We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker

You can’t save someone that doesn’t want to be saved . . .’

For some people, trouble just finds them . . .

Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer.

Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California.

Not everyone is pleased to see him.

Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed.

Duchess Radley, Star’s thirteen year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin – and to her deeply troubled mother.

But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family, but also the whole town.

Murder, revenge, retribution.

How far can we run from the past when the past seems doomed to repeat itself?

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of how much I love Chris Whitaker’s first two books.

Tall Oaks kept me up until nearly 3am to be finished in a single sitting. It’s a beautifully wrought tale of small-town America, shot through with a deft line in wit and with what were to become some of my favourite characters in a book, ever. Manny and Abe, I’m looking at you.

His sophomore novel, All The Wicked Girls was just as good, if not better. Deep and complex, harrowing and heartbreaking, a story of a young girl’s hunt for her missing sister in a small southern bible belt town. Chris Whitaker does small-town America really really well, though he was born in London and lives in Hertfordshire.

So now we come to We Begin At The End. Reader, I was really really looking forward to this book, and I was enormously fortunate to get my hands on an early copy, which I started reading on December 31st, 2019. And finished at 1.30am on January 1st.

Which puts We Begin At The End in the rather unique position of not only being the best book I read in 2019, but also the best I’ve read in 2020.

Reader, it’s just so, so good. Whitaker’s skill at evoking small town Americana, polished and honed over the course of the first two books, absolutely shines here. I loved the characters in the first two books, but here we meet Duchess Day Radley, the outlaw. And she’ll take over your heart. At once older than her years, yet still a vulnerable young girl, she’s strong and fierce, and carries this book on her shoulders magnificently.

Then there’s Walk, the police chief. Vincent King, his friend who went to jail for the murder of Duchess’s aunt Sissy. Star Radley, Duchess’s mother. All brilliantly drawn, flawed, rich characters in their own right.

Whitaker’s ability to create these unforgettable characters, coupled with a story so achingly beautiful and utterly brilliant that you’ll struggle to find better.

We Begin At The End should be on your reading list for this year. And it should be on all the award shortlists. Whitaker is a phenomenal writing talent, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

I’d give this six stars if I could, and it would deserve every one of them and more.

Hugely recommended. I will pester you to read this book.

We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker is published by Zaffre in April 2020. Huge thanks to Zaffre for the review copy.

Sister – Kjell Ola Dahl

Suspended from duty, Detective Frølich is working as a private investigator, when his girlfriend’s colleague asks for his help with a female asylum seeker, who the authorities are about to deport. She claims to have a sister in Norway, and fears that returning to her home country will mean instant death.

Frølich quickly discovers the whereabouts of the young woman’s sister, but things become increasingly complex when she denies having a sibling, and Frølich is threatened off the case by the police. As the body count rises, it becomes clear that the answers lie in an old investigation, and the mysterious sister, who is now on the run…

Sister is the 9th of Kjell Ola Dahl’s Olso Detectives books, following on from the events in The Ice Swimmer, which I loved. I’m a big fan of Dahl’s books, and it’s good to see our friend Frank Frølich back in action and taking more of a lead role this time round. Suspended from the force, he’s struck out as a private investigator. Then he meets the mysterious Matilde who might just have a job for him.

The case is, at face value, simple enough. Find a missing woman. So far, so standard. But this woman is the titular sister of an asylum seeker who is about to be deported. And she came to Norway years ago, changed her name, and disappeared into the system.

Coupled with the investigation into the sinking of a ferry some thirty years previous, the two cases appear unconnected. But are they?

Dahl’s plotting is as deft as ever, and whilst the story might not be quite as dark as with The Ice Swimmer, it’s just as good. I do love a good slice of Nordic Noir, and Dahl never fails to deliver. The pace is measured and never rushed, but still the tension is ratcheted up notch by notch as the investigations proceed to their entirely satisfying conclusion.

Translation is once again handled by Don Bartlett, delivering Dahl’s punchy prose. I’ve started getting used to Dahl’s style, with his short, snappy sentences, and was hooked from the off.

Sister, by Kjell Ola Dahl is published by Orenda Books at the end of April. Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for the review copy, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Deep Dark Night – Steph Broadribb

A city in darkness. A building in lockdown. A score that can only be settled in blood…
Working off the books for FBI Special Agent Alex Monroe, Florida bounty-hunter Lori Anderson and her partner, JT, head to Chicago. Their mission: to entrap the head of the Cabressa crime family. The bait: a priceless chess set that Cabressa is determined to add to his collection.

An exclusive high-stakes poker game is arranged in the penthouse suite of one of the city’s tallest buildings, with Lori holding the cards in an agreed arrangement to hand over the pieces, one by one. But, as night falls and the game plays out, stakes rise and tempers flare.

