The best dark and twisted psychological thriller books

The Books I Picked & Why

Stone Heart

By Peter J. Merrigan

Stone Heart

Why this book?

I loved this book. If I had to describe this novel in one word it would be intelligent. Set in Celtic Ireland in the Iron Age, the language is rich and expressive and Merrigan takes you into his world until you feel you belong there. You are drawn into a time where everything is governed by the gods. The story takes you through the training of the young warriors and druids. With the ongoing conflict over land, and with the people’s lives steeped in superstitious beliefs, we come to care that the outcome falls well with our tribe.

Fionn is born into a simple rural tribe. His life is sweet as he grows to double figures playing with his sisters in the fields. At the age of ten, he is called to serve, and the boys of fighting age are gathered from across the land, taken from their families, and sent for training to become warriors. The children are forced into dormitory accommodation and friendships and foes are established. Fionn and Ronan form an instant bond and comfort each other through their homesickness. And this is the last time we can call these boys children. They are given their trades as per their abilities and their days are spent preparing for a bloody battle. Their bond flourishes into a strong love as they vow to fight side-by-side in battle. Entering the camp as frightened boys, they emerge, fierce warriors, and one at heart.

The story veers to follow Fionn’s younger sisters, Grainne and little Beth. Grainne leaves home before she reaches her teenage years, as well. She has abilities and a calling. The gods speak to her and she has visions. She is taken to the home of the archdruid of all Ireland and trains under him to hone her craft. She learns about plants and their properties until she knows what every herb and bloom is used for in her healing. To enhance her mystical powers she is sealed into a cavern with a boulder blocking the entrance. For three days and three nights, she is tormented by terrifying visions and visitations. She enters the cave a frightened little girl and emerges—a druid. I read psychological thrillers. I had no interest in stone-age Ireland, and even less in war and battles—until I read this book.

I haven’t the words to describe how beautiful this writing is and how much you come to know and care about the characters. Merrigan’s characterisation and generous description are second to none. The language is rich and in keeping with the time. Punishment is harsh, they are a brutal race, and yet the sensitivity and care that goes into the writing show tenderness beneath the savagery. This genre of writing is generally geared more towards male readership—and this book is, it’s a real man’s story—however, it is equally enjoyable to any market such is the sensitivity and intelligence of Merrigan’s storytelling.


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Starbirth Assignment SHIFTER

By J. M. Johnson

Starbirth Assignment SHIFTER

Why this book?

This book was recommended to me by a friend and didn't appeal to me at all. However, it’s incredible. Two genres I don't usually read are sci-fi and special ops. This takes the two and binds them together in a plait of intrigue, underground government departments, humour, and special operations. By the end of the first chapter, it had me. I was blown away by this book. 

I loved the characters and the way they gelled. It is intelligent and well researched. The author's knowledge of weaponry and how Special Ops teams work is extraordinaryJohnson makes the extrasensory elements of the book believable. It pulls you into the characters' lives and makes you care about the outcome. It's witty which, lightens the tension at appropriate times and encourages you to like the characters by adding another layer to the action. One of the best books I have ever read.


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Cows Can't Jump

By Philip Bowne

Cows Can't Jump

Why this book?

Winner of the Spotlight First Novel Prize. The first thing to mention is that this is a debut novel. I tend to avoid them, the writing is usually sloppy, and it takes a few books for authors to learn the craft and get a feel for their style and voice. 

That is not the case with this book. The writing is excellent. This writing is up there at bestseller standard. I didn’t find a single typo or error in the book, not something I can say for most of the top names. I found half a dozen in the last King book I read. Browne is already at the top of his game. The story is sweet, the central character is an absolute tool, but you can’t help but love him, and you want the book to end well for him. He’s a character to root for.

I sometimes smile, or have an inward chuckle, but I’m a tough nut to crack when it comes to humour. This book made me laugh out loud more than once. It’s not my usual genre, I have psychological thriller in my DNA, but I loved this as a change from the norm. Would read this author again and am looking forward to seeing what he does in the future. A solid recommendation from me.


