Book Review: Never Be Broken

Never Be Broken, by Sarah Hilary, is the sixth and possibly final instalment in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with DI Rome attending a crime scene – the wreckage of a car that is stained with the blood of her colleague, Noah Jake. The timeline then moves back forty-eight hours leaving the reader to ponder if a favourite character from the series has been killed.

DS Jake is receiving counselling following the murder in prison of his brother, Sol. Noah feels responsible for Sol’s incarceration. Despite knowing it must be his subconscious speaking, Noah is haunted by his brother’s ghost. He is reluctant to lose even this tenuous link and refuses to speak of it to anyone.

Marnie’s crime team are investigating the growing number of deaths of children from London’s less than salubrious estates. There are links to drug dealing, the supply of knives and guns, and perhaps even people trafficking. When the latest victim, a white girl named Raphaela Belsham, is gunned down in Muswell Hill close to her parent’s expensive home, questions are asked about possible links to the run-down high rises where the dark skinned victims lived. Raphaela’s father is furious at the suggestion that his privileged daughter could have been caught up in any form of criminal activity.

The police are widely regarded as either incompetent or the enemy. Belsham blames people of colour for the country’s ills. When Marnie takes Noah along to question the Belshams about Raphaela, her father’s anger and racism manifest. He accuses Noah of planting evidence.

Much of the action revolves around Erskine Tower, a block of flats within sight of the fire damaged Grenfell. The residents include the elderly who have lived there for decades and younger people caught up in the escalating violence. Raphaela had been a visitor to the tower as part of a supervised school project. Her level of supervision comes under scrutiny.

Although following the fast moving, tense and twisty structure of many compelling crime fiction novels, the author digs deeper into complex issues raised. This is skilfully done, never compromising effortless reader engagement. Her use of language is impressive conjuring the tastes, sounds, smells and feel of challenging locations. Shocking events are presented to the reader in high definition.

The denouement is violent and rendered without compromise whilst avoiding sensationalism. There are several heart palpating moments involving key characters. There is a nagging fear throughout that the author will kill her darlings – she has ensured that the reader cares.

This is a tenacious and troubling exploration of the many colours of life existing beneath the shiny veneer of our capital city. It is crime fiction at its best.

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

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Book Review: Aftershock

“The only time the world cared about rules was when you lost. If you won, any infractions became invisible.”

Aftershock, by Adam Hamdy, is the final installment in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy which started with Pendulum and continued with Freefall. These all action crime thrillers provide plenty of food for thought alongside fire, suspense and entertainment. Concluding a complex web of storylines to the satisfaction of both new and existing readers requires verve and skill. With Aftershock, the author delivers.

The story opens with Detective Patrick Bailey – now leader of a Metropolitan Police task force established to disable and dismantle the elusive Foundation – being brought back to consciousness by vicious assailants. They wish him to watch while they kill his girlfriend. Physically and emotionally damaged by the resulting nightmare of an experience, he calls upon the few friends he can trust to assist him without question as he seeks retribution.

Across the Atlantic, FBI agent Christine Ash is struggling with trust issues. She too is leading a special task force that is tracking down and neutralising the remnants of the Foundation. Unable to shake off her memories of being held hostage, and the treatment she was subjected to, she remains wary of potential infiltrators on her team. When she refuses to divulge plans and sources she leads them into a deadly situation from which she emerges with self knowledge that horrifies her.

In various prisons, apprehended Foundation members are attempting to strike deals with those on both sides of the legal divide. These people could provide essential information that Bailey and Ash are each eager to utilise. The Foundation may have been damaged but it still has reach. Many have been compromised. Not all Foundation members act due to the philanthropic recruitment promises of a societal wealth redistribution.

John Wallace is leading a nomadic life as he attempts to live under the radar and find a way to do good to assuage the guilt he feels at previous choices made. When Ash asks that they meet he is drawn back into the web of deception required if the Foundation is to be neutralised.

In a quiet corner of Arizona, the normally quiet and subdued Cheyanne has found comfort in a relationship she has quickly developed with new, local arrivals. Arno and Beth have set up home in a trailer located just outside town. They charge for private sessions in which clients talk out their problems. Cheyanne’s teenage daughter is conflicted by the resulting change in her mother. Encounters with Beth leave her suspicious of what the pair are planning which, when Arno’s history and location are discovered, leads to tragedy. With an eye on the power of the Foundation this pair harness the methods of cult leaders in their quest for acolytes.

The cat and mouse antics of these various players are portrayed in tense and violent encounters across London and locations in America. Ash and Bailey find more loyalty amongst their underworld contacts than with those who are looking at their careers and families – who may be susceptible to threats and bribery. This topsy turvy depiction of good and evil leaves the reader questioning the meanings of such categorisations.

