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February 2018

Laura Marshall - Friend Request

"A truly well written debut which should be read by all who love to be kept guessing."

Louise has a successful business, a son who adores her and a terrible secret to match. Haunted by a horrific act she committed as a teenager, Louise is yet to face the real horrors that arise. To us an innocent Facebook friend request, to Louise a name she would rather forget. With this request comes the unravelling of Louise, her life and what she's been trying to keep in the past. Maria Weston wants to be friends. But Maria Weston is dead. Isn't she?

This was the first book I read on my travels and boy did I race through it! The narrative spans across two different years, 1989 and 2016, from the perspective of our protagonist Louise. We are introduced into Louise's life post divorce, where she is not only a single mum, she also runs her own freelance business and balances her social life with best friend Polly, things are going well for her. Until she receives a friend request from Maria Weston, a girl she knew, a girl who died 27 years ago.

During the flashback to the year 1989, Marshall plonked me right back into the school environment - the desperate need to be liked, noticed or to be popular and the risks taken to achieve this, I felt I was reading the story of a thousand school memories I myself have had. The back story of Louise's school life up until the event takes place, is one which I feel many other readers will find relatable, which is why when the revelation of her actions takes place you can almost feel sorry for her, as the bully herself it is also her who was being manipulated and bullied. Her actions are far from condonable but you have grown empathy towards her.

Back to the present year of 2016, you can see how Louise has tried to deal with her past actions, this left her vulnerable to the treatment of her ex-husband, Sam, who knows what happened that night. Even after the years of the playground she is still pushed around, not only by him but by her old school chum Sophie, an accomplice to the night's event.

I really enjoyed the way Marshall tells this story. I put the book down and within minutes had to pick it back up again to read on. I felt Louise's conflict, her desire to be liked, not only in school but also in adult life. For me the book kept me guessing till the end, there were several moments I thought I knew what the ending would be but ultimately was surprised by the outcome, and didn't see it coming.

A truly well written debut which should be read by all who love to be kept guessing.

Reviewed by: K.C.

CrimeSquad Rating:

James Oswald - The Gathering Dark

"These books are dark, unsettling, brilliantly written and have a deliciously ghoulish twist at the end."

A truck driver loses control in central Edinburgh, ploughing into a crowded bus stop and spilling his vehicle's toxic load. The consequences are devastating as twenty people lose their lives and scores more injured.

DI Tony McLean witnesses the carnage. Taking control of the investigation, he soon realised there is much that is deeply amiss - and everyone involved seems to have something to hide.

But as McLean struggles to uncover who caused the tragedy, a second crisis develops: the new Chief Superintendent's son is missing, last seen in the area of the crash.

There are some authors who you know exactly what you're going to get when they release a new book. You know the pitfalls the protagonist will have to struggle with, the characters they will meet etc. With a James Oswald novel, all bets are off. What lies between the covers is a tour de force, a well plotted gripping thriller with heart-stopping action and genuine, likeable characters. 'The Gathering Dark' is no exception.

Oswald writes with his finger firmly on the pulse as the eighth novel in the DI McLean series opens with a timely disaster. A truck drives into a bus stop causing carnage and destroying lives. Regular readers of Oswald's work will know from the off that this is not a tragic accident, nor is it an act of terrorism, but the beginning of a devious and twisted plot that only he can conjure up.

The truck crash is shocking and deftly written. I would like to have seen more of the aftermath, especially from Tony as he witnessed the crash. He has a few bad dreams and a chat to a therapist but it would have been interesting to see him deal with PTSD while working on the case.

As ever with a James Oswald novel, do not try to guess the ending. Here, we have a truly surprising and almost beautiful denouement as the killer is revealed to DI McLean is chilling form. The final chapter is another shocker and sets up more trouble for Tony's complicated life in the next book.

I am a huge James Oswald fan. The McLean series could easily fit into the police procedure genre but there is nothing formulaic about it. These books are dark, unsettling, brilliantly written and have a deliciously ghoulish twist at the end.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Sherri Smith - Follow Me Down

"...a top notch read from a powerful new voice..."

Mia never intended to go home again, but has no choice when her twin brother goes missing. Back to the people she left behind, the person she used to be, and the secrets she thought she'd buried.

Her brother Lucas, a popular teacher, has disappeared on the same day as the murdered body of one of his students was pulled from the river. Trying to wrap her head around the rumours of Lucas's affairs with the teenager, and unable to reconcile the media's vicious portrayal of Lucas with her own memories of him, Mia is desperate to find another suspect.

All the while, she wonders, if he's innocent, why did he run?

'Follow Me Down' is a remarkably assured first novel that reminded me of Gillian Flynn's dark and brilliant debut, 'Sharp Objects'. Both novels feature a troubled heroine forced to return to their home town and, in doing so, confront their damaged pasts.

