Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, London, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Sabine Durrant

‘Remember Me This Way’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 368 pages; 2015.

When it comes to suspenseful psychological thrillers, Sabine Durrant has become a firm favourite of mine in recent years. She’s written five to date. Remember Me This Way, published in 2015, is her second.

It’s a gripping tale of a marriage that isn’t quite what it is cracked up to be. Lizzie, a school librarian, is quiet and passive, always pleasant, helpful and kind. Zach, a struggling artist, is self-possessed, devoted to his work and his wife. But when Zach dies in a car accident on a rural road, London-based Lizzie begins to realise the man she married is not who she thought he was.

A year after his death, when she finally works up the courage to pack up Zach’s private artist’s studio in Cornwall, a sense of dread and unease descends when she discovers items of his clothing missing and his laptop still plugged into the wall. She begins to believe that maybe he is still alive, that he faked his death in a twisted form of revenge after she wrote him a letter telling him that their marriage was over.

What follows is a fast-moving story that plays on the idea that we can never really know the people to whom we are closest.

Clever structure

But what makes this thriller slightly more original than others in a similar vein is the structure, for both characters narrate their side of events in alternate chapters (in different typefaces to aid comprehension): Zach tells his story pre-accident; Lizzie’s narrative is entirely post-accident.

This clever device allows us to see how the pair met and fell in love, but it also gives us (alarming) insights into their character traits and shows how Zach was a manipulative, controlling narcissistic who did everything in his power to keep Lizzie all to himself.

As the story unfolds, Lizzie comes to see the truth of Zach’s behaviour and begins to uncover, slowly but surely, all the lies he told to create a believable backstory for himself, the kind of backstory that would make Lizzie take pity on him. It is only in death that his artifice becomes exposed.

Narrative tension

As you would expect from a psychological thriller, there are plenty of twists and turns and red herrings and unexpected reveals that made it almost impossible to guess what is coming next. As a form of escapism, Remember Me This Way is an entertaining read. Durrant knows how to create terrific characters; she’s very good at narcissistic types and downtrodden middle-class Londoners, as these kinds of people also feature in her other novels.

And she knows how to get the pulse racing, how to create an atmosphere of fear and dread, and to lace everything with an air of menace and build up the suspense chapter by chapter.

But this is not a “dumb” novel. There is social commentary too: about domestic abuse (in all the many forms it takes, including coercive control) and how no one can ever really know what happens behind closed doors. The power plays between husbands and wives; parents and children; students and teachers; and even siblings; are all explored, to varying degrees, as well.

Remember Me This Way is a clever and suspenseful novel that doesn’t necessarily comply with the genre’s normal rules of engagement. I enjoyed the twisty ride it took me on, and am looking forward to reading Durrant’s new novel, which was released just a few weeks ago…

This is my 7th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it on Kindle in November 2019.

20 books of summer (2017), Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Lucie Whitehouse, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Bed I Made’ by Lucie Whitehouse

The bed I made by Lucie Whitehouse

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury Publishing; 320 pages; 2010.

British author Lucie Whitehouse does a nice line in stories about women who fall in love with psychopathic men.

In her 2014 novel Before We Met, 30-something Hannah Reilly slowly realises that the man she has hurriedly married may not be the fine upstanding citizen and successful businessman he purports to be; in The Bed I Made, an earlier novel first published in 2010, Kate Gibson enters an erotically charged relationship with a successful property developer who isn’t quite as charming and kind-hearted as she initially thought.

Admittedly, both novels aren’t entirely believable, but who cares? I raced through The Bed I Made in a matter of a few days and found it got me over a minor reading slump (co-incidentally, Before We Met did exactly the same thing three years ago). I loved its gripping cat-and-mouse narrative, the atmospheric island setting and the compelling dynamic between two mismatched characters.