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The Fourth Monkey

By J. D. Barker

The Fourth Monkey

Why this book?

I loved this book. This is the tenth book I’ve read this month and I haven’t had a bad one yet, so either I’m really good at picking, or the standard of writing out there is improving all the time. I would give this book 9.5 out of 10. I couldn’t wait to get my day finished so that I could settle and read in the evenings. Can’t praise this highly enough.

The plot was riveting, the pace built well, the characterisation is up there, and his description is powerful and draws you right into the visuals and meaning of the story.  What really captured me with this book was the child’s voice. It was so damned subtly done. If anything, the boy is written in an understated way—but before it ever got sinister, you just knew with that creepy little kid’s voice that it was going to. The ‘out into’ got mildly irritating. It may be grammatically correct, but in today’s writing I think we can get away with, ‘He went into the kitchen.’ That’s just me scraping the bottom of the barrel to find something to pick at. This book is excellent, and I really enjoyed it. It has a teaser at the end of the book with his next novel being The Fifth to Die. Given the title, I’m guessing—because I’m dead clever—it’s a sequel. Can’t wait. 


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Bound by Fate and Blood: Arsinoëphorus Alliance (Book 1)

By Jenna O'Malley

Bound by Fate and Blood: Arsinoëphorus Alliance (Book 1)

Why this book?

This is an intelligent vampire story. Some of the phraseology is just beautiful. Ms. O'Malley takes period, setting, costume, culture, etiquette, and language into consideration, and the book's tone-setting is just stunning. 

This vampire genre lends itself to forgetting about the myth being seeped in folklore and history. It's morphed into a general excuse for writing—and I use the term in its loosest form—some of the worst sex scenes ever to come from sticky keyboards. Okay, some of them probably have some well-written sex—I've just never read one. I am delighted to report that this isn't that book. There isn't a ripped bodice in sight. It is, however, a touching love story, sensitively written. The male and female leads are likable and easy to connect with. 

I loved several things about this book. We are introduced to many different species of merna. I enjoyed reading about their various traits and abilities. It wasn't just, here's a vampire. Here's another vampire. And look, here's another vampire. It gave the book flexibility because, with having other species, the story didn't have to unfold only in the dark. Introducing and comingling different species was a clever ploy by the writer who thought about where she wanted to go with the book. Every species adds another layer to the texture of the story.

The book doesn't go mad on history, but what there is reads as well-researched and accurate. There are some excellent little snippets of Egyptian history and lore, as well as Spanish and English. It's a period piece. And as such, the language is rich and dripping in lustrous brocade and velvet words. The description is lovely, and when something, or somewhere, is described, you are taken on location and can inhabit the setting and character. We are carried from London to the high seas on the Good Ship Lusty Strumpet, back to London, and end up in Flanders. 

O'Malley has honed the craft of writing battle scenes, and I don't think I've ever written this in a review before, but her action and battle scenes are the best scenes in the book. I don't think I've ever read battle scenes that are any better than these—go tell that to Tennyson. She manages to avoid saying the same thing on a loop. And she has a natural sense of timing and pace. She takes it up, the tension builds. Unlike many writers that will leave the end of a battle hanging, she remembers to bring it down again, with a nice little flash of de-stressing humour from the characters. 

The humour is sharp and helps to define, build and separate the characters. After a battle, one of my favourite scenes is when three mixed-species merna have a banter as they walk off the battlefield. Get me, with the buzz words. Merna are vamps, lycans, fae, wizards? Maybe, and all those beautiful species not of our natural world. 

Very often, in a book with more than a few characters, what you end up with are two characters, one male one female, on repeat. The author understands her people and keeps them distinct. A well-thought-out story. The distinction is that It's a book with vampire characters. It is not a book about vampires. The story is about people, conflict, and resolution. It's about the power used well and power in corruption. Woven into all that is a lovely story about loss and return that transcends time.  

This novel is part of a continuing series. 


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