Tag Archives: Thriller

Strangers by C.L. Taylor

Avon | 2020 (2 April) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Strangers by CL TaylorAlice, Ursula and Gareth are complete strangers to one another and yet they are linked together by crime and mystery. Alice has a new potential boyfriend but they are driven apart by a menacing stalker. Gareth’s elderly mother is receiving strange postcards from her long dead husband. Ursula believes that she is responsible for the death of the love of her life and her life has caused her nothing but torment since. Their worlds collide in unexpected ways and then, as strangers, they must stick together to fight to save the life of one of them. Life will never be the same again.

A new psychological thriller by C.L. Taylor is always a much anticipated event, especially during these strange days when escapist pageturners are a regularly needed tonic. In my opinion, Strangers is the best of C.L. Taylor’s thrillers and I’m grateful to her because I had such a good time reading it.

It’s an unusual crime and psychological thriller in some ways because it tells the separate stories of three characters who don’t know each other at all. Their lives might briefly interconnect at moments, and those moments are such a pleasure in the novel (at those times we know something our characters do not), but this is coincidental. It’s only slowly that their worlds come together but by then we have become invested in the stories of each. It’s an interesting structure and I’m not sure I’ve read anything like it before. It works very well, painting a picture of seemingly random and different lives in a community.

One thing connects our three characters and that is the local shopping centre, making it seem all the more realistic and believable. Much of the novel’s action takes place in places that we are familiar with. The perfect locations for chance encounters, perhaps.

All three characters are enjoyable to get to know but my favourite is Ursula. She is unusual to look at and she’s unusual in other ways, too. I love the way that our opinion of her transforms through the novel as we learn that she is nothing like how she first appears.

All three strangers are fundamentally good people but there are others in the novel who are not. Goodness is under attack. To beat it strangers, communities, society, must unite. In some ways, then, Strangers gives us a positive message, while entertaining us with its thrills. It suggests that we are not alone, even if we think we are. It recognises that there is evil out there but suggests that society can overcome it. I like that.

C.L. Taylor writes very well. She has compassion for her characters and she can tell a good story. If you haven’t read one of these novels before, then I can certainly recommend you start with Strangers.

Other reviews
The Missing

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

Zaffre | 2020 (2 April – ebook: 26 March) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

We Begin At the End by Chris Whitaker

Thirty years ago, Vincent King, aged just 15 years old, killed Sissy Radley. He has now served his time. His oldest friend Walk, the Chief of Police, collects Vincent from jail and drives him home to Cape Haven, in California. Cape Haven is a neglected, unfortunately placed and unhappy town, never forgetful of the murder, and now it is thrown into turmoil by the return of its killer. Sissy’s sister Star is a traumatised, damaged woman. Her 13-year-old daughter Duchess looks after her and cares for her little brother Robin who is 6 years old. Duchess is an odd child, disliked and even feared. She hides behind a Wild West persona she has created as a shield. She has her eye on Dickie Darke, a man who wants to transform the town, and who Duchess knows is responsible for much of the evil in Cape Haven. Vincent King means little to Duchess, but he means so much to everyone else. The community is upheaved, its fragile heart pierced and darkness descends. Walk must help Duchess and Robin to escape before they are consumed.

I’m going to make a bold claim here. I don’t think there’s an author out there whose books can move me as profoundly as Chris Whitaker’s books can. His novels defy genre and expectations. The author’s insight into character and place is tremendous and can often be devastating. We Begin at the End is his third novel and another stand alone read. It builds on Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls, both outstanding. Again, we’re taken to small town America and once more we’re introduced to characters, especially children, who melt the reader’s heart while also punching us in the gut. You read one of these books and you’ll be reeling from it afterwards.

Ostensibly, We Begin at the End is a crime thriller but it’s much, much more than that. It is a novel about damaged people living in a town, so inappropriately named, that seems to deserve no better. It’s Walk who tries to hold it together but it’s under assault and Walk is not the man he once was. Part of the novel is also set in a rural community in Montana, which is such a contrast to Cape Haven but still presents such challenges. What links the two is Duchess and Duchess dominates the novel. She is so beautifully created, as is her little brother, and the relationship between the two of them is exquisitely drawn. So too is the relationship between Duchess and her grandfather Hal. Such is the impact of some of the characters in this novel that they almost take on allegorical powers.

