Book Reviews

My Book Reviews for May 2020

Book Reviews for May 2020

Here are my book reviews for May 2020, also some film reviews and my writing news.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Guests gather for a society wedding on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland. We meet:
• an ambitious bride – the self-made proprietor of a successful magazine who’ll stop at nothing to make her day perfect
• her troubled younger sister – whose haunted past might come back to sabotage the day
• a devastatingly handsome groom – a rising star of a TV survival show who may be a bit too perfect to be true
• his shambolic best man – surely the slick, successful groom could have chosen someone more capable than his old school friend
• a quartet of ushers – thirty-something men intent on reliving their jolly schoolboy japes even though they were never that jolly
• a master of ceremonies – an old friend of the bride who is regretting his decision to join the groom and his school friends on the stag night
• his wife – who suspects there’s more to her husband’s relationship with the bride than friendship
• the wedding planner – owner of the remote venue with much riding on the outcome of the day

It is structured in the same way as Lucy Foley’s previous novel The Hunting Party. Told in flashback and from several viewpoints, a group of thirty somethings – each with skeletons rattling loudly in their cupboards – gather in an inaccessible location for a celebration and one of them dies. Like most whodunits the killer is not revealed until the end, but in Foley’s novels neither is the victim. Some (but not all) of the characters were more likeable than in the previous book and the writing was very smooth and easy to read. A most entertaining mystery. I will definitely read book three when it comes.
Also worth a read if you like the wedding-guests-with-secrets theme is The Murder Game by Rachel Abbott.

Afraid of the Light

This anthology featuring crime stories by 14 bestselling authors is newly published, with all profits going to The Samaritans.

I like to read short story anthologies now and again, but I do so with the expectation of liking probably only a fraction of the stories. Not so with this collection; I liked them all, and I’d say there’s something here for most crime readers. The stories are variously dark, funny, futuristic, gritty or emotional. At £1.99 (as at 26/5/20) it really is worth buying this book and supporting an important charity.

Adam Southwood – Are You Listening? – What is causing a series of unnerving incidents in a family home? Does the Alexa-type smart assistant know how to activate more than she should?

Dominic Nolan – Daddy Dearest – a gritty and visceral story set in prison, charting the relationship between two old but very different criminals.

Elle Croft – Death Bed, Beth Dead – prize for the best title surely and an unfortunate death bed confession

S.R. Masters – Loveable Alan Atcliffe – short, sweet and utterly believable. Loved it!

Phoebe Morgan – Sleep Time – Typical of Phoebe’s excellent writing, this is a human interest story that turns chilling…

N.J. MacKay – Coming Home – excellent character study with an emotional story. This would make a great series character.

Victoria Selman – Sausage Fingers – a fun little serial killer tale to give you a giggle

Rachael Blok – Just a Game – four girls on a camping trip play a deadly game. Toxic and then some.

Heather Critchlow – Drowning in Debt – in a vividly described setting, this may remind the reader of a true life case, although it takes a different, thrilling route.

Jo Furniss – To Evil or Not To Evil – a speculative piece about what could happen if devices started posting the #status of their human owners on their behalf and if the home smart assistant took on a more human form.

Robert Scragg – Sheep’s Clothing – a gripping, unnerving and ultimately sad story of online grooming

Claire Epsom – Frantic – delves into psychological thriller/ domestic noir territory with a tense story that would also work well as the opening of a full-length novel

James DeLargy – Planting Nan – Murky goings-on in a family and what happens when a child sees rather more than he should

Kate Simmats – Shadow – an unsettling tale of cruelty between children and how the damage done can last into adulthood

Murder at the Music Factory by Lesley Kelly

When I reviewed the third book in the Health of Strangers series and said I couldn’t wait for book 4, I was speaking fictionally; I didn’t want the story in my real life. Be careful what you wish for.
The series features Edinburgh’s Health Enforcement Team (HET) who are tasked with tracking down defaulters who fail to attend compulsory health tests during … you guessed it… a virus pandemic.
In this latest outing, their normal duties get abandoned as they search for a former colleague.

Unbeknown to them, the colleague was a secret government agent embedded in HET while carrying out covert surveillance on subversive targets. Now he’s gone rogue and started shooting civil servants. (And it’s a bit of a worry for the team as they are all civil servants.) His motive is revealed towards the end of the story and it all comes back to the deadly disease.

Despite the scary real-life parallels, these books have become my go-to funny series. Who couldn’t love hapless Bernard, feisty Mora, truculent Carole, cocky Maitland and their frazzled boss Paterson? The team tends to hunt in pairs so we see different dynamics when different characters work together on parts of the investigation. This time a new double-act emerges when Marcus, the IT technician, joins Bernard on their most dangerous mission yet.

To get the full enjoyment of this book, it would be a good idea to read the previous book first, or better still, start at book 1. There’s nothing like a cosy global pandemic series to cheer you up in a global pandemic.

Little White Lies by Philippa East

A good psychological thriller about the first weeks after a missing child returns home. Eight-year-old Abigail, visiting London with her mother and baby brothers, disappeared from a busy tube station. Seven years later she is found alive and returns to the family home.

