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Book bites: 20 August 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wandering EarthThe Wandering Earth
Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus
****
Book fiend
This collection of award-winning sci-fi short stories explores human desire, distant galaxies and potential futures. The titular story’s grand premise is that the Earth’s rotation must stop and its orbit move away from the sun. In “For the Benefit of Mankind” an assassin is hired to kill specific targets before approaching aliens take over the Earth. The power of “The Wandering Earth“ lies not just in Liu’s scientific flights of fancy but his ability to get to the heart of the human condition. These are magnificent tales of people in love in the face of galactic doom. The stories will satisfy space geeks and sci-fi junkies yet are just as accessible to dreamers. – Efemia Chela @efemiachela

See What I Have DoneSee What I Have Done
Sarah Schmidt, Headline
*****
Book thrill
Long before OJ Simpson, Amanda Knox and Oscar Pistorius, the murder that garnered massive public interest was in 1892 when Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally killed with an axe in their Massachusetts home. Lizzie Borden, their daughter, was arrested and found innocent. It’s a story that’s been told in rhymes, movies, books and songs. This is Sarah Schmidt’s chance and she wins. This is a psychological thriller about the family dynamics told from key role-players’ points of view. It’s an emotional journey that shows there was a crisis, even before that fateful day. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

The Reason You're AliveThe Reason You’re Alive
Matthew Quick, Pan Macmillan
****
Book hug
Sixty-eight-year-old Vietnam vet David Granger is a layered man. Irascible, unlikable – he seems like an alt-right dream. One who loves guns and hates everything and everyone. But as he tells his life story and reveals his true character and the daily battles of living with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the reader cannot help but sympathise and like the old man. Quick has written another bestseller filled with characters so compelling and American, you can hear Robert de Niro talking. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Festering divisions in the American South: Bron Sibree talks to Karin Slaughter about her latest novel The Good Daughter

Published in the Sunday Times

The Good DaughterThe Good Daughter
Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins)
****

Karin Slaughter has been in a class of her own since her debut crime novel Blindsighted, which became a surprise bestseller in 2001. It revealed a willingness to write about violence with unflinching honesty and an unparalleled ability to create strong, believable female characters.

She rocketed to international stardom, and sales of her books now exceed 35 million copies in 36 languages. From the outset, says Slaughter, “I wanted to write tough stories from a woman’s perspective because I think that women look at the world differently.”

Her latest novel The Good Daughter takes her interest in character and in social issues to a new level. A standalone work that is her 17th novel to date, The Good Daughter doesn’t so much slip the moorings of the crime genre, but realigns its ties to them in refreshing ways. It cleverly links the stories of two sisters, Charlie and Sam, and their experience of two violent, murderous events – one in the present, one in the past – in a cannily layered thriller.

Yet it is almost Victorian in its social scope and depth of characterisation. Even its size, a whopping 527 pages, is more akin to the literary traditions of a bygone era. “This is my longest book,” says Slaughter. “I always say a story needs to be as long as it needs to be.”

Already being hailed as a tour de force, it reveals Slaughter at the top of her game, and was seeded in part by the death of a former English teacher who was her mentor for many years. “I wanted to talk about the fact that even if someone dies your relationship with them doesn’t end, it continues after they’re gone. So it started with thinking about the relationship between Charlie and Sam and their mother, and how, with their mother gone, she has such influence on them.”

All her novels are anchored in the landscapes and sensibilities of the American South, but The Good Daughter probes the festering, and very real divisions between the middle class and those left behind in Pikeville, Georgia, where much of the novel is set. “That was very important to me,” says Slaughter, whose own father grew up in “the Holler”, the poorest area in Pikeville.

“He was one of nine kids and his father was always being chased and beaten up by either the clan because he wasn’t taking care of his family, or by the government because he was making moonshine. They would squat in shacks with no running water and live on squirrels. So I know how people who are trapped in that kind of poverty work their asses off and never, ever get ahead.”

Steeped in the history, lore and literature of the region, the 46-year-old author has been on mission to “honour the South” from the outset, as well as to highlight the chilling facts of violence against women. Part of the reason she feels so at home in the crime genre “is because I want to talk about social issues, and I think crime fiction’s job has always been to hold up a mirror to society. I grew up reading Flannery O ’Connor, and she used shock and violence as this fulcrum to prise the scab off the human condition, and I absolutely think when I write, that that’s my job.”

Follow @BronSibree

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Book Bites: 13 August 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The CallerThe Caller
Chris Carter (Simon & Schuster)
Book thrill
***
Author Chris Carter is a Brazil-born criminal psychologist turned crime writer who is making a name for himself among the krimi giants. After a two-year hiatus, The Caller is his eighth page-twister in a series that follows LA detective Robert Hunter as he tracks down the baddest of the bad. This time around, the bad guy is exceptionally diabolical – a serial killer who knows his way around social media and likes to play gruesome games with his victims. This thriller is gratuitously gory in parts, but crime fans will delight in the chase. – Sally Partridge @sapartridge

The Nowhere ManThe Nowhere Man
Gregg Hurwitz (Michael Joseph)
Book thrill
***
Orphan Evan Smoak was raised as an assassin in a secret government project but now, rich and contrite, he uses his training to help anyone in need. Evan has just bust a child sex-slave ring and is on his way to rescue the final victim when he is kidnapped and held captive in a luxurious mansion where his every desire is met – except freedom. The Nowhere Man is the second in the series and is as fast-paced and slickly written as the first, Orphan X. This is a wonderful old-fashioned escapist adventure. – Aubrey Paton

Temporary PeopleTemporary People
Deepak Unnikrishnan (Simon & Schuster)
Book buff
****
The United Arab Emirates is filled with riches most can only dream of: skyscrapers and designer shops line the streets. And yet the people who built the city, who paved the roads, who dedicated their lives to making it oh so glamorous are not citizens. Temporary People is a collection of short stories about migrant workers in the UAE. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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Michel Bussi's latest thriller clever and nuanced, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Witness

MICHEL Bussi is a celebrated French thriller writer, and, incidentally, a professor of Geography. Maybe that is why he has set his latest novel on the geographically and geologically interesting island of Reunion. The setting plays an important part in the story, and adds an extra layer to the tale.