A new life on the Isle of Wight

The book opens with Kate, a translator, relocating from London to the wintry Isle of Wight, just off the Hampshire coast, for what appears to be a temporary change of scenery.  Here, she follows the case of a local woman who’s believed to be missing at sea, but before long it’s clear that it is Kate’s own life that is in danger.

In a fast-paced narrative that switches between the present and the past, we learn that Kate’s ex-boyfriend, an attractive man with whom she’d had a passionate relationship for more than a year, isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. Now she’s ignoring his increasingly insistent and worryingly nasty pleas, via email and text message, to get back together — but at what cost?

This psychological thriller ratchets up the tension and suspense the further you get into it, and Whitehouse weaves a gripping tale of a young woman being stalked by a dangerous man while trying to reinvent a new life for herself.

The atmospheric setting, of an insular, close-knit coastal community with its own secrets to keep, adds to the often overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia that ensues with each turn of the page.

Typical of this genre, the ending becomes slightly hysterical (for want of a better word) and my interest began to wane as soon as I realised Kate’s best friend had succumbed to Richard’s charms: the denouement was as predictable, and as over-the-top, as I expected.

Yet The Bed I Made is a wonderful form of escapism. It’s thrilling and tense, the sort of book that keeps you turning the pages long into the night. It’s not highbrow fiction by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes it’s good to simply romp through a book without thinking about it too much.

This is my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it in June 2014, based on the strength of Whitehouse’s Before We Met, which I reviewed that same month. I also bought her debut novel, The House at Midnight, which remains unread. Both were just £1.54 each as part of a Kindle promotion.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Spain

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.

The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.

The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.

Sexual shaming

As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.

Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.

And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:

The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.

She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

Fast paced, but preposterous plot

The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous.  Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.

Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.

Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.

So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.

This is my 19th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 15th for #AWW2016.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Nicole Trope, Publisher, Setting

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 384 pages; 2015.

The publisher Allen & Unwin bill Australian writer Nicole Trope as the “queen of domestic suspense” — and I can see why.

Hush, Little Bird — her fifth novel, but the first one I’ve read by her — is a brilliantly told tale about two women from opposite sides of the social spectrum whose lives are thrust together when both are sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Birdy is a young women with learning difficulties, who is struggling to raise a daughter on her own; while Rose is a rich woman in her 50s, who was once married to a famous television personality. Now in a low-security prison — “a halfway house between that and the real world” —  Rose works in the garden tending the plants and Birdy is in charge of an aviary filled with zebra finches and Gouldian finches. (As an aside, the bird on the front cover is neither species.)

The pair would seem to have nothing in common, yet they were once neighbours when Birdy was a little girl. Rose fails to recognise Birdy as an adult and is unaware of their connection. She’s also unaware that Birdy harbours a desire to do her harm, and the book’s nail-biting narrative hinges on whether or not Birdy’s dastardly plan ever comes to fruition. It makes for a rather fast-paced and compelling read.

Alternate narrators

The story, which is highly reminiscent of Harriet Lane’s Her, is told from both women’s viewpoints, with Birdy and Rose taking it in turns to narrate alternate chapters. This allows us to get a glimpse of their mindsets — Birdy, who has been labelled stupid her whole life, is aware of her limitations but is also a lot sharper than many might give her credit, and Rose, married at 16 to a handsome actor, has spent her whole life subsumed by someone else’s personality.

Their individual back stories are slowly fleshed out so that over the course of the novel the reader begins to piece together the puzzle of each character’s troubled life.

But this isn’t just your average run-of-the-mill tale of suspense: Trope deals with some important and  contemporary themes, which lends the story some weight (albeit with a slightly voyeuristic twist), and which could well have been lifted from today’s news. For instance, Rose’s husband Simon, who once hosted a children’s talent show in the 1970s, is accused decades later of horrible crimes against the children who appeared on screen (think Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris here in the UK):

When the second woman came forward to accuse Simon of touching her when she auditioned for My Kid Can . . ., we waited for the interest to die down as quickly as it had after the first woman. But it didn’t. This time the media grabbed hold of the story and it began to appear everywhere, and then more women came forward with the same allegations. Articles appeared in newspapers and on the internet. Websites were set up to condemn Simon, and an equal number of them were set up to support him. Journalists began to call the house, first during the day and then at odd hours, hoping we would pick up. We had to change our phone numbers. News vans took up residence outside the house. Letters and emails arrived, some wishing Simon dead and others wishing him luck.

