Category Archives: thriller

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

It seems that almost every modern day US based book  and TV programme or film I watch at the moment is speaking to me about Trump’s America, and BEFORE THE FALL is no exception, featuring as it does a news channel established to make news rather than report it and an outspoken host Bill Milligan that specialises in fake news and in telling us “what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out in life was not that we were losers but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours”.

The book opens with a private jet crashing into the sea a few miles from Martha’s Vineyard. On board were media mogul and David Bateman, his wife Maggie and their 2 children, his security detail, a small crew,  a Wall Street financier, Ben Kipling, and his wife,  and a painter, Scott Burroughs, who Maggie knows from the farmers market.  Only Scott and the Bateman’s 4 year old son JJ survive, thanks to a daring rescue which sees Scott heroically swim for several hours to shore, JJ in tow.

From this action packed start, the novel evolves into something much subtler than the thriller I first expected. It alternates between looking forward and the aftermath of the crash, and looking back at the every day and not so every day events that preceded each passenger stepping on board the plane. Driving everything is the the unresolved question of whether the crash was an accident or not, as investigators hunt for the bodies and wreckage to try to piece together what happened. What they’ll never discover is the same level of privileged access into each individual’s state of mind that Hawley allows his readers, yet this knowledge doesn’t give us any extra insight into what caused the crash – that happens in real time as the investigating team firstly see the wreck though camera’s strapped to divers’ helmets, then study the readings from the black box, and finally hear a voice recording of the co-pilot as the plane goes down. The penny drops for everyone simultaneously.

Who knows what and how is a recurrent theme of the book, with Milligan hacking Scott’s phone and using his TV show to reveal all kinds of “secrets”. Its runs parallel with another theme about watching and being watched, with Hawley posing a series of questions about the relationship between camera and individual, how we are affected by it and what  it looks like when the media crosses a line and reporting becomes intrusion. “Does the television exist for us to watch…or do we exist to watch television?” His treatment of corporate America and the wealthy that inhabit it is scathing. Some of the most memorable scenes are those involving Kipling’s aggressive lawyer, the saddest those in which JJ’s aunt comes to terms with the greedy entitlement of her waster husband’s response to  the boy’s inheritance.

BEFORE THE FALL is a smart and insightful book that is a particular kind of success because it captures the space between the selves we choose to project, the ones we seek to define – “the unemployed mother of a toddler or, more precisely, the pampered wife of a millionaire” is Maggie’s variation  – and the ones our actions may or may not reveal. Family features strongly, as does the idea of life as one long lesson, that sometimes “the only way to learn not to play with fire is to go up in flames”. And as Hawley  explores both what constitutes the truth and what makes someone a survivor, I really like that in a messy, morally challenged world he grants his characters control of these very simple things.  It’s this that raises a cracking good story to another level and what kept me turning page after page long after I should have been asleep. It’s this that I want to hear about Trump’s America.

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FOOL ME ONCE by Harlan Coben

fool me once by harlan coben

Sometimes I need books like this – addictive, straight forward and a bit dark. For times when escapism comes a little less easily because I am travelling or my mind is buzzing or the world is weighing heavily. I picked this up because all of those things were going on. It is got me through some restless nights, tough days and long train journeys. It is a ridiculous story about a former special-ops soldier, Maya Stern, who has just buried her husband and then sees him on the “nanny cam”. Cue sinister wealthy in laws, army flashbacks, improbable connections to the death of Maya’s sister, an Edward Snowden type character and suspiciously loyal best friends. Harlan Coben is a master of this stuff and I loved and lived every moment of it. Job done.

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CRASH LAND by Doug Johnstone

crash-land-by-doug-johnstone

There’s been a BBC series I enjoyed recently called Shetland and this book’s only saving grace was that I could picture events happening in the beautiful location I’d seen on the TV (and that was stretching it a bit to be honest, as the book is set in Orkney but you get the idea…)

Finn is an art student that gets chatting to a glamorous older woman as they both wait for the delayed last flight off the island before Christmas. He’s been visiting his grandmother and is headed home to Dundee and his girlfriend, Amy. The temptress at the airport is called Maddie and, as their half empty flight eventually takes off, she’s being hassled by one of the other passengers, an oil worker. Finn goes her to defence, starts a fight, and it all ends in the plane crashing. Maddie walks away unharmed and disappears, only to later make contact with a badly injured, deeply ashamed Finn, who is tormented by the loss of life he has caused. Turns out Maddie has a big bag full of bank notes and an abusive husband. The husband later turns up dead. Despite his instincts telling him to stay well clear, Finn is besotted by Maddie and helps her escape the island, embroiling his grandmother and girlfriend in the increasingly messy events surrounding the crash.

