Thriller Round-Up

I have read rather a lot of books during my lengthy blogging absence but, since my latest penchant is for a gripping thriller, I thought I’d make my comeback with a round-up of my recent forays into this genre.

I am going to talk about four novels in this post, beginning with my least favourite and  finishing off with my pick of the bunch.

Propping up the pile today, then, is Beside Myself by Ann Morgan. I think this novel’s biggest problem is that it is billed as a psychological thriller when it just isn’t one. And since I was craving a psychological thriller at the time and was rather cross when I didn’t get one, I was never going to be enamoured.

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The novel certainly has the premise of a psychological thriller. Our central characters are twins Helen and Ellie. Helen is the ‘good’ twin, who uses her position as the favoured child to dominate and humiliate her sister. Ellie is considered to be ‘slow’, having been starved of oxygen at birth. The twins’ mother sees Ellie as a bit of a trial.

But Ellie isn’t as daft as people think she is. One day, Helen proposes that the girls switch identities to fool their mother. Circumstances spiral out of Helen’s control, though, and Ellie refuses to swap back. The consequences echo down the decades as Ellie becomes Helen, a daytime TV star, and Helen is trapped in Ellie’s identity, locked into a vicious cycle of drug and alcohol dependency.

What follows is, as I have said, not a psychological thriller; it is more a study of the impact the way in which we are perceived has on our lives and identities. It is also a study of mental illness and the fate of society’s outsiders. Both of these are potentially fascinating and worthy subjects but the execution is deadly dull. The oddly linear sequence of flashbacks turn parts of the novel into a very flat fictional biography of a deeply uninteresting person. I also felt that the treatment of mental illness was rather cliched and, as a consequence, lacking in insight and deeply unhelpful.

So Beside Myself doesn’t offer the psychological thriller that its premise and creepy cover promises, but unfortunately it doesn’t offer much else of interest in its place.

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In Bitter Chill is book-ended by an evocatively written and hauntingly beautiful prologue and epilogue. These sections are slightly out of keeping with the rest of the novel, however, which is rather flat and leaden.

As with Beside Myself, the problem is with the execution rather than the premise. The central storyline is intriguing. In 1978, two young girls went missing in a Derbyshire village. One, Rachel Jones, was found shortly afterwards; the other, Sophie Jenkins, was never seen again.

Thirty years later, Sophie’s mother commits suicide, an event that forces Rachel to confront her past.

The novel follows both Rachel’s attempt to uncover the truth behind her and Sophie’s kidnapping in 1978 and the police’s reopening of the case. The story held my interest throughout but was less than compelling due to the rather lifeless characters. I felt there was just too many sidesteps into the private lives of the investigating officers, which added nothing to the central storyline and were a bit like listening to long yarns about friends of friends of next door neightbours’ friends whom you have never met and couldn’t care less about.

And there was a lack of clarity about the central storyline, too, in that many of the characters’ motivations just didn’t make sense. I think the point was to produce a story about the strength of family ties and the lengths people will go for them. In the end, though, it seemed that people were just doing things to push the novel to its conclusion; it was impossible to believe in the justications for their actions and the novel thus lacked depth.

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To be honest, my second favourite of the lot, Rebound, is even more silly and implausible but in that kind of fun, unapologetic way that makes it forgiveable.

Anna Wright is a rather irritating individual, the kind who wears labels rather than clothes. She has a perfect home and a perfect job, though I am not sure how because she seems to spend most of her time drinking wine and walking her dog Wispa on Hampstead Heath.

After dumping her dull boyfriend because he sends her twee teddy bear gifts (harsh, but probably fair), Anna’s head is turned by a fellow Heath runner whom she dubs the Dior Man. After making eyes at each other once or twice, Anna and the Dior Man take the next logical step of having rough sexual encounters up against trees and in lakes and wherever. Well, it breaks the day up I suppose.

Things take a slightly twisty turn when, shortly after Anna begins these bizarre wordless encounters with the Dior Man, a serial rapist begins to prey on female runners on the Heath. The two aren’t connected, are they? Anna begins to wonder …

This book is a bit silly, not least because every man Anna meets becomes dangerously obsessed with her for no apparent reason. Maybe it’s the cashmere jumpers. The ending is eye-rollingly daft but there is enough intrigue there right at the death to save it. I do wish the unreliability of Anna’s character, her flaws, had been played up more as this would have added a bit of depth. Still, Rebound entertained me when I was after a bit of entertainment and I think fondly of it for this reason.

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And so on to my pick of the bunch, the ‘most shocking thriller you’ll read this year’, apparently.

Maestra, an erotic thriller from respected historian Lisa Hilton, has more negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads than any book I have ever picked up, I think. So why did I like it so much? Always a harder question to answer, I feel, than ‘why didn’t I like it’? But, as the reviews above perhaps indicate, I can forgive books most things – offensive attitudes and messages aside, of course – except dullness. And, whatever else this novel is, it isn’t bloody dull.

Our first-person narrator is Judith Rashleigh. When we first meet her, she is a glorified dog’s body at an auction house. Despite having shed her Liverpool accent and erased all traces of her working-class roots, Judith is still an outsider driven by her hunger to belong in the upper echelons of society. Not very sensibly, but highly entertainingly, Judith decides that the route to the top involves hostessing, sex parties, art fraud, insider trading and murder.

Maestra is the very definition of an escapist read. Yes, the plot is a little bit of a mess and the extreme depictions of sex and violence won’t be for everyone. But this is a pacy, well-written thriller with a fine line in dark humour and sharp one-liners. I think this novel is best enjoyed once you reaslise it has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Just don’t expect a clear-cut ending: this is the first of a planned trilogy. I for one will certainly be lining up for the sequels.

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