Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt. W.E. Johns

Those magnificent men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World War 2, the Sahara Desert. British planes carrying supplies, dispatches and important officials have been going missing en route over the desert, so Squadron-Leader James Bigglesworth – Biggles to his friends – has been despatched with his squad to an oasis halfway across the desert, partly to protect planes as they pass the danger zone, and partly to get to the root of the mysterious disappearances. Biggles is an ace fighter pilot, having made his name in WW1 and now back fighting the same enemy twenty years later. His old companions are still with him – Ginger and Algy – supplemented by some new faces, all skilled pilots too. They have their trusty Spitfires and endless heroism to carry them through.

I used to love the Biggles books as a child and wondered if the old magic would still be there. I’m happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit to these old friends. Although they’re written in rather more simple language than an adult book would be, and occasionally Capt. Johns takes a detour to give a little life lesson – on how to plan things, or the qualities required of a leader, etc. – the story itself is certainly enough to hold the interest of grown-ups as well as children. The edition I read, from the Random House Children’s Publishing range, has a helpful notes section which explains some of the terms and jargon that the characters use, which have since fallen out of common knowledge.

Biggles and the squad soon discover that the planes are being diverted by a nefarious Nazi plot to mess with their compasses, taking them off their route. The squad responsible for this is led by the German fighter ace, von Zoyton, and his team of Messerschmitt pilots. So Biggles’ first task is to destroy the equipment that is sending out dodgy signals, and then to drive the Germans out of this sector of the desert to make the route safe again. This will involve sneaky plots, thrilling dogfights, desert survival and even camel rides! It all happens at a fast pace with no long dull passages, but there’s plenty of description that gives a real feel, if a little sanitised, of what it would have been like out there, far from the main action of war but performing a vital task.

The men are heroes, and all are brave and good. However they do make mistakes and misjudgements sometimes, even Biggles, which keeps them human. Both Brits and Germans show respect for their counterparts – they may be at war and they may be forced to kill each other, but they recognise that the enemy is simply doing his job, as they are doing theirs. First published in 1942 (under the title Biggles Sweeps the Desert), Capt. Johns already differentiates between German servicemen, for whom he has clear respect and no particular ill-will, and Nazi fanatics, who are the baddies. I think this is why the books still feel quite comfortable to read – there is no sense of racialised anti-German hatred, only anti-Nazi, and we can still all get on board with that, I think. There’s also a sense of them simply doing a necessary job – there’s no unseemly celebration over the deaths of enemy pilots on either side, while enemy prisoners are granted respect and decent treatment, by both sides.

Capt. W.E. Johns

I was pleased that Random House have chosen not to update the text as far as I can see. This means there’s an awful lot of smoking, seen as a Good Thing, which I feared they might have felt inclined to edit out. The British also often refer to the Germans as “the Hun”, now seen as somewhat derogatory, but back then, as Capt. Johns himself points out in a short note presumably added years later, “The word Hun used in this book was the generic term for anything belonging to the German enemy. It was used in a familiar sense, rather than derogatory.” By leaving this kind of thing in, the book keeps an air of authenticity and will give young readers a truer picture of the habits and language current at the time.

So a happy reunion with my old heroes for me, and I’d be quite happy to recommend Biggles for a new generation of readers, young or old – they feel more like a glorification of heroism and decency than of war itself, and they are respectful towards the enemy, showing that they too are heroic and decent men (except the Nazis). Plus, and more importantly, the adventures are still thrilling!

Amazon UK Link

The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes

Worse things happen at sea…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The little sailing boat Sea Witch is crossing the Channel one night, when suddenly a large ship looms out of the darkness and nearly rams her. The crew of the Sea Witch are planning to start a new business venture as salvagers and when they realise the ship may have been abandoned the skipper, John Sands, who is also our narrator, sees this as a possible salvage opportunity. So despite the fact that a storm is approaching, he decides to board the ship, the Mary Deare, to see whether they can bring it to harbour. But when he gets aboard, he finds the badly damaged ship is not completely abandoned – its captain, Gideon Patch, is there, exhausted and drunk and on the point of giving up hope. The storm hits, and Sands is unable to get back to the Sea Witch, so he and Patch are left to try to prevent the Mary Deare from sinking before help arrives. But what has caused the damage to the Mary Deare? And why has her crew, all but Patch, abandoned her? Sands finds himself caught up in a mystery as well as an adventure…

Hammond Innes was a big name in adventure writing in the last century, with a long career spanning from the 1930s to the 1990s. I’m sure I probably read some in my youth, but if so they’ve long faded from my mind. This one dates from 1956. The entire plot involves sailing – both big and small ships – and is full of nautical terminology and information about sea conditions, tides, and so on. Innes was apparently a keen sailor himself and clearly knows his stuff, and has the happy knack of not dumbing his knowledge down but still managing to keep the unknowledgable reader, like me, following in his wake. The story takes place mostly in the Minquiers, a cluster of reefs, rocks and tiny islets off the shores of the Channel Islands.

