Exquisite by Sarah Stovell

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops … Or does it? Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Exquisite is published by Orenda Books. What that means to me is that, whether or not I love the book, the writing will always be top notch. And so it is with Exquisite – a book which more than lives up to its name.

I did love this book. Like a thin shard of glass, Exquisite punctures the heart and the shard first warms and then freezes until, like glass, the heart shatters.

Set in the beautiful countryside of the Lakes, Exquisite is a story of compulsion, obsession and egoism.

Bo Luxton is a woman who has everything she could possibly need. A beautiful house in the Lake District, a husband and two lovely daughters and to cap it all, she is a successful best-selling novelist. She often tutors in a creative writers’ school, and it is while she is sifting through the entries for that year’s course that she comes across Alice’s entry. Raw, powerful and emotive, Alice’s essay impresses her with its emotional truth.

Alice is a bit feckless, not really knowing what she wants to do with her life; she is living it with the thoughtlessness of the young. She is shacked up in Brighton with her easy going, utterly useless boyfriend, whose idea of hard work is going out to look for the next party, or getting stoned for a week.

Alice knows she would like to write, but earns her living by teaching English in a language school for off the books payments.

Bo recommends Alice for a bursary and the two meet at the course for the first time. Though Bo initially keeps her distance from all her students, there is no doubt that Alice has something special that draws them together.

What follows is a fascinating and utterly compelling account of two fractured people whose lives intersect at a point when both are vulnerable.

It is almost like watching a car crash in slow, blurred motion; you know it is bound to end in tears, but it is not clear who is in the driving seat and who should take responsibility for the accident because the two versions of the same incidents are quite different.

As events develop the reader is never quite sure who the more reliable narrator is, but the tension builds and builds until you know for sure that something has to give. The setting of the beautiful lakes contrasts with the mounting tension and atmosphere of poison in the air, and Stovell’s beautifully constructed prose adds to the credibility of the narrative.

This is exquisite love and exquisite pain. The two are seemingly inextricably linked.  With pace, heaps of tension, and an ending which leaves you questioning everything, this dual first person narrative is a massive contender for psychological thriller of the year.

Exquisite is published in paperback by Orenda Books on June 15th 2017

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Time to Win by Harry Brett

When local crime boss Richard Goodwin is pulled from the river by his office it looks like suicide. But as his widow Tatiana feared, Rich collected enemies like poker chips, and half of Great Yarmouth’s criminal fraternity would have had reason to kill him.

 

Realising how little she knows about the man she married, Tatty seeks to uncover the truth about Rich’s death and take over the reins of the family business, overseeing a waterfront casino deal Rich hoped would put Yarmouth on the map.

 

Out of the shadows at last, it is Tatty’s time now, and she isn’t going to let Rich’s brother, or anyone else, stand in her way. But an American has been in town asking the right people the wrong questions, more bodies turn up, along with a brutal new gang. The stakes have never been higher.

 

With her family to protect, and a business to run, Tatty soon learns that power comes with a price .

 

This is the first book in a series dealing with the criminal underworld in Great Yarmouth. It’s safe to say that Time to Win isn’t going to win any awards from Visit Norfolk. The picture that Brett paints so vividly is of a tired, dirty, depressed town, full of corruption from the local authority to the Police and where the commercial activities of our protagonists are as much a front for money laundering as they are a means of entertainment for visitors and locals alike. Drugs and prostitution feature heavily and the whole Great Yarmouth vista is overlain with a wash of constant grey, dreary rainfall.

This is depression meets thug turned businessman. You can just imagine Ray Winstone as Richard Goodwin in the opening credits. Unfortunately, however, Richard Goodwin does not survive the opening credits. Dragged out of the river by police, this looks like it could have been a suicide, but his family know better.

Brett uses this death to lay bare the criminal dealings in which Goodwin was involved and to portray the impact that his death has on his family and his businesses. His widow, Tatania (Tatty) has hitherto existed in a haze of anti-depressants and vanity projects to keep her busy. But when Richard Goodwin dies, she recognises that it is up to her to make sure that no vacuum in the business is created and she sets out to take control before her rivals can get the better of the empire that she is taking over.

