The Goodbye Man (Colter Shaw 2) by Jeffery Deaver

Make Immortality Great Again!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Goodbye ManBounty hunter Colter Shaw is on the trail of two young men, boys really, who have been accused of defacing a church with neo-Nazi slogans and then shooting the church janitor who had run out to confront them. But as Colter learns more, he feels it doesn’t add up. Though troubled, neither of the boys have a history of involvement with neo-Nazi groups, nor have shown themselves to be trigger-happy. When his search ends in tragedy, Colter decides he wants to know more about what might have been behind their actions, and his investigation soon leads him to a kind of retreat, called the Foundation, where the boys had been headed during the chase. The more Colter looks into things, the more mysterious and sinister the Foundation appears. So Colter decides to book himself onto a retreat there, undercover…

This is the second book in a trilogy about Colter Shaw, a man brought up by his survivalist father to have all the skills needed to be both hunter and expert in self-defence. He uses this unique background to find missing people for offered rewards, travelling the country in his Winnebago. Sometimes the people he is searching for are accused of crimes, as is the case here, and sometimes they have simply chosen to disappear for more personal reasons. His success rate means he has plenty of money, so that he can choose which cases to take on and sometimes follow something up if it interests him, even without the prospect of financial reward.

As well as each book having an individual plot, there’s an overarching mystery in the background regarding the death, probably murder, of Colter’s father and the disappearance of his brother, also trained in survivalist techniques. That story doesn’t move much in this middle book, but the ending suggests it will probably be the main story in the third and last book of the series.

The main story here is about the Foundation, which Colter soon learns is a personality cult around the charismatic figure of Master Eli, who promises that he has discovered the true way to happiness and immortality. He attracts those who are suffering from grief or depression, and preys on their vulnerability. But is he merely a charlatan, a snake-oil salesman, out for money? Or is there something darker going on? How far will Master Eli and his inner circle go to protect their lucrative business?

Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver

Jeffery Deaver has an easy style that makes his books very readable even when the subject matter might be a little clichéd, as it is here. He brings nothing new to the idea of the cult, and it all seems a bit too convenient that people should be gullible enough to fall for Master Eli’s nonsense quite as quickly and completely as they seem to. Because, honestly, the basis of his “message” is pretty laughable – the merest soupçon of cynicism should have been enough to protect the new recruits. I found it quite amusing, though, that Deaver occasionally makes Eli sound rather like a better-looking and more eloquent version of a certain orange cult leader with whom we have all become far too familiar over the last few years, which certainly had the effect of reminding me that gullibility is pretty widespread. (I restrained myself from saying “in America” – do I get bonus points for tact? 😉 ) What is also widespread in America is the Great God Gun, worshipped with far greater fervour than the Bible which usually accompanies it, and of course there are Glocks and Colts and hunting rifles aplenty in the book. But Colter also uses his specialist knowledge to create some more innovative weapons, equally capable of killing or maiming, proving that guns really aren’t essential fashion accessories for the true survivalist.

I felt a little too much time was spent on building up the picture of the cult but most of the book is given over to action, which Deaver does very well. Colter is a likeable protagonist although he’s almost too good to be true, always able to come up with some arcane piece of knowledge in a crisis, like which herbs have certain properties, how to deal with various kinds of wildlife threats, how to bypass security systems, and so on. But although Deaver stretches credibility to its limits, he never quite breaks it completely. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first book, The Never Game, purely because I couldn’t fully buy in to the attraction of Master Eli and his cult, but I still found it a fast-paced page-turner and I’m looking forward to getting to the resolution of the background mystery in the final novel (which I already have and will be reading very soon as another of my 20 Books of Summer).

20 books 2019Book 7 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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Mother Loves Me by Abby Davies

Got myself a crying, talking, sleeping, walking, living doll…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Mother Loves MePoor Mirabelle is never allowed to go outside. Mother has explained that she has a severe allergy to light and if the sun shone on her she would die, painfully. Mirabelle has wondered if she couldn’t maybe go out in the evening then, after sunset, but Mother has told her that there are evil people out there at night who would do bad things to her. So Mirabelle lives her life inside her home, all the windows boarded up to stop light from getting in, all the doors locked to stop Mirabelle from getting out. But there’s one good thing in her life – Mother loves her. Every morning Mother paints Mirabelle’s face and dresses her so she looks just like a doll – Mother’s little doll. And then on her thirteenth birthday, Mother brings home a surprise – a little sister called Clarabelle, although the new little doll claims her name is Emma. And Mirabelle isn’t Mother’s favourite any more…

Written as Mirabelle’s own past-tense narrative, Davies manages to get a huge amount of tension into the story as Mirabelle begins to realise that everything Mother has told her may not be true. Admittedly, her voice and actions don’t always fit with her age – she sometimes speaks and acts like an older teenager, almost adult, and it’s hard to believe that she has as good a knowledge of the world as she has, given that everything she knows comes from books. But for the most part I found that issue quite easy to ignore, and I enjoyed the way Davies references the books Mirabelle has acquired her knowledge from, and how she models her actions on the heroes and heroines she has found in them.

While the thriller aspect goes well over the credibility line in the later stages, the basic premise is pretty terrifying because it’s so believable. And yet it’s not quite as dark as some of these stories about people being kept locked up for years because the baddie in this case is a woman, and therefore there’s no aspect of sexual abuse regarding Mirabelle or Clarabelle. Mother simply wants a living doll of her own, and so long as Mirabelle doesn’t make her angry then life is bearable, and it’s all she’s known. It’s only when she begins to realise Mother’s deception that Mirabelle becomes first confused, then unhappy and finally angry.

Abby Davies
Abby Davies

The writing style is simple, as befits a narrative from a thirteen-year-old, but it has some nice touches that make it an enjoyable read – the book references I mentioned earlier, the way Davies builds tension and shows us Mirabelle’s fear and her methods of controlling it, and her sense of wonder about the world she has never seen. I also liked how Davies managed to give a sense of both time and place to the reader even though all we have to go on is Mirabelle’s very restricted viewpoint. I wouldn’t say I ever came to have any sympathy for Mother, but Davies adds enough depth to her character to prevent her from merely being a pantomime villain, and she does a good job of showing how hard it is for Mirabelle to trust her own judgement about Mother given the years of brainwashing to which she’s been subjected. By the time it all goes a bit over the top towards the end, I was too invested in Mirabelle’s peril to get overly critical. And while it may not be strictly credible, I have to admit that nothing in it would be completely impossible…

Fast-paced, creepy, highly suspenseful, a bit gory in the latter stages but not too much so – given that it’s not really my usual kind of thing, I enjoyed this one considerably more than I thought I would.

20 books 2019Book 6 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Pact by Sharon Bolton

Poor little rich kids…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The PactIt’s the night before A-level results and a group of six friends have gathered together as they’ve done most nights of this gorgeous summer, to make the most of these last weeks they’ll all be together before going off to their various Universities. They’re confident they’ll get the results they need for they’re the cleverest group in their expensive, academically-renowned school. A privileged childhood lies behind them and now they have a golden future to look forward to. But drink and drugs and youth are a dangerous combination, and they all agree to one last mad escapade that results in the death of a woman and her two young children. Panicked, they flee the scene, but they’re sure the police will soon trace the car they were in. And then Megan, the quiet one, the outsider, offers to take the rap for them all. She knows she’ll likely go to jail, but she’s willing to do that on one condition – that the other five promise that when she gets out, they’ll each do her one favour, whatever she asks. The others grab this lifeline and agree. Fast forward twenty years… Megan is back, and she’s ready to call in the debt…

Goodness, when Bolton’s on form there’s no one to touch her for truly thrilling thrillers! This one grabbed me right from the start as I watched these six kids – selfish, yes, but also programmed to be high achievers by pushy parents and ambitious schools – do one stupid thing and then follow it up with another, even stupider. Even though the blurb reveals this early part of the plot, the tension that Bolton creates is irresistible, the definition of page-turning.