The story is divided into three parts, roughly speaking, with the first and last being adventures on the sea and aboard the Mary Deare, while the middle section involves the official court inquiry into what happened aboard. The adventures are exciting, though I did wonder if even strong experienced men could really have survived some of the physical ordeals Hammond puts them through.

The court case is what gives the adventure its plot. The Mary Deare has had a run of bad luck, firstly with the captain dying unexpectedly, so that Patch, who had only joined the ship in its last port, is thrust into the role of captain. A man is missing, a representative of the ship’s owners, and it is presumed he must have fallen overboard. Then there’s a fire which cuts off ship-to-shore communications, and finally an explosion in the cargo hold, breaching the hull. But are these things all accidents, or is there a nefarious plan afoot? The crew claim Patch ordered them to take to the lifeboats and make for shore, but Patch denies this, counter-claiming that they effectively mutinied under the direction of another crewman, Higgins. Then there are rumours that something dodgy went on the last time the ship was in harbour – that the supposed cargo of aero-engines had been secretly transferred to another ship. Patch, whose career and reputation are on the line, believes the only thing to do is to salvage the wreck and examine the cargo, and he ropes in Sands and the Sea Witch to help him.

The writing is perfectly attuned to the style of the story, with great descriptions of the sea and the storms, the conditions aboard the Mary Deare, how Patch and Sands go about trying to get the engines going again, and so on. The adventure sections have a real atmosphere of tension for the most part, though I felt the final section went on a bit too long – by that stage I was ready for the plot to be brought to its conclusion.

Hammond Innes

The courtroom scenes are slower, but I enjoyed the way Innes laid out all the conflicting evidence and gave us contrasting pictures of the various crew members. We see it all through the eyes of John Sands, who, like the reader, has no knowledge of any of these men other than what they themselves tell us. Therefore, like us, Sands has to make a judgment as to whether Patch is the victim of a conspiracy or is himself the saboteur.

I listened to the audio book version, narrated by Bill Wallis, and for the most part it’s excellent. The exception is when Patch is drunk and Wallis acts this out, slurring his words. This made it very difficult for me to make out what Patch was saying, and several times I had to rewind and listen twice or three times to the same sentence. Happily Patch sobers up eventually and the problem went away. But I do wish narrators would remember that clarity is the prime essential in audiobooks, however much they may want to show off their acting skills.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this sea adventure and I’m looking forward to checking out some more of Innes’ books in the future, either in audio or print.

Audible UK Link

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Peril in Paris…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Jess has left her job in England rather suddenly, and in a way that means it’s advisable that she make herself scarce for a while. So she tells her brother Ben that she is coming to visit him in Paris. However, when she arrives Ben is not there, and no one in the opulent apartment building where he’s been living seems able to tell Jess where he might be. He isn’t replying to texts or phone calls, and when Jess breaks into his apartment she finds his wallet and other items that she would have expected him to take with him had he left voluntarily. All alone in a foreign country, the language of which she doesn’t speak, Jess sets out to find out what can have happened to Ben…

Jess and Ben haven’t been close for years. When they were children, their mother committed suicide and they were taken into care. Ben, good looking, always able to charm people, was quickly adopted while Jess stayed in the care system being passed from foster home to foster home. So Ben was the one who got a good education and all the opportunities in life, while Jess has had to scrabble in a series of no-hope jobs to survive. But Jess still loves her brother and has turned to him for help from time to time. Now it seems that perhaps Ben needs her help for once.

Jess is surprised that Ben can afford to live in an apartment as expensive as this one seems to be, but she soon learns that one of the other tenants, Nick, is a friend of his from his university days and got him in at a reduced rent. All the tenants in the building seem reluctant to talk about Ben and Jess soon comes to suspect that there are some kinds of dynamics going on that she doesn’t understand. And soon she begins to feel threatened, though she can’t quite work out where the threat is coming from…

This is a fast-paced page-turner which I enjoyed considerably more than the only other Foley I’ve read, The Guest List. As usual there’s too much adolescent swearing for my taste, and as well as Anglo-Saxon cursing Foley has clearly googled common French swearwords and shoehorns them in as often as she can. The writing is good, though rather simplistic – there are no great descriptions or evocations of Paris. However, for me that suited the style of story and kept the pace rocketing along. The apartment building itself is very well depicted and has some lovely Gothic touches which help to ramp up the tension.

Lucy Foley

I liked Jess as a character. She’s had a tough life so she doesn’t scare easily and she feels she can take care of herself. She’s a bit out of her depth in this city where she knows no one and doesn’t know whom she can trust, but her love for her brother gives her the courage she needs to keep searching even when things get scary. The other residents of the apartments are an unlikeable bunch, intentionally so, and secrets abound! There are alternating chapters from the viewpoints of several of the characters, and although their voices are not really distinctive enough their personalities and thoughts are, so it’s quickly easy to recognise each of them as the perspective shifts.