Mia is leading a successful life as a pharmacist in Chicago. Unlike Mia, Lucas never left Wayoata, the North Dakota town where the twins grew up. He's a high school teacher, much loved by his students and the local community. All that changes when the body of one of his students – sixteen year-old Joanna Wilkes is pulled from the river. It's clear she's has been murdered.

Trying to find the truth drags Mia back into a past she'd rather forget. Increasingly, she falls back on her old prescription drug habit, an addiction every bit as dangerous as the alcoholism that ruined her own mother's life.

Like all the best crime fiction, 'Follow Me Down' explores the damaging, long term effects of a troubled childhood. Living with an alcoholic mother, Lucas and Mia had a troubled and chaotic upbringing. The twins' relationship with each other has always been the single thing that's kept them from falling apart. It's this bond that drags Mia back to Wayoata and makes her fight so hard for Lucas. She has to find him and prove he's not a killer, no matter what it takes.

With a complex plot, a host of nasty characters and a compelling central character, 'Follow Me Down' is a top notch read from a powerful new voice in the over-crowed world of psychological thrillers.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Phoebe Morgan - The Doll House

" amazing debut with lots of darkness and intrigue."

Corinne and Dominic have it all, great jobs, their own apartment, a loving family – what more could they want? But after three failed IVF attempts, this is their last chance to start a family. After finding an ornament from a doll house, similar to one from her childhood, Corinne takes this as a sign.

As more ornaments from the dollhouse turn up, Corinne's good sign starts to take a darker tone. These aren't similar pieces from her childhood; they are the pieces from her childhood. But why now, and where have they come from? More importantly who have they come from?

The story has multiple narrative voices, from Corinne, Dominic, Ashley and a mystery character. Morgan tells us the characters stories and feeds us the struggles they have to face behind closed doors. We see the stresses placed on the characters and how they handle these amongst themselves. As we get to know the characters, we are made to question their mindsets and judgements, as it appears the stress is too much, we then begin to question whether events are actually taking place or not – this is left down for you, the reader to decide.

As with every great crime story, secrets play an important part. These secrets show the damage they can cause and the darkness they leave in their wake. As we see when we read the mystery narrative, at first it is confusing but soon becomes clearer to the reader. We are left in the dark as to who the character is and are left to guess until further in the novel. I guessed several times but wasn't right until a big reveal much later, this was very much a narrative I wanted to solve.

Whilst reading this book I felt as if the narrative was like completing a puzzle. The further you read on the more puzzle pieces you are given by Morgan, you have to piece the story together to form the bigger picture. This was definitely an aspect of the story that I enjoyed, as with a smaller amount of pieces, there was still lots of the narrative to figure out and solve who was behind leaving all the dollhouse ornaments. As you read on you gain more pieces and therefore more of an image of the story and where it was heading.

I really enjoyed reading this book; it is an amazing debut with lots of darkness and intrigue. The characters and their lives sucked me in, at which point I couldn't put it down. When the mystery character was finally revealed I was very much surprised and finally I could see all the connections and depths of secret paths in the story. Being left in that much suspense for me makes for a great read, this is a debut to definitely check out.

Reviewed by: K.C.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Lisa Gardner - Look For Me

"Gardner has for many years been one of my favourite authors."

Detective DD Warren and Flora Dane are in a race against time to save a young girl's life - or bring her to justice.

A family home has become a crime scene. Five people are involved: four of them have been savagely murdered; one - a sixteen-year-old girl - is missing.

Was she lucky to have escaped? Or is her absence evidence of something sinister?

Detective D. D. Warren is on the case, as is survivor-turned-avenger Flora Dane.

Seeking different types of justice, they must make sense of the clues left behind by a young woman who, as victim or suspect, is silently pleading, Look for me.

Gardner has for many years been one of my favourite authors. I always know I'm going to get a well written book, with great characters and an unexpected ending. DD Warren is one of the author's characters that I like. But Gardner seems to have taken a liking to a character, Flora Dane, in her previous novel, 'Find Her' and has brought her into 'Look for Me'. Flora is a character I just don't like. I can't empathise or warm to her, meaning I enjoyed this book slightly less than usual.

DD is looking for a killer of a family where four members have been murdered. Only the teenage daughter survives. And whilst the police are looking for her as the suspected killer, the author goes back in time to explain how the family got to where they are now.

Some parts of the story are hard to read knowing that for many children life isn't good; victims of a broken system. Gardner manages to capture the emotion of the story without detracting from the plot. Often at the end of a book I rejoice because a killer has been caught, or looking forward to the next book in the sequel if they survive. This book gave me little enjoyment from the killer being revealed as I felt there were many more victims, not just the ones who were shot at the start of the story. 'Look For Me' is a very powerful novel from this strong writer.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Allan Watson - Heart Swarm

"Fasten your seatbelts, folks, this can be something of a bumpy ride."

It feels like history is repeating itself when out-of-favour detective Will Harlan gets summoned to a crime scene in the village of Brackenbrae after a young girl is found hanging in the woods.

