Category Archives: Thrillers

Book Review: City of Masks by S D Sykes

Poor Oswald De Lacy is in a bad way.  He is running from grief in his past and internal mental torment when he finds himself stuck in Venice.  “That doesn’t sound so bad” do I here you say?  But this isn’t Venice of today filled with light, beauty, energy and tourists this is the Venice of deep winter 1358.  The city is under siege due to a conflict with Hungary.  Provisions are running low.  The city has barely begun recovering from the black death.  Suspicion and paranoia rule in the form of the mysterious and autocratic ‘Council of Ten’.  The secret police can seize anyone suspected of spying or immoral behaviour and drag them away for torture and even execution.

He finds himself here after being diverted from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his mother.  They take accommodation in the home of an old family friend, John Bearpark, a rather bad tempered old man who chargers them for their stay and is far from a gracious host.  Along with a couple of odd fellow pilgrims the household is also consists of the Bearpark’s young pregnant wife Filomena (who Oswald finds himself disturbingly drawn to), his hard drinking party loving grandson Enrico and a handful of rude servants.

I suppose the best our Oswald can do is keep his head down and stay quiet until the siege is lifted and he can move on…some hope!  First he is persuaded to join Enrico in his partying and gets mixed up with some rather rough people, gets in trouble with too much gabbling and attracts the unwelcome attention of the Council of Ten.  The last thing he needs is to stumble across a mutilated corpse…but that is what happens.

Compelled to investigate the crime by pressure from his host who wants to avoid potential scandal he embarks on a quest that puts him in danger from every side.  He must seek out a murderer in a city where asking questions can see you accused of spying.  He must explore the underworld of Venice at a time when any moral transgression, or mere suspicion of it, can see you burned at the stake.  A tricky task indeed!

The best thing about this book is the setting.  The dark, spooky canals of medieval Venice help increase the sense of peril.  I also liked an historical book set in an era that has not been overdone, as I sometime feel the Tudor period has.  The characters were also good, I was left wanting to know what happened next to the characters (…those who survived that is!).

It’s a fairly exciting story but I felt the mystery itself was the weakest aspect.  I think the characters and setting would have been even more enjoyable if this hadn’t been a ‘who-done-it’, this aspect felt a bit shoehorned in, I could almost picture the meeting in the publishing house when they decided this had to fit into the crime genre because historical detectives are so popular.  The novel would have worked just as well if it had been the same characters in the same setting experiencing a number of things including murder but without following the formula of a detective character investigating the crime.

4/5

Zoe

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city of masks

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Book Review: Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

bring me backThis is an easy to read fast paced mystery/thriller.

We meet Finn, a 41 year old financial trader who lives with his fiancée near Cheltenham.  12 years earlier Finn experienced an awful tragedy when his much loved girlfriend, Layla, disappeared – assumed kidnapped and murdered – while they were on holiday in France.  After briefly being a suspect Finn was released without charge and has worked hard to rebuild his life and has finally found love again.  But no body was ever found, so closure has not come easily.

His uneasy peace is then blown away.  An old neighbour reports seeing Layla at their old cottage in Devon.  There have been fake sightings before, all turned out to be hoaxes or mistakes, but this is different, the old man knew Layla well plus it coincides with other strange happenings.  Layla always carried the smallest of a Russian doll set as a good luck charm and childhood memento, tiny Russian dolls start appearing on the walls near Finn’s house, they are sent to him in the post and left for him to find in other places he visits.  He also starts receiving emails from a stranger, again this has happened before with trouble makers and attentions seekers claiming to know where his lost girlfriend is, but this stranger seems to know things only he or Layla would know.

Despite this Finn is adamant Layla is dead and it must be a hoax or cruel trick.  But why is he so certain?  Has he been telling the full truth all these years?  Does he know more than he has told the police?  And if so, why did he lie?  What is he hiding?

It’s a great set up to a mystery.  I really enjoyed the early stages and trying to guess the twist I felt was coming (in case you are wondering, I suspected from page 15, convinced by page 136 – well done me!)  One reasons I enjoy mysteries is trying to guess the twist and in my experience guessing it either right or wrong needn’t spoil the rest of the book.  But in this case I do feel the story went downhill a little towards the end.  I liked the idea Paris had but didn’t feel it was perfectly executed and at times the plot veered from ‘crazy but possible’ to far-fetched.