Shocks and surprises

Despite the fact I’d guessed most of the major plot “reveals” before they happened, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this entertaining book which held me in its sway for two rather intense days and nights. Trope really knows how to keep her readers on tenterhooks by withholding information and then delivering it in such a way that the narrative seems constantly full of little shocks and surprises.

And while it revolves around child sexual abuse, Hush, Little Bird is never gratuitous; in fact, the subject is handled with great sensitivity and, dare I say it, wisdom. This is a compassionate, intelligent and provocative read; it’s also a stunning one about silence, lies and the secrets we keep.

This is my first book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my first for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tania Chandler

‘Please Don’t Leave Me Here’ by Tania Chandler


Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

For someone who supposedly likes to champion Australian literature, I’ve not done a very good job of it this year — indeed, I’ve only read two Australian books (a novel and a short story collection) — so when Tania Chandler’s debut novel, Don’t Leave Me Here, arrived unsolicited from her UK-based published, I bumped it to the top of my pile. It proved to be an excellent move, for this psychological thriller is a proper page-turner, one that not only had me guessing right to the end, but gave me goosebumps all along the way…

A puzzle to put together

The story reads very much like a puzzle that Brigitte, the protagonist, is trying to put together in her head, and you, the reader, follow her every step of the way. There’s a murder victim, a hit-and-run accident, a sordid extra-marital affair, a shady past as a stripper, domestic violence, childhood neglect, a police investigation and dreams of Kurt Cobain wearing a brown sweater — and somehow all these “clues” come together in a rather dramatic, and satisfying, ending.

The beauty of the present tense narrative, which is told in the third person but largely from Brigitte’s point of view, is that you’re never quite sure how much you can trust her version of events. Is she the loving wife and devoted mother of twins she purports to be, or is there something more calculating and conniving about her?

The author offers a steady, well-paced drip feed of information that constantly has the reader reassessing their opinion of Brigitte, who goes from being a busy and stressed out young mum one moment, to a woman capable of having sex with a man who is not her husband in her own home, the next. But as her back story is fleshed out, as we come to learn of Brigitte’s troubled past and her uncertain future, there are times when you begin to wonder if Brigitte might simply be paranoid or mentally unbalanced. Is she, perhaps, suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder? Does she actually need medical help? Is she popping one-too-many painkillers?

An exciting read

I realise I’m not really summarising the plot of this remarkably plotted book. To do so would be counterproductive to those who want to read the story for themselves, because it is the narrative journey — sometimes confusing, often unsettling and always tinged with sadness and regret — that makes Please Don’t Leave Me Here such an exciting read.

I especially like the way the author plays with memory and links it to music — there are lots of music references from the early 1990s in this novel, including a heavy dose of Nirvana and Nick Cave — because we all know that hearing snatches of songs from our past can pull us back to different times and places. The author also explores the notion of whether people alter over time — can a leopard, for instance, really change its spots? And she’s very good at showing how a person, who so desperately seeks normality in her domestic life, can easily slide into an unhealthy mindset following a personal tragedy. This passage, midway through the book, is a good example of a woman going off the rails:

