New thriller examines close-knit community shaken by rumours

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

‘He had no way of knowing that this moment would become the lynchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; the police would come to him; his ex-friends, his gym buddies, the guys who knew him for God’s sake; and say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right? The last one is always the guilty one.’

In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a female student. The student claims that she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect: Nate.

This story is told through the points of view of four different characters: Nate, Alecia (Nate’s wife), Bridget (Nate’s best friend) and Lucia. None of these characters are particularly likeable. They bicker with each other over the smallest things and they make stupid decisions. Occasionally their brutal honesty about the lives they lead inspire a dull flicker of empathy, but the problem with creating a cast full of unlikeable characters is that the reader doesn’t really care what’s happening to them.

That said, there were a lot of things I liked about this book. The close-knit community rocked by gossip and speculation is hardly a new concept, but Moretti manages to cleverly explore the ripples that spread through the town. Nate’s insidious influence as a pillar of the community makes it impossible for other characters to see him clearly and decide whether they believe him or not.

However, this book also has a lot of flaws, not least the way the female characters relate to each other. At one point one character points out how much she hates women turning against women, but that’s exactly what these women do throughout the course of the story. Women are judged harshly here and Moretti tends to lump them into easy categories based on the way they look.

This book is also rife with clichés. The golden boy Nate, the tortured wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenager Lucia, the aspiring sport star student, the grumbling police officer… I could go on. It’s a shame because the writing is absorbing and clever.

The more I read the more concerned I became that the ending was going to be disappointing. Fortunately I was proved wrong and Moretti wraps things up with a conclusion that is both satisfying and realistic, twisted but not over-the-top.

Thanks very much to Titan for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Ali Land’s debut novel asks: is blood thicker than water?

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

‘Forgive me when I tell you it was me. It was me that told. The detective. A kindly man, belly full and round. Disbelief at first. Then, the stained dungarees I pulled from my bag. Tiny. The teddy bear on the front peppered red with blood. I could have brought more, so many to choose from. She never knew I kept them.’

Annie’s mother is a serial killer. The only way she can stop her is to hand her in to the police. As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family to give her a fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But blood is thicker than water.

This book is gripping from the first page to the last, building up suspense until the reader’s every muscle is tensed with dread at what is going to happen next. It’s undeniably very dark, with some troubling subject matter, but it’s perfect for those who like their thrillers to unsettle and make their skin crawl.

The twists and turns aren’t exactly surprising but Land’s writing more than makes up for it. She knows that a few carefully chosen words can be more powerful than paragraphs of description; splashes of blood on a child’s discarded clothing are more disturbing than seeing the body, and peering through the keyhole can be more terrifying than throwing open the door. It’s claustrophobic and so immersive you’ll find your heart racing and your breath catching in your throat.

Annie is an incredible narrator, struggling to forget who she was and focus on who she might be. But her mother’s presence looms over everything she does, every word she speaks, and despite her best efforts she finds herself slipping back into old habits. She is adept at manipulation, knows just what to say and how to act to get what she wants, but her damaged childhood means she isn’t always in control of herself.

All the characters surrounding Annie are also realistically portrayed. Even those who veer towards stereotype have enough flawed edges to mark them out from the crowd and make the reader care about what happens to them.

The plot does require some suspension of disbelief, but if you’re able to let that go you’re sure to find lots to enjoy here. Good Me Bad Me is an incredible debut novel, and I would highly recommend it.

New book releases for August 2017

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year I read Pulley’s debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and it was one of my favourite books of 2016. I’ve already read The Bedlam Stacks, and can confirm that it is just as magical and surprising as her debut. (Full review coming soon)

Release date: 1st August

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

The true story of the three Grey sisters: Jane, Queen of England for nine days; Katherine, whose lineage makes her a threat to the rightful succession; and Mary, a dwarf disregarded by the court but all too aware of her position as a possible heir to the throne.

There is no writer who can match Gregory for historical fiction and her books set in Tudor England are often her best. She tells stories with intelligence and verve, focusing her books on real women navigating the dangerous waters of court politics.

Release date: 8th August

How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb

Don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about feelings. But Robert Webb has started to wonder if any of those rules are actually any use? To anyone? Looking back over his life, Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them.

The only autobiography I’ve ever read is Roald Dahl’s, so Webb’s book will be a departure from my usual reading material. However, I do love his sense of humour and it’s been a while since I read a book that has the potential to make me laugh out loud.

