Sunday, 31 December 2017

Sourdough - Robin Sloan

I’d never heard of Robin Sloan or any of his previous work so I had no expectations whatsoever of this book from Readers First before I started it. But I found it absolutely delightful. A wonderful piece of story telling, tender, simply told despite some of the complex science and technology. Uplifting and celebratory. It’s an unusual premise, possibly genre neutral although you could squeeze it into magical realism if you really wanted to.

I cannot think of another story where a sourdough starter is one of the main characters. If anyone else can I’m all ears! The other characters are quirky and slightly off centre but there are no nasty people in this book, no one is unkind to anyone else, no unpleasant happenings, no violence,  a gentle twist or two maybe but no one attempts to shock the reader with their behaviour.

Structurally conformist, no dual/multi chronologies. It’s straightforward first person narration with the inclusion of emails detailing the parallel lives and dreams of the two brothers who start this whole thing rolling by making Lois Clary custodian of their sourdough starter. Lois is a computer/software programmer/engineer, what she actually does is crucial to the plot so I’m keeping stumm. Lois is such a sweet character, conscientious, self effacing but seizing opportunities, solving problems and ultimately taking risks to follow ambition but ambition in a life affirming sense rather than the more cut throat, desire to reach the top type of ambition we hear much of today. And despite the book being a work concerning technology, set in San Francisco as well, there’s barely a mobile phone or tablet in evidence. No mention of social media. So refreshing. 

You can simply enjoy this novel as a story but if you want to delve a little deeper there is plenty to think about in terms of technology, living organisms and their needs, nutrition and addressing the feeding of a growing population. Heaven help us if Heston Blumenthal gets hold of this. It seriously might give him ideas. But, is that necessarily a bad thing? Read this book and make up your own minds!!

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Girl Before - JP Delaney

This is described as a debut work but that is a little misleading as the writer has apparently written best selling fiction under other names. It seems to be a debut for this genre, namely, psychological thrillers. I have resisted the temptation to see if I can find out JP Delaney’s other names and works but that would kinda spoil the mystique and I’m enjoying the mystique. 

This book also belongs to another genre - the unputdownable genre. I found the premise highly original for the most part and reviewing this is going to be hard because I really don’t want to give anything away at all but there’s so much to delight in that I run the risk constantly.

So firstly let’s get out of the way those things that I didn’t like. Although the writing was far, far superior there were times when I was reminded of Fifty Shades of Gray. Maybe it was the control and obsession aspects. Also there were one or two plot holes but I ended up forgetting all about them because the rest was tight. The final denouement was one of those lovely climactic twists  and the wind down was a little anticlimactic until you reach the very last chapter. And that’s all. That’s all I didn’t like.

It’s a very clever, very well written thriller. I understand there’s a film in the offing and I think it will translate extremely well to the big screen. It’s descriptive both in terms of the physical descriptions of locations and artefacts but also expressive in terms of emotion and mind states of the characters. 

It’s a dual narrative structure between the two main women, Jane and Emma, so the story unfolds from their perspectives. And of course, as is almost obligatory now within this genre, the flawed narrator technique is utilised most cleverly here. 
We are fed red herrings, led down garden paths until our, usually, razor sharp, thriller unravelling minds are tied in knots.  It’s most satisfying in that contrary way that these type of books provoke. My suspicions were aroused and thwarted throughout and all the clues are there if you care to look for them. The characters are flawed and real. We are putty in the hands of the writer as we are manipulated into believing and feeling one thing and then another in regard to them. Cleverly forced into positions where we are so convinced  we know what they about, our beliefs are unshakeable - until the next twist. There are no superfluous characters, in fact in keeping with the ethos of One Folgate Street there is nothing superfluous in this book. The house itself is also a character.. 

Well, I think I may have managed it. I don’t think I’ve given anything away. I do hope not and I apologise if I have. There’s a lot of buzz and hype about this book. Often that’s the first thing to put me off it. But I actually think it is justified here. But, hey,  don’t take my word for it. Read it for yourself.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Cruel Prince - Holly Black

I don’t think this book is aimed at grown-ups. Which is a relief because I’m a grown-down. I also don’t care what ages books are aimed at because if I like them I like them. Did I like this book? You bet I did!!!

It was a delight from start to finish. A book that fosters the love of reading because it’s all a book should be. It’s Muggles in Faerie Land. It’s Game of Thrones for youngsters. It’s knights and damsels. It’s good and bad. It’s love and hate. It’s real and fantasy. It’s contemporary and traditional. And all of it balances out so well. This is the first in a series and when you reach the end I can almost guarantee you’ll be desperate for Part Two. 

It’s a clever book for it takes many of the elements so popular in contemporary adult fiction and renders them suitable and accessible for the younger age range without diluting any of the actions or the emotion contained within. Nor is there any sense that readers are being patronised, it’s so subtly done with some beautiful writing and descriptions, So you have the ubiquitous flawed narrator almost obligatory in todays writing and view the events from her perspective. The book is very character driven with some strong leads. Jude is a wonderful character leaping off the page at you insisting you feel what she feels and grapple with her conundrums, want what she wants even if it might not be quite right. It’s almost as if you are making the decisions with her. The characters are real, if that is not a a paradox in a fantasy novel, and many of them do horrible things and several of them have not very nice aspects to their characters. There’s anti heroes, villains, plotters and schemers.I’m not one for spoilers so I’ll say no more than state that some nasty things happen. In one sense so many of the elements in this book have been done before and you are reminded of them as you read but the execution is fresh and rich. It’s a well plotted story with some unexpected moments.  The ends aren’t completely tied up because there’s more to come. 

I get a feel that this is the next generation’s Narnia. How long do I have to wait for the next book?