Brigitte pushes a supermarket trolley aimlessly around the plaza. The twisting involved in controlling a trolley hurts her back more than anything, but not today — this morning she took enough medication to stop the pain. She can’t understand why she didn’t think of this before.
Giant gold-and-silver decorations hang from the glass ceiling and she sings along with ‘Winter Wonderland’. She’s done the grocery shopping — extra flour, eggs, and butter for more cakes — and bought wine and the last of the twins’ presents from Father Christmas. Still, she feels she’s forgotten something. If she keeps wandering around, maybe she’ll remember what it was. Something from the chemist? The newsagent? The butcher? The crowd of shoppers is reflected on the ceiling — people walking on the roof. It’s too bright, and she can see auras. A headache claws at the right side of her head; it’s going to turn into a migraine.[…] She gives up trying to remember what she’s forgotten. If it was important, it’ll come back to her. […] Maybe Aiden will join them? No, he’ll spend Christmas with his wife. She thinks about his lips, his deltoid muscles, the tattoo on his arm — whatever it says, his… Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. She shakes her head.
Kurt Cobain walks with her. Sometimes she sees him, but usually he’s just a voice in her head.

All in all, Please Don’t Leave Me Here  is a sexy and stylish debut. It’s dark and intriguing, the kind of story that gets under the skin and leaves you feeling a little dirty and sordid. Interestingly, Tania Chandler is currently working on a sequel. I’m already itching to read it…

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Jump’ by Doug Johnstone

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone has become my go-to author for fast-paced psychological thrillers. I’ve read Smokeheads (2011)Hit & Run (2012) and Gone Again (2013) — all reviewed here — and he even did his Triple Choice Tuesday for me back in 2011. Somehow I missed out on last year’s The Dead Beat — probably because it came out while I was in the throes of part-time study — but this year I made sure not to miss his latest novel, The Jump, which was published in the UK by Faber & Faber last week.

A suicide bridge

The story plays out in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was from this structure that Ellie’s 15-year-old son jumped and killed himself. Now, still grieving for the loss of her only child, she spots another teenager about to take the plunge. She talks him off the ledge — literally — and takes him home to make sure he’s alright.

But what Ellie doesn’t realise is that things aren’t quite what they seem. Seventeen-year-old Sam seems reluctant to get in touch with his own family, so Ellie hides him away in her son’s old bedroom, not sure whether to tell her husband, Ben, that he’s there. Later, she moves him to their boat on the marina, where it’s unlikely he’ll be found or disturbed.

But then things begin to unravel when she spots bloodstains on Sam’s t-shirt. She begins to wonder if Sam is being straight with her. Is there more to his story than meets the eye? Her secret, often risky, investigations lead to one shocking revelation after another and before long the story is racing along at Formula One pace, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. It is, quite frankly a superb — if slightly far-fetched — ride.

An intriguing lead character

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, aside from the astute plotting and the way in which the narrative is punctuated by one surprise after another, is the character of Ellie. She’s no cardboard cut-out. This is a complex woman, beset by grief, and motivated by the knowledge that she has a second chance to save someone, even if that someone is a complete stranger. She’s strong-willed, with nerves of steel, and I loved her determination and resourcefulness.

Equally, Ben, her husband, is a fascinating character: he’s buried himself deep into suicide conspiracies to help cope with the loss of his son, so everything he says and does is tempered by a mild form of lunacy.

Together, they make a formidable pair, and even though their actions are sometimes slightly dubious — and often criminal — you can’t help but think that such questionable behaviour could be explained by such terrible grief.

A sensitive and mature novel 

While The Jump is ultimately a sensational novel that brims with suspense and danger,  it explores the issue of suicide with great sensitivity. Clearly, Johnstone has done his research — it feels authentic and believable and the mother’s emotions seem spot-on. Even the stresses and stains within the marriage, the different ways that Ben and Ellie have dealt with their grief, elevates the story above the usual run-of-the-mill thriller.

I also like the way that South Queensferry and the waters of the firth have been depicted with faithful and exacting detail, making these places characters in their own right and adding a distinctly Scottish flavour to the book.

I’d argue that this is Johnstone’s most mature work yet — he’s shied away from a big bombastic ending, and left things a little open-ended, which I liked, and he’s reined in some of the over-the-top shenanigans of past efforts. I just want to know when the film rights are going to be sold, because this would make a terrific movie — I can already see Kelly MacDonald and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles!

