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The Puppet Show by M.W. Craven

Constable | 2018 (7 June) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Puppet Show by M.W. CravenThe Lake District has more prehistoric stone circles than almost anywhere else – a bounty indeed if you’re the type of serial killer who likes to display your incinerated victims in the middle of one.

Detailed scans of the remains of one victim reveal a name cut into his chest, the name of Washington Poe, a former Detective Inspector in the National Crime Agency and now demoted to sergeant following a scandal that has left him suspended for a year now. Poe has spent the year in peaceful retirement, with his dog, in an isolated croft in the Lake District. He doesn’t want to go back to work. But when Stephanie Flynn, his former sergeant now promoted to his former job, asks him to come back and investigate ‘The Immolation Man’, Poe realises that he wants nothing more. Especially when the clues suggest that the fifth victim is to be Poe himself, and they’ve already found victim number three.

The Puppet Show marks the beginning of a new crime series by M.W. Craven and it is absolutely fantastic from start to finish. This is such a great story, with gory crimes committed by a truly nasty killer that nevertheless take place against one of the most dramatic and beautiful backdrops in Britain. Cumbria is a delight in this novel. We explore so much of it with Poe and his dog. The weather, its isolation, its community, the ancient landscape, all play their part.

But even more than the story and the setting, this is a novel that sings with life due to its brilliant characterisation. Poe and Flynn are wonderful people to get to know. There might be a little tension due to their reversal in roles but it doesn’t affect how they work together. In fact, Flynn seems far better suited to the role of sergeant despite the fact that there are times when he goes off and chases his own theories with no thought to others. Well, no thought to others except Tilly, the team’s analyst. And Tilly is the particular joy of The Puppet Show. This young woman with Aspergers is a delight, completely adorable, unpredictable, funny and precise. For some reason Tilly and Poe become an inseparable team and I will make sure I read anything in the future that they appear in. I also loved the contrast in their policing methods, with Tilly always looking at the details while Poe thinks instinctively. I am so pleased to hear that Tilly will return to play another major role in the next novel.

I love M.W. Craven’s writing. It’s witty and humourous, at times chilling and disturbing, and he tells his story with such art and skill, filling it with people you want to get to know while giving us a baddie that scared me to bits while letting me enjoy the scenery. This is one of those crime thrillers that ticked all of the right boxes for me. More, please!


Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

Orion | 2018 (ebook: 25 January; Pb: 14 June) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thirteen by Steve CavanaghIt’s the celebrity trial of the century. Hollywood actor Robert (Bobby) Solomon is charged with murdering his beautiful young actress wife Ariella and their chief of security Karl. Ariella and Karl were found in bed together, Robert’s DNA found on the scene. The case seems cut and shut but the defence knows something that throws Solomon’s guilt into doubt and they want Eddie Flynn to do the dirty work and prove it. Eddie’s not keen but this case offers him the security he needs to do something about the chaos in his private life. And then there’s Bobby Solomon. Eddie looks at him and he sees innocence in his eyes. Of course, he’s been wrong about that before but in this case Eddie couldn’t be more right. We know that and the killer knows that because the murderer is right there in court, sitting as a member of the jury.

Thirteen is the fourth Eddie Flynn novel by Steve Cavanagh and it’s most certainly my favourite of the three I’ve read. The premise is fantastic and I wanted to read this as soon as I heard about it. Courtroom thrillers have never been my sort of thing but every so often there are brilliant exceptions and Thirteen is most definitely one of those.

There’s so much going on here, quite apart from the Solomon case. Eddie, once a conman himself, is caught up in a battle with the corrupt elements of the NYPD. They’re out to get him and that isn’t helping matters. There aren’t many people in the courtroom that Eddie can trust but he is in his element. Some of the legal arguments Eddie users are brilliant. This is his stage and Eddie’s every bit as good an actor as Bobby Solomon.

