The Dangerous Kind by Deborah O’Connor @deboc77 @ZaffreBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th March 2020 in paperback from Zaffre
PP: 528
ISBN-13: 978-1785762093

What if the people you trust are the ones you should fear most?

We all recognise them: those who send prickles up the back of our necks. The charmers, the liars, the manipulators. Those who have the potential to go that one step too far. And then take another step.

Each week Jessamine Gooch broadcasts a radio show about convicted killers. But when she is approached for help in solving a current case, around a troubled missing woman, she fails to realise there is a dark figure closer to home, one that threatens the safety of her own family . . .

Shamefully, I have had this book on my TBR pile for a long time. That’s because I did not realise how close to home it was going to hit and I stopped reading it for quite a while. Unlike Deborah O’Connor, I have worked for the BBC and while this review isn’t about me, you need to know that my response has been conditioned by some of the close parallels between real life and this book.

The central protagonist Jessie Gooch is a 50 something single mother and radio presenter whose programme has been running for years, investigating the background of what she calls PDP, or potentially dangerous people. What that means is that she takes criminal cases and together with an ex-policeman and a psychologist, analyses people who have been dangerous and suggesting ways in which they could have been marked as dangerous and perhaps stopped before they committed their crimes. Jessie also volunteers for a Domestic Violence hotline, so her world is full of the worst of humanity.

As you may imagine, this is a dark book and the focus on child exploitation, abuse and grooming is not a subject everyone will be comfortable with. The atmosphere is dark and oppressive and this is not a book for the faint hearted.

Leaving Broadcasting House after her programme one day, Jessie is stopped by Marnie Clark. Marnie wants Jessie to look into the disappearance of her friend, Cassie Scolari, whose husband, she knew, was abusive.

Jitesh is working as an intern at the BBC, training to be a sound engineer. Academically bright and intending to take up a place at Cambridge he is using his job to scope out opportunities at the BBC. Jitesh is an accomplished hacker, and Jessie ropes him in to helping her look into Cassie’s disappearance.

O’Connor utilises a dual timeline approach to good effect as we follow 13 year old Rowena Garbutt whose care home fails to stop her from taking up with an older man, Sunny, who she thinks loves and who exploits her mercilessly.

The narrative flows back and forwards as Jessie investigates Cassie’s disappearance, uncovering devastating information and putting her own life in jeopardy.   Utilising multiple voices, each chapter is told in the present through Jessamine, her adopted daughter Sarah and Jitesh or via Rowena in early 2000. The flashback chapters are the most difficult to read.

Though the subject matter is very dark indeed, this is not a graphic book but O’Connor manages to create a very real atmosphere of fear where the young women in this book are faced with the most awful things that they never anticipated.

Anyone who has followed some of the more recent cases of child exploitation will recognise the inherent truth in O’Connor’s writing and I found some of it too close to home for comfort, which may be the point.

Verdict: Though there were some moments where coincidence or a bit of odd behaviour left me questioning, overall this is a gripping and compelling read for those who like their subject matter on the dark side. I’m off to look at photos of kittens and puppies.

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Deborah O’Connor is a writer and TV producer. Born and bred in the North-East of England, in 2010 she completed the Faber Academy novel writing course. She lives in London with her husband and daughter. She has not worked at the BBC.

To Kill A Man by Sam Bourne (Maggie Costello #5) @Freedland @QuercusBooks #ToKillaMan

Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th March 2020 from Quercus
PP: 448
ISBN-13: 978-1787474956

Natasha Winthrop is a rising star in American politics, strongly tipped as a future candidate for president. One night she is violently assaulted in her home by an intruder. She defends herself and minutes later, the intruder lies dead. Winthrop is hailed as a #MeToo heroine: the woman who fought back.

But inconsistencies emerge in Winthrop’s story, suggesting that the attack might not have been as random as it first seemed.

When former White House troubleshooter Maggie Costello is drafted in to investigate, she finds intriguing gaps, especially over Winthrop’s early life. She likes this woman, who she believes could – and should – be president. But she can’t shake off the question: who exactly is Natasha Winthrop?

A cat-and-mouse conspiracy thriller of rare intelligence, To Kill a Man explores an unsettling world in which justice is in the eye of the beholder and revenge seems to be the only answer.

I love the Maggie Costello series from Sam Bourne, aka Jonathan Freedland, and To Kill A Man is a terrific read that works perfectly as a stand-alone. Bourne takes real life contemporary events and weaves them into politically charged thrillers that are perfect for keeping the reader hooked and which are intelligent and utterly compulsive.

Maggie Costello, our protagonist, is a foreign policy expert, but these days her skills are far more in demand as a fixer; a skilled PR expert who can anticipate and defuse crises before they happen.

Maggie is being courted by the front runner for President of the United States of America, but though he is a popular candidate, Maggie doesn’t take to him. He is slightly too familiar and yet he won’t pin down his offer to Maggie and all that is combining to make her feel uneasy.

Natasha Winthrop is a human rights lawyer who has recently been quoted as a potential Presidential candidate. A high-flyer, her recent performances in front of a Senate committee have led to her being widely tipped as a candidate for the Presidential race. It doesn’t hurt that she is both young and attractive.

