Tag Archives: Thriller

The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Allen & Unwin | 2020 (7 May) | 352p | Review copy (ebook) and bought audiobook | Buy the audiobook | Buy the treebook

It is a weekday morning and people have places to be, except for Neil, a former teacher who now sleeps rough on the streets beside his dog Buddy. He wakes up to discover money in his begging cup and so he takes it along to Tuckbox Cafe in Balham, London. Shots are fired and the cafe’s owner Robert is gunned down, dying in Neil’s arms. Most people escape, fleeing for their lives, but a few remain and they become the hostages of the shooter, a young man called Sam. Mutesi is a nurse, who fled Rwanda, and is now trapped with her grandson whom she was taking to school, Abi is a barrister on her way to defend a young woman accused of harming her children, and then there’s Neil, who has lost everything. All of them must try and reach Sam, to save themselves. Outside the cafe is negotiator DI Eliza McClean, whose job it is to get everyone out alive.

The Secrets of Strangers is my second audiobook ‘read’ and I found it an engrossing listen. I have heard some good things about this novel and so I was looking forward to it. It has a fantastic premise and I enjoy action thrillers that take place over just a few hours, almost as if events are taking place in real time. The start is excellent. I really enjoyed meeting Neil and was gripped by witnessing the shooting through his eyes. Chapters then move between each of the characters – hostages, shooter, negotiator – giving us a fully rounded portrayal of what goes on in a siege situation, practically and in the minds of those who must survive or work for the survival of others, including the killer.

It’s all very tense and I quickly grew invested in the characters, especially Matusi, Eliza and, unexpectedly, Sam. However, towards the middle of the book I realised that I knew exactly how this was going to go and found the time spent exploring the back histories of each of the characters dissipated the tension and left little room for surprises. I would have liked far more of Eliza, a character I really enjoyed, with enormous pressures on her shoulders. As the novel progresses we spend much more time in Sam’s head. I found his story extremely painful to read, too painful, actually. Credit must be given to an author who can trigger such a strong reaction in their reader but I was relieved when we were returned to the present day in the cafe.

The Secrets of Strangers is a powerful, disturbing read, that is more character-driven than I expected. The audiobook is quickly paced, the narrator rushes through it, distancing me more from the characters than I think I would have been if I’d have read the words on a page. Nevertheless, I was so keen to find out how it all ends and the final chapters of the novel are utterly engrossing.

The Split by Sharon Bolton

Trapeze | 2020 (28 May) | 400p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Felicity is as far from her home in Cambridge as she can be, studying the glaciers of South Georgia in Antarctica. But even here isn’t far enough. Felicity is terrified, constantly looking over her shoulder for her ex-husband Freddie who has now been released from prison. And then last ship of the season arrives and on it is Freddie. Felicity must hide. But what brought about this fear and terror? To find that out we must return to Cambridge and the events of nine months before when Felicity works with her therapist Joe to discover the reason for her bouts of amnesia. She must unlock the secrets hidden within her, while evading those people she knows are watching her.

Sharon Bolton is a genius when it comes to telling the twistiest, most gripping of tales, supported by fascinating, fully-realised characters. The Split is another stand alone psychological thriller and it demonstrates yet again that Sharon Bolton is a master of the genre. This is an immersive read as we try and find our way into Felicity’s thoughts, desperate to find out what is going on, now and in the past. It’s a pleasingly complex story with Felicity and Joe at its heart. Felicity is a fascinating character but so, too, is Joe. I loved his relationship with his mother, a detective. This adds another layer of mystery as well as menace because his mother has a crime to solve.

I loved the sections set in South Georgia most of all and I did wish that book of the book were set there. It’s described so beautifully, capturing the desolate wintry beauty of the place, reminding me of the author’s earlier novel Little Black Lies, which was set in the Falkland Islands. Sharon Bolton is superb in evoking a sense of place, connecting her characters to their setting so deeply. This is also evident here, including the sections set in Cambridge, a place that comes alive at night, when the homeless and the lost begin to stir.