Friday, 22 December 2017

Mischling - Affinity Konar

Is it my imagination or are fictional works about the Holocaust on the increase? I’ve always believed a writer who tackles this subject in a work of fiction extremely brave. There is just no room for sentiment or poetic licence. So any author has my admiration right away. Books like these can be difficult to read. More so if you have ever visited Auschwitz, both the main camp and Birkenau. There is a tangible evil that chills you. Stories of hope and positivity are few and far between. For every survivor account you hear of you know how many did not survive. I believe the point of writing such a book as this is to perpetuate the knowledge of the Holocaust in the vain hope that such genocide will never happen again. 

This novel focuses upon a specific atrocity of the Holocaust, Josef Mengele and his barbaric, sadistic, experiments. Obsessed with studying identical twins, and eye colour the two protagonists of this story are twins Pearl and Stasha. The book gives them voice with alternating chapters. Ms. Konar’s research is thorough and those students of the Holocaust will recognise descriptions that echo the testimony of Eva and Miriam Mozes and Helen Rapport and Pearl Pufeles who survived Mengele’s cruelty. (Is Konar’s Pearl based on this Pearl?) In a sense there is no new ground covered by this story rather an interpretation of how victims might act, react and interact in the face of such abominable treatment. Initially I found my self puzzled by the twins as they seemed much younger at times than they actually were and I’m not sure if that was intentional to suggest that age was of no consequence to Mengele. Pearl and Stasha could be wise one moment and childish the next but in an unbalanced way. You could argue that their circumstances were enough to unbalance anyone. 

The prose style is eloquent, descriptive and expansive which for me doesn’t quite work with the subject matter. It’s a bold move and I celebrate the attempt but you cannot make music where there is so little harmony.

For readers ignorant of anything more than a general understanding of the Holocaust this is a shocking, disturbing read. And so it should be. It isn’t a book to be enjoyed. It’s not a pleasure to read but it does suggest that we should never stop looking for hope and redemption whatever the circumstances.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Confession - Jo Spain

Irish novelist Jo Spain is a new name for me but not one I shall forget in a hurry. For if The Confession is typical of her work then I should set about seeking out her previous novels at my earliest opportunity. This latest story is billed as a debut psychological thriller which puzzled me but I see that Ms. Spain’s previous works seem to be crime stories.

Blurbed as ‘the twistiest psychological thriller of spring 2018’ I am forced to mostly concur with that accolade. The crime and the perp are handed to us on a plate in the prologue of the novel. That in itself can kind of take the wind out of your sails because it isn’t what’s expected. What follows is an insidious stripping of the truth through a skilful and well plotted narrative. There are twists a plenty and more than one flawed narrator. 

The story yo yo’s between the past and present and is told through the voices of Julie McNamara wife of the victim, JP Carney, the perpetrator and Alice, the detective who comes across as a sort of Irish Vera Stanhope. 

It is what I like to call an onion story where layer after layer is peeled away to reveal fact after supposed fact, detail after detail until you think you’ve figured things out - until the next twist. It's enough to make you cry. 😉

I found it hard to engage with any of the characters but I didn’t think I was supposed to.They don’t behave particularly well to each other. I felt as a reader, I was being kept at arms length emotionally from these people because to get too close to them would be bad for my health! In fact some of the lesser characters elicit more compassion from the reader and if that is intentional it is very cleverly done.

Jo Spain writes with an easy, accessible style, despite the subject matter of the story, so paradoxically it’s an undemanding and pleasurable read.  It’s a fishing rod book where you are given the bait and reeled in, very slowly, completely hooked. And there’s nothing you can do except to read it! Many thanks to Quercus books for giving me the opportunity to do just that. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

21st Century Yokel -Tom Cox

I first came across Tom Cox when a friend alerted me to one of his Twitter feeds - My Sad Cat. I had a black cat at the time called Puzzle and my friend saw some kind of similarity between them. although now I would say that Puzzle was a composite of both The Bear and Shipley, another black cat that Tom had at the time. Puzzle was an contemplative, potty mouth and could silence anyone with a look! But I followed the feed and immensely enjoyed the photos and captions. I remember showing my sister the feed whereupon she promptly found the My Sweary Cat and the My Smug Cat feeds too. Eventually I explored the whole Tom Cox internet concept more and more and found that I liked it! A lot.

I love Tom Cox and his books. I love the conversational style that can belie the truths contained within the words. I love his sincere realism and the sense of humour that runs through all his work. I love his honesty. Perhaps best known for his ‘cat’ books this latest offering is a genre defiant piece of writing that is joyous to read. To laugh, to think, to experience, to learn are not often found in one book. 

What I am puzzled about is why Tom had to turn to crowd funding to finance this work given the success of his other books? But he did and so Unbound was brought into my consciousness and, I am sure, the consciousness of many others. All to the good. I felt proud and, given the hours of enjoyment Mr. Cox’s online presence has afforded me, obliged almost to support this project. 

It might be possibly be requisite to have a love of the countryside to truly appreciate this book but maybe it could foster such a love in those without, certainly the easy style of writing makes it very readable and accessible. Existing lovers of Tom Cox’s work will be familiar with all of the cats and be happy to read about them. Full details of poor, sweet Roscoe cat’s dreadful encounter with a dog and subsequent recovery are well documented here as well. Tom's Dad also makes his PRESENCE FELT. But it's like someones taken words for a walk through meandering paths and countrysides revering all living things and seeing the synchronicity of life. 

The world needs people like Tom Cox. If there were more Tom Coxs I doubt the world would be in such a mess. Maybe by reading this book we can all get a little closer.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Macbeth - Jo Nesbo

Just the thought of a new Jo Nesbo had me salivating. In many ways the title passed me by, after all it’s a new Jo Nesbo!! But of course just the word ‘Macbeth’ offers numerous connotations and possibly preconceived notions not to mention a wealth of quotations whether you’ve read the play or not. 

