Category Archives: Thriller

Copycat by Alex Lake

HarperCollins | 2017 (7 September) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Copycat by Alex LakeWhen an old friend, Rachel, gets in touch with Sarah Havenant for the first time in years, she asks Sarah a very odd question – which of Sarah’s two Facebook accounts is the one to friend? Sarah only has the one. When Sarah takes a look she’s shocked to find that this other account has photos of her husband Ben and their children, even a couple taken over the last day or two. The posts sound like Sarah wrote them, they contain the mundane details of her life that only she should know. Sarah’s family and friends, including a police officer, are concerned but it’s difficult to know what she should do. And then, just when she’s ready to put it out of her mind, it escalates – emails, purchases made from her Amazon account, and more. It’s around this time that Ben begins to think that perhaps the impossible is true – is Sarah doing this to herself?

Copycat is the third stand alone psychological thriller by Alex Lake and I’ve enjoyed all of them. They each feature an intriguing female protagonist who has the ground swept away from under her feet. We’re never quite sure what is happening and these women certainly don’t. And it puts everyone around them into the same dark place as the main character sinks further into herself, questioning everything around them. Sarah is a fine example of this. Her own identity is being eroded for reasons she can’t fathom until she even doubts her own sanity.

Social media is becoming increasingly appealing to authors of psychological thrillers and it’s used well here, expanding on the theme of identity fraud. I’ve had experience of this and so I found the way that this story develops particularly frightening. It certainly keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

There are elements of the story that I found quite hard to accept. I don’t want to give anything away but I did have trouble with the reasons for why all of this is happening. So while the first half is thoroughly absorbing and tense, scary even, this is dissipated in the second half (at least for me) as it is all explained. Nevertheless, even though this isn’t my favourite of the three, I enjoy Alex Lake’s writing very much. I like the ways in which his stories undermine the everyday lives of his main protagonists and affect those around them. Life is a frightening place in the world of Copycat. As Sarah becomes more and more afraid, she finds threats everywhere, but which are real and which are red herrings are not easy to separate. It leaves Sarah with nowhere to go. And it is fascinating and thrilling to watch.

Other reviews and features
After Anna
Killing Kate
An interview

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An interview with Alex Lake, author of Copycat

Copycat by Alex LakeAlex Lake is one of my favourite authors of psychological thrillers – I loved After Anna and Killing Kate (despite the latter’s title, obviously…). The good news is that this week HarperCollins publishes Alex’s latest thriller, Copycat. A review will follow shortly but, in the meantime, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to interview Alex as part of the blog tour to celebrate Copycat‘s publication.

First, a little of what the book’s about:

Imitation is the most terrifying form of flattery…

Which Sarah Havenant is you?

When an old friend gets in touch, Sarah Havenant discovers that there are two Facebook profiles in her name. One is hers. The other, she has never seen.

But everything in it is accurate. Photos of her friends, her husband, her kids. Photos from the day before. Photos of her new kitchen. Photos taken inside her house.

And this is just the beginning. Because whoever has set up the second profile has been waiting for Sarah to find it. And now that she has, her life will no longer be her own…

Q&A, with thanks to Alex!

Congratulations, Alex, for Copycat! Another excellent psychological thriller. What inspired you to write the story of Sarah Havenant? Where did her story come from?

Thank you – very kind! Sarah’s story came from a number of different ideas that I had floating around – I’d been thinking about identity theft online, I had an idea about meeting your doppelganger and what that might do, I wanted to write about someone – who became Sarah – who had a seemingly stable, solid life, but who had no idea of what was coming to them and how vulnerable they were. And then, one evening, all of the ideas came together: the doppelganger became an online doppelganger, and they were the person who meant Sarah serious harm.

That tends to be how it happens – I have all kinds of scraps and notes and ideas for characters, none of which is, on its own, a book. Then one day they assemble in some way and I think – there it is. That’s a novel.

Did researching the story affect your use of social media, particularly Facebook?

I don’t use social media all that much, although if I did I would probably have stopped after writing Copycat! I read a bunch of stuff on identity theft, and all that someone needs to get access to your bank accounts and tax records and whatever else they want, is your name, birthday, address and a few personal details like your maiden name or the names of your kids. It does seem risky to leave all that out there for the world to see.

You’ve written three psychological thrillers, each is original and also compelling. Do you already have ideas for the next? Does it get harder each time?

I do. I’m working on something now, and I have a rough idea of the one after that. As I mentioned earlier, I also have a drawer full of notebooks and scraps of paper with ideas and sketches on them, some of which will make it into a novel at some point.

