First Monday Crime: The Beijing Conspiracy by Shamini Flint

It’s almost time for First Monday Christmas, our fun festive crimey celebration! And we have a terrific line-up: Tarquin Hall, Shamini Flint, Simon Brett and Sam Blake will be joining us to discuss their terrific new crime and thrillers. Not only that, but the super duper Angela Clarke and Claire McGowan will be going head to head to establish once and for all, who is the Queen of Crime!

And I’m spotlighting The Beijing Conspiracy by Shamini Flint, a gripping international thriller following power struggles in both China and the United States.

The Beijing Conspiracy opens with an image familiar to all of us: a lone man, carrying bags of shopping, standing in front of a column of tanks in a display of non-violent resistance, and whose fate remains unknown. 

Years later, Delta Force veteran Jack Ford is startled to receive a letter from a former lover Xia, who was a student leader at the height of the protests in China, where he cut his teeth as a spook. She claims that they have a daughter Fei Yen, and that she needs his help. After everything that happened between them, Jack has no idea if he can trust her, but he can’t ignore a woman who might be his daughter.

Meanwhile, an almighty power struggle is taking place in China. Zhu Juntao is the newly appointed Secretary General of the Communist Party, and is determined to modernise his country. He plans to do so by finding the mysterious Tank Man, presumed to have been given sanctuary by American spies, and rehabilitating him as a hero. But amongst the Politburo, as predicted, he faces resistance, led by General Zhang, who also commands the People’s Liberation Army. Zhang too likes the idea of finding Tank Man – but for very different reasons. Through blackmail and threats, he is building a strong resistance that could bring down Juntao before he even takes the Presidency – and the deck seems fully stacked in his favour.

But, there is another mysterious spy, code named EMPEROR, who has risked everything to smuggle a memo revealing the situation to the US.

BUT, Juntao also faces perhaps surprising opposition from the United States of America. With the buffoonish President taking little to no interest in foreign affairs, but terrified of looking weak, it falls to his hawkish defence team to monitor the situation. And a modernised China doesn’t suit them at all.

With the scene set, The Beijing Conspiracy leaps quickly into action by the second chapter. Seeking more information about his possible daughter, Jack enlists the help of an old spook buddy Peter Kennedy in Singapore to look into Xia before he flies to Beijing. Their reunion is brief – Kennedy is immediately gunned down by Chinese agents – and entrusts the very memo smuggled out by EMPEROR to Jack. Who promptly flies back to Beijing with it. Massive global conspiracy be damned, he has a daughter to find. But he will find that he is directly relevant to Zhang’s plans – because of the events of

If all the double crossing and various conspiracies sound confusing, don’t be put off – it all falls neatly into place for the reader, and launches into a terrifically gripping action thriller. The political conniving is realistically written – and seems terrifyingly plausible, even if I did find it to be a stretch that Mike Pence has at this point died of shame, and Hillary Clinton/Elizabeth Warren has been appointed Veep.

The story crescendos neatly to a breath-taking, edge of your seat climax, with spies revealed, disloyalty unearthed – and yet with a touching father-daughter story at its heart.

Sound good? Come along on Monday 2nd December to meet Shamini and the rest of the panel, and enjoy an evening of criminally festive entertainment!

On My Life by Angela Clarke

A gripping, eye opening thriller, not only packed with bags of tension, but which shines a spotlight on a prison system not fit for purpose.

 

On My Life opens with Jenna being sent to prison to await trial for the murder of her beloved stepdaughter – the murder she insists she didn’t commit – and of her fiancé. Terrified, grieving and confused, her panic is only exacerbated when she discovers that she’s pregnant.

 

Abandoned by her friends and constantly on edge that her fellow inmates might discover she’s a child-murderer, Jenna keeps her head down and tries to fit in whilst also going through that last fateful day, when she came home to discover Emily brutally murdered, to work out who could be responsible. And the more she thinks about it, the more a likely-looking bunch of suspects appears in front of her.

