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August Sizzles with Good Books – My Reviews

August Sizzles with Good Books. Here are reviews of my recent reads – three thrillers, a police procedural and a literary title.

The Holiday by T.M. Logan

Sultry and suspenseful. Three families on a relaxing holiday in a sumptuous villa in the south of France. What could possibly go wrong? The author paints a vivid picture of mouth-watering food, baking sun, idyllic setting … and deadly secrets. Even the children have something to hide. A woman reads a text on her husband’s phone and devastation ensues. Multi-viewpoint thriller that kept me turning the page. One of my favourite reads of the summer.

Burnt Island by Kate Rhodes

Have you ever been on holiday and found the destination so enchanting that you keep going back there again and again? This year I’ve found myself making literary return visits to the Isles of Scilly, starting at Hell Bay, moving on to Ruin Beach and now at Burnt Island, the third novel in the DI Ben Kitto series.

The rugged detective strides across the equally rugged landscape of St Agnes in search of a sadistic killer. As in previous outings we meet his trusty hound, Shadow; his will-they-won’t-they old school friend, Zoe; and his stuffy boss, Madron. We also see more of his young sidekick, Eddie. The story arc seems primed for him to have a bigger role in Book 4. Making her debut was tough cookie and head of forensics, Liz Gannick. Hopefully this story isn’t the last we’ll see of her.

I’d like to highlight the author’s skill at keeping the series characters fresh and managing to fill in their backgrounds for newcomers to the series without boring those readers already familiar with it.

The murder in this novel was more graphic than in the previous books and there was a real sense that a psychopath was on the loose. (I guessed said psychopath early on but this isn’t a criticism of the story. I hope it isn’t a case of takes one to know one…)

I was delighted but unsurprised to read in the acknowledgments that the series has been optioned for TV. It’s crying out for a place on the small screen as well as for many more books.

Although I’ve said August Sizzles with Good Books, it’s not just books set in holiday destinations that have caught my interest:

Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas

An unusual spin on a missing person story. The novel hits the ground running with a shocking double murder that loiters as a puzzle in the reader’s mind until the end.

You never really know who you can trust:
Jess, the journalist investigating a story while trying to deny her own involvement in the cold case of missing girl Flora;
Jack, Jess’s young colleague with secrets and ambitions of his own;
Heather, Jess’s former friend and Flora’s sister, now embroiled in a devastating new tragedy;
Adam, Heather’s gruff and brooding husband;
Dylan, Flora’s ex-boyfriend who kept some very unsavoury company and may know more about her disappearance than he ever let on;
Margot, mother of Heather and Flora who took neglected Jess under her wing during her teenage years and who lost one daughter and might now lose the other.

Nicely plotted, nicely told.

The Guilty Mother by Diane Jeffrey

Jonathan is a journalist assigned to report on the upcoming appeal by a mother in prison for murdering her infant daughter. Initially reluctant to take the assignment and doubting the woman’s innocence, he gradually gets drawn into undertaking his own investigation. He soon senses that he’s being manipulated. He is a likeable viewpoint character with a fully fleshed out backstory that has mysteries attached.

A second viewpoint character is Kelly, the rookie reporter who assists Jonathan. She too has a full backstory and there are hints that she may have her own reasons for getting involved in the appeal case.

The third viewpoint character is Melissa, the jailed mother. As I’m sure the author intended, I found her sections a difficult read as it brought back memories of real-life mothers who were jailed for infanticide on the scientific evidence of expert witnesses.

The story develops well with Jonathan and Kelly following up several leads and exposing shocking evidence. I feel a sequel is possible as a number of characters could have more stories to tell. I would certainly read it.

The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood

Although the author’s previous novels were psychological thrillers that didn’t shy away from graphic and visceral detail, The Poison Garden is even harder hitting as well as more literary. You know you’re in for a disturbing read when an apparently stereotypical police procedural prologue descends into a scene reminiscent of the Allies entering a concentration camp at the end of the Second World War.

After the prologue, the main narrator is Romy, the sole adult survivor of a cult that lived on a farming estate in Wales. Following psychiatric care, she’s resettled by Social Services in a flat in London. Romy is oddly streetwise and astutely observant. (And an ace driver.) Her humour is hard and cynical.

She’s also secretive and has her own agenda. As her narrative progresses, there’s a real sense that a ticking time bomb has been activated.

Her timeline alternates between present day and her years in Wales where we also hear from her mother, Alison, renamed Somer. As is often the case, women don’t fare particularly well in the cult and the leader sets its doctrine to suit himself. There was something of The Handmaid’s Tale in the dystopian atmosphere created, and a pinch of The Hunger Games which carried through to Romy’s resourcefulness in the outside world.

The third narrator is Romy’s aunt, Sarah. She finds herself appointed guardian to Romy’s half-siblings who also survived the cult. An unreadable pair of children with a touch of The Midwich Cuckoos about them.

Sarah is a survivor in her own way. Her parents were leaders of a devout Christian order, The Congregation. Her rebellious sister, Alison – Romy’s mother – fled the constraints of her childhood home and ended up in the cult. Sarah stayed behind. She is unsure of herself, but also gifted with the same hard, cynical humour as her niece, Romy.

Alex Marwood skilfully builds the suspense in these separate narratives until they explode. Unsettling, with much to say on the theme of indoctrination – before, during and after, if indeed “after” exists.

Torrential rain and howling wind outside but still August Sizzles with Good Books. More reviews to follow…

By Rachel Sargeant

Rachel Sargeant is a British author. Her latest thriller, The Roommates, is a Closer Magazine "Must Read". Her other titles are The Good Teacher, The Perfect Neighbours and Gallipoli: Year of Love and Duty. Rachel won Writing Magazine’s Crime Short Story competition and has been shortlisted in various competitions including the Bristol Short Story Prize. She was born in Lincolnshire and is a graduate of Aberystwyth University. She now lives in Gloucestershire with her husband and children.

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