Then Natasha is violently attacked in her own home by a masked intruder. In the process of defending herself she kills her attacker. In this age of #MeToo it does not take long before she is being hailed as something of a heroine which only ramps up when it is revealed that her would-be rapist was wanted for multiple rapes and murder. Then leaks start appearing all over the media that can only have come from inside the investigation and none of them reflect well on Natasha. She drafts Maggie in to help her manage the process and her profile. The unspoken aim is to make sure she is still able to run for President if she chooses to do so.

With a narrative that is both tense and fast paced, this is a brilliant thriller that goes inside the murky world of political campaigning, data mining and fake news all wrapped up in the horrifying truth that is the real statistical evidence of rape in the Unites States.

This is one of Bourne’s real strengths. He builds on a base of actuality to extrapolate a thesis that becomes all too plausible and that makes his novels all the more thrilling and not a little frightening. The reader will recognise similarities to real life events when reading this explosive thriller.

As Maggie investigates Natasha’s life and background, she finds a lot to trouble her and make her re-evaluate her first impressions. What she finds out leads her to a fascinating moral dilemma and will certainly keep the reader poised on tenterhooks.

Sometimes the book will take a slightly fantastical turn, but that just makes it the more exciting and I’m more than happy to let it carry me away, because as we have recently learned, today’s fantasy is tomorrow’s horrible reality.

Verdict: This book carried me with it all the way. I love this series and Maggie Costello is a brilliant character and this book is one of the best political thrillers I have read. Intelligent, plausible and thought provoking, it’s a must read for me.

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Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Jonathan Freedland, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. He has written a weekly column for the Guardian since 1997, having previously served as the paper’s Washington correspondent. Jonathan Freedland was named Columnist of the Year in the annual What the Papers Say Awards of 2002 . His first novel, ‘The Righteous Men,’ was a Richard and Judy Summer Read and a Number 1 bestseller. His next two novels, ‘The Last Testament’ and ‘The Final Reckoning’ were both top ten bestsellers. He lives in London with his wife and their two children.

The Man on the Street by Trevor Wood @TrevorWoodWrite @QuercusBooks @ellakroftpatel #TheManonTheStreet

Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th March 2020 from Quercus
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-1787478367

It started with a splash. Jimmy, a homeless veteran grappling with PTSD, did his best to pretend he hadn’t heard it – the sound of something heavy falling into the Tyne at the height of an argument between two men on the riverbank. Not his fight.

Then he sees the headline: GIRL IN MISSING DAD PLEA. The girl, Carrie, reminds him of someone he lost, and this makes his mind up: it’s time to stop hiding from his past. But telling Carrie, what he heard – or thought he heard – turns out to be just the beginning of the story.

The police don’t believe him, but Carrie is adamant that something awful has happened to her dad and Jimmy agrees to help her, putting himself at risk from enemies old and new.

But Jimmy has one big advantage: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

I’m very pleased indeed to have been able to read Trevor Wood’s accomplished debut novel, The Man on the Street. His protagonist is one of the best new characters I have read in a while. Jimmy Mullen is a veteran of the Falklands War where he was a leading regulator in the Royal Navy Police. Now though, he is suffering from PTSD, has a broken marriage and a daughter he never sees and has a prison record to boot. He’s living on the streets with only his dog for company and a couple of mates named Gadge and Deano with whom he tends to hang out. Drinking used to help help him control his flashbacks but now he’s knocked that on the head and he’s refused the psychiatric help he’s been offered, so when he witnesses an argument and what looks and sounds like it might have been a murder, he can’t be sure that what he saw was real.

Jimmy is on parole and the last thing he wants is to cause trouble. He has an instinctive dislike of the police so, all things considered, he decides to let sleeping dogs lie. Then he sees the story of a young woman, Carrie Carpenter, in the local newspaper, desperately seeking information about her missing father. Jimmy thinks she looks like his estranged daughter, Kate and reaches out to her to tell her what he saw.

Trevor Wood really makes Jimmy spring to life from the page. His character feels authentic and his flaws and strong points are really well portrayed. The choice of a homeless protagonist enables Wood to show us what life on the streets is like for the invisible underclass who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves with no other alternative.

The banter between the three street wise characters is excellent and Newcastle comes through as a great character in its own right. Jimmy is tenacious and intelligent and he doesn’t back down when it comes to a fight, so when he is pursued, he doesn’t back down. Often the subject of unprovoked violence, Jimmy and his pals have learned that taking the kicks is part of what their lives are about when you are homeless. Though he writes it lightly, the social commentary and bleak depiction of the life of the homelessness is very well depicted.

Verdict: I found this to be a great and completely propulsive read. Brilliant characters, a fascinating and unpredictable mystery and unflinching violence combine with a warm emotional core that make this a terrific read. The plot is excellent and nicely twisted and overall this is an assured and accomplished book with characters that beg for a second outing. I’ll be first in the queue when that happens, as it surely must.

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Trevor Wood has lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years and considers himself an adopted Geordie. He’s a successful playwright who has also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council. Prior to that he served in the Royal Navy for sixteen years. Trevor holds an MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) from UEA. The Man on the Street is his first novel.

