Recently in Mystery/Thriller Category

Small Change For Stuart

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Lissa Evans
Doubleday
9780385618007
May 2011
278 pp
Whole book read
Yes Yes Yes
What makes me like this book so much? Is it that it concerns a collection of old threepenny bits, those belovedly brassy coins of childhood? Is it because it is such a well-formed object of a physical book, a beautifully proportioned small hardback with pleasingly designed dustjacket and chapter heading illustrations (both by Temujin Doran)? Is it because it reads so smoothly, with not a word wrong-footing the inner ear? Of course these things help, but novels ultimately have to make their impact by virtue of characters and narrative, rather than style, form or inanimate objects.

Stuart, very short for his age and with a surname (Horten) that doesn't help matters, is 10 years old when he has to move away to a new town, leaving all his friends behind. His new neighbours, the Kingsley triplets, do not believe him when he tells them how old he is. These neighbours are highly entertaining creations, as is Stuart's father, a writer of crosswords, who always chooses the longest words to describe things. A great-uncle of Stuart's used to live and work as a magician in the town they have moved to. The discovered collection of threepenny bits and the subsequently collected sequence of clues lead Stuart (and, eventually, one of the triplets) on an adventure of discovery to find the lost workshop of Teeny-Tiny Horten.

Perfect reading for children aged 7-10, and highly recommended as a readaloud class novel for teachers of Y4 or Y5. The author is a radio and television producer. She has written two or three adult books. This is her first children's novel. It ought not to be the last.




Beautiful Malice

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Rebecca James
Faber
9780571255238
July 2010
353 pp
Whole book read
Read On? Yes, but...
This book had a lot of publicity when it came out last year, so I am not going to waste too many words on it here. Suffice to say that I was led to believe it was a a debut novel by an Australian author that shouldn't be missed. From the recommendations I had remembered reading I was expecting a psychological thriller of the highest order. Well, it isn't that. It's highly readable in a trashy kind of way, and I read it from cover to cover while on the train to Glasgow. I think it could work quite well as one of those 3-parter TV thrillers, but whoever turned it into a screenplay would have to make the ending far less easy to predict.
I only had one book accessible on the train, otherwise I would have stopped reading half way through, as it was fairly clear by then which way things were going. Good advertisement for a Kindle I guess. In fact, I wonder if Kindle readers are more inclined to give up on books than book readers, in view of the easy access to alternative titles.



Eye Of The Crow

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Shane Peacock
Tundra Books
9780887768507
September 2007
250 pp
Whole book read
Read On? YES
Andrea Deakin sent me this Canadian winner of the 2008 Arthur Ellis Best Juvenile Crime Novel Award quite some time ago, but I only recently picked it up. And enjoyed it. It is well-written and well-paced, though on balance I would have preferred the narrative in a traditional past tense, rather than the rather stylised continuous present used by Peacock. The dustjacket of Tundra's hardback edition shows a detailed Victorian streetmap of central London on the reverse, and the city details in the story are amongst the features that make this an enthralling read. Young Sherlock - depicted here at times almost like a Spiderman hero - sets out to prove a man wrongly accused of murder innocent of the crime. It's a colourful tale involving crows, glass eyeballs and several quite harrowing scenes. For Conan Doyle aficionados there are familiars in the cast, including the name Lestrade. The first book in a series.



Long Reach

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Peter Cocks
Walker Books
9781406324754
January 2011
402 pp
stopped at p92
Read On? NO
It's getting difficult to actually finish some of the books I pick up these days, so I have decided that, rather than ignore them, it would be better to confront the situation and actually record the point at which I give up on a book, for whatever reason.

Sometimes it is the awkwardness of the prose. I was once at a launch party and was discussing with the husband of a fellow reviewer why he did not read children's books. He picked up a copy of the launch title, opened it at the first page, and seemingly at random pointed at a sentence in the middle of a paragraph. He didn't need to add any further explanation. It was a horribly worded sentence. Children love a good story and will happily pass over stylistic hiccups if the narrative is sufficiently gripping. This, it seems to me, is taken too much for granted by contemporary children's authors and their editors. There are too many books that are awkward to read aloud, that have a sentence to stumble over on every page.

Sometimes, I find myself thinking 'Who on earth is the target readership for this title?' Largely because of the 17yr old character's life amid "fast cars and flash women" you are probably talking Y7+ or age 12+ here. But by 14+, if not earlier, surely any adolescent boy (this is male-oriented writing) wanting to read a good thriller will be turning to a fully-blown adult thriller, something a little more savage than Eddie Savage. So the target audience is very narrow indeed, and one notoriously difficult to reach.

