Category Archives: Crime Fiction

The Last Time She Died by Zoe Sharp

Nothing excites me more than seeing an already dysfunctional family fall even further into the abyss. I mean this in a fictional sense of course, because in an ideal world, families fix each other and seek outside help when they can’t do it themselves. But in the world of fiction, happy families don’t tend to feature too much in crime fiction and other dramatic productions; and if they do, they don’t stay happy for too long.

In Zoe Sharp‘s new and engrossing thriller, The Last Time She Died, the Fitzroy family are so dysfunctional they’d give Succession‘s Roy family a run for their considerable fortune. The patriarch, Gideon Fitzroy, a former MP, has been killed in a freak car accident. His family, including his second wife Virginia, brother-in-law Roger, step-children Lily and Tom, deal with it in the only way they know how: not well at all. There is the small matter of a will, as well as the sudden appearance of a woman who may or may not be Fitzroy’s daughter from his first marriage. Blake Claremont breaks into her once family home, sets off the alarm, and waits for the police to come and arrest her, thereby setting off a battle of wills that will open a can of worms that will crawls over everyone involved in her disappearance and apparent death ten years earlier. I say apparent, because someone died that night. But whom?

Detective Superintendent John Byron is attending the funeral. Although he’s on medical leave, his commander at the Met wants him on the scene because of a scandal involving a suspected ring of paedophiles among British MPs that Fitzroy may have had knowledge of. Blake’s sudden reappearance and willingness to ruffle feathers among her family and the locals, including PC Jane Hudson and former PC Ed Underhill, only adds further mystery to an already fractious investigation. While not exactly trusting one another, Byron and Blake have a joint mission: to get to the truth, no matter who gets in the way.

Byron and Blake are likeable characters, and the more we discover what makes them tick and what brought them to the where they are now, the more we want to know. The story itself is engrossing and there are enough red herrings and surprises to keep the keen crime fiction reader entertained and looking for more. I enjoyed The Last Time She Died and I look forward to seeing what’s next in store for this mismatched pair of truthseekers. Well done, Zoe Sharp.

Author Zoe Sharp

A Line To Kill by Anthony Horowitz

Image courtesy of whatsonreading.com

Anyone who knows me would know that I’m a massive fan of Anthony Horowitz. Whether as a screenwriter, a creator and producer of quality television show, or one of most consistently entertaining and prolific writers in recent years. Horowitz doesn’t know the meaning of resting on one’s laurels. Once one project is finished or near completion, he’s away working on another. I like that in a writer, and he deserves respect, awards, and many more years of literary and screen entertainment.

With this glowing endorsement out of the way, it’s time to come to the meet of this review. A Line To Kill is the third in a series of detective fiction novels featuring the crime-busting duo of police consultant Daniel Hawthorne and bestselling author and television producer Anthony Horowitz. I’ve written in a previous blog about the first two books in this series, The Word is Murder (2017) and The Sentence is Death (2019). The conceit is original. The author inserts himself into the story and we follow the investigation through his eyes and gifted words. Not only does ‘Tony’ and Hawthorne have solve the mystery at hand, but Tony must use his own considerable skills to unearth the enigma that is his partner. Together they have solves two intricate murder cases (well, truth be told it’s been all Howthorne, but Tony does offer suggestions and theories of his own), but Tony knows very little about the man he works with. Whether his name is even Hawthorne is one of the riddles Tony grapples with.

By the time A Line To Kill is over, Tony ponders whether or not he should remain on the fence about Hawthorne and carry on as if nothing has happened. But to get to this realisation, he and Hawthorne take a trip to the island of Aldernay in order to participate in a local literary festival that’s been financed by the wealthiest man on the northernmost of the Channel Islands Charles le Mesurier. Tony is nonplussed about attending, but strangely enough Hawthorne just about has his case packed at the mere mention of the trip. Why, we find out later, but it goes back to a controversial incident in Hawthorne’s police career that led to him quitting the force. Upon arriving at the island, Tony is immediately struck by how odd things are. The collection of authors assembled for the festival are, for lack of a better word, eclectic. There is a successful children’s writer; a spoken word poet of dubious French ancestry; a belligerent D-list celebrity chef and his much put-upon assistant; a blind author who says she communicates with the dead, assisted by her husband; and Tony and Howthorne themselves, on a low-key publicity train for the soon to be released The Word is Murder, the first of their collaborations.