These novels are never as one expects, they’re always original and often jaw-dropping. The Split is no different. The novel develops in astonishing ways. I can say absolutely no more than that! But if you’ve read one of Sharon Bolton’s novels before, as I would certainly recommend, then you will know that you have a treat in store.

Other reviews
Little Black Lies
Daisy in Chains
Dead Woman Walking
The Craftsman

Devolution by Max Brooks

Century | 2020 (16 June) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

Devolution by Max BrooksWhen relationship trouble means that Frank McCray can no longer bear to live alone in his house in paradise, his sister Kate Holland and her husband Dan are thrilled to move in. They needed to do something drastic to save their own marriage. It would not survive much longer on the California coast. And so they switch Venice Beach for the isolated, high-end, high-tech eco-community of Greenloop in the foothills of Mount Rainier in Washington State. The small hamlet was founded by high-tech CEO Tony Durant, who also lives there with his wife. The latest gadgets are installed in the houses and supplies are brought in by drone or driverless vehicle. But they are surrounded by the most gorgeous scenery, the perfect environment to thrive in away from the ratrace. And, besides, Seattle, is only a couple of hours away. It is the best of both worlds and Kate Holland loves it, recording her happiness and excitement in a journal for her therapist.

All is perfect. Until, just a few days after she and Dan move in, Mount Rainier erupts. Greenloop survives that but can it survive whatever it is that has lived undetected in the mountains and forests for thousands of years, that has now been driven down off the mountain, wild and hungry.

Max Brooks is a master of survival horror. In World War Z mankind had to survive a plague of zombies. Now, it’s the turn of a small isolated community in an increasingly wintry wilderness to survive an onslaught of Big Foot (one can’t help but wonder if the plural would be Big Foots or Big Feet…). I love this sort of thriller and so Devolution is irresistible. There’s also more to it than you might have thought from the premise.

This novel is as much about people and how they get along and manage together as it is about invading, murderous Big Foot apes. And also as time goes on thought is given to these apes. Can they be blamed for their behaviour? They want to survive every bit as much as the humans do. This discussion develops along with the action in a way that I found really interesting.

The majority of the book comprises Kate’s journal entries. She introduces us to the other misfits who have ended up in this strangest of communities, which seems to have been built on the premise that the distant wilderness is safe if you can fly in your groceries and control your house lights with your smartphone. These are fascinating people. We also get to know more about Kate’s relationship with her husband. This remains obscured by shadows. Clearly something has happened that has altered Dan in some way and Kate spends much of her time studying the effects of this place and its people, especially the curious Mostar, on Dan.

Scattered throughout the book are interviews (by our author persona) with Kate’s brother and the senior ranger Jennifer Schell who discovered Kate’s journal in the ruins of Greenloop. The author throughout has to question whether any of this is true. I loved this structure. It’s done brilliantly and really ramps up the tension, which does get very high indeed.

I enjoyed the idea that mankind can regress when in the wild, that the wild can’t be tamed, and, perhaps, that humans are no different from the sasquatch in all the ways that matter. Ultimately, though, Devolution is a horror thriller and it is a thoroughly exciting one. I may never camp in the wilds again.

The Curator by M.W. Craven

Constable | 2020 (4 June) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Curator by MW CravenSomebody is going around chopping off the fingers of men and women and leaving them in the most inappropriate places across Cumbria. Analysis shows that each victim, none yet found, has lost two fingers, one taken off before death and the other afterwards. Some fingers show signs of anaesthesia, others don’t. It’s a disturbing case, not just because it means that there are at least three murdered people to discover, but also because the crime seems inexplicable. DI Stephanie Flynn of the National Crime Agency is called in to investigate, along with her team of DS Washington Poe and analyst Tilly Bradshaw. As they begin to unravel a complex and baffling case, they get a call from an FBI agent in the US who warns them that they are dealing with a deadly killer, the Curator.