I was moderately familiar with the play, certainly the bare bones of the plot and the characters but I’m more of a Hamlet girl myself! I’ve never seen it on stage but I’ve caught parts of TV interpretations over the years. 

Knowledge of the play certainly adds a dimension to the reading of this novel. You know, in a sense, what is going to happen so it is interesting to see how the author executes the events. I would think, though, that any reader completely ignorant of the play, the plot and the characters would enjoy this story regardless. It might even motivate them to seek out Shakespeare’s version. 

I try not to retain too many preconceptions when I read a book and I seldom allow a cover or a title to impact on me too much before I start. My expectations were high simply because it was Jo Nesbo. 

I would describe myself as a fan of Nesbo. I’ve read five of his previous books and I have another three just waiting for me on my TBR shelves. I had an expectation of the style expected and the type of plot, not to mention the characters. I was ignorant of this Hogarth Shakespeare series so I was half hoping to meet Harry Hole again. So I won’t lie, I did struggle to begin with. I started the book twice in fact because I was bewildered as the style seemed too heavy and clunky for Nesbo.

A digression, I realise, but I’m a tad confused by the series anyway. It boasts an impressive cast of authors who’ve given time and energy to retelling some of Shakespeare’s stories. But why? Without exception they are all writers of depth and imagination who surely have no shortage of ideas of their own. Perhaps for a writer it is a challenge not to be refused? Perhaps it is a little ‘light relief’?! For the plot, character and themes are already created, the writer ‘simply; has to render the story within a modern vernacular and a contemporary style. For the reader though it does provides a variety of potential experiences. If the reader is familiar with the writer but NOT with Shakespeare they will have a certain set of expectations. If the reader is familiar with the writer AND Shakespeare that offers a different set of expectations. And then there’s the Shakespearean diehards who may vehemently object to the exercise. And finally those who know nothing of either the writer or Shakespeare. It’s intriguing.

I think thoughts of all the above caused my initial struggle. But digression over and finding myself really getting into the novel I emerged from the last page having really enjoyed the book. Does Nesbo make the characters his own? Yes, without a doubt and I feel that’s vital for the  story to work otherwise it’s just basic story retelling. ‘Shakespeare retold for crime fans’. We are taken into this rather dark and depressing, faintly dystopian, Scottish landscape where drugs and corruption are endemic. It’s Nesbo so it has to be police/detective dominated which is a perfect cauldron for power struggles, the furthering of ambition and struggles with morality. Macbeth’s dichotomy; desiring power and advancement clashing with his intrinsic desire not to commit evil deeds is well sustained by Nesbo. But I think he sustains the original aspects all of the major characters including the wonderful Lady Macbeth. I was impressed throughout by this.

I guess the bare bones of the crime story is pure Nesbo, a little more wordy than usual but it’s a necessity if you are to suffuse the book with the essence of Shakespeare. Plenty of gritty action, much blood, a tight plot and a cast of thousands. Moral dilemmas a plenty. 

Plus a great big shout out to the translator Don Bartlett who has done a fabulous, seamless job. 

Is this ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ (Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5)?
No it is an exciting fiction told by a clever man, full of sound and fury but signifying much. 

Many thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read this book.

Friday, 24 November 2017

She's Not There - Joy Fielding

Maybe it is my imagination but there seems to be a plethora of missing child books around at the moment. Or possibly it is one of those weird synchronicity episodes where they’ve come my way so I can offer a more viable review by virtue of having more material to compare. A means of sifting the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad or, more accurately, the not as good.

This latest read from Joy Fielding is one of the good. Very gripping and emotional. I’ve not read any of her previous books so my comments relate purely to this one story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and was reluctant to put it down. It is a fine example of a book that relies on the strength of the characterisations to hold the narrative together and advance it. Caroline Shipley synthesises this whole story ably abetted by her daughter Michelle. Two strong women dealing with unenviable emotional burdens. And they’re palpable. You can feel their angst and tension. The relationship between Caroline and Michelle is superb, an acutely observed portrait of teenage/maternal wrestling where neither party seems aware that it is love that drives them both.

Certainly for UK readers, and maybe the awareness is wider but this is a missing child story and parallels with the Madeline McCann case are undeniable. Whether Madeleine’s case motivated this story and with it the underlying theme of the role of the press and media in circumstances like these. I have no idea but it wouldn’t surprise me. This story doesn’t put the press in a very good light. It’s a well structured fiction using a dual chronology between the past and present and the final two chapters demonstrate a skilful and experienced writer who understands her readers.

And so we have on the one hand a tight ‘almost’ thriller and on the other a considered examination of how one woman deals with a mother’s worst nightmare and the effect that has on families and extended families. I don’t do spoilers so I can say no more other than read the book!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Maid's Room - Fiona Mitchell

From the moment you start reading this novel comparisons with Kathryn Stockett’s The Help are inevitable. However the author was intelligent enough to realise that and took the precaution of alluding to that book in the early pages of this book. So you continue reading thankful that plagiarism is not on the menu. Then suddenly you are stopped in your reading tracks and jolted into an awareness that what you are reading has little to do with early 60s Mississippi but all to do with present day Singapore; Skype - smartphones - blogging? It is a truly shocking awakening. So much so that all aspirations you had of composing a review based upon characterisations, plot structure, the narrative and the other stuff that reviews are made of are thrown to the wind. You read on and start to pick yourself up by the scruff of the neck and rationally convince yourself that this is a fiction, it’s a jolly, good story, it didn’t really happen, its imagination, active, fertile imagination. Phew. And so you reach the end. It’s a happy, satisfactory ending for the most part. Then you read the Author’s Note and the sickening realisation hits you that this isn’t imagination at all, it’s all based on first hand knowledge and experience. 