With the help of the trusty Frank, an enforcer who loves his garden, she embarks on a journey to lick her family into shape and ensure that no-one is left in any doubt as to who is in charge.

This is not a book where you are ever asked to care about the characters; there is not one with any redeeming features. Rather you are submerged in the squalid and seedy underbelly of crime – where drugs, murder and the cheapness of life are everyday pictures.

This is where I found myself looking for something more. After the body is dredged up in the opening scenes, there is no real mystery here. The focus is on how Tatty sets about taking over the business, no doubt in preparation for more novels to come.

Unfortunately, I did not find her a compelling character, nor was I wholly convinced by the narrative. These are people we should be very scared of, but in the end I wasn’t sure I could hold my lost interest in them because of the complete lack of anyone empathetic.

If you love harsh Brit grit noir, then this may well be for you. It is clearly the groundwork for a considerable saga, rather than a book with a beginning, middle and end. Nothing wrong with that, but there needs to be a little more for me to want to return for Book Two.

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Time to Win was published by Corsair (Little Brown Book Group) on 27th April 2017

 Time to Win – Waterstones

Time to Win by Harry Brett – Amazon

You Don’t Know Me by Imran Mahmood

An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the Closing Speeches, the young man sacks his lawyer, and decides to give his own defence speech.

He tells us that his barrister told him to leave some things out. Sometimes, the truth can be too difficult to explain, or believe. But he thinks that if he’s going to go down for life, he might as well go down telling the truth.

There are eight pieces of evidence against him. As he talks us through them one by one, his life is in our hands. We, the reader – member of the jury – must keep an open mind till we hear the end of his story. His defence raises many questions… but at the end of the speeches, only one matters:

Did he do it?

 From the outset this book had me firmly in the palm of its hand. A very different premise to the usual crime book, this book is a monologue. It takes the form of a young man who, having sacked his Q.C. towards the end of his trial, is making his closing summation.

This is a very powerful and compelling story told in the words of a young man whose whole life has been spent amidst the gangland culture of London housing estates.

We never know his name, but as he speaks – and this is a closing speech that continues for several days – we learn a lot about his family, his friends, and the characters who populate the different gangs. We learn something of the culture that uses young children; where being a gang member is not a choice but a survival tactic.

It ought to be a dark and depressing tale – and in many ways it is a terrible story to hear – but this is a young man who has a powerful sense of self. He is not an academic lad, but he has compassion, the capacity to love and a powerful protective instinct.

In deciding to tell us his ‘truth’; his version of what really happened, he will deal not only with all the evidence that the prosecution has presented, but will also confront us with the truth of the kind of lives that he and his neighbours have to lead.

In the nature versus nurture argument, this is the potential of nurture, the redemptive possibility.

The reader is part of the jury.  As the narrative continues, we come to question quite a lot about how the justice system works; whether juries really have the facts at hand when reaching their decisions. It’s a complex book which raises a lot of questions and is deeply thought-provoking.

It is for us to decide whether this young man has a future and that’s partly what makes it a forceful and compelling novel. The writing is strong and I think Mahmood has done a stunning job of articulating this young man’s life.

I do have a hesitation about the conclusion – it feels  too much of a cop out and not as believable as all of the rest of the book.

Nevertheless, this does not diminish the strength and depth of this debut novel.  I’d urge everyone to read it.

Imran Mahmood is a barrister based in London who specialises in Civil & Criminal Law. He clearly knows whereof he speaks and that pays off in spades.

You Don’t Know Me is a brilliant debut from an author who will undoubtedly garner praise.

You Don’t Know Me was published by Penguin UK – Michael Joseph on May 4th 2017

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Obsession by Amanda Robson

One evening, a wife asks her husband a question: who else would you go for, if you could?

It is a simple question – a little game – that will destroy her life.

Carly and Rob are a perfect couple. They share happy lives with their children and their close friends Craig and Jenni. They’re lucky. But beneath the surface, no relationship is simple: can another woman’s husband and another man’s wife ever just be good friends?