Reunion is interesting in other ways too: the inhabitants are an extraordinary and complex racial mix, and beneath the popular conception of the place as a tourist paradise, ethnic and social tensions are rife and also bring their own dimension to the plot.

On the surface, Martial and Liane Bellion and their six year old daughter Sopha are the norm of wealthy tourists, lazing on the beach or round the pool and making friends with other holiday couples. But then Liane vanishes, and when Martial reports her missing, blood is found in their room.

Witnesses appear to say that Martial was seen going up to their room when he said he was with Sopha on the beach, and that he “borrowed” a laundry trolley at the same time. And then he suddenly goes on the run, with the child. Why would he do that, having initially co-operated? And is he what he seems on the surface…simply a tourist, out for a good time in a new, exotic location?

We see the story from various perspectives: the police, convinced they are after a wife killer; the child, frightened of and loving her father by turns; locals who see themselves as amateur detectives; Martial himself…and others.

There is plenty for the reader to consider and red herrings abound as we slowly come to unravel the complexities of what the police initially view as a straightforward tale of domestic violence. Unlike so many thrillers which rely on shock, gore and schlock, Don’t Let Go is clever and nuanced. Of course, there is action and violence, some shocking, but there is more than that. The whole mixture adds up to create an excellent thriller. Margaret von Klemperer

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Book Bites: 6 August

The Fact Of A Body
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (Macmillan)
*****
Book real

“Trigger Warning” could be the alternative title for this captivating, raw and brutal book, blending memoir with true crime. The Fact Of A Body is a tale about sexual abuse, law, truth, family, poverty, loss, secrets and memory. It is the gruesome story of Ricky Langley – a convicted child molester and murderer. It’s the case that leads the author Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich to abandon her law career. As she looks at Langley’s past, she finds that his story is extremely unsettling – so unsettling that it causes her to unearth long-buried secrets in her own family. This genre-defying book is a critical examination of storytelling: of the self, each other, and what we call truth. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Mad
Chloé Esposito (Penguin Books)
****
Book fling

The first book in a thrilling three-part series that is likely to be in the same league as the famed Fifty Shades trilogy. Alvina Knightly is going nowhere. She’s lost her job, been kicked out of her house and has zero friends. Her twin invites her to Sicily to her lavish villa. Soon there are dead bodies, wild sex and the mafia are involved. Something has ignited in Alvina and, well, it’s all rather mad. It may take a few chapters to get into, but once the juicy bits start to emerge, you’ll pull an all-nighter to find out what happens next. Part two is entitled Bad, and if Mad is anything to go by, readers are in for one helluva ride. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Yesterday
Felicia Yap (Wildfire)
****
Book fiend

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Felicia Yap has worked as everything from cell biologist to war historian to university lecturer and catwalk model. This, her first novel, is about how people use memory to distinguish between those who are more or less worthy. This is an Earth where the majority, after the age of 18, can retain only one day’s memory. An elite can remember two days. Everyone keeps a diary: without this journal, they have no way of recalling their past. A brilliantly conceived sci-fi novel. – Aubrey Paton

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Nappy Noir: Jennifer Platt talks to Fiona Barton about her latest novel The Child

Published in the Sunday Times

The Child
Fiona Barton (Bantam Press)
****

The label “thriller” doesn’t do justice to the dark psycho-suspense that female crime novelists are becoming known for.

Popularised by books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, the sub-genre is called griplit by some, because that’s what it is – gripping. A cliché, but it’s stuck.

There are, however, a few novelists who prefer to call what they are writing “domestic noir”, and bestselling UK author Fiona Barton is one of them. She tells me in a phone interview: “I prefer the term domestic noir to griplit. I write about what happens to ordinary women when secrets are revealed. What happens to relationships. What happens when we have something that we don’t want people to know, when we bury them deep.”

The Child is exactly that. It has a few core questions that drove Barton to write her second book. “Why would someone bury a child? Why would they be so afraid? Why would they be so ashamed?”

Like her bestselling debut The Widow, in which she wrote about whether the wife of an accused knew that her husband was a child molester and killer, Barton also bases this on a true story that grabbed her attention during her career as a journalist – she wrote for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Mail on Sunday.

“I still remember the case. It was a mummified body of a baby found in a garden shed. I kept thinking about it. I never got to write the story. It was solved by the police immediately. I can’t remember the details but the mother was arrested.”

The case haunted Barton and she wanted to write a book that focused on the dead baby and the relationship between mothers and daughters.

She brought back her intrepid journalist Kate Waters from The Widow. Waters, like Barton, is captured by the news headline “Baby Body Found”, about the body found at a construction site in London.

Barton introduces three other women who are affected by the news, using them as narrators to tell the story in bits, each short chapter dedicated to each woman. There’s Angela, whose baby was stolen years ago from the hospital and never found, who thinks the corpse would be her baby. There’s Emma, an unreliable narrator who has an unknown link to the news story. The third woman is Jude, Emma’s rather unlikable mother.

The case unravels, the women’s lives unravel and the reader can’t wait for Barton’s next book – which will, thank goodness, feature Kate Waters again. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

The Child

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