The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Crime , Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/04/2017

Right from the prologue, Amy Engel’s first novel for adults announces itself as, well, a novel for adults. A young girl has a dream about the place in Kansas that her mother came from. Was it a nightmare? Her mother asks. No, she replies. Then it isn’t right, her mother says. And as the story of Lane, her mother and her mother’s extended family unfolds, as a reader, you can not help feeling that her mother knew what she was talking about. Lane is fifteen when her mother commits suicide and she is taken to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra on the family estate called Roanoke in rural Kansas. For reasons that become abundantly clear fairly early on, Lane ended up running away but is drawn back, eleven years later when Allegra disappears. The story alternates between that long ago summer and the present, building to some explosive revelations along the way. Lane is one of the latest in a line of Roanoke girls, including her mother, aunt and great aunt  who either died or ran away from the place. So that Allegra’s disappearance should not come as a great surprise. That Lane and Allegra are both damaged…

Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit
Crime , Review , Thriller / 24/03/2017

In his first novel to be translated into English, German journalist Dirk Kurbjuweit delivers an urban thriller and ethical minefield. The novel, based partly on personal experience, asks how far a person might go to protect their family. And more importantly, how much does society, history and culture inform that reaction. Fear starts with a quick bait and switch. Randolph is visiting his elderly father in what could be an old age home but turns out to be a prison. Randolph’s father is serving time for the manslaughter of Randolph’s neighbour Dieter Tiberius. The narrative is Randolph’s reflection of how his family has come to this point and how, bit by bit, they were driven from civilization to barbarism. Randolph, an architect, has moved with his wife and two children into a block of flats in Berlin. Soon they have attracted the attention of the neighbour who lives in their basement. What begins innocently quickly gets out of control when Dieter starts writing suggestive poems to Randolph’s wife and then publicly accusing the couple of child abuse. They quickly find that there is little the social or legal systems that they rely on can do to help them manage the…

The Nowhere Man by Gregg Hurwitz
Review , Thriller / 13/03/2017

The world seems to be full of highly trained, disaffected, black ops, renegade loners who are trying to do good deeds while being hunted down by their government. Last year, Orphan X, also known as Evan Smoak, joined the ranks of the likes of Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher as the latest highly skilled loner on the block. But there is no need to have read Orphan X to get right into this novel as Gregg Hurwitz covers all of the necessary detail in one paragraph: “…the Orphan Program, a deep-black project buried inside the Department of Defense. It had identified the right kind of boys [and as it turns out, girls] lost in the system of foster homes, covertly culled them one by one, and trained them to do what the US government could not officially do in places where it could not officially be. A fully deniable, antiseptic program run off a shadow budget.” When the book opens Smoak has turned his back on the Program and has taken his budget and skills to the street. He is “The Nowhere Man” and will help people in trouble, asking in return only that they pass on his phone number when…

Storm and Grace by Kathryn Heyman
Literature , Review , Thriller / 06/03/2017

Kathryn Heyman never hides the fact that Storm and Grace is a tragedy. From the opening pages she manages to instill a feeling of dread. And if the text is not hint enough, a literal Greek chorus – “We are here. We will not leave.” – who reappear at times through the narrative should be another tip off. Grace, a young woman studying for a marine science degree is swept off her feet by “The Deepest Man in the World”. She is sent to interview world famous free diver Storm Hisray, for a diving magazine and the sparks fly from the first meeting. Storm is a charismatic force and before long he has convinced Grace to abandon her life in Sydney and come to live with him and his crew on a Pacific Island, supporting his attempt to break another world record for freediving. Not long after that Storm starts training her to become a freediver herself, using her desire to be close to him in order to challenge another female freediver. From Grace’s perspective, her story has all the hallmarks of a romance novel. She finds herself, falling into the role of the heroine of her own story, encouraged…

