Girl, 11 Amy Suiter Clarke

Girl, 11 is a crime novel about a serial killer who, twenty years before the book opens, murdered a number of women and girls without ever being caught. A methodical person with an obsession with numbers, the killer picks up young woman in descending age, keeps them for a period and then deposits their bodies for the authorities to find and their broken families to mourn. Most people believe the killer died in a catastrophic fire which also destroyed the body of the last girl he took.

True Crime podcaster, Elle, has long been fascinated by the TCK (the Countdown Killer), so when she starts to release a weekly podcast featuring a new angle on the investigation and interviews with the retired chief investigator, medical people, bereaved parents, it quickly becomes popular. But popularity isn’t necessarily a good thing and attract numerous trolls and personal threats as well. Yet, it seems as if Elle is on the cusp of learning the identity of TCK and, when someone about to give her crucial information is killed, she’s convinced the murderer has surfaced again.

Understanding how obsessed Elle is, there are those even very close to her that believe she’s allowing this to overtake her reason, putting herself and others in terrible danger. When someone close to Elle is kidnapped, she no longer knows whether she can trust her instincts. Is the killer back? Is it a copycat? Or is she torturing herself for other more personal reasons or worse, for none at all?

A clever, well-plotted book that segues between the first-person transcripts of the podcasts and third-person flashbacks and present day accounts, it’s a story of trauma, grief, incredible resilience and trust. 

A fabulous, fast-paced read that will keep the blood pumping into the wee hours.

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Falling by T.J. Newman

The moment I heard about this book, I was looking forward to reading it. Not only was the actual novel based on a sensational premise, but I loved the tenacity of TJ Newman that after 41 rejections, she still kept trying to get her manuscript published. Thank goodness she did and thank goodness for the foresight of the 42nd agent who recognized a great story and talent.

Falling has a terrifying set-up (and opening). It’s not spoiling anything to reveal the what drives the overall story as the blurb does the same thing. Basically, an experienced pilot is told to crash a laden commercial passenger plane or his family, who have been taken hostage, will die. If this sounds like the plot for an action movie (and it’s going to be) that’s because it is non-stop action from beginning to end. Furthermore, the book is deliberately  cinematic so its easy to visualise each and eery scene and character, particularly those of us familiar with flying (most of us) and the type of aircraft – an A320. The characters are well drawn, you have empathy for both the heroes and the villains, the latter being crafted in such a way that like some of the other characters, you understand their rage but not their ways of resolving it. And even though the American ra-ra is laid on a bit thick at times, and the story borders on sentimentality, it somehow fits. Newman worked for Virgin America for 10 years and this shows. readers are given insights into what goes on behind the scenes with cabin crew, in the cockpit and the relationship between these colleagues and their counterparts on the ground. This was so interesting and brings an authenticity to the story (I was going to write “implausible story” – not as a criticism, hell, it’s fiction, I’d watch a documentary if I wanted plausible. But ever since 9/11 and MH 370, what’s implausible has taken on a whole new meaning) and thus a very real frisson as well. 

I read this while in the throes of suffering (chills, fever, headache etc) from a Covid vaccination and I have say it was the perfect panacea. A page-turner par-excellence that made me grateful that, for the time being at least, flying isn’t high on the agenda. So, fasten you seatbelts, stow away your phone and other electronic devices, and prepare to take off with Falling. You won’t be disappointed.  

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The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I adore eschatological stories – end of the world ones. Whether they’re books, films, TV series, if they’re about humanity and/or the planet facing imminent annihilation, or about to implode, count me in. I think it was Stephen King who said people love horror stories precisely because they’re vivifying and remind us to appreciate life. I think it’s the same with doomsday stories. So, when I learned that The End of Men by Christine Sweeney was, essentially, about this but, as the title indicates, with caveats, I thought, why not? And then I paused with a couple of misgivings: am I ready for a book about a virus that sweeps the world and changes it considering well, you know. And, secondly, is this book a hard-line feminist take on the effects of a pandemic or is it something else? I’m all for feminist narratives, but what if it’s really a thinly disguised man-hating rant? Do I need that right at the moment considering all the rage we’re feeling; the sense of justice delayed? Maybe…

Pushing aside my concerns, I went ahead and read. And read. And read. This book was impossible to put down.

Basically, it describes a world overtaken by a pandemic except, as the title indicates (so no spoilers) this virus only kills men. Very few (about 10%) are immune, but all women are carriers. It starts in Scotland and, as we very much know, despite efforts to contain it, spreads with a virulence. Told from multiple points of view – mostly female, but some men, the reader enters into the head, heart and experiences of a range of people – scientists, journalists, mothers, fathers, partners, single people, politicians, teachers, farmers – ordinary men and women – heterosexual, homosexual, trans etc. In that sense, in style and even progress, it reminded me a little of the power and impact of Max Brooks’s Word War Z (which I also loved). The immediacy draws you in and doesn’t let you go and you long to discover the story arc of a person you’ve just been introduced to, learn what happens to them, their experiences. Do they survive? What about those they love? And so the story develops from the start of the pandemic to its aftermath. It’s an intoxicating and breathless ride. 

