Book Review: Twelve Secrets by Robert Gold (Little, Brown Book Group UK; publication date 3rd March, 2022)

I read an advance copy of Twelve Secrets as part of Hachette’s Secret Readers project.

Ben Harper, a successful true crime journalist for a popular news website, is asked by his editor to write about his personal experiences, a job he’s initially adamant he won’t do. Ben’s brother, Nick, and a schoolfriend were murdered years ago by two girls they were at school with, and Ben’s mother was killed by a train years after the murders. It’s coming up for the tenth anniversary of his mother’s death, a death Ben has always had trouble believing to be a suicide, and he doesn’t want to rake over these personal tragedies for the sake of a story. It’s not long before events take over though, and Ben finds himself investigating as a new killing reveals things he didn’t know about his own family.

Twelve Secrets is based in a small town, and in the opening chapters we meet quite a few of its residents, each connected to the central story in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. This is one of those novels in which there are very few people who aren’t concealing something, so there are lots of bombshells throughout the story in addition to the mystery surrounding the two child murders and death of Ben’s mother. In fact, the book is divided into twelve sections, and I’m sure you could pin down a major secret in each of the sections, although I didn’t get caught up in doing this and just decided to let the story flow as I read it.

Twelve Secrets has the feel of a book that’s expected to do really well, and I couldn’t help but notice the number of glamorous locations in the book, including Ben’s newsroom workplace, the exclusive restaurant run by his friends Will and East, and the massive family home that’s the setting for a party. I wouldn’t be surprised to read that this novel was going to be made into a film or TV series at some point, and although things did get a little melodramatic for my tastes in the closing scenes, I can imagine this has just the right mixture of twists and turns, aspirational settings and truly terrible people for it to do rather well on the big or small screen.

Book Review: Femlandia by Christina Dalcher (HQ; publication date 19th October, 2021)

In this near-future speculative novel, the USA’s financial systems have failed and society has completely broken down. The supermarkets have run out of food and closed down, utilities are being shut off and there is violence everywhere.

Miranda Reynolds and her teenage daughter, Emma, having lost everything, set out on the road in search of a place of safety. Miranda’s estranged mother Win was the founder of a number of safe spaces for women known as Femlandia and, devoid of any other option, Miranda and Emma end up at the gate of the nearest Femlandia asking to be taken in. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Femlandia turns out to offer a kind of dystopia within a dystopia.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I love a good dystopian novel and the subject matter (women-only spaces, gender-based violence and so on) was interesting to me, but I was left not really knowing what position the author was taking on any of these issues, or whether she’d kept that deliberately obscure for the sake of the story and making readers think. A couple of the characters in Femlandia certainly take things to the kind of extremes that couldn’t be predicted from whatever life experiences they’d had, so maybe the general point is a more nihilistic one about human nature.

I’m not a big fan of content warnings, but it’s probably worth saying that this book may not be for you if you are not up for reading about distressing topics at the moment, and the one that stood out for me (in quite a sea of upsetting scenes) was child neglect.

Femlandia, for me, has an interesting premise, is well-written and horrifying, and it left me feeling unsettled, which may well have been the intention. Some of my unease, though, came from the treatment of certain of the book’s themes, and I felt like I finished Femlandia with gaps in my understanding of how some of the more extreme personalities and behaviours came about.

Book Review: Rabbit Hole by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown)

Alice Armitage is an ex-police officer, now under section in a psychiatric ward after the murder of a police colleague caused Alice’s mental health to break down. When a patient is found dead in Alice’s ward, she can’t help conducting her own investigation, through frustration at what she perceives to be inertia from the police and Alice’s own longing to have her old status back.

Rabbit Hole can’t have been an easy book to write, as all the action takes place within Fleet Ward, with the cast of characters including the ward’s patients, staff, occasional visitors and the police. There is a sense of danger running throughout, without ever falling into the trap of stereotyping anyone; the various characters who are inpatients are connected by the vulnerability of their mental health statuses, while the ward nurses are largely seen as benign and kind.

