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Kate (Oxford, Oxon United Kingdom)

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The Girl on the Train
The Girl on the Train
by Paula Hawkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.49

70 of 70 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A thriller that rockets along, 20 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Girl on the Train (Hardcover)
Rachel takes the same train into London every morning and every day it stops at the same signal. If she manages to sit on the right side of the train, grabbing her favourite seat, she is often able to catch a glance of the perfect couple. She doesn't know their names but to Rachel they are Jess and Jason and around them she has spun a web of perfect happiness. There's another reason why this row of houses obsesses Rachel - a few doors down from Jess and Jason lives Rachel's ex-husband Tom along with his new family, his wife Anna and their baby. But they don't concern Rachel. She just wants a glimpse into the lives of Jess and Jason. Until the day comes when Rachel sees Jess in her garden in the arms of another man. Overwhelmed by anxiety, Rachel is determined to find out the identity of this man for whom Jess would risk her perfect life.

And then everything falls to pieces. Rachel wakes up one morning with no recollection of arriving home the night before. She is bruised and bloody. She then discovers that Jess, or Megan as Rachel now discovers she is really called, is missing, gone without a trace. Rachel cannot keep quiet. She has to know what has happened, she needs to reclaim her lost hours, and she will let nothing stand in her way as she pursues the truth to the bitter end.

That's about as much as I want to mention of the plot as there is a great deal more to it than that and The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller that relies on shocking its readers, steering them round blind bends, teasing them with twists. Adding to the uncertainty is the structure of the book - it is divided into three first person narratives, focusing on the stories of the novel's women - Rachel, Megan and Anna. The extent to which any can be relied upon is entirely up to the reader to decide but it soon becomes apparent that Rachel is not at all as she first seems. Why then should we trust the words of Megan and Anna? Who to believe? What to believe? And what has happened to Megan?

The Girl on the Train is a very difficult novel to put down. It pulses along, following the rhythms of the daily commute, switching between narrators, raising the levels of panic as confusion, loss of memory, secrecy and deceit struggle for dominance. The opening section on the novel focuses entirely on Rachel, slowing letting us creep into her world, and she is well able to ensnare the reader with her words.

The mystery at the heart of the novel is a puzzle indeed and, although I did guess it, I enjoyed where it took us. But the mystery is only one half of this novel, the rest comprises the portrait of Rachel and a lot of what you think of this novel will depend on how you respond to its portrayal of Rachel. Personally, while I enjoyed the puzzle and structure of the novel, both of which kept me turning the pages relentlessly, I was in two minds about Rachel. I was intrigued by her voice but as we get to know her more I began to feel that she is rather shabbily treated - not just by life but also by the author (or, to be more precise, the author's persona). Rachel has some serious problems but as time goes by we begin to understand why and at that point I pitied Rachel enormously and felt she didn't deserve a lot of what she gets in this book. I never liked Rachel but I felt extremely sorry for her and I wished that she had received a little more charity. It did feel on occasion a little unpleasant.

But then that is what this book feels all about - unsavoury business being found out. The three main female characters are not likeable, neither are the few male characters. The women in particular have worlds between them but there is no space for shared empathy. But the reader is made to feel curious by the novel's fast beat, keeping the pages turning, moving from one woman's life to another, chasing the clues, intrigued by Rachel's obsession, feeling superior to her confusion.

While The Girl on the Train caught my interest and hung on to it until the end, I didn't like anyone in it enough to care overmuch who would turn out to be the villain of the piece - this isn't a sticking point for many but it did mar my enjoyment, compounded by my disgruntlement at how Rachel's issues were handled and portrayed. I can understand why this novel is being compared to Gone Girl. There are several similarities, not just in the nature of the characters but also in the reader's attitude to them. If you liked one then I think you might definitely enjoy the other. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Agent Runner
The Agent Runner
by Simon Conway
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful read from start to finish, 20 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Agent Runner (Paperback)
Ed Malik, a complicated man whose heritage is drawn from both east and west, is an agent runner for M16, focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ten years after 9/11, these are dangerous times. The hunt for Osama Bin Laden is reaching a close; the trap is almost set. Malik runs an agent known as Nightingale who is placed at the heart of ISI, Pakistan's secret spy network, but in the aftermath of Bin Laden's capture and execution Nightingale is shot in the head, killed by a senior member of ISI. The cloak is lifted. Ed becomes known to Major-General Javid Aslam Khan, otherwise known as the Hidden Hand, Pakistan's spy master, legendary and lethal.

