Category Archives: Mystery/Thriller

All My Secrets

Sophie McKenzie

Simon & Schuster

9781471122217

July 2015

paperback

The author recently described her approach to plotting in a Guardian feature.
“With every scene I write I ask myself:
Is what has happened unexpected, yet credible and convincing?
Is the plot unfolding clearly: neither so slow that it’s boring nor so fast that it’s confusing?
Is the main character(s) at the heart of the scene, moving the action on?”
This technique is very much at play in Sophie McKenzie’s 24th novel, about a 16 year old girl who suddenly learns that she has been left a large inheritance by her mother, a ballerina allegedly killed many years ago in a motor accident. The news and revelation about the circumstances of her birth are so shocking to Evie that she is sent away to Lightsea, a Scottish island specialising in the rehabilitation of teenagers who have gone off the rails in various ways. The formulaic storytelling technique is initially effective but somewhat grating over time, especially when the narrative becomes increasingly overwrought. When every single chapter ends with a carefully stage-managed ‘cliffhanger’ the effect on a mature, experienced reader is underwhelming. But this book is presumably aimed at an audience younger than the main character (who has just finished her GCSEs) – readers of 10+ with a liking for BBC thriller dramas. Certainly the romantic maturity of Evie is more in tune with Y6 girls than with older teenagers.
I’d be happy to suggest it as pageturning holiday reading for 10-13 yr olds, but would want to steer older readers towards alternatives.
There is a freshness at the start of the book that becomes unrecognisable by the end. It is as if all the characters have become mangled by the mechanics of the story structure.

Night Runner

Tim Bowler

Oxford

9780192794147

July 2014

hardback

Gripping and engrossing from the very first chapter this is atmospheric teen thriller writing of the very highest order. Bowler gets the first-person voice of Zinny, his teenaged main character exactly right. Not too overdone, just sufficiently gritty and edgy.
Bowler has always had a marked talent for creating mood and atmosphere. What’s particularly impressive about Night Runner is the sense of being hounded and watched by an evil presence and, in terms of the book’s title, firstly being on the run from it, and then having to be a runner for it.
Bowler’s writing is also a model of compression – a demonstration that you simply do not need to overegg writing with ‘powerful’ adjectives and adverbs to create vivid scenes for the reader. One of the reasons Night Runner makes such an impact is, counter-intuitively, due to a limitation on visual descriptions of character and place. At just under 200 pages the book is almost entirely composed of action and dialogue. And this makes the reader supply their own visualisations, so that reading the book is a bit like having a nightmare.
The author gives the reader just enough and then is happy to let imagination do the rest.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the Pinkie-Brown-like character of the book’s villain.

“He’s got dark hair,” I go on, “slick, clean-shaven, smooth-looking guy, about thirty, and he’s got this flash coat.”

That’s Zinny, early on in the book, while calling the police. After that, ‘Flash Coat’ is all that’s required to convey the character’s presence.
The book is an especially pleasing read because it is not pure thriller. There is an affecting backstory here, regarding Zinny’s parents.
It’s a dark book, and at times unflinchingly violent. But a motif of light and hope keeps trying to break through, embodied by a library book of nature photography that Zinny has had out on extended loan.
Compelled to keep turning the pages from one exciting chapter to the next, I kept wondering how this motif might play out at the end. I won’t reveal how, just say that it does.

One of the best YA novels of 2014 for sure.

Red

Libby Gleeson

Hodder

9781444917307

February 2014

paperback

Finished

A taut and gripping thriller from the award-winning Australian author, Libby Gleeson. [The book was first published in Australia in 2012, where it won the 2013 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction.]
It opens in the aftermath of a cyclonic storm that has wreaked havoc on Sydney. A young girl comes back to consciousness smothered in mud.

Mud. In her mouth, her nose and eyes. Mud in her hair and caked on her neck and her arms. Mud filling her shoes and seeping through her clothes.

She can remember little from her past. A boy called Peri befriends her and piece by piece helps her regain some recollection of her past. Things start to become clearer when she sees a photo in the ruins of her old primary school.
She was mumbling “jaymartinjaymartin” as she regained consciousness and this mantra gains in significance as the story unfolds and Red has to attempt to deliver a memory stick storing highly sensitive information about organised crime to the Supreme Court in Melbourne.
I have to say it’s a pleasure to read a novel told in what, until recently (with the prevalent use in YA novels of the continuous present voice), has been the conventional 3rd person past.
This isn’t a novel that is going to change your life. But it will entertain and thrill you. Not a word has been wasted in the telling.
In short, highly recommended.

 

Small Change For Stuart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.