Having worked in similar settings – not psychiatric wards, but informal residential mental health settings – I almost felt like I could have been on shift in the Fleet Ward at times, and there were very detailed depictions of things like the various levels of observation needed and the bonding that can happen between staff and patients, leading to small breaches of confidentiality.

Alice is an interesting main character, bringing another layer to the notion of an unreliable witness, as her PTSD often means she genuinely doesn’t have a clear-eyed view of what has happened. She feels a keen sense of loss for her old life, and sometimes acts out her frustrations on well-meaning friends and family, so she can be difficult to sympathise with.

Rabbit Hole is definitely a book that needs to be read to the last page. It’s not just a simple ‘whodunnit’, so immerse yourself and don’t skip anything.

Madness – The Get Up! (London Palladium, livestream 14th May 2021)

I was a very late arrival to Madness fandom. I remember being at school with people who were absolutely obsessed with them, yet I managed to exit my teens owning only one Madness single (Michael Caine). It wasn’t until I heard 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate album, a later-career masterpiece, that Madness really fell into place for me as a favourite band.

The Get Up!, Madness’s contribution to the world of Covid-friendly livestream performances, is a much more theatrical experience than you might expect. Written by and featuring Charlie Higson, there’s a storyline featuring the band arriving at the London Palladium to watch a show by, err, themselves. Higson stars as a kind of theatre manager/compere, taking the band members to their seats and making reference to the larger audience being out there, invisible yet watching everything. There’s also Mike Barson playing The Queen, and a strange barman who features in a running gag about band members struggling to find a way into the closed theatre, treating all requests for help as philosophical questions rather than practical ones.

The show opens with Madness sitting in the stalls watching themselves on stage, ostensibly acting out the beginnings of their career as a band. Suggs is dismissed for being more interested in football than turning up for rehearsals, paving the way for a couple of guest slots from Paul Weller and Roland Gift. I have to say, when I bought a ticket for a Madness livestream, I didn’t expect to be watching them perform Concrete and Clay with Roland Gift, or that the moment would be as enjoyable as it was unexpected.

The later parts of The Get Up! see it move closer to being a traditional livestream concert performance, featuring all the big hits, plus interludes with the band members commenting from the stalls on their own performance. If you’ve ever seen Madness live, as I have somewhat belatedly in their career, then you’ll know how great an experience this is, with setlists spanning their chart career and beyond.

I’m not sure whether The Get Up! will be made available again, as the initial advertising said it was strictly a livestream that couldn’t be watched afterwards. If they did decide to release it on another format, I’d probably buy a copy to keep, serving as it does as a kind of time capsule of the strangest year for live performances, as well as a very entertaining Madness set.

Book Review: You Had it Coming by B.M. Carroll (Serpent’s Tail/Viper)

When Sydney-based paramedic Megan is called out to a shooting in a well-to-do residential area, she doesn’t immediately realise that the victim is someone she already knows. Megan and her estranged friend, Jess, were raped at a party years ago, and William Newson is the lawyer who helped their attackers evade justice, and who built his reputation defending similar cases.

The incident leads to Megan contacting Jess again, and the action in You Had it Coming is relayed by Megan and Jess as well as Bridget, the detective investigating the case. This is a multiple point of view novel, with chapters alternating between the three women.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, including quite a few potential suspects. Many people had a possible motive for wanting William Newson gone, including Megan and Jess, their families, other victims and even William’s ex-wife. As the story progresses, Bridget’s boss becomes more and more frustrated as the suspect list gets bigger at every turn.

Given the large list of suspects, the novel had a lot of background characters as well, and for me this diluted the action at times and meant it didn’t properly become a page-turner until the later stages. There seemed to be a lot of scenes, for example, showing Megan doing her job as a paramedic, involving different colleagues and different scenarios unfolding in real-time, and I would probably have found the story to be a pacier read without some of these.

