Tag Archives: Thriller

Zero by Marc Elsberg

Doubleday | 2018 (23 July) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Zero by Marc ElsbergThe world watches as drones, armed with cameras and streaming live, lay siege to the President of the United States as he plays golf. As he runs to his car, his team floundering around him, the most powerful man in the world is profoundly humiliated. This is the work of Zero, an anonymous organisation that aims to expose the extent to which companies know everything about us, how we’re constantly spied upon as we go about our private business, how we’re in thrall to social media apps, and how our data is priceless to those who watch us.

Cynthia is a journalist who is picked to investigate Zero but, before she starts, her daughter is a witness to the murder of a good friend. He was wearing an immersive eye set, lent to him by Cynthia, that encouraged him to pursue a criminal that it had recognised with its face recognition software. It’s then that Cynthia learns about Freemee, a competitor to Facebook, that seeks to manipulate the lives of its users by altering every aspect of their behaviour so that they can fulfil their potential. And then another of Cynthia’s daughter’s friends, an IT genius, is killed, but not before he told Cynthia that there was something he had to tell her…

Zero is one of those social media thrillers that rings all too true. Although Freemee is a fictional company, its close resemblance to Facebook shows how plausible its power could be, while the activity of Zero is sufficiently reminiscent to Anonymous to feel that the events of the novel could be just around the corner.

The thriller takes us on a breathless pursuit of Freemee across the globe with Cynthia taken deeper and deeper out of her depth and into great personal danger. But it isn’t a simple game of cat and mouse, not least because there is more than one mouse to chase, while the President of the United States has an axe to grind and is set on vengeance.

Zero‘s plot is complicated at times and I must admit that its technospeak did leave me baffled now and then, while I also found its characters a little cold and difficult to engage with. This isn’t helped by the translation from German into English which I did fine rather clunky at times. Nevertheless, Zero is a solid thriller with an intriguing and topical premise (and a brilliant opening chapter), and a good follow up to Marc Elsberg’s earlier stand alone technothriller Blackout.

Other review
Blackout

Advertisements

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

Zaffre | 2018 (12 July) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Anomaly by Michael RutgerNolan Moore, an amateur archaeologist and adventurer, is the presenter of a YouTube series called The Anomaly. Known for his billowing white shirt, Nolan is ready to make it big as a modern-day, real life Indiana Jones. He’s been waiting for the right adventure to come along and now, thanks to a generous funder, his day may have come. Nolan and his team – producer Ken, general fixer Molly, cameraman Pierre and assistant Feather – are heading into the Grand Canyon to search for the Kincaid Cavern, a mysterious cave rumoured to contain ancient carvings and wonders. Its existence could alter our understanding of the human settlement of the Americas. And with them is Gemma, a reporter on the trail of a story. Surely, after this Nolan will be given a primetime TV slot? All he has to do first is find the cavern and look good doing it. They’ll be back in civilisation to time for dinner.

As soon as I heard about The Anomaly, I was desperate to read it. I love archaeological thrillers and this one has a fantastic mystery at its heart but there’s also something of the science technothriller about it – Indiana Jones with a touch of Michael Crichton as it’s been described. I wouldn’t argue with any of that and it’s an irresistible mix.

I’m not going to reveal anything about what happens after our team find the cavern except to say that all of our thriller and horror expectations are fulfilled. By the bucketload. And also that its ending is fantastic, which is important as you wouldn’t want to become as caught up in events as you will with this book and then feel let down by an implausible ending.

I loved everything about The Anomaly but if I had to pick a few things that particularly appealed – except for the brilliant plot – it would be these. The atmosphere is so frightening, claustrophobic and intense. Thriller and horror co-exist here and I found myself longing for fresh air, light and space. Caverns are scary things at the best of times. And this is not the best of times for Nolan and his gang. The cavern is so well described. There’s a lot of detail. A lot of darkness.

The characterisation is fabulous. You might expect Nolan to be one type of character from the way in which the novel begins but he isn’t like that at all. He constantly surprises and it’s impossible not to warm to him. And the same for Ken. The relationship between Nolan and Ken is one of my very favourite things about this novel. One of the reasons why it succeeds so well is because of Michael Rutger’s clever, fantastic writing, especially the sharp and witty dialogue. With a couple of exceptions, the characters all feel very real and because of that so too does the horror that they will face.

The Anomaly delivers on every level from start to finish and is extremely well-written, brilliantly imagined and such fun to read. I love this kind of book so much and it’s one of the best I’ve read.

Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Century | 2018 (12 July) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Watching You by Lisa JewellJoey Mullin has returned home from working in Ibiza with a husband (Alfie) in tow. For the time being they must make do with lodging with Joey’s brother Jack and his pregnant wife in a large house in a smart part of Bristol. Jenna is not finding it easy to settle and it doesn’t help that she finds herself becoming fixated on her handsome neighbour, Tom, the headmaster of the local school. She just can’t stop herself watching him. But Joey isn’t alone. There are eyes on her as well and there are others in this small community who keep watch to catch out the secrets of their neighbours, some of whom are almost driven to madness.

Watching You is a fantastic novel which, I’m so pleased to say, equals Lisa Jewell’s previous novel, the superb Then She Was Gone. Lisa Jewell is the perfect observer of human nature, understanding so well fears, desires and the danger of obsession. She writes about these things so well and in Watching You, her characters are beautifully drawn, whether they’re children, men or women. We want to get to know them. We want to understand why they are behaving as they do and, when the time comes, we feel deeply for them, even fearing for them.

This is a novel with several themes and one of them is bullying and the relationship of teenagers to one another and to the adults who should be doing a better job of watching out for them. Tom’s son Freddie, Frances’s daughter Jenna are just two of the youngsters who really make Watching You stand out. They both have so much to deal with, each in their different ways. There is no black or white, just young people trying to find themselves. And the adults in their lives are no help at all.

So we have multiple stories, all threading together and mostly circling Tom, the headmaster. Tom is, for me, the least likeable person in the book (although Joey gives him a close run for his money) and his relationship with Joey is fascinating to watch develop, not least because it’s one of the ugly things that blights the lives of others. But their relationship is offset by some other quite beautiful and fragile relationships, especially between the youngsters.

The novel is held together by a series of interviews conducted by the police as they try to solve a crime that we know will happen. It’s to the credit of Lisa Jewell’s immense storytelling gift, that I had very little clue about what was going to happen until almost the very end. In fact, this is one of those wonderful novels that kept me guessing throughout, that kept surprising me in the best of ways, and rewarded my attention. The best psychological thrillers are those that are character driven, and not driven by twists or shocks, and Watching You is one of the very best I’ve read in a long time. I felt heavily invested in these marvellous characters and I loved watching them watching each other. I can’t wait for more from this wonderful, wonderful writer!

Other review
Then She Was Gone

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Harvill Secker | 2018 (28 June) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth WareHarriet (Hal) Westaway is at her wits’ end. Since her mother died, Hal has eked out a living reading tarot cards and telling fortunes on the pier at Brighton. But she’s got nothing left and now a loan shark is after her. Then, out of the blue, a letter turns up from a solicitor offering her sympathies for the death of her grandmother and advising her that she is one of Mrs Westaway’s beneficiaries. But Hal’s grandparents died over twenty years ago. This isn’t possible. They’ve got the wrong person. But what if she were to pretend to be the right person?

As Hal makes her way to Trespassen House in western Cornwall for the funeral, her feelings are in turmoil and they only get worse when she meets Mrs Westaway’s sons and their families, not to mention their terrifying housekeeper. It’s so easy to be sucked into this life, to tell one more lie, but there’s something unloved about this decaying once grand house. And in its overgrown gardens and cold rooms, secrets refuse to stay hidden.

The Death of Mrs Westaway is such an atmospheric and moody read. This is largely due to the setting, which is wonderfully visualised by Ruth Ware. Trespassen House is remote, it takes trouble to reach it – and to leave it – and it affects everyone who has ever lived in it. This is a creepy and disturbing tale and it grips from the outset.

What I enjoyed more than anything, though, is the novel’s heroine, Hal. Hal is a fantastic creation. She is believable and is always very likeable. She is facing impossible choices and it’s hard to blame her when life has become such a struggle, through no fault of her own. Despite having very little, she is generous and kind to a fault, and when she does her tarot readings she believes that she must care for her clients, that she’s doing them some kind of service to move their lives along. The members of the Cornish Westaway family are also memorable but more than anything they are curious and I enjoyed getting to know them.

