We Begin At The End – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2020) – A Murder They Wrote Review


chris whitaker

A reviewsrevues.com favourite and former author interviewee is back with his third novel.  Chris Whitaker’s 2016 debut “Tall Oaks” was very strong and critically applauded but I think he got even better with his 5* 2017 offering “All The Wicked Girls“.  With this, his third novel Whitaker proves there’s few better at creating small town America all done with vivid and vibrant characterisation.  Thing is, Chris Whitaker is British.

In Cape Haven the impending release of a prisoner whose crime tore the community apart is causing much anxiety for those directly involved including ailing Police Chief Walker, a troubled mother, Star, and her two children Duchess and Robin.  A solid plot develops as the historic crime overlaps into a present day one but once again what Whitaker does best is characterisation, especially with quirky youngsters.  In “Tall Oaks” we had gangster wannabe Manny, a great comic creation, who really made the debut sparkle, in “Wicked Girls” it was teenage crime-solver Noah and his crew.  Here we have a choice of two with main character Duchess who copes with a miserable life by adopting the guise of an outlaw (I think the author could have made more of this perhaps even referencing it in the book’s title) and maybe even more so the adorably loyal Thomas Noble, a short-sighted black boy with a withered hand whose devotion to the not always appealing Duchess is unquestionable.

I found myself really caring for the characters and enjoying the book most when it focused on these and took a step back from the crime plot.

It feels like a more substantial novel than what has gone before and there is no doubt that Whitaker has matured as a writer.  For sheer reading pleasure I would give “All The Wicked Girls” the edge and I’m still not sure why it wasn’t amongst the big sellers of 2017 but this is still very good and should further enhance his reputation.  He is one of those writers that I am absolutely fascinated to see what he will do next.  Will he continue to recreate the intensity, prejudices and obsessions of small town America or have a go at setting fiction in  his homeland?  Will the crime aspect take more of  a back seat?  I feel that Chris Whitaker could, should he desire, have a good crack at producing The Great American Novel but I would also like to know how his writing would work within a British framework.


We Begin At The End will be published in hardback by Zaffre on 2nd April 2020.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Top 10 Books Of The Year – 2017- Part 1 (10-6)

In 2017 I managed to read 67 books which is thirteen down on my record breaking score last year but exactly the same number as I read in 2015.  Everything I’ve read has been reviewed on this site and this year I’ve awarded 10 books the maximum five stars, 31 four stars and 26 three stars, which seems to be to be a good spread.  I’ve not read anything which disappointed me enough to get a two star or one star read. I’ve read a lot more books as they are published or  soon after and looking at my Top 10 it is the first year ever where all the books have either been published in 2016 (with the paperback appearing this year), 2017 and in one not-yet-published case 2018.  I think that shows how good writing is at the moment.  I’ve not narrowed the list down to only those which appeared this year.  If I read it this year, then it’s eligible.  (The earliest dated book I read this year was 1931 and Margery Allingham’s “Police At The Funeral” but she hasn’t made the list).

What I haven’t done this year at all is re-read any books (I used to re-read about 10 books a year).  With publishers sending me books and with Netgalley pressures the re-reads have been pushed out, which is a shame as I love re-reading favourites and this is something I’ll need to rebalance in 2018.  Choosing the books for my Top 10 has actually been easier this year because of those 10 five star reads, so all I needed to do was allocate positions for my annual review of my year in books .  Anything that doesn’t make the top 10 gets culled from the bookshelves or off the Kindle, which means this year I’m losing a lot of very good books (but you can’t keep them all, I know I’ve tried in the past!)

Although I’ve read books before by two authors on my Top 10 list for all of them it is their first appearance on the list, so as far as I am concerned, these are likely to be the authors’ best books.  Those also a couple of debut novelists there.  The books are all fiction for the second year running and last year I had a fifty-fifty gender split this year the women have the edge with a 60/40 domination.  All of the titles have been  reviewed on this site- click on the titles to link to the full review.

10. Exposure- Helen Dunmore ( Windmill 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)

exposureThis was the second of Helen Dunmore’s novels I have read but her first appearance on my Best Of The Year list.  Set in 1960 in an England paranoid about the Cold War and high profile spy cases this is a thrillingly written thriller which focuses on this paranoia affecting a family when a secret file goes missing.  Helen Dunmore sadly passed away in June this year, aged 64, not long after the publication of her last book “Birdcage Walk” which I am yet to read.  She has left a legacy of 15 novels which demand to be discovered.