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Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei trs Jeremy Tiang @Chan_HoKei @HoZ_Books @midaspr #SecondSister

Source: Review copy
Publication: 18 February 2020 from Head of Zeus
PP: 496
ISBN-13: 978-1788547116

Gossip. Rumour. Revenge.

From the author of the acclaimed novel The Borrowed, a very timely and propulsively plotted tale of cyberbullying and revenge, about a woman on the hunt for the truth about her sister’s death.

Chan Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed was one of the most acclaimed international crime novels of recent years, a vivid and compelling tale of power, corruption, and the law spanning five decades of the history of Hong Kong. Now he delivers Second Sister, an up-to-the-minute tale of a Darwinian digital city where everyone from tech entrepreneurs to teenagers is struggling for the top.

A schoolgirl – Siu-Man – has committed suicide, leaping from her twenty-second floor window to the pavement below. Siu-Man is an orphan and the librarian older sister who’s been raising her refuses to believe there was no foul play – nothing seemed amiss. She contacts a man known only as N. – a hacker, and an expert in cybersecurity and manipulating human behaviour. But can Nga-Yee interest him sufficiently to take her case, and can she afford it if he says yes?

What follows is a cat and mouse game through the city of Hong Kong and its digital underground, especially an online gossip platform, where someone has been slandering Siu-Man. The novel is also populated by a man harassing girls on mass transit; high school kids, with their competing agendas and social dramas; a Hong Kong digital company courting an American venture capitalist; and the Triads, market women and noodle shop proprietors who frequent N.’s neighborhood of Sai Wan. In the end it all comes together to tell us who caused Siu-Man’s death and why, and to ask, in a world where online and offline dialogue has increasingly forgotten about the real people on the other end, what the proper punishment is.

I am so glad I said I wanted to be on this blog tour, because Second Sister is a cracking read! The blurb above tells you all you ned to know about the story, but trust me when I tell you that this is one twisty, layered contemporary psychological thriller that deserves its place among the best of books released this year.

Second Sister is a very accessible book, dealing with revenge, cyber-bullying, digital manipulation, hacking and sexual abuse (but is in no way graphic). Second Sister is a book in which almost no-one is quite who they seem to be and this adds an additional layer to an already twisting and surprising thriller.

As I am writing this review The Intercept_ have just published a story that should horrify us all. They allege that the makers of TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing app with hundreds of millions of users around the world, instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform. They say they have documents that show moderators were also told to censor political speech in TikTok livestreams, punishing those who harmed “national honor” or broadcast streams about “state organs such as police” with bans from the platform. It is a story everyone should read and a story that is reflected in what we learn from Second Sister.

Chan Ho-Kei is clearly well versed in technology and his psychological thriller is steeped in current digital abilities and the ethics and morality of the social networks we participate in as he leads the reader a merry dance around Hong Kong and Nga-Yee gives up everything to find out who was behind her sister, Sui-Man’s suicide.

Central to the success of her quest and to the success of the novel is one of the more fascinating detectives I have read in a while. Known only as ‘N’, this detective only takes cases that interest him and his method of payment is as unorthodox as his detecting methods.

Utilising a mixture of skills from hacking to disguises, ‘N’ is a fascinating moral centre in the midst of an unruly, uncontrollable world of digital hackers and privacy corrupters. Here we are taken into the heart of Hong Kong, its culture and business focussed activities and we learn a lot about what it is like to live in one of the world’s most populated cities where real estate is at a premium, rents are sky high and no-one walks down the street without simultaneously staring at their phone.

Chan Ho-Kei’s book is excellent at showing us the just how corrupting social media can be and how easy it is to manipulate; to create fake news and to allow that to stray into malicious gossip and rumour. He neatly segues from that into showing us how some technology companies will use such things to create profit from exploitation of others misery.

This then is the territory that we are in and it could not be more timely. That Chan Ho-Kei has been able to take such stories and create a buzzing, and twisted tale is evidence of his story telling ability.

There’s a great deal going on in Second Sister and the author does not hold back from making social commentary as he goes along. But this is wrapped in a thrilling, contemporary mystery and lots of action that leads the reader on a twisted and fascinating path towards an excellent conclusion.

A timely story of social media, technology and outright greed and corruption. At once social commentary on Hong Kong and its overcrowding; its harassed and overworked citizens and the rapid growth of unsavoury elements of the internet, Second Sister is also fascinating as it touches on many other levels.

Verdict: A really interesting, wholly engrossing psychological thriller that has huge contemporary relevance as well as re-examining ancient themes like punishment and forgiveness. It is fascinating, different and completely compulsive. Unmissable. I’m going back to read the first one now.

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Chan Ho-Kei was born and raised in Hong Kong. He has worked as a software engineer, game designer, manga editor, and lecturer. Chan wrote made his debut as a writer in 2008 at the age of thirty-three, with the short story The Case of Jack and the Beanstalk which was shortlisted for the Mystery Writers of Taiwan Award. Chan re-entered the following year and won the award for his short story The Locked Room of Bluebeard.Chan reached the first milestone of his writing career in 2011 with his novel, The Man who Sold the World which won the biggest mystery award in the Chinese speaking world, the Soji Shimada Award. The book has been published in Taiwan, Japan, Italy, Thailand and Korea.
In 2014, Chan’s crime thriller The Borrowed was published in Taiwan. It has sold rights in thirteen countries, and the book will be adapted into a film by acclaimed Chinese art film director Wong Kar-Wai.Second Sister has acquired a six-figure film deal with Linmon Pictures in China. The book will be published in the US in 2020 and rights have been sold to China, Korea and Japan.

