The Venus Trap by Louise Voss

The Venus Trap by Louise Voss

‘I love you, Jo, and I want you to love me. I want to have a future with you’.

I’ve read a lot of thrillers this year. And I really do mean A LOT. Many of them were really good but this one completely and utterly creeped me out. I’ve been trying to work out exactly why and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably because I found the premise so terrifyingly plausible. There are no super-intelligent detectives in this story and no heart-racing pursuit and capture. There’s just one woman in her own home, with one man.

So what’s it about?

Jo Atkins’ sixteenth year was disastrous: she lost her dad, was assaulted by a stranger, and then had her heart broken. For the last twenty-five years, she’s believed that nothing could ever be as bad again.

She was wrong.

Now, still smarting from her recent divorce, pretty, self-effacing Jo finally gathers the courage to enter the dating scene. She meets Claudio, whom she vaguely remembers from her youth, but after a few dates decides he’s creepy and politely tells him ‘thanks but no thanks’.

But Claudio has no intention of letting her go.

Instead of never seeing him again, Jo wakes up sick and terrified, handcuffed to her own bed. She is given a week to prove her love for Claudio—or he will kill her.

Claudio, it turns out, is a man with nothing left to lose.

Jo is kidnapped by Claudio with the help of a healthy dose of Rohypnol. She is kept as a prisoner in her own home by a man who became obsessed with her years before her marriage, and whose obsession has never dwindled. Jo remembers him as someone who’d ‘always kind of given me the creeps’ – it turns out with very good reason. When she comes around from her drug-induced state, she realises that he has screwed her windows shut and removed anything from her flat with which she could do herself, or him, any harm.

In the course of searching for anything that could help her in her plight, Jo comes across her old diary. Claudio is delighted: ‘This will give us a perfect talking point. I want to know everything about you, everything. We have so many years to catch up on, to find out where we went wrong – and we have all the time in the world to do it’. From this point on, the narrative splits. On the one hand we witness Jo’s terrifying reality and on the other, her flashbacks to 1986 – the year she met Claudio – and the events that have helped to shape her future.

We are with Jo as she starts to blame herself for her situation: ‘If I had different instincts, I’d never have walked down that alley’ and when she considers her best route to survival: ‘Surely it’s better to sit passively and mentally practise how to convince him of my ‘love’, than risk disaster by provoking him?’

Somehow, Voss manages to pack a little bit of everything into this story without ever making it feel as though it’s been shoe-horned in. As well as her divorce, we learn of Jo’s infidelity, of her struggle to conceive, of her friendships and her grief: ‘The pain that sweeps over me at this realisation makes me truly believe I could die from grief’.

I’m not going to talk about the ending as I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice it to say that his novel is an all-rounder that packs a real punch. I couldn’t put it down. Huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for a review.

‘I think he has broken me, not just my heart. I feel broken’.

The Venus Trap is only £3.98 on kindle right now: The Venus Trap

Silent Scream by Angela Marsons

Silent Scream

Meet DI Kim Stone; independent, dedicated and coldly efficient as a Police Officer but somewhat dispassionate and damaged in her private life. Here is a woman in a man’s world, quietly battling her own personal demons and not letting anyone stand in the way of her success: ‘Her last performance review had highlighted only one area of improvement; playing nice with others’.

So what’s it about?

Even the darkest secrets can’t stay buried forever… Five figures gather round a shallow grave. They had all taken turns to dig. An adult-sized hole would have taken longer. An innocent life had been taken but the pact had been made. Their secrets would be buried, bound in blood…

Years later, a headmistress is found brutally strangled, the first in a spate of gruesome murders which shock the Black Country. But when human remains are discovered at a former children’s home, disturbing secrets are also unearthed. DI Kim Stone fast realises she’s on the hunt for a twisted individual whose killing spree spans decades. As the body count rises, Kim needs to stop the murderer before they strike again. But to catch the killer, can Kim confront the demons of her own past before it’s too late?

The start of the novel flashes back to 2004 where five people are burying a body. Flash forwards to the present day and we learn of the murder of Teresa Wyatt – highly respected Headteacher. Human bones are then found on the site of an old children’s home. As the body count rises, it turns out that all these events are linked and it’s up to DI Stone and her team to uncover the truth.

