June 29 2019

Some long-serving Americans seem to have taken over the asylum this week. OK, so Lee Child’s not a Yank, but his hero is. And we promise that our very respectable reviewer didn’t keep a running total of how often he changed his underwear!

Sylvia Maughan, who is far politer than Linda Wilson on the matter of Jack Reacher’s personal habits, enjoyed Lee Child’s attention to detail in Past Tense, where our hero ends up in a dark, isolated forest. Chris Roberts has stuck with three long-running series and was pretty happy with his haul this time. Lucas Davenport’s adventures in Twisted Prey by John Sandford are gripping from start to finish and the book is the very definition of a thriller you can’t put down, says Chris. There’s also stacks of action in CJ Box’s Wolf Pack, where game warden Joe Pickett comes up against both the FBI and a team of killers. And for his hat-trick, Chris was notching up the dead body count on the bedpost in Joe R Lansdale’s latest Hap and Leonard adventure! He says The Elephant of Surprise is loads of fun, despite the gore, but don’t expect the plot to make much sense! Madeleine Marsh wasn’t so lucky, though, with Stephen King’s novella Elevation. She says it’s touching, but an oddly dull read with the end set from the start.

Some favourite UK faces show up as well, one wearing a different – but very fetching – hat. Linda Wilson, who was raised on Enid Blyton school stories, was very impressed with the dark goings-on in a boarding school in A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths, who’s taking a brief breather from her archaeology series. And we can reveal – and it’s not a spoiler – that Balzac the dog survives another French adventure in Martin Walker’s The Body in the Castle Well. Linda has sworn to dump the series if Balzac is ever bumped off! She does mutter darkly about chief of police Bruno’s love life, but says the book is still a good addition to the series. And it was a hat-trick as well for Linda with The Scandal by Mari Hannah, starring DS Frankie Oliver (a she Frankie and not a he!) Linda says the police procedurals come over as authentic and the series has established itself in its own right as a worthy successor to Hannah’s Kate Daniels books.

This week’s police procedurals range from Iran to Sweden with Wales in between … For the Missing by Lina Bengtsdotter features Detective Inspector Charlie Lager being sent from Stockholm to her small home town to investigate the disappearance of a teenager. Ewa Sherman says it’s a first-rate gripping and tense debut. In Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Canadian policeman Esa Khattak is on holiday in Iran when he receives an unofficial request to investigate the murder of a political filmmaker. According to Chris Roberts, the book highlights some surprising facets of the country which belie its image abroad. Over in Wales, DS Julie Kite is settling into her new job out in the sticks and is faced with a murder mystery that will test her abilities to the full. John Cleal says Jan Newton’s Rather to be Pitied is a smart and often edgy follow-up to Remember No More from a writer showing confidence and ambition.

There are some hard-hitting historicals this issue, not least The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe. John Cleal says that if politicians and educationalists are as keen on countering the rise of neo-Nazism as they claim, this horrifying, yet at the same time life-affirming, story of survival and courage by a schoolgirl in Auschwitz-Birkenau should become a fixture on the GCSE syllabus. Fact and fiction are also woven together in The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau where Huguenot-descended Genevieve Planché longs to be an artist but is sent to become a porcelain decorator and becomes involved with industrial espionage that may aid England’s enemy. John says it’s a highly entertaining glimpse of the world of porcelain. Over in World War I London, Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Britney is complex and gripping, and the historical background and social information sets it off perfectly, says John. And he was highly impressed with Give Up the Dead by CB Hanley, set in 13th century England amidst threats from the French, and says that for fans of historical fiction this is just about as good as it gets. Linda Wilson, meanwhile, was amused by MRC Kasasian’s Betty Church and the Suffolk Vampire, where Inspector Betty Church, one of few women cops in 1939 England, is posted to a sleepy backwater town in Suffolk where she grew up. Expect a non-stop run of sharp asides and hilarious descriptions in this excellently narrated audiobook!

Elsewhere, we’d think writers weren’t trying hard enough if we didn’t get a regular dose of bombs on planes fiction. Arnold Taylor, though, was distinctly underwhelmed by Mark Burnell’s The Rhythm Section, where a woman loses almost all her family to a terrorist bomb, and then becomes a prostitute … Over in Lithuania, a woman discovers the body of a young girl on a deserted beach, and her perfect life begins to unravel. Kati Barr-Taylor says that despite its ugly topic, The Truth Waits by Susanna Beard provides an easy read and a little escapism.

There are shades of 1984 in Golden State by Ben H Winters, where the most serious offence in Golden State is to lie. Speculators seek out liars – but then one suspects that the state is lying. John Barnbrook says it’s chillingly believable and is more optimistic than the Orwell classic. And on the teen front, there’s a woo-woo angle to The Colour of the Sun by David Almond, where a boy finds a dead body. Linda Wilson says the tale is charming, at times challenging, and always memorable.

We’re delighted to welcome Muhammad Khan to the Countdown chair – and we wish he’d taught us maths because we’d then be able to count without using our fingers and toes and would have had lots of awesome stories told to us! We’re also fully on board with his five favourite words. Did someone mention chocolate …?

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Linda and Sharon

Countdown with
Muhammad Khan

Muhammad Khan was born and bred in south London to Pakistani immigrant parents. His dad was a professor of linguistics who eventually retrained as a social worker. Muhammad attended a wonderful school in Balham then ended up at a less diverse school in Surrey where he was relentlessly bullied. He soon discovered that the only way to get his peers to see past his ‘otherness’ was to read his horror-comedy-detective stories out in class.

He graduated from King’s College London with a degree in engineering before immediately retraining as a maths teacher. If he couldn’t write for teenagers, he reasoned, then at least he could teach them.

Over the proceeding years, he realised his students worked harder if he made up short stories for them as treats. “You need to be an author!” they proclaimed. Encouraged by their generous words he composed a novel and submitted it to publishers.

Muhammad is now the author of two young adult novels: I am Thunder and Kick the Moon (Macmillan). His mind is still blown. All Muhammad’s books are inspired by the witty, smart and talented teens he teaches. In 2019 he graduated with a distinction in MA Creative Writing from St Mary’s University.

Ten words to sum up your working life to date ...

Rewarding, exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, insane, uplifting, motivational, vacillating, unexpected.

Nine things you can see from where you're sitting ...

Books, perfumes, aroma diffuser, PS4, whiteboard covered in copious plot details, Paddington Bear (don’t ask!), GCSE Maths exam papers, hologram reward stickers and an expired World Book Day book token (boo hoo!)

Eight minutes to prepare a meal. What's it going to be ?

Definitely a chicken wrap, but with a spicy desi twist!