This is a psychological thriller and so we’re given twists and surprises but I actually found the mystery secondary to the setting and the characters. I guessed much of what was to happen but it didn’t matter because I was enjoying Ruth Ware’s writing so much. I’ve liked some of Ruth Ware’s novels more than others but The Death of Mrs Westaway is certainly one of my favourites and a real return to form after The Lying Game. I love atmospheric reads, especially when they’re set in this part of Cornwall that I adore so much, and The Death of Mrs Westaway is an immersive pleasure from start to finish.

Other reviews
The Woman in Cabin 10
The Lying Game

Pandemic by A.G. Riddle

Head of Zeus | 2018 (1 June) | 720p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pandemic by A.G. RiddleAn ebola-like virus has hit Kenya, its virulence both surprising and shocking. At the same time many, many thousands of people across the globe are coming down with flu. Dr Peyton Shaw, the leading epidemiologist and first-responder of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is about to be woken up with the call she lives to dread – news of a pandemic. As Peyton flies to Kenya, Desmond Hughes is waking up in a hotel room in Berlin with his memory gone. He has no idea who he is or what he’s doing there but with him is a dead man. There is only one clue and it leads him to Peyton Shaw. But with each clue he discovers, a memory is unlocked, and something truly terrifying is slowly revealed. And time is ticking away.

As soon as Pandemic arrived, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love disaster novels and movies and this book ticks all of the right boxes. It’s also a substantial book of about 700 pages but there’s more than enough drama, action, peril and adrenaline packed into this novel to make it unputdownable and a very fast read. Also, much of its complex story feels potentially real and believable. I really enjoyed A.G. Riddle’s earlier book The Atlantis Gene but was unconvinced by its followups, which stretched my powers to believe. But there is none of that with Pandemic. We’re rooted in the real world, albeit one that thrills, and the result is a novel as terrifying as it is exhilarating.

We move between quite a lot of characters, each of whom plays a crucial role in the way that this pandemic develops or is fought, and we’re taken across the world. It can be a little confusing keeping up at the beginning but things soon settle down as the plot takes off and the countdown of the dead grows and grows and grows. I love how we’re given so many stories to follow. It’s a cinematic approach and it works really well. We meet doctors, patients, scientists, many of whom are heroic and some who are the opposite, as well as ordinary men, women and children trying to survive and save those they love.

The picture we’re given of what happens when a pandemic and an international emergency take a grip is utterly compelling. It’s so frightening, particularly in the chapters that take place in Atlanta as the city tries to take hold of an impossible situation. These scenes contrast with the more usual thriller themes of goodies versus baddies and they worked well as a contrast. I enjoyed both aspects. Those pages, they kept on turning, as fast as I could make them.

One element of Pandemic that I especially enjoyed were the sections in which Desmond remembered and looked back on his life. This is fine storytelling and Desmond really shines as a character as a result, more than anyone else in the book. My only serious issue with the novel is that there are too many coincidences.

I was worried that because this is the first book in The Extinction Files series (of two books?), it might end with a cliffhanger, not something I enjoy at the end of a 700-page book. But it did not! This novel is self-contained while presenting the origins of another mystery to be explored in the next novel, Genome. I’m so glad that we only have to wait until October for this as I cannot wait!

Other review
The Atlantis Gene

Where the Missing Go by Emma Rowley

Orion | 2018 (14 June) | 313p | Review copy | Buy the book

Where the Missing Go by Emma RowleyKate Harlow volunteers part-time at a missing persons helpline. It’s the sort of place that youngsters can ring, completely anonymously, to pass on a message to worried parents to let them know that they’re safe. Kate has her own personal reasons for working in such a place. Kate’s teenage daughter Sophie vanished a couple of years ago. Sophie had stayed at a friend’s house for the night and then not come home. Her Dad, Mark, was too late to see her note, to go searching in time. Marriages don’t easily survive such a thing and this one hasn’t. And then one night, Kate takes that call in the centre. It’s Sophie, leaving a message for Kate and Mark Harlow, to say she’s safe. But through all of the emotion, Kate can hear that Sophie sounds far from safe. She sounds frightened and alone. Kate is determined to find her daughter and bring her home.

Where the Missing Go is one of the few psychological thrillers that I was drawn to straight away and was determined to read. It’s such a great premise – that a mother hears the voice of her lost child, the child she thought could be dead – and the novel delivers well on its promise.

Much of the novel is delivered from Kate’s point of view as she thinks back over the days, weeks and months that led up to Sophie’s disappearance as well as the painful days that followed it. Kate is an ambiguous narrator. Her feelings for Sophie overwhelm everything and yet, if we pay close attention, we can see through Kate’s eyes to the teenager below. Perhaps the signs were there from the very beginning.

