Book Review: The Atomics

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“He knew he was feeling terrible because he wasn’t getting enough radiation. If he wanted to feel strong again, to have that same energy as when he had pummelled that stupid boy, he would have to replenish his supply. Top himself up, as it were.”

The world’s first nuclear power station to generate electricity for its nation’s grid started operations in 1954 at Obninsk in the Soviet Union. Other countries soon followed suit. The UK opened Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956. By 1968, when this story is set, there were ten operational nuclear power plants connected to the UK’s commercial grid.

The Atomics focuses on a community of scientists, engineers and supporting staff brought in to operate and manage a newly built power station on the Suffolk coast. The protagonist, Frank Banner, is a talented Chemistry graduate – educated at Cambridge – who believes nuclear energy is the future of clean and efficient power. Unlike many of his co-workers, he has no fear of contamination. Indeed, he believes low levels of radiation can be beneficial.

Frank has a troubled past. His father was a farmer and a brutal man who regularly beat his wife and only child. Frank’s mother had psychiatric issues and committed suicide when he was eighteen years old. The boy idolised her and hated his father. Frank believes young women deserve protection from self-entitled and predatory men.

The story opens in Oxford where Frank has narrowly escaped a prison sentence for savagely attacking a boy. The boy’s mother retaliates, leaving Frank with mental as well as physical scars. His employers, in an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, suggest redeployment to the isolated Seton One power station. Frank understands he has little choice if he wishes to continue working in a field he enjoys. Although at times she has considered leaving her husband, Frank’s wife, Gail, agrees to accompany him. She wants a child and hopes the move will be a fresh start for them all.

Gail and Frank move into a new-build bungalow by the sea, one of many identikit residences provided for the workers at the new power station. Across the road live Maynard and Judy Scott, and their two young children. Maynard is an engineer at the plant – a lecherous buffoon whose wife drinks to forget what her life has become. When not sunning herself on the beach, Gail spends gin-soaked afternoons with Judy. Meanwhile, Frank nurses his dislike of everything Maynard says and does.

Another work colleague, Anthony, is dating Alice, a pretty young nurse at Seton One’s health centre. Alice is a local girl whose father works at a boatyard – necessary for the fishing industry that provided the region’s main employment before the power plant was imposed on them. The looming and secretive building is treated with suspicion, as are its associated incomers. Alice views Anthony as a possible route out of what she regards as a tedious backwater that expects little of its women beyond housekeeping and motherhood.

“In the village, the men were really just boys. No – worse than that – they were just fools. They believed you had to stand up for yourself or be emasculated. But it was utter bollocks. In that single loving look from Gail, Alice had sensed a world outside the village, a world of more complicated thought patterns, of people who did not accept that life was simple. That was where she belonged.”

Frank is a fascinating, terrifying creation. He regards himself as a protector, a saviour, but must always tamp down the angry turbulence of his true thoughts and desires. When his past starts to haunt him, what self-control he can muster becomes ever more unravelled. To the women he appears better and more interesting than the Maynards of their world. Only Gail knows what her husband is capable of, although not how unstable his core has recently become. Like the fuel rods he works with, Frank requires cool containment and careful handling. With Gail’s thoughts focused on getting pregnant, she fails to notice her husband spiralling away.

A chain reaction is sparked when Maynard shows an interest in Alice. Frank, with his delusions of saving defenceless young women, sets out on a mission of protection that requires an act of destruction.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law. True in physics, true in life. If you sin, you will be punished. It was one of the undeniable rhythms to life. And if you are the one delivering the punishment, you will be rewarded.”

The insights into the history of nuclear power, especially early attitudes to safety and the risks of wider contamination, add interest to what is a tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche. The female characters may be granted greater emotional intelligence but are complicit in their acceptance of certain behaviours – perhaps typical for the time period.

The pacing is not that of a thriller but the plot contains many thrilling aspects. The author delves deep into dark character traits, how they are often downplayed to make daily life easier. Much could have been made of Frank’s upbringing but the reader is trusted to note connections. A deliciously chilling denouement provides an effective rounding off.

There are elements of horror within these pages that could induce nightmares. More horrific though is the recognisable willingness of the characters to ignore what they know to be damaging in order to keep their own lives secure. The power station setting adds originality to a portrayal of the dangers posed by damaged people. An unsettling tale I am happy to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

I’m a stop on a blog tour! You may wish to check out these fine posts.

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Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite, tells the story of two sisters living with their mother in Lagos, Nigeria. Their father is dead. He was a successful if corrupt businessman and the family live in a degree of comfort. They have no reason to mourn his demise.

Ayoola is the younger sister. She is considered beautiful and turns the heads of every man she meets. She designs clothes which she then models online, understanding how to dress to flatter her looks and figure. Ayoola enjoys the power her appearance gives her, readily accepting the gifts and attention she receives.