If, and it’s a big if, you can divorce yourself from that impact,  the story is well put together with some compelling characters, Tala, Dolly and Jules all stand out. In fact Jule’s personal story, very moving, runs the risk of being overlooked by the dilemmas of domestic workers Dolly and Tala. Wisely the story has a positive redemption. But the implications of the book stay with you. 

The Maid’s Room is a debut novel from an experienced writer who I think was astute enough to feel that this story was better told in novel form than left to the pages of newspapers, periodicals and the transient trends of social media. It is shocking to grasp that people are treated this way in our modern world. Arguments about cultural diversity and our tenuous grasp on it cannot be put forward here for the employers of these domestic workers are of our culture. I think that’s what is so chilling. What could be accepted, though not condoned, in The Help was due to the historical nature of that work. This isn’t history, this is contemporary. 

It is a story that needs to be told and I do hope as many people as possible read it. If you’re undecided as to what to read next please consider this book. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Question and Answer with Katherine Webb

I was fortunate enough recently to be invited by Nudge Books to interview Katherine Webb, best selling author of The Legacy and whose recent book The Hiding Places was published in paperback in September. I thought the interview deserved a further airing on my blog.

GC: The Hiding Places was the first of your books that I read and I loved it. I delighted in the twist at the end and that made me wonder whether it’s the ‘twist’ that comes first when you’re plotting and structuring a novel? Or whether it evolved from the body of the story?
KW: Thank you! I’m very pleased you enjoyed it. As a general rule, I know the beginning and ending of a novel before I start. I’m not a planner, and I will then navigate the story between those two points in a very freeform way, but I don’t think I’d be able to start at all without an idea of the ending in mind. This was especially the case with The Hiding Places, since the whole novel was geared towards misdirecting the reader, right the way through, so that the twist at the end would come as a big surprise.
After the more exotic locations of The Night Falling and The English GirlThe Hiding Placessees a return to the rural landscapes of England again. Was that a strong desire, to return to ‘Blighty’ for this novel?
I think I was ready to return, yes. I generally find that the settings of my books choose themselves — the idea for a story appears in my head, and usually the setting is already a given at that point. But it was a pleasure to write another book set in the English countryside — the By Brook Valley is not far from where I live, and it’s one of my favourite places. I feel very at home in this landscape, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of writing about it.
There seems to be a need today to compartmentalise everything including fiction. Your work is often described as historical fiction. Are you comfortable with that? Do you consider The Hiding Places to be a work of historical fiction? Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?
Truthfully, I’m not a big fan of that label — or labels in general! I think of my books as mystery dramas that are sometimes set in the past. I think labels can put as many people off as they attract. The story is what’s important, and even if you had no interest in history in the slightest, I like to think you could still get wrapped up and carried away by one of my stories.
My first three books contained contemporary storylines as well as historical, and I wouldn’t rule out doing that again, or indeed writing something set wholly in the present. But again, I am sure the story and characters would be what was really important.
Do you do your research before you start writing or is it an ongoing processes as the need arises?
I do most of it before I start — it helps the story to develop, and I think I’d find it impossible to start writing without a clear idea of what life would have been like for my characters at the time I’m writing them. This includes any research trips I might need to go on. But research does carry on alongside the writing, too — it helps to keep me immersed in the period; there are often small facts that need checking, and I’m always finding interesting little snippets to put into the book, to help give it historical authenticity.
Your books often depict a friendship between two women of differing backgrounds who are brought together through circumstance and a desire for a common goal. It’s often a fascinating juxtaposition. The Hiding Places offers us Pudding and Irene. I was wondering what the motivation is for your exploration of these relationships.
One of the things we seem to be perennially fascinated by, when we study or recreate history, is class structure — the strict rules of social interaction people used to have to adhere to. Often, it can seem that the classes didn’t intermingle at all — that they existed in separate spheres, only occasionally touching. But I can’t imagine that was always the case! Life is messy, and I’m sure all sorts of different people came together — or were forced together — for all sorts of reasons.
It’s fascinating, as you say, and I find it a really interesting way to explore a character — their strengths and limitations. Can they make that leap out of their social comfort zone, and free themselves of prejudice, to help and be helped by people they see as fundamentally different to themselves? Are they kind, or strong, or clever, or brave enough?
Love, loss, secrets, betrayal – they are all recurring themes in your work. What is it that fascinates you about these topics?
Well, these are the stuff of life, aren’t they?? And more importantly, they’re they stuff of good stories. They happen to us all, and these times of heightened emotion, of stress and passion and anger, are what drive people to do extraordinary things. And I love to pose readers the question: can they sympathise with a character who’s done something drastic or terrible, if I can adequately present the pressures that led them to do it? Can I make the reader question what they would have done if they found themselves in that position?
I always find your novels very ‘reader -friendly’ books. You seem to strike a balance between making demands of your reader and caring for your reader. Is that a conscious desire or does it come naturally with your writing?
Well, that’s lovely to hear! I can’t make that kind of choice, truthfully — I’m not sure any writer could. I write the way I write, in my own voice; and I write the stories that come to me. And if they’re a good balance of engaging and readable, then I’m delighted with that — what more could an author hope for?
From that last question, are you an avid reader yourself? (Assuming you have the time that is!). And what was the first book that made you cry?
I am an insatiable reader. I don’t know many authors who aren’t — we were all readers before we were writers! There hasn’t been an hour I’ve not had a book on the go since I was about ten, I think, though there’s definitely less time for it now. I do try to make time — if I can, I’ll sit down late in the afternoon and read for half an hour or an hour, and I’ll always read before going to sleep. Several books I read in my teens brought a tear to my eye, but the first book that really made me sob my heart out was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. In several places! It’s a story made all the more powerful for being so plausible, and it really brought home to me the devastating human tragedies of the Second World War, the nature of loss and lost chances.
Where did the inspiration for The Hiding Places come from initially?
For this book, it really was a question of place. I started walking in the By Brook Valley about six years ago, when I moved down to live in the countryside near Bath. It’s such a beautiful spot, unchanged for centuries, and it’s full of evocative ruins — one of my favourite things! There are the ruins of Weavern Farm, once a huge, thriving place, now just a shell, sitting alone by the river; and there are the industrial ruins of the village of Slaughterford — its two mills, the larger of which still operated right up into the 1960s, which can be walked through and explored. Ruins cast a bit of a spell on me — they recall all the many lives that were lived there, all the secrets and stories that have vanished forever. A place like that was always going to spark my imagination!
September sees the publication of the paperback edition of The Hiding Places. Can you give us any clues as to when your next new novel will be published? 😉
My next book — as yet untitled — is due for publication next year. I think it will be in the spring although I’m not sure of the exact date. I’m still writing it at the moment — it’s nearly finished! It’s set during the bombing of Bath in 1942, but it isn’t really a ‘war story’. A bomb falling on one of Bath’s slum areas uncovers the remains of a little girl who went missing twenty-four years previously, and sends her best friend on a mission to find out what really happened to her.

