The Girlfriend – Michelle Frances

BLURB: A girl. A boy. His mother. And the lie she’ll wish she’d never told.

The Girlfriend by Michelle Frances is a gripping and chilling debut psychological thriller, based on the fall-out following an unforgiveable lie. It looks at the potentially charged relationship between girlfriend, boyfriend and his mother, which most women can identify with, and locates it in an extreme but believable setting.

Laura has it all. A successful career, a long marriage to a rich husband, and a twenty-three year-old son, Daniel, who is kind, handsome, and talented. Then Daniel meets Cherry. Cherry is young, beautiful and smart but she hasn’t had the same opportunities as Daniel. And she wants Laura’s life.

Cherry comes to the family wide-eyed and wants to be welcomed with open arms, but Laura suspects she’s not all that she seems.

When tragedy strikes, an unforgiveable lie is told. It is an act of desperation, but the fall-out will change their lives forever.

I absolutely rattled through this domestic noir thriller, which, initially, keeps you guessing as to which of the women in Daniel’s life are being unreasonable. Isn’t Cherry just ambitious, and what’s wrong with that nowadays? Isn’t Laura just a bit, well, clingy, considering her son’s in his mid-20s? These two mega-alpha women are caught in a battle of wills over Daniel, and very quickly they can’t see eye to eye at all – and so poor Daniel, in order to keep his new girlfriend happy, also decides he is unable to see his mother, as the things she’s saying about Cherry are unconscionable. His mother is too clingy. And perhaps she is, simply because she’s stuck with Howard, who’s a good father, in what for years is a loveless marriage. She even knows who her husband’s long-term lover is, but is frightened to broach the subject, fearing she will be left alone if he’s forced to choose, rattling around a huge Kensington mansion (with an underground swimming pool!) Unlike Cherry, she knows money doesn’t automatically buy you happiness. For Cherry, having money means another step further away from her upbringing.

However, the more we learn about Cherry, the more we swing towards agreeing with Laura’s analysis. Then there’s a shocking accident, a lie is told, and – inevitably – everything, eventually, unravels from there.

I’m not going to reveal any more, as this is when the novel really gets gripping, and things get really nasty…I’ve read the odd blogger write that they aren’t fond of nasty characters, but, I’m sorry, I much prefer a nasty character, particularly a female one – they’re invariably far more interesting and have more depth to them than your average nice person. (This doesn’t make me a psychopath does it?!) And – important point for us bookworms – they give great book.

The two women are very much the main characters, which, I felt, left Daniel slightly as a third wheel, although the book wouldn’t really work otherwise. He’s a bit of a sap, to be honest – not the brightest; God knows how he ever got into Cambridge to study medicine!

Cherry aspires to a better life as she grew up in a poor area of Croydon, and seems completely oblivious – and ungrateful – that her mother worked every hour she could in a supermarket to keep her clothed and fed. (Her mother, Wendy, was, unfortunately, a bit of a working-class cliché – watching trashy TV or DVDs, while eating chocolates, and, naturally, not nearly as chic and glamorous and well-groomed as middle-class TV production company owner, Laura.)

From the point of the accident, if I was gulping down chunks of the book previously, afterwards I was glued to it. It was absolutely unputdownable, and most definitely one of the best domestic-noir thrillers I’ll read this year. If you’ve still a weakness for the genre – and aren’t absolutely scunnered with it yet – then I cannot recommend this highly enough, as a fresh take on a family imploding. I think the last book that kept me up so late/early was The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (whose new novel is high on my TBR pile…OK, mountain…!)

I simply cannot wait to see what Michelle Frances comes up with next!

At time of writing, this book is only 98p on Kindle – mega-bargain!

Don’t miss it!

I would like to thank NetGalley and Pan Books for giving me an ARC of this novel. This unbiased review is my thanks.

The Health Of Strangers – Lesley Kelly

BLURB: Nobody likes the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, least of all the people who work for it. An uneasy mix of seconded Police and health service staff, Mona, Bernard and their colleagues stem the spread of the Virus, a mutant strain of influenza, by tracking down people who have missed their monthly health check. Now two young female students are missing, raising question after question for the HET. Why were they drinking in a bikers’ bar? Who are the mysterious Children of Camus cult? And why is the German government interfering in the investigation? Mona and Bernard need to fight their way through lies and intrigue, and find the missing girls – before anyone else does.

After greatly enjoying Lesley Kelly’s debut novel, A Fine House In Trinity, which also made the shortlist for the Bloody Scotland Crime Book Of The Year (now the McIlvanney Prize), I was looking forward to seeing what she came up with next. I’ll admit I was a bit dubious when I read it was a post-pandemic novel, as they aren’t generally my thing; however, this book is set firmly in present-day Edinburgh. A fair proportion of the population have been struck down with a flu for which there is no cure. Many have died in two huge waves of it, but those who survived it are now immune (although plenty have lost people close to them), and many of them now work on the frontline in the continuing fight against the disease – such as our team at the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team. They’re made up of a combination of cops paired with health workers – a pairing that isn’t always sweetness and light… We have Mona, from CID, a typically keen copper, who works with Bernard, a health promotion officer (who’s suffered a horrendous personal loss at the hands of the pandemic) – he believes education is the solution, while Mona definitely prefers jailing people. We also have Maitland, a green – but very keen – cop, who works better with his partner, one-time nurse Carole. There’s good banter between the teams, particularly Mona and Bernard, with Mona’s impatience with Bernard’s touchy-feely way of working. The team’s job is to track down those who don’t appear for their monthly health check. In most cases, this is due to someone’s chaotic lifestyle due to drink or drugs; occasionally it’s because they’ve succumbed to the disease between their monthly checks.