It slows down a little in the middle as we learn what our five remaining golden people have achieved in their twenty years. Tal has followed her father into the legal profession and now runs his well respected law firm. Xav is a successful investment manager. Amber has gone into politics and is being spoken about as a probable Cabinet Minister of the future. Felix has used his chemical expertise to set up his own business, from which he’s made a fortune. Dan is the least successful – he’s “only” become Master of the school the group once attended. But as we get to know them, we discover that beneath the glittering exterior of their lives, the memory of that night has affected them all to one degree or another. And now that Megan is back, all the feelings of guilt and fear are also back at full strength – maybe even more so now that they each have so much more to lose. And they don’t even know yet what favours she’s going demand in return for her silence.

After that slightly slower section it ramps up to full speed again, and never lets up till the end. I don’t want to say any more about the plot, since most of the fun comes from not having a clue what will happen next. So I’ll limit myself to saying that although Bolton dragged me far over the credibility line, it’s such a relentless ride I didn’t have time to worry about that at the time – nor even to really notice it. I believed in the characters and in their actions as they were happening and didn’t stop to analyse too deeply (and this of course is why thrillers work best when they are fast-paced).

Sharon Bolton
Sharon Bolton

Other things I loved, that made this work for me when so many other contemporary thrillers don’t (including one or two of Bolton’s own). Third person, past tense throughout, allowing Bolton to let us into the characters’ minds or keep us out as she chooses – and she uses that brilliantly to lead us on and misdirect us. It’s also much easier to put up with unlikeable characters when you’re seeing them from the outside. No “that day” nonsense – Bolton starts by telling us exactly what happened on that day back then before she brings us into the present, and what a difference that makes. She builds suspense on the basis of what might happen in the future, not by refusing to tell the reader what has already happened in the past. Similarly, no dual timeline – Bolton tells us about the past and then about the present, rather than jumping back and forward between them. And although the characters are all pretty unlikeable, they all feel believable – self-absorbed and selfish, yes, but their instinct for self-preservation is understandable even if it’s not particularly admirable.

I loved this one and raced through it, and the climax had all the thrills it needed and then a couple more. I wish all thrillers were written like this! Highly recommended.

20 books 2019Book 4 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion via NetGalley.

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The Killing Kind by Jane Casey

Twisted…

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Killing KindThe law says that everyone has the right to defence in court, so sometimes barristers find themselves defending people they’d probably rather not know. So it was with Ingrid Lewis when she was just starting out, successfully defending John Webster from accusations of stalking and harassment. It wasn’t long after the trial before Ingrid learned to her cost just what it was like to be the target of John Webster’s games. Now, a few years later, a fellow barrister is killed and Ingrid becomes convinced that John Webster did the killing, mistaking the other woman for Ingrid. But can she persuade the police to believe her before it’s too late?

Jane Casey always writes entertainingly and well, and I love her police procedural series starring Maeve Kerrigan. This book is something of a departure from her, moving into standalone thriller territory, and it rockets along throwing twist after twist until the poor reader’s head is spinning. This poor reader, I’m afraid, found it went so far over the credibility line that I had to stop trying to take it seriously at all at a fairly early stage, when Ingrid begins to wonder if Webster is really the bad guy, or is he trying to save her? From there on it spirals into ever more ludicrous scenarios, in which the only constant to hang on to is Ingrid’s profound stupidity. She’s the type of heroine who, on being told a house is haunted by murderous ghouls, volunteers to spend the night in it. “I am in fear of a crazed stalker who I believe wants to kill me, so I’ll wander about the dark, lonely streets of London late at night, all alone, rather than getting a cab,” seems to be her general attitude to self-protection.

Jane Casey 2 - telegraph.co.uk
Jane Casey (source: telegraph.co.uk)

I know credibility isn’t considered a plus in contemporary thrillers, so I’m sure this will work well for people who generally enjoy the “I didn’t see that coming” impact of total lack of plot and character consistency. Unfortunately I do like plots to hold together and there are far too many holes in this one for me, and I don’t like when characters have a personality makeover halfway through, as both Ingrid and Webster do in this one. I felt that by the end both were unrecognisable from how they had been drawn at the beginning, not because they had been changed by events, but because they had been changed by the author to fit in with the plot twists. Plus, I regret to say it, but despite all the twists I did see that coming… I had very little doubt from quite early on as to where the story was going to end up, although it’s done well enough that I wondered from time to time if perhaps I was wrong. But I wasn’t.

Overall, then, reasonably entertaining but I think it’s fair to say it’s not my favourite Casey novel by quite a long way. I’d admit, though, that I am probably the wrong reader for the book, and I’m sure it will work better for the many people who love this kind of over-the-top twisty thriller.

20 books 2019Book 3 of 20

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

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The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Lead us not into temptation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Man from LondonMaloin is a railway signalman who works the night-shift in the signal box at Dieppe, overlooking the harbour. One night, he’s watching the various arrivals and departures of cross-channel ferries as usual when he spots one man throwing a suitcase over the fence to another man, thus avoiding customs. Maloin shrugs – smuggling is commonplace and he’d probably do it himself. But when he later sees the two men fighting over the suitcase and then one of them killing the other, during which the suitcase falls in the dock, he doesn’t do what he knows he should – inform the authorities. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the tides to retrieve the suitcase, which he finds to be full of English banknotes…

This was my introduction to Simenon’s non-Maigret books, and turned out to be a very good one to begin with. It’s a study of a weak man whose greed leads him into an act of which he would not have thought himself capable, and the consequences on his character of the guilt and fear that follow.

Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe – the shopkeepers, the people who make their living from the fish and shellfish in the sea and on the shore, the hotels and bars, the rather downbeat, humdrum sex trade, and the transient travellers, mostly passing through on their way to somewhere more exciting. Too big to be a place where everyone knows everyone else, it still has a small town feel – the inhabitants carefully graded according to their station in life.

Maloin is an unpleasant character even before he gets himself involved in crime – bullying to his wife and children, using the services of the local prostitute whenever he feels the need to bolster his ego and prove himself a man, jealous of anyone to whom he feels socially inferior. His night work suits his rather misanthropic personality, allowing him to spend his working hours alone and giving him the days free to pursue his hobbies. His family are used to being quiet around the house so as not to disturb his daytime sleep, and mostly they propitiate him so as to avoid his outbursts of unreasonable anger.

But once he commits the act of retrieving the suitcase he sees visions of wealth and at first feels no guilt. However, seeing the murderer searching for the suitcase, he feels the first chill of fear, and as the police become involved in the hunt, first for the money, and then for the murderer, he finds himself entirely consumed by it to the point where he can’t sleep or concentrate on anything else. And then the guilt begins. Without going further into the story to avoid spoilers, it’s a very credible picture of how someone without any particular intelligence and a loose moral compass might behave when temptation comes his way. Maloin’s plans for how to convert the money to francs, how to explain its sudden acquisition, never get past the woolly stage, and meantime he finds himself getting sucked into a quagmire of deceit and a criminal investigation that is growing more serious by the day. What seemed at first like a minor transgression is gradually destroying his state of mind.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Novella length, this doesn’t waste any time on unnecessary padding – the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate. The suspense element is excellent – while Maloin behaves consistently with the character Simenon has created for him, it’s nevertheless not at all clear where his fear and guilt will ultimately lead him. And I found the ending entirely satisfactory, showing once again that sudden twists are not necessary to produce true suspense – it’s the fundamental unpredictability of human behaviour that does that.

