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The Cult by Abby Davies

Religious cults have been the subject matter of many works of fiction, the idea of secretive communes pursuing rapture and eternal life fascinating writers and inspiring endless speculations and fears, curiosity, suspicions, even envy and loathing.
In “The Cult” Abby Davies takes an interesting perspective of looking at the interaction between the world at large and the small but fierce world of a spiritual sect seeking immortality through the blood of the pure and innocent who need to be “resourced” from the outside.
Two young children are induced out of their home in the middle of the night and, after having witnessed a violent attack, disappear in the woods. The reader senses that there is more to their disappearance than the two mobster wanting to silence them. As the search for the children gets under way, a story of another child, called Love, is told. We follow Love’s story from the time she is about ten through to adulthood. Love isn’t an ordinary child – she is the product of a cult led by the charismatic, and controlling, Uncle Saviour. Love worships him and her unconditional belief in him shapes her into someone even more deluded and coercive than him.
There are three distinctive narratives within this story: that of Love, Lilly (the children’s mother) and DI Pearline Ottoline (the detective in charge of the investigation). The three narratives come together in the final denouement. I found Love’s tale the most compelling but not the easiest to digest. Unlike in other cult fiction, such as “After the Fire”, there does not seem to be any room for redemption; the years of brainwash leaving Love bereft of sense of reality and empathy. A thought provoking read.

An Accidental Tragedy, the life of Mary, Queen of Scots by Roderick Graham

In this hefty volume, Roderick Graham paints a vivid and engaging portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. He takes the reader through her life and her times, demonstrating great sensitivity and objectivity. The geopolitical and societal realities of her days are thoroughly analysed, with the all main historical players deftly brought into the fold of her story.
Mary herself comes across as a real human being, a lone woman in a man’s world, a monarch amongst rivals and contenders, fallible, naive and gullible, sometimes dangerous (to others, but mainly to herself), a romantic and adventurer at heart, a woman manipulated, betrayed, fighting back, winning a few battles and squirmishes, but losing a war, and ultimately her head.
It is a fascinating read, showing vividly Mary’s fatalistic path towards her final demise in a way that makes the reader understand, become sympathetic towards her and furious about her detractors and duplicitous, side-swapping allies and advisers.
What I particularly appreciated about this book (as opposed to others I read about her) was the lack of spurious judgment dictated by the perspective of the victor (Elizabeth I and England) and the sensibilities of the twentieth century. This story is firmly set in the sixteenth century before posterity had a chance to analyse it, twist and warp it to meet the objectives of our modern context which did not exist in Mary’s day. Roderick Graham gave Mary a chance to tell her story as it was.
A wonderful book that reads like action-packed fiction, but at them same time is based on detailed and in-depth research.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This wasn’t my first read by Susanna Clarke so I knew to expect something magical and otherworldly, but “Piranesi” surpassed my expectations. It isn’t about magic, but it certainly is otherworldly, and more. There is something profound, almost biblical about this book.

The House, which is immeasurable and whose kindness is infinite, is the only world Piranesi knows. And it is that knowledge, or its limitation, that are pivotal here. For Piranesi a house of many chambers and vestibules, rising from the waves, filled with statues depicting real-life and mythical scenes, but otherwise devoid of our modern-day props, constitutes his whole universe. He recognises it as his creator, guide and protector – the House is God-like. The House defines Piranesi’s identity. He worships it, but he also explores and studies it. In a way, he reinvents it: its topography, its dead, its beauty and kindness. The whole premise of one man detached from reality but insistently scientific in his understandings, alone but not lonely, innocent through his ignorance of the existence of others is fascinating. His awakening and transition to the truth seems almost cruel although, despite his naivete, he deals with it admirably.  

“Piranesi” isn’t about action or relationships, at least not in the conventional sense, but it is utterly compelling and it will draw you in and make you forget about everything else.

The White Rajah by Tom Williams

The White Rajah: In Borneo with Rajah Brooke (The Williamson Papers) by [Tom Williams]

A sweeping historical adventure set in the exotic jungle of Borneo, The White Rajah tells the true story of James Brooke, an adventurer who became the Rajah of Sawark.
This fictionalised and vivid version of Brooke’s life as ruler of a war-torn region in the Far East is narrated by a humble shipmate Williamson who joins Brook on a trading missing to Borneo as an interpreter, grows close to him and becomes his lover and companion.
There are echoes of Conrad’s “Lord Jim” in this wonderful book – the distant, exotic settings, the seafaring themes, the richly portrayed locals under threat from pirates/unscrupulous enemies, and concepts of honour, courage, redemption and fairness; Brook, the white Rajah brings to mind Tuan (lord Jim) with Williamson taking on the role of an eye-witness, not unlike Marlow.
A thoroughly enjoyable tale that will take you on an adventure back in time and to far-flung locations.