Marshall’s Law by Ben Sanders
Crime , Review , Thriller / 09/02/2017

Ben Sanders is a New Zealander but you would not know it from his all American gun-fest that is the Marshall Grade series. These books steeped in the American super hard-boiled tradition, usually anchored by a violently proficient loner, popularised by authors like Lee Child. Marshall’s Law opens months after the events in American Blood. There is still a contract out on Marshall, Sander’s Jack Reacher style loner and former cop who went into witness protection after an undercover operation gone wrong. Unable to find him, they go after his US Marshal contact Lucas Cohen in Santa Fe. Cohen survives a kidnapping attempt and alerts Marshall who then leaves his hiding spot in LA to travel to the East Coast to try and get some information. For no real reason, Cohen also heads to New York with a view to helping Marshall out. Meanwhile, a violent crime boss called Dexter Vine is looking to capture or kill Marshall for the bounty which he needs to pay off debts to a bigger crime boss. Much of the narrative focusses on the cat and mouse games between Vine’s goons and Marshall with Cohen providing some related back-up as he puts things together….

Kill The Next One by Frederico Axat
Crime , Review , Thriller / 03/02/2017

Kill the Next One, Argentinean author Frederico Axat’s first novel translated into English literally has a killer premise. Ted McKay has put a gun to his own head, prepared to commit suicide when there is a knock at the door. A stranger enters and offers him a deal – to become part of a club where he kills someone who deserves to die and then kills someone who themselves is looking to commit suicide. He will then be killed in turn by an anonymous stranger, saving his family the torment of dealing with a suicide. This premise is just the start of a twisty turny psychological thriller.  Every fifty pages or so Axat overturns the previous section and delves deeper into the mind and history of Ted McKay. Because of this structure it is hard to get a handle on the character.  The book depends on constantly wrong footing the reader and confounding expectations. Kill the Next One is a strange proposition. It is, in the end, an onion-like puzzle built around a bizarre history and mental illness so that it is difficult to talk about any more of the plot without heading into spoiler territory. Axat successfully shifts tonally from…

The Girl Before by JP Delaney
Review , Thriller / 01/02/2017

It might be a little artificial to identify a sub-genre just from book titles. But with the success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, there is definitely a trend emerging for domestic thrillers with the word “Girl” in the title. The presence of the word in the title does not denote the often cosy romantic worlds of chick-lit but a harsher, page turning reality. They are usually narrated (at least partially) by a woman (or the ‘Girl’ of the title), that narration is often suspect to the point of being completely unreliable, and there are violent or abusive men but it is often hard to tell who is the manipulator and who is the manipulated. Part of the pleasure of these thrillers is the constantly shifting power dynamics (even if the nature of the narrative is often that it is only the reader’s perception of these dynamics that is actually shifting). Into this mix comes a potentially big novel for 2017 – The Girl Before. The Girl Before ticks all of the Girl book boxes in spades. It has two unreliable female narrators, a supporting cast of abusive and potentially violent men and plenty of domestic thrills….

Conclave by Robert Harris
Review , Thriller / 26/10/2016

Robert Harris seems to be on a mission to prove that you can find drama anywhere. Or at least, to demonstrate his ability to bring inherently dramatic situations more vividly to life. One of his early works, Enigma, injected additional drama into the already fraught industry of breaking of Nazi codes during World War 2. In his trilogy focussing on Cicero he drew out the political parallels of ancient Rome and the present day. And in An Officer and a Spy (reviewed here) he created a spy novel and legal thriller around one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the 19th Century. In Conclave, Harris turns his attention to the arcane practices surrounding the election of a new pope. And in his hands it turns out to be both as fascinating and as deeply human as all of his previous books. The reader’s guide through Conclave is Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals. It falls on Lomeli to organise and run the election of the new Pope when the previous Pope dies. This involves gathering over one hundred cardinals from around the world and sequestering them in the Vatican, away from the eyes of the world, until they…

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
Crime , Review , Thriller / 14/10/2016

Under the Harrow is a short sharp psychological thriller in which a woman investigates the murder of her sister and in doing so needs to confront the secrets of their shared past. The book practically opens with Nora finding the bodies of her sister Rachel and her dog brutally murdered in their house in a small village outside of Oxford. Not able to fully trust the police, Nora decides to stay in town and try and uncover the murderer herself. There are secrets in the sisters’ shared past. Rachel was beaten by a stranger on her way home from a party when they were in their teens. When no assailant was found the two girls kept watch over all similar assaults and haunted the courts of North Yorkshire, trying to identify the assailant. Despite Nora warning her off, it seems that many years later Rachel was not only still looking but also living in fear that the man will return. Nora at first comes across as one of the many cut-out domestic thriller protagonists currently appearing across crime fiction. She has issues with alcohol and finds herself losing her identity as she immerses herself in her sister’s world. But she…