The first quarter of the book is all about Anthony Horowitz putting the characters and pieces into play. This is extraordinarily good fun, and I knew halfway through the first chapter I was going to love A Line To Kill. By the time the obligatory murder takes place, I was drawn in to the intricasies of each character, as well as the history of Aldernay itself. As with all good whodunnits, there are more red herrings than you can shake a stick at, but beneath all of this is the character of Daniel Hawthorne. Because Tony doesn’t know him as well as he thinks he should, he can’t predict what the consultant will do or say next. This leads to a couple of very uncomfortable conversations between the two protagonists.

The mystery itself is fun and winds in a couple of distinctly directions before, voila!, the murderer is unmasked. It’s clever and stylishly done, and once again, Horowitz pulls few punches while still entertaining the reader with some classy dialogue and sleight-of-hand. Without giving too much away, the mystery’s resolution leads to Tony and Hawthorne at a crossroads in their relationship. Where they go from here, well, we’re going to have to wait for Anthony Horowitz to tell us.

Anthony Horowitz (image courtesy RTE.ie)

Five Strangers by E.V. Adamson

E.V Adamson is the pseudonym of British writer Andrew Wilson, the bestseller author of four novels which feature Agatha Christie as a detective early in her career as a writer of popular detective fiction. I read the first two and thoroughly enjoyed them. So when I heard he was writing a psychological thriller under a different name, I was excited to get a hold of a copy from NetGalley. Already published in the UK, Five Strangers comes out in the U.S. on 19 October. It’s a book I highly recommend, coming on the heels of such female-led psychological thrillers like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. In fact, Five Strangers relies quite heavily–and effectively, in my opinion–on the kind of POV writing that made Paula Hawkins’ and Gillian Flynn’s novels so successful: the unreliable narrator.

Jen Hunter is on Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, waiting for her friend Rebecca (Bex) to arrive for a coffee date. It’s Valentine’s Day and couples are being all smoochy and loved up. Jen is not long out of a five-year relationship with Laurence. To say it ended badly is an understatement. To add to her woes, Jen was once the celebrated author of a popular series of confessional journalistic pieces in a major newspaper, until her boss discovered that she lied about how her parents died in an earlier piece. She was fired on the spot, and now Jen has no job, no Laurence, and nothing to look forward to in life. But at least she has Bex, right?

Things take a horrific and tragic turn on the Hill when Jen and four other people witness a man, Daniel, argue with his girlfriend, Vicky. He breaks a bottle of champagne and shoves it in the poor woman’s face. If that wasn’t violent enough, he then produces a knife and slashes her throat, leaving Vicky to bleed out on the ground. One of the witness, Jamie, attempts to save the girl and is injured in the process. But before the police arrive, Daniel slashes his own throat and dies before another witness, Ayesha, a doctor just out of medical training, can save him. Another witness, Steven, a Black teenager, runs off before he can give a statement to the police. The last witness is Julia Jones, the local Labour MP, is horrified but there’s nothing she can do to save the situation. Bex arrives just in time to help Jen, knowing that her friend is already in a fragile state of mind.

The one other mystery is the jogger who saw what happened but continued their run without lending assistance. The police urge for him or her to come forward. Jen’s journalistic instincts take hold. Urged by Bex and another close friend, her housemate Penelope, Jen wants to find out why Daniel killed Vicky and then himself, and also discover the identity of the unhelpful jogger. She starts getting tweets from a mysterious Twitter account that suggests that all is not what it appears to be. Bex knows that the more Jen delves into the murder suicide, the greater the chance that her friend will spiral into a breakdown she might not come out of.

