Tag Archives: Thriller

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

HarperCollins | 2018 (17 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cross Her Heart by Sarah PinboroughAva knows that her mum, Lisa, loves her but sometimes she wishes she weren’t so overprotective. Ava’s at that age now. She’s 16 years old. She’s got good friends, a boyfriend, and the chance of something even more exciting due to some tantalising messages on her Facebook. Mind you, it also seems that things are looking up for Lisa as well. Her job’s going well, she’s got such a good friend in her colleague Marilyn, and she’s seriously thinking of accepting an offer of a date from one of her business’s clients. But there’s something niggling away in Lisa’s mind. There’s something not quite right, things possibly being moved, strange song dedications on the radio, and more besides. Lisa doesn’t want to worry but every single bone in her body tells her she should be terrified.

And that is all you’ll hear from me about what goes on plotwise within this compelling and richly layered thriller. Sarah Pinborough is such a clever and original writer, with an imagination that challenges everything that we expect from a psychological thriller, and she’s done the same with other genres in the past. You never quite know what you’re going to get but there is one certainty – it will be make you stop in your tracks. And it will make your jaw drop. Not just once but time after time. And that’s just what happens in Cross Her Heart.

The characters created here are fascinating and each of them has their own story and we keep an eye on more than one of them at a time. The narrative moves between three voices in particular but there are multiple characters who move through, some just turning up unannounced and demanding our attention as we work out where and how they’re going to fit in.

I must admit to having one issue with Cross Her Heart but it’s a personal one. There were some brief sections that were too painful for me to read. They tore into my heart and I just couldn’t deal with them. This is testament to the power of the author’s writing and the strength of the feeling that she conveys. Other readers made of sterner stuff will be fine, I’m sure.

I had the floor swept out from under my feet a couple of times during my reading of Cross Her Heart. The plot is extraordinary. Behind Her Eyes was such a clever and original psychological thriller and Sarah Pinborough has challenged it in completely different and fresh ways. She knows how to grab our attention and I’m in awe of how she manages it, with every book she writes whatever its genre. No genre can hold Sarah Pinborough back. She conquers them all.

Other reviews
The Death House
13 Minutes
Behind Her Eyes

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The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet

Doubleday | 2018 (3 May) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

The marriage of Caroline and Francis is in trouble. Sometimes it seems as if the only thing holding them together is their adored young son, Eddie. Perhaps it’s time for them to rediscover themselves, to take some time away from home, from Eddie, to reignite that spark that drew them together in the first place. On a whim Caroline had entered a house swap scheme. Finally, she gets a hit. Somebody would like to swap for a week his house in the leafy London suburb of Chiswick for their flat in the centre of Leeds. Full of hope, Caroline and Francis set off. But the house they find is nothing like they expected. It is stripped of personal items and character. It feels like a spotless shell.

But there are flowers waiting for them and a choice of music in the CD player that gives Caroline an uneasy feeling. There is something very familiar about these little things, almost as if a message has been left for her in this stranger’s house. It reminds her of a past she wants forgotten forever. And suddenly the thought hits her that this person, whoever they might really be, is in her own flat. And they seem to know everything about her.

The House Swap has a fantastic premise and it certainly had me intrigued to read it. Its narrative pushes the story on in chapters that move between the present day and events that took place about three years before. Most of the narrative is from Caroline’s point of view but there are other chapters which give us another perspective, especially that of her husband Francis. And it’s to Francis that we are increasingly drawn as we learn more and more about Caroline’s past. There are other sections, though, the ones filled with menace, as we’re taken into the Leeds flat now inhabited by a stranger who has their own plans for Caroline.

I did have issues with The House Swap, largely focused on how difficult I found it to empathise with Caroline. She’s increasingly difficult to like, as is her behaviour. I did feel sorry for Francis and I was glad when chapters allowed him a voice. My other issue was with the frequent sexual content, which I wasn’t expecting and gave the novel an erotic edge that I wouldn’t normally go for. However, the story kept me intrigued throughout and I was keen to discover the truth. There are moments of menace here that I particularly welcomed. Rebecca Fleet is very good at establishing a sinister tone. She can also write a pacey tale because the pages of The House Swap flew through the fingers.