The novel alternates narratives, so one minute we’re with Eddie and the next we’re with the murderer. The killer is an extraordinary figure – intensely clever yet damaged to such a degree there’s nothing he won’t do to win his game. And it’s a game like no other. The novel takes place over just a few days. It moves at quite a pace. And all the time we know that it’s the life of Bobby Solomon at stake. This extremely unusual and spectacularly audacious murderer is a prime reason for the success and originality of Thirteen. We cannot look away. We long to see what happens.

Steve Cavanagh is to be congratulated for Thirteen. This is taut, tense and immediate prose. This is a very clever thriller. I had wondered how he could continue the story of Eddie Flynn, what further cases he could take that could surprise me. I needn’t have worried. The author has pulled something spectacular out of the bag with this book and Eddie Flynn has grabbed my attention more than ever before.

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The Defence

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Century | 2018 (4 June) | 515p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James PattersonPresident Jonathan Duncan is in trouble. Cyberterrorist attacks are on the rise and the President is about to face a special hearing that will accuse him of negotiating with the most feared and hated terrorist of them all, Suliman Cindoruk. The odds of the President being impeached are high. But no matter what his people advise, Duncan’s mind is not on the hearing. Something terrible is about to happen, a countdown to disaster has begun, and the President is going to need all of his wits and cunning to confront it. He has just three days. And it’s a battle he must fight almost on his own because there is a traitor in the White House and Duncan knows that, whoever it is, they must be close to him. With so few to trust, and a lethal assassin on the loose, the President must break all of the rules.

The hype surrounding the launch of The President is Missing has been such fun that I couldn’t resist buying it the day the book came out. I love political and action thrillers and so I wasn’t going to miss out on this one (and the Waterstones edition I bought had red sprayed edges – irresistible). This is presented as Bill Clinton’s first novel but I’m sure I’m not the only one to speculate about how much of this is actually written by Clinton and how much is the work of old master James Patterson. But more than who put the words on the page, what fascinates me, and what especially drew me to the book, is the thought that here we might have a firsthand look into the workings of the White House inner sanctum. While I don’t think that I actually gained any more insight than I would get from watching a series or two of The West Wing, I did like the feeling that the small details were probably accurate, such as the descriptions of the President’s early morning schedule. The little things like that.

Now and again, though, the presence of Bill Clinton is keenly felt and most especially during the intermittent Presidential info dumps. Passages in which Clinton has his say about how the office of the President should function. There is also at one point a long speech. But these moments are few and far between (although I think we could have done without the speech at such a crucial point) and don’t slow the action down too much. And after all, it would be hard to deny Bill Clinton the chance to have his say in what is his book. Party politics, though, doesn’t play a part, although it’s not hard to guess which party the bad guys in government represent.

But of course much of the action of the novel takes place far outside the comfort zone of any President – fortunately – and so most of the time we’re in more conventional thriller territory and it is undoubtedly thrilling! This is one of those books that you keep on reading very late into the night, saying that you’ll read just one more chapter. But, because the chapters are so short and numerous, it’s so hard to stop. Much of the narrative is told by President Duncan in the present tense. This pumps the action along, with the tension ramped up even further by the continual ticking of the countdown clock.

The plot is timely and frightening. Cyberterroism, hackers, saboteurs – these are all fearful beasts – and the stakes here are enormously high and they feel real. There are minor confusions in the plot, there are occasions when we don’t know if a twist is a twist or just a ruse, and that irritated me a little. We also have our conventional thriller types, such as the glamorous and deadly female assassin, and sometimes there is a slight feeling of an anticlimax. But having said all that, I went into The President is Missing with an open mind and, as a thriller lover, I found so much to enjoy here. The pages flew through the fingers and I read all 500 pages or so in a couple of days. If I’d have been off work, I’d have read it in a day. The President is Missing is the very definition of a page turner as all good thrillers should be and I’m really glad I read it. I’m not so sure that the title is a useful one, though, but that’s another matter. If you enjoy action thrillers, give it a twirl! And look out for the editions with the gorgeous red sprayed edges.