Little by little, Carly’s question sends her life spiralling out of control, as she begins to doubt everything she thought was true. Who can she trust? The man she has promised to stick by forever, or the best friend she has known for years? And is Carly being entirely honest with either of them?

I’m genuinely in two minds about this book. It is an easy and enjoyable read, just right for summer holiday reading. Written in short chapters and in the voices of 4 different characters, the plot is one that follows the inter-relationship between two couples, Carly and Rob and Jenni and Craig.

Leading happy and fulfilled lives, the story revolves around what happens when Carly asks Rob who he would be with if it were not her. That one question, and Rob’s reluctant answer, sparks a spiral into unhappiness, infidelity and destructive behaviour.

Robson uses a nice plot device of leading from one character to the next through a linking of events so that the reader can see a different perspective to the one just offered.

The difficulty I had is that not one of these people is innately empathetic or likeable. Rather they are extremely self -obsessed, selfish and altogether very irritating. The men are weak and the women live only to please them. Two of the characters are religious and I could not work out whether this was the author showing us how hypocritical their actions are, or just using this as a device to draw two characters closer together.

I was also somewhat dismayed by the portrayal of mental health issues, which was both unrealistic and unhelpful.

Nevertheless, there is something hypnotic about watching such a horrible drama play out in front of you, knowing that the characters are unable to stop the destructive path that they are following.

Obsession is an interesting, somewhat addictive, well paced debut novel which shows great promise.

Good summer reading.

Obsession is published by Avon Books on 4 May 2017

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Want You Gone by Christopher Brookmyre

Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister with learning difficulties when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her online, drawing her into a trap she may not escape alive.

 Who would you turn to?

 Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile source on the wrong side of the law. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything.

 What would you be capable of?

 Thrown together by a mutual enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they have more in common than they realise – and might be each other’s only hope.

I’ve loved Chris Brookmyre’s writing for years and  his Jack Parlabane character is a really strong mix of ironic and hard bitten journalist/detective. Parlabane works hard to keep up with the times, but knows that when it comes to stories, the old motives still prevail, even if the methods of achieving them are different.

Want You Gone is the 8th book in this series and Brookmyre has lost none of his edge or humour.

With the decline in the newspaper industry, Jack is struggling to find work, but when he goes to see the online news operation Broadwave, his contacts – and one old friend in particular – a digital hacker called Buzzkill – gives him the lead that he needs to impress them with his ability to ferret out a story.

His lead relates to a pretty stunning data breach at a major hi-tech company and he is determined that he will follow it through to deliver a splash.

Sam Morpeth has a pretty hard life. The 19 year old cares for her sister Lily, who has developmental difficulties. Her mother is in prison and she is trying but failing to sustain her college education because her benefits are being cut, so all that is open to her is the no-hope fast food retail outlet job. On top of all that she is being seriously bullied.

Sam’s real life may be dire, but her online life allows her to be who she needs to be. That is, until an anonymous hacker called Zodiac invades her world and threatens her with losing all she holds dear if she will not carry out the tasks he is stipulating.

Sam reaches out to Jack and he knows that he owes her, so together they embark on a two pronged journey – to keep Zodiac at bay by carrying out the assigned tasks; and to simultaneously discover who this blackmailer is and expose them.

In the process, Parlabane will put both his and Sam’s life in jeopardy (not to mention pissing off his new boss) and he and Sam will have to go into hiding.

But who is Sam really and what is her connection to Parlabane? Can Sam be trusted or will she sacrifice Jack to ensure Lily’s safety?

In this fast paced thriller where no online transaction is truly safe and cyber hacking can lead to the destruction of entire corporations, Christopher Brookmyre has created a brilliantly plotted nightmare scenario.

Tense, twisty and very edgy, Want You Gone combines Brookmyre’s best loved character with a new partner to create a racy and compelling must-read thriller.

Want You Gone was published by Little Brown UK on 20th April 2017

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A Little Death by A.J. Cross

Dr Kate Hanson and the Unsolved Crime Unit are facing their most challenging cold case yet: the year-old murder of a female student.