Jeremy Tiang’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, Esquire and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. He has written four plays and translated more than ten books from the Chinese. Tiang lives in New York.

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Guest Post from Douglas Skelton, author of The Blood is Still @DouglasSkelton1

Strange times we are living in and pretty awful for everyone, including authors who no longer have the opportunity to get out to launches and book festivals to allow the public to discover how good their books are.

One of those is the cracking read that I’ve already reviewed, The Blood is Still by Douglas Skelton. You can see similar rave reviews from Chapter in My Life, Suze Reviews, Love Reading and Scotland on Sunday, to name but a few. Ian Rankin says of Douglas: ‘If you don’t know Skelton, now’s the time’ and Denzil Meyrick calls Skelton ‘one of my favourite authors‘.

Just one of the reasons I love Douglas’ writing is the way in which he conveys a fabulous sense of place and atmosphere. I think one of the reasons he does that so well is that in addition to being a writer, he is also an accomplished photographer. So I asked Douglas to share some of his location photographs for THE BLOOD IS STILL, alongside some words of explanation. I hope this encourages you to buy this exceptional book. Links at the end of the post.

First a reminder of what THE BLOOD IS STILL is about:

When the body of a man in eighteenth-century Highland dress is discovered on the site of the Battle of Culloden, journalist Rebecca Connolly takes up the story for the Chronicle.

Meanwhile, a film being made about the ’45 Rebellion has enraged the right-wing group Spirit of the Gael which is connected to a shadowy group called Black Dawn linked to death threats and fake anthrax deliveries to Downing Street and Holyrood. When a second body – this time in the Redcoat uniform of the government army – is found in Inverness, Rebecca finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mystery. Are the murders connected to politics, a local gang war or something else entirely?

Now, over to you, Douglas.

To write any of my books I generally go location scouting. And with me goes my trusty Nikon to snap what I see. THE BLOOD IS STILL (Polygon Books, out now) was no different – and it took me to Inverness. I already knew my story would begin at Culloden battlefield, so that was my first destination.

It’s a barren stretch of heather and scrub, with memorials to the fallen sprouting from the land like gravestones and flags fluttering against the gloomy skies to mark where the various combatants stood before the slaughter.
It is a solemn place, even when the sun shines – and it gleamed intermittently while I was there on a chilly day in March. Clouds gathered and waned as the sun broke through. There was even a sudden skirmish of snow, which ended as quickly as it begun, leaving the sun to rake across the heather once more.
I have visited many battlefields but only here – and Glencoe – do I sense the deep melancholy of death. The senselessness of a battle royal between power hungry nobles – a civil war – is perhaps something we cannot understand. At least I hope not.

The slaughter here is etched into the Celtic soul, the feeling of loss and its lament is carried on the breeze and the rain and snow and sunlight.
I both love it and hate it.

The first Rebecca Connolly book, THUNDER BAY (Polygon books), was mainly set on a fictional Scottish island. This new one is very much based in Inverness and so I wandered around the Highland capital to try to get a feel for the place. Luckily, it is a place I enjoy so it was no hardship!

In one scene Rebecca is covering court cases in the Castle and she sits outside to eat her lunch. This is the scene she enjoys, looking down the plain towards the Great Glen, with the Cathedral nestling against the bulk of Tomnahurich, the hill of the yews and place of the dead.

The old High Kirk also plays a part in the story. It was here that Government soldiers are said to have executed Jacobite prisoners in the wake of the
battle. The story goes that they placed the weak and the wounded against a gravestone while a rifleman steadied his musket in the notch of another a few feet away and fired.

The climax of the story takes place at Clachnaharry, which is a short drive out of Inverness. Here there is a sea lock to allow the Caledonian Canal to flow out into the Beauly Firth while footpaths on either side are magnets for dog walkers, joggers and strollers.

I chose this because of its relative isolation – there is a village but the canal offices and narrow bridges across the canal are far enough away to allow my story to reach its tragic conclusion.

I spent a great deal of time here, sitting on a bench looking out across the Moray Firth to the Kessock Bridge and the Black Isle. It is big sky country, wide and open. Yet as darkness falls there is a sense of claustrophobia. The water of the canal turns black and deep. The firth laps in the darkness against
the stones. Ideal for my story. As was every location I visited.

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Douglas Skelton was born in Glasgow. He has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator. He has written eleven true crime and Scottish criminal history books but now concentrates on fiction. His novel Open Wounds (2016) was longlisted for the McIlvanney Award. Douglas has investigated real-life crime for Glasgow solicitors and was involved in a long-running campaign to right the famous Ice-Cream Wars miscarriage of justice.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell @4thEstateBooks #MyDarkVanessa

Source: Review copy
Publication: 31 March 2020 and out now in e-book from 4th Estate
PP: 384
ISBN-13: 978-0008342241


Vanessa Wye was fifteen-years-old when she first had sex with her English teacher.