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

House Swap blog tour

Nightfall Berlin by Jack Grimwood

Michael Joseph | 2018 (17 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nightfall Berlin by Jack GrimwoodIt is 1986 and at last there are hopes that the Cold War might finally be about to thaw. Gorbachev has initiated talks to reduce the number of nuclear weapons – if he had his way he’d ban them all – and the world is watching. But it’s business as usual for British Intelligence Officer Major Tom Fox, who has been ordered to East Berlin to organise the return to the west of Sir Cecil Blackburn, a notorious spy who defected to the east many years before. It seems he wants to die at home. But to many in Britain Sir Cecil remains a traitor who still hasn’t paid the full price for his sins. This will be a delicate mission. But the most carefully arranged plans have a habit of falling apart and it’s not long before Fox is on the run, wanted by both east and west for murder.

In order to escape alive, Fox must first find out who is responsible for the crime and why. He must hurry. Anyone who might be able to help is being silenced at a merciless rate. The stakes are high, the consequences of failure devastating.

Nightfall Berlin is the second Cold War thriller by Jack Grimwood to feature Major Fox and, although I haven’t read Moskva (yet!), this didn’t affect my enjoyment of Nightfall Berlin at all. Grimwood introduces Fox and his world perfectly, revealing little bits about his wife and son, making it clear how central to his life they are, even though he is forced to spend most of his time away from them. As a result of that, and various other things, this is a family in crisis and Fox’s worry about this is there as a shadow in the background all the way through the novel. I thought this was done brilliantly. It’s not laboured, it’s enigmatic and mysterious, there is an absence in Fox’s life.

But then we get on to the main business of the book and that is a Cold War thriller that had me glued to the pages. This is fantastic stuff! We follow Fox as he moves through a vividly realised East Berlin, tracked by Stasi agents, and then there are the spies, both Russian and British. In this world it’s hard to trust anyone. But there is even more to this story than the fractured Berlin of the 1980s. This is a city that can’t escape the past and the end of the Second World War. There’s a legacy from those days that hangs over this world. It’s a fascinating story.

As you’d expect from an excellent Cold War thriller, this is a complex, involved and tense novel. The reader must stay alert and is rewarded for their attention. We meet so many men and women with extraordinary stories to tell. But at the heart of the novel lies Major Tom Fox whose past haunts him every bit as much as Berlin is haunted by its own past.

I loved Nightfall Berlin so much that as soon as I finished it I bought Moskva, a thriller set in Cold War Moscow. I’m now hooked on Major Tom Fox and this series. If you have any interest at all in this most fascinating period of modern history then I suspect you will be too.

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

Star of the North by D.B. John

Harvill Secker | 2018 (Hb: 10 May; ebook: 3 May) | 440p | Review copy | Buy the book

Star of the North by DB JohnIn June 1988, teenager Soo-min, a Korean American, disappeared along with her boyfriend from a beach in South Korea. The young couple were presumed drowned but Soo-min’s twin sister Jenna has never stopped believing that she is still alive and she has continued to search for her. The years have gone by, 22 of them, and now it looks as if the truth might be known and it’s a terrible truth. A captured North Korean submarine captain has admitted that years before he snatched people from beaches and carried them to North Korea. Soo-min and her boyfriend were just two of many. Jenna will do anything to find out Soo-min’s fate, even if that means changing her life completely, becoming a spy and undertaking a daring mission into North Korea.

North Korea is unlike anywhere else on Earth. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, is worshipped as a living god while his adoring subjects endure deprivations beyond imagining, with little food or light, literally working as slaves to fund their Dear Leader’s lavish lifestyle and secret projects. Mrs Moon is trying to keep herself and her husband alive by working in her spare time at a market selling food. It’s a terribly risky business and the borderline between survival and starvation is thin. By contrast Colonel Cho appears to have it all. He believes in Kim Jong-Il, he has a family he loves and can provide for and his future looks bright. Until the day comes that proves just how unsafe all lives are in this state.

