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Book reviews: First Wife’s Shadow by Adele Parks, Dead Mile by Jo Furniss, The Last Dance and The Wrong Hands by Mark Billingham, Once Upon a Time in Venice by Carol Kirkwood, The Spellshop by Sarah Beth Durst

Janet Gordon, who lives in Takeley, reviews best-sellers and debut fiction for the Indie

First Wife’s Shadow by Adele Parks (HQ £16.99)

Adele Parks just gets better and better. This is her 24th novel and is just so gripping, so absorbing, so unputdownable, that I read it at one gallop.

Forty-something Emma is quite content with her lot. She’s single, lives in an eco-friendly house in the middle of the Hampshire woods and is the CEO of a major and well-respected wind harvesting company. She’s solvent, disciplined and very independent. Whatever she needs, she can buy, sort or get for herself.

Until, as headline speaker at a well-respected conference, she meets Matthew, who, with his access-all-areas pass, seems to be a terrific photographer. The two hit it off with drinks, chat and flirting.

But Matthew leaves without leaving a note and Emma – sensible, dedicated Emma - finds herself daydreaming. Should she contact him? Should she look him up?

First Wife’s Shadow by Adele Parks
First Wife’s Shadow by Adele Parks

A few days later, her PA panics as the photographer booked for an important company shoot is ill. “Try Matthew Charlton,” she says casually. And so the liaison begins. Emma – sensible, dedicated, solvent Emma – is hooked.

Her besties Heidi and Gina, who are both happily married, are outwardly cautiously happy, but Emma, locked in her romantic Matthew bubble, is busy cancelling their girlie meet-ups, dinners and weekends away.

OMG I simply couldn’t put this down. The way in which author Adele builds up the narrative, racks up the tension and leads you into the realisation of just what’s happening is so seductive and such compulsive reading. I can definitely see this as a Netflix series.

Take this one on holiday and you won’t be sorry. Mind you, you probably won’t be very good company either!

Dead Mile by Jo Furniss (Bonnier £9.99)

And if your holiday packing won’t allow a hardback, this is a paperback read I couldn’t put down.

I don’t know about you, but when driving on a motorway – in particular the M25 and M11 – I’m always worried that traffic will grind to a halt and I’ll be stuck.

There have been plenty of locked-room mysteries actually taking place in a locked room or a locked house, cabin or something else that you can lock up and leave, but Dead Mile is a locked-room mystery with a difference.

It is set on a motorway known as the Dead Mile and a mile away from an under-river tunnel. I’m actually visualising the A2 leading down to the Blackwall Tunnel with its high, wire fences either side, and, of course, once you’re in that traffic system and it stops, you’re stuck.

Anyway, soon-to-retire (she thinks) Sergeant Belinda “Billy” Kidd is driving home from the airport – she’s jet-lagged, tired and ready to resign from a long and sort of honourable career. She’s also menopausal which has robbed her of her confidence and is affecting her driving.

The traffic grinds to a halt at 5pm as a newsreader excitedly explains that a bomb has exploded in the Deadwall tunnel (just a mile or so in front of them) along with other explosions throughout London and that the transport system, including the roads, are now shut down. Billy, along with most of the other drivers and passengers, get out of their vehicles and begin to chat.

Dead Mile by Jo Furniss
Dead Mile by Jo Furniss

It’s 5.05pm when Billy and a fellow driver, nicknamed Parking Ticket (for obvious reasons), discover that the driver of a black sedan is slumped behind the wheel. Billy, summoning up her “cop self”, discovers he’s dead. Calling over Foul Mouth - yet another passenger who had been effing and blinding nearby and who stated she was a nurse - the pair discover that it’s pretty obvious Mr Black Car has been murdered.

This read is terrific. It’s very much like a cop reconstruction of a road traffic accident, albeit much, much more entertaining. As Mr Black Car has been murdered and nobody can escape from this monumental gridlocked jam, it stands to reason that the murderer must be amongst the group of people Billy is desperately trying to keep in order.

As the hours go by, drivers resort to the hard shoulder – devoid of any cover – for a wee, whilst Billy, also desperate, can’t bring herself to wee in front of people, any one of whom could be the murderer.