This, though, like many psychological thrillers, is a tale in two parts and so we are also given Sophie’s point of view and then the novel reaches into more familiar psychological thriller territory. While I did prefer the first half of the novel, I found myself caring very much for Sophie and her story gripped me.

Emma Rowley writes very well. She’s created characters here that I wanted to know and it’s the people who drive on Where the Missing go. We feel Kate’s pain. This is one of those pageturning thrillers that are such fun to read. I read it in a day, very pleased to have enjoyed a psychological thriller that stands out from the crowd.

I’m delighted to post my review of Where the Missing Go for the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Where the Missing Go blog tour

The Poison Bed by E.C. Fremantle

Michael Joseph | 2018 (14 June) | 406p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Poison Bed by Elizabeth FremantleIt is Autumn 1615 and the court of James I is swept up in a scandal. Two of its most celebrated and glamorous members, Robert and Frances Carr, the earl and countess of Somerset, are imprisoned in the Tower of London, accused of murder, of poisoning a man who knew far too much about the King, about Robert and about Frances. As a result, his life was forfeit, and now somebody must pay. But for Frances in the Tower, imprisoned with her newborn baby and the wet nurse, this is the time for her to look back on her short and eventful life, on her upbringing among the cruelly ambitious and powerful Howard family, on her unhappy first marriage, and on her passion for the beautiful Robert Carr, himself beloved by the King.

The Poison Bed is a story with two sides if not more and, as a result, it moves back and forth between chapters dedicated to ‘Her’ and to ‘Him’. In this way we get to know both Frances and Robert, although the reader must keep their wits about them. We, after all, were not there at the time. We are merely an audience. And in James I’s court with its love of wit and drama, little should be taken at face value.

This new novel by Elizabeth Fremantle (here published with a slight change of name) marks a little bit of a change by this fine author. Her previous novels have been more conventional works of historical fiction, focused on the Tudor and Jacobean periods, and bringing to life such incredible women as Katherine Parr (Queen’s Gambit), the Grey sisters (Sisters of Treason), Penelope Devereux (Watch the Lady) and Lady Arbella Stuart (The Girl in the Glass Tower). All four are wonderful novels (I love the first two in particular) and have such a powerful, brilliantly evoked historical setting and context. In The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle picks another formidable and remarkable figure from history, Frances Carr, and gives her story a bit of a psychological twist. The book is being billed as the Jacobean Gone Girl and I can understand why the comparison is being made because it really does have the feel of that novel in several ways.

The murder at the heart of the novel and the ensuing arrest of this most glamorous couple are a perfect subject for historical fiction, not least because it reveals so much about James I’s court. His sexual relationship with Robert Carr is given a significant place here. Frances Carr’s position in the court is ambiguous and curious. So much is hidden by the threat of scandal but it certainly tantalises. Frances dominates the book in a way that James fails to dominate his court and government and it is up to the reader to make up their minds from the stories offered up by both Frances and her husband, Robert.

It’s in the second half of the novel that it takes on more of a psychological thriller feel and, possibly because of that, it’s the first half that’s my favourite for it’s then that Elizabeth Fremantle builds up a vivid painting of life in the early 17th century for the very wealthy and ambitious. The Howard family is outrageous and the little child Frances is very much their pawn. I really enjoyed the depiction of James I and his circle. James isn’t a character that we meet too often in historical fiction but he certainly makes for a fascinating subject and the author does such a fine job of animating a figure that I know mostly from portraits. Robert Carr left me comparatively cold. He is completely out of his depth in James I’s government and he flounders. His devotion to Frances, though, is undoubtedly intense. There are so many richly drawn, larger than life characters in The Poison Bed. I love the way that we flit between them.

Elizabeth Fremantle writes so well. This is sparkly, witty prose, dancing between characters, between past and present. The reader is rewarded for paying attention because it can be a challenge keeping up with some of the figures in the book, not to mention their moods. Personally, I think that the story behind The Poison Bed is intriguing enough (and in such safe hands here) that the psychological thriller element wasn’t needed but it may mean that a wider readership will discover the joys of Elizabeth Fremantle’s historical fiction.

I must mention the cover of this hardback – look how beautiful it is!

Other reviews
Queen’s Gambit
Sisters of Treason
Watch the Lady
The Girl in the Glass Tower

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Poison Bed Blog Tour Card