I think it gets easier in some ways and harder in others. Easier, because you get better at spotting what isn’t working – a character or scene or plot line – and you become more ruthless – now I don’t hesitate to cut something if I think it is not quite right.

Harder, because you start to worry about becoming repetitive. It’s not the writing itself – it’s the ideas. Other writers may be different but I can’t force ideas to come – all I can do is gather the scraps and wait for them to come into focus. It always feels a bit risky – what if they don’t come?

Do you have the plots of your novels worked out completely before you start writing or do you leave room for character and plot to develop as you write?

I have the characters, the situation they are put into, and the ending. I need all three before I start on a first draft. In particular, I have to have the ending. I have at least two manuscripts in a drawer that I got about 60,000 words into and realised I didn’t have an ending for. So I try to avoid that now.

Once I start I let the characters and plot go where they will. Often a character surprises me by doing or saying something I wasn’t planning, and that can lead to unexpected developments in the plot.

How important is a twist to you as a writer and a reader?

I think it’s important in a psychological thriller because it’s sort of the engine of the book – everything’s going along and then suddenly something happens and our understanding of the characters and events is totally changed – normally we realise that their situation is a lot worse than we thought. The twist is the way we get that understanding. It’s also fun, because readers know it’s coming and try to figure it out. It’s a bit like a whodunit – there’s an element of a game between the reader and writer.

However, the twist alone is not enough. You still need characters you can believe in and sympathise with and a villain who scares you, as well as an original idea for a plot.

Some historical fiction authors avoid reading other historical fiction. Do you read psychological thrillers for pleasure? If you do, do you work them out?

I tend not to read them when I’m writing or they kind of creep into my work, but I do read them at other times. Sometimes I work them out, but not often. I don’t think that being a writer of psychological thrillers necessarily helps – other writers approach the puzzles and problems totally differently. I’m often amazed (and jealous) at what they come up with.

What is your favorite novel of the year so far?

Gosh, it’s hard to choose. If I have to pick one, I’ll go for His Bloody Project. I thought it was really original, and I read it in an afternoon.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. It’s fascinating – he describes how trees communicate with each other, care for sick trees by providing them sugar and water through interconnected roots, and even have families, of a sort. It’s really changing how I think about my walks in the forest!

Reviews
After Anna
Killing Kate

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

copycat blog tour banner

Defender by G.X. Todd

Headline | 2017 (Pb: 10 August) | 480p | review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Defender by GX ToddThe world as we know it has ended. Just a few short years ago the majority of people listened to the voices in their heads that instructed them to kill – friends or family, strangers on the street, and then themselves. Those who survived have learned to hate and fear anyone with a voice inside their head, and with good reason, but what they might not know is that among the survivors there are those who still hear Voice, but its new words are not what they would expect. Pilgrim lives with Voice in his head and when it tells him to stop by the side of the road and buy homemade lemonade from Lacey, a young girl with nothing but her courage and brains left, he does what he’s told.

So begins Pilgrim and Lacey’s road journey in search of Lacey’s sister and niece. Lacey insists that they’re still alive, although she hasn’t seen or heard from them in the eight years or so since the world’s fall into bloody violence. Pilgrim has nowhere else to go and so, driven on by Voice and then by another waif that they collect along the way, he takes on his new role of protecting Lacey, keeping Voice very much to himself.

Defender is the first of a series of four novels called The Voices and takes us into territory reminiscent of Stephen King’s finest novel (in my opinion) The Stand and Todd’s homage is a fine tribute. The world building is absolutely fantastic, with its long stretches of dusty road, abandoned by all but empty vehicles and the occasional solitary soul or, and these should be avoided, mysterious convoy. Houses, towns, motels are places of refuge, supplies and the utmost danger. After eight years of apocalypse a lot of things are running out. Life hasn’t yet found a way. People have become feral. This is frightening stuff, especially when you realise that one of the main characters is a young teenage girl who is having innocence forced from her with almost every step of the journey.

There is nothing safe about this new world and Defender takes us into some bleak places and situations. Predators lurk and Pilgrim and Lacey have a knack of falling into the wrong hands. This includes sexual violence which, I will admit, is not something I like to read about and so I did skim these sections while wishing that they weren’t there. To me, these scenes didn’t come with the significance or resonance I felt they would have in reality. But this is just a thing of mine and so is my fault rather than the novel’s, which has a great deal of difficult themes to contend with and otherwise does so brilliantly.