 

Angela Clarke really taps into the terror of being locked up for a crime you didn’t commit, knowing that however much you insist you didn’t do it, to lawyers, family members, other inmates, no one believes you. Angela’s spoken about her time volunteering in prisons, and speaking to inmates, and you sense that in the writing of the other inmates and even the most vicious of prison guards, she blames the system rather than the individual. (And we’re talking vicious here!) The completely broken system where prison guards are resigning or retiring at a rate of knots after years and years of budget cuts is what comes in for criticism, let alone the horrifying treatment of pregnant inmates – which should bring a lump to the throat of even the most hardened reader.

 

Highly recommend this excellent, thought-provoking thriller, which ends on a gut punch of reveal that made my breath catch in my throat.

On My Life by Angela Clarke is out now, published by Mulholland.

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.

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. 

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.

Circe by Madeline Miller

At last! Circe is the long-awaited follow-up to Madeline Miller’s 2011 masterpiece The Song of Achilles, which told The Iliad from the point of view of the awkward prince Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, best of the Greeks. In Circe, Miller moves on to The Odyssey, to tell the story of the witch who turned Odysseus’s men to pigs, before falling in love with him.

Circe is born to Helios, the sun god, and the naiad Perse. The least favourite of the couple’s children, she can’t aspire to a good marriage, and falls in love with a mortal. After her love is spurned (with memorable, and unfortunate consequences), and she is revealed as a pharmakis, Circe is banished to an island by herself, unable to leave. Thus begins her exile. One regular visitor is Hermes, who becomes a lover. Her niece Medea also visits, with her lover Jason, seeking help. On one occasion, her sister Pasiphae calls her to assist in childbirth – where the offspring is the result of an unfortunate coupling between her and a beautiful white bull. And then later, when she is back on her island, sailors begin to land, including Odysseus’s men. Feeling threatened (with good cause), Circe turns a large number of them into pigs… and the rest is history. Or Greek mythology, if you will.

Circe is a stunning reimagining of some of the favourite Greek myths – taking in the story of Daedalus and Icarus, the Minotaur, Scylla the sea monster, the endless punishment of Prometheus, amongst others. And at the centre of it is the story of a woman Circe – immortal, yes, but who feels love, anger, loneliness, fear, jealousy, and who struggles with single motherhood. She grows to look down on the Gods, almost as wilful children who make their mark by killing mortals who slight them somehow, or starting wars for fun. It’s a fast-paced story – after all, if you have an eternity to live, mortal lifetimes pass in the blink of an eye.

A timely rewriting of all your favourite Greek myths with a feminist angle, and the Odyssey with more than a hint of #MeToo, Circe is also a thrilling and captivating page turner. Well worth waiting for.

Circe by Madeline Miller is out now, published by Bloomsbury.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Where to begin when discussing The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock? A beautifully packaged, buzzy debut which you’re almost afraid to begin for fear it won’t live up to expectation. However, this is one of the most spellbinding and magical historical novels I’ve ever read, reminiscent of the gritty authenticity of The Crimson Petal and the White, which deserves all the acclaim it’s had to date.

Set at the end of the 18th century, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock opens with Jonah Hancock, a widowed merchant who lives a lonely life, cared for by only his young niece, dreaming of the family he could have had. One fateful evening, that will change his life, his most trusted agent returns with the news that he has sold his best ship, in exchange for what appears to be a dead mermaid. Initially horrified, Mr Hancock is persuaded to exhibit it, in the hope that he might recoup some of his money. Word quickly spreads, and in no time at all Mrs Chappell, one of the most renowned bawds in London determines to rent the mermaid as a diversion for her ‘nunnery.’ She charges Angelica Neal, one of her former protégées, and one of London’s most beautiful courtesans, to keep Mr Hancock sweet – and thus their lives will be intertwined, in the most unlikely way, weathering decisions both good and bad.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is clearly impressively researched, but wears it lightly, striking a brilliant balance between comedy and social commentary. There are great lines, humorously reminding the reader of the wonders yet to be discovered by 18th century England, such as the coffee shop owner pointing out how ridiculous it is to believe in the ‘kongourou’, but not in mermaids, and the scientist who remains sceptical, but who doesn’t wish to repeat the embarrassment of his previous – disproven – assertion that lions are born as puffballs. Yet much is also made of the extent to which women’s fortunes rely on their mensfolk, be it Angelica, searching for a sponsor to keep her, to Jonah’s niece Sukie, who will rely on him for a dowry. And even Mrs Chappell relies on a network of powerful men to keep her safe. It’s also a fascinating exploration of sex and virtue in the 1700s – the mermaid orgy scene I think will stay with all of us for some time!