When, a year after she went missing, the body of 19-year-old student Elizabeth Williams is discovered in a field near her college, Dr Kate Hanson and her colleagues are faced with a seemingly impossible challenge. The badly decomposed remains are offering up few clues, and witnesses are proving either unreliable or reluctant to talk at all.

 

With little in the way of forensic evidence, Kate realizes that if she is to have any chance of discovering who killed Elizabeth, she must find out what motivated the killer, the reason behind the murder, the why. To do that, she must look beyond what she and her colleagues are being told by those who knew Elizabeth – and into the twisted psyche of a dangerous murderer: a killer whom Kate suspects is ready to kill again.

A Little Death is the third novel in the series about forensic psychologist Dr Kate Hanson and the Birmingham Unsolved Crime Unit.

 

Elizabeth Williams was 19 when she disappeared. Her decaying body is found a year later, buried in a field. I’m not really sure that this qualifies it as a cold case, but maybe I am just splitting hairs?

It’s not clear why she died, or what the motive was for this killing – but it is later determined that her body had been moved.

This is the third Kate Hanson book which considers in interesting detail the importance of input from this forensic psychologist.

There is a plethora of suspects and those grow ever wider as the case grows with a violent attack on a second woman but then stalls for lack of motive or any clear description of the attacker.

Suspects are questioned and cross questioned time and again, with many unsavoury moments displayed by the suspects, but the lack of concrete evidence leaves the team frustrated and anxious.

Meanwhile, Kate is steeling herself to break some family news to her daughter, Maisie and is set on a course of no romantic entanglements for the foreseeable – a step she thinks will help to keep her emotionally safe.

This is a pretty straightforward police procedural, peppered with red herrings to keep you guessing and with a motive that is not uncovered until near the end of the book.

It is an enjoyable read and certainly feels strongly that it is an authentic police procedural , though it slightly dips in the middle.

A Little Death is published by Severn House on 1st May 2017

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The Killer on the Wall by Emma Kavanagh

The first body comes as a shock

The second brings horror

The third signals the beginning of a nightmare

When fifteen-year-old Isla Bell finds three bodies propped against Hadrian’s Wall, her whole world falls apart. In such a close-knit community, everyone knows the victims, and the man who did it.

Twenty years on and Isla has dedicated her life to forensic psychology; studying the brains of serial killers, and even coming face to face with the convicted murderer who turned her world upside down. She is safe after all, with him behind bars.

Then another body appears against the Wall.

And another.

As the nightmare returns and the body count rises, everyone in town is a suspect.

Who is the Killer on the Wall?

I thought this was a great book. Set in the small rural village of Briganton, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and 20 years after you have moved into the village, you are still an incomer. The backdrop is Hadrian’s Wall – a lasting reminder of Northumberland’s tempestuous and rich history.

Set against this unspoilt wilderness and the moor where you can walk for miles without seeing a soul, the tranquility of this beautiful countryside is abruptly ruptured.

‘It began with the bodies….’ – such a great opening line. Isla Bell’s life was shaped the day that, aged 15, she discovered three bodies artfully posed against the wall. Running home for her dear life, she chants to herself that her father can fix this; he can handle the death and devastation that this event will wreak on the small village community.

20 years and 6 dead bodies later, Isla is working as a forensic psychologist, spending her days studying brains and mapping in particular the brains of psychopaths. Driven by the need to understand what makes a psychopath and why they kill. One in particular has a special significance for Isla and she is drawn to interrogate his brain more closely than any of the others

Her father, Eric Bell, is basking in the glory of having captured the serial killer, Heath McGowan and has been cock of the walk in the village and surrounding area since then.

Then out of the blue, the killings start again. Posed in the same way; carrying every sign of the first series, police are baffled as to whether this is a copycat or was there an accomplice who was never found?

As the body count rises, and police struggle to work out whether there is a connection between any of the victims, Briganton again is under the shadow of a merciless serial killer.