Five Strangers is told from both Jen and Bex’s point of view, in alternating chapters. In ways similar to Gone Girl, we get both sides of the story–until the midway twist puts a completely different spin on everything we’ve read until then. Even the witnesses have secrets they’d prefer not to see the light of day. Jen interviews each of them in turn, and discovers allies and foes around every corner. But who is telling the truth? And who among them is hiding the deepest secret of all? I read this book at a feverish pace because I was desperate to find out.

Adamson/Wilson has written a compelling tale of murder, deceit, and the ultimate betrayal. It’s not the first book I’ve read this year in which childhood trauma and fears of abandonment have been behind the characters’ heinous actions, but it’s probably the best and hardest-hitting. While at times I struggled to find sympathy with Jen and Bex, I think the author wanted it that way. There is no black and white when it comes to Jen, Bex, Laurence, and the four witnesses, just many shades of grey.

Author Andrew Wilson/E.V. Adamson

Asylum by Tamera Lawrence

Tamera Lawrence is an author I’m going to look out for in the future. Let’s just get that out of the way. She has a way with creating deep, dark, pervading atmospheres; and her sense of place and character is quite simply breathtaking and intense.

The subject matter of Asylum is an uncomfortable one. Many countries have their own mostly hidden histories when it comes to mental institutions, orphanages, and how they treat the less entitled and vulnerable among us. I think I hit it on the head when I typed “hidden”, because that’s what happens to people who end up in these places: they’re lost to the rest of us. Just Google ‘Magdalene Laundries’ and ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ in Ireland and you’ll get the full picture.

Kyle Hampton was born and grew up in one of these places, Rose Hill Asylum, in Pennsylvania. His mother had a learning disability and was subject to a lot of abuse in her time there. When she died at a young age, Kyle was lucky enough to be adopted by Scott Hampton and his wife Florence. He left behind his brother Roy, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in decades. Married to Beth, with a young baby named Samantha, Kyle has kept many secrets and struggles in his adult life, as you would perhaps understand. His best friend is Randy, another former Rose Hill inmate, and together they explore the underground tunnels of the soon to be redeveloped former aylum. A chance encounter with a pair of boots set the novel on its path, leaving Kyle and his family heading into danger with someone by the name of Stitches.

Stitches, who’s eventual identity is both surprising and foreshadowed, is an intriguing character. You could write him off as being pure evil, but even evil has to come from somewhere. His appearance and actions brought to mind Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning role in the movie Joker. Stitches loves to dress up as a clown and act out his dark fantasies. If you’re looking for another reason to be fearful of jesters, then Asylum is definitely for you.

Kyle has to face up to his past and reconcile with his wife if he’s to live further than the end of the book. How Tamera Lawrence kept my attention was by allowing her characters to dictate the story. Yes, you will probably end up questioning why they do what they do, but we humans are invariable driven by the ghosts of our past and don’t always make the kind of decions that are in our best interests. Kyle, Randy, Stitches, and even Beth, are held captive by childhood memories, and as Asylum draws to its intense and perilous climax, the past and present collide violently.

Asylum rattles along at a furous pace, but Lawrence allows us important insights into each of her characters. You will be glad to have read this book, but horrified that events that occured in Rose Hill Asylum are not as fictional as you would hope. In fact, the truth behind many of these kind of institutions is worse than any writer can think of.

Author Tamera Lawrence

The Devil’s Advocate by Steve Cavanagh

I wonder if readers of this blog will remember a show which premiered in the US in 1974. It was called Petrocelli, and it was about a defence lawyer who lived in a house trailer in San Remo, Arizona. All through the two seasons the show was on, Tony Petrocelli and his wife Maggie toiled away with building a house for themselves near their trailer home. Viewers never got to see the finished product because the show finished airing after these two seasons. When I read an Eddie Flynn novel from Northern Ireland author Steve Cavanagh, I always think of Petrocelli. He took the cases in which his client appeared guilty as sin, looking for holes in the prosecution’s evidence, and upon finding them, exonerate his clients in the eyes of the law. What happened after that was of no concern to Petrocelli. His job was done once his client got released.

