Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal

The story of how I came across Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal is one that regular readers of this blog (are there any?!) or just people who know me will be familiar with. I saw Sheena Kamal speak at First Monday Crime, thought she seemed pretty cool, and by the end of the night (the bit in the pub) was completely smitten, and shortly after, dived straight into Eyes Like Mine, which sounded like a thoroughly original thriller with a fascinating premise.

Nora Watts works for a private investigation firm. A recovering alcoholic battling self-loathing, betrayals and violations aplenty, she avoids other people preferring the companionship of her dog Whisper, for who she remains sober. Then one morning, at 5am she receives a phone call. A 15 year old girl has gone missing – thought to have run away, but has not returned. And this girl is the baby she gave up for adoption fifteen years ago. Nora would rather not get involved, but this girl has eyes just like hers, ‘so dark that pupil and iris are virtually indistinguishable, fringed by long lashes that might make them pretty until you take a closer look, and then you will see that they absorb all the light around them and refuse to budge an inch. When looking into them, if you ever do, you will suddenly remember appointments that you should be making and previous engagements that you’ve forgotten to put in your calendar.’ How can she stay away?

But as she sets off on her daughter Bonnie’s trail, Nora will uncover a deathly dangerous web of corruption, and have to face traumas from her past she’s been desperately trying to escape.

Nora is prickly, and not always likeable. She is suspicious of any offer of help or sympathy, and is reluctant to see the good in any one, admittedly an instinct which usually serves her well in this misadventure. But she is a survivor, with a broken family and unbearable traumas behind her. Though she keeps an emotional barrier between herself and anyone else, including us, the reader, she occasionally displays flashes of a soft side, from her regular offerings to homeless people, to her refusal to bring in an intimidated witness fearful for his family. You wouldn’t necessarily want to spend too much time with her, but she’s a captivating character, who you can’t help but feel for and empathise with. And she’s put through the wringer – as are those who care for her, especially Whisper.

I rooted desperately for Nora – her story is furiously compelling, not just in the breathlessly pacey plot, which encompasses medical fraud, and the environmental horrors of mining, but from her voice, which is wryly witty, cynical, and yet vulnerable. It’s a terrific debut, from an exciting new author, and I can’t wait to see what Nora does next.

Eyes Like Mine by Sheena Kamal is out now, published by Zaffre

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Little Deaths is inspired by the case of Alice Crimmins, whose two children went missing, and were later found brutally murdered. The detectives took one look at Alice Crimmins, who was wearing tight fitting clothes and large amounts of make up and disliked her on sight. So certain was the leading detective of her guilt that he didn’t bother to have the scene of the crime photographed or even take notes. It took two years to bring her to trial, during which the police harassed her and had her phone tapped, but Alice Crimmins had been found guilty in the press, by the public, and in the minds of the detectives long before then. 

Emma Flint’s very impressive literary crime debut follows the case very closely. In the summer of 1965, Ruth Malone awakens one morning to find her children have gone missing. Very soon later, the body of her daughter Cindy is found, and a few days later, her son Frankie is also found dead. Sergeant Devlin, who is leading the enquiry is convinced of her guilt, so much so that he barely considers any other suspect, and when no evidence can be found to justify an arrest, begins a campaign of harassment against Ruth, sabotaging her job prospects, tapping her phone, and having her followed. 

Half the story is narrated from Ruth Malone’s perspective, even though the third person narrator keeps us at arm’s length. Trying to cope with her grief, and the tragic loss of her children, she watches aghast as the police misinterpret everything she does, when she does not fit how a grieving mother ought to act. The rest is narrated by Pete Wonicke, a junior reporter who sees this as his big break. He too initially convicts Ruth in his mind, but becomes increasingly uneasy watching Devlin pursue his vendetta against Ruth, tampering and destroying evidence to make his story fit. His interest turns into obsession, and in a discomfiting mirror image of Devlin, he too becomes obsessed with Ruth, following her more than journalist would need to.

Emma Flint effectively racks up the tension, as the net closes around Ruth, with even the men apparently on her side harbouring ulterior motives. And whilst the deaths of Alice Crimmins’ children were never solved, Little Deaths is given an interesting conclusion which hammers home the collusion of men against women. 

Little Deaths is a book about Ruth Malone, about the effect she has on men: irrational hatred from Devlin to obsessive desire from her estranged husband and Wonicke, lust from countless others – and Ruth herself, caught in the middle, coping with the tragedy as best she can, and trying – not quite managing – to live her life to the full. 