It's a shame because Cocks writes well enough and the book grabs the attention at the start. But it falls hopelessly in between the appetite for true juvenile thriller-writing, as so well served by the likes of Horowitz, and the adult genre. Cocks and his publisher clearly think there is some middle ground waiting to be served. I think they're wrong. It takes a quirky one-off like Kevin Brooks to really reach the teenage audience with thriller-style material.



The Glass Demon

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Helen Grant
Penguin
978-0-141-32576-7
May 2010

At times I had to keep reminding myself that Lin and Michel are both in their late teens (indeed, Michel drives them both around in his car) because their manner is not the teenage manner as more usually portrayed in contemporary young adult literature, and also because the adventure that unfolds is, for all its menace and melodrama, very much in the mould of younger children going out and attempting to solve a mystery without adult intervention.

This all works to the book's advantage and results in a novel that is at one and the same time an older children's mystery and a chilling, Hawthornesque tale of murder and malevolence for adults.

Lin's father, an academic driven by an idee fixe, uproots his family to Germany, determined to discover the long lost Allerheiligen stained glass. Even before entering their rented property they stumble upon the first body - an old man apparently fallen dead while picking apples, small shards of shattered glass noticed only by Lin at the time. Not long afterwards the family is all but completely unravelled when Lin's younger brother comes close to being impaled by a spear while sleeping in his cot.

The local police so closely follow protocol and procedure that the family themselves feel under suspicion.

Just as she did in her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, Grant cranks up the drama and excitement with impeccable pace and timing. The story would make a fabulous two-part BBC thriller, expecially because each of the characters is so well-realised, from the ineffectual young stepmother, to the darkly dashing priest. And there would be wonderful bit parts for the stonewalling police.

Can't wait for novel number three!


Ice Shock

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M. G. Harris
Scholastic
9781407104034
March 2009
I'd dipped into the first Joshua Files title, Invisible City, and into this book as well, sufficiently enough to be able to know that they were well-written pacy adventures but Ice Shock is the first I have read from cover to cover. Assisted by good publisher publicity and promotion (which has included video trailers), clever presentation (the paperbacks have come in colourfully translucent plastic slipcases), and the well-judged online presence of the author herself (M. G. Harris has her own website, blog and twitter), the Joshua Files series is already, and deservingly so, a publishing success. Fans have to wait until early 2010 for the third installment, and after the stunning climactic pages of this novel, I imagine that for many readers, especially those who read the book 6 months ago when it was first released, that will be a wait too long. Despite not having read Invisible City I had no trouble being sucked into the action of Ice Shock. There are many escapades and close shaves for the main character, Josh, before, in the course of a truly compelling finale, the significance of the book's title becomes apparent. Harris handles the Mexican backdrop to her narrative (both in terms of location and history) skillfully and cleverly combines it with nuggets of pseudo science and archaeology to leave the reader suitably poised between understanding and puzzlement. This is simply great storytelling on a level suited to the audience. Josh's blog entries are used to help consolidate elements of the storyline - a helpful narrative technique - but in a way that makes complete sense in terms of Josh's need to keep his actions and whereabouts secret.



hush, hush

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Becca Fitzpatrick
Gollancz
9781847386946
November 2009
There's much to admire in this debut novel, due for publication in November 2009, and not the least is its lack of pretension. Hush, Hush is a novel written to entertain and not to impress. There was a brief moment midway through the book when I thought I was going to regret the fact that the fallen-angel theme was being taken literally rather than metaphorically, fearing that I would find the rest of the narrative somewhat preposterous. But Fitzpatrick is already a sufficiently skillful storyteller to be able to carry the reader along and create the necessary suspension of disbelief. This is all done in the atmosphere of a Sunday afternoon feature film. I can't say I was ever seriously moved or unsettled by the predicaments the main character, Nora, finds herself in, but I was always fully engaged. The relationship between 17-year-old Nora, her best friend Vee, and Patch, the sinister but dangerously alluring boy who comes between them, is very adroitly handled in the first half of the novel, in short well-orchestrated dialogue-driven scenes that one can imagine transferring well to the movie screen. And cinema certainly seems to be an influence on some of the setpieces towards the end of the book (I think particularly of Nora's encounter with Dabria). As is inevitable with a book of this type, there is much in the way that the different characters' motives are explained towards the end of the novel that is farfetched, but I didn't mind that, since it was so clearly signalled that this was the type of book i was reading. I would much rather have done without the short Prologue, set in the Loire Valley, 1565. For me, that came across as very 'Pseud's Corner'ish, and was the one false note in an otherwise highly accomplished first novel.