The opening premise of CRASH LAND seemed like a good one but things went rapidly downhill from thereon in, and most of the time I was mentally berating most of the characters in the book for their stupid decisions. The scenes in which Finn consults the skulls at the island’s Tomb of the Eagles are more comedic than atmospheric, and whilst I did keep turning the pages, it was more out of incredulity than anything else. Utterly ridiculous, unconvincing and infuriating.

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THE POWER by Naomi Alderman

the-power-by-naomi-alderman

I was in Wales for a few days over New Year and over a lovely relaxed evening meal was trying to explain to someone I was only meeting for the second time just why I loved this book – and I think I came across as rather blood thirsty and vengeful! It’s about a future reality in which the vast majority of women have developed the ability to inflict enormous amounts of pain on others by way of electric shocks delivered through their fingers – and about the anthropological impact of possessing such physical power. I loved it.

The story is about a period of immense change known as the Cataclysm and during which women’s physical power was awoken. A period of time some 5000 years or so prior to when the book is being written and which roughly equates to the early 21st century – or so we deduce thanks to the appearance of an i-pad, which that far in the future is judged to be some kind of plate like implement thanks to the apple motif.  Four different narrators are our main protagonists: Allie, abused by her foster carers as a young girl and who reinvents herself as Mother Eve. Roxy, daughter of a crime boss who sees her mother murdered and fights back, as well as her way into the top echelons of her father’s business.  Margot, an ambitious politician whose daughter doesn’t have the same levels of power as other women (and in whose narrative we get the prescience of a shock US election result courtesy of an electorate choosing lies, immorality and strength over reasoned discourse and calm authority ). And Tunde, the only man and a Nigerian journalist who documents the riots, wars and upheaval caused as different parts of the world adapt to or resist a new reality. These sections are book ended by an exchange of correspondence between the author and a colleague, sharing feedback, reflecting on the recent discovery of historical artefacts, theorising about what life was like before the Cataclysm, and discussing how their work will sit in the political and social context of the day. Alderman’s final line is a smart, sad, laugh out loud, killer than I am smiling wryly just thinking about. It’s worth reading the entire book just for that pleasure.

Let me clarify here and now what I failed to get across during my new year dinner table conversation – the reason I loved THE POWER is because I don’t want one gender to systematically humiliate, oppress, threaten, undermine, rape, abuse and  kill another, and by turning the tables so comprehensively, Naomi Alderman has laid bare the everyday reality we currently inhabit and which is just as shocking as her fictional one. In some countries post Cataclysm men are denied the right to drive and even have their genitals mutilated. Such parallels are obvious but many other extremes of this fictional dystopia are so entrenched that it would be easy to overlook the extent to which they are a powerful part of the present. In a lesser writers’ hands, the point might have been laboured a little too hard but, with a few notable exceptions and mainly in Tunde’s parts of the narrative, Alderman doesn’t do this and her restraint makes THE POWER all the more impressive.

The novel tackles religion, politics, personal relationships. It explores how girls learn to control their power and the alienation felt by those who don’t have it. It doesn’t describe or judge women based on their looks but on what they do, say and think, though Tunde is sexually objectified on a number of occasions. It examines when girls become women, how written and oral stories shape our understanding of history and herstory, whether the ability to inflict pain causes more damage to the wielder or the victim, whether matriarchal societies are kinder than patriarchal ones, the link between violence and power, and whether certain power structures, belief systems and hierarchies are likely to emerge because we are all alike or because of our differences. We get cults, conspiracy theories galore, corruption and control via opiates. In other words, Alderman’s not afraid to take on a lot and mostly she does so with skill and humour. The characters are  a little more two dimensional than I’d have liked but I can forgive this because the whole is so brilliant – energetic, angry and clever. This is how I like my sci-fi and, whilst THE POWER has just sneaked in at the end of 2016, I think it may just be one of my favourite books of the year.

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THE SILENT DEAD by Tetsuya Honda

the-silent-dead-by-tetsuya-honda

On lots of levels this is like many other great police detective novels – gripping, lots of twists and perfect for curling up with on the sofa as summer rapidly turns to autumn. What’s different is that it has a woman as the main protagonist and it’s set in Japan.  Reiko is one of the youngest lieutenants in the Tokyo police force, an achievement that, along with her gender, means she has to work hard to justify her position to some of her more traditional colleagues. Competitive and driven, she relies on  strong instincts and a loyal team to connect a body dumped in a hedge, with the death of a young man from a rare water borne virus, and a secretive entertainment phenomenon called Strawberry Nights.