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is out now, published by Mantle.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel. 

Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother. 

Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted. 

The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner. 

With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet. 

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

If you enjoy books, and you enjoy crime, and you’re on Twitter, and you follow people who also enjoy books/crime, you’ll have heard of Snowblind. In fact, if you’re part of that group, you’ll know that really, I was pretty bloody late to the Snowblind game! I met Ragnar earlier this year at CrimeFest, and slightly fell in love with him; the turning point was when he assured me that he had never hunted puffins (my spirit animal). The lovely Karen took pity on my girlish gigglings, and gave me a copy. It made it onto my South of France holiday reading list – so yes, this is a very late review!

Ari Thor Arason is a rookie cop, who’s sent to the quiet and idyllic fishing village of Siglufjorour, where the top crime he might come across is speeding. He leaves behind his girlfriend and a troubled past. Although nothing ever happens, Ari Thor is feeling claustrophobic in such a tiny village where everyone knows each other, yet no one seems to trust him. 

And shortly afterwards, an elderly and well-known writer falls to his death. Was it an accident, or was did someone resent his over-interference in the local amateur dramatics production? Ari Thor would like to look into it further, but is quickly slapped down by his superiors. And then shortly after, when a local woman is found unconscious and bleeding in the snow, it becomes clear there’s more to this story. 

What I loved so much about Snowblind is the way it so effortlessly merges Agatha Christie-style ‘Golden Age’ mysteries with a dazzlingly dark Scandinavia-noir feel. There’s the ‘closed room’ feel to it, as we’re introduced to a variety of characters, all of whom have something to hide. Each one of them is well-drawn, utterly convincing, and totally suspicious. Given that Ragnar Jonasson has translated a number of Agatha Christie novels, this exquisite attention to detail is not surprising.  

Chilling, subtle, beautifully written, and convincingly claustrophobic, Snowblind is a crime thriller not to be missed, which delivers a couple of extraordinary twists. 

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson is out now, published by Orenda Books

The Martian by Andy Weir

The story of The Martian was published is a dream for any self-published author. After being rejected by a number of mainstream publishers, Andy Weir self-published his novel on his website chapter by chapter, eventually releasing a Kindle edition, which rocketed to the top of the Amazon charts and attracted the attention of a publisher. It was then made into an Academy-nominated film starring Matt Damon. I have been lucky enough this year to work with Blake Crouch, author of the extraordinary Dark Matter, who whilst putting together a ‘Top Five Books’ list for me, chose The Martian. I then went on to spot it in the library and decided to give it a go. 

It is 2035 and Mark Watney, a NASA botanist and mechanical engineer, has been accidentally stranded on Mars after a terrible dust storm forced his crew mates to abandon their mission. In the storm, Watney was impaled by an antenna, and believed dead. However, his injuries turn out to be relatively minor, and he recovers consciousness to find that he’s alone on Mars, luckily with all the abandoned equipment, and must rely on his own resourcefulness to survive until the next planned Mars mission in four years time. Eventually, back on Earth, NASA realises that he is alive and well, and rescue attempts begin.

Given then success of The Martian, I expected a thrilling, exciting and futuristic read, but what I did not expect was for it to be so extraordinarily funny. Mark is an engaging hero, whose deadpan acceptance of his situation (other than the fact that the only music he has available to him is disco) and endless recourse to humour make you root for him. Best quotes include:

Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.” 

I can’t wait till I have grandchildren. When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!

If ruining the only religious icon I have leaves me vulnerable to Martian vampires, I’ll have to risk it.

The science seems wholly convincing, unsurprisingly, given Weir’s scientific background, and I felt as though I was reading about the moon landings. Periodically, I actually forgot that man has yet to land on Mars. Though a fair amount of the science went over my head, that really didn’t matter. 

Finally, The Martian is also a deeply touching and emotionally compelling story. In one of his less flippant monologues, Mark reflects on the human instinct to rescue or help others – which is borne out in the story by the number of people who come together to help Mark. From the astrodynamicist who helps design a rescue route, to the Chinese-US deal, it’s an uplifting sentiment that gives the story emotional heart. 

I can’t recommend The Martian highly enough. Just the right mix of accessible and geeky, with plenty of laugh out loud humour, it’ll definitely be one of my favourite books this year. 

The Martian by Andy Weir is out now, published by Del Rey. 