This will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Simenon’s non-Maigret work. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more or thought it was better, exactly, but it has a somewhat different, darker feel and that aspect of being a story complete in itself that I always appreciate in stand-alones, without losing the features I always enjoy most in Maigret – the settings and the characters of his villains.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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The Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk

Volcanoes, geysers and spies…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Chill FactorIt’s 1971, and post-war Iceland is a somewhat reluctant host to the American military, there ostensibly to protect Iceland under the NATO banner, but in reality because Iceland’s geographic position makes it a strategically important part of the Western bulwark against Soviet Communism. When the Americans fear that a Soviet spy ring is operating in the country, NATO sends in a British agent, Bill Conran, to investigate. Meanwhile, a young girl has been found dead after a drunken night out and a young American soldier is suspected to be responsible. The Icelanders, already resentful towards what some see as an American occupation, are outraged…

Sometimes, rather than reading historical fiction, it’s interesting to read a book written at the time – you tend to get a much clearer feel for the prevalent attitudes without the filtering of hindsight. This book is a great example of that. No one writing today about Iceland in the 1970s would generalise, exaggerate and affectionately mock it in quite the way this British author of the time did. Falkirk reminds us that Britain and Iceland had recently emerged from the Cod Wars – i.e., a long-running dispute over fishing territories in the North Atlantic. (In fact, he spoke too soon – the dispute would be resurrected in the following years and not finally settled till the late 1970s.) As a result, Brits of the time would probably have quite enjoyed seeing Iceland made fun of a little – the Cod Wars never really made us all-out enemies but they were certainly serious enough to cause tension and a degree of animosity.

And Falkirk has fun with his Icelanders – the drinking, the sexual permissiveness (he sounds quite jealous of that aspect) and the obsession with the weather. This 50th anniversary edition of the book has an introduction by Ragnar Jónasson, a very familiar name to fans of Nordic crime fiction, who says that Falkirk got a lot right, especially the descriptions of Reykjavik and the landscape, but tactfully suggests that some of the commentary on the Icelandic character needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Jónasson also tells us that the book was popular in Iceland at the time, partly because it was so rare for a foreign author to set a book there.

The other historical aspect that’s interesting to see from a contemporary perspective is the on-going Cold War. Falkirk has no doubt about the standing of the various players in that – the Brits are morally good and intellectually superior, the Americans might be a bit naive but they have lots of useful guns, the Icelanders should be grateful for NATO’s protection, and the Commies are evil! (Actually I suspect British attitudes today might be pretty similar to that, but moving swiftly on… 😉 )

The main strengths, as Jónasson suggests, lie in the descriptions of Iceland itself, with its active volcanoes, geysers and mud pools, the small, clean towns and the lack of poverty. Falkirk portrays the people as fun-loving, friendly souls with none of the repressed hang-ups of the stiff upper lipped Brits, so although he does make fun of them it is broadly affectionate. He talks about the extremely low crime rate, which is apparently true, showing that therefore an individual crime takes on a much greater importance in the public mind than it usually does in more crime-ridden societies.

Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert
Richard Falkirk aka Derek Lambert

I found the story itself somewhat less interesting. It’s a rather standard Cold War thriller and I felt it was too easy to spot the various double-crossers. However it was entertaining enough to keep me happily turning the pages, and Conran is a good, typical fictional spy even if he does seem to spend considerably more time chasing women than Russians! There is a bit of a twist at the end which obviously I won’t reveal, but it again arises from the recent history of Europe and perhaps would have felt more credible to readers at the time than it did to me now. There’s a fair amount of mild humour in it to lift the tone, and at just over 220 pages, the book doesn’t outstay its welcome.

So overall I enjoyed it a lot, though more for the descriptions of Iceland and the historical context than for the story itself. Recommended for fans of spy thrillers, and also for fans of Icelandic crime fiction who might enjoy, as I did, getting a different perspective on the island’s recent past.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Taken by Lisa Stone

Looking for Leila…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Little Leila Smith has had to learn to look out for herself. Her mother, Kelsey, is often out of it on drugs or drink, which she pays for out of the money she makes from prostitution. So when Leila disappears from the playground one evening, it’s several hours before Kelsey realises she’s missing…

The reader knows, though, and we also know straight away who took her – a man who lives in the same block of flats as Leila and her mum. Happily, we also discover quite quickly that, although there are dark aspects to this story, it isn’t about child sexual abuse and the man is not a paedophile. That leaves us with the central mystery of the book – why has he taken Leila? And what does he intend to do with her? Will she ever get back home?

Meantime, Kelsey has been shocked into sobriety. She knew that there was already a good chance that the Social Services would take Leila away from her, and now she’s sure that even if Leila is found, there’s no chance of her being allowed to come back to live with a mother who didn’t even notice she was missing. Her struggle to stay clean forms another strand of the book. Here Stone doesn’t cut any corners in letting us see the sordid and dangerous life Kelsey is leading and at first it’s hard to sympathise with someone who has neglected her child so badly, but as we see her guilt and regret, and her terror at what might have happened to Leila, she becomes more likeable and I soon found I was rooting for her to finally get off the drugs and get her life together.

The main story regarding Leila’s disappearance requires a major suspension of disbelief at several points. She’s supposed to be eight but speaks and acts like a much older child. Partly this could be down to her having had to fend for herself more than a child of that age should, but it still doesn’t ring entirely true. The idea that she wouldn’t already have been in care is hard to swallow too but is necessary for the story, so let’s call it fictional licence. Even though she didn’t wholly convince me, I admit that she gradually won my heart and I found myself hoping that somehow there would be a good outcome for both her and her mum.

Even the baddie got a bit of sympathy from me once his reasons became clear. I had a pretty good idea of where the story was likely to be going from about halfway through, but was still interested in seeing how it all worked out for the various characters, and found the ending satisfying and more credible than some of the stuff that happened in the earlier parts of the book.

It’s well written in a plain style that suits the story – third person, past tense, so we see various perspectives, Kelsey’s, Leila’s, the baddie’s, and Beth’s, the police officer who’s in charge of the investigation. It has twists enough to keep it interesting, but not the ridiculous kind that turn the whole story on its head twenty pages before the end. Well-paced and not overly long, I found it a fast read and, once I got into it and put my disbelief in cold storage, a page-turner. And much less bleak than that blurb had led me to fear, largely due to the sympathetic characterisation. An enjoyable read!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Domino Island by Desmond Bagley

They don’t write them like that anymore

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When rich businessman David Salton dies, it looks like the Western and Continental Insurance company are in for a big hit – he was insured for half a million pounds. Although the inquest found he had died of natural causes, the circumstances of his death were a little odd, so before they agree to pay out the company sends their best investigator to take a look. Bill Kemp had a career in military intelligence before he went into the insurance industry, and when the investigation becomes the catalyst for all sorts of shenanigans on the Caribbean island of Campanilla he’ll need all of his skills just to survive…

(It occurs to me on writing that blurb that I don’t know why the book is called Domino Island, since the island is called Campanilla – maybe I missed the explanation! Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.)

Desmond Bagley was a hugely popular British thriller writer back in the ‘60s-‘80s, and the fact that most of his books are still readily available suggests he’s still got a pretty solid fan base nearly forty years after his death. So when this previously unpublished novel was found in his archives in 2017, more or less complete and with his own notes of the changes he intended to make, the idea of publishing it would have been irresistible. Michael Davies, a lifelong Bagley fan, took on the task of tidying it up and this is the result – and an excellent result it is, too! My inner cynic feared that Bagley or his publishers must have felt it wasn’t good enough to be published, but the editor of this volume explains that in fact it was well on the way to publication when Bagley withdrew it because he’d signed a deal that required him to produce a different novel tied into a movie he had scripted, and he didn’t want the two publications to clash. I don’t know why he never returned to this one, though.