With his cover blown, Ed is dismissed from M16 and has no choice but to create a new life for himself in London, working in the private sector, keeping what links he can with Pakistan. Matters are complicated when Ed falls for Leyla, his new boss's daughter, an extraordinary young woman and a magnet for danger. But Ed cannot forget Nightingale, finding himself drawn back to the mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, an area ruled by anarchic tribal chiefs, a place to which Khan and his henchmen are also drawn and where the most terrible of plots are hatched and born.

The Agent Runner is a spy thriller that barely takes time to draw breath. At under 300 pages, it can be read easily in one or two days and this adds to the pace created by the novel's movement across London, Lahore, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. The action moves between people as well as places, between Ed Malik and Khan and his agents, most especially Noman, a man who has taken to extremes the skills of torture and inquisition, but the reader is kept a step or two behind throughout. There is no one in this novel without secrets, not even Leyla is innocent.

If there were one word I had to use to describe The Agent Runner it would be tense. This is an edge of the seat read. But I would also describe it as tragic. The characters are the product of horrendous events and hatred and few emerge unscathed. Ed is damaged - the fate of Nightingale is never forgotten - and his drive for vengeance is at odds with the other part of him that wants peace. But we are never allowed deep enough into Ed's thoughts to know what he really wants. He's a sympathetic character but he remains unknowable. Khan on the other hand is the bogeyman, the monster - although he has a rival in Noman. There are some truly chilling moments, especially those that circle around suicide bombers. We are never allowed to forget what a frightening world this is. And it is a violent world from which Simon Conway doesn't flinch.

I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Conway's Rock Creek Park and, while The Agent Runner is a very different type of thriller, set a world away from the events and themes of Rock Creek Park, taking this reader at least into unfamiliar and disturbing territory, it is a powerful read from start to finish. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Time Of Singing (William Marshal)
The Time Of Singing (William Marshal)
by Elizabeth Chadwick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Full of colour and life - absolutely wonderful, 20 Feb. 2015
In the 1170s, Henry II reigns supreme but all is not well. Harried by his son, the Young King, and with Eleanor, his Queen, imprisoned for choosing son above husband, Henry suspects everyone of treachery, testing his nobles, encouraging their squabbles, demanding their utmost commitment in an endless cycle of military campaigns in England and in Normandy. It is Roger Bigod's lot to suffer the moods and contradictions of his King. When Roger's father, Earl of Norfolk and a brutish man, died, the title and his estates become the source of a great dispute between Roger, his eldest heir whose mother was discarded, and the sons of his second and bitter wife. The only man who can decide is Henry II and he is in no rush, keeping Roger close to him, demanding years of service and tribute, allowing him to spend years in limbo, living in a castle without walls and defences, waiting for the time when he might be allowed to rebuild it.

Ida de Tosney is a young ward of Henry's, innocent and beautiful. Unfortunately, she is too beautiful and modest for her own good. Forced to become the King's mistress, Ida must endure her own feelings of disgrace, abused and near friendless, the eyes of the court on her. She bears Henry a son, William, but even her own son cannot belong to her. Everything belongs to Henry. But as the years go by and Henry's addiction to her wanes she is given the option to marry the one man she believes might give her happiness - Roger. To marry requires strength and character in both Ida and Roger, boosted by their love and that all-important self-awareness of the dangers of the royal court.

The Time of Singing is a majestic novel, based on a true story which takes us into the heart of Roger and Ida's home, reminding us that both were people as real as you and me, who made a life together in the most difficult of circumstances, watched carefully from the wings by some of the most extraordinary, charismatic figures of English history, all members of one remarkable family - Henry, Eleanor, Richard and John. The novel follows the couple through to the end of the 12th century, years filled with ambitious and greedy kings, personal dramas, warfare, political machinations, heartache and feuds. The story moves from the royal court and the Bigod main home of Framlingham Castle to other estates across England and Normandy. There's barely time to settle anywhere. This is a court on the move, urged on by conflict with the French King and with various sons of Henry II.