Current Amazon sales rating: #4592 in Books

9. The Golden Age – Joan London ( Europa 2016)  (Read in March, reviewed here in May)

goldenageAustralian author Joan London won awards in her homeland with her third novel and here was longlisted for the Wellcome Prize which focuses on books having an emphasis on health.  This was set in a polio hospital in the early 1950’s.  I described it as  “a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 202,593 in Books.

8. Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016) (Read and reviewed in January)


The first of this American author’s 23 novels I have read.  Her fans have told me it’s not quite like her other books but there seems to be a general consensus that this is her best.  Picoult is a superb storyteller and I thought this “feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.”

Current Amazon sales rating: 136 in Books (probably the biggest commercial hit on my list- this was a big seller when it arrived in hardback and then again in paperback).

7. All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017) (Read in June, reviewed in July)


Chris Whitaker is great and you should all be buying his books.  He just missed out on my Top 10 last year with his debut “Tall Oaks” and when his latest American set crime novel arrived I was convinced he would be topping best-seller lists.  He impressed me here with “how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.”  Chris is a great friend to us bloggers.  I have interviewed him twice and he is the only author this year to make a comment on my review.  I have been told by other bloggers how enthusiastic he is about us all when appearing at book talks.  Oh, and his comment to me, just in case you haven’t seen it : “I love you, Phil. (I worry I don’t tell you that enough)”.  It wasn’t his flattery I succumbed to but the quality of his novel!The best crime novel I read this year.

Current Amazon sales rating: 61,735 in Books (it’s great commercial fiction which should be in Amazon’s best sellers).

6. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017)  (Read and reviewed in September)


Honestly, it is unlikely that I would have read Kamila Shamsie’s modern retelling of the Antigone myth had it not been longlisted for the Man Booker prize.  I was amazed it did not make the shortlist as I ask everyone who returns a library book copy whether they have enjoyed it and it universally gets the thumbs up.  The author, in this, her seventh novel has recast the ancient Greek characters as a Muslim family from Wembley. I said of this “Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.” A bag of M&Ms has a lot to answer for in this book.

Current Amazon sales rating: 2,197 in books

Next post – My Top 5 reads from 2017

100 Essential Books – All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker (Zaffre 2017)



Chris Whitaker’s debut “Tall Oaks” was highly enjoyable and received considerable critical acclaim.  It also gained him an interview on reviewsrevues.com on my Author Strikes Back thread.  His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet worked well due to Whitaker’s skilful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds.  Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst.  There’s more of this in his latest novel set in the small town of Grace, Alabama in 1995.  This is the novel Chris referred to as “The Summer Cloud” in our interview.  Now, with a title change, I was looking forward to reading it.

People in Grace are dominated by their back stories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface.  The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself.  The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads.

I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel “The Church Of Dead Girls” by Stephen Dobyns which I loved and which should be due for a re-read yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation.   Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine who take the search into their hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy.  There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders.  Also damaged and addictive is Police Chief Black who shows the author is great at adult characters too.  The plot is darker than “Tall Oaks” and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play.  I marvel at how authentic the author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms  of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives.  The prejudices and obsessions of  a small community is so effectively conveyed and I found the whole thing totally involving.

“Tall Oaks” showed the potential but this is the real deal…………………….”


All The Wicked Girls is published by Zaffre on the 24th August 2017.  Make a note of the title for a perfect late summer read.  Many thanks to nudge and the publishers for the advance review copy.

Newbooks 91- Now available


I am aware that I’ve been a little slow off the mark here telling you about the latest newbooks magazine.  I can only put it down to wanting to tell you about some of the books shortlisted for the Nudge/newbooks Bookhugger book of the year.  There is now just one day to cast your vote- as a reminder here are the selections.

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult.  My five star review for this is here.

Exposure – Helen Dunmore – My five star review for this is here.

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue – My four star review is here.

The Song Collector – Natasha Simons – My four star review is here.

How To Measure A Cow – Margaret Forster – My three star review is here.

Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Father’s Day – Simon Van Booy

Hide – Matthew Griffin

The Good Guy- Susan Beale

Owl Song At Midnight – Emma Claire Sweeney (I am currently reading this and enjoying it very much, my review will follow shortly).

If you have read any of these books and think they are worthy of the title of Bookhugger Book Of The Year you have now just a few hours (voting closing on 10th Feb) to head on over to the Nudge site (here) to register your vote.

