Review of ‘Knife Edge’ by Simon Mayo

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Transworld for the ARC of this book.

The start of this book is absolutely thrilling, it follows a journalist called Famie as she reports of seven stabbings in London and begins to realise that all of the people who were stabbed were her colleagues. I found it utterly gripping and moving and actually found myself crying. I don’t think I have ever cried so early in a book.

Unfortunately, the book is unable to sustain this pace and engagement. Once the funerals are over, it loses its momentum as it follows Famie and several of her journalist friends having lots of puzzled conversations with each other but not really doing all that much clever investigating. They look at a couple of devices, receive a couple of cryptic notes and then end up embroiled in a terrorist plot which takes place in Coventry for, as far as I can tell, the sole reason that Simon Mayo went to university there and enjoys including tidbits of his own life in his novels.

It is one of those thriller novels where everyone is connected to everyone else and when it got to the end and the big villain was revealed, you end up feeling like ‘hang on a minute why would they do that, and how did they know about it?‘. It’s kind of neat and messy at the same time. I had no idea really what the terrorists were aiming to achieve, but then it is fairly impossible to empathise with most terrorists.

It’s a shame because there is the kernel of a brilliant idea in there, but after the opening, it just isn’t that well executed or interesting. The characters were fairly bland and interchangeable and didn’t really develop over the course of the book. I also had an issue with the lead character’s name, Famie, which is unusual and not pronounced phonetically so every time I read it my brain jarred slightly and it reminded me I was reading a book and took me out of the story.

Simon Mayo’s young adult books, the Itch series, are really engaging and fun to read, but I don’t think he has quite mastered the art of writing adult thriller fiction yet.

Audiobook review: ‘Contacts’ by Mark Watson

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for the ARC of this book.

I have an enormous amount of good will towards Mark Watson. He is one of my favourite comedians and he has a nervous, vulnerable energy which makes him difficult to criticise. His books always have intelligent concepts and he writes in an understated, observational, wry manner. He brings clear elements of his own personality into his books. For example, this book is about a man who is planning to commit suicide, was written following a period of mental struggle for Watson when he had struggled with alcohol use following the break up of his marriage. It feels very personal, even though the character’s struggles are different to Watson’s own experience. I feel somewhat protective towards Watson, knowing that he has been going through a difficult time and he chose to write about suicide as a result,

Mark Watson trialling stand up material at The Tap Room in Islington in November 2019, where he talked about giving up alcohol for a month after his realisation that he was drinking too much following the breakdown of his marriage.

The book starts with the lead character, James, texting his entire phone contacts list to tell them he is planning suicide. It then follows several of the people who receive this text and their reactions as they try to find a way to prevent his suicide. It’s an interesting premise, although makes the book harder to get into as each new chapter from a new person’s perspective feels a bit like starting the book afresh.

The book is a study of how important human contacts are, how our actions affect each other, how important it is to stay in contact with each other and how mobile phones and social media, which have the potential to make us more in contact with our loved ones than ever before can somehow have the opposite result.

It is an intelligent look at what might make a person suicidal, how the build up of small things can affect our mental health so that from the outside something which seems trivial may be the tipping point too another person’s mental well-being.

It is not particularly exciting to read and the ending is fairly predictable apart from an event involving a train conductor which I felt was jarring and required more explanation, although I think that’s probably the point of its inclusion. However, if you like Mark Watson’s voice and his frustrated, witty observations you will also like this book. I struggle to say enjoy as it is hard to enjoy a book with suicide as once of its central themes.

The audiobook is read by Mark Watson himself. I think this is probably a mistake, he has a slightly odd way off speaking, so that, even though he wrote the words, it sometimes sounds like he is putting the emphasis on the wrong part of the sentence. He doesn’t really make much of an attempt to do the accents required, so it probably would have been better to get a professional, experienced narrator to read the book. His narration doesn’t impair the enjoyment of the book but I feel a professional may have been able to breathe a bit more life into the narration.

Audiobook review: ‘The Killings at Kingfisher Hill’ by Sophie Hannah

Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins for the ARC of this audiobook.