All of the time Roger has to play a delicate game, proclaiming his loyalty while being aware of how easily it could all collapse around him. All it would take is a misspoken word, whispered into the wrong ear, and everything could be lost. Ida is even more helpless. With Roger is his contemporary and friend William Marshal. It is always such a pleasure to spend time in the company of the Marshal, whose character is evoked by Elizabeth Chadwick in a manner that I doubt can ever be equalled. I can never forget The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion and it is wonderful to meet William again here and to see the links grow between the Marshal and Bigod families.

Elizabeth Chadwick has the fabulous ability of making the reader feel that they have travelled back in time. When I read a Chadwick novel I feel fully immersed, a world away, but, although these characters lived such a long time ago, Elizabeth Chadwick reminds us brilliantly that they were just the same as us in so many ways even though our lives are so different. Roger and Ida are realised so perfectly - Roger with his love of hats and Ida's fascination for fabrics - and they feel very real. Likewise, Henry II looms large, almost the monster of the piece. What he does to Ida is nothing less than rape and his relationships to her and to almost everyone else are abusive. This is a frightening man, just holding his kingdom together, his family at each other's throats.

The novel is full of colour and details. This is meticulously researched historical fiction. I could imagine the rooms and the buildings, picture the clothes and the furnishings. The dialogue is superb, the prose is cleverly light, dancing along, pulling the reader with it. There are military skirmishes, sieges, and reminders of the horror of medieval warfare, but this is secondary to the novel's personal dramas. While William Marshal is the greatest knight, and shown here repeatedly to be an exemplar of chivalry, Roger Bigod's talents lie elsewhere, in justice and administration. He does his military service and exhibits astonishing bravery but this is not where his heart lies. Ida's world is more restricted, frequently controlled by childbirth, but she must still play an elaborate game with the powerful ladies of the court. Both Roger and Ida are hugely likeable characters and this contributes enormously to a novel that is so much fun to read.

Every novel by Elizabeth Chadwick I read I adore. She can do no wrong in my eyes and I can't praise her novels enough. The Winter Crown was my favourite historical novel of 2014. The Time of Singing is every bit as fabulous as I was expecting and I just didn't want to finish it. Fortunately, there is a follow up - To Defy a King - and I will be reading that very shortly. But I'm being careful - I love these books so much I don't want them to run out!

The Great Zoo Of China
The Great Zoo Of China
by Matthew Reilly
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thrilling, exciting, gory!, 20 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Great Zoo Of China (Hardcover)
CJ Cameron, a journalist with expertise in reptiles, and her photographer brother Hamish are transported to China in great secrecy to witness the unveiling of a new zoo, the like of which has never been seen before, that will, the Chinese authorities proclaim, boost the nation's morale through the roof. CJ, Hamish and a small group of journalists and reporters, including those beloved by American TV cameras, are met on their arrival by their hosts, senior Chinese politicans, and so begins a tour unlike any other. The enclosures are vast, encompassing mountains, swamps, meadows, caves and rivers. A new world has been built in order to encage the old. For within can be found the stuff of legend. Within there be dragons.

The dragons are not a secret to the prospective reader - the cover makes their presence clear - but what is even more obvious to the reader is that this is not a tour unlike any that has gone before, nor is this a zoo that will shock the reader with its novelty. The Great Zoo of China is, to all intents and purposes, Jurassic Park with Dragons. At the back is an interview with Matthew Reilly in which the author declares that Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton is his favourite novel of all time, his inspiration for becoming a writer, and so, while paying tribute to this novel, he describes how he set out to make The Great Zoo of China as different as possible. The main difference, except for the nature of the beasties, is the Chinese location and the move from capitalist venture to political gamble. In other words, not that different at all. Matters aren't helped by the creators of the Chinese zoo telling their skeptical guests that of course they've seen Jurassic Park and nothing like that could ever go wrong here. The reader, who has also seen and/or read Jurassic Park, knows differently.