Pilgrim and Lacey are both such deeply involving characters to follow. Pilgrim in particular is fascinating and I grew very fond of him. The novel moves between the two and so we spend good time with them both. Voice has a personality of its own and it plays such an intriguing and effective role. I loved its tone and couldn’t wait to learn more of it. How characters deal with having such a voice in their heads constantly is a big appeal of the novel and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops in future books.

This is the first novel in a series and so there is much still to be revealed. There are rumours of other travellers, of people on the hunt for those who can hear Voice as well as much more that is barely touched on at this early stage. It leaves the reader prepared and ready for more. But there have been shocks along the way and we know that in the second novel much will have changed.

Defender finishes at a good point. There may be more to come but it is also pleasingly complete in itself and so is a very satisfying read. It’s disturbing and menacing, dusty and heated, and it is also immersive and extremely accomplished. G.X. Todd writes so well. The way she gets into the heads of her characters is wonderful and what she does with them is both shocking and thrilling. This is one of those books that does not let you put it down. It keeps you enthralled from start to finish and is a fast and exciting read. Not only is Defender the first in the series, it’s also Todd’s debut and is an astonishing one – it’s hard to imagine a better beginning to The Voices. Who knows where they’ll take us next? I’ll be listening.

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2017 (24 August) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

All the Wicked Girls by Chris WhitakerThe small town of Grace in Alabama is in trouble. Isolated in many ways from the surrounding world, it is now even separated by its weather. A wall of cloud and looming storm hangs around and over this town. Several of its inhabitants drive out each day beyond the wall, just so that they can feel the warmth and brightness of sun on their skin and faces, and be reminded what normal is like.

Summer and Raine Ryan are sisters and their names reveal how different these teenage girls are from one another. Summer, though, the one who is easy to know and like, is missing and the disappearance reminds the town and its sheriff, Chief Black, of the case of the missing Briar girls. Presumed murdered, these girls continue to haunt the town. They are its curse and surely the worst thing that could happen to Grace is that the murderer has returned to continue his work. Everyone wants Summer found alive, especially her sister Raine and Raine’s friends Noah and Purv.

Beyond this, I’ll say no more about the plot because All the Wicked Girls is quite simply a work of genius. And that’s no exaggeration. Its story is astonishing and complex and it is driven as much by heart as it is by puzzles and surprises. Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s previous novel, is one of my favourite novels of recent years but, incredible as it seems, All the Wicked Girls leaves it behind.

The central mystery is brilliantly told from a range of perspectives, including Summer’s own, and it moves back and forth through the weeks leading up to Summer’s disappearance. We hear from several of the people who influenced Summer’s life and were so deeply affected by this wonderful girl. We’re soon aware that not everything is as it seems but how we learn this, and what we learn, is beautifully told.

Chris Whitaker writes superbly. As with Tall Oaks, I marvel at how this British author captures the mood and sound of an American small town. It’s not overdone. It feels completely natural and each of these characters has his or her own distinctive voice.

But what drives All the Wicked Girls beyond its wonderful plot and its fantastically atmospheric sense of place, is its people. In Tall Oaks I fell for Manny (like everyone else!) but in All the Wicked Girls we have Noah and Purv and it’s fair to say that I can think of no other characters in recent years that I have fallen for quite as hard as this. Their individual personalities and their friendship come alive in an astonishing way, and this is as due to Chris Whitaker’s stunning and often understated use of language as it is his empathy for young people. This is clever writing. We hear a phrase and it’s only later that we learn the full significance of its meaning and it hits us like a fist. I loved Summer and Raine too (how could I not?) but Purv and Noah made me laugh and cry time after time. Just thinking about Noah, his courage, wisdom, kindness and deep heart, makes me want to weep.

This is a novel that takes us into some very dark places. The melancholy of Grace goes far deeper than the storm that hovers over it. It is disturbing at times, there is no doubt of that, but it is also filled with a humanity despite its subject and I was held spellbound. There are so many reasons to read All the Wicked Girls but if I had to give you just one – well, two reasons – it would be to read it for Noah and Purv. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Other review
Tall Oaks

Yesterday by Felicia Yap

Wildfire | 2017 (10 August) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Yesterday by Felicia YapImagine an alternative present, in which nobody over the age of 18 can remember what happened more than one or two days ago. The fortunate ones are Duos – those who can remember the events of the day before yesterday. The Monos, on the other hand, can remember only yesterday. As a result, Monos are victimised and judged as inferior, backward and of little use to society. They must even register at the Department of Monos. They have little chance of advancing in their careers. Duos, on the other hand, are regarded as the thinkers, inventors, artists and doers of society. They are the high achievers. But, in order to manage, everyone must record their everyday lives onto their iDiaries and each day they must study it to remember the ‘Facts’ of their lives.