I thought I knew a little about North Korea but this fantastic thriller shows me just how little that was. D.B. North has the credentials – he’s visited North Korea, he’s seen its control and influence over its citizens for himself and he brings all of this to bear in Star of the North. The portrait of North Korea is utterly compelling – but it also repels. This is an appalling state of affairs and we see it in action here as it affects all levels of North Korean society, or rather the privileged and the starving.

The story is engrossing and made even more so by the fact that we follow a number of lives through the novel, in the US and in North Korea. Jenna, Mrs Moon and Cho each have their motives, the force that drives them on, and they are all totally committed to their path. It is also extremely exciting and thrilling, full of surprises and shocks as well as moments of such tension. And it couldn’t be more topical.

I longed for Jenna to find the answers she was searching for and I agonised for Mrs Moon and Cho. Mrs Moon, for me, is the heart of this wonderful novel. Her story is astonishing.

I can’t praise this intense and thoroughly absorbing political/spy thriller enough. It’s an eye opener about North Korea and is genuinely shocking. It’s also a page turner and no wonder because it tells a brilliant story and its people are wholly believable – I cared deeply. Star of the North is a topical and relevant thriller, enormously exciting, extremely intelligent, beautifully written and not to be missed.

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

Star of the North blog tour poster

Guess Who by Chris McGeorge

Orion | 2018 (3 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Guess Who by Chris McGeorgeOne minute TV reality star Morgan Sheppard is enjoying himself in Paris, the next he wakes up in an unfamiliar hotel room in London, handcuffed to a bed. With him in the room are five strangers – three women and two men – all coming to consciousness, not knowing how they came to be there. There’s another person in the hotel room, too. This one is in the bath and he’s dead. The hotel TV sparks to life. A masked figure gives them instructions. Morgan Sheppard is a TV detective, famous because once, years ago as a child, he solved a murder. Everyday on daytime TV Sheppard solves salacious mysteries, mostly concerning cheating partners. But the masked figure has a proper case for him – Sheppard has three hours to find out which of the other five people in the room murdered the man in the bath. If he fails then they will all be killed. The clock by the side of the bed begins to count down.

Guess Who has the most exciting premise – six strangers confined within the claustrophobic setting of a locked room, trapped with a corpse. One of them is a murderer and one must solve the case. It couldn’t get much more classic than that but Chris McGeorge puts such a fun spin on it. And nothing here can be trusted. This is one of those thrillers where you think you know where you’re heading and then BOOM! I love this sort of book and Guess Who did not disappoint.

Obviously, I can’t tell you anything about what happens but I can say that the tension is maintained throughout as the clock ticks down and Sheppard is so completely out of his depth. Things are not looking good. The confinement leads to conflict, not helped by the knowledge that one amongst them is a murderer, and to say there’s friction between these strangers is putting it mildly. Slowly we learn some of the details and I just couldn’t put it down. I loved the way that the thriller moves between the locked room and the outside world, moving back into the past, and revealing secrets.

It is true that you need to suspend your powers of disbelief at times but I was more than happy to do that. I had such a fun time reading Guess Who. It’s hugely entertaining and a very impressive debut to boot.

Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall

Century | 2018 (Hb: 3 May; ebook: 19 April) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Mike and Verity have a history that goes back years. Their relationship has been passionate, intense, perhaps even obsessive. It has also been marked by games that both like to play. But the biggest game is about to begin – Verity is marrying another man, Angus, and, as Mike heads off to the wedding, he understands that the game’s stakes have never been higher. Before it can end, somebody will die.

And that is all I have to say about the plot. But the appeal and meaning of Our Kind of Cruelty goes far beyond its plot. This is a novel about character and it has a great deal to say on it. This is the purest of psychological thrillers. It has a fascinating premise but the focus is on the psychology of its main characters and the difference between the public face of a man or woman and that which they keep private. Interestingly, the psychology of the wider world and even of the reader comes into play as well. What do we think about what we’re being shown?