But while Matthew Reilly has not succeeded in writing an original novel, he has done much better in creating a tour de force thriller that I found nigh on impossible to put down. Reilly is a great thriller writer and when he does it well, as with Ice Station and Contest, I think he's unbeatable. And in The Great Zoo of China Reilly brings all his talents to bear, which is good news indeed after Reilly's previous novel, which ventured into new territory entirely with the 16th-century historical thriller The Tournament.

CJ is one of Reilly's most appealing central figures, with a well-developed backhistory and the scars to prove it, and with more than enough ingenuity, courage and wit to prove a match for almost any monster, whether dragon or human. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her. As for the dragons - Reilly spends a great deal of time developing different species of dragons with their distinct behaviours and preferences for different environments. This is a spectacularly visual novel. While it is very difficult to disassociate some of the dragons from Crichton's velociraptors, they are vividly drawn and can be both menacing and curiously engaging. As the novel proceeds and we learn more and more about the dragons and their behaviour, the sense of peril increases enormously. As a result, I was reading this into the small hours.

I do have one problem with the book, in addition to the Jurassic Park issue, and that is with Reilly's treatment of the Chinese. It is hardly flattering and at times verges on the offensive. There are moments when it's difficult to tell who cares less for human life - dragons or the Chinese Communist Party.

The Great Zoo of China is not original but it is a very exciting book. It is also violent and bloody. The pages race past as drama upon drama strive to be more thrilling than the one that went before. When all's said and done, this is a book that Reilly obviously had a whale of a time writing and that enthusiasm shows. I would have preferred him to have turned his attention to something more original, along the lines of Contest, or even returning to his great hero Scarecrow, but I nevertheless loved every page of The Great Zoo of China. It's undemanding, great fun to read, thrilling, exciting, gory and did I say thrilling? I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Sword of Attila: Total War: Rome
The Sword of Attila: Total War: Rome
Price: £3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Hugely entertaining novel, thoroughly researched and vividly characterised, 20 Feb. 2015
Almost six centuries after the sacking and complete destruction of Carthage by the legions of Rome, it is now the turn of Rome's soldiers to run for their lives, the Vandal war dogs snapping at their heels, chasing the few survivors to their boats and safety back in Rome, north Africa abandoned. But safety can be only temporary. In the mid 5th century AD, the empire is shrinking, the troops withdrawn from Britain to protect Rome's core, beset as it is by tribes invigorated by their increasing success. Now, though, there comes an even greater threat, one so feared that one of Rome's greatest enemies, the Visigoths, considers joining its forces to those of Rome - Attila King of the Huns and his face scarred warriors are on the move.

Despite the great threats facing Rome, possibly because of it, this is a time of heroes. Aetius is the Commander in Chief of Rome's western forces, a man who inspires hope. His nephew Flavius is one of the bravest soldiers, rising through the ranks over several years of campaigns, taking the war against Attila across Europe and right into the Hun heartland itself.

Flavius is a fictional character but he is the perfect medium through which David Gibbins explores this crucial and fascinating period of Rome's last battle for survival in the west. Beginning with Flavius's military baptism in the collapse of Carthage, The Sword of Attila follows Flavius's career back in Rome, and in the East, culminating in the great Battle of the Catalaunian Plains against Attila the Hun, which took place in AD 451 in Gaul. The novel presents plenty of action - war dominates Flavius's life. His military education is spent in Rome, surrounded by memorials to a glorious past, especially Trajan's Column. Flavius memorises its images and scenes while training future legions to defend the city. But Gibbins also takes us away from the battlefield into the murky world of late Roman politics. This is an empire in decline, ruled by men who epitomise its degeneration. It takes more than a steady sword arm to survive in these times. Even one that hankers to wield the sword of Attila itself.

There is another element to The Sword of Attila that adds to its appeal even more than the monster on the horizon, Attila. And that is Arturus, a warrior monk from Britain. Arturus and Flavius endure several adventures together, taking them beyond the fringes of the Dark Ages, into the lawless swamps of the Danube, haunted by memories of an abandoned Britain, keen to return and defend it. Arturus is a strongly believable interpretation of a figure so integral to Dark Ages myth and he and Flavius make fine companions through this exciting journey.

