Book Review – Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips: a gripping debut thriller

Fierce Kingdom is Gin Phillips’s debut thriller and its powerful story of a mother’s determination to protect her child when faced with unimaginable circumstances will certainly stay with me for quite some time.

Set somewhere in the United States, the book revolves around Joan and her four year-old son Lincoln. He loves the zoo, but on this day they find themselves caught up in a terrifying nightmare scenario, when young men armed with guns open fire just before closing time. Aware both their lives are in extreme danger, Joan knows she must use all of her instincts and courage to keep them alive.

Phillips has written a tremendously gripping book. However, unlike some people I couldn’t read it in one sitting, as I found it much too tense to do that. Although such shootings are almost unheard of here in the UK, you cannot fail to put yourself in to Joan’s shoes, or indeed some of the other characters she encounters and at a time in a world where we are much more aware of our safety being threatened, it’s a story that packs a powerful, emotional punch.


As a reader, I connected with the character of Joan immediately. She has such a strength about her that you find yourself almost holding your breath as she fights to stay one step ahead of the young men roaming the zoo. I also liked how we learnt more about her and her life as time moved along, seeing a glimpse in to the person she is outside of the world of the book and I may not be a mother, but you cannot fail to be moved by her bond with her son and how that loves fuels her determination to keep them both safe and like Joan, I took comfort in his innocence during such a frightening ordeal.

It’s also a great structural choice to keep all of the story within the walls of the zoo, rather than jump away to those on the outside, for example Joan’s husband or the police. Some writers may have chosen to do this to broaden out the story, but by keeping us as readers inside that small space with Joan and Lincoln, Gin Phillips heightens our connection to them and draws us in much more. Her decision to bring in the point of view of one of the gunmen is also interesting and creeps up on you in a clever way and through those pages we are given an insight in to what may cause someone to cause such harm and whether there is anything that will bring them back from such a dark path.

I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving anything crucial away about the book, but if you are someone who enjoys a strong thriller, that will grip you from the first chapter and hold your attention until you put it down, then I recommend that you add this book to your reading list.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips is published in the UK on 15th June 2017 by Doubleday and is available from all the usual book stockists.


Book Review – Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse


My local bookshop, West End Lane Books in North West London, is wonderful at arranging events with some of the finest writers around and a couple of weeks ago we were treated to readings and discussion with two such authors. One of these was Lucie Whitehouse, who talked about her latest book Keep You Close and having just finished it, I can guarantee you are in for a thrilling read from the first page to the last.

Rowan Winter grew up in Oxford. Her mother died when she was young and her father travelled all the time, meaning she kept to herself – until she met Marianne Glass and soon, not only were the girls close friends, but Rowan became almost part of the Glass family. Ten years later, Marianne has been found dead, an apparent fall from her flat and although they hadn’t spoken in a decade, Rowan suspects there is more to Marianne’s death. She knows Marianne had severe vertigo and never went near the edge of the roof, so how could she fall?

Keep You Close is a brilliantly written book, in terms of plot, character and construction, as Lucie Whitehouse skilfully weaves the past and the present together, while always suggesting that there are still secrets the reader has yet to uncover. I find so many books, although great reads, give their endings away too obviously and it is wonderful that this novel doesn’t do that. There were moments that really did make me stop and go “Oh, now I see! How clever!” which is all down to Lucie Whitehouse’s cleverness in constructing her story.

Author Lucie Whitehouse

A key to any novel is its characters and one of the strengths of Whitehouse’s novel for me was the fact I genuinely liked Rowan. She was flawed from the outset, but I couldn’t help but like her because she was so believable. As the book moved forward, I was desperate for her to discover the truth so that I would know too! Marianne was also a very real presence in the story despite her death at its start and I very much enjoyed the way her life, both when she knew Rowan and just before her death were weaved in to the story in order to build the mystery and anticipation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Keep You Close. With interesting characters, an intriguing mystery and a pace that builds the further through you go, it’s the perfect psychological thriller, which keeps some surprises up its sleeve until the end!

If you’re already a fan of Lucie Whitehouse or, like me, hadn’t read one of her novels before, but love a great thriller, then this won’t disappoint. I’ll certainly be reading more of her work and recommending this book to friends and family.