Still a very good read and hard to put down once you have started.  I look forward to reading more from B.A. Paris.

3.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

in a dark dark wood

A very creepy story with lots of great tension!

This is the story of Nora, a twenty something novelist living a rather isolated but fairly contented existence in a studio flat in London.  She has her routines: going for a run, checking her emails, researching and writing her crime novels.  Her life is regular, rather dull, a bit lonely, but OK, until she is shaken from this by a blast from the past!

She receives an unexpected email from Flo, a stranger claiming to be the maid of honour for Nora’s childhood best friend Clare.  She is invited to Clare’s hen do, a weekend in a cottage deep in the Northumberland countryside (in mid-November!).  Her reluctance to accept tells the reader that there is something dark in her past she doesn’t want to confront, she hasn’t been in touch with Clare since she was 16.  Flo manages to guilt trip Nora into making the journey North by claiming Clare really wants her there.

She arrives at the dark lonely cottage along with three strangers and one other girl she knew from school – and no Clare.  The atmosphere isn’t right from the off.  The organiser, Flo, seems weirdly desperate for it to go well and be the perfect hen weekend, everyone else seems reluctant to be there almost as if they all have something to hide…

I won’t tell you more as I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  The best bit of the novel is the building tension, you know something dramatic is going to happen and when it does it doesn’t disappoint!  The only real downside of the novel is that after the big action bit there is a bit of a lull, most readers who have been paying any attention will have worked out the twist by ¾ of the way through (which is good, as a good crime/thriller writer should drop enough clues for the observant reader to work it out) but then it takes soooo long for the characters to catch up that it gets a bit dull towards the end.  Overall though a great thriller.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Break Down by B. A. Paris

This is a great exciting read, hard to put down once you get into it.

The main character is Cass, she is a teacher living with her new husband in rural England.  One night she is driving home from work in a heavy storm after an end of term celebration with colleagues.  Against her husband’s strict advice she takes a short cut down a quiet lonely stretch of road close to her home.  She sees a car parked with a woman in it, she hesitates but doesn’t stop as the woman doesn’t indicate she is in trouble.  Has the woman broken down?  Is she unwell?  Or is she up to no good?!  Cass doesn’t know but is too nervous to stop in case it’s a trick, also it’s late and throwing it down with rain.  She just wants to get home and also feels a little guilty about fibbing to her husband about her route – if she stops and gets involved there’s more chance he might find out she lied to him.  So she goes home to bed.

The next day she is horrified to hear on the news that a young woman has been brutally murdered in the spot where she saw the woman parked.  Now is the moment to come forward and go to the police as a witness and own up to her husband.  But she doesn’t, she is overcome with guilt and shame, wondering if she could have save the woman, so she continues with the lie that she did not take that route home and quickly it feels too late to confess the truth.

After this incident Cass’ life begins to unravel.  The guilt and lies seem to drag her down, she becomes stressed and forgetful and starts to wonder if she is developing the Early Onset Dementia that killed her mother.  Around this time strange things begin to happen – she starts getting silent phone calls and sensing someone is watching her and believes someone has been in her house and moved things around while she has been out.  Is it the killer taunting her because he knows she is a potential witness or is it all part of her mental problems and possibly a serious illness?  We don’t know and nor does Cass!

I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory – so I will stop there with describing the plot.  I hope I have said enough to get you interested as this is certainly worth reading if you want something exciting and mysterious without being too challenging or gory.  This is my kind of thriller.

As to down sides, I did find Cass and her lifestyle a bit dull at times.  She is only in her early 30s but for ‘fun’ all she does is potter in the garden wearing her special gardening shoes, for a treat she might nip into the nearest market town for a coffee or to wander round the shops.  She and her husband are young and well off with a large inheritance from her mother as well as two professional salaries but their lifestyle reminds me of my late grandparents!  (Probably me just being judgemental because I am such a trendy urbanite myself).  With reflection though I think her slightly dull character and lifestyle work for the plot, and they make sense as she was a carer for her sick mother from her teens to around 30 so probably never had chance to develop her own interests or find an circle of exciting, varied friends.  A wild, flamboyant character would probably have felt a bit much with the dramatic plot and Cass is actually a nice source of calm at the centre of things.

