Book Reviews

My Book Reviews for January 2024

My Book Reviews for January 2024

My Book Reviews for January 2024 comprise the second in a cracking series about a podcaster sleuth, a short novel by Ian Rankin, a psychological thriller set in Brighton, a psychological thriller about a cult and several NetGalley titles.

Unburied by Heather Critchlow

Cal Lovett is a podcaster with a tragic backstory who investigates cold cases. As with his first outing in Unsolved, this new assignment takes him to the Scottish Highlands. This time, Robbie, the troubled son of a murder victim, asks him to investigate the shooting of his mother, Bryony, sixteen years earlier on the doorstep of their farmhouse. Cal is drawn to the case because he sees parallels between Robbie and himself. For thirty-six years, Cal has been mourning the loss of his big sister, Margot, who disappeared when she was nineteen. In this second novel, his backstory comes to the fore when her remains are found.

As with the first novel, the story is told from two perspectives. In this case, we are with Cal as he pursues his investigation into Bryony’s murder at the same time as dealing with the aftermath of his sister’s body being found, and we also see Bryony’s viewpoint in the months before her death. She is an achingly relatable character, trapped in a selfish marriage and deprived of her former (albeit unethical) career as a lawyer in Glasgow. She struggles with being a full-time mother as her husband doesn’t take his share of parenting duties. Opportunities for childcare in the village are limited, and she doesn’t gel with the other school-gate mothers.

The first book in this series (Unsolved) was one of my favourite reads of 2023 and this second title (Unburied) is even better. I didn’t spot the culprit this time and the book caught me by surprise when Cal’s story, quite literally, turned upside down. It’s my first read of the new year and I already expect it to appear on my Best Books list in December.

With thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an early copy in exchange for an independent review.

The Rise by Ian Rankin

When I bought this one, it was advertised as a short story. However, I’d call it a compact novel with all the ingredients of a well-written police procedural: likeable lead detective, prickly colleagues, a motley crew of suspects, a well-defined setting and a good mystery. I’d only ever read one Ian Rankin before this, but I’ll be seeking out others now. A quick, enjoyable read.

Best Served Cold by Hilly Barmby

Here’s one I bought when it was published in November 2023 and I grabbed the opportunity to read it between Christmas and New Year.

As the title suggests, this is a story of long-planned revenge. Playing out against a backdrop of old and new friendships and relationships, it is pitch-perfect for fans of domestic psychological thrillers. The setting of the English coastal city of Brighton reflects the book’s gorgeous cover.

Black Valley Farm by Sheila Bulger

I bought this one on the recommendation of psychological thriller writer Chris Curran, who knows a thing or two about the genre.

It is a really interesting approach to a well-defined sub-genre, namely goings-on in an evil cult. Black Valley Farm is a remote location in the Lincolnshire Wolds. (As it’s my old stomping ground, I tried to picture it but couldn’t. Probably just as well. Too scary.) But in this case, most of the action takes place ten years after the cult collapses.

We meet three viewpoint characters:

Clare (not her real name) – who’s been in hiding for 10 years since a fire killed most of the cult members and she was one of the few survivors;

Nuala – who produced an award-winning podcast on the cult, but is now being trolled for a lie she told during her investigation.

We also hear from Leo, a successful business man who has his eye on both of them.

The other significant characters are: Arnie, a brutal ex-cop who’s tracking Clare and will stop at nothing to get her; and Andrea, the flawless public face of a vile, ultra-right-wing political party, who wants Nuala to write a podcast about her.

Tension builds well throughout until storylines converge in an excellent denouement.

 

My Book Reviews for January 2024 include a bumper crop of NetGalley gems and I thank the authors, publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read the following early copies in exchange for independent reviews.

Three Little Birds by Sam Blake

Dr Carla Steele works for Gardai forensics. It’s her job, using skeletal remains, to reconstruct faces of the dead to aid the identification of unidentified victims. Driving her is the unsolved case of her missing best friend, Lizzie. Her current case – brought to her by DS Jack Maguire – is the skull of a young male found by divers at a known suicide spot. But when Carla begins her pre-reconstruction analysis, nothing is as it seems and a horrific chain of events is set in motion. The tone is brisk, and having a facial recognition expert as the lead is an interesting take on the police procedural. With Carla, Jack and Carla’s partner, Grace, well defined in this first book, the markers are down for a successful series.

A Guilty Secret by Philippa East

An interesting take on a familiar trope, the trope being ‘something bad happened at boarding school and we’ve made a pact never to tell’. This is ideal for fans of the genre. As well as discovering what happened via a flashback timeline, the reader also meets two unexpected present-day sleuths. Finn is contacted out of the blue by his ex-wife, Mhairi, who tells him their mutual friend, Kate, has committed suicide. As they attempt to unravel what led Kate to end her life, they relive the final traumatic months of their own marriage and also cross paths with a former pupil of the doomed boarding school.

You Wouldn’t Catch Me Dead by Tess James-Mackey

Ideal for fans of slow-burn YA psychological thrillers. Keeley, still mourning the death of her best friend, reluctantly takes part in an outward bound week with the overachievers from her new school. The camping trip goes disastrously wrong very quickly, and one of Keeley’s fellow students blames the ghost of a monk who came to a sticky end…

The Girl in Seat 2A by Diana Wilkinson

Sunshine, suspense and a chirpy protagonist, as well as lots of crazy shocks throughout. The opening sequence was particularly vivid. Ideal for fans of twisty psychological thrillers with a holiday vibe.

The Search Party by Hannah Richell

Ideal for fans of suspense stories told from several points of view. I particularly liked one of the teenage viewpoint characters. The pace builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Piglet by Lottie Hazell

An inventive character study that explores the protagonist’s relationships and personal growth through the medium of her passions for food and cooking. Ideal for fans of literary fiction.

House Woman by Adorah Nworah

We learn in detail of the abuses this ‘kept’ woman endures. Ideal for those seeking a powerful, visceral and hard read.

To the Dogs by Louise Welsh

Academia meets the Glasgow underworld in this slowburn crime story, told in Louise Welsh’s trademark accessible-literary and grittily humorous style.

True Crime by Georgina Lees

Grace’s daughter, Katy, has been missing for 10 years when a TV company persuades Grace and all the one-time suspects to participate in a documentary about Katy’s disappearance.

Ideal for fans of a protagonist with a straightforward, storytelling voice and an unexpected development arc. The TV documentary sections and the social media interactions were well paced.

This book will be published on 30 January 2024.

First Lie Wins by Ashley Elston

Ideal for fans of cat and mouse suspense that features a con artist narrator. The protagonist’s cons reside within other cons, some short, others very long.

 

So those are my book reviews for January 2024. I’ve got more coming up for February although not quite so many. I need to devote some time to writing my next book. (Meeting with my publisher Hobeck Books tomorrow.)

By Rachel Sargeant

Rachel Sargeant is a British author. Under the name Rae Sargeant, she writes the Gleveham Killers Suspense series, published by Hobeck Books. The first title is Her Deadly Friend. Her titles as Rachel Sargeant, with HarperCollins, are: The Roommates, a psychological thriller set in a university during freshers' week; The Good Teacher, a detective mystery, featuring DC Pippa “Agatha” Adams, and The Perfect Neighbours, a psychological thriller set in Germany. Rachel grew up in Lincolnshire, studied at Aberystwyth University, spent several years living in Germany and now lives in Gloucestershire with her family. She holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.

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