The Curator is the third novel in the brilliant Washington Poe series (aka the Poe and Tilly series). The book stands alone very well and so you don’t need to have read the others – The Puppet Show and Black Summer – but you really should anyway! Like so many other people, I adore Poe, Tilly and Flynn. The relationship between loner Poe (and Edgar his dog) and the socially-challenged and utterly adorable Tilly is one of the most irresistible in crime fiction. I couldn’t wait to read The Curator and spend time with them again. It came as no surprise to me that it is every bit as wonderful as the previous two books.

While Poe and Tilly are undoubtedly the main draw in this series – you must meet them if you haven’t already – they’re not the only one. The Cumbrian landscape is beautifully portrayed. The Curator is set in winter. The countryside and coast are stunning, impossible to leave for most people in the book, while they are also harsh and even dangerous. M.W. Craven writes so well and not just in creating fabulous characters. You can feel the cold and isolation in these pages and also the glory of it.

The Curator tells a very clever story. The premise is macabre and fascinating and the plot is intricate and complex. Poe and Tilly are the perfect team and it takes all of their combined skills to tackle this killer. There are moments of true horror in the book. There are difficult moments for Poe and Tilly, especially Poe, and there are some dark times when I could hardly bear to look. It’s traumatic, it’s compelling and it’s immersive. It’s also warm and gently humorous at times. We’re under no illusion of how far Poe will go to protect those he cares for. That’s more apparent than ever in The Curator but, as always, there is Tilly who keeps Poe grounded by caring for him in a way that Poe is now comfortable with. I have always had a soft spot for Flynn, perhaps even more so now. This is such a fantastic series. I cannot wait for the next.

PS, I particularly love the cover of this one.

Other reviews
The Puppet Show
Black Summer

The House Share by Kate Helm

Zaffre | 2020 (14 May) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House Share by Kate HelmImmi is desperate for a new place to live. She’s fallen out with her boyfriend and is now an unwelcome guest on the sofa of her best friend. The Dye Factory in a great part of London and seems the perfect opportunity. It’s a state of the art building, offering five floors of communal living, along with a roof terrace with an honesty bar, a gym, a gaming area and library and a housekeeper, and all for a very reasonable price. There are rooms for eight residents and right now there are two free. Immi will have to compete for one of them in a series of interviews with the other residents during a house party. Immi gets one of the rooms. At last she can get her life back on track. Her fellow residents seem pleasant enough and the rules don’t seem too onerous. It all seems too good to be true. There’s a reason for that. It is.

I loved the premise of The House Share. The house itself is a big star of the book and I loved how there’s a plan of the house at the beginning. And, as things turn strange, there’s that feel of an Agatha Christie about it, where all of the suspects are gathered under one roof and the only thing uniting them is that each has at least one skeleton in the cupboard. The move from paradise to hell is an appealing one in psychological fiction and it’s done very well here.

The novel moves week by week through Immi’s probation period in the house. Our narrator changes. Most of the time we’re with Immi but we also spend time with the other new resident in the Dye Factory, Dex. The two of them are drawn together as the newcomers but they’re also suspicious of one another and it’s fun to watch their developing relationship from both sides. Neither, you won’t be surprised to learn, is quite what they seem. But, in this book, who is?

The other residents are very intriguing and more than a little odd. When strange and disturbing events begin to happen and to escalate, the residents become even more curious and unhinged. But how does this relate to the house? Immi is determined to find out and we want to know just as much as she does.

I’ve heard The House Share described as bonkers and I actually think that’s pretty accurate! That doesn’t stop it, though, from being thoroughly entertaining and a lot of fun. It’s well-written, humorous, dark and curious as well as being very hard to put down. It is implausible, there’s no doubt about that. But I was perfectly happy to go along with it. Why anyone would want to move into this house is beyond me….