We Begin at the End is a journey towards a salvation that may not be possible. It’s a journey assaulted by loss, murder, revenge, cruelty, hatred, fear and love. It’s not always dark, there is gentle humour. There are also big stories as we learn about the people of Cape Haven, including Vincent King. That means that the novel is as intriguing and engrossing as it is emotionally involving. The sense of place is fabulous. Its locations feel real and influential.

Chris Whitaker is a fine author, one of the very finest, and he should be on everyone’s reading list. He proves this yet again with We Begin at the End which is a masterpiece. This is how characters should be written. The author is a genius in creating loveable, damaged, vulnerable human beings, both child and adult. This means the reader is extremely emotionally invested in his stories. It does mean that there will probably be tears. This is a painfully sad novel at times but watching how the characters, especially Duchess, deal with this is mesmerising. Please read it. You won’t regret it. With no doubt at all this is a contender for my top book of 2020. And now, more than ever, we need books like this.

Other reviews
Tall Oaks
All the Wicked Girls

The Holdout by Graham Moore

Orion | 2020 (20 February) | 336p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Holdout by Graham MooreTen years ago, young Maya Seale was a juror at the trial of Bobby Nock, an African American school teacher accused of murdering his pupil, Jessica Silver, 15 years old, white and the daughter of a billionaire. The evidence seems conclusive. Everyone, especially the media and the general public, is convinced of Nock’s guilt. So too are eleven of the jurors but Maya Seale is not so sure. She is the holdout juror. And she either convinces or persuades the rest to change their verdict to not guilty.

This verdict impacts so many lives, and not just those of the Silver family or Bobby Nock himself. While Maya decides to follow her new interest in the law and become a criminal defence attorney in LA, others find it less easy to leave the past behind, especially one juror in particular, Rick Leonard. Rick was never happy with the verdict and he has spent the years since gathering evidence. He is now ready for the grand reveal. And so a TV company gathers together all of the jurors once more, putting them in the same hotel where they were sequestered ten years before. It’s not long before one of the jurors is found dead in Maya’s room. Now, Maya must defend herself.

I really liked the sound of the premise of The Holdout and it certainly begins in a catchy way. We meet Maya Seale, the successful, clever attorney, who wants to put the past behind her but learns that she can’t. She must clinically work through the clues even when it is her own freedom, perhaps even her own life that’s at risk. We also have the elements of a traditional murder mystery with a small number of suspects confined to the same location as the victim. Any one of them could have done it. It’s only by getting to know each of them in turn that clues will emerge. And so the novel moves between the past and present, focusing on each juror in turn, presenting the reader with the evidence, from which we should determine a verdict.

It’s clever stuff and it’s well-written, authored by an Oscar-winning screenwriter. For me, though, The Holdout, did fall a little flat and that may well be because it might work better on the screen than it does in a novel. There is impact but I’m not so sure that there’s much substance behind it. The characters are impossible to warm to, including Maya. She didn’t feel real to me and some of the things she does don’t seem believable or likely. Although I didn’t care too much for the characters, I did like the narrative style of moving between the present and the past, which really kept the pace of the novel up.

There are some serious issues under consideration here, mostly involving race, wealth and poverty. But I feel that the novel treated them superficially and, again, this might be more effective on the screen than here.

Many readers have loved The Holdout and so I am aware that much of this is very much a personal opinion that probably has a lot to do with the fact that I can struggle with courtroom novels, even though I really enjoy them on TV or in the theatre. This, unfortunately, wasn’t any different, despite its intriguing premise. It’s all a bit too clinical and dispassionate for me and it became a struggle to finish. The length and narrative style meant that I managed it. However, as I have said, many readers have loved it and so, if you enjoy courtroom thrillers, you may find that this book is for you.

When You See Me by Lisa Gardner

Century | 2020 (20 February) | 385p | Review copy | Buy the book

When You See Me by Lisa GardnerTwo hikers in the hills of Georgia, USA, discover human bones. It is believed that this is one of the old stomping grounds of serial killer and rapist Jacob Ness. FBI Special Agent Kimberly Quincy and Sergeant Detective DD Warren have been chasing the trail of Ness for a long time and now, at last, there is a chance to find the remains of missing young women and return them to their families. They are accompanied to the small, remote town of Niche by Flora Dane, the Ness victim who got away. Flora survived for 472 days with a monster, most of that time stored in a pine box, emerging only now and then to be fed or far worse. She now works as a consultant, helping DD Warren to find and release other abducted people. But now Flora is given the chance to finally save herself, to find answers, stop the nightmares and begin living in some degree of peace.