Her older sister, Korede, has been aware since she was a child that she is not regarded as so aesthetically pleasing. Her mother has always expected her to look out for Ayoola. When the story opens she is helping clean up the blood from her sister’s latest murder victim. Unlike the previous men killed, this one continues to play on Korede’s mind as she questions why her sister stabbed him.

At the hospital where Korede works as a nurse there is a coma patient who is not expected to survive. This man is the only person Korede can talk to about her concerns. A young and popular doctor, Tade, who is her friend and who Korede would like to become more, complements her on the care she gives a patient others have given up on. Other colleagues are less than complementary about her efforts here and elsewhere.

When Ayoola decides to visit Korede at the hospital she meets Tade, much to her sister’s consternation. The compassionate, supposedly self-aware and empathetic doctor is then shown to be as facile as other men. Even so, Korede is concerned that his attraction to Ayoola puts his life in danger. She must choose between caring for her sister and the man she had dreamed of winning over for herself.

This is a story of: murder, or perhaps it was self defense; misogynistic abuse and the scars this leaves; corruption that skews the credibility of law enforcement; a society that sees marriage as a woman’s destiny.

The writing has a light almost playful quality yet it pierces the heart of the issues explored. The flow and structure, with short chapters and a fast moving plot, keep the reader effortlessly engaged. It is a surprisingly strong yet entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

Book Review: My Mother’s Secret

My Mother’s Secret, by Sanjida Kay, is the author’s third psychological thriller. It is told from three points of view and across two timelines, opening with the pivotal event from which the rest of the tale unfolds. Unusually for this genre it took several chapters before I was fully engaged. A lot of characters are introduced in a short space of time and I kept having to flick back to work out who was who. Once I had placed each alongside their contemporaries I was able to settle and enjoy the sequence of teasers and reveals.

There are good reasons why so many psychological thrillers become best sellers. They are engaging, easy to read and offer a puzzle to solve. This book is well paced, smoothly written and typically structured. The settings are brought to life becoming both comforting and threatening as the plot requires.

The earlier timeline involves Lizzie, a young wife and mother who leaves her family home – a remote cottage in the Lake District – for a few days each week to work in Leeds. Here she gets caught up in a violent crime that changes her life. The chapters telling her story explain the before and after of this incident, what she must do to survive and protect those she loves.

The later timeline is narrated by Emma and her fourteen year old daughter, Stella. Emma is neurotic, her instability manifesting in overprotecting her two children. Stella is starting to rebel against the restrictions imposed due to her mother’s condition and her father’s complicity. It is notable that both Stella and her younger sister, Ava, display their own anxieties, likely instilled by the manner in which they are required to live under the guise of keeping them safe.

Emma works at a bakery and there are many descriptions of food, not something I have an interest in but likely to appeal to certain readers. Her husband, Jack, attempts to impose his healthy eating ideas on his family. He has provided them with a lavish home and likes to keep it and its residents in a manner that suits his ideas of beauty and order. This is a loving family but one that relies on a strict code of parental control.

Much of the story is set in and around Long Ashton on the outskirts of Bristol. The descriptions of place are rich – aesthetics are held in high regard.

Emma’s story begins with a chance encounter with a man from her past. She arranges to meet him at Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near to where she lives. Stella notices a change in her mother and decides to investigate. What she discovers threatens their carefully cultivated stability. Alongside this, Stella enters into a relationship with a boy at school. She and her mother try to guard their secrets, not easy in a family used to strictly monitoring all activities.

Despite correctly guessing the various reveals in advance, this was an enjoyable read. That is not to say I didn’t have a few quibbles – such as the dual mention of the Moorside power plant, which seemed unnecessary, and the changes in wording when the prologue is retold. These are small details though in what is a well crafted addition to a popular genre. Fans of domestic noir will likely enjoy.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.

Book Review: One Little Mistake

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One Little Mistake, by Emma Curtis, starts out as a comfortable, middle-class, smug mummy story but soon morphs into something a great deal more sinister. It focuses on a small clique of aspirational young marrieds who mostly know each other from the school gate. They help each other out with emergency childcare and provide eager, listening ears over coffee or glasses of wine. They admire each other’s home projects aimed at increasing resale value as much as providing congenial living space. They share gossip and offer sympathy whilst feeling both superiority and resentment about their own lives.

Vicky Seagrove has three healthy children, a supportive and loving husband, and a newly renovated home, yet still she wants more. When she is tempted to indulge in an affair she shares this sordid secret with her best friend, Amber. Although promising to keep it to herself, Amber is not impressed with such behaviour. Vicky has everything Amber aspires to but cannot quite acquire. When Vicky’s poor judgement puts one of her children at risk, Amber decides she can use her friend’s fear of being found out, especially by her husband, to her advantage.

Amber and Vicky have been close since meeting at their first NCT class and are constantly in and out of each other’s homes. Amber is possessive of her friend and is piqued when Vicky spends time with Jenny, a young mum new to their neighbourhood. When Amber and Vicky both decide they would like to buy the same rundown house as a doer upper, their friendship is put under strain.