5 books, Book lists

5 of the best psychological thrillers

5-books-200pixI’ve always loved psychological thrillers or suspense novels. I read the first one when I was just 10 years old — Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown — and loved the fear and sense of foreboding it created so much that I must have read it a dozen times without ever getting tired of the high-stakes adventure story of a girl on the run from wicked men wearing dark hoods. I think my exploration of this genre as an adult is largely about me trying to recapture those feelings I first felt as a kid.

Of course, there’s a lot of mediocre books out there, so when Naomi from Consumed by Ink left a comment asking me to recommend some titles for those who don’t usually read the genre, it got me thinking: what are the best psychological thrillers I’ve read, the ones that are a cut above the rest?

And this is what I’ve come up with.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married American couple on holiday in Puerto Rico. When the wife loans a woman $10 they find they can’t shake her off.  But that’s the least of their concerns, because no sooner have they got rid of her, than the husband falls ill and his wife has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans for them all. The couple’s exotic holiday quickly descends into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

The-memory-game‘The Memory Game’ by Nicci French (1997)

This is the first book by husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French, but I could easily have chosen almost any from their extensive back catalogue, many of which are reviewed on this site. I read this one not long after it first came out (and before I began blogging, so can’t provide a link to a review) and was swept away by its tale of Jane Martello, who discovers a body buried in her garden. The remains are 25 years old and they belong to her childhood friend, Natalie. How did they get there? And how did Natalie meet her end? Jane starts seeing a therapist to try to recover her lost memories — and what she finds out will have you furiously turning the pages…

Talented-Mr-RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

A European adventure told from the perspective of a young American conman and murderer, this is a precisely plotted suspense novel of the finest order. But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders while on the run in Italy. It’s deftly written, features a cast of terrific characters and is full of hold-your-breath moments.

TenderwireTenderwire’ by Claire Kilroy (2007)

This is the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance. Eva, who narrates the story in a menacing kind of voice, is fragile and mentally unstable, so perhaps it’s no surprise she gets caught up in the collision of two worlds — the criminal underworld and the refined world of classical music. But when she buys the 17th century violin from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar, she’s naive to think that there will be no repercussions or payback. Does she get away with it? You’ll need to read this novel to find out.

Eight-months-on-ghazzah-streetEight months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)

Frances, a British expat living in Jeddah with her husband, suspects something strange is going on upstairs in the flat above hers, but cannot convince anyone else that anything is wrong. This is the premise behind Mantel’s brilliant and deeply disturbing psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of insidiously creepy read that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you. Is Frances just paranoid, or are her fears well founded?

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another good psychological thriller?

Author, Book review, Colette McBeth, crime/thriller, Fiction, Headline Review, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Life I Left Behind’ by Colette McBeth


Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 352 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

After reading a succession of rather heavy literary novels (some of which are yet to be reviewed), I decided I needed to immerse myself in a psychological thriller — my palette cleanser of choice — which is how I came to read Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind.

Trio of narrators

The story, which is set in West London (in locations I know very well), has three different narrators, who take it in turns to tell the story in alternate chapters.

The first is Melody Pieterson, a woman who survived an attempt on her life five years earlier and lived to tell the tale. But she’s now so psychologically scarred she can barely function and never leaves the house in the Surrey countryside that she shares with her fiancé, a doctor called Sam.

Then there is Eve Elliot, a freelance TV producer, who is found dead in the same heavily wooded location that Melody was discovered. She narrates her version of events from beyond the grave.

And finally there is Detective Inspector Victoria Rutter, who investigated Melody’s case, in which the attempted murderer was put behind bars. That man, David Alden, has recently been released from prison, so has he struck once again? DI Rutter isn’t quite so sure…

Twists and turns

The Life I Left Behind is full of lots of creepy twists, chilling turns and false leads. The main twist comes fairly early on when the identity of Melody’s attempted murderer is called into question. That’s because Eve had recently been researching the idea that David had been wrongly convicted — she had found new evidence which threw the guilty verdict into doubt — and had met with David on the night of her murder. What would he have to gain in killing the person who was championing his innocence?

