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.

Profile K – Helen Fields

From start to finish this book was gripping. I couldn’t wait to find out exactly what was happening, and though the subject was pretty terrifying I was fascinated. If this is typical of Helen Fields’ writing, then I think it’s about time to do some catch-up reading.

Our main character is Midnight Jones, a data analyst for Necto. The company is highly regarded, and has high expectations of their employees. When Midnight comes across some data anomalies, she looks further to find out what might be behind the problem. What she discovers is that the psychometric testing used by the company appears to have been pushed beyond its boundaries by a recent test case, known only as Profile K.

Nobody seems to take her concerns seriously. Yet not long after she comes up against some rather heavy stone-walking there’s a major company reshuffle and Midnight is promoted. She becomes increasingly fearful of the implications of her private questions…even more so when the body of a young woman is discovered, with similarities remarkably like that if the footage shown to her anonymous test case.

Without revealing any more of the plot, this is a story that operates on so many levels. The thriller element was absorbing, and the flashes we get into the head of the killer are truly sinister. Watching Midnight piece things together and coming to see the implications of her discoveries was compelling. And Doris…what a character!

Huge thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read and review this before publication. Now, off to try and source some other books by Helen Fields…

‘Demon Copperhead’ – Barbara Kingsolver

Finally. I can breathe a sigh of relief now I’ve closed the pages on Demon Copperhead, having taken forever to read it. This was not a book I could say I enjoyed. It was bleak and I had to read it in small steps initially as it was just too depressing to stomach. As I found myself caught up in Demon’s story it became easier to read – I knew this was going to feel grim, but there was a certain charm to the spirit of this character. From start to finish, this was hard work – not in terms of readability or style, but because the subject matter forces you to confront issues that it’s easier to ignore and puts a human face on the suffering so many experience.

This had sat on my shelves since it came out, and I admit that it scared me somewhat. Never having read David Copperfield and being rather taken aback by the hefty page count, I’d built this into an obstacle. A number of friends had read it, and their positive comments kept me going even though I thought about giving up in the early stages.

Our main character, Demon, is a child born to a single drug-addict mother. He’s dragged up through foster placements and finds himself on the periphery of all manner of illegal activities. As he matures, he finds himself to be a gifted footballer and this period of his life offers some stability. But after a terrible accident he finds himself addicted to more than the stereotypical teen drugs. His life is miserable in so many ways, but there are periods of intense joy and moments that show his potential. It was not difficult to feel his frustration at being judged simply because of him being born in a particular place, and I felt a growing anger at the pharmaceutical companies and those who have done their best to spread such vile poison.

As the book drew to its closing stages I felt rather amazed by the resilience Demon shows in dealing with the terrible hand he is dealt by fate. While I usually like a neat ending, I felt the way his story was resolved highlighted just how we each have to accept our role in what happens to us and I firmly came down on the idea that he had a chance of his happy ending.

‘The Summer She Vanished’ – Jessica Irena Smith

Our main character is Maggie, a student, who has returned to Boweridge (a small town in America) to see her mother for the first time in years. They’ve had a tempestuous relationship since Maggie chose to go to the UK to live with her father…and things take a downward turn when Maggie learns that she had an aunt, Minna, that nobody has talked about. Maggie takes it upon herself to learn more.

What Maggie discovers is that forty years ago a young nun, Sister Fran, was found murdered outside a diner on the outskirts of Boweridge. A week after this seventeen year old Minna disappeared. Everyone at the time assumed she ran away, but Maggie finds hints that the two cases might be connected as Minna told people she knew who had murdered Sister Fran.

We follow Maggie as she sets about trying to uncover the truth.

The town of Boweridge is full of characters with something to hide…a lot of which links to the convent where the name of one charismatic priest, Father Tom Brennan (the brother of the Chief of Police), keeps cropping up. Rumours have circulated for years, and Maggie finds plenty of evidence of a large-scale cover-up.

This was an absorbing read. The intricacy of the deception involved angered me, and the fact that so many innocent people got caught up in this web of lies was hard to comprehend. Not all our questions are answered – the slimy Simon definitely had something to answer to – but Maggie’s investigation makes for a compelling read.

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

‘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.

‘Babel’ – R.F. Kuang

I don’t mind admitting that it took me over a year to get round to this. It looked daunting, and I really wanted to make sure I was in the right frame of mind to settle into it. Having just finished, I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read it.

Babel focuses on young Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton, who is taken to England as a child under the guardianship of Professor Richard Lovell. He is educated in Latin and Greek, given a home and looked after…but be under no illusion – he is a commodity. Robin, who believes himself to be Lovell’s son, is effectively being trained to master languages so that he can take his place at Oxford and go to work in Babel, the library that effectively runs the country with the scholars’ ability to translate texts and work with silver.

From the moment he enters its hallowed halls, Robin loves Oxford. However, over the course of his studies – and witness to the way he and the other students in his year are treated – Robin comes to detest what Babel represents and is determined to find a way to challenge the colonial attitudes taken for granted by those around him.

For such a hefty book, I was surprised by how absorbing I found this. I don’t want to give any more details about the story, but it was the kind of book that will stick with me long after reading.