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

I picked up The Darkest Secret after seeing Alex Marwood speak at a Deadly in Dulwich event at the ever-wonderful Dulwich Books. She was a great speaker – very funny and opinionated – and she also read out the first chapter of her book, which was captivating. I finally got round to reading the book on holiday and was not disappointed.

The Darkest Secret opens with a mass email sent from Maria Gavila, an expert publicist, to her entire address book alerting them that her goddaughter Coco Jackson has been taken in the night and asking them to look out for her. From the very next chapter however, eagle-eyed readers will spot clues that the story Maria is telling is not what really happened. 

Sean Jackson, an arrogant and philandering property developer, plans to celebrate his fiftieth birthday in style, and has invited a some of his wealthy and influential friends for a wild weekend-long party in one of his properties. Unfortunately, his second wife Claire has just fired the nanny in a fit of jealousy, so the group will need to take the childcare into their own hands…with devastating consequences. The book switches back and forth from from Sean’s birthday weekend, to his funeral twelve years later. He is on his fourth marriage, and has been found handcuffed to a bed in a hotel, having clearly died in less than honourable circumstances. His older daughter Camilla, from his first marriage, must collect Ruby, Coco’s twin sister, and her half sister, the few relatives who want to attend his funeral. 

The unlikely friendship that Ruby and Mila create over the weekend is the emotional heart of the book, touchingly normal amidst the rest of their dysfunctional family. Meanwhile, the plotting, scheming and general loathsomeness from the rest of the cast brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘love to hate.’ Almost everyone at Sean’s birthday weekend is equally unpleasant and selfish, from almost the almost caricaturishly vile conservative MP and his wife, to the unethical doctor who, echoing recent headlines, hands out drugs to his celebrity clientele like sweets. Everyone present knows that Sean is planning to finish with his wife Claire for his designer Linda, and all subtly shift their loyalties. It’s possible to sympathise in some way with Claire herself who is bitterly aware of the mistake she made in marrying Sean, and who will end up losing the most that weekend.

I virtually read the last few pages between my fingers, unable to put it down, hopelessly wanting it to take a different direction, until the final, sickening twist – the ultimate darkest secret. 

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood is out now, published by Sphere. 

I See You

So I mentioned in a review in July that I had two books that month which would be in my Top 10 – this was supposed to be my second. (Yes, the review is a little late). But I See You is one of the most gripping, terrifying and satisfying books I’ve read this year and easily rockets into my top 10 of the year without a doubt.


First I have to say thank you to the PR team at Little, Brown who not only sent me a copy but a FINISHED copy before publication (Vendula and Kirsteen, thank you!). I’ve been a fan of Clare’s since I Let You Go which took the country by storm, quite rightly and I couldn’t wait to read her second.

The thing with second novels is that often, they’re so built up in your mind, and there’s so much expectation from the debut, that you can be left disappointed. This is why one of my initial adjectives was satisfying. Because this book did not let itself down, or its predecessor. If anything, I think the plot of I See You will stay with me for far longer than I Let You Go.

If you’re a Londoner, or even if you’ve just ever got public transport, this book is utterly terrifying. I read it nearly a month ago and still I find myself choosing different seats on the tube, trying to depart my house at different times, mixing up my schedule and constantly looking over my shoulder. I’ve never read a book like it, one which carries through its intensity and thrill into my everyday life. The very idea at the heart of the novel is drawing on such a terrifying and realistic fear, particularly for a woman, and it’s brilliant. It was also brilliant because it really felt like it could happen, like someone would come up with this idea as the next stage of Tinder for busy, city living millennials. It was a fresh concept too, something different which is almost impossible to find in thrillers at the moment.

Clare’s writing really is sensational – I think that’ll be the only time I agree with the Daily Mail. But they’re right. The tension, fear and mystery is completely encapsulating. You are sucked into this book, its characters and its story and it’s the definition of a page-turner. I read it in one sitting and immediately found myself texting people to tell them about it, telling my friends about it when I saw them that evening whilst we travelled on the tube.

I have no doubt that I See You will be just as successful as Clare’s debut, because I thought it was better. The intensity is taken up a notch, the twist ingenious and the ending truly chilling. The novel delivers pace, mystery and tension in abundance as well as a killer few final pages and it’s perfectly handled, delivering each new piece of information with expert delivery and never letting you sit back for a second. The twist is unguessable yet believable and I felt constantly on edge: an insanely good psychological thriller. More, please, Clare!

I See You is out now from Sphere.