I loved Petrocelli and I recently rewatched the pilot episode. It still stands up. Barry Newman is a good actor and the stories were always compelling. I happened upon Steve Cavanagh‘s creation a couple of years ago and found myself reading the first four books in the Eddie Flynn series one after the other. They are tightly plotted novels, with enough twists and turns to make your hair stand on end. Forever getting into scrapes that threaten his life and the lives of those he cares about, Eddie uses his ingenuity and skills as a one-time con-artist to help his clients who would otherwise be incarcerated for life or worse.

The Devil’s Advocate is the sixth book in the series and for my money it’s the best yet. The stakes for Eddie, his team, and his client are high: literally life and death. But Eddie is well out of his comfort zone. Used to the hustle and bustle of New York streets, police stations, and courtrooms, Eddie is in a backwater town of Buckstown, Alabama, a relic of the Confederacy era, where the local District Attorney Randall Korn has sent more convicted murderers to the electric chair than any other DA in US history. Eddie is approached by a ‘frenemy’ from a previous case and asked to take on the defence of Andy Dubois, a young Black man whose been accused of the murder of his colleague and friend, a popular girl called Skylar Edwards. Andy’s previous lawyer, who’s already had dealings with Korn, is missing under suspicious circumstances, and the young man seems destined to be found guilty and sentenced to death. Eddie has never taken on a capital murder case before, but it’s not long before he and his team, Kate, Harry, and Bloch find that all is not what it seems with the prosecution’s case. Plus, if Andy didn’t brutally murder Skylar, the question is: who did?

Steve Cavanagh (photo c/o: Belfast Live)

For fans of Steve Cavanagh and Eddie Flynn, there’s no need for me to tell you to get on out there and buy this book. Chances are you already have it preordered. But for the unconverted, let me tell you that this book, and the others in the series, are a delight to read. What sets The Devil’s Advocate apart from previous novels is not just the change of scenery, but Cavanagh allows the supporting characters to share the spotlight in many sections of the story. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Bloch, Eddie’s investigator: you do not want to mess with this woman. The Rogue Gallery is especially strong, too. Not only does Eddie and his team have to contend with Randall Korn, but the sheriff of Buckstown is a force to be reckoned with, too, despite and because of his own tragic backstory. And then there’s the mysterious Pastor. We don’t find out his identity until the climax of the novel, and what a surprise that turns out to be. So, not only do the good guys have to deal with an insidious district attorney, they also find themselves up against the worst of the worst: domestic terrorists and white supremacists. The Devil’s Advocate will rock your boat. I defy you to finish it in fewer than three or four sittings.

Thanks go to NetGalley and the publishers for providing me with an ARC of The Devil’s Advocate in exchange for an honest review.

Her Ocean Grave by Dana Perry

It is said, though I do not know the source of the quote, that a brave soldier never looks back. I take this to mean that it’s a bad move generally to revisit past glories and/or failures, and that one should always look face forward. The past has passed; it’s history; what’s done is done and there’s no need to dwell on what might have happened if circumstances and feelings were different. If this was indeed the case, then therapists would be out of business and writers would run out of material to write about. Sometimes, though, we find that, in the end, we have no choice but to look back and consider our life choices in relation to where we are now.

Her Ocean’s Grave is the first book in a new crime fiction series from author Dana Perry. In it, she introduces a compelling new character who comes to realise that returning to where it all began is the most important step many of us need to take if we are to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

Abby Pearse faces this kind of dilemma when, after a decorated career in the New York Police Department comes to a tragic end, she finds herself back in her hometown of Cedar’s Cliff, Martha’s Vineyard as the island’s police force’s sole detective. While not exactly a hotbed of crime, Abby has enough to keep her going, despite not fitting in and others being suspicious of her position and notoriety. But Abby knows her job, and when a young girl goes missing, Abby wastes no time getting to the truth of what happened to Samantha Claymore.

Abby’s personal life is a bit of a mess. Recently divorced, she struggles with an alcohol addiction that follows her around like a shadow. Bouts of sobriety are punctuated with blow-outs which cost Abby both her marriage and her position in the NYPD. Coming home hasn’t really helped because she’s estranged from her mother, who’s in a nursing home, and her father has been dead for some time. The only person she feels she can talk to is her father’s ex-business partner Stan Larsen, whom she calls ‘Uncle Stan’. Memories of past events haunt her as she patrols the streets of Cedar’s Cliff, with one particular traumatic incident rearing its ugly head during the course of her investigation into Samantha’s disappearance.

Abby must form a working relationship with Teena Morelli, a uniformed cop who resents Abby for taking the detective job she felt was hers by right. She doesn’t know whether or not she can trust her boss, Chief Wilhelm, because of his past association with Samantha’s father who died in suspicious circumstances years earlier. And then there’s Lincoln Connor, a local journalist looking for a big scoop, whose presence is an unwanted distraction in Abbey’s life and investigation. With a number of characters who have secrets of their own, Abby has a lot on her plate sorting the good guys out from the bad.

The plot has a pleasing amount of twists and red herrings, more than enough to satisfy fans of crime fiction and police procedurals in particular, and will certainly have you flying through the chapters until the end. I feel there is more to come from Abby Pearse, not just in the way of crimes to investigate but in her personal development. At the end of Her Ocean’s Grave, Dana Perry sheds a little light on Abby’s history and suggests that the detective’s greatest battles and triumphs are ahead of her.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers of Her Ocean’s Grave for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Her Last Holiday by C.L. Taylor

Picture a time in your life, if you would. You’re thisclose to a nervous breakdown, and your family is as helpful as a court summons — they’re the root cause of all your problems anyway. What are you to do? You’re going to need help, right? A little counselling will go a long way, but you just need to find the right people to guide you. So the internet becomes your friend, and very soon you’ve signed up to a few days in the sun with like-minded messed-up individuals, ready to throw caution to the wind and your worries into the sea. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Well, it would be, if you didn’t end up missing, presumed dead, with your life coach in prison for negligent homicide. This is what happened to Jenna Fitzgerald.

Jenna joins a group called ShrinkSoul, a self-help organisation run by Tom Wade and his wife Kate. They’re a kind of internet sensation who supposedly help people in crisis to attain better control over themselves and their lives. Tom oozes charisma and is the handsome face of ShrinkSoul. Kate runs the business and micro-manages her husband every step of the way. Jenna is attracted to what they have to offer, as well has being drawn to Tom in other ways. Her Last Holiday, the latest psychological thriller from bestselling author C.L. Taylor (The Fear, Sleep, Strangers), is a fast-moving, page-turning read that examines, amidst the confusion and drama, how domestic violence, whether physical, verbal, or both, turns lives upside down and make the most confident person in the room tremble at the very mention of ‘family’.

The story begins with Tom being released from a two-year stretch behind bars due to the accidental deaths of two people at a retreat on the Mediterranean island of Gozo, off the coast of Malta. Jenna went missing, and the coroner confirmed that she more than likely took her own life. No one was ever charged with her disappearance. Kate, meanwhile, has had to start from scratch, but she sees an opportunity to take advantage of Tom’s release and pretty soon they’re both back in the self-help business. Jenna’s sister Fran is sent by her mother Geraldine to investigate the new organisation, and tasked with finding out exactly what happened to Jenna. She’s been booked to participate in a retreat in Wales.

Her Last Holiday is told in three distinct points of view. Fran is the leading character and we learn a lot about her and her relationships with Jenna and her family as we go along. Jenna’s voice comes from just before her disappearance; we meet her as she and her fellow travellers-in-life land in Malta. Kate is the last PoV. Her story is complex, and we see her working through her post-trial anxiety, welcoming her husband back home, and then immediately kickstarting the organisation once more. Her story within Her Last Holiday is, for me, the one I found the most engrossing. Overall, though, the different perspectives and changes of tense worked throughout.

C.L. Taylor (Image c/o The Scotsman)

The twists (for there are always twists), when they come, are earned. Some you’ll see coming; others you won’t. But my favourite parts of the book were the one-to-one therapy sessions. Despite lying about herself to get there, Fran opens up to Tom about her life, and we learn about the dominant and oftentimes abusive figure of her and Jenna’s mother Geraldine. The supporting characters are decently fleshed out, and more than a few of them are relevant to the plot. I enjoyed reading about Phoenix, Joy, Renata, and Damian. If I take one thing from reading C.L. Taylor’s book, it’s that while we’re all a little messed up, we are so mainly because of family.

I received a free copy of Her Last Holiday from NetGalley and the publishers, in return for an honest review.

The Eddie Flynn Series by Steve Cavanagh

I was brought up on crime thrillers. Nothing excited me more than watching the good guys catch the bad guys, and getting them put away for murder and fraud. I also enjoyed thrillers where an innocent person needed help to clear their name. I watched old shows like Petrocelli, where a low-key defence attorney who lived in a trailer used his skills and intellect to get his clients cleared of crimes they did not commit. (Occasionally he got it wrong, but he always stuck to the law.)

Modern shows like Law & Order, in all its incarnations, focus on both law enforcement and criminal justice, and are equally compelling in presenting the thrills and spills of the legal system. It’s deeply flawed nationally and internationally, but when it comes to fiction writing, the genre lends itself to providing many, many hours of entertainment. The current HBO show, Perry Mason, is testament to how popular crime and courtroom dramas are and will remain.

Belfast native Steve Cavanagh is a writer who’s currently riding high on the success of a series of electric and exciting novels about New York lawyer Eddie Flynn. To say Eddie is offbeat and eccentric is to do an injustice to a man who uses every trick in the book and under his sleeve to win a case, normally at great cost to himself and those around him. A former con-man and street hustler, Eddie was driven to use his skills in misdirection to help his mother during a medical insurance case.

The first novel proper in the series is The Defence. Eddie’s personal life is a mess, and he’s lost his way in life, but he’s dragged back into court with a bomb strapped to his body, and his daughter’s life in danger. Forced to defend the head of the Russian Mafia in New York, Eddie is in a literal race against time. And did I mention he’s also got a drinking problem? All of this in the first couple of chapters, too. Cavanagh wastes little time on the niceties, and we’re all the better for it. Of course, Eddie realises that no matter what he does, he’s toast, just like his former partner. So he draws on his experience on the streets and in the courtroom, and with the help of a friendly judge, uses the 48 hours he’s been given to turn the tables on his new employers. The book is high-octane, a page turner, and Eddie has always one more trick to play. The pace never lags.

Steve Cavanagh (Credit: Kelly M Photography)

After finishing The Defence, I picked up the other four available books in the series. In The Plea, the FBI and CIA blackmail Eddie into defending a client who’s been accused of murdering his girlfriend. The agencies want Eddie to get the accused man to admit his guilt and take a plea. But Eddie knows there’s more going on. In order to protect his estranged wife, who’s unknowingly tied to a money laundering scheme, he has to go head-to-head with a highly ambitious district attorney who looks down on Eddie as being unworthy of his time. This is another excellent thriller, and Cavanagh lays on the surprises and twists with dexterity.

The Liar continues the trend, with another serpentine story involving Eddie defending an acquaintance from his younger days who’s been charged with the kidnapping and murder of his own daughter. Convinced of his friend’s innocence, Eddie works the case while also helping out the friendly judge, Harry Ford, whose career is in jeopardy due to another lawyer who has demanded the release of casework on a trial the judge was working on. The Liar introduces Agent Harper of the FBI, who eventually works side-by-side with Eddie as the twists come chapter after chapter. Both plots are connected and Eddie and co. have to find out how.