What follows is an absolutely captivating roller coaster of a ride. Superbly plotted, full of suspense and the most amazing twists and turns, all of the elements combine to create a completely mind-blowing conclusion. Yep. I devoured this book in 24 hours and was sad to have finished it. All of the clichés are just true – I couldn’t put it down – along with everyone else. For a debut novel only published six months ago, nearly 2000 five star reviews on Amazon is an incredible achievement and one that is so very well deserved.

Another favourite author to add to the list and the start of what I very much hope will be a long series of books. It’ll be a crime if we don’t see DI Kim Stone on our TV screens one day…

Silent Scream is available on Kindle at the moment for only 99p – an absolute bargain: Silent Scream: An edge of your seat serial killer thriller (Detective Kim Stone crime thriller series Book 1)

Normal by Graeme Cameron

Normal
‘Every human being occupies a space at the dead centre of his or her own universe’.

Wow. Where to start with this one? The title may be ‘Normal’ but this book is anything but. I have read a lot of crime, thrillers and psychological thrillers this year. And I do mean A LOT. This one stands out from the crowd for a variety of reasons, not least because it’s the only one I’ve (ever?) read written from the point of view of the killer himself…

So what’s it about?

He lives on your street, in a nice house with a tidy garden.

He shops at your local supermarket. He drives beside you, waving to let you into the lane ahead of him.

He also has an elaborate cage in a secret basement under his garage.

The food he’s carefully shopping for is to feed a young woman he’s holding there against her will – one in a string of many, unaware of the fate that awaits her.

This is how it’s been for a long time. It’s normal…and it works. Perfectly.

But this time it’s different…

If you like your thrillers neat and tidy this is probably not the thriller for you. But if you like your thrillers dark, twisted and truly nasty then you need to get your hands on a copy of this book. Mr Cameron has the most amazingly disturbed imagination – and I love him for it! Reading about women viewed and treated as commodities in the worst possible way is never going to be comfortable. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t gripping. Perhaps ‘fascinating in a completely sick way’ just about sums it up.

Amongst the gore though, rather unexpectedly, this book is also incredibly funny. OK, so it’s (unsurprisingly) a very dark humour but it really did have me chuckling aloud at times. The author’s ability to combine the most gruesome details in the most matter of fact way is original and utterly brilliant: ‘An unprecedented calm enveloped me as I made space in the pantry freezer, between the joints of topside beef and the waitress from the Hungry Horse’.

The story is incredibly jarring from start to finish. Just when you’re wondering why you’re laughing when all around you is death our unnamed, unfeeling, psychopath protagonist (and I won’t even start on my analysis of the reasons for the anonymity) falls in love. Or at least, he meets a woman that he doesn’t immediately want to torture and murder. Is it love? Read it and let me know what you think. In any case, I totally didn’t see that one coming. Which of course is precisely the point.

This book is first and foremost about manipulation – both of people in general but also of the reader. Somehow or other you actually end up wanting nothing more than the redemption of this monster. Seriously, it’s brilliantly done. I was left with a hundred questions running around in my head – and serious questions too about society, stereotypes and perception. It’s probably the only time you’re going to want to thank someone for manipulating you. ‘Without fail, when the door is finally opened, they beg me to let them stay because in their hearts, they know that they’re safe in the cage’.

Aside from our killer, there are some impressively drawn female characters for us to get our teeth into too. Annie and Erica were my personal favourites but I won’t ruin things by going into detail of how and why. You’ll just have to read it, won’t you?

In the hands of a less skilled writer this would just be a fairly sick serial-killer story – and that would be fine. It would probably still sell. But it is so much more. Graeme Cameron has managed to create a niche in probably the most popular fiction genre at the moment. Top marks Mr Cameron! I’m almost scared to see what you come up with next…

‘The truth is I hurt people. It’s what I do. It’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done. I’m not… normal’.

The Lie by C. L. Taylor

The Lie

This psychological thriller has stayed with me since I read it three months ago. I was so absorbed by the plot that I completely forgot to make my usual highlights to aid my review. And that’s a first.

So what’s it about?

I know your name’s not really Jane Hughes…

Jane Hughes has a loving partner, a job in an animal sanctuary and a tiny cottage in rural Wales. She’s happier than she’s ever been but her life is a lie. Jane Hughes does not really exist.

