Northern Boy – Iqbal Hussain

A heartfelt story full of love and affection, brimming with humour and bringing more than one or two tears to my eye.

Northern Boy starts in the 1980s in Blackburn, with our main character Rafi obsessed with ABBA and determined not to have to go to Everton, the high school that promises daily torture for a boy who doesn’t fit in. Flamboyant and dramatic, Rafi has a flair for music and is encouraged in his choices by the wonderful Mr H. Yet he also has to deal with the pressure from his parents to do what makes them proud, and to not do anything that would cause shame amongst the neighbours.

From the outset it’s clear we’re looking at some difficult issues here, but everything is presented with a wry sense of humour and a keenly observant eye that makes it hard not to feel compassion and understanding for the characters (even if we might not agree with them).

We chart Rafi’s story from boyhood to adulthood, and though a lot of it is tough to read it was a joy to share.

‘The Night Before Christmas’ – Alex Pine

For DCI Walker and his team, Christmas has come to be a much disliked time. Having solved a number of cases around this time over the past few years, they shouldn’t be surprised when yet another Christmas Eve is marred by a very odd case.

A call is received saying that four men went for a walk and haven’t returned. They can’t be contacted and it’s hours after they were expected home. The police treat this – logically – as a risk to life due to the increasingly bad weather and mountain rescue are called out to help search for the men and their dogs.

As the time passes, DCI Walker comes to realise that there is nothing ordinary about this case.

The four men who’ve gone missing were actually on a hunt. The home of one of the men is discovered vandalised and the word ‘murderers’ is found daubed on the walls. With the man’s neighbour a keen anti-hunt saboteur, this quickly becomes a more dangerous situation.

It was hard not to feel frustrated by the pace at which things happened here. This is not a criticism. We follow each moment of the case and see in detail just how difficult the job can be. The dedication the police show to their cause shines through from start to finish, and the pressure they are under by the increasingly social-media focused world it’s hard.

The topic was darker than previous books in the series.

When a picture of a body is sent to news outlets with the phrase ‘let the hunt begin’ we know there’s more to this story. It’s not long before the police recognise they’re no longer looking for survivors, but their hunt for the murderer/s is not an easy one.

Once again, Pine manages to create a scenario that draws us in. The beautiful backdrop of the series is used to great effect to emphasise the danger that is also present. A topic that generates much debate is at the heart of the story, and the thorny issue of who was behind it was a puzzle that I could not wait for them to solve.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for giving me the opportunity to read and review this prior to publication.

‘Confessions of a Dangerous Girl’ – Dan Birk

Emma Garthright is a fascinating character. Diagnosed as a psychopath after trying to kill her younger brother when she was six, Emma lives at the Early Institute where she – along with other teens like her – is trained to be an assassin.

When we meet Emma she is struggling to complete the missions she has been given, and her attempt to atone is to go undercover. She is to be enrolled as a student at the school local to her family and is tasked with getting onto the school Model UN group.
Watching Emma try to work out the situation she was in was absorbing. She doesn’t react like you might expect people to, but is highly skilled in ways that go beyond what you’d expect from a sixteen year old.

Naturally, those Emma is working for are not quite what they claim to be. We follow Emma through her mission and see her developing sense of conscience.

Quirky, far more entertaining than you might expect given the subject matter and it ended with a suggestion that things might just work out okay.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this in advance of publication.

‘The Accomplice’ – Steve Cavanagh

The Accomplice now has me determined to go back through this series and read the ones I’ve missed. Gripping from the off, with some twists that you may or may not see coming, it was hard to put down once I got started.

The Sandman has struck terror into the hearts of those living in the area. With no evident link to his victims, his unique calling card scared people. However, he has a name…Daniel Miller. Currently on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, Miller has evaded capture. His wife, however, is about to go on trial as accomplice to his crimes.
Eddie Flynn is asked to take on her case.

What follows is nothing short of audacious. As the trial draws nearer, key witnesses for the prosecution are found dead. The Sandman is back, determined to ensure that Carrie – the woman he loves – is not imprisoned. Flynn and his team – convinced of her innocence – have a short window to try and work out how to get her off. This is made harder when she skips bail, and Flynn’s friend is snatched as hostage to try and ensure Flynn will do his best to get the required result.

I can’t say anything more about the story. There’s a lot of gruesome details of crimes committed, and there’s more than one or two close calls. Some wonderfully timed twists are dropped in at just the right moment to create the bombshell effect that keeps you reading…and the ending makes me think Lake’s story is far from over.

‘Notes on an Execution’ – Danya Kukafka

Notes on an Execution is a novel that I feel has slipped under the radar somewhat. Told from the viewpoints of three very different women, this was the story of serial killer Ansel Packer. It offers a fascinating exploration of modern society, and our attitude to crime.

Ansel is on Death Row and has twelve hours to live. He doesn’t want to die, but he recognises that he has taken the lives of a number of young women and needs to pay for what he has done.

While it was interesting to learn about the background of this character, it was good that we were not forced into a particular way of viewing him. Certainly not the product of a loving family background, Ansel was a character you felt some sympathy for but – ultimately – what he did was hard not to judge. Seeing him through the eyes of those who interacted with him also offered a different viewpoint.

Ansel’s mother, Lavender, tried to give him the best start she could, but her lack of support made it hard. I’m glad we got the opportunity to catch up with her later on and see how she tried to atone for the choices she had made. Saffy, the detective who knew Ansel as a child, was an intriguing character and there was a small part of me that wanted to applaud her dogged determination to do the right thing by characters that so many were able to forget.

The closing stages of the book took things in quite a different direction to that signalled at the start. It’s certainly a book to get you thinking.

‘Their Vicious Games’ – Joelle Wellington

Their Vicious Games is a strange tale, cautionary yet taking a grim delight in the awfulness of the characters/their situation.

Our main character is Adina Walker, daughter of two teachers, who has been allowed to attend a prestigious Academy. Due to an incident in her recent past which involved her ‘forgetting her place’ her offers to attend Yale and any other university have been rescinded, and Adina is struggling to work out what her future holds. She feels that she is owed something, desperately wanting to get back her opportunities…but for that to happen she will need the help of the very people who seek to ostracise her because of the colour of her skin/her lack of wealth.

The majority of the action takes place during what is called The Finish – an event held annually by the Reamington family, giving selected young girls the opportunity to win a prize. What Adina doesn’t realise is that The Finish is actually a competition where there can only be one winner.

As soon as Adina, and we, realise what’s going on it’s hard not to be struck by the brutality of the games.

Nobody is safe. Everyone is playing a part. It becomes a question of how far people are willing to go, and the extent to which people are prepared to challenge the status quo.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this before publication.

‘Just Another Missing Person’ – Gillian McAllister

Talk about being put through the wringer! In her latest thriller, McAllister offers an explosive read…and one which keeps the twists coming until the bitter end. If you’re new to this author, you’re in for a treat, and if she’s already a favourite then you’re in safe hands.

In this time where CCTV footage is everywhere and people meticulously document their lives via social media, it shouldn’t be hard to find traces of a person. When 22 year old Olivia Johnson is reported missing by her flatmates nobody really thinks she won’t be found. However, though she is seen walking into an alleyway there is no other trace of her.

DCI Julia Kane is called to investigate and she quickly finds herself perplexed by the case. Unfortunately, and for reasons you will find out during the book, this case is closely linked to DCI Kane and she is under pressure to try and ensure nobody finds out what really happened.

With growing concern about the case Kane finds herself turning to increasingly unorthodox measures. At every stage we can understand her course of action and the ethical dilemmas presented during the course of the narrative force us to examine just how far we’d go to protect those we love.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this before publication.

‘How to Die Famous’ – Benjamin Dean

How to Die Famous is a book that examines the dark underbelly of Hollywood, showing just how seriously people in power take the desire to come out on top.

A gripping page-turner that I can see being made into a movie before long. It ticks every box, and I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review it before publication.

Abel Miller is the new face in an upcoming blockbuster. As a Brit joining a celebrated American teen show he could be forgiven for being nervous, but Abel has more reason than most to fear discovery. As an undercover journalist, Abel is trying to track down exactly what happened to his brother years earlier. Of course we’re desperate to find out what happened, and whether Abel will evade discovery.

From the moment we’re introduced to the cast of characters at the heart of the show, it’s clear that there’s a lot riding on this. We have the history of the show’s cursed predecessor and there’s clearly a story to be learnt. What we quickly see is that there’s more than one story to be uncovered, and there are no depths to which those who have most to lose will stoop to in order to stay on top.

A great cast of characters, a wonderfully exaggerated villain and sidekick, a number of secondary characters who offered something more than you might expect…and an absolutely audacious ending that hints we might see more of this cast.

Fantastic read, and I can’t wait to get this in the hands of some readers at school.

‘One of Us is Back’ – Karen McManus

Rather unexpectedly perhaps – but if you’re onto a good thing then let it run – we return for our third visit to Bayview. Our murder crew has grown a little, but the repercussions of Simon’s game are still being felt. Nobody quite feels comfortable…and we soon see things are going to get a whole lot worse.

If you’ve followed the others in the series then this is a sure-fire hit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s more appealing than its predecessors and fans of Karen McManus are going to be so excited when this releases in July 2023. Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to read and review it before publication, and I think – having just finished – I’ll have to get my hands on a physical copy (even though the paperback isn’t due until March 2024).

In One of Us is Back our story is mainly narrated by Phoebe, though we get views from all the characters and even get to see what was happening six years earlier with Simon and Jake. Bayview has always had its fair share of secrets but in this instalment we see just who is hiding what.

Things begin rather innocuously with a hacked billboard promising a new game. This puts people on edge but doesn’t seem too serious. However, as people start to go missing and the injuries become more serious, we soon realise that someone has returned to Bayview with their heart set on revenge. The book follows our crew as they try to work out who’s behind this, and why.

I genuinely did not see some of these revelations coming, and the story offering light on earlier events helped make sense of so many things. Perhaps it’s a little unlikely, bi it makes for a cracking read and there are definite signs that our trips to Bayview may not yet be over.

‘All the Sinners Bleed’ – S.A. Cosby

A compelling read, and one which doesn’t shy away from asking some awkward questions.

Crosby’s latest is a tightly-plotted, gripping thriller which forces us to consider the deeply rooted prejudices expressed within and how these might be dealt with moving forward. There’s no easy answers here, but this was a compelling read.

Titus is the first black sheriff of Charon. The book opens in dramatic fashion with him being called to the local high school where there’s rumours of a shooting. The shooter is black, and the only victim is a beloved teacher (who’s white).

With residents feeling from the incident, tensions are high. Some within Charon immediately start the process of using this event to manipulate and stoke anti-black sentiment in the area. Titus is determined to be beyond reproach, calling for an internal investigation.

What he uncovers sets up a truly chilling scenario.

The much-loved teacher was a monster hiding in plain sight. The killer, one of his victims. As tension runs high, Titus uncovers damning evidence of decades of abuse and shocking murders…all perpetrated by someone close.

As we follow Titus through the case we see the depths to which people are prepared to stoop. While the details are visceral, they do not feel unnecessary. If I were being picky I’d complain about the fact that Titus is the only really fleshed-out character within the book, but this works and keeps our attention on the case at hand.