Bookhugger Book Of Year nominees that have already featured on reviewsrevues.com

I must confess that for this issue of newbooks I did not contribute as much as I have done in the past.  That was because of moving home (twice in a short period of time) and losing contact with the rest of the world with no phone line, mobile phone signal or internet (something which I have griped about before on here, and which I have now just about got over).

There is a lot of great stuff to read in this latest edition of newbooks which can be purchased as an individual copy or as a subscription over on the nudge site (just click here).  There’s a great feature on authors’ new years resolutions (I wonder how many of them have already been broken).  Those contributing include reviewsrevues favourite Chris Whitaker (good to see that sense of humour still going strong, Chris), Sara Baume and Natasha Solomons.  The big interview and cover author is Claire Fuller, who is interviewed by Mel Mitchell, who also does a great job with author Magdalena McGuire.  A section on debut authors focuses on Joseph Knox, Katie Khan and Ross Armstrong as well as rounding up the debut novels that are going to be appearing over the next couple of months. There is also an extract from the book I am currently reading “Owl Song At Dawn”  and interview with author Emma Claire Sweeney.  There are loads of books reviewed in the Directory for those of us looking for the next great discovery.

There’s also the Recommended reads which can be picked up from the Nudge website for free (you just pay P&P).  These are subject to availability and include the aforementioned Emma Claire Sweeney (this is where my copy came from), Foxlowe by Eleanor Wasserberg, The Bones Of Grace by Tahmima Anam and Life In A Fishbowl by Len Vlahos.

If your to be read list is looking a little depleted (as if!) or you just want to experience one of the only print magazines about books still available in the UK check out Newbooks 91.





What You Have Been Reading – The Top 10 posts of 2016

Christmas and New Year plays odd tricks with you.  First day back at work yesterday and on journey home it seemed as if the festive season was ages ago.  I was surprised to still see the twinkling lights from the bus and even more so when I got home to see the Christmas tree and decorations all up.  It only takes a couple of days of the New Year to get us all moving on………..

But before I crack on fully with 2017 I want to take just one more retrospective look at 2016.  Personally it was pretty momentous.  At the start of the year I was getting myself prepared for a 10th season at my guest house on the Isle of Wight.  Well, since then, books have taken over.  Following months of uncertainty the guest house has been sold and I have moved to a new house in the same town and have begun working with books (as well as being surrounded by them at home) working within the Isle Of Wight Library Service.  The reviews, interviews and magazine assignments have kept coming and at the times of upheaval, of not knowing where I would be living, of winding the business up, of dealing with the loss of close family members reading has very much kept me sane.  If insanity was threatened it was due to BT Open Reach and EE my internet providers who took forever between them to get me a phone line and internet access – but that’s all sorted now and after a few years of feeling life was on a bit of a plateau 2017 feels a very positive change of year.

I’m delighted with the way reviewsrevues.com has gone from strength to strength (despite erratic postings towards the end of the year- thanks again for making this so difficult, BT).  In fact compared to last year there has been an astonishing 76% rise in traffic on the site.  That’s thanks to you all reading this.  Let’s finish 2016 off with a countdown of your ten most read of the 158 posts I published during the year. Just click on the links to revisit the full reviews.

10. The Author Strikes Back- Benita Jayne – Author of “Sacred Crystal Pyramid”and old school chum makes it into the Top 10 with our interview held back in July

9. The Author Strikes Back – Chris Whitaker – The most read of the author interviews I’ve published on here this year.  Chris had to put up with me interviewing him twice, once for here and once for the Nudge site.  He was charming both times.

8. Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker Showing that the author interviews drive traffic to the original review.  Chris’ crime debut was also a hit on Nudge which has led to a nomination for the Book Noir book of the year.  If you enjoyed his book you can register your appreciation here.

7. The Evenings – Gerard Reve– I had quite a lot of reservations about this book which I reviewed in October but the review of this Dutch translation has attracted a lot of attention.

6. The Rovers – Sky 1 football themed comedy with Craig Cash and Sue Johnston.  This was funny and attracted enough reads on here to suggest a second series is a serious proposition.

5. Giles Coren: My Failed Novel – Sky Arts one-off programme on the perils for a first-time novelist.  A real eye-opener.

