Category Archives: Thriller

Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way

HarperCollins | 2019 (27 June) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla WayIt’s been thirty-two years since Viv’s sister Ruby was killed. Viv was just eight years-old but she was the main witness, responsible for putting away Ruby’s killer. He served thirty years. And now the anniversary has come round again and Viv, her daughter Cleo and her mother Stella give each other what comfort they can. For Viv, who found the body, it’s particularly difficult as the nightmares return more terrifying than ever.

But life has rebuilt itself. Viv has her beautiful clever daughter, a successful cafe and good friends. There is even a chance of romance on the horizon. And then it all goes wrong. This anniversary brings with it new dangers, new fear, and Viv must fight harder than ever for her family. To do that she must remember what happened all those years ago when her beautiful, much-loved sister was killed along with her unborn child.

Having just finished a long, powerful and consuming novel (Wanderers by Chuck Wendig – review to come soon), I was in the mood for a fast, entertaining and twisty thriller. I made a good choice when I picked up Who Killed Ruby? by Camilla Way because it fit the bill perfectly.

This is a short, intense and completely engrossing psychological thriller, which begins with a shock and that intensity doesn’t slip even while Camilla Way skilfully and tenderly builds up the characters of Viv and her daughter Cleo. I really enjoyed the way in which the author takes her time to bring Viv to life and it’s always fascinating as Viv tries to deal with the past while moving her life forward in the present. This includes memories of what happened all those years ago. But it’s fragmentary because this is a place to which Viv does not want to go. Until she has to.

Although I preferred the first half and there were moments when I had to suspend my powers of disbelief, I didn’t mind doing that. Who Killed Ruby? is a catchy, fun and involving thriller that really did keep me guessing to the end. That doesn’t happen very often. I cared for the characters, which is something I do like in a psychological thriller and isn’t always the case. I really enjoyed Watching Edie and Who Killed Ruby? is every bit as good if not even better. I gobbled it up! Excellent!

Other review
Watching Edie

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The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

Trapeze | 2019 (25 July 2019) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Escape Room by Megan GoldinSam, Jules and Sylvie have been gathered together by their Team leader Vincent for a late night meeting at Stanhope, one of the most high profile and elite merchant banks in New York City. Even Vincent doesn’t know what it’s about as they get into the lift. But the lift stops dead and the lights go off. A TV Monitor tells them that they have entered an Escape Room. They have an hour to solve some clues in order to escape. If not, they will be dead. Some of the four have taken part in Escape Rooms before. They’re well-known team building exercises. They just have to work together. But for these four, who do not get along and are each hugely ambitious, competitive and ruthless, this will not be easy. Each of them has somewhere else they want to be. And conditions in the lift are cramped, dark and hot. And then they answer one of the first clues – the answer is Sara Hall, a colleague ‘now gone but not forgotten’. This changes everything. They soon realise that they are fighting for their lives.

The premise of The Escape Room is so fantastic and appealing that I read it as soon as I could and devoured it in just one day. I wanted a fun, escapist thriller to read over the holiday weekend and I made the perfect choice with this. It is so exciting! And the four in the lift are just so despicable. Instead of rooting for them to survive, you can’t help wishing they would get their just desserts. We learn more and more about them as the novel goes on and what we learn is not pretty. And it’s made all the more fascinating because some of these characters, such as Sam, would say that he is one of the good guys and believe it.

Chapters depicting what takes place in the lift alternate with those which tell the story of Sara Hall, a young woman who excelled academically but has fallen on difficult times, desperate to make that break. She receives it, unexpectedly and wonderfully, from Stanhope and now she has a glorious future ahead. The chapters describing company life at Stanhope are brilliant. This is another world entirely. It’s intoxicating. It’s cliquey. It’s mesmerising.

I love thrillers that take place within a confined space and you can’t get a space much more confined than a lift. This is the stuff of nightmares and the panic, tension and misery of it are captured perfectly. This side of the novel is utterly gripping but so too is the story of Sara Hall. I just could not put this book down. There are slightly preposterous elements of it, I think that the ending is slightly rushed (but otherwise satisfying), but on the whole I think that The Escape Room is a huge success and I couldn’t gobble it up quickly enough. Without doubt this is one of my top reads of the year so far.