Another slight issue I had was that the climax seems to arrive in a bit of a rushed manner…but that is possibly just because I was turning the pages so fast when I was so eager to find out what was going to happen!  Occasionally I also felt the characters behaviour didn’t quite ring true, though this may have been deliberate from the author as we were seeing the plot from Cass’ point of view and a lot of the time she wasn’t thinking clearly and perhaps not reporting things accurately to us the reader.

Highly recommended.  I’m looking forward to reading more from B. A. Paris.

4/5

Zoe

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The Book of You by Claire Kendal

The book of you

This is a really frightening book, I’d say more horror than mystery.  So beware if you are easily frightening and a wimp (like me).  But if you are made of sterner stuff it is a pretty good read.

The main character is Clarissa, a woman definitely down on her luck.  Her husband has left her after years of unsuccessful fertility treatment, her career has stalled and she hasn’t really got any friends…and now she has found herself pursued by a scary stalker!  Her life is so rotten that she greets a jury service letter as a source of salvation, being on jury service will get her temporarily away from her stalker and her crappy job and she might even make some new friends.  But I am afraid her high hopes lead only to disappointment.

The villain of the piece is Rafe.  He works with Clarissa at the University of Bath and probably drugged and raped her after a party.  I say ‘probably’ as we only have it from Clarissa’s point of view and she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, he gave her a strange tasting glass of wine and she awoke the next morning naked in bed with him feeling sore and bruised.  She is confused and disoriented and doesn’t report it.  From this point on he acts like they have begun a relationship after a night of consensual sex.  He pesters her and sends her creepy presents and when she yells at him to leave her alone behaves as if they are having a harmless lover’s tiff.

At times you feel quite frustrated with Clarissa.  Why didn’t she report the rape to the police?  Why isn’t she taking this more seriously?  But at other times you feel sympathy.  She is a very vulnerable woman, possibly quite depressed, and she has confused and complicated emotions about what happened to her that night as many rape victims do.  Also Rafe is very convincing to the outside world, he is charming and successful at work and even convinces Clarissa’s oldest friend that he and Clarissa have been having a relationship and that he is nothing more than a caring and concerned boyfriend to the mentally disturbed Clarissa.  So Clarissa comes up with a plan, she will systematically collect and record evidence until she has enough to present the police with a strong case against Rafe.

The trial Clarissa is a juror for, far from being an escape, is a rape case that brings up painful memories of her own experiences and fears.  At the same time, outside the relative safety of the court, Rafe’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.  Will she gathered enough evidence to see him convicted and out of her life or has she underestimated the danger she is in?  Read this book to find out…if you dare!

A bit too violent and scary for my tastes.

3/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

This is a fantastic Bond book.  A classic in every way (and my personal favourite).

The story begins with Bond in London tied up in boring paperwork (yes paperwork!  Something they don’t show you in the films.  But he is a civil servant as well as a spy).  As there is not much action going on M asked for his help in a personal matter.  An eminent man, war hero and top industrialist, Sir Hugo Drax, is suspected of cheating at cards in M’s posh London club.  The scandal it could cause!  Bond, the gambling expert, is asked to teach him a lesson at the card table to put him off cheating and avoid a scandal.  This relatively mundane beginning leads unexpectedly to action and drama and the whole city of London under threat.