World War Z (reprint) (paperback) By Max Brooks : Target

Yes, it is a feminist take on the end of the world, written with such searing intellect and a huge heart. It’s political, social, moral, psychological, economical, cultural and so much more besides. It is completely thought-provoking and I am so in need of people to talk to about some of the notions raised, I am pressing my partner and close friends to read it just so we can debate and discuss. If that’s not a sign of a great book, I don’t know what is. Book clubs will love this. And what of my second concern, that it might be a man-hating treatise? On the contrary, while there are some hateful men (and women) in it, it’s a realistic take on patriarchy, how it has shaped the world – for better and worse – and what the loss of 90% of one sex – those who essentially built it – might do. What changes would be wrought? Would life as we know it continue? (and, of course, you have to ask, what if the virus had killed 90% of the women? Would men have handled the situation the way the women in this novel have? I think we all know the answer to that… but what a discussion is to be had right there!). Far from loathing men, the novel portrays the multiple roles they play in relationships, families, professional spheres – including trades, medicine and politics – and what their loss signifies and the changes that must be wrought to compensate. In so many ways it points to how we (mostly) need each other – regardless of sex.

I am not going to say too much more except to recommend this over and over in the highest possible terms. It’s not so much an end of the world narrative as, to borrow from the song, an “end of the world as we know it” book. I think I have to call it now and say, this is one of my all-time favorite reads. Not just the story, the way its told, but for the fact it is so plausible and that it makes you think and feel and ask, “what if?”… and then wonder… 

Absolutely sensational. A ripper of a read. 

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Home Stretch by Graham Norton.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Graham Norton and his self-named chat show, where celebrities of all ilk grace his couch as he not only puts them at ease, but entertains his guests and audience alike by unearthing gems about those he interviews. The same can’t be said for the folk who are foolish or brave enough to dare the Red chair…

Though I’ve known for a few years that Norton had also written some well-regarded novels, such is my funfair bias against celebrities who write a singular book, let alone books, and receive the kind of publicity that most authors can only dream about – whether the famous person ever wrote the book or not – that I tend to avoid reading them, unless they’re memoirs or come with a recommendation. While I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past, I still find myself feeling irrationally annoyed when, say, someone highly regarded and successful for acting writes one book and calls themselves an author, and then appears on every chat show and newspaper and online, using their “celebrity” to promote their work. But the rational part of me also thinks, why wouldn’t you?  Good for them! (I told you I was biased about celebrities who become writers (as opposed to celebrity writers – no problem with them) – and I’m not proud of it). But this is something Norton doesn’t do. Like other people more famous for one or two things than writing, he humbly creates his fiction and allows it to speak for itself.

And my, awards and accolades aside (which he’s deserved) does it do that.

Let me tell you Norton can not only tell a cracking good yarn, but his writing is moving, evocative and filled with insights about what makes people tick.

Homestretch opens in 1987, just as a small Irish village prepare to celebrate the wedding of two of their young people. On the eve of the wedding a terrible tragedy occurs and lives are lost. But it’s what happens to the survivors and their families, particularly young Connor, in the aftermath and the unfolding years that compounds the sorrow. This unfolding tale of grief, identity, the bonds that both unite and tear us apart, demonstrates how, try as we might, we can never run from our past, let alone our mistakes.

From country Ireland to England and America, this is a poignant, beautifully told story about choices, weakness, strength and how fear – of others, of ourselves and who we were and are – can be a much greater burden than either sorrow or guilt.

Now that I’ve read one Norton book, I cannot wait to read his others.

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Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly.

You know when you pick up a Michael Connelly book you’re in great story-telling hands. This novel, featuring the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, is no exception.

This time, Haller has been accused of murder and all the evidence is against his protestations of innocence. Determined to represent himself, Haller is not without colleagues and friends – past and present – who believe he’s not guilty and insist on helping him, no matter what it takes.

From the confines of his jail-cell, Mickey decides a not-gully verdict isn’t enough; he wants complete exoneration-to be declared, publicly in court, and found innocent. But the law is strict in this regard and, as his day in court draws near, Mickey finds that his enemies – past and present – are against him. Try as he and his team might, the odds are stacked against him.

Yet again, this is a superb rendering of not just characters old, beloved and new, but the intricacies of the law and the criminal justice system in the USA (and California in particular) as well as the schism and tensions that exist between prosecutors and defenders, criminals and those who claim their innocence. Taut, tense and beautifully paced. A great read.

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