How easy it must be, then, to hide a murder, to forget it even happened. But why would anyone choose to murder at all? It’s difficult to hate somebody when you can choose to forget that they even exist. These are the issues facing DCI Hans Richardson when the body of a woman is pulled from the river Cam in Cambridge. The obvious suspect is the man with whom she was having an affair, novelist Mark Evans, a Duo who is close to achieving his goal of being elected an MP. He is also married to a Mono who everyday must learn to re-love a man she knows she can’t trust. But how can Hans tell what really happened when the clock is ticking towards yet another day of forgotten memories? The answer he feels may be found in the iDiary secrets of the murdered woman, Sophia.

Yesterday is an excellent psychological thriller with an intriguing and original premise. It’s set in a world (and England) that we can recognise but everything is altered due to the way that people and society cope without the luxury of memory. This is done brilliantly. We’re given extracts from scientific and social studies, from personal diaries and from literature (including snippets from Mark Evans’s own novels) which illustrate what this means for culture and society. In a way it’s almost a Utopia – there’s little crime, war or unhappiness – but then we’re reminded of what the reality is actually like for Monos. There’s a reason why there’s no misogyny, religious hatred and racism in this alternate world – all that prejudice is reserved for the Monos. It’s fascinating stuff. It also allows for some humorous touches, such as Steve Jobs’ runaway success in developing the iDiary (with lots of software updates, obviously).

Much of the narrative is told by each of the main characters (Mark, his wife Claire, Sophia and Hans) in turn, moving backwards and forwards between them, and also moving into the past, especially in the sections told by the victim. But each is the very epitome of the unreliable narrator – how could they be otherwise? Each of these people is either desperate to remember or to forget. It also throws light on the relationship between Duos and Monos by focusing on how Mark and Claire relate to each other. Claire is a wonderful character, my favourite in the novel, and her story is incredible and very moving at times. My feelings towards Sophia were much more complicated – what a creation she is. Hans has his own problems, a world away from those facing detectives in crime fiction set in our time and place. Hans has only a day to solve the crime and this adds a different twist to the police procedural element of the novel.

I did have one minor issue with the novel. I didn’t understand how people could make themselves remember Facts from their iDiaries. This gets over the obvious problem of characters not being able to remember anything or anyone at all but I didn’t understand how it worked.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the way that Yesterday comes together into what is a very clever and original debut novel from Felicia Yap. It races along and maintains the tension throughout. I’m very intrigued to see where the author will head next. I think it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond

Michael Joseph | 2017 (27 July) | 414p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Marriage Pact by Michelle RichmondAlice and Jake are the perfect couple – young, attractive, with fine careers ahead of them. Alice was a singer in a successful rock band but now she’s an up and coming lawyer while Jake is a partner in a growing psychology practice. They’re ready to get married. On the spur of the moment they invite one of Alice’s wealthy clients to the wedding. He loves weddings, he tells them. His gift is unexpected – an offer to join something called the Pact.

The Pact, Alice and Jake learn, is a society of like-minded couples who want nothing more than to achieve the perfect marriage. It lays down a few rules that are designed to bring the couple closer together and every few months everyone gathers at a Pact party to celebrate their marriages and friendships. It all sounds positive and Jake and Alice desperately want their marriage to work. Jake spends much of his time counselling couples on the verge of divorce. He knows better than most that a relationship takes commitment. Perhaps they could do with the help. So, with only a cursory glance at the paperwork, Jake and Alice join the Pact. And so begins a descent into a hell of their own making.

What follows is something from the realms of horror that, as reviewers have noted, has elements in common with The Stepford Wives. For the Pact is nothing but a sinister cult. It might be glamorous on the outside but its core is rotten through and through. The lengthy manual that Jake and Alice are given lays out the code and any infractions are met with punishments of increasing brutality and humiliation. Jake and Alice are trapped and what happens to them is appalling.

The Marriage Pact is undoubtedly one of the most gripping novels I’ve read this year. It’s a rollercoaster ride of suffering for Jake and Alice but it’s a thrilling read for us as time after time we wonder what could possibly happen next. The movement from the beginning to the end is staggering, so much has happened. The members of the Pact are successful members of society and it’s all stripped away before our eyes.