I wasn’t familiar with B.M. Carroll’s writing until reading You Had it Coming, and I notice from the author’s notes that she hadn’t previously envisaged writing a book with a detective as a main character. I think the resulting novel is one that falls somewhere between police procedural and psychological drama. Ironically, the character of Bridget worked best for me – it was refreshing to have a detective who was a straight-talking, likeable, thorough, empathic person with no secret hard drinking or other foibles on the side, and I would happily read other novels involving Bridget if the author wanted to write them.

Book Review: Before the Storm by Alex Gray (Sphere; Little, Brown Book Group UK)

I’ve been reading lots of crime fiction during lockdown, finding that I need things to read that are distracting and fast-paced. I’d heard about Alex Gray’s Lorimer series of police procedural novels set in Glasgow, but hadn’t read any before, so decided to take the plunge with Number 18 in the series.

Due to the main character, Bill Lorimer, now being head of the Major Incident Team within Police Scotland (I assume he has been promoted at some point during the series), his role involves dealing with things at the highest level, so although there is a murder fairly early on in this story, Lorimer’s job isn’t directly to solve this. He’s busy trying to foil a suspected planned terrorist attack on the centre of Glasgow, as well as trace the source of recent press leaks of the identities of undercover officers, which has led to several officers having to take up desk duties and has underpowered the local police force. There are some interesting layers at work, with officers working on the murder case wondering why Lorimer is suddenly taking such an interest in their work.

Daniel, an ex-member of the Zimbabwean police, who has had to flee the country due to threats against his life, turns up in Glasgow seeking asylum, and immediately witnesses something suspicious. Unable to resist using his own policing skills to start investigating, he soon enters the orbit of Bill Lorimer and they discover that they’ve been working in parallel.

The character of Daniel brings a lot to this story. He’s a skilled police officer, but through his experiences we get a taste of the restrictions placed on asylum seekers, and he has to work in an unofficial, unrecognised way. He forges a heart-warming friendship with his elderly neighbour Netta, a salt-of-the-earth Glaswegian who despite being generous to the core is no stranger to social exclusion herself, poverty having led her into the path of loan sharks.

Before the Storm struck a good balance for me between crime solving action and human interest story. I’m not always in the mood for white-knuckle-ride twists or lots of gory detail, and Alex Gray’s writing seems to steer clear of these while still providing an absorbing plot and a cast of interesting characters. I just need to read through the other 17 books in the series now.

Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street – Catriona Ward (Serpent’s Tail/Profile Books)

The Last House on Needless Street is one of those novels that’s experienced a huge buzz before its release, helped in no small part by praise from Stephen King. I’d been intrigued by the descriptions I’d read of this book and now, having read it, I can say that it’s both a stunning novel and something of a challenge to review. While I was reading, it embedded itself in my consciousness to such an extent that I was always either reading it or thinking about it; I have no idea what it must have been like to be writing it.

The central characters here are Ted, who lives in the house in question at the edge of a forest, his daughter, Lauren, who spends part of her time with Ted, and his cat, Olivia. Ted has an unusual lifestyle to say the least; the house has boarded-up windows with spyholes cut into the boards for daylight, and there are many references to the dilapidated state of the house. There’s also the story of Lulu, a young girl who went missing some years ago at the lake close to Ted’s house, and her sister, Dee, who has dedicated her life to trying to solve the mystery of Lulu’s fate.

Although the novel has been described as a gothic mystery or horror, it is other things besides. The profound social isolation of the characters brought to mind Elmet by Fiona Mozley, and I think The Last House on Needless Street should also be considered as literary fiction. It’s also an extremely emotional read.

There are many, many unusual things going on in this novel. There are inconsistencies in the descriptions of Ted’s environment, and at first not much seems to make sense. There are chapters written from the point of view of Olivia, the cat. It is crucial to review this book without giving much away, except to say that everything is there for a reason, and attentive reading is rewarded. My advice to anyone interested in this novel would be to get hold of a copy as soon as it’s published (18th March) and immerse yourself in it without looking for too much information online. This is a book that people will be talking about.