4. Make! Craft Britain – Another one-off programme, this time on BBC4.  There’s a lot of crafters out there (and yes I did finish making my Clanger)

3. Lets Groove- The Best Of Earth Wind & Fire– I actually posted this in October 2015 but the lasting legacy of this group and the sad passing of Maurice White (one of the seemingly vast number of celebrities who were imporant to me who died in 2016) has ensured that this has had high readership figures throughout the year.

2. Scott and Bailey – ITV series.  People seemed to be facing up to the disappointment of there being apparently no more by reading about it.  I’ll say it again…  I love Scott and Bailey.



1.The Level – ITV.  My review of this appeared after the first episode at the start of October.  I moved not long after and lost track of reviewsrevues for a time.  I was astonished to see that views for this had gone through the roof whilst I was doing other things and it is the most read review  on here by a clear mile.  Over 1300 views ahead of the number 2 read.  The series started promisingly but lost its way a little at times but the readers keep coming.  There’s certainly a lot of interest in this series, ITV, if you are thinking of recommissioning or looking towards overseas sales.


Right. that’s enough 2016.  Let’s get on with 2017!

The Author Strikes Back – Chris Whitaker Interview

Whitaker, Chris

Today I am absolutely delighted to welcome to reviewsrevues.com Chris Whitaker who is experiencing the thrill of of having his debut novel published tomorrow on 7th April.  I have already read, reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed his book.  My thoughts on  “Tall Oaks” can be found here.   I’ve put together some questions for Chris that were niggling around after I finished his book and it is great that he has found the time to answer them.


Why does a British novelist choose to set his debut in the fictional American town of Tall Oaks?

I’ve always been a fan of books (Boy’s Life) and television shows (Fargo) set in small town America. When I first conceived of the idea for Tall Oaks I knew that I wanted to write a story that featured a really diverse group of characters, each with quite different concerns and problems. But I also wanted them to feel connected, so the small town setting seemed to fit well. I also liked the idea of this glossy, respectable facade masking all of these huge secrets. In that respect Tall Oaks is part Stepford, part Twin Peaks. 

As for America, setting Tall Oaks there made some of the plot points work in a way that they might not have had I set the book in the UK. I wanted Jim (policeman) to be working the case mostly alone, which given the more autonomous nature of their towns seemed much more realistic. There’s a feeling that the case is already old news, that the media have lost interest and moved onto the next sensational crime, which felt much more plausible in such a large country with a high crime rate. And I wanted one of my characters to have easy access to a gun!

I also hoped that my publisher might fly me to California for research purposes but they told me I had ‘unrealistic expectations.’

 How did the character of Manny, a great comic creation by the way, come about?

Thank you! I’m so glad that there’s been such a positive response to Manny. Whenever I meet anyone that’s read Tall Oaks the first thing they want to talk about is Manny! 

The first time I sat down to begin writing Tall Oaks I started with Manny. His opening scene, walking toward school dressed head-to-toe in pinstripes, despite the sweltering heat, it still makes me smile now. I didn’t know how he’d fit into the rest of the story, but I wanted to include some teenage characters, I really enjoyed writing the dialogue between them. 

I’ve read quite a few gangster novels over the years, and loved watching The Sopranos, so Manny is kind of a (warped) tribute to them. I wanted him to be funny, and fearless, but also quite vulnerable once you scratch the surface. I think lots of teenagers face a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to leaving school and trying to work out what they want to do in the real world. Though Manny’s father walking out has left him struggling more than most.

Dark Crime and Comedy – Do the two mix?

God I hope so, though I think it’s quite tricky to get the balance right. I thought about writing a straight crime novel, and did try a couple of times, but it never felt quite right.

I wanted Tall Oaks to be first and foremost a story about a town, a snapshot of life over one, hot summer. Of course everyone would be at different stages in their lives, experiencing highs and lows unique to them. Whether the lows are as horrific as having your child taken from you, or the highs as trivial as finding a date for prom, they are relative to each individual character.

I think it helped setting the novel three months after the crime, as for those not closely affected things would begin to return to normal. And normal is laughing, crying, dating, having fun, worrying about exams etc.

 It was also nice to write. For every Jess scene there’s a Manny to maintain the balance.

There’s a line in the book where Jim says ‘You can’t stand in the dark all the time, because then you forget there’s daylight out there.’

From the point of view of a British author just completing an American novel what are the “great American novels?”