The story touches on some serious topics, but lightly – this is an entertainment rather than a preachy “issues” book (hurrah!). The ending, though unlikely, didn’t feel impossible, so my credulity meter stayed in the safety zone and I found it all quite satisfying.

So an entertaining thriller, certainly not cosy, but not too dark and grim either. I raced through it over a couple of days and thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Amazon UK Link

I Have Something to Tell You by Susan Lewis

Mid-life crises…

🙂 🙂

Edward Blake drops his wife Vanessa at the station in the morning, as she is off to visit a friend in London. That evening he returns from work to his empty house, watches some TV and goes to bed. Next morning he discovers his wife’s body in the guest room, murdered. Not surprisingly the police find this story hard to believe, especially when the London friend denies all knowledge of a planned visit, and Edward is arrested. Enter Jessica “Jay” Wells, criminal defence solicitor, who will gradually discover that Vanessa had many secrets, one of which may have got her killed…

An interesting premise and the first 150 pages or so are very good as we gradually discover more about Edward and Vanessa’s marriage, and the possible suspect list grows as some of Vanessa’s secrets are revealed. The writing is good, and while all the characters are terribly middle-class in a trendy liberal sort of way, they’re reasonably well drawn.

And then Jay’s husband says those fateful words – “I have something to tell you” – and suddenly we’re thrust into a marriage teetering on the brink of breakdown, full of guilt and reproaches and tears and shouting and, from me, yawning. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a contemporary heroine in want of a good husband must instead be landed with an unfaithful jerk, and furthermore that her response will almost inevitably be to respond in kind. Ask me how interested I am in middle-aged people having sex – no, on second thoughts, guess. This tedious storyline takes up more space than the murder, overwhelming the entire second half of the book.

(To be fair, the book is in no way graphic and we are rarely taken inside any of the well-used bedrooms, but, oh boy, even when Jay’s not actually doing sex, she spends an awful lot of time thinking about it. Can we please have some professional female characters who are ruled by their heads, not their hormones? Is that too much to ask? If even women writers show women as unable to perform professional roles professionally, what hope is there for us?)

With so much adulterous hanky-panky going on throughout, it is somewhat ironic that the ending should turn out to be quite such an anti-climax – the earth barely trembled for this reader. The enormous length also gives plenty of time for even the least competent armchair ‘tec (i.e., me) to work out the “twist”. I did see that coming!

The thing is there’s a good story in here and, as I said before, the writing is fine. Had the book been cut by about 150-200 pages to remove most of the relationship nonsense it could have been excellent and, without getting into spoiler territory, it would have meant the solution could have been presented in a much more tense and surprising way. As it is, it’s a flabby 500 pages that began to lose my interest about a third of the way in and eventually had me skimming through all the descriptions of Jay’s feelings of betrayal, romantic longings and adolescent lust love. I kept going because I was interested enough to see how it played out but sadly in the end felt it hadn’t really been worth the time invested.

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

Amazon UK Link

Streets of Gold by Margot Kinberg

On the run…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Staci McKinney is a runaway, but she has good reason. She’s just fifteen and her new stepfather has been abusing her while her mother, desperate to make her marriage work, has been turning a blind eye. So now Staci is living rough, stealing food from bins and sleeping wherever she can find a bit of shelter from the freezing Philadephia winter. On this night she’s hiding under the overpass, shivering beneath the scant shelter of a plastic garbage bag, when she sees two men dumping what looks like a bundle of blankets. Once they’ve gone, she sneaks over, the thought of a bit of extra warmth too enticing to ignore. But just as she discovers that inside the roll of blankets is the body of a man, the two men return…

This novella-length story is a thriller rather than a mystery. The reader knows from the beginning who the two men are – City Councilman Daniel Langdon and his assistant and fixer, Scott Townlee – and we know how the victim died. There’s not much to connect Danny with the crime, so he and Scott thought that once they’d dumped the body they’d be safe. But now they know this homeless girl has seen them and they’re scared. They set out to track her down and though they deliberately don’t think further than that, it’s obvious there’s only going to be one foolproof way of silencing her…

Staci is scared too. She’s a smart kid, and tough, but she’s way out of her depth. She hasn’t been on the streets long enough to learn how to keep safe, or even just warm. And now she’s seen two men who she knows must be murderers, and she knows they saw her too. She soon becomes aware that Scott and Danny are hunting for her, and they have all the resources available to a City politician to help them in the search. Staci has to try to evade them while she figures out what to do…

My usual disclaimer: the author Margot Kinberg is a friend and fellow blogger. However, as always, I’ve done my best to be honest in this review, which happily is made much easier by the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed the book!

This is a great example of what I’m always banging on about – that books should be the right length to suit their content. The novella length is perfect for this one – any longer and it might have begun to feel bloated and probably unrealistic. At this length, it is tight and fast-paced which gives it a real sense of tension throughout and the short time-frame makes Staci’s attempts to stay hidden very credible.