I read few psychological thrillers these days. This is mostly due to the repetition of themes and situations and the reliance on twists. Those I do read – and go on to finish – have to stand out in some way. Our Kind of Cruelty does just that. It’s tense throughout, agonisingly so at times, but it isn’t about twists, it’s about what’s going on in the heads of Mike and Verity. We spend the novel inside Mike’s thoughts. It’s his interpretation that we’re shown. Verity is more of a mystery, her feelings more elusive. I liked that the emphasis is on the male protagonist rather than the more usual female.

Our Kind of Cruelty is an absorbing read. I read it in two sittings. The character of Mike in particular is utterly fascinating and beautifully constructed by Araminta Hall. There are lessons to be learned from the story here but I don’t want to give any of that away. You must read it for yourself and you’ll be amply rewarded. I did feel that the novel is let down a little by its blurb, by it being made to fit within a psychological thriller slot, with all of the preconceptions that this can arouse in a reader. But once those are removed, you’ll find an expertly written and intuitive portrait of a small group of people and the tortured relationships that they put themselves through. Its analysis of society’s understanding of women is also penetrating.

I finished this book understanding that it is far more of a significant novel than I had assumed when I first picked it up. It is extremely well written and it most certainly makes you think, delving deeper into the psyche than any other so-called psychological thriller than I can think of.

London Rules by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2018 (1 February) | 345p | Bought copy | Buy the book

London Rules by Mick HerronLondon Rules is the fifth book in Mick Herron’s Slough House series of spy novels. This is, though, only the first I’ve read, which definitely puts me at a disadvantage when trying to review it and so, as it is a bought book and not a review copy, I’m just going to attempt a shortish review about why I’ve now gone and bought up the entire backlist.

Slough House in London is a place where spies go when they’re in disgrace and nothing more is expected from them, except for the forlorn hope that they won’t cause any more trouble for Queen and Country. These men and women are the Slow Horses of the secret service and they’re led by the extraordinary Jackson Lamb, a man who is held together by bad habits. The rest are a mix of alcoholics, drug addicts, deranged techies, with even the odd psychopath thrown in. Unfortunately one of them has become involved in the biggest crisis facing M15 and M16 today. A gang of terrorists is working to a plan to throw the country into chaos, beginning with a mass shooting in a small village in Derbyshire. Matters aren’t helped by the uneasy and volatile relationship between the teetering Prime Minister, the rogue MP who launched Brexit and a popular Muslim mayor candidate. The whole situation is about to explode and, unfortunately, Slough House is on the case.

The story is brilliant! I loved the way multiple threads are followed at the same time, some coming together, others not, but the huge appeal of this book, and I presume the others, is its characters. Not just the Slow Horses themselves but everyone who passes through the pages. Some might only pop by but they’re still painted with full colour and personality. The Slow Horses themselves, though, are priceless. The IT expert Roddy’s innate belief and confidence in himself as a man beloved by women is laugh outloud funny. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t even realise when he’s being tortured – he just thinks he’s helping people with their enquiries and is pleased to be so useful. The other Slow Horses are also a joy but with some there is also a touch of pathos. One or two are traumatised. There’s another one who’s just discovered that there’s only one situation in which he feels truly alive – and that isn’t a situation that’s good for anyone.

London Rules is a very funny book. Mick Herron’s writing is truly fantastic and he has such a gift of observation. Even though I’m new to these characters, I immediately felt like I knew them. This book reveals things that have happened in the past. It doesn’t spoil them; it just makes me want to find out what happened – what is it that made some of these people like this? Especially Shirley. I loved Shirley. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. I now have the first four books and I can’t wait for the time to read them. I love spy novels and so it’s great to find a new series, which definitely gives the genre an original twist, to enjoy and follow.

I went to a book event at Waterstones in Oxford last week in which Andrew Taylor (another favourite author of mine) was interviewed by Mick Herron. It was a wonderful event and it was such a pleasure to meet Mick (on the right below) and tell him how hard I’d fallen for his brilliant books and characters.

Andrew Taylor and Mick Herron