The Shadow Man by Helen Fields

The Shadow Man by Helen Fields

The Shadow Man is a chillingly dark crime novel, set in Edinburgh, that seems to be about a simple kidnapping, but turns out to be much more complicated. Elspeth Dunwoody – the daughter-in-law of a wealthy global tech company CEO – has disappeared. DI Brodie Baarda, on loan from the Met, and Dr Connie Woolwine, an American forensic psychologist, have been brought in to investigate due to the high-profile nature of the victim. Despite their different approaches, they trust each other’s instincts, and their conversations lighten the tension that would otherwise be overwhelming. Connie reminded me of Temperance Brennan in her lack of people skills; she was excellent in a professional capacity, but tended to rub people up the wrong way.

The first couple of chapters set the tone, and give us a taste of just how dangerous a protagonist we are dealing with here. It comes to light that he is suffering from a rare mental condition where he believes he is dying and therefore has nothing left to lose. The chapters from his point of view really made my skin crawl; he is obviously insane, but Helen Fields somehow manages to evoke some sympathy for him while not condoning his behaviour. However, the most upsetting parts to read were the sections revealing the claustrophobic conditions in which the victims were being held. As the story developed, I found I could not read The Shadow Man in bed at night – it was just too creepy.

Well written, with fully rounded characters, The Shadow Man is a dark and disturbing tale that makes the most of its Edinburgh setting. The main characters work well together, and I hope we see them again. I had not read any of this writer’s books before, but have since found out she is the author of the ‘Perfect’ series, also set in Edinburgh, and I look forward to reading them very soon.

Thanks to Avon and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Things We Left Unsaid by Emma Kennedy

The Things We Left Unsaid by Emma Kennedy

Only six weeks after the death of her father, Rachel is left standing at the altar by fiance, Claude, with no explanation. As she lived and worked with him, she has no choice but to return home to live with her mother, Eleanor, who is a well-known artist. Their relationship is strained and awkward, with neither of them able to comfort the other through their grief.

One day, when she just has to get out of the house, Rachel does not stop to listen when her mother wants to talk about something important, thinking there will be time later. On arriving home, she finds her mother lying dead in the garden. In her grief, she realises she knew little about her mother’s early life, and becomes obsessed with finding out what it was that Eleanor had been so desperate to tell her.

Emma Kennedy makes good use of dual timelines to tell this heartbreaking story. From Rachel’s reading of old letters and diaries, we get Eleanor’s story about when she went off to art school in London in the 1960s. I especially enjoyed these chapters that revealed how she embraced the freedom of being away from her parents for the first time and met lots of interesting people.

The characters are vividly portrayed; I particularly liked Jake, who Eleanor met on her first day at art school, and Eleanor’s sister, Agnes, who brought humour to both sections of the story. I’ll leave you to discover for yourself just how despicable and mercenary Claude turns out to be. The two separate strands of the narrative gradually coalesce until we discover the big secret Eleanor has been hiding from everyone.

This is a fascinating portrayal of bohemian London in the 1960s, and my only reservation is that the ending felt a bit rushed. Caspar was an interesting character, but could perhaps have played a bigger part in the story.

Thanks to Cornerstone Digital and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

Rescue Me by Sarra Manning

Rescue Me by Sarra Manning

In Rescue Me by Sarra Manning, Margot has been rejected by both her boyfriend and her cat, and decides to get a dog from the rescue centre. She falls for Blossom the Staffie but can’t take her home right away. Will is only looking to volunteer as a dog-walker on the advice of his therapist, but agrees to take Blossom until Margot returns. This is where the trouble starts; they both want to keep her but agree to share, taking turns looking after her.

The pace is quite slow to begin with, allowing the main characters to get to know and like each other before they become romantically involved. Rescue Me also features a large cast of supporting characters who are well written and easy to differentiate. He may not always appreciate them, but Will has family behind him. Margot, on the other hand, feels her lack of family keenly, having been completely on her own since the death of her parents many years before.

Both Margot and Will are suffering – just in different ways – and the serious issues are dealt with sensitively, and seamlessly worked into the narrative. It is only as they become comfortable in each other’s company that they are able to gradually open up about their past experiences.

The story is told in alternating chapters by Margot and Will. This gives us a more rounded picture than if we only saw the world through Margot’s eyes, and helps to make the growing attraction between them more believable.