The fictional island of Campanilla was part of the British Empire, but has recently gained independence and is now operating partly as a tourist destination and partly as an offshore tax haven, where the wealthy are extremely wealthy and the poor find it extremely difficult to survive because of the inflated prices and property values that wealthy people bring along with them. So there’s political tension between the governing party who see their job as keeping life sweet for the rich, and the opposition, divided between a moderately left party and an extreme left-wing, veering towards communism. David Salton was the leader of the soft-left party, so Kemp wonders if his political opponents may have had something to do with his death.

But there are other possibilities too. It transpires that Salton may have been a good man in the world of politics, but he was a philanderer in his spare time, keeping his mistress in a luxury flat while his wife lived in their secluded home in a different part of the island. Then there’s Negrini – owner of a local casino and reputed to have ties to the US Mafia. Salton has promised that if he gets into power he’ll crack down on the gambling industry. The status of the island as a tax haven means that there’s lots of financial skulduggery bubbling beneath the surface, so there are plenty of other people with a vested interest in making sure that a politician who intends to tackle corruption shouldn’t get into power.

All these various people and factions don’t want Kemp investigating and stirring around in the murky dealings of the island, and soon he finds that he’s in personal danger at the same time as political tensions on the island are reaching boiling point. It all comes to a climax in a traditional thriller ending, with goodies pitted against baddies, corpses aplenty and an entirely unexpected (by me) but satisfying solution to the mystery of Salton’s death.

The writing is very good, and not nearly as dated in attitudes to women as thrillers of this era usually are. It’s years since I read any Bagley and I can’t remember if his females were always treated this well or whether perhaps part of Davies’ tidying-up was to make the tone more acceptable to modern readers. Whatever, the women are pretty good characters, and one of them is even kinda kickass, which I found unexpectedly refreshing. They’ve certainly not been modernised to the extent of not feeling true to the time, however.

Desmond Bagley

There are parts where I felt it could have been tighter and a bit faster paced, and maybe Bagley’s final edit would have seen to this, but it never drags. Kemp, who tells the story in the first person, is a likeable and believable protagonist – he’s resourceful but not a superhero. He soon teams up with the forces of law and order in the person of Superintendent Hanna of the island police, another likeable character, and they work well together. The story is both interesting and well told, and although the island is fictional, it feels entirely authentic both politically and culturally. I enjoyed this one very much, and now want to go back and investigate some of his other books – it is sadly true to say that they don’t write them like that anymore, and they really should…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Journey’s End…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is Wednesday, 2nd October, 1872, and as he does every day, Mr Phileas Fogg is playing whist with his friends in the Reform Club. But this day the conversation turns to how the world is shrinking as more and more places become linked by fast steamships or railroads. Fogg claims that it is now possible to go around the world in eighty days. His companions pooh-pooh this notion, and Fogg offers to prove his point by making the journey. A wager is hastily arranged for the massive sum of £20,000 – half Fogg’s entire fortune. He intends to use the other half to cover any unforeseen expenses on his travels. And within hours he’s off, accompanied only by his French manservant, Passepartout, whom he had hired just that morning. But, unbeknownst to them, they are being followed…

I started my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge back in March 2016, so it has taken me considerably longer to make the trip than Phileas Fogg allowed himself! When I got close to the end I realised this was the only possible book I could choose to bring me back to London where my journey started all those years ago. And a perfect choice it proved to be! Not only is it a great book in its own right, but it also took me to all the places I’ve read about in the books I picked for my challenge. So when we got to Bombay I thought of playing cricket; when Fogg and his companions travelled by elephant I remembered Solomon’s journey; when they reached Omaha I thought of the World Fair. Anyway, I shall do a proper round-up of the challenge soon, but meantime, back to this book!

Fogg is a man of rigid habits and an obsessive concern with punctuality and exactness in all things. The narrator suggests his background is rather unknown, but that he must have travelled in the past to give him his fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. He is unflappable to an extraordinary degree given that his entire fortune is in the balance, but we eventually see that he has hidden depths. Passepartout, in contrast, is volatile and constantly getting into scrapes, but on the other hand he soon develops strong feelings of loyalty to his master and shows true bravery on more than one occasion. Then there is Detective Fix, trailing Fogg whom he suspects of having robbed Baring Brothers bank on the day he left London so suddenly. Fix spends half the time trying to slow them down and the other half trying to speed them up since he can only arrest Fogg on British soil – and the book reminds us that British soil spreads fairly extensively across the world at this period. The fourth character is an Indian woman they pick up along the way, but I won’t say more about her because to tell her story would be a bit too spoilery.

The book starts a little slow, with a lot of concentration on timetables and dates and so on, and Fogg is not initially a very endearing character. He is interested only in achieving his aim of proving that the journey can be done in the time – he has no interest in the places to which they travel other than how quickly he can get out of them again on the next leg of the trip. Europe gets barely a mention, Egypt is a passing blur, and it’s only really when they reach India that they begin to have adventures. But by that time, Passepartout and Fix have developed into entertaining characters, sometimes friendly, sometimes not, and they give the story the life and liveliness that Fogg’s cold mechanical persona lacks. It’s in India too, though, that for the first time we see signs of humanity beneath that British stiffness, and from there on gradually Fogg also becomes someone we care about.

From India to Hong Kong, to Yokohama, across America – sometimes ahead of the clock, sometimes behind. One adventure after another holds them back, each time throwing Passepartout into gloom and desperation but leaving Fogg unruffled and determined. And each adventure is more fun than the one before – storms and Sioux warriors, acrobats and opium dens, trains and steamships, polygamists and Parsees, and oodles of luck both good and bad. Will they make it back in time? Even though I knew the answer, I must admit I found the last fifty pages or so pretty heart-pounding, and joined Passepartout on his emotional roller-coaster ride between despair and euphoria. And the end is brilliantly done, misdirection and twists abounding!

Jules Verne

The new translation by William Butcher in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is excellent – flowing and fun. His rather scholarly introduction left me somewhat befuddled, in truth. As always, I read the book first, and imagine my surprise on being told that it’s full of sexual innuendo and “brazen homosexual overtures” between the three male characters. I missed all of that! Even though he’s now told me it’s there, nope, I don’t see it. Maybe he’s right – in fact, since he’s a Verne expert and I’m not, I’m willing to assume he is right – but then, on the other hand… sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Butcher goes so far as to say “the book is not designed for callow adolescents”. Hmm, I was probably a callow adolescent when I first read it, and I don’t think it corrupted my innocence! I did enjoy Butcher saying that Verne had portrayed the Mormons as an “erotico-religious group” though – I missed that too…

So an excellent adventure story suitable for all ages, or a walk on the wild side of sexual psychology, depending on whether you believe me or Butcher. Either way, highly entertaining – great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Book 5 of 20

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The African Queen by CS Forester

Love among the leeches…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It is 1914. When the Germans round up all the native inhabitants of the Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Central Africa to take them off to fight in the war, the Reverend quickly succumbs to fever and dies, leaving his faithful sister all alone. Until along comes Charles Allnut, a Cockney mechanic who had been out on the river collecting supplies when the Germans came, and returned to find all the people at the mine where he worked gone too. He realises he can’t leave Rose here, so takes her with him aboard the little steam boat, the African Queen, planning to find somewhere safe to hole up till the war is over, at least in this part of the world. Rose, however, has a different idea. She wants revenge on the Germans for destroying her brother’s life work, and quickly convinces herself that they should take the African Queen down river to Lake Wittelsbach, there to destroy the German gunboat that patrols the lake. It takes her a little longer to convince Allnut…

This, of course, is the book on which the Hepburn/Bogart film was based, and since that’s always been a favourite I knew the story well, and was interested to see how closely the movie had stuck to the original. The answer is that it does to a very large degree with one or two minor changes in characterisation, and then a huge divergence in plot at the end that makes the film into an adventure classic and leaves the book floundering as a rather anti-climactic disappointment.