Vicky is naive and trusting but as dark undercurrents bubble to the surface even she begins to question Amber’s loyalty. She is shocked and embarrassed when her friend asks for help with a down payment. She does not anticipate that money is the least of her blessings that Amber intends to take.

Interspersed with the unfolding tale of potential domestic crisis is a story set eighteen years before. A young girl has lost her mother to a drugs overdose and ended up in care. She is uncomfortable with the family who foster her, fixating on her social worker as a potential parent. She finds that her desires are deemed unreasonable and her fears ignored.

The final third of the book is pure psychological thriller. The denouement is masterfully played. The outcome may be extreme, but in this rarefied world it seems love and loyalty rely on self interest. This is an engaging and darkly entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan. 

Book Review: An Honest Deceit

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An Honest Deceit, by Guy Mankowski, is a psychological thriller with a theme of domestic noir. It is written in a language that is almost poetic so vivid is the imagery and emotion conjured. It tells a story that had my heart racing and my anger growing as the protagonist battles a corrupt system which is hiding behind due process, determined to protect its own.

Ben and Juliette have worked hard to provide a home for themselves and their two children, Marine and Christian. They met at university where Ben was encouraged to ask Juliette out by his best friend, Philip. Ben subsequently becomes a teacher, a job he enjoys. Philip makes his name as a stand-up comic and moves to a modern flat nearby the couple.

When Marine dies whilst on a school trip their world is blown apart. They are told it was a tragic accident, but the reactions of a few key staff at Marine’s school plant seeds of doubt. Juliette wishes to mourn and move on. Ben determines to fight for the truth. In the process he discovers that this may cost him his job and thereby their home.

Philip uses his contacts to raise public awareness as Ben battles to keep investigations into his daughter’s death open. A new headmaster appears to hold all the cards and resents what he regards as the unnecessary expense of detailed enquiries, and the adverse publicity this can cause. The confrontations that ensue threaten not just Ben’s job but his remaining family. He must dig deep to find the resolve to go on.

The pain of losing a child is unimaginable. The rawness of this hurt is sensitively portrayed yet does not overwhelm the tight progression of the plot. Ben’s choice to grow and then draw on public support makes him enemies who could prevent him ever working again. Juliette questions his loyalty and motives.

This book has a potent depth – it is rare for me to feel so emotionally invested in a story. An impressive and absorbing read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

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Book Review: A Suitable Lie

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A Suitable Lie, by Michael J. Malone, is a psychological thriller exploring the complex issue of domestic abuse. In this tale it is the husband who is being abused. His reasons for staying within the marriage are compellingly presented.

The protagonist is Andy Boyd, a widowed father who enjoys a close and friendly relationship with his mother and brother. His father died when he was young. His first wife died giving birth to their son, Pat, who is now four years old. Andy is content with the quiet life the two of them lead. He has just benefited from a promotion at work where he manages a branch of a local bank. His mother considers him too young to settle for nothing more than work and parenting.

Andy’s brother, Jim, insists that they go to their rugby club for a night out. There Andy meets Anna, a beautiful and petite young woman who is new to the area. Andy and Jim are tall and well built rugby players. The contrast in stature is significant in their subsequent behaviour.

A whirlwind romance ensues. Despite his mother’s reservations, Andy and Anna marry. The bride-to-be had not been pleased when her future husband went away on a drunken stag weekend, but her paranoia fully manifests itself on their wedding night. Although shocked at his new young wife’s behaviour, Andy accepts her explanation and they settle into married life.

Anna’s volatile behaviour is described in detail, as is their early sexual activity. She is, at times, demanding, vicious and manipulative, playing to each of Andy’s weaknesses. His pride forbids him from letting anyone know what is going on.

In an attempt to mollify Anna, Andy distances himself from his mother and brother. His work begins to suffer, not helped by a series of irregularities in the bank’s accounts.

The short chapters help to maintain the tension. The reasons Andy puts up with so much are well explained. What was less clear is why he did not confide in his family, to whom he had been close, when the situation became so obviously dire. Perhaps my lack of empathy in this respect is because I am not a macho, Scottish male.

The story builds to a crisis point and the tension is then ratcheted up even more. The denouement is loaded with foreboding.

The author does a fine job of taking the reader inside Andy’s predicament. The twists at the end are skillfully presented.

I do have these few reservations around the plot. I do not enjoy reading details of sex and have little patience with machismo. I did not understand why Andy did not at least visit a doctor to have each set of injuries recorded. I cannot fault the writing style which was taut and potent throughout.

Abuse of either partner in a supposedly loving relationship is unacceptable yet is too often ignored. It can be tricky to prove exactly what goes on in the privacy of a home. Fiction is an effective way to get people empathising with such complexities. This book is also a gripping read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Suitable Lie Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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A Suitable Lie is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now. 

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