of the Architects. Their random and careless destruction has traumatised mankind, leading people to cope with it in their own ways – whether that’s through religion, becoming part of a warrior elite class, killing, hunting for the Architects, or hiding. And watching all of it, we sense, is something so monstrous that it cannot be perceived, something in Unspace that is so horrific that humans must sleep through their journeys through it, with only the navigator, the Intermediary, remaining awake and haunted. This is fabulous stuff!

Shards of Earth is an immersive and thoroughly engaging read, full of mystery, enigma and menace, as well as wow moments. Epic space operas are a favourite thing for me and Adrian Tchaikovsky is very, very good indeed at writing them.

Other reviews
Children of Time
Children of Ruin
The Doors of Eden
Cage of Souls
One Day All This Will Be Yours
With C.B. Harvey and Malcolm Cross – Journal of the Plague Year

The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Trapeze | 202 (27 May) | 384p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Pact by Sharon BoltonSix young students have just finished their A Levels at Oxford’s All Souls School. Each is remarkable, clever and attractive and each is predicted to have a glittering career ahead. But their lives are too safe, they dare each other and play dangerous games. One night it all goes horrifically wrong and it is then that they make the pact. 18-year-old Megan agrees to take the blame. That way they won’t all have their lives destroyed. But it comes as a great shock when Megan is given a sentence of 20 years and she serves every one of them. When she comes out, she is not the same. That is when the five friends, each successful with a great deal to lose, start to become very afraid indeed.

Sharon Bolton is, in my opinion, one of the very best writers of psychological thrillers and we’re lucky to have her. Time after time, she comes up with the most brilliant ideas and leads her readers down such a twisty path and at a rate of knots, too. The Pact is no different. It has a fantastic premise. We’ve had thrillers about groups of old friends before but not like this one. In my opinion, these people are all morally reprehensible and the majority of them know it. Arguably, what matters most to them is being caught, not doing the crime itself. Some may wriggle, and you can’t look away while they do, it’s so compelling, but they cannot escape the judgement of what they’ve done.

I loved the character of Megan. She is genuinely intriguing and odd. She makes each of her friends promise to do a big favour for her on her release from prison. These favours are not at all what you’d expect and add such an element of shock to the novel.

But, as you’d expect from a Sharon Bolton novel, there’s far more to it than that! It’s an engrossing and surprising read. I had a few small doubts about the ending but it still had a great impact on me. One of the things that I really enjoyed is the Oxford setting! This is my town and I recognised so many places, including the snug in one of my favourite north Oxford pubs. This is an Oxford that the author actually knows, which isn’t always the case, and it really adds to the mood of the novel, helping to make the six friends feel real, privileged, sinning and around us, excelling in their jobs (often in the public eye), hiding secrets. It all seems so timely….

Other reviews
Little Black Lies
Daisy in Chains
Dead Woman Walking
The Craftsman

The Split