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James Patterson with Marshall Karp – NYPD Red 5

Adrift by Rob Boffard

Orbit | 2018 (7 June) | 371p | Review copy | Buy the book

Adrift by Rob BoffardIn distant space, a small group of tourists board the shuttle Red Panda for a swift tour to look at the nearby spectacular Horsehead Nebula. This sort of tour is a must for the many travellers, honeymooners and once-in-a-lifetime tourists who visit the luxurious space station Sigma Hotel. It’s perfectly routine. Nothing should go wrong, which is just as well for Hannah, the tour guide. This is her very first day on the job and she wants to impress the rather grouchy and enigmatic vodka-swilling pilot Volkova. Unfortunately for everyone, just a few minutes into the trip a devastating catastrophe unfolds before their eyes. An unidentified ship emerges from the nearby jump gate and destroys the space station, killing thousands of men, women and children. Only those aboard the Red Panda survive, shocked. The attacking ship knows this. It will find them and it will kill them.

Terrifying times are to follow for those aboard the Red Panda. With nobody else alive (who doesn’t want to kill them) for light years, and limited food and a frozen water supply, their hours are numbered, even if they weren’t in such danger from this unknown ship. They have to work together for any hope of survival. It won’t be easy. Not everyone on this little shuttle is who they say they are. Survival is unlikely.

I love the premise of Adrift so much – a tiny ship lost in space with almost no supplies and only the resilience of the strangers aboard to rely on. And then there’s the mystery of the attacking ship. Who are they? Why would they commit such an awful act? It sounds exciting and it most certainly is. This is one of the most engrossing books I’ve read for quite a while – it made me miss my bus stop yesterday morning!

The people aboard the Red Panda are a mixed bunch, including a husband and wife and their two young sons, a retired miner, a hotel reviewer, a young married couple, as well as Hannah and Volkova. Everyone has their own story, as well as their own fears and strengths. We see most of them at their best and at their worst but standing out in particular are the boys Corey and Malik Livingstone. I can be driven mad by the portrayal of teenagers in fiction but these two brothers are observed so beautifully by Rob Boffard. Their relationship is believable and Corey especially forms the heart of the book watched over by the 65-year-old Lorinda, a woman who once worked as a miner in space, another wonderful character. At this point, though, I must mention my only criticism of the book and that is the constant reference to Lorinda as the ‘old woman’ (with her aching bones and dodgy teeth) as if that is her identity in life. 65 is hardly a great age. Anyway, I must get over that….. and say again just how much I loved these characters and their interaction with one another. Poor Hannah – this is not the best of first days in a new job.

Adrift is such an exciting book! There are battles, close scrapes, intense peril and fisticuffs, all played out against the majestic backdrop of space. Irresistible. And it is written so well. There is just the right amount of humour but it never gets in the way of the novel’s tension and drama, and the significant role of Corey will also make this book a popular choice for younger readers. It would be such a great introduction to science fiction. Actually, I think that readers of every age will enjoy Adrift.

Rob Boffard is known for his Outer Earth trilogy but I have to say that in my opinion Adrift is much better, with the right mix of drama, characterisation and action. I didn’t want to put it down at all. This is the kind of book that makes you miss bus stops! I can speak no higher praise than that.

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Dead Girls by Graeme Cameron

HQ | 2018 (31 May) | c.320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dead Girls by Graeme CameronTwo months have passed since the terrible, shocking events of Normal and I strongly advise that you read Normal first before you approach Dead Girls. These two novels definitely form a pair, even if the emphasis has changed in the second novel. This review assumes that you’ve read Normal and don’t mind knowing a little of what has gone before.

In Normal we were introduced to the most extraordinary serial killer, a man who murdered young women in the most horrendous ways while, at the same time, learning in spite of himself to love, to relate. Not that it stopped him killing, of course. He just thought about it a little more and allowed his relationships with some of these women to become ever more complex and tangled. In Dead Girls, it’s the job of DS Ali Green to sort it all out. It isn’t going to be easy. Ali is still struggling with the injuries she was left with two months before and some of these have stricken her deep within her mind – she has lost much of her memory, she often says things she can’t remember. She is haunted by what has happened. She should still be on sick leave but she’s been called back to work early. Two of the missing corpses from two months before have turned up – two policemen. It seems to be a message from the killer. They need Ali’s insight. Even if it turns her mad.