“As he moved from a story about a bomb on a bus in Kabul, to a serial stabbing in London, a shooting at a school in Minneapolis, a family slaying in Florida, a drone attack in Yemen and an attack at a security checkpoint in Gaza, Rafa wondered whether the perpetrators all believed they were doing good.”

I felt a little frustrated that key men wished to be knights in shining armour, heading into battle to protect or avenge their women. There is a scene where one of our heroes seeks permission to divulge a secret that he may gain the trust of a woman he is sexually attracted to. These are, however, very human failings so have their place in the narrative.

I was wryly amused by the depictions of successful businessmen with their past shady dealings that enabled them to rise above their peers. There was bravery and honour amongst the gangsters and thieves despite their violence, drug dealing and arms sales. As is pointed out, governments are active in all of these areas, enabled by their self-declared legality.

Such questioning of the blurred lines around which laws are made and broken, and who is punished when lines are crossed, adds depth to the story. This remains though a hard hitting action thriller in which the reader can never be sure who will survive or who will be turned. It is a fine conclusion to a trilogy that sits firm within its popular genre yet punches seamlessly beyond. A recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Feed

The Feed, by Nick Clark Windo, is set in a world where communication and curation of experiences has moved almost entirely on line. To enable individuals to manage this, a brain implant has been developed that allows users to access data and upload content using their thought processes. The Feed offers news and social media; it allows for private and public settings, group chats and on line ordering of goods. Everything is backed up so memories have become data that may be accessed and shared at will. Advertising is individually tailored with updates on a subject’s health and desires monitored in real time, enabling purchases to be made. Reading and writing are regarded by many as obsolete skills.

The protagonists of the tale are Tom and Kate, a young married couple expecting their first child. Tom dislikes the ubiquity of The Feed and urges Kate to spend time with him off line. Having become used to instant access of any data desired this is a difficult ask, and one her family disapproves of as they expect to always be in touch. Tom’s antipathy towards The Feed stems from his upbringing. His father created the technology and Tom was the first child implanted in utero. He resents that he has been treated as an experiment with the lack of empathy and potential risks this entails.

In a world that has become reliant on technology, chaos ensues when The Feed goes down. It is not just the on line access that has failed. Certain users appear to have changed personality, taken over by inexplicable, deadly urges. Nobody can predict who will be next, or who they will kill.

The timeline jumps forward six years. The population has been decimated with many remaining people and animals turning feral. Tom and Kate are living in a makeshift camp with a few other survivors trying to eke out an existence without the practical knowledge of how basic implements and machinery can be made to work. Growing up they had no need to learn such things as they could refer to The Feed for all information. Now those who have any memory of skills such as electronics, filtration systems or growing food are valued. They still, however, require fuel, and other camps will fight to the death to protect what they regard as theirs.

The lack of trust between groups of people reminded me of Mad Max, the lengthy journeys undertaken of Lord of the Rings. There is no fantasy element but there are perils and a need to push through pain and lack of sleep. The explanation as to why certain people were changed required a leap of faith but was adroitly introduced.

As with any dystopian fiction there is behaviour redolent of today. The users of The Feed gave little thought to the environmental cost of their continual consumption. Those who chose to opt out were regarded as eccentric and not taken seriously. After The Feed went down the world became a desolate place to be. The fight to survive was violent and intense although it made me wonder, not for the first time, if our world would be better without the human race.

I read this book in a day which demonstrates the taut construction of the plot and the skillful flow of the writing. At its heart is an exploration of what defines an individual. It may be bleak but this is a compelling read.

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

Gig Review: New Voices of 2018 from Headline

Much as I enjoy my trips into London for book events, and am grateful to all the publishers who invite me, it was pleasing to learn that a team from Headline Publishing Group were taking five of their up and coming debut authors around the country to meet booksellers, librarians and reviewers closer to home. The Headline New Voices 2018 Roadshow travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol before returning to London where they will host a Rooftop Book Club next week, on Tuesday 23rd January at Carmelite House. I was delighted to receive an invitation to the Bristol roadshow event which I attended last Thursday evening.

Held in The Boardroom in central Bristol I spent an interesting few hours chatting to publicists, authors and other attendees about a wide range of book related issues. Although run to promote the five highlighted debuts the conversation and achievement of the event was wider ranging. There was a willingness to talk about the challenges of increasing sales in today’s market. There was palpable excitement from the authors at their creations being released into the wild.

Becky Hunter kicked proceedings off by introducing each book and author. Attendees were then left to mingle and chat while the publicity team – which included Georgina Moore, Millie Seaward and Jenny Harlow – ensured that nobody was left out and that the authors talked to each little group. The wine flowed and delicious canapés were served. The atmosphere was welcoming and convivial.