Niche is rarely troubled by the outside world and what at first seems charming and eccentric to the detectives and their team, soon becomes something very different indeed. This is a community built upon secrets and Kimberly, DD and Flora will be tested to their very limits as they discover that whatever they thought they knew about evil, it was just the beginning.

Lisa Gardner is a wonderful crime written who has written many excellent novels, including her DD Warren series, which is now eleven books long. My favourites, though, are the last four for the very good reason that they feature Flora Dane, a fantastic character. Flora isn’t just incredible for what she has endured and survived but also for what she does to cope with it and to help others who have been in similar situations. Flora is traumatised and the signs of that are everywhere but she is rebuilding her life, perhaps even finding love, and she has the most enormous courage and bravery. We’ve seen Flora grow over these books and so, for that reason, I’d suggest that you start with the first of the four books, Find Her. But you could also read When You See Me as a stand alone crime thriller, if you wish.

When You See Me tells an engrossing story set in the perfect location for it – a remote town in the mountains, with its occasional grand wooden house with verandas, its hiking trails and thick forests. Everybody knows everybody else and Kimberly, DD, Flora and the others are not only outsiders, they’re also people of interest. They are watched and scrutinised. I don’t want to give away anything about what they discover in Niche but it is sinister, disturbing and frightening. It is very hard to put this book down.

I enjoyed the way that the novel switches perspectives between Kimberly, DD and Flora. I’m heavily invested in all three of them. While Kimberly seems less prominent than the other two in this book, her role in Flora’s rescue makes her integral to the series and I was pleased to see her again here. It is DD who I love the most in When You See Me. She has such a warmth to her and this is more apparent than ever in this novel. Her relationships with others, include Flora, are so beautifully drawn, and now we watch her establish another relationship with somebody else who needs her and who she needs to help.

When You See Me is an excellent novel. It’s richly atmospheric, exciting and full of fascinating characters, some good and some not at all. Both are a joy to read. There are disturbing themes. The novel takes us to dark places. But it is an enthralling crime thriller – moody, exciting and brilliantly written, as you’d expect from this wonderful author.

Other reviews
Find Her
Look For Me
Never Tell

Possessed by Peter Laws

Allison & Busby | 2020 (20 February) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Possessed by Peter LawsOne morning, milkman Phil Pepper has the shock of his life. He discovers a naked man soaked in blood, his behaviour wild and terrifying, the name of a demon carved into his stomach flesh – Baal-Berith. Professor Matt Hunter, a former minister and now an atheist and an expert on satanism and the supernatural, is called in by the police. He tells them that Baal-Berith is the demonic spirit of blasphemy and murder and therefore it should come as no surprise when a body is discovered, horribly killed. The media and the public are fascinated by the case and a debate begins about demons, possession and exorcism. Matt becomes caught up in a frenzy that spins out of control, but he is determined to help those who believe themselves possessed, striving to remain the voice of reason, even when he is tested to his very limits.

I am such a huge fan of the Matt Hunter series and I couldn’t wait to read Possessed, the fourth. The books all work brilliantly as a series, and there is a pleasure in watching Matt Hunter’s story develop, but each novel can be read and enjoyed on its own. I do suggest you read them all though. They’re fantastic books.

Possessed is genuinely thrilling and extremely disturbing in such a good way. The opening is brilliant and the dark and chilling mood doesn’t ease for an instant, while the pace and thrills build and build to such an extent that I found this book ridiculously difficult to put down. It’s one of the most gripping novels I’ve read for a while, while also being one of the most frightening. Some of the ‘clients’ in this book are truly horrifying, not least because sometimes they seem just like you and me.

Matt Hunter is a great character and one of the reasons why these books are so successful is because Matt is such a likeable and warm person. He’s been through trauma, and he’s working through that with his lovely family, but he always thinks of others first, even when this gets him into serious danger. I love the way that Peter Laws brings Matt alive. The dialogue is often wonderfully funny and provides such a contrast to the other moments of terror.

Possessed is a fantastically written, witty and involving novel, that’s both horror and crime, the two working together very well indeed. It has an incredible story and a terrific hero. I’ve loved all of these books but, if forced to choose between them, I think Possessed could well be my favourite. This series is unmissable.

Other reviews

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.