When a power failure plunges the city into darkness, the building goes into lockdown. But this isn’t an ordinary blackout, and the men around the poker table aren’t all who they say they are. Hostages are taken, old scores resurface and the players start to die.
And that’s just the beginning…

Deep Dark Night is the fourth of Steph Broadribb’s Lori Anderson books, following on from the events of Deep Dirty Truth.

Here we move away from the usual bounty hunter tracks her prey road trips of the first three books, and switch up locations too – from the hot south of Miami to Chicago. The stakes remain as high as ever for Anderson and JT as their FBI contact, Special Agent Alex Monroe, has a rather special job for them. This time Lori is tasked with entrapping the head of the Cabressa crime family during a high-stakes poker game.

The action comes thick and fast and before you can say ‘raise’, Lori is taking her place at the poker table for another cracking adventure. I must confess to being partial to a game of Texas hold ’em from time to time, and Broadribb’s description of the game had me hankering for a few hands. Though possibly not for the stakes that Lori and the others were playing for!

It’s not all poker though, and a power failure throws everything into chaos, and the action into overdrive as we find ourselves in a classic noir locked room mystery, with deadly consequences.

Hugely enjoyable, but be sure to read the first three books!

Deep Dark Night by Steph Broadribb is published by Orenda Books and is out now in paperback.

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb

The story of the Gilded Age Chicago heiress who revolutionized forensic death investigation. As the mother of forensic science, Frances Glessner Lee is the reason why homicide detectives are a thing. She is responsible for the popularity of forensic science in television shows and pop culture. Long overlooked in the history books, this extremely detailed and thoroughly researched biography will at long last tell the story of the life and contributions of this pioneering woman.

I don’t read much non-fiction these days, but when the chance to read 18 Tiny Deaths came up, I jumped at the chance. Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of crime novels, and the opportunity to see how the forensic science at the heart of them came to be was one not to be missed.

It’s a fascinating story about a fascinating woman. Born into money in 1878, Frances Glessner Lee showed a keen interest in medicine and became a driving force behind the development of forensic science.

Her use of meticulous dioramas, the 18 tiny deaths of the title, as a training aid for police officers was revolutionary. Presented not so much as a ‘solve this puzzle’, but more an exercise in observation, the miniature models were exact replicas of crime scenes, down to the blood spatter on the walls.

If anything, I wish there had been a bit more about the detail behind these dioramas, the cases involved and what happened. But that’s a minor quibble! The story of Captain Lee’s life is astonishing, and Goldfarb’s account is well-written and comprehensive.

18 Tiny Deaths is as meticulously researched and presented as Captain Lee’s dioramas. Fascinating to read, this is one for any true crime buff.

Highly recommended.

18 Tiny Deaths: The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb is published by Octopus and is out now.

Many thanks to Anne Cater and Octopus Publishing for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the copy of the book for review.

The Molten City – Chris Nickson

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Leeds, September 1908. There’s going to be a riot. Detective Superintendent Tom Harper can feel it. Herbert Asquith, the prime minster, is due to speak in the city. The suffragettes and the unemployed men will be out in the streets in protest. It’s Harper’s responsibility to keep order. Can he do it?

Harper has also received an anonymous letter claiming that a young boy called Andrew Sharp was stolen from his family fourteen years before. The file is worryingly thin. It ought to have been bulging. A missing child should have been headline news. Why was Andrew’s disappearance ignored? Determined to uncover the truth about Andrew Sharp and bring the boy some justice, Harper is drawn deep into the dark underworld of child-snatching, corruption and murder as Leeds becomes a molten, rioting city. 

A new case for DS Tom Harper (his eighth), following up from last year’s excellent The Leaden Heart .

We’ve moved on to 1908 – a new century and a set of new challenges for Harper and his team. The prime minister is on his way to Leeds and Harper is tasked with making sure everything runs like clockwork – no small feat when the suffragettes and unemployed both plan on making trouble.

On top of that, Harper has a mystery to solve. He’s received a letter claiming that a young boy was stolen from his family some fourteen years ago. But where was the outcry? Why is the file so empty?

I really enjoyed delving back into the world of DS Tom Harper. I read a lot of modern crime fiction set all around the world, so it’s great to find one set so close to home. I know the streets and alleyways that Harper’s men walk, and get a real feel for how my adopted city has changed. Not that you’d need to be familiar with Leeds to enjoy this, mind!

The story is, as with The Leaden Heart, full of intrigue and good, solid no-nonsense police work. Nickson clearly knows and loves his subject (and city) well, and it really comes across on the page. Leeds is very much a key character in Nickson’s books, and I hope to read many more.