After successfully deterring Drax from cheating ever again Bond dismissed the affair as the quirk of a brilliant man and agrees to go down to Drax’s factory in Kent to help out with a security matter.  Drax is developing the Moonraker, a powerful weapon that will ensure Britain’s military supremacy.  The project is so important that Bond is happy to let bygones be bygones and work side by side with Drax, but poor Bond doesn’t realise Drax’s true intentions or recognise what a dangerous enemy he has made…

bond_moonraker

I like this novel so much as we get to see so many different sides to Bond and his world.  One thing that is missing is the jet-setting as this is the only novel where he doesn’t leave the UK, all the action is in London and Dover (how glamourous.  Not!)  But there is ‘glamour’ provided by the mysterious (well, mysterious to a working class woman living in 2018) world of the old-fashioned gentleman’s club where careers are made and broken, fortunes made and lost at the bridge table and copious amounts of very expensive French Brandy consumed.  It is a world so well constructed by Fleming that I could almost smell the cigar smoke even while reading the novel on an Italian beach!

It is also a great novel for action.  Bond is completely black and blue by the end of the adventure as he gets into so many scrapes!  A cliff explodes on top of him, he’s beaten to a pulp while tied to a chair, run off the road in his Bentley and gets sprayed by a high pressure hose while hiding in a metal pipe!  The long car chases are particularly exciting.

As a contrast to this there are wonderful quiet moments.  Seeing Bond bored at his desk thinking about what he’s going to have for lunch makes you feel like you are being shown life behind the scenes of our hero.  The card game at the beginning is also fantastically detailed and tense.  You almost feel the same tension as when his life is at stake even though all he is risking at the card table is pride and an awful lot of money.

The other characters are top class.  Drax is a wonderfully villainous villain, who does the ‘classic’ of telling Bond his entire backstory and plan before leaving him to an elaborate death!  And Gala, the Bond girl, is the epitome of what a Bond girl should be: beautiful, clever, sexy, brave and attracted to but not intimidated by our hero.  She’s an undercover police officer and a full player in the action, certainly no damsel in distress.

5/5 – perfect if you are looking for action and adventure.

 

Zoe

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Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing persumed

The clue is in the title plus a serious crime has been committed. Great mix of characters reflecting UKs rich diversity. Author Susie Steiner really captures ordinary lives, the hustle and bustle of urban living and social welfare challenges.  The  protagonist does online dating and you really relate the all the uncertainty surrounding such attempts. Brent folk will enjoy recognisable locations including watering hole McGoverns. An engrossing crime mystery with  some unexpected outcomes. Looking forward to reading the next in the series following good reviews for this first crime novel which has garnered a lot of attention.  The follow up second crime novel Persons Unknown  was given Sunday Times book of the month for June 2017. Happy reading!

Sarah

 

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Book Review: Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

almost missed you

Almost Missed You is about Violet and Finn, the couple that were ‘meant to be’. They met on a beach by chance and year’s later fate aligned and put them back into each other’s paths. Fast forward 3 years, happily married with their son Bear, one day Finn disappears taking Bear with him. What could possibly make Finn leave is the burning question?

Almost Missed You is a gripping debut by Jessica Strawser which takes readers through a journey of deceit, betrayal, tragedy and heartbreak. Peppered with lots of shocks and twists, it is not a book to be missed and leaves you with the question are some things really meant to be?

By Nazia

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Book Review: Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Behind Closed Doors is about the perfect couple Grace and Jack whom everyone envies, but when you delve deeper you begin to uncover the cracks beneath. Why does Grace never answer the phone when her friends call? How can she cook such elaborate meals but remain so slim? And why are there bars on the bedroom windows?

Behind Closed Doors is an emotionally gripping and thought-provoking thriller that will keep you at the edge of your seat.  Recommended for the not-faint hearted readers who want a fast paced and captivating read. An excellent chilling debut from B.A. Paris who I am intrigued to read more from.

This addictive read leaves you with a pervasive sense of uneasiness long after the last page is turned and with the lesson…. you never know what’s going on behind any closed door!

By Nazia

Behind Closed Doors

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Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title.  Hope you are planning to read it next month!  It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).

Heresy

The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth!  Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.

The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation.  Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.

giordano-bruno

Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno

Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas.  While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in.  After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.

Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford.  Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task!  He accepts with some reservations.

So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins!  He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background.  Hated by others because he has been excommunicated.  People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner.  He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style.  He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft.  He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance.  As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!

There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!

I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

I do definitely think it is worth a read.  The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting.  I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better!  But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on.  In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).

3.5/5

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