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Book Review: Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza

Nine Elms is the first in a brand new series from Robert Bryndza featuring a former police detective who solved a career-defining case only to have it drastically alter her life.

Kate Marshall was a promising young police detective when she caught the notorious Nine Elms serial killer. But her greatest victory suddenly became a nightmare.

Fifteen years after those catastrophic, career-ending events, a copycat killer has taken up the Nine Elms mantle, continuing the ghastly work of his idol.

Enlisting her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper, Kate draws on her prodigious and long-neglected skills as an investigator to catch a new monster. But there’s much more than her reputation on the line: Kate was the original killer’s intended fifth victim . . . and his successor means to finish the job.

Robert Bryndza cleverly chooses to open Nine Elms by first going back fifteen years and showing us how the end game to that altogether life-changing case played out. In visiting the crime scene of the killer’s most recent victim and the scenes which follow, we not only get a sense of the brutal crimes committed but we also see Kate Marshall as she then was, how she uncovers who the killer is and the way she interacts with him in those critical moments immediately after making her discovery. These are key to helping us understand just how much she has had to give up and how greatly the case impacted upon her life and career.

I was intrigued as to how Kate was going to investigate the copycat killings since she’s no longer in the police force but a request for a second opinion from a guest lecturer on her course and a plea for help in a cold case from the parents of a missing girl provide Kate and her research assistant Tristan with a seemingly innocuous and credible way in to begin their investigations.

I would have liked to have known a little bit more about Tristan in this first book but hope to discover more about him as the series continues. The relationship between him and Kate could be interesting, too. Kate clearly trusts and values him enough to open up to him and involve him so closely in the investigations and, while I think she asks a lot of him, she does check in with him periodically to make sure he’s okay with what they’re doing and wants to continue. Crucially, she also has his back when his research position looks like being compromised. Read more

Book Review: The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow #damppebblesblogtours

Dominic Brownlow’s evocative yet unsettling debut novel The Naseby Horses opens with a teenager returning home only to discover that his sister has been missing since the very same day he was admitted to hospital.

Seventeen-year-old Simon’s sister Charlotte is missing. The lonely Fenland village the family recently moved to from London is odd, silent, and mysterious. Simon is epileptic and his seizures are increasing in severity, but when he is told of the local curse of the Naseby Horses, he is convinced it has something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Despite resistance from the villagers, the police, and his own family, Simon is determined to uncover the truth, and save his sister.

Under the oppressive Fenland skies and in the heat of a relentless June, Simon’s bond with Charlotte is fierce, all-consuming, and unbreakable; but can he find her? And does she even want to be found?

While the novel purports to cover the six-day period since Charlotte’s disappearance, Dominic Brownlow cleverly decides to truncate this still further to only three, with the book beginning on the day that Simon returns home. This ensures that Simon and the reader come to the story at the same time, knowing about as much as each other; both have to play catch up, and any confusion on the part of the reader as to what might be happening is only mirrored and even amplified by Simon’s own.

An unreliable narrator he may be but Simon decides it’s down to him to find out what’s going on: “I don’t know what’s going on here and I don’t know the answers to these things, for I don’t even know if they are even things, not merely the shadows of things. I only know that Charlotte is not dead. I feel it within me. I feel her heartbeat next to mine, as I always have, the echo of my own… I have to save her, for that is all in life I have ever been required to do.”

Simon’s resolution will single him out even more in the small Fenland village to which his family only recently retreated from London and make him a target for unwelcome attention. But it’s also a search that takes him through a killer inventory of mystery elements, including his own family’s books and papers; a disurbing painting they inherited with the house; letters from the dead; time spent unravelling the truth behind a local legend that comes with its own curse dating back to the time of the English Civil War; and a list sharing one spooky commonality.

To further complicate things, Simon is taking medication and trying to avoid any more epileptic episodes. The description of the aura experienced shortly before the onset of an episode is wonderfully well done but this different way in which his brain fires and makes connections might be the very thing which also helps him to see the things that no one else can. Read more

Book Review: Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre #FallenAngel #blogtour

After having enjoyed Chris Brookmyre’s historical crime novel The Way of All Flesh (written in collaboration with Marisa Haetzman) last year, I was interested in reading some more contemporary work. His latest book, Fallen Angel, which came out yesterday seemed a good place to start as it’s a stand-alone novel.