The Babysitter by Phoebe Morgan

HQ | 2020 (28 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Babysitter by Phoebe MorganCaroline Harvey is murdered in her home in Suffolk. She had been babysitting for her friend but, when her body is found, the baby is not. A frantic search for baby Eve begins, obsessing the media and the public, driving on the police. Caroline herself is almost forgotten. But a couple of days later, police arrive at a luxurious villa in France and arrest Callum Dillon for murder. He had been on holiday with his wife Siobhan and their daughter Emma, visiting Siobhan’s sister Maria. And now he is escorted back to England in handcuffs, leaving his bewildered family to scramble back home after him. Siobhan’s life is torn apart as she tries to understand her husband’s connection to Caroline. Who was Caroline? Why would anyone want to murder her? And where is Eve? The world watches.

I absolutely loved Phoebe Morgan’s The Girl Next Door and I couldn’t wait to read The Babysitter, and it was every bit as good. Once more we’re given the treat of a stand alone psychological thriller, which tells a good story involving people you want to read about.

I love the structure of The Babysitter. The novel moves between the present and the past and focuses on Siobhan Dillon and the murdered woman, Caroline, whose life we watch in its final days leading to that fateful night. There’s a poignancy in getting to know a woman while being only too aware that her hours are limited. Siobhan is especially interesting as we try and discover just how much she knows about Caroline and her husband. She has to deal with the fallout of her husband’s arrest as it tears her family apart. It’s hard not to empathise with this woman facing such a crisis.

There are two other central figures to the novel – the innocent baby, Eve, and the not so innocent, philandering and vain husband, Callum. But just because he’s unfaithful, does that make him a killer? That’s the quandary faced by the detectives on the case who also have chapters devoted to them and their investigations. There are so many questions to be answered and this, along with the really appealing structure and the fantastic writing of such a fine author, helps to make The Babysitter a stand out thriller.

I doubt there’s a psychological thriller out there that doesn’t proclaim that you won’t see the twist coming. In the case of The Babysitter the claim is true. It’s extremely hard to put down, it kept me guessing and it’s very well-written to boot!

Without a Trace by Mari Hannah

Orion | 2020 (19 March) | 400p | Gifted copy | Buy the book

Without a Trace by Mari HannahWhen flight 0113 falls from the sky over the Atlantic on its way from London to New York, DCI Kate Daniels’ world crashes around her. The love of her life, Jo Soulsby, was booked on that flight as fall out after a crisis in their relationship. Kate can’t leave her work behind her, it’s always top of her mind, and now Kate is learning the cost of that. She rushes to London with her DS, Hank Gormley, a man who is as fond of Jo as he is of Kate, and manages to talk her way into the investigation, soon working alongside the FBI to solve the mystery of what happened aboard the plane and why. Meanwhile, back in Northumberland, a gangster has been found murdered. It’s a critical case and Kate knows she should be in charge of it, as does her boss, but she has only one thing on her mind, something she has to do, and that is to discover what happened to Jo.

I am a huge fan of Mari Hannah and Kate Daniels and I’m sure I’m not alone in being thrilled that Kate has at last returned! It’s been four years since the excellent Gallows Drop but it’s as if Kate hasn’t been away. Without a Trace is part of a series but this is a stand alone story and so you could happily enjoy it without having read the others. But if you have followed these books, then you’ll know about the yo-yo relationship between Kate and Jo and about the closeness between Kate, Hank, her boss and with the rest of her team. They are tight, very tight, and this has helped to make these wonderful books so special and so emotionally charged.

Emotions can’t run higher than they do in Without a Trace. Kate Daniels can be prickly, defiant and stubborn but she also feels intensely, with so many of those guilt feelings that many of us have to deal with, I’m sure. She is a fantastic creation. She feels very real to me. Her relationships with people can be difficult but her loyalty is never in doubt and the people she works with love her. I am so fond of Hank, her second in command. He’d risk everything to see Kate through this and he never leaves her side. We also see here Kate interacting with her team’s partners. This is a family.

The story in Without a Trace is great with it really reaching its unputdownable crescendo in the second half. There is a lot of detail about planes and airports in the first half, which adds authenticity and tension (and is very impressive!) but in the second half it’s none stop action and it is exhilarating. It’s powerful stuff, very much so. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

Without a Trace was such a joy to read. It’s comforting to be back with one of my favourite detectives and my namesake. Mari Hannah is a superb storyteller as we’ve seen from this series and from the others (the Ryan books and the Stone and Oliver series). She can do no wrong and we have been given a treat with Without a Trace. I hope we see Kate again soon.