Book 65 of 90

In the book, Allnut is a Cockney Londoner rather than an American. While I feel it would have been highly entertaining to see Bogie attempting to do a Cockney accent, I can understand why the star factor led to the movie character being portrayed as American. It doesn’t make much difference, except of course to change the patriotism emphasis from one of Brits fighting the Germans to the usual Hollywood hoopla of Americans saving the world. Rose is very much as Hepburn played her except that the woman in the book is a decade or so younger. So although she is still the “spinster sister” of the missionary, she is young enough to make her transformation into an active adventurer and passionate lover slightly more believable. She is, of course, actually English too, unlike Ms Hepburn!

The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. Forester gives a real feeling for the abominable heat and how badly this affects the pale-skinned Brits, however used to it they may be. The sudden rains, the insects, the leeches lurking in the water, the reeds that choke some parts of the river and the rapids that make other parts a terrifying thrill ride – all of these are done brilliantly and feel completely authentic (at least, to this reader who has never been even close to Africa).

The characterisation is considerably weaker, unfortunately, although they are both likeable enough to keep the book entertaining. Allnut is a weak, rather cowardly man but with lots of practical skills and knowledge, while Rose has courage enough for two and the ability to learn quickly, so they complement each other well. Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Under the leadership of a strong woman, Allnut suddenly discovers a courage even he didn’t think he possessed, whereas Rose quickly throws off a lifetime of repression and strict religious beliefs to become the lover of this rather underwhelming man. I didn’t altogether believe it, but I still enjoyed the journey in their company.

CS Forester

At least, I enjoyed it up until the last ten per cent or so, when suddenly all the tension is destroyed by an ending that leaves our two main characters on the sidelines while the regular armed forces of Britain and German take over. No wonder the plot was changed for the film! I can’t imagine what Forester was thinking, really. Perhaps he thought that the idea of two people tackling a German gunboat on their own was just too unbelievable and in real life that might be true. But this isn’t real life – it’s an adventure novel and needs a dramatic end led by our two unlikely heroes! Let them succeed thrillingly or fail tragically, but don’t just stick them to one side and let other people take over! Pah! I was left infuriated and let down by the way it all fizzled out.

So overall, good fun for most of the journey but with a sadly disappointing ending. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure that I’d really recommend it except to diehard fans of colonial adventure novels (which, by the way, reminds me that I haven’t mentioned that some of the language about the “natives” is toe-curlingly dated). One of those cases where I feel the film is better…

Book 3 of 20

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Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu

The politics of crime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a petty criminal is brutally killed, at first no one pays too much attention. But it quickly turns out he was only the first victim – soon there have been several murders, all carried out the same way: a method which earns the killer the nickname Sword. All the victims have two things in common. They are all criminals, and they are all members of the Roma, a minority ethnic group in Romania. Soon the matter becomes political as long-unresolved racial tensions rise to the surface, leading to outbreaks of violence. This is the story of a new, fragile democracy and of the men who are trying to make it work, or to undermine it…

This is the first book translated by Marina Sofia, long-time blogging buddy and now one of the co-founders of a new venture into translated crime fiction – Corylus books. The translation is excellent, as I expected, knowing Marina Sofia’s skill with words and expertise in about a million languages! Romanian is her mother tongue and English is the language she currently uses in her life, work and writing, so she really is the perfect translator for the book. There’s no clunkiness, and either she or the author, or both, know when an international audience might need a little bit of extra guidance to understand something that may be obvious to Romanians. This meant that, although the story is quite complex, I never felt lost.

The book is a very original take on a crime novel, looking deeply into the politics of racially motivated crime and how it impacts on an already divided society. The first chapter shows us the first murder in fairly graphic detail and it seems as if it’s going to be the start of a more or less standard crime fiction. But almost immediately we are taken, not to the police investigation, but to the corridors of power, where a Presidential election is only a few months away and all the top politicians are jostling for position. Some of the characters are named, but others are simply known by their titles – the President, the Minister of the Interior, and so on. There’s a cast of thousands (slight exaggeration, perhaps) and a handy cast list at the end, although I quickly found I didn’t need it, because in a sense who the characters are doesn’t matter – it’s their role in the politics of the country that matters. By about halfway through some of them had developed distinctive personalities, but others were simply “journalists”, “Presidential advisers”, “political commentators”, etc.

You hate the sound of this now, don’t you? But honestly, it works! It’s not really about the people, or even the crimes – it’s a political thriller about how politicians in a corrupt society manoeuvre, how they manipulate the media and how in turn the media manipulates them. It’s about Romania trying to juggle the demands of all the demanding new European and American partners they have to deal with now they’ve left the Soviet sphere of influence. And it’s a coldly cynical look at how politicians might ruthlessly inflame the divisions in society to boost their own electoral chances.

The Roma are seen as a kind of underclass, marginalised and discriminated against by a society that has written them off as criminals. They are the target of the Romanian version of white supremacists, but even the mainstream parties would rather they just stayed silent and invisible or better yet, left Romania altogether. As more victims turn up, tensions between the Roma and the Romanians grow, eventually leading to a series of violent confrontations, each more serious than the last. For those in power, a difficult balance must be struck – plenty of Romanians see the Sword as some kind of avenging angel, while the equally unscrupulous political leaders of the Roma see it as a way to lever some recognition for themselves. For those who want to be in power, it’s an opportunity – how can they best use it to bring the government to its knees?

Bogdan Teodorescu

I suspect you’d have to be interested in the skulduggery of politics to enjoy this one, although it’s certainly not necessary to understand Romanian politics specifically. The thing that most stood out to me, in fact, was that no matter the country, the corruption and the character of those who seek political power are depressingly similar. It’s so well done – too believable to be comfortable. Seeing how the actions of one man can cause a chain reaction that escalates to a point where society itself is fracturing and in danger of imploding is frighteningly relevant, especially when the basis of the story is about the marginalisation and repression of an ethnic group – something we’re all struggling with in the West at the moment. I love political shenanigans, so I loved the book, and learned a lot about Romania’s recent history as a bonus. Great stuff – highly recommended!

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The Never Game (Colter Shaw 1) by Jeffery Deaver

74% successful…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Sophie Mulliner is missing and her frantic father has offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can find her. Enter Colter Shaw, professional “rewardist” – a man who uses the tracking skills instilled in him in childhood by his survivalist father to hunt for missing people for the reward money. The case soon becomes more complicated when another person goes missing, then another. Colter, teaming up with local police detective LaDonna Standish, must try to find each victim while they’re still alive, while also attempting to work out who is behind it all and what they’re trying to achieve. Soon the investigation will take them deep into the gaming industry in Silicon Valley, full of eccentric designers and cut-throat competition, and the whole weirdness of people who spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one.

