Kolkata Noir by Tom Vater

When I think of India right now, I think of the ruinous and dangerous politics of Narenda Modi’s government, its mishandling of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ruthless segregation and dehumanising of the country’s Muslim population leading to the deadly Delhi Riots of last year. But I also think of a country whose people love to enjoy life and their favourite sport, cricket. I’m a big fan of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and nothing put a smile on my face more when some of my favourite players hit fours and sixes across the park, sending fans into fits of dancing and singing. You don’t get that in England as much (and certainly not in my own country, Ireland, where cricket is looked upon as an elite but very minor sport). I think what I’m trying to say is: I hold two views of India, both opposing, at the same time. A dichotomy of sorts, I suppose.

As part of Blackthorn Book Tours, I was happy to read and review author Tom Vater‘s short book, Kolkata Noir. It’s a collection of three connected novellas in one volume, featuring Becker, a photographer with an affinity for Kolkata, and Inspectress Madhurima Mitra of Kolkata Police, the grand niece of one of the city’s most celebrated detectives. The stories are set in 1999, 2019, and 2039. Calcutta becomes Kolkata, then in the future Kilkota. The characters age and grow at the same rate as the city does, with each experience having a profound effect on both Becker and Madhu.

In the first part, a wealthy businessman is found brutally murdered in a back alley. Suspects include his wife Paulami and her paramoure, an Englishman names Richard Dunlop. It’s Dunlop that leads Madhu to Becker, a photographer in his twenties who was seen having a drink with Dunlop shortly before Abir Roychowdhury’s murder. While not a suspect as such, Becker is a person of interest to Madhu. As time goes by, the interest becomes mutual but both are afraid to commit to anything further. Becker is a traveller, not the settling down type, while Madhu is committed to her career and her own family. The mystery in 1999 is intriguing, and once the culprits have been apprehended, Becker and Madhu go their separate ways.

They meet up again in 2019. Becker is hired by the father of two young men who have decided to set themselves up as gurus in Kolkata. Aubrey and Magnus Bilham-Rolls intend to scam the poor and forgotten citizens of Kolkata into funding a search for millions of rupee that Mother Theresa was said to have stashed away before her death. (The late Christopher Hitchens, a vocal critic of Mother Theresa’s charity work would have loved this.) Unknown to both young men, other parties have an interest in their endeavours. A pair of corrupt film-makers and the leader of the city’s major crime gand, Dead King, want their hands on this supposed fortune, too. Becker and Madhu team up and try to save the men from themselves and the forces of evil. It’s a compelling story that gives more insight into the growing relationship between Becker and Madhu, with Kolkata very much the third ‘character’ in the story.

The last story, set in 2039, shows a city very much different to the one we know now. Climate change has flooded most of Kilkota, and a chemical accident some time earlier has left many citizens deformed at birth. It’s a horrible place to live, but people do what they need to do to survive. Becker, now in his mid-sixties, still single, thinks of Madhu constantly, but has never found a reason to rekindle their relationship. However, he receives a call from Meena, Madhu’s daughter, saying that her mother is in trouble and needs to be taken out of Kilkota and brought to safety in Scotland. Becker heads off on a rescue mission. He needs to rescue Madhu’s husband from a bunch of criminals holding him hostage, and then find a way to get everyone on a plane out of the city. It is by far the most perilous story of the three.

So, three very different stories. But the heart and soul of Kolkata Noir is Tom Vater’s deft characterisations. Becker and Madhu have remained with me in the week or so since I read this novella. Also, and this should be highlighted, the supporting characters, many of them citizens of Kolkata live and breathe in these short stories. Becker loves the city, but he doesn’t want to live there. Madhu loves Becker, but doesn’t want to leave the city. Their love is unrequited, as it perhaps must be. But by the end of the book, things may or may not have changed. You will have to read the brilliant and atmospheric Kolkata Noir to find out.

The Warden by Jon Richter

Covid-19. Ugh. We’re all sick and tired of it right now. It’s been a part of our lives for close to two years now, and yet it feels like a lot longer. God only knows when the threat will recede long enough for us to return to any sort of a normal life. Human nature being what it is, I fear we will be living with this virus for some time to come. While I have spent much of my time since March 2020 reading and writing about the books I’ve read, I have purposefully stayed away from any works of fiction that reference the current pandemic. It’s not that I’m a coward or anything–I read enough about it online (from reputable sources, I should add)–but I prefer my reading material to take me away from current events rather than leave me stuck in the present. Having said that, a lot of the books I’ve read in recent months reflect badly on humanity as a whole: murder mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, dystopian science-fiction and fantasy, the whole gamut. Make of this what you will.