Staci is shown very believably as having a strong character, but still being vulnerable because of her age and situation. She feels she can’t do what any of the rest of us would in that situation – go to the police – because as a runaway minor they would either return her to the home she’s running from, or put her into the care system. She’s heard all kinds of horrors about what happens to kids in care, probably exaggerated but she doesn’t know that. It seems to her she’s safer on the streets, even with these men chasing her. Scott is also well-drawn as the kind of fixer we’ve become used to seeing working for politicians in fiction and in real life, clearing up their messes without much concern for the ethics of it. Danny is perhaps the weakest of the characters – a couple of times I found myself close to the credibility line over his actions, finding it hard to see his motivations, but again the shorter length and fast pace stopped this from becoming a major problem.

Margot Kinberg

One of the things I especially liked is that Kinberg shows both sides of life on the streets. Staci meets with bad people for sure, especially men who see vulnerable girls as prey. But she also meets with kindness and generosity along the way – from something as simple as a casual stranger giving her some food to those involved in the many charities offering material and emotional support to street kids. We also see a kind of camaraderie among some of the rough sleepers, especially the women, trying to look out for each other where they can. These aspects prevent the story from becoming too bleak, and seemed very realistic to me. Kinberg also makes it clear that whatever the outcome for Staci there’s not going to be a magic wand to make it all go away – her experiences will have damaged her and she’s going to need help if she’s to survive and have a future to look forward to.

A tense, absorbing story that I gulped down in one evening, keen to know how it would all work out for Staci, and if the bad guys would get their due comeuppance. And it all leads up to an ending that I found satisfyingly realistic. A very enjoyable read!

Amazon UK Link

Over My Dead Body by Jeffrey Archer

Going rogue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

DCI William Warwick has been assigned to the Met’s new Unsolved Murders Unit – a crack team that will look into cold cases. But first he’s off on a cruise to New York with his art expert wife, Beth. It turns into a busman’s holiday when a fellow passenger, the man who heads up the cruise-line, dies, and Warwick is asked to look into his death to decide whether he may have been murdered by one of his family looking to get their inheritance sooner rather than later. Warwick is also on the trail of his old nemesis, Miles Faulkner, whose funeral he attended not long ago, but who now seems to have returned from the dead.

Well! There’s so much going on in this one that it’s quite hard to summarise. And while it starts out intriguingly with the murder mystery on the ship, it transpires that that storyline is simply in the nature of an appetiser, while the main course is the Miles Faulkner story, and the cold case murders are merely side dishes. It also turns out this is the fourth book in the William Warwick series and clearly the main story started in the earlier books, with the result that I had no idea what crime Faulkner had originally committed. It didn’t really matter though – the whole plot became so ludicrous as it went along that I didn’t feel I was missing much by just having to accept that Faulkner was the boo-hiss pantomime villain.

The book is set in the 1980s, which I suppose gives Archer some leeway in allowing the police to behave in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated today, though I’m fairly confident that even in the Met’s wilder days they weren’t too keen on officers going rogue and meting out vigilante justice all over the place, fitting someone up for a crime here, or provoking a gang war there, or flying all over Europe breaking local laws. Not that Warwick does any, or maybe that should be many, of these things – his nickname is “choirboy”. And he’s an awfully nice, well educated, kinda posh chap with lots of connections in high places, which makes it all the odder that he appears willing to turn a blind eye to what his team members are getting up to. I couldn’t help wondering if the courts would convict any of the criminals given the level of illegal skulduggery and shenanigans the police got up to in order to trap (or perhaps, entrap) them.

It’s a quick, easy read, and if you can tune out reality, then it’s reasonably good fun. I sped through it in a couple of evenings, and enjoyed it enough to stick with it to the end. But it goes so far over the credibility line in the latter stages that I really couldn’t take it seriously as a thriller – it began to feel as if it was spoofing itself, though I’m certain that was not the intention. I also have an old-fashioned preference for the good guys to behave better than the bad guys and that certainly is not the case here, which would have been less of a problem had Archer not made it so clear that we are supposed to admire and approve of the way the rogue police officers were behaving.

Jeffrey Archer

This is the first Archer I’ve read in many years, and although I found it quite readable, it hasn’t inspired me to read more. The tone is light, with supposedly likeable characters and some humour, and yet the deeds get progressively darker. Had it been written in noir style the transgressions of the police wouldn’t have jarred, but the whole spirit of the ends justifying the means didn’t sit well with the almost cosy portrayal of Warwick as a loving husband and father and a respected police officer with a reputation for integrity. An odd mix.