The Sword of Attila is intended to complement the game Total War: Rome just as its predecessor Destroy Carthage did. It is designed to appeal to gamers, introducing the key players and terrain, assessing strategies, strengths, weaknesses and battle plans. The Sword of Attila makes a series of leaps through time, taking us straight to the heart of a new phase of action each time. The emphasis is on the movement of war, the determination and skills of its soldiers. The degenerate rulers of Rome stand in clear contrast to soldiers, including those who fight against Rome. Even Attila is shown to have more saving graces than the eunuchs who corrupt Rome from the inside.

I had misgivings about Destroy Carthage. I found it cold and stage-managed. In The Sword of Attila, however, David Gibbins manages to avoid all of the pitfalls of its predecessor, producing instead a hugely entertaining novel, thoroughly researched and vividly characterised. Here are people I enjoyed, hailing as they do from all parts of the known world, the fictional, the semi-fictional and the factual figures all complementing each other perfectly. From the bloody retreat from Carthage through to the final pitched battle, I was glued to the pages of this book. The locations are painted beautifully and the novel moves along with such a pace, teaching us about 5th-century warfare but never at the expense of entertainment and fascinating stories. The novel itself is relatively short at under 300 pages but it is supported by extensive notes, providing background on the history and warfare of the period.

I have been such a fan of David Gibbins' writing for years and I was delighted to discover here an extremely exciting and meticulous account of almost twenty years of military campaigning, focusing on a small group of men, including an enigmatic figure from Britain, who risk everything. Gibbins covers a huge amount of ground but he does so with a great deal of skill, bringing much more than military history to life. This book addresses and fixes my misgivings with Destroy Carthage and Gibbins is to be congratulated. I'm grateful for the review copy.

Serpents in the Cold
Serpents in the Cold
by Douglas Graham Purdy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating, really quite terrifying portrait of Boston during a freezing spell in 1951, 20 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Serpents in the Cold (Paperback)
It is 1951 and winter has gripped the city of Boston in a vice. These are dark times for the city. The post-war years have left the streets in decline, the residents depressed, the politicians as corrupt and violent as the gangsters who control the city's businesses. Even the streets themselves are up for sale, whole neighbourhoods sold to the highest bidder for demolition, communities destroyed by dirty deals. It is a year since the Great Brink's Robbery, the largest robbery in US history, its proceeds lost in the unhappy streets. And now in this brutal winter which has locked Boston in ice, a serial killer is loose.

Two children walking their dog along the bay discover the remains of the latest victim, a young woman, her throat slit, her body frozen. In life the woman was Sheila Anderson, the sister-in-law of Dante Cooper, a man trying to reclaim his life from drugs and debt to thugs. Dante's closest friend, Cal O'Brien, used to be a police detective but now, damaged by his war experiences, he runs a respectable private security business. But now both men have one thing on their minds - justice for Sheila. Going undercover, the two men become vigilantes, digging deep into Boston's secrets, discovering that there is much more to fear than a serial killer. For every discovery they make, the risks soar and the cost becomes ever more dear.

Serpents in the Cold is a historical mystery that manages to consume the reader, pulling him or her into this dangerous world that is little removed from us in time but is a world away in so many ways. The atmosphere is close and claustrophobic. The city feels almost like an island with everyone trapped inside it. Boston's criminals flourish in all levels of society. It feels unclean. The ice and the cold are bitterly felt. This is a chilly novel indeed. It's as if everyone is waiting for the ice to melt so that they can make their escape from this trap that is prowled by conmen, gangsters and murderers. It's not just the serial killers who kill, though. There's a strong sense that police are losing control and that they need the help of Cal and Dante to solve these murders but Cal and Dante are not your typical detectives.

This is an extremely noir-y and violent novel, reflecting the violent times. The authors pull no punches. At times it is shocking, building up to a climax that is both edge of the seat and disturbing. Cal is haunted by horrors and they come and go through the pages. For Dante, his nightmares are in the present. The story of his marriage is harrowing and we can understand why it means so much that he find justice for his wife's sister.

As the novel proceeds, we are guided through Boston's underworld, introduced to its businessmen and politicians, its thugs, and those who are trying to live an honourable life, caring for families, looking after those worse off. Sheila becomes more and more crucial and, although a murder victim, she has a presence throughout the book. Adding to the atmosphere and the strong presence of Boston itself as a central character, the book contains several contemporary photographs of the city in 1951.