As well as the main plot, this first in a new series fills us in on Colter’s unusual upbringing and the mystery that still hangs over him from back then, which is clearly going to become a running story arc over future books. Colter’s father bought a huge wilderness property and called it the Compound, on which he brought up his three children to be able to survive anything nature or mankind could throw at them. Although Colter then went on to college and is perfectly comfortable in the outside world, his childhood has left him unwilling to settle in a routine job and too self-sufficient to work for someone else, so he travels around the country in his Winnebago, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes chasing down a missing person for the reward money. But he’s not a traditional loner – he has friends and people he works with professionally, and still regularly goes back to the Compound to visit his mother. His father taught him to make decisions based on probabilities, so when making any decisions he runs through the various options allocating each a percentage rating of success. These percentages appeared to me to be entirely arbitrary and so became increasingly pointless and annoying as the book went on. I do hope Deaver drops that in future books because otherwise Colter has all the makings of an excellent series protagonist.

Jeffery Deaver

It took me a while to get into this and it never really turned into a heart-pounding thriller for me, but I liked Colter and loved LaDonna (who unfortunately probably won’t appear in future books, since Colter doesn’t stay in the same place for long), and I found the background story about the world of gaming interesting (though I suspect it may drive real gamers crazy since Deaver explains everything at a really basic level for the novice). It is too long at 450 pages, and the divide between the actual plot and Colter’s back story slows the pace too much, especially in the early section. The plot has lots of interesting twists and turns, though these aren’t always executed as smoothly as I’d expect from an author with Deaver’s long experience. However, the writing is excellent for the style of the book – that is, it’s plainly and clearly written, third person, past tense, with a nice balance between characterisation and action, and I gradually found myself absorbed in it. I must admit I actually found the mystery relating to Colter’s past rather more interesting than the main plot in the end, and it would be it that would tempt me to read the next book.

So overall, a good start to what has the potential to be a great series – I’d say there’s about an 81% chance of that. I look forward to finding out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Wedding from hell…

🙂 🙂 🙂

When domineering and narcissistic Jules is getting married to handsome and charming TV celebrity Will, she wants her wedding to be glamorous and unique, so she books The Folly, a newly refurbished old house situated on a small, isolated island off the coast of Ireland. But when the guests begin to arrive, we soon learn that many have secrets, and long-hidden tensions and resentments will soon come to the surface as the drink starts to flow…

The blurb of this and many reviews are comparing it to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, so I’ll start by saying it’s not comparable, either in plot or storytelling. This isn’t a deranged seeker after justice gathering together a group of potential victims – rather it’s a group of victims, one of whom will take revenge against another. The mystery is all in which of the damaged and bitter people will be the one to break and who will they kill? And, of course, in order to create “tension”, the author keeps all their past secrets hidden until near the end, merely hinting dramatically at them throughout.

The trend of “that day” novels surely must be approaching its end now. It feels increasingly tired with every new “thriller” that comes along. In this one, nearly every character has a “that day” incident in their past, reminding me of why wedding receptions should never be held in remote places where there’s no easy escape route for the few sane, sober guests. Not, I hasten to add, that there are any sane, sober guests at this wedding. From Aoife, the wedding planner who hints regularly at some tragic incident that has resulted in a well tended grave in the grounds of The Folly; to Jules’ half-sister, Olivia, having dropped out of university over some shattering experience involving an unspecified man; to Helen, married to Jules’ oldest friend Charlie and suspicious of their relationship; to Johnno, the best man, and the ushers – all school friends of Will and all constantly hinting at a terrible incident that happened back in their schooldays; every single guest is portentously weighted with emotional damage.

Lucy Foley

It sounds as if I hated this and I didn’t, really. As what it is, it’s reasonably good – it’s simply that there have been so many of these identikit thrillers that I don’t see much point in them unless they’re real stand-outs, and for me this wasn’t. It relies hopelessly on piling up coincidence after coincidence until it loses any pretence at credibility, and frankly becomes a bit laughable. However, it’s well written, and, while I couldn’t really believe that anyone would build a wedding venue on an island that gets cut off in storms and is full of deadly bogs, quicksands and underground caves, Foley does use this unlikely setting well to develop an atmosphere of menace. Initially her characterisation is quite good too – she ranges through multiple narrators (of course) and their voices aren’t always distinct from one another, meaning that the chapter headings telling the reader who’s speaking are essential, but each has an interesting story to tell, even if they tell them at glacial speed. Gradually, as their stories are revealed, it all becomes overly dramatic and the characterisation dips a bit, but despite it being grossly overpadded as is standard with current crime fiction, it mostly held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I may have suspected the dénouement would be, as it was, unconvincing, but I still wanted to know how it all turned out.

So, not really my kind of thing but I enjoyed it enough to make the time spent on it worthwhile, and I’m sure it will work better for the many avid fans of this type of thriller, who I hope will not be deterred by my lukewarm, subjective review.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Buckle your swash…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Owing to the indiscretion of an ancestor, the Rassendyll family shares heredity with the ruling family of the small Germanic nation of Ruritania. Every now and then a Rassendyll is born with the red hair and long nose common to the Ruritarian Kings. Rudolf is one of these red-haired Rassendylls and, being a young man with a plentiful inheritance and time on his hands, he decides he will visit Ruritania to witness the coronation of the new young King, another Rudolf. When he gets there he discovers that everyone is startled by his appearance – he doesn’t simply resemble the King, they are almost identical. So when King Rudolf is incapacitated before his coronation, our Rudolf steps in to take his place in order to prevent the King’s jealous half-brother, Black Michael (so called because he hasn’t inherited the red hair), from carrying out a coup and stealing not just the throne but the beautiful Princess Flavia, destined to be the wife of the King. But when the King is then kidnapped, suddenly Rudolf finds the impersonation will have to go on until the King is free…

Short novel or long novella, this is a swashbuckling adventure full of drama, sword fights, high romance and chivalric honour. And it’s great fun! Rudolf tells us the story himself, and it reminded me very much in style of John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, where the first person narrator self-deprecatingly repeats the many compliments bestowed upon him by everyone he meets, so that we know he’s wonderful in every way without him having to tell us so directly. A great swordsman, a flawless linguist, a natural leader of men, and an irresistible wooer of women, Rudolf is also a man who puts honour above his own desires, even when faced by overwhelming temptation. But he lets us see his internal struggle to do the right thing, which stops him from becoming insufferable. The King is a weak drunkard and Black Michael is a hissable villain, so that the reader can only agree with the growing number of Ruritarians who begin to think that the impostor is an improvement over the real royals.

Ronald Colman as Rudolf and Raymond J Massey as Black Michael in the 1937 film.

Although Black Michael is the chief baddie in terms of the plot, it’s his henchman Rupert of Hentzau who becomes Rudolf’s main adversary. Rupert shares most of Rudolf’s manly attributes, but turns them to wickedness rather than good. So where Rudolf is not above stealing a kiss from an innkeeper’s daughter, Rupert is more likely to kidnap the girl and “ruin” her – such a useful euphemism! And while Rudolf will do the right thing even if it hurts him, Rupert will cheerfully sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. They are a little like Jekyll and Hyde – two extremes of the same personality, one good, one evil. And Rudolf recognises this himself – although he finds Rupert morally reprehensible, he still admires his spirit and bravado, and finds his outrageous behaviour amusing.

The introduction in my Oxford World’s Classics edition is by Nicholas Daly, Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College Dublin. He tells us about the impact and legacy of the book, which spawned so many imitations they became a sub-genre all on their own, of “Ruritarian romances”. There were successful stage adaptations in both London and New York, and several film versions, and Daly gives many examples of later books and films that were inspired by it. Ruritania itself, although imaginary, has taken on a life apart from the book. Wikipedia gives a list of instances when it has been used in order not to offend real nations: for example, “Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer cited Ruritania as a fictional enemy when illustrating a security treaty between Australia and Indonesia”. Isaac Asimov apparently also used it if he wanted to tell a joke that was based on ethnic stereotyping, substituting it for the nation or people in the original joke.