All of this leads me to The Warden, written by English dark fiction author Jon Richter. Against what I perceived to be my better judgment, I took on reading and reviewing Richter‘s book for Blackthorn Book Tours. I thank all parties involved because this book is really something. It’s not a comfortable read by any stretch of the imagination, but it sure as hell is an intriguing one. It’s premise and plot, which I will get to shortly, propels the reader from one short but exquisitely paced chapter to the next. Depending on where you are in your life right now, this could either be the book for you, or not. I thought it might not be, but I was happy to be proved wrong.

The Warden begins with Eugene Dodd, a former police detective who, with a whole bunch of other individuals, were chosed my lottery to live in The Tower. The story begins in 2024, the virus has mutated to such a level that any trip outdoors, for whatever reason, is a death sentence. The current UK government, led by Prime Minister Arkwright (who took over after the death of her predecessor), has the entire country in a perpetual lockdown. Only the residents of The Tower could be classed as any way near safe from the virus. This is because they are assigned their own room, have their food delivered by robots on a daily basis, and can call other residents via SMART technology on the television sets. They are monitored by James, an omnipresent artificial intelligence created way back in 2020 by Felicity Herring on behalf of a company called Innovation Corporation. It was her view that James would overtake Alexa and Siri as the world’s most successful and available AI assistant. And that’s pretty much what happened. PIPs replaced iPhones and Android devices, and everyone seemed to get their hands on one. When Felicity and James come up with the idea of a SMART- controlled tower block as a form of experiment in disease control and monitoring, the government jumps at the chance and funds it.

Meanwhile, in The Tower itself, in 2024, Eugene witnesses the aftermath of the gruesome killing of the building’s human superintendent Curtis, the detective in him needs to find out the truth behind the man’s murder. His friend Boyd, a conspiracy theorist, suggests that all is not right with James and the outside world. Boyd gets his information, such as it is, from Natter, a social media website that I think keeps an eye on its users more than they know. The only other person Eugene chats with on a regular basis is Caroline. While Boyd was once Eugene’s partner in their previous life, Eugene has never met Caroline face to face. Their rooms are blocked off from all light, they don’t meet any of the other residents: they are in fact prisoners of sorts, and James is their de-facto warden. Curtis’ murder forces the agoraphobic and deeply traumatised Eugene to seek a way out of his room and discover the truth behind The Tower and James itself.

Back in 2020, Felicity discovers that James has more power and influence than even she could have foreseen. The two timelines ultimately converge in a showdown that has to be read to be believed.

Jon Richter has created a red-hot novel of imagination and frightening plausibility. It’s violent and the characters involved are rarely out of danger. But the most important thing for me is, the story is so real and so well put together that much of what went on from 2020 onward could very well happen in our own timeline. It may very well be happening, if you believe the internet. And why wouldn’t you?

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

Box 88 by Charles Cumming

One genre of literary fiction that has never gone out of fashion is the good old spy novel. From Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to the late John Le Carre’s posthumously published final book, Silverview, the genre has captivated readers for well over a century (I would argue longer than that, too). With No Time To Die finally in cinemas, delighting and dividing James Bond fans in equal measure, one could say that the Golden Age of Spy Fiction is alive and well, with no signs of slowing down. Thank goodness for that, because thanks to social media websites understanding that I like books, my various feeds and timelines are full of authors and publishers advertising books that I might actually enjoy.

One such author is Charles Cumming, who has been publishing novels in the spy genre since 2001 and A Spy By Nature. He slipped through my radar, I must admit, but when Facebook highlighted his recent book, Judas 62, my interest was piqued. I found out it was the second book in a series and I was intrigued enough to purchase a copy of the first book, Box 88. I was very glad I did. It’s a thrilling page-turner, with some very compelling characters, interesting locations, and a story that is quite plausible, despite the worries that regular folk like you and me may have about the existence or non-existence of ‘deep state’ intelligence organisations.