There are no tidy resolutions in Serpents in the Cold. There's a sense from the very beginning that things are going to get nasty and they don't disappoint. Holding it all together are the charismatic figures of Dan and Cal, each with their own problems and resolutions, but each bringing hope to the novel through the force of their friendship and their dedication to pursue justice, however dirty it gets. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Serpent Papers (The Serpent Papers Trilogy)
The Serpent Papers (The Serpent Papers Trilogy)
by Jessica Cornwell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A clever and beautifully-written labyrinth of a thriller, 20 Feb. 2015
Anna Verco is an academic and a book thief. She works for Picatrix, an anonymous agency that hunts for the most esoteric texts of the Middle Ages, most especially the lost works of Rex Illuminatus. These gnostic texts, the Serpent Papers, are imagined to contain many of the lost secrets of the ancient world, their mysteries hidden on manuscripts behind later writings, obscured by puzzles and diagrams and symbols. The potential power of these words to those who seek them, whether to own or to destroy, means that fragments are scattered, hidden within ancient walls, in other texts, in unfrequented libraries and archives, protected by monks, priests, scholars. The golden secrets contained within the manuscripts are just one mystery sought by Anna, the other is the identity of their author, Rex Illuminatus himself. The chase takes Anna to Spain.

This is not just a book hunt. Ten years before, in the summer of 2003, Barcelona was shaken by the murders of three women. There was nothing straightforward about their killing. They were each hung up, their skin carved with symbols, their tongues cut out at the root. Finally, a fourth victim. On the Festival of St John, Natalia Hernandez, a beloved actress and dancer, is found bleeding to death on the steps of Barcelona's Cathedral. The city demands justice and detective Fabregat is the man tasked with obtaining it. A young woman helped him, providing almost psychic insight into the objectives of the killer - Anna Verco. And now, in the present, as Anna unlocks clues to the mysteries of the Serpent Papers, it becomes more and more evident that the killer is once more awake.

The Serpent Papers is an elegant, beautifully written novel. At its heart lie Barcelona and Mallorca, two places with a rich, religious history, wonderfully evoked by Jessica Cornwell. I particularly enjoyed the pages in which Anna scours the near ruinous walls of a Mallorca chapel for clues. But it is all done so well. I haven't been to either place and so cannot vouch for the accuracy personally but it feels very real.

In contrast, the Serpent Papers themselves are far more elusive. Jessica Cornwell makes demands of her readers. You need to have your wits about you. The movement of the novel is at times as mysterious as the content of the lost texts. The clues lie around but I was none the wiser for many of them. Nevertheless, I loved where this novel took me and I found it utterly absorbing, bewitching almost. Anna Verco is one of those magnificent unreliable narrators. Much of the novel is told in Anna's own words, moving from the present to the past and back again. Her experiences with the detective are recalled from memory, at times fooling the reader into thinking these are his words we're hearing. But they're not. Witnesses and suspects are paraded in front of us. Past and present Annas move between them. She is a complex character. She demands our attention. The presence of Natalia Hernandez is particularly potent but there are other voices here that go much further back into the story.

Throughout the novel we have the letters and diaries of previous hunters for the mysteries and identity of Rex Illuminatus. I loved these. They are far more effective in proclaiming the timelessness of Rex Illuminatus than his own esoteric, fragmentary words can be. They are also increasingly chilling and frightening. There is evil at work here and it fills the pages of the novel, threatening us just as it terrifies Anna and obsesses Fabregat.

The novel itself changes as time goes on and Anna gets closer to the identity of the killer - the second half of the book is much more to do with the murders than the first. In this part of the book we spend more time in Natalia's artistic world and it is a captivating place to be.