A Little Poison by Tim Stretton

Estranged from his aristocratic family and impecunious, but defiantly irreverent, Lothar von Schnusenberg walks into a nest of vipers when he arrives in the duchy of Haskilde. His undercover assignment is to sway the duchy’s weak and elderly ruler into concluding an alliance pact with the Empire of Beruz. When the old duke dies, his young and seemingly psychopathic son, Valdemar, succeeds him. If the boy’s own degenerate inclinations weren’t enough, he is also surrounded by cunning rival power’s ambassadors and his own ruthless advisers, notably the notorious Fox. The nest of vipers is stirred into further frenzy when the Empire’s ambassador is murdered. Lothar is appointed his acting successor, and at the same time, stands accused of his murder. The vipers slither all around him, ready to execute the final and deadly strike.

Lothar is not entirely defenceless. Resourceful and clever, conversant with poisons and other low-key weapons of choice of any decent spy, he is in fact in his own element. But more significantly, he has friends. One of them is Torkild, navy lieutenant who is developing the duchy’s new secret weapon: naval steam warships. There is also the fiercely independent and intelligent Edda. And finally, Lothar’s romantic interest, Asta, who also happens to be Duke Valdemar’s governess. All of the characters are drawn with an assured hand and go on take on a life of their own as the story unfolds. They are very complex and dynamic. They will surprise you, entice you, deceive you and prove you wrong. You will grow to care for them, and in some cases, to despise them, but you won’t be indifferent to any of them.

Stretton’s world, of which he has laid foundations in “Bitter Sky”, expands and fully immerses you in “A Little Poison”. It becomes so intricately developed, with regions and nations fleshed out and geo-politically interlinked, that at some point you will feel that this is no longer fantasy but a real place somewhere there in the time-space fabric of your own universe.

The language, and particularly the dialogue, remain trademark Stretton. In a number of scenes revolving around personal relationships, I had a peculiar impression that Jane Austen stepped in to lend the writer her unique style.

All in all, an absolutely engrossing spy adventure with a dose of romantic intrigue and, of course, the inevitable flare of warfare. Loved it.

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

Reading just those first opening paragraphs of “The Man Who Died Twice” I was instantly transported to the cosy, yet somewhat deadly, word of the Thursday Murder Club and its jolly members. I experienced a thrill equal only to that of coming home after a long time away and catching up with dear old friends whose lives, let me assure you, did not stand still in my absence. Far from it!

In the second instalment of Richard Osmond’s mysteries, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, Ron and Bodgan are up to their eyeballs in murder, theft, mugging, spies and all sorts of crime and punishment. The fearsome septuagenarians are drawn – rather willingly – into the world of espionage, mafia, diamonds and double-crossing, not to mention the inexcusable mugging of one their own which they vow to avenge, come hell or high water.

The man in the title of this book is Douglas, Elizabeth’s ex-husband and her fellow ex-MI5 operative who arrives in the retirement village with his pockets full of stolen diamonds and the merciless mobster, Lomax, hot on his heels (followed closely by the Mafia). If that wasn’t enough for the Club to reckon with, Ibrahim is attacked in the street by a teenage troublemaker, Ryan Baird (who has no idea what deep water he has just waded into). The two plotlines take off from here, wheeze, twist and meander, until they are brought together in a spectacular finale.

Vibrant, funny, wonderfully human, “The Man Who Died Twice” is a worthy successor to “The Thursday Murder Club”. More please!

The Whistleblower by Robert Peston

The Whistleblower is a vivid and authentic political thriller.
Gil Peck, its protagonist and narrator, is an unapologetic anti-hero. Like a shark, he cannot stand still – he has to be on the move constantly, chasing scoops and grabbing new headlines. He is a political reporter with links to those in power (an in opposition) in the 1997 fictional Britain (although the fiction is just thinly veiled reality). His contacts are as morally corrupt as he is: sex, drugs, underhanded manoeuvres and few regrets. Everyone in this book has a political agenda and seems to live on knife’s edge. The vibe of the late nineties – as Labour led by the then charismatic Tony Blair consolidated its grip on power – is depicted with vibrant authenticity. The frenzied media of that era are depicted honestly and without disclaimers.


On top of his professional intensity, Gil Peck is deeply flawed on a personal level: obsessively washing his hands and mumbling superstitious chants when distressed (which is pretty much all the the time), drinking excessively and snorting cocaine in order to keep going. He has detached himself from his Jewish roots and antagonised his family, and in particular his sister Clare (a high flying government figure). All in all, he is a fantastically fleshed out character. As the story unfolds and he begins to dig deeper in his sister’s last cry for help and her suspicious death, his softer, more human side starts to emerge.


If this book was a film it would probably be categorised as a dramatised documentary rather a feature movie. It does feel very real and utterly credible, and that’s what makes it unputdownable. Reading it you will feel like you’ve been let in a big fat state secret.