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

Orion | 2019 (9 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Chain by Adrian McKintyWhen Rachel sets off to go to a hospital appointment she feels that little in her life could be worse – her cancer is back. But then she gets the call. Her daughter Kylie has been kidnapped and the only way she will be returned safely is if Rachel pays the ransom and then kidnaps a child in turn. When the Chain has received the ransom for that child, only then will Kylie be returned. Raising the money is hard enough for Rachel, but the thought of kidnapping a little child is abhorrent, terrifying, but Rachel knows that whatever happens, if she wants to see her daughter alive again, she must not break the chain.

The premise of The Chain is so fantastic that it is irresistible. This novel is receiving a great deal of attention. I’ve found that books surrounded by hype rarely live up to it but The Chain is one of the few that most definitely does! This is such a thrilling read. It starts with a punch and the pace and tension don’t let up as Rachel, and her ex-husband Marty, set off on a tangled trail to recover their daughter and end this once and for all.

But first Rachel and Marty must live through the torment of kidnapping another child – planning it and then actually going through with it. There’s a clinical horror about the way in which Rachel must consider every angle. It’s mesmerising. The tense and edge-of-the-seat action is completed by the moral dilemma facing these people as well as the philosophical question of what it is that can make a good person do evil. It’s very hard indeed, though, not to pity Rachel.

The second half doesn’t quite live up to the first in my opinion, as it becomes a bit more techie and the truth about the Chain is slowly revealed, but nevertheless The Chain has been a real highlight of my reading year so far. Tense, exciting and thoroughly entertaining – and frightening. I love this sort of thriller and so now I’m more than ready for what Adrian McGinty will give us next! In the meantime, I can certainly recommend The Chain and the wait for it is now at an end.

Black Summer by M.W. Craven

Constable | 2019 (20 June) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Black Summer by MW CravenDetective Sergeant Washington Poe maintains that celebrity chef Jared Keating is one of the most evil men that he has ever encountered. Evil that stands in striking contrast to the man’s charm and charisma. He’s currently serving a life sentence for the murder in his Cumbrian restaurant of his daughter Elizabeth and Poe was instrumental in catching him, putting him away and throwing away the key. Then one day, six years later, a girl staggers into a library where a local policeman, a community problem solver, keeps a desk. All of the evidence indicates that she is none other than Elizabeth Keating. Poe’s career will be destroyed but even worse than that for Poe is the knowledge that a psychopathic killer will walk free. With the help of analyst Tilly Bradshaw, Poe is determined to prove the impossible and stop that from happening.

Last year, M.W. Craven introduced Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw to the world in the brilliantly dark, atmospheric and beautifully located The Puppet Show. Black Summer is every bit as good. You don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy Black Summer, but I really think you should anyway. Poe, Tilly and their boss DI Stephanie Flynn (and Edgar the dog) are worth your time.

Poe’s job is based in Hampshire but once more he must return to his roots and the stunning, remote Cumbrian countryside. That is a big part of this series’ appeal. M.W. Craven immerses us in the Lake District, although we go well off the beaten track. Poe’s croft is impossible to get to by car. You’ve got to use a quad bike or walk. The weather is awful. The croft is sparse. But Poe is grounded in this place and we feel that. Poe is a fascinating character. He’s troubled, with quite a past, but he’s also thoughtful, determined and kind. And that brings us to Tilly who is a very good reason why I’ll always read these novels. She is an absolute delight. On the spectrum and frequently a social embarrassment, she is a fixated, obsessive, warm genius. She and Poe together are so funny. And when Flynn is with them this wonderful trio of characters is complete. I love all three of them.

The story at the heart of Black Summer is brilliant! I loved the celebrity chef aspect to it. Much of the book takes place in and around his famous kitchen and I really enjoyed the little culinary details and tips. This is very witty writing and the scenario is perfect. The tale is dark, gory, frightening at times and often sinister as Poe and Tilly dig into what it means to be a psychopath. It’s utterly engrossing.

Black Summer is a really excellent, atmospheric, moody and compelling crime mystery, set in a beautiful location and with a pleasingly foody aftertaste. It’s so good to see Tilly, Poe and Flynn again and here we see them investigating a mystery that is fully worthy of them. This is a series to keep close.

Other review
The Puppet Show

The Gameshouse by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (30 May) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Gameshouse by Claire North

You wouldn’t be able to find the Gameshouse if you went looking for it. But should you need it, should you have what it takes to be a player, or should you have been ruined and enslaved by it, then the Gameshouse will find you. These three novellas have now been combined into one, which is as it should be, and as a whole they build up a picture of the power of the Gameshouse, an institution that has the power to change the fate of nations and control vast numbers of lives.