Other reviews
Gallows Drop
The Silent Room (Ryan 1)
The Death Messenger (Ryan 2)
The Lost (Stone and Oliver 1)
The Insider (Stone and Oliver 2)
The Scandal (Stone and Oliver 3)

The Pretender’s Gold by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2020 (28 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pretender's Gold by Scott MarianiWhen Ross Campbell stumbles across a lost hoard of gold coins by Loch Ardaich in the Scottish Highlands, he finds himself in all sorts of trouble. He finds himself dead. People want those coins and they’ll stop at nothing to find them. That means they also go after Ross’s colleague, who turns out to be the nephew of one Boonzie McCulloch, a retired army sergeant who happens to be the close friend and mentor of Ben Hope. When Boonzie goes missing, Ben Hope immediately leaps into action, racing from his home in France to the wintry Highlands. All hell breaks loose. This is Ben Hope, after all.

In my opinion, and I know I’m right in this, Ben Hope is the greatest action hero you can find in fiction being written today and this is my favourite thriller series. I’ve reviewed these books for years and read them for much longer than that. I adore them and I love Ben. The Pretender’s Gold is the 21st in the series and I’m not surprised to say that it is fabulous and is among my favourites. As with all of these books, it stands alone very well but hopefully it might inspire you to go back and discover Ben’s earlier adventures.

I loved the setting for The Pretender’s Gold. Ben spends much of his time fighting baddies and righting wrongs across the globe, while his home – a farm where he and his team train forces to rescue hostages – is in France. This time he’s in Britain and the Scottish location is wonderful. There is a great deal of warmth in the descriptions of the Highlands and their people. You can feel the cold as Ben tramps across snowy hills and through frosty woods on the trail of an elite band of killers. The story is a good one, too, going back to a particularly interesting period of Scottish history. I’ve always enjoyed how these novels, to varying degrees, mix history and thrills.

Ben is a fantastic character. Hated by car rental companies and loved by whisky distillers, hating to kill but still very good at it, and almost unkillable but, we sense, not really. His past is chequered but for this novel he leaves much of that behind. His focus is on his old army friend Boonzie, who is quite a character in his own right. I loved spending time with him. We care for him and desperately want Ben to save the day.

At a time when I’m slow to read a book, I raced through The Pretender’s Gold. I read it during a dark time and it, and Ben Hope, was good company. These books are so well written. They’re exciting and exhilarating with just the right amount of humour. But there are also shadows. Ben might be an action hero but there is substance to him. He feels like an old friend to me and it was a joy to spend time with him once more. I can’t wait to rave about him again.

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
Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol
Ben Hope 16: The Bach Manuscript
Ben Hope 17: The Moscow Cipher
Ben Hope 18: The Rebel’s Revenge
Ben Hope 19: Valley of Death
Ben Hope 20: House of War

Double Agent by Tom Bradby

Bantam Press | 2020 (28 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Double Agent by Tom BradbyDouble Agent, the new thriller by well-known ITV news reporter Tom Bradby, follows directly on from Secret Service, which was published last year. Although Double Agent can be read as a stand alone, it does reveal everything that happened in the previous novel and also, I think, its impact would be much greater if you knew what had happened. So please do read Secret Service first. It is excellent. This review assumes you’ve done just that so do please step away if you don’t want to know anything about what has gone on.