The Year of the Knife - G.D.Penman

And the 2017 Award for Speculative Fiction goes to - The Year of the Knife. Joking I am! I’m not even sure if there is such an award! But knowing nothing of G.D. Penman before I received this book led me to do a little research. And I found that he writes ‘Speculative Fiction’ . A term I love. I remember Margaret Atwood using it to describe The Handmaids Tale in preference to Science Fiction and it’s been a term I’ve enjoyed ever since. So that endeared me to this novel of Mr. Penman’s from the off.

I found the basic premise original. The police using magic to solve crimes. It has probably been done before but I cannot think of an example off the top of my head so I’ll stick with finding it original.  I’m loathe, as ever, to detail much about the plot as I am obsessively paranoid about offering spoilers. But Agent Sully ( and that set off a memory of Agent Scully and the X Files, not to mention Monsters Inc. and Tom Hanks!) is a kick ass heroine, a kind of adult Harry Potter meets Katniss Everdene and is the tour de force that drives this novel along. Accompanied by her extraordinary magical abilities she is an exciting character. So exciting that the others faded in comparison despite fulfilling their various functions.

There’s everything for lovers of the supernatural here; vampires and demons, magi and witches, spells for every possible situation. I found it a very visual book, I could even imagine video games. 
The writing is fast paced, imaginative with an underlying intelligence that gives credence to the infrastructure of the magical aspects of crime and policing. There’s even a little supernatural history and politics thrown in for good measure which adds more depth to the book. There’s much action, some gory, more than a little humour and  a conclusion that possibly paves the way for another Sully story.

This isn’t a book for everyone. If you’ve a penchant for realism and plausibility you might not derive as much pleasure from it as a reader who has a fertile imagination and a love of things magical and supernatural. I am possibly over endowed with those latter qualities so I enjoyed it! Thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Perfect Victim - Corrie Jackson

I’m not a fan of the press; media, journalists on the whole. Especially the aggressive style journalism that places newspaper sales and scoop stories ahead of morality and human decency. So I didn’t instantly warm to Sophie Kent and her colleagues. I’ve not read the previous book in the series either. So a not altogether promising start for me. But I am pleased to report that things did improve. A little.
Overall I found this story to be convoluted and over plotted. In the end there was only place to go and inevitably the book went there but not before the reader was thrust into a generous shoal of red herrings. 

It’s fast paced, full of action and interactions and despite much of the implausibilities never allows its reader to get bored. It’s definitely not a feel good read and the final denouement leaves you with a bit of a sour taste in your mouth having read on and on simply to find out who did ‘dunnit’ and who didn’t ‘dunnit’! I found it quite visual and could imagine a contemporary crime drama for TV coming from it. Some of the writing that describes the newspaper office read like one of those black and white film noir B films which I did enjoy. 

I struggled to engage with the characters although my initial antipathies towards Sophie dissolved as the book developed. Flawed characters seem to be the meat and thrust of contemporary thrillers nowadays and there was no lack here. The entire premise depended upon that.

I can see this book having a wide appeal for a great many readers and whilst I fear I may have been over critical, even implying maybe that I didn't enjoy the book that would not be quite true. It just didn’t blow me away enough. 

Monday, 30 October 2017

Norma - Sofi Oksanen

My knowledge of Finnish writers, prior to reading this book, extended no further than Tove Jansson who I believe wrote in Swedish anyway! So this was very much a first for me. However a cursory google of contemporary Finnish authors reveals an impressive list with Sofi Oksanen occupying a prevalent place. 

I am always impressed by a translator’s ability and I would imagine Finnish is a complex language to learn for English speakers so I am doubly impressed by the work here. But it did strike me most forcibly that I was reading a work in translation. It had that curious, indefinable kind of stutter that renders the flow of the narrative uneven.

The actual premise of this book I found to be very original and quite quirky. Norma has ‘supernatural’ hair’ and whilst that may sound like a contemporary advertising strap line for hair products nothing could be further from the truth. Norma’s hair is sensitive to mood, changes her own and others,  plus it moves and grows of its own volition. That alone could put this book firmly in the magical realism category. However the hair tendrils alert their owner to the idea that her mother’s supposed suicide may not be quite as it seems. And thus we have a complex thriller on our hands.