Crime fans needn’t worry though – there’s plenty to keep you interested! Representatives of the German government become involved when a German student, the daughter of a politician, disappears. And when it’s discovered she attended the same church as three girls who overdosed, with two dead and one still in a coma, panic builds. Then another girl from the church goes missing…

What these girls are dying from is a combination of drugs that are named on the internet as being possibly effective against the disease – however, there are dozens of such crazy theories about. What the HET need to find out is this: who is selling them the lethal cocktail that is leading to their deaths? And what’s the connection between the church they all attend, and the dodgy pub owner who lets them use a backroom for services? Could he be involved in this drugs scam? And where exactly are the missing girls? Are they alive…or dead?

There’s LOADS more happening, but I won’t be a spoiler. This is a hugely more confident novel, with the same easy, realistic dialogue (something that’s actually quite hard to pull off) and a plot that grabs you from the off, and doesn’t let go. Kelly can definitely be filed under “hot new talent” in the Tartan Noir drawer. I’m delighted this is the first in a series – Songs By Dead Girls (great title!) will be released in 2018 by Sandstone Press (one of my favourite publishers!)

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson-Ellis


BLURB: An old lady dies alone and unheeded in a cold Edinburgh flat on a snowy Christmas night. A faded emerald dress hangs in her wardrobe; a spilt glass of whisky pools on the floor.

A few days later a middle-aged woman arrives back in the city she thought she’d left behind, her future uncertain, her past in tatters.

She soon finds herself a job at the Office for Lost People, tracking down the families of those who have died neglected and alone.

But what Margaret Penny cannot yet know, is just how entangled her own life will become in the death of one lonely stranger . . .

Billed as “a detective story with no detective,” The Other Mrs Walker tells the story, initially at least, of Margaret Penny. Margaret has returned to Edinburgh after 30 years of living in London, to where she ran away at the age of 17. She returns, tail between her legs: unemployed, as she’d stolen large sums of money from her previous employers; homeless, as the flat she’d rented for years was being sold and her tenancy ended; and heartbroken, as she discovered that the man with hair the colour of “wet slate” didn’t belong to her but in fact to another family – his wife and two children.

Bedding down in her mother’s box room, she needs a job quickly. This is where “the Edinburgh way” proves useful – her mother’s friend, Mrs Maclure, who’s known to everyone, recommends her to the Office for Lost People. Their job is to track down possible family members of those who have died with no obvious close relations – mainly, it has to be said, so the City Council doesn’t get billed for burying them. So Margaret is given the task of finding out the history of Mrs Walker, who may or may not have been married – rather like her own mother Mrs Penny (not, in her case!) Again, it’s the Edinburgh way. And Margaret turns out to be something of a natural at her new job…

In between the chapters about Margaret’s dogged investigations, we head all the way back to 1929, initially, and learn about the Walker family, and a girl called Clementine, named after the song, who loved oranges. As we revisit this growing family periodically, I wondered how it could be that so much misfortune could be visited upon one family – death, insanity (a result of grief), a father going to find work in the US and getting no response from home… Meanwhile, a pair of ruthless individuals had taken up residence with the remaining offspring, and were makings money from them however they could, regardless of how immoral their schemes were.

Certain items reappear time and time again in the book, like oranges, and an ornamental cherub with a missing arm.

This is a wonderfully original debut, which demonstrates how families can fracture, and fall apart – and that, ultimately, it’s not impossible that they’ll meet again. Not that that guarantees any happy ever afters… It also shows how desperation can cause anyone to forget about pride and self-esteem – and other members of your family. The children are brought up with the understanding that they must look after themselves, asmakingss no-one else to take responsibility, not even siblings.

If you like dramas, with some mystery, set – even partly – in wartime, like Lissa EvansCrooked Heart, Sarah Watersheds‘ The Night Watch, and Kate Atkinson‘s  Life After Life, all of which I adored, this will appeal to you. It’s a book I found desperately sad – these stories you read about people dying alone, sometimes undiscovered for a considerable time, always affect me. Paulson-Ellis has taken such a scenario, and woven a life from it, as well as the tale of Margaret Penny, who has reached 47 and realised how easy it is to lose everything you thought was yours.

Mary Paulson-Ellis is an original and exciting new voice to look out for on the Scottish fiction scene, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed the titles I mentioned, I’d highly recommend this.

My thanks to Picador Books for my copy of this novel, in exchange for an honest review.