Book Reviews

Book Reviews for November 2020

Book Reviews for November 2020

Here are my book reviews for November 2020 – a literary thriller, a whodunnit, a gothic thriller and one from that rapidly developing new genre, a virus novel. Also, news of an exciting short story competition.


Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

Terrific stuff.

Annie’s mother is a serial killer.

Annie wants her to stop so she tells the police.

Annie becomes Milly and gets a new foster home as she prepares for her day in court.

Annie wants a happy ever after, but she is still plagued by memories of her mother and, as Milly, is bullied by the jealous daughter of her foster parents.

Annie must call on all her mental resilience to find a way through her trauma, but will she summon bad or good traits in herself to survive?

A psychological thriller well worthy of the name. The novel delves deep into the mind of the main character, lingering in a sad and dangerous place. A proper page-turner. Highly recommended.


Black River by Joss Stirling

This is the first in a bright new whodunnit series that combines police procedural with suspense and humour.

It features three viewpoints:

Jess Bridges – a missing persons investigator whose chaotic private life gets her into trouble. An impulsive personality with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, she is like no other fictional sleuth I’ve read. The story kicks off with Jess managing to stumble across a murder victim while skinny dipping in the River Thames (like you do) and then becoming romantically entangled with the chief suspect, a potential serial killer.

Dr Michael Harrison – a leading psychologist and one of Jess’s many exes. At times I thought I must be reading the second in the series because there’s clearly important history regarding a dramatic  case the previous year that involved them both and left Michael in a wheelchair. He is called in by police to consult on the serial killer case, but needs their help on a situation of his own. An online troll is threatening both him and an unnamed female close to him. Could Jess be in danger on this front too?

Detective Inspector Leo George – who calls in Michael’s help and is attracted to Jess despite her being a witness in the serial killer case. The detective takes a back seat in this opening story but will no doubt come to the fore in the next one.

As the body count rises, Jess becomes more embroiled with not only that serial killer case, but also an undercover assignment connected with her missing persons work.

I guessed the solution to Jess’s private assignment early on and clocked the troll at the midpoint, but I didn’t guess the serial killer despite some cleverly laid clues that I spotted in hindsight.

I thoroughly enjoyed this suspenseful caper and have already bought the next two books in the series.


The Nesting by C.J. Cooke

I haven’t read any other modern gothic stories so maybe they all start this way, but I was struck by the levity of the opening chapters and the wise-cracking, sarcastic narrative style of main character, Lexi, despite her traumatic backstory. In some ways she reminded me of Jess, the lead in the book I’d just read (See Black River above) and that was all to the good as I loved both protagonists.

Lexi is recovering from a horrendous relationship break-up and sees a chance to escape to a new life in a remote region of Norway by impersonating a fully-trained nanny and getting a job working for a widower with two daughters.

Before the girls’ mother died, she and her architect husband, Tom, had grand plans to build their dream house close to their existing old property. To get the perfect view, they decided to reroute a river. Their actions stir up forest and water spirits, unhappy with the assault on their natural world.

By the time Lexi starts her job, the dream house is no more, but Tom has started a new build on the side of a cliff. The river is back on its original course but the spirits remain restless. Lexi senses sinister goings on in the old house, around the forest and at the new building site. But it might not be just the spirits who have it in for Lexi. Is Tom all he seems? And what of the mysterious housekeeper Marin, and Tom’s business partner, Clive, and his wife, Derry, not to mention the various builders employed on site?

The novel cleverly blends the folkloric with the psychological. The lead character is likeable as are the two little girls she cares for. It is my second C.J. Cooke novel and I would definitely read another.

(Minor spoiler: Tom is a lousy architect. I can’t help feeling his 6-year-old daughter designed better houses with her paper and felt-tip drawings in the playroom…)


The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird

I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this book well ahead of its April 2021 publication date. (Many thanks to the author, publisher and Net Galley for letting me read it.) Although written before Covid-19 hit town, it is about a virus that wipes out 90% of the male population of the world.

We dip into events at various dates in the first five years of the pandemic and from various perspectives.

Although there is a large cast, this is a scenario-driven rather than character-led novel. Many of the characters make brief appearances and do not return for a hundred or so pages. Probably the most developed are Amanda, the accident and emergency doctor who first raises the alarm, and Catherine, an anthropologist who finds herself documenting the emerging society. We meet these women at the beginning of the story, see them suffer terrible loss and then watch them adapt and take on new challenges.

Other characters include: an egotistical virologist working on a vaccine; a Filipina nanny in Singapore who makes a split-second decision to flee; a male passenger on a ship stranded off Iceland; and a smallholder on a remote Scottish island who believes her family will survive in splendid isolation – that’s until the Scottish government repurposes her farm.

Through snapshots of these characters’ lives, we see societies reconfigure as women take on new roles at the same time as mourning loved ones. We see a little of how different countries handle the crisis. Scotland, for example, very quickly declares independence (Who knew?) and New Zealand comes up with a startling way to protect baby boys born before a vaccine is found.

This is a what-if? novel. But rather than simply asking: What if we faced a global pandemic? (Image that), the writer really asks the question: What if the world were run by women? And sneaks in a damning indictment of her (our) pre-virus world where women are underrepresented in so many industries that urgent and mass reskilling is required when the pandemic hits.

At times, the novel is utopian rather than dystopian. There are minimal references to crime and war in this new world order and what riots there are seem to be started by panicked men at airports and railway stations as they attempt to escape the virus in the early days.  However, there are also hints that some women fall into bad habits in their attitudes towards the “weaker” sex. Men, now objects of curiosity in the workplace and on the streets, have to form action groups to protect their interests and stand up against inappropriately gendered language in the office.

A lot of thought has gone into every imagined scenario and the writer provides stimulating options. This book will be widely read, reviewed and debated, and is ripe for an intelligent TV series adaptation.

So those are my book reviews for November 2020. I’ve already fired up my Kindle with some goodies for December so I expect to be writing a bumper crop of reviews for my December blog.


Short Story Competition for Christmas

Do you have a Christmassy crime or mystery short story?

If yes, become a member of Bay Tales’ Friends of the Bay and enter their first Christmas Competition.

Write a festive-themed short story that can be read aloud within seven minutes.

The winner will receive:

  • A reading spot on the Live Christmas Virtual Noir at the Bar show (Wednesday December 16th) alongside an all-star line-up! (I highly recommend VNatB both as a viewer and a participant. Here’s my account of the week I took part.)
  • Your story, along with a complete Author Profile and links to your site/social media/books on the Bay Tales
  • A prize set of some great crime/mystery books from 2020
  • And, winner or not, you’ll get feedback on your story from the judging panel of established authors (including me!).

Click here for full details and closing date.

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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