Tag Archives: Thriller

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Hutchinson | 2020 (6 February) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter MurrayIt is 2059 and thirty years have passed since the Earth finally stopped spinning, after ten years of a gradual, excruciating and catastrophic slowing. The results have devastated much of the world, with almost half plunged into constant freezing blackness and almost the other half baked into extinction by the unrelenting sun. Few parts of the planet remain habitable and, ironically, it is the Old World that has fared the best. While the New World roasts or freezes, it is Britain and northern Europe where life can continue in some form or other. Northern Europe has been transformed into the Breadbasket and it is there that all prisoners, all dissenting voices, are sent. They are sent from Britain, a nation that now sees itself as great again, commanding the seas, its borders closed as millions of refugees seek salvation. It is denied to all but the most useful. Davenport is Prime Minister and his power is absolute, the media completely controlled or removed, citizens bound by hunger, deprivation and curfew.

Dr Ellen Hopper is a scientist working on a British rig far from the south western coast of Britain in a perpetual cold twilight world. Her job is to monitor the oceans for changing patterns in the flows of the seas. She has a life there of sorts, she doesn’t want to leave. Then one day she has to. Her University mentor is dying and he wants to see Ellen before he dies. He has something vital to tell her of devastating significance. Whatever he wants to tell her, the government wants to know too and so begins a cat and mouse chase which is not only deadly for Ellen but could have untold consequences for the future of a dying humanity.

I do like a post-apocalyptic thriller and I couldn’t resist the premise of The Last Day. What makes this book especially interesting is that it tackles the subject from a British perspective and asks what might happen if the most hospitable place to live in the world turned out to be these small islands and what effect that would have on government and politics – the answer is not a good one. Which means that this is a political thriller every bit as much as it’s a post-apocalyptic/dystopian thriller.

The world building is excellent. The novel starts in the frightening world of the rig in the cold twilight, which is very much a frontier and border. It moves then to London and it’s fascinating seeing the city recreated as a place that in parts almost reminds its unhappy citizens of the old world before The Slow while other parts are clearly almost destroyed by that event. We see landmarks in ruins, people rioting, a curfew ruthlessly enforced, and empty shops and museums. And then there’s the daylight that never ends, which also has an impact on the psyche of the inhabitants, just as the relentless sun seers their skin. I especially liked the sections in my own hometown of Oxford, which was frighteningly recognisable while also being ruined.

The thriller races along. There are some great ideas and concepts in this novel and it certainly has an intriguing plot. However, I did have some issues with it, largely because I found it hard to engage with or care for any of the characters. Hopper is almost always called by her surname in the narrative and that did distance me from her further. The result is that this made the novel hard to get into. The plot, while intriguing, isn’t suspenseful, so the reveal had little impact. Nevertheless, The Last Day has a good premise and is a fun and entertaining read. Its strength is most definitely in its excellent world building, all of which is described with great skill and impact.

Haven’t They Grown by Sophie Hannah

Hodder & Stoughton | 2020 (23 January) | 329p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Haven't They Grown by Sophie HannahIt’s 12 years since the friendship ended between Beth and Flora, since they lost touch. So much time has passed that Beth wonders what happened to her former best friend and her children. One day a perfect opportunity comes along to find out and Beth cannot resist it. Her teenage son Ben is playing football at a ground that is no distance at all from the grand house that Flora and her husband Lewis moved to all those years ago. Beth is waiting outside hoping for a glimpse when a car drives through the open gates and out climbs Flora and with her are her two children Thomas and Emily. But Thomas and Emily are exactly as they were 12 years before. They’re still small children, they’re even wearing the same clothes that Flora remembers, and Flora seems upset. How is this possible? Why haven’t they aged and what is wrong with Flora? From that moment on Beth becomes obsessed with discovering the truth. There is nothing on Earth that will stop her.