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

Amazon UK Link

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Intimacy of strangers…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As the Orient express makes its way from Ostend To Istanbul, the passengers on this long journey find themselves thrust into a kind of intimacy where secrets are revealed and character flaws are laid bare. Myers is a Jew in the currant business, going to Istanbul to supervise the purchase of a rival company. Coral Musker is a dancer, going out to join a dance group to replace a girl who has fallen ill. Mabel Warren, a journalist and a drunk, who is in the station at Ostend to see off the beautiful woman she loves, spots a man whom she recognises and jumps aboard as the train is about to leave. The man is travelling as Richard John, a teacher from a school in England, but Mabel knows he’s really Dr Czinner, who fled from Yugoslavia five years ago after giving evidence in the trial of a General in the ruling regime accused of rape. Czinner was then a prominent figure in the opposition to the dictatorship and Mabel realises that if he is now returning to Belgrade, there may be a story here that could get her a coveted byline on the front pages of her paper.

The book is set in the 1930s, and gives a real sense of the political unease throughout Europe in this between wars period. Through Czinner’s story, we see the rising clash of extreme right and left ideologies that scarred the twentieth century and, while Greene gives a sympathetic portrayal of Czinner as a man and an idealist, he indicates little belief that leftist regimes would be any better than the fascist dictatorships springing up across the continent. Poverty and inequality, Greene seems to suggest, make people open to any leader who convincingly promises to make life better, and those at bare subsistence level don’t much care what ideology that leader may be professing. Czinner wants to love his fellow man, and perhaps more importantly wants to be loved by him, but man is a fickle beast who will tend to follow the leader he fears most.

Greene’s treatment of Myers, the Jew, is undoubtedly problematic to modern eyes and makes for uncomfortable reading. However, if the reader can look past the surface, Greene is actually giving a remarkably sympathetic portrayal for that time. While accepting the perceived negative characteristics of Jews as actuality, Greene is seeking to show how, in Western Europe at least, they have developed in response to the discrimination and prejudice Jews have had to deal with on a daily basis. Jews, he suggests, who have run from pogroms before and fear that they will be driven out again from their new, uncertain places of refuge can hardly be blamed for their love of gold, as a form of portable security – a deposit against the need to buy acceptance in the now or future refuge elsewhere. We see Myers in a constant conflict of emotions. He is proud of his wealth and importance as the owner of a successful and growing business, but at the same time there is the constant anxiety of what we now call micro-aggressions and the growing fear, soon to be tragically justified, that those aggressions might at any time turn to violence. The race memory of centuries of persecution never sinks below the surface, and so he ingratiates himself to people he inwardly despises, and despises himself for doing so. Although I found some of this difficult reading, I felt that Greene was appealing for understanding and tolerance rather than intentionally contributing to the stereotyping that has done so much harm.

Mabel is also problematic as a character, in very similar ways. Greene is frank and open about her lesbianism in a way that was rare in literature as early as this. But he is a male author, writing in a time when lesbianism was still not openly discussed, and I felt again his portrayal relied too heavily on stereotypes, as if he was writing about something he didn’t properly understand. Like Myers, Mabel has more than her share of negative characteristics – she drinks, she hates men, she manipulates young women, she uses people without caring about the impact she may have on their lives, she wallows in self-pity. She is desperate for love, but Greene, perhaps unintentionally, gives the impression that lesbian love is doomed to be sordid and impermanent. Again, though, it seemed to me that he was seeking to elicit sympathy for her from a readership who largely would have no knowledge of the world of lesbian love and would mostly be heavily prejudiced against it. Mabel, he seems to be saying, is a horrible person, but how could she not be when her whole life has been one rejection after another, when the world treats her as a living perversion?

Graham Greene

Coral, happily, is considerably easier to like and to pity – a young woman alone in the world and tired of the insecurity of poverty. She may seem weak and some might judge her immoral but she has her reasons, and in the end she’s the one who shows herself to have the warmest heart.

The story itself is excellent, taking the characters into unfamiliar and frightening situations that will reveal them to themselves as much as to us. As with most Greene, it’s not exactly uplifting – in fact, in some ways it’s downright depressing – and there are no real heroes. But there is warmth and sympathy here, all under the already looming shadow of the horrors soon to be unleashed across Europe. I considered deducting a star for the stereotyping problems, but having allowed the book to settle in my mind for a few weeks, I really feel that it deserves to be cut some slack for the time of writing and for what I feel were Greene’s good intentions; and the quality of the writing, the storytelling and the humanity of it put it up there amongst Greene’s best for me.