Five years ago Harlan headed up the investigation of an identical murder in the same woods; a mishandled investigation that effectively destroyed his credibility as a detective. The new case immediately takes a bizarre twist when the body is identified as the same girl found hanging in the woods five years ago.

The following day a local man commits suicide and the police find more dead girls hidden in his basement. The case seems open and closed.

Until the killing spree begins.

Harlan finds himself drawn into a dark world where murder is a form of self-expression and human life treated as one more commodity to be used and discarded.

The only clue that links everything is a large oil painting of 'Sagittarius A' – a massive black hole at the centre of the galaxy orbited by thirteen stars daubed in blood with the words – Heart Swarm

Fasten your seatbelts, folks, this can be something of a bumpy ride. I prefer the darker end of the spectrum when it comes to my reading and Allan Watson certainly doesn't write light and fluffy novels. 'Heart Swarm' is a journey into the blackest elements of both society and psyche and the driver isn't afraid to take you right to the gates of hell.

The lead, Will Harlan is beautifully drawn as Watson depicts his every frustration as he strives to get his career back on track after a high profile mistake. The support characters are all nicely created and they create the perfect foils for Harlan.

The plot is well constructed although it is the prose which is Watson's greatest strength. Time and again, I found sentences which were beautifully clever in their descriptive simplicity.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes their crime fiction to be dark and gritty.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Eva Dolan - This Is How It Ends

"Eva doesn’t just create characters, she creates people."

Ella Riordan is a community activist who became famous when she was beaten by police during a social protest. Now, Ella is a squatter in a building where the owners are evicting tenants so the building can be torn down and replaced with luxury, over-priced apartments.

One night, after a rooftop party, Ella is attacked and the man ends up dead. She contacts her friend, Molly, who tells her the police will never believe her story. Together, they hide the body in a disused lift shaft. It isn't long before the body is discovered and questions are being asked.

As the investigations continue, evidence comes to light that drive a wedge between Ella and Molly and soon, mistrust and deceit envelopes them both. This is how it began. But how will it end?

Eva Dolan takes a break from her hugely successful and critically acclaimed Zigic and Ferreira detective series with her first foray into dark psychological thriller territory. It's always a risk when a writer tries something new, but Dolan need not panic. 'This Is How It Ends' proves what I have said since her first novel - she is a highly literate writer with great depth; a natural storyteller who gets under the skin of her characters and into the heads of her readers.

Eva doesn't just create characters, she creates people. As her stories unfold, the reader is taken on the emotional journey with the main players. We feel their angst, their pain, their fears. That is the power of Dolan's fiction. She has a rare talent in invoking genuine sympathy in her readers.

'This Is How It Ends' is an original concept as we follow Ella and Molly after the death of a man in an abandoned apartment block. Molly's chapters, written in the first person, take us forward, as we see the aftermath of the body being found. We watch the assured and capable Molly crumble as she doubts everything and everyone around her. Ella's chapters take us back in time and show us how she became the person she was on that fateful night. It's such a simple storytelling device but it is used to great effect. I cannot praise Dolan's writing highly enough; the way she weaves between the two points of view, the ways she wrong-foots the characters, and her audience. This is psychological fiction at its very best.

The denouement is slowly uncovered as the truth is revealed in heart-breaking detail. As we have invested so much in Molly and Ella, we feel the crushing blow from the finale. My favourite of the two is Molly - a confidence, no-nonsense, strong and determined woman, but so incredibly sad and lonely. She had heart. She cared. And I'll be thinking about her for weeks to come.

As much as I want more Zigic and Ferreira novels from Dolan, I want more standalones too. A powerful writer with a finger on the pulse of society and a natural storytelling ability.

Reviewed by: M.W.

CrimeSquad Rating:

Karen Cleveland - Need To Know

"The main two characters were strong."

Vivian Miller is a CIA analyst assigned to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the USA. After accessing the computer of a potential Russian spy, she stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents living in her own country.

Five photos of seemingly normal people living in plain sight.
She's about to make the breakthrough of her career until she opens the third photograph and sees a face staring back at her that she never expected to see...

In an instant, everything that matters to Vivian is threatened - her job, her husband, even her four children.

Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she's facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust?

The plot of Viv finding a photo of her husband as a spy seemed like a great idea. I expected Viv to be wrong, confused, unsure. But somehow any intrigue was over before it started. Much of the book kept going back to the past; detailing how Viv and her husband met, how life had been when they had just got married. But it all felt rather unnecessary and took me away from the main plot.

I really liked the idea of a wife finding out her husband was a spy. What sacrifices she would make to try and make her marriage work? Or would she put her job first? So many possibilities, but I felt there were so many missed opportunities to build the storyline into something spectacular.

The main two characters were strong. Viv at times seemed a little indecisive but Matt was portrayed well and I was often left guessing as to his motives. On the whole, an easy book to read, but somehow feel as though with a few tweaks it could have been a great one.

Reviewed by: H.A.

CrimeSquad Rating: