Tag Archives: Thriller

The Bach Manuscript by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2017 (16 November) | 388p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bach Manuscript by Scott MarianiWelcome to the 16th Ben Hope thriller by Scott Mariani! Like most of the books in this truly brilliant action thriller series, you can read The Bach Manuscript on its own with no trouble at all. But if you’ve read and adored them all as I have done and do, then you’ll have the added pleasure of knowing Ben’s colourful past as well as understanding a little about what makes this extraordinary man tick. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Ben’s life has moved on in so many ways since the early books.

Things have settled down a little for Ben Hope. For once he has the chance to develop his security business in France and that means a brief visit to England to investigate some new military hardware. It also gives him the opportunity to return to the University of Oxford and Christ Church College for a reunion. Ben has a dose of nostalgia. Few of his friends from University are still around but there’s one, Nick Hawthorne, who Ben would love to see again. Nick is now an internationally-renowned musician and he will be giving a recital at the reunion and Ben does not want to miss it. At a private party at Nick’s house in North Oxford, while Ben and Nick enjoy catching up, Ben spots an old and stained musical manuscript. Nick is adamant it’s a fake but Ben isn’t so sure – it certainly looks like it could be a lost work by Johann Sebastian Bach. And that stain on it – could it be blood?

But when Nick is found brutally murdered at his home, the manuscript stolen, Ben is determined to avenge the death of his friend and that means tracking down the priceless manuscript. The hunt takes Ben across Europe into the domain of one of the most evil characters Ben has ever faced, which is certainly saying something. The clues unravel the past of this manuscript which was lost during Europe’s darkest days – the Holocaust.

I’ve been reading Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope thrillers for years and I think it’s fair to say that this is my favourite of all series and Ben Hope is quite possibly my favourite of all heroes. Over the years we’ve gone through so much with Ben, we’ve experienced all of the heartache and trauma, as well as love and friendship. I can’t thank Scott Mariani enough for writing two of these thrillers a year. My habit is being kept well fed and it appreciates it. The Bach Manuscript went to the top of my reading pile when it arrived, as every single one of these books always will.

The first third or so of The Bach Manuscript represents a bit of a change of pace for Ben Hope. He’s reliving his past in Oxford and this gives him the opportunity to reminisce about the young man he once was while a student there. It’s fascinating to see him as he was, while loving the man he’s become (I’m rather overlooking the fact that he could kill a gang of five thugs with a single bus ticket). It also means we’re taken on a tour of Oxford. Oxford is my home town and so I’m pleased to say that the small city is presented with all of its streets and monuments in the right places. Although I must say that I was a little concerned at its depiction of bus travel in Oxford as being a violent and dangerous thing to do – not least because the bus in question is MY bus! But I did enjoy Ben’s sojourn in Oxford, especially as it took him to some of my favourite places. As a result, I retraced his footsteps on Saturday through Christ Church Meadow. So good to have Ben visit!

Once Ben leaves Oxford then we’re in more typical Ben Hope territory as he sets off in pursuit of baddies as evil as evil can be. It’s thrilling stuff and the pages race through the fingers. While this probably isn’t my favourite of stories for this series (there are sixteen of them, after all), it certainly makes the heart beat faster and I couldn’t put it down.

I love all the little touches of humour, of Ben’s humanity, and his interaction with others he meets who help or hinder him in his quest. The car chases are always particularly fun and there are more than enough explosions and gunfights to satisfy the action thriller enthusiast in me. I always enjoy the books in the series which involve a quest and that’s what we have here.

I can’t praise this series enough. I hope it never ends. If I could read them all day, everyday for a month I would. So, if you haven’t read any before, give yourselves a treat and dive in, at the beginning or with one of these later books. Ben Hope is waiting.

Other reviews
Ben Hope 7: The Sacred Sword
Ben Hope 8: The Armada Legacy
Ben Hope 9: The Nemesis Program
Ben Hope 10: The Forgotten Holocaust
Ben Hope 11: The Martyr’s Curse
Ben Hope 12: The Cassandra Sanction
Ben Hope 13: Star of Africa and Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol


Her Last Secret by Barbara Copperthwaite

Bookoutre | 2017 (13 October) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Her Last Secret by Barbara CopperthwaiteIt is Christmas Day and gunshots have been reported, heard from 15 Burgh Road in Blackheath, London. When police arrive, they find blood and devastation. The house is lived in by Benjamin and Dominique Thomas (a couple in their 40s) and their two children, teenager Ruby and little girl Amber, known to the world as Mouse. They seemed to be the perfect family, very well off, smart and content. But the police find a diary inside the house and the threads that held the Thomas family together fall apart.

Her Last Secret presents a countdown to Christmas Day, covering the eight days that precede the shocking events. The short chapters move between each member of the Thomas family, but also including those around them – colleagues, friends, lovers. And as we reach the end of each day, little interludes bring us back to the bloody horror of Christmas Day as the police move further and further into the silent house.

I thought when I began Her Last Secret that it would be more of a police procedural, an investigation into the lives of the Thomas family, the unravelling of the clues. Instead, this is a psychological novel that focuses on the family members themselves, one by one, presenting the disintegration of what appeared to all as a tight unit. We’re given a succession of calamities, broken dreams, innocence corrupted and pure misery. It builds and builds through the novel until we can be in no doubt that the fuse is lit and nothing can extinguish it.

I loved the premise of the novel but I had several issues with the story and with its telling. This is the tale of a tragedy but its tone throughout feels light and bouncy, almost innocent, even during the shouting matches. These are unhappy characters (to put it mildly) but there’s no real sense of rage or emotion. There is also too much going on for me. The woes pile upon woes and after a short while I rather stopped enjoying hearing about them and the tension was lost, as was any interest I had in the characters. There are few surprises and those there are fell rather flat as by that stage I was expecting them. My main issue, though, is the ending. It disappointed me, which is a particular shame because it was in anticipation of a good ending that I stuck with it. Obviously, I can’t explain why I didn’t like the ending but suffice to say that I felt a little cheated.

The psychological thriller shelves are overcrowded places and, having read a huge bunch of them, I demand something clever and special from those of them I read these days. When they’re good they can be very good indeed. Her Last Secret was a fast read, with an intriguing structure, and it did hook me in with its excellent premise and beginning but, unfortunately, it turned out rather differently. However, I did finish it! Which is more than I can say about some psycho novels.

King Solomon’s Curse by Andy McDermott

Headline | 2017 (21 September) | 560p | Review copy | Buy the book

King Solomon's Curse by Andy McDermottNina and Eddie are trying not to get into too much trouble these days, largely thanks to their little girl, Macy. Nina is now resigned to doing the kind of archaeology that won’t get her killed while there are no more daring missions in distant lands for ex-SAS soldier Eddie. So, while Nina is off in Israel recording her new TV series – discovering King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in front of the cameras – Eddie is staying with his father in England with Macy. But when Nina ventures into a sealed room in the temple she discovers a wondrous thing – a miniature model of an entire city. Its inscriptions reveal it to be Zhakana, City of the Damned, and ‘the greatest secret’ of Sheba, who took Solomon there after she became his wife. Nina is sure that the model is also a map to the city’s position and it isn’t long before she locates it, lost in the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo. To Nina it is irresistible.

Of course the DRC is one of the most dangerous countries in the world and Eddie knows that better than anyone, having run into all sorts of trouble there in the past. And so if Nina’s going, so is Eddie. Unfortunately, Nina’s expeditions always attract the worst kind of attention and they are not alone in hunting Zhakana and the terrible mystery the ancient city hides. It’s just a pity that their enemy is about to make it personal and the consequences will be catastrophic.

I am a huge fan of Andy McDermott’s Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase thrillers. I’ve been reading them for years and devoured each one as soon as I can get hold of it. I love Nina and Eddie so much – she’s the brainy redheaded American archaeologist while Eddie is the brave baldheaded, gap-toothed, foul-mouthed Yorkshire ex-soldier, whose puns are appalling and who adores Nina and is adored in return. They have quite a history these two. I definitely recommend that you read the earlier books to discover what they’ve been through and the incredible wonders that they’ve unearthed and (to be honest) damaged quite considerably (obviously through no fault of their own) over the years.

King Solomon’s Curse is the thirteenth thriller in the series and follows on from The Midas Legacy which marked a bit of a change for our daring couple and for the series. The reason for this was
the birth of Macy, their daughter, and this changed the dynamic of the novels a fair bit. Also, several of the side characters that we’ve enjoyed have now gone (usually in the six-foot under direction). In my opinion The Midas Legacy suffered from this and so, if I had to pick my least favourite of the series, it would be that one. But the good news is that King Solomon’s Curse is definitely a return to form for the series, author and Nina and Eddie alike!

This story has so much going for it and there is a new level of grit which was missing in the last book. There’s all of the archaeological mystery that I love so much about this series (although I never really understood what the mystery object is that the city hides) but wrapped around it is another story which is violent, bloody and at times shocking and even merciless. It extends beyond the removed setting of the jungle, moving later to London and by this stage I was on the edge of my seat. This is a baddie of epic proportions.

If I had to find fault it would be in its length. At about 560 pages, this is a very long book for an action thriller. It certainly speeds up during the second half but there were times earlier on when I did get a little bogged down in it. For an exciting thriller it isn’t a fast read. But I didn’t want to miss anything, and I love Nina and Eddie so much that I didn’t want to wish away my time with them. There is a lot going on here. In The Midas Legacy my patience for Macy ran out very quickly indeed but I’m pleased to report that there isn’t as much of ‘a Macy factor’ in King Solomon’s Curse.

I loved how the novel moved from archaeological mystery to action thriller. Andy McDermott is such an enjoyable and clever thriller writer. I liked the novel’s references to current affairs (they don’t intrude but they’re there to pick up on) and also to Clive Cussler’s The Solomon Curse! And I loved the repartee between Eddie and Nina. I’m so pleased that King Solomon’s Curse has moved us on from The Midas Legacy and I suspect that the next novel will do so even more. It isn’t easy thinking what archaeological glories there are left for Nina to discover but I have no doubt that Andy McDermott will think of something and, as usual, I’ll watch in wonder. And groan at Eddie’s jokes…

Other reviews
Temple of the Gods
The Valhalla Prophecy
Kingdom of Darkness
The Revelation Code
The Shadow Protocol (or The Persona Protocol)

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!

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.