Devour by LA Larkin
Review , Thriller / 15/08/2016

L.A. Larkin’s third thriller takes readers back to Antarctica, the setting of her last novel Thirst, but with a new cast of characters and a new global threat. But Devour doesn’t get to Antarctica straight away. Larkin opens in Afghanistan where investigative journalist Olivia Wolfe is tracking down information about a terrorist cell. So while there is a lengthy detour to Antarctica to set up the action this is a globe-trotting thriller that also manages to take in both the United Kingdom and United States. Wolfe is sent to Antarctica by her editor after a disastrous mission in Afghanistan to both give her some distance (literally) and to explore some strange goings on at a British research base. The researchers are using some new technology to drill down to a previously untouched lake that lies under three kilometers of ice. The British mission is also a race against time as a group of Russian researchers are trying to achieve the same objective. But a series of accidents, including the death of one of the team, has given rise to suspicions of a traitor in their midst. Under the guise of a journalistic piece Olivia flies in to investigate. But there…

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Literature , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 27/07/2016

Noah Hawley has written a number of novels but is probably best known as the writer of the television reimagining of Fargo. While Fargo lives in the American mid-west, in Before the Fall, Hawley is mainly concentrated on the East Coast, the lives of the mega-wealthy and the people with whom they come into contact. But Before the Fall is many things – a mystery and a thriller, a meditation on fate and a critique of modern media. Before the Fall opens with a plane crash. David Bateman, head of a FOX-like 24-hour news and opinion network is flying his family home from a holiday in Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet. Also on board are his personal security guard, another wealthy couple and a struggling artist, Scott Burroughs, who has been offered a lift to New York by David’s wife Maggie. Eighteen minutes later and only Scott and the Bateman’s four year old son JJ are alive, adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. The thriller element comes as Hawley explores the aftermath of the crash. Scott, who manages to rescue both himself and JJ, is caught up in a media and legal storm as people search for answers. And when those…

The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller
Historical , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 01/07/2016

There have been plenty of thrillers in recent years that use the conflicts in the Middle East as a setting and jumping off point. And for thriller authors there is plenty of material to draw on: a volatile situation, plenty of excuse for violence and action and often a grey moral zone in which characters operate. The Girl in Green at first blush, seems like one of these. But while it cloaks itself in the trappings of a thriller, author Derek B. Miller has serious concerns. The Girl in Green opens in Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. An American company is set up at Checkpoint Zulu, on the outskirts of an Iraqi town and close to the Kuwaiti border. When Saddam’s death squads arrive to slaughter the inhabitants of the nearby town in order to quell a nascent uprising, the troops are ordered not to interfere. This approach, and its consequences, will haunt two men, one a young soldier, Arwood Hobbes, and the other an English journalist, Thomas Benton, so that over twenty years later they are still trying to make amends. The bulk of the novel is set in…

The Plea by Steve Cavanagh
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 06/06/2016

Eddie Flynn, Steve Cavanagh’s conman turned lawyer, burst onto the legal thriller scene in the stunning 2015 debut The Defence (reviewed here). That book was a Hustle meets Die Hard meets The Practice thrill ride involving the Russian Mafia, an unwinnable court case and, literally, a ticking bomb. Flynn returns in a sequel which is, if anything, more convoluted, more suspenseful and, importantly, just as much fun. The setup for The Plea is anything but simple. Suffice to say it involves, in no particular order: the CIA, the FBI, a crooked money-laundering law firm, blackmail, drug cartels, an internet billionaire, a publicity seeking District Attorney and, if that was not quite enough, another seemingly unwinnable court case involving a classic locked room murder mystery. As with The Defence, the clock is ticking and Flynn has skin in the game, in this case the potential of his wife going to jail if he fails. The Plea opens with a teaser involving guns and bodies and then flashes back to forty eight hours before to chart how Flynn got there. Various chapter headings then remind the reader how close they are getting to that opening shooting. Eddie Flynn is, as previously, the best…