Book Review: Widowland by C.J. Carey (Quercus)

It’s 1953 and the UK, having chosen to submit to Germany rather than going to war, is now the junior partner in the Alliance. There’s going to be a coronation for King Edward and Queen Wallis, with George VI and his family missing and presumed murdered, and the occasion is the cause of a state visit from the Leader, never named here as Hitler, although many of his contemporaries are named. ‘People liked the idea of a strong leader – they didn’t much care what that leader stood for,’ goes the explanation, sounding all too plausible.

The regime’s major focus, in the UK at least, has been the organising of women into different castes, according to factors such as their reproductive value to society. The different castes have been given female names relevant to Hitler, ranging from the relatively privileged Geli caste (young, attractive women) to Friedas (women aged over 50 who have no children, and who live in semi-derelict ghettos on the outskirts of cities). The caste system has obvious parallels with The Handmaid’s Tale, although female sexuality and fertility are so often a focus of control for governments, societies and cultures that it’s not too much of a stretch to see this theme repeated.

The protagonist in Widowland is Rose Ransom, a Geli who has a job with the Ministry of Culture and is having an affair with a senior SS officer. Rose’s job involves editing classic novels to bring them more into line with present day values, mainly correcting novels which have independently-minded heroines. Her work gradually starts to affect her, and she finds it harder and harder to ignore the writings of authors such as the Bronte sisters and George Eliot. In parallel with Rose’s exposure to literary classics, a resistance group, believed by the authorities to be Friedas, has started vandalising public buildings with slogans taken from classic feminist texts.

There’s an obvious celebration of the power of literature going on in Widowland. For me, the defiant acts of vandalism struck a more convincing note than the scenes involving Rose reflecting on her reading, or doing furtive bits of writing herself. Some of these scenes seemed to have an escapist effect on Rose that threatened to take the novel into a gentler territory than it could afford to be in, given the subject matter. In fact, my one real criticism of this novel is that the pace and the tone are too gentle until about two thirds of the way through, when it finally finds some grit and suspense. For example, we’re told early on that there are dead bodies everywhere throughout London, suggesting state-approved violence on a grand scale, yet we’re never shown this violence happening in real time. There are hints here and there about things happening to Jewish people, although the information has been suppressed, leading to a strangely subdued account of the period.

I think Widowland, like The Handmaid’s Tale before it, would benefit from greater prominence being given to lower-caste characters. Rose, in her position of relative privilege and ignorance, has a very limited view for much of the novel, until things finally reach a momentum that means she needs to decide which side she is on. The older, more widely educated Friedas, with their greater knowledge of pre-Nazi times, could have added more vigour to the early stages of the book, had they featured more.

I enjoyed reading Widowland, can imagine that it would work well in film or TV, and I was fully engrossed by the end. Given that the story contained actual Nazis in action, though, I think that a bolder touch early on could have elevated this from being a good book to a great one.

Book Review: The Coffinmaker’s Garden by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins UK)

The Coffinmaker’s Garden opens in the fictional Scottish coastal village of Clachmara, in the middle of a storm that sees part of the coastline, and some abandoned houses, crumble into the sea. A neighbour from the village notices what appear to be human bones sticking out of the remains of a garden, and it quickly becomes apparent that an ex-inhabitant, Gordon Smith, has been operating as a serial killer for a lot of years, with his current whereabouts unknown.

This was the first Stuart MacBride book I’d read, and is the third in a series featuring Ash Henderson, an ex-DI who now works with the Lateral Investigative and Review Unit, a civilian organisation working alongside the police. Although this book can be read as a standalone, I must admit that one of the first things I did was search for information on the previous ones, as it was obvious that Ash came with a lot of ‘baggage’, in the form of both physical and psychological scars. I wasn’t initially sure I was going to take to him, with his apparent propensity for thumping anyone who gets in his way. If you haven’t read the previous novels either, it soon becomes apparent in the pages of this one that Ash has had a lot of personal trauma involving a serial killer in a previous story.