This is Emma Kavanagh at her best. The writing is richly atmospheric, the tension is palpable and the characterisation excellent. With such a small cast of characters, there are sufficient red herrings to keep you guessing, but even if you do spot the perpetrator, the quality of the tension that Kavanagh creates, alongside the taut prose and excellent plotting, create a book that is highly enjoyable and not a little scary.

Thoroughly recommended.

 

The Killer on the Wall is published by Arrow on April 20th 2017

The Killer on the Wall

Jo Nesbø at Aye Write

I was thrilled when I heard that Jo Nesbø would be doing an author chat under the Aye Write banner. Jo Nesbø is a bestselling Norwegian author and musician. He was born in Oslo and grew up in Molde. Nesbø is primarily famous for his crime novels about Detective Harry Hole, but he is also the main vocals and songwriter for the Norwegian rock band Di Derre. In 2007 Nesbø also released his first children’s book.

Even better, it turned out that he was going to be interviewed by Denise Mina, author of The Long Drop, an outstanding read and a very strong contender for my book of the year.

I was introduced to Jo Nesbø by my sister, an excellent judge of good writing and have been addicted to the Harry Hole books ever since.  The Thirst appears as a Harry Hole book after a 4 year drought.

The Thirst continues the story of Police, Harry Hole’s last outing in 2013, which saw the maverick cop protecting those closest to him from a killer wreaking revenge on the police. The Thirst sees Harry drawn back to the Oslo police force when a serial killer begins targeting Tinder daters with a signature killing method that leads Harry on the hunt of a nemesis from his past. It is the eleventh Harry Hole book in the series.

Denise began by asking Jo if Harry Hole is addicted to misery. This made Jo laugh. He said that while not necessarily addicted to misery, Harry is certainly a man who seeks out the blues. Like Nesbo himself, he seeks out danger and is drawn to sadness.

Why the long break between Hole novels? Simply because although Jo had had lots of ideas for stories, they were simply not cases for Harry, just other stories that have to be written.

Sometimes ideas just come to him – he told a story about some colleagues asking him to suggest a title for a film they were making. He thought about it and suggested The Snowman. Yes, they said, it is a good title, but there is no snowman in the film. Well, said Jo, perhaps there should be. And from that title alone, Jo went on to write the novel, The Snowman.

One book, The Devil’s Star, was written after he bought a new waterbed to aid some problems he was having with his back in the late 90’s. He failed to put enough chlorine in it to kill all the potential bacteria and his bed started to make noises. As it did so, he started to think about what could be in there and that was enough to spur him into writing that crime novel.

He is driven by ideas – he says they are his boss and he has to stay true to them. He feels he has no choice, he has to write inspired by his ideas; these are stories that he has to get out.

Jo talked a bit about coming from a family where stories were told all the time – usually stories from memories of things that had happened and which were re-told every time they met as a family. Listening to these stories, he realised that they were told slightly differently each time, with a new detail, or something he had not heard before, which was when he realised that it isn’t about the punchline, it’s about how you get there.

He said that writing lyrics for his band was probably the best training he could have to be a novelist. When you write, he says, you have to trust the reader to fill in the blanks, to make the chain connection after the writer has pointed you in the right direction. He talked about the relationship between the writer and the reader being like a dance – the writer has to offer the reader a fair chance to work out where the writer is trying to go – almost a social etiquette.

He told other great stories in response to audience questions. The one I liked best was when he described his attic room. He has a custom designed desk, a state of the art coffee machine, a great view of Oslo and his music all set up. And it’s the one place he just can’t write! So he takes his laptop to a nearby coffee shop and bags a comfy seat, then plugs in his earphones and writes away.  That’s a story that I’m sure will resonate with loads of writers.

He talked a bit about his re-working of the Macbeth story for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, with Macbeth as a young policeman and Lady Macbeth as a cougar running the local casino. She wants to become respectable, hence she is driving Macbeth to greater ambition.

It was a fascinating evening, very well conducted by Denise Mina, and a rare privilege to hear directly from a master of the genre.

The Thirst is published by Harvill Secker on 20th April 2017

The Thirst

He Said, She Said by Erin Kelly

In the hushed aftermath of a total eclipse, Laura witnesses a brutal attack.