Kate Henderson is a senior officer at M16 and the whole agency is in turmoil following recent events. Kate has been personally affected more than most and her home life is now as fragile as her career. She knows that she is barely hanging on. She can only sleep with the help of medication. She’s worried about her children and is grieving the loss of people close to her. Her therapist advises her to have a complete break from work. But she can’t. Nothing that happened before has gone away. It looks as if there may still be a Russian mole in the secret service. The same Russian spies are in touch again and this time they have more evidence to support the outrageous claims that a very senior British politician is a Russian spy. In return, the Russian spies wish to defect to the UK. But is it all true? Kate feels under attack, that she’s being watched, suspected. She has to discover the truth so that she can sleep at night. Her close friends at M16 support her but can they really be trusted? Can anyone be trusted, especially now when nothing feels safe?

Secret Service is such a fantastic thriller and I’m pleased to say that so, too, is Double Agent. It is different, though. This time Kate must deal with the dramatic fallout of previous events on the secret service, the government and on her own life, which has been transformed as a result. The focus is now fully on Kate Henderson, a woman of integrity and feeling, who has reached the end of her tether while still having to go that extra mile to discover a truth that may not be even knowable. She is driven while at the same time she is close to exhaustion. It’s an extremely powerful portrait by Tom Bradby. Kate is a fascinating character, fully three-dimensional, and she is also likeable.

We experience this shifty and shifting state of affairs through Kate’s perspective and that means that the people around her remain shady, untrustworthy and potentially sinister. There is also a new figure for Kate to deal with – Suzy from M15 who has been assigned to Kate as her Deputy but her motives are entirely unknown and Suzy herself is a complete enigma and a woman of many contradictions. That makes her very interesting to read about.

In the midst of this tense tale of spies and murder, there is the human tale of Kate and her family. I don’t want to go into that here because you really do need to know what happened in the first book, but I love the way that this is done, especially the portrayal of Kate’s fragile daughter.

There were a couple of moments in this book that made me shout out with shock. I actually did that. It’s not often a book catches me out. Double Agent does.

If you enjoy spy thrillers half as much as I do then you’ll really like these books and the characters within them. I love the fact that they deal with the old enemy – the Russians. We’re reminded of that Cold War past as Kate travels by train across Russia. I love all that – the atmosphere, the mood, the tension. Double Agent is an excellent spy thriller which complements Secret Service perfectly.

Other review
Secret Service

Curse the Day by Judith O’Reilly

Head of Zeus | 2020 (2 April) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Curse the Day by Judith O'ReillyWhen Esme Hawke is attacked in her own home and kills her assailant in self-defence, her uncle is determined to keep her safe. Because he knows this won’t be the last time an attempt is made on her life. Her husband Tobias is the genius boss of the Derkind Institute. He is the creator of ‘Syd’, which represents a breakthrough in Artificial Intelligence. Syd mimics human thought and has the ability to learn. Esme isn’t the only one to be fearful of what Syd can do if released from its confinement within the Institute’s machines. Others want control. Esme is a target and so too is Tobias. Michael North, an ex-assassin with a bullet in his brain, is forced to take the case, to keep Esme safe at all costs, and he must do that with the help of teenage genius hacker Fangfang. Then Tobias is murdered. It was his moment of glory. Now North must save Esme and contain Syd. But, most of all, North must keep Fangfang safe.

Curse the Day is the second thriller to feature Michael North but I don’t think you need to have read the first one to enjoy this. I hadn’t read the first and it didn’t affect my reading. The author reintroduces us to her characters and we’re quick to get to know them, especially the charismatic, fatalistic North and the immensely likeable and troubled Fangfang. These two people, each so different, are made for each other. They are tied together. And it’s that relationship which gives Curse the Day such a resonance. North has very little in his life so, what he has, he will die, and kill for, to protect.

These are great characters but even more memorable are the fantastic action sequences. The opening of the thriller is electric and so, too, is the scene in which North arrives back in the UK. This is exciting stuff! The story is entertaining and the baddies as bad as you’d like. Most of all, though, I loved Fangfang and enjoyed Michael North’s background (ie the bullet in the head), which makes him very different from other action heroes. I do love action thrillers and so I’m pleased to discover a new hero to get to know.

Forgive the short review. My mind isn’t working as well as it might due to everything that’s going on, with me personally and with the world. Thanks to everyone for the kind messages. It’s really appreciated.