I managed to fit in conversations with Phoebe Locke (author of The Tall Man), Leo Carew (author of The Wolf) and Nick Clark Windo (author of The Feed). As a medical student, Leo was subjected to my parental pride in my daughter – also a medical student in London. I believe she would be most envious of his time spent in Svalbard, although perhaps not the tent accommodation. I also raised the daughter inspired medical theme with Nick, this time discussing neurology as we discussed how the brain would be changed by an implant as imagined in his book.

I chatted to a poet bookseller from Rossiter Books who was eager to pick up publishing advice from Georgina. I snuck into a conversation with a lovely bookseller from Griffin Books who spoke of the next day service they can offer customers (better than Amazon!). I met lovely library assistant Leah, and was delighted to catch up with my on-line friend, Sue.

I was also pleased to have several opportunities to talk to Georgina, who was candid about the challenges of marketing any book however appealing and well written; and also to Becky, about bloggers and proof distribution. Despite what I have been advised by others it seems that publicists are happy to be approached for review copies. Having said that, no reviewer should feel they ‘deserve’ any particular book. With so many bloggers eager to spread the word about the books they enjoy, not all can be recipients of every ARC.

At this event, though, I came away with copies of each book offered. Having now heard so much about them I am keen to read each one. The roadshow was well worth braving the cold for – thank you Headline for hosting, and for coming to us.

Book Review: Come And Find Me

Come And Find Me, by Sarah Hilary, is the fifth book in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with a prison riot during which several inmates are viciously attacked, a fire is started and, in the ensuing mayhem, one escapes. Mickey Vokey was incarcerated after he assaulted a young mother in her home. He has been receiving impassioned fan-mail from women since his conviction, who have provided him with their addresses that he may write back to them. In attempting to locate the felon, the police are spread thin. Cutbacks and the interest of the press add to the pressures the force comes under, that and the consensus from those who knew Vokey that none of the photographs being circulated of the missing person look anything like him.

DI Marnie Rome must once again detach her professional life from her personal demons. Her foster-brother, Stephen Keele, has sustained life-threatening injuries in the riot. Marnie approaches her contacts within the prison but is unsure of the veracity of their testimony. Prisoners know that they must not upset those within the system for fear of direct retaliation. They are also aware that those on the outside maintain control by threatening family members.

Marnie and her team quickly uncover a number of valuable leads, including access to the Vokey family home. Mickey Vokey is a talented artist with a particular interest in capturing the emotions of his subjects. He collected photographs including some of his known victim. The police officers fear that there could be others unaccounted for within his collection, and that now he could strike again.

Interspersed with the details of the ongoing search and investigation are chapters narrating the thoughts of Vokey’s cellmate who is on life-support due to injuries sustained in the riot. Ted Elms was convicted of benefit fraud and is regarded as a model prisoner. He knows what happened during the riot but is now unable to speak. He is, however, more aware of what is going on around him than his carers and visitors realise.

The reader is offered glimpses of past lives that enable empathy with the varied cast of characters despite their obvious flaws. Where there is evil it has been exacerbated by the prison system. Prisons also exist on the outside due to loneliness and societal dislocation. Initial, easy judgements rarely stand up to scrutiny.

The author is a master of suspense – it is almost frightening how good she is at injecting dark, twisted suspicions and changes of direction. Although gruesome in places the prose remains emotive and sensuous. Smells and tastes permeate each tightly constructed scene.

A crime thriller that dives straight into the action and maintains a roller coaster tension through to the unanticipated denouement. It will appeal to fans of the genre but contains sufficient depth and consideration to satisfy any reader. A fiercely assured addition to an unflinching series. This is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: The Coffin Path

The Coffin Path, by Katherine Clements, is a ghost story set on the edge of a lonesome moor in 1674. Its protagonist is thirty-two year old Mercy Booth who lives in the gradually decaying splendour of Scarcross Hall with her ageing father, Bartram, and his faithful servant, Agnes. Mercy works alongside the shepherds and farmhands hired to till their land and care for the flock of sheep that provide the family’s main income. She has been told that one day it will all be hers.

The story opens with the arrival of the first of the season’s lambs. It is not an easy birth and proves a portent of happenings to come. The first of these is the arrival of a stranger, Ellis Ferreby, who is looking for employment. Although the locals are wary of outsiders he is taken on, proving himself a capable shepherd and hard worker.

Mercy has spent her life out on the moor but notices a new, chilling presence, a feeling of being watched as she goes about familiar tasks. Within the hall she hears unexplained noises above the expected creaks and movement of the old house. There have long been rumours of a curse, and her father is suffering a decline of mind.