Towards the end, I felt the ‘miscommunication’ trope was taken a bit too far to be believable. Several times Margot cut Will off before he could explain how he felt, and this dragged the ending out unnecessarily. Right from the beginning I found Margot harder to like than Will, and just when I had started to warm to her, she reverted to being all prickly and brittle again.

I chose to read and review Sarra Manning’s Rescue Me because I had enjoyed several of her earlier books (Unsticky, It Felt Like a Kiss, 9 Uses for an ex Boyfriend), and not because of Blossom the Staffie – I’m more of a cat person. Having said that though, Blossom is a very endearing character – not to mention fairly integral to the plot – despite being such a handful.

Overall, I really enjoyed Rescue Me, and plan to catch up with the other Sarra Manning books I have not read yet. Neither of the main characters are particularly likeable at the beginning of the book, but having to communicate with each other while sharing responsibility for Blossom brings about a change for the better; Blossom really is the star of the show.

Thanks to Hodder and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

All About Us by Tom Ellen

All About Us by Tom Ellen

All About Us is an unusual time-travel novel that raises the intriguing question of whether past decisions were the right ones. In this modern interpretation of A Christmas Carol, Ben is at a crossroads in his life, and contemplating action that will destroy his marriage.

As a university student Ben thought his future was with Alice. Then, while taking part in a Christmas drama production, he met Daphne. The story opens fifteen years later – he and Daphne have been together ever since, but are currently going through a rough patch, and Ben is wondering whether he made the right decision all those years ago. In the pub on Christmas Eve, Ben meets a mysterious old man who insists on giving him a watch that is stopped at 23.59.

He wakes up in his old room at university, on the day of the play, and relives the experience, with the benefit of hindsight, and realises that everything did not happen exactly as he remembered it. He then goes on to relive several other days around Christmas time, causing him to reassess what he previously thought had happened, and his own behaviour; he also gets a tantalizing glimpse of what his future might hold.

It is unusual for me to read a book in this genre by a male writer – a story about love, grief and second chances. Written from the point of view of Ben, we get an insight into his struggles with his mental health and self-esteem; also the long-term effects of his non-existent relationship with his absent father. Although he can’t alter anything that previously happened, he can change what he does next.

I really enjoyed this well-written, thought-provoking story, and will certainly be on the lookout for other books by Tom Ellen.

Thanks to HQ and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Coffinmaker's Garden by Stuart MacBride

The Coffinmakers Garden by Stuart MacBride

Seven years on from his last outing in A Song for the Dying, Ash Henderson is back. Along with Dr Alice McDonald, forensic psychologist, and the other members of the LIRU (Lateral Investigative & Review Unit), he is hunting a serial killer who abducts and tortures young boys. Understandably, they are under pressure from all sides to catch him before another boy goes missing.

Meanwhile, in the dramatic opening scenes, a violent storm and coastal erosion have exposed human remains in the garden of a house slowly subsiding into the North Sea; the owner of the house, Gordon Smith, has disappeared off the face of the earth. Putting his life at risk, Ash rescues polaroids from the cellar moments before the whole lot goes tumbling into the sea – the only clues they have to identify Smith’s victims. Ash is seconded to DI Malcolmson’s ‘misfit mob’ to help track him down. Left on her own to work on the child abduction case, Alice is slowly going off the rails; she is in a bad way and, ironically, needs professional help.

What follows is classic Stuart MacBride: A strong sense of place – Oldcastle may be fictional but it is firmly rooted in the northeast of Scotland, a bit like Aberdeen but with more crime and deprivation. Extreme violence – once again Ash takes such a pounding, at times it is necessary to suspend disbelief and remember this is a work of fiction. He really does have nine lives in The Coffinmaker’s Garden – I do not know how he is still standing by the end, considering what Stuart MacBride puts him through.

The large cast of characters are well defined, and easy to tell apart thanks to the writer’s skillful characterisation; the communications between Ash and Sabir, the computer expert, are one of many highlights. The use of gallows humour as a defence mechanism against the gruesome and traumatic scenes they encounter is not to everyone’s taste, but I think it works really well to alleviate what was otherwise a pretty grim story.

I have read and enjoyed all of Stuart MacBride’s books, and this does not disappoint. Although you probably could read it as a standalone, I think it would make a lot more sense to read the books in order, as a lot of significant backstory is not explained here. There were also a number of in-jokes, for eagle-eyed crime fiction fans, such as the book group in Rothesay criticising one of the Logan McRae books. I really hope that there will be another Ash Henderson book some time in the future, but hopefully we won’t have to wait seven years this time.

Thanks to the author, publisher and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.