Box 88 begins with a dramatic re-enactment of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988. It’s a short but harrowing prologue, and immediately I was engrossed in the chapters that followed. Lachlan Kite is part of Box 88, a clandestine pan-Atlantic intelligence organisation that is run outside the remit of the CIA and its British equivalents. Groomed from the time he attended an elite boarding school, Kite found himself at a very young age spying on a close friend’s family in a luxury resort town in France. Now his past is catching up with him and in the present day, at a memorial service for his friend, who apparently killed himself, he’s abducted and held in a secret location, tortured for information about what happened in France that summer, post-Lockerbie.

Meanwhile the very existence of Box 88 is under threat. Robert Vosse of MI5 is leading an investigation into Kite and his organisation. On his team is Cara Jannaway, his newest recruit, who witnesses Kite’s abduction and finds herself caught between loyalty to Vosse and her determination to find out that makes Kite the man he is. Needless to say, not everything and everyone is what they initally appear to be.

Kite’s abductor, Ramin Torabi, is after information on an Iranian called Ali Eskandarian, who was a guest of the family Kite spent time with. Kite’s training forbids him from revealing the nature of his profession, and the more he lies the worse Torabi and his henchmen treat him. When his pregnant wife is held hostage, the stakes become even higher.

What I really enjoyed about Box 88 was how Cumming spent much of the book with a younger Lachlan Kite, and we got to see how he was heavily influenced by a particular tutor at his college. His reluctant indoctrination into the organisation is juxtaposed by his talent at spycraft, a gift that got him noticed in the first place. The chapters of the book alternate between these sections and the one covering the present day pursuit of Kite’s abductors and the reasons behind it.

For me, Box 88 merged the secretive world of intelligence agencies that Le Carre wrote so well about and the late, lamented BBC series Spooks, which focused heavily on the personalities involved in espionage and the massive human toll it took from them. It takes a special type of person to be a spy. It takes an extra special one to stay alive in the profession. And it takes a very special writer to make the whole thing work. Charles Cumming does, and I will not wait too long to read Judas 62.

Author Charles Cumming

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)

Hunt For The Troll by Mark Richardson

Let’s start with getting the soundbite out of the way. Mark Richardson’s Hunt For The Troll is, for me, the most compelling story narrated by a character whose name remains unknown throughout the book since Daphne du Maurier published Rebecca way back in 1938. Most authors wouldn’t get away with such a concept nowadays for fear of being accused of either being weird or offering style over substance. Hunt For The Troll is indeed a very weird book, and stylish as all hell, but there is quite a but of substance here. You could, if you so wish, compare this book to Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero in that much of what takes place in the book is surreal and yet instantly recognisable. It’s a page-turner, but not as you know it.

A novel that mixes genres as adeptly as one of the characters, Priya, mixes cocktails, Hunt For The Troll is a heady concoction of urban fantasy, cyberpunk, industrial espionage, and a missing person’s case. Our unnamed narrator has lived a charmed and affluent lifestyle since he discovered at a very early age that he had a gift for writing code. Already on his way to become one of the youngest Grandmasters in chess, he dispenses with the board and focuses instead on gaming. A close friend, known only as The Captain, convinces him that two minds are better than one and so they find investors for a start-up of their own. A few years later they sell out and move on with their lives, with our narrator enjoying a life of luxury and solitude in Rome.

The story starts proper when The Captain emails the narrator with a proposition: he wants the two of them to get the band back together as he has a great idea for another start-up. The narrator boards a flight back immediately, but he finds The Captain is nowhere to be found. Seeing that he’s back hone in San Francisco, he’s offered a job for an online gaming company Centre Terrain, where he’s implanted with a neural processor which allows him to enter the game as an avatar, Roma, and fix any code in the game that needs fixing. He also has a little fun while he’s there, breaking one or two company rules along the way. He begins a relationship with one of his colleagues, Nika. At the same time, the narrator’s been having some strange dreams involving binary numbers and a being called the Troll, who tells him they’re about to change the world.

The narrator draws the attention of billionaire Larry Gosling, an investor of Centre Terrain, and he’s very interested in what our young talented hero has to offer. Offering tidbits into the Troll’s history, Gosling suggests that the man is interested in taking humanity to the next level: in others words, transhumanism. It’s an intriguing concept that doesn’t quite bear the fruit that it should by the end, but the journey nevertheless is peppered with offbeat characters like Whitfield, a guy that the narrator is close to (they smoke a lot of weed and play copious amounts of chess), and the two main female leads, Nika and Priya. Even if you haven’t the first clue about quantum computing and binary numbers, you won’t feel lost among these pages. There’s plenty of expositional dialogue to help you along the way.