Told from the viewpoints of her mother, Anne, and her cousin, Jess, the story shows the private struggles faced by various members of the family to come to terms with the child’s return. Anne makes desperate attempts to reconnect with her daughter, all the while trying to conceal a white lie.

Before Abigail went missing, Abigail and cousin Jess were inseparable. Despite observing the growing tensions between her parents, the odd power play between her mother and Abigail’s mother, and some unnerving aspects of Abigail’s behaviour, Jess still harbours the hope that everything can go back to how it was.

Abigail herself is a fairly closed character throughout most of the book, undemonstrative and indifferent to family around her. Gradually we find out what is going on in her troubled head. A child should be able to trust her family, but Abigail has good reason to have her doubts. That lie of her mother’s is turning out to be a very murky shade of white.

Well written, with lots of close third-person detail, and emotional tension. I look forward to another book by this author.

As well as book reviews for May 2020, I have written a couple of film reviews this month.

Knives Out

Lockdown has been difficult for everyone and for most people far more difficult than it has been for me. We have been lucky enough to have our adult children stay with us while doing their work remotely. One of the benefits has been family pizza and film nights. Knives Out, a spin on the traditional country-house murder mystery, was our most recent watch.

Set in present-day America and featuring an array of eccentric characters well played by well-known actors, the story follows the immediate fallout after the death of patriarch and famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombey. Was he killed by one of his money-grabbing offspring or are ‘the help’ to blame? Presiding over the investigation is famous sleuth Benoit Blanc who has been summoned to the Thrombey mansion by a healthy cash payment from an anonymous party.

To be honest, the film gets off to a slow start. Various suspects speak to police detectives about their whereabouts on the fateful night and defend their relationships with the dead man. Both my children reached for their phones and within five minutes had tuned out. However, the story got going during the reveal of the death scene and the phones got put away. The action picked up and Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc hit his stride. Showing himself to be a versatile actor, he must have had a ball playing this larger-than-life detective. As he dropped in and out of the southern states accent, I wondered whether he had completed the same vocal exercises as John Malkovich when he played Poirot for the BBC. But ultimately the tongue-in-cheek/over-the-top/delightfully comedic performance added to the charm and subversion of the piece. (The film definitely turns the whodunit genre on its head – the central force of the story is the Latina nursemaid, an excellent performance by Ana de Armas.) By the end of the film, I’d come to love Craig’s Benoit Blanc and would definitely watch another film in which he featured. (A sequel is planned.)

Part spoof, part satire and part jolly good mystery, Knives Out is worth a watch.

Murder on the Orient Express starring Kenneth Branagh

Pizza and movie night came round again so the Sargeant family travelled first class from Istanbul to an avalanche stop in Slavonia and one of the most famous fictional murders in literature.

The first thing to note about this adaptation is it is big budget. Cinematically sumptuous with an all-star cast. (You know it’s big bucks when Johnny Depp plays the victim and only has a few scenes before exit stage bodybag.)

Despite the distracting moustache, Branagh puts in a good show as Poirot. Perhaps channelling the mischievousness of Albert Finney’s Poirot and the fastidiousness of David Suchet’s, he holds steady in his Belgian-inspired accent and provides a dependable lead in a story that gets steadily darker.

Personally I preferred the gentle, cheeky parts of his performance in the early scenes of the film when the story opened with Poirot solving a theft in Jerusalem. Branagh does fun very well. (His Gilderoy Lockhart is one of my favourite Harry Potter character portrayals.)

Although fairly faithful to the plot, we do see an unexpectedly energetic Poirot chasing down a fleeing suspect and leaping through the struts of a high, precarious and snow-covered rail bridge. He also makes lock-busting use of his elegant walking cane.

All the actors were on top form. I particularly liked Tom Bateman as Poirot’s wayward friend and train company director, Bouc. (I’ve had a soft spot for this actor since his dual title role in the ten-part ITV series Jekyll and Hyde.) However, scene stealer must surely be Michelle Pfeifer as rich divorcee Mrs Hubbard. She also sings part of the film’s soundtrack, the haunting Never Forget, an original song written by Kenneth Branagh and Patrick Doyle.

Is it the best adaptation of this Agatha Christie classic? My children, who didn’t know the story, found the middle section hard to follow and needed a bit of parental voiceover in parts, but they enjoyed it and we all agreed we would watch Branagh’s version of Death on the Nile when it finishes in production. As far as I’m concerned, if Branagh and his big-name chums introduce Christie to a new generation of readers, I’m all for it.

A new blog on the block

While this member of the Sargeant family wrote book reviews for May 2020, another was planning reviews on a different topic.

My daughter, Emily, has started a new blog to review foreign language films and TV shows, especially in French and German. Please have a look at her first post and follow her on Twitter.

My Writing News

I may not be able to travel to Italy right now, but I’m delighted that some of my characters are on their way there.
The Good Teacher will be published in Italian as Il segreto del professor Brock on 28 May.

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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