Transcription by Kate Atkinson

No one tells a story quite like Kate Atkinson, but truthfully, what I love most about her books is her incredible way of constructing a sentence, her wry, almost aloof, yet clearly affectionate way of engaging with her characters. I genuinely feel I would read her adaptation of the phone book.

Transcription follows eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong, who in 1940 is recruited to MI5 to monitor British Fascist sympathisers. From transcribing reports by unwitting and oddly mundane fascists, convinced that they’re sending secrets to Hitler, to being sent out to parties of Nazis, the job is both relentlessly dull, yet often thrilling. Until disaster strikes, and Juliet finds herself concealing something terrible.

Ten years later, Juliet is working at the BBC as a producer, still periodically drawn in for an odd MI5 job, but mainly occupied with the BBC’s schools program. But the past is rapidly catching up with Juliet. Decisions she took, as well as accidents not of her making seem to be putting her at risk. Who from the war is finally seeking retribution?

It was a joy to leap back into Kate Atkinson’s writing. I’ve always loved her wry humour, and her quirky, endearing and flawed characters. Juliet starts the book as a naive eighteen year old, albeit with a mildly sceptical attitude, nursing an almighty crush on her boss and dedicated to doing what’s right. Ten years later, we find a slightly more hardened and cynical Juliet. “There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it.” The British misdeeds of the war are not glossed over, from the Italian staff at Juliet’s favourite café Moretti’s, interned during the war, eventually dying at sea, to the rampant antisemitism of the Oswald Mosley set. Unlike Cressida Connolly’s nonetheless hugely enjoyable After The Party, Atkinson doesn’t accept any suggestion that British fascists didn’t know what they were signing up for.

Thought-provoking and beautifully written, Transcription still very much has the pace of a thriller. It’s an exhilarating, sometimes playful chase through London, which also explores at the meaning of truth, loyalty and the very point of war.

A hugely enjoyable and clever spy thriller, that isn’t really a spy thriller. Or is it?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson is out now, published by Transworld.

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Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson

Since I worked with her a few years ago, I’ve always adored Dorothy Koomson’s books – gripping emotional thrillers with a strong sense of principle behind them, whether she’s exploring domestic violence, infidelity, gaslighting or the issues behind adoption. So I was overjoyed when she offered me a beautiful proof copy of her latest Tell Me Your Secret.

 

At their heart, Dorothy’s books have always been thrillers, with a crime of some kind at the heart of the story whilst focussing heavily on the impact of it on those around it. However, this is a very different beast – a much darker direction, and it’s brilliant!

Tell Me Your Secret follows Pieta Rawlings, a journalist working in Brighton – and harbouring a terrible secret. Ten years ago, she was abducted by a serial killer called The Blindfolder, who tortures his victims whilst forcing them to keep their eyes closed. If they manage, they walk free. If not, they’re murdered. And now the women who survived him are being murdered too. Detective Inspector Jody Foster has a very personal reason to want to catch The Blindfolder, bordering on obsessive, and is determined not to let him slip through her fingers again. And when she realises that Pieta could be holding vital information, she will stop at nothing to get it – no matter the impact on Pieta and her loved ones.

One of Dorothy’s biggest strengths is her characters – she writes genuinely relatable and sympathetic, yet flawed women. And all her supporting characters are brilliant, from the walk-on PCs, to Pieta’s magnificent seagull-hating son Kobi.

All builds to a grand, and genuinely shocking reveal, with tantalising clues dropped along the way, scattered with heartbreak – and a depressing realistic, almost mundane motive.

It’s been a joy jumping back into a Dorothy Koomson thriller – thanks for the journey! – and I kind of want to try pottery now…

Tell Me Your Secret by Dorothy Koomson is out now.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in… 

That’s right, after something of a fallow period, blog-wise, I am returning to champion Ordinary People by Diana Evans, as part of the Rathbones Folio Prize blog tour today.

Ordinary People Diana Evans cover.jpg

The eight books on this year’s shortlist include four novels, a novella, two non-fiction books and a collection of poetry whittled down from a list of 80 works published in the UK in 2018 chosen by members of the Folio Academy.