A compelling, memorable story of love, obsession and commodity, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is nothing short of a masterpiece in my opinion, and signals an exciting new talent.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is out now from Vintage Books.

Dark Pines by Will Dean

There’s really something to be said for reviewing books when you actually read them, rather than some months later. Nonetheless, let’s give it a go. I had heard much about this exciting Sweden-based debut from the oh-so charming Will Dean. Liz (of the ‘Loves Books’) fame had been talking it up for quite some time, and the premise (one word – Swedish) sounded intriguing. So one cold January evening, I curled up and took a look.

Dark Pines’ protagonist is Tuva Moodyson, a young deaf reporter working in the remote town of Gavrik. She is used to covering local stories, ‘your daughter scoring in a hockey match or your neighbour growing the town’s longest carrot’, but when a body is found in the forest, eyes missing, in a manner similar to another case known as the Medusa case twenty years ago, Tuva senses that this could be the story that makes her name. But between visits to her sick mother, navigating the resentful locals who don’t want negative stories damaging their town, and even keeping on top of laundry, nothing about this story will be simple.

The suspects are all weirder than the next, and include a keen hunter, two terrifying sisters who carve unnerving wooden trolls, and a militant anti-hunting vegetarian possibly taking revenge on the many hunters in the area. Tuva already has a fear of the forest, let alone with one of them on her tail… Nothing about the trail makes sense, and as more bodies pile up, Tuva is running out of time.

Dark Pines is a thrilling and clever mystery, but what made it outstanding to me is the unique and interesting lead character of Tuva, and the completely exquisite, evocative and atmospheric writing. You can almost smell the damp pine needles, and feel the boggy thickness of the air as you read. A very exciting debut, and I look forward to reading whatever Will Dean produces from the forest in which he lives (obvs).

Dark Pines by Will Dean is out now, published by Point Blank.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

I find books exploring friendships between teenage girls fascinating to read. They shine a certain clarity on the trials and tribulations of my own teenage years, as well as bringing back memories both joyous and otherwise. Even if my own teenage friendships were less fraught than that of Julia and Cassie, the ‘Burning Girl’ of the title. 


Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school, sharing everything, including a love of Lady Gaga, and a volunteering job at a kennel. But there is a gulf between the two of them that will be more keenly felt over the years – whilst Julia was raised in a happy middle-class family, Cassie is from a single parent family, after the death of her father, and increasingly clashes with her mother. Over the years, in secondary school, the pair start to drift apart. But Cassie, increasingly affected by her mother’s new relationship, also begins to wonder how much of what her mother has told her is the truth. Julia can only hope for her old friend as she sets off in search of her ‘guardian angel’ she’s certain is still out there. 

Claire Messud brilliantly captures young friendships: the long-term plans, the bad behaviour you drag each other into, the secrets shared, but also the small hurts a friend can inflict, to the pain of drifting away from your closest friend, and the shock that you don’t know everything about them. She’s also very sharp on growing up as a young woman, and becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of being female – I vividly remember a teacher recommending we get rape alarms, and swapping tips on how to walk home safely (‘hairspray doubles as pepper spray!’ ‘If you hold your keys between your knuckles…’). 

The Burning Girl took me right back to the growing pains of my schooldays – but don’t let that put you off! I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone – heartbreakingly sad, though often funny, and breathtakingly real. 

The Burning Girls by Claire Messud is out now, published by Fleet.