The Serpent Papers is a labyrinth of a novel. I can't pretend to have understood it all. But the beauty of the prose and the strong sense of place and mystery are more than enough to carry this reader through. This is a very accomplished and ambitious debut. Confusing in places, stunning in others and frequently disturbing, The Serpent Papers takes us into very dark worlds, where the past and the present blend, and murder, that most final and real of acts, blurs into something even more evil. Although the novel has a very satisfactory ending, it is the first in a trilogy. Which as just as well because there is much more to learn. I sense that we are just scraping the surface. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Ice Twins
The Ice Twins
by S. K. Tremayne
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.00

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining psychological drama, 20 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Ice Twins (Hardcover)
Sarah and Angus Moorcroft are ready to start a new life. Angus's grandmother has left them her cottage, a lightkeeper's house, on the remote island of Torran near Skye. The tiny island's shore is sealed by wet sands. The only way to travel between Torran and Skye is by dinghy, the only means to bring in supplies. Torran is a world away from Camden in London but Sarah and Angus have good reason to move. It is a year since one of their perfectly identical twin girls fell to her death from a balcony, in full view of her sister. Kirstie wept for her twin Lydia. But as the months go by with Sarah increasingly clinging to Kirstie for comfort, cut adrift from her husband through grief, Sarah begins to worry. Kirstie is acting oddly. Even the dog is behaving strangely around the little girl. Sarah suddenly understands that they only have Kirstie's word that it was Lydia who died that terrible day. What if it hadn't been Lydia? What if Lydia were still alive? Perhaps on the island, away from their memories, everything will be all right.

The Ice Twins is a pageturning psychological thriller. It builds a tense pace through its short sentences, fast dialogue and present tense. Much of the novel is told in the first person by Sarah, an effective way of portraying the turmoil, unhappiness and questions in her mind. Sarah keeps much of what she's feeling in her head. We are allowed far more insight than her husband who watches on, drinking much more than he should, wanting to do the right thing. But as the novel proceeds the narrative includes sections which focus on Angus. These are in the third person. We're being kept at a distance. But it becomes increasingly clear that these are two people with very little to tie them together except their love and grief for their daughters.

The fascination with the story lies in the mystery of the Ice Twins. They are ultimately unknowable. It is difficult to enter into that secret world that twins share, even more so when one is lost and a parent is trying desperately to take their place, to provide comfort to the surviving twin. The problem of their identity ebbs and flows throughout the novel and it is intriguingly done. But this is only one part of the book - the relationship between the parents, the setting of this beautiful yet dangerous island, both pull the reader along. The location is well described and adds to the atmosphere of the thriller. Adding to it even more is the creepiness of its mood. There is something of the ghost story about The Ice Twins. It is sinister and threatening, just as the island itself can frighten when the storms arrive.

While I enjoyed The Ice Twins and was happy to be pulled along by it, I did have some issues with it. The writing certainly gives the book an energy but I did find it clunky and abrupt in places, especially the dialogue. More problematic was the fact that I didn't care for any of the Moorcroft family and I wasn't sure if that was intentional or not. Both Sarah and, especially, Angus are rather unpleasant and unappealing. The more I discovered of their relationship and attitudes towards one another the less I liked them. That meant that the twists and turns of the plot became increasingly less meaningful or surprising to me.

Nevertheless, The Ice Twins is an entertaining enough thriller. I read it on holiday and it was perfect for that. I'm grateful for the review copy.

The Forgotten Holocaust (Ben Hope, Book 10)
The Forgotten Holocaust (Ben Hope, Book 10)
by Scott Mariani
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best Ben Hope thrillers!, 20 Feb. 2015
Ben Hope is at a crossroads in his life. Turning his back on his job and home in France, Ben rents a cottage close to his former property on the Irish coast, now transformed into a hotel. One night on the shore he meets one of its guests, Kristen, who, over a bottle of Laphroaig in his cottage, tells Ben about her work. She is a journalist, researching the lives of an aristocratic family that lived in Ireland during the 1840s. However, her attention has been distracted by something else that she has discovered, something that could turn out to be huge. But before she can tell Ben what that is, Kristen is murdered before Ben's eyes. From that instant, Ben is determined to discover Kristen's secret, to find out what it was that was worth killing her for, and to avenge this young woman, killed without mercy, who he'd been unable to save.

The Forgotten Holocaust is the tenth novel in a fabulous series that I have read and loved for years. But, although the book makes brief mention of the life that Ben has turned his back on, it can be read very easily as a standalone novel. In a series as long as this one, I like that new readers can pop in and out, not having to commit to reading all of them in a row, and The Forgotten Holocaust works very well indeed as a way in. Of course, if you start here, the chances are that you'll then want to go straight back to where it all began with the superb The Alchemist's Secret.