My persona favourite of the series is Thirteen. Eddie is at the centre of the celebrity murder trial of the century. Bobbie Solomon, a movie star, is charged with the murders of his wife and security guard, and Eddie takes on his defence. The twist in this book is that a serial killer, known only as Kane, has found their way onto the jury. This is a premise that can only come from the mind of Steve Cavanagh. There are echoes, however faint, of John Grisham here, but Cavanagh takes his level of plotting to another universe. He mixes the chapters with first person narrative from Eddie himself, and the sinister voice of the killer. The clues as to who this person is are laid out throughout the book, so that when the big reveal comes, we’re not tricked. Bamboozled, stunned, yes; but not taken for fools. Thirteen is glorious.

The last (for now) is Fifty-Fifty, the premise of which is deceptively simple. Two sisters, Alexandra and Sofia Avellino, are accused of the murder of their father. Each blames the other for the crime. At the centre is a $44,000,000 inheritance. The sister found innocent will get the lot. The other goes to prison for life. Eddie represents Sofia, while another lawyer, Kate Brooks represents Alexandra. As in the previous novel, the guilty party, ‘She’, gets chapters to herself. So which of the two lawyers is on the winning side? Cavanagh once again piles layers upon layers of twists, surprises, intrigues, and a shocking death midway through adds to the punchy storyline.

I am in awe of Steve Cavanagh. From the first book till now, with a new one due out hopefully this year, I haven’t read anything near as compulsive and propulsive as the Eddie Flynn novels. He leaves the likes of Grisham and co. for dust.

City of Forts by Jason Beech

Growing up where I did, a suburban town within a bus ride of Dublin’s city centre, wasn’t tough, really. You could say I was born and raised in a “good” part of town. There was little trouble, schools were good, families looked out for one another; there was a community spirit that lives to this day, I believe, although I haven’t been back for years. Growing up often means moving on, moving away, sometimes to a better life, sometimes not. Luck and ambition comes into it. The 1970s and early 1980s were challenging for a lot of families around me, but if you were provided, as I was, with a decent education and a start in the jobs market, then you were already winning. Then the crash happened. And it kept on happening.

It’s still happening, for many families all over the world. Jason Beech‘s novel, City of Forts, tells of one such family, who live in an unnamed town near an unnamed city, somewhere in Midwest, USA, who are in danger of falling into the cracks of society. Caitlin Nardilo is a single mother to Ricky and Brett. She holds down three jobs so she can keep food on the table. Her husband has long since headed to the Coast and is almost completely absent from their lives. Ma doesn’t know that when she heads out to work, Ricky, 13, leaves his younger brother alone in the house for the day so he can escape to the City of Forts with his friends Liz, Bixby, and Tanais. The City of Forts is a piece of land upon which there is an disused factory and a series of abandoned houses. The four friends lay claim to this place and make it their playground. It’s the final summer before they all go to high school. Ricky is in love with Liz, who for her part is unsure about where her life is going to go. Bixby is on the run from social services, having fled his foster home, and is now among the ruins. Tanais is a young Black girl, new to the group, but still figuring out if she belongs with the group or not. They are from the Town, but the City looms nearby, offering hope and menace in equal measure.

We get used to seeing them act around each other. They make do with what cards life has dealt them, and there’s a certain sense, especially with Ricky, that this is going to be as good as it gets. Then, at the very start of the story, Liz falls through a floor and literally lands on a dead body. Not knowing what else to do, because calling the cops will only lead to them being denied access to their secret playground, they decide to bury the body, but not before Ricky steals the money from the dead man’s wallet and takes a look at his ID. This course of action brings the group to the attention of Tarantula Man, the leader of a local criminal gang, the Ghost Boys, who wants to know what happened to his friend. The children are in danger, but don’t trust an adult to help them out.

Ricky’s only saviour is Floyd, a homeless man who seems to be the boy’s guardian angel. Then there’s Mr Vale, and his son Charley, who seem to want to help, but may have an agenda of their own.