Five years earlier Jane and her then best friends went on holiday but what should have been the trip of a lifetime rapidly descended into a nightmare that claimed the lives of two of the women.

Jane has tried to put the past behind her but someone knows the truth about what happened. Someone who won’t stop until they’ve destroyed Jane and everything she loves…

The story uses the popular ‘switching timeline’ device. In other novels this has left me confused but here it works seamlessly. Alternating chapters tell the story of the present day and that of five years previously when Emma, Daisy, Leanne and Al arrive at Ekanta Yatra – a yoga/meditation retreat in Nepal. As it suggests in the blurb, events here take on a sinister aspect and end tragically.

Back to the present day, and only Al and Emma (now ‘Jane’) have survived. The two are no longer in contact after Al sold their story to the Press against Emma’s wishes. She has moved away from London, has a new partner and works for an animal sanctuary in Wales. She has done her best to move on with her life and reinvent herself but things start to slip when she receives a series of emails telling her that her old friend Daisy is still alive.

Without giving anything away, the novel explores the dark, disturbing side to friendship and female friendship in particular. How far can you really trust your friends? And what happens when the cracks start to appear? All the characters are well-developed, flawed and damaged in different ways which makes their interaction fascinating.

I was completely absorbed by this story – so much so that as soon as I put it down, I picked up C L Taylor’s other novel – The Accident and devoured that one too. One of my favourite reads of the year so far and a new favourite author to add to the list.

You can get The Lie on kindle at the moment for only £1.99: The Lie

What Lies Within by James Morris

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‘For as long as she could remember, she felt as if she didn’t belong’.

If you’re in the mood for a novel with a difference, look no further than this dark tale from James Morris. Despite being aimed at young adults the questions tackled regarding identity and the nature versus nurture debate are bound to appeal to a more mature audience in addition.

So what’s it about?

“You’re going to die.”

Shelley Marano is an ordinary, unexceptional high school senior… until the day she receives a cryptic text message, and her world tilts sideways. Now she’s in real danger, although she doesn’t know who would want her dead, or why.

As she starts to unravel the mystery, the truth about who she really is proves to be more frightening than she ever imagined. With the lives of her and her friends hanging in the balance, one thing is certain: Nothing will ever be the same.

This is a hard book to review without giving anything away but as you might expect from such a teaser, it’s a fast-paced story with an original twist. Whilst dealing with some fairly profound ideas, it also works well as a coming of age story dealing very early on with the destruction of all Shelley thinks she knows: ‘Lies, all lies: her relationships, her history, her identity. Her life. The world tilted.’

After a series of fairly terrifying revelations, one way or another she has to learn to re-build her life knowing that things will never be quite the same again. She is aided in this mission by her ever-loyal friend Winston who she herself describes as ‘her guardian angel’. Winston is the friend we all wish we could have had as a teenager. Particularly as a teenage girl! I warmed to him in a way I didn’t with Shelley which I suspect was deliberate on the part of the author. Despite her strength, Winston is considerably less flawed than Shelley and just an all-round nice guy. He is the Samwise Gamgee of the story and we all need a Samwise Gamgee.

If when you see the term ‘YA’ you see ‘easy read’, think again. This novel is not for the faint-hearted and that’s coming from someone who probably reads altogether more crime/thrillers than is altogether healthy. It has a healthy dose of sex and a lot of (pretty nasty) death. There is even one of those moments when you can see what’s going to happen, but your brain is begging to be proven wrong.

This is an impressive debut from an author who I will definitely be keeping my eye on. Highly recommended.

‘Anyone who’s ever been involved in this has died.’

You can get What Lies Within on kindle for an incredibly reasonable £2.29 at the moment: What Lies Within

Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey

Beyond the Sea

‘The power of the sea always prevails…’

Once in a while, the right book comes along at just the right time. On holiday in the South of Wales surrounded by stunning countryside and views of the sea was the perfect setting in which to lose myself in this wonderful novel.

So what’s it about?

One summer’s day, Freya’s husband and son vanish at sea.

A year on, and struggling to cope, Freya returns to the lighthouse-keeper’s cottage on a remote Hebridean island, where she and her family spent so many happy times.