The Molten City is the eighth book in the Tom Harper series, but could easily be read as a standalone. I still need to go back and read some of the earlier books, and am looking forward to doing so.

Huge thanks to Chris Nickson for asking me to review his book, and to Natasha Bell and Severn House for the advance copy via NetGalley.

Mine – Clare Empson

‘Who am I? Why am I here? Why did my mother give me away?’

On the surface, Luke and his girlfriend Hannah seem to have a perfect life. He’s an A&R man, she’s an arts correspondent and they are devoted to their new-born son Samuel.

But beneath the gloss Luke has always felt like an outsider. So when he finds his birth mother Alice, the instant connection with her is a little like falling in love.

When Hannah goes back to work, Luke asks Alice to look after their son. But Alice – fuelled with grief from when her baby was taken from her 27 years ago – starts to fall in love with Samuel. And Luke won’t settle for his mother pushing him aside once again…

More than your usual psychological thriller, Mine is an exploration of love and loss, of obsession and grief, and will absolutely not let you go until the very end.

Really enjoyed this book. I loved the dual narratives of Luke’s now and Alice’s then, and how their stories unfold and ultimately intertwine. I must confess that about halfway through the book I thought I had it figured out, but Empson had another card (or two) up her sleeve to keep me on my toes!

The writing is compelling, emotional and thought-provoking – Luke’s adoption and feelings towards his newly-found birth mother and adoptive parents are fascinating. Ultimately it’s a story about relationships, and Empson weaves a masterful tale across the two timelines, always leaving you wanting to find out just a little more.

Highly recommended.

Mine, by Clare Empson is published by Orion. Many thanks to Tracy Fenton and Orion for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and for the advance copy of the book.

Mercy – Danie Ware

Yesterday I stumbled across this. Reader, I was intrigued.

I trotted off to that big online store and bought a copy of Mercy, by Danie Ware.

Sister Superior Augusta of the Order of the Bloody Rose has been called to a planet in the far reaches of the Imperium, a world where no Imperial foot has stepped in thousands of year, save a missionary sent to bring the Emperor’s light to the natives. On the world is a cathedral, ancient and run down – but with an icon at its heart, a warrior-woman with a bloodied rose on her chest. Is this a symbol that Saint Mina, founder of the Order, once walked on this world? Augusta is determined to find out…

Now, let me start by saying that whilst I’m aware of Warhammer 40K (seen the miniatures, games and books), I have little to no background in what it’s actually about, other than space marines in HUGE armour and even huger weaponry doing what space marines do.

Mercy is short, sharp and brutal, and I loved it. Featuring the awesome Sister Superior Augusta of the Order of the Bloody Rose, we’re in for a fast-paced adventure to save a missionary on a far-flung world. It’s pretty much action from the first page until the last, and Ware does a grand job of keeping things moving along.

If I had any criticism, it’s that I’d liked to have a bit more character background and development, but as this is a short story in a well-established world, that was always going to play second fiddle to the action.

I’m sure I missed a ton of references, but I really enjoyed my brief travels with the Order of the Bloody Rose.

Great fun. I look forward to reading more!

The City We Became – N.K. Jemisin

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five.

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all. 

What a book this is. It’s glorious in its scope, worldbuilding (albeit atop our own world) which is second to none, and characters? Oh, the characters.

I do love a story with a sense of place, and this book is ALL about place. Some books you feel that the location could almost be a character in itself, but in The City We Became, that is literally true. You see New York City is made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. And it’s these five parts which make up the whole, which must come together to fight off the ancient evil which lurks beneath.

Jemisin’s knack for character really shines here. Each of the boroughs, much like in NYC itself (I imagine) has its own distinct personality, its own quirks, its own relationship with the others and the whole. And what I loved about this book is that Jemisin takes the time to let them come to life, to breathe and become real, even as the story whistles along at breakneck pace.

It’s a great story too – New York is in the process of being born, of becoming A City. Its city avatars, in the form of the boroughs, become aware of themselves as part of the larger whole, and the powers that come with it.

And there’s a missing sixth player in the game, the city itself. And the Enemy is cunning and crafty and immense and ancient, and will stop at nothing to destroy New York itself. Can the five come together to find the sixth in time to avert catastrophe?

I just love Jemisin’s writing. Each page oozes atmosphere, the dialogue crackles with life and the picture she paints of NYC is stunning in breadth and scope. This is full on, widescreen four-dimensional New York, sights, sounds and smells and all. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Hugely recommended.

The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Huge thanks to Nazia at Orbit for the advance review copy.

Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton

Three hours is 180 minutes or 10,800 seconds.

It is a morning’s lessons, a dress rehearsal of Macbeth, a snowy trek through the woods.