Jason Beech has an amazing way with words and characters. His evocative turn of phrase, and his ability to guide us through this story from Ricky’s point of view is breathtaking in its simplicity and execution. You can sense the impending doom from the very first chapter, and this feeling never goes away even in the novel’s quiter moments. City of Forts is beautifully paced throughout, and every character is given their moment to shine. By the time the book comes to a close, each of their lives have changed, not always for the better, it has to be said. Each of their actions demand consequences. Jason Beech is wise enough to allow his characters grow and become young adults. What they do with this new-found maturity is a story for another day. City of Forts is a compelling coming-of-age story, that crosses over into crime fiction, with teenage characters that are likeable and frustrating, just as they should be.

Alter Ego by K.A. Masson

Any book that name checks Matt Johnson’s The The, and in particular Uncertain Smile, has got to have a lot of things going for it, right? In fact, this book, Alter Ego, the debut thriller from English writer K.A. Masson, is peppered with plenty of musical references throughout its taut narrative, with two of the story’s main characters at one point going through their Spotify playlists and cranking out some banging tunes, with no decade being left out. But it was the The The reference that sat with me. I haven’t listened to this band for some time, and when I’m done writing this review, I will queue up Soul Mining and get all nostalgic.

(Image: heyitscarlyrae.com)

Alexandra (Alex) Kendrew is a single mother who lives with her young son Ned in suburban London. Estranged from the boy’s father Sean for some time when the novel begins, Alex trawls dating websites looking for love and someone to settle down with. She’s a freelance photographer who juggles her professional and personal life, and during the course of the story, drops balls on a regular basis. Some of her friends question her lifestyle choices and parenting skills, but Alex knows what she’s doing.

Or does she?

When Alter Ego begins, Alex is arrested for the attempted murder of her boyfriend Mal Russell, who was brutally stabbed the night before in the flat he shares with a friend. Alex has been identified by said friend as the woman who she admitted to the flat and subsequently stabbed Mal. Alex doesn’t believe what’s happened to her. There is no way she could’ve done what she’s accused of. She was at home with Ned. The detectives investigating the case don’t believe her, and lock her up in a cell while they collect enough evidence to charge her. Alex’s arrest happens in the first chapter, so there’s an immediacy to the story already. What the author does next is take us back four years and work us through Alex’s life until the time of her arrest.

Alex hooks up with a couple of men she met online, some better than others, but lands on Mal, who appears to be the man of her dreams. Things go pear-shaped quickly when Ned wanders in and catches them in an private but awkward moment. As Mal still holds a candle for a recent ex, he ghosts Alex shortly afterwards. She is distraught, but manages to pick herself up off the floor when Adrian comes into her life. Then things take a really nasty turn, with Adrian turning out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not for the first time, Alex is left with a mess to sort out, but desperate to not be alone, she jumps at the chance of salvation when Mal comes back into her life.

I’ll leave it at that for the plot, for fear of giving too much away. I would prefer to leave you in the more than capable hands of K.A. Masson to take it from here. I had to remind myself that Alter Ego is a debut novel, because it reads like Ms. Masson has had a number of novels under her belt already. She is masterful at holding the story together despite having to fill in a lot of blanks over a four year period. The tension rises with each chapter, and I confess to reading the last third of the book in one late night sitting. I had to find out what happened, and I wasn’t disappointed.

K.A. Masson

One proviso, though: Alex as a character may not appeal to those who prefer their main characters whiter than white, with nary a blemish to their name. But for me, it was important to relate to Alex as a woman troubled by her past and fearful of her future. At times she is the author of her own misfortune, making the same mistakes in dating time and again, without really learning from past behaviour. This is a completely human characteristic. We want things to go well for ourselves, and when our friends point out our failures, we can sometimes take this criticism as a personal insult rather than a learning moment. Ms Masson does well by giving us a deep insight into Alex’s thought processes with her tight first person point of view. We see what Alex sees; we feel what she does; and we want her to do better. She could — and this is something to keep in mind — be an unreliable narrator. Not everthing that happens is what it seems; the same applies to the people around her.

Alter Ego is an intelligent psychological thriller with moments of violence that will make you uncomfortable. Domestic violence is a blight on modern society, and the author brings a lot of research into her story. I seriously look forward to what she writes next.

I wish to thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Alter Ego in return for an honest review.