She is now thirty-two and in the storm of allegations against powerful men in 2017, the teacher, Jacob Strane, has just been accused of sexual abuse by another former student.

Vanessa is horrified by this news, because she is quite certain that the relationship she had with Strane wasn’t abuse. It was love. She’s sure of that.

Forced to rethink her past, to revisit everything that happened, Vanessa has to redefine the great love story of her life – her great sexual awakening – as rape. Now she must deal with the possibility that she might be a victim, and just one of many.

Nuanced, uncomfortable, bold and powerful, My Dark Vanessa goes straight to the heart of some of the most complex issues our age.

It’s quite difficult for me to talk about this book, because it deals with subject matter that I find very difficult. Not because of any personal trauma, but because of stuff I have had to deal with in my professional life which has led to any kind of sexual abuse being a big trigger for me.

My Dark Vanessa is graphic, that’s one of the first things to say about it. It is also an incredibly strong portrait of what happens to a 15 year old girl when she is steadily groomed and abused by a teacher, a man in a position of power over her; a man in in loco parentis.

Vanessa is a bright young woman who wins a scholarship to a boarding school. She finds the new environment a bit daunting and is slow to make any friends. Jacob Strane is 42 years old and an English teacher.

He singles Vanessa out for special attention, flatters her writing and commends her poetry. Sickeningly, he lends her Nabokov’s Lolita which will become their ’special’ book. Vanessa is wooed and beguiled and believes herself to be in love even as this predator is physically abusing her.

My Dark Vanessa is an exploration of what happened to that 15 year old girl, told through her own voice and spans the period when she was at boarding school together with a shift to the present day, when we meet the 32 year old Vanessa who is a complete mess. She drinks, smokes dope and sleeps with wildly unsuitable men. Any thoughts of an academic or postgrad career vanished long ago and now she works as a hotel receptionist in a dead end job.

Somehow, Vanessa has managed to hold onto that childhood belief that she was in love; that she was special, that anyone else who said they had been abused by Strane had no idea what they were talking about.

Because Strane, accused of abuse when Vanessa was his pupil and who got Vanessa to take the blame, has once again been accused. 17 years later, he stands accused by another former student of abuse and Vanessa is still making excuses for him. Vanessa is a mess though. She has conversations with herself and others where she plays out variations of the truth to try them out for size. She kept a blog, naming no names, where she tried to write out what has happened to her. But she can’t admit to herself what somewhere deep down she knows to be true, that her life has been a lie. She has to believe in a love affair, even though a part of recognises that’s not what really happened.

The strength of this book is in the writing and in the way that Vanessa is portrayed. Time and time again as she thinks about her relationship with Strane, she strains at recognising the awfulness of this situation, only to be unable to face it and to retreat into the ‘love affair’ version.

Sadly, Strane is not the only predator she meets and unlikeable and chaotic as she is, her most awful moments come when she is asked to stand witness for other women in condemning Strane. It is then that we see her sense of alienation and self-delusion hanging by a thread.

 A couple of years ago, Sofka Zinovieff wrote about child abuse in Putney – a nuanced, delicate book that was incredibly thought provoking. My Dark Vanessa is much more of a blunt instrument and as such is quicker to rouse a deep visceral reaction and I experienced real rage as I read it.

Verdict: My Dark Vanessa is brutal, nauseating, anger- making and important. It shines a light on the subtleties of coercive control in abuse cases like this where the age gap is so substantial and young girls are so used to sexual imagery around them in ads, and songs. I could not say I enjoyed it, but I found it powerful and challenging and most importantly, truthful.

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Kate Elizabeth Russell is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, is from William Morrow (US), 4th Estate (UK), has been translated into over twenty languages. Originally from eastern Maine, she earned an MFA from Indiana University and a PhD from the University of Kansas.

A Conspiracy of Bones by Kathy Reichs (Tempe Brennan #19) @KathyReichs @simonschusterUK @annecater #AConspiracyofBones

Source: Review copy
Publication: 17TH March 2020 from Simon & Schuster
PP: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1471188848

It’s sweltering in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Temperance Brennan, still recovering from neurosurgery following an aneurysm, is battling nightmares, migraines, and what she thinks might be hallucinations when she receives a series of mysterious text messages, each containing a new picture of a corpse that is missing its face and hands. Immediately, she’s anxious to know who the dead man is, and why the images were sent to her.

An identified corpse soon turns up, only partly answering her questions.

To win answers to the others, including the man’s identity, she must go rogue. With help from a number of law enforcement associates including her Montreal beau Andrew Ryan and the always-ready-with-a-smart-quip, ex-homicide investigator Skinny Slidell, and utilizing new cutting-edge forensic methods, Tempe draws closer to the astonishing truth.

But the more she uncovers, the darker and more twisted the picture becomes …

Fans of Kathy Reichs books about this intrepid forensic anthropologist will know that this book has been a while in coming to market. That only makes it all the more welcome, especially when Reichs explains, as she does in the back of this expansive, sweeping crime novel, that she has built in some of her own health issues into the character of Temperance Brennan.