Ordinary People is Diana Evans’ third novel, and follows two couples, as they weather storms, and alternately push each other away, and pull back from the brink. Melissa and Michael have just had their second baby. Unmarried, they’ve lived together for 13 years, but with the new arrival, Melissa finds herself harbouring a profound dissatisfaction. Struggling to reconcile her professional identity with motherhood, she doesn’t feel supported by Michael, and she’s convinced their Victorian Crystal Palace home is turning on them. On his side, Michael loves Melissa and is devoted to his children, but is feeling more and more pushed away, unable to bridge the gap opening up between them.

Meanwhile, Damian and Stephanie live in the suburbs with their three children, but the recent death of Damian’s father has thrown him into a crisis, which is affecting their marriage. But has Damian ever truly been happy?

Diana Evans’ writing is poetic, each sentence perfectly crafted, and yet the book feels intensely grounded. Her writing about relationships is both instantly familiar, and yet often very funny. Domesticity becomes the key battleground – everything from cooking rice (‘Listen for the rice’), to fitted sheets becomes a source of tension.

I alternated between crying and rooting for all four protagonists, then urging them to call it a day. And then at the turn of a page, I found myself laughing so hard my sides hurt.

Ordinary People is a fresh and clever novel about the highs and lows of love, the difficulty of devoting yourself to someone whilst fighting to retain your own identity and the experience of expectation versus reality as you grow older. I’m delighted to see it recognised by the Rathbones Folio Book Prize judges.

The winner of the Rathbones Folio Book Prize is announced on 20th May – who will you be rooting for?

Ordinary People by Diana Evans is published by Vintage. 

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar

Amer Anwar was kind enough to send me a copy of his excellent thriller Brothers in Blood some time ago, and I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me some time to get to it, this despite it coming with a chai teabag, and some butterfly plasters – so useful for fingertip wounds! But at last, this summer, under a powerful Provençal sun, I lost myself in hugely promising, pacy debut set in deepest West London…

Zaq Khan is just out of jail, stuck working at a dead-end job at a builder’s yard, and just wants to keep his head down. But any hope of that is finished when he’s forced to search for his unpleasant boss’s runaway daughter Rita, who has presumably run away with a boy not of her father’s choosing. Reluctantly, Zaq decides he has no choice but to do what he’s told, no matter the consequences for her. He has the threat of going back to jail hanging over him – or death by Rita’s terrifying brothers. But London’s a big place.

With the help of his best mate Jags, Zaq gets to work, but it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t simply a case of runaway brides or family honour – and that Rita may not be the helpless damsel she appears to be. And on top of that, it appears that ghosts from his past are reappearing – and they want revenge.

The stakes are high in this thriller – more than once, Zaq crawls into bed having suffered a heavy beating, and there’s one particularly nasty scene which almost finished me off. That said, it’s also a genuinely funny thriller with real heart and friendship. I loved Zaq’s relationship with his boisterous yet loyal flat mates, and of course his friendship with the brilliant Jags, always happy to help Zaq through his death-defying plans, and then make him a cup of tea and pass him the paracetamol at the end.

Superbly plotted, gritty and edgy, yet written with real humour, Brothers in Blood is a truly cracking debut, with a wonderfully likeable and engaging main character. I can’t wait to read more of Zaq and Jags’s adventures around Southall, righting wrongs, staying out of trouble, and then enjoying tea and parathas at the end of the day.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar is published 6th September by Dialogue Books.

Ngaio Marsh Awards blog tour: The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy

It’s an honour to be asked to take part in the Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 blog tour – cheers Craig! I was asked to – or begged to – read Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room for the awards this year. I confess to have had no knowledge of the premise or plot: only that it was written by Stella Duffy, who comes most highly recommended.

The Hidden Room follows Laurie and Martha, happily married with three children. Laurie’s career is taking off in the way that she could never have expected. Their children are all dedicated athletes – Hope, the oldest is a talented dancer, and Jack and Ana, the twins, are swimmers. Hope’s new dance teacher is motivating her to a new level, and when Martha befriends him, he asks her to help with his life coach training. And by the time that Laurie, busier than usual, realises the extent that this dance teacher has wormed his way into her family’s life, it’s too late. Because this man is a dangerous figure from Laurie’s past, that she has done her best to conceal from her family.