In Serpent we see the effect of the game on 17th-century Venice politics. Thene has the gift of a natural player and, before she can be inducted into the highest level of the Gameshouse, she must prove herself at a game of cards. But this is no ordinary game and the cards are not at all what you’d expect. Thene must outwit three other players, each of whom has powerful cards to play. The victorious will control Venice’s government, but Thene knows this isn’t the biggest prize. In The Thief we see the power of the Gameshouse on a national level as two players compete in a game of hide and seek across Thailand. Finally, in The Master, a power struggle within the Gameshouse pits country against country, as players manipulate their most prized and most significantly placed pieces around the globe to fight a battle that only one player can win but at a devastating cost.

I’m a huge fan of Claire North’s unusual, mind-bending speculative thrillers and The Gameshouse is, I do believe, a masterpiece. The fact that it was first published in three disparate parts doesn’t matter at all. Each story is separate and distinct but each influences the others, the same characters appear in two or three of them, and the influence of the Gameshouse itself grows throughout the three parts in a kind of crescendo. It is very clever.

And so too is the prose. It does take a little while to get used to the style, particularly in The Serpent, which is influenced by the manners of 17th-century Venetian society. There are no speech marks in this section, for instance. There is also a very knowing narrative persona to get used to. In all three sections, and especially in the second, the narrator appeals to us as perhaps a fellow wise spectator and player. This did alienate me a little from events in the first part but as that story developed and my jaw dropped further and further, I was captivated. And part two, with the hide and seek, is riveting. Then it becomes much more of an adventure. Claire North does indeed play with us as the book moves between third-, second- and first-person tenses. There are little games to be enjoyed throughout.

Claire North’s writing is clever and original but it’s also very witty and, fittingly for this novel, playful. It’s a joy to read on more than one level and the pages flew through my fingers. There is also pathos. Some tragic stories can be found within. So much is gambled, sometimes on the toss of a coin, so much can be lost. Some pieces have indeed as good as lost their souls. I loved the science fiction feel of parts of this. There’s something inhuman, superhuman, alien about some of these players as they manipulate their mortal pieces, cards or pawns.

The Gameshouse presents a staggering portrait of power, astonishing the reader with the lengths to which players will pursue their games, as well as their (mostly) casual disregard for their enslaved pieces, which they manipulate, manouevre and sacrifice. This is a very, very good book, and every bit as good as the very best of Claire North’s previous books.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
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The Killing Gene by E.M. Davey

Duckworth | 2019 (27 June) | 321p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Killing Gene by EM DaveyDr Sakiko Tsuda of Bristol University, a linguist chasing an archaeological mystery, disappears without trace in the heart of the Congo. Her colleague, Professor Randolph Harkness, believes she was on the verge of a discovery that could overturn the world’s understanding of the evolution of modern man and the exodus of the first humans from Africa and Asia. This is a discovery, though, shrouded in conspiracy and Sakiko has paid the price. Harkness, along with Ross McCartney, the troubled young son of a friend, is determined to find her. And so they set off on an adventure that will take them across Africa and Europe, into a deadly world of assassins and spies.

But Randolph and Ross aren’t alone in being caught up in the mystery of the most distant past – another academic, one who specialises in the development of language, is on the run, her husband cruelly tortured. And in London a very unpopular MP is about to become a pawn in a game she can’t hope to win. Furious, Gloria Hastings sets out to get her own back. What she discovers will pull the ground out from beneath her feet.

The Killing Gene is a fantastic thriller! It’s not often that you come across a clever, well-researched anthropological thriller that is every bit as exciting as it is intelligent. There are some grand claims made here but they are all backed up, with discussions of the archaeological and linguistic record – all placed lightly or effectively into the prose. It’s an enormous puzzle, with some pieces missing, others tantalisingly close, and the others completely mixed up and guarded by killers who prefer to shoot first and never ask questions. The added extra of the political spy thread fits in really well. The contrast between the remote jungle and the men’s clubs and parliament gatherings of London couldn’t be more striking, but the dangers both pose are surprisingly equal.

What I really loved about The Killing Gene is its characterisation. This book is populated by a number of people that are so wonderfully depicted that I cared deeply for them. Making it even more intense is the realisation that these are not superhuman or indestructible human beings. They are indeed made of flesh and blood and they will not all make it. They seem aware of this, leading to moments of desperate humour as well as other moments when they cling to one another. This all means that, while there is laughter (this is a witty book at times), there are also tears. Ross McCartney is a particularly loveable character and the fact that he has just been told that he is going blind hangs over everything. These are not your typical thriller characters.