Mark Richardson’s playful style is addictive and surprising. I whizzed through the chapters and found myself caught up in sheer dreaminess of the story. One thing I will say, though: the book was first published in 2015, and now six years later, I think it’s time Richardson came back and let us know what happened next. Beware: there be cliffhangers.

Author Mark Richardson

Petrichor by Melanie Rees

A friend of mine once told me that the very best stories being told nowadays are from the Young Adult (YA) genre. I remember one such book specifically: Code Name Verity, a young adult historical fiction novel by Elizabeth Wein. It’s an amazing book, one for every adult, no matter their age. Please read it. And while I have you, please read this novella, too. Petrichor is written by Australian author Melanie Rees. At around 160 pages long, you’ll finish it in a coupe of sittings; but it will stay with you much longer. This deceptively simple novella has power, emotion, adventure, and a third-person point of view narrator that could be anyone on this planet.

We’ve all experienced loss, but perhaps not in same way Clayton and his family have. The setting is a rural town of Paddle Creek Station in Australia. It’s almost dystopian in that a drought that has seemingly gone on forever has threatened the livelihood of the families living there. Clayton’s father is a farmer struggling to make ends meet because of the lack of rain. Not only that, but not so long ago, his son and Clayton’s older brother Davo died in tragic but mysterious circumstances. Clayton’s mother and father refuse to talk about Davo, and his father point blank forbids Clayton to go anywhere near the house where Davo lived.

Petrichor, which is a word that means the pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of dry, warm weather, is a remarkable novella, in that it very quickly goes from a period of mourning and buried memories to the world of the fantastical. Clayton is visited by Waringa, a spirit that takes the form of a dead fox. Waringa tells Clayton that only he has the power to defeat the Red King and bring the rains back to Paddle Creek. Aided only by his brother’s dog Rusty, Clayton sets off on an adventure that is both excited and deeply profound. He must free the rain spirits while doing battle with the evil that has taken over the countyside. Waringa isn’t always there to help him, so oftentimes Clayton and Rusty are on their own.

Behind all this, though, is an exploration of grief and the struggle to understand how and why Davo died. The answer to these questions are both disturbing and understandable, and it may trigger a few readers. But I urge you to read through to the end. Clayton’s father initially appears unfeeling and indifferent toward his surviving son. His mother tries to provide balance between the two men in the house, but she herself harbours deep grief, too. In the meantime, unknown to his parents, Clayton is putting himself in mortal danger.

Petrichor packs an absolute wallop of emotion in its short length. And it’s not short on set-pieces either. It’s an exciting and though-provoking novella that will resonate with anyone who reads it. Like I said at the beginning of this review, the very best stories are told in the YA genre. Petrichor by Melanie Rees is another example of this. It’s gorgeously written, vivid in its imagery, and human at its heart.

Ark Of The Apocalypse by Tobin Marks

I think the best thing about being part of Blackstone Book Tours is the knowledge that among the books I’ve signed up to read and review, there will be among them a book so devilishly clever and unique that all I can do is read on and giggle with amazement at the author’s audacity. Tobin MarksArk of the Apocalypse is one such book.

The first thing I looked at was the book cover. The image portrays a blond haired young woman with a baby dragon on her shoulder. Immediately this brings to mind Daenerys Targaryen from the book and TV series Game of Thrones. Another cash-in, you might think. But Ark of the Apocalypse is its own beast, and it’s story is both contemporary and fantastical. Yes, there is such a woman in the story, as well as a dragon (which comes much later in the narrative), but from the very first chapter, there is a lot of foreshadowing, shocking moments, and so many twists and turns that in my mind, Marks has kind of outdone George RR Martin in high-stakes character-driven storytelling–and this book, the first in a series called The Magellan II Chronicles, will see its conclusion long before Martin gets around to concluding his.

Ark of the Apocalypse is a genre-bending mixture of science fact, science fiction, and a healthy dollop of paranormal fantasy. If that’s your bag, then you’re going to enjoy the hell out of this book. If you like to read books that make you utter “What the flaming hell?” after every chapter, before diving into the next one, then yes, this book is for you.