Anthony Hope

The plot is very well done. It’s quite simple – how to free the King and restore order – but Hope uses the impersonation aspect to tie all three participants up in a tangle where each is prevented from taking the easy option without destroying his own plan. And he skilfully puts the reader in the position of not being sure what the best outcome would be. This gives it the suspense that keeps those pages turning – it’s hard to put down so it’s fortunate that it’s short enough to be read in an evening.

A thoroughly entertaining read, perfect for the next time you feel the need to buckle your swash! Or should that be swash your buckle…? Either way, recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Westwind by Ian Rankin

Eyes in the sky…

🙂 🙂 😐

When communications with the Zephyr satellite are suddenly cut, the monitoring staff at the Binbrook listening station work frantically to restore it. If it’s down for more than a few minutes, chances are it will be lost for good. Fortunately, it kicks back in after a couple of minutes, as mysteriously as the original breakdown. One of the technicians, Martin Hepton, is puzzled – even more so when a colleague tells him that he has spotted something odd, and then before Hepton gets the chance to ask him what, disappears from the base. At the same time, there is an accident aboard a space shuttle and all the crew are killed except one – a British astronaut, Major Dreyfuss. All this is happening at a time when tensions are high already, due to the imminent pullout of American troops from their bases across Europe. Soon Hepton will find himself in danger, and to save himself will have to work out what’s going on…

This is one Ian Rankin wrote many years ago when he was just starting out. It was first published in 1990 and sank without making much impression. Now there’s a little trend happening of publishers reissuing early books of authors who have gone on to become big names. I’ve recently read a couple of early Peter Mays – one I abandoned and didn’t review, and the other I loved. So there are gems out there – we’ve all read debuts we’ve thought were great and been disappointed when they didn’t break through. Sadly, while this one isn’t terrible, it’s not very good either.

It took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t working. It’s well written as you’d expect from Rankin, and although the characters are clichéd and the technology is seriously outdated, neither of these is unusual in action thrillers. I realised it’s the timing that’s off. In thrillers, there’s always a need to keep the reader in the dark alongside the characters as they battle against the odds to discover what’s going on. But there has to be something to hold the attention while the plot gets a chance to develop – usually the reader getting to know and care about the main character – and that’s where this one is weak. For several chapters, we keep meeting new people, most of whom are so underdeveloped that I found in the later stages I had no recollection of who they were or in what context we’d met them before, and each encounter is equally mysterious, constantly adding to the confusion. It bounces around so much that it was quite a while before I was even sure that Hepton was going to be the hero of the story. By that point my interest level had already flagged.

Hepton of course becomes the target of the baddies who are determined to kill him. This baffled me a bit, since he didn’t know anything and probably wouldn’t even have started looking into it if they hadn’t started chasing him around. A rather incompetent move, I felt, to actually inspire him to become suspicious! That wasn’t their only incompetence, though – I really felt that if their assassins were this bad at killing people, then the world probably wasn’t in too much danger from them.

And I’m afraid that when we finally find out who the baddies are and what they’re up to, I found it not only lacking in credibility but unfortunately all a bit silly. It left me feeling that Rankin was more interested in the action parts of the book than in ensuring there was a solid plot beneath them.

Ian Rankin

I’ve swithered over how to rate it. I suspect if it hadn’t been Rankin, my expectations would have been lower and therefore I’d have been less disappointed in it. But then if it had been written by someone else, I also think I’d be unlikely to seek out more of the author’s work based on this outing. I’m not convinced that this is a good trend – two disappointments out of three from two of my favourite authors of all time suggests that maybe their forgotten early books should be left to rest in peace. 2½ stars in the end, but I suspect that one of them may simply be because of my affection for Rankin’s later work…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

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The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray

Stop the world…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a rogue white dwarf star passes through the solar system, its gravitational pull affects the Earth’s rotation on its axis. Gradually over a period of years it slows, with days and nights lengthening; and then it stops completely, leaving half the earth’s surface in endless burning day and the other half in endless frozen night. Humanity scrabbles to survive and Britain comes out on top, lucky to be in the small habitable zone that surrounds the growing desert in the centre of the sunlit side. But when scientist Edward Thorne, on his deathbed, gives his old pupil Ellen Hopper a cryptic message, she is sucked in to uncovering secrets about how Britain has ensured its survival – secrets the authoritarian government will do anything to keep hidden…

There’s a lot to like about this promising début, so let me get my criticisms out of the way first. The book is drowning under the weight of words, being at least a third too long for its content. Murray describes everything in detail – he does it very well but a lot of it is unnecessary and it slows the pace to a crawl. In order to thrill, thrillers have to maintain a good pace and to speed up towards the climax. This is so self-evident that it always stuns me that editors don’t pick up on it even if writers make the basic mistake of getting too involved in their own descriptions of the settings at the expense of maintaining escalating forward momentum. The scene should be set in, say, the first third to half, and from there on the focus should switch to action. And the climax, when it comes, has to both surprise and be dramatic enough to have made the journey worthwhile. Here, unfortunately, the climax is one of the weakest points of the book, both in execution and in impact.

However, there are plenty of strong points to counterbalance these weaknesses. The writing is of a very high standard, especially the descriptions of the scientific and social effects of the disaster. Not being a scientist, I don’t know how realistic the world in the book is but it is done well enough for me to have bought into the premise. Murray shows how science during the Slow and after the Stop becomes concentrated on immediate survival – developing ways to provide food and power for the people – while less attention is given to research into how the long-term future may turn out. As Ellen, herself a scientist, begins to investigate Thorne’s hints, Murray nicely blurs whether this neglect is because of lack of resources, or because the government specifically doesn’t want researchers happening on things they want to conceal. In a world where the government brutally disposes of anyone who threatens them, it’s difficult for Ellen to trust anyone or to involve anyone else in her search for the truth for fear of the consequences to them, but her brother and her ex-husband both get caught up in her quest, and both are interesting relationships that add an emotional edge to the story.

Andrew Hunter Murray

The characterisation is excellent, not just of Ellen but of all the secondary and even periphery characters. I was so pleased to read a contemporary book starring a strong but not superhuman woman, intelligent and complex, who is not the victim of sexism, racism or any other tediously fashionable ism. The only ism she has to contend against is the authoritarianism of the government – much more interesting to me. Murray handles gender excellently throughout, in fact, having male and female characters act equally as goodies and baddies, be randomly strong or weak regardless of sex, and keeping any romantic elements to an almost imperceptible minimum. He also shows a range of responses to the authoritarianism, from those who think it’s essential in the circumstances, to those who dislike it but remain passive, to those who actively or covertly resist it; and he makes each rise equally convincingly from the personality of the character.

So overall a very strong début with much to recommend it – if Murray learns, as I’m sure he will, that there comes a point when it’s necessary to stop describing everything and let the action take over then he has the potential to become a very fine thriller writer indeed. I look forward to reading more from him.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

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The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

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Payment Deferred by CS Forester

Fade to grey…

🙂 🙂 🙂

We first meet William Marble as he sits in his dining room one evening, totting up his debts. William is a bank clerk who deals in currency exchange, and his salary is of the respectable rather than the generous kind. Despite his humble house, he and his wife Annie always overspend their budget and for a long time William has been shuffling his debt around, borrowing from one person to pay off another. But now he’s reached the point where he has no-one left to tap and his creditors are looking to be paid. Then his young nephew arrives unexpectedly from Australia, with a wallet stuffed with wads of banknotes. And it just so happens William has a cupboard full of photography chemicals that can easily double as poison…

This is not a detective novel, so that little blurb isn’t nearly as spoilerish as it might seem. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on William’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! William is deeply unlikeable while Annie is portrayed as so stupid that it seems unlikely that William would ever have found her attractive. They have two teenage children. Winnie, William’s favourite, starts out OK, but becomes progressively harder to like as the book goes on, while John, the son, has all the makings of a fine young man till his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour begins to affect him. I had a lot of sympathy for John, a little for poor stupid Annie, and none at all for the other two.