I’d love to continue by saying what a fabulous book this is because the basic premise has it all but whether the translation contributes to this or not I found the book overall a tad confusing and some of the characters muddled. I was frequently referring back to look at the relationships and connections. The plot was a complex one and offered some food for thought regarding how women can be taken advantage of. But it lacked cohesion and the pacing was patchy. The conclusion was - inconclusive!! 

However I wanted to find out what happened and I did enjoy the book, mostly because it was unusual and quite unique. My thanks to Readers First for a copy of this book.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Foxes Unearthed - Lucy Jones

I generally select fiction to read by choice although I’m never averse to non fiction per se but often it has to be thrust upon me as was this illuminating volume by Lucy Jones. A volume about an animal I certainly always get a thrill from seeing, the fox. 

This book seeks to investigate the history and lore of the fox and attempts to offer a balanced view from both pro and anti fox perspectives. I am very much pro and one thing the book did emphasise for me was how, as a species, man is the only animal to have the belief that domination and ownership of this planet is somehow exclusively theirs. I think the book also illustrates how fragile the entire eco system is and how man doesn’t really understand how intervention can disturb that fragile balance. 

I was especially interested to read how foxes manage to interact and communicate with other animals including humans as I had a moving experience once where a fox came and asked me for help in broad daylight. He had injured his back leg and could barely walk. I will never forget his eyes as he looked into mine somehow knowing he could trust me. My cat also responded to his suffering and she sat a respectful  distance away from him, with no fear, but seeming to offer him some kind of moral support. The RSPCA came and collected him but he was too badly hurt and was euthanised. Apologies, I have digressed. 

I found it a simple, gentle book. Not in terms of everything described certainly but at no point did the author attempt to preach at her reader. It is a compassionate, factual and observational overview with some pertinent research backed up by the informative notes and bibliography. The legal aspects regarding hunting are interesting as I was ignorant of the specifics. It is generally well written although it had the feel of a dissertation about it with the exception of the personal accounts of foxy matters.

I suspect it will appeal more to fox lovers than fox haters despite the writer’s very laudable attempt to be objective and non partisan. And one is left with an overwhelming admiration for this magnificent and oft maligned animal.

Thanks to Nudge Books who sent me this as a maverick choice to read and review. And I am the better informed because of it!

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Foreign Bodies - Edited by Martin Edwards

I have read several books in this series of British Library Crime Classics and often I skip the Introduction until after I’ve read the book so eager am I to involve myself in the meat of the story. I’m not sure how fair that is to Martin Edwards who does such an incredible job with this series but in this latest collection from the Library each individual story is introduced by Mr. Edwards so I cannot escape him My experience is all the richer for it. Not merely en expert in his field Mr. Edwards demonstrates  the love he has for this exciting genre. My acknowledgement of his work has been long overdue and I’m happy to redress the balance here.

This book is a fascinating and quite unique collection of vintage crime stories in translation very aptly called Foreign Bodies. As mentioned previously each story is accompanied by an introduction which puts the story into context and gives us some information about the author of each one. Each story is enriched and I am in no doubt that my reading was enhanced by these prefaces.

It’s like a chocolate box of crime tales, some with hard centres, some with soft but all extremely tasty. They are diverse both in terms of the crimes but also culturally, Credit to all the translators who have rendered these accessible to English speaking readers. It’s a veritable global plethora of vintage crime writing. They are rich historically as we have an opportunity to learn about various crime solving techniques. I am always struck by how cerebral crime solving was before all the advances in forensics and technology were widely used. That doesn’t alter whatever the location. 

I guess everyone who reads these will have their favourites but standout stories? For me I particularly. enjoyed ‘The Stage Box Murder’ with, what must have been quite unique for its time, its structure. Also ‘The Mystery of the Green Room’ paying homage to Leroux. But there wasn’t a weak tale in the whole of this anthology. Unless you are an arachnophobe. Maybe there’s a couple you might want to miss.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Magician's Lie - Greer Mcallister

Although this book seems to have been originally published in 2015 I suspect that was the American edition and since the author is American it stands to reason. So we in the UK have had to wait a couple of years but some things are worth waiting for and this is definitely one of them!

I had not heard of Greer Mcallister before Nudge Books sent me a copy of this captivating tale. I approached it as one of those books where I had no expectations at all but ended up being utterly absorbed in this tale of magic and love and adventure and survival.

I’m beginning to be spooked by the number of books that have come my way recently with magic and travelling circuses in the theme, I think of Jess Richards City of Circles and A Jigsaw of Fire and Star by Yaba Badoe. It has to mean something but I’m darned if I know what!

Structurally this is what I like to call a story within a story narrative. The guts of the novel - The Amazing Arden’s life- is told by Arden whilst in custody for a murder that she may or may not have committed. And whilst that particular device may be seen as some as hackneyed it works wonderfully well here because it is also interspersed with the much lesser tale of Virgil Holt the policeman who arrests Arden. The dynamic between the two urges the story onwards until we are desperate to know what happens. 

These two characters dominate and are well drawn, especially, Arden. But the novel is populated with other characters of strength and importance. Some of them drawn from real life. I had never heard of Adelaide Herrmann but she leaps off the page at you. If you’re going to include historical characters within your narrative then the research had better be good and this story flows with conviction and authenticity. 

It is very well written; almost every word is crucial so as a reader you’re never lost within a sea of words wondering where the writer is going with them. I sometimes wonder if that is what renders a book ‘unputdownable’? For I was certainly reluctant to put this down and left other tasks untended in favour of immersing myself in this book. And if that isn’t a recommendation I don’t know what is!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Somebody at the Door - Raymond Postgate

Scrumdiddlyumptious as the BFG would say. This book was pure pleasure to read. Another from the British Library Crime Classics series. This collection just grows and grows in strength and diversity. Let me also take time to celebrate the glorious cover art that could even render the series iconic in the fullness of time. I’m not normally bothered by covers averring that I read the book not the cover but here the covers are to be looked at as works of art almost. 