There is a fundamental issue with The Marriage Pact that you have to get past in order to enjoy it. Its premise is completely preposterous and unbelievable. This is compounded by the fact that Alice is a lawyer – why didn’t she read the contract? And the incredible resources that the Pact has in its power are just that – incredible. Everything feels that it is held together purely by compliance and submission. I wanted to shake these silly people from start to finish.

But, if you can get past this as I did, then you’ll have a lot of fun with The Marriage Pact. It’s well-written and there are sections of this novel that were golden to me. These bits, for me, weren’t part of the main plot but to do with Jake’s job as a psychologist. The novel is narrated by Jake and he likes to tell us about his day, giving us facts and figures, for example, about marriage as well as anecdotes about coming to terms with one’s past. I found some of these sections extraordinarily powerful and I actually took some tips away from it! Some of the book’s ideas went far deeper than I was expecting.

I also enjoyed Jake and Alice. It’s easy to feel irritated by Alice but her character is an interesting one and I was desperate for her to wake up. Their relationship, though, feels genuine and I did care what happened to them. The spiral into hell that is The Marriage Pact happens fast and it is very hard to put down. The ending has divided reviewers and I can’t say that it was entirely satisfactory for me but I can’t imagine how else it might have ended so I’m happy enough with it. This is a novel with fine writing and huge energy and heart and within were significant little nuggets of gold which I’ll carry away with me.

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of The Marriage Pact. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

The Marriage Pact blog tour

They All Fall Down by Tammy Cohen

Black Swan | 2017 (13 July) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

They All Fall Down by Tammy CohenThere was a time when everything was going well for Hannah – she had a happy marriage, a good job and with every hope of having a child to complete her life. But then she did something that shocked all who knew her and now she exists as well as she can in an expensive psychiatric clinic, The Meadows. The clinic is exclusive with few patients, all female. It’s taken a while but Hannah is beginning to form friendships but her progress is compromised when two of those closest to her commit suicide. She’s told that both were high suicide risks but Hannah is convinced that there’s more to it. She believes that they were murdered. But who would believe a woman regarded by doctors and family alike as mad?

Tammy Cohen has rapidly become one of my very favourite authors, thanks to the fabulous and original psychological thriller When She Was Bad and also the superb A Dangerous Crossing (written as Rachel Rhys), which will be among my top novels of 2017. They All Fall Down is another standalone psychological thriller with an unusual and captivating, almost claustrophobic, setting – this time a small psychiatric clinic. Our cast of characters is also relatively small but each of them is complex and holds our attention to the utmost.

At the heart of the novel is Hannah and this is reflected in the present-tense chapters that bear her name. But Hannah is the very epitome of the unreliable witness. We only find out slowly why she is in The Meadows but we can see some of the signs of her illness in her behaviour. I warmed to her immediately but I can’t say that I ever trusted her. But her story as it is revealed is fascinating and pulls us to her. It is even more difficult to know the other patients in the clinic. Each copes with what life has thrown with them and none can be relied upon.

We follow a small number of other characters, taking us outside of the clinic setting – Laura, one of the medical staff who works so hard to find the real Hannah within the damaged one before them, and Corinne, Hannah’s mother, who is determined to do whatever she can to help Hannah return to her old life. Each of these women brings a new perspective to Hannah’s story but, instead of stripping away the layers, they add to them. From one chapter to the next, we have little idea where we are heading.

They All Fall Down is such a fabulously twisty twisted tale. We expect this from Tammy Cohen and she most certainly delivers. I’m pretty good at working out psychological thrillers – I read so many of them – but this one surprised me continually and I loved that. But these aren’t shocks for shocks’ sake – they serve the story, the story of Hannah, and so we are emotionally invested in each of them. The relationship between Hannah and her mother is told so well and gives the novel such a punch that complements brilliantly the unravelling of the book’s mysteries, for there is more than one.

I thoroughly enjoyed the claustrophobic atmosphere and the world of secrets evoked by the clinic setting. It presents a sympathetic portrait of the clinic’s troubled and vulnerable patients and of the responsibility and duty of those who have them in their care. At times, we descend into horrifying territory but it is also an uplifting story in some ways as characters hold each other close. I might have imagined at the beginning that I knew where the novel would take me but I was so wrong and I relished each of its surprises while immersing myself in the gripping story of Hannah.

Other reviews
When She Was Bad
(as Rachel Rhys) A Dangerous Crossing