These are such witty books, often in the most shocking ways, as we’re presented with awful injuries and murder scenes. But because we see much of what happens here through the muddled mind and eyes of the traumatised Ali Green, it all takes on a slightly curious and even surreal edge. Nothing about this killer is normal. Nothing about what has happened to his victims is normal, even if they survived. We’re constantly reminded in frightening ways of what these women endured, what Ali went through, and what she and others will no doubt go through again. It’s dark and it’s also compelling.

In Normal the main focus was on the killer himself, inviting us to dare to like him. In Dead Girls, the focus has moved to the woman intent on destroying him once and for all, DS Ali Green. The killer is now in the shadows, the beast to be caught. I’m not sure that Dead Girls works quite as well as the brilliant Normal, and that’s largely due to this shift. Normal was so original, so odd, so mad! It was also published three years ago and so it’s difficult now, at least for me, to remember all that happened before. Reading the two together would, I think, be much more effective.

The writing in Dead Girls, though, is as witty as ever and these pages fly through the fingers as we move between Ali’s jumbled world and the desperate plight of Erica, who played such a key role in Normal. We’re introduced to lots of people and many of them are given key moments, making us care for them and fear for them. We’re shown that there is more evil in this world than just its serial killers. Erica’s experiences of life had begun to go wrong long before she caught the eye of this one particular monster.

I was engrossed by Dead Girls (what a fantastic title), reading it compulsively over just one day. These two books are so unusual. Ali Green is also hardly your typical detective. Rules here are thrown by the wayside as Ali’s thoughts jump from place to place and we scurry to keep up as things become increasingly terrifying and ever more bloody. Excellent!

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The Encircling Sea by Adrian Goldsworthy

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 370p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Encircling Sea by Adrian GoldsworthyIt is about 100 AD, Trajan is on the throne far away in Rome, and centurion Flavius Ferox is doing his best to keep the peace along the empire’s northernmost fringe. Ferox is perfect for the job, bridging both worlds. Born a prince of the Silures tribe of southern Britannia, he is now a well-respected Roman officer, albeit one who likes to keep his head down, avoiding the attention of the rich, powerful and political. But Ferox is not going to have things his own way.

Time might have passed since the recent deadly Druid threat, but more rebels are again making their presence felt, irritating their Roman occupiers. It’s bad timing. Rome wants to impress the kings of Hibernia (Ireland), who are currently competing for the role of chief king. A meeting is about to take place on the British coast and the forces of Vindolanda and its neighbouring forts will be in attendance. Ferox will be there playing a crucial role. And he’s worried.

The Encircling Sea is the second novel by Adrian Goldsworthy to feature Ferox, looking at life on the northern fringes of empire, a couple of decades before Hadrian built his Wall across this landscape. Vindolanda is already a large and busy fort, and it’s Ferox’s job to move regularly between the forts, settling disputes, looking out for trouble, keeping it peaceful. It pays to have read the earlier novel Vindolanda first because then you’ll have more of an idea of his complicated relationship with Cerialis, the Batavi prefect in charge of Vindolanda, and, most particularly, his beautiful wife Sulpicia Lepidina. But, if this is the first novel you read of the Vindolanda seres, you’ll have no trouble picking up the story’s threads.

The Encircling Sea presents a whole new and self-contained adventure, this time featuring the strange dark men who come at night in their boats from the sea. They appear to be targeting certain individuals in their raids but it’s not easy for Ferox and his second-in-command, the Brigantian Vindex, to work out the purpose of the attacks. But what is clear is that these pirates will use deadly force to achieve their goals. A lot of people are going to die. Very nastily.

As before, The Encircling Sea resonates with the insight and knowledge of its author, the historian Adrian Goldsworthy. This is supported by the extraordinary archaeological discoveries that have been made at Vindolanda over the years. Many of the people in this novel were real. They walked those excavated streets and lived in those buildings, now uncovered. They are named in tablets and it’s likely that even their shoes have been found. It’s evocative for sure and Adrian Goldsworthy captures all of that.