Amazon UK Link

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

Brits abroad…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Aura and Nick have left England and the thing that happened there behind to create an idyllic new life in France, in an old run-down château which they intend to renovate and run as a posh B&B, or chambres d’hôtes, as Aura likes to call it, proving she has mastered at least three words of French. With them they bring their not-at-all-pretentiously-named sons, Sorrel and Bay, and a film crew, consisting of Seb and Chloe, who are filming the family for inclusion in a fly-on-the-wall series about Brits making new lives as ex-pats in France. Joining the merry throng is Helen from HappyHelp, an organisation that matches up backpackers with families who give them bed and board in return for a few hours work each day (or as Chloe puts it, an unpaid au pair). But the thing that happened in London casts long shadows. Nick and Aura’s marriage is on a knife-edge, and the strange things that begin happening as soon as they arrive add to the tension. And then there’s a murder…

I’m so inconsistent about this kind of thriller that even I don’t know what it is that sometimes makes one work for me, when others quickly get thrown at the wall. This is written in present tense from a variety of first person viewpoints and has the dreaded “that day” aspect of something that happened in the past looming over the present but the reader being kept in the dark nearly the whole way through as to what exactly happened back then, and the plot crosses the credibility line about a hundred times. So I ought to have hated it. And yet…

I think it’s mainly because Aura and Nick are so awful that they become funny, and I felt that that was deliberate on the part of the author. Aura in particular is one of these dreadful types who prides herself on having all the right attitudes, while in fact being swayed by every ludicrous fad that hits her social media feed. And, of course, like the climate warriors who jet around from protest to protest, or the social justice warriors who campaign against victimisation by victimising strangers on Twitter, her attitudes are shallow, self-serving and optional. I loved the occasional line Cooper would throw into Aura’s monologues that showed both her superficiality and lack of self-awareness – some of them made me laugh out loud…

I felt a whoosh of relief – as a semi-vegetarian I don’t think I could cope with getting rid of a dead rabbit.

…or…

Bay is simply adorable dressed as a pumpkin – I try not to think about the poor kid who must have slaved over his costume in some godforsaken sweatshop, but sometimes needs must.

Nick is also pretty awful but in a different way, and honestly, while I try very hard not to blame women for the faults of their men, I couldn’t help having some sympathy for him. Being married to Aura would have tested any man to the limits. However, I can’t go into detail about what puts Nick into the awful bracket because that would impinge on the thing that happened back in England. Suffice it to say, my sympathy for him only went so far.

Although murder and some dark deeds form parts of the plot, the story is quite lightly told for the most part, surprisingly so at times. One plot strand in particular involves a teenager, and has an air almost of innocence around it, in comparison to the standard fare of most thrillers of today. While I got a little tired of the fact that sixteen-year-old Ella thinks of nothing but boys, ever, I felt she thought of them in a way that was pretty true to her age. In a sense, I felt it gave the book a Young Adult vibe – unusually for me with contemporary thrillers, I’d be quite comfortable with the idea of mid-teens reading this one. There is some swearing, but not too much, and some sex, but not graphic. The one thing Aura and I have in common is that we are both prudes and prefer to look away when people are getting up to hanky-panky!

Catherine Cooper

The other aspect that amused me (and I do hope it was supposed to) was the awful ex-pat community, all socialising with each other and having as little to do with actual French people as possible. Aura, of course, speaks no French at all but really doesn’t see it as essential when she can always get other people to do things for her. I laughed again when she said in the same sentence that she wanted Sorrel and Bay to grow up bi-lingual and that she intended to home school them. I guess the two languages would be English and Pretentious then!

It’s a quick read and not one that requires a great deal of concentration to keep on top of the storyline. So despite myself, I found it entertaining – a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend a few lazy hours.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

A Reading Diary

Day 1

Off to a mixed start! Three bodies, frozen under the snow in Gorky Park in Moscow, faces and fingertips mutilated to prevent easy identification. Bit of tension between our hero-to-be, Arkady Renko, and the boo-hiss stereotypical baddie from the KGB. The writing is messy with sentences quite often requiring more than one reading to try (or fail) to work out what the author is trying to communicate, but maybe it will improve. Or maybe it won’t.

“Vodka was liquid taxation, and the price was always rising. It was accepted that three was the lucky number on a bottle in terms of economic prudence and desired effect. It was a perfect example of primitive communism.”

Eh?

Day 2

No movement in the plot whatsoever. I say plot, but I fear one has yet to appear. We’ve had our first naked woman though, complete with nipple description! Arkady’s wife, who seems to stroll around their apartment naked despite the Arctic weather outside – who knew Muscovites had such effective heating systems in the 1980s? Impressive! And fortunate, since she and Arkady generate no heat of their own, clearly disliking each other quite a lot. Arkady meets another girl, though – a weird and quirky twenty-one-year-old, with whom our middle-aged hero is obviously destined to have sex at some point. I wonder what her nipples will be like…

Day 3

Still no identification of the corpses. Still no movement in the investigation. Arkady and his wife have split up after Arkady got into a punch-up with her lover. Arkady has been beaten up by someone whose identity we also don’t know, but despite being punched in the heart twice and kicked in the head, next day he’s fine. To summarise – three unidentified corpses, no suspects, no plot, two beatings, one naked woman, and endless lectures about Soviet history and how awful life is under Soviet rule (because presumably we didn’t know that). To quote Chandler Bing, could I be more bored?

Day 4

Apparently I could.