Keep You Close by Lucie Whitehouse is published by Bloomsbury and available from all the usual book stockists.



Book Review – The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker


I seem to be on a role in 2015, reading one fantastic book after another and Joel Dicker’s novel will certainly be one of the book highlights of this year for me. Winner of the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, the novel sold more than 2 million copies in one year amid great fanfare in the France and has since been translated into 32 languages.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair introduces us to 28 year-old Marcus Goldman, a man struggling to find inspiration for his second novel. The pressure is indeed on, in order to follow the success of his debut and his publisher and agent are losing patience. Growing ever more frustrated and defeated he visits his old college English professor and literary success story Harry Quebert, at his coastal New Hampshire house Goose Cove, who is perhaps his only true friend. During that trip he discovers Harry’s deepest secret – that in 1975, at 34, he fell in love with a local girl Nola Kellergen, who was only fifteen at the time, only for her to mysteriously disappear without a trace.

Only months later this secret will be revealed to the world on the discovery of Nola’s body in the garden of Harry’s house thirty three years after she vanished. It seems impossible to Marcus that his friend could be guilty, despite the evidence against him, including the fact Nola’s body is found buried with the manuscript of Harry’s hugely celebrated novel. With nothing in his own life, Marcus arrives in the town of Somerset to conduct his own investigation and clear his friend’s name, which could also prove to be the perfect plot for his new book.

Author Joel Dicker

This isn’t simply a murder mystery, but one that has so many twists and turns and branches to it that I was jealous that the writer had been able to come up with it! To say it’s a long book (600 pages), I flew through it. Once you are caught up in the mysteries of this small coastal town and its residents, you simply won’t be able to stop reading until you know the truth.

I loved the book’s structure, as events and moments from the past are woven in to the present to create a multi-layered plot with more questions than simply “who killed Nola?” We are transported in to the 1970s during Nola’s last summer, as well as in to the early time of Marcus’ own friendship with Harry. Joel Dicker keeps building on the numerous questions the story poses, adding detail and background through Marcus’ investigation, which frequently has you changing your own theory. I did however get one aspect of the story right!

Marcus is a great central character. He isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s clear he is a good man determined to do the right thing for his friend. The more you read, the more you also understand his bond with Quebert, who has helped him so much throughout his life and made him a better person as a result. Quebert himself is somewhat an enigma, giving the reader the sense he is never quite revealing everything to Marcus, a device which continues to hold your attention and interest. Overall though I did like him and found his fatherly bond with Marcus quite touching.

One of the strengths of the book is also the vivid mix of other characters, many of whom are multi-layered and believable. Police Sergeant Gahalowood was a favourite of mine, as I enjoyed his grudging growing respect for Marcus and even Marcus’s mother’s fleeting scenes are amusing. As Marcus wades deeper, the circle of characters (and indeed suspects) widens, as ever more residents of the area become possibly linked to Nola’s disappearance and murder. Then there is Nola herself, at the heart of the mystery and a character with as many secrets as the truth of what ultimately happened to her.

For me, the novel had all the key elements for a successful thriller – an intriguing story, excellently paced (highlighting the great translation work by Sam Taylor), three dimensional characters and twists and turns to keep you guessing. Not all thrillers have captured my attention the way Joel Dicker’s book did. I see that Warner Brothers acquired the film rights last year, at which point Ron Howard was on board to direct. There seems to have been no further updates, so we’ll have to see if a film does become a reality. I could certainly imagine the story on the screen, although a television seres may be almost more appealing in order to let every twist and turn play out to the full.

This is certainly a brilliantly engaging thriller, which I would recommend to any fan of the genre and is one  book I’ll be passing on to friends and family this summer.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker is published in the UK by MacLehose Press and is available from all the usual book stockists.

Book review – The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins


Another book everyone has been talking about during the last few months is The Girl on the Train, a thriller with a domestic, everyday idea – what if you saw something odd on your regular commute to work?

That is exactly what happens here to Rachel, who travels on the same train in to London each day, passing familiar houses, whose occupants she has started to pay attention to and for whom she has created imaginary identities. However one day, as she passes down the tracks, she sees something strange that doesn’t make sense and which becomes all the more significant when one of the women living in the street goes missing.