Haven’t They Grown has an incredible premise. As soon as I heard it I knew I had to read it. Talk about a compelling read! The novel is effectively written as a puzzle. It’s set up right at the beginning and every page afterwards contributes to the pieces slowly coming together in a way that I could not guess. And from the very first page I knew I could not stop reading until I knew. The story is written in the first person – this is Beth’s story and it’s her obsessive, determined voice, thinking aloud, that drives this novel on. It works extremely well.

The puzzle is what matters here above all else, including character, but, even so, I really enjoyed getting to know Beth, her husband Dom and their teenage kids Ben and Zannah, especially Zannah. They feel like a normal family (almost). There are no issues, no angst, just a loving family who talk normally to each other. Their dialogue is great! It feels natural and is often humorous. Dom and Beth have a wonderful relationship and, even though her obsession can irritate him, he is supportive. As for Zannah, she should be revising for exams but she’s far too caught up helping her mum. I loved all this. It’s an extraordinary premise but our main characters feel believable.

There are less believable aspects to the novel as the plot is unravelled. On that, though, I’m not going to say a word. I knew nothing about the story beyond the premise when I read it and that’s all any reader should know. I did find aspects of it unconvincing, especially in the final third, but as always that’s just my opinion. I still found it a compelling read and I loved Zannah. How pleasant and unsual to read a novel that features a perfectly normal, likeable and funny teenage girl! This is one of those books that it’s very likely you’ll just gobble up, hunting for the answers to a fantastic puzzle that really makes this thriller stand out.

Black 13 by Adam Hamdy

Macmillan | 2020 (23 January) | 472p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Black 13 by Adam HamdyScott Pearce is a man with a mission. An ex-M16 agent and decorated soldier, he is working undercover as a climbing guide in Thailand while he follows the trail around the world of the traitors responsible for an atrocity that he barely survived. The only people he trusts are his former comrades and when he learns that one of them has been killed – thrown off the top of a building – he must return home to Britain to find out why. Pearce discovers that his friend had been hired by a lawyer, on the instruction of a mysterious client, to investigate a bank, controlled by a powerful man. But it’s not just Pearce’s friend who is killed. The lawyer also dies in strange circumstances. Pearce must call on his old comrades to discover what the bank is hiding and ensure that their friend didn’t die in vain. It will prove a deadly mission.

I haven’t read any novels by Adam Hamdy before for some reason but I’ve certainly heard a lot of praise for them and Black 13 in particular has been attracting a lot of attention. As a lover of clever action thrillers, I couldn’t resist it and bought it the day it appeared on the shelves in the local bookshop. It is an absolute tour de force! Black 13 is such an exciting thriller, which starts in fine and intriguing style and it builds from there, never taking its eye off the ball and never letting that pace and tension lag. Adam Hamdy tells a fantastic story and he tells it very well indeed. It’s a long book but you certainly won’t hang around reading it.

The story is second to none and it digs deep into a rotten multinational underworld of sex slaves, spies and gangsters. Pearce is on an engrossing and lethal journey through layers of corruption, evil and sin, and it makes for such a thrilling ride. But what makes this book special is its characters. I loved Pearce as soon as we meet him (in what is a great opening to the novel). He’s no superman despite his bravery and deadly training. He suffers and he shows emotions. But it is The Syrian, Leila Nahum, who dominates this book and steals every scene she appears in. This traumatised woman is astonishing. She is fully realised on the page, her motives are revealed, as are her hopes and her night terrors. She is extraordinarily gifted, courageous and selfless. I loved the descriptions of her lovely home. I can imagine her in it. I cared very deeply for this wonderful woman.

We encounter some dark themes and evil people through the course of Black 13. People have to be pay and it’s exhilarating watching Pearce try to bring that about. And not knowing who to trust makes it extra hard. But it’s not an especially dark novel, despite its shocks and horrors. It’s enlivened and cheered by the fantastic people in it. Their interaction is engaging and warming. This leads to laughs as well as tears.

Black 13 is absolutely excellent. Scott Pearce and Leila Nahum are a formidable team and I’m so pleased that the novel is the first in a new series and so I can look forward to following them in many more books to come. Adam Hamdy certainly knows how to tell a good story and this thriller is tense, action-packed, disturbing and at times disturbing. You must read it for all of this but especially for Leila. Fabulous!