This is a wonderfully written police procedural investigating the murder of a most unpleasant man. So that allows the reader to concern themselves with the unveiling of the perpetrator rather than wasting sympathies and empathies on Henry James Grayling himself. The construction of the narrative almost renders it a collection of short stories linked by a single train journey in one carriage. Person by person the police investigate the passengers and each of their lives are given full disclosure as we build up a picture of methods and motives. It seems that almost no one is exempt from suspicion. Each chapter heading shows the arrangement of passengers in the compartment with what must surely be the original emoticon! A pointing hand! It’s so simple yet so effective.

The murder method is ingenious and its detection all the more so given the lack of forensic and digital tools available during these war years. The bleakness and darkness of the war is sustained throughout so it’s anything but an uplifting book thematically but it was joyous to read such intelligent writing. 

The characters are all well defined and accessible, human in their foibles including Inspector Holly and whilst the final denouement was not totally unexpected the ultimate dissection of that denouement was detailed and specific enough to satisfy. 

I also think it is worth remembering that the state of contemporary crime and thriller fiction that we enjoy now would not have been arrived at were it not for the competence of writers such as these. This whole series is important in the entire history of crime writing, 

If you haven’t read any yet, I urge you to do so and this one is a as good a place to start as any.

Friday, 20 October 2017

In Dust and Ashes - Anne Holt

As you might expect from a Scandinavian crime thriller the plot is complex and requires the reader to follow closely and keep up. And as you might expect from an Anne Holt thriller all of that - magnified!

I’m familiar with Holt’s Vik and Stubo series but this is the first of the Hanne Wilhelmsen series I’ve read and although this may be the last in that collection it has whetted my appetite and I’d like to read the rest. Sometimes coming in at the end of something is a disadvantage and there were plenty of references to the past but rather than put me off it has made me curious to read the other titles. Plus none of the past detracted from the current investigations in this book.

The two detectives are quirky which does seem to be a prerequisite nowadays. But these two are a perfect foil for each other. I felt more warmth towards Henrik than I did Hanne but I think its the yin and yang of their personalities that makes for such compelling reading. The other characters do tend to be functional and hard to get to know with perhaps the exception of Jonas who you just wish everything could turn out okay for.

The plot is clever with a paradoxical simplicity within its complexity and the way the two, seemingly disparate cases, are seen to be linked is masterful writing. The unravelling of all the clues and facts made for fascinating reading and I end up envying the mind of someone who can make it all add up to one inescapable conclusion. I did feel, as the book snowballed towards its conclusion, that things were slotting into place almost too conveniently however there is something desirable about having all the ends tied up. The ultimate conclusion too is wonderfully redemptive after the plethora of sadnesses sprinkled throughout the two cases.

Credit, too, must go to the work of the translator Anne Bruce because there was not one occasion were I felt it was obviously a translation. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Winter's Child - Cassandra Parkin

Look, I’m just a poor, innocent reader, okay? I really don’t deserve to be treated like this. Cassandra Parkin, how could you? How could you write such a book as this and lure me in with your elegant prose and sympathetic understanding of all conditions human. How did you develop such flawed yet human characters and make me feel what they are feeling? How could you construct such a compelling narrative with such a heart wrenching plot……………………and yet deliver those twists? 

Forget all the other missing child fictions you have read for this one displaces them most emphatically. Possibly, because for all that it is a missing child mystery, it is also a multi layered fiction that invites the reader to do some serious thinking. 

This is a cleverly constructed novel with some interesting subtle chronology. I don’t want to spoil so I’ll say no more on that. For the most part it is character driven. We are offered Susannah’s first person narrative and entries from her blog to describe her married life with John, their child Joel, his subsequent unresolved disappearance and the role of the police.  All of which alone raise so many issues about love, parenting, relationships under strain, so well written you feel like you are experiencing them for yourself. It’a harrowingly real.Reduce the novel down to its barest bones and I guess it’s about love and what it can do.

But parallel with the main thrust of the book are sub issues regarding spiritualism; clairvoyance and mediumship specifically, tantalisingly and covertly on the fence as to whether it’s a realm populated purely by charlatans or ……. maybe not? The effects of trauma on an individual, it’s so well done here it’s possibly the closest you can get to experiencing some of that, sometimes, irrational emotion and potential descent into mental illness. About friendships and the roles people play in friendships. But it remains a choice for the reader. You can accept it all simply as part of the story or you can allow yourself to become absorbed by the wider aspects of the writing.

I will admit that towards the conclusion of the book I did realise what had happened but it was a gradual realisation liberally peppered with disbelief. We Need To Talk abut Kevin kept popping into my head uninvited but its possibly the construction that elicited that bit of nefarious comparison. This book is a compelling piece of contemporary writing that should satisfy the existing fans of Cassandra Parkin and earn her some new ones including myself. Regrettably, I’ve not read any other books by her which is something I intend to rectify sooner rather than later. My thanks to Erin Britton, Managing Editor of Nudge for the opportunity to read this story.

The Betrayal - Kate Furnivall

I am so sorry. This book isn’t published till the beginning of November. That means you can’t read it yet. I feel so bad for you. Because you will want to read it. It’s a pleasure to read. 

There are no frills and fluffs, no attempts to be quirky with multi chronologies or flawed narrators. It’s a most wonderful example of good, old-fashioned story telling. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end (Wasn’t that what your teacher always told you when you were writing a story in Primary school), all in the right order. There’s heroes and heroines doing it for the right reasons. And there are villains and villainesses doing it mostly for the wrong reasons - although I’ll allow one exception but I’m not telling you because it will spoil it for when you read it. And you will want to read it. There are characters you will love and some you will loathe and you feel those things because the characters are believable. There’s lots of history in it, both social and political - it’s set mostly on the cusp of WWII. Its authentic and well researched. There’s some love, there’s some lust, there’s some drinking, there’s some gambling, there’s adventure and some swashing of buckles. So it’s exciting.There’s some morality, there’s some skullduggery. Oh, and there are twin sisters. And there’s a betrayal, of course but you’re kept guessing all the way through.