I certainly enjoyed this novel and found its gradual puzzle building structure held my interest and attention. You know Rachel must have seen something, but what is it and will she ever remember? Throw in to this the fact that Rachel is a divorced alcoholic and she becomes an even complex character. I know some readers didn’t like her at all, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her and her present situation.

The book’s structure also adds to its intrigue, with chapters alternating between the three women of the story – Rachel, Megan (the missing woman, in the months prior to her disappearance) and Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom, now living in Rachel’s beloved home. It’s fascinating to see each one of them describing or speculating about the other women and for the reader to then see what the other person’s perspective is, particularly Rachel and Anna’s views on each other. Each woman is very different and it is great to have all three voices heard in their own right. Through their narratives we build up the puzzle piece by piece, as events are mentioned in passing, only to be given more depth later on as the mystery starts to build to a conclusion. Paula Hawkins does well to keep all the plates spinning in terms of plot and know when to provide further clues to the reader.

Author Paula Hawkins


I did however find the book a little repetitive in places. Many of Rachel’s chapters contain her drinking problem, her confused feelings towards Tom and her repeated journeys on the train. To a certain extent this is needed to give us more insight in to Rachel’s state of mind, but I did occasionally find myself getting a bit tired of the same scenarios cropping up. I also thought that the plot did start to become a bit predictable by the end, but despite that, it is well written and had me keen to know the truth of the puzzle.

There are a number of novels that have been released recently and been categorised as “domestic noir” – thrillers that take place within ordinary domestic lives and settings. However, I think lumping so many novels in to a needless category is pointless and potentially suggests they are less credible fiction than other genres. This book has been compared to Before I Go To Sleep, Gone Girl and the recently released Disclaimer (read my review here). For me, Before I Go To Sleep remains the best, as its plot was one I hadn’t come across before and it was truly nail biting, having me unable to put it down. What is crucial, in my view however, is that all these books are extremely well written, plotted, exciting and offer us interesting and multi-layered characters.

If you are a fan of thrillers or books with an underlying mystery at its heart, which keep unravelling, no doubt this novel is already on your radar. I’d certainly say it’s worth reading and you’ll probably never gaze out of the window of  a train in quite the same way again!

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is published by Doubleday and available from all the usual book stockists.


Book review – After The Crash by Michel Bussi


I wasn’t planning to buy any more books until I’d significantly reduced the pile I already have. However, I couldn’t help noticing this book on a stand in Waterstones and the excerpt from The Sunday Times’ review on the cover tempted me in to buying a copy. I’m certainly pleased I did, as it is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a very long time.

After The Crash is a thriller / mystery, which weaves the past and the present together to set out the central mysteries of the novel. Without giving too much away, the story centres around a plane crash in December 1980, in which all but one of the passengers were killed. The survivor, a three month old baby girl, was heralded as a miracle child. However, there were two similar-aged babies on board and at the time before DNA testing, a battle began as to which French family she belonged to – was she Lyse-Rose, from the wealthy De Carville family, or Emilie Vitral whose family came from a much poorer background.

We see the events of 1980 and beyond through the journal of private detective Credule Grand Duke, employed by the De Carville’s to find out the truth. However, in 1998, as “Lylie” is turning 18, Grand Duke is about to give up and end his life, when he suddenly has a breakthrough, which could solve the mystery at long last – that is until he is murdered.

The mystery of who killed him and why is only one puzzle, together with the central question of who is Lylie. Michel Bussi’s writing moves at a brilliant pace, drawing you in from the first chapter. I loved the use of the journal to set out the past, as it made it feel present and exciting, as we read and discover these events alongside Marc Vitral, possibly Lylie’s brother, to whom she has given the journal to read. It also helps maintain the story’s momentum – the nearer to the end of the journal Marc is, the closer we are to solving the puzzle.

I can see how the novel is compared (as the Sunday Times does) to Stieg Larsson. It is after all a thriller that is also a puzzle about events of the past, which have consumed the lives of others and which are now about to be solved. However, I think Larsson’s writing still captures a tone and depth of intrigue that was not as strong in Bussi’s novel. After The Crash is however filled with some interesting characters, particularly the emotionally damaged Malvina and Grand Duke, who we get to know through his book. I would agree with other readers that it’s a shame we don’t hear more from Lylie herself. She is around whom everything revolves and yet our connection to her as a character is solely built through the view of others, particularly Marc. Perhaps this was designed to maintain the mystery as to her identity.