* * * * *

Abandoned at 19%. Life is too short and the book is too long.

* * * * *

This was The People’s Choice winner for November. Thanks for getting it off my TBR, People! 😉

Book 11 of 12

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The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman

The road to fame…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Hoping to capitalise on her recent success in a TV remake of Jane Eyre and at the same time hoping that a change of scene will help her get over a difficult breakup, young British actress Mia Eliot has come to LA to do a round of auditions arranged by her agent. While waiting at one such audition she falls into conversation with Emily, another actress there for the same audition. Emily is called in just as her car is about to go over its time in the parking lot and Mia agrees to go feed the meter for her, so Emily hands over her car key and wallet. But when Mia gets back to the audition waiting room there’s no sign of Emily and she can’t find her anywhere. Mia is not one to give up easily though and she begins to ask questions about Emily, unaware that she’s straying into danger…

This was a book of two halves for me. The first half, where we get to know Mia and learn a lot about what it’s like to be a screen actress just at the beginning of what looks set to be a glittering, award-strewn career, I found both interesting and hugely enjoyable. The second half, when we get deep into the mystery of what has happened to Emily, becomes increasingly less credible as it goes along, with Mia taking extreme risks with both her safety and the career she has worked so hard to build, all for a woman she met for only a few minutes. Given the Hollywood setting, it’s unsurprising but disappointing that the #MeToo trend soon gets mixed into a plot which seems at the beginning as if it’s going to be intriguing and original.

It was only after I finished reading and did my usual googling that I discovered Catherine Steadman is indeed a successful screen actress in her own right – I’m so out of touch! That explains why all the stuff about auditions and screen tests and awards and so on feels so authentic. I found Mia very likeable, still with stars in her eyes and not yet ruined by fame. I liked that Steadman allowed her to be good at her chosen career, and not too angst-ridden over it. Mia approaches each audition professionally, and Steadman shows how an actress prepares – learning the scenes, choosing appropriate clothes for the role, deciding what accent to use, etc. She gives us a good idea of how soul-destroying it must be for the less successful actors, turning up for audition after audition without much hope of ever landing the big part. Mia is not in that position – her role as Jane Eyre has attracted public and critical praise, so she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s not yet in a position to pick and choose which roles she will play, but it’s clear she soon will be. And I particularly liked that Steadman didn’t force false modesty onto her – Mia knows she’s talented, works hard at her job and can tell when she’s turned in a good performance, but she’s still young and inexperienced enough to be thrilled by the starry company she’s now keeping.

Catherine Steadman

I also enjoyed the plot until it spiralled over the credibility line in the latter stages. Emily’s disappearance is done very well, with definite vibes of The Lady Vanishes. When Emily apparently shows up again Mia knows she’s not the same person, but can’t find any way to prove that. Being alone in LA where she knows hardly anyone, there’s a real feeling of almost spooky danger when odd things begin to happen around her. Or do they? Like most of the people she tells her story to, the reader has to wonder if Mia is strictly reliable – could the whole thing be an invention born out of the stress she’s feeling over her breakup?

Overall the strengths of this one well outweighed the weaknesses for me, but I did wish the resolution had maintained the level of credibility and authenticity that I loved so much in the first half. However, although in the end the plot may have turned out to be rather forgettable, Mia’s character and her very believable life as an actress on the cusp of international success will, I’m sure, stick in my mind for much longer. I’ll be looking forward to reading more from this author in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.

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The Final Twist (Colter Shaw 3) by Jeffery Deaver

Locked and loaded…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

In the third and final part of Deaver’s Colter Shaw trilogy, Shaw has come to San Francisco on the trail of the conspiracy which he believes led to his father’s murder, finishing the story arc that has been running in the background of the previous two books. Here, he’ll find he is both hunter and prey, as the people behind the conspiracy try to stop him from getting the evidence he needs to bring them down. But he won’t have to fight them alone. Russell, the elder brother who has been missing since their father’s death, turns up and soon the two brothers are working together and trying to rebuild their relationship between gunfights, explosions and murders.

It’s essential to switch off your credibility monitor before reading this, since I sincerely hope it’s not really possible to have all this noisy violence going on in the streets of San Francisco without the authorities ever noticing. But if you can accept the basic unbelievability of it all, then Deaver is still one of the best at this kind of all-action thriller. Colter’s father was a paranoid survivalist, though it seems his paranoia had some foundation in fact. He trained his sons in survivalist techniques from an early age, so both brothers are crack shots, expert hunters, natural strategists and tacticians, and over the years since their father’s death both have added computing skills to their endless list of talents. So despite being up against giant corporations with vast resources and armies of hitmen and women, Colter and Russell, along with some of their friends and colleagues, are able to hold their own.