And I felt sad when I finished it because I wanted it to carry on. In fact I can’t think of anything in it that there isn’t. So you will want to read it. 

How did I get a copy I hear you ask?  I  won it in a competition! How fantastic is that? From the lovely people at Simon and Schuster. And now I want to read more of Kate Furnivall’s books. 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

One Last Dram Before Midnight - Denzil Meyrick

I put off reading this book for as long as I could. Why, you might ask? Was the thought of it that bad? Nooooooo. I knew that once I’d read and finished it I’d wish I had it to read all over again! I fervently hope that as I write this Denzil Meyrick is busy writing another Daley Drama.

I think that if you are a fan of DCI Jim Daley you cannot fail but to soak these stories up with the suction of a turbo vacuum. What I found quite poignant was meeting Daley as a young policeman full of enthusiasm and optimism before he turned into the more dour Jim of Well of the Winds. Brian Scott continues to liberally pepper his wit throughout the pages rendering the duo the Morecambe and Wise of detection almost. And it’s like meeting up with a couple of old friends reminiscing. There are seven stories here and all but one feature Daley and Scott but the one that doesn’t does have a younger Hamish in it so it’s not all bad. 

But let’s put the sycophantic fan worship to one side and get serious. I do not actively seek out short stories which is a shame because when I do I find them most satisfying to read. The format really works here with the solving of crimes. Short stories like these allow the reader the opportunity for a credible pause after a finished story instead of that reluctance to put the book down because you want to read on and find out what happens.

The wonderful landscape and community of Kinloch once again features in these stories as another character almost. It is one of the things I admire about Meyrick’s work, how his love of the place shines through the pages and catches the reader in its beam. What I also found fascinating was the development of Meyricks’s writing. He’s grown, along with Daley, in his career from Constable Meyrick to Chief Superintendent Meyrick! 

A crime short story has to be tight and well plotted. By necessity the plots tend to be less complex than a full length novel and all of these work/ There is variety from some simple detection and deduction tales to more brutal gangland crimes. The writing is well paced and flowing. Many familiar characters as well as a few new one and functional ones.

It may seem a paradox, considering these stories show Daley at the start of his career but I’m not sure if this is the best place to start if you’ve never read any before. However that may be because I’ve read most of the other books and I can’t imagine how I would feel if this was my first date with Daley. 

If you like well written crime, realistic but not without humour, an atmospheric landscape and some engaging characters you’d find it hard not to enjoy this collection. Thanks to Nudge Books for the opportunity to read it.

Without a Word - Kate McQuaile

There seems to be an unspoken work at force for me that deems it mandatory for me to enjoy books written by authors whose Christian name is Kate! It’s uncanny. So when those good folks at Quercus Books sent me a copy to review I was delighted and confident that here was another Kate to add to my collection. I wasn’t disappointed. 

Beginning with what seemed to be a random prologue, the point of which was not revealed until nearer the end of the book the story opened itself up and devoured me word by word. It isn’t a spoiler, as the cover blurb references it, but I found the premise original; two close friends enjoying a Skype call, one leaves to answer the door and is never seen again. The meat of the book is about the attempts to unravel that mystery ten years on. All the main characters seem to have baggage of various kinds and there are several subplots which mesh seamlessly with the main thrust of the narrative. 

The stand out character for me was the detective Ned Moynihan who seemed the most real of all. I didn’t overly warm to Orla. She seemed an insubstantial person  and whilst I could sympathise with all she endured during the entire narrative, poor girl, it’s Ned who I could empathise with. The other main male characters I could not warm to at all. 

As a thriller I thought it relied heavily on its unique premise to sustain it. Without that it might be just one more psychological thriller.  But it’s an accessible read, moving and flowing forwards to an expected conclusion except for one unexpected twist at the end which really had me!!  It enjoys all the elements you’d expect from a work of this genre. It’s pretty well written; maybe there are some contrivances, maybe there’s a situation or two that demands some elasticity in your belief and maybe there’s an over abundance of detail but none of these pose serious detriment to the story as a whole.

And it’s written by a Kate. Good enough for me!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Resort to Murder - TP Fielden

You might take a quick glance at the cover of this book and believe it to be one of the British Library Crime Classics so current at the moment. For the art work is reminiscent of that grand series. The title, too, wouldn’t be out of a place on, maybe,  a John Bude fiction. But, no, this is a very contemporary piece of work from an experienced and competent writer.

It is a glorious homage to an age that might be deemed historical for some readers but there are those of us who were there on the cusp of the sixties, if only as minors!! The nature of the titular play on words gives a clue to this almost but not quite farcical romp in a Devonshire seaside resort. However this is a deceptively multi layered book. 

It is the second Miss Dimont story and the meat of the book is the murder mystery and the quite ingenious plot which is well structured and keeps the reader guessing until the final denouement. But the accompanying sub plots, richly populated with some quirky and endearing characters, flesh the book out for some light relief. After all murder is a serious business. There are many stereotypical caricatures and cliches but I am sure they are all intentionally so. I will confess that when I began the book i really wasn’t sure but as i was drawn in it became quite delightful and at times downright amusing. If I am honest I did find it a little over wordy, not everything furthered the plot, but that was possibly not the intention. 

And as we withdraw from the summer into autumn and then winter those with pangs of regret may enjoy a good old yarn set in the blistering heat of summer.