I’ve avoided so far trying to summarise the plot. The blurb available on all platforms goes some way to explaining what AotA is all about; but it doesn’t do it full justice. But like all good sagas, this book revolves around a family from Russia called Yanbeyev. This dynasty evolves through decades of genetic engineering and psychic manipulation to become the veritable saviours of humanity, while at the same time ensuring that even as the Earth dies, the Yanbeyev lineage with survive to lead humanity on not one but two planets (at least). What the blurb doesn’t tell you is that along the way, there is political assassinations, multiple US presidents, and a Russian premiere that sees them all off via help from the Yanbeyev matriarchs (though he’s completely unaware he’s being manipulated). Climate change has ravaged our planet. Governments ignore the scientists until its too late, and the only way to save humanity is to build a generation ship that will take 10,000 humans to a planet that will be called Aqueous. What the planners don’t know is that there is an indigenous species of reptile-like creatures and an advanced alien race already well settled there. But the Yanbeyevs are aware of these races and have factored them into their millenia-long plan for human domination. They are happy to let the world go to war and burn, if only for their ancestors to survive and grow into an interplanetary power.

Like I said, there’s a lot going on in AofA, but it’s a supremely fun and thought-provoking read. I loved it and I wait in glorious anticipation for what Tobin Marks will conjure up in the next instalment. This is space opera and high fantasy at its very finest. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much this year as this one.

Author Tobin Marks

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

Liner by Chris Coppel

Nothing is as it seems in Chris Coppel’s latest horror novel with a twist, Liner. In the prologue, it’s the present day and Morgan McCarthy is working his one Sunday a month at his job at the National Oceanis Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Communications Center. He’s not happy about this, but hey, what’s a guy to do, right? His focus is on the North Atlantic Ocean seabed tectonic sensor arrays: basically looking for anomalies along the seabed like earthquakes and other movement. A previous false alarm that damaged his reputation has him thinking twice when he spots an anomaly in one of the sectors he oversees. But he makes the call and reports it.

Immediately Coppel and Liner bring us back in the past to the early 1960s. David Easton is taking his first and only transatlantic crossing on the luxurious ocean liner, the SS Oceanis. His life has taken a turn for the worst. Recently divorced, David’s ex-wife and her family have left him close to destitute with his reputation as a microbiologist in tatters. His only solution, as he sees it, is to use the last of his money on a first class ticket on board the Oceanis and then at some point in the crossing throw himself overboard, ending his misery. But before all that, he and the rest of the passengers have to deal with some strange events onboard and weird atmospheric conditions on their journey.

David strikes up a friendship and possible romantic interest with Diana Olson, a young debutante whose mother Myra is eager to match up with an appropriate suitor. David is not what she has in mind, so she goes as far as banning her daughter from being near David. Her father Arthur is less pragmatic and indeed takes a liking to David, going so far as to offer help once they’ve reached port. So it looks like David could be on the up-and-up after all. But Liner has other ideas. There is a pandemic on board, one that’s christened “the green plague”. Cruise staff and customers alike are vanishing, and David thinks that the ship’s doctor, Aiken, knows more than he’s letting on.

It doesn’t take long for the malaise to inflict more people on the Oceanis, and soon the ship’s captain, Havelin, enlists David and Diana’s help. From here on, the story gets more weird and paranormal. What struck me at the beginning was how stoic most of the victims of the plague were. They accepted their impending demise with dignity and little fear. The necrosis eats their entire body until nothing but their clothes are left. And the fog that surrounds them has blocked all communication with the outside world. The SS Oceanis is lost and alone, with no help in sight.

Throughout this fast-moving and involving narrative, author Chris Coppel compels us to read on because he has given us an ideal couple to follow around. David and Diana are delightful, but you get the feeling from the start that their relationship is doomed. You want them to survive and flourish once the voyage is over, but Coppel foreshadows his twists and eventual climax with enough expertise that even though the passengers may get a happy ending, it’s not the one we may have hoped for when we began reading.

Who or what is behind these incredible and unbelievable events surrounding the Oceanis? Well, I’m not going to tell you. You will have to read Liner to find out. For a novel with some pretty decent horror overtones, you will also find a sincere amount of pathos, hope, and longing. I loved how it ended, and my heart went out to David and Diana. Their mutual love stayed with me long after the book ended.

Author Chris Coppel