The Forest Of Hands & Teeth

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Carrie Ryan
Gollancz
9780575090842
July 2009
I feel very ambivalent about this debut novel. And I think that is largely because it is ambivalent about itself. It is essentially, and in its denouement has the honesty to admit it at last, a zombie novel. A village is making its last stand against the infection that surrounds them. A deliberately knowing but misjudged withholding of narrative information concerning the infected 'Unconsecrated' keeps the reader in the dark for far too long. The suggestions that the book is some sort of religious allegory are laid on very heavily. Consequently, as a reader the novel only hooked me in short bursts. When it did so it hooked me good (especially towards the end when the storyline has become a more straightforward fight for survival against the zombie hordes), but that only made the dull and pretentious patches the more disappointing. As a reviewer I found myself frustrated by the narrator's plaintive tone of voice. The book is written in contemporary fiction's perniciously pervasive first-person continuous present and it is the worse for that. On the plus side, there is some very effective writing here, both in terms of describing action and describing the main character's emotions. I'd certainly read another book by Ryan. I'm not sure it will be The Dead-Tossed Waves, coming in 2010, and a return to the world of the Unconsecrated.


Banb, Bang, You're Dead!

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Narinder Dhami
Corgi
055256043X
May 2009
I snatched the gun from him. It felt cool and smooth to the touch, and the weight and shape of it in my hands was completely alien and therefore completely fascinating.

Mia shares a highly unusual relationship with her brother Jamie, one that is dominated by obsessive fascination. The reasonsfor this appear to be apparent from the outset, their mother suffers depressives phases, the severity of which has increased since the death of her father.

The childhood that Mia and Jamie share in this gritty, urban novel is one that is foregrounded constantly by the state of their mother's mental health. A crisis point is reached when Jamie's tolerance finally wears thin and he resolves to push his mother 'to the edge', forcing her to 'sit up and take notice'.

Having set the familial thrust for the novel, the novel turns into a relentless thriller set amidst a suitably chilling evacuated school building within whose realms lies a gunman. Conscious of her brother's resolve to force his mother's hand, Mia believes her brother to be the gunman. She sets off determined to find him and dissuade him from continuing his scheme.

This is a fast-paced, race of a read with twists and turns that keep you guessing and gulping throughout. It represents a departure from Dhami's writing style and is a highly contemporaneous story exploring bereavement and familial uncertainty. The shock ending certainly comes as a surprise and draws question to the weight of significance our individual backgrounds exert upon our present. It leaves readers with a lasting sense of the desperation and desolation Mia has faced. An accomplished novel.




Stolen

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Lucy Christopher
Penguin
978-1-906427-13-9
April 2009

This is a jaw-droppingly impressive debut novel. It brought to mind two other extraordinarilly good novels - The Collector by John Fowles and Z for Zacchariah by Robert O'Brien - as it will for other readers familiar with those books, and it says much for Lucy Christopher's promise as an author that her first novel can stand proudly side by side with those two titles.

The bare narrative outline: a teenage girl is 'stolen', in other words abducted, from a foreign airport while on holiday with her family, by a young man who, it transpires, has been stalking her for years. He imprisons her in a very remote region of the Australian desert. The girl makes some efforts to run away until it becomes apparent that all attempt at escape is futile.

To begin with the girl despises her captor. In time she comes to have feelings both of admiration and affection for him and it is to Lucy Christopher's credit as an author that she manages to take her readers on this same journey so that by the end of the book we also feel sympathetic towards the abductor despite his crime.

Subtitled 'A letter to my captor', Stolen is an intense first-person voice narrative, which never falters. It has the page-turning propulsion of a thriller and many a time I needed to put the book down to get on with something else, but had to read four or five more pages before it was possible to do so.

If the right lead actors could be found it would make a superb movie. The narrative features a feral camel and there are several 'action' scenes that would make great cinema. Although the author now lives in Wales, it is no surprise to discover that she spent much of her childhood in Australia. The sense of place, of remote desert wilderness, is really well evoked.

I don't have anything else to say about this book, other than, "Buy it, read it, tell someone else about it."