Confession time: to my shame I’ve never actually read an Agatha Christie book. I tried to read the Poirot mystery ‘The Third Girl’ once but gave up about 80 pages in because it was really dull at not at all what I expected from a Poirot book. I probably picked it because it’s not one I had seen adapted for TV, so I wouldn’t know the story. However, I’ve since realised that it was one of Christie’s later Poirot books and is not considered to be one of the best, so it’s a shame it put me off reading her other books. I should probably try one of her more popular books.

I decided to try one of Sophie Hannah’s new Hercule Poirot books because the cover is just exquisite and really appealing. The audiobook version of this book was an excellent choice for my reintroduction to world of Agatha Christie. It is expertly read by Julian Rhind-Tutt, his narration is a tour-de-force and probably makes this book twice as enjoyable as it would have been reading the paper version. His accent for Poirot is perfect and conjures up David Suchet’s TV Poirot beautifully. I would definitely search out more audiobooks narrated by him.

I’m less convinced by the actual writing of the book. It’s quite enjoyable and I listened to it In the course of one day, so I definitely found it compelling. However, the mystery itself is a bit flat, the murders are crimes of passion rather than premeditated evil which means Poirot does not have a decent villainous sparring partner to outwit. The conclusion was not very exciting and I don’t think there were enough breadcrumbs to help the reader to become engaged in guessing whodunnit.

The other problem with the writing is that it is almost entirely dialogue and exposition and very little action. I usually prefer books which are mostly dialogue and don’t get bogged down with pages and pages of scene-setting and description, but there is very little drama in this book. It really fails the ‘show don’t tell’ test as it is almost all just people standing around relating events to each other. I assume this must be faithful to Christie’s style and that her books probably also just feature Poirot listening to people telling him what happened and then him telling everyone what actually happened, but it’s not a very sophisticated or pleasing way to convey narrative. I guess I’ve been spoiled by the TV adaptations which able to dramatise the explanations characters are giving to make the story more immersive.

I think Sophie Hannah does a good job with the the language she uses of making you feel like you are genuinely reading a book from Christie’s time, but I definitely need to try another Poirot book actually written by Agatha Christie to see how it compares. I’ll pick up one of her more famous books next time.

I would recommend this audiobook for the excellent narration by Julian Rhind-Tutt which really raises the enjoyment level of the slightly lacklustre story.

Review of ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ by Richard Osman

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Books for the ARC of this book.

I’m not entirely sure what the make of this book. Despite containing several murders, suicides and drug criminals, it is a very easy, fluffy, cosy, British and just ever so nice crime book. It is set in a retirement community and boils down to 4 OAPs sitting around effectively saying “There’s been a murder, oh how jolly! Would you like another slice of cake while we solve it?”. I think I do prefer a nice cosy crime read like this to the far too prevalent reams of gritty psychological thrillers featuring the abuse/torture of woman and children. However, this chatty, friendly, nice style does make the plot feel a little low-stakes in spite of all the death.

I think you can definitely tell that this is a first novel. The writing manages to be face paced (short chapters, chatty prose) and plodding at the same time. Richard Osman throws in so many red herrings and misdirects that by the end of the book it feels like none of the characters really care that much who has committed the murders, let alone the reader. I think there is something lacking in the set up and resolution of the whodunnits, this is probably because Osman is more interested in his characters than in his plot.

I like Richard Osman and I think his voice comes through very strongly in the book, despite half the entries supposedly being written as a 80-something(?) year old woman’s diary entries. There are lots of witty asides and unnecessary facts added in, probably to the detriment of the narrative but fun for the reader. I feel like Osman has looked at the demographic of his fans, mostly OAPs who watch daytime TV due to his popular TV quiz programmes, and written something specifically to appeal to them in order to sell more books. I’m not sure I find OAPs to be the most compelling protagonists. This is a shame because, according to his author’s note, he was trying to highlight how people in retirement villages all have had interesting worthwhile lives and experiences.

This is the first in a series of books but I’m not sure whether I would bother to read the next one. However, they may improve as Osman gains greater experience as a writer. I can see how it might be nice to follow some of the characters, particularly the police officers, to find out what their future holds. Osman clearly has a great fondness for the characters he has created, so I’m sure he will develop them well over time.

I must add that I absolutely love the cover design for this book. The title is instantly engaging and the font is beautiful. it’s really well done and makes the book seem really appealing. I’m sure it will do really well. It’s probably an ideal comfort read for these troubling times.