Ben Hope himself is a marvellous character. His moods seesaw all over the place, his drinking habit has a life of its own, and he desperately wants to make the world a better place, working above all else to protect the innocent and put right injustices. His superb name sums him up - a James Bond figure who is ultimately a good man despite his ability to commit deadly violence and who makes the world a better place by removing a fair few of the bad people in it. Ben's religious sensibilities, which have popped up in other novels, are almost entirely absent here. Ben is on a mission and he is as determined and tunnel-visioned as we've ever seen him. He cannot cope with the fact that Kristen was killed right in front of him. He has to pull himself together, put the past behind him, get back into shape, and strike down the evil that for a short while at least had him beaten.

Often in these novels there is a mystery element and The Forgotten Holocaust is no different, taking the reader back in time to one of the darkest periods in Irish history, the great famine of the late 1840s. Scott Mariani does this so well. He fascinates and informs while at the same time reminding us of just how truly appalling this time was. I now want to find out much more for myself, the mark of a good novel.

There is action (and violence) galore, with another thrilling story set in Oklahoma running parallel to Ben's for a time. As the novel moves across oceans and lands, the tempo builds until, at least for this reader, The Forgotten Holocaust became impossible to put down.

The standard of the Ben Hope thrillers is consistently high and it's such a highlight of the reading year to meet up with Ben again. The last couple of novels have been particularly excellent and I'm delighted to see that The Forgotten Holocaust continues this trend.

The May Bride
The May Bride
by Suzannah Dunn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.00

3.0 out of 5 stars A meticulous, domestic tale of Tudor family life at Wolf Hall, 20 Feb. 2015
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This review is from: The May Bride (Hardcover)
Jane Seymour is an obedient, quiet fifteen-year-old when her elder brother Edward brings home his May Bride to Wolf Hall. Katherine Filliol is, to Jane's mind, the very opposite of herself. While Jane is the compliant daughter of the house, the almost surrogate mother to her younger sisters, in charge of many of the household's most tedious and manual duties, Katherine appears free, a smile and a giggle regularly playing on her lips, a delightful and beautiful challenge to the domestic monotony of the Seymour family. Jane begins to see her home and family through new eyes, her mind teased and opened, her chores lightened by sharing them with such a charming and ever so slightly rebellious companion.

Jane, though, is not the only member of the Seymour family to be affected by this breath of fresh air and therein lies the harm of Katherine Filliol. Told in Jane's own words, and from her rather tantalising future perspective of being Henry VIII's Queen-in-Waiting, we are presented with the scandal that almost destroyed the Seymours' prospects at a time when they were about to outshine every other family at the Tudor court. Edward and Thomas Seymour, such contrasting and yet charismatic young men, as well as the younger siblings, the parents and the small number of servants, plus Katherine herself, are brought to life within the small confines of Jane's world.

Jane's life is radically transformed by the events portrayed in The May Bride. Her narrative attempts to understand them while in the final section of the novel she has to cope with the biggest change of them all. It's interesting how she deals with it - she is almost aloof, the pawn of men, the witness of her future husband's treatment of two queens, following on from watching her brother Edward's treatment of his wife Katherine. The fact that we know Jane's fate only adds to the tension. But although this period of Jane's life might be the one most interesting to readers (well, this reader, anyway), it's the one that gets the most rushed treatment. Personally, I would have loved to have spent more time in Queen Katherine's court, with its diminishing visits by the king, rather than with may bride Katherine. However, my waning interest in Seymour domesticity was kept at bay by the character of Jane Seymour herself.

The May Bride is an intriguing novel. In a way it presents something that isn't entirely expected. Jane Seymour is Henry VIII's may bride but she gives herself very little time here, only about a quarter of the novel. The focus is very much on Jane the observer's fascination with Edward's may bride, Katherine, and the impact of her presence on the minutiae of domestic life in an upwardly mobile but unimportant Tudor household. It's a meticulous portrayal of Tudor domesticity - here you'll find details about every part of Wolf Hall, from its laundry, kitchen and stables to its bedrooms and gallery. If you've been pulled into this world by the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall then you may well find something to catch your eye around every corner.

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