Tempe is back in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she is juggling living between there and Quebec, sharing both places with her partner, Ryan.  Her friend and old boss Dr Larabee, North Carolina’s  Chief Medical Examiner, has gone and Tempe is mourning his loss. Not only that, the woman appointed to replace him is an old adversary of Tempe’s and does not want her anywhere near the department, far less consulting for it. Margot Heavner enjoys being in the media spotlight and is willing to compromise on her professional medical ethics in order to cast a favourable light on her own prowess, even if that prejudices a future trial. Temperance has called her out on it before and now she’s not welcome.

Tempe is also coming to terms with the aftermath of neurosurgery and the diagnosis that she has a brain aneurysm. As if that were not enough, her mother has cancer. The aneurysm has left her with an ongoing migraine problem, sleep issues and an unsettling sense of not knowing what is real and what is the product of her brain induced anxiety. She thinks she spots a man in a trench coat hanging about outside her house in the middle of the night, but then worries that she may have imagined it.

Consequently, Temperance has a lot on her mind when she receives anonymous texted photographs of a faceless corpse. Knowing she won’t be welcome, Temperance sneaks into the ME’s lab to grab a sample and aided by cold case detective ‘Skinny’ Slidell she immediately finds herself at odds with the preliminary conclusions drawn by Heavnor.

Brennan decides she will pursue this case despite the ME’s objections. She and Slidell begin the laborious process of tracking down the faceless individual. What she uncovers only leads to a lot more questions. Tempe is faced with a jigsaw puzzle that leads to a whole host of conspiracy theories ranging from mind control projects to missing children.

To make matters worse, Tempe discovers that the dead man was carrying her own phone number. No wonder she’s feeling a bit paranoid, and that’s before things start to get worse. To solve this case, Temperance must go into the murky world of the deep web where it’s essential that you know what you are doing.

Kathy Reichs excels at intricate plotting and her books are full of rich, accurate detailed forensics which all adds to the authenticity of the book. So when I tell you that this book is expansive, what I mean is that she has used her imagination to create a sweeping canvas for her plot to play out on and at least half the fun is watching her drawing all her disparate threads together to make a complete and satisfying picture.

There’s poignancy, too, about this book, knowing that Reichs, a very private person, has put more of herself than usual into Temperance and that makes this book feel quite special.

Verdict: With a complex, intense plot full of surprises, this book is sharp and intelligent. I enjoyed it for all that but also for the emotional quotient which resonated long after the book was finished.

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Kathy Reichs’s first novel Déjà Dead was a number one bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. A Conspiracy of Bones is Kathy’s nineteenth entry in her series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. Kathy was also a producer of the hit Fox TV series, Bones, which is based on her work and her novels.
Dr. Reichs is one of very few forensic anthropologists certified by the  American Board of Forensic Anthropology. She served on the Board of  Directors and as Vice President of both the American Academy of  Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and as a member of the National Police Services Advisory Council in Canada. She divides her time between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Montreal, Québec.

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Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith @michael_f_smith @noexitpress @annecater

Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th March 2020 from No Exit Press
PP: 256
ISBN-13: 978-0857303905

The town of Red Bluff, Mississippi, has seen better days, though those who’ve held on have little memory of when that was. Myer, the county’s aged, sardonic lawman, still thinks it can prove itself — when confronted by a strange family of drifters, the sheriff believes that the people of Red Bluff can be accepting, rational, even good.

The opposite is true: this is a landscape of fear and ghosts — of regret and violence — transformed by the kudzu vines that have enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding a terrible secret deeper still.

Colburn, a junkyard sculptor who’s returned to Red Bluff, knows this pain all too well, though he too is willing to hope for more when he meets and falls in love with Celia, the local bar owner. The Deep South gives these noble, broken, and driven folks the gift of human connection while bestowing upon them the crippling weight of generations. With broken histories and vagabond hearts, the townsfolk wrestle with the evil in the woods — and the wickedness that lurks in each and every one of us.

I always look forward to a book from No Exit Press. There’s a reason they are consistently quoted as among the best independent publishers and I am so grateful for the chance to review this book.

L.P.Hartley wrote “The Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. Michael Ferris Smith’s Blackwood is predominantly set in Red Bluff, rural Mississippi in the mid 1970’s, but this is a novel driven by its past.  A child dies and a man feels responsible. A family’s life is forever blighted. The Blackwood characters are deeply scarred by what has gone before them.

Red Bluff is dying. Its streets are full of empty shops. The kudzu whose vines so vividly decorate the end papers this book are slowly creeping in on the town, subsuming and strangling everything they come into contact with. Fast growing, invasive, it strips the soil of nutrients and smothers everything it comes into contact with.

Colbert will never forget what he saw in the barn of his Red Bluff home 20 years ago. He escaped that place as soon as he could but now he has returned, drawn back but not sure if it’s where he wants to be. He’s a sculptor, specialising in working with reclaimed junk and found objects and the town, desperate to re-invent itself – to inject some life into the streets, is offering storefront shops to artists, rent free in return for looking after the property. Colbert wants to remain anonymous in this small town, but people here have long memories and Colbert’s name is not one they forget in a hurry.