I did also think that the book’s conclusion seemed to lack the pace of the novel as a whole. After so much momentum and frantic page-turning, it seemed to come to an all too sudden conclusion. However, this did not detract from my overall opinion of the novel. It is a thrilling and interesting story and contains some well written and fascinating characters. I love a book I can escape in to and After The Crash is certainly such a novel, that had me hooked until the very last page. I certainly hope more of Michel Bussi’s work will be translated and make its way to my local bookshop soon!

For anyone who enjoys an excellent mystery or thriller, this comes very highly recommended.

After The Crash by Michel Bussi is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and available through all the usual book stockists. 

Book Review – Disclaimer by Renee Knight (2015)


“Imagine coming across yourself in a novel. A novel that exposes your darkest secret. A secret you thought nobody knew…”

This is the tantalising teaser on the back cover of the newly published debut novel by Renee Knight. I do tend to prefer thrillers, especially those in to which you find yourself drawn completely, without any idea of where the story will end. Disclaimer is certainly such a novel and one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

I first came across the book when flicking through my mum’s copy of Reader’s Digest. The synopsis sounded intriguing and I pre-ordered it. Three days after picking it up, I’ve finished and it would have taken me less time, had I not had to leave the house! Thursday night also saw the launch party of the book at the wonderful London bookshop West End Lane Books in West Hampstead (the shop is always hosting readings with authors and is always worth a visit), which meant I was even able to meet the author and get my copy signed, which was lovely.

As for the story itself, Disclaimer introduces us to Catherine Ravenscroft, a successful documentary filmmaker, happily married, but who has a somewhat strained relationship with her 25 year-old son Nicholas. Her life is shaken when she finds a book in her new house – she does not remember buying it, or how it reached her but, on reading it, she realises that it is about her, taking her back to a time and a secret she has kept buried for years. The standard disclaimer “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental..” is crossed out in red – someone is clearly sending her a message that they know her secret. At the same time, an elderly man, is grieving the loss of his wife Nancy, who seemingly knew Catherine’s past and for whom he is now determined to balance the scales and see his form of justice done.

Author Renee Knight

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Crucially, it drew me in to the characters (all of whom are very believable) and the story very quickly and once the puzzle starts to grow deeper, the more I found myself unable to put it down. Renee’s style of writing is perfect for the story she set out to tell – the book alternates between chapters about Catherine’s life and that of the elderly Stephen, weaving the strands of mystery together, as we see glimpses of the past weaved between events of the present. Catherine’s chapters are also written in the third person, while Stephen’s are a first person narrative. Again this works well for the personalities and motivations of these two key characters, as Catherine is a little distant, closed off and somewhat of a mystery, while Stephen is more direct in what he desires, wanting to tell a story and the reader certainly feels he is speaking to them, which at times becomes a little unsettling.

I’ve seen comments from other readers who say that they did not like Catherine, but I didn’t find that was the case for me. As I read, I was intrigued to know her secret, but never disliked her and also believed whatever she had hidden had been buried to protect others, not herself. Perhaps the book also makes us think about our own attitudes to right and wrong, as I felt little sympathy with Stephen and could not agree with his vendetta, regardless of what the final truth of the story was.

As is the case with many successful thrillers recently (Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, for example), the story only continues to unravel the further through you read. Just as you think you’ve worked out the plot, something diverts it in a totally different direction, which I love as a reader and Renee’s writing achieves this much better than other authors, while ensuring that the emotional tension builds as the book hurtles towards its conclusion.

I certainly recommend Disclaimer to anyone who enjoys the thriller genre and personally, although it is being spoken about in the same breath as The Girl On The Train, in my view, this novel is much more intriguing, emotional and less predictable and is a very satisfying read, which is likely to stay with you for quite a while after you’ve finished it.

Disclaimer is published by Doubleday and available from all the usual book retailers. For book fans in London, keep an eye of the upcoming book events at West End Lane Books on its website or via twitter (@WELBooks).