The God Game by Danny Tobey

Gollancz | 2020 (9 January) | 452p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The God Game by Danny TobeyCharlie and Peter receive an invitation they can’t refuse. Messages appear on Charlie’s computer which claim to be the voice of God. He invites them to play the G.O.D. Game. If they succeed at the tasks they are set then all of their dreams will come true. If they fail or deny God, then they will die and if you die in the game then you die for real. This is the catch that Charlie, Peter, and their friends Anhi, Kenny and Alex have yet to learn but, the deeper they get into the game, carrying out the dares set to them by God and reaping the rewards, the more they realise that they are caught in a trap. Shadowy figures, mysterious packages and conflicting messages all serve to trick the friends as they discover that God intends to own them. There is no way out. God sees everything. God knows everything. Only God can end the game.

I immediately fell for the premise of The God Game and it delivers fully. It’s completely irresistible. The game that the teenagers join takes them on a series of loops, of cause and effect. They can never see the full picture and they are helplessly caught in a spiral. And it is all possible because of the society that we live in, where nothing can be hidden from cameras, microphones, hackers, games that can learn from the user’s behaviour. I really enjoyed this satirical take on the networks and programming that tie teenagers, or anyone, to their phones and computers and can manipulate them, which combines with the excitement and tension of a very enjoyable techno thriller.

The novel isn’t as Young Adult as I expected, it’s just as much Old Adult, but it does present an insightful look at the pain of being a teenager in a world controlled by social media, which makes all of the drama of growing up so many times worse. We see the world through the eyes of people who do not know who to trust, who have hopes and dreams, who fear everyone else because they’re a bit different, who are afraid of failure or of being humiliated. The teens have to deal with God but they must also deal with bullies at school, with the emotions of falling in love – usually with the wrong person – and with the expectations of parents and teachers, who are just as flawed as their children and pupils. This affects them all differently and this human drama drives the novel on, making it as emotional as it is thrilling.

The God Game is extremely exciting but there isn’t quite enough reason or explanation in it for me and, towards the end, I did feel that it’s a bit too clever for its own good. Charlie is the main character but I warmed the most to the only girl in the group, Vanhi, who is arguably the bravest of the four, the most loyal and the most self-sacrificing. I also had warm feelings for Kenny and Alex who seem to be manipulated even more than the others – served up as Abraham offered up his son Isaac to God. There are some intriguing glimpses of Old Testament theology through what is otherwise a very secular thriller.

The God Game is a real pageturner, which exceeded my expectations. It’s sharp, witty and tense and provides some real food for thought on the difficulties that teenagers have always faced but which are now arguably amplified by a digital world that never sleeps, that always watches and constantly judges and manipulates.

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo Spain

Quercus | 2020 (16 January) | 426p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo SpainIt is June 2018 and five Lattimer siblings are called back to Spanish Cove, to their family home on the most beautiful and remote section of Ireland’s coast. They reluctantly return from all parts of the globe for a very special reason – to greet the sixth sibling, Adam, who, ten years before, disappeared without trace, presumed dead. The shock of losing Adam destroyed his mother and she died soon afterwards. But now he is back with a story to tell. Their father arranges a party aboard a boat to celebrate the return of the prodigal son. But the following morning,when the boat returned to shore, not everyone was aboard. One of the family was swept overboard, others jumped in to rescue him. But when the body is hauled ashore, local police officer Detective Downes soon learns that the man was dead before he hit the water. Someone on the boat is a murderer. It’s up to Downes to investigate who and why before they strike again.

I loved the premise of Six Wicked Reasons, Jo Spain’s latest stand alone thriller, as soon as I heard about it and read it at once. I adored Dirty Little Secrets, which likewise has an irresistible premise involving a small group of people (aka suspects) in an evocative setting with more secrets than is good for them. It’s a winning formula and Jo Spain excels at it.