It’s a book very typical of the police and crime genre, and follows tried and tested formula to great effect. There’s some nice touches, such as occasional asides from different characters that reveal their unspoken thoughts, and Honda’s clearly done her research when it comes to forensics and firearms. The Tokyo setting means all sorts of cultural factors are at play that I don’t normally come across whilst reading this kind of fiction and this makes some aspects difficult to penetrate. But Reiko’s parents’ quest to marry her off, through to the various interactions she has with her exclusively male colleagues, are more than cultural phenomenon –  this is undeniably a book  about being a woman in Japan and in aggressively male and deeply sexist environment to boot.

Reiko’s nemesis is the misogynistic Katsumata, who bullies, bribes and bluffs his way through the murder investigation, and triggers extreme reactions in Reiko. We soon find out why, as her motivation for joining the police is revealed and, with it, the knowledge that Katsumata bears a striking resemblance to the man who sexually attacked Reiko when she was a young woman.   The account of the court room attack launched by her rapists’ defence lawyer is depressingly familiar, yet her fight back has the police spectators in the gallery on their feet, saluting her honesty and courage: “Submitting is not the same thing as consenting.” Presumably some of these same individuals are responsible for the daily sexual harassment Reiko encounters in her workplace and Honda’s novel raises some challenging questions about prevailing attitudes towards women in a society that I know too little about to judge as accurate or not. However, in a week when the news headlines are full of US Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, and his hateful objectification of women, the universality of the issues being raised is undeniable.

A complex central character battling to exert some kind of control over both history and the way it shapes the present is not unusual in good crime fiction, especially of the psychological kind, but Reiko’s gender and Honda’s willingness to confront gendered violence – and the myriad ways it’s manifested – elevates THE SILENT DEAD into a real stand out book.  It’s evident in her treatment of other characters too, most notably one of the killers Reiko is hunting and who fights back against years of sexual abuse in the only way she can grasp. The first of a series, it remains to be seen how much this attitude carries forward into the other books, but the ground work has been laid so painstakingly that I suspect what comes next will be just as impressive and challenging.

 

 

 

 

 

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VALENTINA by SE Lynes

valentina by se lynes

Shona has a new baby, a doting boyfriend who works on the oil rigs, a dream cottage in the outskirts of Aberdeen and a fun, irreverent best friend called Valentina. But one day she finds out Valentina is not who she thinks she is – and nor is anything else.

Perfect beach reading, this is a page turner that reeled me in from the outset and kept me hooked until the final word. It’s sassy and clever, though not too clever (I worked out pretty early on what was happening), and Shona’s combination of steeliness and vulnerability makes her a great central character.

With elements of Fatal Atraction  – even down to a sacrificial rabbit – and Gone Girl, VALENTINA isn’t exactly original but it is witty, thrilling and atmospheric. For maximum pleasure read with the Aegean Sea lapping at your feet and everyday life a million miles away.

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TRY NOT TO BREATHE by Holly Seddon

try not to breathe by holly seddon

I was seduced once again by the posters at Westminster tube station that screamed about this “breathtaking psychological thriller.” It’s a relatively gripping story, that’s well paced, but on the sublime Greek island of Halki, it’s the turquoise waters and glimpses of perfect blue sky down narrow twisting cobbled streets that are taking my breath away.

The premise is an interesting one – a teenage girl named Amy is in a coma after being attacked some 15 years earlier.  Her story piques the interest of a washed up alcoholic journalist who sees uncovering the truth about what happened as a potential way out of both her personal and professional problems.

In Alex Dale, said journalist, Seddon has created a very likeable protagonist, whose  battle with demons both in a bottle and in the real world is moving and powerful.

Less convincing are the passages devoted to Amy’s perspective and which give us tantalising peeps into the past, as well as the confusion and memory loss of her present mental state.

Seddon would appear to have done her research into the medical likelihood of someone in this state being able to communicate, share information and process what has happened but it didn’t quite ring true, especially as Amy starts to remember the attack she suffered and to differentiate between dreams and reality.
There are some rather clumsy parallels between Alex and Amy, as well as a central theme concerned with parents and their children, but basically this is nothing more that an average thriller that didn’t really thrill.

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