How Billy solves her problem, uncovers the murderer and fits all the parts of the traffic jigsaw together makes a truly engrossing read. Billy is certainly a very welcome and human addition to the ranks of cops.

The Last Dance and The Wrong Hands by Mark Billingham (LittleBrown £9.99 and £22)

And it’s time to introduce yet another great and quirky cop. Meet Declan Miller.

He’s just returned to work following the tragic murder of his wife Alex and is asked to investigate a double murder. Actually, a dead person in adjoining bedrooms, shot through the forehead in a gangland-style execution. And it looks as if the two dead men are unconnected with each other.

The Last Dance by Mark Billingham
The Last Dance by Mark Billingham

Miller, returning to work at his Blackpool cop office, feels that he needs to make a statement insisting that he’s fine, it’s business as usual and really make a joke of his situation. When trying to climb down from his desk, he’s given a helping hand by a 30-ish lady whose ID proclaims her to be his new partner, DS Sara Xiu. She pronounces her surname Jus and is immediately christened Posh Gravy by Miller.

Such a complex case, made all the more interesting by Miller’s irreverent asides, quirky conversations and bonkers thought processes.

Having finished The Last Dance I thought I’d love to read more Miller and, as if by magic, here is The Wrong Hands.

The Wrong Hands by Mark Billingham
The Wrong Hands by Mark Billingham

We meet most of the same characters and the opening chapters are wonderful as we meet two small-time crooks who have decided that stealing briefcases from men in the urinals (where they can’t retaliate as they’re somewhat busy!) is the perfect way to earn a living.

The first briefcase they steal does have valuable gold rings inside, but they are firmly on the fingers of a pair of severed hands.

What a brilliant new detective from a master of detective fiction.

Once Upon a Time in Venice by Carol Kirkwood (HarperCollins £16.99)

This is the fourth novel from BBC weather lady Carol Kirkwood, who definitely has an alternative career should she decide to give up weather predictions. Although with weather people increasingly being sent to gorgeous places to report from, why should she?!

Many years ago I was asked to interview the weather presenters of the day and I went down to the Met Office to do so. Yes of course I tried my hand at standing in front of the screen and reporting. “You’re good, but don’t give up the day job”, I was told!

Anyway, Carol always chooses the most wonderfully romantic locations to write about and I fully expect that she’s spent a great deal of time researching!

Once Upon a Time in Venice by Carol Kirkwood
Once Upon a Time in Venice by Carol Kirkwood

Gina is a concierge in the foremost luxury hotel in Venice and, unusually, takes time off to attend that most romantic of dances, a masked ball.

Here she meets and is romanced by, well, who knows, but the chemistry between the two is undeniable. And then, just like a male Cinderella, he vanishes into the night, leaving Gina bereft.

There’s also an operatic diva named Lucia and a film star – and his PA – on location in Venice. And when they all collide…

The Spellshop by Sarah Beth Durst (Tor £22)

My husband – AKA the slowest reader in the world – is the one into fantasy/sci-fi and magic, so I handed this over to him. He admitted that he didn’t think he was going to enjoy it, but I spotted him reading it at every available opportunity!

Kiela is working in the Imperial Library, having moved away from her parent’s island home, as a totally and utterly confirmed book lover. She’s also very fond of magic.

But the Magic Inspectors have disappeared due to a revolution and that’s when the library is set on fire. However, resourceful Kiela has spirited away boxes and boxes of books.

Additionally, Kiela is totally self-contained. She doesn’t want, need or indeed talk to other people.

The Spellshop by Sarah Beth Durst
The Spellshop by Sarah Beth Durst

In hiding from the outcome of the revolution at her parent’s cottage on an outlying island, somehow she begins to talk to Caz, a spider plant who, it turns out, is an illegal sentient being created by a magician.

Finding out that the Empire (the name of the revolutionaries) have taken all the magic – and it was they who burnt down her beloved library with its precious books - Kiela wants to make it right. And, somehow, a nosy, very good-looking neighbour gets through to her and she opens up a secret spell shop.

My husband says this is a wonderfully imaginative read, both for grown-ups and young adults alike, and would make a superb present for any fantasy lover. There’s everything here – romance, danger, magic and spells.

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