A Dying Breed by Peter Hanington
Review , Thriller / 29/04/2016

A Dying Breed is an intelligent thriller set in present day Afghanistan. By focussing on journalists and their work it avoids a lot of the guns and gunplay aspects of many thrillers set in this part of the world. And informed by Peter Hanington’s many years as a foreign correspondent, there is an air of veracity around the characters and their interactions. The plot of A Dying Breed runs along some fairly well-worn lines. The killing of an Afghan politician is picked up as a story by William Carver, an on-the-skids journalist. While it appears the killing was the work of the Taliban, some irregularities and the appearance of some shady military characters point to what could be a much bigger and more complex story. But when Carver starts to dig, the British apparatus of State turns its attention to preventing his further investigation. There are a number of aspects of this novel that sets it above the fray. The first is the characters. William Carver is irascible, heavy drinking and unlikeable, still carrying some guilt about his role in boosting the Iraq war and impossible to deal with. But while it first appears that he will be the centre…

The Travelers by Chris Pavone
Review , Thriller / 21/04/2016

Much like its titular magazine, The Travelers is a whirlwind journey that takes readers to some of the world’s most desirable places. For starters – America, France, Argentina, England and Iceland. But for all of the glamour, fine wine and food, these places just provide the backdrop on an engaging, twisted and compulsive thriller. Will Rhodes is a writer for Travelers magazine. His job is to fly around the world to places that his readers would like to go, take photos, eat good food, drink expensive wines and attend A-list parties. This not only keeps the readers and advertisers happy but supports Travelers’ side business as an exclusive travel bureau to the rich. But right from the cold open, Will is in trouble and the first part of the story just highlights how deep that trouble is. Soon he finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues and becoming involved in clandestine operations which seek to use his real work as cover for espionage. Will is a likeable hero – he is no James Bond but is just resourceful enough to feel like a real person trying to work his way out of trouble. Chris Pavone puts a lot…

The Trap by Melanie Raabe
Crime , Review , Thriller / 30/03/2016

Good thrillers often stand or fall by their initial concept. Think the missing wife and the diary of Gone Girl. Or the woman with amnesia and a journal in Before I Go To Sleep. A simple, possibly plausible, plot driver that is able to twist and flex as the circumstances change. In The Trap, that concept is the reclusive novelist, seeking revenge for the murder of her sister eleven years before.Because she cannot bring herself to leave her house, Linda addresses the issue of drawing out the man she believes responsible for her sister’s murder in the only way she knows how – she writes a book about it. To say too much about the plot of this short, muscular thriller would be to step well into spoiler territory. But the setup has Linda believing that it is a television journalist she saw on the night of her sister’s death and uses the offer of an interview to lure him into a situation in which she can question him. Sections from Linda’s novel pepper the narrative, giving a fictionalised version of the events surrounding her sister’s murder. Raabe uses two layers of unreliable narration to keep everything out of kilter….

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

A long line of science fiction classics, including Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Arthur C Clark’s Moondust, through to more modern writers like Ben Bova (Moonrise and Moonwar) have focussed on life on a settled or developed Moon.  In Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald brings his hardscrabble, developing-world sci-fi sensibility to the Moon to dazzling effect. As could be expected after books like River of Gods and Brasyl, McDonald’s Luna (as Heinlein also styled it) is no westernised utopia, but rather a heady mix of Asian, European, Caribbean and African influences. Luna has been corporatised and is a major source of raw materials for Earth. It is a highly stratified and monetised society, where even the air you breathe must be paid for and the dead are recycled for the benefit of the living. Under the rule of the Lunar Development Corporation sit five families, the Five Dragons, each responsible for a different aspect of Lunar profit. McDonald’s story focusses mainly on the Brazilian Corta family, the upstart fifth dragon, whose Helium3 operations keep Earth’s lights on. The Corta matriarch has political issues not only within her own family but with her rivals, particularly the Australian Mackenzie…