There’s a secondary plot related to Colter’s usual work as a bounty hunter searching for missing people for whose return a reward has been offered, in this case a young woman who disappeared from the street where she had been busking. The girl and her mother are ‘illegals’, so the mother can’t go to the police for help, and the reward she can offer is tiny. But Colter makes enough money that he can take on the odd financially unrewarding job like this, just for the satisfaction of doing good. However, this bounty hunter plot plays such a small part in this final instalment that it hardly seems worth having it in there at all.

The main plot concerns corrupt businessmen, drugs, dodgy real estate deals and a bit of politics. All of that is credible enough, although stretching at the boundaries, and touches lightly on some current topics, like vote-rigging, gerrymandering, and the corruption of big money in politics. Mostly though, it’s about the action and, in America, action means guns. Occasionally bombs, grenades, knives and IEDs, even bows and arrows, but mostly guns. Since everyone wears their concealed weapon casually beneath their untucked shirt, one wonders if concealment means something different in America. However, since apparently one can be attacked several times in the course of any given day, it’s probably just as well to have one’s weapon locked and loaded at all times (although Colter assures me that locked and loaded is a terribly inaccurate description. Apparently for speed, one really wants to have one’s weapon unlocked and loaded…) Fortunately for the state of the environment Russell has contacts in a government agency who are expert in disposing of the trail of corpses that would otherwise be left to litter the streets, unnoticed by the cops who, one assumes, were all off at a team-building event over the couple of days that the Shaw brothers and their adversaries had their little war.

Jeffery Deaver

Despite my mockery, I enjoyed this one just as much as the other two in the trilogy. There are conventions to this kind of thriller and Deaver is a master of them, so that when he goes over the top, the reader is quite happy to go along with him. There is hardly any swearing, remarkably little gruesomeness and gore, and no graphic sex, so it’s all very tasteful despite the constant violence! Given a choice between three baddies being killed and three uses of the f-word, I’ll take the killings every time! 😉 Colter is a likeable lead – if this is really to be his last appearance I’ll be quite sorry. I feel that now the running story of his father’s death has been resolved, he could easily appear again in his role as bounty hunter. Each of the books could stand alone, but I think they’re really better read in order, starting with The Never Game.

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

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False Witness by Karin Slaughter

Nothing bad happens to the cat…

😦

Back when they were teenagers, sisters Callie and Leigh committed a terrible crime, although they had good justification for it. Since then, Callie has spiralled into drug addiction, partly because of this early experience, and partly from getting hooked on pain medication after an accident that has left her with all kinds of physical problems. Leigh, on the other hand, has lifted herself out of their deprived beginnings, becoming a lawyer now working in a prestigious firm. One day she is asked to defend a man who has been charged with a horrific rape. She doesn’t recognise Andrew at first, but he recognises her – and he knows what she and Callie did that night. And it soon becomes clear he’s enjoying the power this gives him over both sisters…

I’ll admit it straight away – I found the subject matter of this sordid and the graphic descriptions of rape, extreme drug abuse, violence and gore more than distasteful. The constant, casual use of the foulest of foul language didn’t help matters. By the time I finished I felt that I needed to scrub my mind out with a brillo pad to get rid of the slime. Slaughter and I are clearly not kindred spirits.

Trying to be objective, it is well written for the most part and the characterisation of the two sisters is done well, even if that meant that I disliked both of them to the point of not wishing to spend time in their company and not caring what happened to them. Andrew, the rapist client of Leigh, is a stock psychopath from central casting, caricatured way past the point of credibility. But all three of them are merely vehicles for Slaughter to use her clearly well-practised shock tactics on the reader. The plot is entirely secondary to the horrors she shows us along the way, from repeated descriptions of both child and adult rape of the most violent kind, to the lovingly detailed and very lengthy descriptions of Callie’s drug taking, including how best to inject oneself through an abscess to get the thrill of added pain, to violent beatings in which she lingers on the crushed bones, detached eyeballs, etc., etc.

Karin Slaughter

Apart from my general disgust, the real problem from a literary point of view is that it’s incredibly repetitive. We revisit the original event many, many times – not gradually learning more, we already know what happened, but just going over it again and again which, since it involves child rape, I could seriously have lived without. We are told the same things about Callie’s physical problems every time her name is mentioned, and yet, despite their apparently debilitating effects, they never stop her when she wants to beat up someone much larger than herself or climb over a fence or in some other way channel Superwoman – heroin must be a miracle drug! Slaughter incorporates Covid, so we get masking and social distancing thrown at us constantly, as if we haven’t all heard enough about that in real life already. The whole book could have been cut by at least a third simply by removing the worst of the repetitions. If she had also removed the foul language and the loving instructional handbook on how to get the most out of drug abuse, I reckon she could have lost another hundred pages. Take out the graphic descriptions of rape and violence and we’re down to novella length…

Nope, not for me, though since she has a massive following I don’t expect that will bother her too much. If you haven’t already gathered, trigger warnings for just about everything you can think of and several things you probably can’t. But, on the upside, nothing bad happens to the cat.

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

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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 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…

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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

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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…

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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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