Around the same time an itinerant family of grifters arrive in Red Bluff. Travelling in a Cadillac that’s on its last legs, they used to be a man, woman and two children but just before arriving in the town, the man determined that they had one too many mouths to feed, so now there are just the three of them.

Mother and son trawl the back streets of the town, scavenging food and bottles to return for the few cents on offer, attracting the attention of the town sheriff, a man who has never really had to deal with trouble. Sheriff Myer thinks he can simply move on this family, and is left at a loss when they refuse to go.

Celia owns the only Red Bluff tavern. She knows Colbert’s history and is drawn to him. She also feels sorry for the boy from the grifter family and just as the kudzu vines make their way into everyone’s lives, so the intertwining of Colbert’s life with Celia and this young boy will lead to another kind of devastation.

There’s a strong sense of imminent doom hanging over everyone in Michael Farris’ Smith’s bleak and harsh novel. Full of desperate people living lonely lives, this is a book about in which making a connection is everything, however fleeting.

Michael Farris Smith’s prose is wonderful. Full of gothic menace, dark allusions and the gloom of poverty that is as smothering as the kudzu. The personal connections between characters that he forges are poignant and incredibly meaningful and the deaths, when they come, are somehow inevitable and at the same time indicative of a world that is reaping what it has sown.

Verdict: A stunning sometimes brutal, dark and gothic noir in which a town finds that the repercussions of the past exert a deeply malign influence. This is horror that you can feel; pain that you can touch. Haunting, disturbing, evocative, this is a book that lodges firmly in your mind.  The dark and rich timbre of these realistic fractured and disconnected lives contrasts beautifully with the small shards of potentially redemptive light that fleeting connections throw out. I was engrossed. This is an outstanding read.

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Michael Farris Smith is the author of The Fighter, Desperation Road, Rivers, and The Hands of Strangers. He has been awarded the Mississippi Author Award for Fiction, Transatlantic Review Award, and Brick Streets Press Story Award. His novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, Southern Living, Book Riot, and numerous others. He has been a finalist for the Southern Book Prize, the Gold Dagger Award in the UK, and the Grand Prix des Lectrices in France, and his essays have appeared with The New York Times, Bitter Southerner, Garden & Gun, and more. He lives with his wife and daughters in Oxford, Mississippi.

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Dead Wrong by Noelle Holten (DC Maggie Jamieson#2) @nholten40 @KillerReads @BOTBSPublicity

Source: Review copy
Publication: 14th March 2020 in e-book and audiobook from One More Chapter
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-0008332266

The serial killer is behind bars. But the murders are just beginning…

DC Maggie Jamieson’s past comes back to haunt her in this dark and gripping serial killer thriller.

Three missing women running out of time…

 They were abducted years ago. Notorious serial killer Bill Raven admitted to killing them and was sentenced to life.

The case was closed – at least DC Maggie Jamieson thought it was…

 But now one of them has been found, dismembered and dumped in a bin bag in town. Forensics reveal that she died just two days ago, when Raven was behind bars, so Maggie has a second killer to find.

Because even if the other missing women are still alive, one thing’s for certain: they don’t have long left to live…

I really enjoyed Noelle Holten’s first book, Dead Inside, so was very keen to read the follow up, Dead Wrong. Easily read as a stand-alone, Dead Wrong certainly does not disappoint.

DC Maggie Jamieson has recently come back to her Staffordshire Police following a secondment to the area’s Domestic Abuse & Homicide Unit, where she made some great friends and contacts and learned the benefits of a multi-agency approach to many of the crimes she has to deal with.

One of the strengths of Holten’s work is that she has adopted a portfolio approach to her writing. That gives her a wide cast of characters to draw from and means that she can focus on different characters at any given time and know that readers will already have met them and know something about them. In the first book, Lucy Sherwood from the Probation Service took centre stage, with Maggie Jamieson playing an important, supporting role.

This time it is D.C. Maggie Jamieson who is at the heart of the story, re-establishing herself in the C.I.D. Unit. Her feet are barely back under the table when she is faced with an enormous challenge. A murderer, Bill Raven, whose confession Maggie had elicited, leading to a lifetime jail sentence, has now recanted and worse – one of the bodies he is supposed to have been responsible for murdering has turned up dismembered and dumped in a bin. It is clear that not only is this murder recent, within the last few days, but Raven was locked up at the time.

Maggie’s professional reputation looks to be in tatters and the Criminal Case Review Board and Professional Standards want to know whether she coerced his confession. Raven is a creepy, tricky character, full of cunning and ready to taunt Maggie at every turn and the press are only too keen to hang her out to dry.

Now the team have to find out who killed this woman and the other murdered women who follow, whilst trying to work out whether they have falsely accused Raven of these crimes. Raven’s appeal will be heard before too long and Maggie is aghast at the thought that this man, whom she is certain is a murderer, could be back on the streets within a month.

Maggie’s boss, D.I. Rutherford tries to keep Maggie at arm’s length from Raven, knowing that her professional career is in jeopardy. Maggie though will not be deflected from her certainty that Raven is guilty.