It is an eternity waiting for news. Or a countdown to something terrible.

It is 180 minutes to discover who you will die for and what men will kill for.

In rural Somerset in the middle of a blizzard, the unthinkable happens: a school is under siege. Told from the point of view of the people at the heart of it, from the wounded headmaster in the library, unable to help his trapped pupils and staff, to teenage Hannah in love for the first time, to the parents gathering desperate for news, to the 16 year old Syrian refugee trying to rescue his little brother, to the police psychologist who must identify the gunmen, to the students taking refuge in the school theatre, all experience the most intense hours of their lives, where evil and terror are met by courage, love and redemption.

Towards last year I found myself with an afternoon to spare and this book on my Kindle. I settled down with a cup of tea to read.

Three hours (or so) later I emerged from the book, my tea as cold as the weather outside, untouched.

Reader, this book is utterly absorbing, utterly terrifying, and one you will be utterly unable to put down.

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this book since December. I keep picking up the draft, then putting it down again, unable to find the right words.

It’s quite an experience. The subject matter was never going to make this an easy read, especially as a parent. We’re sadly all too familiar with the scenario from news stories in the US, but Three Hours‘ setting in a school in Somerset almost makes it more shocking. This isn’t something we’d expect to see here, making it all the more shocking.

Told over the course of the titular three hours, this is a complex, multi-layered narrative told from multiple viewpoints – the head teacher lying gravely wounded, the students trying to save him, the teenage Syrian refugee trying to find his little brother whilst the gunman stalks the halls. Relationships between the young students are brought to the fore, magnified and focussed by the ever-present threat of death, of life being snatched before they’ve had a chance to truly live.

It’s beautifully written, nail-bitingly tense and at times, heartbreaking. It will also be on my books of the year list, I can guarantee it even now.

Put it on your list. Hugely recommended. Solid five stars.

Phenomenal.

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton was published by Penguin in January 2020. Many thanks to the publisher for an advance ebook via NetGalley

Black River – Will Dean

FEAR

Tuva’s been living clean in southern Sweden for four months when she receives horrifying news. Her best friend Tammy Yamnim has gone missing.

SECRETS

Racing back to Gavrik at the height of Midsommar, Tuva fears for Tammy’s life. Who has taken her, and why? And who is sabotaging the small-town search efforts?

LIES

Surrounded by dark pine forest, the sinister residents of Snake River are suspicious of outsiders. Unfortunately, they also hold all the answers. On the shortest night of the year, Tuva must fight to save her friend. The only question is who will be there to save Tuva?

Black River sees the return of reporter Tuva Moodyson, following the events of Dark Pines and Red Snow. Both superb books that kicked off my reading for 2018 and 2019 respectively, so I was thrilled to get the chance to read the third book to start 2020.

While Dark Pines was firmly rooted in the creepy Utgard forest, with its host of slightly odd inhabitants, and Red Snow took place in and around the equally odd Grimberg Liquorice factory, Black River sees the action move out of Gavrik to Snake River. And yes, the inhabitants there are just as strange…

Tuva has moved away from Gavrik to start her new life down in Malmö when she receives a call that her best friend Tammy has gone missing. Before long she’s back up north on the hunt. And it’s Midsommar, shortest night of the year, and the near-constant daylight is putting everyone under stress.

I adored the first two books, and am firmly #TeamTuva. She’s a brilliant character, though Will Dean does seem to rather relish putting her and those closest to her through the wringer!

We’re faced this time with a rather different Gavrik, sweltering in the summer sun with a constant cloud of insects trying to eat Tuva as she looks for her missing friend. The forest lurks menacingly, filled with things and people that are out to get you if you put a foot wrong. Frustration also abounds as most of the locals don’t seem to see Tammy as one of them, despite being as Swedish as they are. Then another girl goes missing and Tuva has to battle to keep her friend in the spotlight.

It’s a testament to Dean’s writing that you can almost feel the oppressive atmosphere, the swarms of insects that’ll have you batting away imaginary mosquitoes as you read. And if you thought Utgard Forest was bad, just wait until you get to Snake River itself…

The story fair rattles along, thwarting Tuva at every turn. It’s intense and scary at times, and there’s a real sense of panic in the air. You hope that all will turn out well in the end, but you can never tell until you turn the final page.

This is book three in a series so if you’ve not met Tuva yet, you should really go back to the start at Dark Pines and begin there. If you’ve already read the first two books, you’ll need no encouragement from me to pick up this one. It’s as good, if not better than you’d expect it to be.

Hugely recommended.

Black River by Will Dean is published by Point Blank in March 2020. Many thanks to Point Blank for the review copy of Will’s book.