Haunted by visions of her old life, Freya’s dreams are dark and disturbed. And when a stranger, Daniel, is washed ashore during a storm, they turn even more menacing.

As dream and reality start to merge, Daniel seems to be following Freya’s every move. What does he want from her and is he everything he seems to be?

Is her mind playing tricks? Or is the danger that she senses very real?

On the one hand this is a poignant story of love, loss and grief which is set beautifully against the wild, untamed backdrop of the Hebridean Islands. Melissa Bailey’s masterful descriptions of her setting transported me right there with Freya from the very beginning: ‘The shingle beaches, the wild machair, the glistening burns catching the sunlight as they drained to sea’.

But this is no simple one-dimensional tale. The descriptions of Freya’s grief are raw and true. Her story is also interwoven both with extracts from her son’s diary which she finds on her return to the Island and also with that of Edward, one of Cromwell’s soldiers whose love letters from 1653 come to light (in a bottle – of course!). Through Sam’s diary she comes to learn more about his last days and in being able to read his words and hear his voice, she begins both a literal and metaphorical journey of healing: ‘She knew in that moment that if the diary told of other places Sam and Jack had been to, she would follow’.

Sam was fascinated with all things nautical – particularly myths and legends about the sea and shipwrecks. Such mythical references and folklore regarding mermaids, sirens and much more are scattered liberally throughout this novel – stories I found just as fascinating as Sam.

Reading Edward’s letters also seems to have a cathartic effect on Freya and adds to the magic of the story. He writes that: ‘The more I hear these tales… and Duncan speaking with such reverence about the air, the water, the unexplained miracles of these isles, the more I feel he believes that we have entered a magical kingdom’. His references to the blind old man who he felt could see ‘deep inside me’ just have to be considered alongside Freya’s friend, Torin. I think I fell a tiny bit in love with Torin in the same way I fell a tiny bit in love with Gandalf. He even has a Dwarvish kind of name! Torin has second sight and as he stares at Freya ‘she felt herself becoming as transparent as a pane of glass’. This is just one example of the symmetry of the novel which I found so very satisfying.

This is a hauntingly beautiful, gentle, novel but with such depth that it has stayed with me long after I put it down. It was a perfect summer read for me but I can just as easily imagine reading it curled up in front of a roaring fire on a cold, winter’s evening. Without a doubt, one of my favourite reads of 2015 so far. Huge thanks to Melissa Bailey.

‘I looked at the impenetrable darkness of the water once more. It was like a veil drawn over the past’.

Beyond the Sea is available on kindle: Beyond the Sea

Or paperback: Beyond the Sea

Dead Time – A DC Max Wolfe Short Story – by Tony Parsons

Dead Time

I’m so, so, SO pleased Tony Parsons took a punt and tried his hand at crime fiction. DC Max Wolfe is a fabulous new fictional detective and these are soooo my kind of stories. I thoroughly enjoyed The Murder Bag, the first in the series – you can see my review here.

Dead Time is number 1.5 in the series – a short story to whet our appetites before #2 in the series is published on 21st May.

So what’s it about?

One am, Boxing Day. Snow falls, the city sleeps.

Not DC Max Wolfe. He is looking out of his loft apartment at the deserted streets below.

A van has just drawn up. Two men get out. Dressed in black and wearing ski-masks, they are dragging something.

It’s a man. Half-naked. Half-dead. But still alive.

Not for much longer.

Soon Max Wolfe is hunting a gang of killers who decapitate their victims.

And this time it’s personal …

Is there anything better than the combination of a peaceful, wintery, snow scene to offset against a grisly murder? Not much! I won’t go into too much detail – it’s a short story after all, and I don’t want to give anything away but I will say that like The Murder Bag, this story ends so satisfyingly whilst having just enough deliciously gruesome details to keep the tension. The narrative is completely fearless and unflinching.

‘A cleanly decapitated human does not die instantly’.

If you enjoyed The Murder Bag, do read this before The Slaughter Man comes out next month.

The Murder Bag is available on kindle for only £3.66 at the moment: The Murder Bag

Dead Time is only 99p: Dead Time: A DC Max Wolfe Short Story

And The Slaughter Man can be pre-ordered: The Slaughter Man