And then there’s Gloria Hastings, a kind of composite Tory leadership contender. She is odious. But, against all odds, I actually warmed to her. Again, she felt real, flawed and vulnerable. There are some really well done little moments in the way that E.M. Davey establishes her character.

At the beginning of the novel I was slightly confused by the number of characters and threads but this didn’t last as I soon got used to who was who and who was where. I love the locations, the way that the author pulls in some of the local history for each of these places. The author has visited the locations. This research really pays off.

The Killing Gene is such an engrossing, character-led thriller. It’s thoroughly exciting, it’s fascinating, it’s horrifying and it is also tender and sad. I really enjoyed the adventure of it all. I grimaced at some of the gore – bits are very gorey – and I sat riveted by the mystery itself. It is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Excellent!

The Exiled by David Barbaree

Zaffre | 2019 (27 June) | 367p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Exiled by David BarbareeThe Exiled is the sequel to one of my very favourite books of 2017, the remarkable Deposed. What if Nero didn’t die in AD 68? What if he managed to get away, blinded, maimed, a different man, to somewhere distant from Rome where he could plot against the emperors who succeeded him? That is the premise of this fantastic series and I’m delighted (but not surprised) to say that The Exiled is every bit as good as its predecessor. I would urge you to read Deposed first, even though The Exiled stands well on its own. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

It is the summer of AD 79. Emperor Vespasian has just recently died and the new ruler is his son Titus, a man of action. Titus is also a superstitious man and he is troubled by the words of an oracle, which foretold a great disaster and, perhaps even more troubling, that a slave will rule. There is trouble in the East, yet again. Brothers compete, and murder, for the Parthian throne. There are Parthian hostages in Rome, pledged during an earlier war, and now they will be caught in the middle of a power struggle between Rome, which they hate, and Parthia, which they no longer know. As a Parthian embassy arrives in Rome, trouble stirs and plots are hatched.

Keenly observing it all, with senses other than his blind eyes, is the wealthy Spanish senator Lucius Ulpius, who is growing ever closer to the emperor Titus. Titus’ closest friend, Pliny, both admiral and scientist, is jealous but, more to the point, he is also suspicious, and he instructs his young nephew Gaius to observe. But there is something else to fascinate Pliny – the mountain of Vesuvius rumbles ominously and the ground shakes.

The Exiled is a very, very good book. As with its predecessor, this is such an original take on a very familiar period of Roman history. Here we have Nero as never presented before. He was brought to the very depths of despair, blinded, tortured and humiliated. But, thanks to Marcus (now passed off as the senator’s nephew) and men like him, Nero survived and he has forgotten nothing, despite the transformation undergone by his character due to what he has suffered. Nero, now Lucius Ulpius, has learned wisdom from his suffering. He wants revenge but he is prepared to wait for the right time and serve it cold.

The focus in this novel isn’t actually on Ulpius at all. He’s always there in the background. We can never forget him. But much of the narrative is told in the present tense by Gaius, the nephew of the extraordinary man we know as Pliny the Elder. This is fascinating! Gaius is the perfect witness to history. He’s been instructed by his uncle on how and what to observe and, although at times he is forced into social situations he hates, he learns and watches and records. And then everything is overshadowed by the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Exiled is such an exciting and riveting novel – a Roman political thriller with a disaster novel thrown in for our added enjoyment. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pages. We hear other voices and they resonate, especially Titus’s sister Domitilla, who is caught up in something way beyond her control. And then there’s the Parthian hostage, Barlaas. Each of these has a unique voice and plays such a central part in a brilliant story. We see so many aspects of Roman life, including the games. Here we meet gladiators as well as senators, servants, the inn keepers, the ordinary man and woman on the street, each of which has a significant part to play in what unfolds.

There is so much plot in The Exiled! There is clearly – thankfully – much more to come and in a future novel I’m sure we will see how Nero/Ulpius has manoeuvered himself. In The Exiled, he plays a quiet but significant part. Ironically, Titus is worried by the False Neros who threaten him in the East, never realising that the real Nero is right under his nose.

I could go on and on about how much I love The Exiled. Really, you just need to read it for yourself. It’s a story, a thriller, that works on so many levels as Nero works his way into the emperor’s court. But, on top of that, the chapters set in Pompeii are riveting. The Exiled, just like its predecessor Deposed, is original, clever, exciting and engrossing. I can’t praise it or its author enough.

Other review
Deposed