To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.

Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible…

And suspicion is a dangerous thing.

I think this might be a good book for anyone who’s ever been slightly envious of the seemingly perfect family holidaying in the next villa or on the neighbouring sun loungers to them. It’s a salutary reminder how often things are never quite the way they appear, and that there are downsides to both fame and families.

Fallen Angel starts with a murder and a family coming together for a commemoration at their two villas in Portugal. In the third villa of the group, there is a young Canadian girl, Amanda, the baby she is looking after this summer, and his mother. While they wait for the child’s father to join them, Amanda’s interest is piqued when she finds out whose family is staying next door and what happened here sixteen years ago.

Quoting passages and using theories from the family patriarch’s book on conspiracy theories, and switching between the 2002 holiday, which is mired in tragedy, and this tense reunion in 2018, Chris Brookmyre explores the personalities, dynamics and dark secrets within the Temple family. He switches perspective between Amanda and the inhabitants of all three villas, suggesting where the tensions and cracks are behind the carefully-curated veneer, and that this is far from being one big happy family. Read more

Book Review: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

Inspired by real events but told by fictional characters Clare Clark’s latest novel, In the Full Light of the Sun, puts Weimar Berlin and a van Gogh art scandal in the frame.

In the Full Light of the Sun follows the fortunes of three Berliners caught up in a devastating scandal of 1930s’ Germany. It tells the story of Emmeline, a wayward, young art student; Julius, an anxious, middle-aged art expert; and a mysterious art dealer named Rachmann who are at the heart of Weimar Berlin at its hedonistic, politically turbulent apogee and are whipped up into excitement over the surprising discovery of thirty-two previously unknown paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

In the Full Light of the Sun is split into three sections, each with its own year: the first follows Julius, art expert, biographer and critic, in a position to influence careers and fortunes, his own included, in 1923; the second takes up Emmeline’s hedonistic life as an artist and young woman in search of inspiration, work and love, four years later in 1927; and finally in 1933, there’s the diary of a Jewish lawyer involved in the resulting court case. Still struggling to cope with a tragic personal loss, his world is fast becoming a smaller and scarier place, but he lives in hope of someone stepping in to call a halt on it.

The novel depicts Berlin at the height of a dynamic period of creativity, apparent freedom and innovation. But such heady times don’t guarantee clarity of vision and Clare Clark shows here how greatly people can be blinded by the glare when things burn so brightly, often leaving them deceived. Read more

Book Review: The Lost Man by Jane Harper #TheLostMan #BlogTour

Jane Harper’s third novel, The Lost Man, opens with a death which seems to make little sense. It’s a mystery that’s all the more disorientating for being set in the harsh and unfamiliar landscape of a Queensland summer. Here’s what it’s about:

Two brothers meet at the remote border of their vast cattle properties under the unrelenting sun of the outback. In an isolated part of Australia, they are each other’s nearest neighbour, their homes hours apart.

They are at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish.

Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Aaron Falk, the detective from Jane Harper’s previous two novels, is a no show in this latest book but he’s not the lost man of the title. That distinction seems to be shared between two brothers: the dead man, Cameron, who looks to have strayed too far from his car and become disoriented in the heat, and Nathan, who needs to know whether his brother did so deliberately.

Youngest brother, Bub, may feel sidelined in the family business but it’s Nathan, the eldest, who is cut off from people both physically and emotionally. Divorced and living on his own, except for the present time when his son is visiting from Brisbane, he’s been ostracised by the community, both settled and itinerant, for breaching an unwritten outback code ten years ago. As the novel progresses and you get to know the man better, you can’t help but hope there’s a chance of redemption for him here, together with some sense of release for the family.

Jane Harper’s description of the land and its people is as blistering as the Queensland heat. My skin prickled as I read and I could almost feel the ubiquitous red dust on its pages, as both the mystery surrounding Cameron’s death and the family involved unravel. It’s especially absorbing if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to live and work on a remote outback station. What kind of person would you need to be to survive such a life in that landscape? Read more

Book Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon #TheIncendiaries #blogtour

R. O. Kwon’s stunning debut The Incendiaries is a compact and tightly-written campus novel of obsessive love and religious extremism. And I’m excited to tell you about it as part of the blog tour with it being out in the UK today.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group–a secretive extremist cult–founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

At the beginning of The Incendiaries, Will Kendall not only tells us that there’s a bombing but also who he considers responsible for it. And just as scenes of crime officers will collect forensic evidence and try to piece together what happened, when, and who might be responsible for the bombing, here Will attempts to reconstruct his and Phoebe Lin’s story to help him understand why they splinter from each other.