Although Ash is supposed to be working with his sidekick, Dr Alice McDonald, on a different case involving the murders of young boys, Ash finds himself taken off the case and sent to work with the Misfit Mob, a collection of police officers with chequered track records, on the Gordon Smith case. This means that there are two serial killer investigations running throughout The Coffinmaker’s Garden. Ash and Alice share a flat, and along with Henry the Scotty dog they make the sort of close-knit team that’s almost a family, so both investigations are kept in the spotlight and there’s always a lot going on.

Between the Misfit Mob and the LIRU, the novel has a large cast of characters, and thankfully characterisation is one of the real strengths here. There’s a lot of humour of the darker variety, and characters who trust each other to the point that they can be brutally honest and even scathing and still get the job done. Ash’s softer side is shown mainly through his nurturing of his colleagues, most notably Alice, who has a few issues of her own.

At points, The Coffinmaker’s Garden ventured into gangland territory, and there were some scenes that felt like I was watching an action movie rather than reading a crime novel; there’s even a little swipe at more traditional police procedural novels when Ash interrupts an island book group. I did have to suspend my disbelief once or twice in order to ever trust the police again, but this was a fast and enjoyable read with a memorable cast of characters, and I suspect it won’t be the last Stuart MacBride novel I read.

Book Review: The Less Dead by Denise Mina (Random House UK, Vintage)

When Margo, a doctor from Glasgow, arranges to meet her birth family for the first time via an adoption charity, the meeting is attended by Nikki, Margo’s birth aunt. Nikki, who has been trying unsuccessfully to make contact with Margo for a while, explains that Susan, Margo’s mother, was murdered years ago while working as a prostitute. No-one has ever been convicted of the murder, and Nikki believes that Susan and other women were victims of a serial killer. The novel’s title, The Less Dead, refers to the policing attitude of the time, namely that the deaths of street-working women were somehow less notable than other deaths.

I worked for many years with women in Glasgow who had similar lives to those depicted in The Less Dead, so many of the references in the novel were instantly familiar – the drug use, the violence, the locations, the dependent and sometimes abusive partners, and the generations of deprivation within families. Margo’s first meeting with Nikki felt authentic, with Margo being completely out of her depth and mistrusting Nikki’s motives. Similarly, Tracey, the charity worker with the poor boundaries between her personal and professional lives, felt realistic, over-involving herself in a way that quickly started to feel counter-productive.

As the novel progressed, with Margo beginning to delve further into Susan’s life and character, exploring the serial killer theory while keeping Nikki instinctively at bay, I found it hard at times to empathise with Margo. Her career as a doctor felt a bit like a device, there to cement her status as a confident, middle-class woman and to give her specific bits of medical knowledge, but there was otherwise no hint of any contact with her workplace, colleagues or anything to do with her actual job. She made some very undoctorly decisions regarding things like not notifying the police when her safety was in jeopardy. Her relationship with her ex-partner Joe, who was unaware that Margo was pregnant, seemed to consist of endless conversations about Margo’s friend Lilah, herself clearly in a worrying situation.

Ironically, given Margo’s feelings towards Nikki, her character seemed to make most sense in the scenes featuring her birth family, especially the one in which she met an older family member. On the whole, The Less Dead was at its best when the focus was on Nikki, Susan and the other women they’d known. There was an obvious compassion and dedication to bringing to life the stories of these women, and Denise Mina’s writing highlighted the individual stories and situations that can become obscured when we start to talk about disadvantaged people as a group.

The ending of the story, when it came, felt sudden, and I would have liked one more chapter to answer some of the questions I still had. Without giving too much away, there were a few incidents towards the end of the novel that would indicate further drama to come; in particular, a highly traceable phone call. I know those little ‘six months later…’ chapters can feel a bit cheesy, but I think a further bit of resolution would have been forgivable here.