There are lots of other minor twists as the story works towards its inevitable conclusion of revealing the identity of the real killer.

It is to the author’s credit that I failed to guess the ending. Indeed, the denouement is nicely done; it’s restrained yet satisfying, which can be quite a feat to pull off in this genre which so often resorts to over-the-top drama or ties up everything in too neat a package.

Compelling but flawed

But while the plot is compelling and original, the book does have a few flaws, not the least of which is David’s wrongful conviction, which seems slightly preposterous and not truly rooted in reality. The only way I could enjoy this story was to suspend belief and try not to worry about the fact that the police and David’s own defence counsel hadn’t done their jobs properly.

And the characters — including the trio of subsidiary male ones — while all well-drawn, are weak, shallow and manipulative. I know you don’t need to like characters to like a book, but in a psychological thriller it helps to at least empathise with the victim so you can will them to escape from the danger that threatens them. In this case, I couldn’t care less about Melody — and Eve, well, she was already dead, so what was the point?

All in all, The Life I Left Behind is a fairly average psychological thriller — although all the four- and five-star reviews on Amazon might suggest otherwise.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Setting

‘Her’ by Harriet Lane


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Whenever I’m feeling under the weather I love nothing more than curling up under the duvet with a good psychological thriller: something that’s fast-paced and won’t tax my brain too much. So this weekend, after four very intense weeks at work (in the lead-up to my Christmas break), I finally succumbed to a horrid head cold. Thank goodness, then, for Harriet Lane’s latest novel, which was an effective diversion from the aching sinuses, the snotty nose and the ever-increasing mountain of used tissues by my side.

Some of you may recall that I read Lane‘s debut novel, Alys Always, in the summer and loved the story of a manipulative young woman who inveigles her way into the life of a rich author, so I was looking forward to her new one.

Her, which was published in hardcover in June and is due for paperback release next month, is cut very much from the same kind of cloth. It’s a proper page turner that brings to mind the likes of Nicci French — one of my favourite psychological thriller writers — but never slides into farce or violence. Instead it’s rooted very much in the every day, which makes it all the more sinister.

An unlikely friendship

The story revolves around the unlikely friendship between two women, both of whom are around the same age: Emma has given up a TV career to have children and is caught up in the day-to-day struggle to raise two young ones while her husband juggles a freelance job that barely covers the bills; and Nina is a successful artist, with an equally successful architect husband and a 17-year-old daughter (from her first marriage).

The pair meet when Nina returns Emma’s wallet, which she claims to have found on the local high street. What Emma doesn’t realise — and which Nina takes great pains to disguise  from her “new” friend — is that the pair met 20 years earlier, as teenagers.

As Emma and Nina’s lives become more and more entwined over the course of the novel, it becomes clear (to the reader) that Nina is a rather nasty piece of work, hellbent on wreaking revenge on a rather hapless and naive Emma. But she does it in such a smooth, almost guileless way, that no one seems to notice, making her behaviour all the more chilling.

A tense read

Both Emma and Nina take it in turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters, which is a great device for building tension. It also shows Emma’s desperation to be viewed as a person (rather than a mother, whose life now revolves around “scraping and rinsing and wiping and sweeping”) in contrast with Nina’s chilling level of self-control. But if I was to fault the novel it would be that the two voices are barely distinguishable from one another.

However, that doesn’t really matter, because what makes Her work as a page turner is two-fold: we never quite know what is motivating Nina — what is it that Emma did that requires this level of well-plotted revenge? — and will Emma cotton on to the threat before it’s too late?

Admittedly, the denouement falls a bit flat, but I loved the slow-building of suspense and my inability to guess Nina’s next move. It’s a deeply unsettling read that feeds into every mother’s deepest fears — and the danger that lurks where we least expect it.