Will’s task makes the text fragmentary at times, and understandably so, especially when telling the story from Phoebe Lin or John Leal’s perspective: memories recalled resemble the shards of debris recovered from a blast site. It’s often difficult to work out their significance at the time and some may never be recovered.

The Incendiaries is a fascinating take on the unreliable narrator with the novel appearing to be told from three different perspectives. Initially unclear and helpfully blurred over by the absence of speech marks, two perspectives are related to us in reported speech. Some scenes are imagined, rather than reported faithfully from testimony or witness statement, and variations occur when people recount their own history. Phoebe is reluctant to reveal hers except to select friends or in Jejah (the group) confession; it’s unclear whether John Leal’s is real, based on some truth but embellished or a total construct. Read more

Book Review: The Lido by Libby Page #LoveTheLido

Libby Page’s debut novel The Lido has been on my book radar from the moment I first heard about it on Twitter. My own local lido reopened in 2015 (after lottery funding enabled its restoration) and a novel set around one under threat sounded interesting. That it also had at its heart an age-gap relationship between two women made it all the more appealing to me, as I’m lucky enough to have some great intergenerational friendships. Here’s what it’s about:

Meet Rosemary, 86, and Kate, 26: dreamers, campaigners, outdoor swimmers…

Rosemary has lived in Brixton all her life, but everything she knows is changing. Only the local lido, where she swims every day, remains a constant reminder of the past and her beloved husband George.

Kate has just moved and feels adrift in a city that is too big for her. She’s on the bottom rung of her career as a local journalist, and is determined to make something of it.

So when the lido is threatened with closure, Kate knows this story could be her chance to shine. But for Rosemary, it could be the end of everything. Together they are determined to make a stand, and to prove that the pool is more than just a place to swim – it is the heart of the community.

There’s a lot to love about The Lido, and its two main characters are key to this. I think most people will identify with Kate’s feelings of loneliness and anxiety in a big city, whether or not they’ve experienced it for themselves, and how she perceives other people’s lives either through social media or thanks to family dynamics closer to home. Or they’ll feel for the character of recently-widowed Rosemary, her love of the lido closely linked to that of her husband, the water giving her a freedom and grace she no longer feels on land, and the ways in which she touches the lives of those around her. She made me hope that everyone has at least one Rosemary in their lives. I know I do, and I’m grateful for them. They know who they are.

It didn’t take me long before I was willing both of these women on to succeed in their personal battles, as well as the more publicly-fought fight to save the lido. Around these two, Libby Page sketches in a community of people: some are more successfully done than others. I didn’t quite get a handle on Phil the paper’s editor, Jay the photographer or Geoff the lido manager but this wasn’t a major issue. They’re secondary characters and others such as Ahmed, Frank and Jermaine and their dog Sprout, Hope and especially George more than make up for it. In fact, George made a surprising impact on me for someone who died before the book opens. He comes back to life on the page, as Rosemary relives their relationship. Read more

Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper #ForceofNature

Her debut The Dry, which I reviewed here, was one of my standout books from last year as well as being a Sunday Times Bestseller, so I was very keen to read Jane Harper’s follow-up, Force of Nature, which is out today. Aaron Falk’s first case had taken him back to his childhood home and forced him to revisit a traumatic event from his past alongside the main case he stays in town to help investigate. I was interested to see where Jane Harper would take him next, and what the case would be: whether it would be as personal as his first. A missing hiker on a corporate retreat may not sound personal but it’s exactly that.

FIVE WENT OUT. FOUR CAME BACK…

Is Alice here? Did she make it? Is she safe? In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four had asked after Alice’s welfare. Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them.

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with.

Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.