Release date: 29th August

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker

Since the death of Ragnvald’s father in battle, he has worked hard to protect his sister, Svanhild, and planned to inherit his family’s land when he comes of age. But when the captain of his ship tries to kill him, he must confront his stepfather’s betrayal and find a way to protect his birthright.

This saga of Viking-era Norway sounds exciting and different, and has already been described as ‘vivid and gripping’. Steeped in legend and myth, it promises to be a swashbuckling historical epic.

Release date: 1st August

Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne

Samantha and Naomi meet during a white-hot summer on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra. They find a young Arab man, Faoud, washed up on shore, a casualty of the crisis raging across the Aegean. But when their plan to help the stranger goes wrong, all must face the consequences.

This sounds like the perfect holiday read. It has been compared to The Great Gatsby by the New York Times Book Review; a bold claim, and only time will tell if it’s justified.

Release date: 10th August

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker SV

Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives

Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week ever, including the fact a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. The appearance of a strange map sends Stella on an all-consuming research mission where she discovers the secret Paul’s been keeping.

This book has received a wealth of praise already, having been called ‘magical’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘mesmerising’, and Ives’ credentials as a poet promise beautiful writing.

Release date: 3rd August

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

When a young anthropologist uncovers a terrible secret concealed in the workings of a 300-year-old mechanical doll, she is thrown into a hidden world. With her career and her life at stake, June will embark on an around-the-world adventure and discover breath-taking secrets of the past.

I do enjoy an alternative history novel, but it’s hard finding ones that are written well. Promising artificial intelligence, steampunk and a thrilling adventure, let’s hope this one lives up to expectations.

Release date: 1st August

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funereal. A private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own. A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control. What do they have in common?

This novel marks the start of a new detective series set in London by global bestseller Anthony Horowitz, promising buried secrets and a bloody trail of clues.

Release date: 24th August

The Scandal by Fredrik Backman

The town of Beartown, Sweden, is on the verge of a revival. Change is in the air and a new future just around the corner. Until the day it is all put in jeopardy by a single brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done.

Backman is already a bestselling author and has had his books published in more than 35 countries. His newest offering promises to be a tense, empathetic story of friendship and loyalty.

Release date: 10th August

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Josie Buhrman has spent the last 10 years trying to escape the tragic events of her past. Now, she has a new life in New York with her boyfriend, Caleb. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past.

It’s been a while since I read a really gripping psychological thriller, so I’m hoping this debut novel will offer just that.

Release date: 10th August

Paula Hawkins’ second novel bears similarities to Broadchurch

I was thinking about what I was going to say to you when I got there, how I knew you’d done this to spite me, to upset me, to frighten me, to disrupt my life. To get my attention, to drag me back to where you wanted me. And there you go, Nel, you’ve succeeded: here I am in the place I never wanted to come back to, to look after your daughter, to sort out your bloody mess.

In the days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help. Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.

This has got to be one of the most anticipated books of 2017. Following the phenomenal success of The Girl on the Train, Hawkins has returned to the psychological thriller genre that made her a star. Comparisons to her first novel are inescapable, and it was almost inevitable that Into the Water was not going to be as good as Hawkins’ debut.

The main problem is one that most reviewers have picked up on: there are just too many narrators (11 in all). This means we are jumping around to different perspectives so often that we don’t become truly connected to any of them. As such, many of the characters are reduced to clichés and several could have been cut without it affecting the story too much.

Each of the narrators are very similar in tone and while some are written in first person, others are in third person, which just adds to the confusion. None of the characters react to events in a way that makes sense (many of them burst out laughing for no reason) and their motives seem forced. It’s very similar to Broadchurch; a small town where everyone has a secret and everyone has a connection to the person who died. But it lacked the tension and convincing characters to pull off such a plot.

Unlike The Girl on the Train, there is no tense, heart-stopping confrontation at the end, but it rather peters out with a confession. Even without comparisons to any other book, there’s no denying that Into the Water is lacking in suspense.

That’s not to say that this book is without its positives. Though some of the supernatural elements felt tagged on, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the constant, brooding presence of the Drowning Pool, where Nel’s body is found. The focus on memory and the tricks our own minds can play on us are interesting themes Hawkins explores throughout the book.

If you enjoy psychological thrillers, you will probably enjoy this book. However, if you found The Girl on the Train confusing, Into the Water is going to feel like a circus. Hawkins clearly took a gamble with this one, but it doesn’t quite pay off.