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The roaring twenties come to life in this classic. The American dream is embodied by the enigmatic and mysterious Jay Gatsby.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I first read this at school and have since found that Holden Caulfield is a character that lives long in the memory.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Sad, funny, and beautifully crafted. Atticus Finch is my hero! A masterpiece.   (I agree – My review is here)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: One of my all time favourites. A father and son travel across post-apocalyptic America. It’s dark and haunting and will stay with me forever.  

Can I stick Tall Oaks on the end of this list?

Chris’ line-up for The Great American novel

I’ll think about that one Chris……..I thought you might sneak it in there somewhere! I’ve not yet got round to “The Road” but have recently  read a new book that people are comparing it to – “Gold Fame Citrus” by Claire Vaye Watkins so may be one for you to watch out for.  Totally agree about “Mockingbird”.  I think you need to be the right age to read “Catcher” and then it transforms your existence – I think I might have been a bit too old when I got round to it.  F.Scott Fitzgerald has never done it for me – but I haven’t totally given up on him.  I’d probably swap him for Steinbeck’s “Grapes Of Wrath” but I approve of your choices…

What’s next for Chris Whitaker?

I’m currently working on The Summer Cloud. It’s a story about a cloud that appears over a small town and stays there. The chapters alternate between first person, a missing schoolgirl (Summer) telling her story, and narrative which follows the residents of the town as they try and go about life in darkness. It’s a bit of a strange one (for a change).

My kids are so noisy that I worry I’ll never get the peace and quiet needed to finish it. Maybe I should come and stay with you. I could ask my publisher to foot the bill. I wonder how much a helicopter to the Isle of Wight costs.

You would be very welcome and if the publisher is footing the bill I might even run to placing a chocolate on your pillow.  I will be certainly looking forward to reading “The Summer Cloud” –it sounds fascinating.  Of course, we never have any clouds on the Isle of Wight- so I’m going to have to use my imagination!


Chris coming in to land or coastguard rescue over Freshwater, Isle Of Wight?

Many thanks to Chris for his spirited responses. Also a big thanks to Emily at Bonnier Zaffre publishers for organising this.   “Tall Oaks” is available to buy from Amazon by following this link.


Tall Oaks – Chris Whitaker (Twenty7 Books 2016)



British novelist Whitaker has chosen to set his debut novel in small-town America where a child’s abduction has unsettled the community.  This might seem an unusual premise for a British debut but enables Whitaker to produce a character-driven novel where the residents of Tall Oaks have that slightly off-kilter weirdness that we readers might expect from that setting  with its slight echoes of the film/tv work of David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”/”Twin Peaks”)

Three year old Harry is abducted from his bedroom by someone wearing a clown mask . I’ll put that info in because I know that alone might freak out some potential readers – coulrophobia sufferers beware (yes I did look that up!) The investigating officer has strong feelings for the distraught mother.  Other Tall Oaks residents include Jerry, an overweight, squeaky-voiced photo-shop worker who cares for his behaviourally disturbed mother, who is dying from a brain tumour and Henrietta and Roger, a couple at the end of their marriage with secrets of their own.  If this all sounds heavy-going then I’d like to introduce you to Manny, a great comic creation and very much the star of the piece.

Teenager Manny, as much adrift as most of the Tall Oaks residents, has adopted the dress of a 1930’s gangster to give him the right appearance when attempting to extort money from local business owners.  He is foul-mouthed (Tourettes?) and brash and yet is often seen accompanied by his three year old sister.  His need to create an authentic air of menace leads to him wearing a three piece suit in tropical temperatures and having to wear a head bandage to hide the grooves on his forehead from his too-tight fedora.  There is a laugh in every one of his appearances in the novel, he completely won me over and shows Whitaker has skill with comic creations.  Manny is supported by Abe, a lanky sidekick with the ability (unlike Manny) to grow an impressive moustache and Furat, Manny’s Iraqi girlfriend who has to put up with his spontaneous terrorist jibes.  Manny is a brilliant mix of bravado and teenage angst. This character gives the novel an extra little sparkle which makes it worth seeking out.

Plot-wise, there are some twists I saw coming quite early on and some which surprised me- a satisfactory combination.  The setting gives us British readers the opportunity to look on proceedings with a detachment that we might not have with a more familiar closer-to-home location and I think this works well.  I never became totally immersed into life in Tall Oaks but I was close enough to observe the quirks of the characters and this was a good position to be in.  It also gave me the chance to very much enjoy Whitaker’s gradual unveiling of the plot.


Tall Oaks is published on  April 7th by Twenty7 books.  Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.