A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz

In the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, the renown author of Alex Ryder adventures and a screenwriter of the iconic TV series of Midsomer Murders and Poirot steps out of the limelight to become a humble chronicler of his fictional detective’s murder cases. It is very cleverly done. The mixture of fiction and what seems like a memoir gives you a sense of immediacy with the author/character.


The story is set in Horowitz’s reality as a writer: a literary festival is held on a tiny, sparsely populated island of Alderney. A group of celebrities arrive and thus a pool of potential suspects is created. The island is in the throes of an internal battle over the proposed powerlines which are advocated by a rich entrepreneur Charles Le Mesurier but opposed by most of the residents. Soon, Charles is found dead and Hawthorne (shadowed by Horowitz) is on the case. A few obligatory red herrings are thrown into the mix and Hawthorne himself seems to harbour his own secrets and ulterior motives that make him look less objective than he should be as an investigator.


A Line to Kill is a satisfying traditional whodunnit full of twists and spins, and sub-plots smoothly woven into the fabric of the main story. The characters are well-drawn, introduced in small incremental steps giving the reader a chance to get to know them organically. Horowitz has a well-practised hand when it comes to detail the use of which makes this murder mystery a proper nut to crack.

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

The Night She Disappeared: The new thriller from the #1 bestselling author of The Family Upstairs by [Lisa Jewell]

The book has a classic opener: teenage parents, Tallulah and Zach, vanish on the night he takes her out to propose to her. Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is left behind to take care of their child Noah. What follows are three narratives – one which take us up to the moment of the couple’s disappearance, told from Tallulah’s perspective; another one that relays the impromptu investigation of the disappearance by the new headmaster’s partner, Sophie; and finally the third thread that interlocks the other two, told from the point of view of Tallulah’s mother.


The plotting is tight, precise and gripping. Jewell leaves herself no room for error: everything flows, links and weaves together. Every new chapter introduces a new nugget of information – another revelation, another hook, and another diversion. Ultimately, all threads lead relentlessly to the conclusion that is inescapable and yet unpredictable. The drip of information and the transformations of the main characters’ emotions and attitudes give the reader a sense of discovery as if I, the patient and diligent reader, have reached the conclusion all under my own steam. I could not find any gaps or any loose ends in Jewell’s plotting. All my questions were answered in the end.


Jewell constructs deep and complex characters. They are believable if unorthodox. Tallulah, a quiet and unassuming mother and social care student, undergoes a rebellious identity crisis any typical teenager would be susceptible to without, for one second, losing her love for and devotion to her baby. Her mother Kim is pitted against Zach’s mother Meg in a few master strokes of Jewell’s pen. Scarlett, the seductive, entitled femme fatale is burdened with her own vulnerabilities. The level-headed Liam shocks towards the end. And so on – the gallery of characters is rich, multi-dimensional and memorable.


The language takes the back seat to the story. It is clean, precise, unobtrusive – a bit Hemingway-esque. All and all, another cracking read from Lisa Jewell.

The First Day of Spring by Nancy Tucker

The First Day of Spring by [Nancy Tucker]

Eight-year-old Chrissie is a child-killer. She is pleased with her effort – it gives that fizzy, sherbet-like feeling in the depths of her stomach. She can hardly contain herself from telling others that it was her, but, being a neglected and unloved little girl and the poorest from an already very poor housing estate, she has a strong sense of self-preservation, so she keeps her secret to herself. Not to mention that she doesn’t really understand death – her da had been declared “dead” by her ma on a few occasions but always managed to come back. But Steven, the toddler Chrissie throttled, seems unable to rise from the dead and his death endures to Chrissie’s bemusement. Twenty years later, Chrissie has a new identity as Julie and a daughter of her own. She believes that she is undeserving of motherhood, and fears that her child will be taken away from her. Julie picks up where Chrissie has left off and embarks on a journey of re-discovery and cautious redemption. The narrative oscillates between Chrissie’s and Julie’s stories which complement each other perfectly.

This is a harrowing read, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone, whatever your reading preferences. It has a lasting resonance, a heart and a soul, and most of all – conscience. Chrissie’s voice is captured brilliantly. The little girl’s loneliness, despair, her everyday struggle for survival and love are heart-wrenching. Her anger is palpable. Each of her life’s raw disappointments hit me hard as an adult and member of the society that has made this child into what she is. Despite the bleak and gory subject there is a message of hope in this book: people aren’t born evil and they certainly don’t have to remain so. All it takes is for someone to care.

Other characters are also wonderfully observed and drawn: Chrissie’s inept mother, Chrissie’s best friend, the sister of the boy Chrissie’s has killed, Chrissie’s absentee-father… The commentary on our society is damning, but not the commentary on our humanity.