This is a novel in which, for me, the historical setting wins first place over its story. The author undoubtedly brings the border to life, especially for its soldiers and their wives, but the plot does fall rather flat and a little laboured in my opinion. It never becomes as exciting as it could be, nor as engaging. I enjoyed the repartee between Ferox and Crispinus and I really liked Crispinus, their young and witty commander, but they are let down a little by some of the dialogue, especially when words such as ‘humping’ or ‘humped’ are used in place of the more expected curses. This isn’t done as much as in the first novel, thank heavens, but it still stands out. It all feels a little strained, and restrained. I did, though, appreciate the historical notes at the end.

Adrian Goldsworthy undoubtedly knows his stuff and I love seeing the archaeological remains of Vindolanda brought to life in his pages. And that is undoubtedly the main strength of The Encircling Sea. I must also mention that this is another beautiful hardback from Head of Zeus.

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Snap by Belinda Bauer

Bantam Press | 2018 (17 May) | 353p | Review copy | Buy the book

Snap by Belinda BauerWhen their car breaks down, Jack, Joy and their little sister Merry try to wait patiently in the car while their heavily pregnant mother Eileen Bright walks to a roadside emergency phone to call for help. But it’s so hot in the car, Merry needs to be changed, and their mum has been gone for an hour. SO 12-year-old Jack makes the decision that they should walk to the phone and find their mum. They do find the phone, hanging loose. Their mother is gone. These are moments that will haunt all three children and, when the police finally come across them and take them back to their father, it destroys his life, too. It’s up to Jack to support them all. Whatever he does, it can’t be enough.

Catherine While is so close to giving birth. Her husband’s away a great deal. Then one night she hears someone in the house and she’s determined to be brave and chase them off. But when she returns to her bed, she finds a knife and a note – ‘I could have killed you’ it says. And that is just the first time in which she is frightened almost to death.

Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel is in disgrace. His methods of policing are dubious to say the least and so he has been sent from London, where he solved murders, to the Devon and Cornwall border where he can chase burglars instead. And so when the chance comes to reopen the case of Eileen Bright, he grabs at it. At last he can redeem himself! If he behaves, of course, which he won’t.

Snap is an absolutely fantastic crime thriller by an author that I’m growing to love more and more with every book. This one is undoubtedly my favourite of those I’ve read and that isn’t surprising – it excels in so many ways. Firstly, the story is superb. It’s clever, goes off in completely unexpected directions and is largely driven along by the most brilliant and memorable characters. Much of the novel takes place in 2001, three years after the disappearance of Eileen Bright, a time before social media, or mobile phones, controlled our lives. DCI Marvel is certainly an old-fashioned detective. He knows how to say the wrong thing and he can’t stop himself. I love, though, how he realises that he shouldn’t do it. That his ill-thought through words make his palms sweat when he thinks on them. There is so much about John Marvel to dislike but it’s so difficult not to like him.

Marvel does make mistakes, big mistakes, and so too does Detective Sergeant Reynolds who is the very opposite of his new boss. His pedantry and his fastidiousness are irritating to Marvel and to us but once again – I found myself falling for him. He is, it’s fair to say, a bit of an idiot, but you can’t help thinking that he’ll improve with time. A lot of time.

But the main bittersweet joy of Snap is Belinda Bauer’s non-sentimental depiction of these three deeply troubled children. Jack is such a wonderful creation but Merry is heartbreakingly loveable, as she clings to her tortoise for comfort and does her best to mow the lawn. Poor Joy is a lost soul indeed. My heart went out to these three while also smiling at their escapades. It’s hard to see how things can turn out well but their strength of character shines through. There are lots of cameo appearances through this novel. Glimpses of characters who are full of personality.

Snap is a novel with so much warmth and compassion. There is humour and wit and also a great sense of pace and tension. The second half in particular is unputdownable as Marvel gets more deeply involved in the case. But what a corking story, told brilliantly well. Belinda Bauer is now one of those authors whose books will go straight to the top of my reading mountain. Snap is definitely one of my top reads of 2018 so far.

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The Beautiful Dead