In her troubles Mercy finds herself drawn to Ellis although both keep their thoughts and fears close. Their interactions are noticed by a local man, Henry Ravens, who grows jealous and threatens to denounce Mercy. Within the hall, Bartram becomes agitated when items he values go missing. These include three old coins, one of which is found under the pillow of a young lad named Sam, the son of the head shepherd and a favourite of the master.

Sam is often around the hall, spending time with Bartram in his study. As the year progresses and strange events continue to unfold the boy becomes agitated and withdrawn. Mercy suspects he knows more than he is saying but cannot coax him to confide in her. Likewise she is unwilling to share her fears with even those she would previously have trusted.

Mutilated lambs are discovered and bad weather threatens the harvest. Along with the ghostly noises from an unused chamber within Scarcross there is much to concern the Booths and those who rely on their employ. Mercy fears that her sinfulness has brought down punishment from God. Ellis watches and waits, keeping his true reason for being there from all.

The plot has many elements of a good ghost story: a run down hall housing secretive sinister artefacts; rumours of an ancient curse linked to the devil; fear of the dead returning; accusations of witchcraft. The church plays a role as does the stranger with a past that is revealed gradually. It is unfortunate that I guessed the main twist early on, and that I struggled to maintain engagement as the Booth’s troubles mounted. I would have preferred a tighter plot construction and a clearer drawing together of the mysterious and the supernatural.

Having said that the last fifty pages held the strongest part of the story. There was horror aplenty and a spine chilling final line.

A tale that started and ended well enough but felt somewhat bloated in between. I am left feeling underwhelmed.

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

Book Review: My Mother’s Shadow

My Mother’s Shadow, by Nikola Scott, is not a book I would have chosen by the cover, looking as it does like some sort of romance. And it does have a romance thread, but underplayed enough not to detract from the main plot which involves a family secret kept for decades. When offered a proof I was told that the writing would appeal to those who enjoyed Kate Morton’s books (I remember liking The House at Riverton). Again, this comparative marketing often leaves me cold but the synopsis intrigued. I decided to put aside my prejudices and review.

The first few chapters were overwrought and my scepticism returned – I was tempted to stop reading at this point. I felt impatient with the giddy behaviour of the protagonist who appeared to lose her power of hearing, knock objects over or bump into things every time she was told something unexpected. The revelations she was offered initially generated denial rather than more natural curiosity.

The story makes use of the now popular trope of telling interlinked tales concurrently across two timelines. The first is written in the form of a diary and begins in the summer of 1958. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Holloway, the only child of George and Constance, is sent to stay in a coastal country house belonging to wealthy acquaintances of her mother. Constance is dying of cancer and does not wish her child to remember her as the husk she knows she will imminently become.

The second part of the story is set forty-two years later. Addie Harrington has been summoned to the family home by her domineering sister, Venetia, to mark the first anniversary of their mother’s death. Venetia revered her mother and has demanded that her belongings be left untouched, the house like a shrine. Their father has remained in a state of limbo since his beloved wife’s sudden and accidental demise.

Addie, who appears to be something of a doormat, had a difficult relationship with her mother, Lizzie, never believing that she fulfilled her exacting demands and expectations. Lizzie had attained a PhD and worked at a university. She wanted greater things for Addie than her chosen career as a baker. The reader is offered more detail than I personally needed about baking.

As Addie and Venetia prepare to leave their father at the family home the doorbell rings. A stranger introduces herself as Phoebe Roberts and tells them that she is looking for Mrs Elizabeth Harrington née Holloway, that she has recently discovered that Lizzie is her birth mother. Phoebe was born on the same day as Addie.

What unfolds is the story of a gilded summer and its dark aftermath. In the later timeline Addie and Phoebe are trying to discover why they were seperated at birth. Neither girl had been told that the other existed. The secret has come to light only because Phoebe came across a notebook written by Elizabeth during her confinement and kept by Phoebe’s adoptive parents.

There are twists and turns aplenty as threads of the mystery are revealed. Wider outcomes are easy to guess but the detail and reasoning are presented at a pace and with sufficient depth to keep the reader engaged. It offers a salutory lesson for those who look back at life in the 1950s as cosy, safe and innocent. The author states:

“Lace-curtain respectability and pre-war propriety relegated women, who’d gained a foothold in the male-dominated society during the war, who’d worked and played and propped uo their country, back to home, hearth and family, subjecting them to the hypocrisy and double standards of a Victorian morality that tolerated little errant behaviour.”

The denoument was reached thanks to the type of coincidence that has to be accepted in a story such as this. I suffered irritations such as the diaries remaining hidden given where they were placed. However, my interest had been piqued and retained, the plot developed with a few clever twists.

A tale of the personal costs of the underlying cruelties inflicted on young women who dared to have sex before marriage, regarded by many as reasonable punishment for moral deviance. The epilogue was rather too twee for my tastes but this was a congenial if unchallenging read.

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