Force of Nature opens about six months after the events in The Dry took place. Despite that leaving him scarred, Federal Agent Aaron Falk is back at work in the federal investigation unit in Melbourne with his partner of three months, Carmen Cooper. The timing of Alice’s disappearance, together with a message Falk receives, compels them to visit the place where she disappeared: bushland that’s already been the scene of grisly events which captured the public’s imagination and could do without any further notoriety.

The story switches between Falk and Cooper’s questioning of Alice’s colleagues also on the retreat (against the background of the ongoing search for her) and the women’s retreat as it happened. This might frustrate readers who dislike flipping back and forth between two timelines but short chapters help ease the transitions, making them less noticeable. The structure’s ideal for any reader like me who wants to try and work out what happened, preferably before the detectives Falk and Cooper do.The reader has more information than the detectives investigating, not that this helps a great deal. Harper throws in enough false trails to keep you guessing throughout, the dynamic between the five women is in a state of flux despite some of their best efforts, and the witnesses appear sufficiently cagey or evasive to be unreliable. Who or what are they protecting with their witness accounts, and more importantly by what they withhold. Read more

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere is out today in the UK and I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour to celebrate its publication. Here’s what the blurb says about it:

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town – and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost.

While putting people in little boxes, even large boxes with impeccable interior design, setting them strict rules and city ordinances to live by, which control everything from bin collection to the external colour scheme of their homes, may seem like a good idea in theory, it’s no guarantee that they’ll play their part and always stick to the script. All the best intentions can go awry once you add people, with all their competing egos and beliefs, polarising politics, differing dynamics and underlying tensions, to the mix.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two families whose lives become entwined and will never be the same again. It hones in on the roles we play within a family and the wider community, how those dynamics are set up, and how little it takes to upset them. Little Fires Everywhere is so well written that I read it in two heady sittings, reluctant to put it down. This story of one seemingly content and compliant community stirred up by the arrival of two outsiders reads like a literary psychological thriller and I was quickly drawn into the lives of the respectable Richardson family, the more nomadic newly-arrived Warrens, and their friends and neighbours. Celeste Ng moves seamlessly around the carefully-planned streets of Shaker Heights, taking me right to the heart of this community almost before I realised how far in I was. Read more

Book Review: Death in the Stars by Frances Brody #DeathintheStars #BlogTour

I’m happy to say that tenacious amateur sleuth Kate Shackleton is back for her eighth outing. (I wrote about my first encounter with Kate in Whitby here.) This time she’s in for some starry encounters, as she scores an unusual invitation to view the 1927 eclipse and is drawn into investigating some dramatic deaths.

Yorkshire, 1927. Eclipse fever grips the nation, and when beloved theatre star Selina Fellini approaches trusted sleuth Kate Shackleton to accompany her to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel, Kate suspects an ulterior motive.

During the eclipse, Selina’s friend and co-star Billy Moffatt disappears and is later found dead in the chapel grounds. Kate can’t help but dig deeper and soon learns that two other members of the theatre troupe died in similarly mysterious circumstances in the past year. With the help of Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, Kate sets about investigating the deaths – and whether there is a murderer in the company.

When Selina’s elusive husband Jarrod, injured in the war and subject to violent mood swings, comes back on the scene, Kate begins to imagine something far deadlier at play, and wonders just who will be next to pay the ultimate price for fame . . .

Frances Brody captures all the excitement of the 1927 eclipse well and weaves it seamlessly into her story. It’s fascinating to see where the Astronomer Royal chooses to view it from in the path of totality and how the author uses that setting so well, bringing in minor as well as the main characters to help us see the relevance to them as well as those who attend the ticketed event. I got a real sense of occasion, the planning which went into it, and its importance to the chosen school. I also enjoyed how breezily Kate manages to arrange a flight up there and back.

Death in the Stars clips along at a fair old pace and I read it quickly. I enjoyed the look both in front of and behind the curtain at variety shows during the late 1920s and how the rise in radio and movies was threatening their continued existence. Change is in the air and there is a way of life slowly dying out here too, alongside the more sudden deaths of troupe members. I also appreciated how Frances Brody touches on post-traumatic stress from people’s wartime efforts or their being closely involved in a shocking incident and the physical and mental legacy of their experiences. She shows the reader both the supposed glamour of life on the stage and showbiz parties as well as the more routine life backstage and in between performances, once the lights come up, the audience goes home, the costumes and make-up removed.  Read more

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