She and her boyfriend Kit call the police, and in that moment, four lives change forever.

Fifteen years on, Laura and Kit live in fear.

And while Laura knows she was right to speak out, she also knows that you can never see the whole picture: something is always hidden… something she never could have guessed.

This book is certainly highly charged and very tense in parts. With a dual timeline alternating between events which start in 1999 and the present day, the book’s narrators are Kit and Laura, two young lovers who are pretty much soul mates from the first time they meet and decide to make their lives together.

Kit is an academic young man, a scientist who is fascinated by solar eclipses and who will travel the world to get the best study vantage point for them. Kit and Laura travel to the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall. They are at a hippy festival where there is to be an eclipse. Kit and his twin Mac, a wayward but attractive young man, have set up a drinks stall at the festival to help them pay their way.

What happened during the festival when they come across Beth and Jamie will set off a chain of events that will follow them through their lives for the next 20 years.

Erin Kelly weaves a beguiling story, shot through with tension and highly charged emotions. She shows how the best of intentions can lead to lies that will impact on those closest to those who tell them and alter the course of their lives forever.

The book is suffused with twists and turns, leading the reader to wonder who can be relied upon for the truth, until it becomes clear that each of the four protagonists has something to hide.

Kelly has produced a deeply thought provoking book which tackles a difficult subject and raises quite a few important questions about the way in which rape is treated in our courts and how and whether the victim is believed. It also creates some very tense moments as Laura worries about what is happening in court while she waits to give her evidence.

But this is not just a book about a rape trial; rather it looks at the consequences of relationships in which everyone is being less than honest and how small lies can produce far bigger consequences than those intended.

Kelly unfolds the truth behind her characters as the darkness that they have created slowly enfolds them until they live in fear and are compelled to hide from the world, erasing their identities lest they be discovered.

This is a powerful psychological thriller that will stay with me for quite some time to come.

He Said, She Said is published by Hodder and Stoughton on 20th April 2017

He Said, She Said by Erin Kelly

Perfect Remains by Helen Fields

On a remote Highland mountain, the body of Elaine Buxton is burning. All that will be left to identify the respected lawyer are her teeth and a fragment of clothing.

In the concealed back room of a house in Edinburgh, the real Elaine Buxton screams into the darkness.

Detective Inspector Luc Callanach has barely set foot in his new office when Elaine’s missing persons case is escalated to a murder investigation. Having left behind a promising career at Interpol, he’s eager to prove himself to his new team. But Edinburgh, he discovers, is a long way from Lyon, and Elaine’s killer has covered his tracks with meticulous care.

It’s not long before another successful woman is abducted from her doorstep, and Callanach finds himself in a race against the clock. Or so he believes … The real fate of the women will prove more twisted than he could have ever imagined.

 

I knew, just from listening to Helen Fields, where she was at Aye Write with Daniel Cole and Chris Brookmyre that I was going to love her books. Readers of this blog will know that I am partial to an especially grizzly serial killer, and here Helen Fields has delivered in spades.

It was a real pleasure to be introduced to D.I. Luc Callanach, Police Scotland’s newest D.I. who has come to Edinburgh straight from Interpol and a bit of a troubled past.

It is not long before he is hurled into his first murder inquiry– to be quickly followed by another missing person where the MO seems to be very similar.

What’s especially interesting about this book (apart from a dark, sexy, troubled Frenchman) is that the reader knows from the beginning who the killer is, how he is doing what he does and why he is so far getting away with it.

This book turns investigation on its head as we have all the answers and we are judging Luc and his colleagues on the strength of their investigative techniques and their ability to follow through on the smallest of clues.

No gory details are missed here in spelling out the killer’s methodology, so this one is not for the faint of heart, but I did like the strength of the women in this book, from Ava, his fellow and extremely capable D.I., to the women whom the killer seeks out.

Very well plotted, with good multiple storylines, this was an addictive book that I read from start to finish over 2 days, it was so compelling.

I understand there’s a second book due out in July – I’m off to sign up for it now.

 

Perfect Remains was published by Avon on 26 January 2017 (and is on kindle today for only 99p)

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