Working with her former partner, Nathan Wright recently promoted to acting DS, and involving Psychotherapist Dr Kate Moloney as a profiler, she sets out to prove she is not wrong.

Holten does not shirk from the grislier aspects of dealing with a nasty murder case. Here the menace is apparent and the danger creates a tense and fraught atmosphere as the appeal looms nearer and the team seem to be no closer to finding out what has happened.

Alongside the investigation, another creepy and unpleasant set of happenings is occurring. Whether or not they are related to the Raven case is unclear, but this leads to a growing feeling of unease and a very unsettling feeling to the whole investigation.

Short chapters add pace to an already fast moving plot and Holten’s eye for detail shows that she knows her onions when it comes to a police procedural.

Verdict: A tense and thrilling police procedural from a writer whose knowledge of the criminal justice system shines through. Unsettling and disturbing this has a particularly delicious villain and the plot is full of surprises and one enormous shock. Highly recommended.

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Noelle Holten is an award-winning blogger at She is the PR & Social Media Manager for Bookouture, a leading digital publisher in the UK, and was a regular reviewer on the Two Crime Writers and a Microphone podcast. Noelle worked as a Senior Probation Officer for eighteen years, covering a variety of cases including those involving serious domestic abuse. She has three Hons BA’s – Philosophy, Sociology (Crime & Deviance) and Community Justice – and a Masters in Criminology. Noelle’s hobbies include reading, attending as many book festivals as she can afford and sharing the booklove via her blog.

The Operator by Gretchen Berg @headlinepg @annecater #TheOperator #GretchenBerg

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10th March 2020 from Headline Review
PP: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1472264107

It’s 1952. The switchboard operators in Wooster, Ohio, love nothing more than to eavesdrop on their neighbours’ conversations, and gossip about what they learn. Vivian Dalton is no different (despite her teenage daughter’s disapproval), and always longs to hear something scandalous. But on the night of December 15th, she wishes she hadn’t. The secret that’s shared by a stranger on the line threatens to rip the rug of Vivian’s life from under her.

Vivian may be mortified, but she’s not going to take this lying down. She wants the truth, no matter how painful it may be. But one secret tends to lead to another . . .

This moving, heart-felt and ultimately uplifting novel brilliantly weaves together an irresistible portrayal of a town buzzing with scandal, and an unforgettable story of marriage, motherhood and the unbreakable ties of family.

The Operator is a pitch-perfect character driven portrait of life in 1950’s small town America – Wooster, Ohio to be precise. Loosely based on stories she heard from her grandmother, (and complete with original recipes) Gretchen Berg’s The Operator cleverly portrays the social structures and strata of a small community and the efforts that some people make to stay on top of what is, really, just a small pile.

The nearest I can come to it is a sort of Peyton Place, but without the melodrama. Vivien is an operator at the Bell Telephone company exchange. The middle one of three sisters, she is now married with a daughter of her own. She loves her job with the telephone company and enjoys cutting off the people who are rude and responding pleasantly to those whose manners are a cut above.

A child of the depression, Vivien went out to work as soon as she was able and married just as quickly, though there was no imperative other than getting out of her parent’s house. She’s not book smart and doesn’t understand the long words her teenage daughter sometimes uses, but she’s good at her job and takes pride in it.

Vivien’s life isn’t full of excitement so despite the rules, she will sometimes listen in on conversations – just to find out what’s going on in her small town as her own circle of friends isn’t really that extensive. It’s not meant to be harmful, just a diversion in the boredom of her job and her life. This is, after all, a town where everyone pretty much knows everyone else’s business. She enjoys the small thrill of power that knowledge gives her.

One day, though, as she’s listening in to a call between the town’s self –appointed queen of the socialites, Betty Miller and someone she doesn’t recognise, she hears a piece of gossip about her own family. Something she did not know. Something that takes the floor out from under her.

Though this piece of gossip underpins the narrative arc, The Operator is really more about the different lives of two women in 1950’s America and how they used the opportunities that were open to them. Betty Miller, rich, socialite, ambitious and well-educated looks down on Vivien Dalton with her grade school education, low level job and prison guard husband.

Betty works hard to stay top of the heap and makes sure she always has a loyal coterie of friends about her. Vivien doesn’t really have any close friends, only her sisters, and looks on Betty’s life as if she were from a different planet.

Yet neither woman is content with her existence. And when Vivien hears what Betty knows, the lives of these two women will both alter forever.

Verdict: The Operator is a well-written, relatively slow-paced novel with a narrative that moves between the 1930’s and the present day of the early 1950’s. It is a portrait of family relationships, class structures and how secrets and lies will fester and eventually come home to roost. I enjoyed this book for the way in which it took an ordinary woman and showed us how she uses a difficult and pivotal moment in her life to understand what is important to her and how to respond when things get tough.

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Gretchen Berg grew up in the US Midwest and now lives in Oregon. She has always been curious about history and family dynamics, and has a personal family tree of over 16,000 people. Her family research started with her own grandmother’s little brown notebook full of details, and it was the story of her grandmother – herself a switchboard operator in Wooster, Ohio, in the 1950’s – that inspired this book and partly provides an authenticity to the narrative.

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