William eventually solves his money problems by carrying out a shady transaction at his bank – what today we’d describe as insider trading. Clearly Forester understood what he was talking he about when he described the details of how this scheme worked, but I fear I didn’t and my eyes began to glaze over. However, the end result is that William suddenly becomes well off, and we see how this change in fortune too affects the members of the family, not for the better.

Challenge details:
Book: 74
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1926

The element of suspense comes from wondering what the outcome will be. Will William give himself away? Will Annie begin to suspect him? But it’s very underplayed – for reasons made clear early on, there’s no active investigation going on into the young victim’s disappearance. While the vast majority of the book is very credible, the ending left me annoyed at the abrupt and contrived way Forester tied everything up.

As you can probably tell, this one is not a favourite of mine. I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.

CS Forester

However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste – I do think it does what it sets out to do very well; that is, to show the disintegration of the man and the effect this has on his family. Call me shallow but, although I admired the skill and the writing, I simply didn’t find it entertaining or enjoyable. Nor was it quite tragic enough to be harrowing, somehow. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but the ratings on Goodreads suggest plenty of people have enjoyed it far more than I did, so if the idea of it appeals to you, don’t let my reaction put you off. Noir is not my favourite colour, even when it’s faded…

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The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Wilderness adventure…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Wini, our narrator, isn’t an adventurous type but she’s persuaded by her group of friends to go white-water rafting in the wilds of Maine. Pia has always been the leader, the one who holds the group together and who pushes them to step out of their normal routine once a year and take risks. This time she assures them their guide is experienced and knows the river well. It turns out Ryan is a twenty-year-old student with the looks of a Greek hero and enough confidence to persuade the more reluctant members of the group to trust him. Big mistake. Soon enough they run into trouble when their raft is lost and one of their party is killed. You’d think that would be the bad part of the trip, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong… you’re forgetting that fictional wildernesses are always home to the strangest people…

There are so many books and films about wilderness adventures going horribly wrong that it must be difficult to bring anything original to the table, and Ferencik doesn’t try. We have the usual group of people with pre-existing tensions that will come to the fore when danger threatens. There’s the traditional mix of peril from nature and man – there’s always some kind of weirdo around when an adventure holiday goes wrong, right? We have the ubiquitous current trend of women discovering how strong and resilient they truly are under adversity. And in line with modern adventures, there’s plenty of blood, vomiting and unplanned urination to ensure that reading during mealtimes is not advised.

There’s nothing wrong with writing to a formula, of course – thriller writers have been doing it for at least a century. Ferencik relies on the quality of her writing and characterisation to carry the thing off, and on the whole she succeeds pretty well. The four women are well drawn, each with a distinct personality, and the dynamics of their friendship rings true, with the little petty annoyances and resentments that build up in any small group over time but underpinned by genuine affection and a history of mutual support in bad times. Ryan, the guide, is also reasonably believable, though at every point I felt he came over as older than his supposed age of twenty – he felt too mature and adult to be that age (but that may be a sign of my own age!). The baddies, on the other hand, are ridiculously over-the-top, and their back-story left me totally unconvinced. Sadly I thought they were a real weakness in the plotting, neither credible nor realistic.

Erica Ferencik

Ferencik writes well, both in the slower passages when she is revealing her characters to the reader and in the fast-action sequences which grow and escalate as the book goes on. Too much swearing, of course, none of it necessary and adding nothing to either story or character.

So a mostly good example of a fairly formulaic thriller, let down a little by the unbelievability of the baddies. I enjoyed reading it, but hope she does something a little more original next time – I believe she has the talent, she just needs to find a better plot. Recommended, though, as an entertaining read overall.

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The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

History through heresy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1468, and young priest Christopher Fairfax is hurrying to reach the village of Addicott St George before curfew. He has been sent by his bishop to officiate at the funeral of the village’s priest, Father Lacy, who has died in a fall from the local landmark known as the Devil’s Chair. But once installed at the rectory, Christopher discovers that Father Lacy had been a collector of antiquities, some of them prohibited by the Church, and he soon has reason to wonder if there may be something more sinister behind the old priest’s death…

But… that isn’t really what the book’s about. And I can’t tell you properly what it is about, since that would spoil it! Makes writing a review kinda tricky. Suffice it to say, there’s a layer of depth that takes this beyond being a standard historical fiction novel. There are elements of apocalypse and dystopia, though I wouldn’t label the book as falling strictly into those categories either. It has as much to say about the present as the past, although we never visit the present. Are you intrigued? You should be!

Christopher has spent his young life in the Church, sent there as a boy to train in the priesthood. This is his first real venture into the world beyond the limits of the cathedral town he calls home, and he soon finds that the world outside has temptations, not simply of the body but of the mind. Heresy, he finds, is a slippery slope – somehow the forbidden exerts a pull on his mind, and the more he discovers, the more he begins to question all that he has been taught. Are the strict rules the Church forces on the population designed to save their souls, or simply to give the Church a stranglehold on power? At the same time, he is beginning to question his personal vocation – his faith is not in question, but as he becomes open to new thoughts and feelings, he wonders if he is able to go on preaching a religion he is beginning to question.

And he’s not alone in his questioning. Others have dabbled in what the Church calls heresy, although the punishments are brutal. Some tread a fine line, trying to disguise their research into the forbidden areas of the past as anti-heretical warnings. Church and state are inextricably linked, and those who fall out of favour with one must suffer the penalties imposed by the other.

As always, Robert Harris has the ability to create settings which have the feel of total authenticity. Here, there’s an added layer of subtlety as we discover that it’s all not quite as straightforward as it first appears, and he handles the ambiguity wonderfully. If there’s a flaw in his more recent books, it’s that his plotting takes second place to his portrayal of a place or time or event. In Conclave, it’s all about the inner workings of the Vatican and how popes are elected, and the actual plot is the only weak point; in Munich, the plot exists merely as a vehicle to allow us to be a fly on the wall at the Munich Conference of 1938. In this one, the plot revolves around Father Lacy’s death and Christopher’s growing interest in the beliefs of the heretics, but again it’s simply a device for Harris to show us this society from different angles – to let us see how and why it has developed as it has. For some people, I know this is a real weakness, and usually it would be for me too. But I find Harris’ scene-setting and the subjects he chooses so fascinating that I never feel the lack of a strong plot. Sometimes, as in Munich or An Officer and a Spy, he casts so much insight into a point in history that it’s enough for me. Other times, as in this one or, say, Fatherland, he uses a slightly off-kilter look at history to make us see it with fresh eyes – not so much as it was, but rather as how only very slight alterations may have made it work out differently – and I find those wonderfully thought-provoking.

Robert Harris

I also find his writing so smooth and effortless-seeming that the actual act of reading is pure pleasure. I find him a very visual writer – he doesn’t go off into extravagantly poetic descriptions, but nevertheless I always end up feeling that I know the places and societies he’s shown me as well as if I’d visited them. And even when he’s making a “point”, he never beats us over the head with it – he respects his readers to think it through for themselves.

As you’ll have gathered, I loved this one – another rung on the ladder that is rapidly helping him climb to the very top of my favourite author heap. I do hope my vague review has intrigued you enough to tempt you to read this one…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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