The Irish coastal setting of Spanish Cove, with the large house on the cliff, so full of memories, is gorgeous and such a contrast to the other places in which the siblings have found themselves, with the exception of Ellen who stayed behind to keep the house with her father. The others have all grown into very different people from the children they once were but the old alliances that they made are still there. The petty squabbles flare up once more. And then there’s the father. With a family this size, there is bound to be rivalry and envy. It’s fascinating watching this family try to get along, to understand why Adam left them for so long, and knowing that the answers lie in the past.

Moving between the past and the present, this novel immerses the reader in the history of this dysfunctional family. The narrative moves between the family members, while also, and this makes the books especially effective, providing the point of view of the detective who has this mess to untangle. None of the family members are particularly likeable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I didn’t like any of them. But I really liked Detective Downes and it’s he who, in a strange way, holds it all together.

The story is compelling, twisty and involving. The short chapters and the lively structure make this a very difficult book to put down and I powered through it. All the time we really want to know why Adam left his family ten years before and why he’s come back now. This central mystery is backed up by so many more, including the mystery of the identity of the murderer, but there are far more than that. Six Wicked Reasons is thoroughly entertaining, it certainly kept me guessing and it is all reinforced by such a strong and enticing sense of place. I have yet to read any of Jo Spain’s Inspector Tom Reynolds novels, a state of affairs I shall definitely correct, but I can thoroughly recommend her stand alone thrillers and I can’t wait to read the next.

Other reviews
The Confession
Dirty Little Secrets

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy

Deep State by Chris Hauty

Simon & Schuster | 2020 (23 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Deep State by Chris HautyAmerica has a new President, Richard Monroe, who has some controversial and populist policies in mind that worry the establishment, the Deep State that runs the country from behind the scenes. Hayley Chill, ex-army and boxer, is thrown into the heart of a White House in turmoil when she becomes its newest intern. There’s something about Hayley that gets herself noticed – her photographic memory, her eye for detail, her looks, her plain talking and her military precision and determination – and this makes her unpopular with many. This is a competitive world and they’re envious. But these traits also attract the attention of not only the Chief of Staff but also the President himself. Hayley’s career looks set to soar until the day when she arrives at the house of the Chief of Staff to deliver some papers and discovers him dead. The authorities think it’s a natural death but Hayley, who found a footprint in the snow outside, thinks differently. When she begins to question it people die and, from that moment on, Hayley knows that to survive she must work out who wants the Chief of Staff dead. What she will discover is unthinkable.

I’m a huge fan of political thrillers and Deep State is most assuredly one of the best I’ve read. It opens spectacularly with our memorable introduction to Hayley Chill, soldier and fighter, and from that minute on we are as fascinated by Hayley as we are hooked by the thriller. Hayley is a remarkable figure. In many ways she goes against the stereotype of a West House intern. She’s underestimated by almost everyone as a southern redneck, perhaps she even underestimates herself, but her talents are astonishing. She’s an unusual person, she has her routines and rituals, her rules and obsessions, and she is immensely driven and extremely good at her job. When she fears that the President may be the next target for the assassin we know that she’ll stop at nothing to protect him. Hayley Chill attracts attention. Her position is increasingly dangerous and extreme. Her story is utterly gripping.

Deep State has a fantastic plot. It’s complex and there are surprises so extreme it can take your breath away. This actually happened to me at one point. I was reading it on the bus and had to put it down to gather my thoughts and laugh in admiration! I was impressed! It’s not often I’m completely blindsided by a book.

I loved the Washington and Camp David settings. The summer is turning to winter and the heat is turning to cold and snow. There’s such a sense of place with the descriptions of rooms inside the White House, the upstairs and downstairs feel of it, especially for the interns who find themselves confined to the deepest basement. It’s a stratified world with the interns at the very bottom and the President at the very top but Hayley is to discover that not all is as it seems, that the power might not lay where one expects it. It’s a minefield and Hayley is the one best suited to negotiate it and it’s riveting watching her do it.

Chris Hauty writes very well indeed and Deep State is superb. Hayley Chills in particular is a fine achievement. I would love to meet her again and soon. I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for any future novels by this excellent writer.