Laurie grew up in a ‘community’ in the US, a cult demanding absolute loyalty, but with the expectation of physical and sexual abuse. She was taken away and adopted at the age of 9, and this is the story that most people know – but as the reader gradually learns through glimpses of the past, this isn’t the full story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the shocks and twists that come through, but let it be said that The Hidden Room is an exquisitely written literary thriller, and a compelling exploration of how cults come to be. Despite the usual wanting to yell ‘you fool, CALL THE POLICE!!!’, Duffy makes a clever and convincing case for how manipulation and brainwashing can so easily turn into complicity – how abusers can maintain a hold. The narration is almost despairing, yet strangely detached, which has the effect of heightening the intensity, and making the atmosphere all the more claustrophobic.

Thought-provoking and genuinely chilling in its simplicity, The Hidden Room is a clever thriller about the nature of devotion and obsession and how far you will – or won’t – go to save your family.

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy is out now from Virago.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I absolutely love an Agatha Christie novel. Upper class toffs, murdered and murdering for revenge, money, to keep secrets concealed… all to be revealed at the end by a moustachioed Belgian, or an elderly spinster. Just perfect. And now here comes an exceptional thriller with all the conventions of the genre: the rich family who suffered a terrible tragedy, the beautiful but doomed heiress, the haunted butler, the unscrupulous doctor, the blackmailer, the rake… then all spliced up, and drenched in a little more blood, as though by one of the more slash-happy villains of Stuart Turton’s remarkably assured debut.

The Hardcastles are throwing the party of the year at their dilapidated family estate, Blackheath, to celebrate their daughter Evelyn’s return from Paris. All the great and the good have been invited, and no expense has been spared. But the night will end in tragedy, with Evelyn Hardcastle’s death. A murder, that doesn’t appear to be a murder. And Aiden Bishop is trapped at Blackheath until he solves the murder. Every day, he sees the events through the eyes of a different person in the house and if he hasn’t solved the mystery by the end of his time there, he returns to the beginning, his memory wiped. On top of that, he isn’t the only one trying to solve the mystery, and only one of them can leave.

From the very first page, when Aiden wakes up in the body of his first host, with no memory of who or where he is, the pace of this novel doesn’t let up. As he gets to know the household, and begins to piece together clues, he also determines, despite being told it can’t be done, to save Evelyn. Some seem to helping him, some seem to be hindering him – and one person is hell bent on his death. Is there anyone he can trust? Without his memories, can he even trust himself?

There’s room for humour as well – each of Aiden’s hosts are different, some particularly monstrous, but each one has their own personality, battling with his own. In one case, he has to fight his host’s stupidity; in another, his host is so obese that he must be assisted in every task by a valet, to Aiden’s shame.

As Aiden runs around Blackheath over eight days, learning a little more as every guest, and working around his other seven selves, a lesser novel could have got lost in its own winding plot and challenging premise. With its truly unique, and perfectly executed premise, this is a terrific twist on the locked room mystery. Beautifully written, and populated with a mad cast of characters, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle will blow your mind.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is out now, published by Bloomsbury Raven.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites

The Old Religion, Martyn Waites’s first novel in a while written under his own (male) name, has been described as ‘Brexit Noir meets The Wicker Man’ but there was another film that came to mind as I read this intensely sinister and creepy thriller. Remember the end of the Pegg/Frost/Wright film Hot Fuzz, in which [spoiler alert] Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel stands in front of the villagers, as they all chant ‘the Greater Good’, having realised that they’re all in on a series of murders committed in order to keep their community perfect? Well…

After tragic events in his home city, Tom Killgannon is in witness protection, living in the tiny Cornish village of St Petroc. It’s a tight-knit, often downright hostile community, which suits Tom perfectly – he’s happy being the ‘outsider’ for as long as necessary as it avoids unwelcome questions about his past. His policy of keeping himself to himself ends when he comes home to find that Lila, a young woman on the run, has broken into his house and is eating his cheese. Before he can find out much more about her, she’s taken off again, with his coat, and, inadvertently, his entire identity. He takes off after her, with no idea what he’s letting himself in for…

But Lila is on the run from something more terrifying than Tom could even begin to imagine. St Petroc is a community in peril – destroyed by years of neglect and underfunding, with the lies of Brexit being the final kicker, and out of desperation the villagers have turned to the unthinkable. Into the void has stepped a charismatic leader, full of promises – but with a terrible price.

Dark, chillingly atmospheric and thought-provoking, The Old Religion explores the insidious power of mob mentality, but also the desperation of those who have nothing. But this is also a page-turning thriller, with an extraordinary cast of characters, and a plot that races along. Highly recommended.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites is out now, published by Zaffre